Monday, January 21, 2013

Manet-Tschumi-Lightbulb (21-27 January)

on this date in Design…

Edouard Manet, French impressionist painter, birthday 23 January 1832
Bernard Tschumi, Swiss-born French deconstructivist architect, birthday 26 January 1965
Lightbulb, patent granted to Thomas Edison, 27 January 1880

Of all the brilliance that emerged from France in the latter part of the 19th century during the impressionism movement, perhaps the most influential to modern art would be Edouard Manet.  The manipulation and engagement of the viewer with his paintings was revolutionary.  This action figuratively “broke through the fourth wall” and forced the viewer to participate with the scene in front of him/her.  One of Manet’s first pieces to challenge the modern convention was Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.  Here he took classic poses in a pastoral setting from the works of masters of Raphael and Titian and inserted the common university student and shockingly nude and nearly nude prostitutes.  Today, similarly the work of Kehinde Wiley is heavily influenced by this juxtaposition by placing contemporary figures in classic heroic poses.  
Manet’s next step to shock and engage was with his version of Olympia who defiantly stares strait back out of the canvas.  His Olympia is not a goddess but another prostitute welcoming her next client, presumably the viewer.  Needless to say, this painting made Parisian society even more uncomfortable.   
Manet expanded on this with Un Bar aux Folies Bergère where in the reflection behind the barmaid you see the customer not visible in the front.  This leads one to assume it is a reflection of the viewer and the forlorn look in her eyes a testament to her dissatisfaction with her occupation as she hides her cleavage by a corsage; out of the ordinary for the bar maids at the Folies.  This mix of playing with the viewer and social commentary are familiar themes today but in Manet’s time, never before had such challenges been posed. 


When Bernard Tschumi won the commission for the design of Parc de la Villette in Paris, France yet again sat on the forefront of a revolutionary movement in design.  This time, it was deconstructivism and the Swiss-born Tschumi was the movement’s most preeminent practitioners.  The site was over 150 acres of slaughterhouses established by Napoléon III and thereby had an unpleasant history.  The desire to remove that image was a perfect setting for the deconstructivist theories whereby the shape of a building is not permanently fixed to the current activity currently housed within.  Rather, the activity within constantly forces the reevaluation of the shape of the building.  Therefore, it is a living structure and the history of neither the building nor the historical context has no bearing on it.  A testament to the success of the theory is that several of the follies have been renovated and repurposed to restaurants and visitor centers, et cetera.  These programmatic pieces were not in the original plan but as the needs of the park evolve there is no need to build new structures or compromise Tschumi’s original concept for the follies to be reference points on a grid.   With the success of the la Villette he gained a foothold in the global architectural landscape which has led to such commissions as the architecture school at F.I.U and the controversial Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece.  Critics argue that this complete disregard for the historic context for which Greece is renowned, this new museum is harming the building itself and the surrounding contextual context of the city.  It is hard to disagree with the critics but it is sure that in a few years’ time it will revered for its forward thinking as the Pompidou Center. 

As with most of Edison’s inventions, he did not originate the idea, merely improve upon an existing idea and beat his competitors to the patent office.  In the case of the lightbulb, Edison purchased the rights to an earlier version and then began experimenting with materials and amperage.  In October of 1879 he was able to improve the vacuum tube, carbon filament and lower electrical current to develop a bulb which lasted for an astonishing (for that time) 13 ½ hours.  After applying for the patent, he demonstrated his achievement at his Menlo Park laboratory by lighting it up on New Year’s Eve. 
Two years later, Edison created a market for his lightbulb when he switched on the power at the Pearl Street Power Station in lower Manhattan.  This was the first investor funded commercially successful electrical grid.  These achievements made his work more economically practical to bring to the mass market thereby increasing his notoriety.  And it is for his business acumen in addition to his innovations that Thomas Edison name is more prolific than Tesla, Westinghouse and others of equal creative caliber.    



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