Urban Elements: If Firetrucks Had Feathers

Firetruck Falcon Collage - Tim Gemperline   Falcon courtesy Mike Girone

It’s a summery day, pristine enough for the cafe’s garage door front to be open and the patio full. Converse to our seasonal clothing  pattern, the trees are thickly garbed, in full leaf and, at least the ones outside the cafe, lamps with white fabric shades. Round rimmed cups clink against doubly-wide saucers which in turn fill the even larger shade-sphere the umbrellas project. It’s, one taking in and fully appreciating the moment might call, a nice day.

It is only fair to be warned on a day like this day, and it was kind enough to do so. That’s how it is designed to work. The sound segues into  the chatter, mentioned porcelain clinks, and passing car hum. It is heard and the mind registers it and passes it along to memory and  recognition, but for now it is ignored, relegated to the pile of least concern in the constant data flow of the senses. Everyone knows  what it is, anyway.

So it increases and grows steadily, testing how loud it must be to get attention, like a child at that age where they begin to command tantrum volume as a tool. And like the parent, the patrons ignore the rising auditory flood until it reaches the right level in  the ear canal. All becomes sound.

And lights, too. The lanterns hung poshly from the trees and the umbrellas stenciling the patio could be Chinese paper. The lights,  then, should be the quick, bombastic bursts of gunpowder and ferrous metals, the mediums of a fireworks display. That’s the look; The  effect is like hearing about Ali v. Foreman for weeks, all the build-up and publicity, then turning the TV on to see the knock-out  punch in the seventh round, only to have the tube go out immediately after.

But here it is, sirens, the patented message of red and blue strobing lights, and the white gloss-paint and chrome shine of the  engine. People talk away until the last moment, then mouths rest, all pupils redirected toward the one, big window left behind by the retracted glass garage door. Without a second to spare, and lasting only as long, the blurred firetruck absolutely fills the frame and the attention of everyone in a unifying event.


The sound and sight of a firetruck is one known to everyone, and a common one to those who live in the city. I always find it  interesting that another sense, smell, is the sense with the strongest connection to memory; it seems almost a background sense, a sense in passing. Elements like firetrucks are the same way; they are familiar and common, processed at the moment then dismissed, but represent a major part of our environment. They are also a unique  element, in that they move, almost filling some gap, between large, stationary buildings and ambulatory, compact people, at least in a broad, physical lineup.

The amazing firetruck, a blocky hulk of a mobile, fulfills this role similarly to a bird, an equally astounding cohabitant (even if simply because they can fly – how long did we dream of that, how little time have we known how, and still never as elegantly?…) that likewise is placed in the gaps of our view of our environment, despite (…but, we know the secrets of flight now, any golden age of it is long gone, half the clouds are contrails; ho hum). Yet, they are the two regular passersby outside my window that halt what I am doing, both with the welcome familiarity and frenetic uncommonalities.

After becoming familiar with a ‘population’ of firetrucks (I imagine this is what Burt Lancaster’s character would have done, looking out between bars in ‘Bird Man’, had he been transfered to an inner-city prison that birds knew better than to hang around), the terms ‘behavioural patterns’, ‘territories’, ‘routes’, ‘vocalizations’, ‘markings’, ‘nests’ don’t sound so absurd and actually make themselves readily apparent. The array of noises the emergency vehicle communicates even matches a bird’s set of songs. Though less complex more cacophonous, these noises define the urban environment. Take a bird’s voice away, silence the siren, and the space would be noticeably off. Of course, there is the question of which would really be missed, but the make-way! wail is a defining track to any city soundscape.

The forests and fields have flecks of feather iridescence, beak-spouted audio, and specialized flocks. Well, the city has its own flashes of light, loud-speakered communications, and purpose-ingrained fleets, in the distinct fashion that humans mimic nature in design and organization. ‘Concrete jungle’ is more than allusion, it is a model, and firetrucks, police cars, ambulances are a fleshed-out detail of it.

The jungle is rich, it is diverse, stuff happens constantly in it. That is the allure of the city, and stuff happens in it, too. Even when it is thriving, not all of that stuff is good. Both birds and emergency vehicles act for survival, but of different varieties. In that way, the excitement of watching a firetruck roar past with building shaking momentum is tinged with voyeurism; the haste is not for show – it is for life and limb. There is an intrinsic link to destruction in these vehicles, there is an intrinsic, constant link to destruction in nature and in cities.


Another window-framed view to a flash of motion, but no foreshadowing sirens; in fact, all sound is muffled by snow that replaces the white of the previous vignette’s porcelain coffee cups with its albedo. Through the drifting and downy texture of already chubby crystals, I remember one big flake of grey precipitate from above, coming to a soft stop upon its predecessors. The structure and quality of snowflakes and feathers are poetically akin, these mediums of loftiness. The peregrine falcon lay wings spread, Meal,-Ready-to-Eat beneath its mess kit of talons and the tablecloth of white.

Without plunging into philosophy, life and destruction are entangled. It can have a structure and gracefulness to it, though. There is a difference from decay.  Yes, that firetruck that you and everyone else pulled to the side of the road for is either going to or coming from something of some degree of unpleasant, a negative of reality. But is it not reassuring to know that integrated into the habitat you live in is a means to contend with it, that in the way everyone knew to make way, the way the speeding creature moved with purpose, that there was a wider understanding and coherence to the objects and roles in the city we created? Both the firetruck and the raptor rush in parallax towards a point of destruction for a reason that is meaningful and beautifully integral to the larger environment they stem from. The firetruck is one of the small, tangible ways a city provides in the background, like a clock tower chiming every quarter hour in an oppidan language to everyone.

Firetrucks are not birds, buildings not trees, roads not rivers; when extraordinary, integral elements around us are relegated to just superficially noticed commonplace elements, a different perspective, be it biomorphic or otherwise, can bring a new appreciation for them. Such correlations and views might even help evolve their design and roles. Regardless, it is nice to see birds and firetrucks out my window, for the nuances and value they contribute from under a masterful front of admirable excitement, these flashing and feathered friends.

Support Firefighters!:   http://www.firehero.org/donate/

and those they help:  https://www.redcross.org/donate/

In the UK:  https://myfirefighterscharity.org.uk/donate

Adopt a bird!: http://www.horizonwings.org/adopt_a_bird.html


Art & Architecture: ‘Arranged Tree’ and Then Some

Ikebana Some people will get rid of their Christmas tree tomorrow. Some will keep it put until brown overcomes the evergreen. With tape, rebar, and the right Ikebana skills, it can carry on a whole other presence, though.

Most people know of Ikebana (生け花  ‘arranged flower’), maybe only through references in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, but contemporary Ikebana is even less spotlit. This juniper trunk and limb arrangement from the Ryusei annual exhibition is a great example of it and how it is still an evolving, growing art. Even without knowing the roots or integral philosophy of the 600 year old practice, it can impact with mathematical, geometric allure and highlight the oft under-appreciated, small elements in nature.

Artists like Tetsunori Kawana even take ideas from ikebana to installation scales. In almost the same way Brutalist architects used concrete and large moves to define space, Kawana shapes strong, graceful gestures from the flexible, singular material of bamboo. His works, in their material choice and forms, enjoyably intersect the fleeting, organic nature of traditional Ikebana with the more permanent, grandiose nature of traditional architecture.

Also of note in the contemporary expansion of Ikebana is Yukio Nakagawa, in particular his Ondes Oniriques (‘Dreamlike Waves’) at Renzo Piano’s Maison Hermes in Tokyo. While Piano created a space of regularity and gridding, Nakagawa was able to reshape the interior into a rolling, deciduous landscape. He commanded the master architect’s design, a compliment to both, with bale-fulls of dried blossoms in transient, visitor-moveable piles. Perhaps Ai Weiwei’s Tate Sunflower Seeds respond in this progression in contemporary Ikebana to its most modern minimal, though that may be pushing it. Either way, it is nice to see a unique tradition and artform blend with landscape and architecture as it keeps growing, interacting, and divulging something to a contemporary crowd.

Juniper Ikebana courtesy of Sato/Yoshimura from:



Ondes Oniriques images courtesy of hermes japon co.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop:  http://www.rpbw.com/


Shosho Shimbo’s Ikebana Blog:  http://shososhimbo.blogspot.com/

Art & Film: Grip Tape and Tape Tape

The parking lot backdrop rolls across the screen like classic Hollywood rear-projection, while Ella Fitzgerald samples punctuate a digitized hip-hop beat, and the board twirls about the seemingly stationary toes of the boarder. The question ‘what is art?’ is pertinent here, but doesn’t really enter the mind, because the images are magic; the instant artistry and super-human perception for all of 1,000 frames per second. Against the blurred suburban setting, Adam Shomsky’s documentary profiles of skateboard tricks highlights the artistry in the urban ubiquity well. Not to extend into hyperbole and call it ballet, but there are kindred graceful sweeps and leaps among the flicks of feet that command the gyroscopic flight, take-off to touch down, of the boards. You can see the physics and athleticism. You can draw in the axes of rotation and connect the boarder’s intentions directly to their movements.

Whereas this footage is art of the not-quite-oils-and-acrylic medium of human athleticism/skill combined with wooden planks/wheels, artist Hong Seon Jang uses the equally un-fine art mediums of tape, hot glue, and magazines. Using such items in layers and organic repetition, Hong Seon Jang highlights ‘aesthetic possibilities’ in found and mundane objects. He turns hundreds of National Geographics into colorful fungal colonies; metal typeface rises up into a grand Manhattanic diarama; tape fogs blackboard in geometric forest forms; hot glue webs into unfalling, black rain (or a thousand cans of dark silly string over a thousand power lines?).

Both artists, in essence, prolong an inevitable end, create a moment that allows for meticulous exploration. The high speed vignetting makes graspable the tense, I-have-to-land-this motions amid hectic flashing of grip tape, graphics, grip-tape again. Wait until after the credit roll on Shomsky’s video, and see how fleeting and flurried each trick really is, this time with a matching soundtrack of rolling wheels static and then sharp staccato cracks of landing on concrete. The presentation on the front end of the credits extrudes and stretches these moments. The lifespan of office supplies is likewise short, a fact acknowledged by their designers, manufacturers, and users, Han Seon Jang being an exception. His temporary installations and other works imbue the disposable items with unintended purpose and meaning that gives them license to stick around a while longer.

Both also represent a simplicity that is poignant when viewed against their alternative. The skateboard could not be simpler, especially against the fields of modern-engineered, mechanically powered cars they are filmed against; man, board, wheels. The art of Hong Seon Jang stands out against other art of a perhaps more familiar, typical kind, being made of grade school supplies; tape, glue, educational magazines. They ignore those things they are viewed against. Ignore in that they aren’t fighting against their counterparts, they are just achieving what they need to via an alternate, simpler method. They’re saying ‘look what people with wheeled boards, with office supplies can do.’  They are minimalist in their approach, but achieve contemporary progressiveness via tandem routes, and in ways that bend back towards the organic and natural; human athleticism and organic forms. Both bodies of work are new presentations that uniquely force a re-perception of simplicity, commonality, and time.

Sometimes it’s nice to see that something in a parking lot and something in a gallery can have so much in common.




Art: By Pigeon-Gram

A girl sits, inquisitive look on her face, behind cloud reflections and smoky glass. She is in a wood wrapped room cantilevered three stories above a shaded stradetta and more of the dark glass. It clads most of the sophisticated, squarish building in flush panels, and bounces back the urban context as well as the gold-highlighted sky with cinematography. I stand, the same level but outside, on a ribbon of glass filtering light down, my soles two dodging smudges to anyone who looks up. I look ahead at another architectural feature, less eye-widening, more eyebrow raising; a wood frame and chicken-wire coop, adorned with a half-dozen roosting birds. Another girl, sharp nose, clad in henna tattoos and with eyes that similarly reflect the sky, though in quite an opposite manner to the noireish way the glass does, looks inquisitively at me.

The first girl’s look, perhaps, is in attempted reconciliation as to how the objects through her window seem unexpectedly misplaced, but to belong, to match at the same time. The second girl’s look is simply in waiting for confirmation that I am there for the reason she suspects I am.

‘Hi. Are you here to check out a pigeon?’

Interactive art is certainly a major, if not shift, then trend in art museums. It is fitting that a contemporary art museum would house such an installation, but this one, entitled ‘Thinking About Flying’, pushes the envelope of the genre, literally to a 30 mile radius of the museum. Over the course of months and in a matter of minutes, visitors can walk out of the museum with a young homing pigeon in a small laser-cut cardboard box, assembled as the attendant picks up a pigeon to use from the coop. From there, the visitor takes the bird (themselves loaned from a local pigeon racing club) to their home, or wherever they choose in the envelope, and releases it. The pigeon then navigates its way back to the simple country coop atop the sleek, contemporary museum, training it in the process.

Conceived by artist Jon Rubin, the installation uses the borrowed birds’ abilities to rethink the relationship between the museum and those who explore it. Participants become needles, the pigeons threads, connecting the museum to its wider context; the city as a whole becomes the effective exhibition space.

The traditional notion of an art museum is inverted as domestic spaces perform the function of temporary exhibition sites and the institutional space is cast as a domicile and caretaker. In this way, the work maps the social and geographic relationship between the institution and its constituent audience. (MCA)

Aside from asking visitors to directly participate in the work, the museum is putting more responsibility into participants’ hands than certainly most other interactive exhibits; within a quarter hour, I entered Adjaye’s building, learned about the exhibit, and had a living, breathing animal in my complete care. In another quarter, I chatted with a curious duo outside considering the same role, rode through downtown (piqueing more curiosity), and released the bird. There was a scattered flock of street-pigeons about for the release, but it was clear the one I had was not in the caste of flying rat; it burst crisply without hesitation from its cardboard confines into the open air, and took a swooping, deliberate arc around the edge of the next building, reversing on its inverse errand the route I had taken. It’s head moved once for the turn, seeing magnetic fields and maps, while the pedestrian pigeons below constantly swiveled necks, seeing only bread crumbs and threatening shoes.

The move towards interactive art exhibits reflects the connectivity and connections defining this age and developments across all fields. We are part of ‘the cloud,’ with shared commonalities, far-flung resources and coherent input, performing almost as a conceptual city. Hand-in-dichotomous-hand is the ubiquitous, representative ‘i’ prefix; the value, role, choice, and effect of the individual. Yet this instance didn’t have to be electronic or avant-garde to achieve its intentions in an efficient, effective, and engrossing fashion. ‘Thinking About Flying’ takes an ages old, pseudo-nostalgic method, where the only clouds are made up of water and dotted (without ‘i’s) by birds, and meaningfully connects the individual to the wider contexts of the city, art, and imagination.



Architecture: Sketches (etc.) For Humanity

Sketches from artists whose works usually aren’t sketches are uniquely intriguing. Those from architects are perhaps the most acute case of this.  To architects, sketches are process tools; fascia between design in the mind and in the real, physical world, but somehow insightfully closer to the designer than the constructed edifice.

The sketches for Architecture For Humanity’s fundraising auction are a little different in that a number of them are the intended end design. Sketches as the architect’s work of art. There are even a few three dimensional works. If you can, bid on them to support a great cause; the well known non-profit has volunteer run chapters all over, with community-benefiting projects at local, national, and global levels. If you can’t, at least check them out; the sketches and AFH.



Typography: Kontrapunkt -or- Danish Pharmaceuticals, German Design Schools, and Me (and Railways, Too)

It is always a frisson experience when you’re walking through a museum and, unexpectedly, from around the (usually) white corner, you are faced with a familiar piece of work you love, but have never seen in person. This unique experience can happen the other way around, too.

Kontrapunkt is an independent brand and design agency, with offices in Copenhagen as well as Tokyo. A very un-indepth search for fonts and some almost random clicking quickly brought me to their page for a typeface designed for pharmacies. ‘Pharma’ is a well crafted typeface, which becomes apparent from the get-go. Their presentation of it includes process sketches and to-the- point explanations for the design. This contemporary typeface cites 15th century apothecary bottles and a 1932 Bauhaus typeface as influence. That tingle up the spine. In a small, hidden-away hall in the bowels of the art museum I work at, I came across such Bauhaus lettering the day earlier. The new- found typeface’s letter lineage was directly from the ink-and- paper examples in that small intestine of a corridor. They are the work of Herbert Bayer, and his ounces of ink from 80 years ago have the weight of lead in designer’s imagination’s today, without paper-weighting their progress. More than fun coincidence, it is the seepage of one good design into others, regardless of time and geography. It is refreshing to see directly how integrated and far reaching design can be.

Now just fun coincidence (on the surface; a sign of a good design firm and the global reach of design today, really); a link on the ‘Pharma’ page led to another well-done typeface, ‘Via.’ I also work with a team on a proposal for a Copenhagen rail station rehabilitation. This is the font the station uses, along with all the others in Denmark, tradition sensitive ‘Danish g’ and all. Looking past this bias (like one might have for someone in the family), it is a legible, distinctive font that is presented in a light, crisp way, again. The friction on metal scream undercutting the whooshing air-mass bass of a slowing train emanates from speakers while colorful letters flip-book flash and expand on screen and slow to a halt. Literal? Yes. But Kontrapunkt clearly designs their works from conceptual roots, past precedents, and a solid process. This is what their presentation highlights. Perceived as a dime-a- dozen multitude of stationery, black tools on a page to some, typography becomes a vibrant, evolutionary expression in the hands of this design house.

A third typeface, ‘Heart’ for the Herning Museum of Art, further exemplifies this approach. Graphic shapes of shirt patterns and the museum building inform the curves, while another slide states

Our eyes are made to follow the lines and see the letters by completing the shapes

in a sort of medical physiology meets design concept understanding. They seem to have a firm grasp on their field. For all the designing and defining, the ‘heart’ font also expresses Kontrapunkt’s embrace of imperfection and living design; graffiti flanking their font, methods of application ‘open to accident.’ They also see typography from an interdisciplinary stance, describing it earnestly as 2-D architecture. The surprisingly sculptural form of some of the sketches show these aren’t flower petal words; they’re not delicate or there just to look pretty, they don’t wilt when scrutinized.

The typefaces I came across on their site stand as examples of craftsmanship in typography and design based identity. Throw in the personal connections and their underlying implications, and it is a reinvigorating experience. Not the frisson of familiarity, meeting design you’ve seen in facsimile before, but one stemming from the freshness, depth, and reach of all types of good, contemporary design, typography and others.  It’s not having to worry so much about the liveliness and worth of it all anymore.

Their custom type page, including two free typeface downloads at bottom of left bar, and links to other great work:


Photography: Lois Conner

With an affinity for silvery hued scenes cast in cinematic aspect ratios, Lois Conner is a photographer who seems to grasp the idea of place and place-making. The homogenous content of rooftops and lotus spread out, making the disparities in details stand out between each individual. Landscapes can be equally placid or marked by human intervention that just was or will shortly be; a bird’s eye shot of a snow-devoid square where a car was, a Hanoi alley filled with a hodge-podge build up of wood scaffolding and walled by ancient brick.

She has a knack for providing the subject of the city with an air of contemporary documentation. It is as if the city were doing what it does every day, bustling with continual interactions as the setting for urban humanity, and then Ms. Conner, all set with her aperture settings and tripod levels, let’s the city know that she’s set, says with a flourish ‘smile!’ , and the city, all at once stopping and turning for the longest pause it can accommodate her with, has it’s portrait taken.  Dignified but impromptu poses and expressions cast the buildings in a historical light, with all the evidence of their contemporary lives about them. She is able to make out the coherence and common history from the complexity of the city. The buildings are a populace, interactions constant, roots shared.

Lois Conner speaks to this quality and her intentions:

My subject is landscape as culture. I am not interested in an untouched, untrammeled world. What I am trying to reveal through photography in a deliberate yet subtle way is a sense of history. I want my photographs to describe my relationship to both the tangible and the imagined, to fact and fiction.

Occasionally, a shot comes off as less genuine due to a curio-cabinet presentation (the fictional relationship she mentions?). Mere graphite for some shots, this makes diamonds of some of her portraits. They ring with the documentary tone of the Farm Security Administration’s Depression era photography program. She even manages to make an office cubicle look, if not downright modern and sensible, at least attractive in its texture and Cartesian arrangement. She also trades those silver hues for brilliant color in a few well chosen and composed images.  She sets out to do something in particular with photography, and I think she very often succeeds in it.