Sunday, January 2, 2011

Southern Architecture

Clinton Library, Little Rock, AR. all photos courtesy the author.

Kevin and I had some whiplash moments during our Southern tour. We left St. Louis and headed to Little Rock, Arkansas, to see the Clinton Library. A very chatty guard was pleased to tell us that, when in town, the Clintons stay on an apartment on top of this building. (See the slight roof-line on top?)

Should we know that? I asked him how they got up there--through the Library? Kevin said I shouldn't have asked so many questions. But what director wants a bunch of beefy Secret Security guys barging in at all hours of the day and night? I vote for an exterior elevator.

Scale West Wing Office.

Best room in the library: this scale model of the President's office. Made me think of Martin Sheen.

For every grand building we saw there was a tenfold volume of buildings that speak of economic decay. For every suspicious thing I've heard or seen about the South, in television, print or the movies, we saw inspiring spaces. For every hardscrabble burg we passed through we saw signs of incredible strength and human glory.

Central High, Little Rock.

What a grand building this is! I never saw the footage of the forced integration of American schools while in school in Canada so had no real idea of what the Little Rock 9 went through to get into this school. The National Parks Service building across the street had poignant, pointed footage on the racial divide that happened right there. The neighborhood around the school? Neglected, degraded. I wonder why?

Beer Can House, Houston.

I talked my family into taking an eating break to go to the Beer Can House (oh, we did do things other than eat and watch movies!) This lovely piece of folk art is trapped between two hideous apartment complexes--who's got the worse view, hmmm? I love the quirky quality of this kind of endeavor, even if it implies the author loved his six pack, just like Hank Hill.

Lower Ninth Ward homes.

While in New Orleans we went looking for the Brad Pitt-sponsored homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Above, one of the houses that reinterprets the architectural vernacular of the region.

Old Lower Ninth Ward home.

As charming and playful as the new homes are, the area is still strewn with these former residential spaces. I would say 70% of the area is empty. Who is helping here, and why does much of the rest of New Orleans look similarly like ruins?

Downtown Jackson, Mississippi.

Never thought I'd be in Mississippi. The city fathers bulldozed their old downtown places just as efficiently as did towns across the country. This block cringes in the shadow of the larger corporate spaces around it--will these poor lost buildings be saved, or sacrificed, in this latest round of economic downturn? Hard not to think of the Great Depression, or even William Christenberry, when going through this area.

Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis embraces the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. When open, visitors can actually go into the rooms above, where King and his associates were staying. Across the street you can stand in the (assumed) location where the murderer stood.

It was haunting to be put in the place of the real protagonists in this pivotal moment of American history. What other artifacts could convey this trauma other than the real spaces where real bodies reside?

The second part of the museum, located on the "bad" (aka murderous) side of the street, explored the various controversies around the King assassination. Mafia, CIA, crackpots all are implicated. (I was shocked to learn that Ray, a Missouri State Penitentiary escapee, had fake Canadian passports to help him move around more easily. How could he NOT have had help?)

It was a very moving experience to see this museum and read a narrative that was bracing and pointed about the social issues swirling around at the time. Hard not to compare and contrast today's society with the issues King was fighting--entrenched poverty, class discrimination, etc... Moving and tough.

Elvis basement.

What better to wash away Southern grit than with Southern flair? Elvis's home was not the McMansion I thought it would be. That his "man cave", above, was in the basement is astounding given Elvis's international reach. The large but, by today's standards, small crib is a testament to not over-spending--on your home, anyway!

Architecture is the thing that we all live in, whether we pay attention to it or not. Architecture is the first one up, the last one down in a good / bad economy. That these experiences were not a flush or over-bearing visual stimulation but rather sought-out experiences tells us about the lack of density in the South. Perhaps it's a good thing that these communities have not over-built--perhaps that temerity is what will save them.


  1. Nice blog! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. congrats! keep up the good work/this is a great presentation.
    Contemporary Art