June 14, 2013
As a follow-up to our article on the history of Daily Planet building in Superman comics and a response to a few comments, I thought we’d take a brief look at some of the Art Deco buildings used to represent the offices of the Daily Planet in live action film and television depictions of Superman.
In the first season of the television series “The Adventures of Superman” (1952-1958) starring George Reeves, the part of the Daily Planet building was played by the E. Clem Wilson Building (1929), designed by Los Angeles architects Meyer & Holler. For the second season, however, the role was recast with the Los Angeles City Hall (1928).
The Art Deco building was the product of three men: John Parkinson was the design architect on the project, Albert C. Martin was the structural engineer, and John C. Austin developed the working drawings. For almost 40 years the building stood as the tallest structure in LA, dominating the skyline until 1964 when building height restrictions were changed. Today, the City Hall building is still a symbol of those who fight for truth, justice, and the American way: the LAPD. It has adorned their badges since 1940.
In the 1978 film Superman (the movie), Christopher Reeve’s Superman flies through the skyscrapers a Metropolis depicted by New York City, while his Clark Kent bumbles through the offices of the Daily Planet, appropriately represented by the real-life big city offices of the Daily News (1930), a 42-story skyscraper in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. The Art Deco building was designed by Beaux-Arts trained architect Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, occasional collaborators who had made a name for themselves by winning the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. Dramatically different from their ornate, neo-Gothic Chicago tower, the Daily News building is restrained and modern it its ornamentation. As drawn by celebrated architectural delineator Hugh Ferriss (right image), the building was a a streamlined vertical monument. What Ferriss’ popular renderings lack in detail, they make up for in effect and were, more than anything else, designed to communicate the impressive power of architecture. Simply put, everything Ferriss drew looked like it belonged in a comic book.
Unlike previous Daily Planet stand-ins, the Daily News building was also sometimes used for interiors, as seen in the above frame from Superman depicting Lois and Clark in the building’s lobby. Yes, the globe was already in the place. It must’ve seemed like a dream-come-true for Superman’s location scouts.
The most recent entry into Superman’s televised cannon, “Smallville” (2001-2011), was filmed in Vancouver and a prominent Art Deco building in that city was used for establishing shots of the Daily Planet:
The Marine Building (1930) was designed by McCarter and Nairne, who in 1930 told The Vancouver Sun that their new building “suggests some great marine rock rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea green, flasehd with gold, at night a dim silhouette piercing the sea mists.” This nautical motif, celebrating Vancouver’s tradition of trade and transport, is carried out in the details and terracotta ornamentation depicting sealife, ships, and nautical symbols. This may have been the home of Clark Kent in “Smallville,” but it seems more suited to Aquaman. Obviously, the building was CGI enhanced for its small screen appearance in “Smallville,” with a few extra stories added and what can only be a holographic globe spinning above the pinnacle of the building. Marine life and CGI aside, the building, with its general Art Deco style and massing, successfully continued the proud tradition Art Deco Daily Planets.
In Superman Returns (2006), the Daily Planet was a complete fabrication built by set designers and digital artists. Will the recently opened Man of Steel follow suit? Or will Superman once again leap tall buildings – real tall buildings– in a single bound?
June 12, 2013
“Look! Up in the Sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“It’s a giant metal globe hurtling toward us that will surely result in our demise! Oh, nevermind…Superman took care of it.”
Whenever disaster strikes Superman’s Metropolis, it seems that the first building damaged in the comic book city is the Daily Planet – home to mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, his best buddy Jimmy Olsen, and his gal pal and sometimes rival Lois Lane. The enormous globe atop the Daily Planet building is unmistakable on the Metropolis skyline and might as well be a bulls-eye for super villains bent on destroying the city. But pedestrians know that when it falls –and inevitably, it falls– Superman will swoop in at the last minute and save them all (The globe, however, isn’t always so lucky. The sculpture budget for that building must be absolutely astronomical).
Though well known today, the Daily Planet building wasn’t always so critical to the Superman mythos. In fact, when the Man of Steel made his 1938 debut in the page of Action Comics #1, it didn’t exist at all. Back then, Clark Kent worked for the The Daily Star, in a building of no particular architectural significance because, well, there was no significant architecture in those early comics. The buildings were all drawn as basic, generic backdrops with little distinguishing features that did little more than indicate some abstract idea of “city”.
As noted by Brian Cronin, author of Was Superman a Spy? and the blog Comic Book Legends Revealed, Kent’s byline didn’t officially appear under the masthead of a paper called The Daily Planet until the 1940 Superman radio show, which, due to the nature of the medium, obviously couldn’t go into great detail about the building. That same year, The Daily Star became The Daily Planet.
But the lack of any identifiable architecture in these early representations of the Planet hasn’t stopped readers from speculating on the architectural origin of the most famous fictitious edifices in funnybooks. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland lays claim to the original Daily Planet. But so too does Toronto. And a strong case can be made for New York. So what was the true inspiration behind the iconic Daily Planet building?
Although Superman was famously created in Cleveland, Superman co-creator and original artist Joe Shuster was less famously created in Toronto, where, as a young newsboy, he sold the city’s paper of record, The Toronto Daily Star. In the last interview Shuster ever gave, he told the paper, now renamed The Toronto Star, about the city’s influence on his early Superman designs: “I still remember drawing one of the earliest panels that showed the newspaper building. We needed a name, and I spontaneously remembered The Toronto Star. So that’s the way I lettered it. I decided to do it that way on the spur of the moment, because The Star was such a great influence on my life.” But did the actual Star building directly influence the design of the Daily Planet? Shuster doesn’t say, but it doesn’t seem too likely. The Art Deco building, designed by Canadian architects Chapman and Oxley, wasn’t completed until 1929 – about five years after Shuster left Toronto for Cleveland, Ohio.
Incidentally, this wasn’t the only time that Champman and Oxley almost had their work immortalized in fiction. The firm also designed the Royal Ontario Museum, which was expanded in 2007 with a radical addition designed by Daniel Libeskind that appeared in the pilot episode of the television series “Fringe.” But I digress.
In Cleveland, Superman fans claim that the Daily Planet was inspired by the AT&T Huron Road Building (originally the Ohio Bell Building), another Art Deco design, built by Cleveland architects Hubbell & Benes in 1927. Coincidentally, the building is currently topped with a globe, the AT&T logo – perhaps the owners want to reinforce the notion that this is the true Daily Planet Building. After all, harboring the world’s greatest superhero has to be good for property value, right? It’s not certain how this rumor got started, but Shuster has denied that anything in Cleveland influenced his designs for Metropolis.
Obviously, the massive sculptural globe is the one thing missing from the above buildings. And really, it’s the only thing that matters. The globe is the feature that identifies the building as the site of Superman’s day job and, more often than not, the collateral damage resulting from his other day job.
Surprisingly, the globe didn’t make its first appearance in the comics, but in the iconic Fleischer Studios Superman Cartoon (see top image). Specifically, the fourth episode of the series, ”The Arctic Giant,” which first aired in 1942. It must’ve made an impression on the Superman artist because that same year, an early version of the globe-peaked Daily Planet building made its comic book debut in Superman #19.
Whereas the previous iterations of the Daily Planet building were little more than architectural abstractions loosely influenced by Art Deco architecture, the animated Daily Planet building may have been inspired by the former headquarters for Paramount Pictures in Manhattan, completed in 1927 by Rapp & Rapp, a prominent Chicago architecture firm known for building many beautiful theaters across the country.
Located at 1501 Broadway, the Paramount Building is just a 5 minute walk away from the original location of Fleischer Studios at 1600 Broadway. Although today it is dwarfed by the modern high-rises of Midtown Manhattan, in the 1940s, the 33-story building still towered over many of its neighbors. It seems reasonable to assume that the pyramidal tower, with its step-backs dictated by NYC building codes, its four enormous clocks, and, of course, the glass globe at its peak, may have inspired Fleischer artists designing the animated architecture of the cartoon Metropolis.
Over the 75 years since Superman was introduced to the world, the Daily Planet building has been drawn many different ways by many, many different artists. But the globe is consistent. The globe defines the Daily Planet building. But, more generally, so too does Art Deco. Indeed, the entire city of Metropolis is often drawn as an Art Deco city.
The term “Art Deco” is a derived from the 1925 Expositions Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a world exhibition held in Paris that extolled the virtues of Modern design and promoted a complete break from historical styles and traditions. Unlike the stripped-down austere buildings that came to define International Style Modernism, Art Deco architecture doesn’t eschew ornament. Instead, it combines traditional ideas of craft and decoration with streamlined machine age stylistics. Its geometric ornament is derived not from nature but from mechanization. The buildings are celebrations of the technological advancements that made skyscrapers possible in the first place. In the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco was optimistic, it was progressive, it represented the best in mankind at the time – all qualities shared by Superman. Like the the imposing neo-Gothic spires and grotesque gargoyles of Gotham City that influence Batman’s darker brand of heroics, Metropolis is a reflection of its hero. And even though Superman may be from another galaxy, The Daily Planet is the center of his world.
June 7, 2013
The BMW Guggenhim Lab is, as the name suggests, a research collaboration between the automaker and museum franchise. Based on the belief that cities are catalysts for innovation and human progress, the joint venture takes the form of a “mobile urban laboratory” that, over the last two years, has traveled to three major world cities holding free programs and workshops to inspire and cultivate ideas about design and urban living. Recently, the Lab launched a website listing the top 100 urban trends in the three cities they visited–New York City, Berlin, and Mumbai–based on discussions and research presented in each city. According to Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, the trend list is a means to “further the conversations started by the Lab and spark analyses of these three cities and comparisons of the respective urban environments.”
A few items on the list have been discussed on Design Decoded before. 3-D printers, for example, are among the top design trends in both New York and Berlin, and are recognized as viable alternatives to mass production with potentially profound implications in industrial design and architecture. Additionally, small-scale building proved a popular topic in NYC, with affordable housing, micro apartments, and shipping container architecture making the list. These small buildings and environments are seen as ways that good design can transform the way urbanites live and more efficiently use the limited spaces available to them. The New York and Berlin Lab was itself a type of versatile, micro architecture. The lightweight carbon fiber pavilion (top image) was designed by Tokyo-based architects Atelier Bow-Wow as a sort of architectural “toolbox” concealing performance equipment that could be lowered into the presentation space as needed.
While design trends in New York and Berlin were quite similar, those in Mumbai addressed an entirely different set of issues. Perhaps reflecting the fact that the city was a relatively unique venue, a new Lab pavilion was constructed for the Mumbai program (above image). Designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, the light, bamboo structure was inspired by a type of Indian pavilion known as a mandapa, typically used for celebrations and public events.
Mumbai is the most populous city in India and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. And like many cities in the developing world, it’s growing quickly and without any sort of formal planning. It’s no surprise then that issues related to overcrowding and infrastructure were among the primary concerns of designers in Mumbai. Public transit issues in particular seem to be a hot topic, with buses, auto rickshaws, and “informal” transit featured prominently on the list, along with discussions on infrastructure planning and centralized data collection.
Architectural restoration, thought not often touted as a proactive agent of change, was also discussed as an economical means to improve the quickly changing city while preserving and celebrating its rich history and eclectic urban fabric. Other “trends” unique to Mumbai were the fascinating notions of “City Mythology” and “infraspace.” City Mythology is defined as “the weaving together of mythological places that appear in folklore and religious texts with real, physical urban spaces.” Public spaces given value through cultural traditions and stories serve to cultivate a sense of community and pride among a city’s populace and foster “a type of imagined historical memory.” Infraspace is a term coined by one of the Mumbai Lab team members to describe the latent architectural and spatial possibilities inherent in Mumbai’s infrastructure. For example, architect Neville Mars suggested transforming an enormous defunct pipeline into an auto rickshaw highway and pedestrian bridge.
Of course, no discussion of Mumbai would be complete without addressing one of the most prominent and pressing issues in the city: slums. A large percentage of Mumbai’s population –60 percent by some estimates– live in slums, defined by the United Nations as “a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor.” Issues related to the development, research and growth of slums were obviously at the forefront of many Lab discussions in Mumbai. Many of these high density settlements exist with scarce access to clean water or civic infrastructure, and if they’re at all considered during the urban development process it’s often only in terms of eviction and demolition. The Mumbai Lab was interested in studying these places more closely, in looking at them as a unique architectural typology that developed organically and has its own intrinsic values. During one of the Lab’s design exercises, architecture students worked with a slum contractor to design a “tool house” – a typical slum building type that includes both work and live spaces. This exercise was conducted to better understand the complex economic, social, and architectural systems that exist within the slums like a cultural microclimate, systems that shape and are shaped by the slum typology.
While some of these design “trends” are cutting edge, others represent the continued interest in longstanding, and sometimes overlooked, issues. With cities around the world become larger and denser, many designers are casting a critical eye on their environment to improve living conditions for everyone. As the Lab writes in its mission statement, “greater urban density can mean more conflict, but it can also produce a greater diversity of viewpoints and more opportunity for positive change.”
This research collected by the BMW Guggenheim Lab will culminate with an exhibition this October at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
June 5, 2013
With the development of music notation, music was set free from the delicate bonds of oral and aural traditions. A standardized, underlying structure meant that everything from Gregorian chant to “Johnny B Goode” could be preserved and proliferated with relative ease. However, beginning in the years after World War II, some more progressive musicians and composers began to think that the music staff might be more restricting than liberating and began to experiment with new, more expressive forms of graphic music notation.
American composer John Cage explored the use chance and indeterminacy in his musical compositions with the aim of erasing his own subjectivity from his music, the hand of the artists, as it were. To communicate his indeterminate “compositions,” to use the term loosely, Cage developed elaborate methods of graphic notation involving a series of transparencies. He first used this method in the 1958 score for “Variations I,” which consisted of six transparent squares – one with 27 points representing sound and five with five lines, representing any assigned musical value. The composition was derived by placing the squares on top of one another in any combination. Cage would continue to develop and expand this method throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as seen in the top image depicting the somewhat more elaborate score for “Fontana Mix.” Cage’s notation consists of four multi-channel cassette tapes, ten transparencies inscribed with tiny dots, one transparency bearing a straight line and ten sheets of paper on which colored squiggly lines were drawn, and a graph paper-like “staff.” The transparencies were used to derive coordinates that were then used to determine which tape was used, as well as the values of the sound from teh tape: length (in inches), volume, timbre, and so on. According to the All Music Guide to Classical Music, Cage described the score as “a camera from which anyone can take a photograph.”
Steve Reich’s score for “Pendulum Music” is a straightforward, written set of instructions describing how the piece is staged and performed. The above recording was made by Sonic Youth for their 1999 album SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century. Parts of the handwritten score are a little difficult to read so here’s a transcription:
“2, 3, 4 or more microphones are suspended from the ceiling by their cables so that they all hang the same distance from the floor and are all free to swing with a pendular motion. Each microphone’s cable is plugged into an amplifier which is connected to a speaker. Each microphone hangs a few inches directly above or next to it’s [sic] speaker.
The performance begins with performers taking each mike, pulling it back like a swing, and then in unison releasing all of them together. Performers then carefully turn up each amplifier just to the point where feedback occurs when a mike swings directly over or next to it’s [sic] speaker. Thus, a series of feedback pulses are headed which will either be all in unison or not depending on the gradually changing phase relations of the different mike pendulums.
Performers then sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.
The piece is ended sometime after all mikes have come to rest and are feeding back a continuous tone by performers pulling out the power cords of the amplifiers.”
In 1978 musician Brian Eno created the seminal album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe this atmospheric soundscape and distinguish it from the canned “elevator music” pioneered by Muzak. In so doing, he created not just an album, but an entire genre of music. Eno was inspired by composers like Cage and Reich, but had no formal music training. When asked by an interview why he never learned to read music, Eno, who preferred to composes directly onto tape, replied:
“It wouldn’t be very useful for me. There have been one or two occasions where I was stuck somewhere without my tape recorder and had an idea, tried to memorize it, and since a good idea nearly always relies on some unfamiliar nuance it is therefore automatically hard to remember. So on those very rare occasions I’ve thought, ‘God, if only I could write this down.’ But in fact, quite a lot of what I do has to do with sound texture, and you can’t notate that anyway … That’s because musical notation arose at a time when sound textures were limited. If you said violins and woodwind that defined the sound texture, if I say synthesizer and guitar it means nothing – you’re talking about 28,000 variables.”
In lieu of traditional notation then, Eno created the graphics seen above, which seem to be more concerned with communicating a visual impression of the music and aren’t truly intended to be used as a guide for actually playing the music.
Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” was commissioned by the North German Radio Hamburg in 1961. As the name suggests, the piece does indeed take various forms and changes dramatically from section to section. With “Polymorphia,” Penderecki was searching for new sonic possibilities and, if those possibilities include “terrifying haunted house music,” he absolutely nailed it. The composition is intended for 48 string instruments and emphasizes timbre rather than pitch, and the collision of sound generating bodies made of metal, wood, or leather – what music scholar Danuta Mirka refers to as the composer’s “primary materials”. The notation was inspired, in part, by electroencephalograms –visual measurements of brain activity. It eschews traditional measures in favor of a score divided into sections of variable length and, in some sections, further vertical divisions to mark each second, with a “total pitch space” describing the relative pitch of each instrument.
English composer Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise” was written from 1963-1967. It consists of 193 pages of graphic notation that employs ambiguous numbers, shapes, and symbols that Carew intended to be interpreted by the performer. He suggests that performers agree on their own rules prior to the performance, but provides no other explicit instructions for interpreting the piece. In the “Treatise” handbook, Cardew offers additional, cryptic advice such as “Remember that space does not correspond literally to time” and “There is a great difference between: a) doing anything you like and at the same time reading the notations, and b) reading the notations and trying to translate them into action. Of course you can let the score work on previously given material, but you must have it work actively.” The only constant throughout “Treatise” is the thickly drawn “life line” at the center of the score. It has no intrinsic value but is often used by performers as a baseline reference for pitch or some other musical value. Ultimately, “Treatise” is notation as art form. As Carew says, “The notation is more important than the sound. Not the exactitude and success with which a notation notates a sound; but the musicalness of the notation in its notating.”
In closing, the half notation. I only count it as half because it uses a traditional notation system, just not a music notation system. In 1968 John Cage played a chess match against Marcel DuChamp as part of the collaborative performance, Reunion (pdf), which also featured electronic music by David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, David Tudor and Lowell Cross. Given his interest in chance, it’s no surprise that Cage conceived of the work, but it was composed by the aforementioned musicians. The board itself was designed by Cross and concealed photo-resistors, contact microphones, and connections to sound generators. During the match the movement of the pieces activated lights and electronic music, transforming the exhibition environment according to the movement of the pieces on the board. The art of the chess transformed into music and light, a sort of strategic synesthesia. It’s a fascinating idea. What would the Sicilian Defense sound like? Or a Queen’s Gambit?
The above examples represent both notation for experimental music and experimental notation for music. But they’re just of few of the many modes of graphic and experimental notation that have been explored by artists over the last 60 or so years. While some artists find restrictions inspiring –even if those restrictions are as seemingly limitless as music notation– others find that progress can only be made by shattering the accepted modes of production and communication. And while the results may not be always enjoyable, they’re undeniably interesting and represent a sincere effort to push an art form into unexplored territory. Avant-garde in the truest sense of the word.
May 31, 2013
The curving flourishes of music notation have always been something a mystery to me, although every day I, like many people, use other arcane symbols without thinking twice about it. The at (@) sign, the dollar sign ($) and the ampersand (&), for example, all function like ligatures or some sort of shorthand. They’ve been demystified by popular use in email, clues on “Wheel of Fortune,” and their inclusion on computer keyboards. But music notation is a semantic system that is entirely different from the written word; a non-spoken alphabet of pitch and rhythm. So, with apologies to the more musically inclined reader, I looked into the origin of the treble clef and the answer was quite simple. The treble clef, the top symbol you see in the photo above, is also known as the G-clef, which gives you the first clue to its origin.
So for my own edification, if nothing else, let’s start with the basics. A clef is a sign placed on a music staff that indicates what pitch is represented by each line and space on the staff. The history of Western musical notation describes an effort toward the development of a simple, symbolic representations of pitch and rhythm. It begins near the end of the 9th century when notation for the Plainsong of the Western Church, better known as Gregorian Chant, was first recorded with “neumes”. These were simple dashes or dots above lyrics that indicated a relative change in pitch. At the end of the 10th century, musical scribes increased the precision of his early notation by introducing a horizontal line to indicate a base pitch (see above image). The pitch of this line was indicated by a letter at its start – typically F or C and, as higher range songs become more common, G. Neumes were no longer relative only to one another, but to a standard. This was the beginning of the musical staff.
These initial letters evolved over time into the stylized representations that we know as clefs today. The treble clef is a standardized representation of the letter G, while the bass clef, also known as the F-clef, is a more dramatic unrecognizable evolution of the letter F. A possible addition to this evolution was suggested in a 1908 article in The Musical Times, which argued that the contemporary form of the treble clef is a result of 17th century notational technique in which multiple symbols were used indicate both pitch and vocal sound, with “G, Sol” being a common combination that was eventually shortened to G.S. and then “gradually corrupted by careless transcription” into the treble clef.
In a time before mechanical reproducibility, the standardization of signs was an unfamiliar concept. These notations were all written by hand the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of each scribe naturally resulted in some variability of representation, sometimes even on the same page. And, don’t forget, the handwriting was noticeably fancier than today’s script – think medieval font. I can imagine that the scribes tasked with copying these notational manuscripts made mistakes and additions, until eventually the copy (of the copy, of the copy…) bore little resemblance to the original.
Use of the C-clef, also known as the alto clef and tenor clef depending on its position, has declined over the 20th century to be replaced by the other two. Today, the alto clef is used primarily in viola music while the tenor is occasionally used for bassoon, trombone and cello. The F-clef is used for lower-brass notation as well as for the bass and, every kid who was forced to take piano lessons knows, the left hand of keyboard instruments. The instruments that use treble clef include the violin, woodwinds, higher brass instruments, and of course the right hand of keyboard instruments. Its wide use has led it becoming cartoon shorthand to graphically indicate musicality. It seems appropriate that its development was incidental to the preservation and proliferation of the music itself.
Harper College History of Western Music, eds, Hugh M. Miller and Dave Cockrell (1991); Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Willi Apel (1971); Karl Wilson Gehrkens, Music Terminology and Notation (1914); Frank Kidson, “The Evolution of Clef Signatures,” The Musical Times (July 1, 1908); The Schøyen Collection