Philly Water Works

March 27, 2011

W. C. Fields famously composed a humorous epitaph for himself:  “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”  I found myself there this weekend, a beautiful, cold crisp Saturday of a murderous weekend.  I was in town for a family affair and I had a few free hours, so I decided to pay a visit to the art museum.  The huge temple front in the image above is the museum,  which I think is known to millions from the film, Rocky, which I have not seen.

The museum sits on the former site of the city water supply reservoir.  The buildings in the foreground are the Fairmont Waterworks that pumped fresh water from Schuylkill River (pronounced Skool-kill, I think) to the old reservoir, from which it flowed by gravity to the city.  Philadelphians of the early 19th century did not share Fields’ disdain for fresh water (I never drink water.  Fish fuck in it), and the waterworks was a much heralded addition to the city.  In fact, it became an international tourist attraction, which says something about the state of urban life in those days.  A large city with a steady supply of clean, fresh water!

Today, we tuck our essential, life-giving infrastructure out-of-the-way, in dull, nondescript, anonymous architecture.   The Fairmont works are housed in a glorious Palladian ensemble, and are backed by landscaped grounds and terraces that have recently been restored.  The views from the rock heights as you walk the cliff side promenades are fabulous.

An interesting technical note about the water works is that the pumps were originally powered by steam engines, but these were taken out of service, and replaced by water wheels.  In the 1850s, water turbines were introduced to power the pumps.   So often the progression goes in the opposite direction!

The city fathers were quite far-sighted about their water supply.  They knew that urban development could lead to the fouling of the Schuylkill, so they purchased large amounts of land to prevent the establishment of industrial facilities along the river.  These areas become Fairmount Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world.  Nevertheless, development did occur further upstream, and the inevitable industrial pollution and raw sewage found its way down to the water works, destroying the purity of the source.  Philadelphia suffered from a horrific cholera epidemic in the 1890s, and in the early 20th century, the works were decommissioned and water was taken from the river and fed into a sand filtration system.  A few years later, chlorination was introduced, and the cholera bug was beaten.

The waterworks fell into a dilapidated state.  When my wife was a girl, she took free art classes in the engine house which was used by the parks department.  When I visited the site many years ago – making a pilgrimage to a civil engineering landmark – it was derelict, but now it has been wonderfully restored.

After making my professional pilgrimage to the waterworks, I proceeded to the museum where I had a enough time to race through the corridors to the Duchamp room for a different sort of homage.

The meaning of life

August 24, 2009

And on a related note, this.

Duchamp: What is Given…

April 20, 2005

I went to Philadelphia to see the Dali exhibit the other day, and while there, stopped in to see one of my favorite works. Calvin Tomkins, author of a wonderful biography of Duchamp, considers it to be the weirdest piece of art on exhibit in any museum in the world. I agree.

If you are in the area, stop in, go to the big room with the Duchamp pieces, and venture into the room way at the back…and prepare for something very strange and unsettling.What you will see is the door shown above, set into a wall. And on the door, two holes drilled, just right for peeping through with both eyes. And once you have situated yourself into this Peeping Tom position, feeling that you are somehow degraded by your transformation to a voyeur, you will get a shock. You will see in front of you the something like what the image below shows:

Just what is that…! Is that what I think it is?!! You never see her face, you can’t. Are you really seeing something? Is it pornographic? (Yes.) Is it some weird spoof or comment on porn? (Yes.) Is it repulsive? (Yes.) Is it fascinating? (Yes.) Is it real? Looks real…That waterfall in the back, is that from some tacky advertisement? Well…maybe. The lamp, the arm, whaaa?

This work walks that razor line that Flaubert knew so well, the one between art and kitsch, the one that shows what is and what the artist thinks about what is, the one that doesn’t show anything but the obsessions of the artist and the world that is not by the artist…

Duchamp, the one who denounced the ancient western tradition of “retinal art,” subverted it with his ready-made urinals and bicycle wheels. The one with his bizarre-Dada construction, “The Bride Stripped Bare,” the one who retreated from the art world to play chess, who scorned movements and art history – he gives us something that looks…sort of…like a soft-core porn postcard from the late 19th century, or a perverse image for an early 20th century advertising campaign. Was he thinking like the Buddhist who says:

When I began to meditate, I thought there were clouds and mountains; when I learned something of Zen, I saw that there were not really any clouds and mountains; and when I was enlightened, I saw that there were only clouds and mountains.

As Duchamp said, “There is no solution because there is no problem.” There is only what is, the things given (L’Etants Donne in French, the name of the piece).