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Sunday, September 18, 2011

White Walls, White Gloves

How lovely it is to read an old book, well, maybe not that old really, but a letter-press first edition of New Yorker commentaries from the 1950s.  Christopher Rand's A Nostalgia for Camels, an interesting Alibris score, has been on my "to-read" pile for months.  Who knows why you pick up a book and it resonates when it does. There are plenty of books that I pick up and then put down because the timing and mood just isn't right.  I want to read them, and I believe I will, but it's just not the moment.  Then, some time later, it's THE book to read.

A Nostalgia for Camels is a collection of some pieces this old China Hand wrote from his observations in Asia from the very late '40s through the '50s.  I am struck halfway through by a piece about architecture in Chandigarh, when Corbusier, a prominent modernist form-follows-function Swiss-French architect of the period, was designing buildings for the capitol of this new city in the Punjab in the '50s.  (One of my readers will appreciate that Corbusier's name was not really Corbusier,  but a nom de plume which, according to Rand, means "The Crow.")

Corbusier was implementing some interesting human/ecological elements into his design for the High Court building, utilizing poured concrete and gunite.  But Rand also mentions the living quarters of  the laborers who worked on the modern structure.  They were built of cheap brick,"a rich, warm red, rather brownish, and give a substantial look. Often they are set off by trim of white-painted plaster, which adds a smart touch like that of white-walled tires or white gloves."

When was the last time you saw a car with white walls or a woman wearing white gloves (and not on Mad Men)?  Or even a hotel concierge? I grew up in white-walled, white-gloved America.  And I played with Lincoln Logs (as did my son) and American Bricks (which had white lintels for the window construction).  I had a friend who lived in a house that looked like it was built from American Bricks, although my own home was a white-painted, lap-sided "Lincoln Homes" plan, the construction of which was directed by my father who did a lot of the work himself, though he called in specialists to do the plastering of walls, laying of plumbing, and stone masonry for the fireplace and flue.  (The gray slump brick was later whitewashed.)

I read Rand's lovely book, an artifact of pre-digital publishing (not sure it would feel so sweet as a Kindle version) and think of the white walls and white gloves.  Things don't really change.  Now kids play with the more abstract Lego bricks, and white walls have given way to weird wheel rims; naked female hands sport manicures with tiny elaborate artwork, sometimes bejeweled.  The smart touches of the new millennium.

All is change, but nothing really changes, does it?

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