A VIBRANT BERLIN REVISITED

 

This holiday season it was to be, “this year in Jerusalem,” far from Malibu.

However, our impolitic president made an impolitic statement touching off demonstrations in the Middle East. and prompting us to postpone our planned trip there to Israel and Jordan.

So reassigning our air miles accordingly, we move on to the second leg of our planned trip, to another city where I have a history, Berlin, to celebrate a gala upcoming New Year’s and an awesome music scene there, as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU and websites everywherew.

Berlin, of course, also has a history, a tumultuous one, which frankly fascinate me, and also stirs memories. The city is now thriving, but arguably it is the nexus of the last century, cursed by two disastrous world wars, and a crippling cold war,

It was that war that divided the city with a hateful wall I remember some 40 years ago when I crossed it on a dubious assignment for the US government, haunted as a Jew by the Fascist holocaust and as a liberal humanist by a Communist autocracy.

Crossing it then for me was like walking on egg shells, taking each step carefully while looking over my shoulder, whether above ground at Checkpoint Charley or underground by the subway through the security maze of the Fredrichstrasse Station.

At least it was warm in the then drab station, not piercing cold as Berlin can be in the winter, and which makes me all the more happier to live now in Malibu.

I returned to Berlin several years later, in 1982, on an urban affairs junket as design critic for the L.A. Times. Though circumstances were more congenial, the city was still divided, and edgy as ever. Journalists never seem to be welcomed in paranoid regimes, in Germany past, and now in the United States.

.Then the wall came down with a crash and cheers in 1989; Germany was united, and a decade later I was back in Berlin, this time for FOX News doing a documentary series on a city reborn. The redevelopment and design was impressive, and made for good visuals, and for me another Emmy nomination.

But it is the spirit of a city that most interests me. So, now, nearly 20 years later I’m back in Berlin, for a full schedule of cultural diversions, to celebrate the New Year.

For nostalgia I’m staying at the welcoming Melia hotel, on a now bright, buzzing Fredrichstrasse, steps away from the station where I was once uncomfortably interrogated before being allowed to return to West Berlin.

As sort of a celebration of freedom, among the concerts I will be hearing is Beethoven’s Ninth, the ode to joy, being performed in a refurbished hall in what was the former, joyless, East Berlin.

And then tonight it is The One Grand Show at the restored glistening Palace, also on the Fredrichstrasse, for a lavish review in the tradition of Berlin’s sultry cabaret scene.

Prost! Beer there is as good as I remember, but definitely more expensive.

 

 

“THE CALIFORNIA FIELD ATLAS,” REVIEWED AND PRAISED

By Sam Hall Kaplan

“Eureka,” ancient Greek for “I have found it,” is perhaps best known as the motto of the state of California, emblazoned as it is on the fluttering state flag. Given the context in which it is used, I immodestly echo it here to lend emphasis to my enthusiasm for the publication of “The California Field Atlas.”

“Eureka,” I have found a uniquely designed and different book explaining, displaying and celebrating the state’s distinct geography and ecology. It is an engaging trip along the state’s sandy beaches, up fresh water rivers, across verdant valleys and dry deserts, and into the deep forests and towering mountains beyond.

Published by the independent, non-profit Heyday Books of Berkeley, California, it is not the usual dry atlas of maps and facts, though for me as a right-brained blessed reader such books are always welcomed. Words obviously I love, but I also find maps fascinating and illustrations intriguing., and am easily diverted by them.

The subsequently engrossing field atlas indeed has a wealth of these visuals, but much more, thanks to an obviously obsessed writer, Obi Kaufmann. He admits that despite having worked on the book his whole life, he still feeling like a novice, “an infatuated child, lost and humble beggar, “ asking for the natural wisdom rising out of the state’s unique geography.

Kaufmann is indeed very much a romantic, and writes as if he is far, far from civilization, lying on his back on a cold winter’s night on a mountaintop, looking up at a clear, glittering sky and making a wish on the brightest star he sees.

“I want to hold the whole of California in my hand, like a diamond or spinning top; I want to coax this single piece of the universe into opening up its secrets.” He adds that by writing this book, “I seek to participate in the wild reimagining of this place, past the scars inflicted over the last 200 years, to reveal a story about what has always been here and what will remain long after our human residency here is through.” Or I might add maybe until the last of many editions of the atlas is placed on remainder.

As a blurb on the sturdy back cover of the solidly constructed book, good for back pockets and backpacks, states, ”This book is not full of roads maps, and it won’t help you if you are lost in the woods. It comes with a different set of guarantees and assurances, on that it plainly lays out the entirety of the state as a single, integrative being composed of living patterns and ancient processes.”

That is as bold as the magnificent Mount Whitney (14,494 feet) seen on a clear day from the enveloping Sequoia National Park. You can almost taste the clean air and smell the foxtail pines.

Kaufmann unabashedly labels the book a love story, to be sure a very different love story, and presents himself as a poet and a painter, whose “work is based on a mode of naturalist interpretation that builds from hard science to focus on the inner lens of truth.” The result is, in the words of Kaufmann, “a new portfolio of invented geography that balances ecology and aesthetics as driving and orienting forces.”

Though a love story, to be sure this is also a handbook, as detailed in an introductory table of contents, headed by a chapter entitled “Unfolding California.” The chapters that follow are categorized under the liturgical–like rubrics of “Earth and Mountains,” “ Water and Rivers,” “Fire and Forests,“ “Wind and Weather,” and “Of Life, Death and the Desert,” , among other more placid headings.
Depending on your curiosity, you can, of course, jump from chapter to chapter, and topic to topic, at random, like rock to rock, fording a wide, white-water stream. Expect to be distracted, occasionally slip, get wet and be refreshed.

Thumb nail brief histories as protracted captions to the accompanying hand painted maps, some casually smudged, lend a welcomed perspective So does the informal style, written as if being delivered as an aside by an informed guide who had led you out of a stuffy lecture hall to a hidden forest observation post, far from the madding crowd.

But you definitely should take the book as a companion on your next hike into the woods or along the beach, which it undoubtedly will encourage, whether one is a dedicated environmentalist, an inquisitive surveyor, a weekend wanderer, or walking the dogs, as I do.

The author identified himself as a “wilderness naturalist,” spending a lot of time backpacking, while apparently making ends meet as an illustrator and designer (www coyoteandthunder.com). Refreshingly no past or present academic affiliation is noted, though if asked as I once was in the distant past for a nominee for a coveted MacArthur Foundation grant, I would gladly submit Kaufmann based on this unique book alone.

Kaufmann’s focus is primarily on the natural world, prompted by a pedestrian ethic that reveals the mystery and marvels of California at a walking pace, adding not unlike a book does. “Just as books require literacy, nature requires a level of conceptual symbol reading and narrative comprehension.”

Literature should only have enticing trails as California does, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching 1,662 miles. It is described as a “walking highway for humanity to regain and remember itself, its place, and its purpose,” revealing as do other paths, the state’s ecological treasures.

Kaufmann seems particularly at home in the forest, which he comments is much more challenging to map than a coastline, a river or even a mountain. He notes forests, woodlands, prairies and grasslands are varying living systems that “fail to delineate themselves as singular pieces of geography and resist easy classification.”

For the true tree hugging author, “California is a dancing machine of forest ecosystems that best operate in a fine balance between dualities that include fire and water, aridity and hydration, soil and erosion, climatic consistency and variation, and the push and pull between native and invasive plants and animals.”

But I pause to wonder if for all of his embrace of the forest “dancing machine “and its regime of fires what Kaufmann would have written if he experienced the recent disastrous and deadly fires in his beloved wine country where he roamed as an inquisitive child and now lives? The fires there and the actually more riskier rambling suburbs of southern California were a raw reminder of the vulnerability of the state storied past and a foreboding to its future.

Obviously prior to these worst blazes in the state’s history, Kaufmann wrote that the fires would continue, they being nature’s way for forests to renew themselves. It is all part of a process he describes optimistically as “rewilding,” a renewal of sorts where the “great living machine that is California will roll on forever;” Of course, he blithely adds that is if we heed what science is telling us about climate change, stop burning fossil fuels, and consuming meat, among other regimes.

“With the right information and the right spirit, and a bit of ingenuity, we can ensure that the natural California that our grandchildren and their grandchildren know is even in better condition that it is today.” Though Kaufmann admits to presenting a perhaps “too-rosy” a portrait, commenting that as stewards of the land “we are largely doing a poor job, and perhaps I should have done more to warn of the threats our state faces on an environmental level.”But he unfortunately doesn’t, explaining he wanted the book to be uplifting, confident and cheery. He indeed is not a muckraking journalist, and the narrative regretfully all but ignores the forces of greed and evil lurking under rocks in our political landscape.

Sadly, we know too well from the reports out of a besieged Washington, D.C. that the Trump Administration is conspiring with villainous lobbyists to rape and pillage our culturally and biological heritage to appease business interests, to the ire of environmentalists such as Kaufmann, everywhere.

You sincerely, indeed wishfully, hope Kaufmann is right, and the warnings will be heeded, so maybe you and yours, and the generations of Californians to come, can enjoy his excellent atlas and the inevitable updated editions in the years to come in their anticipated explorations of the once and future great state. And if they do, I would love that they place a stone somewhere in the wilderness for me, and mankind, to be remembered.

Perhaps meanwhile every state legislator and administrator should be given a copy of the “The California Field Atlas,” to read and be reminded of their heritage and responsibility, and gird them for the legislative and legal efforts needed to protect and perpetuate this singular piece of the universe.

1

THE CALIFORNIA FIELD ATLAS” CELEBRATE’S STATE’S ECOLOGY

If you are still searching for a nice holiday gift for your favorite environmentalist, then “Eureka,“I have found it,” as I reveal this week on public radio 99.1 KBU and select websites everywhere ”

The Greek phrase of “Eureka” is perhaps best known as the motto of the state of California, But I echo it here to lend emphasis to my enthusiasm for the “The California Field Atlas,” a uniquely designed book explaining, displaying and celebrating the state’s distinct geography and ecology.

It is an engaging trip along the state’s sandy beaches, up fresh water rivers, across verdant valleys and dry deserts, and into the deep forests and towering mountains beyond.

Published by Heyday Books of Berkeley, California, it is not the usual dry atlas of maps and facts. To be sure, it has a wealth of these visuals, but much more, thanks to an obviously happily obsessed writer, Obi Kaufmann.

He admits that despite having worked on the book his whole life, he still feels like a novice, “an infatuated child, lost and humble beggar, “ asking for the natural wisdom rising out of the state’s unique geography.

Kaufmann is very much a romantic, and writes as if he is far, far from civilization, looking up at a clear, glittering sky and making a wish on the brightest star he sees.

Quote  “I want to hold the whole of California in my hand, like a diamond or spinning top; I want to coax this single piece of the universe into opening up its secrets.” Unquote

By writing, he seeks “to participate in the wild reimagining of this place, past the scars inflicted over the last 200 years, to reveal a story about what has always been here and what will remain long after our human residency here is through.”

It is “a new portfolio of invented geography that balances ecology and aesthetics as driving and orienting forces.”

Depending on your curiosity, you can jump from chapter to chapter, like rock to rock, in a white water river. Just expect to be distracted, occasionally slip, get wet and be refreshed, as I have.

 

.

A FINAL BOW FOR LEGENDARY GUITARIST JOHN MC LAUGHLIN

It was alumni night at UCLA’s Royce Hall recently, not for graduates of the university, rather it appeared mostly for the alumni of the music scene of the past 40 or so years. They were there to pay tribute to legendary guitarist John McLaughlin, as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU and websites everywhere.

On stage clutching his beloved double neck guitar he is soon to auction, smiling and strutting, the 75 year old bandleader, composer and master musician, played with passion on what was the final stop of his final U.S. concert tour. Eschewing their age, his fans loved it, intermittently standing and cheering.

Proudly promoted by UCLA’S ever-creative Center for the Art of Performance, the program labeled The Meeting of the Spirits was, as expected, memorable.

Indeed it ran more than three hours, ending with McLaughlin repeating several ending refrains, and reluctantly taking a final bow to sustained applause, hoots and whistles. He was exhausted, and so was the audience.

Sharing the stage lit by blinking strobes, was fellow guitarist Jimmy Herring. He and his band the Invisible Whip opened the evening with a sustained sound straight out of the Seventies., and later joined McLaughlin and his band, the 4th Dimension , in a closing, roof raising, reverberating jam session.

Each performer had their moments, and then some. An extended drum set by Jeff Sipe and Ranjit Barot was in particular riveting, running on it seems into infinity, stopping clocks and sapping breaths .

But it was McLaughlin who was center stage, carrying the evening, playing his guitars and leading the ensemble in the pioneering music he created decades ago with the fabeled Mahavishnu Orchestra; “maha,” meaning great, and Vishnu the name of the Hindu deity .

Describe it as rock, fusion jazz, or whatever, the distinctive sound incorporating technical precision and harmonic sophistication, with a touch of Indian scales, propelled McLaughlin into the upper echelon of music. And judging from the audience at his last concert, into the hearts of music fans.

 

CITIES NEAR AND DEAR TO ME THREATENED

With natural and manmade disasters erupting places near and dear to me, this week my city observed commentary on public radio 99.1 KB, and select websites everywhere, goes plural: it is cities observed.

Most immediate is my vulnerable Malibu, and the peninsula of Point Dume , where we live overlooking a shimmering Santa Monica Bay. Smoke from the nearby raging fires wafted in the skies above, but it was, is, safe. For now!

Hurricane hot winds whipped trees, and lifted the heavy planters into the pool, but no real damage was done, except to the Bromeliads I cultivate. We were made safer just weeks prior by our abiding long time neighbors, the Harringtons, cutting down a threatening pine tree, that had been shedding flammables on our property.

Those Pines and Eucalytus trees can be explosive torches, which some of Malibu’s misanthropes don’t seem to recognize, or care, despite the fire department warnings. As for our neophyte local government, it makes pronouncements, but prefers to sit idly by and let others the heavy lifting when it comes to the safety, and welfare of residents.

Not so safe was my former back woods community of creek side homes for which I was once a board director, on leased forest lands in the mystical Matilija Canyon north west of Ojai.

Located at the dead end of a long twisting road, it was evacuated in the Thomas fire that encircled and scorched bucolic Ojai. According to maps of the fire, the canyon community and our former cabin seems to have survived.

Not so lucky was large swaths of Ventura County, where hundreds of thousands of acres were burned and hundreds of homes lost. The fire continues only partially contained.

Another city very much on my mind these days is Jerusalem, roiling one again, as it has for most of its turbulent 3,000 year history, this time no thanks to our the impolitic announcement of our impolitic president.

We were actually suppose to be there now for the holidays, to celebrate my birthday in nearby Jordan, at the ancient remnants of the city of Petra, and of course, be in Jerusalem, to meet with the extended family, pay homage in Yad Vashem to our holocaust victims, place a prayer in the holy Western Wall, and, ecumenical us, go to Bethlehem Christmas eve,

Though I wont be able to insert the pieces of paper the prayer was written on, I can disclose it was, ironically, a plea for peace, good will, and health and happiness to all this holiday season. I hope someone is listening.

 

STAR ARCHITECTURE REVISITED

My goodness. Look what FB dug out of my past postings, and ran as a memory. Gehry is history, but it makes for a provocative and relevant read:

December 12, 2015 · Malibu ·
A slightly updated posting, in response to some comments received regarding my frank commentary on the Frank and Paul embrace: it’s really not about designing buildings, but rather about being a celebrity. Architecture is sadly secondary:

I don’t think it’s cynical to state that the noble pursuit of designing spaces and places for human endeavor is being corrupted by the cult of star architecture.

From my long tenure as an urban design critic, I see the scramble among a select gaggle of professionals to be anointed, as increasing insidious and insistent, and the effect on architecture students depressing.

This is no thanks in part to a celebrity obsessed media, and so I declare in my weekly commentary for 97.5 KBU, everywhere on radiomalibu.net and on cityobserved.com. and other websites.

And so we have tomes such as Paul Goldberger’s “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry,” reading more like “The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump, with architecture as a social art subsumed by the architect as a social animal.

If anything, the read reveals Goldberger’s transition from when he was a solid, if not stolid, critic in his early years for the New York Times, and then the more fastidious New Yorker, to his present vain-glorious gazing at Vanity Fair, the glare unfortunately compromising.

As for the ever-grasping Gehry, noted is his transition from an aspiring architect of modest talent, to a self-aggrandizing, celebrity-schmoozer who sadly believes his own press clippings, and the finger to whomever doesn’t.

But Gehry with the gift of a grifter does know how to massage the media, as evidenced by Goldberger’s undiscerning biography, and clients as well, as evidenced by his hyped designs. Little is heard from the users, their advocates or the affected communities.

Granted, it is hard to blame some of the architecture elite for manipulations, given the competition in the profession for deep pocketed clients and prominent projects promising yet more publicity.

It is very much a merry, merry-go-round, unless of course it is not, and one fails to grab the gold ring, and hang on, resulting in what might be labeled, professional envy.

Also, running an office is expensive, especially when the principals have to be out and about pontificating at endless forums and glad handing clients, while the actual designs are being produced by the talent in the back rooms.

I recall it was the august Philip Johnson, who was to the manor born, commenting that to be a successful architect, as he was in his time, you had to be a whore.

It is all very depressing, if you think of the effect it has on conscientious peers with a trace of talent and good intentions, desperate for attention, if not a little love, while trying to piece together a practice.

The bad books they have written about themselves and the mountains of monographs documenting their projects tend to be embarrassing, even if just circulated among family, friends and clients.

Still, hope springs eternal, and I appreciate and embrace design. When focused on those who will actually be affected by the crafting of spaces and places – the users– it can elevate the human experience.

“SOMETHING ROTTEN” ROCKS

If you love musicals, but not too much so as not to be amused by their being abused, in good fun, of course.
 
And if you love Shakespeare, but also not too much so as not to be offended to have him paraded as a rockstar of the of the waning 16th century, then you’ll love “Something Rotten”.
 
As I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU and websites everywhere , a hit several years ago on Broadway , the musical is now in full blown production at the Ahmanson in the Music Center downtown through the end of the year,.
 
And indeed as in New York, it is a extravaganza, a BIG musical, delivered by a high kicking dance, and high note singing chorus, ever ready it seems to allow the ensemble’s leads to skip and shuffle off stage to catch their breaths.
 
And that also gives the audience a moment to intermittingly stand and cheer, as they did opening night. Obviously, there was a lot of fans and family present.
 
Their enthusiasm echoed the cast’s enthusiasm, staring Rob McClure as Nick Bottom, a struggling writer in the shadow of a supercilious Shakespeare, played to perfection by Adam Pascal. Blake Hammond as the soothsayer Nostradamus deserves a shout out, as does Josh Grisetti.
 
Actually, the whole cast of dozens is deserving, deftly directed and choreographed by Casey Nicolaw, the stage design and lighting , and the costumes ,just fine. All meld magnificently.
 
But if there is problem, at least from this critic’s perspective, it is the story line. Shakespeare envy is just too broad, not very subtle, and the dialogue , sophomoric,: cute but not clever.
 
However, the show numbers mostly were clever, jazzed up parodies of hits of the past. There were winks at “Wicked.” a nod to “Chicago,” a sharp elbow to “Pippin,” a mention of “Cats.” all jogging the memory and prompting smiles.
 
It was in sum a rollicking evening, especially for show musical lovers, so allow me to end with a purloined a line from Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, “All’s well, that ends well.
 
And to be sure, “Something Rotten,” does end well and you’ll leave the Ahmanson smiling.