IIT

Small Steps (1960)

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14823224407_4a1b684304_bMies van der Rohe, Crown Hall, Neues National Gallerie

I arrived in Chicago, following the family’s charade visit to relatives in nearby Hinsdale, and found myself on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, a carefully organized place of tan brick and black painted steel, designed and constructed by the famed architect Mies Van der Rohe. I’d, of course, never heard of him. My singular architectural touch-stone was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work is dotted through the city and region. The IIT campus is a perfect example of Miesian style: a formalist kind of perfection working within a narrow, northern Germanic-derived pattern. It stood out as an anomaly, buried in the dominantly poor black ghetto of Chicago’s Southside, though it was also adjacent to a once Irish-Italian neighborhood, Bridgeport, home to many of the city’s mayors.

On one of my first days there, dressed in quasi-preppy DC-suburban Bermuda shorts, I decided to take a walk of 20 some blocks to the Hyde Park neighborhood, the home of the University of Chicago. Somewhere along the line, maybe 5 or so blocks south of IIT it dawned on me that mine was the singular white skin to be seen, and though I’d been brought up in the desegregated schools of the military, and in Virginia had frequented the black shanty town near my Fairfax home, I suppose I’d never been in a dense urban black-only ghetto. A fear entered me, and literally I began to whistle, as I tried to play the innocent 17 year old nonchalant, just cruising on through deepest darkest Africa. Twenty nervous blocks later I got to UC safe and sound, and took the El back. A local lesson learned.

southside chicagoFotos: John H. White

At IIT, I vaguely recall being assigned to a dorm room, which initially I shared with an Arabic student, I think from Saudi Arabia, there to study engineering. He was Muslim and prayed his five times a day. This didn’t last long, whether he or I asked for a change I don’t recall at all, though my guess is it was probably him. Not because of anything I did, but of what I didn’t: pray, be Muslim. Next in line was a fellow from Milwaukee, Ron Gutkowski – of working class Polish origins. We hit it off OK, though as I recall it was his intention to go in the Army and I already knew that wasn’t going to be my case. For some years I’ve tried to track him down, in part to see if he survived Vietnam – so far no luck.

Meantime in classes I got my serious dose of Mies, as the school functioned essentially to produce clones of Mies, a kind of architectural fundamentalism. Luckily the school was on the first floor of Crown Hall, one of Mies’ masterpieces: a vast open glass box space, with no interior columns, divided only by low partitions. The entire architectural department was there and as the partitions were open one could wander from the freshman area on through the grad school and see it all. I did, and over the year felt I had soaked up the entire 5 year course.

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6f6126d24e0492b5f3161509b1ed231d  Carson Pirie Scott Building

auditoriumMies, Louis Sullivan

The freshman classes never broached architecture, but rather dwelt on discipline: an architectural drafting class using T-square, triangles, and a year of drawing lines, grids, each requiring hours to make and designed to require perfection. At the time I found it irritating, as did my fellow students. Only later did I see the wisdom in this process. Other classes included free-hand drawing – models from life, visits to the botanical gardens, taught by a woman from the old German Bauhaus. And classes including algebra, economics and things of that kind required to graduate.

Within 6 weeks of being there I realized that architecture was a kind of corporatized business, and that I clearly wasn’t going to fit in. I also quickly realized I’d never get a degree. And I figured out how to game the system. As apparently is still the case in many colleges and universities, there one could sign up for a class and if you dropped it before six weeks were up, it never appeared in the records. So, knowing I wasn’t aiming for a degree, I dropped any course I didn’t like or at least didn’t like because of the way it was taught, and out the window went those basic degree-requirement courses. In turn after one semester I was on the Dean’s Honor List, Mr. Straight A’s. And I got another scholarship!! For a 17 year old I was learning fast.

At the same time I quickly gravitated toward the more Bohemian sorts in my class, and by the end of the first semester I’d connected with a handful of folks that led to me leaving the dormitory, and into an apartment block in the next door neighborhood, the Italo-American one next to IIT.

During that first period I leaped head-first into the arts world, going to the Art Institute Museum where I was quickly acquainted with the Impressionists, on up to the contemporary art world of Rothko, Pollock, Warhol and others. I went to some concerts at the Auditorium building, (Segovia, from the top-most seats, marveling at the amazing unamplified acoustics; van Cliburn and others), to some opera, and at the same time to the Maxwell Street area on weekends, listening to blues on the street, and once with an older friend, heavily into Chicago blues, going into the nearby apartment room of an old blind black blues singer, to hear him there. Myself, I played folk music, getting Sandburg’s American Songbag, and learning a sizable chunk of now-forgotten folk-tunes. My Virginia background convinced some of the college guys that I was the real thing, an Appalachian country folk warbler. I, of course, knew better, but it was a fun gig.

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At the same time I broke the Miesien strangle-hold imposed by the architecture department and rapidly acquainted myself with a range of others, from Louis Sullivan and Burnham & Root, to Corbusier, and the then-current crop from Ero Saarinen to Paul Rudolph and many others. Liking Corbu was considered heresy in the department, as was any variance from the Miesien grid. That rigidity merely underlined my inclination to flee.   I had a professor, in the terminology the time, who was a Negro, Charles Sharpe.  I rather liked him and we got along well, even if he was firmly of the Miesian religion of “form follows function,” and was busy teaching his students to make rubber stamp Miesien copies – which litter the midwest with poorly done copy-cat buildings by the students of this architectural factory.   This was the aesthetic base of Miesien logic, in which the structure of a building is in effect exposed, and shows how it stands. So with his buildings the basic frame is exposed, even celebrated. Crown Hall was a crowning example: four deep girders spanned the building, visible above, and hanging from it the smaller I-beams of the actual roof; from the edges hung vast windows, floor to ceiling. One could (sort of) see the entire structure. Having had this drilled into me as a catechism, I went up to see one of Mies’ new apartment buildings rising up on the North Side, the 2400 Lakeview Apartments.  They’d poured the reinforced concrete skeletal structure and I noticed that the columns were rather deep 2.5 to 1 rectangles, and that they were cladding the columns with some aluminum sheathing, but so that it appeared the columns were square in proportions. I went back to Professor Sharpe and told him this, probably with bit of sarcasm, and said in effect, “Well, what about this form follows function?” He initially denied that it could be so, but as he worked in Mies’ office, he was able to get a basic blue-print, which, lo and behold, showed exactly what I’d seen on the site with my own eyes. Mr. Sharpe ate humble pie. And I suppose my wariness of a certain kind of religious-like fundamentalism sharpened.

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In hindsight I very much appreciate my year there at the architectural school, as I was able to quickly absorb most, if not all, of the 5 year learning process in a fast year, courtesy of the open Miesien lay-out of the place, and my own hyper-eager desire to cram as much into my naive self as I could. But, I had quickly concluded, architecture was not to be my future – though I remain a serious buff, and would like, before I drop dead, to build at least one thing.

In December, classes over, I went to New York City, to my supposed new home on the then-military base on Governor’s Island, off the tip of Manhattan.  During the short three and a half months I’d had on my own, my somewhat would-be preppy 17 year old self got exchanged for something more grungy and rebellious. Having left Fairfax with a military crew-cut – the only permissible way in the household – when I went to my new, never-before-seen “home” I had whatever length one’s hair can grow in 100 days.  Maybe it was an inch and a half long.   I do recall odd looks from the jar-head military people on the ferry over, and then on the base.  Arriving at the front door of my alleged new home, I knocked.  My father answered the door, and the first words he said were, “get a haircut.”  I did an immediate about face, and left, and did not return, but went straight back to Chicago.  I am told my mother was devastated, and over the next months she apparently convinced my father that I should be allowed to do as I wished.  Perhaps a touch prematurely for me, the 60’s had arrived.

Detoured from architecture, in the late winter and spring of 1961, I cast about for an alternative, and without telling my parents a word of it, I applied to an art school in Britain, the Bath Academy of Art, sending them some samples from the drawing classes. I was accepted, and in June of that year I took a train from Chicago to Montreal, to catch a ship sailing up the St Lawrence to France, and then the UK. I’d saved from my monthly $100 allowance from the family to pay for all this, and had arranged it all without a nod to them.  Some dies had been cast.  It seems, at least in my head, I’d decided I would be some kind of artist.

LouisSullivan-1Louis Sullivan design

Beginnings (1)

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It’s hard to know where beginnings begin. Back to the Big Bang, for sure; or in other circumstances the big bang of your parents whose passions and lust coincided with a fertile time, and wanted or intended or not, into the world one came, a mixture of her genes and his, and there, fated with the coiled DNA of your ancestors, were you. When you look back on the long history of life and humans, it seems almost impossible that one could exist at all given the long thread of disease and war and happenstance. If one of those thousands and ten thousands of years ago just one of your ancestors had bit the dust, one wouldn’t be here. And here we are, 7 billion of us and rapidly counting. It’s amazing and crazy and scary.

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Bracketing myself to the realm of what seems to point towards becoming a filmmaker, a prosaic matter, I am unsure where it began. In high-school, Annandale HS in Fairfax, Virginia, at the time virtually rural – there because my father was based in the Pentagon – I recall little that would hint at my future. In truth I recall little, period. I rather hated high-school, with its cliques, and its stupid teen-aged boy machoisms, and all the turmoil of rampaging hormones and a time, the 1950’s, of sexual (and a lot more) repression in the culture. I do recall Elvis Presley being censored from the waist down on the Ed Sullivan show, and the modest innuendos of rock and roll – Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and a range of others. And being a local, I also heard Mose Alison. And I recall frequenting a black shanty town across a large field from the very early and modest housing tract where my family lived. But mostly I recall wanting to escape – from high-school, from my family.

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Inside the home, I tended to put on a good act as the All-American boy. I dressed neatly (more so than my peers – I wore a sports jacket to school which no one else did), for a few years I was outgoing and social. I tended my schoolwork if not exactly enthusiastically. I sang rock & roll at school dances and I was a wild dancer and won prizes for it. As a sophomore I was class treasurer. I didn’t belong to any of the cliques – not the jocks, the nerds, the socialites – though I was not introverted. Instead I was friends with them all, and in turn saw how they were nasty about those not of their group. I early acquired a distaste for group-think, from whichever quarter. Certainly that had some impact in my filmmaking, and my participation in the little arts bubble in which it exists. I suppose this showed up as well in the sport I took up: a real loner one – pole vaulting. It’s a real DIY affair. And now, decades later, that’s how I still work.

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While I don’t at all remember it, apparently other things in the home clearly were formative – as reaction or maybe self-defense. I recall my father, whose history was interesting, primarily as an authoritarian: whatever he said was “right” and that was that. I suppose rather typical of fathers at the time, and perhaps especially in military families. Somewhere at a very young age I mentally wrote him out of my life – probably by the time I was 12 or earlier. Much later on I was to more or less find out just why. Along with him went my mother, though for very different reasons. She was for me a kind of cypher, a non-person behind her bland 1950’s perfect-wife figure. Only later would I understand that in truth she was rather desperate, a closet alcoholic living under the thumb of her handsome, successful, but very errant husband.

 hf-jost-memories9smss2My father as singer-saxaphonist Gary Temple

hf-jost-memories8smss1As Col. Harry Frederick Jost

paintng crpMy mother, Dorothy, as painted idealistically, after her death, by my father.

Other teen-age things – a useless and hopeless romanticism led to a severe crush on one of my cheerleader sister’s acquaintances whom I plied with doubtless dreadful poetry, and when she moved away, I took a long bicycle trip from Fairfax to somewhere in Pennsylvania, where I got a very cold shoulder. Her name was Dee Sherwood, and she was blonde, tall and athletic, and I suspect in hindsight she was messing around with the football players. I must have seemed a real dork next to the muscle-men of the glorious Annandale Atoms.

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I also, perhaps goaded by my father’s professional literature – to say Army journals, wrote more dreadful poetry about peace and such inanities, and sent them to the Washington Post. Of course nothing was ever printed.   Inside those professional journals were things which at the age of 14 or 15, astounded me, and I suppose convinced me that perhaps my father belonged to an institution of crazy people. I recall one in-depth article which discussed, citing a statistical probability on a “tactical nuclear battlefield” that some 30% or so of the troops might be looking the wrong way when a nearby nuke went off and they would be blinded. This would be a sizable chunk of manpower, so the writer, a Colonel, like my father, proposed setting a cluster of 3 or 4 such just-blinded soldiers in fox-holes, with sticks defining their sweep of fire, and having them with one still-sighted soldier who at the appropriate time would tell them to fire away. This was shortly after the Korean war, when visions of yellow Commie hordes doped on drugs was a common concept, at least on the military bases where I was raised.

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Another article, dealing with a similar quandary – X percent of troops subjected to severe radiation sickness, in which case one gets sick for a short bit, then seems OK a few weeks, and then drops dead – also piqued my interest and negative feelings about my father’s profession. The writer, another “brass” guy, proposed a nice democratic choice for the soon-to-be-dead soldiers: they could go to a pleasure camp to drink and screw away their last few weeks, or, patriotically, they could sign up for suicide missions.

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Military life, which involves, from the experiential viewpoint of a kid, being arbitrarily yanked from one setting to the next on a 1 to 3 year pattern, of course generates its own psychology. I suppose it largely erases the idea of close and life-long friends in childhood. Instead I’d think it would, after a while, discourage the making of close friends, for fear they’d be suddenly pulled away – either because your family or theirs was assigned to some new place. As with other aspects of such a childhood, this tends towards opposing later-life tendencies. Either, as was my case, one becomes used to this, and becomes a constant traveler, able to quickly make friends, but as quickly let them go, or, as my sister, one longs for stability, a constant place, and presumably a cluster of local constant friends.

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In the same military world, for the adults there are other psychologies. In the officer’s world, one of the major drivers of advancement is having been in combat, it is the track towards promotion. And so with this incentive, my father, like his peers, angled to get into a little war. Joining up late in life, at the age of 30, my father had been gung-ho, signed up for paratroops, and I guess being intelligent in his manner, he’d been tapped for Officers Training School. The combination of extra time ended up meaning he missed out on combat in the European theater, by a handful of months. Instead he was in post-war occupation in France, and then in Japan. No flying bullets, no blood and guts, no path to climbing up the ranks. Plotting, to the degree one can in such a system, he then got us posted in Trieste, Italy, sidled up to Commie Jugoslavia, where he sensed another war in the works. And he was almost right, and we were indeed evacuated under the fake pretext that a boiler in my school was going to blow up (!), and ended up after a 3 month sojourn to Viareggio Italy and some town in the German Alps quite near Hitler’s last redoubt, finally in Augsburg. The war my father wanted to be in erupted half-way around the world, in Korea. Dang! Later on as Vietnam came around, he was a desk-jockey in the Pentagon, the personnel officer for assigning officers to go there, but he himself only managed some inspection tours. Some of his friends though returned in body bags. And there went the stars that might have graced his shoulder. Or perhaps there was another stumbling block.  Through all this I put up a nice facade inside the family, as if all were OK, while inside I began to boil. Pure theater. My sister tells me sometimes I’d have an outburst of some kind, though I think of that as par for the teen-age course.

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Though some suggestions of the inner rebel in me certainly came along to cut through the veneer of the ’50’s Ozzie & Harriet suburban ideal. I went to summer school each year, never letting my family know just why. I suppose they thought I was an eager beaver student, though my grades didn’t reflect that with a string of straight A’s; rather they were rather mundane, not good, not bad. The reason I was going to summer school was to get the hell out of high-school a year earlier by amassing enough credits to do so. And so my Junior year became my Senior year, though I suppose only I knew this. It also announced in various ways my “difference” from the world I was living in. I ceased to be the out-going social sort and suddenly turned inward. No running for class offices and such. And toward the end of that year I recall a few particular things which raised bright red flags, as it were.

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In one instance, in a civics or American history class, one taught by an older lady I understood to belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution, I took a final exam and missed 3 questions, two of which were the same but phrased differently. One was to name the writer of the Virginia Constitution or something like that; I didn’t know or remember (I bet it was Jefferson now). The other two were phrasings of the query, “Why is and will be American foreign policy always formulated for the good of the other countries (or the world)?” My answer was that it wasn’t, and having been taught about the Spanish-American war I cited it as an example, though certainly there were many other things. I failed the test having missed 3 of 100 questions! I think I recall taking the matter to the administration, though I don’t recall the outcome. I know I got a lesson in how “education” was in fact indoctrination.

Grant_Wood's_Daughters_of_RevolutionDaughters of the American Revolution, by Grant Wood

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And a few other sore thumbs stuck out in that last year: I refused to go to the banquet to pick up my fuzzy Annandale “A” for my participation in track. And then at the end of the year I refused to go to my graduation, and instead rather dropped out of sight, and with parent’s OK, took off (for two days before rain and a heavy bike took their toll) on a bicycle trip to Chicago, via Nova Scotia. One thing I learned on that brief excursion was never to let your pride insist you pursue some idiotic task you gave yourself: quit when you see your error, not later.

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That last year in Annandale had an additional element, one which I suppose gave a terminal kick to terminating things with my family. My father had been stationed for a year in Korea, in military terms it was a “hardship” tour since he went alone, without his family. There was a daily letter he wrote, wallowing in sentimentality, which invariably ended, addressed to my Mother, “love me, love my children…” It didn’t ever seem to end with “I love you.” Which in its oblique manner was being honest. Six weeks before he was to return, he wrote a letter which informed us that he’d been having an affair nearly from the time he’d arrived. He was fool enough to wax lyrical about “her,” and was sure my mother would like her if they were to meet. Well, the 60’s were beginning so perhaps he was the avant garde of such “liberated” free-sex thinking. In the Army? Doubtful. Nope he was just a guy around 50 having his mid-life crisis, looking at a wife who aged faster than himself, and taking advantage of being far away. The woman was I believe Asian-American, also in the military. That perhaps explained the faux Gauguin paintings of semi-naked Tahitian ladies which decorated our living room. And his later choice of a second wife, another Asian-American.

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At all events my mother didn’t seem charmed, or inclined to like the new partner for her husband, and instead joined with my older sister to plot to leave him destitute if he went ahead with his plans, figuring to deplete the family bank account. Six weeks later my father, much chastened, emerged from a long flight from the Far East, reeking of hard drink, and bearing with him some cheap Japanese trinkets to buy off his children. I was then, and remained to his death, disgusted with him. Further reasons will materialize to underline the matter.

pict0001davidStevie and his family with Aunt Vivian and her father, in Hinsdale, Ill.

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Shortly after this dubious return, we were all packed up to make a grand tour of the existing family on both sides. And, this being the dreg end of the ‘50’s, we were not counseled to let it all hang out, but rather to button our lips and pretend nothing had happened. Show biz! While I think I had already been predisposed to dislike hypocrisy, the caravan of our family dropping by aunts and uncles putting on this charade was enough to see me, at the tender age of 17, decide that however unpleasant and hard, the truth was always preferable to what was unfolding before my youthful eyes. I have paid for it ever since. Happily so.

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At the conclusion of this family trip, I was left off in Chicago, to commence college, the first in the family to do so. The school was the Illinois Institute of Technology, buried in the black ghetto of the city’s Southside. I’d chosen it, rather than the Rhode Island School of Design or the University of Pennsylvania, which had both accepted me, for several reasons. The first was that it was in Chicago, and my itinerant Army brat life apparently prompted me to want to know something of the city I’d been born in. The other reason was that I’d applied for an alumni scholarship, and IIT, being what it is, had a rather moribund Wash DC alumni group, and I’d been the only person who applied. So I got it. Another early lesson in life – which certainly I’ve applied later on. I summarize it as “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” It applies to grants, to hustling for money, or just borrowing something you need. The trick is just keep your ego out of it – it has little to do with you, but with myriad other things. Just it won’t happen if you don’t ask. So I landed in IIT with a scholarship, and a large suitcase of very youthful naivete. Having cut the psychological family strings much earlier, something amplified by my father’s recent behavior, there was no shock, no longing for a non-existent home. Rather a great relief, and an immediate jumping into my new circumstances. It was, if not the beginning, at least then one of them. I was on my own.

1273693009-crownhallCrown Hall, IIT, Chicago