Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Thom Mayne + Bobby Short

Yesterday Los Angeles-based architect Thom Mayne won the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the "Nobel" of the architecture world, for his "'talent, vision, and commitment to furthering the art of architecture,' and for an outstanding body of work and future promise." He's the first American winner in more than a decade, and has been described by critics as a "maverick," which I take to mean that he truly has done his own thing. His buildings (the Caltrans Headquarters in Los Angeles being the most notable of the recent ones), especially the major ones of them certainly singular works of this ancient collaborative art, bear this out. Some critics have snarked at his work, though in photo and jpeg form, at least, their originality and boldness, as well as their emphasis on particular details, such as a metal screens and monumental signage, charm me. Mayne runs a very hot architectural shop called Morphosis, which means "being in the process of change," and has many more high-level commissions on the way, including a new building for the Cooper Union on Cooper Square and a planned Olympic Village for Queens). But one of the most significant aspects of his career, I think, is his co-founding of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), an architectural school that he hoped would "radical[ly]" rejuvenate architectural education by bringing a new complexity of vision and incorporating then-current theoretical discussions--in addition to the necessary studies in drafting, history and aesthetics--into the classroom. SCI-Arc still exists, and though Mayne no longer teaches there, this kind of visionary educational work is but one of his important legacies.


Yesterday, I heard that pianist Bobby Short died at age 80 from leukemia. I'd always wanted to see him perform at the Café Carlyle, but never got around to it, mainly out of laziness and a fear of disappointment (though that has hardly kept me from realizing any number of other longstanding wishes over the years). Or maybe it was some other fear--of enjoying his performance too much? Some things about him--his prissiness, his ties to the New York aristocracy, and especially Gloria Vanderbilt, his seeming Tom-ishness and equanimity about racial issues, what I thought to be his narrow repertoire--annoyed me. And yet I was also fascinated by him, from childhood on. I wondered what his life was really like--what lurked behind that always gay façade? Later I learned that he often paid homage to the tradition of African-American musical composition, and was less of a jester than the media made him out to be. I learned that he didn't grow up in luxury, but was the 9th of 10 children from Danville, Illinois, and had started working while still a child, gaining fame for his pianistic prowess by his early teens. I learned that while he'd played for the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he'd also jammed with Louis Armstrong and Mabel Mercer. I also grew to like his interpretations of certain songs, including Cole Porter's "You're the Top," even though I couldn't bear to hear him singing it when I was 21. All that finickiness, his phrasings, his timbre...now I actually enjoy it. I don't own even one Bobby Short CD, but I probably would buy one, maybe even the supposedly incredible one pairing him and Mercer, just to be able to listen to him from time to time. Better late than never.


  1. I too always had a strange fascination with Bobby Short. Who was he? Why was he famous with that frog-like voice? His obituaries have opened my eyes to a background I didn't know anything about, and thus to quote someone else, he did the very best with what he was given. There is no shame in being a cabaret singer known primarily to local audiences.

  2. Bernie, very true. But you know, in fact he was internationally famous. The more I read about him, the more I realize how totally the media shaped--and warped--his image, though at this point in life this is hardly surprising.

  3. Bobby Short represented the cabaret scene and an entire world (and performance style) pretty much lost now. Who goes out for a 'sophisticated evening' anymore?

    Short did do a good job presenting and preserving the work of the "Great American Songbook" singers -- and extending that tradition to more African-American songwriters than are usually included in that 'songbook'. To the list of recordings in the NYTimes piece I'd add his Andy Razaf collection, "Guess Who's in Town": Born Andreamentania Paul Razafkeriefo, Razaf wrote 'Honeysuckle Rose' and (What did I do to be so) "Black and Blue" among others, and was member of the royal family of Madagascar...

    Also mentioned was his work with Mabel Mercer, the regal African-American (Father)/ British (Mother), the Grande Dame of Cabaret. I remember seeing clips of the two of them together as a child (late 1960's/early 70's) and wondering what planet these black people were from! LOL But they were riviting with 'presence' and 'style', speaking somehow of a world of cocktails and dressing for dinner, like they'd stepped out of a film from the golden age of Hollywood.