I was drawn to Cincinnati by the International Zizek Studies Conference and it’s keynote speakers: Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, himself and Graham Harman (a pivotal figure for Object Oriented Ontology), a philosopher now teaching at Southern California Institute of Architecture (after having taught at the American University in Cairo for 18 years). I was drawn by the promise of philosophical convergence and confrontations between materialism and idealism. Also, where else could I speak about Zizek’s uncomfortable coupling of charity and sanctimony? In their keynote lectures, Zizek asked and answered the question “Am I a philosopher” while Harman responded to Zizek’s critique of OOO in Objects, objects everywhere. Both deserve more than a quick blog post, so I’ll stop here. I continued to see such convergences and confrontations everywhere in Cincinnati. Here are a few examples:
The beautiful Fountain Square Fountain (1871) depicting a farmer and a firefighter/ citizen who flank an allegorical water goddess. The fountain that now functions as the practical center of queen city was moved multiple times and renovated. A literally and symbolically moving Cincinnati center aimed to “represent the blessings and benefits of water.”
The American Sign Museum displays a history of signs from 19th-century wood carved signs to 20th century of light bulb, neon and plastic signs. The signs that advertised the value of gold-leaf and handcrafted signs were particularly fascinating. Advertising, advertising….my head hurts.
The commercial and public application of arts and crafts principles appear in examples of Rookwood Pottery. Their work can be found at the tearoom at the Union Terminal, a grand train station built as the economy fell and train transportation declined. The second largest half dome in the world after the Sydney Opera House, it is worth a visit. Awe-inspiring in scale, exuberant in color and ironic in fate as a temple of transportation turned museum. Note the murals depicting the story of transportation evolution on land and water. Like the subway tunnels built for the city that were never used, the grand station shows that sometimes the best of human intentions are not fulfilled. Things happen. I feel for Cincinnati.
The now Cincinnati Hilton- Netherland Plaza has a wonderful story. Historically named St. Nicholas Plaza, the hotel boasted it’s brand on all things, only to be sued for having used an existing name. The new name of the hotel had to fit the already branded dishes. Hence, St. Netherland Plaza. Like Union Terminal this grand structure opened in depression era 1931, created a lot of jobs and kept it’s owner out of bankruptcy.
Graham Harman, in his talk, mentioned that real things are able to hold contradictions. If so, Cincinnati is certainly a real city where beautiful birds fly out of an empty parking lot. There are murals everywhere highlighting the ever evolving struggle of a city historically poised at the edge of freedom (The National Underground Freedom Center is there too). I learned as much from the city as I did from the conference. Wonderful trip.