Saturday, January 31, 2009


#31, UPM, Prague

Those in the know call it UPM, those in English-speaking parts of the world call it the Museum of Decorative Arts, and those undeterred by syllables call it Uměleckoprůmyslové museum. My sole association with this Prague museum, regretfully, is this single photograph as the UPM was closing its doors upon my arrival. Yes, that is a picture of the door.

My time spent in cities is so often spent on the streets (this sounds much more destitute than it really is) that it's only after I get home and click on Ye Olde Internette that I smack my forehead in disbelief at all the indoor treasures I missed whilst trawling for architecture. Not that I'd have it any other way. But my mind runs in circles when I learn that the UPM is home to some 300,000 objects. Breaking it down, that's 35,000 posters, 70,000 photographs, and some 30,000 books.some 100,000 folios of drawings and graphic art, the compelling-sounding Ex Libris collection (about 15,000 objects) and 15,000 small devotional objects. There's more, I'm sure, than is dreamt of in my philosophy (calendars! playing cards! labels! postcards!), otherwise I'd be waxing rhapsodic on the quality rather than the quantity.

Update to #31: People are often asking me why I'm always carrying around notebooks, writing things down. The answer is because I have to and I love to. But another reason might be that I have the short-term memory of a hummingbird. Further investigation into the matter yielded much forgotten fruit. Here is a page from my sketchbook from the UPM that I apparently didn't visit. It's a sketch of a Walter Crane illustration for George C. Warra's book Echoes of Hellas. Note the running catalog of numbers 81-100 on the opposite page. This was the trip that started it all.

The author of this blog would like to point out that she on occasion suffers from Stendhal Syndrome, a severe nervous condition and state of confusion often brought about by overexposure to large collections of particularly beautiful works of art. Do not, under any circumstances, let her write an art history manual.

Friday, January 30, 2009


#30, Vienna

They don't make timepieces like this anymore, and if they do, they ain't selling 'em at Macy's.  The Viennese had the right idea here. Why settle for an ordinary clock when you can work in a whole morality play in the process? While I have spent many content, uneventful years of time-telling with my trusty Fossil wristwatch, I seem to be coming around to the opinion that perhaps no clock is complete without a cherubic youth on one side and Old Man Death clutching his hourglass on the other.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


#29, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Brooklyn gets a lot of things right when it comes to its buildings, but shielding people from the elements in style is not one of them. It seems all you have to do is turn a corner to see another ugly green canvas canopy flapping in the breeze, screwed haphazardly into the wall by a ham-fisted hired hand. Bodegas of Brooklyn, I understand. I know better than to expect anything more of you than to stay open past midnight and keep your fridges stocked with Harp. But I'm routinely shocked by the number of otherwise respectable apartment buildings that subject their tenants to low-rent circus tent trappings over the front door. Architects, designers, disgruntled supers: doesn't anyone care what's being stuck on the outsides of our homes?

Now for the good part. If you're going to do an entrance, you could do worse than study this canopy along cobble-stoned Tiffany Place. Everything works. The silver 29, well proportioned, maintains a dignified presence to the side. The contrast of materials is striking: the warm red brick looks genteel beside the unfinished dark steel of the door. Up above, the geometric glass canopy looks like an umbrella dreamed up by Buckminster Fuller. It seems to twist and pull itself away from the cables that anchor it. The asymmetry is a little convoluted but well-balanced. A great bit of design.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


#28, Eden Quay, Dublin

Sometimes a number is so perfect, so utterly suited to my purposes that I suspect it has been planted there by a benevolent deity, albeit one who has too much time on his/her hands. When you collect things, whether it be objects or images, there are two basic states: the one of suspended animation (Will I find something around the next corner?) and the supreme satisfaction of having found that thing you didn't quite know you were looking for. In that elated state, you think ridiculous things like: I know this is a building that has been in existence for many, many years. I know this is a logical fallacy. And yet, I am certain this 28 was put here on Eden Quay in Dublin for me.

Like many other readers and writers, I was greatly saddened at the news last September of the untimely death of David Foster Wallace. There has not been, and will not be, another like him. Infinite Jest, aka the Immovable Object on my shelf, notwithstanding, I tore through his essays like they were popcorn. I loved his unorthodox approach to journalism. I loved his keen observations and the empathy he brought to even the most intellectual dissections of our weird, hysterical culture. And I loved how he made me laugh in recognition of myself in the essay "Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All". This is the one where Harper's sends Wallace, a native Illinoisan (yes, that is the word) like myself, to the Illinois State Fair to write down his observations and give it his wacky, post-modern spin. Wallace goes. He puzzles over his press pass. He visits the Cattle Complex and the Swine Barn. He recoils in fear at poultry and roller coasters. And he describes to perfection that childish, solipsistic, elation that a special event (or fair, or number) exists purely For Me.
One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakeable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? -- that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? -- that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? . . . Holidays, parades, summer trips, sporting events. Fairs. Here the child's manic excitement is really exultation at his own power: the world will now not only exist For-Him but will present itself as Special-For-Him.
Of course, trying to excerpt the beautifully manic discursive prose of Wallace leaves me feeling like I just chopped up my family, but let this be the crumb that drives you over to revisit the Harper's essay in all its full-blown glory. This one's for DFW. You are greatly missed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


#27, Asheville, North Carolina

Growing up outside Chicago, I was fortunate to have a family that loved to travel. By the age of eighteen, I'd seen close to forty of the fifty states, most of them on road trips in the old blue Econoline van that, according to today's standards, probably violated about nine out of ten child safety laws. Most of the remaining states on my to-do list, for better or worse, fell on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.

While on tour this summer with Balthrop, Alabama, I got to remedy this situation. A East Coaster by way of the Midwest, I decided it was time I got in touch with my southern side. This meant stomping around in cowboy boots purchased in a bout of exchange-rate hubris one cold day in Montreal and treating every gas station like an anthropological study. I made lists of things (that's what I do) spotted on shelves: fifty varieties of snuff, Backwoods Wild n' Mild grape cigars; fireworks; a humorous booklet called 'Speakin' Suthern the Way it Should Be Spoke". I may not have earned my place in the annals of immersion journalism, but I did eat a lot of crappy pre-packaged foods and I did get to meet some of the friendliest people, especially in that charming little town called Asheville, North Carolina.

Along a short stretch called Carolina Lane you can see the obvious pride many take in making their houses cheery. The brightly painted doors and prominent numbers stand out against what would otherwise have been a lonely little alley. If you like the looks of this 27, just wait 'til you see 37.

In a sad coda to yesterday's post on Scott & Zelda, it was at the Highland Hospital in Asheville that Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald perished in a fire on March 10, 1948. She had been in and out of institutions for the later part of her life and died during a brief visit at the hospital. For many years Zelda had been in the care of Dr. Robert S. Carroll, whose wife, Grace Potter Carroll, used to give voice lessons to Nina Simone.

Monday, January 26, 2009


#26, Capri, Italy
In February of 1925, with the galleys of The Great Gatsby complete, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald set off to Capri from Rome. On April 10th of that same year, Gatsby would be published to great critical acclaim. But what's good for the ego can be bad for the health, and Scott spent the rest of 1925 running himself ragged, drinking profusely, and celebrating his success through increasingly weird and disturbing behavior. (Jumping off a cliff in France, for one.)

Much, much later on, after his marriage to Zelda had all but deteriorated and the once starry-eyed lovers faced the starker struggles brought on by fame and emotional stress, Scott looked back on happier days. In a 7-page letter (that may or may not have reached the institutionalized Zelda), Scott wrote: "I know this then -- that those days when we came up from the south, from Capri, were among my happiest -- but you were sick and the happiness was not in the home." I think of Scott, then, in this idyllic island setting, looking out at the rugged rocks and azure waters, feeling the warm Mediterranean sun on his face. I see a young writer in a moment of great in-betweenness and anticipation, returning to the home in Rome he had made with Zelda, full of optimism and hope. Could he know what was to come? And would the knowledge of it have diminished that beauty at all?

Inscription in a 1925 copy of They Knew What They Wanted, part of the Fitzgerald's library, currently held in the Princeton University Library: "To Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. What a place Capri is to be sure. Sidney Howard."

Sunday, January 25, 2009


It's &7's Silver Anniversary! When you post every day, it's easy to start racking up those milestones. The way my calculations go, I should be on my way to lavish gifts of diamonds by, oh, March 2nd. So to celebrate 25, here's not one, not two, but three twenty-fives. (I am fully aware that I have a few steadfast Guardians of the Sacred Apostrophe among my ranks, hence my reluctance to write 25's or 25s.)

#25, Charles Bridge, Prague

#25, Sandymount, Dublin

#25, Temple Cottages, Dublin

On occasion, I do face the daunting prospect of choosing between two particular twelves or mediating a Survivor-like selection process among an even larger pool of contenders. While consistency certainly has its appeal, so does overindulgence. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


#24, Naglergasse, Vienna

One from the original mad dash: 99 numbers in 3 cities in 2 weeks.  I found this #24 along Naglergasse in Austria with the Naglers from Austria.  Again, the familiar Gothic letters on the street signs were all over Vienna.

Friday, January 23, 2009


#23, Harcourt Street, Dublin

On a cluttered side street on Dublin's south side, alongside a strip of advertising hoardings and an Abrakebabra fast food chain (The food's only magic!) lies an unassuming place called the Manhattan.  And by "unassuming" I mean completely abandoned.  You look up and see the 23 nestled into the New York City skyline.  You look straight on and see nothing but a shuttered up shop front.  It's easy to assume on first or even second glance that this is one dead-end establishment among many that litter the streets of Rathmines.  I used to live in the area and passed this nearly every day on my walk into town.  What I didn't know was that it's been there since the fifties.  What I also didn't know was that the Manhattan, far from being deserted, has enjoyed many, many years of life as a little-known late night cafe in Dublin.  Taxi drivers, revelers seeking a 3 a.m. scramble, and many a post-gig musician have all ended up beneath this skyline.  The Manhattan is also the subject of a song by roots rock/blues singer Peter Moore, whose tale of a pub crawl ends up, inevitably, in "Downtown Manhattan" (by way of McDaid's pub).  The few restaurant reviews I found all advise: "The door is always closed.  Knock."

Thursday, January 22, 2009


#22, Vatican City

They do let lapsed Catholics into the Vatican, by the way. No press pass required. While I don't usually include Roman numerals in my number hunting, if there's one place where such a thing makes sense, it's Roma. But there's more to love about XXII than the way it looks. There's the brilliant dark comedy Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. There's the haunting song "22" by Richard Buckner. And then there's Twenty-two, the creepy Twilight Zone episode (is there any other kind?) where 22 stands in as the room number of the hospital morgue.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


#21, Davy Byrnes, Duke Street, Dublin

"God made food, the devil the cooks." Davy Byrne's is the "moral pub" where Leopold Bloom stops in for lunch in James Joyce's Ulysses. I didn't try the gorgonzola sandwich here. Too busy drinking Guinness across the street in front of a warm coal fire at the Duke.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


#20, East Village, NYC

When 8-balls go away to college, they come back looking like this. This banner, painted on the wall of a one-story garage, is one of many ghost signs found on the brick buildings of New York. Some great examples of these vanishing pieces (generally old ads for long-defunct companies) can be found over at Forgotten New York. Countless more could be added to the endangered species list. Don't forget to look up when you walk around -- otherwise you might miss them.

Monday, January 19, 2009


#19, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

It takes some arm-twisting to get me out to the aluminum-side enclave, hipster haven that is Williamsburg. (That's "Billyburg" to you, Jack, if you obey the language of the real estate trolls behind last year's truly awful ad campaign.) But since Magnetic Field on Atlantic Avenue closed last year, it seems there's little choice when seeking a bit of live music. And so Williamsburg, admittedly home to some great venues and galleries, has become a necessary evil in my life. Fortunately, not even mesh trucker hats and wooly white boots can distract me from the pleasures of vibrant graffiti that pop up in abandoned lots, shouting out from behind barbed wire. The vague anti-capitalist sentiment seems to be Marx-Engels for the sandbox set, but I'll take it over a Gap ad any day.

This 19 also appears very close to Hope & Havemeyer, an intersection with a name that sounds like a Tom Waits song waiting to happen. Maybe it's time to write it. I can see it all now now: a sliver of a moon. Stray cats hide in the shadows. A swishing snare and walking bass line begin. Then comes the gravelly voice: It was at the corner of Hope & Havemeyer . . .

Sunday, January 18, 2009


#18, Sorrento, Italy

A bit of mystery hangs in the air around this one.  Is Rosa the name of the villa or the name of the lady who lives here?  I don't know, but she and her stark but lovely Gothic ways were so connected to the 18 that I couldn't bear the separation.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


#17, Willow Place, Brooklyn Heights

And speaking of quiet detours, Brooklyn Heights is full of such places. You never notice how ever-present traffic is until you step away from it and wander down a quiet, tree-lined block like this one on Willow Place, where this sunburst 17 was patiently waiting. Even in a place as full of infinite variety as New York, it's all too easy to get trapped in daily routines. After a time, you enter a kind of cul-de-sac of the mind. You get comfortable. Stuck in your ways. The way people stubbornly stick to the main arteries while driving, cycling, and walking -- what an Irish friend of mine referred to as "grid mentality," perhaps native to New Yorkers and American city-dwellers everywhere -- is so ingrained in us. It's almost as if a one-block place was a road to nowhere. I try to amble down them as often as possible.

Friday, January 16, 2009


#16, Minetta Lane, NYC

A quiet charmer of a street nestled between 6th Avenue and MacDougal, Minetta Lane feels strangely removed from the clutter and bustle of Greenwich Village. It's one of those corners so unexpected -- so typically glossed-over in the New Yorker "Point A to Point B" mindset -- that when you first stumble upon it, you feel as if you discovered it, as if you've entered a wardrobe and come out in Narnia. Linger long enough amid the flower boxes and the fire escapes and you even start to think this place is a secret between you and the city. A stroll along the adjacent curved Minetta Street is one of the best detours you can take, brief as it is. The 16 lies at the junction of the two Minettas. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


#15, Fade Street, Dublin

I'll never tire of red roses for me . Here's one for you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


#14, Capri, Italy

A wallflower, if ever there was one.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


#13, Zlatá Ulicka, Hradcany, Prague

They call this section of Prague Zlatá Ulicka, or the Golden Lane. These cramped and charming row houses on the grounds of Prague Castle (where this 13 originates) were built in the 16th century in the Mannerism style, each painted a different bright shade. While reading up on the etymology of the place name, I came across this (allegedly dodgy) fact (bold print not mine):

Golden Lane got its name from the story of alchymists living in the street during the reign of Rudolf II who tried to make not only the philosopher stone or the elixir of youth, but also to transform metals into gold.

So ensued a stroll down Tangent Lane. Misreading the bold print (and why the y in alchemists?), I delightfully thought I'd stumbled upon the collective noun for alchemist. A murder of crows, a gaggle of geese, and now -- a story of alchemists! Further research proved inconclusive, though I did find this diverting exhaustive list of unauthorized collective nouns. An absence of waiters, a billow of smokers, an obscurity of poets.) And if you fancy adding your own suggestion, you're welcome to do so.

Monday, January 12, 2009


#12, Nové Mêsto, Prague

A wink of Art Deco on a quiet residential street. I love the shade of bottle green and the molecule model shape of the iron work. Simple and elegant.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


#11, Russian submarine clock, Vienna

I spotted this clock amidst the organized chaos of an antique shop window in Vienna.  (Yes, the 11 has company, but who's counting?)  I didn't know what it was, apart from an interesting timepiece.  It was my Uncle Jack, with his knowledge of all things nautical, who instantly identified the figure at the center inside the black circle as a submarine and not, as I had thought, Zorro.  The Cyrillic script at the bottom of the picture confirmed his suspicion, and over time, I slowly ceased seeing a sombrero and started seeing a submarine.

This model, much beloved among submarine clocks, was produced by Vostok, who manufactured these for the Red Navy.  The cold war once made the exporting & importing of such clocks illegal, but now they are readily available, and quite defrosted.  Vostok also makes quite nice wristwatches (featuring watches of "brutal design" and "constant quality and reliability") -- for that special Soviet military metalware collector in your life.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


#10, Greichengasse, Vienna

The fading black Gothic lettering, the archaic German s that looks like an f, the wall dripping with decaying shades of ochre: what's not to love?  Many of the number plates in Vienna have a uniformity.  Once I noticed this, I found that the surroundings of each number became more interesting to look at.  Generally, the architectural ornament surrounding each number is carefully considered -- as is the case with this one -- and Vienna certainly has more than its fair share of stately, graceful ornament.  But I had more fun hunting for accidental beauty, like this number 10.

Friday, January 9, 2009


#9, Malá Strana, Prague

While exploring Malá Strana ("the small quarter"), watching boats launching leisurely onto the Vltava River, I happened upon this number 9. This was one of the first numbers I remember deciding to photograph, so details of context I'm so careful to make note of now weren't yet on my radar. Was it a door? The side of a boat? I do recall it sat very low to the ground, so low I had to crouch down to grass level to get the shot. Bits of rust are flaking away near the bottom, so it must be metal. Beyond that, I'm stumped. I'm also stumped why I never did find that Infant Jesus of Prague despite all maps insisting I was standing on it. Note the little fishy tail of the 9. As of yet, I've never seen another like it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


#8, Rue du Pépin, Bruxelles

While on the topic, I couldn't resist another bit of Brussels street art. I'm sure that in the year and a half since this was taken, this forgotten wall on a side street has since been stripped, re-painted, billboarded, or graffiti-ed over, and this delicate number 8 lost forever. Adding to the necessary loss, I wonder how many stopped to notice it while it was there. Though change is a constant everywhere, I can think of few cities as vulnerable to these relentless rips and tears in the urban fabric as Brussels. The walls and buildings of the city truly create an architectural palimpsest with layers covering other layers and pieces of history continually being knocked down, renovated, written over, erased, but always transforming into something new. Every now and then, in such a moment of transition, a scrap like this peeks out, asking to be noticed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


#7, Bruxelles

Turn a corner, any corner, in Brussels and you don't know what you'll run into next.  There's even a term for it. Brusselization, as the phenomenon is called, means that the architecture is anarchic, the modern and old mingle inharmoniously, and impromptu murals (many of them quite good) spring up everywhere on brick walls and boarded-up buildings.  There is an excellent comic strip museum where you can learn all about Hergé, the Belgian artist behind Tintin & break your neck gawking at the Art Nouveau architecture by Victor Horta, and then you walk out in the street and turn a corner and you see this.  Murals that emulate Hergé's playful ligne claire style are everywhere on the streets of Brussels.  I know the 007 is cheeky and accidental.  That's why I like it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


#6, Judenplatz, Vienna

I'm not generally a fan of the grotesque-human-face-as-architectural-ornament thing. Lean gargoyles with sinewy necks and bat wings, sure. But stick a cranky, grimacing Poseidon-like face over a doorway and I feel uneasy. I can't imagine walking past this every day, let alone through the door it protects. There's a passage in John Barth's The End of the Road where Jacob Horner, the rather unappetizing narrator, describes: "My sculpture on the mantel, a heroic plaster head of Laocoön, so annoyed me with his blank-eyed grimace that, had I been the sort of person who did such things, I'd have turned his ugly head to the wall." And yet he doesn't. He may prefer to look away, but for some reason he can't.

There is something redeeming, though, about this one, and I suspect it has to do with the 6. Maybe it's the genteel framing of the symmetrical number plates on either side. Maybe it's the splash of bright red and the "No." abbreviation. Or maybe it's proof of the humanizing effects of good typography. Anyway, I took the picture, and I haven't yet turned it around on my desktop.

Monday, January 5, 2009


#5, Pest, Budapest

Some days it's about the number itself, other days it's all about the context. Besides, when you live in New York and have certain rooms of the Met fixed in your head, it's hard to fathom ever competing with Demuth's stunning I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. So here, we don't try. Instead, we just Frame the Figure 5 in Gold.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


#4, Verandah Place, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

The number that started it all. For years I had passed this building on an almost daily basis and had always been charmed by it, but I couldn't quite figure out why. Was it the texture of the peeling blue paint? The run-down but elegant allure of an old building on a hidden side street? It was all of those things, but mostly it was that 4.

The old door with the fan-sunburst window cut-outs, rotted and duct-taped with a maintenance order, has since been torn down and replaced. A new door, painted darker blue and perfectly decent, now stands in its place. A few weeks after the new door went in, I happened to find a lament on this very alteration over at the always-interesting Lost City. It's worth a look for some good before and after portraits of NYC and its boroughs, including this well-loved building on Verandah Place. My eye still lingers over the old familiar 4 every time I pass it, though the new blue door is a neighbor that will take some getting used to.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


#3, Prazsky hrad, Hradcany, Prague

When I was about seven or eight years old, just copping on to this notion that there was such thing as cursive handwriting, I began asking myself if there was another way of drawing numbers. This line of inquiry led to many experiments in crayon and butcher paper as I tried to "invent" cursive numbers. Help came from who knows where, maybe my oldest brother who was studying engineering, but after abandoning the drawing board, I started making my numbers in the way engineers or architects did (so I believed). In any case, this picture comes very close to what makes, for me, the perfect number 3. The fact that it is not a "3" at all but an "1843" with a very exaggerated last number, makes it all the more charming.

Friday, January 2, 2009


#2, Stresa, Italy

I'm a photographer because I'm an obsessive freak, but I'm a writer first. When you consider that I stayed two nights along Lake Maggiore next door to the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees where Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, it's a miracle I managed to notice anything else. I just kept looking out to the misty, alpine-shrouded lake in front of me, then turning around to the grid of elegant windows behind me wondering: is that the room where he stayed? Was this the view from his window? And how ridiculous would it look if I were to stroll into the hotel bar, order a stiff drink and sneak a look at my dog-eared copy of A Moveable Feast? But I had a coconut and pistachio gelato instead and ventured into the town of Stresa, checking out the architecture and hunting for handsome Italians on Vespas numbers.

Every now and then, the composition of a picture somehow reflects the qualities of the number itself. In this case, I like the symmetry of the #2 nestled snugly between two ornate but solid Corinthian columns. The cobalt blue line rings the number, adding a splash of color, while a warm July sun casts sharp shadows on the stone wall. I think I may have even been sideswiped by a scooter, I was so enamored.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


#1, Parizska, Josefov, Prague

It is very easy to get lost in Prague.  It's even easier when you're more interested in looking at walls than at a map.  You're only there a week, you'll never figure it out, so why bother over the coordinates?  You can always look at a map later.  This is one of the earliest numbers of my project, gathered as part of a 3-city, 2-week scavenger hunt across Prague, Vienna, and Budapest.

I've gathered thousands of images since the mad dash of 2006, but I still love this tiny #1.  The scale is hard to judge from the picture, but it was hardly the size of a silver dollar.  It, and the charming red line of pipe, was an underdog amid the maze of ancient streets and dizzyingly beautiful streetscapes.  I remember distinctly the goblet of Delirium Tremens, mussels and frites consumed at the nearby Les Moules afterward as, mid-afternoon, it started to rain.