In Praise of Roadside Ruins



WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. . . .

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797), On the Sublime and Beautiful

Although traditions of the sublime tend to exalt the ruins of monuments, there is also cause to praise the ruins of common buildings. One type of these is the abandoned prewar wood-frame farmer’s house. These houses dot the highways of the rural landscape, usually sitting adjacent to cropland or pasture land.


THE taste for . . . . picturesque decay cannot thrive without a sense of progress for which it fulfils the role of brooding, sometimes gleeful, unconscious. . . .

“Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings” Brian Dillon, The Guardian



RUINS embody “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.”

Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (1762)


TARKOVSKY had a particular fondness for ruins, especially the color and texture of old walls, and would point out choice specimens to her on their walks around Moscow; the results of the researches can be seen in all the films . . . . the ruins perform a narrative function, are visually fascinating in their own right . . . strike sympathetic chords in our own subconscious . . .

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue By Vida T. Johnson






The house depicted in the above photos is located near Beauregard, Alabama. It was likely a sharecropper’s house. The faux-brick asphalt siding cladding the walls was one of the materials used to renovate these houses during the Great Depression by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES).

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014


Revealing Sounds: The Techne of Music (Part 2)


Johnny Winter Photos playing the National Duolian

I like the sound of a National [Resonator Guitar] – it’s trebly and nasty-sounding – raw.

Johnny Winter, Raisin’ Cain

Legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter speaks to the craft of musical performance and the communion of musician and instrument. Winter’s craft is rooted in technology – the guitarist conjures a signature sound by utilizing a guitar which can produce a “raw” tone. Winter intuitively exploits the techne of blues music and its traditional instruments.

Techne is the Greek word for craft or art. It refers to art as a practice rather than as a theory. The techne of a creative work such as a painting or a pottery work is the technique used to make it.

Is techne applicable to the study of popular music?

Although techne is typically associated with architecture and the plastic arts, its principles can also be applied to the performing arts. As such, we can speak of the techne of a musical performance or recording.

According to philosopher Martin Heidegger, objects made by techne have four “causes”: material, form, use, and maker. Applied to a work of music these are:

  1. Material: sounds – perceptible air-pressure waves (musical tones)
  2. Form: song structure
  3. Use: all the ways people “use” music in everyday life – pleasure, dancing, socializing, communication, commercially, etc.
  4. Maker: performer and support tools (the acoustical environment – may be separate for performing and listening – and all personnel and equipment used to transmit the sound to listener)

Making (and listening to) music involves:

  • Instruments:
    • Musical instruments
    • Devices: for enhancing, recording, manufacturing, broadcasting and listening to music
  • Technique:
    • Skills used to play musical instruments
    • Skills used to make and maintain musical instruments
    • Skills used to operate, make and maintain devices

What are the broad types of technologies used in popular music?

There are six types:

1. Performance-based: the technique used by the musician to create sound with their instrument


2. Instrument-based: the technology used to make the instrument


3. Enhancing: the technology used to enhance music electronically, such amplification or sound effects

Gitarrlegenden Jimi Hendrix

4. Recording: the technology used to record and mass copy music for distribution


5. Broadcasting: the technology used to broadcast music


6. Listening: the technology used to listen to music, including room acoustics


A listening experience is effected by most if not all of these categories.

For example, sitting in my living room listening to a CD recording of a song, the sound I’m hearing has passed through multiple screeds of technology:

  • Musicians’ skills (technique)
  • Physical properties of their instruments (derived from how they were made and their current condition)
  • Amplification or other electronic sound enhancement used by the musicians
  • Recording technology: recording devices, techniques used by recording engineers, and room acoustics of the recording studio space
  • Mass production technology used to make the CD
  • My home sound system, and living room acoustics

Whew – a lot of technology for a 3-minute song!

Of course, most of this I’m unaware of. I’m responding to the end result, consciously and unconsciously.

My response, though, is a function of the song’s techne.

Now, if I want to study the song, perhaps critique it, I listen more critically. I lift away veil after veil, to get to the truth of the performance.

In some cases, this truth was intended by all concerned in its making. But, in some cases, the truth of a performance, such as a mediocre vocal, may be obscured by technological means used to “clean up” the end result.

Conversely, in some cases “low” technology may be simulated by using “high” technology, to get a deliberately “analogue” sound. Or, a song may be recorded using minimal “takes” in order to get a raw, spontaneous feeling. Out-of-tune instruments or fluffed notes may be kept in a recording for the same purpose.

The recording technology in those days [early 1960s] wasn’t as good as it is now, but in a lot of ways, I liked it better. The sound wasn’t as neat and clean – it was nice and funky.

Johnny Winter, Raisin’ Cain

In all of these examples, the techniques indexed by the performance, and/or recording, either reveal or conceal the truth of the performance. Through a close reading of the piece we can lift the veil of technology, and peek inside that sonic apparatus we call a song.



Click here to listen to “Lost Highway” as performed and recorded by Hank Williams.

Click here to listen to the same song, “Lost Highway” as performed and recorded by Jeff Buckley. Notice how the techne of the two performances/recordings – especially the recording technology, and guitar instrumentation/technique – produces dramatically different aural representations of the same song.


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014



Revealing Sounds: The Techne of Music (Part 1)

john cage 2- prepared piano

Techne is the Greek word for craft or art. It refers to art as a practice rather than as a theory. The techne of a creative work is the technique used to make it.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger states that techne is

“the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poietic.”

However, more importantly, according to Heidegger, “what is decisive in techne does not lie at all in making and manipulating nor in the using of means, but rather in . . .  revealing. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing-forth.”

As Heidegger states, techne is related to “‘truth’ . . . the correctness of an idea.”

The techne of a creative work is imbedded in its perceptible characteristics. For example, type of tool a painter uses leaves a characteristic texture and pattern. The painting indexes the techne which produced it. This is how techne is a revealing.


Is the concept of techne relevant to the study of music?

I believe it is. As such, we can speak of the techne of a musical performance or recording: the role of technology and technique in its making.

“Technology,” as I’m using it here is defined as any means used to make and transmit music. Even a song sung in the shower involves technology – an instrument (voice) and an acoustical environment (shower stall).

A work of music – live, recorded or broadcast – always bears the imprint of its making. This imprint signifies the socioeconomic context of this making. Seen as techne, a work of music thus signifies social meaning.


This embedded message may be clear, or unclear – even deliberately hidden – but it’s always there, even if a little detective work is required to ‘hear” it.


Sources Cited: 

Heidegger, Martin: The Question Concerning Technology (1950)


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014

Found Objects on a Lost Highway: Butch Anthony’s Museum of Mystery



Four brightly colored shipping containers discretely placed on a rural Alabama crossroads. Painted in sideshow letters large enough to cover the side of one container, a single word – “MYSTERY.”

In front, a portable marquee readerboard sign – the type rural churches use to announce the Next Coming, and Winn Dixies once used to announce the week’s special on pork chops. An arrow points the way and states “WORLD’S FIRST DRIVE-THRU ART AND ANTIQUE GALLERY OPEN.”

Driving through, mysteries unfold. Tableaus of mounted animals, framed pictures, junk assemblages, and other assorted oddities loom behind display windows cut into the weathering steel sides of containers. Homely images worked over in Warholian fashion, appropriated and made unhomely. Inspired bricolage by a true original.

Landscape art or installation? Serious art or a rural-cosmic joke? Entertainment or culture? All of these.












The Museum of Mystery is located in Seale, Alabama, on the northwest corner of the intersection of US 431 and Alabama 169. For more on Butch Anthony, read the New York Times article “Art Shapes a Rural Alabama Compound.”

If your appetite for rural surrealism remains insatiate after driving through the Museum of Mystery, visit Butch Anthony’s Museum of Wonder, also in Seale.


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014


Architectonic Art


Art isn’t always made from conventional media, such as paint, sculptural stone, or printmaker’s ink.

Sometimes it’s made from unconventional substances. These include building construction materials – lumber, steel, concrete and masonry. Working with these requires the artist to think like an architect or builder.

Different types of artworks have been made of building materials:

In a digital era these analogue works enthrall us through visceral experience. They speak of worldly things – gravity, texture, light and place. We can touch them, lean against them, and in some cases, inhabit them, if only briefly.

Finally, they instruct.

These artworks “make strange” the everyday materials architects grow to take for granted. They show how common materials may be composed in uncommon ways. They de-familiarize the familiar, allowing fresh vision to unfold.


Old Seeds for New Cultures (2010)

Artist: Unidentified, Greek Pavilion, 2010 Venice Biennale

Materials: wood



Untitled (2010)

Artist: Ban Drvo, Serbian Pavilion, 2010 Venice Biennale

Materials: wood



Throne (for Martin Luther King, Jr.) (1995)

Artist: Ted Sitting Crow Garner

Materials: wood, painted steel tubing



Art Ark (1981, refabricated 2006)

Artist: Terrence Karpowicz

Materials: weathered wood, steel and brass fittings



Setting A Corner (2013)

Artist: Karl Burkheimer

Materials: concrete block, plywood, gravel



Phoenix (1968)

Artist: Edvins Strautmanis

Materials: painted steel I-beams




Artist: Anthony Caro

Materials: painted steel




Artist: Anthony Caro

Materials: painted steel



Park Avenue Services

Artist: Anthony Caro

Materials: weathering steel




Artist: Anthony Caro

Materials: steel



Oscar’s Inclination (2003)

Artist: Michael Dunbar (American, b. 1947)

Materials: painted steel



Frame (2005)

Artist: Richard Rezac

Materials: glazed brick, hand-formed ceramic ovals



Sisyphus’ Aviary (1984)

Artist: Dan Yarbrough

Materials: painted steel rebar, painted stones



Passage (1998)

Artist: James Brenner

Materials: weathering steel



House Divided (1983

Artist: Bruce Nauman

Materials: concrete



The B Home

Artist: Peter Abrams and Graham Apgar

Materials: wood



Skulptur Projekte Münster

Artist: modulorbeat Architects

Materials: perforated copper alloy TECU® Gold, plywood, wood



Erl King

Artist: Anthony Caro

Materials: weathering steel



Chicago Outdoor Sculptures

The B Home

2010 Venice Biennale


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014


Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts





Man articulates the world through his body. . . . The world articulated by the body is a vivid, lived-in space. . . . the body is articulated by the world. When ‘I’ perceive the concrete to be something cold and hard, “I’ recognize the body as something warm and soft.

Tadao Ando, “Shintai and Space,” Architecture and Body

Japanese architect Tadao Ando designs reinforced concrete buildings which follow the principle of béton brut. French for ‘raw concrete,’ this is concrete left unfinished, its surfaces bearing the imprint of its formwork.

These imprints include:

  • The grid created by the joints of the modular plywood sheets used as forms
  • The imprint of the plywood’s raised wood grain
  • Rows of small concave cylinder-shaped pockets where formwork fasteners were located

Surfaces reveal subtle imperfections of hand formwork: seam lines, gradations of color and texture and other characteristics. This is architecture which derives beauty from its constructive logic.

Béton brut is a form of structural expressionism. It is based on modern architecture’s tenet of truth to materials, the belief that a material’s role should be based on its essential nature and that it should be left unfinished and exposed.

Several years ago I visited Tadao Ando’s building for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis.

The following are some photos I took that day, including sculptor Richard Serra’s ‘Joe,’ itself an exemplar of truth to materials with its torqued spiral of weathering steel.


















Seaside and the Reinterpretation of the Wood Frame Vernacular House



The town of Seaside, located on the Florida panhandle, is widely acknowledged as a significant work of town planning. Designed according to the principles of the New Urbanism, it is an influential exemplar of urban planning.

However, Seaside is also an important laboratory of building design. It’s particularly known for its house designs which reinterpret the southern wood frame vernacular.

For those of us interested in studying these houses there’s a great website available, The Seaside Research Portal, a collaboration between the University of Notre Dames’ Hesburgh Libraries and School of Architecture. The Portal is an archive of photos and drawings of Seaside buildings, and information about the architects.

Some of the entries document all phases of the design process, from preliminary sketches to construction drawings and presentation models.

The following are a few examples from the Portal – of Seaside houses which reinterpret the wood frame vernacular dwellings found along the coastal South.


Giant’s Roost (Architect: Deborah Berke)

seaside (berke)




Rainbow House (Architect: Deborah Berke)






Shady Lady (Architect: Deborah Berke)






Blakey Residence (Architect: Braulio Casas)






Latitude (Architects:  Samuel Mockbee & Coleman Coker)



Sources Cited:

The Seaside Research Portal


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Architectural Sketching: Seaside, Florida


Seaside, Fl

It was the early 1980s and I was working in my studio at UF. Ron Haase, one of my thesis advisors walked in and showed me some documents he brought back from a recent trip to Seaside, Florida.

Seaside, the groundbreaking New Urbanism town in the Florida panhandle, was literally breaking ground. Winner of a recent PA award, Seaside was already getting the attention of architects and planners around the country.

Ron knew I’d be interested because my thesis project concerned writing codes for new development following the principles of traditional urbanism.

The following summer I traveled to Seaside and spent a few days photographing and sketching the emergent new town. I had the good luck to meet Seaside’s founder, Robert S. Davis who kindly answered my questions about the town.

In the years that followed I met Seaside’s town planners, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). I was privileged to participate in one their famed design charrettes, to create a redevelopment plan for the city of Stuart, Florida. I also came to know Seaside’s town architect, Scott Merrill of Merrill, Pastor, & Colgan, through my AIA chapter. Scott gave me tour of another new urbanism town under construction, Windsor, near Vero Beach, Florida.

These were amazing experiences which left me with deep respect for these important architects and their work. This impacted my practice, in house design and historic preservation. It fired my design activism and informed my involvement in the revitalization of downtown Stuart. These will be topics of future posts.

Back to Grad school: New Urbanism was just emerging in the US when I visited Seaside. Influenced by the urban design theories of European architects such as Rob and Leon Krier, Aldo Rossi, and others, the US movement also drew on the planning principles of the prewar small town. The mantra was “all design is urban design”: the revelation that building form is always shaped by planning imperatives such as lot size and zoning requirements for setbacks.

The new urbanists’ response? Design the town as well as the buildings that go in it.

Here are a few of the sketches I made that day. A squall was blowing in from off the Gulf, a few drops landed on my drawings, hence the inky splotches.

Seaside, Fl

Seaside, Fl

Seaside, Fl

Seaside, Fl



© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

The Beatles and the Deconstruction of Gender Identity

Beatles 1964

As the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first US tour nears I find myself reflecting on how they affected society.

One area: the de-racialization of popular music. The Beatles accelerated the de-coupling of genre and race which began in rockabilly music, a key influence on the band

Another area: the de-sexualization of popular music, which had begun in rhythm and blues, another key influence on the Liverpool band.

The Beatles – in their appearance and in their music – shined a spotlight on the scaffolding of gender identification in sixties Anglo-American society. They revealed the received notion of gender id for what it was: a social construction, not an inherent characteristic of men and women.

Of course, anything constructed by society may be deconstructed.

The Fabs dared to challenge the conventions of masculinity and femininity of their time. The most obvious example, wearing long hair, considered a feminine trait then. But more significantly, their music contained an interplay of masculine and feminine traits.

The music explored previously unexplored ranges and intensities of emotions considered unseemly for men of that time. Anxiety, uncertainty, and loss of control.

Prominent in the Beatles’ early repertoire were covers of songs by women performers, such as “Please Mr. Postman.” These they reinterpreted and demonstrated that types of inner experience thought to be limited to women are actually human experiences, true for both sexes.

The main theme of the Beatles’ early songs – the emotional intensity of romantic infatuation – resonated with their adolescent and young-adult audiences. Of course, this theme is as old as the tradition of songwriting. What the Beatles did was to desexualize this theme. They got to the core humanity of infatuation, its aspects that transcend biological sex.

This isn’t to say that the Beatles’ music, at times, didn’t reinforce conventional gender stereotypes. Sometimes it was even sexist and misogynistic.

But, they managed to break out of this box and upturn received conventions of gender identification and difference. This liberated both sexes. And infused the new genre they created – rock music – with a spirit of healthy rebellion.

To listen to the Beatles version of “Please Mr. Postman” click here.  

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Fairhope’s Sheldon Castle and Mosher Castle



The Sheldon and Mosher Castles are two neighboring houses located in Fairhope, Alabama. They signify the iconoclastic worldview that gave birth to the community in 1894.

The Sheldon Castle was built first, in 1946 by Craig Sheldon. According to a family member, it was built from stone from nearby Mobile Bay hand quarried and transported to the site. Contrary to the modern house styles which prevailed in the 1940s, it might be characterized as a whimsical version of medieval-revival, hence the appellation “castle.”

The Mosher Castle was built more recently by Dean Mosher (note the Mrs. Butterworth bottle embedded in the stonework).

These buildings are classic examples of bricolage and might have been used as illustrations in Levi-Strauss’ Savage Mind.

Mosher states:

Both the exterior and the interior are largely made of local materials. The stone facing is indigenous to the area, as is the underlying wall tile. Even interior trim is from trees felled on the site. In amongst the stones are pieces of glass and pottery as well as objects from around the world, including the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall.

Fairhope was founded as a single tax colony in order to:

to establish and conduct a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly, and to secure to its members therein equality of opportunity, the full reward of individual efforts, and the benefits of co-operation in matters of general concern.

Fairhope’s School for Organic Education was acclaimed by famed educator John Dewey. The colony has attracted prominent creators such as Sherwood Anderson, Wharton Esherick, Carl Zigrosser, and Upton Sinclair.

The Sheldon and Mosher Castles, built side-by-side, express the Colony’s ethos of cooperative individualism.


 Sheldon Castle

Sheldon Castle


 Sheldon Castle

Sheldon Castle


 Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


 Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


 Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


Sources Cited:  

Sheldon Castle – Fairhope Alabama

Mosher Castle



© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013