Chris Duffel

Writing at the intersection of architecture and Catholicism

Retooling the way your religious group provides community

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Copying Architecture – Can titanium white actually make something better?


Painting from Beltracchis website. 

In this recent piece on former millionaire Wolfgang Beltracchis, an expert painter who also used to be a professional painting forger (until he got caught and sent to prison), an interesting but latent question  was raised about the role of authenticity and the significance of authorship today. Namely, in what way does authenticity exist today, and how do we value something with relation to what we perceive to be it’s origins?

Beltracchis’ paintings have fake German labels, they lab test paint pigments to test for hues that were available at the times the original artists were painting, and took staged archival photos on pre-war photo paper of the paintings hanging in an old house. He and his wife even tour old flea markets to find canvases from the early 1900-1910 canvases on which  to paint. He was good. He didn’t copy actual paintings, he would paint a painting a given painter, say Max Ernst, would paint if they had the time and the interest to do so. His paintings went for millions and he traveled the globe in style when he wasn’t in his vacation homes (vineyard included) in Germany or France. In short he was a singularly gifted painter, and an even greater vacationer.

“… And no one disputes that they are awfully good.  Beautiful. This $7 million dollar fake Max Ernst is being shipped back to New York.  Its owner decided to keep it even after it had been exposed as a fake. He said it’s one of the best Max Ernsts he’s ever seen.” (emphasis mine)

Potential Max Ernst

Potential Max Ernst by Beltracchis

Can you forge a piece of architecture like you can forge a painting? If the distinction between architecture and art is that the former has a use, function, or program, can any piece of architecture ever truly be a copy? Do we care if something was created by an individual genius, or by a group of people? (Disabusion Alert: All architecture in the US today is an outgrowth collaboration.) No we care if it is good, useful, or beautiful.

Since we don’t have the ability to disguise a work of architecture behind the guise of an individual it is in a way less prone to the forgeries mentioned in the article above. But architecture is more public than any form of art, and has the most public subject. So in a way it is more prone to copies being made than artwork.

So why do you think the buildings you live and work in look or work the way they do? What is the “titanium white” that distinguishes it from the “authentic” work that came before? And the most interesting question of them all – is it better with the titanium white than without it?

Typography and Design Professionalism

In no particular order I give you two resources I came across, one a few years ago, the other this past weekend, both well worth your time to read. The first is an instrumental manifesto on the importance of representation through type, and the second is a sort of popularly written philosophical treatise on working as a designer and how one is to operate a design business (with a strong capitalist bent).

1) Practical Typography by Matthew Butterick (with a forward by Erik Spiekermann)

practical typography screen capture

2) Design Professionalism by Andy Rutledge (with forward by Jeffry Zeldman)


Both are excellently well designed, filled with lots of strong arguments for why they hold the positions they hold, and give well founded reasons for these positions. Worth your time to read.

Principled differentiation

How can one have a principled way of differentiating between Divine Revelation and theological opinion without engaging Tradition?


Or, more polemically stated: How can one claim that the bible (or any document for that matter) is self interpreting, when there is so much disagreement about what it’s contents mean? Are we even supposed to be able to know what it means? Surely, right? So how are we to reconcile disparaging views? Just read, pray, and decide for ourselves?

No. This isn’t a recipe for unity. And, that may not even be how the text tells us we are to find out what it means.

I have been thinking and reading about this for a few weeks now, how we can come to know something from the bible, and I keep on coming back to the absolute necessity of engaging tradition. (Everyone has one. Not everyone is aware of it, or claims to engage one. A mere canon of books in a bible is proof of a tradition.)

One person suggested that its common sense. Something along the lines of “Either you have it or you don’t.” As if, clearly, when you just read it everything makes sense. And whatever doesn’t likely doesn’t matter all that much. But that wasn’t satisfying either.

I’m all for common sense readings. Common sense also tells me though, that it’s difficult to decide and agree upon on what the “common sense” reading of a text may be. So common sense tells me we need more than just common sense. Make no bones about it, I am not pro-tradition. I am way more than that. I am currently incapable conceiving of a way to reading this text, or any text, without one.

So help me out here: explain the logic behind how one can read scripture and claim to understand or to know something from the bible without tradition. Not “give me reasons why tradition is bad”, but positively show me how you can operate without it at all. Because I can’t find any myself. Even if you don’t hold that position, give it a shot.

Text messaging and the slow change of habits

I remember a time when text messaging first came on the scene. Not the date or time, but the general feeling surrounding text messaging as an idea, as a social communication concept. I was sure it was a dumb idea. There was no way people would text. Why would you? It seemed so foreign, like suggesting someone start communicating via Tele-sonic-mind-waves. That sounded so stupid. Not only was it not going to overtake verbal communication on the phone, but it wouldn’t even catch a start. No way, no how.

It was an idea that had absolutely no traction. And then the slow change occurred. Now people barely talk on the phone. Shows you how much we change, and how generally unaware we are of it.

(sidenote: “slow” and “fast” have changed dramatically over the years, so I’ll be setting aside the discussion of what is actually slow and fast)

Your life changes when your habits change. And your habits change in two ways. Fast and loud or slow and quiet. Fast could be like a political coup, with explosions and the like. This likely fades as fast as it grew. Slow is less obvious because it is a habitual change that happens in small increments daily. It is a change that doesn’t remind you of its presence. It likely doesn’t want to either.

Your life changes when your habits change. Slow change is better because it takes time to build up and time to eliminate. And you want change that sticks. If your life changes when your habits change, take time to change your habits. Every day you hit that snooze, delay that morning prayer, or delay changing anything is another day you say “I don’t want that change”. And committing to tomorrow doesn’t count. Unless you are talking about paying rent, showing up to court, or finishing that project for work… wait… no. Committing to tomorrow still doesn’t count.

Think of new years resolutions as habit changers. Think of a Lenten penance as a habit changer. It’s not something you do, its a habit you alter.

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