Category Archives: art

Lettering Large

Lettering Large: Art and Design of Monumental Typography by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić
The Monacelli Press, 2013
Hardcover, 224 pages

What happens to letters, words and phrases when they are blown up from their usual place on the pages of a book to occupying space within the public realm? The most obvious answer is that they become advertising, gracing the sides of buildings or billboards to entice consumers toward a certain product or brand. But as co-author Steven Heller asserts in a piece at Designers & Books, Lettering Large "is not about advertising—it’s about how the language of advertising is applied to architecture and art and identity."

Most of the examples of monumental typography collected in the book are fairly recent, but Heller and Ilić do acknowledge the history of large letters on buildings and in space, be it inscriptions on the buildings of ancient Rome or early modern attempts to synthesize architecture and graphic design. If one thing comes across while imbibing the many examples in the book's 240 pages, it is the blurring of the boundaries between art, architecture, typography, graphic design, and even landscape in many contemporary settings.

The authors compiled what seems like hundreds of examples of monumental typography into four chapters: Monumental Outdoor Type, Typo-Hypnotic Messages, Big and Better: Type as Object, A-R-T in T-Y-P-E. Generally, the venues for the first and last chapters are landscapes, while building facades and spaces are the canvases for the examples in the middle chapters, though this is hardly a rule. The book starts with the most monumental letters of all, those that are ideally read from above, via airplanes and even satellites. The North Carolina Museum of Art, with "PICTURE THIS" set into the landscape by Barbara Kruger, is actually one of the smaller such examples. For this and other large-scale messages to stay intact, the landscape will need to be maintained, but some of the more appealing examples are temporary formations of people (echoing the way Coca-Cola used birdseed in Piazza San Marco to entice pigeons to unknowingly spell out the company's name over 50 years ago) that are used for a variety of purposes, be it political, civic pride, or humor.


Not surprisingly, most of my favorites fall in the middle two chapters, where architecture takes on a more prominent role than in the chapters bookending them. The "typo-hypnotic messages" in the second chapter adorn building facades and line their insides, often conveying a message. Simplicity of the message is penultimate, even though in cases like the temporary MOMA QNS it took some effort, or being in the right place at the right time, to understand it. When used as an object in the following chapter, type becomes a pattern or just another texture or surface decoration. Words and phrases overlap and collide, symptomatic of our time when there is too much information to convey meaning adequately.

Heller and Ilić's helpful but basically uncritical text clearly places the emphasis on the great number of examples of monumental typography that exist, particularly from the last 10-15 years, and the even greater variety of applications. There is the feeling that letters, words, and phrases blown up to life-size and larger are a really good thing, even if the results are questionable at times – Mitsutomo Matsunami's Number House comes to mind. And it's easy to get swept along with them, taking in the ping-ponging fun, serious, and often colorful projects all over the world. Each page brings to mind a building or landscape with letters or words, making me see if the authors included it in the book; these searches make it clear the book really should have an index. But that is a small fault in an enjoyable book that is also a great reference of how type surrounds us even more than we could have imagined.

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Two Guidebooks

Art Parks: A Tour of America's Sculpture Parks and Gardens by Francesca Cigola
Princeton Architectural Press, 2013
Paperback, 224 pages

Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes by Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone, with photography by Edward A. Toran
W. W. Norton, 2013
Paperback, 288 pages

As I write this, summer—at least the months between the end of one school year and the beginning of another—is winding down. But it's not too late to get out and enjoy the outdoors in warm weather. These two guides, both focused on landscapes in different ways, are invitations to do just that.

Art Parks calls itself "the first comprehensive guide to America's outdoor art spaces," and that seems long overdue. In a way, sculpture parks can be called the museums of the 21st century; they are art spaces that were prefigured by artists like Robert Smithson who transformed landscapes through large-scale earthworks. This guide is not limited to such types of art (the cover makes that known), but sculpture parks and gardens offer the potential to experience art through its juxtaposition with nature, and many artworks turn out to be site-specific pieces that heighten that relationship.

Think of a sculpture park or garden in the United States and most likely it's in this guide. That goes for my favorites: Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, the Nasher Sculpture Garden in Dallas, and the Socrates Sculpture Park and the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens. The entries are organized into three sections—leisure spaces, learning spaces, and collectors' spaces—and then geographically within each section. While a strictly geographical presentation would have emphasized the similarity of landscapes within a region, as well as potentially providing suggested routes for driving around different parts of the country, the thematic sections emphasize the relationships between host institutions, arguably not as important. Nevertheless one can easily use the guide to plan a trip in any part of the country, though it should be noted that the majority fall in the northeast.

Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes presents over 40 open spaces—most outdoors, but some indoors—in all five boroughs. Given the Bloomberg administration's continued and expanded transformation of formerly industrial waterfront into public parks, and the pedestrianization of streets like Broadway in Times Square, now is a perfect time to present a guide to these and other landscapes, new and old alike. Fittingly, given these transformations, the book is split into two halves: along the water's edge and inland. Eighteen entries are included in the first half and twenty make up the second half; each entry has a thorough description by either Lynn or Morrone, photographs by Toran, and directions on how to get there (many of the entries have maps, which—full disclosure—I made for the book). Helpfully, a "sampling of places to eat and drink where the space is right" rounds out the book.

Beyond the timely nature on the part of Lynn, who formerly organized walking tours for the Municipal Art Society (for which Toran often accompanied as a photographer), and Morrone, an architectural historian with many books to his name, the book's value lies in how the authors use each entry as a means of discussing issues larger than the geography of each place. It's not uncommon for an entry to receive X amount of words, with half of those about the specific place and the rest on issues spurred by it. For example, the first page of the two-page entry on the Brooklyn Grange discusses the popularity and benefits of green roofs in various applications, while the second page is about how it particularly uses a formerly industrial building in Long Island City as an urban farm.

Adorning the cover of the guide is a shot of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. This is an important choice for two reasons: Green-Wood predated and influenced the design of Manhattan's Central Park, meaning it indirectly influenced just about every park in the ensuing 150+ years; and given that the cemetery is running at capacity and therefore reorienting itself as a cultural amenity, it is symbolic of the changes that happen within a city, even as its evolution is hardly typical. Just as the High Line points to one way the city evolves, so does Green-Wood. What these landscapes, and the rest in the book, are about in the hands of Lynn and Morrone is use, not just design. Yes, the design of the urban landscapes is discussed greatly (as are history, the environment and other areas), but the focus is on how people use the places, and the book is an invitation to use them even more.

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Hand-Drying in America

Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories by Ben Katchor
Pantheon, 2013
Hardcover, 160 pages

Since 1998 Ben Katchor has been contributing comic strips that grace the back page of Metropolis Magazine. They have been one of my favorite parts of the magazine, something I looked forward to back in the day when I had a subscription. The strips always have something to do with design, even though how is not immediately apparent upon reading them. A view of design as shaping our interaction with the larger environment—from small objects we hold in our hands to whole cities—permeates Katchor's Metropolis pieces, and I think that exists as a parallel to the magazine itself.

There is a tangible sense of nostalgia in almost every one of the strips collected in this book covering the first fifteen years of the Katchor-Metropolis relationship. But the nostalgia is not simply a pining for things the way they were; instead, it's a way to register change and show how design evolves over time. Even as things change, traces of the old stay with us in lesser or greater quantities, as if the new can only layer itself over the old, never replacing it outright. It's no surprise that a lot of the strips feel like they are set in mid-20th-century New York City, when a lot of physical change happened, even though an exact time is never really pinned down and the names of streets and other things don't recall any city in existence, much less NYC.

Yet it would be a disservice to say that Katchor's strips collected here only ooze a sense of nostalgia. More than that, they are memorable for his unique point of view on increasingly more of the physical, designed things we interact with every day. Quirky may be one way to describe it, but there isn't one word sufficient to summarize the characters, situations, and commentary that occurs. One strip worth pointing out—that may go toward illustrating some of Katchor's appeal—is the only two-page strip in the whole book, the aptly named "The Tragic History of the Oversized Magazines." This is apt, because in Katchor's 15-year stint with Metropolis, the magazine has shrunk at least two or three times, both in number of pages and paper size. Before I had a subscription, it was tabloid, standing out from the crowd, but now it is basically the same size as other architecture and design publications from the U.S., if slimmer even. This shrinking won't come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to magazines, advertising, and online media. Katchor's tracing of this "tragic history" from 18th century London sheets in coffeehouses to Metropolis itself, makes it clear that his nostalgia isn't a simple response to the myriad factors shaping our lives. That he is able to convey some of these factors in humorous and often odd ways (inadvertently his strips reflect this shrinking by changing scale from beginning to end) is the main reason I am so glad this collection came along, filling in the gaps in the years since subscribing to the magazine in the process.

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Charles Ross: The Substance of Light

Charles Ross: The Substance of Light by Charles Ross
Radius Books 2012
Hardcover, 344 pages

Along with James Turrell, Charles Ross produces artworks that tap into a background in science. Turrell received a degree in perceptual psychology, though for Ross it was mathematics. They share an interest in the properties of light and using art as a means to give light a physicality. They also have been constructing major earthworks in the desert southwest that set their sites on the sky and the stars. Turrell has been transforming the Roden Crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, into the most recognizable extinct crater in the world; a network of tunnels and chambers frame the sky and aim to manipulate light in the visitor's experience. For even longer Ross has been building Star Axis, a stone structure atop a mesa in New Mexico that orients the visitor to the North Star, Polaris, allowing them to grasp the Earth's precessional wobble (a 26,000-year cycle) as they ascend the 11-story straight stair. In the process of focusing on light in their massive earthworks, Turrell and Ross also tap into time, yet at the celestial rather than the human scale of things.

Star Axis was my only knowledge of Charles Ross's art when I received this coffee table monograph that spans from his sculptures produced one year after his mathematics degree to his magnum opus in the desert. About five years after graduation the artist started working with prisms, and here we can see the seeds of what would evolve into a lifelong interest in light and time. The early prisms exist, not surprisingly, in galleries, and the refraction of light is linked to the movement of bodies past them. But when he moved prisms to windows they started to trace the path of the sun indoors, a subset of his work he coined "solar spectrum commissions." The dispersal of sunlight into its rainbow of colors has a strong impact on the spaces in which he inserts the prisms, but the "solar burns" offer a similar trace by focusing the sun's rays onto surfaces. Wood planks, for example, are burnished with black arcs that were generated by holding a large magnifying glass above the surface. Time is subtly integrated into the pieces literally created by light: gaps in the solar burns that track a whole day reveal the times when clouds covered the sun; and a series of burns timed at 8 minutes 19 seconds make visible the time it takes for sunlight to travel from the sun to the Earth.

In the middle of the 1970s Ross started creating "star maps" to explore space from different vantage points of human perception. These maps contributed greatly to the making of Star Axis, which requires precise measurements for the Star Tunnel (parallel to the Earth's axis), the Hour Chamber (stars move from one edge of the angled aperture to the other in exactly one hour), and the Equatorial Chamber (framing starts along the celestial equator). But the key to the work is the 26,000-year precessional wobble of the Earth, due to the fact this rock we're on is not a perfect sphere. Different steps along the ascent mark the axis of Polaris in history, in effect making Ross's Star Axis a means of understanding how our view of the sky and the stars is affected by the changing axis of the Earth. For those interested in Ross's ambitious undertaking in the desert (finally nearing completion), this book is a decent documentation of the artwork, but it is even more valuable as a presentation of the artist's larger oeuvre and for giving some context (also through essays and interviews) to the Star Axis.

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Three Books About Architecture and Its Relationship to Landscape

Contemporary Follies by Keith Moskow and Robert Linn
The Monacelli Press, 2012
Hardcover, 240 pages

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes by Raymund Ryan
University of California Press, 2012
Hardcover, 120 pages

Wine and Architecture by Heinz-Gert Woschek, Denis Duhme, Katrin Friederichs
EDITION Detail, 2012
Paperback, 144 pages

Each of these three books collects a number of architecture projects—from a half dozen to over 50—that fit into particular typologies. One looks at follies, which one can argue are bound together through a certain purposelessness; another examines arts institutions; and the third presents wineries. While these three types don't have an immediate relationship to each other in terms of architectural program or function, they share an emphasis on how buildings fit into landscapes, be they relatively wild, designed, or cultivated. It would be difficult to consider follies that do not have a particular relationship to nature, for example, or near impossible to design a winery that does not have both a functional and aesthetic relationship to the acres of grapes feeding the process.

What is also shared in these three books is a dependance on tourism. It is most explicit in White Cube, Green Maze, given that many of the arts institutions featured in the book are intended to be cultural magnets for people from around the world and to therefore help bring money to rural populaces. Many of the projects in Contemporary Follies, as well, stem from a desire to provide adequate services for visitors in areas that lack them (Norway's National Tourist Routes are probably the most famous example these days). And then there's enotourism, which taps into the popularity of wine and a desire to get to its source; providing comfortable and architecturally significant appointments aids in raising a winery's stature. Yet even if we examine the commonality of tourism, the focus is still on architecture and landscape, as each uses the unique qualities of the surrounding nature to bring people to places well outside cities.

In Contemporary Follies Keith Moskow and Robert Linn (of Boston's Moskow Linn Architects) collect 51 recent projects that they consider follies. In his introduction Marc Kristal describes the term historically as "an ornamental structure intended to decorate or enhance a garden or landscape...typically fanciful or exotic in design." This last trait is pretty much intact centuries later, especially since follies offer architects a small canvas for exploring form, in some cases through some pretty innovative technologies. In most cases formal exploration responds directly to nature, be it the immediate slope of a site, distant views, or metaphorical qualities of a place.

Moskow and Linn launch into the projects directly after Kristal's introduction (no preface or general explanatory text by the authors), so they basically let each project stand on its own through their brief descriptions and photographs. The projects are partitioned into six chapters—observation, art, meditation, shelter, working, dwelling—that assign broad functions to each, but it's easy to imagine the almost full-deck of projects being tossed in the air and each one fitting comfortably into another chapter. One thing that the chapters do is to give the book a certain flow, even as the projects jump from forests to deserts to mountains, back and forth. It is ultimately a book made for browsing, witnessed by the fact the projects are not listed in the table of contents or the chapters, nor are they indexed. They exist within the book and on the page as calls to get out and get face to face with nature's drama.

Contemporary Follies:
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White Cube, Green Maze is an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center (September 22, 2012–January 13, 2013) curated by Raymund Ryan. As the subtitle of the exhibition and the companion book attests, the six "new art landscapes" examine the relationship between art, architecture, and landscape. Only one of the six projects (Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park) is in a dense urban context. The rest of the projects (Stiftung Insel Hombroich in Germany, Benesse Art Site in Japan, Inhotim in Brazil, Jardin Botanico de Culiacan in Mexio, and Grand Traiano Art Complex in Italy) are located in fairly remote sites, both in terms of proximity to large cities and in the global paths of art lovers—though often these are one and the same. These locations not only offer opportunities for curators, architects, and landscape architects to consider relationships between the various areas of focus, they give artists unconventional venues for creating and displaying art. Yes, the proverbial white cube exists many miles from the cities and its institutions, but so does the "green maze," as Ryan calls it.

Three essays preface the visual and textual exploration of the six projects: Brian "White Cube" O'Doherty discovers "a new museum ecology" in the projects; Ryan lays out broader contexts and discusses how the six projects fit into them; and Marc Treib theorizes on some of the blurring between the realms of art, architecture, and landscape. The presentations of the six projects (color coded and keyed from Ryan's introductory essay) are very solid, with words from Ryan, Iwan Baan's aerial and on-the-ground photographs, and two-page spreads with credits, site plans, and a historical photo or two. While the color-coded backgrounds don't work readability-wise in all cases and Baan's full-bleed photos compete with them on the page edge (making the keying less than ideal), the overall design is a benefit to the presentations and the arguments that Ryan sets forth. Yes, something new is happening, even as these and other new art landscapes have been taking shape for a while. A combination of abandoned industrial landscapes, art tourism, and the desire to break outside of the white cube is helping to create places where the experience of art is strengthened through architecture and nature.

White Cube, Green Maze:

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Of the three titles Wine and Architecture is the least interested in taking a hard look at the relationship between architecture and landscape, even though the link is stronger with wineries than with follies or arts institutions. This stems from a desire on the part of the publisher and authors (who work in the world of wine rather than architecture) to create a practical guide to wine and architecture in Europe. Yet the unique relationships between building and landscape are still evident in photographs, drawings, and descriptions of how climate and topography inform grape growing, for example.

Two introductory essays look at the long history of wine architecture (most of it before the 20th century) and "winemaking and facility design." Twenty-two projects follow, spread across six countries—Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain—Europe's biggest wine producers. It's a solid selection with a few notable omissions, but this fact is addressed in the "country guide to wine and architecture in Europe," which includes briefer descriptions of another 40 projects. While the ideal target audience—those designing and building a winery in continental Europe—is a small one, the book's appeal is broader, thanks to an emphasis on wine production. It's a book for architects and wine lovers, and when the two meet the book is a great invitation to Europe and its wonders of wine.

Wine and Architecture (German edition):

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Ai Weiwei: Art | Architecture

Ai Weiwei: Art | Architecture edited by Yilmaz Dziewior
Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2011
Hardcover, 150 pages

As early as 2006 the well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei mentioned through his blog that he did not wish to pursue architecture anymore. Two years later the Olympics in Beijing were held, centered about the "Bird's Nest" stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron with Ai Weiwei. That year supposedly saw his last architectural engagement (the Serpentine Pavilion, also designed with Herzog & de Meuron this year, is somewhere between art and architecture, so probably excluded). It may not seem like much for an artist to make this sort of proclamation, but according to texts in this book on Ai Weiwei's art and architecture, he had been involved with roughly 60 buildings completed before the Olympics. This number is high for a practicing architect but extremely high for an artist. Yes, Ai Weiwei's involvement was typically limited to conceptual design, not the later stages of a building's project, but he even set up Fake Design to handle architectural commissions.

Besides the Bird's Nest stadium, the most well-known building by Ai Weiwei is the artist's own studio in Shanghai, not for any formal aspect, but because it was torn down last year by Chinese authorities in a move that the artist said was linked to his political activism. Nevertheless, there is something appealing about the simple brick and concrete building that speaks to his ability as an architect as well as his oppositional stance to what is taking place in China's contemporary urbanization. A focus on the human being through the articulation of materials and spaces results in tangible places rather than clusters of high rises that are indistinguishable from each other. Even without considering Ai Weiwei's political activism, the difference of his attitudes to the Chinese government comes across in his architecture.

This book is not a complete survey of Ai Weiwei's architectural output. It is the print companion to an exhibition held last year at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria that "concentrates on Ai Weiwei’s major architectural collaborations developed with other architectural practices." (The exhibition happened to occur when the artist was detained in his home country; in response the museum planned a "variety of solidarity projects," such as mounting large letters atop the Peter Zumthor-designed building that read "FREE AI WEIWEI.") Projects documented through photos, renderings, and in situ exhibition photos include Jindong New Development Area, the National Stadium (Bird's Nest), Five House (with HHF, as are the next two projects), Artfarm, Tsai Residence, Ordos 100, and Moon Chest. The last is an abstract installation that occupied the museum's third floor and comprised a series of all-wood obelisks with circular openings. These apertures allowed for a variety of views across the space and through the other obelisks. The objects were aligned with Ai Weiwei's focus on materials and human perception, even as the grid resembled the repetitive blocks of high-rise housing transforming China's urban landscape.

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Nasher Sculpture Center Handbook

Nasher Sculpture Center Handbook edited by Steven A. Nash
Nasher Sculpture Center, 2003
Paperback, 189 pages

The Nasher Sculpture Center is an extraordinary combination of architecture, landscape design and art, an urban oasis in the Arts District of Dallas. Housing the collection of Raymond Nasher and his late wife Peggy, a visit to the building and garden clearly illustrates their love of sculptural art, from pre-Columbian to contemporary, but in particular Modern 20th-century sculpture. Half of this handbook is devoted to their collection, with an essay by the editor and plates of 55 artworks. The other half of the book describes the history of the project, with design sketches, a background on the design process by Mark Thistlethwaite, and construction photos by Timothy Hursley. The approximate 50/50 split of the book into art and architecture parallels the Center itself, which balances the environment and the objects within and about so each is better for the other.

Universal Experience

Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist's Eye edited by Kari Dahlgren, Kamilah Foreman, Tricia Van Eck
D.A.P./MCA, 2005
Paperback, 272 pages

Taking aim at tourism, the largest industry in the world, curator Francesco Bonami compiled a diverse range of artwork for the Universal Experience exhibition at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Filling the whole museum and its exterior, obvious pieces like Andy Warhol's Empire and Double Mona Lisa are present alongside lesser known works artists Zhan Wang, Thomas Hirschhorn, and others. Photography, film and sculpture dominate; the first two are appropriate for tourism's exposure to "the other" and its transient nature, while the latter allows the galleries to become immersive, abstractions of what the first two try to represent. The companion book to the exhibition breaks down travel to ten chaptered themes, like "Reflections in the Tourist's Eye" and "The World for a Buck." Texts excerpted from various books and articles alongside exhibition images help to explicate these categories, non-existent in the exhibition but, for some reason, seen as necessary for the book. The companion's small format (6x9"), its content, and its layout make for a pleasing alternative to large-format exhibition catalogues that tend to have a series of plates with the artwork, an introduction and perhaps the occasional essay.

The Book of Tea

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo
Tuttle Publishing
Hardcover, 160 pages

Japanese art scholar Okakura Kakuzo, aka Tenshin, wrote The Book of Tea at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries for the intellectual elite of Boston - the city where he worked and spent most of his time outside native Japan - as a way to remedy the spiritual misunderstandings of East and West. Since its first publication in 1906, though, the book has received immense popularity amongst many people all over the world, being translated into numerous languages. But its popularity isn't due so much to its discussion of tea and the tea ceremony, but for giving a greater understanding of Eastern ideas. With chapter titles like "Cup of Humanity" and "Taoism and Zennism", Tenshin definitely recognized the importance of the tea ceremony in both illustrating Eastern ideas and as a culmination of those same ideas. While the link above provides a full transcription of the famous text, a more suitable read is achieved via either the Classic Edition or the Illustrated Edition (both by Tuttle Publishing), where the weight of the words can slowly unfold across the pages, giving the reader an insight into Japan and the Eastern spirit.

Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings

Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam
University of California Press, 1996
Paperback, 385 pages

Jack Flam's collection of writings by artist Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 36, separates the writings into three categories: published writings, interviews, and unpublished writings. Presented in chronological order, the published writings trace the evolution of the artist's brief career, from his early geometric, gallery works to his penultimate earthwork Spiral Jetty. The interview portion is highlighted by one conducted with Paul Cummings for The Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution one year before Smithson's death. Unlike the artist's own writings - which tend to be fascinating in subject but dense and difficult in style - the interview with Cummings is conversational and accessible, and therefore more illuminating in some respects. The unpublished writings are split into two sub-categories - poems and prose - and overall seem to be more directly about his own art than the published writings, which deal with subjects from geology to the industrial monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. If one has an interest in Smithson's art, this book is a good place to start, as it helps illustrate the direction of his art, a direction with almost unlimited potential that was sadly cut short.