Commentary Magazine


Topic: Frank Lloyd Wright

Norman Mailer, Architecture Critic?

What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

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What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

What Mailer proposed as an alternative to modernism was not made clear, and one was not sure what to make of his perverse praise for the “Gothic knots and Romanesque oppressions” of his childhood schoolhouses. But it scarcely mattered; the essay drew a storm of public attention and was reprinted in both the Architectural Forum and the Village Voice. For a rebuttal, the Forum enlisted Scully, a historian of unusual eloquence, who took Mailer to task for his “lazy, potboiling paragraphs.” Scully pointed out that modern architecture invariably was opposed to totalitarianism, that both the Soviet and the Nazi state suppressed it, and that Mailer himself was suffering from a vestigial affection for “representationalist” architecture.

Mailer’s rejoinder was memorable. It was not political totalitarianism that he meant but the cultural totalitarianism that arises when architects subordinate the visual character of neighborhoods and cities to their own insatiable egos:

modern architecture . . . tends to excite the Faustian and empty appetites of the architect’s ego rather than reveal an artist’s vision of our collective desire for shelter which is pleasurable, substantial, intricate, intimate, delicate, detailed, foibled, rich in gargoyle, guignol, false closet, secret stair, witch’s hearth, attic, grandeur, kitsch, a world of buildings as diverse as the need within the eye for stimulus and variation. For beware: the ultimate promise of modern architecture is collective sightlessness for the species. Blindness is the fruit of your design.

Such a sentiment is now a commonplace. But in 1964 it was rather unusual, even prescient. For a brief moment, Mailer perceived with clarity (and a surfeit of passion) that something had gone awry with modernism, and he expressed it with extraordinary force.

Mailer’s foray into criticism would be a one-shot affair, not a serious endeavor but simply an opportunity to play the Bad Boy in yet another sphere of human activity. More’s the pity; for Mailer—to judge from this one exchange—clearly had more natural ability as an architecture critic than a boxer.

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Bookshelf

• I like short, opinionated books—when they’re smart. John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art is all these things, and it’s also stimulatingly grumpy. The subtitle gives the game away, for Architecture of the Absurd is a slashing attack on those “starchitects” whom Silber believes to be indifferent to the needs of their clients, preferring instead to build interesting-looking structures that are impossible to live or work in: “Architects are now to consider themselves descendants of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘geniuses’ who by right break all laws and conventions . . . . they behave as if they owe nothing to their clients or the public beyond the gift of their genius.”

Before reading Silber’s book, I wondered whether his dislike of the buildings of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind would slop over into a broad-gauge attack on all modern art. The answer is that it does—and it doesn’t. On the one hand, Silber is identically dismissive of John Cage’s 4’33” and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, writing off both works as nonsensical exercises in aesthetic absurdity. (He’s half right.) Yet he is highly responsive to a fair amount of modern architecture, praising Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building as “stunning masterpieces.” It is postmodernism, not modernism, that draws most of his fire:

The basic problem is that Libeskind asserted the fallacy of the “iconic architects:” that a building is fundamentally like a book or sculpture or piece of music. By means of this conflation the architect is permitted to create like an author, painter, or sculptor without regard for the fact that, unlike books, sculpture, and music, which may be ignored or visited at one’s pleasure, a building is lived and worked in and must meet the needs of its users.

What gives Architecture of the Absurd its sharp edge is that Silber, who worked in his father’s architectural practice as a young man, later spent much of his adult life supervising the building program at Boston University, of which he was president from 1971 to 1996 and chancellor from 1996 to 2003. Thus he knows more than most laymen about the practical consequences of theory-driven architecture, and his indictment of its practitioners’ failings is both specific and damning. Even those who disagree with his jaundiced view of modern art will find it hard to ignore passages such as these:

Most absurdist architecture . . . has been built at the bidding of 501(c)3 corporations. CEOs and trustees of museums, symphony orchestras, and especially universities yearn to house their institutions in iconic buildings that Genius has wrought. In such institutions, decisions are made by persons who are not spending their own money, who take no personal financial risk, and who often lack the knowledge and experience in building necessary to ensure that the needs of the institution are met. They are thus often intimidated by smooth-talking, imperious architects and vulnerable to the pretentious jargon that is now the vernacular among both architects and critics.

Amen, brother.

• I like short, opinionated books—when they’re smart. John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art is all these things, and it’s also stimulatingly grumpy. The subtitle gives the game away, for Architecture of the Absurd is a slashing attack on those “starchitects” whom Silber believes to be indifferent to the needs of their clients, preferring instead to build interesting-looking structures that are impossible to live or work in: “Architects are now to consider themselves descendants of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘geniuses’ who by right break all laws and conventions . . . . they behave as if they owe nothing to their clients or the public beyond the gift of their genius.”

Before reading Silber’s book, I wondered whether his dislike of the buildings of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind would slop over into a broad-gauge attack on all modern art. The answer is that it does—and it doesn’t. On the one hand, Silber is identically dismissive of John Cage’s 4’33” and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, writing off both works as nonsensical exercises in aesthetic absurdity. (He’s half right.) Yet he is highly responsive to a fair amount of modern architecture, praising Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building as “stunning masterpieces.” It is postmodernism, not modernism, that draws most of his fire:

The basic problem is that Libeskind asserted the fallacy of the “iconic architects:” that a building is fundamentally like a book or sculpture or piece of music. By means of this conflation the architect is permitted to create like an author, painter, or sculptor without regard for the fact that, unlike books, sculpture, and music, which may be ignored or visited at one’s pleasure, a building is lived and worked in and must meet the needs of its users.

What gives Architecture of the Absurd its sharp edge is that Silber, who worked in his father’s architectural practice as a young man, later spent much of his adult life supervising the building program at Boston University, of which he was president from 1971 to 1996 and chancellor from 1996 to 2003. Thus he knows more than most laymen about the practical consequences of theory-driven architecture, and his indictment of its practitioners’ failings is both specific and damning. Even those who disagree with his jaundiced view of modern art will find it hard to ignore passages such as these:

Most absurdist architecture . . . has been built at the bidding of 501(c)3 corporations. CEOs and trustees of museums, symphony orchestras, and especially universities yearn to house their institutions in iconic buildings that Genius has wrought. In such institutions, decisions are made by persons who are not spending their own money, who take no personal financial risk, and who often lack the knowledge and experience in building necessary to ensure that the needs of the institution are met. They are thus often intimidated by smooth-talking, imperious architects and vulnerable to the pretentious jargon that is now the vernacular among both architects and critics.

Amen, brother.

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Bookshelf

• Mid-century modernism has become so retro-chic that it’s easy to forget how many Americans still find it offputting. I never cease to be amazed, for instance, by the number of people I know who loathe modern domestic architecture. Me, I love it, though I freely admit that any number of well-known modern houses are far better looked at than lived in. I recently returned from Chicago, where I visited Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead Farmhouse (1953). Mies’ “glass house,” one of the most famous and frequently written-about homes of the 20th century, is the subject of an exceedingly intelligent illustrated monograph by Franz Schulze, author of the standard biography of Mies. The Farnsworth House is out of print, alas, but Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography is still to be had and very much worth reading, not least for its detailed account of the making of this icon of architectural modernism, which is a good deal more candid about the house’s self-evident defects as a “machine for living” (in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted phrase) than one might expect from an admiring biographer: “Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.”

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• Mid-century modernism has become so retro-chic that it’s easy to forget how many Americans still find it offputting. I never cease to be amazed, for instance, by the number of people I know who loathe modern domestic architecture. Me, I love it, though I freely admit that any number of well-known modern houses are far better looked at than lived in. I recently returned from Chicago, where I visited Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead Farmhouse (1953). Mies’ “glass house,” one of the most famous and frequently written-about homes of the 20th century, is the subject of an exceedingly intelligent illustrated monograph by Franz Schulze, author of the standard biography of Mies. The Farnsworth House is out of print, alas, but Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography is still to be had and very much worth reading, not least for its detailed account of the making of this icon of architectural modernism, which is a good deal more candid about the house’s self-evident defects as a “machine for living” (in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted phrase) than one might expect from an admiring biographer: “Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.”

The Muirhead Farmhouse, by contrast, is one of Wright’s lesser-known projects and has yet to be written about in detail. Fortunately, several good books have been published about the ranch-style “Usonian houses” of Wright’s later years, the most accessible of which is Carla Lind’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, one of twelve titles in a series of miniature monographs called “Wright at a Glance.” In addition, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal, has written a superb brief life of Wright that is among the strongest entries in the Penguin Lives series. Frank Lloyd Wright is a masterpiece of thoughtful compression, never more so than in this passage about the Usonian houses:

Usonian houses were, and are, inviting and livable . . . . Wright’s houses never insisted that their occupants reshape themselves to conform to an abstract architectural ideal. Although he was relentlessly dictatorial about building in furniture of his own design and including his own accessories—he was known to go into his houses during the owners’ absence and rearrange everything to his taste—and some of that furniture was notoriously uncomfortable, he never adopted the functional minimalism promoted for low-cost dwellings by the International style. His houses are positively gemütlich compared with the enforced antisepsis that has reached a challenging astringency as the architectural avant-garde strives for a reductive perfection.

Well said.

• I only just got around to reading the extensively revised second edition of Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. I wrote about the first edition in “The Problem of Shostakovich,” my 1995 COMMENTARY essay about the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century:

Wilson’s book, initially planned as a short volume in Faber & Faber’s “Composers Remembered” series, soon grew beyond its intended scope to become a full-scale documentary biography based not only on pre- and post-glasnost reminiscences of Shostakovich, some already published and some newly commissioned, but on interviews with about two dozen of the composer’s friends, colleagues, and family members. The result is without question the most important English-language book about Dmitri Shostakovich to date.

This new edition is 80 pages longer than its predecessor, and the additional material, all drawn from primary sources not available to Wilson in the 90’s, will be of great interest to anyone more than casually interested in Shostakovich. If you have the original edition, you should replace it with this one. If not, what I said in 1995 still goes. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is every bit as readable as a well-written biography, and since no such book exists, it remains the indispensable starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life, times, and troubles.

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Confusion at the Quai Branly

When the Quai Branly Museum in Paris opened last June, it was greeted with both acclaim and outrage. For the New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” Not since Herbert Muschamp called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao “a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium” has the Times been so effusive in its praise. For others, however, the Quai Branly was offensively patronizing, presenting its ethnographic collection as a kind of fictitious Dark Continent hidden within a “mock jungle.” Recently I was able to inspect it for myself.

The Quai Branly originated in 1995, when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, including that of the recently-defunct Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. These collections had become controversial and were perceived as the spoils and trophies of colonialism. The project was given to the architect Jean Nouvel and endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, who, like so many French rulers, sought to leave his mark on Paris.

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When the Quai Branly Museum in Paris opened last June, it was greeted with both acclaim and outrage. For the New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” Not since Herbert Muschamp called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao “a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium” has the Times been so effusive in its praise. For others, however, the Quai Branly was offensively patronizing, presenting its ethnographic collection as a kind of fictitious Dark Continent hidden within a “mock jungle.” Recently I was able to inspect it for myself.

The Quai Branly originated in 1995, when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, including that of the recently-defunct Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. These collections had become controversial and were perceived as the spoils and trophies of colonialism. The project was given to the architect Jean Nouvel and endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, who, like so many French rulers, sought to leave his mark on Paris.


Recognizing the non-Western origin of its collections, Nouvel set about designing a non-Western building. He quickly seized on the idea of the building as “a simple façade-less shelter in the middle of a wood:”

In a place inhabited by symbols of forests and rivers, by obsessions of death and oblivion, it is an asylum for censored and cast off works from Australia and the Americas. It is a loaded place haunted with dialogues between the ancestral spirits of men, who, in discovering their human condition, invented gods and beliefs. It is a place that is unique and strange, poetic and unsettling.

His museum is indeed unsettling. What strikes the viewer is its peculiar formlessness, which refuses to present a comprehensible shape or object to the eye. No facade and no surface are similar, and there is no place where one might stand and grasp it as totality. Borne aloft on a series of randomly-placed piers (which could be taken “for trees or totems,” Nouvel tells us), it forms a kind of wobbly trough, as if the spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim had been laboriously uncoiled and pinned to a giant board. The experience inside is equally bewildering, free of all right angles and offering sumptuous free-form contours, clad in brown leather and squirming off into the dimly lit distance.

In the end, the problem with Nouvel’s building is not its anti-form ideology, which is hardly revolutionary at this late date (after all, the Pompidou Centre was built over thirty years ago). It is that he sought to make a non-Western museum for non-Western objects without fully recognizing that there is not one non-Western art, but many. (All that they have in common is the prefix non-.) And to be sure, he has made an ostentatious show of negation (no parallel lines, no palpable shapes, no uniform materials) without offering an affirmation of any sort.

This formal incoherence is of a piece with its museology. The great museum displays of the past were indeed condescending in their neat divisions between civilized and barbaric peoples, which produced, respectively, objects of aesthetic or of merely ethnographic interest. But they did produce systems of order, categorizing objects by their workmanship or function. The Quai Branly offers no such comprehensive taxonomy. Objects are sprinkled in loose clusters, with minimal explanatory material. The display is exquisite in the soft lighting and the aesthetic isolation of each object (no cumbersome taxonomy of axe-heads here), but instead of treating the object as an anthropological artifact it is now treated as a showpiece in a Tiffany’s window. It is not clear which is the more condescending.

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America’s Favorite Buildings

The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

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The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

In fact, what is most impressive about the poll is how impervious it is to hype and publicity. The list is heavy on public monuments, museums, and buildings of state, and in that sense is deeply conservative. Perhaps it reflects a widespread affection for America’s symbolic architecture in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center (19). It is difficult to imagine that a list of popular buildings compiled before 9/11 would have been so steeped in tradition.

My main quibble with the poll is different from that of the Times. How is it that Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (27) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (29)—America’s two greatest houses, and two of the world’s greatest houses—are ranked below the Bellagio Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas (22)?

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Louis Kahn at Yale

The Yale Art Gallery, which reopened last month after a three-year renovation, eminently warrants a visit, but not only for its collection. That collection, to be sure, is splendid, highlighted by Vincent van Gogh’s Night Café (1888), his deeply disconcerting interior “with an atmosphere like the devil’s furnace.” But the building itself is a major work of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) and a visit reminds us why he was as important an architect in the second half of the 20th century as Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first.

Kahn was a late bloomer who came right down to the wire, creating no works of distinction or originality until he was fifty. This was the dilemma of his entire generation, which was steeped in the academic classicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Their aesthetic was rendered obsolete almost overnight after 1929, first with the Depression and then with the arrival of European modernists fleeing Nazi Germany. Kahn embraced the flowing space and the abstract volumetric play of modernism, but he never quite jettisoned his classical roots.

Now disencumbered of its later accretions, the Yale Art Gallery depicts Kahn just as he was struggling to reconcile modernism with the lessons of architectural history. All of the devices of high modernism appear in it: the flat roof, the flowing interior space, the laconic expression of wall planes, even the innovative space frame that demonstratively carries the ceiling (or rather rhetorically carries it, since Kahn’s proposed system was too progressive for local building laws). And yet the building also has about it a sense of profound weight and solemnity that recalls the great monuments of the ancient world.

In a certain sense, the building is a failure, for Kahn could not integrate his ideas. The austere masonry cylinders in which the stairs are threaded speak a different architectural language than the all-glass wall facing the building’s courtyard. A decade would pass before his personal architectural language would emerge in such masterpieces as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Our academic institutions do not always do right by their historic architecture, yet Yale has done so here. Even better, across the street from the gallery is Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, his last building. I know of no other place in America where you can take the whole measure of an architect’s career so poignantly.

The Yale Art Gallery, which reopened last month after a three-year renovation, eminently warrants a visit, but not only for its collection. That collection, to be sure, is splendid, highlighted by Vincent van Gogh’s Night Café (1888), his deeply disconcerting interior “with an atmosphere like the devil’s furnace.” But the building itself is a major work of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) and a visit reminds us why he was as important an architect in the second half of the 20th century as Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first.

Kahn was a late bloomer who came right down to the wire, creating no works of distinction or originality until he was fifty. This was the dilemma of his entire generation, which was steeped in the academic classicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Their aesthetic was rendered obsolete almost overnight after 1929, first with the Depression and then with the arrival of European modernists fleeing Nazi Germany. Kahn embraced the flowing space and the abstract volumetric play of modernism, but he never quite jettisoned his classical roots.

Now disencumbered of its later accretions, the Yale Art Gallery depicts Kahn just as he was struggling to reconcile modernism with the lessons of architectural history. All of the devices of high modernism appear in it: the flat roof, the flowing interior space, the laconic expression of wall planes, even the innovative space frame that demonstratively carries the ceiling (or rather rhetorically carries it, since Kahn’s proposed system was too progressive for local building laws). And yet the building also has about it a sense of profound weight and solemnity that recalls the great monuments of the ancient world.

In a certain sense, the building is a failure, for Kahn could not integrate his ideas. The austere masonry cylinders in which the stairs are threaded speak a different architectural language than the all-glass wall facing the building’s courtyard. A decade would pass before his personal architectural language would emerge in such masterpieces as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Our academic institutions do not always do right by their historic architecture, yet Yale has done so here. Even better, across the street from the gallery is Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, his last building. I know of no other place in America where you can take the whole measure of an architect’s career so poignantly.

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