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Page 3: Bart Teush

March 4, 2014

Architecture, Style, History (Part Two)

bart

 

 

 3. The Nasty

The epitome of Nasty architecture, the unpleasant step-child of Brutalism, dominates the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue, arguably a gateway to Greenwich Village. There stands a building so outré in its refusal to fit in that I question the motives of its architect, Roger Duffy (ironically, like Gordon Bunschaft, also a partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill partner). It strains credulity to think that this building was drawn–-figuratively speaking — on the same SOM drafting tables where Bunshaft created The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library fifty years ago. 

brutal1This wound on a major site in New York City marks fifty years since A&A and Beinecke were built, and makes a fit comparison. It, too, is an academic commission (by The New School for Social Research) and, like the Yale buildings, clearly intended to assert its own importance as a University Center.

Duffy’s 370,000 square foot Leviathan arises in the midst of a mix of post-war white brick apartment houses, masonry masterpieces from the 30’s, and a new, quite elegant low-rise building just across 13th Street that serves as a counterpoint to the University Center as a reminder of restraint, discipline and simplicity. 

Many buildings have a signature, usually a dominant design element, to which they are reduced: Johnson’s Lipstick and Chippendale buildings, Norman Foster’s Gherkin, or Saarinen’s Whale. This might be called Duffy’s Gash. 

There are actually two major design elements, which are, in a way, contradictory. First, the brass “clapboards” and ribbon windows refer politely to Joseph Urban’s original old new school1936 New School for Social Research building nearby on West 11th Street. Duffy makes a gesture to context by quoting Urban’s brick treatment but then mutilates the homage with the easy and outrageous gouge of glass streaking across the West and South façades, new school brutalrepresentingif nothing elsean outsized portion of the building’s construction budget. This grotesque stroke is meant to do what, exactly? 

Its apparent function is to expose the stairways of the building so we can watch students, faculty and administrators walk from floor to floor. Yes, walking from floor to floor is a fundamental part of academic life, but does it deserve such prominent display? Maybe. After all, it reveals the users of the building in a transition from level to level, certainly a synecdoche of the whole academic enterprise. Could that be how Roger Duffy pitched the Nasty image to his clients while they sat with open checkbooks at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill?

There’s no need to guess. SOM’s Web site pitch spills the beans:

“The University Center is intended to become the “heart” of The New School. The LEED Gold building will provide space for all aspects of a traditional campus, with 200,000 square feet of academic space on the first seven floors and 150,000 square feet for a 600-bed dormitory on the levels above. 

“Interactive spaces are dispersed vertically throughout the section to activate all levels of the building. fire stairsTying them all together are three iconic fire stairs that are unraveled to weave their way through the building, providing ample opportunities to chance encounters and unstructured conversation. This structure creates hives of activity that are traced along the façade with large glass windows. The result is an architecture whose identity is completely intertwined with the University’s identity, making the two indistinguishable.” 

Blah. Blah. Blah. Whoa: “Three iconic fire stairs”? The phrase pokes through the archi-babble like the gash itself. How and why does a stairway get bumped up to “iconic”? Iconic, after all, means “executed according to a convention or tradition” and implies an elevation to memorial or even reverential status. How do fire stairs merit such veneration? Their function as routes for emergency evacuation is something I would call to the attention of tenants and pedestrians only if I were being . . . Nasty.

And besides, with all the other spaces in the breathlessly multi-use building intended for dorms, offices, lounges, restaurantshow does a stairway become a “hive of activity?” Yes, it shows constant motion, but all the action is elsewhere.

The ultimate irony is the architect’s indisputable achievement: the building’s Gold energy efficiency rating (read environmental conscientiousness).  Ironic because there is a larger environment, which you’d think any major addition to the campus would consider.

After all, The New School is, like Greenwich Village, an environment, with an identity that arises in a quite specific history. During the 30s and 40s it was bauhausa safe haven for countless émigré academics in flight from the Nazis. These émigrés were European in their formality, rigor and clarity. Think Bauhaus, think Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. To make Roger Duffy’s porridge of postmodernism a nominal center of the New School and its diffuse campus flies in the face of the intellectual and esthetic foundations of the school. And despite the LEED rating certifying the building as non-polluting and energy-efficient, it brazenly intrudes on the neighborhood.

night shotDuffy’s intrusion is a form of pollution. His glaring, (albeit energy-efficient) illumination is also pollution (trust me, at night you’ll expect to hear the chords of Close Encounters echoing down 14th Street). As is the uninflected size of the building, as is the Gash, which pollutes the façade and spoils the architect’s less-than-enthusiastic homage to Joseph Urban.

Perhaps that’s itthe best and most succinct definition of the Nasty: pollution; pollution of the streets–careless, self-promoting, self-satisfied pollution, making a space less appealing than it was. 

I don’t welcome the transition, cultural, political, architectural, and psychological from Brutal to Nasty. But I make the distinction to mark the New Year on the assumption that once aware of it we can begin to avoid it like the plague it already is.

(See Part One: The Brutal and the Nasty, February 14.)

Page 3: Bart Teush

February 14, 2014

Architecture, Style, History (Part One)

bart

1. The Brutal and the Nasty

I have the distinct sense that the world has swerved in the last fifty years from brutal to nasty and that architecture both reflects and sheds light upon that shift. Therefore, let’s start the New Year comparing and contrasting three buildings: one an iconic example of the extremes of Brutalism; the second, an evolution of Brutalism so extreme it set new standards for Brutalism; and the thirdbuilt fifty years laterjust plain Nasty.

First, what do I mean by Brutal and Nasty? 

Brutal is large-mannered, assertive (to say the least), unapologeticcall it overbearingat its best exhilarating, at its worst cold, uninviting, impenetrable. Brutal confronts, engages and defines surrounding space. Nasty ignores surrounding space. Brutal dominates; Nasty diminishes. Brutal is serious. Nasty is glib, mercurial and untrustworthy. Brutal plays to win, and takes no prisoners. Nasty takes hostages. Nasty has a neurotic relationship to power, feeding upon schadenfreude, Brutal thrives on independence and self-sufficiency. 

Architectural Brutalism uses basic materials confidently in their unadorned state—concrete, stone, glass, and steel—preferably oxidized. Nasty architecture communicates no apparent love of its materials, merely their effect. It uses glass, steel, aluminum, titanium, bronze, copper; whatever, wherever. Le Corbusier is the patron saint of Brutalism, along with some brilliant acolytesPaul Rudolph, Gordon Bunschaft, Moshe Safdie, Kevin Rocheto name a few. 

Nasty? Its collective patron saints are all the deconstructivist “starchitects” who turn a blind eye to the neighborhoods, where they build whatgehry residence they will just because they can. Nasty’s acolytes are all those who regard the world as mere backdrop to their inventions without regard to scale or context or, more precisely, what on a small cleveland clinicscale may pass as a local folly (Frank Gehry’s residence in Santa Monica, right), becomes on a large scale a neighborhood bunker bomb (Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic Revo Center for Brain Health, on the left).

Approaching architecture as a form of sculpture without regard to scale or context, Nastiness is capable of hair-raising originality at one extreme and jaw-dropping inappropriateness at the other. (Consider, in addition to Frank Gehry, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Zaha Hadid, to name a few.)

Yes, I realize that this Manichean taxonomy might better be applied to politics or personal pathology. But I want to identify architects in this schema because architecture is the most political of the Arts, impacting real, often public, spaces, and because its practice has consequences in the polity. Architects are subject to civic codes, beholden to local approvals, obligated to safety and environmental standards–not to mention that they and their builders employ thousands in fulfilling their plans. But far more important, a building’s public influence can last sometimes centuries, defining space, place, and the community. That’s a long half-life for Nastiness and its practitioners.

2. The Brutal 

I have lived through the entire Age of Brutalism—that is, architectural Brutalismone reaction to the aridity of Modernism, and the source of many brooding, dark and windswept corners where trash collects in American cities. I’m thinking of some near-by examples in New Haven, Connecticut, arguably a center for Brutalism. Numerous buildings come to mind including the Kevin Roche’s Knights of Columbus World Headquarters (still standing), next door knights of columbus hqto his equally Brutal New Haven Arena and Parking Structure, now merely a vacant lot in New Haven’s long-suffering downtown.

Kevin Roche, Roche Dinkeloo Associates, Knights of Columbus Headquarters (background), New Haven Coliseum and Parking Structure (foreground), New Haven, Connecticut

But the two buildings that truly define the esthetic limits of Brutalism were, coincidentally, completed in the same year (1963), and each was a commission by Yale University. One is Paul Rudolph’s intricate (if that’s a word I’m permitted to use in connection with Brutalism) Art and Architecture Building (A&A), which has survived since its opening , frequently renovated and recently restored at great expense to Yale. The other is The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library designed by Gordon Bunshaft, then of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

The Brutalism of the 114,000-square-foot south facade detailA&A  was nothing if not hard-won. The concrete was poured into wooden forms, but the finished slabs lacked the jagged textures Rudolf had envisioned: instead, a uniform ribbed surface remained. This rudolph and facadebrought a team of masons hoisting themselves over the exterior and interior walls hammering away at the concrete until the perfect texture was produced.

 

a  a with lighted windows

 

This was only the first of many setbacks that dogged A&A throughout its history; for example, in 1974 there was a costly purge of exposed asbestos, which Rudolph had used, reportedly, as much for its flaky texture (unfortunately the flakes would fall like snow) as for its thermal properties. But an even greater scandal involved the designated users of the building. 

Yale commissioned the building to house two of its professional schools. Without question, Rudolph did not hide the fact he favored the architects. The wonder is he favored them so crudely and disruptively. It was never surprising that the painters resented being squirreled away in the basement levels cut off from the natural light reserved for the architects above.

Indeed, when fire engulfed A & A in 1969 (there were few doors, and apparently no fire doors whatsoever), the painters used the fire (reported by some—probably falsely—as having been set by an Urban Planning student “in protest”) as an opportunity to demand improvements. They were never fully accomplished until 2008, when Yale completed both a renovation and an addition to A&A. But the controversy brought into sharp focus the Brutalist esthetic and psychology. 

As Mark Alden Branch wrote in the February 1998 Yale Alumni Magazine:

“To them (the painters), Rudolph’s building epitomized all that was wrong with architecture—it was arrogant, aloof, divorced from history and from the buildings around it. Robert Venturi, who, ironically, began teaching at Yale under Rudolph, made a point in lectures and in print of condemning Rudolph’s ‘heroic’ works in comparison with his own humble, ‘contextual’ buildings.”

Everybody regarded it as a tour de force, but its spirit was overbearing,” says Mark Simon, ’72MArch. “It was one man’s vision of how you were going to occupy it, a temple to architecture at the cost of function. It ignored about two-thirds of its users.”

The wonder is that the spirit of Brutalism can be stretched as far as it was in another building on the Yale campus. Completed the same year as Rudolph’s overbearing A&A buildingGordon Bunshaft’s exhilarating beinecke exteriormasterpiece of geometry and materials, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, just a five-minute walk from A&A.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Exterior

Beinecke hovers over a public plaza. Its neighbors are the neo-classic Commons (where Yale Freshmen dine); Woolsey Hall; and the offices of the President and the Corporation of the University.

Beinecke is the very opposite of A&A—an implacable rectangular solid, rendered in white travertine squares framed by grey granite, floating over a band of dark glass, set on a slim pillar at each corner; it vibrates between simplicity and complexity, monumentality and breathtaking delicacyevoking at once the scale of Brutalism and the poise of its neo-Classical neighbors.  beinicke interior panels CU

 

beinicke interior panels

Each of the 3/4” marble panels (which detractors, looking for trouble, have compared to television screens) is so thin that daylight shines through the stone, illuminating the interior in the caramel and ochre glow of the translucent marble; it references the marbled edges and leather bindings of the rare books shelved within a soaring clear glass cube rising as the central core of the interior. Pretty amazing.

ecke central coreBeinecke Rare Book Library Interior, central glass enclosed core containing and displaying the rare book collection

I’m mentioning Bunshaft’s and Rudolf’s buildings together not only because they represent the extremes of Brutalist estheticone dangerous, the other relatively safe—but each is a considered building which gives us an opportunity for intimate engagement with the architect.

a & a interior with orangeI am confident that Rudolph walked through every inch of his building, savoring its variations of light and texture, traversing the polished concrete floors and sinking into the plush persimmon carpeting, turning a corner from cozy alcove to expansive vista. All without benefit of computer graphics.

Notwithstanding Rudolf’s impolitic blunders, I am not surprised that the most recent transformationof (and addition to) his building by Gwathmey Siegel, have changed the critical tune.

Nicholai Ouroussoff, in his New York Times article (August 27, 2008), noted that “The result should stun those who have continued to deny Rudolph’s talent. Now seen in its full glory, his building turns out to be a masterpiece of late Modernism, one that will force many to reappraise an entire period of Modernist history and put Rudolph back on the pedestal where he belongs.”

More to the point, the Brutalist esthetic has been established as a major impulse of Modernism, embracing buildings as potently problematic as A&A and as sumptuously simple as Beinecke. Neither building is an obvious guggenheimfit in its neighborhood, but each enhances the neighborhood, sets it in motion, invigorates it, like the Guggenheim did decades ago as it spiraled up on its street corner of the Manhattan grid.

Certainly neither is modest nor shy about its size. But just as Frank Stella could not have executed his monumental steel pieces in miniature to the same effect, size matters in Brutalism; the sheer weight of the materials often flirts with gravity, seldom shy about gravitas. This is serious architecture for serious people.

But where are the massive planes of yesteryear, the heart-stopping cantilevers and heroic architectural engagement of space and material? While its eyesores remain tenacious, its glories are being overshadowed by the Just Plain Nasty, which includes all of those buildings that have appropriated the aggressive forms of Brutalism without its soaring ambition and understanding of detail. Imagine Mad Max outfitted by Tommy Hilfiger.

More in the next installment, where we discover Nasty in our midst.

Page 3: Bart Teush

November 27, 2013

Theatre, Film

bart

Mike Nichols’ Betrayal:
You Can’t Argue with Success
(Well, maybe just this once…)

Twenty-five years ago I eagerly anticipated a production of Waiting for Godot at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an all-star godot playbillcast, including Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham and Robin Williams.

I saw it.

For me, the two most vivid images of the evening were Al Goldstein (then publisher of Screw magazine) and Lauren Bacall, both asleep in the audience.

Waiting For Godot was, like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a must-see event based on the names attached. The obvious question arises now, as it did in 1988, how could so much talent be assembled without anything resembling a significant result—aside from the guaranteed gate for such a star-studded package and the opportunity to see real-life husband and wife, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, betrayed?

Like Waiting for Godot,Betrayal is a challenging play. betrayal 2013Its intricate narrative flows backward in time, telling the story of Robert (a publisher), Emma (a gallery owner and Robert’s wife), and Jerry (a literary agent, Robert’s best friend since university and Emma’s long-time secret lover).

Like Waiting for Godot, it is a deep and accommodating text if the actors and director begin by making only three monumentally simple assumptions:

1) the characters all mean exactly what they say;

2) each time a character speaks he or she accomplishes something quite specific, not merely a broad intention or simple attitude; and

3) the characters do not keep saying and therefore doing the same thing over and over again, anymore than we do, for lack of a better phrase, “in real life”.

For instance, Jerry remembers a moment in Emma’s and Robert’s kitchen with their daughter. “I threw her up”, he recalls. By “I” he means himself, by “her” he means Emma and Robert’s little girl, and by “threw her up” he must mean he lifted her and tossed her up in the air, presumably catching her on the way down. No matter who’s acting Jerry, no matter what he’s been directed to do or think, if he doesn’t mean exactly this when he tells Emma (and us) “I threw her up” then he’s no more acting the character of Jerry than a bus driver is driving a bus with his hands off the wheel.

Let me beat this to death a moment longer.

Before the actor does anything else,” means anything else. He must make a statement of absolute fact based on a clear memory or vision. To ask if he really does these very specific acts of mind because he’s acting in a play would be like asking an NFL linebacker if he really tackles a runner because he’s playing a game. We don’t go to a football game to see the game interpreted; we go to see it, duh, played.

If the actor fails to commit these obvious but crucial acts, let’s call them “acts of mind” then absolutely nothing will happen, at that moment or in the very next moment—when, in the case of this wonderful play, Emma reminds Jerry that it was not her kitchen, but his kitchen, where this playfulness took place. His memory has betrayed him, not an unimportant event in the development of his character, nor in a play titled Betrayal

Sounds simple, but in just such fundamentals a production nichols3of Betrayal evolves, and this production remained clueless. The evening at the Barrymore was mechanical, predigested, synthetic; attitudes, mannerisms, rhythms and gestures were hauled from one scene to the next by actors who seemed otherwise unengaged and undirectedbeyond engaging in some extraneous behavior grafted on despite its irrelevance—perhaps intended to pinterkeep our attention, but also to assert the director’s control in lieu of more important work avoided elsewhere, and definitely in lieu of doing what Pinter handed Nichols to do, time after time.

Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, astutely describes a few of these garnishes and gives a feel for three separate moments in what he rightly called a “crude and clunky” evening:

Once Jerry leaves, Emma starts to cower and tremble as if she expects Robert to hit her. Instead he kisses her — hard and bruisingly — and then forces her onto the sofa where he starts to undress her. Between you and me, I’m not really sure how much Emma wants what’s coming, even if Robert is Daniel Craig. But it’s an unsettling, uncomfortable moment, fraught with blurred layers of love, hate and power.

Let me pause here to give you Pinter’s original stage directions for that moment: ‘Robert returns. He kisses her. She responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her.’ That suggests rather a different tone, no?

There are no stage directions, either, for the simulated copulation (she’s on top) that takes place . . . between Jerry and Emma in the love nest where they meet for erotic matinees. Nor is there any indication in the script regarding the scene in which the affair between them begins, that he is as drunk as any jerk in a Hangover movie, and she is smoking pot.”

Three interpolations, presumably by Nichols, three pointless intrusions, three evasions of what is given to be done. I’m not suggesting, I hope you realize by now, that we should sit in the audience with a copy of the play and follow along to make sure the director and actors are doing the play as it was written.

But what is the effect of all this aimless sidestepping if they don’t?

Frank Rich, in his original review of Waiting for Godot, answers the question in brief. Commenting on Robin Williams’ rendition of Estragon, Rich observes, “it seems a waste that Mr. Williams rarely stands still long enough to permit his partner to engage him in an intimate exchange;” the key word, “intimate”, the key act, “engage”, the key event, an “exchange.”

The arbitrary agitation at the Mitzi E. Newhouse in 1988 barred intimacy, just like the lathered-up dry humping and pot smoking at the Barrymore in 2013. Each of the three accomplished actors in Betrayal was a creature of the director’s intentions, not the writer’sdependency on one side, control on the othera theatrical welfare state.

Truthfully, looking back, I don’t remember one intimate exchange in a text whose only reason to exist is the intimacy of the exchanges it provokes. After all these decades Nichols was again hanging actors out to dry.

So if we want to hand out blame at the Barrymore, I don’t believe it was at all the fault of the actors. Although Daniel Craig might not like to hear it, any 60 seconds of his work as James Bond has more dimension, authority and wit (and engagement with his counterparts) than any moment he was allowed to achieve as Robert. Neither Rachel Weisz nor Rafe Spall had a moment together that would account for their attraction to one another; Jerry, despite his centrality in the play (standing in for Pinter himself in the drame à clef), was an afterthought to Robert, and Robert’s indifference was iterated and reiterated until he became a green thought betrayal-posterin a green shade. (We only have to compare David Jones’ casting of Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley in the far more conscientious 1983 film to see how far from Pinter’s shore Nichols marooned these actors.)

Enough said; enough done.

I don’t want to take anything away from anyone’s achievements elsewhere, but there was something so wrong-headed about this mash-up of intentions, something so perverse about the avoidance of the play and falsely promising about the packaging, that I hope another 25 years will pass before a writer, cast, or audience is lured by the promise of past successes, which, as on Wall Street, bull is clearly no guarantee of future results.

Page 3: Bart Teush

November 12, 2013

bart

 

 

How To Prepare, Drink, and Fully Appreciate
a Root Beer Float

 

The Root Beer Float, properly made, has not only the layers of complexity of any great culinary invention, wine or spirit, but is one of the few recipes that is more complicated in its consumption than its preparation—that is, if you want to experience the full pleasure of this masterpiece of simplicity.

root beerFirst, the root beer has to have intense flavor (Stewart’s is good). The ice cream? Only vanilla—the higher the butterfat the better. (Häagen-Dazs will do, but try for even richer and more vanilla.) However, a float will fulfill expectations with any ice cream that isn’t so beaten in with air that it immediately decomposes.This is important, because the pleasure of the float is in the pace and sequencethe eating and the drinking.

Suffice it to say, the better the ice cream vanilla_ice_cream430x300and the root beer, the more long-lasting it is—and the more fine distinctions you can enjoy, down to that final half-inch at the bottom of the glass.

But before I map the route, I have to emphasize that this is a “Float,” not a soda or a shake. The perfection of the Float depends on the developing relationships between the Root Beer, which I’ll call the Fill, and the ice cream, which I’ll call the Ice Cream.

ice cream spoonA few other ground rules: the glass should be tallish, empty mugthe spoon longish, not too big, not too small a bowl; a teaspoon, not a soupspoon.

Now, the Root Beer Float, the developing relationships, the experience:

First, The Fill.

The Ice Cream, one medium-to-small scoop of vanilla, must be anchored, in part, to the edge of the glass so it appears to float, just kissing the surface of the Fill, which should be equal to, say, one bottle of ice-cold Root Beer. This creates the first step on the ladder of pleasure for the Float Drinker: the Foam

The Foam: This is the subtle overture to the symphony to follow; it contains all of the flavors, but in their airy, evanescent incarnation (unlike other foams which are intense reductions of flavor).

Start off eating just the Foam with the spoon; here you introduce yourself to the flavor of the Fill and The Cream and begin to establish your pace and rhythm. This pace and rhythm are as important as the ingredients. You cannot pause in consuming a Root Beer Float. This does not mean shoveling it in, not at all. But it is not a stop-and-start experience. Once you start, you keep going until it’s gone. Steady on.

After a few spoonfuls of The Foam, start eating the Foam and the Ice Cream—again, in small tastes—actually the nature of the float will prohibit anything but small tastes, because you can’t go chasing the Ice Cream around the Fill. You can’t stab it or sink it or, under any circumstance, stir it; you have to keep it floating. This restraint pays off in creating The Cream (but more of that later).

So, it’s a gradual advance you make through the layers of texture and flavor. After a few spoonfuls of the Foam and the Ice Cream, start adding in the Fill; this will be your first full taste of the Root Beer. This combination of Foam, Fill, and Ice Cream will take you some distance down the glass. Good Ice Cream will stay afloat and keep its shape until you’ve consumed as much as half the glass, certainly a good third.

The magic, though, happens while you take these first careful steps. All the while youre tasting the small spoonsful of The Foam, The Fill, and the Ice Cream, there is a covert infusion of Ice Cream in the Root Beer, which creates the opportunity for sipping the supernal Cream, that Root Beer-infused ambrosia.

A few notes: Please use only a semi-wide straw straws(you can’t savor a Root Beer Float through a water main), which allows the Fill to remain cold and Root Beer-y at the end; The Cream should be exceedingly velvety and rich; and your thirst will, I promise, be quenched in your final, uninterruptedly pleasurable, uptake of The Float.

A few more notes: The Float is not to be accompanied by anything but thirst. I repeat: the pace must be steady at whatever modest speed works, but you can’t stop. And don’t be rough with the ingredients, at first or through the final sipping of the Cream. Don’t poke and push and prod the Ice Cream around and, above all, don’t—don’t ever—stir; the beauty of this drink is how it evolves without any interference other than consuming it.

If you make any mistakes, you lose distinctions—the distinctions of flavor, temperature, texture—the distinctions, which are everything.

root-beer-float-federico-arceNow you see that drinking a Root Beer float is a patient, careful process; not diamond- cutting, but definitely not just a sloppy chow down.  As in undertaking any discipline, your care, restraint, and concentration will guarantee the payoff.

Enjoy.


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