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The Built Environment - Frank Lloyd Wright & The Bauhaus

The Built Environment - Frank Lloyd Wright & The Bauhaus

Frank Lloyd Wright and his model of the Guggenheim Museum

“Less is more.” - Mies van der Rohe. New York Herald Tribune, 1959.

“The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” - Frank Lloyd Wright, The New York Times Magazine, 1953.

Perhaps no other art form approaches that of contemporary architecture and design in its scale and diversity, or its extraordinary impact on lives and places. And certainly no other art has faced the enormous challenges that followed the liberation of architecture from Modernist axioms, or has invested equivalent energies in redefining that highly debatable doctrine. Two adjectives have distinguished architectural debate during the last few decades of the twentieth-century - dynamic and disquieting. It was not the velocity, the degree, or the kind of change that was so unsettling, nor the often elevated temperature of the debate between Modernists and Post-Modernists, since change and controversy are only an indication of a vital and animated art. The high ratio between unsolved problems and unfulfilled promises was a rather the sign of a transitional period. The only universal conclusion is that something significant and distinctly unsettling has happened.

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Exactly what has occurred is not always clear, however, largely due to the variety of factors peculiar to those times that make judgement difficult. The new architecture was shaped as much by the speed, effectiveness, and glamour of communications, with all of its distortions and false gods, as by the conventional course of art, technology, and controlling market forces. Publishing - that mixed blessing of information and promotion - has only exacerbated the problem. Never have there been so many books on architecture or such an avalanche of journals, from international magazines to student periodicals, with so many of them distinguished by the high seriousness of their tone, the quality of their historical and critical discussions, and the expensive beauty of their design and production. After years of publishing aridity, we are torn between gratitude for this outpouring and alarm over the bandwagon mentality and the often merely fashionable character of the product. For every useful study that increases our knowledge of the architecture of the past century, there seems to be an equal number of tiresome tirades devoted to the gross misreading of recent architectural history fed by the factual errors and faulty assumptions that have become part of the accepted mythology of Post-Modernism.

Two recent documentaries presented as part of this year's New Zealand Art & Architecture Film Festival neatly illustrate the twin horns of this dilemma - Ian Michael Jones' Frank Lloyd Wright - The Man Who Built America and Niels Bolbrinker and Thomas Tielsch's Bauhaus Spirit. In a career spanning seven decades, Wright built over five hundred buildings and changed the face of modern architecture forever. His use of glass and concrete was unprecedented, while his ideas about open-plan living, the kitchen as the heart of the home, and organic design with an intimate connection to nature were all pioneered by a genius with a quasi-religious belief in the idea of constant innovation through the agency of mankind. Similarly, the Bauhaus promoted an over-arching constructive discipline that attempted to meld sculpture, painting, design, and architecture into a synthesis of free imagination and strict structure, enrichment and simplification, light and clarity. As such, it constitutes one of the most significant contributions to everyday twentieth-century culture and contemporary design. From Apple computers to the avant-garde of sustainable future-oriented architecture, the extensive reach and influence of its founding principles still surround us today.

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Wright enjoyed a long engagement with several of the most progressive currents in American society, beginning in infancy when his mother exposed him to the innovative pedagogical practices of the German education reformer Friedrich Fröbel. It continued throughout his youth with the preaching of his renowned social activist and pacifist uncle, the Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones; included immersion in the early twentieth century’s most advanced feminist ideas, which were shared by his freethinking companion Mamah Borthwick; and extended to ecological preservation, as signified by his being made an honorary member of the Friends of Our Native Landscape, an early environmental advocacy group founded in 1913. Wright’s subsequent support for the isolationist America First Committee between the outbreak of WW II in Europe and Pearl Harbor is often seen as a conservative retreat from those formative beliefs, but he always insisted that his opposition to US involvement in foreign conflicts was based entirely on pacifist, not political principles.

Wright believed strongly in individualism and refused to affiliate himself with the American Institute of Architects, calling the organization "a harbor of refuge for the incompetent" and "a form of refined gangsterism." When an associate referred to him as "an old amateur," Wright confirmed, "I am the oldest." He rarely acknowledged any influences on his designs, but most scholars agree there were at least five: Louis Sullivan, whom he considered to be his Lieber Meister (dear master); nature, particularly shapes/forms and colors/patterns of plant life; music (his favorite composer was Beethoven); Japanese art, prints, and buildings; and the educational play materials for children known as Fröbel Gifts. Wright also enjoyed designing his own unique clothing (exhibiting a penchant for expensive suits, flowing neckties, and capes) and had a lifelong fascination with automobiles, purchasing his first car in 1909, a Stoddard-Dayton roadster. Some of his last cars in the 1950s included four Volkswagens, a Chevrolet Nomad wagon, and a flashy Jaguar Mark VII. He owned some fifty cars between 1909 and his death, including many exotic vehicles, but during the cash-strapped Depression years, confined himself to less expensive vehicles.

Although Wright’s principal response to the Depression is commonly seen as his founding in 1932 of the Taliesin Fellowship - the idealistic work-study commune that served both as an architecture school and his office - between the World Wars he accepted two commissions that displayed his ability to imaginatively rethink social issues. The Little Farms Unit project of 1932-33 was intended for a back-to-the-land initiative on Long Island that would have fostered small regional agriculture as a means of making people self-sufficient at a time of widespread economic collapse and catastrophic unemployment. The low-rise, streamlined, multipurpose food-processing and marketing facility that Wright devised as a replicable prototype for this experiment in modern subsistence farming was underwritten by the businessman Walter V. Davidson. A former advertising executive for the Larkin Soap Company, whose monumental Buffalo headquarters of 1903-06 Wright designed, Davidson commissioned a Prairie House from the architect in 1908. Decades later he returned to Wright to help realize this utopian rural rescue mission, which never moved beyond the planning stage despite Davidson’s obsessive projections. Wright’s sleekly Modernist concept looks more like the contemporaneous work of the Dutch De Stijl architect J.J.P. Oud.

Of equal significance as socially motivated design is Wright’s unrealized Rosenwald School of 1928 for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. Sponsored by the Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald - president and later chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Company, then the world’s largest catalog retailer - the project was meant to give architectural distinction to a charitable vocational education program dedicated to freeing poor rural blacks from an intractable cycle of poverty. Wright’s scheme departed from the neo-Colonial daintiness of previous designs that had been pursued under the widely admired “Hampton Ideal,” and proposed a cloister-like unit dominated by a dramatic central structure, with twin-peaked roofs as if two A-frame houses had been laterally conjoined, quite unlike the earth-hugging structures generally associated with him. In her probing analysis of this long-lost scheme, Mabel O. Wilson does not rationalize the paternalistic undertone of racial condescension inescapable in Wright’s hope that through his design “the Darkies would have something that belonged to them. Something exterior of their own lively interior color and charm.” To say that Wright (who was born just two years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, originally named Frank Lincoln Wright in his memory, and died in 1959 at the age of ninety-one) was simply echoing the prevalent racial attitudes of his time might sound like special pleading. Those who knew him well (including his longtime photographer, the Mexican-American Pedro E. Guerrero, himself subjected to bigotry in the pre-war Southwest) have testified that Wright was one of the least prejudiced men they had ever met amid the endemic racism of mid-twentieth-century America.

Although Wright was a born draftsman (as demonstrated by his intricate, ethereal 1892 drawing of a bronze gate for the Wainwright Tomb in St. Louis, designed by his boss Louis Sullivan), from the very start of his independent practice the following year he hired talented renderers to create presentation drawings of his projects. One of Wright’s earliest collaborators, Marion Mahony was, like Wright himself, entranced by the woodblock prints of Japanese masters that had become all the rage among Western artists during the second half of the nineteenth century. Her delicately toned rendering of a lesser-known Prairie House - his DeRhodes residence of 1906 in South Bend, Indiana - mimics the flattened planes, strong outlines, and suggestive voids typical of the Ukiyo-e style. Beneath her signature she added, “After FLLW and Hiroshige.” Wright, who had a deeply acquisitive streak that impelled him to buy beautiful things even when he could not pay his grocer’s bills, and amassed such a large hoard of Japanese graphics that, like many other compulsive, but impecunious collectors, became a dealer both to balance his books and to further feed his habit.

In 1903, while Wright was designing a house for Edwin Cheney (a neighbor in Oak Park), he took a fancy to Cheney's wife, Mamah Borthwick, an early feminist with interests outside the home whom Wright viewed as his intellectual equal. The two fell in love and soon became the talk of the town, as they were often seen taking rides in Wright's automobile. His family had grown to six children, but Wright was not parental and relied on his wife Kitty to care for them. Kitty, sure that this attachment would fade as the others had, refused to grant him a divorce. By 1913, when Wright’s architectural practice had come to a halt because of the public scandal he caused by leaving Kitty and setting up house with Borthwick, he traveled to Japan with the express purpose of raising cash by buying and selling prints. Bankrolled by two rich Boston aesthetes, the Spaulding brothers, the out-of-work architect, as he later wrote - “established a considerable buying power and anything available in the ordinary channels came first to me…until I had spent about one hundred and twenty-five thousand Spaulding dollars for about a million dollars’ worth of prints.” Proof of Wright’s discriminating eye was evident in a small, but exquisite recent exhibition, The Formation of the Japanese Print Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School, at the museum where the architect arranged a show with some of the same pieces in 1908, not least to create a local market for his lucrative sideline.

In August 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago, Julian Carlton set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead included Borthwick, her two children, a gardener, a draftsman, a workman, and another workman's son. Two people survived the mayhem, one of whom helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton swallowed hydrochloric acid after the attack and was almost lynched on the spot, but was taken to the Dodgeville jail, where he died from starvation seven weeks later. In 1922, Kitty finally granted Wright a divorce, under the terms of which he was required to wait one year before marrying his new mistress, Maude "Miriam" Noel, in November 1923. Her morphine addiction to led to the failure of their marriage in less than a year. In 1924, after the separation, but while still married, Wright met Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenburg at a Petrograd Ballet performance in Chicago. They moved in together at Taliesin and soon Olgivanna was pregnant with their daughter, who was born out of wedlock in 1925. As a result of all these personal scandals, as well as the demise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a resurgent Classical revival in the US, and the emergence of more radical forms of Modernism in Europe, Wright's job prospects diminished during a crucial midlife decade when architects usually receive their most important commissions. It was only the sheer force of his titanic will and capacity to constantly readapt his protean talents to new conditions - for example by taking up the new technique of concrete-block construction in Southern California during the 1920s and devising affordable “Usonian” houses for middle-class Americans in the 1930s - that gave him a second career during his final quarter-century, wholly different from but comparable in inventiveness to his Prairie School period of 1900-14.

Once Wright finally shifted into a professional upswing after the late 1930s, he spent even more time exploiting his public persona. The degree to which he became America’s most recognizable architect between Stanford White and Philip Johnson through his skillful manipulation of mass media speaks to his acute understanding of celebrity culture in this country. Two film clips now on view at MoMA record his disarmingly deft star turns on 1950s TV talk and quiz shows, with deadpan timing worthy of Jack Benny. Yet for all his serial self-reinventions, Wright never lost sight of his core mission of reshaping architecture into a wholly consistent reflection of democratic American values as he understood them.

The care, audacity, and originality with which Wright orchestrated the public presentation of his revolutionary architecture and thereby finessed its positive critical reception is laid out in Kathryn Smith’s Wright on Exhibit: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architectural Exhibitions. Despite its apparently circumscribed subject matter, the book widens into an intriguing treatise on career development and is so illuminatingly detailed that it provides a richer portrait of Wright than many full-length biographies. It would be hard to find a more concise, yet poetic summation of Wright’s quantum leap at the dawn of the twentieth century than Smith’s description of the typical Prairie House and Wright’s concomitant introduction of the open plan, a pivotal moment in the history of modern architecture -

“A major conceptual breakthrough that he made early on was the realization that mechanical heating made it no longer necessary to close rooms off from each other to conserve heat. This discovery led to the open plan in public spaces - for instance, where the living room opened to the dining room on a diagonal - while maintaining compartmentalized rooms for services. With the hearth no longer used as the major source of heat, Wright was free to use it as a freestanding vertical plane in space.

The other major advance represented by the Prairie House was the rejection of the wall as the traditional solid barrier between inside and outside ... He broke the wall down into a series of elements such as piers, flat planes, and window bands - all geometrically organized by dark wood strips. The wall was now defined as an enclosure of space. Windows were no longer holes punched through a mass, but a light screen filtering sunlight into the interior. The movement out toward the landscape was amplified by the addition of porches, terraces, flower boxes, and planter urns …

The straight line of the horizon became the low sheltering roof, trees and flowers were abstracted as geometric patterns in the art glass windows, and leaves contributed their autumnal palette to the plaster surfaces.”

Wright may have been a tireless self-promoter, but confirmation of his incomparable popularity today is inescapable when one goes to any of the more than 140 buildings by him open to visitors in the US and Japan, about one third of his total executed output. Those landmarks are the subject of Wright Sites: A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright Public Places, the essential vademecum first published in 1991 and recently reissued to accommodate several more buildings that have begun admitting people in recent years. In contrast to most modern architectural venues, his buildings attract a broad cross-section of nonspecialists who may not even be regular museum visitors. There is clearly something about Wright that speaks to the general public in a way that the work of no other architect has achieved. Drawing the highest attendance figures of any of his buildings is New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of 1943-59, with 873,402 visitors in 2016 reported by The Art Newspaper. One might suppose there are numerous books on this endlessly celebrated structure, but most writing about it has been confined to essays in more general publications on Wright’s work. That lacuna probably prompted The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iconoclastic Masterpiece by the architectural historian Francesco Dal Co, but the relatively brief main text is hindered by an overly elaborate account of the Guggenheim’s complex structural engineering, which all save the most technically attuned professionals will likely find taxing. Those seeking a clearer account of how this eccentric masterpiece came into being should consult The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of the Modern Museum, an excellent collection of essays published in 2009.

In Lewis Mumford’s warmly sympathetic New Yorker review of Wright’s 1953 Guggenheim retrospective, the critic referred to him as the “Fujiyama of Architecture,” an apt metaphor for a master builder who seemed as ubiquitous and eternal as the snow-capped Japanese peak. Yet looking back once again on Wright’s achievement and the continued interest he inspires a century and a half after his birth, a more appropriate organic analogy might be the giant sequoia. Wright was the hardy evergreen of architecture who towered high above his contemporaries. Although no human being can ever approach the three-and-a-half-millennium lifespan of the oldest giant sequoia, this perennially life-affirming artist remains a phenomenon for the ages.

Tom Wolfe, in his jolly 1981 polemic against modern architecture entitled From Bauhaus to Our House, attributed the rise of the International Style in the US to America's chronic inability to “just say no.” Throughout the 1920s, impressionable young Americans touring Europe were beguiled by the various avant-garde groups - or “art compounds,” as Wolfe calls them - that were producing revolutionary new painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture, and design. By 1929, Europhilia had reached such a pitch that even the rich, who should have known better, were jumping on the Modernist bandwagon, some going as far as to found a Museum of Modern Art in which to display their collections. Wolfe believed, or affected to believe, that it was simply the desire to confound the bourgeoisie and to show off to one another that impelled them towards embracing Modernism. The most powerful of these architecture-and-design compounds, the legendary Bauhaus, was especially dazzling to American architects making the grand tour. “The height of excitement in American architectural circles was those brave new styles, North Shore Norman and Westchester Tudor, also known as Half-timber Stockbroker,” Wolfe dryly commented with delicious malice. ”What a goal to aspire to … as compared to … re-creating the world.

Wolfe wryly imagined how differently things might have turned out, if only Americans had said “Europe be hanged!” when Gropius and his colleagues all fled the horrors of Nazism with their Teutonic good looks and sachlich carpetbags in the late 1930s. America might have been spared the “row after Mies van der row of glass houses” that spread throughout American suburbia like Dutch elm disease. Instead, “The reception of Gropius and his confreres was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that period. Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant: The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!”

Few developments central to the history of art have been so misrepresented or misunderstood as the bravely, brief, and doomed existence of the Bauhaus - the epochally influential German art, architecture, crafts, and design school that was founded in Goethe’s sleepy hometown of Weimar by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1919. Literally translated as "architecture-house" (bau means building, construction, or structure, from Old High German buan - to dwell), it flourished from 1925 to 1932 in Dessau, an industrial backwater where Gropius built its image-making headquarters. Ultimately, but vainly, it sought refuge in cosmopolitan Berlin, where it was forced to close in 1933, after Hitler's ascent to power. Niels Bolbrinker and Thomas Tielsch's documentary examines the school's far-reaching and revolutionary impact on architecture in terms much closer to its actual intent and influence, as the term was subsequently extended to encompass the design principles it embodied.

During the past eight years in both Europe and the US, a remarkable concatenation of survey exhibitions, monographic retrospectives, and their accompanying publications have marked the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus with comprehensive overviews in Berlin and New York, as well as the work of two of its major protagonists, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (a traveling show seen at the Lenbachhaus in Munich and at the Pompidou Center in Paris before ending at New York’s Guggenheim Museum) and the Hungarian multimedia artist László Moholy-Nagy (with one show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and another at Chicago’s Loyola University Museum of Art). The works of Marcel Breuer, Joseph Albers, and Herbert Bayer have also been extensively and retrospectively reassessed. Even though it may have been premature to hold full-scale Bauhaus shows ten years prior to the institution’s centenary, it is certainly time for a long-overdue reassessment of this persistently stereotyped and often maligned powerhouse of modern culture.

One lingering popular fixation is the very notion of 'Bauhaus architecture' itself, which has become a misnomer for Modernist building design in general. Many of the leading figures of advanced twentieth-century architecture had nothing to do with the Bauhaus, including Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, Erich Mendelsohn, and Alvar Aalto, four of the school’s most conspicuous absentees. In fact, it was not until Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 -1969) became the third and final director in 1930, that its curriculum tilted decisively toward architecture at the expense of other disciplines. Another entrenched fallacy about the Bauhaus is that it was responsible for the lamentable global proliferation of uninspired corporate Modernist architecture after World War II. The real responsibility for that lies with squarely on the commercial property developers who exploited Mies' minimalist 'skin-and-bones' formula for steel-framed, glass-skinned high-rise buildings because they were cheaper and more profitable to build than pre-war, masonry-clad, and decoratively embellished structures. They imitated his schemes without a trace of his proportional subtlety or technical finesse.

The paradox of the early Bauhaus was that, although its manifesto proclaimed that the aim of all creative activity was building, the school did not offer classes in architecture until 1927. During the years under Gropius (1919-27), he and his partner Adolf Meyer observed no real distinction between the output of his architectural office and the school, so the built output of Bauhaus architecture in these years is almost entirely yhe output of Gropius - the Sommerfeld and Otte houses in Berlin, the Auerbach house in Jena, the definitive Bauhaus building in Dessau, and the competition design for the Chicago Tribune Tower, which first brought the school global attention. Apart from contributions to the 1923 Haus am Horn, student architectural work amounted to un-built projects, interior finishes, and craft work like cabinets, chairs, and pottery. Under Meyer's direction, the architectural focus shifted away from aesthetics and towards functionality. There were major commissions - one from the city of Dessau for five tightly designed Laubenganghäuser (apartment buildings with balcony access), which are still in use today, and another for the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau bei Berlin. While Meyer's approach was to research users' needs and scientifically develop the design solution, Mies repudiated his politics, his supporters, and his architectural approach. As opposed to Gropius's "study of essentials" and Meyer's research into user requirements, Mies advocated a "spatial implementation of intellectual decisions," which effectively meant an adoption of his own aesthetics. Neither Mies nor his Bauhaus students saw any projects built during the 1930s. Nor is the popular conception of the Bauhaus as the source of extensive Weimar-era working housing accurate. Two projects fall in that category - the apartment building project in Dessau and the Törten row housing also in Dessau - but developing worker housing was not the first priority of Gropius nor Mies.

A final curious fact is that one of the principal designers of the Auschwitz death factory, Fritz Ertl, was trained at the Bauhaus, the German design school now associated with the most enlightened aspects of the new architecture. Ertl’s partner in crime at Auschwitz was the all-too-aptly named architect August Schlachter (slaughterer). Their thoroughly depraved SS boss, Hans Kammler, was an architect who had worked under the socially aware Berlin housing architect Paul Mebes during the Weimar period, not to mention Albert Speer's training as an architect. Even though Hitler’s personal hatred for the supposedly un-Germanic International Style led his acolytes to reject its outward manifestations in favour of traditional Völkisch motifs such as the pitched roof, they were all too willing to retain the internal functional improvements of Modernism and apply them wholeheartedly to the Nazi killing machine.

Hans Wingler’s magnificent 1969 publication The Bauhaus, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago opens with two illustrated flyleaves, both almost blank. On the left, just slightly off center and near the bottom, is a sketchy drawing by Paul Klee in facsimile, illustrating the “Idea and Structure” of the Bauhaus. In the middle with a circle around them are the words Bau und Bühne - Building and Theater. Round this circle is a seven-pointed star with each of the crafts or media taught in the various workshops. Circumscribing this star is another circle in which is placed the famous Foundation Course or Vorkurs which was the Bauhaus distinctive contribution to art pedagogy. An elaborate, over-formalized symbol, perhaps - but a small pedestal is drawn at the bottom. From here a dotted axis goes through the circles to two small pennants placed on top. Klee’s device turns a diagram to be read like a map into an illusionistic rendering of a globe.

The other flyleaf is even whiter. Near the bottom margin is an emphatic text by Mies, translated as - “THE BAUHAUS WAS AN IDEA.” Together, the two modest flysheets are a typographic luxury of considerable refinement and illustrate the difficulties facing those who want to understand the Bauhaus as it is today, a self-perpetuating legend with an “organization” and “propaganda” apparatus unparalleled in art education. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer sense of style demonstrated by an institution in which the reality of the disparate and fragile relationship between students and teachers disappeared behind a façade of an immaculate presentation. All these manifestations are typically Bauhaus - Klee’s shifting focus between symbol and illusion, Mies’ metaphysical claims behind the resounding phrase, and the widest possible stylistic integration of diverse material. Nowhere is the power of this rhetorical technique better displayed in action than in the books they themselves published, the series of Bauhausbücher, in which the blank page was considered an artistic arena in its own right.

The Bauhaus became not only a curriculum of study, but also a work of art and a world in itself. It was never an institution with a clear program as much as a conceptual approach that Gropius and his faculty attempted to formulate with ever greater degrees of precision. The fact that it was an idea is the cause of the enormous global impact the Bauhaus has exerted on every subsequent progressive school of design. Bauhaus principles of composition have enjoyed a lasting sway on the fine arts (conspicuous in their secondary and tertiary application to the specific shapes and sensitive patterns of Charline von Heyl's shallow, yet totally contemporary canvases), as well as the mass production of fabric weaving, textile design, magazine illustrations, and advertising layouts. The impact of Mies' famous axiom “less is more” on Mark Wnek's brilliant 'Pure Genius' campaign for Guinness in the 1980s is clear as day. Such broad and far-reaching influence cannot be achieved simply by an organizational structure or propaganda machine. Only abstract concepts can spread so far, so rapidly, and in so many directions at once.

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