Friday, February 24, 2012


If you've been paying any attention at all to the layout of this blog (okay, that's about two of you, including me), you've hopefully noted that the typography has just changed. And if you are at all passionate about fonts (typefaces to the uninitiated) as I am, and if you appreciate rigor and minimalism (again as I do) then you are doubtless a member of the cult of FUTURA, the greatest of all Modern typefaces.

In the world of fonts, you have two main divisions: serif and san serif. Serifs are the fine, arching end elements that give traditional fonts much of their character.

The great serif fonts are named after their creators, Garamond (think traditional and bookish), Bodoni (think of any fashion rag or anything in them) and Caslon (think of adverts for any staggeringly expensive upscale English traditional whatever, though M. Caslon was French).

Then there are the san serifs, modern typefaces lacking such calligraphic embellishments, and standing head-and-shoulders above all other san serif fonts is FUTURA, the Zeus on the Mons Olympus of the font universe. (No, the name is not all-caps, but it simply looks so beautiful when presented so.)

FUTURA was created by the German typographer Paul Renner, inspired by the pure geometries of Bauhaus design. The original font, released by the Bauer Type Foundry in 1927, was supplemented by Renner in 1930, 1932 and again in 1933. The infamous Extra Bold, Madison Avenue's mainstay for a half-century and counting, was designed by Edwin Shaar and released in 1952.

FUTURA's cult status is due to the incisive clarity of Renner's design, based upon the simplicity of archetypal geometrical forms: the circle, square and triangle. Renner took extraordinary care in crafting each letter, and though the design seemingly is based on pure geometrical forms, even the capital "O" is slightly ovoid. Likewise, the stroke-weight is nearly uniformly even, and this when combined with the nearly pure geometry gives FUTURA its distinctive rigor, but again Renner took particular care to vary the thickness slightly from element to element to please the eye.

Finally, the lowercase letters have almost exaggeratedly tall ascenders, rising even above the line of the capitals, which makes them the most idiosyncratic element of FUTURA's design. Their uniqueness is redoubled by the nearly pure circularity of the c, d, e, g, o and p, an a priori design element which determined the unusual character of the lowercase letters, and which makes lowercase FUTURA text appear to be at least 2 points smaller than other fonts.

Here is a short video appreciation of FUTURA, well worth 2 minutes of your time:

FUTURA has from the outset, and today still maintains, an enormous success and a near-ubiquitous usage in all graphic media. After nearly a century, it remains among the most highly coveted fonts and is distributed on the web under license by Adobe's typekit.

As well it should, as it is pure genius.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Potocki palaces

We have had the great good fortune to create commissioned portraits of two exceptional palaces, the first in Lviv (Ukraine) and in now in Paris, legacies of the renowned Potocki family, ancient and influential Polish nobles, comparable to the Stroganoffs of Russia and the Rohans of France. (Below, Jacques-Louis David's famed equestrian portrait of Count Stanisław Kostka Potocki, which the painter later recycled for Napoléon.)

The family's history is inextricably enmeshed with that of Poland, and unfurls a staggering procession of statesmen, generals and magnates stretching back to the 10th century. Until the calamity of World War II befell Poland, the family's several branches held over forty major town palaces, châteaux and manors and controlled over a quarter of the country's territory. In comparison, the French Bourbons appear dilettantes in the domain of architectural patronage. Today former Potocki properties are found from Georgia and the Ukraine in the east to Paris in the west, and several notable examples are illustrated at the end of this post.

Above is our freshly completed elevation of the Hôtel Potocki, built in 1884 by the architect Jules Reboul, which stands at 27 avenue Friedland in Paris's 8th arrondissement. The hôtel was among the grandest town palaces built in Paris in the late 19th century, designed in the neo-Louis XIV style that defined the era, its central, square-planned dome evoking the Tuileries palace and its column screens recalling the Enveloppe of Versailles.

The Potocki family was admired in Paris for their remarkable generosity to their countrymen and for their extensive charity works; for example, they erected the church of Corpus Christi on donated land adjoining the hôtel during its construction. The dependencies, formerly located on rue Châteaubriand and today destroyed, were renowned for their stables, which featured 38 mahogany horse stalls with rose marble watering troughs and some fifty grooms on permanent call.

Heirs sold the hôtel to the Paris Chamber of Commerce in 1923, which carried out two campaigns of renovations, the second in the early 1930s employing the era's foremost talents: renowned art-déco decorator and ébeniste Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, the silversmiths Christofle (which executed the remarkable monumental bronze door seen in the detail at top), the sculptor Joseph Bernard and the interior decorator Jules Leleu.

The watercolor itself is a vast miniature, well over a yard long, and required months to execute. One number stands out: 1364, which is the number of window panes drawn and painted.

Below is our earlier watercolor depicting the former Potocki Palace in Lviv, today a residence of the president of the Ukraine.

Other former Potocki residences include the "Versailles of Poland," Wilanów Palace,

the beautiful Łańcut Castle near Rzeszow, Poland,

and its handsome orangerie,

the neoclassical jewel of Natolin on the outskirts of Warsaw,

the Potocki Palace, Warsaw,

the magnificent neoclassical Potocki Palace in Tulchyn, today the Ukraine,

the Potocki Palace in Radzyń,

the Italianate Krzeszwicke Palace, today in disrepair.

Again, just a sampling of a remarkable architectural heritage.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ooh la la! Le Met goes Louvre

Tiens! Dis donc. Just a few weeks ago, posting on the absurdity of planting the Eiffel Tower, we'd taken aim at the Met as well for the shabby way it has (mis-)treated its monumental beaux-arts façade, using it as a glorified laundry-line since the days of Thomas Hoving.

Clearly others have been thinking the same thing as well, most important among them the person writing a check for the $60-odd million it will cost to renovate the 4-block-long strip of the Museum's Fifth Avenue street frontage: the 0.01% of the 1%, multigazillionaire David Koch.

Pandering to barely conceivable wealth, the NY Times article leads you to believe that Koch was the one who had the Eureka! moment, after he'd seen the renovated fountain at Lincoln Center, and that the project sprang from his imagination like Venus from Saturn's brow.

Apparently not quite. The Times also reported (below the fold, of course) that Emily Rafferty, the Met's president, had been looking for a donor for years. And years. (Echoes of Saint Simon, who wrote how the Sun King's architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, always planted an obvious error in his plans so that Louis XIV could point it out, and then he would profess astonishment that he himself had not seen it and praise the king for his penetrating eye, thereby leading him wherever he wanted. Plus ça change...)

So, thank you Mr. Koch for the check, thank you Ms. Rafferty for your persistence and evident fund-raising skills. And what exactly does one get for $60 not-nearly-as-big-as-they-used-to-be ones these days?

Pretty much what the Louvre got a decade ago (less the glass pyramid, the upscale underground shopping mall, and Dan Brown and Tom Hanks). The planning was done by the Philadelphia-based landscape design firm OLIN, who have also renovated other important Manhattan public spaces, Bryant Park and Columbus Circle.

To paraphrase another of Saint Simon's anecdotes, this one when Louis XIV asked Le Notre what he thought of Hardouin-Mansart's work in the gardens of Marly, "Hire a landscaper and you get a landscape." Gone are those triste 70s lozenge-shaped fountains stranded amid acres of pink granite, like the pompous afterthoughts they were. We now will have, as of 2014, two large, square I.M. Pei/Louvresque fontaines flanking the steps before the William Morris Hunt main façade, and beyond them pairs of square bosquets of untrimmed London plane trees with seating beneath, just as you'd find in the Tuileries gardens.

Fronting the outer McKim, Mead & White end pavilions, which project farthest toward Fifth Avenue, we get long allées of iconic clipped lindens redolent of the Champs-Elysées and the gardens of Le Notre. And we get café seating with rollout awnings just like you get all over Paris (though you'll probably be tasered if you try to smoke while sipping your Chardonney there).

We don't want to quibble here—after all, who doesn't like a tree?—and we rather like the bustle that will result from the shoe-horned fountains and bosquests-cum-food courts, and are amused by the provocation of Descartean plotted, poodle-clipped and tortured trees appearing in Manhattan, but must note that the allées are far too close to the buildings (well, truth be told everything is far too crammed and far too close to the buildings, but hey, it's New York). Clearly though, this idea of disengaging important public monuments from their surroundings is about as dead as classical architecture itself, and we doubt that even Mr. Koch is wealthy and influential enough to buy and raze the four blocks facing the Met to Madison Avenue (Park would be ideal) and get the job done right. He shouldn't feel too badly though; even the Sun King was forced to content himself with a rump front yard for the Louvre, unable to dislodge some very stubborn clerical holdouts in the church of St-Germain l'Auxerrois.

Hopefully the Met will also take another cue from the Tuileries and not max out on the Au Bon Pain kiosks but also find a few appropriate spots for public sculpture as well.

Curiously, and against all current French practice, the Met wishes to encourage use of secondary entrances accessible at the plaza level. This flies in the face of French logic, which holds that the larger and more important the public building and the greater the attendance, the fewer entrances should be open because only two security guards can be afforded in the operating budget, though massive amounts can be spent on the design of monumental doors that will never be used.

(Below, the Opéra Bastille's grandiose entrance 20 minutes before the opening curtain, and the Louvre's solution of how to enliven its vast inner court.)

If the architect has for some reason included more than two doors, as is often the case, they are best condemned with these plastic chains (approved by the fire inspectors, apparently as they will quickly melt in case of a serious conflagration), and visitors are to be herded with bicycle-stand barriers, neither of which any public building in Paris worth its sel de mer can ever have enough of.

If the Met really wants to go the whole nine metres here, we'd highly recommend they close off the main stairs with a few dozen yards of plastic chain and route all visitors via a makeshift labyrinth through any random entrance they see fit, chosen in a weekly lottery held by their maintenance staff.

At night, the Met's façade will now be lit by low-energy LED lights, instead of spots from across the street, just as in the Louvre's stunning Cour Carrée. All in all, a consummately pleasant, coherent and inviting plan that will turn the Met's Fifth Avenue frontage into the world's longest sidewalk café.

Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg has refused the Met's proposal to flood Fifth Avenue in the 80s and replace the M4 bus with MTA-run bâteaux-mouches.

No mention is made of gendarmes on roller blades or motionless street mimes or roving bands of fiercely cool fashionistas or bad accordian interpretations of Piaf or even if Woody Allen will be lurking about, but surely these necessary if minor clichés will not be forgotten to ensure the Met's complete francophilic transformation.

We'd only point out one inexcusable faux pas that gives the whole game away: those ridiculously suburban foundation plantings, pasted against a classical limestone façade that runs nearly ¼ mile long.

Tellement américain.