Thursday, March 22, 2012

Monumenti in Memoriam:
The Latest DC Memorials

Though sorely tempted, we initially let pass the dedication this past August of the lumpen, Social Realist debacle that is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. But now, with the unveiling of Frank Gehry's proposed Eisenhower Memorial, we can no longer resist, as it seems the perfect time to review what's been brewing, monument-wise, inside the Beltway. Unfortunately, nothing good.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Pompous and banal in its conception, stiff and ponderous in its execution, and reeking of an "Our Glorious Leader Makes Great Strides for the People" æsthetic that would doubtless have pleased Chairman Mao or Comrade Stalin, the MLK memorial has nothing discernable to do with the persona, eloquence or legacy of the civil-rights leader.

Beyond the embarrassing obviousness of the symbolism (MLK could move mountains! It's in the Bible and his speeches and stuff!), the memorial is constructed of white granite, the pale shade of which could only be found in China—though this begs the question of why a black man's portrait must be sculpted with the whitest granite to be found on earth.

This literal mountain of imported white Chinese granite—appropriately enough in its way—was pneumatic-chiseled by a sculptor imported from China as well. This of course explains why the King memorial looks so preternaturally like the sort of Communist-era monuments that have been vengefully toppled in such great numbers in the past few decades (and seeing as China pretty much owns the US by now anyway, we shouldn't be so surprised by all this, I suppose).

To compound the what-you-can-only-conclude-is-borderline-criminally-willful obtuseness which permeates this project, one of the citations chiseled into the side of the mountain-slice in which the reverend is embedded, à la Han Solo frozen in carbonite from The Empire Strikes Back, is a ham-fisted conflation that King never uttered ("I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness") and which, in Maya Angelou's words, "makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit."

A small recompense: Angelou's crusade has had an impact and the inscription will be re-carved. But don't let them stop there...

In all, pondering the MLK memorial for any length of time generates much the same reaction as pondering Congress for any length of time. Though everything else about it is wrong, it certainly is in the right city.

Frank Gehry's Memorial to President Eisenhower

No, that's not the memorial's official name, though it may as well be. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao was among the most poetic and innovative structures of its time, but that time was a quarter-century ago now and this tired bit of bombastic starchitecture is an utter disaster that should be roundly rejected.

First of all, Gehry's project is not a memorial, it's a drive-in theatre—though the pictures don't move and you can't park your car for all the trees and hordes of toddlers in strollers or just taking their first adorable little baby steps, if we are to believe the tiny, cardboard cut-out staffage on the presentation model.

The vast and pointlessly over-scaled postcard images of Eisenhower's life that are the basis of the design show a disturbing lack of creativity or serious thought. Millions have already been spent and tens of millions more have been earmarked to erect this vast, oppressive cage, but all that time, energy and money could be saved—and an equal educational impact be had—by printing the half-dozen images on a nice, glossy fold-out and distributing them for free from an on-site kiosk.

In yesterday's public hearings, Ike's grand-daughters excoriated the design for being overblown and reminiscent of Maoist propaganda posters, and certainly there is—yet again—the strong odor of Social Realism hanging about, but what is most unpardonable about the design is that the huge postcards are simply a facile and expedient solution, a tired Postmodernist cliché, and inexplicably Gehry has renounced his signature poetic curves and gone all formalist on us and the screens are sited and designed with clear, rectilinear precision.

None of this has anything to do with Frank Gehry, so what's going on here? Essentially, he took the idea of the blown-up PoMo postcards and fused it with the contemporary-euro-art-museum-perimeter-screen fetish in a desperate attempt to animate the design with a fading trend.

This bit of architectural cool was popularized by the French architect Jean Nouvel, initially at the Fondation Cartier (1994, above), where the building itself becomes a screen, and later at the Musée du quai Branly (2006, below), where a glass screen-wall replaces the classic French iron perimeter grille. The appropriation's traces are obvious because the grid has heretofore been anathema to Gehry, but Nouvel is its recognized maître.

Gehry here reminds one of Madonna: a past-prime-time trend vampire who, all the more painfully, latches onto the meme just as it turns to rancid cliché. Leon Krier has been in high dudgeon over Gehry's design (there's even a website devoted to loathing it, the conspiratorially named The Truth about the Eisenhower Memorial) but his anti-Modernist polemic entirely misses the real motivation and "inspiration" for what truly went into this mess. Frankly, Krier is plumbing the depths of a puddle here and has produced a critique that says more about Leon Krier and his obsessions than it does about the true nature of Frank Gehry's sad excuse for creativity.

A memorial worthy of the name (the best example in decades upon decades being Maya Lin's remarkable and profoundly moving Vietnam memorial) should capture the import of its subject and transmit that with an emotional and artistic charge: with dignity, innovation and elegance. There is none of that here.

We should also point out that Lin's design was the result of an open competition and that at the time she was just out of design school and totally unknown; the directors of the Eisenhower memorial commission have ensured that the selection process precludes any unknown talents by restricting it to established, vetted firms. Their insular cronyism has resulted in a debacle that they roundly deserve, in heaping platefuls.

Gehry's design is claustrophobic in the extreme and literally boxes in the site. One has to wonder, did anyone have the temerity to ask the 83 year-old éminence grise just who is going to clean all those acres of screens, and how? Or how big those quarter-inch dowels holding up the screens in the model might actually be in real life? Seeing as they stand over six stories tall and look to be roughly 20 feet in diameter? And reek of the worst of 70s design, but on steroids?

Imagine all the bird kills. Imagine the disgruntled neighbors. Imagine standing under one of the trees, right next to the screen wall. Forget about what it will look like if built; imagine what it would look like in a hundred years. Apparently no one has.

So many practical questions—concerns about scale, usability, maintenance, preservation of view corridors and the like—seem simply to have been ignored. No wonder there is a movement afoot to institute a moratorium on building any more monuments in the District—a ban we fully support, until some sort of sanity is restored to Washington (i.e., never). And we haven't even begun to touch upon this design's appropriateness in paying homage to Eisenhower himself. We defer here to the family, who are vociferously trying to stop it.

No surprise really, because this memorial has nothing to do with Eisenhower. If the vast pictures of him weren't there, you would never even guess that it was a memorial, let alone one dedicated to Ike. By the way, if you enter "Ike" into Google, this is what you get:

This is Ike from the Smash Bros. Dojo, whatever that is (besides the obvious Osiris symbolism). Actual images of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and of the 34th president of the United States do not appear until well into Google images' third page.

Likewise, except for those ridiculously massive pillars, you'd never think Gehry's memorial project was permanent either.

And with any luck, it won't be.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ledoux & the All-Seeing Eye

It is frankly a miracle—or at least a testament to his miraculous persuasive skills—that the architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux survived the French Revolution. Indeed, he was the Albert Speer of his day.

In his youthful prime, Ledoux (1736-1806) was architect to Louis XV’s mistress (and former prostitute), Madame Du Barry, to numerous exceedingly wealthy Parisian clients, and most incriminatingly to the detested royal tax collectors, or Ferme Générale, for whom in the late 1780s he built the Berlin Wall of its time, an impenetrable barrier that encircled Paris, erected to ensure that the taxmen received every last sous of their octrois—the internal duty on all goods entering or leaving Paris. (Below, elevations of the various customs pavilions Ledoux designed, all of them twinned, and many still standing in Paris today.)

His notorious "Wall of the Farmers-General," sixty grandiose tax-collection offices ringing Paris and linked by barricades, was denounced as a "monument to enslavement and despotism" and "the bastions of taxation metamorphosed into columned palaces," and was itself a major cause and symbol of the Revolution.

Ledoux, object of scandal and vitriol, was relieved of his duties in 1787, three years before the Revolution, and even Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s newly appointed finance minister, disavowed the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Ledoux escaped the guillotine and spent his final years burnishing his own reputation and redrawing his life’s work—achieving, with the advent of Postmodernism in the late 20th century, a fame only he himself envisioned.

The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans

Ledoux's most famous work is today hailed as a visionary utopian scheme but is actually a direct outgrowth of his early work as a provincial architect-engineer. The impetus for a saltworks at Arc-et-Senans was due to a rich and easily worked seam of halite (rock salt), the proximity of inland waterways for transport and the nearby forest of Chaux, which provided the wood necessary to fuel the boilers to process the mineral salts.

The speculative scheme was conceived in 1773 by the powerful Ferme Générale, or association of tax collectors, who assured Louis XV's support and provided funding through the gabelle, a general tax on this essential commodity. His overweening confidence (he was after all an architect) led Ledoux to begin his first design before either receiving the king's approval or knowing the actual site selected.

Ledoux remarked that the plan of the saltworks "should be as pure as that described by the sun along its transit." (An interesting simile, coming as it does from a freemason, and his ideal plan, above, is the All-Seeing Eye incarnate.) Construction began in 1775 and operations began three years later. However, the venture never returned the profits its investors envisioned; production rarely rose above half of the projected volume and easily harvested tidal salt deeply undercut processed rock salt in price.

Nonetheless, the tax farmers were satisfied with Ledoux's work and, in a career move that nearly cost him his life, he was named official architect of the Ferme Générale, designing their Paris headquarters and overseeing the massive—and massively unpopular—project to encircle Paris with a tax barrier.

Ledoux was imprisoned during the Revolution and owed his life to the intercession of the painter David—who had been far more clever, befriending Robspierre and becoming a revolutionary leader, though he too owed his wealth to the aristocracy and particularly the patronage of the Ferme Générale.

Utterly disgraced in post-revolutionary France, Ledoux would never again work as an architect and devoted the remainder of his life to aggrandizing his work with a view to publication and vindication. His isolation fostered irrational but truly visionary schemes: the demi-lune plan of Arc-et-Senans, though a proven financial failure, was enlarged to a full circle, at least on paper, and about it Ledoux conceived the radially planned (think the Sun's illuminating rays), utopian worker's town of Chaux, with its remarkable collection of geometrically audacious (and masonically inspired) structures. If somehow the visual symbolism escaped notice, Ledoux made sure one understood his point by calling Chaux "a gathering of brothers."

Below, the Director's House, its pediment pierced by an oculus, creating the All-Seeing Eye of Horus.

Not so far different than...

... or...
... or...
... or...

... or even...

... or her occasional partner in crime...

One could go on indefinitely but by now we're sure you've gotten the idea. To quote the Grateful Dead, "What a long, strange trip it's been."

Early in his career Ledoux had—obviously—become a freemason, since in the late 18th century the majority of the French aristocracy concentrated at Versailles and in and about Paris had abandoned Catholicism for this occult brotherhood and the ambitious young architect rightly saw membership as a sure path to success. Even today, Le Point and l'Express, France's Time and Newsweek, devote at least one cover-story per year to freemasonry's enduing influence in French affairs:

Unsurprisingly then, Ledoux's architecture is permeated with Masonic symbolism. The pediment of the Director's Storehouse at Arc-et-Senans is also pierced by an oculus, the All-Seeing Eye of Horus (above, our elevational watercolor), and beyond his insistence on pyramidal forms and Egyptian-inspired proportions and massing, Ledoux's prediliction for the Palladian window motif evokes as much the columns Jachin and Boaz as it does the Venetian master, especially when typically allied with robust, crisply rectilinear rustication which, depending on its use, recalls either the checkered floor or the dressed ashlar. Ledoux's project for the Overseer's House at Chaux (how appropriate!) is the Eye of Horus in 3-D form (below). And on and on he went... Quite the obsession, truth be told.

Ledoux published the first volume of his ceaselessly redacted life's work in 1804, two years before his death. Though the text was dismissed as the ramblings of a madman, the plates of ideal cities and his radical vision of monumental architecture were widely admired by contemporaries.

Later generations simply ignored him, and it was not until the 20th century that he would be rediscovered as an architectural visionary by, successively, the Cubists, Surrealists and Postmodernists, and his work finally achieved the recognition and influence he sought. (Below, a section through the project for the Cemetery at Chaux, yet another and certainly the most literal of Ledoux's All-Seeing Eyes, its oculus/pupil fixed on the heavens.)

In 1926, some of the main buildings of Arc-et-Senans were dynamited, doubtless by an infuriated anti-mason, and were subsequently rebuilt. In 1982 the complex was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


We are awash with work at the moment and so are adapting a chapter from our first book, Pleasure Pavilions and Follies, so as not to linger too long without posting. We devoted a chapter of Palaces of the Sun King to Marly as well.

When Louis XIV decided that Versailles would be the seat of his government, he began looking for "someplace small and solitary" to serve as a royal retreat. "Behind Louveciennes he found a deep, narrow valley, completely shut in, swampy and inaccessible and without any view, but with a wretched village called Marly clinging to the hillside... a haunt of snakes, frogs and toads."

The king was overjoyed, continued Saint-Simon incredulously, and "the hermitage was made. At first it was for sleeping from Wednesday to Saturday, two or three times a year, with a dozen courtiers. But slowly it grew. Hills were leveled to make room for buildings, and at the end [of the valley] they were paired to create the semblance of a view."

Marly became the aging king's obsession. He tinkered endlessly with its gardens and a dizzying succession of bosquets and basins, fountains and allées appeared and disappeared like so many stage sets. Hundreds worked through the night by torchlight to carry out extraordinary transformations between visits and one Swedish visitor remarked that there a half-year's work was completed in a week.

These extravagances led Saint-Simon to claim, "It is a modest estimate to say that Versailles did not cost as much as Marly," but the result of all these labours was to him "A fairies' palace, unique in Europe." The otherworldly metaphor was invoked repeatedly to describe Marly: "Everything there seemed to have been created by the magic of a fairy's wand," wrote Madame Campan; "Fauns and sylphs people its shadows," wrote Abbé Jacques Delille. For Madame, the king's sister-in-law, fairies worked in its gardens; for Diderot, who visited during the reign of Louis XVI, Marly seemed a monument to a great, departed race.

The compound (above, an engraved view of the entry axis), which we attribute to the king's First Painter and master allegorist, Charles Le Brun, inverts everything about the French château. Marly is built in a valley, not on a promontory; it is embowered in greenery, not dominating its landscape; it is frescoed, not built of limestone; and its elements are atomized and dispersed about its site, not unified to project power and grandeur. Frankly, such sophistication was simply beyond the knowledge and capacities of Marly's traditionally recognized architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, though he did act as the estate's executing architect but used this position to claim authorship after Le Brun's disgrace and death.

Marly's plan, inspired by Michelangelo's Campidoglio in Rome (above), places the foursquare, Palladian Royal Pavilion (our watercolor reconstruction appears at top) as the centerpiece of a self-consciously theatrical perspective, dominating the parallel ranks of the Courtiers' Pavilions, ranged six to a side before the central reflecting basins. (Jefferson visited Marly while ambassador to France and in turn adapted its plan for the University of Virginia, below.)

The pavilions sat amid trellised bowers trained with honeysuckle and clematis, small guest cottages with one upstairs and one downstairs apartment, notorious for their smoking fireplaces, for the king did not wish chimneys disfiguring their silhouettes. Caught midway between the intimate bosquets and arbors and the open vista of the Piece d'Eau, the Courtiers' Pavilions were a metaphor for Marly itself, suspended between worlds: "These pavilions, isolated and almost embowered in a forest, seem to be the dwellings of subaltern spirits," wrote Diderot.

(Below, our watercolor elevation of Le Brun's first scheme for the Pavilion of Abundance.)

Charles Le Brun's extensive and innovative use of Italianate fresco made Marly unique: the facades of all main buildings were richly decorated with trompe-l'œil architecture. Exterior frescoes were extremely rare in France but at Marly, at an unprecedented scale, illusionistic skill replaced architectural elements and paint mimicked lavish materials. It was an extravagant and unprecedented gesture that cemented Louis XIV's position as a bold, confident patron and taste-maker, and all of Europe took notice.

"Sire, Marly!" echoed hundreds of times as Louis XIV passed through Versailles. An invitation to Marly was the most coveted honor at court and yet another instrument with which the king controlled the aristocracy. Bontemps, the royal valet (who could as well have been named by Dickens), announced the chosen few a day before each journey, and the voyages, during which the king paid all expenses, were so exclusive that Madame remarked: "Not even ambassadors or envoys are allowed there." Obsessed by rank, she fretted that "there was nothing resembling a court" at Marly: men were permitted to don their hats during the royal promenade and everyone was allowed to sit in the king's presence.

For Madame, anarchy reigned, but Marly's relaxed atmosphere gave rise to many of the reign's lightest moments. It was there that the king actually sang, accompanied by one of his daughters, and where little Marie-Adelaide surreptitiously sewed a seventy-year-old duchess to her tabouret, then lit firecrackers beneath her.

The gardens offered more profound pleasures, described by Diderot:
Countless yews clipped a hundred-thousand ways border a parterre of the grandest simplicity, leading to bowers of indescribable lightness and elegance. They rise up the hillsides, leading the eye into the depths of the forest; only the closest trees are clipped, the rest are left rustic and wild... this progression from nature to art, and of art to nature, creates a veritable enchantment. leave the parterre, where the hand and mind of man are used so exquisitely, and go to the hillside above—it is silence, wilderness, the horror of Solitude. It is simply sublime. What a mind conceived these gardens!

To balance the sublime there was also the ridiculous. La Ramasse, a roller coaster on wooden tracks, ran for nearly a half-kilometre through the upper gardens; dukes and duchesses sat in the blue-and-gold wagon while the king stood at the back, a royal trolley conductor. Another bosquet held a large communal swing, and there were also the quieter diversions of admiring the flowerbeds—replanted daily, which absorbed 18 million bulbs in four years—or enjoying twilight concerts as musicians played to one another from hiding places throughout the gardens.

Madame de Maintenon wrote: "We act at Marly like idlers. All day long the king of France plants and the king of Spain hunts, and all night long they play games in my room." Madame found only praise for Marly, where she thought fairies worked: "Where I left a lake, I find a grove and a bosquet; where I left a forest, I find a large basin, into which some thirty admirably beautiful carp will be released this evening."

The Royal Carp

"I built Versailles for the court, Marly for my friends and Trianon for myself," Louis XIV once declared. But this is not quite true, unless one understands that when the king spoke of his friends, he was referring to his carp, kept in porcelain-tiled basins near the château. His mania began at the turn of the eighteenth century and as word spread of the old king's new passion, barrels of carp arrived from across France. The Dauphin sent blue carp from Meudon, the duc de La Rochefoucauld pink carp from the moats of Liancourt, and green-and-gold carp arrived from Fontainebleau.

The king was so obsessed by their beauty that Saint-Simon quipped he would soon order the royal painters to freshen their scales. The fish were constantly shifted from basin to basin as their master carried on an obsessive quest for the perfect carp pond, while a baker spent his days baking biscuits, their only food, thereby increasing their staggering mortality rate, despite the fact that carp are the hardiest of fish.

The king often described himself as the shepherd of his aquatic herd and his favorite of all was a golden carp he named La Dorée. He always stopped to talk to it during his daily promenade but one day he could not spy the fish and ordered the basin emptied, only to find La Dorée dead.

When the queen had died he had been merely inconvenienced; Madame de Montespan's death passed almost unnoticed and Louise de La Vallière had died for him the day she took the veil, but La Dorée's demise was a terrible blow. He would not speak for the remainder of the day and refused even to see the diplomatic courier.

That the king was mourning the death of a fish did not escape Parisian wags, and a verse soon began to make the rounds:
A courier arrived at Marly
That one had better see,
But the Hussar who guards the door
Told him, "Take yourself away!
The favorite carp is no more
And no one will be received today!"