Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Bastille Day in Paris

Yesterday at 10:30 in the morning, as on every 14th of July in Paris, delta formations of Mirage fighter jets and lumbering military transports screamed across the leaden skies in successive waves.

Oh! you think, putting down your coffee and looking out the window, waiting for the formations to appear after being preceded several seconds by their own thunderous roar, it's Bastille Day. 

Visions of khaki-clad Legionnaires and the Republican Guard in horse formations and camouflaged tanks rumbling down the Champs Élysées—a musty, pompous tradition that reeks of May Day parades back in the good ole USSR. (The French also love to clap rhythmically after concerts and operas, but that's for another post... )

The new President, François Hollande, even had his Michael Dukakis moment trundling along in an armored personnel carrier in a navy-blue suit.

 But beyond the obvious target of a once-major world power playing out the slightly painful anachronisms left over from its days of gloire, the holiday does remind you quite forcefully, even after all these years, of your outsider status. You can't help but roll your eyes at the awkward, somehow plaintive military breast-beating meant to impress and reassure a people (who can only be truly impressed with deeply discounted prices for superfluous consumer goods) with the outdated forms and trappings of the time of their greatness, and you look on the scale of the display with bemusement and complete disinterest. And that complete detachment extends to not even remembering the date until the jets begin to scream overhead, or even finding a scintilla of the slightest emotional investment that every last Frenchman must feel, because not even the most cynical of continentals can rest indifferent who was born here, since it is in your blood and you cannot help but at some point during the day be seduced by pride of country and a free-floating but keen nostalgia for an idea the Germans call Heimat.

So the planes scream by, reminding you this can never be your true home.

Actually, Paris is empty right now, and cold and rain-sodden. There hasn't been a summer to speak of, or an entire warm, sunny day since sometime in late May (and I actually ran the heat last night). Everyone is on vacation—6 weeks per year minimum, 8 weeks for most everybody (not counting the mysterious congés and the universally exploited formation, both of which, if played right, add another ten days of paid free time to the tally). I kid you not, les américains.

The official, countrywide start of the summer vacation season, when France literally closes for two full months, is, for the average Frenchman, almost as exciting as an adolescent's first furtive lovemaking, but so much more satisfying! (The local dry cleaner actually hangs an engraved brass plaque announcing his fermature annuelle and bakeries must co-ordinate their closing dates so as not to leave too vast a swath of ghostly Paris without access to baguettes.)

The media gears up for it with breathless, heartpoundingly important special reports, while nonstop traffic updates scroll across the bottom of regular programming all the last week of June, and incessant newsflashes feature a color-coded alert system analyzing the status of the major southbound autoroutes  (remember those Bush-era terror scares?), all of it leading up to the first Friday in July: D-Day!

Everyone scrambles in a mad, delirious rush to be the first to get the heck out of Dodge and indulge in the perfect trifecta of the three universally acknowledged pillars of French identity (and the main subjects of French conversation): food, sex and vacation. Of course, after all those embouteillages sur l'autroute, the Parisians find themselves just as sardine-packed on the beaches.

If only half such dedication and zeal had been expended to defend the country in 1940 as is done today to see to it that the groaning family Citröen, bound down with roof bins and bicycles, arrives on the Côte d'Azur without having sat in a traffic jam, then Angela Merkel would today be speaking French.

The over-accessorized adolescents, slumped in the back seats of cars in Biarritz and Nice and St-Tropez, dangle a foot or languid hand out the window in the clichéd symbol of French lassitude as they crawl along the overburdened and sun-struck beachside avenues. 

A month on the beach, or in the country at the ancestral compound, then a week back in Paris to wash and sort out the laundry, make sure the apartment is in order, and then off again to Charles de Gaulle airport for another two weeks on a holiday tour.

Vive les vacances ! Vive la France !

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Boundaries of Central Park

Begun in 1858, the construction of New York City's Central Park was largely completed by 1864, in the midst of the Civil War. The park below 102nd street was fully open by the end of 1863, the same year when the park's four northernmost blocks, from 106th to 110th streets, were finally acquired after a four-year delay.

The 65-acre parcel brought the park's final area to 843 acres. In the annexed northeast corner, work gangs transformed 12 acres of low-lying swampland into the Harlem Meer (above, dominated by the contemporary boathouse, officially named the Charles Dana Discovery Center). The rest of the area was landscaped with a wilder, craggier, more rugged æsthetic (below) than the pastoral landscape of the bulk of the park to the south: a design decision which—in the puritanical eyes of the fanatically penurious comptroller, Andrew Green—had the overriding merit of being delightfully inexpensive to build. 

The park's designers and the remaining seven commissioners not involved in the war effort then turned their attention to properly defining the park's boundary with the city. The park borders and its main gates were seen as the crowning element to their triumphant construction campaign, but the question of their materials and form became mired—yet again, as had many prior such questions—in an economic, æsthetic, political and class battle.  

Enter Richard Morris Hunt (above), the first American architect to study at the École des Beaux-arts and who, beside his talent, had the brilliant foresight to launch his career by having himself born to the wealthy and influential Hunt family of Vermont. His grandfather had been lieutenant governer of Vermont, his father Jonathan was a representative in the New York State legislature and partner in a prominent Manhattan law firm and his brother-in-law, Charles H. Russell, just happened to be a park commissioner. 

Then in his late thirties, Hunt stood at the outset of an illustrious career which would be crowned by commissions for the main facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and he was already a prominent society architect, designing Loire Valley châteaux on Fifth Avenue and in Newport for Marquands, Vanderbilts, Belmonts and Astors. (Below: 660 Fiifth Avenue, the residence of William K. Vanderbilt.)

With the park's chief landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, in self-imposed exile in California and his partner Calvert Vaux reduced to a unsalaried consultant's role after both resigned in May of 1863 in the face of Green's maneuvers to displace them by radically expanding his powers as comptroller, commissioner Russell was able to induce the rump board to approve his brother-in-law's designs for four elaborate, beaux-arts entrance plazas for the southern border of the park in April 1864. (Below, Hunt's design for Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, with the site of the Plaza Hotel occupied by a transplanted Tuileries Palace.)

Hunt, quite naturally, saw his designs as "elegant and appropriate" mediators between the city's built fabric and the park, and an ally promoted them in the New York Post (with no mean rhetorical flourish, even for a florid age) as a means to transform the park into "one great open air gallery of Art, instead of being, as some dreamers fancy it, a silent sketch of a rural landscape caught up and enclosed within the raging tumult of a vast metropolis."  

Comptroller Andrew Green, though a peculiarly nineteenth-century Puritan version of a megalomaniac, was nonetheless a profound admirer of the talents he had displaced and considered Olmsted and Vaux's Greensward plan as something of a holy vision—to the point where he stated in his memoirs, dictated to a spinster neice (one must chuckle at the clichéd Victorian perfection of that situation)—that he himself had largely been responsible for it. Thus Green was not particularly enamored of Hunt's bombastic (and expensive) plazas and, since he was now running the show and (grudgingly) paying the bills, he delayed their execution in favor of completing construction of the Harlem annex.

Green's delay allowed Calvert Vaux (above)—himself no slouch when it came to cultivating influential New Yorkers and the press—to mount a counter campaign to induce the commissioners to renounce Hunt's project. Playing the egalitarian card, Vaux characterized the design as anti-democratic and "continental" and conceived for the "panjandrum," not the common man.

To deadly effect, he likened Hunt's plazas to the antechambers of Versailles: "the imperial style presumes that people wait, wait and hang around, and provision is made for clients, courtiers, subordinates and laqueyes" (sic) to cool their heels in suitable splendor. He went on to say that the average New Yorker did not need such airs, and exclaimed, "How fine it would be to have no gates" in the park at all, and "to keep open House and trust all always."

Hunt's plazas, doomed as much for their massive cost as for their obvious æsthetic clash with the park's pastoral simplicity, were eventually shuffled aside, though Hunt exhibited his drawings at the Academy of Design in 1865 to force the issue, to no avail. The question of the form of the park's actual enclosure then came to the fore. Several commissioners admired the spiked iron fences enclosing Parisian parks but Olmsted, quoting Ruskin, noted that "An iron railing always means thieves outside or Bedlam inside."

After "six months of serious trial" and despite the large economies an iron fence offered, Vaux finally dissuaded the commissioners from adopting an "iron cage" in favor of a low stone wall that would allow the pedestrian's eye "to roam at will" over the landscape inside. Today, these rusticated brownstone boundary walls, cast green with moss (above), are as comfortingly familiar to New Yorkers as chrome-yellow taxis.

In 1866 the board issued a proclamation, stating: "The construction of the Park has been easily achieved because the industrious population of New York has been wise enough to require it, and rich enough to pay for it."

"To extend to each citizen a rightful welcome," the board named the park's four principal entrances along Central Park South to honor the people themselves: the city's "Artisans," "Artists," "Merchants" and "Scholars." 133 years later, in 1999, the Central Park Conservancy finally saw to it that simply inscribed stone markers (above) were inset into the boundary wall to identify each entrance.