2016/12/30 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1671 the Académie royale d’architecture was founded.
One of several academies founded by the French to set down la pratique parfaite in virtually all fields–in other words, to codify the ideal Frenchness of everything dans le monde–the Royal Academy of Architecture had both specific goals and tremendously broad reach. As a training ground it ensured that properly educated and directed corps of designers could contribute to the great works to honor the great king, notably Versailles and the Louvre. But it did much more than ensure the beauty and consistency of seventeenth-century French architecture for the state; it became the core of Classical training in the grand tradition for generations of architects in France and, ultimately, far beyond its borders. De-royalized at the time of the Revolution, by the early nineteenth century the Academy was back in business as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most successful and important architecture school and tradition ever, anywhere, in the universe. It brought together the traditions of the Classical world as they were first formed: guides to the identification and understanding and creation of beauty as well as the application of design principles within contemporary practice. It is the universal, timeless, truly modern way to design and build, and always has been, except for a brief interruption occasioend by a small blip of pestilence–a nasty, hard-to-shake virus still sadly lingering on–that brewed in 1920s Germany among the sorry, misguided followers of a poor ill soul who had lost his ear for the Muse.
As a whole, the establishment of the academies may have been the high point of the Sun King’s reign. They are a part of a small but significant heritage of tasty patrons cut of royal cloth. A small club to be sure, but when they have an eye for beauty, there is no stopping them. And while we may cringe at the excesses and downright grossness of Louis and others in his fraternity–Nero and Napoleon III come quickly to mind–there’s no denying that imperial legacies are not all bad (just take a skipping romp through Early Christian Rome, sixth-century Byzantium, the eigth-century Frankish Kingdom, tenth-century China, seventeenth-century India, eighteenth-century Italy and Russia, and nineteenth-century Vienna). (The previous, as a yearbook, also not a bad way to wrap up this chronicle as we approach the year’s end.) Maybe it is appropriate then that Louis, who built the place that Thomas Jefferson would one day call “the pit of depravity,” is the one who left the single most important legacy to the world of architecture: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Classicism without end.
Image: Louis XIV, within a few years of founding the Académie (from this source)
2016/12/26 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1811 the Richmond Theatre burned.
The tall building had been completed only the year before. Almost six hundred people were gathered to see a double-feature of sorts, but early in the evening, during a scene change behind the lowered stage curtain, one of the backdrops was set alight by candles in a chandelier. Although the timber, canvas and oil-painted material was great fuel, the fire might have been snuffed. But no one in a position to do much of anything knew about the fire until it spread through layers and layers of sets and then started chewing at the building. A great brick box full of wooden furnishings and finishes, the building did not have a chance. Nor did a large portion of the audience: 72 people perished in the fire.
The building was a loss, and no one had much of a stomach to rebuild a theatre on the site anyhow (another theatre would be built at another location in 1819). A monument to the dead was proposed and carried out by local architect Robert Mills. It is an odd thing: the Monumental Church is both worship center and memorial for the fire victims. Mills designed a curious octagonal plan covered by a low saucer dome with a lantern; boxy projections appear on four sides. The front portico holds the actual monument inscribed with victims’ names; their remains are gathered in the crypt below.
Although in other projects Mills would have greater success in adapting the Classical vocabulary to new uses; the Monumental Church remains a bizarre experiment. It’s both Greek and Roman with a bit of Egypt tossed in for good measure. Is it a short polygonal Pantheon? A wide Tower of the Winds? An imperial mausoleum? Or one of those rare Erectheum-type mash-up temple-things? Hang on to your hat, since Mills’ original intention, with the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer church steeple, makes it even more of a mystery. His later works are quite a bit more tame, loads more legible (although never as crisp and commanding as those by his peer, William Strickland). And later, too, he became better known for technical mastery that may have been inspired by his work in Richmond, as Mills was (for a time) the country’s go-to architect for anything fireproof once he mastered techniques that he began mulling in Richmond.
Image: “The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia” (from this source)
2016/12/25 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1851 Thomas U. Walter investigated the cause of the Christmas Eve fire that gutted the original Library of Congress.
Yes, it was Christmas Day but duty called and Walter, as the recently sworn-in Architect of the Capitol, heeded that call. The previous evening’s fire was devastating, destroying much of Thomas Jefferson’s original collection as well as the library room itself. Positioned in the center of the west side of the Capitol, it overlooked the mall to the west, where the stumpy unfinished Washington Monument stood. The library was a complete loss and it is a wonder that more of the building did not go up in the blaze–in particular, the awkward timber dome completed under the direction of Charles Bulfinch.
Walter was directed to rebuild the room using fireproofing strategies. By early January he completed the plan for a virtually all-iron library, lit by skylights, lined by tiers shelving, ornamented with ornate Italianate features like big beefy (but hollow) iron consoles. Complete, and completely satisfactory, within a few years, the widely admired design–noted for its beauty and incombustibility–helped pave the way for Congressional approval of another all-iron addition that Walter would make to the building: the soaring metallic dome that is one of the world’s most recognizable architectural symbols, looking as spiffing as ever due to the humungo restoration project carried out through 2016.
Image: the Capitol as photographed in 1846 (from this source)
2016/12/24 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1764 The Castle of Otranto was first published.
Horace Walpole’s little book was like nothing that had ever been written. Neither history nor fanciful historical embellishment; nor was it like other novels or plays strung up on a didactic framework of moralizing instruction. The Castle of Otranto was a spooky story, one that was set in an eerie medieval castle (oops, spoiler!) in which the churning of characters’ interiors were as important as what they did in the actual physical setting of the place. Pages and pages might pass explaining the increasing creeping-out of a fair damsel stuck in a dark cellar, knowing someone was down there with her, but not knowing if it were friend or foe.
Now pretty typical boiler-plate fodder for ghost stories and scary movies, Walpole’s approach is pretty much the start of the genre that would become known as Gothick. In addition to its literary impact, the bestseller also inspired the gloomy and quirky medievalizing style in decorative arts and architecture that swept through the second half of the eighteenth century. It starts, properly enough, with his own house, Strawberry Hill. Granted, the villa looks now like the love child of a wonky medieval orphanage and the world’s biggest petit-four (especially after this recent amazing restoration project). A bit of a carnival, the villa launched a thousand flights of fancy, most notably Edmund Burke’s ridiculously sublime Fonthill Abbey.
Image: illustration from the book; if you don’t know what it’s about, you’ll have to read it! (from this source)
2016/12/22 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1989 the Brandenburg Gate re-opened.
The gate was originally the ceremonial and functional entry to the most esteemed thoroughfare in Berlin. Framing the start of Unter den Linden, which lead to the Prussian palace, the gate was built by Carl Gotthard Langhans for Frederick William II in the years around 1790.
As a modern propylaea, the Greek gate provided a proud and noble precedent for the threshold of thresholds. The gate was built in a style–an enduring language of architecture–that provided maximum flexibility as rulers, dynasties, even states, came and went. As the land changed hands, the gate was transformed by a number of different regimes. Among them, Napoleon and Hitler both had their chance to use its universal Greek symbolism for their (albeit short-lived) reigns. Even in these different hands it maintained its role as an opening, until the construction of the Berlin wall. It became, then, a barrier, closed to all traffic in August 1961: the most beautiful element in a monument of formal and political ugliness.
With the shifting political fortunes of 1989 the gate attracted the focused attention of all those calling for the removal of the wall; it was their gathering point, their tocsin tower. Upon its opening on December 22, the West German Chancellor walked through it to meet East Germany’s Prime Minister. The horrid concrete wall was removed; the Greek gate was restored. Neither barrier nor entry, it is now a conduit for the unified Germany.
Image: the day of the surge (from this source)
2016/12/21 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1850 Lluís Domènech i Montaner was born.
The intellectual center of one of the most politically charged Art Nouveau movements in late nineteenth-century Europe, Domènech i Montaner was a practitioner, professor and critic of architecture for over four decades. During that time he built monuments across the Catalandscape (har, har) in the style and spirit of the Renaixença. Best among them is the culturally profound and architecturally stunning Palau de la Música Catalana (1908). For more extant examples of his brilliant inventive interpretation of Spanish and Moorish traditions in the creation of a new Catalan modernism, brace yourself and see: Ateneu de Canet de Mar (1884), Casa Roura/Ca la Bianga (1892), Palau Ramon Montaner (1896), Casa Thomas (1898), Casa Navàs (1901), Casa Lleó Morera (1902), Grand Hotel in Palma (1903), Hospital de Sant Pau (1905-30), Casa Furster (1911).
Biographies of Domènech i Montaner oftentimes mention, tantalizingly, the existence of his writings on architecture going back to the 1870s, suggesting that he was also the primary theorist of the Modernisme movement. Sadly, this work–rare among Art Nouveau movements overall, with the exception of Otto Wagner in Vienna–remains untranslated from Catalan (which, we understand, is sort of a combination of Spanish, French and Portuguese with a hefty dash of paprika and not just a little finger-waving attitude). Surely that was the appropriate language for these architectural independents, but it narrows the readership of these important works. It appears that scholars who might be able to do the translation are, like most of the world who cares about fin de siècle architecture, so hung up with the more (inexplicably) famous of the Modernisme architects to trouble with them, which is all too bad. Seriously, Catalan speakers: GET ON IT.
Image: skylight in the Palau (from this site)
2016/12/20 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1857 Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria issued his famous “It is My will” decree.
When you’re the emperor your will can direct the movements of mighty forces, be it the destructive ones of war or the creative ones of building (or of nurturing impressive facial hair). Through his long reign (the third longest in European history) Franz Josef did both to a remarkable degree. His great decree of 1857 prompted a huge demolition project ultimately aimed at the redesign of his capital. Vienna’s old medieval core had been long stifled within its fortification walls that had become obsolete with advances in military technology. With general peace at the capital they were dingy reminders of Vienna’s past, but not its recent achievements and certainly not indicative of the splendor proper for a major European capital.
With the destruction of the walls the city could expand outward. A new ring road, the Ringstraße, took the place of the walls, and plans were made to fill up the broad plain (glacis) kept clear of construction beyond the wall. The emperor’s planners and architects set about the creation of massive cultural projects: a new town hall, university, opera, and major museums in which the imperial collections in natural and art history were put on display for the public.
Vienna’s Ringstraße is sometimes mistaken as a second-best attempt at the planning begun just a bit earlier in Paris under Georges-Eugène Haussmann for Napoleon III. While that project certainly set the nineteenth-century standard for broad stunning boulevards linking cultural monuments and verdant gardens, the two are formally very different and distinct. In Paris the new boulevards connected big buildings–which consistently tend toward shades of French Classicism–and squares with axial parade routes, framing views that leave no doubt as to what is the important thing to look at for miles ahead. Vienna’s faceted Ringstraße runs along side architectural monument of varying epoch and style (including great later additions like Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse) in a twisting path of continually changing picturesque views. Although both city plans were instituted by emperors with similar political aims, the greater freedom and variety of Vienna has adapted much more adroitly from seat of empire to its new status as the capital of a democratic republic.
Image: map of Vienna in 1860 showing planning for Ringstraße and associated architectural projects (from this site)