December 24: Goth before Goth

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)

December 23: Madame Walker’s Villa

2016/12/23 § Leave a comment

walker villa
On this day in 1867 Sarah Breedlove was born.
Born on a Louisiana plantation, she was the first child in her family born into freedom.  She spent her life making the most of what that freedom could offer her  by taking an unusual route into business.  Home experiments to create hair-care products led to the development of a small mail-order business that grew and grew.  As a businesswoman she became Madame C. J. Walker and eventually a very wealthy woman, regarded by many as the first black female millionaire.
Like other tycoons of the Gilded Age, Madame Walker fancied a fancy house.  In 1918 she commissioned Vertner Woodson Tandy, the country’s first licensed African-American architect.  On a great site overlooking the Hudson River he built the Classically-inspired Villa Lewaro. The grand house features a projecting Ionic entryway flanked by symmetrical wings, from one of which a porte-cochere projected, providing protection for guests who would arrive by auto.  Madame Walker only lived one more year after her house was complete, but she is recorded as saying the house was not really for her, but rather meant as a source of inspiration for generations of free African Americans to aim for the success that she herself achieved.

Image: the villa (from this source)

December 22: Repurposed Monument

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)

December 21: Deliver us from Gaudí

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)

December 20: “Es ist Mein Wille”

2016/12/20 § Leave a comment

Vienna 1860

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)

December 19: Four Ships, Three Corners, No Architecture (Just Yet)

2016/12/19 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1606 the Susan, Constant, Godspeed and Discovery departed England carrying settlers who founded Jamestown, Virginia.

Starting in 1607 these British settlers, who founded the first settlement in the Americas that would survive, had permanence on their minds.  As their old maps show, and as early written descriptions explain, their first buildings had the general form and planning of those back home, but built, necessarily, of the materials at hand.  Neat timber frame houses with thatch roofs and wattle-and-daub construction lined the streets in the triangular palisade that defined the newly planted civilization inside and protected it from the wilds without–which apparently (by the look of the map above) included one monstrously huge Native American.  This was all well and good for getting started, but it was clear here, as it is in colonial settlements generally speaking, that transplants desire to recreate whatever they left back home, recreating the long-standing traditions of real architecture for a sense of longevity tied to tradition.  As early as 1639 they raised a brick church, and as they filled out Virginia, within generations were building as closely to models of good taste–as defined by contemporary British preferences–as possible.

Image: old map (from this source)

December 18: Where the Moon Doth Rise with a Dragon’s Face

2016/12/18 § Leave a comment


On this day in 2011 geologists from the University of Leicester and the National Museum of Wales announced the discovery of the exact source of the rock used to create Stonehenge’s first stone circle.


What you MUST know NOW: it’s from an outcrop called Craig Rhos-y-Felin.  It’s located near Pont Saeson in north Pembrokeshire, if you’re keeping track, or making travel plans.  Read all about it right here.

Image: rocks–sorry, we mean monoliths, or trilithons, or whatever, they are very old and very special (Clio’s)