Architecture | Urban Design

The Museum of Contemporary Art Opens a New Wing (and an Old Debate…)

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Circular Quay is Sydney’s great public space, but it is no Piazza San Marco. The presence of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at opposite ends of the magnet is powerful enough to allow the eye to glide around the curve past the decent, mediocre and bad architecture in between. In such an enchanted context even the Cahill Expressway, an elevated freeway which runs along the southern foreshore, is somehow not as egregious as Boston’s Central Artery was before it was chopped down. Instead of ancient stones, there is water, the one inlet out of the harbor’s dozens chosen for European settlement, now teeming with ferries and tourist boats promising  varying doses of adrenaline. However unrepresentative of the unruly metropolis which spreads from here in all directions, Circular Quay hints at the dream of its city, the city’s best version of itself, the city Sydney could one day be.

Must Paris Reconquer the Seine?

La Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The global city is an oxymoron. No one lives there. Any decent-sized city is an intensely local argument generating machine and the way in which cities fight about architecture is as revealing as the materials of their curbstones. These arguments are unfolding history. It’s worth paying attention to whether they are depressing or enlivening, who participates in them and for what reasons. In the midst of relentless planetary crisis, these juicy little local fights can seem unimportant. A dispute such as the current one about the future of the banks of the Seine might seem indulgent until one remembers the hardly old but nevertheless a bit out of fashion adage about thinking globally and acting locally. Aside from what they can teach us, local questions provide a bastion of the real against all the gloppy, terminally imprecise words about global this and global that. At a certain point the urge to turn away from the virtual and toward the animal, the mineral and the vegetal becomes overwhelming and probably healthy. Perhaps the only way to overcome, or at least hide from the hegemony of numbers will be, like Laurel and Hardy taking the sea air in Saps at Sea (1940), to seek out familiar places where the discourse suits us.

Faut-il reconquérir la Seine?

La Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

La ville mondiale est un oxymoron. Personne n’y habite. Une grande ville est, parmi autre choses, une usine qui fabrique les polémiques locales et la façon dont ces disputes se déroulent est aussi révélatrice des différences entre les villes que les matériaux de leurs trottoirs. Ces arguments sont une histoire vivante. Quoiqu’ils peuvent sembler sans importance par rapport aux crises mondiales sans fin, il vaut la peine de les faire attention. La controverse à Paris autour de la réaménagement des voies sur berges de la Seine peut sembler indulgente si on ne souvient pas l’adage, pas tout à fait à la mode, de penser global agir local. Ces polémiques locales ont beaucoup à nous apprendre mais leur plus grand valeur est comme un bastion contre l’imprécision des discussions incessantes des questions mondiales. Le désir de virer vers l’animal, le végétale et le minérale plutôt que la virtuelle est quelquefois irrésistible et probablement bon pour la santé aussi. Le seul moyen d’échapper ou de se cacher du règne des chiffres est peut-être, comme Laurel et Hardy cherchent l’air frais du mer en Saps at Sea (1940), de retrouver les lieux familiers ou la conversation est intéressante.

Some Paris Parks (English Version)

Les arbres rectilignes, mid-February. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Writing about parks is more fun than writing about buildings. Parks are unpredictable, not so harnessed to the auteur system as buildings. The designer of a park is never so powerful as nature, who always has her say at the drawing board. Many building are most beautiful on the day they are finished but a brand new park, as Ronald Reagan said of the USA, has its best days ahead of it. Depending on how well they are built, buildings deteriorate or age while parks grow like living creatures from one day to the next and across the seasons. I would bet that many city-dwellers’ happiest memories take place in parks. They seem to be the most, and perhaps the last, mirthful places left in today’s cities. Rather than the ritualized coffee-drinking and passeggiate of the piazza, parks encourage an amplitude of movement and feeling. Down at the park a runner might push himself to exhaustion, a picnicker might scrub time watching an ant abscond with a crumb. Beyond their ecological benefits, parks are essential to our own well-being, our dignity even. In a park, as in a library, everyone is rich.

Quelques parcs parisiens (version française)

Les arbres rectilignes, mid-February. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Les parcs m’intéressent plus que les bâtiments. Les parcs sont imprévisibles, ils évitent la politique des auteurs qui entravent l’architecture. L’auteur d’un parc n’est jamais plus puissant que la nature qui a toujours son mot à dire à travers les ans et les saisons. Les parcs viellissent un peu comme les êtres vivants. Un bâtiment est souvent plus beau le jour de son achèvement alors que un parc flambant neuf a ses meilleures années à venir, comme Ronald Reagan a dit à propos des États-Unis. Je ne seriais pas surpris si la plupart des meilleurs souvenirs des citoyens se passent dans les parcs. Ils semblent quelquefois les plus joyeux endroits de nos villes—et peut-être les derniers. Les parcs encouragent une ampleur de sentiment qu’on ne retrouve que rarement dans les rues. Dans le parc un coureur peut pousser son corps au maximum lorsque un pique-niqueur passe la journée en regardant les fourmis volant les miettes de pain. Dans le parc, tout le monde est riche.

Opera Houses in the City, Part II: The Opéra Bastille (English Version)

L'Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

What does it matter what you say about buildings? Is it possible to be fascinated by a building without thinking it very good, or even without knowing whether it is good or not? I’m not talking about the architectural equivalent of a guilty pleasure, a treat which would have to be triple-Z grade  lousy indeed to cause genuine shame in a time in which you can watch Plan 9 from Outer Space at the Cinemathèque Française. I’m talking of course about the Opéra Bastille, a building which this sentence will not even attempt to sum up.

Les opéras en contexte, deuxième partie: l’Opéra Bastille (version française)

L'Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

What does it matter what you say about buildings? Est-ce qu’il existent des bâtiments mauvais ou médiocres qui nous fascinent quand-même?  Je ne parle pas des “guilty pleasures,” une tendance devenue si quotidienne qu’on peut voir Plan 9 from Outer Space à la Cinémathèque Française. Je parle, bien sûr, de l’Opéra Bastille, une édifice qui résiste à chaque tentative de la décrire ainsi.


Opera Houses in the City, Part I: The Palais Garnier (English Version)

Un paon au parc de Bagatelle. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

Imagine a peacock at the Paris Opéra. Having taken the Métro eastwards from his digs in the heavenly Parc de Bagatelle, he passes the intermission munching an eight euro canapé. As we stare at the cultured bird, we find his feathers blurring into the architecture. Does the peacock, we wonder, prove that ornament is hard-wired into nature? This is not a “modernist” bird, a bird with clean lines and sharp edges like an Australian King Parrot. Like the Garnier, the patterns of the peacock’s plumage are subtle and layered, they seem to curl in on themselves until, through modern eyes, it is difficult to read in the ornament anything but beauty itself. This is a particular kind of beauty, one which provokes émerveillement rather than analysis.

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