This is the third article in a four part series which totally geeks out on cities.
Urban planning is a sound and necessary activity, but you can’t eat a menu, right? Buildings, trees, curbstones; it is particularity which makes a city and in the end it takes physical objects to settle arguments about what is good, bad and weird in architecture. In that spirit, here are some buildings good enough to eat.
I. Foreground Buildings
Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (Le Corbusier, 1951-3)
For a real corker of a day combine a tranquil morning at Ronchamp with a harrowing afternoon at the Issenheim Altarpiece (Matthias Grünewald, 1515) in Colmar, about an hour northeast. I expected Ronchamp to be good, but found myself completely beguiled by every aspect of the chapel and its site. It is easier to talk around the building, describing its form and the history of its conception, than to confront the tremendous feeling of wellbeing which seems to guard that hilltop (a place considered sacred by sun-worshipers, and then Romans, before being credited with preventing the spread of heresy from the east).
Ronchamp is a trip inside the mind of its architect. The architectural historian William J. R. Curtis lists an extraordinary array of influences on Le Corbusier’s design:
- A crab’s shell picked up on Long Island;
- Ship’s hulls;
- Ski jumps
- Airplane wings;
- A rural church in Spain Corb sketched in the 1930s;
- The top lighting at Hadrian’s Villa;
- Greek and North African vernacular sources;
- Gun apertures;
- Practical considerations, such as the economy of reusing the rubble of the previous chapel on the site (bombed in 1944) and the need to harvest water.
If one thinks of these things while on the site, it is only vaguely. Ronchamp is above all a demonstration of the power of human imagination. One falls into it like a novel, a painting or a great film.
Musée du Quai Branly, Paris
Like the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh (Enric Miralles, et. al., 1998-2004), the Musée du Quai Branly (2006) is a monumental building which does not present itself as a unified composition. The building’s playfulness and subtlety open its architect, Jean Nouvel, up to criticism from those who prefer their architecture to fit into neat theoretical boxes (not to mention that other minefield of a debate over how ‘primitive art’ should be presented). Patrick Blanc’s famous vegetated facade — lush and healthy on the day of our visit — runs right along the busy Quai Branly at a scale which echoes the solid bourgeois apartment buildings of the surrounding neighborhood. Further along the street a glass wall shelters an extensive and very beautiful jardin sauvage which runs all the way under the museum to join the quiet streets behind, providing a tangible benefit for the local area. The garden could be considered a horizontal continuation of Blanc’s ‘living wall’. In Paris I noticed a theme of loose, romantic plantings within geometrically formal parks, ranging from the Tuilleries and the Promenade Plantée to new pocket parks like the quiet and poignant Jardin Anne Frank (2007). The combination of wildness and order sets up a tension which is very effective, evoking the way modernist buildings often work best in informal landscapes.
The interior of the museum manages to sustain a promenade architecturale of astounding richness without the visitor ever feeling constrained to a path. There are vague echoes of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in the white ramp which coils up from the lobby, past the museum’s storage space, which is visible to the public in a multilevel glass cylinder (for Bostonians this might recall the beloved glass fish tank at the New England Aquarium). Along the ramp there is an extremely effective site specific artwork, The River (2010) by Charles Sandison, which projects intricate coils of words derived from the cultures represented in the collection across the floor and balustrade.
The promenade through the museum is highly cinematic, as one would expect from Jean Nouvel, an architectural cinematographer par excellence. At the end of the white ramp we pass through the spatial equivalent of black leader before a film, a black on black transitional space just before the galleries begin. The collection, far too extensive to cover in a single visit, is presented in a way which could be considered the philosophical opposite of the original grand projet, the Pompidou Centre. Where the Pompidou seeks to be the last word in plan libre, expelling its guts to the exterior in order to permit internal flexibility, the Musée du Quai Branly unfolds in a series of bespoke experiences, moments created by lighting, unusual materials (such as the leather walls which bulge and curve to accommodate benches — comfortable enough to encourage least one napping museum goer — and video screens). Pools of artificial light mix with the daylight which filters in through various glass walls, some screen printed with enormous photographs of vegetation. The richness of the internal lighting seems the apotheosis of Nouvel’s career-long interest in designing buildings as filters for light. Without detracting from the collection, it sets up a parallel experience of unexpected reflections and juxtapositions which is very close to montage.
I only pity the girl who runs the forlorn kiosk in the lower basement level, next to the museum’s theater. It must be like working in outer space. Still, Nouvel thought of her; the garden sinks down several levels to flood this space with natural light and greenery.
II. Background buildings
One way to stare down the blank page which precedes a work of architecture is to ask one simple question: ‘is this to be a background or a foreground building?’ The distinction seems simple enough — foreground buildings are the exception to the rules set by background buildings. The textbook example might be the way the Guggenheim leaps out of the prevailing gray-brown boxes of the Upper East Side. Foreground buildings are ‘landmarks’, a value-neutral term which can describe masterpieces like the Guggenheim or much rued mistakes like the Tour Monparnasse or the Pan Am Building. Background buildings, the containers of ordinary life, are perceived in a state of distraction. You might live in one for decades without ever looking closely enough to be able to draw it or even pass a multiple choice quiz on your home’s appearance. This coexistence of physical mass and psychological immateriality is an extraordinary state of grace when you come to think about it, and must tell us a good deal about the place of buildings in human life.
In Venice there is a grocery store in Sestiere San Polo (it would be a stretch to call it a supermarket, though I came to feel it was pretty super duper) which seemed to draw us through its doors almost every day. The wares were generally inexpensive and of excellent quality and it was a great place to learn Italian vocabulary, but what maintained the tension in an invisible rubber band between us and this market was the way its unpretentious liveliness testified to a living Venice. I have no idea what the building looks like, and didn’t bother to take a photo.
In a great city the background buildings are never simple background, they are a mutable tapestry woven with obscure ornamental agendas, subtle variations in the ratio of wall to window, and, in the form of drying laundry or window boxes, the evanescent traces of those who live within. They permit change, without the city losing its identity.
Some background buildings are the Johnny Guitars of architecture; faithful to a known genre, but very odd indeed. This apartment building, proudly signed by its architect, is not far from the Musée du Quai Branly:
Sometimes a background building’s ornamental program is so singular that a you can only stare in wonder, as in this building on Quai des Célestins, near the Bastille. It’s a pity that Adolph Loos called ornament a crime. Ornament is tough to pull off, but allows background buildings to transcend their station without upsetting the order of the street.
Nearby, on Rue Castex, a 1996 addition has given new life to a gorgeous art deco post office (1935). The dialogue between old and new is simultaneously seamless and bold, a sophisticated approach which transcends the strategies of mimicry or deliberate separation which usually characterize new additions to old buildings.
Instinctively one assumes that architects long to make their names by designing important foreground buildings, but there are many examples in any city of the surreptitious freedom offered to the designer of an ordinary building. Where a big museum might be saddled with the burden of an overpriced café, a gift shop and fickle public expectations, a good background building can ride the waves of a changing city, hosting an exquisite bakery for a few years and then perhaps a dry cleaner or a vendor of finger puppets.
On my mental list of buildings to see in Paris, one stubbornly refused to be found. I had seen a photo of the Institute de L’Art et d’Archéologie (Paul Bigot, 1927) on the cover of a large and impressive book called Brick: A World History and was determined to track it down. Marching up Avenue de l’Observatoire through an escalating drizzle on our last afternoon in Paris — tout à coup — there it was, like a ghost! I huddled under a tree and took some photos, none of which can convey the building’s foreceful confidence, or the way the brickwork must be come alive in the sunshine.
The building ruptures the line between foreground and background. It treats the street politely, as a background building should, but is realized with such excellence and originality that categorization seems futile (there are Roman overtones for sure, understandable given that Bigot spent thirty four years building a scale model of Rome in the time of Constantine). It is revealing to consider that Bigot’s building is contemporaneous with Le Corbusier’s early houses, such as Maison La Roche/Jeanneret (1923-4), just on the other side of the Seine but a cosmos away in sensibility. Stumbling over buildings like the Institute de L’Art et d’Archéologie demonstrates how much is omitted when architectural history is taught as a tidy succession of movements and -isms. Architectural history is written in the streets.
Next week —
“A Grand Tour, Part IV” concludes that cities are different from one another.