Archive for the Architecture Category

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Abbey at Sant’Antimo

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

By LIZ HAGER

On the approach to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The road to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo descends in a steep spiral through vineyards, fields of grass, and groves of olive and cypress trees. On the way down, the abbey—which includes a grand but typically unfussy Romanesque church, its slightly leaning bell tower, and companion cypress—is always in view. The stunning approach heralds Sant’Antimo as the most special of places, center of its own still beautiful corner of the universe.

On approach to Sant’ Antimo.

If the view from on high weren’t enough, on the valley floor a pilgrim (whether spiritually or artistically inspired) is met with another breath-taking vista. The sandy-colored church harmoniously blends with newly-baled hay, as well as the light and dark greens of the grass and trees. The colors of the site speak powerfully to its ancient agrarian roots.

Sant’ Antimo must surely be the most picturesque site in the Val d’Orcia. It’s all the more amazing for having remained virtually unchanged for the last 1,000 years.

Sant’ Antimo—view from apse to the bell tower.
Note the animals and vine motifs, typical of the Romanesque style.

Legend suggests that Charlemagne consecrated Sant’ Antimo. Possibly he passed through the Val d’Orcia on his way to and from Rome for coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. Documents reliably confirm Sant’Antimo in this spot around 814, though in much less a noble form than the structure which greets visitors today.

Sant’ Antimo—Virgins and Four Evangelists

The 11th century brought an explosion of the monastic orders, as well as growing crowds of pilgrims eager to travel great distances in order to see relics from the Holy Land. As a result, extensive ecclesiastic building ensued. All over Europe, but particularly in France, Germany and Italy, Romesque style churches proliferated.

Sant’ Antimo is a fine example of the classic Romanesque style—it consists of a nave, lateral aisles, a transept in emulation of the cross, a main apse, and radiating chapels. Curiously, it owes more to the French than the Italian Romesque tradition.

Entryway, Sant’ Antimo

The abbey lies not far from the Via Francigena (also known as the Via Roma), one of the primary routes on which pilgrims and merchants alike made their way back and forth from Canterbury to Rome. Proximity to the Via (which passes between Siena and Viterbo, both nearby) would have invested Sant’ Antimo with a certain prestige as a popular stop on near the pilgrimage route. No doubt this is one of the reasons the original church was expanded and embellished by its Benedictine monks around 1100. Certainly, the Via must have allowed for French Romanesque influences to filter into this valley.

The sculptural detail at Sant’ Atimo contains motifs found in the Romanesque world—i.e. foliage (classical Roman tradition); geometric forms (from Celtic Christianity);  biblical or mythological animals (from the Byzantine world).   But some of the column capitals reflect Lombardi characteristics, betraying the multitude of cultural influences at work on the abbey.

Entryway, Sant’ Antimo (detail)

A thousand years after these masters finished Sant’Antimo, it remains actively in use. Taking refuge inside the church from the scorching Tuscan sun, I was greeted by the telltale sounds of liturgical chanting. Just in front of the apse, eight monks stood in two rows facing each other, singing their mid-day prayers.  I rested my irritated body and contemplated the elegance around me to solemn but mellifluous accompaniment.

Wider Connections

More historical detail on Sant’Antimo
The Community of Sant’Antimo (with excellent details on history and artistic elements)

Venetian Red in Rome: The Jewel in Rome’s Carolingian Crown

Posted in Architecture, Liz Hager, Mosaic with tags , , , , on June 5, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

By LIZ HAGER

Apse Mosaics, Santa Prassede, Rome. The iconographic program consists of themes associated with the Apocalypse.

A stone’s throw from the madding crowds at Santa Maria Maggiore lies Santa Prassede, nearly empty the other afternoon when I visited.  Santa Prassede has all the attributes of its larger cousin but in a more intimate setting, which fosters a truly contemplative experience. (No tour groups here!)

Early 20th century terrazo floor (detail), Santa Prassede.

Santa Prassede occupies an important position in the pantheon of early Christian churches.  Santa Praxedes (Prassede) and Prudentiana were the daughters of Roman senator Prudens (first century AD), who was immortalized in a brief passage in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy.  Santa Prassede, like the earliest Christian churches, especially those on the Esquiline hill, was built on top of Roman imperial structures and, as a consequence, follows the Roman basilica plan (apse, nave and aisles).

The alleged pillar on which Christ was flogged before his crucifixion.

Though previous churches occupied the space, the structure in its current form was inaugurated by Pope Hadrian I in around 780, but it was really  Pope Paschal (817-824), who created the true glory of Santa Prassede.  At the forefront of the Carolingian Renaissance, during his reign, Paschal undertook two ambitious programs—the first, building new churches; the second to recover martyr bones from the the catacombs and distribute them throughout churches in Rome.

15th century tomb marker, floor of Santa Prassede

The mosaics date from Paschal’s time. The apse mosaics are a stunning example of the no-holds-barred Carolingian program—in this case, Christ flanked by Saints Peter and Paul who present Prassede and Pudenziana to God. Below them, is the band of lambs with the central haloed lamb as the symbol of Christ’s resurrection. For the care with which the sheeps’ fur and heads are depicted, I find this the sweetest of all the Carolingian elements.  Along the outer registers are numerous scenes, depicting others being welcomed into Heaven by saints.

The grand program is magnificent, but it is the tiny chapel of St. Zeno inside the church that qualifies Santa Prassede as a true jewel in my book. This is the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics and it was without a doubt the unexpected highlight of a day filled with wonderful art viewing. As the lights came on (as in all Rome’s churches you must feed the light meter), the sparkle of encrusted tesserae of turquoise and gold in this tiny space took my breath away.

If you are a fan of the mosaic art as I am, Santa Prassede is not to be missed under any circumstances.

Mosaic bust of Christ and four saints, Chapel of St. Zeno, Santa Prassede.

Bay Area FAVs: Alice Aycock’s Functional & Fantasy Stair

Posted in Architecture, Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

In these recessionary times when most Bay Area museums charge entrance fees in the double digits and scores of galleries have closed,  we highlight San Francisco’s commitment to art in public spaces in our ongoing feature—Bay Area Free Art Views (FAVs).

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair, 1996 SFPL

Alice Aycock, Functional and Fantasy Stair, 1996,
Aluminum and structural steel with painted steel sheathing,
approx. 24’ high x 32’ long x 20’ wide. San Francisco Public Library
(all photos © Liz Hager 2009)

Alice Aycock is a member of the group of artists (Laurie Anderson perhaps a better-known member) who came artistic age in the early 1970s, grappling with the stylistic transition from modernism to postmodernism.  Although her pieces feel architectural, they are not, as Aycock has said:  “… functional architecture, but architecture as an umbrella from which you could hang many things—psychology, history, or culture.”

Aycock has held a life-long obsession with the nature of reality;  that is to say, her work deals with various states of mind and body, sometimes real, but often fictional, sometimes downright peculiar. But always complex. Typically, her work mines a vast array of references—physics, psychoanalysis, literary, computer programming, mental disorders, even ancient languages.  This subject matter makes for intensely psychological environments.

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (3), SFPL

Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Louise Nevelson, and even her father, a construction engineer, have been Aycock’s inspiration. She was drawn to the “land art” movement from early on, making site-specific works from earth, wood, stone, and other natural materials. In the 1980s, Aycock began to employ industrial materials like steel, with allusions to the growing presence of machines in our lives.

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (5), SFPL

Aycock designed a spiral stairway between the fifth and sixth floors of the library, just off the suspended, glass-enclosed reading room that projects into the library’s great atrium space. A functional staircase is nestled inside an askew cone structure (it mirrors the shape of the atrium skylight).  Cyclone Fragment, suspended above, is its companion piece.
Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (2), SFPL

Stair contains some hallmarks of an Aycock work. The stairwell is an intriguing, if confusing, architectural space. Proceed up or down the functional stairwell and glimpses of the fantasy stairs (leading nowhere) are revealed through fragmented openings in the cone. (Multiple views of a parallel universe?) Overall the cone structure envelops, but the environment it creates (its materials complement those of the library) is sleek, shiny and cold, very cold. Further, the whole sculpture is hermetically sealed by the glass encasement of the reading room.

Alice Aycock—Functional & Fantasy Stair (1), SFPL

Stairs are a central and sustaining motif for Aycock. As early as 1974, she began incorporating them into her work with These Stairs Can Be Climbed.  As the (man-made) vehicle by which man ascends or descends, stairs signify movement, even progress. It’s the reason most monuments (to impressive men) are placed at the head of a set of stairs. In dreams, stairs are often interpreted as the states of consciousness—the lower levels equivalent to “facts,” the upper levels with higher consciousness. One set of the Library’s stairs do allow progress;  the other just ends in thin air. Is Aycock asking us to think about power versus impotence?

One is left puzzling the connection of this piece to the Library environment, indeed even whether there needs to be one.

Wider Connections

Alice Aycock

Land Art

Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art

Venetian Red Notebook: The Guardians and Gargoyles of New York

Posted in Architecture, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , on September 4, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

doorway guardian

New York is a paradise of architectural ornamentation. As a child wandering the streets I was endlessly fascinated by the gorgeous scroll work, animals, birds, angels, demons, beautiful faces, grotesque gargoyles, flowers and garlands that bedecked the facades of even the most modest brownstones, apartment houses and office buildings. I loved the visual richness, the textures, the crazy mix of styles and the sense of living surrounded by mythological creatures. New York was a visual encyclopedia of natural history—real and imagined—forged in terracotta, limestone, cast iron and metal.

face

The Woolworth Building, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler Building—all these Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and Gothic Revival masterpieces were very impressive and I never tired of looking at them, but what really intrigued me were the everyday delights—walking down a street and glancing up to see a parade of gazelles below the second floor windows of a small apartment building or the monstrous gargoyles that protected my school.

demon

Following the non-ornamental Federal style of the late 1700s-early 1800s, many buildings put up through the 1930s were highly ornamented, including the tenements built quickly to house the influx of immigrants arriving in New York. Much of the ornamentation, while striving for elegance and beauty, also served, or concealed, important functions, from providing needed structural support to deflecting rain water. Capitals, cornices, keystones, corbels, brackets and anchors could all serve a purpose as well as delight the eye.

Capital

Owl

design

head

man's face

green man

anchor

scholar

leaf

dog & rabbit

roof

Much of the ornamentation of the period contained Gothic revival, Neo-Classic, Art Nouveau or Beaux-Arts elements. Decorative detail reached its formal, very stylized height with the Art Deco movement.

deco

deco griffin

The rise of the International style and Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s put an end to New York’s golden age of ornamentation. While many of the cornices and keystones are crumbling from the effects of age and weather, there is still plenty to see. Next time you are walking around New York, especially on Wall Street, the Lower East Side, Chelsea, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side—be sure to look up.

angel

Recommended reading:
New York Detail
, A Treasury of Ornamental Splendor by Yumiko Kobayashi and Ryo Watanabe
Details, The Architect’s Art by Sally B. Woodbridge, Photographs by Roz Joseph
Grand, Wasn’t It? by Constance Rosenblum. New York Times, August 20, 2009
Animals in Stone, Architectural Sculpture in New York City by Robert Arthur King
Faces in Stone, Architectural Sculpture in New York City by Robert Arthur King

Venetian Red Notebook: Windows on Russia

Posted in Architecture, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Travel with tags , , , on August 19, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Russian Window

Russian folk art reached the height of popularity with the builders and woodworkers of rural Russia in the 18th-19th centuries. From simple peasant cottages to log-built estates for wealthy merchants, timber houses were decorated with elaborate painted wood carvings. Russia is sometimes referred to as a nation of woodcutters, and this tradition is evident in the wooden houses in the Golden Ring, the historical towns and cities that lie to the northeast of Moscow. These towns represent one thousand years of Russian history, a time and place that saw the lives of great figures in Russian history unfold, including Alexander Nevesky, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. It was in these towns that the Russian Orthodox Church first took hold, so there are many wonderful examples of Russia’s greatest architecture—monasteries, onion-dome churches and cathedrals.

In the rural houses of the Golden Ring, elaborately carved wooden decorations also appeared on the edges of roofs and balconies, but were most beautiful as window surrounds. The carvings were uniquely Russian, an amalgam of Russian folklore motifs, Baroque embellishment and the graceful linear quality of Art Nouveau. They combine flowers, leaves and geometric shapes with stylized depictions of  birds and animals, as well as mythological creatures, such as the Sirin—a creature of Russian legend that has the face and chest of a woman and the wings and feathered tail of a bird, most often an owl.

SirinSirin, Lubok picture, 19th century

These pictures, from a Golden Ring travel brochure, show the inventiveness of the  wood carvers. The houses and the window surrounds were painted in wonderful colors which highlight the beauty of the designs.

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Window

The three pictures below were taken by a friend last year on a trip to Russia.

Russian Inn
Russian Inn near Vladimir, 19th century

Russian Inn
Russian Inn near Vladimir

Russian House SuzdalRussian House, Suzdal
Photos: Courtesy Victoria Tupper Kirby

In many areas of Russia, these wonderful embellished houses have fallen into ruin, a staggering number have been lost. In the Golden Ring, quite a few have been restored on site, while others have been moved to “open-air museums” and are a popular tourist attraction in northeast Russia.

This window surround was included in a recent exhibition, Carved and Colored Village Art from Tsarist Lands, at Pushkin House, London that was held from May 18th-June 10th, 2009. Note the two mythological bird figures on the top.

Russian Window—Pushkin House
The catalog from the show, by Robert Cenciner and John Cornall can be found here.

Russian Windows, Pushkin House

The Evolving Uses of the Presidio: CAMP Update

Posted in Architecture, Bay Area Art Scene, Liz Hager with tags , , on March 25, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Note: Other VR posts on this subject can be found here.

camp-model-11

Model: revised design for the Main Post area, including the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio (WRNS Studio, San Francisco, architects).

Venetian Red first reported on the proposal for the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio in A Day at Camp.

Since 2007, when plans were first unveiled, public comment to the Presidio’s development plan for its Main Post has focused largely on the proposal for the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio (CAMP). To be fair, some of the more vocal opposition takes issue with all the new buildings planned for the Post, but it’s pretty clear the museum is the linchpin of their opposition.

The CAMP proposal exists within the context of a much larger discourse—namely, the role of the Main Post within the Presidio and the evolving purpose of the Presidio itself.  Given the uniqueness of the Presidio, many factors must be taken into account.

First, there is the issue of how a National Park in the midst of an urban environment stays relevant to its community.  In its 2001 white paper, “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century,” the National Park System Advisory Board acknowledged that parks “were not, could not be, static entities,” that they “no longer be thought of as islands with little or no connection, cultural or ecological, to their surroundings.”  The Board stated its clear desire to empower a Parks Service that would benefit a new generation of citizens in a culturally-diverse, increasingly-urban, and ever more-rapidly changing world, although rightifully it offered no specifics on how parks should accomplish that. In the context of the white paper’s mandate for the Park System to “reach out to museums, parks and cultural venues, linking them with shared stories and interpretation”  (Section V), how could American art not be relevant to a 21st-century urban-based park?  Further, with attendance records dropping at historical “theme” parks all over the country, isn’t it only fiscally responsible for Presidio Trust, which must be financially self-sufficient in the next year or two, to look at other “draw” options?

Second, the Presidio is already an unusual mixed-use park with a city-like infrastructure (over 800 buildings) and vast cultivated forestland that requires management resources shared between NPS and Presidio Trust. Although the Presidio is a National Historic Landmark District, not all of its buildings have historic designation. Aggregate square footage gained by demolishing non-historic structures may be used legitimately for new construction in existing areas of development, as long as the overall cap on developed square footage is maintained. (That’s why, elsewhere in the Presidio, the LucasArts complex could replace the demolished Letterman Hospital.) The addition of CAMP to the Main Post does not violate these guidelines.

Third, the Main Post, the heart of the Presidio, had a civic identity long before the CAMP proposal came along.  As an Army base, by the late 20th century, the Presidio had become a virtual city-within-a-city, the Main Post its concentrated hub, and the Parade Grounds, an asphalted parking lot. Since 1994, when the Presidio was designated a National Park, municipal projects—rehabilitation and revitalization—have continued at the Main Post.  In 2002, the Presidio Trust adopted an overall management plan for the park (PTMP) and began to realize a long-term vision, in accordance with processes dictated by the various agencies—National Park Service, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Since then, scores of buildings on the Main Post have been rehabilitated. Many new buildings have been constructed, including, for example, the one currently occupied by La Terrasse restaurant (not historically themed by the way). Cultural entities are already slotted for the Main Post. There doesn’t seem to have been much opposition to the the Disney Family Museum, a cultural museum dedicated to the life of Walt Disney, soon to take up residence at its Montgomery Barracks building. All this is in addition to the improvements that have been made elsewhere in the park that have brought city-dwellers to live in the Presidio. With all of this, though, the Main Post still feels like an isolated collection of buildings; like every grand public space, it needs an anchor or two to tie it all together.

camp-model-2

(Model detail) CAMP building as seen from entrance, looking west from Parade Grounds.

In 2007, the Trust notified the various agencies and the public of significant new proposals for the Main Post (including CAMP) that were before it. This February, as part of the prescribed planning process for the Main Post area, The Presidio Trust released the revised draft (“Preferred Alternative”) of the Main Post Update to the PTMP, as well as accompanying environmental and findings of effect documents required by the planning process. This draft had been revised based on extensive agency and public comment.

The updated PTMP states three primary objectives for the Main Post: reveal the Presidio’s history; create a welcoming place; and employ 21st-century green practices. CAMP falls under the second objective, as do rehabilitation of the existing Presidio Theatre (with new addition) and new construction of a Presidio Lodge.  Strategies to meet the other primary objectives are well laid out by the current PTMP document.

Given the discussion points above, it would seem that the only legitimate complaint in regard to the original CAMP proposal is the footprint and design of its building.

The newly-proposed designs from WRNS Studio goes along way to ameliorating prior concerns. This design shows greater sensitivity to the physical attributes of the site and the emotional sentiment about the Main Post. WRNS has re-placed the building to a less conspicuous corner of the Parade Grounds and made considerable design modifications to the structure. Rather than a boastful and lonely white-box eyesore sitting predominantly above ground, the architects have suggested a modest structure, mostly underground, quite suitable for a park-like setting.  What remains above ground is unobtrusive and exceptionally well-integrated with its surroundings; its low-slung peaked roof gently hugs the ground. This design suggested the possibility of a “living” roof, which would fulfill the Presidio’s commitment to sustainability.

Regardless of what the final design may actually look like, PMTP parameters insure a roofline no higher than 30 feet from ground level and more or less 60% of the projected 70,000 sq. feet underground.  As a side note, WRNS seems particularly well-schooled in the art of the underground structure.

Artist’s Rendering, CAMP proposal, WRNS Studio.

For sustaining the city’s lively arts community, as well as enhancing the visitor experience of San Francisco, the importance of keeping this unparalleled collection of modern American art (West Coast artists amply represented) together and publicly on view in San Francisco cannot be understated. (The Fisher collection provides needed depth lacking in MoMA’s American offering.) Imagine the Presidio, a mixed-used park, with its Main Post as the West Coast echo of the National Mall, more modest in scope to be sure, but still a vital and relevant space that instills a sense of pride in our American history and culture.

The new design for CAMP, together with parking and transportation logistical proposals, ought go a long way to removing remaining legitimate opposition. Apparently various state and federal agencies have been convinced. Still, rumors abound that, once the Presidio files its Document of Record (the Board approval of final plan parameters for the Main Post), lawsuits to stop construction will be filed. All this could happen as early as this summer.

Get educated, make comments, stay involved:

Graphics of the plan, as well as the model of the current proposals for the Main Post, on view at Bldg. 105, every Friday and Saturday 10am-12pm through April 18th.Any one may comment on any aspect of the revised PTMP through April 20th, either online or by mail. Submit a Comment.

SPUR presentation “The Future of the Presidio’s Main Post” April 7, 12:30pm.

The final public meeting (Board of Directors) will be held on Tuesday, April 7th 6:00 pm at Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (3301 Lyons Street).


Wider Connections

CAMP homepage

Current Planning Documents

New design renderings

National Mall current planning

SF Citizen, more pictures of the proposed design

WRNS Studio


Venetian Red in Berlin: Festival of Lights

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Site Work, Travel with tags , , , , on October 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Festival of Lights (Photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Every October in Berlin over the course of 12 days light artist Andreas Boehlke and his crew put  on a joyous show illuminating Berlin’s streets and monuments with spectacular designs. It attracts crowd participation. One night after dinner, we drove around the city looking for the show; by a stroke of luck our route took us by the Berliner Dom on Museum Island. The night was cold and windy. The cathedral was looking quite goth all a-glow with the fog swirling around it.

You can catch a hosted video filmed high above the events on Gendarmenmarkt; very entertaining even if you speak no German. Be sure to catch the first minute or so with the “Alex” (aka Alexander Platz) Fernsehturm (TV tower), one of Berlin’s famous landmarks. Then, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, just scroll in to around 4:00 minutes for the crowd action.

You can catch the live action at the Brandenburg Gate on October 24 at 10pm (Berlin time) by clicking here.

The Dom Front Side (Photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

The Dom Back Side (Photos ©2008 Liz Hager)

Wider Connections

Festival of Lights website

Venetian Red in Berlin: The Wall that Divides

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , on October 21, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Brandenburg Gate pre-1989—Berlin Nummer B92 ©Ute + Berndt Eickemeyer/Berlin

Last week, I stood in the middle of the expansive Potsdamer Platz trying to imagine, as so many before me, just exactly where the Wall had run. At equally famous Pariser Platz, the photogenic Brandenberg Gate has stood intact through the decades, so it’s not surprising that it became the über-symbol of Soviet-fashioned state imprisonment. By contrast, virtually all of Potsdamer Platz is new, rebuilt after the 1945 bombing of Berlin and again when the Wall came down. Once one of the busiest traffic nexuses in Europe, through architectural metamorphosis the Platz has been returned to a gleaming and bustling space, albeit completely unrecognizable from its historical self. Crowds now gather in the atrium of the Sony Center not out in the streets as they did before the War.  Surrounded by shiny steel and glass towers with people and traffic streaming by, I found it nearly impossible to imagine Potsdamer Platz as a Cold War Dead Zone. But that’s pretty much what it was while divided by a nasty military-style border that included not only a 12-foot Wall, but wide buffer zones of empty space bordered by barbed wire, guard towers, and a back up wall.

Brandenburg Gate November 1989—Berlin Nummer B94 ©Ute + Berndt Eickemeyer/Berlin

Nearly 20 years after its dismantling, the Wall is still an obsession, though perhaps mostly with non-Berliners. On a Sunday morning my family group (including a native Berliner) joined a healthy crowd of internationals already at the Wall Memorial on the corner of Acker and Bernauer Strassen, all reading the historical placards with reverence and awe. Though historical tidbits about the Wall abound, one truth is overwhelming—in its circumnavigation of the city, the Wall not only fenced in East Berlin, but also isolated West Berlin, creating an island symbolically cut off from the rest of the world.

Throughout the week, I stumbled across other remnants of the Wall in different parts of the city. (A Mauer-Map is handy tool in more deliberate searches for the Wall.) Most of these slabs were pitted and defaced, shabby and seemingly ordinary.  Nevertheless, these sections still pack a powerful symbolic punch. Superficially, they might be mistaken for a metaphor of the failure of Soviet-style Communism— remnants of that system do live on, like the Wall sections, in the attitudes and behaviors of its former citizens. Upon deeper consideration, I prefer to think of them as a warning signal, a call to action for the eternal vigilance we must maintain against the forces that would divide us.

Brandenburg Gate, Recently ©2008 Liz Hager

Wider Connections

Antony Beevor—The Fall of Berlin 1945
Edward R. Murrow’s account of Berlin bombing
Potsdamer Platz
Wall factoids
Billy Wilder’s One Two Three



A Day at CAMP: Thoughts on the Fisher Collection

Posted in Architecture, Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Paper with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2008 by Liz Hager

One of the 1,000+ pieces in the Fisher collection: Chuck Close, “Phyllis,” 1984, pulp paper on canvas

Don Fisher’s proposal for a Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP) has generated substantial uproar since its unveiling last summer.  At the root of the controversy are the 100,000 square-foot building—designed by the Gluckman Mayner Architects to house Fisher’s extensive collection of contemporary art—and its placement on the parade grounds of the Presidio.  

Since the details of the proposal became public, many have weighed in on the value of the collection to the community and the aesthetic costs of the current proposal.  Other than a video of art critic Kenneth Baker touring the collection with Don Fisher, however, there aren’t many details available on the collection itself.

In a move to drum up support for his proposal, Don Fisher hired Ground Floor Public Affairs. In September, the group was conducting guided lunchtime tours of the collection for members of the public. As it turned out, the tour did not cover the whole collection, although there was certainly on view to form an opinion about the value of the collection within a greater art historical context.

The tour congregated in the lobby around Richard Serra’s sky-scraping sculpture “Charlie Brown.” So-named because it was installed on the day Charles Schultz died, the piece has an internal space (characteristic of some Serra works) created by the placement of massively vertical steel slabs. The resulting acoustics make for a wild and child-like experience, as tour members whispered and sometimes felt compelled to shout while inside. Unfortunately, “Charlie Brown” will not be part of the CAMP collection, as it was purchase by the Gap, not by Fisher.  

Six large rooms (and one or two hallways) on the bottom floor of the Gap’s headquarters house the artworks on public view. Overall, it was hard to detect a particular curatorial hand in the collection (and the reason may be because there hasn’t ever been a curator of the collection). American artists figure prominently, although a few of the artists, such as Sean Scully, were born elsewhere and live here, and some—including Richard Long and Gerhard Richter—aren’t American and don’t live here. Not visible were Damien Hirst or Anselm Kiefer, arguably necessary components in any collection of contemporary art. To be fair, however, these artists might be represented in the collection, just not on public view. 

Works are presented in loose chronological order—i.e. Lichtenstein and Stella in the first rooms through Jeff Wall and Sam Taylor in the last room. This organizing principal isn’t so strict as to prevent a meditative pairing of Agnes Martin’s organically-inspired 1950/60 paintings with Richard Long‘s reverent natural stone “Autumn Circle” (1990) on the gallery floor. 

In the aggregate the Fisher collection does a fine job offering up the eminent artists of the last four decades—including Philip Guston, Sol LeWitt, Elizabeth Murray, Bryce Marden, Bill Viola—a solid starter course on contemporary art. What’s more, with many of the artists represented by multiple pieces the depth of the collection provides important glimpses of individual leitmotifs, as well as an overview of the march of artistic movements. Three Sean Scully paintings hanging together brings out the lyrical quality in his structured “bricks” of color technique; a single painting could not do this. Almost an entire room of Chuck Close works clearly demonstrates the artist’s prowess manipulating media in service of “portraiture, redefined.”  The two copies of “Phyllis” hanging side by side illustrate this point well.  The larger (above) is constructed from quarter-sized disks of reconstituted paper pulp; a smaller study has been executed purely with his fingerprints. Both from a distance read with photographic-like clarity. 

There is no doubt that San Francisco would be immeasurably enhanced by a public venue for this collection. But how to deal with its container?

There are loads of fantastic contemporary buildings that fit in, even augment, their surroundings. One need look no farther than to the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences for examples of successful parkland museums.  Herzog + de Meuron and Renzo Piano  have managed to conjoin two buildings of radically different design with a neo-classical bandshell in a graceful embrace of their shared plaza. Perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to edifices on those sites, as buildings had been there previously for nearly a century.

By contrast, the Gluckman Mayner big square white glass box plopped on the wide-open (rehabilitated) green of the Presidio parade grounds is austere.  The CAMP building feels self-conscious and alone, like a singleton in desperate need of a sibling.

Fisher’s proposal may ultimately pass the public review process, but this is not a fore-gone conclusion. Under National Park rules, the Presidio Trust must publicly vet the proposal.  As a result it finds itself embroiled in the community agitation; the July BOD meeting is a painful reflection of that. For his part, Don Fisher has threatened to keep the collection private.

One hopes that the benefactor will be persuaded to move the building to one of the less prominent, though no less agreeable, sites suggested. One hopes the historic preservation, YMCA and various other groups fighting the proposal will see that the right modernist design will augment the beauty of the Presidio.  IIf a compromise cannot be reached, we all lose. 

Want to dig deeper?

July 2008 BOD transcript

Tyler Green on the proposal

Corrections & Amplifications—10/25/08

* The Trust does not operate under the National Park’s Organic Act, but under the Presidio Trust Act. All federal agencies must comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, which determine the public process. Neither the state nor the city have any decision-making authority, but clearly it is better to have their support than not. 

* The Y does not oppose the project. 

* The Fisher collection has more than 1,000 pieces, many of which are in the Gap executive offices and various other locations without public access. 

 

 

A(nother) Great Leap Forward?

Posted in Architecture, Music & Dance, People & Places, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on August 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

photo ©Emilio Naranja

Like much of the world, I was riveted to the television for 3 1/2 hours last night as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics unfolded. The cynic in me noted the overt propagandistic nature and shear economic cost of the evening. But the artist in me experienced moments of undeniable viewing ecstasy—the lighted batons of 2,008 drummers moving in unison in the dark; the undulating rectangle of character blocks; the tai-chi masters, whose movement from above resembled a swarm of bees; and the pièce—those “lighted dot” suits, flashing together at one point like a giant neon arrow. “This way China!”  It was an evening of Peking opera, Cirque de Soleil, and Jackie Chan all rolled up together. 

As one commentator remarked near the end: “they should retire the trophy for opening ceremonies.” Indeed, I am hard pressed to think how Vancouver or London, next on the list of host cities, will come up with programs that top not only the shock and awe technology on display last night but the colorful, graceful, well-choreographed, and often quite sobering symbolic elements of the program created by Zhang Yimou (pr: john-ee-moe). Nor should they perhaps: the extravaganza was rumored to have cost the government as much as $300 million. 

Not too long into the program, I developed a real fondness for its backdrop, the Bird’s Nest stadium.   We San Franciscans now have automatic affinity with Beijing through our two Herzog and de Meuron buildings; we’re the little guy city in a worldwide club of bigger venues (London, Munich, Beijing) and that’s good for an often-parochial city like ours. Our own de Young Museum is one of the few joyous exceptions in a skyline full of repetitively dull versions of the modernist glass box motif.  I completely understand why the Chinese have latched on so quickly to the Bird’s Nest as their 21st century icon. Nicolai Ouroussoff covers the details of this topic much better than I could in his article this morning in the NY Times. Additionally, Gordon Raynor of the UK Telegraph focuses on the symbolism of the structure very nicely in his 8/7 post “Guide to the Birds Nest.” 

Certainly director Zhang Yimou deserves huge kudos for conceiving and pulling off a spectacular show that had to have included thousands of logistical nightmares. (For starters, think about fashioning and fitting 15,000 costumes.) Obviously, he didn’t do it by himself; the international “concept” team included Steven Spielberg and choreographer Zhang Jigang. But in the end, it was his show. I’m not conversant enough with Zhang Yimou’s films (Judou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) to offer meaningful commentary in that vein about last night’s extravaganza, so I’ve listed some other linkages below. Suffice it to say, he’s a master of visual symbolism.

In the final analysis, though, what better symbol of 21st century China than the army of human performers that were required to execute Zhang’s vision?  Not just marching mind you, but dancing, twirling and running, all in lock-step precision. These perfectly-harnessed masses were a sobering and disquieting reminder of the inherent force of a nation with 1.3 billion people at its disposal.   

In a telling moment, when asked about the huge number of people involved, Zhang is reported to have smiled demurely and said: “Well why not? We have them.”   

And that might just be the real point of last night’s entertainment. 

 Need more?

For those of you who missed the program (or just want to see it again), play the “Opening Ceremony: Sites & Sounds”  at NBC

Zhang Yimou and State Aesthetics

Interview with Zhang

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