…Yamasaki, that is. Something about his buildings..?
I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races. I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored. I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.
One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere. Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all. I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way. At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town. I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.
As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out. And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands. The level of the musicianship is amazing! At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.
New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing: the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place. The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule. Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse. Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.
Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico. I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.
Levee is French for raised up. That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side. The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation. The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture. The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves. None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.
New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense. Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.
The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere. We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river. (More on that later.) The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.
In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.
In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.
This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics. The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online. He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level. These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level. Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development. The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.
This effect is seen in many places around the world: In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them. As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters. When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking. In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work. But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!
Oh, and a word about those cemeteries. Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial. Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level! Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.
The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world: the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley. In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers. The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows. The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side. New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.
I remember when this …er..ensemble was created, and the incredible press it got. “The End of Modernism!!” shouted the critics, and the bravos of the Post-Modern wave. Eh, what..?
Created to commemorate the contribution of Italian immigrants to New Orleans, not the most prominent group in NOLA consciousness, it’s true, it was declared a masterpiece by some. What I did not know was that barely a few years later, it was decrepit and unused, a lonely architectural joke in a location where the expected development did not occur. Some quipped it was the world’s first post-modern ruin.
This self-conscious pastiche has learned a bit too much from Las Vegas and Robert Venturi’s take on it, for my taste. Fine for the backyard of a trendy summer house or an architect’s getaway, but as a node in a downtown urban redevelopment scheme? As this interesting recap of the birth, death, and rebirth of the plaza quoted:
Lake Douglas, a New Orleans resident and a long-standing contributor to this magazine, may have said it best 25 years ago in a piece for Architectural Review. “[The piazza] is a wonderful, capricious architectural joke that one cannot appreciate unless one has a sense of humor to match the architects’, one understands the elements of classical architecture and the confused state of contemporary architecture, and one is privy to the customs of New Orleans,”
Douglas wrote. “Perhaps with the Italian Piazza, pop architecture has advanced into elite architecture, and that may be the ultimate architectural joke.”
It’s all been refurbished now, to the tune of one million dollars, and it looks pretty much as when it was unveiled. It sits in a lot between a giant hotel and, I think a parking lot. Not exactly an eye-catching spot. Maybe in better weather there is more life to it, but for me, happening on it by chance and instantly recalling the picture of it on a magazine cover years ago, it was as if Disneyland had just landed in front of my car in New Orleans.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s film of 1960: one critic said of it that no film has subverted expectations and conventions so elegantly as this one. I guess that’s why it received boos at its first showing in Cannes, although it was later awarded a jury prize. I first saw it in college – I loved the images – but I wasn’t sure I understood what it was all about. Is it about anything? Of course, there’s Monica Vitti!!
In short, some rich parasites who lack social grace take a boat trip to a Mediterranean volcanic island. One of their party, Anna, goes missing: nobody seems overly concerned. They do the right thing and get the authorities, but, well, maybe she was just bored, and ran off somehow. The story centers on Sandro, Anna’s boyfriend, and Claudia, her best friend along for the ride. They have an affair. Seems pretty weird, doesn’t it? After all, Sandro and Anna were to be … married, weren’t they?
Before the boat trip, Sandro goes to get Anna. She takes him upstairs to make love. “Your friend is waiting,” he says. “Let her wait!” That’s Claudia through the window. The characters, and the audience, will do a lot of waiting in this film.
Monica Vitti’s presence dominates the film. She became a superstar after its release. Here, she waits, while her friends make love upstairs.
Anna is a mercurial type. She ends a pleasant dip in the sea by the boat when she claims to have seen a shark. Is there something between these two ladies?
They go ashore on a dramatic little island. Sandro and Anna argue. The stupid boat passengers pick among the rocks.
Time to leave, and no Anna. They all go searching. The scenery is awe-inspiring.
Still, guys like this are barely affected by the beauty around them. He just goes on making fun of his scatter-brained wife and everything else in the world. Not an endearing portrait of the denizens of la dolce vita. As a critic remarked, in Fellini’s film they at least seem to be having fun: these people are just bored by everything.
Claudia and Sandro are of this group, but outsiders in a way. We learn that he was an aspiring architect at one point, with ideas, and that as a boy he wanted to be a diplomat or a romantic, starving genius. Now, he’s just rich, with houses in Milan and Rome. Claudia remarks at one point that she had a “sensible” childhood, that is “without any money.” Sandro found his way into this circle of decayed noblemen and parasites through business, but we have no clue about Claudia. I guess being so beautiful might open a few doors, especially in a totally sexist society.
Claudia is genuinely distraught over Anna’s disappearance while Sandro seems to take it all very calmly. Moreover, he seems uncomfortably interested in Claudia… And she is not comfortable with her own attraction to him…
An encounter on the boat before they set off for the mainland to deal with the police and continue the search for Anna: Claudia doing her hair…
…Sandro coming aboard for his suitcase…
He makes his move…impulsive…”Yes, absurd…so what?” He has all the existentialist crap for excuses to her objections that it is just not right, not now…
He follows her onto a train to try and convince her to go away with him. She overhears a young provincial coming on like gangbusters to a pretty country girl, and she laughs at the crudeness of his attempts at seduction. She begs Sandro to leave her be, and he does. But they get together not long afterwards, continuing their desultory search for Anna.
Not much to value between men and women. Here, one of the boat passengers, now in a palace in Sicily, flirts with a young prince to make her husband jealous, a futile endeavor. The guy’s artwork, simply a device to get women, is utter junk.
Claudia is rather disgusted by the whole business…
We may wonder why a sensible and beautiful woman like Claudia hangs out with these creeps, but it’s 1960, and what was her upbringing..? She is a strong female character, but in a world hostile to women. In the most powerful, terrifying in a way, scenes of the film, she waits for Sandro while he makes inquiries in a hotel. Suddenly, she realizes that as a woman unescorted by a male, she is open game for anything with pants. They eye her like a whore strutting her stuff in a bordello.
Sandro has his own emotional issues. He wants to view a church interior, but the town is not set up for tourists. A local man informs him that “they got a few French here, but they just wanted to go to the beach,” and the locals told them they were not welcome. Presumably, they were not properly dressed. Nobody cares about architecture…
Except for one young man doing a sketch in the piazza… Hmm…not bad.
Not bad at all. Too bad it got ink knocked all over it… The young man confronts Sandro, but a friend intervenes. Such is the generosity and spiritual fullness of Sandro’s inner life.
The school lets out and a stream of young boys in black… some see it as the equivalent of the ink on the paper. Is that what ruined Sandro’s psychology? Or is that a better way, now ignored?
Who knows? Who cares? Should we care..? Well, the film is stunning to watch even if we don’t like the people much.
Poor Claudia. She’s tired, so she doesn’t go down to enjoy an evening of schmoozing with the glitterati at the hotel they pitch up in, but Sandro goes, and stays late. Claudia goes in search of him through the now-empty rooms, littered with party junk. He is engaged with a young woman (aspiring actress? prostitute? both?) on a couch. Claudia is shocked and disgusted. Should she be surprised?
She runs outside, and Sandro follows. He sits on a bench and weeps. The film ends with a depressing chord, and Claudia taking his hair in her hand in a gesture of comfort. This is what she is stuck with, I guess. Pretty sad for all of them.
A beautiful post-summer day in NYC, and I went for a walk during lunch. Of course, I spent time in the cemetery of Trinity Church, where they’ve taken to putting up small informative signs for tourists, including one in front of the gravestone shown above. It says Charlotte Temple on it, which is the name of a novel that was wildly popular in late 18th century America, but there is some doubt as to why it’s there. (Reminds me of a recent article about the pseudo-grave of Nick Beef, next to Lee Harvey Oswald’s final place of rest.)
A NYTimes article from several years ago says that a researcher got the church to lift the slab to see what’s under it, but there is no burial vault, however, that doesn’t mean that no one is buried there. The little sign says that the inscription may have been carved by a bored stoneworker during construction work on the church. I like that explanation – the artistically inclined skilled artisan class, and all that.
Further on my walk, I encountered a very odd place for NYC: the sign in the window says as much – “It’s free. We know that’s hard to believe in NYC!” The place is a nice modern storefront called Charlotte’s Place, and it has tables, computers, books, and spaces for sitting, talking, meeting, and other sociable activities. It is completely free, and is maintained as a resource for the community, by Trinity Church it seems. An anonymous grave which might house no one and a free space for anyone, all from Charlotte.
In an interview a few years after the destruction of the WTC, Phillip Roth was quoted on the “kitchification” of the event and its victims. I have commented before on what I feel is a rather ghoulish or morbid preoccupation with this horrible event, so I have not much to say other than that I found the store depressing and faintly nauseating, and, as that phrase I hate goes, “It is what it is…” Seems appropriate for once.
Meanwhile, nearby, the slow, laborious work on Calatrava’s Faberge egg of a transit hub continues… As the article correctly remarks:
It is important to note how the projects within the World Trade Center are unique in the sense that they were, and continue to be, fueled by emotions associated with the 9/11 attacks.
In architecture, the Renaissance was a bit of a fad. Suddenly, the Gothic style represented barbarity and uncouth, crude, and deficient aesthetics. Later on, John Ruskin would disagree, and deplore the wholesale abandonment of medieval styles and craftsmanship in favor of the reigning form of the classical temple front.
The changes in church facades show the faddish aspect of the Humanist wave in all its glory.
Here’s a church front in Padua: simple brick, with the shape of a standard Roman Basilica – high central aisle with two lower sides aisles.
Here is a huge church in Venice with roughly the same form, but some gothic ornament added.
The Renaissance came, found facades of brick, and like Augustus and Rome, left them of marble. Pagan temple facades abound, covering the brickwork of the Christian temples. Architects worked for generations on novel combinations of columns, pediments, hiding the form of the basilica or reflecting it in the shape of the facade. This example pretty much masks the side aisles with a nearly square front.
Eventually the thrill of imitating the ancients began to wear thin, and architects went in search of new excitement, including dynamic Baroque styling, and little ‘jokes’ that their sophisticated patrons would enjoy. Notice the pediment over the main front door that is broken into three pieces, something that would have made Palladio vomit.
Walking back to our apartment – canal, then an alley, then space. That’s the progression of a walk in Venice.