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Garage Aesthetics

Posted by gninja on January 22, 2008

There is a great, great article about parking garages at the Washington Post.  Hell, I’ve never parked a car in my life (no driver’s license), and I find this fascinating.


The article reviews a talk (based on the speaker’s new book) dealing with the design and evolution of parking garages.  The basic premise is that garages, once impressive architectural works, became uglier as motorists demanded greater convenience.

Towards the end of the article, the journalist adds some editorial commentary that I had hoped–but never expected–would be made:

McDonald’s passion is not undiscriminating, but it is premised on some things that we would all be better off questioning. Garages, McDonald argues, are a necessity, essential to our fundamental American right to mobility in an urbanized world. The challenge is to build them better.

Yes, they can be built better than they have been (they can intersect with mass transit, they can be hidden underground or disguised behind better facades). But until the economics of urban land use and the demand for huge amounts of parking change, they can never really be made beautiful. They are almost always too large to be successfully hidden and, rather like funeral parlors, no matter how nice they are on the outside, you always know what’s on the inside. In the case of garages, it’s hundreds of little environmental disasters that burden their owners with debt, insulate them from society, frazzle them with constant cleaning and maintenance and pollute a crowded world.

If you hate garages — for being city killers, for ruining neighborhoods, for discouraging mass transit — there is no such thing as a good garage.

Which brought, to my mind, an interesting question.  Can aesthetics prompt (or be instrumental in) a movement to  get rid of these things and, as a consequence, cars?  It’s an idealistic question, to be sure.  Nevertheless.
Now, we know parking garages are ugly.  Most of the ones I’ve seen anyway.


Why ugly?  It is a giant box plunked onto the street, aesthetically oblivious to its surroundings.  It has no architecturally elements that encourage the eye to move in a manner that engages the mind (just long horizontals or negative space across a facade of uniform color and texture).  Look, if you like Philliip Johnson, then this is probably for you .  But, even then, aren’t Johnson’s buildings supposed to give the mind little to do when looking at them?  Maybe four years at List Art Center just made me bitter.

The point, though, is that, clearly, this kind of ugliness hasn’t caused a great enough reaction to cause people to ditch their cars.

But, maybe this a product of naturalization in design.  It’s common for the mind to accept images (or sights) as givens when no alternatives are presented. (This is why the use of two projectors or side-by-side images on Powerpoint is so successful in art history classes– comparison forces the mind to consider alternatives).

So.  What if, instead of designing better and more beautiful garages (like the ASU one pictured up top), people start designing better and more beautiful bus depots, subways, etc?  Give people visual alternatives and perhaps behavioral alternatives will ensue?

I’m such an idealist.

Posted in architecture, art, art history, urban space | 13 Comments »

Historical Memory and the Valle de los Caidos

Posted by gninja on January 17, 2008

(Note: rushed post; I’ll come back later to clean up and round it off.  Left un-edited.  I think I mention lazy somewhere in here.)

The NY Times put up an article a couple days ago, discussing a controversial law passed in Spain, known as the “Law of Historical Memory” (does the name of that law not scare you?; it scares me). One of the monuments affected by the law:


One of the law’s clauses:

la ley establece que los escudos, insignias, placas y otros objetos o menciones conmemorativas de exaltación personal o colectiva del levantamiento militar, de la Guerra Civil y de la represión de la dictadura deberán ser retiradas de los edificios y espacios públicos. La retirada no será de aplicación cuando [..] concurran razones artísticas, arquitectónicas, o artístico-religiosas protegidas por la ley, lo cual podrá aplicar a iglesias.

(the law establishes that the emblems, insignias, plaques, and other objects or commemorative mentions of the personal or collective exaltation of military uprising, of the Civil War, and the dictatorial repression should be removed from buildings and public spaces. The disposal will not be applicable when…artistic, architectural, or artistic-religious reasons protected by the law coincide, which could be applied to churches [my translation; apologies for any errors].

So. As with most laws (I believe), the language is interesting. For one, what constitutes “exaltation”? And secondly, who decides whether artistic, architectural, or artistic-religious (?) reasons are applicable? See! Art history is political. The Valle de los Caidos (purportedly constructed by labor forced from republicans) presents a case in which those “artistic-religious” reasons apply, but the government still has decided to alter the monument’s meaning:

se regirá por las normas aplicables a lugares de culto y religiosos. Se dispone su despolitización, prohibiéndose los actos de naturaleza política [..] exaltadores de la Guerra Civil, de sus protagonistas, o del franquismo y que la fundación gestora del Valle incluirá entre sus objetivos honrar y rehabilitar la memoria de todas las personas fallecidas a consecuencia de la Guerra Civil de 1936-1939 y de la represión política que le siguió.

I’m too lazy to translate. I might come back later to do so. In any case, it calls for a “depoliticization” of the site, which consists of a prohibition of political acts there, but at the same time honoring all those who died as a consequence of the Civil War. I don’t know.

I’m actually not writing this post in order to debate the obvious issues and controversies involved (revisionism and the like). Instead, I thought I’d sketch out a few of the ways in which the Valle de los Caidos is a brilliant (political) monument. Franco certainly knew what he was doing. Or, at the very least, hired someone who knew what he was doing.

For starters, it’s located in a valley, which also figures prominently in the name. There’s nothing subtle here about its resonance with a certain very well-known Psalm.

Then there’s its placement in a carved-out hill (mountain?), reminiscent of the catacombs and early Christian martyrdom.

The arms of the facade recall St Peter’s (and, oddly enough) Hatshepsut’s tomb. I’m pretty sure the former is the allusion, but I bring up Hatshepsut because of the long tradition of embracing, funneling entrances. Although I don’t know if anyone was ever meant to enter Hatshepsut’s tomb.

stpeters.jpg hatshepsut_1.jpg

The cross atop is placed against the backdrop of the sky, giving it the appearance of hovering, ethereally, over the monumental ensemble. The resulting impression is of divine authorization.

Posted in architecture, art, art history | 4 Comments »

Statements of Authority in Sainte-Chapelle

Posted by gninja on October 24, 2006


In looking at Sainte-Chapelle, we can think about earlier discussions of the force of the individual in “inventing” or driving forward an artistic form. While art historians working in the wake of Panofsky debated the role of Abbot Suger in establishing what we have come to call Gothic architecture, we can discuss the role of Louis IX in shaping Gothic art. Abbot Suger used rhetoric and the imposition of a false dialectic to give the appearance of coherence and intentionality to the structure being built under his direction. In so doing, he provided a network of theological and linguistic support for the very new form of architecture seen in St-Denis. The result is a circular form of support in which the power of the Church is established by this imprssive new structure, and general acceptance of this new structure is guaranteed by the language of theology deployed in Suger’s rhetoric.

But the monarchy of France did not simply allow itself to be dominated by the Church, at least not in the PR battle waged in monumental art. We can find a counterpart to the figure of Abbot Suger in the figure of King Louis IX. As a ruler, Louis IX appears to have been aware of the role of architecture and art in issuing statements of authority. He was a patron of the arts, and Sainte-Chapelle (pictured above) is one of the greatest testaments to his (or, perhaps, his architects’) acuity in the associative power of architecture. As argued in a comprehensive article by Daniel Weiss, Sainte-Chapelle consolidates imagery of royal and religious authority–particularly that of the Throne of Wisdom–thus declaring the royal and religious authority of the commanding occupant of the chapel. In the patronage of Louis IX, then, we see an analogy with the language of Abbot Suger. Whereas the former’s patronage established a standard visual repertoire of authrotative royal imagery, the latter’s language ensured the communication of religious authority through the appearance of a new kind of architecture.

Our view of this matter however, is altered slightly by the following passage in Keith Moxey ‘s “Panofsky’s Concept of ‘Iconology’ and the Problem of Interpretation in the History of
Art” (New Literary History 17.2 (1986). 265-274):

“The focus on the ‘intention’ of the work of art assigns it a ‘terminal’ role in the life of culture, a location representing a synthesis of the ideas current in the culture of the patron or patrons who commissioned it. It ignores the life of the work of art after it has entered a social context. By concentrating on the way in which the work of art ‘reflects’ the life of its times, the preoccupation with the ‘intention’ fails to recognize the function of the work of art as an actor in the development of cultural attitudes and therefore as an agent of social change.”

I think what’s useful here is the notion that whether or not Louis IX set about establishing a visual program to communicate and legitimize his authority, the result was indeed an artistic/architectural language that was used as such, both by him and by kings to follow (as evinced by the various copies of the chapel). Indeed, the associations Weiss makes between Sainte-Chapelle and Solomonic imagery may not even have gained currency until after Louis IX’s canonization, following his successful reign. In other words, the power of the imagery of Sainte-Chapelle and its status as an architectural model for the statement of royal authority depended on both historical associations and current events. Regardless of the original purpose of Sainte-Chapelle, it was used as an instrument in the contest for primacy between the State and the Church.

Posted in architecture, art, Paris in the Middle Ages, patronage | Leave a Comment »

Medieval Architecture and (Looking for) Meaning

Posted by gninja on October 2, 2006

The title of this post is a modification of an article published by Paul Crossley in 1991, “Medieval Architecture and Meaning: The Limits of Iconography.” In it, Crossley provides a useful historiography, reviewing one hundred years of art historians’ struggle with medieval buildings and if/what/how their images and forms mean anything. It’s an interesting question, sure, but even Crossley seems niggled by and hard pressed to answer whether there’s a point in ferreting out such potential meanings.

Several times in his article, Crossley denies the importance–and even the possibility–of locating an original intention in the meaning of a building. We simply can’t determine what was the aim of the many people who contributed towards the construction of, say, Reims Cathedral, no matter how much primary documentation we find. For one, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the structure took almost a century to construct. Imagine the Empire State Building taking from 1920 to 2000 to build. Do you think it would mean the same thing at the completion of its construction as it did when the ground was broken? Unlikely. Additionally, the primary documentation itself can’t be taken as any more reflective of an original intention as the building itself–also a form of primary documentation–is. There’s also the matter of determining where the primary documentation begins and ends, what gets included and excluded, and what is “truthful.” In short: looking for an original intention, a First Motivator in the construction of a building is a fool’s errand, whose success is only determined by the whims of the contemporary intellectual community.

On the other hand, Crossley asserts that these buildings are full of meanings, from their foundations to our own time. The buildings themselves, while they cannot speak, have impelled us to speak for them for centuries, and in so doing acquire meaning every time we look at them or discuss them. (I’ve talked about this a bit in relation to Ely Cathedral.)


(Tree of Jesse Window, St-Denis)

For example, while we cannot know what the original intention was for the splendrous windows at St-Denis, we can know how they have been used. While Abbot Suger may have directed us towards certain meanings, others of his time and since have interpreted their form and imagery differently. The “story” of the creation of St-Denis and the Gothic “style” has followed various different lines, all of which have visible and legible support.

So what’s the point or the use, then, of this historical endeavor to find meaning in these buildings? I would argue that some of the most insightful studies into medieval architecture are those that seek an understanding of how the building has and continues to be used (both physically and rhetorically). By investigating the way in which the (to varying degrees due to reconstruction, erosion, modification, etc) same forms of a building have taken on different meanings at different times, we develop a keener sense of how events and artifacts interact, and how the latter may even shape the former.


Did you know that the Bastille was constructed in the fourteenth century? I didn’t. In any case, what it meant then, and what it came to mean at the end of the eighteenth, and what it means today are all rather different things, are they not? It’s a matter that is not wholly different from that of determing the meanings of forms and figures of medieval churches, when we stop to think about what the rough hewn stones of its exterior represented seven and two centuries ago. And what the forms of the structure on its site and bearing its name mean today.

I can think of some other buildings whose forms have more recently borne the weight of rhetoric, different from their construction to today. Can you?


Unrelated document below:


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Modernism – The Medieval Brand

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2006

By the twelfth century, Paris was looking like a very different place. Not only had the city grown in population and size, but the buildings that came to dominate the skyline of the city had a new look to them. Since the late nineteenth century, art historians have been preoccupied with this very newness (what, if pressed to use the categories of style, would be termed “Gothic”), and what the drastic changes in architecture during the twelfth century could mean.


Many scholars have had a go in the debate centered on the “modernity” of Gothic, much of which focuses on the Abbey Church of St-Denis. The debate has received much fuel from the sixty-year-old study by Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St-Denis and Its Art Treasures, a work which has earned enough currency to ensure its place on perhaps every medieval art history course syllabus in the United States. The “fuel” alluded to above is the argument advanced by Panofsky, which–to be quick and dirty about it–pretty much chalks up the “invention” of Gothic to Abbot Suger himself, and his subscription to some rather arcane philosophies.

Sounds like a rather grand claim, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, it is. Peter Kidson virtually placed Panofsky on the rack for making such an argument, contesting that the church we see today is the result of architects following the dictates of geometry. What grandeur is there is merely the decorative product of an Abbot who wanted a dramatic setting for the relics in his choir. In short, the novelty of St-Denis “owed nothing to symbolism.”

On the other hand, there are those such as Marvin Trachtenberg, who temper the largeness of Panofsky’s claims by accepting their general theoretical basis (i.e. that there was a conscious effort, intellectually motivated, to create a new kind of church structure), but by removing the attribution to one figure.

Both these newer takes on Gothic modernism, Erwin Panofsky, and Abbot Suger have strengths and weaknesses, though that is not the immediate concern here. More relevant is the matter of modernism itself (which is more directly and explicitly addressed by Trachtenberg). What do we gain by debating the causes and intentions of twelfth-century “modernism” aside from illuminating and enlivening the structures themselves? And, it should be admitted, this latter pursuit is still an important one.


(Ah…I remember these…)
So. Abbot Suger. Inventor or genius marketer of Gothic?

Alternatively. Steve Jobs. Inventor or genius marketer of Apple?

Without the architects, Suger’s notion of this new design (and Suger does use the term modernitas) would have had no physical representation. Without Wozniac and an army of programmers and research and development, Jobs’ mission in personal computing would never have even begun.

What’s important is that, in both instances, we recognize a conscious effort by an individual (Suger/Jobs) to promote an alternative design and make a statement about modernity through this new design. It is not facetious to say that Apple, like Gothic, is a site of cultic worhsip, and it is design and clever marketing that have inspired such a popular reaction. In short, rhetoric is as much a component of invention as is technology.

Posted in architecture, art, cathedrals, Paris in the Middle Ages | 2 Comments »

Multivalence: Ely Cathedral

Posted by gninja on June 20, 2006

Similar to the bottle of wine mentioned in the previous post,objects of medieval art could bear any number of meanings, depending on their context. However, unlike the bottle of wine, objects that are created to be seen have a more significant role as conveyors of meaning. That’s not to say the bottle is purely created as a functional object. Nor is it to say that art objects lack any function at all. Rather, it’s useful to think of all things as artifacts with greater and lesser capacities as receptacles for meaning. Oftentimes, the relationship between purpose as practical function and purpose as symbol is an inverse one, with objects whose purpose is to be of use possessing a lower capacity as symbol. Think of a plate, as in the kind of plate on which you eat dinner. Now think of how many different meanings that plate has– sure, it changes according to context, perhaps, and according to the designs on the plate, material from which it’s made, etc. But, really, there’s only so much we think of when we think of “plate.” Now, sure, such is not always the case, and function is not always something which inhibits an object’s ability to bear meanings (see, for example, the first chapter of Baxandal’s Patterns of Intention— he talks about the process of designing a bridge in Scotland and the technical matters which shaped its form, but also what the form conveys). In any case, the point here is to illustrate the scale according to which objects function as signs.


Getting to Ely Cathedral, then. First, a quickie background. A seventh century Anglo-Saxon princess named Aetheldreda established a monastery on the site where the current cathedral stands. According to legend, after hiking about, using a dry rod as a walking stick, she lies down on the ground to retire. Upon waking, she finds that the dry rod has taken root and budded forth, producing an ash tree where a church dedicated to the Virgin is subsequently built. Aetheldreda eventually becomes a saint, and her remains are kept in a reliquary in the monastery, which is destroyed, rebuilt, and then renovated after it becomes the seat of a bishop and hence a cathedral.


I had put up this image, from the vault shafts of the structure (the space in between the arches):


On the left is a floral figure, prior to bloom, and on the right, the final vault shaft with the floral figure in bloom. These, however, are the first and last shafts. There are several others in between showing intermediary stages of the blossoming. Here’s another image (and thanks to whomever it is that’s working for the Australian National University “Rubens” artserve site— these images are fantastic and not to be found elsewhere).


As examples of multivalence, Paul Binski has shown how this flowering sculpture works remarkably well. I should note that Binski doesn’t use the term multivalence, but it works, and I like it.

Let’s start from the loosest association– Christological typology. There are several biblical references to flowering rods and blossoming forms which are used throughout 11th and 12th-century architecture. The first of these is Aaron’s rod, which, like so many other typological symbols, prefigures the crucifixion of Christ. The second reference would be the Tree of Jesse, in short, the representation of Jesus’ genealogy. As you can see, it was wildly popular in art. At the same time, we are looking at the lapidary representation of an organic form and living process, that is, the blossoming of a flower depicted in stone. Certainly, it’s more arcane, but it’s possible the sculpted work here invokes the double meaning of the Latin gemma, meaning bud or jewel. Such a double meaning would be important insofar as the flower bears ambivalent meaning: on the one hand it has positive connotations, such as in the ever-blossoming flower of virginity etc; on the other hand, organic forms are always seen as mementos mori in Christianity. Here, the death that always accompanies the organic is forestalled by its representation in stone. Arcane, I know. But religious officials would have been keen to something like this. To be honest, the Christian meanings bound up in the blossoming flower are many. Far too many to cover here. So let me cut to the next part.

Aetheldreda. If we recall, a climactic point in her hagiography is the miraculous flowering ash tree. Certainly, if one were attending this cathedral, the story of Aetheldreda would be near the surface of one’s conscious thoughts. Visiting shrines and relics was a big deal, and the presence of a relic in a sacred structure always (if its autheticity wasn’t disputed) conferred legitimacy and pretige upon a church. For an anthropological take on why this is so, read Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and Profane (it was written in the ’60s and can feel a bit New Age-y, but it remains to this day a useful study on how to think about sacred space). So, considering our context, the legend of Aetheldredra would, it seems to me, have to be the first thing that comes to our minds, and, pragmatically speaking, the most important association the custodians and patrons of this church would want it visitors to make.

Multivalence, then, is borne out here as a network of numerous significations known only to those participating in or belonging to a certain community (here, the Christian community familiar with the hagiography of Aetheldreda). While the flowering ash tree of Aetheldreda’s story is the primary assocation we are to make, without the other floral / flowering associations swimming around in the heads of congregants of the church, this imagery would merely be the representation of this part of one saint’s story. Instead, it is that and more; it is both event and representation that unite the story of this local saint with the larger legend of Christianity, the mega-narrative that brings characters together into the same script through the use of common motifs. It’s not that every meaning is known to every viewer. That’s not necessary for the image to communicate an effective message. What’s important here is that the primary message being conveyed or story being alluded to is supported by a web of associations that furthers its permanence and preeminence in our minds.

And with that, I’ll leave you with a modern advertisement (which I am not endorsing) for Kenzo’s Flower perfume. How many (oh my God how many!) associations can we draw from this image, and how many of them do we actually, explicitly acknowledge to ourselves when we come across this ad in a glossy magazine?


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Multivalence: A Preamble

Posted by gninja on June 17, 2006

In his most recent publication, Becket’s Crown,Paul Binski addresses various images that have multiple, overlapping meanings, or, “multivalence.” I believe that, unless there is evidence pointing to a single specific meaning, most images do possess multivalence and are informed by numerous cultural and contextual factors. This is not to advocate a kind of interpretive anarchy (this is a terrible turn of phrase; I’ll have to think of a replacement), in which anything can mean everything. Rather, I endorse a moderate approach that sees an artifact as containing a finite number of significations, each of which can be emphasized according to form and context.

For example: a bottle of red wine.

Situated at a table set for a dinner of steak and greens, it represents earthy health and even national pride (see Barthe’s essay on “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies). Yet, that same bottle, set beside caviar and cigars becomes a sign of pretension and elitism, perhaps. In the hand of a tipsy homeless person? We associate it with inebriation and dissolution.

But this bottle of red wine does not inherently mean any one of these things; its meaning ensues from what our cultural presumptions and its contextual accompaniments impose upon it. At the same time, and returning to what I had said above, denying “interpretive anarchy,” picture our bottle of red wine in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, and we become confused. What does this mean here? There is no immediate answer, and we have no way of locating a meaning for this bottle of wine (aside from just that: bottle of wine) until we are given some justification for its presence.

What does this have to do with medieval art?



These images, taken from the interior of Ely Cathedral, are discussed in Binski’s book, and provide a useful illustration for intentionally simultaneous multivalence in medieval images. In my next post I’ll discuss how these vault corbels are laden with numerous religiously and mythologically informed meanings. At the same time I will argue that it’s both the multiplcity of these meanings and the dominance of one specific, contextually determined meaning that makes these sculptures so useful in–not surprisingly–asserting the importance of this particular church.

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