St. Paul’s Cathedral

February 25, 2006

One of the few regrets I ever had as a kid was not getting to climb the 530 steps to the top of the dome (the Golden Gallery, as they call it).  Mother was a little worried about my safety.  However I wanted to see the interior structure of the dome itself.

Many people don’t realize, but St Paul’s is one of the weirdest, most idiosyncratic buildings in the world.  Designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1710, the cathedral is a monument to Wren’s ability to “think outside the box” when it came the the structural problems involved in construction.

First, there are the outer walls.  As most people know, cathedrals were stunted in height for a while because you could only build a wall so high before it would topple.  Think of a stack of blocks; the taller you go, the less stable it becomes.  Luckily, someone came up with the buttress, a smaller support wall to hold up the main wall.  This then morphed into the “flying buttress” which is the same thing with an arch between the two.  Buttresses also mean that the main wall (since it had all this added support) no longer had to do all the work of holding up the roof.  And, as a result, you could punch large holes in the wall and fill them up with stained glass.

The only problem with buttresses is that they take up a lot of space on the outside.  To Wren’s eyes, this was unseemly.  So he created a shell outer wall that mimics the real inside wall, but encloses and hides the buttresses from view.  You can see it well on Google Earth.  In other words, the wall you see on the outside is about 15 feet or so from the wall you see on the outside, and between them lie the buttresses, completely hidden from view.  In a sense, you could say that the entire building is encased within an entire other building.

But for all this, the dome was the real crowning achievement.  Nowdays, it would all be done with concrete and rebar, but these were not available to Wren.  Building a solid marble dome would be costly and impractical.  He wanted to build the dome out of a lightweight metal shell.  But there was a problem.  On top of the dome was supposed to be a marble “lantern” that weighed hundreds of tons. (Just the gilt cross on top of the lantern weighs 7 tons by itself!)  A thin metal shell could never support it.  What to do?

Wren solved the problem by creating a dome within a dome within a dome.  First there is the dome you can see from the outside.  This is the metal shell.  Then there’s the dome you can see from the inside.  This is clad in marble, smaller and about 60 feet shorter than the outside dome.  In between them, holding up the massive lantern, and completely hidden from view, is a third“dome”, actually a giant brick cone.  So, just like the walls, what you see on the inside has nothing to do with what you see on the outside.  And between the interior and exterior is the real “meat” of the building, vitally important but completely camouflaged.

Fascinating stuff, and I’m happy to report that I finally got the chance to see it all up-close and personal.  Let me tell you, the view from the top was fantastic (if a little windy).  And the journey there was exciting because as you continued up and up, the stairs (wood ad first, then marble, then iron grating spirals and catwalks) get narrower and ricketier as you go.  The space sandwiched between the brick cone and the outer shell felt more like a basement boiler room than a cathedral dome.  It was all amazing (especially when you consider its age), and I’m glad I finally got to go.

More info: St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Tate Modern

February 25, 2006

The Main Hall of the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is one of those buildings destined to be held up as a shining example of Urban Renewal and building re-purposing.  Formerly the Bankside Power Station, it has been converted (after over £100 million and 5 years) into the new home for the Tate Museum’s modern art collection.  And the result is… well… kind of a mess.

Admittedly, I had high hopes for this building.  It’s situated directly across the river from St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the exterior, largely left intact, is an imposing (almost Terry Gilliam Brazil imposing) brown bricked art-deco monster marked by an incredibly tall square smokestack in the dead center of the facade.  Inside, the great hall is equally imposing (and equally Brazil-ian).  It’s a huge, noticeably stark space that’s cold and curious at the same time.

 In the world of re-purposed buildings, this one has an obvious precedent, namely the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  That museum was a former Train Station which became the home to most of the greatest French Baroque and Impressionist artworks in the world.  Both as a building and a functional museum, d’Orsay is a stunner.  The same really can’t be said for Tate.  Or at least not unless you’re using “stun” in the Star Trek“set phasers to…” sense of the word.  It’s not that the Tate Modern is cold and impersonal.  It is.  But I can handle that.  Nor is it that it’s pretty damned empty, since there’s something to be said for wide-open interior spaces in a town like London where closets are considered guest bedrooms.

My main problem with the Tate is that it’s harsh.  It’s the kind of building you just want to get out of.  It’s dim where it should be light and bright where it should be shaded.  And the art… It makes you feel sorry for the art.  More sorry that I feel about those “lesser” Renaissance painters relegated to 20 feet above eye level at the Louvre.  I feel especially sorry for the art at the Tate Modern because it’s so horribly lit.  Everywhere, everything is illuminated by soulless harsh white bare industrial fluorescent tubing.  You know, like at Wal-Mart.  It drains the color out of every gallery and makes everything look flat and lifeless.  Even the Dan Flavin piece (which is itself made of of industrial fluorescent lighting) looked like crap.  After a while you start feeling like you’re in the poster department at IKEA.

The only artists to escape this were Gilbert & George, who got their own dedicated room for four monumental floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall pieces screaming with enough color to defy the will of the building.  Indeed, if I weren’t a fan of modern art in the first place, I’d have no problem describing the Tate Modern as, “the place where bad art goes to die.”

Luckily I love modern art.  Well, some of it anyway.  And the rest is fun to point and laugh at.  But why are the galleries completely inaccessible from the lakeside entrance? Why is there seemingly no organization to anything? (Picasso next to Rothko?) Why is the coffee shop so tiny?  Why is the physical space so poorly laid out?  Why is Rodin’s The Kiss shoved over in the corner as you get off an escalator, and facing the wrong way?

It reminds me of a story.  A New York gallery owner wanted to host an exhibition on surrealism in 1942.  For added stature, he asked the most prominent surrealist of the day, Marcel Duchamp to create a work just for the exhibition.  Duchamp wasn’t a fan of most of the exhibited artists, but wouldn’t pass up the chance to have some fun.  His work was titled A Mile of String, and was exactly that, strung throughout the gallery in a web that made it nearly impossible to walk through.  Pieces from other artists Duchamp particularly disliked were almost totally covered with string.  And on top of all this, Duchamp hired some street kids to play ball in the middle of the gallery.  It was a work of art specifically designed to detract from the other works of art.

The Tate Modern interior is a mile of string.

More info: Tate Modern


Apsley House

February 18, 2006

Apsley House was the former home of the Duke of Wellington, who is best known to history as the general who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte.  (And yes, also for giving us the “Wellington boot”.)  Apparently, when you defeat someone like Napoleon, you get showered with honorary titles and lavish gifts from countries all over Europe and Africa. 

As far as titles go, Wellington was officially: Field Marshal His Grace The Duke of Wellington, KG, GCB, PC, Baron Douro of Wellington in the County of Somerset, Viscount Wellington of Talavera and of Wellington in the County of Somerset, Earl of Wellington in the County of Somerset, Marquess of Wellington, in the County of Somerset, Marquess Douro, Duke of Wellington, in the County of Somerset, Knight of the Bath, Privy Councillor of Great Britain, Privy Councillor of Ireland, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Fellow of the Royal Society, Conde de Vimeiro, Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo, Grandee of the First Class, Marquês de Torres Vedras, Duque de Vittoria, Knight of the Golden Fleece, Prins van Waterloo, and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Hanover.  All I can say is, that’s a heckuva long business card!

As far as the lavish gifts, Apsley House has become a museum/storehouse for these.  They range from artworks from Goya, Velazquez and Rubens (including the famous portrait of Wellington by Goya) on to spoils of war like the 18-foot-tall nude marble statue (by Canova) of Napoleon (which presently stands in the stairwell). 

Two interesting stories about that statue: First, Napoleon himself rejected it because it made him look (if you can believe it) “too muscular”.  Frankly, I would give my right arm to have a body like Napoleon’s in this statue.  Given that Napoleon was short and pudgy in real life, I can only guess the “real” reason Napoleon rejected the tall, lean, buffed-out figure was because he thought nobody would recognize it as him.

Second story: The British, in their reserved way, have seen fit to place a fairly large metal fig leaf over Napoleon’s bits-and-pieces.  It’s been there for as long as the statue has been on display.  And it’s probably not a bad idea, since the overall height of the statue puts Napoleon’s private parts right at eye level.  Over the years, the fig leaf (and the imaginations it tends to spark) has become an attraction it it’s own right.  During the blitz in WWII, when bombs were falling around London, Apsley House was shuttered and looked over by a sole old lady caretaker.  One bomb exploded so near the house that several of the artworks were in immediate danger.  Without thinking twice, the woman sprang into action… and rushed to the statue to replace the fig leaf.  First thing’s first, eh?

In any event, some of the other outlandish gifts include a silver gilt “centerpiece” that they can only display a portion of because the 30-foot dining table isn’t long enough to hold all 100+ feet of it.  Downstairs in the “china” room sits another centerpiece, this one composed of marble replicas of ancient Egyptian temples, complete with flanks of obelisks and avenues of stone rams.  Basically, it looks like the “map room” from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It made me wonder where they have left to put the actual food on the table.

I have to say though, that as great as Apsley House is, it’s suffered a bit in recent years.  The last time I was here was about 15 years ago.  I remember it being extravagant and over-the-top, and extremely well-preserved.  I remember we had a guided tour from a live docent.  Sadly, no more.  The guided tour is an Acoustiguide, and the interior is looking a little rough around the edges (and could do with some heavy dusting).  If you go, chuck a few extra pounds in the box, and maybe they’ll be able to polish it up. 

More info: Apsley House