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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mont Saint Michel

Mont St. Michel at dawn. The causeway is at right.                
Copyright, Jim Lane
The steps...just when you think you're
nearing the top, you round a corner and
discover you're not even close.
It's always a joy when I'm able to combine art, architecture, history, and travel into a single discourse. I dearly love all these things. Our recent trip to France daily included most, if not all, of these elements. We were in Paris for a full week and by far the most exhausting day was the excursion to Mont St. Michel--some three hours by bus from the city to the Normandy coast. In fact, it took all morning to get there. We arrived just before lunch at a lovely, modern restaurant with a glorious wrap-around view of the historic island/peninsula (depending upon the tides). It's one of the most iconic sites in all of France. However rising at six in the morning and getting there marked only the beginning of the trials and tribulations (my bladder ain't what it used to be). Then there were the steps...OMG the steps...up...up...up...a stairway to heaven (or hell, depending on how close you were to the top).

Copyright, Jim Lane
Mont Saint Michel--the village and the monastery--now a museum.
Mont St. Michel, located on the border
between Normandy and Brittany.
Mont St. Michel could best be
termed as compact.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Part fortress, part church, Mont St.
Michel is nothing if not inspiring.
Mont St. Michel is old. Its first occupants were defenders of a fortress dating back to the 8th-century. Even for a country like France, that's pretty old. Its surrounding mud flats making it accessible by land at low tide, yet highly defensible during high tide. Many a medieval knight in shining armor has met his death mired in the quicksand that still endangers those traversing the tidal lowlands without an experienced guide. Today, a modern bridge and causeway reduces the access problem except for the occasional "super tide" which beset the island earlier this year.

La Grande Rue
The Romanesque façade of the
the abbey church today.
Once inside the "city" walls, the trek to the top begins with a narrow street lined with shops, bars, and restaurants, which the French insist upon calling "Grande." At best, it's little more than twenty feet wide, sloping upwards, eventually evolving into a seemingly endless ordeal of steps. Why would anyone consider building a church atop such a torturous incline? Well, according to legend, the whole idea was that of the Archangel Michael who "suggested" to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in a dream that he build a church atop the rocky crag. Now, the bishop was a sensible man, gifted with the wisdom to ignore such nocturnal urging even after repeated requests. That is, until St. Michael, losing patience and touched the prelates forehead, burning a hole. Thus, if legend is to be believed, the man who began building the church dedicated to St. Michael around 708 AD...had a hole in his head.

Mont St. Michel--first a fortress, then a monastery, later a prison,
now a museum, tourist attraction, and souvenir mart.
Mont St. Michel's "new" Gothic apse.
You might say the whole undertaking went uphill from that point on. Even though the part-time island was still primarily a military outpost, by the 11th-century, the mountaintop boasted a modest abbey church designed by the Italian architect, William de Volpiano, in a sturdy, Romanesque style. The English laid siege to the French fortress as late as 1423-24 resulting in a fire which burned most of the village and the roof of the church. When the church was rebuilt, the front façade was moved back some twenty feet making for a larger frontal plaza. But by that time, Romanesque was "out," Gothic was "in". The apse was recreated in a light, soaring, Gothic style while the nave and transept retained the original style and construction. The site's days as a monastery began in 1469 when France's Louis XI authorized the Order of St. Michael. Much like the tourists of today, pilgrims flocked to the church to worship, gaze down from its impressive ramparts, and marvel at what God and/or St. Michael had wrought. However, the Reformation movement, which swept Europe in the 17th-century, largely put an end to pilgrimages. By the late 1700s, there were barely more than a handful of monks still in residence.

Looking down from its impressive heights, it's not hard to see why
Mont St. Michel was such a formidable fortress.
A massive wheel allowing
loads to be lifted to the top.
With the onslaught of the French Revolution, the abbey was closed, the island turned into a prison, first for ecclesiastic opponents of the new government, but later to house political prisoners as well. The prison was closed in 1863 as high profile literary and architectural figures began to realize that this national treasure was better suited as a tourist mecca than a house of incarceration. It was designated by the French government as a historic monument in 1874 and some hundred years later, a UNESCO list of World Heritage Site. Though Mont St. Michel is now largely devoid of ecclesiastical furnishings as well as prison items, a few remnants remain. Among them is a massive "squirrel cage" type wooden wheel (right) in which two prisoners were assigned the chore of walking the "round and narrow" path which powered a primitive hoist used in lifting heavy items from the bottom of the mountain to the top. The place could use something similar today to power a passenger elevator. From its centuries as a church, there remains little of a decorative nature, except for probably the ugliest pieta I've ever seen (bottom, right). Worst of all, the head of Christ has long ago been broken off and lost. Except for some wooden pews in the church, there is now, even fewer creature comforts than those enjoyed by the monks or the prisoners of state marking the island's distant past. Hint--don't expect to find restrooms at the top.

The church's garden cloister with its encircling arcade is a pleasant surprise.

The pitiful Pieta.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

John C. Portman, Jr.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Looking up at the soaring, Hyatt Regency atrium dome
is as dizzying as looking down from it.
Architect, John C. Portman, Jr.
When writing about architects, very often their many famous buildings have a tendency to outshine their own persona as masters of human edifice design. That's the case with John C. Portman, Jr. Who? Right, I was of the same reaction. Yet, I'd heard of, and read about, one of his earliest, best-known buildings starting almost fifty years ago--Atlanta's groundbreaking Hyatt Regency Hotel. I'd always wanted to see its 26-story atrium, gazing up from its spacious lobby and down from its dizzying highest balcony at the ant-sized hotel guests below. Little did I consider the possibility that I might one day be one of those guests. This past week, my wife and I had a room for three nights on the fifteenth floor of the Hyatt. It was undoubtedly the most unforgettable hotel experience I've ever had. And I owe it all to the man I'd never heard of, John C. Portman, Jr., Neofuturist architect.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Looking down from the top, Portman's twenty-six balcony
levels of the Hyatt Regency take on an abstract quality.
Portman's Hyatt Regency is not one,
but three towers, now dwarfed by
more recent hotel and office additions
to Atlanta's Peachtree Plaza.
The Hyatt Regency opened to the public in 1967--forty-eight years ago. At the time, the design concept was so radical as to be considered "risky." It was 21st-century architecture more than thirty years before the dawn of the new millennium. Even from photos at the time, I recall my reaction was, "WOW"!! Carefully maintained and periodically renovated in the years since, simply walking into the Hyatt atrium today elicits the same reaction, but to the tenth power. Though not Portman's first completed structure, it was the one which "made" his name...and coincidentally made Hyatt Hotels a world-famous name as well. He became "the" Hyatt architect...also latched onto by hotel rivals Marriott and Westin. Atlanta's Marriott Marquis and Westin Peachtree Plaza are neighboring Portman hotels anchoring the city's massive, downtown Peachtree Center.

Portman's Renaissance Center in Detroit dates from 1973-81.
Portman's Greenland Center,
Yinchuan, China.
John Portman is now ninety-one years old. In a career spanning nearly fifty-five years, his firm's past, present, and future undertakings are as dizzying in number and conceptual daring as the heights of his trademark atriums. They number more than eighty separate structures, though some are grouped into major urban commercial centers like his original Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and his more famous such grouping, Detroit's Renaissance Center, which consists of seven glass towers (many cylindrical in shape) of varying heights. Today, Portman's hotels and office towers are spread around the world. Many of his firm's current and future projects are concentrated amid China's soaring city skylines. Portman's Greenland Center (right) in Yinchuan, China is typical of his firm's 21st-century undertakings.

Atlanta's Portman-designed Peachtree Center with the cylindrical
Westin rising above it all in the background.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The futuristic sculpture springing upward as a
center of interest in Atlanta's Hyatt atrium.
Unlike many architects of Portman's age and era, his works are very often more impressive from the inside than outside, where the standard glass box or multiple cast concrete window units predominate. He's particularly partial to glass elevators, glass walls, glass skywalks, and decorative abstract sculptures rising unfettered up through his multi-storied atriums. The one in the Atlanta Hyatt Regency (left) springs upward about one-hundred feet from the hotel's sub-basement level. In actuality, Portman used the Hyatt Regency as a testing ground for later hotel design breakthroughs. His cylindrical Westin Peachtree tower was first demonstrated on a smaller scale as an adjunct tower to the nearby Hyatt. Portman's multi-storied Marriott Marquis atrium from 1985 was a direct result of the popular success of the Hyatt atrium.

The Marriott Marquis lobby
The Marriott Marquis
The revolving Polaris Restaurant
atop Atlanta's Hyatt Regency.
The Portman's Marriott Marquis stands apart from other elements making up the Peachtree Center due to is unique shape, oval at the bottom evolving into a rectangle at the top (above, left). The waitress at the revolving Polaris Restaurant atop the Hyatt referred to it at the "pregnant lady." Inside, the Marriott lobby (above, right) does tend to have a sort of "bone structure." Speaking of the Polaris Restaurant (it has been known by various names over the years), the UFOish crown atop the Hyatt was quite revolutionary for its time, perhaps aping Seattle's Space Needle. Today, what once must have been an astounding view, has since been "hemmed in" by the more recent, much taller Peachtree Center towers making it something of an anachronism by today's standards. Nonetheless, the view was quite interesting as we watched Portman's Atlanta skyline glide by from our table.

Atlanta's Peachtree Center complex.
Our "room with a view" from the fifteenth floor at the Hyatt Regency.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret (Peggy) Mitchell and Vivien Leigh at roughly the same age.

The Crescent Street entrance to the Mitchell House
Museum. The porch is somewhat problematical
in design. This was once the rear of the house.
Even though I do a good bit of writing these days, unlike painting and the other fine arts, I don't consider myself to be any kind of expert on the literary arts. Thus I seldom delve into the lives, times, and work of writers. However, in the case of Margaret Mitchell, author of the immortal classic, Gone with the Wind, I'll make an exception. I'm so familiar with her life, her one literary accomplishment, the story, its background, the movie--virtually every element--that, having visited her home at 990 Peachtree Street in Atlanta (best accessed from the rear on Crescent Street), I could hardly wait to write about the experience. On our recent trip through Atlanta, the Mitchell House, where about ninety-percent of her novel was first written, was our first stop. We spent well over an hour there and, "quite frankly, my dear..."I was very pleased with what they'd done with the place. It was in the ground floor rear apartment that Margaret Mitchell became Pansy O'Hara (Scarlett's original moniker). Notice the similarities (above). David O. Selznick seems to have had Peggy Mitchell in mind when he cast Vivien Leigh as his leading lady.

The living room where the first draft of Gone with the Wind was written using
the small portable typewriter on the left.
Peggy Mitchell Marsh following the
publication of GWTW in 1936.
It's something of a miracle that Mitchell's one-time home (for seven years) still exists. First built in 1899, the original family lived in the three-story brick Tudor structure only eight years before moving on to the Atlanta suburb of Druid Hills. The neighborhood changed rapidly after the turn of the century from residential to commercial. The spacious, upper middle-class home was first moved to the back of its original lot, then in 1919, divided into ten apartments. Three brick stores (now long gone) were built on the house's original site. In 1925, Margaret Mitchell and her second husband, John Marsh, moved into the tiny Apartment Number One where they held their wedding reception, hosting some sixty guest. It must have been a rather "intimate" affair. The place has a small front porch, a modest living room, a bedroom (with a table set for two), bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. The ice box was on the back porch. The bed must have made an amusing centerpiece for the celebration.

The Peachtree Street front as seen today--probably more Neo-Classical
than when John and Peggy Marsh lived there.
The rear of the Margaret Mitchell house as
seen around 1977 before restoration.

While they lived at the Crescent Apartments, the Marshes referred to the place as "the dump." They moved on to a larger apartment a few blocks away in 1932. During the Depression years that followed, the place became even more of a dump. Though it continued to attract tenants until after WW II, the house became little more than a tenement slum, seldom more than a few months away from a date with a wrecking ball as the property changed hands numerous times, various owners went bankrupt, and the land upon which it sat grew in value almost daily. A fire in the 1980s further damaged the building which by then was starting to be seen as an historic structure. Renovation began in 1994. A short time later an arsonist struck, destroying much of the upper levels of the building but doing only minor damage to the Mitchell/Marsh apartment. Still, the house was just days short of demolition.

The Mitchell House (Crescent Apartments) after the devastating 1994 fire.
The cast: Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie,
portraits from the Atlanta premier.
Shortly after the second fire, restoration once more began and once more, in 1996, the structure was struck by fire just days before it was scheduled to open to the public. Arson was once more the cause. Apparently, someone didn't want to see the valuable property wasted on a minor tourist attraction. Again, Apartment No. 1 received only minor damage. The house as seen today opened to the public in 1997 and has since been free of fires. In addition to the Mitchell apartment, the rest of the house is a small museum and gift shop (admission is $12.00). Across an open courtyard is another small museum with artifacts and displays from the making of the movie, including a reconstruction of the front door of Tara. The massive portrait of Scarlett O'Hara from the movie (below, right) stares down from one wall with cool disdain.

Selznick International's conceptual drawing of Tara. Margaret Mitchell was upset
when she saw that, against her wishes, square columns had been added to the O'Hara home.
Scarlett O'Hara, 1939,
Helen Carlton
Gone with the Wind made Margaret Mitchell famous, but in large part, Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick made Gone with the Wind famous. Although much of the museum on the upper floors of the house in which Peggy and John Marsh lived is devoted to the book and its author, there is generous coverage devoted to the impact the film and its Atlanta premier in December, 1939 had upon Margaret Mitchell and the rest of Atlanta. Newsreel footage of the event runs continuously. There's even a painted image of Rhett and Scarlett in front of Tara (bottom) allowing visitors to poke their faces through two holes and audition for the roles in the highly unlikely event there's a remake of the epic film.

Margaret Mitchell Marsh

A William Cameron Menzies
storyboard painting suggesting
the battle scarred devastation at Tara. 
I think Rhett Butler would have looked good with a full beard and bald head.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Atlanta's High Museum of Art

Atlanta's High Museum of Art                              
Meier's central atrium.
The High Art Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, was not what I'd expected. In some ways it exceeded my expectations, in others, not so much. Ensconced at 1280 Peachtree Street NE, the museum is about two miles north of Atlanta's congested downtown in the arty neighborhood of the Woodruff Arts Center. As with many younger art museums in the U.S., the museum is really a complex of architecturally related buildings, in this case joined by glass skywalks. I arrived shortly after the museum opened on a day which, fortuitously, they offered free admission. That was the good news. The bad news was, I had to walk half-way around the building to find the main entrance which is buried deep within the museum complex's sunny Sifly Piazza. The good news was that dozens of kids, their art teachers, and their parental chaperones (below) were taking advantage of the free admission, enthusiastically learning about, and enjoying, the art. The bad news was they did so in an environment obviously not designed acoustically by either Richard Meier nor Renzo Piano with high-pitched, pre-adolescent voices in mind.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Atlanta school children congregate atop Michael Lin's floor mural,
Utah Sky at the base of Meier's atrium.
Hit My Summer Hard and Fast,
1974, Jim Dine (an Ohio artist).
The High Museum is named for Hattie High who, in 1926, donated her Tudor style home and art collection to become Atlanta's first art museum, though the core collection originated with the Atlanta Art Association founded in 1905. In the years that followed, several other neighboring homes and structures added square footage for the museum's growing collection, if not unity. In 1955 a nondescript museum building was built adjoining the High mansion which began to bring the museum's collection more or less under one roof. In 1980 a Richard Meier-designed masterpiece of museum art more than doubling the museum's floor space. That was followed in 2000 by Renzo Piano's three-building addition, an embracing complex of subdued unity, which in no way competes with the art within, nor on the outside with Meier's dramatic masterpiece. All this rises to an attractive, impressively functional, museum, but also contributed to my having difficulty finding the main entrance (in the Wieland Pavilion).
High Museum of Art floor plan. The Richard Meier core is at upper-left,
the remainder of the complex is by Renzo Piano.
Raphael, 1855, Thomas Crawford
For the benefit of those visiting the High, the complex complex is basically four separate buildings (above), the Wieland Pavilion (photography and contemporary art); the Cousins Special Exhibitions Gallery (the Meier-designed, centerpiece unit); the Stent Wing (Folk Art, Modern Art, and decorative arts); and the Chambers Wing (temporary exhibits). There's also a small theater, a big auditorium, a high-end restaurant (Table 1280), a sculpture plaza, and assorted extraneous structures making up the remainder of the Woodruff Fine Arts Center (named for Coca-Cola heir, Robert W. Woodruff, the museums major benefactor).

Supreme Hardware, 1974, Richard Estes

The Shade, Auguste Rodin
The museum itself is fairly easy to navigate once you get inside and realize you're dealing with not one but FOUR separate and unequal buildings joined by skywalks, which seem to be something of a fetish in Atlanta architecture (they're everywhere, all over town). The art collection is uneven. Sculpture (especially that of the past two centuries) is strong (above, right), with a couple nice Rodin pieces. The French government made a gift to the museum of Rodin's The Shade (left) in memory of 106 Atlanta art patrons killed in a tragic plane crash as they flew home from a visit to Paris in 1962. The museum's decorative arts and furniture holdings are also strong, if somewhat peculiar in a few cases. The museum's Folk Art, African Art, and African-American Art seem likewise strong.

Fourth of July Parade, 1886, Alfred Cornelius Howland
Platters that shatter traditional art
The weakest area of the museums holdings seems to be in painting. Contemporary work abounds, but over all, the museum's painting collection lacks both breadth and depth, most of its oldest works by largely second-rate, inconsequential artists. Though the museum claims to own two works by Monet, a Pissarro, a Bazille, a Toulouse-Lautrec, and a Corot, I either missed them all, or they were in storage. The American painting collection is largely of the 20th-century variety. The European works are even fewer and of secondary importance, highlighted by individual works by Tiepolo, Durer, and Bellini. There seems to be acres of empty wall space. It's a beautiful container architecturally, but frequently leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of content.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Atlanta school children find a giant reflective disk endlessly fascinating.