sábado, 26 de marzo de 2011

The Louvre in Paris: The Lescot Wing

The Lescot wing in the courtyard of the Louvre palace is the oldest part of the complex, as it still exists today. It is interesting for a variety of reasons, not least because it gives a French spin on an essentially Italian composition.

The architect was Pierre Lescot, who was appointed by the king Francis I to remodel the medieval castle of the Louvre into a renaissance palace.

Italian design had been influencing French art and architecture since the beginning of the 16th century. It is interesting to note, however, that in the case of the Louvre, Italian designs, by Sebastiano Serlio, were rejected and the project was given to a Frenchman. The Lescot wing is probably France’s first classical façade in more than just a decorative sense and was, therefore, hugely important to the development of French classicism.

One of the reasons Serlio’s project was abandoned seems to have been a disregard for practical considerations. Lescot, therefore, proceeded cautiously. His project followed the same footprint as the old castle and only demolished the medieval wings one at a time. When he died, the western wing was complete and the southern wing partially complete, while at the northern and eastern wings the old castle walls still remained.

The scheme intended by Lescot seems to have been a courtyard palace, only partially enclosed on the eastern side by a screen. Though clearly inspired by Italian palazzi, the roofline clings to the medieval affinity for towers. These towers, or pavilions, were projected at the four corners of the palace and was possibly inspired by the silhouette of the old castle. However, the south-western tower, the king’s pavilion, was the only to be complete in Lescot’s time and has since been removed. The courtyard is richly decorated with classical orders and low relief sculpture. The exterior of the palace, on the other hand, maintained a fortress-like sobriety and had no orders.

Only the courtyard façade remains of the Lescot wing. It is heavily decorated, but according to a clearly defined hierarchy.  The profusion of sculpture would be unthinkable in Florence or Rome, but would possibly be met with approval in Northern Italy. 

Several of the French features seem to have been determined by climate. The open arcade on the ground floor, which would normally be expected in an Italian courtyard is enclosed, but with recessed windows, supposedly to give the impression of an arcade. The roof is the first known example of a double sloping roof, a feature which since has come to be known as a Mansard roof. It seems to have come up about as a compromise, to minimize the effect of a traditional tall sloping roof of earlier French examples.    
Nonetheless, the design of the roof is not hidden, behind a balustrade or otherwise, and is successfully turned into an integral element in the façade. 

The composition of projecting pavilions at the centre and the sides is also a feature not to be found in Italy, and introduces a vertical element unused by Italian architects, except perhaps in some of Michelangelo's work. The five-fold division would later be taken up in much of French palace design and emulated widely. 

What seems to have happened is that Lescot originally planned a central pavilion to indicate the location of the staircase within. This was already established as a common French fashion. However, due to practical considerations or the wishes of the king, the staircase had to be moved to the north of the wing. Instead of moving the pavilion to produce an asymmetrical facade, Lescot added a new pavilion, retained the central pavilion, and introduced a third pavilion for the sake of symmetry. Voila, the French five-fold palace design was born.       

This allows for a new dimension of complexity, vertically as well as horizontally. For example, the pavilions are emphasised with engaged columns rather than just pilasters. They are decorated with niches and swags etc.

The emphasis is very much on alternating rhytms. The interplay of projecting and recessed panes existed in certain mannerist examples in Italy, but never to this degree. The use of oeil de boeuf windows above the windows and low relief sculpture, particularly in the attic floor, introduces additional complexity and variation. The projecting pavilions are capped with arched pediments that pierce into the roofline, while the windows have alternating triangular and arched pediments. It is almost as if as many alternating shapes and forms as possible has been crammed in. However, the effect never feels too crowded. 

All the sculpture was executed by Jean Goujon.  Work was completed between 1546 to 1551. 

For more info about Lescot's Louvre, click here, or the later work by Jacques Lemercier: here

viernes, 11 de marzo de 2011

British Architecture: Antiquarian Trends

Among many examples, St George, Bloomsbury, a church in the heart of London, embodies a curious and consistent trait in the treatment of classical architecture in Britain, that of a special antiquarian interest.

In contrast to French architecture, the British interest in classicism often sought to recreate fragments of the ancient world in order to transplant these on to British soil, as opposed to using the classical idiom to produce a modern and nationally conscious style of architecture.

St George, for instance, greets the visitor with a grave Roman portico, which is said to be based on the Jupiter temple at Baalbek in Lebanon. The statement is wilfully archaic, in contrast to much of baroque architecture, which was then current in Europe. The tower, on the other hand, is capped by an odd novelty, of which there are no known counterparts. This impression, however, misleads the intent of the architect, since the model can be identified as the mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The interior is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, including the cubic handling of space and the unorthodox orientation of the nave. These are both features following the relatively idiosyncratic style of the architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and may have been inspired by freemasonic ideas.
The interior, however, does not necessarily deflect from the archaeological theme. Little could be known with great certainty of Roman interiors in early 18th century Britain and the cool classical and lofty hall, which Hawksmoor produced, comes off as a decent speculative effort.

The interior, incidentally, is arguably also more successful than the exterior, as the latter is undermined by the indifferent position the church enjoys within the modern city-fabric. 

Similar antiquarian trends can also be found in the work of Britain’s first truly classical architect, Inigo Jones.  The portico of the church, St. Pauls at Convent Garden, might have no counterpart in the ancient world, but it is nonetheless a faithful study of what the Roman architect Vitruvius described as the correct use of the Tuscan order. 

Indeed, what is striking by much of the Palladio-inspired work in Britain, a source of inspiration that was so pervasive in the 18th century it lent its name to the dominant style, is that British architects for the most part ignored the mannerist inventions of the Italian architect. Instead, they looked to his literary works for clues to a historically correct classical style.

In so doing, they also copied some of Palladio’s false assumptions, that Romans would have tacked a temple front to a private villa for instance. Italian architects had since the beginning of the renaissance sought to replicate ancient architecture, but had either failed to do this correctly, in an archeologically accurate sense, or purposefully used classical formulae in subtly new ways.

New solutions were warranted for the most part by the simple fact that modern buildings, such as churches, villas and palaces are of a different order than classical temples. They have different rules for the treatment of interior space and are built on different structural principles. Italian architects, therefore, tended to transform the classical language into new usage, as when needed.

British architects were not unaware of these challenges, or not always, but were early on the most determined to overcome necessary deviations from true ancient models. Brits, therefore, were the first to use the classical portico as a facade for churches. As the famous example of James Gibbs and St Martin’s in the fields, this led to some curious combinations of ancient temple portico and the demand for a church to have a steeple.

The irony is that the British obsession with an historically correct use of classical principles eventually rubbed off on the rest of Europe. It was particularly pronounced in 19th century Germany and it was also the direction in which French architecture had tended towards throughout the preceding century. 

To what degree these trends owed to British architecture is of some dispute. What is certain, however, is that, as with the parliamentarian system, the British succeeded in being at the forefront, by virtue of rather than despite of, being the most doggedly conservative of the bunch.

lunes, 7 de marzo de 2011

Carte Blanche Travel

Carte Blanche Travel offers tailored travel solutions to some of the most exotic and exciting destinations in the world. For more information, click here.

jueves, 3 de marzo de 2011

Mexican Road Trip

A road trip across Mexico will take you to vastly distinct landscapes: From the arid shrubbery expanses of the north, to the sweltering tropic heat of the central coast, to the cool breeze on the plateaus of south-central Mexico, and finally to the lively white beaches of the Mayan Riviera.  Mexico stretches roughly 3200 kilometres from north to south and encapsulates on that stretch, a staggering wealth of diversity.

This epic journey, however, had its starting point in a different country all together, in Los Angeles, California. Much has been made of the so-called Mexican re-conquest of that valuable, yet economically conflicted piece of real estate known as California. What is certain, however, is that reminders of Mexico’s close presence are to be apparent for all who seek it. At the hotel, among the waiters and the receptionists, and in the petrol stations along the road south, you can be assured, se habla espanol.      

Los Angeles was a positive surprise. For all the extreme imagery the place is given, downtown LA makes up for a pleasant stroll. From the air, the endless swathes of rectilinear residential plots, which have been carved through by freeways meeting in complex multi-storey joints, are an impressive and distressing sight. Downtown, however, is small and compact and relatively car-free on a weekend.

Older mid-rise buildings in classical ornament stand amid modern high rises and give feint glimpses of the traditional American east coast city. These older styles are often curiously Iberian in inspiration, giving a nod perhaps to the adjoining Latin lands to the south.

The most striking new addition to downtown, however, is Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. Crowning a hill, the construction looks more like a piece of sculpture, which only as an afterthought has been converted into a building. The structure is also hard to distinguish from that other famous creation of Gehry’s, the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao. Nonetheless, the concert hall is enough of a visual pleaser to attract the curious minded tourist, an effect that has been cleverly exploited through the sale of audio-phone tours. The building even creates an outside platform vista, which has been shaded by the planting of trees and cooled by colourful fountains, obscuring further the essential function as concert house, as opposed to an artful public plaza.  

The view is decidedly tranquil, though a jazz band nearby is getting ready to fire up in another public space of downtown. There is little to suggest, however, that this piece of downtown was once infamous as a dangerous and neglected part of the United States.

The highways that run out of the city leads past shrubbery hills and golden beaches before it reaches the border with Mexico. The route also reveals a few whimsical traits of the United States, be it embodied in the German-styled spa town known as Carlsbad, or the glitzingly Las Vegas-like spires of the Mormon Church found along the way.

The border, however, causes a dramatic shift in this quiet string of non-urban Californian life, as San Diego uneasily melds with the fast growing border town of Tijuana.