Friday, August 18, 2017

Gaudís Post-Mortem Masterpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Cathedrals of centuries past were no simple things to construct. Without the advantage of modern technology found in steel girders, heavy machinery, and composite materials, erecting a façade out of stone often took decades to complete. Throw in political upheavals, fires, and a war or two, and the process could be drawn out to several centuries.

For the architect, obtaining a monumental commission of designing such a façade came with the near-certain guarantee that it would be a life’s work and that others would finish the plans after death. While the Pisa Cathedral [of leaning tower fame] took only 31 years to build, the Cathedral of St. Stephen of Metz in France took 332 years to erect and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany dragged its construction through an agonizing 632 years.

Most modern buildings, by comparison, are erected near the speed of light. The gargantuan, mod-squad Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, for example, took only four years to build.
Less than half of the final 18 spires
of La Sagrada Familia have been
erected thus far.


But then there is Spain, and the haunting genius of Antonio Gaudí. In a throwback to the days of meticulous workmanship, deep pockets, and lack of deadlines, Gaudí’s building is still under construction, but in a style unlike any other. The Basilica of La Sagrada Familia [The Holy Family] is an Art Nouveau masterpiece, even though the style went out of fashion more than 100 years ago. Gaudí was only the second architect commissioned to work on the project. Construction began in 1882 under Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. Gaudí took over the project a year later, and oversaw work until his death in 1926. Since then, seven different architects have handed off duties. Completion is estimated to be near the year 2028 – 146 years after the basilica’s construction began.

Were it not for Spain’s deep love of her native son, Gaudí, there would not be such devotion to the original genius of the architect’s design. It is difficult to look at the structure and all its detail without wonder and amazement. One must put aside reservations on function and worship, and simply admire the fanciful mind of a man who architecturally ignored the notion of a straight line and wholly embraced the fluidity and essence of Art Nouveau. We should also be thankful that his predecessors did their utmost to preserve Gaudí’s concept.
Detail of the Nativity façade.


If one looks at the façade from afar or glances at a model the completed basilica, it is obvious that it follows the general notion of a large cathedral. Upon closer inspection, however, all similarities dissolve. Eclectic flavors of Baroque flamboyance,  Gothic tracery, and natural forms are combined in a colossal structure wound tightly by whimsy. Yet there are sculptural groupings of Biblical figures that somehow bring the visitor back to the familiar. Other figures, however, go in an altogether different direction, leaving the viewer to expect the unexpected.

Religious preferences aside, I still would find it extremely hard to worship in the space, for all its wonder and fancy. It is simply too much to behold. Perhaps that wonder is, in part, the point of this architectural gem, but Gaudí takes us past the Divine and brushes awfully close to Disneyland. You may wonder, indeed, if there is a ride inside the building, and the answer is: Sort of. Tracks were laid beneath the structure so that the mass transit system can stop at La Sagrada Familia. Adding to other innovations built into the basilica, the tracks will be cushioned so that parishioners will take no notice of movement below the floors.
A view of La Sagrada Familia's 150-feet nave ceiling.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Time To Get Silly

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I don’t think I ever told you about my stuffed giraffe. It’s over here in the... HEY!!!

“The Burning Giraffe” Salvador Dalí. 1937. (Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland)




This is what happens when you trim anatomy classes from your MFA schedule.

Illustrations of monstrous humans from “Cosmographia” Sebastian Münster.
1544. (Private collection of William Favorite)




When I said you could make art out of anything, I didn’t mean Uncle Frank.

Tibetan engraved skull.


.

When you said you had to do a portrait of a fruit, I thought you meant... Oh, forget what I thought.

“Vertumnus” Giuseppe Arcimboldo. c. 1590.
(Skokloster Castle, Sweden)




This is why we can’t have nice things.


Portion of a colossal head unearthed this past year in Cairo, Egypt.




You said “No” to a cat. You said “No” to a hamster. Did you want a goldfish?
Nooo. You HAD to get a snake.

“The Laocoön Group” Copy after a Hellenistic original from c. 200 BC.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Razing the Roof

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In the Year of our Lord, 1284, the ceiling fell.

In the centuries preceding that year, architects and stonemasons painstakingly pushed the boundaries of what the human mind – and stone – could do. What originally was a simple, cavernous space to mimic a ship and hold throngs of worshipping Christians became an obsession to reach heavenward.
Reconstruction cutaway of Old St. Peter's Basilica,
begun by Emperor Constantine. Circa 360 A.D.


The hodgepodge of house-churches, random, re-purposed buildings, and modest sanctuaries of the early Church took a big turn when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to build Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Apparently, the emperor wanted EVERYONE to go to church. Capable of holding 3,000-4,000 worshippers at a time, the roof peaked at a little over 100 feet. The basilica’s height was necessitated by the girth of the massive building and its gabled roof. It was a mega-church and, yes, it screamed “Empire.”

That was the year 360. There were plenty of centuries afterward to ponder the nave and its size.

By the time the Gothic period strolled into view, the Vatican was getting deep pockets and every major city was antsy to obtain bragging rights for the most beautiful; the most grandiose; the most imposing cathedral in their neck of the woods. Not every city needed to cram in 4,000 worshippers, so attention – and expense – went in a vertical direction.
Choir section of Beauvais Cathedral.


Stained-glass windows had become an important ingredient, and architects understood what happened to the visual space when windows were maximized and supporting elements were minimized – the nave became ethereal and ceased to be of this world. The effect of sunlight playing with wafting smoke of incense and burning candles must have been certainly mesmerizing, and that same light obscured the reality of the nave’s ceiling.

Higher the architects pushed. Without the aid of materials analysis and computer models, advances were based on experience and guess-and-by-golly. Only when catastrophe occurred did ample safety margins reappear, resetting the bar. But still they pushed. It was an obsession, and one cannot but help hear the voices of a very different people who declared, “Let us make a name for ourselves.”

Beauvais Cathedral proved the limit, when, in 1284, the point at which spindly, stone supports could vertically hold a massive roof was passed and its lofty vaults collapsed. Only the choir section of the sanctuary still holds its original height of 157 feet – more than half a football field. The nave proper was never rebuilt.

The Lutheran church I attend is no cathedral. It has no cathedra (the seat upon which a Roman Catholic bishop sits). It was not funded by deep pockets from afar. It offers no bragging rights for the city in which it resides. It does not compare with the facades featured in architectural tomes. In fact, some visitors think it downright ugly.
The chancel area of Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Grand Rapids, Mich.


However, the nave of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., does have one architectural element that puts it head and shoulders above the Beauvais Cathedral. Acting as a sort of baldachin, the roof visually comes DOWN over the altar, illuminating the altar linens with natural light.

What Christ said of “these stones crying out” is true, and the inanimate materials of architecture can, indeed, confess. Our very best striving to reach God is for naught. We build no ladders to heaven, and our “methods” to salvation are doomed to cave in. It is only when the Lord comes down to us; to serve us; to give us His Body and Blood; to forgive us; to wash us from our sins and make us His own; to feed us with His Word, that we gain anything – and everything. This, while in the hold of His ship; His Church.