This Centuries-Old Church Was Just Bulldozed

Here is a bizarre, and indeed sad, bit of news to start your Friday.

It appears that the citizens of San Pablo del Monte, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, have some rather strange ideas. Last weekend, they decided to demolish the 18th century Franciscan chapel of Santo Cristo. Yes, you read that correctly. The entire pasted-colored Spanish colonial chapel – bell towers, dome, et al – was completely razed by bulldozers early in the morning on Tuesday, with no word to either government or religious authorities.

The bishop of Tlaxacala, Francisco Moreno Barrón, has called the demolition an act of “barbarism”, which was not authorized by the diocese. In response, the Governor of Tlaxacala announced at a press conference that, in cooperation with federal authorities, he has filed charges against the person or persons responsible for the illegal destruction of the chapel. The action seems all the more surprising, in that the region is known to be a deeply devout Catholic area, so there is no suggestion that leftists carried out the action.

At present, local police believe this was an act of ignorance, which grew out of the combination of two rather unfortunate ideas. Some residents were concerned that cracks in the chapel walls indicated that it was in danger of collapse, and therefore razing the building was a matter of public safety. However authorities from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the federal agency charged with historic preservation of Mexico’s cultural patrimony, say that the building was structurally sound, and pointed out that any building more than a century old is bound to have some cracks in it which do not affect the integrity of the structure.

In addition, while it may not have been the initial justification for the demolition, ultimately locals may have supported it because it was commonly felt that the chapel blocked the view of the parish church across the street.  Said building is a comparatively more modern confection, in terms of construction date, which looks something like a child’s idea of a castle in the Alps. As one can see in the photographs accompanying the news reports, it was certainly a far better candidate for demolition than the Franciscan chapel.

Although the goal of historic preservation can create annoying procedural norms for developers, architects, and officials to follow, this latest example of what happens when it is ignored is a potent reminder of why enforcing such measures continues to be necessary, and why they ought to be taken seriously. Whether the destruction is as vast as that of Penn Station in Manhattan, or as small as that of this side chapel on the road to Veracruz, when we intentionally destroy beautiful and historic buildings, we irreparably lose an important part of who we are. These structures are not simply utilitarian combinations of materials expressing particular aesthetic views. They are places touched by the lives of those who built them, and those who passed through them, decade after decade, century after century. As such, they are one of the very few tangible connections we have to the past. When they are lost, they are lost forever.

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The Pregnant Oyster, Reborn

Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference that LaGuardia Airport in Queens, long derided as one of the worst airports in America, will be demolished, and a brand-new, unified terminal will be built in its place. Understandably, this rather bold step captured most of the headlines about the story.  However the buried lede was the news that the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, known more familiarly as the old “TWA Terminal”, or more colloquially as “The Pregnant Oyster” because of its curvaceous, mollusk-like design, is about to become an hotel.

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), probably best known for the St. Louis Arch, the TWA Terminal was but one of the architect’s visions for the future of air travel. His TWA Terminal is almost something out of a space ship, with pod seating and NASA-like terminal monitors. Here in Washington, Saarinen’s far less trendy-looking terminal at Dulles is an elegant, swooping paean to flight, and the hopes of a technologically advanced society. At night its curtain of glass gleams across the open Virginia fields like a secular Chartres, illuminated from within. 

While in real life, neither of these buildings ever worked quite as Saarinen had hoped, they do speak to the visionary ideals of the U.S. in the Post-War period.  Americans saw their influence spreading around the globe, and with the rapidly expanding middle class, air travel became more possible for more people. The reader may be very interested, then, to see a contemporary short film of this era, created for Saarinen by two of the most famous designers in American history, about what air travel was supposed to be like.

In 1958, Charles (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988) put together a presentation for Saarinen called “The Expanding Airport”, to help sell the architect’s concept for Dulles.  Saarinen needed something that would explain his rather daring ideas for how a modern airport ought to work, in ways that skeptical officials would be able to understand and embrace. Using illustrations, photographs, and rather charming animation, along with a very relaxed-sounding voiceover worthy of a “Mad Men” advertising campaign, The Eames’ film worked a treat, and Saarinen’s overall concept was adopted.  Even if you have little interest in the history of transportation, the short is worth watching for the design and nostalgia aspects alone.

While some of the terms in the film differ from present use – “hand luggage” instead of “carry-on”, for example – it’s clear that the problems raised by jet aircraft were already starting to cause headaches in the Eisenhower era.  We can see how our grandparents puzzled over many of the same concerns which continue to plague air travel even now, such as the enormous distances passengers must often walk when changing planes or collecting their luggage.  (Incidentally, take note of the rather eyebrow-raising animation of the passenger picking up a copy of Playboy in the concession stand before having to run for his gate.) 

The idea of “detachable fingers” which comes up midway through the film seems rather odd today, even if innovative back then. Modular design was a keynote of the Modernist era, and the ideal of interchangeability was often pursued rather too relentlessly. The idea that a so-called “people mover” – a term which even now makes one wince – will “be best known for its convenience and feeling of luxury” may have been the case when these conveyances were new, but toward the end of their run they felt more like buses crossed with Imperial Walkers from Star Wars, and not in a good way.  They were finally retired from service about 5 years ago, if memory serves.

While the Dulles terminal is still very much in use, and will likely experience explosive growth once the Silver Line of the Metro reaches it in the next couple of years, the Pregnant Oyster has lain mothballed in New York for quite some time now. What Saarinen would make of his TWA building being turned into an hotel, who knows. As an airport terminal it can no longer serve the purpose for which it was intended, perhaps because, unlike Dulles, the design was too self-contained to be able to be effectively extended ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, one can imagine that he would be pleased to see that the New York-area airports are all going to be looked at afresh, and that his signature work will take on new life as a lodging and dining venue for those who continue to appreciate its curvy charms.

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When Fonts Fail: DC’s Sad Attempt To Be Hip

City officialdom here in the Nation’s Capital recently decided that there needs to be greater uniformity in the graphic design elements of its public communications. To that end, the Mayor’s office has published a set of guidelines for the various municipal departments and offices, with respect to the look of documents which will be released to the public. These guidelines include such matters as color choice, the placement of official seals, and font selection. While the body of external communications will have the possibility of at least some variety in typeface, when it comes to the titling – such as in posters or cover pages – there is now only one unbreakable commandment: “Thou Shalt Only Use Neutra.” 

The work of Richard Neutra, the midcentury architect of the California “those who live in glass houses” international style, for whom the font is named, is perfectly acceptable in certain settings. A Neutra-designed building is well-suited, for example, as the home of a retired pit boss who used to get plastered with the Rat Pack back in the day, and his third wife, who was once little more than a stripper but still calls herself an “actress”, despite never having picked up a work of Molière or Pirandello in her life. Neutra’s work is similarly appropriate for a church designed for suburban Angelenos who aren’t particularly interested in God, but do want plenty of parking when they get together to socialize and feel better about themselves on Sunday mornings while drinking Starbucks.

Despite his long career designing the kinds of buildings which look like sets for 1970’s sexploitation films in places like Palm Springs or Orange County, Neutra never – thank goodness – built anything in Washington, D.C. Thus it is particularly curious that a font honoring his style would be selected as the official typeface for a city which features absolutely none of his work. It is a bit like Boston deciding that its official communications would feature a typeface evoking the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As The Washingtonian points out, Neutra is the same font used by Shake Shack, the Nationals, Wendy’s, and the regrettable television series, ‘Girls”. Presumably then, we are to understand that the average Washingtonian is a morbidly obese, frequent fast food consumer, who loves baseball but is lacking in any concept of sexual morality or good taste. Perhaps this is indeed an accurate assessment of the average citizen of #thistown, but that is certainly not something to be proud of.

Now, I am not of the school that says all sans-serif fonts are bad. In fact, as you may note herein, the fonts employed on this site are sans-serif. This was a deliberate decision on my part, the idea being that my occasionally irascible (and often quite pretentious) tone might be somewhat softened by my not employing a typeface more obviously attuned to the subject matter and tone of this blog. Otherwise, you would likely be trying to decipher this post in something like Bernhard Modern or Kunstler Script. Nor, as it happens, do I have a problem with the Neutral font per se, although I find it unremarkable as a design.

Yet I do take exception to government adopting a public face which displays false informality, by attempting to seem “hip”. This is what the use of a sans-serif such as Neutra implies, when rolled out in official communications. I want my government to provide the public services I pay for, such as traffic cops and street cleaning and rat catchers. I do not want it to be my buddy, let alone invite me to a key swap party in the Valley. Sadly, this increasingly tacky city appears to be reflecting an increasingly tacky society all too well.

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