Batman and the Basilica

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, hard as it is to believe that so much time has passed.  At the time of its premiere, “Batman” was a revelation for many reasons, not least of which was the design of the film.  From lighting to sets to costumes, the movie continues to draw the eye even today, a combination of 1940’s film noir with the shocking colors of comic book exaggeration, reflecting the era in which Batman himself first appeared on newsstands.  Even the look of Vicki Vale, as played by Kim Basinger – full confession: I had a poster of her as Vale in my room as a teen – owed much to film noir actresses of the 1940’s, like Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake.  Basinger of course, would later go on to win an Oscar for portraying a Veronica Lake call girl look-alike in the movie L.A. Confidential, itself an homage to the films of the 1940’s.

On a seemingly unrelated note, yesterday was the 162nd birthday of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1956), whose work the reader is already very familiar with if he is a regular visitor to these pages.  Combining a host of design influences from Gothic castles to Hindu temples, Japanese forts to Arabian palaces, his work is impossible to categorize, but never fails to make a profound impression.  Interestingly however, one of the centerpieces of Burton’s take on the story of the Dark Knight owes a great deal to the uniqueness of this architect.

British designer Anton Furst was charged with helping bring the Gotham City of Burton’s imagination to life on screen, and managed such a remarkable achievement that he won an Academy Award for his efforts.  Mixing various elements from the history of architectural design into a stunning, if oppressive whole, Furst’s greatest challenge would prove to be that of Gotham City Cathedral, where the climactic final conflict between Batman and The Joker takes place.  In trying to come up with a design for the building, Furst realized that the right reference for this singular element was the work of Antoni Gaudí.

In an interview he gave for a book accompanying the release of the Burton film, Furst explained how he tackled the problem of creating a structure which would fit into the world of the Caped Crusader, as envisioned by Burton:

The problem here was to create a cathedral which was taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible. It had to be over 1,000 feet (330 metres) high. I then remembered that some of the 1930s skyscrapers in New York produced a cathedral effect at the top by means of interesting gothic detail. I began to solve the puzzle…I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of a Japanese fortress.

Gaudí himself was strongly influenced by Japanese design in his own work, a fact which is not lost upon the Japanese themselves, who are among the most enthusiastic patrons of his work and legacy.  Japanese individuals and corporations have been particularly generous over the past several decades in their contributions toward the ongoing work of completing the architect’s magnum opus. the still-under-construction Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  When completed, the Basilica will be the tallest church in the world at 560 feet (170 meters), although that is nowhere near the height of the fictional cathedral created by Furst for the film.  Fortunately, despite its massive size, the completed Basilica will be nowhere near as dark and frightening as Furst’s creation.

Interestingly enough, just a few years ago DC Comics came out with a special one-off Batman adventure, which was set in Barcelona and featured a climactic encounter between Batman and Killer Croc at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  In doing so the comic’s writers and designers referenced the tale of St. George and the Dragon, one of the favorite legends for Catalans since St. George is the patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia.  However one wonders whether they were aware of the fact that they were not the first to see the potential connection between the Dark Knight and Catalonia’s most famous architect.

Cover art for "Batman in Barcelona" by Jim Lee (2009)

Cover art for “Batman in Barcelona” by Jim Lee (2009)

Making the Case for a New Georgetown Fountain

With news that EastBanc may be purchasing the site of the gas station across the street from the Four Seasons,  Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier finds himself in rather an important position, when it comes to the impression that both residents and visitors have of one of the Nation’s Capital.  For starters, EastBanc is already at work on plans to redevelop the site currently occupied by another gas station at the opposite end of M Street, the neighborhood’s main East-West thoroughfare, right across from the Key Bridge.  As travelers come into D.C. from the GW Parkway, it will be, along with the Car Barn and the spires of Georgetown University, one of the first impressions they get of the city.

This second project, at the other end of what Georgetown residents refer to as our “village”, is positioned on a parcel of land sandwiched between M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where they cross over Rock Creek Parkway into the city proper.  EastBanc will be building directly across from arguably the most prestigious hotel in town, at least if you are one of the foreign heads of state or movie stars who regularly stay or dine there.  It’s a given in the life of the village that at least several times a week, a motorcade or flock of black SUV’s will be tying up traffic around the entrance to the Four Seasons for several minutes.  Even yesterday, coming home from church, the blare of police sirens clearing a path for a visiting V.I.P. swept up behind me on their way to the hotel.  The gas station however, has long been a curious eyesore, a leftover of what Georgetown looked like decades ago, when its commercial district had become somewhat seedy and run-down.

Mr. Lanier, himself a Georgetown resident, has done a great deal to provide both new and renovated, updated, retail and residential space in a nearly 300-year-old neighborhood where completely new construction is very rare, thanks to the entire 1-square mile area being listed as a historic district.  Although a few pockets of seedy Georgetown remain, largely concentrated within a 2-3 block stretch of the area’s primary North-South axis, Wisconsin Avenue, on the whole the commercial district is much improved in appearance.  Blocks where once there was nothing apart from warehouses or industrial buildings have been converted to modern hotels, apartments, and condominiums.  Because of the possibility of Mr. Lanier now redeveloping this prominent “gateway” site in Georgetown,  now seems as good an opportunity as any to bring up a project which would not only make this development look better, but bring a much-needed public space back into use for the area.

Directly abutting the land which EastBanc is looking to acquire is a somewhat desolate, hemispherical public plaza, occupied by some benches, a lot of brick pavers, and weeds.  In the past however, this spot used to feature a fountain which was considered one of the best in Washington, and DC has a lot of fountains. The piece was originally installed in the 1880’s, but was replaced with a smaller fountain decades later.  Both of these fountains are now long-gone, but the former, larger one still exists, sort of.  After leaving Georgetown, it went on to grace the now-vanished Truxton Circle, in a different part of the city.  Sadly, the fountain is now in pieces, crumbling away in Fort Washington National Park in Maryland.

Although the original fountain is apparently irretrievably damaged, I for one would like to renew my call for making this, one of the most important entries to Georgetown and indeed the Capital City, a more inviting place.  Would it be possible for EastBanc to bring back the fountain which used to stand here – or rather, a reproduction of it?  Or perhaps a more modern fountain would be possible?

The impression that so many visitors, both drivers and walkers, form of Georgetown when they enter from either end of M Street is hugely important.  The soaring spires of the university at one end cannot, of course, be replicated at the other.  However, given the comparatively lower elevation of the Rock Creek end of the neighborhood, and the proximity of the parcel in question to that body of water, it would only seem appropriate to bring back a public space with the kind of splashing, elegant water feature which previous residents and visitors enjoyed.  On a hot summer day when everyone, tourists and townies alike, is desperate for a place to rest in the shade and cool off, the return of a fountain-park would be a welcome addition to a place which, because of its 18th century village layout, has so relatively few open areas for people to congregate.  And of course, for EastBanc’s new development, if it happens, having an attractive place for residents of your new building to look at would make sense, as well.

So just a thought for you there, Mr. Lanier; now, the ball’s in your court.

Remnants of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

Fragments of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

 

Clark Kent at Work: Buildings and the World of Superheroes

An interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine about Superman’s – ahem – office space was very kindly forwarded along to me recently by one of my readers.  The Architecture of Superman: A Brief History of The Daily Planet, by writer and “recovering architect” Jimmy Stamp, looks at some of the buildings which may have inspired the look of where Clark Kent earns his daily bread, under news editor Perry White.  The comic book ancestor of Peter Parker’s unreasonable boss J. Jonah Jameson,  White is the demanding, unpleasant fellow who worked his way up from nothing in the company all the way to the top, and still has a huge chip on his shoulder about it.  Given how tall the building housing The Daily Planet is usually portrayed as being, White understandably had to do quite a bit of climbing to get up to the editor’s desk from the mailroom.

However Perry White himself is not the owner of The Daily Planet: he’s an employee, just as Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olson are, albeit a more senior one.  As such, although he may dictate the running of the newsroom, the look of the place really has very little to do with White’s oftentimes overbearing and negative personality.  Rather, that style choice is left up the owners of the paper, who are competing with other media owners to be viewed as up-to-date and successful.  Given the timeframe of the birth of the series, that means Metropolis resembles how New York, Cleveland, and other big North American cities looked just before World War II.

What’s interesting however, is that even as the Superman universe evolved over the passage of time, for the most part The Daily Planet remains forever ensconced in the architectural era of Art Deco.  “In the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco was optimistic,” writes Mr. Stamp, “it was progressive, it represented the best in mankind at the time – all qualities shared by Superman.”  Classic Art Deco structures like Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, Chrysler Building, and Empire State Building date from this time period, and were examples of American optimism seeking ways to triumph over the sorrows of the Great Depression.  Metropolis is portrayed as a big, bright city of big, padded shoulders, just like the suits worn by both men and women in that era.

This type of architecture stands in sharp contrast to the general look of the Batman universe, however.  Batman himself, taking his cues from a creature of darkness, lives in a world dominated by shadows.  Even though Gotham is a city whose appearance dates from roughly the same time period as Metropolis, here the architectural tone is one of congestion, blight, and darkness.  The Art Deco lines are made sharper and more menacing by a fusion with Neo-Gothic elements, lending a nightmarish quality.  Go take a look back at the Gotham City Cathedral, as imagined by Tim Burton in the 1989 Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson film Batman, and you’ll see a church that is undeniably impressive, yet dark and threatening, rather than light and welcoming.

As the comic book characters have deviated further from their origins in recent decades, the generally sunny, positive disposition of Superman and Metropolis have been clouded somewhat, even as Batman and Gotham have themselves grown even darker.  It’s debatable whether these are good or bad developments.  Is Superman more likeable today because he is less of an overgrown, optimistic Boy Scout?  Do we appreciate Batman more because he’s become more inwardly conflicted and twisted, as reflected in the buildings around him?

Whatever your take on these changes, the reader can see how dramatic an impact architectural design can have on the creation of works of popular culture.  Once you learn what the terms “Art Deco” and “Neo-Gothic” refer to, stylistically, then you can better understand the worlds which these very familiar characters inhabit.  The architecture gives a greater context to the story, in ways which may not be immediately apparent when you are simply reading a comic strip or watching a cartoon.  And the joy of educating yourself about architecture, even if you’re never going to build anything yourself, is that you’ll come to better-appreciate not just these fictional worlds, but the places where you, yourself work, live, and play.

Animation cell of Clark Kent by Max Fleischer Studios (1941)

Animation cell of Clark Kent by Max Fleischer Studios (1941)