The Crumbling Cube

Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.

I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print.  A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche.  Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.

George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently.  In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”

Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public.  The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems.  Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors.  And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.

La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million.  That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite.  While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.

First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations.  Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built.  The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.

Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement.  La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void.  Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess.  Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.

The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications.  There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do.  We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.

La Grande Arche, Paris

La Grande Arche, Paris

 

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Was St. Martha a Cat Person?

I’ve always found St. Martha to be one of the most interesting figures from the Bible.  Last night I was out in the slightly overgrown back garden after dinner, and I reflected on her impending Feast Day today.  She would probably click her tongue disapprovingly at the state of the weeds, but as I watched The Cat picking her way along one of the raised beds, the thought suddenly occurred that St. Martha was probably a cat person herself.

Cats are fairly self-sufficient, but as cat owners know, they also like affection, albeit in measured doses.  The trick with cats, unlike with dogs, is to let them indicate when they want you to give affection, and when they want you to stop.  One could reasonably see how a fastidious hostess like St. Martha would be more likely to keep a cat about the house in Bethany.

We don’t actually know that much about St. Martha of course, or what happened to her after the Resurrection.  Popular medieval legends maintained that St. Martha and her siblings St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus were eventually banished from Judea for preaching Christianity, landing in southern Gaul in the region now known as Provence. Among the more fantastic of the tales associated with St. Martha’s arrival in France is her supposed encounter with a dragon-like creature called the tarasque, which I have written about previously.

As is often the case with strange stories, there may be a slight element of truth to this one. One of the more popular entertainments in Ancient Rome was going to the local arena to see gladiators fight wild animals to the death.  Towns who could afford them would import exotic animals from all over the empire for these contests.  While Rome naturally had the most exotic beasts of all, large amphitheatres existed in many provincial Roman cities around the Mediterranean, such as the 20,000 seat stadium at Arles, just downriver from Tarascon, where the tarasque took up residence, as well as that in the nearby city of Nimes, whose arena could host over 16,000 people.

Some speculate that a ship importing animals for one of these gladiator battles from elsewhere in the Mediterranean might have wrecked in the Rhône, an accident which would have proved fatal to many of the caged animals on board, but not to an aquatic carnivore such as a crocodile.  Freed from captivity and making a home for itself in the fertile marshlands around nearby Tarascon, it would naturally terrify the local people, who had never seen anything like it before.  It’s conceivable that over time, such an animal would have become a part of the popular imagination in the area.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a great story that goes to my point about St. Martha being a cat person.  Dogs are often so very easy to like, that it takes someone with very special qualities indeed to appreciate a good cat – or in this case, a tamed river monster.  For all of her supposed hauteur, the fastidious St. Martha reached out to a creature which everyone else had dismissed as unlovable, showed it compassion, and civilized it.  The creature’s downfall came at the hands of those too ignorant to appreciate the value of life, and indeed the possibility of conversion.

In retrospect, perhaps our contemporary society could take a valuable lesson from this legend, after all.

Detail of "St. Martha" by Unknown Artist (18th Century) Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris

Detail of “St. Martha and the Tarasque” by Unknown Artist (18th Century)
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris

 

 

 

Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)