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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Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

Raising the Art Alarm in Turkey

Recent legal news from Turkey has provoked concern among a number of commentators in both the art world and the Christian world.  As reported in several news outlets, such as in this article which appeared in The Art Newspaper, Turkish courts have decided that a historic former church in the city of Trabzon can now be turned into a mosque.  It is part of a slowly increasing seepage of more strictly Islamic thought and practice into secular Turkish law and politics, which has been underway for some time now.

The beautifully decorated Byzantine building dates from the 12th century; it was turned into a mosque in the 15th century, subsequently abandoned and used for various secular purposes, then restored and turned into a museum in the early 20th century.  Many art historians and legal watchers believe that this is simply a legal test case, and a prelude to the great Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, which itself is currently operated as a museum rather than a house of worship, being turned back into a mosque.  Yet we should keep in mind of course this sort of thing has happened throughout human history, as a result of some very basic human tendencies and motivations.

One of the key points to realize in the study of history is that the victors get to write the story in a very visible way, i.e. in the form of art and architecture.  They build monuments to themselves, naturally enough, since that is what men do, whether on a grand scale like a public memorial, or in a small way when the founder of a business has a portrait of himself commissioned for the board room.  Yet we should also remember that the victors try to remove those things which call to mind those whom they have replaced.

In Ancient Egypt for example, when a pharaoh died and was succeeded by another from a different family, the carved or painted name of the deceased monarch would often be eradicated from any structures built during his reign.  In Tudor England, Catholic churches such as Canterbury Cathedral were confiscated and made over to the use of the Anglican Church, as a result of which many works of art were destroyed in the frenzy of early Protestantism.  These sorts of things are done, as Yuri Zhivago observes in “Doctor Zhivago” when the family learns of the death of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in order to show the populace that there is no going back.  Even if occasionally there are attempts to bring back what was lost, such as the Bourbon Restorations in France, they are usually short-lived.

What is particularly interesting about the article linked to above is that it brings together two very different groups of people.  This building has not been used as a church for a very long time, of course, so the question of whether it would return to its intended use is not even on the table.  On one hand we have art lovers, who do not want to see the beautiful and historic decoration of this building lost.  And on the other we have Christians, who do not want to see images of Christ, His Apostles, and Our Lady destroyed as a result of Islamic aniconism.

These two groups are so often completely at odds with one another at present, that their having a common interest will make it interesting to see whether they can act in concert on what will no doubt be a growing number of cases such as this, not just in Turkey but in Europe itself.  For of course with the demographic shift toward Islam taking place throughout much of Europe as a result of immigration, falling Christian birth rates, etc., more and more European churches with dwindling numbers of congregants will almost certainly be converted into mosques over time.  If indeed politics makes strange bedfellows, as Charles Dudley Warner once noted, we will see how the art world establishment and the various Christian churches concerned about what will happen in Trabzon and elsewhere, will do in trying to get along with one another.

Trabzon

Dome fresco in the  former Church of Hagia Sophia (12th-13th centuries)
Trabzon, Turkey