Monday, October 18, 2010

Garden of delights...and discoveries

Photograph by Rick Harris, courtesy of Wikipedia
Unlike the free-for-all flexibility of the Boston Common's layout and development over three centuries, its 1837 offspring has always been very strict with its public about how it is to be used, enjoyed and traversed — in proper, prim Victorian fashion. Hence its period appearance has remained constant, save for sporadic sproutings of statues and memorials from time to time, to be examined below. 

The Public Garden's "gated" entrance — and a fussy one at that — is up front about the behavioral limits set upon us the moment we enter. The garden's rigidly structured system of narrowly winding paths and an axially centered footbridge favors passive promenading over the raucous running, rollerblading, skateboarding and biking that the Common's wide, irregular, straight-as-an-arrow walkways encourage. Depending on whether we're just passing through over the bridge from Common to Commonwealth or leisurely strolling through its statuary, topiary and botany, the Garden gets us in tune to the straight-and-narrow and the winding-and-narrow. This forces us to slow down, which in turn encourages us to stop and smell the flowers and see the statues and memorials. Some of these are explored here so the just-passin'-thru crowd can take note of what they've been missing.

Hail Hale!

Our Common-to-Garden transition is gauntly greeted by this 1913 statue of Edward Everett Hale by Bela Pratt, sculptor of the robed female "Art" and "Science" sculptures flanking the axial approach to the Boston Public Library. This lanky likeness of the great American author, Unitarian clergyman and anti-slavery advocate (no, not rock musician) guards the Garden gate with gentility and gravity, keeping stalwart vigil over the park and its visitors to see that everything is kept as architect George F. Meacham, city engineer James Slade and forester John Galvin had intended for this 24-acre oasis. 

Moreover, Hale has some Garden-gazing counsel for us:

To look up and not down,
To look forward and not back,
To look out and not in, and
To lend a hand.
— "Ten Times One Is Ten" (1870)
We may thus be tempted to look forward toward the path across the Garden's central cynosure, the 1867 cable suspension bridge (the world's shortest at the time) crossing over the swan-boat lagoon and directing us out of the Public Garden and into the Commonwealth Avenue Mall — especially if we're in a rush, which most of us are most of the time. But in being so, we, of course, miss the details and the fullness of the Public Garden experience. 

So let us instead take the advice of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— "The Road Not Taken" (1920)

With that, we'll take one of the roads less traveled.
Mallards on the march 

"Make Way for Ducklings" sculpture by Nancy Schön. Photo by Gareth Owen.
Which is making a difference already. Nancy Schön's 1987 bronze castings of Mrs. Mallard and her ornithic progeny Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, the subjects of Robert McCloskey's beloved book Make Way for Ducklings, are leading us on in a different direction, more akin to the erratic way the Mallards flew all over Boston in search of a home before settling down on the island in the Public Garden lagoon. 

Of course, Mr. Hale, the Mallards had to look down to find their home, as we must do to notice their statues. Avoiding decoy artifice or duck- umbrella polish, Schön's sculpture has a rugged organicity that blends well with its natural environs and an actual-size likeness simpatico with the real ducks in the lagoon (right). 

The dutiful attentiveness of the mother, the premature restlessness of the ducklings, and their basic instinct to follow Mom's guiding wing are evident in the diversity of postures from figure to figure and the sinuous but steady curve of their caravan. Which also goes with the flow of the Garden's curving paths and organically shaped lagoon. The Mallards' 35-foot Belgian-stone platform recalls the cobblestone paving of Beacon Hill's Louisburg Square, where Mrs. Mallard considered homesteading until the traffic-free Public Garden made way for her, by virtue of the tranquility its "roads less traveled by" would bring her family. At left is their final landing, a haven of dense foliage, soft earth, wild grasses, birdsongs, light and shadow — all of the nurturing nature they couldn't find anywhere else in Boston's asphalt, cobblestone or concrete jungles. But the ducks' domain is strictly for the birds, because it's surrounded by...


Yes, Mallard Manor is none other than the island in the middle of the north end of the lagoon, where no man lands (save for a skate lace-up in the winter).

Reserved for the birds and their Swan Boat compatriots, the lagoon is off limits to the rowboats, sailboats, kayaks and Harvard crews that scared the Mallards away from the Esplanade.

So let's proceed along the Public domain...

Tetsu tourou

Which means "iron lantern" in Japanese. A gift to the City of Boston from Japanese-American merchant Bunkio Matsuki in 1905, this 16th-century tetsu tourou symbolizes Boston's long-term liaison with Japan in its oriental ceremonial presence, its tip of the hat to iron manufacturer Horace Gray's benefaction of the Garden, and in the way it makes a Japanese garden out of its immediate surroundings.

Unlike the geometrical perfection and symmetrical propriety of the pedestals, platforms and plinths of its American counterparts, the lantern is situated on a rugged rock reminiscent of the organic nature revered in its homeland's rock gardens. Which jibes gingerly with the organically curvy lagoon, as well as the Garden's Japanese scholar trees and weeping willows. And yes, the Mallards' Belgian-stone walk and the George Robert White Memorial's cobblestone plaza (discussed below) are organic in their own right, which further bridges East and West in the Public Garden.

Good Will Hunting

At right, a couple of friends of mine are showing good will toward each other on the bench where Robin Williams and Matt Damon (left) sat in that 1997 movie — or so my friends thought. At least one thing is definite from this still: George Washington horsebacked here. Speaking of which...

Separated at birth?

Yes, I mixed them up myself at first — on my first walk through the Public Garden on a fifth-grade field trip. When we passed the equestrian effigy of our founding father, a classmate blurted out, "George Washington!" to which I responded, "Paul Revere!" Then my classmate drew my attention to the former's last name carved into his stone pedestal. I stood corrected but confused: a head-on glance at him still convinced me it was the coppersmith himself — after all, Revere's iconic likeness had more picture-postcard familiarity to Boston newbies like me — though why Revere's pedestal would bear Washington's name was beyond me.

They do bear a striking resemblance, not just as revolutionary contemporaries, but in their horse-stances: right arm out, left front horse-leg up, horse-head bowed, comparable cockades and boots. To boot, both have oblong granite pedestals and tree-lined pedestrian mall environs. But I eventually got the distinction between them when I observed that Washington rides toward his mall (Commonwealth Avenue Mall, across Arlington Street), while Revere rides out of his (Paul Revere Mall, a.k.a. "The Prado," in the North End), embarking on his Midnight Ride to Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775, to warn locals of impending Redcoat robbery of ammunition caches.

Furthermore, they're 71 years apart. Thomas Ball's Washington statue was dedicated in 1869, Cyrus Dallin's Revere in 1940. And, of course, Washington the general, unlike Revere the minuteman, carries a sword and wears a fancier coat.

Command center

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
He is also strategically sited on a central axis with the bridge behind him and Commonwealth Avenue Mall ahead of him, as a logical lead-in toward the latter from the former, an initiator of the Mall's succession of statues, and a connector of the Common, the Garden and the Mall as the crown jewel and scepter in Boston's Emerald Necklace.

This symbolizes our first Commander-in-Chief as a bridge-builder between the colonies (as represented by his capital city's location at the center of the Atlantic Seaboard), a unifier of the States, and an initiator of America's westward expansion. Likewise, the Public Garden initiated Boston's westward expansion into the Back Bay, which was followed by the annexation of neighboring towns (Allston, Brighton, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale, Roxbury) as "streetcar suburbs" for those too fiscally challenged for the Back Bay's nouveau riche. So Washington's central location couldn't be a better symbol for American and Bostonian heritage.

Ether ethereal

The 40-foot-tall Ether Monument, a.k.a. The Good Samaritan, is the Public Garden's oldest memorial. It was erected in 1867 in honor of America's first use of ether as an anesthetic and a sparer of the pain of the surgeon's scalpel and the dentist's drill — which the monument's crowning "Good Samaritan" statue, calm water pool base and upward thrust into the ether aptly commemorate.

Dentist Thomas G. Morton performed the inaugural demonstration of ether on October 16, 1846, in the operating theater under the "Ether Dome" of Charles Bulfinch's original Massachusetts General Hospital building (below). Its gray granite façade is fittingly tributed here with the use of the same material — albeit accented with red granite colonettes, marble bas-reliefs casting surgical procedures in a Biblical context, and lion-head fountains in the then-trendy High Victorian Gothic style, as opposed to Bulfinch's plainer and simpler, but equally monumental, Federal style.
Designed by William Robert Ware and sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, the Ether Monument is one of Boston's most immaculate blends of architecture and sculpture. The colonette-borne trefoil Gothic arches and the column-cluster statue pedestal give the monument's subject the religious spirit of a Gothic church, as its engraved Bible verse conveys:

"Neither shall there be any more pain."
— Revelation 21:4
"To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes
insensibility to pain. First proved to the world at
the Mass. General Hospital in Boston,
"This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts
which is wonderful and excellent in working.”

— Isaiah 28:29
"In gratitude for the relief of human suffering by the
inhaling of ether a citizen of Boston has erected this
monument A.D. MDCCCLXVII."

Samaritan supreme

The monument gives no recognition to Dr. Morton, because of a then-heated debate over who really deserved credit for pioneering the use of ether.

To please all sides, the architect and sculptor designed the monument to pay homage to the unconfirmed pioneer in a universally iconic way. They cast ether's emissary in the form of a doctor dressed in a medieval Moorish-Spanish robe and turban.

In a grand yet graceful gesture of compassion he rests the body of a near-naked man on his knee and bears an ether-symbolic cloth in his left hand, ready to apply it to whatever ails the man.

In this way the good doctor projects the universal image of the biblical "Good Samaritan," familiar to all as the healer of the hurt we all hope for when we're in pain or about to undergo surgery, a root canal, a tooth extraction, or whatever calls for ether.

Light in the piazza

Yet another architecture-sculpture amalgam: the George Robert White Memorial. Defining the Garden's northwest corner, this raised plaza creates an open-space flow from garden paths to city streets as light and airy as angel wings and ether domes.

White, philanthropist and owner of Potter Drug & Chemical Corp. (makers of “Cuticura” bacterial soap), willed the city a $5 million trust to fund cultural and medical endeavors, as well as a memorial to him, upon his death in 1922. This 1924 memorial honors him as the "Angel of the Waters" casting "bread" upon the fountain-pool, according to the Book of Ecclesiastes:

George Robert White (1847-1922)
by John Singer Sargent, c.1917
This symbolizes how we can find the "bread" of the George Robert White Fund today as, to name a few, the George Robert White Memorial Building at Massachusetts General Hospital (right), the George Robert White Youth Development Center and the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester, the George Robert White Schoolboy Stadium in Franklin Park, and the George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center at the Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan.

Photo courtesy of English Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
The bronze angel's sculptor was Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), renowned for his Abraham Lincoln sculpture (1920) in Washington's Lincoln Memorial and his Minute Man statue (1874) in Concord. 

The cobblestones make the space distinctly Bostonian but could also represent crumbs from the cast bread. The bookend cornucopias symbolize the bountiful harvest of beauty and health the water-sowed bread of the George Robert White Fund has reaped.

In memoriam, in absentia

This Sept. 11, 2001 memorial reprises the plaza theme, but its special strength is the absence of sculpture, which evokes the void left by the loss of locals in those terrorist attacks. Only the names of the missing are present, and we are given space to resurrect our own memories, visions or impressions of them, backdropped by the Garden's life-reaffirming trees, grass, birds, squirrels and living pedestrians. This is how the memorial gives stage to the Garden's perpetual renewal of life and memorializes the deceased as a group rather than allowing one man to take stage as a statuary celebrity  — unlike Wendell Phillips' privilege of stone-wall display showcase discussed below.

In this way Victor Walker's 2004 memorial emphasizes the ordinariness of the fallen, as citizens too common to merit the immortality of statue, bust or bas-relief. Thus we are left to weigh their importance to us, depending on how well we knew them, whether we knew them at all, and how much we reflect upon our own vulnerability and mortality through our grief for them.

By underscoring the underdog (as Phillips did in his own right as abolitionist, suffragist, labor supporter and egalitarian), the Sept. 11, 2001 memorial shatters the Brahmin erudition of the Public Garden with some of the plebeian spirit of the Boston Common — albeit benignly, as shown by Faneuil Hall Poet Laureate Lawrence Homer's selection from Boston & Sea Poems etched in the stonework, in which he makes poetic reference to the Garden's "trees and grass, and flowers," "shallow pool," "willow," "golden leaf elm" and "swanboats" visible beyond the memorial.

Remembrance row

A rare moment when a monument captivates a crowd — the dedication of the memorial to Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) on the Garden's south walk. The stone-wall backdrop makes Daniel Chester French's bronze statue stand out, forcing us to remember Phillips' legacy as advocate of the underdog.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The backdrop frames the sculpture in a context of artistic and historical contemplation by diverting the eye from scenic background distractions. The abolitionist's erect, forward podium stance evokes his force as an orator and his firmness about the rights of blacks, Native Americans and women.

The south walk's freestanding statues, denied Phillips' stone-wall framework, blend more into their arboreal background and are more easily overlooked, especially in leaf-shadow:

Clockwise from above:  Col. Thomas Cass (1821-1862), commander of the 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, victorious at the Battle of Mechanicsville, wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill, died in Boston July 12, 1862. Sculptor: Richard E. Brooks. Dedicated: September 22, 1899.  U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner (1811-1874), lawyer, orator, and congressman from Boston during the Civil War, leader of Massachusetts antislavery forces and congressional Radical Republicans, introduced first Civil Rights Act in 1872, died March 11, 1874. Sculptor: Thomas Ball. Dedicated: 1878.  Brig. Gen. Tadeusz Kociuszko (1746-1817), Polish-Lithuanian citizen who fought in the Revolutionary War as Colonel of Engineers in the Continental Army, later became Naczelnik (commander-in-chief) of all Polish-Lithuanian forces fighting against Russian occupation of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania in the Kociuszko Uprising of 1794. Sculptor: Theo Ruggles Kitson. Dedicated: 1927.

Channing's channel

Of all the Public Garden's bronze Brahmins, William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) is the most privileged, boasting a stepped elevation like George Robert White, a stone display surround like Wendell Phillips, and a channel to the city like George Washington. This Unitarian preacher extraordinaire is given full sacrosanctity with a classical baldacchino representing his ministry at Arlington Street Church (1861, Gridley J.F. Bryant & Arthur Gilman) across the street. This was emphasized by siting his arch-niched figure on axis with the church's arched center entrance, as if he is about to proceed up the center aisle to the chancel in a formal service. 

The axial arrangement also creates a direct visual link from the Garden to the Back Bay proper (which the church initiates, as the Back Bay's first public building), like the continuity Washington established from nature to neighborhood. This signifies the end of our public art and nature walk and our reentry into civilization — albeit benignly.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...

Photos courtesy of the United States Air Force Academy
...which is just the message the United States Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel tries to impart onto the ready-for-takeoff recruit, as the architectural definition of the U.S. Air Force's mission and the defining element of the academy's campus. Challenging our conception of "church," this 1962 modernist military meetinghouse comprises not one but 17 identical spires lined up uniformly like a regiment of recruits, a row of raised rifles, or a fleet of fighter planes "climbing high into the sun," as the official USAF song continues. This architecturally conveys the marching order, the military discipline and the all-as-one alliance the cadets need to carry out the Air Force's mission of defending "our sacred honor" in the air.

Rocky Mountain high

At 150 feet high, the Cadet Chapel articulates the USAF motto "Above All" by towering above all the other buildings — aesthetically and altitudinally — on the bland, boxy 18,000-acre campus (it does look like an airport, doesn't it?), which occupies the east side of the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains north of Colorado Springs, 7,258 feet above sea-level.

Architect Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill thought way outside the box by designing the chapel as a tubular steel frame of 100 identical 75-foot tetrahedrons enclosed with clear triangular panels of aluminum (the stuff of planes) and infilled in-between with 1-inch-thick stained-glass ribbon mosaics. This ministerial-militaristic fusion suggests heaven-pointing steeples and heaven-soaring airplane wings simultaneously.

It could also be viewed as a geometric abstraction of the USAF insignia at left, which conveys the sacrosanctity of the Force the cadets are obliged to assume. They experience this effect most fully when they walk up the chapel's steel-railed granite exterior stairway, through its gold-anodized aluminum doors and into its main sanctuary. There, right before their eyes, a new "wild blue yonder" is created for them to contemplate as they look to Heaven for guidance in their flight.
May the Force be with you

Modeled on Sainte-Chappelle Cathedral in Paris, the Cathedral of Chartres in France and the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi in Italy, the Cadet Chapel honors its foreign tradition as well as its flying mission. The cathedral ceiling cascades in a collision of colorful jet-streams (red for flame, blue for sky) while Walter Holtkamp's 4,334-pipe, 83-rank choirloft organ resonates the airs of the Force. The American walnut and African mahogany pews, with their ends carved to recall World War I plane propellers and their backs capped by aluminum strips resembling a fighter aircraft wing's trailing edge, march reverently toward the Italian pietra santa marble chancel inlaid with semi-precious Colorado stones.
The 46-foot-high aluminum cross hanging before the airplane-hangar glass curtain wall under the roof's apex symbolizes Jesus' resurrection as an inspiration to the flight of the Force. Thus the chapel reinforces Christianity's military connotation, as extolled by Sir Arthur Sullivan:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ the Royal Master leads against the foe
Forward into battle, see His banners go...

However, this interpretation of Jesus is way off the mark. He is not depicted in the Bible as a warlord, but as "The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6), as the Sermon on the Mount clearly conveys: "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39) and "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you..." (Matthew 5:44) A far cry from the Air Force's "At 'em, boys, give 'er the gun"!

Protestant prominence, Catholic charity, Hebrew hanaah

The Cadet Chapel also misses the mark in the area of religious equality, reserving its main sanctuary for Protestant worship and relegating its Catholic and Jewish chapels to down under, with no Muslim mosque to speak of. Yet these spaces have their places in the sun. 

The Catholic Chapel's reredos, a glass mosaic mural by Luman Martin Winter, intermingles turquoise, blue, rose and gray tessera to depict the Firmament of Heaven, as a backdrop to the Annunciation scene set by marble carvings of the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and a dove.

But these are the wings of peace, not warplanes, in another theological incongruity. The softness of the marble and its curves bring further peace to the atmosphere, giving the cadets one final taste of tranquility before the sharp, pointed wings of war transport them to the heavens.

The Italian white marble altar was given by Cardinal Francis Spellman when he dedicated the Catholic Chapel on September 22, 1963 (precisely two months before a Catholic President's assassination). Along the stained-glass window-walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross, also by Winter, carved from the Carrara marble of the quarries that supplied Michelangelo's stone. The chapel also boasts its own Holtkamp organ.

The in-the-round Jewish Chapel reprises the main attraction's glass/solid alternation, this time as a translucent glass-interspersed vertical grill of Israeli cypress stanchions. These are complemented true to heritage with a Jerusalem brownstone floor donated by the Israeli Defense Forces.
The stanchions ebb in color-filtered light from the foyer's purple, green and blue stained-glass window-wall with the verticality and candle-softness of a menorah. The Aron Kodesh shelters the Scrolls of the Torah. The foyer exhibits a Torah Scroll rescued from the Nazis during World War II, discovered in an abandoned Polish warehouse in 1989, and now dedicated to the memory of the academy alumni who fought the Nazis. 
The mid-1980s paintings by Shlomo Katz tell a Torah tale along the Air Force-friendly themes of brotherhood, flight and justice, putting the Flight from Egypt in concert with the flight of the Force. But in so doing, like its Protestant patriarch and its Catholic comrade, the Jewish Chapel deviates from the peaceful slant of the old Hebrew proverb "מיהו הגיבור האמיץ ביותר? זה שהופך את אוייבו לידידו" (“Who is the bravest hero? He who turns his enemy into a friend.”)

Yet the Jewish and Catholic chapels are truly more peaceful parishes than the Protestant powerhouse above them — an agreeable tradeoff for their lower rank in the hierarchitecture of the building. The Jewish chapel's circularity, wood-grain warmth and stained-glass serenity, and the soft curves of the Catholic chapel's marble and mosaic masterworks, contrast sharply with the Protestant chapel's winglike knife-edge aluminum diagonals, which hover over the worshipers as an eagle-eye reminder that they're always under the wing of the Air Force. Conversely, the lower chapels provide parishioners with peaceful sanctuaries for personal prayer before the planes beckon them hither and yon.
Air Gardens
Overall, the spear-like spires of the Cadet Chapel do make peace with their surroundings when the Air Gardens give them the sculptural presence of public art in a park. Designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley, the Air Gardens comprises 700 feet of ornamental trees, grassy greens, lighted pools, spouting fountains and labyrinthine lanes. At the south end of the Air Gardens is a piece of real public art, the Eagle and Fledglings Statue, inscribed on its granite base with a quotation by Austin Dusty Miller, "Man's flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge."
The Air Gardens are the east quarter of the Terrazzo, the Cadet Area's Italian-inspired piazza of terrazzo-tiled walkways set in a rectangular grid of marble strips. This level, orderly, regimented landscape contrasts the rugged randomness of the Rockies with the geometric precision of airport runways and Air Force drill formations.

No cheating

The U.S. Air Force Academy's Cadet Honor Code, "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does" (taken here as an oath before the Cadet Chapel's Class Wall bearing the crests of the graduating classes), certainly comes out in full force in the architecture of the Cadet Chapel.

It does not lie about its function —  its multiple spires make that crystal-clear multiple times — or its structure — its exterior articulates its interior and vice versa, through the transcendent use of clear aluminum triangular paneling inward and outward. It does steal the spotlight on the campus, but, like the steepled church of the colonial village, is privileged to stand out (and up) as its spiritual center without robbing the surrounding structures of their significance to the community. It does not cheat in its ecclesiastical duty, eschewing a typical church's visual distractions of ornamentation and decoration in favor of a bare-bones, plain-skinned directness in a Cadet's communion with God.

Above All

Above all, the Cadet Chapel stands its ground in a bold expression of the terra firma of its stature and the fortitude of the fleet it symbolizes, as the official USAF song expresses at the end: "Nothing'll stop the U.S. Air Force!"

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!