Thursday, April 26, 2012

A titanic testament

Photo by David Wilton, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The perpetually perplexing polarity between the Titanic's architectonic advancement and technological tragedy defies artistic interpretation, often retreating it to the comfort zone of crassly palpable romanticism. Witness the sinking-ship literalism of Willy Stöwer's "Untergang der Titanic" (1912, right), the factually challenged melodrama of the two Titanic movies (1953 and 1997), and the generic sugarpop of Robin and RJ Gibb's just-premiered Titanic Requiem.

But architects Eric Kuhne and Associates got it right with Titanic Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital's new tourist attraction on Queen's Island. Opening just in time for the centennial of the Belfast-born ship's demise on the frigid, moonless night of April 14-15, 1912, the new museum and visitor center abstracts the upturned ship and its iceberg nemesis as a cluster of angular monoliths, cold as the iceberg, metallic as the ship's hull. This casts a stark presence on Belfast's skyline (above) as a grim reminder of the mass loss of life on the 2,207-passenger vessel that originated in the city's Harland & Wolff shipyard nearby.

'Have a look at her now'

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
No ocean-liner glamour or port-arrival festivity here. Ship and iceberg now merge as partners in crime, as cold-blooded killers of 1,502 civilians. The partitioning of the edifice alludes to the fracturing of the Titanic as it sank. Each wing's upright angularity abstracts both the ship's prow and the upending of each ship-half as it plunged into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

The main prow gestures down the center of the contiguous slipways of the Titanic and the Olympic, signifying their side-by-side construction as near-twin sisters (Titanic was 1,004 tons larger) and properly integrating the building into the original Harland & Wolff site and the River Lagan beyond (where Titanic first sailed) to pay homage to Belfast's maritime history.

A gesture of hope and redemption is Rowan Gillespie's Titanica (right), a bronze diving female sculpture recalling a ship's figurehead. The organic fell swoop of her diving pose offsets the building's crystalline coldness with a remembrance of the Titanic's faded beauty, yet blends with the wavy curves of the façade's silver-anodized aluminium shards as a conveyance of motion through the seas, of an iron will to move forward from the fall.

The wave-scaled texture of the 3,000 shards contrasts the free flow of the Atlantic's waves with the glacial stasis of the iceberg. The upward thrust of the wings suggests passengers' hapless gestures for help as the ship was sinking, and the sharp edges and corners convey the cold cutting through them like a knife as hypothermia drained their lives away.

One recalls the remark made by Captain Lord's Second Officer Herbert Stone on the bridge of the SS Californian as he was observing the Titanic tilting and dimming in the water, getting a first impression of her apparent distress: "Have a look at her now. She looks very queer out of the water — her lights look queer." Thus the oddly skew form of Titanic Belfast evokes the liner's loss of "unsinkable" vainglory in light of her irremediable peril.

The giant sheet of cut-out block letters spelling out her name clarifies the building's intent to the perplexed observer of this queer sight, in an industrial way that suggests the rusting away of a once-revered ship to bare-bones scrap iron down on the Atlantic floor.

Photo by M. Kooiman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Speaking of industrial, Harland & Wolff's landmark Samson and Goliath shipbuilding gantry cranes get their due as well. Their monumental geometry and inverted tapering are aptly integrated into the geometric cantilevers of Titanic Belfast's wings, as a testament to the shipyard's bold intention to build an ocean liner of rectitude and renown.

Look out below

Photo courtesy of Titanic Belfast
Inside, the quirky angles of the prows and cranes slash across the sea-deep atrium space as beams, catwalks, escalators and rust-finished bent panels. The cutthroat calamity of the Titanic's fatal plunge meets the German Expressionism of the movie sets of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Tim Burton's Batman (1989).

Photo by Leslie Shaw, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This craggy, jagged ricochet of diagonals takes us on what feels like a voyage through the catacombs of a ship's hull — or a wreck thereof — as we experience a smorgasbord of ship models, floor plans, artifacts, replicas, photos, multimedia shows and virtual tours on the Titanic's design, construction, launch, sinkage, aftermath, legacy and rediscovery.


Photo courtesy of Titanic Belfast
Contrasting the erratic deconstruction of the atrium is the prim reconstruction of the Titanic's Grand Staircase, as Walter Lord described it in A Night to Remember (1955): "The setting was equally incongruous — the huge glass dome overhead ... the dignified oak paneling ... the magnificent balustrades with their wrought-iron scrollwork ... and, looking down on them all, an incredible wall clock adorned with two bronze nymphs, somehow symbolizing Honor and Glory crowning Time."

Yet this incongruous juxtaposition of ultramodern and neoclassical makes its point, as a statement of the vanity of all the vanity expressed in the ship's posh first-class interiors as they went to waste. It also goes to show how the ship's mechanical plainface scarcely prepared its first-class passengers for the surprise that awaited them inside...

The essence of the eggshell

Photo by F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923)
The Titanic's clean-lined shell was the kind Le Corbusier revered for the honest, unadorned functionalism that made it a practical "machine for living" — though one of its funnels lied about its function (as did Willy Stöwer): it provided ventilation rather than exhaust emission, and was used to complete the composition of the ship. But her face fooled her passengers as well...
Knowing full well how the Titanic's dress circle of Astors, Guggenheims, Morgans, Rothschilds, Ryersons, Strauses, Thayers and Wideners couldn't bear the thought of living in a machine, builder Thomas Andrews embellished their first-class interior with the Beaux-Arts décor of the era's finest mansions and hotels that were home to them — carved oak and French walnut paneling, wrought-iron rails, leaded glass, bronze statues, gold- plated light fixtures, crystal chandeliers, crown moldings, beamed ceilings, custom carpets, silken draperies, damask panels, marble commodes, porcelain china, sterling silverware...

...and it didn't stop at the top of the stairs...

Lifeboat luxury

No wonder none of those nabobs wanted to get into the lifeboats as the waters were rising over their riches. Some were steadfast about the ship's imperviousness to icebergs. Others couldn't part with their proud possessions. For some, it was too cold and cramped in the lifeboats without their horsehair overcoats, mink stoles, or roaring fires in the massive lounge hearth. For others, it was beneath their dignity to be degraded from lounge to lifeboat level. Still others preferred to go down with their worldly wealth — "go down like gentlemen," as Benjamin Guggenheim put it after dressing up for his descent — so they could die dignified rather than destitute, with hope for a higher-end heaven. After all, "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2)

I may be resorting to the romanticism I attacked above. But it's hard not to wax romantic about this era of elegance that ended with the tanking of the Titanic...


Photo by Myk Reeve, courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo by Max Lieberman, courtesy of Wikipedia
...and ultimately ushered in a new iron age: deconstructivist waterfront architecture of an angly, scaly, wavy sheet-metal sheen that voluptuously vivifies the waves, fish fins and ship sterns of the seaside it sits on and emphatically expresses the stormy, precarious uncertainty of the water, the weather, the wind, and the titanic technology that tests its tenacity against the torrents. Shining examples include Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain (1997), Schwartz/Silver Architects' 1998 expansion of the New England Aquarium in Boston, and, of course, Titanic Belfast.
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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The clock tower's timeless value

Photo by Alves Gaspar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
You forgot your watch.

You lost your cellphone.

Your battery died.

You neglected to charge your Smartphone overnight.

Your clocks stopped when the power went out last night.

You neglected to wind that old fob-suspended pocketwatch heirloom of Grandpa's, because it slipped your mind that his age wasn't digital or electric.

So what time is it?

Can't look at the clock?

Can't look at your watch?

Can't look at your phone?

Just look up.
Photo by Andreas Trepte,

The clock tower was a public sine qua non before personal timepieces came along — especially in ancient Greece, where time couldn't be told without the eight sundials and water-clock of the Tower of the Winds (second century BC, right).

Yet the challenge of keeping our own time in our fast-paced society makes us still dependent on our village clock tower, the Guardian of the Hours, the everpresent Father Time reminding us not to be late for school, work, a meeting, an appointment, a date, an event, and especially bedtime.

Clock towers like London's Big Ben (1858, above) aren't just for looks anymore. Their Roman numerals mean business.

When in Rome...

Photo by Cortlandt V.D. Hubbard, Historic American Buildings Survey
Colonial Boston was doing as the Romans do (given its European origins, what else could it do?) as early as 1770 when the 1729 Old South Meeting House's landmark steeple got its north- and south-facing clockfaces — just in time for furious Bostonians to know when to gather there in protest against the five deaths in the Boston Massacre of March 5. This well-timed mob forced Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson to hasten the British soldiers out of town and over to Castle William, Britain's first concession to the Colonies.

Three years later, the Meeting House's new clock let Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty know what time to storm out of the house and down to the wharf to dump the tea into the sea in the Boston Tea Party, before the British could find out.

In 1872 and 1877, the clock let the city know time was running short for the salvation of Old South, which was saved from the Great Boston Fire of 1872 and, five years later, from demolition in the nick of time.

In 2009, the clock reached the end of an 11-month, $100,000 restoration — for which horologist David Hochstrasser took out, cleaned, reworked and put back its entire mechanism for the first time since 1770 — making it not only an historic icon but also a reliable reminder of the time of day for Downtown Crossing shoppers, Financial District businesspeople and Freedom Trail tourists in too mad a rush to glance at their watches or phones.

Equal time

Since Old South's imposing steeple was erected to compete for skyline attention with Old North Church, built six years prior, Old North decided to become Old South's timekeeping equal after a gale blew down its original steeple in 1804. 

The new tower, designed by Massachusetts State House architect Charles Bulfinch, was retrofit with a gilded Romanesque clock like Old South's (but with four faces this time), giving Old North a fuller role as neighborhood watchman. 

First there were the bells, cast in Gloucester, England, in 1744 ("We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America, A.R. 1744," reads an inscription on one of them), which Paul Revere had rung since his youth. 

Then there was the belfry window, where sexton Robert Newman had hung the lanterns to alert Charlestown citizens from which direction the British soldiers were approaching ("One if by land and two if by sea," claimed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, though Newman's two lanterns actually signified they were coming by the Charles River) as Revere departed Charlestown on his Midnight Ride to Lexington on April 18, 1775. 

Now there was the clock, to make double-sure Bostonians got to church on time. But Hurricane Carol toppled the steeple and stopped the clock in 1954. Too frail to hoist back up, Bulfinch's clock tower was replaced with a replica of William Price's original tower, depriving North Enders of their faithful watchdog, yet affirming Old North Church's historical supremacy.

Corner clock

Eager to dominate Boston's heavenly skies more than its North and South adversaries, Park Street Church's Congregationalist sect had architect Peter Banner design its new shrine in 1806 with a telescopic tower of two levels of bells, plus the multifaceted clock its competitors were wearing, and site it in a much more prominent corner location by the Boston Common.

Now this open public park would give the church more visibility and sound projection — not merely to tell the time, but to ring it out.

Which makes Park Street Church even more of a public servant than Old North or South. Its bells still chime every quarter- hour on the quarter-hour, throwing in a few familiar church hymns every so often to entice you to its congregation.

And the way the tower's southwest-facing clock watches you from above as you emerge from the Park Street subway station further puts to rest that plea of desperation from the rock band Chicago: "Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?"

Photo by Adam Lenhardt, courtesy of Wikipedia
When you see Park Street Church's beautiful Federal architecture and hear its radiant peal of bells, you know. And you care — especially when you're running late. But at least your tardiness becomes music to your ears.

(These chimes and clockfaces were how I, as a choirboy, knew and cared whether I was running late to rehearsal at nearby St. Paul's Cathedral [1819, right], where the still-uncarved tympanum in its Greek pediment remains clockless as well as artless.)

The clock king

Photo by Urban, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Built in 1713 to house the Council Chamber of the Royal Governor, the General Courts and the elected Massachusetts Assembly, Boston's Old State House became notorious as the site of the Boston Massacre and famous when New England's first public reading of the Declaration of Independence took place on its ornamental east-front balcony on July 18, 1775. Old State House assumed a greater public role when Simon Willard enriched its east-front gable with an opulent clock in 1831, when the building was rechristened City Hall. From the time of its initial 1881 restoration as a Boston history museum, Old State House's clockwork mill of reconstruction and restoration put it through numerous time changes...

...from a clock... a sundial...
...back to a clock, as if the Bostonian Society couldn't make up its mind about what era of the building's history its timepiece should symbolize, or whether anyone remembered their watch or cellphone.

Time passed

Jordan Marsh chimed in with Old South Meeting House and Park Street Church by capstoning Nathaniel J. Bradlee's rich brownstone edifice of classical columns, arches and keystones (each carved with a different human head) with a landmark entrance clock tower in 1861. It anchored the corner of Washington and Avon streets as shoppers approached it along Washington Street, inviting them head-on to come on in and shop, in exchange for the store's public service as timeteller.

Photo by jbcurio, courtesy of Wikipedia
Another survivor of the Great Fire of 1872, this one unfortunately did not escape the wrecking ball in 1975, despite the efforts of my father, Leslie Larson, to save it as founder of the City Conservation League, the grassroots precursor to the Boston Landmarks Commission. 

A clockless (and characterless) brick box replaced it, marginally modified as Macy's but still lacking the meet-me-under-the-clock charm of its competitor, Filene's (right), whose clock still tells the time and whose bells still ring the chime despite its degradation to a Hollywood movie set fronting an empty backlot.

Turning back the clock...

Photo by Arnold G. Reinhold, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons a time when trains to and from Boston arrived and departed on time, as the clock-and-eagle combo atop South Station's crest conveyed when Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge's neoclassical masterwork opened on January 1, 1899. Of course, we Bostonians know how late every Amtrak, Commuter Rail and Red Line subway train arrives there today. But at least the still-working clock (the only hand-wound one left in Boston, so you're not alone, Grandpa) and still-erect bird still keep an eagle-eye on us as we hurry across Atlantic Avenue to make sure we don't miss our train, even if its late arrival gives us a breather.

Boston's Big Ben

South Station's clock was modeled on Big Ben, but the Custom House Tower parallels its parliamentary predecessor much more in stature, if not accuracy. When Boston's shoreline was extended too far to make the Custom House visible by sea anymore, Peabody & Stearns crowned Ammi Burnham Young's 1847 domed Greek temple with a campanile in 1915 to alert incoming ships to where to pay their duty, and to enable customs officials to spot ships from afar to deter delinquency in duties.

Equipped with a clock on each side, it also reminded Bostonians from all directions what time it was. Being Boston's tallest building at the time (496 feet), it had a duty in its own right to fulfill the city's need to be clock-wise.
Photo by Magnus Manske, courtesy of Wikipedia

Yet the Custom House Tower became delinquent in its own duty, especially when it ceased its governmental function and became a Marriott time-share resort hotel in 1997. The clocks certainly don't share the same time-cycle now — each looks as though it belongs in another time zone in another part of the world.

So the tower has been stained with the sobriquet "the four-faced liar," putting prettiness over precision, especially when illuminée le soir, comme à Paris (right).

However, I recently checked my (generally accurate) watch with each of the clockfaces, and found that two of them matched it to a minute or two — making the tower two-faced, in the plainest sense of the word.

Modern times

Two-faced, indeed, were the '80s and '90s, contrastingly characterized by the futurism of digital clocks and the retro of postmodern architecture.

But the twain never met, for digital clockfaces were too in-your-face, too mechanistically impersonal, to go public. And the two-handed, Roman-numeraled clockface was a better bedfellow to postmodernism's classical references.

So Grandfather's clock won out again. But at least this 1980s jungle-gym of a clock tower on the Northeastern University campus was "tubular" enough to satisfy local Valley Girls of its era.

Besides, its four-faced accuracy keeps students from all corners of the campus on schedule.

Harvard's horloge, Christ Church's chimes

Photo by Margaret Maloney, Wikipedia
Photo by A.L.C. Washington, Wikipedia

As do the classic clocks of Harvard University's Dunster House (thanks to the conscientious clockwork of Electric Time Company of Medfield, Mass., which has been manufacturing and maintaining public clocks since 1918) and its model, Tom Tower of Christ Church — which boasts Oxford University's loudest bell, on which its students, profs and prefects depend to get them to the Church on time.

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Old State House: history in a nutshell

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t just the Old State House. 

It’s history in a nutshell. 


The number of uses, abuses and reuses this little brick building has endured over its 296 years is unprecedented in Boston history. 

Emblems of royalty
The Lion and the Unicorn that anchor the opposite ends of the building's Dutch gable tell you right off what it was built for: the government seat of Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of Britain’s 13 American colonies. The Royal Governor’s Council met right under the animals. In the next-door Assembly Hall, citizens could hear their elected officials debate current issues for the first time in the English-speaking world. In the west wing was the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where the state Constitution, the model for our nation’s Constitution, was drafted. On the first floor was a merchants’ business exchange, and future Declaration of Independence signatory John Hancock rented warehouse space in the basement. 

Yes, this old house was ahead of its time, as Boston’s first mixed-use development and cradle of liberty.

Otis's oration

The cradle rocked in 1761 when lawyer James Otis testified in the Council Chamber against the Writs of Assistance, which allowed British officers to issue search warrants against anyone at any time. This gave rise to our 4th Constitutional Amendment guarding against unreasonable searches and seizures. “Otis was a flame of fire,” said John Adams, “…then and there the child ‘Independence’ was born.”

Boisterous balcony

The cradle that nurtured that child was the east-side balcony, where King George III’s coronation and Royal Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s appointment were proclaimed in 1760. From that balcony, Hutchinson urged the angry crowd below to disperse when British soldiers killed Crispus Attucks and four others in the Boston Massacre of 1770. The next day, Samuel Adams asked Hutchinson to move his troops to Castle William (where Fort Independence in South Boston is now) for safety reasons. Hutchinson did, as the Crown’s first concession to the colonies.

On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud on the balcony. Then the Lion and Unicorn were yanked down and consumed in another flame of fire near Faneuil Hall, and King Street became State Street. Two hundred years later, Queen Elizabeth II spoke from the balcony to honor our Bicentennial.

In 1780, the balcony hosted Hancock’s inauguration as Massachusetts’ first state governor. And yes, George Washington stopped here, in 1789, before a crowd of cheers in honor of his victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia.

When Massachusetts got a bigger State House in 1798, the old one filled up with wine sellers, wigmakers, hatters, a restaurant and a post office, while the Masons met upstairs. After Boston became a city in 1822, the Old State House became City Hall.

In 1835, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison hid here from a pro-slavery mob. When City Hall moved in 1841, the Old State House really went commercial, sprouting a porch, signs and billboards. In 1881, the Bostonian Society formed to preserve this treasure as a Boston history museum. City architect George Clough restored it — Lion, Unicorn and all — in 1882.

Today the Old State House boasts two levels of exhibitions relating the roles the building and its city played in the American Revolution. Other exhibits include actual tea from the Boston Tea Party, Hancock's coat, recorded testimony from the Boston Massacre trial, paintings of Boston Harbor, and interactive history galleries for families with children.

But it still isn’t just the Old State House. You can rent the Council Chamber and Assembly Hall for dinners, weddings, receptions, and other uses fancier than warehouse space. For the basement isn’t a warehouse anymore — it’s now a subway entrance, aptly named “State.” Sorry, O Lion King!

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