Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Desperately Seeking Utopia

In the course of continuing my research for this essay on the infinite library, I remembered that I had momentarily entertained the idea of translating Claude-Nicolas Ledoux's manuscript on the Royal saltworks, after seeing the original at the fantabulous Utopia show at the NYPL a few years back.

What I hadn't remembered was that Ledoux's plans for an ideal city, named "Chaux," sprang from his construction of the saltworks. The city was never realized, but according to the catalogue for the show, it represented "a decisive breakthrough."

To discover what this breakthrough so decisively broke through, it took a bit more flipping through the catalogue, and a quick glance at the index for Ledoux's contemporary (or teacher?), close-to-my-heart Boullée. Here's a bit more information: Boullée and Ledoux are "considered the very embodiment of the transition ... blah, blah ... that privileged the enchainement - the flow of a dominant movement through an urban composition, a building and every component thereof - and used visual ploys to reflect a social hierarchy. Instead, they ushered in the modern era by creating autonomous architecture - freestanding, determined by function, devoid of superfluous ornament, and so forth - the built framework for a new society that promised liberty, equality, and fraternity."

It's fascinating to me that in the process of becoming "modern" and discarding hierarchy, somehow composition was lost along the way. Would it have been possible to discard the existing social hierarchy and yet retain composition, or community (can I conflate composition with community?)? Is this a question that Jane Jacobs answered? How did this proto-modern architecture eventually morph into such disturbing monumentalism of the 20th century? I do see so many branches good and bad from Boullée's/Ledoux's designs - Le Courbusier, I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, skyscrapers, communist block architecture, housing projects, the Mall, fascistic monumentalism...

In a slight digression, I've been thinking a lot about classicism, since Boullée's designs were classicism on a ginormous scale, but also because I've been reading a semi-trashy book on prehistoric cave paintings (The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis if you must know). Despite the generally drippy writing, and the sentimentalism, and occasional sexism, it's still a fun read at least because he brings up the question of why we continue to respond to these basically untranslatable images and compositions (apparently, it took archaeologists a long time to realize the paintings were compositions). That sounds like a dumb question, and I guess it is, but Curtis links it back to the impressive durability of paleolithic culture. Cave painting persisted for basically 20,000 years: Lascaux is thousands of years younger (18,000 years ago) than Chauvet (32,000). Compare that to today: try sitting Frank O'Hara in front of a computer and see what happens (although who knows--he'd probably be texting like a pro in no time, and have an entry on Facebook or whatever). Anyhoo, Curtis feels the length of time paleolithic culture endured qualifies it as a "conservative" and therefore "classical" culture that expressed a society's shared beliefs. This took me a bit by surprise and made me ponder what a conservative--in the way he uses the term--poet would be. If I try to express the culture I'm in, am I conservative? How far out from my culture's shared beliefs do I move before I'm not a conservative poet? If I'm in it, am I of it?

I should just make this blog the blog of questions, since that's all I have tonight.

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