Travel funnies 2012-13 - Grand, great and grandiose?
June 23, 2013
Grand, great and grandiose...challenges of appreciation seeking grounds for interpretation
Mountains are grand and great, but never grandiose. They just are and have no purpose. They cannot over or under express themselves. They can be more or less visible, but through no fault of their own. It’s their fate to just be.
People can be great and grand, and in the eyes of others, grandiose. I remember the first time I was accused (actually it wasn’t an accusation; it was an observation; but, I hear it even now as disapproval) of being grandiose. Well, I can understand why that observation was made without assuming myself as either great or grand in the equation. I can also understand that cultures may be and/or appear grandiose, while clearly being great and grand in various ways. Architecture is the most materially enduring expression of greatness and grandeur, and it may feel grandiose – an experience of something over-expressed out of lack of clarity or confidence, as a child does appropriately in early life achievements where a hurdle passed is experienced with joy and even ecstasy if the effort has been protracted.
I started writing this in July 2012 towards the end of that year’s Europe trip, late July. Europe and its enduring cultures – Slavic, romance and Germanic, or Greco-Latin and Teutonic: the contrasts elaborate as reflection spreads across time and space. The contrast on my mind at the moment is the handling of public space in cultures, brought to mind by spending 2 days in Besancon and amplified by realising that the historical juncture of the origins of these cultures lies where we were then, in Istanbul one morn having visited the Cisterns of the Basilica which collected the waters of a forest 10ks away in 500AD, delivered through a viaduct as were the waters of Rome to the famous baths and such 500+ years before that – the still visible beginnings of the terraforming of the world in the chasing of the waters to meet the needs of sedentary mankind, perhaps making sedentary a real possibility in numbers…
A day later and we’d spent a couple of hours in the Aya Sofya which dwarfs its neighbour the Blue Mosque both for volume and age, an impression amplified strangely by its comparative scruffiness, both in and out.
…so, this is the basis of my great and grand wonders, and probably I haven’t gotten far enough back and should go to the first out-of-Africa migrants 50,000 years ago who went right at the nearest turn after the Red Sea. Their journeys eastwards along the ocean shores expressed among other things the mindless human devotion to looking around the next corner, not merely for something better but just wondering what’s there while able to find a consistently cheap bite of adequate substance to continue wandering. Wanderlust, perhaps, or wonderlust?
Besancon is home to the largest 16th century fortifications in France (?), including a main central fort with a natural river moat on all sides built by the famous Vauban and supported by a circle of forts on four adjacent hilltops…all the more remarkable, when you think about it, for the fact that the fortifications were already superannuated by developments in cannonry…a line of development which still escaped military planners in France who built Verdun in the 19th century and had a go again with the even more unlikely Maginot Line post WW1. The developments which outmoded them all before they were built were power and mobility, intensified with near factorial pace ever since – what’s a “hardened” site which cannot be blown by a bigger laser-guided missile?? Remember Big Bertha in WW1? And the siege mortars of the U S Civil War.? And the shift from sail to steam powered shipping and from wooden to steel…?? All bunker busters of their kinds.
Where has the idea of fortifications gone now?? Into legal fortifications and state boundaries, be they fluid (Australia comes to mind) or walled (Arizona and Israel come to mind). Even the Iron curtain failed in its heyday as the need to be seen to be in the world kept presenting inmates of the red world with opportunities to get out as representatives of their incarcerated perfection (Olympics from 1956 on).
So what? Well, all of the built history of great, grand and grandiose is a history…an attempt to preserve an original insight (include religions here, pls.) …and the effort to preserve sustains the image of the insight as irreplaceably great, which it had been when it replaced the previously great insight…and so on and so. But our need to believe that the newest insight is also the final one bonds us to them with an almost unbreakable strength…the kind which sends tens of thousands to their deaths in the face of machine guns…and resists its own demise with blind fervour (all those generals then; all our leaders now in the face of the failure of natural markets to ‘work’…)
June 2013 –and here we are in Besancon again with much more time to wander around and find it almost totally as it was 200 years ago within the barriers of its built and natural fortification, some of which go back 400 years or so and were built on the back of originally Roman ones still in view in the usual Roman forms: triumphal arches (Marcus Aurelius 175 AD) and theatres, baths and normal living stuff of similar origin. Much less fortified to exclude than dressed to attract.
And the place is grand, coherent, human scaled and liveable…though close to losing it all in the industrial turnaround from 1970 on (almost all of its large scale employment decimated; it had been home to the production of 1/3 of watches in France up til then!!). About 1/3 of the inner city is pedestrianized and the whole is so small (about 1.5 square kilometres) that parking outside the center is easily adequate to the mixed demands of shopping and promenading. The whole thing is four stories high, with a couple of cathedral steeples in excess of the four stories. This gives a humanly appropriate scale mix of enclosure by wall and openness to sky at once, plus the street level density of commercial and service offerings that only cities can provide at footpace.
Much of the building stock is grand even though hundreds of years old either because its origins were religious or public service – from schools to hospitals to local / regional governance with a broad spread of the ecclesiastical some of which was turned over to public sector use as church control was compromised by church/state separation in 1905. Building material consistency helps the impression of integrity and scale - a local stone which has elements of blue and yellow/grey in it whose original colour has been resurrected by a cleaning operation some years ago which recalled the original from the blackening of years of coal and wood fired heating, cooking and power. What it looked like before the unveiling is still on view in a couple of escapees from the great cleaning (one of which is a branch of an educational facility of some kind now defunct). Black is pretty much what it is…/
This is a line of report which keeps extending as we travel… a week later in Montpellier being appalled by a state sponsored excrescence called Antigone launched off the shoulder of the original Place de la Comedie with its 19th century grandeur in tact. The 1970’s offshoot models grandiose to a T, with clear evidence of its failure to meet whatever public usage was imagined in its design and execution….lack of upkeep, etc.
Closing now with a visit to Nimes’s quite preserved little arena modelled on the colossal Roman original but built for 24,000 public gore appreciators rather than the 60K its namesake supported. Grand and great but not grandiose it feels to us.