Category Archives: Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iraqi dreams

During 1957 and 1958 Frank Lloyd Wright was working on what might have become his magnum opus: beginning with a commission for an opera house in Baġdād, he developed a far-reaching Plan for Greater Baghdad.

Wright arrived in Iraq in May 1957, just one month short of his 90th birthday, and after two audiences with King Faisal II he left with permission to build an opera house and incorporate it into development of a vast site in the middle of the Tigris River—an uninhabited area that Wright believed was the site of the Garden of Eden.

In July 1957, in a speech back in the U.S., he said “I happen to be doing a cultural center for the place where civilization was invented—that is, Iraq. Before Iraq was destroyed it was a beautiful circular city built by Harun al-Rashid, but the Mongols came from the north and practically destroyed it. Now what is left of the city has struck oil and they have immense sums of money. They can bring back the city of Harun al-Rashid today.”

Unfortunately, following the military coup of July 1958 the project was rejected; it was too extravagant for the military leadership, and too closely identified with the old monarchy.

This according to “Arabian opera nights” by John Allison (Opera LIX/1 [January 2008] pp. 26–30).

Today is Wright’s 150th birthday! Above, his plan for the Crescent Opera House; inset, a drawing of the full cultural center (click images to enlarge); below, a computerized 3-D rendition of the opera house.

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Louis Sullivan and the Chicago Auditorium

Holloway detail

Louis Sullivan’s interior designs for the theater of the Chicago Auditorium Building (1889) reflect the ideas of Wagner and of the transcendentalist and music critic John Sullivan Dwight.

Especially significant are the murals, supervised by Sullivan, which allude to multiple art forms and to the democratic ideal of the opera house as a social institution.

Albert Fleury designed the murals on the side walls using themes drawn from Sullivan’s prose-poem Inspiration: An essay, which is full of musical imagery. The proscenium frieze, designed by Charles Holloway, depicts a central winged figure holding a lyre, flanked by several other figures and by the words “The utterance of life is a song: the symphony of nature”.

This according to “Louis Sullivan, J.S. Dwight, and Wagnerian aesthetics in the Chicago Auditorium Building” by Stephen Thursby, an essay included in Music in architecture, architecture in music (Austin: University of Texas, 2014, pp. 42 –53 ).

Above, the central figures in Holloway’s frieze (click images to enlarge); below, the frieze in the full proscenium; further below, one of Fleury’s murals, with the quotation from Sullivan’s text “O, soft, melodious spring time! First-born of life and love”.

Holloway proscenium frieze

Fleury spring song

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Shaker dance spaces

Shakers

The Shakers built their first framed meetinghouse near New Lebanon, New York, along the Massachusetts border, in 1785; this structure assumed the central authority over the Shaker domain and became the architectural prototype for eleven other late–18th-century meetinghouses in New England.

The design of these structures had several distinctive elements, including a heavy timber frame, a sturdy wood-plank floor, double façade doors for separate male and female entry, leadership apartments above the private gable-end door and stairs, carefully gendered spaces throughout, a gambrel roof, and a singular unobstructed ground-floor space to accommodate dynamic communal dancing during worship.

The dance ritual influenced Shaker meetinghouse design and construction in two key ways: it required the adaptation of a mascular timber-frame technology that allowed a broad, uninterrupted floor space; and it necessitated substantial reinforcement of the flooring to safely meet the demands of the large, live weight loads of many worshipers moving rhythmically in unison.

In the floor are noticeable inserted cues, suggesting the arrangements of Shaker dance movements for a maximal dramatic exposure of the dancers’ bodies and faces to public visitors, as Shaker Sabbath performances were attended by large crowds of visitors and were a critical outreach to potential converts. The presence of triangular or fanlike cue patterns opening from the center area of the rear wall outward toward the front double doors in meetinghouses of the Mount Lebanon, Watervliet, Canterbury, Hancock/Shirley, and Harvard buildings demonstrate a level of consistency at villages across at least three states.

Shakers floor plan

(click to enlarge)

It appears plausible that the Shakers’ use of pins specifically placed for dance formations originated at Mount Lebanon, but the idea may have had been even older and implemented already in Dutch barns near Watervliet. The use of dance-floor cues provided greater precision and coordination for public dance performances similar to that provided for marching bands by yardage marks on athletic fields.

This according to “‘Leap and shout, ye living building!’: Ritual performance and architectural collaboration in early Shaker meetinghouses” by Arthur E. McLendon (Buildings & landscapes: Journal of the vernacular architecture forum XX/3 [fall 2013] pp. 48–76).  Below, a short film from Hancock Shaker Village.

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The first Bach monument

On 23 April 1843 Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy made a ceremonial presentation of a monument to Bach in the courtyard of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor and where his remains now lie.

Mendelssohn Bartholdy worked tirelessly to make the monument a reality. He offered suggestions about its details, gave concerts to raise the necessary funds, and handled much of the project’s organization. His many letters provide information about his commitment to it.

Now known as the Altes Bach-Denkmal, it may be the only example of a monument built by a composer to honor another.

This according to Ein Denkstein für den alten Prachtkerl: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy und das alte Bach-Denkmal in Leipzig by Peter Wollny (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004). Above, a woodcut depiction from around 1850.

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Elton John’s décor

When Elton John returned to London in 1991 after six weeks in an addiction recovery center it was essential to establish a new home that was free of associations with his former compulsive behavior. He rented Queensdale Place, fell in love with it, and bought and completely redecorated it with Biedermeier furniture and Regency and Neoclassical artwork.

Over the years Sir Elton’s passion turned to collecting photography and contemporary art, and in 2003 he decided that Queensdale would be the perfect context for exhibiting and enjoying his new collection. The auction of his former collection is documented in Elton John and his London lifestyle: London, Tuesday, 30 September 2003 (London: Sotheby’s, 2003).

Related article: Liberace’s taste

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Liberace’s taste

Władziu Valentino Liberace’s Las Vegas home represented the democratization of aristocracy, a do-it-yourself coronation, the people’s palace. It is the apotheosis of décor as persona and persona as décor.

The Moroccan Room (above, click to enlarge) is a tile-and-glass atrium with Tivoli lights made from a sundeck that Liberace had always found either too hot or too cold. The large convex sofa in flame-stitch upholstery (foreground) sounds a proper note of sloe-eyed languor, while pairs of Italian-Baroque-style blackamoors—referred to by Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson as “harem boys”—support the fireplace mantel (left) and the candelabras that flank the bar (rear).

This according to “Liberace’s taste” by Grant Mudford and Susan Yalevich (Nest 10 [2002] pp. 588–590). Below, Liberace plays Tiger rag in 1969, when he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world.

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Architectural modulations

The Western tonal system is founded on specific procedures for modulating from one key to another; the harmonic relationships involved have parallels in Western architecture’s classic proportional relationships, suggesting the idea of architectural modulation.

In the above examples, the floor plan on the left shows the width-to-length ratios of the principal spaces in a project from I Quattro libri dell’architettura by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). The unexpected and somewhat disturbing angled wall of the rear courtyard space could function like a pivot chord, leading to the hypothetical addition shown on the right.

This according to “Modulation in music and architecture” by Radoslav Zuk, an essay included in Systems research in the arts. IV: Music, environmental design, and the choreography of space (Windsor: International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 2003, pp. 1–8).

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Early muzak

In 1760 the Swedish diplomat Count Ulrich zu Lynar reported on an ingenious system for Tafelmusik at the court of Ludwig VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt (above, 1691–1768):

“Next [to the palace] is a small garden and in it a Lusthaus where the Landgravial family dines during the summer, and in the middle of which, where the table is set up, there is a small round hole that leads to a basement, out of which music is meant to sound very beautifully. To that end, in each of the four corners there is also an opening from which the sound can come.”

This pavillion, built in the early eighteenth century and apparently used during Ludwig’s reign as a special entertainment for visitors, was demolished in the nineteenth century. A surviving architectural plan, however, indicates an underground passageway to it from the palace’s main building, presumably intended for the serenading musicians.

This according to “The court of Hesse-Darmstadt” by Ursula Kramer, an essay included in Music at German courts, 1715–1760: Changing artistic priorities (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001, pp. 333–363).

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Bees at the Opéra

Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.

Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.

Thanks to the concentration of fragrant flowering trees and shrubs at the Bois de Boulogne, the chestnut trees in the Champs Élysées, and the linden trees in the Palais Royal, his honey has an intense floral flavor; it is sold at the Opéra’s gift shop and at the Paris gourmet shop Fauchon.

This according to “Who’s humming at Opera? Believe it or not, bees” by Craig S. Smith (The New York times 152/52,526 [26 June 2003] p. A:4).

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Wine for the organist

The organ built by Gebrüder Oberlinger Orgelbau in 1997 for St. Martin in Cochem includes an innovative stop called Riesling 2fach. Pulling the stop opens a small cabinet holding two bottles of Riesling wine.

This according to “Neue Orgel in der Pfarrkirche ‘St. Martin’ zu Cochem/Mosel” by Wilhelm Basten (Die Auslese 42/2 [1999], pp. 22–23).

(Thanks to Tina Frühauf!)

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