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17 June 2012

Philadelphia Story

A recent trip to Philadelphia reminded me of what a wonderful community of artists exists there, adynamic and yet nurturing environment sustained in part by old institutions and new. Philadelphia was once the home of the first local chapter of Classical America, sponsored by the presence of architects Alvin Holm and John Blatteau; their presence was perhaps natural in a city that had produced such outstanding practitioners as Paul Cret and the firm of Mellor, Meigs and Howe, and still offers an urban fabric as harmonious and rich as any in America—it may be the closest our big cities get to a European scale and continuity, but achieved within a uniquely nuanced American grid.

Philadelphia was also the home of Thomas Eakins, and the great Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts that he nurtured and in many ways defined. Even if that venerable institution has recently sacrificed some of its grounding in the realist tradition, it still shelters rigorous teachers and artists like Patrick Connors. Patrick is also a member of the equally venerable, if quainter, Sketch Club—the oldest of its kind still in existence. I had the chance to see his show there, which would have made the club’s founders Eakins and Thomas Anshutz pleased. Indeed, Philadelphia is one of those few places in America where contemporary classicists and realists exist in something like an emulative relationship with their context, both contemporary and historical. In no small part because of the Pennsylvania Academy, Philadelphia sustained a realist camp through the twentieth century, and people like Martha Mayer Erlebacher and her husband Walter helped bridge the divide between ashcan realism and the modern renaissance of realism. Today there is a wealth of talent in Philadelphia alone, and these recent generations have both benefitted from that pedagogical continuity and contributed to it. Witness the dynamic Studio Icamminati (founded by Nelson Shanks and named after the Carracci’s academy in Bologna), whose teachers include Philadelphia native Stephen Early.

Patrick Connor’s landscapes lovingly depict many of the same subjects that attracted artists of Eakins’ day. Sites along the Schuylkill like the Waterworks and the numerous bridges speak to the allure of a landscape enriched by human intervention, and sustain artists attracted to their beauty and mutability across time and the seasons. Patrick is a scholar of Eakins’ theories, especially of perspective—which manifests itself in his carefully constructed views, many of which subtly modify the setting to achieve a particular compositional intent. But he is first and foremost a painter, and it is his painterliness that gives these studied views life and light.

I won’t say anything about the new Barnes Foundation (if you can’t say something nice…) but I will celebrate Cret’s Rodin Museum, one of America’s treasures and now in a literal tête-à-tête with its new neighbor. If someone in the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t make that point, then perhaps the classical architecture movement in Philadelphia isn’t what it once was; but at least the painters are alive and well.

06 June 2012

Pourquoi Non?

Europe in America

modern traditions
A recent trip to Québec City (my first) was a wonderfully disturbing experience. I have not experienced a more European city on this side of the Atlantic—I don’t actually believe any could exist. Part of this, of course, was the language, but much was the urban environment: I had to keep reminding myself that we drove there and did not fly. Mind you, it rained the entire time we were there, so I wasn’t charmed by the climate (winters, of course, are worse). For someone like me who believes European cities are the pinnacle of urbanism, the dearth of more directly European (or should I say pre-Modern?) inspired cities in North America must count as a loss, and I have felt so since my Rome study year—after which I continually expected to see hill towns along the highways of Pennsylvania. The European city is, I would argue, demonstrably better than the Anglo-American alternative at every physical level—continuity, figure/ground, contained public space, fabric/monument relationships, accommodation to topography, boundary between inside and outside the city—and yet our modern world convinces itself that cities should be evaluated on other terms like “vitality,” nightlife, “energy,” etc. On those terms Toronto is far and away the better city, but it does not inspire anything like the sense of serene urbanity that Québec does. I suppose a perfect city would have both—I trust they are not mutually exclusive—but since the Toronto model has dominated the last couple of centuries, I would advocate for a few more Québecs, if only because, well, pourquoi pas?

the lower town's Place Royal
Notre Dame des [short-lived] Victoires
lower town

Rue Petit Champlain

looking up to the "Château" Frontenac
opposite Frontenac
the quintessential stuff
fabric buildings (i.e. figural space)!
the happily-sited Université Laval school of Architecture
 in the old Cathedral Seminary

the seminary court
from the passage to the seminary court

looking east on Rue St. Louis
Où suis-je ?

and if you have to have highrises....