Paris has many things to offer, and not few of them are best savored at night. One popular option is to take the RER to La Défense, and take a look at La Grande Arche.
This monumental building was designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Erik Reitzel, and is one of several Grands Projets by France’s former president François Mitterrand.
Its shape is inspired by a common projection of the hypercube into Euclidean space.
Like every good piece of art, it is worth looking at from different angles.
I took these pictures in the summer of 1991, just before a backpacking trip to the French Alps.
The platform under the Grande Arche is typically so bright and the area behind so dark that
the casual visitor will not notice what the long time exposure reveals.
The summer and fall 1992 I spent my free time reading Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. That winter, I took the photos from this page, and revisiting them now is just one of several connections to Proust’s recherche.
Of course these were shot with film, and in black and white, appropriate for season and theme. The location is the Sieg valley near Bonn in Germany, where I happened to come across a temporarily abandoned construction site.
The time was literally frozen. Everything had been more or less orderly put ready to use.
This was a curious sight. Unless our daily business is construction, we usually do not see these things, because they are buried or covered up, in the hope that they will function even in hiding.
Not esthetics, but pure purpose is the reason for these designs. And because I did and do not know the actual purpose of them, they became for me the abstraction, the idea of purpose itself.
This tilting away from reality towards abstraction has always fascinated me, already (at least) 23 years ago.
Every culture seems to have their own metaphorical approach to the mill.
I grew up in Germany. My early childhood was infused with fairy tails featuring increasingly spooky millers,
and of course with Wilhem Busch’s famous Max and Moritz, where the two brothers, after plenty of enjoyable mischief, end up ⎯ no, I won’t tell.
One of my favorite childhood books is Ottfried Preußler’s Krabat (translated as The Satanic Mill), that tells the story of a young boy becoming the apprentice of a miller, who, incidentally, also teaches sorcery. For a price. Check also out Karel Zeman’s animated movie with the same title.
And of course there is Schubert’s some cycle Die schöne Müllerin.
Other cultures have a very different take on mills, like the Spanish with Don Quixote by Cervantes.
Seeing a truly impressive historic water mill (from 1817) in Spring Mills State Park made me feel quite at home.
It is still in use and produces cornmeal.
Given two circles that touch at a point, fill the gap with a chain of touching circles. This is called a Pappus chain. In the image below, I show only two semicircles, and begin the Pappus chain with a circle touching the common diameter.
Now take a circle with center at the point where the two given circles touch, and perpendicular to one of the circles of the Pappus chain we pick out. The inversion at this new circle takes the two given circles to two vertical lines, and the Pappus chain to a chain of circles between these two lines. The picked circle remains fixed. Below the selected circle from the Pappus chain there are precisely as many circles as to the right of the selected circle in the Pappus chain (four in the figure). Thus the height of the selected circle is determined by its diameter and its position in the Pappus chain. That, of course, will only excite the mathematician.
The same construction works in three dimensions. Take an arrangement of spheres between two vertical half planes, and invert them at a half sphere as shown.
The result is an arrangement of spheres between two hemispheres that touch at a point (where the spheres get really small).
I thought this might be an interesting way to fill a dome. Standing in front of the entrance, with reflective spheres and reflective floor, might look like this:
A couple of years back, a photographer friend of mine and myself checked out a small abandoned industrial zone in the periphery of Bloomington. We went there on a frosty Sunday morning and likened the experience very much to going to church.
Large storage buildings now serve as meeting halls for lost souls,
piles of card board provide a scripture without words,
stained glass windows tell stories of distant suffering,
unused screws (not nails) draw like grass in the sand,
and the mandatory relic doesn’t promise any hope.
The place now has been demolished. Too bad.
Large enclosed spaces are awe inspiring. Empty caves, cathedrals, or theater halls challenge our sense of proportion: We do not dare to enter a building alone that is too large. One way to safely confront large enclosed spaces is as a group of people. Albert Speer’s architecture in the 3rd Reich exploited this: Only by following the mass of people you became strong enough to bear his enormous buildings.
Another way is to wait until decay has lessened the overwhelming power of magnitude. Large industrial ruins have lost their threat, but have acquired a morbid charm — the stone age excitement to see a mammoth die.
A (for me) local example of this is the Woolery Limestone Mill.
It is not completely dysfunctional, recent uses include beer festivals and weddings. There is even talk about converting the historical building into a hotel or into luxury appartments.
It would be an interesting challenge to build a hotel with all comfort where the rooms appear to have broken windows, the carpet looks like it is a floor full of glass shards, and the wall decorations are freshly sprayed graffiti.
I am sure this would become a major attraction beyond the common midwestern taste.
In its current state, the former mill has considerable structural attractions. The play of light and shadow on the rusty steel beams looks like the score of a contemporary composition. I would like to experience Xenakis’ Kraanerg performed here.
Corners at the ceiling create the illusion of an abstraction that only exists because of the simplicity of the open space.
And, almost paradoxical in a building consisting entirely of straight lines, the existence of curved shadows makes one wonder about the nature of space itself.
Then, of course, there are the remainders of former human occupation. Once, this glove was worn.
After the reunification of Germany and in particular Berlin, a new central railway station became necessary in Berlin, as the respective eastern and western main railway stations would not suffice the demands of traffic and prestige.
It has been built on the site of the former Lehrter Bahnhof, using a design by architect Meinhard von Gerkan.
The tracks run on two different levels, meeting at a right angle. The top level has a spectacular glass roof:
The inside is less confusing as one might expect. The open architecture allows quick orientation. Also, different functional components are clearly differentiated in the architecture, giving each area its own distinctive feel.
The elevators are both integrated and easily recognizable. This is function and form in perfect harmony.
I imagine that the nameless city in which Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Unconsoled takes place would be full of buildings like the Hauptbahnhof. One can almost hear Mullery’s Verticality while moving through its vast, treeless spaces.