January 12, 2019

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is said that Ivan the Terrible ordered that the principal architect of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow should have his eyes put out so that he could never again build anything as beautiful. Whether or not this story is apocryphal (fake news being nothing new), the architect who built the Russian Orthodox Centre in Paris should certainly have his eyes put out, though for the opposite reason: that he should never build anything again as ugly. As for the members of the City Council who permitted its construction, Devil’s Island should be reopened for them.

As you cross the Pont d’Alma, there it is in front of you: a construction of gold-covered onion domes atop a box of concrete slats. It looks like the torture chamber of a vicious secret police that has been given ecclesiastical blessing or sanction for its work. Confession here is not that of sins, but of political crime extracted by removal of toenails without anesthetic, etc.

Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church has long had a somewhat equivocal relationship with regnant political power, to put it mildly, but this seems to be going far beyond the limits of the excusable. The best I can find to say for the building is that it represents belated Russian revenge for the Battle of the Alma during the Crimean War, after which the bridge that leads to it is named.

As the great late-19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins remarked in one of his poems, however, there is no such thing as the worst; such is the inventiveness of Man that he can always do worse than the previous worst. And, as if to prove him right, a couple of hundred meters along the Quai Branly beside the Seine is the Musée du quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, devoted to what might once in Europe have been regarded as the primitive arts of Oceania, Africa, Asia, and indigenous America, but is now seen (in my view rightly) in a far less condescending light.

“Architects once built to the glory of God, but now they build to the glory of themselves.”

Architects once built to the glory of God, but now they build to the glory of themselves, and the Musée du quai Branly is a perfect example of this narcissistic tendency. It is certainly original in design—there is nothing anywhere else like it, thank goodness—but originality is no virtue by itself unless it partakes of other virtues, indeed without them it is a vice. A museum constructed of refrigerated butter would be original, but one would not therefore call it good.

No words of mine can do justice to the full hideousness of the Musée, built at a cost of hundreds of millions. (The more money you give a modern architect, the worse his productions, proving that it is not lack of resources that causes them to erect monstrosities.) The best that can be said of the frontal approach to the Musée is that the gardens are so overgrown that they to some extent cover up the garish facade of primary colors and of clunkingly disordered shape. The rear of the building looks like a factory in the process of closing down, with its horrible deteriorating metal louvers. Like the Centre Pompidou, the Musée du quai Branly is a building incompatible with any other and therefore by that incompatibility draws attention to itself. Its ugliness is what gives it claim to notice.

Inside, it is unutterably wretched, despite the splendor of the collections. It is like a warehouse designed by someone who has taken mind-bending drugs, being dark, disordered, void, and without form, as the Bible puts it. As modern directors of opera productions consider themselves of greater importance than the operas they are directing, so the architect of the museum (the deliberately thuggish-looking Jean Nouvel, who models himself on the fascist Le Corbusier) thought himself more important than the function of the museum. He was like a dog that marks its territory on a tree, the tree in this case being Paris.

The sheer incompetence of the design is staggering. More space seems to have been given up to the twisting corridors between the galleries than to the galleries themselves. There are acres of wasted space, as in a warehouse that has been emptied of its contents. If there were justice in the world (which fortunately for most of us there is not), Jean Nouvel would have his eyes put out as a minimum, as a Russian traveler on Aeroflot once put it on recommending the firing squad for all Aeroflot employees.

Perhaps the most important question about the building and others like it (like it, that is, in their sheer vileness) is how they came to be commissioned in the first place, and how those who designed them continue to obtain commissions. No doubt there is no simple answer to this question; but, as the Russians also say, a fish rots from the head down. Whether this is true or not of fish, it is certainly true of societies such as our own, which seem to have been taken over (as a virus takes over a computer) by people of no exceptional quality except their avidity for power and desire to make their mark. Taste and discrimination are less important to them than power, and practically none among them have any regard for inherited civilization, a word that they would dare to inscribe only between quotation marks.

Their greatest fear is not to be thought progressive, but they are unable to distinguish between progress and destruction. They believe in technocracy: Having lost any religious conception of the world, which they have replaced by nothing except power worship, they think that there must be a technical answer to every question and therefore that architecture is best left to architects who supposedly know about it, whom they are frightened to contradict under pain of being accused of a lack of technical understanding.

But all this is quite false, of course. It is like demanding of someone who is horrified by the brutal murder of an old lady in her home whether he is a moral philosopher, and therefore whether he has any qualification to condemn it.

I therefore do not have to be an architect to know that practically no building constructed after 1945 has been a positive adornment to Paris, a terrible indictment of our times, even if our telephones work better than they did in 1945.


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