Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The City of Domes -> Chapter 11

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At the Palace of Horticulture

At the Palace of Horticulture the architect said: "Here is the Mosque of Ahmed the First, taken from Constantinople and adapted to horticulture and to the Exposition. It has a distinct character of its own. It even has temperament. So many buildings that are well proportioned give the impression of being stodgy and dull. They are like the people that make goodness seem uninteresting. But here is use that expresses itself in beauty and adorns itself with appropriate decoration."

When I mentioned that some people found this building too ornate, the architect replied:

"There's an intimate and appropriate relation between the ornament and the architecture. Personally I shouldn't care to see just this kind of building in the heart of the city, where you'd have it before your eyes every day. But for the Exposition it's just right. And how fitting it is that the splendid dome should be the chief feature of a building that is really an indoor garden and that the most prominent note of the coloring should be green, nature's favorite and most joyous color. Some joker," he went on, "says that this Exposition is domicidal. He expresses a feeling a good many people have here, that there are too many domes. But I don't agree. The domes make a charming pictorial effect, and they harmonize with the general spirit of the architecture. And as for this dome, it is one of the greatest in the world. See how cleverly the architects, following the spirit of the French Renaissance, have used those ornamental shafts. The only criticism that can be made on them is that they serve no architectural purpose, which ought, of course, always to be intimately associated with use. Instead of growing from the nature of the building, they are put on from outside. Now, in the mosque they were very important in their service. They were the minarets where the Muezzins used to stand in order to call the faithful to prayer. Those minarets up there, carrying on the dome motive, on the corners of the walls of the main palaces are much closer to the old idea."

Our talk turned to the subject of domes in general. The idea had come from the bees, from the shape of their hives. Prehistoric man used for a dwelling-place a hut shaped like a hive, as well as an imitation of a bird's nest. In formal architecture, the dome showed itself early. The Greeks knew it; but they didn't use it much. The greatest users of the dome were the Byzantines. It was all dome with them. The first important dome was built in Rome in the second century, to crown the Pantheon. Of all the domes in the world the most interesting historically was St. Peter's, the work of several architects. It was the inspiration of the dome of St. Paul's in London, built by the English architect, Sir Christopher Wren. Architecturally the most interesting of the domes was Brunelleschi's, built for the Florence Cathedral in the fifteenth century, known throughout the world by the Italian name for Cathedral, the Duomo.

It was in connection with the Duomo that the architect reminded me of the celebrated story about Brunelleschi. When the Florentine church authorities decided to build the Duomo they were puzzled as to how so mighty a dome should be developed. So they invited the architects to appear before them in competition, and to present their ideas. One architect, Donatello, explained that, if he secured the commission, he should first build a mound of earth, and over it he would construct his dome. But the authorities replied that there would be great labor and expense in taking the earth out. He said that he would put coins into the earth and, by this means, he would very quickly have the earth removed by the people. When Brunelleschi was asked how he would build his dome he said: "How would you make an egg stand on end?" They didn't know how, and he showed them, by taking a hard-boiled egg and pressing it down at one end, an idea like the one that occurred to Christopher Columbus about fifty years later.

The Palace of Horticulture as an illustration of French Renaissance architecture fascinated this observer, in spite of its overelaborateness. "It's marvelous to think of what the Renaissance meant throughout Europe," he said, "and how it showed itself in art through the national characteristics. French Renaissance and Italian Renaissance, though they have qualities in common, are very different. And you'll find marked differences even in the Renaissance art of the Italian cities, such as Rome and Florence and Venice. But the Renaissance showed that no matter how far apart the people of Europe might have been they were all stirred by a great intellectual and spiritual movement. It was like a vast moral earthquake. It meant the rediscovery and the joyous recognition of the relation of the past to the present and the meaning of the relation for mankind. It led to a new kind of self-emancipation and individualism. It created art-forms that have stamped themselves on the work all over these grounds. In a sense it was a declaration of artistic independence."

"Is there really such a thing as independence in art?" I ventured to ask.

The architect began to smile. "I'm afraid there isn't much independence. If there were this Exposition would not be quite so intimately related to Europe and the Orient. But wait till we get into Mullgardt's Court of the Ages. Then you'll find an answer to your question."

At this palace the architect found much to speculate on. "Here is one of the few buildings in the whole Exposition done in what might be called the conventional exposition spirit. I like it immensely as an exposition building, but I should hate it as a public building that I had to see every day. It's too fantastic. In this place it serves its purpose. But it might fit into a setting like the Golden Gate Park, where it would be close to nature. Now this Exposition is very different from most of the enterprises of the kind that have taken place in Europe. It is probably the most serious exposition ever known, with the possible exception of the one in Chicago. If it were in a great European capital, for example, it would mainly express the spirit of gaiety. But the builders here, though they have been gay in their use of color, have been tremendously serious in purpose. They have worked largely for the sake of education."

The use of green on the building was unquestionably one of the most successful features of the coloring, particularly when it suggested, as it so often did, old copper. "To me the deeper green that Guerin uses is the more charming shade, far more charming, for instance, than the light green applied to Festival Hall. And the suggestion of green in the dome is altogether delightful. But it's a pity they didn't use another kind of glass. When people criticise Ryan for not doing more with his lighting effects-in this dome they evidently don't know that a mistake was made when the glass was sent and Ryan could do very little with it. In order to carry out his original plans Ryan would have to apply a coat of varnish to the interior of the dome, a rather expensive process. However, it may be done later."

Returning to the South Gardens

From where we stood we could get a good view of those green columns in the Tower of Jewels, occasionally criticised as being too atmospheric to give the sense of support. "Those columns were colored by Guerin to get an effect of contrast. That shade was one of the first of the shades he experimented with. He tried it out on the sashes in Machinery Hall. The French landscape painters used it a good deal in outdoor scenes, on trellises, for example. It made a pleasing effect against the deeper tones of the grass and foliage. The notion that it isn't suited to columns seems to me unwarranted. As a matter of fact, there are several kinds of green stone that have often been successfully used for columns in architecture, like malachite and Connemara marble. The Bank of Montreal has some magnificent Connemara columns. Of course, the use up there is theatrical, exactly as Guerin intended it to be. People seem to forget that Guerin got his earlier training as a scene painter. He was recognized as one of the greatest scene painters of his time. He deliberately undertook to make this Exposition a great spectacle, and he ought to be judged according to what he tried to do. It seems to me that his success was astonishing. He created a picture that was spectacular without being garish or cheap and that harmonized with the dignity and the splendor of the architecture. One explanation of his success lies in his being so fond of the Orient, where the architects have worked in color as far back as we can go. Every chance he makes a trip to the Orient and he comes back with a lot of Oriental canvases that he has painted there. Only a lover of the Orient would have dared to put that orange color on the domes. See what a velvety look he got, almost wax-like. He was careful not to apply, in most instances, more than one coat of paint. He wanted it to sink in and to become weathered. He knew that nature was the greatest of all artists, always trying to remove the shiny appearance of newness and to give seasoning."

As we looked up toward the center of the South Garden the white globes on the French lamp posts caught the architect's eye. "Don't you remember how cheap they looked on the first days?" he said. "The trouble was that they were too white. They seemed cold and raw. So they were sprayed with a liquid celluloid to soften them into their present ivory hue. The change shows how important detail is, and how carefully Guerin's department has worked. While the construction was going on there was one remark that often used to be heard, 'It will never be noticed,' and a most foolish remark it was. It showed that the people who made it were lacking in imagination. Millions of eyes have been watching the details of this Exposition and very little has escaped notice."

A great crowd was pouring out of the afternoon concert in Festival Hall. The architect, as he looked on, remarked: "It's like being in Paris, isn't it? Or, perhaps, it's more like being in a lovely old French provincial city, where the theater is the chief architectural monument. It's hard for me to understand why the French have encouraged that kind of architecture for their theaters and opera houses. It seems so unrelated to sound, which ought to give the clue to the building. The use of the word festival here is a little old-fashioned and misleading. It doesn't mean what we usually consider festivity. It is essentially a concert hall, and the architecture ought to suggest concentration of sound by being built in a way that shall make such concentration inevitable. But this kind of building is obviously related to dissipation of sound. No wonder the acoustics turned out bad and the interior had to be remodeled."

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