Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dumbarton Oaks and the Olmec

After living in DC for the better part of six months, I have had a lot of fun experiences "urban hiking," a great euphemism for wandering aimlessly around a city. The result of my treks has been the discovery of many a great hidden (sometimes not so much) gems in our nation's capital. To date, the most impressive for me has been the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, and more specifically, the Phillip Johnson Pavillion. My first encounter with the work of Phillip Johnson was when my father dragged me along to a lecture given by the bespectacled architect in Fort Worth circa 1994. Granted, my note-taking skills were not up to snuff at the tender age of nine, but one interesting point stuck with me that I know my fellow Middlebury graduates, and hopefully others, will appreciate.
Note the horizontal bar that runs above the bottom edge of The Glass House, pictured here:
Now, forget for a moment that it serves the incredibly important aesthetic function of creating a Mondrian-golden-ratio vibe that is ever so easy on the eyes, and instead focus on the fact that, by creating a subtle yet visible barrier between you and the outside, it also performs the much more practical duty of making you not feel like a crazy person when you are inside of a glass room. Without the bar, the notion of living in a glass house, would seem quite absurd (and dizzying). With it however, it seems not only plausible, but downright pleasant. This is a subtle contribution to the Modernist vision that has become an almost absolute requirement in any glass wall. Note the appearance of the technique in the ill-fated, less golden meany Atwater Dining Hall of Middlebury College:


Needless to say, architectural dilettante that I am, Phillip Johnson's work captivates me and I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Pavilion at Dumbarton Oaks, which had up until now slipped under my radar. With its circular galleries allowing a great amount of natural light in through the windows and domed ceilings, the space is ideal for displaying art, and it all connects around an encased meditative fountain area. The other feature of the building that is most enjoyable is the inviting interior, consisting of teak, marble floors, and glass. Though the exterior is constructed out of the media of modernity: glass, concrete and steel, it integrates harmoniously with its surroundings, and one feels comfortable in an outpost in the middle of a forest.

Of equal importance to the space, is what is housed within: the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. After reading 1491, my interest in all things mesoamerican was piqued to the extreme. Charles Mann literally opened up a new world to me that was previously a complete void in my education. The facts of his incredibly wide-ranging survey of pre-Columbian history in North and South America are shocking and bold. He suggests that the Amazon rain forest was partly man-made, that our American Democracy has deep roots in Indian tribal government, and that South American tribal origins are not related to nomadic Asian tribes. With all of that said, what is really impressive about 1491 is the sense of existential shock one gets from reading these unknown facts of the land which we inhabit. Not only does Mann provide us with so many new and interesting ideas, he also poses questions to which there appear to be no method of answering with our current tool-set. Furthermore, he debunks to the utmost the long-held belief that pre-Columbian America was primitive compared to the European conquistadors and British Settlers. In doing so, he thoroughly upsets the Western, Judeo-Christian vision of the world and opens the door to all kinds of possibilities that exist outside of the
periphery of our oft-unexamined Weltanschauung. For examples of this, one need look no further than the awe-inspiring Olmec sculpture, crafted as far back 1500 BCE. That's right, 1500 BCE. Ranging from colossal stone heads (really big, think 10 feet tall and weighing tons) to intricate sculptures of jade that sometimes look like primitive studies of Rodin, a serious viewing of the art of millenia past will take any understanding you might think you have of the world and turn it upside down. At least in the Johnson Pavilion, the space in which you are standing will
help reorient you.

2 comments:

Ed said...

Dropping some knowledge JG. nice post. might have to do some more looking into mesoamerica and this whole man made amazon bit..

The Andrews Gallery said...

This post, in particular the references to Olmec Heads and note taking, made me think of yellow legal pads with violated margins and some beautiful blonde woman with knee high leather boots. Excellent.