Cafe de l’Alcazar, Arles
For two of the last years of his brief life, Vincent van Gogh lived and painted in Arles.
He was drawn to Arles for its provincial charm and the legendary beauty of its women, but found a rapidly industrializing city that housed a major railway works.
After visiting the classical and celebrated medieval sites of Arles, he started painting the ugly parts of the city. One of his most famous paintings, “Bridge at Arles,” is part of a utilitarian irrigation canal. The Cafe de l’Alcazar he painted is located next to a Roman temple, which he chose not to paint, using the cafe instead as his subject of everyday life.
We now look on the cafe as nostalgic, but to Van Gogh the new and brassy cafe of the 1880’s must have seemed as contemporary as a Wal-Mart does to us. He was absorbed by Arles’s modern and less obviously beautiful aspects.
None of van Gogh’s paintings are displayed in Arles. Instead, they hang in the great museums of the world. Here in Arles, though, we can sense that Van Gogh used color to bathe the world in bleakness as well as joyful sensuality.
Here is a link to Van Gogh’s painting of The Café Terrace
Cafe de l’Alcazar, Arles
In 1901 the artist Paul Cezanne built a small studio on a hill outside his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. He built a stone terrace on the south side looking out over olive groves. His bedroom was on the ground floor. He painted in a high-ceilinged upper story room with blue-grey walls and a tall window, facing north, which bathed the room in light. Around 5 a.m. Cezanne woke and stepped outside to check the weather. On clear days he walked 300 meters up the hill, his easel and colors strapped to his back, to paint Mount Ste. Victoire in the open air.
Today the studio remains much as it did in 1906 when Cezanne died. Pots and glass bottles that appeared in his paintings stand on a shelf, his backpack rests in a corner. A drawer contains a childhood photo, a sketch of a friend, brushes, and a receipt for his paint colors.
Outside the studio, bright cars flit past on the Rue de Paul Cezanne. Inside, we stand in the same light where he painted. Few artists were as connected to their place yet universal in their appeal as Paul Cezanne.
Lourmarin in Provence
The novelist and philosopher Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin for two years before he died in a car crash in 1960. Lourmarin reminded him of the color, light, and sensual pleasure of his native Algeria, where he grew up in poverty but surrounded by beauty.
Ancient places shaped his view of existence. In his teenage years he swam among the Roman ruins in Tipasa, later writing, “In springtime gods dwell in Tipasa, speaking through the sun and wormwood perfume, the sea in its silver armor, and great bubbles of light in piles of rocks.” He sensed the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure. In his heart he carried an invincible summer.
When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, his Mediterranean fatalism was noted:
"…the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades."
Camus’s remains are buried in this hillside cemetery in Lourmarin, where old juniper trees grow close together and keep their counsel.
November 7, 2013 is the 100th anniversary of Albert Camus’s birth. Here is a link to his essay, “Return to Tipasa”.
To Fit the Land
When I worked on construction sites as a teenager in Greensboro, North Carolina there were a few old men in overalls who knew things. Gene, Jun and Major knew where to find catfish in Buffalo Creek, when a storm was coming, how to hitch a mule and which plant soaked in water would cure a headache.
Later I found a similar native wisdom in barns.
This barn is placed on a hill where water drains away. It’s main side faces south, where the sun will warm it. Opposite is another door to let the breeze through. The farmer made a porch on the east side because the summer rains came from the west. He made the boards from trees he cut down to clear a field, and burned the shavings from the sawmill to cure his tobacco. He made the barn fit the land.
Few of us can build today with the knowledge this farmer had, but I believe it’s worth trying. And while it’s no longer possible to have the native genius of barns, we can leave the earth as good as we found it. That’s a sentiment the old timers of my teenage years could understand.
Sushi at the Airport
Fifty years ago airports were places of glamour. Today they’re transit sheds. But the lobby at Charlotte Douglas Airport, despite being utilitarian, offers a special place.
On a recent Friday, long lines snaked through the lobby at dusk under a 40-foot ceiling of white steel. Passengers looked through tall windows at the runway, spread out like a sheet of tin, while the high space muffled the sound of their shuffling feet. In a recessed area, Starbucks offered Pumpkin Spice Latte while outside airplanes disappeared like flecks in the sky.
Under the tall ceiling, travelers sat next to each other in white rocking chairs. A grand piano stood beside a sushi bar in an amber pool of light. Here you could eat a California roll next to strangers while someone else played Chopin. It was so unlike the barking televisions and shrink-wrapped sandwiches, the hard furniture and averted eyes of the rest of the airport that is seemed miraculous. For a time in the journey, life was decent.
Kingsland Road is the main street of Dalston, a mixed income borough of London where Turkish restaurants mingle with yoga studios and occasional gang fights occur in London Fields. Immigrants have started out in Dalston for over a century, and today the abundance of Polish delicatessens, newspapers in Arabic, and Jamaican clubs show that new cultures continue to prosper. The Guardian newspaper recently called Dalston the “coolest place to live in London.”
On Kingsland Road, seen here on a rainy Friday morning, pedestrians, buses, and cyclists compete for every square foot of pavement. The City of London’s skyscrapers rise three miles away, stacked like poker chips. Billions of dollars, pounds sterling, and euros are exchanged in the City every day while people buy kebabs, pick up a half litre of milk, and drop off their laundry on Kingsland Road.
We see two faces of London: one autocratic, top down, built with glass and titanium; the other messy, democratic, built by men in white vans. The City is where fortunes are won and lost, but places like Kingsland Road are where London gets its daily bread.
Thick Walls and Thin Skin
New buildings are changing the London skyline, and not all Londoners are amused by the view. Wags have nicknamed some of these skyscrapers the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe), the Cheesegrater (the Leadenhall Building), and the Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street).
When I visited the Cheesegrater recently, I noticed a squat brick structure nearby named the Scottish Provident Building, designed by architect William Curtis Green in 1912. Green made the front of limestone, the sides of white glazed brick, and he supported everything on a thick granite base. His windows flood the workrooms with daylight.
Thin-skinned skyscrapers aspire to a new world architecture, but the thick walls of Scottish Provident belong to the streets of London. For over a century its granite base resisted the banging of carts and trucks, its white glazed bricks shed the London soot and brightened the narrow street, and its windows provided light for clerks at their desks on dim winter afternoons. These thick walls are probably good for another 100 years, if they’re not torn down for the next Cheesegrater.
Buildings like Scottish Provident don’t make the history books, but they make sense.
The Interstate Not Taken
One of the benefits of driving off the Interstate is finding treasures like this: a modest house with deep overhangs and a screened porch that has sheltered families for nearly 100 years. Its calmness is good enough to bottle. I found it recently in Lake City, a town of about 6500 people in piedmont South Carolina.
Driving through Lake City, you would scarcely expect to find a gentle house resting on a hillside. Highway 52 cuts through the town, leaving a swath of turquoise filling stations, rusty strip malls, and parking lots where weeds die in the cracks.
Yet in 1925 this was a town of magnificent brick houses, lush gardens, splendid fountains, and the largest green bean market in America. Here farmers drove wagonloads of cotton and tobacco to the railhead, rich men came from England to build a tobacco factory, and ministers built splendid brick churches to explain the purpose of life.
Today the gardens are choked with weeds and the fountains are dry. The tobacco factory lies empty and the beans are gone. A sign on Highway 52 says “Trust Jesus.”
You could do a lot worse than to get off the big road, drive through a place like Lake City, and discover a house on a hillside like this one. A whole lot worse.
A Balcony to Nowhere
Anyone who has built a fence or a doghouse, planted an orchard, or cooked a cheese soufflé knows that accidents happen. Frank Lloyd Wright said that a surgeon can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only plant vines. Julia Child said, “Never apologize,” when one of her recipes turned sour. She served her mistakes proudly.
The recipe for this house in Charleston, SC, called for a porch with a Greek pediment, a front door, and a balcony. The ingredients were right, but the designer got the proportions wrong. The front door is off center, probably for functional reasons; the balcony is in the center, but for some reason there’s no door that opens onto the balcony.
Some of the greatest architects have played with balance and symmetry. Frank Lloyd Wright struggled for years in his early houses to accommodate symmetrical rooms with off-balance demands of function. The results sometimes called for vines.
In architecture, which is complicated and expensive, as in cooking, which is far less expensive and quicker, it’s always best to get the proportions right. But now and then it’s just not possible when other demands (such as function) take precedence. Or when we simply make mistakes.
So let’s make a toast to the designer of this house: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly!
Loose Fit Long Life
The Duke of Bedford developed his ancestral land on the edge of London in 1770 to cater to the middling classes, families who were neither laborers nor landed gentry. He surrounded a park like square with 53 identical houses. This is one of them, number 36 Bedford Square.
Houses like this became as native to London as a double-decker bus or a pub. Multitudes were built during the Georgian period with a stair and three well-proportioned rooms per floor. Owners painted their yellow brick houses black because the coal fires of London darkened all buildings. With white painted trim, they looked as elegant as a pinstriped suit.
The families of surgeons, barristers, and physicians lived in number 36 for nearly 150 years. Since 1917 it has sheltered a school of architecture. Recently the houses of Bedford Square have been converted to offices and other non-residential uses.
36 Bedford Square reminds us that good structures, reasonably built, don’t have to be thrown away: well-proportioned rooms have many uses. It suggests that buildings don’t have to be different to be good.
In London payday is the last Friday of the month, when groups of people gather at pubs at 5 PM to celebrate. Here is a group at the Blue Posts on Berwick Street in Soho. Despite their rather somber black clothing, this is a happy crowd of drinkers, their plastic beer glasses parked on the granite curb as hands gesticulate or punch out text messages.
On this fine evening in May there are many seats inside the pub because everyone wants to stand outdoors. Not far away another pub has a crowd, and the sound of laughter echoes down the street. One can bicycle through London on a Friday evening such as this and pass dozens of open air impromptu festivals at pubs along the way.
There’s not much traffic noise because London has a daily tax on automobiles in the central city, greatly reducing air pollution. This has returned much of London to its primary role as a place for people to exchange ideas, services and to share to a pint with friends.
One thing they have to celebrate is a civilized city.
A Clearing in the Forest
For generations, the family of Lemuel Fox tilled an east-facing hillside in the Shenandoah Mountains and grew corn there. They ceased farming here in the 1930s. This is the family cemetery. Its walls are made of stones uncovered by Mr. Fox and his grandsons when they plowed the fields.
Originally the Fox cemetery was on open hillside, shaded by a lone cherry tree. Now a forest has overgrown the cherry tree and the cemetery. A few flowers the family planted in the enclosure survive and bloom in April: native orchids bloom in the hillside forest where corn once grew.
Few of us can have a final resting site so personal and grounded as Lemuel Fox. His grave reminds us of a remark written in 1874 by an English novelist:
"…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” ― George Eliott, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
Front Royal, Virginia
Front Royal is a town of about 12,000 people lying at the foot of the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia. Its downtown is full of small 100-year-old houses that are worth a detour.
The houses and their front gardens are strung along sidewalks shaded by maple trees. Outside of town, subdivisions without sidewalks are hacked out of the Virginia meadowland. But in the central residential area, horseshoes clink and people talk on porches.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in May a bake sale was going on at the Love and Faithfulness Church. And while customers crowded the Nail Shop, spring was arriving in the front gardens of Front Royal. Bearded blue irises and red poppies bristled in the sunshine, lilacs waited in the wings, and porch baskets were hung anticipating summer.
At this house the owners planted a plum tree and a Japanese maple in the front garden to match the color of their porch. Their house is made of Shenandoah stone, honey colored stucco, and a type of metal roof made in Virginia since 1800. No one is at home this afternoon, but the porch swing beckons.
The Lawn at the University of Virginia
U.S. President and architect Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1825. Its buildings are ranked around a terraced hilltop planted in grass and collectively known as the Lawn. Here Jefferson hoped that freedom and discipline could be reconciled.
At one end of the Lawn Jefferson built the university library, a half sized replica of the Roman Pantheon. He left the other end of the Lawn open to the Blue Ridge Mountains, inviting us to take a larger view. Down the long sides of the Lawn he built rows of small brick rooms for students, houses for professors, and class rooms.
If one end of the Lawn represented Order and the other end Freedom, Jefferson placed students and faculty squarely between the two.
On a recent spring evening groups of students sat on the Lawn laughing, talking, and looking at the distant mountains. In a few days many of them would graduate in a ceremony to be held on the grassy landscape where they sat.
The Wisdom of Tobacco Barns
If North Carolina had a state building like it has a state flower, I’d vote for the tobacco barn. Thousands of these humble buildings have dotted our landscape for the last hundred years. Used to flue cure tobacco in late summer, they are all the same size - about 24 x 24 x 20 feet high. They have a gable roof, like a Greek temple. Yet each one was modified by the farmer who built it, adding a porch for shade, or a shed to store equipment out of the weather, or a longer shed for folks to gather and grade tobacco. Looking at an old tobacco barn you can tell which way the winds blow, and where the rains come from, by the way the farmer added a porch.
Tobacco barns are an example of the universal made particular, and are a monument to the native wisdom of farmers who knew their place in the land