Monday, October 31, 2016

St Peter's Cathedral at Beauvais - The Struggle of Architecture over Gravity...

After visiting some of the great early cathedrals – St Denis, Noyon, Laon – I was eager to see what makes the incredible edifice at Beauvais so unique. Well, remarkable it certainly is.

The vaulted interior of the choir of the cathedral of St Peter of Beauvais, soaring up some 48.50metres means that it is the highest in the world. This was in no way incidental or accidental, but was part of an aim to leave a mark by constructing a spire «so tall, that once finished, those who see it will think that we were insane». Until the collapse of a vertiginous central tower of 153metres in 1573, this cathedral had been the tallest human construction anywhere, even overshadowing St Peter’s in Rome.

The price to pay for such an act of hubris would be high and the sum due has still not been fully paid off. Beauvais cathedral is proof that pride does indeed come before a fall This crazy desire to build a divine edifice on a foundation of almost sinful worldly ambition has affected every single aspect of its architecture and fate to this very day.

When approaching the cathedral today, you are obviously struck by its sheer size. The elaborate chevet on the eastern side of the edifice, housing the apse, choir and radiating chapels, has an imposing structure that looks like some weird sci-fi Gothic rocket launcher, if such a thing could exist!

Your eyes are drawn to the metal rods that criss-cross and span the buttresses , which themselves resemble strange blades of stone. The whole seems to release a strange tension, as these vertical spears rise into the skies straight above, yet seem to curl inward slightly towards the summit.

Walking on around the perimeter of the cathedral, the striking Gothic and Renaissance features catch your attention, with the beautiful carved wooden doors on the northern side and with the magnificent sculpture of main entrance on the southern facade.

It seems odd to see a 10th century Romanesque church attached to the western flank of the cathedral itself, but it is the architectural structure just beyond this, trussed up by vast wooden joists and partly covered in slate that gives the distinct impression that something is somehow amiss. You can say that again…

If we are still able to see the old Romanesque edifice today -the Notre-Dame de la Basse Œuvre - this is due to the fact that the Gothic cathedral of the Haute Œuvre was never fully completed. The nave of the later work was destined to occupy the site of this early edifice, but lack of sufficient funds meant that the cathedral of Saint Peter is lacking this significant element.

Without a nave, the building is strangely truncated, but the impact of this architectural omission does not just concern spatial aesthetics. Furthermore, the problems that stemmed from this missing link have never been fully resolved. This is an ongoing story and whilst your eye might get distracted from the bigger picture when admiring the architectural details on the exterior facades , a glimpse inside the cathedral soon sets the record straight…

When the Romanesque Basse-Œuvre church was virtually destroyed by fire in 1225, the decision was taken to replace this Carolingian architecture by an ambitious Gothic edifice that would surpass the others of Northern France. In this way, the cathedral would be an appropriate reflection of the prosperity and importance of Beauvais that had grown with flourishing trade and a prestigious diocese that had significant religious and political power.

Situated on a crossroads of commercial routes, this ‘ville drapante’ benefitted from the considerable revenue generated by its textile industry. Work commenced on this new edifice, Saint Peter, using the technological experience that had been gleaned from the building of the first generation of Gothic cathedrals. Construction of the building relied on massive blocks of local chalk stone. These were set onto foundations that went down more than 10 metres in order to rest on the solid rock formation below.

Not only was the Beauvais choir to be far taller than those of its great predecessors, the battresses were to be thinner too, enabling maximum luminosity from the dazzling heights above. This initial construction period was realised relatively smoothly and from 1260 services started to be held in the completed choir area.

During some 12 years, from the end of work in 1272 until one fateful day in 1284, the Beauvais edifice must have been the glory of the town. Due to its great height, the cathedral rose above the plateau of the surrounding landscape, leaving it exposed to the high winds that would be funnelled towards its massive form and through its structure.

A November storm over 700 years ago saw the collapse of the choir. The fine buttresses buckled under the pressure exerted by the gusts of wind, in turn causing the vaulted ceiling to crash down onto the bays below, shattering the stained-glass windows in the process. Serious structural conclusions were drawn and the whole was rebuilt, to the same dizzy height but this time with walls that were thickened, pillars that were doubled and the inclusion of far more columns and vaulted partitions in the choir and chevet.

Restoration was finally completed around 1347, but the plague and the One Hundred Years War interrupted any further undertakings. It was only in 1500 that work was started on a transept to complete the edifice, some 150 years after the edification of the choir that had proved to be so troublesome.

Unfortunately, not all the lessons had been learnt in all those intervening years. The cathedral would continue to be blighted by the same weaknesses in its architectural structure which stemmed from the same old flaws in human nature; blind ambition arising from vanity and pride.

When it was decided that a lantern tower in the Flamboyant style would crown the transept crossing, it went without saying that this would indeed tower over any other similar structure in Christendom. Over 50 years, the spire rose up to reach its final height of 150 metres in 1569.

Carrying out this architectural feat demanded great skill and considerable sums of money, so much so that the nave was never actually constructed, for the lack of means. In this way, the weight and force of the spire were not offset by this essential supporting structure which would have stabilized the whole.

The fragility of the cathedral spire was soon apparent and in 1572 the iron cross that had been mounted on the top of the lantern tower was removed as it was considered to be too heavy. Despite this precaution, nothing could protect the cathedral from the elements. Yet again, the cathedral of Beauvais fell prey to the resonating winds. During Mass on Ascension Day, the whole spire collapsed just four years after completion, bringing down with it the tower, surrounding vaults and parts of the transept.

Reconstruction work followed over the next thirty years, but this time there was no spire; the money had run out. A simple wooden vault was put in the place of the tower. The nave itself was never completed and this western facade was later covered by the slates that we see today.

It was the southern facade that housed the main entrance to the cathedral for dignitaries and great processions. Despite the ravages of the Revolutionary years from 1789, this is still very beautiful today. Sadly the statues from the niches of the facade were destroyed and the furniture and artifacts within the cathedral were likewise removed.

Sans-culottes pillaged the building and for some time St Peter became a temple dedicated to Reason. The sculpted fleur-de-lys, symbol of the French monarchy, was effaced by the revolutionaries but several of the royal salamanders, with their tails coiled into a figure-of-eight, still hide on the facades, as emblems of François I.

Other parts of the cathedral facades seem to have escaped all damage during the Revolution. On the northern side, there is the richly-sculpted Tree of Life tympanum and just below are the wooden doors of the portal, built in 1530.

 Whilst the style and mood of these are Gothic, the shells that feature below the saints hint to the influence of the Renaissance. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc greatly admired the cathedral for its beauty – especially that of its choir, calling it «The Parthenon of French Gothic». Later in the 19th century, an impressive astronomical clock was introduced, and insured a further influx of visitors.

All in all, the greatest threat to the cathedral of Beauvais never really came from the Revolution… In view of the structural weaknesses that have blighted its long existence, it is a sheer miracle that the cathedral of Beauvais is still standing.

Over the centuries, the risk of collapse has been overlooked, just as it was throughout its construction years. Periodically, the metal supports between the structural features of the cathedral were removed, deemed inaesthetic and unnecessary, but were quickly reinstated, for obvious reasons!

More recently, other structural problems have appeared and solutions duly found, but the presence of huge wood and steel trusses inside the cathedral leave you in no doubt to the gravity of the situation. Without these, the transept would surely have caved in during the 1990s and strange floor braces rise out at 45°, to provide further support, should need be.

 Like the majority of old edifices today, the whole cathedral does look a little run-down, with leaking drains allowing water to stain the stonework and plants to grow from cracks and crevices.

I wish more money could be poured into the upkeep of these fantastic marks of civilisation, even those who have siphoned off so many funds during their lives. The cathedral of Saint Peter must be the ultimate example of a high-maintenance existence!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Crazed Consumerism -The Webs of Illusion... Foule Sentimentale

Sickened by every aspect of the business world - experienced, studied or observed - I went for a bike ride and came across these beautiful webs – some of which were simply huge! I was just in total admiration of the craftsmanship involved and that incited me to want to crochet something that would resemble… a spider’s web! The toadstools emerged magically overnight too, looking like the props of a fairy tale. However, I think that was the only enchantment I encountered this week…

For some time now, I’ve been wondering when and why it was that we embraced this weird culture that is producing a rich crop of superficiality and boundless tawdry tatt. As part of my work, I’ve had to do research into various aspects of corporate social responsibility and have been trying to dispel the impression that such legal/ethical/ecological and moral intricacies are primarily concerns of corporate sphere alone. Endless cases of greenwashing amid all those dense-yet-empty CSR reports that are supposed to highlight the credentials and credo of companies have resulted in a certain fatigue and a marked disinterest on the part of some students. “We’ve already done this before” seems to go hand-in-hand with “We want to study something more in line with current affairs”. I’ve been puzzling over these remarks and have been asking myself why CSR is not considered to be central to ‘real life’. Surely it can’t be treated as a subject to be ticked off the syllabus - with the been-there-done-that-got-the-teeshirt certitude. Or can it?

How can we have been misled or actually have deluded ourselves enough to believe that the practices and production of the seemingly remote world of industry wouldn’t have a direct and ongoing impact on every aspect of our lives? The basics of economics with supply and demand, themselves grounded in our needs and wants, are the keys for survival in society and assure our social welfare and individual well-being. The society we live in reflects and forms these requirements with all their fluctuations, led by output which caters to demands, yet molds them in the process. Society and les sociétés that provide the goods and services that are essential to our existence are not separate entities, but are fundamentally interlocked on every level. Market forces drive spending habits, linked to our purchasing power, and the manufacturing processes that actually supplied these products in the first place have a profound impact on all of us, end-user or not. Ultimately, we are all stakeholders of every business, whether we consume their products or not. Externalities – positive and negative – spread across the board.

The squandering of ever-scarcer resources, excessive energy consumption , unbridled waste production, ill treatment of the work force, dire safety measures in the work place, non-respect of consumer protection norms and wilful flouting of environmental protection laws have become ‘standard’, to a greater or lesser degree in many supply chains. This is especially apparent in the aftermath of 2008’s Credit Crunch when corporate survival indeed meant that the end justified those very means to squeeze prices while maintaining fat profit for privileged links in the chain. Downsizing and restructuring have led to closure and dismissal, but the repercussions of our consumer economy will catch us all up, sooner rather than later, and not merely on the work front. Perhaps if we concerned ourselves a little more with the supply process and all the links and loops therein, we would have a greater understanding of the power of demand, and vice versa. Above all, we might see that the GDP of a country cannot be the sole measure of the well-being of its people. The condition of our community – local and global – and the state of the environment have to be factored into the calculation of wealth, both domestic and international. The bottom line of a financial statement surely cannot be the figurative bottom line in Life itself, can it?. In many ways, many of us have indeed, “never had it so good” (Harold Macmillan 1957), with a certain material prosperity, but in others we are in a growing state of unprecedented impoverishment. The acquiring of things is not the best thing in life; we just haven’t realized this yet.

Economists may believe in the “invisible hand” (Adam Smith) that balances the market, but whilst we turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable truths of 21st century production and consumption surely there will be no real grip on market forces. You cannot have infinite supply to cater to unfettered demand when resources are themselves limited, and yet we trash the planet in our quest to do so. The only thing that can ‘give’ in this equation, is demand itself, but with our current consumer pattern, that seems unlikely. US Retail Analyst Victor Lebow had stated in 1955 “…we make consumption our way of life… we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption”; to a large degree this has been realised. However, even if 20th century ‘affluenza’ affects the majority of us, the means to satisfy this contagious addiction for the acquisition of consumer goods and services is dwindling for many of us. The images of wealth abound, but seem to underline the inequalities and inadequacies in an age (not unlike Lebow’s) wherein “The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns”.

The desire to display one’s material assets, aspirations, power and prestige is nothing new, of course, as Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) had already coined the term ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ in the late 19th century. What does seem to be new, however, is this avid drive for binge-consumption, a craving to consume, regardless of the quality, or intrinsic value of the consumable. Sustainability and durability play little or no part in this consumer game; consumption alone is largely sufficient. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” ("Je pense, donc je suis") in his Discours de la méthode (1637) could now be expressed at “I don’t want or need to think, therefore I buy” as the existential crisis is created by and reflected in the frustrated wants of today’s jaded consumer. To comfort a confused sense of identity and self-worth, and calm the nervous tensions that arise from unbridled desires that cannot be met, the consumer binges on worthless junk. However, a cycle of drive and disatisfaction is just one of the consequences of cheap, cheerless consumption.

I think that the multi-billion-dollar apparel business highlights this phenomenon of crazed consumerism in every aspect, yet takes it to a whole new level. The manufacture and sale of items of clothing, accessories and footwear generates trade and revenue on a global scale. People seek a spending ‘high’ as they purchase articles that will showcase appearance and physical attributes in a world where image is all, and indeed proves to be very profitable. Whilst the wealthy few may display their financial assets in the procurement of the very priceliest of items, others have to settle for a more modest approach. Within the industry itself, the far extremes share common ground. The retail goods of the lowest quality/cheapest prices and the high-quality/premium-priced articles of the big-brand labels both source their merchandise in developing countries. In so doing, production costs are slashed, labour is plentiful and manufacturing deadlines are respected with minimal interference from troublesome technicalities such as codes of practice, environmental issues etc. This would appear to be a win-win situation for all involved, but in fact the price we pay has a far greater cost and goes way beyond mere corporate profit. Milton Friedman (2002) said the responsible corporation would “use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game”. All well and good, or at least good economic sense in the Free Market world. However, we have now signed up for a whole new ball game, one whose rules have become fuzzy and blurred; ripe for exploitation. Ultimately this is an exercise in which no one will score anything lasting, even those who are currently reaping the benefits.

To keep a competitive edge over the rivals, retailers will offer tantalising prices with which to tempt customers. Yet behind a juicy bargain price, lies another facet to the supply chain story which is far less palatable. To remain one step ahead of the competition, stores will cut prices, yet still apply a healthy mark-up for themselves as they squeeze the figures further down the supply chain. This triggers a downward spiral as prices tumble, but just how low can we realistically go?

Although the world of apparel has always been fast-moving, following or setting trends and tastes, a new phenomenon has swept through the trade at treacherous speed; Fast Fashion. In their insatiable desire to increase their rate of consumption, consumers find fleeting satisfaction in the purchase of cheap items that may be worn just once before being discarded in favour of another article, of similar price and destined to the same life cycle. When items are dirt-cheap, who bothers if these are not valued for anything other than being good value for money? Quality is a minor consideration as low-cost apparel is not made to be kept or cared about; it is simply there to be consumed, discarded and replaced as fast as possible in the ultimate consumer game.

The fact that so many of these tatty, throw-away garments are trimmed and lined with real animal fur that was certainly procured in the most inhumane, unregulated manner possible is hard to bear. However with such low price tags, this clothing is easy to wear and does not weigh on our conscience for more than a fleeting instant. We shed off these concerns just as quickly as the clothes themselves. Too bad if some dumb animal had the fur ripped from its skin, if it enables us to be smart consumers, ever able to get our hands on the latest bargain. Fast consumerism seems to cost the shoppers little. The ultimate fashion victims here are not the ‘slaves’ who are hooked to the latest trend, but the people who manufacture these articles in the worst possible conditions, not dissimilar to those of the animals bred on the factory farms. Great brands and retail stores earn big bucks, but the actual workers in the sewing sweatshops get paid a pittance. Many suffer physical and mental hardship, some are maimed whilst simply trying to escape a basic life of subsistence and all live in fear of another Rana Plaza tragedy. Yet the collapse of such death-trap buildings reflects the cracks in the whole structure of our flawed consumer society. Our greedy way of living and unsustainable economic system will soon come crashing down. Life itself is already under threat; land grabs, over-extraction and pollution have depleted our natural resources in the land, sea and air, but all the alarm bells are shrugged off as extremist, Leftist or just eco fear-mongering and ultimately are simply ‘bad for business’. All these concerns are peripheral; after all, business is business.

In our culture of shiny surfaces and swift spending we do not see the ugly belly behind the bright wrappings of the goods and services that we consume. Production is often far-away and the conditions are far-removed from what we encounter in our own professional and personal lives. If we do suddenly get a glimpse of an unfortunate incident in some remote country, our brain seems programmed to switch off from such troublesome issues which are well out of our scope. We are then ready to channel our thoughts back, as always, to a new consumer experience which will no doubt be high in feel-good factor, albeit low in any intrinsic value. Like comfort eating, shopping will be of limited gain to the mind and body, but offers a synthetic ‘hit’ to comfort the soul. Who needs to think about nutrition when you can binge on junk, again and again, and take selfies in the process?

I don’t have a solution to anything of the above, but I do believe that we should have faith in our power to make changes, even if relying on the 'Butterfly Effect' to bring that about. Opening our eyes wider to the realities of other people’s worlds – past and present - enables us to appreciate the world about us to a greater degree. Once you lose sight of the realities of life and overlook the rights of all living things to life itself, you lose humanity. We need to keep in contact with nature and the natural, whenever and wherever possible in order to keep our fingers on the living pulse. Taking time to think and reflect, rather than leaping towards constant stimulation would bring lasting benefits that would be far more enriching than cheap-thrill instant gratification. That really would be quality time. But I wonder if we haven’t already lost part of that ability.

I was very shocked to hear last week that Archaeology and History of Art have been ditched as ‘A’ level subjects in the UK. How can that be? Can we truly understand our current trajectory if we haven’t got a clue of the paths we have trodden in the past? Why not get rid of the study of Classics too, while we’re at it? And sweep out all that dusty, out-dated literature too? These are all well past their sell-by date and are obsolete on every level. Musty old material has never generated a fraction of the revenue of the present-day blockbusters, many of which are thoughtfully adapted to the consumer expectations of our current chuck-away culture. Just as I was thinking that things couldn’t get a whole lot worse, I saw that teaching hours at my place of work are to be honed-down to suit requirements. All of this will be in the quest for relevant quality, of course. Oh, and profit… No one takes the time to figure out what will be lost during this sexing-up and dead-heading of the profession. It doesn’t matter if students cannot actually write professional English, just as long as they can communicate sufficiently to make themselves understood using the spoken language. I came to the cynical conclusion of why even bother using words; a selfie speaks volumes today.

Here is Alain Souchon's take on consumerism - Foule Sentimentale.

Oh la la la vie en rose                                                
Oh la la! Life through rose-tinted glasses                                                            
Le rose qu'on nous propose
In the shade of pink that they propose
D'avoir les quantités d'choses
And that means having loads of stuff
Qui donnent envie d'autre chose
That makes us crave for more
Aïe, on nous fait croire
Ouch! They make us believe
Que le bonheur c'est d'avoir
That true happiness is having
De l'avoir plein nos armoires
And to have our wardrobes full of it
Dérisions de nous, dérisoires car...
Mocking us, but we can mock that because...

Foule sentimentale,
We are a sentimental crowd,
On a soif d'idéal
Thirsty for ideals,
Attirée par les étoiles, les voiles
Drawn to the stars, the sails, the veils,
Que des choses pas commerciales
Just the non-commercial things

Foule sentimentale
A sentimental crowd
Il faut voir comme on nous parle
You should just see the way they speak to us
Comme on nous parle
How they speak to us...

Il se dégage
There emerges
De ces cartons d'emballage
From all that packaging
Des gens lavés, hors d'usage
Washed-out people, unfit for use

Et tristes et sans aucun avantage
And sad and without any benefit
On nous inflige
They inflict on us
Des désirs qui nous affligent
Desires that afflict us
On nous prend, faut pas déconner, dès qu'on est né
From the moment we're born, they take us, don't fool around,
Pour des cons alors qu'on est des...
For dumb idiots, whereas in reality we are...

Foules sentimentales
Sentimental crowds
Avec soif d'idéal
Thirsty for ideals,
Que des choses pas commerciales
Just the non-commercial things
Il faut voir comme on nous parle
You should just see the way they talk to us...

On nous Claudia Schieffer
They give us Claudia Schieffer
On nous Paul-Loup Sulitzer
They give us Paul-Loup Sulitzer
Oh le mal qu'on peut nous faire
Oh, the damage they can do to us
Et qui ravagea la moukère
Just as they ravaged the housewife

Du ciel dévale
From the skies descends
Un désir qui nous emballe
A desire that carries us away
Pour demain nos enfants pâles
For tomorrow, for our faded children
Un mieux, un rêve, un cheval
Something better, a dream, a horse...

Foule sentimentale
Sentimental crowd
On a soif d'idéal
Thirsty for ideals,
Attirée par les étoiles, les voiles
Drawn to the stars, the sails, the veils,

Comme on nous parle...
How they speak to us...

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gerbera Daisies - Petals Galore....

As I haven't been out to the countryside for a while, I thought I would get a flower 'fix' via the local garden centre.

A large part of the premises was closed off, in preparation for the Christmas display, meanwhile another area was being set aside for a tsunami of customary potted Chrysanthemums for the Toussaint. Nevertheless, there was a great array of Gerbera daisies.

From a distance these were very pretty as a mass of jaunty colour, and up close their intricate details were also quite fascinating.

The flower disk at the centre is composed of the pollen-bearing anthers which are on the top of the stamen stalks. These looked rather like birthday-cake candles...

This flower originated in South Africa, and some of the more vibrant colours add a real brightness to these muted autumn days.

As with the Chrysanthemum, the petals of the Gerbera resemble delicate, waxy feathers and you just want to touch them!

In fact, some of the colours were just so intense that my camera had difficulty reproducing them! The golden pollen powdered on the petals seemed all the more striking when set against some of these. I'm looking forward to returning to admire the Chrysanthemums in a few weeks' time...