L'École Marchutz

Seminar Notes: La Tour d'Aix

Marchutz Fellow

"Art imitates Nature in her manner of operation" - St. Thomas Aquinas The weekly Seminar in Art Criticism begins each spring with an architectural tour of Aix.  Despite bitterly cold weather and the possibility of snow, this year was no different.  The students gathered at 11:15 across the street from the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, a building dating back to roman times. John, our teacher and tour guide for the day, passed out a packet of photocopied images and quotes that would relate to the day's discussions.  As we waited for our appointment in the massive cathedral's cloister, John explained that, due to the weather, we would rush through the trip a bit, and that anything we didn't get to we would revisit in an unabridged tour just before our trip to Venice in April.

After a few minutes (which felt a bit longer in the cold) we headed through the cathedral, greeting the man at the door, and into the cloister.  Emerging through the dark passageway and into the cloister, whose white stone caught the blanket of cool-but-not-icy, overcast light.  In the near corner of the courtyard was an ageless olive tree sitting over a pattern of short boxwood shrubs.  John quickly herded us all over to the left in front of a bas relief of St Peter emerging from the corner pillar.  My words will be inadequate in describing what John was quick to label "one of the great examples of Romanesque sculpture."  His long toes grow out of the base of the pillar.  The folds in his robes rise majestically up to his enormous hands, in which rest a book and a key, critical vertical components carrying our eyes up to the head. This volume, which effortlessly supports the weight of his crown and thus the entire building.

We could have spent all day standing, looking, contemplating in the cloister (something I hope to do once the weather is a little more forgiving), but we were on a mission.  So we exited the quiet of the cathedral and walked down to the Place de l'Hotel de Ville, a large square opposite the Baroque town hall.  Here we talked about "paths and nodes."  John explained that in a city there are paths, where people travel, and nodes, areas in which people gather, that exist at the intersection of paths.  The square offered an interesting example.  As we walked across the vast expanse, transitioning from path to node and back, it was actually possible to feel the difference.  And when other nodes became visible, blocks away, we could sense that we were in a place that operated as a much larger entity.

Making our way around the square, we stopped to look at something entirely different.  We stood in front of a window on the facade of the Town Hall, looking at two spiraled ornaments on the window molding.  On the right was the original, the other had been redone years later in cement as part of a renovation.  John suggested that maybe the two were operating differently in relation to the window and the larger facade.  They had very different characters.  But the cold was starting to make things difficult, and it was starting to snow, so we gave up the opportunity to talk about it for a half an hour, and pressed on.

Making our way down the hill, we paused for a moment to see another example of how nodes worked in space, and continued to another, more private square.  We were at Place D'Albertas, opposite the old mansion of the Albertas family.  We spent some time in the square, where the snow was circling around us, floating, trapped in the microclimate of the enclosure.  Then we were fortunate enough to be able to go into the courtyard of the old mansion, to make the comparison of public and private.  The courtyard shared the serenity of the cloister.  The snow fell silently while a small fountain trickled in the corner.  But where the cloister was contemplative, this courtyard seemed somehow more luxurious.  Where the cloister was defined by columns and the gaps between them, this space was defined more by the large garage doors, once used to store multiple carriages.  There was something fundamentally more personal about this space, relating to its once aristocratic owners.

After some time we moved on.  Our next topic was windows, an illustration of how patterns can give a city a certain life.  We stopped briefly in front of a couple of buildings to look at the way windows are typically done in Aix.  They are arranged, within the context of a single facade, along horizontal and vertical axes.  The vertical axes are defined simply by window placement, one over the other.  The horizontal axes are defined not only by location but also by strip of molding connecting the bottom of each window in a row.  The effect achieved is a marriage of the horizontal and the vertical that brings each house, and each block to life.  Once we had established this fact, we walked down to look at an example of a building in which this principle had been violated.  It was a long white building whose facade had been redone, and the molding had been moved to the tops of the windows, creating a very block-like structure.  There were certainly horizontal elements, and the window arrangements formed verticals, but the interplay between the two was absent.  The structure was stiff and imposing.  "If every building in Aix was like this," John said, "we probably wouldn't have dragged you out into the cold."

At this point it was clear that the weather had put an end to our trip.  We agreed as a class that everyone would get more out of the experience if we reconvened for another, more complete tour in April when we can give this city, this work of art, the time it deserves.

A couple of us decided to follow John on the scenic rout back up to Saint Sauveur.  On the way we stopped to look inside another church, whose lofty ceiling created the sensation that it was holding the air up above our heads.  Across the street we observed another building whose windows violated the Aixois custom.  They protruded violently out, disrupting the openness of the street.  Our final stop was a Sephora, a makeup and perfume chain, that found itself in the remnants of what was once the largest cathedral in Aix, but was lost to time.  Now its skeleton is inhabited by sleek black and white structures, just as imposing as the perfumed scent in the air and the blaring electronic music.

-O'Neill Cushman, alumni fellow