Saturday, 24 January 2009

Art & Architecture 1 (Days 4 through 7)

This won't be by any means the last post on visiting art, or for that matter architecture, but they're the main things I saw. Wednesday was spent relaxing, making sure my extremities warmed up, making sure all my body parts worked, and that sort of thing; as well, of course, as writing a blog posting on the inauguration of President Obama.

However, Thursday I was back out and about, planning on taking a long walk. Before that, I stopped off at the place I stood opposite whilst watching the inaugural parade - the Archives of the USA. The building is nothing less, to my mind, than a temple to the Three Charters (always, always capitalised); that is, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (they have the originals of each, as well as a 1297 Magna Carta, on display). It's been said that the religion of America is the law, and the architecture of the building would suggest that such was indeed the case; the building is in the neoclassical style, and the queues really do remind one of a pilgrimage. The architecture of the place is wholly reminiscent of nothing less than the ark of a Synagogue, crossed with a pre-Vatican II Roman-Catholic Church with rood screen, emphasising the importance and secular-holiness of the documents within, faded and nigh-unreadable in their intricate 18th century handwritten font.

After that little pseudo-religious experience, I wandered down to the World War Two memorial. Although America didn't join 'til late, we all know they like to think they won the war so the memorial reflects that, in many ways. On one side is a representation of the Pacific, and the other the Atlantic ("from sea to shining sea"); around the edge, 56 pillars, each inscribed with the name of a territory or state (plus DC, which is an oddity) each also bearing a laurel and bound together with a bronze representation of a rope. It's actually quite solemn, though by no means the most effective DC war memorial (we'll get to that one later on); a rather impressive sight, too, and apparently better at night.

I headed on from there to the tidal basin; it's just by the Mall, a 100-odd acre inlet of the Potomac, it's got some of the big monuments (and reasons to suggest that the United States has indeed got the Constitution as the religion). It's a pretty walk around the edge of that, even when the cherry trees are blossom-free; the ice and areas where it had melted were, I must say, definitely an attraction, and the pigeons or seagulls, whichever they were, seemed to find it a novelty to see some water and be able to actually drink it again. Wandering round, there are some amazing sights - the one here is just the Washington Monument, reflected in the ice and water of the basin, with the dappled surface just looking really beautiful.

So, the first memorial I got to was the Jefferson; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, 3rd President of the United States, and the man who oversaw the Loiusiana Purchase, one of the best writers of his day (personally, I rank Tom Paine before him, but that's a preference not anything approaching a really decent argument). The first thought I had on seeing the Jefferson Memorial was that it was America's answer to the Pantheon in Rome; circular, it's got a central figure, that is, Jefferson, looking into the basin, out towards the Washington Monument. It's a really big memorial, commanding the area and only not visible from the Mall because of the trees rather than the falling ground - it's artificially raised on steps. Very impressive stuff, and I got a few very dramatic pictures of the man and the monument, of which I'll post just one.

Continuing to go round the basin, I came to a little memorial so small it wasn't even marked in my guidebook map; a memorial to George Mason, a small garden with a bench and a bronze, slightly larger than life, of the man, sitting there, comfortably. Apparently, Mason was one of the people who inspired the language in the Declaration; he seems to have been a very influential figure on the revolutionaries and on early America, and his memorial reminded me of nothing other than that to Alan Turing in Manchester, in it's style and pose.

The next memorial one comes across wandering around the basin is that to FDR; this is a very different kind of memorial, both from the others, and from the sort he wanted. It's large, but low - long, rather than tall, as it were, and much more modern; huge blocks of hewn dark stone, quotations (those are a theme in all the personal memorials, though; it's just more spread out and more pithy quotations for FDR). With the ice where water is meant to be, it's a really beautiful sight; I actually think it's better like that than it will be in spring, with water flowing over the stones rather the white ice against the dark stones, the sparkling crystals. There's also a statue of Eleanor, with the UN's logo beside her, a fitting tribute to the woman who caused the writing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The most interesting part, to me, of the monument was five pillars, with five plaques on the wall; the pillars showed the problems of the Depression, the plaques the effects and programmes of the FDR presidency. For welfare state buffs, those five pillars were nothing to do with the Five Giants - I did, indeed, ask. However, the various bronzes - people affected by the Depression, FDR himself in his self-designed chair, FDR and his dog, and a few others - are all really well cast, and although a few bits have been worn shiny by repeated touches by the public, they were generally very well-preserved.

Continuing round, I hit the Mall again, and looked in vain for a so-far still non-extant memorial marked in my guidebook to Martin Luther King Jr; expected to be unveiled at the end of 2008, is it any surprise that in a town where one face of the Capitol itself has been undergoing renovations for virtually the whole Bush Presidency a single monument hasn't been completed? Whilst looking for it, I did come across the rather modest DC War Memorial - a tiny, tiny circular thing, doric pillars supporting a domed roof that starts barely above human height, a marked contrast to the WW2 memorial.

Next stop was the Korean War Veteran's Memorial; a mirror-wall beside a garden, in which various bronzes of soldiers charge toward a US flag in full kit, it's quite impressive, and into the wall various unpolished sections have been cut showing things like women back home, veterans returning, and all sorts of scenes; it's the sort of memorial that works in summer or winter, because it doesn't rely on the environment for effect, creating an environment of it's own. It also listed all the countries that took part in the combat (on the UN side), and had a (military) casualty list for each country as well. A rather good thing to have in central DC, I thought; something for politicians to look upon and remember.

The Lincoln Memorial is rather more akin to the Jefferson than the FDR, I have to say. Taking it's cue from classical culture, it rises above the landscape before a pool reflecting the Washington Monument, steps leading up to it in a straight and simple line, columns marking its front limit and Lincoln sitting enclosed by three walls, looking rather like a 19th-century Zeus. On one wall is his second Inaugural Address and on the other the Emancipation Proclamation, each crucial speeches in his Presidencies and rather important to the US as a whole; they are written in full, and very clearly - every visitor could, if they wished, take the time to read them, if they looked away from Lincoln and his commanding view of the Mall for long enough. There is also a small, if oft-visited, bronze plaque on the steps up to the memorial, commemorating the "I Have A Dream" speech, placed where MLK stood to deliver it.

Moving back up the Mall, I came to a memorial everyone knows; the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. I think little needs to be said of this one, even by way of description; a black and reflective wall of marble, it has every casualty and MIA soldier of the Vietnam conflict recorded, in chronological order, on it. That's probably the most poignant memorial in the whole of DC, to be honest.

That rounded up a rather tiring day, but even so I walked back to the Metro via the back of the White House (I only managed to see it in the far distance, because they were not letting people even remotely near it at the time - terrorist fears, apparently) and via the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a very, very ugly building that is home to the headquarters of the FBI in Washington.

Friday, I was of course back out; a rather more simple plan this time, though it didn't turn out as simple as I'd intended - I headed to the National Gallery of Art (East Building) to see an exhibition on Pompeii which turned out to be excellent and spread out over a large part of the building, with some very good exhibits and a total ban on photography. I then went through the rest of the museum, and saw some interesting pieces of art - one very strange numbers based piece included - and a lot of mobiles in various styles, on loan from a few places for form an exhibit. None of the art really grabbed me (all very modern, and mostly in styles I dislike - a few pieces I really enjoyed, though), so I left and decided to head up behind the Capitol.

Well, after that long walk I did get a nice reward; the Supreme Court (which I'm going to be heading to early Monday morning, to try and hear an oral argument). Whilst I didn't enter the building, I did get a good look at one more temple to the law that exists in DC; the iconography was a mingling of fascist and classical, which given how strongly the fascist iconography drew on the classical world is unsurprising. However, the figures flanking the stairs up to the entrance are, in their style, very harshly made, and surprisingly modern, to my mind... whilst also avoiding the typical scale-bearing justice image. The implication I got is that in the US, justice is a lot more harsh than the UK; that they have the death penalty bears that out, I guess.

Today, I went back into DC and back into the National Gallery of Art, West Building this time. The place is beautifully laid out and easy to get lost in, with some fantastic sculptures and a lot of excellent European items - some Rembrandt, a da Vinci, lots of Monet, et cetera, et cetera. Some very, very famous images which I had no idea I was going to see were there, including some excellent impressionist work, some Van Gogh... really there was something from every artistic period, from the Byzantine-influenced Gothic onwards. I was most taken by the sculpture as is the norm for me, and spent a lot of time in the extensive sculpture galleries, looking at bronzes, clay figures, and all sorts of pieces in all sorts of styles, from mock-classical to 16th-century reinterpretations of the spinario figure through to subjects like the Thinker, and charicature busts of the 19th century French Parliament. My personal favourite, however, not for any artistic reason, has to be a statue called "The Age of Bronze" by Rodin... made of plaster. I don't think I need explain why I enjoy it so much.

After that I wandered back behind the Capitol (yes, lots of walking over the same ground) and looked inside the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The British Library has been called a gulag for it's architectural style, and whether you agree with that, it can't be argued the building it beautiful. Looking into the Jefferson building, I almost cried at it's beauty, grace, and actual intelligence - names covered the place, and quotations, and beautiful art, and wonderful architectural styles. The reading room had figures around the walls who represented the genres (eg Homer and Shakespeare for poetry, Plato and Bacon for Philosophy) that were represented, and one could work out by the figures what each genre was; a very canny and intelligently built reading room that puts even that in the British Museum to shame, I looked down at it from a high gallery but intend to go back and get access to the books themselves and do a bit of reading.

All that's ignoring the atrium, which was just breathtaking. There's the idea of a temple to learning, and then there's the reality; this was the reality. I have to say that the 90 minutes I spent in the building were probably the best spent 90 minutes, excluding the inaugural parade, I spent all week; the beauty of the place was, is, stunningly breathtaking and the fine plasterwork and paintings around the place, the allegories, the mosaics, the allusions classical and modern, were wonderful. Of special note was a mosaic showing Minerva, in which every detail meant something, which adorned the wall on the way up to the viewing gallery over the reading room, and the placement of a personification of Erotica amongst the genres of literature alongside Poetry and Romance. All in all, I think that place will be getting a few more visits, just to sit and stare.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

"President Obama": Few phrases sound so good

Getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning is not something I do for fun, nor is catching a bus at quarter to seven in the literally-freezing cold. The Metro was impressive; I got on at Takoma, and the thing was empty... or rather, it was when it pulled in. When it left, it was packed and no one else cold get on; the only reason I could move was because the people sitting down weren't letting others stand where they wanted their legroom. All good practice, really...

I got to the queue to see the parade at about 8, with my book. At this stage it wasn't that big, just a few tens of thousands of people; that spilled across blocks in three directions, because the fourth - down 7th, between E & D - was blocked off; only 5-10 thousand went down each time they opened the blockade, and then they had to get through security checks set up by the Secret Service (the police kept emphasising the phrase "Not our fault! Blame the guys in black suits!") which comprised of possession-searches without x-rays and 4 metal detectors.

Yes. 4.

Oh, and they tried to drive buses through this crowd - buses full of the navy security. Of course, there were closed streets they could have sent the guys down, and they weren't providing assistance to anyone at the security check points, but hey! They needed somewhere to send them, and through a huge crowd was perfect right? Very much wrong, actually... (those of you who read Mike Tomasky's blog on the Guardian website will note that it seems he was in the same queue as me)

So, I got there at about 8, and got to the checks just as Obama was sworn in, and heard on the huuuuuge loud speakers his speech which, contrary to what many have said, I thought was quite inspiring (the huge cheers it got, like the simple news of his being sworn in, might have helped....) whilst also being sensibly programmatic rather than high-flying and theoretical. So, then we waited, and waited, and waited, opposite the Archives of the USA (that's important, that location) for a parade that seemed never to come. Eventually, we were told why, not by any authoritative voice but by people hearing it on personal radios, or being told it over the phone, or being texted it: Teddy Kennedy had suffered a grand mal seizure. No surprise, that, honestly; it was freezing - or rather, below freezing (-6.67 degrees, apparently; not too bad for a brief period, but standing in it for 11-12 hours was not pleasant remotely. Next time, I buy longjohns first!) and Teddy has a brain tumor as well as just being old (oldest man in the Senate at the moment, I think).

So, then the parade. The huge ceremonial Presidential escort (rank upon rank of police and secret service, including the secret service vehicle contingent - 2 black SUVs) followed by the press corps, followed by more black SUVs and the car affectionately known to many in the crowd as "the Beast". It stopped in the place it traditionally does - outside the Archives (opposite me!) and I caught a brief glimpse of the President of the United States of America in the flesh before the (mostly black - unsurprisingly) crowd pressed forward, forcing me back from the barrier and totally blocking my sight. However, the guy was impressive, I'll give him that; looked a tad cold though. Then came Joe Biden, and (not Mrs) Dr Jill Biden. The reaction wasn't quite as huge, so I got some shots off of those two. Joe looked genuinely awed and happy, and Dr Jill cut a powerful figure in her own right - though the red coat, surrounded by black suits of secret service goons, might have helped a lot with that one.

Okay, now that the major figures of the parade have been covered, I'll save you float-by-float commentary on the rest of the parade; beyond the highlights, here's a brief summary. Lots of pretty good high school and university marching bands, many being chosen to highlight the progress of black Americans and historic things for black Americans (eg the first school built for black Americans). Many military units, all ready to parade in front of Obama and renew their oaths of loyalty (question: How many will have deserted, and over what; fighting on the orders of a Democratic president, or a black one?). Some very amusing floats, too, and something turned up from every state - with the marching bands especially, and their dancers, freezing (one costume was essentially a swimming costume with added frills; those girls must have been icy to the touch).

So, some highlights... the US troops in essentially redcoat uniform have to take one of the prizes for most wierd sight to see, given the history of redocats in the US and their well-known popularity amongst their contemporary Americans. A highly amusing sight, that was, though somewhat impressive too to see them all marching perfectly in step; units must have been trained and drilled specifically for the parade.

Lots of colours guards in the parade - each branch of the military had one, each ROTC and JROTC had one, and some of the school marching bands managed to drum up a colour guard of their own. The number of US flags was incredible.

The Peace Corps showing up gave me cause for thought - would Bush, in either inauguration, have invited them to parade? Internationalist pacifist agenda... doesn't sound like Mr Two-Wars Bush very much, and the fact that the peace corps support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is noteworthy. Their section of the parade was one of the most beautiful, too - those flags of all nations (literally, I believe) were really a lovely image, and very bright too.

The various Native American sections of the parade were good, with both men and women in native dress; I've got some shots off of those but none of them are terribly good, especially the later ones as it got very dark by the end; the sun went down two-thirds or so of the way through the parade, and at that point decent photoraphy by the light of the street lamps alone was impossible. The lit Capitol was nice, though.

That the combined unions marched was one of two very political parts of the parade; each union was represented by one or two people holding a sign, and I think that's a positive sign that Obama is committed to strengthening those insanely weak trade unions that exist over here in the US.

The other overtly political parade section was the inclusion of the first openly LGBT organisation ever to appear in an inaugural parade, the Lesbian & Gay Marching Band. An excellent display, all told, and a positive sign for the Obama administration's position on LGBT issues.

There were some very amusing parts of the parade to - no photos, because it was too dark, but the Lawn Rangers (pronounced somewhere between Lone and Lawn by the announcer) all had decorated lawnmowers and were costumed wonderfully, and with their rakes did manage to do some flag dancing. That sort of thing isn't what one expects of a highly dignified event like this, but... it looked good, honestly.

And two more floats to talk about: The Illinois float, and the Delaware float. The former is above - the little green furry guy is a sports mascot, apparently called South Paw; the other guy is, of course, Lincoln (one of 4 on display this parade). A pretty good float, the Delaware one beat it by a long way, with it's simplicity and power: The preamble to the Constitution ("We the people...") although the tractor pulling it seemed a little out of place.

Now, after the parade had passed, I hopped onto the metro (well, I walked to find an open station, far too many were closed) and went back to Silver Spring where I'm staying. Cold, tired, and near collapse, bed beckoned irresistibly, so this blog post is coming a day late.

All in all, though, it was a wonderful event and the atmosphere was absolutely incredible; I'd do it all over again - though next time, could they change back to March inaugurations please?

Monday, 19 January 2009

DC Central: Days 2 and 3

Day 2:

No pictures, and nothing terribly interesting. Beyond an annoying awakening at about 4am, a good day; brief tour of Silver Spring, courtesy of Francesca, and a trip to the shops buying a mobile phone (email me for a number!) and some toiletries I managed to completely forget. Other than that relaxing tiredly was on the agenda.

Day3, however...

Today is both Martin Luther King Jr Day and Inauguration Day Eve. The whole Mall (the central swathe of DC, the thing you see in films where they have a shot of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, it extends all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial) is being got ready for tomorrow; miles of fencing to keep the 3million+ expected attendants in place, and a set of huge screens to show the inauguration to those 3million people on. I'm not planning to be one of them, since I'd personally rather head for Pennsylvania Ave and watch the parade down towards the White House after the swearing in. So, that's what I'll do.

Anyway, I got off at the Smithsonian metro station - near the Washington Monument, a "my phallic object is bigger than your phallic object" of a thing (seriously.... look at it!) It's pretty impressive in it's scale, and on the background of a skyline like today's I have to say it manages to look decent.

So, I wandered up to the Capitol (that is, the Senate and Representatives) down the Mall, looking at the architecture on each side; that is, a mixture of classical and (very, very wierdly) gothic architecture; the gothic of some of the Smithsonian buildings just stands, no, leaps out of the side and makes itself known, thus I guess fulfilling it's purpose pretty well - "Hey, look at me! Come inside! Have fun in here! Go on, you know you want to!" So, that was pretty cool and the architecture's definitely good.

And the Capitol itself is just incredibly awe-inspiring; that is, I guess it's purpose again; it's a pretty good building which, of course, many of us know from films. It's a very, very big building with a nice dome, and a pool outside it. Well, normally it has a pool; today it had more of an ice-rink for birds before it, rather than anything else. That was quite wierd, I hadn't thought it was actually too terribly cold just recently, but it must have been significantly below freezing for that to have happened. The birds managed to get themselves a little ice-hole, somehow, though; that was quite pretty, with all the birds crowded around it.

Wandering up from there I headed to Union Station. Of course, that's a misnomer, and anyone who's been there can tell you why; it's seems to be far less of a train station (and metro station) and far, far more of a shopping centre, with some pretty classy shops there, and some amazing architecture there which was cool. However, it does still make me think it was wiiiierd as a station; so many shops, y'know?

And it was here I'd agreed to meet Courtney. Now, I won't stick the photo of us two together in here because I've not asked her if she's okay with that, so... it'd be kinda inappropriate, y'know? However, we met, and talked, and walked, and talked, and walked. She's a French Studies student at AU in DC, so we talked about that a bit and about politics and just stuff; walking and talking down to halfway down the Mall. There, we got confused and thought that the concert being shown on the screens (with Springsteen playing and all) was not yesterday's but one for MLK day today; we hurried down to the Lincoln Memorial, only to see we were wrong. Didn't matter much, because Lincoln's memorial is pretty beautiful; based on a Romano-Greek temple, Lincoln takes the place of Zeus, and it's all modelled in a very similar style, except the man himself of course.

At this point we turned and wandered back up the Mall in the direction of Union Station, and saw that the decently-populated Mall of earlier had turned into a veritable sea of people. Now, given that tomorrow's the inauguration day, rather than today, and given how many are expected to turn out (me among them - not on the Mall, though, so yeah) it's pretty impressive; Obama's really tapped into something in the US, and it's something really positive and uniting.

All told a brilliant day, if a tad bit tiring, and tomorrow should be truly, absolutely epic. Now, just to leave you on a funny note... Martin Lolcat King Jr;

Sunday, 18 January 2009


Let's see...

Step one of arriving consisted of flying from Manchester to Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris. Of course, said step one would have been much easier had CdG not had fog, delaying my plane by an hour (the layover between my flights was itself an hour; that's significant). TO be fair, first class is luxurious, and the breakfast was decent, if a tad... well, continentally-sized. Excellent coffee, though.

On arrival I was told I had 17 minutes to change terminal and get through security to my flight. I hit security all of 2 minutes after they stopped fast-tracking people for my flight through, leading to a 6-hour wait in the executive lounge - or, the lap of luxurious comfort and comfortable luxury. Plus, I had a new book - mum slipped Dreams of My Father into my hand luggage before I left, and I started reading it. Obama's a decent writer.

I slept a little on the second plane, but only about an hour; sitting next to a Goan diplomat (when I say diplomat, I mean full-blown diplomatic passport, security fast-tracking, et cetera) who helped me when it came to filling in my customs declaration form that was only stocked in French by a French airline. Surprise, surprise.

On arrival, the immigration process for those with visas is a tad arduous but decently fast - they got through what I estimate at 100 people, using about 8 counters, in about half an hour, which is to my mind pretty impressive, given the extent of security they're putting in place temporarily for the inauguration.

Since when I've met Francesca and Saul (who are both brilliant - we're getting on really well, and long may that continue!) and seen their house (which has a porch at the front and signs in the garden and just looks so typically American in so many ways). After waking up for all of a blurry minute early this morning, I woke at 7:30 - a decent sleep, I did go to bed at around 11 local time, so it seems the whole jetlag thing might just about be being avoided.

So, I'm in DC, and this big grin just won't quit my face. Off, damned grin, off I say! Ay, while my poor face ne'er stop smiling?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


For now, all I do is say hello and welcome to all readers of this journal; hopefully, it'll fill up somewhat over the next 26 weeks, preferably with rather more than 26 entries, though we shall see.

It'll also have pictures of some of the things I get up to (not so much the inauguration though, since cameras are a banned item) and some interesting links, perhaps, to click on (here, the inauguration will probably come to the fore).

So, all in all, be welcome one, be welcome all, and join me in a nice 6 months in the US.