Thursday, 13 May 2010

EL ESCORIAL EN ALTA CALIFORNIA



On a sunny day two weeks ago, there I was, standing alongside what looked like an outsize monastery, vaguely reminding me of the deep middle ages. But cloister colonnades from that time with stout Romanesque pillars used to circumcise a cute little green garden with fountains and birds; here it girdled a gigantic outer yard fit for exercising an army, and an inner greens the size of four football fields. Furthermore, the building material was yellow sandstone, rarely encountered in medieval cloisters, and the decorations incised in that stone looked distinctly Moorish to me.

Suddenly I recalled an old story about the Spanish king who remodelled a monastery on the countryside near Madrid into a Royal residence. Without ever having seen this palace, called El Escorial, it could certainly not be more imposing than the present edifice. If Charles V, the great “Austrian” Emperor, had been aware of this place, he certainly would have preferred it to his final retreat Yuste in Extremadura. He owned half the globe after all, and would have enjoyed this giant quadrant of colonnades, so suited to being carried around in when the gouts are attacking you with a vengeance.


An Austrian owning half the globe? Am I prone to funky exaggerations? Well, in the times of Charles V, the feudal system was still firmly in place, allegiance was given to progeniture, and he was a Habsburg from his father’s side and that’s what counts. The fact that he was born in Ghent in Flanders, or that he was King of Spain as well as of Germany, not to speak of being Duke of Burgundy and Archduke of the Austrian domains, combining it all in his title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (of German Nation) does not detract from his Austrian lineage.

Furthermore, owning half of the globe, he of course owned Mexico, which had been conquered under his regime. Thereby he owned the lower and upper Californias as well, in a manner of speech, since his conquistadores already had planted the Spanish flag there a few years after the Mexican Conquista, in their vainglorious hunt for gold. So the vision of Charles V being carried around on a chair in a giant monastery in the Bay Area does not seem too farfetched after all.


Lest we get too distracted by the fantasies of alternative history, let us come back to my standing besides an impressive edifice called, aptly, the Main Quad, the original building of the largest (in area) university campus in America, Stanford University. The campus encompasses fully 3310 ha of grounds in the flatlands South of San Francisco, adjacent to the town of Palo Alto. So huge are the grounds that they even contain, on the south-western side, a golf course and a lake and, on the northern side, a park-like forest leading up to the grand entrance. In comparison, the UCB central campus grounds in Berkeley encompass only 90 ha, below some 2600 hectares of mainly un-penetrateable high grounds on the hills.

Stanford is one of the main private universities in America and is considered by some to be the second best research university in the world (with UCB considered fourth best). This is not the place to tell the full story of Stanford, this being a blog, but let me nonetheless dwelve on some interesting peculiarities. The campus site was originally a horse farm owned by the Stanford family, who had come to riches in the turbulent railroad building age, when enormous wealth was created (and destroyed) at the turn of a dice. They founded the university in memory of their only child that had died a teenager, with the touching motto “The Children of America shall be our Children”.

Among the first students was Herbert Hoover, who would claim to be the first student ever at Stanford, by virtue of having been the first person in the first class to sleep in the dormitory. He later gave abundantly to the school, funding the Hoover Institute, which is to this day a major conservative think tank in the US.

Interestingly, the US Government was, at the outset, not too keen on having the fledgling school prosper, even survive. It opened a process against the Stanford estate over an amount of money essentially equal to the funding promise, 15 million dollars. During the litigation period, students and faculty basically starved, provisionally upheld by household money spent by the then widowed Jane Stanford. She paid salaries out of her personal resources, even pawning her jewelry to keep the university going. These precariousities are long forgotten. The lawsuit was eventually dropped and subsequent diligent management, combined with abundant support from alumni, have brought the endowments up to an impressive 17 billion dollars (in 2008).

The reason for my visit to this temple of grandeur was Eva, a friend of mine, as well as of many commentators on this blog, who had invited me over for a campus tour. But we should not forget Richard’s role in all of this, he had originally reminded me of Eva’s presence in the Bay Area and suggested that we meet.

So, on April’s last Thursday, I rose early in the morning to get ready for the trip to the peninsula, South of San Francisco. I had decided to make the trip by BART (metro) and Caltrain as a test, for your benefit, of the public transport system in the Bay Area. In clear morning air, not experienced that early before, my apartment complex looked more enticing than ever, meriting a quick shot by the camera before leaving for the metro station, some 20 minutes walk away.

BART was a pleasant experience. It is not precisely a metro, since stations are spaced rather sparingly, it is more like the “pendeltåg” our local train system in Stockholm. But it runs very smoothly and fast and has a roomy interior well geared towards great quantities of travellers. Furthermore - Stockholm take note - it is fully air conditioned, making the voyage pleasant also in hot summer days. From Berkeley to its southernmost station on the peninsula, Millbrae, it took about an hour of comfortable travel.



At Millbrea I had to switch to the ordinary train system, Caltrain. Unfortunately, I had not checked connection times, so I had to wait almost 50 minutes for the next train South. When it came, it looked much like the RER trains in Paris, with a bit worn double-decker wagons, and the ride was far from as smooth as with BART. Still, the remaining 30 minutes of the trip passed quickly and there I was, at the Palo Alto train station, a cute little well-kept building in the bucolic landscape. All in all, the ride was at least as pleasant as going from Stockholm to, say, Gnesta, combining “tunnelbana” with “pendeltåg”.


I had planned to walk to the campus but was easily dissuaded from this by the campus shuttle already awaiting us at the station. The trip was much longer than I had anticipated, bearing witness to the campus’ vastness. On the way we passed what looked like a copious forest, before entering the campus proper on a road that seemed to go on forever.

Having some time to spare before the meeting with Eva, I strolled around the central campus grounds, soon leading me up to the gigantic complex described above in the introduction. I have to admit that the Main Quad buildings fascinated me. You may have guessed so already from my little tale in the beginning. The “endless” succession of pillars in the colonnades provided beautiful opportunities for the photographer in me. You could circumvent the complex in about 30 minutes within these colonnades, being well shaded from the sun and greeted by ever changing vistas in the seemingly static set-up of columns.


Eventually being enticed outside, the vista depicted in the title picture awaited me. Bow after bow of finely chiselled sandstone led the eyes to a high rise in the distance, looking like a church tower, in all this quasi-monasterial splendour. This I had to investigate further. Passing from one courtyard to the next through a large portal, I started to realise that this was a tower standing essentially on its own. So I continued strolling in its general direction. On the way I passed a pleasant fellow photographer, engaged in preparing a video, he informed me, of participants to one of the many conferences daily being arranged on campus. As always, when meeting colleagues, I queried him about photo opportunities and, in particular, about the nature of the tower. It turned out that this was naught else but Hoover’s final monument intending to manifest his grandeur. Randall, if you read this posting, I would appreciate your comments on the pictures I took in Stanford; assessment by a fellow artisan is always very welcome!


Whereas the Hoover Institute was funded with Herbert’s own money and before he became President, the Tower was funded mainly with other peoples’ money, with collections starting under his Presidency and construction finalized first in 1940. You may be surprised about the willingness to support this project, in view of the Hoover Presidency traditionally being seen as hapless and unable to prevent the Great Depression, but, when viewing Herbert’s biography, one sees that he was a man of many talents and had a manifold of excellent achievements on his account. Whilst pondering on these issues, I finally arrived underneath the tower that, as everything else at Stanford, was placed in an esthecially pleasing surrounding, with a nice fountain splashing its currents on a roundabout in front of the edifice.


But by now it was time for my appointment with Eva. Her office was located, within the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy, in a newly built edifice with the impressive name of “John & Cynthia Fry Gunn Building”. When I approached this building, I thought first that I had taken a wrong turn. In front of me was a palace, not unlike the Alhambra in Grenada, with fountains, waterways and all. Only the water in the fountains was missing, to my regret, otherwise the illusion was perfect. Obviously the university takes great care in preserving traditional architectural styles, even when providing new facilities for the good professors.


Dared I enter this impressive monument? Indeed I dared, and was rewarded by a polite welcome in the reception, with a personal guide put at my disposal to accompany me to Eva’s office or, rather, to an antechamber since I was a bit early for the appointment. And here we are, visiting Eva’s office, which is as impressive as the building. In my long career at many different institutions I never had such a cosy and roomy office as hers, with the possible exception for the expanse I once occupied in the Riksbank, where I was Senior Manager for a short while.


Eva Meyersson Milgrom is Visiting Professor at the Institute and a highly appreciated participant in the research and teaching programmes. Since we had not met for more than ten years, we had a nice chat, updating each other on events and achievements since then. Per, I did not forget to forward your regards to Eva’s husband, Paul Milgrom, a book of whom you used as teaching material when you were professor in Gothenburg. The book in question was of course in place on the spacious bookshelf and could be properly inspected by yours truly. Eva graciously undertook to purvey your compliments to Paul.

And now, dear readers, a first on this blog: Eva live, sending her greetings to her Swedish friends:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXsQBQLk5GI

After our pleasant chat, Eva was so kind as to be my guide to the treasures of Stanford, revisiting the campus centre once again, but this time seen with the eyes of an expert who knows where the real marvels are to be garnered. Whereas I had, earlier, lost myself in the myriad of columns, Eva now guided me towards the memorial church adorning the Great Quad. This architectural wonder was the favourite building project for Jane Stanford during her time as manager of Stanford university; even funds greatly needed to improve academic standards were sometimes diverted to secure its financing. Unfortunately, two major earthquakes have destroyed a major part of the original church. Still, the renovated edifice gives a delightful impression of a Byzantine church, being modelled after early Romanesque churches in the region of Venice and Ravenna.



And now comes the zenith of my visit: Eva directed me with firm hands towards a group of statues, located in the Great Quad’s inner greens that turned out to be nothing else but Rodin’s famous Citoyens de Calais! I had not paid any attention to those statues earlier, concentrating on the colonnades, but, true enough, there was a sign on the feet of these statues that said: Citizens of Calais by Rodin. How could that be? The group had originally been commanded by the town of Calais, to be placed on its greens and, as far as I knew, was still adorning that site. But I had overlooked the fact that Rodin made bronze statues and bronze statues are being cast on the basis of a master model. Thus, several versions in bronze, essentially identical in shape, can be cast from one master. Later I found out that the French state limited the number of castings to 12. In fact, there exist 14 Citoyens de Calais in the world. These 14 had been cast before the French Decree.


The above picture shows you why it is so easy to overlook the group, if your main interest lies in photographing colonnades. They kind of melt into the large green bacground. After having been re-educated by Eva, I of course directed the camera also to the more expressive of the citizens created by Rodin, to pay tribute to this foremost of modern sculptors.


Too soon it was time to say “Goodbye” to Eva and start my voyage back home. It was with regret that I left the Great Quad, such a treat for a photographer, and I could not resist the temptation of some last shots on its outside, facing towards the entrance gate, as you can see from the picture below.


Now I had to make a decision: should I trudge, on foot, all the way back to the railway station, or should I take the shuttle back? Ever ready to brace adversities, I chose the more burdensome method, eager to explore the park like forest preceding the gate. To give you yet another impression of this campus’ enormity, take a look at the outer greens below the Great Quad, facing the “forest” in the distance, and including an enticing flowery representation of Stanford’s initial. From where I was standing, to the entrance gate, it was still a brisk 30 minutes’ walk!


But once past the outer greens, I did not regret the long journey. Before my eyes unfolded a charming forest, no doubt replanted on the space of Stanford’s ancient farm, with trees glowing in the late afternoon sun. Walking among these trees was like walking in a faerie grove and I sincerely hope that this delightful space will stay unchanged for generations to come. A fitting place for saying a last “Goodbye” to Stanford.


Coming back from this outer-worldly place to a Berkeley with more human proportions, I followed Per’s advice to take a beer at Berkeley square, which is conveniently located just outside the BART station. Lest you believe that only Stanford has monumental buildings to show for it, let me in a last picture present to you the first, and still largest, skyscraper in Berkeley, standing on the fringe of Berkeley Square. Unfortunately, it is not the only skyscraper in Berkeley. There exists a twin, built in the sixties, standing just next to the older one, which everyone wishes had never been built.

5 comments:

Heinz Wimpissinger said...

Lieber Emil, beeindruckend Dein Kontaktnetz, Deine richtig wissenschaftliche Detailsicht Deiner Umgebung und Deine literarische Ader. Deine Escorial Reflektionen inspirieren mich als Klosterneuburger. Weißt Du, dass Kaiser Karl VI das Stift Klosterneuburg nach dem Vorbild des Escorial gebaut hat. Er schaffte nur ein Viertel des Projektes fertig zu stellen und seine Tochter Maria Theresia war nicht mehr interessiert und hat anstelle dessen Schloss Schönbrunn errichtet. Eliten haben offensichtlich immer schon global gewirkt! Ich bin schon gespannt auf Deine Abschlussberichte aus bella California. Herzlich Dein Heinz

Richard Murray said...

Emil,
Your account of the Stanford architecture mimicking El Escorial and Alhambra and recounting Charles the V sends flash-backs from my visit to Granada several years ago. There, Alhambra, so delicately designed, with compact, still spacious building, set in a winding set of gardens and courts with water, water, water flowing (despite the elevation of the site - how did they do it?), adding cool to the shady areas under the archades, badly needed in the heat of the summer, was set beside a monstrous castle ordered by Charles V, som clumsy and presumptious. Unfortunately the Americans seem to be more related to Charles than to the Moors, while still paying tribute to them in their "emanuel style" copied ornaments.

Emil, good that you got to see Eva, in her new office, mch grander than the one I saw a couple of years ago. If you come to Sandhamn in the summer we could all meet, hopefully also with Paul.

Best wishes and welcome back to Stockholm.

Richard

Emil Ems said...

Lieber Heinz,
Thank you kindly for this interesting piece of information about Charles VI. Apparently, he had more success with this beautiful building than his forefather had with his castle next to Alhambra, which Richard, on his comment below yours, aptly describes as "monstrous". On the other hand, there is no Alhambra residing alongside Stift Klosterneuburg, to spoil the pleasure of admiring this Baroque edifice.

Dear Richard,
As always, you put the finger on the spot. However, I cannot resist to rise to the defense of American architecture of yore. The buildings in Stanford, as well as other buildings by famous architects from that period, such as, Julia Morgan, bring with it a rather charming blend of classical traits and, what they call it here, Spanish mission style. This blend is characteristically Californian and a unique architectural style. Before, rightly, criticizing it for bad plagierism, we should think about all the European buildings built around the same time, before Art Nouveau revolutionized architecture. Are, for instance, the buildings on the Ringstrasse, being more or less exact copies of older Architectural styles, more admirable than Stanford's Main Quad?

But let us not go into deep discussions about this! I would like to thank you once again for initializing this nice visit to Eva in Stanford that brought with it such interesting memories! Would be nice to meet you all again in Sandhamn later this Summer.

Lars Werin said...

Emil,
Which is best, Berkeley or Stanford? I don’t mean academically, but architecturally. Your chronicles and photos raise that problem, and both you and a couple of others have touched on it. I prefer Berkeley. I like the eclecticism and intimacy of the Berkeley campus, the somewhat vulgar elements add to its charm. Stanford is somewhat too solemn, and too spread-out. And isn’t the architecture of the monastery-like buildings of Stanford false? Too heavy, too much of a pastiche. As for Alhambra, it’s a gem that cannot be copied. Any attempt at copying it is doomed to failure, the result will tend towards the ridiculous or even absurd.

Now a digression, perhaps. Richard made a very interesting comparison with the palace of Karl (Charles) V just beside Alhambra. Yes, it’s too close to Alhambra. And yes, it’s somewhat heavy. But it opened horizons. Cannot functionalism at its very best be traced back to that palace?

Interestingly, there are three missing links on our northerly European latitudes. The “Riksförsäkringsverket” building close to Adolf Fredrik’s church in Stockholm, designed by one of the best modern Swedish architects (Lewerentz) is somewhat of a copy, but more crisp, and the courtyard is slightly oval, not round. The Police Building in Copenhagen has a round courtyard, but it is not a circle in a square, it’s a circle in a parallellogram.

And so, of course, Asplund’s magnificent Public Library in Stockholm. Here the circular courtyard is turned upside down and put on top of the heavy square as a kind of tower. What a genius! Next stage: genuine, now classical, functionalism. In retrospect, Alhambra is a cul-de-sac — even though the most exquisite and charming one you could ever imagine. Stanford flirted a little bit too much with it.

Harry Pottol said...

Dear Emil
Leland Stanford Senior was the leader of the "Big Four" that built the railroad across the Sierra Nevada. He was dissatisfied with college graduates in the style of my great-grandfather, who had college degrees in something, but knew nothing of business. Stanford's idea was to found a college that prepared people to go into business. During travel in Italy, their son Leland Stanford Junior, at age 15, died. I believe the cause typhoid fever. Anyway, as a result, there are many junior colleges in the country, but only one Junior University. Governor Stanford (Leland Sr.) did not live to see the institution open, but his wife did.

I went on line to see if the eucalyptus forest was there when the Stanfords were around. It well may be, but these trees appear to me to be no more than sixty or seventy years old. Being a Berkeley graduate, I am not familiar with The Farm. (I am among those who consider eucalyptus trees to be alien pests.)
Harry