Sweet Harmony of Imperfection



Seen from a distance, perched on picturesque hills and refreshingly eclectic in style, the buildings of San Francisco are stunning. In many ways this is a familiar sight. A favourite set for cinematographers, the countless movies shot here have made many of its landmarks easily recognizable.


Strolling along wide pavements, watching the traffic go by from the safe distance of a less alienating world, where people still look at each other with a certain degree of confidence, I felt welcome. Welcome and strangely at home (although I had flown half the planet to get there). The city’s kind and respectful acknowledgement of human life possible (even encouraged) out of one’s car is something I have always been grateful for. Without any doubt, San Francisco is a very special place. The banality of the statement makes me frown in discomfort as I write. But bear with me. There is more beyond the obvious.


An uncanny feeling of deja vu is bound to take hold of most of us, visitors, stepping up and down its steep, crooked streets, in search of a place or another, or simply strolling aimlessly. Yes, cinema is largely responsible for our non-lostness in this brave new world. The joy of discovery is coupled here with the soothing embrace of the already known. Because of this one feels less of a stranger. Or no stranger at all…


Embarrassingly predictable and undeniably self-deluding as it is, the feeling is real and also enriching. Which raises the question: how something so obviously wrong can lead us to something clearly meaningful?


By suspension of disbelief we willingly give up what reason would otherwise tell us to do: dismiss the feeling as false and unsubstantiated. Dangerous even, to the point of potentially making fools of ourselves. No matter. Foolish as it may seem, following what in the beginning is nothing more than a hunch, may open our eyes in ways unexpected. We are always given a choice.


In this case for instance, I could have engaged with the wealth of information and advice usually bestowed on tourists and new-comers to San Francisco. Or forget it and accept I was at home. I chose to listen to my heart and embrace the space with unreasonable confidence. Willingly, I distanced myself from the well-trodden paths and the safety of other people’s advice, opting to throw myself into the unknown with nothing but a map and the belief that I was going to be ok and that the hunch was meaningful.


There was the small matter of the conference. Obviously, this had an impact, limiting some of the possibilities. And the time involved: just a few days. However, with the detachment of hindsight, I can now quite safely say that more liberty and a few extra days would have made little difference. The experience was set within strict boundaries. This in itself was significant. One immediate effect of brevity is that, when things really matter, strict boundaries confer an increased degree of focus and clarity of vision.


Built as it is on hills (42 to be precise), the city can be viewed from a multitude of angles. This, of course, makes it very photogenic. But also, more importantly, it allows perception of the same place from more than one point of view. From far away, the elegant shapes of the skyscrapers have an undeniably uplifting effect. Looking at them is quite an experience. Reflected in their walls of steel and glass is a reassuring vision of ourselves. That side of us daring beyond common sense, adventurous, with a taste for pushing frontiers ever more dangerously further, and able above expectations. In other words, we see what we can make happen when we decide to overcome what we think are our limits. From up close however, our perception changes dramatically. On the whole, these buildings were developed in tight clusters, so, at ground level, the sun can rarely shine. As for the sky, there is not much of it visible. Sight is limited and the vision of the whole is not possible.


Instead we are confronted with something else. Less exhilarating maybe, but equally valuable: the experience of our smallness and frailty in relation not only to the world we inhabit, but also our own creations. The discrepancy between the scale of the products of our imagination and our own diminutive nature is perhaps nowhere as obvious as it is in architecture.


From a touchable distance, the vision is not comfortable. But the truth it reveals is vital. Beyond the exercise in humility it takes us through, this truth points to something else as well. A fact perhaps slightly more surprising, but not altogether unexpected in contexts other than the one under discussion. Mainly that things are rarely what they seem to be and that great beauty can materialize from oftentimes unbelievable contradictions.


Take for instance the Transamerica Pyramid, one of the city’s unmistakable landmarks. From afar the building is harmony personified. From down beneath it is heavy and puzzling. All in all, an almost terrifying heap of concrete and glass pushing itself upwards with a force impossible to stop or re-direct towards another path, perhaps less seemingly reckless. But having said this, overwhelming as it may seem when scrutinized from only a few paces away, the structure could not have been more harmonious, verging on perfection. In 1989, when the 7.1-magnitude Lorma Prieta earthquake stuck the Bay Area, although the building shook for more than a minute, during which its top swayed almost a foot from side to side, the Pyramid escaped entirely undamaged. This does not mean to say that its fate (together with that of other tall buildings in the Financial District) is secure. San Franscisco is a highly volatile place of intense and unpredictable seismic activity. How long they will last is impossible to guess. One thing is sure though. The design of these buildings is particularly complex and takes into account the inevitability of huge earthquakes to come.


Beyond the smooth beauty of its perfect shape there is a lot of thinking visible in the tentative effort to prevent the worst. The slick, contemporary look of the Pyramid’s surface outstanding in its simplicity is deceiving. The building’s exterior is covered with white precast quartz aggregate interlaced with reinforcing rods at four places on each floor. Panels are not joined to each other to allow lateral movement and a unique truss system is in place, supporting both vertical and horizontal loading. Nothing is simple. No line uninterrupted. No stone unturned in terms of trying to achieve both visual and functional excellence.


Buildings like the Transamerica Pyramid are very obvious examples of this particular desideratum at work. But it is not unique, or indeed confined to architecture. Examples further a field are no less evident. Let us for instance take the case of a painting very much in vogue at the moment, Leonardo’s Last Supper. When approached with an attentive eye, this work reveals extremes of artifice. They are described in detail in Martin Kemp’s study Leonardo da Vinci – The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man (Oxford University Press: 2006). Somewhat unexpected in a painting such as the one mentioned above, making a note of these extremes is essential for our understanding of what lies beneath the mesmerizing harmony of the fresco.


Painted onto the walls of the Covent of Santa Maria delle Grazie near Milan, the state of the Last Supper is painfully bad. Although some of Leonardo's original touches have been re-brought to the surface in the restoration recently completed, with this particular work the painter's daring attempts to revolutionize the technique of fresco were not successful. In fact, the picture started to deteriorate while Leonardo was still alive.


Most of the vibrant detail of the fresco is lost forever. We now only see a pale shadow of what might have been luscious colours and we have to make an effort of imagination to recompose the full expression of the characters.


Not all is gone however. From the threshold of the twilight zone which fate and human error have bestowed upon it, the fresco glows as meaningfully as ever. We are caught in its web of wonder and illusion. We are beckoned to raise to the challenge, to open our eyes, take up the gauntlet and enter the dangerous waters of a game which we all know may far exceed our capabilities. The invitation to be more than a passive spectator is there. It is up to us whether we take it or not.


Looking carefully we see that one of the most conspicuous visual paradoxes is that Leonardo has a chosen a table too narrow to provide seating for all the characters in the painting. There are no seats from which Peter and Thomas could have risen. Then there is the matter of perspective . While seemingly a tidy demonstration of Albertian principles, Leonardo’s treatment of them is in reality more than defiant, offering what is in essence an illusionistic alternative.


The first hint of his departure from the norm is in the viewpoint. The rules (which, by the way, Leonardo fully subscribed to) say that the painter must portray things realistically in their setting and that he must place the eye below the object he sets to paint. In terms of the Last Supper however, this meant that the viewer would not have been able to see the upper surface of the table and quite a lot of the disciples’ bodies. Something which Leonardo was not prepared to do as thus he would have compromised the clarity of the narrative exposition.


The actual viewpoint of the painting is in an impossible position at more than twice the height of a man. The only way to counter-balance this is to view the fresco from an off-centre position within the refectory. In this case one of the lateral walls of the painting aligns reasonably well as an extension of the wall of the room. However, the other wall in the painting will be thrown badly out of alignment with the corresponding feature in the actual space as a result.


In non-technical terms what this means is that Leonardo effectively removes the concept of an ideal viewpoint, ensuring that no spectator could claim to occupy a privileged position in relation to the painting. In other words, from our imperfect place in the real world we are all made equal to each other. And we are all fooled. What seems a perfect extension of our universe into a quintessentially naturalistic type of painting is an illusion.


However, the way we have embraced this illusion from the day it was unveiled suggests something rather important. That Leonardo’s Last Supper looks logical because we look at it assuming it is. Even complete awareness of the contrivance does not destroy the impression of reality. But things, the painter seems to say, are rarely what they appear to be. Even when truth stares us in the face.


The world encapsulated in the work of art cannot (indeed should not) be made to fit the tight glove of mundane reality. If it is going to be an extension at all it should be up-lifting. Literally. Very much like the viewpoint in the Last Supper, which is not only off-centre, but high above the ground.


We should accept, that, in a metaphorical way, this is how we should position ourselves in relation to the gifts we ceaselessly receive, be they extraordinary cities, great works of art or meaningful truths in our lives. If we look from up close, we are bound to notice that almost invariably, they are not smooth, perfectly logical or harmonious. They defy rather than submit to what we want them to be. Indeed to what we can imagine them to be.


The lesson of San Francisco… while walking among colourful houses and pyramids of glass. Listening to my heart. Trusting the Power that entrusts itself to it, helping us see the world as it is and each other. In the fragile depths of its whisper - it dawned to me - is the light and the knowledge of the next step to follow.

Oxford, 28 May 2006


Text copyright © 2006 Cristina Neagu


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