Atlas' burden, our angst (Photograph by Ellen Fisch)
Poetry of Geometry by Noemi Zarb
February 25, 2020
Writer, Columnist & Featured Contributor at Bizcatalayst360
How can something be incongruous yet concurrently be a perfect fit?
Architecturally speaking, I am not referring to glaringly obvious misfits that horrify even in their attempt to justify the unjustifiable; rather to seeming incongruity that fades away after a closer look. I find myself pondering on these lines whenever I contemplate I.M. Pei’s clear glass pyramids as the entrance/extension to the Louvre.
Seeming incongruity between the sacred and the profane struck me once again a few days ago when I gazed upon Ellen Fisch’s uncanny monochromatic shot of St Patrick’s Cathedral looming in front of the bronze statue of Atlas outside the Rockefeller Centre in New York.
Admittedly my response to this shot lacks an actual ‘being there, seen it moment’ for I have never been to New York. Nevertheless, like any superb expression, it sucks you into being there compelling you to stop in your tracks.
Just a cursory look imparts the poetry of geometry in the interplay of forms and formations. Which grows richer and richer with its evocative symbolism of the heavens-holding Atlas confronting the neo-Gothic St Patrick’s Cathedral in the heart of Manhattan. The confrontation is intentional both in the conception of the statue as well as Fisch’s use of centricity to pinpoint a rear view of Atlas’s rippling muscles denoting his titanic strength while highlighting a Catholic cathedral in a way that turns the tables on what is foreground and background.
If you are familiar with Greek mythology you do not need to be told that Atlas was punished to daily bear the weight of the heavens for wanting to oust the Olympians. Condemned to stand at the Western edge of the Earth and hold the heavens on his shoulders, the heavens and Earth were consequently prevented from resuming their primordial embrace. Somewhere along the line, the misconception of Atlas bearing the Earth took hold which to my mind denotes rampant world-weariness.
I do not know whether the irony is intended or not in the way Lee Lawrie’s statue expresses both the defiance and the deference to the yoke of succumbing to the god of Mammon in a city synonymous with unbridled capitalism. After all, it stands outside the Rockefeller Centre in the heart of corporate America – itself a monument to America’s first billionaire.
Whatever his intentions, Lawrie chose to represent the heavens in orbiting silhouettes beautifully imparting spinning sensations despite the metal’s stasis reminding me both of Robert Browning’s words ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?’ as well as Macbeth’s ‘barren sceptre’ in his ‘grip’. Moreover, rather than obliterating the cathedral’s façade, the spherical formation partially frames it.
Fisch cleverly chooses an angle in which the framing effects encapsulate the cathedral’s tapering spires while omitting the statue’s pedestal to strip Atlas from any possible pride, his rearview further denying his face; so that the full focus falls on his punishing burden. This is further emphasized by the contrast between the statue’s dark hues and the cathedral’s much lighter ones.
She also sidelines and dulls the skyscrapers even though they actually dwarf the cathedral. In this way, they do not detract from the cathedral’s façade although their towering shadow hangs heavily.
As a result, her angle of choice working in tandem with the play of light and shadow tone down the indigenous creation of gravity-defying buildings first built when the United States was rising as a superpower on the world stage and striding the blast of American modernism that seduced the world with its energy, its allure and its arrogance to change the paradigms of western civilization. At an exorbitant price, of course.
Significantly, the cathedral's neo-gothic architecture also speaks volumes. In sharp contrast to glitzy skyscrapers (not visible in this image), Manhattan’s cathedral shows America’s awe of the Old Continent built before the invention of skyscrapers. In spite of being a replica (another statement in itself), the geometry, the functionality, and the symbolism of gothic architecture are not totally lost.
The intricately sculpted façade creating an ethereal lacework from solidity, the pointed Gothic arches, the vaulted ceilings, and especially the Gothic spires all reach an apex at a point of convergence – a point which integrates the alpha and the omega. Your response to the three visible crosses is your private affair. The most telling is the central one expertly captured at the point of intersection between the temporal and the heavenly.
I have often wondered whether Gothic architecture inspired Shakespeare to come up with the expression ‘vaulting ambition’ in his magnificent tragedy Macbeth. This is a play in which obsessive desire is pursued with religious zeal in total disregard to decency and honor – the outcome of which transforms a valiant man into a serial killer. It is a play that endures because we can all relate to wanting something at all costs and which resonates in a singular way because Shakespeare’s alchemy of poetic drama has the ‘hellish’ Macbeth remain his own best witness to his former innate goodness. And although the influence of the witches’ evil spell and his wife’s jeering cannot be denied, it is his very own self-admitted ‘vaulting ambition’ that drives him to the lowest depths.
I still remember how this expression leapt out of the page when I first read the play. And the more I think about its connection with Gothic ceilings, the more it makes sense. For prior to skyscrapers, this is the architecture that aspired to reach the stars with the rebelliousness of Prometheus raging against the simultaneous acknowledgement of human limitations in spite of the wondrous invention of flying buttresses. (It is no surprise to discover the statue of Prometheus inside the Rockefeller Centre itself.)
But Gothic architecture hails back to the Middle Ages whose fervor to glorify creation explains both its soaring spires as well as in its dazzling, stained glass windows seeking transcendental, heavenly light. And for all the epoch’s murkiness, the indisputable yearning for spirituality as a guiding light was also depicted in its cloudless skies. In fact, clouds symbolizing doubt make their appearance (albeit in the background) in Renaissance paintings. Nor is St Patrick’s Cathedral standing amid New York’s skyscrapers as jarring as it first seems. Europe’s old town squares grew out of a church facing a municipal building – each leaving no doubt of their respective power statement. How the vibes buildings emanate manifest the spirit of the society that built them! Their presence of the past ... their presence in our present.
Almost a millennium has passed since Medieval times. And the accretion of all that we have lost and won over so many centuries is now suspended on the cusp of yet another seismic shift – this time of a digital, AI age rewriting what it means to be human.
Meanwhile, we are inundated with messages goading us on to believe that there are no hurdles to achieve whatever we desire; that we should not deprive the world of whatever it is that we have to offer while we ride roughshod over nature, family and communal bonds enabling a lucrative market for peddling life coaches.
You may say that I am digressing. Well, take another look at Fisch’s extraordinary photograph. Will Atlas choose to remain burdened by manacling materialism and content with being a mere pawn in the world of big money-making which will invariably only lard the pockets of the powerful super-rich? Or will he unburden himself, cross the street and seek deliverance?
If the latter, the first step demands a commitment to strip all masks and veneers to scrutinise his essential and existential self. Aristotle said that ‘knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’ – a life-long exercise of self-reflection in which the questions you ask are consistently more crucial than the answers. If answers ever transpire. Once again, I wonder about the intentional/unintentional irony of the imposing statue of wisdom – also designed by Lawrie - embellishing the entrance to the main building of the Rockefeller Centre.
It is also true that we usually choose what we want to see meaning much authenticity and humility are required to see what we do not want to see - in this case how the poetry of geometry in Fisch’s photograph transfigures into an algebra of infinite angst. Without forfeiting the lyricism.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Ellen Fisch for allowing me to reproduce her photograph and encourage anyone reading my piece to discover (unless they have already done so) and relish the remarkable sensitivity of her architectural photography @ www.ellenfisch.com
This article and Ellen Fisch’s photograph appear in Noemi Zarb’s Book: