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More Missed Opportunities

March 16, 2010 1 comment

I keep discovering art and architecture that we missed or paid insufficient attention to during our trip to France and Italy last fall. I already wrote, for example, about MAXXI, the National Museum of the XXI Century Arts, which was designed by Zaha Hadid and opened in Rome days after we left. Thanks to the NYT and the WSJ, I’ve now learned about two more.

I wrote here and here about our short initial stay in Paris last October. Our flight from New York landed in Orly around 6:00 AM and we were at our hotel before 7:00. After a short rest, I headed to my sister’s apartment around 9:00. This involved walking southwards to the Seine (through the 8th arrondissement), crossing the Pont de l’Alma, and then choosing any of several routes that would get me a few blocks west and south in some order. I chose to continue south a block before turning west onto Rue de l’Université, a street I hadn’t remembered walking down before. And when I reached an odd modern building on the north side of Rue de l’Université, running east-west between it and the Seine (or more precisely, between Rue de l’Université and Quai Branly, the street that parallels the Seine) with some sort of urban swamp in front, I knew I hadn’t been there before.

This, of course, was my first missed opportunity. I had no idea what the building was. A school? A library? A museum? I eventually came to the sign and found that I was passing the Musée du Quai Branly, which features art from cultures around the world. Or, as the website explains, it has “an unpartitioned geographical itinerary comprising 5,450 artefacts from all four corners of the world. … [T]he permanent collections area presents the great geographical regions in which the Musée du quai Branly’s remarkable collections originated: Oceania, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The visitor makes his way fluidly across them, taking in the major crossroads between civilisations and cultures: Asia-Oceania, Insulindia, and Mashreck-Maghreb. The 3,500 artefacts are presented so as to highlight the historical depth of the cultures that produced them, and the many different meanings that the works themselves possess. The museography encourages the visitor to take the time to inform himself on major thematic areas: masks and tapa in Oceania, costume in Asia, and African musical instruments and textiles form the subjects of a series of fascinating video presentations.”

Later that day, when Gail and I returned to the hotel, we walked along Quai Branly, providing us with a view of the museum’s other side. I wish I took photos. The two sides are very different. What I didn’t realize, though, until just two days ago was that the museum was designed by Jean Nouvel, the French architect who received the 2008 Pritzker Prize.

The NYT Sunday travel section had an article on restaurants in Paris museums, with the theme that whereas for “years, Paris museums have mostly offered charmless dining rooms and cafeterias serving uninspired food, at odds with their institutions’ cutting-edge agendas and masterpiece-filled exhibition halls,” there has now been a shift: “From bold experiments to understated havens of cool, a clutch of new restaurants has sprung up in museums and other cultural institutions all over the city.” Last of the four restaurants featured in the article is Les Ombres: “The Jean Nouvel-designed Les Ombres restaurant — a geometric glass enclosure with a latticework of metal girders perched like a futuristic greenhouse atop the Musée du Quai Branly, a huge, postmodern repository of global anthropological relics — is certainly the most visually striking of the new generation of museum restaurants.”

Aha! Now I knew what I had unwittingly walked past in October. (Mind you, I found the south side sufficiently interesting that on our return to Paris in November, I made it a point to take the same route to my sister’s apartment so that Gail could see it.) I’ll study the building more closely next time. And go in.

In the meantime, if I want to see more of Jean Nouvel, I can do so in New York. Yesterday, NYT architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff reviewed the new Nouvel-designed apartment building at 11th Avenue and 19th Street. My father worked just a few blocks south of there for many years.

That’s one missed opportunity. The other one? Seeing Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul, which is in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It was the featured masterpiece in the Wall Street Journal’s weekly arts section two Saturdays ago, and since we made it a point to go to the church in November, I wondered why the WSJ’s photo of it didn’t look familiar. (The church is on the north side of the Piazza del Popolo. Our hotel was just two buildings south of the south side. We visited the church on our final morning in Rome, just before packing and heading to the train station to go to Florence.) I checked with Gail, who agreed that it wasn’t there when we went in. Several of the chapels were missing their paintings. Oh well. We’ll need to return there too.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Travel