Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quoz and the great god Pan

Modernity brings its own incipient style. What comes to mind as I sit here on a cool July morning (the rarest of Kansas treats) is a nighttime image of the opera house at the tip of Bennelong Point in Sydney, Australia, with its complex geometric angles and curves, a flowering chrysalis caught in the act of transformation. Though not nearly as recognizable, the Frederic Hamilton addition to the Denver Art Museum is a close second in terms of sweeping lines and glittering grandiosity. On the opposite extreme, MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, styles itself as the iconic vision of everything modern, but its boxy glass frame pales in comparison. There’s something about curvature that appeals to the human senses. Think Twiggy. Now think Anna Nicole Smith.

Call it artistic or architectural evolution, but our idea of what constitutes magnificence in building design has shifted dramatically in the last century. While today it’s all about gravity-defying geometry and mirrored glass, a century ago it was all about marble, granite and neoclassical motifs. I’m no architectural historian, but I sometimes wonder if the killing fields of the Somme, Verdun, Normandy and Iwo Jima annihilated traditional ideals of architectonics, leaving a void that could only be filled with aspirations of flight, flowering or fancy. The unbending gods of Rome and Greece were banished; the great god Pan was dead.

But not too dead, for we were to have a surprise rendezvous with the cloven-footed satyr.


Before the world came together to kill each other, it came together to celebrate.

It’s hard to imagine now standing at the edge of the vast pool spreading at the base of the former Palace of Fine Art in St. Louis that a temporary city once rose on all sides. Temporary as in constructed of woodframe, hemp and plaster of Paris, resembling granite on the outside but with a life expectancy of only eight months. Exceptions were the Palace of Fine Art, a gigantic wrought iron bird cage now housed in the St. Louis Zoological Park, and Brookings Hall on the campus of Washington University. The rest of it, Electricity City, Festival Hall, the Government Building, all 1,200 acres of neoclassical edifices and monuments, soaring bridges and canals, and 75 miles of cobbled streets linking them, were replaced by seemingly endless lawns, a golf course, a botanical garden and zoological park. Enough remains to realize that when the world partied in 1904 for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, it was on a scale rarely witnessed before or since.

I’m more accustomed to wonders of the natural world than anything associated with humanity. The hispid cotton rat that showed up in our yard two weeks ago has given me endless delight, not simply because of its newness—it was, after all, a first for me, and firsts are always special, building blocks to a fully realized life—but St. Louis and its historic architecture had something to teach me as well.

There should be a word for it, that sudden, unheralded shock when coming face to face with something that will forever afterward be essential to your character. Serendipity almost works but doesn’t carry the gravity of a life-altering encounter; fluke, fortuity, fortune, all are weak-kneed second cousins.

Fortunately, the writer William Least Heat-Moon resurrected a word that fits the situation with absolute precision: quoz.

Quoz, for the uninitiated, is a noun, both singular and plural, referring to anything strange, incongruous or peculiar, with, at its core, an inference to mystery. In his latest travelogue, Roads to Quoz: an American Mosey, Heat-Moon devotes 562 pages to the pursuit of quoz, or its pursuit of him and his wife (do we find quoz or does it find us?), with an additional quozicon of quozisms.

My personal quoz was, I thought, our visit to the octagonal dream of Edward Lewis. It was followed in short order by a stop at the St. Louis Art Museum, where the massive monument to classical construction was a riveting second-helping of circa-1904 architecture. If the architect of the Magazine Building took inspiration from Fowler and his eight-sided ideal, the architect of the Palace of Fine Art was squarely in the classical camp, and adorned his work with busts of ancient scholars and philosophers as well as, from what I could tell, Greek and Roman gods. I tried identifying some but finally gave up; back then, probably every student could rattle them off without raising a sweat.

As so often happens with quoz I was mistaken, for once past those doors I was a slack-jawed novice finding, as if for the first time, works of art that defined the course of the human race. Paintings by Matisse, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, van Gogh, Bierstadt, Bingham and Metcalf, photography by Ansel Adams, and more, room after room, floor after floor, spanning the earliest recorded artifacts to modern art so modern it doesn’t even look like art (and I’m not sure that it is!), an overwhelming array of form, texture, hue and vision that left us practically intoxicated. And then we turned a corner into a small dim room and there was Pan.

It was like stepping into a forest clearing, soft light filtering through the canopy, the empty walls a rich hunter green and the wood parquet floor the color of duff and dried autumn leaves. Supine against a fellow goat, the satiated satyr lolled in drunken excess, head tilted back against one flung arm, an empty wineskin in the crook of an elbow, panpipes held loosely at his side. So detailed was the sculpture that one could imagine the echo of reedy music fading in the gloom, and the soft footpads of dryads hurrying away.

In the end, architecture is just architecture, but art is quoz.


Deb Southerland said...

You are breaking my heart.

Tom Parker said...

Okay, Deb, sometimes I go for the jugular -- er, the heart -- and sometimes I don't. Quoz was just quozzical. What did I do? Do I need to get in the car and hightail down to Topeka to discuss this over a few cold beers? And onion rings, oh, yesssss, steaming hot onion rings. You have me concerned...