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On grandeur

In 2003, just before I moved to England, a bunch of us went to Washington for what is anachronistically called ‘sailing weekend’. Breakfast at the Supreme Court. Lunch in the Senate. Tea at the Library of Congress. Lunch at the Cosmos Club. Things like that. It was all delightful, of course. But two parts of the week stand out in my memory. The first, which can be disposed of very quickly: my first encounter with Pimms, that staple of the English summer (exhibit #1: a photo I took at Henley this year).

My second memory of the week was a vague disappointment that these bastions of tradition and power were not as grand as I had expected them to be. In fact, I remember being left with the distinct impression that all of them felt rather like movie sets. Now, it must be said, I was no great shakes with grandeur at the time. I was coming off my year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where I’d lived on $80 a month pocket money plus $2 a day for food, and working full time in Portland’s skid row. But I could still tell something was amiss, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Of course I went from thence to Oxford, and a very few weeks later I found myself at a reception in Buckingham Palace hosted by The Queen. After DC, I anticipated the same feeling of mild disappointment as I made my way to the palace’s throne room and several of its drawing rooms. But, lo and behold, those places did feel grand. Before you ask, it was not simply because I was next to a throne (which really just looks like a chair). Nor was it because I was in the presence of the sovereign (who, having now been presented to her 3 times, I can say is more dignified than grand…like the matriarch of a family, if that family had 60 million people in it.) I wondered at the time whether it was simply the attention to detail. The urinals, for example, went all the way to the ground (I love that), and they had angled glass at the bottom of them to keep any splash from hitting one’s shoes.

Anyway, I’ve long wondered about this, and in the past week or so–while looking at various people’s wedding photos, actually–I think I may have put my finger on some of the issues that affect my perception of grandeur…or otherwise.

The real kicker, I’ve decided, is continuity. In even the most resplendent public or quasi-public buildings I’ve seen in the US, there is a sharp–often instantaneous–divide between ceremonial and functional space. A marble corridor with beautifully carved woodwork will have a utilitarian green metal elevator door next to the stairs. Or an otherwise amazing reception room will be accessed via a hallway with linoleum and hideous yellow walls. There is always a divide between what might in other circumstances be called upstairs and downstairs, but the lack of transitions between the two often seems to introduce aesthetic discord that¬†significantly¬†undermines the grandeur of a particular space.

There is something to be said for attention to detail, especially in the extreme. No amount of artistic skill, for example, will make painted dry wall look like a fresco. Aluminum windows, whatever the functional claims that seem to have made them ubiquitous in post-war buildings, cannot do justice to a rococo interior.

Finally, and not to be understimated, is shabbiness. A certain degree of shabbiness is a necessary precondition to grandeur, relying as it does on the illusory romance of the past. Walking into a room that seems to have been created yesterday–or, indeed, a decade ago–breaks that connection to the past and does much to undermine grandeur.

I’m still not sure I’ve entirely got it nailed down, but I do feel much more confident than I was a week or so ago. I’ll keep considering, though, and update if I think of anything else.

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