Louis XIV (an absolute monarch) and Frank Lloyd Wright (the architect-spokesman of democracy) would not have been good ideological bedfellows. But they shared an imaginative response to nature that might serve as an example to our waterfront planners.
When the Palace of Versailles and the surrounding park was created, it was considered so marvelous that people from all over Europe saved for a lifetime to visit it -- even if only for one day!
Years ago, as an art student, I read about this with disbelief. After all, that was so long ago. How, I wondered, could some French dude in a powdered wig create anything even close to the razzle-dazzle of Disney and Las Vegas? That was then. But now, at the age of 70, I, too look back upon one day spent at Versailles as a major lifetime experience.
Long before Wright, the most famous of all rooms at Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors, "brought the outdoors in" by reflecting a vast expanse of formal gardens extending to the horizon. As a decorating device, this served to make a cavernous room seem even larger. But none of the art history books I read mentioned the most amazing thing of all: the westward orientation of the room.
At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, my wife and I wandered back to the palace. Even though the great mirrored hall was now partially shuttered, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the interior. To our astonishment, the whole room was a virtual lantern of radiant, reflected light.
Yes, the palace was magnificent. It exuded a degree of grandeur that seemed impossible to an American. The gardens were beautiful to the point of transcending the physical world. Indeed, they almost made the Sun King's notion of rule by divine authority seem plausible. But the most bewitching element of all was the carefully orchestrated light of the setting sun.
On another occasion, I visited Wright's Falling Waters, and was intrigued by his more modest use of natural materials and the integration of the house with the hillside and the stream. So when an opportunity arose to visit Graycliff, I did not expect much. There was no hillside, no stream; none of the features that made Falling Waters so exceptional.
What I completely overlooked was the lake. Like most Western New Yorkers, I grew up near Lake Erie without any real access to it. Therefore, the lake never really entered my consciousness as part of nature. When I realized that Graycliff was designed as a screen through which the lake would be viewed, I was very pleasantly surprised. Interestingly, despite a difference in scale and magnificence, both Versailles and Graycliff owe their visual drama to the grandeur of nature -- and, in particular, to their orientation to the setting sun.
Versailles is a monarchial conception imposed on nature. In contrast, Wright's democratic conceptions endear themselves by the way nature is embraced.
Unlike Wright's examples, our commerce-driven proposals belie an unfortunate undertone of desperation. Instead of expanding on one of our greatest cultural strengths -- our revered Olmsted-designed park system -- our principal goal seems to be to create a tourist trap.
We do not need a chicken wing palace or a snow shovel museum. Lake Erie is one of the great, naturally beautiful, fresh water lakes of the world. Let us embrace it as the centerpiece of our waterfront proposal.
Albert Sterbak, who lives in Amherst, considers his one-day visit to Versailles a major lifetime experience.