Saturday, October 04, 2008

Belvedere castle

"The time will come when New York will be built up," Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in his design proposal for Central Park. "The picturesquely-varied, rocky formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park. Then the priceless value of the present picturesque outlines of the ground will be more distinctly perceived." So Olmsted rejected the standard lawns and copses of 'civic pastoral' and instead left woods and outcrops of rock that create a series of local horizons. However, this isn't the case everywhere, as is evident from the fact that the park contains a belvedere tower.

"Sitting high atop Vista Rock (the second highest natural elevation in the park) Belvedere Castle provides a panoramic view in almost every direction. It is also perhaps the most magical monument in Central Park, one that combines function, form and romance - all in one convenient, central location." This photo, which I took on a rather misty morning earlier this year shows what the Central Park website describes as a "breathtaking" view. Maybe I was feeling jaded but I wouldn't describe the view as breathtaking. Perhaps in many cases the prospect tower or belvedere itself is more important than the view - this one is a kind of folly designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. (I looked up belvederes on Wikipedia and see that in addition to places with beautiful views, the word Belvedere crops up as a type of vodka, a helicopter, a cartoon dog, a car and a Canadian punk band.)

Simon Schama's discussion of Central Park in Landscape and Memory ends with a memorable description of it's dark side (I wonder if he would have written it in quite the same way today?) 'Olmsted could have had no inkling, of course, how the very features that made his park unique - the sunken roads, the gullies and hollows that closed off views to the streets - would shelter a savagery at which even Pan himself might have flinched. The woods and trails of Upper Manhattan are certainly not the only lair where ancient myths and demons, best forgotten, or left to academic seminars, have returned to haunt the modern polis. In fact Central Park divides its arcadian life by the hours of the clock. by day it is all nymphs and shepherds, cupids and fêtes champêtres. But at night it reverts to a more archaic place, the realm of Pelasgus where the wolf-men of Lykaon prowl, satyrs bide their time unsmiling, feral men, hungry for wilding, postpone their music.'

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