Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pyramid Power

A few weeks ago LoS briefly referred to the concept of architecture parlante in a post about the unusual French architect Jean-Jacques LeQueu. Put simply, the term refers to buildings which explain their own function. A cooper’s atelier, for example, could be shaped like a barrel; a brothel, an erect phallus. You snicker, my friend, yet these buildings were designed in the mid-19th century by Claude Nicolas Ledoux--and never built. That seems to be the recurring problem. Most of these kinds of buildings never were. Some of the concepts of architecture parlante, however, did survive--albeit in a more restrained form--influencing a great deal of civic architecture. In the US, be it Beaux-Arts, Neo-classical or Art Deco, architecture partante was used mainly in the form of allegorical figures and inscriptions. Wikipedia has a very neat phrase about the Nebraska State Capitol and LA Public Library: “these buildings seem particularly eager to communicate a set of social values.”

In other posts, LoS has addressed the pyramid sculpture in Blagnac called Le Temple de la Sagesse Suprême (Temple of Supreme Wisdom), along with two more pyramids in the same town’s Odyssud park. For a long time we’ve been meaning to get to yet another pyramid in the same town, located quite close by in the dead center of a shopping mall. It’s a small pyramid, but like the Temple of Supreme Wisdom, it also serves as a fountain. Both of which, incidentally, never seem to be flowing.

So this latest discovery got us to thinking and reflecting. A few interesting features pop up. The first is that all of these pyramids look onto the highway which separates Blagnac from its eponymous airport. You might be tempted to go to Google Earth not really expecting to find any meaningful pattern. But you'd wrong. Well, partially anyway. There is a pattern but the meaning, as they say, is in they eye of the beholder.

The three pyramids form a straight line and they are equidistant. To be fair there are two pyramids at the south end of the line. One of these is out of line; it is also covered in trees and looks more like a woody hill than anything else; on Google Earth at least, it is not distinguishable as a pyramid.

There are some other interesting features which may or may not be coincidental.
  • Two of the pyramids are fountains, one overlooks a lake.
  • The fountain pyramids are inscribed within circular patterns. The southernmost has a circular structure on the top.
  • The two fountains are crowned with quite a conspicuous cap.

In view of the fact that the Temple of Supreme Wisdom pays homage to Jean-Jacques LeQueu, it seems logical to remember that buildings do speak, or as Wikipedia says, often seem “eager to communicate a set of social values.” Whether by chance or design, the aligned and equidistant pyramids do communicate something. The message is of course, open to interpretation. So we suppose you can imagine what comes next…

In form the pyramid evokes solidity and stability; its ancient lineage, longevity. Due to the conditions which produced these ancient pyramids it also evokes power, authority and a kind of social organization capable of compelling thousands of men to build a structure of which they will never have any further part. In this vision of power, as in the structure itself, the great mass below supports and increasingly smaller space above and culminates in a point: a president perhaps, a king, or a God. Think of the Pyramid Scheme, where power and wealth flows upward, distributed thinly among the many at the bottom but increasing concentrated as we ascend the pyramid. Sound familiar?

Archeologists believe that in the mound-building city of Cahokia the tops of mounds were reserved for two purposes. They served either as ceremonial spaces for exclusive religious rites, or they were reserved for the dwellings of Kings. In the Aztec culture, the pyramids were also the exclusive domain of priests and nobility. Commoners only went up there to have their hearts torn out or the skin flayed from their bodies. In Mayan pyramids too, pyramids were reserved for the priests and the nobility, places where various rites and sacrifices were performed. They also served as funerary monuments. In Egypt, Pyramids were not primarily ritual spaces but funerary monuments. As such, they were erected to edify the Pharaohs, not only supreme political leaders but quite literally gods. They were not for commoners such as we.

The pyramid or triangle as a metaphor for the distribution of power is typical of the European ideal. The Catholic Church for example: a mass of believers, then the priests, the bishops, the arch-bishops, the cardinals and finally, at the pinnacle, the pope. The same structure more or less defined the Roman Empire, or any other resultant European monarchy.

At least until the rise of commercial entities as significant powers, power in Europe was pretty much concentrated among the aristocracy and its attendant military elite—the same thing, really—and the church. Not surprising that church and state were so inexorably intertwined, and even today in places like the US, political leaders still attempt to perfume their politics with the odor of sanctity--hence all the photo ops with religious leaders, heads bowed in prayer, references to God, etc. ad nauseum.

In times past, the military elite and the aristocracy were set apart as cavalrymen. Only the rich could afford to maintain a horse for combat and to have the intense training necessary to be a good mounted warrior. Foot soldiers were usually just peasants without proper military training. But even during the rise of the professional standing army the cavalry tended to be drawn from the aristocracy.

Today of course the horse as a combat animal has been all but rendered obsolete, but it still remains a mark of wealth. It’s very expensive to maintain a horse correctly. The game of Polo remains a sport of the aristocratic and the wealthy, and players of the sport and owners of racehorses obsess over the bloodlines of their beasts as urgently as they obsess over their own.

Nowadays, the most elite members of the military are its fighter pilots. This remains the most competitive and selective part of the military one can aspire to. That is unless you have aristocratic connections: think of George Bush, an admittedly mediocre student and George McCain, who graduated Annapolis near the bottom of his class. Both were flyboys--despite not really being the kind of man usually accepted for flight training--because of their “aristocratic” connection. Grandsons of Senators, Admirals and scions with wealth and political connections can get what they want regardless of their merit.

This aspect of the pilot as elite symbol is interesting given the location of these pyramids. Blagnac is the Aerospace capital not only of France, but of Europe. It is the home of Airbus and scores of first, second and third tier subcontractors for Airbus and the aerospace industry. From Ariane rockets to Dassault fighter planes, much of their parts are produced here.

Simply put, aviation is the source of immense wealth for the city and the region.

But there is ananother elitist aspect to the plane--what is a more fitting symbol of wealth and power than the private jet? Why do so many moguls become interested in flying all of a sudden? It’s fun, sure, but isn’t there something symbolic in flying high above the dirt-covered huddled masses, a kind of big nose thumbing made possible only for those with enough money to actually go out and buy their own plane?

Where else but on the commercial jetliner is the division of wealth so clearly defined, literally, by classes? Where else do people so freely give up their right to probable cause?

The town fathers celebrate chose to celebrate their "new" economic order the way the priest-kings of times past celebrated their own social structure. The Temple of Supreme Wisdom squats heavily over a map of the world, its central eye peering over the roundabout, its point poking through a structure representing the state.

Similarly, the Odyssud pyramid is crowned with a round map not only of the visible sights to be observed in all directions but those unobservable as well; it tells us that in such a direction lies Italy; in another, Germany. Not a map of the world, but of Europe, at least.

And the last pyramid, a small echo of the others, so small as to be discrete, marks the center of a large new shopping mall. It’s as if it is there to tell us about the new world order which the pyramid represents. Politics, religion, bloodlines, race, religion. All bow before the new European ideal. The continent may not have a constitution but it does have its single currency.

First things first, evidently.

And to remind us yet again of how that money came to Blagnac, the ceiling above our heads is in the form of a skeleton for an enormous sheltering wing.

Taking pictures of this pyramid and architecture, Daurade was approached by a squat little security guard, a little nervous and scowling, who informed him that taking pictures is forbidden. So there you have it. On the city streets one is free to photograph what one wants. But as all this public space is enclosed and privatized, public inquiry and expression are somewhat less free. In fact, taking a photo is forbidden. Whatever the reason for this, security probably, it still doesn’t eclipse the fact that in this new world order everything will be for sale, and those with money to buy are welcome. As long as the money keeps flowing in the right direction: up towards the pinnacle.

That the pyramid is emblematic of prestige is supported by documents about the Place de la Revolution. This plaza was conceived of as a “southern gate” to the then future neighbourhood called Grand-Noble, an evocative name not requiring much explanation. Speaking of its location, the documents speak of “the symbolic importance of this public plaza regarding the ‘High quality’ image that the city of Blagnac wants to develop within the Toulouse metropolitan area.” (….l’importance symbolique de cette place publique au regard de l’image « High quality » que la ville de Blagnac veut développer au sein de l’agglomération toulousaine.)

Like Lebowski’s rug, it seems to have been conceived of a way to tie the room together. The plaza is a rectangle inscribed within an ellipse with four orthogonal branches. The documents say that the east/west branches form the principle link between the highway and the heart of the Grand Noble. The north branch leads to a future office park while the south links the airport to the city’s economic center and beyond. These four corners of the world—echoing the map of the globe in elliptical form below the central pyramid—are principally seen as important as a link between the airport, the highway and commercial areas. They had high hopes for the plaza and to “assure the greatest chances of success” announced a competition for an architectural, artistic and landscape development. They chose the pyramid.

References to the airplane are ubiquitous in the towns surrounding the Airbus campus. Street names honor the pioneers of French avionics. A vertical stabilizer adorns a traffic circle. In Colomiers, across the campus from Toulouse, there are even traffic lights shaped like miniature airplanes, all ad astra as they illuminate those below. Pushing the resonant envelope a bit, buildings on this road evoke mausoleums and are located in a place with the unusual English name of Green Park, which incidentally is the name of more than a few American cemeteries. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence but this park, planted with palm trees, is only a stone’s throw away from the A330-321 memorial, where 7 test pilots were killed in 1994. The Colomiers crematorium is also in the vicinity.

The author of this picture of the memorial (Jaques Meursault) explicitly asks that the photo not be used without permission, so please click on the link to see it in its original home. Google Earth provides us with a different view:
It is is something of an oddity, as the receding stylized "runway" is itself evocative of a pyramid with a kind of halo—or eye—at its pinnacle. From the Meursault photo one can see that the "pyramid" is constructed of alternating bands of dark and light grey; these can be seen from the satellite photos as well. Unfortunately one can't determine the number of bands from either.

The monument is also like a stylized keyhole; if so, it remains locked; internet searches bring up little info on the memorial.


  1. As it happens, I read this after a long day on a needlessly cramped and uncomfortable commercial airplane. Why is it that everyone in America must have their own personal SUV, but we're willing to accept these conditions in the air? I think it all ties into the theory you present here.

    Thanks for another great post.

  2. Air travel is the most overtly fascist experience I can imagine. We all know taking off our shoes at the metal detection thingie is absurd, but we all do it, willingly, cuz it's better than the alternative (blowing up mid-Atlantic, for instance). So many people I know say they gladly accept it as long as it prevents terrorism (regardless of the almost ridiculously minute chances of it actually happening to you--it's just random enough to cause fear, etc).

    But yeah, airline travel is insulting and humiliating....

    This post covers a lot of bases....the privatization of public space, for example being a long-standing preoccupation. A tessellation of the plane--the ongoing Enclosure Acts, really.

    LoS comrade The Gid just turned me on to this, btw; worth reading:



Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Need to add an image? Use this code: [ximg]IMAGE-URL-HERE[x/img]. You will need to remove the the boldface x's from the code to make it work.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.