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    the Cyclorama

    Nick Sowers
    May 21, '09 4:08 PM EST

    I spent Monday at Gettysburg National Military Park. It's monument mania out there. It's funny--you do this driving tour along the front lines, cannons lined up everywhere, and then it doesn't take more than one turn and you are spit out at a strip with McDonalds, Wendy's, the whole nine yards. From one drive-thru to the next.

    Apparently Gettysburg became a site of instant tourism after the great battle. Monuments were erected in a frenzy, with disagreement between the two sides about where to place them (whether where the battle took place or where the day's action began on each of the three days). It's easy to get exhausted looking at all the pomp and marble.

    One thing I really loved about the visit was to see the Cyclorama, a massive painting by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux. It's 359 feet long, 27 feet high, and weighs 3 tons.

    source: National Park Service

    This is the sort of thing that gives rise to fantastic buildings...

    This is an image of the Cyclorama building in Boston, which housed the second painting by Philippoteaux that was commissioned. (Apparently, it still functions as an exhibition space)

    The envelope is a teaser for what lies within. Like a storefront, whetting your appetite for something you don't have, the cyclorama's exterior beams an image of a distant time and place. It is a simulacrum of the exotic. What's interesting to me about some of these building envelopes is the ambiguity of what "exotic" actually means. After all, the various cyclorama buildings of Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, etc. would host different paintings as they traveled around, much like films today. A specific or definite image of, say, Jerusalem, on the exterior might be confusing when the Battle of Bull Run comes into town.

    The funny thing about putting a cyclorama painting of Gettysburg on the site of Gettysburg is that instead of traveling in space, you travel only in time. Richard Neutra's Cyclorama ,instead of depicting some kind of exotic time or place, conveyed a pure expression of the interior volume. A long ramp delivered the viewer out to the point where the epicenter of the cyclorama's location. This translocation in time by stepping from the cyclorama to the exterior ramp must have been a neat experience.

    I slipped through the construction fence surrounding the building which is slated to be demolished.

    As I dashed around the ruins, I imagined myself a Confederate soldier moving swiftly among the weeds and bushes. It was about three in the afternoon, the same hour as Pickett's famous charge. I stopped in the shadow of the corrugated steel clad cyclorama. The mighty industrial North won, it seems to say in silence. A familiar Neutra move--the outrigger column, stands to be overtaken soon by the weeds emerging from the battlefield below.

    The new cyclorama building and visitor center is a great disappointment in the lineage of cyclorama buildings. The cyclorama is a wedding cake decoration perched on top of a bloated farm house clad in stone. The lobby experience feels like an airport check-in. Clearly the thing has been designed to handle a massive volume of summer tourists. The problem is that it is too literally a building that tries to move back in time. The power of Neutra's was that it suggested a transportation in time and thus enticed you inside. There is little to entice one to enter this building

    source: National Park Service

    The new building does enable repair and restoration of the painting which, according to a civil war buff I met with at UVa yesterday, could not be done in the Neutra building. The painting was suffering from insufficient atmospheric control. The upper panels of blue sky also could not be mounted in the old cyclorama building. Furthermore, the painting was intended to be seen with a diorama at the foot of it, thus grounding it and the viewer on the same plane. All of this is now corrected in the new building.

    There is a well-produced film which builds up to the cyclorama experience. Morgan Freeman narrates. I had just watched The Shawshank Redemption so I couldn't help but pretend that I was Tim Robbins sitting in prison listening to some wild Civil War story. The film ends with Lincoln's famous address at the Soldiers Cemetery, and then you are extruded out of the theatre doors and up a pair of escalators to a platform at the center of the Cyclorama.

    Stepping inside the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama is a strange juxtaposition of a 19th century precursor to the cinematic experience with a 21st century lighting and sound spectacle. Looking at the various sections of the battlescene, I was impressed by the painting's extraordinary detail. It is as though you could infinitely zoom into the battle. The illusion is that nothing is hidden from view. The experience is total. This 'total' experience is redoubled by the sound, volleying from all directions. As the narration is drowned out by canned cannon fire, tactics give way to chaos. I am simultaneously the general and the soldier, in command of the view but completely without control of the scene.

    I put together a sound clip of my experience. You might be surprised where you end up at the end of the recording. Listen:

    Three hundred and sixty degrees later: Could the cyclorama be the ideal architectural presentation? Instead of the linear row of panels, why not a cyclorama to display a thesis project? The act of representation becomes unified with a total way of seeing. It's 360-degree vision. In a thesis about military space, where a space becomes militarized by the act of total vision (night and day, x-ray, satellite, surveillance, etc) it feels appropriate. Furthermore, it could be an opportunity to integrate sound and talk about the effect of sound on our perception of space.


    • Yes!!! Totally use the Cyclorama as inspiration even make a diorama/physical model.

      I loved this. I think when i was there years ago they still had the diorama. It was definetly in the old building.
      That new building looks as bad as some suburban tract stuff/historical/aesthetic pastiche...
      Oh well.

      When was the old building etc closed?

      May 21, 09 8:17 pm  · 

      restoration began in November 2003 but it seems the buildings weren't closed until 2005.

      May 22, 09 12:01 am  · 

      i love this kind of personal experience story - ambivalences, pretending, and all.

      thanks, nick.

      May 22, 09 8:10 am  · 

      That means i definetely was in the Neutra.

      Sweet. The only one ever that I have been in come to think.

      May 22, 09 8:41 am  · 

      Steven, thanks for reading!

      Nam, I guess the closest to you would be Atlanta's cyclorama, yet another battle scene.

      I wonder how well a Baghdad Cyclorama would go down. Sadaam's statue falling down? The Green Zone?

      May 22, 09 10:43 pm  · 
      liberty bell

      Yep, I recall the diorama being there, I also recall the painting being much shorter than the proportions of the image shown above, and I don't think the diorama was on the same plane as the viewer - there was a separation as I recall. Still a very cool installation, and easy to understand how viewing a cyclorama in the late 1800s was a MAJOR media/sensory event.

      I visited the Neutra building and Gettysburg when the firm I used to work for was shortlisted for the visitor's center. We did not get the project, and the huge piece of crap that was built by the winning team is so disappointing on so many levels. Add the demolition of the Nuetra and the result is Gettysburg is just a continuing its legacy as a bloody battlefield. Criminal.

      May 22, 09 11:31 pm  · 
      Brian Koffman


      Like joining your journey, but not so sure about the stop at the ball park on the way home

      Keep on truckin'


      May 23, 09 2:21 pm  · 

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