Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Shocking Truth about Roman Architecture in France

[Revised 1/7/2012]

This is the story of the first time I actually saw a Roman ruin. I think it is very funny for what it says about me, and maybe, just a little, about how some of us perceive various cultures and periods, perhaps without realizing it.

My high school had a fabulous Latin teacher (1) and I took advantage of the situation, taking many years of Latin and learning a lot of Roman history.   I may have been somewhat influenced by the fact that my high school combined the advanced Latin classes between the Boys and Girls school, so you had to go to the Girls school to study Latin.   Such were the lofty motivations of my youth.  I read Roman and Aegean history and related topics even now and I assure you the past isn't over, it isn't even past yet.

If you never studied Latin, to give you a feel for how nouns are declined and verbs conjugated, see this sequence from Life of Brian (1974) in which anti-Roman activist Brian is trying to write "Romans Go Home" and is corrected by a Roman Centurion.

But, to my chagrin, I have never been to Rome. We were not of that economic class that could afford such things when I was growing up, and when I was productively employed as a young adult, I had not arranged a trip. Then I got involved in computer animation and of course my life went to hell and I still haven't been there, except of course in books.

But like so many others of my generation of computer animation, I was invited to speak at various European conferences during the late 1980s, which provided an opportunity to see at least some of Europe. So, after one of these conferences, Imagina, I arranged for a friend of mine to meet me in Monaco and we would sight see for a few days in the south of France.

So my friend, Paul Cross (2), met me at the conference and we rented a car and started driving through Nice on our way to Nimes. As we stopped in Nice, I pointed to a building and said, "Look, Paul, someone has built a building and made it look Roman."

I am still looking for a suitable picture.  This one has some of the right feel, but it is not integrated into a major current building on a busy street, like the building this post is about.

Paul looked at it and said, "No, Michael, it is Roman".

I thought that was a weird thing for him to say, so I repeated myself and tried to explain, see, someone has built a building and made it look really old and Roman. Isnt that nice?

In Los Angeles, you see, we regularly theme various venues based on classic European and other civilizations, including our own. We might have a Chinatown, for example. Disneyland would have a Fantasyland including a notable synthesis of many medieval castles at the center of the park. The little tourist town of Solvang in Southern California has a Danish theme, complete with windmills. Our Japanese restaurants such as Benihana entertain guests with a performance that is alledgedly at least somewhat Japanese in origin. Santa Barbara is zoned for a traditional Hispanic style.  Although most studio backlots have been repurposed as real estate development, a few still exist with their various themes: a New York street, an Old West street with its saloon, a small town America main street, and so forth. Theming is a major design concept in use in our local commercial architecture and culture.

So clearly, what we had here was a modern building that had been designed using Roman antiquity as a theme. I thought it looked good, although perhaps they went overboard on some of the "ancient" aspects of it, as the Roman section clearly had seen better days.   

My friend just kept explaining to me that no, they were not pretending to be Roman, that Nice was in part an ancient Roman city, and it actually was Roman.  That's interesting, I thought, it had never occurred to me that it might not be fake.


1. His name was Anthony Ruffa, I think.   Before taking an exam, some of us would say to ourselves, "AVE RUFFA MORITURI TE SALUTANT"  ("Hail Ruffa!  We who are about to die, salute you!")

2. Paul Cross is a very amusing person, and an alumnus of Symbolics.  He moved to Taos, New Mexico and helped set up one of the internet not-for-profit web sites for the Taos Pueblo.   He has disappeared, and is hopefully doing well wherever he is.


  1. courtesy of Google....

    - Jim

  2. Amazing, Jim, whichever Jim you are, this indeed has to be Paul Cross. And we are both gardening, clearly that must be cosmic. Only, as always, Paul is being more practical about it and doing this commercially. I will try to track him down with these clues, thank you, again, very much!