Arts exhibit review

Spectacular cities, visionary artists

The MIT Museum’s latest exhibit fuses the two worlds of art and science

7919 despradelle toderi side by side
Despradelle’s Beacon of Progress and Grazia Toderi’s conception art for Red Babel.
Erica Weng–The Tech

Spectacular Cities
By Grazia Toderi, Désiré Despradelle
Kurtz Gallery for Photography, 2nd Floor, MIT Museum
September 28, 2016 — March 19, 2017















A fiery red tower rises slowly into the sky as shooting stars fly around it. A similar tower, this one ornately carved in stone, stands from one hundred years earlier. On September 28, a new exhibit opened at the MIT Museum featuring two iconic works by Grazia Toderi and Désiré Despradelle — two artists who existed nearly a century apart yet shared the same vision for the impossible.

The exhibit juxtaposes two similar works by the two artists: Despradelle’s Beacon of Progress, and Toderi’s Red Babel. Both artists’ works draw inspiration from the legendary Tower of Babel, the Biblical “tower that reaches to the heavens.”

Constant-Désiré Despradelle was a French-American architect who served as a Course 4 professor of design at MIT from 1893 until his death in 1912. Winning several prestigious art awards such as the Grand Prix de Rome, Despradelle established a name for himself in the arts early in his life.

The conception of his Beacon of Progress monument came to him when he visited the Colombian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois in 1893. Awed by the extensive use of electric lighting in the Expo, Despradelle set to work crafting a design for a great monument that would be built “to the glory of the American People.” The monument was to be set on the banks of Lake Michigan, encased in stone, ringed by 13 ornate obelisks representing the original 13 colonies. The obelisks would merge into a single spire that would extend 1500 feet into the sky — taller than what would become the Sears Tower in 1973.

The design was applauded and well-received by artists all around, but critics deemed it “visionary but implausible.” Sure enough, in the late 1800s, it was quite impossible. If Despradelle had been alive at a later time, technology might have enabled his project and perhaps we would have a towering Beacon of Progress looking over Lake Michigan today.

Depending on what sort of connoisseur you are, the almost-neoclassical, Beaux-Arts style of architecture that Despradelle loved would have either satiated your cravings for elegance and decoration, or disgusted the modern MIT techie inside of you. It’s hard to imagine an MIT professor loving an ornate and embellished style, considering the modernized, Stata-Center-like architecture and abstract art sculptures we see today around campus.

Some of Despradelle’s other works include several University of California buildings, the Berkeley building in Boston, and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Grazia Toderi is an Italian artist, born nearly 100 years after Despradelle. Her work is mainly in a rather unusual medium of art: video. Such is Red Babel. The glowing, fiery-red masterpiece illustrates the Tower of Babel as it rises ever-higher into the sky. What appear to be meteors or shooting stars flash around the scene. The work comprises two adjacent panels; the right panel shows an upright Tower ascending from the fiery ground, and the left panel shows the exact same scene but upside-down, as if from the point of view of a person in space.

Toderi’s works capture subtle yet powerful scenes involving light, emotion, and gravity, with a particular concentration in motion. Another one of her works, Soup of Eternity and Improvised Light, 1994, is a video work where she films herself opening an umbrella, walking while submerged in water at the bottom of a pool, among other activities.

Toderi’s work differs drastically from what one would expect of typical art. Though we now have many more technologies with which to render our creativity, so many mediums go unnoticed or underappreciated. Such is the video media of Toderi’s work.

If you are an engineer, an artist, or a dreamer — or you simply love art with vision and taste — a visit to Spectacular Cities is a must. The exhibit runs from September 28, 2016 to March 19, 2017 in the Kurtz Gallery of Photography (second floor, east end of the MIT Museum).