Though water has been cascading from its giant, neoclassical marble lips for more than four years, "Promenade Classique," the sculpture-and-water installation and formal park along the Potomac at the northern edge of Old Town Alexandria, is one of the area's least-known waterfront amenities.
The promenade represents corporate art patronage at its best. Instead of settling for the usual hunk of decorative sculpture, Savage/Fogarty, the Dutch developers of TransPotomac Canal Center, an office complex, convened Washington's leading experts on contemporary art -- among them James Demetrion of the Hirshhorn and Jack Cowart of the National Gallery -- to see how advantage might best be taken of its spectacular waterfront site, one block east of North Fairfax Street.
The result: the first large-scale American commission for the renowned French sculptoral team of Anne and Patrick Poirier. Working with landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, the Poiriers devised a succession of neoclassical sculptural elements, starting with a bronze lightning bolt, which, except in winter, launches the flow of water. From there, the water makes its way past gargantuan sculptural fragments, through a reflecting pool and into a heap of "ruins" (shown at right) under a waterfall at the river's edge.
The Poiriers have long specialized in evoking a sense of the ancient past by creating miniature archaeological ruins. Here, on a vastly different scale, they seem to toy with the notion of history, conjuring an awareness both of Alexandria's age and its relative youth -- relative, that is, to that of ancient Greece. The piece then draws the viewer's eye across the river to contemplate the neoclassical aspirations and pretensions of the even younger city of Washington. Whether intended as a stylistic potshot, or just as a reminder that America is, in fact, very young and dependent upon the past, the piece makes you think, even as it offers up some purely sensuous pleasures.