"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Monday, 24 February 2014

9. London: Beehive Kick-Starts Renewal

In 1998, the city of London decided it needed a landmark building to kick-start its bedraggled area south of the Thames. The man chosen to design a new city hall was England's favourite-son architect, Sir Norman Foster.

Foster, now 78, wasn't regarded as an "out there" architect like contemporary Frank Gehry, or later-to-come mavericks Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid. He had a global reputation as a superb craftsman who liked to use a lot of glass and open spaces to give his buildings a lighter-than-air look.

Foster went to the drawing board, or rather computer, and what he came back with raised more than a few eyebrows. It was a blue geodesic dome, not unlike those of his friend, Buckminster Fuller, except that it looked like it had been blown off-centre by a gale-force wind. The public quickly dubbed it, "The Beehive".

Others were not so kind. Former Mayor Ken Livingstone called it "a glass testicle". Current mayor, Boris Johnson referred to it as "the glass gonad". And yet there are so many reasons why London's city hall qualifies as a work of WOWchitecture:

It looks fabulous at night, the only time its magnificent helical staircase can be clearly seen from the outside.

Image via Foster and Partners

The spiral staircase itself is a work of art. It runs for 800-metres, curving its way through all 10 above-grade floors to the top of the building. The platform there is open to the public, providing citizens with a transparent view of the activities of their elected officials.

Photo by DAVID ILLIF. License CC-BY-SA 3.0

More than half of the space is public plaza, offering great exhibition space for art. In this case it's larger-than-life Les Paul guitars, painted and autographed by famous folk and sold off for charity.

The building provides a great backdrop for tourist photos. This is especially true if you're a digital artist - like me.

It offers a great platform for viewing Foster's totemic skyscraper, "The Gherkin" on the north side of the Thames.

And finally, the strategy worked! The south side of the Thames has been a "beehive" of growth (pun intended). It even has buildings like this:

That's Renzo Piano's building, The Shard. But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

8. Bhaktapur, Nepal: Ancient Palaces and Pagodas

(I originally posted this in February 2014. I'm re-posting it so you can see the massive loss of cultural heritage caused by the earthquake in Nepal. Bhaktapur was largely levelled by the quake.)

Back in the sixties, Nepal was considered the hippest hangout for backpackers and dropouts alike. I didn't make it there in the sixties, in fact, I didn't visit Nepal until a couple of years ago when I reached my 60s!

By then, a lot had changed. Caf├ęs no longer served up hash brownies and marijuana  milkshakes. Many hand-crafted souvenirs had been replaced by mass-produced kitsch from China. And Kathmandu's once-clear mountain air had become amongst the worst in the world. The Himalayas might have been nearby, but there was no way you could confirm it with the human eye.

Still, Nepal offered what it had always offered -- small villages resplendent with ancient palaces, pagodas, temples and squares. My favourite was Bhaktapur, Nepal's former capital from the 11th-15th century. Located 20 kilometres east of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur was a major pit-stop on the historic overland trade route from India to Tibet.

The focal point in Bhaktapur is Durbar Square. Author E.A. Powell once wrote, “were there nothing else in Nepal save the Durbar Square of Bhaktapur, it would still be amply worth making a journey halfway round the globe to see." A bit of hyperbole there, but there are more than enough WOWs in Durbar Square to thrill the avid traveller, photographer, architecture buff, artist, or history lover.

The Golden Gate is the entry way to the 15th century palace of 55 windows. The Gate will dazzle your eyes with its pantheon of golden Hindu Gods and symbols.

The five-tiered Nyatapola Temple, built in 1702, is Nepal's tallest pagoda temple:

The Temple, dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi, is fronted by five pairs of stone figures: legendary Rajput wresters-Jaimal and Pata; a pair of elephants; a pair of lions; a pair of griffons; and a pair of tantric goddesses known as Singhini and Toyahagrini. Each pair is supposed to be 10 times stronger than the one below it.

Similar, but with a different set of stone figures leading to its door, is the Siddhi Lakshmi Temple:

The Vastala Durga was built in 1696:

The Durga appears to be adorned with images of the Hebrew Star of David:

It's not a Star of David, though. It's the ancient Hindu Hexagram. The HH is a six-pointed star made up of two intertwined triangles. One triangle is pointed up to the heavens, the other is pointed below. Sort of like a Star of David. Only not.

The Bhairabnath Mandir, is dedicated to the Hindu god of terror. Its entrance is protected by golden lions - both large and mini - and a number of shrines:


The Square contains numerous sculptures, with the most venerated being King Bhupatindra Malla in prayer position: 

Today, after a couple of decades of instability due to Maoist insurrections, royal assassinations, and parliamentary stalemates, Nepal is regaining its prominence on the global tourism circuit. But here's a word to the wise: if you go - and you really should - make sure you enter and exit the country by land. Nepal's aviation industry, never good, is getting worse by the day. It ought to be shut down completely until Nepal can figure out how to safely fly people into, out of, and around the country.

This past weekend, a Nepal Airlines flight from Pokhara crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 18 aboard. In December, the EU put all of Nepal's airlines on a blacklist and banned them from flying to the EU on safety grounds. According to the BBC, since 1949 - the year the first aircraft landed in Nepal - there have been more than 70 different crashes involving planes and helicopters, in which more than 700 people have been killed.

You may want to make it to Nirvana, but, trust me, it's not the way you'll want to get there.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

7. Four More Buildings that will Rock our World
In my last post I showcased six buildings that will rock our world in 2014. It was supposed to be a one-time preview. But it turned out to be my most popular post -- ever. I get it, people want a glimpse of the future. So let's carry on for another week. Here are four more buildings, now making it 10 buildings that will rock our world in 2014.
Sometimes a Building Needs a Good Cuddle
As recently as a decade ago, the City of Baku was pretty much an unknown quantity outside of Central Europe. Maybe that's not surprising. It's hard to show up on anyone's radar when you're 92-feet below sea level -- the lowest-lying capital city in the world.
What Baku lacked in global recognition it more than made up for in something else. Oil. Lots of it. So much that at the turn of the 19th century, 50 percent of the world's oil supply came from Baku's oil fields.
The turning point for the city's image came with the fall of the Soviet Union. The Azerbaijani city was no longer compelled to follow Soviet-style construction, i.e. 0 percent style, 100 percent concrete. Thousands of Kremlin-inspired offices and apartment blocks were torn down.
Then Baku began to build. And build. And build. It became a showcase for some of the world's leading architects. The next Baku gem to be completed later this year is the SOCAR Tower, fittingly named after Azerbaijan's national oil company:
According to the building's architects, South Korea's Heerim Architects and Planners, the two 40-story towers symbolize the coming together of wind and fire. To me, it just looks like one building is giving the other a nice cuddle.
SOCAR Tower will be the tallest building in the Caucasus region. In an area buffeted by turbulent climactic conditions, it has been designed to withstand 190-kmh winds and a magnitude nine earthquake. SOCAR is the second of three flame-themed projects in Baku, the first being the Flame Towers by architects HOK:


In 2015 the SOCAR tower will be joined by its "little brother" down the road, the Azersu Tower, also by Heerim.

Broad but not Bulky
Saying that Eli Broad is rich is like saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was a pretty good architect -- a gross and massive understatement. During the course of his 80 years on this planet, Broad has built two Fortune 500 companies in two separate industries. He's worth $6.9-billion, good for #191 on Forbes list of the world's billionaires.
But it's not the amount of money he has, but the way he spends it that makes Broad a major player in the world of WOWchitecture. The American philanthropist co-led the fundraising for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and personally contributed several million to the effort.
The Disney Hall will soon have a flashy new neighbour across the street: The Broad museum of contemporary art.

The Broad will showcase art drawn from the 2,000-piece collection owned by A foundation, co-chaired by Eli and wife Edythe. The Broads are paying for the structure, which will cost around $100-million. They are also funding the museum with a $200-million endowment. Thanks to their public spiritedness, admission will be free.
The Broad isn't quite as flamboyant as Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, but it's no shrinking violet either. Designed by New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the building is surrounded by a honeycombed "veil" through which light will filter into nearly an acre of column-free gallery space. The unusual design is meant to serve as a counterpoint to Gehry's titanium-clad masterpiece.
"Our goal for the museum is to hold its ground next to Gehry's much larger and very exuberant Walt Disney Concert Hall through contrast" noted DS + partner, Elizabeth Diller. "As opposed to Disney Hall's smooth and shiny exterior that reflects light, The Broad will be porous and absorptive, channeling light into its public spaces and galleries."
Like it's not bad Enough in the Winter
This winter, my poor old former hometown of Toronto has been getting pummelled by ice and snow like never before. Now, thanks to Norwegian-based Snohetta, the city will be getting a reminder of its occasionally frigid weather -- even in summer.
The new Ryerson University Student Learning Centre looks remarkably like a large block of ice, with a partially chipped away bottom, and covered by snowflakes:
The building's unique design continues inside where the blue cut-away section forms the roof of a massive atrium. The effect is that of an icy crystalline surface overhead. Above the lobby are several levels of unique learning areas, including one floor, known as The Beach, an open and informal study area that spans from wall to wall across several small terraces.
Snohetta claims that the new building "will be a transformational addition for the city of Toronto and the University." That's a bit rich, considering that in recent years the city has added out-of-box architecture by the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Wil Alsop and others. Still, the Student Learning Centre will be front and centre on Toronto's largest and most important street, Yonge Steet, so maybe the ol' town is shaking off its provincial ways after all.
She Always Rocks my World
My list of 2014's greatest buildings just wouldn't be complete without a project from the architect who put the WOW in WOWchitecture -- Zaha Hadid. The word "icon" has grown too small for Hadid. Just about every building she designs becomes a symbol of wherever it sits.

Hadid's work is organic in the extreme. It swoops and swerves, careens and curves. How anyone can combine white, my least favourite colour, with concrete, my least favour construction material, and have it come out in a heavenly taffy-like swirl, is beyond me.
Hadid's latest, almost-complete project is the Wangjing SOHO, which sounds like a Chinese restaurant in London, but is actually a three-building complex in suburban Beijing:

With a design so surreal, there seems to be some confusion over what the three structures -- the tallest of which rises to 200 metres -- symbolize. Even among its principals. According to the developer, SOHO, "The Wangjing SOHO Project is designed as three dynamic “mountains” or fish-like forms that come together and bring together the surrounding community."
Meanwhile, Hadid's website says, "Conceived as ‘Chinese fans’, the two volumes of Wangjing Soho appear to move around each other, to dance, to embrace as they are circumnavigated – their vibrancy further enhanced by a shimmering outer skin." Two? I know I'm bad at arithmetic, but just add up the buildings.
And if that's not confusing enough, another developer is putting up a near mirror image of the Wangjing Soho. The lawsuits are flying. But good luck with that one in a country where "copyright" isn't even in the dictionary, much less the courtrooms.