"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

Saturday, 26 April 2014

14. Seville: The Alcazar + Moorish Architecture

Let's tarry a bit longer in Seville (see my previous post). But instead of focusing on modern architecture, we'll step into our time machine and leap back about 1,300 years.

In 711 AD, the Moors - Islamic Berbers from North Africa - began their conquest of Spain, holding on to at least parts of it for close to 800 years. They were an educated and cultured society with a highly evolved sense of architecture and design. By contrast, the Spanish had a highly evolved sense of destroying Moorish architecture and design - something they did with great relish both during the re-conquest of the country, and for years afterward.

Fortunately, a few surviving architectural gems still testify to the glory that was Moorish Spain. There's the Alhambra Palace in Grenada. The Mezquita (Grand Mosque) in Cordoba. And in Seville, the highly ornamental minaret, the sole surviving part of the Grand Mosque, built from 1184-1198:

Seville is also home to the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) a defensive fort built in the early 14th century to ward off Spanish attacks coming from the river:

Most importantly, Seville is the home of the Royal Alcazar (full name: Reales Alcazares de Sevilla) the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. The Alcazar is considered to be one of the finest examples of Mudéjar architecture in the world

But what exactly is Mudéjar architecture you might well ask? Here's my understanding. During the Moorish occupation, their highly skilled artisans would build a magnificent structure on some particular spot. Later the Spanish would destroy it. Then, after the re-conquest, the Spanish would decide that they wanted to build something on the same spot. Recalling the grandeur of the Moorish years, they would hire Muslim architects to build a Moorish-style building. In subsequent centuries the Spanish would add incongruent Renaissance, Romanesque and Gothic elements in a resulting mish-mash.
This was, essentially, the story of the Alcazar. It was built as a Moorish fortress-palace in the early eighth century.... or ninth century....or tenth century - no two books or articles seem to agree on the same year. In 1364, after the re-conquest of Moorish Seville by Christians, King Pedro I commissioned the construction of a new palace on the site. Moorish craftsmen from across Andalusia erected a magnificent building arranged around a number of courtyards and patios. Subsequent Christian monarchs expanded the palace in a variety of architectural styles.

The ceremonial entryway to the Alcazar is through the Lion's Gate:

Most paying customers, though, go around the corner, and walk through a massive stone archway:

 which leads to the Moorish facade created for King Pedro I:

Behind the facade is the first beautiful piece of WOWchitecture you come to, the Courtyard of the Maidens. It's surrounded by walls tiled and stuccoed with geometric patterns, and palm-shaped archways:

The courtyard includes a sunken garden divided in two by a rectangular reflecting pool:

The effect is so magical and dreamlike that the courtyard could  have come straight out of a movie. In fact, it's the exact opposite - it was used in a movie, Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

The courtyard leads to a number of chambers, the most important of which is the Hall of the Ambassadors, where the old kings received foreign dignitaries. The Hall is entered through a spectacular archway:

which, in turn, houses more spectacular archways:

with the showpiece being a gilded domed roof, built in 1389 (or 1427), highlighted by an eye-dazzling constellation of stars:


Most of the remainder of the Alcazar interior is made up of chambers and chambers-within chambers:

Tiles are everywhere, with the Moorish-inspired artwork:


looking considerably different from the Christian-designed artwork:

Equally appealing - and at times as eclectic and jarring - are the many types of gardens and terraces that surround the Alcazar: Arabic, French. Italian etc. My favourite is the tiled Persian Garden of the Dance:

although I don't think it's been done any favours by the Baroque-ish wall behind it. Others will prefer this garden with squared-off hedges and blossoming trees:

Still others will go for the gigantic date palms:

Just one final point about Mudéjar architecture, and I didn't want to mention it earlier for fear of confusing you even more than I already have. In the late 19th century, there was a bit of a revival of this style of architecture. It was called neo-Mudéjar and the finest example I know of is this building erected in Seville for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition:

You wouldn't have any trouble persuading Heather and I to live there!

http://www.zazzle.com/wowchitecture* AND

Friday, 11 April 2014

13. Seville, Spain: The Giant Mushroom Building

A couple of weeks ago, my partner Heather and I climbed aboard one of Spain's many high-speed trains and zoomed down to Seville - our first trip to southern Spain. Seville is well-known for it's Moorish architecture, dating back to the 1200's, as well as the largest gothic church in the world. Depending on whose story you believe, Christopher Columbus may or may not be buried there.
It's also home to one of the strangest modern architecture sights you'll ever see. It's the largest wooden structure in the world, and is known officially as the Metropol Parasol. The locals call it Las Setas - the wild mushrooms - for reasons that are kind of obvious:

Back in 1990, the city of Seville decided to build a market and underground parking in the heart of downtown. It was a sure-fire cash cow. But in the midst of construction - and after €14 million had been spent - workers discovered ruins dating back to Roman times. Construction was frozen. Later, in 2004, the city decided to develop the area again, and held an international competition.

The competition was won by little-known German architect Jurgen Mayer-Hermann. Various delays ensued and by the time Las Setas were completed in 2011, the estimated cost of the project was €100-million. Much is made of the wooden structure's status as the largest in the world, and the fact that it's held together by glue. Less often is it mentioned that the base is concrete, the inside granite, and the waffle-like roof also held together by a zillion steel bolts.

The Metropol Parasol now houses a museum, market, restaurant, bar and mushroom-themed gift shop. At 26 metres (85 feet) high, 150 metres (490 feet) long and 70 metres (230 feet) wide, it makes an impressive site, by day:

And by night:

And if your lucky enough to see it set against an angry sky, you may get a photo like this:

But the best thing about Las Setas is that for a small fee of €3.00 (which includes an alcoholic drink) you can take the elevator up to the roof. There you can walk around a meandering open-air promenade and get a full 360-degree view of Seville from its best viewpoint.

You can see iconic structures, like the old Moorish minaret on the left:

The white-housed neighbourhoods set against the aforementioned angry sky:

Check out one of the neighbour's gardens:

Or go for one of those artsy-fartsy shots where the city is framed by the Setas' :

In addition to being a great place to watch a sunset, the Metro Parasol serves another practical purpose. As its name suggests, it provides a great deal of shade under its billowing rooftop. That's a priceless commodity in a city where summertime highs have been known to reach 52 degrees Celsius!

The sultry heat and comforting shade can make for a romantic atmosphere. Check out these two geezers:

Hey! Who you calling geezers? That's Heather on the left and me on the right. Only our bodies are aging. Our hearts and spirits are as young as ever.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

12. Five Greatest Arts Centres Never Built

The life of a successful architect must be an extremely satisfying one. How else to explain why so many Pritzker Prize-winners live so long and work so late into their careers. The great Oscar Niemeyer died just 10 days shy of his 105th birthday, still an active architect. Ditto for Philip Johnson who made it to 98 and Frank Lloyd Wright, 91. Still going strong are I.M. Pei, 96, and Frank Gehry, 85, not to mention "kids" Richard Rogers, 80, Richard Meier, 79 and Norman Foster 78.

To achieve longevity - either in life or career - an architect must learn to cope with a good deal of frustration and rejection. In my last post, I presented what I considered to be the "10 Greatest Skyscrapers Never Built". Staying in that vein, I'd like to now focus on the "Five Greatest Arts Centres Never Built".

 When Oscar Niemeyer died on December 5, 2012 the world lost a giant. The Brazilian was not just an architect, but also a visionary, humanitarian and social progressive. His work was like a gift from an alien society to a more primitive race. I can't think of anything that better portrays the gulf between the mostly banal world that we live in and the exciting one Niemeyer foresaw, than this rendering of his Puerto de la Musica proposed for Rosario, Argentina:

via estate of Oscar Niemeyer

Niemeyer's proposed cultural complex would have been part concert hall, part exhibition centre and part music school. The project was launched in 2008 with completion set for 2010 - the bicentennial of Argentina's liberation from Spain - and later pushed back to 2012. In the meantime, political and legal hurdles arose, and then another of Argentina's many recurrent economic crises. Fundraising ceased as Niemeyer's reach exceeded his planet's grasp.

The Atlanta Symphony Centre would have been classic Santiago Calatrava: a white sculptural building with an elongated, arcing roof-piece of lattice-like steel; and moveable wings that opened and closed on either side:

via Santiago Calatrava

When the project was unveiled in 2005, municipal officials boasted of a future impact along the lines of the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, private fundraising stalled in 2007 and various levels of government failed to deliver on promised dollars. Seven years later, the four-acre site remains undeveloped.

 Will Alsop's building, The Cloud, was the kind of design, which, along with his general physique, earned him the nickname Mr. Blobby. The Cloud, a 10-storey orb, was to be the centrepiece of Liverpool's revitalization for its year as European Capital of Culture in 2008:

via Will Alsop

Municipal officials hailed Alsop's work as symbolic of a new Liverpool. But the public didn't warm to it and bombarded newspapers with angry letters. As the building's budget grew, the nature of the project changed to include more housing to underwrite the cost of the cultural component. Doubts began to emerge about whether the Cloud would even be ready for Liverpool's big year. Eventually, the plug was pulled, which is why you've probably never heard of Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture.

 You'd think that a city that craves constant global attention, and an architect whose work virtually guarantees it, would make a perfect pairing. Yet Zaha Hadid's Dancing Towers (see my previous post) never managed to soft-shoe their way onto the Dubai skyline, and neither did her Dubai Opera House.

via Zaha Hadid Architects

The opera house was to have been set on its own island. It's fluid curves and rising peaks swooping down from sky to sea were designed to represent Dubai's sand dunes. Announced in 2006, the opera house sang its swan song during the fiscal crisis when its developer killed off all projects not already under construction. Adding insult to injury, Dubai recently announced that an opera house will be built in a different part of the city by a different architect. It too claims that the new opera house will have the same impact as Sydney's iconic one. Having seen the initial renders, I'd have to say that the hype in Dubai soars even higher than its skyscrapers.

The Guggenheim family has contributed to the world of art and architecture in so many ways. There's the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for New York City; Frank Gehry's transformational Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain, and the Peggy R. Guggenheim Museum in Venice.

Then there was the ill-fated Guadalajara Guggenheim, proposed in an international competition by Asymptote Architects. Their vision imagined the museum as an undulating ceramic and glass mass rising from a plateau over a spectacular canyon:

Via Asymptote Architecture

The first shoe dropped when Asymptote lost the competition to Mexican architect Enrique Norten and his TEN Arquitectos firm. The project was then killed off in 2008 when the estimated cost soared to $300-million, while the Mexican consortium behind it had raised just four million. The Guggenheim Foundation refused to scale down the project to meet the country's arts budget, noting that it only sponsored architecturally significant institutes.

So there you have it - the Five Greatest Arts Centres Never Built. Some people argue that, in times of great economic difficulty, the Arts are a frill or should only be paid for by the rich. This ignores the strong connection between the Arts and economic growth. Where would Bilbao be without the Guggenheim? Sydney without its Opera House? Paris without the Louvre? New York and London without their great theatres? The fact is, we live in a world that needs an even greater investment in cultural WOWchitecture, not a smaller one.