"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

Friday, 30 May 2014

17. My 8 Favorite Buildings that Look Like Flying Saucers

Architects, like the rest of us, are fascinated by flying saucers. Unlike the rest of us, they can actually do something about it. Here are some of my favourite buildings that look like flying saucers.

1. Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art

As with many of my lists, right at the top of this one is the late, great Oscar Niemeyer. The Brazilian architect once wrote, "It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. What attracts me is the free and sensual curve..." Nowhere is this principle better put to use than in Niemeyer's out-of-this world Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art:

2. Mercedes-Benz Arena

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Part 2? Someone call Steven Spielberg and let him know that his mother ship has been taken. Once called the Shanghai World Expo Cultural Centre, it now goes by the name Mercedes-Benz Arena. You just know that somewhere Richard Dreyfuss is making a model of this out of mashed potatoes.


3. Biblioteca Sandro Penna

And you thought libraries all looked like boxes. This one, Biblioteca Sandro Penna in Perugia, Italy seems to be getting ready to take off:


4. Abu Dhabi Louvre

Put up $747-million, and you too can have a UFO-shaped Louvre Museum in your backyard (construction costs and batteries not included). WHAT, you say, you'd have to be Abu Dhabi to afford this? Well, actually you would.

The Abu Dhabi Louvre, designed by Jean Nouvel, will open in 2015 as part of the United Arab Emirates' massive cultural project, Saadiyat Island. The dome alone weighs 7,000 tonnes but is supported at only four points. Devilishly clever those aliens!

5. Lookout Tower of Olympic Park

More like a series of flying-saucer landing pads than actual UFOs, Bejing's Lookout Tower of Olympic Park keeps a watchful eye on the city's Bird's Nest Stadium:

6. Hotel Hesperia, Barcelona

Some flying saucers don't even need landing pads. They just set themselves down wherever they like - like this one on top of Richard Rogers' Hotel Hesperia in Barcelona. Fortunately, it fits in well with the design.


7. The Evoluon

The Evoluon, in Eindhoven (The Netherlands), even sounds like a futuristic transport vehicle. But it's not. It started out in the 1970s and 80s as a museum dedicated to Science and Technology. It was closed in 1989, but today flies on as an international conference centre:

8. Toronto City Hall

There is a good reason, of course, why I particularly like buildings that resemble flying saucers. I was born and lived most of my life in a city with a disc-shaped building right in its centre.

In the 1950s, Toronto held a global competition for an architect to design its new city hall. The winner, chosen in 1958, was Finnish architect Viljo Revell. His design featured two curved towers with a UFO-shaped saucer in between:

The saucer is actually the chamber where Toronto's City Council meets. It's a bit odd that a backward body should meet in such a futuristic-looking structure. But it's by no means the craziest thing at Toronto City Hall. That honour - by a longshot - goes to Mayor Rob Ford. Coming soon to a rehab clinic near you.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

16. Hama, Syria: Between the Massacres

The city of Hama is virtually synonymous with the word "massacre".

As the home of Syria's conservative (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, Hama lies at the epicentre of uprisings against the (Shia) Assad regime. For this, it has suffered repression, reprisals and untold loss of life. 

Current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
The most brutal carnage took place after an uprising in 1982. Then-president Haffez al-Assad, father of the current President, ordered the town besieged by his brother and his elite team of 12,000 special forces. The city was bombed from the air, shelled by artillery, and stormed by tanks and troops.

Large sections of the old city were completely destroyed. Torture and mass executions followed. The use of chemical weapons was alleged but never proved. No one knows the precise number of people killed in the massacre, but estimates range from 20,000-40,000.

Nor has Hama fared well since the onset of the "Arab Spring". Syria's fourth-largest city was once again put under siege in 2011 following large, but peaceful, anti-government demonstrations. By early 2012, the city was subdued. This time, deaths numbered in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands.

And yet, when I think of Hama, a very different image comes to mind. I was fortunate to travel through Syria in the fall of 2009: a time when the country was at peace internally; a time when economic reforms and an openness to the world offered a glimmer of hope; and a time when a foreigner could travel about freely among the most welcoming people in the world, unaware of the blood-letting to follow in less than a year-and-a-half's time.

For me, when I think of Hama, the image that comes to mind is that of the Orontes River which gently meanders through the city, sustaining life in what would otherwise be a desert wasteland.

Hama during peaceful times
 I think of its verdant banks, and the people who saunter alongside them, pausing occasionally for a family photo. I think of the waiter who when he wasn't delivering falafel balls to my table, was on his knees behind my chair directing his evening prayers to Mecca.

I also think of Hama's unique architecture, like its police station, whose style I couldn't even begin to name:

One can only imagine the horrors that took place inside this beautiful building
And it's old colonial clock tower, always under the watchful gaze of the dictator of the day:

Even in peaceful times Big Brother was everywhere
Most of all I think of what made Hama famous centuries before the massacres - its iconic Norias or water wheels. Some of the 17 or so remaining wooden giants have been creaking and croaking their way through history since the 13th century. I like the single Norias that dot the riverbank:

  But I like even more the double ones:

One of Hama's double Norias reflected in the Orontes River
By surviving all these years, Hama's historic Norias have come to symbolize the triumph of the human spirit over the adverse and brutal conditions aligned against it. So too, in a way, have Hama's people.

I don't know if I will ever be able to return to Syria, or even if there will be a Syria left to which I can return. The country is balkanized, strife comes from within and without, and the buzzards are circling. And yet, I still kindle a small flame for a Syria that one day may be at peace, both with itself and its neighbours. 

Insha'alla, it will come to pass.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

15. Istanbul: Pilgrimage to an Islamic Shrine

Many years ago, I was born into a reasonably observant Jewish household in Toronto. As a child, I was accustomed to spending the high holidays in religious institutions, surrounded by devout men with beards. So when luck found Heather and I travelling in Istanbul on Yom Kippur, we decided to go for a repeat of my boyhood experience. But with a twist. We would spend the Jewish Day of Atonement in a mosque!
But not just any mosque: the Eyup Sultan Mosque.

Eyup Ansari was the standard bearer for the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as well as the last survivor of his circle of companions. Ansari died in a failed attempt to conquer Constantinople around 699 AD. His body was purportedly found during Mehmet the Conqueror's successful siege of the city in 1453. In tribute, Mehmet ordered Istanbul's first mosque to be built by Ansari's tomb. While the original mosque was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1799, Ansari's shrine remains. Today it's considered Turkey's holiest Islamic site and a major pilgrimage destination.
With the weight of all that history and religion on their shoulders, many non-Muslims might be too intimidated to visit the site. But Heather and I are quite comfortable in Islamic environs. Still we were a bit apprehensive about how the faithful would react to our remaining for prayers.

We needn't have worried. After the service in the cavernous (but jam-packed) house of worship, a number of men came up to me, shook my hand and patted their hearts with their hands - a gesture of welcome and respect. Others nodded and smiled. Heather was received with equal warmth by the women.

Happy, and relieved, we walked with the devotees to the sacred shrine. That's where the real wow factor set in. The outside of the building was enveloped in golden Arabic calligraphy and blue Iznik tile - widely admired as the most beautiful tile work in the Islamic world:

Since Islam strictly forbids representational art, the tiles here featured elegant floral patterns:

We entered the shrine, I through the men's door and Heather through the women's - something I've never really understood about Islam since both doors lead to the same chamber where men and women freely mingle. Many of the women were already seated by the back wall silently praying:

After a few minutes of quiet, some of the women got up, took out their cellphones and began jostling with the men for the best photo positions for snapping shots of the solid silver sarcophagus on the raised dais. We joined them in the photo-taking, but not the jostling (we figured they had "right of way") and managed to get this shot:

And this one:

One more extremely important point about Eyup Ansari's shrine. On a wall, in a setback case framed in silver, was a piece of rock embedded with the purported footprint of the Prophet Mohammed. It's almost impossible to get a good shot of it, the glass is thick and tinted green. But I know my Muslim friends would want me to show it:

Strolling back through the mosque's outer courtyard, I couldn't help but reflect on how our experience might have differed had we been a pair of Muslims entering a prominent church or synagogue in North America, taking photos, staying for prayers, and visiting a sacred shrine. In the U.S., we would have been surrounded by armed men faster than you could say "Homeland Security". Yet in visiting mosques in three countries -- Turkey, Syria and Jordan -- we experienced nothing but kindness and welcome. Think about that for a bit.

NOTE: If you might be interested in buying one of my digital art photos, please visit either: http://seymour-kanowitch.fineartamerica.com or http://zazzle.com/wowchitecture*