"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

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

22. The Great Houses of Chicago

Chicago has long been one of my favourite cities in the world. How can you not love a city that invented the skyscraper:

Re-imagined the idea of an urban park:

Made "the blues" go electric, and spotlights it every year at the world's largest free outdoors blues festival:

And created the only pizza in the world worth eating - the deep dish pizza:

Yup, Chicago is my kind of town!

One of the best features of "ChiTown" (as the locals call it) is its magnificent historic houses. First among the best are those designed by the 20th century's best-known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Wright - as the good people of Chicago still refer to him - used the suburb of Oak Park as his residence, experimental lab, and showcase to the world.

Before he designed his signature Prairie Houses, Wright experimented with a variety of styles. One of the standout creations of his early career was the 1893 Walter Gale House - built about a block away from Wright's own home and studio on Chicago Street. Its key feature is a beautiful rounded-wood turret that dominates the front of the house:

Gale House is considered one of Wright's "bootleg houses" because it was designed while he was under contract to another great Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan, and forbidden to work on his own projects. Following rules was definitely not Wright's strong suit. Nor was tolerating disobedience Sullivan's. Before you could say "I'm an arrogant son-of-a-bitch who listens to no one" Wright was out on his rear.

Wright later experimented - very successfully, and to great acclaim - with high-pitched roofs and wide, thin chimneys as at the Nathan G. Moore House:

And indeed his own home and studio:

Eventually, Wright went on to perfect his Prairie House design with its characteristic horizontality - flat roofs, oversized eves, and square windows with leaded glass. He built them all over Oak Park, including the Edwin R. Hills House:

And Arthur B. Heurtley House:

Another neighbourhood that I love for its historic houses is Wicker Park, a west-end area that has been developed by numerous immigrant communities since the 1870s. My favourites include The Hermann Weinhardt House:

And three other historic homes that, despite their grandeur, were not named after their owners but just given addresses:


Yet another Chicago area that I love to walk around is the Gold Coast, particularly North Astor Street. Here you'll see some highly enviable mansions, starting with the residence of John Wellburn Root, near the south end of the street:

And finishing up with the Charnley-Persky House to the north:

The house was co-designed by Sullivan and Wright before their big breakup - which kind of brings us back full circle to the beginning of our story.

Charnley-Persky is open to the public, so go see it if you can and have fun trying to figure out which parts were designed by Wright and which by Sullivan.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

21. Damascus: Azem Palace Still Standing

For the past three-and-a-half years, Syria has been ripped apart by the centrifugal forces of war. Two hundred thousand people have been killed; cities like Aleppo and Homs have been reduced to rubble; and with at least four heavily armed factions fighting for control of parts of the country, there's no telling what Syria will look like at the end of the war - or even if a single country called Syria will emerge intact. Hopes grow dimmer and slimmer by the day.
In the midst of all this, the Azem Palace, built for the Ottoman governor of Damascus (Assad Pacha al-Azem) in 1750, as well as much of the rest of the old city centre, stand relatively unscathed. In historical terms, the Palace is still a youngster. Damascus has been continuously inhabited since about 6000 BC. The monumental wall surrounding the Grand Mosque was built during the Roman occupation, and the mosque itself was started within 75 years of the Prophet Mohammed's death:

Damascus' Grand (Ummayad) Mosque
The Azem Palace doesn't look like anything a westerner would recognize as a palace. There are no fancy gates, turrets, long driveways or red carpets out front:

The Main Building of the Azem Palace

Instead, it's main feature is a series of rectangular black and white striped buildings, the black being basalt and the white, limestone. The buildings are placed around a courtyard dotted with fountains and orange trees.

The compound is divided into Haremlek (private family areas) and Selamlek (visitor quarters). The WOWchitecture begins inside the opulent rooms with their gorgeously painted wooden ceilings and every manner of chandelier descending from them:

  The rooms house numerous cabinets with valuable antiques:


With the Ottoman Empire being one of the casualties of the First World War, the Palace was converted into the Museum of Arts and Popular Tradition. There are many dioramas throughout the rooms showing what everyday life in the Palace was like. Since Heather was quite taken by them, we have far more photos than I'm going to show here:

We wouldn't have minded arranging similar accommodations for ourselves, but not being royalty, that wasn't going to happen. Still, I have to say that considering the Ottoman mansion/hotel we did stay in, we didn't do too badly:
 And, after a while, I did start to develop a certain feel for the place.