"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, 14 December 2015

36. An Art Nouveau Gem in Valencia

Those of you who regularly read my blog have undoubtedly noticed that I've been writing a lot lately about WOWchitecture in Southeast Asia. That's what happens when you spend four months in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Today, though, I'd like to return to my hometown of the past two years, Valencia, Spain and share with you a relatively unknown Art Nouveau gem called Casa Ferrer.

The Art Nouveau movement swept across Europe and America from about 1890 until the beginning of WWI in 1914. It went by many different names and stylistic variations, depending on the location: Modernisme (Spain), Jugendstil (Germany) and Stile Floreale (Italy) to name a few.

When the movement hit Valencia near the end of the 19th century, the city was more than ready for it. With an urban area of 100,000 people, Valencia was bursting at the seams. The city's medieval walls had just been knocked down, leaving all kinds of new lands ripe for development. And Valencia, as one of Europe's largest trading ports, had the money for a grand renewal.

In 1907, Valencian architect Vincente Ferrer, was ordered by his high-society father, to build a family home on a prime corner lot in the heart of the new city. The style he chose was the Art Nouveau variant called Viennese Secession. Why Viennese Secession? No one really knows. Maybe he liked their motto, "To every age it's art. To every art it's freedom." In plain English (actually, plain German) it meant that architects no longer wanted to keep recycling classical designs; they wanted to create new designs that matched the spirit and energy of the age. 

Or maybe Ferrer just liked the influence on the movement of Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who embraced symmetry and repetition of geometric forms, usually squares. (Yes, I know that Glasgow isn't in Austria). Then again, maybe he just wanted to hang out with the hip and fun guys in the Secession movement, led by the already famous Gustav Klimt (seated):

Photo via: theviennesesecession.com

Whatever the reason, Ferrer accomplished what he set out to do: borrowing various elements from the Secession movement, combining them with his own fertile imagination, and delivering something the likes of which Valencia had never seen before. Like curved rooflines with oculus (rounded) windows:

Garlands of roses underscored by checkerboard patterns linking ceramic roundels and triglyphs:

More roses connecting the three sections of the façade:

And tiled Ginkgo leaves creating art forms in the usually vacant space separating  window levels:

Like most of the Art Nouveau masters, Ferrer took some of his design work from the outside of the building and carried it through to the interior, albeit in a more subdued and understated form. All you have to do is walk through the gingerbread-house main door:

Pass through the lobby where lights mirror the ceramic patterns outside:

Mirrors mirror the roses on the outside door:

And painted tiles add a floral display to the ceiling:

And before you know it, you'll be scooting past the inner doorway:

And walking up the leaf and rose-laden wrought-iron stairway:

Photo via: rondom1900.nl
 into the inner sanctum of the Ferrer family.

Speaking of whom, neither Ferrer's father, nor much of high-society Valencia were exactly thrilled by his artistic vision. It was too avant-garde. Too fanciful. Too foreign. But Ferrer was a man of strong will and determined direction, and he continued adding his Art Nouveau flourishes to the Valencia skyline. Perhaps one of his most refined works, a cinema, was built in 1910, just a year after Casa Ferrer was finished. Regrettably, only a part of the façade remains today.

Meanwhile, Ferrer's colleagues like Demetrio Ribes kept turning out wilder and more whimsical Art Nouveau designs, like Valencia's train station, Estacio del Nord, finished in 1917:
But that's a story for another day....

Saturday, 31 October 2015

35. The Petronas Twin Towers - As You've Never Seen Them Before

Mention the term "Twin Towers" and people in North America and Western Europe will assume you're talking about the late, though not entirely great, former giants of south Manhattan. But use the same words in Asia and everyone will believe you're referencing the Petronas Twin Towers. Soaring 88-storeys into the the sky over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the identical towers topped out in 1988 at 1,453 ft. - then the tallest towers in the world.

The Petronas Towers, named after the country's state-owned oil company, immediately captured the global imagination. Argentinian designer Cesar Pelli became an instant "Starchitect" by shrugging off the boxy international style dominating the skyscraper scene at the time, and creating beautifully angular towers that reflected Malaysia's history. I can't describe them any better than skyscraper.org did, so I'll just quote their words.

"Pelli's design answered the developer's call to express the 'culture and heritage of Malaysia' by evoking Islamic arabesques and employing repetitive geometries characteristic of Muslim architecture. In plan, an 8-point star formed by intersecting squares is an obvious reference to Islam; curved and pointed bays create a scalloped facade that suggest temple towers. The identical towers are linked by a bridge at the 41st floor, creating a dramatic gateway to the city." 

In addition to being among the most magnificent towers in the world, the Petronas Towers are among the most frequently photographed. You may not know their name, but you've probably seen them dozens - if not hundreds - of times. You've seen them by day:

 You've seen them by night: 

You may have even seen them during what photographer's call "the blue hour":

But my goal isn't to show you what you've already seen. There's already enough déjà vu in the world. When I spotlight an internationally renowned work of WOWchitecture, my aim is to present it to you in a way that you've never seen it before.

So let me ask you this: have you ever seen the Petronas Towers from up close? Real close? So close that if you held your position for more than 30 seconds you'd need to see a chiropractor the next day? 

Sure, you've seen a zillion photos of their tapering minaret-shaped tops:

But how about their shiny silver-pillared entryway?

Or their beautiful and futuristic - kind of neo-deco - ceiling lamps in the reception area?

Maybe you have been to the towers and even gone inside for a personal eye-balling. I'll bet you haven't seen them in the full bloom of a three-week long Chinese New Year celebration:

The above three shots are not from the actual towers themselves, but from the shopping mall that connects them. Still, the Petronas Towers complex is made up of much more than just a couple of connected skyscrapers, however magnificent. There is also, for example a park that sits at their base, with an artificial pond where children cool off during the always baking afternoon sun, parents watch the nightly light show, and kids of all ages admire the marine -themed metal sculptures:

For my money's worth, the Petronas Twin Towers is one of the three greatest skyscrapers in the world - or two of the four greatest - depending on whether  you count them as one building or two. The others on my list are The Chrysler Building in New York and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. None holds a fixed spot in my mind - on any given day any one of them could be my favourite. Of the three, the only one I haven't seen in person is the Burj. I'm still hoping to get there one day, and maybe then I'll be able to give you a more definitive answer as to which is my absolute favourite.
In the mean time, all I can say for certain is that while other individual towers may have soared past them in height, the Petronas Towers remain the tallest identical twins in the world. That's a record that's held for 27 years, and I see nothing in sight that's going to challenge it. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

34. Angkor - As You've Never Seen it Before (Part II)

My last post seemed to draw a lot of interest from WOWchitecture readers. Clearly, there is a sizeable demand to see beyond the cliched views provided by media, movie makers and promotional materials. That's not surprising. Angkor Archeologial Park is 400 square miles, and there's so much more to see than just Angor Wat, Angkor Tom, 900-year-old celestial nymphs, and trees devouring buildings. So let's carry on for another post.

You can tell a site is really beautiful when even the behind-the-scenes repair work looks artistic. Check out the temporary supports propping up buildings awaiting the installation of something more permanent by UNESCO:

This close-up of the window looks even more artistic:

One of the most under-promoted and underrated features at Angkor are its doors. For most ancient cultures living at the same time as the Khmers - like the Maya of Central America and Mexico - a doorway was just the empty space in between archway supports. But look at this gem at East Mebon:

Or this amazing jewel of an entryway at Banteay Srei:

Seen here in it's full glory:

Where the portals, when open, reveal even more fascinating treasures:

Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women) is both special and unique within the Angkor sphere of influence. It is the only major complex not built at the behest of a king, but rather by one of his advisors. Construction was completed in 967, some 200 years before Angkor Wat, and it is said to reflect the most Indian-like style at Angkor. It's on a much smaller scale than Angkor Wat, and Tourism Cambodia likes to refer to it as, "an exquisite miniature; a fairy palace in the heart of an immense and mysterious forest."

Most significantly, whereas most Angkor structures are covered in laeterite - a hard and difficult material to carve - Banteay Srei was built of soft, pink sandstone which gives way to an artisan's tools like a knife going through wood.
By any yardstick, Banteay Srei's buildings - its temples, towers, libraries, lintels and pediments, are the most ornate in the entire Angkor empire:

Banteay Srei is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva (aka "The Destroyer) and draws on the panopoly of devils and demons that populate Hindu mythology:

Despite all this splendour, if you show up at Banteay Srei first thing in the morning, you'll probably have the place all to yourself for the couple of hours it takes to see it. Why? Because it's about 23 miles north of Angkor Wat. And in the heat and humidity of the Cambodian jungle, that's about 45 more tushy-jarring minutes on a tuk-tuk than your average tourist is willing to put up with. Their loss. Your gain.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

33. Angkor - As You've Never Seen it Before (Part I)

The Angkor Archeological Park (henceforth referred to as Angkor) is a massive, 400-square mile complex of Hindu-Buddhist buildings, forests and wetlands created by the ancient Khmer people between the 9th and 15th centuries. You'll note that I did not use the more familiar term "Angkor Wat". That well-known temple constitutes just a tiny - albeit magnificent - part of the kingdom of ruins. It would be like referring to the entire city of Agra as the Taj Mahal.

There is no doubt that Angkor is one of the world's most popular archeological sites. It receives over two-million visitors annually, and that number is growing by 20 percent a year. It will accelerate even faster in coming years as China's bourgeoning middle-class grows in size and wealth, and enjoys its freedom to travel. Another boost will no doubt be provided by Hollywood, which has discovered that Angkor makes a powerful backdrop for its blockbusters like Laura Croft: Tomb Raider.

Yet to judge by the small range of photos published in media and showcased by photographers (over and over again) you'd think that Angkor was a relatively small place with a few beautifully carved buildings, some of them with huge Buddha-like heads, others a with long, meandering, gnarled roots covering and crushing their structures.

Whether or not you've been to Angkor, you've no doubt seen this photo or similar ones of the great Hindu temple of Angkor Wat - with its five soaring towers shaped liked lotus buds, and fronted by reflecting pools - the largest religious monument in the world:

It is, in fact, the most recognized face of Cambodia and sits prominently on the country's flag. Contrary to popular myth, Angkor Wat has been in continual use since its construction in the 12th century, and has never been "lost to the jungle".

You've also more than likely seen the many heads at Angkor Thom, each showcasing the hybridized face of the Buddha and Khmer King Jayavarman VII.

And the silk cotton tree roots that are either holding together or spreading apart (archeologists are still arguing this one out) this building at Ta Phrom:

Or the even much larger tree roots at Preah Khan:

You may even have seen some of the beautiful carvings Devatas (minor deities) and Asparas (celestial nymphs) like this one:

That's pretty much what everyone sees of Angkor, either in person or by photo. But now I'd like to show you some images of Angkor that I guarantee you've never seen. Like the mist-shrouded palms you'll view as you approach Angkor Wat at seven in the morning - the only time you should be arriving unless you want your Angkor moments dotted with busloads of Chinese tourists.

As much as Angkor is about stone, it's also about water. Without an enormous system of canals, dykes and reservoirs, the heart of the Khmer empire would not have lasted 60 years, much less six centuries. Yet I'm sure you've never seen images of the isolation and desolation in which some of the water is set: 

And yet, what better location than an empty and eerie swamp for those treasured wedding photos. Angkor is the Central Park of Cambodia:

In this case, the bride was very calm and cooperative - it was the "fluffer" who was throwing hissy fits about her hair and dress, the lighting and the photo angles.

Angkor is also about red sandstone columns, carvings and windows:

and the light that passes through them to dance its way onto shadowed walls:

Angkor is about multi-terraced pyramids crowned by multiple towers like at East Mebon, which was built in the 950s and pre-dates Angkor Wat by some 200 years:

Each tower houses a vault protected by a stone lion and a rather strong-looking door:

Today's guardians of Angkor like to promote the site as a complex of peaceful temples. But as you might expect from a place with an entryway called "The Gate of Death" Angkor was as much about war as it was about peace - perhaps more so. The bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor provide a vivid illustration. Below, soldiers accompanied by war elephants and war horses head out to battle:

And here they are coming back with prisoners:

But as the old saying goes, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. The great Khmer empire that was born in Angkor in 802, went to its death in 1431 in a final siege by Thai invaders.