"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, 10 June 2016

41. Paris' Castel Beranger: Delightful or Deranged?

When architect Hector Guimard put his finishing touches on Castel Beranger in 1898, Paris had its first Art Nouveau apartment. Some of his critics called it deranged, but I think the building is completely delightful. So, either tastes have changed considerably over the past 118 years - or else I'm deranged too. I suspect the jury is still out on that one!

Art Nouveau, which was inspired by nature and its round, sinewy and elongated forms, was considered a "total art style". Guimard was involved in every aspect of the building's design, including, structure, furniture, ornamental ironwork, carpets, glass, wallpaper, door knocks and doorknobs. He designed each of the apartments individually - no two were alike.

Castel Beranger's front gate (pictured above) may be the single most beautiful piece of metalwork I've every seen. It has all of the curvy, swervy lines and hints of musical notes that Guimard learned from his mentor, Brussels architect, Victor Horta. The pairing of bronze and blue, an unusual coupling to say the least, was pure inspired genius.

The fluidity of motion in the gate, carries on through to the entrance hall and inner door, where ceramics and stained-glass add to the blend of materials. The ceilings and the tops of the walls are covered with polished copper plates with metal motifs. The metalwork looks a little more green than on the outside, owing to the hallway's yellow lighting:

(Photo via: Jean-Pierre Dalbera, Wikipedia)

The pattern continues on into the vestibule:

(Photo via: Jean-Pierre Dalbera, Wikipedia)

And to the main stairway where a relatively new innovation - blown-glass bricks - were used to bring in light and add beauty to the stairwell:

(Photo via: Jean-Pierre Dalbera, Wikipedia)

The outside facade of the building - with the exception of the gate - is a bit more whimsical, featuring wrought-iron sea horses, and masks said to bear a more than striking resemblance to Guimard's face:

But it wasn't all fanciful. Guimard also used the project to develop and advance his Art Nouveau design technique:

While Castel Beranger may not have pleased the more conservative elements within Paris' society - avant-garde design rarely does - it earned enough friends to see the building's frontage designated as Facade of the Year in the 16th arrondissement in 1898. It also played a major role in winning its designer another commission, without which Paris would be missing one of its most recognizable icons:

Yes, the Hector Guimard who created Castel  Béranger is the same Hector Guimard who created dozens of Metro entrances across Paris' extensive subway network. And really, where would the romance of the Art Nouveau period be, and where would the beauty of Paris' Belle Époque era be, without Guimard's uniquely delightful Metro entrances?

Sunday, 10 April 2016

40. Zaha Hadid: An Appreciation

 New Century City Art Centre, Chengdu, China
(All renderings via ZHA)

Architects aren't supposed to die at 65. They really aren't. From Sinan Mimar the builder of Istanbul's great mosques (who died in 1588 aged 99) to Oscar Niemeyer who created the magical jungle city of Brasilia (and lived to within 10 days of his 105th birthday) architects have been renowned for living long, fulfilling and productive lives. Let's also not forget Philip Johnson, who reached 98, Frank Lloyd Wright 91, Jorn Utzon (Sydney Opera House) 91 and Buckminster Fuller 87.

Among the living and still going strong are I.M. Pei, who will turn 99 later this month, Cesar Pelli 91 and Frank Gehry 87.

Finding an architect who died at 65 or younger took me all the way back to the Finnish duo of Eero Saarinen (St. Louis Gateway Arch) and Viljo Revell (Toronto City Hall). The former died while undergoing surgery for a brain tumour in 1951, aged 51. The latter in 1964 aged 54.

Then came Thursday March 31, and the shock heard round the architectural world. The news, when it arrived, was swift and stark, bare and brutal: Zaha Hadid, Dead at 65. Like a nuclear explosion it arrived unexpectedly, unmercifully, and with soul-crushing finality. Like a thief in the night it robbed us of an invaluable treasure, one we are helpless to replace. We had expected so much more from her -- like at least another couple of decades of transformational work, lifting the bar higher and higher to worlds unimagined -- and unimaginable by other architects.

We are, by now, familiar with the broad brushstrokes that shaped her life's work: a woman in a "man's profession"; an Iraqi Arab in a world dominated by the West; a new face in England, a country often more comfortable with Empire than immigration; and a prodigious mind that designed structures that were often deemed too spectacular to bring to life -- even in envelope-pushing Emirate Dubai:

Signature Towers 

Dubai Opera House

Where others might have been blinded by the glare of the public spotlight, or crushed by the weight of expectations, Hadid shone. The greater the challenge, the more she rose to it. To the Pritzker Prize -- often referred to as the Nobel Prize or Academy Award of the architecture profession -- the first woman to do so. To two consecutive RIBA Stirling Prizes. To a multitude of other awards and accolades too numerous to mention.

Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, DBE to give her her full due, was a complex and multi-talented person who always chose the road not taken. She didn't understand words and phrases like "normal", "ordinary", "status quo", "fitting in", or "running with the crowd". Her buildings, like her personality, were outrageous, audacious, flamboyant, singular, provocative and iconoclastic. She simply set out to create a new type of architecture, and she succeeded marvelously. She didn't work outside of the box, she destroyed the box completely.

We live in a world today which, unfortunately, privileges brevity over profundity. Thoughts, even paradigm-changing ones, are expected to be expressible in 120 characters or less. And so, many have sought to encapsulate Hadid's work in a single word: organic, futuristic, visionary, curvy, swervy, free-form, undulating. Each on its own is inadequate; all together, they still come up short.

If I were to accept the fool's errand of summing up Hadid's work in a single word, that word, as self-serving as it may be, would be WOWchitecture. There simply wasn't a single thing that she created -- buildings, bridges, pavilions, artwork, furniture, jewelry, even yachts....to name a few -- that didn't make you go WOW! She was the ultimate WOWchitect and on most days my favourite.

Hadid-designed Yacht

Those of us who were fans of her hyperimaginative style, each had our favourite buildings. Her best-known structure was the white concrete and glass (nearly all of her buildings were white concrete and glass) London Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 Olympics. Hadid called it "a concept inspired by the smooth geometry of water in motion":

For me, her creme de la creme included the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan:

Guanzhou Opera House:

Wanjing Soho:

  Regium Waterfront:

These are already built. Others are underway and will soon join the parade of spectacular structures. Like the metro station at the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:

And Port House in Antwerp:

Somewhat further down the road, we should see the construction of the Sleuk Rith Institute, a memorial in Phnom Penh to Cambodia's holocaust:

Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether her greatest design will ever see the light of day -- an Abu Dhabi arts centre so bold and futuristic that it can only be compared to the Starship Enterprise:

While her creations may have been close to perfect, Hadid herself had her share of flaws. Frailties are, regrettably, part of the human condition. Some of hers were small ones. She could, for example, be prickly. A reporter arriving for an interview could never be certain as to which version of the lady would show up. Then again, the same has been said of Gehry.

She could be flush with the arrogance of success, but not as badly as Lloyd Wright, who designed his first wife's clothes so that they wouldn't clash with the house they lived in. She didn't suffer criticism well -- who amongst us does -- to the point where she denied the obvious. She bristled when her design for the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar was criticized for resembling a woman's private parts. And yet I would defy any reasonably intelligent person to look at a rendering of the stadium and deny that what they are seeing is anything other than:

Small sins are forgivable. But she committed large ones as well. Like embracing dictatorships: in Libya...in Azerbaijan...in Russia...in China...in China again...and again...and again... Seeing her designs built always seemed more important to her than promoting human rights. She argued (never persuasively) that good architecture could help open up closed societies. She could also be dismissive about the deaths of low-paid, immigrant construction workers in the countries where she built. She didn't pass up jobs or advocate on their behalf. "It's not my duty as an architect" she proclaimed to The Guardian in a quote that would earn her the enmity of much of the architectural community.

Such are the complexities and dualities of creative genius: brilliance and instability; iconoclasm and arrogance; advocacy and denial; creating new worlds while toadying to the worst values of the old.

At the end of the day -- and sunset arrived much earlier than we had expected -- Zaha Hadid was a woman who knew her own mind, listened to her own heart, set her own path and followed her own dreams. She lived, perhaps unknowingly, the mantra of another brilliant (and flawed) star who shone brightly for a while before flaming out, also too soon, Steve Jobs:

"Time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition...Everything else is secondary."

Saturday, 26 March 2016

39. The Great Mosque of Córdoba: The Sacred and the Profane (Part II)

Nothing says "mosque" quite like a wooden Jesus on a cross. Or an ostentatiously gold-framed painting of an angel smiting a heathen:

Actually, pretty much everything says "mosque" more than a wooden Jesus or a smiting angel. But when the Spanish Christians recaptured Córdoba from its Muslim occupiers in 1236, the last thing on their minds was preserving the Great Mosque as an Islamic monument.

Still, if there's one thing I've learned about Roman Catholic Church leaders, it's that they have tremendous respect for religion -- as long as it's their own. Anyone else's is fair game for persecution, degradiation, desecration, and a dozen other nasty things brought to you by the same fine folk who would later launch the Spanish Inquisition.

A tip-off as to the architectural rape that the Mosque would endure under the so-called "custodianship" of the Catholic Church, can be found in the official name of the building: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. No one actually calls it that, of course, except for the Vatican and the Spanish Church. Your average Cordoban just refers to it as "the Mosque-Cathedral".

The Mosque was re-consecrated as a cathedral after the reconquest, and the DIY crew started in almost immediately. Under muslim rule, the Mosque had been enclosed only on three sides. The fourth, opened out into the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of Orange Trees). The net effect was two-fold. The orange trees aligned with the Mosque's red and white arches, creating the image of a large forest. And the sun pouring in made the Mosque a very light and open place to be.

When the Catholics took over, they built a fourth wall and sealed the windows, making the cathedral a rather dark and gloomy place, which it still is today. But then the Catholic clergy prefer their flock to be in the dark -- both literally and metaphorically.

The most visible sign of the desecration of the Mosque -- one that can be seen from the other side of the city across the Guadalquivir River -- is a baroque belfry that was built to cover up the former minaret. It serves as a beacon signalling to the world that the Mosque is "Under New Management". Not that it's an ugly belfry. It's actually quite an attractive 16th-century structure:

But -- and this is a crucial point -- MOSQUES DON'T HAVE BELLS!!!

Other crimes against architecture committed by the Church pretty much fit into the same category as the belfry: eye-catching, in a gaudy sort of way, but wholly inappropriate. Perhaps the greatest abomination -- both in an architectural and religious sense -- was the 1523 insertion of a Renaissance cathedral smack dab into the middle of the Gothic mosque. This was, of course, facilitated by first tearing out the heart of the Mosque and then sticking in a very random-looking selection of naves:


and altars:

There were, however, some attractive additions like the beautifully crafted mahogany choir stalls, pilfered...err...liberated... from the finest trees that the American rainforests could provide:

And the lovely organ just above the choir's heads:

Both would look splendid in a building of their own era, instead of being thrown in to survive amongst a mish-mash of architectural styles and a handful of ornamental do-dads that would look more at home in a pagan temple than a Catholic Church:

I knew, for example, that eagles were regarded as birds of "prey". But I didn't know that they were also considered birds of "pray".

Adding insult to injury, the Spanish Diocese banned Islamic prayer within the building -- an edict that remains intact to this very day -- despite appeals all the way up to and including the Pope. To make doubly sure that no Islamic prayers were offered, the Muslim Mihrab (prayer niche) and nearby chambers were blocked off by metal fencing. And to make triply sure, the Spanish monarchy, which had so enjoyed turfing out the country's Jews in 1492,  also gave the boot to Spain's Muslims in 1609. 

Still, I wouldn't want to make it sound as if the Muslims were all pure-as-the-driven-snow good guys. There is the story of Al-Mansur, the fearsome warlord who led a bloody raid in the late 10th-century that penetrated as far into Christian territory as Santiago de Compostela. There, he rode his mighty steed into the cathedral and let it drink from the font of holy water, both quenching it's thirst and pissing-off the Catholic Fathers no end. Al-Mansur proceeded to have the Church's bells carried 500 miles southwest to Córdoba where they were melted into lamps for the Great Mosque. But don't expect to see them if you visit Córdoba -- following the re-conquest of the city, the Castillian King Ferdinand III had the lamps carried back to the shrine of St. James, where they were converted into molten form and again shaped into bells.

Let's give the final word on the Mosque-Cathedral to King Carlos V. It was he who gave the final order for the big 1523 renovation/desecration, without ever having been to Córdoba or understanding the impact it would have on one of Islam's greatest monuments. When he finally saw the damage that had been committed by his minions in his name, he is said to have proclaimed, "You have built here what you or anyone else might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world."

Thursday, 3 March 2016

38. The Great Mosque of Córdoba: The Sacred and the Profane (Part 1)

   Interior of a Mosque in Cordova by Edwin Lord Weeks                          

As a devout atheist, maybe I shouldn't be tossing around terms like "sacred" and "profane". But I do so in a purely secular sense. To me, the closest thing to "sacred" is a great work of architecture - architecture that is so powerful and spectacular that it rises above everything else created in its time. "Profane", I reserve for actions that destroy or degrade the grandeur, beauty and architectural integrity of a great structure.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba displays both of these elements. In this post I'm going to focus on the "sacred" aspects embedded by its original Moorish builders. In the next, I'll show you the "profanities" inflicted on it by the Catholic Church.

The Moors, largely Muslim Berbers from Morocco, invaded Spain in 711 AD as part of the great Islamic expansion that followed the death of Mohammed in 632. They would occupy parts of the Iberian Peninsula for the next 750+ years. Construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784, taking more than 200 years until it reached its current dimensions in 987.

This massive undertaking - a symbol of conquest and empire - required the efforts of thousands of artisans and labourers. As the Mosque grew in size and importance, so too did Córdoba. At its height, it was the most populous city in the world, and the most advanced centre for science, medicine, education, culture and finance.

Given the general temper of the times, the Mosque's powerful outer walls more closely resemble those of a fortress than a house of worship:

A fortress with really powerful, tall bronze doors:


Amazing door knocks:

And large sections of wall with crenelated tops, arched windows adorned with geometric and floral patterns, and red and white decorative stone and tile:

Inside the Mosque it's all pillars. Pillars, pillars and more pillars. Pillars of jasper, pillars of onyx, pillars of marble and pillars of granite - 856 in all - the largest number of pillars in one building in the history of the world. The pillars support red and white arches of just about every style, size and design. Double arches support the Mosque's high roof:

Interlacing arches:

 Polylobed arches:

And special arches denote the space reserved for the Caliph's family:

The arches can be a photographer's best friend, offering some nifty ways to frame your shots:

Running the length of the prayer hall are beautifully crafted lamps:

and elsewhere in the Mosque as well:

The most important feature of the Mosque, or, for that matter, any mosque is the mihrab or prayer niche. In the case of this mosque the "niche" is the size of a room, and it's quite magnificent:

Its opening is framed by coloured mosaics made of small pieces of glass (tesserae) that create rich bands of dark blue, reddish brown, yellow and gold:

Guilded Koranic caligraphy crawls around the square frame:

But there's something very unusual about this mihrab. By tradition, mihrabs point toward Mecca and show the faithful in which direction to pray. Mecca is southeast of Cordoba. Yet the Mihrab is aimed due south. Why? Because Damascus is due south.

The Ummayad dynasty, which built the Córdoba mosque, had once ruled in Damascus, then the centre of the Islamic world. They built  the Great Ummayad Mosque - still standing today and largely intact despite the civil war. It is believed that when the Ummayads (involuntarily) relocated to Córdoba, they wanted their new mosque to acknowledge its older Damascene brother as the holiest mosque outside of Mecca.

Almost stealing the Mihrab's thunder is its spectacular shell-shaped dome, carved out of a single piece of marble and lavishly coloured with gold mosaics.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba is truly quite massive. If you're just interested in a cursory look at the major highlights, it will probably take you 1-2 hours to see them. If, like us, you'd like a more thorough and detailed look with some serious time devoted to your photography, you'd better budget a half-day. On the other hand, if you're a total architecture and mosque geek who has to examine every pillar, arch and chamber, there's probably enough to keep you busy for a day-and-a-half - although you'll have to make it back to your hotel for the overnight stay!

But sooner or later you're going to have to leave this great wonder of the  medieval world, and rather than doing it with a heavy heart, let your spirits soar as you walk past the stained-glass windows en route to the exit: