Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The City at Night (Havana)

Becket, December 25, 2013

Before the triumph of Castro's revolution in 1958, the night of Havana was the stuff of legend and fantasy. From the hotels and casinos run by American mobsters--such as Santo Trafficante's Capri and Meyer Lansky's Riviera--to the nightclubs and cabarets like the legendary Tropicana, the city after dark was often portrayed as a place of vice and debauchery.


But no picture of Havana's nightlife in the 1950s could be complete without mentioning the "Teatro Shanghai". Unlike the glamorous hotels and nightclubs, the Shanghai was a rather rundown building in Havana's Chinatown (it was originally built for traditional Chinese theater,) just west of Old Havana behind the National Capitol Building. Its nightly shows included raunchy comedy acts, hardcore burlesque and pornographic movies.

And the greatest star associated with the Shanghai (although he may have performed mainly at the Mambo Club or other places) was a monumentally endowed male performer known as "Superman" (in Santo Trafficante words "His cock is supposed to be fourteen inches long.") This colorful character appears in many accounts of the period. Frank Ragano, Trafficante's lawyer, mentions Superman's sex shows with awe, but Graham Greene writes that his performance was "as uninspiring as a dutiful husband's." He even has a brief appearance--seen from the back with a cape--as a character in Francis Ford Coppola's second Godfather movie.

For the later chapters in the life of the Cuban Superman, there is a fictional--I presume--encounter in "Dirty Havana Trilogy", Pedro Juan Gutierrez's hugely successful 1998 book, where the main character in the stories finds Superman during the "Special Period" (following the fall of the Soviet Union) on a sidewalk of Centro Habana, as a reminiscing 80-year-old bound to his wheelchair, diabetic, the lower part of his body gone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The City at Night (Cairo)

Becket, December 15, 2013

If you look at a map of Cairo from the second half of the 19th century (*) you'll easily recognized the Ezbekiya Gardens, a large rectangle with chamfered corners to the northwest. These gardens were a centerpiece of the transformation of the city during the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805-48) and his grandson Is'mail Pasha Khedive (1863-79.) Right to the south of the Esbekiya Gardens is Opera Square marked by the equestrian statue of Ibrahim Pasha, the eldest son of Muhammad Ali and father of Is'mail. The monument was erected shortly after the completion of the great Khedivial Opera House completed in 1871.


In spite of the rather highbrow origin of this district, by the 1880's the whole area around the Ezbekiya Gardens became the heart Cairo's nightlife. It was populated by "salat" (nightclubs or cabarets,) such as El Dorado Café, where singers, dancers, acrobats and other entertainers performed for both local and foreign patrons. By the early 1920's, the most famous of these entertainers was the legendary Badia Masabni, a Sirian dancer credited with the transformation of  belly dancing into an art form. In 1926 she opened her own nightclub, Casino Badia, the first of a string of hugely successful venues that culminated with the famous Casino Opera, along the southern edge of Opera Square. It included a nightclub with a circular stage, a restaurant, a dining terrace, a cafe, a bar and a cinema. Masabni's Casino Opera opened in 1940 with great fanfare and for the following decade was the undisputed cornerstone of Cairo's nightlife.

(*) You can find an image of the 1874 "Grand Bey" map of Cairo in an earlier post:
http://citiesandstories.blogspot.com/2012/11/paris-in-cairo.html


Saturday, December 14, 2013

The City at Night (Venice)

Becket, December 14, 2013

Canaletto (the great 18th century artist Giovanni Antonio Canal) painted countless vedute of his native Venice, but only two of them show the city at night: "La Vigilia di San Pietro" and "La Vigilia de Santa Marta", both painted after Canaletto's return from London in 1755.


The paintings depict two of just a handful of local festivities held specifically at night. The first shows a frontal view of San Pietro di Castello, a church designed by Andrea Palladio in the island of Olivolo, at the eastern end of the city. The other painting shows a line of houses adjacent to the church of Santa Marta, on the southwestern end of Venice, facing the Canale della Giudecca. Both of the scenes are lit by the moon, either directly or, this being Venice, by its reflection on the water. Other than that there are much smaller light sources associated with the festivities, with very little light coming from the interior some of the buildings.


The figures in front of San Pietro, either on the gondolas in the foreground or further back on the banks of the canal, are caught in rather genteel positions, standing, seating or strolling. The other painting shows a rowdy crowd of musicians and dancers. These paintings give us a rather vivid record of the different kinds of scenes one would encounter in the night of 18th century Venice.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The City at Night (Istanbul)

Providence, December 12, 2013

How do you draw the map of the city at night? Technically speaking, a map is a horizontal projection "looking down" so the sky doesn't appear in the drawing. Yes, astronomical charts are maps of the night sky and recent satellite photographs show cities defined by their lighting of streets and roads at night, but I'm thinking of a different kind of night map.


For example, there is a wonderful map of Istanbul depicting the appearance of the Great Comet in 1577. On the lower part of the image there is a more-or-less conventional map of Istanbul depicting the historic peninsula to the right, Üsküdar to the left and Pera at the bottom, with the Bosporus running vertically and the Golden Horn horizontally. Then, just to the south of the peninsula (north in this map is down,) instead of the Sea of Marmara, the map introduces the night sky with the starts, the moon and the comet trailed by its long tail. It's a rather ingenious way to turn a horizontal projection into a vertical view. It seems as if the mapmaker chose this particular orientation--I can't remember any other map of Istanbul oriented this way--to be able to superimpose the sky over the expanse of the sea. And that is only the beginning of this question about orientation, since it triggers all sort problems. Just look at the Galata Tower towards the bottom of the drawing, shown in elevation but upside down.

(With thanks to my friend Elif Özgen that introduced me to this and other amazing images of Istanbul. Also, I must confess that I not only know preciously little about this map, but I have a low-resolution image so it's not so easy to look at it in more detail. And needless to say that I can't read the text at the top. Any help would be much appreciated.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The City at Night (Beijing)

Becket, December 3, 2013

In the last few years astronauts at the International Space Station have been producing an  extraordinary collection of images showing large cities at night. Surprisingly, they often show different patterns from the ones shown in maps of even daylight satellite images.

For example, the foundational north-south axis of Beijing (north is at the top-right corner in the image) is barely apparent, while the east-west line of Chang'an Avenue becomes dominant in the night image. you can recognize it particularly in the center where is brighter and thicker, with elongated rectangle of Tian'anment Square to the south. The image shows the concentric ring structure very clearly, all the way to the 6th Ring Road more than 10 miles away from the center.


But the night view shows another urban pattern emerging, with a series of radial extensions, almost as if they were the legs of a spider. Not so much to the west and north where growth is limited by the Xishan and Yanshan ranges but certainly to the east and south, as the city seems to be on its way to connect with the cities of Lanfang and Tianjing, all the way to the to the sea port on Bohai Bay.

(By the way, the combined population of the three cities is currently something like 40 million, so allowing for even a modest growth we will be soon looking at an urban agglomeration topping 50 million people!)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The City at Night (New York)

Becket, November 30, 2013


"I got up 9 o'clock one night and I says to myself "I'm gonna take a nice little ride and work up an appetite."" (Weegee, in "Famous Photographers Tell How", 1958)

Few people have a better sense of life in the city at night than crime reporters (yes, I know, I should say life... and death.) And in the New York of the 30s and 40s there was nobody better at that than Arthur Fellig, a self-taught photographer known as Weegee. He chased after the reports coming out of the police teletype, made the pictures and sold them to the newspapers in time for the morning edition. But he was much more than a crime photographer. He captured in his images the whole urban drama of a moment.



For one of his most famous pictures, aptly titled "Balcony seats at a murder", Weegee arrives on the night of November 16, 1939 to Prince Street in Lower Manhattan, where a man has just been shot in front of a coffee shop. He takes the picture of the murder scene, but the photograph shows much more than the dead body laying on the doorway. It includes the patrons of the coffee shop on the sidewalk, the people of the tenements on the windowsills above, the children on the fire stairs. Weegee is absolutely deliberate: "I stepped back all the way about a hundred feet..."

And he turned the city into a theater.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The City at Night (Vienna)

Becket, November 29, 2013

"Or do ghosts only rise by night, Doctor Winkel? Do you got an opinion on that?" (from a scene in "The Third Man", 1949)

In the earlier part of the 20th century, most if not all night views of the city were an expression of modernity, literally the bright side of modernity. But if the first war hadn't been enough, the second exposed the darker side of modern progress. In Carol Reed's celebrated 1949 movie "The Third Man", the city of Vienna is often portrayed at night, with the light coming from occasional windows or headlights, when not from sources that seem to have been placed by the lighting crew to actually emphasize the darkness of the city.


Several times, the plot of "The Third Man" brings the action to the Hoher Markt. It is the earliest and most important square in the historic core of Vienna, an elongated urban space easily recognizable by Fisher Von Erlach's "Wedding Fountain" (it depicts the marriage of Joseph and Mary.) One of the emblematic camera angles in the movie shows Hoher Markt at night from Judengasse, a small street coming transversally to the center of the square from the north. The light sources seem carefully located to focus not on the architecture or the space, but on the destruction and decay, the badly patched wooden shutters in the foreground, the pile of rubble in front of the fountain and the half collapsed buildings behind.

Yes, the illusions of the shining modern metropolis are a dream of the past.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

The City at Night (Buenos Aires)

Becket, November 28, 2013

As far as I know, Horacio Coppola was the only Argentinean student at the Bauhaus. He was a pupil of the legendary photographer and teacher Walter Peterhans during the last years of the school, around 1932, when it was already in Berlin and under the direction of Mies van der Rohe.

When Coppola came back to Buenos Aires in 1936, the city was celebrating the 400th anniversary of its first foundation and offered the young photographer a perfect modern subject. In one of his best know photographs, he shows the city at night, with the "Calle Corrientes" as a gash of electric light cutting through the center of the image and culminating in the Obelisco, the monument at the intersection between Corrientes and 9 de Julio that had been finished only months earlier. In the foreground Coppola places the SAFICO Building, a 26-story modern skyscraper finished in 1934. Don't you think that Hugh Ferriss would have been blown away by the SAFICO? I'm no sure but I think that the photo must have been taken from the top of the COMEGA Building, another modern skyscraper finished in 1934 and located two blocks to the east.


In Coppola's photo, the widening of Corrientes street is almost complete, ready to turn into "Avenida Corrientes", one of the several thoroughfares opened at the time that introduced the speed of the car into the historic grid of Buenos Aires.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Urban Figures (Lisbon)

Becket, November 15, 2013

Known as the "Baixa", literally meaning "lower town", the center of Lisbon's historic core sits on a narrow valley running north-south. To the east, the old Arab neighborhood of Alfama climbs up the hills of Sao Jorge and Sao Vicente. To the west, the neighborhoods of Chiado and Barrio Alto rise on top of the hills of Chagas and Santa Catarina (yes, yes, Lisbon is another city of seven hills, like Rome, Constantinople and a few others.)


In response to these steep slopes, Lisbon developed a number of ingenious and rather extraordinary forms of transportation, including several funiculars and elevators. Among them, the Santa Justa Elevator cuts a particularly memorable silhouette in the skyline of the city. Designed by the Luso-French engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard and completed in 1901, the lift is a freestanding iron tower sitting on a set of wide steps a the end of the Rua de Santa Justa in the Baixa. Its slender shaft rises up to the level of Chiado, where it is crowned by a two-story lookout pavilion cantilevering on all sides. From that point, there is a bridge-like structure that connects the tower to the ruins of the Carmo Convent and the Largo do Carmo further west.


Visiting Lisbon in the early 1950s the great French filmmaker Agnès Varda took a number of beautiful photographs, among them one that shows two of Lisbon's legendary "varinas" balancing their characteristic baskets on top of their heads. Standing behind, the Santa Justa elevator seems to replicate the figures of the fishwives at a much larger, monumental scale, almost as a guardian angel for the city and its inhabitants.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Urban Figures (Istanbul)

Providence, November 12, 2013

Often, travelers arriving to Istanbul have depicted a city of hills, domes and minarets. Instead, when the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Istanbul in 1964, he chose to point his camera deep into the life of the street. Among his photographs there is one showing the Camondo Stairs in Galata. It looks like a scene in play, with a small cast of characters in their urban roles, walking along the street, smoking against a parapet, coming down the steps, stopping at a landing, looking back towards the residential neighborhood up the hill.


But don't you think that the main character in the photograph is the stair itself? After all, it's an extraordinarily expressive urban piece, with its baroque contortions and heavy Art-Nouveau architecture, clearly a figure (not a backdrop) wedged tightly in the narrow slot sloping between the façades of the adjacent buildings.

The stairs were built in the 1870s by the Camondo family, a prominent Jewish family of financiers often compared to the Rothschilds. This is the part of Istanbul known as Galata, originally the Genoese concessions of Constantinople on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. The Camondo Stairs connect Bankalar Caddesi--the banking street and financial heart of Istanbul--with the residential neighborhood up the hill, where families like the Camondos lived at the time. Actually, you can think of the Camondo Stairs as the daily routines in the life of the city turned into architecture.

(With thanks to my former student Başak Öymen, who introduced me to the history of the Camondo family.)   

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Bridges of Königsberg (Urban Math)

Cambridge, October 8, 2013

Many cities have rivers running along or through them. Sooner or later most of them have built bridges crossing their rivers. And in turn, those bridges have inspired countless artists and writers. From the top of my head I can think of Art Crane's exquisite poem about the Brooklyn Bridge and I'm that sure you'll be able to think of many other great examples. But how many examples of bridges that inspired mathematicians can you think of?

In 1735, the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler solved the riddle known as the "Seven Bridges of Königsberg", demonstrating the first theorem of graph theory and establishing the foundations of topology.


The city of Königsberg in Easter Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) is traversed by the Pregel River and includes two islands. At the time, the city and the islands were connected by seven bridges. Euler managed to demonstrate that it was not possible to devise a route through the city crossing all seven bridges once and only once. In mathematical terms, a trail that visits every edge (the bridges in Euler's example) of a graph (the path) exactly once, is referred to as an "Eulerian path", and one that accomplishes that beginning and ending at the same place as an "Eulerian circuit".

And no, the Königsberg Bridges graph is not Eulerian. But go ahead, pick a city with bridges and give it a try.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dada City (Zürich)

Cambridge, September 17, 2013

Sometimes, a peculiar historic circumstance turns a city into an outsized point of convergence.

In his memoirs, the German artist Hans Richter recalls his arrival to Zürich in September of 1916.  The city was island of peace smack in the middle of WWI Europe.  Almost two years earlier, as they were about to be mobilized, Richter and two of his Berlin friends had made an unlikely date to meet in neutral Zürich, at the Café de la Terrasse.  Entering the café, he not only found his two friends, but also sitting at a table nearby, Tristan Tzara, Marcel and Georges Janco, the trio of Romanians among the Dada group.  Dada was centered at the Cabaret Voltaire, only a five-minute walk.  There Richter met the other early figures of avant-garde movement: Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings (whom Richter already knew from the Café des Western back home,) Richard Huelsenbeck and Hans Arp.  Across the street lived Vladimir Lenin, barely more than a year before the Soviet Revolution.  Just around the corner was the studio of the pioneering choreographer and dance theorist Rudolf von Laban.  Sophie Tauber and Mary Wigman were among the young dancers in Laban's studio.  James Joyce was often sitting at a table of the Cafe Odeón, near the Terrasse.  Perhaps having a conversation with Ezra Pound...


By the way, Tom Stoppard's 1974 play "Travesties" wonderfully captures this ebullient Zurich of WWI.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dada City (Paris)

Cambridge, September 15, 2013

The short history of Dada--the legendary anti-art artistic movement of the early 20th century--was inextricably linked to a few European cities, from its origin in the calm of neutral Zurich during WWI, to the explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic, all the way to avant-garde Paris, where the movement found its demise amidst the intellectual and personal fights of its leading figures.

By the time René Clair completed his film "Entr'acte" in 1924, Dada had run its course, and the movie itself can be seen as document of both the art "wars" of the period and the death and burial of the movement.  Yes, complete with casket and funerary procession (a swan song if you wish, even if, in characteristic Dada fashion, it had to be a bearded and bespectacled swan.)


The movie followed an outline written by Francis Picabia and incorporated, I'm sure, a number of spur-of-the-moment episodes (after all, this was Picabia's "instantanéisme" phase.)  What binds the pieces together is the city, Paris, that appears throughout the movie in different circumstances, sometimes as sets, others as background, and even independently of the action.  The movie includes highly recognizable icons, like the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower, Garnier's Opera or Place de la Concorde, as well as anonymous urban elements and spaces, such as the characteristic rooftops in the first part of the movie or the equally characteristic tree-lined boulevards in the second.  The images appear fragmentary, cut, mirrored, distorted, turned sideways or upside down, superimposed, in slow or fast motion, in reverse, and manipulated in all sorts of ways, producing a new way to represent, and ultimately understand the city.

(A link to "Entr'acte": http://www.ubu.com/film/clair_entracte.html) 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Comparative Urbanism

Cambridge, September 10, 2013

"The Charles River, embraced by a body of light on either side, looked tame.  I couldn't help comparing it to the archaic Golden Horn, that was lake, river and sea all at once."  ("Many and Many a Year Ago" by Selçuk Altun, 2009)

The last time I was in Istanbul, one afternoon we arranged to meet with my friend Elizabeth Grossman in front of Robinson Crusoe, a wonderful bookstore on Istiklal Street.  When I got there (I'm afraid a little late as often,) Elizabeth greeted me with a benevolent smile and a book in her hand.  She said that the story in the novel went between Istanbul and Buenos Aires, and that she couldn't help buying it for me.  And yes, the book has wonderful comparisons between the two unlikely cities, like when Kemal, the narrator, is in "Once", a traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires and finds it remarkably similar to Istanbul's Balat, also a neighborhood with a strong Jewish history, both with "those miniature synagogues."


But there were other cities and more wonderful comparisons.  Toward the end of the novel, Kemal brings his fiancée to Boston for eye surgery, and from high up on a hotel room near MGH, he describes the Charles River in such a way made me feel less alone in my longstanding puzzlement over the strange urban geography of both the Charles and the Golden Horn.  Just look at the two aerials side by side!

(By the way, this also reinforces my "theory" that we only know one city, the one we are from, and we simply extrapolate when we try to understand all other cities.)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Superimposing Maps

Cambridge, September 5, 2013

Over time cities change, expand (shrinking is more rare,) level hills, fill in coastlines, introduce major urban elements--roads, parks and railways,--develop new street patterns and transform in all sorts of ways.  Superimposing maps from different historic periods allow us to see the transformation and understand the origin and evolution of the city.


In his 1882 "Memorial History of Boston", the librarian and historian Justin Winsor published a map of Boston as it was in 1880 with the outline and topography of the original Shawmut Peninsula on top.  In about 250 years, the city had completely reshaped its geography, turning what was virtually an island with an irregular perimeter and number of hills, into a regular and rather level urban mass almost three times its original area.  You can see how Charles Bulfinch filled the Mill Cove with his brilliant triangle and Quincy Market established a pattern of long and narrow blocks progressively pushing out on what was the Town Cove.  Atlantic Avenue and Charles Street created straight polygonal edges to the east and west respectively.  The thin neck connecting the peninsula to the mainland was greatly extended on both sides with the block pattern of the South End with Washington Street as its backbone.  And, of course, the largest of all the expansions, Back Bay to the southwest filling the Receiving Basin on the Charles River.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Urban Bestiary (5)

Cambridge, September 3, 2013

If King Kong was a product of the Great Depression, Godzilla embodied the worst nightmares of the post-WWII nuclear age.  The original movie was released in 1954, not a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the very same year of the disastrous US detonation of a hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll.

In the movie, Godzilla emerges from the sea as a prehistoric creature mutated into an enormous monster due to an underwater nuclear test gone wrong.  The name of the monster combines the Japanese words for gorilla and whale, a typical trope of ancient mythical beast, and the analogies extend to local legends involving the sacrifice of young virgins.  The story follows the giant lizard-like animal along its path from the shores of the fictional Odo Island in southern Japan all the way to Tokyo.  And that's where the fun begins.


The city prepares for the monster with a 50,000-volt defensive line strung along Tokyo Bay on 40-foot high-towers.  Although the electric barrier is no match for the melting power of Godzilla's atomic breath, this memorable image may count as the first mega-project of the Japanese Metabolists and, at the risk of sounding completely ridiculous, maybe even as a precedent for Kenzo Tange's 1960 legendary proposal for Tokyo Bay.


(Before you begin to dismiss all this as the nonsense that it is, let me remind you that the circulation lines in Tange's project were also meant to hover about 40 meters above the water and that the buildings would have had roughly the same height as Godzilla... and long tails.)



Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sert's Urban Compendium

Cambridge, August 28, 2013

Many years ago my old friend Tony Diaz told me about a lecture he heard in the 60s by the then young Manfredo Tafuri, in which the historian argued that all of Palladio's buildings and projects in the Veneto were part of a large interconnected scheme.

Years later when I came to Cambridge and began to look at Josep Lluis Sert's buildings for Harvard, I had the sense that there was a similar idea at work.  Between 1958 and 1973 Sert's office designed three major buildings for the university: Holyoke Center (1958-65,) Peabody Terrace (1962-64) and the Science Center (1973.)  Almost as in a catalog, each building addressed a different program and a different urban situation, presenting a distinct canonical scheme for each project: office slabs in the city, housing towers along the river and academic "mat" on the campus.


Holyoke Center houses the central administration of the university at the heart of one of the main public spaces in Cambridge, Harvard Square; its massing is defined mid-rise rectangular office slabs in an H-shaped configuration, with a two-story open pedestrian arcade running north south towards the river.  Peabody Terrace is a residential complex for married students along the Charles River; it is composed of three 22-story towers and a series of lower volumes articulating rectangular courts.  The Science Center is an academic building that includes lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices and a library; located at the center of the campus as a hinge between the Old Yard and the North Campus, the project was conceived as a "mat building" with different volumes attached to a pair of intersecting top-lighted street-corridors.


In spite of their programmatic and volumetric specificities, all three buildings share a similar architectural language, a kit of parts really, of concrete loadbearing structure and a variety of infill prefabricated panels, frames and shading devices.

You can extend the catalog with two other smaller buildings designed by Sert earlier on, the convent-like Center for the Study of World Religions (1958-60) and Sert's own courtyard house on Francis Street (1957-58.)  And at the risk of stretching the argument, you could even include a building for which Sert acted as deus ex machina: Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center (1961-64,) as...--what?-- as the cherry on top of the cake.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Urban Bestiary (4)

Cambridge, August 27, 2013

Perhaps no mythical beast associated with a city, at least in the western canon, is more famous than the Lupa at the center of Rome's foundational myth.

The legend puts the abandoned infant twins Romulus and Remus at the Tiber, that carries them to to the base of the Palatine Hill where they are suckled and cared for by a she-wolf.  The story is well known: the twins grow up as shepherds, learn about their divine origin and decide to found a city along the river.  Romulus chooses the Palatine Hill, Remus the Aventine Hill, they fight, Remus is killed and Romulus founds Rome, naming the new city after himself (modern historians, of course, put the relation between the names the other way around.)


The she-wolf with the infant twins became an emblematic figure inextricably linked to Rome.  One of the best known representations of the legend, the Lupa Capitolina has a story of its own.  The figures of Romulus and Remus were added to the sculpture of the wolf in the Renaissance.  As for the wolf, it was thought to be of Etruscan origin, dating back to the 5th century BC, but turned out to be a Medieval casting.

By the way, when you look at the topography of the area, don't you think that Romulus choice--the Palatine, smack at the center of Rome's seven hills--was a much better place for the foundation of the city?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Urban Bestiary (3)

New York, August 16, 2013

One would associate dragons, griffins and other mythical beasts to antiquity or the middle ages, not  to the modern city.  But I am, coming to New York and suddenly it flashed through my mind: King Kong.


Fittingly, the year is 1933 and King Kong appears in a movie rather than in an illuminated manuscript.  Otherwise it has all the traits of the legendary tale, from the beast, a giant prehistoric ape, all the way to the blond Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as the sacrificial maiden.  Kong's origin is remote and obscure: the jungles of a lost island in the Indonesian archipelago.  He is brought to another, very different island, Manhattan, to be displayed on Broadway as a form of entertainment.  The plot includes a number of elements associated with new technologies, such as the flashbulbs that startle the beast and the airplanes from where he's shot at the end.  But more than anything else, the confrontation is between the giant animal and the great metropolis, culminating in the scene atop of the skyscraper (construction of the Empire State Building had just been completed in 1931) where finally the heroine is rescued and the city is safe again.  If not the story of a mythical foundation, at least a tale of rebirth, an affirmation of modernity against the threat of the unknown.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Urban Bestiary (2)

Becket, August 14, 2013

When Buono da Malamocco and Andrea "Rustico" da Torcello left Alexandria for Venice with the purloined remains of Saint Mark in 827, they brought with them all the iconographic paraphernalia associated with the evangelist, including, of course the lion, that, in turn, came to represent the city.

There is a whole language associated with the winged lion of Venice--paws on land or on water, wings spread or wrapped around its head ("leone in moleca",) book open or closed, sword drawn or the ground, with or without halo--representing different aspects of St. Mark's story, as well as a variety of circumstances connected to the Venice Republic, "La Serenissima", its forms of government and its territory.


Interestingly enough, neither the winged lion nor St. Mark were the first emblematic figures of Venice.  The canonical view of the Venetian lagoon from St. Mark's Piazzetta is framed by two columns.  The one of the left has the famous winged lion on top, but the other one is crowned by a figure of St. Theodore, the patron saint of Venice before arrival of St. Mark's remains.  And with St. Theodore comes his dragon, here represented by a beast looking more like a crocodile. 

(Talk about branding and rebranding!)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Urban Bestiary (1)

Becket, August 13, 2013

Sometimes it's not that easy to establish the foundational origins of cities.  The historical record is often sketchy or even contested.  But many cities have developed mythical origins that are as interesting as the actual facts, if not more.

Take for example the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia.  In the middle of a small square in the center of town stands the statue of Berhard von Spanheim, the Medieval duke who moved the settlement to its present location and is considered the founder of the city.  But walk just a few steps to the adjacent main square and you'll be in front of a much larger monument, a Renaissance fountain with the figures of Hercules and a dragon.  It depicts the 13th century tale of brave men that slew the "Lindwurm"--a winged dragon that lived at the edge of the nearby lake on a steady diet of local virgins--after luring him with a bull chained to a fortress tower.


I'm always curious to learn how tales like this originate, the actual history of the legend.  Some versions of the story make the "Lindwurm" responsible for the flooding of the area, so it may be related to the actual land works involved in the settlement of Klagenfurt.  In any case, the story of the winged dragon became the source of a very real iconography for the city and, in turn, a focal image for its main urban space.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1929)

Becket, August 12, 2013

The 1929 competition for the redesign of Alexanderplatz in Berlin finally gave Mies the chance to bring together at a truly urban scale the ideas about city and architecture that he had developed for most of the decade.

Unlike Pariser Platz or Leipziger Platz that were conceived as figural spaces, Alexanderplatz evolved as a large void in the city.  And since the later part of the 19th century it had become a major traffic hub, with layers of transportation piling up at different levels.  As planning director of Berlin, Martin Wagner developed a traffic scheme based on 100-meter circle that entrants to the 1929 competition had to incorporate in their proposals.


While the massing in all the other entries followed one way or another the geometry of the circle, Mies chose to deploy a series of discrete buildings that are deliberately independent, if not indifferent to the circle.  Instead, the volumes align with the neighboring streets and present frontal elevations to main space of the square.  In the renderings, all the volumes appear as glass buildings similar to the ones in the proposals for the Adam Department Store in Berlin and the Stuttgart bank of the previous year.  Most of them are eight stories, except for a slender 17-story rectangular block that establishes something like a focus for the square (this taller block would have been located roughly where Behrens's Alexanderhaus is.)  Some of the volumes are irregular in shape to complete the urban fabric while others--like the seven almost identical blocks to the south--are shaped with precise regularity.


It has been said that Mies's project anticipated the Plattenbau schemes of the DDR, but I think it's exactly the opposite, as the urbanism of Mies's Alexanderplatz is not denying but building upon the scale and structure of the existing city.

(By the way, this is the last of the "Mies and the City" series, at least for now.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1928)

Becket, August 11, 2013

"May I say in all frankness that in my opinion a building has nothing to do with taste..."  (Mies van der Rohe to the client of the Adam Department Store Competition, 1928)

In 1928 Mies completed two competition entries for office buildings, one for the Adam Department Store in Berlin and the other for a bank in Stuttgart.  Taken together, the two projects can be seen as crystallization (no pun intended) of the ideas that he began to develop earlier that decade (in both the glass highrises of 1921 and 22 and the concrete office building of 23.)


These proposals present a definitive position towards the city.  They are both regular prismatic masses about eight stories tall with a continuos glass façade.  The street level is receded, revealing the structure and creating a gallery on the access floor.  The upper levels appear to be translucent and reflective, articulating mostly the horizontal banding of the floors.  Although the floor-to-floor height is lower than in the neighboring older buildings, the overall mass in Mies's projects is a little taller, indicating an indifference towards the cornice line, if not a preference for varying heights along the street.  This may explain the height differences in the projects themselves, a one-story terrace extending about half the facade in Berlin and a lower volume where the building turns the corner in Stuttgart.


Even when it comes to representation Mies has settled on a deliberate choice, using what by now are his customary photomontages on street-level views, rendering the projects as insertions within the existing fabric of the city.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1926)

Becket, August 9, 2013

In 1925 Mies van der Rohe was appointed by the Deutsche Werkbund as the director of a housing exhibition in Stuttgart, the Weissenhof Siedlung.  Even if the site--a hilly plot of land on the northern outskirts of the city--was not particularly urban and the program of the exhibition focused on the individual dwelling, the project gave Mies the opportunity to develop a sort of a proto-urban site plan.


The scheme had to accommodate housing prototypes to be designed by almost twenty different architects, an international cast of characters that included emerging figures such as Le Corbusier, Hans Scharoun and Mart Stam, as well as members of the older generation like Peter Behrens and Hans Poelzig.  In the site plan Mies articulates a series of terraced bands that absorb the particularities of the individual projects, most of them one or two stories.  At the top, he places a much longer four-story block that serves as a backdrop for the overall project.

Needless to say that Mies reserves the design of the larger block for himself.  But against the formal inflections of the other prototypes, his is the most restrained, a series of horizontal ribbons running the length of the uninflected volume.  When you see it in the context of the nearby buildings of steep pitched roofs and punched windows, it appears as if Mies were drawing a line of reference, a datum, a "degree zero" for the project.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ringstraße Buildings

Cambridge, July 27, 2013

One way or another, all of the Ringstraße buildings are a little weird.  You don't have to read Adolf Loos to notice that there is something strange about all those styles from different places and historic periods--the Renaissance University, the Classical Parliament, the Gothic City Hall, the Baroque Theater, etc.--all coming together around the all-purpose urbanism of the Ring.


But there is one particular building whose urbanism I particularly like: the Burgtheater.  Most of the buildings along the Ringstraße are simply oriented parallel or perpendicular to the avenue, with their main entrances gesturing towards the Ring.  That would be also the case with the convex façade of the Burgtheater, if it weren't for its two lateral wings that establish a much more deliberate and energetic frontality, articulate a foreground of nuanced scale (both larger and smaller) for the old city behind, and create an elaborate set of open spaces at the back.

And then you have to do decide what to do with these appendages that have little to do with the typical theater plan, something that the architects--Gottfired Semper and Karl von Hasenauer--exploited brilliantly with rather unprecedented monumental stairs extending in a long straight shot, one for the old imperial court to the south and another for the new bourgeoisie to the north.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Conspiracy (Urban) Theory at the Ringstraße?

Cambridge, July 25, 2013

I'm not sure about this, but there may have been two competing visions at work when Vienna's epochal Ringstraße was developed in the second half of the 19th century.

The first one is well known: a polygonal tree-lined wide avenue with monumental public buildings--parliament, city hall, university, theaters and museums--strung along as if in a necklace.  This is the non-hierarchical, democratic (if you're so inclined to make such direct connections between politics and urban form) view of the Ringstraße that came to be.


But there could have been another vision, definitely hierarchical if not downright imperial.  Think of it as a conspiracy urban theory if you have to.  Try this: look at a map of central Vienna and mentally add a building mirroring the Neue Burg (the one with the concave façade) across Heldenplatz (so you don't think  I'm making it up, this would complete Semper's 1869 Kaiserforum project.)  A gargantuan figure suddenly appears, with an enormous (more than half a kilometer long!) rectangular open space extending from the Hofburg Palace all the way to the old Imperial Stables.  The museums become subservient of this new composition.  Even the Burgtheater and the Staatsoper would leave their place at the necklace to mark the ends of a cross axis in this figure, a giant with outstretched arms lying across the Ring.

Do you think that the Ringstraße would have survived such a broad, dominant, transversal gesture?

(And in any case, it's not so difficult to imagine how much fun Albert Speer would have had rebuilding the Hofburg's west front facing such a grand open space.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Wiener Linien

Cambridge, July 2013

At a time when satellites and computers have accustomed us to the most detailed and accurate maps, transportation networks, particularly subways, seem to be one of the last refuges for an almost medieval mapmaking sensibility.  Yes, not all subway maps have a little drawing of a gothic cathedral smack in the middle like the diagram of the Vienna U-Bahn, but many subway networks, from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, relish in the reductive geometries that remind you more of the "mappa mundi" of the 1300s than of the excruciatingly precise maps of the 21st century.

And like the medieval maps drawn within the capricious limits of animal-skin parchments, the Vienna U-Bahn Linienplan has to fit within the extremely elongated rectangles above the subway-car doors.  How do you do that?  You have to really understand the city to pull it off.


With the Stephansdom at the center, the U2 (violet) loop from Karlsplatz to Schottenring establishes the path of the Ringstrasse with surprising ease.  The central portion of the U4 (green) line completes the Ring, before paralleling the Donaukanal from Landestrasse all the way north to Heilingenstadt.  The right portion of the U3 (orange) line parallels the Danube to the southeast.  Further west (to the left in the map) the larger loop of the U6 (brown) line describes the Gürtel--the second concentric ring, or belt-road of Vienna--before continuing south (to the left) and north (to the right) across the Danube.  Yes, once the core of the city is established, the lines extend left and right to fit the constrains of the long rectangle.

(By the way, why isn't there a U5 line?)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Where is Vienna?

Cambridge, July 23, 2013

Yes, of course, Vienna is in Europe, or in Austria, or along the Danube.

But the question I have in mind is a little more precise: Where is, exactly, a city?  The answers are likely to come from some combination of our two good old friends from school, geography and history.

A first approximation would put the historic core of Vienna along the southwest banks of the Danube, framed by the Wienerwald hills to the north and the small Vienna River to the south.  Not a bad defensive position, as the unsuccessful Ottoman attempts to capture the city (in 1529 and 1683) demonstrated.


At the beginning of the Christian Era, the Danube was the northern boundary of the Roman Empire.  It had a number of defensive camps along its course, such as Aquincum, Brigetio, Carnuntum and Vindovona, this last one on the site of present-day Vienna.  The characteristic square footprint of Vindovona's military encampment ("Castrum") was established at edge of what would become the Donaukanal (that is, away from the main course of the river to the north) shoehorned between the two branches of the Ottakringer Creek.  The civilian settlement ("Canabae") around the Castrum extended pretty much to what is now the Ringstraße.

In the larger map, Vienna sits at a key point between Western Europe and the Black Sea.  The Ottomans knew that very well.

Monday, July 1, 2013

If Richelieu won't come to the city...

Le Grand Chaunay, July 1st, 2013

Even after almost four hundred years, Richelieu's urban rectangle seems like an apparition amidst the vineyards and wheat fields of the Loire Valley.  Imagine what it would have looked like in the 17th century when it was first built.

In 1631 Armand du Plessis--Louis XIII's legendary chief minister better known as Cardinal Richelieu--established a city adjacent to his family's château in the Loire Valley region.  The designer was Jacques Lemercier, the architect of the additions to the Louvre during the reign of Louis XIII and the "Palais-Cardinal", Richelieu's Paris residence (later known as the Palais-Royal.)  Lemercier's project was organized along a central avenue running north-south aligned with a transversal axis of the chateau to the south.  The overall plan is a perfect rectangle, about 400 by 600 meters, bound by a wall and a moat.  I may be wrong, but my guess is that there was little need for defense at the time, and the main purpose of wall and moat was to establish a precise perimeter, to objectify the city.


Richelieu has not one but two major open spaces, identical squares at each end of the main avenue.  Rather unusual, don't you think?  Particularly for an "ideal city."  Place Royale to the north and Place Cardinal to the south (as if Richelieu felt that far enough from Paris he could set his record straight.)  Together, these two squares and the main avenue articulate a remarkably distinctive urban plan.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Berlin and Potsdam (in 1768)

Dessau, June 20, 2013

There is a beautiful map from the time of Frederick the Great that includes both Berlin and Potsdam.  It manages to articulate in a single drawing both the geography of the region and the structure of the cities and towns.  It allows us to see particularly well relationships at different scales.

You can think of this map as a drawing of points, lines and planes.  Urban settlements appear as red dots, a couple of them very large--Berlin and Potsdam--and the majority much smaller, located at the intersection of secondary roads or at the edge of waterways.  There are two major lines, the  meandering Spree and Havel rivers, and then a whole network of more or less straight roads connecting urban settlements.  Finally, there are the large swats of green indicating forests, mostly along the edges of the rivers.


It is particularly interesting to see the different way in which the two major cities relate to their geography.  Even as early in the mid 1700s, Berlin appears as if it would have swallowed the river within its fabric.  And if you look Charlottenburg to the west, it's easy to fast forward to a time when the city fabric will surround the Tiergarten.  By contrast, Potsdam is already defined by the articulation of city, water and open land--forest and parks--that has characterized the city all the way to the present.

If you pay attention to the names of the smaller points in the map, you'll recognize neighborhoods of today's Berlin, like Zhelendorf, Steglitz and Britz to the south, or Spandau, Tegel and Marzhan to the north, just to name a few.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The "Other" City (Potsdam)

Dessau, June 18, 2013

Besides their city palaces, sometimes kings, emperors and other rulers had a second seat of power, typically summer palaces.  This was true in places as different as Vienna, where the emperor moved from the Hofburg Palace to Schönbrunn--about five kilometers to the southwest--for the summer, and Beijing, where the Summer Palace is located some eighteen kilometers to the northwest of the Forbidden City.

In some cases, the other palace was in a different city, like the palace in Sintra, where Portuguese kings spent long periods away from the capital, Lisbon, almost thirty kilometers away.  And that is also the case of Potsdam, Berlin's "other city".


Since Frederick William, "The Great Elector", chose the Potsdam as his hunting retreat in 1660, the city became something of an alternate reality away from Berlin.  After Frederick the Great built Sanssouci (French for "without worries", you get the point) in the mid-1750s, the Potsdam palace remained a favorite retreat for Prussian kings and German Kaisers.

If WWI marked the end of that tradition, a new place of fantasies arose right away in nearby Babelsberg, the site of the then-powerful German film industry.  You could even say that the physical location for the "Metropolis" of Fritz Lang's film was, literally, in Potsdam, at the Babelsberg UFA studios.

And then there is the Potsdam Conference (even if the oficial documents refer to it as the Berlin Conference.)  While Berlin laid in ruins in the summer of 1945, the leaders of the victorious Allied powers of WWII met thirty kilometers down the Havel, in the bucolic calm of Potsdam's Cecilienhof Palace, to decide the future of Germany and, not much of an exaggeration really, the future of the world for the following decades.

(The image above is a sketch for Sanssouci from Frederick the Great's own hand.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Tourist Map of Berlin 2

Berlin, June 17, 2013

When I was in Berlin with RISD students last March, we were looking at a map I got at the hotel and my friend Beeke Bartelt pointed at Kurfürsterndamm and Karl-Marx-Allee as the two major lines that epitomized their respective sides of Berlin during its decades as a divided city.


After the war, Berlin was in ruins and its reconstruction became the first--and no doubt foremost--exercise in Cold War urbanism.  Hans Scharoun's "Erster Berricht" ("First Report") dramatically exhibited amidst the ruins of the Berliner Stadtschloss in the summer of 1946 didn't account for the emerging tensions between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union and was quickly forgotten.  Karl Bonatz replaced Scharoun as planning director and his plans for development to the west of the Zoologischer Garten train station along Kurfürstendamm aligned with the emerging policies of the Western Powers.  In response, the Soviets appointed Hermann Henselmann, who spearheaded the transformation of the eastern Große Frankfurter Straße into Stalin Allee (since 1961 Karl-Marx-Allee,) a ninety-meters-wide avenue of unequivocal Socialist-Realist architecture.

A expansive commercial avenue to the west and a monumental housing thoroughfare to the east, as urban emblems of a new global confrontation.

(And it was a strike of construction workers building Stalin Allee--declared on June 17, 1953, sixty years today--that ignited the escalation that would eventually lead to the erection of the Berlin Wall.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1923)

Berlin, June 8, 2013

In the highrise projects of 1921 and 1922 Mies was mostly concerned with the relation between structure and enclosure and the properties of the glass as a skin.  In the 1923 "Concrete Office Building" project for Berlin, he shifts its attention to the loadbearing structure as the main element, actually the only element, of his architectural vocabulary.

Most important, here the material is not generic but rather specific.  Mies gives a great deal of thought to the column grid, the spans, and other dimensional considerations of the structure.  He is also concerned with the program in a specific way--file cabinets are supposed to be placed against the upturned beams that make the enclosure of the building, etc.--and other more detailed, if minimal, aspects of the project, like the entrance or the top and bottom of the structure.


Once more, the rendering of the project (an imposing charcoal and graphite perspective almost 3 meters long!) is carefully framed within the fabric of the city.  Unlike Le Corbusier, who tried to reinvent (Ville Radieuse,) overpower (Plan Voisin,) or wish the city away (Marseille,) Mies seemed quite happy to work within the existing city, yes, in a contrasting manner, but almost contextual.  In the 1923 project the building is barely taller than its neighbors, as if to complete--more than to compete with--the surrounding fabric.

In the three projects of 1921, 22 and 23, Mies articulates a game of solids and voids, realism and abstraction, that set his position towards the city and informed most, if not all, of his subsequent urban projects, from the competition entry for Alexanderplatz in Berlin (1928) to the Seagram Building in New York (1958.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1922)

Dessau, June 6, 2013

Shortly after his entry to the 1921 Friedrichstrasse competition, Mies produced a second project for a high-rise office building.  It is, again, an experiment in glass.  The plan is highly inflected, this time not angular but undulating, a perimeter of tangential circles that more or less extend to the property lines of what appears to be a tight urban plot.  Two circles on opposite sides are packed with stairs, elevators and other services.


If you ask me, this plan looks a little like a fish, with the tail flattening towards the back of the site and the head projecting forward, as the plot narrows.

This time there is a model.  The structure is reduced to a series of (steel?) floorplates thirty stories high, evenly spaced and with not even the slightest inflection at the top or the bottom.  There are only a few columns at the center of the projecting circles.  After that, the glass appears as a continuous skin wrapping the structure.  There is an indication of very thin vertical mullions but otherwise the job of the skin seems to be little more than to enclose the structure in all its nakedness.

The bride stripped bare...


Lest you think that the architect is engaging only in a geometric or even technical exercise, the model includes its surrounding context in the form of generic buildings of the old city (the bachelors?) about six stories tall, with their characteristic fenestration and pointed roofs.  It seems pretty clear that Mies is here pondering the role of this new architecture within the fabric of the city.