Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Delhi, Old and New


Delhi, January 29, 2013

Not so long ago we were having a conversation with my friend Peter Tagiuri about the notion of "the new city."  It wasn't about new cities like Brasilia or Chandigarh (or Canberra, or Washington or Palmanova for that matter) that are conceived from scratch, so to speak, but about large, city-scale extensions of existing cities.  I'm not exactly sure what Peter had in mind, but Delhi should certainly fit the bill.

Actually, what is now called Old Delhi was rather new not so long ago.  It was established as a walled city by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (also the builder of the Taj Mahal) in 1639.  At the end of the 19th century maps still labeled it "Modern Delhi", in contrast with earlier settlements in the area.


The British took Delhi in 1857.  When it replaced Calcutta as the capital of the British Raj (the colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent) in 1911, Sir Edwin Lutyens--the leading architect of the empire--set out to work on a scheme for the new capital, Imperial Delhi, to the south of the existing city.  Old an New Delhi can be seen as an exercise in contrasts.  If the old city was a web of narrow streets cutting through a dense fabric, Lutyens conceived the new city as an axial composition of expansive views, a network of diagonals and circles with monumental buildings far apart from each other either framing or terminating the lines in the plan.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Delhi's Connaught Place


Delhi, January 28, 2013

I've never seen anything like Delhi's Connaught Place.  At first it may seem a roundabout, let's say a particularly large circle in Lutyens's plan of lines and circles.  But if you look more carefully, it's really something much bigger than what the British would call a circus and yet somehow smaller than a district.


It has three concentric rings roads--the outer, middle and inner circles,--two rings of curving blocks in between, and a green circle at the center.  In the original plan for the colonial capital, Connaught Place was conceived as the central business district. Most surprising--particularly in contrast to the grand gesture in plan--is the modesty of the architecture: a consistent fabric of two story squat buildings with an open colonnade at ground level.  The language is a sort of unpretentious Classicism, Doric columns at the bottom, almost industrial infill on the top, slightly more emphatic square pavilions at the end of the blocks, all thoroughly whitewashed.  What would you call it?  Practical Vignola?  I don't know, it may not have been such a bad thing that Lutyens and Baker (yes, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker) were too busy designing the monumental buildings of New Delhi...


But the key of Connaught Place is in Lutyens's plan.  There you realize that he saw it as the linchpin between Old and New Delhi.  That explains--among other things--the open southwest portion of the ring receiving Parliament Street that then continues as Minto Road straight towards the old city.

(Must confess that I was exhausted when my former student Rahoul Singh drove me around the city late after dinner and I got a first glimpse of Connaught Place.  We'll see what I make of it in daylight, alert and with more time.)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park


Mumbai, January 26, 2012

Many cities have urban parks, gardens let's say, like Hyde Park in London or the Jardin du Luxemburg in Paris.  These are landscape spaces typically surrounded by the local urban fabric.  But some cities have other, much larger green spaces that play a role at a metropolitan scale and are likely to be away from the center of the city.  Back to the cases of London and Paris, you can think of Richmond Park and the Bois de Boulogne respectively.  In Mumbai, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park plays such role.

Located on northern suburbs of Mumbai, the area of the park is about 2,500 acres (just for comparison, Richmond Park is 2,300 and the Bois de Boulogne 2,000.)  It includes hills, valleys and lakes, with a great variety of flora and fauna, as well as an area of major archaeological remains, the Kanheri caves dating from as early as the first century BC.


Sanjay Gandhi National Park plays a particularly interesting role in the map of the city.  Think of Mumbai as an elongated triangular peninsula running north-south, with the Arabian Sea to the west and the wide Thane Creek to the east.  Downtown occupies the southern tip of the triangle.  As the city extends north, the distance between the sides becomes wider and urbanization happens at the edges, leaving a progressively large area in the center.  That's exactly the place of the park.  You could say that city and park play a perfect game of "perimeter and core."  And to make it even more perfect, the international airport completes the core to the south of the park and the major transportation lines open up to the the east and west, serving the northern suburbs on the perimeter.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mumbai: What's in a name?


Mumbai, January 25, 2013

Names of cities, streets and other urban spaces are both a practical matter and a very powerful symbolic question.  Think for example of Saint Petersburg that in less than a century circled through Petrograd (1914,) Leningrad (1924) and back to Saint Petersburg (1991.)  Or Place de la Concorde in Paris, originally named Place Louis XV and renamed Place de la Révolucion after 1789.

Since India's independence in 1947, the city of Bombay became been a veritable battlefield in the war of names.  And the war only intensified with the rise to power of the ultranationalist Shiv Sena Party, culminating with their success in the 1995 elections.

Some changes are pretty straightforward, as with Victoria Terminus (celebrating the Queen's Jubilee) renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in 1996, honoring the founding ruler of the Maratha Empire.  Yes, even if everybody refers to the station as "VT".  Something similar with Vaar Nariman Road, except that before independence it was Churchgate, a name that had embedded its own urban history, as it run through one of the three gates of the colonial defensive wall, the one in front of St. Thomas Church.

Of course, the biggest prize was the name of the city itself.  The origin of the name Bombay has been historically connected with variations of Bombaim, Old Portuguese meaning "good bay" or "good little bay" (the Portuguese threw in the outpost with Catarina de Bragança's dowry when she married Charles II of England.)  But when the name was officially changed to Mumbai in 1995, members of the Shiv Sena Party argued that Bombay actually originated in the name of the native Koli goddess Mumbadevi.

Bath in Bombay


Mumbai, January 24, 2013

A great deal of the British colonial architecture in Bombay is extraordinary but in a rather extreme and bizarre way.  Even the terms used to describe the styles of the buildings--such as "Victorian Gothic Italianate" or "Indo-Saracenic"--give you the sense of the excess.  In that context, it's surprising to find a place like Horniman Circle, that could have come out of Georgian Bath.

Completed in 1872, Elphinstone Circle (as it was known before independence) is a large round space within the fabric of the Fort area, the core of the colonial city.  It has a consistent three-story Neoclassical façade of arches, capped by fourth story of slender columns and a thin projecting awning.  At street level, the heavily rusticated arches articulate an open gallery.  The buildings follow the geometry of the circle, but it's really more like two parentheses bracketing the space north and south.


Quite incredible how this uncompromising figure addresses its context.  To the east, it incorporates the earlier Greek Revival building of the Asiatic Society, absolutely flat and frontal.  Still, it not only works with the circle but also ties the space with the original Colaba Causeway running tangentially north-south (now Sahid Bhagat Singh Road.)  On the west side it's the opposite, not a frontal façade but a perpendicular street, Churchgate (now Veer Nariman Road,) that runs all the way to the other side of the city on the Arabian Sea.  That end opens to the view of nearby St. Thomas Cathedral on one side of the street.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bombay's Constructed Ground


Mumbai, January 23, 2013

Up until the middle of the 18th century Bombay was a collection of seven islands.  In 1782, the British colonial governor William Hornby began a project--known as Hornby-Vellard--to connect the islands.  If you look at a present-day map of Mumbai, it's a little difficult to figure out the original topography, but at the end of the 19th century it was still possible to identify the islands in the structure of the city.

Let's try:

Starting from the south, Colaba and Old Woman's Island still appear as small islands connected to the larger mass to the north by Hornby's causeway.  Next is Bombay proper, a large island in the shape of a wide "H", whose lower half arches around the Back Bay.  The east (right) side includes the port and the colonial city.  The west side is the Malaba Hills.  The upper part of the "H" is already filled as the area reserved for the local population (not-so-subtly labeled "Black City".)  The western hills continue north in the island of Worli that together with Mahim, a green area in the map, define what is now Mahim Bay.  The eastern side includes two other islands, Mazagon rendered in red as a small neighborhood, and Parel as a long green area.


Looking at the whole enterprise from a foundational--here meaning both origin and substrate--point of view, the seven islands can be seen as the initial pieces of a puzzle that gets reinterpreted through successive land-reclamation projects.  And most fascinating, the interpretations are both topographic (what gets filled) and social (the high ground for the colonial power, the filled marshland for the local population.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Strange Case of Mumbai's VT


Mumbai, January 22, 2013

Most major urban train stations at the end of the line have a precise organizational scheme, with trains at one end and people at the other.  It's a straightforward linear scheme, really hard to improve upon.  If you think of the great European or American train stations of the 19th century, this layout also had a rather distinctive two-sided architecture: grand but utilitarian steel-structure sheds on the rail side and monumental stone or brick façades on the city side.


Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus--it opened as Victoria Terminus in 1887, the year of the Queen's Golden Jubilee--certainly brought the model of the monumental urban facade to new heights.  It's an enormous four-story building with a forecourt, a central dome and two protruding side wings, each with its own arcade, pediment and flanking turrets.  All of this in a rather bizarre Neo-Gothic Italianate with elements of Indian traditional architecture.  As the final scene of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" illustrates, Mumbai's main train station also has its share of grand steel-structure naves at the end of the train line.

But the interesting peculiarity of VT (as everybody calls it here in Mumbai) is that the trains arrive not from the back but from the side.  So the actual station is really the left wing of the building.  Now, why would you do something like that?  Actually, it's a rather difficult thing to do, but there is a good reason: you're trying to reconcile the rail lines coming from the north with an urban situation demanding a west-facing building.  Together with the even more monumental building of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, Victoria Terminus defined a major public space at the north end of Bombay's Esplanade (the city's major open space at the time) commensurable with the importance of these new colonial functions.



Monday, January 21, 2013

Mumbai's Oval Maidan


Mumbai, January 21, 2013

If you look at a map of Mumbai, you can quickly identify a long string of open spaces running north-south trough the middle of the peninsula.  Its central part is a large recreational park known as Oval Maidan, an elongated rectangle with rounded ends, about 450 ft wide and 2,200 feet long.  Besides offering enormous numbers of Mumbaikars the opportunity to play cricket and other sports (but yes, mostly cricket,) Oval Maidan is a rather remarkable urban armature.  On its eastern edge, the space has several imposing English Victorian Gothic (actually a mishmash of the most eclectic styles) buildings from the 19th century, including the High Court and the University with its clock tower. On its western edge, it has a consistent line of Art Deco buildings from the first half of the 20th century, culminating with the distinctive corner cylinder of the Cinema Eros to the north.


Oval Maidan was originally part of the Esplanade (colonial Bombay's parade grounds) connected with the colonial fort.  Even if one understands that most of the Mumbai peninsula is landfill, still seems quite surprising that well into the 20th century, the western border of the Esplanade was at the edge of the water, with only the Churchgate railyards separating it from the Arabian Sea.  Further landfill in the 1930s extended the edge as much as half a mile to a new road, Ocean Drive, turning Oval Maidan into the central spine of the whole area.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Marathon in Mumbai


Mumbai, January 20, 2013

Earlier today, Jackson Kiprop from Uganda and Velentine Kipketer from Kenya set new records for the Mumbai Marathon course, completing the distance of exactly 26 miles and 385 yards in 2:09:32 and 2:24:33 hrs respectively.

There are more than 500 marathons run every year.  When a city designs a marathon course it has to reproduce in its map the legendary 490 BC run of the Greek soldier Pheidippides from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens.

An interesting design problem, don't you think?


The Mumbai Marathon is run mostly along the western side of the peninsula, with major portions at the edge of the Arabian Sea.  It starts and ends in front of the monumental main train station Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (most appropriately, as so many things seem to begin at VT, Victoria Terminus.)  It crosses west to the seashore, reaches south to Nariman Point, follows Marine Drive arching around the Back Bay and continues north all the way to the Rajiv Gandhi Sealink (a recently completed major piece of road infrastructure.) At that point it loops back around Mahim Bay to return south along the same route.

In a way, Mumbai's marathon course measures the city north-south and follows its topographic history through several of the seven islands that originated Bombay (as the city was known before 1995) as well as the massive landfills that linked them beginning in 1782.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

St. Mark's Horses


Cambridge, January 17, 2013

What would you do with four large bronze horses?

A number of people actually had some good ideas.  When the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, their loot included four horses cast mainly in copper and gilded in gold.  Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, sent the horses back home (*) where they were placed on top of the entryway to St. Mark's Basilica.  The statues made the most compelling symbol for Venetian preeminence in the Byzantine world (having been forcibly taken from Constantinople was certainly a plus in this respect) and their size and proportions worked perfectly to be seen from above.


The horses remained in St. Mark's Square for almost six centuries, until Napoleon Bonaparte took Venice in 1797 and ship them to Paris, to be place on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel celebrating his victories.  But the horses' French sojourn was rather brief.  After Napoleon's 1815 defeat in Waterloo, the Treaty of Paris explicitly included an article ceding the horses to the Austrians, whom in turn returned them to Venice.

In Constantinople, the horses were most likely located somewhere in the Hippodrome.  As to their origin, there are number of theories.  Some historians argue that the horses were cast in Constantinople maybe during the time of Septimius Severus (early 2nd century.)  Others attribute them to the 4th century BC Greek sculptor Lysippos.  Some sources indicate that the sculptures may have been brought from the Greek Island of Chios by Theodosious II in the 5th century, while others suggest that they preceded Constantine (3rd century.)


I'm sure that over the centuries other people have had all sorts of ideas.  For example, in one of his "capricci" (ideal or imagined views,) the Venetian painter Canaletto placed the horses on tall pedestals aligned in front of the Palazzo Ducale, right in the middle of the Piazzetta.

So many possibilities!


(*) Interestingly, the aging Dandolo himself never went back to Venice, as he died in Constantinople and ended up buried somewhere in the balconies of Hagia Sophia.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Napoleon in Venice


Providence, January 16, 2013

Most views of Piazza San Marco look east, with the Basilica dominating the center of the image, the Campanile rising to its right and, also to the right (south) but farther back, the facade of the Palazzo Ducale extending beyond the view into the Piazzetta, that in turn opens to the waters of the lagoon.

If you turn 180 degree, there is lot less going on.  The narrow west end of the square makes a really good case for the continuity of the façades around the piazza, dutifully following the pattern of the Procuratie Nuove to the left (at least on the first two levels) and carefully splitting the height difference with the lower Procuratie Vecchie to the right.

Now, stay where you are, looking in the same exact direction, but go back to the end of the 18th century.  A very different image appears, with the facade of a rather major church, Sansovino's San Geminiano, at the center (actually, a little to the right.)  On either side, the long façades of the square simply turn the corner--two tall levels to the left, three shorter levels to the right--and stop dead at the edge of church.


Canaletto, our most exhaustive of Venetian chroniclers, gives us an exquisite view of that side of the piazza in 1735.  But by 1810 it will be all gone, as Napoleon, coming from his resounding victory at Austerlitz, takes Venice back from the Austrians, demolishes the west end of the square (yes, including Sansovino's church!) and rebuilds it as an extension of the Procuratie Nuove but with the top level as a blank wall in front of large ceremonial spaces.

You may think that the Ala Napoleonica is rather restrained the ambitions our petit Caporal turned Emperor, except that the original project actually included a large statue of Napoleon as Jupiter, following the model of Ingres's famous painting. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Havana's Ringstrasse


Cambridge, January 15, 2013

Yes, Havana's Ringstrasse, it's not a mistake.  Like Vienna, Havana kept its fortifications way past their useful military life.  By the mid 19th century the city walls had became obsolete, little more than a barrier between Habana Vieja and the growing neighborhood of Centro Habana to the west.  And just like the Austrian capital, Havana decided to demolish its old defensive system, opening a large swat of prime urban land for development.

Arching around the old colonial city, this new district was built at a much grander scale that its adjacent areas, with civic and commercial buildings often taking entire blocks, and a sequence of tree-lined avenues, squares and parks, as if it were a tropical segment of Vienna's Ringstrasse that stops as it reaches the waters of the Gulf.


The main open space of the district, Parque Central, is a large rectangle carefully aligned with Obispo, one of the main streets in Old Havana to the east.  The square's northwest corner happily connects to Paseo del Prado, a wide boulevard that preceded the demolition of the walls (it was called Alameda de Extramuros, literally meaning "boulevard outside the walls.")  The district is anchored by the monumental Nacional Capitol kitty-corners with Parque Central to the south.  Other major buildings include hotels (Inglaterra, Plaza,) theaters and social centers (Centro Gallego with the Tacón theater, Centro Asturiano,) arcaded commercial blocks (Manzana de Gómez) and the Presidential Palace at the north end.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dante in Buenos Aires


Providence, January 14, 2013

After the carnage and destruction of the Great War (WWI) many had little hope--rather correctly, as it turned out--for Europe.  Among them was an Italian immigrant in Argentina named Luis Barolo, that decided to do something about it.  He was sure that the ashes of his hero, Dante Alighieri, needed to be rescued from certain doom in Italy and that Buenos Aires, his adopted hometown, offered an ideal safe haven.

But of course, you couldn't just build an ordinary monument for Dante's ashes, so Barolo, who by then had amassed a considerable fortune in the textile business, set out to build the tallest building in South America (it kept that distinction for over a decade!) as the proper resting place for il Sommo Poeta.  He charged his architect, the Milanese Mario Palanti, with the design of an office building as a landmark based on Dante's masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.


Located along Avenida de Mayo--the central thoroughfare opened for the 1910 Argentinean Centennial,-- the Palacio Barolo is exactly a hundred meters tall, the number of cantos in Dante's poem.  As you can imagine, the building is divided in three parts: Inferno (the basement and ground level,) Purgatorio (the body of the building, floors 1 to 14) and Paradiso (a tower, of course, rising above the cornice level of the avenue, floors 15 to 22.)  The architect followed many other patterns of the poem, like in the nine arcades of the ground-level passage (the nine circles of Hell) or the 22 floors (11 or 22 stanzas in each canto) of the building.

Back in Milan, Palanti cast a sculptural allegory to house Dante's ashes, but it got lost in transit and never made it to Buenos Aires.  Also, the poet's remains--you guessed it--never left Ravenna (or Florence, or wherever they are.)


(NB: completed in 1923, Barolo's building preceded Terragni's famous Danteum by 15 years.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Venice in Boston


Becket, January 13, 2013

What if the program for a house were a city?

That's more or less the kind of question Isabella Steward Gardner was asking when she built her Boston home, Fenway Court.  Completed in 1902, the building was designed as a place to house her extensive art collection and to entertain her prominent friends, painters like John Singer Sargent, writers like Henry James and philosophers like George Santayana.  It also included her private accommodations on the fourth floor where she lived until her death in 1924.  That you could say, is the program of use of the building.

But there is another, deeper program in the design of Fenway Court: the city of Venice.  Isabella and her husband, Jack Gardner, had spent several seasons in Venice as guests of the prominent Bostonians Daniel and Ariana Curtis at the Palazzo Barbaro.  And the task of her Boston building was to reproduce that Venetian experience in the Fens (actually, the Curtises also entertained people like James and Sargent at the Barbaro, so Isabella already had the cast of characters in place.)


How do you do that?  The project takes the Palazzo Barbaro as the model--particularly its elaborate façade of large windows, balconies and loggias on the Grand Canal--and literally turns it inside out.  The architect (Willard T. Sears, but with a great deal of input from his opinionated client) develops a compact mass of rather restrained outside elevations, to then introduce a glass-courtyard in the center of the volume, wrapping the façades of the Barbaro around the void.  It is a if the house were a reliquary holding a little piece of Venice's Grand Canal inside, don't you think?


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Steinberg's New York (1976)


Cambridge, January 12, 2013

What Saul Steinberg did in his legendary 1976 "View of the World from 9th Avenue" New Yorker cover is not so different from Bünting's 1581 cloverleaf map of the world.  Yes, instead of Jerusalem, he places New York, really Manhattan, at the center.  Actually in the foreground: where Bünting uses the cloverleaf as a conceit (maps are daughters of conceit and artifice, don't you think?) Steinberg uses perspective.  One could say that he simply makes an abuse of foreshortening.  Like in Bünting's, everything in Steinberg's "map" is in the right place, even if it all seems a little weird: New Jersey ("Jersey") on the other side of the Hudson, DC to the south, Kansas City and Chicago farther west, Los Angeles just before you hit the Pacific, Mexico to the north, Canada to the south, China, Japan and Russia way, way back.


Interestingly, beyond its rhetorical meaning, "conceit" literally means to have an unreasonably favorable view of oneself, and that's certainly the view that both of our artists have of their respective cities (of course, they are not alone in that; there is a spurious claim that Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, means "belly-button of the world.")  And the comparison stretches even to what our two artists choose to ignore.  Bünting knows about the American continent but relegates it to a corner of the map, certainly not part of the Christian faith, or at least not yet at the time.  By looking west, Steinberg's perspective places his native Europe (he grew up in Romania and studied architecture in Milan, emigrating to the US in his mid thirties) behind him.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Bünting's Jerusalem (1581)


New York, January 10, 2013

Among the many maps of his Itinerarium Sacra Scripturae, the German theologian Heinrich Bünting includes one depicting the world as a cloverleaf, with Jerusalem in the center and one leaf for each continent, Africa, Asia and Europe.  It is an ingenious variation of the circular world maps prevalent in medieval Europe... except that Bunting published his book in 1581, almost a century after Columbus's travels!  And you know that, because the American continent, Die Neue Welt, is already there, even if almost as an afterthought, on the bottom left corner.


Jerusalem appears as a large, heavily fortified city with Mount Calvary and its three crosses in the foreground.  The map labels a number of cities in each continent and illustrates a few of them.  In Europe only Rome, to the west (left) rivals Jerusalem, if not in position, at least in size.

Mapmakers have to deal with all sorts of questions and conventions.  One of them is orientation.  Unlike medieval maps that were usually drawn with east up, Bünting chooses to have north up, the common orientation for world maps at the time.  He still manages to organize the drawing following the relative location of the continents, with Europe to the west, Asia to the east and Africa to the south.  Another problem when you're drawing a map is what to put in the center.  And when it comes to that, our theologian doesn't hesitate to locate the city of Christ smack in the middle.

My old friend Trinidad (most pertinently!) Campbell reminds me that for Christianity, the cloverleaf simbolizes the Holy Trinity, the unity of three--the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit--into one entity.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Orientation of Maps


Providence/New York, January 9, 2013

There is a wonderful sketch by the Uruguayan painter Joaquin Torres Garcia with a map of South America upside down.

What does it mean "upside down"?  Aren't maps horizontal projections? If they are perpendicular to the line of gravity there is no up or down, right?  So, technicall speaking, any orientation would be correct, or at least not better than any other.  Still, the mapmaker has to make a decision.  Torres Garcia is absolutely deliberate in his choice, orienting the triangle of South America pointing up, in opposition to north up, pretty much the norm for the last few centuries.  He says it himself: "... our north is the South.  There must not be north, for us, except in opposition to our South.  Therefore we now turn the map upside down..."


In the Middle Ages, European world maps were drawn orienting east up.  Actually, that's where the word orientation comes from, oriens, Latin for east.  Take for example the late 13th century Hereford Mappa Mundi, a perfect circle (more than 4 feet in diameter!) surrounded by the ocean with Jerusalem at the center, Asia covering the the upper half, Europe the lower left quadrant and Africa the lower right quadrant.  "É strano ma funziona" (strange but it works) as Italians like to say.  The dark vertical strip between Europe and Africa is the Mediterranean.  The horizontal strip in the middle is the Aegean to the left--follow it and you'll find Constantinople perfectly located between Europe and Asia--and the Nile to the right.  On top, where the sun rises... paradise.  Makes sense, don't you think?


In any case, when it comes to cities, way smaller chunks of the world, maps are oriented in all sorts of ways, imperial capitals with their imperial palaces in the center or at the top, coastal cities with their coastlines at the top or the bottom, gridded cities with their grids aligned with the edges of the drawings, and in many other case-specific--and most interesting--ways.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Bellin's Buenos Aires (1760)


Cambridge, January 8, 2013

As it turns out, our great encyclopédiste cartographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin also made a map of Buenos Aires.  Is there a city of which Bellin didn't make a map of?!  Who knows, maybe he's a character out of a story by Calvino or Borges that drew a map of every city.

In any case, Bellin's is a rather unusual map of Buenos Aires.  Although one can certainly recognize the grid, here the geometry is not taken as an underlying principle, let's say as an abstract construct, but just as a fact on the ground: where the grid is materialized it appears in the drawing, otherwise it's simply not there.  We get a much more irregular image of the city.  Yet, when it comes to "La Grande Place" Bellin can't seem to help himself.  We know that the plaza was, still is, a rectangle made up of two square blocks.  And we've seen it drawn in all sort of dimensions, two and even three blocks wide.  But Bellin makes it a tad smaller than two blocks wide (he ingeniously disguises the irregularity at the corner of the cathedral) so it turns into a perfect square... as any good Frenchman would know a proper "Grand Place" should be.


Most interestingly, the map is oriented with the river at the top.  That mean that east is up.  I've seen maps of Buenos Aires oriented with east down (the earlier ones) and with north up.  But this is the only map of Buenos Aires I know of oriented that way.  Why would he do that?  I don't know, but I suspect there is a whole history of the orientation of maps.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Balloon View of Boston (1860)


Cambridge, January 7, 2013

One last (at least for now) note about looking at the city from above.

Bulfinch's Boston, let's say in the first years of the 19th century, was largely a city of detached buildings, with "downtown" pastures slowly giving way to more urban construction.  Fast forward fifty years and you see a completely different picture: a very dense fabric of 5-story buildings tightly built up to the street line.  Also a rather precise geometry--the exact term would be something like radio-concentric--with curving blocks following the convex arc of the shore and long narrow buildings extending the pattern of the harbor piers.


That is the view that we get from the 1860 (yes, 1860!) aerial photograph of  "Boston , as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It" (the phrase comes form a 1863 enthusiastic write-up by  Oliver Wendell Holmes in the "Atlantic Monthly".)  James Black, a Boston photographer coming out of the daguerreotype studios, teams up the ballooning pioneer Samuel King to produce the first aerial views in the US (only two years earlier Felix Nadar, a frenchman, had taken the very first aerial photographs.)

Up 1,200 feet in the air, Black shows a new breed of American urban buildings, that Walt Withman, visiting Boston that same year, describes from the ground: "Noblest of all State Street Block, east of the Custom House, rough granite.  (...) probably one of the finest pieces of commercial architecture in the world."


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Seeing the World Metropolis from an Airplane


Cambridge, January 6, 2013

Of course, the 20th century brought with it a new and unique vantage point to look at the city: the airplane.  Now you could really "see" the map.  By 1921 the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corp. (Sherman Fairchild was a pioneer of both aviation and photography) had completed the first aerial survey of New York.  But well before that, pilots and photographers had seen and recorded the city from above.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Keystone View Company had already published a number of stereoscopic cards (Keystone was the largest producer and distributor of stereographic images) showing major cities seen from up high.  There is one particular view of Manhattan whose title more than acknowleges the momentous circumstances that brought together powered air flight and the modern city: "A Startling Privilege of the Age - Seeing the World Metropolis from an Airplane, New York City".


Another Keystone card looks at Manhattan in more detail and farther north, including the whole of Central part and a good chunk of the grid around it.  Now you can clearly see, in built form, both the Commisioners' Plan of 1811 with its uncompromising regular grid (still, if you look at the botton-left corner you can see the beauty of Broadway slicing the blocks at an angle) and Olmsted and Vaux's 1857 Greensward Plan of an enormous (more than 800 acres of prime real estate!) urban park with its overarching--in Calvert Vaux's own words--"artistic conception".



Saturday, January 5, 2013

A View from the RCA Building


Cambridge, January 5, 2013

In 1934 Samuel Gottscho took a shot of New York that seems to encapsulate the 20th century city in one image: the skyscraper, photography and electric light.

It's a night view up high from the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center.  The photo is framed by the 77-story Chrysler Building completed in 1930 and the 102-story Empire State Building competed in 1931 (left and right respectively.)  With his camera atop the just completed 70-story RCA Building, Gottscho draws this perfect triangle, gathering within a half-mile radius three of the tallest buildings ever built, as if saying that Midtown Manhattan had become the center of the world.


The lens points southeast, so the grid of Manhattan appears at an angle, speeding the lines of the streets and underscoring the tridimensional nature of the tall buildings rising above the 19th century fabric.  Manhattan is rendered as a dynamic two-point perspective (really a three-point perspective since the camera is looking down) while in the distance, the streets of Brooklyn vanish tamely to a single point.  In the foreground, Fifth Avenue cuts the frame as a diagonal gush of light racing downtown.  The buildings seem to free themselves from their weight, letting their outlines blend with the dark background.  Instead, the city reappears, almost immaterial, as an enormous swarm of brightly illuminated rectangles bursting into the night sky.

Gottscho knew his stuff.