Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Urbanism in Purgatory (Piazza Rucellai in Florence)

Rome, November 26, 2014

Some open spaces in the city are voids left by the structures around them. Others are figural spaces defined by the surrounding buildings. But there are some urban spaces that seem to fall outside of these alternatives. That seems to be the case of Piazza Rucellai, a small triangular open space in the historic center of Florence.

Piazza Rucellai is defined primarily by Palazzo Rucellai, the canonical building designed by Leon Battista Alberti, one of the preeminent architects and theoreticians of the Renaissance. At Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti's job involved the unification of a number of existing houses into a singular scheme, with a central courtyard and a rigorously composed classical façade. It also included a three-bay open loggia across the street, Via della Vigna Nuova, and perpendicular to the palazzo. This most unusual positioning of the two structures defines a 90-degree angle carving a deeper space in front of the palazzo. And certainly the new façade required quite a bit more perspective than what the width of the street could provide. Then, the buildings along another street coming at an acute angle--curiously named Via del Purgatorio--provide the hypotenuse completing the triangular space.

I must confess that I particularly like these kinds of design operations, as they 1) define open space with geometric precision, 2) maintain the discrete entity of the buildings, and 3) engage the whole thing within the fabric of the city. All done in a most unaffected way, almost as if it were easy.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Roma: The Orientation of Maps

Rome, September 20, 2014

Giambattista Nolli oriented his celebrated 1748 map of Rome with north up, a modern, carefully chosen cartographic convention, one that we still use today. It has the Tiber running more or less vertically towards the left side of the plate, the bulk of the city in the center, and the Vatican on the top-left corner.

Nolli owed greatly to a 1551 map by Leonardo Bufalini. But Bufalini had oriented his map with east up, following an earlier convention dating to the Middle Ages (see note.) In this map, the Tiber runs horizontally on the bottom half of the image, with the Vatican on the bottom-left corner. Among the 19 plats of his "Pianta Grande di Roma", Nolli actually included a reproduction of Bufalini’s plan, redrawn and reoriented with north up.

In 1774 Giovanni Battista Piranesi published his “Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marzo” with north down. Why? Piranesi had worked with Nolli in the 1748 publication--the “Piccola Pianta” is signed “Piranesi e Nolli incisero”--so he is quite deliberate in choosing a different orientation. One possible explanation is that he was going back to an experiential reading of the map, following the pilgrimage route from the north, entering the city through Porta del Popolo at the bottom of the drawing and proceeding up.

Note: for a more general discussion of the orientation of maps see an earlier blog entry:

(With thanks to old and new friends, Nick De Pace, Ezio Genovesi and Allan Ceen, for their guidance as I begin to to learn about Rome and its maps.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Apennine Urbanism (2)

Rome, August 29, 2014

Walking the narrow streets of Castelvecchio Calvisio--the small town on the Apennine Mountains of Abruzzo--one is immediately struck by the proliferation of stone stairs rhythmically projecting out from the façade of the buildings. They reveal a distinctive fabric of shops and warehouses at ground level and housing on top. The stairs run parallel to the street, cantilevering from the outer stone walls. The fabric is mostly two stories high, but extremely dense, with many portions of the private upper level arching over the public passageways. As far as I can tell, each stair gives access to an individual dwelling, strengthening the use of the street and creating a matrix akin to what Team 10 architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson or Candilis, Josic, Woods liked to call carpet housing or mat buildings (yes, only just a number of centuries before the Golden Lane project or the Berlin Free University.)

Even more surprising is the curious configuration of the stairs, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top, as if they had been shaved just above human height. The purpose of this ground level reduction is to allow passage, particularly along the main street at the center of the village, where the cuts seem to literally trace the outline of a loaded donkey.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Apennine Urbanism (1)

Rome, August 27, 2014

The urban structure of settlements on mountains and hills typically follow the “lay of the land”. Take for example the towns in the Baronia de Carapelle on the Abruzzo region of Italy. Built on the slopes of the Apennines, the architecture of these towns--Santo Stefano, Calascio, Castel del Monte--follow the contour lines of the mountain, with long roads slowly climbing up at shallow angles and stairs negotiating the changes of level at steeper angles.

The approach to Castelvecchio Calvisio, also part of the Baronia, appears to suggest a similar urban structure, with the newer architecture of the south-facing part of the town following the topography of the terrain and a zigzagging road with hairpin turns going up. But at the top, the medieval core of Castelvecchio reveals a completely unexpected geometry: an orthogonal arrangement of narrow streets within a tight oval perimeter. It has a main street running east-west following the long axis of the oval and perpendicular streets running north-south at small intervals. From above it looks as something like the fossil of some enormous turtle-like creature. Although uncompromising in plan, the straight geometry of the streets is allowed to curve from the center to the edge on top of the convex form of the land.

Where does the surprising geometry of Castelvecchio Calvision come from? That I don't know, but I'm sure that there is a fascinating story there...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Roma: the Severan Marble Plan

Rome, August 26, 2014

When the Giambattista Nolli completed his monumental “Pianta Grande di Roma” (better known as the “Nolli Map”) in 1748, he was adding his name to a long list of extraordinary mapmakers of Rome that, throughout the long history of the city, labored to survey and depict Rome in all its topographical and architectural complexity.

More than fifteen centuries earlier, the “Forma Urbis Romae” made one of the first attempts, if not the first, to map the imperial city. Produced during the last years of Septimius Severus rule (203-211 CE,) it depicted floor plans of every building and monument within the central part of the city. It was gigantic: 60 feet wide by 45 feet high, carved on 150 marble slabs assembled on a wall of the Templum Pacis (now the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano) in the Imperial Fora.

By the Middle Ages, the Severan Plan had all but disappeared, turned into raw construction material. During the Renaissance, broken fragments of the marble slabs began to reappear and since the first discoveries in 1562, fragments have continued to emerge, most recently in 2001. Over the years, this extraordinary puzzle was the subject of several reconstructions. When the pieces were transferred to public ownership and moved to the Capitoline Museum in 1741, the museum curator Pietro Forrier undertook the first systematic project of assembly and exhibition of the map. With the assistance of--who else?--Giambattista Nolli.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Roma: Via dell’Arco della Ciambella

Rome, August 24, 2014

Via dell’Arco della Ciambella is a one-block street buried in the middle of Rome’s Historic Center, roughly midway between the Piazza della Rotonda and the Largo di Torre Argentina. It is rather unremarkable, except for two massive brick walls jutting out from the north side. If you look carefully behind the front of the buildings along the street, you will notice that they are part of a single circular wall, the remnants of the central drum of Rome’s first Thermae, the Baths of Agrippa.

Built towards the end of the first century BC during the rule of Augustus, the baths were part of a highly articulated composition of religious and civic structures that  included the Pantheon (rebuilt by Hadrian at the beginning of the second century AD) some 200 m to the north, and the Temple of Minerva Calcidica, now buried under Santa Maria sopra Minerva around the corner. By the Middle Ages, that grand composition had been replaced by a dense residential fabric of more-or-less rectangular blocks. Via dell’Arco della Ciambella is one of the streets within that fabric, sitting pretty much on the east-west axis of the bath’s main hall. The remains of the hall show the beginning of an arch--its main entryway--that gives the name to the street.

(By the way, the word “ciambella” refers to an Italian doughnut-shaped pastry, a shorthand analogy to the circular hall of the baths.)

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Vienna of Wittgenstein's Nephew

Frankfurt, July 14, 2014

"He would be sitting in the Sacher at ten in the morning in a white suit, in the Bräunerhof at half-past eleven in a gray stripped suit, in the Ambassador at half-past one in a black suit, and at half-past three in the afternoon he would be back at the Sacher, wearing a fawn suit."

Thomas Bernhard, "Wittgenstein's Nephew" (1982)

It seems hardly possible that anybody could follow the daily routine that Bernhard describes in such an exquisitely compact sentence. His eccentric character not only has to complete an elaborate cafe circuit in about six hours, but also go back home after each stop and change clothes. And all of it with the parsimony of Viennese tradition. But Vienna is perhaps the only city in world with that kind of dense urbanity. Particularly in the old center, its "Innere Stadt".

A few pages earlier in the novel, we learn that Paul Wittgenstein's apartment is "... in the Stallburggasse, diagonally opposite the Spanish Riding School" (Stallburg means "the stable of the palace".) From there it's only a few blocks to the Sacher hotel, most likely walking to the Neue Markt--the open space where Vienna's grain and flour market stood since the middle ages--and then either turn right immediately, or walk an extra short block to approach the Sacher from the main Kärtner Strasse. In either case, less than a ten-minute stroll.

Next is the Bräunerhof, right there on Stallburgasse. It is a wonderful place, but less formal than most Viennese traditional cafes--actually, Thomas Bernhard's favorite--and the change of attire registers this difference in character. Given the time, Paul may have stayed at the Bräunerhof for its delicious appfelstruddel, coming out of the oven around noon. Back to the apartment for another suit and a short walk to the Ambassador at the Neue Markt.

Then one last suit to end the afternoon back at the Sacher. All within 500 meters! Add another 200 meters in the opposite direction and you reach Knize, the most exclusive tailoring house, on the Graben (yes, that is the shop designed by Adolf Loos,) where Bernhard tells us that Paul's suits come from. Of course.

(Photo credit: Thomas Bernhard at the Cafe Bräunerhof, 1988, by Sepp Dreissinger.)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Afternoon View from the Train

Hangzhou, March 15, 2014

Afternoon View from the Train

We're cutting through the Chinese countryside at 300 km/h. The 15:05 train to Hangzhou left Beijing a couple hours ago. First were the plains to the south, now are some scattered hills and mountains. The sun is still shinning on the windows to the right, while the pale disc of the full moon already hangs on the gray-blue sky of the left-side windows. Here and there bunches of buildings rise in the middle of nowhere, 20 or 30 or more stories high, many of them under construction, as if the crane operators had gone completely insane.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Urban Bestiary (8)

Hangzhou, March 2, 2014

West Lake is Hangzhou's defining urban element, both physically and culturally. A major city in southeast China, Hangzhou extends between the eastern edge of the lake and the Qiantang River. Otherwise, the West Lake is surrounded by hills to the north, west and south. The lake originated as a shallow bay on the left back of the river, whose mouth was progressively blocked by alluvial sediments.

At least that is the geological explanation. But there are beautiful stories about about the mythical origins of West Lake. In the legend, the lake starts as shinning pebble in the sky. The Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix meet on a fairy island where the phoenix finds the pebble. They carve it, one with his claw, the other with her beak, grounding and polishing it until the pebble turns into a magic pearl. As they grow attached to each other and to the pearl, the dragon and the phoenix decide to live on the island forever. One day, the Queen Mother of the West sees the glow of the pearl and orders one of her guards to steal it. The dragon and the phoenix chase after the queen, and in the struggle, the pearl falls off to the earth.  As it touches the ground, it turns into the clear water of the lake to the west of Hangzhou. Unable to separate from the pearl, the Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix come down to the earth and turn themselves into hills, standing guard to their dazzling pearl.

(By the way, have you ever looked at the one-yuan bill? Yes, the front has Mao's ever-present portrait, but the back shows a delightful view of Hangzhou's West Lake.)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Urban Bestiary (7)

Becket, February 15, 2014

During the more than four centuries of Moorish domination (AD 714 to 1147,) Lisbon was variously known as Luxbona, Lixbuna, Ulixbone and Olissibona, names that eventually morphed into the Portuguese Lisboa. Most likely, the name evolved from Olissipo or Olisippum, the way it was known when the Romans established the city in 205 BC. From there, it is not such a long stretch to... Odysseus, who legend has it as the founder of Lisbon.

In his magnum opus "Os Luisiadas" (1572,) the Portuguese national poet Luis de Camoes writes that,

"... the city was founded by Ulysses on the exact spot
Where the Tagus mingles its fresh water
And white sands with the salt sea."

In the legend, the beautiful queen of the snakes, Offiusa (perhaps an incarnation of the nymph Calypso,) falls madly in love with Ulysses. Upon discovering that he fled her kingdom under the cover of night, Queen Offiusa chases after him, and as she races towards the Tagus, her long snake tail hits the ground with such force that the earth swells, forming the seven hills of Lisbon.

At he Castle of Sao Jorge, sitting at the top of the highest of the seven hills, the "Torre de Ulisses" memorializes in its name this mythical foundation of the city.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Urban Bestiary (6)

Becket, February 14, 2014

By 1924 Le Corbusier was 36 years old and had built very little. Yet, he had already designed a "Contemporary city of three million inhabitants" (that was roughly the population of Paris at the time) and his "Plan Voisin", a complete tabula-rasa transformation of the historic center of Paris. For the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratives he set out to build, literally, a house for his vision of the city. On a tight structural grid--the "ossature domino" that would accompany him for his whole life--and within an uncompromisingly compact rectangular plan, Le Corbusier crams together two completely different spaces, one an exhibition hall of curving walls with large dioramas illustrating his urban plans, and the other a full-scale furnished dwelling of the new city, complete with a tree piercing through its roof-terrace.

The Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau is well known, but I'm not sure people realize what an extraordinarily bizarre project it is. The two portions of the building are brutally different from each other, in form, in scale, in program, and in every other conceivable way, but rather than trying to articulate them, Le Corbusier simply attaches them side by side to then develop an elaborate "promenade architecturale" coming and going from one side to the other. It is as if he had designed the building equivalent of a mermaid or a centaur.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The City at Night (Lisbon)

Becket, February 13, 2014

What is the sound of the city at night?

Today, most of the places in Lisbon where you can hear Fado--the quintessential expression of Portuguese popular song--are tourist venues of questionable authenticity. But only a few decades ago it was possible to listen to non-professional singers and musicians known as "fadistas vadios" (amateur or bohemian Fado interpreters) in taverns of neighborhoods like Alfama, the Barrio Alto and Bica. It should not be difficult to imagine the sound of the night along the narrow streets climbing up the hills from the downtown Baixa. The open doors of the "tascas", as those bars or restaurants are known, would let out the melodies played on the characteristic Fado instruments: the bass Spanish guitar and the brighter Portuguese guitar. And of course, the melancholic and sometimes angry voice of the Fado singer.

The history of Fado dates back to the early 19th century and involves colorful, almost mythical figures of the night, like Maria Severa Onofriana, a legendary prostitute of the Mouraria neighborhood made famous by the 1901 novel "A Severa". Other characters included aristocrats--Francisco de Paula Portugal e Castro, the 13th Count of Vimioso, was supposedly one of Severa's lovers--bullfighters and knife-wielding ruffians, a remarkable but explosive social mix that would have certainly added to Lisbon's nocturnal soundtrack.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The City at Night (Mumbai)

Cambridge, February 8, 2014

Midway through "Night in Bombay"--the wonderful and quaintly risqué 1940 novel by Louis Bromfield--the story takes a brief rest, just enough to let the three main characters have a quiet dinner together. Bill, Carol and Buck are sitting "on the terrace at Green's" and the narrator takes advantage of their long after-dinner conversation to describe the views.

Green's was a less expensive hotel than the Taj Mahal next door. It was demolished in the early 70s to make room for the tower extension of the Taj. But since the story takes place in the 30s, Green's is a perfect place to escape the gossip of the foreign crowd at the Taj, where, of course, the trio of American expats are staying. Sitting at a privileged position on the Apollo Bunder, it offered exquisite views of Bombay's Harbor, with the imposing Gateway of India in the foreground. Bromfield makes it a hazy full-moon night. Elephanta Island can barely be made out to the east. The moon, "like a disk of hot copper", appears on the opposite side of the sky, towards the mill district.

"Night in Bombay" has not only an colorful cast of characters but a very precise collection of places in the city: the Taj Mahal, Green's, the Readymoney building (what is, or was, the Readymoney building?) and the Bombay Yacht Club towards the southeast of the peninsula; fancy Malabar Hill on the other side of Back Bay, the Willingdon Club and the racecourse a little north. Crawford Market near Victoria Terminus marks the north limit of the city for most of the foreigners. It is as if there were two different cities. When Bill first goes to get Buck at Colonel Moti's laboratory further north, his cab is stopped by a smallpox procession midway the mill district and he literally throws up.

(The Gateway of India in the foreground, Green's behind, the Taj Mahal to the left of the image and the Yacht Club to the right)

After the dinner at Green's, the novel picks up speed again and the three Americans enter into a not-unexpected love triangle that could certainly rival Casablanca's, except... No, I don't think I should spoil it for you, right?

(But since the movie Casablanca came up, let me tell you that Bromfield was actually good friends with Bogart. Actually, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall got married in Louis Bromfield's Ohio estate, Malabar Farm. Yes, a small world indeed.)