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.)