The resistible rise of the office building

Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.

By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.

So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?

Singing at the Qutb Shahi Tombs

The fabled Golconda Sultanate lasted from the early 16th to the late 17th century, and was ruled by the Qutb Shah dynasty. During these two centuries an amazing regional culture developed. Now that I rediscovered my photos of this trip, I will probably write another post about it. The beautiful tombs of the Qutb Shahs, their architecture a sophisticated merger of Indian and Persian styles, have fallen into disrepair. But in one of them we found a caretaker who demonstrated to us the beautiful acoustics of the structures.

I had a strong memory of taking this video, and thought I’d lost it. I’m happy that I found it again. The caretaker did not want a tip; he just wanted to pass on a beautiful discovery. I am happy to be able to help.

Around the world in 30 days (1)

I dug up another old album and found that it had photos from a thirty year old trip I’d made around the world, traveling east from Geneva. Scanning old photos with a phone app is now easy. What is hard is to restore some of the faded colour from the prints. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I learnt, and remembered as I tried out my restoration experiments. Thirty years ago, the web was still an experimental curiosity. Much more information was available then on the French Minitel. I spent quite a while on it trying to find tickets as cheap as possible.

My first destination was Japan, and one of the new transpolar flights would have been reasonably priced even if I changed in Hamburg or Helsinki. But in those days I would then have had to spend time on getting another visa. Instead I took an airline which gave me a stop in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup in computing whether I would lose a day or gain one when I crossed the date line going east; this was crucial for a quick change of planes in LA. I took no photos of the thick sheaf of tickets which I eventually purchased, and had to carry with me for a month. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was amazed by how the crowds of Mumbai and the efficiency of Switzerland fused in the working of the train which took me from Narita to Tokyo.

I spent that first day walking through a bit of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) was very close to the station. This was first built in the late 19th century after the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji emperor became the head of an outward looking country. Part of this complex was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt immediately after. I gaped at the moats and remnants of fortifications (the much older gate Shimizumon above, and a defensive tower near the moat before that), before walking in to the public park called Kitanomaru (featured photo).

From there it was easy to find the shrine of the Meiji emperor (the Meiji Jingu shrine). After walking to Roppongi and spending a bit of relaxed time around the Tokyo Tower in the evening, I had just enough energy left to recover my bags from the station and get to a hotel for the night. In the early 90s Japan was slightly different in feel. Everyone had black hair, signage in English was not common, and only a trickle of tourists could be seen. But the Japanese were as open to foreign influences as they are now. I watched a Japanese street artist do a Flamenco dance on an upper stage of the Tower. For all their delight in the imperfections of life, wabi sabi (侘寂) as an artistic style, I noticed that a Japanese performer is always concerned with perfection.

I had covered about a fourth of the distance around the globe, and by the stamps in my old passport, this was the 5th day of the trip.

Along the Grand Canal

I exhumed a set of photos from almost fifteeen years back and began to remember that trip to Venice. I was at a loose end for a day, and I took a train down to the Santa Lucia station in Venice. I had a restaurant in mind for lunch near the Arsenale, and a nice way to get there would be to take a water bus, vaporetto, to Piazza San Marco, and then walk. I like this ride down the Grand Canal for the things that you see on the way, like the elegant facade of a palazzo that you see in the featured photo.

Its not unusual to pass tourists laden down with prints that they have just bought from a museum shop. I was happy to get this shot of the pair of tourists ignoring the graffiti that they were walking past. I guess all of us do that most of the time; just that there’s no one to take our photos.

Look at that grand door leading down to the canal. I like the general air of decrepitude that envelops Venice. It’s almost as if it wears its magnificent past on its sleeve, daring tourists to snigger at its present. I won’t do that, I like its attitude just as much as all the others who come back to it again and again.

The bus reached its destination soon enough. I liked the view of the Basilica of San Marco from the terminus jetty. You get a much grander view of the Basilica from the Piazza that Napoleon called “a jewel box”, but I liked this quieter view. The sky was overcast, and the light was dead, but good enough to show off the domes of this Chiesa d’Oro, the Church of Gold.

Let me close off this little tour down memory lane with the last tourist photo I took here, before walking past the Basilica into the little streets to look (successfully) for the restaurant I remembered. This is a view that many visitors take: of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore from behind the jetty for gondolas.

Failing batteries at El Transparente

Two years ago, I decided to take one day of my last weekend in Madrid to go off to see Toledo. I kept my camera on a little stool overnight to charge. After reaching Toledo I realized that my camera was not fully charged; perhaps the stool was a bit wobbly or the plug a little loose. I was carrying a phone which was then reputed to have one of the best cameras going, so I decided to draw out the battery life on my camera as far as I could, but it gave up when I needed it most.

Behind the high altar is one of the most outrageous pieces of rococo art that you can hope to see. A tall hole was cut into the top of the immense back wall of the cathedral to let a beam of light illuminate the pastry cake of an altarpiece. This ridiculously direct approach was then disguised in a wonderfully playful way by decorating the simple architectural idea with swirls of sculptures and paintings of angels, saints, and high panjandrums of the church. The effect is not only stunning, but also, because of the natural chiaroscuro, requires finicky photography. Just as I took the first photo (featured) my camera batteries gave up. The AIs behind phone cameras were already good enough to do nearly as well (photo above), but I did not have a zoom attachment on my phone to get close to some of the details that Narcisco Tome and his four sons had put together between 1729 and 1732 CE. That gives me another reason to go back, and I think I will spend a night in Toledo the next time around. I want to see this piece in the morning when the sun is at the right elevation.

My first walk with a digital camera

I realize that I’ve been using a digital camera for fifteen years now. I was in Germany, and The Family was supposed to join me at Christmas, which we would spend in Vienna. We had all our bookings done, including tickets for concerts and shows. Her bag, with her passport, was stolen before we left Duesseldorf airport. That’s when we realized that the old borders of EU were not really forgotten. We were not allowed to fly without a passport. So we tried to cancel whatever we could and changed our Christmas plans. On the 23rd of December we decided to make a day trip to Bremen. The featured photo shows a pub sign which incorporates the fairy tale characters of the town musicians of Bremen, one of the stories collected by the Grimm brothers.

The weather was grim when we got off the train, cloudy and a temperature just above freezing. We walked to the old town, past the town hall, the square where the Christmas market surrounded the sculpture of the four musicians which was a local landmark, and on to the picturesque region of Schnoor. Bremen has been an important port since the middle ages, and therefore seen a lot of wars. It was pretty heavily bombed in the second World War, but the old town still had a few medieval timber-frame houses standing. They were fitted with pretty modern doors and windows though (I guess bombs must have blown out all the glass even if the structure was not damaged). The quaint houses stood out against the brick walls of the buildings that were put up at the beginning of the German recovery.

Bremen is considered a little special in Germany: a member of the Hansa trading league, then after the end of the first World War a Socialist republic for less than a month, later a holdout against Nazism until it was brutally taken over, and even now more working class, Green, and left-wing than much of Germany. Still, it is Germany after all, pretty prosperous and orderly, a pleasure to walk through, stop for coffees and beers, and the hearty lunches that make so much sense in that weather. I had still not got the hang of digital photography: the idea that you take an enormous number of photos and preserve them forever.

Wandering through museums

There is something refreshing about the blank spaces of museums. On an otherwise hectic day, you might enter a museum, walk through galleries full of bright paintings hung on dull coloured walls, and emerge with a new view on the bustle outside. A museum’s galleries are designed not to call attention to themselves. These photos were taken in Duesseldorf’s K20, built in 1986. I took these photos soon after the architects, Dissing+Weitling of Copenhagen, became famous for their design of the Oresund bridge. They capture my experience of walking through any modern museum: long views through doorway after doorway, the enveloping quietness.

The long sight lines are part of the design, making a museum guard’s job easier. It is not an easy job; having to stand for hours, keeping an eye on all visitors. Now and then, when I enter a museum at an off-peak time, I can see one sitting down, perhaps to read a newspaper. Otherwise they are usually on their beat, perhaps occasionally exchanging a few words with a colleague. It wasn’t a dangerous job till now.

A forgotten walk

A really long time back I had to make a quick trip to Bordeaux for a meeting. I’d forgotten that my colleague and I traveled to Bordeaux the day before and took a walk through the old part of the city near the river Garonne. I just discovered the very few two-decades old photos that remained in a forgotten folder.

Mysteriously, many of the photos were of an unknown building in the city. I had a vague memory of ducking into a side road between two major sights on a whim and coming across this facade. It now looks like a renaissance facade to me. Could it be from the 15th century? Perhaps even from the time of Charles VII? Not very likely, I think, most of this quarter would have been built in the century after his time, when trade began to boom. The time of Montaigne then?

Forgetting the romantic speculation, my colleague pointed me to the differences between the walls of the two buildings which stood cheek-to-jowl around this little open courtyard. The older was the one we’d been looking at, as the peeling mortar showed. The bicycle presented a nice way to take this photo. Strangely, it wasn’t locked up. Are bikes safe in Bordeaux then? That would make it an unusual European city.

Fontainhas, Panjim

If you choose your time well then you will arrive at the Church Square of Panaji when the bustling market is on. My first visit was not timed well at all. I saw a large empty plaza, with one end taken up by imposing steps that lead up to the church of Immaculate Conception.

I’d arrived at the hottest part of the day, in the humid weather at the end of the monsoon. I climbed those steps slowly, keeping to the edges, seeking little bits of shadow. Eventually, when I got to the top, I realized that with the sun vertically overhead it was not possible to find shade. The ornate doors of the church were closed, and I felt like a bit of a fool as I walked back down. I have been back to the square at better times, but I bear a little grudge against that church and I haven’t tried to go back inside.

But if you bear right and walk along Rua Emidio Garcia with the aim of losing yourself in the side streets, you’ll come to a picturesque enclave called Fontainhas. The lovely bungalows here are often called Portuguese style, but that is quite wrong. Perhaps the arches and tiles have been borrowed from the Portuguese, but the thick walls and bright colours are typical of houses in peninsular India.

These pleasantly curving roads lined with low buildings and trees had only a few restaurants when I first walked through them a dozen years ago. Since then, every time I visit, the number of restaurants has increased, many houses have turned into hotels, or home stays, and the pleasant little shops which mainly provided meeting places for the locals have filled up with upmarket kitsch for tourists. It brings more money into the locality, but drains off, slightly, the uniqueness which I’d found so charming when I took these photos.

As I wandered I came across this statue of Abbe Faria, a central figure in Alexandre Dumas’ door-stopper of a novel called The Count of Monte Cristo. The real Abbe Faria (1756-1891 CE) is no less fascinating. He was a Brahmin Catholic (this is Goa!) who left Goa for Lisbon, then traveled to Rome to study to become a priest. He was invited to preach a sermon in the Sistine Chapel in the presence of the Pope, and later to the court in Lisbon. Back in Goa, he developed his theories of hypnotism, was part of the Pinto revolution against Portugal, escaped to Paris, where, strangely, he became part of the counter-revolutionary royalist conspiracy. He was imprisoned for many years in the Chateau D’If (the part of his life fictionalized by Dumas) before he returned to Paris, obtained a position as a professor of Philosophy, and became briefly famous for his work on hypnotism. If anyone knows of a detailed biography of the real person, please do let me know.

I spotted this lovely window and wall on that first walk, and then traced it out on another walk many years later. The colour of the wall aged well. I wouldn’t mind going back there again to see whether it needs another coat of paint now. That line of hooks on the wall mystified me. I wonder whether there was a forgotten function to it, or whether it marked a ghost window: a place where a window had been before it was walled up.

Strolls through Fountainhas will always lead you to interesting things. Like this house, which had a pay phone. The person who made a little business out of it was clearly loathe to lose any customers. I hestitated in front of the sign. Should I ring the bell, ask for change, and take a photo or two of this astute businessman? But it was time for lunch, and I wandered off.

Lakhota lake

On our last morning in Jamnagar we went for a walk to Lakhota lake. The lake was originally a defensive position, but was expanded into a water reservoir for the town after successive failed monsoons in the middle of the 19th century CE. This was amazing in the morning: an island of serenity in the middle of this crowded and bustling town, full of gulls, ducks, and other water birds. I’ve posted photos of some of these birds earlier, and will continue to post others for a while.

The circular building in the middle of the lake (featured photo) is now called the Lakhota Palace. It was originally a fort, as the blank facade still proclaims. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had lost its purpose. Now it is an archaeological museum. I’d read about the recreation of a medieval Gujarati village inside the fort, and would have liked to see it. But when we arrived the doors to the causeway leading to the fort were firmly shut. It wouldn’t open for another three hours. By then we would be ready to drive out to the nearest airport, which was some distance away. This was a bad miss.

Standing outside the barred gate I looked towards the middle of the city, and saw this strange structure. It was also barred to entry. I found later that this was called the Bhujiyo Kotho, and was another medieval fortification. It is reported to have had a tunnel, now collapsed, connected in a straight line to the city of Bhuj. The tunnel would have had to go under the Gulf of Kutch, and I wondered whether this kind of engineering was possible in the medieval period in Gujarat. In any case, the fort had been badly damaged in the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, and has not yet been restored. It would be a massive effort to restore it.

So that left us with only one thing to do, which was to take a leisurely walk around the lake. At this time of the morning the place had quite a few visitors, all out for a morning’s walk. We met families curious about our binoculars and scopes, and Adesh Shivkar was in his element, telling children about ducks. Passing children were fascinated by the views of birds through the scope, and I realized again what a wonderful asset he is for conservationists.

After an hour of walking slowly around the lake, pausing every now and then to watch birds, we were ready for our breakfast. I looked back at the womderful broad promenade around the lake, and took a photo which tries to capture the serene atmosphere of that morning.