Paris, petit four

While looking for photos of Notre-Dame de Paris two days ago I came across several other photos of the little lanes around it, in the 4th and 5th districts. I used to like to find an apartment in the 5th, and roam the streets of the 4th with my camera. The featured photo shows the embankment of the Seine river, at the Ile de la Cite, viewed from somewhere near Shakespeare and Company.

A door knocker which caught my eye as I walked around the 4th arrondissement. I have no record of the street and house number, and it will be very hard to find this again.

This is a clue to the location of that door. At least this drain pipe comes with a house number. I have a memory that it was in the same street as the door, but which street?

Again, somewhere in the 4th district, I think it is somewhere between Place de Vosges and Pont Marie, but again I didn’t take a photo of the street and house number. This shouldn’t be hard to find.

Berthillon in Ile St. Louis is an old establishment. Once upon a time The Family and I stood in this queue often. One of the servers suggested a combo of a scoop of sour lemon sorbet with another of dark chocolate ice cream which became my favourite one summer.

This door is certainly in the 4th arrondisement, probably between Place de Vosges and St. Paul. I really liked this, because I took many shots, but not a single one of the street name.

These water fountains are common through the 5th arrondisement. Now I can’t remember whether you see them elsewhere. Certainly not in the 1st and 2nd, but may be in the 6th?

I very clearly remember coming across this blue door and red sign after coming out from one of my favourite restaurants, where I first tasted Izarra, on Rue de Jarente. Doors in this particular shade of blue are very common in Paris, at least in my memory. Although the restaurant has now closed, I think I should go back to see whether this door remains the same colour.

Somewhere in the 4th, somewhere between Bastille and St. Paul. I spent much more time walking around the 5th and 6th, but so many of my photos are of the 4th. I call these petit fours, like the small confections you have with coffee. They leave a sweet memory, but they are not a meal.

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Notre-Dame de Paris

When I saw video clips of flames leaping from the caved-in roof of Notre Dame de Paris, I thought of all the times it has touched my life. But when I looked at my folder of photos, I could find only two of the cathedral. In others, its 19th century spire is in the background; I must have more photos from the time I used film. This reflects accurately the role Notre-Dame played in my view of Paris. It was my entry point to the city, but it quickly receded into the background, used only as a landmark.

This supposition that the Greek temple is an imitation in stone of a wooden hut is of the same order as that which refers the architecture of our Gothic churches to the forest avenues of Gaul and Germany. Both are fictions well adapted to amuse the fancy of dreamers…
“Lectures on Architecture”, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

I remember one summer when Victor Hugo’s book by this name was my constant companion on the Metro, to and from work. After work I would walk through the streets of Paris, trying to follow the routes taken by various characters. It wasn’t easy; the cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, and St. Germain, now in the 6th district, was then outside the city walls. The intervening years had changed the city as much as the cathedral. When I realized this I started looking at the city in terms of its history, so that the addition of a glass pyramid to the Louvre seemed like a continuity.

When I first visited Paris in the 1980s, I would sometimes meet up with friends in the pleasant square in front of the cathedral, a short walk from the pubs and restaurants of Odeon, St. Michele, or Jussieu. The last time I stood there and took photos was in the 1990s when The Family and I first went to Paris together. The two medieval bell towers and the rose window (one of the few remaining works of art from the 13th century) were as wonderful as ever, but the press of tourists had increased. After that we decided to leave the front to new tourists, and walked around the back.

My first illegal walk was at 20, between the towers of Notre Dame.
Philippe Petit, high-wire acrobat, referring to his walk of 1971

We’d spent a pleasant afternoon one May sitting on the lawns behind it, eating sweet and juicy cherries from a bag, and admiring the superb flying buttresses. The Family was as enchanted by the gargoyles as I’d been a decade before. Our admiration was not reduced by the discovery that they were 19th century additions, like the spire. The architect of this renovation was Viollet-le-Duc, who turned many things into his fairy-tale version of medieval.

Spira, spera
(Breathe, hope)

“Notre-Dame de Paris”, Victor Hugo

The bridge behind Notre-Dame, Pont de Sully, is named after Bishop Maurice de Sully who started building this iconic structure. It became our favourite place to stand in evenings, holding cones of ice cream from Berthillon, as we admired what Sully’s cathedral had become more than 800 years later. Ironically, the view from this bridge was dominated by the spire and roof added by Viollet-le-Duc. These are the parts which collapsed in yesterday’s fire. Not having heard anything to the contrary, I assume that the rose windows which date from the 13th century are intact.

When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

When you stare into a camera the camera stares back at you

Things look different when you point a camera at them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed through the ticketing office of the downtown station of central railways, the one called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus now and called Victoria Terminus when it was opened in 1853. Imagined as an Indian palace in the then-current Gothic Revival style by its architect, Frederick William Stevens, the building took ten years to complete. It doesn’t seem long by today’s relaxed standards, but then it was cause for many agonized letters to editors of newspapers. The featured photo shows the recently restored ceiling of the suburban ticket counter.

The odd heraldic bearing that you can see in the photo here caught my attention. Could it belong to the company which built this station, the Great Indian Peninsular Railways? Apparently not. The lower half of the shield makes up the complete arms of the company (a further inscribed shield into the upper left quadrant of the cross has been chiselled away). The upper half of this strange device, the railway and the steam locomotive, threw me. Could it be the bearing of the terminus building? I’m sure someone out there has the answer.

The station is aligned north-south and the ticketing counters are to the east of the road passing in front of it. Just in case you are lost, you could orient yourself by the compass roses in the floor of the hall. The Family and I had walked into this place on a Sunday to avoid the massive crowds which we would have found otherwise. We’d wanted to explore the restored building, but found that it is open to visitors only during working hours of the week. As a result we explored this part of the structure, both familiar through long use, and unfamiliar because we usually hurry through it without looking.

The stained glass windows, in particular, are not things we have paid attention to. Nor did I know that this was called the Star Chamber, and that the marble used here was shipped from Italy. The building was renovated in 1888, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the coronation of the British queen after whom this station was then named. I couldn’t find a record of who made the stained glass. However, since much of the ornamentation of the structure was done by the faculty and students of the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Arts, it could be that the glass is also due to them. There are some pieces here well worth one’s time.

The doors are not grand, but in keeping with the place, they are ornate. I’m not sure whether the ones that you see here are original or whether they have been replaced. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken photos before the restoration, so I can’t check now. Maybe one should take photos of the doors of historic public buildings every ten years or so. It would be an interesting project.

As we exited to the pavement outside, I took one last shot of the interior. I’ve tried many times to imagine the events of 26 November, 2008, when two armed terrorists entered the station from the north and killed 58 people. Panicked commuters ran away from them, and many would have exited through these doors. They are always open.

One door closes, another opens

I rushed into my departure gate at Mumbai airport thinking that boarding would have started, and found that the flight was slightly delayed. That gave me a few minutes to kill in an area with a wonderful art installation. I’ve written about the carved wooden doors of Gujarat sometime earlier, but I had no photos to share. This installation was full of them.

One of the things I like about older localities in Ahmedabad are the exquisitely carved doors of old havelis. The doors are certainly very attractive, as you can see here, but when you look at the architecture they are embedded in, it is clear that they are there in a supporting role. It is the whole architecture which is the star. Here, in the airport, the doors were extracted out of their settings and shown as beautiful pieces of art. Abstracted from their context, I thought they lost just a bit of life.

Used as an art installation they take on a different role, as desirable pieces. Seeing them here reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone who was thinking of modernizing an old building in Gujarat and getting the money for it by selling the doors and windows of the house. That is a lot of money, which means that there is a market for these doors. Don’t be surprised if one of these old doors turns up in a corporate office you see, or a hotel you walk into.

Lingnan life

In Guangzhou you can’t help reading about the Lingnan style of architecture, without learning much. The old classical Lingnan style was built around the structure of life of those times. The high-rises of today are the same across all of China. When you try to find out more about the modern Lingnan style you are referred to examples: the Chen Clan Academy or the lobby of the White Swan Hotel in Shamian island. What I understood was that the Lingnan architectural style referred to adaptations to the warmer climate of southern China, including the materials used. As an example, the open verandahs of the Museum of Cantonese Opera that you see in the featured photo channel air over water to cool the surroundings.

I walked through the museum asking myself whether I could think of it as an example of the modern Lingnan style of architecture. The wood and clay tiles that are used in these roofs could possibly count. The clay tiles insulate against heat. The decorative fired black clay panels just below the roof are holdovers from older Lingnan architecture. So this combination would count as Lingnan.

The large pool and the cascading water from the rocks in the middle of it are definitely in the Lingnan style. Chinese gardens from across the country use water and rocks, but such a large open pool, not shaded by trees, is unlikely to be seen in Shanghai or Beijing. Pools there reflect the greenery of large overhanging trees. This one does not have the feel of the pools and streams in the Summer Palace of Beijing or in Shanghai’s Yu garden.

This part of the complex induced a sudden sharp burst of nostalgia. The banana trees and the coloured glass panels in windows reminded me of one of my childhood homes. The combination of hot-climate plant and glass designed to block out the sun would definitely make this part of the vocabulary of the Lingnan style. In fact, walking around the neighbourhood you can see many more examples of these glass panels on doors and windows.

A Bougainvillea flower floated on a stream full of carp. This was again typical of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. This plant does not grow well in the cold of China to the north of these provinces. In fact when we flew in to Guangzhou, the sight of Bougainvillea growing in the city made me think of the balcony of our flat in Mumbai where we have managed to get two of these plants to grow. The carp is common across China, so between the two, this is a Lingnan voice speaking.

The building above the museum has a tower with the upturned corners which some people say typifies this style. I also liked the adaptation of modernity in the simple rectangular glass windows. They would not be out of place transplanted to the Barcelona Pavilion. The building stands next to the pool whose photo you saw above. So, together, they take modernity and Lingnan’s old architectural vocabulary and merge them together.

Around Shillong

The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.

I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!

This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.

In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.

Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.

The Emperor’s Lane

Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.

The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.

We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.

If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.

Family holdings

Four of us were dawdling in Mawlai. When I’m with nieces then every few steps seems to be an Instagrammable opportunity. Our progress down the lane towards our Clan Bus was very slow. While they Instasnapped their stream of consciousness, I began to push my camera through every closed gate I could see to take photos of the houses behind them.

These were really picturesque houses. many built in the old style with slanted corrugated metal roofs. Meghalaya builds against the monsoon. After all, Shillong is only 61 kilometers from Mawsynram, which is the wettest place on earth. Mawsynram gets 11.8 meters of rain a year. Shillong gets 3.3 meters of rain a year, which is substantially larger than what Mumbai gets. So I wasn’t surprised to see the pitched roofs.

I was also not surprised to see the verandahs. These were placed where you could drip off excess water if you got drenched in rain before reaching your house. Also, it would be great to sit on one of these verandahs with a steaming cup of chai watching the rain. The houses were very similar to the style that I’d seen in Kerala, which is another place which gets heavy monsoon rains.

As we were busy photographing the houses and exclaiming over the well-maintained garden each had, a lady who’d been tending the garden came out to talk to us (you can see her in the featured photo). After asking us the usual questions (where were we from, what were we doing there, was this our first trip to Shillong) she started telling us about the houses. It turned out that she and her sisters owned three of them. The others were owned by other grand-daughters of her grandmother. Halfway through this description it dawned on me that among the Khasis property is held by women, and passes from mother to daughter. When I threw a question about her brothers into the conversation, it sank without a ripple. She wished the best of luck to the nieces as we left.

Shanghai re-deco

With a boom in 1930s nostalgia, China is adapting. Some of this adaptation is dusting off forgotten landmarks, some is redecorating things. Sometimes for an amateur like me it is hard to tell the difference. The Family and I walked down Hankou Road in Shanghai, and came to a building with a facade which confused me a little. If there had been no balconies here, I would have immediately thought of it as an Art Deco building. But the balconies break the clean lines which I always associate with this style.

The Family said “We can take a closer look, if you want.” So we walked into the lobby of the hotel. The port of Hankou stands on the Yangtze river and has lovely Art Deco buildings. Was Hotel Yangtze on Hankou Road an Art Deco building? The illuminated glass ceiling of the lobby confused me. It could be Art Deco, but the lobby looked cramped. Most Art Deco buildings somehow manage to look airy and grand, no matter how small a space they occupy.

The staircase came down in a nice sweep, but again managed to look cramped. The corridor between the lobby and the entrance could have jumped out of a 21st century re-imagination of a Flash Gordon movie. But was it real? The circumstantial evidence was too overwhelming. I noted down the name of the architect, Li Pan, and thought I would look it up later. I did, and I couldn’t find him listed among the names of the architects involved in Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. Nor did old guidebooks list this property as something to watch out for. But of course, hotels change names. Even street addresses change: roads are renamed, buildings renumbered. The problem seemed unsettled.

Eventually I found a Li Pan: an architect practicing today, also called Paul Lin Pan. And that opened a key. According to the somewhat confused records that I have found, the hotel was designed by a Li Pan in the Art Deco style and completed in 1934. However the renovation in 2007, also seems to have been done by a Li Pan, and it has been panned for adding extra touches, like the “zig-zag lines” on the facade, which weren’t there in the original. I wonder whether this confusion of architects has something to do with the Chinese cultural attitude to authenticity (I have been confused by this again and again). Comparing a picture in an old postcard with the new facade shows at least this difference. So this falls somewhere in the spectrum between real and fake, not far from real Art Deco.