The Gothic Palace in the Alcazar of Seville

Almost 900 years ago, in 1248 CE, the Moorish rule over Seville came to an end when Fernando III captured the town. His son, Alfonso X, razed a large part of the Almohad palace and built a Gothic palace in its place. Parts of the garden also re-purposed the walls of the old palace. This gallery shows parts of the Gothic palace and the garden behind it.

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Behind closed doors

Our first day in Madrid was long. The last place we walked into was the Almudena cathedral. One set of doors was shut. As I fiddled with my camera in front of the doors, The Family made a sensible suggestion, “Do it later.” So I followed her into the cool interior.

Nave of Almudena cathedral

As we stood in the nave and looked up, I told The Family “Something tells me we are not in Kansas anymore.” Indeed we were not. The Gothic exterior gave way to something totally different inside: colourful, modern, and almost playful.

Vaulting of the Almudena cathedral

I sat down on one of the pews, and peered up at the wooden vaulting, beautifully painted. Later I would come to recognize this as typical of Mudejar architecture. Later still I would realize that this particular example was special: it was the Mudejar style adapted to the twentieth century. Wikipedia tells us that after the Spanish court moved to Madrid, the empire was so busy building cities abroad that it had no money left to build a cathedral in its capital. The main cathedral remained in Toledo. Only in the 19th century was this structure finally started. Construction continued through the 20th century, and was consecrated less than 25 years ago.

Transept of the Almudena cathedral

We moved up an aisle towards the transept. The pews there were blocked off and people were coming in to sit. A service would begin soon. I leaned over and looked down the transept to the other end. The stained glass looked bright and modern, as did the paintings below the windows. The apse was at the western end of this church, another non-traditional touch.

Painted vault in front of the apse of Almudena cathedral

I leant in and back and twisted my arms over to take a photo of the painting on the vault in front of the apse. It was another modern piece. I wished we had come earlier, so that we could take a closer look at the paintings and the radiating chapels. Spain was going to be interesting and strange: behind its unsmiling and traditional facade it is contemporary in a idiosyncratic way. I walked back out to take a photo of the door.

Pool of Mercury

Mercury is a liquid metal, and you could fill bowls with it. But to see a pool of Mercury, the size of a swimming pool, glistening in the sun is a little beyond one’s imagination. “Isn’t there a danger of poisoning the water supply?” I asked when I first heard of the pool of Mercury. Can their safety inspection processes really be so dependable?

The Family was having none of it. She laughed hard, and said Mercury was a god before he was a metal. The pool was not of quick silver, but of the god after all. Such a pleasant sight after all my fevered imagining.

Pool of Mercury, Alcazar of Seville

Late in the burning hot morning it was nice to stand here in the Alcazar of Seville and feel the breeze cooling as it played over the water of the pool.

A Renaissance Design

Entering the unfinished palace which Charles V wanted built next to the Alcazar of Alhambra, I had to consciously wipe my mind free of all the beauty I’d seen around it. Only then can you enter the vision of Pedro Machuca, the architect. The design is a simple geometric concept of the kind that the Renaissance ascribed to classical Greece: a circle inscribed into a square. Seen from above the outer walls form a square. Inside it is a circular patio.

Palace of CharlesV in Granada

The building is two-storied. You can see in the photo above that the columns on the lower floor are Doric and the upper are Ionic. The windows on the facade mirror this: Ionian above, and Tuscan below. Unfortunately I never took a photo of the facade. It was June, and the place was full of people. Every frame looked cluttered. In retrospect, I should have taken a photo even if it wasn’t going to look perfect.

Palace of Charles V: stairs

The Renaissance seems to have invented the modern staircase, with its even rise, so easy on the knees. Every bit of the structure drips with an unified sense of elementary geometry: see the photo above. Even the precision of the tiles on the floor gives you a sense of how the rediscovery of Greek geometry and measurements was transforming European design.

No emperor ever lived in the palace. It never even had a roof until the middle of the 20th century. As a result decorations are sparse. The medallion you see in the featured photo adorns the otherwise severe facade. Inside there are empty niches on the wall with scallop-shell designs on them. The incomplete palace is a magnificent idea, never seen again in its contemporaries. It is as startling as it would be if the Barcelona Pavilion built by Mies van der Rohe never influenced his generation.

The Moorish Alcazar of Seville

We were very naive about access to monuments in Spain. We should have bought tickets on-line a while before our visit, instead of arriving and standing in queue. The queue moved fast, but the tour of the upper part of the palace was sold out. We were restricted (if that is the correct word) to the vast ground level of the complex. This gallery covers only a small part of the enclosure.

The construction of the Moorish part of the complex was started in the 10th century, and continued till the 13th century. During the 12th century, the Almohades caliphate built the parts that are shown in the gallery above. I lost myself in the intricate work in stone and wood, and the interplay of wind and water for cooling. Along with the calligraphy that you see in the photos, these are characteristic of the Mudejar architecture of this part of the world.

An abandoned bungalow

The hills around Mumbai are full of abandoned bungalows. As I walked to the Kaas lake I saw the one in the featured photo. From the outside I guessed that this one was late colonial, perhaps built around the beginning of the 20th century or the end of the 19th. The guess was partly based on the style of the arched doors, and partly on the stone. The dressed stone was massive but well cut. The granite blocks were interspersed with weathered blocks of red laterite. It does not seem to have been abandoned for long, since the corrugated iron roof was rusted but intact. On the other hand, it was so definitely abandoned; the doors were left open.

Kaas lake: Derelict bungalow

Intrigued, I walked around to the back. A covered verandah looped around a set of rooms. I climbed the few stairs up to it. Kaas lake: Derelict bungalow Clearly the place is used by locals. There were smashed bottles in corners, but the middle of the verandah was clean. I could walk into two of the rooms. They had fireplaces built back to back so that a single chimney could serve them both. Chimneys and fireplaces meant that the bungalow was at least a century old. Each of the rooms had a little bathroom attached. The room was not terribly badly decayed for an abandoned house. There was a false ceiling under the roof. This construction is certainly fairly recent, and must have been added on within the last twenty-five years or so. Again I had this sense of the place having been abandoned recently.

I wonder what the history of the place is. If it is over a hundred years old, it was probably built by a British person. Some time around 1947 it likely that it was sold to an Indian. The lake came into existence much later. So for much of its life, this bungalow would have stood fairly high above the now-dammed river. With the burgeoning tourism in Kaas plateau in the last decade, it would have been turned into a hotel, were its owner able to do so. Instead, it seems to have been abandoned at about that time. It should be possible to find out who the owner is, and why it has been abandoned, but that would require many more days of research in the Satara municipal corporation than I’m willing to spend.

The Potter Building

Contemporary opinion on the Potter Building, completed in 1886, is very mixed. One critic called it “coarse, pretentious, overloaded and intensely vulgar”. Another thought it was a “great and illustrious monument”. I was quite impressed by the sheer size of this building from more than a hundred and thirty years ago. It takes up a block, and rises to 11 storeys. Park Row and Beekman Street make an acute angle, and from this rises the tall column in the centre of the featured photo, topped off by a pinnacle.

The lot was owned by Orlando Potter, a very successful businessman and a prominent figure in local politics. When the previous building burnt down, he commissioned a new building in the same spot by architect Norris Starkweather. The building was to have every possible fire safety feature then known. At that time this meant that the construction would use iron and terra cotta. The iron framework, called a cage, supported the floors. The exterior walls were of fire-resistant brick, twice as thick at the bottom as the twenty inches on top. The base is clad in cast iron. Terra cotta had come into use after the Chicago fire of the previous decade, and this building used it extensively.

New York City: Potter Building detail

You can see some of the details of the terra cotta work in the photo above. A contemporary account noted that terra cotta used as a structural element was half as heavy as stone, while being equally fire proof. The deep sculpting of the terra cotta exterior in this building contrasts with those in the two neighbouring ones, for example, the Morse building behind it on Beekman Street.

I’d wanted to take a good look at the external light court on Beekman Street, but the ongoing external work meant that I could not. The building was originally office space, but has now become cooperative housing. It looked like a nice place to stay. Just out of curiosity I looked at the building listing, and found that nothing is available for rent or ownership currently.

New York City: Potter Building Park Row

I walked around it and found that the white tower behind it is another notable. It is one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. Frank Gehry was the architect and it was completed in 2011.

Still standing in the doorway

Often a writer will be known for years to a small readership before she writes that one novel which makes her known to the rest of the world. While walking uptown in New York, I came across the moral equivalent of such a history, set in brick and mortar. I wasn’t quite thinking of the route when I looked ahead at a crossing and saw before me the southwestern end of Carnegie Hall (see the featured photo). In 1961 Bob Dylan broke out of an already charmed circle of listeners in a concert at this place. It is not everyday that you walk past a place where a Nobel Prize winner was born to the world’s consciousness.

New York City: Carnegie Hall and tower

I came back to look at it again. When the million dollar hall was inaugurated in 1890 it was considered to be almost in the suburbs. When Tchaikovsky conducted his own composition on the opening night, structural steel had not yet been invented. The building was made of brick. It looks heavy and squat in spite of the Renaissance design of the facade. I wanted to take a photo of the stylish and simple foyer which was part of the overall design by Willian Tuthill, but the doors seemed to be locked. I don’t mind having to go back there. The next time I’ll make sure to select an interesting concert to go for.

A beer break

I had expected the Georgian windows in this three-story yellow brick building at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets. I was surprised that both red and yellow bricks were used, a different colour on each frontage. The hipped roof did not look too out of place. At first sight the chimney was a surprise, although it shouldn’t have been. This version of the Fraunces Tavern came into existence in an architecturally controversial renovation in 1907. The original was built as a family house in 1719, before being sold to Samuel Fraunces in 1762. Fraunces established a tavern which he named the Queen’s Head.

New York City: Fraunces Tavern

I was happy to walk up the few steps from the street into the dim interior. This pub was part of my Hamiltonian walk. The revolutionary war started soon after the New York Chamber of Commerce was founded in this tavern. During the war, the roof was destroyed in cannon fire. Repairs may have been made by the time George Washington hosted a farewell dinner for his officers here. I later learnt of an inglorious board of inquiry which tried to retain slaves who had been set free at the end of the war, and were to sail away with British troops.

The tavern is on the lowest floor. The upper floors are museums run by the present owners, The Sons of the Revolution. I decided that I preferred to nurse a beer. I sat down at a table and tried to choose from their selection on tap. An oyster flavoured stout was something I wouldn’t mind missing. So the choice boiled down to a heavy stout or a lighter porter. I went with the stout.

New York

My longest stay in New York ended in June 2001. The Family returned to Mumbai a couple of days before me. When I got back home I found that she’d picked up a memento for me from the airport: a t-shirt with a picture of the twin towers. It was the perfect gift for a few short months.

New York City: 9/11 memorial pool

7 years later when Mumbai was attacked, I started wearing it again as a personal gesture that I would not, in my mind at least, let the rubble of destruction bury us. I went back to New York last month and walked up to the memorial pools that stand where the two towers used to be when I was there 16 years ago.