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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking to catch my train at the Times Square/42nd Street subway station, I passed a long glass corridor. The monotony of the white glass was broken by colourful ceramic tiles set into the wall. I looked at some closely. Every day about half a million people pass through this subway station. If one percent of them look at a panel, it means that the ceramic works by Toby Buonagurio are examined daily by about 500 people. That’s a lot of inspection.
I examined the lovely work behind the lady in pink. If it had a title, it would be Boy with a hot dog. I examined the wonderful colours of the hot dog: perfectly done. A scribble in the pool of mustard says that the work was done in the year 2000. I googled the name of the artist. She has 35 of these panels in the station, in a group called 35 Times. Her web site allows you to buy good quality signed prints of these works. How many prints does she sell? You do the math.
The ceramic tablets are beautiful. I examined three more of the tablets. I think I would call them Looking at the NY skyline, New Year’s Eve party, and Two women with ice cream. Bright and cheerful pieces, each of them.
Buonagurio teaches ceramics at an university. The world’s most famous search engine vomited up various links for her, including a page at her university where I found reviews of her course by students. The most illuminating was this: “Toby was my ceramics teacher about 30 years ago and I’ve never forgotten her. She’s the best. Btw, I’ve been an artist and teacher all these years – though I’ve changed media, Toby teaches how to do things right, no easy way out.”
In Aachen, near the Dutch-German border, I switched on the TV and saw the day-long destruction of the wall that hemmed in West Berlin. Twenty seven years later I walked into the lobby of 520 Madison Avenue and saw a piece of the wall. Five reinforced concrete slabs, out of about 100000. The side that you can see is the one which faced Mariannenplatz in West Berlin.
The cheerful paintings are due to two street artists, Thierry Noir and Christophe Bouchet, who decided to do something which was not only illegal but dangerous. The wall stood inside the territory of East Germany, so anyone painting the wall was technically crossing the border. When asked about this, Thierry Noir said to Huck “…the soldiers were allowed to jump over and arrest me if they wanted to. But I was young and quick at that time so they had no chance against me.”
The two were joined by other artists. Eventually, by the late 1980s, a kilometer long stretch of the wall had been painted. Now Noir sometimes joins other artists to paint other pieces of the wall. He was asked once about his feelings when the wall came down in that June many years ago. His reply was “I was not crying because my world was pulled down, it would be arrogant to say that. It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”
I was the only person in the lobby on that Saturday morning. The guard looked bored, from which I gathered that some still come in to look at this piece of history. I wonder whether twenty five years has been long enough for us to forget that people overcome walls.
On my way from Carnegie Hall to the Hearst Tower I passed in front of the school where Norman Rockwell studied art. The building which holds the Art Student’s League of New York was getting a face lift. A photo would have shown only the scaffolding. Opposite it, near the 57th Street subway station was something no art school should be without: an art supplies store (featured photo). That Mona Lisa on the wall outside the store required a closer look.
It isn’t a da Vinci, but its not so bad. No queues, no tickets, and a Beaux-Arts building for a canvas.
Walking in the back streets of Madrid’s art district, between small galleries and run-down buildings, I was stunned by the graffiti you see in the featured photo. It was painted on a sheet of plastic covering part of construction site. The beautiful skyline, minimally emphasized by the yellow lines, and the lettering were so assured, and at the same time so ephemeral! I was lucky that I walked by the few days of its lifetime.
I did not see more by this artist. In that sense none of the Spanish cities I visited seemed to have the prolific street artists of Porto. But what I saw captured me. Just as I captured some of what I saw. Here’s the gallery below, browse it and see if you like it as much as I did.
I added to the daily count of three quarters of a million people passing the doors of Grand Central Terminal when I walked in to take photos of the beautiful fixtures which I remembered. When I entered the main concourse, I realized that I had no memory of the gorgeous mural on the ceiling. Drawn in gold on the beautiful blue background are one part of the sky: the signs of the Zodiac from Aquarius to Cancer, Orion and Pegasus, the Milky Way and the Triangulum. If there are any other, I did not notice them. The featured photo shows Gemini on the extreme left, with part of Orion above it, facing Taurus. To the right of this you see Triangulum, and then at the far end, above the northern skylights, you can see Pegasus. Across the centre of the field of view spreads the Milky Way.
I did take a few photos of the things I remembered. In the middle of the photo above you can see the grand galleries of the concourse. The lit up clocks are familiar sights to lost travellers: they mark the information booth. There’s a strange nub of metal atop these clocks. Apparently it is meant to represent an acorn, and is a symbol the Vanderbilts had for themselves when Cornelius Vanderbilt had this structure constructed in 1913.
In this photo you can see all of Orion, facing Taurus, and below that Gemini and then Cancer. The view faces west, and shows one of the main problems with this painting. A commuter noticed this very soon after the Terminal was opened: north and south are correctly placed on the ceiling, but east and west are interchanged. The French artist Paul Helleu had made the drawings based on drawings by Johann Bayer in his 1603 book Uranometria. This is deemed to be correct. Apparently the switch was made inadvertently when J. Monroe Hewlett and painter Charles Basing transferred the design to the ceiling.
This painting was damaged by water seepage and was covered over in 1944 with asbestos boards on which a less elaborate picture was painted by Charles Gulbrandsen. At this stage a second triangle was added to Triangulum (you can see this in the photos, and puzzled me a bit before I read about it). Fifty years later this new painting was also darkened, largely by cigarette smoke rising from the concourse. A restoration of 1995 decided not to remove the boards because of a possible asbestos hazard, but cleaned them up.
I walked down Wall Street towards the Gothic Revival church I could see across Broadway. An ice cream truck blocked my way. I stopped, finished my ice cream, and walked on. I knew this was perhaps the oldest church in New York, having been first built in 1697. It burnt down twice, and the present grand structure was designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.
I walked in past an elaborate door. Later I would realize that this is the east door, and was designed by Karl Bitter. I stopped to admire it. Its not very often that I see a door donated by William Astor. Bitter completed the door in 1891, so it must have been one of his early commissions. I took a photo of the right hand door (above).
I’d arrived late. One of the things I wanted to do here was to walk through the cemetery and spot the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton. It was close to 6 in the evening, and the doors were being shut. I would have to come back another day to finish this. I walked around the main nave and apse and headed back out. On the way out I took a photo of the other door (below).
I was quite surprised to learn that this building was the tallest in New York until 1890. The era of skyscrapers began about then, and left this more traditional architecture far behind, in terms of height. I walked out and peered at the cemetery. In the middle of the bustle of the crowd at day’s end, it looked green and peaceful.