The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.


God’s own bungalows

A hyperbolic tag-line that Kerala’s tourism department used through the 90s was “God’s own country”. This makes sense for someone in love with small towns. When I travel through Kerala I’m surprised by how densely populated it is. You can drive a hundred kilometers and see one small town lapping up against another. Coastal Kerala seems to be a single Malabari Malgudi, only arbitrarily divided into municipalities. I did not see the apartment buildings which dot the north of India. Instead there are single family homes: each a neat bungalow with some surrounding gardens. The rain-forests and their immense bio-wealth which should have earned the place the tag-line of “God’s own workshop” have fragmented and retreated into little reserves.

Traditional architecture has evolved with the times. The wooden houses with their massive teak beams are no longer affordable, so brick and concrete have replaced them. It seems to me that this is a good thing to happen, because the decreased demand for wood is a force for conservation. At the same time, a well-maintained concrete house can have a very long lifetime, so slowing the demand for new construction. The walls are topped by the traditional style of overhanging sloped roofs which offer protection against the furious monsoon that still beats down on Kerala. The front verandah also seems like a cosy place in all weathers. I could imagine myself sitting on one of those, sipping a cup of coffee, staring into the rain which obscures the tame greenery around me.

Once there was a river

In the 9th century CE the Adi Shankaracharya crossed the Narmada river and met his guru. The foundations of modern Hindu philosophy can be traced back to that event. I decided to make a quick dash to this immensely historical place in early January, and drove across the Narmada. The experience is totally disjoint with the classic sanskrit poetry that one grew up with. As the car swept over the bridge, my mind played back the lines Maha gabhira niira puraa paapa dhutam bhootalam (Your deep waters which overflow the banks and wash away the sins of the earth). Those waters have been reduced to a thin stream.

Through the 1990s a protest movement against damming this river in the west was perpetually in the headlines. Now, crossing a bridge between Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, far to the east, I saw how limited was the scope of those unsuccessful protestors. Upstream barrages are much more destructive of ecology than dams downstream, since they affect longer stretches of the river. The Narmada is one of the main westward flowing rivers of India, but almost nothing about the barrage upstream of Omkareshwar, entered the public discourse.

I was not surprised when I read that this tells on the fish population in the river. The mahaseer and the hilsa which the Narmada was known for, even a generation ago, has been replaced by imported catfish and carp. The trickle of water below the imposing bridge is a reminder of the lost connection with history. Have people gained or lost? Talking to farmers around here, one has the feeling that the water diverted to irrigation has been a gain. But if you talk to fishermen, you hear a different story. If these problems were not complex, we would have solved them by now.

It has the swing

I was lucky to get tickets at short notice for a concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. The Staatskapelle was being conducted by James Levine in this place which has become the benchmark of concert halls. It fits so well into the new architecture of Berlin that it is hard to remember that it opened in 1963, when computer graphics was a dream of the future.

On the 50th anniversary of the opening of the venue Gerwin Zohlen wrote about the consternation with which the design was greeted.

Those who looked more closely saw bends and slopes everywhere, broken lines and edges at flat or wide angles. None had Smartphones nor tablets that visualise a drawing in 3D using an app. Instead they had only a T-square with ruler and sharpened pencil, a compass and measuring tape with which to approach the great architectural author’s fantasy.

I had not thought about how outlandish the design must have looked to people who grew up only with the traditional concert halls, and how skeptical they must have been even about whether the building would stand up at all. At a time when most architects seemed content with concrete boxes, Hans Scharoun had anticipated the forms which would fill our modern world. This was the beginning of the post-Bauhaus aesthetics. The fact that this looks so ordinary today is a comment on how influential the design was.

Much has been written also about the acoustics of the hall. I’d read Rainer Esche’s very accessible article on the problems faced by the acoustic engineer Lothar Cremer, and how he solved them. So I knew the reason why there were curved “clouds” hanging above the stage. The actual experience of listening to Mahler’s third symphony was grand: I heard with equal clarity the softest of sounds and the loudest crescendos. I noticed that some of the children in the choir tried to protect their ears during the loudest bits, which told me that the musicians have no difficulty hearing each other.

Entering Berlin

The names of the stations in Berlin looked unfamiliar when I tried to buy my tickets. I remembered taking a train to Berlin Zoo and then taking a S-bahn to the hotel. Now I had to look up a map to see where I should change to local transport. Berlin Hauptbahnhof looked like a sensible choice. When I arrived I knew I’d never been here before.

Escalators took us three floors up to the S-bahn. Through a glass screen I could see in the distance the dome over the Reichstag building. In the featured photo you can see the level on which the long-distance trains arrive. The S-bahn is one level above where I took the photo from. I could now make sense of the short U-bahn line that one could take from the main station to the Reichstag and Unter den Linden. There was no visual indication that the glass incorporated photovoltaics to generate electricity.

It was more than a decade since I was last in Berlin, and the gap showed. I had to read a lot to catch up (one example is here). I marvelled at the construction of the station: the temporary rerouting of the river Spree in order to build tunnels, the innovative bridges over which the S-bahn lines pass, and the new consruction techniques which were invented in order to speed the completion of the project. I read about the damage to the building due to a storm in 2007, and understood why trains to Berlin were canceled for a storm during my visit.

Art on Heinrich Heine Strasse

The street art of Berlin is too diverse for a single post. Nor am I enough of an expert to be able to classify it into styles or periods. Instead I will post by areas. The photos you see here were taken just around the northern exits from the Heinrich Heine Strasse U-bahn station. The mural by Case McClaim is famous and probably the oldest in this set. The others were found opposite it and in the subway entrance just around the corner.

When Berlin was a divided city, this area contained a border crossing. At that time it was built up with cheap pre-fabricated housing, one block of which you can see in the general view of the area. The three chimneys belong to a modern (post-unification) power plant at which generates about half a gigawatt of electrical power. The plant simultaneously generates slightly more than this in useful heating supplied to the area. The plant was designed by the architect Jochem Jourdan. We did not have time to visit the artworks which are integrated with the power plant.

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.

Steamy New York

It seems to me that my reaction to New York is conditioned by my first experiences. In the late ’80s the city was a gritty place. Some parts of it were too dangerous to walk about in the evenings. You were told to be careful in Central Park, Times Square and Bryant Park. And through it all, steam wafted out from vents and chimneys, making everything look even more weird. It’s a new and more pleasant city now, but the steam still rises from the streets.

It has never been as easy to read about the world as it is today. I sat in a little cafe off 5th Avenue and found out more about this. I was not surprised to learn that the 170 kilometers of steam pipes under the streets of New York make it the steamiest city in the world. What surprised me were the uses to which the 40 million kilos of steam that flow these pipes daily are put. I’d lazily assumed that it was mainly for heating. Not so.

New York City: Steam chimney on 5th Avenue

The superheated high pressure steam is used for energy. Restaurants use it to power their dishwashers, and buildings to power cooling units in summer. The Guggenheim uses it to fine-tune the humidity in the building, and hospitals sterilize equipment using it. The system has been operated by Consolidated Edison since the 1950s, when it acquired the business from the NY Steam Corp which started up in lower Manhattan in 1880. As mid-town was developed in the 1920s, electrical cables and steam pipes were laid down together. ConEd claims to have around 2000 buildings as customers and seven generating stations. In three of these stations the steam is a by-product of ConEd’s electrical power generating plants. it seems that the operation is fairly green.


I took the F train to the Lexington Avenue-63rd Street Station and came out on the 3rd Avenue exit. As I took the elevator up to the street I passed several mosaics, the last of which you can see in the photo below. The mosaics are by Jean Shin, a Seoul-born New York City artist. I hadn’t seen her work before, but after seeing these mosaics, I will make an effort to see more works by her.

New York City: mosaic at the Lexington Avenuw-63 Street station

My impression on seeing this mosaic was that it shows the nearby Queensboro Bridge (see featured photo) which connects Manhattan to Queens. The visual resemblance is striking, but I was wrong. It turns out that Shin captures an older elevated train station which was replaced by the subway line. The girders shown here held up the elevated track. This is a part of New York I hadn’t seen before, and I had no idea that there were elevated tracks in the city. One lives and learns, sometimes too late.

The longest road

My youngest niece asked me, "Which is the longest road in New York?" Having crossed paths with it from Bowling Green to Columbus Circle, I knew the answer. It starts from the little park where, the story goes, the island of Manhattan was purchased from native Americans by the Dutch. I don’t know whether the story is true, but the Avenue starts from Bowling Green, which you can see behind the bull mobbed by tourists here.

New York City: Flatiron building

A little further north, the iconic Flatiron Building stands at a corner on this road. Built in 1902, it was then one of the tallest buildings in the city, and the only 22 story building north of 14th Street. Interestingly, this steel-framed, limestone and terra-cotta clad building was an incursion of the Chicago style into New York. As I stood and admired the building, I was joined by a succession of people who had come there specially to photograph one of the icons of New York City.

New York City: Times square

Perhaps one of the most well-known landmarks on the longest road in New York is Times Square. I’ve known locals who give it a wide berth, but every visitor needs to walk through this place. Why not? Where else would you have photo-ops with Spiderman, or both Batman and the Joker, or Captain America? This square has all the oddities that you would love New York for.

New York City: reflection of the Hearst tower

About the furthest uptown that I crossed this road was on 57th street. You can see the iconic Hearst Tower reflected in the mirrorshades of the building just across the crossing. Randolph Hearst spent 2 million 1928 dollars to build the bottom 6 stories. The weirdly shaped tower atop it was completed in 2006, and was the first green building in New York. I walked up to it specifically to see the water sculpture in the lobby which humidifies the building.

Broadway, the longest street in New York, continues well beyond this. By not following it to Lincoln Center I missed out on the dancing Hippo sculpture that friends recommended. It continues past that into parts of New York I know little about.