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.

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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.

Disconnected

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.

The Bridges of Long Island

I flew into JFK last Sunday after many years. With the new automation at these airports, one passes through immigration much faster. I was out in no time and on the road to Long Island.

Driving from JFK to Long Island through its many parkways, the one thing I have always noticed is a succession of very low bridges. An article in New York Times written almost ten years ago details some of the hilarious and horrendous road accidents that these lead to.

I went back to that article and found the intriguing statement "Sometimes, this was by design, as in the case of some parkways on Long Island, where bridges were built too low for buses to pass under." Following this up, I came to Robert Moses, and the allegation that he built these bridges low deliberately to exclude the low-income black households living in Queens from accessing the beaches of Long Island. The reasoning given is that poorer people did not usually own cars, and would have to make a trip like this by bus. By keeping clearances under the bridges which are sometimes half of the standard, Moses is said to have planned to exclude buses from entering these areas.

The 40 year old Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro about Robert Moses called "The Power Broker" which brought together evidence that there was systematic racism in the city services designed by Moses has now become contentious. The low bridges of Long Island however, continue to be traps for trucks.

Modern comfort

After spending a morning with Gaudi’s idiosyncratic architecture in the church of Sagrada Familia and then in the apartment building called the Casa Mila or La Pedreda, The Family and I went off to a nearby restaurant for one of Barcelona’s famous three course lunches. Gaudi’s architecture is mesmerizing, and both of us were a little stunned by the decorativeness of his style. During lunch The Family asked who the other famous architects in Barcelona are. Now Barcelona has works by so many brilliant architects, that I fumbled for an answer. When I blurted out "Mies van der Rohe", it was my subconscious speaking.

My first acquaintance with the work of one of the makers of modernist architecture was through photos of the Barcelona chair, which (I later found) were designed to go with his German Pavilion in the Barcelona World Fair of 1929. One of the iconic structures designed by him was this pavilion. I was under the impression that it was dismantled within a year of being set up, but was surprised to find, just a few months ago, that it had been reconstructed.

So we found the simplest connection through the subway to take us there, finished our coffee, and set off into the hot afternoon. The clean lines of the pavilion are a refreshing sight after a morning of Gaudy excess. There is a small fee for entry, which we gladly paid, as we walked past the glass curtain "into" the structure. The interesting thing about this pavilion is that there is really no inside and no outside. The walls do not partition the structure; rather they offer a continuous path through the structure. Immediately behind the glass curtain is this wall of red-gold onyx (photo above).

When you go round this wall another curtain of glass appears (photo above), and you must decide whether to pass in front of it, or behind. The slab of the roof floats lightly above this, providing welcome shade. There were a very small number of people taking photos, very considerately moving out of the field of view of each others’ cameras. On the far side of the view above was the rectangular pool which is called the large basin.

Behind me was the small basin (photo above) with a statue called Alba by George Kolbe. The U-shaped wall behind it is made with green marble, and creates the main enclosed space in the pavilion. Interestingly, there is no roof above it, so that in another dimension it is open.

I found one place from which you could see all the different kinds of material used in this structure (photo above). This was the wall where a few of the Barcelona chairs had been placed (featured photo). The Family sat down on one of the chairs and declared that it was indeed comfortable. Was it the most comfortable chair ever designed, as advertisements used to claim once? She was not sure, but she said she could sleep in it. I’d always thought of the Barcelona chair as black, but it turns out that the first edition, which was placed here in 1929, was white.

We sat there together and contemplated the vision which has now conquered the world. If the Barcelona Pavilion seems to be so ordinary, it is because every modern atrium looks faintly like this: the mixture of exotic polished stone and steel and glass curtains, soaring above you. Even the little pool with Kolbe’s architecture has been copied and transmuted. This is why Casa Mila stands out as extraordinary: it is not the way the world is. I’m happy that the world followed Mies van der Rohe’s vision and not Gaudi’s.

The most Dangerous Airport in the World

I first heard about Paro airport from a friend’s son. When he was ten years old, he was addicted to flight-simulator games, and Paro was a legendary airport to him and his little group of enthusiasts. I first learnt from him of the extremely steep angles of approach and take off, needed because Paro is a deep valley, at an altitude of 2300 meters, surrounded by peaks which are over 5000 meters high. This was not all, he said, it had a short runway, and the approach had to wind through a safe path between mountains. Interestingly, since the beginning of civilian flights in 1983, Paro airport has not had a single accident.

A few years later, I was in a party of four who flew in for our second visit to Bhutan and saw all this first hand. On our previous visit we had taken the road up from Phuentsholing on the Indian border. The flight took off in the early morning from Kolkata. Later I realized why. The pilots make a visual approach, and have to return to Kolkata and be ready to try again the same day if the weather turns bad.

A good view of Everest over a cloud bank

Our flight was uneventful. We had a clear view of the massive summit of Mount Everest. Auguries are part of the culture of Bhutan, and the calm and majestic view of Chomolungma augured well for our trip. The uneventful trip included a hair-raising descent to Paro airport. We could clearly see the mountain walls which seemed to hang just outside the windows of the cabin. The plane twisted and turned through the valley of the Paro river until it came down to a perfect soft landing at the airport. The small cabin broke into applause. It was well-deserved, the pilot was one of the handful who are qualified for Paro airport.

Paro airport terminal, Bhutan

Bhutan, with its population of half a million, was a refreshingly informal place. We could stay on the apron and admire breathtaking views of the walls of mountains rising around us. Eventually we moved into the squeaky-new airport terminal, got our visa and moved on.