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.

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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.

How I learnt to love the roads of Bangkok

We decided to spend a couple of days in Bangkok imagining a relaxed time in a large city on the way back from Myanmar. We did manage to relax, but in taxis stuck on the road. On one memorable occasion, during the evening rush hour, our taxi took more than half an hour between two successive traffic lights. According to a year-old article, during the evening peak hours, Bangkok’s traffic moves at one-tenth the speed it would have on a clear road. On the average the traffic moves at half the speed that it would have on a clear road.

One sure sign of bad traffic is multiple layers of roads and flyovers. In the featured photo of Bangkok (taken near Sukhumvit) you can see the road, then the pedestrian walkway from which I took the photo, a flyover for road traffic, and an elevated corridor for the metro. This photo was taken a little after three on a weekday. Two hours later, the traffic was a standstill.Kitschy hoarding covers a cnstructions site in Bangkok I’ve seen such multiple layers of roads in China before, and they are now coming up in India.

Some claim that Bangkok’s traffic has become worse since the government decided to refund the tax to first-time car buyers. Mumbai had prepared us for Bangkok. When we were stuck in traffic, The Family and I tried to take it as an opportunity to spend some quality time talking to each other. When we couldn’t bear the incredible joy of being thrown into close contact for long, we took the sky trains. The coverage of the city is minimal, but at least it can be used to reduce the distance you have to travel in traffic. Another joy of travelling by metro is that you get a view of really kitschy hoardings meant to cover up construction sites (above).

Spring cleaning

Into each life some rain must fall, and the last five days have been a bit of a record for the twenty million people in my city. So I decided to spend my time indoors in moving some of my older photos from my laptop into a backup disk. And, of course, I got distracted by my first photos of Shanghai.

The Family and I landed in Shanghai in early May last year late in the afternoon. We’d flown out of Mumbai in the night, changed planes in Chengdu, taken the maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport, changed to a Metro, and eventually found our hotel. We did not speak or read Mandarin. Our hotel was off East Nanjing Road, and I’d selected it to be close to the Bund. After a shower we took our first walk in China.

It is hard now to recall our feelings, although The Family and I have talked about it now and then. China was still an unknown, even walking on the road was an adventure. We bought a bottle of water, tried out a local sweet, and eventually reached the Bund. I no longer remember what I’d imagined it to be. But it was not the wide promenade full of people at complete leisure. It was so familiar, but, at the same time, so totally different.

Our timing happened to be right, the sun was setting behind us, and lighting up the wonderful high-rise buildings of Pudong new area (see the featured image). Later we would learn to distinguish the buildings. Now we just gawked. It was a mysterious and exciting city. Over time we got to know it better. We still find it exciting, but a less mysterious. That’s the unfortunate side of travelling: the world becomes a tiny bit flatter.

Five bridges of Porto

Porto slopes down from a height to the Douro river and comes to an end at the river bank. The river separates it from Vila Nova de Gaia, a town which is a tourist magnet because of its warehouses of Port wine. Five bridges cross the river from Porto. On our first evening in the town, we decided to take a cruise along the river and under the bridges.

porto1-arrabida

The westernmost of these is the Arrabida bridge (photo above), completed in 1963. The single arch across the river was once the longest in the world. This was one of the two works of Edgar Cardoso, one of Portugal’s iconic engineers, which we saw. The deck of the bridge, and the traffic it carries, passes high over the boat. Porto stretches even further to the west, right to the shores of the Atlantic. As the boat passes beyond the bridge, you see the river widening out, and Vila Nova de Gaia coming to an end. The river cruise turns around well before coming to the ocean.

porto3-freixo

Dom Luis 1 bridge (featured photo) is the iconic bridge of Porto. The double decker bridge was completed in 1887 and had a record arch span at that time. The bridge was designed by Teophile Seyrig, who had earlier worked with Gustave Eiffel. The upper deck was strengthened by Edgar Cardoso a century later. We saw trams crossing the upper deck. All other traffic crosses along the lower deck. As we passed below it we saw three other bridges lined up ahead.

The next bridge up river was the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique (photo above). It was completed in 2003 by Antonio Adao da Fonseca. I admired the clean modern lines of this concrete bridge as we passed below it. Beyond this were a pair of railway bridges.

porto45-mariapia-saojoao

The Ponte Maria Pia (photo above) was the first of Porto’s bridges. Gustav Eiffel’s engineering company, then little known, designed and completed it in 1877. Teophile Seyrig, who then worked for the company, is usually credited with having designed it. At that time it was the longest single arch bridge in the world. It was superseded in 1991 by the bridge we passed under next. This is the concrete Ponte de Sao Joao (photo above), designed by Edgar Cardoso, and completed in 1991.

The boat ride lasted about an hour. Interestingly, there are no explanations or commentary during the ride. You see what you want to see. Fortunately, I had taken the time to read up on the bridges before, so I could appreciate them. There must be much along the river which I missed. I am not a fan of continuous commentary, but it would be nice if there was a cruise which could point out the main structures of interest as we passed them.