While looking for something else, I came across these photos from an old walk across New York City. I recalled that the sun had just set, and the best of the daylight was done. I wanted to cross 5th Avenue and get myself a little sundowner and a snack, but I waited. The Flatiron Building was an instant hit with some of the early greats of photography. Joseph Steiglitz and Edward Steichen. Who was I to break the tradition a hundred years later? I paused and took a few photos. First the crowds. Then a couple gave me the perfect ambush photo as the man fussed with his tripod and camera.
Tourists like them and me are drawn to this icon of a building. You already know a few stories when you see it: it was the first steel frame skyscraper in NYC, a floor went up each week, it had more than a thousand windows, it is a right angled triangle in plan, it was built without women’s toilets, it had hydraulic lifts, it was designed to withstand winds but created unpredictable gusts at street level, that critics hated it at first (“a stingy piece of pie”, “Burnham’s Folly”, and so on), but artists and foreigners loved it. Foreigners can see some things more clearly. It is now listed as one of New York’s Designated Landmarks.
The detailing of the facade caught my eye. This is a typical Chicago School building, predating the Bauhaus style towers elsewhere. The steel frame which gave it strength was spanned with clay tiles.The tiles are designed to give it what the architect, Daniel Burnham, called a Beaux Arts look. The visual differentiation between the bottom, middle, and top was supposed to give it the look of a Greek column. I’m not sure it succeeds. Today it seems to look forward to the future more than it looks back at the past.
Sometimes, on a quiet day, I’ll page through old photos. Looking at 2017 I saw quite a variety of urban architecture. Let me take you through it roughly in chronological order. The featured photo is from Chicago, looking along Chicago River from Eastside towards River Point Park. The river is a feat of engineering, its direction of flow having been reversed at the beginning of the 20th century CE, and its course straightened between 1928 and 1930. I took this photo in February of 2017.
I found an interesting contrast with the ruins of the early modern palace inside Ranthambore National Park. Situated on the banks of the Raj Bagh lake, the middle-Mughal era pleasure palace is now given over to tiger watching. I don’t have the spectacular photos that you see of tigers inside this abandoned palace. The lightly engineered lake with a palace next to it was typical of the courtly architecture of pre-colonial India. I took this photo in January.
From March of that year I have a photo of the 11th century Rajarani Temple in Bhubaneshwar. The dull yellow-red stone called Rajarani in Odiya makes this one of my favourite temples. The 18 meter tall tower has an unusual five-fold symmetry. The clusters of rounded turrets that support the central tower look quite different from the other temple spires nearby. It is said that this style resembles the temple architecture of Khajuraho.
I would like to pair the temple with the image of the 12th century Marienkirche in Berlin which I took in November. However, there is little left of this old structure. What the photo shows is the 19th century and post-war restoration in characteristic red brick. The TV tower of Alexanderplatz looms in the background. The Family and I walked around this area on a gusty and overcast evening. The sky was a muddy brown from the city lights reflecting off it.
Churches in the middle of cities are never more forlorn than in New York. On a grey October day I walked by the Presbyterian church on Fifth Avenue and took this photo of New York’s mid-town towers looming over it. Completed in 1875, the 85 meters high brownstone steeple was meant to dominate the architecture of the city. But its time came to an end within a couple of decades as the invention of steel scaffolding gave rise to the skyscrapers that now dwarf it.
Glass and steel were the fancy new building materials from the end of the nineteenth century on. The new material seemed to annihilate the difference between indoor and outdoor. You see the delight that architects took in it across Europe. A friendly example of it was the San Miguel market, built in 1916. Not only did it allow in the beautiful light of June, it was also a place where you could relax and enjoy good wines and gourmet tapas. We spent more than one afternoon here.
Before steel and glass, and concrete, took over the world, the architecture of a region would be influenced by the material available. If New York was brownstone, the Sahyadris are full of this beautiful porous rock generically called volcanic tuff. Walking about the Kaas plateau in September looking at the strange wildflowers of the region, adapted to the unhospitable thin and metal rich laterite soil, I came across this abandoned colonial era bungalow. It was built from the red tuff dug out of the plateau. The bungalow looks like it was constructed about a century ago, give or take a couple of decades, and abandoned half a century ago. The walls are perfect, and with a little work on the roof it can be easily used again.
Let me end this tour of interesting architecture with a photo from December: the early modern fort of Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. The massive stone walls from the 15th century still show the scars from cannonballs which failed to bring them down. Standing at the base of the fort wall, you can see the wonderful palace loom over you. I was curious about the material used in the palace. It turned out that it used a mixture of granite, sandstone, and brick. A sturdy base, but with light and airy rooms which can soar up. The oldest palaces and forts of India which you can still see are about five or six centuries old, and this is among the oldest.
This was my second time in the US. After the Smoky mountains I took a zigzag path to Florida. I had no real plan except to take some time from work to make a pilgrimage to Cape Kennedy, to see the place from which the longest trip in human history was made. But some people I met up with suggested a trip to the Everglades. So we piled into a car and drove down to the National Park.
A walk through the park would have been rewarding enough for me, the sight of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hanging from trees was so amazing. It was still a while before the world wide web would replace reference books, so it was not till that December that I had time to sit down and figure out that this was not moss, but a flowering plant, distantly related to pineapples.
It was possible to take a boat ride through the river. I was glad we decided to do that, because it was one of the most instructive rides I had. There were lots of turtles and alligators to be seen, and this picture of an alligator asleep with its snout resting on the back of a turtle was something that remained in my mind. I was surprised to look at the picture again and discover that my actual photo was not so good.
It would be decades before I began bird watching. This must have been my first time out spotting birds. As the launch puttered past stately mangroves, the guide pointed out various birds. I think the photo above was of a cast of vultures. Looking at it now along with a checklist of the birds of the Everglades, I think they were turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). I didn’t remember that at all.
This bird drying itself on a fallen mangrove does not seem to be a darter. My money is on it being a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), simply because it is the most common of cormorants in the Everglades. But it could be Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). I can’t remember, and from this photo there is no way to tell. It would be another twenty years before I learnt to take multiple photos of every bird I saw so that I could identify it later.
The bird in the center of this photo is a great egret (Ardea alba), a common bird found everywhere. I wouldn’t usually take a picture of it these days, but it kind of anchors this landscape well. This picture captures the impression of the Everglades that I hold in my memory: forest, swamp, birds, and rivers.
I eventually went to Cape Kennedy but didn’t take my camera. I can’t believe how seldom I would carry my camera thirty years ago. I found that there was a shuttle launch the next day, and was sad I would miss it because I would be boarding my flight home at roughly that time. Incredibly, soon after my flight took off, the captain announced a space shuttle to port. I was next to a window, and I looked out to see the space shuttle Atlantis. It had just taken off for its mission of 15 November, 1990. For a while I could see this ball of fire flying parallel to our path, and then it veered off and was lost in the haze of the atmosphere. I couldn’t have planned a better to start the last flight of my journey around the world.
The plane flew east over the Pacific. I slept as we passed over a quarter of the earth, and the clock turned back to yesterday. In LA I changed planes in a daze, and woke up only near dawn, to a question about coffee or tea. I can take bad coffee easier than bad tea. As I nursed a tasteless hot cup, I looked down at a very rumpled landscape cut through by rivers of clouds.
Where were we? The seat next to me was empty, and the cabin crew had done their job and passed on. The announcement from the cockpit was my saviour. We were passing the rockies. I looked down as we flew towards the terminator, the colour changing to a bright gold as the peaks turned gradually towards the sun. This must have been the southern tip of the range; we were perhaps over north Arizona or south Utah.
These 50 million year old mountains were not my destination this time. We flew over the north American continental divide towards the 450 million years old Appalachian mountains. I find it amazing that these mountains continue on into the Scottish hills and the Atlas mountains of Morocco. They were formed in the collision of the north American and African plates as the supercontinent of Pangaea was formed.
My destination was Gatlinburg in Tennessee. Thirty years ago this was still a bustling tourist town. It was amazing luck that someone would actually want to have a conference in this lovely place, otherwise I would never have thought of coming here. Soon enough I had my first view of the Smoky Mountains (see featured photo). I always thought that the “smoke” that hangs over these mountains must be mist. But I read that this is at least partly caused by organic compounds exhaled by trees.
I managed to get away from my work for long enough to go for a short walk through the mountains. Autumn is a wonderful time here. Even after seeing the deliberately planted autumn garden of Nikko in the previous week, a walk through the woods was stunning. I have a fond memory of a part of the path in which all the trees on one side had turned red but those on the other were green.
The mountains have (had? This was thirty years ago) cut through by beautiful streams, with absolutely clear water. This was my first visit to a national park in the US. My memories of the town of Gatlinburg have faded, but not of my walk through the forest. There are so many things left to see around the world that I don’t think I will go back, but it is a memory that remains alive.
The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.
The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.
This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.
I continued with image-archeology and discovered photos of the most photographed bridge in the world. You take a risk doing this, because there is little that you can do that hasn’t been done before. And that little would probably involve something possibly illegal like flying a microlight through the suspension cables. I wasn’t going to try any of that, so I tried to leave out the bridge and capture the blue water and the early summer sunlight on a June morning eight years ago. The building that you see in the shadow of the bridge is the Lime Point lighthouse.
That photo was taken from the north. I took a conventional full on view of the bridge from San Francisco as the fog began to roll in. At least, I thought it was conventional. Not so much, it seems. Most people today are aware of how very ordinary something like this looks, so it is more common today to seek a different viewpoint. As a result, if you search for images of the bridge on Oodles, you will find a googol images which look nothing like this. I like the idea of being superlatively ordinary!
While doing some archaeology with my photos, I found some of birds in the San Francisco bay area taken eight years ago. This surprised me immensely because I did not think of myself as a bird watcher in those days. Maybe it was because The Family had already started carrying binoculars and field guides to birds on our holidays that made me take these photos in backyards and walks. I took the featured photo out of a kitchen window one morning while making a tea. I think that is a Western Wood Peewee (Contopus sordidulus). I have a couple of other photos, all of the same quality, but together they seem to defy an alternative identification.
In the same patch of ground at the same time I also spotted this small yellow and black bird. Again I have several photos, none of them very good, but all together indicating that this is perhaps the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). It is certainly small enough to be one, and the colour makes it unlikely that it is anything else.
Afterwards I stood in the kitchen with my tea and photrographed this dove. I hadn’t seen anything before which looks like this. It is the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). The birds I saw were all common birds, with a large range and stable population. They are of no concern to conservationists. I found them interesting then, because I knew nothing of New World birds. I have a memory of planning to identify them later. I could hardly have thought that the plan would mature almost a decade later.
The commonest of American birds was new to me. I found now that I have several photos of the American robin (Turdus migratorius) apart from the one you see above. This has a much more faded red in the breast than the variety I’ve seen on the east coast. Perhaps that means it belongs to the subspecies propinquus, which is one of the two subspecies which one can see in this area. I suppose I spent a bit of time photographing this bird because it looked different from the robins I’d seen before.
Identifying the bird which you can see in the photo above was not easy, although I have several photos. The reason, as ARKive says, is that the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) “from different areas vary quite considerably in size, colouration and behaviour”, although it is one of the commonest birds in North America. If you look through the photos in that site, you see how different they can look. Although the Wikipedia page has several photos, none of them look like this.
I spent quite a while looking at this common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and because I thought that I’d seen something quite similar halfway across the globe. My impression was correct. The web page of the Audubon Society says that it was brought to the Americas in the 1890s, and has since spread across this new habitat. My photos show the typical feeding behaviour of this adult male: poking at the grass repeatedly and eventually tugging its prey out of the group (photo above). I didn’t seen any flocks, though.
Finally that little song bird that is so common that I ignored it until it sat down on garden furniture right in front of me. This is the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), which can be found everywhere from central Canada to Tierra del Fuego. That probably makes it one of the commonest of American birds. I wasn’t really looking for birds during that trip, and it is just chance that I took these photos. As a result, I have photos of the commonest of birds in the Bay Area.
When I first saw the sign in the featured photo I was taken aback. Somewhere a few paces back had I crossed an invisible line and now found myself in the New York of the Harry Potter universe? No such luck. It turns out that the department of transportation is behind these signs. There are stop signs on the road and pedestrian crossing at half-block points from the 51st to the 53rd street. These lead through a linked series of privately owned public spaces. This is the secret avenue in the heart of mid-town Manhattan. Just a badly kept secret, and not magic! I mentally shrugged my shoulders and moved on.
The day went by in a succession of muggle lattes. Later that evening I think I saw magic again. Looking out over the city I saw ectoplasm dribbling into the sky over the headquarters of the Ghostbusters. There’s a photo here to tell you that it’s the truth. New York is not totally mundane, rest assured.
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.
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.
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.
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 would mean 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.”