Zig zag

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.

An unfinished story

On our first night in Berlin, The Family and I decided to go down to Alexanderplatz. We didn’t have much planned for the night, so we bought tickets to go up to the top of the Television tower. This left us with about an hour to kill. We decided to spend it walking in the area between Alexanderplatz and the Spree.

It really was a dark and stormy night. We hadn’t paid attention to the news, but there was a storm warning. An intermittent light drizzle would force us inside cafes every now and then, as we strolled around. There was some construction in front of the Rotes Rathaus, so we veered towards the brick facade of the Marienkirche, which is about 900 years old. This was closed. We walked around it, and then went over to the Rotes Rathaus, the city hall. While I was trying to take the photo that you see above, the wind really picked up, and I had to brace myself against a lampost to take photos.

We walked around it and saw the double tower of the Nikolaikirche. It looked interesting enough that we crossed the road to take a closer look. There’s some confusion about whether it is older than Marienkirche, but the area around it is made of restored medieval buildings. Most shops were closed, and we did not have the time to duck in to a pub for a beer. We had to get back to the television tower. So we walked back, meaning to come back to this area one day during our visit to Berlin. We never managed to do it. Yet another reason to go back.


The vast Alexanderplatz has changed a little since I first visited it more than twenty years ago, but the change is superficial. Then, I’d started walking towards the TV tower (see the last photo below) from the Museuminsel, and reached a windblown square surrounded by grey concrete. My imagination was rife with Doblin’s book named after this square, and in comparison to that, the place looked colourless. I descended to the U-bahn station and left.

The gray concrete structures are now dressed in neon, and surrounded by young people doing exactly what they always do in Germany. On reunification, the property around Alexanderplatz remained in the hands of the East German company Treuhand. Kaufhof bought up GDR’s retail company Centrum-Warenhaus, and part of the deal was its property in Alexanderplatz. This is the building you see in the photo above. Redesigned by Paul Kleihues, it dominates the north-western corner of the plaza. We walked past the spray from the communist-era fountain to get to it, feeling too cold to take a photo. Diagonally opposite is a multistoried Saturn shop. I had forgotten my gorilla pod, and had marked this down as the place to buy one.

We walked past the clock showing time around the world to look at the buildings across the road. There was the Alexa, a large modern departmental store (featured photo). A little further down was the ministry of education (photo below), with its restored Walter Womacka mural from the time this area was still part of East Berlin. Next to this tower is the shallow dome of the Berlin conference center. Both were made by Hermann Henselmann. We turned back into the windy square. The storm was on us. A light rain had begun to fall. It was time to move on.

Alexanderplatz was built in the 19th century. By 1882 the S-bahn station had come into existence. You can see this as the horizontal tubular structure in the photo below. The U-bahn was built in 1913. The square has been reconceived thrice. Once in 1928, an architectural competition was held to build a new square for a metropolis. The de-facto winner was the influential architect Peter Behrens. Only two of his buildings were finished before the global crisis of the 1930s brought the development to a halt. Photos taken immediately after the was show that the two, Berolinahaus and Alexanderhaus (the buildings on the left edge of the featured photo), were heavily damaged during the war. They were reconstructed later.

Photos from that period also show that the S-bahn station was badly damaged. It seems that during the Battle of Berlin, a Soviet T-34 tank drove into the underground tunnel since it did not recognize the entrance to the train line in time. This may have given rise to rumours of Soviet tanks trying to outflank German defenders by driving through tunnels. The war damage was not repaired for a while. Then, in 1964, the DDR made everything over again, in the shape that you see it in now. In 1993 there was yet another architectural competition, and the winning design would replace everything here by ten high rises. These have not got off the ground yet.

For architectural sarcasm you could do worse than read this or this. A little search led me to an interesting article on the maze of unfinished construction below Alex.

Undivided city

On a cold and rainy day The Family and I made a pilgrimage to an unprepossessing bridge in Berlin where I’d wanted to be 27 years and 51 weeks ago. On the night of 9th November 1989, I sat in Aachen and watched people pouring through an open gate in the Berlin Wall and across this bridge in Bornholmer Strasse. We had a meeting the next day, but I spent the night on the street discussing with friends and strangers whether we should just leave and go to Berlin. The Family recalls watching TV in the US, with channels looping visuals of frenzied crowds breaking through the Wall. It took us so many years to finally get to this spot.

Jannowitzbruecke: a former ghost station

Berlin was a dream; one of the few dreams which come true. When I first came to Germany, Berlin was a divided city. Then, the urban transport network of West Berlin passed through ghost stations which were locked up and did not work. If you took the underground from Moritzplatz in the Kreutzberg area to Gesundbrunnen station, you would pass through six stations where you could not get down. Now every one of these works. Anyone can walk off the road into the following stations and catch a train: Heinrich Heine Allee, Jannowitzbruecke (as you can see in the photo above), Alexanderplatz, Weinmeisterstrasse, Rosenthaler Platz and Bernauer Strasse. So, I did.

What a lovely feeling to walk through this undivided city which, in one generation, seems to have forgotten its dark past. Walking in Berlin today, one has the feeling that all problems can be solved and all walls broken.