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.
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.”
Often a writer will be known for years to a small readership before she writes that one novel which makes her known to the rest of the world. While walking uptown in New York, I came across the moral equivalent of such a history, set in brick and mortar. I wasn’t quite thinking of the route when I looked ahead at a crossing and saw before me the southwestern end of Carnegie Hall (see the featured photo). In 1961 Bob Dylan broke out of an already charmed circle of listeners in a concert at this place. It is not everyday that you walk past a place where a Nobel Prize winner was born to the world’s consciousness.
I came back to look at it again. When the million dollar hall was inaugurated in 1890 it was considered to be almost in the suburbs. When Tchaikovsky conducted his own composition on the opening night, structural steel had not yet been invented. The building was made of brick. It looks heavy and squat in spite of the Renaissance design of the facade. I wanted to take a photo of the stylish and simple foyer which was part of the overall design by Willian Tuthill, but the doors seemed to be locked. I don’t mind having to go back there. The next time I’ll make sure to select an interesting concert to go for.
A little cobbled lane leads off from Hanover Square in downtown New York. No vehicle can pass through it, because the bars and restaurants lining the road have placed benches across it. It is a cheerful place. You wouldn’t look at it a second time, unless you wanted to sit down and relax.
It is hard to figure that it was once called High Street. In 1658 it was the pride of New Amsterdam because it was the first paved road on the continent. A few years before that the continent’s first brewery was founded in a building on the road. I don’t think any of the buildings survive. The exit of the Dutch and then of the English gave rise to much rebuilding. After that, the fire of 1835 wiped out a large part of lower Manhattan.
The look of the street is recent. It is possible, but unlikely, that the cobble stones are historic. After all, the road was redone in 1996. I walked through and peered at
When I decided to walk from the 34th Street Station to the Madison Square Park I had not yet realized how low the charge on my camera was. I hurried down 31st street towards Broadway. This is not a part of New York with a lot of art work on the streets, so I had no intentions of stopping. But I was brought to a halt by a marvellous mosaic on a church. You can see this in the featured photo.
From the brown robes of the saint, I guessed this must be Francis of Assisi, and the church probably belonged to Franciscans. That turned out to be right, this is called the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. I thought that the Gothic Revival style would make this a contemporary of the Fort district of Mumbai, probably the end of the 19th century. It would have been far outside the boundaries of Manhattan when it was built. This guess was correct; Wikipedia tells a story of a religious dispute that preceded it. Should I cross the street and go in? The time and the charge on my camera forced me on.
This was a wrong decision. I missed one of the major pieces of art in New York. Inside this church is one of the largest mosaics in the US, a work by Austrian artist Rudolph Margreiter showing Mary standing on a globe of the earth. It was installed in 1928, two years before the mosaic outside which I’d paused to admire. Cities are large, you can’t hope to see it all in one day’s walk.
When you go downtown to the Battery park in New York, you are reminded quite strongly that the history of the US is a history of immigration. At the entrance to the park is a memorial to the purchase of Manhattan from the local tribes by the Dutch. As far as we know, the ancestors of the tribes arrived in the land now called the Americas during a previous ice age, and spread over the continents in the same time that humans took to spread over the old world.
As you pass that monument you see a large expanse of grass and a circular structure behind it (see the featured photo). I think that beautifully green patch of grass was where Fort Amsterdam, and later Fort George, stood since 1626. The departure of the last British soldiers, and their freed slaves, is commemorated in the small plaque above the statue of the charging bull in Bowling Green. If you look carefully along the top edge of the photo here, you will see a plaque which reads Evacuation Day. After Britain lost the Americas to the new settlers, the fort, and the battery which gave its name to the park, was demolished.
The circular building, Clinton Castle, was erected in 1811. The army moved out of it in a few years, and leased it to the city. Jenny Lind, another immigrant, gave her first concert in this expanse of green in 1850. From 1855 to 1892, Castle Clinton was the place where immigrants landed and were processed. I did not enter the castle. I was distracted by a monumental sculptural group near it called The Immigrants (photo below). The sculpture by Luis Sanguino commemorates this period of history.
After this, the Ellis Island facility was started. From the pier here you can see the statue by Bertholdi, possibly the most famous statue in today’s world, which looms over the entrance to the harbour. The connection of the Statue of Liberty and immigration is so strong that it serves all over the world as the symbol of the freedom of human movement. I took a long shot of this statue, and then turned to leave through the East Coast Memorial.
This is a memorial to the US soldiers who died in the West Atlantic during the second world war. I walked up the central aisle of the memorial, with four tall granite slabs on each side with the names of soldiers engraved on them, past the bronze statue of an eagle, and turned to take a last shot of the harbour through which waves of immigrants once arrived.
In Aachen, near the Dutch-German border, I switched on the TV and saw the day-long destruction of the wall that hemmed in West Berlin. Twenty seven years later I walked into the lobby of 520 Madison Avenue and saw a piece of the wall. Five reinforced concrete slabs, out of about 100000. The side that you can see is the one which faced Mariannenplatz in West Berlin.
The cheerful paintings are due to two street artists, Thierry Noir and Christophe Bouchet, who decided to do something which was not only illegal but dangerous. The wall stood inside the territory of East Germany, so anyone painting the wall was technically crossing the border. When asked about this, Thierry Noir said to Huck “…the soldiers were allowed to jump over and arrest me if they wanted to. But I was young and quick at that time so they had no chance against me.”
The two were joined by other artists. Eventually, by the late 1980s, a kilometer long stretch of the wall had been painted. Now Noir sometimes joins other artists to paint other pieces of the wall. He was asked once about his feelings when the wall came down in that June many years ago. His reply was “I was not crying because my world was pulled down, it would be arrogant to say that. It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”
I was the only person in the lobby on that Saturday morning. The guard looked bored, from which I gathered that some still come in to look at this piece of history. I wonder whether twenty five years has been long enough for us to forget that people overcome walls.
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.
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.