A really long time back I had to make a quick trip to Bordeaux for a meeting. I’d forgotten that my colleague and I traveled to Bordeaux the day before and took a walk through the old part of the city near the river Garonne. I just discovered the very few two-decades old photos that remained in a forgotten folder.
Mysteriously, many of the photos were of an unknown building in the city. I had a vague memory of ducking into a side road between two major sights on a whim and coming across this facade. It now looks like a renaissance facade to me. Could it be from the 15th century? Perhaps even from the time of Charles VII? Not very likely, I think, most of this quarter would have been built in the century after his time, when trade began to boom. The time of Montaigne then?
Forgetting the romantic speculation, my colleague pointed me to the differences between the walls of the two buildings which stood cheek-to-jowl around this little open courtyard. The older was the one we’d been looking at, as the peeling mortar showed. The bicycle presented a nice way to take this photo. Strangely, it wasn’t locked up. Are bikes safe in Bordeaux then? That would make it an unusual European city.
Entering the unfinished palace which Charles V wanted built next to the Alcazar of Alhambra, I had to consciously wipe my mind free of all the beauty I’d seen around it. Only then can you enter the vision of Pedro Machuca, the architect. The design is a simple geometric concept of the kind that the Renaissance ascribed to classical Greece: a circle inscribed into a square. Seen from above the outer walls form a square. Inside it is a circular patio.
The building is two-storied. You can see in the photo above that the columns on the lower floor are Doric and the upper are Ionic. The windows on the facade mirror this: Ionian above, and Tuscan below. Unfortunately I never took a photo of the facade. It was June, and the place was full of people. Every frame looked cluttered. In retrospect, I should have taken a photo even if it wasn’t going to look perfect.
The Renaissance seems to have invented the modern staircase, with its even rise, so easy on the knees. Every bit of the structure drips with an unified sense of elementary geometry: see the photo above. Even the precision of the tiles on the floor gives you a sense of how the rediscovery of Greek geometry and measurements was transforming European design.
No emperor ever lived in the palace. It never even had a roof until the middle of the 20th century. As a result decorations are sparse. The medallion you see in the featured photo adorns the otherwise severe facade. Inside there are empty niches on the wall with scallop-shell designs on them. The incomplete palace is a magnificent idea, never seen again in its contemporaries. It is as startling as it would be if the Barcelona Pavilion built by Mies van der Rohe never influenced his generation.