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Because architecture is art: Musee d’Orsay, at last!

A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy. 


The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged. 

The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary! 

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Paris: Where grey is beautiful

Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!

Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.

We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris je t’aime!

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The perfectly grey sets off the pyramid very nicely. Located outside the Louvre, it is one of the most understated architectural icon in the world

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Inside the lobby of The Louvre Museum

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Looking out

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Looking in

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Art for everyone

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Crossing the Seine in line with La Institut

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We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.

Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!

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In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!

We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!

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Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.

Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.

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Through the door….

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To the narrow court inside

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We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!

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Another serene space in busy Paris

Another serene space in busy Paris

 

Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum

I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012! 

This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place. 

Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work. 

Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings. 

Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred! 

Iglesias de Cuenca: Todos Santos, the first church in Cuenca (3/3)

I must confess that I’ve been saving the best one of the three churches we saw for the last. I don’t know whether it because we were lightheaded from getting off a flight and heading directly to see the sights, or whether it was the novelty of being in a new city but it seemed to me that this little church threw open for us its heart and soul in a way that few places in the world have done before. We walked in and bought tickets, expecting a standard walk around the church, but what we got was an involved leisurely tour that allowed us to caress each piece of wood we fancied and linger at each pillar we liked.

It was here that we, once again, had the standard Ecuadorian conversation……

“De donde eres? Where are you from?”

“India!”

“Eso es tan lejos! That’s so far away!…….Bienvendio a mi paid…. Welcome to my country….”

….but with the extra warmth and pride that Cuencans seem to have.

In Todos Santos, the oldest church in the city, those words came from the lips of a nun of the Oblate Order, which was set up in the late 19th century here and have played a key role in adding to the church structure as well as setting up community infrastructure, chiefly a school in the premises that was the first to permit Indian women to attend (and is still in existence today). Many of the Oblate nuns lived under an oath of silence inside the convent here and continue to be highly regarded in Cuenca. With this conversation began the most detailed tour of a heritage site that I’ve ever had.

In the late 1530s when it was constructed, the Iglesias Todos Santos or the All Saints Church was instrumental in helping the Spanish conquistadors establish the Catholic faith in a terrain steeped in Inca practices intermingled with the pre-Inca Canari culture (many pre-spanish graves were found during restoration). In fact, it is rumored to have been built on a site called Ushno, which was sacred to indigenous people and used for religious rituals by them.Even after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca in 1557 and began to hold their religious services in El Sagrario (read here), Todos Santos continued to be the primary church for the ‘evangelising’ of native people.

Architecturally, like in other monuments we saw of the period, Todos Santos was a curious mix of native technology and art with Spanish aesthetic sensibilities. Originally, the church was built on wooden frames and filled with adobe walls, built with a special mud-brick called bahareque, which the Canaris made with a mix of sugarcane, straw and clay.

Phoenix-like, this beautiful building underwent significant restoration between 2010-12 after being nearly destroyed in two fires in 2005 and 2007. The restoration uncovered the exquisite murals that had been unfortunately painted over in 1960. What we saw, therefore, was a church proud of its second lease of life. Locally made terracotta tiles, the detailed paintings over the stucco walls, the use of bright colors like cobalt blue, gold, red and yellow, the bright blue and gold ceiling tiles all clearly spoke of the influence of local art on this church, perhaps inevitable in those early years.

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Restored painting hanging in its original location

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Restored church organ, still played in tune. We know because Kim pulled it out and played it!

As we climbed higher and higher into the bell tower and beyond, we could see the surviving original wooden beams replaced and reinforced by new ones labeled 2009 and 2010. Standing high above the terracotta roofs of the city, with stunning vistas all around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine the awe a religious structure as well-proportioned and intricately decorated as Todos Santos might have evoked in the Canari and Inca people back in the 16th century. After all, even we had our jaws dropping to the floor and our eyes agog!

On a lighter note, I discovered while scouring the Internet later that we weren’t the only ones who had got the full detailed tour of Todos Santos! Many others had given it rave reviews citing the care with which they had been shown around. Far from feeling bad about it, I’ve been feeling delighted that the little church is in such very dedicated hands!

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Iglesias de Cuenca : Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (1/3)

We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.

I’ll begin with the largest of all, the  Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.

Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.

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The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.

The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!

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View of Park Calderon from atop the Cathedral

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Cuenca, Ecuador: Night walk

Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later. 

After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing. 

Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..

Stunned by Quito’s old town: Some night clicks

After winding up our event at the Habitat3 conference here in Quito, Ecuador, we tested ourselves to an outing to the old city for dinner. Of course we had read up about the historic centre of the Quito but nothing could prepare us for the sheer unassuming beauty of it. Chok-a-block with people on a Monday night, families and young people out in full swing, the city showed us its lively, warm side tonight. 

We ate at a ‘cafeteria’, an endearing and affordable place full of chattering people where service was prompt and the elevated revolving chairs and continuous platform tip made for a unique experience. And then we stepped out into the stunning streets to see beautifully lit churches, plazas overflowing with life and the happy sounds of little children, a lovely sound and light show playing on the facade of the old theatre building, endless street grids with the lights of the sloping hills twinkling through in the distance. Mesmerised, all we want to do is go back to see historic Quito in daylight. 

Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua

When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.

Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.

Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.

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Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.

Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.

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In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!

We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!

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1740 map of Batavia (Source: Wikipedia commons)

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Last weekend in Kochi, a memorable slice of time

To me, travel is therapeutic at many levels. Whether I travel for work or leisure, or even to meet family obligations, I revel in the sensory overload that travel brings. Earlier this month, I was in Kochi to serve as external jury member for 3rd year architectural students at a relatively new private college. While that was an interesting experience in itself, the highlight of the trip was spending time with one of my closest friends and her family.

College buddies, especially if you’ve shared hostel rooms, clothes, intimate secrets and much more, have an understanding of each other that is rare and precious. Both of us found we had saved conversations up in our heads for years and years for the time we would meet and have a chance to have a leisurely conversation. So that was super fun. Just as much fun was interacting with her kids; who felt familiar after only two days of time together.

The ease of being with people who feel like family seeped into the one day we had free. We visited the touristy part of town, Fort Kochi, but we hardly had tourism on our minds. Instead, we wandered through artist Paris Mohan Kumar’s art exhibition at the iconic David Hall, a restored art gallery and cafe that was once a Dutch bungalow. The paintings, which were largely monochrome revolved around the themes of nature and human relationships with an emphasis on the female form, were fascinating in their ability to be complex and simple at the same time.

We then hung out in the cafe part of the building for a while, cooling down drinking mint iced tea and gazing onto the patch of Kerala green and the pristine white stone wall, solid like they built them in the 16th century. Talking, laughing, thinking. And having some unexpected deep conversations.

Soon enough, phone calls came in, errands were run and appointments were rushed towards. The afternoon went by in a tizzy of sushi tasting, professional commitments, shopping and driving around a city temporarily scarred by the construction of the Metro line.

A week later, I’m still carrying that slice of time at David Hall with me. Memories are not necessarily made of a famous piece of architecture, high culture or amusement parks. Nor of expensive meals, cruises and moonlit walks. They are equally made of ordinariness, of words exchanged with an 11-year old child wise far beyond her years, of time spent with someone who understands you better than yourself. Of laughing over spilt cold coffee and of counting ants climbing up a tree. And in the day of smart phone, of taking a goofy selfie.

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Let’s improve museums, but also create shared spaces to experience culture, explore identity

I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.

Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.

Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.

A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.

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Refurbishing and adapting iconic architecture to new uses is imperative. Demolishing important markers of history is tantamount to erasing a section of our collective historical identity. Raj Rewal designed the Hall of Nations in 1972

To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.

 

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On the 1st day of May this year, this past weekend, The Max Foundation hosted its fundraising and awareness event ‘Chai for Cancer’ at Lodi Gardens, leveraging the sheer beauty and evocative power of the heritage site for a great cause! Viji Venkatesh, Country Head, The Max Foundation claims patients feel positive vibes here.

There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!

 

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