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Tag: architecture

Carved Architecture

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Toronto never ceases to amaze. You’d be forgiven if the last place on earth you’d think to find this entirely hand carved Hindu temple was on the side of a highway in the 6. But there it is; shining like a polished gem on a cloudless March afternoon.

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BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a marvel to behold. Made up of over 24 000 individual stone pieces with the heaviest weighing in at 5.6 tonnes. The temple was hand carved by 1800 artisans in 26 separate locations in India over a two year period. Starting in 2005 the pieces were shipped to Canada and then became the craziest jigsaw puzzle you’d ever want to attempt. 400 volunteers over 18 months rose to the challenge and in little over 2 years from conception to completion BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir came into being  .

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The thing that immediately strikes you is the Herculean feat of it all. The level of intricacy and attention to detail is intimidating. The fact that not a single nail was used in its construction only adds to its mystique.

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They don’t allow photography inside the temple but you can see some images here. The experience is a little overwhelming to say the least. It is open to the public, but remember it is a working temple so no shoes, no cels, no talking. Don’t worry on that last point; it’ll leave you speechless.

The Wright Stuff

The Robie House FLW 1909

The Robie House FLW 1909

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright were ever out of fashion. But this was indeed the case; during his lifetime people heralded him as revolutionary and then later dismissed him as stuck in his ways. Changing times, trends and fashions can render even the most avant garde: yesterday’s news, but the thing is; with the truly avant garde (which Mr. Wright in-dubiously was) there is always something left in the tank. After what people perceived was his zenith he went on to create arguably one of the greatest houses on the planet and an iconic structure that completely turned the idea of a museum around. Now in the 21st century his name is synonymous with architect. He was by no means perfect, (everyone sites his love for flat roofs and all the problems they cause) but when he got it Wright he got it right.

Falling Water FLW 1935

Falling Water FLW 1935

Of the 36 Vermeers in the world I’ve stood in front of 20 of them. The remaining 16 are on my to-do list. An accomplish-able task with the exception of the one not on view located at Buckingham Palace, unless the Queen invites me to the next pot-luck she’s throwing ( I make a mean spicy mashed potatoes) that one may elude me. Anyways I digress, another thing that was on my to-do list was to visit Falling Water and we did that this summer. Over the past several years my wife and I have been travelling either by road-trip or plane to visit some of the world’s greatest works of art. We’re essentially art tourists and this passionate pursuit is for life. Along our travels we’ve seen just a drop in the bucket of the buildings built by Frank Lloyd Wright. To give you an idea of how big a to-do list this would be; I recently acquired a book on just his houses and it weighs 8 pounds! I think I’ll stick to Vermeers, but there’s still a lot more I want to experience.

Chicago Studio FLW 1889

Oak Park Studio and House FLW 1889

To truly appreciate the mastery of Mr. Wright you do need to experience his buildings first hand. A great introduction would be Oak Park in Chicago. There is a wonderful self guided  audio tour of the neighbourhood that has several houses he designed as well as access to the family home and studio where he began his career. Chicago is also home of The Robie House which is an excellent example of his famous Prairie Style. Another must see is The Guggenheim in New York

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Arthur Heurtley House Oak Park FLW 1902

Solomon Guggenheim Museum FLW 1959

Solomon Guggenheim Museum FLW 1959

The only thing better than visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house is staying in one. This summer when we were planning our trip with our friends to visit Falling Water and looking for places to stay our travelling companion discovered only a half hour away from Falling Water was Polymath ParkPolymath Park was originally the brainchild of Peter Berndtson who was an apprentice to Mr. Wright. In the 1960’s he wanted to build a community of houses in the style of his master. The original plan was for 24 but only 2 were completed. The houses changed hands over the years with people really not knowing what they had, until in 2001 a local architect Thomas Papinchak was taking a stroll through the woods close to his home when he came across them and was struck by their design. He made an offer to the current owners that if they ever wanted to sell he was willing to buy, which he eventually did. Another stroke of luck came in 2002 in the way of an original Frank Lloyd Wright designed prefabricated house was coming up for sale in Lisle Illinois. Papinchak bid on it and won, he then had the house disassembled shipped to Pennsylvania and reassembled in the tranquil setting of Polymath Park. Now after some wonderful restoration these three houses can be rented out at a very reasonable rate. We stayed in the Berndtson designed Balter House.

Balter House Berndtstein 1964

Balter House Berndtson 1964

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Waking up surrounded by trees and then drinking coffee in the sun room with wrap around windows should be on everybody’s to-do list. If Falling Water is on your to-do list may I recommend taking a minute and checking out Polymath Park for a place to stay. As well, if anyone who has any other art touristy recommendations please share them in the comments. We’re always looking for reasons to pack a bag.

Unphotographable: Cordoba

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Ceiling Unlimited

La Sagrada Família

The unfinished majesty of Gaudi’s Cathedral in the heart of Barcelona is a hot bed of controversy. The construction continues long after the original plans were burned in 1938, during pro-Franco protests. Purists are horrified by the guess work while enthusiasts are thrilled with the progress. The exterior suffers from a form of multiple personality disorder while the interior feels unworldly. Light fills the space and the ceiling resembles a mad burst of crystal like  stars unfolding  ad infinitum onto themselves. Your neck will crane and your eyes will pop.

Libyan Sybil    The Sistine Chapel

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is unparalleled in the history of art. The frescoes executed by a man who was mostly known for his sculpture, enrapture all that step foot into their presence. Michelangelo’s genius can not be understated. He designed his own scaffold, painted above his head the whole time, compensated for the the distorted perspective of painting on a vaulted surface as seen from 80 feet away and in the process changed the history of painting. For all his genius; the female figure kind of eluded him.

Great Mosque of Cordoba

A building so beautiful; it is impossible to capture in a photograph. Within its endless red and white striped pillars lies a church: a cathedral wrapped within a Mosque. A definite must see.

Pantheon

The dome of this ancient Roman temple opens itself up to the sky. A single massive spotlight pours into the Pantheon, along with the rain when the weather turns. Raphael: the boy wonder of the Renaissance’s final resting place.

The Scrovegni Chapel

The ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel could be considered Giotto‘s version of The Starry Night only painted nearly 600 years previously. The visits are timed so there isn’t a chance to linger but the impression it makes will last a lifetime.

The Devil in the White City: Book Review

We as human beings can get up to some pretty incredible things. Some can be inspiring and awe inducing where others can plum the depths of  depravity and atrocity. We are truly peculiar creatures. Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City explores both sides of human nature through the actual events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

At the end  of the nineteenth century Chicago was beginning to make waves on the American landscape . In 1885 it was the home of the very first skyscraper ( has enjoyed a rich architectural history ever since). Chicago would later make it’s debut on the world stage when it won the bid to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400 year anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Paris had wowed the world four years previous with its exposition of 1889 that became the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. The organizers of the fair new they had a lot to live up to.

Larson does a wonderful job of describing the highs and lows of undertaking a project of this magnitude. The fair was to become a mini city designed by the prominent architects of the day. The shear size, amount and complexity of the buildings that were proposed seemed to be an utterly daunting task, add the fact;  they had only eighteen months to complete it and you would guess that it couldn’t be done.  The White City (named for the uniform colour all the buildings were painted) was built in Jackson Park on the shore of Lake Michigan. The land was water-logged and inhospitable to the designs of the fair.  Daniel Hudson Burnhamn was the chief architect and the man in charge of overseeing the project. (After the fair Burnhamn would go on to build one of New York’s most iconic structures The Flatiron building in 1902). Burnhamm hired his friend Frederick Law Olmsted ( the landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York) to design the grounds for the fair.

When the fair was completed, it was a marvel to behold. Along with the stunning buildings, it offered a midway full of exotic spectacles from every corner of the world. The organizers knew they needed a showpiece that would be able to compete with mister Eiffel’s tower. A young man from Pittsburgh named Ferris stepped up to the challenge and changed the world with his invention . The fair was a place of ‘firsts’ . It was one of the first places to use outdoor electrical light on a large scale. Shredded Wheat and Juicy Fruit made their debuts here. It was also in Chicago where America was going to get another first, but this time of a more sinister nature.

Enter the Devil into our little tale. Some people consider Dr. H. H. Holmes to be America’s first serial killer. At the same time Burnhamn was building the fair, H.H. Holmes was doing a little constructing of his own. Hearing of  Chicago’s winning bid to host the fair and the large crowds anticipated to attend; Holmes decided to go into the Hotel business. The one thing that differentiated his accommodations from other hotels in the vicinity wasn’t exactly the hospitality of the staff but rather the inclusion of some rather macabre additions. The Holmes Castle (as it was known) was said to include soundproof rooms, secret passage ways and a huge blast furnace in the basement that could reduce anything to ash.

Holmes preyed on vulnerable women who found themselves in the big city for the very first time. Larson describes a man who’s charms had no bounds as well as his darker compulsions. History and legend have been blurred over the years and the deaths attributed to Holmes range anywhere from 12 to 200. In a signed confession after he was finally caught; he proclaimed to have killed people who turned out to be very much alive. It seems that every word he uttered in his life was wrapped in lies.

The Devil in the White City does a good job of exploring both central stories. The chapters alternate between the fair and Holmes. The events that took place at the end of the nineteenth century are both unbelievable and compelling. The book is full of many interesting historical facts highlighting a unique chapter in Chicago’s history. Larson takes some liberties with some of the events describing the life of Holmes but the writing never veers into the realm of sensationalism.

3.5/5

World in my Eyes: Chicago

The last time I was in Chicago they were cleaning Sunday Afternoon on The Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat. It was the only time in The Art Institute of Chicago’s history (after acquiring the work) that it was not on display. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed. I knew I had to come back and see it with my own eyes. I believe you need to be in the presence of an artwork to truly appreciate it. In the age of the reproduction, there is nothing like the real thing and I must say Georges did not disappoint and neither did the rest of Chicago.

The home of the skyscraper is truly a feast for the eyes. It’s public art is second to none in North America, with works by Calder, Miro, Dubuffet, and Picasso among others. One of the greatest pieces of public art to ever been created in my opinion would be Anish Kapoor‘s Cloud Gate.  It appeals to everyone. Children and adults are drawn to it. It reflects its environment while completely asserting its individuality within the environment. The viewer sees themselves in the experience of interacting with art when they stand near it. The residents of Chicago have given it the affectionate nick-name ‘The Bean’ that talks to its pleasing shape. It is the perfect ambassador for public art.

Public art can easily be dwarfed by its surroundings, but Chicago gets it right every time. The buildings in Chicago are pieces of art on to themselves. A wonderful example of this is Jeanne Gang’s Aqua completed in 2010. The closer you get to it the more interesting it becomes. Everywhere you look in Chicago reveals another building marvel. Just outside of the center of town Frank Lloyd Wright made his home in Oak park where he changed his neighborhood and then the history of architecture with his ‘Prairie’ style. The walking tour is a great way to spend the afternoon.

* The idea for the ‘reflection photos’ came about by accident. A few years back while visiting the Eiffel Tower, my wife snapped a picture of me with the glasses on and we discovered that you could see the tower. We try to snap a couple of shots everywhere we go and hopefully it will turn into a fun series over the years. I totally encourage others to get in on the idea. All you need is a pair of mirrored shades, a camera and a little sense of adventure. People tend to stare at you funny when you’re wearing shades in a gallery. Document your travels and world as reflected by your eyes. Please keep me posted, I would love to see the results.

Secret Gem

Just a twenty minute train ride outside of Barcelona is a secret gem of the architecture world; Gaudi’s unfinished church in the small town of Colonia Guell. Commissioned in 1899 by Gaudi’s chief patron Eusebi Guell, the church was to be a thank you for his workers in the small industrial town. Unfortunately funding was cut in 1914 and only the crypt was finished. The crypt is built into the side of a small hill with building materials that match the colour and texture of the surrounding landscape. The design includes a series of of rough-shot pillars, abstract stained glass and catenary arches.

gravity drawing 2012

Gaudi’s designing and working methods were both creative and innovative. He would suspend ropes attached with weights or chains from the ceiling.  The curves created by gravity became the basis of the catenary arches when inverted.  He would then either photograph or place a mirror under the hanging model to see the inverted structure.

The art critic Robert Hughes was the person who first drew my attention to this wonderful place in his documentary about Gaudi. The film is a great precursor but in no way a substitute to actually experiencing these buildings in person.

Barcelona contains many of Gaudi’s most famous works. The humbling scale and imagination of the Sagrada Familia and the sheer delight and whimsy of Park Guell are must sees. A wonderful aspect that separates Colonia Guell  with these places is that you don’t have to deal with the long lines and crazy crowds of Barcelona. When we went, we had the place to ourselves for over an hour and only then, did another five people show up. It felt like we had our own personal Gaudi. When you are there, you are amazed that a place this amazing isn’t crawling with people but then again you’re thanking your lucky stars that it isn’t.