Convento de Cristo


Yesterday I got up early (I just can’t help it, I am a morning person despite being in a night culture) and took an early morning walk through the empty streets of Lisboa, over to a breakfast place that was recommended on some internet site but turned out to be truly horrible. Still, it was a lovely walk into town and back. On my way around, I saw a little memorial marking a horrible massacre of Jews in 1506, and it got me wondering if there were any really old synagogues around to see. But after reading up on the history, you realize they were pretty well wiped out here, much as it was in Spain.

I got back to my apartment and started thinking about what to do with my day, when I came across a mention of the Convento de Cristo. It seemed kinda far away, but when I Google mapped the route there, it showed that if I left in a few minutes, there was a train leaving from a nearby station that I could catch, so on a whim I bolted out the door and to the train station. Catching the train was a breeze, and it was a direct (if longish at two hours) train ride there. While I was on the train I thought perhaps it was a bit silly of me to be spending more time traveling (at over four hours counting both ways) than I would actually be at my destination (about 3 hours), and wondered if I hadn’t been a bit rash.

Perish the thought. The convent was amazing, so fascinating and beautiful to walk around in. And there were hardly any people there, I felt I had the place to myself. The layers of architecture and history here are not to be missed, I absolutely loved it. Mere words can’t express how great this place is, check out the pics below. And don’t miss the town of Tomar down the hill from the place. I still had some time to kill before my train back to Lisbon, so I took a walk through the town, which is historic and beautiful in its own right. And right near the end of my trip, I stumbled by chance on something that neatly tied together my early day walk and questions about the Jewish presence here in Lisbon. There is an old synagogue building in Tomar. It is nothing much to look at architecturally, but has a fascinating history and the two women inside were very helpful and so happy to have someone to show it to. One of them, a quite old woman, told me that her family were marranos, crypto jews that had kept themselves hidden for centuries in the region of Belmonte.

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Stopover in Singapore


For various reasons (including a chance to travel on Singapore Airlines suites class tomorrow), I decided to make a quick stopover in Singapore on my way to Mumbai tomorrow. My lovely friend Fauzi from KL came down with his partner Najeeb to come meet me and hang out, and we had an amazing time yesterday wandering the hot and very humid contours of Singapore. In particular, we made our way to a very impressive newly developed part of Singapore that includes walkways, bridges, housing, shopping (of course), casino, and public park. The park in particular (called Gardens by the Bay) was quite spectacular. Inside are a variety of spaces and gardens representing different cultures, and an incredible greenhouse called the Flower Dome that must have cost an insane amount of money. They brought together mature trees and plants from all over the world, and somehow manage to keep them all alive in a giant air-conditioned space.

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Melbourne is a trapezoid


And a rhombus, and other angular shapes that have no names. As I have been walking around Melbourne, I have been struck by how much angular (modern) architecture there is. There is definitely a trend here, or a fairly recent history of building that has defined a set of aesthetics that others have taken up with gusto to continue that formal conversation. And that conversation is all about odd angles, things that look as if they are falling over but aren’t, strong dashes of deconstructivism, and plain old high modern. I am not sure exactly when this trend began, but you can see evidence of it all over the place that continues today in projects still under construction. Of course, Melbourne is not only those things,  you can also find evidence of a lot of well preserved historic buildings in the CBD. And a lot of crap building of many eras just like you can find all over the world. But this obsession with non-right angles has been really striking to me, much more than any other place I have been. What does it say (if anything) about the character of Melbourne, how the city sees itself or wants to be seen? Is it telling the world Melbourne is a non-conformist? Is it saying that they see themselves as cutting edge, or avant guard, or just a bit quirky? Is it just a fad, the architectural equivalent of Uggs?

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Novi Sad


Today we took a side trip to the absolutely charming and lovely town of Novi Sad. If you are ever in Serbia, I highly recommend it. The town itself has a beautiful scale and architecture, and the fort across the river in Petrovardin is also very nice. It was particularly interesting to compare this city to Belgrade, which because of having been more a target of destruction in wartime, has many newer buildings (especially from the communist era) that are not especially beautiful or sensitive. Novi Sad has a lot more charm, and is of course much smaller than Belgrade, which makes it easier to maintain. We spent the afternoon wandering the streets, eating, drinking, and being silly. And the weather, while not especially warm, was miles better than yesterday, with beautiful light and no rain.

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Hamilton Heights


It was an absolutely beautiful day today, at least temperature-wise. It got up to 65 and we were walking around in our t-shirts. Despite it being overcast, it felt amazing, as if spring is finally coming. I took the opportunity to walk around the new hood a little with one of my new roommates, Stephan (yes, that is his name). The neighborhood has lots of stunning architecture, some of it in good shape, some of it crumbling.

Koricancha / Santo Domingo


Koricancha is one of the most fascinating sites in Cusco. It is the location of the most important temple in the Inca empire and was for many years buried under the Church of Santo Domingo (built by the Spanish ‘natch) until an earthquake in 1950 uncovered a bunch of it and leveled a lot of the church. “Buried” perhaps isn’t the best word to describe how the church was built over it, as several of the rooms were subsumed by the church complex, the original stone structures still in place and the forms of the rooms as well. This was the first site that really impressed on me the wonder of Inca architecture. The incredible fitting and complexity of the stonework is beyond anything I have seen of its kind anywhere. It was all done without mortar and in this seismically active region holds up incredibly well, especially when compared with colonial building.The fittings are so tight that many of the seams are almost invisible.

Another great reason to visit the Church / Convent of Santo Domingo is for the excellent collection of paintings (many from the Cusco school) that detail the history of the church in this part of the world. The explanations under the paintings are the best I have ever encountered and explain in great detail the meanings and influences of the paintings.


Luis Barragán was that way


That’s right, it is time for another of my thrilling exposés, digging deep into the private lives of (semi)famous dead people, based on nothing other than my own sense of gaydar.

I just came back from a visit to Casa Luis Barragán, which was his home and now serves as a museum of sorts. I say of sorts, because you can only visit by appointment and tour, and they will only show you portions of the house. The quality of what we did see was phenomenal and the tour was conducted in a pedagogical manner, taking care to point out the motifs and themes present in the work in a clear way. You can go on either an English or Spanish language tour, although you will need to reserve a place several days in advance. It was a little upsetting that photos of the interior are completely forbidden. We were only allowed to take a few snapshots on the roof and in one of the interior courtyards. I was however blown away by the architecture and design, and even more fascinated by how much the house tells you about his private life. It seems pretty obvious to me after the visit that Luis Barragan was gay, closeted, conflicted as hell about it, and more than a little paranoid.

One of the first things one notices about the house is the intensely private nature of everything. This was a house that turned its back completely to the street, only opening up to its internal garden. All street-facing windows are either translucent, obscured or very small. Even the large roof terrace, which would have afforded a lovely view of the park and surroundings, was circumscribed by high walls to maintain privacy. The rather extreme lengths that Barragán went to in his own house to maintain this privacy is a bit suspect.

There is high tension in the house contrasting the simplicity and monastic quality of the architecture with the splashes of color and sometimes erotic and exotic objets d’art that permeate (penetrate?) the house.

The house itself (and other works) take some inspiration from colonial architecture, especially the architecture of churches and convents. There is a simple, monastic quality throughout the house and an attempt to recreate the massive feel of these older buildings with details that present a thicker, heavier and more permanent-seeming environment. Also taking inspiration from religious settings and Barragán’s own sense of belief, one finds the motif of the cross represented in almost every area of the house, along with many artifacts that are religious in nature (such as carvings of Jesus on the cross, paintings of The Passion, etc).

In addition, it was interesting to note that Luis probably had a bit of the prude in him, as the only guest room in the house contained a single bed in a room resembling a monastic cell. Either he didn’t approve of couples sharing a bed under his roof, or this wasn’t the only spare bedroom in the house. When I noticed that there was also a single bed in Barragán’s own room, I asked our guide about it, and whether Barragán had ever had a wife. His response was that no, Barragán did not have a wife, and that there in fact used to be a larger bed in his own room, but in the last years of his life he was stricken with Parkinson’s, and it was easier for his attendants to move him from the single bed.

There were a number of places in the house that were off limits. When we asked about them, we were told that they were “in use”. When pressed, our tour guide explained that parts of the house were still lived in, by a man in his late 50s who was “a friend and collaborator” of Barragan. Apparently the house was left to him when Barragán died in 1988. Interesting, no?

At one point in the tour we were in one of Barragán’s various private offices, and on the wall was a picture of the architect as a young man. He was a bit of a dandy, I could tell that much from the photo.

Since coming back from the house, I have combed the internet for biographies of Barragán and not a single one mentions anything about his personal life. The closest we get is that he was friendly with various artists and collaborators. His biographies are as obscure and protected as his house. From the various clues, what I can piece together is that this man was very guarded about his private life, and was probably not a little conflicted and tortured by the tension between his deeply held religious convictions, his homosexual desire, and his public or professional persona.

I wonder, if he had been born many years later and had been able to live an open life, what influence that would have had, if any, on his work. It is clear that, personal issues aside, his art was very much a product of his particular worldview and his particular place in the history of modernism. He has had an amazing impact on a great number of architects. The formal language he left behind is of incredible value, and the spaces he created impart a simple, meditative peace to those that experience them. It was most likely his personal search for this meditative peace, for a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his life, that led him to create in the way that he did.

Monte Albán


Although not as impressive as Teotihuacan (to which it had cultural ties), Monte Albán is amazingly rich in history, and begs all kinds of questions when one visits the place. What did the original site and structures look like?  What were the daily lives of these people like?  What caused the rise and decline?  How are they related to other peoples in the area?

And then again, there are many moments when one is left without questions, just speechless and admiring and in awe of the place and its scope and layout.  It is especially interesting coming from the US, where the indigenous built record seems so sparse compared to Mexico.  What caused such a complex rise of civilizations and architecture in this part of the Americas, but not as much further north?

Do you know the way to Santa Fe?


Rocco and I took a trip out to a crazy suburb of Mexico City called Santa Fe.  According to Rocco, it is where the wealthiest of people in this part of Mexico call home.  Many cities of the world have built places like these.  Huge conglomerations of massive buildings that are self contained communities.  Ultimately I find these places to be the antithesis of city and community, and don’t much care for them.  But the architecture is often fascinating, both the good and the bad. Because each building is essentially its own neighborhood and is free standing, they lack a strong conception of context.  Mostly they are self referential, or refer to an international set of architectural motifs.  They are sculptures that may be beautiful or ugly, but not too many of them seem to value the human interaction and community that happens in a neighborhood as there is no real “street” life.  For children in particular I feel bad since they have no means of transport (a car for example), and nowhere to go without it.  There is no fabric that binds each of these self contained worlds to each other or the outside world.