Street Life, the Santiago Way: II

Between the high-rises, Providencia is dotted with colonial-era aspirational mansions stuccoed orange and pink and yellow and blue

and occasionally, white.

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Only a few of the newer buildings were special, but as Danny has written, the overall design (and construction) quality is of a level most Americans can only yearn for.20171227_160200_DxO

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And the streetscapes and landscapes!

Those Chileños devote more loving attention to the many different ways they can vitalize their public spaces than I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. Yes, it was Christmastime, and the country’s Catholicism was on display in full regalia, with creches everywhere.

But in higher-end neighborhoods, 

and in lesser neighborhoods (including where Pablo Neruda lived with his partner), deliberate design was everywhere. Even the street art was impeccably maintained.

 

After Mabel’s, we moved to a different place in a different part of Providencia, and then to an even tonier neighborhood called El Condes, a bit further out still from city center, closer to the mountains. From our second, 20th-floor perch we enjoyed those canonical Santiago views, mountains plus smog.

We could also see just how green the city is.

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View from Residencia #2. Alcalde (mayor)’s mansion at center.

Our second place was situated near the mayor’s mansion (Providencia, like El Condes, is separately incorporated), a grand old Victorian pile set into a plaza that progressively filled with kids as the day went on. At dusk, the mayor’s mansion glowed in neon purple and lime green,

surrounded by streets twinkling tiny Christmas lights wrapped round the Avenida’s parade of trees.

Chile’s capital is huge: the population of the metropolitan area numbers around 7 million. An aerial view from 2014 of its 250 square miles reveals how, over the centuries, settlers have seeped across the entire valley and up into the foothills. Satellite_image_of_Santiago,_Chile_-_October_24,_2014But every part of the city that we saw – even the poorer, more downtrodden neighborhoods– bore the character of an invitation. Walk here. Look at this sculpture, this fountain.20171225_180945_DxO

Come hither, to this sidewalk, to enjoy the shade of these old, old trees; have a seat in this plaza; listen to the fountain roar. Shop down here, beneath this kite-like awning slung over a pedestrian mall– it’s cooler.DSC05421_DxO

Slow down.

DSC05452_DxO_DxOSlow down. Perhaps an espresso in an outdoor café?DSC05544_DxO

DSC05396_DxO.jpgLike so many Latin cities, Santiago’s urban fabric and streetscapes were designed with strong bones, the scaffolding of a robust, unending public life. DSC05515_DxO.jpgWhat did these streets look like during the Pinochet regime, I wondered? As we explored the city, I couldn’t but imaginatively replace what we were enjoying with scenes from the last part of Isabelle Allende’s House of the Spirits, when terrorized aristocrats hid behind lace curtains while learning of disappeared friends and acquaintances. What did Santiago feel and look like then?

— Sarah

Santiago, three vantage points: I

Because we remained in Santiago longer than we had planned, we ended up staying in three different apartments. So we settled into the city as itinerant Chileños – okay, turistas—and kept a light footprint throughout the duration. For the first couple of weeks, we lived in Providencia, a mostly upper-middle-class neighborhood, largely filled with mid-rise buildings set at a distance from wide, lazy streets, in well-tended lawns edged with tropically lush-looking plants.

The design of these residential blocks was often not at all bad, prompting me to muse on temperate climates’ architectural advantages. Strong light makes a superb design tool. Even perfectly ordinary buildings looked good, with rhythmic patterns of projecting bright lines alternating with rectangles deep in shade, cast from generous balconies.

Tucked into a triangular slip of land, our first Providencia residencia was at its edge, in a compact, low-rise enclave set between three icons of modernity: a highway; DSC05429_DxOa busy two-way street corralling cars onto a different highway, this one headed north toward the airport; and the Gran Torre Santiago, a 64-story tower designed by Cesar Pelli, the tallest building in South America. DSC05437_DxOOh, also: between us and Pelli, the heavily banked, mud-filled, brackishly yellow Mapocho river gushed and rushed, its elevated banks lined with strips of parkland.DSC05436-Edit_DxO

From afar the Gran Torre looked handsome enough, an iconic figure to the pictorial ground of the majestic Andes encircling the city. DSC05477_DxOBut at street level, the Gran Torre crashed into la Costanera, South America’s largest, monstrous, indoor shopping mall. Anyway the Pelli tower proved a convenient landmark, forfending all manner of navigational ruptures, and marking the transition from Providencia’s mid-rise apartment blocks to the beginning of Santiago’s newer business district, to the northeast of the city’s historic center.

Our first Providencia residencia sat in a sleepy, forgotten little neighborhood. DSC05425_DxO

A long, two-and-one-half story brick building packed into a tight site that looked as though, in former life, it might have been the area’s horse stables. 20171216_124942_DxOThe architect-owner (coincidence? Not likely),  Mabel, had meticulously restored the exterior 20171216_124639_DxOand carved the vast interior into three loft-ish apartments which she kept nearly continuously occupied through Airbnb.

 

20171216_123953_DxOA “centrally located, luxury alternative” to Santiago’s expensive hotels.

I don’t know about that luxury bit. (Wouldn’t luxury require a dishwasher? Or at least a bottom floor (read: basement) bedroom that didn’t reek of mold?) Still, Mabel’s place, charming as it was, was a nice-enough landing pad after the very long plane ride from Auckland. 20171216_123547_DxOEven when her design taste veered toward over-the-top-Latina, 20171216_124122_DxOMabel’s gesamtkunstwerk was gratifyingly distinctive in the way that three-to-four-star chain hotel rooms and hotels never, ever are. She had brightened up the dark interior by cutting in a double-height window in the back and lofting the second story bedroom area over the first. Some of the art hung inside was better than decent, too.

Our second-to-last day there, Mabel left me two or three phone messages and texted once, saying she urgently wanted to talk. She’d Googled me, and, discovering that I write about architectural experience, declared us simpático. We spent half an hour looking at her project book (she designs, her husband and son build), which showed many spirited, high-quality renovations of historic properties that most people would declare beyond repair. She exhibited a vivacity, passion, and determination that almost always makes me feel warmly toward people. She detailed what she’d done in each property, pointing at in-process pictures as she spoke — only some of this I understood (my Spanish comprehension quite unequal to her rapid-fire expression) — but still, it was a touching moment, and a nice way to end Santiago, I.

— Sarah

A Hope and a Trust

Hello, faithful and not forgotten followers! Sorry we’ve been on a hiatus from our hiatus. We resume:

I hope Sarah writes about the interesting and successful urban design of the newer sections of Santiago, where we were fortunate enough to stay, and about the startling high architectural quality of the built fabric, to a degree that undermines the distinction between fabric buildings and something more.

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Sarah and I walked the streets, residential and commercial, and conversed a lot about what we saw, and about Santiago’s singularity in its built environment, as judged according to our considerable individual and shared experience. An upshot is that other cities, planners, and architects could profit heftily from studying Santiago, which should take its place at the center of conversations about constructing urban and architectural futures.

I trust that Sarah will write about these aspects of Santiago — though perhaps first for the book that she is writing.

— Danny

The incidental and the consequential

The other day, Gideon went off to meet up with an old friend who is from Santiago, Chile. Sarah and I, having been eating rather monotonously a home, went to lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. After a fifteen-minute walk through attractively bustling streets (we very much like the parts of Santiago we have seen), in the pleasantly dry heat, DSC05422_DxODSC05416_DxO we nabbed the restaurant’s one free sidewalk table. It was a two person, small, square, wood-topped pedestal, separated from its neighbor to the side by just enough inches for us to feel we were at a private table, but not too many inches as not to afford natural-feeling, inter-table conversation. DSC05396_DxOA kind of perfect placement, if conversational options are your eating-taste. Friendly, as we are, we struck up a conversation with our neighbor, which he actually initiated more than we did, which lasted an hour-and-a-half or more of our leisurely lunch of one-course plus coffee. Travelers, it should be a truism, are more likely to converse with strangers than non-travelers are. After all, travelers are underway for adventure and newness and discovery, and their world of available family and friends and colleagues and acquaintances has radically shrunk, so what better way to seek out the new and to fill in the social void than by talking with people seated nearby in cafes, particularly when they turn out also to be travelers and therefore of a similar conversational positioning?

Our neighbor Ash is an aerospace engineer from the UK, working to design the interiors of the sky-high airplane cabins of which we have caught only walk-through-glimpses during our current travels. 20171215_155441We learned a bunch about his business and saw cell phone photos of the recently unveiled super-first-class 70th anniversary cabins on Singapore Airlines, the production of which (if I understood correctly) he oversaw. We told him that the Boeing 787, called Dreamliner, has, with its better air, quieter interior, expanded overhead clearance, and improved lighting, made our travels notably more pleasant. Beyond the what-do-you-do conversations, which were more extensive and substantive than is usual in such casual encounters, our good-natured exchanges included Iran, as Ash is of Iranian descent, the UK, Brexit, world order, high-tech education, Israel, Jerusalem, and, all but unavoidably, Trump. He told us that he can’t go to the US as he’s subject to the US travel ban. This is so even though he’s a UK citizen and even though he’s through-and-through British, as he was born there. Because he holds dual nationality with Iran, he’s Verboten-fruit.

The conversation, which was fully two ways (us<->him) was lively and respectful throughout. Ash is intelligent, open, and curious. We parted with good cheer and an exchange of contact information (and he received this blog’s address).

I recount this not because the episode was remarkable (such as coursing the Serengeti or visiting a township in South Africa) or because we developed with him a dense and potentially ongoing relationship (as we did with Zadock and with Kevin) but because it wasn’t. Much of traveling consists of non-remarkable moments, events, encounters, which may be thoroughly enjoyable (this was) but which doesn’t rise to guide-book worthiness.DSC05428_DxO I could have just as easily written about the woman whose Airbnb we were renting, as she, a Chilean architect, spent considerable time speaking with Sarah about Sarah’s recent book (which she had begun to read, loved, and said it has finally given her a way to conceptualize and articulate what she does in her work), and about her own architecture, showing Sarah images. She exuded warmth and passion while we sat speaking at the dining table of her Airbnb which — true to her architectural ethos of creating what Sarah champions, “enriching environments” — she had renovated.

Ash came off as an entirely likeable, indeed a lovely, person. Our time with him and so many other incidental people help structure, populate, and enliven our travels and our memories of specific places and moments, as we spend all this time away from our family and friends.

— Danny

Promise Thwarted

Chile turned out to be a land of great promise and, through no fault of its own, tantalizingly little delivery. We had, after the careful choosing and planning, which has been our practice everywhere, scheduled a foray into, so we expected, the incomparable Atacama Desert, an area of lunar landscapes on a high plateau, as bone-dry as any desert in the world, and, being in the superior star-viewing Southern Hemisphere, therefore perhaps the premier professional and amateur star-gazing and investigation site the terrestrial earth offers. Several of the largest optical reflecting telescopes are there, as well as the Paranal Observatory’s stunning ESO Hotel for its scientists, the site of the climactic battle scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. In addition to three days in the desert, visiting three distinct landscapes, we had arranged to go on a most-of-the-night stargazing expedition with an astronomer who provides the telescopes and the know-how to make intelligible and meaningful what we see. The journey to the Atacama was Gideon’s first among equal-firsts in desire of all that we had planned for the year – though he now maintains it was always his clear number one. So, imagine his bitter disappointment, and Sarah’s and my (considerable without being bitter) disappointment too, as we also held the Atacama in high prospective regard, when we cancelled the journey owing to an unexpected intrusion.

X-ing out the Atacama came after we had already put the kybosh on our planned ascent to Cusco and Machu Picchu, which was meant to be our first South American stop, after our time in Zealandia and Oceana. Curiously, I had never been overly excited about this portion of our year, despite all the historical and sojourner myth, lore, and celebration enveloping Machu Picchu. I’m not all that enamored with ruins, particularly of the excavated varieties. But then, if I found Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England, beautiful, lyrical, and mesmerizing, which I (and Sarah and Gideon) had on a trip several summers ago, then why would I not expect the same in still more heightened form at a site reputed to be among the best if not the best of this kind that our planet’s distant past offers? Well, many things are worthy of public introspection, but I suspect this is not among them. It’s enough to note that my dampered expectations never got put to the test, and we flew from Melbourne directly to Santiago, a delightful city of eight million and, contrary to our original itinerary of using it as a hub to the spokes sequentially of Cusco, the Atacama, Valparaiso, and after ten days all told in Santiago, Patagonia and then…, we touched down in Santiago and never left, until we bade farewell to South America for good, as far as our current journey was concerned. This also means that we never went on our expected star-studded adventure in Patagonia, another great disappointment for all of us, as we had as good a stretch of a trip awaiting us as any planned, including a four-day journey by ship through the southernmost storied waters to glaciers, penguins, hikes, and peaks, and then the, or at least a, capstone of extended hiking in Torres del Paine National Park.

The upshot is that we spent close to three weeks in Santiago in three Airbnbs. I had had few firm notions about the city and its built fabric before arriving – except that it was culturally rich, a major city, and a major Latin city, which given our program of urban exploration meant that it offered considerable promise. We quickly discovered that Santiago is a gem, and a lucky place to be marooned.

— Danny

Australia express, musings on urbanism 2: Surfaces hard, softer, soft

FROM all the building going on in Sydney and Melbourne, one gets the clear impression as far as real estate development is concerned, good money is being made. Yet unlike what too often happens in the States, private profit appears not to come at the expense of an investment in the shared social spaces that are somewhat loftily (and too inchoately) called a city’s public realm. (For an instructive and dispiriting contrast to what we found in Australia, read this, on the ongoing disintegration of New York City’s subway system.) Here, it seems, it’s not one or the other, but both. Public and private. Everybody wins.

The plenitude and variety of welcoming open spaces in Sydney and Melbourne’s newer (or newish) developments suggest that those in charge of urbanism operate with both a robust commitment and sufficient resources to ensure that cities offer pedestrian amblers-around many opportunities to choose from, on and off the street, to meet a friend or just take a midday pause. Places where strangers graze elbows without stepping on one another’s toes.

Architecturally, some are distinctive, others not. Melbourne’s Federation Square, below (completed ca. 2003), epitomizes the complexity of this relationship between urbanism and architecture — and now, it’s become the focus of this never-ending discussion about balancing private and public space, as Apple proposes demolishing one of its buildings to erect a new retail store (read about that here). DSC05167_DxOComprised of a series of buildings, each a slightly different but equally horrible bastardization of some also-horrible Daniel Liebeskind-ish idea (he was on the jury that chose the principal designers), Federation Square nevertheless contains many deep pockets of agreeable urbanity, woven into the eye-smarting silliness of its architecture.

Tourists, by definition peripatetic, will find the complex difficult to avoid. Each day and time we found ourselves in Federation Square, its low-slung and high-rising steps and sitting areas, its recessed spatial eddies and quarkily-configured common spaces, teemed with riots of people, color, and activity. Amphitheater-like steps offer up seating areas for school kids eating lunch, mothers on outing with toddlers in strollers, all manner of passers-by and lingerers. DSC05164_DxOIn front of the Christmas tree, we spotted a woman swathed in hajib posing with her daughter for a picture. Later, discussing the ways Australia’s changed in the past two decades, a remarkably voluble Uber driver — who once worked as an advocate for occupational health and safety in the mining industry — told us that the country’s welcoming immigration policies has created a far more tolerant, open society than the one in which he was raised.

Compositionally, the Federation Square complex offers up nice moments, here and there. Such as this one, on a staircase tucked off the busy, main thoroughfare, where a maintenance worker on break set her blue knapsack down and started in on checking her cell phone, not even bothering to remove her latex gloves.DSC05166_DxO

Among the urbanistically-preoccupied, the best known urban project in Australia, besides Sydney’s Opera House, remains Jan Gehl Associates’ transformation of Melbourne’s Central Business District from a litter-strewn, post-5pm-and-weekend urban graveyard into a vibrant, crowded, see-and-be-seen, free-for-all (I seem to be on some kind of adjectival run) place of urban congregation. DSC05246_DxOThe most clever thing Gehl did was to link together a series of unprepossessing back alleys and reconfigure their street-level frontage to admit teeny-tiny storefronts, just the right size to create arrays of specialized restaurants and shops. DSC05244_DxOThese new open-air pedestrian malls were threaded into the pathways of two preexisting historic shopping arcades; this one, below, even more exquisite than the photo conveys, opened in 1870.

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Royal Arcade, Melbourne

As Danny and I traversed the entire loop, courtesy of a map obtained from the tourist information bureau, I idly mused whether it might be possible to spend all the money earned in a month in a single afternoon walk. Restaurants, art galleries (including one selling what its proprietors claimed were original drawings by Dr. Seuss), clothing and jewelry and hand-mixed cosmetic stores. Certainly the retinue of shopkeepers and restauranteurs milling around, expectantly, held out hope that wallets would empty, and empty again. Ours didn’t, but we enjoyed the show.DSC05241_DxO

Sydney’s Central Business District retains more of its Victorian-era architecture; the newer developments we sought out lie in neighborhoods at a remove from the city’s neverending, serpentine shoreline. In Chippendale, not far from the University of Technology Sydney campus, we were stopped short in our tracks by the sight of this spectacular, justly celebrated high-rise by Jean Nouvel, designed in collaboration with Foster & Partners and Patric Blanc, the French botanist who invented the green wall. Pretentiously, audaciously named One Central Park (the developer’s promotional materials represent it, fatuously, as a vertical version of New York City’s emerald gem), it’s a luxury residential-cum-retail complex defining one edge of a block-sized green, something between a plaza and a park. The day we visited, the plaza-park bubbled with shoppers en route to the supermarket, construction workers on lunch break, seeking shade. The attractive multilevel retail complex encircles a green-walled atrium filled with cascading natural light, and spinning around the void was a blur of parcels leading their human owners hither and yon. How did the architects manage to project natural light so deep into a multistory, partially underground atrium? That large shimmering cantilever projecting off the façade: it’s a metal grid hung with mirrors programmed to follow the rays of the sun, directing and redirecting them into the atrium below.

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Streetside, the building’s green facades project a soft-edged, appealing presence, and Blanc made sure that all the plants are native to Australia.DSC05083_DxO

We continue to pursue green, especially in cities, even with New Zealand long behind us. Neither Sydney nor Melbourne disappointed. Foremost among the urban pastorals is landscape architect Peter Walker’s newly opened Barangaroo Reserve Park. Stunning.

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10,000 blocks of rich, creamy sandstone create a graduated, semi-permeable shoreline edge (professionals call this riprap) that helps to mitigate flooding; Walker, recognizing the stone’s beauty, made it the design datum for the park, using it for much else, too.

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Sitting stones (left).

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Benches, parapets, stairs, terracing.

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The Barangaroo Reserve opened only recently. The day we visited it was practically empty, but that’s because  it’s currently pretty inaccessible, surrounded by a busy thoroughfare and a huge construction site. Soon enough, I predict, it will earn its rightful place as a treasured part of Sydney’s urban fabric. You can read more about it here.

Finally, the magical Botanic Gardens in both cities.

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Just one prospect of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

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This also displays astonishing set pieces in the form of weird, wonderful trees.

DSC05330_DxOA stubby, fat palm that defiantly sat in our path. DSC05309_DxOA gossamer, red-berried wonder that you spied only if you looked straight up.

DSC05329_DxOOne with gnarly-fingered branches encased in bark so deeply incised that half your hand would fit into each of its grooves. DSC05331_DxOAnd one tree that reminded me of Edward Weston’s wonderful green pepper photographs, or, for a more recent reference, of Del Kathryn Barton’s exuberantly multi-breasted women.

All in all, Australians seem to appreciate the wonders of their cityscapes and their landscapes. More than once, we found its soft surfaces celebrated in the hard ones.

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The country’s two principal cities make a good exemplar for urban livability, one that other cities and countries might take a good, long look at– and take heed.

— Sarah

Australia express: musings on urbanism, I

MOST people probably know many things about the Land Down Under, but if it happens that it’s only one or two things, likely these include the tale of how, when the British began colonizing Australia’s eastern shores in the late 1800s, boatloads of jailbirds were involuntarily hauled in tow. Prison wards in England were crammed full, dark and tight (just read Dickens’ Little Dorrit); offloading convicts to the colonies was one way to relieve overcrowding. Many of those forcibly resettled unfortunates had been found guilty only of minor crimes — forging checks, unpaid debts, that sort of thing. Others had committed worse. Either way, once they’d served out their sentences, many stayed.

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Old Melbourne Gaol, 1838-1845

From this single, oft-tapped historical spigot of a fact, a fountain of cultural stereotypes continues to gush. Such as: Australian bodies, especially male bodies, come blonde, big-boned, and  saturated with unusually high alcohol content. Australian social practices tend toward the big-hearted and ever-so-slightly crass. Australians incline toward the provincial; inward-looking, they can be a bit quizzical if not suspicious about the pertinence to them and theirs of knowledge harking from beyond their continent’s shores.

Time to shut that spigot off for good. It’s all nonsense. (Indeed so much so that I predict that Danny will object to my writing the paragraphs above, maintaining that one shouldn’t risk perpetuating untruths by recyling them, even if only to discount their veracity.) Since 1996, year after year, the largest percentage of immigrants settling here hail from South and East Asia (you can see the statistics here: http://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/about/reports-publications/research-statistics/statistics/live-in-australia/historical-migration-statistics). And though it’s true that around 20% of Australians claim a convict in their ancestry, that means 80% don’t — and one distant convict in one’s otherwise full ancestral tree is hardly a mark of Cain. Besides, what does it matter? The last flotilla of villainy landed here in 1868, 160 years and many generations ago.

Nonetheless, architectural artifacts of the country’s penal heritage constitute its earliest landmarks. Some, as in Sydney, are buried beneath later infrastructure near the shoreline (near the Barangaroo Reserve in Sydney, below); others, like the splendid, if forbidding Old Melbourne Gaol (above), are historic monuments.

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Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney

Today, these are but tiny, obdurate reminders of Australia’s early history, buried in the urban fabric of its cities. So what can we say, even provisionally, about Australian urbanism given our scant exposure to Sydney and Melbourne?

Sydney and Melbourne’s sites differ, for sure. Hilly Sydney boasts of its fun-in-the-sun, 150 decadent miles of shoreline, and that’s not even counting ever-hungrily-land-sucking suburbs. Melbourne’s largely undifferentiated flatlands are slung lazily along the muddy, unprepossessing Yarra River. Even so, their patterns of urban development and growth vary less, or so it seemed to me. And if Sydney and Melbourne’s urbanism represents any sort of larger reality (I wager they do), then Australians have by and large embraced, and more or less consistently practiced admirable social democratic ideals: what we saw evinced a well-considered, well-constructed, well-ordered civil society, even with predictable infelicities of all sorts notwithstanding. We saw this in the residential areas and in the city’s newer public spaces, the topic of the next post.

WE situated ourselves in the so-called “inner ring” suburbs, which seems to denote a distance from the urban core of approximately 4-5 kilometers. Our first stop in Melbourne was tiny Middle Park (population ca. 4000), conveniently proximate both to the City Center and the Pacific Ocean. The neighborhood retains an impressive stock of diminuitive Victorian residences (many with ornate cast iron porch details, as below), most in reasonably good repair. DSC05143_DxO_DxO

Scattered around, tucked between the older homes, are a number of modern single-family dwellings. It’s one of the better ones of these newer places that we managed to score. Tiny: two bedrooms upstairs; kitchen, living and dining room down. A nice patio in back, though.

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DSC05138_DxOThe recessed light well, at right, broke up the linearity of the main living area and admitted all manner of light and weather, including the torrential rains with which we were greeted –four seasons in a day, Uber drivers told us again and again, pontificating about the city’s fickle weather. Anyway, our little Middle Park abode proved a hospitable place to enjoy even the downpours, presenting them artfully, at a slight remove.

Itinerants we are, ever subject to the booking impulses of Airbnb’ers the world over as well as our own changing needs, we had to move after a fistful of days. We landed in a that-much-smaller place, an apartment in a residential high-rise in South Yarra, a decidedly more upscale, far denser district (population ca. 25,000), although its distance from the city center equivalent to that of Middle Park. From there, we got to survey Melbourne’s horizontal and vertical spread.

DSC05343_DxOScattered hillocks of towers, residential and commercial, pop up from the lilyponds of two-to-four story mixed-use buildings which spread in nearly every direction, all the way to the horizon.DSC05342_DxOIn commerical and higher-density residential neighborhoods, the taller structures indicate that Melbourne, like Sydney, takes its towers seriously.

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New ones, and old ones, too.

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In any case, in both cities, it seems that they’re erecting a lot more of them. DSC05232_DxO.jpgI tried to discover statistics on new residential and office space real estate, but curiosity vanished in the deluge of Google hits beckoning me to bankers’ and developers’ websites, so I’ll just go with the information offered by Meaghan Dwyer of John Wardle Architects: in both cities, there’s a lot of building going on.

Much of it good, and good in ways that indicate a heartening — or shall I say big-hearted?– vision of a social realm that supports sociability for all city-dwellers, not just the wildly privileged. DSC05153_DxO

For notable public spaces and landscapes in both cities and what they might mean, stay tuned.

— Sarah

 

 

Australia express: art

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One cannot but judge the architecture of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV- International), on St. Kilda Road in Melbourne, as falling somewhere between the unfortunate and the disgraceful — this photo of kids playing in the plaza outside it makes it look more serenely seductive than it is. And the interiors! Mostly they’re grim, just grim, especially after a renovation completed in 2004 by the Italian architect Mario Bellini, who created new gallery spaces by dropping opaque stone boxes into the existing building’s glass-covered courtyards, thus destroying what was in all likelihood the principal redeeming feature of the original design.

Even so, it’s the premier museum in one of Australia’s two most cosmopolitan states (Victorians will assert, usually only half-jokingly, Melbourne’s superior cultivation and cosmopolitanism in comparison with Sydney, which we heard characterized — more than once — as some kind of over-the-hill Lady of Questionable Virtue). So, as this building houses National Gallery of the State of Victoria, whatever that means, one is obliged to look.

We found: some nice moments, a couple of welcome surprises, a few terrific pieces, and one stunner, a work of contemporary art.

Inside the dark gray perimeter facades sits a single a light-drenched atrium. If you stay on the ground floor and venture toward the rear, you stumble into this.

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In the 1960s, Leonard French, a celebrated Australian artist, worked for five years on a stained glass ceiling for what’s called the Great Room, as if this were some kind of edgy update of the great rooms in historic British manor houses. Impressive, and to my eye more pleasurable to behold than the verging-on-kitsch Tiffany glass compositions that the ceiling recalls. The museum’s curators seem a bit flummoxed as to how to use this space; basically, they’ve thrown a few cushiony pieces in there and invited the children in to play. And they do.

Upstairs (where the windows are, on the upper right), we found galleries devoted to the decorative arts, including one offering up an abundance of very fine Wedgewood — all those aspirant 19th-century Australians adopting British tastes, I suppose. I’ve come to appreciate Wedgewood’s refinement quite a lot, thanks to the enthusiasm and beneficence of my beloved mother-in-law, Norma. This amusing Egyptian piece struck my fancy, though Danny predicted that Norma would not take to it. DSC05369_DxO_DxO

Though we agreed that this one, below. was just her sort of thing.DSC05370_DxO_DxO

The NGV and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney exhibit a good deal of Aboriginal Art; this, from Sydney, captivated me with its absolutely perplexing pictorial space.

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Back in Melbourne’s NGV-International, this beautiful installation, below, of medieval sculptures made these works-from-another-world arresting in a way that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s installations in its medieval galleries are not. One oddity: in this openly Christian-dominant country (nativity crèches and decorated Christmas trees appear everywhere in the public sphere), the NGV’s wall texts assume not an iota of background knowledge about the religion or its traditions. One went something along the lines of this: Christians consider saints intermediaries between humanity and the divine. Another offered a careful definition of just what an attribute is, and explained how they function iconographically in Christian art. DSC05361_DxO

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a scholar-princess who converted many wayward souls to Christianity merely by dint of her incisive intellect and oratorical powers of persuasion, has always been a secret favorite of mine, and this ca. 16th century Catalan representation of her holding the wheel, a torture device that shattered when her persecutors tried to use it on her, stuck with me. I love the combination of her serene, aquiline features and her slightly dynamic but not-quite-contrapposto-esque pose.   DSC05359_DxO Then we practically ran straight into one of the best Hans (aka Jean) Arp sculptures, from his “Growth” series, that I’ve ever encountered. I was really tempted to hug it.

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Finally, looking at the art at the museums in Sydney and Melbourne heightened my appreciation for that artist whose work Danny is so taken by, Del Kathryn Barton. We included one image from her exhibition at the NGV-Australia (which is in a different building from the NGV-International, down the street), a couple of posts ago. Danny loves DKB’s complex compositions, jewel-like colors, the over-the-top patterning and refined detail; I appreciate these but just can’t get over the questionable mythologies she’s drawing on in her depiction of women and their bodies. In any case, this painting is quite typical of what’s on display at her solo retrospective exhibition, and I appreciated it more after reading the catalogue essay, which discussed how influenced she is by medieval painting, with its lapidary colors and lack of recessive spaces.   DSC05179_DxO.jpg

It did occur to me, too, that the busyness of DKB’s surfaces bears affinities to Aboriginal painting — here’s one particularly good example, from Sydney. DSC04980_DxO_DxO

And those big, haunting eyes that appear everywhere in her paintings evoke the haunting eyes in some Aboriginal sculptures, like these two, below.

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The NGV Triennial was still in the process of being installed when we visited, but luckily, this piece had already been hung; it became the crème de la crème of our art-scouting day.   DSC05352_DxO

Entitled the PET lamp, this is by Alvaro Catalán de Ocón, a Spanish designer, who worked with the Bula’Bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation to find a group of weavers with whom he could collaborate. They gathered reeds, along with the plants necessary to make the dyes, produced the tints, organized the composition, and wove it. Technically, it’s a chandelier, I guess. Whatever: it’s a stunning, inspiring piece, which the NGV-International’s installation team displayed brilliantly, placing the lamps themselves just above eye level; the large weaving several feet above your head, suspended from the ceiling; and placing circular mirrors on a dais just above floor level. DSC05348_DxOSince mirrors can be used to visually diminish the scale of the object they reflect, you get to experience the piece both as it envelops you, spreading majestically over your head and bleeding into your peripheral vision, and at the same time, regard its entirety by glancing toward the silvery pools of light near your feet.

Seeing this piece set off the kind of all-encompassing, full-body experience of a work of art that is often craved, and rarely realized. Really superb.  

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Danny’s been complaining that, since I’m always behind the camera, we run the risk of having few pictures of me from the trip. He gets the photo credit for this one.

— Sarah

Australia express: architecture

Of the bits of Australian this-and-that that Danny and I did manage to take in, the takeaways reside in the realms of architecture, art, and urban landscapes. (This may not surprise our faithful readers.) These impressions are as fugitive as was our time in the Land Down Under en tout, but there’s no stopping the camera from shooting what it shoots (deliberate cognition plays at best a supporting role), and once images become digitally imprinted, a record of sorts emerges.

Architecture first. Australian cities, or at least Sydney and Melbourne, are organized more like Boston than like New York City, meaning that a relatively small core, usually coincident with the Central Business District, constitutes the eponymous legal municipality, and surrounding it are progressively expanding arcs or rings of suburbs. What differentiates Sydney and Melbourne from Boston is that the size of that inner core is really small, so once you start walking away from the core the suburbs start almost right away. Still, as in Boston, Sydney and Melbourne’s inner suburbs contain older as well as new buildings; spatially, their layout varies, and they bear traces of an orientation toward pedestrians. We’re told that as the distance from the urban core increases, Australian suburbs’ density diminishes, along with the varieties of experience they offer.

The parts of Sydney we walked through to get from Rushcutter’s Bay, the suburb where we stayed, to the downtown harbor area took us through many ranges of tiny, older residential buildings, some in wood,  DSC04996_DxODSC04997_DxOand others masonry. A few of these areas snuggle up to, or surround a little open area akin to a village green– below, look how some kid just dropped her bicycle and walked in her front door with no thought of locks or bike stands. Just as we all used to do, growing up. Right in the middle of Sydney!DSC04990_DxO.jpgNearby stood larger buildings that served the original community — perhaps a library, a school, a church. What the building below was or now is remains a mystery, but it’s fairly typical of the small Victorian public infrastructure in both Sydney and Melbourne.

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Then there’s the more majestic stuff. Victorian architects in Australia, it seemed to me, relished their distance from the stodgy old colonial mothership. They seemed to take a good deal of enjoyment in designing over the top– these two building are both in Melbourne, the bottom is the central train station on Flinder’s Street.DSC05171_DxODSC05248_DxO

Others, of course, contented themselves with Monumental and Sedate. This the former Royal Mail Exchange Building, now the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Melbourne.  DSC05390_DxOThat red-brick/yellow-ochre detailing is a common combination in public buildings in both cities.

As for more recent buildings, our impression was that the general design quality is higher than in the US — see below, an ordinary luxury residential tower, where the architect at least tried to entertain the eye as it travels, wittingly or not, from base to crest.

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Then, there was the special. I’ll wait on a wonderful project by the ever-uneven Jean Nouvel, because it fits best into the urban landscape entry, but here’s a surprising success by the also ever-uneven Frank Gehry, a business school at the University of Technology Sydney.

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The canting of the windows on the exterior did just wonderful things with the clouds. (Lucky we caught it on a nice summer day.) And the texture in the brick façade, created by projecting and recessing passages of bricks as they followed the building’s complex curvature, was very successful.  DSC05092_DxO

Inside, the building had the same spatial mess of “some cool moves and a lot of afterthoughts” that I’ve come to expect in most Gehry buildings, except the superb Guggenheim Bilbao. Here, the cool move was an element built up of wood blocks that looked as though it fell out of some Brobdingnagian child’s playpen. DSC05086_DxO

The real treat was seeing the Melbourne School of Design, designed Nader Tehrani of NADAAA and John Wardle of John Wardle Architects, which, in the central element-within-atrium motif, may look similar, but I assure you, the resemblance is only superficial. I will write about the masterful MSD elsewhere, so I’ll spare my breath and fingers here. Here are a couple of images, though.

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The architects transformed the internal corridors into habitable spaces (see tables and desks at left) and the wire mesh allowed them maintain a degree of visual openness to other floors while abiding by safety regulations.DSC05196_DxO

 

Through that crisscrossing network of family relations that life is, Nader introduced me to John, with whom I spent a good deal of time. One afternoon, Danny and I scoped out a library he did for the Melbourne Grammar School, a tony private school whose original buildings must have been designed with Oxford or Cambridge in mind. DSC05262_DxO

Respectfully, Wardle did something very different, with some beautiful details, inside and out.DSC05289_DxO

Look (below) how the vertical brick headers (are they headers?) project out of the surface as the wall’s plane cants back! DSC05292_DxO

The library’s stacks become an object of curiosity when you get just a peek, from above. DSC05277_DxO

We also saw OMA’s MPavilion 2017 in Queen Victoria Gardens, just because. When you’re passing something branded “Rem Koolhaas”, you stop to poke around a bit– although in this case, not even long enough for a cup of coffee.

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Finally, a very nice new building which is the cornerstone of a billion-dollar campus upgrading ongoing at the University of Technology Sydney, by Durbach Block Jaggers, buddies of John Wardle. Appropriately enough, it houses the Graduate School of Health. A ton to say about this one, too, but I’ll just leave you with teasers and eye candy.

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— Sarah

Easy come, easy go

Finally, blogwise, we are on to Australia. The bounty in words and images will be less plentiful, not for the reason attentive readers might imagine. Yes, we’ve made it clear that New Zealand captured our regard and affections to a degree that is unlikely to be matched – even by as welcoming and giving a country as Australia. But that’s not it. The incident in Auckland which I only glancingly mentioned took center stage in Australia, radically curtailing what we did and therefore what we have to convey.

Gideon collided into a serious concussion on the (obviously) rough and tumble – or I should say heads-crashing and elbow-to-head smashing – basketball courts of central Auckland. To dub it serious is to convey much and nothing. As the medical and responsible sports worlds have come to recognize, there’s no such thing as a non-serious concussion. Gideon did not lose consciousness, so that’s a positive. But for the next few weeks, he suffered from fogginess, light sensitivity, headaches (they weren’t that bad or lasting), and working memory problems. For the better part of almost four weeks in Australia, he barely went out and, because he required continuous care and comfort, Sarah and I did somewhere between comparatively-and-amazingly little. DSC05035_DxOWe departed Sydney ahead of schedule, after but a few days, to a recuperative place, Palm Beach, an hour north, where the din (noise bothered him) and bustle of the city were replaced by the quietude and seaside rhythms of nature. DSC05130_DxODSC05096_DxOThe most obtrusive sounds came from the many birds flying around, especially in the early morning, with some (most notably, a faithful white cockatoo with a yellow crest), to our thrill, visiting our veranda. Gideon loved our place there and what constituted the thereness of there.

In the service of convalescence, we cancelled our trip to Cairns, Port Douglas, the Daintree Rainforest, and, truly sadly, the on-the-ropes Great Barrier Reef, dying as the (global) warming water kills its coral, bleaching it skeletal white. Sydney, Palm Beach, and Melbourne was to be our Australia. We almost stayed for additional weeks, when it seemed that Gideon needed more stasis and ease, but then one day in Melbourne he (or his head) turned things around, not in the sense of making a full recovery but in emerging from the debilitating mental fog, which meant he could carefully, if prudent, resume activities. So, we saw more of Melbourne than we had of Sydney (where Sarah and Gideon didn’t even manage to tour the Sydney Opera House). Melbourne is a lovely city of many manifest virtues, which contribute to its regular designation as one of the best cities in the world to live in.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral, Federation Square, Melbourne

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Seafarer’s Bridge, Melbourne

Sarah managed to do some important professional work, helping a future heart center open its own heart to good and wellness-promoting design. We met some lovely friends of a friend. We saw a museum exhibition of one of my favorite contemporary artists, Del Kathryn Barton (what luck!), hardly known in the US (she’s Australian), DSC05186_DxOexplored the magnificent Royal Botanic Gardens,

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Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

and walked and looked, DSC05159_DxOand walked and looked, which, after all, is just about our favorite urban activity – especially when the walking and looking amply reward.

 

— Danny