You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘cities’ category.

e3f4c832453cc5d0324911942eaee398.jpegBecause of last week’s post about the Thai coronation I got sucked into spooling through pictures of the astonishingly beautiful and crazy sights of Thailand.  We really need to all visit that exquisitely beautiful land! What a place!

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At any rate, as long-term Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall, I once made a (sadly unpublished) book on how to build toy vehicles out of household refuse.  The industrious Buddhist monks of Thailand however did not stop at making toys.  Thus, the temple which most caught my eye was Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew also named “Temple of Million Bottles.”  As you can tell by the name, this temple (and all of its outbuildings like the crematorium and the restrooms) are built of empty bottles which have been carefully mortared together to form an exquisite .  Actually though, the name is a bit of a misnomer–thus far the complex is constructed not of a million bottles but of around a million and a half bottles.

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The project started back in 1984, when some monks decided to clean up the refuse around their temple.  Perceiving the inner beauty of the discarded beer bottles, the monastics chose not to throw them away, but instead to clean them and use the brown and green glass vessels for constructing temple accessories.  The project took on a life of its own as visitors brought ever more bottles–mostly Heineken bottles (green) and Chang Beer bottles (brown).

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Anyone who has ever tried to piece together recalcitrant materials into desired order will start to fathom the scope of the monks’ accomplishment.  Beyond the novelty of the material and the satisfying moral component of seeing something so complete made of something everyone throws away, the temple is simply beautiful though.   Buildings in America are made of heavily regulated prefabricated materials expressly created for crafting buildings…and yet so many new buildings here are appallingly heart-wrenchingly ugly.  Perhaps we could take some lessons from the monks not just in upcycling but also in imagination, patience, and craft.

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Yet even if that isn’t going to happen, you can still contemplate the shadow side of Maha Chedio Kaew: in order for it to exist people drank one and a half million beers.  That is a moral lesson which the Frauenkirche simply does not offer.

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Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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Anybody interested in Gothic art is mourning today, after a fire gutted Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, one of the luminous cultural treasures of the world.  The devastation is particularly cruel since it took place during Holy Week.  As I write this, the fire has only just been extinguished and a comprehensive reckoning of what was lost in the flames has not yet emerged (and may not for some time).  It seems likely that the giant ancient pipe organ is lost as is the wooden interior (much of it dating back to the 13th century), and a good deal of the large, immovable religious artwork.  Additionally the mid-19th century spire was completely destroyed. Yet the crown of thorns (a medieval relic which may date back to late antiquity) survived, as did the great church itself.  Like the Frauenkirche of Dresden, Notre Dame will be back. It will have some blackened stones and some new plaques about reproduction and restoration. It will be missing some irreplaceable artwork, yet it will be restored to full heart-lifting beauty.

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The Seine and Notre Dame in Paris, (1864, Johann Jongkind) Oil on canvas

The cathedral sits on the site of two previous churches, which themselves were built over the ruins of a temple to Jupiter (which is a reminder that nothing is immutable).  Commissioned in 1163 by King Louis VII, the great cathedral took nearly two centuries to build and it was not completely finished until 1345.  Hopefully reconstruction will not take so long.  940.jpg

 

I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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Your childhood dream is fairly ludicrous clip-art!

My last post, which combined art, gardening, and Gothic architecture has made me reflect back on a treasured albeit megalomaniacal childhood fantasy.  When I grew up I wanted to live in my own beautiful castle. I was really into spooky-yet-cozy adventure stories, and the idea of living in a perfect little fortress world filled with hidden passages, charming secrets, and fairy-tale delights was irresistible.

But that was a wish from childhood: the adult world is a desperate maze filled with scams, baffling spreadsheets, impossible rules,and ersatz crap…which brings us to the subject of today’s post! The desire to have a beautiful fairytale castle for a home is hardly unique to my childhood self. Lots of people have that fantasy, however, there are only so many actual medieval keeps, schlösschen(s?), and castellets to go around. We are even running out of derelict Queen Anne villas. Plus the comforts and conveniences of real medieval castles are not in accordance with modern tastes. But, if New York has taught me anything, it is that for every dream house there is an unscrupulous developer ready to make a terrible mockery of that dream in order to get rich.

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Every man, a king!

Welcome to Burj Al Babas in Turkey! Of the many, many Potemkin villages and empty cities which have sprouted up around the world in the last decade, this is surely one of the most peculiar to behold. The town was planned and built by “Sarot Group” to appeal to affluent foreign investors who dreamed of living in castles when they were little. The project began in 2014 and was meant as a way to capitalize underused land in the distant Asia Minor suburbs of Istanbul. Each micro-castle was going to include swimming pools and jacuzzis heated by the water of local hot springs.  The target buyers were affluent middle easterners who could maybe even be lured into Turkish citizenship.

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What? They couldn’t include identical unicorns?

 

Unfortunately, the market for fake castles has been overmatched by the market for real autocrats. Turkey is sliding further and further into a dangerous spiral of dictatorship, economic malfeasance, and corruption. As the lira collapses the inflation rate has risen to 25%. Additionally, the oil-rich middle eastern who are the imagined buyers of these properties have been facing their own monetary struggles in a world awash with cheap oil.

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And notice the exquisite landscaping of dark gray mud, dead weeds, and rubble!

Perhaps the saddest thing is that, even in these glum pictures of cookie-cutter despair, some aspect of the original fantasy is still recognizable. If you had one of these things on a forest mountaintop in West Virginia or Dalmatia, it might still be a beautiful home  (although they look suspiciously apt to melt when it rains). Yet, stuck next to each other like dozens of gawky cosplayers dressed as the same superhero, the dream breaks apart and the seamy aspects of the modern real-estate scheming are laid bare.  I wonder what will eventually happen to Burj Al Babas, the city of dreams.  Will it become like Columbia Maryland, where nobody even notices that they are living in somebody else’s fantasy, or will archaeologists of the future unearth its particleboard and concrete ruins with a sad frown and a sigh?

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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My roommate works at King’s Theater, a movie palace in Flatbush, Brooklyn which opened in 1929 and closed in 1977 (neither of those were very good years for New York City).  The theater stood empty for decades as vandals and the weather destroyed the lavish faux-baroque opulence within, yet nobody had the heart to raze the grand edifice and the city wisely held onto the property waiting for the right moment…which finally arrived in the two-thousand-teens when a private organization spent a near 9 figure sum to renovate the palace to its glory (albeit as a real theater now, rather than a lavish movie house).  All sorts of strange mid-tier international acts have poured through since and I always look forward to hearing from my roommate about David Blaine (who vomited live frogs all over the place), the Hip-Hop Nutcracker, the Snoop Dogg morality play “Redemption of a Dogg” etc. etc.

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Anyway, last Monday was the office party, and he graciously invited me to look around inside the theater (I am familiar with the façade, pictured at the top of the post, but I never checked out live boxing or the Allman Brothers, and thus never passed the main door).   The theater was even more grand inside than outside (as you can see by the house photos immediately above), and walking around on the stage and looking at the stage machinery behind the curtain was a huge thrill.

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One of the miniature sagas of the long decline and unexpected resurrection of the theater is the story of the house organ (although sadly, it does not have the same happy ending).  The original organ was a  Robert Morton company super organ known as “the Wonder Morton” which was played to the delight of the house between shows and during silent films.   The organ was taken down in 1974–with good intentions for later installation at a working theater—but alas, the pieces were lost, except for the console which went to a private home.  When the theater was restored, the console returned from exile (although sadly with electronic guts).  I took pictures of the Wonder Morton console because it fits one of my artistic/musical obsessions: vanished music that plays only in the imagination.

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I love the lyres of classical Greek art, and the pigs playing bagpipes in ruined medieval abbeys and the vanished symphonic orchestras of ancient Rome, not just because of their visual dynamism, but because looking at them evokes a whole lost world.  The sad disengaged cockpit/console of the Wonder Morton touched these same levers in my heart.  Staring at it, I could almost hear the bygone music.  Plus, just look at the names of the settings!   I can almost hear the golden beauty of the chrysoglott, the pastoral serenity of the subharp, or the awesome majesty of tuba mirabilis.

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Ah…the days that are no more.  I will be sure to include some more silent symphony posts about musical instruments which we can never hear–although, come to think of it–I hear there is a theater in Jersey that has one of these organs in working condition….

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The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was a glorious golden age of China when trade brought enormous prosperity to China and cosmopolitan city culture flourished.  This exquisite wine cup came from the Tang capital, Chang’an, around 750 AD (the chalice was excavated in the city of Xi’an–which is Chang’an’s modern name–in 1957). According to the census of 742 AD,  Chang’an had 1,960,188 people living in the metropolitan area (which included smaller suburban cities within the larger city).  Such numbers make Chang’an the largest metropolis of its day (the other contenders would have been Baghdad and Constantinople, which were both about half the size).

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This year, I want to talk more about Chang’an and about some of history’s other great super-cities.  They tell us about the roots of contemporary urban culture (more than half of the world’s people today live in a city) and they maybe afford us a peak at the great cities of the future.  For now though let us just savor the details of this solid gold goblet.  Look at the birds and the design elements which come from coastal China and Central Asia! Cities ideally combine the best aspects of different groups of people and different cultures. MY home city, New York City certainly does that, on its good days, when it is not squeezing people to death for nickels.  Speaking of home, this chalice is currently in New York, at the incomparable Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Enjoy the goldsmith’s birds and the flowers–we will be back in Tang-era Chang’an for a real look around a few posts from now.  And if, like me, you live in a city, start looking at it with a fresh critical eye.  Cities are an even bigger part of the future than of the past, and we are going to need to make them better.  Golden cups are not the only place where an idealized natural world of handmade beauty belongs…

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For the last month-and-a-half, New York City has been besotted by a new sweetheart.  “Who is this gorgeous heart throb?”, you ask.  Is it some otherworldly super-model, a sexy head of state (of a different nation, obvs.), or a cultural hero with a new philosophy to recontextualize everything?  Ummm…maybe?  We don’t know as much about our new crush as we might since, um, he is a duck.

The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is a perching duck from East Asia (Japan, Korea, China, and maybe that creepy part of Russia above China).   Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will know that it has an important place in Chinese symbolism.   Due to the strange and disquieting mirror-verse symmetry we have with China, there is a very similar North American species of duck, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) which lives in the eastern half of North America from Canada down to Mexico.  The two sorts of ducks are the only species within the genus Aix.  The East Asian duck is perhaps a bit fancier.

This particular mandarin duck, who has been christened “Mandarin Patinkin” (in an awkward homage to a noted thespian) is thus not a native, but not from a wholly dissimilar ecosystem either.  He appeared in Central Park in early October. The duck has a brown band on his leg, so presumably he escaped from such rich Westchester bird lover’s aviary or from a farm specializing in non-native waterfowl.   He is a gifted flyer and when he is not preening before adoring throngs in Central Park, he flies off for some quiet time across the Hudson in New Jersey.

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I love birds! Just witness the drama of LG (who is doing quite well, by the way, although his goose spouse was injured by a wild animal).  Also, mandarin ducks are self-evidently lovely. Yet I am a bit perplexed by the extent to which the City has gone ape over this one renegade duck.  Here is a link to Gothamist articles following the bird in minute detail with paparazzi-like stalkerish obsession.  Holy Toledo Mud Hen! If you need celebrity dirt about this duck and his big city life, it is all there!

Yet, although this duck obsession is a bit odd, I feel that is a good thing.  Contemporary society is TOO addicted to celebrities. Most of these “stars” are meddling narcissists who spend all of their time building a by-the-numbers personal mythology and then sabotaging ancient reptilian religious pathways in the human brain in order to beguile the weak-minded to obsess over them (maybe this description will bring other New York “celebrities” to mind).  Perhaps some good old-fashioned bird watching will help us deconstruct some of this dangerous idolatry, but if not, at least we have spent our time paying attention to a cool duck instead of some goofy rapper or Kardashian or Andy Warhol wannabe.

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Also I will keep you posted if the duck has any torrid flings, money troubles, or runs over a bystander.

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