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We are nearing the darkest time of the year, and I wanted to post some Gothic architecture all lit up with festive lights, but, though I searched and searched, the Gothic Revival mansions of my fantasy just weren’t out there on the internet.  There were some actual Gothic cathedrals from the middle ages which were all lit up with lasers though!  Here is a little holiday gallery.  We’ll see if we can scrape up some better content tomorrow (and let me know if you find a site with Gothic cottages all lit up for Christmas).  Oh! If it Christmas-themed Gothic architecture you need you could always go back in time and check out this Gothic gingerbread post from yesteryear’s Yuletide!

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One of life’s lesser disappointments is how boring everything here in America looks.  I am not sure if this is a result of banal & puritanical tastes of home buyers or if the regulatory capture which is such an aspect of life here has allowed developers and zoning boards to prevent everything but prefab ranches and ugly co-ops.  Probably it is a result of a combination of these things (along with a real desire by builders to keep people safe and an equal desire to make things that appeal to everyone). Anyway I am looking forward to a future of wilder and more eclectic buildings and we can already see inklings of such possibilities by looking abroad.

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For example this is “Quetzalcoatl’s Nest” a complex of ten different apartments built by renowned Mexican architect Javier Senosiain in Naucalpan, Mexico.  Senosiain is an advocate of organic architecture, which takes its inspiration from a combination of preexisting landscape features and natural forms.  Quetzalcoatl’s Nest is built in a hilly landscape of natural caverns, serpentine ridges and old oak groves.   looking at this landscape, Senosiain saw the shape of a colossal mythological serpent.  He incorporated a large cave into the building as the snake’s head and then set out to build other textures of snake ribs and scales and serpentine patterns into the compound.

 

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The fantastical lair includes water gardens, strange modern hideaways, and fantastic stained glass show spaces in a hard-to-describe architectural tour-de-force which spreads over 16,500 square feet.   I have included a selection of pictures here, but you should really find a video somewhere so you can get a better sense of what is going on.  Why couldn’t the Barclay’s Center people hire this guy so that their rattlesnake could look awesome instead of sinister and corporate.

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Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s special Halloween series about cities!  Obviously, no such effort would be complete without venturing once again into the realms of the Gothic, that ill-defined but very real concept which encompasses literature, history, culture, and architecture in exceedingly different (and yet weirdly unified) ways across a span of 1700 years.  My first inclination here was to present some famous Gothic fantasy cities—Minis Tirith, Gotham, Lankhmar, Oldtown, and Ankh-Morpork (sob) but the daunting nature of this project quickly became obvious.  Maybe we will revisit these places later (I feel like I have lived in each of them), but right now let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most successful actual extant Gothic city, which is also a place I don’t know nearly as well as those fantasy burgs: the great metropolis of Barcelona!

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I have legions of friends who return from Barcelona singing its praises as the world’s greatest party city, and I remember lots of partial factoids from the 1992 Summer Olympics (which were completely amazing: Thanks Barcelona!).  Sadly, I don’t know much about the actual city which is too bad–of all of the places on Earth, Barcelona has true claim to being the most Gothic city, not just because of its Gothic quarter (the somber medieval buildings were added to and spruced up at the end of the 19th century) , its ancient Gothic cathedral (the Barcelona Cathedral, seen at the top of the post and immediately above), its new Gothic cathedral (The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Gaudi, which is immediately below), or its many other Gothic architectural wonders, but instead  because of its history.

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Barcelona has two foundation myths, both of which are amazing.  According to legend it was either founded by the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s dad) or by Hercules himself as he roamed the Mediterranean world during his famous labors.  Wow!  The truth is only slightly less amazing.  The Romans first built Barcelona into a major city, but they built on top of a settlement which was already ancient.  Archaeologists have found artifacts/remains which can be dated back to 5000 years ago.

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 Ancient Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

As the Roman Empire blew apart (because of climate change, cultural stagnation, and disastrous misrule by corrupt dolts), strange groups of barbaric invaders from the hinterlands marauded through what had once been the most prosperous provinces of the West. Among these tribes were Huns, Franks, Sueves, Vandals, Alans, and Burgundians (goodness help us), but perhaps the most infamous of these groups were the Visigoths, who sacked Rome itself in 410 AD.  The Visigoths warred with Rome and its allies for generations while they sought a permanent kingdom (hoping perhaps to become like the Franks, who grabbed up the most beautiful parts of France).  For a time it seemed the Visigoths had found a permanent home in what is now southern France, but the tides of War turned against them and they moved southwards.

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Thus, in the beginning of the 6th century AD, Barcelona was the capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.  In 511 AD, the king of the Visigoths was a nine-year-old child named Amalaric.  Amalaric was an Arian Christian, which is to say he was a follower of the nontrinitarian Christological doctrine of Arius, not that he marched around in studded jackets throwing dumb white power fist salutes (although, frankly, he probably did that too).  He was married to Chrotilda, the daughter of Clovis I and she was a devout Catholic devoted to the trinity. The two fought ferociously about religion and Amalaric would beat Chrotilda savagely to demonstrate the superiority of his Christological doctrines.  At one pointshe even sent a towel stained with her blood to her brother Childebert I to show him the benighted state of her marriage.

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Hmm…We have fallen down a bit of a Medieval history rabbit hole here in describing why Barcelona is a Gothic city.  To succinctly recap, it was the capital of the Visigoths and it has whole districts of Gothic buildings which are either Medieval, or made in faux Medieval styles.  And what about Amalaric?  In the early 530s, he fought the Ostragoth army and was defeated.  He fled back to Barcelona but was betrayed and murdered by his own men (perhaps at the command of Theudis, governor of Barcelona.  Some say you can still hear Amalaric’s ghost, angrily promulgating Arian doctrines among the midnight bubble disco parties of present-day Barcelona, but to me that sounds like something some disreputable blogger made up to get hits.

 

   

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Since this has been a busy week, we will keep today’s post short and sweet (hopefully this will also discourage any disastrous copy writing errors: I fully apologize if any have occurred in the recent past).  This astonishingly beautiful building is the City Hall of Leuven, the capital of the Flemish province of Brabant in central Belgium.  The building is a prime example of Brabantine Gothic, a highly ornate late Gothic style of architecture, which originated in Flanders in the mid fifteenth century.  Work began on the Leuven Town Hall in 1439 and proceeded in fits and starts (as various chief architects died) until the building was finished in 1469). The building has survived mostly intact throughout the great wars which devastated Leuven (although a World War II bomb strike on the front facade was not fully repaired until the 1980s).

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Although the building is not especially noteworthy in terms of its history, it is is exceedingly pretty. It’s long angular shape and numerous ogee arches are much to my taste and make me want to research further examples of the Brabantine Gothic.  In fact I am going to go do that right now!

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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

In the 1980s NASA challenged architects to invent a way of constructing buildings on the moon or Mars where traditional building materials would not be available.  An Iranian American architect named Nader Khalili came up with a simple & ingenious concept which involved minimum material and time.  Khalili’s idea was to fill long plastic tubes with moon dust or space rock and then build dome-shaped buildings from these sandbags (judiciously braced with metal wires).  Although NASA has not yet used the idea to build any space bases, the architectural and building style which Khalili invented has taken off here on Earth, where it can be used to quickly make highly stable, inexpensive structures.

The style of crafting domes out of plastic bags filled with local earthen material is known as super adobe.  Khalili initially thought that his buildings would be used as temporary structures for refugees or disaster victims who had lost their homes, however, when plaster or cement is added to the buildings they can become surprisingly permanent and elegant. Super adobe architecture results in beehive shaped structures filled with arches, domes, and vaults.  Windows and doors can be created by putting inserts into the bags and then building sandbag arches around them, or arch-shaped holes can be sawed into the finished plastered domes. Superadobe domes can be beautifully finished with tiles, glass shards, or other decoration or they can be smoothly plastered.  Khalil created a finish which he called “reptile” where the domes were covered with softball sized balls of concrete and earth.  Reptile finish prevented cracking by creating paths for the structural stress caused as the building settling and by heating/cooling expansion and contraction.

"Reptile" Finish

Superadobe architecture is best suited for the dry hot southwest, but can be used elsewhere (especially if the builder adds a layer of insulation) and can employ a variety of available fill materials.  If the builder uses earth and gravel to create small domes the buildings are surprisingly resistant to earthquakes, floods, and gunfire.  Additionally earthbag buildings are cheap and easily constructed by unskilled builders.  The fact that wood is not required has made the style a focus of environmentalists and green builders.  I am a huge fan of domes, but they are rarely seen outside of huge expensive buildings like churches, legislative houses, and mansions for rich eccentrics.  This paucity of domes could be corrected with more superadobe architecture. Imagine if you could live in an elegant little superadobe dome house with circular woven carpets and little round hearths!  The organic shape of the small houses makes them blend in perfectly with succulent gardens informal flowers and unkempt fruit trees.  Some builders even go a step farther and cover the entire building with grass and plants. I would like to see more such structures built here on Earth and hopefully someday farther afield.

Liaodi Pagoda

Built in the 11th century, the Liaodi pagoda in Dingzhou, Hebei is the tallest pagoda still remaining from China’s dynastic past (and the tallest building in China from before the twentieth century).  The stone and brick Pagoda was completed in 1055 AD during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song.  Although the pagoda was ostensibly designed to store Buddhist religious texts for the (now-destroyed) Kaiyuan Monastery, the name Liaodi means “watching for the enemy” or “forseeing the Liao enemy’s intentions”. The tall structure was built in a strategic location and Song military commanders used it to keep an eye on enemy movements of the nearby Liao Dynasty (a northern empire of Mongolic Khitans).

Including the elaborate bronze and iron spire at its apex, the Liaodi Pagoda is 84m high (276 feet).  It is a pavilion-style pagoda made up of thirteen octagonal tiers. Uniquely, one section of the pagoda’s thick walls is split open to reveal a large pillar in the shape of another pagoda.  I wish I could tell you more about this bizarre pagoda within a pagoda–but internet sources are strangely blasé about the fact that one of the most important historical buildings in China has a section cut away like it was a pilfered cake from the office fridge.  Inside the pagoda are numerous painted murals and carved calligraphic plaques crafted during the Song dynasty (arguably the artistic zenith of classical China).

Liaodi Pagoda's "pagoda within a pagoda"

Woodmont Mansion outside Philadelphia (designed by William Price in 1891)

In an earlier post I wrote about exquisite tiny gothic revival cottages. There is of course a different side to the gothic home—giant gothic houses. In the continuing spirit of Halloween and haunted houses, here is a gallery of large beautiful creepy gothic residences.  Wherever possible I have tried to give their name and location, but evidently there are more big gothic mansions than can be easily kept track of.  Just imagine these beautiful houses in the moonlight with a few half-seen figures lurking behind the curtains (and maybe a shaggy shape or two looming behind the topiaries) and you will soon be in a perfect mood for October.

Margam Castle, Port Talbot, Wales, (Designed in 1830 by thomas Hopper)

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion (1859, Germantown PA--just outside Philadelphia)

Roseland Mansion, Woodstock CT

Kingscote Mansion, Rhode Island

Oakley Court (Berkshire, England, 1859)

Gothic mansion in Middletown, Ohio

Bradwell Grove (Oxfordshire, England)

Vasalemma Manor (Hungary)

Toddington Manor (Gloucestershire, England, 1819)

Reynolds Mansion (Bellefonte, PA)

Based on the ongoing “gothic” thread, it will probably not surprise you that I love gothic architecture.  However, although I naturally esteem the great stone edifices of Medieval Europe, I equally admire small houses manufactured in the nineteenth century Gothic Revival style.  As a first example of these lovely cottages, here is a stock design by Rodney Pfotenhauer, a contemporary architect (or possibly a magical being who lives in the forest).

Rodney Pfotenhauer's design for a Gothic Cottage

With its emphasis on elegant vertical lines, its charming fretwork decoration, and its noble finials, gothic revival architecture is a perfect expression of nineteenth century aesthetic values.  But I think the graceful style has a place in the future as well.  As the great recession finally begins to recede, it seems like builders will at last start picking up their tools to make some new houses.  Hopefully the burgeoning small house movement can look back towards gothic revival work for inspiration.  I’d like to see strange lovely gingerbread cottages sprouting up in place of the charmless Mcmansions which have been in vogue throughout the eighties, nineties, and ‘aughts (or whatever we are calling that crummy decade).

I am already fantasizing about parking my little robot car out front of my green gothic-revival mini house.  I can knock back a future drink (possibly into my regenerated liver) and wonder into my flower garden of glowing transgenic super roses and giant mutant aloes!  Come on already future innovators!  Don’t you guys dream about anything other than stupid PDAs?

Seriously, doesn't anyone get tired of reading about these things?

Oh well, the future will probably end up featuring underground concrete mazes or something equally dystopian (along with increasingly expensive and fragile PDAs hosted on defective AT&T networks).  In the mean time here are some other beautiful small gothic revival houses to help you while away the winter and pretend that dystopia isn’t drawing ever closer.

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