Thursday, August 25, 2005

On buildings

“No stream ever rises higher than its source. Whatever man might build could never express or reflect more than he was. He could record neither more nor less than he had learned of life when the buildings were built.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright

Have you ever felt the urge to look at this building at 6’ o clock on a Saturday morning? I have and last weekend, I decided to indulge myself. I got out of bed, got dressed, and ran 2.5 miles to the Kinzie St Bridge to catch a view of this building right at that moment when the sun was coming up over Lake Michigan. There it was, the same grey color as the Chicago river that runs below it, bending along with the bend in the river, looking as glorious as ever.

Back home in India, we are used to living in the midst of some marvelous buildings. I have spent countless number of hours inside the temples of Kerala; my mother still tells stories of how all the priests in Padmanabhaswamy temple knew me as I could be seen wandering about the huge temple completely oblivious to the fact that I was lost and how some priest would find me and bring me back to my parents. I have also spent quite a few hours looking up at the story of Silapathikaram engraved on the gopuram of the Attukal Devi temple. But what was it that I found interesting about these temples I don’t think I know – I just felt a strange kinship with the tall, carved stone pillars and the black gopurams. My mother put it down to the existence of a pious bone in my system something that she was to vehemently repudiate later.

Whenever we used to visit my fathers’ friends outside the city, we would come across quite a few of the traditional tharavadu homes. Many a time, when I used to stand in the nalukettu looking around, I could picture the thamburatti with her friend and her trademark umbrella coming back from the temple – romanticized versions of all the Mallu movies that I used to watch. The houses in my parents’ village in old Chola country were also objects of wonder to me. I loved the really long houses where if you peek from the front of the house, you can see all the way back past the house, the well and into the cowshed; the sprawling verandas and the beautiful blue-green mosaic floor tiles - the same tiles that years later I was to see in a monastery in Lima and the tourist guide told us that it was the best of the Spanish tiles brought all the way from Seville.

But it was only later, once I left home that I realized that I liked buildings more than I thought I did! When I first landed in the New World, I stayed with friends in the suburbs of Chicago for a couple of days. Away from home in flat, drab Midwest, surrounded by cookie-cutter town homes and artificial landscaping, here in the strip-mall capital of the world, my intense longing for amma’s idlis was also mixed with a desire to see some brick and mortar structures which were a bit more interesting. Soon I got my eye-candy in the sloping alleghenies of Pennsylvania – the large Victorian homes and the immaculate synagogues of Shadyside, the Gothic cathedral of learning and the tower of the Hammerschlag Hall all kept me happy during the time I was in school – yes, all of these in the city of which Wright, when asked how to make it better, said ‘Abandon it’.

Later, in continental Europe, in the cities and towns of Germany, Austria and Tuscany, I could see from where the older buildings of the American east coast sprang from. It’s all about recreating the castles and cathedrals of the countries that they left behind in their new world. And I have to mention Rome here, the Rome of Romulus and Marcus Aurelius, though where do I even begin to describe Rome? The city just blew me away and that’s all I will say about its buildings. It was in Rome that I could finally understand our attitude back home – the same indifference could be seen in the locals’ eyes. What do you do when every piece of land you step on, every building you pass has hundreds of years of history and they are all special in one way or the other? You just pass them by without a second glance and go on about your business.

It was also in Rome, well actually Vatican, that I realized that even great buildings need to have a little humility for them to be endearing to me – the humility that I see in the pillars of the Pantheon, the humility that I see in quite a few older temples in India, the humility that I see everyday in the gracefulness of the Sears Tower (a building where you don’t expect to see it at all) – that humility was completely missing where you would expect to see it the most. The St. Peter’s Basilica is an experiment in opulence; it represents precisely what it used to be – an imperialist power that set forth to conquer and control the world. I was thoroughly disgusted at the larger-than-life statues and paintings of the various Popes and the floor markers which explain how all the other cathedrals in the world are smaller than this one. By the time I heard that the bronze for the beautiful Bernini altarpiece was acquired by melting down the bronze in the Pantheon, I knew it was time to get out. That particular church proved too claustrophobic for me.

Back here in the States, I moved to Chicago – nope, not to the strip-mall capital of the world, but to the city of Chicago. As any architecture enthusiast will no doubt tell you, this place is paradise. The city boasts of a diversity in architecture that is unmatched by any other city in the world. Where else will you find the modern, giant steel and glass structures of Meis van der Rohe, the precise geometrical designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, the bold triangular buildings, and a number of striking postmodern skyscrapers along with the older commercial buildings of Louis Sullivan and buildings that look like Gothic cathedrals all within a couple of blocks? Which other city has the audacity to build something like this and actually be proud of the fact? And which other city remembers the names of its structural engineers along with the names of its architects?

And as long as I live here, what better to do on a Saturday morning than to watch the sun rise over some of these structures which represent the heights that man is capable of? After all, aren't “buildings too the children of the earth and the sun”?


Sunil said...

nice.......very nice.

I love buildings too........just like to stare at them.....

arzan said...

very nice post. As an architect I really like the way you have put it together.

Chicago is a great city for architecture. It is the birthplace of the typology of Skyscrapers, and also the Prairie housese, which later came to be the quintessential American House type...called USONIAN houses.

As an urban designer what really fascinates me is the way these tall buildings come and meet the ground plane. and integrate into the city fabric.

BTW...i think 333 Wacker Drive os a very pastiche example of post modern architecture. The Chicago Tribune Building, closer is more impressive...or the John Hancock a little further away. Another classic is 880 Lake Drive, (the address may be wrong) a little away from Navy Pier.

New York has the same density in skyscrapers, and nearly the same range. It just has many more of them. Thats the reason I fell in love with the city and has been "home" for the past 7 years.

Anand said...

Wonderful post. Enjoyed reading it very much.

Karthik said...

Great post!

The buildings need humility part is so true - I never thought of it that way, but now that you say it it makes so much sense.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

a wonderful read!

Veena said...

Anand, Shoefiend - Thanks much!

Sunil - Keep staring!

Karthik - Thanks. Maybe humility is not the right word but good to know you know what I mean! There are some buildings which go completely overboard - I was at this new Swaminarayan temple in the suburbs of Chicago recently and it was so overdone that somehow I couldn't believe it was a place of worship.

Arzan - Thanks. Good to hear from an architect. I was thinking of writing abt the prairie and the chicago school of architecture, but decided that would need to be a completely different post. Just Wright's homes like Falling water and Robie house would have to have a post by itself.

I agree that 333 Wacker Dr is another postmodern structure - but I think the beauty of the building is that it curves along with the river, so the combined effect is very striking. And though I like the Tribune bldg, I am not a huge fan of imitating French cathedrals in downtown Chicago - I think I usually tend to like more original buildings and that's why Meis or Wright mean so much to me.

I love NY too though every time I am in Manhattan, I only have time to meet friends, party and somehow squeeze in a trip to the Strand. Haven't really walked around looking at individual buildings.


gawker said...

Beautiful post and very erudite too. You've done a lot of travelling, and you have a critical eye for observing things. Well-written, interesting and you could probably get this published too, I'm sure. If you haven't done that already, that is.

Veena said...


Thanks. Esp coming from you who I think should write for the Onion.

R.Nandakumar said...

Very atmospheric post. It was a TRIP!

Karthik said...

I was starting to read On Beauty, and this line that appears early in the book reminded me of this post:

It's a different universe. The house is just wow - early Victorian, a 'terrace'- unassuming looking outside but massive inside - but there's still a kind of humility that really appeals to me - almost everything white, and a lot of hand-made things, and quilts and dark wood shelves and cornices - and in the whole place there's only one television, which is in the basement anyway just so Monty can keep abreast of news stuff, and some of the stuff he does on the television - but that's it.,,0_0241142938,00.html?sym=EXC

日月神教-任我行 said...