TEMPLES IN LAOS

Luang Prabang, 20 February 2013

I must confess to a certain weakness for the Buddhist temples in this part of the world. I first came across them nearly thirty years ago (Good Lord, is it really that long ago?) when my wife and I visited Japan. My photos of that trip are packed away with all the rest of our stuff in Vienna, so I’ve borrowed a few pictures from the web to refresh my memory, all from Kyoto, a wonderful place. This is Kiyomizu-ji.

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But probably the most iconic temple of them all in Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

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Look at that delicate architectural tracery embedded so naturally, so lightly, in the surrounding greenery.

Many years later, my wife and I saw another style of Buddhist temple in Bangkok during a brief stay there on our way to Angkor Wat. This is Wat Benchamabophit:

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And this Wat Ratchanatdaram:

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And then, once here in China, we saw yet another style, a heavier, more “imperial” style. The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is one of the nicer examples.

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All quite different. But I think you will agree that there is a common thread: the raking of the roofs. I don’t know what it is, but this lift of a roof at its tip really gives a wonderful grace to a building, even a rather heavy, stodgy building like the Temple of Heaven.

So it was with pleasure that we saw this again in Laos, first in Vientiane:

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Then in Luang Prabang:

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I saw other things that warmed the cockles of my heart, like this for instance:

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This is where I can refer the reader back to my previous post. What we’re seeing is the similar use of paintings to educate the faithful in two places that are nearly 9,000 kilometres apart. The Italians have an expression for this, tutto il mondo è paese, the whole world is but a village; in the end, we’re all the same wherever we live. In the previous post, it was my young daughter who was illiterate. In this case, it was me – and alas, I had no-one who could explain the story which the paintings were telling.

We also liked the way that the temples had different roofs piled one on the other.

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It quite reminded us of the stave churches in Norway, several of which we had visited some five years ago:

norwegian-stave-church

Tutto il mondo è paese.

We also liked a certain set of Buddha statues that we came across. These are in the “praying for rain” position:

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And these are in the “no war” position:

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Well, I suppose that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want to eat our fill and live in peace.

Tutto il mondo è paese.

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Kyoto-temple-1: http://anime.aplus.by/uploads/posts/2011-01/1293979203_xigasiyama.jpg
Kyoto-temple-2: http://www.gadventures.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Kyoto_GoldenTemple.jpg
Bangkok-temple-1: http://misto-market.com.ua/turizm/images/interestplace/98/1.jpg
Bangkok-temple-2: http://travel-tips.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/holidays-Bangkok-Thailand-hotel-package-deal-travel-tips-guide-Wat-Ratchanatdaram-Temple.jpg
Temple of heaven: http://templeofheavenbeijing.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Temple-of-Heaven.jpg
Norwegian stave church: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_llqkm5GrsA1qzxqgco1_1280.jpg

the other pictures: mine

PIZZA IN SAN GIMIGNANO

Luang Prabang, 18 February 2013

Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I decided to spend our summer holidays in Tuscany. We rented a house in a small village near Radicondoli (or “Radihondoli” as the locals pronounce it). The marvel of this village, which caps a hill, is that there is no through road so that there are few if any cars in the village’s streets. For the first – and last – time in their lives, the children could play outside in the road without constant anxious parental supervision.

The other wonder of this village is that it is situated in some of the loveliest countryside, and is close to some of the loveliest urban landscapes, that Tuscany has to offer. One of the latter, world-renowned and justly so, is San Gimignano.

San Gimignano-2

One day, we decided that it was time to visit San Gimignano. We thought we could leave our son, the older of our two children, alone in the village in the company of his summer friends, but we felt it would be prudent to take our daughter, who must have been seven at the time, along with us. To keep her company, we offered to take one of her friends along, an offer gratefully accepted by her parents. So off we went, swooping and looping over Tuscan hill and dale, seeing the towers of San Gimignano appear, disappear and reappear around every corner, slowly growing ever taller.

San Gimignano in distance-1

San Gimignano in distance-2

San Gimignano in distance-3

We finally arrived, found a parking not too far away – a minor miracle – and walked up the main street

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to the piazza where San Gimignano’s main church, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is located. That was where we were starting our visit.

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When you go into the church, you are immediately struck by the wonderful frescoes on either wall.

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For anyone like me who has been brought up a Christian it is easy to understand the layout: one wall – the left wall, of course – has a series of scenes from the Old Testament, while the right wall has a series of scenes from the New Testament.  You can walk down one side, following the stories as you go along, appreciating the artist’s take on each story. Here, for instance, is the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea, frozen at the moment where the Pharaoh’s troops are drowned

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Whereas here, on the right-hand wall, is the story of the dead Lazarus coming back to life

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And the whole is teaching us the grand story of the Fall of Man and his redemption through the risen Christ.

As I walked along the frescoes, with my daughter and her friend tagging along, I realized that these pictures meant nothing to the two girls, neither of whom had been brought up a Christian. So I began to tell them the stories, using the painted scenes as the backdrop and giving the tales as dramatic a twist as possible. The other tourists must have thought I was a little nutty but the two girls seemed quite taken. I realized for the first time what these frescoes were really for: to tell the Bible’s story to a largely illiterate population. In effect, because they had never read the bible, my daughter and her friend were illiterate. I’ve since learned that there is a term for a cycle of frescoes like this: the Poor Man’s Bible. A well-chosen phrase.

When we left, I was highly pleased with myself and the somewhat theatrical show I had put on for the girls. I will skip the rest of the visit, although I will note that we had a rest at lunch where the two girls ate a Pizza Margherita and drank a coke. That evening, when we got home and we were gathered around the table for dinner, I prompted my daughter to tell her brother about the scene in the church. “Tell your brother the big thing about today,” I suggested. She looked at me a minute and then said, very carefully,“At lunch, we had a pizza and a coke.”

Which goes to show … what? That food for the stomach is more important than food for the mind? No, probably the lesson is, don’t think you’re such a smarty-pants.

By the way, the reason why I’m telling this story will become apparent in my next posting.

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San Gimignano from above: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
San Gimignano in distance-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2097/5796974869_0245323ed1_z.jpg
San Gimignano in distance-2: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/109/270633269_1e347d3ea5_z.jpg?zz=1
San Gimignano in distance-3: http://www.ideaweekend.it/imgs/weekend/sangimignano.jpg
Via San Giovanni-1: http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-473-488-90/24/2425/C8JXD00Z/posters/fraser-hall-via-san-giovanni-san-gimignano-tuscany-italy.jpg
Collegiata San Gimignano external-1: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_may8bh9sVs1qcwmkyo1_1280.jpg
Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-1: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ySDga5CAd1Y/UBFg45AiSmI/AAAAAAAAEcg/vAGNRhz14zw/s1600/IMG_7815.JPG
Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2148/2241957275_58d27be89f_z.jpg?zz=1
Old testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG/800px-SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG
New testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9c/SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG/744px-SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG

MIT CHAPEL

Beijing, 22 January 2013

Readers of my posts will perhaps know that I have a certain fondness for Chinese porcelain. So it should come as no surprise to them to hear that when I read in the China Daily of an exhibition at the Capital Museum on porcelain I immediately suggested to my wife that we visit it. Which we did this weekend.

The exhibition was of porcelain ordered by the Empress Dowager Cixi (the last real imperial ruler of China). I’m afraid to say that it was a disappointment. The porcelain on show was undoubtedly of the highest quality, but the designs were … well, twee is perhaps the best way to describe them. Lots of canary yellow background, and lavish use of birds and butterflies as motifs.

Somewhat disconsolately we went to see what else the museum was offering. There was an exhibition from Taipei, from the Museum of World Religions, and for lack of anything better we visited that. It was nothing special, just a collection of religious memorabilia from various world religions. So we left that exhibition even more disconsolate than before and went to the museum shop. We were running a listless eye over what was on offer when something caught our attention. It was a small something – we were not sure what it was – which, critically, had written on it “MIT chapel”. We had to buy it.

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I should explain: my wife and I were married in that chapel, I was doing my graduate studies at MIT at the time. It’s a lovely chapel, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Probably his most well known works are the old TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. He did many other big works for corporations and governments, but he also did a number of smaller, more intimate works like the MIT chapel.

From the outside the chapel doesn’t look like much, just a small circular brick building set down on a lawn and some trees.

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Snow makes it more interesting.

MIT_Chapel-winter

The interior, on the other hand, has a wonderful feel to it. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the chapel is the altar bathed in light streaming down from the skylight above it, while the installation over the altar leaves you very much with the sense of angel dust raining lightly down from on high.

MIT_Chapel-inside-5

Then there is the wall. Outside, it is a normal circle. Inside, it is wavy and is roughened by bricks sticking slightly out of the wall.  It also holds a regular pattern of bricks that reminds me of the ventilation systems used in brick barns in northern Italy.

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And then there is the organ, small but perfect, in its organ loft.

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Our friend who volunteered to take the photos failed miserably (he forgot to press some button or other on the camera), so we have very few photos of the wedding. But it is all still fresh in our minds. My wife wore a pink tailleur and I a dove grey suit. She kept that tailleur for many years, while a rapidly increasing girth meant that I had to abandon the suit quite quickly. We had come up with our own vows – the parish priest had grumbled at this, asking why we wanted to abandon the beauty of the traditional vows, but we had insisted. A copy of them slumbers on together with all the rest of our stuff in storage in Vienna – we have carried them with us everywhere we have gone. We had our rings designed by a goldsmith in Milan: double gold bands, which echoed the design of the engagement ring I had given my wife from the same goldsmith. My mother-in-law, who was a great lover of music, chose the organ music (not Mendelssohn’s wedding march …). My parents and a couple of siblings had driven down from Canada, and the rest of the chapel was filled with university friends from MIT and Johns Hopkins, where my wife was doing her graduate studies. After the wedding, we had all gone downtown to a restaurant on Boston Commons for our lunch. No speeches, nothing like that; just good food. Because of timing, we had gone on our honeymoon before the wedding, in the Shenandoah Valley, together with my mother-in-law (I liked her a lot …). Immediately after the wedding, we started classes again.

So I’m sure my readers understand why we just had to buy that article with “MIT chapel” written on it (which, by the way, turned out to be a small case containing a tiny pad of ruled paper, a ruler, and an unsharpened pencil – quite where the connection was with MIT remains a mystery).

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MIT chapel: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993341-mit-chapel-wikimedia-commons2-375×500.jpg
MIT chapel-winter: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/6339334.jpg
MIT chapel inside-altar: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3383/3478369283_08678cfd7a_z.jpg
MIT chapel inside-wall: http://jmcvey.net/sylva/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/chapel_interior_wall2.jpg
MIT chapel-organ: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993330-mit-chapel-caribbeanfreephoto.jpg

9/11 MEMORIAL, NEW YORK

Beijing, 13 January 2013

They say that those of us who were alive at the time remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about Jack Kennedy’s assassination. That is certainly true for me; I was in bed in my dormitory at boarding school with lights out when one of the older boys burst in announcing the news. The same holds for me when it comes to the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. I had recently come back from lunch and was working without much enthusiasm on a document when a colleague came running down the hall shouting out the news to all of us.

Since then, every time my wife and I go back to New York, we always take a trip down to ground zero, to see how things have changed. So it was this time that on the last day of our latest stay in New York, after an earlier false start (we hadn’t understood that you need to book on-line), my wife and I managed to visit the 9/11 Memorial. After collecting the tickets, finding the entrance, threading our way through an active construction site, past numerous security checks – more numerous than at an airport – we finally arrived in the area of the memorial itself.

It is a somberly moving monument. First, there is the location of the two square fountains that make up the design. They have been inserted into the footprints of the two towers, thus serving as an eternal reminder of the latter’s disappearance.

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Then there is the design of the fountains. The water doesn’t spray up in noisy, joyous jets as is normally the case for fountains, but instead falls from the rims of the fountains, continuous lines of tears, into the dark pool far below

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from where it disappears down into a central, apparently bottomless void, the hole left in the city’s and the in country’s heart.

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And all around the fountains’ rims, from where the water-tears flow, are inscribed the names of those who died in the attack on the towers, as well as in the attack on the Pentagon and in the airplanes that were used as the weapons.

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Truly moving indeed.

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_______________________

Aerial view: http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2011/09/10/rmitchell911memorial_480x360.png

other pictures: mine

THE (STEEP) STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO

San Francisco, 6 October 2012

Readers of my generation will no doubt remember the 1968 film Bullit with the Great Immortal Steve McQueen.

I don’t suppose anyone remembers the story, it was a cops and robbers story of some kind. They only remember the car chase. What a sequence that was! It started on the steeper streets of San Francisco, with the cars suddenly racing up and down the hills and bouncing across the intersections as the baddies realized that Steve was on their tail (the sequence somehow ended on the highways but that is irrelevant to our story).

I was reminded of this car chase when on the first morning of our stay in the city my wife and I walked from our hotel to our son’s apartment. We had discovered that the two were on the same street – Taylor Street to be precise – and thought naively that it would be a nice walk. Bad mistake! There were sections of the street that were astonishingly – preposterously – steep.

At some points, I felt like we were scaling Everest or Annapurna.

And later, when we took a taxi along the same street, there was a moment, as we were going down a particularly steep section, when the taxi driver had to bend down to be able see out of the windscreen!

Town planning in San Francisco is a beautiful example of 19th and 20th Centuries human arrogance. Someone just draped a grid of straight lines over a very hilly landscape and traced the resulting streets, in complete disregard of gradient. The planners of the hill towns in Italy, Greece or Spain never did that; their streets respected the land’s morphology. They lived with their land, not against it.

Be warned. We ignore the physical limitations of our Earth at our peril.

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pix from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullitt
http://www.flickriver.com/photos/antman67/7768689852/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveglass    /527678270/
http://www.travelandtournepal.com/climbing-mount-everest/
http://www.sangimignano.com/sghomei.htm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/18/trust-climate-models

THE OLYMPIC FLAME

Beijing, 29 July 2012

My wife and I managed to crawl out of bed at around 4 am to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It had already started, and by the time we joined the billion or so people watching, the show was celebrating the NHS. We missed the Green and Pleasant Land, the Dark Satanic Mills, the Forging of the Olympic Rings, and – worst of all! – the Queen and James Bond parachuting. No matter, we watched the rest, letting ourselves ride along with the slightly manic fun of it all (I don’t know what non-Brits made of it; I’m British but I’ve been out of the country for nigh on 40 years and found a good number of the references quite baffling). We patiently watched as all the country teams filed into the stadium, commenting on costumes and trying to guess which would be the next country, listened politely to the various speeches and Olympic oaths, until we finally got to the lighting of the Olympic flame, or should I say Olympic cauldron.

We had vaguely followed the discussions on who might be the person honoured to light the flame, but I must say I was deeply touched by the – very Olympic – decision  to go for inclusion, to have the honour shared between seven athletes. And not just shared, but shared by young, promising athletes each chosen by a respected past Olympian.  It gave real meaning to the Games’s slightly cheesy motto Inspire a Generation. And that cauldron! That is truly a beautiful piece of design. It was breathtaking to watch those seven initial flames spread and spread in ever smaller circles until all 204 flames were lit. But I’m always stirred by design with a deeper meaning, and I loved this idea of 204 separate flames, each representing a nation competing in the Games, once lit slowly coming together as one flame: we compete individually, but we are one world.

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Olympic-Cauldron-2

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P.S. For those of you interested in design, Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic cauldron, also designed the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the so-called Seed Cathedral. I had to visit the Expo as part of my work. Much of it I found dreary and superficial. The UK pavilion was one of the few that made the experience worthwhile.

uk-pavillon-expo-shanghai

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pix come from:
Olympic cauldron:
http://www.doubleglazingblogger.com/2012/07/the-olympic-opening-ceremony-proud-to-be-british/
http://www.interaksyon.com/interaktv/seven-teenagers-light-olympic-cauldron
http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/8/view/22698/heatherwick-studio-2012-london-olympics-cauldron.html
UK pavilion:
http://architecture.mapolismagazin.com/heatherwick-studio-uk-pavillon-expo-shanghai-2010-shanghai