Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Devil's Punch Bowl



As September approaches, the heathers start to blossom and the east side of the Devil's Punch Bowl and nearby Hindhead Common in the southwest corner of Surrey turn from light to deep purple.

This beautiful area, which until the nineteenth century remained relatively isolated, has been at the centre of many stories and legends, including two that give a different explanation about the name of the valley.

One particular legend links two of the most famous natural landmarks in the southeast of England: the Devil's Dyke above Poynings in Sussex and the Devil's Punch Bowl. One day, while standing on top of the South Downs, the Devil, or 'the Poor Man' as locals used to call him, realised that more and more churches were being built in the Weald. Outraged, he swore he would drown them by digging a channel from the coast through the South Downs, between sunset and sunrise. Even though St Cuthman (or St Dunstan, depending on the version of the legend) begged him to spare the lives of the inhabitants of the Weald, the Devil began digging, throwing great lumps of chalk in all directions and by doing so created Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, Rackham Hill, Mount Caburn, and even the Isle of Wight. He was just about to complete his task when an old woman in Poynings was woken up by all the noise. She got up and lit a candle to see what was going on. Thanks to St Cuthman the flame gave out such a glaze that all the cockerels in the village woke up and started to crow to greet the new day. Thinking the sun was about to rise, the Devil fled, jumping across the Weald and leaving a deep valley as a footmark where he landed: the Devil's Punch Bowl.

The southern end of the Punch Bowl

However, according to another legend, the valley was created when the Devil, who was living at the Devil's Jumps near Churt, dug up lumps of earth to throw at Thor, who lived nearby in Thursley, during a quarrel between the two.

Hindhead Common

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Morris & Co window by John H. Dearle, Gloucester



The contribution of John Henry Dearle (1860-1932) to the artistic development of Morris & Co has long been a matter of debate. Throughout most of the twentieth century a majority of art historians and critics considered that his work was more often than not a mere "pastiche" of the firm's two leading figures: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. In their view, Dearle, who rose to the position of Artistic Director and was responsible for the design of many of the firm's wallpapers, tapestries, woven and printed textiles, and following the death of Edward Burne-Jones in 1898 of its stained glass, barely went beyond reusing designs created by Morris and Burne-Jones. Such opinions were undoubtedly unfair to Dearle and over the past thirty years his work has been reassessed, with many seeing him as a key figure behind the success of Morris & Co.
Some of the harshest critics were levelled at his stained glass windows. These may have been excessive, as Dearle contributed to the design of many windows when Morris and Burne-Jones were still alive, many of which are held in high regard. Additionally reusing particular designs had been going on at Morris & Co since 1862. Yet it is true that people's faces on Dearle's windows are less vibrant and clear than those drawn by Burne-Jones. It is as if they were largely emotionless, contrary to the characters created by his predecessor. As for the foreground and background, they are less complex, often consisting of simple, but at the same time more realistic, floral elements. What one cannot deny though is Dearle's ability to use colours to the best effect, and in particular the deep green, blue and red that make Morris & Co windows so easily recognizable and attractive.
Dearle may not have reached the standards of Morris and Burne-Jones but that does not mean that his work on textiles and wallpapers was not excellent. And even his windows are very fine pieces, as the Wilton window designed in 1924 for the cloister of Gloucester Cathedral illustrates.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hammer and sickle floating in Vientiane



Thirty-five years ago today the communist movement Pathet Lao seized power from the royal government of King Savang Vatthana and declared the Lao capital Vientiane "officially liberated". The King formally abdicated on 2nd December and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed, with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party as the only legal political party. This put an official end to decades of civil war, even if Hmong tribes continued fighting the new regime for years to come. Actually the victory of the Pathet Lao owed much to the intervention of foreign actors in Lao affairs, namely North Vietnam and the US, rather than to its own fighting capacity or popular support. Indeed, although the Lao civil conflict had its own roots, the country became engulfed in the Vietnam War as North Vietnamese troops channeled aid to the Vietcongs through Laos and supported the Lao communist rebellion, while US planes dropped illegally an estimated 260 million bombs, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. Following the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the withdrawal of the US from the Indochina peninsula, it became clear Cambodia and Laos would be the next dominoes to fall, to use Eisenhower's expression.

Nowadays Laos remains a communist regime. Even if from 1986 onward it moved towards a free market economy, economic liberalisation was not accompanied by political reforms. Therefore Laos is one of the few countries in the world where one can still see myriads of communist flags not only on public buildings but also on the windows and balconies of people's dwellings as this picture taken near the corner of Thanon Setthathirat and Thanon Khoun Boulom illustrates.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Pule Si, Chengde



In 1703, during a hunting expedition towards Manchuria, the land of his ancestors, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing dynasty passed through Chengde, by then a seven-day journey from Beijing. He liked this mountainous area so much he had a hunting pavilion built there. Thanks to its pleasant temperatures, Chengde -or Rehe as it was then known (literally 'Warm River')- rapidly became the favourite summer retreat of the imperial court and over the next 89 years the extensive Bishu Shanzhuang (literally 'Mountain Resort for Avoiding the Heat') and adjoining buildings were built to accommodate the emperor and his suite of 10,000 dignitaries, soldiers and civil servants. The Mountain Resort prospered under Kangxi's son Yongzheng (1678-1735) but it was under his grand-son Qianlong (1711-1799) that it reached its peak.

Over the summer, tribes living on the frontiers of the Chinese empire came to Chengde to pay tribute to the emperor. In order to welcome and at the same time awe them, twelve temples were built in the vicinity of the ten kilometre-long wall that enclosed the Mountain Resort. At first sight these temples were copies of places of worship these tribes would have been familiar with, such as the Potala Palace or the Sangye monastery in Tibet. However a closer look revealed many Chinese architectural and decorative elements were incorporated to convey a clear message: the supreme authority of the Chinese emperor over all these tribes and their land.

Pule Si, or 'Temple of Universal Joy', is one of the smallest of these outlying temples. It was built by Emperor Qialong in 1766 to receive Mongol envoys. Once they passed through the entrance pavilion, they found themselves in a narrow courtyard enclosed by a drum and a bell tower on each side and the Tianwang Hall or Hall of Heavenly Guardians. Having paid their respect in the latter, they entered a larger courtyard surrounded by the Shangyin Hall on the left, the Huili Hall on the right and the Zhongyin Hall or Hall of Ancestors in front.

Zhongyin Hall

Beyond the Zhongyin Hall rose the main part of the temple, composed of three square terraces on which stood the Dawning Light Hall, a circular structure surmounted by a double-tiered conical roof. If the Dawning Light Hall is reminiscent of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in Beijing's Temple of Heaven, the design of the whole structure is actually based on a Tibetan mandala. Mongol tribes, who practiced Tibetan Buddhism, would have been familiar with the mandala symbol both architecturally and spiritually.

Dawning Light Hall

Originally a gallery surrounded the first terrace but it was destroyed in the nineteenth century. Access to the upper levels was through stairs fitted within the masonry walls and which emerged in little pavilions. On the second terrace, a series of colourful stupas with religious inscriptions awaited the visitors.

The second terrace

Once on the third terrace Mongol envoys were about to enter the heart of the sanctuary. Behind the elaborate lattice windows and decorated teak was a large wooden Tibetan mandala shrine. In its centre, the sexual act performed by the multi-armed god Samvara with his consort Vajravarahi ('The Diamond Sow') symbolized the connection between wisdom and compassion. However when the Mongols raised their eyes, they would have noticed that the ceiling above the mandala was decorated with a dragon, the very representation of the Emperor of China. With this, Qianlong, who had declared himself to be the reincarnation of Manjusri, a Bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom, was not only positioning himself at the very centre of the Buddhist world, but also asserting his authority over the Tibetan Buddhist tribes that populated the frontiers of his empire.

External decoration of the Dawning Light Hall

Pule Si, like most other buildings in Chengde fell into disrepair after 1820. That year Emperor Jianqing, the son of Qianlong, died while staying at the Mountain Resort. Some claimed he was struck by lightning but others believe he died of a stroke. In any case, the death of the emperor was interpreted as an ominous sign and for a few years the court stopped coming to Chengde during the summer months. Jianjing's grand-son, Xianfeng, returned to the Mountain Resort to escape the summer heat of Beijing but he also died there in 1861. After that the imperial palace was abandoned and the twelve outlying temples ceased to serve the diplomatic function they had been designed for. Nowadays only eight survive. Together with the Mountain Resort, they are on the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

Putuozongsheng Temple (left) and Xumifushou Temple (also known as Temple of Sumeru, Happiness and Longevity, right), two of Chengde's eight remaining outlying temples seen from Pule Si.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Dark skies over the Lambourn Downs


Lambourn Berkshire Downs dark clouds thunderstorm cereals
As a result of a heat wave followed by dramatic wild fires, Russia's wheat production this year will be down by a quarter. Consequenttly cereal prices are going up, helped as well by speculation, and farmers who did not sell their production yet are postponing their harvest as much as they can to get a better deal. This can be risky though, as heavy downpours can damage crops significantly.
On a mid-August afternoon a few years ago, dark clouds were gathering over the Lambourn Downs, where only a handful of fields had not been harvested yet.

With few places where to shelter once on top of the Downs, I was lucky the rain began to fall only after the clouds had crossed the River Kennet.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Hong Kong's skyline by night



Impressive and at the same time slightly frightening during daytime, Hong Kong's chaotic and ever-evolving skyline becomes fascinating by night.
With little space available, in spite of land reclamation, new skyscrapers for both offices and housing are emerging all the time in this vertical city. At present the most ambitious projects are reshaping parts of Kowloon, where height restrictions were lifted following the closure of the old international airport twelve years ago. Yet the island of Hong Kong is still home, so far, to the most famous buildings.


A: Far East Finance Centre, 1982, Wong & Ouyang, 176 m
B: Chinese People's Liberation Army Forces Hong Kong Building (ex-Prince of Wales Building), 1979, 113 m
C: Bank of America Tower, 1975, Ho & Partners Architects Ltd, 146 m
D: Bank of China Tower, 1990, I. M. Pei & Partners, 367 m
E: Hutchison House
F: AIA Central (ex-AIG Tower), 2005, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 185 m
G: Cheung Kong Center, 1999, Cesar Pelli & Associates, with Hsin-Yieh Architects and Associates Ltd, 283 m
H: HSBC Headquarters Building, 1985, Norman Foster & Partners, 179 m
I: Standard Chartered Bank Building, 1990, P & T Architects & Engineers, 185 m
J: Hong Kong City Hall, 1956, Ron Phillips and Alan Fitch
K: Mandarin Oriental, 1963, John Howarth of Leigh & Orange
L: Jardine House (ex-Connaught Centre), 1973, Palmer & Turner, 178 m
M and N: 1 and 2 Exchange Square, 1985, Palmer & Turner, 182 m
O: Two International Financial Centre, 2003, Rocco Design Ltd, Cesar Pelli & Association Architects, 416 m
P: 3 Exchange Square, 1988, Palmer & Turner, 144 m
Q: One International Finance Centre, 1999, Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects, Rocco Design limited, 210 m
R: The Center, 1998, Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers (HK) Ltd, 346 m

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Velhagen & Klasing, Prager Str. 27, Leipzig



The building at Prager Straße 27 was designed in 1912 by Leipzig architect Hans Enger for Verlag Daheim-Expedition, a subsidiary of publishing house Velhagen & Klasing from Bielefeld, in Nordrhein-Westfalen. The Leipzig subsidiary was set up in 1864 to print and dispatch Daheim, an illustrated magazine for the family.
Enger had become relatively well-known in the 1880s as an exponent of Historicism through works such as the Leipzig Neue Börse (New Stock Exchange), built between 1883 and 1886 in the early Renaissance style (it was damaged during an air raid in 1943 and demolished in 1948), or the neo-Gothic St. Petrikirche (St Peter's Church) in Chemnitz, built between 1885 and 1888. A respected architect, he was commissioned in 1897 to design some of the pavilions of the Sächsich-Thüringische Industrie- und Gewerbeaustellung (Saxony and Thüringe Industry and Craft Exhibition) held in Leipzig. Yet in the closing years of the nineteenth century Historicism was losing ground rapidly in Leipzig. A new generation of architects was emerging. Between the second half of the 1890s and the First World War, they changed the face of the city with their Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) villas, blocks of flats, commercial, industrial and public buildings. Thus the choice of 64 year old Enger for the new Velhagen & Klasing building seemed a little odd.
In the end Enger designed a building that had little to do with his previous works but was in many ways reminiscent of industrial buildings by Händel & Franke and Paul Möbius (Leipzig's most famous Jugendstil architect had worked for Händel & Franke between 1890 and 1899). The materials, colours and motifs in particular are very similar to those they used for their electric substations and factories, for which Assyrian, Egyptian and Roman architecture had been a source of inspiration.


Enger has been successful in creating a façade where the eye is drawn naturally towards the Egyptian heads on top of the columns. However on the four columns closest to the street corner, he replaced the Egyptian heads by wreaths with a tied ribbon. This was the logo of Daheim and was found on the pages of the magazine and on the stationery of the Leipzig branch of Velhagen & Klasing.


Originally the façade on Prager Straße consisted of eight bays and the one on Johanisallee of five (picture). Nowadays the former is four bays shorter and the latter four bays longer.
By 1990 the building was in a very sad state. Damaged during the war and neglected during the GDR period, it stood without its top floor and roof, while part of the decoration had fallen down. Fortunately, like countless buildings across Leipzig and eastern Germany, it was thoroughly restored following the reunification.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Wat Chetawan, Chiang Mai



The secular modern world intermingles with the sacred one as a young model tries to grab the chattra that crowns one of the three chedi of Wat Chetawan, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
This temple, like neighbouring Wat Bupparam and Wat Mahawan, was originally built in the late nineteenth century outside the city walls and moat by Burmese teak merchants. As a result these temples incorporate several Burmese elements in their design and decoration. At Wat Chetawan the three chedi (the Thai word for stupa) in particular were built along classical Burmese lines: a square base of several recessed terraces followed by one or two octagonal terraces upon which sits a circular bell-shaped dome that extends upward into a conical, ringed spire. Only the four staircases, one on each side, that would give access to the base of the dome are missing.


The three chedi are topped by a chattra or multi-layered umbrella, which symbolizes royalty or honour.
 
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