Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Tangible 9/11

A museum of delicate, surreal and emotional memories connects visitors to the day that changed America, and the world forever. I revisit New York for the first time since the unimaginable tragedy, and pay a respectful visit to the new 9/11 Museum at the site.

A cold blast of wind is my most prominent memory of climbing the escalator from the top floor of the original World Trade Center, to the rooftop observation deck, on a chilly October morning in 2000. The journey to the top had seemed more like taking off in a jet – I remember my ears popping and the floor indicator blinking through the level numbers at an incomprehensible rate. I certainly remember that security was prominent even back then, after passing security checkpoints and back scanners at this point. As far as I was concerned, stood at the top, the tower’s twin standing proud a stone’s throw away, these buildings were infinite symbols of integrity, prowess and ingenuity. Time would of course tell a different and very disturbing story.

Emerging from the metro station, I notice that almost mechanically, people’s heads turn upwards to the right as they near the top of the steps to street level. As I reach the top, my first view of the new Freedom tower has me follow suit. Even on this foggy winter day, the new tower is beautiful, proud and elegant. The observation deck of the new tower isn’t yet open, so I head towards the site of the original towers.

I feel a mixture of sadness and disbelief as the square waterfall foundations of the original towers  come into view in the Memorial Garden. From this moment, I know that this experience is going to not evoke memories of the day, but also bring a sense of realism to an event that despite happening over 13 years ago, right now may as well have been yesterday. To see the footprints of the original towers, even after all this time, adds another dimension to the memories of news reports and videos from the day, and repeated over and over again ever since.

‘Happy Holidays’ says the smiling employee as she pulls back the cordon to allow us into the Museum, sign of the New Yorker spirit, and setting the tone of the visit. Perhaps myself and others entering aren’t quite sure how to feel or act about this, however as this lady demonstrates, this is both a site of mourning and a site of triumph – of resilience of good over evil. Happy Holidays to her too.
As expected the first area is a large airport style security checkpoint. Nobody around is impatient or impended by this as they pass through.
I head upstairs first to the auditorium. A 15 minute film is shown which as well as showing the emotional impact of the day and the ubiquitous scenes of the aircraft striking the towers, provides new angles and viewpoints that may not have been heard before. Something that sticks with me is George Bush’s statement, or admittance that he had not planned to be thrust into the role of a wartime president. He didn’t see it coming.
Heading down the steps to a central area, I pass the first of the large burnt-orange twisted steel supports from the towers. This first experience of seeing such a tangible, real object from this day of tragedy urges me to stop for a moment to observe it.

Following the route downstairs, large displays exhibiting photographs of people’s reactions at the time capture the raw emotion and utter disbelief that America was under attack. I pass a large display that shows the routes of the ill-fated passenger jets.
The path curves around until reaching a huge cavernous area – the foundations of the original towers. I can smell the concrete as I witness the vast imposing walls. A sarcophagus of remembrance, pain and sanctity, this is ground zero, forever preserved and never forgotten.

The scarred, battered surface of the ‘escape stairs’ tells a terrifying story, but also one of at least a little hope. These stairs aided the escape and ultimately saved the lives of some of those caught in the day’s misery.

Twisted steel and broken rivets adorn the surviving piece of the TV antenna from the top of the north tower. I am dumbfounded that this piece could survive such violent destruction, a feeling that resonates with the rest of the collection.

Nearby, the wreck of the ladder 3 fire truck stands testament to the incredible forces of the day. One end of it is completely bent reshaped by the tremendous forces of the time. In the same space, concrete blocks and other remnants speak of the atrocity and make it real.

The last remaining support column, adorned with photographs, possessions and flowers provides a powerful metaphor for America’s determination and collective feeling in the aftermath.

I have time to visit one last section, designed to recreate the events of the day. Photos and videos are not allowed in this area, and this speak for itself after the delicate and sensitive nature of the exhibits becomes clear.
The slowly moving crowd is stunned to slice around me. Reminiscent of the sensory bombardment of the day, the experience begins with a plethora of newspaper cuttings, radio broadcasts and TV clips right from the day, the minute, and the second the events unfolded. Accompanied by the artefacts around, this has quite a powerful effect.
Some of the items that survived are staggering – even a page from an inflight magazine lays charred in its glass case. Of course the whole exhibit is to reflect on the event itself, including the 1993 bombings, not just the twin towers, and remnants of the planes and of the Pentagon tragedy are also displayed. A haunting piece of the plane and a seatbelt survive from the impact.
Perhaps most haunting of all is a fragment of the memorial of the 1993 WTC bombing – a fragment of a memorial of another disaster inside another memorial.
Despite this immense sense of loss, the artefacts of tribute, of triumph, of endurance and of unity shine and rise respectfully above these moments of terror like the Freedom tower – never forgetting and forever changing the way we think, live and feel. The museum is the bridging point between what we know, what we remember and what we feel to the real world remnants of the day, and quite an emotional journey it is.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Tour de Egypt

Slipping out of the culturally rich Parisian streets to sample ancient Egypt might not seem like the obvious ‘to do’, but as I discover this endlessly astonishing collection is well worth a look. Originally sold to the French king around 1826, by Jean-François Champollion, a master of ancient language, the collection grew from around 9000 pieces, and still grows today.

A blur of bikes – a living train of spokes and colour – hurtles past me. The crowd cheers as the entourage of determined cyclists snake around the Arc de Triumph just as quickly as they appeared. A fantastic sight. On a stiflingly hot July Parisian summer’s day, however, further stifled by hordes of gatherers for the Tour de France, I decide to take time out.

A long and frustrating diversion means I have to take the most indirect route to the Louvre possible. Squeezing past a plethora of bright yellow Tour de France t-shirts and hat stalls, and bedazzled tourists, I eventually turn through an arch into the courtyard of the Louvre.

The queue circles around the elegant glass pyramid, and eventually I am in, and navigating my way to the Egyptian exhibits. I hadn’t anticipated the scale of the Louvre – really I hadn’t – and its cavernous wonders, spaces and corridors seem to have more intricacy than the human mind; at least more than the mind could ever possibly fully absorb.

The Egyptian area is marked by the appearance of a magnificent sphinx.

Smaller artefacts appear around every corner, including small carved boats. I’m astonished at the level of detail retained after all this time.

Large hieroglyphic tablets boggle the mind – do we really know everything about this ancient world?

Other artefacts indicate the level of dedication they had to worship and ritual.

Some of the figures look almost otherworldly.

Just when I think that these discoveries are over, I enter a huge room lined with giant, hieroglyphic columns and imposing statues.

I’m particularly drawn to a hieroglyphic arch. The Egyptians seemed to have held most of their importance on portals and transcendence.

Speaking of transcendence I finish off in the afterlife section, though a little eerie, giving a sense of the scale of belief they had in the ‘other’ world. A mock-up of a mummy reveals the end result of the preparation for the afterlife.

Ascending the stone steps back into the Tour de France crowds, I welcome the chance of such a fascinating and unusual distraction, into another time and place entirely.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Diocletian Delight

A member of the EU for just over a year now, Croatia harbours many European wonders. Majestic, rich Roman history, an incredibly well preserved palace and hidden Adriatic wonders amid relatively unspoilt islands, I take a breath of fresh sea air in Split, on the growingly popular Dalmatian coast of Croatia. What was it about Split that Diocletian found so appealing to build a palace there?

A rowdy, restless stag group and a few rows of talkative Americans behind me; seemingly seasoned travellers to Croatia from what I can hear over the loud beer induced ‘whoops’ from the Welsh revellers. If a destination could be judged by the passengers descending on it, I’m not quite sure what to expect.
Croatia is still young as far as established tourist destinations are concerned. Joining the EU might be another leap onwards from the often still raw sensitivities and hangovers from the brutal Croatian War of Independence of the nineties. Prior reading about the dangers of potentially still active landmines (although primarily limited to rural areas) and public sensitivity to discussions of war emphasise this.
Roughly half an hour from the airport by coach I reach Split harbour, and then a short taxi ride to Podstrana. The staff at Le Meridien Lav are very welcoming, and I am stunned by the view from the lobby of the Adriatic coast. The hotel room is spaciously comfortable, and it becomes more obvious that the typical clientele of this hotel are the ‘yachty’ type: the sailing art in the room, the yacht magazines, the marina and, perhaps, the majority of well-heeled, smartly dressed guests, all oozing an air of nautical reminiscence while manoeuvring towards the champagne bar.
Enjoying the late evening warmth, spectacular sunset and a cocktail at the hotel’s own beach, I’m left with a pleasant and relieving first impression – no rowdy stag groups to be seen just yet.

Split is considered to be roughly 1700 years old, an age derived from the construction of the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace in 305CE. What better way to get to the most widely conceived root of the city than starting with a wander around one of the oldest and persevering Roman ‘ruins’. Back in 305CE the walled encampment would have been heavily patrolled and governed by the Emperor, but now, under UNESCO protection, it’s very much under control of the Croatian people who live and work within its limestone walls.
I arrive at the harbour via the hotel’s shuttle bus service, and make my way around to the Riva, Split’s modern waterfront opposite the palace. From here, those looking to discern a distinctive ‘fortress’ may be disappointed, as the palace is now so well incorporated into the local architecture, shops and restaurant fronts, and with its sheer size is impossible to identify as a block-like structure. In fact, only portions are reminiscent of a military style encampment, such as the basement level entrance I traverse after crossing the street. In fact, the intricate and detailed architecture, homely and florally adorned buildings are welcoming. I feel like I am emerging into a small town of luxury villas rather than a fortified palace. A few posters promote the fact that the palace is being used as the set for the new season of ‘Game of Thrones’, which I am yet to see, but can understand why its historical, unique and wholesome architecture might appeal to film crews.
I emerge at the top of some stairs into the Peristyle, a large impressive court, surrounded by Roman brilliance: towering columns, the oldest and smallest cathedral in the world, Cathedral of St Domnius on my right, exquisite limestone building fronts and a few ‘Romans’ themselves, cashing in on the authentic atmosphere.
I peer past the hordes of tourists posing with the guard’s modern counterparts; red caped, smiling and most likely less scrupulous than the real thing, and look up at the spectacular cathedral and bell tower. Punctuating the entrance is an imposing sphinx figure, beheaded, but yet strikingly well preserved for an imported Egyptian artefact over 3000 years old. The sphinx offers apparent protection from the holy space within.
The cashing in continues behind me as a mock address from a costumed Emperor draws tourists into the court, as he waves to his ‘followers’. I depart the Peristyle and wander around the well-worn cobbled streets. An excavated area reveals elaborate tiling from the Roman bath, a sign that despite its almost immaculate condition, the Palace had even more delights to showcase in its Roman past.
I notice the fresh, uplifting sea-air cascading in from the Adriatic through the ‘windows’ in the palace walls. No wonder this place was long hailed for its health benefits throughout the ages. It really is invigorating.
More cashing in ensues as I enter a captivating tall circular tower, the blue sky filtering in ethereally and illuminating an intricately detailed archway. An all-male bellowing band then descends on my position, filling the acoustically generous space with just-about-tolerable music, before brandishing their CD like a threatening weapon.

I escape through another gate which takes me outside the palace, and here I am informed I should touch the toe of bronze statue for good luck, currently concealed by scaffolding. I oblige, of course, and from his vantage point I can see more clearly the incredible stature and strength of the palace walls.

Beachside dining, cocktails and swimming sums up the rest of the day, followed by a mini-adventure in a paddleboat the following morning. I hadn’t quite expected Split to be so scenic, in fact I’m pretty sure that I had previously associated Croatia with Eastern European concrete blocks and inevitable hardships after the war, but sitting off the coast in a paddle boat it certainly looks like an undiscovered paradise.

Marjan’s peak is marked by a large cross and a Croatian flag. I am back at the harbour, and spying the cross from here, Split’s huge forested park area looks vast, and the peak seemingly hours away. A general sense of direction vaguely guides me through the narrow, storybook streets, and before I know it I am at the gates of Marjan. I wonder why it’s necessary to have an armed guard at the gate, as I pass nonchalantly and up the winding path to the peak. Tantalising glimpses of the distant hills, glistening Adriatic sea and coast can be seen through the trees. The occasional outlook offers another glance and a welcome rest.

Passed by easy-gliding cyclists, hurtling downhill, I reach the foot of the steps that will take me to the concrete platform at the top. The giant cross dominates, and the Croatian flag at the top looks proudly authoritative when framed by the still blue sky. I walk around the perimeter, snapping a few shots with equal pride that I may have burned off a few of the beachside cocktails.

Downhill is less arduous, and a long direct series of steps makes the journey back to Split town even quicker. The terracotta, sun-defending roofs and limestone spires visible below lessen the feeling of leaving unspoilt woods for urban sprawling chaos, but instead for a laid back Adriatic gem.

I witness a very public wedding back in the palace, marked by the launching of bright flares all around the Peristyle, further highlighting the palace’s longitude of life. This certainly isn’t a moth-balled poorly preserved ruin. I head down into the basement to see its underbelly.

A sculpture exhibition and a ghostly lack of tourists makes the caverned rooms feel a little creepy. Water cascades down moss covered ceiling and walls as I skip over puddles – a far cry from the level of preservation upstairs, but a reminder of the true age of the palace. Several cats and kittens also seem to be making good use of Diocletian’s old haunt.

Perplexed by a multitude of island hopping options, Hvar is my destination the next morning. Split has many neighbouring islands: Brac seems to be the most popular option, with Hvar heralded as the more ‘naturistic’ and laid back to the south, and party central to the north.
The ferry departs Split harbour promptly, and affords more spectacular views of the Adriatic coastline, passing many yachts and enticing emerald-watered retreats abound during the two hour journey.
Disembarking, there seems to be only one main path to follow around the rocky coved beaches. The serenity at the south of the island appears to attract like-minded people, hopefully with little chance of bumping into those stag doers here…

Eventually I reach a harbour, tucked away behind buildings so endearingly European, quiet and storybook-like, it’s almost like discovering some pre-meditated movie set of spontaneous, effortless yet precisely perfect construction. I imagine I’m waiting to hear somebody yell ‘action’, and witness a glamorous movie star step off an arriving yacht.

I stop for a wonderfully prepared lunch by the water, and then delve in further to the ‘movie set’, yet there is no false backing – in fact the back streets reveal further delights, including a virtually hidden cathedral and court.

Further on, the area becomes more wooded and secluded, harbouring a few small bays, bars and areas for sun-worshippers. Seeing the ferry port from the other side, I realise just how far I have to get back to the ferry, and slowly make my way back, stopping here and there to sit by the water and absorb the tranquillity.

My taste of Croatia, though limited to this coastal area, has transformed my warped ‘old-school’ view of this part of the world, from high-rise blocks, language barriers and post-war hang-ups to stunning Adriatic vistas, wall-to-wall summer perfection, immersive Roman experiences, tranquillity and class galore. Diocletian made the right choice.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Tokyo Rising

Architectural planning and design is often born solely of national pride and ambition. Tokyo Skytree, completed in 2011 and built primarily to replace the skyscraper-stifled 1958 Tokyo Tower to aid blocked TV broadcast signals, seems to achieve both. I once again subject myself to vertigo for a brief visit to the contemporary Tokyo icon.

“Ah yes, Bunny Café”, greets the passing Japanese man eager to practice his English, bringing his humble bike to a halt in front of me as I stop in front of a small window. I am on my way to the Toyko Skytree, my orientation obvious as the tower beckons and glistens further down the road. 

I had made my way from the neighbouring Sensō-ji Buddhist temple complex in Asakusa. The giant lanterns, traditional wooden structures dating back to 645 C.E., gardens and Samurai statues surrounding it couldn’t be any more different from my next destination. From Tokyo’s oldest to Tokyo’s newest.

The ‘Bunny Hug Café’, and its adorable hopping inhabitants, will soon be dwarfed and lost in a panoramic cityscape, along with everything else around me. 

After a brief, if awkward exchange about the stormy weather back at home in the UK, and the freak snow storm in much of Japan, leaving large tidily swept icy piles along the roadside, I continue onwards. A cloudless, clear and sunny sky all around me promises good visibility from the tower.

At the base, I find myself struggling to crane my neck far enough to take it all in. The lattice-like structure surround it seems to stretch endlessly, and effortlessly, as though adding volume and fortification. The white intricate framework conveys an organic, natural energy that the red ironwork of Tokyo Tower lacks. The colour is actually the traditional Japanese bluish white hue ‘aijiro’.

Airport security style queuing ensues inside. The base of the lattice structure is visible inside. I struggle to understand how a huge tower can be supported by a few winding supports; best not to think about it.
A cartoonish moving mural displayed on TV screens above the queues highlights what can be seen from above. Such an interpretation can often make more sense than a real world view from above.

The walls are lined with various forms of inspiration for the towers design, ranging from what looks like traditional Japanese Heian period pagodas, to the more absurd but obviously influential shapes of, for example, a coiled spring.

Tickets are purchased accompanied with the usual friendly Japanese etiquette, and I am ushered to another waiting area after passing through a security checkpoint, to await an elevator. 

At 2080 feet high, Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, surpassing the Canton Tower in Ghuangzhou, China, but not to be confused with the tallest structure – Tokyo Skytree is second to the Burj Khalifa of Dubai in that merit. I will be heading to the first observatory at 1150 feet, the ‘Tembo Deck’, housing a restaurant, café and shop.

After witnessing a horde of noisy School-children being herded into the lift before me, I’m slightly relieved. I am called forward and watch the rapidly descending numbers above, until the lift doors open. The large lift is airy and mood-lit, with calming music offering reassurance during the otherwise alarmingly fast ascension. 

Whoosh – rather unexpectedly, the doors soon open revealing a very bright space; sun-shine gleams from ahead. Working my way around the ‘deck’ clockwise, useful touch-screen sight-spotting guides assist in making sense of the sprawling urban brightness. Tokyo looks bizarrely flat, and predominantly grey from up here.

Nausea grips as I lean tentatively over the glass floor section, as it does when the irrational thought of potential earthquakes enters my mind. Ironically I’m sure that this the cutting edge of earthquake safe design; or so I hope. In fact, the tower is reinforced with a seismic proofing concrete central shaft. It’s also equipped with ‘oil dampers’, most of the way up, capable of absorbing 50% of an earthquake’s energy. Reassuring indeed.

I imagine that the view might be stunning at night, although perhaps the best view might be of the tower itself in the evening, illuminated by LED lights, and capable of various different configurations for occasions, like Christmas.

The naming of Tokyo Skytree isn’t actually a direct spin-off from the design phase. Rather democratically, a public vote was cast in which 110,000 Tokyoites chose from six potential names, themselves suggestions from the general public. The tower was very nearly named ‘Tokyo Edo Tower’, with ‘Dream Lookout’ and ‘Rising Tower’ as other suggestions. ‘Tokyo Skytree’ emerged as the favourite with 30% of the vote.

I get a better view of Tokyo from the other side of the tower, where there is less glare from the otherwise welcome sun. Another mild panic about the sheer height combined with the imaginary earthquake scenario in my head prompts the decision to head back down to earth. The deck above isn’t going to be an option for me today.

An impromptu visit from a clearly fearless, or completely insane window cleaner puts me to shame. I perish the thought of being winched up by a few cables, 350 metres above Tokyo.

The elevator reaches the ground as quickly as it rose. I am left wondering if this is the future of architecture. How long will it be until the skyline around Skytree reaches the same level, much in the same way Tokyo Tower was vertically depreciated? Is such construction sustainable, and ultimately necessary? Perhaps technologies will change, eliminating the need for such tall structures for practical purposes, but Tokyo Skytree speaks more than this for Japan. Architecture is a chance to exhibit cultural identity and ambition, infused with a ‘we can do this’ message about a countries economy. I don’t think it will stop here.