From Glasgow to Manchester late for a few hours at home then next morning to Norwich. Four apprentices to get through their final EPAs, anxiety bubbling as I wandered this town. Found it most beautiful. Even more beautiful after they had all passed, two with distinction.
This cathedral is calm, wondrous. Romanesque arches stacked one upon the other. I love the curious weight of them yet still they soar upwards. This miraculous ribbed vaults of the nave in contrast to the simple (just as beautiful) vaulting of the aisles and the glimpse of wood roofing the second story. More traces of paint and decoration than I have seen elsewhere, all medieval, pre-reformation. Time’s passage and architecture’s technological development visible in the size of the enormous round columns with their simple spiral decorations giving way to incised flutes emerging from walls to stretch up and up alive to vault the precise stone of the ceiling.
Beauty through the train window almost made me forget anxiety. Everything remained covered with frost in the Pennines. Melting away as we reached the flats with their thick dark silt and water logged fields filled with birds.
Norwich itself it seemed I barely had time to see, I hope I come back. It too feels a bit lost in time, cobbled streets and a beautiful flint church on every stretch. Old crooked streets and crooked houses. A working class court left standing after the clearances. Spontaneous City art for insects and birds. Old stone towers and the ferry, factories along the water now mellowed brick and almost silent.
Magush reads the future in a vacant building opposite the charcoal yard where he lives. The six huge picture windows and the twelve little windows of the adjacent building are like cards for him. Magush never thought of associating windows and cards: that was my idea. His methods are mysterious and can be explained only in part. He tells me that during the day he has trouble drawing conclusions, because the light disturbs the images. The most propitious moment to carry out his task is at sunset, when certain slanting rays of light filter through the side windows of the building and are reflected onto the glass of the windows in front. That is why he always makes appointments with his clients for that hour of the day. I know, having learned from careful research, that the upper part of the building has to do with matters of the heart, the lower part with money and work, and the middle with problems of family and health.
— ‘Magush’ by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, p 126
The Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition was brilliant, fascinating. Yet it moves from simple wonder at a new world to the beauty that can be built as we flee the earth having destroyed it.
The tag line: should we stay or should we go.
But oh the wonder. It allows you to stand (or perhaps you are lucky enough to sit) in front of three enormous screens with high resolution images from rover. Like these, but without the jagged edges. See a world no human being has seen with their own eyes.
It starts, though, with the ancient Sumerians and Greeks tracing the path of mars across the sky.
It has a telescope along the lines of Caroline and William Herschel, the notebooks of Kepler and Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli of course described a phenomenon of canali, wrongly transcribed as canals and thereby the life obsessions of Percival Lawrence Lowell who built the beautiful telescope of in Flagstaff. It allows you to see scale models of these miracles of engineering humans have created to move across this terrain to capture these images. I loved each room had an engineer asking us to enter into the excitement of solving the many questions that continue to lie before us. My dad always said they should teach school not so much about all that we know but about what we don’t, and I think he was right.
I love robots, these are so splendid. Robots much like them feature most heavily in the construction of the worlds humans would have to create in the deserts of mars. Look at them building these great hollow mounds to protect human beings from the radiation of the skies above them.
This scheme for Mars housing proposes sending robot-builders in advance of the astronauts.
These robots pose a big challenge for programming and artificial intelligence, since they will need to be semi-autonomous and smart. They cannot follow a rigid routine, since much about the Mars surface and subsoil where they will be working is unknown.
The habitats are based on inflatable modules for up to four astronauts, which need to be built on Earth and then shipped to Mars. The first stage is to dig foundation pits for them, 1.5 metres deep. The inflated pods are then covered and reinforced with regolith (Martian topsoil) bound together by a 3D-printing process using microwave energy. Mars Habitat Foster + Partners, 2015
A stunning short film can be seen here: https://www.fosterandpartners.com/projects/mars-habitat/
All of these proposed models used 3d printers to spin Martian regololith topsoil into structure.
They are used here too:
MARSHA is a first principles rethinking of what a Martian habitat could be – not another low-lying dome or confined, half-buried structure but a bright, multi-level, corridor-free home that stands upright on the surface of Mars. Where structures on Earth are designed primarily for gravity and wind, Martian conditions require a structure optimized to handle internal atmospheric pressure and thermal stresses. Marsha’s unique vertically oriented, egg-like shape maintains a small footprint, minimizing mechanical stresses at the base and top which increase with diameter. Standing tall on the surface grants the human crew a superior vantage point to observe a dynamic landscape with weather patterns, clouds, and shifting hues – their new home and object of study both. The tall, narrow structure reduces the need for a construction machine to continuously rove on the surface, reducing risk and increasing speed and accuracy.
These innovations challenge the conventional image of “space age” domes by focusing on the creation of spaces tuned to both known and anticipated physical and psychological demands of a Mars mission.
They are working to create and test a new city in the Mojave, have created some really stunning visual glimpses of what a radically reimagined architecture for Mars — and Earth — might look like. Visuals are undoubtedly their strong point, there is this glorious visual of a truly massive city spreading across the new planet.
More internal schematics!
The aesthetics clearly dominate all of these, but thought did go into the lived experience of space, the need to create home. It is hard to see, however, quite what personal mark individuals might make on these pristine printed environments. Where the posters and bluetac might go, the strings of lights, the shawls and hangings, the knickknacks. There was an occasional view of a book, a toy. For that the Soviet designer Galina Balashova seemed to be in a league of her own — she painted landscapes herself for soviet astronauts to have something of home:
So much in this exhibition was streamlined and beautiful. I am still not entirely convinced it is a great idea.
Part of me embraces so much this thought of reaching for the stars and yet…Elon Musk, how can his SpaceX fill you with confidence? Though it too is beautiful as it spreads in self-contained domes across the deep red ground.
There is the film near the end in which they describe a scenario in which the planet needs us to come, return it to its former glories when it ran with water, to act as stewards. As if our experience on Earth gave any indication that this would be our role and purpose.
Also missing were serious SF thinking about space travel — Stan Robinson’s Mars trilogy impossible not to feel as an absence here. But even more so the biosphere, the actual attempt of human beings to live in such a dome. Their own experiments of growing plants in space. A reminder of why Mars makes me feel a little bit like home.
So this left me with mixed feelings.
I will end it on returning to the joy of space exploration, the mad SF covers and wild imaginings. Maybe my favourite aspect of space when you come down to it.
The housing struggle is alive and well in Göttingen, it cheered my heart.
Bitches against borders! I laughed out loud.
A sadly folded view of Lisa Simpson, also in protest
Paint splattered bank, that also happened to be home to August Herzog von Sussex (!) and Adolf Friedrich Herzog von Cambridge (!)
And Rock’n Roll Revolution
After the nauseas of Bavaria I was worried, yet Göttingen was quite lovely, This was not just because of its banners, though they set a tone. It is full of lovely old homes with their carved painted wood and names of illustrious men of past ages drawn here by the University (Bismarck, Coleridge, Humboldt) and a most wonderful bear. Also, people who smiled despite my terrible grasp of the German language.
The hill was a network of lights in which the twin stars of a car’s headlights traced a live circuit. There was an abstract, designed beauty in the setting of the clusters of bright rectangles that marked out houses along the well-lit roads, climbing at last to the long, low striations of light that signified the offices and labs at the summit. A satellite dish was a shield of gold, a communications tower a lance of silver. The captive power plant twinkled with ruby points of brilliance, cadmium sulphoselenide letting only red rays through. Good gatekeeper, cutting the seamless continuum of light into freed and absorbed, escaped and imprisoned. To the lens, there was only red and not-red. There were no other questions, no other categories. Gopal sat astride his bike and watched. Here, a hundred metres down the approach road from the town to the campus gate, he could appreciate the cold schematic beauty of it all. This complex in the middle of nowhere was the child and citadel of science, clean and limpid in its stark organization, its grid layout, its lit streets and planned bungalows. He could not think of those spaces as containing people. From here it was only infrastructure, a valued and valuable asset to the nation.
Entered in the account books of the republic: so many crores of rupees, so many man-hours of labour invested. Purpose: national security. Aims: laudable. Control: absolute. Glory: unlimited.
This is a machine for killing people. (113-114)
Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2005) Signal Red. London: Penguin.
It is hard staring up at these huge tower blocks to imagine what lives they hold within them. So many lives. Landscapes unlike anything I could have imagined growing up, in a great circle around the city and forming its boundary. There is more variation than I was expecting as I have read so much about the ubiquitous type. I love how staring at them you see just how individual they actually are with paint, balconies become rooms, curtains, plants, doorways…So many lives.
Not much time to write about Sofia — not much time for anything at all. But it is a city I quite loved. Incredibly layered, much of the past gone it’s true, but the incredible Roman ruins of Serdica lie beneath it all, swathes of it opened up to view here and there across the centre city in often unlikely places.
The Greek inscription on the first city walls of Serdica, carved over the North and West gates of the city, reads:
The greatest and divine emporers, Ceasars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Agustus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Greatest Pontiff and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Leader of the Youth, gave to the city of the Serds a fortress walls when the Governor of the porvince of Thrace was Aselius Aemilianus, Envoy of the Emporer, Propraetore, appointed as governor of that same province.
Above sits a great mix of eras between and around the great communist boulevards and massive state buildings. I was reading Owen Hatherly, and so much of what he wrote about Warsaw, Berlin and all cities not Sofia still held true here. I am not sure how much I am still fascinated by this architecture, like everything else any promise of the early soviets crushed by a ponderous Stalinism…but probably still fascinated. It carves through the older city, yet leaves so much on either side completely untouched.
This city is full of life, grit, graffiti, architecture of many periods and styles, colour, noise, good public transportation (but confusing), delicious food.
While I might not have entirely agreed with the decision to quarantine ‘socialist’ art in the city’s outskirts, I confess did quite love seeing everything in one place.
And its special ode to Lenin.
The other monument to this era is, of course, housing. It’s own post.
Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by St John of Rila, a hermit canonized by the Orthodox Church. His ascetic dwelling and tomb became a holy site and were transformed into a monastic complex which played an important role in the spiritual and social life of medieval Bulgaria. Destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. —UNESCO
Beautiful. As always I preferred the splendid murals in the light of the outside to the inside, the devils and the toothful monsters to the saints. They even had their own version of fried dough with powdered sugar and a lotería of sins painted on the walls.
The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.
This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:
Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.
Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.
We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:
He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down
I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.
Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…
— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)
The times are better I think.
But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.
But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.
And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.
This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.
It is visible for miles, perched precipitous, high on its mountain above fields golden with sunflowers. It is an incredible absurd sciencefictional thing. A flying saucer tethered to a grounding skysoaring shard of concrete.
It sits on earth of great significance, impossible beauty. Site of the last battle of rebel Hadzhi Dimitâr against the Ottomans. He received a fatal wound here, and it was for many years known by his name.
Between 1877 and 1878 a number of battles were fought here for control of Shipka pass, Russian General Gourko facing down the Ottomans, you look down on the monument itself from here.
Then on 2nd of August, 1891 the 1st Bulgarian Socialist Congress was held here under cover of celebrations of the deeds of Hadzhi Dimitâr. There is a monument to Dimitâr Blagoev at the turn off for the monument.
Some Nazis were killed here as well in 1944, and three partisans lost their lives in the ambush (though Bulgaria’s government under Tsar Boris III officially supported the Nazis until 1944). This massive 1981 installation was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, as Richard F. Morton writes:
He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha.
It was meant to symbolise all of this history as a museum and meeting space, but after decades of varying types and degrees of Stalinist rule, the fact that it was built with not-always-so-voluntary labour and subscriptions…it is not a thing I can love wholeheartedly. After it was abandoned in 1989 looters (rumored to include government officials) stripped what they could like the copper from the ceilings, smashed the red star thinking the glass to be rubies, pulled down concrete letters to leave them scattered across the grass.
All this and also the villain’s lair in Mechanic 2.
What it looks like today:
What it looked like once (this is borrowed from the best site by far about the monument, with an extensive history and many more photos, especially of the inside which you are no longer allowed to risk life and limb to see. Have a look!):
Beneath it sit this amazing sculpture of unity, two hands holding torches.
After arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, I looked at the book I was reading and there they were again.
We had to get a special tour out here as we didn’t have a car, but well worth it and we enjoyed it immensely.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.