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From the time-machine: Istanbul’s Aya Sofia

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Two years ago we decided to spend Christmas in Istanbul, and I was thinking about it earlier today. Of course, I also went back to Istanbul with my good friend Sarah this past September, so I have more recent memories as well.  I really love Istanbul. No, I mean I REALLY LOVE Istanbul. If I wasn’t living in London, I could very easily be convinced that the Bosphorus was the place for me. 🙂

So here are a few pictures from the Aya Sofia, (follow the link for all the information about the site). It was built as a Christian church in the year 537 during the Byzantine Empire. It was a Greek Orthodox Basilica until the year 1453, when Byzantium was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the city became known as Constantinople. At that time, the Aya Sofia was converted into a mosque. Many of the religious icons in the church were destroyed, but some of the most beautiful mosaics were simply plastered over, which actually protected them quite well. The building served as a mosque until 1931, when it was closed for four years. In 1935 it was reopened as a museum, although it is the building and it’s history that is being preserved, not any collections inside. (There are some snarky comments on TripAdvisor about people who are expecting a traditional museum experience – clearly they didn’t do their homework!)

Some of the largest and most impressive doors I have ever seen. I like the arrows telling you which way to go. Those Byzantines had good way-finding!

Some of the largest and most impressive doors I have ever seen. I like the arrows telling you which way to go. Those Byzantines had good way-finding!

To give you a sense of scale.... Alex is just about 6 feet tall!

To give you a sense of scale…. Alex is just about 6 feet tall! Notice how the marble in the center of the floor is worn down from centuries of foot traffic.

Looking down into the main space. It's fascinating because many of the Christian and Islamic remnants are still visible, coexisting side-by-side.

Looking down into the main space. It’s fascinating because many of the Christian and Islamic remnants are still visible, coexisting side-by-side.

I love the detailed stonework. It looks like lace, but it's carved from rock.

I love the detailed stonework. It looks like lace, but it’s carved from rock.

One of the most well-preserved Christian mosaics.

One of the most well-preserved Christian mosaics.

They have these hanging chandeliers in the main space,  which creates the odd effect of a false ceiling. It minimizes the vastness of the space, but offers much needed light during the winter days.

They have these hanging chandeliers in the main space, which creates the odd effect of a false ceiling. It minimizes the vastness of the space, but offers much needed light during the winter days.

A view of the arches that support the large, interior dome.

A view of the arches that support the large, interior dome.

This must be one of the most popular spots to take a photograph in Istanbul - with the Aya Sofia in the background!

This must be one of the most popular spots to take a photograph in Istanbul – with the Aya Sofia in the background!

Luckily for me, Alex has a work trip to Istanbul next fall, so I’ll definitely be going back again!

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Walking the walls of Dubrovnik

The St Lawrence Fortress sits just outside the walls, and is often called Dubrovnik's Gibraltar.

The St Lawrence Fortress sits just outside the walls, and is often called Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar.

Our trip to Croatia over the Christmas holidays was incredibly special – it’s definitely in the top 3 of my “list of favourite places”. (So far the others are Japan and Istanbul.) Walking along the city walls was without a doubt the highlight of the trip, which is why I’m going to post these pictures from our jaunt around the town. First of all, it’s not a short jaunt. We’ve walked the city walls in places like York and Winchester, so we thought we knew what to expect. Even in Istanbul, the short sections that you can actually access are not very extensive. But we weren’t prepared for Dubrovnik. There are only 2 or 3 access points, and once you are ON the wall, you can’t get OFF.

Wikipedia says that the wall runs for 1,940 metres, but I could easily believe it was double that, simply for the amount of stairs! Dubrovnik is perched on the side of a mountain, and the amount of ups and downs makes for a strenuous “jaunt!”

But it was gorgeous. Absolutely, stunningly, jaw-droppingly perfect.

  1. Take water. In the summer months there is one café, approximately halfway around, that sells snacks and drinks, but in the winter you are on your own. And because the sun can be quite bright (even in December), you’ll be thirsty before you get to the first tower.
  2. But not too much water. There is only one set of toilets on the wall – about halfway around (conveniently near the café), and they charge for admittance. So don’t drink too much, or you’ll find yourself hurrying around the last bits just to get down again!
  3. Wear comfy shoes. I already mentioned the steps, but I re-iterate. There are a lot of steps. We probably went up and down the equivalent of 8-10 storeys on well-worn stone steps, some with handrails, but some without.
  4. Ask if you can leave at the halfway point and come back. The signage is very confusing, particularly during the off-season. It seemed to use that once you enter the walls, you have to complete the full circuit before you can leave, and your ticket is only good for one entry. However, I’ve found reference in various guidebooks that you can leave the wall and come back later – although there are only 2 or 3 places you can do this, it would have been nice to break the day.
  5. Don’t stop too often. In the beginning we stopped every 20 feet to take pictures because it’s JUST SO BEAUTIFUL, before realising that we would be on the wall for days if we didn’t pick up the pace. Don’t worry – it just gets better and better – you won’t miss anything.
  6. Don’t forget that people live next to the walls. It was fairly empty during our circumnavigation, but I can only imagine that in the summer months it’s crawling with tourists. And there were people hanging out on their balconies, doing laundry, washing the dog … all the regular activities of life, mere metres from where we were being obnoxiously touristy.

So, all that being said, here are some of our snaps. Enjoy!

One of the many fortifications built into the walls - this one is on the landward side.

One of the many fortifications built into the walls – this one is on the landward side.

This is Fort Bokar, on the west side of the city, which is a key defensive point for the Pile Gate (our hotel was just outside this gate, so we passed through it every day).

This is Fort Bokar, on the west side of the city, which is a key defensive point for the Pile Gate (our hotel was just outside this gate, so we passed through it every day).

We thought it would be a quick, 20 minute brisk walk. It took us a good 3-4 hours!

We thought it would be a quick, 20 minute brisk walk. It took us a good 3-4 hours!

Looking east along the wall, you can see how high it is above the tops of the buildings. It rises 85 metres in some places!

Looking east along the wall, you can see how high it is above the tops of the buildings. It rises 85 metres in some places!

A little guard tower, overlooking the water.

A little guard tower, overlooking the water.

I would not make a very good guard in the little guard tower....

I would not make a very good guard in the little guard tower….

Heading east along the water side - in the distance is the island Lokrum (where Richard III was shipwrecked on his way back from the Holy Land.)

Heading east along the water side – in the distance is the island Lokrum (where Richard III was shipwrecked on his way back from the Holy Land.)

Here you can see the wall and our walkway running along the right-edge of the photo. To the left is a school, with an artifical field for sports! There is hardly any green space within the city walls.

Here you can see the wall and our walkway running along the right-edge of the photo. To the left is a school, with an artifical field for sports! There is hardly any green space within the city walls.

I loved this falling archway! Don't worry - we didn't have to walk over it. This is a bit of the walls that were badly damaged during the Siege of Dubrovnik (1991-1992).

I loved this falling archway! Don’t worry – we didn’t have to walk over it. This is a bit of the walls that were badly damaged during the Siege of Dubrovnik (1991-1992).

Red tile roofs ... blue Adriatic...

Red tile roofs … blue Adriatic…

The old harbor, which sits just inside the eastern edge of the city. Later I'll post some picture from a boat tour we took from here.

The old harbor, which sits just inside the eastern edge of the city. Later I’ll post some picture from a boat tour we took from here.

Looking down from the wall into a typical Dubrovnik "street". No cars allowed, of course, and lots of stairs and narrow passageways.

Looking down from the wall into a typical Dubrovnik “street”. No cars allowed, of course, and lots of stairs and narrow passageways.

Laundry day.

Laundry day.

I think I could retire here.

I think I could retire here.

This is the part of old town Dubrovnik most damaged (and not yet repaired) by the siege in 1991-1992.

This is the part of old town Dubrovnik most damaged (and not yet repaired) by the siege in 1991-1992.

One set of stairways up to the wall - they've almost all been closed off now, so you can only enter and exit via the approved routes.

One set of stairways up to the wall – they’ve almost all been closed off now, so you can only enter and exit via the approved routes.

In which I write a pretentious architectural review of MALBA

I am not an architect. I have never studied architecture. (Although I snogged an architect once, which surely gives me some credentials.) This post might come off quite badly, and I might look like a pretentious twerp because of it, but I’m going to persevere. Not because I think I’m better than I am, but because I think that good architecture should speak to everyone, not just the intellectually informed or highly-educated.

I am going to write a bit of an architectural review of MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. The building was designed by AFT Architects, an Argentinian firm that Wikipedia claims is “renowned”, although I would argue that point. It houses a collection of modern work by artists across South America, which is a great idea. The collection itself is nice, though a bit small, but I can certainly appreciate the goals of the organization.

What I have mixed feelings about is the building.

The exterior is nice, with sharp lines and white marble. It reminds me of a lot of "modern architecture", and I wonder how well it will age. The building opened in 2001, and already the white is starting to look a bit dingy.

The exterior is nice, with sharp lines and white marble. It reminds me of a lot of “modern architecture”, and I wonder how well it will age. The building opened in 2001, and already the white is starting to look a bit dingy. The angular lines are nice, and I love how the squares and rectangles intersect. The glass square seems stuck onto the side as an afterthought, but once you enter the space you can see there is a connection to the main atrium. If you look at the glass square, you can see that there are lines on it, that get longer the closer the ground. In my opinion, this is an attempt to give the glass movement – like raindrops, but instead it just looks a bit kooky.

This is the famous view of the interior atrium. Almost all the publicity shots using a variation of this, looking down through three storeys onto two escalators. The escalators feel really dark and heavy, like black strips of coal, in the light and bright space. I would have loved to see some more creative design for the escalators - something that matches the surroundings.

This is the famous view of the interior atrium. Almost all the publicity shots using a variation of this, looking down through three storeys onto two escalators. The escalators feel really dark and heavy, like black strips of coal, in the light and bright space. I would have loved to see some more creative design for the escalators – something that matches the surroundings.

This is taken from the top of the escalators, looking back at the vantage point from which the previous photo was taken. At first I couldn't understand what that spaghetti-like substance was....

This is taken from the top of the escalators, looking back at the vantage point from which the previous photo was taken. At first I couldn’t understand what that spaghetti-like substance was….

But then I walked down the corridor and saw this. I absolutely LOVE this. It's amazing. The slats of the bench are rebelling against their stated purpose, and escaping over the edge of the wall.... growing out of control.... if I could have this in my house, I would. In a heartbeat.  And yet, I have to ask, is this appropriate for the space? It's very permanent, and it really over-rides any other use of the atrium. They can never change or add new art to the main hall, because this bench takes up all the dramatic impact. I would prefer if they would switch it up every few months - give people reasons to come back.

But then I walked down the corridor and saw this. I absolutely LOVE this. It’s amazing. The slats of the bench are rebelling against their stated purpose, and escaping over the edge of the wall…. growing out of control…. if I could have this in my house, I would. In a heartbeat. And yet, I have to ask, is this appropriate for the space? It’s very permanent, and it really over-rides any other use of the atrium. They can never change or add new art to the main hall, because this bench takes up all the dramatic impact. I would prefer if they would switch it up every few months – give people reasons to come back.

This is a good shot of the main atrium. And it's a good illustration of what I don't like about the design. The geometric patterns are not cohesive. There are squares AND rectangles AND columns AND triangles, AND circles, and none of them seem to relate to the others. It would have been so easy to make the triangles on the ceiling match the triangles on the window, but they don't. OR to make the squares in the elevator bracing match the squares along the balcony, but they don't. Or to make the columns of the elevator bracings match the columns along the balcony, but they don't. I get the whole geometric thing, I really do, and I love it when it's done cleanly, but this feels a bit too jam-packed to be called minimalism.

This is a good shot of the main atrium. And it’s a good illustration of what I don’t like about the design. The geometric patterns are not cohesive. There are squares AND rectangles AND columns AND triangles, AND diamonds, AND circles, and none of them seem to relate to the others. It would have been so easy to make the triangles on the ceiling match the triangles on the window, but they don’t. OR to make the squares in the elevator bracing match the squares along the balcony, but they don’t. Or to make the columns of the elevator bracings match the columns along the balcony, but they don’t. I get the whole geometric thing, I really do, and I love it when it’s done cleanly, but this feels a bit too jam-packed to be called minimalism.

This is an odd picture, I know, but it clearly illustrates the other main problem I have with MALBA. The textural palette is all over the place!

This is an odd picture, I know, but it clearly illustrates the other main problem I have with MALBA. The textural palette is all over the place! Look at the wide silver/grey panel in the middle of the pic. It’s a different metal than the thin silver right next to it, which is also a different silver from the panel above the stairs. The security stand on the far right is yet another, shiny silver.  Or, look at the stairs themselves – an off-white marble. But wait, the wall is an off-white also, but its’ a DIFFERENT off-white! The pillar is painted yet another white, and the doorframe, which you can just see on the left of the pic (yes, it’s outlined in yet another silver), is completely smudged with finger prints, because there is no handle. Not only is it off-white, it’s a dirty off-white, and it doesn’t match any of the other off-whites. That kind of palette mixing just looks sloppy, at least in my opinion.

Here is a few looking up. You can see the sunken gallery below, which is nice, but there is an odd, dark brown door at the bottom. Nowhere else in the museum are there brown doors. I saw white doors, glass doors, silver doors, but this was the only brown one. Bizarre.

Here is a few looking up. You can see the sunken gallery below, which is nice, but there is an odd, dark brown door at the bottom. Nowhere else in the museum are there brown doors. I saw white doors, glass doors, silver doors, but this was the only brown one. Bizarre. Oh wait, and here is yet another kind of marble – more beige than off-white.

Okay. Now it's time to say some nice things. I quite liked the interior gallery spaces. The movement around the pieces were well-planned, the lighting was nice, the color schemes were subtle and complimentary to the art.

Okay. Now it’s time to say some nice things. I quite liked the interior gallery spaces. The movement around the pieces were well-planned, the lighting was nice (although in this pic it looks harsher than it did in real-life), the color schemes were subtle and complimentary to the art.

Crazy Brother of Theo.

This pic has nothing to do with faux-architectural review, but we couldn’t resist snapping a shot. The piece is by Romulo Maccio, an Argentinian painter, and was completed in 1963. The title?  “Aquel hermano loco de Theo” (That Crazy Brother of Theo).