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From around the World

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Oscar Niemeyer rejected the square box. Instead, he honoured the curves of nature and the human body in his buildings in Brazil, France, Italy and the U.S. Here’s a blossom in his memory…dropped from the massive Hibiscus in front of Niemeyer’s studio in Rio overlooking Copacabana Beach.

203_oscarniemeyer_lehavreLifting off: Niemeyer’s joyous curves at Maison de la culture du Havre, France. P. Michel Moch

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Headquarters of the Communist Party, Paris, France.  Niemeyer was a life-long Communist who apparently waived his design fees to create this building with its sci-fi, ethereal interiors.

 IMG03598Inside the rain forest outside of Rio, Niemeyer’s house (1953) is part shelter, part sensuous sculpture.

 IMG03603At poolside, a sculpture by Alfredo Ceschiatti.  The female form inspired Niemeyer throughout his life. Obviously! When Frank Gehry visited him at his studio in Rio, Niemeyer showed him a series of pictures on his desk of beautiful women on the Rio beach…”one of her back, the next one of her stomach, the next one of her back, the next one on her stomach.”

IMG03587What every home should have: Bookshelves rolling around a curved wall.

IMG03585Niemeyer and I in his house…sadly, I had to leave Rio before his secretary returned my email confirming our meeting. Goodbye Oscar.  Boa Noite.

Room with a view, at sunrise. Looking out over the Hauz Khas, a 13th-century Mughal complex of higher learning, with a mosque, madresa, college…

 and domed pavilions designed to inspire philosophic gatherings.

These days, students retreat to the Mughal-era ruins to escape the intense density of New Delhi. Views give out over an expansive, historic ‘tank’ of water.

Hauz Khas is a hip, designer-rich, walkable neighbourhood – a rare find in India.  Our apartment, rented via Air bnb, allowed views to the Mughal-era complex but also, at ground floor, to men hauling wooden carts travelling along the narrow streets along with school children in uniforms who would sometimes stop to say a prayer in front of the neighbourhood Hindu shrine.   This tea salon discovered up a steep flight of stairs, next to a bakery.

City with surreal views.

Monkey with a view.

Through the dust, heat and travelling at high speeds…view from a crowded rickshaw, en route to the Taj Mahal.

Room with an unparalleled view. The Taj Mahal, a love story.  Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s domed mausoleum in white marble for Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved wife and mother of their 14 children.

6 AM.  Floating on the Ganges River, Varanasi, India, where the current runs strong but time has stayed still.  A boy in a light wooden craft selling handmade wishing candles skims along the Ganges, considered by Hindus to be the sacred ‘mother’.

At sunrise, pilgrims descend the ‘ghat’ staircases to wash themselves vigorously at the edge of the holy river.

6:30 AM. At the main ‘burning’ ghat, some 300 bodies are turned to ash on open funeral pyres every day.  Masses of logs are brought to the famous Dashashwamedh ghat and hauled by men up the steep slope to the burning sites. The burning stench lies heavy in the air.  According to ancient dictate, those diseased with chicken pox, leprosy, holy men, children and pregnant women are not burned but lowered into the Ganges with the weight of stones.

Women bathe, immersing themselves fully in the river while wearing their saris. Vendors put out their jewellery beneath the “chhatris”, timeworn parasols made of thatched bamboo and clad in patchwork.

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is renown for its ancient design of saris. But try choosing one in the heat, when the vendor keeps pulling more and more exotic colour combinations from the boxes on the shelves. When I was there, a ‘sacred’ cow wandered down the laneway and stuck his enormous head inside the shop.

A river of silk – part of the hallucinogenic spell India casts on visitors.

Here’s a Scandinavian version of meditative space: the kamppi chapel of silence by Helsinki-based K2S Architects.  The solid, windowless building blocks out the sound of an overly cluttered mind or city noise – useful when the roar of vodka-inebriated soccer fans visiting Helsinki from Russia becomes overwhelming.

CNC-cut glue-laminated elements make up the structural framework of the building with spruce wood planks used for the cladding of the chapel.  The client was the City of Helsinki and Helsinki Parish Union.  (Images Tuomas Uusheimo.)

The Cube, designed by the talented, young Canadian studio 5468796 Architecture, sits like a jewel in Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District.

Designed with twisted aluminum, custom-fabricated by a Hutterite colony, the malleable screen surrounds a room of concrete – reminiscent of Tadao Ando – which serves as a popular stage and event space.  As a private meditation space, you could lose yourself in the reflections.

Closer to home is one of the most enchanting, unscripted meditative rooms: Wolf Lake, Ontario.  Where the walls and the sky roof change with the seasons.

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An abandoned office tower in the middle of Caracas – that deeply troubled and dangerous city – has been squatted by more than 700 families.  An exhibition and installation by architecture critic Justin McGuirk, Caracas-based Urban-Think Tank and Dutch photographer Iwan Baan which documents the ingenuity and will to survive in the Torre David skyscraper has received the top prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.  I’ve toured parts of Caracas with members of Urban-Think Tank.  Their work is gutsy and visionary.  A huge congratulations to them for winning the Golden Lion for best project.

Image    A small city exists within the 45-storey tower, including  hair salons, mini convenience stores, a church and restaurants.

Image No need to romanticize this as a desirable kind of urban utopia.  Having seen the sprawling slums in Caracas that house an estimated one million people on the edge of the city, my take on the Torre David squat is that it exemplifies a desperation to improvise a sense of normalcy – and safety. And it’s not architecture without architects…the concrete frame structure was originally designed by Venezuelan architect Enrique Gomez, but the project was abandoned following the death of its developer David Brillembourg in 1993.  Venezuela was once an oil-rich, sophisticated country but, since its economy imploded in 1994 and President Chavez came onto the scene, that reality has become a faraway memory. (Above photos by Iwan Baan.)

Next to an inner city slum in Caracas, Urban-Think Tank designed the hugely popular Bello Campo Vertical Gym.  When I visited it was packed with children learning ribbon gymnastics, runners on an elevated catwalk track and young soccer players training on a rooftop field.  Crime is estimated to have decreased by 30 per cent in the neighbourhood because of the gym’s activating presence.  That’s architecture with a social conscience and it looks good in bright colours and high-tech exposed structural frame.

An invitation to spend the night in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gardener’s Cottage (1909) was unexpected and irresistible.  (Thank you to the Martin House Restoration Corp.) Before going to sleep I caught the reflection of a Tiffany lamp in a portrait of Wright that hangs in the cottage bedroom.    The sweet two-storey cottage is set within the Darwin Martin House complex, one of Wright’s residential masterpieces that spreads some serious presence in a Buffalo neighbourhood.

Wright was intrigued by the absence of light and shadowy interiors.  But the two-storey cottage is filled with light pouring in from generous wood-framed windows that line the walls of the bedroom and the living room.  Wright’s Barrel chairs, designed specifically for the Martin House, super comfortable.  The couch not so much. The bed fantastic.

Wright specified miles of rift cut white oak and Roman brick for the main Martin House. But, for the nearby Gardener’s Cottage, materials were simplified: wainscoting in cypress and broad brush stucco. Sage green…because Wright advocated going to the woods and the fields for colour schemes.

 Morning time view from the Gardeners’ Cottage, across the terra cotta rooftop, to the Greatbatch Pavilion, a visitor centre, intelligently designed as a piece of luminous architecture by American architect Toshiko Mori.  Mori was intrigued by the sheltering eaves of the prairie-style architecture, and inverted Wright’s low-slung hip roof  for the visitor centre so that the interior ceiling dips down toward the exhibition space.

Gardener’s Cottage set between the visitor centre and adjoining clapboard homes belonging to the leafy Parkside Historic District neighbourhood.

Class difference: this is not the Gardener’s Cottage, but the reception room of the main Martin House.  The sunburst fireplace with bronze gilding in the mortar joints between the bricks was intended to warm the heart, though the Martin House fell into ruin after the Depression and is only now undergoing a massive and impressive restoration.  If you’ve been to Wright’s Fallingwater, seek out the Martin complex next.

Pop-up architecture reinvents instantly. Sometimes it exhilarates.   Like this one: a canopy of pink balls floating over Rue Sainte Catherine in Montreal’s gay village, bringing waves of people to the newly created pedestrian mall below.  Check the Montreal artsy video for more.


At the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London, the 2012 temporary pavilion by Chinese conceptualist and dissident artist Ai Weiwei with Swiss architects Herzog + de Meuron sends a disc of water over an excavation cloaked in cork.  The columns from the 11 previous pavilions are revealed below. Chinese authorities prevented the fearless Weiwei from attending the opening earlier this summer.   Last year, Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest, was imprisoned in China for several months and his studio was destroyed.

White tent drama popped-up at Fort York sprawling grounds in downtown Toronto.  Ghostly, ethereal, every one of the 200 tents offering artful interiors. Wander in late at night and cast your shadow against the shimmering shelters.

Mr. Nescafé, we loved your voice, but not your watery instant coffee.  Zap ahead a few decades to the real pours.  One of my all-time favourite coffee zones is the unfussy, slightly grungy Mercury Espresso Bar in Leslieville, Toronto.   The baristas are wizards and the wooden shelves are filled with freshly harvested coffee beans from across Latin America.  There’s usually lyrical art up on the walls.   I also like the no-cellphone-policy-while ordering. Respect for respect.

After beach volleyball and paddleboarding, the long weekend at Lake Huron was spent luxuriating with Tim Horton’s stored in a big tin and pulled out of a cedar cupboard.  Savoured in blue willow cups with vintage hand-stitched flag from Ontario.

Lining up last week for some fresh brew at the coffee cart on the elevated High Line park in NYC’s Meatpacking District. Perfect pours by unhurried baristas, despite the million or so visitors walking the High Line each year.

Manual drip has its charms.  Like music, which sounds infinitely better with record players.

Nice to wake up to: Very buttoned down hotel coffee, like this classic scenario at Pavilion de la Reine next to Place des Vosges, Paris.

I’m on the hunt, often, for the ultimate in cabin experiences. Which might help to explain my fascination with the blog, cabinporn.   Recently posted is this image of a sunlit interior at Rackwick Bothy (also known as Burnmouth Cottage) on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Wood and stone never looked so authentic and right.

There are a couple pre-requisites for an enduring cabin:  authentic materiality and an indoor-outdoor room to inspire the writing of a great novel, season after season, year after year.

Ideally, a great bar to help inspire the great novel. (This one at the 350-year-old Hermitage Plantation set up high on the island of Nevis in the rainforest.)

And morning wake-up tea to sip and contemplate one’s amazing escape from the city.

I can highly recommend Stanley Mitchell Hut, a wood-frame jewel of a cabin built in 1940 and set in a meadow about 6,825 feet in the Little Yoho Valley in Yoho National Park, BritishColumbia.   We signed up to be custodians of Stanley Mitchell Hut one summer and played host to climbers from around the world.  Contact the Alpine Club of Canada if you’d like to do the same. (Photo by Paul Zizka.)

Where there is a cabin there are almost always piles of sweet-smelling wood.  In Sweden, wood piles are exquisitely designed.  So, let’s remember that for our ideal cabin.

The Bergman-Werntoft House by Johan Sundberg, near Malmo, Sweden.  The wood piles are in the back.

Or perhaps you were thinking of the ultimate indoor-outdoor, more outdoor than indoor, cabin. So long as there are books and a place to write, I wouldn’t mind.

Waking up. Looking up to the morning sky.  Past an artful split of wooden timbers. (Designed by Suppose Design Office, Japan.)

Showering in style.  Training the bears to pass the soap.

Breakfast delivered in a basket.  I did not make this up:  On the small island of Saynatsalo, several hours north of Helsinki, Finland, breakfast in a basket was brought to me one early morning by a woman who worked for the Alvar Aalto Museum.  I’d been invited to sleep over in one of the guest rooms available within the Aalto masterpiece, the Saynatsalo Town Hall.  Imagine how good the coffee tasted while I gazed upon the courtyard of the Town Hall and listened to the soothing sounds of the fountain in the reflecting pool.

Closer to home, when spring is still wrestling with winter, there’s the comfort of sheepskins, good books and a fire to transition from morning to afternoon.