Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

Walking and the Deep Well of Memory

July 30, 2016 2 comments

Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.

Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?

Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.

So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.

RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.

Photo: Early 2nd century A.D. apartment building, OstiaNashvilleneighbor. WikiCommons. Public Domain.


Berlin, Thebes, and the Reemergence of the Muse

July 2, 2014 2 comments


RT, as it turns out, has some German ancestry; his father was half German. Well, over the last little while, he has been revisiting an interest in Berlin the city, that is its architecture and street plan. Partly, RT thinks, his interest is due to the fact that one of his maternal ancestors was a builder in California, some of whose buildings still stand, partly to the role the city has played in European history, and partly to having recently seen the movie The Reader. But most of all, RT is intrigued by the way that Berlin has been rebuilding itself since the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited. So RT over the last two days has given himself a virtual tour of Berlin, mostly via–what else?–Wikipedia. He has learned lots about the city.

The question that emerged as RT made his Wiki tour had to do with appropriateness. How can architecture and city planning be used to reclaim Germany’s capital as a great city, in view of the terrible events of the Nazi era and the city’s long post-war division into eastern and western zones? How can ghostly memories be accommodated even as the city continues forward as an important part of the human community?


One thing to bear in mind, of course, is that any human city has had terrible things happen within its boundaries. Though cities are rebuilt time and again as one generation after another inherits them, surviving architecture reminds us of the great (and sometimes awful) events that have taken place there (just think of Rome). To judge by the number of tourists that pass through, for instance, the Pantheon, the experience of being in a particular, ancient building is important to our sense of connection with the past: this place is still here, these things really happened. This sense of connection seems to be vital to maintaining a balanced sense of  life’s possibilities.


Planning isn’t about outcomes; it’s about possibilities. It’s not a mandate or an edict, it’s the permission that a parent gives a child. When Cadmus , that slayer of dragons, founded Thebes, he followed a cow and marked out the city where the animal lay down. Other founders have suckled the milk of wolves or planted a tamarisk tree; these acts are resonant.

Foundations are multiple. They build on each other, and the city invites them. Cadmus never did find his sister, Europe, the original reason for his departure from Tyre. Then Plato exiled the poets from his Republic.


What can we do but hold onto the things worth saving? Berlin has done a good job of that, it seems. RT will point out only the city’s compromise decision to reconstruct three facades of the old imperial palace and behind them build a modernist museum to contain art from Africa and other foreign cultures. Something new and brilliant has blown in on the winds of change.

As for the rest, RT will confine himself to remarking that there is something unmonumental about the reemerging Berlin. He will even go a step further, and say he detects a note of humor in some of the city’s recent architecture, as witness the new Chancellery. As we and the city learn to forgive, we will see more of this, a long-delayed, much needed healing. The poet with his horn, the muse with her flirtatious smile, may be seen once again outside the walls of a museum.   RT


Photo: The Federal Chancellery, Berlin. Uploaded by Madden. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 BY-SA.



Palmyra, Valerian, Shapur, Mani–the Crisis, Part 3

October 1, 2013 1 comment

File:L-a80 2005-12-29 0050.jpg

Ah, Palmyra! Fabled city in the desert, hub of a vast commercial empire, home to some of the most stunning classical architecture to survive.

This is what we know: the city’s site was first occupied in the 2nd millennium B.C. and gained its independence from Seleucid Syria about 320 B.C. It flourished as a caravan hub for centuries, but its residents apparently engaged in no monumental building. The city came under Roman control in 50 B.C., and the building boom began. The city’s importance grew as a part of the last leg of the Silk Road, and Palmyra managed to maintain its cultural independence while taking on a veneer of Roman culture.


The city worshiped a triad of gods: 1) Baalshamin, Lord of the Skies; 2) Aglibol the Moon God; and 3) Malakbel (or Yarhibol) the Sun-God. Palmyra’s pantheon also included the standard Mesopotamian gods, including Marduk and Hadad, and Allat, an Arabian female deity. Not surprisingly, we are looking at a syncretic (i.e., one that combines elements from other belief systems) religion.

The building program that started in the last century B.C. included: 1) a massive temple of Baal; 2) the Great Colonnade, which included a triumphal arch; 3) the Baths of Diocletian; 4) a Roman theater, and 5) a large agora (marketplace).

Things started falling apart in 260: the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured, along with his entire army, after the Roman defeat at the Battle of Edessa; Valerian, the only Roman Emperor ever to be captured in battle, died in captivity, perhaps having been humiliated by Shapur I, –the second emperor of the Sassanian Empire (established, AD 224)–beforehand.


A more blatant sign of Roman weakness is hard to imagine, and the Palmyreans (under Zenobia) and the Gallic empire (under Postumus) seceded during the reign of Valerian’s son, Gallienus.

And now things get really interesting, with religious considerations coming into play. Shapur I gave protection and support to the prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism. Shapur, leader of a new empire, was evidently an innovator. The empire he ruled had been Zoroastrian for centuries, but Shapur may well have been struggling with the power of the Zoroastrian priesthood and seen Mani as a counterbalance to the threat to his throne the priesthood presented.

Who was Mani (216-274), and what was the new religion he founded? Mani was born near Ctesiphon, capital of the Sassanian Empire, in 216. Mani’s father belonged to a Christian-Jewish sect; at 12 and again at 24, Mani had visions of a cosmic twin telling him to leave the sect of his father and preach the true message of Christ. Mani traveled to Afghanistan to study Hinduism in 240 (and possibly Buddhism as well), and by 242 had joined Shapur I’s court. He fell from favor during the reign of Bahram 1, who imprisoned him. Mani died in prison.

Mani taught a dualistic theology featuring three creations and containing elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Mani viewed himself as the successor of Zoroaster, Jesus, and Buddha and wrote several scriptural books, most of which have been lost. It is known that Mani also created artworks to accompany his teachings, and some of the surviving Manichean psalms are quite beautiful.


At its height, Manichaeism had spread from its Persian origin to include adherents (among them, St. Augustine before his conversion to Christianity) from western Europe to China.


That’s it for Part 3, folks. Still to come: Part 4: Aurelian and Zenobia and Part 5: The Effects of the Crisis.    RT

RT’s Related Posts: 1) Crisis of the Third Century–Part 1, Rome; 2) Crisis of Third Century, Part 2: The Gallic Empire


Photo, Top: The Palmyrean Triad; Author: Emmanuel PIERRE. CC 1.0 Generic. Middle Photo: Palmyran Closeup; author: Zaledia. CC 3.0 Unported. Middle Drawing: The Humiliation of Valerian; Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1521). Public Domain. Bottom: Manichean Priests (8th-9th cent.). Public Domain. All Illustrations: WikiCmns.


Buckhannon, a State Judicial Capital? West Virginia Suggestions, Part 1

WVMap-doton-Buckhannon--CC3.0--Seth Ilys

Buckhannon, West Virginia

Ever the dreamer, RT has long been perplexed by certain negative trends in West Virginia, chief among them the state’s stagnant population: after decades of solid growth, the population reached an all-time high in 1950 (2 million), but has since drifted down to 1.8 million (77.1 people psm). Why is the state no longer able to increase its population?

A complicated question, to be sure, with more than a single answer. RT will confine himself to examining one of the factors that has led, from his point of view, to the drop in population.

We should start by noting how sparsely populated the state is, compared to its neighbors: Maryland has a population of 5.8 million (596 people psm); Virginia, a population of 8.1 million (206.7 people psm). This results in smaller cities: Charleston, West Virginia’s state capital, is also its largest city (pop. 51,731); this contrasts with Maryland (largest city, Baltimore, pop. 621,342) and Virginia (largest city, Virginia Beach, pop. 447,489).

What does this mean? From RT’s perspective, it means that West Virginia lacks a solid constituency for its interests, that is, a core population long committed to promoting the state’s well-being.

How to solve such an amorphous problem? RT says: look abroad (and in the past) to see what governments have done to encourage population growth in remote areas: they have built a new capital city. Whether we look at Washington, D.C., Brasilia (capital of Brazil) or Abuja (capital of Nigeria), we see that planned capitals grow into major cities.

Why might this be? 1) Planned cities have a coherence and beauty often lacking in cities that spring up spontaneously, that is, a street (or city) plan that gives pleasure to its residents; 2) capital cities of course are the seat of government, thus requiring a significant population to administer that government; 3) planned cities are often placed so as to resolve political tensions in a state, and produce a mixed, representative population from all parts of the state.

File:Buckhannon West Virginia.jpg

And so we come to RT’s suggestion: West Virginia should move its state judiciary to the small town of Buckhannon (pop. 5,639 and currently the county seat of Upshur County).

In response to the questions in reader’s minds, RT makes the following points.

1) Fifteen countries have multiple capitals. Some of these countries (e.g., South Africa, Nigeria, and Chile, have disparate populations (different cultures, religions, and environments) that all have to be accommodated in a single state. But this seems to RT to be a big part of West Virginia’s problem, with the state’s Ohio River counties looking west, while the Mountain Highlands and Eastern Panhandle counties inevitably feel closer to the Atlantic seaboard. And then there are the state’s southern counties, which include some of the poorest in Appalachia. The situation is not helped by the fact that national forests nearly split the state into eastern and western halves.

Buckhannon lies slightly west of the forest-park divide, along route 33, which if completed as planned, will finally provide West Virginia with a multilane east-west highway. It also happens to lie close to the intersection of route 33 with Interstate highway 79, which runs north-south from Charleston to Morgantown. The city is certainly much closer to the state’s eastern counties (currently, people from Martinsburg must drive 6 hours to reach Charleston) and is in fact more centrally located than the current capital, while not being too distant from it).

2) Why move the state judiciary, as opposed to the executive or the legislature? RT suspects that moving the judiciary would prove least disruptive to Charleston and emphasize the importance and independence of this branch of state government.

3) A national competition would be held to choose the architects who design the new state supreme court buildings and its surroundings. To contrast with the traditional architecture in Charlestown, RT recommends the choice of a modernist architectural firm, one capable of designing an efficient and striking building.

4) The new supreme court building and its surrounding residential neighborhoods could be paid for by a temporary tax on the extraction of the state’s coal and natural gas.

Success in part has to do with energy: a confident, positive attitude towards the present and future attracts people. Nothing could send a stronger signal of West Virginia’s confidence in itself than building a new judicial capital. And the city would help bind the state more tightly together even as it grows the population in the state’s central counties.



RT’s Related Posts: 1) West Virginia–How Poor? 2) Wheeling, West Virginia and the Dream of an American Fifth Coast.


Map: WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Share-Alike, Unported. Author: Seth Ilys. Photo: Buckhannon, West Virginia (East Main Street); WikiCmns; CC 2.5 Generic; Author: Tim Kiser.

Architectural Details & DNA

File:Elephant - Nyhavn, Copenhagen - DSC08416.JPG


One of RT’s great-grandfathers was a successful building contractor; another was a housepainter. Seemingly disparate occupations, but then again, maybe not.

What is certain is that RT has always loved architecture and architectural details; his sojourns in Baltimore, MD and now Martinsburg, WV have brought him in close proximity to many beautiful buildings, and RT has developed an affection for pre-WWII American buildings, the kind that often run riot with whimsical or majestic ornament. In fact, RT lives in such a building (though w/o the ornament); what his apartment does offer is its one-of-a-kind floor plan, quiet, wood floors, a certain period character, and a great view out over the town’s roofs.

Now RT’s mathematical skills being what they are, he will never become a builder. And yet he has always wanted to design his own house, and he responds strongly to buildings of all kinds, and especially the neglected architecture of early suburban America. And then again, the Assyrian wall murals from Nineveh and elsewhere have also entranced him…

and of course, he’s a poet. what else could he be, what with poetry’s ornamental details and carefully measured rhythms? The past is in our bones, the cells that make up our hair, the way we feel when we see a peony. When RT finds one of his great-grandfather’s buildings (some of which are on the National Register of Historic Places), he learns a bit more about his own interests and love of detail…   RT


Photo: Elephant, Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Author: Daderot. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Public Dedication.


Brunelleschi’s Dome

April 10, 2013 1 comment



RT will never forget the first time he saw the Dome of Florence on a trip taken during High School. It rocked his teenage world: such beauty, dignity, and perfection. Filippo Brunelleschi, its builder, brilliant, irascible, has remained a symbol to him of the trials and achievements of genius.

What are the origins of genius? And why do places as well as people produce (at least periods) of amazing creativity? The Rag Tree will be taking up these questions (it is to be hoped 😉 ) in the near future, and a quagga or two might be sighted in to the process…. 🙂 …. RT


Photograph: Interior of the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore; Florence. User: JoJan. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


IRAN: The ancient and misterious city of Persepolis

April 1, 2013 6 comments



the heart of ancient Persia…  RT

(reposted from traveleum)



IRAN: The ancient and misterious city of Persepolis.

The Pearl of the Orient

Penang, rich color and beauty… RT

(reposted from A Leaf in Springtime)

The Pearl of the Orient.

Glacier Buildings

March 11, 2013 1 comment



modern architecture with flair… RT

(reposted from pics, sketches)


Glacier Buildings.

Sydney Opera House

March 4, 2013 2 comments



incredible form…  RT

(reposted from Foto Stream)


Sydney Opera House.