Does size matter?

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The Shard I (Photo M. Germana)

The latest addition to London’s skyline, The Shard, officially opened a few weeks ago. The launch involved a laser display, which, I was lucky enough to watch from the comfortable surroundings of a rooftop terrace near St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was in the company of some Chinese visitors who kindly threw an impromptu party to watch the christening of the new iconic building from the vantage point of their roof terrace.

The thing about The Shard is its size. At 309.6m in height, it is by far the tallest building in London, dwarfing the previous record-holder, Canary Wharf, by about 75m. As Richard Godwin observed in The Evening Standard, The Shard may be the stuff of science fiction:

You have to turn to fiction to convey its true majesty, and George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from 1984 does the job better than any marketing bumf. The building is “an enormous pyramidal structure …soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Admittedly, The Shard does not have slogans such as “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” written on its gleaming carapace. However, at 309 metres, it is almost exactly the same height. It too is visible from almost everywhere in the city.

London Tallest Buildings

The new addition to the capital’s cityscape is in fact the tallest building in Europe. Impressed? Think again: when you take a less Eurocentric look at the world’s tallest buildings, our new glass tower is only the 59th tallest building in the world, almost one third shorter than the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 828 metres high in the heart of Dubai.

The Shard and the others

Contemporary urban design is still obsessed by the same ambition that drove medieval engineers and architects to defy the limits of their human world and elevate their churches as high as possible. In an act of worship that revealed also the desire to play god, the imposing designs of Gothic churches would force any worshipper to reflect on their smallness, not only in relation to the Almighty, but also, perhaps, in relation to the architect and, most importantly, the Church who funded the project.

St. Paul’s Dome (Photo M. Germana)

In the 21st Century it is banks that acquire the most majestic structures and the symbolism in relation to the power that capitalism holds over our lives doesn’t really need further analysis.

Still, I’m not convinced that size is the be all and end all of contemporary urban architecture. There is certainly something spectacularly breath-taking about height and perhaps nobody summarised this better than the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who drew attention to the strange influence of pain, fear and even horror on our ability to experience pleasure:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

In the arts the sublime is frequently associated with dramatic scenery, Alpine peaks, glaciers, waterfalls. But the concept transfers well to the man-made heights of modern cityscapes. Indeed Burke focuses on the complexity of the human mind, which is moved much more strongly by an object designed to raise pain and pleasure simultaneously:

It seems, then, necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes.

Perhaps we like big buildings because they remind us that, despite our relative smallness in relation to the universe’s infinity, we are able to defy our own limits and reach, higher and higher. Or perhaps it is not about size after all. Maybe we enjoy being surprised, or shocked even, by a design that challenges our expectations of what a building should look like.

What I particularly like about the City of London is the seamless continuity that characterises its architecture. More so than in other European cities, avant-garde designs rub shoulders with some of the oldest buildings in London. The proximity of the church of St. Andrew Undershaft to 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’) is a classic example.

The Gherkin and St Andrew Undershaft (Photo M. Germana)

Interestingly, the name of the church makes a reference to its diminutive size compared to a may pole structure that would have towered over it:

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower.

(Mike Paterson, London Historians’ Blog)

Maybe size does matter after all. I remember a witty anecdote from the guide who led my very first ‘Duck Tour‘ through London a few years ago. Apparently,

Sir Norman Foster had his first inspiration for his Bishopsgate tower whilst in the bath.

Fnar fnar.  Though considerably smaller than Sir Foster’s jewel, this small church has withstood  more than any recent piece of architecture in the City; Like St. Paul’s, it remained standing after the Blitz (1940-41). But unlike the Cathedral, St. Andrew Undershaft predates the Great Fire of London (1666) and, more recently, suffered an IRA bomb attack (1992).

Do you like The Shard?

Do you have another favourite building in London? Europe? The rest of the world?

Post any comments and links to images below!

Th Shard II (Photo M. Germana)

Red roses and books: a short visit to Catalonia

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El dia de las rosas

With this week’s hailstones threatening to knock down the roof of my house in North London, the memories of last week’s sunny break in Catalonia seem very far-away. I was very lucky to be the guest of colleagues at the Universitat Rovira e Virgili (Tarragona) for a conference and took the opportunity to see parts of Catalonia that were new to me. It was the week-end before the day of St. George, or Sant Jordi, as they say in Catalonia. To mark the celebration of their patron saint, on 23 April, ‘El Día de Las Rosas’, friends, colleagues and lovers exchange gifts of red roses (for the women) and books (traditionally only for the men, but now the gift of reading is extended to the women!). Last Saturday, ahead of the celebrations at the beginning of this week, in Barcelona the ramblas were beautifully decked out with fragrant parcels of long-stemmed roses and small bouquets wrapped in crepe paper.

The Roman Amphitheatre of Tarragona (Photo M. Germana)

But I started off my trip in Tarragona, a charming small city about 80 km south of Barcelona. I stayed in the centre of town, close to the old market, which, I was told, the city has been restoring for four years! The main attraction, beside the remains of the Roman amphitheatre,  spectacularly perched on a hill overlooking the sea, must be the old walled town, a real gem of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

'Tree on wheels' (Photo M. Germana)

I was shown around by my friend Liz, who has been working in Tarragona for two decades, and who introduced me to some of the best tapas bars in town (check out the Basque place, Txantxangorri, in Plaça de la Font), and the hidden art scene of the city: the quirky mural produced by a Cuban artist on the tunnel leading to one of the city’s underground car-parks was an unexpected treat: not the kind of thing you would find on a travel guide.

The initial part of the train journey north to Barcelona had a similar magical quality: running parallel to the coast, the train appeared to be sailing, or floating, just above the beach and past the green fields and vineyards on the other side of the track.

The weather was very mild for our British standards and my travel companion and I enjoyed drinking, on our first night in Barcelona, on the terrassa outside the Basilica dels Sants Martirs, not far from Placa Sant Jaume and the atmospheric Café de l’Academia, where we sat down for dinner at 11:30pm… Spanish style!

'Untitled' (Photo M. Germana)

The next morning we returned to the old part of the city, enjoying the contrast between the hustle and bustle of the Plaça Reial and the eerie silence of the dark alleyways. The Barrio Gótico is the home of some quirky shops, a reminder of the city’s tradition in craft and design and I went hat-shopping (I am now the proud owner of a beret Basque from the historical Sombrereria Obach, in the heart of the barrio). If you are into fashion and design, I strongly recommend visiting the stunning jewellery gallery La Basilica Galeria, where, as well as admiring beautifully crafted jewellery, you will see some incredible garments made of petals coated in real gold dust or powder made of semi-precious stones: too heavy to wear, the frocks are artworks in their own right!

A cup of coffee in the acclaimed Mesón del Café replenished our energy levels and we continued on soaking up the chilled atmosphere of the old workshop quarter, La Ribera.

We finished off the evening in Barceloneta, the old fishing quarter of Barcelona; in the past this used to be a fairly run-down area, but has been ‘cleaned-up’ and made more visitor-friendly: walking along the long beach on the palm-shaded wooden board-walk, we had a sense of being elsewhere, away from the city, away from its old buildings and narrow streets, in a new world.

'Tumbling tower' (Photo M. Germana)

Scattered on the beach are quirky sculptures, whose rusty colours and modern shapes are both suggestive of the city’s marine and modern identities. We had a tasty tapas supper in one of the best known bars of Barceloneta, El Vaso de Oro, a lively establishment, despite Barça’s disappointing performance against Real Madrid.

Returning to Barcelona is always a great pleasure. With less than forty-eight hours to spare, and this being my third visit, I skipped the city’s highlights: any first-time visitor, should, however, at least see the Sagrada Familia and the Palau de la Musica Catalana: two very different examples of what the city’s extraordinary architecture can offer to the visitor. I opted, instead, for one of the lesser known of Antoni Gaudí‘s works, and took a short trip out of town, to visit the Colonia GuëllThis was the utopian lovechild of architect Gaudí and his patron, the industrialist Eusebi Guëll, for whom Gaudí also designed his residence in Barcelona, Palau Guëll, and another housing estate, for which only the famous park (Parc Guëll) was realised. The colonia was an experiment in utopian town-planning; the village, created around Guëll’s textile factory, sought to provide its workers with good housing and a community to live in.

'Colonia Guell' (Photo M. Germana)

The highlight of the complex would have been the church, designed and built by Gaudí. Only the crypt, the lower part of what would have been a grand design, remains finished today. Well worth a visit for any fans of Gaudí’s work: the interior of the crypt, which features quirky scalloped designs on seating and holy-water fonts (the basins are made of real giant shells), looks like the inside of a whale, its robust structure enhanced by the palm-shaped pillars that support the roof. The darkness of the space is interrupted by the daisy-like windows, realised, as frequently in Gaudí’s work, with stained glass in vibrant colours.

'Crypta' (Photo M. Germana)

We had an improvised picnic lunch in the colonia’s main square, nibbling on sausage rolls and hazelnut chocolate from the bakery, watching the local children chasing and fighting each other over toys. Back in Barcelona, after a brief visit to the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària for an exhibition on the ‘dressed body’, we headed back to the port area for our farewell dinner in 7 Portes, one of the oldest restaurant in the city, with a string of celebrity guests attached to its name: our receipt revealed we had been dining at the same table as Che Guevara and Pelé! We walked off our escalibada and paella parellada on our way to the metro, before catching our train to the airport with a breath of sea air still in our lungs.

Arctic Magic

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Finnish Trees

Lapland Trees (Photo M. Germana)

Forget about the decadent pleasures of apres-ski in France. This year I opted for an alternative winter break: Finnish Lapland. More specifically, the resort town of Saariselkae, on the 64th parallel, 260km north of the Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi. Further north than most inhabited placed in the world, in fact.

Three flights away from London, this is truly a different world. We got a taster of the magical qualities of the northern skies already on the second leg of our journey, from Helsinki to the tiny airport of Kittila. On one side of the plane (west), the sun glowed like a fluorescent orange lost in the sky. On the opposite side, the full moon rose high against the indigo sky. At Ivalo Airport, our final destination, we picked up our rented car. At 7pm, 3 hours after sunset, the drive to Saariselkae was as dark as anything, interrupted only by the eerie silhouettes of snow-packed trees scattered along either side of the road. We took a closer look at the trees the day after, when we retraced our steps and drove the same route in the opposite direction, past Ivalo, to visit the Sami centre of Inari.

The frozen shore of Lake Inari (Photo M. Germana)

Before it gave into a greener landscape, the scenery was that of a fairy-tale. The tree branches covered in thick snow looked like beautiful arctic monsters, the stumpy saplings like small elves scattered around a field coated in thick sugar icing.

'On top of the world' (Photo M. Germana)

The first night the temperature gave us a slow, but tangible, shock. The dryness of the cold fooled our bodies into thinking that -25 c was, after all, a manageable condition. When we stood outside for more than three minutes, however, our gloveless hands would soon start to hurt, the cold air slowly seeping through our lungs. It makes perfect sense, then, to long for a shot of strong vodka: Koskenkorva, the most popular Finnish brand, would provide the perfect antidote to hypothermia.

Icicle (Photo M. Germana)

The harsh weather and complex logistics of living in a natural environment that would appear to be hostile to ordinary human living conditions made me wonder about why, at the time of great migrations, humans would choose to settle – albeit in nomadic conditions – in this part of the world. Why would they not be tempted to find balmier temperatures further south?

After a few days I came up with two answers to my question. On our third day we went on a snow-mobile safari, by far the most adrenaline-inducing activity you may be likely to experience in Lapland. Dressed up in overalls to shield the cold breeze away during the journey, we rode through the fells surrounding Saariselkae, flying through the white forest and occasionally blinded by the low rays of sunshine. Our final destination was a rein-deer farm, where we also had the opportunity to ride a traditional reindeer sledge and learn all sort of curious facts about these amazing animals.

Reindeer in the wild (Photo M. Germana)

Here are the highlights:

  1. In July reindeer antlers will grow 2cm a day ahead of the mating season (when strong antlers are crucial)
  2. Antlers are furrier and softer in the summer and harder in the winter
  3. A male reindeer will aim to own a harem of 30 females
  4. 1,700 hairs grow on each square cm of reindeer skin
  5. 5 cm of fat cover a reindeer bottom (good insulation is fundamental for survival in subzero temperatures!)
  6. Reindeer can smell lichen (food) up to 1,5m deep down in snow.
  7. It takes only one day for a reindeer baby to learn how to run!

The visit to the reindeer farm offered the first obvious answer to my question. Sami economy, heavily based on reindeer farming, is tied to the animals’ natural habitat. If your subsistence relies mainly on this animal, every part of which has a use after the animal is killed, then you can’t go too far from where they live.

But there is more to life in Lapland, and this became apparent to me as we went snowshoeing, accompanied by Niko, our Finnish guide, up a small mountain in the middle of Finland’s largest national park, Urho Kekkonen. We felt as close to nature as we could get: no noisy snowmobiles, no chair-lifts, no crazy skiers speeding impatiently past you. When I asked Niko if he enjoyed his job, he opened his arms wide, pointing to the scenery: “What do you think? This is my office!” Thinking back about the ordinary world, I couldn’t help but notice the strangely humanoid appearance of Arctic plants: the trees looked like bodies, an army of white-coated warriors or giant skeletons. The snow mounds, uncut and pristine, also took on multifarious shapes, taking the semblance of large mushrooms, reindeer antlers or jellyfish, when supported by branches or bush underneath. It hardly surprises us that the folklore of Northern Europe maps these regions as the magical homelands of fairies, trolls and elves.

'Skeletal Tree' (Photo M. Germana)

As with the day before, the light kept changing with the time of the day, with a soft palette of pinks, purples, and steely greys alternating in front of our eyes. The enchanting appeal of the Finnish landscape was the answer I was looking for. Why, I asked myself from the top of the mountain overlooking this dream-like spectacle, would you ever want to move elsewhere?

We ere lucky enough to see the northern lights, too, on our first two nights in Saariselkae. Aurora Borealis has a very imaginative name in Finnish, ‘Revontulet’. As I read on a Finnish website, the name derives from a Sami myth:

Here in Finland we call the lights as Fox Fire (in Finnish it’s “revontulet”). There is a Finnish folk story, that a fox in the north is running on the snow, and it’s sweeping it’s tail so that sparks fly off into the sky. This story is very common in different versions in whole Finland. In addition we do have about 20 different folk stories about the origin of the northern lights in Finland. One claims that there is so much fish in the Arctic Sea that the sun light is reflected back into the air from the backs of the fishes. Well in fact, in the old finnish language there exists a word, resembling to the word fox, but really meaning something like making magic. So actually our ancestors really meant the magic lights – and not the fox running on the snow – when they spoke about the fox fire. (Arctic Academy.fi)

We saw them for the first time on our very first night. As we were tucking into our starters of cured salmon and marinated reindeer, the waitress of the Petronilla restaurant came over to our table to check that everything was OK with our meal, adding, casually, at the end of her sentence: “Have you ever seen the northern lights?”. We listened on eagerly, hoping for some useful tips, before she continued “You can see them outside now.” We fumbled with our multiple layers  and popped outside as quickly as we could, to witness what looked like the most supernatural of natural phenomena. The green shadows hovered above us against the moon-lit sky. A fleeting, graceful choreography of green ghosts. A nocturnal dance of fluorescent veils.

Sadly, I couldn’t take any photos of the northern lights. My hands were too cold to set up a tripod, but my Finnish friend Johanna sent me this link to a wonderful video, which will give you a good idea of the magical spectacle Finnish Lapland may have in store for you…

I did succeed in taking some good shots of dawn, though. It helps, of course, that the sun doesn’t rise until 9 o’ clock! Getting up ‘before the crack of dawn’ has an entirely different meaning in wintertime Northern Finland.

'Tricks of the light (Photo M. Germana)

Waiting for the sun to pierce the sky into a deep red wound, the spectrum of colours I observed from the vantage point of Kaunispaa (the highest mountain in the area) may have not been as spectacular a show as the norther lights, but a good enough runner-up, without a doubt.

'Sunrise from the top of Kaunispaa' (Photo M. Germana)

First Things First

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It’s time to bid 2011 farewell, and formulate those good resolutions. Even if they rarely make it past the end of January…

'Fireworks 2011' (Photo M. Germana)

I plan to keep on writing, travelling, and writing about travelling… and I can’t wait to start filming my bike journeys with my new camera (Santa was far too generous with me this year)!

But today it’s all about the cusp, the space between the tail end of the old year and the undistinguished features of the unborn 2012.

Time slips fast through our fingers and the gap gets narrower and narrower as we get ready in our party frocks for fireworks and candle-lit dinners to welcome the new kid on the block.

It’s the Olympic year; in millions they will travel to London to watch the games and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a leap year. An extra day of work. An extra night’s sleep. An extra night out. An unexpected (!) marriage proposal, perhaps.

Whatever our dreams may be for 2012, let’s work on them, and make this baby a happy one.

This is the last post of the year. If there is anything to learn from the memorable events of 2011, it’s the power of sharing that this medium has given us.

So, to mark the beginning of the new year I would like to invite everyone to contribute to ‘My Notebook’. Over the next 24 hours, wherever you are, leave a comment, sharing, if you like, the first scene you saw in 2012. It could be the bubbles in your champagne flute, or the hand of your own watch making 2012 happen. A street party. Your back garden. Whatever it is, share it in your words!

Happy New Year.

A brief detour to Sicily, via the Southbank

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Sicily on the Southbank (Photo M. Germana)

Sicily is where I’m from and frequently go back to.

Not as often as I would like to, unfortunately. Which is why, on my way to the Lord Mayor’s Fireworks display on Saturday night, I was delighted to stumble across this stunning exhibition of images from my homeland.

The exhibition, organised by the Regione Sicilia and curated by Genius Loci (Sandro Battistessa), will be accessible on the riverside walkway between the National Theatre and the Oxo Tower until 20 November: don’t miss it, even if you’re not planning to visit Sicily anytime soon.

You will be booking your flights on your I-Phone on your way to the theatre!

Walter Leonardi’s 46 shots will remind those of you who have visited Sicily of its ancient heritage: Siracusa, my hometown, was founded around 734 BC!

More than anything else, the images showcase the diversity of Sicilian landscape, frequently associated with the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but rarely thought of as a highly active geological area, domineered, in the eastern part of the island, by Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe.

Walter Leonardi, 'Etna' (Photo M. Germana)

The photographs also evoke lesser known aspects of Sicilian culture, beyond the cliches that we are all too familiar with. It’s a poetic, if perhaps a little nostalgic, reading of Sicily, but authentically drawing from some of its ancient traditions, from the saline (salt plants) to fishing and agriculture. That Sicilian economy and culture is still strongly attached to old-fashioned traditions is, perhaps, detrimental to its inclusion in the markets led by global interests. But it is precisely that raw simplicity, adjacent to some of the most exquisite architectural heritage that makes Sicily unique.

So, don’t waste any time, fly to Sicily… on your oyster card!

Arance di Sicilia by the Thames (Photo M. Germana)

The Italian Journey (1861-2011)

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No, I’m not going to write about Wolfgang Goethe’s travel writing, though I feel like I should read his account at some point!

I want to talk about my own journey back to Italy, and Turin, in particular, the year in which my country celebrates 150 years of unification. I’m sure the irony is not lost on many – within and beyond the national boundaries of the Italian republic – given our politics seem to indicate anything but a coherent sense of shared interests and common values. But leaving scepticism aside, I did travel back to catch the last of the year-long celebrations, many of which, of course, took place in Turin, the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy, and the site of our first parliament, which can still be admired, in its quaint smallness, at the Museo del Risorgimento at Palazzo Carignano.

The first parliament

Turin’s royal past is visible in the topography of the city, run by large boulevards, flanked by the elegant buildings once home to the Italian aristocracy. One of the most enchanting places you could visit, however, is just outside the city: Venaria. Ironically, the palace entrance is on Piazza della Repubblica, a tongue-in-cheek reminder that Italy rejected monarchy by a popular referendum on 2 June 1946, incidentally the first time Italian women were allowed to vote! This magnificent residence was used by the Savoy family as a hunting retreat up until the Napoleonic wars, when the site turned into barracks. The army did not leave until 1978. The complex, whose structure is reminiscent of the late Baroque grandeur of Versailles, is still being restored today. With hardly any furniture around, I was able to appreciate the sheer proportions of the place, its ambitious scale becoming most apparent in the ivory-coloured Galleria Grande.

Venaria, Galleria Grande (Photo M. Germana)

To celebrate the Italy’s anniversary, some of the rooms of the otherwise unfurnished palace accommodate a display dedicated to one of the most significant aspects of the country’s lifestyle, culture and (stalled) economy: fashion. One hundred and fifty years of Italian fashion, 16 decades of dresses, suits, and military uniforms, including the white corseted number worn by Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), the film adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, which poignantly encapsulates the Sicilian aristocracy’s resistance to social change at the time of the unification in 1861. I felt more than a little pride as I walked around the exhibits, pleased to see so much variety in the design history of Italian fashion, which ranged from Ferragamo stilettos worn by Marilyn Monroe, to the design of the first modern tracksuit, by Thayaht (Ernesto Michaelles), whose hybrid Italian identity was made of British, American, German and Swiss blood, and whose TuTa (Italian for tracksuit) becomes one the symbols of modern design celebrated by Futurism.

Thayaht, 'How to Cut the TUTA' (Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto

Speaking of ‘made in Italy’, Turin is also famous for some of the country’s best chocolatiers and confectioners, such as Leone, whose factory outlet you can visit, and, believe it or not, sample any of their products free of charge! I couldn’t resist buying the special anniversary edition of their old-fashioned mints, complete with a picture of Italy in three colours of our national flag, of course. But what makes Turin really interesting to visit is that while one half of the city’s history is made of its aristocratic heritage and discreet elegance, the other, more recent past of the city is dominated by the powerful legacy of the Agnelli family, whose family business, FIAT, is, simultaneously, deeply rooted in Turin’s 20th-century history and Italy’s (problematically) traditional approach to business management.

Fiat 3,5hp (1899)

The car industry heritage is beautifully showcased by the newly refurbished Museo dell’Automobile, which offers you the chance to revisit – and fall in love, unexpectedly! – with the history of car design. I’m not into engines and I have never owned  a car, but there was something utterly compelling in the thematic journey the galleries traced, pointing to the combination of captivating designs and modern technology that underpins car design from the the end of the 19th century to the new Millennium.

Back at Stansted, and having patiently waited for my turn at passport control, I’m (nicely) told off by the Border Control officer for using  instead of the machine-readable European passport,my Italian ID card, which is apparently to blame for the inefficiency of passport control at the airport. I want to complain that queues are getting longer and slower because the UK is getting scarily protective of its borders, but I’m also embarrassed to admit that I’m strangely attached to this easily-forgeable piece of Italian bureaucracy. The officer has spoken to me in Italian; this is unprecedented, and makes me feel happier about returning to the UK.

I’m home. I switch the kettle on. The quickest way to make pasta, I’ve learnt.

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