Rio de Janeiro’s Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (Brazil)

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (3)

Were it not for the weird architecture, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil wouldn’t amount to much; the art collection was rather underwhelming.

Yet, its prolific and widely regarded architect, a Carioca by the name of Oscar Niemeyer, quickly learned that the museum, better known the acronym MAC (Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói), might be mistaken for another acronym, UFO…to those who knew the English word, anyway.  Bonus– here’s the Portuguese term: OVNI.

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (1)

Completed in 1996, the design of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum was supposed to evoke a continuously growing flower, rising atop the Praia da Boa Viagem (“safe journey beach”) in Guanabara Bay.

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (4)

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (2)

A day earlier, I had gone up to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (in Portuguese, Pão de Açúcar; I am still clueless as to how to pronounce it) and had no idea to look for the Niemeyer icon.  This shot of both more than made up for the oblivious behavior.


Have you ever been to Rio?

A Brief Tour of Some of My Favorite Tokyo Buildings

Of the many cities that I’ve visited around the world, Tokyo is easily my favorite.  I like how you can seamlessly bike all over the place, even if you can’t park your bike anywhere.  I like how address number 1 could be next to number 550 which can be next to number 78.  And, among many other reasons, I like the truly bizarre things that pop up from foundations – you know, buildings – and the things that stick out from buildings.  Funny though, before the 2, 080 feet-tall Tokyo Skytree was finished on February 29, 2012, I never thought of the city as a place with a prominent or skyline that could be recognized by a mere silhouette.  Of course, this is partially as a consequence of existing in an area prone to earthquakes.

Tokyo Skytree…Not a Favorite

Now, for the elephant in the room.  Since Tokyo was almost entirely destroyed twice – first, by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and then by US air raids during World War II – very few historic structures were left standing.  However, with the US helping to get Japan back on track right after the end of that war, new ideas, businesses and population booms flourished.

Thus, with leisure travel to the Japanese curtailed for nearly everyone currently outside of Japan, let’s take a brief (Part 1) tour of the city…

Huh, that’s not a building.  You’re right…but I am including this roller coaster – known as the Thunder Dolphin – as a result of its nuance.  Located next to the Tokyo Dome stadium – home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team – in Tokyo Dome City, the Thunder Dolphin is a steel coaster that has top speeds of around 78 miles per hour (~130 kph).  What I think is cool about it is that it not only passes through a sliver of a neighboring shopping complex (you can see it in the above photo, on the left), but it also goes through the center of the Big O Ferris Wheel!

The Thunder Dolphin was probably the most enjoyable roller coaster I’ve taken until now, but I really must check out Falcon’s Flight next.

When I first walked past the Shinanomachi Rengakan (信濃町煉瓦館 rengakan = “brick building”), I thought it was a government building, for instance a mint, or something else having to do with finance…or doubled as a  movie villain’s not-so-secret lair.

Nope.

The Shinanomachi Rengakan, a stone’s throw from the Shinanomachi metro station, forms the southeastern corner of the Shinjuku (district) branch of Keio University.  The curious structure was finished in 1995 (in Japanese), and today primarily houses offices of medical and media companies.

For Tokyo architecture buffs, Nakagin Capsule Tower needs no introduction.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, which can be found close to the upscale Ginza and Shiodome neighborhoods, is one of the most iconic buildings in Tokyo.  Built in 1972 by architect Kurokawa Kishou (黒川 紀章), Nakagin Capsule Tower is the clearest realization of Kurokawa’s Metabolist architectural movement.  Metabolism stresses flexibility, convenience, and the concept that cities should be able to adapt to future changes; for each of the two towers, individual prefabricated “capsules” replete with a small bathroom, desk, and radio (in other words, everything the burgeoning salaryman class of the 1960s would need) were fed into a single column.

Maybe you can even check out the Nakagin Capsule Tower once international travel resumes.

Not far from the the Nakagin Capsule Tower, we have another shining the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (静岡新聞静岡放送ビル).  It was completed in 1967 by Japanese starchitect Kenzo Tange (丹下 健三), who also designed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – Tokyo’s current City Hall, Hiroshima Peace Park, the Fuji TV Building, and, stadiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, among many other edifices.

The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center has one tower into which thirteen individual office modules are “plugged-in.”  At the time, space was left in between groups of 2-3 modules so that others could be connected to the central tower, though this growth never materialized.  Given how densely packed cities have become, might we see a Metabolist renaissance somewhere in the world?

Menacing, no?

This otherworldly edifice is called the Reiyuukai Shakaden (霊友会釈迦殿), or the Spiritual Friendship Association Hall of the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Easy peasy.  

The Reiyuukai sect of Buddhism was established some time in the early 1920s, and formally recognized by the Japanese government in 1930.  Although the Reiyuukai Shakaden was built in 1975, since its religious origins stem from the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it stores hundreds of tons of water, in the event of another disaster.  Furthermore, it houses a concert hall, and additionally (at least, prior to COVID-19) offers free Japanese language and calligraphy classes.

Ever wanted to have your very own Polyvinyl Chloride (err, PVC) model of jambalaya, a squid shooting its ink towards a plate of pasta, or fugu?  Then, you just have to find the “Niimi Chef,” perched above the Niimi kitchenware world building, finished in 1961.  To the right of this 7-story structure (that is, if you are looking directly at the chef), you will find the Kappabashi shopping street, known for stores selling cups, bowls, shop signs, chopsticks, fake food models, and many other items commonly found in a (Japanese) kitchen.  In that sense, the Niimi Chef building is a landmark for me, a reminder that at last, I’m back in my favorite city.

ADDRESSES


Have you/would you want to visit Tokyo?  Which buildings would you include among your favorites?

The Wazir Khan Mosque of Lahore (Pakistan)

Thankfully, there’s an amusing anecdote regarding how I learned of the Wazir Khan Mosque.

I was sitting in front of the Lahore Fort, one of the primary tourist spots of Lahore, Pakistan.  To my surprise, an older man came to sit next to me, trying to preach about Jesus.  After telling him where I was from, he decided to invite me to his apartment in the labyrinthine old city for some delicious raita, chapatti, and curry (curiously, only the men in the family were allowed to eat, but the women helped serve the food):

We chatted for a couple of hours, during which point he mentioned the Wazir Khan Masjid (Mosque) as worthy of a visit.  By then it was nighttime, so I thanked him, and made my plan for the following day.

After an embarrassing attempt at playing cricket with some local youth, as well as an excellent glass of ginger, lime, and sugar cane juice, I finally located the Wazir Khan Mosque.

Construction of the Wazir Khan Mosque took place between 1634 and 1641, and was headed by  Hakim Ilmud Din Ansari, a government physician upon whom the title Wazir (minister) Khan was bestowed.  Though the structure is the best-preserved example of Mughal architecture at a mosque, it was built during the reign of Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who had the Taj Mahal mausoleum created for his wife.

The Wazir Khan Mosque was built surrounding the site of the tomb of a Persian Sufi mystic named Miran Badshah who had come to Lahore in the 13th century.

Since the mosque was constructed for imperial Friday prayers for rulers taking the short walk from the Lahore Fort, its walls and minarets were ornately designed with frescoes, plaster, tile mosaics, and Persian calligraphy quoting the Quran.  It also came with its own pay-to-enter hammam, or bathhouse, as well as a row of shops, called the Calligrapher’s Bazaar.


Indeed, the Wazir Khan Mosque is a must-see in Pakistan if architecture and design appeal to you.  Since visiting the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain in 2003, I’ve been captivated by Islamic art.  My number one travel goal is Iran, in large part due to its immense history.

Besides, I have another anecdote about being thought of as Iranian…

Welcome to Chinatown

As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane.  Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.

In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) /  唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).

朝陽門 (Chaoyang Gate), Yokohama Chinatown, Japan

Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.

Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct.  Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.

西安門 (Xi’an Gate), Kobe Chinatown, Japan

Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments.  Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.”  Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology.  For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.

With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.

What?!  A paifang in China?  Of course!  This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen.  If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.

The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul.  Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.

Latin America++

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Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Busan, Republic of Korea

USA

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But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?

Nirvana Under the Covers in Osaka, Japan

Have you heard about the latest trend in Japan?  That being, to not have kids?

Forget I said that, but stay on the same wavelength for a moment.

Osaka - Daigo (Nirvana) Love Hotel
Oh look, it’s Osaka Castle~

Tokyo might be my favorite city in the world (thus far), and part of the reason is due to the randomness that can be found on just about every block.  It could be a sampling of dyed tapestries in the middle of an unlit alley (can’t recall where exactly, but it was near Nihombashi), a Statue of Liberty near Odaiba, a bowl of coffee-flavored ramen, or that Balinese-themed love hotel in Kabukicho.

Yes, that last one is a Japanese mainstay, and although the Tokyo area has plenty to choose from, I might have to give Osaka the point for its collection of zanier architectural styles.  Come to think of it, “love hotelism” should be a neologism in an architect’s vocabulary.

However, today’s emphasis is not on the exterior of the hotel.  We’re going to have a brief look at the meaning of the word on the sign; Warning– this language lesson might be slightly off-color.

The two characters that make up 醍醐 (だいご “dye-go”) refer to cream in its purest form.  Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.

If you’ve heard of the Indian staple food ghee, – which may also be known as the greatest flavor of all – that’s one definition.  Staying in the same region of the world, 醍醐 has adopted another, more transcendent meaning- nirvana.

Never thought Buddhism would pay a visit to LearningFeelsGood, but here we are.  Though, if nirvana is supposed to be the point where one’s sufferings and desires are extinguished, what kind of name is that for an Osaka love hotel?

Then again, if the owner was going for the unattainable goal definition, perhaps it’s surrounded by a moat?

Façadism: Not the Only Controversy in Architecture

In the simplest terms, façadism – also known as facadism – refers to when the front-facing exterior (façade) of a building is preserved, regardless of what happens to the remaining part of the structure.  For an example, let’s take this façade, located relatively near the sweets market in La Merced, Mexico City:

Mexico City might be a more nuanced place for facadism, if only because it is very prone to earthquakes.  Indeed, there could be any number of occurrences as to why a façade would be salvaged; among those, historical preservation, unique beauty, and and a state beyond repair for the rest of the building are some of the more common reasons.

The concept of facadism has been controversial for years, though has become much more so due to the skyrocketing real estate prices in such cities as New York, London, and Sydney.  Often availing of historic facades as a scapegoat for skyscraper projects that completely ignore the original building’s raison d’être, property developers are generally the last ones standing in a court battle with city officials and/or defiant communities.  To clarify, some of those facades might be on national lists of historic preservation, therefore cannot be bulldozed save for being in dangerous condition; that developers can do what they wish behind-the-scenes, so to speak, is just a facet of capitalism.

Egyptian Revival Façade of the former Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company, now part of Penn Mutual Tower, Philadelphia, USA

Façadism isn’t always done distastefully; though highly subjective, I tend to think the Greek Revival example serving as the entrance to the American wing in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is a standout.  But, if you tend to think it’s all an eyesore, you might be interested to know that there used to be a tongue-in-cheek award – the Carbuncle Cup -given out annually to the worst offender in the United Kingdom.

Now that we’ve learned a bit about facadism, I hypothesize that there are other aspects of architectural grievances that are overlooked, particularly in the face of tourism.  Namely, I am referring to Shiro Syndrome, a phrase that I originally concocted while traveling to Osaka, Japan in 2005.

Shiro Syndrome – in Japanese, shiro 城 means “castle” – refers to the reconstruction of castles (and temples, shrines, historic sites, etc.), frequently with contemporary materials.  This is not specific to Japan, but being that it’s one of my most-visited countries, I can’t help but think about it, and that one moment in Osaka that started it all:

Although construction started on the castle in 1583, due to a combination of domestic strife and lightning, the current ferro-concrete structure was finished in 1931.  Further repairs were completed in 1997, and an elevator was added soon after.

Which brings me to the question…do you think the present-day Osaka Castle should still be considered historic?

The same could be asked of many of the pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar:

Bagan, which was the seat of an eponymous kingdom between the 9th and 13th centuries, saw the construction of hundreds of pagodas during that time.  However, subsequent to a catastrophic earthquake in 1975, many pagodas were hastily renovated with modern technology; another earthquake in 2016 damaged many more extant pagodas, worrying historians and archeologists alike about how the repairs would be carried out.

Then, we have the truly unusual Kawasaki Warehouse, in Kawasaki, Japan, which closed late last year.

Directly inspired by long-destroyed Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong
A feeble attempt at recreating Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City

The entire concept of the building was to capture the essence of Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon Walled City, a massive ghetto which was finally razed in 1994.  If you’re curious about how it looked, the movie Bloodsport was allowed to film inside the labyrinthine Kowloon Walled City.


What is your opinion of façadism?  How would you compare it to the other two architectural topics mentioned above?

Kuwait Towers (أبراج الكويت)

Subsequent to the first export of Kuwaiti oil in 1946, Kuwait immediately began to modernize its infrastructure.  At the time, water was supplied to residents by tank trucks, which rapidly became ineffective due to the fast-growing population and development.

In order to tackle the issue of water distribution and storage, in 1965 the Ministry of Electricity and Water tasked Swedish architect Sune Lindström and his engineering firm VBB to design and construct a series of 31 water towers through Kuwait, centering on Kuwait City.

A controversial name, particularly if you’re from Iran (where it’s called the Persian Gulf)

However, in order to celebrate Kuwait’s burgeoning economic clout thanks to its petroleum industry and thus, rising prominence in region, the contract for the last water towers – to be built overlooking the Arabian Gulf, as the pièces de résistance of the Kuwaiti capital – was offered to Danish architect Malene Bjørn, wife of Sune Lindström.

Kuwait Towers, Kuwait City

Inaugurated on February 26th, 1977 and consisting mainly of reinforced concrete, the most prominent features of the pair of water towers are the three spheres, evoking historical Islamic aesthetics in their blue, green, and grey mosaics.

In total, there are three towers.  The smallest at 100 meters (~328 feet) stores a floodlight system for the complex.  The second, at 145. 8 meters (~478 feet), holds water inside its sole sphere.

Finally, the tallest tower, at 185 meters (~607 feet), comprises of a lower sphere that stores water, and a higher sphere which contains an observation deck and a restaurant.  I briefly visited Kuwait City in 2008, and owing to my enthusiasm for observation towers, took in a view of the sprawling desert capital:

Inside the observation deck at Kuwait Towers complex
View from the observation deck of the tallest of the Kuwait Towers complex
Staring down at the 2nd tower from the observation deck

A couple of interesting tidbits about the Kuwait Towers–

In 1980, at its inaugural ceremony, the Aga Khan Development Network bestowed upon Malene Bjørn one of its awards for architecture.  The awards – given triennially – are for architects and designers who have constructed meaningful and progressive structures in Muslim societies.

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait for its vast oil supply, even the observation deck wasn’t spared (there was a photo series covering the invasion at the deck):

A photo from when Iraq invaded Kuwait and launched artillery shells at the towers
Even the Air Conditioning Units weren’t spared

On a lighter note, between 2012 and 2016, the tallest tower, being the only one open to the public, underwent an extensive renovation.  It reopened in March 2016, and just three years later, hosted a Tedx event focusing on Kuwaiti technologists and young coders.

The Leaning Tower of Niles? (USA)

Did you know that the Leaning Tower was actually completed in 1934 as a way to conceal a water tank for swimming pools?

If you didn’t, then you’re not alone.  To be fair, I’m talking about the Leaning Tower of Niles, located in in the Illinois suburbs of Chicago.

In the 1920s, Robert Ilg, owner of the Ilg Hot Air Electric Ventilating Company of Chicago, opened a park – Ilgair Park – in Niles.  Soon after the park opened, he added two swimming pools for his employees; however, he didn’t want to completely ruin the area’s natural beauty.

So as to disguise the water towers, he decided to build a half-sized replica – in other words, 94 feet high, 28 feet in diameter, and leaning 7.4. feet – of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.  Bronze bells were even imported from 17th and 18th century churches in Italy. Construction began in 1931, and finished three years later.

Moon over the Leaning Tower of Niles

In 1960, part of Ilgair Park was donated for the construction of the Leaning Tower YMCA, with the understanding that the YMCA would pay a small amount annually for the upkeep of the tower.

In 1991, Niles formed a sister city relationship with Pisa, Italy, and in 1997, the Leaning Tower Plaza was dedicated in the park, replete with four fountains and a reflecting pool.  Notably, the Leaning Tower of Niles was designated a National Historic Landmark earlier this year, a first for Niles.

But, how does it compare with the Italian original, which was started in 1173 and completed in 1370?

Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy (taken in 2007)

For starters, a lot less tourists.  But I’ve gotta give Italy the edge for pizza;)

The Neptunus Group Building, Shenzhen (China)

Recently, I came across an article from two months ago that mentioned how Chinese Leader Jinping Xi issued a decree limiting the construction of buildings >250 meters (~821 feet) tall, disallowing buildings > 500 meters (~1641 feet), and prohibiting copycat behavior – in architecture.

That article made me reflect on the architectural scene in China, and how I relish exploring its urban fabric in the hunt for the most bizarre structures exemplifying a combination of the modern vicissitudes of Chinese capitalism and tradition.  Whereas there are some real winners out in the mainland, I believe this one, located in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, also deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China, #1

Founded in Shenzhen in 1989, the Neptunus Group is a dominant player in the Chinese health and pharmaceutical industries; if you have visited China, you may have seen their Nepstar drugstore, the largest pharmacy chain in the country.  They have other skyscrapers throughout the city, but only this one merited a report.

You also might be wondering, what’s with the names?  The Chinese characters 海王 can be translated as Neptune, the Roman “god of fresh water,” and analogous to the Greek Poseidon.  Wouldn’t the name work better for a shipping company?  Also,  isn’t China officially atheist?  Hmmm.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (2)
Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (1)

If you, too would like to see Neptune riding through the façade of a Chinese skyscraper, it’s located in the Nanshan district of western Shenzhen.

Chinese Address: 深圳市南山区南海大道2225号海王大厦A座5层