Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Architecture and My Favorite Places

Jenny Carless is filling in for Supriya this week. Jenny is  a nonfiction writer, amateur wildlife photographer, and novelist-in-training who blogged with us in January about her passion for safaris in Kenya.

I hadn’t really noticed, until I sat down to write this post, how much I associate the places I love—and those on my list to visit—with their architecture.

When I think of Paris, for example, I picture Sacré Coeur, perched atop Montmartre. I first saw the basilica from somewhere far across the city, through misty skies as day evaporated into night. The pale monolith seemed to glow, and from then on, I’ve always thought of Sacré Coeur as a sort of ethereal guardian, keeping watch over the city. 

Sacre Coeur
Photo by Tonchino
For many people, I suspect, mention London’s architecture, and the Big Ben clock tower or St. Paul’s Cathedral comes to mind. Of course, today, people’s first association might be “the Gherkin” (formally, 30 St. Mary Axe) or the London Eye—two more recent iconic additions to the cityscape.

"The Gherkin"
Photo by Aurelien Guichard
I tend to think of several less well known structures around the city. When I lived in Notting Hill (West London) and worked in the World Trade Center (East London), I had one of the best commutes ever: My route included Marble Arch, Buckingham Palace, Admiralty Arch, and Tower Bridge, not to mention Hyde Park and Green Park. This wonderful drive across is still etched in my mind as a very fond memory.

When we think Egypt, our most common images are the pyramids and the Great Sphinx. San Francisco? The Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid. Thoughts of Sydney, Australia bring to mind the Harbor Bridge and the Sydney OperaHouse.

The chicken or the egg?

Am I drawn to a place because its architecture appeals to me, or does the architecture appeal to me because it somehow reflects a culture I’m already drawn to?

Certainly we recognize that architecture is often symbolic of a culture or a particular time. For example, would the Eiffel Tower, with its giant lattice girders representing the age of modern engineering and science, have been built at any other time? Likewise, the fantastical creations of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona (and elsewhere) are icons of a particular time, place, and political movement.

Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batllo
Photo by Massimo Catarinella
The Centre Georges Pompidou represents, according to its website, “a constraint-free architecture in the spirit of the 1960s.” In the late 1970s, when the building had been open just a year or two, its ultra-modern appearance, smack in the heart of one of Paris’s oldest areas, the Marais, caused something of a scandal. Today, it hardly seems shocking.

So what will people centuries or millennia from now think about some of our modern buildings (assuming some still stand)? What will their impressions be of Burj Al Arab (the famous “sailboat building”) in Dubai, for example?

Burj al Arab
Photo by Tintoni Thomas
What about the Kansas City Public Library’s nifty “hardcover” façades? Although, with the proliferation of ebooks, future observers may not even understand what those book spines are!

Kansas City Public Library
Photo by Jonathan Moreau
Nature’s Architecture

I can’t sign off without mentioning the forms we see in nature—nature’s architecture, I suppose you could say. Natural forms are equally enticing to me, and I think we all associate places with their natural architecture as much, if not more, than their human-made counterparts. Just think of some of the best-known natural wonders: Mount Everest, Victoria Falls, or the Grand Canyon. 

In addition to its beauty or grandeur, the natural architecture of a place is an essential element to its character. I visited Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya for the first time last October. There, Mount Kenya (the country’s tallest mountain and Africa’s second tallest, after Kilimanjaro) is an inescapable presence. All Kenyans are immensely proud of Mount Kenya, and many Kenyans believe that it is God’s throne, or resting place, on earth. We turned to the mountain first thing every morning, to see what colors the sunrise would paint it, and we watched it fade into the dusk every evening.

Mount Kenya
Photo by Jenny Carless
Which touches you more—human-made architecture or nature’s architecture? What are some of your favorite examples?


  1. The photo of Mount Kenya is absolutely stunning, Jenny. I can easily imagine why Kenyan's say it's God's resting place. If you had your pick of all the places in the world to rest and enjoy the view, that would definitely be one of them.

    I am often impressed by human architecture. Some examples are a real testament to human creativity and ingenuity. But I think it's the natural architecture that touches me the most. Especially mountains. Mount Damavand in Iran, for one. Or Big Sur along the California coast, where the mountains meet the sea.

  2. Book lover that I am I love the hard cover façade of Kansas City Public Library!

    Human architecture appeals to me because,as you say, it is representative of a time and place and a culture.So much history is recorded in the buildings around us, and they can represent so much if only we looked. Nature's architecture is beautiful and inspirational. I am entranced with Gaudi's nature inspired work.

    I too would choose nature's architecture. The mountains, trees, rivers and oceans speak to one's soul in a way that nothing else can.

  3. Heidi, I'm glad you like the photo of Mount Kenya. That morning, the sky changed colors dramatically every 30 seconds or so as the sun rose. It was amazing.

    Geets, I agree with you about the KC Public Library; it's wonderful, isn't it? I also agree that nature touches us in a way nothing else can.

  4. What a beautiful idea for a post - thanks Jenny! I was so glad you mentioned Antonio Gaudi's Barcelona; I love his wild, gooey, organic architecture. And I also wonder about which of our buildings today will still be around in a milennia or two...

  5. We visited Gaudi's Cathedral on our honeymoon, seventeen years ago. I don't believe it's finished even now [the Cathedral not the marriage] I've never thought of the natural habitat as being architectural, but I know what you mean. When I first saw a real red wood [in the flesh - bark] I thought that was monumental.

  6. Awesome post, Jenny. As for the question, both natural and man-made architecture moves me... I don't have a favorite. At least not one I can think of at this moment!

  7. David, I love your description of Gaudi's architecture as gooey. (Hey, you should be a writer!)
    Maddy, I'm lucky to be surrounded by redwoods. They are truly monumental--and gorgeous. ... and I'm glad to hear the marriage isn't finished yet.
    Hi Dana! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  8. I've never seen the KC library cool!

    When it comes to man-made architecture, I've found that I enjoy a place more if it has interesting structures to look at. It wasn't until I went to Sydney, Australia that I discovered I felt that way, though. While the Opera House is gorgeous, & Sydney has a couple other neat pieces, by & large, it doesn't have that many interesting buildings, in my opinion.

    However, there are places that I enjoy largely because of the natural beauty. New Zealand is one that comes to mind. &, while I wouldn't ever want to live there again, I think Michigan has some beautiful countryside.

    Very nice post, Jenny!