Happy New Year

Cork is usually pulled off every nine years during summer, and the last digit of the year of the harvest is then painted on the bark. So yes, the trees bearing an 8 could have been barked last year. This serves as an indication only, as grow differs from tree to tree, and even sometimes faded signs are repainted incorrectly.

São Francisco da Serra, Portugal.

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Mission Impossible: Ask a Portuguese To Make a Boring Pavement

Like the azuleijos, a calçada portugesa is a  skill unique to the Portuguese. Who else is crazy enough to embark on big-scale projects, such as covering inside and outside of churches, or city squares, using 15×15 cm tiles and black and white stones hardly bigger than mosaic pieces? The scale distortion intermingles humility with a sense of grandeur.

These arts may seem purely decorative, when actually there is pure architectural genius in the use of the space. Below are some symmetrical, figurative, decorative and informative examples of this versatile industry. Either elaborate or pretty simple designs, but equally impacting. Also included, more ancient carved stone pavements and a modern courtyard, which I found confusing. But what else do you want from life than being positively surprised?

I hope that’s enough to justify a trip to the country and its less famous towns. Don’t wait for too long, though. Today I won’t let beauty being spoiled by reality, so I won’t comment on safety considerations resulting in unique artworks being removed from the city centres of Porto, Lisboa or São Paulo, and will end saying VIVA A CALÇADA!


  
  
  
  
  
  


  

 

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Pictures taken in Braga, Amarante, Guimarães, Aveiro, Lisbon and Setúbal.

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Examples of Modern Architecture in Bordeaux

You may have heard during this prize season that someone decided Bordeaux is the best city to visit this year. I have no idea why but, what’s almost sure is that his mayor is soon to be French president.

One of my good friends is lucky to live here and we went to see the new “iconic building” (“egotic” would be a more appropriate adjective) which houses the City of Wine, in what used to be a poor neighbourhood that has been teared  down. OK, I also don’t like this concept of pretending that entertainment is culture, but here we have a perfect exemple of trying to attract mass tourism repeating the Bilbao Guggenheim recipe which, I think, starts to be boring.  Anyway, what’s a shame is that this building has no personality nor connection with its environment, wine or Bordeaux. With scarce architectural knowledge, to me it just looks like the son of Gehry’s fish in Barcelona and Piano’s museum in New Caledonia.

(XTU architects)

Fortunately, just crossing the bridge, we steeped upon this small thing. No signature, no announced purpose. Just fresh, funny, and creative.

What I want to share is my favourite in town, the new tribunal build by Richard Rogers almost 20 years ago.

As in Beaubourg, the building structure is revealed and not hidden, but the symbol also has political meaning here, referring to the transparency of Justice. And yes it isn’t frightening and impressive as courts typically are, and hopefully anyone can feel welcome in, as trials are public.
At least the architect did his share.  

The old stone tower now houses the cafeteria. And the barrels-shapes are actually courtrooms.

On House & Car Matching, and Digressing About Daily Objects Design

In one of my favourite book as a child, you could see dogs and their owners walking in a park, it was so funny how they looked alike. It is true in real life, and the same applies to cars and houses. I tried to start a series in Sicily last year, and here’s a tentative of presentation.

Primary colours brightening a grey environment:

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Complementary colours always work great:

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Forgot the Fiat Panda and find something sexier. What about an ochre theme, featuring Fiat 500 and a little van at sunset?

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You would have noticed that the main problems attached to car photography are technical and artistic difficulties, and for the photographer, dealing with frustration. Except in Helsinki where you find empty streets but no Fiats. In France, you can find a pink Fiat but in the best picture you manage in the hectic environment, you forgot your legs reflection. Anyway, that would be a perfect exercise for photography schools.

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The real story is that is summer, I embarked on the nightmare of buying a car (living in the country has its downsides) and I faced an unbelievable aspect of modern living. You need something basic and practical, if possible beautiful  – at least not too ugly as you’re going to use it on a daily basis – well nothing fancy that seems impossible but you realise such objects simply doesn’t exist! I think modern computers, phones and cars are a good example of the standardisation of everyday goods in free trade consumer society: their designs are poor and all the same. Depressing colours. Not to mention practicality. So we end up with no real choice. They are not desirable and I don’t want to use them, but I have to. I feel I’ve been ripped-off by liberal propaganda, which promised freedom and diversity. Well, all that I see is ugly, uncreative and dull, which ironically is how they used to describe communism.

The evolution of Apple Mac epitomizes such a factory and design tragedy. The young generation who discovered the brand with the ipod don’t even know that they used to create funny designs, like a butterfly laptop, with many colours to choose from – yes, we could be different – a super practical handle and charger which, according to your background, reminded either a sewing machine pedal or an UFO. Even crazier, the system was open, user-orientated and super reliable. Strangely enough, it is precisely when Apple computers and accessories turned from work tools and focused on masses entertainment that their products stopped being sound and colourful, and became unreliable, colourless, and a flat and square shape was labelled “sharp design”.

Call me backyard-looking, but watch the first part of the Brazilian movie Aquarius, filled with beautiful cars from the 80’s, and tell me if you don’t feel like in a dream. Or take the Fiat 426 (please refrain from commenting the quality of the picture, we even have a finger here): which current car offers such a combination of beautiful lines, colours with personality and, for sure, sound mechanics?

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The last picture was taken a few days ago. Congratulations to French designers, who managed to make a truck look like a corrugated iron shed. But unlike modern design, at least it looks like something.

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Grasp The Fist And Knock On The Door

I took this series in less than 5 minutes in Arles in between two photo exhibitions (hold in all sorts of buildings especially open for the occasion, from formers chapels to railway workshops), the stroll acting as an eye-opener to the many details this city offers, like that day these quaint door knockers. 

How intense is this festival, where you experience not only the exhibitions, but their settings and the whole city. And I wonder how I would feel during an evening of the opening week, hold in the roman theatre! I always get the shivers realising that we’re sitting on the exact same spots as the people did 2000 years ago. 


  
    
 With its fragility and grace, the last one is my favorite. I like the fact that these door knockers are somehow design-free: their use is so transparent. 

It’s also interesting how architectural features are cultural markers. You become so used to this environment that you just walk past, but when you start noticing them, you realise they’re all other some places and unknown in others. For instance, I hadn’t seen them in Porto before I met Lavinia Racanello. Below, a picture of the detournement she created there.   

17th Century Cuteness

Filling the background or floating in the air, these little flowers and animals painted by “southern Italy artist” (the last one is identified: Paolo Porpora) made my day. 

Pictures taken at Valence museum

    
 

Renaissance in Forez, France

With a friend visiting (featured in the pictures), I rediscovered the interior of a a small Renaissance castle in my village, la Bastie d’Urfé. Despite being unpretentious is part of its charm, I believe it is hard time to internationally advertise its incredible features, so let’s make it the subject of my first post here.

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Welcoming you is a sphinx, the symbol of knowledge. In the 16th century, Claude d’Urfé hold here the second biggest book collection of the kingdom – just after the king’s. What a challenge to imagination, compared with today’s cultural and economical poverty, and the region being disconnected from power and influential circles. Also worth mentioning: his grandson Honoré wrote and set here what’s considered as the first French novel, L’Astrée. A best-seller in its time, and precursor of endless and multiple characters TV series, it is forgotten nowadays.

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As during the many childhood visits, I first run to peer through the iron vine. The excitement and amazement are still here. Inside awaits a magical and fascinating world: antique gods, the four seasons, geometrical forms… made out of local little stones, river pebbles, shells, and stalactites and coloured sands on the ceiling. Even on hot days, it’s always fresh in here, you only need to imagine the sound of the water running out of the sculptures’ natural orifices, like it used to. Typical of the Italian renaissance, this grotto is as unique as it seems, the only one in France.

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In fact, the “refreshment room” is an entrance to the chapel, with a preparation and purification role, both symbolic and physical. I am an atheist and reluctant to mysticism, but this philosophy including multiple beliefs, pagan and Christian, touches me almost as much as the profusion of the decoration.

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This magnificent blue and white roof remains intact inside the chapel, with a tiny square (bottom part of the picture) reading “anima sane in corpore sano”, humanist motto. Unfortunately, the walls and floor are empty. Abandoned and derelict, the castle was partly dismantled in the late 19th – beginning of 20th. The marquetry panelling is now at the MET, New York and the ceramic pavement in le Louvre, Paris, see here and here.

My dream is to see everything together on site again, and as a start the State recently recovered the main door from the Rothschild family while they suffered financial and tax problems. It seems very feasible to me but, strangely enough, unlike in postcolonial relationships, the mere idea of return policy doesn’t seem to exist in the first world. Or maybe the province is considered like a colony of its capital city?

I was shocked when an Egyptian told me: “I don’t mind our historical treasures being in Europe or in America. Actually, they are better taken care of. Here things disappear from the museums.” But maybe he got a point actually. A former private owner sold the carved ceiling of the outside gallery for firewood. And the many restorations made lately seem great, but how come that they dared to glue some plastic golden beads on the ceiling of the grotto? Yes, the 50 cents type, the argument being that original Murano beads are too expensive. Outrageous and insulting to the visitors, especially when the money issue would never have been one in Paris or in any famous site. I can’t believe that nobody thought of using glass beads, when there is a talented glass plant in the district, which is also the last one in the country…