Category Archives: Architecture

Before and after in Borgund, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. 2011

I find the old stave churches in Norway fascinating and I was saddened when I read that many were pulled down in the 17th and 18th centuries as communities became financially able to build what they thought was better. As a matter of fact most of the stave churches that are left standing, are in what used to be the poorest areas of Norway.

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The stave church in Borgund (built at the end of the 12th century) is one of the most spectacular examples left, but after seeing the dark, cramped and cold interior it’s not hard to understand why the locals, who had to use such churches, didn’t feel so sentimentally attached to keeping them, and  built new churches as soon as they could afford to do so.

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Whilst the exteriors of the new churches (such as the one at Borgund built in 1866 right next to the old church) aren’t as fantastically striking as the stave churches, their interiors that may be considered by some to still be a bit Spartan still have their own charm that is much more comfortable to be in.

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The door of the Reinli stave church. Norway. 2011

Years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I was young in the early years of high school, I used to regularly read, amongst many other things, Scientific American.  On one occasion when I was flicking through its pages I came across a fascinating article about thousand-year-old wooden churches in Scandinavia, known as Stavkirke (Stave Church).

Apparently those crafty old Vikings understood wood so well that they were able to construct wooden buildings that were able to last almost a thousand years.  The fact that they are religious buildings is of no interest to me but I do find it mind-blowing that something made out of wood and left out to the elements could last so long.

Like many things that seem so impossibly unobtainable, I put my new-found fascination for stave churches and the desire to see one in person on the back-burners of my mind.  Forty years later on this trip to Norway I have been able to indulge my adolescent wish to experience a Stave Church first-hand. Two weeks ago I went to Reinli and was shown around a small stave-church there by a really wonderful Norwegian woman who told us all about it.  Not only was our guide knowledgeable, she used understatement deliciously.  As she told us about the founding of the Reinli church by Olaf Tryggvasson, she said, “he was the one who Christianed Norway, and he wasn’t very nice about it”.

As a reader of many of the old Scandinavian sagas, I have a bit of a soft spot for the old pagan ways, and I was happy to hear about how Olaf met his end at the hands of peasant farmers who resisted him as he tortured and killed his way across the land in the name of Christianity.  That was until I visited Maere.

Whenever we go on fairly long trips overseas, my ever-inquisitive wife, Engogirl, downloads the entire wikipaedia (without photos) to her laptop (if you’d like to know how to do this, check out WikiTaxi here) and as we travel through new areas she reads out aloud information about the places we pass through.  Maere has a church built on a small hill, where archealogical evidence shows this used to be the site of what is now known as a heathenhof (literally “heathen house” or temple).  With the aid of Wikipedia, Engogirl read excerpts from the Heimskringla saga that detailed some of the goings-on at this heathenhof.  Apparently there used to be blood sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans. The priest used to dip a sacred twig into the blood and sprinkle the attendees with sacrificial blood.  As soon as I heard this I remembered about reading Cortes’ reaction to the Aztec priests he met during those first fateful encounters 500 years ago in Mexico.  Cortes was disgusted and enraged (it usually didn’t take that much to tick him off) by the foul smell and the dark sticky coating of dried blood that covered the Aztec temples and its priests.

All of a sudden, the murdering torturer for Christ, Olaf Tryggvason didn’t look so bad.  

The door of the stave church at Reinli speaks volumes of the mindset of the people who built the church at the behest of bloody-handed Tryggvason.  Although the foundations of original church that was commissioned about 1000 rotted, and then the next version burnt burnt down, the metal fixings from the original door were saved and used in the door of the church that was rebuilt in the same spot (possibly in the 1200s).  On close inspection, the escutcheon over the keyhole shows two heads, one of which is Odin (due to the fact that he is missing an eye, but you can’t see it in the photo below). 

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Sure, you can terrorise people into building a church in the name of your god, but the guardian of the keyhole that controls entry into the church is Odin.  Which goes to show who they thought was really in charge.  For me, one of the really great things about stave churches is they aren’t some precious little exhibit behind glass at a museum, they are rather large substantial things that can be approached closely and touched.  Our guide could see how thrilled I was to be so close to something so old and with such cultural weight that she handed me the key so I could put it through the old escutcheon, turn it, and open the door.  As sad as it sounds, I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Rundetaarn, Copenhagen, Denmark. 2011

Built between 1637 and 1642, the Rundetaarn (Round Tower in English) is Europe’s oldest functioning observatory.

Spiral towers are for running in!

Such facts matter little to the many children who had a swell time running up (I want to know what they were on!) and down the 200 metre (just over 200 yards) spiral ramp that gives access to the roof. Much like the monkeys that bound over the rocks of fallen temples in Asia, children give no thought to what they are passing over, enjoying instead the pure physicality of what they are doing. Of course there’s nothing wrong with such ignorant bliss, but I do feel that the older I get, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I get out of whatever I’m doing.

Paddy Palin once said something along the lines of, “if you know the names of a few trees the bush is no longer just bush”.

The Alcázar of Segovia, Spain. 2009

The Alcázar of Segovia was for me, the best grand building I saw on my European trip last year. Most palaces and their selfish and clueless ostentation leave me feeling cold. 

Warning bells went off in my head when I read that the Alcázar of Segovia was one of the buildings along with Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, that inspired that great exponent of kitsch and schmaltz, Walt Disney, to design the Wonderland entrance to his amusement parks. I was surprised how much I disliked Neuschwanstein and I wasn’t too optimistic about enjoying Segovia’s main tourist attraction.

We stayed in a very beautiful hotel right at the back of the castle, and as soon as I clapped my eyes on it, I was gob-smacked. Appearing through the early autumn foliage was, what has become for me, the epitome of what a castle could be. 

Neuschwanstein rankled me so much because it was so ersatz; tacky in such a mad and over the top sort of way. A pure folly of  brainless selfishness.

Segovia’s castle is obviously a defensive structure where some very powerful had people lived, but for me what saved it from being dismissed as yet another monument to greed, was that as far as the palaces I’ve experienced, it was relatively restrained.

Sure, the form of the Alcázar follows function, but there is also plenty of evidence of a desire to build something beautiful that not just the owners will see.

One of the things that struck me about Europe, was the fact that architectural beauty is important. I guess it’s a sad thing about wages becoming more equitable in the first world in this modern age that we live in.  No more cheap labour to suck the life out of and exploit. No more decoration, just for the sake of it.

So many buildings (here in Australia at least) are built for a price nowadays and aesthetics have largely been abandoned in much of the public architecture I’ve seen sprouting up lately. For every Renzo Piano or Frank Gehry there seems to be thousands of tasteless architectural versions of Myrmidons, ready to churn out  as many eyesores as they can.

Although most of the Alcázar is comparatively modest and functional, compared to so many other royal residences I’ve been to, there has been a fortune spent on the ceilings. It’s obvious where so much new world gold was spent. After all, this was the home of Isabella and Ferdinand, the alpha couple of their time.

As I looked up at the ceilings, I found myself thinking about Christopher Columbus going cap in hand to the King and Queen as he promised to make them so much richer.

The ceilings are proof that Columbus was a man of his word.

Perhaps this heavenwards manifestation of wealth was an early form of prosperity preaching. Go with the right god and you’ll hit the big time. Jesus is my main guy and his co-pilot the pope, let me take all this great stuff  from those heathens.

So watch your step, or your arse will be mine!

Despite thoughts about what was done in Isabella and Ferdinand’s names, my wife and I never tired of seeing the Alcázar rising like a beautiful Renaissance stone battleship, out of the rocks.

The Queen Victoria building. Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2009

Today I went into the city to meet up with fellow blogger Vanille who has come over from New Zealand with her husband, Paprika for a short trip.

Vanille is a French woman with a real sense of style, a fabulous food photographer and cook who has a deep interest in architecture. So when I offered to show her and Paprika around town I felt a little worried about where to take them. The weather as been pretty lousy here in Sydney lately so I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the easy way out with a trip on the harbour which always pleases. I asked what places they’d wanted to visit and the told me the Powerhouse museum and Darling Harbour. I’ve been to those two place several times and felt they weren’t that interesting but I thought that they might be of interest to others who had never seen them so I didn’t try to dissuade them.

Sydney is like any other tourist destination, in that it has heaps of over hyped opportunities to blow money and time on very little.

The first place we went to was the Powerhouse Museum which features technology and design. Although the Powerhouse museum was much vaunted in various design media when it was first opened, it is now a tired old triumph of style over substance. Dark displays hidden under noisy soundscapes and wretched projected video excess. I felt embarrassed that I was there with people of obvious taste and intelligence. Mercifully, Vanille and Paprika were self assured enough to let me know they’d rather see something else, so we bailed and headed for nearby Chinatown for lunch.

Despite the best efforts of whatever committee that has tried to turn Chinatown into a tourist experience, it is still a great place to go for excellent and cheap food. I particularly recommend the Sussex centre which is basically an Asian shopping mall that has a fantastic food hall of very authentic Chinese food from all over Asia. One of my favourite dishes that I like to turn visitors (who are unfamiliar with the food of South East Asia) onto, is the laksa (I prefer the Katong style).

After lunch we went to Darling Harbour which, despite being promoted as a tourist attraction, is nothing more than yet another retail mall with more tourist nick-knacks per square metre than just about anywhere else in Australia.

I think that what the people who design such places don’t understand, is that there should something that makes the place worthwhile to visit on an intrinsic level rather than just a place to shop. Darling harbour is just one of those lame-arse copies of the glasshouse Eaton centre in Toronto Canada with very little to offer to anyone other than pathological shoppaholic. At least it’s near the water and gives a good view of the city.

To my mind, Vanille and Paprika were starting to look a little dispirited with some of Sydney’s major tourist traps and when the pouring rain came I knew I had to think fast.

Vanille has studied architecture and we had been talking about the design of various things so I thought I should show her the beautiful Queen Victoria building as a way to show that not everything in Sydney is a clumsy and crass attempt to separate tourists from their money.

The Queen Victoria building (also known as the QVB) is a stunningly ornate sandstone shopping centre  built in the late 19th century that has been recently renovated.

It’s a building that has much old world charm and it offers so much more than a chance to merely shop. The QVB is an aesthetic tour de force that is so rare in these days of soulless shopping malls and tourist traps.