Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Block of Discord: Three Modernism geniuses on one street block

When one talks about the architecture of Barcelona, one term that you will constantly keep hearing is Modernisme. This was the art form that had its golden period from the late 1800s to early 1910 in Barcelona and was expressed chiefly in the form architecture along with painting, design, decorative arts and more. This was a move away from the prevalent Gothic styles of architecture and it also played a major role in giving Barcelona, and in effect Catalonia, a unique cultural identity. 

The whole idea behind switching to Modernisme style was to reinforce the political and economical stability of the region of Catalonia, while the rest of Spain was going through bad times. This was a period when patrons gave preferences to Catalan architects over others. Just like its Football team, the Modernisme movement is also a symbol of the Catalan identity. It is fascinating how so many aspects of Barcelona have had an ulterior objective at some level - that of Catalan independence.

In Barcelona, apart from the Gothic buildings that you see in the Ciutat Vella or Old Town, you will find a lot of Modernist buildings outside the old town. The district of Eixample was the playground for a lot of modernism architects. And the gravity of this movement becomes evident when you learn that there are 9 buildings in Barcelona which have the UNESCO World Heritage tag - and all of them belong to the Modernisme school of thought.

Along the Passeig de Gracia (in the Eixample district), in one of the most expensive streets in Barcelona (and whole of Spain), one gets to see brilliant examples of this style of architecture.

There is one section in particular that had me impressed right from the moment I first set my eyes on these buildings, accidentally. So one evening while travelling back to my hotel I had to change my metro lines. At the Passeig de Gracia station, I couldn’t buy a ticket because the vending machine didn’t have a change for 20 Euros. So I had to head out of the Passeig de Gracia metro station to get some change. On exiting the metro station, I just happened to look on my right and there it was in all its lit up glory - the Gaudi masterpiece - Casa Battlo! I knew I was coming back to this very street in the coming days.

The reason this street is special, is because you get to see three buildings side-by-side, touching each other literally, built by three Modernisme geniuses who were almost contemporaries. And although all three buildings belong to the Modernisme school, they are as different from each other as the CST building is from the Gateway of India in Mumbai. This is the main reason this street block is popularly called the ‘Illa de la discordia’ or the ‘Block of Discord’. Interestingly, none of these three buildings were built from the ground up in the Modernisme style, but were renovated towards the late 1800s thanks to the patronage by the rich families living in Barcelona at the time about whom I will elaborate below.

So let us look at each of these masterpieces, which I had only enough time and budget to admire from the outside. Maybe the next time I visit this beautiful city, I’ll keep aside time and money to check them out from the inside as well.

Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadalfach

This building was commissioned by the chocolatier Antoni Amatller, and the building still has the Amatller’s chocolate outlet. I learned that after getting free dark chocolate tasters at the entrance of this building whose ground floor is free for exploration. The front facade of Casa Amatller is clearly inspired by the houses one sees along the the Netherlands or in the squares of Belgium - you know those triangular roof with a tetris-style sloping design (can’t think of another way of putting it). I also saw a lot of gargoyles and minor detailing on some strategic points, clear pointers to the use of some neo-gothic styling. I couldn’t understand the symbology behind the figures though. One unique thing I noticed along the facade was the almost wallpaper-like look. I need to research on this style of decorating the walls, which I saw quite a lot in Barcelona. Will update accordingly.

Casa Battlo by Antoni Gaudi
No two ways about it - Antoni Gaudi was a genius. His architectural style was nothing like his contemporaries. Even something as entry level for an architect as a lamp post - which was his first assignment that graces the Placa Reial - had the trademark Gaudi stamp of using elements from nature.

Casa Battlo, just like the Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila, has a very organic sort of design. It wasn’t built from scratch but was a renovation of an existing building which Gaudi himself had built. Josep Battlo, a prosperous textile merchant bought the house in 1900 and wanted a design that would make his house stand out from the others on Passeig de Gracia. Instead of building it from scratch, Gaudi suggested plans to renovate it in 1904.

The first thing that strikes you as you admire the building is the complete lack of any sort of clean straight lines anywhere on the Casa Battlo facade. There was clearly some inspiration taken from the bone structure of humans, the fins on the body of a fish that were quite obvious to me. The top, I later learned was supposed to resemble the back of a dragon, and it actually does. Gaudi was already working on his lifetime obsession - the La Sagrada Familia - while renovating Casa Battlo. Sagrada Familia itself pays homage to design elements found in nature, so the departure in style as compared to other two buildings on this street is not surprising.

Even the glass on the windows were rounded in shape and it could slide up or down.

Let that sink in for a bit. Rounded glass windows with a up/down slide mechanism to let the light in was unheard of at the time Gaudi was making this stunner of a building - so he had to conceive and make these unique design elements as well. The balconies of the top floors resemble the skeletal structure of a sea creature. Rather the whole building had an almost exoskeleton like appearance. I really wish I had enough time to check Casa Battlo from the inside:(

Casa Lleo Morrera by Lluis Domenech i Montaner
Montaner is considered to be the ‘Father of Catalan Modernisme movement’ thanks to his prolific portfolio of buildings.

The Casa Lleo Morrera was a renovation of the building owned by the Morrera family. This looks much more traditional in its form as compared to the other two buildings. One can notice a lot of symbols such as the mulberry leaf motif - mulberry is called Morrera in Catalan, which was the family name; a lot of sculptures on the facade show figures with technological instruments of the time such as telephone, phonograph and so on.

These are just three of the many many Modernist buildings in all of Barcelona - there are hundreds of them and well maintained too. Maybe I'll talk about them another time. It's a pity that this style of architecture stopped getting any patronisation post the 1920s.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Valley of Flowers: A slice of heaven!

“I will lift up mine eyes upto the hills, from whence cometh my help”, read the memorial of the British student botanist Joan Margaret Legge, who while collecting some flora samples lost her life after a fatal slip back in 1939. In this heavenly place that is the Valley of Flowers, where the mind is in a state of total ecstasy, this memorial acts as a stark reminder of our mortality.

Located within the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, the Valley of Flowers is a national park where over 500 species of flowers, are the main attraction. It is open to the public from July to October, when most of the flowers are in bloom. The trek up to the Valley of Flowers starts from its base point - a small hamlet known as Ghangria - which seems to have more mules and horses than humans.

No sooner had I started the trek towards the Valley, than I noticed the stench of mule piss and dung being replaced by the fragrance of the wet earth and the countless flowers - a highly potent mix. Even though it was just a 3 km uphill trek, I was taking my own sweet time as I was surrounded on my way with exotic flowers. They came in all hues - blue, violet, yellow, orange, red. My mind kept wondering, if this route itself is so full of flowers, what lies in store at the actual destination?

It’s a stony pathway going downhill and then uphill, with the edges covered with green-coloured metal railings to lean on to. There are some patches however, where the road is quite narrow and definitely not meant for those suffering from vertigo. Halfway into the route, I was treated to my very first glacier sighting. In fact, a portion of the route went right through the glacier. And the glacier-n00b that I was, I slipped a couple of times, not anticipating the change in grip. My Woodlands which were ace grippers on the muddy path, were more like roller skates on the icy surface.

Clouds can be real mood-killers here, covering a majority of the high-rising black-coloured snow-peppered mountains. In the verdant greenery, those mountains look almost lifeless but when seen from the human vantage point, look quite majestic. Only when a drifting cloud engulfs you and reduces your route visibility for a while do you fall in love with the clouds. That is one experience no trekker is ever tired of.

After a couple of hours of negotiating various patches, slippery muddy and icy roads, I finally came across a wooden bridge mounted above a stream of gushing pristine water which led to a board that read in the Devanagari Script “Fulon ki Ghati me aapka swagat hai”. After already having been subjected to so many flowers and changing landscapes enroute, my expectations were on a much higher pedestal, than when I had started my trek. This was a UNESCO World Heritage site we were dealing with, after all.

I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer variety of flowers I came across, as I made my way through the narrow gravelly path surrounded by lush greenery, made me feel like I was bang in the middle of a flower-encyclopedia. A botanist I am not, so I didn’t really know the scientific or, for that matter, even the common names of most of the flowers. Blue poppies, Himalayan balsam, Brahma kamal, Edelweiss are just some names I am able to remember from some of the experts who were there to check out one particular species. Everywhere I looked, it seemed as if someone had maintained a garden, but it was all wild growth. There was a method to the flowery madness for sure. Patches of pink, yellow, white, purple seemed to be scattered in places. The textures on each of the flowers were quite different, it made me wonder how completely illiterate I am as far as flowers are concerned. Also how awfully over-rated a rose is!

The Valley of Flowers spans over a huge area and it is surrounded by green hills. I lost count of the number of streams and brooks that dotted the landscape. Intermittent mild showers and winds sometimes made it a task to get a good macro shot. But in a place like this, you are bound to go nuts with your camera. There is just so much to shoot and so little time.

I used to think that ‘a land of fairies’, was only the figment of someone’s imagination. But sitting beside the stream of fresh mineral water and beholding that colourful sight of the valley I realised, that this might just be one of those places. I have been on countless treks, but no other place has been as remote as this, as away from humanity, as visually brilliant! Where the only sound you can hear is of a waterfall cascading down from some mountain nearby, where the fragrance from the earth and the flowers around you is so over-powering you will hardly miss your perfume, where all your senses are excited to their limits, but the mind is still at peace.

This is one of those places.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

When the rains decided to do a cameo in Konkan!

Konkan region is beautiful in the rains. But during the months of January and February, it can get quite cool thanks to the vast open landscapes and ample forests around (although locals are skeptical about that). In the months leading up to the rains, the Konkan belt can get unbearably hot. So when I went to my native place, Malwan - Masure, unseasonal rains was the last thing on my mind.

One of the things I eagerly look forward to when I visit my native place is to just wander for the sake of it: in the vast fields opposite my ancestral home during daytime or under the moonlit road which is snaking besides the fields. This time around, I was already noticing a gathering of clouds on my daytime strolls and I was really hoping for some showers. And well, the clouds weren't just teasing.

It drizzled on and off for a couple of days while I was there. The interval between the rains was filled with an even cooler atmosphere. The landscape which was brown and yellow, got a nice touch of moisture which looked dramatic under the cloudy skies. Ok, I'll stop with the talking and show you'll the photographs I made instead.

The last in the series pretty much tells the story. Everyone finding random reasons to put off heading off to any other place from here.

Take Care,

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Joshimath – exploring without a plan

I stumbled upon this write up I had written around six years back when I'd taken a solo trip to the Valley of Flowers. This is about Joshimath, a place I stayed enroute, before proceeding to the Valley of Flowers. 

“Sahab, yaha pe kuch dekhne ko nahi hai. Aap Auli jaao,” these were the words I was greeted with as I was settling down in my hotel room in Joshimath, which was the last thing I wanted to hear after a back-breaking eight hour car journey.  

Located on NH58 at a height of 1875m and about 9 hours from Rishikesh, give or take a few hours depending on the efficiency of your Sumo driver. I had left Rishikesh around 9 in the morning and reached Joshimath around 4pm. Did not bother hunting for the right deals at hotels, as the first one I went to gave me a two-bedroom room with attached bathroom at an affordable rate.

Vinod, the hotel guy, I realised, wasn’t lying. For a tourist there is nothing in Joshimath, he should proceed to Auli. Joshimath is basically used as a stopover point, by travellers going to and returning from Govindghat, a base for trekkers to proceed to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. It's also a point from where people can proceed to the charming Auli - a ski destination during the winters. There’s a ropeway which transports you from Joshimath to Auli in around 45 mins.

Having already missed the last to and fro ropeway to Auli, I had no option but to explore Joshimath. It was still 5pm and I had around two more hours of light. So I set out to explore.

Joshimath is a sleepy town, with tonnes of hotels strewn around the main market area. I did the regular touristy thing by visiting the Adi Sankaracharya Math, which according to the Vinod, was the only place to see in all of Joshimath. It is located at a height from the marketplace, from where one gets a great vantage point. The hills on the opposite side of the valley were majestic. Clouds were shrouding the peaks every fifteen minutes or so, making photographing them tricky.

Sankaracharya Math was constructed in 8th century AD. It has a Laxmi Narayan Mandir at the entrance. The bright yellow color of the temple really looks out of place in the surrounding greens. To the left, one comes across a huge meditation hall. Proceeding ahead took me to the cave where Sankaracharya used to meditate called Shree Totkacharya Gunfa. The floor of the cave was comparitively cooler. The view from the cave was stunted by the staircase leading upto the Shiva temple.

I came back on the main road. I remembered seeing a milestone talking of some Narsimha Temple. Now Narsimha, as we all know is the half-human, half-lion Avatar of Vishnu, who killed King Hiranyakashyap. The story goes something like this: King Hiranyakashyapa was blessed with the boon that no human, no animal could kill him either on earth or above it. Neither would he be killed during the day nor during the night, by no weapon known to mankind. He is drunk on power and is hellbent on killing his son, the Vishnu devotee Bhakt Pralhad. So the Narsimha avataar (half-man, Half Lion) gets Hiranyakashyap on his lap (thereby him not being on earth or up above) and kills him by piercing his nailed paws in Hiranyakashyap’s stomach (thereby satisfying the condition that no weapon can kill Hiranyakashyap). Hindu Mythology sometimes really does fascinate me to a great extent.

Having known the legend behind the story beforehand, a first for me, I decided to look out for this temple. The path leading up to the temple took me through the quaint alleys of Joshimath. This gave me an opportunity to pass by local houses and witness the villagers going about their lives first hand. The pathways sloping all throughout, kind of reminded me of Gangtok. I guess this characteristic is common with all the high altitude towns. One house in particular with is white columns, wooden balconies and windows, reminded me of a scene from an Indipop song called ‘Piya Basanti Re,’ by Ustad Sultan Khan which has been shot in Himachal Pradesh. There were many such houses I came across while taking this out of the way route towards the temple.

The temple was located in a corner. One really has to search for it. It is a temple complex, not really huge in size. But still it has many a confusing pathways. There is a Hanuman Temple, a Narsimha Temple and other temples. It also has a Math or a religious place, which is conspicuous due to the bright yellow paint spread over its exterior. The place was really quiet, I mean I could hear a pin drop. It is rare in temples in India to be so quiet. Another thing worth noticing was the cleanliness around the temples. Maybe the fact that some part of the complex housed the Pandit’s family was a reason. But it was pleasant to come to a quiet and clean temple. The one thing that fascinated me here was the roofing system. The roofs were made out of flat stones, again something I assume is a characteristic of high altitudes.  

I met a local lad who gave me his version of the Narsimha story which was obviously made up. It was fun talking to him though and he told me about my next pit stop. I proceeded ahead off the main road. Came across another road which had jeeps parked. I would be on one of these the next morning heading towards Govind Ghat. I feasted on the local chaat and sat on a park bench with the wall of mountain in front of me with a valley leading up to it. Around me were people discussing local affairs in their mother tongue, which was slightly different from Hindi, but I was able to follow. This is one of the things I like, about visiting small towns. The chatter is so hyper-local, so completely cut off from the mainstream, that it’s refreshing. Being connected to the Matrix (global media) our conversations inevitably centre around pretty mainstream things, if the topic of discussion isn’t personal.

It was quite peaceful just sitting there observing people, admiring the tiny waterfall trying to make its way out of the wall of mountain. The zig-zag roadways on the mountain in the distance brought home the reality of the troubles people living at a height have to face. No wonder a lot of the residents have brilliants stamina. I could sit hours staring at the mountains. There's something about mountains, that makes me feel irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.

I had not kept any track of where I was headed, so was but natural for me to forget my way back. But it was not very difficult finding my hotel. There was a ‘bandar-ka-khel’ sort of a thing happening under my hotel. There was quite an audience to watch the shenanigans of the two kids who were doing stunts which were impressive. Last time I had seen that in the city was when I was as old as the kids. It seemed cruel to me, but that was what gave that family its dinner. I gave 50 bucks to the father and headed to my hotel room.

Take Care,