Category Archives: architecture

Fishing from Pontius Pilate’s Palace

The gloom of a foggy, pre-winter day here on the east coast of the US has sent me back to my storehouse of Middle Eastern photos, perhaps seeking warmth, perhaps respite from academics and from brutal post-storm New Jersey traffic and congestion.

The ‘throne room’ or reception chamber of the governor’s palace at Caesarea.

I found a series of photos from a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Caesarea in Israel.  They’re warm.  They’re balmy and quiet (I was almost alone, near closing time for the ruins, making a quick dash to see the site on my way back from a marathon tour day where I visited the entirety of the Golan Heights all the way up to Majd al-Shams, the ruins of Nimrod, the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the northern coast from Haifa down to Tel Aviv.)

Most important, these photos resonate with a sad truth about life and history: slow but steady decay, accompanied by the cheerier but still fatalistic idea that life continues, unabated, even over the most important puzzle pieces of a contentious past.

Two fishermen on a jetty that was probably, at one time, a garden courtyard overlooked by Pontius Pilate’s seaside reception chamber.

That is the mark of NQR I found at Caesarea:  the mundane littlenesses upon which the world really functions, many little examples of which seemed to be creeping — all at once — inward from the sea to reclaim such a fabulous, famous site.

For example, standing in the very spot where the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate held audience with the Apostle Paul and granted him the request to be judged, as a Roman citizen, in front of Caesar himself, I saw the ruins slipping back into the sea and a few local Arab men clambering over the shore, fishing.  Life continues.  I love that.  Despite the rocks, the ruins, the joinery, the faience tilework, the vista, these men operated on a simpler and more innocent level, plying the ruins in search of dinner.

Plaque (multi-language!) telling how the Apostle Paul sought an audience with the Emperor and was shipped to Rome from this location.

More of the world’s petty necessities creeping in toward Caesarea: a power plant just down the beach from the ruins.

A last beautiful photo of a fisherman on the sculpted but eroding shores of the ancient city.

 

 

 

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Architectural Masterpiece on Post-It Notes

Although I certainly appreciate how far my boy has come in his artistic endeavors since the episode, earlier this summer, now known as “Offspring of Lightning and Pure Darkness,” something rather NQR about these architectural sketches remains, be it the choice of media (Post-It Notes? — come on, kid!) or the presumption of fabulous wealth certainly necessary to fulfill this lovely dream of a house, either personally or on behalf of a rather childish and bourgeois clientele if, in his mind, he has designed this home for some third party rather than for himeself.  As such, I’ll share these sketches and give my ballpark for the associated costs (though I’m no home contractor myself!), not as a way to crush his dreams but more with the mind to preserve these little images, someday to show them to him when and if he does ever build a home of his own.

First, the overview (found under the work-light of his bunkbed desk, left here exactly in situ):

What rich client wouldn’t want to see the creativity here, the artiste’s obviously taking oreintal inspiration from the trivet tile from a Moroccan souq and the cartouche of the architect’s own name, made sentimentally in 4th grade art?

Next, a slightly closer view of the work-in-progress, here focusing on the kitchen — to include vintage ‘egg chairs’ along with a marble countertop, plus a supplementary sketch, ala Frank Lloyd Wright, for the patterning of tilework — yielding up in rough estimate a very preliminary construction cost of perhaps $80,000.  Second floor layout seems to allude pleasantly to the shape of a coffee-mug, perhaps in the artiste’s thinking a way to ‘welcome the day’ with Folger’s in his cup.

Sketch of the kitchen, along with some very rough initial ‘thoughts’ on the layout of the second floor.

Next, the indoor pool with a ballpark construction cost-estimate of $200,000, including the slide from the master bedroom.

Indoor pool, with slide coming from bedroom closet (see bedroom diagram below).

Next the master bedroom, with slide to the indoor waterpool coming out of the closet, estimate for cost:  $40,000?

Bedroom: interesting features include woodwork behind bed (in the closet?) sliding doors that lead to a ‘padio,’ window overlooking indoor pool.

Next, the connection between the two levels of the house.  Looks like there is a hallway and at least one set of stairs.  Hard to assign a cost to this segment of the house, but since it must be built we can arbitrarily say, maybe, $10,000?  If the roof of the pool, shown here, is glassed-in or decorative, then maybe another $30,000 should be added.

Concept is unclear in this sketch, presumably will be thrashed out in more detail in the final blueprint.

An alternate, more costly version, including a curving stair, probably runs closer to $25,000.

Another (competing?) concept for the stairs between the two levels of the house, this one more expensive and showing some antebellum influences. Architect’s shorthand for “Bird’s I” amusing. . .

Next, the rather boxy but efficient layout of the complete first floor.  Discounting the cost of the kitchen and the pool (which were figured above) the remainder of this probably comes to another $250,000 in construction and design costs.

Complete diagram for first level of the house: tennis/basketball court, pool, kitchen, and a rather open-concept living area testify to the owner’s enthusiasm for Sport.

Finally, and blurrily (whether it was laughter on the part of the photographer or sudden furtiveness at the sound of approaching steps outside the architect’s door, I can offer no valid excuse for taking such a poor photo) the living room.  Given its rather empty and square construction, this one portion of the building project probably does not require a separate cost estimate, although I strongly suspect that a large flatscreen TV is intended to remedy the architect’s childhood bitterness at always having owned the smallest and oldest TV on the block.

The least ‘clear’ of the early sketches for this building project, a close-up on the quadrant of the lower-level designated to serve as ‘living room.’

TOTAL COST ESTIMATE FOR CONSTRUCTION:  $355,000 – $500,000 depending on improvements to the lot, municiple fees, etc.

TOTAL VALUE PRESERVED FOR (FUTURE) ARCHITECTURAL CAREER:  Priceless, baby.


The National Symbol of Oman

While Oman’s true national symbol is the khanjar, a wickedly curved knife in a gilt silver scabbard still worn on formal occasions (equivalent of a black-tie dinner for us in the West), a close second might be the Incense Burner.  The Frankincense trade originated in southern Oman, Salalah Governate, and therefore, in almost any local market the smell of burning incense quickly overwhelms a visitor whose palate is unaccustomed to such a fug.

Three-storey incense burner at Riyam Park. If lit it might serve as a nice emergency lighthouse for shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

As part of the national effort to enshrine the Incence Burner, several years ago the Muscat Governate erected a giant white statue of a burner on a headland between Old Muscat and Mutrah, in the vicinity of Riyam Park.  When visitors first drive past this monument, heads turn.  Is it a spaceship?  Modern art?  A relic of some misguided brutalist 70’s architectural campaign?  It’s weird, sure, but soon it blends into the background, a part of Muscat, a landmark useful for navigating around town, with people saying stuff like:  “You know where the Incense Burner is?” rather than “Near Riyam Park.”

One might think this is weird, sure, Not Quite Right, certainly.  But we should remember that an Omani is likely to find our kitschy American fascination with something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a huge statue of a spoon and cherry equally odd.


Small Town 9-11 Memorial

Image

I believe this is a relic of the World Trade Center, transplanted into this Pennsylvania field.

Just across the border from where my family and I now live in New Jersey, the community of Newtown, PA, has put together a Garden of Reflection in memory of 9-11.  In need of some reflection, I visited it today.  While this was not the town where the plane crashed in the Pennsylvania farmfield, many people from the area were directly affected and the names of the 17 from Bucks’ County form the central ring of this stark, zenlike memorial.  In fact, one notable aspect of the Garden is its situation in the middle of rolling Dutch-Amish countryside just as if it had been the farmfield crash-site.  Then, more subtly, as a visitor strolls the grounds, a second architectural/artistic element reveals itself: a series of earthen berms radiating from the memorial like shockwaves.  It sends a definite message of one-pointedness and focus, perhaps an attempt to recapture some of the feeling of unity and (rage-inspired?) patriotism that overflowed, Pearl Harbor-style, the first few days and weeks and months after this tragedy.

While I found the clean lines and stainless-steal-and-glass construction somewhat contradictory (a stretch to say NQR) when compared to the chaos and dust and flame and utter destruction of the event itself, the place offers a certain quiet that is useful, if not a perfect metaphor.  Beyond this cleanliness and precision, or in addition to it, what I found more important and far more movingly human were the trinkets and tokens placed around the names of the victims.  They are the real cause for reflection:  lives chipped and chiseled and changed in ways unpredictably strange and sad, people left to live on without loved ones.

The names of all 2996 people killed immediately during the 9-11 attacks.

Due to these spontaneous, individualized additions and accretions, the memorial, despite its depersonalized design, personalizes the attack of 9-11 and sets the uncaring brutality of steel, concrete, and modern machines (like jetliners) in forceful opposition to the universal issues of human suffering that touch everyone regardless of nation, creed or religion.

Placard for one the seventeen Bucks' County residents. The antiseptic cleanliness of its construction contrasts remarkably with the dangling, improvised crucifix.


Masada = Awesome

Model of how Pontius Pilate's original palace at Masada may have appeared.

If you want to plumb the depths of commitment to an ideal of religious zealotry, one of the best places to go is the ruin of the mountain fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea.  Here, a band of Jewish sicarii (or daggermen) holed themselves and their families up in order to avoid Roman oppression at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE.  In the end, when it became apparent that the huge earthen ramp the Romans built to bring seigeworks to the cliff would prevail, the sicarii men drew lots.  The ten men selected each went among a group of about 70, probably not their own kin, and performed a bloody ritual of slaughter before turning their daggers on themselves.  When the Romans at last breached the fortress they found cooking fires still burning and stores of food and water enough to withstand several more months of seige.  But they found no living rebels.  They took no slaves.  Approximately 700 people died at their own hands, free, that day.

Now, in the present age, Masada has become a national symbol of pride and independence for the state of Israel.  New recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces swear their oaths of allegiance after performing a harrowing early-morning climb up the sheer eastern face of the bluff, following a twisting path called Snake Trail.

The mountain fortress of Masada and the thin winding path of Snake Trail seen in the morning light before my climb.

With one day, actually just one morning, left during my visit to Israel, I decided to wake really early in Tel Aviv, leave the comfort of my hotel, zip through Jerusalem in the gloaming, traffic-free hours before dawn, cruise down the Dead Sea highway, and try to scale Masada in a way that would trace the footsteps of these new recruits and still give me several hours on top to snoop around among the archeological preservations and reconstructions.  I wanted to get a sense for the place and its mystique.  I wanted to maximize my last day of exploration in the Middle East.  I wanted to cap off my travels with the one spot that might be, while not as famous as the Pyramids in Egypt, most relevant to our modern world’s troubles and trials.  In the execution of this plan, I was not disappointed.

First of all, the drive and the climb went just as planned, exhausting my body in such a way that my limbs shook and my skin under my backpack foamed with sweat when I reached the summit.  This was purposeful.  It was my choice to experience the rigor of the climb, sun cresting the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea to bleach the bluff and burn my skin.  I could have taken a ski-lift tram to the top but I wanted to be tired.  I wanted to feel the emotional drain that the new Israeli recruits must feel, along with the euphoria of their ascent and their sacred entrance among the place of the death of those terrible, awesome martyrs from two-thousand years ago.  The view from half-way up Snake Trail shows the amazing precipice of the heights and reveals, also, the outline of one of seven militarily-square Roman encampments, a place that sheltered somewhere around 600 legonaires, and the well-preserved wall of the Roman circumvallation, far below at the start point of the trail.

View from half-way up Snake Trail, just before sunrise.

What I came away with, after relaxing and soaking up the historical information on placards scattered around the blufftop ruins, was a sense of the awesomeness and the holiness of the place, the same strange mixture of secular strength and religious fervor that colors the Israeli outlook on the world.

To talk about that sense, to really give a reader a feeling for it, is — if anything — the Not Quite Right element here.  Think of killing your own children, having those deaths link to cultural motifs like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Torah, and then tying the oath of an impressionable young soldier to that moment.  What do we, as Americans or Canadians or Australians or Europeans hold similarly dear?  What symbols make us fight for our freedoms?  What experiences lead us to rise from the comfort of our Monday Night Football- or Oprah-opiated lives to actually do something for the betterment of ourselves or our fellow men?  Do such symbols exist that might benefit the whole of mankind rather than just one group, one nationality, like the Israelis?

I fear they do not.

Ruins of the storerooms atop Masada.

 

 


Odd Angels on High

For those of us around the world — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even atheist — there is one shared conception from this Holiday Season that has undergone little debate but has left a lot of room for popular imagination:  angels.

Growing up in a very Protestant Christian environment where the frenetic reach of mass marketing intrudes even into the most sacred of objects, I became accustomed to one particular image or ‘idea’ of what an angel should be:  white, fluffy, well-preened feathers, golden halo, usually Caucasian in appearance, holding a harp, sporting a few other little daubs of golden accessories, like a trumpet, and perhaps wearing a neatly-pleated toga of some sort.  Very clean and white-washed and harmless.  Angels of this sort appear everywhere in the USA — on the topmost boughs of Christmas trees, suspended from streetlights along the main thoroughfares in many little heartland hometowns, adorning the covers of greeting cards, even making appearances in films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “City of Angels.”

So, when I read in one of my guidebooks that I would find frescoes of angels — four huge seraphim dating to the 4th Century AD — on each of the main arches inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul (which had once, for more than a millenia, been the primary church of the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, much like St. Paul’s Cathedral for Catholicism in Rome) my mind immediately latched onto this image of fluffy happiness.

But that idea was completely, utterly mistaken.

What I found inside the Hagia Sophia turned out to be downright weird, if not frightening.  But, in a way, this sort of angel seems much more real, much more like the type of messenger commonly noted to have stricken fear into the hearts of the Prophets to whom the angels came as messengers of God.  Ezekiel, Abraham, Moses, and many more right up to and including Muhammad — all who encountered angels report a sense of terror and numbness at seeing or being in their presence.

So, maybe it’s our plastic and lily-white conception of an angel that is Not Quite Right while this frightening and disembodied mass of shifting feathers painted 1500 years ago more closely represents the truth —

An angel inside the Hagia Sophia.

 


Romancing the T.G.I. Fridays?

Is this Vegas?

One of the wonderful things about traveling the world, let alone the Middle East, was the chance to score a romantic dinner or two.

My wife and I splurged on a rooftop evening at a five-star place overlooking the lit vale of the Petra ruins in Jordan.  We enjoyed several fabulous traditional Moroccan meals at riads in Fes, Rabat, Marrakech and Cascades d’Ouzoud.  We dined on the waterfront in Ulu Deniz, Turkey, and in and around the Golden Horn in Istanbul.  We ate well in Oman too, with the highlight a traditional shuwwa barbeque served to us in the majlis hall of a friend’s family in Sur.

But, sad to say, every now and again eating good greasy American comfort food held a tremendous ‘traditional’ appeal for us.  We frequented a couple of good Mexican restaraunts in Muscat, along with a burger joint called the Roadside Diner which combined uncomfortably frigid air-conditioning with a new-fangled notion of 50’s decor and techno-thumping music.  The scarcity of good burgers made the Roadside’s other oddities tolerable.

But, of all these places, only one managed to combine a small amount of romance with American, ummm, cuisine.  So, here’s to the winner of my Not Quite Right award for favorite restaraunt in the Middle East:  T.G.I. Fridays in Dubai.

The secret, for this restaraunt, was its truly wonderful balcony seating . . .

My son, enthralled by the view.

. . . combined with the ‘larger-than-Las Vegas’ light, water and music show . . .

Syncronized fountains squirt water almost to the height of TGI Fridays' third storey balcony.

. . . and the phenomenal view of the Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building) right above the balcony.  The lights on the Burj Khalifa were even timed so that they participated in and enhanced the riffing cascades of the fountain!

The tallest building in the world, as seen while waiting for my Loaded Potato Skins. The blurry snowflake-ish things are reflections from sand and grit in the air. Blech!

And, let us not forget, good soda, fries, non-alcoholic cocktails, and any of TGI Fridays’ many other schmutzy treats!

To get there, go to the Burj Khalifa Mall, near the indoor ice-skating rink.  Water/light shows begin every 20 minutes or so, insha’allah.


A Beautiful Stillness

When we think of the Middle East, our stereotypical idea includes a lot of color, action, vibrancy.  Perhaps that is where the romance in the romantic notions of the region comes from:  the contrast against what we perceive to be our own staid, stable, sometimes dreary (certainly climactically chillier) versions of existence.

But this photo, which I choose to share mostly just because it is beautiful and I’m feeling, at this moment, still and quiet and happy with the world, should show a different, wetter, more stable and simple idea of life ‘over there.’

Maybe it’s not just life ‘over there.’  Maybe it is life as a whole . . . or the way we want to see it, to look at it.  Pulsing and full at times.  Quiet and contemplative at others. Always with the possibility to reveal, somewhere, a hidden gem of gracefulness.

I challenge you, dear readers, to probe your set ideas and to discard most of those that come with labels.  That’s what I’ve been tryingt to do here, at NQR. 

There’s always another story, another perspective.  There’s always a way to find beauty around you (or at least a good chuckle).  Either of those two things will dull the edge of the worst dangers in our world.

Rainy day view through an arch in the Frankincense Museum, Salalah, Oman.


Peace on Veteran’s Day

Yesterday I stumbled into the monastic quiet of Chancellor Green Hall on the Princeton campus, just to sit and think for awhile before the start of a seminar.  There, in the empty octagonal enclosure, with light streaming from all angles through gorgeous stained glass windows, I found a little item worthy of a Not Quite Right mention in honor of this Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11.

An image of peace in a window of Chancellor Green Hall, Princeton.

I’ve got two takes on the image of this Crusader-like figure, both of them worth mentioning in the context of NQR.

First, I wonder if the artist intended the image to embody the Pax Romana, the somewhat oxymoronic enforcement of peace through a monopoly on violence.  Does the horseman’s slumping posture hint at the failure inherent in such a doctrine?  Or is his head held high, looking foward to a horizon that must lead to a soldier’s self-sacrifice in the name of his ideals?

Second, and maybe simultaneously, I think that this figure represents the very opposite idea: a Don Quixote, piquant, holding aloft a banner embroidered with a single word for Peace despite the realities of the world around him.  I like this interpretation best.  It has warmth to it that matches the warmth of the light flooding through the colored baubles of glass — the lone soldier holding to an unreality, facing a corrupt world.  The invocation of Don Quixote touches also upon madness, a beautiful madness that sees things in their most wondrous light rather than in their most real and dismal actualities.  Unfortunately, such an idea is one for books, for literature, for poetry.  It intersects only in the realm of ideas with what life is really like for a soldier.

I think of the friends and comrades I have lost at war today and all those who have gone before us, sacrificing, unsure of what ideals they really represent.  All a little Quixotic.


A Building for Posterity

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the man who founded and largely molded the United Arb Emirates, built what must be one of the most beautiful and vainglorious buildings of modern times.  No, this isn’t the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  It’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which sticks out against the modern cityscape like a scimitar of light, like a reborn Taj Mahal.

View from inside the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (gold-tipped minaret gratis)

Technically this building is a mosque, although it is open to tours and serves (in my opinion) more as a vast decoration to the adjacent tomb of the Sheikh himself.  Loaded with the best of old and new worlds — including escalators to bring worshippers and visitors up from the underground parking lots as well as inlays of precious and semi-precious stones on all of its forest of marble columns — the mosque is truly a ‘must see’ for a tourist but also an awe inspiring reminder to Emiratis and other Arabs of the incredible wealth of this oil principality.

The contrast, and perhaps stretching it a bit the NQR moment, comes when thinking of my own country, the US.  What have we built (other than the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium) with anything like the panache and truly lasting beauty of this edifice?