Category Archives: construction

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.


Dhow Construction

Fishing boats in the inner harbor, Sur.

The port of Sur, Oman is one of the few places in the world still engaged in manufacturing traditional dhows, the famous merchant ships of Arabia with slanting lateen-rigged sails and stitched, rather than nailed or pegged, fastenings for their wooden plank sides.  Used for many centuries as the main cargo and fishing ships on the Indian Ocean, plying routes from Africa to India and all up and down the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, these vessels recall a pearl-diving, pirate-infested culture now largely subsumed by oil revenues, Ferraris, and a smattering of folks still interested in traditional culture (mostly tourists and Omani/Emirate/Bahrani/Kuwaiti history-buffs).

The hand-carved scrollwork on the back of this dhow displays some beautiful lacquer.

Sur is a great destination for the traveler interested in seeing dhows because the huge inner harbor is lined, near its entrance, with various dockyards and carpentry shops planing the boards, tarring the decks, and building, from the ground-up, ships propped on slanting rails ready to be launched into the water.

The workshops aren’t necessarily ‘open’ and no guided tours are available but people in Sur are friendly and will gladly show a tourist around.

A worker at the dockyards builds a scale model as a plan for a new dhow.

What is, perhaps, NQR, about the entire industry of dhow building — now largely outmoded by fiberglass fishing boats and huge metal-hulled cargo ships — is that most of the production depends on the interest of western tourists, our fascination with a romantic image of the orient that includes swarthy pirates and the travels of Sinbad (who hails, traditionally, from Sohar, just up the coast in Oman).  One wonders if any but a few dhows, moored as cultural relics, would exist if it weren’t for western tourists wanting to go for a dive, a swim, or a party picnic aboard these high-decked beauties of a time gone-by.

My children aboard a dhow, ready to go snorkeling. This one appeared to have been built with pegs rather than sewing. It also had a diesel motor rather than a lateen sail. Sort of a quasi-dhow.

 


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.


The Opposite of a Roadblock

During the year I served in the town of Safwan, Iraq, our unit provided armed escort to military and civilian convoys throughout all of Iraq, meeting convoys at Safwan’s border crossing point and taking them on about a 1.5 mile loop along a two-lane town road between the border and the main highway just north of the city.  (This convoy activity forms a backdrop for my novel One Hundred and One Nights).  After that point the vast majority of the remainder of our routes used such fast-moving roads.  Our convoys slowed down on this one stretch, sometimes waiting for another convoy to clear through the border point, sometimes just congested in general.  As a result, a troublesome trend toward piracy sprang up along this road, with a few bandits seizing the opportunity, jumping into vehicles, ejecting the drivers and hurrying away before our widely-dispersed guardian Humvees could react (30 semis in a convoy = a virtual moving wall of trucks, for which 3 Humvees provided only a thin guard).

The Not Quite Right of this post hopes to capture the absolute mastery of the driving of these semis, the types of roads down which the bandits took these hulking vehicles, and also the elegant little solution we put in place.

An armored engineer vehicle emplaces a simple serpentine barricade on a road that 'seems' as if it would already have been impossible for a semi to use!

Here, in the photo, one can see the types of road and the woeful emptiness of the land into which the semis were driven (click photo to enlarge).  It might seem easy, perhaps, to find something like a semi in so much waste but the land was pitted with little quarries, rills of rock, hard-scrabble dunes.  A few tarps slung over a truck, a few shovelfuls of earth and dust, and no one would ever notice it.  Then, in the night, the truck might be driven north to a larger city, dismantled, scrapped, its cargo sold, and a neat little profit — a huge profit in comparison to the average Iraqi salary at that time! — made by the thiefs.  No one ever got injured during these filchings, the TCN (third-country national — Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghani, Indian, etc) drivers usually walking back to the border crossing, maybe with a lump on their head from getting shoved out of the vehicle.  But the thefts were annoying and escalating in frequency.

Our solution, proposed by one of my soldiers and at first seeming to be crazy and unworkable, was to wall-in this one lane bypass road all the way from the border to the main, fast-moving highway.  While the initial problem with this idea — the restriction of legitimate local traffic moving from one side of the town to the other — nixed the possibility of an outright wall, the final plan, to put barricades in place around which a small car or truck could easily navigate but through which a semi could not be driven, was brilliant in both its feasibility and its cost-effectiveness.  The semis couldn’t be driven across the open countryside, with its knee-high mud and clay farm walls, so we didn’t need to worry about blocking anything except the few adjoining roads.  We created something akin to the opposite of a roadblock, meant to restrict semis to a known and approved path but to let every other sort of vehicle move with only minimal hindrance.

The idea reduced thievery to almost nothing during the course of our remaining missions in the town, at least for the period of a half year or so, until the thieves adapted and started to carve new and hidden roads in the desert!  A game of cat and mouse during which not a single shot was fired.


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.


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 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?


Caliph Omar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the things that I noticed several times during visits to very different parts of the Middle East and North Africa were examples of early Muslims, Christians and Jews showing a tolerance for each other that has certainly not been the prevailing theme of more recent years, or at least not the theme of media coverage in more recent years.  One such example, in the tomb Morocco’s Moulay Ismail, I mentioned as part of an earlier post.  Yet another example I found in the very heart of the current conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims:  Jerusalem.

The Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, across a small courtyard from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So much has happened in Jerusalem, religiously and historically, that current discussions of Palestinian autonomy tread lightly on the subject of dividing or allowing a shared authority in the City itself.  However, people would be wise to look backwards at the actions of one of the first Caliphs, Omar, when his Rashidun Army conquered the city in the year 637 AD.  The Christian Patriarch Sophranius, upon surrendering, asked as a condition of the city’s capitulation, to be allowed to surrender to the Caliph himself rather than to a military leader.  When Omar reached the city, the Patriarch invited him to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is the site of the Cruxifiction, see my separate entry on the subject).  Muslims revere Jesus, not as the Son of God, but still as one of the major prophets in the line from Abraham to Muhammad.  Many Muslim men are named Issa or Aissa, which is the Arabic equivalent of Jesus.  This is not strange.  Just as many Muslims are named Daoud or Sulieman after David and Solomon.

Anyway . . . Omar was both sensitive about keeping the Christian Church autonomous and also didn’t want to set a precedent for Muslims to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  So he prayed, with Sophranius, just a few feet away at a spot where King David was said to have prayed.  Omar then built a mosque on the site so that future Muslims could pray near to, but not violating, the sacred Christian site.

Even more telling, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is that the church itself has been divided into seven different areas of responsibility, parceled out to seven different Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox).  But the keys to the building itself are held by a Muslim family, so as not to cause jealousy among the seven!

This is, truly, an elegant solution.  Though it might seem Not Quite Right to entrust the opening and closing of Christianity’s most important church to a non-Christian, such a solution might be best for the city as a whole.  Maybe a battalion or two of Buddhist peace keepers could be found to enforce whatever solution is finally decided upon for the Holy City.


A Wall Atop the Wailing Wall

The Wailing or Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest place in the Jewish religion.  It is supposedly the sole remaining portion of the First Temple.  Prayers offered near to it (or, especially, touching it) are said to be more easily heard by God.  Above the wall, on top of Temple Mount, the third and fourth holiest places in Islam are located:  the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Dome of the Rock contains the rock upon which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son.  It is also the place from which Mohammad ascended to heaven on his Night Journey.

Control and/or provisions to share these locations are at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rarely make the list of discussion topics during peace talks, largely because of the extreme religious sensitivities involved.

Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa are not far away, either — both within the Old City Walls.  And the Crusaders once occupied the Temple Mount, making the city a well-known confluence for all three Monotheistic religions.

Men's and women's prayer areas, the newer Ottoman-era portion of the wall, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself are all visible in the photo.

What might not be well known is that the Western Wall itself is divided into several distinct layers and sections.  First, male and female prayer areas are separate and distinct, with women crowded into a disproportionately smaller area at the right of the wall.  Then, the stonework of the wall itself displays visibly differing ages and styles of workmanship.  Only the lowest few tiers of stone are from the First Temple.  The next few similar but more roughly-hewn layers date from King Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple (a period known as the Second Temple).  And, most interesting to me — and maybe closet to fitting with my theme of Not Quite Right — is the topmost section of the wall.  Built by the Ottomans (under the direction of Sir Moses Montefiore), its ostensible purpose was “for shade and protection from the rain for all who come to pray by the holy remnant of our Temple.”  However, its more likely purpose was to prevent Muslims who attended Friday prayers in the Al-Aqsa mosque above from tossing stones and other items on Jewish penitents at the base of the wall below!

In any case, a good look at the Wailing/Western Wall provides a tense snapshot of the forces that currently divide people in the Middle East.  It is that division, rather than symbols like walls or churches or mosques, which is truly Not Quite Right.


House of the Lock

As I sit, alone, in Israel on the last of this year’s many travels in the Middle East I am reminded of one of the better, funnier remarks my sons made during our travels.  Wesley, my eldest — after finishing one of the many long visits I forced him to endure at some ruin or archeological site — said:  “Just because something is old doesn’t make it interesting.”

I like ruins.  And I like museums.  Correspondingly, my wife and children have been taken to many, many such places during this year of our travels.  They just didn’t want to see more of what they consider ‘the same’ in Israel (while I’m eagerly anticipating a packed itinerary:  Jersusalem, Golan Heights, Nazareth, Masada, etc, etc, over the next couple of days).

So, here is a short entry about a true ‘pile of old rocks’ . . . the Bait al-Qufl, or ‘House of the Lock’ which is a structure unique to the Musandum Penninsula (the little isolated rocky headline belonging to Oman which juts out toward Iran and nearly cuts the Arabian Sea from the Indian Ocean).  It seems the villagers in this remote area would leave their homes for the entire summer, taking their flocks up into the cooler mountains.  To avoid carrying all their earthly possessions up the steep Musandum slopes, they devised small stone storage houses with ingenious, hidden, stone-locking doors.  They then packed all their valuables up in the rooms, sealed them, and went on holiday in the hills until the summer heat grew tolerable again.

All that remain of these houses are a few foundations, a few piles of stones.

I allowed my boys to sit in the air-conditioned car while I scampered through the ruins, snapping a few photos.  Personally, I feel it it’s Not Quite Right of my children to be prejudiced against old things just because they are old. (The ‘old‘ remark felt a little personal, perhaps).  But, I have to admit that this barren-looking photo makes a pretty strong argument in their favor.

Two 'Houses of the Lock' near Khasab, Oman.