Aimless in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is extremely photogenic. If it’s not the onion-ring canals, it’s the assortment of gables on gingerbread houses, a delight for any architecture lover.

My neck was a little sore after three days, craning to look up from cobblestone streets.

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From left, every other house: bell gable, neck gable, pointed gable

I can only imagine how steep the staircases inside must be. Hotel Museumzicht gave us a good indication. This lodging was a great spot to watch tourists come and go from the Rijksmuseum and play on the iconic I Amsterdam letters as we ate breakfast and planned our wanderings for the day.

 

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We walked by poems waiting to be finished.

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Old buildings with sun-kissed bricks.

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Tulips like lipstick shades.

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Bicycles everywhere: parked, ridden, dodged. Apparently there are about 600 000 bikes in Amsterdam on a given day. We didn’t dare bike in the city but we took a lovely excursion to the country which I’ll write about later.

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The holy and the profane keep company mere steps from each other. We walked towards the Oude Kirk (city’s oldest church, built in 1213) in broad daylight to stumble upon women in windows scantily clad, a red light emanating above the glass. Hello Red Light District.

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Oude Kirk

Whereas the Red Light District is easy to find, the Anne Frank House (turned into a museum) is remarkably camouflaged. The tour guide on our nighttime canal boat tour pointed it out and I would be hard pressed to find it again. No distinct gable or sign. The only giveaway is the often long line. Visiting the house is a sobering, moving experience well worth the wait. I had reread Anne’s diary upon arriving in Amsterdam and many of the quotes from it were projected on the walls. You get to walk behind the moveable bookcase into the cramped quarters of the Secret Annex where the Franks, along with four other Jews, hid for two years before being anonymously betrayed to the Nazis. I reflected in my journal afterwards that it was heavy but also hopeful. The haunting words of a thirteen-year-old girl have left their mark on the world.

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Anne Frank’s House is the one right in the middle with the straight roof and tree in front.

Right around the corner, near the Westerkerk (West Church) is a sight with a very different mood. Irreverent Dutch humour at its best.

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Frites stand parodying Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel

Amsterdam closed out our trip to Europe, and it was a great place to end. People were friendly, food was delicious, art was incredible, and the city was easily walkable. I’m obviously not featuring the cities we visited in order because Nice and Venice are still to come, but hopefully you enjoyed some snapshots of the fascinating place that is Amsterdam.

The Look of Light

Before I move on to other cities from our trip, I remember I had written prior to visiting Paris that Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon “makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.”

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Sunrise on the morning commute

Apart from the day after we arrived when jet lag didn’t wake us until 1:30pm (!), our days were full of walking different neighbourhoods; visiting art galleries, historic sites, and monuments; eating baguettes, macarons, galettes, crêpes; ordering a café crème and deciding I DID like coffee as long as there was sugar in it; taking pictures of colourful doors and narrow streets, returning to our Airbnb exhausted in the best kind of way.

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A former train station, Musée d’Orsay is filled with Impressionist paintings. Our favourite museum in Paris.

As much as I could on a first trip to Paris, I tried to pause, to really look around me, to appreciate the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the juxtaposition of old and new, sacred and secular, to follow my favourite Impressionist painters in looking for the light. Here are some of those moments.

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Strolling through Luxembourg Gardens with a view of the Pantheon

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Couples dance to live music in Montmartre. This scene for me captured Paris at its most romantic.

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The love lock bridge is gone but that doesn’t stop people from decorating the posts of Le Post des Arts.

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I could care less about the Forum shopping mall but the ceiling fascinated me.

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The enchanting Notre Dame

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Classic V-shaped building and wide boulevards from the Haussmann era of Paris’s city planning

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This boy stopped so I could get a picture of the door but I like it better with him in it.

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The light on this galette (like a crêpe but made with buckwheat flour) makes it look even more divine! One of the best things I ate.

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Dinosaur meets Eiffel Tower

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Backside of Basilica du Sacré-Coeur. Did you know it has a pig gargoyle?

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Hotel de Sully in the fashionable Marais district

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The golden hour hitting the extravagant Palais Garnier (opera house)

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I have a thing for red doors, and architecture that melds in interesting ways.

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A decadent visit to Ladurée on Les Champs-Élysées

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If this is what Sainte Chapelle looked like on a grey day, imagine if the sun was streaming through all that stained glass.

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The view from L’Arc de Triomphe is magnificent in all directions.

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La Madeleine meets Calvin Klein. Unfortunately this kind of juxtaposition was a common sight.

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Moonlight over the Louvre. Bonne nuit, Paris.

Finding the Human Form

I finished an excellent book this weekend, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. There is so much I want to say about it because it made me think deeply and differently about architecture. What I appreciated is that the author actually attempts to explain the psychology behind why we find certain buildings beautiful and how beauty is linked to goodness and, ultimately, happiness. More on that another week.

One of the chapters entitled “Talking Buildings” discusses how abstract sculptures convey meaning. Understanding how simple steel, concrete, or wood objects speak can help us understand how larger-scale objects (like houses and buildings) convey meaning through the arrangement of 3-D materials into form.

de Botton argues that everyday objects speak to us—whether it be a chair, a window, an arch, a lamp—because even though inanimate, these objects tell us something about being human. These objects have human forms hidden in their wood, concrete, glass, metal, etc.

To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of a creature of human we dimly recognise in its elevation—just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.

We recognize the human form in the slightest hint of an abstract object. We take slender legs of an antique table for a feminine, elegant character, and a wide, solid armchair as a stout, stubbornly old man.

an elegant, refined soul with a propensity for heels

old and set in his ways

Since reading the book, I’m having fun analyzing the objects in my apartment. What does my couch/reading chair/coffee table/lamp/bookcase say about what/whom I find attractive? Which of my friends would represent these objects?

So when walking around VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver today, I had my eye out for the human forms portrayed in the abstract art exhibit Touch Wood scattered throughout the 50 acres of gardens. The 20+ pieces were built by BC artists and made of salvaged, recycled, or scavenged wood to reflect the garden’s environmental mandate (you can read all about the award-winning architecture of the new petal-shaped visitor centre here.)

VanDusen Botanical Gardens’ Visitor Centre

It wasn’t difficult to find the human form in these sculptures, since many are explicitly made to look like humans.

I initially read “Confidence” to mean “someone who’s confident” but I couldn’t really find signs of this attribute in the figures. Then when I looked at it again when going over my photos, I interpreted it more as meaning “In confidence.” The two forms leaning in towards one another slightly—woman on the left with a curvy profile; taller man on the right with a rectangular profile.

The man and woman are given the same weight though. When I say weight, I mean mass or presence. Both hold their own, sharing a secret tryst in the woods as equals. In this way, maybe they also embody “confidence” whilst sharing something in confidence.

“Nine Sentinels” was one of my favourites. Sentinel: “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.”

I couldn’t help but recall the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings, a circular gathering to decide the fate of the ring where tall and slender, distinguished characters like Elrond collide with bulbous balls of stocky energy like Gimli.

Elrond in the foreground; Gimli behind

Elrond

Gimli

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Speaking of councils, this next one displayed on the Great Lawn is called “Council of Elders,” although I still think the LOTR connection is more pronounced in “Nine Sentinels.” These elders look older, wiser, more distinguished, more uniform, like they’d have less disagreements. I picture some of them with capes.

“Archetype” reminds me of the mannequins you see in clothing stores, waiting to be dressed; a blank slate from which to start the creative process. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” or to go Jungian on you because I think it might apply here: “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” Even the gender isn’t as apparent in this work. We look at this piece and we immediately recognize the human form, even without the head. It shows we don’t need all the parts to make a comprehensive whole. We read symbols all the time and draw conclusions.

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There were many more sculptures but unfortunately my camera battery died on me halfway through my walk, but I think the examples above give you an idea of how the human form exists in “non-human” materials like wood. de Botton paraphrases from psychoanalytic critic Adrian Stokes who offered an interpretation of Barbara Hepworth’s Two Segments and a Sphere. Stokes’ conclusion, de Botton writes, is that

if a sculpture touches us . . . it may be because we unconsciously understand it as a family portrait. The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimply appreciate in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.

Two Segments and a Sphere by Barbara Hepworth. 1936.

What parables do the objects around you speak about?

the people are the city

The Wall on the CBC Plaza, Vancouver

“the people are the city” by Paul de Guzman, 2013

 

red letters by Charlene Kwiatkowski

 

on Hamilton Street in Yaletown

red letters on a concrete wall

reach me with their lower-case lives

 

not big enough to record in history books

but big enough to stop me

a traffic light on the street

 

that’s me on the ladder

that’s you measuring the frame

that’s him showing us where to lay the beam

 

we are building on a building

stories in a story

texts on an architext

 

isn’t this an image of us all

working on our lower-case lives

carpenter clothes like lab coats

 

experimenting with an idea

incomplete, we can’t see

but we dream dream dream

 

the excitement is building

the building is excitement

we are the building

 

but look at all the walls

we don’t touch, talk about, or share

and this image is not at all like us

 

people work together

people work together

people work together

 

is this real or wishful thinking?

is the city plural?

are we together or are we alone together?

 

say it three times

the holy trinity of incantation

that makes the imagined real

 

read the red letters

again and again

and again

 

Description of The Wall. Click the picture for a bigger view.

The artist’s statement, which ties into my poem. Clicking on the picture will take you to a website where you can also read it.

Teardrop Windows Crying in the Sky

How many times do musicians write an entire song devoted to a building? I can think of the occasional reference (e.g. FUN.’s “We Are Young” – my friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State), but not one sustained throughout a whole song.

Then when listening to 102.7 the Peak, their “1 thing about 1 song” feature came on which I’m always eager to hear since I love discovering the stories behind songs. So I learned about “Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard that personifies the Smith Tower in Seattle.

Smith Tower: the hero in this story

Completed in 1914, it reached 38 stories and 149 metres – the oldest and tallest skyscraper in the city and on the West Coast until the Space Needle overtook it in 1962. It’s a rather sad song that goes in circles. The Smith Tower starts off lonely because there are no other friends to share the view with when it’s first built. Then the Space Needle comes and steals the view. Teardrop windows of the Smith Tower are left vacant, Seattle rain falling from their shutters. The building goes from lonely to lonely.

Space Needle: the antihero

Gibbard gives the Smith Tower such character, as if it’s a real person – not just named after a real person, Lyman Cornelius Smith. He gives the building architexture. His song demonstrates how similar people and buildings really are – the same relationship the Argentinian movie Sidewalls emphasized.

This story makes me want to drive down to Seattle and give the neoclassical building some love. Who doesn’t love the fallen hero? I also want to ride its elevators that are still operated by people (yes, actual people!), or at least were as of 2008 according to Wikipedia.

Elevator operators in the Smith Tower, Seattle – one of the last buildings on the West Coast to use them.

I even love the slogan on the Tower’s website. Instead of “brand new” which is such overused marketing speak, they call it Grand Old. Grand New. Simply Grand. There’s so much nostalgia captured in that phrase. Grand has that connotation: magnificent, eminent, distinguished, but also old. Like a grandfather. Like a person with many years, like a building with many stories. Forgotten stories to pass down to a younger generation with eyes open wide like windows. To fill.

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
He is all alone and wonderin’ why
Ivory white but feelin’ kind of blue

Cause there’s no one there to share the view

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

Built and boast as the tallest on the coast
He was once the city’s only toast
On old postcards, was positioned as a star
He was looked up to with fond regard

But in 1962, the needle made its big debut
And everybody forgot what it outgrew

He wonders where the workers are
Who once filled every floor
The elevators operate
But don’t much anymore
Anymore
Anymore

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
How the years have quickly past her by
Gleaming white ‘gainst the deepest baby blue
He is lonely just like me and you

Cause there’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And when the maids they turn out the lights
He just goes to sleep

-“Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard

Sidewalls

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and if you’re looking for a quirky, indie-type film about finding love in the age of urban alienation, I recommend Sidewalls (2011). It’s in subtitles. I’m not just recommending it for couples — in fact, I think it appeals more to those who often find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to love. Like the store windows Mariana designs and displays her mannequins in, the film navigates that lost space between inside and outside where you don’t really know what space you want to stand in and commit to. You want the city to see you but you also want it to swallow you.

I knew nothing about Buenos Aires before watching the film. I still don’t know much, but I did learn that it is a poorly planned city, a hodgepodge of architectural styles that looks like a blindfolded kid was handed way too many pictures and not enough cardboard and was told to make a collage. Just glue them all down!

Next to a tall one, a small one.
Next to a rational one, an irrational one.
Next to a French one, one with no style at all.
These irregularities probably reflect us perfectly. A esthetic and ethical irregularities. These buildings, which adhere to no logic, represent bad planning. Just like our lives:
We have no idea how we want them to be. We live as if Buenos Aires were a stopover. We’ve created a “culture of tenants”. (Martin)

the sidewalls between Martin’s and Mariana’s apartment buildings

There’s one way out of the oppression that results from living in a shoebox. An escape route: Illegal, like all escape routes. In clear violation of urban planning norms, there are a few tiny, irregular, irresponsible windows that let a few miraculous rays of light into our darkness. (Mariana)

You can probably already tell the film delves into the philosophical – and, of course, the architectural. I really liked the emphasis on how the architecture of the city reflects the architecture of our lives. People are not that different from buildings.

Martin and Mariana live in next-door apartment buildings and are perfect for each other in a city where they keep meeting other people who aren’t perfect for them. The only problem is Martin and Mariana have never met. A sidewall (medianeras) between their buildings separates or connects them, depending on which way you look at it.

I responded to the film with a poem. It probably only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie and, if you have seen it, you’ll recognize some lines taken directly from it:

Sidewalls by Charlene Kwiatkowski

power lines crisscross

rooftop to rooftop

apartment to apartment

 

buildings stack like dirty dishes

new china with old paris

a leaning tower of pizza

 

there is no view

behind this curtain of concrete

 

where’s waldo?

you find him at the airport, at the beach, at the mall,

but never in the city

 

if you can’t find a person when you know who you’re looking for

how can you find a person when you don’t know who you’re looking for?

 

winter is always long

full of existential questions

 

where’s waldo?

are his red and white stripes

these power lines connecting us

or dividing?

 

these buildings like faces

fronts and backs

boarded-up entrances

we don’t use anymore

 

we slip in and out by the sidewall

walk the same street, watch the same people

live such parallel lives

our lines never meet

 

Don’t let my poem mislead you though – watch the film yourself. And on the subject of side-by-side lives, check out this piece.