Day 5 – Havana

My host’s grandmother has a parrot that she brings into her room at night, and then out of her room each morning. They interact like old friends.

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She thoughtfully cleans it’s cage and lays out three bowls for the bird each morning. One bowl for water. One bowl with a small tomato (cut in half). And another bowl with sunflower seeds. Today she added a carefully selected bunch of wild flowers as a bonus. When I came over to greet him, the sultry bird sprang into an acrobatic frenzy – using his beak and toes to circumnavigate his cage – going up(side down), over, and back to his perch in a matter of seconds.

I hobbled around the city until I found a little Greek Orthodox church that had a mosaic mural of Castro and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Castro was depicted handing over the key to the church. It was amusing to see the by-product of Byzantine art and communist propaganda affixed to a wall facing the church. The building itself was proportioned like a proper Greek church, but built at a doll house scale. Most churches I go into usually make me feel small. This one didn’t.

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San Francisco de Asisi was a church and convent, but is now a music hall and museum. Apparently after the British used the church for Anglican services for a year the Spanish didn’t want it back. Since 1762 there hasn’t been a religious service in the building. If it was crawling with Anglican cooties I neither knew nor cared. I spent a couple hours here and enjoyed every minute. Every inch was a savory feast of the eye: Romantic stone groin vaulting, and an imposing three storied courtyard. The building represented the matured version of the churches I saw in Santo Domingo,  which added a layer of interest for me. As a bonus it was big enough to hide in a dark corner and pretend that you were there by yourself. They allowed tourists to go up on the roof through the choir loft, and then climb up the bell tower.

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For whatever reason I was having a hard time drawing today. It could be chalked up to a number of things, but I think that it’s mostly because I really don’t like it here. Sure, there are some really beautiful things: the rum is cheap and excellent, the music is ubiquitous and rewarding, and of course Havana has some wonderful architecture. But, overall the place comes off as some strange conflagration of Disneyland and worn torn Bosnia. Throngs of tourists everywhere you look and then locals living in bombed out buildings. Cuba has one hell of a marketing department.

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Day 4 – Havana

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Plaza Vieja, Havana Cuba

I’m so badly sunburnt from going to the beach that I can barely walk. Apparently pharmacies don’t exist in Cuba, so I would have to get a prescription for a damn bottle of aloe. So… after seeing one church and Plaza Vieja I’m lying in bed. Not the sort of cost savings that I was hoping for…

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Iglesia de Espiritu Santo, Havana Cuba

I’m staying in a casa particular – basically a lady’s house. It’s an amazing space. What strikes me first is the way the house is laid out. From the street the buildings look like three-to-four story monolithic row houses. But when you walk through the 15′ tall entrance doors you enter into a stairwell that services the upper levels. If you continue further, you go through another set of doors into the living room. If you go further you are back outside – a beautiful courtyard!

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Interior courtyard of my casa particular

Each level has it’s own concentric porches that wrap around the courtyard’s perimeter. I lived on the ground floor so the courtyard was my dining room. The individual bed chambers are accessed via the courtyard (with shelter provided by the porches above), and past the courtyard lies the kitchen and formal dining space (I guess for when it rains). Living in this house was fantastic. The playful (and practical) interaction of interior and exterior spaces feels harmonious and generous. I am constantly reminded that I am but a creature living on the earth.

When I checked in my host Maria gave me a stern talking to: “When you go out – be weary of the chicas! They want your money and your phone! Don’t bring them here! If you do, you are OUT!” When I told her that I didn’t have a phone she nodded approvingly. When I told her that I had a girlfriend at home she smiled and gave me a big hug. Welcome home.

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Day 3 – Santo Domingo

I was really only halfway interested in going to the beach. The guy at the hostel gave me a few tips the night before, but he was so mellow I had a hard time believing him. On my way to get sun tan lotion and breakfast I saw an abused tourism office. I figured they could give me decent directions.

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Inside the ruins of St. Nicholas de Bari Hospital – Santo Domingo, DR

One desk with a decorative secretary and two cops waited inside. Between the four of them no English was spoken, but luckily my pig-Spanish was good enough. I told them I wanted the bus to Playa Juan Dolio. The cop told me to get a cab to the bus stop. I wanted to walk. I guess he felt sorry for me and gave me a ride.
Flying through the city on a dirt bike brought back memories of India and the perilous balance of holding on tight enough to survive but not so tight as to sacrifice my dignity. I tried to keep a mental map of where we were going so I could get back, but by the time I got to the bus I felt about thousand miles away. So… I went to the beach. There were dozens of things that could have gone wrong, but it went perfectly.
How about that.
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The Ruins of St. Nicholas de Bari Hospital – Santo Domingo, DR

When I made it back to La Zona Colonial I discovered that some buildings here were built with tabby (a type of concrete made using oyster shells). I had seen numerous stuccoed buildings here with patches of bricks showing through in odd spots, and wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Now I know.
They only used brick in structurally critical spots. There is a small chapel in South Carolina built this way, but I never guessed it would be strong enough to build towering churches with domes and barrel vaulted ceilings. I saw this at the ruinous Hospital Nicholas de Bari. (I’ll attach a picture). A perfect Low Country connection.
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In any case, I am moving down the line tomorrow. Cuba isn’t famous for its internet connectivity, so expect radio silence from me until the 10th. Hopefully I’ll have a good time and learn a few things. If I don’t, I hope that I’ll at least have some good stories!
See you on the other side.
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Day 2 – Santo Domingo

Today I learned that cock fighting is nationally televised in the DR. The previous night I witnessed the true joys of the bodega.

 

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Just like it’s New York cousin, the bodega sells all the general wares. But at night, people pull lawn chairs into the street and sit around a TV; drinking, and dancing, while the owner blasts merengue. Why go to a bar when you can drink, smoke, laugh, eat, and dance at the store?
Over the course of my day I pretty much saw what I came to see. Oldest fort in the Americas? Check. First Jesuit church in the Americas? Yup. First Dominican Convent in the…. well, you get it.
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The Dominican convent in Santo Domingo. The friars arrived in 1510 and started it’s construction.

Already my assumptions about architectural history are being challenged by the bludgeoning force of evidence. It’s hard to say before I’m finished, but a number of the details I had assigned as capital “M” Mexican are right here in Santo Domingo. I still feel confident that most buildings in Mexico weren’t built out of coral, but otherwise I’m going to have to wait until I see it for myself. At least I have the consolation that being wrong is still learning.
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Oldest Fortification in the Americas

Unless I get hypnotized by the Cathedral or the convent again tomorrow – which could easily happen – I’m thinking I might go make a sandcastle or two.
Hasta manana!
Tomas
P.S. I saw a very strange image carved into the dome of a side chapel. To me it looks like Euclid dressed up for a role in Wagner’s Die Walkure, but I’m sure that I’m wrong. I’ve attached the image, I’d love to know what I’m looking at.
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Day 1 – Santo Domingo

Well folks, I’ve landed.

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Despite awkward propositions from prostitutes and shady shoe shine men – I found my hostel and the old part of town.
I know I’ve already told some folks, but just to recap: I got the idea a few months ago to chronologically follow Spanish colonial architecture and try to figure out how it evolved as it spread throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
For now I’m in Santo Domingo, and today I discovered just how silly and ambitious my idea is. But what the hell?
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The city was founded in 1496, so everything the Spanish built here was the first in the “new world”. I spent a few hours drawing the Cathedral, and I have to say that it’s very strange to see Gothic architecture on a Caribbean island. But looking at the details, it doesn’t seem to be too far off from contemporary Spanish cathedrals – even down to some minor Moorish influences. It’s a building that is far more interesting in person than in pictures, but I’ll share some anyway.
In any case, the more important thing is that I got a full blown meal for about $4 today. Hopefully I won’t regret it tomorrow! I’ve got a full day planned, I’ll check back in tomorrow.
All the best,
Tom
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Nantucket, MA

 

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There is something in the air and soil and water that gives the place a vibrant saturation of color. Going there was almost as though I were born into a deprivation chamber and then shown a flower for the first time. I always assumed that Whistler’s paintings of New England were just romantic exaggerations, but the water lapping upon the shore of Nantucket is in fact iridescent.

I didn’t really know what to expect going there. Which I guess works. Generally speaking the height of your expectations mirrors the potential depth of your disappointment. People talked about the place in hushed, reverential terms and that was good enough for me.

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A historic example of the quintessential Nantucket home.

As a case study in preservation, Nantucket has some interesting lessons to offer. After the whaling boom faded, the economy of the island slowed, and thus the island’s architecture remained largely unmolested. Before major redevelopment occurred in the 20th century a preservation regime was initiated and the result is a distinct lack of McMansions.

Hallelujah.  

I could see that new buildings and developments had been built, but they all followed the Nantucket idiom. Modern materials were eschewed. Every house had little cedar shingles, and white window casing. They all shared a common massing profile. If it weren’t for modern windows and unimaginative site plans it would be nearly impossible to know the difference between new and old. I’m sure this is what the ladies at the Preservation Society of Charleston had in mind when they pushed to establish Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review in 1931.

Nantucket has done a better job than most other places at preserving a unified sense of character. However, I will say that the Nantucket vernacular has been distilled almost too well. After a while it all became a blur of homogeneity. It’s simply boring to see the same building – no matter how nicely done – over, and over, and over, and over again. As a casual observer I can’t say whether this is due to an overbearing zoning ordinance, or architectural malaise, but perhaps someone should try kick it in gear before Nantucket suffers from a lack of architectural diversity. Mandating the use of traditional materials and massing standards is helpful in ensuring a nice building. But don’t require everyone to build the same house.

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My favorite little cottage in Nantucket. Sconset, MA

My favorite buildings were those that bucked the standard. The small cottages that were built by people who were trying to get out of the weather. The buildings that weren’t artfully designed. It’s a little vulgar to think that these fisherman’s cottages sell for over $1,000/sq.ft., but I guess there are other people that share my sentiment. Sconset was full of little houses like the one pictured above. I’m not much of a beach person, but I could easily idle away a summer here. Reading books and eating ice cream.

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Manhattan

 

In many ways I realized that my travel plans have neglected the good old U-S-of-A. New York City is a good example. Though I had been a couple times when I was younger I never thought much of the place one way or the other. However, I felt that it was terribly unkind of me to have visited Istanbul, and New Dehli before I gave the Big Apple a second glance.

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I loved the Flat Iron building without ever seeing it. After years I finally saw it. And it was lovely, but somehow afterwards the magic was gone. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

There is simply too much to be discussed about New York to encapsulate it all in one essay. But what grabbed me the most was that the city was an experience in layers, scale, and (architectural) depth. Almost like an archaeological excavation. Tooling around the streets for a few days I got to see remnants from the Blade-Runner/Apocalyptic epoch of the 80s. I saw beautiful vernacular buildings from the 19th century that somehow never got torn down, and the city’s modern, masculine structures of wealth and power.

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Notice how the layers of apocalyptic alterations settle towards the bottom of the building. This is an unfortunate reality of architecture in Manhattan. However, I will admit that alteration is better than demolition.

It was interesting to experience the phenomenon of scale. The Empire State building is one of the finest skyscrapers ever conceived until you can see where it touches the ground. Standing at the corner of W 34th & 5th it’s just some dumpy office building with a nice lobby. The details at the street level are insufficient to capture the imagination of anyone walking by. Most people wouldn’t know that they were supposed to look at the building if they didn’t look up.

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Google Maps Street view of the Empire State Building.

Compare that with the New York Public Library, where the ornament was scaled up or down in relation to the viewer’s proximity and interaction with the building. The building was surrounded by life (the park certainly helps), and it held it’s ground despite being physically dwarfed by the surrounding architecture.

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Google Maps Street view of the New York Public Library

Ultimately, New York City is bigger than anyone’s opinions or criticisms – though I left the city with a number of both. There are a number of obvious draws to visit, but the raw asphalt, steel, glass, stone, noise, and people that make up this living, frenetic place were the most interesting parts for me. Walking through different neighborhoods as they experienced the inevitable cycle of death, life, and rebirth was something I had never before experienced on such a large scale, and it was quite a treat.

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Sketch of the New York Public Library

 

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Urn at the steps of the New York Public Library.