Archive for July, 2015

A few days in Milan

July 26, 2015

The Italian excursion described in my last blog had another half, and most of that was in Milan.  Milan gets a bad rap in comparison to the other large Italian cities, largely because it lost more of its fabric in the Second World War, and the rebuilding sports much of the bland utilitarian vernacular of the 1950s, but our peregrinations around this city offered more than the great Gothic cathedral.

Duomo at night2

Although it is pretty great, in both senses of the word

Duomo ext sculpt wdws

Duomo full view ls

Duomo aisles lkg back

Duomo interior vaults

Not an errant nave

We took one day to visit three of the other marvelous old churches, and it was revelatory.  I used to comment about Rome that you couldn’t walk a block without stumbling on a Roman ruin or a Baroque church.  Substitute “Lombardy Romanesque” for Baroque and the same can be said for Milano.

Duomo ectasy archbish altar

You can’t even walk a block in the Duomo without encountering an ecstatic Baroque altar

S. Marie D Grazie view best

This is Santa Maria della Grazie, where we did NOT see DaVinci’s Last Supper since we had not booked in advance.

This is a distinctly different architectural style, older and more often in earthy brick accented by stone, linking it to the nations to the north.  If we love Rome for its grand marble palaces and churches, we can easily love Milan for these treasured landmarks, many of which date back over a thousand years.

S. Ambrogio altar

Besides there is plenty of Baroque inside – this is an altar in San Ambrogio

S. Ambrogio best view

Here is San Ambrogio, the patron saint of Milan.  The oldest part dates to the 9th century and the towers (one for the canons and one for the monks) and hidden front are excellent examples of the Romanesque popular here.  As in Rome and other parts of Europe, the buildings are thickly layered with fragments of their history, as found in the forecourt of S. Ambrogio:

S. Ambrogio fresco n fragments

Frescos and lintels and capitals, oh my!

S. Ambrogio column frags

S. Ambrogio nice facade and tower

The interior features a stunning dome, the gilded skeleton of St. Ambrose (among others) and this fabulous dome.  There is a strong Byzantine sensibility in the forms of these churches, one that resonates with the ancient Roman empire in a way the Renaissance and Baroque do not, because the tradition is more continuous.

S. Ambrogio dome and saints

These churches will often have surviving mosaics from the 4th or 5th century, which means they are basically from the Empire, evincing a continuity of tradition rather than a rekindled one.

S. Ambrogio sarco detail

Detail from a Roman sarcophagus incorporated into the pulpit at S. Ambrogio.  9th century from 4th century original.

S. Ambrogio T 6 C column

6th century column in the treasury, S. Ambrogio

S. Ambrogio T 4th c mosaic

4th century lamb mosaic, S. Ambrogio

S. Ambrogio great painting

And a nice Renaissance painting from a thousand years later.

S. Ambrogio snake column0

It’s right near the snake column, which takes us back to the first millenium and looks like a prop from a Conan movie.  You can see the sarcophagus in the background.

S. Ambrogio TC courtyard entlang

S. Ambrogio TC ctyd colum

The courtyard by Bramante

Now, the next church, San Lorenzo Maggiore, also dates to the 4th century and was the largest building in the West at one time.  The approach through the Ticino gate is fantastic, with a row of Roman columns partially enclosing the forecourt.

S. Lorenzo Maggiore arcade tram

And a tram.  That would upset Americans.  Wussies.

S. Lorenzo Maggiore facade

You should see this place at nighttime it is like Woodstock or something.

By far my favorite of the wealth of treasures inside is this 4th century mosaic of Christ the lawgiver.

S. Lorenzo Maggiore Christ mosaic2

Notice he has no beard.  It must have taken another century or two to grow one.

The Roman styling of this is stunning for those of us – namely ALL of us – raised on a Renaissance idea of Christ.  Even more stunning is the mosaic on the other half dome across from this – Christ as the Sun.  This one has not survived as well, but you can make out Christ one-upping Sol Invictus and taking the reins of the sun’s chariot from Apollo to launch the new day.

S. Lorenzo Maggiore Sun mosaic

I love it when you can actually see one culture transform into another.

It seems only the mosaics near the ceiling survive, and they include these guys as well:

S. Lorenzo Maggiore C mosaics

Ave, Dudes

A side chapel has some more Byzantine style mosaics, which are fun to contrast against Renaissance works – I adore the wonderful layered depth of these Milanese churches – 1500 years all stuck together in one place.

S. Lorenzo Maggiore Byzan ptg


S. Lorenzo Maggiore deposition fresco


S. Lorenzo Maggiore Barok ptg


And a few interior shots but when you go make sure you go the the treasury to see the mosaics and also the undercroft where you can see the Roman foundations of the basilica.

S. Lorenzo Maggiore frescoa

S. Lorenzo Maggiore interior

S. Lorenzo Maggiore upside capital

Umm, you may want to call the conractor back….

So remember what I said about Rome being a place where you stumble into a Roman ruin or a Baroque church on every other block?  In Milan you have to walk maybe two blocks.  Here is a Roman ruin we stumbled upon.  A piece of a whacking great amphitheatre actually….

Amphitheatre park w sign

Even had its own free museum with a rare gladiator ceremonial stelae and more mosaics and sculptures from the Roman era.

Amphitheatre museo gladiator stelae

Plus an amazing chorale group rehearsing and we were the only ones there…

And the fact of the matter is you stumble on Baroque (and Romanesque) churches all the time

S. Anthony Adate int2

St. Anthony Adate

S Stefano

S. Stefano

s. carolo

S. Carolo

S. Biblia

S. Biblia

Another church off Garibaldi Brera

In Brera

Hey, and if you want the overwrought contraposto and languid emotionalism of the Baroque, just stop by the City Cemetery, which is 19th century but every damn tombstone is adorned with a massive bronze sculpture dripping with emotion.

Cemetery another

Okay, this is a nice sentiment

Cemetery white tombcls

Now this is a little more heart-rending..

Cemetery Casati-Briggs sleeper

Alright, you amped it up now please tone it down a bit…

Cemetery Ego Sum close2

I said DOWN, not UP to 11!  Give me a nice Victorian lady in a button-up dress mourning…

Cemetery kissing guys

…two emaciated guys lying head-to-head in full liplock.  Okay, I give up.

The first monument we encountered on entering the city was the great (in both senses)  Castello Sfroza, which is ginormous and full of art.

Castello Sforza main and corner

Castello Sforza vault room n stats

Castello Sforza resting guy

Take a break if you get tired from all the walking…

I was also struck by the level of decoration in a host of downtown commercial buildings.  I mean, this city has Atlanteans by the bucketful.

Baroque bldg

Bank of Italy

Bank of Italy

motorbuke facade


Via Dante facade Gutteridge

Hang on guys!

Barok Heads church cls

That’s another church – see what I mean?

Pza Cordusio Generali

Large Cairoli curving facade

Take that, Rome!

Castle near S. Ambrogio best

They can do monochromatic Baroque, but in Milan they bend toward the Lombardy contrast of red brick and gray stone, like in this cute little corner castle.

The commercial building to end all commercial buildings is of course the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel, right next to the Duomo.

Galleria Vittorio Emm ctr

Render unto Prada…they actually have binoculars installed so you can see the detail up high.

University fr abv

Now this is the University of Milan, view from our dear friend Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone’s terrace.  The Ca’ Grande seen here dates to the 15th century.  We also went out to find some of Gnecchi-Ruscone’s work, including this block of flats north of the park, which brings us to modern Milan

FGN residences

And we must of course include the Torre Milano, perhaps the most Ür-PostModern building in all of Europe if you will excuse the catastrophic clumsiness of that construction.

Torre Milano

I meant the clumsiness of the literary construction…

But the real place to visit now to see the latest is Piazza Gae Aulenti, a district full of new buldings designed in contextual relationship with one another.  As is often the case in such arrangements, there is an emphasis on primary forms and their contrast, but the curves and spikes and bends and folds and colors do have a harmony in more than one view and dimension

Pza Gae Aulenti view up

That is the UniCredit tower in the middle. Urbanist view.

Pza Gae Aulenti curve and UniCredit

More the windswept Modernist view from the plaza itself, significantly named for a pioneering female Milanese architect.

Pza Gae Aulenti people

Pza Gae Aulenti curves etc

This is what happens if you look at too much LeDoux before bed…

Pza Gae Aulenti green towers

Green architecture much!  We saw these on the train ride in and from that angle the massive cranes needed to plant trees that high were visible.  Vertical Forest by Boeri Studio.

Milan is known of course for fashion, and indeed a Gnecchi-Ruscone launched the Industrial era here in the silk industry.

fashion desigual

I went shopping with my wife, the most arduous test of love there is…

Duomo St. Barth rear

Renaissance Runway:  An exquisitely flayed St. Bartholomew by Marco D”Agrate, 1562 in the Duomo.

tram near Pza 14Magg

The trams in Milan are wonderful, in part because like those in our own San Francisco, they are an encyclopedic collection of cars from throughout the 20th century.

Via Broletto streetv8ew

God I love infrastructure

Milano trams

Somehow it all fits together

Speaking of infrastructure, there is a canal system that has become a popular destination, especially the Invigli area, lined with restaurants and boutiques, each of which has mosquito spray onhand 🙂

Invigli Via Ascanio yellow best

Invigli stroll

Invigli Via Ascanio best

Invigli Via Ascanio boats bldgs

Francesco and his wife left all friends a standing invitation to drop by their house in the evening for a gin and tonic, so let us end in this evening waterside paradise at Milan’s first gin bar, Gino 12.

Invigli Via Ascanio Gino 12c


Associazione Canova and the Ossola Valley

July 8, 2015

entrance bldgs

This is the entrance to the village of Canova in the Ossola Valley in northern Italy.  Most of these stone houses date back hundreds of years, and the stone not only forms their walls, but their roofs as well.

Canova view

Here is a view from Oira, which is another village but only a couple of hundred meters away.  This is a view of the church in Oira from Canova.

vew to chruch

I was at first mystified that these were separate places.  Then I realized that this landscape told a story of agricultural life in a preindustrial era.  The scale of these villages in itself hearkens back to the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, when people did not travel far at all.

bluhaus vw3

We stayed in this house, called Casa Blu.
bluhaus fr abv

More views of Casa Blu

bluhaus upstairs

casa blu 20

A couple decades ago, Ken and Kali Marquardt started restoring houses in this village, many of which were abandoned and falling apart.  They formed Associazione Canova, a nonprofit dedicated to saving these wonderful buildings and villages, which invited me to participate in the 14th Annual Architectural Encounter, where I spoke about The Über of Architecture.

stone roof

The stone roofs are ubiquitous, and amazing.  You would think the weight of flat stones overlapping each other would be more than a roof could bear, but not so.  They rest on purlins and beams just as other roofs, but they last hundreds of years if maintained properly.

roof detail shelter

ghesc ent town proj ceiling

Take that Mr. Code Inspector!

Perhaps the most lyrical of all the stone roofs we saw (and we saw a lot) was this circular one in Oira that covered an icehouse many meters deep.


Some of the houses in Canova have become bed-and-breakfasts.  Each house had a massive fireplace like you would see in a 17th century Colonial on the east coast, but here they have two small windows on either side.

flury fireplace

Not only were roofs and walls made of stone, but we even saw this abandoned house in Oira with a stone waste pipe – cylinders of stone hollowed out.  Why not?

stone waste line

When you are dealing with thick stone walls, adding modern conveniences like electricity needs to be in conduit, and in our house I saw the most beautifully designed conduit.

casa blu electrics2

The village itself is about eight old buildings (and one new one).  A marvelous mountain stream cascades through the town, once powering several mills, including this one that was restored up in Oira.

mill house

This part of Italy still has great amounts of hydropower, and the running fountains in every town were a welcome sight to our drought-weary California eyes!  In addition to the mill, Oira also has this surviving winepress made of massive timbers in a stone room barely larger than the press.

winepress screw

We visited several other abandoned villages that are slowly being reclaimed, including in many cases old frescos and wall murals in Ghesc and its neighboring village, where a couple of Italian architects have taken on the “serial preservationist” role of Ken and Kali and are working to restore houses in places that don’t even have electric service yet.

ghesc ent town Ch Pa side2

Mural on wall in village of Croppomarcio

monast mural2

A mural from one of the houses preserved in Sacro Monte monastery

flury yellow door

Mural above the house with the yellow door in Canova.

ghesc ent town proj stair ch

Another staircase for the code inspectors….

ghesc chepa paola hs

Maurizio and Paola’s house, Ghesc.  They are the only residents of this village.

ghesch 1560 chepa  paola

Their house dates to 1560 as shown by this carved stone.

ghesc long bldg dis

A Ghesc fixer-upper

ent town astragal

This open upper area is a loggia called an astragal that is a feature of the buildings near Ghesc.

inside astragal

It reminded me of the traditional houses of Guizhou with their open upper floors for storing grain and produce.

arch built by students

Associazione Canova works with students in summer field schools who have done projects such as the arch restoration shown here, along with another flying staircase of cantilevered stone steps.

big house side

This is the village of Cuggine, completely abandoned but local officials hope to find people to restore these houses as well.

sun temple

This is the “sun temple” in Roldo, dating to the Roman era.  Its tower was added in the 15th century but the mortar on the lower section shows how early a structure was built on this pre-Christian site.

stone detail old mortar

Our Architectural Encounter itself took place in Domodossola, the main town, at Sacro Monte, a World Heritage site that includes several monasteries and chapels that were constructed after the fall of Constantinople so that pilgrims could traverse a more local version of the Via Crucis since Jerusalem had become inaccessible to Europeans.

sacro with grotto

main square dinner

The central square of Domodossola

roman bridge

A Roman bridge, repaired after partial demolition during World War II.

oira view

My fellow speakers were Dan Phillips of Phoenix Commotion in Texas, who builds houses from recycled materials using untrained labor, and Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone, a 91-year old architect who built many modern buildings around Milan and beyond.  He also was a professor at Yale twice, once at the invitation of Paul Rudolph and once at the invitation of Vincent Scully.  He was a most amazing man and we visited him at his home in Milan a few days later.

francesco talks Ken Kali hs2

Many thanks to Ken and Kali, to Maurizio and Paola, to Giada, Francesco, Dan and Marsha, and our Canova hosts Dorothea and Peter.  What better place to ponder the future of architecture than beneath the stones of its rich past?

great stnwork facing bluhaus


arch encounter sign

World Heritage in Texas!

July 5, 2015

This is the time of year new World Heritage sites are inscribed by UNESCO.  The total number passed 1000 last year, after over 40 years of the program.  As I have noted before, the United States has not taken advantage of World Heritage status in many years, partly due to a political funding dispute.  Absurdly, the U.S. has refused to pay its UNESCO dues for many years, so even though we can arguably afford to take care of our sites, at World Heritage level, we are deadbeats.


The Alamo.  Remember?

Many developing nations sought WH inscription to promote sites for tourism and development, but lacked the resources it takes to produce a verifiably management plan for each site, hence groups like Global Heritage Fund.

sacro bldg

Sacro Monte, Ossola valley, Italy

I had the honor of speaking on the subject of architecture and heritage at this World Heritage site in Italy on my birthday last week.  Italy has more WH sites inscribed than any other country, which is not surprising given the influence of its histories and designs on the rest of the world.  Still, it is good to finally see U.S. sites attaining this status and it is especially exciting for me that a site a few hundred yards from my birthplace now has been recognized for its outstanding universal value.  Plus, many of my dear friends, like Shanon Shea Miller, have worked on this project for several years, and many other friends, like Andrew Potts, were on hand in Bonn, Germany, for the inscription.

alamo diS

Now I guess the rest of the world has to remember the Alamo too…

The five Franciscan missions that include the Alamo were inscribed yesterday and they represent not only a very interesting period in world history, they also are an important chapter in the history of heritage conservation (historic preservation) in America.  After the fledgling preservationists of San Antonio were formed to fight a plan to pave the river downtown and insert a new street grid – hence creating the famous Riverwalk – they next turned their attention to saving the four missions that run in a line from the Alamo south.   The San Antonio Conservation Society remains one of the most important heritage groups in the country.

miss san jose bestS

Mission San Jose, built 1768

miss san jose9 roseS

And its famous rose window….

mission espada ch

Mission Espada

Five years ago I made a point of visiting each of the missions (and blogged about it) and was struck by the consistency of their conservation, style, and rich interpretation, which is key.  The California missions – mostly founded by another Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra – form a much longer chain along El Camino Real but their history is more diverse, and you certainly can’t visit them all in a day.

mission concepcion2S

Mission Concepcion

While the history of the Alamo has always focused more on its role as a bastion for Anglo Texan settlers against the Mexican Army in 1836, the other missions present the rich – and complicated – history of how these missions were founded to convert and economically exploit native populations.  They were not churches as much as Indian towns centered on churches that functioned like haciendas or plantations.

mission concep interp2

Interpretive panels at Mission Concepcion

It is not a simple or moralizing history, and we might say the same for their initial preservation 90 years ago, when heritage sites tended toward the saccharine and idealized in their stories.

mission SJCs

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Several San Antonio dignitaries were on hand in Bonn to celebrate the inscription, including Mayor Ivy Collins.  They feel the inscription will bring as much as $100 million in new tourism and development investment to the city and area.  Certainly these are fascinating sites, both visually and historically, and they make a trip to this excellent city more valuable.

mission espada fdn2

Foundations of church at Mission Espada

mission espada interior

Church interior, Mission Espada

One of the interesting facts about the inscription is that many of the missions are still active churches, or have been reactivated, and thus present over 250 years of human use.  At several of them you can see remnants of the other buildings that made up these towns/plantations, and there has been an active and effective archaeological investigation at the sites for a long time,  They predate the California missions by a few years, and their ongoing conservation and interpretation (four are part of a National Historic Park created over 30 years ago) has been of high quality.

miss san jose7

Arch and ornamental entrance, Mission San Jose

mission concep stoneS

Stone entrance detail, Mission Concepcion

mission espada gate

Gate at Mission Espada

miss san jose2

Courtyard area with stove, Mission San Jose

mission concepcion4

Mission Concepcion

So Remember not only the Alamo, but the five San Antonio missions that together describe centuries of history, settlement, belief and community in a unique North American cultural place!