Saturday, March 31, 2012

Titanic Anniversary - "White Star of the North"

Photo from the Guardian

On Thursday I attended a performance at a local theater called "Lyric". The new performing arts center is a building that I see regularly when running along the River Lagan and it inspired me to see a show. The performance on at the moment is "White Star of the North" which was written by Rosemary Jenkinson and is performed by local talent. The play commemorates the centenary of two major milestones in Belfast: the building and sinking of the Titanic, and the Ulster Covenant. The Ulster Covenant was drawn up in opposition of 'Home Rule' in Ireland, essentially proclaiming allegiance to retain the British rule that had existed for the previous three centuries. It was a truly Belfast story in that it celebrated the great achievement of the Titanic as well as a number of perspectives on sectarian issues from the early 20th century.

One hundred years ago today the Titanic was launched from Belfast's harbor on its first and final journey. The Titanic Belfast visitor center opens today to commemorate the ships short life as well as the rich industrial heritage of Belfast.

Friday, March 30, 2012


The final city on my short trip to the European mainland was Prague. Unlike Berlin and Dresden which were devastated or at least stunned by conflict, Prague has retained its historic charm with massive cathedral squares and its hill top castle. The Vltava River runs directly through the center of the town dividing the older section of the city, along the west with the castle and fortification system, from the newer section, which still has numerous old cathedrals and attractive facades.

I had a beautiful day to explore both banks of the river. The Charles Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans the river and is lined on each side with elements of religious sculpture (seen below). 

There is also a monument of contemporary architecture designed by Frank Gehry. This name may sound familiar to most readers of this blog due to the fame he's amassed from numerous flamboyant projects all over the world including the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, and 8 Spruce Street in NY. This most recent piece* is called "Dancing House" due to the contorted cylindrical forms and wavy window patterns. It has become a tourist attraction in the town and is actually located on the standard tourist maps of Prague.

*I call this a "piece" rather than a building because I find the structures he's designed to be largely sculptural in form with little concern for the surrounding context. Rumors have swirled since some of his early projects that he finds inspiration through crumpled paper and there have also been serious issues with the functionality of his buildings. On the other hand, his projects have proven that iconic pieces of contemporary architecture have the power to generate major income for an area, which has become a movement known as the "Gehry Effect"

Monday, March 26, 2012

Dresden Bombing

I suppose it would help to provide some more information on the bombing of Dresden during WWII that I mentioned in my previous post. Here is a brief history of the bombing campaign and the controversy surrounding it:

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Back to my trip to Germany a few weeks ago...

After thoroughly enjoying my time in Berlin, I journeyed south to spend a day in Dresden. Many will recognize Dresden as the site of a major US and British bombing campaign at the end of WWII. This infamous attack used extensive firepower, including incendiary bombs, to completely reduce the German city to rubble. The raid is extremely contentious due to the massive number of civilian casualties and extreme destruction to non-military targets.

As a result, the city was forced to rebuild itself in recent decades. Primary monuments throughout the city that were destroyed have been rebuilt, and the surrounding urban fabric has been completely reconstructed as it was 60 years ago. In the images below you can see the central cathedral of Dresden with black stone interspersed throughout the building. Those dark stone are the pieces of the original cathedral that survived the bombing campaign. In addition, you can see the brightly painted buildings and the cobble stone square which complete the romanticism of an old European square.

But as I walked around the square I realized something felt like it was missing from the experience. The buildings were beautiful and the cathedral was impressive, but all feeling of local character - personal and architectural - were absent. The square was flooded with tourists taking group photographs in front of the rebuilt cathedral and along the row of bright paint colors, but I didn't see a single person that looked local, which was further emphasized by the large amount of gift shops, hotels, and English language restaurants that surround the square.

My suspicion is the managers of the rebuilding process in Dresden intended to focus the effort exclusively on economic regeneration through tourism and commercial activity. Although economic activity is essential to the continued revival efforts in the city, reconstructing a bright and shiny town center for tourism ignores the character and depth that a local population provides to successful public space which would undoubtedly provide more sustainable economic activity in the area for long term growth and prosperity. 

Now don't get me wrong, Dresden is a beautiful place to visit, and many of the more historic structures in the city are very impressive architecturally. The city is very pedestrian and bicycle friendly and is rich in arts and culture with the Semper Opera House (above) and one of the best art galleries in the country.

The sculpture is photogenic as well.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mini Berlin

Here's one final video of Berlin just to make sure you understood that I thoroughly enjoyed the city. This video uses tilt-shift photography and increased saturation to transform time lapse photography and video of street life in Berlin into a miniature or 'lego' world. 


Monday, March 19, 2012

Controversial Kicks

In an article on St. Patrick's day the Belfast Telegraph wrote about a controversial shoe that was soon to be released by Nike. As pictured above, the St. Patrick's day themed "Black and Tan" was to relate to the popular drink where a 50/50 mix of Guinness and Bass Ale separate in the glass with less dense Guinness floating above the ale.

Little did Nike realize that an infamous group of WWI veteran's formed a paramilitary group called the Black and Tans in the early 1920's, which was encouraged by the Royal Irish Constabulary to suppress any uprising against British Rule. The group is particularly known for its ruthless and indiscriminate violence. The following is a quote from Lt. Col. Smyth in the Belfast Telegraph article from 1920:
"If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there - the more the merrier.
Should the order (Hands Up) not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down.
You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time.
The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."

As expected, Nike apologized soon after it realized its mistake.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

St. Patrick's Day in Dublin

The streets of Dublin were draped in green and covered in Guinness yesterday. After a massive parade, the hundreds of thousands of spectators poured into the nearby pubs and the cobble stone streets of Temple Bar partying in full force.

I knew pictures wouldn't quite do the atmosphere justice so here's a quick video in Temple Bar.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cultural Plan for Chicago

A fellow blogspot user that I am following is the Chicago Cultural Plan, which is currently being developed as a premier objective of the early part of the Rahm Emanuel mayorship in the city. After nearly 40 almost-continuous years of leadership under the machine politics of the Daly Mayors (Sr. and Jr.) where most of the energy was focused on the Downtown/Magnificent Mile/Michigan Avenue/Millenium Park/Central Business District a sea-change is occurring as more focus is being placed on the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Chicago Cultural Plan is an attempt to understand emphasize the existing arts and culture scene that is so vibrant within many Chicago neighborhoods while also showing support for future cultural initiatives. A senior leader of the project in Chicago recently wrote a blog entry highlighting the duties of a "Cultural Planner" and also shared how important strong support for the arts are in enriching our communities socially, culturally and economically:
"... Ask anyone what they love most about their community and they are very likely tell you about the architecture, the history, the parks, and the ethnic restaurants. The culture is what makes a place unique, and is typically what residents and visitors celebrate and hold most dear about their community." (Burros)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Berlin Wall Escape Footage

The Berlin wall was constructed and reconstructed many times over the course of its thirty years at the core of the city. Above I've shown two videos which show previous versions of the wall that were set up as the first lines of "defense" between sides. The first video shows escape attempts from East Berlin to West Berlin in the early years when multiple building facades acted as the wall. These apartment buildings were torn down within a few years of the building of the wall, but in these early years escape attempts through high windows as shown in this video took place. East German soldiers can be seen attempting to retain those attempting to escape while the West Berlin soldiers are ready for anyone willing to jump out of their window to join the West. The second video is propaganda from West Berlin in the early years, but I post it to show the early conditions of the walls.

The final manifestation of the wall were the pre-cast, 3-meter tall concrete borders behind which there was a "death strip" that was guarded 24/7 by the East German army. That death strip included multiple rows of barbed wire, sand, a patrol path, and even trip wire that would set off alarms. In addition there was a second wall of concrete on the east side of the wall as well. The massive pre-cast pieces (seen above) represent the iconic form of the wall in the years leading up to its dismantling. The circular concrete tubing on the tip was a cap to the wall making it more difficult to grip and stand on for anyone attempting to cross. The video below is news footage from the evening the wall wall opened. Jubilation from residents on both sides demonstrate how long residents from both communities had longed for that day.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Oscar Night at the QFT

Belfast director Terry George, who recently won an Oscar for Short Film of the year was at the Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast on Wednesday for a screening and Q&A of his award winning film, The Shore. I attended the screening and was approximately five feet away from the set of golden statues you see in the above picture. He introduced the film with his daughter and co-producer Oorlagh George and then hung around after to talk about the film and the future of film in Belfast. For those of you who haven't seen it, the trailer to the movie is below. The Irish comedy follows a man who left Northern Ireland during the troubles on his return trip to the island after 25 years away.

Both Terry and Oorlagh spoke proudly about the future opportunities available to Belfast filmmakers for the uniqueness of Irish comedy, the current investment being put toward the arts in Northern Ireland, and the opportunity for Northern Ireland to re-define/re-brand itself moving forward. The major film studios that have opened in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast's harbor are proof of this new enthusiasm and investment.

Terry George, writer of Hotel Rwanda, has also directed three other films on the troubles over the course of his career including, In the Name of the Father, Some Mother's Son, and The Boxer.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Berlin offered me an opportunity to see a city that has truly attempted to move past its divided history. The Berlin Wall ran between Soviet and western allied nation-controlled areas directly through the core of the city starting in 1961. Throughout the tense period of 30 years that followed the wall was bolstered and rebuilt on numerous continuously and it also began to stretch further north and south along what would become the iron curtain into hundreds of miles across European soil.

One interesting monument within the area that was once the "death strip" within the Berlin Wall is the Chapel of Reconciliation which replaced a church that previously stood in its place before being torn down to make room for the wall. Notice the metal strip along the ground in front of the church in the photo below which follows the footprint of the building.

In many areas within the core of Berlin where the wall separated dense building complexes, there have been attempts to reconstruct, memorialize, and reinterpret the wall. Much of this land has become urban park area and outdoor museums to tell the story of the cold war in Europe.

Recreated portion of the wall with the sandy 'death strip' within concrete barriers. The guard tower is an original piece used by the Soviet army to ensure no East Berliners were escaping and to "fend off the threat of the capitalist west".

A portion of the wall is reinterpreted through vertical steel rods along its original path at its final built up height. When seen from the side as it is above you are able to see people and a tram who would have been in West Berlin passing by but when seen from an angle it looks like a solid surface.
Eventually the walls were capped with this circular tubing to increase the difficulty of escaping. This is a piece of the original wall that is located along a memorial site known as the 'Topography of Terror'.

One of the most famous squares prior to the war and division of Berlin was Potsdamer Platz which was vibrant during the 20's and 30's, but was directly bisected by the wall in 1961. Potsdamer Platz offers a unique case study of overcoming/reconciling division in the built environment through major property development. It is now one of the busiest intersections in the city and has a number of well known pieces of post-modern architecture that were designed by internationally recognized firms. Unfortunately, the contemporary statement created on this site is often seen as a complete failure in its attempt to reunite the city in its built form. The surrounding skyscrapers and the overall site design completely overlook the importance of returning vibrant local interest in the area in exchange for international recognition, a cosmopolitan feel, and tourist attraction. On the two occasions that I visited the site I witnessed very few locals in the area who weren't in business suits hurrying to their nearby offices. Instead it was flooded with cars by day and by tourists next to cars in the evening snapping photos of the remnants of the wall and the famous architectural elements of the site. This was confirmed to me later by a friend who has lived in Berlin for sometime... None of his friends have nver visited  Potsdamer Platz by choice.

Sign recognizing the route of the Berlin Wall immediately in front of the metro station.

Three signature tours that seem at odds with each other as if each is attempting to stake its claim to the space with its architectural grandeur.

View within the Sony Center which is surrounded by shopping, a theater and office space.

Brandenburg Gate became an internationally recognized location as well as a symbol of the Berlin Walls collapse in 1989 when television stations all over the world covered the dramatic events of the cities reunification. 

An entire island along the river that runs throughout the city is dedicated to the major museums of Berlin. Museum Island is also home to the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) which can be seen in the following two photographs.

The Neues Museum is one of the most famous museums on the island and is specifically recognized as an extremely positive rehabilitation project by a famous contemporary architect (David Chipperfield). During World War II the museum was almost entirely demolished by bombing campaigns carried out on the city. However, many of the most special pieces of the museum were stored safely prior to the war and the impressive collection is back on display today. The building itself is extremely impressive considering the condition it was found in and the recreation undertaken by Chipperfield's office is carefully conscious of distinguishing what is old and new within the building. The building itself is a monument in Berlin.

One of the most important museums that is not located on Museum Island is the Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind. This landmark addition to the museum is a world-famous for its physical form, which the architect calls 'the blitz'. The zig-zagging plan of the building and abstract openings create a series of very unique spaces within the building. Of these spaces, the voids between the main exhibition space are dedicated to interactive memorials of the holocaust.

This 'void' is filled with 10,000 iron faces which the visitor walks on into the dark end of the room in the background of this image. As you walk through the space the faces clank against one another (physically and audibly) offering an interesting opportunity to reflect on the history of oppression the Jewish people have faced.

Angular supports and and openings throughout the exhibitions create unique spaces .

Many of the exhibits themselves continued the abstract and interactive forms. These seats contained video screens were you could learn more about traditions in each of the three monotheistic religions.

The leaning pillars on the left side of this image are within the 'Garden of Exile' which abstractly represents the disorienting feeling many Jewish families faced as they were expelled from their home countries and moved to new homes throughout the world.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Travel Update

Over the past week I found some time to get away from Belfast to do some traveling. During a five day trip I went to Germany and Prague with a particular interest in seeing Berlin post-wall (Cold War - 1991) and Dresden post-bombing (WWII - 1945). I am currently uploading the resulting photographs to my Flickr account and will write about my experience in the coming days (whenever I find time to get away from my assignments).