Have you ever walked into an urban space and felt awe and wonder, dumfounded by the work of man? You can feel the tug of vertigo as you stroll about, head tilted, staring into every nook and cranny trying to absorb what the space does to you. It tricks your senses and perspective, it diddles your brain, and it can and will challenge your conceptions about what the hand of man can do. On a recent trip from London to Milan we visited churches, museums, cathedrals and gallerias, each built for different purposes yet left us with lasting impressions, from religious awe to architectural giddiness. So let’s take a brief look.
|St. Paul's - London|
St. Paul’s Cathedral – London
To hear the boy’s and men’s choir in the great space of St. Paul’s has been a desire of mine since our first visit way back when. Those voices and the magnificent organ of the cathedral is more than enough to bring you to tears. The vaulted spaces and the detailing of the paintings and the carved woodwork would require weeks of study to appreciate this creation by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century (a time when there were barely two story buildings in the colonies of America). Beyond its historical presence and iconic and real defiance of Nazism during the WWII blitz, its solemn funeral services for England’s great leaders and military commanders, it continues to stand as a reminder of Britain’s place in the world for over four hundred years. I suggest a Sunday morning service.
Covent Garden, London
And for the complete opposite the small retail center of Covent Garden in London’s older city center has an historic place as a market and cultural center (London’s opera house is here). While today it seems to cater to touristy stuff, there still is a rabbit warren of flea market tables and crafts men and women displaying their goods. The iron and glass roof are from a period when this was the height of urban architecture and style, the quality of stores and shops in arcade have continuously upgraded (by market forces I’m sure) and seem to be different every time we visit.
|Basilique du Sacre-Coeur - Paris|
The Sacre-Coeur – Paris
As European cathedrals go, the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur is demur. But its placement, on the top of Montmatre overlooking all of Paris, is divine. On a sunny summer day the white travertine glows against the brilliant blue French sky. The style is a bit of a hodgepodge, Romano-Byzantine stands in contrast to Notre Dame and other Gothic confections sprinkled around the city. Its interior, not nearly so large as Notre Dame or St. Paul’s, is rich with gold and blue mosaics and, most prominently Christ in Majesty with his outstretched arms fills the dome within the apse. It is intimate and comfortable (for a basilica built at the turn of the 19th century), yet more religious than most cathedrals and churches.
|Duomo - Milan|
Duomo di Milan – Milan
It would take five people, hands linked, to enclose one of the interior pillars of Milan’s Duomo. This Gothic cathedral took over 600 years to build and is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Its exterior is beyond description with its white marble overlaying a massive brick building. It has been ridiculed and praised for its architecture for hundreds of years. It was started in fourteenth century by an Italian archbishop in the French style and centuries later was finished by Napoleon. The interior space is so great that one could believe it might have its own weather. The mosaic stone floor has withstood centuries of visitors and worshipers and the wear patterns are evident from millions of footfalls through the cathedral. Its sculptures, there are thousands of figures, are lost amongst the Gothic arches and swags attached to the exterior. The stain glass windows are spectacular. This is not an intimate and comforting space; as intended it will scare the hell out of you.
|Galleria - Milan|
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – Milan
Literally at the door step to the Duomo, the entry to the Galleria Vitorio Emanuele II draws you into, in my opinion, one of the great non-religious architectural spaces in the world. Built between 1865 and 1877, this “shopping mall” is a jewel for the city of Milan and it alone is worth a visit. Essentially a cross of two vaulted galleries four exceptional stories high it presents a scale and breath that is both comfortable and awe inspiring. The glass in the vaulted arcade changes color as the day passes, the building facades are in style and concert with each other (a mixture of stone and terra cotta), and the carpeting is a rich and varied mosaic of tiles and stone. It is as if the base of Eiffel Tower (1889) were enclosed and turned into a retail center, both are from the same era of architectural design and engineering. Whereas today’s shopping malls are boring and redundant, there are very few spaces in the world like this.
Stay Tuned . . . . . .