Chinese Skyscrapers, Renaissance Style

Architecture is an infinitely rewarding area of study, because just when you think you’ve seen and heard of everything, you come across something like the Italian Renaissance skyscrapers of rural China, and realize that you still have a lot to learn.

In many countries around the world, the rural landscape is dotted with the crumbling architectural fantasies of middle class Victorians and Edwardians. The profusion of styles employed in these places usually did not approximate the originals on which they were based: Italian Renaissance Revival houses, for example, do not greatly resemble the Renaissance palazzi of Florence, Venice, or Genoa. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution however, they could be built comparatively cheaply and quickly.

In general terms, this process is not very much different from how new middle class housing is built today. Buyers seeking to build their own Medici villa could usually select from a series of options in a builder’s catalogue, and then customize their new home with their preferred finishes and as much ornament as they could afford. Just about every small town in America has at least one prominent example of this sort of architectural pastiche, built around the turn of the previous century.

A more unusual manifestation of this trend appeared in rural China at about the same time. In Guandong Province, not far from Hong Kong, quasi-Tuscan towers called “diaolus” sprang up in great numbers during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. As the Chinese middle classes became both more well-traveled and well-to-do, acquiring homes and businesses overseas, they wanted to display their new wealth back home, and to protect that wealth from attacks by bandits that continued to plague the countryside. Some of these diaolus served as grand residences, for when the owner was in town, while others were built to serve communal purposes, such as watchtowers or places to hole up in times of danger.

At one time, it is estimated that there were over 3,000 such towers dotting the landscape in Guandong. A significant number have been demolished, but hundreds still remain, thanks in part to their recognition as world heritage sites by UNESCO back in 2007. Their future at present is unclear, since finding new purposes for what are in most cases abandoned rural buildings of rather large size is a significant problem in today’s China, where over the past decade the countryside has been rapidly emptied, as peasants leave the land in favor of urban job opportunities and greater social mobility.  

Unlike the tower villas of classic Tuscan hill towns such as San Gimignano, on which these constructions are perhaps loosely based, many of these structures stand independently of one another, rather than clustered next to each other for protection. Some of the towers are exotic mixtures of European and Asian styles, such as the elaborate Ruishi Dialou in the village of Jinjiangli pictured below. It features a bizarre combination of Italian Renaissance tower shaft, a top formed of an arcade and a series of Byzantine-Mughal cupolas, and gigantic Chinese characters painted onto the façade.

None of these structures are great works of architecture. Yet collectively, they are an interesting, sometimes amusing look at the way different architectural styles can be combined to create something truly unique. If any of my readers have been to see these unusual towers, I would be very curious to learn more about what they are like.


Newly Discovered Beatrix Potter Drawings Go On Display

Newly Discovered Beatrix Potter Drawings Go On Display

When the news is dark, there is only so much of it that you can read. So here is a joyful surprise, for those who love the work of English writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Four previously unknown drawings by the “Peter Rabbit” author were recently discovered in Melford Hall, an English country house built in the 16th century. The discovery and resulting exhibition coincides with celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth.

Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor to the Melford estate, which was owned by her cousin’s husband, and she often brought pets and toys as gifts for their children. The family still lives in the house today, and among other treasures possess the original prototype “Jemima Puddleduck” stuffed animal, which the author gave to her cousin’s children. However no one suspected that there were hidden treasures in the house, as Josephine Waters, the manager of the property, described in a press release from the National Trust:

“I was moving a bookcase together with a colleague, and whilst we were going through some of the books we discovered a drawing tucked inside, it was classic Potter style and we immediately knew it was one of hers,” said Josephine. ” It was an absolutely spine-tingling moment, I remember all the hairs on the back on my neck stood up as we realised what we’d found. Working with a collection like this, it was a dream come true.”

For those who think of Beatrix Potter exclusively as a writer and illustrator of children’s stories, these drawings will be something of a revelation. Potter was a highly skilled draughtswoman and watercolorist, who in addition to her careful observation of animals and plants, had a keen understanding of and appreciation for architecture and interior design. Perhaps the best example of this from her published work are the magnificent illustrations that accompany “The Tailor of Gloucester” (1902), where she carefully studied both the exteriors and interiors of buildings that served as the backgrounds for scenes in her stories, and then populated those scenes with the genteel creatures of her imagination.

In these newly discovered drawings, we see a series of images that reflect interior and exterior spaces on the Melford estate. One shows a bedroom or perhaps an attic at the Hall, filled with some old steamer trunks, a canopy bed, an armchair, and a painting or mirror that appears that could be hanging askew. Another drawing is a rendering of the handsome fireplace in the sitting room, with a folding screen and what is probably a Georgian workbox-on-stand off to one side. There is also a simpler drawing of the opening to a staircase that is hidden behind some oak paneling, as well as a drawing of part of the roof and one of the Tudor turrets of the house.

The exhibition “Beatrix Potter’s Melford”, which will include not only these newly-discovered drawings but others that Beatrix Potter made while visiting the estate, as well as objects associated with her and her art, opens on July 13th at Melford Hall, located about an hour SW of Cambridge, and runs until the last weekend in October.  


Fireplace At Melford Hall, by Beatrix Potter

New Church To Glow At Ground Zero

I must confess that, being neither a New Yorker nor Greek Orthodox, I was unaware that a significant, new church is under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, the St. Nicholas National Shrine will replace the now-demolished St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on 9/11 when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto it. The hope is that the church will be completed in time for Easter of next year.

I encourage you to watch the video of what the completed building will be like, and to pay particular attention around the midway point to see what effect it will have at night on its somber surroundings. Thanks to the materials that will be used in its construction, St. Nicholas will actually glow from within, rather like alabaster does when you put a candle behind it. Moreover, the placement of the building within an elevated park will give it a far greater physical prominence in the neighborhood than it held prior to the previous church’s construction. As the parish website points out: “It is clear that the Church will be a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).”

What struck me immediately was how wonderfully appropriate this house of God will be, in a place where so many cried out to Him in despair. There is a tremendous, symbolic poignancy in the juxtaposition of this small but dignified building, located just across from the massive memorial fountain-waterfall. This part of the 9/11 memorial is certainly a very powerful design, summing up the feelings of those who lost loved ones on that day. Yet it has always struck me as being dangerously nihilistic, like a well descending into nothingness.

Although not a part of the 9/11 memorial itself, St. Nicholas will nevertheless be a fitting companion to it. You will not be able to visit the waterfall and pools without seeing the church, looking as if it was perched solidly on the precipice of an abyss, as a refuge from what terrifies us. It will no doubt receive many visitors seeking somewhere to pray, but I think its greater significance over time will be as a reminder of the bulwark of Faith, particularly in times of trouble.