by Anna Campbell
I came up with the idea for this blog last week when I mentioned how much I love the building that houses the National Library of Australia in Canberra. I still don't know why I like it so much - this picture certainly doesn't do it justice. But somehow when you're in it, it's just right.
I thought I'd talk about some other buildings I've been in that share that feeling of being just right. I think their dimensions might have something to do with that - you walk into the space and automatically your heart lifts. This blog will also give me the chance to put up some pretty photos. Although I've realized as I've searched through Google images that one of the characteristics of a really great building is a mere picture can never do it justice. You need to experience the space and the physical presence.
That's great! I think it's wonderful that in this virtual world, if you really want to appreciate a great piece of architecture, the only real solution is to go there!
I'm not going to talk about old houses in the UK or palaces or cathedrals. Although they might be good topics in the future, especially the old houses. Well, actually that's not completely true about today's blog. There's a cathedral tucked inside one of the buildings I picked!
Anyway, here goes. I'm going to talk about a few places that I walked into and they absolutely took my breath away.
And to put in another proviso, that's definitely not true of the first building I've chosen. The Sydney Opera House is absolutely amazing - on the outside. One of the things I realized, living near it and seeing it several times a week, sometimes more often, is that really great architecture never loses its impact. I still got that same thrill when I saw it after living in Sydney for eleven years as I did when I first saw it, with those glorious shells still under construction, as a little girl of eight.
Sadly, inside it's a disaster, horrible gray 70s brutal concrete everywhere. Although there's always the consolation that those lovely big windows mean you don't have to look at your surroundings, you can stare out at one of the world's most beautiful harbors. But don't you think this is just the perfect building for this setting? Joern Utzon was a genius!
For my next building, we move from the modern (well, the 1950s!) to one of the jewels of the medieval age. 15th-century Kings College Chapel in Cambridge is one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever been in - and as I'm sure you're gathering, I've been in a lotta buildings! There's a legend that John Milton, the poet, stopped Cromwell (for whom he worked as a secretary) from smashing all the glass and defacing the chapel.
Outside, Kings College Chapel is elegant and austere. Then you walk inside and it's like entering a forest of golden stone. Again, this picture can't do it justice. It's hard to descibe the sheer sense of perfect space, the soaring height of those fan-vaulted ceilings, the rich colors of the glass.
I was lucky enough to go to an evensong with the world-famous choir there - it was January in 1985 and the congregation was small on a bitterly cold winter's night. The boys and the men walked in wearing their late medieval costumes, carrying candles and singing like angels just as the sun set, making all those windows glow like gemstones on fire. A transcendent moment! And one inextricably linked to the glorious building that housed the service.
My next building is also religious and even older. It's the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Andalusia. The Moors who ruled Spain at the time started it in the 7th century and largely completed it in the 9th century.
Again you don't get a sense of the huge size of this building from the picture although it does give an idea of the endless mysterious arcades of columns in marble and alabaster so that you feel like you're in a great, dark cave. Instead of the soaring height of perpendicular gothic at Kings College Chapel, the ceiling is low, like you're cradled, held safe. The sensation is extraordinary, like you've entered eternity.
If you ever get a chance to see the Mosque, don't miss it. It's unlike anything else I can think of. Oh, and rather incongruously, there's a whole baroque cathedral tucked away among these pillars!
Actually I had trouble choosing an example of this next architect's work. When I had four months in the UK in 2004, I had time and opportunity to see a lot of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's work (not that a lot survives!). I was going to pick Hill House at Helensburgh just outside Glasgow. It's the only example of his domestic architecture still basically as he left it and the site is magnificent, high on a ridge overlooking the Clyde estuary.
But I ended up choosing the library from the Glasgow School of Art, built in the years leading up to the First World War. The building still functions as an art school so a tour there has a wonderful sense of life and vibrancy that you sometimes miss in the museum-style buildings that no longer fulfil the function for which they were designed. My favorite room was the library which again, is like a forest, but a dark, mysterious one. CRM designed it purposely to give that impression - he did everything, the furniture, the fittings, the room.
Again, no photograph can do justice to what it feels like to stand in that space full of books and polished wood and gold sunlight falling through the window panes to hit the floor like light dapples a forest floor. Magic!
My final building is Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. It was built in the 1930s, yet manages to look completely modern, while still conveying a feeling that it's grown organically from its spectacular situation. Of course, here I'm completely working off pictures because I haven't yet managed to get there. One day!
I almost went to the Romantic Times Convention last year because it was in Pittsburgh and one of the pre-conference excursions was a trip to Fallingwater. Isn't that a glorious house?
So enough of my raving. Do you have a favorite building? Why is it your favorite building? Is there a building you'd love to see that you haven't yet made it to?