Friday, December 30, 2011

The Alcazaba of Malaga

View of the Alcazaba from the lower ramparts
The Alcazaba is a Moorish citadel built on a spur of a hill overlooking the harbor of Malaga on the southern coast of Spain.  The site was formerly a Roman fortress and there is an ancient amphitheater at the base of the walls.  The citadel was built by Muslim rulers starting around the year 1057, at the base of the hill crowned by an 8th Century fortress, the Castillo de Gibralfaro.  There are Alcazaba citadels in other Arab towns in Spain, including Granada, but this is the best preserved.  The Alhambra in Granada is the best known of the Moorish architectural complexes in Spain, as it was the capitol of the Nasrid Dynasties, and is one of the most beautiful palaces in the World.  The Alcazaba in Malaga is very modest by comparison, but in that is where it's charms lie.
Moorish Pebble Mosaic in the Puerta de Torre Cristo

You enter the complex through a series of angled gates beneath towers that make the citadel easier to defend.  This also makes for a wonderful series of twists and turns in a relatively small space.  There are narrow walkways on top of the walls to supervise the paths below.  Visitors can explore these paths to get great perspectives of the way the fort is laid out.  

The pavements are varied and elegant blends of stone, brick, and pebble mosaic, with border strips and central panels that change around every corner.  This makes the progression climbing the slope a delight as the designs, while simple, are very beautiful.  How different this is from your average American sidewalk!  It is rare to see such wonderful compositions, one after another, each as beautiful as the last.  As a designer and builder of garden structure I really pay attention to how things are laid out.  In the path on the left, a diagonal chevron pattern creates the center band.  Then there are two lines of vertically laid brick, and then the outside bands of perpendicular bricks, also laid on edge.  This creates a relatively smooth pavement to walk on.  Flanking the path are stone cobbled bands to contrast the orderly brick.  These are slightly raised so that cart wheels would be deterred from straying from the path.  The paving inside the gates is usually a pebble mosaic medallion acting as a point on which to rotate and pass in to the next corridor.

Once you enter the Citadel proper, the element of water appears.  First there is a courtyard divided in to four parts in the form of a classic Chahar Bagh.  This is derived from the Persian prototype where the paths symbolize the four Rivers of Paradise, flowing with water, milk, honey, and wine.  This patio is called the Plaza de Armas.  The four planting beds are bordered by clipped hedges, with a central marble fountain.  Water channels, called rills, come from small openings in the terrace walls that in this case flow through a tiny tunnel under 3 of the four brick columns that center on the four paths.  These columns support a trellis planted with Jasmine to bathe the garden in heavenly fragrance.   Water rills are derived from irrigation channels used to flood beds or water trees in orchards.  In their ornamental capacity they still act as canals to bring water in to garden area for irrigation.
Plaza de Armas

The water rill becomes the binding thread between the Plaza de Armas and the next gardens.  It runs down a curved ramp, dividing in to two rills on either side of the stairs on the next terrace level.  These emerge through a central wall fountain and the channels that flow down the steps, framing the hedged patio, and then becoming the four rivers of paradise leading to the central fountain.  The water in the rill channels shimmers in the sun light making silvery bands.  A set of steps flanked by he rill lead up from the patio around the wall fountain and you follow the rill up the path to the next gate.
A water rill splits to frame a set of stairs leading down to the Plaza de Armas

Water Rill passing through the Puerta de los Cuartos de Granada

The rill disappears under a step, but the sound of water trickling around the corner of the next gate lures you around to a lovely fountain made from an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus with a simple faucet dribbling in to it.  Arab fountains are always simple and restrained,  never extravagant displays.

Another set of steps climbs against the wall to the next terrace, where you again turn in to a larger patio terrace with another central fountain on a pedestal with four spouts dribbling in to the basin below.  Italian Cypresses frame the space and a flock of green parrots likes to hang out there eating the cones.  Beds of blood red roses splash color in front of the rough walls made of a mixture of brick and stone.  There is a well with a star pattern pebble mosaic adjacent to this patio, called the Patio de los Surtidores (Jets of Water), which lies below the next terrace.  This is the beginning of the palace, where rooms surround classic Andalusian courtyards.

Fountain in the Patio de los Surtidores
The first set of palace rooms is in the Torre de la Armadura and Torre de Maldonado.  Beautiful keyhole and double arched doors with carved stucco remnants lead to modestly sized rooms and a terrace with spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea.  Again the spaces are intimate in scale when compared to the Alhambra in Granada.  Much restoration has been done so the tile work and detail is surely different from the original palaces, which were probably much more sumptuous, but the simplicity of the details works quite well in the scale of things.  

Double arches in the Torre de Armadura
View of the Malaga Harbor from the Torre de Maldonado
After passing through interior rooms you come to the Patio de los Naranjos, the Patio of the Oranges, where there are round marble basins and rills spilling in to two deeper pools at each end.  A row of four orange trees are planted in recessed squares connected by rills for irrigation.   Handsome arches frame the view from each end, providing a shady place to contemplate the space on hot or rainy days.

Patio de las Naranjas

The adjacent patio is of similar scale.  It is called the Patio de la Alberca, and is similar but much smaller than the famed Court of the Myrtles in the Alhambra.  It has a simple rectangular pool framed on both sides by clipped rectangular hedges.  The pool reflects the central arch and cools the space on hot summer days.  A matching pair of marble basins are connected by rills at each end of the pool, bringing the water element in to the forecourt of the interior spaces.  It is a wonderful detail of Moorish palaces that is so simple and elegant and captivating as the water ripples from a simple spout of water at the center.  The sound of the water trickling is everywhere throughout the garden, yet it is used in such a restrained way as to not be wasteful in this dry environment.  It is a far cry from our American swimming pools and out of scale 'water features' as we have relegated them.  There is much to be learned from the Arab model.

Patio de la Alberca
The Alcazaba is very close to the hotel I am staying in and I have revisited it again a couple of times because I loved the experience so much.  It is an ideal place to meditate and is not inundated with tourists in the winter time, when the light is golden and the day time temperatures quite pleasant, at least in December.  If you find yourself here, dedicate some time to indulging yourself to hanging out in these wonderful gardens.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

A Model of the Alcazaba showing how it is built in to the hill

The Roman Amphitheater below the walls of the Alcazaba

Carved stucco window looking out on the Patio de la Alberca

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

A Lush Desert Garden in the Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

Jardi Botanic de la Universitat de Valencia
Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia, Spain

I have a thing for botanical gardens.  When I was studying landscape architecture at the University of Oregon in the late 1970’s we had 3 terms of Plant Materials classes.  These were outdoor classes, wandering the campus and surrounding areas.  We would learn to identify plants by looking carefully at them, the leaf structure, the way they are arranged on the stem, the shape of the bud, the flowers and fruit, and the form they take on from a distance, as well as how they like to be grown.  When you learn how to identify plants you start to see them as individuals, and you see the World in totally different way.  I was so in to it I used to ace the tests.

Frequently when I first meet with new clients, or talk to friends or family about plants, it is like talking about an alien world.  I sometimes call it the Tree/Bush syndrome.  You can point at a tree and say, “what is that?”.  “A tree”.  You can point at a shrub and they will say “a bush”.  And that one over there?  We’re heading in to new territory for most people at that point.  It is one of the main reasons roses are so popular.  Most people know what they are.  But in reality, most people don’t really look at plants when they pass them, at least not as individuals or related plant communities.  Believe me, to have this knowledge makes the World a far more interesting place.  The same goes for architecture, hence the reason I write about what I do and see.  I want to share the joy I derive from having an understanding of what is out there.  That is to assume that I really know what is going on.  I’m probably just making it all up.

Plant Pens
Botanical Gardens are sort of like plant zoos.  All too frequently they look like plants in pens, in straight academic lines, as is frequently the case of much of the Jardi Botanic de la Universitat de Valencia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  This is in large part because the gardens are old, the oldest in Spain.  They started out as a place to study the medicinal properties of herbs in 1567.  Many new introductions were flooding in from the New World, a great time of discovery for Spain.  The present gardens were started in 1802 in the Tramoieres Orchard at the edge of the city.  A grid of rectangular beds were laid out with irrigation canals running axially through them in order to water the beds.  The plants and trees in the collection were placed in their blocks in part to teach Darwinian ideas of how they evolved, or according to Phylum, or agricultural and industrial and medicinal value.  The beds filled up over time with collections.  Some of the trees would get very large.  210 years is suitable for venerable old growth status.  Here in lies the reason to visit this garden.  Formality can have it values and faults.  It makes for perspective axis that takes the eye to the termination of straight symmetrical lines.  Fountains can embellish the junction of paths.  Buildings can easily be arranged in relation to the layout of paths as well.  Or it can be as boring as a dial tone at times depending on how well the elements are arranged.  Plants need to be combined to play off of each other in beautiful ways.  There are a lot of  rose gardens in the World that can be the saddest places if the paths and walls aren’t laid out to cover for the thorny broomsticks of Tea roses in winter.  I know, I live in the ‘City of Roses’.  There are some beautiful sections of the botanic garden in Valencia.  It does not have the level changes that make the Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid so interesting (see my blog on that garden from December, 2011), but there is enough geometry and opening and closing of spaces and variety to make the garden a pleasant place to stroll.
Fountains were originally used to irrigate the garden beds

The modern botanic gardens in Parc Montjuic in Barcelona in contrast are planted in a fashion to allude to the environment that the plants grow in naturally.  This sort of works but for the difference in climate and geology of the site they have been forced to inhabit.  The garden is too young to be all that exciting yet, but it will be amazing in a hundred years if global warming doesn't wipe them out.  The wide white angular concrete paths and rusted steel walls will always be the unfortunate downfall of that garden, although I love the use of steel and the way it patinas as it rusts.  I had a hard time finding attractive sight lines for photographing that garden because it was probably designed predominantly in the plan view and not from the perspective of ground plane vistas.  The paths feel more like highways.  

A flattering view of angled paths and walls in the Barcelona Botanic Gardens

Plants are curvaceous creatures if you look closely at them.  The use of rough limestone to create more natural looking environments works a little better, but the work was not masterful.  I was spoiled by the works of Antonio Gaudi and his ilk that I was immersing myself in around Barcelona.  They have set a very high bar to aspire to.  I can only imagine how World class fabulous the Jardi Botanic de Barcelona would be if Roberto Burle Marx had designed it.
I wish this path was paved in gravel.  I feel like I should be driving

It was interesting to see and compare these two gardens. The one in Valencia is tricky to find.  I am used to some big gate and high fence.  Maybe there is the enticement of a hothouse poking up through a mass of foliage.  I have a knack for taking the long way around.  I started in the park in the dry bed of the Rio Turia.  This park is great because it lies below the level of the rest of the city so it feels separate.  There are some great masses of plantings in it and some interesting fountains and pools, and the best play structure I have ever seen.  This is a giant fiberglass sculpture of Gulliver that human Lilliputians can climb all over and slide down.  It was crawling with happy Lilliputians when I walked around it.  The ultra futuristic and magnificently bizarre Ciudad des Arts y de Science is in this long beltline park as well.  That is a whole different topic, but for the fact that the future features nature in a zoo format as well.  The Jardi botanic was full of doves.  The Ciudad was empty but for captive aquatic Ocean creatures in the Oceanografic and a scattering of awestruck people.
Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides

After consulting the map I saw that I had probably gone too far in the river bed, so I found a ramp to get back up to street level and located a garden across the road.  This turned out to be an ultra modern park called the Jardi de Hesperides.  This relates to a classic tale of Hercules.  Lines of sheered Italian Cypresses must have looked great on the plan, but as well built as this garden is, it was so quiet that the only people there were 3 homeless people sleeping on sleek benches in the shade.  A modernist statue of Hercules posed where it was placed on the drawing on one side of an arrow straight hedge from a very rectangular reflecting pool.  It needed something to reflect in it.  I love to take photos and I had a really hard time finding a good view of this place.
Botanical Scooter

There was lush exuberance of tall trees on the other side of a high masonry wall so I tried to figure out how to get to it, but once again I went the long way around.  It was long blocks of tall residential blocks with iron balconies.  And then there was a clue, a white motor scooter painted with plants and insects.  You don't see botanical scooters all that often...

Around the corner was a wall covered in high end graffiti of anthropomorphic plants with roots like fingers and an octoplant.  I felt I was getting warmer, but where were the grand iron gates with a jungle of botanical riches trying to be made to behave that I was seeking.  
A marvelous fantasy mural near the Jardi Botanic
Entry Atrium to the Botany Building of the University of Valencia

A drab rather ugly building has a totally unceremonious entryway in to a spatially cool round atrium with a large tree reaching up to the circle of light at the top.  A veil of Pothos hang from the round balconies like green cascades.  Beyond that is a 210 year old grove of everything that survived being planted there.  Half the beds are rather scraggly because of the root competition with some true giants but there are many magnificent trees and shrubs to be found here.
Giant Gingko biloba

The largest Gingko biloba tree I have ever seen was in full gold fall color to one side of the first set of perpendicular paths, maybe 20 meters tall (60 feet).  Then the biggest Zelkova carpinifolias. A 120 foot Italian Stone Pine surpassed it in height.   Massive oak species native to southern Spain I didn’t know existed soared over me.  A huge Chorisia speciosa from Argentina with its spiny bulbous trunk must be spectacular when covered in pink blossoms.  

A towering Quercus cerris, the Turkey Oak
The smaller Nolina longifolia  was only 5 meters tall (16 feet) but that is gigantic for the species.  I was starting to get a botanical boner!  You know what they say...big plants...

Cousin It, a magnificent specimen of Nolina longifolia

A beautiful specimen of Podocarpus nerifolius
Zelkova carpinifolia, native to the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe

A Casurina stump had a badly translated elegy by its stump, but they are kind of ugly trees and certainly not rare, so if you had to lose one…

There is a wonderful iron shade house that was restored after a fire in 1990.  It shows that you can still build things like this.  It was originally made of cast zinc.  My favorite thing inside was a small ball of Tilandsias hanging on a long wire over the central fountain.  The hot houses, that are a big draw for me in botanical gardens were not all that exciting.  They are old but not particularly elegant, being a half arc in front of a heat absorbing wall and were full of overgrown specimens that no longer fit gracefully in the spaces.  One has the usual collection of orchids and another has bromeliads, but these were not open to visitors.
A reconstructed iron Shade House replaces a zinc structure of the same design that burned in a fire
The most sculptural and interesting part of the garden is the Cactus and Euphorbia Succulent area.  Aeoniums are native to the Mediterranean and grow in to beautiful specimens here.  Cactus grow in the western hemisphere, while their biological cousins the Euphorbias fill th dry environmental niche in the eastern hemisphere.  
Aloes, Euphorbias, and Palms

Barrel Cactus

A potpourri of cactus

Agaves and Aloes and Yuccas add a spiky contrast to the linear and platy shapes of the cacti and candalabra forms of tall Euphorbias.  A large Euphorbia candelabrum in the garden has wonderful wavy ridges in the bark of the trunk that look like serpents climbing the plant.

A beautiful specimen of Yucca brevifolia shows how stately this plant can become with age, developing an elephant foot like trunk.
North American native Yucca brevifolia
Must be fun to weed around Agave americana
Cycads in a bed of prehistoric plants

Spending the afternoon in the garden was a much needed haven from the bustle of the city.  Turtle doves were cooing all over and lighting on fountains to drink.  I looped around for a second or third look at various parts of the garden.  There are vegetable beds and a collection of citrus that were laden with fruit, and I filled my day pack with a delicious assortment for later.  Now I am in the beautiful city of Malaga, which also has a Botanical Garden.  I look forward to indulging my botanical fetishes there once again.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tarragona, Spain A legacy of stone work

Stones from a mix of different eras form a wall in Tarragona
I just spent 3 days, from December 17 to the 20th in the town of Tarragona, southwest of Barcelona, an hour and a half by train.  I was drawn to this municipality because of it's long history and the layered remains that have made the city what it is today.  Phoenicians first settled here possibly 5,000 years ago, perhaps on previous habitations, and built stone structures and fortifications.  The Romans later built Tarraco, as it was called, the capitol of their Iberian conquests which covered most of present day Spain.  They built a magnificent city with a forum, Circus for chariot racing, an amphitheater for blood sports, and temples to the Roman Gods.  The city was partially abandoned when the Muslims arrived, but became an important Christian center in the 11th century.
A model of Roman Tarraco
Old Tarragona sits on a hill above the Mediterranean.  The Roman amphitheater is near the city's beach.  Above that are remains of the Circus, with a curve in the racing track on he sea end and remnants of walls excavated from under city streets.  Towering above it is a tall building of Gothic origin using stone pilfered from Roman structures.  This became a notorious prison used as late the Franco's fascist regime, where hundreds of people were sentenced to be executed after the Spanish Civil War.

Roman Amphitheater

This tower built over Roman walls was used as a prison for centuries

When you walk around old Tarragona, you see old stone walls appearing around every corner.  Long medieval blocks have massive stone foundations that could be thousands of years old.  Sometimes these take on an almost Flintstone cartoon quality because of their sheer size and rough forms.  Free standing ruins sit in plazas that have been used as gathering places for millennium.  The town's administrative square sits on top of the old chariot race track, with vaulted walls built over by adjacent buildings that can be seen inside restaurants and shops.
Gothic stone walls built over Roman Foundations
The magnificent Cathedral, the largest in Catalonia, was built between the 12th and 14th Centuries on the site of an important Roman temple and a later mosque.   It is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles, with Moorish elements and later Renaissance additions.  There are perhaps 3,000 years of quarried material in the building of the Cathedral and surrounding buildings.  The deeper you go in to the ground the farther back you go.  Old buildings were filled over and built on top of so that ancient foundations can be as much as 3 stories underground!
The Cloisters of the Cathedral contain Romanesque columns, Gothic pointed arches, and round Moorish windows
A pair of public water fountains flanks the broad staircase leading to the Cathedral

A column section becomes part of a wall in the ruins of a church built to honor martyred Christians in the Amphitheater
Pilfered materials were used to build new structures, creating historic collages of various types of stone.  Some of the softer stones have eroded to add a natural organic element to the character of the walls.
Eroded forms give geologic character to an ancient wall

Much damage was done to the city in various wars, including the Spanish Civil War in the 20th Century.  Major reconstruction has been undertaken to give Tarragona, like many Spanish cities, a level of elegance that is seldom seen in the United States.  Streets are paved in cut limestone blocks, and river cobbles, sometimes mixed with colored concrete.  Curbs are made of cut stone and attain a polish from years of foot traffic.  Because the medieval streets are narrow, the care taken to pave them beautifully makes the city a joy to walk around in.  There are some fine pebble mosaic walkways along the outer walls of the city in foliage arabesque patterns.  
Pebble Mosaic panels in a limestone walkway

When river stones are used in the streets they are usually larger in size and are set deeper in to the mortar so that they wont pop loose under the weight of car tires.  Bands of cut stone break up the areas so that the river stone mosaics are framed in squares and rectangles.  A curving street going up the hill paved in this method is truly a beautiful thing.  Steps are artfully incorporated in to the adjacent sidewalks with perfect proportions.
Street cobbles in black and white river stones with bands of limestone and limestone curbing
A freshly washed cobblestone street with limestone sidewalks

Beautiful Stonework frames a round window on the 20th Century Colegio de Sant Pau
Palo Verde trees are planted in skewed squares to follow the irregular line of a narrow street
It is clear that space is a precious urban commodity in Spanish towns, and they are given the finest quality treatments.  Experiencing them is a real treat, especially when coming from the United States, where the crappiest and least attractive materials, white concrete and asphalt, are used with abandon.  We have much to learn from Europe.  Just a reminder that I can build such things, so if you ever decide to invest in lasting and beautiful stonework for you garden, my years as a hard laborer are numbered, but I am interested in manifesting great things while I'm still capable.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey