Window into Worlds
Ruchira Nageswaran ~ Sabbatical 2019
I grew up traveling widely observing the variety of ways in which people live, the richness of their cultures, religions, and architecture… From vernacular to refined, architecture is a language woven with complexity ~ combining knowledge and skill born of history, a variety of materials, artistic individuality, culture, and topography. For my sabbatical, I discovered places grounded in reality but spectacular in meaning ~ each was a window into a world ~ unique, enchanting, and reflective of their individual identities.
Peru with its mighty Andes sandwiched between its long Pacific coastline and the great Amazon forest, was the incubator of a society that developed into the Incas and was later cultivated by the Spanish. The feeling of place is settled in its people ~ their culture expressed in colorful textiles, artistically intricate and practically layered for warmth. I discovered even the large, sprawling city of Lima contains elements of the ancient. Predating the Incas, Huaca Huallamarca is a pyramid complete with mummies constructed of mud bricks laid in mesmerizing stacks of soldier courses. From sea level at Lima to a dizzying 12,556 feet, Puno is set on the shores of Lake Titicaca, cradled by hills. The dreamy expanse of the lake is other worldly with its shoreline plastered houses and stone perimeters, and unbelievable visions of floating villages built on reeds. On the high plains road from Puno to Cusco, the altitude steps down to 11,500 feet. With its stone-paved streets and its weighty cathedral and arcaded plaza, Cusco is grounded in the Spanish colonial period. Riding the train from Cusco, the mountains rise up into jagged peaks at Aguas Calientes. This is where Machu Picchu sits on a crest at almost 8,000 feet. Its series of structures and terraces are laid with purpose and detailed with perfectly fitted stone work but its history and use haunt the imagination.
Crossing South America and the Atlantic Ocean to southern Spain, I discovered mystical Andalusia, an unprejudiced mixture of Roman, Christian, and Islamic influences. The Catedral de Sevilla is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and houses the tomb of Cristoforo Colombo, an everlasting tie to the New World. The neighboring Real Alcazar is a Christian and Mudejar palace developed from the 10th through the 14th Century. It is a monument to the region’s Islamic heritage with intricately carved stone, colorful tile work, reflection pools, and gardens. The 1928 Plaza de España was constructed for the Ibero-American Exposition and beyond a fantastic folly, it is an inspired public forum. In the heart of Andalusia is Cordoba. Its Mezquita is founded on Visigoth and Roman ruins, developed as a 6th Century Christian Basilica, and redeveloped as a mosque in the 8th and 9th Centuries and re-envisioned once again as a cathedral in the 13th and 16th Centuries. Its great hall with its seemingly endless rows of colonettes and bi-striped arches surrounds a Gothic core. Islamic and Christian influences are each distinct but integrated. Granada’s dramatic hilltop Alhambra overlooks snow capped mountains and the cavernous city below. It is a castle fortress and masterpiece of colonnaded courtyards, pavilions, and gardens. Granada’s massive cathedral is at its heart and houses the royal tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella, who are immortalized in delicately carved stone.
Gateway at the Alhambra, Granada
Then, I flew a world away to southeastern Africa to be part of a Habitat for Humanity project group in Malawi. Our team of nine along with the local contractors built 1-1/2 houses in Mulanje, close to the border with Mozambique. The terrain was lush with forested mountains, foothills of tea fields, plains of tall golden grasses, and red dirt and asphalt-paved roads. The buildings of brick and concrete block were plastered and painted with colors. We were welcomed by the community where we worked with song and dance. Our client was a widow with three sons living in a two room mud brick house with thatched roof, which leaked. The new house foundations were laid before we arrived and we learned from and worked with the local contractors, mixing mortar and laying concrete block. As we progressed, the contractors inserted windows and doors and completed the roof and finish floors. Our client, with dignified conviction, told us that this house comprised of three rooms with no kitchen or running water would solve all her problems. We would later understand her significant health issues and it meant that much more to us. Every afternoon, a swarm of the community’s children would run from their school to watch us. They looked forward to playing ball and blowing bubbles with us on our breaks. The community celebrated the house opening at the end of the week making food and performing with music and dance. We learned from them ~ their deep sense of community, dignity, and gratitude were reminders to us of the things that mean the most. This experience was the highlight of my sabbatical.
I flew back to Andalusia to the seaside town Cadiz, an ancient Phoenician port with rugged sea walls and Roman ruins. On a day trip to Vejer de la Frontera, I climbed up the steep hill to find a dreamy town of white-washed walls and corridor-like streets with vistas in each direction.
The last days of my overseas journey were spent in Lisbon, Portugal, a mirror in some ways to San Francisco with its hills, vistas, waterfront, cable cars, and golden gate bridge. Surreal and colorful, the city sweeps up from the shore, paved in patterns of stone with facades vibrantly tiled and plastered canvases for mural art. The vistas from its 11th Century Castelo are a reminder of how architectural scale and continuity has a serenity, defining a sense of place.
By the end of the trip, my head was a dreamy jumble of languages, people, and places. Looking back, those worlds I experienced were built with a depth, ripe with layers of humanity’s enduring legacy. They attest to how we, as architects, contribute ~ building houses to provide shelter, cities to provide a sense of place, and monuments to outlast generations and mark time ~ in each, we have a lasting impact.