The most surprising and unexpected thing I saw on my trip to Florence wasn’t the Michelangelos, Botticellis and Da Vincis (photos at the end) but the train station, built in 1934 in a streamlined modern style with similarities to Frank Lloyd Wright and a bit of Flash Gordon futurism. It’s breathtaking, not least because it’s almost entirely intact and free of disfiguring renovations. There’s an uncanny feel of traveling backwards in time.
There are no train stations like it anywhere in the U.S. or Germany and I suspect probably any other country, and hardly any buildings at all in this style with their interiors intact, except perhaps elsewhere in Italy, which not many people realize was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of futuristic modernism. The original signage and many bronze fixtures are still there, which is extremely rare even in historically preserved public buildings. Everything is marble, travertine, bronze and wood. Dramatic glass roofs seem to have no support.
There definitely is a plethora of recent signs and ticket machines and kiosks adding clutter and visual noise that detract from the effect. But upon closer inspection they’re mostly free-standing, and actual intrusions on the building substance have been held to a minimum. In the 1970s a hideous shopping mall was built beneath the station but the entrance is so unobtrusive I almost didn’t notice it, and I’m highly alert to these things. A notable exception is in the former restaurant, which seems to have been huge, and has been gut renovated and is now a two-level (and otherwise excellent) bookstore. Only portions of the splendid wood paneling, mirrored walls and room-sized paintings remain.
As for the masterpieces of Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture – they were as splendid as you expect, and my photos are below. But that’s just it – you expect to see the Renaissance masterpieces but you’re not prepared for the marble-and-bronze space age visions of the train station.
At first things look fairly junky with all the brightly-colored signs and barriers and whatnot but ultimately they’ve done a very good job of not physically altering the building so it can remain intact for posterity.
Concourse with shops and entry to platforms
Beautiful bronze and wood frames and fixtures. Display cases that originally must have held timetables or newspapers for people to read now have an exhibition about the station.
The restaurant has been gut renovated but some of the original luxurious wood paneling, mirrors and room-sized paintings remain. Now it’s a sprawling two-level bookstore where you can also buy musical instruments (bottom right) and vinyl records..
Mural in the concourse
And here’s just a selection of the photos I took of the Renaissance art and architecture which I haven’t gotten around to labeling and organizing. Hardly any of them show the really famous artworks because there isn’t much point of taking your own photos – but I did seem them.
At little corner convenience stores you can buy foie gras (goose liver), pâté, terrine (similar to pâté,) duck confit (cooked in a lot of fat and salt which naturally preserves it), and salsify (root vegetable that was common in the US in colonial times but has largely disappeared)/
The Relief Map Museum (Musée des Plans-Reliefs) in Paris is one of my favorite sights anywhere in the world and it’s in my top ten or maybe even five things to do there. It has about 30 scale models of towns, ports, forts and their surrounding areas constructed for military purposes between 1668 and 1870, detailed down to each tree, building, window and in some cases individual bricks.
They show you how they made the models, for example, grass and foliage were made of silk fibers trimmed into tiny bits using this device.
These are photos of protests in St. Louis for racial equality (1930) and voting rights for women (1920) from a spectacular exhibition of panoramas at the Missouri History Museum.
Incredibly, the roughly 5-by-30 foot photos are enlargments of the originals which are only about 8 by 50 inches and were also on display – yet they’re sharp enough that you can see individual hairs and the texture of the clothing fabrics. I believe they don’t make cameras any more that can obtain such high resolution except for the most sophisticated professional equipment used in science, the military or aerial photos on Google Maps.
The city of Magdeburg, deep in Germany’s equivalent of fly-over states in the U.S. is an odd mixture: a few showstopper architectural highlights of truly global signficance, a few pockets of liveliness, a great deal of ugliness, and next to no charm. Here I will show the bucket-list essentials that every architecture fan needs to know about, plus a few fascinating odds and ends
Magdeburg was 90% destroyed in World War II which of course means only 10% of the buildings are from before 1950 or so. Walking around you would hardly know Magdeburg is over 1,200 years old and was gloriously, opulently beautiful and prosperous before the war. The oldest documentation of the city is from 805 (805, not 1805) and a few decades later it was a center of power of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, the Neonazi party has 14% of the seats on the city council and 25% in the parliament of the state of which Magdeburg is the capital, Saxony-Anhalt.
This is the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin, the second-largest in Europe with 115,000 graves on 100 acres. There aren’t any graves of people who are at all well-known in the U.S. but quite a few names are well-known in Germany such as founders of major department stores and publishing companies, writers, artists and musicians. It is still in use. Weissensee is the name of the neighborhood in Berlin and means White Lake. I uploaded a short video here.
Some parts of the miniseries “Unorthodox” about the woman who escaped from a Hassidic sect in Brookyln was filmed a block away from me, namely, the apartment where her mother lives. Incidentally it was designed by a really, really horrible architect who also was one of Berlin’s most popular from the 80s to 2000s. He specializes in sharp pointy angles, awkward geometric shapes forced into screeching juxtapositions, an aggressive rejection of proportion and harmony, and railings made of thin metal rods bent into ugly forms with lots of gaps and protrusions for entangling limbs, purses, shoulder bags, and children’s heads.
Next to the apartment building is a school he designed which a newspaper called a “chronicle of scandals”: construction took eight years, leaving a trail of bankrupt companies and water leaks and a bill almost twice what was budgeted. However this is normal for Berlin so it wouldn’t be fair to blame him alone. All that was years before they had any idea a wing would have to be completely shut down and barricaded in 2017 after less than 20 years of use, due to deterioration, holes in the walkways big enough for a child to fall into, lack of fire exits, and still more leaks, forcing the students to eat lunch in their classrooms and the cancellation of German-language classes for immigrants which were held there. The school is in one of the city’s most desirable and prosperous neighborhoods, by the way, but it has armed guards due to intractable ongoing problems with violence.
Anyway… that all has nothing to do with the Unorthodox show. Here are photos showing the parts that were filmed just down the street from me. Click on the photos to enlarge. In each pair, the one on the left is a screenshot from the show and the one on the right is a photo I took myself. These are all scenes from when she goes to visit her mother; it’s literally about one minute’s walk from my door. In the last one it’s a little less clear but you can tell by the awnings.
I just learned that the Netherlands has a long history of paper cuts, the artworks made by cuttiing one single sheet of paper. There is barely any information on them available in English so I have gathered together a few highlights. (Incidentally I also just found out there is a Jewish paper cut tradition going back 500 years. China, of course, has a much more extensive and better known tradition, which inspires many contemporary practitioners in the West.) One Dutch paper cut artist who I like a lot is Hil Bottema (1913-1968), who also did some graphic design.
My favorites are her New Year’s cards. These are printed items based on, or in the style of, paper cuts, rather than the cuts themselves. Click images to enlarge.
Postage stamps by Bottema and pages from an informational booklet that accompanied them. The stamps are for Christmas and other fall and winter holidays and have a surcharge that benefits children’s charities.
We were in New Haven and rural New England just before the Coronavirus started getting bad in the U.S.. Everything was gorgeous, the food was great – I was nearly weeping at all the agrodiversity and local produce and small producers even in the smallest towns, which Berlin doesn’t have – and the people were without exception friendly. The pictures look a little gloomy because this was “mud season”, the time in March that locals as well as guidebooks agree is the only bad time to visit. The beautiful snow has melted, the trees are bare, spring hasn’t started, mud is everywhere, and most sights and many shops and restaurants are closed or have very reduced hours – only in March. On the other hand there are no crowds.
Pictures of the excellent Yiddish Book Center in Amherst are here.