Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Places for quiet euphoria - the Great Wall of China

Some places make you feel completely euphoric just because you are there. Usually they are places that you've read so much about, and always wondered over if they really are as great as they say. And then they are, and a bit more.
For me, Taj Mahal in Agra was one of those places and Ryoan-Ji in Kyoto was another. And of course, just landing on any of the outer islands of the archipelago outside Turku makes me euphoric every single time (yes, the archipelago there is that amazing). And then, the latest - the Great Wall of China.
You can bury yourself in the history and statistics of it; 5500 km long wall that was built over 2000 years by millions of Chinese of whom over a million died while working there... and so on. And no, it can't be seen from the space, even if it is the longest structure ever created by man. But none of that really matters when you stand on up on the wall, marveling at how it leads from hilltop to another like a giant scar in the vast landscape. Beautiful in its own masculine way and of course utterly impressive, the wall is definitely worth all the hype.

The wall is still a workplace; just keeping nature from taking over the massive structure is an ongoing project on a giant scale. Seeing the old-fashioned tools the workmen had left behind while having a lunch made me admire the patience of the builders.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Endurance and longevity by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing

The round roof of Temple of Heaven behind the high wall - with centuries old cypresses in the Tiantan Park surrounding it.
While in Beijing about a week ago, I finally got first hand experience of how desperately the country needs to do something about its pollution situation. While leisurely strolling through the sights, our eyes and noses were itching and after a while, without doing anything even remotely strenuous, we all felt quite short of breadth. And this while the PM2.5 values were "only" at a "hazardous" 225 - I can't even imagine how it feels like when they hower up at over 700, as happens several times a year. I'm not sure how the many retirees playing tai chi ball, kicking a feather ball and dancing in the Tiantan Park around the Temple of Heaven can keep exercising there - it felt like the polluted air must have erased all the health-giving effects of their efforts.

Without fresh air, you have nothing - no luxuries, no power, no success is worth anything if you can't fulfill the basic need of breathing fresh, unpolluted air. This thought came to mind several times during our brief visit, and I just cannot understand why those in power in China seem to ignore this. Of course the problem of pollution in China is huge and complex, but it is not news anymore - of all the riches created during the last couple of decades, why haven't more been channeled into making the lives of the Chinese more bearable?

Some of the cypresses are said to be over 800 years old - even if the temple itself was built in the early 15th century.

Retirees and other residents of Beijing dancing to loud, popular music.
The Tiantan Park is home to some four thousand cypresses, many of which are several centuries old. As their branches stay verdant and green even in winter, cypresses have become to symbolize endurance and longevity in the Chinese culture. While walking though the park, the trees were covered in a greyish layer of polluted dust. Endurance will definitely be needed, both from the cypresses and the sporty old retirees, to reach any levels of longevity.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Notes from Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea in Noormarkku

Villa Mairea in Noormarkku in southwestern Finland - one of Alvar and Aino Aalto's most well-known and celebrated designs, built in the late 1930s.
Sometimes things take time - like this post about my visit to Villa Mairea while in Finland last summer. I'm not sure if it's because so much has been said of this pearl of 20th century modernist architecture, which kind of takes out both the need and the fun of adding anything. Or because I actually was slightly disappointed at the visit that I'd been waiting for such a long time.

With disappointment I definitely don't mean the building - one of Alvar Aalto's finest, commissioned by Harry and Maire Gullichsen, one of the wealthiest couples in Finland (at the time), who gave Aalto and his architect wife Aino pretty much free hands to form everything to the perfection. Both couples were friends and even business partners - Maire and the Aaltos had briefly before founded Artek, originally an avant-garde art gallery that later morphed into the furniture company that still produces and sells Aalto's designs worldwide.
The building shines white amongst the tall pines of a gravelly hill - while the wooden parts connect to the coppery bark of the trees.

The L-form of the building leaves a grassy courtyard between the house and the sauna (on the left, not seen in the picture). Some parts of the roof are covered in grassy turf, just like traditional Finnish buildings were since ancient times, connecting the building both to history and to the surrounding nature.
The building was a holiday home for the Gullichsens, an experimental house where only the best was good enough - of course, being true modernists, this translates to a minimalistic style typical for Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino. Sculptural, light, airy, connected to its surroundings and utilizing materials from the nature - the building has stood the test of time. There is a great indoor/outddor contact between the house and the surrounding pine forest, and overall atmosphere is calm and sophisticated - and still, after almost eighty years, completely current. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed indoors, so I have to direct you to Villa Mairea's own site to make your own mind.

The outdoor entertainment area between the house and the sauna, with Artek furniture.

The famous free-form pool, from another angle -the sauna is just to the right. Read more about the pool (and Alvar Aalto's friendship with Thomas Church) in my previous post here.
The disappointment part starts first in the garden of Villa Mairea - often the only garden in Finland mentioned in international texts and other media (sadly, as there is much more to Finnish garden design than this). I'm not sure how much the Aalto's spent time designing the garden - of course, they did the overall plan with the famous free form pool (sometimes said to be the first in the world), but how much they spent time with choosing the plants and other important garden elements is not certain. Maire Gullichsen herself was a keen gardener, so she probably had her hands on these matters to a great extent.

Garden gate behind the sauna - it ties to traditional Finnish structures, but the design has also been said to have taken influences from Aalto's visit to Japan.

The absolutely lovely stone wall behind the sauna (all Finnish holiday houses have a sauna, it is more essential than the house itself...). And again, a reference to the traditional Finnish countryside in form of hops growing on tall poles.
I say slightly disappointed above - the garden connects smoothly both the building and its surroundings, the massed plantings form sculptural groupings and soft mounds against the coppery pillars of the pine forest. It is just that I find it difficult to love bright red hybrid roses, massed rhododendrons, berberis, cotoneasters, ligularias and other perfectly fine plants that unfortunately were so overused in the 1960s and onwards that they still smell too much of municipal plantings to be really exciting. When planted, they probably were as avant-garde and exotic as the house itself, but my eyes just can really see past the more recent garden history. Still, changing the plants would be an anachronism, so I guess the best solution is to try forget about public plantings, and to see them with untainted eyes - not easy, but definitely worth a try. So despite starting my post with mentioning that pretty much everything  has already been said about Villa Mairea, I've now managed to add some 550 words into the bulk of writings - so surely, the building still is - if not as avant-garde, at least as engaging as when it was built in 1938.
One more picture of the typical Finnish pine forest - how I sometimes miss the sound of wind soughing through the needles, and the fresh scent of the trees...
Visits to Villa Mairea are by appointment only - check the Villa Mairea Foundation's information pages here: 

Friday, August 15, 2014

White borscht at Tage Andersen's Gunillaberg

The Gunillaberg estate was built in the late 17th century by Johan Printz, who named the manor house after his mother Gunilla. He went on to become the third governor of New Sweden, the Swedish colony in that is now the state of Delaware in the USA.
While driving back to Stockholm from the west coast of Sweden, I realized that we'd be passing Tage Andersen's Gunillaberg in Bottnaryd, just before the city of Jönköping. Despite the long drive home, we decided to drop by to see if we could get an early lunch at Tage's café, and of course, to see his creations "live" for the first time.
Now, there can't be many "garden people" in Sweden who don't know about Tage and his work, but for those who do not, he is a real renaissance man form Denmark. Originally trained as a pastry chef, he has diversified his artistic portfolio to include flower arrangements, furniture, sculpture and other art installations. He's even published several books about his work and thoughts, and is the proprietor of a floral boutique with a museum in Copenhagen. In Sweden, he managed the well-known gardens by Rudolph Abelin at Norrviken in Båstad for a couple of years.
Tage Andersen bought Gunillaberg in 2008, and has since transformed this late 17th century manor and its gardens into a distinctively Tage-style gesamtkunstwerk. Despite being a Renaissance man in sprit, Baroque is definitely more his style - down to the artistic, old-fashioned clothes he carries (of course I shouldn't comment on looks, but he looks a little like a mixture of Rembrandt and a mystical spirit from the forests - in the most positive way). And his artworks and installations - dramatic, twisted, voluptuous, always with a personal touch to them. While strolling through the house and gardens, it felt like everything there was touched by a magic wand, and turned into something that was "more" than it should have been - a bit magical, and definitely Tage-like. One of a kind, he really is.
While I really wanted to have a chat with Tage, he seemed a little bit stressed and was really busy with serving lunch to the unexpectedly many guests - something that the very friendly young lady at the café mentioned while doing exactly the same. So we ate our delicious white borscht-like soups and finished with coffees and Tage's specialty, "karamelkrans" (caramel covered flaky round pastry - extremely sweet and tasty), completely happy with having just added another 1.5 hours to our already long journey back to Stockholm.  
One of the outbuildings, now with a shop that sells a small selection of Tage's artwork and books.

Ceramics with forms reminding of flower bulbs, surrounded by large flower containers on rusty platforms - Tage often uses rusty steel as material in his works.

Large containers with Agapanthus and Camellias on the backside of the manor house.

 Tage arranges art exhibitions inside the house - and even the floor is painted in a voluptuous pattern, like Baroque gone crazy... (while it still manages to be in harmony with its surroundings!).

A huge chess set placed on ceramic tiles...

The focal point of the front garden is an art installation in rusted steel (by Tage); it is sitting in a small, round pool surrounded by flower meadow - a lovely contrast, and quite unconventional for a formal Baroque garden....  

A fanciful bosquet made of rusty steel and covered with passifloras - there are two of them, the other can be seen behind the square pool. They magically transport you to the gardens of Renaissance and Baroque, while still being surrounded by the dark Swedish forests.

A lovely passiflora variety - I have no idea which one. Purple seemed to be another favorite of Tage's...

Pathways with artwork - and even the larches looked like they could come alive in the dusk of Swedish summer nights.

A large green house is used for concerts.

The scene inside the green house - what a lovely experience it would be to come here for a concert... Maybe next summer.

 Even the chicken coops were fancifully artistic - and very rusty.
 And one last wink before leaving - even the entrance is a lovely combination of strictly formal and wonderfully twisted.
To see more of Tage's wonderful flower arrangements and artwork, look at the "Gallery" pages on his website (which also contains opening times and a map for finding Gunillaberg): 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gunnebo, again

The little Gunnebo Castle called, again - its powers of seduction (not least in form of delicious lunches served in the kitchen garden....) are still quite potent, it seems.
As I've written earlier, the little castle of Gunnebo together with its gardens really is a love story gone awfully wrong. Like a greedy mistress, it seduced and held its masters captured until all their means were exhausted, eventually driving them to bankruptcy and destitution. The story is touching - who doesn't love a dose of true madness? - and the buildings and gardens are a perfect example of late 18th century architecture inspired  the Palladian villas of Italy and gardens of Louis XIV in France. A real pearl, and an escapist dream inspired by the southern latitudes of Europe, landed amongst the northern forests and shores of Sweden.
For the whole tragic story of Gunnebo, see my earlier post here.
An 18th century drawing of Gunnebo; the orangerie on the right is under reconstruction for the moment; it will probably be completed next year.
 Almost the same view today, only from another angle...
Sculptures still surround the pool seen in the pictures above.

Cows lazily grazing just south from the fountain pool.

Walking back on the side of the terraces of the formal gardens...

An unusual view towards the building from a little hill by the "castle" - that really is too small to be called so.

The kitchen gardens (in opposite direction from the hill where I took the previous photo).

I do love the kitchen gardens - so beautifully composed.

The handsome orangerie/green house again... I wrote about it even in my earlier Gunnebo post.

Just beautiful, couldn't help taking loads of pictures...

"Advanced horticultural science" - they still train the apples on trellises attached to the walls of the kitchen garden. Look at all the pears!

And back to the castle - it was lovely to stand in the shade under the main terrace (which you can see from the garden in the first picture).   
And a final view from the terrace, with the fountain forming the focus of the central axis - Gunnebo is such a delightful little example of 17th/18th century European garden design, in the middle of the forests of southern Sweden.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Moments from Marstrand

Small ravines between the cliffs, with pink flowers forming like a stream towards the sea. 

Located on a small island on the west coast of Sweden, the tiny city of Marstrand comes alive in the summer when white-sailed boats arrive like huge migratory birds, with their crews filling the cafés and streets with their excited busyness while waiting for the next race. I'm not into any kind of sail racing, so I kept away from the crowds and just enjoyed a windy walk along the grey, smooth cliffs of the island. Afterwards, a coffee at the huge Carlsten Fortress, and I felt like a winner anyway.

Walking through the wind-swept beech forest in the middle of the island looked they'd been taken from the pages of a story book...

An unreal sight - pink waterlilies in a small, dark pool between the cliffs; can they be natural, or did someone plant them here? 

Stone walls of the Carlsten Fortress, built in the 17th century on the highest point of the small island.

 More walls - they look like they grow out from the grey granite of the island...

Another unexpected sight - a kitchen garden behind the fort entrance...

An abundant crop of gooseberries and red currants. 
I'll leave you with the pots and seedlings at the gardener's corner - after all, this is supposed to be a gardening blog...