Recently my friend, writer Victoria Blake, recommended my blog for a Sunshine Blogger Award. I was very touched, especially as the Sunshine Blogger Award is about alerting people to blogs that make one feel sunnier about life. After all, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m always moaning about something or other but maybe there’s not a Curmudgeon Award.
I first met Vicky many years ago on a course. She was working in law at the time but wanted to take the plunge into the world of books. And the wonderful thing was that she did it, writing a series of visceral crime thrillers starring her private investigator, Sam Falconer, before moving on to biographies and historical subjects. Vicky’s recent novel ‘Titian’s Boatman‘, which is partly set in C16th Venice, has now been reissued in paperback as ‘The Return of the Courtesan‘ (which you can buy here).
Anyway, the point of me telling you this is that I always found Vicky inspiring. Knowing someone else on a similar road gave me the courage to believe that I, too, might be published one day. In other words, she’s one of my role models. What I especially enjoy about her novels is their strong sense of place, from Sam Falconer’s Oxford to Tullia Buffo’s glorious decaying Venice. When I suffer periods of hopelessness (which is part and parcel of a writer’s life) then I think of Vicky and see how she simply keeps on keeping on (to nab a phrase from Alan Bennett).
Vicky’s recommendation for this award came with a proviso – I had to answer a series of questions that she had set. Easy, I thought, until I read the first question: What is your favourite building? I didn’t get much further because, frankly, this question flummoxed me. So I’m hoping that Vicky will forgive me if I thank her for her commendation by trying to answer just that one question.
But how can I give one answer? How can we play favourites when there are so many glorious buildings in the world? What’s the criteria?
A building that changes your mood, perhaps?
- Chartres cathedral: even with its newly-cleaned interior, this is a building that stuns you into silence the moment you push open its door. The best medieval glass in the world, a labyrinth, and layer upon layer of history.
- Eileen Gray’s E-1027: hard not to smile at the sunniness and style of the French Riviera and the sense that the world would be a better place after the dreadful WW1. It showed that a woman was easily as good as, if not better than her male peers.
- Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore: Venice might be known as La Serenissima but if you’re trapped in the milling crowds outside San Marco then you need only gaze over to this vision to see serenity made manifest.
A building that evokes happy memories, surely?
- Grand Garage Haussmann, Paris: I stumbled across this on my first day of a trip to explore modernist Paris. It seemed to sum up the joy of the motorcar and the glamour of the Jazz Age. I don’t think I stopped smiling throughout that whole trip.
- Oak Park, Chicago: Walking these leafy streets is like being the proverbial kid in the candy shop. A seemingly endless array of Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I was in heaven.
- Swiss chalets: Switzerland is one of my happy places, and staying in traditional chalets is one of my greatest pleasures. The museum at Ballenberg is filled with countless traditional buildings from every region of the country. Enough said.
A building that makes your jaw drop, then?
- St Mary’s cathedral, Tokyo: Who wouldn’t be wowed by this? I was, as a teenager, when I studied it in books. When I visited it many years later it was smaller than I’d expected but I still went wow.
- University of East Anglia: a place of education for me on lots of levels, and a place that wowed me each day, from living in one of its concrete ziggurats to studying in Foster’s fabulous Sainsbury Centre.
- Wudangshan, China: after years of studying feng shui, it was great to visit China. But it was on the sacred mountain of Wudang, birthplace of tai chi, that I really understood the beauty of buildings that work with the environment.
But there’s one building that soars above these examples. It’s the chapel at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut that was finished in 1955. I love Le Corbusier’s early work because it sums up so well that period of the early 20th century when architects thought they had the answer to everything, from improving social conditions with new types of housing to addressing the changes that cars and planes were bringing. They weren’t always right but I love their sense of hope and certainty.
I love Le Corbusier’s later work, too, because he tends to throw away his rigid beliefs and come over all emotional. What better building to represents this than his chapel at Ronchamp? With a roof that is inspired by a crab’s shell, it’s sculptural and confounding and eerily beautiful, constantly changing as you walk around it. It’s incredibly moving to stand in the coloured light spilling from the wall of differently-sized windows that seem to be hewn into the side wall, and to gaze up at the huge roof that appears to float, thanks to the tiny strip of glass that runs around the top of the wall. It’s a building that makes me gasp. It overwhelms me and yet there’s such a delicacy to it. It seems to sum up humanity, being at once humble and grand. Frankly, I think it’s the building of the century.
So I got there in the end – a favourite. I hope Ms Blake will forgive me for getting waylaid by that dreamy first question but I’m thankful for the question.
It would be presumptuous to fire the question right back at her so I’ll open it up to my audience and ask what is your favourite building and why? (Difficult, isn’t it?)