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To Galicia and back - May 2011

The following note on our trip is by my traveling companion and general accomplice Susana Torre:

Obradoiro w/ protesters viewed from Cathedral, noon, 20 May
Wanting to know Spain beyond the major tourist sights and places in our region, we traveled along Galicia’s Atlantic coast in mid-May and were surprised to see how much the rugged shoreline mirrored the coast of Maine. We started in Santiago de Compostela, whose historic center was teeming with pilgrims, as it has been since the early Middle Ages. Galicia’s main public space, the Praça do Obradoiro facing the Cathedral, had been taken over by the 15-M movement, as had most of the other regional capitals across Spain just before the municipal and regional elections on May 22nd. The young (and older) “indignados” were letting the political class know that “No, no, no, you don’t represent us”, that regardless of their ideology, their discourse has grown inward and aloof from the realities of most people’s lives. The concentration was a smaller version of the “acampada” we had seen in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where a whole improvised village had sprung up complete with AutoCAD plan drawings of the site and joyous, intense, and packed open-air assemblies where anyone who wanted to be heard, could.

In Santiago, the protest encampment had the famous cathedral as a backdrop.  “Build it and they will come” seems to have been the premise behind bishop Diego Gelmírez’s expansion of the sepulcher of apostle James back in AD 1100, a century after it had been razed by Muslim conqueror Al-Mansur (“Almanzor”), in 997 and rebuilt c. 1000. The Latin version of the saint’s name, Sanctu Iacobus, was shortened to “Santiago” in popular Galician speech. Bishop Gelmírez started to fill the greatly enlarged sanctuary with relics – body parts of saints —supposedly imbued with divine powers. He thus succeeded in turning backwater Santiago into a tourist destination to rival Rome and Jerusalem.

Geoff in the "City of Culture"
However, “Build it and they will come” does not seem to be working for Galicia’s City of Culture -- Peter Eisenman’s magnum opus -- whose first two buildings (the Library and the Archive) opened last January. Sprawled across the summit of mount Gaias, it is far from Santiago’s pedestrian historic core; the two buses scheduled in the morning to bring visitors to the vast, seemingly deserted site, dropped only a handful in the huge, empty parking lot. The guide showing the site did her best to dodge questions about the future of the project (most likely it will not be finished in the foreseeable future); its cost (four times the original estimate, with no end of budget contention in sight due to the experimental and unusual construction); or what contents will fill the vast, un-programmed spaces. The news of its opening was followed in El País by essays about “containers without content.” The pet project of the aging Manuel Fraga, a minister under Franco and founder of what is now the Popular Party, the City of Culture is not the only grandiose complex in Spain promoted by a right-wing politician as a monument to himself —and it surely rivals in ambition Generalísimo Franco’s “Valle de los Caídos,” the huge tomb that Franco forced war prisoners to build for him and for thousands of dead from both sides in the Civil War.

Archive roof, with one lonely daisy
Perhaps it is too early for a full evaluation of this project, as Suzanne Stephens suggests in her recent article, which is mostly about the quantitative aspects of the City of Culture. But one thing is sure: the City of Culture will not be recorded in architectural history as an example of technical, programmatic or artistic innovation – rather, it will be an example of how construction and structure can be used in wasteful ways to achieve form. And a critique of the architecture will not be complete without reference to the embarrassment of the politicians who continue to authorize payments for a project that is already a decade overdue, and several times over budget in the midst of a punishing economic crisis. Or to the lack of a well defined brief that allowed the architects to design as if program didn’t matter. Or to the inclusion of towers designed by another architect for another site that Eisenman managed to sneak in as his personal (albeit irrelevant in this context) memorial to John Hedjuk. Perhaps, from the architects’ point of view, the only thing that matters are “the facts on the ground,” the size and appearance of the structures. But even if we limit our focus to this, I think it is important to take into account the design’s dreadful contradictions and “mind games” which inform the buildings’ megalomaniac presence. The buildings are meant to re-create a symbolic topography of the site that was blasted to build them, with exterior walls merging floors into roofs in undulating planes. But this topography is entirely inaccessible save for a small “sample” area that can be walked on. The perimeter of the site is allegedly drawn as a gigantic scallop shell – one of Santiago’s symbols. Maybe this can be seen from the sky or maybe not, but this metaphor only serves to feed the tour guide’s anxious discourse, along with “the deconstructivism of the New York Five” and the “tartan grid” of obscure meaning that overlaps all surfaces, creating very costly structural redundancies.

However, the topographical idea is directly inspired, according to Eisenman’s presentation video in the permanent exhibition, not by a landscape, but by the medieval city itself. The historic core’s literal dimensions – of blocks and streets – although with a different orientation, have been transposed into the site. The entire medieval city has been equated to six buildings, without regard for scale, purpose, functional variety, or human density. A city is meant to change, not remain frozen in perpetuity like monuments. And the cities we love are the ones that welcome, rather than reject our presence. A comparison with another spectacular design, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, brings to mind this project’s positive contribution to the urban experience, the invitation to flâneurs and flâneuses to enjoy the free exterior spaces, where major sculptures are displayed, and the existence of a previous and well thought out mechanism to supply this provincial capital with international visitors. All of this is lacking in Galicia’s City of Culture. Another difference is that the exceptional and extravagant spaces in the Bilbao museum were conceived first in scaled model form, using computer programs to rationalize construction, whereas the interior spaces of the City of Culture could not have been designed without computer software. As anyone who has used CAD knows, there is no scale to the drawings thus produced, so the spaces can be imagined without human experience and size. It is perhaps befitting that the current rejection of architecture as an art beholden only to the architect’s vision or whim should come to be exemplified by the work of someone who made the rejection of society a distinctive hallmark of his thought.  In this sense, the contrast to the spirit of the “indignant” protesters in the Praça do Obradoiro, committed to an open and participative social order, could not be greater. Finally…is the project beautiful? If one’s taste favors the overdeveloped esthetic of bodybuilding, then I suppose it is. 

Hórreo in Cambarro
After Santiago we visited A Coruña in the Rías Altas (“upper estuaries”), with a stop at the Tower of Hercules, the city’s ancient Roman lighthouse, still in service. Then we drove through the dramatic Costa da Morte, where Galician drug dealers receive their cargo from their Colombian counterparts. We stopped at Cape Finisterre, the end of the Way of St. James and of the known world before Columbus. Along the banks of the Rias Baixas or “lower estuaries”, famous for their seafood and white Albariño wine, are a succession of tiny villages, dotted with hórreos, ventilated stone and wood structures on stilts for the drying and preserving of grain or fish, almost always topped with crosses. After a night in Cambados, we visited historic Pontevedra, and finally the resort town of Baiona, with its grandiose castle turned Parador. When we returned home to Carboneras we found that our Dear Mayor, in power for 28 years, had at long last lost the absolute majority. Yet the two parties that together will have 2/3 of the vote cannot agree on a pact to govern jointly. Sadly, the “indignados” in our town are too afraid of retaliation to take over the square.


Researching "Sultan"

A fellow reader in Shelfari and Goodreads asked me to describe my research process for A Gift for the Sultan. My best answer to the question is in the video I've posted on my Amazon author page (also on my website and on YouTube). But here's a summary.

I sort of went crazy on the research; I found the period and the real characters so fascinating that I read everything I could find, in all the languages I read (only three, unfortunately — neither Greek nor Turkish). I think I was able to read almost everything relevant (in English, French or Spanish) because I focused narrowly on just a few months of history, from mid 1402 to end of 1403, when the nascent Ottoman Empire was suddenly smashed to pieces (for a short but critical period).

The subject was completely new to me — all my previous books had been about Latin America. But I had learned to do research. I joined an e-forum of scholars on Turkey and another one for Byzantinists, and I was so obsessive in searching through the New York Public Library and the very good collection in the New York University library that there came a point where those scholars were asking me questions. I even discovered a pencil-written manuscript in the NYPL archives, on a 15th century Turkish poetess, and passed that on to a literary journal in Ankara that used it for its inaugural issue. There were times when I thought my whole project was insane and I put it aside for months at a time, but the research was fun and put me in contact with lots of intelligent people. And I'm so stubborn that I kept working on the prose until I got it right, at least as far as I could tell.

I'm glad that this reader was interested enough to ask. Thanks!