gTrotter
Brasilia

In the late fifties, the then president of Brasil ordered the construction of a new capital to be built somewhere in the centre of the country, away from Sao Paulo or Rio, where it was before. Similar events have taken place all over the world, but this has to be the largest-scale example of a city that was build out of nowhere and grew so quickly. Architectural feats were undertaken on massive scales, and the city was built in four years, founded in 1960. Today the metropolitan area has a population of nearly four million. 

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Brasilia in ‘59

The city was proposed at the height of the modern architectural age, and provided a tabula rasa to the architects who were assigned to it; freedom of all pretext and setting. And so the city became something of an experimentation ground for the architectural and urban principles it was designed by. The head architects for most of the projects in the new city was Oscar Niemeyer, a famous Brazilian modernist. One of his key constructions and one that shapes the city’s skyline is its Cathedral. From here, you can see the cathedral from above. The hyperbolic structure rises towards an opening (to heaven) at the top. Glass panels fill the spaces between the concrete structure, filling the conic interior with the blue skies above.

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For all its glory, the cathedral, like all of the city, does not seem to fit into any real urban fabric other that a sprawl of freeways and parched lawns. The residential neighbourhoods are not much better. I arrived here next, among the linear modern apartment blocks that make up most of the city. The housing units are scattered across the green in a way that really gives the feel of a city plopped down in the middle of the jungle. The contrast between the sky, the intricate network of branches and the buildings looking northwest is quite beautiful. The parking lot less so. 

The city’s main institutions are centred along the Monumental Axis, a nine-kilometer, 200-m wide green stretch that runs through the centre of the perfectly symmetrical city. This was one of the main principles of Lucio Costa, the city’s main urban planner, and is an interesting take the Parisian Axe Historique, in a very different setting. From here, near the axis’ southeastern terminus, you can see Brazil’s National Congress Building, designed by Niemeyer. It, along with the cathedral, make up the two most prominent architectural sites of the city. 

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Brasilia is one of the few places in the world where a single architectural style has shaped an entire city of this size. I feel like some combination of the ideals that inspired it, the time in which it was conceived and the lack of pretext and competition made Brasilia fail on an urban level. Nonetheless, it serves as an exhibit of uninterrupted, unrefined modernism. Good or bad, it is bound to remain a historical artifact of monumental proportions.

-Zorg

Detroit

I have always been fascinated and perplexed by Detroit’s urban history. I once saw a book of photography from the old downtown’s beautiful theatres, offices, schools and factories, all abandoned and crumbling. It looks as though the whole city had just been abandoned, very post-apocalyptic. But greater Detroit still has a population of over five million. What happened was a mass-decentralization;its once thriving and prosperous urban area fell from two million in 1950 to just 700,000 today. People rushed to the suburbs, and most of the city was left completely or almost uninhabited. In the past sixty years, the beautiful city, with no one there to care for it, has crumbled into the barren wasteland that it is today.

Michigan Central Station

The Beaux-Arts Michigan Central Station, built in 1912

First I landed here, on a corner in what used to be a residential neighbourhood just northeast of the city’s downtown. What could have at one point been a corner store on the southwest corner of the intersection gives an idea of the demand for the land it’s sitting on. Additionally, most of the lots in the area are completely vacant, and grown over with grass and trees. Looking around, it’s hard to remember that you’re not in a little farming town in the countryside, but rather a few blocks from the very epicentre of one of the largest cities in the US.

Next I went further east and landed in a strip of old industrial buildings, here. The building to the southeast really has that post-apocalyptic vibe. The roof is completely disintegrated, and it doesn’t look like it will be long before the walls come down too. The strangest part, though is that the sidewalk, which looks relatively intact, is covered with rubble from the factory. It looks like it’s been that way for a while, and will be for a while longer. This is clearly no ordinary city. These are ruins of a city that once lived here.

Fisher Body 21 Plant

An Auto-Plant from 1919

Next I traveled far to the northwest of the city, to Rich-Dex Apartments, one of the last standing of the scores of apartments like this that used to fill the city’s neighbourhoods. The two balconies on the top story of the apartment’s wings give the building a vague feeling of grandeur, which I’m sure would be continued in its main entrance, were it visible. What were probably at one point two neat flowerbeds lining the pathway to the doors has turned into a jungle in the building’s half-century of vacancy. With no one there to do the weeding, nature is re-asserting itself, as it is all over the city. The grand staircase can just be made out in the shadow of the folliage. The windows are long gone and all that remains of what was a layer of paint on the walls inside are patches of dirty white. The sidewalk across the street is threatening to become just as wild as the vacant lot beside it, bursting at the cracks with plants, with no one there to trample them. It’s strange to think how impermanent our cities are without us there to support them. These apartments, like so many buildings in the city, are slated for destruction.

The demolition of Detroit’s Old City Hall in 1961

William Livingstone House

A city frozen in time melts slowly into the sidewalks.

-Zorg

Moscow

It took Google long enough to get streetview in Russia, but finally they have a couple cities covered. Moscow has always interested me, but I know very little about it or what it’s like. With almost twelve million inhabitants, Moscow is the second largest city in Europe after Istanbul, so I feel it is my duty to get to know it.

Radiating City

Moscow lies in a series of ringroads and radiating streets in a big oval. So looking for a central location to start off with is not nearly as daunting a task as it is with some cities. The famed Red square, home to the Kremlin, St. Basil`s and other glorified landmarks takes the obvious position of the centre of Moscow and, debatably, all of Russia. I landed here for a good view of the square. I was interested to learn that the square`s name is not derived from the colour of the surrounding buildings or any political associations, but rather from its Russian origins, where the word for red is the same as that for beautiful.

Looking southeast is Saint Basil`s Cathedral, which has marked the centre of growth in the city since its erection in the 1550s. It was the city`s tallest building at the time. To the west, the famed Moscow Kremlin expands towards the Moskva River. The massive fortified complex has had its fair share of history on that spot. Construction of the current structure was started in 1485, after a series of previous destructions and reconstructions dating back to the 1090s. It has been the residence of the country`s leaders since Ivan the III, who commissioned its reconstruction.  Behind the Kremlin`s wall along the square is Lenin`s Mausoleum (the domed yellow building), where his embalmed body has been on display since his death in 1924. Opposite to the Kremlin is the old State Department Store, which was built in 1893, and transferred to state ownership in 1917. In the late twenties, Stalin turned the store into office space for the State. 

Red Square in the Winter

The Square in Winter

Next I decided to decentralize and head north to look at the city`s space museum, which lies at the base of a monument dedicated to the Soviet Union`s progress in space. The monument is a 110-metre titanium rocket trail leading up at a 77 degree angle to a spacecraft soaring away from the museum. The monument`s construction was announced just a few months after the launching of Sputnik, in 1958. The Obelisk was completed in 1964, but it was not until the eighties that the museum in its base opened.

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I landed here for a look at the monument from beside the freeway that runs to the southeast of it. The statue that can be seen in front of the museum entrance is of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Soviet rocket science and astronautics engineer who died in 1935. At the base of the monument is a poem, the translation of which being,

And the reward for our efforts was that, having triumphed over oppression and darkness, we have forged wings of fire for our land and our century!

Moscow from Above

Finnmark

Today I explored Finnmark, Norway’s northeastern-most county. Finnmark borders with the rest of Norway to the west, Finland to the south and Russia to the east, with a large coast on the Arctic Ocean. Parts of the region are farther east than Istanbul. The county experiences magnificent displays of the Northern Lights, as well as having midnight sun from May to late July.

First, I landed here, five kilometers west of the Russian border, and not far south of the Arctic Ocean. The surrounding landscape, though rugged and rocky, stays relatively level all around, blanketed by a thick coat of snow. Thin, leafless branches sprout from the snow all around.

Next I dragged into Hammerfest, which claims to be the farthest north city in the world, just north of the seventieth parallel north, on the Arctic coast. I landed here, in its downtown. Looking east down the town’s main street, three-story apartments line the corridor. A few storefronts can be seen further down the street. The street is lined with sidewalks, a rare but beautiful phenomenon in arctic settlements (sadly, they are almost non-existent in the Canadian North). At the end of the road looking south, the white sun is perched on the ridge of the steep hill that surrounds the town. I noticed a couple of significantly taller apartment complexes in the southeast, just before the hill. To the north, the mountains at the end of the road are actually across the water on the opposite shore of the bay.

The Northern Lights in Hammerfest by the Russian impressionist painter Konstantin Korovin:

Still in the municipality of Hammerfest but across the bay from its downtown, I landed here, on a hillside overlooking the water. South across the bay lies the downtown where I landed originally. Down to the southeast on the water lies the town’s port, a freighter moored next to the dock, probably carrying liquefied natural gas out of the town. In the west, a barrier of scattered islands dots the horizon, beyond which lying the open Arctic Ocean. Looking east, several modern housing complexes are peched atop the steep, barren hill. Quite a view from those houses!

Romanian Carpathian Mountains

Today I explored Europe’s second longest mountain range, the Carpathian Mountains, which stretch 1,500 Kilometers through eastern Europe. They stretch trough Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine before crossing into Romania, where the majority of the mountain range is, and sadly the only one of these countries with streetview coverage.

The Iezer Ridge in the Romanian Carpathians:

First, I dragged to here to get a feel for the forests of the region. The narrow road winds across the partially snow-capped hillside. Beautiful, dense evergreen forests can be seen well on the ascending hill to the north.

Next I dragged to the city of Sibiu, the old capital of medieval Transylvania, just north of the mountains. I landed here, looking southwest down a cobbled street lined with rustic, two-story housing with steep shingled roofs. The corridor is abnormally wide for a medieval street. Rising above the rooftops in the distance is the 73-meter high steeple of the Biserica Evanghelică din Sibiu, the town’s most prominent Gothic cathedral.

Back into the mountains and much further east, I landed here. The road makes its way through the valley, this time a little bit less snow on the trees and ground. A few meters down the road to the east, the local railroad track crosses over the road, a low iron bridge bringing the train tracks into the forest and beyond sight. 

Basque Country (Euskal Herria)

Today I explored an area that I looked at briefly in my blog on the Pyrenees, Basque Country (Euskal Herria in Basque), which is straddled along the French-Spanish border (though mainly in Spain), at the western extent of the Pyrenees, at the curve of the bay of Biscay (along the Atlantic coast).

The Basque flag:

First I dragged to a spot in the midst of a herd of sheep in the Pyrenees on the French side of the border. I landed here. Hundreds of sheep are scattered across the rocky, barren hillside looking north and east. In the distance in the northwest, across a river-valley that forms the border, mountains rise up on the Spanish side.

I noticed that in several places on the French side of the border, roadside signs had Basque translations, like here. The Basque language is very interesting in that it is a language isolate, meaning that it, though surrounded by Romance Languages (Spanish and French) has almost no relationship with any other language on the planet, and thus does not fall under any language category.

Aizkorri, the highest peak in Basque Country:

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On the Spanish side of the border, I landed here, on a hillside just above the Atlantic, about five kilometers west of San Sebastian, one of the largest cities in Basque country. The green hills tumble down towards the misty waters of the Bay of Biscay in the North, a single house perched midway down the grassy hillside.

Next, I dragged into Bilbao, the region’s largest city to get a feel for it, and I landed here. For apparent reasons, majority of the corridor is occupied by wide, tree-lined sidewalks, with only a small car lane. An elegant mix of old and new buildings give the shop-lined street a very nice feel.

Next, I dragged to here, to take a look at the Guggenheim museum of the city. the building was designed by Frank Gehry (one of my favourite architects) and opened in 1997 on the bank of the Nervion River. The silvery, shiny exterior of the building was textured with inspiration from the scales of a fish. Since Bilbao is a port city, the shape of the museum resembles that of a ship. The curves and bends of the bright silver reflect the sunlight in the most beautiful way, creating shadows and patches of overwhelming brightness that change over the course of the day.

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Prague

Today I explored Prague, the capital of Czech Republic.

First, I landed here, on the edge of Old Town Square. In the southeast, the fourteenth-century Týn Church's eighty-metre high towers topped by black Gothic spires loom above the apartments around the square.

A nineteenth century print of the back of the church (from the east):

Next, I went to take a look at the city’s largest synagogue, Jubilejní (Jubilee). The Moorish architecture of the facade is decorated with ornate Art Nouveau painting.

Next, I took a look at the Dancing house, a truly amazing piece of architecture on the eastern bank of the Vltava River. The building was designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunic and Canadian architect Frank Gehry. The house was built on a lot that had been destroyed in Prague’s bombings in 1945, and was vacant until its construction in the mid-nineties. I landed here for a view of the house. The swirl and curve of the building is something rarely seen in glass, and makes you see why some have nicknamed the building the Drunken House. To the right of the glass, a cylinder forms the corner of the building, with windows jutting out at various heights and angles from its surface.

The back of the Dancing House:

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Avignon

Today I explored the south-eastern French city of Avignon, home to the famous Pont d’Avignon, and the residence of numerous medieval popes. 

First, I landed here, for a view of the Palais des Papes, the medieval popes’ residence. The menacing, majestic palace looms up over the cobbled square to the east in the distance.

Next, I went to look at Pont Saint-Benezet (Pont d’Avignon), and landed here. The bridge, originally constructed in the late twelfth century, once spanned the width of the Rone River, but throughout several floods and reconstructions, the northern section of the bridge was destroyed.

Sur le Pont d’Avignon

Next, I landed here, a spot on a downtown street where a large rock face has been left untouched, supporting several stories of apartments. Plants are growing  from the rough, layered grey rock face. 

Cantabrian Mountains

Today I visited the Cantabrian mountains, which stretch three hundred kilometers across Northern Spain, from the western extent of the Pyrenees to Galacia, Nearly parallel to the Bay of Biscay.

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First I dragged to here, in the heart of the western part of the mountains. The road is surrounded on all sides by enormous, looming, rough stone cliffs. The bottom of the canyon is overflowing with plant life. Vines and shrubs are crawling up the sides of the cliffs of sheer, grey rock.

Next, I dragged to a more liveable stretch of the western segment of the mountains. I landed here. Looking west, old, clay-rooved houses dot the green valley. To the northwest, the green land steepens, although it is still dottet with houses straight up until the mountain makes its steep, rocky final ascent to its top.

Next, I dragged east a bit into some of the thickest forests I’ve ever seen, here. Perched on meter-high banks on either side of the narrow, windy road, are short trees. Although the shot was taken during the day, the road is in almost complete darkness, canopied by the thick, low-lying tree branches that stretch overhead.

Back in the more open, green, mountainous valleys of the Cantabrian mountains, I landed here. Once again, the nearby hillside is dotted with houses, placed at seemingly random intervals. The sky overhead is stormy, and the trees are shaking in the wind of an oncoming storm.

The Cantabrian Mountains are known for their threatened brown bear population:

uKhahlamba

Today I returned to South Africa for a look at Southern Africa’s highest mountain range, uKhahlamba. The range lies in the eastern part of the country, shared along the Lesotho border. But since there is no streetview coverage in Lesotho, I will only be exploring the South African side of the region, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

First I landed here, in the northeast part of the area. In the north and west, uKhahlamba’s distinct and incredibly beautiful landscape rises up. Past a small valley to the west of the road, a green, rocky mountain rises up. Roughly twenty-five meters up, the mountain levels out, and here are perched roughly thirty trees, some growing out of surfaces that are virtually cliffs. 

Next I dragged further north, and landed here. To the southwest lies a very majestic mountain, shining with the last beams of the setting sun. As our current location is at the very edge of the mountain range, if you look north, you can see the foothills of uKhahlamba sprawl into the horizon, as the range draws to an end. 

At the base of uKhahlamba, I dragged here, on a bridge crossing a stream flowing down from the mountains eastwards. The few trees left in the area make this particular spot very beautiful.

I wondered, after looking at these beautiful landscapes, what they must look like during the large part of the year that the range experiences up to twenty centimeters of snow.