Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Like many postmodernist buildings, the Learning Hub at the Nanyang Technological University has very quickly acquired a nickname – the “dim sum building”, because its facade resembles stacks of bamboo dim sum baskets.

Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG ArchitectsI was absolutely enthralled by how this building showcases the fluid use of concrete. The moulded horizontally-lined round facade panels, with their currently brown patina, had the appearance of wicker or bamboo (hence the popular moniker), and at the same time, of wet clay hand-sculpted on a pottery wheel. The tapering of each layer towards the base of the stack was of pleasant proportion, and to me, made the whole structure seem more organic, suggesting wasps’ nests, rather than dim sum baskets.

Well done, CPG Consultants (project lead: Vivien Leong) for doing the hard work of actually figuring out how to build the thing – finding the silicon moulds and the right contractors etc, to make Heatherwick Studio‘s design a reality.

Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG ArchitectsThe stairwells with protective bronze(?) rain-screen. We wondered how effective they would be in the driving rain, and how the maintenance people would keep rust at bay.

Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects61 angled concrete columns had a delightful texture to them, again appearing natural and organic, like the trunks of birch trees with the bark whittled away. The illusion was quickly dispelled by the power sockets embedded at the foot of each column.

Still, the effect from afar was of a building balanced on these wooden stilts, allowing freedom of access from several angles both to stray breezes and students.

Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG ArchitectsAgain, I’ve not seen such wide use of embossed concrete before: the walls of the staircases and lift lobbies featured Sara Fanelli’s images of science, art, literature.

Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG Architects Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) by Heatherwick Studios and CPG ArchitectsLove how the circular, glass-walled class rooms front an airwell (or “internal, naturally-ventilated atrium”) that both maximises air-circulation within the building, but also, as a skylight, brings, erm, light into the classrooms.

Each room will apparently be cooled not with the usual air-conditioning but with “silent convection” (you mean, fans?). (“The Learning Hub building was awarded Green Mark Platinum status by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), Singapore, the highest possible environmental standard for a building of this type.”)

We all know the common dilemma faced when designing a building in Singapore: while a well-ventilated place is welcome when the sun is beating down in all its harsh glory, such buildings unfortunately tend to offer little protection during heavy thunderstorms when strong winds drive the rain in horizontally. I’m sure this has sorted this out already so it’ll also be interesting to know about the waterproofing used to prevent rainwater seepage, since there will be many opportunities for ingress especially via the central airwell, and in terms of user experience, how well students will be protected during heavy thunderstorms. Also, how have the issues of pooling, ponding on the ground floor been dealt with? Was so fascinated that wasn’t looking for drainage holes while on site.

The interior fitting-out was still ongoing when we visited but artists’ impressions show round cornerless classrooms, meant to reflect “a wish to break down the traditional square forward-facing classrooms with a clear front and hierarchy, and move to a corner-less space, where teachers and students mix on a more equal basis. In this model, students work together around shared tables, with teacher as facilitator and partner in the voyage of learning, rather than ‘master’ executing a top-down model of pedagogy.”

Ah, all the benefits and issues, and ontological and epistemological assumptions that attend attempts at constructivist and social learning approaches to education. Hope there will be more information about user experience, not only with regards to the physical classroom but also in the learning interactions that take place within those enclosed pods.

Joel Navarro conducting the Singapore Bible College Chorale at the Victoria Concert Hall (“Victoria Memorial Hall”)

It’s always tough to return to a place you grew up in, with the knowledge that it has been renovated, refurbished, and is in all likelihood a shell of its former self.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)

So it was with trepidation that we arrived at the neoclassical Victoria Concert Hall (“Victorial Memorial Hall”) on 23 March 2015 to watch the Singapore Bible College Chorale in concert.

plaque to the memory of those who were killed during the mutiny in Singapore in February 1915. Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
plaque. Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)Plaques to commemorate people who died during the 1915 mutiny and another for Queen Victoria (“Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India) just inside the entrance seemed a little brighter.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)That bit between the two staircases now led to the information counter, situated in one corner of a big empty the hall.

staircase. Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
staircase, Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)Up the mirrored staircases, the marbled flooring looked different (cleaner?) but was probably original. Think there used to be a red carpet running up the middle of the stairs.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Half-way up the stairs, there was a way down to the left side of the VCH, which opened up into the glass-roofed central atrium between Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall:
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
I will never forget the desperate walks to the lift that used to be at the end of the atrium. That old lift would take you to a music studio where your ABRSM examiner would be waiting. I never practiced and would have been attempting to memorise the score for the first time on the way to this part of the civic district.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
I liked Mok Wei Wei (W Architect)’s gentle irony of etching a reflection of the columns of VCH onto the new facade of VT.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Returning to the staircase, there was this guy’s bust, which was always a good sign if you were slightly late for a concert and could hear them closing the doors above.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
We used to run in this set of doors (to sit on the left side of the hall, facing the stage). They were white and wooden and a little creaky, but these seemed taller, narrower (but perhaps a perception error), and heavier (probably not the exit you’d take in event of a fire).

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)The space where autograph and CD selling sessions used to take place was now dominated by a circular staircase. Stark juxtaposition between white Victorian and burnished modern.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)’round the corner, another corridor of lights by .PSLAB, overlooking the central atrium. The clustered circles were another self-possessively modern touch, made more classy by a brushed metal exterior and anodised gold inner surface.

The interior of the concert hall was much fresher. The old VCH had a certain smell to it that I liked because of a long association with the place and its innards, but this just smelled neutral and new – which would generally be preferable!
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)Not sure about the necessity for that shade of green. But taking advantage of Arup‘s theatre and acoustics consultancy paid dividends in a delightful clarity of sound. The stage seemed smaller (or I might have just grown bigger), but the seating had definitely changed for the better – the gallery was higher than it used to be, and with less seats. Hopefully, this meant the sound under the gallery (which used to bounce around rather oddly) would have improved.

After a good organ work by Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen (pipe organ sounded very different), and good controlled choral work by the Singapore Bible College Chorale, a docent offered to take us on a 20 minute tour of the building.

Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
She was animated, informative, and in short, brilliant.

“Look outside. Can you see Singapore’s national bird outside? No? Look! Singapore’s national bird – the crane!”
Victoria Concert Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall)
A light-hearted moment, after a concert with pieces dedicated to the memory of Lee Kuan Yew who had passed away at 3.18 a.m. that morning.

R. LANGGAARD                       Prelude in E major for organ
H. MATTHISON-HANSEN    Fantasy on a Danish folk tune for organ
J.S. BACH                                  Fantasia in G major, BWV 572
J.S. BACH                                  Motet BWV 227, Jesu, meine Freude
P. MØLLER                              “Transfiguration” – 3 Meditations for Organ

Singapore Design Week 2015- Make a F-ake by Freitag, and the Design Trail

Singapore Design Week 2015 - Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design Centre
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design CentreA no-reservation, no-waiting list, walk-ins only, first-come-first-served bit of fun cutting off pre-stamped Freitag tarp at Kapok, National Design Centre. To ensure more people could enjoy the freebies, the woman-in-charge made a big deal of checking that each person only took away either a Merlion tag or a “F-aster Chope” tissue holder.

Singapore Design Week 2015 - Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design Centre
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design Centre
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design Centre
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design Centre
F-aster Chope! Tissue Holder, Make a F-ake by Freitag, Kapok, National Design Centre, Singapore Design WeekThen it was all-aboard the Design Trail 2015 shuttle bus that took us round to various open houses:
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail

First stop, Basheer Graphic Books (Blk 231 Bain Street, #04-19, facebook) at Bras Basah, where a talk was going on and the logistics uncle was making teh tarik:
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Next stop, Park + Associates Architects:
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design TrailSingapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design TrailI really liked the little plant-covered house-office in one corner of the open-plan work area:

Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design TrailChatted about one of their current projects: a new black-and-white bungalow(s) project for a man and his family. This brought us to the question: makes a colonial bungalow so easily recognisable as such? The colours of course, but also the shuttered windows, the pillars, and the verandas (but not those roof-top spaces seen in this model).
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design TrailAnd because it started to rain quite heavily, the final stop of the day was Matter HQ (145 Neil Road). The restored shophouse we heard so much about at the Appreciating Architecture talk at SingaPlural 2015.

The shade of blue on the front facade was positively delightful:

Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design TrailSingapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail

And it was great to actually experience the interior after seeing all those slides a week ago – current use is both commercial-retail and residential:
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail

Patterned dhotis, harem pants, cloth:

Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail

And Fictive Fingers (facebook) had laid out some eraser stamps for us to play with:

Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design Trail
Singapore Design Week 2015 - Design TrailAll-in-all, an enjoyable opportunity to experience the sort of “creative” work that is going on in Singapore.

Architecture Appreciation at SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road

Popped into 99 Beach Road, where SingaPlural 2015 was being held, for a session on Architecture appreciation.

Architecture Appreciation Session, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeThe speaker gave the same pointers about appreciating buildings as this article:

  • understand the historical context – the history of the building, and the purpose for which it was built, its place in that time frame, the community or society into which it was introduced;
  • appreciate the innovators – understand how certain architects bucked the trend and set building design on a new course;
  • get a sense of scale – scale of a building influences human psychology; how we feel using the place;
  • get a sense of space – look at the void between the walls as well. Colours, materials, lighting/natural light, help to evoke certain emotions;
  • get into the details – the best architects pay attention to detail. “God is in the detail” said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It demonstrates that the building is a piece of art;
  • understand its meaning – the emotions that the building evokes, its relationship with society

Having just done a training session on Bible reading that morning, I was amused how most things in the world can only be appreciated when one understands the various contexts in which these things were placed (literature, art, science, music, philosophy, politics, Scripture, etc).

What made the presentation more useful than just reading the article off the screen were the visuals put up by the speaker as he talked through the relevant aesthetic features.

Sense of scale
Albert Speer’s Reich Chancellery that he knocked up for Hitler in just a year was designed to make people feel small, but somehow cause the short Adolf to loom larger than life. The not-for-human scale at St. Peter’s Basilica was to induce another kind of worship – that of God.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican by P.Landy, Wikimedia

In contrast, the human-scale repetitive architecture in Haji Lane in Singapore, and Laneway in Melbourne, give a feeling of warmth and cosiness.

Sense of Space
Using colours, Luis Barragán’s buildings (Casa Gilardi, Casa estudio) give a sense of warmth and energy.

While Peter Zumthor’s Haldenstein, in concrete and neutral colours showcase the nature outside and exert a calming effect, which, the speaker said expressed itself in his work. (I suppose it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing since arguably, he could have designed his own house to suit his character, so it wouldn’t necessarily be the house itself influencing his work…)

The Details
The little details in Carlo Scarpa’s Fondazione Querini-Stampala – the shape of the doors, the flow of the water – were beautifully proportioned. Oh look at those “floating stairs” in the Olivetti headquarters:

via skibinskipedia

*photos that aren’t mine were used under a Creative Commons licence

Michael Sorkin’s “All Over The Map: writing on buildings and cities”

Photograph Michael Sorkin's "All Over the Map", sourdough baguette, le vache de chalais cheese by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Do we like certain books because they give us fresh ideas or because their ideas cohere with and confirm our existing ones?

  1. The Center Cannot Hold – “Here in Tribeca, we are at the end of a familiar cycle in which a neighbourhood moves from a mix of warehouses, manufacturing, offices, and housing, to an “artistic” neighbourhood, and now to the climax form of gentrification, an extreme high-end residential quartier. The corollary is that the jobs and people formerly employed here have either been eliminated or moved elsewhere…We have scrupulously preserved the architectural character of Tribeca, but at the expense of its human one.” (p23)
  2. Security – “…the culture is suffused with incitements to anxiety as the media fixates on the imminence of terror…We measure the environment against our perception of its perils…Our problem nowadays is that we are creating an urbanism predicated primarily on risk avoidance – one likely, in its more extreme versions, to have a terrible effect on fundamental ideas of a good city. To the degree that we acquiesce, we become complicit in a cycle of exacerbated paranoia, creating a bunker mentality…Given the genuine risks we do face…the question becomes whether there is any meeting ground between the need for precautions and the ongoing project of urban amelioration – the construction of cities that are humane, democratic, and sustainable.” (p42)
  3. The Avant-Garde in Time of War – “All architecture is political. By marshalling and distributing resources, organising social space, and orchestrating encounters, architecture is the medium through which human relations are given dimension. Since 9/11, images of assaults on buildings and cities have become ubiquitous symbols of political action, surrogates – in a war without corpses – for our own corporeality.”(p82)
  4. Caveat Competitor – “Why have architectural competitions? For practitioners, they offer the chance of a job without the grief of negotiation or self-promotion, and they can sometimes jump a small practice to the next level. For clients, competitions provide the opportunity to choose from many alternatives, show sympathy with architecture, and – in most cases – to do it on the cheap. For the public, competitions carry the seal of meritocracy, seemingly outside familiar cronyism. But the process is easily corrupted. For starters, there is something exploitative about the huge amounts of uncompensated work required to keep the system going. And there are plenty of opportunities for log-rolling, deal-making, back-scratching, insider-trading and the rest. Juries can be dramatically affected by plane schedules, blood-sugar fluctuations, personality conflicts and low-common-denominator compromises: differences in taste cannot be adjudicated except by someone giving in.” (p100)
  5. Entering the Building. [you’ve just got to read the entire piece in full glory] (p110)
  6. Urban Warfare: a Tour of the Battlefield – “It is possible that the only answer to persistent “terror” is a police state. The two form a perfect symbiosis, and it is easy to understand the utility of regular attacks to the authors of the US government’s “Patriot” Act, the breeders of sniffer dogs, and the private security firms that have become such a growth industry. To produce both legibility and intimidation, the whole panoptic repertoire of spatial and social control is deployed with little objection.” (p117)
  7. Crippled in the City – “We cripples see the city a little differently…I now find the city reorganised as an obstacle course…unevenness of surfaces is a major issue for urban mobility. This can be encountered riding in the street; walking down the sidewalk and negotiating curbs; or within buildings where loose stair treads, missing tiles, unsecured carpet, and a thousand other perils present themselves. The range of barriers is great. Heavy doors are tough. Revolving doors are too fast and too small. Narrow spaces are challenging.” (p135)
  8. Advice to Critics – “1. Always Visit the Building 2. Style is Seldom the Issue 3. Credit Effects, Not Intentions 4. Think Globally, Think Locally 5. Safety First 6. Who Profits? 7. Consult the User 8. History is Not Bunk 9. It’s the City, Stupid 10. Defend the Public Realm 11. Keep Your Teeth Sharpened 12. Play Your Favourites” (p147-150)
  9. Seven Chairs – “Modernism revolted against the sentimental distortions of representation. Every representation pares and distorts, proposing a way of seeing as well as a vision of its object. Modernism bridled against this, understanding representation as constraint, and produced the idea of abstraction, conscientiously diversifying this methodology by steady degrees…But even abstraction always represents something, if only the idea of representing nothing.” “Duschamp’s “discovery” of the ready-made insisted that the act of seeing differently was a sufficient definition of artistic practice, with the power to “turn” objections from one thing to another. Whether this meant a urinal brazenly hung on a gallery wall or a deft bike-part bull, this mode of art-making used the mass-produced consumer object as its medium. However, its critical relation to this means depended on devaluing its useful status to convert it to mere contemplation, bringing it in line with traditional styles of artistic valorisation. Art’s crisis was one of both meaning and use.” (p170)
  10. Sincerely, Jane Jacobs – “Although preservation has emerged as the planning equivalent of motherhood…, its spawn – gentrification – has become the soft form of urban renewal, still removing the poor but lovingly restoring their former homes.” (p231)
  11. How I Invented Asia – “While the memory of tradition may inhere in particular forms, its life does not necessarily. Tradition is a set of practices that are weighted…by constraint, and it is clear that traditional societies live in symbiosis with both the fact and idea of their boundaries. This is an extremely fluid concept. Following Edward Said, Janet Abu-Lughod has pointed to a kind of postcolonial diffusion effect in which the idea of tradition is re-circulated as an instrument of domination by the colonizer, setting the boundaries from without rather than within…These arguments are obviously crucial as a critique of the dumb bivalence of received wisdom: tradition is at once potentially the product of a kind of enduring empiricism – tested by time – and radically uncritical. As a signifier, though, tradition is particularly buoyant, especially now. The folding of tradition into the various insistent discourses of identity that characterise contemporary politics means that every “tradition” on earth, once marked, is inescapably contaminated by somebody’s gaze, if only by that of those operating “within” the tradition who consciously seek to protect it fro the baleful influence of those without. We live in a world in which everybody is constructed as somebody’s other, and the force of tradition, increasingly is taken up in an idea of the political, is more and more directed outwards. (p248-249)
  12. Go Down Moses – “At the level of planning, I am disquieted by the growth of so-called “public-private partnerships” which often represent not simply the abdication of the duty of the public sphere to assure that the common good will contain a full measure of equity in results, but also an end-run around democracy itself, bypassing the hard work of guaranteeing that the voices of all citizens will be heard and acted on with equal weight.” (p276)
  13. The Jungle Urban: Welcome to Petropolis – “In 1993 a modified plan was put into place in which the Huaorani were nominally incorporated into the administration of the combine entity. For them, this meant jobs as security guards (in their own formerly peaceable homeland), oil workers, and new – and desperately inappropriate – houses for some, generally clustered in what can only be described as concentration camps. This for a people that has, for millennia, lived nomadically. It also meant the ravages of imported diseases and a rapid education in modernity.” (p279)
  14. Asian Alterity: What’s the Difference? – “The spirited defense of difference that has formed so much of the core of our politics during the past quarter-century is the product of a mingling of liberation and anxiety. Perhaps the most nuanced propositions have flowed from feminism and its efforts to negotiate not simply the crucial idea of sexual difference but its historic and contemporary reduction to essentialist positions: singular and immutable readings that pinion the idea of woman, refusing both cultural and individual fluidities and the complex dialectics of relationship, as well as the liberties of choice that must underlie any democratic account of how we become who we are.In the cultural territory, similar essentialisms dominate both in the vulgar reaches of the left, with its too expansive, quasi-biologistic formulations, and on the right, with its fundamentalisms of civilizational clash and flat-earth maps of the distribution of virtue. Such distortions notwithstanding, difference is indispensable, both the animator of our subjectivity and a bulwark against the fascist honogeneity and tight control of the neoliberal corporatist politics that have succeeded modernist universalism, extracting useful sameness from any memory of the project of justice.

    But the celebration of “authentic” difference runs its own risks, and we are obliged to question the sources and meanings of the differences that confront us. We must fear not simply the tyranny of essentialism – unnuanced ideas of “woman” or “Asian” or “Western” – but also the false distinctions of a culture that thrives on the production of illusory segmentations based on the need to create a blizzard of meaningless choices that will dupe us into the hysteria of consumption that makes the system go: the Terriyaki Burger in Tokyo, the Kimchee Burger in Seoul, the Curry Burger (strictly veg) in Bangalore.

    Even more threatening than this is the risk that an under-examined insistence on the abstract value of difference will threaten the vital idea of equality. Ideas of alterity can be used as instruments for manipulating the kinds of inequalities on which political and economic power thrive. And they can be used to dilute notions of justice by exaggerating the claim that human values and rights simply and “naturally” differ from society to society in such fundamental ways that we can evade the real distinctions between democracy and authoritarianism, whether in the guise of cultural choice or some form of political inevitabilism. We stone you for disagreeing with us because that’s how we are: how dare you take our patronising orientalist attitude to this!” (p285-286)

How do I love thee Moscow? Let me count the ways

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia)

I would like to say that Moscow was far more than I’d imagined. The trouble is, I hardly have expectations of anything or anyone. But I did really enjoy my time there.

Photograph Burger King in Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

1. Everything was in the vernacular. No one spoke anything but Russian, all the signs were in Cyrillic (except for a few places right in the touristy bit of Moscow). Amazed myself by learning to read Cyrillic in a day or two out of sheer necessity (also, it’s a little like Greek). Love a challenge.

2. Everyone assumed I was native and were physically taken aback when I replied in English. And I did, in fact, meet many Chinese-looking people. “ру́сская?” they’d ask. “нет,”I’d reply,”Singapore.” But few had heard of it.

3. No one smiled much, so I didn’t feel I had to. Since I’m generally lazy on the facial expression front, what’d been interpreted as unfriendliness in London was the norm in Moscow. Cosy.

Photograph dorm-mates dancing, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

4. I stayed in a cheap Russian dormitory for almost a week and got to know other dorm-mates pretty well. They were guarded at first, but whether it was the passage of time or the fact that I wasn’t China-Chinese or Mongolian (it’s confusing since I’ve relatively light hair and eye colour), they started to enjoy talking to me, asking me about my day, wanting to see my photos, even though my Russian wasn’t quite up to chit-chat standard (I could barely follow the news on Ukraine). There was lots of maternal nagging and clucking, and sometimes there was dancing. One woman was from Azerbaijan (she smelled familiar, though by no means in a bad way, like an Indian friend), another was from a small town outside of Moscow, and the third was a singer who slept all day so she could perform in clubs at night.

Photograph Kremlin, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

5. I loved the show-of-power architecture of the Soviet state: the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum, the Seven Sisters. Stalin wasn’t at all shy about it.

Photograph St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

6. I loved the show-of-power architecture of the Russian Orthrodox Church: the Cathedral of St. Basil, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Photograph Metro, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Metro, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

7. Oh, and the magnificent metro stations – the “Palaces of the People”.

Photograph borscht, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Stolovaya No. 57, GUM, Moscow by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph herring in a fur coat, Stolovaya No. 57, GUM, Moscow by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

8. The borscht I had here was thinner than probably inauthentic interpretations abroad, but happily much of the other food was stodgy enough for the cold weather (hovering around -3°C). In stolovayas (canteens, a good cheap holdover from the Communist…err…oh wait…), we had herrings in fur coats, and dumplings (Georgian, pelmeni), and kvas, and frilly table covers.

Photograph Крошка Картошка (Kroshka-Kartoshka), Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph blini, Теремок (Teremok), Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

9. And on the street, similarly good stodgy baked potatoes (from Крошка Картошка (Kroshka-Kartoshka)), blinis (from Теремок (Teremok)).

Photograph pine nut milk by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

10. Pine stuff! Pine-nut milk. Pine syrup.

Photograph kefir, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

11. Kefir!

Photograph warm sea buckthorn juice, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

12. Sea buckthorn cakes, sea buckthorn juice, sea buckthorn everywhere. I liked it immediately, and was disappointed later to read that it was one of those “miracle berries”. I liked it for itself and not what it could offer in health benefits.

Photograph Yuka the Baby Mammoth, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Yuka the Baby Mammoth, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Yuka the Baby Mammoth, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

13. Yuka the baby mammoth. SRSLY.

14. Does the security industry have the largest share of the Russian service sector? Uniformed security guards, or soldiers, or policemen everywhere.

15. Oh, and this gem: the dorm-mates, upon hearing that I’d lived in London for years exclaimed: a single woman, all alone, living in London?! How dangerous! England is so dangerous! You must be very brave!. I did not at any point admit that the English were similarly wary of Moscow. Ah, the suspicion of other lands and peoples.

Photograph Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Yet, there was the nagging sense that all these imposing buildings and severe men in uniforms were at best temporal and fragile. Not even Putin riding a bear or those nuclear bunker underground stations would not be able to protect the Russians from He who came the first time to save his people, and will come a second time to judge the whole world.

Architecture of Riga, Latvia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia)

Not just cobblestone streets in the setting Latvian sun, but also modern roads with a segregated bike path. How Scandinavian; how progressive.

Photograph Streets of Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Streets of Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Riga not only boasts a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was also the European Capital of Culture in 2014. And it is chokeful of architectural goodies within a small radius.

Photograph two of the Three Brothers, M. Pils Street, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Two of the Three Brothers on M. Pils iela – from Riga’s medieval period.

Photograph Brotherhood of the Blackheads building by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

The House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads (giggle).

Photograph Door, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px Ah, architecture. Architecture as visible archaeology. Architecture as anthropology. Architectonic forms as images, symbols, metaphors; as diagnostics of the human condition; as mere art and performance (as if); as regulators and instigators of human behaviour and societal interaction.

Livonia (no, not the Joseph Tan, Daniel Sassoon et al band from Singapore) – the historical area now delineated as Estonia and Northern Latvia, participation in the Hanseatic League, have all left their imprint in extant buildings.

Photograph Art Nouveau, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Art Nouveau, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Having more art nouveau than any other European city suggests a somewhat glamorous recent past.

But these gated inward-looking apartments with gloomy courtyards, L assures me, are far more common. A legacy, she thinks, of the Soviet era.

Photograph courtyard apartments, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph courtyard apartments, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Since independence from the latest imperialistic power to have designs on them, many young people have taken advantage of the education benefits of being in the EU and have left for other EU states. Few, if any, have returned. So the streets are uncrowded and quiet.

Photograph National Library of Latvia, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Yet across the river, there is a sign of a new age of architecture: the National Library of Latvia, designed by Gunārs Birkerts. It looks like a book left open on its face; like the reader merely paused to make himself a cup of tea. Perhaps this period is merely a setting down of a book… Meanwhile, there is work to be done amongst those who have stayed.