Category Archives: Architecture

Burj Khalifa; At The Top Sky

This post is dedicated to Gerard Moore Junior (taku tama arohaina) whose generosity took me to the top.

From a distance, Burj Khalifa is alarmingly fragile. Up close it’s terrifyingly tall. At night, it’s a slender silhouette of gold light against the ink-black sky. In the daytime, it cuts like a giant blade of steel and glass into the blue.


For a while, I admired this stellar centrepiece of downtown Dubai from below. But, as mountains are to adventurers, so are towers to travellers. They compel us to climb them. From the Eureka to the Eiffel, I’ve conquered a few. In the end, I had to do the Burj Khalifa too.

Yet, I was nervous, as I waited with my fellow travellers for the At The Top Sky tour to the Burj Khalifa’s 148th floor. The couches, cushions, potted palms, Arabian coffee and platters of dates in the SKY Lounge did nothing to dispel the disturbing pictures haunting my thoughts. In one I was stranded in a lifeless elevator, deep in the burj’s concrete core. In another I clung to a flimsy ledge that tilted slowly into space. Was Burj Khalifa, a tower too many, too high?

Still, when the time came, I put my fears aside and followed our guide, Ahmed, into one of the burj’s 57 elevators.

As we soared skywards at an ear-popping 65 kilometers per hour, with the urgent drums of the Burj Khalifa’s dedicated elevator music beating ever faster, images of tall city landmarks streamed past.

Somewhere, up beyond the very tallest of them, we stopped for the Burj Khalifa’s story. It’s a bold tale and Ahmed told it with righteous pride. It began with a big dream – of a mighty burj, or tower, that would stand as an emblem of Dubai and as an iconic landmark to the world.

12,000 people, of 196 nationalities, from 149 countries, came together to build the dream. Chicago architect Adrian Smith designed it, taking inspiration from the ancient towers of Islam and the desert flower, hymenocallis, or spider lily. In 2004, construction began. 6 years, 22 million man-hours and 1.5 billion dollars later, it was completed. At 828 metres, the Burj Dubai was the world’s tallest building. On January 4, 2010, it opened, re-named as the Burj Khalifa, in honour of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE. That same year, it won the World Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Global Icon Award. The dream had come true.

Now, here I was at the heart of that global icon, surrounded by world wonders. I was at the centre of the largest vertical city on earth, home to the world’s highest nightclub, library and mosque. I was heading for the highest outdoor viewing platform on the planet, 555 metres from the ground.      

With the music winding to a crescendo and with outlandish feats of celebrity daring playing out on the elevator walls, we soared up again. I stared, mesmerised and horrified, as a grinning Tom Cruise flapped around the burj’s spire while Spiderman inched up its sheer glass walls.     

…there were flowers

The lift delivered us to an oasis of quiet, calm, and stillness. There was soothing orchestral music. There were flowers. There were waiters with trays of drinks and petit fours. There were smiling hostesses to guide us around. There was soft carpet patterned with rippling sand. There were armchairs beside tall windows which curved out into the sky.

I sat and looked down. Below, Dubai fell into patterns. Buildings shaped into cylinders. City blocks formed squares, rectangles and triangles. Roads curved and cut between them, curled into petals and pointed in parallel rows towards the horizon. Parks and gardens became bands and circles of green.  Ponds, pools and streams turned into oblongs, ovals and wriggling snakes of blue. Then, defying the order of the built city, there were patches of parched dirt – some etched with the beginnings of future construction, others just fragments of desert.   

… the patterns of Dubai…

On the world’s highest viewing platform, safe behind a solid glass wall, I stood in the sky. I felt rushes of fear and exhilaration, of arrogance and awe. I could see all the way across the desert to the end of the earth. I could see where the sea dissolved into the sky. Below, the city was tiny and fragile. People were slow-moving specks. Big words, like omniscient and omnipotent came to mind.

…where the sea meets the sky…

In a dark theatrette, I waved my hand through a tube of light and watched myself take flight on giant screen.  Launching from the burj’s spire, I glided through space, circling around landmarks, swooping over rooftops, between buildings, through windows, into shops and houses, into the everyday lives of old Dubai. I peered over the shoulders of men smoking shisha and women stirring pots. I chased after children in the streets. Now I really felt superhuman.

I could have lingered on high forever, in this rarefied state, but in truth, I’m a mere mortal. I belong on earth. I need the noise, the sun and the warm air below.

“Leaving already?” asked the hostess at the elevator. I’d been there for hours but she seemed sorry to see me go.

Down on level 124 I was back in the busy real world. I was swept from the lift into a photo studio. There was a flash. Minutes later, a picture showed me smiling foolishly from a beam on the half-built burj. I joined the memorabilia hunters in the souvenir shop. Among mugs and key rings, I found something new and slightly unnerving – leftover burj bolts. I circled the deck. Below, the neat patterns of Dubai had disappeared.

One swift, silent elevator and a long, slow escalator took me down to earth.

The People who built the Burj Khalifa

I wandered alone in the quiet ground floor gallery where the At The Top Sky experience ends. Here, interactive stations tell the stories of the people who built the Burj Khalifa.

It’s a perfect finale. It is fitting that the last words on the greatest project in human history should come from the architects, engineers, contractors, artists, tradespeople, craftspeople and labourers who worked on it, shaping 330 cubic metres of concrete, 31,400 metric tons of steel, 103, 000 square metres of glass and 15, 500 square metres of embossed stainless steel into the world’s most iconic tower.  

Cost of the At The Top Sky Tour – 500 dirhams. Value – priceless.



Kia ora rawa atu, Gez

The Empire State Building

Like the Rockefeller Centre, the Empire State Building was a depression era project. But while Rockefeller’s comparatively down to earth dream was to create a city within New York City, the sky was the limit for the men behind the Empire State building. They wanted to create the tallest structure on earth! The building was designed by architect Gregory Johnson and constructed by a company named the Starrett Brothers and Eken.

The Empire State Building from the NY City Sights bus
The Empire State Building from the NY City Sights bus

Work began on the site of the former Waldorf Hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1930. The 3,400 labour force was made up mainly of European immigrants and Mohawk steel workers from Montreal. 60,000 tons of structural steel, 10 million bricks, 1,8886 60 kilometres of elevator cable, 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone and granite façade and 6, 4000 windows went into the 86 floor, 331,000 ton structure. For more modern buildings, construction companies may choose to buy a stainless steel beam and other robust materials to build a durable structure that will stand the test of time. On May 1, 1931 President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in the White House which turned on the lights and the Empire State building was officially opened. It was 6 weeks ahead of schedule and $5 million dollars under budget.

The piece de resistance of the finished building is the magnificent five story art deco lobby lined with granite and marble and highlighted with brushed steel. It is decorated with a metal mosaic depicting the Empire State building as the centre of the universe and hung with giant bronze medallions portraying the master craftsmen who worked on it. The metal tower at the summit was originally intended to serve as a zeppelin port. But the age of the zeppelins was brief and only one craft ever moored there. Still, since it opened, more than 117 million people have come to enjoy the magnificent views from the observation deck on the 86th floor. Over 1,000 businesses are housed in the Empire State building which has its own dedicated zip code. Many people who build fabric buildings look to the structure for inspiration, even if the materials used differ some these days.

From 1931 until 1972, when the World Trade Centre was raised, the Empire State building was the tallest in the world. With the tragic events of September11, 2001 it became, once again, the tallest building in New York but by this time, out in the world, it had been surpassed.

Paradise at qualia

Our qualia pavilion is tucked away at the end of one of those mysterious paths, suspended among the trees, above a quiet pebbly beach. You can hear the sea sucking at the stones.

The balcony of our qualia pavilion
The balcony of our qualia pavilion

Qualia pavilions are simple, spacious and like the Long Pavilion, in perfect harmony with the world outside. Its colours are the colours of wood, stone, earth, forests and sky from the Dennis Nona artworks on the walls to the fabrics selected by interior designer Freedman Rembel for the furnishings.  Every space leads to another, each room flows to the next. On one side the living room opens onto a wooden deck with an infinity pool and a king-sized cane bed, on the other is the bedroom with a giant central bed. Beyond the bedroom is an enormous bathroom dominated by a tub of warm cream stone.  Every room looks down, through the front glass wall, on trees, gardens and the sea.

There 60 pavilions at qualia but each one is hidden in its own corner of the 33 hectare garden.  We feel that we have the island all to ourselves. Fans tick slowly overhead. I press a button and a glass wall rolls down.  A gentle breeze blows in through the open space, bringing the smell of the sea and eucalyptus trees. There’s a flutter of wings and a sulphur-crested cockatoo lands on the rail of the deck. I am indeed in the Garden of Eden.

It would be easy to stay here forever, living on the complementary champagne, the Phillppa’s fine bagel crisps and garlic nuts, the mini-bar chocolates, the pretty little packs of herbal tea, luxuriating in the Aesops toiletries, the cloud-like towels, and the soft cocoon-like bathrobes, drinking in the views from the infinity pool, the king sized bed and the wrap around couches in the lounge or even ordering in from the sumptuous room service menu.  But another zephyr ushers a faint hint of grilled seafood with a tang of je ne sais quoi through the open window. I am reminded that “the qualia experience would not be complete without a culinary adventure through the finest produce our region and country has to offer”.

Hampton Court Palace

Just 30 minutes by train from London Waterloo, on a picturesque tree-bordered bend in the Thames and set in 60 acres of rambling gardens, is magnificent Hampton Court Palace.

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace was the home of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. When Catherine was ousted after failing to give Henry a son, his second wife Anne Boleyn moved in. Henry’s third wife, Anne of Cleves, was banished to Hampton Court when their marriage was annulled and lived here, in exile, until her death.

Hampton Court was also the home of Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520s, until he fell from favour with the King and was beheaded for treason.

Despite the many subsequent occupants and renovations to the palace, it still has the stamp of the court of Henry VIII. The kitchens which, when the King was in residence, fed up to 800 people on the most exotic fare, are the largest surviving 16th century kitchens. The Chapel Royal was the scene of Henry’s son Edward’s baptism and of his marriage to his last wife, Catherine Parr. In the Tiltyard, which now houses a café, Henry displayed his skill with the jousting stick or watched tournaments from the towers. He showed off his athletic prowess playing Real Tennis on the Royal tennis courts which are still in current use. It was Henry who enclosed the 250 acre Home Park for hunting. Today, it is home to 350 fallow deer, as well as a golf course and the annual Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. And somewhere among the ancient spears, shields, pistols and muskets displayed in extraordinarily complex and really beautiful formations in the guard room of the King’s Apartments, there must surely be one that was grasped in the hand of the hot-blooded warrior King.

Most of the rest of the Palace and gardens speaks of later reigns. The King’s and Queen’s apartments were built for the monarchs’ ceremonial and state lives. Those of King William III, completed in 1700 and furnished with magnificent period tapestries and works of art, are said to be the best baroque apartments in the world. The Queen’s apartments were originally intended for his wife, Mary II, who unfortunately died of smallpox in 1694, before they were completed. The Banqueting House, overlooking the Thames, where William held small private parties, was built in 1700. In 1837, George II decorated and furnished the private informal apartments now known as the Georgian Rooms. The Queen’s apartments were furnished and decorated for his Queen, Caroline.

Hours are easily lost in the splendid rambling halls and apartments of Hampton Court Palace.


La Recoleta

If Buenos Aires’ founding fathers spared nothing in building the new world’s most beautiful metropolis, neither did their progeny stint in building its most beautiful necropolis.

A calle in La Recoleta
A calle in La Recoleta

Cementario de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires first public cemetery, was the brainchild of Governor Martin Rodriguez and his minister Bernardino Rivadavia.  It was opened on November 17, 1822 and the first person interred there was Juan Benito, a freed slave.  Since then it has been the city’s preferred and most prestigious resting place.

Historically it’s fascinating – all the greatest and richest of Argentina rest in peace at Recoleta. Artistically, it’s amazing – some of the most elaborate and ostentatious mausoleums in the world are here at Recoleta.

Every day thousands of people – tourists, as well as locals paying their respects to deceased relatives pass through the Doric portico at Recoleta’s entrance. Only the elite, however, those with great fortunes and even greater names, find their final resting places here. The most visited grave is that of Evita, Argentina’s most famous female, who lies with the rest of her Duarte family.

It’s an interesting and restful day (or two), walking the peaceful, pristine and shady calle of Recoleta.

Rio’s Sambadromo

The Sambadromo, Carnaval, 2009
The Sambadromo, Carnaval, 2009

The Sambadromo, the home of Carnaval, is a one-off among world stages, a uniquely Rio answer to a peculiarly Rio question – how to create a fitting venue to contain and channel the huge extravaganza, which, by the 1980s, had grown too unwieldy and unruly for the streets?

The final solution was sketched in 1984, by Oscar Niemeyer, the godfather of modern Brazilian architecture, on a paper napkin, in a bar. It was completed just 120 days later.

Named the Sambadromo for the Samba, the official dance of Carnaval, it is also located, fittingly, in the birthplace of the samba, in the heartland of the favelas, or shanty towns.

The architecture of the Sambadromo also gives a nod to the dance; two giant arches represent the g-string framed buttocks of the sambista, the gorgeous, dancing goddess of Carnaval. And thank goodness for this bold flourish. Otherwise the Sambadromo is a great, grey, terraced, concrete canyon wrapped around a 590 metre long, 13 metre wide procession route.

This is definitely a building that needs a crowd. Empty, it’s quite forbidding. Packed to capacity, with a 70, 000 strong crowd flying the colours of their Samba School, a procession of 3000 brilliantly costumed performers and the unforgettable sound of the batteria or the drums, it’s amazing!


The Maracana

They say that Brazil is governed by three great passions – religion, the beach and football ( in Portuguese, futebol). It stands to reason, then, that along with the statue of Cristo Redentor and Copacabana, Rio’s Marancana stadium is one Brazil’s most famous landmarks.

A fragment of the front of the Maracana
A fragment of the front of the Maracana

The Maracana was built to host the 1950 FIFA World Cup tournament. It was designed by local architects Miguel Feldman, Waldir Ramos, Raphael Galvão, Oscar Valdetaro, Orlando Azevedo, Antônio Dias Carneiro and Pedro Paulo Bernardes Bastos and the foundation stone was laid on August 2, 1948.

Although the stadium was still unfinished, on June 16, 1950, the inaugural match took place. The historic first ball was placed in the Maracana’s goal by Didi and the Rio de Janeiro All-Stars defeated São Paulo All-Stars 3 to 1. Eight days later, on June 24, 81,000 spectators crowded into the still unfinished stadium to witness its first World Cup match. Brazil beat Mexico 4 to 0 and Ademir scored the stadium’s first FIFA goal. On July 16, 1950, an estimated 210, 000 people turned out at the still uncompleted stadium to witness Brazil’s shock loss to Uruguay in the final round disaster which has gone down in football history as the “Maracanazo”.

Although the stadium was not finally completed until 1965, it continued, throughout the fifteen years following the World Cup, to draw enormous crowds to Rio club games and to Brazilian football cup finals.

In 1966, the Maracana was officially re-named Estadio Jornalista Mário Filho, after the Brazilian journalist who had been a tireless campaigner for the construction of the stadium. However, the old name Maracana refuses to die and it is still the one best known to soccer fans the world over.

The Maracana has seen great Brazilian football moments. In 1969, Pele scored the 1,000th goal of his career there, against Vasco, in front of 125,000 spectators. In 1989, Zico scored his final goal for Flamengo at the Maracanã, taking his goal tally at the stadium to 333.

It has also seen tragic times. On July 19, 1992, an upper stand in the stadium collapsed.  Three spectators were killed and 50 more were seriously injured. After this incident, the Maracana became an “all-seater stadium” with a greatly reduced capacity. It was closed for renovations in 2006 and re-opened in January 2007 with an all-seated capacity of 88,992.

Since the 1980s the Maracana has played host to numerous non-football events. Pope John Paul II has said mass here. On January 26, 1981, Frank Sinatra sang to crowd of 150,000 here. 180,000 people gathered to hear Tina Turner, in 1988 and again to hear Paul McCartney in April 1990. Sting, Madonna and the Rolling Stones have all played twice at the Maracana. Great music festivals, like Rock in Rio, have taken place here. On July 13, 2007, the stadium hosted the opening ceremonies of the XV Pan American games. Then, of course there were the FIFA World Cup games of 2014.

In 1998, the Maracana was classified as “real estate”. In Brazilian terms this means that it is a heritage site and is there to stay, which is a wonderful thing for the millions of football fans who consider it sacred soil.



As the name suggests, Cinelandia was once the domain of movie dreams.

Rio Branco, Cinelandias
Rio Branco, Cinelandia

It was built on the vision of Mayor Pereira Passos at the beginning of the 20th century.  Laying waste old, narrow streets and run-down buildings, broad, new, Parisian-style Avenida Rio Branco forged a path from the inner city to the sea. Monuments to the nation’s grandeur, like the art nouveau Biblioteca Nacional and the neo-classical Museu de Belas Artes stood side by side with glamorous cafés terrasses. The centerpiece of the Avenida Rio Branco was the magnificent Teatro Municipal, designed by the Mayor’s son, Francisco Oliveira Passos and modeled on the Paris Opera. A romantic sculpture in the Piazza told the story of a young country nurtured by the church and sheltered by the state.

When it was finished this wonderful new area became the domain of Rio’s smart set – there to see and be seen.

In the 1930s Avenida Rio Branco lit up with neon and the city’s first cinemas opened their doors on silver screen dreams for a new smart set.  Pereira  Passos’ great domain became Cinelandia.

All this is still there, down in Cinelandia but its grandeur has faded. The mosaic pavements are dotted with broken tiles. The Teatro Municipal is shrouded in scaffolding while the Biblioteca Nacional and the Museu de Belas Artes are jaded. Most of the cinemas are now evangelical Christian churches, opening their doors on a new vision.

Rio’s dispossessed and homeless wait at the bus stops, but not for buses. Skinny kids play near the statue under the indifferent gaze of the stone padre. Still, Cinelandia is a “must see” in Rio, a special glimpse of what it once was, what it has become and what it could be.

French Rio Centro

Although the Portuguese Royal family had fled Europe ahead of Napoleon’s army, their respect for French culture was as strong as their fear of French military might. In establishing Rio de Janeiro as the centre of the new Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve turned to France for inspiration. All over old Rio Centro there are lovely little pockets of la belle France.

Rua Ouvidor, Rio Centro
Rua Ouvidor, Rio Centro

The first regent, Dom JoaoVI, drew heavily on the expertise of the French Mission which arrived in Rio in 1816. The Mission brought many artists, including Jean Baptiste Debret and Nicolas Taunay, who were instrumental in the development of a national art. It also brought a number of paintings which were to form the basis of a national collection.  Most importantly, the Mission brought architects like Grandjean de Montigny, who shaped much of the cityscape of old Rio, including the beautiful neo-classical building in Avenida Branco, which is now the Museu de Belas Artes. De Montigny’s greatest triumph, however, was the Casa Franca-Brasil on Rua Visconde de Itaborai. This magnificent neo-classical building has twenty four Doric columns, made of wood, but painted in a trompe l’oeil marble effect, supporting a huge dome with a central skylight. It first opened in 1820 as the city stock exchange. After stints as a customs house and a bank archive, the Casa Fraca-Brasil is now a cultural centre.

Over the next century the people of Rio continued to look to France. The Belle Epoque took its own special form in Rio Centro. Narrow, quaint Rua Ouvidor is lined with cafes, bars and tiny shops with an air of old Paris. The Confiteria Manon and even more so, the Confiteiria Colombo, in Rua Concalvas Dias, have all the style of Parisen Salons de Thé. The faded grandeur of Amarello, on Cinelandia’s Avenida Rio Branco, smacks of the brasseries of Paris. Nearby, the Teatro Municipal, designed by Francisco Oliveira Passos and opened in 1909, is modeled on the Paris Opera.

Rio’s architectural and cultural debt to France was brilliantly acknowledged in 2009’s  Carnaval. Samba school Grande Rio chose France in Rio as its theme and not only rebuilt old “French” Rio, but also brought to life the “style de vie” of those times. The coup de grace was that the French Government funded the venture!


The High Court of Australia

The High Court of Australia is a building where the form truly reflects the function. It is 40 metres tall with a façade of gleaming white concrete and great inscrutable glass panels. It is a building which speaks of power and authority. And well it might. This is the place where, legally speaking, the buck stops.

Inside the High Court of Australia
Inside the High Court of Australia

The High Court of Australia is the highest court in the Australian judicial system. Here, the law of Australia is interpreted and applied; cases of special federal significance, including challenges to the constitutional validity of laws, are decided; and appeals, by special leave, from federal, state and territory courts are heard.

Seven Justices, including, and headed by a Chief Justice, preside over its three courtrooms. Each courtroom is quite different, both in style and purpose.

Courtroom One is large and lavish; it is furnished and panelled in native timbers, with symbolically adorned doors. Past justices gaze stonily down from portraits on the walls. The most striking piece in this courtroom, and possibly in all three, is the magnificent tapestry banner, showing the badges of the states and the crest of the Commonwealth. Courtroom One is used on ceremonial occasions and when the full bench of seven justices are required to sit.

Courtroom Two is generally used when a bench of five justices is sitting. Applications for leave to appeal by video-link are also heard in this plain unassuming room.

Courtroom Three is furnished with coachwood timber and flooded with light from a glass ceiling.  Matters here are generally heard by a single justice. It was in Courtroom Three that the Mabo case was heard and a portrait on the wall shows the presiding Justice holding the Mabo settlement document in his hand.

In addition to the three courtrooms, the High Court of Australia has an administrative wing, an area for the Justices and a large, stunning public hall.