Water (5) Venice

The Palace as seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio il Magiore

The Palace as seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio il Magiore

The Palace of the Dogi in Venice is one of the most impressing power headquarters I have visited. Its presence on the bay, showing itself clearly to the visitor, is noteworthy; it shows no impressive beauty in itself from the distance, but it is well inscribed in an overwhelming façade.


The most interesting thing is what cannot be seen from outside (or what can be seen but not understood). The Palace houses the halls for the different councils that ruled the Republic, some of which had to take a large number of councilors. The logical solution from a structural viewpoint would have been to put these halls on the ground floor, with a majestic roof in the center of the courtyard, and then have the other, smaller dependencies, rise around and better using a masonry structure. But in this case the council halls were located on the highest level. This explains a lighter appearance of the two lower levels, giving a clear quality to the St Mark’s square and the urban front to the Grand Canal (even if beyond the colonnades you have massive walls), and the heavier appearance of the upper floor, in which the large halls are. On the corridors between these large halls there are giant maps of the world that show the vision that the navigator’s Republic had of itself.

The courtyard

The courtyard

The entire building is a palimpsest of styles and ways to decorate and organize an architecture, with surprising variations in corners, but always integrating that need to give a ceremonial access to the upper level to a sizeable number of councilors, having as a courtyard companion the St Mark’s Cathedral.


Domes (8) Invisible

Peregrina 1

What happens when the dome becomes all? that even so it can become invisible from outside. Just look at the XVIIIth century church of La Peregrina, in Pontevedra. It is a baroque building linked to the Saint James Pilgrim Way, and its large dome is replaced on the outside by the main volume of the building.

Peregrina 3

Urban retail (5) Department stores

The first department stores seem to have appeared in a more or less simultaneous manner in France and Britain at the beginning of the XIXth century, as a way to catter to an urban elite that was growing in purchasing power with the industrial revolution. This context is well described by Emile Zola in “Au bonheur des dames”, a depiction of the inner life of an early department store. In many cases the first department stores began in small buildings and grew in an organical manner colonizing entire blocks, and even adjacent blocks, something that can still be felt today when going through the departments you find odd level changes.


Le Printemps, Paris

In terms of urban impact, the department store means a mighty concentration of sales capacity in an usually small area, located in the most central parts of the city (indeed, contributing to the creation of such centralities or to their demise when they flee), and integrated in the general pedestrian and public transportation system. Even if in America it is common to see such establishments in suburban malls, in Europe (in part due to a certain difficulty in some countries for the format to adapt to new settings) it is still a central city bussiness, and in Japan their link to main rail stations is clear.

Lafayette- berlin

Galleries Lafayette, Berlin

This stacking of shopping areas under a single operator in a much more integrated way than in any mall is also relevant. It means that the image towards the city must be well defined to endure the test of time. The french examples asume that creating large façades that simulate windows (not always visible from the sales floor), but El Corte Inglés, in Spain, has dotted the country with façades that show no visible windows but for small areas. Even in their recent building in Pamplona, by Martinez Lapeña- Torres, with an interesting elevation (albeit compared by some to a cheese grater), just the penthouse cafeteria is clearly visible (and the street level displays, no doubt…).

El Corte Inglés, Pamplona

El Corte Inglés, Pamplona

Lafayette berlin-1

Galleries Lafayette, Berlin

In many examples the idea of scenic building core spaces is relevant, but it is not always the case. Be it domes, iron architecture, glass, a combination of all of or part of the above… in time terms, sometimes these spaces have been fragmented as not to compete for the atention of the shoppers…


Le Printemps, Paris

Domes 5. The Ball and the Cross

Gilbert Keith Chesterton published his novel “The Ball and the Cross” in 1910, the same year in which the current church of San Manuel y San Benito opened in Madrid. I don’t know (and I think that is not that relevant to the story) if the architect, Fernando Arbós, and the novelist, ever got into contact, but in fact when I see this church it reminds me of the title of the novel. On one side, the building is a neo-byzantine architecture, rather scarce as style goes in Madrid, and it takes a high visibility profile, at an angle with calle de Alcalá, so the tower is more visible. There is something in the complex decoration and in the building layout and its relation with the Retiro Park that reminds me of Chesterton, the “prince of paradox”. A side effect of reading such books?



Libraries (1). BNF Richelieu- Salle Labrouste

As I have earlier mentioned, I love books in all their forms; living in a somewhat small apartment, this has led to a point in which I have to limit my physical book purchase, so I have a Kindle…  So I apreciate clearly when there is room for books, and large libraries are this kind of space. Here begins a series on architecturally relevant libraries that I have visited (not for the most) or I would not mind to visit…

A 1868 drawing (H. Linton, Le Monde Illustré) representing the then brand new space.

The French National Library (BNF) is an impressive institution that maintains many interesting reading halls. This post relates to the Salle Labrouste, in its Richelieu Building, north of the Louvre in central Paris. Salle Labrouste takes its name from Pierre François Henri Labrouste, a french architect from the XIXth century that introduced innovative uses for the then new iron structures. For what now is Salle Labrouste, opened in 1868, he created a  square of nine domes supported by extremely slender iron columns. This creates a large space with minimal structural intrusions, and a good natural light (by library standards). The domes are just visible from inside, without an external visibility as the roof covering them is a conventional one, just transformed by conventional clerestories.

Current work status. Image by Jean-Cristophe Ballot/ BNF, published in

Salle Labrouste in the larger Richeliu complex of the BNF. The large oval structure on the lower right part of the image is the Salle Ovale.

The Salle Labrouste is currently being transformed; until 1998 it housed the Départment des Livres Imprimés, and will soon house the Bibliothèque de l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

Salle Labrouste has an area of 1.370 sq m, and for its new function it will offer 320 reading posts.


The image above shows Madrid in the XVIIth century, as drawn by Israel Silvestre, from Paris (the original can be seen at the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica). The viewpoint is on the western shore of the Manzanares river, then just agricultural land.

The size of the river seems quite large when compared to what can be seen today (a spring view nearing floods? or simply the fact that the river was less contained than today?). Contemporary visitors that just go to the Barrio de Salamanca could be surprised with that view, as this is the true nature of historic Madrid: originally a border outpost on a hill overlooking a river. The bridge is today’s Puente de Segovia, but as far as buildings are concerned not many survive.

On this enlargment of the left part of the image you can see:

  • A dome- covered building on the left. By its position it was around the current position of the Parroquia de San Marcos
  • A road rising from the river, that was the “Camino del Rio” and is today the Cuesta de San Vicente
  • An enclosed area that rises from the river to the big building on the right side. The enclosed area is today’s Campo del Moro, and the building was the Alcazar, the Royal Palace for the Habsburg dinasty, replaced by the present Palacio Real.

In this view the Puente de Segovia is connected to the street of the same name, and a road to the left connects it to the Calle Mayor; the conexion is no longer this way, as the Catedral de La Almudena (a failed atempt to make classical architecture that has not much class) and its surroundings have changed the layout.  The lower fluvial plains are today covered by new neighborhoods. The valley by which the calle Segovia rises is today spanned by a viaduct that allows a connection between Palacio Real and San Francisco El Grande.

As much as I dislike the Almudena Cathedral (it is simply not good enough architecture for its size and preferent location), on this image to the right you can see an area in which today sits the best dome in Madrid, not built by the time of the drawing: San Francisco el Grande, completed in 1784. There are some Goya paintings in the church, but the best things are how the building is integrated in its urban setting (to the east, facing Carrera de San Francisco, as to the west, altough it rises majestically, there is not a specific façade)  and the proportions of the dome.

San Francisco el Grande

Domes 4

The Assumption Church in Mosta (Malta) is presumed to have the third largest dome in the world, with an internal diameter of 37,2 meters. Built between 1833 and 1860, inspired by the Roman Pantheon, it is an impressive view form the road, in contrast with a more modest and domestic architecture. In the short distance, its isolation in a large void filled with cars makes it less impressive than its original model.

Domes 3

The Calatravas Church, and on the background the Unión y El Fenix building

The Calatravas Church is what remains from the old Concepción Real Covent (1670-1678), in Calle Alcalá 25, neart the Puerta del Sol. In 1750 the italian painter Antonio Joli did not show the church itself, but the painting shows how the domes and spires of noteworthy buildings compared in terms of scale with the rest of the buildings. During the early XXth century Madrid became a quite american- like city in terms of architecture, mostly due to the nearby Gran Via project, and heigths reached new limits, as the few remaining XVIIth century buildings lost their preponderance to others that, sometimes, had also a good architecture. On the background you can see a svelte tower (less than 200 sq m per floor, with a side under 15 m), initially built for the La Unión y El Fénix insurance company (to which Spanish cities owe many buildings in relevant places around the same time), and today converted into the Petit Palace Alcalá Torre Hotel. Even if its clear that this tower is not a dome, it has the same spirit to “show the head”, in this case through sveltesse (proportions are more relevant than dimensions…)

Antonio Joli, 1750, Alcala Street


Domes (2)

St Hedwig Cathedral in Berlin

Showing the ability to build implies doing what is most complex at each moment and place, and the dome can become a full sphere, or a different thing. But scale is still important, so much more than shape…

The communist-built tv tower (no more communist, but still a tv tower) and the nearby church

Angie’s domains in Berlin