Saturday, 2 March 2013

New Additions To The List: Part 4

My list of potential Wonders hasn't been a fixed one since I begun this mission, rather it's been a constantly evolving one, as subsequent tweaks (here, here, and here) have demonstrated. I feel that my final list is getting closer, as the majority of the existing list has now been researched and is ready for previewing, and over the course of the last few years most of the world's notable landmarks have come my way to either be added to the list or rejected as being not quite what I'm looking for. Nevertheless, I continue to be surprised by stumbling upon or being led towards striking structures that had somehow escaped my attention.

Recently, two types of structure have been capturing my interest: cathedrals, and unusual and unique buildings. Cathedrals, first of all, are perhaps the most consistently high quality of any genre of structure around. In Europe especially, they are spread liberally, and are generally magnificent. Add in churches, and I could quite easily have over a hundred churches and cathedrals alone on my Wonder list. Perhaps if someone wants to finance me over the next twenty years visiting a "1000 Potential World Wonders" then I can include them all; otherwise, I have to be discerning. Already we have the Notre-Dame de Paris, Chartres Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral, The Sacre-Coeur, Ely Cathedral, Cologne Cathedral, St Peter's Basilica, St Paul's Cathedral, St Mark's Basilica, Santa Maria della Salute, the Sagrada Familia, and the Church of St George at Lalibela, as well as locations such as the Kremlin, Mont Saint-Michel and Avignon Papal Palace where churches are intrinsic to the structure, not to mention the former church of the Hagia Sophia. The bar is set high: any new additions must at the very minimum meet or surpass these in expectation. Just being big and beautiful is not enough, they must stand out from the crowd.

This ties in a little with the second type of potential Wonder that has been catching my eye, the strikingly unusual ones. There is a lot to be said for originality. Beauty and size go a long way, but if the structure is generic, ultimately it won't have such a lasting impact. This is where, for the layman at least, religious buildings can sometimes stumble: after your tenth cathedral, or 15th Hindu temple, or 27th mosque, the greatness of the stucture becomes less pronounced than the originality. The Sydney Opera House might have some detractors (though certainly not me), but it's unquestionably original, and this is the main reason it's so well known. Even those that hate it will concede that it's hardly from a cookie-cutter mould. Originality isn't everything, and originality alone isn't enough to be a Wonder, but it allows for a general forgiving of other deficiencies or sins. A bit like a church, I suppose.

So: here we go.

1. Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand - REJECTED

A link to this was sent to me some time ago by Justin, and I have to admit, it's very intriguing. It falls under the category of "totally mental", which I think is also the main appeal. It's a modern Buddhist temple, only started in the late 1990s, and is the project of single artist, called Chalermchai Kostipipat (Thai people never go for simple names like "Dave Jones"). What see now is far from the finished article, and predictions for completion extend as far as 2070, well after the artist's death. In that regard, it has something of the Sagrada Familia about it, a single-minded and fantastical creation that is still in construction decades after the artist's or architect's death. Wat Rong Khun is indeed fantastical - a blinding white temple of overwhelmingly intricate detail, packed full of Buddhist mythology and, well, more modern myths: Superman, Batman, and the Predator are all represented inside. Not quite your average temple.

However, after consideration I have rejected it - for now, at least. Let's see how it develops. I looked into it at around the same time I was writing about the Notre-Dame, and except for the insanity factor, and originality to a degree, it falls short of the 850-year-old cathedral in all other ways. It lacks the grandeur, the influence, the stately beauty, the fame, the technical proficiency, and most likely the wow factor that the Notre-Dame possesses - and remember, the Notre-Dame only places at 9th in my current visited list of 27 Wonders. This is a case where novelty has got the place noticed, but isn't quite enough to carry it. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued, and would certainly make the effort to visit if I somehow find myself with time to kill in Thailand in the future.
(Thanks to Justin for the suggestion)

2. Castel Del Monte, Andria, Italy - REJECTED, reluctantly

A few weeks ago, I was round at Justin's, and noticed he had a book - 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die. This was a large book packed with pictures of some of the world's most notable buildings, and a terribly dangerous thing to put in my hands. Gratifyingly, I've already got most of its best suggestions, but I've no doubt a more in-depth read will reveal more. One that jumped out immediately was the Castel Del Monte, something which subsequent photos online have reinforced. A 13th Century citadel by Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, one of the Middle Ages most power emperors. More of a show-castle than a genuine defensive fortress, a little like the faux-fortress of Chateau de Chambord, and so was never the scene of epic sieges or wars.

Despite being around 1000 years old, the strict octagonal geometry and clean architectural look give it an almost modern appearance. I've not seen anything quite like it before, and I find that to be a very impressive and appealing quality. But one crucial thing lets it down - size. The walls are just 25 metres high, which is fairly big, but just not what I expect from a Wonder. If they were 100 metres high, then I think we'd have something truly remarkable. So, with reluctance, I have to reject it. despite the fact I really fancy seeing it (which I can still do, of course, but not in any critical capacity). I suppose I can make do with a nice Google World Wonders stroll around.

3. Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille, France - REJECTED.

This was a suggestion put forward to me in my comments, by Piltup (his counterpart, Piltdown, is half-orangutan, and doesn't suggest much in the way of culturally significant architecture). The reasoning behind is impeccable. Like the Sacre-Coeur, it is positioned prominently at the highest point of the city, is a major icon of the city, and even without all that it's still a damn nice-looking church. So, where does it trip up? Well, perhaps if it was the only church in the world, it would make my list, but it's not, it's only one of thousands, albeit one of the nicer ones. It could be argued, probably with ease, that it's a more attractive and appealing landmark, and dominates Marseilles rather than the Sacre-Coeur's subservience to the more famous landmarks of Paris. But the Paris factor cannot be understated: it's one of the world's great cities and the Sacre-Coeur is right at the top of it. Sure, its fame is dependent upon the city, rather than simply existing in itself, but that doesn't diminish it. I also feel that the Sacre-Coeur's distinctive facade - albeit one which does not appeal to everyone - cannot be overlooked. But ultimately, the Sacre-Coeur doesn't feature very high up on my list, and could be regarded as lucky to be on it at all, and I don't feel the Notre-Dame de la Garde stands out enough in the big bad world of ecclesiastical architecture.

Thanks to Piltup for the suggestion.

4. Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy -REJECTED.

This was brought to my attention by Andrew "H" Henderson, who visited it last year. He described it as a visually arresting cathedral, with the black-and-white juxtaposition of the facade particularly grabbing his attention. Looking at photos of the cathedral, started in the 13th Century, I can see his point. Although detailed, the facade looks clean and simple, and unqeustionably attractive. So why am I rejecting it? Quite simply, size. The tower is 77 metres tall, meaning the facade is a fair bit smaller, and the overall dimensions of it don't compare to the big boys of the church world. Just take a look at its Google Map image, as compared to a few Italian counterparts - Milan Cathedral, Florence Cathedral, and St Peter's Basilica. Thus, given the massive cathedrals around, I don't feel this can compete in terms of grandeur.

Thanks to H for the suggestion

5. Arc De Triomphe, Paris, France - REJECTED.

I visited this just recently, during my short Christmas trip to Paris. It's one of the "Big Four" (at least as far as souvenir vendors are concerned) of Paris sightseeing, alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Notre-Dame, and the Sacre-Coeur. It's probably fair to say that it's very unlucky not to have made my list, as upon visiting it I thought to myself "Yeah, I should probably have added it". It would never have made the top Seven, but it is striking, fairly original, and more famous than fellow attraction, the Sacre-Coeur. It's been placed on my "Unofficial Wonder" list, and would probably have made a decent mid-table position in the official one, but I don't feel its worth the research and time to confirm this.

6. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Thiepval, France - (RE)ACCEPTED

This used to be on my list, but was removed, after some wavering, because I wasn't convinced it was of the scale or effect I was after. I've reconsidered. Looking at pictures, and passing it by on Google Maps has made me remember why it first appealed: it's different. It's not showy, or fancy, and as a war memorial to missing soldiers it's not meant to be. Instead, it has dignity, and I sense the site has a powerful atmosphere - and the thousands of crosses surrounding it are part that and an intrinsic part of the site. The memorial itself is distinctive, arches placed upon arches. And it looks original - the main appeal for me. I don't believe there's anywhere like this in the world. At 45 metres high it's just about the size I expect from a Wonder - that's about the same size as the Treasury in Petra, or the Arc de Troimphe, or about 20-metres taller than Chichen Itza's most famous monument, the El Castillo pyramid. Probably the most sombre of all my Wonders, it looks to have impact.

7. Delta Works, south-west Holland - REJECTED

Another suggestion from Piltup, this is very much focussed on the immense engineeing prowess of these flood control constructions, from dams to sluices to storm surge barriers. And if I was to have a separate quest for engineering Wonders of the World, this would certainly be a candidate. As would the Channel Tunnel, as would the Panama Canal, as would CERN's Large Hadron Collider. But I'm not, I'm looking for places that pack a visual oomph, that are visually inspiring. Technical excellence is certainly a boost, but not essential. Unfortunately, the major engineering work I've visited so far, the Three Gorges Dam, although an awesome feat of engineering, was a considerable let down as a spectacle. The Dutch Delta Works are spread out over 50 square kilometres, are built for function, not aesthetics, and are more a source for appreciative admiration rather jaw-dropping gasps of glee. They are undoubtedly a lot more use than the Taj Mahal, for example, but not quite as pretty. Or, in other words, a bit like a girl who is terrific with a spanner, but that unfortunately looks like she's been hit in the face with a spade.

Thanks to Piltup for the suggestion.

8. Hampi, India - REJECTED.

The historic Hindu village of Hampi has been pushed by Burness, whose brother spent some time there and loved it. Indeed, if we'd had more time India, it would have been our next stop. I have no doubt it's an amazing place but I feel it doesn't quite make the grade of what I'm looking for. It seems like it's packed full of interesting structures and has a great atmosphere, but isn't exactly a cohesive single entity. This is backed up by its UNESCO World Heritage listing as "The Group of Monuments at Hampi". As explained in a previous entry, I feel a Wonder has to either be a single structure or collection of structures, or have a unity of experience. Hampi, like other living towns and cities, is too unfocussed to be a single Wonder, and none of the monuments within stand out as being individual Wonders in their own right, although Virupaksha Temple (pictured) does look pretty interesting.

Thanks to Burness for the suggestion.

9. Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy - REJECTED.

There's a lot going for this - it was begun in the late 14th Century (and remarkably only finished in 1965), it's the fourth or fifth largest cathedral in the world (in terms of area, I think, certainly not height), it has a fabulous interior and a wildly elaborate exterior. So, why reject it? Because I don't see it being the best cathedral out there, and thus I don't see it being anything but a decent mid-table position. It's not the biggest, the most beautiful, the oldest, or most celebrated: it's not going to be a Wonder, I'm afraid. I've got to be strict with these things, you know.

10. Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy - ACCEPTED.

Contrary to my parting words for Milan Cathedral, Florence Cathedral manages to sneak in. Why? Two reasons. One is the dome, the largest dome in the world for four centuries, and once deemed impossible to build. It's a striking and distinctive feature of the cathedral that gives it a particular identity in the huge cathedral category of Wonder hunting. The second, simply is this photo:

Just look at its dominance. This isn't just any old building in Florence, this is the building. Sometimes it just takes one photo, and this is it: Florence Cathedral is on the list.

11. Mada'in Saleh, near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia - REJECTED.

The Nabatean civilisation, around 2000 years ago, were responsible for Petra, in Jordan, which I've not yet visited but is a strong contender for being one of the Seven Wonders. But that's not all they did, about 300 miles away, in the north-west of modern-day Saudi Arabia, is Mada'in Saleh (also called Hegra, or Al-Hijr) and it's more of the same. Buildings, or structures that look like buildings at least, excavated from the rock. It looks pretty cool, and differs from Petra in that much of it is carved from single massive rocks rather than cliff faces. I'm tempted, very tempted, by this but in the end two things conspire to make me decide against adding it: the shadow of Petra, and Saudi Arabia itself.

Undeniably, it suffers from having a bigger, better and more famous version very close, and the absolute lack of any appeal whatsoever at going to Saudi Arabia is the bullet to a dying dog. I'd make the effort if I really thought it stood a chance, and I would like to one day visit, but I'd rather go in a far future day when Saudi is a nicer country. This goes for Mecca too. If I really, genuinely thought Mecca might be one of the Seven Wonders, I'd spend a few years pretending to be a Muslim and then go on a Hajj, no doubt horribly offending the sensibilities of an entire religion. But as a citizen of the 21st Century and the vast wealth of knowledge accumulated at this time, I don't think that the belief in an utterly unsubstantiated mystical being or his prophets or angels is a good reason to prohibit entry to cities and their cultural artefacts (which, in fairness, Saudi is rapidly destroying anyway, not just to the displeasure of anybody who likes the idea of preserving history, but even to the likes of the "Majestic Messages of Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid"). If it does, then hell - I believe in the "Fluffhoof", a mystical flaming hoof of fur that makes the souls of believers glow happily in their ultimate heaven, but non-believers are condemned to an unpleasantly fast spinning sensation for evermore, surrounded by a horrible squealing noise. And the Fluffhoof was created in Glasgow and became magical in Edinburgh, so both these cities are out of bounds to all non-Hoofhounds (as worshippers are called). Rally round Fluffhops (as worshippers are also called) and build a few cultural buildings then ban everyone else from seeing them.

I'm not going to pretend my rationale is entirely coherent here, but just know that I'm not a fan of places that ban outsiders. As it happens, despite it being a deeply unappealing travel destination, Saudi continues to taunt me. They are planning to build a kilometre high tower, the Kingdom Tower, in Jeddah, and so if this actually goes ahead (it's been talked of for a long time) then I'd probably make the effort to visit Saudi, being sure to see Mada'in Saleh too. Of course, being regarded as "haram" (forbidden by Islamic law) we just have to hope it doesn't go the same way as Bamiyan. Nice one, fundamentalists.

A couple of candidate Wonders have also been removed from my list. These are:

I've already talked about the bar being set high for churches and cathedrals, and in Albi's case, it's a little too high. This was added during the summer, upon visiting it during my ten day trip to the south of France. It's a fascinating building, like a fortress from the outside, austere and brick  Allegedly the biggest brick building in the world and looking ready to resist a full-force assault, conversely from the inside it's exquisite and beautiful: enter the fortress and find yourself in heaven. But it's not enough. Having already visited it, I already know it would finish a decent mid-table position, alongside a whole host of other churches if they were to be added to the list. That's not quite enough, I'm afraid.

It's with a degree of reluctance, and after considerable thought, that I'm excising this from the list. It originally came to my attention through an email from my late grandfather, with a slideshow-style attachment. It sounded amazing - up to 85 metres and 20 levels in depth, 10-20,000 people capacity, and an 8-kilometre tunnel to another underground city. But, alas, from what little I can find online, probably not entirely true. Indeed, it does seem to be over 2000 years old, and is indeed a multi-storey series of rooms and chambers underground for a townspeople to hide in during times of trouble. But the scale and dimensions aren't quite at the claimed levels, and although the idea of a hidden underground city is very appealing in concept, I suspect the reality won't quite be the extravaganza the slideshow hype makes it out to be. The rooms aren't big, or ornate, and it sounds more like a really interesting place to visit rather than the showstopper I'm after. It doesn't help that most of material out there is highly dubious, including the History Channel's claims it was built to hide from aerial bombardment from aliens. Yes, you heard me right. I can get very upset thinking about the History Channel sometimes.

Hopefully, I'll still visit it anyway, on an unofficial basis. It's in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, an area of outstanding and freakish natural beauty characterised by improbable rock formations. It's not the only underground city in the area, and the weird rock formations have ancient hermitages and monasteries in them, so I've got high hopes for the area being a fascinating place to visit. Just one lacking the focus of a Wonder.

Being monitored - Timbuktu

Timbuktu's reason for being on my list was because it was on the shortlist of 21 of the highly dubious New7Wonders. I'd not done much in the way of reading about it, but understood it contained a wealth of 15th Century Islamic knowledge and shrines, being all the more notable for being in the middle of the Sahara desert. However, I wasn't sure how singular a sight or experience it was - Timbuktu is a living, albeit quiet and dusty, town, and I hadn't ascertained if the cultural part was contained as a cohesive unit or spread around much in the way that New York's main sites are spread around in an arbitrary manner.

The point may be moot anyway. Mali's been having a rough time of it recently, with Islamic fundamentalists - not really flavour of the day when it comes to cultural heritage, unfortunately - imposing a pretty nasty rule over the north, destroying with pickaxes a number of priceless artefacts and shrines. The French army, backed by a mixture of African groups, have since turfed them out, but the damage is done, including a petulant destruction of large numbers of ancient manuscrupts on the way out. Good job guys, you bunch of ignorant pricks.

I'll have to wait for the dust to settle before making a decision, but Timbuktu minus its artefacts may not exactly be a Wonder of the World.

So, I make that two added, two removed, keeping me at a total of 102. 


  1. Some fascinating potential candidates there, though you seem constistently scrupulous in your decisions.

    Disappointed the Forth Bridge remains off, though.

  2. I've got to be quite tough, otherwise the list would spin way out of control. I'm not looking to do a top 100, just a top 7. With cathedrals especially, I kind of know the rough idea of what I'm going to get, so if I don't think they're going to make the impression of the likes of Cologne Cathedral or Notre-Dame (as well as the many others already listed), it seems silly to add them.

    Forth Bridge is definitely one of a chasing pack, if you like, that isn't altogether off the table. It has that original and unusual quality that appeals, and I believe (from a Twitter link of yours?) plans are being made to make it more accessible for tourism.

  3. Yes that would have been my link. Not before time, either.

    I appreciate you have to be tough. It's just I maintain that the Forth Bridge would be more deserving than Edinburgh Castle on grounds of originality, technical pioneeringness and iconicity. If you were only to put one of the two in, I'd suggest the bridge.

    Mind you, it will probably not be top 7 material, so I can see the point of it not being worth visiting in great detail.

  4. Thanks for featuring ND de la Garde! Here is my thread on the city of Marseille on skyscrapercity, there are some photos that I recently took of it (and the interior). It's towards the bottom of the thread and the following page.

  5. Hi Piltup. Would you be interested in featuring on a Guest Corner of mine? I do them now and again, usually with people I've visited a Wonder with, but your short photo essay on the Notre-Dame de la Garde would be perfect for an entry about "other" Wonders. Let me know - I'll link to the thread, and anything else you want, and credit you as Piltup unless you'd prefer something else. Cheers.

    1. Cheers, I'd be very happy to. Do you need me to rewrite it or do you just want to use it as it is? Oh and being credited as Piltup is fine.

    2. No changes required, it's good as it is. It'll probably be up in a week or two. Cheers.