Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Unofficial Wonders Part 2: The Americas

There are 105 candidate Wonders on my list, but they are not the be-all and end-all: I don't think they are the best 105 structures and sites out there. They just constitute my shortlist to filter down to an eventual top Seven. It's not uncommon when I'm Wonder hunting to encounter something off-list. Some of these I already know about, some are a surprise, but I feel they deserve at least an honorary mention.

I call these Unofficial Wonders and there surely hundreds, if not a lot more, out there.

Unlike my "official" Wonders, I've not done anything in the way of research on these, and I don't apply any kind of visiting rigour to them. I just look at them and think, well, that's nice. If you're not a weird Wonder obsessive like me, with all my rules and criteria, they can be every bit the equal of one of my Wonders. Indeed, some could stake a reasonable claim for being on my list in the first place. Well, tough, they're not.

After my Asian travels, I outlined some of the Unofficial Wonders I'd encountered, and so I'm doing the same now. The following are from the North and South American legs of the travels of last year (with ones from Australia and China thrown in too). It is not definitive, it is simply the ones I happened to get pictured with.

WiƱay Wayna, Peru

"Even better was Winaywayna, which translates as "Forever Young". A huge series of terraces, peppered by giant boulders, with a sun temple on top and a complex network of buildings near the bottom, this was a spectacular set of ruins in a spectacular setting. The Andes are not exactly known for their long flat stretches, so finding land to farm was not exactly easy. So the Incas made their own. Very like the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines, they levelled off sections of land, reinforced it with stones, and created a series of flat surfaces that cling like visible contours to the mountains...

...Flavio [our guide] tended to talk of the Incas as being slightly more utopian than I expect they were - spiritual, in harmony with nature, and a meritocracy that rewarded skills - but there is no doubt they were a sophisticated civilisation with great agricultural, engineering and mathematical prowess. Forget about Machu Picchu, Winaywayna demonstrated this amply."

The Maracana Stadium

"Aside from visiting the Cristo Redentor, twice as per rules, we also visited the following: the Sugarloaf Mountain, the Maracana stadium, Copacabana, the Metropolitan Cathedral, Santa Theresa, some colourful steps, a Starbucks in the city centre, the theatre, an expensive old-style bakery, and saw lots of Lapa... If you want to know any more about them, then check out the Lonely Planet or Wikipedia - that's where I'd be getting my information in these cases."

We were able to sit in the managerial dugouts. Danielle wanted to simulate the experience of celebrating a goal, so jumped up in pretend joy. Immediately, she cracked her head on the plastic covering overhead, causing her quite some anguish. I wonder how often this happens to visiting teams.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"The only one I'll make additional commentary on is the Metropolitan Cathedral. It's the one that looks like a fat industrial chimney. Monstrous, isn't it? Built - surprise! - in the 1960s, it looks about as unlike a cathedral as you could imagine. Which was apparently the idea. The architect - and this is according to the guide on a free tour we went on - felt it was wrong to build a new church in the style of old ones and wanted to build something fresh. So he went all modern and Brutalist and created something that, at first sight, makes you shudder in horror. But, take a closer look. Go inside. It's really very nice.

The cathedral happened to be very close to our apartment in Lapa, and I saw it every day. And I quickly grew to like it, really like it. It's different, and I admire difference in a building, even when it doesn't work. And for those that think the Metropolitan Cathedral doesn't work - I totally understand that. It looks awful. But it grew on me, a lot. It's large, distinctive, and stands out against the crowd.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, USA

"This is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003, and if it looks familiar it's either because you've seen the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or have an over-enthusiastic relationship with aluminium foil. Like the Guggenheim, it's by the architect Frank Gehry, and is quite audacious, sitting at the north end of downtown, at the top of a slope. In my opinion, it is LA's finest moment.

[It] was only finished a decade ago, although the design actually predates that of its more famous sibling, completed in 1997. It was a delight to look at - in the manner of the Sydney Opera House it offers very different views depending on where you stand - and a pleasure to walk around."

The Hollywood Sign, USA

"It has been suggested to me that the Hollywood sign could be considered a Wonder, or at least a candidate on my list, and while this is clearly far off the mark, there's no doubt it's a very iconic sight."

The Big Prawn, Australia

"A giant prawn! First built in 1989 but heavily refurbished just last year (the old one was apparently looking very sorry), the Big Prawn of Ballina is 9 metres tall and weighs 35 tonnes. It's one of Australia's legion of "big things", over-sized versions of innocuous items as roadside attractions. There is no doubt in my mind that the Big Prawn is right up there, to rival the Taj Mahal and Pyramids." 

Oriental Pearl Tower, China

"Shanghai has taller buildings and Shanghai has better buildings, but nothing else in the world has anything as outstandingly outlandish as the Oriental Pearl Tower. Whether as magnificent monument or just clown on a unicycle, no doubt, it catches the eye. An astonishing 468 metres high - that's like Big Ben on top of the Empire State Building - and looking it's been ripped off from some 1950s science fiction B-movie, seldom have I ever encountered anything so delightfully preposterous. And I love it.  

One World Trade Center, USA

"541 metres tall, or a symbolic 1776 feet (1776 being America's year of independence), it's virtually finished and I have to say, it looks alright. In the manner of the original two, it's a fairly no-nonsense colossal glass tower and won't win awards for elegance or poise, but it gets by on sheer size and reputation. The original two were four-sided blocks, but One World Trade Center has a neat little trick of having interlocking triangles rise from the 20th floor, giving it eight sides. This can look quite unusual (in a good way) from certain views.

John Hancock Center, USA

"A less compelling building is the Hancock Center. It's not bad though, not for a modern skyscraper. It was built in 1969, though looks fresher than that (i.e. it's not a monstrous concrete obscenity). It's big - 344 metres, or 459 metres if you count these cheeky pointy bits. This makes it the 39th tallest building in the world, or the 4th tallest in Chicago, though when it was built it was second tallest in the world, behind only the Empire State Building. Anyway, it's got an observation deck, and although Danielle and I are beginning to get a little sick of going up really tall towers (the last couple of weeks have seen the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building,  and the CN Tower), we thought we'd give it a look. Yeah, it's alright."

Cloud Gate aka The Bean, USA

"It's a sculpture that looks like a gigantic, reflective bean. If this description makes you think "Uh...?" then it's only because it's something that needs to be experienced rather than described. It's about 13 metres tall and 20 metres long, and is extremely polished and mirror-like, but its curved shape makes the reflections distorted. There are no visible joins - it appears as a single object, not built from parts. The artist - a British artist called Anish Kapoor who also did London's weird Olympic tower, the (ahem) ArcelorMittal Orbit, which looks like a traumatised rollercoaster - intended for the bean to resemble a blob of mercury, and it really, really does. It's a fascinating sight."

The only thing standing against The Bean making my list is size. It's an incredible piece of sculpture, but its relatively diminutive size (as compared to my other Wonders) means it remains a piece of sculpture rather than a monument. If it happened to be five times bigger, I think it would have a decent crack at my list.

Crazy Horse Memorial, USA

"This is even bigger than Mount Rushmore, and has been in progress, often very slow progress, since 1948.
It's an interesting work, although except for the face still looks rather like a large quarry, so it's difficult to be wowed by it as yet. Likely, there are decades more work to go, and perhaps I won't live long enough to see it finished. Displays inside the visitor's centre give an idea of how it will one day look.

Cahokia Mounds, USA

"You have to use your imagination a little when visiting Cahokia. It's a large expanse of grass with mounds that are just a little bit too regular to be naturally occurring. It would have been a thriving city and is full of secrets and history we'll never know. The main man though is Monks Mound, named because some French missionaries had a chapel on top of it for a while in the 18th Century. It's big, but because it's covered in grass, it doesn't have the impact a big pile of stones might have. Again though, it's too regular to be natural. It reminds me of a grass covered version of Teotihuacan, or the 1st Emperor of China's tomb (guarded by the Terracotta Warriors).

The figures are impressive. The base is larger than that of the Great Pyramid, at 290 by 255 metres, and it's 28 metres high. Soil samples reveal that it is largely built from non-local soil, some from hundreds of miles away, and it calculated it would have taken the equivalent of 43 million baskets filled with soil to build. That's a lot of work. A large building of some kind would once have graced the top, though it's long gone, and there would have been a log stairway, now replaced with a concrete one, which is easier on the visitors' feet.

Bay Bridge, USA

"The Bay Bridge was originally on my Wonder list, on its very early drafts, mostly based on it being really long. That's why I removed it, because although a handsome-enough bridge, that's pretty long, it's hardly the stuff of legends. It's not even one bridge anyway, but two bridges (one of which is a modern replacement) connected by an island. Still, seen from the San Francisco side, the suspension part is impressive to behold."  

Puebla Cathedral, Mexico

"With the nation's tallest cathedral at the heart, the city of Puebla had a small town feel, and the streets were lined with quaint colourful buildings."

Monte Alban, Mexico

"Imagine Machu Picchu crossed with Teotihuacan, micro version, and you've got Monte Alban. An impressive collection of mountaintop ruins, with pyramids, platforms, and temples mostly gathered round a central courtyard area, it was the capital city of the Zapotecs, and anything up to 25,000 people might have once lived in the surrounding hillsides. "

1 comment:

  1. Never mind "The Bean" being considered a wonder if it were five times bigger - what about "The Prawn" blown up to several orders of magnitude! I kind of like the idea of future archaeologists going to Australia and trying to make sense of their Big Things. Especially the prawn, one of the creatures of the animal kingdom that is strangely neglected when it comes to religion and worship.


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