Midnight in Savannah’s Garden of Good and Evil

Savannah’s Mercer Williams House, where art and antiques dealer Jim Williams shot a local male prostitute, the story central to John Berendt’s book and Clint Eastwood’s film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Photos from visitsavannah.com
The fountain at the north end of Forsyth Park; the park is the biggest in Savannah’s historic district, covering 30 acres.

Every time someone tells me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I point to two movies: Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Alexander Payne’s Sideways.

No, not always.

I saw the movies first before I read the books — Sideways by Rex Pickett, and Midnight by John Berendt, which was a damn good book — but it was the movies that I fell in love with. Eastwood’s film put Savannah, Georgia on the global tourism map — suddenly everyone wanted to see its garden squares every three blocks, its wooden houses that can only be described as languid, like a woman on a chaise lounge being sketched by an artist and, above all, the Bird Girl statue.

While Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump was also shot there, to my mind the location wasn’t as crucial as it was in Midnight. It didn’t have me putting it on my bucket list, Midnight did. One can argue that central to both movies are quirky characters that made Savannah memorable or that it was only Savannah that has in real life such characters that any other location was impossible.

I flew from Manila almost a decade ago to have a look at the Bird Girl statue, formerly at Bonaventure Cemetery and later transferred to Telfair Museum, because I was so in love with the film version of “Midnight.”

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was written by former Esquire and New York magazine editor John Berendt. Published in 1994, Berendt’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and spent 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, a record unbroken to this day.

Midnight also has one of the best book covers ever: a haunting picture of what the world would come to call the Bird Girl, a bronze sculpture of a girl holding bird feeders in both hands. There were four statues made from a cast and one of them ended up in local family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. When Random House sent a photographer to shoot the cover for Berendt’s book, the author suggested that he find a subject in the cemetery and the photographer found the statue as the light was fading.

I’m a whodunit kind of girl, I love a murder mystery in any genre and there’s one at the heart of Midnight — the shooting of a local male prostitute (“a good time not yet had by all”) amid a slew of peculiar characters, socialites, old and new money swirling in Southern Gothic atmosphere. It’s Eastwood, but at times it feels like you’re  in the middle of a Robert Altman movie with its not-so-subtle class tension.

What Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood in 1966, what Susan Orlean did with The Orchid Thief in 1998, Berendt did as successfully with Midnight: he wrote news and the subsequent court trial as a novel and rearranged chronological events to fit his purpose. All three were made into movies, but to me only Midnight is a better film than the book, which doesn’t take anything away from the author because Eastwood was essentially handed a ready-made script that he filmed three years after the book’s publication.

The Kehoe House historic bed and breakfast.
Among the many tours is a ghost and haunted house tour which includes haunted hotels like this one.

In the film, Town & Country journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) comes to Savannah on assignment to cover a who’s-who party hosted by the town’s beloved art and antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). At some point in the night, Williams shoots the temperamental male prostitute Danny Hansford (Jude Law) and maintains that he did it in self-defense.

Surrounding this murder are locals that include a man paid to walk an imaginary dog, a drag queen, a lot of drinking and canapés on the crime scene — and voodoo rituals. All for real, including the city’s famous drag queen who portrayed herself in the movie.

It is the American South, after all.

“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace,” Berendt writes. “The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure that would not have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

Savannah’s City Market includes restaurants and bars and a pedestrian promenades where bands play all day. Photos from City Market/flickr.com

Eastwood portrays all this in a brilliant pace, in scenes that are deeply atmospheric with beautiful shots of the houses, haunting trees dimpling the sunlight and voodoo rituals, contrasting all these against Cusack’s New York ethos.

“This place is fantastic! It’s like Gone with the Wind on mescaline,” Cusack tells his editor. “They walk imaginary pets here, and they’re all armed and drugged. New York is boring.”

* * *

All this was why I wanted to go to Savannah. It wouldn’t be for many, many years since the movie’s release that I’d actually make the trip, still a fave from my solo travels.

By this time, Savannah had become a tourist destination with movie location tours that included Williams’ Mercer House, where the murder took place, and Bonaventure Cemetery, where thousands of tourists would trample on other gravesites to see the Bird Girl.

Then the city said, enough!

Trolley tours in Savannah drop tourists off City Market.
If you want to discover America’s 18th- and 19th-century architecture, head to Savannah, which has preserved and re-purposed many of its houses in the historic district.

When I arrived at my hotel, the receptionist told me the Bird Girl was no longer at Bonaventure Cemetery. My heart literally stopped for a second. I had finally saved enough money for the trip — did I just fly 14,000 kilometers for nothing?

No, they had merely transferred the sculpture, which was donated to the city by the family that owned it, to Telfair Museum in the middle of town. It wasn’t the same as seeing it in a cemetery but it was there.

The museum had the stupid rule of no photography (it’s a statue!) and a burly security guard waved his hands at me in warning.

I quickly realized that in Savannah, gumption and charm go a long way. I told him, “I flew across the Pacific to see this statue and I just want to take a picture of it.”

”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.

Not only did I get the guard to let me take a picture of the Bird Girl, he actually took a picture of me with it.

Every travel, in the end, is like a movie script. There is that which you follow, and then there’s improvisation. I improvised in Savannah after I had done what I went there for. I walked its streets, visited its houses, sat on the bench in the square where Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Indeed, Forrest, indeed.

But there was something more than that — a city that hummed to its own beat, through the breeze ruffling the Spanish Moss in the squares, something genuine that was becoming obvious to me slowly, sweetly.

”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.
Candy store in slow-paced, lovely City Market.

They drank in the morning, they played music in the squares, they played Free Bird continuously, the street band becoming bigger as passersby participated not just took pictures because in 2010, no one cared all that much about Facebook or Instagram.

At the time, the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse said that more than eight percent of Savannah’s adults were “known alcoholics.”

Eastwood captures this throughout the film and in one scene, Cusack is told: “We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’”

But Sunday was a different story. I went to the supermarket to buy wine and found the aisles cordoned off. I asked a salesperson why. He said, “Because it’s Sunday.” Again, I asked why. “Because of God,” he said. “It’s the law.”

”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.

He began to walk away before I could wrap my head around this and I said, “Hey, wait, out of curiosity, can I buy a gun on a Sunday?” He turned and looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question in the world and said, “Yes, of course.”

Since we’re on the topic of drinking and movies being better than books, let me say something about Alexander Payne’s Sideways, set in the vineyards and wineries of Sta. Inez Valley.

Failed novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) is asked by Maya (Virginia Madsen) why he was so into Pinot. He fumbles around and says because it’s a hard grape to grow, “it’s not a survivor like Cabernet.”

Then he asks her why she’s into wine. She says, “I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.”

You can’t buy alcohol in Savannah on a Sunday, but you can buy a gun.

It’s one of the quietest scenes that’s ironically filled with dialogue, and that’s what I love about it. It may also be the one scene that won for both acting awards — the way Sofia Coppola made a star out of Bill Murray again in Lost in Translation. That sadness, that quiet desperation that no one else understands except those that finish a bottle of whiskey and black out after, and in the morning wish they had died instead.

But never mind that. Back to Savannah with its street music and unreasonable Sunday alcohol law…

I was asked by friends later how I liked the place. I told them that through the wind that traveled through its New York-like grid, its voodoo rituals, its historic district, the wooden houses that gossiped about the most scandalous affairs and murders, the movies and books, and my own failings — I told them that of all the cities in the US that I’ve been to, Savannah was the only place I could imagine setting my luggage down for.

Twenty minutes form downtown Savannah is Tybee Island with a historic lighthouse and wooden cottages.

Oh Canadian Rockies, how beautiful you are!

Banff, Banff, my baby shot me down. Canada’s Banff National Park in Western Alberta is a spectacular display of nature and wildlife spread across 6,000 square kilometers.  (Photos by Nic Soro)
Janice Soro, Tanya Lara and Chormela Santos in a 2011 reunion in Canada.

My high school friends living in Canada are telling me they have the perfect spot for taking pictures at Banff National Park, west of Calgary in Alberta province. Or what to my mind is Canada’s Freezer.

It feels like Alberta hasn’t been introduced to spring all these years.

Chormela, Janice and I are going to Banff, a two-hour drive from Chor’s house in Rocky Ridge, where from her terrace you can see the Canadian Rockies on a clear day. From Banff, we are going to Lake Louise and Jasper National Park.

My itinerary, which they did for me, has never been so full of nature (three national parks including Waterton) and just one city (Calgary) to explore.

I feel like a fish out of water.

Stunning views of the Canadian Rockies from the funicular at Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park, established in 1885.
Some of the wildlife we saw at  Banff and Jasper National Parks.

I live in the dense urban sprawl that is Metro Manila, which makes Banff’s 6,000 square kilometers of nature mind-boggling to me.

My two hands aren’t enough to count the billionaire developers in Manila that would merrily bulldoze these forests without a second thought to build condominiums and malls, and then call it “progress.”

Both of them and Janice’s husband Nic have been to Banff countless times to take visiting Filipino friends and they assure me that they know all the picture-perfect spots in the huge park.

So where can we take pictures with the Rockies in the background?

“In the parking lot,” they say.


True enough, Banff town’s parking lot is framed by the Rocky Mountains, that mountain system that runs from Alberta to British Columbia and in the  south borders the US states Idaho and Montana.

A glacial lake within Banff, Lake Louise is named after Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise Caroline Alberta.
Originally built as a base for outdoor enthusiasts and alpinists in 1890, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For 130 years, Banff National Park has been a protected wildlife park. Even though hundreds of thousands of tourists visit, it is as unspoiled as it has ever been when only explorers came here.

The few facilities they built are all geared toward the appreciation of nature. There’s a funicular with glass gondolas that let visitors see the mountain ranges from the top, there are the hiking trails and in winter the place turns into a skiing resort.

Lake Louise, located within Banff, is “the most beautiful lake in the world,” they tell me. Named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, who married the governor general of Canada in the late 1800s, Lake Louise is a stunning emerald lake.

Nic Soro and daughter Hannah in Lake Louise.

Its water comes from the melt-water of Victoria Glacier and is so clear you can see the tiniest stones on the lake bed.

From there, we drive to Jasper and get lost finding our lodgings for the night called Pocahontas Cabins. I half expect a girl in braids to welcome us at the hotel, but no such luck.

The place looks like a movie set with the cabins  made of logs and topped with red roofs. Our cabin has one bedroom, which Janice’s husband and their daughter Hannah occupy, and the three of us girls share the king-size foldout in the living room.

It feels like a giggly sleepover in high school all over again.

Called Pocahontas Cabins, the hotel blends with the mountain scenery and is located near the hot springs of Miette in Jasper National Park.
Having arrived at night, we explore the grounds of Pocahontas Cabins as soon as we we wake up — still in our pajamas!

* * *

Jasper National Park is even bigger than Banff at 10,000 square kilometers. We drive to Miette Hot Springs, which has the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies.

Water comes from the mountain at 54 degrees Celsius (129°F) and is cooled down to 40 degrees for the pools.

They have to cool the water down.

The same hot water that comes from the snow-covered mountains. Go figure!

There are mostly elderly Canadians in the pools because the hot springs are supposed to be curative and good for your joints. They tell us they love our tan and ask where we are from. We laugh and say, it’s not a tan, it’s our color  (though Janice is so fair you could mistake her for another race).

I don’t know how my friends talked me into this. Because, seriously, every time I get out of the pool, I feel like five people are throwing buckets of ice water at me and yelling, “Suuuckerrr!”

Miette Hot Springs has the hottest springs in the Canadian Rockies. Every time I get out of the pool, it feels like five people are throwing buckets of ice water at me.

I don’t ever want to get out of the warm water. I want to live in this pool!

It’s June and it’s still incredibly cold in Alberta.

My friends have been living here from five to 11 years that they’re like Eskimos now, having survived winters of -45°C (-49°F). When the temperature dips down to 10 degrees, they call it a nice summer day.

They have saved their best Alberta joke for me at Columbia Ice Field on our way back to Calgary. The ice field straddles the two national parks, on the southwestern tip of Banff and the northwestern edge of Jasper.

Of all the archeological discoveries in Alberta (which include dinosaur fossils), the ice field was one of the last to be known to man because of the harsh weather conditions.

British explorer Norman Collie wrote in 1898: “A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.”

Columbia Ice Field is located at the northwestern tip of Banff. Yep, that tiny thing on the ice is our snow-mobile tour bus.
The ice below the ground we are walking on at Columbia Ice Field is as deep as the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The ice below the ground we are walking on is as deep as the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (324 meters or 1,062 feet).

Oh but how beautiful it is!

It’s so white that you need sunnies because the bright light reflected just hurts your eyes.

The ice field was formed 230,000 BC ago. Just think about its age for a moment — and then think about humanity and the earth’s evolution.

Janice, her husband Nic and daughter Hannah are leaving after another night in Calgary.

They are going back to their hometown Hanna, which has fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, a town so small that the top gossip for the past months has been about a guy who was having an affair with an officemate, and the wife followed them to a motel where she got a spare key from the front desk, and caught them in flagrante delicto.

It is also the hometown of the band Nickelback.

I happen to like Nickelback back in the day — without shame — but I think with a town like Hanna I’d want to get out too…and it kind of explains their lyrics.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller has more than than 130,000 fossils. The dinosaur above me is in its Death Pose — head thrown back, tail extended, and mouth open. With humans, that’s probably the Orgasm Pose — if we had tails.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, where indigenous people without tools killed buffaloes 5,500 years ago by leading them to a chase off a cliff; Red Rock waterfalls; the Hoodoo rock formations; and the mountain border between Waterton, Canada and Montana, the US.

* * *

Chormela and I are in a deli ordering wieners for lunch at Waterton National Park when two white-haired old ladies come in and stand behind us looking at the menu on the wall, which offers choices from small to long and extra-long wieners.

I whisper to her in Kapampangan, “If we’re still traveling just the two of us when we reach their age, we’re gonna do a Thelma & Louise.”

She says, “Who are Thelma and Louise?”

I stare at her incredulously. “Are you kidding me? It’s just the best ending there is of a chick road trip movie!”

I explain to her that rather than get arrested for shooting a rapist, Thelma and Louise drive off the Grand Canyon on their 1966 Ford Thunderbird and the frame freezes on the plunge down.

“But why is that a good ending?”

She has a point there.

The Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, near the Canada-US border, is closed because of the weather — in June! — even though Waterton is warmer than Banff.

I couldn’t distinguish American and Canadian accents from each other until I am on a boat doing a tour of Waterton on my own. It’s a tour Chor has taken four times with visiting friends that she can’t stand another one or her head will explode.

I say, okay, I don’t want to drive back to Calgary with a headless passenger.

The Canadian tour guide is talking about the Rockies bordering the US state Montana, and somehow his accent is subtly different from the neutral American accent that I am more accustomed to hearing.

I can’t put my finger on it, but dammit, Canadians really do say “aboot” instead of “about.”

South Park was right all along.

Throughout this vacation, my friends have been telling me why Canada was their country of choice when they left Manila and Baguio (like hundreds of thousands of Filipinos). It’s a tolerant society like no other, they say.

Some landscapes in Canada’s Alberta region are so beautiful they don’t need description or a caption….also because I don’t remember where this is.
A happy reunion in Alberta — Tanya Lara, Chormela Santos, Janice Soro and little Hannah Soro.

In fact, when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed back to Beijing, most of the rich packed their bags and migrated to Canada instead of anywhere else in the former British Empire.

I mention this because my friends have been asking me to move to Canada for over a decade, and my answer has always been, “And do what? Every country has a surplus of journalists and writers. Besides, I like living in Manila.”

Chor and I have shared many happy, tough and sad times in our lives, including divorce, even as we live thousands of kilometers and thirteen time zones apart.

We Skype several times a week wherever I am the world and I think our closeness is partly because our lives have taken such different roads, and in our physical distance we know that we won’t hurt each other the way people around us could and would.

When she came home to Manila, she stayed in my house where we spent lazy days ordering pizza and pancit in between her schedule of seeing other friends, a high school reunion, a New Year’s Eve party at the Peninsula, and then flying to Hong Kong separately for another reunion.

With all my friends in North America, I laugh myself silly every time until it’s time to drive to the airport. In Manila, Calgary, Toronto, New York, San Diego, Boston, Baltimore or Washington, DC, it’s always the same scene at the end — tight hugs and tears and goodbyes.

Thinking of my friends in Canada and the US, my heart expands and contracts at the same time. Maybe this is why it’s taken me 19 other stories on this blog before writing about them.

Architecture, love, loss & liberty

WTC, Silverstein Properties, New York
World Trade Center today. “Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can,” says WTC master plan architect Daniel Libeskind. (Photos from Studio Libeskind/libeskind.com)
Daniel Libeskind: “Because I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty, freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas is so important.” (Photo by Fernan Nebres/Philippine Star)

(I interviewed World Trade Center/Ground Zero architect Daniel Libeskind for my newspaper when he came to Manila at the end of May 2014. This story first appeared in The Philippine Star on June 7, 2014. All journalists hate transcribing interviews and this may very well be the only one in my 20 years as a writer where I didn’t want transcribing to end.) 

It felt like he was in a movie, says architect Daniel Libeskind on his first sighting of New York, a city that he has called his home since arriving here as a young boy fleeing Europe with his parents and sister in the 1950s. A city that, more than four decades later, would have a huge gaping hole and it would be on his shoulders that the task to fill it with people’s collective memory and hope would fall.

The Libeskinds — Dora and Nachman and their children Daniel and Ania — were, in fact, “among the last waves of immigrants to arrive in the United States by boat,” on the Constitution. Their journey took them from Poland to the Soviet Union, back to Poland, to Israel and finally the United States. Coming into the New York harbor, it also felt to him that they were “Israelites arriving in the Promised Land, but we were also Joseph, leaving it. Our real promised land would be New York City.”

“Reflecting Absence,” the fountains and pools at the 9/11 Memorial are surrounded by the names of all the victims, etched into a bronze parapet, of the 2001 and 1993 attacks.
WTC Site Day, Silverstein Properties, New York, USA
“After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them,” says Libeskind. “It’s something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives.”

In 2001, the Manhattan skyline that he had grown to love would change drastically — as would the rest of the world because the attacks on the World Trade Center assured that nothing would ever be the same after the buildings and the people inside them came crashing down.

Libeskind was in Berlin that day to open the Jewish Museum, which he designed while living there. It wouldn’t open until three days after and by that time he was determined to go back to New York. In 2003, Daniel Libeskind’s firm won the competition to master-plan Ground Zero and a decade later the first structure, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, would be completed.

I expected Libeskind to be taller, to have broader shoulders — or at least the kind of physique that would move one to say that, yes, he could carry the weight of all that heartache and sorrow that warranted the construction of the memorials he has designed both in Berlin and New York. But he is neither tall nor big nor does he have a booming voice either. He speaks softly and warmly and with an accent that is distinctly New Yorker and Polish. (At some point during the interview, I even thought he sounded a little like Martin Scorsese.)

His home in New York is a constant reminder of how important memory is — and memory is a theme that finds its way into his architecture and his speech, as if telling us we must always remember and also hope. This is the nature of people. They move on. They rebuild. And one day they are able to look up toward the sky again.

In the mornings, Libeskind wakes up to a view of Ground Zero from his large picture windows in Lower Manhattan, and from his studio the view is also of Ground Zero but from another angle. And from the time he walks out of his front door and returns home at night, the light that drapes Ground Zero changes many times over, because the day progresses, the city is somehow altered, and no one day in New York is, after all, exactly the same as another.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin. Libeskind was here to open it on Sept. 11, 2001. It wouldn’t open until days after the terrorist attacks in New York.

Tell us about your experience in master-planning Ground Zero. You had about 15 to 20 million “judges” during the competition in 2003.

That’s true, maybe more! It was under high scrutiny, the highest level of interest in any project ever built in the world, and the highest level of emotion, too. And I think it was a project that changed the way people saw urban planning.

After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them. Something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives. It was a very meaningful process. It showed how difficult democracy is, how important society is. Everybody has an opinion but also not everybody has to agree with what you do. Initially it was very controversial but now that it’s built, people see the harmonious design and it delivers something very important to the city.

During the construction, when you were seeing everything coming up together slowly, was it an emotional experience for you?

The courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

Very emotional. You know, I started when there was just a devastated hole, a void in the center of New York. It was very sad in the beginning, it was like a wound that people wouldn’t even come near it.

Then as I was working on it and my master plan began to take shape, you could see the change not only on the site but in people’s souls. Slowly, people would come to the site in a different way, they could look with their eyes, some of the sadness began to disappear, and something positive began to emerge. And that’s how I always see it.

Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, which we have seen in the war, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can because it can change people’s lives in a positive way.

And as I said, 60,000 people have moved to Lower Manhattan as a result of the construction. It’s a new city. Lower Manhattan was kind of a lost area, it was like Wall Street at night — empty — and suddenly it has become a new center of the city with schools and new families moving in, so it’s been a renaissance, the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

Your book Breaking Ground is a moving tribute not just to Ground Zero but also to your immigrant past. Visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague, I realized how much his being Jewish and being Jewish in that city shaped his literature. How did your experience as a Jewish immigrant in New York City shape your architecture, if it did at all?

Windows at the Jewish Museum in Berlin as part of Star of David matrix (Photo by Michele Nastasi/from libeskind.com)

Oh, definitely! If you don’t come from a privileged background, if you have hardship, it creates a very different sense — it’s not a sense of entitlement, it’s a sense of having to work, of having to do things, often to go against the current. Of course, your family, your circumstances, how you grow up shape who you are in every case.

That kind of influence can be easily discerned in literature, how does it manifest in architecture?

I think because I grew up in a totalitarian country, I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty,  freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas, to extend a little more the imaginative horizon is so important.

The Run Run Shaw Media Center in Hong Kong (Photo by Gollings Photography/from libeskind.com)

Speaking of imagination, the world has seen, especially in China, buildings that are shaped rather absurdly like Rem Koolhaas’ “Underpants” building in Beijing. What do you think of this kind of architecture?

That’s a great question. I think that the computer has led to a kind of absurdity in architecture because with the simple operation of a finger, digitally you can create any shape you want, and you can also construct it because you have the method that the computer provides you, but that doesn’t make for good architecture.

It’s not enough to wave a magic wand and create a nice shape because architecture is not about shapes or about pretty elevations. It’s about the actual space, the atmosphere that the building provides. Atmosphere is not something that is on any calculation sheet, it’s not on any piece of statistic because it’s ineffable, it’s not something you can measure with an instrument, it’s something very human.

When you feel you’re in a beautiful space, in a room that makes you feel good, or you’re in a city that is dignified, those are things that you cannot statistically achieve by a computer or by any operation using just a couple of fingers to create a shape. Of course, there’s been a lot of excessive manipulation on the computer that produces shapes that are interesting for about five seconds and later on you wonder why.

Century Spire in Manila has a top whose shape “unfolds.”

Architecture is not like a piece of fashion that can be thrown away, it’s there for a long time. Architecture a cultural discipline, not a fashion discipline. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about culture and culture is deep — it’s about history, memory, ideas that have shaped people’s values. It’s not superficial or about creating novelty.

Did you see the skyline of Manila before agreeing to design a building here?

Sure, I was here many years ago. Today, Manila’s quickly growing, it’s very impressive. But it needs…

It needs architectural icons.

Definitely, a city needs iconic buildings and new ideas. I think this building will transform the skyline, give a sense that there is a future and it’s not just looking at what other cities are doing.

What is your favorite skyline in the world?

Libeskind09_by_bitter_bredt fotografie-studio_libeskind
Holocaust Tower in Berlin. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

I love the skyline of Manhattan because I live there. It’s a skyline that’s also changing all the time. Look at the skyline of London, just some years ago it was very static, until they allowed London to really develop in unpredictable ways, even the area near St. Paul’s Church. Versus Paris, which is a very set skyline that hasn’t changed.

So in a way you can see how London has outpaced Paris because its skyline has changed it. It has also signaled that London is developing in a much quicker and more diversified way and it’s not in a museum mold. Skylines are important signs of the development of cities.

Why is it that some buildings that are now loved were hated by people at the time they were first completed?  Most often they are ridiculed, such as “The Gherkin” by Norman Foster and yet it’s now one of London’s icons.

Always. Because they’re new and people are set in their ways, they know what they like, they’re habituated. Habit is a shackle for the free.  You know when it’s genuine — not everyone says “great.”

Have you had to battle this kind of attitude with your clients?

Oh sure, every project. Even a small house that I recently completed. In the beginning the Jewish Museum in Berlin was critically attacked by everybody. All the experts said it was terrible, nobody would come, nobody would understand, but they were proven wrong because the public grows to appreciate these things.

Zlota at night in Warsaw, Poland

That’s also the nature of art. Look at all the great paintings that we now see as great. When they were first painted people thought they were horrible — Van Gogh’s paintings were not considered good, the paintings of Picasso were sold for very little for many years, Andy Warhol was considered stupid. But now when you look at art museums, wow, those people that recognized the talent were very few.

There’s a famous quote of Picasso’s conversation with Gertrude Stein on his portrait of her and which is now at the Metropolitan in New York. When he finished painting it, she said to him, “You know, Mr. Picasso, it’s a very nice picture but it doesn’t look at all like me.” And he said, “Don’t worry, it will.” And now that is our vision of Gertrude Stein. That is Gertrude Stein. We don’t have any other Gertrude Stein. So that’s art. People see but art envisions how people will see in the future.

Ko-Bogen in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Kirscher Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

What are your top three favorite buildings in the world?

That’s very difficult to answer. As I said in my book (Breaking Ground), architecture is like a spectrum, like a rainbow. You don’t choose what color from the rainbow is your favorite, you choose the rainbow. It is the diversity, the whole range that makes the world beautiful.

Tampere Deck and Central Arena in Finland.

I like architecture across time, I like vernacular architecture, local architecture that doesn’t even have a name to call it, I like some of the great masterpieces in Asia, Europe, South America, some of the great wonders of the world that have been destroyed, like the Library of Alexandria, the fantastic Temple at Ephesus. You have to have an imaginative mind to navigate through this beautiful world.

I love that anecdote about Goethe choosing the rainbow that you quote in your book. And yet your designs for the Jewish Museum and Ground Zero show your fascination with light and shadows and time of day. How do you reconcile all this in your design?

We wouldn’t have any light if we didn’t have any shadow. Light and shadow intertwine. Every ray of light produces a shadow. And so we know that shadows are as important as light and we have to take account of that in everything.

Shadows kind of manipulate people’s emotions, don’t they?

Not only are we in the light but we are also in the shadows. You can say that life is a flame but there is also a kind of internal sun inside of us, the soul. Light and shadow are part of the images of the world for all eternity.

At daytime, Zlota in Warsaw,

People have a sense of what life in Manhattan is like from mass media, what is life like for you living there?

It’s fantastic. What I love about Manhattan, about New York is that it’s a macrocosm of the world. The truth is people may not love each other but they all live together very well and that’s the beauty of New York, that it’s a city of tolerance.

You can be from anywhere in the world and nobody sees you as an immigrant, you’re just part of the city. The beauty is not just its nice skyline but the attitude that strangers are welcome and that people of different religions, languages, places and beliefs can live happily with each other. That to me is a good model for the world.

Was there a discernible change in attitude before and after 9/11?

Sure. Before 9/11 people often took for granted what America was. After 9/11, we saw things — not all good things — like tolerance and bigotry but it also taught people what a democracy is, how to move society forward, how to take the memory of what happened and turn it into something positive. That was my plan.

There’s always a danger in such a thing, that you can unbalance a city. It can make a sad place of the city but it can also pay homage to these thousands of people from over 90 different countries that died. You can use that as a hinge to create a beautiful 21st-century New York, to affirm liberty and the beauty of the streets, of walking around the city and being able to be part of it.

Libeskind13_by_bitter_bredt fotografie-studio_libeskind
Studio Weil in Mallorca, Spain. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

I am reminded of the Cupola by Norman Foster on the Reichstag in Berlin. How do you feel about new architecture being added to centuries-old structures?

That’s a very good building and Norman’s a great architect and he did a fantastic job. I think it’s a creative way to use a traditional device with new technology and a new sense.

Was there resistance from your mother when you wanted to be a designer?

It was the other way around. I wanted to be an artist, she said no, as an artist you will be very poor, you will not even be able to buy a pencil. She said, “Be an architect because you can always be an artist in architecture but you cannot be an architect in art, and in this way you can hook two fish with one hook.” Very wise woman.

Do you still design manually?

Libeskind’s initial sketches for Ground Zero.

Only. I have many computers in my studios but I do design the traditional way. I start with a drawing and I make a small model myself. It’s a very traditional art; of course we have new tools but the  tools  cannot replace tradition in my view.

For instance, I have a drawing app and  I can draw with my fingers on the screen of the iPad and it’s so fantastic. When I travel around the world, I draw and send them to my office. And I can draw in a very primitive way — with my finger. How fantastic! People have not done that in thousands of years — in the sand with their finger and now to create a building or to respond to a shape, what a wonderful world.

* * *

(Link to the original version of this story: http://www.philstar.com/modern-living/2014/06/07/1331804/daniel-libeskind-ground-zero-manila)

Things a Chicago local wants you to know

Chicago 1,000 feet from the ground, seen from the Hancock Observatory, now called 360 Chicago, located on Magnificent Mile. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

Randy Hunt has lived in many cities in the United States. A software developer based in Chicago for Discovery Channel online, Randy and his family moved a lot throughout his childhood, “bouncing between Chicago and other places.”

“My family is all from Chicago and though I’m not a ‘native  (he was born in Wisconsin), this has always been home to me,” he says.

Randy is also a polyglot who runs the popular blog yearlyglot.com, a language-learning site with thousands of regular readers (he believes anyone can learn any language within a year – and they don’t even have to enroll in expensive language courses). To date, he speaks about seven languages at varying levels — English, German, Polish, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Persian — some he can speak and write (Russian), others he can carry on hours-long conversations, say, about Pinocchio (Italian), the Grimm Brothers’ stories (German) or Kafka (the author wrote in German, rather than Czech), and some he can show people directions, and then sometimes it’s simply to greet and make the girl at his favorite coffee place giggle and blush (Persian).

Chicago local and software engineer Randy Hunt (yearlyglot.com) says, “Everything about this city is balanced between opposites.” (Photo by Marianka Campisi)
Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (The Bean) is the centerpiece of Millennium Park.

All of which makes Chicago the perfect city for him — a city of natives, immigrants and ambition. (“There are more Polish people in Chicago than any other city in Poland except Warsaw,” he says.)

Over vodka cocktails (naturally, the European variety), Randy told me about Chicago’s duality and why Chicagoans would rather put a wet hand in a live socket than put ketchup on their hotdog.

What makes Chicago special to you personally?

Randy Hunt: What truly makes Chicago unique is that everything is a duality. Everything about this city is balanced between opposites: it’s a city with big skyscrapers, but it’s also made up of large sprawling neighborhoods. It’s the marriage of brick and stainless steel. It’s the intersection between nature and industry. You can find everything here, often just a few feet apart. I really prefer large cities and big architecture. Chicago is the birthplace of modern architecture, particularly the skyscraper (the Home Insurance building, built in 1884). I love being around the skyscrapers.

What is the quintessential Chicago experience? What are things that visitors should not miss?

Chicago is famous for its deep-dish pizza, and no one should go through life without trying it, because it’s something you won’t find anywhere else. But it’s not our best food. The best hotdogs in the world are Chicago-style dogs. We’re also well known for Italian beef sandwiches. And this is the home of the Kronos meat factory, which is the largest supplier of gyro meat in America. We’ve also got some slightly more rare items that are worth a try, like the pizza puff.

The Chicago Art Institute distinguishes itself for having some of biggest names in art through time, from the classical El Greco to Rothko, Turner and Monet.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, and a Jackson Pollock being dissected by art students.

For landmarks, obviously the Sears Tower — yes, it’s called the Willis Tower now, but Chicagoans refuse to accept the name change. It’s well recommended to wander over to Wrigley Field and get cheap tickets to a Cubs game from a scalper. Yes, it’s illegal, but the seats will be $5 instead of $100 if you buy them after the game has started. And one shouldn’t miss an opportunity to just ride the L train around and see the city.

I’m not a big fan of museums but those who are will find no shortage of interesting things to see. Definitely, the Art Institute of Chicago is a must for art lovers. And the Field Museum is great for natural history fans. But we’re also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rhoe, so there are architecture museums, too. And while I hate to perpetuate a stereotype, there are also plenty of gangster tours for people who still think of Al Capone when they think of Chicago. But truly, perhaps the two best things in Chicago that shouldn’t be missed by a visitor are our live jazz and blues clubs, and our comedy clubs. Jazz and blues have their roots in this city and they’re still alive and well. And very few comedians have hit the limelight without spending some quality time honing their skills in the Windy City.

Why is it that every time Chicagoans find out you’re visiting the city, they give you a long list of food and restaurants to try even when you’re not asking? And what’s wrong with putting ketchup on a hotdog?

Chicago is one of the best food cities in the world. In fact, Alinea, the three-star Michelin restaurant of Grant Achatz in Lincoln Park known for its deconstruction of food, was recently named the best restaurant in the world for the third year in a row. There’s a lot of great dining here and Chicagoans are quite proud of that.

Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, celebrated its centennial year in 2014.
The author Tanya T. Lara at Millennium Park in April 2014.

We’re also very opinionated about where to get the classic Chicago staples — pizza, hotdogs, Italian beef, etc. And the reason you don’t put ketchup on a hotdog is because it’s already got slices of real tomato. Why would you want to add some sugar-filled tomato puree?

What is your favorite place in Chicago?

I think my favorite place in Chicago would be on the river after dark. I’m always a bit more at peace when just walking along the river and seeing the city lights reflected on the water. I’ve done just about everything a person can do along the river’s edge — having dinner, reading a book, having drinks with friends, sharing a romantic moment with a girlfriend, or just walking alone and taking photos.

What are the tourist traps that visitors should avoid? I heard that nobody really goes to the Navy Pier.

Yes, locals definitely don’t go to Navy Pier. There’s really nothing there worth seeing, it’s just a name to check off on a destination list. Skip it and use that time for the city’s less obvious gems.

And don’t be that lame tourist walking around the city with a bunch of Garrett’s popcorn. Trust me, it’s just popcorn. There’s nothing particularly special about it, other than the hype.

Also, don’t wait in a long line to visit the Sears Tower. There’s no reason to spend three hours waiting for your opportunity to spend 10 minutes looking out the window. If you can see the line, it probably means there are hundreds more people ahead that you can’t see. Just leave and go back in the morning before the tour buses arrive. And if you don’t get a chance to visit the Sears Tower, you can always visit the Signature Room at the Hancock Center, which is almost the same height, and far less crowded. Plus, they have food!

One last bit of advice: there are people who insist that Malört is an integral part of the Chicago experience. Don’t be fooled. Malört is nothing other than the most disgusting liquor you will ever put in your mouth. Save yourself the torment and get a nice cocktail.

The Art Institute of Chicago. Unlike most cities that separately house the works of the old masters, and contemporary and modern art in different museums, Chicago has them all in its Art Institute — more than 300,000 works of art.
“Agora” by Magdalena Abakanowicz in Grant Park. (Photo from cityofchicago.org)

Chicago has a profusion of public art, which ones are your favorites? 

I honestly don’t pay much attention to the public art — it just sort of fades into the background for me. But I do find my head turning every time I go past Agora, the collection of headless iron bodies wandering aimlessly in Grant Park. The installation is comprised of 106 nine-foot-tall torsos made of cast iron by artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, her largest installation.

What is the best and worst time of the year to visit? Is winter really that brutal every year, like the one just past where you had the polar vortex?

The birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago is home to architects such as Mies van de Rohe and Daniel Burnham.
My friend Simon took me to the Hancock Observatory in December 2013 and told me to go to the ladies room. I said I didn’t need to. Turned out it was for the night views.

Winters here can get cold, but this year was an anomaly. A typical Chicago winter may still be much colder than a tropical person can handle, but I think the average person from a seasonal climate could survive a normal Chicago winter. Of course, the best time to visit Chicago is summer, when we have tons of street festivals, free concerts in the parks, tons of outdoor activities, and endless things to do.

How do you feel about Chicago always being compared with New York — the skyline, the architecture, the atmosphere? What does Chicago do better than New York or any other city in the world? 

Chicago is the birthplace of skyscrapers. And while New York may have more, we still do it better. We also have alleys, so you never have to walk down a sidewalk littered with garbage bags, as you would find in New York. So basically, what I’m saying is, in summertime, our city looks and smells a lot better!

What are the off-the-beaten-paths that visitors should look up outside of downtown Chicago? 

First thing that comes to mind is Green Mill, a late-night jazz club on the north end of the city. It’s great any time you go, but on Sunday evenings they have the “uptown poetry slam,” which is quite an experience. And even better if you start that Sunday with brunch at Fadó with live music from a traditional Irish band. Also, if you’ve brought some nice clothes, Untitled is one of the nicest classic music clubs you’ll find, set up like a speakeasy with an old-school “rat pack” feel to it.

The blues at Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop.
The ornate and historic moviehouse Uptown Theatre in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, built in 1925, has more than 4,000 seats.

If you have a friend to take around and he/she has only 24 hours in Chicago, what would the day look like?

Assuming we start in the morning, from the hotel our first stop would be an old Chicago “greasy spoon” diner for some quick breakfast. Eggs and Polish sausage, if you want to do it right. Then off to Millennium Park to have a look at the famous “The Bean” by Anish Kapoor (officially called Cloud Gate) and the “Spitting Fountains” by Catalan artist Jaume Pensa and built by Krueck and Sexton Architects (officially called Crown Fountain).

And maybe a look at Buckingham Fountain. Then time for lunch. We’d walk up to River North and get deep-dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno. If there’s a Cubs game that day, we’d wander over to Wrigley Field and take in the atmosphere at one of the most famous sports stadiums in the world.

Then it’s not far to Kingston Mines where we could catch some Chicago blues music. After that it’s probably time to eat again, and I’d definitely suggest an Italian beef sandwich. After that, maybe back downtown to see the city lights after dark, check out the river, have a couple of drinks.

Finally, it’s off to Green Mill for late night jazz until 4 a.m. That takes you all over the city, gets you a chance to see several sights along the way, and lets you go home with a pretty good sense of what makes Chicago great.