I visited three places in the last month that could hardly be more different one from another – a poet’s house, an ancient city suspended effortlessly above the cloud forest and a monastery. In one, a bar taken from an old ship serves as the central space where the Captain used to entertain his guests. The other was built in awe of the mountains, the condors and the many gods. In the third, dozens of women were enclosed never seeing the outside world and spending their lives contemplating the one and only God.
Yet, the three places share something that makes them pleasant, soothing and exceptional.
Pablo Neruda’s house, Santiago, Chile
The poet had his Santiago house built in various stages. At first, only a small room was built to house his mistress, hidding her at the foot of a hill, almost in the forest. The house was oriented towards the cold Northeast as the artist appreciated the Andes more than the sun.
As the relationship between the lovers formalised, the artist moved in. This required an extension of the house with extra rooms and, most importantly, an entertainment room, imitating a ship’s deck where Neruda did what he loved most – throw parties, socialize, drink.
Because the house was built at the foot of a hill, the extensions could not be done on the same level as the lover’s original room. The newer rooms thus climb the mountain with steep staircases connecting them and passerelles bridging the torrents running from the hill. To hug the relief of the hill the rooms are irregularly shaped. At the highest, brightest point, the poet placed his reading room and an adjecent, additional… bar. Just in case.
There is no symmetry, straight edges or rules in La Chascona. The house was built to facilitate the couple’s life and what they loved doing – reading, writing, entertaining – tasks that do not require square corners or ceilings of standing height. They require the right energy.
They say that the artist all but replaced the architect during the construction. It goes to show that, in whatever we do, a bit of poetry might achieve more than volumes of rules and preconceived ideas.
Machu Picchu, Peru
We have all seen photos of Machu Picchu a hundred times and we feel like we know the place without ever having been there. Maybe this is why, after thinking about it for months, spending a full day driving to the closest village and waking up at 4am the following day to walk uphill for an hour in pouring rain, finally seeing the famous view is almost a bit disappointing. Or maybe this is because the view is so unbelievable that our brain thinks that it is still looking at someone else’s Facebook selfie and not the real thing.
But even after a full day spent at and above the ruins, the wide view of Machu Picchu from afar was not what impressed me most. Imposing as it is, this view does not reveal the architectural details, which are most impressive. You have to descend into the city, get lost in its streets, walk around a couple of times and imagine it alive with action centuries ago to understand why this place is a wonder.
The Incas loved perfection because it showed their respect for the gods and brought them closer to them. Most famously, the walls of their cities (cf. Cusco) were built of stones that fit together perfectly, so much so that there wasn’t any need for using adhesive materials. While the walls built by the civilised Spanish have since all crumbled, the Incan still stand.
But Machu Picchu shows that the Incas were not obnoxiously insistent in their perfection. If nature or practical considerations (or maybe even just laziness?) demanded it, they didn’t shy away from introducing some imperfections in their structures.
In a wall made entirely of equally-sized and perfectly square stones, we can find a stone of a non-matching shape and proportions. The Incas could have found a stone that would fit perfectly. A symetrical, equally wide street suddenly makes a turn to avoid a mid-size rock, which could have easily been destroyed for the street to be perfect. A rock in the shape of a condor’s wings was made into a temple without any adjustments to its rough surface. They could have polished it…
Machu Picchu is the most astonishing place not because of its perfection but because it was built with a certain feeling that makes it melt into the surrounding nature and hover amid the clouds while managing to remain imposing. The imperfections did not distance the Inkas from their gods. They brought them closer to them.
In the center of Arequipa, an entire block of buildings was erased and walled off in the 16th century to house a catholic monastary in the nascent Spanish colony.
I have scheduled half an hour before lunch to visit this place that, due to my experience with monasteries, I expected to be rigid, strict and dull. I ended up spending three hours in what is one of the most impressive building complexes I have ever seen.
The monastery is a city in itself, in which real streets connect the common areas, such as the main kitchen, a courtyard with a “washing device” (see pic below), baths, a dinning hall and, of course, the various religious spaces.
On both sides of the connecting streets, little doors open into each nun’s private quarters. While the common areas are impressive, it is these private quarters that make the place really special.
Each nun needed the same three or four elements in her quarters – a small kitchen, a praying room, a bedroom, an internal courtyard, and access to the rooftop to dry her laundry. This being a monastery of a rigid and conservative institution, I expected all the nuns’ apartments to be the same rectangular duplicates of one another. I could not be more wrong.
Each apartment, while containing all the same elements, is completely different from all the others. It feels as if the architect had a deck of different elements that she shuffled to create each new apartment. In one, you might enter through the inner courtyard into the kitchen, which includes a staircase leading to the terrace, and then walk to the bedroom hiding a small praying area in the corner. In another, you enter through a large praying room, which includes a bed in the opening on one of the walls and which gives on the courtyard which includes a small kitchen and the access to the terrace. The apartments as a whole are irregularly shaped, filling the voids between the common areas.
Just as the first two, this place also defies the rules. Certainly, an expert architect would know whether the staircase to the terrace should be in the kitchen or in the living room. Once she would ascertain this, she would likely put all the staircases in all the apartments in the same spot. Also, apartments should be rectangular and not of some weird, small shapes because… because!
The dozens of nuns’ quarters that I have seen were in essence all the same – a basic living space for a secluded nun. Yet, they all give away different energies and, together, they form a perfectly imperfect space. A space that is soothing, in which the step flows easily, and where one wants to slow down and stay for a while or — forever.