If you were Alexander I, Tzar of all the Russias and in 1804 you decided to comission a building to let your Horse Guard train their horses, you´d surely want to do it in style, right?
After all, what´s another magnificent neoclassical building in a city like St Petersburg, that counts its palaces and theatres by the thousands? Yes, you´d probably want to do it right and call the most renowned architect in town, Giacomo Quarenghi, to design a proper manege for your guard and, while you are at it, add two fantastic sculptures by sculptor Paolo Triscornia.
The squeaking lift preceded his determined way of unlocking the door: three turns and one instant of rest between turn two and three, as if to gather strength to enter the apartment. His figure against the hall-light only revealed a tired pose, but I knew it was worse than just fatigue. Four steps were enough to reach the living room window; the place was miniscule. I knew he had seen me, but none of us spoke, for he could not handle it. He opened the window abruptly and leaned out onto the noisy street trying to feel a breeze that was not there. This only increased his frustration. He was panting as he sat down turning his back to me and took his tobacco out.
Five attempts to light a cigarette with his shaking pulse and sweaty fingers made me finally pity him, a local in a place where nobody spent more than ten days, paradise for most, but not for him.
After a cautious silence I began to tell him of a far place, where we would sit in the shade of a sinuous never ending roof, cradled by a cool breeze. Birds would sing to each other and we would be the audience of the Amazonian concert. Never would we have to open a tiny window, for there would be none, only roof, floor and nature would compose the rooms. At sunset all of them, our horses, would lazily walk back to us to be fed, only to disappear in the dark later on. Their figures blending in with the blurry nature far away would be our last thought as our heavy eyes closed. I told him of a place that he could dream of.
Fazenda Boa Vista, Isay Weinfeld Architects. Photography by Fernando Guerra.
Today I found a unique equestrian centre in Australia designed by London studio Seth Stein Architects and local firm Watson Architecture + Design . I specially like it for two reasons.
The first and most obvious one is that the plan is a circle segment. This might seem irrelevant for some of you, but those familiar with designing will know that you can divide designers and architects between those who can pull off a curved line and those who cannot. It really is not that easy to draw a good curve . If you then have to make of it a building and make people live or work in there, it only become trickier.
Many famous architects have dared to design buildings with curved plans, such as renowned Sáenz de Oíza . Others, have made of curves and circles their identity , like the Madrid based office Picado y De Blas.
But in my opinion, the absolute curve supremacy is to be found in Japan, precisely in the trace of Kazuyo Sejima y Ryue Nishizawa, the founders of SANAA architecture office. They are the masters of curve and probably the first ones to actually make the floor slab of a building a curving plane. They are worthy of the Pritzker Prize they received in 2010 and, if the decision laying my hands, they would receive a second one just for this beauty.
Going back to our world, the equestrian, and to a much more simple example, it seems quite a reasonable idea to make stables in the shape of circle segments for, unlike human rooms, they don´t need to be furnished, which ends up being the problem of this kind of spaces, where one has two options: specially design curved furniture that adapts to the walls or placing the furniture in the middle of the room so that it doesn´t clash with any wall. For the latter the room needs to be very big and therefore this alternative is usually employed in large buildings such as office buildings.
The second reason why I like this project is for the materials it has been built with.
The main structures were constructed from Tasmanian oak frames, while subsidiary buildings are clad in spotted gum, an Australian hardwood. Reinforced rammed earth – a low-moisture mix of natural soil and cement compacted around reinforcing bars – is used quite extensively in Australia and in particular in regional Victoria.
Today I want to start a series about modern stables. Very few owners when the happy day arrives, in which they can build their own stables, decide to do so in a modern style. Stables, the home of our beloved horses, are a place of routine, where the same things happen every day all year round. Horses need routine: they eat at the same time, work out at the same time and get groomed at the same time every day. So it is understandable that the horse stable typology, while constantly incorporating new technology to make the life of horses and grooms easier, is reluctant to change its appearance. Let´s be frank, horses are conservative. If their surroundings change just a little they start to spook and lose concentration, so it shouldn´t come as a surprise that most part of the architecture that surrounds them has evolved very little over the centuries. There are exceptions to this, such as my case study of today: Nacho Figuera’s stables in Argentina. This dream place in the outskirts of Buenos Aires is designed by the architecture office Estudio Ramos.
The building is a stable for polo horses with 44 stalls, an area of 3,850 square meters and a length of 180 meters. It is composed of two long volumes and free standing walls, which when articulated, create diverse spaces and situations.The floor plan has two parts well distinguished by their functions. One has a more social use and overlooks the polo field, and the other, facing the back of the property, houses work facilities and groom’s quarters. The volumes that face the field are partially hidden behind extended walls and massive planted earth slopes, which not only provide privacy to the stables, but also subtly reduce the building’s impact on the landscape. Only the centre of the building is revealed, where a large water pond is located next to the covered exterior terraces and the tack room.
The roofs are planted with wild native grasses in an intentional contrast to the perfection of the polo fields turf. The slopes serve as both access to the roof and as natural stands from which to observe the polo matches.
Water is used to connect and articulate these spaces, as well as to create a serene atmosphere. Two basic materials were used for the construction of the whole project: exposed concrete and local hardwoods.
A friend discovered this place a few weeks ago and I am very glad she told me about it, for it is the perfect example of how good modern architecture can create a new image for stables, using a different language from the traditional one. Instead of a traditional timber frame structure or stone ashlars walls, abstract concrete walls that define the landscape and the architecture of the place. What a beautiful clean design by the Ramos brothers!
I have not been to Argentina, but when I do, I would very happily accept an invitation by Mr Figueras to visit his facilities. I am lying when I type: I’m not jealous.
It´s this time of the year again. The world´s most exciting race has just taken place and I was lucky enough to be at Aintree racecourse to watch it. The popularity of the Grand National is such that it completely overshadows the architecture where it takes place. So I am here to point it out to you and to analyse it briefly.
200000 spectators attend the greatest steeple chase event every year and I bet most of them could not tell you how a single grandstand looks like or even how many of them there after a day a the races. Why so ?
I suppose that the main reason is that they are so overwhelmed by the immensity of the event, its crowds, the bands, the entertainment all around you and the excitement that they probably don´t take a few seconds rest to calmly look up.
Should you join us the coming year please try to get there quite early and wear comfortable shoes so you can walk the course before the big race and see the fences from close up. While you are at it, and you are feeling amazed by the height and abruptness of Beecher´s Brook, by the sharp turn after the Canal Turn or by the insane width of the Water Jump, stop for a second and place your weight on your tiptoes. Then spin around like a top toy and look far. That is the best view of the grandstands. It serves as a perfect summary of British grandstand architecture over the centuries.
The first grandstand in the entire world was built for the racecourse in York. It was designed by John Carr and it was quite a challenge for him ( I suppose) to completely invent a new type of building. Before that people attended the races riding their own horses, on carriages or they just stood by the track. But eventually it became obvious that it was tiring to stand around for so long, especially for women who were not supposed to gallop on their own horses to follow the race it got very boring. Entertainment was needed and so was shelter from bad weather.
Every time and architect has faced the task of creating a completely new building typology they have copied another existing one that had some resemblance in its use or in its intention. At least, the successfully ones have done so.
Take Leon Battista Alberti, who was commissioned to design a facade for an existing Gothic building in Rimini. It was 1450 and the classic revival in architecture was thriving, but actually no church had ever had a facade designed in Renaissance style. According to the basic principles of Rennaisance architecture Alberti took his inspiration in a classic Roman typology that, however, had served a completely different purpose: the Arch of Triumph. The proportions, the language and also the meaning of an Arch of Triumph works perfectly for a grandstand. What is there more imposing and solemn than to walk in God´s home through the most grandiose of all gates!
John Carr followed a similar method. He had to design a building where people would go to watch a race. But what did that building look like? How many floors should it have? Should it even have floors or just be a huge ramp? Should there be an inside?
So, he found himself a good reference. It was that of a hunting pavilion, concretely the one in Lodge Park, which had been built in 1634 to serve the purpose of allowing the guests to watch deer being chased by dogs comfortably and with a much better view than from the ground.
This very well proportionate and symmetric building served as a formal and functional example for grandstands. In a hunting pavilion people went out to the terrace to watch the deer run and went back in to the warm parlour. They moved freely up and down and in and out. The same thing happens in racecourses, where there are no assigned seats and the public is not still, as it is in most other sports like rugby, football or even athletics… The entire racing experience could have evolved differently had this architect not designed this type of building.
As horse racing became more and more popular, the middle class began to demand a place in the grandstands too. Generally, at least in England, where tradition comes first, the existing grandstand remained and new bigger ones were built next to it. The second generation of grandstands had a larger tribune as a substitution of the terrace of the hunting pavilion The third generation began to use the pitched roof of the building as an extra set of seats. Every time, the buildings became bigger and could accommodate more people. In the XXth century, thanks to the use of reinforce concrete, the pillars that sustained the roofs were eliminated and the architectural language changed abruptly, that is, grandstands stopped having classic ornamentation that disguising their structure. The structure became a feature in itself, a way of showing off the improvement of technique even though proportion and grandstand typology were still relevant.
Finally the extensive use of glass walls was incorporated to give a greater comfort to the public. This, in my opinion is the greatest danger to the quality of grandstand architecture. As the spectators experience at the races becomes more and more important, it seems that need to be kept warm in every single space of the building and so glass has taken all protagonism, sometimes even over the grandstand typology itself, so that some grandstands end up looking like giant shopping centres or office buildings with an immense roof.
In Aintree we have a fantastic catalogue of grandstands. The two central ones belong to the second and third generation and the ones on the sides are last generation examples.
While they are very functional, I am not so keen on the left grandstands. They lack proportion and elegance and the angle between them is odd and breaks the alignment between all other grandstands. I watched the races from Lord Daresbury Roof (second from the right) It rained and it was cold, but I was wearing warm clothes and had an umbrella, there is no better trick than that.
If this wasn´t enough, don´t forget to watch a true classic, National Velvet, with very young Elisabeth Taylor starring as Velvet.
First, there was only grass, an infinite number of stems that lazily bent following the wind`s will, a vast extension of land dotted with trees, whose sole purpose seemed to be to help comprehend the distance between two points in this flat piece of land by giving it a sense of scale.
Flat. Not necessarily a good quality, and yet the very one that determined the future of this place in the outskirts of Montevideo.
One day, construction workers arrived. Somebody somewhere had decided that this landscape was to be transformed. But, the efforts of those men seemed ludicrous. They were insignificant, only little vertical lines in the infinite horizontal plane, they seemed to lack any purpose in their task.
The only familiar man to those acres, a Spanish migrant named Maroñas stopped coming by. He had owned this land and, in selling it, had abandoned it to it destiny.
Nothing really happened though. Land doesn´t care for property rights. It was there long before, it would remain after.
It must have been a special day for those who were present. The weather was probably good. The sun had come out to fight the damp coldness of the previous night and, as it was beginning it´s daily battle, the little vertical lines appeared again and moved around frantically for some hours.
Suddenly they all stayed still and everything went quiet. The wind continued to sway the tree leaves lightly, but the birds began to take off the grass, where they were busy searching for insects. They saw something that was not perceptible from the other end of the plot.
A noise, so deep that it seemed to come from the very center of the earth was the reason. This roar was moving away from the crowd and disturbing the otherwise tame character of the landscape.
It felt like a waterfall of hammers pounding the ground, coming closer and hitting the soil harder and harder until it passed by and then gradually led to silence.
When it stopped it left and echo in every mind and a strong beating in every heart. Then, everything went back to normal; the birds came back, the wind whistled happily, the grass swayed with it.
Only it didn´t really. It was 1874 and the Maroñas racecourse had just been inaugurated.
With the first race, these men had proven their determination. It had seemed unlikely that a couple of them could have any effect on the history of these acres. But it is a mistake to underestimate the power of a vision and it sure seemed like the racing crowd had one, for soon after they began to erect a grandstand. The montevideans had grown fond of racing the English way, and they demanded a place to watch the races comfortably and, why not, to differentiate themselves from those who couldn´t afford a seat.
After the first grandstand, which was brought from some other place in Montevideo and re-built, came another by an italian constructor, and after came another, and then another and another. Build, reform, demolish, build, extend, demolish, build, build, reform, demolish, build. That is more or less the vital cycle that every racecourse has undergone. It is exhausting to even look at the efforts of the people who´s passion and effort it builds upon, and despite which it fails, only to be done again.
There is, however, one step in that cycle, which I have omitted, for it is the very one that can kill a vision and its relentless steps to move forward: to rest.
In 1981 the racecourse of Maroñas was shut down after a long period of abandonment. The Jockey Club owed over 1800 million dollars to the Bank of the Republic. Money stopped flowing and the grandstands and all the other facilities were forgotten. The vision was killed and there were no `buts´ to argue with. Money doesn´t grow on trees.
But land doesn´t care about cash flow or interest rates, land remains land. But champions train every day, or they wouldn´t be champions. But someone had managed to unlock the gates….
In 2002 a group of men drove up to Ituzaingo Town, the one that had emerged next to the racecourse and where most employees, jockeys, trainers and carers had lived. They were advised to be careful with their belongings by a boy driving his bicycle. Not this gate, try the other round the corner, he had suggested. They stepped back into their cars and drove in the direction the boy had signalled. The driver turned the engine off and because the back windows had remained open, they all perceived a faint noise that made them stay still. It was coming closer to them but it was clear that it would never reach them. It was too far, behind the bushes and behind that gate, that they were about to open.
It was a magic moment for those who were present. One by one, as they stepped across the gate they were overwhelmed by the vastness of the view. The land was flat, flat as a lake. And there were two spots at the other end moving towards them. One was slightly bigger than the other , they were tracing a perfect parallel line to the four grandstands that lined up before them. They stood there for a a few minutes, contemplating the view. The blurry dots soon became horses, each ridden by a jockey in jeans. As they began to take the turn three kids jumped out of a bush and ran towards them trying to scare the horses off. They screamed and moved their arms up and down with haste, but they were ignored. Only the second jockey, the one riding the chestnut turned his head and screamed back at them, after which the tallest kid took the youngest by the hand and lead the group back to its hiding spot in the trees.
They walked towards the buildings that somehow seemed to be fighting a quiet battle with nature. There were plants climbing up every column, blocking the view of every window. There was something captivating about the scene, a desolation in the view of the work of thousands of men, of many generations surrendering to the apparent weakness of leaves. Concrete walls had almost disappeared behind a perfect tapestry of clovers and a layer of indefinable organic material mixed with wood bits, claster and paint cracked under their shy steps. They walked under the cantilevering ceiling of the grandstands and turned around to see the track. It was extremely deteriorated. Most of the fences were gone, the grass had turned brown and some improvised shacks had been built around the edges.
The horses were taking the other turn. This time they were both galloping together. They were training, not racing so they were not going at full speed, and yet for a few seconds, it seemed otherwise. The grey had given four excellent strides that had set him first by two heads. The jockey that had screamed at the children began to demand from his horse an additional effort, he was moving his arms as if to help him be faster. Three strides, four strides, five…. It didn´t work. The grey felt comfortable and the distance between them was only increasing. He strode pass the finish line first, but didn´t stop, he slowed down instead and let the chestnut catch up with him. Had it been a race? The visitors didn´t´know, but they would have sworn, that having a public for a change had made them show off their strengths.
Suddenly the mood of them changed. Something had clicked, as if seeing the tenacy of the jockeys training in this forgotten place had shown them that those that had given up on this sport ought to be ashamed. The track was in terrible conditions, there was no money to be made, there were no races to be won, and yet, hadn´t they just raced? Had the grey just not beaten the chestnut? The fluttering wings of a pigeon on the iron balustrade of the presidential box , brought them back to the present and reminded them of their mission. It took off and flew through the door into the entrance hall. They followed it inside. It was standing on the molding of a column, looking around , maybe trying to find its partner.
There was a strong beauty about the state of the racecourse. It was abandoned, dirty, forgotten and silent. At every light movement something creaked and the sound was amplified by the echo of the rooms that nobody ever came to visit. And yet, these walls that carried the legacy of architects, businessmen and builders, were fighting a battle with nature. It was taking its revenge for the one that was held by the pioneers of horseracing in Montevideo, which had transformed a piece of land with no purpose into a place of weekly pilgrimage. The scene was captivating, it captured the imagination of the visitors and took them to the world of nostalgia and past glories. Remember when Irineo Leguisamo made everyone dream of the impossible, even Carlos Gardel composed a tango for him, remember the crowds cheering…
They had come to evaluate the state of the racecourse, the viability of a project to put it back on its feet, but if they were honest, a part of them didn´t want that to happen. Letting go….cruise around the stories that these walls had to tell, imagine they had taken par , wish they had taken part. The textures of the walls showed their wisdom off, but nature was there to remind them of their perennity. Where they to destroy this unique balance?
Lyrics of the tango Leguisamo Solo, sung by Carlos Gardel and written by Modesto Papávero
Alzan las cintas; parten los tungos
como saetas al viento veloz…
Detras va el Pulpo, alta la testa
la mano experta y el ojo avizor.
Siguen corriendo; doblan el codo,
ya se acomoda, ya entra en acción…
Es el maestro el que se arrima
y explota un grito ensordecedor.
gritan los nenes de la popular.
fuerte repiten los de la oficial.
ya esta el puntero del Pulpo a la par.
“Leguisamo al trote!…”
y el Pulpo cruza el disco triunfal.
No hay duda alguna, es la muñeca,
es su sereno y gran corazón
los que triunfan por la cabeza
en gran estilo y con precisión.
Lleva los pingos a la victoria
con tal dominio de su profesion
que lo distinguen como una gloria,
mezcla de asombro y de admiración.
Driving around Maisons Laffitte in Mr Le Mestre´s car I found it difficult to hide my astonishment. We had seen countless arenas ,tracks and yards, all integrated in the urban landscape. A group of riders taking a roundabout next to a crowded school, where parents were dropping their children off, was as natural a scene here as a rush hour traffic jam in any other place. Most roads had parallel horse tracks, as happens in many cities with bike roads, and tthe different plots of land alternate uses: residencial, sport, social, office and equestrian. All of it is surrounded by gardens and parcs of breathtaking beauty.
The idea of Gesamtkunswerk kept coming up in my mind. This place was a total work of art: from its architecture, to its urban planning and to its landscape design. How I wish some of my dull urban planning courses had shown me this as a motivation!
It made me reflect on the power of good urban and landscape planning to improve the quality of life of a society in the longterm. Maisons Laffitte is a privileged place, one might argue, and therefore its story is not applicable to other contexts.
To those, who understandably jump to that conclusion I would point out that the secret of this place is the involvement of the community, which has helped preserve the parc and the facilities in an immaculate state. Their strong identity and pride has made them avoid the all too common path of uncontrolled real estate development, even more so if one considers the strategic location next to La Défense. Instead, at Maisons Laffitte, these grand temptations have been used to reinforce their uniqueness with great success. Not only did it not go under after not giving in to speculation, it has developed an alternative economy and a livelier community than that of a mere commuter town.
Such were my thoughts in the car while I interrogated Mr Le Mestre. Then he parked the car and said: C´mon, I want you to meet Jean Paul. He´s training behind those trees.
What follows is pure joy for me. Jean Paul Gallorini is one of the most respected trainers in France and is a former jockey. He has been awarded 11 times the title of best trainer in France and has won four times the Grand Steeple Chase of Paris. His achievements speak for themselves and his strong personality and ease have made him quite a beloved media figure.
I will it leave here for now, at the time and place I felt so very privileged to be spending the early morning hours with my new equestrian friends while they trained.
If you are curious about the place or about the man, have a look at these videos!