about a building

It is perhaps easy to hate Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Looming tall from almost anywhere in a city that until recently didn’t seem to have many high rises, the 237 meter tower seems to assert from afar a crushing presence, a strong remnant of the Cold War – a somewhat ambiguous presence: yes, very Russian, very Soviet Russian, very Lomonosov-like. Yet also very New York-like, although a very heavy set, a very weighed down Empire State (the difference is not that significant: the Warsaw building is more than half the height of the Empire State if measured to its mast, something interesting to remember – and more than 60% the official height of the Empire State). But it is also much wider, and unlike the New York building, set into the middle of an enormous plaza that seems to have been empty of other tall buildings until recently.

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To open space for this, Wanda told me they tore down many blocks of what looked like a typical Central/Eastern European capital, of which only this remains.

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So there you are, a huge parking lot or space for cars (or pedestrians or military parades or now those terrible Polish November 11 fascist demonstrations) – the photograph only shows a fragment of the empty space that used to be a European City Center and was torn down by Stalin as part of his gift to the city of Warsaw.


P4023316 The building has an interesting history. Erected in 1955, at the height of the early stages of the Cold War, it was an assertion of Stalinist power in an emblematic city. More interesting to me perhaps are the stories Roman and Wanda told me: how Roman used to go to the Math Department (or Math Institute) that was for some time in some high floor of the tower, how he used to go as a kid or young student to the Muzeum Techniki, on one of the side facades of the building, and see a lot of interesting exhibitions there (I didn’t ask more details)… P4023345
or how Wanda used to go swimming in a public pool on the sports side of the building as she needed credit for Physical Education during her university-level Art studies. Or how excellent jazz (Miles Davis, etc.) was played there in the enormous Sala Kongresowa – where for sure important Congresses of the Party were also held… or even how the only strip club – the only official one – was also in a restaurant and bar in the building, Restauracja Kongresowa – open only to high officials of the Party or associates open to the public; at least those who had the money to pay for it.

The sides of the building have many stern statues of workers, teachers, reading the Big Canon, some of them with generic “European” features, but some of them also with Asian or African features (also generic) – perhaps to symbolize the friendship of peoples. Of course, also athletes – modestly covered (this is not Ancient Greece, nor even Poland of the 17th Century where Renaissance style statues – but the “modest” cover is sometimes quite revealing), all of them (the teacher, the reader, the worker, the athlete) with very squarish bodies.

And slowly, while walking around the building and hearing the stories, I start to like it somehow. Not the looming towering figure, perhaps, but the idea of having a building half the height of the Empire State and perhaps much wider, all devoted to music, to mathematics, to science museums, to sports, for sure to many other things along those lines (yes, and also to Party reunions and official meetings and perhaps truly horrific people also).

These days, we only seem to see that massive construction in malls, commercial venues, corporate buildings, banks, Met Life things, hotels. Even sports venues seem to be done in a very different way (of course we have huge “arenas” – often named for some company – for professional sport spectacles). Devoting a whole palace of that size to something like “culture” (whatever its intended meaning) seems more remote today than ever – especially culture including mathematics, art, science and sports (doing sports as opposed to watching them). I could understand why Roman seemed to like the Palace of Culture and Science, or some aspects of it. I would also like a building where you can listen to Miles Davis, go to an advanced seminar in Mathematical Logic, see Art and Science Museum exhibitions and go swimming or perhaps doing some judo.

But I can also understand Wanda’s dislike with the wasted City Center. After the “regime change” (1989), the whole area seems to be on a parade of newer buildings that try to overshadow the Palace of Culture:

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Right in front, a Liebeskind building (left in the photo), some banks and other corporations – everything very new – remotely reminiscent of some New York areas (Bryant Park, without the playfulness). Corporate Europe standing in front of Communist Europe as if defying and saying “see, you lost!” yet those new buildings feel somewhat insecure, somewhat contrived, somewhat insubstantial in front of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki.

P4023306 On the South Western side of the Pałac, from the 1980s, a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott. Apparently the first tower to start to defy the Pałac Kultury i Nauki‘s preeminence, this building made before the change in the economy is really puzzling – it now looks as some kind of prescient gesture to the times that would come to Poland (and the world) after the change: a building that would seem taken directly from Omaha, Nebraska (or Anytown, Anycountry really), stands across large empty space – filled with cars. And a Marriott hotel, with all its cheesiness and all its crassness. This building is difficult to understand. I don’t really know what this building may have meant as a space to Varsovians in the 1980s, during the Martial Law years, after Solidarność.

All in all, this collection of buildings, centered on the Pałac Kultury and showing older Central European buildings, then the Pałac itself at the center of things, then the Marriott (and an interesting Train Station of which I have no photographs), and then the Corporate New Poland buildings… and perhaps next some new things that are not yet built – all of that is a fascinating architectural complex, with slices and layers of European history there in front of your eyes.

Kleinian images

Listos para iniciar la retrospectiva… en el MUAC el domingo pasado:

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Creo que siempre había visto a Klein en medio de muchas otras cosas. Sus monocromos me han intrigado desde hace rato, pero poderlos ver en gran retrospectiva es otra cosa.

La variedad de texturas de sus monocromos, su uso del azul Klein obviamente, pero también muchos otros colores, la conexión con el judo (¡Klein fue un gran judoka!), que lo llevó incluso a dar clases de judo en París (pero con su grado del Kodokan) y escribir un manual de técnicas y katas — pero sobre todo su energía vital y su preocupación con la percepción, y el uso del monocromo – todo eso me llegó de manera muy cercana. Lo sentí ahí, al lado, casi como el artista que habría querido ser yo en otra vida.

Me sorprendió que hubiera muerto tan joven Klein – a los 34 años – y a pesar de su tan corta carrera hubiera logrado hacer cosas tan plenas y hondas.

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P(ost b)orn out of weblock

Aotearoa to Iguaque – through Chile

After Aotearoa, Chile for a few hours (central Santiago and the Andes). And then Bogotá (paperwork at the University, a few crucial meetings with people) and then to the countryside: Villa de Leyva this time. But no internet while here.

  • Story of two chains: the last two days in Aotearoa were spent amid mathematical (and otherwise) conversation with Alex and Sharon. Among the most enlightening meetings in my life. In good serious Russian mathematical tradition, we walked. And walked amid those mountains, fjords, lakes, fern trees, fern TREES I mean, snowy peaks, and devised analogies and parallels between Algebraic Topology and Model Theory, between Homotopy Theory and AECs, between Lurie and Caicedo, between aecs and stacks. And the world away, Colombia away, Israel away, everything away and three mathematicians walking and speaking under the wintry Milky Way as only visible at such latitudes. – When leaving the South, the plane overflies those mountain peaks under fresh snow, flies to the northern city in the North Island to connect to the great crossing of the Pacific Ocean, eastward. Then the second chain appears: the Andes, again snowy, the backdrop of the whole of Chile. The gray city of Santiago (nicer than expected) with its chain behind, so similar to (yet so much higher than) the chain just left a few hours before on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I had never felt so keenly the meaning of “Pacific Rim”. From Te Anau and Fiordland to Aconcagua, across the immense Polynesian Ocean, past Easter Island, from volcanic earthquake prone chain to… volcanic earthquake prone chain.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Yet I feel back home when I land in Chile. Seriously. Not only do constructions look vaguely similar, or the Valley of Santiago is flat and green and strewn all over with hills so similar to Suba, Cota or the Majuy chain in Chía, but in spite of the superficially more orderly style of Chile, I feel at home, completely, in a country where I had never been, after those days in Aotearoa. Their airport is similar in design blueprint and style to Old Eldorado. I almost know instinctively where things are, as I feel I have been hundreds of times in Santiago airport, for it is almost a replica of Bogotá’s old airport. Same lousy food, same old and weathered stairs, same gentleness of people.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Yet this is different. I take the bus to the center of Santiago, to spend a few hours I have before my continuation flight to Bogotá. That part of Santiago (the west) resembles the west of Bogotá, around Engativá or Los Álamos. A bit more calm perhaps, but dirtier to my jet-lagged eye. A bit less poor perhaps, but just as abandoned and as full of groups of people waiting for buses of Transantiago, young workers, mostly. When I reach the center, the first feeling of difference is how gray Santiago looks, how similar to (non-descript parts of) Northern European cities – stone slab buildings of the early twentieth century, working men and women walking in black overcoats that make them look serious and stern, long winter time here, at least in the area between Los Héroes and La Moneda.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • La Moneda: deep in Latin America. I wander aimlessly – as I only have a few hours, I do not intend to see any particular place, I just want to let “guided randomness” act. It does. After a few minutes, I am at La Moneda, a place I never intended to visit, a place that has been in the back of my mind (and of course sometimes in the front as well) since perhaps those horror days of September 1973, when I was only five years old, but my parents and their friends must have communicated without words the anguish of that moment. I shudder. I see the groups of police men and women around the palace and I do not quite know if I see footage from my mind, from the Costa Gavras movie, from images of the Chilean carabineros destroying cameras, leading at gun point groups of people to the stadium. I hear the voices of all the exiled Patricios and Lucías, the pain when telling their own stories or stories of people they knew and loved and had disappeared or been tortured. I am transported in a flash to Belgium in 1979, to the movies, to the groups of exiles who sang La resbalosa and the Javiera Carreras cuecas, and danced crazily and brought about endless discussions around “What to do?”, around “Why did the trotskos do that?” or just waiting to see when the horror would fall, who was in Sweden, who left for Paris, who became Belgian, who would make a movie. It just came to me on a flash as I crossed the street in front of La Moneda.

  • There was a jail inside La Moneda. Well, below the plaza in front, they have recently made a cultural center, where an amazing exhibit was being shown – an exhibit about Chile’s physical landscape and Chile’s mental landscape. The entrance was almost barred – you essentially need to go across a labyrinth that feels like a jail – a strong installation. I was fascinated by the visual power. School children (similar in their jokes and laughing, their racial variety, their uniforms, their shiny black hair, to public school children in Bogotá) were there, playfully going through the maze, laughing at me as I (half on purpose) got “lost” (I was taking pictures, didn’t really want to find the exit of the maze so soon). What a powerful image, I thought: being (playfully, unlike 1973) in a jail maze in La Moneda. I wonder what notion these kids could have of their own country, of the horror that occurred there on a September 11, of the whole world watching the Chile events – for many, the openers of the drift to the extreme right that led afterward to Thatcher and Reagan and Bush… and Uribe in our own Colombia. While taking pictures of their playful faces in the maze, I kept thinking how fortunate these kids are, compared to people in the same place in 1973 or many years after. The rest of the museum was a marvel, including a delicious chupe de jaiba that I ate with fruition and pleasure, with a vino blanco de la casa – a Maipo, as they said – and an impressive exhibition of pictures and artworks of Chile from the 19th century to very recently. All very political, as it fits in Latin America (voices of an old peasant telling how Pinochet had whole families in his region killed and thrown to the sea, for suspicions of “being Communist” were impressive – I could almost not understand his regional Spanish, and it really felt like he had not been able to speak for decades about those events).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Somebody said that traveling in Latin America always feels a little like Calle 13’s video Latinoamérica. Going back to Latin America from far away feels like that even more. Said somebody adds that it is a kitschy or obvious thing to say. Perhaps he is right, but I felt emotional coming back to Colombia from far away, through Chile. Although it is different in so many ways, I felt at home in the intensity of the thing political, the gentleness of people in so many situations, the little chaos (more controlled in Chile than in Colombia perhaps, but not really different), the alternation between ugliness and coquettishness of our (polluted) cities. And as in Bogotá’s case, the presence of the Andes behind (although of course in Santiago they are superlative – but more distant). The Andes (snowy in Santiago) were both a link to Southern Aotearoa and Bogotá, to me – in a weird and convoluted way.

  • Education is very much in the air in Latin America. Perhaps because our general records and achievements are so incredibly low, perhaps because people perceive it is a way of social ascent and fulfillment, perhaps … not really clear why. Anyway, in the center of Santiago I saw a beautiful scene: a group of students, big letter blocks, some tables. I was approached by one of them – she asked me if I would like to write one idea to discuss with legislators. I said of course. She then showed me the table, where in some special forms one could write a question, directed to legislators, on the subject of the day. The tema del día was How could one improve the teaching career in Chile. I wrote something non-specific to Chile, but more than the answers themselves I was enthused and amused by how classroom-like the whole thing felt: tables, markers, papers, drawings, letter blocks. Students happy to talk to anyone. On a corner that in Bogotá would be similar to Carrera 7 at Calle 34 – at the edge of the center, with many different kinds of people walking by. And quiet and serious. I enjoyed talking to students, before going to Los Héroes to take the bus back to the airport at the end of the afternoon and fly to Bogotá.

  • Fern trees are a defining feature of Aotearoa. Many maori designs stem from the volutes, the buds, the fractal ramifications of fern trees. In few places have I seen so many different kinds of fern trees as in New Zealand – in few places do they seem so much to have been there since really really far back in time. In New Zealand human presence is recent: only about 800 years ago. European settlement is less than two centuries old. The country also had a different plant evolution, a different animal evolution than the big continental masses. This is nice to read and say, but it is really weird and awesome to witness – however limited my visit was (I was for most of the time in Wellington at or near the University, with the exception of two short weekend trips, and then for few days in the South). Yet the intensity, the density of so many species, so many fern trees, so many weird birds, so many strange trees (rimu, …) with so many strange names, was serious and deep. It seems to require time to take in. You can see almost tropical forests next to the sea, and in the distance a snowy peak or maybe a glacier. The juxtaposition of so many oddities is perhaps one of the most striking features. I had the impression of a completely fractal land. Fractal as in fractured (the earth trembles constantly, the volcanic soil and the two different plates of the two islands play seem to rumble beneath), but also fractal in the variety. It seems that knowing the South Island you would need years – going from A to B seems to require ages, and you could always stop and see new species, new shapes of mountains, new crawling birds who had no predators before the arrival of big mammals (us included) and now have to be protected.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Today walking a little portion of Iguaque near Villa de Leyva I found lots of fern trees. I was over-sensitized to them by having devoted much attention to fern trees in New Zealand. I was happy to see “brethren” of those trip companions, right here in Iguaque. I decided to study a bit their volutes, photographically. Their shapes are obvious at first sight, and very non-obvious when looking at them carefully. Some of those ferns are seriously pornographic in nature – in the sense of the extremely powerful and beautiful nudity and directness and sexiness of nature, variety of shapes, nature giving free rein to its own desires, through air and water and mist, thrusting endlessly – liked crazed modular functions or Eisenstein series.Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:45:01 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:45:47 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:47:42 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:48:57 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:49:49 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:50:13 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:50:37 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:57:21 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:58:45 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 17:59:23 Screenshot from 2014-07-09 18:01:27

  • Volutes are inextricably intertwined to Deleuze’s Baroque series – it is impossible not to think of Deleuze’s lectures while walking amid the mists of New Zealand, between the columns of the pukateas – asunder with epiphytes, buried amidst ferns and their buds, with rata trees devising ways of embracing the column pukateas – nature’s brutal festivity, like in the Tropics but without dangerous mammals (exc. humans), in loneliness, with mosses covering all over, constantly creating curvatures and smoothing surfaces and opening chasms and gasps between high trees and low mollusk-like undergrowths. Weird that in the place with no human history, virtually no archival remains one could find versions of baroqueness.

Momus at the Modernamuseet

A post with photographs, by momus, mostly taken at the Modernamuseet in Stockholm, brought to memory strong impressions and recollections of that place. With MC and Alejo there the first time, when he went to Finland to bring us back to Colombia – then during the month and a half in Djursholm (a month and a half of incredible mathematics, of walks and jogs, of water and sea). The Modernamuseet has a kind of playfulness – even more so than most other contemporary art museums I have seen. Momus’s pictures capture some of that.