Iron and Glass, Flowers and Trains

May 11, 2010

Dear Friends,

On Friday afternoons I would go to my grandparents’ flat in Jersey City while my parents had their night out.  Grandpa Brew would tell me stories.  He was raised in Ireland, ran away to sea at 13 and developed a love of travel, ships, Ireland and America.    He introduced me to Democratic politics.  He also told a good story.  But his one love that didn’t transfer was his love of gardening and formal gardens.  He came out to our home in Ridgewood and made flower beds to lay out the garden “just so.”  I helped him but my heart, and mostly my sinuses were not in it.  When he died I kept up the garden for a year in his memory but gave up on it after that.  After each bout in the garden I had a wheeze and red and swollen eyes.

I do not seek out gardens when I travel.  I do not much care about the names of garden flowers.  I like looking at them, but prefer flowers in natural settings, not in cultured beds.  However, it’s springtime in Europe and there are just some things you can only see in a limited time window.  We were in that window last week so we decided to take advantage of it.

The Belgian Royal Congo Greenhouses in Laeken cover more than 6 acres and were built between the 1870s and 1890s.  They are attached to the royal palace and are open to the public just two weeks a year.  The center piece is a dome built as a glass chapel, complete with iron flying buttresses.  Now the dome shelters palm trees in an effort to recreate an indoor version of the Congo in a Brussels suburb.  King Leopold exploited the Congo as his personal property in one of the worst colonial reigns of the 19th century.  The greenhouses are “cast iron gothic.”  Two chimneys that serve as an exhaust for the spent heating oil look like minarets.  The whole thing soars.  The flowering fruit trees in the garden outside the greenhouses frame the glass, which shimmers and refracts different colors back into the garden.  The rolling lawns frame views of Brussels on one side and a Japanese Pagoda, left over from the 1958 world’s fair, on the other.  I enjoyed the scent of flowers in the greenhouse until the sneezing started.  I enjoyed the greenhouses as a period piece complement to London’s St. Pancras Hotel where we stayed last week.

Belgium has one other floral display that I really wanted to see, for the sake of the flowers.  Halle’s Wood (Hallerbos) is a beech wood forest whose floor is blanketed in millions bluebells for a week or so each spring, nature’s garden not a formal one.  We hit it at peak.  White amenomies, spring’s pioneer blooms, were just about spent and the bluebells were rampant.  The new tree leaves were a very light spring green.  The late afternoon sun fell in shafts across the forest floor.  The tall trees looked like they were rising out of a purple mist.  The whiff of bluebells was on the breeze. It was a joy.

This is a managed forest.  In the winter certain trees are marked for harvest.  Some had been felled and lay across the bluebell carpet.  Some were already cut and stacked.  Fresh cut stumps provide golden punctuation points in the blue mist.  Walking up hill the blue rises before you as sunbeams sift through the lime green tree leaves, flickering with the breeze.

The third floral show I attended this week was at Keukenhof (kitchen garden) in Holland.  The gardens are set in an old castle ground and are modeled after the formal English garden.  But they are surrounded by fields of tulips and daffodils and.  Farmers grow the flowers both for the cut flower trade and to harvest the bulbs that grow off the parent bulbs.  While the gardens were beautiful it was the mass production of flowers intrigued me.  Planters lay down a net, put the soil on top and then plant the bulbs.  When it comes time to harvest the bulbs they pull up the net like a landlocked fisherman.  This was not the only nautical reference at Keukenhof.

Keukenhof has an old working windmill (donated by Holland America).  It seems to me that being a wind miller is like being a sailor.  There are lines, pulleys, capstans and winches.  The miller has to climb each windmill blade, like a mast, to set the sales using knots familiar to anyone in a seafaring town. Dutch windmills even fly the national flag off their stern.

I was fascinated enough that I visited the Tulip Museum in Amsterdam the next day, something I had not planned to do.  Tulips originated in Central Asia and came to the Netherlands through Turkey.  Tulips got their name (Tulipan) because they looked like turbans. (Tulipan and turban have the same root as Taliban.) The bulbs were prized by the wealthy.  There were documented cases of bulb theft from gardens.  Farmers were able to grow these flowers and sell them in informal commodity markets set up in pubs.  This provided them with the best income they ever had, so they produced more and more, without much quality control.  It was a bubble that burst causing financial collapse.  Word of a financial collapse caused by flowers spread abroad and foreigners wanted to see those flowers had caused so much trouble  That curiosity bred the international tulip trade which is still strong today.  The fields of tulips spread out in colored bands from the canals that run through the fields.  I took take a canal boat for a closer look.

I’m now back at Tbilisi for work.  I sometimes look for unifying themes in my travel.  This trip’s theme seems to be “Iron and Glass” (modified to aluminum or steel as the case fits.)  In 1851 the Great International Exhibition in London was held in the Chrystal Palace in Hyde Park.  The exhibition was a showcase for Britain’s contributions to modern industry.  Joseph Paxton a gardener designed a massive glass building.  He decided the world needed a bigger greenhouse.  He pioneered technology wedding cast iron and new types of glass using modular construction.  He introduced new ideas in air flow using louvers at the top and air intake under the floor.  The Chrystal palace enclosed 990,000 square feet, or almost 23 acres of space, not counting an extension Paxton added in to include some oak trees that he did not want to cut down.  The exhibition was an unprecedented success, and the palace became the industrial contributions that the most celebrated.  The idea of Chrystal Palaces spread across Europe.

The Royal Greenhouses in Belgium are one example, as are most 19th century railway stations, like St. Pancras, with their huge areas enclosed with glass (although how much light the glass could let in after a couple of months of coal burning locomotives, I do not know.)  The St. Pancras Hotel has a similar covered area over the old carriage entry that is now reception and a café.  Berlin’s main rail station uses this glass motif in a modern setting with stunning effect as trains chris cross at different levels.  The Amsterdam cruise ship terminal also is a “crystal palace.”  The glass cover over the courtyard of the Amsterdam Maritime museum reflects patterns of metal and glass on the surrounding walls and floors.  The Reichstag in Berlin originally had a huge greenhouse dome built using Paxton’s inventions.  Norman Foster played off this motif in his retrofit glass dome.  We stayed with friends in Denmark who run greenhouses in Denmark growing ornamental plants using the airflow patterns developed by Paxton

But the original Victorian cast iron and glass constructions fascinated the most.  Covent Garden, Camden Market in London and the market in Jersey are Victorian examples.  But the crown jewel of Victorian restorations may be the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  It reopened in April.  The restoration is wonderful.  I like the stained glass (with modern windows added to the old showing donor’s corporate logos, Phillips and Ing Bank). I also enjoyed the restored tile work, and the wall paintings.  But many of the exhibit halls have glass cover originally designed to show off the old masters in natural light.  Some of these skylights now show artificial light so the viewing is constant in all weather conditions, but the design is still there.  The two main entry halls with their soaring Victorian glass atriums still welcome you to this world of art.

So I left Amsterdam for Frankfurt in a high speed ICE (Intercity Express) train.  I was in the end car.  We could see the driver and controls from our seats.  At 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour that is an experience.  The train left under the glass arch at Amsterdam Central Station.  We stopped at Cologne, with the cathedral sitting right outside the Victorian glass, and ended up in Frankfurt’s, ultra-modern glass homage to the Victorian era of iron and glass.

Take Care,




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