Monthly Archives: September 2015

Field Museum

At the Field Museum in Chicago, it tells you that birds are dinosaurs. I learned that one bird has evolved to be even scarier than its awe-inspiring ancestors. The shrike.It doesn’t look big and scary. Blue-gray, maybe eight inches long, it could be mistaken for a blue jay. Its behavior is the scary part.
Shrikes are predatory, hunting small birds and rodents to eat. But they often can’t eat all they catch at one setting, so they store it. So, unlike civilized creatures that might keep it in a hollow tree or a burrow or something, they drape the carcasses over the branches of bushes. Bloody little mice and sparrows with their heads ripped off. Maybe they should be called shrieks, in honor of the noises people make when they find their little ariel cemeteries. And the best thing about these birds is that they live in North America. Maybe even in your own backyard. (Cue creepy music.)On a happier and less creepifying note, the rest of the Field Museum was cool. But we (I) did an idiotic thing by deciding to look at soil first. We spent half an hour in an exhibit clearly meant for six year olds, learning less about dirt than a single page of my geography book taught me. Half an hour of my life that I could have spent looking at dinosaurs. What was I thinking?

I guess I was thinking that we’d have enough time. But because of its stupid name I grossly underestimated the coolness of Evolving Planet, which told of the entire history of life on Earth. It included every major extinction event, every phylum in the animal kingdom and what distinguishes it, and a reminder that the next big extinction event in imminent, and man-made. But the museum closed at five, and we had no where near enough time to explore it properly.

We did, however, get to meet Sue, best-preserved and most complete T-rex skeleton ever found. No one actually knows whether Sue was a boy or a girl; she was named after the woman who discovered her, Sue Hendrickson, in 1990. Sue(the dinosaur, not the woman) is forty two(the answer to life, the universe, and everything) feet long, making her the largest t-rex ever discovered.


And people who don’t like taxidermy should avoid the animal wing. Half a dozen rooms were full of stuffed animals, and by that I don’t mean plushies. Mostly it was various kinds of antelope, although they did have the Manhunting lions of Tsavo and tigers and bears(oh my!). One interesting thing was that the hyenas were in the reptile section until the museum can pull together enough funding to move them.

We did have some time to look at dinosaurs. Which are about the coolest things to ever walk planet Earth. I could rant for ages about how epic dinosaurs are, but I fear that if you don’t already think they are awesome, there is no hope for you.

All in all, the Field Museum was one of my favorite things I’ve seen so far on this trip. If you’re in Chicago and halfway interested in any kind of science you should go check it out. And learn from my mistake, and go look at dinosaurs first!

Samantha Duba

Friday night at Velvet Tacos with Samantha Duba, who was in my housing thesis studio ten years ago (although it only seemed like five to both of us). Sam has been working for Perkins and Will in Chicago, and she looks exactly the same as she did ten years ago (hence the picture from her final review), although a bit more tan – probably a result of leaving Oregon.


Sam showed us around her office right on the river, with its acres of floor space and spectacular views. It is so satisfying to see our former students making their way successfully in the professional world, although it is a little unnerving to realize that Sam now has about as much professional experience as I do. We were then able to show her where to buy Carpano Antica, and our favorite fusion taco place (about which Greta has just posted a review), now being old Chicago hands after a week here.

Chicago: Velvet Taco

At first we thought Velvet Taco was an odd name. It became clearer when we went inside and found that they served tacos and red velvet cake. We didn’t try the cake, but we’ll have more opportunities, as I’m sure that we’ll be returning.

The chicken tikka taco was superb. Also, very fun to say. The chicken was good, but for me, the rice made it stand out. A lot of people think rice doesn’t have much of a taste, but when I first bit into this, it was all I tasted.P1040031

I did not like the Cuban pig. The taste of the meat was overpowering, and not in a good way. It blocked out all the other flavors, leaving the taco both boring and aggressive. P1040028

The Annatto shredded pork, on the other hand, was the best taco I’ve ever had. Admittedly, I’ve never been to a fusion taqueria before, but it was still to die for. Grilled pineapple balanced with pickled onion, and the pork…. Oh, the pork. I do not have words that can accurately describe the pork, but I will try. Succulent and tender, sweet and tangy. If ambrosia were a meat, it would be this.P1040029

And for a taqueria, they had surprisingly delicious tater tots. The base tots were the same preprocessed ones you find in bowling alleys or school cafeterias, but the cheese, bacon, and avocado crema really made them pop. A fried egg on top kept it warm, as well as adding its own flavor.P1040027

We weren’t planning on desert, but when we spotted a gelato stand in Mariano square across the street, we couldn’t resist. We shared a scoop of white chocolate raspberry, and another scoop of toasted almond coconut fudge. The flavors complemented each other well, with just the right mix of fruit, nuts, and chocolate. In one spectacular bite, I got a raspberry, an almond, and bits of fudge and white chocolate. They really need to make a raspberry almond fudge flavor.

If you’re ever in Chicago, go to Velvet Taco at 1110 North State Street. Seriously, just go there.

Chicago 1

DSCF9472We’ll be visiting some cities on this trip that will be new to me, and most will be new to Greta (although she did spend some time in Chicago when she was two).  But there’s a peculiar pleasure in seeing a city you’ve visited with some frequency over the years.  You don’t have to rush around seeing all the top sites.  You know your way around, and you know what it used to be like.  You can catch the new stuff, and casually re-visit favorite places.  So the agenda in Chicago this week will be largely driven by Greta, who cares more about museums and food (wasn’t that the title of an Updike story?) than architecture.  I’ll take the stealth approach, and walk her past lots of architecture on the way to museums.


Today it was raining and blowing like hell, so we headed to the Art Institute, mainly seeing modern art and the new Piano wing.  As usual, simplicity of conception, space and light, with elegant detailing.  DSCF9386DSCF9420DSCF9398

We spent a few years trying to find decent handrail brackets, and finally had to make our own. Does anyone know the store where Renzo buys his hardware?

We spent a few years trying to find decent handrail brackets for our house, and finally had to make our own. Does anyone know the store where Renzo buys his hardware?

Sculpture by Charles Ray. Both Greta and I thought it was pretentious and stupid, (George Segal abducted by Jeff Koons), but we liked the view out the window.

Sculpture exhibit by Charles Ray. Both Greta and I thought it was pretentious and stupid, (the love child of George Segal and Jeff Koons), but we liked the view out the window.

The train is a nice touch, but the pink street cleaner is sublime.

The train is a nice touch, but the pink street cleaner is sublime.

We also saw Millennium Park, Daley Park, and Lurie Garden for the first time.  Many excellent parts – especially the garden.  DSCF9417DSCF9454

I'm assuming that's boxwood.

I’m assuming that’s boxwood.


But perhaps it’s all a bit much put together?  Every piece seems to be trying to outdo the others, and the curving walkway/bridge/thingee reminded me of some elevated ride through a theme park or zoo where you can look down on all the different exhibits.  DSCF9461DSCF9467


The rain stopped, and we just wandered around the Loop until it was time to eat pizza.

I hadn't seen the Aqua before, and I liked it as much as I expected to.

I hadn’t seen the Aqua before, and I liked it as much as I expected to.

The Alcoa Building. Still looking great, surrounded by banality.

The Inland Steel Building. Still looking great, surrounded by banality.

This probably seemed like a cool idea during the conceptual stage. Didn't quite turn out that way.

This probably seemed like a cool idea during the conceptual stage. Didn’t quite turn out that way.

We realized that Donald Trump probably has his name on a God-awful building in every big city in this country. That alone should keep him from getting elected.

We realized that Donald Trump probably has his name on a God-awful building in every big city in this country. That alone should be enough to keep him from getting elected.

FLW in Racine

DSCF9247It’s often hard or impossible to get into Wright buildings, as many of the ones that are not in private hands have restricted times, or high entrance fees, etc.  So it is notable how easy the SC Johnson company has made it to visit their buildings – the cantilever-column administration building, the research tower, and Wingspread (formerly the house of the head of this privately-held company, and now a conference center owned by their foundation).  There are frequent tours, no fees, and a remarkable degree of freedom allowed in wandering around Wingspread.  Access to the two company buildings is more restricted, and unfortunately no photography is allowed indoors, as they are still used as the company headquarters, and there are lots of papers around, etc.  The company has even gone so far as to provide tour buses up to Racine during the upcoming Chicago architecture biennial, and advertised them on bus shelters:DSCF9512

These three buildings together provide a unique opportunity to see some of Wright’s best designs, with almost no effort.

As with much of Wright’s work, the buildings were noticeably smaller than I expected.  Even in photographs they have a presence and scale that leads you to expect something monumental, but in person the administration building is comfortable and welcoming, and the research tower is almost cute – it is quite small for a tower.DSCF9164

The skin is sleek. Brick and glass tubes.  The scale is deceptive, as what reads as one story between the brick spandrels is actually two, with circular mezzanines held back from the surface (slightly visible in this photo).  The interior is better than any mid-century modern image of a lab you’ve ever seen, almost a movie set for cool science.DSCF9177

The base is a little weird – Wright wanted to expose the innovative cantilever structure of the tower, and perhaps the function of the two wider lower stories is to contrast even more with the small footprint below.  It just seems busy.DSCF9181

I won’t go on about the administration building as I have no photos, but it didn’t disappoint.  I didn’t realize that there is a parking garage/carport in front of it, which gives you a preview of the structure.DSCF9170

Wingspread has the contrast of quite modest rooms in the four wings of the pinwheel, against an enormous central volume, where a tall brick fireplace mass organizes a series of spaces around it.  DSCF9247DSCF9243 DSCF9244


There is a spiral stair which climbs up from the second floor to a glazed observation cupola above the roof.DSCF9234


The daughter’s bedroom on the second floor ends in a spectacular cantilevered balcony into the landscape, with the wooden bar seemingly projecting out through the masonry element (eat your heart out, Jean Nouvel).  DSCF9293


The exterior is a tour-de-force, with a combination of Wrightian elements articulated in different materials and integrated with the landscape in a way that is only matched by the Taliesins.DSCF9217




DSCF9320Phenomenal buildings all, produced in a circumstance where Johnson was more of a patron than a client, not only commissioning the buildings, but then passing this legacy through generations of the family, all of whom have maintained them and made them available to the public.

The Capistrants

DSCF9117We have many goals for this trip – getting away from our day-to-day lives for a little perspective, exposing Greta to the incredible variety of places, people and possible lives in this country, eating great barbecue, etc.  But a really important one is the chance to reconnect with old friends whom we often haven’t seen in many years, and to see what their lives are like now.

Josh and Laura were grad students at the UO early in this millennium, when Josh was in my housing thesis studio.  After graduation they returned to their native Minnesota, and they now live in a lively neighborhood in St. Paul.  Laura works for Target as an in-house architect, and Josh combines a wide range of activities in his work, collaborating with other architects on projects, producing extraordinary woodcuts, or doing his own design/build work, at both the architectural and furniture scales (at Crows Nest Design)..  They live in a cool old house in a state of constant renovation that will be familiar to most architects.

DSCF9121We’d never met their two great kids – Ike and Thea – before, but had followed their lives from the beginning on Facebook, which was remarkably effective – they didn’t feel like strangers when we arrived.  Greta had a wonderful time with them (after being cooped up alone in a little trailer with her dad for a week and a half) – Greta and Ike talked a lot about their writing and reviewed each other’s work, and Greta lost chess games to Thea.

DSCF8828We’re planning on a lot of driveway-camping on this trip, but on this small urban lot, they don’t have a driveway.  So Josh asked the adjacent college students for the use of their spot on the alley, and given my cat allergies, I slept in the trailer in my first foray into urban camping, while Greta slept in the house, happily cuddling up with the cats.

A great visit in a great city (or two), and many thanks to all the Capistrants for being such wonderful friends and hosts!