Daily Archives: January 5, 2016

Savannah and the ascendancy of the Plan

DSCF9828Many of our readers have remarked that my blog posts are like architecture lectures.  Any of my students reading this can attest that what I have to say about Savannah already is a lecture.  I’ve been giving this lecture about Savannah for years, and on this trip we just returned there so I could get better photos.  Actually, we returned to Savannah four years after out last visit because it is one of our favorite cities – even Greta doesn’t get tired of walking through this beautiful and varied place.

If the character of Charleston depends largely on the building type of the single house, the character of Savannah is wholly dependent upon the brilliance of its plan.  It was laid out by James Oglethorpe in 1734 as a military camp, and it is incredible to think that his ideas on the hierarchy of a camp filled with huts could lead to perhaps the most sophisticated town plan in the country.  This is the famous print of Oglethorpe’s original layout:  Savannah-1734

The basic module of Savannah’s plan is the “ward” – the repeating arrangement of streets that surround a square.  Most planned American cities are based upon a simple grid, where every street is the conceptual equivalent of any other, but in Savannah there is a hierarchy of major streets, through streets, formal streets, residential streets, and alleys. Savannah-module

This hierarchy of streets dictates the qualities of the blocks and buildings, with the blocks to the east and west of the squares occupied by civic buildings and mansions.  The experience of being in the city is shaped by this hierarchy too – notice that the squares interrupt through traffic in both directions, so as a pedestrian you can stroll on these streets and though the squares, while the faster traffic moves on different streets.  DSCF9537

While the plan of each ward is the same, the development of the squares is very different.  Downtown squares, residential squares, rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods – they all have the same underlying pattern with an open space in the middle.  Most squares have a monument in the center, DSCF9769

and we noticed that the person memorialized in the center is never the same person after whom the square is named;  this is not Wesley Square.
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Some of the newer monuments are less formal, such as this statue of Savannah’s favorite son, the songwriter Johnny Mercer.DSCF9809

But it is really the spatial and experiential qualities of the squares that makes Savannah such a different place.  They are quiet and beautiful, and everyone in the center of the city is always with one block of an open space.  DSCF9514

This isn’t to say that the through-streets are awful – they too are gracious and welcoming, with the live oaks and Spanish moss giving much of the character.  DSCF9517

Savannah also has beautiful buildings surrounding these spaces.  There are a couple of squares that have been ruined by 1950s and 1960s buildings, but in reaction to these, Savannah was one of the birthplaces of the historic preservation movement, and the rest of the city core was spared the blight of bad buildings and bad city planning ideas.  There are excellent commercial buildings.DSCF9812warehouses by the river,DSCF9584

civic buildings (I don’t know the architect for this courthouse, but he was clearly influenced by Berlage and early European modernism).  DSCF9523  DSCF9524

and of course beautiful houses.  DSCF9748  DSCF9461   DSCF9478

including some tiny old ones.  DSCF9567

Our favorite building in Savannah is the Alex Raskin antique store.  Housed in one of the largest townhouses in the city, it is gorgeously unrestored, owned by a former New Yorker, packed with furniture and cool stuff, and gives you a free glimpse of what such a house is like inside.  Partial as I am to Southern decay, I like seeing a house that isn’t all tastefully tricked-out, and where you have to listen to a guide drone on about genealogy.  DSCF9706  DSCF9708

We also walked through many of the 19th-century neighborhoods which flank the large city park to the south of the historic core.  They don’t have the same ward system with squares, but they are good neighborhoods with a variety of styles of frame buildings.  DSCF9506  DSCF9485Older housing is being restored in these neighborhoods (for those priced out of the core), and new buildings are being built in historicist styles.DSCF9489

Savannah isn’t completely frozen in time.  SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design, has purchased many old buildings throughout the city to house its scattered-site school, and the presence of the school really contributes to the vitality of the city (especially compared to all the other beautiful southern cities which seem to be inhabited solely by affluent retirees).DSCF9839

And new transportation technologies are competing with the old.  DSCF9543

Having covered the core of the city on several trips, we ventured out to the coast this time, to Tybee Island, an interesting beachfront town that used to be a prominent resort area.  The lighthouse at the mouth of the Savannah River seemed very tall to us Northwesterners, used to short lighthouses on tall cliffs.  DSCF9654  DSCF9621  DSCF9603

Our march through beautiful old Southern cities continues, with several more yet to come.

UO grads

Visiting your former grad students is different from visiting friends you knew earlier in life.  High school friends were really just kids, so seeing those friends four decades later is somewhat hilarious – you can’t believe they’re really grown-up, with grandkids and such; you keep expecting them to burst out laughing that they’ve been putting you on.  College friends are not quite as unbelievable, as you knew them as they were starting to invent their grown-up personas.  But seeing my former students as grown-ups doesn’t seem weird at all – they were already young adults in grad school, and they often were pretty far into setting their life’s course.  So seeing them on this trip just feels like touching base with a more experienced version of the person you already knew.

DSCF5927I first met Neelab Mahmoud when she was a GTF in our big lecture class on Place and Culture.  She led undergraduate discussion sections, where she was a great teacher, and helped us think through assignments and directions for the course.  Neelab’s input always had a wisdom and thoughtfulness that belied her relatively young age – she was very open to everyone else’s perspectives, and was great at making connections amongst them.  As I got to know her better I started to understand where these traits came from – her family had been refugees from Afghanistan when she was a child, and settled near Washington DC.  Neelab had the insights that can come from being between two cultures, and the need to make your way in a very foreign place.  She understood the relativity of many things others take for granted, and was superb at getting her students (and professors) out of their comfortable boxes.  In the nicest way possible.

Neelab was in my housing thesis studio the next year, where her work was visionary.  Her background had been in biology – so it was clear the rational and analytical side of design would be taken care of – allowing her to focus on the more expressive and intuitive aspects.  She was willing to follow a train of thought without knowing where it would lead – a remarkably confident way to work.  In the end her project was beautiful, accommodating and appropriate.  Not exactly the kind of work that tends to get built, but the best kind to pursue in school, where you can explore ideas that you can later put into practice.  The only problem with having Neelab in studio was that she was just too interesting to talk with about many things, and it made focussing just on architecture difficult.

After school Neelab and her husband Ben moved to San Francisco, where she worked for Pyatok Architects, a leading housing design firm.  They then moved to Baltimore so Ben could attend engineering grad school at Johns Hopkins, and it’s there they’ve stayed.  Neelab has her own practice, Studio Marmalade, and has been teaching a wide range of courses as an adjunct at Morgan State University for six years.

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We stayed with Neelab and Ben in their classic Baltimore rowhouse, north of downtown towards Johns Hopkins.  It was interesting to hear about their decision to live in a central city location, their commitment to the city and to their neighborhood and schools.  I was a little apprehensive about parking the trailer in a big, tough, eastern city (as I’ve noted, most of my understanding of Baltimore comes from The Wire), but Neelab just said, In case you get there before me, I’ll leave the key in the mailbox, and don’t worry about the dog – he barks ferociously, but he’ll just lick you once you come in.  A somewhat crazy middle-aged Deadhead chatted with us about our trailer as we parked it, and the nice, very old man on the porch next door conversed with us about the weather as we fished out the key,  Jeti the dog did indeed lick us, and everything was copacetic.

The coolest thing about staying with Neelab and Ben was getting to meet their kids.  I’d watched Ava and Kai grow up on Facebook, so I thought they’d be great, but they were just a pleasure every minute.  Greta and Ava clicked in about two minutes, recognizing each other as members of that same sorority of cool smart girls who read all the time.  (Greta is keeping a scoreboard from this trip.)  And Kai is perhaps the sweetest five-year-old boy I’ve ever met (but I’m partial to little kids who want to hug me after knowing me for a couple of hours.)  Greta and I both seem to need a fix of little kids every once in a while – staying in campgrounds in the off-season, you are hanging with old people.DSCF5910We really enjoyed meeting even more of Neelab’s extended family.  Her cousin Rahiba was staying with them too as she settled in to Baltimore, and we spent an engaging evening drinking Manhattans and talking.  This was when the news about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was peaking, and I learned a lot from the perspective of two young women whose families had both been immigrants to this country, at different times.  The next night Rahiba’s parents came by, and we had supper with them all.  It was a lot like graduation, when you get to meet your students’ families, but a lot more fun and intense.  We had a great time with Neelab and all her family members, and were sorry to leave as winter pushed us southwards.

Chris Harnish graduated from the UO a couple of years before Neelab.  I never had him in studio, but he was in my housing course after I moved back to Eugene from Portland.   But more than in class, you got to know Chris from wandering Lawrence Hall.  There are some people who are just a presence in a place – outgoing personalities, rapid-fire thinking, a strong sense of humor, and into everything.  Chris was one of these, so getting to know him was more a series of chance encounters and random conversations.

My quintessential Chris story comes from when Linda and I were travelling through Scandinavia on a bus with students from the summer architecture program at the DIS in Copenhagen.  Chris was part of the group, an enjoyable companion for such events as sauna-sitting and lake-jumping in the middle of the night in Jyvaskyla. DIS104aThe tour visited Alvar Aalto’s summer house at Muuratsalo, and on our way to the house, we passed by the sauna, a simple vernacular structure, not a modernist icon.  As we continued on to the house, we heard a large splash, and turning back, found Chris in the lake.  He smiled up at us and said, Aalto swam here, I have to swim here.

After school Chris moved to New York and worked for Deborah Berke’s excellent firm for about five years.  He then joined up with Architecture for Humanity and went off to work in South Africa.  This started him on what has continued as a significant part of his career, and he has maintained his connections there and continued to visit and work on projects.  During this same time he moved to Philadelphia, and began teaching at Philadelphia University, with a focus on sustainable and community-focussed design.  He and his wife spend their time renovating an old townhouse in downtown, and we caught him for a quick couple of drinks as we breezed through Philadelphia.DSCF5681

It was fun hearing about his recent life, and his experiences in teaching.  Learning about your former students’ work in architecture is great, and it helps keep me in touch with what is happening in the profession.  But spending time with those such as Chris, Neelab and Lynne Dearborn, who have gone on to teaching careers, is a different experience.  (I guess this is how most professors feel about their grad students, who are all aiming at academic careers, but in architecture, very few students are.)  So talking with those who’ve somewhat followed in your footsteps is very gratifying, and I like to think that the experiences they had at the UO might have helped make them the teachers they are today.

Evan Goodwin is of a different generation from the previous two grads. Evan was in my housing thesis studio this past year, so while in Savannah we got to check up on his transition to the outside world.  Evan grew up in South Carolina and went to Clemson as an undergrad, where he developed some of the most remarkable graphic abilities I’ve seen in years.  The first thing I noticed about Evan (besides his charming personality) were his drawings, a predominantly pen-and-ink style that made me think he was the reincarnation of a 1970s architectural illustrator (all this is visible on his website at evanrgoodwin.com).  The second thing that struck me about Evan was the rigor of his thinking, as he applied these graphic skills in series of small-scale typological studies that systematically explored a range of spatial concepts.  Seeing clear thinking beautifully presented is one of the pleasures of being an architecture professor.

Evan did great work in my studio and elsewhere in the department (he was also in Linda’s furniture studio), but he didn’t neglect the social aspects of grad school life.  He lived with a large contingent of his classmates (I could never figure out exactly how many) in a big house right down the hill from ours, which seemed to become the center of social life for a large part of his cohort, both grad and undergrad.  I’ve gotten old enough that students don’t invite me to parties very often anymore, but Evan and his crew would, and I finally went to their graduation blow-out, which was a much better party than we ever had in grad school.

DSCF9838After graduation Evan decided to move back to South Carolina, and he lives and works in Bluffton, a town on the coast outside Savannah, near Hilton Head.  He’s enjoying the work with his firm, but we could tell he misses the good times in Eugene – social opportunities are minimal in a small town full of retirees.  We dragged Evan into Savannah for dinner at Treylor Park, Greta’s favorite restaurant, where we eventually found out that our waitress was a recent graduate in architecture from SCAD.  Greta and I both liked her, so before we departed, we tried to make sure that Evan had left enough intriguing contact information so that his chances for social interaction might be increased.

Treylor Park

Treylor Park in Savannah, GA has actually accomplished the spectacular feat of replacing Velvet Taco in Chicago as the best food I have eaten on this trip, and second only to Fish Sauce in Portland as my favorite restaurant.  Like VT, it puts a spin on classic foods, like wings or once again, tacos. Everything on the menu sounded so good that we intentionally ordered too much, so we could bring it back to our own trailer park for dinner. This place broke out of the bar food box so spectacularly that it deserved fireworks.

The first thing we tried was pigs in a blanket made with artisanal sausages and dipped in mustard sauce. The biscuit blanket was crispy on the outside, and soft around the meat, which was intensely flavored and delicious. The mustard was the best part in my opinion.

Pigs in a Blanket

Pigs in a Blanket

My second favorite dish was the chicken pancake tacos. Lightly fried chicken, slathered with pepper sauce and strawberry salsa, and wrapped in a soft but stable pancake. Sweet was countered with spice, and soft by crunch, all together in the perfectly balanced food.

The sloppy joe was more normal, but even that was made with venison instead of beef. I was honestly expecting bleu cheese or something on top, but it only contained normal cheddar. But, the fried onions it came with were actually placed inside the bun, adding crunch to slop in continuation of the theme of balance.

Sloppy Joe

Sloppy Joe

The PB&J chicken wings may have been the most delicious thing I have ever had the pure joy of eating. I know it sounds odd, but it came highly recommended on yelp, and being the strangest thing on a menu of weirdness I felt that it was my duty to try it. I did not regret this decision. Chicken cooked to perfection, coated in a sticky but smooth peanut butter sauce, with peach jam to dip it in. The peanut sauce was so good on its own, that I almost forgot the jelly, which would have been a travesty. The sauce was already pretty sweet, but the extra kick from the jelly pushed it into the realm of gods. I think ambrosia might actually be peanut and jelly sauce.

We literally stayed in Savannah for another day, just so we could come here again. We ordered the wings and the pancake tacos again, and they were just as fabulous as before.

Having seen the nachos last time, we decided we needed some. Instead of chips, they were made with waffle fries. I think this would have been better if they burnt them a little, adding a bit of extra crunch. Softer worked with the pancake tacos because the fried chicken supplied the crunch, but with nothing doing that job here, it felt a little soggy. They also were drizzled with a vinegar sauce. This made them a little too bitter for my taste, especially at the bottom where it pooled.

I got the Chupacabra, which I didn’t know was a burrito until it arrived. With something named after a goat-sucking cryptid, I probably should have guessed that this was a bit spicy. I didn’t particularly like it at first, and having already filled up on chicken, I ended up taking most of it back to the trailer. I discovered that it’s much better the next day, with the spices having cooled a little and leaving taste buds for the other flavors.

Chupacabra

Chupacabra

If you’re ever within a hundred miles of Savannah, COME HERE. Come once, and then be so wowed that you have to come back again and again and again. Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. Don’t fall into quaint little tourist trap restaurants like River House where you’ll pay too much for inferiority, go across the street to Treylor Park.