Monthly Archives: February 2016

Big Bend National Park

DSCF5961It turns out I have a lot more to say about cities, architecture and people than I do about nature.  This mirrors the division of labor Greta and I have when we go to a natural history museum – I look at the exhibits that involve humans and culture, she looks at the exhibits that are about the natural world.  Blog posts that are about places or people take me a lot longer to write – hence the extraordinary backlog on this blog:  we are in Bryce Canyon, but the blog is still back in New Orleans.  Since my landscape posts are mostly photos and a little narrative I can do them much faster, and in a last attempt to catch up on the blog, I’m going to change my protocol.  I’ll continue the sequential posting about cities and people, but I’m going to jump ahead on landscape posts, to catch up with where we are.  The Southwest has relatively little architecture and cities, and no friends, so it’s all going to be about landscape and parks, starting with this post about Big Bend.

DSCF5756If you’re driving west from Dallas on I-20, and after about 400 miles you realize you are in the middle of absolutely nowhere in West Texas, just turn left, because only 150 miles to the south is Big Bend National Park.  I wondered about Big Bend the same way I’ve always wondered about Austin – is Austin really cool, or is it just cool in comparison to the rest of Texas?  Is Big Bend really beautiful, or is it only interesting after you’ve been driving for 500 miles in Texas?

My prior knowledge of Big Bend came solely from watching the movie Boyhood, but it did look cool enough to warrant a side trip.  It’s a relatively unknown National Park – they get about 300,000 visitors a year (Zion gets 4 million), because it is so far away from anything, and because it is just too hot to visit for much of the year (the visitors’ center closes in summer).  The Big Bend referred to is the big bend in the Rio Grande at the southern tip of the Texas Panhandle, so while you’re in Texas, a lot of the landscape you’re looking at is in Mexico.

You drive across the Chihuahuan Desert, and in the distance are the Chisos Mountains.  We got a campsite in the Chisos Basin – you can only get there with a trailer under 20 feet or an RV under 24, as the switchbacks into the Basin are steep and tight.  The campground is at 5400 foot elevation, surrounded by mountains over 8000. Here is a photo taken from 6500 feet or so, pointing out our trailer in the campground.  The scale is enormous, and it is remarkable to sit at your campsite, looking at beautiful mountains in every direction.DSCF5975

The size restriction keeps out the monster RVs, which inherently changes the types of campers and the social dynamic.  There are no people who are bringing their whole house with them (while towing an SUV), and sitting inside watching TV at night.  Everyone here has come for the experience of the place, and as the sky darkens (in what is probably one of the least light-polluted parts of the country), everyone sits outside and looks at the stars.  We saw stars we’d never seen before.  I remembered from books that Orion is a hunter and has a bow, but I’m not sure I’d actually ever clearly seen that bow before.

We also met some lovely people in the Chisos Basin.  Patty and Danny, two young retirees (and Patty a refugee from academia) were from the Carolinas, travelling in a small Airstream.  They had the site next to ours, and we got to know them after hearing Danny pull out his banjo in the evening.  On the Lost Mine Trail one morning, we met another couple from Dallas, and had a running conversation with them as we crossed paths (literally) a few times throughout the day.  (We’ve noticed that when they learn that you’re not from Texas, reasonable Texans emit a subtle signal to indicate that they are not crazy like most of the state.  If you respond with the secret handshake, you get the inside scoop on life in Texas.)  Then there was the couple from California, with whom we turned out to have mutual friends in Eugene.  I’ve always been wary of getting old and hanging around mainly with older people, but the older people we’ve been meeting in National Parks have been great.  I want to be that 85-year-old slowly climbing that mountain trail.

The trails in the Chisos Mountains and Basin were fantastic, with astounding rock formations and long vistas over the desert.  DSCF5981  DSCF5991

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The desert itself had a range of flora we’d never seen before, and the remnants of 100-year-old ranches and cotton farming settlements (which had been irrigated by the Rio Grande).  DSCF5762  DSCF5790DSCF5802

But the most spectacular spot is the Santa Elena Canyon.  You drive south across the desert towards the Rio Grande, and a 1500-foot tall continuous rock cliff appears off in the distance.DSCF5822 As you get close, you notice a notch in the cliff. DSCF5834You leave the car, and walk across the desert that is blazing hot even in February. DSCF5844A short climb up some switchbacks and you are in paradise. DSCF5867The Rio Grande (which is awfully small for such a name) has cut this narrow canyon through the cliff. You can throw a rock into Mexico.  You wind along a path for a mile or so until the whole width of the canyon is the river. DSCF5904It is quiet and cool, with lush vegetation (including invasive species such as bamboo). DSCF5881You walk around huge boulders that have fallen from above. DSCF5880The water is a mirror, until broken by a canoe trip gliding past.  DSCF5885 We strolled there for hours, stopping every few feet to appreciate the different elements in the view.   DSCF5891  DSCF5911DSCF5903    DSCF5896DSCF5916

Finally we had to leave, and we emerged back into the blinding West Texas desert, even hotter than when we had entered.  It would be a long way to the next oasis.

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San Antonio

DSCF5662Continuing with our string of Texas surprises:  San Antonio.  All I had ever heard about in San Antonio was the Alamo and the Riverwalk, a downtown redevelopment along an old waterway, which had spawned a district of restaurants bars, etc.  I expected a 1980s, James Rouse style, River “Place” development, with a Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Fridays, etc., that lured timid suburbanites and tourists into the one part of downtown that wasn’t a disaster.  So when we arrived in San Antonio, I wasn’t in any hurry to see it;  I figured if everyone else in America liked it, I probably wouldn’t.

rodeoAt our urban campground (fabulously located right on a small river park with a bike path through the city), we discovered that the San Antonio Rodeo (the largest indoor rodeo in the country) was taking place a mile away.  In fact, almost everyone else in the campground was working at the rodeo, and the campground was full of big rigs and horse trailers.  Fresh from our Mardi Gras experience, we realized cultural immersion was the way to go on this trip, so we went to our first rodeo.  Walking around the grounds before the main event of bronco-busting etc., we discovered that it was a combination rodeo/state fair, with lots of animals and competitions in every way.  It was really fun, and Greta will blog about it if she ever gets it together.DSCF5444

The next day we started with the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.  The Alamo in downtown San Antonio is the northernmost of the five missions strung along the San Antonio River, and all the others still exist in various states of preservation or reconstruction.  The drive south of the city along the river is a pleasure, and each of the missions is quite different from the others.

Mission Concepcion has the best-preserved church, with intact architecture and original interior paintings.  DSCF5509  DSCF5497

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The church at Mission San Jose was extensively reconstructed from ruins in the early 20th century, but it is the best example of a whole mission compound, with the extensive walls in place, and many perimeter dwellings built into the walls, giving the best illustration of a complete mission complex.  DSCF5547

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The ruins of the monastery have been left unrestored, a remarkable two-story masonry structure.  DSCF5510

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The refectory is vaulted, with flying buttresses on the exterior.  DSCF5536

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All of these missions were supported by agriculture, which was dependent upon irrigation from the river.  Dams, and even aqueducts were constructed to channel the water.  DSCF5606

Mission San Juan is in a less-restored state, and shows later additions completed in the 19th century.  DSCF5572

Mission Espada is the furthest out of town (although still within the San Antonio ring road), with a small church and an unreconstructed compound.  DSCF5586

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With typical National Park Service expertise, the scattered-site park holds together as an experience and a narrative  The River ties it all together, and at the end you have a remarkably nuanced understanding of how the missions operated as an integrated system in the 18th century.

We headed for the center if town, and were immediately shocked.  Everywhere we looked, there were beautiful older buildings.  DSCF5617

Somehow San Antonio didn’t destroy its past.  Of course, there are banal newer buildings, as in every other large American city, DSCF5622

but they don’t dominate.  In the core of the downtown, the new and the old are intermixed in a wonderful way.  Dallas has old buildings, but they are all in one district, while the modernist skyscrapers have taken over most of the city center.  In San Antonio, the mix is much finer-grained.  The civic center, with the city hall, courts and cathedral, is intact, with a full-block plaza at the center.  DSCF5692

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Streets are lively, the streetscape has been carefully tuned, and the urban fabric is a blend of old and new, large and small.  Retail is everywhere.  DSCF5715DSCF5711

The Alamo is the major tourist attraction.  It is quite small, and actually a lovely building.  You can’t take photos inside, and you realize that you are in the secular mother church of Texas, surrounded by reverent Texas tourists taking selfies and intently examining all the artifacts related to their fundamental combination creation / hero myth.  DSCF5668

The Alamo is at the core of this, but then it is also surrounded by other monuments to the Alamo.  It is like a religious pilgrimage site, where there is a multiplication of chapels and statues, as each generation feels the need to add their particular expression of piety to the complex.  The weirdest is this gigantic, Art Deco statue / bas-relief / monument.   A central naked figure representing something, DSCF5674

and then a Pan-Texan Procession on the bar, depicting all the famous people who died at the Alamo.  DSCF5673

We did not notice any similar monuments to the heroes of the Civil War who died to end slavery, such as we saw in Boston.  We realized that we would could never truly appreciate this primary expression and apotheosis of Texas identity, so we moved on.

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The Riverwalk was amazing.  It is not a phony, recent, focus-group tested, marketing ploy.  It was a loop in the canal / water control system in the downtown that was redeveloped beginning in the 1930s.  It was largely the vision of a local architect, Robert H.H. Hugman, who in the 1920s began pushing the idea of re-using the canal that ran along the backside of downtown buildings.  He built his own office there at the canal level, which bridges the upper world of the street and the lower world of the canal.  DSCF5650Outside it stands a statue and memorial to him.  DSCF5649

He emphasized that the redevelopment of the downtown should preserved much of the past, rather than clearing the city for the big new ideas.  There are several other plaques scattered around in his memory;  I have only seen one other city (Amsterdam) where the role of the visionary architect is even acknowledged, much less celebrated the way it is here.

The canal is lined with restaurants, cafes, hotels and stores.  There is a range of prices, and there are plenty of public amenities – it doesn’t feel like a corporate “plaza” where the public is grudgingly admitted if it is dressed right.  There are tourists, locals, kids, yuppies, etc.  DSCF5636

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It is a big curve through the downtown, and this exaggerates one of the strangest aspects of San Antonio:  outside of Boston, it is the most confusing downtown of an American city I have ever seen.  Most of the west is gridded, and sometimes there are colliding grids.  Eventually you figure out the system and can find your way around.  But the center of San Antonio seems to be unplanned in the way that the old part of Boston and New York are, and then various grids collide into it on all sides, most of which are deformed themselves.  The dislocation is so severe that there are map signs everywhere downtown to help people orient themselves.  DSCF5678And then added to this general confusion is the Riverwalk, which is a loop off the main canal.  (in the map above, it circles the light blue area in the middle.), which is probably the path that most visitors are going to follow.  Since the Riverwalk is a separate system (similar to the way the street and canal systems in Venice are separate), and since it is behind the major buildings, it is almost invisible from street level, except that a view and access point appears every once in a while.  And when you are on the Riverwalk, you barely notice the streets passing over you now and then.  If you do ascend to street level, you have no idea where you are, and you have to start looking for one of those maps.  San Antonio takes the concept of Chutes and Ladders to the urban scale.

In practice, this is all wonderful.  The problem with the big, gridded cities of the West is that they are often boring – every point on the grid is the equivalent of every other.  (Even the pedestrian Mecca of Portland suffers from this.)  The downtown of San Antonio is a labyrinth, and you wander happily through it.  When you need to actually get somewhere, there is a map to help you.  But rather than navigating by an abstract geometric system, San Antonio can be navigated by landmarks.  Some wonderful buildings have been designed which bridge the two worlds, and are imageable places.  Hugman’s office is one, the Casino Club Building is another.  At street level, it marks the corner of a major intersection at the end of a bridge.DSCF5620

At the canal level, it is a landmark purely through its design.  DSCF5655

One leg of the Riverwalk is lined with newer buildings.  These are larger, and the edge of the canal does not have the density of visitor-friendly venues that the older part does.  It feels more modern, institutional  and empty – the scale is off.DSCF5686

But even this is quite beautiful.  Perhaps they were right to not try to mimic the character of the older section that comes from the scale of the older buildings.  Perhaps the infrastructure is there, and the intensity of use can develop as needed.

So once again, Texas surprised us.  San Antonio doesn’t just have the best downtown in Texas, it is one of the best I’ve seen in this country.  And it’s not just a downtown for architects or tourists – from what I could see, it illustrates that if a city has a good downtown, it will be cherished and used by its citizens.

San Antonio Rodeo

We arrived in San Antonio to find our campground nearly full, and it was not until Dad spotted a poster that we figured out why. The rodeo was in town. In fact, it was being held at the fairgrounds just down the street. We had lucked into a campground within walking distance of the largest indoor rodeo in the country.
The main event didn’t start until 7, so we had some time to kill. I had no idea what team penning was, and it took me a while to figure it out. As far as I can tell, there are a bunch of calves or heifers or some small and agile kind of cow at one end of this big corral, and cowboys on horses begin at the other. All the cows have numbers plastered to their sides, and once the man in charge calls it out, it’s the cowboys’ job to separate out three bovids with that number and herd them into a smaller pen. The team who does it fastest wins. It was quite entertaining to watch, and I was amazed by how young some of the people doing it were. There was a girl who couldn’t have been older than eleven, wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Jesus, take the reins.”DSCF5404

We missed the pig races, and the petting zoo had a line out the door, but the Texan wildlife exhibit was open. A lot of the animals there actually made their main residence in Mexico or even South America, like the ocelot and coati mundi, who we got to watch eat the zookeepers hair. Even cuter than the prairie dogs was the racoon snuggling with an armadillo.

This rodeo didn’t only have bucking broncos, but bmx biking as well. A bike, without a mad mind of it’s own, is much easier to control than a horse, and the level of maneuverability was spectacular. An aerial trickster flew high into the air over a rather scared-looking volunteer, while another performer spun around like a ballerina with a bicycle. DSCF5426

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Walking into the stock show was one of the oddest experiences of my life. I’d seen 4-H shows before, but only bunnies and some goats. Never had I walked into a room filled with hundreds of cows. The variety of breeds and the variations inside that category was nearly as impressive as the sheer quantity of biomass in that building. At a show pen, little kids showed off animals they could barely reach the shoulders of. Everybody watching in the stands seemed very enthusiastic about how their kids placed, but I was more interested in climbing to the top of the bleachers to look out over the rows upon rows of cattle.DSCF5446

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Inside the swine barn I learned how you move a pig. It doesn’t go on a leash or a lead. It is simply guided by a switch. Presumably it has to be trained first, but even so, it was amazing how calm and controlled they were. Almost tripping over a pig was added to the list of odd experiences I was having that day.DSCF5461

By the time we’d found the least disgusting option (a corn dog) in a food court of donut burgers and deep fried oreos, it was time for the actual rodeo to start. We came in during the middle of the prayer, which was a truly odd experience. It was followed by a rendition of the National Anthem which was surpassed in awfulness only by the one from the Donald Trump rally in Eugene.

Bronco busting, both with a protective backboard so you won’t snap your spine and without, is insane. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking about Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, which was, and still is, one of my favorite movies. I simply don’t understand how we didn’t come to see anyone killed that night.

More hilarious and adorable, was mutton busting. Small children riding sheep. That pretty much says it all. They didn’t have a saddle or anything, and we’re just expected to grab the sheep by the wool, and hold onto it with their legs as it ran panicked across the arena. The finale, where all the kids were put on a sheep and let loose at the same time, was absolute mayhem.

I don’t understand bull riding at all. Unlike bronco busting, which serves to break a horse to make it tame enough to ride, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. No reward, then, unless you’re completely insane or an adrenaline junkie, and a very high risk. Bull riding has been called “the eight most dangerous seconds of sports” and I’m inclined to agree with that assessment, and add “the most insane.”

However, it is kind of fun and horrifying to watch. Roping and bull wrestling at least serves some purpose, and know I understand the expression “to take a bull by the horns.”

If you ever stumble into a rodeo like we did, don’t hesitate to go. Kids will love it, although you’ll probably end up waiting in the ridiculously long petting zoo line, and they might be upset if they aren’t signed up for mutton busting. Oh, and look out back of the cattle barn for the cow showers.DSCF5469

Barbecue and the sublime

DSCF5368Peter:  I first learned about barbecue from reading a Calvin Trillin article in the New Yorker.  Trillin is one of the best food writers ever, and having grown up in Kansas City, he extolled the primacy of Arthur Bryant’s, with which I fully agree.  (One of the readers of this blog from KC characterized our search for barbecue on this trip as, So you’re looking for the second best barbecue place in the country?)   Trillin also used to write “American Stories” in the New Yorker, which were frequently about crime.  For me, the best Trillin articles were the ones which combined food and crime, such as one I vaguely remember about a convicted felon who made the best fried chicken.

On this trip, I have been writing about architecture, while Greta blogs about food.  We do overlap in our interests sometimes – I always care about the food, and every once in a while, we see a building that Greta admits is kind of interesting.  But we have never before written a blog post together which combined architecture and food;  we’ve mainly been eating in cheap places with good food, and the architecture has not been noticeable.  And with barbecue, there is a fundamental rule on the inverse relationship between the quality of the barbecue and the establishment:  the grubbier the joint, the better the barbecue.  (A corollary states that the quality of the barbecue is also related to the number of smiling pigs that can found around the place, but that’s another post.)   We have driven past many a barbecue joint, given it the once-over, and decided it just looked too nice.  The architecture is just a sign for the food, with no
significance beyond that.

As an architect, I’d sometimes wondered about this.  Eating good barbecue is a sublime experience, and wouldn’t it be possible to eat barbecue in a place which was also sublime, without necessarily being too fancy (or even bourgeois)?  It seemed unlikely that this ideal existed, and then we got to Lockhart, Texas.  Even in Texas, Lockhart is legendary.  It is home to three or four superb barbecue places, and we had been advised to go there by any number of foodies and food reviews.  The big problem with eating barbecue in Lockhart is deciding where to eat.  (Some people have decided they have to try it all, but on this trip we have learned the dangers of overindulging while trying to stay on the move.)  There’s Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market, Black’s Barbecue, and Chisholm Trail.  It all sounded great, so we decided to just roll into town and see what happened.

Driving into Lockhart from Austin on Route 130, we passed the Kreuz Market on the outskirts.  It looked like a new building, and even though we knew it was great, we just couldn’t overcome our predilections.  So we drove to the center of town, near the spectacular Caldwell County Courthouse, DSCF5367and while looking around the square, we noticed the smell of barbecue in the air.  Everywhere.  Following our noses, we came to this yard of stacked wood,  DSCF5366

and around the corner was Smitty’s Market.  DSCF5380

It was a little confusing, with the storefront on the left just selling meat and sausages, but then we found the double doors that led in to the barbecue joint.  We stepped from the bright Texas midday sun into a long, dark corridor, with a few locals in the distance.  DSCF5379

At the end of the hall, there was the glow of a wood fire on the floor, DSCF5375

and around the corner was another room, with more fires, and men tending the pits. DSCF5374

The dim light filtered through the smoke that filled the room.  The fires were laid right on the floor, with most of the smoke being drawn into hoods that led to the pits, but some rising to the roof high above.  DSCF5370

Two guys tended the pits and chopped the meat, while a woman took orders and sold the barbecue.  The menu on the wall was confusing – we were there for brisket, and were surprised to see pork ribs in Texas, but what was a cold ring or a hot ring?  We asked the guys in front of us, and they said it was the sausage – you could get it from the pit (hot), or you could get it uncooked to take home (cold).  DSCF5373

As we waited in line, the ambience of the space had its effect upon us.  The room was a sanctuary of barbecue, a dim world of fire and smoke and meat, where people carried on the primal cooking rituals of their ancestors.  It was barbecue as essence, and the elemental qualities of the architecture – space, darkness, fire, smoke, aroma, masonry, steel – induced a feeling of reverence;  the people in line were fairly quiet, and there were a few old guys just sitting along the walls.  It reminded me of a medieval church, where the sensory experience takes you out of the normal world, and allows you to contemplate the sublime.

You order, pay cash, and get your meat wrapped up in butcher paper – no credit cards, plastic trays or styrofoam boxes here.  Then you take your food through the doors into the separate dining room, where you can buy sides and drinks – the purity of the barbecue pit is unsullied by potato salad or sodas.  Passing through those doors was like moving from the sacred to the profane.  The dining room was the day-to-day world, with bright fluorescent lights, an ATM, televisions and crummy metal chairs.  But even though you had been rudely ejected into the harsh light of modern banality, you carried with you a small package that contained the essence of that other, deeper world.

DSCF5371Greta:  They did try to keep the modern world from entirely polluting the bbq, by banning forks. You could get a spoon for coleslaw and potato salad, but nothing was supposed to get between you and the meat.

And oh what meat. Why would anyone get cold rings, when they could order them hot and smoky? Why would anyone want side dishes, when there were ribs to gorge on?  For that matter, why would you devote an inch of stomach space to anything other than the brisket?

That isn’t to say the sausage and and ribs weren’t good. The sausage crumbled in your mouth once the skin was broken, exposing you to all the wonderful flavors within. The ribs rivaled BBQ Exchange’s in terms of rub, and Slap Ya Momma’s in texture.

But this is beef country, and no one has ever made brisket that could compare to this. The fat  gave it an almost buttery flavor  that at first I couldn’t tell whether was from the beef or the bread I was eating it on. It was somehow chewy and soft at once,  which allowed you to savor it longer, like bbq taffy. I’ve learned that describing the taste of beef is nigh on impossible, but it suffices to say that this was fabulous. To cover this wonder with sauce with be worse than gilding a lily, it would be a travesty of the highest order.  Not even Arthur Bryant’s sauce could improve this, and I mean that in a good way.

The small sadness I felt while eating this came from knowing unless I return someday to Texas, I will never have it again. The vegan Eugenian population could never support a truly fabulous bbq restaurant unless they also had bbq tofu, which belongs sorely in the domain of the profane.  Plus, with modern building codes and air quality regulations, another building will never be built with the same potential for greatness. There has never been a better reason to move to Texas than to gorge like a starving wolf at Smitty’s.

Roberto Cipriano

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This is a big country, with a lot of people, who live lives that are quite different from one another’s.  We live in Eugene – a weird yet relatively homogeneous place – so another theme of this trip has been to get out there and let Greta see a wider range of possible lives.  We’ve been in towns full of rich people, neighborhoods and whole regions full of poor people, very white places, very diverse places, native American reservations, small Southern towns, endless sprawl, and cabins in the woods.  In these places, we’ve met or visited people who have constructed very different lives for themselves – big city professionals, farmers on the plains, corporate employees, retirees in RVs, academics, musicians, tech entrepreneurs, artists, park rangers, writers, craftspeople.  It’s been fascinating to see the variety of lives that people have arrived at, and Greta certainly has a lot of new models to consider as she moves ahead with her life.  But if I had to select an alternative life for myself from all the people we’ve visited, I might go with Roberto’s.  I probably appreciated it in that there are similarities in interests and occupations to my own life, but he seems to have put a wide variety of avocations together in a very integrated and satisfying way.

Roberto was an architecture student at the UO about 20 years ago.  He was in my second year studio (both his second year in school and my second year teaching).  Even at this early age he was clearly different from his classmates – he was somewhat older, had lived in different places around the country, and had already developed atypical interests – such as his expertise in magic and his running a magic store.  I had some of the same problem with Roberto that I’ve had throughout my life with many other classmates and students – there were just too many interesting topics to discuss with him, and it was hard to limit the discussion to architecture.

I lost touch with Roberto after his graduation (as I did with most students in the pre-Facebook era), but we later reconnected, and I’ve followed his exploits with interest.  He ended up in New York, where he lived in a loft in Brooklyn (back when one might still be able to do this without a hedge fund manager’s income), and he worked in Deborah Berke’s office for many years, where he became friends with Chris Harnish.  (It’s rare when you hear uniformly good things about an architectural office from separate sources, and it’s good to know that the quality of the firm matches up to the quality of the built work.)

Throughout this time Roberto continued to develop his other interests – he is a serious bicyclist, musician, and craftsman of all types – mechanic, builder, instrument-maker.  He went off to southeast Asia for a year, working to build a health clinic in a rural area.  At this point he had some doubts about staying in the architecture profession, as years of experience tend to make one aware of its shortcomings, and he spent some time taking care of the prerequisites for applying to medical school.  But through a complex series of events and circumstances, he didn’t make this radical shift, and instead changed his focus within the field.

Roberto moved back to Texas, where he had previously lived, and settled in Austin.  He has worked for and on a number of endeavors – architectural practice, construction, modular production, and musical instrument fabrication.  He is currently working in the design/build mode, on his own while we were visiting, but now seemingly with a larger enterprise (according to recent FB posts).

The example of his work that we experienced most thoroughly was his own house, which is located in an older neighborhood south of the river in Austin.  It is high-quality new construction, yet somehow it fits into this funky context just fine – with no pretensions, no screaming architectural indulgences, and a thoughtful use of vernacular materials.  DSCF5335

It is even a vernacular type – a dogtrot house, with an screened porch between the enclosed spaces – living and eating one one side, bedroom and bathroom on the other.  The porch is perfect for this environment, with shaded, ventilated living space in the summer.  (And privacy enhanced by the subtle layering from the street side.)  This passive feature, plus the extensive PV array on the roof make this house extremely energy-efficient.  DSCF5338

The interiors shows off his craftsman’s sensibility, with a smart combination of off-the-shelf items (including exposed gang-nail roof trusses), and hand-crafted details (such as the pantry door and hardware).  DSCF5339

There is a second building in the backyard – a capacious shop building, which is on axis, and so defines both the extent of the visual space of the dogtrot, and the outdoor terrace area.  In this era of willful, extravagant, often-meaningless exuberant shapes, it is a joy to see a simple, elegant building, one which works with ideas of symmetry vs. asymmetry, rhythm, axes, facades with a skillful interplay of materials, and complex spaces made wth simple forms.  Overall, there is a tremendous sense of architectural order, and staying here was a pleasure – everything just felt right. DSCF5344

Even more fun than being ensconced in Roberto’s physical environment was being welcomed into his life.  We picked up the conversation from 20 years ago, and sat around for hours talking about architecture, practice, building, New York, bicycling, and the meaning of life.  For two people who have lived very different lives in different places, our ideas were in remarkable consonance.

We also got to spend time with Roberto’s amazing companion, Carolyn Cohagan.  She has had a long career all over the world as a writer, performer, comic, and producer in theater and film.  More recently, Carolyn returned to her hometown of Austin, and has just published her second novel, Time Zero , which is receiving great reviews everywhere.  The book takes on the issues of fundamentalism and women rights in a dystopian New York of the future.  (One brilliant innovation is that every dogmatic restriction portrayed in the story is actually in place somewhere in the world today, and is footnoted.)   Hearing from Roberto that Greta was a writer, Carolyn sent her a pre-publication pdf so she could read it while we were on the road.  Greta posted a review on goodreads; I’m pleased to see that Greta’s growing obsession with food on this trip has not rendered her incapable of writing thoughtfully about other subjects.  We both really enjoyed hanging out with Carolyn, and I think she will be a big influence on Greta’s life.  Throughout this trip Greta has been fortunate to to spend time and talk with a number of writers – Bill McGowan, Glen and Michelle, Garrison Keillor – but Carolyn’s trajectory is one that Greta can probably imagine for herself.  Plus Greta just thought she was one of the coolest people she’s ever met.

Roberto also took us by the studio run by his friend Joseph Kincannon, a stonevcarver.  Joseph came from New England, and had spent years working on the recommenced construction of St. John the Divine in New York, during some of the same years I was walking past it every day on my way to Columbia.  It was fascinating to talk to him and see them at work with both hand and power tools, perhaps the most extraordinary craftsmanship we’ve seen on this trip.  Joseph and I reminisced about the good old bad old days in New York in the 80s, and both recalled the peacocks at the cathedral, Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk across Amsterdam, and the parties thrown by the somewhat wild daughter of the dean of the cathedral.

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Austin didn’t strike us as the most beautiful city in Texas, but through hanging around with Roberto and his friends, we came to see what is unique there – the people and the culture.  I felt about it the way I do about Eugene – it isn’t the physical attributes of the place that make it attractive, it is the quality of life there.  It seems to be full of interesting and fun people, art and music and the enjoyment of life.  San Antonio is gorgeous, but I’d choose to live in Austin.

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Throughout this trip, Greta has been taking care of her missing-pet jones by hanging out with the pets of our friends along the way.  There have been some pretty great dogs (Jeti, Ace, Harry and Monty come to mind), but Roberto’s dog Woody takes first prize (although Carolyn’s dog was pretty cool too).  Woody has a lovely disposition – fun and exuberant without being annoying, happy to sit with Greta on the couch while she was reading, and damn cute.  The people and the food and the culture in Austin were great, but In Greta’s view, Woody might be enough of a reason to live there.

Austin

We had heard two things about Austin before we got there – it is the cool, hip place in Texas, and the traffic is terrible.  After being surprised by Dallas, and horrified by Houston, we were prepared to love Austin.  So we were again surprised, finding it to be basically a good, big, fairly typical American city for its size, but one that didn’t wow us in its physical attributes.  On the other hand, clearly it is the place in Texas where you’d want to live.  The people are interesting, and the neighborhoods, restaurants and ambience are cool.  There are just a few parts of it you have to avoid, such as everything connected to the state government, and the UT campus.

DSCF5314Compared to Houston, the downtown is a wonder.  It is a good mix of early 20th century commercial buildings, stores, new offices, yuppie towers, DSCF5281nightlife districts, etc.  There are people on the streets, even on the weekend.  They didn’t demolish their city, and it is big and varied enough to accommodate changing needs and cultures.  It just didn’t strike us as very interesting physically – no especially beautiful buildings, or urban spaces, just good, solid, 20th-century, American gridded city fabric.  It reminded me of Raleigh, or Buffalo (but without Buffalo’s great architecture).  Greta and I have gotten pretty blasé about typical American downtowns, and we can usually knock them off in a couple of hours.  So we did that in Austin and moved on to look at the more atypical parts.

The state capitol is probably what we should have expected.  Very, very big compared to other state capitols, highly derivative, and not especially interesting. DSCF5290 It looms over the town on its hill, reminding Austinites of the power of all the crazy people in Texas.  DSCF5292

The interior has some points.  Again, it is all very big , beaux-arts rational, and impersonal, with long hallways DSCF5299and a really big domeDSCF5295

where the high points of Texas politics are immortalized.  DSCF5298

The legislative chambers match the rest of the building in their size and mediocrity,DSCF5306

but are worth visiting to see these two paintings, which depict the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto.  DSCF5302Painted by Henry Arthur McArdle, they are truly two of the biggest, and most ghastly (in both subject matter and aesthetics) paintings in the world.  DSCF5300

I considered trying to count the number of dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies in them, but we didn’t have the time.  McArdle is the Hieronymus Bosch of Texas, without the talent or subtlety.  I have never seen such a detailed depiction of mayhem and gore, and you start to understand the Texas mentality when you see these depictions of its foundational mythology.

Being a giant state, Texas has a giant state government, which spawned a vast district of banal bureaucratic boxes, typical of most state capitals.  DSCF5308It doesn’t have the fascination of the disaster of Albany, and it makes one yearn for the wisdom of Annapolis, where they kept their beautiful capitol and pushed the bureaucracies out to the edge of the city.

The capitol grounds are a weird agglomeration of formal landscape and a plethora of monuments.  A really stupid one to the Children of Texas – you can imagine the degree of political pandering which brought such a piece of kitsch into existence.  DSCF5309

But my favorite was this – a monument to a removed monument.  Again, political pandering to the forefront, unwilling to offend a minor constituency (the Austin Lawyers Wives’ Club) in the tiniest way.  DSCF5311It’s clear that the physical environment barely registers with these people – they are politicians, and all other realms are just instrumental in their service to politics.

The University of Texas campus was also a huge disappointment.  It sits further uphill from the capitol, along a not-quite-straight axis.  DSCF5233

It is huge, with around 50,000 students, and the central campus is pretty dense by American standards.  The buildings are again big and banal, and the open spaces are devoid of charm.  The Main building (the famous tower from which one of our first mass shootings was perpetrated in 1966) is dreadful.  Designed by Paul Cret, who has a good reputation (which may be derived from his having employed Louis Kahn), it is an eclectic pastiche,DSCF5232that brings Moscow University to mind.  It is the worst thing on this campus, so in balance, this may be the best:  DSCF5236

But they point out the common problem of the campus – everything is in the same mostly Neo-Renaissancey, a little Missiony, ponderous, style.  Just as the Capitol is meant to manifest the Power of Texas, the campus is meant show that this is a Serious Institution of Higher Education;  take that, all you snooty East Coast schools, we have a bigger endowment.  It was oppressive and devoid of life.

So what did we like in Austin?  The neighborhoods.  Austin is a really weird place – you have the presence of a truly regressive state government.  You have a big grandiose university.  And somehow a hipster and yuppie community has sprouted here (probably grounded historically in the student population), which is known for its music, food, nightlife, progressive politics, etc.  Austinites must have signed a mutual nonaggression pact, otherwise I don’t know how they can all co-exist in this place.

We cruised through what was obviously the old, expensive neighborhood on the hill to the west side of downtown.  Mostly stately and restrained, but with some nice little apartments mixed in.  DSCF5284

Roberto’s neighborhood on the south side of the river was really fun.  Very casual and funky, with some places bizarre even by Eugene standards.  DSCF5209  DSCF5221We liked the anarchic quality, which extended to houses with vast armies of unconfined dogs roaming the streets.

We also checked out the East Side, which is another funky place in the process of gentrifying.  This is the part of Austin with the Portland vibe – street carts, bikes, old houses, Bernie Sanders headquarters, expensive new infill, etc.  DSCF5275      DSCF5240I went to Birds hipster barbershop, where I got my choice of canned beer with the haircut.  (I appreciated this, as I had missed getting my hair cut in New Orleans at the bar in the Marigny which offered a haircut with a shot for $10 on Monday nights.)  DSCF5280

These two new buildings will enter my curriculum as providing the clearest illustration of the differences between Ducks and Decorated Sheds.  DSCF5265  DSCF5264

Austin is a city about which we were wildly ambivalent.  There is the part of the city which is a product of the power of the state, which is big, pretentious and boring, designed mainly to awe.  There is the downtown, which is solid and good, but nothing to write home about.  There is the sprawl (which we almost completely avoided), which is probably like the sprawl everywhere else, and which must account for Austin’s bad rep on traffic. (We found it to be like Portland here too – if you go out to the periphery, the traffic is hell, but if you stay in the core of the city, it’s fine, as everyone takes Über.)

Then there are the people, the food, the music, the lifestyle.  This was all very familiar to us, feeling much like Portland or a big-city Eugene.  I ended up thinking about Austin much the same way I do about Eugene – it’s not the most exciting place to visit, but I’d like to live there.  DSCF5315

Valentina’s BBQ Tacos

P1070473We have recently discovered that Velvet Taco is (gasp) a chain, albeit a small one.  This picture was taken in Fort Worth, Texas.  Apparently, it has locations in Texas and Chicago, nowhere else. This does not negate its deliciousness, but does make it ineligible for the title of best stand-alone tacos on this trip. That spot was swooped up a week later by Valentina’s Barbeque tacos. You can’t get more Tex Mex than that, and you can’t go better than Valentinas.  An unassuming shack in a convenience store parking lot is not the place most people think of when they think about Austin bbq. But unlike Franklin’s, the wait here is ten minutes, and you can get chips and queso to hold you over until then.

And how to even describe the tacos. The sausage taco was fabulous, and that’s from someone who isn’t even a big fan of sausage. This was the best sausage I’ve ever had. It was quite solid, almost hotdog-like, but better, because it was barbeque. Flavorful, without being too spicy. The taco had this, and guacamole. What could be better?
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The other tacos, for one.  Pulled pork, and chicken, and brisket.  I’ve learned that Texas does actually have good pork, although most places don’t have good brisket. This is probably because beef is harder to cook, which may be the reason we had such great meals in Texas.

When my dad put up on Facebook that we had gotten bbq tacos in Austin, a friend of a friend, who was also from Eugene, immediately asked if we had gone to Valentina’s. When the times published their 36 Hours in Austin article, Valentina’s was on the list. The people from Nerdist, a popular youtube channel, even included it in one of their videos. So if you don’t trust my word, trust everyone else. Go to Valentina’s if you’re in Austin. It is definitely worth the drive.

Oh, and don’t miss Lick ice cream on your way back to town. It’s a lot like Red Wagon creamery here in Eugene in its specialization in local and odd flavors.  I had the lime and cilantro, which was fabulous. The perfect mix between bitter and sweet, with that little kick of parsley flavor that makes it so unique blending right it.  But don’t worry if you aren’t adventurous, they have normal flavors like chocolate too.DSCF5322