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



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.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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



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


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


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.


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.


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.


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?

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

Texas engineering cousins

Yes, that really is a category in our family. For some reason, three of Greta’s cousins have gone into engineering and ended up in Texas, and we got to visit them all.

Our first stop was in Houston, where Joe Ballard is an engineering major at Rice. Joe grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, where Linda and four of her sisters went to Kansas State. Her youngest sister Becky married Steve Ballard, a local boy, and they stayed in Manhattan and raised their three kids. (We missed seeing Joe’s big sister Audrey in Chicago as she had to prepare for a meeting and couldn’t come out to play.)

Joe was a serious football player in high school, but missed his senior year due to a knee injury. So with a year of eligibility, he went to prep school in Connecticut for a year, then matriculated at Rice.  He’s been playing mostly on special teams (I hope that is the right term, says the blogger who watches 0.5 football games per year), and is in his junior year as a mechanical engineering major.

Joe lives with three of his teammates, and when I asked his advice on where we should stay in Houston, he said we should just park in their driveway.  I loved the idea, and figured this would probably be the most unusual accommodations Greta would experience on the whole trip.

We arrived at Joe’s and were having a beer to celebrate Greta’s having navigated us through Houston Friday rush hour traffic on her own, when cousin Sam Adams showed up.  Sam grew up in Indianapolis, the older son of Dawn and Bill (previously profiled here).  Sam went to a Spanish immersion school, and continued his language focus with French, eventually studying abroad in France, and ending up being practically adopted into a French family, whom his family stills sees often.  Sam arrived at Rice a year before Joe, and is a chemical engineering major.

Greta and I went out for tacos with the cousins, then came back to Joe’s where we hung out with the roommates. I guess my expectations for a houseful of football players had been shaped by being at the UO for so long, but these guys didn’t meet those preconceptions at all. First, although large, they were still within one standard deviation of normal-sized human beings.  Second, they were all very smart and engaging, and as charming as we had come to expect Southerners to be.  We had a great time talking and drinking beer – which was the third surprise, as all of them had no more than one, as they had practice at 6:00 the next morning. (Sam had a bit more, being the non-teammate who could sleep in.)  They are pictured below with Greta as the five-foot scale figure: Sam on the left, Joe next to him, then Cole and Nick. Not pictured is Robby (who gave us excellent advice on camping in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend), and Cole’s lovely girlfriend Maddy.


While the college boys didn’t meet expectations, their house did. A combination of second-hand furniture and beer brand décor, it showed one major innovation since my days of living in such a household – there were screens everywhere. The living room had two big TVs, in case you needed to watch two games at one time, or watch one game while playing video games on the other. Despite this change, it felt just like all the roommate guy apartments I’d ever lived in, and gave Greta some idea of what environments lay in her future.

We had Vietnamese food with the cousins the next night and really enjoyed ourselves. My first memories of Sam and Joe are as part of a pack of five little boy cousins, running through large family parties wreaking havoc. And even as they’ve grown up, I’ve tended to still think of them that way, as that pack became high school boys and retreated to the nearest basement man-cave, only to emerge for feedings. So spending two evenings with them without any other family around was enlightening. They have both turned onto thoughtful, smart and entertaining young men. Joe still has a year left in school, and so is not planning too far ahead now. Sam is graduating this spring, and is planning on joining the Navy, training to be a submariner. After basic training and OCS he’ll send a year in submarine training in Charleston (Greta told him about the good restaurants.) I spend a lot of my normal life with college students, and being with Joe and Sam reminded me of everything I like about them – their energy, enthusiasm, insights, humor, idealism. It was fun for us both seeing these guys, and seeing the young men they’ve turned into.

We moved on to Houston, where we saw Ben Robinson. Ben’s mom is Linda’s sister Paula, whom we had visited in St. Petersburg (profiled here). Ben grew up outside Dallas and in Louisville, but the family roots in Kansas were strong, and he returned to Kansas State for both his undergraduate and masters’ degrees. During those years Ben saw a lot of the world – his mom was living in Shanghai, and Ben would visit her there for extended periods, or else they would meet up in some other cool place.

Ben moved to Houston, where he now has another one of those jobs I can’t understand.  As far as I can tell, his engineering company makes products used by other engineering companies, both hardware and software.  Ben is involved in developing and marketing those things.

We went over to Ben’s apartment (which showed he had definitely moved beyond the frat-boy collegiate decor), and met his roommate, a veterinarian from Oregon City.  We asked how he could stand the Houston weather after growing up in Oregon, and he said he had moved to Houston partly because of the weather;  we’ve never gotten that response before.

Ben is enjoying the young professional life in Austin, and gave us some insight into what that is all about, placing it squarely on the Portland-Brooklyn axis of hipness.  (Ben intermittently sports a man-bun these days.)   One gets old and forgets that there are just good places to Iive as a young person, surrounded by lots of peers and lots of things to do.

I didn’t get a picture of Ben, nor do I have a lot of conversation to recall.  While we were at his apartment, I started to feel really sick, so I just went back to the trailer and crashed while Ben took Greta out to dinner at his favorite joint.  She said they had a good time, talking about our trip and other cousinly things.  We have to thank Ben for providing this opportunity for Greta, which led to her feeling very mature, sitting in a hip restaurant with her cousin, without any of the parental generation in sight.

The Menil Collection

DSCF5005The architectural high point of Houston is definitely the Menil Collection.  After seeing so many Renzo Piano museums on this trip, it was instructive to visit his first in this country, from the mid 1980s.  The overwhelming impression is that of simplicity and clarity, which sometimes has gotten obscured in his more recent buildings by all the fancy parts.

I still remember being fascinated by this building when it was first published.  In a decade when major public works were either the last gasps of expressive late modernism, or the equally histrionic statements of Postmodernism in the ascendant, Piano designed a simple grey and white box.  The architect who, along with his then-partner Richard Rogers, had provoked the whole architectural world with the Pompidou, was now working in an almost classical mode, reminiscent of Mies and Kahn.  Museums want to be simple boxes with carefully-designed lighting, and Piano did this literally –  a grey box with white colonnades all around.

What most impressed me then and now is how this large building fits into a residential neighborhood of small bungalows.  The museum had been buying up those bungalows for a while, and then plunked this museum down in the middle of them, on a full-block site. They still own all the houses across the streets surrounding the museum, and they have been remodelled to house functions such as offices, the bookstore and a new cafe.  DSCF5040They are all painted the same shade of grey, and the landscaping of lawn and trees reinforces the residential scale.  I always go back to Howard Davis’s response when a student asked him how much a building had to resemble its surroundings in order to fit in, and Howard said “about 30%”.  A funny answer, which I think may be true (Howard now swears he said 50%).  The Menil resembles its context in color, material (wood siding), simple flat walls, individual windows instead of curtain walls, steel channel detailing which refers to wood trim,DSCF5012 porches, and a lawn.  Somehow this keeps the building from overwhelming everything around it.  I like it that he made a building that feels monumental yet accessible, a temple with a colonnade that also reads as a big wood-framed house.

The colonnades surrounding the building show Piano’s first design for complex shading / daylighting devices.  They are beautiful as objects, and they work very well at bouncing and modulating the light.  DSCF5014

One could argue that this refined design isn’t necessary on the exterior – you just need a sunshade.  But this roof is carried into the interior, where it daylights the circulation spaces and many of the galleries.  The use of them on the exterior is a way to tie the building together, and state the key move of the building where all can see it.  (And without them, it would just be big box.)  They also create a gracious walkway around the building, a very pleasant place to stroll. The scale is intentionally deceptive – using wood cladding and a white porch makes one think the building is residential in scale, but the bays are actually very wide, and the columns are over two stories tall.  Piano reinvents the colossal order.  DSCF5075

People were using the grounds as a park – reading in the grass, letting little kids play – another way in which the building is an amenity in the neighborhood.DSCF5048

So the big problem with this post is that you can’t take pictures inside the museum.  Too bad, as it is worth looking at.  The plan is absurdly simple – a cross axis for entry in the middle of the two long sides, and a longitudinal hallway down the center which ends in a big window in a recess at each end.  DSCF5011

The galleries are to either side of the hallway, and are emphatically separated from it – no open plan here.  it succeeds because of the light – the indirect light from the monitors above, and the big windows at the ends.  The galleries themselves can be rearranged within this modular system, and the daylighting tuned to meet the needs of the current exhibit.  The most interesting spaces architecturally were the galleries around an internal courtyard, which was very similar to Kahn’s Kimbell.  A few bays of the grid are simply left open, the light comes down from above into a planted court, and the galleries around it have glazed walls.  (These galleries house sculpture and other works which can tolerate these light levels.)  Amusingly, this courtyard isn’t in the middle of the building, but is directly behind one of the exterior walls – you have to look hard on the exterior to see any indication of it.

As at the Kimbell, the quality of the collection is a distraction from the architecture.  It is a wide-ranging and excellent museum in many ways, but the Surrealist collection is astonishing.  After walking through it all, I was having a hard time remembering any Surrealist masterpieces that weren’t here.  Our favorite part was the room where they showed objects of tribal and folk art with had influenced the Surrealists.  In any other museum, this work would be displayed in a scholarly manner, arranged according to place and time of origin and annotated with long, detailed labels.  But the Surrealists didn’t really care about all that, they just thought these were really cool things that they found visually and conceptually appealing.  So they are all mixed up in the gallery, with wildly varied objects juxtaposed and crammed together.  It is fun, and it helps you understand their artistic processes.

The Menil has a few other buildings – a lovely, small Piano building housing a permanent installation of Cy Twombly paintings, and one with a Dan Flavin installation.  It has also spun off two other buildings in the district – one that used to house Byzantine frescoes (long story), and the Rothko Chapel (a building which I found to be as uninteresting as the Rothkos;  I’m a philistine).    I think this little bit of Houston is better than all the rest of Houston put together.

DSCF5050The other great thing about visiting the Menil Collection was seeing my old friend and classmate Sheryl Kolasinski, who is the deputy director and COO.  Sheryl majored in art history at Brown, and then we attended grad school at Columbia together, where we formed the Ivy League art history cabal.  She worked as an architect for a while, then joined the NYC government, where she eventually ended up as head of design and construction for all the city’s cultural institutions.  She moved on to the Smithsonian for about 20 years, where she was deputy director for operations, and oversaw $1.5 billion in construction.  She didn’t come out and say it, but I have to guess she got a little burnt out by the size of the operation (overseeing 1900 employees) and the range of issues she had to deal with, which was getting pretty far away from architecture.  So she moved to a much smaller institution, where she can have a really direct effect upon its future,  Sheryl is in charge of implementing the Menil’s masterplan, the next phase of which is a 30,000 sf drawing center for works on paper.

We had a great, short visit, catching up on the past 30 years or so, and talking about all the different directions in which an architectural career can veer.  I’ve always thought that architects tend to have a breadth of vision and a skill set that’s often way out of proportion to the scale of projects they are called upon to administer, and it was wonderful to see how Sheryl’s talents have been recognized and appreciated, allowing her to accomplish a lot in an important context.  And from now on, when someone says something snide about what you can do with an art history degree, I’ll just say that you could do something like manage the Smithsonian.


DSCF5096Every incorrect preconception I had about Dallas turned out to be true about Houston.  It sprawls further than Phoenix.  It has the most inhumanly-scaled and corporatized downtown I’ve ever seen.  If it had a decent, older part of downtown, either I couldn’t find it, or it was knocked down to build the current crop of hellish corporate headquarters.  I think it is my second least favorite American city, after Phoenix.

Houston is the largest city in the country without zoning, and I was curious to see how this affects the form of the city.  I think it actually isn’t that important.  One of my suspicions about zoning is that it merely codifies current practices.  We have perfected how to build placeless sprawl, and Houston follows these precepts – the conventions are so strong it doesn’t need explicit rules.  I couldn’t tell the difference between the sprawly parts of Houston, Dallas, Washington DC, or Atlanta.  It’s just that Houston has more of it – about 50 miles across in each direction.

The one noticeable difference is that the Edge City centers out there in the sprawl are bigger, and the buildings at their centers are much bigger than anywhere else in the country.  DSCF5086Whereas much commercial development in Edge City is subject to height restrictions, in Houston it is not, and so skyscrapers that would be considered large in downtowns happen out there on the edge.  This is probably a good thing.  Many large metro areas are developing secondary centers now – the Puget Sound region has about eight, Portland has consciously designated Regional Centers.  So if Houston ever begins to redevelop a sense of urbanity in these places, it will have some serious density at those centers, versus the midrise buildings in most of Edge City elsewhere. DSCF5202

This is the Building-Formerly-Known-as-Transco, the biggest.  (I don’t even want to guess what “Senior Living Solutions” entail.)  DSCF5197

There are certainly some nice parts of Houston – we saw some pleasant residential areas, the Menil Collection is a wonderful complex (to be blogged separately), and Rice University is beautiful.  DSCF5079Unfortunately, this is all I can post about Rice.  Houston is a city where you have to drive, and it is really not possible to park anywhere near Rice unless you have a permit or are willing to take out a second mortgage.  So we just drove through it a few times.  I don’t blame them for restricting cars, but I regret not being able to see more of the campus.

Near Rice is another amazing center, the Texas Medical Center, which reportedly has 54 different institutions.  DSCF5081I have seen some pretty big medical districts in other cities, but nothing like this.  It is the hospital as city.  Not being a patient, I don’t know whether having a medical complex organized on city streets in separate buildings increase or decreases the dysfunctionality of wayfinding here – it’s like the O’Hare vs. JFK paradigms.  Maybe it’s better being able to drive from building to building, rather than having to walk down endless hallways.

We took a good look at the downtown, and were appalled.  Granted, we were seeing it on a weekend, when it didn’t have surging crowds of urbanites on the sidewalks, but I get the feeling that still doesn’t happen.  Why would you walk here?  The streets are the most car-oriented, overscaled and boring I have ever seen, and that pattern goes on and on.  Many blocks are given over to corporate headquarters, with desolate plazas and parking garage ramps occupying the periphery.  DSCF5113



There are almost no stores, there is no smaller scale, there is nothing for the pedestrian to do but hurry to the end of the block.  The one exception seems to be Main Street, which has stores, a median with a light rail track (running in the middle of a lagoon) and some attempts at design of the public realm.  DSCF5182

It ain’t great, but it’s as good as it gets.  Unfortunately, we came across this monument there: DSCF5186We can only hope that no one took this seriously, and that this too will someday pass.

We came across what must be the biggest parking garage in the world, blocks-long, ironically juxtaposed with iconic elements from real cities.  DSCF5107

The shiny street of parking garage entries:DSCF5101

And then, in our post-911, corporate paranoia, the car-bomb bollards everywhere.  DSCF5114


These epitomize the Corporate Private City. We came across one park downtown, and it was full of homeless people hanging around.  It is probably the one place in the downtown where they can sit down without being shooed away by guards.

(While not directly related to the terrible downtown, the state of the streets in Houston might be another indicator of the general lack of civic- or commonwealth-mindedness.  Without a doubt, they are the worst maintained streets in America. You really can not ride a bicycle in Houston as the streets are so potholed and rutted as to be impassable;  we didn’t see a worse road until we took the 20-mile dirt road into Chaco Canyon.  Just another way that this is the ultimate city for elevating private, individual interests above common ones.)

Eventually, contemplating the streetscape became just too depressing, so I started looking at the building skins.  I’ve been shooting these curtain wall juxtaposition photos in every city, and Houston abounds in them.  When all else fails, fall back on abstraction.DSCF4989




They also have a cluster of deeply awful cultural institutions.  Why are they so bad here and so good in Dallas?  DSCF5140


Houston’s entry in the Ugliest Postmodern Building in the World Contest.  I think this may win.DSCF4986

And of course, there is the requite Philip Johnson excrescence.  This one may be a little better than the PPG building in Pittsburgh in building design, DSCF5152but it loses a lot of points for how it interacts with the street.  The corporate headquarters as fortress has never been better expressed.  DSCF5155

When they try to address the pedestrian realm, it ends up looking like this.  (The irony of the name must be unintentional.)  DSCF5188I can’t quite place what movie this is from.  When the Earth Stood Still?  Pacific Rim?  Independence Day?  Transformers?

I did find one building which seems to indicate that human beings inhabited this area before 1960.  DSCF5192

Overall, a truly terrible place.  And we were there in February – I can’t imagine what kind of special hell this must be in the summer.