Daily Archives: February 23, 2016

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