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.
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.
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).
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.
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.