Monthly Archives: April 2016

House of Eternal Return

DSCF9899The House of Eternal Return is what happens when you give over 100 artists funded by George RR Martin a 20,000 square foot bowling alley in Santa Fe. It was lucky that a friend of mine had told me about it, because having only been open a month when we went, it hasn’t worked its way up through the ratings on Tripadvisor. This is not the kind of conceptual art people complain about not understanding as they stare at it on the wall. You can literally climb inside, over, under, and through this art. I think the best way to describe it is to call it a marvel of non-linear storytelling combined with a jungle gym and a carnival funhouse.DSCF9916When you first walk inside, it looks like a normal house. A Victorian from Mendicino, the Elsbergs, a normal family with two girls and a boy, own it, and it looks like they just left. Newspapers strewn across the kitchen table and everything. Then you start to find the portals. The fireplace, the kids’ closets, the door under the stairs, the refrigerator. DSCF9887I couldn’t stop thinking Pixar and Disney movies as I walked through. The mammoth skeleton behind the fireplace seemed straight out of Ice Age, and the door under the stairs led to a tropical rainforest that made you feel like Mowgli in Jungle Book. The strongest connection, at least to me, was how the yeti and the little trailer came together to make it feel like you’d just been banished through a door in Monster’s Inc. DSCF9895DSCF9910Part of me wonders if they have to send someone through when it closes to make sure no one’s hiding in there to spend the night. Then again, I’m not sure how effective one person could be, as there are literally a thousand places to hide. After two hours, I still kept stumbling into whole new sections. And I don’t see why anyone would want to spend the night alone there. Things that seem mystical in the daytime with lots of people nearby would easily turn to nightmare-inducing terrors at night, and it would seem quite possible that the shadow on the wall is being cast by a monster, not a coat rack.

The story itself would not help. Scattered through the place are kiosks with headphones. Little movies present clips of the humans’ lives, and how the dad of the family finds a way to tap into the vibrations of the universe to access a secret world. A deep rumbly voice tells about the Charter, the agreement between the Anomaly and the beings who spawned her, and a period before the creation of time. I won’t say too much, as I don’t want to ruin anything. You might be like Dad however, and not even notice the screens and headphones or that there’s any order to the place at all. It’s still a perfectly enjoyable experience.
DSCF9889So if you’re in Santa Fe, do not miss this. Bring your kids, they’ll love it, but don’t let them out of your sight. You’ll never find them again if you do.

Santa Fe


We’d been wandering around in the desert for over a month, camping in National Parks, Indian reservations, and strange, raw cities like Gallup and Page, so we were looking forward to getting back to civilization. When we got to Albuquerque Greta immediately tracked down a banh mi restaurant, the first thing we’d eaten in a month that wasn’t either our own minimal cooking, or Mexican. Albuquerque turned out to be the kind of medium-sized, complex city that we enjoy, and we were looking forward to the two other urban outposts in northeastern New Mexico – Santa Fe and Taos – which we knew would be very different. I had briefly been to Santa Fe once before, and was anticipating that it would have some things in common with other places we’d seen on this trip – small, beautiful destination cities for the well-heeled.

Santa Fe has an extraordinarily beautiful landscape, where the high desert runs into the Sangre de Christo Mountains. It is surprisingly small – with a population of about 70,000, even though it is the state capital. Perhaps this reflects the unusual statistics of New Mexico – it is the fifth largest state in area, but has only 2 million residents (half of whom live around Albuquerque). So there probably just aren’t that many state employees, leading to the happy circumstance whereby the city is not dominated by massive, boring boxes of bureaucrats.

Driving into town from the southwest, we passed through the moderate amounts of recent sprawl, and then saw our first tip-off of what was to come:DSCF9963normal sprawl, except in style.  A Burger King in tasteful, earth-toned stucco, with some historicist detailing. Years ago, I had read a Calvin Trillin article about Santa Fe, focussing on how all these Anglos moved there from the East and then tried to out-Hispanicize each other – reporting their neighbors if they could see stylistically non-conforming parts of their houses – but I hadn’t realized the extent of this hegemony.

We arrived in the historic center of town in a thunder snowstorm (at the end of April), and were immediately struck by how different it was from every other small city we’d seen in the past three months.DSCF9804

There were no jarringly bad modernist buildings – but there were no good modernist buildings either. Everything was low in height, covered in stucco within a narrow color range, and detailed in a Puebloan manner. We subsequently learned that this style is sometimes called Faux-dobe, and this conformity was written into local law when New Mexico became a state, in 1912. (Interestingly, this was one year before the first zoning ordinance in the country was adopted in New York.) At that point Santa Fe only had about 5000 residents, so this regulation has been in place for virtually all of its growth. In the 1930s the “Territorial” style was also included, incorporating those white-painted elements we’d seen on the Burger King.DSCF9787

The town is centered on the historic plaza,DSCF9792

with the restored Governor’s Palace along one side – the historical source of the required look,99. Santa Fe025DSCF9788

which is even applied to parking garages.DSCF9795

Santa Fe is uniform, but not just stylistically: everything is also neat, clean, well-tended, and expensive-looking. We hadn’t seen a town like this since Seaside, Florida, and it was particularly noticeable after three months back travelling in the West. As a transplanted Northeasterner, it took me a while to get used to the ad hoc quality of the built environment in the West – everything is new, most of it built rapidly during booms, when very little attention was paid to its quality. This was undoubtedly true of much new construction in the East also, but there has been enough time for subsequent waves of redevelopment there, with many of the crappy old buildings being replaced, and a few good old buildings preserved. Most western cities are still composed of predominantly first-growth buildings, (often badly remodeled).

This casual, haphazard quality can be seen in individual buildings, but also in the overall appearance of the landscapes and cityscapes. Driving through the rural South, we were surprised to see that every highway was lined with litter and even larger discarded items, something you just don’t see anymore in other parts of the country. In the Southwest, where nothing rusts or rots, it became extreme – it seemed that most yards were full of discarded cars, appliances and furniture. I’ve always attributed this lack of concern for the built environment to a sort of environmental Manicheanism – Westerners have grown up in this huge, amazing natural landscape (which they either want to exploit or preserve), and the built world is just instrumental – it exists to support human life, but it is otherwise not worthy of attention. After a while travelling in the West you stop noticing the quality of the settlements, just nasty little smudges by the side of the highway.

Santa Fe doesn’t have this quality. The environment may look more causal and “authentic”, without the hyper-manicured fussiness of much recent, edge city development, but it clearly has been considered and tended. This is largely due to the intentional planning and architectural rules put in place over a hundred years ago. Not only did they establish stylistic uniformity, but they show that Santa Fe is a city which has always cared about how it looked. These rules, based in ideas coming from the City Beautiful movement, consciously guided development in Santa Fe throughout its whole subsequent history, while most of the West just sort of happened. The “Santa Fe Style” may be visually apparent, but Santa Fe would still look different from the rest of the West, even if they had picked a different style – the presence of codified intention is what mattered.

More recently, one can see the same approach playing out in Seaside, Florida, where a clear and rigorous set of development rules and standards produced a well-considered and tended environment, notably devoid of all the standard, tacky seaside development seen everywhere else in the Panhandle. These are harmonious, planned environments, where people have thought about the qualities of the whole, and not just a few individual buildings. After 30, or 100 years, the effect of these rules is very clear in the physical, built world, and perhaps less obviously, also in the social and economic worlds: these kinds of planned, controlled environments attract rich people, from the very rich down to the upper-middle professional classes. I’d guess the top 5%.

Rich people live in nice places, and if you’re travelling around the periphery of the country, looking for good architecture and towns, you see a lot of them. There are obviously big cities and metropolitan areas, where the wealthy neighborhoods are part of the overall mix, but then there are these smaller places where rich people have decided to go be rich together – Martha’s Vineyard, parts of Maine, Charleston, Naples, Seaside, Carmel. There is a concentration, a disproportionate amount of affluence in these places, which dominates many aspects of the local culture, including the built environment. Some of these places are old, where well-off people have recognized pre-existing qualities, but a few are relatively new. In Santa Fe, you can see the interaction between the planning context and the stratification of the real estate market playing out: the design regulations produced a harmonious, integrated environment, which eventually attracted rich people. Then the environment evolved to accommodate the lives of the rich.

These places have a few common characteristics: beautiful natural environments, probably the main factor attracting the wealth originally. They usually had a more vernacular existence before the wealth arrived – a fishing village, an artists’ colony, ranches near big mountains. Compared to other locales in the area, everything is very well-tended. As time goes on, and as the culture of the elite becomes more widespread and global, these places are becoming more like each other – the same expensive stores and essentially similar houses are found in all of them. We are used to seeing the placelessness of the American mass market spreading across the landscape, but the same process has happened with the ecological niche market of the wealthy. They may have been attracted by the unique qualities of a certain place, but that has often now been overwhelmed by the universal culture of wealth and consumption. We visited many of these places hoping to see the particular nature of each one, but we found ourselves first having to plow through the sediment deposited by the river of wealth, to find what lay beneath.

Downtown Santa Fe has the same expensive stores (mostly housewares and clothing) found in all these other places, but is overlaid with the local shopping specialty – Southwestern art. The downtown is full of native art galleries, where the work ranges from cheap souvenirs to extraordinary. We had been buying art in the pueblos and reservations from the artists, so we largely ignored all the downtown shopping, but we gladly partook of the other retail focus – good restaurants. Even more than in Albuquerque, there was a variety of food beyond Mexican, and we sated ourselves with excellent Italian meals, anticipating our imminent return to the desert and campground cuisine. I am often bemused by the consumption preferences of the well-off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t share more than a few of them.

The same goes for my appreciation of the built environment. In Santa Fe I missed the messy vitality of Albuquerque, but I appreciated the consistent, understated beauty of the place. It was so uniform that it felt Disneyfied, but as in Disneyworld (or Las Vegas), I had to admit that the formal quality of much of it was quite good. The stylistic vocabulary allows for quite a bit of expression within it. And compared to the pseudo-Craftsman allusions that have overtaken most of the Northwest, I prefer the elements of the Santa Fe Style. There are the predictable romantic excesses, but many good architects have worked here, and the language of simple volumes and flat planes punctuated by crisp openings, highlighted by thoughtful craftsmanship, and based upon a vernacular with actual historical and environmental roots, is vastly superior to our recent national stylistic homogeneity, with its pretentious proliferation of superfluous gables and its cacophony of materials.99. Santa Fe028DSCF9937

A convention center wants to be mainly big rooms with blank walls; here is a convention center that manages to not blight the downtown:DSCF9800


Another notable, and peculiar, wealth effect in Santa Fe is the art market. We were told that it is the second largest in the country, which I found hard to believe, until a stroll up Canyon Road, past the 100 plus galleries, made me reconsider. The work is what you find in all places where rich people need to furnish their homes, ranging from silly through tastefully titillating, solemn and ponderous, to quite good; most of it figural, and all of it expensive.DSCF9921

99. Santa Fe027DSCF9928


The sheer amount (and size) of it was amazing, and much of it must end up somewhere else; rich people must buy art while they are in Santa Fe, and then ship it to their other houses. I’m hoping this is the case, because the idea of having dolphin sculpture on your terrace in the desert is just too weird.DSCF9955

The best part of the art scene are the museums, which are clustered in an area called Museum Hill. There are two museums of Native American art and culture, and the Museum of International Folk Art. This contains the collections of several donors, the centerpiece of which is the wing housing the collection of Alexander Girard. Girard was the great modernist interior designer (who worked with Charles and Ray Eames and other mid-century designers), and who collected extensively on his travels, all around the world. The works are fantastic, and the installation was designed by Girard himself, in a manner which emphasizes how a visual designer would be inspired by, or make use of the imagery and ideas he’s collected. It’s not an overly scholarly installation – pieces are sometimes grouped by country, or time period – but the overwhelming principle seems to be what fits together visually, and how larger installations be assembled from many parts, often creating a narrative tableau.99. Santa Fe030DSCF9726


His sense of humor is evident, as where he constructs a pueblo with figures from different cultures,DSCF9729

Including the serious cultural tourists.DSCF9733

There are no labels on the walls – you pick up a spiral-bound booklet when you enter, and you can look up the origin, date and name of the numbered pieces (if known). In general I like this approach – as at the Judd museum in Marfa, it puts the emphasis on looking at the art, and not on reading about the art. However, there were a few pieces which could probably use a bit more explication.DSCF9761

But then there are the pieces you just really like, and don’t care that much when or where they are from. Like much great art, there is a direct and immediate appeal through the image itself, making interpretation or analysis unnecessary.DSCF9765

The contemporary art world appears at SITE Santa Fe, an arts center in the railyard district. It is a big warehouse building, seemingly designed by a succession of architects, and it has a history of working with well-known architects and designers to produce its installations. There were several installations in place when we visited, of which we understood about half, the other half being of the type where you’d have to read a long discursion on the history of the artist’s work and how this particular piece fit into that oeuvre and the current art scene in order to get it.

Much of the gallery was taken up with an exhibit about the New York-based design/build firm SHoP architects (which caused Greta to audibly moan when she realized she’d been sucked into architecture-world again.) The focus was on the materials, detailing and tectonics of their work (rather than completed buildings) and the ideas that have developed through their work could be traced in the parti models,DSCF9851

detail models,DSCF9866and full-size elements exhibited. SHOP has just designed an extensive remodel /addition for SITE, and the new entry piece was mocked-up full-scale in the gallery.  DSCF9847

The design looks very good – keeping large, flexible gallery spaces, while inserting some special-use rooms, a courtyard and a stair to a rooftop terrace.  Strong, abstract spatial organization, and much attention paid to materials and detailing.

The railyard district is the one place in the center of Santa Fe where modern and industrial buildings are allowed, reasonably reflecting the historic character of that part of town and providing some relief from Adobe World. We went across the street from SITE to the Santa Fe Farmers market, and immediately felt that we’d stumbled into another one of those wormholes in the space/time continuum that we’ve been finding occasionally on the trip: we were clearly back in Eugene. It had the same range of organic foodstuffs, funky handcrafts (but with more turquoise), aging hippies (though better dressed), and new-age silliness that we were used to.DSCF9873

We did dig through all the turquoise and silver jewelry at the market to find something we knew Linda would like, a bowl formed from a mild steel sheet that had TIG-welded surface patterning applied and had then been formed in a hydraulic ram, by an artist who grew up on a farm in North Carolina and had then spent 20 years in Brooklyn. She said Bernie Sanders’s daughter is her best friend, and she’s been selling her bracelets online to raise campaign funds, at Bangles for Bernie.DSCF9825

We’d never seen local heritage turkeys before in Eugene, but we probably could have. Only eating a green chile croissant grounded us back in Santa Fe.DSCF9829

Continuing with the cosmic dislocation /art scene theme, we ventured to a new art space we’d heard about, the House of Eternal Return, a 20,000 square foot installation in a former bowling alley, produced by the local art collective, Meow Wolf, and funded by George RR Martin. Greta loved the whole afternoon we spent there and has blogged about it here.99. Santa Fe029DSCF9906

The project has a loose conceptual framework, upon which individual rooms and installations (probably by individual artists) have been hung. I enjoyed some of the installations, but found others to be of the overly obscure and self-referential variety, full of imagery that could only be meaningful to the artist. But I particularly liked the self-aware artist’s sensibility that showed through from time to time, as in this parody of a local alternative newspaper / arts section, where the interviewed artist states “I’m just demanding the resources and affluence that enables me to rehash concepts that I was not originally there for, but that I think I understand.”DSCF9903

I found it intermittently cool, but had to retreat outdoors a few times, suffering from dizziness probably caused by a combination of outgassing new materials, and recovered memories of too many Saturday afternoons spent at six-year-olds’ birthday parties in bowling alleys and paintball emporia.

For a small city, Santa Fe has an incredibly wide range of culture (high and middle-brow), places, activities, populations, and contradictions. It can feel overwhelmed by wealth from elsewhere, but at least here (compared to every other small wealthy place we’ve visited), that wealth has spawned some remarkably serious institutions, and not just an orgy of private consumption. There are art venues for the commercially successful, for the critically acclaimed, and for those who aspire to one or the other.  We didn’t have time to visit all the museums, and we were in the wrong season to attend the noted opera, so we’ve got a few good reasons to return someday.

We ended up with a feeling similar to what we felt in Marfa – part of the attraction to the place was the official institutions, sights, art, culture, etc. But part of the attraction was just the weirdness and gestalt of the place – the genius loci, to be pretentious. I’m not sure how that came about in Santa Fe – the landscape is literally awesome and sometimes terrifying (as in this view southwards from our campground, of a distant thunderstorm that Greta was convinced was the Glow Cloud from Welcome to Nightvale),99. Santa Fe032DSCF9814

but much of the rest of the environment is not mysterious at all, or unusual in its origins:  the city was rationally planned and controlled throughout its development – it is not the product of deep ancestral roots, centuries of organic growth, and cultural blending. It attracted an economic and cultural elite, whose way of life has pretty much overwhelmed the local culture everywhere else it has touched down. It has many ridiculous aspects, such as pseudo-historical architecture and acres of pretentious art. It has a dense core, but everyone lives out in car-based suburban sprawl of varying degrees of interest. Somehow out of all that not-very-special background, a unique place has emerged, and it’s a lot more interesting, engaging, and worthwhile than I would have predicted.


97.Albuquerque013DSCF9424After the surreal experiences of Phoenix and Las Vegas, it was nice to get to Albuquerque, which feels like a real city (but with a few surreal buildings).

Of course, this raises the question of what are the defining characteristics that lead to being considered a real city by me?  An important one is that it needs to be old enough to have had some history – that it isn’t just the slight densification of postwar sprawl we now sometimes call Edge City.  Albuquerque still has what is referred to as its Old Town – with the plaza and some buildings remaining from the era of Spanish settlement in the 18th century. 97.Albuquerque009DSCF9253

When the railroad arrived in the 1880s, it didn’t pass within miles of the Old Town, so a new downtown grew around the station a couple of miles away.   This core of Albuquerque was built during the first half of the 20th century – it has a regular grid, and it has classic commercial and mixed-use buildings from this era.  Central Avenue, the main east-west street, was part of the old Route 66, and there are many remnants from this era.


The Kimo Theater, in the style of Puebloan Deco, has recently been restored. DSCF9356

We were told by several of our informants in the local culture that the most important establishment in the city, the heart of Albuquerque, is the Frontier Restaurant.  It is located miles east of downtown on Central, right across from the UNM campus.  Open from early to late, it is the favored haunt of architecture students, and a wide range of locals.  97.Albuquerque015DSCF9690

The food is a mixture of diner and Mexican, and the decor is remarkable, DSCF9406

and amongst the 13 portraits of John Wayne (Greta located 6) was this one, executed in the medium of common nails.  Lichtenstein with a hammer.  DSCF9404

A second characteristic of a real city is that it shouldn’t have completely obliterate its past.  We did pass many remnants of the pre-war era, but Albuquerque did have its phase of urban renewal, where they bulldozed areas, and produced the strange juxtapositions and anti-urban buildings that urban renewal always seemed to cause.  DSCF9471


The downtown is going through an actual period of renewal at this point.  After decades of neglect, business and people are starting to repopulate it.  There are some big mixed-use buildings, some a little overwrought, but shops and restaurants and people on the street are in evidence.  97.Albuquerque014DSCF9470

A third, and equally subjective, criterion is that cities that feel real to me have maintained this balance between the old and new.  In 1950, Albuquerque was about the same size as Phoenix, with 100,000 or so residents.   Since then, Phoenix has grown to 1.5 million, and its region to over 4 million.  Albuquerque now has under 600,000 residents, and the region has about 1.2 million.  So on a percentage basis, the older parts of Albuquerque form a much higher percentage of the total.  The outer sprawl of Albuquerque is organized much the same way as in Phoenix, but in Phoenix, there doesn’t seem to be much else besides the sprawl – the vestiges of the old downtown are hard to find, and everything has been subsumed in the sprawl.  In Albuquerque, you go through neighborhoods of varying ages and characters – it isn’t the postwar monoculture.

A fourth characteristic that gives Albuquerque much of its character is its natural context.  The Sandia Mountains rise just to the east of the city.  They provide a stunning backdrop, visible from almost everywhere, and they also limit sprawl in that direction.  Here you can even see them from way out on the mesa west of the city.  DSCF9680

The sprawl is limited to the north and south by native pueblos, and that points out what might be an important factor in a real city:  limits.   Just as downtown Portland is bounded by the river and the hills, and Seattle is hemmed in by water everywhere, physical limits seem to encourage using land somewhat sensibly, higher land values, more density.  Phoenix is the counter-example – the “Valley of the Sun” is tabula rasa, a giant blank desert which with minimal defining characteristics.  Geographical constraints to growth might be a good predictor of urban quality.

The Rio Grande River flows through Albuquerque, west of the downtown.  With its flood plain it is a pretty wide boundary, requiring major bridges / causeways to cross.  But it is a fantastic resource, with miles of trails and open space along it.  For a medium-size city, Albuquerque has a huge amount of open space close by.  DSCF9345

We initially thought that these might be the first evidence of Trump’s proposal to harden our border along the Rio Grande, but then we figured out they probably had to do with catching debris during a flood. DSCF9339

This was right near Antoine Predock’s Rio Grande Nature Center, from the 1960s, which shows the young architect in a funky, antiheroic phase of design.  The building is a giant duck-blind, setting into the landscape to further the experience of being inside and looking out, rather than making an exterior statement.  DSCF9315

The inside is pretty funky too – all curvy-rampy, and with some articulated gestures towards solar heating that I just can’t believe really work.  DSCF9330

Across the river we visited Predock’s La Luz housing project, also from the 60s.  It clustered townhouses in one area, and preserved a large amount of open space on site. The buildings are typologically standard, but the unit designs are quite beautiful.  97.Albuquerque011DSCF9280

It’s interesting to see how dated these buildings look urbanistically.  Fifty years  ago, this was cutting-edge environmentalism – clustering housing to conserve open space.  But now we look at them and see a project that is still pretty low on gross density, and completely car-based.  The building and site design are both well-done (if a little fanatical about privacy at the expense of community), but at the scale of the city, it doesn’t do anything better than other housing developments of the era.  It’s a good lesson in how quickly the issues can evolve, and how we can’t ever be too smug that we’ve figured out all out.

On the east side of town, we visited some excellent buildings.  This 1956 building is the first active-solar heated building in the world.  It was the office for Paxton and Bridgers, a local engineering firm.  Coincidentally, Frank Bridgers was my dad’s best friend in World War II, when they were both in the Army Corps of Engineers, stationed in Shanghai.  (Frank’s daughter Lynn was my pen pal when I was a little kid, and she provided me my first insights about life in Albuquerque.)   DSCF9441As I looked at this elegant building, I pondered the ironies of how careers develop.  Both Frank Bridgers and my dad were smart young engineers, starting their firms after the war, responding to the trends in development that would provide professional work.  As a mechanical engineer in the desert, Frank thought about the extremes of the environment and pioneered solar design, while my dad was a civil engineer who started his firm in the booming northeast, and designed some of the earliest shopping centers and malls.  My dad and I sometimes talked about what had happened.  As he said, suburban growth looked like a positive thing in the 1950s, when it was still very limited.  In hindsight, it’s clear that such a development type wasn’t going to scale up very well without causing big problems, but that wasn’t apparent to many people at the time.

We also found Bart Prince’s house, a tour-de-force that just looks even better to me now than when I first saw it 20 years ago.  (After 25 years of teaching, I think I have a much higher tolerance for crazy ideas now.)  I normally rail against crazy, architectural-statement, object buildings.  But if you do them this well, I’m all for it.  97.Albuquerque013DSCF9424

Rob Peña just told me that once he was talking to Bart Prince, who had just designed a house for his own father. His father told him straight out that he didn’t want a hot-dog-in-the-sky to live in.  DSCF9411

He also remodeled the house next door, which is were he seems to live now – we caught a glimpse of him getting out of his car and heading inside.  DSCF9433 Otherwise, it’s a completely normal bungalow neighborhood.  Which is probably a good thing.

We spent some time on the University of New Mexico campus.  John Gaw Meem was the campus architect, and the dominant style is Pueblo Revival – beautiful solid buildings, which make more sense in this environment than glass boxes.  DSCF9375

There is a way in which the language for these buildings doesn’t feel alien or forced, as do many of the other historicist campuses we visited.  Perhaps it s the simplicity of the adobe-generated forms, something that modernist architects have responded to for a hundred years.  DSCF9368

They also haven’t enforced a complete stylistic rigidity – brutalist 60s buildings work with variants on the vocabulary.  DSCF9367

One of the best is the architecture building designed by Predock about ten years ago.  It sits on Route 66 on the edge of campus, with an exterior that combines solid wall areas reminiscent of the rest of campus, with well-shaded curtain walls.  97.Albuquerque012DSCF9357

The interior is quite beautiful – elegantly but simply detailed exposed building systems, and a section which allows for circulation spaces and studios to open up and have light penetrate from many directions.  DSCF9400

The transparency between spaces is handled well – there’s a balance between spatial openness and separation – it doesn’t fall prey to the One Big Room problem of Gund Hall.DSCF9397

Albuquerque felt like a good place to live.  A much more livable climate than the more southern, lower-elevation Southwestern cities.  A mix of old and new, wth some pleasing grittiness.  A remarkable natural setting.  Some very good architecture (and food) spread around.  It is another one of the medium-sized, regionally-oriented American cities which work well for the residents, as they haven’t been ruined by the flows of global capital.

Mark Childs

While we’ve spent a lot of time on this this trip hanging out with old friends, we’ve also managed to make some new friends along the way.DSCF9485

I’d never met Mark Childs before, although we have moved in the same circles.  We were both in college in Cambridge at the same time in the 70s (Harvard v. MIT), and then Mark was an architecture grad student at the UO in the early 80s (where his professors were those who later became my colleague and friends).  We have also followed similar career paths, working in the profession for about ten years before sidling into academia.  He eventually ended up at the University of New Mexico, where he is a professor and associate dean, and his wife Emily is on the faculty at the medical school, working in the area of HIV prevention.

Mark’s academic focus has been on urban design, in a remarkably down-to-earth, concrete way.  He has written books titled Urban Composition, Squares, Parking Spaces, and has recently coauthored a book on the old neon signs on Route 66.  What I like about his work is that he really looks around at actual places and things and moves on to theory and proposals from there;  unlike many academic writers he doesn’t exist solely in a world of disembodied ideas and dogmas.

Mark and I met in Seattle in March, at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annual meeting .  This is effectively the national meeting for academic architects, and I usually avoid it like the plague, as it is the center of all things jargonist and crazily theoretical.  (My favorite paper title this year:  “Provoking the ‘Thingness’ of History:  The Anti-Teleological Hermeneutics of Steen Eiler Rasmussen”.)  But I got dragged to the conference this year, as our housing specialization curriculum won a housing design education award, and Michael Fifield didn’t want to go receive it alone.  So Greta and I flew home from Phoenix, and I braced myself for the trip to Seattle.  There were some bright spots at the conference, one of which was a panel discussion on how to frame architectural research within the confines of a research university.  Mark was on the panel, and everything he said actually made sense, so we chatted a few times in the subsequent days when we ran into each other.  I told Mark how I was in Seattle on hiatus from our road trip, and he said we should drop in when we reached Albuquerque.

We arrived on the UNM campus and I first met with John Quale, the architecture department head, who has been working on passive house modular housing projects for years (and who coincidentally was on the jury that gave us the housing curriculum award). Then Greta and I took off with Mark, who showed us around their school (the fine Predock building blogged earlier), east side neighborhoods, and the downtown.  On our trip we had gotten used to simply exploring cities on our own, doing a little research and then wandering off in whatever direction appealed to us, so it was very different and informative to have a guide who knew the background on everything we were seeing.  (We had heard about the Frontier Restaurant from others, but it was Mark who impressed upon us its centrality to the Albuquerque ethos, and who dragged us in there the first time.)  Mark was a keenly wry observer of the city – talking about the trends of the past decades, what had gone wrong and what had gone right.  He didn’t try to hide Albuquerque’s flaws, but he didn’t understand how good it all looked to us anyway, as Phoenix and Vegas were the only other Southwestern cities we’d seen in the past 7 weeks.

After the tour we met up with Emily at one of their favorite restaurants, Pasion, a very hip and fun Latin fusion restaurant, where we ate fusion tapas and drank fusion Margaritas.  Greta and I had really been enjoying all our time out in national parks and reservations, but getting back to recognizable civilization, with great food and new friends was really a treat.

Sandwiches 1

In having less flamingly spectacular food, the delis and sandwich shops of this trip have been largely passed over in my blogging. This seems wrong, as, if you include pb&js, sandwiches are the largest food group. My first blog was about a sandwich, and it seems fitting to add to that now that I’m more experienced.

Cochon Butcher
New Orleans, LA
For the first time in my life, I didn’t order the meat lover’s special, with pastrami and bacon, and surprisingly, I didn’t regret my decision. Dad ordered it, and so I of course tried some of his. It was almost overwhelmingly umami, and however tasty, I liked my turkey lover’s better. Dad pointed out that a turkey lover’s should really just have turkey, and that the lettuce and avocado made it more of a turkey adulturator’s sandwich, but it was good all the same. Exceedingly fresh, it managed to be warm while keeping the vegetables crisp and the turkey moist.


Chick and Ruth’s Delly
Annapolis, Maryland
They specialized in three pound hamburgers and gallon milkshakes, but I just ordered a pastrami sandwich. Hot pressed and oozing melted cheese, it was filling and then some. I’ll forgive their misunderstanding of how deli is spelled, as they clearly know how one should be run.P1050509

Central Grocery
New Orleans, LA
Few restaurants can claim to have invented an entirely new type of sandwich. The muffaletta, named after a type of italian bread, consists of salami, provolone, and olive salad on an entire loaf of bread. It’s a great deal, as it only costs a $18, and can easily feed four people.

Banh Mi Coda
Albuquerque, NM
I was not expecting good Vietnamese food in New Mexico, but several of the Californians and a Portlander on Yelp said the same before going on to mention how they’d been proven wrong, so I decided to give Banh Mi Coda a try. Their sign still advertises Coda Bakery, and the chairs with images of coffee cups on them seem to indicate that the previous tenants of that space had failed where they prospered. Soft baguette, fresh veggies, and well-cooked meat made for a delicious and inexpensive meal, and with Banh Cam, fried sesame, mung bean, and coconut balls, as dessert, it was a great find.

Chaco Canyon, and the seduction of the plan

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The compulsion to visit a place:  what triggers it?  Travel is often arduous, time-consuming and expensive, yet we feel ourselves irresistibly drawn to certain places, no matter the difficulties.  For many, it’s an image of the place: sunlight glinting on the peaks of the Himalayas, the clear blue water of the Caribbean, or the Vermeer painting (that you need to see larger than a postcard).  For others, it’s the map – that intriguing road over the ridge and down into the plain with the city in the distance.  Or perhaps the food:  you’ve had a taste of a cuisine, but know you’ll never understand it until you head to the source.  Or a movie: set in Paris is the 30s, or New York in the 40s.  It could be the history – Jesus lived there, or Napoleon, or your ancestors.  The music – where the legacy of Mozart or Louis Armstrong continues.  A cultural event:  running with the bulls, or Mardi Gras.  Or the stories – the England of Austen or the San Francisco of Hammett.

For architects, sometimes it is the plan.  it may seem strange to others, but the beauty and the order of a place is sometimes revealed in a plan, in a way that is different from a view.  A view shows you only a glimpse from one point, in one direction;  a plan shows the underlying logic and design of the whole.  Architects spend years of their lives studying plans, and we get pretty good at understanding the spatial reality of a building from looking at a two-dimensional plan view, something that you will never really see, even if you visit the place.   We can fall in love with the concept for the place through the plan, and then need to go there, to see how the experience grows out of that concept.

There are plans that everyone recognizes.  Versailles.  St.Peter’s.  The Darwin D. Martin House.  Chartres.  Then we all develop our personal obsessions;  I had the plans of Jørn Utzon’s Fredensborg and Kingo housing project hanging on my walls for a decade before getting to see them in person.  We had already hit a few plan-obsession destinations on this trip – mainly the Kahn buildings – but there was one more critical site waiting on the Colorado Plateau:  Chaco Canyon.


The plan to which I’m referring is the floor plan of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses at Chaco.  Before I knew anything about the the history of this place, I found this plan completely fascinating.  There’s the repetition of the small quadrilateral rooms which form a field for everything else, the irregular perimeter, the two almost symmetrical plazas, and the irregular distribution of round rooms.  The non-geometric qualities of this plan might have driven earlier architects nuts, but there’s a way in which the balance between order and random, regularity and exception, figure and ground, resonates with the way we see the world in the 21st-century.

If Chaco were not so compelling, we might not have bothered to go.  It is in the middle of nowhere – 400 miles from Phoenix, 200 from Albuquerque.  It’s 100 miles from Gallup, which is already in the middle of nowhere.  And then there’s the road in – 20 miles of the worst dirt road I’ve ever seen, much of of it washboard, on which we had to drive about 3 mph.  We had just heard from someone we met at Canyon de Chelly that when she drove in the week before, much of it was mud where the road crossed flash flood zones, and people had abandoned their trailers in the middle of the road.  96. Chaco002DSCF8895We were lucky it was dry when we arrived, but it still did some damage to our trailer – loosened every screw, broke the door off the refrigerator, and caused what is referred to in our family as the Nutella Incident.

The recompense for all this effort was getting to a place that is only visited by people who are engaged enough to make the trip.  There were no monster Rvs in sight, no services or food available – a pristine place where the quiet and darkness of the night sky were amazing.  It must be the only national park which has prehistoric stone houses right in the campground. DSCF9027

There is a lot of confusion in the general culture about the inhabitants and history of Chaco Canyon, or as it is technically now known, Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The name emphasizes a critical aspect if its history:  Chaco was not one settlement area, it was the center for a culture that spread hundreds of miles out across the ancient Southwest.  This culture peaked in the era from the 800s to the 1100s, at which point Chaco went into decline, and other areas became more prominent.  The ruins at Chaco are the oldest and most important remnants of this ancient civilization, our Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza.

The canyon itself is rather wide and only a couple of hundred feet deep.  As a geographical feature, it is not as notable as such spectacular canyons as Zion or Canyon de Chelly, and it doesn’t seem to possess as many natural features that would single it out as being a great location for concentrated human settlement as they do.  We’re not sure what it meant in the culture a thousand years ago – there is no written record.  But the archaeological evidence at Chaco is clear that it was the center – hundreds of thousands of artifacts were found (most of which are now stored at museums in New York, Washington, etc.) that show the power and wealth concentrated here – cloaks made from the feathers of parrots, sea shells from the Pacific, human remains interred on beds of thousands of pieces of turquoise, rooms where exotic birds from Central America were raised.

What can be seen at Chaco now are the ruins of over a dozen “great houses” and smaller buildings.  The largest is Pueblo Bonito, which had over 600 rooms on four levels.   DSCF9061PuebloBonito103The function of great houses is not completely clear.  They could have been the residences of the most important people – not many people actually lived in them relative to their size;  they weren’t apartment houses. Each one might have been associated with a certain clan.   They might have been religious cultural or commercial buildings.  One of the theories about Chaco is that it was the ancient version of Las Vegas – the big city in the desert, to which people from other places travelled to congregate, have fun and spend money.

What is know in amazing detail is the physical history.  To someone who lives in the Northwest, the strangest thing about the desert is that wood doesn’t rot.  The beams in these ruins are original, and they are mostly over 1000 years old.  DSCF9202

The science of dendrochronology has now compiled such a complete database of the past millennia that the precise dating of any piece of wood is possible by looking at the sequence of growth rings.  They can tell to the year when a tree was cut down.  They also know where these trees came from, and it wasn’t from around Chaco – hundreds of thousands of trees were cut down in the mountains over fifty miles away and carried to Chaco (they didn’t have horses).  DSCF9180

While most of the ancient floor and roof construction has been destroyed over the past thousand years, some has not.  The ceiling construction in the this room is original.  DSCF9082PuebloBonito124

The masonry has been dated with precision too, with five different techniques identified, corresponding to different eras.  Here at the Chetro Ketl great house you can see how the openings in a colonnade from one era were filled in later with a different technique.  DSCF9098

Greta and I are both skeptical about overly-definite conclusions about the past drawn from scant archaeological findings;  David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries is one of our touchstones.    So we were pleased to find that recent archaeology has become more careful about this.  The best example is how the understanding of the prominent round rooms in Southwestern architecture has evolved.  They are commonly called kivas, as that is the Hopi name for their own round, ceremonial rooms, which are obviously descended from earlier rooms in places such as Chaco.   96. Chaco006DSCF9101But that association of form with use was inappropriately applied to prehistoric structures – we don’t really know that all these rooms were ceremonial.  So now they are generally called “round rooms”, and while some, such as the one shown here at Chetro Ketl might be considered ceremonial due to their size and location, smaller ones embedded in the fabric of the building might have functioned simply as gathering rooms, or easily-heated rooms where people would congregate.  (I tend towards the theory is that it may have had a lot to do with the difficulties in roofing larger rectangular rooms in wood.)  DSCF9206

The largest round room is Casa Rinconada, essentially a big room with a few surrounding support spaces.  DSCF9218CasaRinconada002

Visitors are given great freedom to wander around the buildings in Chaco – entry is not allowed to various buildings or sequences of rooms, but there are many spaces which are completely open. We took a few excellent guided tours, and then returned to the same houses on our own, to spend time in and photograph the parts that most interested us.  DSCF9073




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Beyond the ruins, the experience of camping at Chaco is worth the trip alone.  It is astoundingly isolated and quiet, and the few other people around were remarkably inconspicuous.  Our campground was one of the most primitive and beautiful of our trip,DSCF9030

and it was extraordinary to sit there in the evening, looking across the canyon to Fajada Butte (seemingly a very important ritual site, based upon evidence of building and astronomical alignments), realizing that we were seeing essentially the same landscape as the original residents 1000 years before, sitting outside their house fifty yards away.  DSCF9034

Chaco is where we began to understand the complicated. but not so mysterious, fate of this civilization.  We used to call these people the Anasazi, but that term fell out of favor a while back, as it was a Navajo word, meaning roughly, alien ancestors.  As the Navajo got here fairly recently, why should their word be used?  It is now well-known that the People Formerly Know as Anasazi are in fact the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and other modern Puebloan tribes.  We can’t use the word Hisatsinom, which is the preferred Hopi term, as there are other distinct language groups among the descendants, and no one word bridges these languages.  So Ancestral Puebloan is indeed the most accurate and respectful way to name them.

The mystery of why they left Chaco is still there, but there are many clues.  A drought probably contributed, and as this location became less viable, the centers of this civilization moved on to the later cliff dwellings, which had environmental as well as defensive advantages.  At a certain point, those cliff dwellings were abandoned too, and the modern Puebloan villages, such as the Hopi village of Walpi on First Mesa, were founded about 800 years ago.  When the Hopi have been asked to explain what happened in the past, they generally say, you know, it was just time to move on.

How did my fascination with the plan play out?  We learned that we could hike up the canyon wall to see Pueblo Alto, a great house located on the canyon rim.  From that trail, we would be able to look down upon Pueblo Bonito.  We started up what is actually one of the ancient pathways into the canyon, with narrow passages and stairs, some of them hewn out of the rock by the residents.  There was a view of Kin Kletso:96. Chaco00796. Chaco191DSCF9160

and then the path narrowed considerably, to a slot in the cliff, one which could easily be guarded against enemies.  DSCF9158

Shortly beyond where this photo was taken, Greta yelled “Snake!” and jumped back.  We watched the snake for a while, which was not moving very much, weaving back and forth at the narrowest part of the passage.  P1090240

After watching it for a few minutes, we couldn’t tell what species it was, and Greta, our family naturalist, noted that there were indeed poisonous snakes in the region that were not rattlesnakes.  (We showed this photo to a ranger the next day, who said it was probably a bull snake, not moving much because it was still cold.)  I halfheartedly ventured that we might chimney-climb above the snake, supporting ourselves on the rock faces above, but Greta was having none of it, so we turned back.

We took this as an omen.  Apparently many Hopi do not like to visit Chaco, feeling that there are   good reasons that their ancestors left, and that there is some bad juju there.  We felt that if you are venturing on an ancient path, made narrow and defensible by its builders to protect the settlement below, and if at the narrowest point a strangely-behaving snake plants itself in your way, you should pay attention.

I didn’t get the plan-view from above of Pueblo Bonito, so I don’t know if it would have caused a personal architectural epiphany.  Maybe I wasn’t ready to have it, so the guardian snake intervened.  But as I had been wandering around Chaco, the importance of the plan receded in my mind.  I have found that preconceptions about places often turn out to be inaccurate, or at least misleading, when the place is actually visited.  The experience of moving through a complex, three-dimensional place encompasses so much more information than can ever be adequately represented in two dimensions that this is necessarily so.  My earliest fascination with Chaco was with the pattern of the plan, and now I can add to that the very different experience of moving through those spaces that were inhabited one thousand years ago.  I went to Chaco with a limited understanding of  the underlying, abstract complexity of the physical structure; I left with a much deeper (but still rudimentary) understanding of the complexity of the history and culture that had produced the place.  Perhaps I can return when I have a better understanding of how that process of production happened.

Tsegi (Canyon de Chelly)

95. Tsegi177DSCF8709The garden in the desert – the defined place that is lush and life-sustaining in the middle of infinite, awesome emptiness. We came across these intermittently in our travels in the Southwest, and in each one we felt a sense of shelter, relief, of coming back to a world that nourished humans. Santa Elena Canyon, Montezuma’s Castle, Zion Canyon – they each had their extraordinary scenic appeal, but the experience of them is more than just visual, and is heightened by the contrast with the world outside their confines. Tsegi (Canyon de Chelly) may be the most enticing of them all. It has the grand vistas of the others, but it also feels the most inviting – a green world at the bottom of a 20-mile long canyon, not just a small interruption in the desert.

We dropped our trailer in the Cottonwood campground, (run by the Navajo parks service, complete with res dogs), and drove up the north rim to the Antelope House overlook (which actually is looks down into Canyon del Muerto, one of the two large canyons in the National Monument.) We looked down from on top of the sheer red rock cliffs to where they crash into a green meadow below – a continuous carpet of grass and shrubs, not just some straggly desert survivors. Then we heard a faint rumbling sound and saw movement – a herd of horses galloping down a dirt track, and turning into a field below us.95. Tsegi175DSCF8679

After the visually inanimate desert, where wildlife is sparse and well-hidden from our view, this scene was incredibly affecting, primal, almost Edenic – beautiful animals running through a green landscape. A high-pitched, whining sound arose, and then we saw the source – two Navajo cowboys on motorbikes herding the horses – so not completely Edenic.

This is the one oasis canyon where you don’t have to imagine people living there – people actually do live here, and have for 5000 years. First there were small groups, then the Ancestral Puebloans arrived over 1000 years ago and built cliff dwellings. After they moved on to the modern pueblos, the Hopi would still return here for summer hunting and farming. Finally, the Navajo arrived a few hundred years ago, and have lived here ever since.

An etymological digression, which travel in the Southwest seems to frequently require: I had always wondered how this place came to be called Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”) – a strange not-Spanish, not-French hybrid. It turns out that it is simply a corruption of the Navajo word Tsegi, (pronounced Tsay-yi), which roughly means canyon. So Canyon de Chelly means Canyon of Canyon, which is really quite a stupid translation when you think about it. Since we now live in an age where we increasingly recognize the original native names for places (such as Denali), and sometimes officially change the names back, I’d like to move Tsegi to the top of that list.

Tsegi is a centrally important place to the Navajo – I’ve seen it referred to as the heart of the nation. It is a US National Monument, but it is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the Navajo nation. Most of the land is private, and it is all under Navajo jurisdiction; we weren’t sitting around the campfire at night drinking bourbon while on the res.

You can see the difference in preferred settlement patterns between the Puebloans and the Navajo quite clearly, even in this confined canyon. The Hopi and other Puebloans (descendants of cliff-dwellers) live in dense villages, clustering together in one spot in the desert. The Navajo prefer open country, and don’t seem to appreciate towns – their cities all seem to be recent service centers, places where the 150,000 members of their nation can get supplies and intersect with the modern world of bureaucracy. They take the normal nature/built-world Manichaeism typical of the Southwest to the nth degree – Navajo empty-nesters and millennials are not flocking to walkable neighborhoods. Everywhere we went in this vast reservation, this was the typical dwelling – a cluster of small buildings, surrounded by range land, where they raise their herds of sheep:DSCF8626

Even within the confines of Tsegi, this is the normal pattern – individual farms and ranches spread up the lengths of the two main canyons, connected by dirt roads, which sometimes are coincident with the streams that run through them. Since the land is private, tourists are not allowed to wander at will. There are drives along the north and south rims that give access to major overlooks. If you want to visit the bottom of the canyon, you must hire a Navajo guide, who will take you through either in a jeep or on horseback. There is one point where you can hike to the bottom of the canyon from the rim, which might be the most fascinating hike we did on this whole trip.

At Antelope House overlook, we watched the herd of horses until they were out of sight, then we turned to Antelope House itself, a cliff dwelling on the canyon floor, below the cliff.95. Tsegi176DSCF8691

No one would be coming down that cliff (to the right in the picture below) and since the only way in is at the mouth of the canyon, 5 miles away, an integrated defense of the whole canyon might have made sense, rather than counting upon the inaccessibility of each individual cliff village.DSCF8693Antelope-House003

It is an extraordinary spot, where Black Rock Canyon splits off from Canyon del Muerto. The escarpment in the middle below is Navajo Fortress, a well-hidden and completely defensible spot to which the Navajo warriors could retreat in their wars with the Spanish and Americans. _DSCF8685NavajoFortress001

On the south rim drive, looking into Canyon de Chelly, we caught a glimpse of riders on the road / streambed.95. Tsegi178DSCF8714

The Tsegi overlook affords a big-picture view of the canyon.95. Tsegi190DSCF8883

The end of the drive is at Spider Rock, an 800-foot butte which is the home of a legendary spider, used in tales to frighten Navajo children. The Chuska Mountains are visible in the distance.95. Tsegi179DSCF8744

We stopped at other points, with equally cool vistas of canyons or other cliff dwellings. But as always with us, the best way to see and understand the place was to do what hiking we could. So we headed for the one trail down, which leads to the White House cliff dwelling. The path winds its way down the cliff, with switchbacks and a couple of tunnels.DSCF8755WhiteHouseTrail002

Your perspective always changes (literally) as soon as you’re below the rim – you’re below the horizon, rather than above – in a space enclosed by the canyon walls, not just looking down into it.DSCF8767WhiteHouseTrail012

There were the big views out into the landscape, and closer views of astoundingly textured rock walls. With our fundamental lack of interest in the details of geology, we could only float hypotheses. Perhaps this formation is somewhat similar to Antelope Canyon, just not as smooth?95. Tsegi189DSCF8864

And as elsewhere at Tsegi, there is the astounding contrast between the red rock walls, and the river course with the cottonwoods putting out new leaves.95. Tsegi181DSCF8770

The view through the last tunnel was astounding. It reminded me of the entrance to Prospect Park from Grand Army Plaza, where there is a view through a tunnel under the roadway to the slope beyond, with one tree in the foreground. Did the Navajo hire Olmsted to place that tree here? (He probably would have moved it off-axis.)95. Tsegi183DSCF8779

On reaching the bottom, the trail runs along the river, with the horses as the perfect scale figures in the landscape. This is what makes Tsegi different from all other places in the Southwest – the pastoral. Whereas most of the Southwest is beautiful for its awe-some qualities – the sense that untamed nature dwarfs us and our puny human sensibilities, and a few places are appealing because we think humans could actually survive here for more than a day – Tsegi is an inhabited landscape. We can see evidence of human habitation through time and into the present, and we have the stark contrast between the horses calmly grazing against the sheer cliff behind.DSCF8789WhiteHouseTrail031

This contrast between the hard, barren cliffs and the life in the canyon plays out with the vegetation too. We were there in April as the bright-green leaves of the cottonwoods popped out. Living in the Northwest, cottonwoods are just one of the many trees we know, and we notice them mainly when they cover the bikepath along the Willamette with their seed pods; after a spring in the Southwest, I will never take them for granted again.95. Tsegi188DSCF8853

The trail arrives at the White House cliff dwelling – somewhat hidden behind the second cottonwood from the right.DSCF8794WhiteHouseTrail035

By this point we had seen several cliff dwellings and thought we comprehended them – not in the sense of completely understanding their history or context, but in the way in which they resonate with us modern humans – the way that they so perfectly embody the idea of dwelling: some primal neural pathway fires and we instantly and deeply feel the rightness of people living in these places, understanding them as our ancestors, across centuries of wild development. But seeing White House brings this to another level. The inhuman immensity, the outward sweep of the cliff above, poised over the tiniest marker of inhabitation. The recognition that within this astounding and hostile natural world, humans somehow made a place for themselves in a way that was not just about survival, but seems to embody the deep meaning of our place in that world.95. Tsegi185DSCF8814

We just sat and stared for quite a while, then wandered around the area, looking back at the White House from different perspectives. It was like seeing any great work of art – there is the instantaneous apprehension of its impact, but then you have to slowly consider it, let the levels of meaning sink in. It is a restful and quiet place – a couple of Navajos selling crafts, a jeep arriving with a family of tourists, a small herd of horses wandering by – but mostly there is the contemplation of the village, the cliffs, the river, the trees, the birds (and snakes). You just come face to face here with the history of the human species, making a place for themselves in this often harsh, yet beautiful world.DSCF8820WhiteHouseTrail059

Hopi Pueblo


We live in a new country, with few places where the evidence of the distant past can be seen; when there are traces, they are seldom older than a couple of hundred years. The vast majority of our surroundings are quite new, and we live modern lives within that familiar context. So when Americans travel abroad, we often aim to see older places, cities and landscapes where traces of earlier eras survive. In first world locations, such as Europe, there is the strange contrast between the remnants of older cultures and normal modern life, not that different from ours. But sometimes we can experience not just the physical remains, but ways of life that are remnants of an older culture – perhaps in the food, customs, festivals, or folkways.

If we want similar experiences in our own country, the only place to go is the desert Southwest. The ruins of the ancient civilization there are the only widespread, significant remains of a pre-modern, non-European culture we have. But these ruins have been empty for over 700 years – the original inhabitants moved on – their descendants are no longer there. If we want to see the living, cultural descendants of this civilization, we can visit the pueblos.

As we wandered around the Southwest for seven weeks, we traced the migrations of the ancient native peoples through space and time. Our path wasn’t direct – we skipped around and circled back a few times to avoid winter weather in April. But their path was not very direct either, as they moved and their habitations evolved, partly driven by changes in the climate. There were early traces of inhabitation in pit dwellings, which then coalesced in the great center at Chaco Canyon. Chaco was abandoned, and the residents shifted into cliff dwellings, scattered over a wide area, but likely centered at Mesa Verde. The cliff dwellings were slowly abandoned too, and these ancient people moved south to the 21 different Pueblos, where they remain to this day.

Twenty years ago I had visited the Hopi Pueblo and been astonished. I remember standing on the edge of the cliff on First Mesa, looking across the desert to the San Francisco Mountains in a snowstorm and thinking, am I really in the United States in the 20th century? It was the most alien place I’d ever been, one where the history, culture, environment and language had nothing to do with the ones in which I lived, and it seemed bizarre that these people and I were now part of the same country; thinking of the US as an empire rather than a nation began to make a lot more sense. One of the major goals of this trip has been introducing Greta to very different ways of life, and life in a pueblo struck me as one of the most extreme outliers we could experience.

The Hopi reservation centers on the three mesas, (more accurately well-defined escarpments from one higher table land), completely surrounded by the Navajo reservation. The original villages were built on these mesas over 700 years ago, and have evolved over time – buildings come and go, and whole villages have disappeared too. The buildings are masonry, usually made from the local stone; when you look at one of the mesas from a distance, it is often hard to see where the native stone ends and the buildings begin, as here at First Mesa,

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unless you zoom in closer.WalpiP1090085

There is strong sense of the buildings being of the earth. Local stone, adobe, and trees for roof framing (which had to be transported long distances).

The Hopi have not allowed visitors to take photos in their villages since around 1907. As early visitors often came to witness ceremonies and dances, the intrusive taking of pictures disrupted the rituals, and the Hopi wisely banned them altogether. (In fact, they banned all recording – including sketching and note-taking.) While residents of all historic venues have to put up with tourists poking around, it was probably extremely annoying here, as the Hopi themselves were the subjects of the photos as well as their surroundings.   So while I was somewhat frustrated by the photography ban (couldn’t they just let serious architecture professors take photos?) I respected their decision, and was frankly amazed that they had figured this out so long ago. So all the photos I have from the Hopi reservation were taken from long distances, well outside the villages from the highways below. However, the Hopi aren’t worried about earlier documentation (you can buy books of older photographs which show the villages quite well), or rigorous contemporary research (there is a project at the University of Redlands which is building three-dimensional digital models of the villages, including historic reconstructions).

We first visited Shongopavi on Second Mesa, driving through the newer areas on the outskirts of the village and walking in to the historic center. The houses are tightly clustered, one or two stories, sharing common walls. They surround small plazas, which are the sites of dances and ceremonies. The buildings are loosely rectilinear, but there is no rigidity to their location – there may be a more or less regular street wall line, but buildings set back various amounts. There are irregular passageways and alleys, and you simply find your way through the connections.

As soon as we arrived we were checked out by a few calm reservation dogs, who lost interest and wandered off. As we walked through one plaza, a young man named Benedict left his house and welcomed us to his village, explaining a bit about their life, and how he was working with youngsters to get them farming in a traditional manner. Eventually he asked if we’d like to buy some art, showing us some beautiful colored drawings he’d done of Hopi legends and spirits (kachinas). This established the pattern we’d find at all the other villages – many of the Hopi are artists, and make a living by selling drawings, and especially kachina carvings, to the tourists who come by. Greta and I are not really souvenir collectors (except for rocks and shells), but this was different; the work was really beautiful, and it also gave us an opportunity to talk to the artists themselves, who explained the meaning of their work and the processes they used. We met Robert on the other side of the plaza, a man of about my age who was watching one of his grandchildren. We were invited into his house, then we walked over to another house where he had more carvings stored. We ended up buying a lot of art on the Hopi reservation (and the other pueblos we visited), always from the artists themselves.

Talking to Robert was also our introduction to how the Hopi seem to feel about historic preservation. His house was a one-room masonry house, probably a couple of hundred years old, but it actually belonged to his wife’s family – the Hopi are matrilineal. Robert belonged to a different clan, and had moved there from another village on Second Mesa when they married. Robert remarked that his wife, as head of the clan, thought they should have a bigger, newer house, and she hoped to tear this house down and build the new one. We noticed that some of the nearby houses were newer, and often built of concrete block. I asked him how they felt about this, and he was unconcerned – it appeared that the physical house didn’t matter that much to them, but the location on the plaza did – that had been in the clan for a long time.

94. Hopi172P1090061

We headed over to the other Second mesa villages, Sipaulovi and Mishongnovi. All of the mesa tops can now be reached by roads built in the late 20th century.94. Hopi171DSCF8634

Again we wandered around quietly, trying to not intrude too much on people’s lives, although we did run into the only somewhat threatening res dog of the whole trip. As we passed a cluster of little kids, one small girl spotted the two palefaces in their big sunscreen hats, and excitedly called out, Hi cowboys! As we headed up towards the end of one small street, a woman came out of her house and told us we shouldn’t go that way, which was again something we encountered a few times. There are important ritual areas near the villages (especially some cemeteries) which should be avoided and certainly never photographed), but they don’t make a big deal out of it – no signs or barriers. They just politely but firmly say you can’t go there.94. Spipaulovi169P1090109

We also had a nice conversation with a high school boy who was weeding the plaza in front of his house in the photo above. He asked where we were from, and then asked what Oregon was like. I told him that we lived on top of a hill about the same height as his mesa from which we too could see mountains in the distance, but that our house was also surrounded by 100-foot-tall trees. He just stared at us in amazement. We then finished off the afternoon in a conversation with three guys who were probably high, and who had spotted us while driving by in their muscle car. They offered to show us around for $20, but I said we had already walked through the villages and were heading back to the motel. One pointed out that they could take us to forbidden places, such as the cemetery by the Corn Rock, and we could even take photos. I said we had been told that was explicitly forbidden, but he said it would be okay if we were with them. Eventually we negotiated a deal whereby they would leave us alone for $10, which seemed like a fair price for admission to their village.

The next morning we went to Old Oraibi on Third Mesa, where a much more respectable woman offered to guide us around, explaining the locations of the kivas, ovens, houses, etc. She pointed out the old mission church below the village (seen to the left in this photo) which had been burnt out in one of the not-infrequent revolts of the Puebloan people against the Spanish. Throughout the trip we became aware of the complex relationship between Puebloan people and the Catholic Church. It ran the gamut from devout Catholicism, to complete disavowal and a return to traditional practices, but many people seemed to fall somewhere in the middle, partaking in the traditional Hopi rituals while still attending the church.OraibiDSCF8640

In Oraibi we were also able to buy a Hopi staple, parched corn, from the aunt of our guide. Kernels are heated in a pot packed with sand, and the corn expands, but not nearly to the extent of our popcorn. It was somehow more satisfying and tastier than popcorn, and is taken along by the Hopi as a snack when they are heading out into the fields to work. When we mentioned this later on First Mesa, our guide was surprised to hear someone was selling this, and thought she might have to head over herself to track it down.

Walpi, at the end of First Mesa (about six miles from Second Mesa), is the oldest of the Hopi villages. We drove up a precipitous road to the top, then passed through the villages of Hano and Sichomovi. (Hano is inhabited by Tewa people, who have lived next to the Hopi for 600 years, but still speak their own language.) You must have a guide on First Mesa, so we met her at a small parking area before the narrow ridge into Walpi; if you pulled your truck a little too far forward you’d plunge a few hundred feet off a cliif on one side of the mesa, and if you backed up a little too far, you’d go off the cliff on the other side.94.-Walpi165DSCF8666

The site is extraordinary – First Mesa is like a ship in the desert, and Walpi is the bridge deck at the top.94. Hopi167P1090094

You can see 60 miles southwest to the San Francisco Mountains, or to the buttes in the southeast where the Hopi catch eagles for their feathers.P1090056

Beyond the narrow entry ridge, Walpi itself is just two streets wide, with one main spine of buildings up the middle, and a few other houses located on the east and west edges, along with the kivas and plazas. Around a half-dozen houses share each of the plaza areas.94. Hopi170P1090073

No one now lives in Walpi full time; when I was there twenty years ago I met an old woman who must have been one of the last residents. The different clans own the individual houses, and they congregate there for important festivals and occasions. There were two young artists we spoke to, who were using what I believe to be the Fire and Coyote clan house as their studio, to the left in the picture below. It was a narrow room, with windows looking across the plaza and desert to the east, and windows in the opposite wall looking out to the sunset in the west. It was a mixture of very old masonry and newer renovations, and they had plans on how they were going to fix it up further, some of which had to do with the pleasures of sitting outside on the west side barbecuing in the evening.WalpiP1090075

The nearby Snake clan house had been damaged by fire when a propane stove was installed incorrectly, and it was being rebuilt. I was surprised to see that a porch section, where the floor joists had probably been four-inch diameter trees was now being constructed with badly-sawn 2x6s and Simpson joist hangers. The same lack of interest in historic methods and materials we had seen in Shongopavi held true at this even older location, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited village in the country. I couldn’t figure it out – many of the Hopi are fine artists, creating carvings, pottery, paintings and prints, but this widespread focus on artistic production didn’t extend to architecture. It may be due to poverty – selling art to tourists brings income, whereas restoring a house accurately would just cost more money. At Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island, many of the historic buildings are on active farms, where the owners can’t afford to restore or even maintain them in an appropriate way, so a fund has been established to provide grants for preservation work. Perhaps an arrangement like that could work here – gifts and ticket sales to tourists might generate enough capital.

This contrast between the incredible physical location, and the lack of economic opportunity in that remote location was evident throughout the reservation. Many buildings were in an extreme state of disrepair, and selling artwork and handcrafts was clearly a major source of income for many residents. Many of the younger Hopi we spoke to had spent years off the reservation – working jobs in Phoenix or Albuquerque, or in the military. The problems of rural areas in America are magnified here – by a more severe climate, extreme isolation, and limited employment opportunities.DSCF8660

There are signs of growth and development – a new school, a medical complex, plans for a new commercial center down the road from First Mesa. But all of this redevelopment is down below the mesas – the population in the traditional villages continues to decline. There are real disadvantages to living on top of a mesa – lack of running water and other creature comforts, lack of privacy, small cold houses. The newer housing down below is fairly standard for detached American houses, although somewhat inflected towards a more traditional Hopi style. The development pattern is typically western American too – large lots with small houses surrounded by many vehicles. The traditional day-to-day life in a small village has mostly disappeared, revived only for festivals and special occasions. But even if they are living in new buildings below, the Hopi are maintaining their traditional life in many ways, in the landscape where they’ve lived for 700 years. Just staying on the reservation is in itself a huge commitment, not succumbing to the attractions of modern life in a big city. Perhaps this move down from the mesas is just the latest stage of the Puebloan people responding to changes in the environment – from Chaco to cliff dwellings to the mesas, and now into suburbia.


We stayed in the motel at the Hopi Cultural Center for three nights – there’s no camping on the reservation, and the nearest spot off the res was 70 miles away. It was another opportunity to talk to the Hopi, as the place wasn’t just full of tourists, and conversations with local residents in the lobby late at night (where the wifi was strong) were really informative. The Hopi have a devotion to their separate culture, which gets defined in many ways, large and even small: Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings time, while the Navajo do, but the Hopi, wholly contained within the Navajo reservation, don’t. We started to pick up on the cultural distinctions which we outsiders don’t often hear about. They live between two very different worlds, and while maintaining their own society, still seem very open to the outside world.

The Hopi we met were all remarkably friendly and welcoming, willing to explain aspects of their culture to us, maybe because it was April and they hadn’t gotten tired of tourists yet. But the more we learned of the culture, the more clear it became that we would never really be able to understand anything about it in a deep way. I’ve been rereading Reyner Banham’s America Deserta recently, and at one point he observes that native culture is essentially foreign and completely incomprehensible to him – there is no way he could ever comprehend what is going on. I think this is true – the natives have to understand enough about the American mass culture to survive within it, but I can’t imagine being able to understand this culture without being part of it. The paradox is that this is the one place in the US where we can go to see a non-European physical environment, inhabited by the current members of that culture, but there is still no way that we can truly experience it except as foreign tourists. But even being able to witness it from the outside was very satisfying.

There was one cultural event which we only learned about at the last minute, and unfortunately had to miss. Sitting in the lobby before we left I spoke with one of several young Jamaican guys I’d seen around the night before. He turned out to be a member of a reggae band that was going to perform the next night at the events center on the reservation. I later spoke to the young woman at the front desk about this, and she said, yeah, the Hopi really like reggae. There would be two bands at this concert, and there would be a traditional Hopi dance in the intermission in between. I mentioned how I’d seen these guys the night before and how I could tell they were from somewhere else. She looked at me quizzically, and I said, I thought that maybe they were Navajo. She cracked up and said, no, couldn’t be, the Navajo just like heavy metal.

Selfies, Part 5

Perhaps southerners aren’t as narcissistic as other Americans, or perhaps the tourist sites  in the south don’t attract the foreign tourists who are prone to selfie-taking, but for whatever reason, we saw very few selfies in the past few months.  However, now that we are in the Southwest at major tourist sites, the rate is picking up again:

Middleton Place, South Carolina.  An off-axis selfie.  Subtle.DSCF8317

Oak Alley, River Road, Louisiana.DSCF3930

The Perot Museum, Dallas.DSCF4241

Meta- selfie at the Perot Museum.  A digital interface which converts a real-time image of you into tilting pixel-tiles.DSCF4329

Disturbing selfies at Dealey Plaza, Dallas.  Selfies with the Texas Book Depository in the background.  Even more disturbing:  there are two small Xs which supposedly mark the spots where JFK was shot.  We see tourists running out to stand on those spots to have their pictures taken, on what is a very busy street.   Right up there with funeral selfies for showing us something we didn’t want to know about human behavior.  DSCF4361

One more of the Safe Bison-Selfies™.  San Antonio.  Yesterday at the Grand Canyon we heard that not only do tourists get killed taking Bison Selfies, but last year at the GC, one was killed taking an Elk Selfie.  If only we’d known.DSCF5619

Alamo Selfies.  We begin to hit our stride again.  Notice the lack of Asian tourist selfies – they don’t get the Alamo. (I don’t really get the Alamo either.)DSCF5664  DSCF5668DSCF5669

Hoover Dam Selfies.  Motherlode.  DSCF6980

Attempted Double-Selfie, but one kid’s balking.DSCF6990  DSCF6999

They have Selfie alcoves on the Hoover Dam, built 70 years before the selfie.DSCF7002

Las Vegas, Bellagio selfie.  DSCF7135

Las Vegas, Strip selfie.  DSCF7236

Zion Canyon, selfie in the Narrows.DSCF7448

Bryce Canyon, TWO Double-Selfies!DSCF7571  DSCF7638

Arches National Park:  the French have not yet discovered the Selfie-stick, so they have to use a tripod.  DSCF7827

Monument Valley.  My favorite selfie photo so far.  DSCF8038

Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River.  Selfies on the edge of the abyss – no guardrails, crumbly sandstone.  We see how much people really want the ultimate selfie.

The Japanese Cowboy-biker selfie.  They then asked to have Greta in the picture with them – we think they liked her fedora.DSCF8161  DSCF8189


This photographer demonstrates the use of the Safe-Selfie Stick™ – hanging your phone out over the abyss on your stick, instead of inching out yourself.  DSCF8176

It turns out there area few other ways to take Safe-Selfies™:  the sitting selfie.DSCF8179

The lying-down selfie.  DSCF8181

On the other end of the spectrum, the most terrifying selfie ever – the toddler at the abyss selfie.DSCF8192

The Grand Canyon.  DSCF8377  DSCF8421

We thought this would be the ultimate location – I expected at least a triple-selfie.  I got close at one point, best I could get was a double.  DSCF8429

But in recompense, we came across something we’ve never seen before, a true selfie artist.  Whereas most selfie-takers are content to register their presence, perhaps with a smile, this young man took a series of selfies, each with a different gesture, or expression.  DSCF8401

He seems to understand the potential of the selfie like no other. He doesn’t just document, he expresses a series of feelings in the selfies.  We caught up with him at a couple of overlooks.  At one point, he handed his phone to me and asked me to take his picture.  I was nonplussed, I didn’t see how I could do it better than him, but I tried. DSCF8409

Selfie-Boy, as we call him, transcends the category of selfie-taking in a place.  The photo of the selfie suddenly was no longer about the selfie-in-place, it was all about him.  The Grand Canyon is lost in the distance, it fades out of the picture.  There is only the virtuosity of Selfie-Boy. DSCF8412