Daily Archives: May 15, 2016

California coastal towns

107. Monterey002DSCF0671California is so big and diverse – in its landscapes, populations, economy – that even on an extended trip, you only get to see a narrow slice. When it became clear that the Sierras route wasn’t going to work for us, we switched over to the coast, as the landscape provides the most amazing contrast with the desert, and after two months on our own in the Southwest, we were looking forward to seeing a large concentration of friends in the area.

For a northeasterner, who is used to the coastline being uniformly densely built-up for hundreds of miles, the California coast is remarkably unpopulated. There are the big stretches of preserved land, such as Big Sur, but even the cities and towns are amazingly small. Compared to the East Coast, the West has very few good natural harbors, and those few became the nuclei for major metropolitan areas. In between, the cities seem to have developed as the service centers for a relatively low-density rural population, and so they are pretty far apart and small. Their growth in the late 20th century was based upon tourism, retirees, universities and other institutions, so basically an affluent population who has chosen to be there. They don’t have the problems of older, larger cities, and the general level of prosperity is noticeable.

San Luis Obispo is a beautiful small city (which I pretty much didn’t photograph, as we were in the downtown area mainly at night). The downtown core is well-preserved, with a blend of old and new commercial buildings, all around three stories tall.DSCF0614

The streetscape is dominated by spectacular canopy of uniform, mature street trees that roof the space of the sidewalks. On a weekday evening the streets were full of people – both Cal Poly students and older folks – going to the many bars and restaurants. There are bungalow neighborhoods within walking distance, and not much noticeable sprawl in any direction, I’d assume partially because the city is hemmed in by hills and farmland. It’s a pretty nice scale for a city – big enough to have urban amenities and atmosphere, but small enough that you can escape out to the coast or countryside quickly.  SLO is about 1/3 the size of Eugene, but it feels a lot more urbane.

Monterey has different roots, as a fishing port and concentration of canneries. As that industry has died off, it has transitioned to being a tourist center. Cannery Row has been transformed into a normal tourist district of souvenir shops and places to eat. It was good to see the repurposing of all the old buildings, but there wasn’t much activity here to interest us.DSCF0666

Except of course, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which anchors one end of the tourist drag (and which Greta has already blogged, about the fish parts.)  There’s not much I can add to what has already been written about this building – designed by EHDD, it recently won a 25th anniversary award from the AIA, which are given to those buildings which were notable when they were built, but have also stood the test of time. The Baltimore Aquarium changed the whole conception of aquaria, and Monterey Bay took the type to its highest level. The emphasis on the local coastal environment (rather than showcasing species from exotic locations) contributed to a fundamental change in the model for natural history exhibits nationwide (as we saw in many other places). It also worked with the local built environment, re-using a waterfront cannery building (rather than new black-box construction as with most aquaria), and kept many pieces of the cannery infrastructure as well as the shell.107. Monterey003DSCF0691

The gigantic kelp forest was a first, flushed constantly with seawater from Monterey Bay.DSCF0689

Whereas most aquarium exhibits have to be kept in relative darkness, the circulation areas of the aquarium are flooded with light, and open out to views of the bay. The new construction within is kept minimal, simple and industrial, in keeping with the nature of the existing building.DSCF0692

The programs are informative and fun, such as this one at the penguin tank.DSCF0686

As we had known from our trip there six years earlier, the aquarium was exactly the best kind of building for us to visit on this trip – wildlife for Greta (including the adorable sea otters), and fantastic architecture for me.

We wandered into the adjoining town of Pacific Grove, another one of those interesting seaside towns which had their origins as centers for religious revival camps, (or in this case, a Chautauqua type gathering), similar to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The waterfront is lined with large Queen Anne houses,DSCF0712

and a nice example of the Bay Area shingle style/craftsman,DSCF0717

which also had a very sympathetic addition.DSCF0720

The old pavilion on the point has been restored.DSCF0723

The streetscapes are full of big trees, little houses and great porches.DSCF0734


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I especially liked the formality of this façade,DSCF0757

compared to the head-and-tail quality of the additions.DSCF0759

A very pleasant and quaint town, but it was also nice to be reminded that you are not back in the 19th century, this is very much 21st century California:DSCF0761


Carmel (which I guess is technically Carmel-by-the-Sea, but I just can’t bring myself to say that), looks like a stage set Norman village dropped on a seaside hill. The beach, which runs all along the bay from Pebble Beach golf course on the north to Point Lobos on the south, is breathtaking – sand, sun, surf, big rocks, and the relative shelter of the small bay. We were flabbergasted that we could just drive along Scenic Road, park our truck and go hang out on the beach – another sign that we weren’t on the East Coast anymore.DSCF0777

The downtown is quite a ways up the hillside from the water, and comprises a few streets of inns, restaurants and stores, which seem to be ratcheted up to an even higher economic level than Santa Fe. The overall affect of the town is that of an overgrown, Old World village, with a casual quality which belies the obvious wealth floating around.DSCF0792

The buildings are handsome and competent,DSCF0784

but they are achingly, self-consciously picturesque. I am usually pretty okay with places which have strict design guidelines which seek to maintain the historical continuity of the local vernacular (such as Santa Fe), but when the local vernacular seems to be a complete fabrication, it gets on my nerves. We certainly got used to this in the late 20th century, with all of our gated and covenanted “communities” in anachronistic styles, but Carmel seems to have been a pioneer in this movement.DSCF0789

Away from the center of town, many of the houses are in what can only be described as Hansel and Gretel Style. It is life in a Thomas Kincaid painting, and I just wanted to see something seriously transgressive, like a Frank Gehry building, or more extreme.DSCF0793

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Most of the houses in Carmel are relatively modest, but then there are the houses that remind you of just how much wealth is really here. This house, which looks like a whole village by itself, is on the beach, right next to the Pebble Beach golf club. We wondered who might live there, and finally decided that it must be someone with so much money that we’d probably recognize their name.DSCF0775

In this town of not especially creative anachronisms, the architectural highlight was this Frank Lloyd Wright house, right on the water.108. Carmel005DSCF0810

Beyond the general weirdness of the architecture, what struck us as strange about Carmel was the how it didn’t seem very walkable, even for such a small town. The residential streets don’t have sidewalks, probably trying to maintain that small-village atmosphere. All the commercial services are concentrated in the middle of town, the hillside is pretty steep, and it looks like people drive around – we didn’t see anyone out walking in the neighborhoods. We’ve visited many wealthy seaside towns on this trip, and Carmel is the first where we couldn’t figure out why you’d really want to live there. You could live in a beautiful yet chilly and foggy coastal microclimate, have a small, very expensive house, tightly packed with similar houses, but still have to drive everywhere. Greta and I preferred Carmel Valley, inland from Carmel. There is no real town, and you still have to drive everywhere, but the landscape is spectacular and the climate is warmer and drier. And it’s still a pretty short drive to the beach.


Santa Cruz is an unusual city – it isn’t that big, but for a small city, it seems to have a lot of very distinct districts, with really different characters. (I think there are also a similar number of subcultures, including the aging hippie-surfer demo). The university is obviously an important presence, but it so far out of town up in the hills that it’s hard to notice its impact on the physical environment. The downtown is not very memorable, and it doesn’t dominate, or even provide a very strong center for the city. However, here are some great older neighborhoods, each of which seems to have its own commercial core.IMG_3113

When we visited there six years ago, our favorite place was the seaside amusement park.IMG_3088

It was deserted when we walked through, and we thought we’d been dropped into a Fellini movie.IMG_3102

There is a big public wharf downtown, and this amazing arcade building:IMG_3131

I remember being confused by the city at first – it was unlike any other single place I could think of, and then I figured it out – it’s Eugene meets Asbury Park, with the hippie nostalgia of the West Coast meeting the cheesy seaside attractions more typical of the East.

On this trip we knocked around the neighborhoods some more, coming across this gem, whose history we couldn’t even guess at:DSCF0935

An older industrial neighborhood is the location of current hipster gentrification, with the buildings turning into shops and (some quite good) restaurants.DSCF0936

We walked all along the shore to the west, where we were staying with the Finrows. It is a fantastic promenade – people walking, biking and driving along the top of the bluff, which undulates in and out around little coves, at the bottom of which there are surfers and sunbathers (sometime practicing naked yoga).DSCF0932

But mainly we decided to chill out. The Born boys (the Finrows’ grandsons) invited Greta to come along when they went surfing, so I hung out on the beach,DSCF0948

while Greta borrowed a wetsuit for some boogie-boarding.109. Santa Cruz006DSCF0946

Travelling in central California was an unusual part of our trip. Whereas most of the trip had been to far-away places to which we may never return, we had been to these places before, and we’ll probably get back to them relatively soon. We didn’t feel the need to be completely thorough, trying to see everything on the checklist for every place. And compared to many more challenging places we’d visited, these cities encouraged such sloth – they were completely relaxing and comfortable. You get pulled into that inimitable California lifestyle, strolling around and enjoying the weather, in between wonderful meals. The Promised Land experience continued.

The Finrows


As I’ve written blog posts about all the friends we’ve visited and stayed with this past year, I’ve noticed a paradox – the more time I’ve spent with someone over the years, the harder it is to write about them. If it’s an old high school buddy whom I haven’t seen in 30 years, time (and age) acts as a filter. I remember certain stories from the distant past (and doubtless have forgotten many more) that frame the friendship, and then I can follow with the holiday-letter synopsis of their adult life. But if it’s someone with whom your friendship has evolved continually over the years, there are just too many aspects to cover, so these posts necessarily feel more cursory, or inadequate. This has certainly been true in writing about our family members, and with some close friends, such as Jerry and Gunilla Finrow.

I first spoke to Jerry in 1990, when I called about a job at the UO for which I had seen an ad in Architectural Record. Jerry surprised me when he said he had heard of the firm where I worked, and he strongly encouraged me to apply for the job. I did, and that pretty much set me on the course of my life since.

Jerry had grown up in eastern Washington, and attended the undergraduate architecture program at UW. He worked for some noted architects and landscape architects in Seattle, and then went off to graduate school at Berkeley in the 1960s. He was there for the intellectual and political foment that was Berkeley in that period, and he was actually in the Christopher Alexander seminar where they first began to develop the idea of the Pattern Language. Jerry and Gunilla met at Berkeley, as she was a graduate student also, after having grown up in Helsinki and gone to architecture school at the ETH in Switzerland. They left the Bay Area to move to Eugene, where Jerry became a faculty member (and later department head) in architecture, while Gunilla became a faculty member (and later program director) in interior architecture. They lived in a house on Fairmount which they beautifully remodelled, and where they raised their children Eric and Eva.

The year after I (and Linda) arrived in Eugene, Jerry became the dean of AAA. We had a great, but necessarily limited relationship, as deans are always travelling or busy, and don’t spend a lot of time just hanging out with junior faculty. But Jerry and I had a lot of overlapping interests (such as housing), and even while he was busy running the school, he always found time to track what I was doing, and give me excellent pointers and suggestions. Linda and Gunilla had a closer relationship, as they worked together in a much smaller program, although their relationship went back further: Gunilla had been Linda’s adviser when Linda was in graduate school at the UO, and Gunilla had been the one who encouraged her to apply for the faculty position back at the UO when it became open. So it’s very clear that without multiple interventions by the Finrows, Linda and I would never have met.

In 1995, Jerry accepted the job of dean at the University of Washington, and they moved to Seattle. We missed having them in Eugene, but visited them several times there while on work-related trips, including the summer of 2001, when Linda was pregnant. While we were there, they mentioned that they had started construction on a summer house on Whidbey Island, and did we want to run up to see it? We did, and fell in love with the place. The house was exquisite, a blend of vernacular, modernist and Scandinavian influences, simple and impeccably detailed.DSCF1128

We were also taken with the historic town of Coupeville, and the landscape of Ebey’s Landing. I remember eating lunch on the beach at Ft. Casey, and Gunilla relating how she had grown up on the water in Helsinki, but then had lived inland in Eugene for 25 years, and was never quite content. Now she would be able to see the water every day, and it felt right. I completely understood, as I had moved back to Eugene two years before after four years in Portland; Eugene was the only place I’d lived in my life that didn’t have salt water, and it didn’t feel right to me either. We visited them on the island several times after Greta was born, and eventually bought our own property in the town and built a house (often staying with the Finrows until it was occupiable). So once again the Finrows casually set us on a major life trajectoryDSC04104

Linda and I managed to have Greta without any interventions by the Finrows, but they’ve been an important part of her life ever since. As all of Greta’s grandparents were much older and across the country, she didn’t get to see them very often, and the Finrows became her surrogate West Coast grandparents. We’ve been spending our summers on Whidbey for ten years now, a half mile from the Finrows, and being able to to spend time with them (as well as Bill and Mary Gilland, who built a house across Penn Cove), has been one of the things we most look forward to every year. Over the years Linda and Gunilla have spent a lot of time consulting on gardening, and I can sometimes drag Jerry out to be the helmsman on the boat.IMG_9341

Jerry and Gunilla are now both retired, living between downtown Seattle and Coupeville – spending their time gardening, cooking, going to the symphony, and relaxing after busy careers. They’ve also been travelling quite a bit – usually trips to visit Gunilla’s family in Finland, or garden tours in the UK. When we get together at the beginning of each summer, Bill and Jerry (both former deans of AAA) will ask me how things are going at the UO, and will listen attentively as I launch into a narrative about the latest administrative crises and outrages, etc. After a few minutes they both begin to grin, and one will say to the other, Boy I’m glad I don’t have to deal with any of that anymore. I have a few years to go, but I’m looking forward to joining them.

Jerry and Gunilla had been heading south for some time every winter, and a few years ago they decided they needed another architectural project, so they designed another great house in Santa Cruz. They use it as an intermittent vacation residence, and their daughter Eva and her family use it as a weekend house, coming over the hills from the Bay Area. It works really well as a multigenerational house, with the main living spaces and the Finrows on the upper level (with a view of the ocean), and the Born family occupying the ground floor. Something they didn’t plan on (but they must have grasped at some intuitive level) was that Keyes family would be showing up again someday, and the house has superb urban camping amenities, with a nicely secluded spot for our trailer behind the porte cochere.  109. Santa Cruz007DSCF0962

Our unplanned timing was great, as we not only got to see the Finrows, but also Eva’s family. (Greta has known the Born boys since she was little.) Eva’s husband Colin took Greta along to the beach, and six-year-old Peter taught her how to boogie-board while Colin and Ben were surfing. We also spent an evening talking about our travels with Colin, who would love to undertake such a trip someday, and who has also been the only person we’ve seen on our trip who has understood the central importance of making an Allman Brothers pilgrimage to Macon, Georgia.

By this stage we realized that were on the last leg of our trip, and were frankly a little exhausted, not feeling the impetus to do every single cool thing that could be done in every place. Just as the landscape was starting to feel more familiar, giving us some signs that we were home, staying with the Finrows was very familiar also. They’ve been such constant friends and wonderful hosts over the years that staying with them felt a lot like being at home, and we just relaxed after months on the go. And it was very thoughtful of them to build a house that fit in so well with our itinerary.