Category Archives: cities

The North Coast

The last days of our trip were spent on the California North Coast. We’d hoped to cruise through Sacramento and up into the Sierras, but given the lingering snow in May and the impossibility of a campground in Yosemite, we were forced to once again drive up the coast – which may be our favorite landscape in the world. Before we reached the Bay Area we had covered a bit of the coast we’d never actually done before – the 40 miles or so from Santa Cruz to San Gregorio, from where we took 84 through La Honda and in to Palo Alto. This is a breathtaking stretch, with gentle river valleys coming out to the coast – which reminded us of the Olympic Peninsula – and some big headlands. It is astounding how few people there are here, right over the mountains from the Bay Area.dscf0963


A week later we began our final leg, crossing the Golden Gate and following Highway 1. The variety of landscapes on this section is unlike other parts of the coast. In Big Sur you are always on the side of the mountains, looking down into the ocean, and it is unrelievedly spectacular. But here the highway weaves in and out, with beautiful farmland near Pt. Reyes Station,115-north-coast002dscf1703

just before you run along Tomales Bay, which is essentially a fjord, with the ocean hidden just over the hills to the west.dscf1707

At the north end of the bay we cut inland again, driving along Keyes Creek,115-north-coast003dscf1711

where you can see how the California Coastal Commission regulations require that even the cattle must be picturesque.dscf1714

On this inland jog we entered Sonoma County, and then back to the sea, where a wider plain appears between the mountains and the ocean.dscf1716

All of this variation – farmland, fjord, estuary, coastal plain, ocean – occurs within one hour of driving. We were overwhelmed with the density of beauty, how every minute there was some new and different prospect. It was similar to the experiences we had in some parts of the Southwest – Zion, Canyon de Chelly – but with more water.

We entered the part of the drive that does more cliff-hugging, and I stopped taking photos – too many sharp switchbacks with steep elevation changes for someone driving a truck with a trailer to ever have enough warning to contemplate pulling over onto a tiny gravel shoulder – but the scenery continued to amaze us. We had driven this stretch six years ago, and we wondered why we didn’t have a stronger memory of it – perhaps that had been on an overcast day, when the stupendously elemental qualities of ocean, sun, sky and cliff were just not as vivid. The Sonoma coast was one of the most arresting landscapes we saw on this whole trip.

We drove past Sea Ranch, the famous Halprin/MLTW/etc. resort development, but didn’t stop. I’ve learned from prior trips that visiting Sea Ranch without an in or connection is a frustrating experience, as you really can’t see the buildings and views you want. Perhaps we’ll catch it on the next trip, renting a place to stay..

At the end of the day we made it to Mendocino, the 19th-century New England whaling village perched on a bluff sticking out into the ocean. It can be a little too quaint and precious (and expensive), and as Isadore once said, Mendocino seems to be the Spanish word for gift shop. But every time I’ve been here I’ve been blown away, for many reasons. There are very few places in this country that have a setting anything like this – a headland with steep cliffs on three sides,115-north-coast005dscf1754

where the view down every street ends in the ocean.dscf1729

Some of the houses have been spiffed up pretty extensively, such as this one, which was used as the stand-in for Maine in the Murder She Wrote TV series,dscf1788

but much of the town retains its vernacular character, with old houses and water towers.dscf1721

There is a range of styles, from the simple cottages to the more elaborate Queen Anne, Italianate, etc.dscf1768




I think I spent a night sleeping in this house over 20 years ago, when it was owned by the family of one of our students. I was awakened the next morning by the sound of sea lions barking at the base of the cliff.dscf1732

About half of the headland is preserved open space, with walks through fields of wildflowers to the ocean views.dscf1764

Greta and I walked out onto the bluff trail, where we saw the first weasel we had ever seen in the wild, and which was too fast to be photographed.dscf1740

Then there is the light, which changes rapidly and dramatically, as clouds break and fog rolls in. We have been there on sunny days and rainy days, and it is notable how your impression of such a small, simple place can also change so drastically.dscf1719

Mendocino was like many historic towns we visited on the East Coast, where it is obvious that the seeming simplicity and casual quality is maintained by unrelenting diligence and at great expense. But I can’t help being bowled over by these places, even if they represent Disneyfication by the Upper Classes. There are so few corners of this country that have not been overwhelmed by the crap of the past 60 years, that I’m completely able to suspend disbelief, and just enjoy the care and art that has gone into the creation of this environment. My appreciation for Mendocino is probably heightened by our experience in the past decade in the town of Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, which has both a historical building stock and amazing landscape that rival Mendocino’s. However, over the years Coupeville has made some astoundingly bad decisions about zoning and development, which have rendered much of the town indistinguishable from any other postwar suburb. Mendocino happens to be situated in a region that attracted a wealthy and sophisticated populace, which seems to be the solution nationwide for preserving this type of coastal town with any degree of integrity.115-north-coast006dscf1775

North of Mendocino we stayed in Ft. Bragg, a more normal small city which had a fishing and lumber-based economy. It could adopt the informal motto of Astoria – We Ain’t Quaint – but some of the remnants of that period are remarkable. There is the Glass Beach, which Greta has blogged about,dscf1816

the views of the coastline,115-north-coast008dscf1817

and the fabulous Pudding Creek Trestle, where a railroad spur ran right along the ocean.115-north-coast010dscf1826

A day out from Oregon, we were feeling the loom of home, and while the landscape felt increasingly familiar, there were still signs that California is different. In the town of Inglenook we came across this allee of trees, but they were eucalyptus, not the firs or madrones which would have been normal for us.115-north-coast011dscf1831

The highway continued this weaving in and out of farmland, forests, hills and coastal plain. The jogs in the road when we came to a creek were always amusing. We’d be driving along with a panoramic view of the ocean, then there would be a sharp right turn,dscf1834

and we’d be heading up the creek into the hills.dscf1835

A hairpin turn at the head of the creek, and we’d head back out to the ocean view. This shift in perspective repeated often, and each cycle took just a minute or two.dscf1836

Finally, Highway 1 leaves the Pacific for good at Hardy. The Lost Coast, 100 miles of fairly inaccessible coastline, lay between us and Eureka. We followed the last 15 miles of Highway 1, which after many trips I’m convinced is the twistiest highway in the country. The trees closed in around us, and our weeks in the sunny Promised Land of California came to an end.dscf1837

The East Bay

On most trips to northern California we spend our urban-wandering time in San Francisco itself, which always offers a combination of seeing cool new things and visiting old favorite neighborhoods and places. But in the last weeks of our trip, we realized that we had no real ambition to tackle the big city in our usual manner. As Jonathan Franzen had just written in an article in the New Yorker, about a trip to Antarctica: “As in the Magic Mountain, the early days of the expedition were long and memorable, the later ones more of an accelerating blur.”

Just as we did in a few other places on this trip (such as New York), we shortchanged familiar places to which we could return fairly easily, and focussed on less accessible places to which we’d probably not return for a while. So we spent a few days in the city for specific reasons – seeing friends and a couple of museums, but no wandering up Russian Hill or cable car rides. But as we planned our last days before returning to Eugene, we decided we should stockpile a few more urban experiences. Incredibly, I realized that I probably hadn’t been to Oakland or Berkeley in 20 years, and so we headed off to the East Bay with Dan as our guide one Sunday morning.

Oakland was a shock. I remember heading to meetings at the DOE offices in downtown Oakland in the mid-80s, and all of us wondering why they had been stuck in the backwater of Oakland. In the mid-90s I spent time looking at housing and neighborhoods there, but the downtown still seemed deserted and bereft. Now, it is bustling, even on a weekend. Like many other good cities which had a late 20th century period of disinvestment and decline, there wasn’t much economic impetus to destroy the older buildings (once the mania of urban renewal had passed), and so the great old stock remains, ready for renovation and reuse in the urban revival of the 21st century.dscf1578


We saw evidence that at least part of this renaissance came from people and hipsters getting pushed out of San Francisco by the expense:dscf1568

I recognize my complete ignorance of the forces at play here – in a city where issues of gentrification and displacement are especially acute – and I apologize to my many friends in the area who could say more insightful things about what is going on. (One of the joys of blogging about a place like Biloxi is that no one else I know has ever been there, and so no one argues with me.) But just from the perspective of the built fabric, it was a pleasure to see a fine old city on the rebound, and a city which feels more like a normal mid-sized American city, in contrast to the sometimes precious and overly-touristed parts of San Francisco.

We moved on to Berkeley, which doesn’t seem to have physically changed much at all. I had forgotten that it too is a real city, not just a big college town, with a thriving commercial center as well as beautiful residential areas,dscf1586

and some strange remnants of bygone eras.dscf1611


Greta’s favorite part of the city (besides the beignets at Angeline’s) was the Daiso store, a Japanese discount store (which Dan couldn’t believe we were wasting time on) where she acquired a pile of good notebooks (at $1.50 per), and lots of excellent and cheap plastic trinkets. We have since learned that these stores also exist in Seattle, so we’re planning our next trip there.

On the edge of the campus is the new home of BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, a renovation/addition to the 1930s printing plant, by Diller Scofidio Renfro. It is tres hip, but after seeing their art building at Stamford, we were fatigued with swoopy, gestural, probably dysfunctional buildings, so we skipped it.dscf1591

We wandered around the campus for a while, which I found less engaging than I had in the past. Probably because it was overcast and a Sunday, it all seemed rather drab and dead. In some ways the buildings reminded us of UT Austin – there was less uniformity in building style, but not much change in scale or materials – at some point they must have mandated that all new buildings should be of light masonry or concrete.dscf1595

The campus planning was too much to comprehend in a short visit – the original plans, by Olmsted and John Galen Howard, were later compromised by the typical slew of terrible 60s buildings, but recent campus planning has been sensitively done. But I was dragging a tired kid around, and I sensed she was nearing her limit on architecture for the year.  dscf1597

We had a true Berkeley moment in the student union, where a Filipino student association event was going on. The bathrooms around the corner had these temporary signs posted, which confused the hell out of everyone who read them. People hesitated, then picked a door, in a post-heteronormative version of The Lady or the Tiger. Men who walked into one room mainly full of women immediately backed out and went into the next room. Women who walked into a room to find men standing at urinals exited quickly, and many of them were so nonplussed that they gave up on going to the bathroom altogether.dscf1600

We went by Maybeck’s great Christian Science Church, but didn’t time it right to go inside.114-east-bay-002dscf1621


However, we made it into Julia Morgan’s Berkeley Women’s City Club, a not very big building which still manages to be grand.dscf1653


We took advantage of having Dan as our guide, and drove up the winding streets into the hills, seeing both intimate lanes and panoramic views.114-east-bay-004dscf1664

We wound past the fabulous Claremont Hotel,114-east-bay-005dscf1678

and drove through the area rebuilt after the 1991 firestorm, which destroyed almost 3000 houses and killed 25 people. It has not been rebuilt with any great architectural style, and beyond the human suffering, it’s sad that everything is now so uniform.dscf1687

On a different day we had driven with Dan to one of his favorite places, the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton, built in the 1880s east of San Jose. There are a few giant telescopes here from different eras,113-san-jose003dscf1390

and we were able to see the original refracting telescope, the largest in the world when it was erected.113-san-jose002dscf1381

The drive itself was spectacular, with a narrow road crossing many ridges and ascending on switchbacks.113-san-jose004dscf1410

This knocking around in East Bay focussed us on the character of the region, rather than just on San Francisco. The interface between suburbia and open space in the Bay Area has always seemed extraordinary to me. You can be in a quite dense city or suburb, and within minutes you’re out in the landscape; this applies equally on the Peninsula, East Bay, and Marin County. I remember looking down on the region flying out one night – a huge, dark empty space in the middle (the Bay), surrounded on all sides by brightly lit cities, which abruptly come to end, surrounded by another dark zone (the hills and mountains).img_6321

The physical geography is interesting enough, but when you add in that there are four really different, big cities on the Bay, plus many diverse smaller ones, you realize that there isn’t another metropolitan area remotely like it anywhere else in the country; there’s a density of different and interesting places here that is unmatched.

Most American cities and regions feel finite to me – with a little time, you can pretty much get to see all there is. While there are many metro regions which are so big that you probably will never literally get to see all of them, you just don’t want to – they’re big, but there’s not much variety (Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, etc.) Then there are the smaller, interesting places that are comprehensible (Portland, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, etc.). New York always felt infinite to me – I knew that no matter how long I lived there, I could never truly say that I knew all of it. The Bay Area is another one of those. The diversity of the landscape, the cities, the people, the food – it’s complex and beautiful, and it’s obvious why everyone wants to live here, despite its obvious shortcomings of insane traffic and high cost. Samuel Johnson’s quote about London applies to the Bay Area too.

Silicon Valley

A few months ago I paraphrased Tolstoy, saying that all sprawl is alike, but every good city is good in its own way. I now think that idea needs qualification: there are two types of sprawl – new and old. New sprawl is seen in places like Phoenix and Houston, where very little existed before WWII. There were small to medium core cities, and perhaps some very small outlying towns, but the postwar boom led to a pattern of undifferentiated sprawl that is the overall fabric of the place. Old sprawl occurs where there were real cities before WWII, and often reasonably-sized towns or cities in the region. Suburban development filled in the spaces between these centers, but the historic centers and districts still retain their character, and are still a considerable percentage of the region’s area. A standard distinction that is often made about the underlying organization of an area is whether there was settlement before survey (e.g., most pre-modern places), or survey before settlement (egg., most of the US). Perhaps another useful distinction, applicable to 20th century growth, is city before sprawl, or sprawl before city.

There may not be much of a functional difference between new and old sprawl now – both are heavily car-dependent and oriented, the overall densities may not be that different – but I think they can offer very different experiences for the residents.

I grew up in old sprawl, 10 miles from New York City, so that east coast pattern of city before sprawl always felt normal to me. Once again, JB Jackson was essential to understanding this landscape, as he had clearly delineated the various types of car-oriented development that occurred in the different periods of the 20th century. I remember then visiting the east side of the Seattle area in the early 80s and being shocked – it was the first place I’d seen where essentially every road and building was younger than me. There wasn’t a recognizable pattern in place from the era of pre-automobile development – the patterns of postwar sprawl were the underlying system.

The Bay Area and Silicon Valley combine both types of sprawl. Around the Bay, and down the peninsula, there is old sprawl – with both big, older, gridded cities (Oakland, Berkeley, etc.) and smaller suburban cities (Palo Alto, Menlo Park, etc.). The new sprawl spreads south from San Jose into the Santa Clara valley.

We were staying with Dan in Palo Alto, and as we were a little burned out from navigating the whole country for the prior eight months, and as Dan’s knowledge of the Bay Area is encyclopedic and his interests highly refined, we were only too happy to let him do all the destination-selection, navigation, and driving for us. So our impressions of the area are more of the passive-passenger variety, rather than the how-is-this-place-organized-wayfinding variety. Mainly, we focussed on good restaurant destinations, and saw the region on our way to them.

Palo Alto has a few major commercial centers, which are excellent. Predominantly low-rise, but not uniformly so, with many buildings remaining from the 1920s. The streets are incredibly active, especially at night, when the sidewalks are filled with young people and families heading to restaurants and street cafes. It is a very mature place, where the environment has been refined over decades.DSCF1102


Those cities which were not as densely built-up in the postwar era have been consciously developing their downtowns in the era of the tech booms. Mountain View very consciously built a civic center, with a city hall, performing arts center etc., designed by William Turnbull (formerly the T in MLTW). Some of it is a little strange in its flatness, the color is disconcerting, and it is an illustration of why having one large complex designed by one architect, rather than a series of differentiated buildings, is not a very good idea, but a couple of decades later it is clear that it has had a positive effect on the area, and private sector development has transformed the downtown.DSCF1470


Cities that were even less dense, such as Sunnyvale, now have rapidly developing centers. This area has a major shopping mall, but it is not the suburban type surrounded by acres of parking. With land values and rents as high as they are in the area, the mall is surrounded by parking garages and new mixed-use buildings, with yuppie condos for tech industry workers above hip ethnic restaurants.DSCF0970

San Jose itself has been redeveloping in the past decades, with a combination of commercial projects and institutions. The city hall complex (by Richard Meier) is about ten years old, a classic duck, with the separate realms of bureaucracy, elected officials, and gathering space represented in separate buildings. There is a huge civic plaza, which was oppressively unshaded and hot, even in May.113. San Jose006DSCF1454

The detailing, especially of the domed meeting space, is spectacular, with Meier’s classic spatial and compositional moves overlaid with shading devices that look like Renzo Piano in a futurist-Steanmpunk phase.DSCF1423

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The Shiny Object quality of the San Jose City Hall underlines one other way that the sprawl of Silicon Valley differs from most other sprawl in the country: it is very wealthy sprawl. Compared to places like Phoenix or Texas, the sprawl is largely “nice”, upper-middle class-sprawl. There is serious landscaping, and the obvious influence of design standards and planning commissions. This relates back to the earliest critiques of postwar suburban growth, which often focussed on just how tacky and ugly the new development was, and not on the fundamental issues of settlement pattern, car-orientation and environmental impact. The ugliness issue had been mitigated in places like the Peninsula with enough money to accomplish that, but it didn’t change the fundamental, structural issues; those are now being addressed through this newer, more urban development.

Despite this widespread evidence of new urban development, there is a paradox at the heart of the growth in Silicon Valley. The money comes from the high tech industry, with growing, high-income employment, and lots of capital floating around. This infusion of money drives up land prices, leading to the kind of high-density, urban redevelopment seen above, where cars are not completely dominant, and the sprawl-before-city pattern is now producing cities. This is the market (and zoning) response to these economic forces. But the big tech companies are so powerful and rich that they can just ignore these market forces. You don’t see them building in mixed-use neighborhoods, or trying to establish pedestrian-friendly environments – they still procure vast, expensive sites, and build campus-type buildings, surrounded by parking.

Here is the old Google campus, renovated buildings from Silicon Graphics:IMG_2258

And Yahoo (on a city street, not a giant campus, but certainly not in a very walkable place).DSCF0971

A drive-by of the new Apple headquarters (by Foster) under construction, a self-contained and isolated Hakka village, which looks like it might lift off to become a space station.DSCF0975

And the new Facebook building (by Gehry), again, self-contained and not near a walkable center.DSCF1559

And rounding out this model for development, we did glimpse our first Google car:DSCF1469

Smaller tech firms and start-ups now often locate in denser cities and mixed-use areas, echoing the historic pattern of central business districts where there is access to a wide range of workers, skills and services. Perhaps these large campuses are an assertion of pre-eminence by these corporations – they are so powerful that they don’t need access to these markets, everyone must come to them. Interestingly, Amazon is the one corporate giant bucking this trend, with their huge new complex opening in South Lake Union in Seattle, based partially on their employees’ preference for urban life, versus being stuck in the wilds of exurbia beyond Redmond.

While the experience of being in a car all the time moving around the Peninsula and Silicon Valley wasn’t comparable to being in a great city like San Francisco or Oakland, the good part was that when we got out of the car, we were in dense, urbane places. The southern part of the Bay Area is showing signs of being an evolving Edge City, a model arising in several parts of the country, with an overall pattern of car-based development, punctuated by a network of dense, walkable, and hopefully increasingly interconnected, urban centers.  Old sprawl continues to mature, becoming an increasingly good place to live, and perhaps providing a model for new sprawl to follow.

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.

More Pueblos

DSCF0290The Hopi Pueblo is extremely isolated – in the middle of the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona – but most of the other pueblo villages are more accessible, clustered near the Rio Grande valley in northeastern New Mexico. Since this area also contains the population center of New Mexico – from Albuquerque through Santa Fe to Taos – these pueblos attract many more tourists, and they have clearly learned how to manage this tourist influx to their benefit – providing income for the tribe, while minimizing the intrusion upon their way of life.

Acoma Pueblo is about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, and their village on top of a mesa, “Sky City” (they clearly hired a branding consultant before the other pueblos) has many similarities to the Hopi mesa villages – masonry and adobe houses tightly clustered around plazas, with a very defensible location hundreds of feet above the valley floor. There has been this ongoing dispute between Acoma and Walpi, as to which is the oldest existing settlement in the US, or the oldest continuously-inhabited, etc. The different clans own the houses in Acoma, just as in Walpi, but Acoma seems to have a more organized approach to actually living there. All the members of the tribe have more modern houses in the valley, but they sign up to be in residence on the mesa top for a year or so, living without running water or modern utilities.


As you enter the Acoma reservation, you first spot this mesa ahead, a striking and isolated element in the horizontal landscape. We were told that the Acoma people first considered this as the site for their village, but that two people were struck by lightning after climbing the mesa, and this was not taken as a good sign.DSCF9488

To visit Acoma you head to the Sky City Cultural Center, a new building at the foot of the mesa, which has a museum, meeting center, café and gift shop. The architecture is based upon the traditional Puebloan forms, with a series of boxy volumes that contrast in size and color. It is at a much bigger scale than the adobe buildings, and reminded me of some of the recent National Park buildings which work in the local vernacular, in a much more thoughtful way than you see in commercial buildings ineptly imitating the style.DSCF9672

You must visit the village as part of a tour group, and take a bus ride up the road to the top.98.Acoma019DSCF9652

However, visitors are allowed to walk back down the ancient pathway at the end of the tour if they wish. It is easy to see how defensible this route is, and also how tiresome it would be to carry everything up.98.Acoma020DSCF9643

The houses are set around medium-sized plazas, and most are in very good shape, with a combination of older building fabric and newer elements, such as windows.DSCF9633

There was a lot of construction going on while we were there, and in a very organized manner. It is clear that there is much greater concern for the historical integrity of the new building than at Walpi, and this might be directly due to the huge numbers of tourists who visit here. The tourists are probably much more interested in seeing authentic-looking buildings (rather than ones with obvious Simpson Strong-Tie connectors), and the tourist income can pay for those careful renovations.98.Acoma022DSCF9542

Narrow streets run between the plazas in the village. The Hopi mesas are pretty narrow, and small villages are very near each other, whereas Acoma is one, much bigger settlement (Sky City, not Sky Village).98.Acoma021DSCF9532

The traditional ovens were everywhere on the edge of the village.DSCF9528

Acoma is noted for its multi-story construction. This is the back side of the biggest building, facing onto a street, while the other side faces a plaza, and is stepped back with roof-top terraces.DSCF9575

The mesa is a big solid rock, so excavating kivas into the ground would have been difficult. So here they are built of masonry above ground, but still entered in the traditional way through the roof. These ladders are a recent reconstruction – when the native religion was being actively suppressed by the Spanish and the Americans, the big ceremonial ladders were a tip-off to the authorities, as well as a visible symbol. So the residents used less conspicuous ladders that could be hidden, and posted a lookout.98.Acoma023DSCF9600

Most of the buildings show the wear of time,DSCF9544

but there are some new buildings. They are clearly based upon the same premises as the old style, but are not pretending to be ancient. Acoma felt more like a European village, where you can sometimes see this blending of old and new in a vernacular tradition.DSCF9534

The Catholic church, San Esteban del Rey from 1640, is by a large plaza and cemetery on one side of the mesa. While we were told the church is not used for any religious services, our guide was clear that we couldn’t take photos of the church interior, or of the cemetery, and implied that most of the current tribe members shunned the Church in favor of their traditional beliefs. When she was pressed by a tourist for some more detail on this, she just said, We don’t talk about that. It seemed to me that there was a big difference between Hopi and Acoma here – they didn’t want to discuss their beliefs, but they were generally unconcerned about photographs in the village, whereas with the Hopi it was the opposite. (The Hopi talk about their legends to a certain degree, but obviously there are many secret parts they’re not mentioning.)DSCF9621

The questions of the tourists strongly reflected the preoccupations of modern Americans – sex and money. Acoma Pueblo is matrilineal, so the tourists were very interested in how that affected marriage conventions, divorce, and especially, disposition of property after a divorce. What struck me as strange was that all of these questions about Acoma society could be answered by reading a book, whereas the one aspect of their culture that required a visit to comprehend was the nature of their physical settlement. Yet I didn’t hear one question about the village or its buildings, which reinforced my feeling that Americans are generally completely oblivious to the meaning of the built environment around them, focussing more upon the more abstract organizational and relationship issues. Americans don’t really care about the house as a physical artifact, they just want to understand what it’s worth and who gets it after the divorce.

One of the larger plazas was remarkable in that it had a tree, the first one we had seen on any mesa top. It was the urbanized version of all the garden valleys in the desert we had been seeing, the organic surrounded by mineral. It is adjacent to a small pool, which acts as a cistern.DSCF9612


Santa Clara Pueblo is located on the Rio Grande River, between Santa Fe and Taos, in what might be called the Pueblo Belt – many different, distinct reservations are adjacent here. We were attracted to this pueblo by their renowned, abstract black-on-black pottery, and we stumbled upon a small gallery run by a potter of about my age, who showed us his and a few others’ work. He took the time to explain how their firing process worked, which was amazing in the contrast between simple and rather ad hoc facilities they used and the incredible sophistication of the final products. They don’t have large, permanent kilns, but rather build a small one every time out of rocks and metal sheets, achieving the black finish not though a glaze, but by packing the kiln shut with dirt at the right time, so the fire is dampened and the pots are smoked. They then burnish the pots with a stick to get the shiny surface. It must have taken generations to get that process right, a process that must be learned by every new potter. The approach relies upon a complex series of steps that must be guided by experience and judgement, rather than complicated tools or equipment. We leaned a lot, and once again we found that buying some art (in this case a couple of extraordinary small pots for Linda) gave us a great excuse to spend time talking to some wonderful people.

The pueblo is not set on a mesa or hill, but right alongside the river. The buildings were adobe rather than stone, but still had the characteristic masonry forms, organized around plazas.DSCF0094

Being in a river valley there was much more use of organic material in the built environment,DSCF0102

and there was a relatively lush landscape everywhere. There was a newer part of town immediately adjacent to the old village, with schools, administrative buildings and detached houses. Some of the older houses were in disrepair and boarded up, but others had been recently rebuilt. Santa Clara doesn’t get the tourist throngs of Acoma, as it more resembles a normal western town, and isn’t the anomaly of a Sky City. But its location right on the Albuquerque-Taos axis makes it much easier for the residents to participate in the larger economy off the reservation, and so rather than the large-scale and highly-coordinated renovations we saw at Acoma, the work we saw here was at the level of the individual house, probably based on what one family was able to accomplish.DSCF0108

Finally we visited Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site located north of the city of Taos, which is the Mecca of pueblos for architects. It is mainly known for the large building on the north side of the village, a multi-story complex which antedates our own multi-family condos by at least 600 years. Architects tend to respond to the simple cubic forms – the irregular but similar volumes based upon the construction system with bearing walls and the span of small trees.DSCF0185

Everywhere I’ve travelled in the past 35 years, I’ve noticed a bias inherent in how architects and historians think about and document important places: there is always an emphasis upon the building as an object, but a relative disregard for the importance of the setting, whether urban or natural. The north building at Taos is truly remarkable, an incredible pile of abstract forms that gets at the primal idea of dwelling in the same way as do the cliff dwellings, but the natural setting is no less incredible.

When we first arrived at Taos, I couldn’t believe the backdrop of the mountains.100. Taos035DSCF0032

In the Northwest we’re used to seeing big mountains from in town, but those mountains are usually 50 miles away from the cities, which are set on the water. In all the cities in northeastern New Mexico, the cities are right at the base of the mountains, and their visual presence dominates the place. This is even stronger at Taos Pueblo, and not just due to proximity. These mountains were the traditional preserve of the Pueblo, containing their sacred Blue Lake, but they ended up being part of the National Forest system. The Taos Indians fought a protracted legal battle to get them back, which they eventually won in 1970. So the overwhelming beauty of the city of Taos has really been preserved by the Pueblo, which has kept the mountains free of development (or logging).

When we see the mountains behind the pueblo, it is not merely the visual background/foreground relationship which gives it power. It is knowing that there is a deep cultural connection between the natural world and the built world, that the pueblo was built where it was to have that relationship to the mountains.100. Taos037DSCF0173

This relationship is then strengthened by the stream that comes from the mountains, and runs through the center of the pueblo. There are obviously great practical benefits to having a stream in the middle of your village, but once again, the power derives more from the symbolic relationship than the pragmatics. The mountain – the stream – the people: the primal aspect of dwelling in a specific place on earth couldn’t be made any stronger.DSCF0199

As with any great work of art, analysis can’t begin to capture the multiple layers of meaning implicit in the work itself. You can dissect the pieces to try to explicitly understand what is going on, but you just experience it more directly. Taos Pueblo is simply one of the most beautiful places built by humans I’ve ever seen, and we wandered around happily for hours, soaking up every aspect and detail.

Across the steam is the southern side of the village, which is not a monolithic wall, but a more typical pueblo arrangement of low houses around small streets and plazas.DSCF0242

The smaller-scale elements of day-to-day life are apparent – doorsteps, ovens, raised platforms used to keep carcasses and animal hides away from vermin and dogs.DSCF0209

There is a church near the stream too, which seems to be more active and integrated into the life of the village than at Acoma.DSCF0172

However, this is a newer church, built in 1850. The first church was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and the remains of the second can be seen below, standing in the middle of the cemetery. Taos was the center of a revolt resisting the transfer of power of when the territory was ceded to the US in 1847. The governor was killed, and the rebels retreated to this church, which was destroyed in a bombardment, killing all those within. The ruins now stand as a simple memorial.DSCF0298

The kivas and traditional ceremonial spaces are located towards the edge of the village, on both the north and south sides. Taos gets a lot of visitors, and they are explicit about which areas are off limits.DSCF0225

I haven’t seen many places in this country where there is such a complete or beautiful expression of people inhabiting a place, with their complex culture and history being made visible, accomplished with an abstract, built formalism that clearly says that residents are claiming this place,100. Taos038DSCF0262



while also integrating so seamlessly into the natural world.DSCF0201

Taos was right up there with the places we most wanted to visit on this trip, but the experience of seeing it was so much better than we anticipated. And seeing several pueblos led to a much better understanding of them all – before visiting we mainly could see the similarities among them, but now it is apparent how they are all clear and vivid places, something you have to directly experience to understand.


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The urbanized corner of northeastern New Mexico (the part of New Mexico that has three actual cities) affords a pretty wide range of urban experience, given how small the cities are. Earlier in our trip, we’d gotten pretty blasé about medium-sized cities American cities – they started looking more like examples of a standard type, rather than really distinct places (JB Jackson’s essay on “The Stranger’s Path” comes to mind again). The major independent variable seemed to be the ratio of pre-war size to current size, with the cities that were bigger in the past often having a historic core that gave them some character, whereas the cities dominated by post-war growth all just looked alike. The New Mexico cities have all kept their pre-war cores, and they maintain a strong identity despite the more recent sprawl. Most interestingly, they are all really different from each other. Albuquerque is the relatively big, diverse city. Santa Fe is the boutique city of government, arts and wealthy visitors. Taos is the funkier town up in the mountains, which has its overlay of tourism and artiness, but in a less rarified way than Santa Fe. It also has the outdoor-activity jumping-off place feel to it, but at a lower level than places like Moab and Jackson. And with the Taos Pueblo just north of town, the native culture is more noticeable than in the bigger cities.

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Each of these cities sits right where the high desert meets a mountain range, but in Taos the contrast is stronger and the connection to the mountains feels more immediate. Taos Mountain, at the end of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, dominates the views in the area, including the downtown. After a couple of months in the dry and usually hot Southwest, Taos felt different to us – a high-elevation city in the Rockies, near the desert, rather than a desert city from which you can see the mountains. It might have been the altitude, or the fact that it was cold and snowing, in May.

The downtown architecture is similar to that in Santa Fe, with a mixture of adobe and faux-dobe. The atmosphere is probably regulated as closely as in Santa Fe, but without the overlay of serious wealth, it doesn’t feel as precious.DSCF0014

The historic plaza is surrounded by shops selling Indian crafts, outdoor equipment and a nice hotel. On a cold Sunday afternoon, it was deserted. We assume that in the summer, it and the surrounding shopping streets would be full of tourists.DSCF0034


Moving away from the commercial core into the residential areas, there are some beautiful places, with adobe houses set in a landscape with trees and grass, something we found really appealing at this point.DSCF0020

Once again the simple vocabulary of the Puebloan style allows for variety of expression within the few rules, the elevations respond to interior needs, and the casual arrangement of the whole is held together by the discipline of the style.DSCF0004

There were older houses where the plasticity of the material was exploited – I became very fond of lumpy, curvy architecture with little attached blobs. Making these forms out of adobe and stucco makes a lot more sense than going to the extreme lengths current high-style architecture does, with its torturing of steel frames and metal panels into curvilinear forms which are only obtainable through the application of advanced computer modeling technology, computer-controlled fabrication, and tons of money. Here, there was probably a rough sketch from the architect, and a couple of good masons.DSCF9981


From everywhere in town, there were these intermittent views out to the landscape, such as here across a pasture to the smaller mountains to the south.DSCF0001

And then there were the random building agglomerations which made us feel that we were back in Eugene, but with stucco.DSCF0306

That feeling continued into the art world. Santa Fe had lots of outdoor art, all of which tried to seem very serious, even when it was pretentious and bad. Taos had more of the funky sculptor-puts-things-in-front-yard aspect to it, and the contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous again made us feel at home.DSCF0048

At Rancho de Taos, just south of the city proper, we saw the mission church made famous by Georgia O’Keefe.DSCF0059

Even 100 years after this was discovered by O’Keefe and other modernists, and even after knowing what to expect from seeing their representations, the church is riveting in its stark, geometric forms. The simple shapes, the play of light and shadows over the surfaces – it’s obvious why it was a revelation and inspiration to them. The clarity present here, due to the demands of the material and the vision of the artisans who knew how to use that material, stands in contrast to the self-conscious striving for technical difficulty and obscure meaning in the current milieu. Our appreciation of this architecture may sometimes be overly naïve and romantic, but seeing this church in person reinforced how powerful simple and clear forms can be.DSCF0052

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Taos is in an incredible landscape, so we spent a couple of days exploring outside the city. We took the much-recommended “high road” back south towards Santa Fe, which was a combination of broad perspectives over the high country of mountains and ranchland,DSCF0075

and small towns that at first glance were completely casual and untouched by the larger regional culture, but if you looked more closely you could always find a few artists’ studios mixed in.DSCF0078

Santuario de Chimayo is an old mission church, which is reputed to have holy soil with curative powers. We read some disclaimers from the Church on how the soil doesn’t have any power beyond its ability to focus believers’ faith in God’s power to heal, and so only indirectly leads to miraculous recoveries, etc. But everywhere we looked there was lots of evidence of a strange, fantastic mysticism,DSCF0089

with shrines that showed the devotions of Hispanic pilgrims,DSCF0086

and even those originally from Viet Nam, now living in this very different world.DSCF0085

Greta was nonplussed by all of this. Even I, who went to Catholic school for 12 years and was quite used to little old ladies lighting devotional candles at Our Lady of Sorrows, found this strangely alien and fetishistic, having more in common with the traditional practices we’d been coming across at the pueblos than with doctrinaire Catholicism. We’d been hearing about the syncretism in Southwestern religious beliefs, but this was the evidence we’d seen that this was a living system, not just a curious bit of history. Greta is a child of the Enlightenment and lives in the secular atmosphere of one of the most irreligious states; most of what she knows about Christianity has come from watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and she had no idea what this was all about. Like many teenagers these days, she reads a lot of fantasy, but coming face-to-face with actual, iconic expressions of non-rational religious faith (that weren’t in a folk art museum), was completely outside of her prior experience. But we both really liked this painting of the Mission which was in the lobby; probably we’re both more comfortable with magical realism than mystical religion.DSCF0087

While the high road to Taos is relentlessly beautiful mountain terrain, we found the “low road” to be equally beautiful. It goes through the more densely populated corridor along the Rio Grande, and provides access to many pueblos (and casinos). When the main highway and the river diverge, we turned off onto a dirt road along the river, the lower reaches of which were peaceful and calm, with a range of good camping opportunities.DSCF0136


Eventually the road climbed up the western canyon wall, and we hiked into the canyon on an escarpment, leading to this view. We then realized that this was the second time we’d hiked into a deep canyon on the Rio Grande – the first was two months earlier, in Big Bend, way downstream.DSCF0144

The road climbs up to the desert plain above, until it reaches this bridge which spans the Rio Grande, and we then took the highway which led back into Taos.DSCF0157

Taos was our gateway back into high mountain country. We hadn’t seen what we westerners would call real mountains since Big Bend a couple of months before, and we hadn’t been in the Rockies since leaving Yellowstone in September. When we left we drove north and west towards Mesa Verde, and truly appreciated the landscape of mountains, conifers and snow.DSCF0310


We crossed a mountain pass at 10,000 feet, and went through small towns and ranchland nestled in the foothills, an amazingly different environment from the one in which we’d spent the past few months. We would soon head back through the desert on our way west, but for a few days we were back in the more familiar and comparatively lush world of precipitation, vegetation, and snow-capped mountains.DSCF0316

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

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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.