Saturday, February 28, 2009

Space is the Place

Spaceport - New Mexico, Foster + Partners

I've had "Space" on my brain for the last few days so I'm going to throw onto the blog some of the recent stuff I've run across so I don't lose it. By the way, isn't "Outer Space" just about the most uncreative name you could ever think of for the area that is in between planets? Or maybe it’s just perfect... I'm going to be referring to it from now on as "In-Between Area Outside Of Our Atmosphere Also Excluding Other Planets" or IBAOOOAAEOP for short. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

My recent mental turn to the outer reaches came after doing some thinking on my topic and what I've been studying so far. It’s been about a month since I've been traveling, so it seems fitting to do some reflective thinking on what has happened so far and what lies ahead. I've had the rare and oh so grateful opportunity to see wonders which I never thought I would behold, met people that broadened my outlook more than my meager words could do them justice, and overall have had an amazing and profound experience. Being this grateful though also means you want to spend your borrowed time wisely, and so now I've been thinking on the steps ahead. This is as much for my own personal mental house cleaning as anything else, but I hope those that are reading will also find some interest in it, and like always, please feel free to comment or email with thoughts of your own. I've been fortunate so far to hear many friends and family's take on what I should be looking into. One close family member heard I was going to Greece and asked if I could get John Travolta's autograph, though that might prove to be difficult as well as a horrible joke. Thanks Dad.

So up to this point in the architectural odyssey I've looked into the past a great deal. There has been some recent work studied in depth such as the Nasrid Wall Addition, La Tourette Monastery, and the lucky discovery of Paulo David's work, but the majority has been investigating ways of building in more or less ancient contexts [The blog posts for Matera and Alberobello, Italy are good examples and should be posted as soon as I get a stronger internet connection for uploading pictures]. I wish to delve a little deeper into how many ancient civilizations have handled far distances to resources so I've set my sights on Greece : Meteora [Monasteries said to have used kites to haul the first ladders up to steep unreachable cliffs] and Islands [Separation from resources leads to a difference or simultaneity of construction?]. After that is Egypt : The Bedouin [Tribe of desert nomads still living in relative isolation in the Sinai Desert] and St. Catherine's Monastery [Oldest known monastery in the world in the middle of the desert, said to be at the base of the mountain where the 10 commandments were read].

Which brings me to outer space. What? Exactly. The research, along with studying how cultures reacted to their surroundings to form an architecture with a sense of place, also means to investigate those places that humans arguably are not meant to be. Sites that have no readily available materials to build with, deserts with hot stinging sand as far as the eye can see, lands of rock hard ice and snow, and places where there is not even oxygen to support life. We have mapped more territories than ever before and our cities are continuing to get denser. Now is a time when people are beginning to drastically reconsider where we can and cannot live as available land and resources become scarcer. To think about living in outer space or at the South Pole in the time of our grandfathers would have been considered impossible if not extremely improbable. But low and behold, we are at a point now where the question of "Can we?" is coming up more and more. The first private Spaceport in the world put up for an architecture competition in 2007, with the prize going to Norman Foster + Partners. And the International Space Station is hoping to near completion in 2011. I believe many of the next months ahead will focus on attempting to answer questions regarding these types of remote sites. How are they being built? How is life able to be maintained and in which way are the resources used wisely in both construction and in habitation? What does the future hold for the next radical dream turned reality?

That’s all for now, more from Greece soon and back logs from Italy…


Thoughts on Traveling #5 : Spanish is not the same as Italian. The Italians know this.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Haunted Corbu

The next stop on the journey took me to a small town about a 45 minute train ride outside of Lyon, France. The town in question is home to the Monastery of La Tourette, designed by the architect Le Corbusier. It is one of his most well known works and has been undergoing extensive renovation work since 2005. I didn’t have phone at the train station I arrived at and was unable to call a car, so I commenced walking the 2 miles or so to the monastery, all the while followed by a very loud and talkative roll-behind suitcase. If it had of been my dad telling the story I would have said I had walked 5 miles barefoot, uphill both ways, in the snow, but alas, my oratory skills are not as developed by experience as his. I finally arrived at the convent [they call it a convent in France, even though it houses monks, not sure about the translation] with fifteen minutes to spare before they closed up shop. Since renovation was still going on at the convent, I had been under the assumption I was going to stay at the “castle” about five minutes away from the convent that houses the refractory and current living quarters for the monks and guests. By the way, the receptionist kept referring to it as a castle, but in nowhere in the wildest imaginations of any 5 year old child could that be said to be true. I would describe it as a run-down estate. Anyway I was told by the receptionist that I was to be staying at the convent by myself for the two nights I was there, which was quite a pleasant surprise! It is the architectural equivalent to a sugar starved child in a candy store. So I got my keys and headed up the walk to the convent to put my things down. Dinner with the Monks and what I was told to be the rest of the students was in about 20 minutes, so I had time to freshen up from a day and a half of straight train travel before heading down to eat. Walking into the refractory a few minutes early I met the “convent mom” [I guess that is the best way to describe her?]. She spoke not a lick of English and I had even less French at my disposal. So after a few failed and frustrating attempts at conversing on both sides we resolved to smile and nod at each other while we waited. An older bearded monk was the next to come and join, which made it three constantly nodding heads, though he didn’t join in the smiling.

Finally after what seemed to be an eternity the rest of the monks [there were 4 total that night] and the students came down to eat. Since my previous futile attempts at striking up conversation with the house mother had crashed and burned, I resigned to give them my best “bonjour” I had and then quietly sulked at the end of the table. They carried on speaking nervous French for a while as I tried to understand how the three girls there were on their way to becoming monks. About fifteen minutes passed with me being unable to understand the conversation, but coming to the determined conclusion that it was a difference of custom about who could be let into a monastery in France. The day also happened to be my birthday, and since I had just graced a quarter of a century, I decided I would try my failed luck at talking again, even just to hear myself talk. The dark haired girl sitting across from me looked to be a good target so I threw her a soft pitch and asked her if she was a student studying at the convent. She replied that yes she was a student, but not studying to become a monk, in near perfect English. After I got over my amazement in having sat in relative silence for the first two courses I was able to find out that the people at the table were French business students, not monks in training, and spending a week at the monastery in order to study for a big exam. It’s apparently a not so uncommon tradition for college and high school students in France. They go to a monastery to study for big tests for the quiet surroundings and not having to cook for themselves. Makes a lot of sense, and now I wonder why we don’t jump on the boat back in the States. Anyway, dinner after that was a much changed event and I had a great time talking to Charlotte about French customs and repeatedly asking what the monks were talking about. Not surprisingly, it was usually God, but the second night the conversation almost jumped to gossip as they were talking about a monk friend of theirs that apparently went mad.

After dinner I took my lonely lightless stroll back to the monastery where I was staying. Not much that I had read could really prepare me for the amount of creativity and design applied to every surface of that building. My room, like all the rest of the monastic quarters, was about 24 feet long and 8 wide with the back wall being mostly all glass and radiator and leading out to the small private balcony. All of the details were extremely minimal and there was a distinct humbleness to all of the materials and finishes. All of the wood was naturally stained, with a deep green painted floor and rough white plastered walls. The only pieces of furniture in the room were a storage unit [wardrobe on one side and doubled as a bedside lamp/table on the other], a sink, a surprisingly comfortable bed, and a simple wooden table and chair. The table was placed in the middle of the window facing the wall as not to be distracted I would guess, with the glass door leading to the balcony on the right and a narrow vent door to the left. The radiator was concealed beneath the table and was good for warming your feet when scribbling away late at night. The door to the outside corridor also had a narrow vent opening [about 8 inches] that could be opened for cross ventilation in the summer but not big enough for someone to be able to climb through. As soon as you walk in the door from the outside was the wardrobe and sink/shelf to separate it visually from the rest of the room. I am still surprised by the narrow proportion of the room and the low ceilings, but it never felt claustrophobic, and mostly always had plenty of natural light due to the white walls and large glass. On the outside balcony was a projecting square of concrete that could be used as a small storage shelf for books or candles. I could never figure out how Corb constructed the door frames until the last day I was leaving. The frames were yellow painted wood with no visible fasteners into the concrete from the outside. Thanks to a piece of chipped wall next to a door I was able to ascertain that the wooden frames were the same ones that were used as the formwork for the concrete, with nails being driven diagonally halfway into the back of the wood to hold it in place when the concrete was curing. The wood would then be presumably sanded down and painted with no connections to be seen.

I stayed at La Tourette for a total of 3 days and had time to get acquainted with the daily rituals as well as the time in between. Most of my hours were spent sketching and writing and it was a nice change of pace from the frantic travel schedule. I started questioning the isolation of the monastery and came to realize that it would not be possible to exist anywhere. I mean that in the sense of being separated from the sounds of a busy city and actually allowing itself to develop a silence. Imagine a monastery in a rushed and noisy urban center. Would it even be possible to function? You could argue there are other ways to cut off the auditory noise and so forth, but the fact remains that much of what La Tourette is able to achieve emotionally and environmentally is due to its location. It exists in a small village with mostly neighboring farmland and woods. At night there are no lights but the recently installed automatic one at the entry, other than that it is totally dark and still. To further provide for spaces of reflection there are two courtyards on the interior of the monastery which subdivide the spaces yet again. The door to the innermost sanctuary is a huge steel pivoting contraption that when closed shuts off the inside from the rest of the world. The compartmentalization of the spaces is achieved in way to go deeper and deeper into stillness and silence. Even in regards to circulation, the private prayer altars for the monks [before they were allowed to have a communal mass] are accessed by going underneath the central chapel by way of the necromonically named crypts. Rooms in the public view, such as the oratory in the courtyard, are gotten to by narrow corridors and have only light sources from above and to the side, with no views to the outside, allowing them to gain a secluded world all of their own.

Just as I was leaving there came a whole troop of new inhabitants to my still space of reflection. It would have been interesting to see how more souls changed the qualities of isolation, but I had to go. The next stop is Matera, Italy to see the Sassi cave dwellings that exist in the hills across from the town. After that it’s the small town of Alberobello to stay in a “trulli” and understand more about their non-changing construction.

Thoughts on Traveling #4 : In Madrid, instead of birds chirping to tell you when to cross the street, it sounds like they are shooting lasers at you. Lasers…

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Spanish Gypsies

After leaving the island of Madeira I flew into Lisbon and hoped an overnight train to Madrid. I have a eurorail pass for Portugal/Spain/France so I just had to reserve a seat and then we’re off. You could get a reclining seat instead of a bed for much less money so I figured I’d go that route. I forgot how I like to mess things up though and within 3 minutes of sitting down and fiddling I had thoroughly broken the seat I was in. On the good side I could recline further back than should be allowed by the laws of physics, but on the bad side I could only recline, kiss sitting up straight goodbye. After enduring the painful process that is overnight transit I had about 7 hours or so in Madrid to see the sites and spill things on my jeans. I did the latter within another five minutes or so and then headed off to see “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. It’s much bigger than I imagined in real life, but after about 3 floors of Surrealism I was pretty much shot after not having slept much. I talked my way into the library there saying I was an art student [which really wasn’t much of a lie now that I think about it], but you had to surrender all of your belongings and only go in with a t-shirt, pants, pencil, computer, and white paper. I pulled down a book about Frank Gehry in Spanish to look like I was researching and commenced the pillaging of their internet connection. Not surprisingly, I still dislike Gehry even in other languages.

After all that was said and done I hopped a train to Granada and arrived in late at night. I found the hostel with the help of a cab driver who I’m pretty positive did not possess brakes. I don’t say that because he sped around, quite the opposite, he had to haul up on the e-brake every time we got to a stop light and made my stick driving look fast by comparison. The hostel I was staying at, like most of Granada, was packed with free spirits and just as many congo drums. I felt bad that I didn’t have a nose piercing and dreadlocks so I got the former as fast as possible. The dreadlocks are taking a while to happen, but I’m doing my best. At the hostel I did meet two fellow Americans, Charlie and John, that will come in later in the story [note: foreshadowing] and almost managed to sleep through the whole night until the Spanish party crew came back around 5 in the morning and continued the loud party right outside of our room. The next day it was Alhambra time, the main reason I came to Granada on my way to France. An incredible experience to be sure, though I was immensely surprised about the construction of the palaces. They seemed to be made mostly out of wood, especially the interior but most of the walls as well. I was thinking stone was going to be much more prevalent. Though the ornamentation was painstakingly crafted, I would venture so far to say that much of the building was pretty sloppy construction. With many previous openings filled in leaving the lentils, and the fountains at the court of the lions not even going in straight lines. Regarding the Court of the Lions, somebody stole the lions. The lions have been taken. Well, not stolen, per se, but imagine my surprise to round the corner and see an empty fountain with no water held up by air, not stone felines. Like my luck with most architecture sites, I usually get there when they are in the middle of a restoration project or other event. When I visited years ago the Pantheon had scaffolding covering more than half of the circle, Villa Savoye was getting ready for a wedding reception complete with laser lights and disco ball, and I’m pretty sure the Parthenon will have been moved to a site near Minnesota by the time I get there. Lions aside, the Alhambra was an incredible experience, many times having painstaking details covering every square inch of an entire room.

I didn’t know about it before I came, but later in the sangria themed night Charlie and John brought up to me that there were Gypsies living to the North of the Alhambra in a placed called Sacromonte [Peter and Gavin try to contain yourselves]. As soon as I heard Gypsies my ears perked up and before I knew it we were at the “Gypsy Museum” the next morning seeing the caves that used to be lived in by the traveling nomads. Like most exhibits using big signs with larger arrows, it was extremely disappointing and presented all of the caves in a white washed neat and orderly manner. I don’t know much about Gypsies, but I’m pretty positive even monks don’t leave their caves that spotless and tidy. After walking through there we found a trail that lead to the actual Gypsy caves, those that are still occupied and used to this day by squatters and anyone else that wants to live in rocks. I still don’t know who technically owns the land, so if anyone else knows please comment, I’ve been without internet for a few days and haven’t been able to research it further. Regardless, the site is amazing, barely outside of the city, and on the other side of the Nasrid Wall [originating from Nasrid Palace in the Alhambra] are a series of rolling hills with caves dug out and still occupied today. The constructions of the shanties outside of the shelters are piece meal and consist mostly of fabrics and fencing, presenting a rough sense of enclosure. Though since they are on the other side of the wall you can’t even see the city, just the Alhambra, and it’s as if you’ve found a lost land known only to a few. Truth be told we were one of only a few other people walking around that day and John, Charlie and I managed to scramble up on top of the wall for a better look at our surroundings. As much as I could tell, the caves were not used as very permanent settlements and were more along the lines of transient housing and gathering. The site of the caves stands very close to the city, only separated visually by the wall from viewing the urban areas. Even being so close, it manages to seem remote and in a land all of its own.

A little bit to the West of the cave encampments is an addition to the Nasrid Wall and the other main reason I wanted to go to Granada previously. The addition was completed pretty recently [in 2006] and hasn’t been in that many publications that I’ve seen, which is a shame b/c it’s a really simple but extremely well executed piece of architecture with a real sense of place and understanding of construction. Antonio Torrecillas is the name of the architect that put it together. Part of the Nasrid wall, which stands about 14 feet or so high, had fallen into disrepair and so a section was needed to link two parts of old wall along a stretch about 100 feet long. The wall as well as portal is made by thin sheets of granite stacked on top of each other with no mortar holding it together, just weight. Working as a passageway as well, the wall has a hallway sized path on the inside with light filtering in and cooling breezes passing through the shaded enclosure. Above your head in the interior of the wall are steel ties providing the structural stability to connect the two walls to each one another. There are only a few different lengths of stone, arranged in different ways in order to create a seemingly random pattern of opening and light. I thought it was an extremely poetic example of a simple material and construction technique used to create an incredibly complex spatial presence while also relating directly to the culture and site around it.

Thoughts on Traveling #3 : Portuguese airport bathrooms have a life sized fly stenciled in every urinal. Your really have no choice but to go for it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Madeira : Final Impressions

Madeira has been incredibly interesting, though not at all in the way I imagined. Through the lens of my naivety, I imagined a volatile crust of earth in the middle of the ocean that had few people and few structures. In actuality I found a thriving base of commerce and trade in tourism, surrounded by vast waters on all sides. It made me realize that there are many definitions of “remote.” A place can be remote by geographical definition but still remain close in terms of perceived proximity to common convenience and overall way of life. Through the relatively new invention of commercial flying, long distances become extremely short and leagues of ocean can be reduced to a two hour long journey in a cramped seat with worse food. The combustion engine has allowed automobiles to climb steep mountains and plant flags in places few souls managed to get gain ground on before. Since the Industrial Revolution has come a redefining of what is near and far. I didn’t find what I thought I would when I came here, but I think I found a whole lot more instead. I hope this ash-formed island will prove an interesting counter-point to many future investigations on the topic of remoteness.

In Granada right now and need to catch up on blog posts. There are a bunch of Gypsies here living in caves. Intrigued? You should be. It's Gypsies in caves. More soon.

Thoughts on Traveling #2 : Portuguese movies have intermission in the middle and no English translation when the actors speak German. Don't see a movie about Nazis.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Island Infrastructure


A unique part of the island of Madeira is the water infrastructure they have in place, unlike anything I've seen to date. Levadas are channels cut into the side of the mountains, usually about four inches wide that carry water for irrigation from the foggy peaks to many of the outlying farms and villages. They have been in place since the 15th century and are an extremely intricate and extensive system that is still in use today. I hiked up to the peak the other day and most of the old footpaths on the island still follow said irrigation channels. In many ways they are better than a compass and a map since you know you’re on an island, and as long as you go uphill and follow the water you’ll eventually get to something interesting. Since the waterways are so narrow they function as an elementary form of a high pressure system, with fast moving water always flowing through, even when in relatively flat places. Cutbacks, chutes, and some serious banking maneuvers on the part of the levadas criss-cross the entire island. Most of the time the water channels are constructed of non-porous stone [looks like slate instead of the commonly used volcanic basalt], with mortar holding the flat, blueish gray rocks in place. The chutes are really shallow as well, maybe only about as deep as they are wide. And the footpaths that now function as hiking trails also double as accessible maintenance paths wherever the levadas travel to. Levadas are open to the air and as such are only fit for irriagation as far as I was able to figure out, though the amount of filtering they go through would probably be very similar to a mountain stream. The levadas are rarely seen in the city centers, but in my mind are some of the more beautiful pieces of the island. Sometimes the paths next to channels are only wide enough to get one foot in front of the other but serve as an incredibly functional and integral landscape component to many of the citizens of Madeira. How long will these bringers of farm life last under the level of development currently in place?

Living with the Land

Hugo in Paulo David’s office told me that maybe 20 percent of the island was actually occupiable, which now seems to be a pretty accurate statement. A lot of the coast is built up to take advantage of the available sun and views to the ocean where it is relatively flat, but going deeper into the heart of the island is another story. The island was made, more or less, by about four large volcanoes erupting during similar times 1.7 million years ago and creating the mountains seen today. There is one central valley that cuts in between the peaks, roughly splitting the island in half, and if you can imagine the elevation goes from sea level at the coast to upwards of 1600m in little over 10km. In the interior the location of houses are determined by whatever shred of non-erodable surface they can find to build on. Which many times ends up being along the ridges, sometimes in the valleys but they are more prone to flooding. You can trace the houses as if they were sitting on the spine of the mountain themselves, with the steeper parts used as farmland by an extensive terracing system. Almost the entire island is terraced where it is near villages to provide food for the people living all year round on the island. There seems to be a very delicate truce made between the still constantly changing island and its inhabitants. Mud slides, eroding cliff faces and the fickle weather many times try to displace the settlers, but by actively seeking a co-existence with the landscape, most buildings remain perched as if looking over their shoulder to make sure they didn't upset the island. And as a side note about the steepness, it is deeply damaging to one's ego to be honked at by a 75 year old lady b/c you're going down a mountain too slow.

Thoughts on Travel #1 : Never buy unsliced bacon, its completely more trouble than it is worth.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The End of the Earth has a cyber cafe...

Today I have seen the edges of the earth. I have gone to an island in the middle of the Atlantic. I have climbed the steepest cliffs to get to the highest peaks. Through fog, mist and wind I have witnessed what the end of the earth contains. And it is the “Jungle Rain Café.”
After seeing much of the coastal regions of the island, and understanding them to be usually densely populated where the terrain allowed, I proposed to venture into the inner peaks of the now latent volcano to see what structures would be thousands of meters high in the far reaches of the island. After getting above around 800m or so [the day I was driving] the air turns into a heavy silent fog. For all descriptive purposes, I was literally in the middle of a cloud hanging around the mountain. It was actually quite terrifying to be honest, not being able to see more than 20 feet or so in front of you and climbing higher and higher, all the while hoping I was going in the right direction [reading a map and driving stick do not go hand in hand]. Though it being an island, I knew I couldn’t get that lost, and as long as I kept going uphill that’s a good sign. After driving up a good ways through switchbacks and curves I finally saw a sign with a symbol of a house [one door, two windows, and pitched roof] with a smoking chimney. I don’t know what it is about the smoking chimney, but I take it to be the universal sign for hospitality, right after a St. Bernard with a small barrel around his neck. On the top of Mount Orzo I came across the “Jungle Rain Café”, which featured among other things, a hotel, massage room, cyber café, restaurant, souvenir shop, tourist info, and two other words I didn’t understand but were most likely child daycare and bowling alley. I was so surprised and shocked. If anything I supposed I would find a small cabin with a man splitting wood outside in a red flannel shirt, but certainly not the Jungle Rain Café.
Even at the inner reaches of the highest peaks, the iron fist of tourism and commerce still remains supreme. The fact that the Jungle Café was there didn’t bother me as much as the way it was built. Like most all of the homes on the island, it was built out of manufactured block with an outer stucco coating. Way over a majority of the materials needed to supply the island in its current frantic state of construction have to come from the mainland, from factories and the like making commonly accepted building materials in central Portugal. How sustainable is it to be on an island importing most all the resources you use, and the opposite question, if one place is getting the goods, who is losing them? These questions could be posed to many places with a high import ratio, US and China come to mind but it applies throughout.
Another aspect of the tourism on the remote island comes in the form of the labor used to provide the services. If one side of a wall is bathed in light in only stands to reason that the other side is in shadow. The city centers are a mecca of commerce and wealth, though as soon as you start to go into the outer reaches and between towns you start to see the poorer side of the island. The interesting thing is the construction of the homes of the rich and the poor are not truly different. In size and craft to be sure, but for the most part the same techniques used to build the quarters of trash collectors is the same as those stately residences perched on cliffs. And all of the techniques are transplants the same way many crops are to regions, with them now being commonly accepted and forgotten that they are not actually native to the region.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Paulo David and no more clutch

So the apartment I’m staying in has a view, which is nice. But the tail side of the coin is that having a view means you’re high up. Being high up means you have a long, long walk down a steep hill to get anywhere, but luckily it’s getting me in shape if nothing else. I went by the architecture office of Paulo David on Thursday. Paulo David is an architect born in Madeira that moved away to go to school in Lisbon but has since returned to his place of origin to practice. He was just featured in the most recent (or second most recent) issue of 2G magazine, which has great articles and pictures of much of his work on the island. An architect in the office named Hugo Dias was kind enough to show me around and explain all of the different projects they have completed as well as those currently on the boards. Hugo told me about the philosophies behind the work, which deals with working with the raw natural landscape of the island, at points giving views of the vast ocean, and other times closing in and gathering spaces for meditation and reflection. But even deeper in the work is a rooted mentality with the culture and history of the island itself, as Hugo explained to me the development of form from terracing of farm land, irrigation channels cut into the hillside, and the old stacking of basalt stone to signify boundaries. There is also a photographer named Thomas Joshua Cooper featured in the 2G publication that shoots landscapes near the ends of the earth. Islands, Antarctica, far away mountains, and so forth. I don’t know much about him yet, but as soon I get more frequent internet access I’m going to look more into him. Hugo told me he is currently stationed in London now, but travels most extensively for his job. There was also a revolution about 20 or 30 years ago that led to the island being pushed extensively for tourism. Many of the buildings here are only 20 or so years old as that was when the tourism bubble hit. It would be very hard to imagine the island in a different light now that I’ve seen it in its current condition.
It is borderline impossible to get around Madeira without a car, with buses between villages (cities) taking sometimes upwards of 2 hours given the steep terrain, not even taking into account wait times. So I had to break down and rent a car to get around. Luckily upstairs Andy told me about, which is a car company that rents out in Portugal on the cheap if you manage to book a day in advance on the internet. They are ridiculously inexpensive comparatively, though you are picked up in a shady van by some guy’s “colleague” when going to the office, and the clutch on my “Modus” is already hanging out by a thread without my American automatic shifting mind tearing it to bits. Only stalled out once today though, and by once I mean one length of time of about one minute on a tight steep curve on the west side of the island. A few truck drivers were yelling what I take to be encouragement, but if I was fluent in Portuguese it could well turn out to be something else. I went to visit one of the original docks in Ponta do Sol, where the water is deep enough to let large ships get close. It is built out of huge chunks of basalt and crafted directly into the jagged stones which it rests on, making it difficult to distinguish between earth and man-made work at points. The stone dock was built in the 1800’s, showing the recent explosion of population and technology to be more recent than historical. Regarding technology, I still can’t get over the contrast between rugged landscape and commercial enterprise. About 100 meters away from the dock at Ponta do Sol is a café with street parking and free Wi-Fi access. I haven’t traveled the length of the entire island yet, but am still amazed by the amount of development it has already, seemingly bursting at the seams with wealth and convenience.
I went by the Casa das Mudas as well to see the gem of Paulo David’s collection. It was a beautiful day luckily and I walked around the outside jotting notes for a while. They use the same proportion of stone as the Thermal Baths apparently, which is interesting. They are having an exhibition opening on Saturday, so I’m going to try and go back for that and will write more on the subject as soon as I get time.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Madeira : First Impressions

Just touched down in Madeira, an island deep in the Atlantic Ocean, but still technically owned by Portugal. Much bigger than I expected, the island is surprisingly densely populated and if you didn’t know better you would think you were five miles from some major city. When seeing the volcanic island from above I was struck by the raw beauty of the natural landscape, cliffs rising from tropical forests, and terraced plantings winding themselves up and down steep ravines. As equally striking if not entirely disconcerting was the presence of all of the homes dotting the remote island. From 6000 feet plus they are reduced to monopoly houses; albeit white-walled and clay-roofed toy dwellings. The homogeneity of the buildings surprised me greatly not because they were all the same, but that they were all the same as any place you would find in Portugal, or Spain for that matter. Most all of the houses are new construction, and I hope to find out more about when the island went through its current transformation. They have enough infrastructure and commercial businesses to make Berkeley look coarse, though they are in the middle of the ocean, a two hour flight from the first sign of land. Everything not native to the island must be imported and has to go a long way and therefore the prices are hiked up. But the fact of the matter is that they still get the items they want. There are no real signs of wanting so far and most of the people here seem to be white haired vacationers from England. That’s a stereotype to be sure, but the fact remains that there is an obscene amount of wealth abound. A once raw, untamable, volatile island seems to have been horse whipped into the service of the industry of tourism. These are my first jagged stones of thoughts that have yet to be smoothed by experience, but I thought them to be important from a first impression standpoint. I’ve also read though that there is a sharp divide between the coastal tourist draws and the interior native part of the island. I’m anxious to explore this relationship further as soon as I figure out how to get deeper into the aforementioned heart of darkness. Transportation here is hard, and by that I mean expensive. Everyone here drives, the problem being that they are rich and a rental car here costs upwards of 30 euro a day! Capitalism, it would seem, has a hard time traversing the waters of the ocean to encourage some healthy competition in prices. I asked someone about renting a bike to get around and the Madeira native laughed at me, but I’m hoping he didn’t understand the question. So far I’ve heard they have a few public buses so hopefully it won’t be as bad as I think.

I’m staying in Funchal right now, which I guess would technically be the capital of Madeira. Funchal feels size wise something similar to the downtown of Savannah, Georgia; though I’ll have to check and see if that is even remotely accurate. I felt like I circled the entire city 4 times with my roll behind before a nice taxi driver named Dantes helped me find where I was staying. He’s got two nieces in Engineering on the island, but said they were headed to Gana soon, hope that works out. I’m staying in an apartment a Bret Favre’s stone throw away from central Funchal. Good views and a nice landlady that showed me how to plug in a refrigerator and what a microwave looks like. We spoke for a while, her in fluent Portuguese and me in broken Spanish, neither one understanding the other, each leaving thinking it had been a good convesation. When the business end of the deal came up she called her granddaughter over to make sure we were in fact talking about the same monetary number for rent. Luckily we were and remain fast friends now. I’m staying below an Italian couple apparently, well Simona is Italian and her husband Andy is English, though their adorable daughter Amy would be a mix of the two. They live North of Venice right now and run a bed and breakfast. I don’t have internet in my apartment and they were nice enough to let me use their connection and give me much needed sage advice on the car rental front. Luckily the weather here is much better than Porto, which seemed to be getting even more moody and depressed as it foresaw my departure. If it wanted me to stay longer it shouldn’t have been so temperamental in the way of precipitation.

Tried to climb the mountain my apartment rests at the foot of today. Either out of sheer stubbornness or stupidity, I’m still not sure which one won out. It was probably after my 4th, 5th, or maybe even 8th wind that I finally gave in to come back down. Tomorrow I’m going to try and go by Paulo David Architects to get some on the ground insight about what the history of the island contains.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Siza The Day.

What a horrible pun of a post title. I'm in physical pain realizing I wrote that, but nevertheless, we can't dwell in the past, we must move on. And the title remains.In Porto Portugal currently and thank goodness, had the first real day of sunshine of my whole trip so far yesterday. All that gloom and doom can begin to wear on one's soul after while so it was great to have a day full of exploration without need of an umbrella. I met up with a Porto born and raised native architect named Jose Pedro Sousa [] for coffee and breakfast. Pedro is working on his PhD right now dealing with applications of CNC technology in architecture, but was kind enough to take the rest of the morning to show me around some of the more hard to reach Alvaro Siza projects in Porto. After downing our cafe com leites we hopped in his car and drove up the coastline to see Siza's Leca Swimming Pools and Boa Nova Tea house. You couldn't ask for a better Porto tour-guide and purveyor of insights into the culture and architectural atmosphere in Portugal than Pedro, and writing all of the things he taught me would probably require another blog. At Leca de Palmeira Siza also redid the entire walking path next to the ocean a few years ago in a minimal paving and low walls. The swimming pools as well as many of the other buildings dotting the water hunker down below the walkways, only exposing their low roofs to maintain unobstructed views out to the waves.
Like the swimming pools the tea house takes total control of your movement from the beginning. Hiding the building firstly by nestling it in the rocky landscape, then bringing you away from all views to a walled ramp or stair, turning you back around to present a framed landscape of the ocean, and then finally back towards a usually low and unassuming entrance. It still seems odd to me that simple moves like directing circulation and views don't seem to crop up as much in much of the contemporary architecture I see. Maybe that is a pessimistic view, but I retain that in the quest to pursue the holy grail of aesthetic form the simple and most obvious site specific moves are many times passed over instead of celebrated.
After seeing a motorized perspective of much of the city we went to the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, which is nestled in an extensive garden in a semi suburban surroundings. Not as materially as experimental as his earlier work on the coast, it still has a a sense of quiet reflection and somber use of detailing. Low granite foundation walls hold up austere white-washed walls that hold you in the green courtyards.
There was an interesting exhibition of the work of Spanish artist Juan Monez as well as a great bookstore, which seems to draw architects towards it much like moths to a flame. But it was in the bookshop that I made another great discovery about a place to visit in Portugal. There is an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean called Madeira that is technically a part of Portugal. Madeira is a volcanic island that uses the black basalt stone plentiful there to create dark architecture outcroppings on the remote island. There is also a great modern architect named Paulo David working out there that I hope to explore more of the material use in contemporary practice. I'm hoping on a plane tomorrow and will hopefully escape some of the rain that seems to be very successfully following me from city to city. One of the last stops on the day of architectural stalking was the Faculdade de Arquitectura by Siza. Every piece of the material puzzle seems to be thought out and made to lock into each other. Below is a joint of a landscape wall where turns an angle.
The experience of traveling so far has humbled me in many more ways than one. Among those is the knowledge that there is still so much to be seen and explored in the world. And whatever pre-conceived notions you contain about knowing a place and culture are usually shattered within half a day. I still remember the day I got off the train in Porto I though it to be a scary, dirty place, with musty smelling beds [the last part sadly did turn out to be true in one case]. Then you walk down the same streets the next day and realize what a fool you've been and the people that you thought to be glaring in the shadows of doorways are really just bidding you a "bom dia" and offering you to peruse their goods for sale.

More from Madeira soon I hope