Tuesday, March 31, 2009


As the first leg of my leg of my trip is fast approaching [t-minus one day till back in the States] I've understandably been doing a lot of thinking about the future and the next places to visit. I'm in a hostel basement turned bar right now and don't have access to what you could quite call a noteworthy library, so I've had to do with 'ol reliable internet googling. In searching out prospective places to visit, I've ran into a stream of projects under the heading "extreme climatic architecture", or shortened "XTREME Architecture!!!" which is better at grabbing attention I think. Its all about marketing. In vain have I been trying to search "remote construction", "isolated building", or "remote architecture", which usually garners such results as this, though which arguably informative, is definitely lacking on the graphic end. I think they are still using Adobe Paint 2.o.

But back on track, there is a distinctly prominent vein of writing about architecture in extreme climates, or places that are prone to some of the harshest and coldest temperatures, hot/stinging winds, and over saturated rainfalls. As "remote construction" and "extreme environments" usually have much in common, the searching has brought some interesting new projects/proposals to my attention. In instances of extremity, you no longer have the option to ignore the environment around you. You must confront it head on, or risk blundering about and being swept away by the often merciless forces of nature. By being forced to analyze an exaggerated climatic condition, many theories and ideas can be found that are as equally relevant in locations much more temperate than their harshly bitter climatic stepbrothers. Here, in no particular order, are some of the projects I've recently ran across. Please feel free to comment if you have ideas about more buildings/places that fit into this criteria.

[Project (linked)
Place : Architect]

Glacier Museum
Norway :
Sverre Fehn

Mammoth Museum
Siberia, Russia : Leeser Architecture

Hotel Tierra Atacama
Atacama Desert, Chile
: Rodrigo Searle & Matias Gonzalez

Eso Hotel Cerro Paranal
Atacama Desert, Chile
: Auer + Weber Architects

Kyororo Museum of Natural Science
Matsunoyama, Niigata, Japan
: Tezuka Architects

Lavarack Barracks
Townsville, Australia
: BVN Architecture

Center of Gravity Foundation Hall
Desert Hot Springs, California, USA
: Predock_Frane Architects

Bedouin Birthday Party

Egypt = One of the most amazing experiences of my life. I got into Cairo on Tuesday the 17th, after regrettably saying goodbye to Megan’s wonderful company in Athens to resume traveling solo. I did everything short of hiding her passport [!?!] in order to get her to stay, but somehow she managed to slip away back to the States. After touching down in Cairo I apparently forgot I had the sign that says “tourist” still taped to my back and was swarmed by Egyptians offering taxi rides. I could write a whole novel, or at least an op-ed piece, on Egyptian Taxi Bargaining, but I’ll just say that I’m getting better at it for now. Egypt overpowers your senses. The sun seems somehow brighter and un-tempered by European politeness. Dust invades your nostrils and eyelids while frantic loud sounds come at you from every direction. The sound of “taxi….taxi.taxi….taxi……taxitaxi” is an ongoing phenomenon and it’s not at all uncommon to have three or four grown men standing around you arguing why what they are offering is a good price. All that being said, from first sight I instantly fell in love with Egypt. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia of too many times watching Peter O’Toole and Omar el-Shariff in Lawrence of Arabia, but there seems to be an inherent rough honesty in the sands swirling around the desert landscape that has always drawn me to it.

I decided to grab a plane straight to Sharm el Sheikh, in order to get within shorter distance to my ultimate destination in Egypt, the central/southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. I won’t waste more keystrokes saying anything about “Sharm” other than it is what would happen if Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach, SC had a baby together and raised it on tea and tourists. Don’t ever go there if you can help it, though I do have to say I met one very reliable source that advocates in favor of “The Sharm”. Alright… I’ll give it another shot.

In order not to overload the bandwidth of the entire internet with Egyptian Travel stories, I’m just going to list off story topics with the suggested drink I should be bought before/during telling said story so we can get on with the good stuff.

Taxi Ride From Sharm to St. Katherine [police corruption, haggling, no gas, language lesson] = Whiskey
Craft Center [Nashwa & crew, earth bags w/ barbed wire, pickup truck, Bedouin tent] = Guinness
“Bedouin” Birthday Party [chicken, Egyptian guitar, English cat caretaker, horoscopes] = Sierra Nevada
Mt. Sinai/Mt. Moses [Germans, fanny packs, steps] = Long Island Iced Tea
Nawamese Day [Bedouin head wrap, more police, hobbit doors] = Glass of red wine

The real reason I was in Egypt however was the Sinai Peninsula. It’s located east of Cairo and is separated from the main portion of Egypt by the Gulf of Suez. The interior particularly is unique in that it is at a higher altitude than most of the rest of Egypt and is subject to mildly hot days, but very cold nights, and cut by high mountains criss-crossing over each other to create protected valleys. One of Berkeley’s best and brightest, Momen El-Husseiny, put me in contact with his good friend Nashwa Ibrahim, who is heading up a team to teach [and learn] construction techniques with the local Bedouin tribe, the Jabaliya. The organization is called The Egyptian Earth Construction Association [EECA] and has as its noble mantra : “The act of building, if appropriate, has the potential of improving our built environment while preserving our non-renewable natural resources. It is our mission and the responsibility of all who are involved in the building process in Egypt, to apply appropriate building technologies that : use local building materials, utilize renewable sources of energy and implement energy saving techniques, and harmonize with the environment and play a part in the development of local communities.” Nashwa, as well as fellow officemates/friends AbdulRahman El-Taliawi, Moushira Elamrawy, and everyone else involved with the project were without a doubt the warmest people I have come in contact with on my travels [and most any other time for that matter], treating me as part of their family, feeding me, driving me around, answering all of my interested [albeit ignorant] questions, and finally inviting me to an amazing birthday dinner the very first night I was in town! The project they are working on has a little bit of everything in it. At some moments it is a material exploration of construction techniques, at others it seeks to provide design guidance and drawings, and also actual construction of several projects [including a craft center and eco-lodge]. They are working heavily with the local Bedouin tribe of Jabaliya to learn from and educate on how to upgrade existing building techniques that have been proven through centuries of harsh desert survival. Bedouin are a nomadic tribal people still very much present in contemporary Egypt. They are some of the few that know the unmarked/unmapped desert trails and how to survive in the unforgiving desert, as they have been doing so for thousands of years.

Two of the many building techniques that the EECA are beginning to explore in the most isolated part of Egypt are “earth bags” and “rammed earth” construction. Though rammed earth building has grown in prominence in much of southwest United States, it surprisingly hasn’t been used much at all in Egypt, even though sometimes one of the only present materials is earth. Rammed earth walls are made by setting up either wooden or metal formwork similar to concrete, then mixing 10 parts earth, 1 part cement, and 3 parts water together [their recipe]. Then the earthen mix is compressed layer by layer with a ramming tool. They first tried to use a heavy pneumatic tool that requires a loud, wheezy generator and compressor, but the Bedouins understandably didn’t like the fierce noise piercing the tranquil desert silence, plus the mobility of the heavy machinery was a big concern. In the end, manually ramming the mix down by two laborers produces close to the same result in the same amount of time without the added cost and weight of more “advanced” tools.

The other technique being explored started up the very day I arrived on site. The method is referred to as “Earthbag” construction and is composed of only four different materials: earth, plastic bags, barbed wire, and plaster. What happens for building an earthbag wall is the following: The white plastic bags are filled with loose sandy earth from the site, tied, and then lined up end to end to form the base course. Next, strips of barbed wire are laid in lieu of mortar in between every layer of bags, holding them together and providing some lateral structural stability. After the courses rise to the required height, the whole wall is then plastered in order to protect the plastic from UV deterioration as well as tie everything together structurally. One of the advantages of this type of construction is not only its minimal cost and resource use, but also its mobility. There is some debate on the subject, but the most a camel can realistically carry is somewhere between 350 and 500 kilograms, which means carrying large stones or other heavy building materials large distances can become a big concern. In many parts in central Sinai [particularly the “high mountain” region], the only way to access many locations is either by foot or camel. If the material carried could be lessened, construction would be able to take place at even more remote, previously inaccessible areas. In the case of earthbag construction, all that really has to be carried are plastic bags, coils of barbed wire, a few cutting tools, and plaster equipment. A heavy construction technique then becomes extremely light by comparison, still providing thick structural thermal mass at a minimum of environmental impact and resource waste.

warming ourselves by our "fire"

That same night after I had just met everyone for the first time, they were nice enough to invite me out to celebrate Nashwa’s birthday, with great food and music from an “oud[a traditional Egyptian instrument]. Moushira cooked an incredible chicken even though she is a vegetarian and retired vegan. She said it was her first time trying but that has to be a lie, it was too good. It was an amazing experience and I was sad to see them have to go back to the “big city” [they work for about 30 days in Sinai and then have 10 pseudo-vacation days back in their respective cities, Cairo and Alexandria], though luckily I got to see Nashwa and Abdul again in Cairo later.

Thoughts on Traveling #11 : The secret to Egyptian Taxi Bartering. First off, be Egyptian, that will make it much easier. However if you were cursed with fair skin and a limited knowledge of Arabic like myself, there are a few things you can do to ease the price down. One thing to know, taxis do not have meters in them, so unless you know the rough price where you’re going beforehand and act really confident, you’re going to get semi-ripped off. The “best” thing to do is not have a bookbag on and just get inside and tell the driver where you’re going, then give them the “right” amount of money when you get out. If that proves to be impossible, you’ll have to haggle them down. Here’s what I do: listen to the first offer someone gives you, then basically walk away and figure you can get about half of that price with someone else. Next person that approaches offer about 1/3 of what the first guy said in the hopes that you can get it down to around half of the original price. It’s a messed up system maybe, but I actually got to enjoy it. Or, if you’re really lucky, you can meet some nice people that will give you a really good price just to be good samaritans, but those are much harder to find.

For Uncle Stephen and Dad:
typical Bedouin breakfast [beans, feta cheese, honey/jam, bread, hardboiled egg]

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Construction Workers and Guard Dogs

Sadly, my sister Whitney had to head back to the States after her all too short trip, but luckily my girlfriend Megan was able to come visit near the same time, so that they overlapped by about a day. We all spent one great afternoon and night in Athens, though missed getting to see the Acropolis, sorry Whit! [Who knew it closed at 3?] Megan and I left the hustle and bustle of Athens to jump on a ferry resembling a cruise ship to head to the distant island of Santorini. Santorini is generally heralded as the premier tourist destination of all of the Greek islands, and rightly so I think, its one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. A series of three volcanoes erupted long ago, heaving up ash and soot and creating a caldera, or interior body of water surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. Since our trip was so early in the season though, a few things were different on the island. Mainly that we were the only people there that were not construction workers, Santorini natives, or dogs. It was an odd time to be there but ended up working out perfect for research, since we had a front row seat to investigate the construction techniques used in the re-crafting of the island. We seemed to trade the noise of loud obnoxious tourists for the soothing sounds of heavy jackhammers and grinding hammer-drills. Though not often seen by visitors to the island, the whole village of Oia [where we were staying], goes through a complete rebirth of buildings. The air is a buzz of workers re-painting houses, mixing concrete, and donkeys braying carrying heavy loads down to construction sites. There are only about four months where the entire island is not overrun with tourists and workers must jump on the opportunity to do all of the repairs and new building for the whole of the coming year. It calls to mind the image of the phoenix, when spent and turned to ashes bursting forth in a blaze of new fiery glory. Many of the buildings being refurbished looked like they hadn't been touched in years, but in truth it appears that island life is much harder on the upkeep than many would like to admit. A week or so after we were to leave, our Bulgarian bodyguard/handyman Vicilis promised that all of the buildings would be back to the blindingly bone white so notorious for Santorini pictures.

The small village of Oia is similar to the Greek island of Hydra in that its roads are so narrow and steep that only donkeys and a few other forms of manual transport are used to bring all of the materials necessary for construction down to the sites. This means a few things for the buildings of Santorini. First off, long pieces of material, such as timber or steel are not only hard to acquire on the barren volcanic island, but they are also incredibly difficult to carry down the winding paths. For these reasons, as well as others, most all of the buildings are made out of materials easy to break apart into smaller pieces. Instead of using large unwieldy sheet material, the buildings are crafted out of concrete, small stones, short lengths of steel, and plaster, all smaller and easier to be loaded into the large canvas bags carried by donkeys.

The construction and therefore the finished architecture becomes tied directly to the landscape and materials present at a site such as Oia. Some of the other methods of carrying include wheelbarrows, mechanized buggies, wooden chutes for dropping loads, and of course, the strong backs of many of the workers.

Another interesting part about the whole of the island is the prominence of the concrete half complete shells of houses dotting the coastline on the side not facing the caldera. They are everywhere seemingly, the flat-gray floors, roofs, and columns already in place and just waiting for the next step of infill it would seem. But I've been a lot of construction sites in my relatively limited years, and have never seen any that clean [unless its being run by George Medlin]. The hollow shells looked as if the often prophesied day of reckoning had already came, accidentally sweeping up workers with hard hats and leaving their tools to decay to dust with time and exposed steel to rust. I assumed the stalled construction was a bi-product of the economic downturn, but after talking with an extremely reliable source [the internet cafe guy who is a born and bred Santorini native] I believe it has to do more with property tax. He related to me that there is not the same idea of property tax on Santorini [and maybe all of Greece?] as we have in the States. Instead of paying a certain percentage of the value every year no matter what, you only pay a utility tax tied to if you are using water or not [to prove no one is living there]. There is also a different loan system, as many families don't take out the whole cost of the house to pay back, but rather wait till they have enough money for the next stage of construction, even if it is years down the road [and it often is]. Because of both of these different situations there is, I would dare to say, an overabundance of bleached concrete fossils now native to the island. Most all of them have poles of rebar still poking their gleaming metallic heads out of the concrete, impatiently awaiting the next pour. When the house is finally completed, they are still sometimes either left or capped, in case the family wants to expand another level or bedroom later. I believe part of Oia's organic flow of structures and paths is due directly to the prolonged pace of building, allowing workers to take their time as well as happen onto an old project years later.

Oia was an incredible experience, though I think most all of it was due to the company of Megan and arguably the best breakfast patio on the whole island. To aid us getting around the island, we unwittingly enlisted the help of a pack of wandering dogs. From the best of my understanding, the scenario went as follows: Our first day there Megan was nice to one of the aforementioned canines on the way down to drop off our bags. There are as far as I can tell, at least three distinctly different territories managed by separate packs of dogs in our small village. The ones that took it upon themselves to be our protectors occupied the middle ground, stretching all the way from the internet cafe and green church bells to near the windmills near the tip to the north. I think they took it as a chance for raiding into neighboring territories every time I went to go get a pastry in the morning. We would walk up from our apartment to the main street, where "Nomad" and "Count Adamar von Lichtenstein" would be seemingly napping by the side of one of the houses. Seconds after passing your ears could pick up the padding footsteps following closely behind. If there were any other people walking on the same side street [and there always were] the dogs would amble forth and commence barking at them non stop until they deemed we were a safe distance away from the threatening flower lady or malicious schoolkid with SpongeBob lunchbox. At one point they even went so far as to back a Greek construction worker talking on a cell phone into a corner so that he couldn't even complete his call. Of course, at first all of this strange red carpet treatment feels flattering, if not slightly laden with guilt. But after about 4 days of this non-stop it came to the point where I would actively seek alternative routes to the local internet spot, though magically our guardians would always manage to find which way I was taking, trotting alongside with heads held high and tongues wagging in reference to their good deeds.

Thoughts on Traveling #10 : Upon foreign strangers asking me the always-always-always first question "Where are you from?", there are several responses that can take place. If I say "United States" or "America" there is a 93% chance of "OhhBammahh!", while if I reply with "California" there is an moderately heightened probability of "Swcharzenegga", and every once in a while, every so often... "Terminator!!!". If I say "North Carolina" they just stare at me blankly. So I usually just create an obviously fictitious country name like "Iceland" as my comeback.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

TaylorCAM [vr. 001]

As promised, the first online look at the "TaylorCAM". Constructed from a modified US Army paratrooper's rig from Korea, its basically guaranteed to get me thrown in somesort of scary foreign jail [just kidding]. The military harness was customized by the addition of another set of straps and elastic bands with the help of the capable fingers of Berkeley's own Kim Suczynski. In the middle of the apparatus is a Canon PowerShot SD400 bought from a very nice Asian man on craigslist.org for 60 dollars. After hacking into the camera with the aid of the good guys at CHDK [Canon Hacker's Development Kit], the camera was re-tooled to be able to take a picture at an interval of every so many seconds. Right now its set up to take a picture every 10 seconds, to be compiled into a video on photoshop later. Unfortunately my mini-mini-laptop I'm carrying around won't do the video right now so all I've got is stills until I get home.

The TaylorCAM was devised for my thesis prep course last semester at UC Berkeley as an experiment in the invasion of privacy into the life of myself and others. It was meant to look at the question of "Is anyone truly alone anymore?", but has luckily since morphed into the task of documenting parts of my travels to the remote locations. The photo stills below are taken from a hike in the "High Mountain" region of the Sinai Peninsula with my Bedouin guide Badri. The ultimate goal of the hike was to get an up close look at the secret Bedouin "gardens" hidden in the valleys, painstakingly constructed over generations as a way to grow food and live in a hostile environment. I'm hoping to get another set in tomorrow in a hike to the "Fairy Chimneys" of Goreme, Turkey, where I'm currently at.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Lazy Monks

Whit and I left our affectionate donkeys, cats, and islands to head into the heart of Greece, northeast of Athens. The destination was Meteora, a place with even more rocks and monks, this time luckily in the same place. Just to recap quickly and add to the confusion already present, so far in the travel blog there have been writings on Madeira – Portugal, Matera – Italy, and Meteora – Greece. I can’t even really keep them straight at this point, but suffice to say they are all different locations. Meteora is in the mountainous region of Greece and was at one point a gigantic lake ringed by a tall mountain range. Eventually one of the surrounding mountains split open and let all of the water in the lake run out to the neighboring regions, leaving many of the rocks in the middle of the lake smooth towering spires of stone rising thousands of feet in the air. Eventually the stone towers became home to hermits living alone in the cracks and nooks where they could find shelter and a life of isolation. Further and further they would climb up, sometimes only coming down for resupplies of food once or twice a month. In time the hermits were united under the banner of Christianity and banded together to form one of the first monasteries of the region, naming it the “Grand Meteoran” and leading into the naming of the whole outcropping as “Meteora”.

There are many theories of how the first monks were able to get the initial materials up to the top of the un-climbable cliffs, but my personal favorite one is that they flew kites attached with light ropes to the top, then used the small ropes to haul up larger ones, eventually creating rope ladders and a complex pulley system for hauling up monks and materials. Like Oscar Wilde, my theory on factual information is that I'll believe anything more interesting, the more outlandish the story, the more truthful it becomes by sheer intrigue. So we'll go with the kite scenario. In reality though, it was probably closer to a series of wood/rope ladders worked up slowly, as can still be seen in the image in the very bottom of the post.

About 6 of the original 18 monasteries are functioning today [we were able to get into only four due to really odd scheduled open hours]. It used to be that the only way to access most of them was either rope ladder, a large net brought up by a pulley, or a small gondola like machine. Only in the 1920’s and 30’s were the stone staircases created to bring tourists up to the heights, before that the monks lived in relative isolation. Why the need for escapism? Why not live down in the valley like normal people and just build higher walls? There is a profound beauty that surpasses standard notions of a "nice view" when you get up to the top of one of the monasteries. A stillness of sound pervades the air and the villages below turn into abstract canvases flecked with a muted palette of colors.

In the frantic pace of many of the metropolitan areas, I sometimes forget that spaces still exist that are apart from the elbow bumping and car horns. As cities expand outwards even more and the human population increases what happens to our spaces of isolation and stillness? Do they then become even more precious by their relative scarcity and lack of availability? Does quiet become something that is as easily commodifiable as bottled water? Quiet bars maybe? Crazy thoughts perhaps, but I've become more aware on my travels of the people, similar to those brave sailors striking out in the great blue nothing in Moby Dick, that actively seek out these spaces of remoteness and extremity. Monasteries in particular are one of the few buildings that necessitate a certain amount of space for reflection and contemplation. The trial of actually getting to the places is half of their architectural power I believe. It's similar to a hot bowl of Zataran's Rice and Beans with beef jerky thrown after a day of long hiking in the rain [Matt F. I'm looking in your direction here]. At the grueling end of a journey, anything tastes better than than nothing, though in that case it was really good beans and rice. In order to record the process of actually getting to these remote environments, I've gotten the "TaylorCAM" up and running again after some more initial testing. Whats the TaylorCAM you ask? Images to come soon, but suffice to say it makes me look like a terrorist and takes a bunch of pictures.

Oh, and there has been some confusion about my flickr photos [mainly because the link is more or less hidden], but if you hunger for more pictures you can click the ".Flickr Pictures! Hooray!" link on the right side of the website or just click here to stare at colored pixels to your hearts content. The photos are also organized in sets broken down to country on the right side of the flickr page if you want to search that way.

Thoughts on Traveling #9 : Using the word "special" to describe something only makes it special the first 10 times or so. Whitney and I found this out after our pension [hotel] owner used it on everything from dinner, wine, his fire, prices, books, and I think at one point his mother's laundry skills. By the way, this blog is "special".

I need to buy a thick coat with a fur hood

"Ice Cube" Research Station - United States

"HalleyVI" Research Station - England

German Research Station

Chinese Research Station

Belgium Research Station

I'm currently sitting down at breakfast after taking an overnight train from Istanbul to a place called Goreme, Turkey. Overnight buses are notoriously hard to sleep on, especially when they are blaring 3:10 to Yuma in Turkish with no English subtitles, and I fear my "NesCoffee" is just not strong enough this morning. Nevertheless, I've ran across more and more reasons that I have to try and get to our southern sister continent, Antartica. Not only is there a relatively new American Research Station at the South Pole, but it seems the Brits have jumped on board holding a recent competition for the HalleyVI Research Station for the island under down under as well. Antartica is smartly thought to be one of the most extreme, environmentally hostile, and remote environments in the world. Psychologically draining as well as physically exhausting to be in for extended periods of time. I just missed a competition to design a new research station apparently and the winners should have been presented a few days ago, though I haven't been able to find any images yet.

I have to look more into it financially, but getting down to the icy tip of the world would be incredibly worthwhile to be able to study the environments first hand I think. Have to go now and get settled, but more blog updates coming soon.