Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Beautiful Homes of New Orleans

Another fascinating aspect of New Orleans is the unique character of the homes found in the many different neighborhoods.  I have to admit that they have one of the homeliest groups of tall downtown buildings I've ever seen in a big city, but once you get out of that neighborhood, the scale and detailing of the homes in the surrounding districts is really beautiful.

Our friends live in the Garden District, one of the oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods, easily accessible by streetcar (and on bike or foot) from downtown and the French Quarter.  According to Stuart, and he'll correct me if I get this wrong, it's what's known as a double corridor shotgun camelback!  They've converted the two units into a single house, and it's really wonderful.  The camelback houses were originally built with one story at the street, and two behind, because the taxes were determined by the height of your house along the street.  This type of house is quite typical for this   and many of the other neighborhoods, as are single shotguns, and models with outdoor hallways.

This quarter is also home to some beautiful mansions, with extensive porches and elaborate wood and wrought iron tracery.

The photos that follow are just images of houses that I found of interest, regardless of size, neighborhood, or anything else.  I love the use of color - lots of subtle pastels in some areas, brighter mixes in others.  Also, the simple victorian detailing of the brackets over the generous front porches, and the trim around the doors, windows, and shutters.

As we're all well aware, the damage to the urban neighborhoods of New Orleans from hurricane Katrina, was unprecedented, and much of it can still be seen and felt.  While the trailers are now all gone, many areas are still seriously blighted.  However, there are also many areas that have really come back, and the energy and spirit of the city is contagious.  This house is one of a new cluster near Bayou St. John in the Mid-City area, and it really reflects this new energy with it's creative design and vibrant colors.

We went to visit the area of the 9th ward that was the most severely damaged, and got to see some of the contemporary reinterpretations of the traditional shotgun houses built through the leadership of Brad Pitt and his charitable organization.  Whatever you may think of the designs themselves, what's happened in this neighborhood is inspiring, and I hope it can continue.

These last images are just a few great details from some of the many houses I got to experience in exploring New Orleans as a pedestrian.  Just take care when you visit, because the sidewalks are a mess!  We architects tend to look around us rather than at where we're walking, and that can be risky in New Orleans.

Iko Iko - A Visit to a New Orleans Indian Parade

In an effort to get in the spirit for a visit to see our friends Stuart Stoller and Novella Smith in New Orleans this past week, we decided to watch the first two seasons of the HBO series, Treme.  It's a fantastic show, by the same creators as the Wire, and it really gives you a sense of life in the city of New Orleans.  One aspect that I was particularly fascinated by was the Mardi Gras Indians, so when we got to New Orleans, one of our first stops was the Backstreet Cultural History Museum in the Treme, which houses a large number of Indian costumes.

We were excited to learn from the woman running the museum that there was actually going to be an Indian parade while we were visiting, in the old Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi river, so of course we decided to go and be a part of it.

I've done a little online research on the Mardi Gras Indians, so i could better understand the background of the tribes and their importance.  The Indian krewes began in the black neighborhoods of the city, when their residents were prevented from participating with the established white krewes in the Mardi Gras parades and celebrations.  They were based on the cultures of the native American Indians who helped support the escape and transition from slavery, combined with musical and costuming traditions that had come over from Africa.

The costumes that the Indian groups make themselves by hand are truly amazing, costing thousands of dollars, and taking as much as a year for the men to design and fabricate by hand.  Each costume involves sewing huge amounts of beads, feathers, sequins, and other materials.  Every year, they create a full new set of costumes in an effort to outshine the other tribes.  In addition to participating in the Mardi Gras festivities themselves, the Indians hold a large parade on Super Sunday, which is in late March, associated with the festival of St. Joseph.  We were fortunate enough to be part of a smaller gathering that just happened to be taking place during our visit.

In past times, these were often violent events, with clashes between the various tribes.  However, now these "clashes" are ritualized events, with music, dancing, and stylized competition, along with the real contest for creating the most beautiful and elaborate costumes.

Our experience was one that you really can't find in any other American city, so we were so pleased to have had the opportunity to be there.  We got to meet the Big Chief of the 7th Ward Mardi Gras Hunters, and to watch the marchers from one of the other tribes get dressed in their costumes.  The streets were packed with revelers, and there were lots of food carts and picnics going on all around us.

This is an important tradition within the unique culture of New Orleans, and one I hope can be maintained despite the financial and labor intensive burdens.  If you're interested in learning more, watch Treme to see Big Chief Albert Lambreaux and his krewe prepare and parade in their costumes, and check out the official website at www.neworleansindians.com.

Or, better still, head on down and experience it first hand as we were lucky enough to do.  Big thanks again to Stuart and Novella for making this happen for us.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Invention and Intervention

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, featuring the stunning drawings of Lebbeus Woods.  I'm not going to attempt to write a philosophical or critical analysis here, just give you my impressions, along with images that I got of the internet of some of his drawings (hoping that's all legal, of course!)

Reading the information at the show, and doing a bit of follow up research, I can report that Mr. Woods studied architecture at Purdue and University of Illinois, but never got his license to be a registered architect.  After school, he worked in the office of Eero Saarinen, best known for designing Dulles Airport and the TWA terminal in New York.  He was a professor of architecture at the Cooper Union in New York, and taught and lectured around the world.  I remember seeing and being awed by some of his drawings while I was in architecture school myself.

He has very little built work, and what I've seen of it in pictures, honestly, doesn't live up to the promise of his drawings.  But his drawings are just amazing, and these are the main focus of the exhibit, along with some models that were built by collaborators, based on  his designs.  There's also a short film that shows Woods and Steven Holl discussing a collaboration they did on a project in China, that frankly, got boring after a while.

When I looked at the pictures in the show, I felt most fit into two categories - inventions and interventions.  The first group created fantastic imaginary worlds, filled sometimes with gothic looking cities and structures, and other times with vividly created futuristic environments.

The interventions placed his fantastic structures into existing environments after disasters, like Sarajevo after the war, and San Francisco after the earthquake.  Here, Woods' unique structures are offset by the existing buildings and landforms, and in some of the SF studies, the ocean.

All of the drawings are amazing, both for their remarkable imagination, and their impeccable craftsmanship.  It's rare to see such intricate pencil work, with subtle shadings and layer upon layer of delicate lines.  I was drawn in to look closer and closer, which was tricky given that i'd just come from the eye doctor, and was still somewhat dilated!

In looking at the drawings, I couldn't help but feel that I'd experienced some of the places before, and I realized that they reminded me a lot of the computer generated fantasy or futurist cities that have been so prevalent in movies.  On looking this up, I found that his work was in fact the inspiration for the sets in the movie 12 Monkeys with Bruce Willis, and he sued the filmmakers, receiving a large settlement, and credit for his inspiration in the titles.  He also inspired the design for the memorably gross Aliens 3.

But I see his influence in even more films, like Lord of the Rings, Brazil, Jack the Giant Slayer (which I am embarrassed to say I both saw and enjoyed), the new Wizard of Oz, and all of the Star Wars films.  But again, I would say that the drawings are even more compelling than the inspired realistic urban visions in all of these films.

I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to visit and take the time to really enjoy this show.  I know I'll be going back to be transported into his mystical worlds again myself.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Making of a Mattress

We recently realized that it was time to replace our mattress.  We quickly learned that the process of buying a new one can be quite daunting.  Traditional mattress salesrooms are staffed by pretty aggressive salespeople who all have different theories of what's best for you.  After a few confusing visits, we followed the lead of our good friends Steve and Gina Harris, and checked out the McRoskey showroom on Market Street.

It was a much less overwhelming experience, as they only had a few basic options, and we soon realized that this was the new bed for us.  When I learned that they are actually made right in San Francisco, I asked if it might be possible to visit the factory and watch our mattress production in progress, and they said I'd be more than welcome to come do so.

I showed up and met first with the factory manager, who's name, if I remember correctly, is Paul, and then we were joined by third generation owner Robin Azevedo.  I was amazed that they spent over an hour with me, showing each step of the process.  

The first station we visited was the sewing room, where a couple of women were hard at work cutting and edging the fabric that would eventually wrap the mattress.  They also popped in eyelets for ventilation, and handles for flipping.  

Next we proceeded downstairs to an area where heavy gage steel wire was formed into individual coils, and thinner wire was spun into small coils to bind the edges of the larger ones.  The coils were then crimped together and attached to wooden frames for the box springs, or combined into large rectangles for the mattresses.

The coolest equipment was in the room where they refined the wool and cotton filler for the mattresses. Huge bales of both materials come in, and get sent through a series of machines that refine it, and weave it into very thin sheets, that are then layered to create the fill.  These machines were quite beautiful, and the change in the material was pretty amazing.

Finally, i went into the assembly area where all the parts come together to form the mattress.  The workers were covering both sides of the spring box with layer upon layer of cotton or wool, and then wrapping that in the fabric.  The guy who ran the seaming machine has worked there for years (as have most of the people I met), and is incredibly skilled at what he does.  After it's all assembled, it's still about twice the thickness of the final product, so it goes into what seems like a giant stapler, that creates the stitched dimples that compress it and hold it all together.

All in all, it was a fascinating tour, and I know that they welcome other visitors who either call or sign up on their website, and we are sleeping quite comfortably on the new mattress now!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hidden Treasures of San Francisco

When we used to live on Telegraph Hill, I loved taking visitors and friends on walking tours, always ending on the Filbert steps.  This was one of those places that I thought of as my own hidden secret, although I know many others felt the same way.

Over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of "urban hiking", and I wanted to share three special places that I have found and enjoyed on those explorations.

I made a trip out to Ocean Beach to see the new Land's End Visitor Center by EHDD Architects, that John King had written up recently in the Chronicle.  It's a beautiful new building, that sits just above the Cliff House, with huge windows looking out to Seal Rock and the old Sutro Baths.

From there, I started out on the coastal trail to Eagle Point, at the west end of the Seacliff neighborhood, and found what has to be one of the most beautiful trails I've ever hiked on.  I just can't believe it's taken me so many years to find it.

The trail itself is mostly very level, with just one stretch of up and down stairs.  But the lack of challenge doesn't equal a lack of amazement.  The trail is highlighted by incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the western side, all of which are framed by beautiful cliffs and trees.

At about the half-way point, there is a stair that leads down to Mile Rock Beach.  Along the way, there's a landing with beautiful views across to Marin, and then the beach itself is amazing, with huge rocks and crashing waves.  A great place to sit and just listen to the ocean.  The attached video will work, and give you a sense of the sights and sounds from this past week's visit, but it only works if you're at a computer, not on an i-phone.


As I started back up the stairs, I took a trail leading off to the left, and it led me to a beautiful stone labyrinth that looks out to the east to the bridge, and west back out over the beach.  Wow.

If you're driving or walking through the Sunset District, it's often easy to think it's just one boring row of attached houses after another, but there are finds to be made here as well.  I happened to drive uphill on Moraga Street from 19th Avenue, and found the road winding its way up to a daunting looking staircase.

Climbing to the top, I arrived at the aptly named Grand View Park, one of a series of three linked hilltop parks heading up to the Forest Hill neighborhood.  The views, as you'd expect, are just amazing, with a panorama from downtown all the way out to the ocean.

I first discovered another Sunset district treasure many years ago, when exploring the city by bicycle one day.  It has remained one of my favorite streets in all of San Francisco.  Heading uphill from Parnassus Ave near UCSF on Willard, there's a turn off to the right, that dead ends into the beautiful, tree lined Edgewood Place.  Right now, the brick lined street is lined with clouds of pink blossoms, and it ends to the north with a great view over the park to the bay, and to the south, in a mystical forest.

I have read a lot about the controversy about tearing out some of these trees, but I hope more people can appreciate the incredible beauty of this site before that happens.  I know they're not native species, but they sure do create a unique and special oasis within the city.