Des Moines Art Center

A distinguished group of architects contributed to this medium-sized art museum in the Midwest, which includes additions by I.M. Pei (1968) and Richard Meier (1985). But I’ll concentrate on the original structure, one of Eliel Saarinen’s later designs, completed in 1948. This building has the signatures of Eliel Saarinen’s buildings, warm stone, and an undefinable style. It’s not Art Moderne, or Art Deco, or Art Nouveau, or International Style, but is uniquely Saarinen Sr. For those of you who have visited Cranbrook or his churches, this one stands out as an Eliel Saarinen building. The exterior is Lannon limestone, quarried next door in Wisconsin, alternately rough-cut and smooth, with careful attention to detail. His sweeping lines and calculated asymmetry are evident here, as are the protruding bricks interrupting the horizontality, lending a subtle three-dimensionality to the exterior walls. So he manages to achieve an understated, yet individual result.  The use of decoration is minimized, instead the textures of the stone become the basis of decoration. The entryway is a masterly series of gentle curves that draws the visitor inside, emphasized by the sparse use of horizontal lines around the vestibule. Like all of Saarinen’s structures, the refinement and quality is really appreciated with a closer, rather than cursory, look.

Front entrance, a mix of glass, smooth stone, and brickwork

Another view of the main entryway

Courtyard entrance detail

Courtyard, with Pei (left) and Meier (right) additions

 

White Sands National Monument

A bit of natural scenery for a change. In a rather desolate corner of New Mexico lies one of the most photogenic spots in North America, White Sands National Monument. It’s a unique sand composition, being water soluble gypsum which is a brilliant, eye-burning white color. The other big sand-based national monument / park lies several hundred miles north on the west side of the Sangres, Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

Both depend on water. Since White Sands lies in a basin with no outlet, any moisture interacting with the gypsum pretty much goes straight into the ground, or is dried out by the hot weather. Great Sand Dunes is a bit different, with the sand being carried by the nearby river downstream away from the Sangres, and winds blowing the sand back towards the mountains and depositing the sands in the dunes.

White Sands is open in the daytime with extended hours during the full moon. I caught one of these full moon evenings and it’s really spectacular. I also hiked out to the flats in a 5 mile loop. Photographing here is a bit tricky, actually, as really small grains of sand muck up the camera sensors and deposit all sorts of tiny particles on the lenses.

Textures

More textures

Still more textures!

Sunset over White Sands

 

Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis

So everyone is familiar in some way with Eero Saarinen, as his structures are ingrained into the American built environment. His Gateway Arch became the instant symbol of St. Louis upon its completion in the 1960s, and chances are that you have changed planes at Dulles Airport or JFK Airport.

His father, Eliel Saarinen, is less well-known, and has a style all his own which is difficult to pinpoint. Eliel is best known for his “losing” design for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper, which became an oft-imitated model for the tall building and is now seen in 1920s skyscrapers such as the Gulf Building in Houston and the David Stott Building in Detroit. He created a number of seminal structures that manage to fly under the radar, they’re all carefully designed and executed buildings, but understated. They are however recognizable as Saarinen buildings, especially in his use of tan brick. He

designed two religious structures during his US-based career, two similar, radical designs for modern churches. One is in Columbus, Indiana, completed in 1942, and the other is Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Christ Church Lutheran was Eliel Saarinen’s last structure, completed in 1949, he died in 1950.

The exterior is of a simple geometry, with little in the way of decoration. A few sparse sculptural elements adorn the main facade, with some relief elements such as a cross on the side. The interior is a real treasure, with a narrow vertical window providing the illumination for the altar. Composed of white brick, the altar glows. While the exterior is a simple box, the interior adds a few elements of subtle, but noticeable asymmetry. The roof line is slightly slanted, the wall of the altar curves, and there is extra seating under a low ceiling. The brick walls wave in and out upon close inspection. Light comes in from side windows. In short, there is plenty of visual interest inside, but it requires close inspection to really appreciate the design elements. The overall effect is one of calmness.

Christ Church Lutheran, tower and detail of relief

Saarinen Sr. on the left, with the Saarinen Jr. extension on the right

Eero Saarinen, in one of his last works before his untimely death in 1961, designed the extension, which defers to his father’s design elements, and created a low-key, functional structure. The two buildings are linked through interior hallways and underground passages, creating a courtyard with a fountain in the center. This fountain led to leakage into the basement, necessitating an ongoing restoration effort. Right now, the courtyard is a mess with plenty of construction (as of May 2017), but the finished product ought to be similar to how the structure looked before.

Interior, from second floor balcony

Interior from first floor

More coming soon!

I’m running around the country at the moment, so stay tuned for more posts shortly. Glad you’re reading, I’ll try to update in the next week or so.

Montevideo, Uruguay

I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Uruguay’s capital, which seems to be what most visitors see of Montevideo. Uruguay is a country that’s fallen off the map, and not necessarily in a bad way. As one of the smallest independent states in South America, it’s sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, and the capital is a mellow, safe place situated about 100 miles east of the much larger Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. In fact, it’s one of the quietest capitals in Latin America, with none of the heavy traffic, loud blaring music, frenetic pace, or safety concerns of the larger cities. The Uruguayans will remind you, tango probably started in Uruguay, and the first World Cup did go to the Uruguayans.

That said, I took the impressively fast boat from a rainy, dark, Buenos Aires. It was a scene of controlled chaos with a long lineup for tickets, check-in, Argentine and Uruguayan immigration and customs, all at the Buquebus terminal at the old port. The ferry got to Montevideo in less than three hours, and I walked the last couple of miles from the port towards downtown. It’s laid out on a grid pattern that sort of follows the contours of the peninsula, interspersed with leafy squares every 300 meters or so that don’t really conform to the grids. The buildings are generally not new, but rather a mix of early 20th century structures and a few midcentury buildings squeezed in there, looking a bit dowdy and worn. Like the United States, South America has been a hotbed of immigration, with lots of Europeans coming in the 19th and 20th century, with another wave around World War II. And like Buenos Aires, Montevideo feels like a distant outpost of Europe.

The country today is known for its steaks, architects, tango, and liberal social policies. This has made it one of the most successful stories in South America, despite its low profile. But with a total population less than the city of Los Angeles, it’s not hard to see why. Even the main government center is delightfully accessible, you can just walk into the main ministries and even the building where the president works.

Overall, it was a quiet, but chilly day walking around, and it’s a pleasant, if not terribly exciting place. Probably part of it has to do with being late winter (I visited in September), and it’s considerably more lively once the weather warms up. The food is pretty meat and potatoes heavy, and I treated myself to a steak dinner in the market district near the port. This happened to be the only place that would accept my ATM card, since I was without any substantial cash during nearly all of my vacation.

So here’s a few pictures from Montevideo.

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo

Avenida 18 de Julio, the main commercial artery of the city

Mindcentury wacko architecture downtown

I guess this is street art about football!

Brasilia, September 2016

This is of course Brazil’s capital, built in the center of the country, but the middle of nowhere, in a relatively short span in the 1950s, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The plan is obvious from the air as you approach the airport, shaped like a bird, or a drawn bow and arrow, with a spine of government structures spanning about a mile, and numerous structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer. It was recognized with World Heritage status in 1987.

It’s a decent, but long day trip from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, with frequent and reasonably priced flights. I was based in Rio, and it’s advisable to use a departure from the centrally located Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), instead of the much further Galeao Airport (GIG). I picked a 6 AM departure from SDU, a quick and inexpensive taxi ride, but ended up returning to GIG, which made for a rather long, 90 minute return bus trip to my hotel in Copacabana. It’s a 90 minute flight over a pretty barren landscape that gives you an appreciation for the task involved in building a new federal capital from scratch sixty years ago, and sprouting a city of now 3 million inhabitants.

There’s a bus that stops just outside the terminal in Brasilia, which will drop you off at the major sites downtown. It’s a 20 minute ride, and I got off at the Tres Poderes (three powers), which is surrounded by Niemeyer’s signature buildings. This fairly small area is home to Brazil’s version of the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court, all within about 500 m or each other. They’re also the best structures in town. I took the free tour of Congress, which was impressive, it’s the building with the skyscraper in the middle and the two domes. The interior is also very nice, with a cool collection of mid-century furniture and art and a sophisticated feel. Nearby is the presidential palace, the supreme court, and the foreign ministry. Behind it is a cluster of 1980s structures by Niemeyer, which are crumbling.

National Congress building

National Congress building (1960)

Itamaraty Palace (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Itamaraty Palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1970)

I walked west, about a mile towards the cathedral. It’s not that large, and a pretty cheerful space, with a gleaming white interior and lots of stained glass. I liked it, while the building next door, the museum, was a crumbling UFO. Way further afield, another mile away, is the Santuario Dom Bosco, completed in 1970, which is pretty unexceptional from the outside, but is a winner inside, bathed in light shining through blue and purple stained glass.

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral (1970)

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel (1970)

Niemeyer’s buildings elicit a visceral response. You can’t doubt the imagination that went into them, but I get this feeling that he forgot the human scale in Brasilia. It’s a bold plan on paper or in a model, but doesn’t quite work in reality. Now overall, the city comes across as being pretty sterile, with little pedestrian traffic, few places to sit and enjoy the view, and vast exposed empty spaces that are hard to maintain. Despite some very nice religious structures scattered around the city, it’s reminiscent of some of the places in the old Eastern Bloc that I’ve been to, like Chisinau. The main axis is a bit like Washington’s Mall, but with much less character, less vegetation, and really grim buildings and ministries lining the road. It’s also a very pedestrian-unfriendly city, the address system is nearly impossible for a first-time visitor to decipher, and the main social centers seem to be shopping malls. I took lunch in a mall food court after nearly starving, dodging a few six lane highways, and creepy stretches of concrete jungle to find an unmarked Brutalist structure that actually had people inside.

The living areas are way in the periphery, with a large slum on the western outskirts, while the original 1950s / 1960s living quarters are in generally good shape and wealthy areas, with a few of them carefully preserving Niemeyer’s intentions. Interspersed between the apartment buildings (located in these so-called Superquadras or superblocks) are lots of greenery and a small commercial zone every few blocks. It’s hard to imagine these really getting lots of street life, but they seem to have a decent selection of restaurants and markets. Downtown there’s very little in terms of services.

Restored apartment building

Restored apartment building

Typical  neighborhood commercial stretch

Typical neighborhood commercial stretch

A word about safety, since this is on the minds of most visitors to Brazil- Brasilia is quite safe, I didn’t worry about carrying my DSLR around and taking lots of photographs, unlike in Rio and Sao Paulo.

Aspens, Northern New Mexico

This is the title of a famous photograph by Ansel Adams, which he shot in 1958 driving along the road to the Santa Fe ski area. Evidently he was on a photo trip with some of his famous friends, and stumbled on this scene after a less-than-productive day searching for the perfect shot. One of his other great photos, with the moon and lenticular clouds over the Sangres, also was a chance shot, so I guess that’s a lesson to look for opportunity under the most ordinary of circumstances.

Ansel Adams, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958 (from Christie's)

Ansel Adams, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958 (from Christie’s). Expensive!

I’ve been trying to find the spot where he took it, and I think I found it, a small clearing on the right side of the road as you drive up to the ski area. It’s been nearly sixty years since the photo was taken, so most likely the trees have grown up or died, but it has a familiar background of a few trees growing on the side of the cliff and a small flat area with thick grass and shrubs.

Aspens, Northern New Mexico, October 2016

Aspens, Northern New Mexico, October 2016

Aspens in detail!

Aspens in detail!

A bit further up the road, pines in the fog. Given the amount of moss, this is probably a pretty wet area.

A bit further up the road, pines in the fog. Given the amount of moss, this is probably a pretty wet area.

 

 

Summer of 14ers, 2016

My slow path towards summiting the Colorado 14ers continues. I have to admit that I burned out a bit on the driving and hiking, and pretty much stopped after August. This year’s peaks were mostly in the Sawatch Range, the bread and butter of the 14ers. They’re all about the same, with the exception of the Harvard / Columbia combo, which was the near-disastrous finale of the set. I failed to find a regular partner for the hikes, overall, so most of these were solo efforts.

My season started with a late June ascent of Mt. Princeton, which is normally a long slog from the bottom. But after starting on the trail nice and early before sunrise, I caught a ride in the back of a truck. This took me well beyond the radio towers to a spot about a quarter mile from where the trail leaves the road and heads off towards the peak. It’s an endless talus field, and not a lot of fun to hike, but as always, the view and accomplishment make it worth it. So the elevation gain was a very reasonable 3000′ or so, including my detour up the nearby 13er Tigger and back down to the trail, where another fellow gave me a ride back down.

Across from Mt. Princeton is the imposing Mt. Antero, which I hiked the following week. This was another uninspiring hike, and this time I didn’t catch a ride up, so I was stuck hiking the entire 15-16 mile round trip. 90 % of it is a road, with the last part a scramble up to the peak. This peak sees a lot of gem hunters and ATV traffic, which somewhat diminishes the experience. But the wildflowers were blooming and the lower stretches were very green. The peak really is one of the most beautiful in the Sawatch, burly with a delicate pointed summit, but the natural environment is looking rather worn out from all the human activity.

Mt. Antero from Mt. Princeton

Mt. Antero from Mt. Princeton

Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak from Mt. Antero

Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak from Mt. Antero

I moved over to the Elks the following week, and made yet another trip up Castle Peak, this time taking the ridge further over to the summit of Conundrum. This was made a bit easier by a driver who gave me a ride uphill, saving me about 500′ of elevation gain and a bit of distance. But the talus fields were pretty awful, and there was the usual scrambling to the summit of Castle. This time I had the energy to continue, and then re-summit Castle, and the weather was clear the entire day, thankfully.

The headwall and Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak

The headwall and Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak

My next two were Massive and La Plata back in the Sawatch. Neither was too busy on the days I hiked them, although the trailhead for Massive is shared with the one for Elbert, making for a very congested, noisy, and dusty start. That area gets a massive amount of people, but it looked like about 80 % of them were headed for the Elbert summit. The trail to Massive is just rather long, with a long section above 14000′ that continues well past the summit. I was intending on going up South Massive, but somehow looking at the climb back up, detracted me. I was also seriously low on energy.

La Plata is much like Elbert, a relatively short 9 mile round trip with lots of scenery and green valleys and endless switchbacks. It’s flat for the first mile, then really climbs.

Further south, Missouri Mountain is slightly spicier than the other ones in the vicinity, with a rather wet, slippery downclimb near the summit that required some care. Since it snowed just before, there was a fair amount of icy spots, but the weather was pretty stable. Overall, it was a cool August with early snow.

I attempted the Wilson group next, which was a long drive to the isolated trailhead in Kilpacker Basin. I slept in my car, and started up the very scenic trail. It’s one of the prettiest trails I hiked this year, and was full of wildflowers and greenery and had a bonus waterfall before the climbing began in earnest. I had enough energy for El Diente, which was a pretty extended and thrilling, exposed Class 3 climb to a tiny summit. Wisely, I hooked up with another hiker who was on his own and we took turns on the routefinding and was able to navigate up to the summit. It’s sparingly marked and easy to get lost, and a step up in difficulty compared to my climb of Wetterhorn last year. Going down was no fun, with lots and lots of talus. The remaining peaks in the area will have to wait, so that means another long drive next year for Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson.

Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak

Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak

The next two were in the Sangres, two peaks with major elevation gain, Blanca and Challenger Point. I wanted to go up Ellingwood and Kit Carson, but my energy didn’t permit it, and the weather on Kit Carson was made more difficult by fog and snow on the Avenue. Blanca turned out to be a monster, since I started just below the 8000′ level and walked up the whole damn thing. The last part of Blanca was a steep, slippery slope with a few tricky Class 2+ sections. Challenger Point was an awful climb past the very beautiful and very blue Willow Lake, pretty much 2000′ of loose crap with no real trail. It was foggy at the top, but cleared enough to catch a view of the Crestones and nearby Kit Carson Peak.

The foggy summit of Challenger Point

The foggy summit of Challenger Point

After returning from Brazil and being out of shape, I got together with a friend and attempted the Harvard / Columbia traverse. Despite the cool temperatures and clouds going in and out all day, we summited Columbia first. The climb up was a mixed trail / scree scramble. It’s notorious for being awful, but the new, partially finished trail was a real help. Getting over to Harvard was problematic, as my partner went way ahead and inadvertently ended up in Class 5 stuff, and I lost track of him. I made it to the saddle between the peaks, took several wrong turns, slipped in a loose gully, and then it started snowing. This was the worst possible place for it to start snowing, as now there was no easy way out and I basically had to summit one of the peaks again. After waiting out the snow, the weather cleared up long enough for me to slowly make my way up the slopes towards Harvard. My goal was to get to the main trail and to treeline before dark. I skipped the true summit, and made my way down another scree and talus slope and eventually made it to the trail. The cold and distance and elevation gain had worn me out, and I didn’t make it back to the trailhead until past 8 PM. Luckily my friend had gone back up the trail looking for me, and we met up about 3 miles from the trailhead. We were both fine, but a lot of things didn’t go right.

So that was my summer!

 

 

 

Downtown Detroit, 2016

A brief business trip brought me back to Detroit for the first time in a couple of years. While a wide swath of the city is rapidly disappearing, the high density stretch downtown to Midtown is regaining some of the hustle and bustle of years past. I don’t think the city will ever reach its postwar peak of 1.8 million again, but downtown is pretty stable, the demolitions have stopped, and work is underway on the new arena in anticipation of the move of the Red Wings and the return of the Pistons. I happened upon one of the free tours of the glorious art deco Guardian Building, which offers a detailed look at the jazzy, exuberant exterior and then takes in the view from the top floor, a rare view of Detroit from above that most visitors miss. Even with the unfortunate demolitions of numerous buildings starting in the 1970s, it’s a rich collection of early skyscrapers which thankfully won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. There’s lots of buzz downtown, with renovations, adaptive reuse, and residential conversions. The pre-Depression era skyscrapers are outstanding, mixed in with high quality mid-century designs that have stood the test of time. The skyline has changed little in 50 years, and here’s a few pictures of the blocks around the Guardian Building.

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Nice detail on the facade of the Ford Building (Daniel Burnham, 1909)

 

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The vaulted lobby of the Guardian Building (Wirt Rowland, 1929), decorated with Pewabic tile. It’s hard to imagine that this lobby once featured a dropped ceiling that hid all of this tilework, before a 2003 renovation set things right!

 

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And from Hart Plaza, Minoru Yamasaki’s elegant One Woodward (1963), and Johnson and Burgee’s postmodern One Detroit Center (1992), framed by the sculpture Transcending (2003).

 

Buhl Building (Wirt Rowland, 1925), entryway

The Romanesque entryway of the Buhl Building (Wirt Rowland, 1925). Yup, same designer as the Guardian across the street, completely different style.

 

Colorado fall, 2016

This year’s trip took place September 23-24, as I drove with a friend to the San Juans, looping counterclockwise starting in Durango. The trip coincided with a rather cold system that dumped a rather unexpected amount of snow (up to 2 feet in places) and left many areas 9000 feet and above with a coating of white. US 550 tends to see different peak times depending on the aspect and elevation, but in general the area between Red Mountain Pass and Ouray is at its peak in the last week of September.

We lucked out, while it was a rather gloomy, blustery noon hour in Durango where we had lunch, the skies gradually cleared such that by late afternoon, it was a beautiful mix of snow, clouds, sun, and foliage. I was told by the owner of a jeep tour operation in Ouray that this is a once in a decade kind of scene.

Looking towards Ouray from the viewpoint north of the Red Mountain summit, 23 September 2016

Looking towards Ouray from the viewpoint north of the Red Mountain summit, 23 September 2016

Plenty of reddish color this fall

Plenty of reddish color this fall

From Crystal Lake, looking south

From Crystal Lake, looking south

We continued over to Telluride the following morning, via the always spectacular Dallas Divide. Dallas Divide is relatively low in elevation, just shy of 9000 feet, and tends to peak in early October. It’s best when there’s a bit clearer weather and Mt. Sneffels is visible, but the morning was pretty cloudy. In Telluride the weather was similar, with only rare peeks of sun- the leaves were slightly before peak, probably around a week early in town and along the road up to Lizard Head Pass. The top of the gondola station was awfully chilly, probably slightly below freezing, but with socked in clouds and general dampness, which made it feel even colder. By the time we reached Dolores, it was sunny and quite warm.

Between Telluride and Lizard Head Pass, 24 September 2016

Between Telluride and Lizard Head Pass, 24 September 2016

I’ve made regular posts about fall in Colorado over the past few years, generally with dates on the photos, so hopefully you can get a better idea about when to visit.