Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro

With a local guide, I took a tour of the neighborhood Santa Marta, a densely populated, narrow strip of houses that crawl up a hillside in Rio de Janeiro, rising above the upper middle class neighborhood of Botafogo. This is one of Rio’s many favelas, in a city where class differences and economic inequality are in plain sight, and make for a tense atmosphere throughout the city. Santa Marta has been slowly integrated into the city’s infrastructure, facilitated by the construction of a funicular line that made getting to the upper levels of the neighborhood much easier.  I recommend this for any visitor to Rio interested in learning about the city beyond the beaches and tourist sites, go with a local guide, and preferably in a small group. The tours typically start near the bottom of the funicular and start with the ride up to the top, slowly winding back down to the base.

The neighborhood was brought to the world’s attention during the filming of Michael Jackson’s video for his song ” They Don’t Care About Us”. Residents still speak fondly about Jackson, and I met one shop owner who proudly remembered her role as an extra in the video. While the attention to the neighborhood faded, it was one of the first favelas to be ‘pacified’, and it looks like some areas are showing marked improvement, with shops, restaurants, and community centers setting up near the base. A recent paint job carried out by residents has turned this into a pretty photogenic site, but again it’s cosmetic. Still, parts are still in bad repair, life can be especially miserable after a heavy rain, and many obstacles remain for residents of the neighborhood.

Tribute to Michael Jackson

Sewer repair by city workers

What’s Brazil without a nice splash of colors?

The colorful and the chaotic

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Murphy Ranch, Los Angeles

Murphy Ranch was one of LA’s strangest places, a compound located in the Santa Monica Mountain foothills above Brentwood. It’s accessed by a two mile hike on a fire road, followed by a bunch of stairs leading down to the bottom of the canyon, leading to a colorful group of ruins. Details of the property, owners, and motives are pretty fuzzy and have been embellished over the years. It’s a reputed self-sufficient compound for a small group of Nazi sympathizers who purchased the land in the early 1930s and recruited a couple of wealthy donors to their cause, who then built some of the structures. This all came to a halt as a result of the war and finances. But that’s besides the point of this post. It now lays in ruins and the City has demolished some of the unstable structures since my visit. The graffiti is colorful, the grounds liberally covered in broken glass and all sorts of leftover spray cans left by the “artists”, and a lot of the structures are rusted and crumbling. I guess you could consider this to be urban exploring lite.

Still life with spray cans

Abandoned water tank

Overhanging ladder, I couldn’t quite deal with climbing this one

Need to step carefully, and keep your tetanus shots up to date!

Sao Paulo, September 2016

A flashback to a year ago, when I took advantage of Brazil’s visa waiver during the summer months of 2016, and made a trip to South America. . .

I had the chance to explore the major cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, and Sao Paulo, each of them with their own distinctive personality. Rio has its famous beaches with big city flair and tension, Brasilia is world-famous for the Niemeyer design and its successes and failures as an urban environment, and then there’s Sao Paulo. It’s exactly what you would expect of a metropolitan area of more than 20 million people, in a country defined by people coming from all corners of the world. It’s drab, and you can’t really tell which direction you’re looking, since there are skyscrapers extending forever everywhere you look. That’s probably the defining feature of Sao Paulo, lots of concrete. The city is not pretty, but it works and works and works. The center is a frenetic place much like New York or Tokyo, unflinchingly commercial, with horrendous traffic, too busy to be unsafe, with a population proud of the chaos. Rio this isn’t.

The endless Sao Paulo cityscape

About a mile from the center is the financial and commercial heart of Brazil, Avenida Paulista. It’s the city’s showcase, a clean, wide boulevard lined with innovative skyscrapers and high end shops. On Sundays it’s closed off to traffic, and turns into an informal stage and catwalk, with bands playing concerts, rollerbladers, families out for a walk, Mormon missionaries, political protests, and an endless circus of personalities. The city does take a day off on occasion.

Oscar Niemeyer’s Edificio Copan (1952-1966), now draped in this ugly blue covering after pieces of the building started falling off

Pickup football game, downtown Sao Paulo

Sunday on Avenida Paulista, with its distinctive skyscrapers

Protest against President Michel Temer. I visited shortly after the impeachment and removal of Dilma Rousseff from office.

To really explore would take a lifetime, just like the other megacities I’ve visited. But I really liked what I saw, and hope to see the city more in depth next time I get to visit.

 

 

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.