9.24.2016

On the Border: Part II

It's been over a year since my last post about my trip to the US-Mexico border, but I'm finally getting around to posting the rest of my thoughts and photos.  If you want to remind yourself why this is an important topic (aside from the election-year immigration hype), check out the following short documentary.  Thousands of unaccompanied minors are still trying to cross into the US from Honduras and Central America.

Between Borders: American Migrant Crisis (New York Times)

July 14th - Douglas, AZ

Our second day at BorderLinks had us up early and on the road to Douglas, Arizona, a border town that neighbors the larger town of Agua Prieta in Mexico.  During the two-hour drive, we stopped at Tombstone, AZ, a laughable tourist trap where there was once a pointless gunfight that for some reason has become famous.  We wandered around for a bit, marveling at the racist stereotypes on display in the shop windows, before finishing our trip to Douglas.




Douglas is a town of about 18,000 people, while neighboring Agua Prieta has around 80,000 people.  Our first stop in Douglas turned out to be lunch with the mayor, Danny Ortega Jr.  (Mayor Ortega has since stepped down, deciding not to pursue another term.)  Our meeting was arranged by Frontera di Cristo, a Presbyterian-founded border ministry, which assists with outreach events like this one.  Mayor Ortega had grown up in the area and remembered what the towns were like before the border walls were built.  Understandably, his primary concern seemed to be economic progress, and he said that he was pushing for an upgrade to the port to make trade easier.  The economy of Douglas relies heavily on Agua Prieta because it is so much smaller, and he described how the two towns would sponsor joint events in the years before the wall.  Now his town was suffering because of the trade and travel restrictions it imposed.

After lunch, and much discussion of the wall, we finally got to see the border wall for ourselves.  We met with Jack Knox, a retired Mennonite minister who is active in trying to care for migrants and advocating for more humane immigration practices.  He and his wife Linda visit the wall every day to pray and look for people in distress.  He described the various forms that the wall takes, and we drove along it, able to see it for ourselves.  Closest to the official border crossing (the port), the wall is double-layered, metal and mesh, and very tall.  From there it transitions to a tall steel panel wall, then to vehicle barricades, and finally to a simple fence.  The road along the fence creates a scar on the landscape that seems to have no end.  US Customs & Border Patrol is stationed along its length every few hundred yards - at least near the town - in their white and green trucks, watching it.  Our little group grew exhausted from the heat after being outside only a few minutes in the brutal July sun.  We would learn later about the many casualties, often youths, who have been shot while climbing the wall, including American citizens.  The Border Patrol often cannot tell the difference between American and Mexican citizens, and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that seems to be shaking the nation this year appears to be quite common at the border.






The net result of this mish-mash of walls, fencing, and barricades is that people trying to cross illegally into the US are attempting their crossings further and further out in the desert, where the crossing is less guarded but more physically difficult.  I do not believe that people will stop trying to cross even if we were to build a massive wall all the way along the border.  (Based on our later meeting with Border Patrol, it appears that determined people have found plenty of ways to subvert the walls we do have.)  Instead, the walls seem to cause needless deaths from exposure as the most vulnerable people try to cross in the least safe locations.  Looking out at the desert, it seemed insane to try to build a wall along the entire length of the border.  What good would it do?  People in desperation always find a way over, under, or around any obstacle.  The harms, on the other hand, seem very concrete: more people dying, a massive waste of resources, and environmental degradation.  This architectural obstacle is a fool's solution to the problem of immigration, which is really caused by grinding poverty and systemic violence.  Unless we solve those root problems, erecting higher and longer walls will do nothing but hurt more people.






We spent a short time at Frontera di Cristo's offices afterwards to cool down, then attended the border vigil that Jack and Linda host every week.  They said that in all the many years they have been doing this, they have never had to hold the vigil by themselves; someone else always shows up.  That week, it was our group and a few others.  We walked down the main road leading to the border crossing and laid crosses on the sidewalk in memory of those who have died in the desert trying to reach safety in the US.  We laid over 200 crosses, but there have actually been many more deaths than that.  While we walked, it started to rain, and the smell of rain and cars was very strong.  It was the first time I had seen rain for some time, and I still remember feeling grateful for it.




We had dinner at Jack and Linda's home, then spent the night at the house of a sympathetic Border Patrol officer, who happened to be out of town and let us use his home.  As you can imagine, there are those who feel strongly that the Border Patrol does have good work to do - preventing drug and weapons smuggling, etc - and who feel that changes in their methods related to the treatment of migrants can come from within.

Our next adventure: crossing the border ourselves!  In Part III.

Want to learn more?  Read:

  • Death toll in Arizona from exposure in the desert: this map from the Humane Borders project
  • Recent news report (May 2016) on the number of deaths this year.  Despite overall lower numbers of people crossing now compared to the early 2000s, the death toll remains high relative to the number of people attempting to cross.
  • Wikipedia article on the death toll

8.11.2016

Houston, We Have a Program - Part 3

My last week at TIP was probably the most enjoyable, since I didn't have nearly as much prep work to do while the class worked on their studio projects.  Clearly, having the class do lots of studio work is best for everyone - the students prefer it, and it's less work for me - but I stand by my decision to start them off with some background information in the form of lectures, exercises, and sketching practice.  I hope that their final projects came out better for it, although without a control group for comparison, it's hard to know.



During this week I got to go on more side trips, including to the NASA Johnson Space Center, about 45 minutes outside of Houston, and to the Natural Science Museum and the Miller Theater in Hermann Park.  Four of us went to NASA and had a great time.  Johnson Space Center has a large visitor's center with exhibits, a replica Space Shuttle that you can go into, and tram tours of the working facilities.  We chose the tour that takes you to the original Mission Control, complete with 1960s carpet and original chairs.  Somehow, I ended up in the seat once before occupied by Queen Elizabeth, making me queen for a day.  The currently-used Mission Control is located elsewhere in the building but is not part of the tour.





Another stop on the tour was a Saturn V rocket, part the "Rocket Park" exhibit of rockets.  It had its own giant warehouse-sized building so you could see it up close.  The exhibits inside the main visitor's center were half silly, half interesting; the ones on space suits and on Moon exploration were pretty good, but there were also temporary exhibits about the TV show Mythbusters and something called "Angry Birds Space."  We did not explore the latter attraction.  Outside, we checked out the replica Space Shuttle and its modified 747 carrier jet.






During the week, I skipped dinner at the dining hall to check out the Natural Science Museum on its free day.  I have to say that I was terribly disappointed with it.  I thought most of the exhibits were underwhelming, either by virtue of excessive "Disneyfication" and hyperactive lighting/audio; lack of scientific content; or poor layout and exhibition design, making them very dark and disorienting.  The Egypt exhibit was a maze filled with fake temple pieces, the Amazon exhibit was an ethnographic nightmare full of bird noises, and the dinosaur exhibit had crazy mood lighting that made it impossible to tell the difference between real dinosaur fossils and fake reconstructions.  Maybe it's impossible to tell them apart under normal lighting as well, but the purple and blue glows certainly didn't help.




And don't get me started on the "Energy" exhibit, which read like a propaganda piece on the wonders of fossil fuels.  In disbelief, I took photos of the two placards that had anything to say about alternative fuels, and wandered mouth agape through displays of drilling hardware, casino-style drilling games that encouraged you to find "Texas Tea," and a simulator that has you travel down into an oil well.  I get it - oil companies are the folks who funded the museum, together with most of Houston's cultural scene - but one would think that any self-respecting museum with "science" in the name would temper their "energy" exhibit with some more detailed mention of other energy sources (isn't solar technically the source of all the rest?) and the impacts of our current fossil fuel dependency (ie climate change).  Apparently not.  Thanks, BP America and your cousins.




After dispiritedly escaping from the museum, I ate too many tacos at a nearby restaurant, then wandered through the adjacent public garden.  There was a cool hill / labyrinth / waterfall thing that I explored.  Then I proceeded to the Miller Theater to read Jane Jacobs for an hour and a half while waiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Some folks showed up in costume, which I appreciated, but it was really hot out, which I did not.  Finally night fell, and with the theater still nowhere near full, the movie began.  At least my fifth viewing of the film made up for the lousy start to the evening!






And with that, my exploration of Houston came to a close.  I survived the students' final reviews, parent conferences, and departure day, and headed home.  Thanks to all my students for a fun term, and good luck on your next adventures!


8.04.2016

Houston, We Have a Program - Part 2

My course was split into three weeks of different topics.  Week one was primarily background information, covering architecture & urban history, with lessons on different types of architectural visualization (drawing, sketching, modeling).  Week two was "special topics," including historic preservation, green infrastructure, density, transportation, public interest design, and imaginary cities - all the things I think are interesting.  Week three was studio-intensive, with two briefs in five days, each culminating in a juried review.  Every week had one or two site visits to relevant places, including the nearby museums, a downtown walking tour, public parks, a non-profit preservation project in a low-income neighborhood, and the sites chosen by the students for their final projects.  I was able to have Rice professors lead two of the site visits, which I think added a lot to the experience.  My TA kept a blog with photos of our work, accessible here.  Scroll down to the "Term 1" posts.

Our downtown walking tour was led by architectural history Stephen Fox, who is one of the most knowledgeable historians writing about Houston today.  We started at the downtown public library and walked around Tranquility Park, the downtown skyscrapers, and along the 10-year-old MetroRail line, ending back at the library.  Philip Johnson was the architect of some of the most distinctive Houston skyscrapers, all from the 1960s and 1970s.


Two adjacent Philip Johnson skyscrapers




During the second week, I had a chance to return to the Museum of Fine Art to see the other half of the museum, which I hadn't had time to see before.  In the European section, I found a painting by Panini that's on the cover of one of my art history books from undergrad!  (Rome: Profile of a City, by Richard Krautheimer.)  For some reason, I really love the caprices and vedute paintings of the 1700s.





At the end of week two, we toured Buffalo Bayou Park, a restoration of one of Houston's natural wetlands by a public/private partnership.  The long, linear park is peppered with sculptures, installations, and architectural bridges across the bayou.  We walked to the point where there is a bat colony living under a bridge, then headed back.  Then we visited Discovery Green, another public/private redevelopment in the downtown area, in front of the convention center.  Though much smaller, this park was packed with people having different events.




That same evening, I couldn't resist going on the traditional TIP trip to a minor-league baseball game, recalling the many Durham Bulls games I attended as a TIPster.  We went to see the Sugar Land Skeeters, who may win the prize for worst mascot ever, at a fairly nice stadium in the middle of nowhere outside Houston.  

One of the other things I'm glad I did, although I have no photos, was to take the class to see Project Row Houses, a non-profit that's renovating early Houston homes as artist studios and residences in the Third Ward neighborhood.  In partnership with the Rice Building Workshop, the group has also sponsored design/build projects by Rice students to build additional homes.  Our class got to see some of these homes designed and built by students on a tour led by Danny Samuels and Nonya Grenader, the Rice professors who direct the design/build program.  Danny and Nonya were very generous with their time in leading us around the Project Row Houses neighborhood.

Teaching for six hours a day turned out to be exhausting, so that's all I managed to do during those first two weeks of the class!  I did get to check out a pretty cool coffee shop / bar one day with my fellow instructors, called Double Trouble, which also had "trouble-free" non-coffee non-alcoholic drinks.  I enjoyed the Caribbean Cream Soda and a Fluffernutter cookie.  Houston, like all major cities, seems to have plenty of hipster hangouts in re-developing parts of town.  With all three meals a day provided on campus, though, it was hard to get away to try any restaurants.

Next up - spaaaaace, in Part 3.

7.31.2016

Houston, We Have a Program - Part 1

The following post was written in early June when I started at TIP - but I didn't have time to complete it.  The rest of my TIP posts will be written now, in late July / early August, after the fact.

It feels crazy to write it, but I'm back at summer camp, and not just any camp, but Duke TIP.  I'm here at Rice University in Houston for the month of June, living in the dorm, eating cafeteria food, and re-acclimating to the heat and humidity.  This time, though, I'm going to be the adult in the room, teaching a class of 8th to 10th grade students on "Architecture in the Urban Environment."  Maybe we'll call it CityLab for short, because that sounds cool.  [Edit: we didn't call it that.  Oh well!]

I've been here a few days and have managed to get off campus most days, if only for short distances.  I walked to the Museum of Fine Arts - Houston (MFAH), the Contemporary Art Museum - Houston (CAMH), and the Menil Collection.  Since Rice is located adjacent to the city's Museum District, museums are about the only thing within walking distance, and almost none of the staff have cars.  This means I've walked about 5 miles a day since arriving.  The MFAH has a Yayoi Kusama exhibit going on, which I was lucky enough to wander into during the preview, so I got to see both immersive environments without having to make an advance reservation or anything!  I only took photos in one, though, because the other one wouldn't make sense in a photo.  It's truly something you need to experience in person.  One of the best things about Houston so far is that most of the museums are free, probably thanks to the many wealthy (oil-funded) donors here.

Here are some photos from the art museums:







And here are a few thoughts on the Rice University campus so far:

1.  What is with all the live owls?  Did the university release them here, or have all the owls in Houston discovered that they are welcome on the Rice campus (since the owl is the university mascot) and have flocked here?  I have never heard so much owl hooting in my entire life.

2.  Wow, your campus is spread out.  Is all this grass really necessary?  Are these giant lawns normally full of students in the school year?  Because it's starting to wear me out.  Rice's campus isn't at all compact, and our dorms are pretty far from the center of campus, where the library, student center, and classrooms are located.  Thus all the walking.

3.  At least your food is excellent.  I have yet to try anything that's not been tasty.  Or maybe it's just that I'm hungry from all the walking.




I shouldn't neglect to mention my visit to the James Turrell Skyspace, "Twilight Epiphany," which was an interesting experience.  This site-specific installation on Rice campus seemed a bit dilapidated; the roof edges were not as crisp as they should be.  However, the changing light sequence was soothing and we enjoyed watching the reflected glow of the sunset on the downtown buildings.  I'd recommend getting there early enough to snag a seat in the lower part of the structure, which we were not able to do.  I expect that the effect is better from there.



Next up - the start of class, and assorted side trips!  All this and more, in Part 2.

7.30.2016

Visiting Hearst Castle

Back in February, I decided that the thing I wanted for my birthday was to visit Julia Morgan's Hearst Castle.  If you aren't familiar with architect Julia Morgan, then you should fix that right away.  Two years ago she was awarded the AIA Gold Medal, posthumously, as the first woman to receive this significant prize.  (Many of us wondered why the AIA couldn't find a living woman architect to be awarded, but that's a story for another post.)  She's generally considered one of the most important architects of the California Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th century.  She was the first woman admitted to the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most prestigious school of architecture of the European academy system; the first woman licensed in architecture in California; and one of very few women architects practicing in this country in the early 20th century.  Hearst Castle is considered one of her masterpieces.




Unlike many of her buildings, which were homes, community centers, university buildings, and religious buildings in the midst of communities, Hearst Castle was built in the middle of nowhere as a retreat for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who was a major patron of Morgan's.  The mansion (officially called La Cuesta Encantada, or The Enchanted Hill, by its owner) is perched atop a hill overlooking the Pacific, six hours south of San Francisco.  These days, it's operated by the state, as part of the state park system, with a massive visitor's center at the bottom of the hill, and buses to take visitors up to the property.  Visiting is by guided tour only, probably both because of the complete lack of parking (thus the buses) and to control the quantity of visitors stomping around.




My birthday falls around the long weekend of President's Day, so that was when we took the trip.  We drove down to Cambria, a bit south of San Simeon where the mansion is located, and stayed at the Cambria Pines Lodge.  It's a nice place to stay although our particular building wasn't the newest or nicest on the property.  It has some walking trails and adjacent gardens, which we strolled through before we left.  From there, it was a short drive to the visitor's center.  We also checked out the Red Moose Cookie Company after lunch in Cambria, which was a shop set up inside what appeared to be an industrial storage building.  The cookies were fantastic; we tried the Root Beer Float ones as well as the Pumpkin Moose Pie.  It's definitely worth finding this place (follow the signs from the road...) if you're ever in Cambria.




We took the "Designing the Dream" architecture-focused tour, which let us go inside some of the guest buildings and back-of-house areas.  In retrospect, we should have signed up for two back-to-back tours so we could also have seen the inside of the main building.  After the tour, you can wander around the grounds as long as you'd like.  The detailing on all the buildings was truly impressive, and the views of the ocean are lovely.  The ceilings of the various rooms were some of the most impressive parts of the buildings.






After the tour and wandering around, we headed back down to the visitor's center and made the mistake of watching the explanatory video in the theater.  After our tour, which gave little to no context for the building, I was hoping that the movie would tell us more.  But I was wrong.  I left feeling more than a bit angry about how the film glossed over all the important details, like who built the mansion and what were their lives like; how the building was financed, and how it was affected by the crash and the Great Depression; how this project fits into its context of other great mansions being built at the same time; where the materials came from and what construction techniques were used; etc.  As I wrote in my notes afterward, the building was presented as art, rather than as architecture - as one man's singular dream, realized by one (woman) architect.  All the context was stripped away, leaving visitors to marvel at this seemingly miraculous apparition on the hill.  But as anyone would know who's studied architecture at all, buildings are never one man's project, sprung into being fully-formed.  A whole team of skilled craftsmen, artisans, laborers, accountants, designers, manufacturers, and more are needed for the realization of any project of this size and detail.  What are their stories?  Not being told at Hearst Castle, apparently.




So while the mansion itself is beautiful and a joy to see, don't expect to learn much from your trip except how wonderful Mr. Hearst was, and how generous he was to build this giant house that we all now get to enjoy for two hours or so for $30 a tour.  If you want real information, you'll have to read up on it yourself ahead of time.

Hungry and disgruntled, we left San Simeon and drove to King City for part two of our weekend - Pinnacles National Park.  The next morning, we headed over to the park, which is about 1.5 hours from where we live.  But when we arrived, we encountered a huge line leading up to the entrance.  It turns out the park was full, and each car was being admitted only when someone left.  After learning this, and seeing how slowly the line was advancing, we headed home, even more disgruntled.  Apparently the lesson is not to try to go to Pinnacles during a holiday.  On the way back to the highway from the park, we lost GPS signal, and ended up missing our turn, adding an extra hour to the trip.  Yay!

Overall, this wasn't our best trip together, but hey, you can't expect every trip to be perfect!  At least we got to see half the stuff we set out to see.  And had some tasty, tasty cookies, made with love and butter.