Tuesday, July 31, 2007

expense list, page 12

panama, san blas

Miffed and scorned by the boat-wielding Panamanian public (my plan to sail the Canal as a line-handler never materialized), I re-directed my last few Central American days to San Blas, a string of islands off the coast that, along with a 232-mile strip of coastal Panama, belongs to the indigenous Kuna people.

It was an odd and incredible experience that I have yet to wrap my head around. Far from any trace of urban armatures that could possibly rationalize such a side trip, my days on the islands were some of the richest of the year. This is not the least because I got to share them with—in addition to the Kuna—the two Irish architects and an entirely impressive UCLA business student that filled out our gaggle of gringos.

Our visit was remarkable for time as well as place. A prominent islander happened to have a daughter going through her first menstrual cycle. Now, ordinarily this isn’t a fact to which I’d be privy but for the Kuna it calls for a celebration including a haircut, a naming, and an island-wide celebration.

The celebration that ensued would never fly at Disney. First the women and then the men proceeded to get absolutely sloshed on traditional sugar-cane liquor and rubbing-alcohol-grade rum. Drunken scuffles interrupted the ceremonial dances while children darted everywhere like a school of skipping, clapping sardines (not the canned kind; the swimming-in-the-ocean kind). It seemed to be an important moment of release, especially for the women, whose social role appeared more structured in terms of dress and behavior. The girl’s newfound adulthood served as little more than a pretense for the party and we visitors never actually even saw the special girl amid all the revelry.

It astounds me that the Kuna were as comfortable with us in their midst as they were. As a people, they retain their traditions with uncanny self-awareness and open-mindedness. They seem to take money with a grain of salt—until recently, coconuts served as currency—and a modest tourism trade garners sufficient cash for whatever modern conveniences they deem appropriate. There’s nothing like a native on a cell phone or Linkin Park in the hut next door.

Part of San Blas’ magic was the odyssey it entailed. Our crew woke up at five, followed a three-hour highway schlep from Panama City with two more hours of mud-slinging jungle adrenaline (top image) and, after out-juking a team of oversexed Caterpillar trucks, we headed to the river. Settled in our canoe, we floated down past crocodiles and toucans until the river spilled into the sea and delivered us to our final destination, a low sandy island barnacled by thatched huts (bottom image). There we slept on hammocks and dined on more crab and lobster than we could eat, spending most of the day on deserted islands with powdery beaches and palm trees (middle image). I may have sacrificed a few layers of skin and a few gallons of perspiration but the pay-off, I dare say, was tremendous.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

panama city, miraflores locks

Image and footage of a ferry in transit...the ship is a flea compared to the usual freighters passing through. The widest of ships leave a mere two feet to each of the locks' walls. I'm going to try to hitch a ride up the canal as a "line handler" in the next few days before I move on to Colombia. I realize that the Panama Canal doesn't quite fall in line with the other case studies I've adopted so far in terms of scale or urban interaction...but it's damn interesting and impressive so I'll just stick it in the BF Infrastructure category for now and have a good time with it.

It doesn’t organize Panama City with small-scale sophistication (it's more like a raison d'etre) but, for such a gargantuan gesture, the Panama Canal seems surprisingly ambiguous. It is not the Lay-Z-River Sharpie slash that I imagined. Instead, the canal is a nexus of infrastructures—from dams to locks to railway lines to freight vessels—that relies on an intimate relationship with Panama's topographical and ecological peculiarities.
I happened to visit during the rainy season, which means chronic dampness and oppressive humidity. Such weather isn’t conducive to daytime activity (nightlife is another story), but the canal depends on this inordinate amount of precipitation for its viability. Daily deluges descend on surrounding swathes of spongy jungle. Dense root networks minimize soil erosion and corresponding dredging requirements. From rain forested slopes, water coalesces in Lake Gatún, an artificial lake 26 meters above sea level that is maintained by three dams. This lake stores the water needed for all the lock operations. There are no pumps. The Panama Canal’s locks operate gravitationally to flush about 26 million gallons of freshwater into the Pacific and the Atlantic per use. As long as the reservoir isn’t overtaxed it’s an incredibly efficient system…and one that is about to get more efficient when a more sophisticated and water-saving set of new locks are completed in the next few years.

Friday, July 20, 2007

mexico city, zócolo demonstration

I'm still not completely sure what the people were protesting....something about the government taking the shirts off their backs....but I certainly admire the group's pluck. It was coming down pretty hard at the time. The Zócolo is Mexico City's main square and one of the largest civic plazas in the world. The red square in the image at top indicates where they were and the video below should explain the rest.

mexico city, centro historico

The image above, scanned from Benevolo's History of the City, overlays the original Aztec city (left) and the subsequent Spanish grid (right) on Mexico City's center as it stood in the 1970's.
Mexicans are entrepreneurial masters of sidewalk and subway. The city feels oddly European—even American—in its structure and organization but the way in which its standard communal spaces are inhabited can be completely different. For example, in the metro one is passed by a steady tattoo of small-time sales(wo)men. At high tide there may be one hawker per car, although rarely do they allow themselves to overlap. Most sell CDs (pens, gum, and DVD’s are other favorites) and as they shout out tracks and titles they blare their wares from small speakers in their knapsacks. I have found that Mexican volume, at least in its commercial capacity, is twice as loud as the typical color scheme. Above ground, space and sunlight allow for more flexible salesmanship. About half of the average walkway width is taken up by informal venders…no matter how narrow that sidewalk may be. The images above depict two views of a particularly striking downtown street that goes so far as to color-coordinate itself. In the image on the right, you can see how dense the corner becomes before pedestrians can cross the street. The pressure is so intense that I came close to getting intimate with a bus when I was in their position.

mexico city, tlaltelolco

Right next to the Plaza of the Three Cultures (so-called because of its indigenous, Spanish, and contemporary architectural constituency) there rises a host of high-rise housing developments stranded in neglected greenspace. A suspended pedestrian roof winds through the site, held aloft by orange frames. It’s almost as if someone connected the dots in Cristo’s Gates project. Although the intervention does distract from the scene's general banality and provide a thunderstorm service, it doesn’t exhibit any of the other capacities that have marked other similar projects I’ve seen. It appears to be a mono-functional, circulatory gesture more than a spatial, organizational, or structural armature.

mexico city, xochimilco

The image shows one of the Xochimilco’s garden-lined canals originally coaxed—and still cultivated—by organically landfilling an ancient lake. The right side of the canal has been shored and concretized but the left bank remains in its original earthen form. The trees growing along the bank were planted to prevent aqueous erosion. Their densely netted root structures act as an effective landscape cloth. Let me call your attention to the festooned flotillas you might have missed floating in the foreground, each with a built-in table, room for fifteen or twenty, and an oversized paper mache faceplate on front. I imagine the scene would be a bit more active if I had come during the weekend. The boats number in the thousands. Unleashed, they must be an awesome sight. Finally, in the distance undulate the impossibly thin concrete curves of Felix Candela’s Los Manantiales, a restaurant constructed in 1958. This building haunted my structural engineering lectures for years but I never quite understood how it sat in the landscape. It’s under renovation at the moment but I did manage to scramble under its petals for a quick snap-happy look around.

mexico city, casa luis barragán

Luis Barragán, an engineer-cum-architect with a love for both modernism and Mexican dwelling, inhabited and periodically redesigned the house from 1948 until his death in 1988. Visitors are supposed to set up an appointment to get in but I stumbled upon its stoop just as an American tour group had arrived. They were more than happy to share the experience….and their impressions along the way. Note the personal testimony halfway down the stairs. The house was impressive for Barragán’s daylighting techniques, his sophisticated interior-exterior relationships, and his remarkable ability to exploit ostensible solidity for scenographic effect. It is an essay in the phenomenal potential of pared essentials.

mexico city, issues of scale

The image to the left pairs a totemic monolith with a modern onlooker at the museo nacional de antropología. While the museum’s extensive collection runs the gamut, pre-Columbian sculptors seem at their most impressive when operating in stony solidity. It is a monumental sensibility shared by their architecture. The image to the right depicts the ruins of Teotihuacán, a massive pre-Columbian capitol. Rising from an expansive valley, Teotihuacán uses orientation, geometry, and a sublimely hubristic scale to embed itself in the panorama. Views are carefully considered. I took the photograph from atop the so-called Temple of the Moon, which stands at the head of the city’s wide central corridor. This corridor continues for an indeterminate length toward the distant hills. To its left, slightly set back, a massive pyramid referred to as the Temple of the Sun geometrically regularizes its mountainous halo. The minor pyramids scattered at its feet cement the geologic analogy. Touting their power with acoustical response, the precinct’s ancient planners created a grand gesture of which even Le Corbusier would be proud.