Friday, September 28, 2007

expense list, page 14

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

buenos aires, la boca

Monday, September 24, 2007

santiago - buenos aires, the andes

Aloft from Santiago’s airport after sleepy hours of there-too-early waiting: Hills lie waded and plunked on a tiled floor of green and grit. Rivers plow restlessly, their knotted swaths the sum of past indecision. But as we bank eastward the hills become everything—become mountains—with rivered veins and man-made tracks etching out meager horizontals. Drama builds as uncontainable black crags pierce the snow's amelioration, propelling its white—and that of its nebulous source—to near painful brightness.

It doesn't last. As we breach the peaks the snow loses climatic stamina and recedes to whirls and slivers burrowed in shadowing creases. The ground returns, reddish brown and partially parched to tan. Folds and furrows relent to molds and wrinkles before calming to gentle modulation. And like that we’re across and the Andes’ one-act play is complete. Man rekindles his tracings, lakes add blue to clouds’ clear shadows, and God’s lines wriggle and rope as the landscape recomposes for less dramatic endeavors.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

valparaiso, independence and the following

Longer than the longest long weekend, the Chilean Independence day is a full five days of revelry and relaxation. The nation’s biggest holiday may have limited my academic accomplishment but I feel comfortable chalking it up as a legitimate cultural experience. Latin Americans are friendly to the point of congenial coercion and, as developed and international as Chile may be, I find it to (thankfully) no exception to the rule. Folks here have adopted me sans hesitation.

I had the pleasure of attending three family/friend get-togethers over the last week. I was always the obvious outsider—a bona fide novelty, in my view—but Latins are remarkable for their ability to balance attention so I was never the object of inquisition nor was I banished to English-laden silence; instead, with patient encouragement, I bumbled in and out of the conversation, tossing in my two stuttering cents and receiving an occasional mercy catch-up when gossip spun beyond my grasp.

As a novice in the language (an admitted over-statement), I am continuously amazed at the difference between conversational spectatorship and involvement. Sitting outside a discussion is like crossing a highway; there are three possibilities. The first is that I can wait until the moment is just right, when some stoplight or lull or (god-forbid) accident slows down traffic up the road just enough that I can dart through. The second is that I can gather my balls beneath me enough to throw myself into the fray frogger-style. The third—and safest—is that some kindly driver can slow to a halt, eye-contact me, and wave me across. Thankfully, Latin Americans are better conversation-incorporators than drivers so I rarely need to summon guile or gumption to participate.

Taking the highway metaphor from another angle (dead horses are made to be beaten), my on-ramp into the conversation usually takes the form of a now-memorized scholarship spiel—which garners a smile, incredulity, and some variation of “I want that, you lucky bastard”—accompanied by a humble account of my valiant español efforts. Talking about my inability to talk turns out to be the easiest thing I can say and once my confidence gets a few give-and-takes under its belt I can wrestle the context clues enough to get by (and catch up with what I’m smiling and nodding to later).

On Tuesday, after one of my adopted-family barbecues, I walked over to visit Viña del Mar’s ramada oficial, pictured at top. This is not to be confused with a fonda, at which you pay for entry and end up dancing and drinking until the wee hours of the morning. The ramada, named for the tree branches that its organizers inexplicably staple all over their vending stalls, is more like a county fair than a hoe-down. The corridor shown here offers a gauntlet of traditional food and drink including empanadas (pasty-enfolded goodness), anticucho (cow heart), pisco (grape-based liquor that Peruvians’ staunchly claim is theirs and only theirs), and chicha (mildly-alcoholic grape juice). The area next door had all the classic games. People lined up with their girlfriends to knock over bottles, throw things in bottles, and do whatever else you can possibly do with bottles. The possibilities seemed endless. Small children even played a platonic, Wheel-of-Fortune-ish version of spin-the-bottle. Children are a major component of the celebration, dressing up (only occasionally of their own volition, I’m sure) in traditional clothing and dabbling in the ways of the cueca (a traditional dance in which menfolk and womenfolk wave handkerchiefs at each other).

I spent the next day wandering through the Valparaisan hills. It was the right spot at the right time. Most of the businesses on El Plan remained closed as their clientele holed up in the hills with family and friends, taking advantage of the gorgeous day for a last round of grilling and a last attempt to fix their kites aloft in the blue sky. In the picture to the left note the pristine clarity of a view that stretches across the bay and clear out to the Andes.

A hike among the hills is an interesting endeavor. The hills stretch toward the water like a 45-fingered hand that's inverted so that the middle fingers are shorter than the rest. Ascensors lift up to hills’ cusps but, to move from one hill to the next, one has to strike out toward the heartland or descend and ascend steep stairs or the winding roads. The city’s solution is Avenida Alemania / Camino Cintura. Installed in 1930 as the city’s outer limit, this road does its damnedest to maintain horizontality by hugging the 100 meter contour wherever possible.

If you can make here, you can track around the city in continuously scenic sweep that catches radio music, charcoal fumes, and rampant kite string that dares (tragically, in most cases) to brave the electric cables’ ubiquitous tangle.

Finally, the image at right captures my later-afternoon descent back down to flatland. Note the stairs’ intimacy, the drainage-dimension-cum-front-yard to its right, the dog’s placement (firmly in the “nice dog on stoop” category), the afore-mentioned cable tangle, and the answering set of steps at the foot of the next hill.

valparaiso, ascensor artillería

The latest (1912) and longest (175 m), Ascensor Artillería reclines languidly with its toe at the old customs house and its head by the city’s maritime museum. The site presents a unique tri-edge condition, allowing the ascensor to straddle El Plan and Artillería Hill while tracing the bounds of official port operations. Still visible to the existing tracks’ left is the green dimension of the ascensor’s once-doubled capacity where two defunct frames, bereft of their allotted path, now brace commemorative flagpoles as consolation.

In contrast to the lower station’s tacked-on twin vending stands (whose operational status is difficult to discern but worth pondering whilst awaiting the ascensor's arrival), the free-standing upper structure supports a cluster of balloon-framed café and shop encrustations...with flanking gazebos to boot.

The mirador (overlook) it anchors provides encompassing bay views supported by an array of smartly-designed vending stands. Artisanal hawkers are par for the tourist-trafficked course but here they are standardized, systematized, and refreshingly discrete as they package Valparaiso for popular consumption.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

valparaiso, cats and dogs

Valparaiso is the only city I have visited where dogs and cats thrive in equal measure. In a system of relationshiops running parallel to that of their human counterparts, the animals' patterns of territorial use and behavioral interaction map the city’s fine-grained inhabitability in terms of threshold, prospect, and refuge.

A street section in Valparaiso creates stacked tiers of accessible safety leaving dogs lying comfortably at the bottom, cats treading carefully in the middle, and pigeons perched mindlessly overhead. Although this simple hierarchy holds true in any city, it is rarely fleshed out in such furry extravagance. Moreover, the same steep slope and the domestic scale that sets Valparaiso’s particular patterns in motion also subverts them…such that a pigeon perched on a roof may sit within snatching reach of cats or dogs, depending on the severity of the situation. The inclined terrain’s sectional omnipresence juxtaposes modes and manners of inhabitabation as clearly with the animal kingdom as with civilized society.

The following is a matrix of provisional categories empirically established via recent wanders through Valparaiso’s various neighborhoods:

There are three types of dog. Dog-in-street is almost always nice but often skittish and sometimes stand-offish, Dog-on-stoop is almost always nice but sometimes stand-offish, Dog-in-yard is almost always mean but occasionally nice.

There are three kinds of cat. Cat-in-street is usually skittish but sometimes nice, Cat-on-sill is often nice sometimes skittish, and Cat-in-window is N/A; he doesn’t give a shit about you and you’re not getting to him so why bother attempting a detailed description.

Finally, to complete the tri-partite pyramid, there is the pigeon. Pigeon-in-street is audacious but elusive, Pigeon-on-perch is wary and skittish, and Pigeon-on-wire is contentedly aloof and a fecal hazard. Dogs chase pigeons, cats chase pigeons, but I restrain myself (occasional stutter-step feigned attack nontwithstanding).

The picture to the bottom right depicts an uneasy co-habitation. The dogs have placed themselves in front of their owner’s door and, comfortable with its semi-public condition, are friendly and receptive. The cat claims the same stoop where it has been reduced to a sill dimension. He has situated himself just next to the dogs but remains safely out of reach. The cat was so bold as to rub against the dogs while I was petting them but the moment I moved away he immediately (albeit nonchalantly) retreated to his defensive position. Note the fringe of fencing that protects him from the less-nimble neighbors.

valparaiso, ascensor espíritu santo

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

valparaiso, ascensor florida

Ascensor Florida presents a fairly typical specimen of the type. It is less elevated than some--low enough to sustain a footbridge over it--but, as the video shows, the yellow cabs are intimately visible from a variety of viewpoints along its inclined path. Many of the other ascensors embedded in the urban fabric maintain their presence only from above and below, so Florida is riper than most for amateur cinematography. The stairway at the ascensor's flank--more for descent than ascent--represents standard accoutrement. Regardless of their ascensorial association, stairs reinforce their fabric's domesticity by serving as steeply inclined pedestrian streets. Often, front doors open directly to each landing.

valparaiso, ascensor polanco

Ascensor Polanco, consisting of a tunnel, a tower, and a catwalk, is the only one of Valparaiso’s ascensors to turn vertical. It is also the only ascensor to entertain a mid-point stop; this occurs where shaft intersects slope and breaches ground. Polanco rises from the hillside like a yellow Tuscan turret, using a similar strategy to Lisbon’s Santa Justa elevator to trigonometrically connect the city’s upper and lower levels. Unfortunately, Polanco is quite un-operational at the moment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

valparaiso, initial impressions

Valparaiso wraps its harbor like a north-facing amphitheater. Ridges of hills, historically dominated by European immigrant communities, radiate from the bay and its wedge of flat land. Their orientation is reinforced by the city’s near-utter lack of bridges. While the flat land (El Plan) consists of more-or-less straight gridded streets, paths and roadways in the hills follow labyrinthine, ravine-skirting switchbacks that would quickly lead to disorientation were it not for the fact that the slope and the ocean always lead north. A beltway tracing the 100’ contour gathers what was once the periphery. Businesses claim the flats while houses climb the hills. Ancient inclined elevators called ascensores...that function now either miraculously or not at all...connect the two realms.

Situated at the interface of culture and nature, the ascensores were as much about the ground as its defiance, as much about constructing the site as creating the object, as much about topography as technology, as much about tradition as innovation. Fascinating as objects in themselves, the ascensores were part of a more complex spatial, social, and technological matrix, both more complex and more fundamental, that transcends their appeal as objects. --Rene Davids

Valparaiso’s resemblance to San Francisco is striking, replete with devastating 1906 earthquake. In fact, sailors refer to it as Pancho, the name Francisco's affectionate diminutive. Climate is comparable, Victorian architecture abounds, and hills strike out from the bay with equal drama. The other day the city’s new metro system played “are you going to San Francisco” musak-style and the surreality almost overwhelmed me. However, Valparaiso takes the San Francisco analogy only so far. Unlike San Fransisco, it rarely presses its orthogonality into the hills. The city is more like Lisbon in this sense.

And the city has not followed San Francisco into modernity. It remains a panoply of mottled tin and rusted cast iron that began sinking into decay from the time the Panama Canal rendered its circumnavigatory position obsolete. The result is a pedestrian scale preserved through salutary neglect, pock-marked with half-collapsed houses and gutted interiors.

*map image at top taken from Prof. Rene David's article, "City Limits: topography and invention"

Thursday, September 6, 2007

expense list, page 13

lima, cerro san cristobal

A view over the city of Lima from the centrally located San Cristobal hill. This is a fairly typical scene: bare stony slopes, clustered single- or double-story houses, and the omnipresent wintertime mist. Lima is not a beautiful city. Interesting...but not beautiful. Well, with some beautiful parts, naturally, but on the whole not beautiful. I mean, it's just not.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

machu picchu, las ruinas

Machu Picchu's architectural significance rests on a succession of scales, from its technical virtuosity to its spatial progression to its cosmic calibration. Conceptually, the ruins resemble other royal retreat masterpieces—such as Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli or Katsura Rikyu and Shugakuin Rikyu in Kyoto (see blog posts on February 28, 2007)—whose cognitive and mnemonic capacities carry their phenomenal richness beyond mere solipsism by rooting it referentially and analogically in the larger physical, social, and cosmic landscape. Like Japan’s imperial gardens, Machu Picchu employs borrowed scenery and situates architectural shelters in a modulated landscape. Like Hadrian’s Villa, Machu Picchu cultivates an air of urbanity within an eccentric situational framework.

Machu Picchu is a large-scale architectural model. Its stepped terraces are freshly laminated cardboard that, with perseverance and some sturdy shoes, can be viewed from nearly any angle. From a perch on the surrounding slopes (preferably with water bottle in hand and coca leaves between lip and gum) one can see that the complex cleaves into two major sections: the upper agricultural zone and the lower inhabited zone. The lower zone in turn divides into two sections: sacred and profane. However, upon entry, this clearly graspable organizational logic plays second fiddle to site-specific spatial experience.

In contrast to Teotihuacán (posted on July 20), Machu Picchu takes a subtle but equally impressive approach to asserting man’s importance in the universe. Its makers neither tame nature nor fold to it. Rather, they cavort to lend happenstantial exigencies a flatteringly humanistic raison d’être.

The pervasive phenomenon goes so far as to bestow a masculine profile on adjacent mountains. In the background of the top image one can make out the forehead to the right, chin to the left, and nose at center. I climbed up the snoz—Huanya Picchu—to capture the image at lower left.

In addition to its paranoid critical demonstration, the top photograph documents the affinity between earth and architecture inherent in Machu Picchu’s material tactility (features have been roped off to staunch erosion from millions of inquisitive hands), in its pinnacle-like roofs and serrated terraces, and in the correspondence of ground and enclosure.

Retaining walls elevate the inhabited zone from the slope below. Their dominant vertical down-slope edges suggest that the terraces progress down the slope rather than up. Attuned to the sequence, residences clamber down the slope like lithic slinkies

The building at center conjoins with its retaining walls to play upon volume and mass. First, it tapers and aligns with the uppermost wall to create an enclosure and a threshold that frames a panorama of the complex beyond. Second, it reverses the face of the upper retaining wall so that what meets the earth below presents a façade above. Third, it melds smoothly with the lower retaining wall to blur the construction’s free-standing—vs—earth-retaining distinction. Finally, the building’s offset from the camera-facing terraces creates a patio to the near side, thereby shifting the lower floor’s orientation 90 degrees from the upper floor’s orientation.