Moore-Hancock Farmstead log cabin Austin, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.
Moore-Hancock Farmstead log cabin Austin, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

In just under thirty-three days, the AIDS LifeCycle begins and we ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Cranking up the training, I’ve been riding some classic climbs in the Bay Area: Pinehurst to Skyline, the Three Bears and the Hicks Valley Wilson Hill Road. But recently I took a break to visit Austin, Texas the home of former Governor Ann Richards[1]. Austin hosted the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) annual meeting. It doesn’t take much arm twisting to visit the queen city of Central Texas. Because in Austin you can easily find great music (we saw Squeeze Box Mania at Threadgills which featured the great conjunto tejano accordianist Joel Guzman and songwriter / vocalist Sarah Fox), local brews (Thirsty Planet’s Yellow Armadillo Wheat) and Southern comfort food (fried pickles)! And April is a beautiful time to visit Texas. Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush nonchalantly grace street corners and boulevard median strips. And a quick drive outside the city limits brings sights of mother Longhorns doting on their calves frolicking in pastures among the spring wildflowers. A meeting like SAH provides the opportunity to dig deeper into the urban landscape and we participated in the post-conference tour Transition, Gentrification and Hidden History in Austin’s Black Neighborhoods. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many freed slaves migrated to the nearest town where they settled and established neighborhoods such as Austin’s Clarksville and Wheatville. Some freedman like Orange Hancock settled on land formerly

Longhorns, Bluebonnets, and Indian Paintbrush. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.
Longhorns, Bluebonnets, and Indian Paintbrush. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

owned by their masters such as the Moore-Hancock Farmstead. Built in 1849, the Moore- Hancock home is the oldest Austin log cabin on it’s original site and a tangible link to 19th century African-American history in north-central Austin. The Freedmen communities thrived until 1928 when the Austin City Master Plan achieved segregation by zoning East Austin as a district where services and amenities such as plumbing and paved roads would be provided to African-Americans. With this zoning plan, Austin sought to draw African-Americans to the East side of town and extinguish black neighborhoods encroaching on expanding white Austin. Some eighty-years later, East Austin is gentrifying as popular food venues such as Franklin Barbecue have opened (just down the street from the historic Chitlin’ Circuit nightclub the Victory Grill where one of my favorite blues players W.C. Clark got his professional start) and the Rosewood Courts Housing Authority seeks a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more about these neighborhoods, read Michelle Mears book And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedman Communities of Austin, Texas 1865-1928.


[1] HBO documentary films just released the film All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State and it is recommended viewing!

Washington Square

Washington Square by night. Copyright Robin L. Chandler.
Washington Square by night. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

After a memorable dinner at Lupa on Thompson Street, we walked quickly through the brisk night eager for the warmth of a bus leaving the village.  Fittingly, we find ourselves precisely on President’s Day at this place facing the monument shimmering in the darkness.  The Washington Square Arch was built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our first President’s inauguration. And here we are, at the square on George Washington’s Birthday looking uptown from the base of Fifth Avenue, where patriotic colors of red, white and blue playfully adorn the Empire State Building in celebration of this day. Its cold and late, but I reach for my watercolors and brushes.  The night skyline is framed so perfectly by the arch, I just can’t let this moment go by without trying to paint it.  I’m not the first to succumb to this impulse and frankly I’m in great company. Watercolourist and blogger Poul Webb wrote inspiringly about some of these painters who captured the noble arch round-the-clock in all seasons.

Designed by architect Sanford White, in the early 20th century, the Washington Square Arch was situated in a wealthy enclave bordering working-class neighborhoods.  The monument captivated members of New York’s Ashcan School, painting in the early 1900’s, including William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan.  Robert Henri, the group’s teacher encouraged his students to paint the dynamic of the street: its beauty and its brutal reality. One of the Ashcan group, George Bellows, is the subject of an exhibition, recently at the Met and soon to travel to London, providing the first comprehensive survey of Bellow’s work in almost fifty years.  Bellow’s created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape when America was an emerging industrial giant.  He captured the harshness of this rapidly changing society but also a timeless beauty that continues to captivate me in paintings such as The Lone Tenement and Blue Morning.  Charles Baudelaire described this ability to extract the “eternal from the transitory” as searching for modernity.

more or less

Chicago’s Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

From a distance, the sprawling city of Chicago soars from the flatlands like the emerald city of Oz.  So accustomed to California’s topography  — rugged coastlines, deserts and mountains honed by earthquake and tide, wind and rain — I am enchanted by the Midwest with it’s boundless horizon punctuated solely by skyscrapers; bold sentences spoken by vertical and horizontal voices. My profession brought me earlier this month to Chicago, home of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), serving on the program committee, shaping our summer 2013 annual meeting. Early Sunday morning I walk Chicago’s streets awestruck by the artistry of the built environment. Sunrise flirts momentarily on the glazed terra cotta, accessorizing these temples of industry in pink and orange. Laura Tatum’s spirit accompanies me as I walk amongst these towering icons of American architecture on my way to the meeting. Chicago, a living building museum, graced by artifacts in a range of styles, created by Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe.

A prairie city, Chicago is home for corporations monetizing the labor of farmers and ranchers and now profiting from the labor of programmers and analysts. Migrants of all nationalities, races, and creeds – from all compass points – came to Chicago to work in factories and services spinning straw into gold (turning raw into retail). Barrack Obama, our first African-American President and native-son of Hawaii, elected last week for a second-term, like so many others was drawn to Chicago and makes his home here – this land of Lincoln. The 1871 Chicago Fire wiped the slate clean and a new city rose on the shores of Lake Michigan giving birth to the skyscraper, a building type made possible primarily by the manufacture of inexpensive steel able to frame and support multi-storied structures. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan considered by many the “father of skyscrapers” coined the phrase “form follows function.” These skyscrapers were and remain today the home offices for many corporations.

My hotel room, situated above the Chicago River provided wonderful views of North Michigan Avenue’s Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Built in 1921 in the neoclassical style, the Wrigley Building, an early skyscraper sheathed in white terra cotta, glows when lit at night. Personally, it provides a visual and stylistic reminder of the buildings populating Burnham’s White City also-known-as the Chicago World’s Fair. Across the avenue, is the Tribune Tower, a product of the 1922 international design competition held by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. While this gothic-revival design won, the competition inspired many modernist architects to envision skyscrapers in the emerging international style.  One of these young architects, Mies van de Rohe, soon to become a “master” at the Bauhaus and its last Director, submitted a visionary design for a Tribune Tower with transparent plate glass walls on a steel frame. Known for his clarity and simplicity, Mies, is perhaps most famous for his Barcelona Pavilion and Villa Tugendhat. Given the outcome of the Tribune Tower competition, it is somewhat ironic that Mies would become the Director of Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology bringing his “less is more” design aesthetic to what is now known as the Second Chicago School of architecture.

a meditation of light upon the land

Meditation on Lovell Beach House & Lovell Health House. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chander

This spring and summer we’ve made three trips to Southern California. Crossing “the Grapevine” through the Tehachapi Mountains I am filled with glorious anticipation of the descent into the Los Angeles Basin. Why such excitement?  Perhaps it’s my fascination with the contradictory juxtapositions of the place and it’s history, and the palpable tensions. But then again maybe some of the appeal comes from aesthetics; something as simple as the light.  Carey McWilliams, in Southern California: An Island of the Land, wrote “a desert light brings out the sharpness of points angles and forms…..but let the light turn soft with ocean mist, and miraculous changes occur…..but this is not desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones. It is Southern California light and it has no counterpoint in the world.” There is a quality of light in Los Angeles and Southern California that is born from the relationship of desert, sea and the impact of humans (and the pollution we make) on the environment.

Years ago I read a February/March 1988 New Yorker article “L.A. Glows: Why Southern California doesn’t look like any place else.” Lawren Weschler tried to capture this sense of light with anecdotes from scientists, writers, and architects. Caltech Professor Glen Cass gazing north towards the San Gabriel Mountains identified a bright, white atmospheric haze.  Cass said “on some days there can be billions of particles in the line of site between me and the mountain – each of them with the mirrorlike potential to bounce white sunlight directly back into my eye.” The poet Paul Vangelisti said “for one thing, I think the light of L.A. is the whitest light I’ve every seen,” and the Pritzker Prize winning architect Coy Howard said …’s not exactly a dramatic light…..if anything its meditative…..when you get the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity – not illumination so much as luminosity.  Southern California glows…..and the opacity melts away into translucency, and even transparency.”

On these southern voyages, we’ve made it a point to have encounters with the work of artists and architects working in and inspired by the Los Angeles basin, such as Richard Diebenkorn, who I blogged about in April.  Most recently we’ve seen the pale, soft and transparent light of Southern California play against buildings designed by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.  Friends, colleagues and rivals they both came to Los Angeles after WW I from Vienna, Austria where they had individually studied with Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffman.  Making their ways separately to California, Schindler worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and Neutra for Eric Mendelsohn in Berlin.  Collectively, they practiced the concepts of modernism or the International Style in Southern California when these were still revolutionary ideas. Schindler and Neutra both designed homes for Philip and Leah Lovell; Schindler designed the Lovell Beach House in Newport, California and Neutra designed the Lovell Health House in the Hollywood/Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Both buildings are inspiring examples of innovation in materials (concrete and steel) and the architect’s use of space, form and the importance of light to the structure creating a sense of transparency between the interior and the exterior so characteristic of what would become the post-WWII California lifestyle.  Each building is a monumental work of art, but miraculously each structure lay easily and understatedly upon the landscape. In the case of Schindler, the eye of the viewer is lifted skyward into the light by concrete frames lifting the house above streetlevel; whereas with Neutra, the house is nestled within the canyon contours firmly anchored but appearing to gently to float cloudlike hugging the landscape.  Each home – considered historic structures in the story of California’s architectural past – remains a meditation of light upon the land.

a tale of two cities

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

This summer we visited Lyon, France and Matera, Italy, two European cities, which share some common traits: both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites with roots in ancient Rome, situated on hillsides above rivers and crowned by majestic cathedrals. However, upon walking their streets one feels dramatic differences, metaphorically speaking, it is the difference between living and dying. Lyon is a vibrant metropolitan center, the second largest city in France located in the Rhone-Alpes region and situated on a continuum between Paris and Marseille at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Matera, located in Basilicata in Southern Italy, is a city whose breathing is shallow, so near death the priest has given the last rites, the children have long ago moved away, and all that remains is the cemetery sextant to care for the gravesite. Yet, Matera mysteriously lingers in the imagination. Would I return to Lyon and Matera? Yes, but for different purposes: Lyon to seek my living, and Matera, to seek the meaning of my life.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities speaks to the imaginative potentials of cities and provides a framework to consider Lyon and Matera. One of Calvino’s sections Trading Cities features Esmeralda, a city reminiscent of Lyon. “Esmeralda’s residents are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day…the network of routes is not arranged on one level, but follows instead an up-and-down course of steps, landings, cambered bridges, hanging streets…combining the segments of the various routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places.” On our visit, we walked the historic narrow walkways named traboules passing through buildings linking streets on either side in the in Vieux Lyon and the slopes of the Croix-Rouss. Thought to be built in the 4th century, the passageways allowed craftsman to move quickly from their workshops and homes on the hill to the silk merchants on the river. The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, built in the late 19th century crowns the hillside on the site of the Roman forum of Trajan. Today, Lyon is a major centre for banking and industries such as chemical, pharmaceutical, biotech and computer software.

Matera Cathedral. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

In his section Cities and the Dead, Calvino conjures Matera with the imaginary city of Argia. “What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt…..over the roofs of houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds…..from up here nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, ‘its down below there,’ and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.” Matera, an agricultural settlement, believed founded by the Romans in the 3rd century, was built upon a hillside of soft tufa, which permitted the inhabitants to build underground chambers and dwellings as well as cisterns drawing upon the water table from which the “la Gravina” river flowed in the ravine below town. For many centuries the city thrived and many magnificent churches and monasteries were built including the 13th century Matera Cathedral.  However, over population and agriculture expansion coupled with the mismanagement of water supplies reached a crisis point in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the city began a steady decline. Matera became the symbol of peasant misery in southern Italy as described by the author Carlo Levi in his 1945 novel Christ Stopped at Eboli.