Friday, 13 July 2012

MAGIC IN THE UNEXPECTED


One a late afternoon in May, I came back from revisiting the Nimitz Way, located in Tilden, a Nature Reserve high up on the Berkeley Hills. The roads in that reserve are a bit confusing, and suddenly I found myself on an exit hitherto unknown to me. Eventually I emerged on a ridge road called Grizzly Peak Boulevard and turned north to find my way back to Berkeley. Hardly 100 meters after the turn, quite unexpectedly, a wonderful vista opened up for me. At a parking lot, the whole Bay could be discerned, with the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering in the mauve evening sunshine.

The view gifted me with an intensive feeling of happiness, quite surpassing my reaction to similar vistas observed at earlier planned and foreseen occasions. Why would that be? I really don't know, but it is a fact that unexpected events, arriving out of the blue, so to speak, stimulate our senses to a much higher degree than experiences of our day-to-day life, or events planned aforehand.

 Golden Gate, seen from Grizzly Peak Boulevard
As a traveller, your senses are more geared towards observing the unexpected than if you were still back at home. This is why, I believe, Berkeley has blessed me with a plethora of such experiences, which have lined up for me like pearls on a lovely lady's necklace. Let me take the occasion, at this very last post of the California Blog, to reminisce part of these events.

You may recall that I have a fond relationship with Strawberry Creek on Campus. Many a day have I been strolling along that gurgling water, up or down as the occasion demands, as the brook provides me with a convenient and shady access to the main buildings at UCB. Just at the first bridge crossing, coming from the Western Entry, the creek is forming a small "rapids" through a redwood grove, a view always challenging my photographic ability. One day, when I just had made the camera ready, suddenly a young nymph appeared, as emerging from the foaming waters. Out she jumped towards me and embraced me warmly, albeit with dainty fingers icy cold from the waters. I have described the whole episode in an earlier blog post already (Climb The Lofty Indians), but could not abstain from putting the picture in here again, as the foremost example of how your otherwise drab life can be enlivened by an unexpected encounter.

"Naiad", arising out of  Strawberry Creek
Staying with experience in nature, let me turn to my daily hunting ground, Stuart Street. I have never arrived in describing this before, but an enticing aspect of that street is its imposing alley of Camphor Trees. Carefully trimmed, with the lower branches gone, they rise majestically far above the residences and sidewalks, providing welcome shading to the hikers and street gardens on sunny days. You can see some pictures of the trees and trunks in an earlier blog (Flowers Dancing in the Rain). Unfortunately, all of them are affected by a fungus (Verticillium) that will kill off the trees in the long term. I would hate to see them go; hopefully they will outlast my life-time. But let's get back to the main thread of this post!

One of those sunny days, when I was ambling below these impressive shadowing umbrellas, I suddenly felt the urge to look skyward, to admire the lofty airy crowns. Judge of my surprise when I saw, not only welcoming green leaves, but also a young girl placed smack up on one of the higher branches! She was as perplexed as I was, by having been discovered in the act, so to speak, of observing the passersby far below her. A moment of mutual silent observation ensued, before I could tear myself away and continue on my trodden path, leaving the young lady to her favorite pass-time.

"Dryad" resting on Camphor branch
Lest you conclude that observing young ladies is my only pass-time, we should continue the tale on a different track, in terms of sex and age both. You may recall that I witnessed the celebration of the first Californian "Milk Day", back in 2010, in the San Francisco district of Castro (Days of Milk and Honey).

Upon my return to Berkeley this year, I revisited the area with the aim to track down some persons pictured in that blog (to gift them a free copy of "Fiat Lux!"). Taking BART to Mission Station, I walked to Castro from there, strolling along 19th Street westward. Just when I arrived at the crossing of 19th and Castro, I saw this elegant couple striding confidently along the sidewalk, without any concern on their faces, despite a certain lack of civilisational accoutrement!

Two Gentlemen striding along Castro Street
Ever since our first stay in Berkeley, back in 1976/77, a permanent fixture in my Californian Universe has been Revalon Court, two bungalow-like structures with apartments for rent on Stuart Street, just east of Shattuck Avenue. The owners, Masami and Nobuko Fujimoto, had become good friends and I was staying there again in 2010, as well as this year. Interestingly, a small Japanese Community has established itself on this small stretch of Stuart Street just east of Shattuck, with extension towards Oregon Street on the south. There was, before the war, a much larger, concentrated and vivid Japan Town and Community in Oakland, but that enclave had been dispersed, due to the war-time internment of all citizens of Japanese descent. After the war, resettlement took place in smaller patches distributed all over the East Bay.

Oregon Street, stretching in parallel to Stuart Street and being the next street to the south, is not one of my habitual walking streets. However once, on my way to a meeting with the Le Conte Neighborhood Association, I passed by that area. Suddenly, across the street, a wondrous scene opened up before my eyes. Instead of the usual, well-groomed small trees and flower beds adorning Japanese residences, there resided a complacent Buddha, shaded by a colorful umbrella, as if contemplating and blessing this little Japanese Community!

Buddha on Oregon Street, guarding the Japanese Community
In the same vein I met, during my present stay, an intriguing Japanese born artist, who graciously offered to help me distribute the book "Fiat Lux!". After having discussed this in her home in Kensington, she surprised me by stepping into a huge sculpture in her front yard.

I was completely taken aback by this configuration of a delicate and charming little woman within the "threatening" claws of an immense crab of her own creation!

Artist Keiko Nelson in the throes of her own creation
Nobuko, my landlady, made during my latest stay great efforts to introduce me to activities within the Japanese Community. For instance, she brought me along to a gymnastics exercise that took place every Wednesday in a neighborhood church. The exercise was led by a combined dance teacher, choreographer, dancer, singer and actor by the name of Gil Chun. This amiable and multi-talented Gentleman led us on in a series of loosening-up exercises that did my aching limbs a lot of good. Most of the audience was of a mature age and consisted of friends of Nobuko. Always sitting to my right, a sprightly "youngster", albeit a lady of mature age like the rest of us, was showing us sloppies what supple limbs and a good constitution could do for your body. As an aside, the only other male member of the group was an amiable Oaklander named Ken who, together with his wife Rosario, gave great support to my book. Ken even introduced it to the Oakland Library and organized a book presentation in its Golden Gate Branch.

Little did I suspect that this Wednesday group exercise served as a preparatory training for a Japanese Dance Company. Realization dawned when I attended a performance of the "Bay Area Follies" at Roda Theatre in Berkeley on May 27. None else but Gil was the main leader of the performance and among several enticing sing and dance groups, suddenly, a troupe came to light on the scene by the name of "Yoko and the Sunshine Ladies". Yoko was of course the sprightly lady from the gymnastics exercises, now leading on a swirling circle of exotically dressed ladies, with Nobuko right in the middle of the melée! A sparkling performance indeed by my friends from the gymnastics exercise!

Yoko and the Sunshine Ladies, performing at "The Berkeley Follies".
Right: Yoko Fitzpatrick        Middle: Nobuko Fujimoto
You may recall that I reported from a visit to the Berkeley City Club in an earlier post (Female Endurance). There was no plan to return there for another photo session, since I was quite satisfied with the results of my first visit.

It so happened that I got a dinner invitation, in the last week of my visit to Berkeley, from an old friend from way back in my student days. She graciously invited me to a great Chinese dinner together with her family. Whilst giving me a ride back home from the restaurant, Lillian, that was her name, suddenly made a detour and parked on Durant Street behind the City Club. With the explanation that she had recently become a Member she enticed me to follow her on a tour of the premises. The Club certainly looked quite different in the evening hours, but enlightenment came when we stepped out onto the upper floor terrace and saw the view northeastward from the building. For a moment, I felt teleported to a Greek Island, with a church cupola serenely saluting distant mountains in the orange afterglow of a sun already set. Thanks again, Lillian, for a lovely dinner and for leading me to this magic view!

View from the upper terrace of the Berkeley City Club
But down to Earth again! One of my favorite watering holes in Berkeley has always been Peet's Coffee & Tea on Telegraph Avenue. Many an hour have I spent there, sipping the coffee of the day and observing the amazing variety of customers frequenting the place. Once, in April 2010, I was taken by surprise to see a magic view of three companions, illuminated like in an early color movie by the backlight of the open café door. In my imagination, I envisaged two authors from the thirties, discussing their latest works, with their muse watching over them with amusement. The picture can still be seen in the blog post "The Time Has Come,".

This year, again, I was sipping my coffee in Peet's when, suddenly, I realised that a couple sitting quite close to me must have been among the persons in the above mentioned scene. I presented myself and learned, to my surprise, that my name was already known to them as photographer of the Karelia Blog. We became good friends and it turned out that the husband, Joshua, was a film maker, as well as patron of the arts, and his wife E. an accomplished dress designer. The first time I visited their home for an unsurpassed dinner, Joshua received me with warm cordiality at the entrance door and led me up the stairs to the living room. Along the way, he suddenly pointed me to a window facing the backyard. Expecting to see a lawn, adorned with a multitude of flowers and brushes, as is usual in South Berkeley, I was flabbergasted to behold an immense structure of what can only be described as an ancient Chinese Astrolabe, filling the whole expanse. This construction, illuminated by the warm glow of the reflected late afternoon sun, appeared as a magic antidote to all the greenery I usually had the pleasure of observing and photographing in Berkeley.

"Astrolabe" in a South Berkeley backyard
This post started with a grand eagle's view of Berkeley and the Bay. Therefore it is only fitting, towards its end, to lower my eyes down to a more familiar perspective and start talking about flowery expanses again.

On my daily walks towards UCB, starting at my residence at Stuart Street, I used to proceed that street eastward until Telegraph Avenue, before changing direction northward towards Campus. But once, I took a different route, taking the first street on the left, called Fulton, on my way to a party further along that street, given by Nathan and Angela (Venerable Veterans). It turned out that the flowery displays on Fulton were competing with those on Stuart in ingenuity and variance, so my eyes and camera were kept busy along the way. Suddenly, my steps came to an abrupt stop, and my eyes opened wide in surprise. In a garden a bit neglected and left to grow pretty much as it pleased, suddenly the front of a car from the 'thirties showed its forward nose to the eager photographer. An amazing piece of art within a general area of gentle neglect!

Death of a Chevrolet
Let me round up this exposé with a more general remark on the magic of flowerbeds. When strolling along in the heat of midday, I usually try to avoid the sunny side of the street and keep on the cooler opposite side in shade. But you will find that even in shade, time and time again, rare and forlorn rays of light find their way from in between facades and trees and fall on selected stretches of the small street gardens. In rare cases this will give rise to a view that most aptly can be described as "the fingers of God, pointing to the magic of his creation". I hope you agree with me that the picture below is a telling example of this magic.

God's Fingers ...
With regret I have to tell you that we are approaching the end of not only the present post, but also of the blog itself.

Still, one piece of magic remains to be told. It concerns my life's largest project, that is, nought else but the two trips I made to the Bay Area in present time and the experiences I gained – and regained – during those trips. Who would have expected in, say, 2009, that I would spend all in all 6 months in the Bay Area in the near future, write a blog of 52 Chapters about my experiences, take more than 10000 pictures along the way, write a book about it all and revisit the area with 100 copies of the book in tow. This is magic on a grand scale indeed! And none of it was planned beforehand, it all developed on the go, so to speak, as actions, urged upon my be circumstances and my subconscious, were being met by responses from a generous Bay Community, as well as a Community of blog commentators, spurning me on with a vengeance and inspiring me to great deeds!

So I think you understand that I am looking at the end of this adventure with a great sense of loss. But there is a consolation in all this. Even if I have left the Bay Area – and who knows if I ever will be coming back – 100 copies of my book (Fiat Lux! Down Memory Lane in California) still live and strive in the US and bear witness to my fascination with this benighted place on Earth. Long may you live and prosper, my dear brain children, and bring joy and appreciation to your proud new parents! To those that have not yet got acquainted with my spiritual offspring, all is not lost: there is the possibility to order the book from abroad at emsvision.com. On that website there is also the opportunity to read chapters of the book; together with a slideshow of all the pictures (even more than in the book); and even read and inspect some bonus material not included in the book.

For the Swedish readers: the book can easily be bought from BOKUS or Liten Upplaga.

What more remains to be said, besides "Thank you and Goodbye!"? Don't rush me, dear readers, a main point has still to be made. During all my trips to the Bay Area, there was one single important fact that made my stays the more agreeable. It can most aptly be described as "The Kindness of Strangers". Ever since my student days in the seventies, I have consistently been met by warm generosity in all my contacts with residents in Berkeley, as well as elsewhere in the Bay Area. It appears, that this welcome of strangers is a trait truly American, and a trait rather surprising for us from the old continent. I am heartfelt grateful for this generous reception of myself, not only as a young student, but even as a visitor of advanced age. Too numerous are the warm benefactors to mention them all here, but they are all represented in the blog – in picture, with name or both. Thank you all again, from the bottom of my heart, for your kindness and welcoming. Your generous assistance gives me the courage to say:

You opened your angel's arms
To the stranger in paradise
And told me that I may be
A stranger no more.


Stuart Street glowing in the magic of the Blue Hour




Monday, 28 May 2012

IT'S POTLUCK TIME!


Time to get our attention back down to Earth from the lofty cupolas. But this time, we are not gazing at flowers, at least not directly: rather, people, in their most neighborly activity, is what we will be studying.

The cosy neighbors of Stuart Street, organized in SNAP, arrange a street party twice a year or more, called a "Potluck". For us Europeans, this means you bring your own food and drink and have a ball around a large common table. The place for this event is the street segment just above the signs you see in the above picture, the barrier fending off any unwelcome motorists who might interfere in the general fun.


I had heard this party mentioned some time ago, but it had slipped my mind until, Saturday last, I got the feeling in the morning of having missed something important. Sure enough, soon I got an e-mail from Mugur, Karl's partner, that a potluck was in preparation. Off I rushed, grabbing a bottle of wine on my way out, eager not to miss the fun. Karl was just about to put the above signs on the street, blocking off the second segment of Stuart Street between Fulton and Ellsworth.


No sign of a party yet, but, further up the street I could glimpse some activities on the roundabout at Ellsworth. It turned out that the good neighbors of Stuart had found it fruitful to start the event by doing a bit of gardening on the flowerbeds there. This gave me a sudden flash-back to the co-operative on Myrstuguberget in Huddinge, where I used to own a small house, and where all of us partners used to clean the commons twice a year.

Myrstuguberget, a nice residential co-operative south of Stockholm
Architect: Ralph Erskine   Photographer: Ambercroft
It was heart-warming to see how, even in this the most individualistic country of them all, there was a vivid community spirit expressing itself in the neighborhood.

Whilst this was going on, other participants started to put tables and chairs on the street, under the warm sunshine of a Californian morning. I was a bit ashamed of having brought only wine, but this did not prevent me from savoring all the delicious food being served smack on the street and having a good time, whilst observing the local mores.

In contrast to us Swedes (counting even myself among this tacit crowd) the Stuart residents are a mighty talkative bunch. During the meal, the latest news were being traded and an easy sense of comradeship reigned over this small enclave. With the food and drink all finished, and when us Swedes would tend to leave for home, the real fun began with a great round of story telling and joke rendering, to the great amusement of all of us. But why spill unnecessary words on this; better let the pictures below do the telling. But, dear readers, stay tuned; there is more text to come after those pictures!



Thank you, dear readers, for staying with me on the blog post. I would now like to take the occasion to present to you two Master Gardeners that happen to live opposite each other on that special stretch of Stuart Street where we are having the Potluck. Both have earned rewards from the City for their innovative and sustainable street gardens. The Gentleman below is Wilbur Hoff who, together with his partner Kris, keeps a wonderland of many flowered buds in front of his house. The small marvels are native plants, who are economical, if not to say parsimonious in their use of water. You see him standing in his backyard, who is no less colorful than the front. 

Master Gardener Wilbur Hoff     Below his Prize
Not to be bested by his friend and close neighbor, the Gentleman below has chosen quite a different route towards sustainable gardening. Karl Reeh, already well known to you from earlier blog posts, has, together with his late partner Jerry Rodgers built up what I only can describe as a kind of South-East Asian jungle, with bamboo trees, banana trees and all, and so densely cultivated that his house can  hardly be seen within this green overwhelmingness.

Master Gardener Karl Reeh    To the left his Prize
I am lifting my cap to these two floriculturists. But the story would not be complete without recalling a third Magnus of all things flowery:  Rudi Schmid, Professor in Botany, retired from UCB and editor of a prominent journal in the field. You have met him already in an earlier blog post (Lofty Parks). Between the three of them, you would be hard put to get a question about gardening and the flowers therein unanswered, let me assure you!


Saturday, 26 May 2012

COPIOUS CUPOLAS

For quite some time now I have been content to let the blog deal with Berkeley, and focus on matters of smaller and smaller dimension. I trust you agree with me that it is time for a break. Let's look at grander schemes for once and let's move across the Bay.

San Francisco is among the younger great cities in the US. You know which is the oldest, still on-going, city founded by Westerners, don't you? In case you hesitate, let me tell you that it is St. Augustine (Florida), founded in 1565. Many people believe it to be Santa Fé, but that city is only the oldest State Capital. Interestingly, Santa Fé could as easily be named San Francisco as Frisco itself, since its full name is La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis!

Now back to San Francisco: as already its name indicates, it too was founded by the Spaniards, way back in 1776, as the Mission and Presidio San Francisco de Asis. It essentially remained a small, contented, settlement, as first the Mexicans and then the US took possession, and it may have remained so, had the Gold Rush not occurred. That turmoil, succeeded by a silver rush and the arrival of the Pacific Railroad, turned this quiet corner of the West almost overnight into a mighty metropole.

A sure sign of the boisterousness of this turnaround was the megalomaniac building frenzy creating that intriguing city. As an example, construction of a mighty City Hall started in the second half of the 1800s; after 27 years of labour, the Hall opened finally in 1899. It surely must have been the largest building in the world in those pre-Pentagon days! Its potent cupola was intentionally designed to outpace the one of the Capitol in Washington DC. Visitors stood stupefied at the view of this colossal city administration.

Alas, how are the mighty fallen! Barely seven years after the building stood ready, in its virginal glory, the great earthquake of 1906 put an early end to it! As the smoke after the succeeding holókaustos cleared, just the smoking barebones of the hybristic monument remained. And not only this once mighty building, the whole of San Francisco lay in smoking ruins! 

Occupants of a normal city may have given up hope at that stage and moved their residence elsewhere. In fact, some did, and the rise of Oakland on the opposite part of the Bay bears witness to such moves. In spite of this San Francisco, in a spirit of utmost indefatigability, reshaped itself in record time, in a great rush of renewed building frenzy. After a short period of only nine years, the city's administrative and commercial centers were standing again, proud and shining, to welcome the great Pacific Exposition of 1915. As an example, the City Hall was rebuilt within the record time of only two years and finished in time for the Exposition. 

This time around, it was decided to give the building more harmonious proportions, in line with the neo-classic design ambitions of the Californian "Gründerzeit". You may recall that this was the time, when most of the traditional buildings of the UCB Campus were being designed and built (The Jewel in the Crown). The Architect was Arthur Brown, a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, just like Julia Morgan. As a result, the building is smaller than the original one, even if it still ranges over two city blocks, and the builders have kept the ambition to have its cupola outpace that of the Capitol in Washington DC.  

Will the new building be prepared to withstand major earthquakes, in contrast to its predecessors? Unfortunately, Arthur was no Julia and lacked her keen engineering sense of "building to last". The Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, although considerably milder than the one of 1906, still did considerable damage to the City Hall. The dome turned 10 cm like the cap of a soft drink bottle and there were damages to the main building supports. 

Left: Capitol Building, Washington DC                     Right: City Hall, San Francisco

As a sign of the true pioneer spirit of America, still in existence in any time of need, a grand solution was found to isolate the building against future earthquake damages. The whole complex was separated from its foundations, sawing through the walls so to speak, and lifted up a meter or two. Thereupon, a great number of huge steel reinforced "rubber balls" were forced into the gap, leaving the building to rest on them. The idea behind is that the wave undulations caused by the earthquake would be dampened, if not obliterated, by the rubber balls, keeping the main building more or less isolated from the quake.  

Impressive as it may be, the building completely escaped my attention during my early student days in Berkeley. Youth strives for adventures and happenings, rather than the patient contemplation of building plans and edifices. But two years ago I had finally matured enough to become interested in this quite remarkable building. This was when I attended the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in the town, which is starting off straight in the front of the main entrance. After an admiring glance at its wall of columns, superseded by the cupola of cupolas, glittering in the sun with its bands of golden stripes, I promised myself to take a closer look at this the most impressive among all city halls at my earliest convenience. Alas, this promise was sorely forgotten, but it resurfaced at the present visit to California, so within the second week of my stay, I decided to pay it a visit. 

When striding through the main entrance, I was surprised by the ease and informality of access. A friendly lady at the information desk asked me to go through the, nowadays prevalent, screening frame but, otherwise, I was completely left to my own devices. Not only that, I was also more or less the only one standing in the main hall and admiring the surroundings. Compare that with the company of hundreds and hundreds of tourists crowding you if you dare enter the Capitol Building in Washington DC. 

The large picture above was taken on the top of the broad staircase that leads the visitor up to the main floor and the Chamber of Supervisors. You can see a glimpse of the stairs going up in the title picture. More importantly, follow my eyes to have a look at the middle opening on the first floor opposite to where I am standing. Within it you can glimpse the door to the mayor's office and, with a bit of imagination, believe to hear the thunder of a revolver being shot at poor George Moscone, who was killed by Supervisor White precisely there back in 1978, soon to be followed by poor Harvey Milk. On a more positive note, Marilyn Monroe was married there to Joe DiMaggio in 1954.

A lot could be said about City Hall's splendor, but I leave it to you to discover, first hand, what a marvelous building this is. Let's instead exit the Hall at the main entrance and take a stroll toward BART from there. There are two Plazas here to await our attention. The first, adjacent to the City Hall, is called Civic Center Plaza. It is a bit peculiar. Comprising a huge space of fully two city blocks, it looks curiously empty and waiting to be filled with imaginative landscaping. I am sure that Fredrick Law Olmsted could have made a spectacular park out of this expanse if he would have been engaged to that effect. Instead, the Plaza seems to have been left as prey to the City Fathers' fancy at any given time period. At present, it looks to me like a large exercise field for the army, with trees aligned in the middle of it like rows of a platoon standing at attention to be inspected!

In contrast, the UN Plaza, which is considerably smaller in size, is kept more enticing and intriguing by a series of monuments and fountains, some serious, some funky (see picture above right) but all cooperating in keeping the visitor, sauntering about, engaged and in a good mood. 

You may well ask why that space is called UN Plaza. In fact, the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco, back in 1945, albeit not on that precise spot. The proper locality is the War Memorial Opera House, which lies on the other side of the City Hall, quite some distance away. The Opera House is also the locality for another historic event; the Treaty of San Francisco was signed there in 1951, officially ending the Second World War. 

Proceeding along UN Plaza, we soon arrive towards its end, where a last fountain beckons towards Market Street and the city hubbub beyond. To see what I mean, place yourself on the other side of the fountain in the picture above. Looking towards the fountain, you will see a peaceful scene, with sea gulls – or are they pigeons – enjoying the pearly spray. 

Turning your back to the fountain, you may be surprised by the abrupt change of scenery. Vagrrants share the benches with the same gulls/pigeons and in the distance you glimpse the destitute parts of Market Street, far south of the commercial center's urban elegance and hoping for better times!



Friday, 25 May 2012

THE IMPORTANCE OF TENDING TO SIDEWALKS


Aging leads sometimes to surprising insights. Only two years ago, when visiting Berkeley last, I felt like a great adventurer, roaming widely over the East Bay, searching out experience after experience, never tiring of exploring new localities. This time around, it seems as if the brain has decided to slow down the pace. I do not feel that great urge anymore to venture forth into new terrain; instead, I am enjoying a daily ambling walk along the cosy little streets of South Berkeley, returning, more or less, to the same streets over and over again.


You may well ask yourself this: what is the special charm of those streets that entices your blogger to endless explorations? There is no easy answer to this, but I will make an effort nonetheless, since the answer has a bearing, more in general, on what makes a city street pleasurable to walk along. The future of the US may well depend on a good answer, since the ever increasing cost of petrol could bring about a change in people's behavior. At present, if I understand the mentality of the people around here right, you take the car as soon as the distance to cover extends to more than half a kilometer (a quarter of a mile). For me, this is just a short stroll before breakfast, to get an appetite so to speak. The more people start to walk, the more they will appreciate – and request – a pleasurable walking environment.


So what is the answer to the above riddle? I think it is best given by looking at some pictures. Consider the two views below. They have been taken last week, whilst standing on the corner of Stuart and Ellsworth Streets in South Berkeley. The left view shows Stuart Street going west; the right one Ellsworth Street going north. Now I ask you, which one would you rather use as your favorite ambling route? To get a better look, please double click on the pictures. Isn't the answer obvious? And isn't that an important message for city planners?

It took me five visits to South Berkeley, in 1976/77, 1980, 1981, 2010 and the present stay, to consciously figure out the difference. Whenever I am in town, I tend to navigate towards Campus around noon. Although Ellsworth Street would be the obvious route to take, I have always subconsciously avoided it, instead mounting Stuart Street all the way to Telegraph Avenue and taking it from there. Never imagined that there was a reason for the deviation. 

The flash of enlightenment came in a conversation with Karl, my omniscient source of information about all things connected to South Berkeley. He pointed out to me that the City of Berkeley had a special régime concerning the stretch of residential side walks facing the street. The City undertakes to planting trees there, but leaves the fringe between the trees unpaved, trusting the residents in the houses located along that fringe to do their neighborly duty.

Of course, not all residents have the sense of civic responsibility to tend to this fringe. Some simply pave it over, others just let the grass grow as it pleases. But there exist oases of cosy neighborhoods, where the residents really care for their stretches. Two blocks of Stuart Street appear to contain an abundance of such neighbors. The result is astounding! Ambling in those blocks is, by turns, like visiting a botanical garden, entering a tunnel of greenery, now accosting a bamboo jungle, now ... The variation is seemingly endless and the untended or paved over stretches are far between. 

I find especially pleasing those parts of the sidewalk, where residents consider it as an extension of their front garden, and make a conscious choice of landscaping the whole ensemble in a pleasing composite. Let me show how two neighbors, opposite each other, have found different, but equally pleasing, solutions to this challenge.

The above example shows the mirroring approach, with the fringe matching – flower by flower – the front garden. This creates the illusion of walking on a path within a larger botanical garden, very pleasing to the eye. The example below shows how the resident on the opposite side, having remade his front garden effectively into a jungle of bamboos and similar vegetation, continues his creative build-up by shaping a kind of vertical garden on the sidewalk's fringe, constantly increasing the size of the mound by adding new planting material. Only the growl of the tiger is missing in this illusion of South East Asian greenery! We amble in admiration among these many facetted signs of gardening creativity!


Sunday, 20 May 2012

THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN

The University at Berkeley never ceases to amaze me. You may wonder what comes next; but bear with me, it takes some warming up to arrive at the topic of today. 

Three weeks ago, I received some visitors from back home in Austria. They were the more welcome since they were from Knittelfeld, hometown of my dear godmother Steffi. Last year, I was on a seven days' pilgrimage, starting from my birthplace, to see her. To my dismay, she was in bad health already then and has since passed away. The visitors came to participate in the Big Sur Marathon and combine this with a sight-seeing tour in the Southwest. Concentrated as I am on Berkeley and its wonders, I enticed them to take a hike around Campus with me. Here they are, sitting on the stairs leading up to the Campanile.

Front: Andy and Margit (Steffi's younger daughter), and Marathon companion
Back: Ingrid (who accompanied me on part of my pilgrimage), and Marathon companion
When ambling upwards (eastwards) on Campus, I usually take a southern route, since I have a particular fondness for the wilder parts of UCB, which are found along South Fork of Strawberry Creek. But with the guests in tow, I chose to go more northward on this guided tour, along Memorial Glade and upwards from there. Suddenly, we arrived at a place that I never had bothered to look at closely, usually rushing by on my way elsewhere. This was a small glade called Mining Circle. There is an elevation in the middle of this circular place, overgrown with grass. We happened to mount it and found, to our great surprise, that there was a pond on its crest, impossible to see from below. And – lo and behold! – the most enticing building was greeting us from opposite the puddle, mirrored splendidly in the water, which was only slightly disturbed by a light breeze.

It turned out the we had stumbled on the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, dedicated to the father of Randolph Hearst, who was a successful entrepreneur in the gold and silver mining business. We briefly entered the building and were as enchanted by its interior as by the building's reflection. Since that memorable discovery I have spent some time researching and documenting the building and it turns out that it has some interesting facts to tell us. 

What looks like a beautiful, albeit relatively small marvel of a building, is in fact the very first edifice erected within the Original Campus Master Plan for the University. This grand name is grand for a reason. Towards the end of the 1800s a new competitor was emerging on the Peninsula, Stanford. The promoters of Berkeley saw with distress that widow Stanford was financing architectural masterpiece after architectural masterpiece in Palo Alto, whereas Berkeley only had South and North Hall to show for it. 

This irked especially another immensely rich widow, Phoebe Hearst, the mother of Randolph Hearst. In a remarkable act of female one-upmanship she financed an international architect competition to design the University's future architectural embellishments. This competition was held in Antwerp in Belgium in 1898 and won by architect Emile Bénard.

Wheeler Hall, Campanile, South and Stephens Hall, still representing a harmonic whole
This gentleman, being French, refused to come to California and implement his plan, but a formidable replacement was found in architect John Galen Howard. He held the position of Supervising Architect of the Master Plan and kept it until his death in 1931 at the age of 67. Under his stewardship all the beautiful buildings in white stone (in classical revival style) adorning Campus were put up. To mention a few: the University Library, the Campanile, Wheeler Hall, Sather Gate, all financed out of the wealthy widow's burse. 

I dearly would like to be transported back to the mid-thirties, to benefit from the marvelous and lofty views that Campus provided in those days. After Galen's (and Phoebe's) death, this prosperous architectural period came to an end. Phoebe's son, Randolph Hearst, kept on financing the odd building after that, but soon redirected his interests towards San Simeon. 

Mining Hall, details designed by Julia Morgan
The building activities after Berkeley's golden age are a sad story. The 'fifties and 'sixties saw a rapid expansion of edifices, every new one uglier than its predecessor; as a result, Campus is nowadays presenting itself to the world as an architectural cacophony, where one has to make an effort looking sideways more often than not, to neglect the bad whilst still appreciating the good. Don't misunderstand me now: UCB is still a marvelous place to visit, even if I am deploring the loss of opportunities to make it a marvel of harmonized architecture. The more to applaud that some of the worst offenders, for example this one just opposite the Mining Hall, are about to be torn down, hopefully to be replaced by buildings more in line with the Grand Master Plan and agreeable to the eye. 

I see that you are getting impatient and longing for a return to today's topic. Not to worry, from now on this post is concentrating on Mining Hall. As I said above, this was the first building by Galen within the Master Plan. This is somewhat amazing, when comparing its style with that of Galen's other buildings, built thereafter. The first one looks distinctly more modern than the latter ones! Even if it has six Dorian columns incorporated into the facade. the remainder looks distinctly Art Nouveau. How could this be? A possible answer is that Galen used a valiant young assistant in the design of the building, trusting her with drawing the facade's accoutrements as well as the structure of the main hall. Who was this enterprising young architect? None else but Julia Morgan, whom we have met already (see "Female Endurance").

We can imagine that Julia, fresh from having received her diploma in Paris, was eager to demonstrate what she had learned abroad. Not only that, she probably was at the peak of her youthful creativity! Have a look at the formidable interior of Mining Building's main hall below. Isn't it a shame that earthquake risks forced Julia to discard with the Iron Pillar Technique applied by her Art Nouveau contemporaries in Europe and instead become the foremost pioneer of reinforced concrete in California? Had she stayed in Europe, she certainly, in my view, could have designed Master Houses at par with those of Victor Horta, the foremost of our Art Nouveauists!

Unfortunately, this was not to be. Concrete as building material does not lend itself to the type of slender, almost ephemeral houses that Art Nouveau at its best could give birth to. On the other hand, what is lost in delicacy is gained in sustainability and for a building to be able to survive even severe earthquakes, whilst still exhibiting architectural aesthetics, must be counted as a formidable achievement by this among the greatest of California's architects.