Sunday, 31 July 2011

Brew-Ha-Ha in Portland

As mentioned previously, Jules and I have been educating ourselves about the wonderful world of beer in recent times. The many Belgian beer cafes in Japan have certainly introduced us to a myriad of flavours and styles. However once becoming aware of our upcoming trip to Portland, an American friend enviously suggested that we must visit some of the many microbreweries that have become a feature of this great city. Certainly the hot summer weather further encouraged us to seek out some of these popular watering holes. We didn’t have to look too far, with something like 170 breweries in and around the city there was plenty of choice. Deschutes Brewery, Rogue Ales and Pelican Pub & Brewery were just three that we sampled during our stay and they all produced a wonderful range of thirst quenching beverages. A great idea to help us in our choice was a ‘taster tray’, where for a small price you could buy a selection of beers from their extensive collection to be presented to you in a series of small glasses. After selecting a drop that best suited your mood, you could move up to a half or full pint glass. Similar to wines, the brewers had nicely categorised their product (seasonal, dark, creamy, Belgian style etc.) and in some cases they had recommended the appropriate brew to match the food on the menu, which we thought was very civilised! They had also devised some terrific names for their beers conjuring up some imaginative images to tempt the palette Chainbreaker White, Sagebush Classic Pils, Mirrorpond Pale Ale and Bachelor Bitter to name just a few. Not surprisingly we found beer sampling to be a popular pastime amongst the locals as well as the tourists and I must say that the quality of the ales were consistently good wherever we went. From this experience we contemplated how successful the microbrewing industry could be in Australia, where the major commercial breweries tend to rule. Hopefully, someone will eventually pick up on the idea, providing a unique and enjoyable niche industry. It certainly works for Portland and we will take away some great memories of our summer days here enjoying what the local breweries had to offer.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Hunting the Spruce Goose

One of the major attractions we had planned to visit during our stay in Portland was the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. Like us, you may never have heard of this particular museum as it is not as well known as some of the major museums of this kind such as the Smithsonian in Washington or the NASA museum in Florida. In fact it isn’t located in Portland at all, but about an hour out of the city on the outskirts of a small town called McMinnville. Here you will find an impressive collection of aircraft from the earliest days of flight through to modern space exploration. However, the centrepiece of the museum is an aeroplane that only ever actually flew for one minute…it’s the Howard Hughes designed and built H-4 Hercules, better known as the ‘Spruce Goose’. If you have ever seen the Martin Scorsese film ‘The Aviator’ you will know the story behind this gigantic wooden flying boat and how it became the billionaires obsession. Built in the 1940’s, this huge silver bird was a prototype for a heavy-duty troop transporter that Hughes continued to develop well after the war was over. A more recent and equally amazing chapter of the Spruce Goose story is how this much publicised aeroplane managed to make its way to a little town in Oregon. It turns out that in 1993, the Evergreen Museum won the bid for the aircraft after the Walt Disney Company decided it no longer wished to display the plane in Los Angeles. In fact they built a hanger to house the monster flying machine and surrounded it with an array of other wonderful exhibits of aviation. Things have now moved on at Evergreen as they have recently built another large hanger for their collection of jets and rockets and are currently awaiting the arrival of a space shuttle to add to their collection, which will in turn further enhance the reputation of this outstanding museum. Jules and I spent several hours walking around and we found the attendants (who are mainly air force veterans) very friendly and informative. The aircrafts were beautifully restored and maintained and the displays were first rate. Yet like most of the people there, it was the Spruce Goose we had come to see and we were amazed at its design and scale. With the wingspan of a football field, it truly is an impressive flying machine. While it only fleetingly became air born, it is certainly surrounded by the mystique of Howard Hughes and is testament to his ambitious vision. We certainly enjoyed tracking it down and learnt much about many other aspects of aviation and space travel in the process.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Soaking up the Portland Lifestyle

Although the rest of the US was suffering the effects of a scorching summer, on our arrival in Portland, Oregon we were met with surprisingly cool conditions. However, this was about to change as we had brought the warm weather with us and a taste of summer was soon to arrive. As we began to look around, we were immediately impressed with this leafy city, nestled alongside the Willamette River and surrounded by mountain ranges. When we took the aerial tram for a view the surrounding landscape, we could clearly see snow topped Mount St. Helens and the even more picturesque Mount Hood in the distance. This is truly beautiful countryside … it has it all … picturesque mountains, rivers and ocean! This was further confirmed when Jules and I hired a car one day and drove along leafy roads down to the coast for a delightful seaside lunch at Pacific City. Back in the city centre, we discovered it to be very walkable, although it is serviced by a free tram that we occasionally use to get around. As we have found throughout our journey, the locals were extremely welcoming and always keen to recommend aspects of the city and countryside that may interest us. What I particularly liked was the community’s obvious connection to the visual arts. We saw many examples of public art as we walked the streets, as well as numerous galleries including the Portland Art Museum, which has quite a nice collection of European and American works. When I visited, there was an exhibition entitled ‘The Allure of the Automobile’ displaying some of the most beautiful cars from a bygone era. The famous ‘Saturday Market’ (the biggest outdoor market in the nation) provides an outlet for local artists to display and sell their wares. There was a great atmosphere with plenty of ‘alternative’ folk, reminding us very much of our time in San Francisco. We suspected that the relaxed lifestyle, beautiful surroundings and environmentally conscious community had attracted many from the south as it is a more affordable option. The other big attraction (that particularly won Jules over) was Portland’s love for food, wine, beer and coffee. There was no shortage of places to indulge and during our stay we both did plenty of that... no complaints!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Fabulous Fallingwater

After much planning and even more anticipation, Jules and I collected the keys of our rental car and hit road early heading out of Pittsburgh. We had spoken of this journey for over thirty years without ever really believing that we would actually make this trip to view Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece ‘Fallingwater’. Jules had done plenty of preplanning and had even viewed each stage of the journey on Google Maps, but this trip was for real. As we headed toward Mill Run, the countryside became lush and beautiful while the sun began to gently shine through and after ninety minutes of driving we were there. Looking at the filling car park, it seemed that others were also undertaking the same pilgrimage. As we walked down the wooded path, we wondered whether the anticipation would be bigger than the reality, but as the house came into view we both knew that it would live up to expectations. Being wonderfully maintained, it looked as good as it did when it was completed in 1937. In fact it was almost exactly the same, with the original fittings, furniture and artwork left just as it was when Edgar Kaufmann Jr. donated it to the state of Pennsylvania. As we walked through each room, we really sensed Wright’s efforts to bring nature indoors and to allow its occupants to view and experience the beauty of the surrounding countryside from the large cantilever balconies. All the while there was the gentle sound of the water from the waterfall that falls directly below the foundations of the building, achieving one of its most unique features. How tranquil this place must have been for the original owners and how fortunate they were to have Wright design such a unique building for them to appreciate. As we continued our tour, our guide provided many snippets of interesting information regarding the design, the relationship between Mr. Wright and the Kaufmans and what life was like living there. Eventually we made our way down stream to see the classic exterior view of ‘Fallingwater’ that adorns the cover of so many books on modern architecture. It remains quite breathtaking and it's not at all surprising that the American Institute of Architects named the house the "best all-time work of American architecture". For us, it satisfied all of our expectations and made our efforts to get there worthwhile. We had seen what we came to see and had fulfilled a long held ambition. To complete our Frank Lloyd Wright experience, we took the short drive to nearby ‘Kentuck Knob’ to see yet another one of his buildings. Built sixteen years later (1953) it shows another dimension to Wrights domestic architecture. Although it was a very interesting and a totally different type of design conceptually, it was hard for us not to compare it against ‘Fallingwater’. After all, we had just viewed perfection and how can you top that!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why visit Pittsburgh?

After our stay in Chicago it was off to Pittsburgh. Prior to our journey, everyone we knew kept asking us why we would want to travel there! Admittedly it’s not a place that springs to mind when you consider USA tourist destinations, but we were heading to Pittsburgh on a mission. Our plan was to use the ‘Steel City’ as a base for a long anticipated road trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, ‘Fallingwater’. Upon arriving, we caught a bus to the city to catch our first sight of downtown Pittsburgh and were quite surprised with what we saw. Rather than being a flat city, it was nestled within an undulating valley at the meeting point of three significant rivers, creating a triangular cityscape. Its streets are not unlike San Francisco or Glasgow in their steepness. With a history built upon the manufacture of iron and steel, many factories can still be seen close to the river, while a series large steel girded bridges cross the river providing the city with its other familiar title, ‘The City of Bridges’. As we walked around, there appeared to be several distinct areas. To be honest, many of the outlying suburbs appeared quite run down and there is clearly signs of the economic decline. However, as we moved closer to the centre, there was evidence of Pittsburgh’s glory days with some grand old buildings. This was particularly evident near the university where the philanthropy of such notables as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon can be seen with several notable buildings in their honor. In the shopping precinct, there were signs of more recent building development with its glass castle (PPG Place) forming a centre piece of the city and providing a tangible sign that the city is looking positively toward the future. Following our arrival from bustling Chicago, it appeared that Pittsburgh was clearly much smaller and with comparatively less attractions, although it does lay claim to being the birth place of Andy Warhol and a museum housing one of the best collections of his works. However, Jules and I thought that it had a more significant asset in its favour… it’s people. Everyone we met was extremely friendly and happy to take the time to share aspects of their city with a couple from a far away land. They were clearly proud of their city and encouraged us to enjoy what it had to offer, although, like others before, they continued to ask that same familiar question… why are you visiting Pittsburgh? When we told them of our intention to visit ‘Fallingwater’ we were surprised that few had actually been to see this historic building even though it was only a relatively short drive from the city. They gave the impression that they were essentially city folk who were happy to stay in familiar territory. As for us, we were on a mission and keen to hit the open road in search of a place called Mill Run, a waterfall and a very special house.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

It’s all about Mies

Ever since my Design Studies days at university, I have always admired the architectural designs of Mies Van Der Rohe. This was even further reinforced when Jules and I were fortunate enough to visit the Barcelona Pavillion in Spain last year. So while in Chicago, we were determined to explore more of the works of this great modernist architect as this was the city that became his home following his exodus from Germany in the years preceding World War Two, along with many other artists and designers from the famed Bauhaus School. In the 1940’s, the city of Chicago welcomed his arrival and over the years it allowed him to complete many of his most famous buildings. As we made our way around the city, his distinctive designs appeared to be everywhere and we were both amazed at the amount of major public works he actually designed in the city and at the various universities. However, in order to view one of his most famous domestic buildings, we had to travel outside of Chicago to the area of Plano to visit the much acclaimed ‘Farnsworth House’. To assist us in our quest we recruited the assistance of Larry, a Chicago local who takes private tours to this iconic design. Having worked as a guide for many years, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the life and work of Mies and provided us with invaluable background information regarding his various designs and in particular Farnsworth House. This modest one bedroom home has only recently been open to the public following its acquisition in 2004 by the National Trust. In 2008 it had the misfortune to suffer severe flood damage resulting in major restoration work that lasted a full year. However, on the day we visited it looked picture perfect, sitting majestically in lush woods close to the same gently flowing river that had previously caused so much damage. The use of white painted steel and white Italian marble is in stark contrast to the designs Mies created for Chicago, but its simplicity is justifiably regarded as a true celebration of modernism. As Jules and I walk toward the house and eventually stood inside, we could see why. With its extensive use of glass, the house is a platform to admire the surrounding nature. The building appears to float above the green grass below with only a few vertical beams lightly touching the earth. We felt privileged to experience the building on such a perfect day, but like many have done, we speculated upon its future. The building of a nearby highway (which can be clearly heard) and increasing flooding due to man-made changes to the natural flow of rainwater is increasingly jeopardising the integrity of the site. While it stands today much as it did in 1951, this might not always be the case and it will take a major commitment by the Trust in the coming years. Certainly with an increasing amount of visitors to this important Mies building, it suggests that it’s well worth preserving for future generations to also admire.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Baseball Memories at Wrigley Field

If you visit Chicago and you’re a sports fan, a visit to Wrigley Field is a must. This is the home of the Chicago Cubs or the ‘Cubbies’ as they are affectionately known here. Certainly I can’t lay claim to any in depth knowledge of baseball, but a few years ago I bought a book on the history of baseball after watching a brilliant Ken Burns documentary and it was from there that I learned of this iconic sports stadium. Built in 1914, this is one of the last of the old time ‘ball parks’ which still remain in the US and can be found in the northern suburban neighbourhood of Lakeview. It retains many of the original features such as its famous Art Deco marquee entrance sign, the traditional hand turned metal scoreboard and ivy covered out field walls (the last professional ballpark to do so). The dimensions of the stadium have not changed since 1934, however the crowd attendance has been expanded over the years with local residents building small bleacher stands on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, providing yet another unique feature to Wrigley Field. During my visit I joined one of their regular tours of the ground that provides you with a great insight into both this historic ground and the Cubs. Our guide entertained us with numerous stories of the traditions, glory days and disappointments of Chicago’s favourite team. While its cross town rivals the Chicago White Sox have had more recent success, Cubs fans seem to out number them. This conclusion is not statistical, but simply based upon the amount of t-shirts you see being worn around town and the attention they appear to get in the media. However, their popularity is certainly not based upon their success, after all it is 102 years since they actually won a world series! It seems that they have a long tradition of breaking their fans hearts, but still they stay loyal and in fact the fan base continues to grow. As witnessed on my tour, it is a family club that retains its ties to simpler times. At each home game the crowd still sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ before every game; just one of the many other traditions that still that hold firm. Support for the club is certainly generational, as fans reassure themselves that if or when a national championship victory finally arrives, the long wait will make it all the more sweeter. There appears to be no resentment towards the club for their lack of success, the fans clearly love it and celebrate the many happy times spent at Wrigley Field. They certainly won me over and I will be joining their legion of loyal supporters, if only from afar.

Monday, 18 July 2011

In Search of Frank Lloyd Wright

Even if you have a limited knowledge of architecture, you would have probably heard of Frank Lloyd Wright or maybe have seen one of his famous designs (Fallingwater, Robie House, Unity Temple, The Guggenheim Museum to name just a few). He is regarded as one of America’s greatest architects, with a career that spanned seventy years and continually pushed architectural boundaries. While his influence eventually spread world wide, it all began in Chicago where he obtained his earliest commissions and where you can easily trace his initial stylistic development. For Jules and myself, an Architectural Foundation tour of his home and studio as well as some of his early residential designs was a must see during our stay in Chicago. It seems that we weren’t the only ones following the footsteps of the great man as when we boarded our tour bus, it was full of people from all walks of life, states and countries keen to also experience his designs first hand. After a short drive west of the ‘windy city’ we find ourselves in the leafy suburb of Oak Park where Wright had built his family home and eventually his first working studio. Our knowledgeable tour guide takes us around the relatively modest home, which had been continually extended and modified as his family and his architectural practice grew. There are glimpses of the ‘Prairie Style’ emerging in some of the finer details in the home and also an increasing Japanese influence. This is particularly relevant to us, living in Osaka at the moment and having recently viewed ‘Yamamura House’ in nearby Kobe that was designed by Wright during his eventual visit to the country in the 1920’s. Standing in Wrights original studio in Oak Park, surrounded by much of the original furniture is quite amazing and is testament to the ongoing work of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in restoring the residence to its original state. Our guide informed us that they had been fortunate to have the assistance of some of Wrights children, in the twilight of their lives, assisting them with many of the finer details. Following our tour of the house and studio we were able to walk around the Oak Park neighbourhood, where many of the early Wright designed residences still exist and have been lovingly restored by their owners. Over the years some of these houses have actually been demolished, but fortunately none for the past thirty years and the public are now able to appreciate them as they were intended, as functional residential homes. We finish our walking tour with a visit to Unity Temple, which is another Wright design that is still in use. Unlike many church designs, Wrights is much more intimate with stronger emphasis on horizontal and vertical line. All of these designs are precursors to many of the designs that followed and as we view these architectural gems we are able to gain a true insight into a great architects life and work.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Magnificent Millennium Park

If you’re looking for the heart of Chicago, you can’t go past Millennium Park, which sits about halfway along Michigan Avenue, often referred to as the ‘Golden Mile’. Ideally located in an area called ‘The Loop’ (Chicago’s theatre district) and positioned close to the Lake Michigan shoreline, it offers grand views of many of the older high rise buildings of the city. It is beautifully designed with landscaped gardens, outdoor eating areas, pavilions and plenty of places to sit and relax while enjoying the grand vista. Throughout the park there are a host of interesting public art works, specifically designed to encourage human interaction. During our visit it was the height of summer and the magnificent ‘Crown Fountain’ designed by Jaume Plensa was immensely popular, with children keen to splash in the puddles or get soaked by the jets of water that emerge from the mouths of giant digital faces. However by far the most popular sculpture is ‘Cloud Gate’, which is fondly referred to as ‘the bean’ by most locals. This huge polished stainless-steel sculpture created by Indian born British artist Anish Kapoor attracts thousands of visitors daily to the plaza to view a distorted reflection of the Chicago skyline and the various activities at ground level. This bold sculptural theme continues with the centrepiece of the park, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehrey. This post-modernist structure provides a stunningly and creatively sculptural sound shell that is used for a wide variety of outdoor concerts. While we’re in town, there were free concerts on most evenings, attracting people to sit in the amphitheatre or relax on the grass to listen and watch the sun set. We were surprised to learn that Millennium Park was only completed in 2004, as it certainly feels like it has been part of down town Chicago for much longer. It truly is an amazing piece of architectural, engineering and landscape design that literally covers some 24 acres of railway tracks that continue to run beneath. It just goes to show what can be achieved with what many might have previously considered to be unusable land. It remains an exciting addition to Chicago’s extensive parkland boulevard and remains yet another attraction that continues to breathe new life into this impressive city.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Architectural Gems in Chicago

I have always had a strong interest in architectural design, both personally and professionally. Over many years of lecturing to my students on the subject of ‘Modernism’, the city of Chicago has always figured prominently. After all, this is the birth place of the skyscraper and became the adopted home of many great architects … Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe to name just a few. Finally, Jules and I have the opportunity to visit this great city and to soak up its magnificent architectural treasures. There is just so much to see, with the Chicago Architectural Foundation running no less than 80 different tours in and around the city…where do you start! A pretty good place for us to begin was the highly recommended river boat cruise that takes you along the Chicago River and provides a fascinating overview of the city’s development since ‘The Great Fire of 1871’. As we learnt, the terrific thing about Chicago is that you can map out its progress through the development of its buildings. Fortunately many of the original early high rise buildings still remain and you can literally see the architects of the day becoming bolder in their designs and larger in scale with every passing year. As we meander down the river on a glorious summers day, the unique variety of city buildings can truly be admired in their best light. There is a wonderful diversity of style that somehow blends together in harmony, reflecting the cities proud heritage and its willingness to continue to stretch architectural boundaries. We were told by our tour guide that in the recent years, city planners have taken an increased pride in the river system that uniquely threads its way through the city and a considerable amount of clean up has occurred. Designers have in turn drawn inspiration from both the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, which is clearly evident in the design features of many of the more modern structures. While these ‘super talls’ (as our tour guide referred to them) continue to loom overhead, at ground level alfresco cafes, restaurants, sculptured squares and pedestrian walkways now breath life into the city, assisted by a myriad of water crafts moving up and down the river. This unique feature provides a facet of big city living that is not apparent in the city’s more famous east coast cousin, New York. It is clear to see that Chicago is different, while maintaining its distinct character; the city continues to build upon its chequered history and evolves with an eye to the future. In doing so, Chicago recognises its unique architectural heritage and increasingly attracts visitors such as ourselves to the ‘Windy City’.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Teeing Off With Japanese Technology

If you are into sport you would know that Japan has a healthy reputation as a golfing nation. I guess it all began post-war when America imported the sport into Japan along with baseball. Since then it has boomed despite the fact that it remains very expensive to be a member of a golf club and most are situated toward the outskirts of the big cities. In our early days in Japan, our real estate agent told us that he loved his golf and was actually a member of four golf clubs. While he obviously is a keen golfer, this could have been more of a financial investment on his part, as memberships can be bought and sold like property and can appreciate in value. Nonetheless, the average person can still become part of the golf craze and there are plenty of golf shops around to entice you. Also dotted throughout the suburbs are large netted areas where you can buy a bucket of golf balls and happily knock the casing of them (day or night) from multi-level platforms. However, the latest phenomenon is indoor electronic golf, which I was recently introduced to by one of my colleagues. Here, standing in front of a large digital screen, you can play golf electronically on many of the major courses of the world … St Andrews, Pebble Beach, take your pick! Being indoors, the conditions are always perfect. You are supplied with a nice cold drink, given the latest clubs to use and even provided with a golf glove, all at a very affordable price. It’s a combination of driving range and video game, where you can slam your ball into the large screen and have it converted by digital technology into a computer animation that matches the distance and direction of your shot. To add further realism to the experience, the tee-off platform automatically adjusts its angle depending on the lie of the ball and you are supplied with information such as wind direction, the slope of the green, recommended club selection etc. However, there is one big advantage to this form of the game…you never lose a ball! Although the computer can penalise you harshly for wayward shots, sending you back to the tee to try again, adding a penalty stroke to your score … just like the real game! The big disadvantage (or some might consider it an advantage) is that there is no walking and the only exercise gained is achieved by swinging the club. Any calories lost, as a result of the numerous thrashing of golf clubs are probably negated by the drinks you consume. To be honest it takes some getting used to, as it is a little while before you can correctly judge distances. Yet the computer is very accurate and the game is a genuine test of your golfing skill. Certainly my score was nothing to brag about…so it was a typical round of golf for me! However, just like the real game it is a very social activity that is certainly to be recommended. It’s a great way to spend a few hours and more recently has made golf even more accessible to the wider Japanese public.