Saturday, March 28, 2009

Art On The Road

When traveling I always seem to seek out art. It can be artwork expressed by nature in rock formations and the colors of geology. It can be art inside the airport or part of a museum collection. I just know art touches us each in profoundly different ways.

Since mankind's earliest cave paintings, art has been part of, or wonderfully integrated into, our built world in our architecture and fine public works projects. Examples blend seamlessly into the fabric of cities. The art deco details and light fixtures of the Golden Gate Bridge are a good example. 

Over the past two decades architecture schools have instructed that the architecture itself "is" the art. I have even had collaborating architects complain to me that the client "did not leave them enough budget to add architecture" to their projects, as if it was some kind of additive. That comment always makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. It has left our present built world increasingly impoverished as we see yet another rusting metal lattice screen placed over a wall of glass pronounced as "architecture".

Conversely, examples of art integrated into our urban fabric and in our architecture were common until the post war fifties when America joined in the move to "modernism" which changed everything. 

Prior to that I particularly love how master architects in America (like Bertram Goodhue - LA Riordin Library and Nebraska State Capital) collaborated closely with artists to integrate art into their buildings.

Sometimes art in public places is simply what I call "plop art". It is just art that lands somewhere and really has no real connection to the place it resides. Some art looks like it came from a catalog (and in fact many of those "bronze children doing cute crap" sculptures at shopping malls are indeed right out of catalogs).

So this posting illustrates examples where, in my humble opinion, art works. I realize many won't agree with me and I assure you I think that is wonderful! Art is like music and color, everyone likes something different. But this is my blog.

Sculpture in Nature
Thor's Hammer
Bryce Canyon, Utah

Urban Light
Chris Burden
LA County Museum of Art
Los Angeles, California

When art relates to, and forges connections with, the people whose life it will touch, it is most successful. When I saw Urban Light I immediately loved it. The artist carefully restored 200 antique light fixtures from all over Los Angeles. In essence this work reinforced the value of an everyday icon of the urban fabric. Icons that were slowly disappearing. Now in this massive cluster they demand attention as a whole. Yet, the assemblage makes us look at the lights themselves as the objects of art they are. Some have indian motifs in the base, all have that lovely almond globe. At night it is magic. The artist says they make "a statement about what constitutes a civilized and sophisticated society: safe after dark and bold and beautiful". I can't find words to improve on that. 

Urban Light (Context)

Art Incorporated Into The Built World
The Memory Sculpture
Emory P. Seidel
Aurora, Illinois

I love the Memory Sculpture at the end of the New York Street Bridge in Aurora Illinois. Completed in 1931 it commemorates the soldiers lost in World War One. After nearly a century no icon represents the second largest city in Illinois better to me. We recently reinterpreted the Memory Sculpture into the column supports of Aurora's new Police Headquarters / Branch Courts.

Jack Sanders, Robert Gay, Butch Anthony
Arlington, Virginia

This stunning temporary art installation resided in a median near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington Virginia. I feel it was important in a couple of ways. First off, it was lovely. Second, it showcased sustainability as each LED light was powered by solar energy.

The Fremont Troll
Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, Ross Whitehead
Seattle, Washington

Ok art doesn't all have to be serious. For almost two decades there really has been a huge troll living under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. He is crushing a full sized VW bug in his hand (which used to have a California license plate - representing the deep affection Washington State residents have always had for Californian's). 

This art could not reside more effectively in any other place. It is where it is supposed to be. His sparkling eye is a hubcap. Humor meets art here and the fusion is wonderful. 

Home to The Troll, America's tallest Lenin sculpture (what the heck is that all about?), and the frozen-in-time people Waiting For The Interurban, I vote the Fremont District of Seattle as America's home to the most funky art.

Waiting for the Interurban
Richard Beyer

Waiting for the Interurban is probably the sculpture that made me fall in love with public art. It appeared about the same time I lived in Seattle in 1979. It was one of the first public art pieces in Seattle at that time that was not some kind of pile of rocks. It portrays a group of cold commuters waiting in a bus shelter for transit that will never come.

While the piece itself is a wonderful aluminum casting, it is the relationship it has forged with the community that I find amazing. Seasonally, the statues are festooned in halloween costumes. They have party hats on New Years Eve. Every special event in Fremont is somehow translated and made manifest in the sculpture. Yet, it can make us think as well. When Abu Grabe was exposed, Seattle woke to find sacks tied over the heads of the people waiting for the interurban.

If you go to see this one, look at the face of the dog peeking between the legs. He has a human face. It is the face of the self proclaimed "Mayor of Fremont" who, at the time the sculpture was created, was vocally opposed to it. 

Another Beyer sculpture I love is "Lunch Break" in Anchorage. Sadly, I could not find a photo of it. It is located at Anchorage's bus repair garage which is at the edge of the huge Far North Bicentennial Park. It depicts a bus driver sitting on a boulder to eat his lunch. He has his sandwich in his outstretched hand to share with the bear who is climbing up over the back of the rock.

The Big Blue Bear
Lawrence Argent
Denver Convention Center
Denver, Colorado

While on the subject of bears, Denver wins the award for the biggest one. When I drove by Denver's freshly expanded Convention Center, I first saw The Bear. It is big and it is blue. It is the world's largest peeping tom and it lets everyone know that there is always something worth looking at in the convention center. I love it.

Conversely, I'm not too thrilled with the ominous giant blue bucking mustang with glaring electrical eyes that appeared at Denver's airport last year. It also has bad karma. In fact the torso of this sculpture fell over and killed the sculptor (I am not making this up). Someone else had to finish it. 

The Oklahoma City National Memorial
The Chairs
The Butzer Design Partnership
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Art can move from humor to profound. Personally I don't know how anyone can visit America's sacred places such as the Vietnam Memorial and not leave emotionally drained. None, however, has moved me as deeply as the memorial in Oklahoma City dedicated to the victims of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. 

One of the major features are The Chairs. Each "chair" has the name of a victim etched in its glass base. The 168 chairs are arranged in rows representing the floor a victim was visiting or worked on. Little chairs represent the children who died. Chairs with two names represent the three pregnant women in the building. Chairs to the side represent victims in adjacent buildings or on the street.  The chair bases are illuminated at night. 

The Rescuer's Wall
Team 5

Eloquent words painted on the wall of the adjacent building by a rescuer remain. They tell the whole story.

In front of the 9:03 Gate is a cyclone fence that is constantly filled with items left by visitors. Originally intended to preserve the site, the fence filled a need to allow visitors to interact with the place, and this required its incorporation into the final memorial.  

Gates of Time

In what was once the street is now a reflecting pool. Water gently flows from one gate to another. Inscribed in one gate is 9:01. Inscribed in the other is 9:03. This represents the innocence of the minute before, the horror of 9:02 in between, and 9:03, the minute recovery began.

Across the street is a sculpture of Jesus looking away from the scene of devastation toward the site of St. Joseph's Church. The old brick and mortar church was destroyed in the blast. Inscribed in the base of the sculpture is the shortest sentence in the Bible: "Jesus Wept". 

So did I.

Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park
Frank Gehry
Chicago, Illinois

Love him or hate him, Frank Gehry proves with his Pritzker Pavilion that (despite my rants to the contrary) sculpture can be expressed in modern architecture. I know that his bandstand at Chicago's new Millennium Park is a complete joy. I have witnessed it both as urban living room for frisbee tossing kids and as a grand outdoor theater and picnic zone for spring and summer outdoor concerts. This park, and the art it contains, proves the urban core of Chicago has a vibrantly beating heart.

The Crown Fountain
Jaume Plensa
Chicago, Illinois

What could represent a place better than representations of its people? This was the sentiment of the artist for the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. The faces in the water covered pylon constantly move and change expressions. They wink, they smile, and when their mouth's open water springs forth. In the summer, kids frolic in this fountain all day and into the warm evening.  

Cloud Gate
Anish Kapoor
Chicago, Illinois

Ok, lets forget the hokey name. To Chicagoan's it is fondly referred to as "The Bean". While sorta plop arty, it reflects the images of its surroundings beautifully (and arguably could not do so as successfully anywhere else).

Inside the Bean

Once inside the world view changes to reflect everyone in your presence. Very Cool!

I realize there are hundreds of great examples of public art. I can only scratch the surface. I just wanted to illustrate examples that over the years I have somehow connected with. 

I'll let the world rage with the on-going arguments whether public art has a place in Americas finest cities. 

All I know is that when it's appropriate it touches us and makes us laugh, or cry, or just think. 

To me it is simple. Name any major city in the world worth visiting that is devoid of public art. Take your time. I'll wait.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Too Many Points!

Oh You Greedy Point Grabbers You!

A 150K Chairman's Open Letter to US Airways CEO Doug Parker

Dear Doug:

I could not help but notice (with a chuckle) your quote in the USA Today this week. You noted to "Industry Insiders" that you feel that the airline industry has just given away way too many FF Points.

OK Doug. Lets see. 

I can't get through Sky Harbor without being attacked by your credit card hawkers asking if I'm "Travelling on US Airways today?" 

Well I'm on Concourse A or B so what are the chances I might be flying anyone but US Airways? Hmm, aside from the one 6:30 PM BA flight to London, the answer is none!  

Yet your card guys chase me down the concourse with their little clocks and mugs asking if I want "25K in free miles and an immediate free flight after just my first purchase with a new US Airways card". I already have two of them.

And lets see you have a "Double Your Mile's Promo" on until April 30. I'm registered!

Oh and you'll sell me points "if I'm a little short" for an award. Thanks, but I have a bunch!

You also offer no less than four "extra point" promos for rental cars, hotels, florists etc. on your website. Don't mind if I do.

If I eat at almost any restaurant in Phoenix I get points. I like to eat! I do it everyday!

Have I missed anything?

Doug, isn't this sort of like giving me a birthday gift, then calling me an ingrate, and asking me for it back?

I thought it was all about building "loyalty". 

Well, Doug. Its a two way street.



Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

It Matters Who's Late

Half The Fun of Travel is Getting There!

Rant alert! As always, I warn everyone before I rant. 

• Part 1
I'm Late, You're Late, We're All Late!
I had an important meeting yesterday and it ran late. Nothing I could do about it. As such it was clear I would not make it to the Savannah airport in time to make my 5:55 pm flight. This was a triple bummer because I had carefully arranged my flight to link up with my daughter who was traveling home from college for spring break. I called the airline and, for once, I hoped to hear that my flight would be late, alas they reported everything was on time. So I called my daughter and told her to go without me.

I then called US Airways again to determine my options. I found out I could pay a little over a thousand dollars more and fly to Charlotte, overnight it on my dime at an airport hotel, and fly on to Phoenix in the morning. I did not like that option. My other option was that I could pay about $200, overnight it in Savannah, and leave in the morning. That sounded better. I booked a flight for the next day and reserved a hotel at the airport.

Just as we arrived at the airport off ramp (about 6 PM) I get a call from my daughter at the gate telling me that, "hey dad there is still no plane here".

We dash past the hotel and go to the airport. There I meet "ponytail pulled way too tight" counter lady. After I tell her my daughter is at the gate and I know full well that there is still no plane there, she admits "yeah it is just touching down now".  I ask to be reinstated on my old itinerary. Ponytail takes great pains to remind me that I am late and that I have already cancelled my flight.  I press the point. "I know I'm late, but so are you and it was your folks that told me the flight was on time" or I would never have cancelled.

Ponytail gives me that special "my but aren't we a pain in the ass" sigh. I quickly evaluate my options. Option one: smile endearingly. Option two: reach across the counter and commit an involuntary manslaughter. This is the difference between the young and the old traveler - old ones smile.

Ponytail ever so slowly puts me back on the original flights. Of course I am now out of first class and in middle seats. I am also $200 poorer. I have really paid for my lateness.

I wish it ended there but like the Ginsu knife - "but wait there's more"....

I now have precious little time to get through security and as I arrive at the TSA X-ray I find I am behind Mr. "I'm taking everything I own on this trip". First, he discusses the pros and cons of the 3-1-1 fluid ban with the Savannah TSA agent (who, like all Savannah TSA agents is unfailingly polite and nice), he then asks about his laptop computer, "do I still have to take this thing out?", TSA smiles and answers yes. He then unearths his CPAP sleep apnea breathing machine. Then he moves on to the "do I still have to take off my shoes?" question. 

I am back to considering my smile or kill option. I'm getting much closer to "kill". I finally get past him as he gets tagged for a bag check. 

I break into a dead run for the gate. Of course, Gate 14 is one of Savannah's new gates and it is as far as you can go in Savannah's terminal and it is halfway to Hilton Head Island.

I get to the gate and board with the last three people getting on the plane. I take one of the 4 empty Exit Row seats (that Ponytail assured me were all full). After we take off my daughter and I are reunited for our short hop to Charlotte. It was all worth it.

• Part 2
They are Late Again.
So we get to Charlotte and briskly make our way to our gate to catch our flight to Phoenix. On the flight board our flight displays on time. At the gate it is posted for a 2 hour delay. So our score now is Roadboy is late once, US Airways is late twice. The difference? I had to pay an extra $200 because for my tardiness. The airline is accountable to no one.

Finally, with a twist in irony, we are all called to board under a banner proclaiming that US Airways is "2008's Most On-time Airline". As they are making the usual "old, infirm and families with small children" speach, a little short guy with a fancy wired earbud, and peculiar two tone blond hair, not found anywhere in nature, arrives at the counter. Blondie whispers something to the counter people. I notice he makes a very rapid beeline oughta there. The gate agent musters up her most somber voice and announces that "US Airways regrets to announce that flight 311 to Phoenix is cancelled due to mechanical problems".

This, of course, results in a mass sprint of all passengers for the service desk. These days anyone who travels much knows that airlines have zero excess capacity. They also know that airlines almost never rebook stranded passengers on other airlines. The airlines now simply find you another flight, even if it is days later, on their own airline. Frequently, it will be re-routed through two or three extra stops. The only thing you can be assured of is that someday, somehow, you will eventually get to your intended destination.

So only the first few to reach the counter will actually get a seat out the next day.  The slow and the infrequent fliers will get screwed. This is truly a moment only Darwin could have loved proving that only the strong survive.

Meanwhile, I know it is actually faster to take care of re-bookings at the nearby club lounge so my daughter and I go there. Perhaps a coincidence we note that tonight, of all nights, the lounge has chosen to close a full 10 minutes early. My cynical side says that this is precisely where blondie was headed when he left the counter. They were warned to batten down the hatches.

I now go for the second best option - the Chairman's phone line. I get us rebooked by phone. Now we just need our hotel voucher. So we ask the closest counter person if we have any other options to get the hotel voucher. Counter person says "oh yeah, just go get your luggage and then go up to the main ticket counter".

That sounds like a winner to me, so we go through security, pick up my daughter's suitcase, and then go to the main ticket counter. 

Now Charlotte is not a small airport. It is a hub for US Airways. It serves hundreds of domestic and international routes. So one might expect that an airline with 75 counter positions might have a few ticket agents on duty 24 hours a day.

Not so, mon frere. 

Charlotte Douglas Airport closes promptly at 10 pm. This is the middle of the Bible Belt. They name parkways after Billy Graham. They are in bed by 10 pm.  To me, however, in the world of 24 hour travel, 10 pm seems pretty early.

So we decide to go back into the terminal to get the vouchers. We now find that TSA also closes promptly at 10 pm. Clearly, Charlotte is a town where no one stays up to watch Craig Ferguson.

So after a few precious moments with the only US Airways staff left that can be found - the Baggage Services staff -  we get to witness disappearing baggage service agents trick.

You know when my sister and I were kids every time she got scared she'd just pull the bed covers over her head cause "the monsters can't see me!"

Well the baggage counter all subscribe to the same strategy and they run through an open door to "hide" in plain sight in the their little back room. They don't close the door, so we can hear everything they say. We hear "I ain't goin out there", and "I can't make them a voucher", and "they shoulda done what they were told".

Now a parade of Flight 311 passengers are streaming in all telling the baggage agents (that are not hiding in plain sight) that they were also told the same thing. Luckily for all of us "dude-in-charge" arrives. He's paunchy, he's tired, and when he gets there all of the counter people huddle with Dude.

They contend that in a fair world they shouldn't have to make vouchers for us. We should just have to sleep in the baggage claim area. Dude looks at them with blank dull eyes that quietly say "I can't believe this crap". 

Dude is a wise man. A man burned out far beyond his years. He simply walks to the counter and with maybe 10 keystrokes prints out vouchers to the luxurious Charlotte Airport Ramada Inn and we all go to the curb to wait for a shuttle. Of course there are 130 others waiting for the shuttle as well. Since the loop to the Ramada takes it's single shuttle 20 minutes, with each shuttle holding 10, this will require 13 shuttle trips. New math tells us that only 30 lucky Ramada guests will actually reach the hotel each hour. The process will take four hours.  So we position ourselves strategically and get on shuttle number 3.

It is now coming up on 1 am. I eagerly await my anticipated 4 hours of sleep.

In the grand scheme of things all of these travel events are really mere annoyances. We will simply get home a day late. 

My daughter reminds me that "you know we'll laugh about this someday".

She's probably right.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Italy's Jewel of the Renaissance

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"
(Matthew 19:24)

Since I'm gonna assume Matthew was right, a trip to Florence confirms that the Medici's are probably toast. The amount of wealth they unabashedly flaunted in this treasure of the Renaissance is hard to fathom.

This is the City where the word "Patron of the Arts" was born. And as Florence's wealth grew the desire to out do the neighbors took on epic proportions.

In 1296 when Florence decided its old Cathedral just would not do, it decided to begin its replacement with a new one. The new cathedral would have to be spectacular. It would have 3 naves and a wide choir. Its theme would reference the flower of Christ.

60 years later when the main structure was being completed, the overall design had become progressively more and more complex. So Florence now had a church already under construction for a lifetime, where no one really knew how (if) a roof could be designed to enclose it. The Florentines just knew if it could be done they would possess the most spectacular dome ever created. The task to figure it out was awarded to Filippo Brunelleschi and his masterpiece of engineering was completed in just 16 years.

Two hundred years after completion of the dome its frescos' were being completed. The actual facade of the church was not completed until 1884. For those keeping score the project took 588 years!

Today the Duomo, visible from miles away, is still the most defining feature of the City.

Most of the achievements of many of the wealthy families of Florence have long since fallen into obscurity, but their relentless obsession with trying to outdo each other in the creation of art and architecture has turned out to be their real legacy to the world.    

The Baptistery Doors

Almost as a complete juxtoposition to the size of the Duomo, its baptistery is a small octagon shaped building, set just outside of the main cathedral. On each side of the baptistery are huge bronze doors that depict the entire story of Christianity culminating with Ghiberti's "Door to Paradise". The doors on the baptistery today are replica's as the original had to be moved to save them from degradation resulting from exposure to smog. You can access the doors by day, but armored covers arise from beneath the door thresholds to protect them at night. 

The Hilltop Oasis of Fiesole 

When the summer heat and smog in Florence become unbearable, head up the nearby mountain to the Village of Fiesole. The winding road to it is filled with gardens, schools, homes and trees. At the top you are rewarded with spectacular views of Florence. Check the double decker tour buses as one route goes to Fiesole. 

The English Cemetery

Expatriates from around the world have always come and made Florence their home, whether to paint, write, or just dream. Some wind up resting here forever. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried in Florence's "English" Cemetery.

Florentine Style is Appreciated the World Over

Like everything else in Florence, the ability to demonstrate ones wealth translates into every aspect of life; expensive cars, the best art, and very well designed clothing. This is home to Ferragamo and Gucci. Similar to the Spanish, Florentines discretely evaluate each other with a glance at each others shoes. Fine shoes move you up in status. Of course American's in their comfy sneakers are gently dismissed.

Florence and The Duomo From Fiesole

The Ponte Vecchio 
From The Uffizzi

Florence's dense historic core is filled year round with pedestrians. Every block seemingly leads visitors to more designer stores, more museums, more restaurants, and more sculpture.  

Since most visitors would never think of leaving Florence without seeing the David, the Duomo, the Uffizzi, they eventually wind up at the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge). 

The Ponte Vecchio is sort of Florence's Rialto Bridge. Originally filled with butcher shops and food stalls, its smells made it a poor neighbor to the uber rich that lived by the river. So much so that Ferdinand I replaced the butcher shops with the goldsmiths still found there today.

When you look at the bridge note the private walkway built above all of the shops to allow private passage across the bridge by the Medici's. In both of my visits to Florence I had never even noticed the "Vasarian Corridor" that links the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence's original City Hall that was converted to be the Medici Family Palace) to the Pitti Palace (which was built by Florentine merchant Luca Pitti) and eventually purchased by the Medici's. This allowed them to walk between both properties without having to mix with the crowds in the street below. Today the corridor serves as an art gallery.

Although the core is off limits to most automobiles, and for the most part a pedestrian's dream, the shear density of people, eventually makes me long for relief. That relief comes merely by crossing to the south bank of the glassy Arno River. Here you find more hills, the Pitti Palace, and its beautiful Boboli gardens, and lovely tree lined streets that leading up to Piazza Michelangelo and some of Florence's most beautiful neighborhoods.  

A Replica of David Gazes Down Upon Florence 
From Piazza Michelangelo

Rubbing the Boars Nose in The Mercato Centrale 
Assures a Return to Florence

Getting to Florence is easy.  It is served by air and is the regions major rail hub. Once there, you can use buses, cabs, and good old shoe leather. 

Staying in Florence is more of a challenge. Hotels in the historic core are old and expensive. We opted for the quiet and modern suburban Hilton Metropole. This business friendly highrise offers all of the amenities of a modern hotel along with a decent rooftop concierge lounge and a free shuttle between the hotel and the train station at the edge of the historic zone. A word of caution, since Italians eat late restaurants are just opening for dinner when the hotel shuttle is ending its runs, so there is a disconnect. While we found staff and facilities in the the hotel to be fine, Trip Advisor comments from other guests clearly indicate the hotel has its warts.  Next time we visit we are going to try to stay in Fiesole.

Florence is one of those places everyone should see (at least) once in their lifetime. But try to avoid it in the stifling hot, tourist deluged, summer. You will enjoy a visit much more in the spring or fall.

Last bit of advice if you visit Florence you must stop at GROM for gelato. If you go to Florence and miss GROM, well then turn around and go back!

Roadboys Travels © 2009