Saturday, February 26, 2011

27th Annual Matsuri Festival In Phoenix

A Celebration of Japanese Culture 

From January to Mid March the Phoenix Metro area comes alive. There are the huge antique car auctions. North and South Mountain's trails are full of hikers and bikers. The spectacular Arabian Horse show is held at West World. At the airport golf clubs drop out of the baggage carrousels like nickels from the slots at the Indian Casino's. We then top it all off with Cactus League baseball.

It is a wonderful time to come and enjoy our Sonoran paradise. 

This weekend despite some ominous clouds there was another downtown festival to enjoy - Matsuri.

The Matsuri festival is a bit hard to characterize. It seems to be a stewpot of ancient and pop culture rolled together rather harmoniously. 

2011 Matsuri Drew A Decent Crowd 
The 1912 Era Monroe School 
(The New Home of the Arizona Children's Museum) 
is in the distance 

Admission to Matsuri is free (no kidding!) all you have to do is pay to park. You can easily avoid the parking charge by walking about four blocks or by riding the new light rail. Matsuri is held at Phoenix's Heritage Square. 

Heritage Square is a festival zone at the east end of downtown. To its north is the Arizona Center entertainment and office complex, the Arts District, and the rapidly emerging UA / ASU Medical and Biotechnology campus. To its east is the Children's Museum. To its south is Antoine Predock's starkly modern Arizona Science Center, the Phoenix History Museum and Pizzeria Bianco (Chris Bianco's homage to serious wood fired artisan pizza topped with his homemade mozzarella!) To its west is the stunning newly expanded Phoenix Convention Center. 

Heritage Square is the perfect venue for Matsuri, because it concentrates visitors into a compact space making the festival feel energized.


Dogs and Costumes

There is something for everyone. You ears pick up the sounds of Taiko drummers and karate demonstrations. Your eyes delight in the shiba inus, akitas, artwork, and tables full of bonsai (a friend of mine used to refer to them as tortured trees.) Everywhere are kids all decked out in their best anime outfits. And a treat for the nose, lots of food. There is something for everyone: sushi, pork buns, yakisoba, Hawaiian shave ice - you name it.

Food is Everywhere
(Arizona Science Center Beyond)

Miss M was in the Samurai Comics booth selling bottle after bottle of those little sugary Japanese soda's that are sealed on top with a marble.

Lots of Crafts to Buy 

Colorful Hats

Everyone Has A Great Time

Simply a great way to spend a February day in Phoenix.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Winter Walk In Chicago

What Architects Do For Fun

"Why did we have to do this here in winter?"

"Couldn't we have gone someplace warmer?"

These are the questions I faced this week after assembling our firm's leaders in Chicago for our annual retreat. 

I had little sympathy. As a Phoenician I experience just two seasons: "Wonderful" and "Surface-of-the-Sun". So the chance to meet in one of America's finest cities in winter is actually kind of refreshing for me. I suppose if, year in and year out, I spent all winter in a cold place, my feelings would quickly change.

Chicago enjoys a special place in my heart as it is historically where most of America's best architects have come out to play.

Mies, Le Corbusier, and Wright
While Corbu's work remained largely in France, 
Chicago served as incubator for Mies Van Der Rohe 
and Frank Lloyd Wright

The reasons why Chicago assumed such an important role in design are many, but for the most part they all begin with the strategic placement of Chicago, its rapid industrialization, and The Great Fire of 1871.

The fire came during the very time when Chicago was emerging as one of America's pre-eminent economic powerhouses. This convergence allowed its architects to experiment with new structures and design heroic buildings. A movement that became known as the "Chicago School" of architects.

This is also the time when Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and William Le Baron Jenney were experimenting with steel structures allowing America to embrace its new icon - the skyscraper. Chicagoland is also where architects like Sullivan and Elmslie were creating organic shapes cast in steel and terra cotta to use as cladding for their new buildings.

Examples of the era's creativity included the Montauk Building in 1883, the Rookery in 1888, and the Monadnock and Auditorium Buildings in 1889. These buildings went boldly vertical. They embraced ideas like the expanded use of windows (the Chicago three-part window), and the start of cleaner, less fussy lines. The stage was now set for America's transition from classical to modernist design over the next 100 years.

The incredible energy of the era was showcased in 1893 when Chicago hosted the world with the neoclassical Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as "The White City"). The exposition planned by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead (who was deathly ill at the time) attracted 27,000,000 visitors! When one considers that this was approximately 1/2 the entire population of America in 1893, the success of the worlds fair is staggering.

Despite its commercial success, the fair became the third rail for critics like Louis Sullivan, his young protoge Frank Lloyd Wright, and the new modernists, who all felt the fair's neoclassical style "set them back decades".

Undaunted, Burnham's next milestone was to complete his majestic Chicago Plan which has guided the development of the city with wide boulevards, multiple levels (separating pedestrians and services), and the full integration of multi-modal transport to this day.

More recently, Chicago's energy has nurtured Wright, then Mies, Murphy / Jahn, Weese, and Beeby to emerge as a second "Chicago School".

Chicago still takes art and design very seriously. All along Michigan Avenue you see stressed out, chain-smoking, art and design students from the Art Institute and Columbia College.

In keeping with the theme of historic buildings, we chose to stay in the history rich Blackstone Hotel.

Now part of the Renaissance hotel chain, this luxe 1910 era hotel has welcomed presidents, captains of industry, rock stars, and mobsters. It's back rooms are the very dens were political deals were cooked coining the term "Smoke Filled Room". It is directly across the street from the Chicago Hilton where the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention erupted in riots.

The Blackstone is also where Al Capone regularly got his haircut. It is also where Hollywood had him club another dinner guest to death in The Untouchables.

The "New" Main Library (1991)

After our retreat, I ventured outside to take a walk. I first toured the Harold Washington Library. Word of warning do not bring in a cup of joe or try to eat a piece of fruit in there, the security forces swoop down on you from seemingly nowhere.

The Washington library is the result of an early 1990's design competition (that was spectacularly chronicled in an episode of PBS' NOVA called Design Wars.)

The building is an elegant composition of perfect urban proportions and durable timeless materials all working nicely. Then you look up to see the truly frightening Gotham City train wreck of a roof.

The Truly Bizarre Roof

Then I crossed to Dearborn St. to see Mies Federal Center (whose plaza is currently being restored.) Mies steel and glass box is directly across the street from Burnham's incredible Monadnock Building. I then stood in awe of Adler and Sullivan's rich detailing on the 1899 Carson Pirie Scott Department store. From there I made my way to Randolph Street for a wonderful latte from Intelligentsia Coffee. These guys are totally serious about coffee. In fact, I would have to rate this latte as a close second to the velvet foam latte served up at Uptown Expresso in Seattle.  

Intelligentsia Delivers A Work of Art in A Cup

With warm coffee in hand it was on to Wacker Drive to see the Wrigley and Chicago Tribune Towers. 

1924 Wrigley Building (Left) 
1925 Tribune Tower (Right)

From this vantage point you cannot miss the glistening new all glass Trump Building. It is interesting to note the stunning difference between the new and the old. The old buildings had many materials and they exuded power and style. The design of the new skyscrapers are completely devoid of soul and simply trade style for lazy computer designed glass-clad geometry.

2009 The Trump Tower

My time was now running short so after a view of the Marina Towers I returned to Michigan Avenue to ogle the golden topped Carbide and Carbon Building designed by Daniel Burnham's sons (now re-purposed as Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel.)

1929 The Carbide and Carbon Building 

Everywhere you look in Chicago is a framed vista. Whether it is up or down Michigan Avenue or beneath the steel structure of The "L". 

The Architects Are Always Looking Up

In special cities even a short walk in the cold grey winter is uplifting.

Next year we can go someplace beachy.

Is "beachy" even a word?

It should be.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Publican

Unafraid to be different!

Some cities just do food better than others.

Shame on anyone that visits places like San Francisco or Seattle, New Orleans or New York, Toronto or Chicago and does not eat well!

Chicago is certainly one of those places where the food scene thrives.

And this evening, visiting Chicago, I can safely say I enjoyed one of the most memorable dining experiences I've had in a long time.

In fact, it was this just this side of amazing. 

Now, having said this, keep in mind I just returned from 2 weeks in France. So I am in a "good food" frame of mind.

The restaurant was called The Publican and before a visit to TripAdvisor this morning I had never heard of it.

But there it was earning a TripAdvisor rank of #3 for all of Chicagoland. 

The restaurant describes itself as delivering "simple farmhouse fare". But that is bunk. It delivers artful, inspired, gutsy cuisine in a wonderfully plain, yet elegant, setting. 

The Publican is one-of-a-kind mash-up between blue collar and rustic. In keeping with the blue collar side it features beer over wine. Yet the wine selection goes beyond the usual suspects and emphasizes remarkably affordable, yet perfect, selections from Argentina, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.  

There is a clear emphasis on fresh ingredients from trusted providers. 

Many tables are communal and that is consistent with the notion that dishes here are to be shared. We shared an apple salad, a taste of three hams, provencal fisherman's stew, farm chicken with summer sausage, salmon with artichokes faro and aioli, roast suckling pig, shaved brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes. For the adventurous, there are things like sweetbreads and head cheese on this menu!

For dessert we ordered some french-press coffee along with pear crumble with tart cherries, chocolate cake, and a waffle with honey butter and strawberry jam.

The service was great. The waiter, when asked for a wine suggestion, actually directed us to one of the least expensive wines on the menu (how often does that happen?) It was superb. He was there when we needed him and was gone when we didn't. 

The food, two bottles of wine, coffee and dessert with tip came in at under $60 a head. 


Put this very special place in the Fulton Market on your list of restaurants that you MUST try. Reservations are by Open Table, but don't be surprised if the next available reservation is 2-3 weeks out. We did not let that put us off and called.

Despite short notice, our willingness to take a very early slot (5:30 PM) for our party of six got us a table on the same night.

Check out The Publican here:

A final note. After I reached my hotel I realized I had forgotten my sketchbook in the restaurant. I called to see if they'd mail it to me. A couple of hours later they delivered it to my hotel.

As if there weren't already enough good reasons to admire and love Chicago......

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Walk on Nob Hill

The Perfect Convergence - of Cable Cars and Nabobs

Almost every year San Francisco lands near the top of a whole bunch of those "Everyone's Favorite City" lists. It probably helps that it is home to inventive restaurants, fine wines from nearby Napa, a great symphony, broadway caliber shows, 5-Star hotels and world class museums.

But I think the real reason everyone loves San Francisco is because it is just so photogenic. San Francisco is America's supermodel city. It looks good from nearly any angle. For the photographer there are those iconic bridges, shimmering waters of the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, the islands, its urban treasure; Golden Gate Park, Coit Tower, the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf. The list is pretty long.

Every Direction a View

So when a quick business trip came up this week allowing me to make a snap trip to the City-by-the-Bay, I opted in. We flew in, made our presentation enjoyed our overnight accommodations and then had a return flight the next day.

The perk for me was that this trip left me a couple of hours to do what I love - take a walk in a wonderful city.

Since my hotel was the Stanford Court nearly on the top of Nob Hill I started there.

And what a place to walk! Nob Hill is filled with history.

Nob Hill began as the result of a convergence of the right people, emerging technology, ego and lots of money. The first event was when in 1869 an expat from England Andrew Smith Hallidie witnessed a terrible streetcar accident. Wet cobblestones resulted in a horse-drawn streetcar losing its traction and sliding backwards down a steep hill dragging the horses to their death. Hallidie, horrified, concluded the streetcars needed to be propelled in some other way.

Coincidentally, back home in England Hallidie's father held the patent on a new invention - wire reinforced rope. Hallidie made the connection and the cable car system came to be.

The California Street Cable Car Line 
Currently Under Reconstruction

Four years later in 1873 new "Cable Cars" tamed San Francisco's steepest hills. This resulted in its most affluent residents (referred to not altogether endearingly as "Nobs" or "Nabobs") being drawn to the top of California Street in order to enjoy its magnificent views. All of California's "Big Four" (Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker) opted to build a mansion on what locals now referred to as "Nob" hill. Other affluent San Franciscan's joined the mansion building including James Flood who built the first Brownstone. 

James Flood's Damaged Mansion 
Renovated and Expanded by Architect Willis Polk
(Now the Merged Pacific Union Club)

Eventually all of Nob Hill's mansions and hotels were devastated or destroyed completely by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Only the exterior brownstone walls of Flood's mansion survived. Many of the original "Nobs" opted to rebuild in Pacific Heights, and sold their land. Flood sold his house (with its intact brownstone shell) to the Pacific Club, who, in turn, hired the exceptional architect Willis Polk to expand it and turn it into a new home for the exclusive "Pacific Club".

The Fair's also opted to rebuild and update their Fairmont hotel. Little by little the lots on Nob Hill were again utilized for hotels, ultra luxe apartments and the largest church in San Francisco - Grace Cathedral.

The Lobby of the Fairmont Hotel

Coit Tower 
Viewed From The Fairmont Hotel Roof Garden

Today, Nob Hill remains pricey and exclusive. At its east is the expanded Fairmont Hotel, the Stanford Court hotel and the Mark Hopkins hotel. In the middle of the block is Pacific Union Club and a city park with its tortoise fountain.

The Tortoise Fountain

Anchoring its west side is Grace Cathedral. On the North East corner is the Highrise apartment where Kim Novak and her Rolls resided in the movie Vertigo. On the South west side is San Francisco's Masonic Auditorium.

Lofty Grace Cathedral

Keith Haring's Emotional Tryptich 
In Grace Cathedral's Interdenominational AIDS Chapel
(Completed Just Weeks Before his Own AIDS Death)

From Nob Hill I ventured down the steep hills towards Chinatown as its shops started to open. I'm pretty sure if I was blindfolded and magically dropped in Chinatown, I think I'd immediately know where I was by sense of smell. It's unique fragrance of jasmine infused incense and fresh citrus for sale in street corner stores is wonderful. 

Chinatown's Light Standards

A Regal Chinatown Shop Dog

From Chinatown I huffed back up the hills to collect my suitcases to head to the BART train back to SFO. Luckily the trip to Hallidie Plaza was all down hill. 

No defibrillators were needed.

Roadboy/s Travels © 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

20 Years From Now

Washing Cars and Clothes

Before any major trip there can be days, weeks, even months of planning. Making reservations researching travel options. Just lots of details to be sorted out. 

Then the adventure begins and it takes on a life of its own. While traveling time becomes more fluid. Yes, you have to be ready to catch a train or know the closing hours of a museum, but the daily framework of life is looser. 

Work left on the desk when the plane took off receives the care and attention of colleagues. The pets enjoy the affection of others who love them. The pool still gets cleaned, the grass gets mowed, the leaves fall.

The "real" world gives you a hall pass and marks a little time.

Upon return, there is a bit of jet lag. We call to let folks know we arrived home "safe and sound". Exhortations are made about "missing that storm". We get waves from the neighbors who ask about the trip and fill us in on what happened on the block while we were gone. 

"To Do" lists get made. Cars and clothes get washed. Doctor appointments get firmed up.

In reading another blog recently a fellow traveller attributed a profound insight to Mark Twain. The insight was that 20 years from now we will draw a blank trying to recall time spent focused on making money and keeping up with day-to-day activities.

Conversely, 20 years from now, time spent in travel, in the company of our loved ones, and in meeting new people in new places, will be fully and fondly remembered. 

So I guess the question is balance.

It is important to take the time to immerse ourselves in different places and cultures. It balances out the carefully packaged and frequently exploitive view of the world beamed to us each day by our increasingly polarized media.

The immersion of travel reshapes our outlook on the world. It results in an appreciation of the vital differences between worldwide cultures. After all a planet where everyone thinks, eats, believes, and acts the same, would be a sad place.

Then we return home, and its sweet. The dogs are giddy to see us. The cat wants out. We rejoin our precious normal routines. 

A good life left, is a good life returned to. 

Until the next adventure...

Roadboys' Travels © 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Opera and Paris' Palaces of Shopping

Phantoms and Shopper Frenzy

Monday was to be our last full day in Paris. After so much walking, we figured the right thing to do was sleep in. It was very nice to just hang out the "SHHH" sign.

Once fired up we were ready to hit the streets one last time. We walked through the Latin Quarter, across the Ile de la Cite, and on to the Garnier Opera.

While we could not take a guided tour, we were able to take the self-guided walk ogling everything.

Despite more decades on this planet than I sometimes care to admit, once in awhile I still find myself in places that leave me gasping in utter amazement.

Experiencing the Garnier was one of those places.

The building is completely over-the-top lavish and it takes up an entire block. Yet it only seats a little over 2,000 very privileged spectators. After viewing a large model of the building at the Musee d'Orsay I realized the stage area is about as big as the rest of the auditorium (almost dividing the structure on half).

Of any age, this building is an amazing performance space and technological marvel of theater arts. The stage itself is divided into incremental sections (slices) which may be raised or lowered 2-3 stories. The proscenium over the stage provides what appeared to be 6-10 stories of space above the stage allowing for very complex rigging etc. Hence, opera productions performed at the Garnier may have unmatched production qualities.

While the auditorium was closed for much of the time we were in the building (the dancers were rehearsing,) it was finally illuminated and opened. So we got the full effect of the place. Words are worthless, I'll stick to photos.

Grand Entrance Stairs

Miss M at the Main Reception

The Upstairs Lobby

Sneaking a Peak of the Dancers Practicing

The Auditorium

A Ceiling Painted by Chagall

The Loges

The Phantom's Box 5

After being overwhelmed by the splendor of the Paris Opera, we made a two block pilgrimage to the huge Galeries Lafayette flagship department store (or stores) on the Boulevard Hausmann. These stores date back to 1896. The main store, with its amazing dome, was built in 1912.

While Miss M has almost no interest in shopping, I still dragged her there to check out the sales which (by law) in France, only happen twice a year.

The Incredible 1912 Interior of Galeries Lafayette

The chaos we witnessed inside was both amazing and disconcerting. The store is set up with a series of designer studios on each floor. So you step into a Fendi boutique, or a Prada boutique, or a Gucci boutique. However, this time of the year there were so many rich foreign shoppers swarming the place that each of the boutiques must be roped off and guarded to keep the number of shoppers inside each boutique manageable. 

Once inside, the fur lined, Jimmy Choo crowd was literally tossing $10,000 Hermes and Longchamp handbags around (I am not making this up.) They form lines to buy two or three (or more) each. Watching shoppers clamoring over luxury items that "on sale" sell for more than the current Edmund book value of my cars was unsettling. 

The Rotunda of The Main (Women's) Store

After spending some time in the men's department I realized that even at 40% off, the stuff was still way too dear for me, so I happily snapped my pictures of the gorgeous dome and the Moet and Chandon Champagne bars.    

The Dome

We found one exceptional bargain, however, as we had a wonderful dinner upstairs in the cafeteria with a view of the Eiffel Tower drifting in and out of the fog before starting to twinkle. On our last night in Paris it seemed like the imagery was dreamlike.

A Dreamlike Farewell 
to the Tour d'Eifel

The hysteria changes focus when you leave and out front, just aside from the awaiting limos, were homeless people hooded over with whatever blanket they could find sleeping on grates. I found myself forming a prayer for those inside who (like me) will have to experience the eye of the needle on their way to heaven, and those outside who spend this life on the margins. 

Paris, it seems, has always been a cocktail - mixing equal parts harsh reality with ethereal dream.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011