Sonoma / Mendocino Part II: Sea Ranch & South

From there, it was further down the coast to the community of Sea Ranch. Laid out in the 1960s by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin with buildings by architects including Charles Moore and Joseph Esherick, Sea Ranch is a pilgrimage site for San Francisco architects (and architectural tourists). It is incredibly unwelcoming to visit if you are not staying there or on a tour, however. The roads are private and marked as such. Our sorry-looking rented car with 120,000 miles on the clock (yes, really) would have been a dead giveaway that we didn’t own oceanfront property on the California coast so we stuck to the public ocean access trails and dropped into the Sea Ranch lodge.

A view of the lodge from across the fields:

Sea Ranch, California

The sea nearby. The wind was blowing so hard I nearly lost the camera:

Sea Ranch, California

Portions of the lodge itself are going to be torn down as part of a development being undertaken by the new owner:

Sea Ranch Lodge

Even the public toilets are done in the “Sea Ranch style”:

Sea Ranch Public Toilet

From there it was south to Jenner, where I encountered one of the windiest beaches I’ve ever set foot on. There were seals with their pups at the end of the beach but I never got close enough for a particularly good photo. The beach itself is spectacular:

Jenner Beach

After an overnight stay in Guerneville, it was on to see Armstrong Redwoods State Park. The Armstrong Tree, the largest in the park, is one of the key attractions:

The Armstrong Tree

It’s a spectacular park and nowhere near as crowded as the parks closer to San Francisco (like Muir Woods). I assume it’s probably more heavily used on weekends or in the summer but if you’re in the area it is worth a visit.

Armstrong Redwoods State Park

Northern California: from Wine Country to Manchester with a bit of Angela Lansbury

It’s been a few months, and in those months I’ve relocated back from Northwest London to the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of my time in California has been rather uneventful as it has been taken up by things like looking for a place to live and buying household essentials, though there was a recent trip up to Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

The first stop was the Sonoma wine country town of Healdsburg for lunch. I took at look at the new H2 Hotel, designed by David Baker + Partners Architects of San Francisco (my former employer):

H2 Hotel, Healdsburg CA

Several doors down you’ll find the Healdsburg Hotel, and eariler David Baker project:

H2 Hotel, Healdsburg CA

Heading north we checked out the Quivira Winery, a biodynamic wine producer that is a big proponent of raising chickens and using solar power. The wine in the tasting room was excellent.

Quivira Winery, Sonoma

The town of Mendocino sits on a wind-blown peninsula. It’s beautifully preserved wooden houses are out of another era (thanks to the entire town being a historic preservation district). Our hotel was out of another era too: 1985-1987, the years “Murder, She Wrote” aired. The show was occasionally shot on location in Mendocino, which stood in for the town of Cabot Cove, Maine. Our hotel, while not authentically old, was occasionally used for filming. Their sign even reflects the fictional location:

The Hill House Inn

For anyone who might be willing to question the hotel’s role in the production of the television program, I refer you to the wall of fame in the lobby:

The Hill House Inn

The Blair House, the home where Jessica Fletcher lived on the show, is now a bed and breakfast with a suite named after Angela Lansbury. If you’re interested in buying this house, it is currently on the market for $1.65 million.

The thing I liked most about Mendocino (aside from the ocean) is the design of many of the old homes. While it is known for its Victorians, the “tower” style houses are far more interesting. They have a variety of different sizes and forms, but most have similar general proportions:

Mendocino Tower House

Another design feature of the town is its rustic yet carefully considered style. I love this fence:

Fantastic Rustic Fence in Mendocino

From Mendocino it was up the coast to Manchester. Manchester? Yes, just like the one in England I didn’t manage to visit while I was living there. The California version of Manchester is noticeably smaller and more rural. There is also a large state park that is full of deer:

Deer at Manchester Beach

Across the road from these deer is an incredibly high-security facility known as the Point Arena Cable Station. This is the landing point for the fiber optic cables that cross the Pacific to Japan. There are a number of other cable stations up and down the coast with cable to a number of countries and Hawaii. This one ended up in Manchester because it is the closest place in the US to Japan. I was a bit nervous standing in the trees snapping this photo:

Manchester Cable Crossing

What else was there to see in Manchester Beach State Park? The spectacularly empty (of people) beach, of course:

Manchester Beach State Park

Then it was on the Point Arena, home of this lighthouse:

Point Arena Lighthouse

Join me in my next installment as I share tales of Sea Ranch and Guerneville.

Nineteenth Century Landscape Urbanism at the Brent Reservoir

The Welsh Harp Reservoir
The Welsh Harp Reservoir from Woodfield Park

Within a short distance of where I live there is a large urban lake, The Brent Reservoir (or commonly known as the Welsh Harp, after the pub that used to stand next to it) that supports one of the most important bird habitats in southern England. Covering 110 acres, the reservoir is surrounded by mostly undeveloped land to the north and the bordered by playing fields, industrial buildings and the North Circular Road to the south. On the approach from Golder’s Green, it seems like an unlikely find (Google Maps link) after navigating the pedestrian-unfriendly territory surrounding the Brent Cross Shopping Centre and the walkways over the North Circular Road. The only hint of water is the garbage-strewn, concrete-lined River Brent that flows next to the car park at the mall.

If you travel slightly further to the southwest, you will cross the M1 motorway (the very beginning of it) and  Edgeware Road. From there it is a short walk downhill to Cool Oak Lane, a one lane road controlled by a signal to let cars through one direction at  a time. The open water of the Reservoir is to the left, usually dotted with sailboats and the right is marshier looking and there are often people feeding ducks and geese.

Cool Oak Lane
Cool Oak Lane

While the Reservoir today is a site of recreation and now appears to be a natural feature in the landscape of the area, it was created for utilitarian reasons. In the early 1800s, the canal network in London was rapidly being expanded to move cargo both around the city and north to Birmingham. More water was needed for both the Grand Union Canal and the Regent’s Canal, so the Regent’s Canal Company elected to dam the River Brent. Under a 1819 Act of Parliament, the reservoir was completed as a source of water for the Paddington Basin.

The area’s recreational appeal was obvious. William Parker Warner, owner of the nearby Welsh Harp Inn, turned the area into a fashionable socialising resort in the late 1800s (he was so influential, the Reservoir is often called the Welsh Harp today).  As a result of the area’s popularity, the Midland Railway built a Welsh Harp Station, which operated from 1870 through 1903. The body of water also became an attraction for Victorian naturalists, and was featured in the 1866 book The Birds of Middlesex. Today, it is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Landscape Urbanism has, to a large extent, been focused on post-industrial remediation.  At its core it represents the blending of engineering and landscape design in a synthesis that satisfies a variety of disparate criteria. In describing the work of West 8, Charles Waldheim describes their work as “imaginatively reordered relationships between ecology and infrastructure,”* which I think could similarly be used to describe the Brent Reservoir. On one hand, it made possible a key industrial transportation network, and on the other it created a spectacular habitat for wildlife and a recreational outlet for the rapidly growing city of London.

What is unfortunate about the site is that latter infrastructural investment in was focused on monofunctional improvements, mostly to the road network. The North Circular Road was built close to the south edge of the lake in the 1920s and the M1 was later built to the East. Both function as barriers to residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods and make it difficult to visit the lake and surrounding parkland. While there are walkways in the vicinity of these roads, they are clearly an afterthought- they are often hard to find and unsafe to use.  The image below is taken not far from where the Welsh Harp Station once stood.

The North Circular Road at the M1 Motorway
The North Circular Road at the M1 Motorway

What this part of London desperately needs is what Bruce Mau describes as a “radically different idea of the city- one that presents a synthesis of both man-made and the natural.”** We need more of the spirit of the Welsh Harp injected into the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, the M1 Motorway and the North Circular Road.

*Waldheim, Charles. “Landscape as Urbanism” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader (Charles Waldheim, editor), Princeton Architectural Press 2006, p. 45

**Mau, Bruce. “Design and the Welfare of All Life” in Design Ecologies (Lisa Tilder & Beth Blostein, editors), Princeton Architectural Press 2009, p. 24.

London WildWeb page about the Brent Reservoir

A Seaside Weekend: The Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, in Photos

Southsea, near Portsmouth

The first stop on our weekend getaway was the last stop on the National Express coach, Southsea. After a brief stop at Portsmouth (which is only about a 10 minute drive away, at most) where all of the other passengers except for my wife and me disembarked, the coach pulled up in front of a vaguely futuristic but well-worn strip of buildings with a small amusement park behind them. While the overall aesthetic is mid-century futuristic, I was most impressed by the “Jurassic 3001” sign that looked to be in an advanced state of decay and was adorned with a CCTV camera:
Jurassic 3001

Because the pier at Southsea isn’t very big, its certainly not an attraction in itself (for more thorough coverage of English seaside decay, take a look at this post on Fantastic Journal or this one at Mondo a-go-go). The real attraction in Southsea is the hovercraft! I was thrilled when I discovered it was possible to take a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight, and it is quite a bit cheaper than the other ferry. Unfortunately, the interior of the hovercraft left a lot to be desired and made the National Express coach seem fairly luxurious in comparison. It also reeked of diesel.

Aisle of Wight Hovercraft

Still, floating on a cushion of air across the sea at high speed is pretty cool.

The hovercraft lands in the town of Ryde. It is the largest town on the Isle of Wight, with a population of around 30,000. The hovercraft, being the technological marvel that it is, sets you down on dry land and bypasses the adjacent pier (in the background above). It’s the 4th longest pier in the UK and also one of the oldest, which has earned it listed status. It’s from this pier that you can take the “train” (yes, it’s actually part of the National Rail network) 8 1/2 miles around the eastern part of the island:

Island Line Train

You may recognize the carriages, they are retired 1938 London Undground stock. They run two at a time on a single track to 8 stops.

Disembarking in Sandown, many shops seemed to be closed. There are lots of tourist gift places, shoe stores, and restaurants that I wouldn’t want to eat at. There was also this person trying to sell their dogs via a sign on the door of a shop:

Dogs for Sale, Isle of Wight

After an unfortunate experience with the B&B we booked, we ended up at the decidedly non-luxurious but clean Sandringham Hotel. It faces the beach and the staff members have to wear nautical uniforms while serving breakfast, so it was nearly perfect (despite the avocado green bathtub with a spot of duct tape and the lack of a shower). There was a cover band playing to a very small crowd at the bar, the whole scene pulled from a yet-to-be-made Christopher Guest film.

The best thing to do on the Isle of Wight, now that the Wax Works/ Brading Experience has closed, is to either visit English Heritage sites, go hiking or watch documentaries in your hotel room about thatched cottages. We did all of these things. Osborne House, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s gorgeous island home, was spectacular:

Wrapped Statues at the Osborne House

I was particularly impressed with the wrapped statues, as I have started to collect photos of them. If you are interested in going to Osborne House in the winter, make reservations ahead of time. You must be a guided tour and they are limited to groups of 20. The upstairs was closed for repairs. There are more of my photos of the house here on Flickr.

Then it was on to Carisbrooke Castle in Carisbrooke, near Newport. It was restored in the Victorian era and is also an English Heritage site. Located at the top of a hill, the castle offers spectacular views of the surrounding towns and countryside.

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight

One of the things it is best known for is the well that is powered by a donkey walking on a wheel. There are a few demonstrations each day. Here is the obligatory photo:

Carisbrooke Castle Donkey

From there it was off to the west of the Isle for a hike across Tennyson Down, where the poet used to walk on a daily basis. There is a large monument to Lord Tennyson at the highest point on the walk, which is particularly impressive late in the day. This photo could be straight out of a Christian inspirational calendar:

Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight

We continued walking to the end of the Island and saw the famous Needles:

The Needles, Isle of Wight

On the way out of the park after seeing the Needles, I couldn’t resist this amazing front yard display. Note the many messages to visitors:

Front Yard Display, near The Needles

The following day was less cooperative, as far as the weather was concerned. After a brief stop at the Brading Roman Villa it was back to the mainland. Portsmouth, which has accurately but not very creatively chosen to call itself “The Waterfront City” (as if it were the only one) has attempted to re-brand itself with a massive seafront regeneration project known as Gunwharf Quays:

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

That tower in the background is a tower that you can’t miss, mostly because it is so ugly. One of many oval-shaped residential towers with blue glass to sprout up around the world in recent years, it is known as “No. 1 Gunwharf Quays” and was designed by architects Scott Brownrigg to resemble a funnel (I can only imagine the crit you would get in architecture school with an idea that brilliant). The other tall thing in the regeneration area is the Spinnaker, a ridiculous folly that attempts to compete with Dubai (at half-scale) and has had a broken lift since its opening nearly five years ago:

The Spinnaker from Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

As if going the Cadbury (Kraft?) and Marks and Spencer Outlet shops wasn’t exciting enough, you can sip your Costa cappuccino while admiring this jauntily-painted World War II torpedo:

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

While Gunwharf Quays has been branded as a total success, it is hard to see what it is doing for the rest of the city. It’s not well connected to the city center for the pedestrian, and the massive underground car-park promotes the overall suburban feel. Most of the shops are interchangeable with what you would find at any other similar mall elsewhere in the world. I am sure it’s been a financial success for the developer, though I’m not sure 2009 was the best time to open a high-end residential tower in a struggling city. While the overall development has opened up the waterfront to the public (it was formerly a naval base) you never escape the feeling that you are in a shopping mall.

I couldn’t possibly say it better than this CABE case study: It is a collection of experiences that brings together various types of housing in a carefully considered, safe environment…

As soon as you leave the front gate it’s back to reality:

Portsmouth- view from the Hard Interchange

Warning signs: reasons to stay inside

Snakes! Mountain Lions! Mountain Lion/Rattlesnake warning at Mt. Tamalpais State Park

When venturing into the outdoors, there is always a certain amount of risk involved. I think people used to take that for granted. The State of California (probably because they don’t want to be held liable) recognized that people probably aren’t as savy as they used to be, and therefore has posted signs about every dangerous animal you could possible encounter on your adventures into the wilderness.

Mountain lions and rattlesnakes are, to some small degree, avoidable while hiking. Especially rattlesnakes- at least if you are aware of them you can watch where you step and take precautionary measures. The sign about mountain lions at least tells you to wave your arms over your head and try to scare it away. I really don’t understand this sign:

Sharks! Shark warning at Stinson Beach

“A shark attack occurred here in six feet of water.” Oh great. Something tells me waving your arms in the air isn’t going to do the trick if an 18 foot long great white thinks you are a seal.

Finally, my favorite sign from the Montreal Bioshpere:

Ne Pas Toucher the otters Don’t touch the otters!

Snowshoeing in the shadow of the Donner Party

On Saturday, Natasha and I drove to Truckee, CA to see the snow and go snowshoeing. I didn’t realize that it was going to be nearly 50 degrees outside, which is approximately the same temperature as our kitchen in the morning. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very “wintery” experience, but was fun nonetheless.

We rented snowshoes at a place called “The Backcountry” and then headed to the other side of the I-80 to Donner Memorial State Park. The park has a small museum, camping, and cross-country ski trails in the winter. It is located at the spot where most of the Donner Party spent the infamous winter of 1846-1847.

The trail takes you to the edge of Donner Lake, along the shore, and then back to the museum. I think it is about a 2.5 mile walk. It is flat, and would have been pretty easy had we not been snowshoeing through heavy slush.

After our expedition in the wilderness, we headed to Truckee where we ate some “food” at a place called “Coffee And.” If you are a vegetarian, you might want to consider other options. It’s a pretty classic small diner-style restaurant where you get eight ounces of Italian dressing on a handful of iceberg lettuce and a cup of coffee in a questionably clean mug. They did have veggie burgers though, so I have to give them some credit.