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

The Work of Art in the Age of Outsourced Reproduction

On a recent trip to Montreal, the hotel room my wife and I booked was described as a “loft” and was likewise decorated with the requisite modern furniture and exposed brick walls. An offshoot of a very fine hotel located a few blocks away, our “loft” unit was comfortable and rather tastefully decorated. There were even original oil paintings on the walls, or so we initially thought.

After a few days in the room, something about the “artwork” didn’t sit quite right. It was all too homogeneous- the paintings in the bathroom (yes, above the toilet in a bathroom with no fan) and the ones above the bed and the desk all looked a bit too similar. We initially imagined that they had bought artwork from a local artist of limited creativity. My curiosity finally got the best of me, and I took one of the paintings off the wall and saw this:

Made in China hotel art, Model E-002
Made in China hotel art, Model E-002

Upon taking both the paintings in the bathroom off the wall, we discovered that they both held the same model number and were both “Made in China.” There was no artist’s signature, and they were clearly painted on a larger piece of canvas that was cut up and stretched over various wooden supports to create a number of smaller “artworks.”

The Artwork
The "Artwork"

I should not have been shocked. It’s not that I expect hotel rooms to have great art- they usually have some sort of sailboat or flower themed art above the beds that blends into the wallpaper. I think the shock in this particular example comes from the very fact that the hotel went to such great lengths to brand itself as hip, modern, and urban. By putting abstract oil paintings on thick stretcher bars in each room, it conveys the idea that it is some sort of “artist’s loft” that we had the good fortune to stay at for the week.

They got the image right, without actually having to spend time or money picking out the artwork. Similar to the “FCUK bodywash, Boconcept sofas, and Nespresso Citiz coffee machines” that Will Wiles mentions in his recent post titled Urbanism Sells, this mass-produced art tells guests that they are not staying at the Holiday Inn- they are having a hip and edgy http://onhealthy.net/product-category/stop-smoking/ time in a renovated loft.

When I returned home and started to look for this type of mass-produced art online, I quickly realized it was everywhere. You can easily by a large oil painting to hang over your sofa for $40 from places like Stock Oil Paintings, which is actually Shenzhen Fine Art Co., LTD. On the “about us” page they make no pretense of being a broker for Chinese artists, rather they describe themselves as “a professional manufacturer of oil paintings, sculptures, frames and other art crafts.” You can choose by style, color, or artist. Artist, of course, not meaning the person that actually painted it, but rather a knock-off of a famous artist. Want a copy (in oil) of a Modigliani for over your bathtub but you only have $52? You’re in luck.

As I scrolled through the various pieces of bargain-basement Chinese factory-made art, I came across an “Andy Warhol” for only $88! The irony of purchasing a copy of a copied painting made by one of Andy Warhol’s assistants in his original Factory that has been produced in an actual factory in China would not be lost on Warhol himself, I’m sure.

Factory Made Warhol
Factory Made Warhol

I really wanted to believe that there would always be a market for local artwork at places like boutique hotels- it seems we are told time and time again that the creative people are the ones who’s jobs can’t be outsourced-this is the type of theory advanced by Richard Florida in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class” (who’s also recently come under fire from the left in Toronto for being an elitist) and by many others who want to imagine we can ship all the unpleasant jobs off to China and keep the creative ones for ourselves.

The sad truth is that artwork, to most people, is something you hang on the wall that doesn’t clash with the furniture. The hotel’s interior designer saw no reason to buy oil paintings from working artists when a factory in China can crank them out for $40 or less each and they basically become disposable pieces of decor. You don’t have to actually be hip, or edgy, or an artist- not when you can buy into the image online for half the price of a week’s groceries.

My trip to Ohio

Exterminator’s Window

While I probably have more to say about my weekend trip to Ohio than what is summed up in this photo, I found it very amusing that these exterminators thought it would be good marketing to make a display of stuffed animals having a picnic. Exactly the same types of animals they specialize in killing. If you are ever walking up High Street in Columbus, be sure to take a look.

I suppose it isn’t much worse than having a talking chicken in an ad for fried chicken…

Across an Inland Sea: reading a book that starts in the place you know best

Grain elevators on the Buffalo River
Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Update: I am deeply saddened to have discovered that Nicholas Howe died of Leukemia nearly two years ago. I guess I won’t be meeting him any time soon after all.

I just finished a great book that I stumbled upon by accident while browsing at William Stout Architectural Books last weekend. It’s by UC Berkeley professor Nicholas Howe and is titled Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin.

It caught my eye at the bookstore because it has a photo of one of the Buffalo grain elevators on the cover with the frozen expanse of Lake Erie stretching in every direction. It’s a sight I am very familiar with as it is next to the highway that goes from Hamburg (where I grew up) to downtown Buffalo, and I’ve passed it more times than I can count. For many years, there was a huge blue-green rusting cruise ship docked next to it.

The book is about how the places we live change us and make us who we are, and what it means to write from various locales. The book starts with a description of Buffalo, where the author grew up and where his family had lived for several generations to Paris, Oklahoma, Berlin and finally Columbus, Ohio. I found the book particularly fascinating because not only did I grow up in Buffalo, but I have lived in Columbus and I’ve ended up in the Bay Area- where Howe moved shortly after the book was finished to teach at Berkeley.

Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze
Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze

I don’t think it was until I reached graduate school that I realized how fundamentally different peoples’ sense of the world could be, even amongst people who grew up in the same country speaking the same language. There were people in my classes who didn’t realize that there were parts of the country like Detroit (or Buffalo) where full grown trees had pushed their way up through buildings and railroad tracks vacated decades earlier. Seeing this gives you a world view where you realize how transitory the world around you can be, despite its seemingly permanent materiality. It is definitely at the core of how I view architecture and the urban realm.

Now I have to bump Berlin and Paris up my list of places I want to visit.

Rite Aid Beverly Hills

Yes, that’s right (or should I say “Rite”). Not only is there a Rite Aid in Beverly Hills, they actually call it “Rite Aid Beverly Hills” with “Beverly Hills” written in script on the sign as if it were a Bentley dealer or Cartier. Upon going into the store, it was mostly good old Rite Aid- sunscreen, medicine and snack food as far as the eye can see. There was an ice cream parlor inside too, but I have seen those in other Rite Aid locations. It’s not like they were selling caviar and pate flavored soft serve or anything either, it was just regular ice cream.

Back Window at the Lingere Shop This picture depicts a display window on the back of a trashy lingerie shop on La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood. What was I doing at a trashy lingerie shop? I was on my way to the organic vegan restaurant next door, of course. Note that one of the mannequins in this photo is disintegrating. I don’t have any theories on that, or at least any theories I could reveal in a family-oriented blog like this.That’s the best part about LA- you’ll find insane juxtapositions of high and low culture, good taste and bad, or hippie food and pervert mannequin fetish all on the same block (oh, wait, this is starting to sound like my Master’s Thesis).

Men on the RoofAs long as we’re on the subject of weird juxtapositions in Los Angeles, don’t white plaster statues of men with American flags make you want to run out and buy a suit?

Topiary Dinosaurs & The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Santa Monica Topiary Dinosaurs, proudly guarding the Promenade.

Yes, even Los Angeles has dinosaurs. Of course, they are made out of shrubs and shoot water from their mouths while people casually eat frozen yogurt and shop at an outdoor mall. This is one of the many highlights of last weekend’s trip.

Museum of Jurassic TechnologyAnother highlight of the trip was visiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I’m sure many of you have heard of it by now. It’s a museum that is really more of a conceptual art project. While it projects the trappings of an “official” museum, you never quite know whether the things on display are real or not. You also never really know why they are on display, as much of what’s in the museum looks either obscure, insignificant or both. Long story short, I can’t describe it well enough to do it justice. If you are passing through Culver City, give yourself at least an hour and a half to see the displays and more than that if you want to read everything (actually you would need a whole day for that).

Barking Man in a Dog's Head One of the displays featured this glass case with a dog’s head inside. Through a series of prisms, the image of a man fidgeting in a chair and barking is projected into space so that when you look into the case, he appears to be in the dog’s head. Then he starts barking. It’s priceless, and this one exhibit is worth the price of admission alone.

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 http://tramadolfeedback.com 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.

Santa’s Workshop and the Worst Bathroom Ever

Santa's Workshop, Hambug NYI just got back from a trip to Western New York to visit my family for Christmas. On Christmas night, my brother and I were out walking and happened to go past “Santa’s Workshop” in the Village of Hamburg. I remember seeing Santa here when I was a kid, except it was in a different parking lot. I can’t help but find it funny that kids think Santa resides in a log cabin/single-wide trailer in the middle of a plaza, but it worked on me when I was a kid.

Santa's Workshop, in the Parking Lot Santa’s workshop from afar.

At some point I ended up at the Old Pink on Allen St. in Buffalo. If you haven’t been to this bar, you really haven’t been to a dive bar. It’s filthy, open until 4am (4:30 sometimes) and doesn’t get crowded until at least 2am, the building is well over 100 years old and has never been cleaned, all the lights are red, people still smoke indoors and there is no running water in the bathroom. I even took a picture of the trough in the men’s room for you:

Men's Room at the Old Pink

If you can find bathroom worse than this please let me know. Other bars in Buffalo don’t count.