Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Next Adventure

Column in Parque Guell in Barcelona

As I've mentioned before, I leave Portland, Oregon every winter for someplace that is the stuff of my dreams, and that is hopefully warmer.  The Mediterranean is not a surefire sunshine holiday in winter, but it seems to the the stuff of my dreams the last few years.  In a week (December 5th) I will be flying to Barcelona, Spain, a place I haven't been in 24 years.  The first time I visited this utterly surreal city was a turning point in my life's work.  Like so many other artists, I was exposed to the work of Antonio Gaudi.  His buildings are as organic as architectural form gets, and are embellished with the most finely rendered finishes.  There are vast quantities of ceramic and glass mosaic and some of the most extraordinary metal work ever executed.

Faviana's Wedding Altar
When I returned from that trip I began teaching myself how to do stone and tile mosaic.  An eccentric client hired me to build a 'Gaudiesque' altar in her garden for her wedding after I showed her photos of his work.  It looks rather Miss Haversham in its current state of ruin but it is still one of the coolest things I ever built.  The couple then hired me to tile mosaic their kitchen while they were on their honeymoon.  I can only imagine what I could do now if somebody was daring enough to commission a work along these lines as my skills and access to materials have greatly improved.

I also built a patio for myself in my garden based on the book 'The Tao of Physics', which had a profound effect on the way I see the World.  This was my guinea pig for learning how to set mosaics in mortar.   For me there is a clear connection to the influence Gaudi's work had on me at that time, and it still does today.
My Patio Mosaic
The Nativity Facade of La Sagrada Familia
The December 2010 issue of National Geographic had a wonderful article on La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's ultra ambitious Cathedral of the Sacred Family project, which they called "Barcelona's Natural Wonder".  It is undoubtedly the most unusual building on the planet and is projected to be finished in 2028, 144 years after it was started.  It's architectural principals are derived from nature and the laws that govern it, so that the building can be understood much as you would a natural organism.  It has a kind of DNA.  The article showed the progress of the construction of the building over the years, and a great deal of work has been done since my last visit.

The design was derived from building models rather than plans.  I have always been prone to designing my gardens by mocking them up on site rather than drawing them out before hand for similar reasons.  You can get a sense of what you are really trying to do rather than trying to flatten it and make it look good on paper.  

I read this article before I returned to Spain from Morocco on last years trip.  That trip focused on Andalusia and Moorish architecture in the south and didn't allow for time to revisit Barcelona.  There are several essays on the blogsite from that adventure.

I hope to document every fascinating detail of what I see now that I am shooting digitally rather than with film.  I took about 20,000 photos on the last trip after editing out the bad ones.  I will be writing about Gaudi's incredible Parque Guelle, as well as other aspects of his work.  I will also be traveling to Figueres to visit the Teatre-Museu Dali to explore the surreal mind of the great artist Salvador Dali.  This should make for some very interesting photo essays.  Joan Miro, another great Spanish artist who influenced a series of mosaics I built for clients in Portland (see my blog 'The Miro Mosaics') is also going to be featured in an essay.
Detail of a mosaic I built called Cyphers and Constellations in Love with a Woman

I am so excited to be returning to experience it all over again, and hopefully this trip will inspire a new series of projects for me.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Pleasure Garden in San Francisco

In 2006 I was asked to draw up a design for friends for a small garden behind a Victorian house that was under major renovation in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco.  I wound up backing out as the scope of the project was stressful at the time with so much work and money being funneled in to the house.  What was originally there was a sad garden with  terraced decks and a brown fiberglass hot tub.

They undertook the initial garden project with the help of an energetic wheeler dealer kind of guy who oversaw the hauling of tons of material through a new underground garage and narrow flight of steps.  My original design was rectangular to reflect the lines of the house and fences, but they successfully opted for a round flat space surrounded by curved retaining walls to deal with the slope.  Re-sculpting the Earth's surface is how I describe much of garden building, having to move huge quantities of soil and bringing in truckloads of material.  I was happy to have skipped the re-sculpting phase due to the difficult access to the site, and all the chaos of other work that was going on.

A bath tub was added to one side of the circular area, and small beige colored tumbled granite pieces were chosen for the paving and wall caps.  They set tiny pebbles in to the mortar joints between the paving stones and stuccoed the curved concrete blocks walls.  Funky vertical mixed stone sections were used to create transitions between the walls and steps.
Round patio in the new garden

The round area was planted with sod, which soon became a muddy mess where the dog liked to poop, and was none too inviting.  So I was asked to come back and build a pebble mosaic patio, and a tile mosaic to cover concrete retaining walls directly off the new kitchen.

Since my friends are very artistic we put a great deal of effort in coming up with the perfect design.  Eric owns the E.G. Smith sock company which makes a line of thick baggy socks that are hugely popular with school girls in Japan, so he and his partner Marc have a strong connection with that country.  Marc works at the DeYoung Museum and Legion of Honor, two world class institutions.  We went to Japantown to look at books for inspirations and found one with illustrations of various medallions that are essentially like western Coat of Arms for prominent Japanese Families.  We were particularly drawn to a simple lotus design.  So we adapted that form in a rather Islamic way to create a knot pattern lotus flower.  We cut out plywood jigs to use to lay out the design on the ground.

Pietra dura inlay of colored stone in marble at the Taj Mahal
The tile mosaic design for the concrete terrace walls was based on Pietra dura inlaid patterns in the marble walls of the Taj Mahal in India.  Curving arabesques frame botanical images on this most marvelous of buildings.  Flowers and geometry are popular in Islamic architecture because it is considered idolatrous to depict images of people or animals.

I used a brown tile for the background to match the stone they had already used, purchasing seconds from the Pratt and Larson Tile Company in Portland.  These are tiles that had small imperfections when made to order and are then sold for a couple dollars a pound.  The quality of the tiles and matte glazing are premium.  I have purchased over a ton of various colored tiles for a number of mosaics, though I stopped doing this work because nipping tile caused me to have severe tendonitis in my hands.

Grouting the tile mosaic
I hand cut all of the tile with nippers in Portland and overlaid the composed mosaic with wide masking tape so that the panel could be cut in to sections, which I then drove down to San Francisco.  I used acrylic tile thinset to adhere the panels to the wall and then grouted the mosaic.  The panels form the backdrop for a concrete bench which is large enough to place a small bed in the summer.  This forms the terrace that fronts a planter dividing the lower area from the patio.  There is a nice view of the bed and mosaic from the kitchen and makes a nice place to take a nap.

Matty takes a nap on the bed.  A Taj Mahal inspired tile mosaic forms the back wall 
Sorting white quartzite pebbles in San Mateo
We had the guy who's crew did most of the previous work come back to prepare the site for the new mosaic.  First the grass was dug out and hauled away.  We had a drain pipe installed around the perimeter, and had a bed of compacted gravel put in where the lawn used to be.  All of this had to be hauled in 5 gallon buckets through the garage and up the stairs.  This is one of the reasons I opted to live and work in Portland rather than San Francisco, where row houses make up the majority of urban residences.  Difficult access can make a project many times more difficult to execute.

I then went about the laborious job of finding the right pebbles to construct the mosaic.  I went to three different Bay Area stone yards to find black Mexican Beach Pebbles, Indonesian turquoise, white quartzite from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and red sorted out of a mix from Montana which is called Pame at the yard.  A pastel  blend from the same mix was used to make the border, and to fill in the drainage strip around the perimeter.  This part of the project took about 5 days.  Once an adequate supply of pebbles had been collected we were ready to start constructing the mosaic.
Pouring a concrete sub-slab

We hand mixed bags of concrete to pour a wire mesh reinforced sub-slab so that the patio wouldn't crack if there was an earthquake.  We had calculated the grade so that the finished mosaic on top the sub-slab would be at the perfect height, being highest in the center and gently sloping toward the edges.  Then we laid out the plywood jigs and used green marking paint to transfer the design to the slab so that we could begin setting the mosaic, starting on one side and working toward the other.
Marker paint was used to transfer the design to the poured concrete sub-slab

I purchased about a ton of Type S mortar mix in 60 pound bags since that is all I could find at the building supply store in San Francisco.  I prefer to use 80 pound bags but it made it easier to carry them up the stairs.  I do the mosaic a section at a time in a wet mortar base, so having the plywood jigs to overlay on top of each batch of mortar, aligning with the painted pattern underneath kept us from straying from the intended pattern.  I would do the outlines using the black Mexican beach pebbles and then fill in with the other colors.   I trim away the edge of partially set mortar in each section before setting the next batch so that the work appears seamless.  The mosaic is flattened with a 3 by 3 foot piece of plywood that I step on to press the pebbles in to the mortar.  The  excess the is forced up through the pebble is then rinsed away with a gentle spray of water.  This process is repeated over and over until the entire area of the mosaic is covered.  This took about a week of sitting stooped on a little stool over the work.  My poor back.  It is amazing that I can still stand up after all these years of mosaic building!
Setting the first batch of mosaic in wet mortar

Various people tried to help set pebbles along the way, but eventually I banned access to the area when someone stepped in a freshly set area a couple of times.  It can be deceiving because the dried mortared mosaic looks the same as the wet ones unless you are paying attention.  Once the mosaic was finished we had a wild party inviting Bay Area marvelous celebrity gardeners such as Marcia Donehue, Cevan Forrist, and Richard Ward.  I wont tell you what I wore, but it was slinky and outrageous.
Making progress
I came back a month later and cleaned the mosaic with Muriatic Acid once the mortar had cured.  The acid reacts with the base in the mortar to dissolve away the grey film that sticks to the pebbles during the work.  The patio looks wonderful, especially from the second and third floor balcony terraces.  Seeing it from above makes me think that if aliens were to fly over in a space craft, that they would be lured down to Earth to check out this cosmic symbol of a lotus.  I also wonder if it doesn't rotate when nobody is looking.
View from the second story terrace

Afterwards, Marc designed and built a form for a lovely little fountain, with a stone niche set in it that I brought back from India.  The shape of the fountain is sort of like a little Nepali temple, with flexible copper tubing set in the mortar that can be attached to flexible tubing connected to the small pump that recirculates the water.  This sits in a buried basin with a grille on top that is covered in river stones.  The water spits in to a stone bowl and overflows in to the reservoir basin.  It makes a lovely sound and birds like to come and bathe.  Hummingbirds also like to drink out of the little stream of water arcing in to the bowl.  It is quite magical.  I recently build a larger similar shaped fountain for another client who loved the design.
A simple fountain spills in to a carved stone bowl from China, surrounded by lush plantings
Dahlia imperialis in full bloom in November

We planted the beds with an odd assortment of experimental plants that have been fine tuned over the years to create a lush subtropical eden.  The garden is somewhat shady so there are a number of ferns, including tree ferns.  Potted bromeliads and orchids are set in to the beds for added color and texture.  In the sunnier areas we used succulent Aeoniums in varying colors.  A large Brugmansia hangs its night fragrant trumpet shaped flowers overhead.  At the back of one of the narrow beds they planted a lanky but impressive tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, that is in full bloom in November, towering above the garden and spectacular from the upper terraces.

Marc and Eric are avid flea market shoppers and have filled the garden with art, and covered the fences with a collection of mirrors, giving the garden a feeling of greater size.  The garden is simply furnished with a hand tooled brass table from Morocco and teak folding chairs.  Round cushions are set on the patio in summer for lounging.  It is a wonderful place to entertain, or to take a hot bath.  In fact it has the same allure as my garden does, a little slice of paradise.  I hope to do more work like this in San Francisco in the future.  If you have a garden you would like to develop, let me know.
Resin balls hang from a spiral staircase connecting the garden to the second story terrace

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

Taking a nap on top of the bathtub

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Spiderweb Mansion

Man at a bus stop
In the winter of 1998-99 I spent two months of a four month trip to Asia exploring the country of Vietnam, from the Chinese border in the north to the bustling Mekong Delta.  Vietnam is a fascinating and intense country with over 90 million inhabitants.  Reminders of what the Vietnamese call the 'American War' are everywhere, from vast cemeteries to the scrubland that was created by repeated sprayings of the Monsanto manufactured defoliant Agent Orange. To this day there are many thousands of horrific third generation birth defects caused by the excessive exposure to Agent Orange.  The people are tough, hardworking, and resilient as a result of years of suffering and survival under the worst possible conditions imaginable.  Why this war was waged by the United States is very difficult to understand when treading on Vietnamese soil.  Over 3,000.000 Vietnamese were killed during the war.

Some of the 10,000 names of Vietnamese people who died at Cu Chi
There are few places that weren't destroyed by a massive bombing campaign during the war.  Some cities were obliterated entirely by what is called carpet bombing.  Those places that were spared give a glimpse of how beautiful the country must have been.
Limestone Karst mountains near Ninh Bihn

Black Hmong Girls in Sapa on market day
I entered the country with my friend Sally from Laos at the remote and seldom used mountain border crossing at Cao Treo.  We traveled north through the gorgeous limestone karst landscapes of Nihn Bihn to Hanoi, and then up in to the Tonkinese Alps to Sapa and the surrounding area.  This is a region rich in hill tribe culture, and a frequent destination for plant explorer and friend Dan Hinkley, who has made 10.000 ft. Mt. Fansipan a focus for gathering high altitude subtropical plants.

Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, Hue
From there we returned to Hanoi and made a tour of picturesque Halong Bay.  Then we headed south to the imperial city of Hue, with its amazing cosmic garden tombs of the Vietnamese emperors.  I hope to write about these tombs at some point in the future.

Then we made our way to Danang and the town of Hoi An, an architectural gem since it wasn't destroyed in the war.  This is also a culinary center for delicious Vietnamese/French cuisine.  Further south on the coast is the resort city of Nha Trang.  We visited the hometown of my my mechanic Tuan in Phan Thiet.  He hadn't seen his family since fleeing the country after the war.  He has since made two trips after I  checked things out for him.  From there we visited Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City.  Sally flew back to Bangkok and I traveled alone around the Mekong Delta, and visited the notorious Cu Chi Tunnels, where thousands of people lived like moles during the war.

Planting rice in the Mekong Delta
When I got back to Saigon, I decided to exit the country overland to Phnom Phen in Cambodia.   I was on my way to the Cambodian consulate with my passport when I was set upon my children selling postcards.  The next thing I knew my fanny pack had been unzipped under my shirt and my wallet with my passport was gone.  So much for going to Cambodia.  Instead I was introduced to the frustrating world of Vietnamese bureaucracy.  I was able to get a new passport from the US. consulate in a day, but it took more than a week to get an exit visa to leave the country.  Saigon is lively but not all that exciting after 4 or 5 days, and you cant check in to a hotel without giving them your passport to keep during your stay.   I somehow managed to get official permission to travel to Dalat for a few days on a government document.  It was the one place I really wanted to visit but hadn't, mainly because of the Spiderweb Mansion.

Dalat Market
Dalat is a French colonial hill town with a population of about 200,000 people in the central highlands of the country.  Surrounded by pine plantation forest at an elevation of 4,900 feet (1,500 meters), the climate is temperate and the region supplies cool temperature crops for the mostly tropical country.  The vibrant market was heaped with giant cabbages at the time of my visit.

The city was founded by the French as a resort retreat from the sweltering low lands and is sometimes called the 'City of Eternal Spring'.  There is a French cathedral, train station, and many villas, including the summer villa of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai.  It is a popular destination for honeymooners, as made evident by geographical names like the 'Valley of Love' and 'Lake of Sighs'.  My accommodation was officially fixed, and turned out to be a huge musty room with 4 double beds (group honeymoons?) with pink floral satin sheets that made sparks in the dark when I came in to contact with them.  Definitely one of the stranger places I have ever stayed.
Dalat Train Station
By far the most interesting site in Dalat is the Spiderweb Mansion, or Crazy House.  I went straight away, not wanting to linger in my satin dormitory.  It was dusk when I arrived but I easily spotted what in my journal I called "an amorphous glob of structures protruding from the surrounding French villas.  
Approaching the Spiderweb Mansion
When I got to the gate a woman came and told me I needed to buy a ticket.  I told her I just wanted to take a peek, and would return tomorrow, at which point she handed me a menu and invited me in.  So I went to the dining room and ordered a hot milk and visited with a Vietnamese/French woman named Lillian, who had married an American serviceman many years ago.   She had traveled all over the world and was currently living in Seoul, Korea.  We talked for two hours while a woman worked at a desk in another room.  I assumed she was Dang Viet Nga, the person who created the Spiderweb mansion.  I never got a chance to talk to her though.  She studied architecture in Moscow and had obviously been influenced by the work of Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, where I am going this winter, and the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, also from Spain.  Organic architecture is a wonderful thing but doesn't always go over well with conservative minds, including communist officials in Vietnam.  Fortunately for Hang Nga, as she is known, her father was a high ranking official under Ho Chi Minh, and later became president of the country in the 1980's.  In 1983 she moved to Dalat because of the climate and began construction on the Spiderweb Mansion complex and a few other less undulating buildings around the city.  She operates the Crazy House as a small hotel with varying themes in each room.
A tangle of concrete roots and painted steel spiderwebs leading to the garden

Giraffe and Spiderweb window
Said to resemble a banyan tree, the buildings twist up from the ground in to a tangle of vine like appendages that spread out to form trellises in to the garden.  Everything curves and twists in to other forms.  Stairs resemble little rice terraces curving down around trunk like posts, some covered in masonry snails.  Others are like stumps with liana vine railings.   The colors are earthy and natural to compliment the overlapping surfaces in a jungle faux bois.  Some forms are geologic, abstract and surreal, while others are literal, suggesting giant culms of bamboo, or animals, like a large giraffe, a bear, a tiger, an ant, and an eagle.  

Giant mushrooms (very psilocybin)
There are tall masonry mushrooms that lead me to think there might be some mycological inspiration growing in the surrounding forests, because this is a very trippy place in the realm of psychedelia.   Spiderwebs form aviaries with a variety of fowl inhabiting them. Living vines climb up through the masonry ones.  Other structures are emerging nearby and the complex has grown since I was there after looking at photos of a hotel booking site you can see at  
It just gets more and more bizarre as if it were alive.  It would be so interesting to see it now having gained so much knowledge of art and architecture over the years.  I was so young and naive back then.  Also, shooting photos digitally makes it possible to take as many images as I want without the limitation of running out of film, so I tend to document things much more thoroughly these days.
There is also a good gallery of images of the Crazy House at

Lounge chair
Organic table
The Crazy House Hotel has unusual guest rooms in this curvaceous complex and I would have loved to have been residing here rather than my government sanctioned wedding dorm.   When I returned the next day I had a fruit salad  in the dining room and met a couple staying there who showed me their room.  The beds are amoebic in shape and probably hard to make with rectangular sheets and blankets.  There was an amoebic mirror over their bed in keeping with honeymoon atmosphere of the town.  The furnishings continue the rippling forms so contrary to architecture as we usually know it.  Little rounded windows with spider webbing look out on to other parts of the building and garden.  Children would love it here as it is full of imagination and fantasy.   There are visual surprises around every corner in constantly changing shapes. 
An adjacent building under construction

Tree Trunk Steps
Stairways wind around the building or bridge open space providing views from varying angles of forms that have no angles.  It almost seems strange to go back in to the world of right angles after spending a few hours here.

A tangle of masonry vines at the top of a building
Snail like forms on a root shaped post wrap around a flight of steps
Vines forming an aviary in the garden
Spiderwebs in the garden

An alligator coming down a wall in to a geologic foundation

An alien mountaintop room
At least one of Hang Nga's public buildings has been demolished apparently because it didn't compliment socialist ideals.  Her creation is unique in Vietnam, though I did see some inspiring art and interesting garden design in other parts of this rapidly emerging country.  The only other building I remember that she designed in Dalat is an A-frame style villa overlooking the lake.  It is nothing like the Spiderweb Mansion but does contain some interesting curved forms and windows. 

At any rate, if my passport hadn't been pick pocketed, I never would have come here, and I am so glad that I did.  I wrote in my journal back then that if I had to live in Vietnam, I would want to live in Dalat.

A house in Dalat designed by Hang Nga

Before I left I rented a motorbike and toured the countryside.  There are tea and coffee plantations beyond the forests of exotic Caribbean Pine.  Vietnam is one of the worlds largest producers of coffee, and you can get a decent French press there.  I also had to see the Giant Chicken, which was written up in my guide book.  Built in a rather poor Montagnard village of Lang Ga 18 kilometers from Dalat, the giant concrete chicken crows to a culture distinct from the Vietnamese and the government that resettled them here.  The chicken apparently was a gift after they made the move.  Lucky people.  It could have been a Soviet era apartment block.  While I was there a bus full of French tourists pulled up, snapped a bunch of photos, and drove on.  Another roadside attraction.... 
Montagnard people and the Giant Chicken at Lang Ga
I'm excited to be returning to Barcelona after 24 years since the last time I was there.  The work of Antonio Gaudi changed my life's path as a creator of gardens and art, as it seems to have done to the Vietnamese architect Hang Nga.  The French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, a prolific woman I plan to write about was also thrown in to the organic realm of expression after being exposed to his creations.  May we continue get away with creating more undulating wonders for the World to behold!  Thanks for reading this.