Wednesday, 31 August 2011


The scale of Texas can at times be disorientating, it’s easier to divide the day into distance rather than time. 200 miles to this place, 150 miles to the next and so on. It’s only once you can directly compare the size of the car against the vast expanses that stretch out in every distance that you get a proper sense for the epic scale of this country.

Shortly after leaving Louisiana, the corporate skyline of downtown Houston comes into focus. The now predictable format of high-rise cluster surrounded by sprawl that seems to be adopted by almost every American city is once again replicated here. Whilst the city clearly lacks any kind of genuine character, the mere arrogance and aggression that radiates off of the mirrored glass oil fortresses provides Houston with more than enough attitude to let you know you’ve arrived in Texas. After closely studying the schedule it became apparent there was just about enough time to squeeze in a 550 mile round trip detour to Dallas and Fort Worth.

The two brief stays in Houston and Dallas haven’t provided enough for me to make a fair comparison between the two, but from what I could see they are pretty similar, their freeway-encompassed downtowns could easily be mistaken for each other. We were in Dallas for one thing only; to once and for all solve the JFK assassination conspiracy, but without Jesse Ventura and June Sarpong on hand to help the trail quickly ran cold. We then traversed the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro-plex to see Tadao Ando’s Museum of Modern Art, which is probably one of the most translucent, and weightless concrete buildings I have ever visited.

We then megaloped down to Austin just in time to see the daily mass exodus at sunset of 1.5 million bats from below the Congress Avenue Bridge. After ribs in town we filled up on gas and supplies and headed west out into the desert. The terrain dries out into parched fields of dehydrated plants that rolls off into distant mountain ranges, time to whip out the Ennio Morricone playlist. We stopped off at Luckenbach which was billed to me as a “Ghost Town” but in fact was now a venue for hire that had a wedding going on and was far more lively than any of the cities we had visited.

We took the I-10 across the desert, taking full advantage of the 80 MPH limit and after about 450 miles finally pulled into Alpine, deep in South West Texas. The small town of Marfa lies about 20 miles down the road and is the random location of the Chinati Foundation, a series of exhibition halls filled with art by world famous artists, as well as several other artistic endeavours. The foundation provides 6 hour long tours of the work of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Fortunately for us we arrived too late to get on the list and chose instead to head to another ghost town of Shafter which was largely fenced off and somewhat disappointing. A border patrol checkpoint reminded us of how close Mexico is and of the astronomical amounts of violence that occurs only a few miles away.

On our way toward El Paso we stopped off at the most remote Prada Store in the world and then another slightly more rewarding ghost town next to a talc factory. As night fell and a fantastic sunset bled into the sky we slipped through El Paso trying not to look too suspicious as we drove around the federal facilities that make up the down town area, trying to find somewhere to eat. It wasn't long before we got out and headed north, crossing state lines and into New Mexico.

New Orleans

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Deep South

Two bold yellow lines guide us south through Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, towards New Orleans. The contrasts and juxtapositions of American culture become ever more prevalent as adult superstores are followed by billboards quoting commandments from the bible followed by adult superstores. People become more and more amiable whilst the violent crime figures rise. Endless unassuming cotton fields belie their direct influence on the industrialisation of the world.

The states of Kentucky and Tennessee sit like strips of streaky bacon on the giant turkey that is America and we drove across both, gobbling up everything in our path. We explored the Mammoth Caves, the largest mapped cave system in the world that also provided a great setting to re-enact various scenes of Scooby-Doo, Yoinks!

As the odometer ticked over 2000 miles our schedule forced us down to Nashville and onto Memphis where every shop or restaurant plays rock ‘n roll out into the street, slightly surreal for a Sunday morning. The cotton exchanges of downtown are a reminder of the source of so much wealth yet suffering in the South. The tensions of America’s racial problems are explored in incredible depth at the National Civil Rights Museum, built into the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead. There was enough time to stop off at Gus’s before we set off following the Mississippi as it oozes out of Memphis and down toward the Gulf of Mexico.

As I write this we are driving down I 55 south, passing through sections of heavy rain and bright sunlight, crawling towards New Orleans and at every stop the TV is showing diagrams of Irene on repeat. This area seems to be where some of the most aggressive forms of nature meet the most stubborn of people.

The Midwest

Gary IN, Courtesy of WJTA
If you didn’t notice the sign welcoming you to Indiana then the immediate deterioration in the road surface will let you know where you are. After leaving Detroit and driving the width of Michigan we found ourselves in Gary IN, a stripped out, burnt down crater of a city. Mountain ranges of steel mills provide a backdrop for what is, according to the FBI, America’s 9th most dangerous city. Fields of chemical plants create clouds of acrid gasses that our sat-nav seems to repeatedly drag us through. Without stopping, we followed the edge of Lake Michigan onto Lake Shore Drive and into Chicago.

In 1993 William Gibson wrote an article called “Disneyland with the death penalty” where he criticised the sterile environment of Singapore, contrasting it with the unintended textures and qualities of less sanitized places such as the Kowloon walled city. What Gibson didn’t appreciate was that this is the exact impression Singapore wanted to create, with the ultimate concern being the quality of life for its citizens. The sad thing about Chicago is that it achieves a similar level of blandness and lack of character whilst trying pretty hard to do the opposite. The city acts as a receptacle for many great works of art and architecture, but as a whole there is a severe lack of any vibe. It’s unusual for me to not be able eat an American speciality but the Chicago deep dish pizza was pretty much inedible, like trying to chew through a slab of kraft cheese swimming in a tin of chopped tomatoes.

Talking of swimming, being able to go to a beach in the downtown district of a city is quite a novelty to me and paddling around Lake Michigan allowed me to see another side to the city (literally). Other highlights included the Green Mill Jazz Bar and the IIT. Having a campus built by Van der Rohe and a student facilities centre designed by OMA make UCL feel a bit inferior.

We were on the road again, south through Indiana and sailing through seas of pulsating lights mounted on wind turbines. Indianapolis, with its malls, conference centres and stadiums that appear to have crash-landed in Downtown provided little entertainment. Cincinnati was a little better, the Over-the-Rhine area, which forms the standard US city “strip” of lively bar and restaurant street from which you shouldn’t really wander from at night, was pleasantly surprising.  Seeing Murray, Nadal and Federer at the Cincinnati masters was worth the trip to Cincy. From here we will drive south and enter the third chapter of the road trip.

Monday, 15 August 2011


I’ve read and watched quite a bit about Detroit and I was sceptical about whether the tales of a dying city that was practically abandoned were exaggerations created to fuel an ongoing myth. I was expecting to find a city that is partially decaying, but still in the most part a large modern day city. The tales are true, Detroit is pretty much dead, few parts of the city that we visited felt like they had any future.

Once one of the richest and most prosperous cities in the States, Detroit made the mistake of putting all its eggs in one basket by relying solely on the car industry for income. Following recession after recession and competition from Japanese markets, the car industry could no longer support the city and its inhabitants. This has led to a spectacular amount of urban decay choc-a-block with photographers capturing everything from the Michigan State Station to the Model T Ford Factory. And whilst I can’t help but feel a little guilty as I stick my camera towards a row of empty houses, which is still a few people’s neighbourhood, this place is a phenomenon that needs recording.

We parked inside the old Michigan Theatre that has been filled in with 3 levels of parking space but with  the grand ceiling largely intact. The downtown area has been pretty much evacuated except for Lafayettes Restaurant which serves “Coney Island Dogs”, hot dogs covered in chilli that bear no resemblance to the hot dogs on Coney Island. Down by the waterfront the Renaissance Centre gives off that Evil Multi-National Corporation vibe that was probably at least partially intentional. Further down is Detroit’s version of the High-line, the Dequindre cut; a sunken railway route turned into a park.

We cruised around the vacant districts that criss-cross the city, all with a kid rock concert going on in one of the distant downtown stadiums, trying to find the Heidelberg project. The Heidelberg project consists of several blocks of vacant houses that have been turned into art installations including a polka dot house and a building covered in teddy bears. I’m not entirely sure if the artists intended it, but this has become a surreal area, other areas of the city have been used to grow food, creating some kind of subsistence way of life for the people.

Before we left the city, seeing as it is Motown, we went to a drive-in movie. The spectacular array of screens surrounding us with the lightning of a thunderstorm going on in the background more than compensated for the shitness of Captain America.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Open Road

We have a car. After a visit to the DMV office on 42nd Street it became obvious that our only choice was to rent and with my deluded fantasies of my ultimate car already dwindling, we went round to the hertz garage to pick up our um …… Prius. Well at least I can feel good that I’m giving something back to the environment from which I have so readily taken (Or perhaps just taking slightly less than I would have done), it gets 45 miles to the gallon.

After escaping from New York we took the New Jersey Turnpike and re-enacted the intro to the Sopranos and headed straight for Philly. With it already being quite late and being in the middle of a thunderstorm we only had time to catch a glimpse of the Liberty Bell and see the site of George Washington’s House where a road tunnel exhaust and ventilation tower now sits. Driving on South we saw the first of what will be many jeans creaming industrial skylines with the tower blocks of downtown disappearing behind.

Late that evening we got to the beautiful Chesapeake Bay that is imperilled by the constant threat of pollution and large amounts of unsustainable commercial fishing. Unfortunately we didn’t know this until after we ate an entire scuttle of blue crabs at Jimmy Cantlers, which was delicious. We then headed on to a Motel 6 on the outskirts of Washington that was situated next to an airforce base.

Jia, eating crabs whilst oblivious to Chesapeake bay's plight.

Waking up to the sound of F16s and Chinooks, we got up and drove into Washington, quickly visiting as many monuments as we could and going to the Air and Space museum, the highlight of which, for me, was seeing the F1 rocket engine. Moving swiftly on, we drove through Pennsylvania to stay in a motel lodge whose website’s background music is Johann strauss’ Blue Danube punctuated by gunshot sounds. We stayed here in order to make the mandatory visit to Falling Water, which managed to meet the astronomically high expectations it’s set itself.

Much of the USA’s wealth and success originated in what is now called the rust belt. Driving up the I79 toward Pittsburgh, the legacy of the steel industry was clearly evident. Stopping along the way to try and visit the Carrie Furnaces, our sat nav took us down a dead end. Apparently in Pittsburgh 4 people bumbling round a red prius trying to work out where they are warrants having a local man call the cops on you. After 3 squad cars converged on our position and determined we were not drug dealers they were more than happy to help us try and get to see the abandoned steel mill, going as far as giving us the number of a lady who gives tours. She didn’t pick up.

After driving through Downtown Pittsburgh at night whilst listening to Ayo Technology and seeing the horrific building where the evil guy from Inspector Gadget lives, we moved along the I76 to Cleveland Ohio.  Cleveland smells kind of funny so we stayed in a Super 8 out of town.

Next port of call was the Cedar Point Roller Coaster Park and with about 75 rides it’s one of the largest amusement parks in the world. Located on a peninsula sticking out into lake Erie, driving up to it feels more like you’re going to a rocket launch facility than a theme park. Visible for many miles is the “Top thrill Dragster ride” (link) which accelerates you to 120mph in 3.8 seconds before pushing you 420ft (about as high as the gherkin) in the air and then all the way back down to the start in 17 seconds total. We rode it twice along with about 13 other Roller Coasters including the wooden mean streak that makes Coney Island’s cyclone look like the teacup ride. We then headed for what is one of my highlights for the trip, Detroit.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Fresh Kills Ship Graveyard

“Give Staten Island a Chance” reads the slogan printed at the ferry terminal. Pretty hard when the information centre consists of a stack of leaflets for Richard’s new Sporting goods shop and arrows pointing toward the Manhattan Bound Ferry dock. Apart from taking advantage of the free ferry to the Island which gives great views of downtown Manhattan and Statue of Liberty, I went to New York’s forgotten borough in search of the Fresh Kills Ship Graveyard, billed as a post-industrial runescape of rusted ships tossed across the Arthur Kill marshlands. You’re not going to find this in your rubbish lonely planet guide. How come? Probably because it didn’t come up as one of the larger Ws on the Wikipedia plug in for Google Earth, which was clearly their sole research source.

After finding the only bus map on Staten Island, conveniently located in an underpass, I took the train to Hugueton and trekked about 3 miles across the Island to the graveyard. On the way I passed the site of the largest ever man made thing, the Fresh kills Landfill. Now covered in soil, it’s being converted into a retail and office park. Without properly recording the location and with no 3G, I quickly became lost.

Using only my memory of Google maps and with the sidewalks rapidly diminishing I was about to give up until, after running down a stretch of freeway and into a little graveyard I finally glimpsed through the bushes and saw a marooned ship. I had to scramble through some weeds before getting out onto the marshlands and seeing better the landscape of ships, which was pretty impressive. I don’t think the photos do it justice and you probably need a kayak to see and photograph it properly, but it was well worth the walk. Unfortunately, much more of the shipyard is walled off and apparently there are several old US Navy ships being scrapped. Whilst for most people it wouldn’t be worth going to see, trekking over to the shipyard allowed me to see part of New York I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Sketch #1

Travelling on the uncomfortable and confusing New York subway made me wish that some of the fantastic visions of New York with railways and highways passing through the sky had been realised. This sketch shows a walkway and metro system that connects midtown Manhattan with the city using skywalks and hub towers.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

NYC #1

Why buy a crappy guide book when you can make your own?

Giving ourselves 10 days in New York should allow us to begin to get a feeling for the rhythm of the city as well as getting to see everything we want to. We’re staying in a warehouse apartment in the area of Williamsburg, which seems to be New York’s version of Shoreditch although somewhat more exaggerated. Across the road is a Ping Pong club and around the corner is “Meat Case”, where you’re given a tray with a piece of grease proof paper on and you fill it up with different types of BBQ meat ordered by the pound.

We’re exploring New York mostly by foot, the subway stations seem to have been transformed into saunas, starting off with what turned out to be a death walk in 90 degree heat following the Brooklyn queens expressway over to DUMBO. A day in midtown Manhattan seeing all the sights that are too well known to be worth posting was followed by a visit to the Diller Scofidio + Renfro Highline park in the Meatpacking District and visiting buildings by SANAA, OMA, Fosters, Denari, Morphosis, Herzog & de Meuron and Future Systems in and around the Greenwich Village area and unfortunately some Gehry, Bleurgh.

Other highlights included the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway, the Staten Island Ferry (I’ll cover Staten Island in a later post), a Mets Ball Game (which unfortunately was rained off), a Brooklyn Cyclones Ball Game and Coney Island (with Clint Mansell on my iPod). There was also an interesting BMW Guggenheim Lab which had a steel gantry structure that suspended all the furniture and seating above the stage area that could be hoisted and lowered to change the function of the space below.

Here I’ve posted some photos off my camera that I think are interesting (I seem to have spent a long time under bridges) 

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Road Trip...

So I'm going on a little road trip this summer and I've decided to set up a blog for me to post photos, films, maps etc...  above is the route we'll be taking, currently in NYC for 10 days, I'll upload some photos when i get some good ones, hope you enjoy!

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