June 30, 2010

Photo Essay: The Getty Center Under Fog

The Getty Center in LA is a wildly popular destination for locals, domestic and international tourists alike. I think most people come for the astounding views of the surrounding neighborhoods (Bel Air and Brentwood), the Los Angeles basin, and even the Pacific Ocean. But on a day like yesterday, when the cloud cover was so low it was literally swirling in front of my face, I went to the Getty Center to see the Getty iself.

Not terribly interested in the Getty's permanent collection of prints and books and paintings, nor in its special exhibitions (though I did do a loop through the photography hall in the West Pavilion), I met a docent under the sycamore trees by the front entrance for an architecture tour.

The Getty's campus, built over 13 years in the 1980s and 90s, is an achievement in modern architecture, whose focus is on form supporting function. Like the Salk Institute, the Getty was designed to create lots of open spaces, clean lines, and long corridors to encourage its intelligentsia to mingle and communicate rather than hiding in their respective corners of the library.

Light and unobstructed views were high on architect Richard Meier's priority list, resulting in many walls and entire corners of the building being built out of windows. Overhangs were made of slats to not only let light in, but to utilize their shadows as decorative elements (rather than the more ornate embellishments of more classical architecture).

There wasn't much sunlight to speak of yesterday, though - a day when the morning June gloom never burned off, and the sun never prevailed.

Still, it was hard not to appreciate the attention to detail, right down to the building materials: notably imported Italian travertine, a beige-colored, cleft-cut sedimentary rock that proudly reveals its layers, inconsistencies, and sometimes even fossils.

Meier also designed a number of open-air "rooms" including a central courtyard between the various pavilions of the museum building and an elaborate garden in the back.

They keep the docent-led tours to a maximum 45 minutes (the reported duration of an adult's attention span) so I really only got the highlights and a few details. But its simplicity contributes to its beauty: it is monochromatic (beige, or "Getty White"), geometric (in a 30"x30" grid pattern across the floors and up the walls), symmetrical, and logical.

It is also huge, striking, and memorable, even when the views from its many overlooks give you a photograph that looks, as Edith says, as though it's been dipped in bleach.


For sunny, blue-skied photos of The Getty with actual views and shadows, visit their official site.

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June 28, 2010

Photo Essay: Heart-Pounding Hike to a Lost City

I haven't had that easy of a time setting up meetings for this trip to LA. I think it's actually easier when I'm in town only for two days rather than two weeks. A sense of urgency is usually enough to cram a lot in.

So, even though technically it's a work day, I haven't got that much work to do right now, so I decided to take a day for hiking and photography, recapturing a bit of my Joshua Tree routine from a year ago.

After my attempt to hike Debs Park's more rural trails was thwarted by the LAFD yesterday, I was less than thrilled to discover that the Angeles Crest Highway - my planned adventure for today - was closed. I was even less thrilled when I drove to my Plan B trail - part of the La Canada Flintridge system - and found even more road closures.

So I reverted back to an idea for a hike that I'd already discounted, thinking it was too high, too long, and too solitary for me: the Mount Lowe Railway.

There are actually two ways to explore the old incline railway grounds: on the official rail trail itself, and by hiking a much shorter distance from Altadena to the apex of Echo Mountain, where the former railway originally reached its peak, in a tiny mountain resort town called White City. I chose the latter once I drove to the trailhead and spotted a few fellow hikers heading in. At least I wouldn't be alone.

The trail to Echo Mountain and White City is about five and a half miles with a 1000 ft. elevation change. I knew I'd be pushing my physical limits, especially with it already approaching noon, and the cool morning breeze slowly being overpowered by the intensifying sun. But I like hiking to somewhere or something, with a big payoff at the end, and was willing to take my chances.

The first two miles up and around the mountain are steep, sturdy, well-traveled and surprisingly green and, in spots, shady. But they're also dusty, gravelly, with a ton of switchbacks in a sweaty ascent.

I got passed in both directions by young locals from the neighborhood, carrying a small bottle of water and a dog on a leash while I struggled to climb with my backpack, hiking guidebook, and liter-sized water bottle. The sweat was dripping off my face as though I'd splashed myself with drinking water in order to cool off.

I was still waiting for the sky's overcast to burn off, but the higher I got, the hazier everything looked.

I climbed so high that I not only approached the power lines...

...but I walked right through them.

After huffing and puffing, gasping audibly and taking increasingly frequent rests in shaded areas, some fellow hikers who'd passed me in both directions assured me that I was only five minutes away from the top. At only about 2.5 miles, it had taken me about an hour and fifteen minutes - almost double my usual walking time.

I finally reached what I came for: White City, the railway's original terminus, and today's remaining vestiges of the historic landmark site.

power plant foundation

estate foundations

replica of megaphone-like contraption to show off Echo Mountain's unique quality

There's a certain amount of satisfaction I felt at the top of Echo Mountain, having conquered self-doubt and physical discomfort to reach its peak. But mostly I just wanted to cry - out of relief, gratitude, awe, sadness, loss - decades, or centuries, of emotion, crashing down on me. And when I was ready to leave, I felt it pushing me back down the mountain, so much more quickly than I ascended, back down to civilization, where real buildings still stand and I still have some control over what becomes history.

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Photo Essay: Los Angeles Arboretum

When I went to Descanso Gardens a couple of months ago, the friend I was meeting there asked, "Is there a reason you want to go?"

I responded, "Because I like flowers and walking around outside?"

But as much as I like the standard fare offered by the botanical gardens of New York City - cherry blossoms, roses, ornamental conifers - the botanical gardens of Southern California are a world away.

As evidenced by the Los Angeles County Arboretum, the desert-like climate of Southern California allows botanical gardens to authentically showcase botanical wonders from far-flung lands like Australia, Africa, and Asia in a grandiose desert sprawl that really takes you away.

Around every corner, I saw something I'd never seen before. And that's saying a lot.

And although I have seen them before, I just don't get to see peacocks every day. Definitely not in New York.

The grounds themselves are lovely, with park features like the winding Serpentine Walk and Aloe Walk...

a duck pond, a turtle pond, and a lake...

...the restored Queen Anne Cottage and its nearby barn...

...and the ruins (!) of an old adobe house.

Before visiting the arboretum, I'd already done some hiking and photography in Debs Park earlier in the day, but I hadn't felt quite satisfied.

I guess I could always use just a bit more color, a curious new fragrance, and a persistent reminder that life comes in all kinds of crazy, colorful forms.

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Photo Essay: Along the Unmarked Trail

My gracious host, for whom I'm housesitting in LA for almost two weeks, suggested I go to nearby Debs Park for some good local hiking along nature trails and hiking trailheads originating from the neighboring Audubon Center.

But when I drove up to its entrance today, a pack of firemen were closing the gate after having inspected the fire roads above.

"The center's closed. Are you meeting someone here?" The eldest of the firemen waved me onto the driveway.

"No, I'm alone," I said automatically, unceremoniously.

"Well, it's pretty rural up there, you don't want to go up there by yourself."

"Well," I said, laughing sarcastically, and gesturing as if to say, "What else is new?"

By now, more firemen had collected around the driver's side of my rental car. One of them chimed in, "Unless you want to go hiking alone..."

And then they all laughed. I frowned.

They directed me to the other side of the park, where I could have "a nice little walk around a duck pond" and some picnic grounds. I examined their map of color-coded fire roads and parking areas, nodded, and agreed with everything they said, as though I had been so naive as to think I could hike this myself.


But I kept my word, and drove around to the other side of Ernest Debs Regional Park, to the parking lot by the picnic area, and passed through the gate on foot to see what I could find.

I'm not that experienced of a hiker yet. I get uncomfortable without a map or markers. I had neither today, so I was haphazardly wandering down paths to see where they'd go, and then backtracking and taking a different path, only to find out it went to the same place as the first.

I like having a route plotted out - something to follow - so that my decisions moving forward aren't random, even if I decide not to follow it. I like to know what the rules are, so that I can break them.

Nevertheless, without the normal hiking guides I prefer, today I scaled pretty high, pretty fast, and got some good views of the surrounding area and of LA's distant skyline.

Debs Park, an urban neighborhood park enjoyed by mostly local residents, has seen better days. Its rocks and rails and even trees along its main pathways are heavily graffitied.

There are some buildings around - picnic pavilions, comfort stations and the like - as well as a strange arrangement of stone benches on a dias, both facing...nothing.

But it's an interesting place where palms coexist with evergreen and deciduous trees...

...and color leaps out in intermittent bursts as you walk along...

I was even brave enough to follow a very narrow, but well-cleared trail diversion that led me through a thicket and then a clearing, with some of the most rewarding sights of the hike.

I don't even know how far I went, or how far I could have gone, or what I could have seen. But after a little over an hour, with a couple very steep climbs conquered, I felt satisfied, and happy enough to move onto the next adventure...

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