Tag Archives: Architecture

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Windows to the World (Weeks 36-39)

This month’s activities includes installation of windows, building the stair between two levels, and waterproofing of the exterior skin. Both the roof and exterior walls need good moisture protection, so additional care is being taken to check details with a waterproofing consultant.

Delivery of Exterior Windows

In addition to interior wall framing, shear walls between the existing house and new addition have been added. You can see a portion of the wall along the stair to the right in the photo below. In the next photo, deck rails have been built. The roof parapet will be built next, providing protection for a future deck and extending the roof approximately 42″.

Miscellaneous windows and exterior doors were ordered, and planning for interior finishes and equipment went into high gear. While we thought that ordering materials and products would create issues with delivery and material availability, the problem was not as great as imagined.

There are always alternatives if you are flexible about the products, and since we were not providing custom or high end finishes, we could work around lead times and locally available products. Out of the items for kitchen casework through Ikea, appliances through a discount broker, and plumbing accessories appear to be within reach, at least at his point before actual ordering takes place.

Wind rather than rain is a deterrent to working on site. The gusty coastal weather has been downright unpleasant at times and chills you to the bone. We can’t wait for the autumn weather when the winds die down, although we may be in for some unpredictable air quality from fires.

With the existing kitchen and dining room out of commission, it has been a challenge to prepare and eat meals. On top of that, the ambient temperature in these rooms average around 50 degrees. The heating bill was over $700 last month until we realized that the exposed air was sucking all the heat out and the thermostat was registering the coldest past of the house!

Felix has lost his viewing stand from the dining room window and can only wistfully catch glimpses of Mom and Dad during bathroom breaks or snack sneaks. The roof obscures all the active work taking place inside the new space, so there’s no opportunity to view activity from above when roof joists were previously open and exposed.

As an alternative, Felix has watched street construction down the block. His beloved dump trucks, bulldozers, and and excavators are all readily available in full operating splendor during his daily strolls. They complement his readings from favorite construction books. He never tires of hearing them again, even on the sixth or seventh time in a row.

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Being Floored (Weeks 29-31)

The bone dry weather has serious outcomes for the Bay Area and California, but for us the lack of rain has helped us. So far, we have been able to continue building the ADU. Where we sit on a bluff, strong winds have been more problematic.

View from Level two with arly Morning Moonset over the Horizon

Still, there are many other challenges. A two-person crew, trained as architects, are learning to become builders. They must make many decisions about basic construction– how to organize the means and methods of building, order materials and equipment, and master the tricks of the trade.

Problem-solving on the spot may not happen as quickly as expected, particularly as each choice affects the next task or decision. Building a new structure connected to an existing residence requires complicated tie-ins and repair to areas where the exterior skin and window were removed. Eventually, solutions surface and we were able to move forward. Teamwork and collaboration are the keys to working toward a common goal, along with communication and trust among team members.

Recap of First Floor Walls

As you may recall from the previous post, we had completed the first floor wall framing. The video walk-through below gives you a real-time sense of the space from the end of the unit, containing the Office, Living Room and Dining Area. You can also see the small window along the north side in the kitchen and the view of the entry into the unit.

Walk Through showing South, West and North Elevations from interior

Architects think of building systems as analogous to those in the human body. Plumbing systems are similar to our digestive system, electrical systems are like our central nervous system, and ventilating systems are like our respiratory system. The beams and columns form the structural system, just like our bones do. So yes, creating a building from scratch can feel like a powerful act.

As we continue on our journey to build and complete the ADU, we will be referring to these building systems as they are developed throughout the construction process.

The Second Floor Framing

Wood construction uses many of the principles we learn as children when we played with blocks and legos. But the actual joining together of materials and elements require some additional skills. It helps to think three dimensionally and have a sculptural understanding of shapes and planes. A complex structural design to address an irregular shape and site configuration raised the bar for these skills.

After last month’s challenge constructing the wall framing for the first floor, the next hurdle was the floor for the second story. Referred to as a “diaphragm”, the combination of plywood sheathing and floor joists stabilizes the walls below when the two vertical and horizontal planes are joined together. They now form a box that work together.

In the video above, you can see the walls of the first floor below. They support the upper floor. At the edge, a 3 foot cantilever extends over the first floor walls to provide more floor area for the second story above. It will be one of our last opportunities to “see through” this space before it is covered up.

Completing the Floor for the Second Floor

With the plywood sheathing attached to the floor joists, we finished the second story subfloor! The 3/4″ plywood is keyed with a tongue and groove system so they attach and seal together at the edges.

In the video, you can see that the wall framing for the north wall of the second floor Master Bedroom has been built on the ground. The completion of the second floor provides a usable work surface for building the exterior walls before they are tilted into place.

Hot Flash!

This is the latest photo of the second floor exterior wall erected yesterday morning. The master bedroom window frames a view of the Golden Gate Bridge above the tips of the 50-year old junipers!

Foreman Felix

Foreman Felix continues to watch from his control tower, except that now he can see his crew directly in front of him at the same level. He joins the conference on the mound while having a refreshing mid-afternoon snack.

Foreman Felix joining a staff meeting on the mound

Foreman Felix had time to get away every now and then from the job site. He managed to raid the kitchen pantry and found a treasure trove of tasty new toys hidden within.

Forager Felix

Stay tuned as the story (the second story) unfolds!! Don’t forget to write home!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Room with a View (Week 25-28)

The first real sense of seeing the interior space and the spectacular view from the office window was thrilling to see. We could actually witness the results of many months of planning, designing, and building our ADU (accessory dwelling unit).

Heavy Lifters

Still, more heavy construction work was ahead of us. Two steel beams arrived from the fabricator and stared us in the face: more calculating and logistics on how to erect these 800-lb gorillas. It took a few days to prepare the existing structure and get the necessary equipment to erect them safely.

Headers and Footers

After getting refreshed over the weekend, Team J&J erected the two steel beams. With help from the rented lift and a portable scaffold, each beam was placed to form a 3′ overhang over the deck. The overhang provides additional floor space for the upper level and also shading for the windows on the first floor.

Once the steel beams were placed, the edge beams to support the upper floor were installed between the steel flanges.

Wood beams inserted between steel flanges

With so little tolerance to work with in joining all of the angled walls, the wood beams required several attempts and shaved edges in order to fit them inside the steel flanges.

Finally, a perfect fit!!

A Footnote: Multi-tasking in the Front Row Seat

Felix continued to dominate the box seat to watch his crew staying on the job. While he kept an eye on them, we watched his new skills as he learned to enjoy the freedom of feeding himself!

Felix eating on the job
Felix supervising the installation of the second edge beam

Onward and upward! Next in store will be floor joists and stud walls to finish the first floor, and window installation. Stay tuned for more fun, and don’t forget to comment!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Start of Rough Framing (Weeks 20-24)

A Bird’s Eye View of Construction with Second Exterior Beam bearing its Namesake

As the Bay Area was blessed with torrential rains over Thanksgiving and December, our secret hopes of a dry winter were dashed. Fortunately, the exterior foundations, concrete slab, and exterior deck framing were completed before the slushy weather soaked the property. Ironically, a 50-year old juniper tree collapsed, which was caused by the drought but too weak to be saved by the downpours.

The bids we received for rough framing often varied drastically, so we made a point to receive multiple bids for each scope. The foundation bids seemed exceptionally high, which were due in part to the difficulty of the structural design and the fact that contractors are in very high demand in the Bay Area (a natural side effect of a hot housing market and an uptick in renovations during the pandemic). In the end, we took what we could get. Knowing that the foundation is perhaps the most crucial part of a project that should not be compromised, we took a deep breath and signed on one of the higher bidders.

exterior deck and concrete slab

Once the complicated foundation was completed, we were left with a dilemma. The pier drilling took much more time and money than expected, so we rebid the rough framing work. Earlier conversations raised the possibility of self-performing some of the work. As property owners, we were allowed to serve as our own contractor.

Originally, we had considered self-performing some of the finish work. Constructing rough framing for posts and beams all by ourselves seemed like a daunting task. The thought of getting the budget back on track together with the opportunities for learning the nuts and bolts of construction made a compelling argument for pursuing self-construction.

We had already planned, designed, and prepared the detailed working drawings for the project. The permit was approved after two years of being at the forefront of complex ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) requirements. The foundation that took nearly three months was now complete. After many discussions, we collectively agreed to forge ahead and do the framing ourselves.

We drafted a written agreement among the team that mapped out the costs and schedule for Rough Framing. Each of us signed and committed to making the framing portion of the project a reality. Between three architects and a baby, we combined all our professional skills as a structural engineer, contractor, designer and planner all into one pot.

Before the December rains, we framed the exterior deck, which would serve as an extended work surface. A complicated stepped grade beam in the existing basement was still not complete. We made the most of inclement weather and built the grade beam ourselves. After some changes to the structural design, we were able to avoid a costly change order.

Interior Grade Beam Construction

First, we excavated the area surrounding an existing interior footing, around which the new grade beam would be poured. Next, we bent the reinforcing bars by hand with two hickey bars to create the rebar cage. We drilled and epoxied new rebars into the existing foundation to connect to the new cage. Our special inspector was willing to advise us on the steps needed for the work to be approved. He even complemented us on our rebar craftsmanship when he came back to see the final product!

Once the rebar cage was tied and we’d gotten the necessary inspections, we placed the formwork for the concrete.

After calculating that it would take more than 50 bags of mix-it-yourself concrete to pour the grade beam, we decided to treat ourselves to a concrete truck and pump. The pump operator gave us a few tips on how to vibrate the concrete (not too much!) so that it would settle evenly and finish nicely. Concrete is similar to baking: make sure the proportions are correct, don’t mix it too much or over-work it, and make sure to use the proper techniques to allow it cure at the given temperature.

After the concrete was poured, the formwork was removed, and voila! A grade beam!

Building the grade beam demonstrated that we could do at least some of the work ourselves! After working well into the night to make sure the rebar and formwork was ready for our concrete pour, we took a brief holiday break for Christmas and New Year’s.

Structural Steel Support

Meanwhile, we confirmed calculations with the structural engineer for a modified steel column and “Kicker Beam” which would connect the addition to the existing house. We worked directly with a structural steel fabricator in the Bayview.

The fabricator delivered the post to our site and allowed us to borrow his hoist to erect it. We built a temporary structure through the second-story window to support the hoist. The hoisting went smoothly, but once it was vertical, attaching it to the existing structure proved to be a huge challenge.

First Signs of Exterior Walls!

With the post finally installed and the sill plate anchored to the slab through a series of cast-in-place bolts, the wood framing members finally began to go up. Heavy PSL beams were set in place with the help of a rented material lift. The edge of the addition and its distance to the rear property line is now visible and a real sense of the three-dimensional space was evident. We put up the header and sill for our first window — a perfect frame for a crystal clear view of the Pacific Ocean and Point Reyes beyond.

Construction Supervision

We can’t overlook our cheerful foreman, who supervises all construction from the corner window to make sure we are on time and within budget. Here, his conscientious staff erect the first column and complete the second of three major beams as he watches from his viewing tower.

Second of three beams erected along the west face of the addition

We hope you enjoy these constructive travels! We are about one-third of the way towards our goal of completing the ADU this summer. Thanks for joining us, stay tuned, and as always, your comments are welcome!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Completion of Phase I Foundation Work (Week 17-19)

Newly completed slab showing where the entry to the unit will be located

Our ground floor slab has been completed! In the photo above, me (and my shadow) are standing on the ground floor where the living/dining/kitchen space will be located. I am facing the new entry area where I will be greeting you at the door. You will be waiting outside, where the gravel is shown!

We were very relieved to finally see the results of the foundation work after several months of hand wringing. As with all construction projects, you somehow reconcile the realities of time and budget. Expectations always exceed reality, and you are forced to make some hard decisions. You learn a lot about the business of construction, the players, and the many moving parts that come into play. You come to accept and live by those hard choices that had to be made.

Difficult conditions on a small sloping site created challenges for the foundation crew. While most of the pier drilling went smoothly, there were a couple of stubborn piers in the middle that refused to cooperate. These were clearly aggravating the drilling crew, yet they pursued and prevailed. At times, no one wanted to breathe for fear of causing a collapse of the openings.

Aware of their concerns but unable to affect any change to the site conditions, I watched from the dining room window. The crew hacked away at the sandy soil, drilled through and extracted dirt and rock, force-fed the steel casings, lowered the reinforcing cages (some 30′ long), and injected the concrete.

We watched this dramatic choreographed performance unfold each day. The huge drill plowed within inches of our window. At times, I thought it would smash the window or crash into the side of the house! The exposed wall of the kitchen concerned us as a few leaks threatened to derail our comfort, and a few vibrations kept us wondering whether we were going to be shaken into homelessness.

As it stands, the foundation crew knew exactly what they were doing, where to place their equipment, and drill the holes. I was grateful to the care and precision they used. Their expertise is the lynchpin of the project.

The concrete work for the retaining wall went quickly following the pouring of the piers. Before we knew it, the slab was topped out after the layers of gravel, foam insulation, moisture barrier and rebars were set over the backfill. We could revel in the delight of finally “getting out of the ground” and declared the first phase of the ADU completed.

Phase Two Construction of Rough Framing has officially begun, with the deck supports being tied to the retaining wall. The deck framing will provide a work space for the ADU construction when framing work begins. Interior finishing will complete the project during Phase Three.

Recap of Phase I Foundation Work

This video represents a year’s end celebration of our work and efforts toward building the ADU.


We hope you have enjoyed following the journey building the addition to our house. We wish everyone a safe and joyous new year. Let’s look forward to the great new adventures ahead for all of us!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: How to Retain Your Form(work)—(Weeks 9-16)

While the previous two months seemed to drag with the drilling of the piers, there was a lot more to observe during these two months of construction of the ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit). As the structure lifted itself from below ground, we could witness progress of the construction. We were gratified by physical signs finally appearing after two years of planning and design!

Formwork

Temporary formwork was built for a concrete retaining wall and grade beams along the perimeter of the addition. There seemed to be as much, if not more, effort put into the construction of the forms than the pouring of the concrete itself, which seemed easy after the complex engineering and layout of the entire space. Needless to say, all of the work that will ultimately not be visible—the drilling of the 30 foot piers, the intricate network of rebars, the wooden formwork that holds the wet concrete—is just as essential as what one sees.

Once the concrete was poured, the formwork was removed. It was sad to see all the hard labor put into its construction disappear so quickly.

House of Sand and Fog

Next, the sandy soil made its reappearance on the site. The backfill was compacted into the large bowl created by the concrete walls.

Layers of Icing on the Cake

Within one week, the finishing touches and crucial layers of protection under the floor were added: 6” of gravel followed by a 2” layer of insulation. Finally, the moisture barrier (yellow plastic material) was added to the underside of the slab.

Dear Little Felix had a field day watching all of the activity, keeping him entertained throughout the day. Watching and learning outside our window was a great home-bound alternative to traveling around the world to see the sights!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: ABS OF STEEL AND CONCRETE SOLUTIONS (Weeks 5-8)

The Dining Room Window gives us a front row seat of the ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) construction in our back yard. For much of the last two months, it felt like watching the grass grow at times, and sudden operatic performance at others. There was plenty to consider, ponder, and worry. With the rainy season emerging, there are additional concerns about weather protection and drainage. Nevertheless, the substructural work inched forward with big digs, long tubes of steel linings welded end to end, gnarly steel cages, and finally concrete.

Recap of Weeks 2- 4 (The First Pour)

During the first weeks of foundation work, the crew mobilized their equipment and laid out all the positions for the piers. They began by drilling the first four pier holes along the edge of the existing house to support the addition and to underpin the existing foundation. As mentioned previously, our site is basically a sand dune and the loose soil is prone to caving. Getting to the 25+ foot depths required by the soils engineer proved to be arduous.

To reduce the risk of caving, the crew poured the piers in two stages. The initial pour included the five 25+ foot piers and seven 8′ deep deck piers. Photos below show the arrival of the truck and equipment assembled for the first concrete pour.

Most of the time, our site looked like a giant bowl of flour! In the beginning, the excavator scraped the edges of the bowl and pushed the floury dirt around. It felt even more similar to baking when the concrete was finally pumped from the hoses during our first pours. The liquified concrete pouring out of the hose looked like thick whipped cream extruded from a pastry tube, but not as appealing.

Week 5-6
Concrete being pumped from the truck to the pier holes along the side of the house

The foundation crew continued to drill holes, insert steel casings and rebar cages for seven “shallow” deck piers. These piers were drilled approximately 20 feet to bedrock. The sandy soil continued to present challenges, as the soil had no compressive strength and collapsed when drilled. Geo-grout was used to stabilize the openings so drilling could be accomplished more reliably.

It was very humbling to watch as each day’s events unfolded. Every crew member was fully engaged. The video below shows pier holes being drilled by the excavator and a crew member guiding the drill into position while another crew member cleared the sandy soil from the drill. A fourth crew member checked and adjusted the grout in one of the piers.

Messy work! Concrete poured into exterior deck piers required hand removal
before it set!
Week 7 (Pour No. 2)

The final stage of earthworks began. The crew drilled the five remaining 24″ wide holes for the piles that support the addition. The cement truck returned and issued the second installment of concrete.

As in the first pour, the geotechnical engineer, the city building inspector, and the special inspector reviewed and approved the excavation and reinforcing steel before the second concrete pour. Our construction manager choreographed the intricate dance between consultants and contractor.

Concrete being poured into pier holes
Week 8

Once the steel casings were put into place and the holes were drilled, the steel reinforcing cages were guided into place with the excavator.

Steel casings being lowered into openings

You can get a sense of the depth of the opening by the height of the caging, which in some cases were over 30 feet long. In order to lower the cages smoothly along the full depth of the opening and to ensure enough clearance for the concrete to be poured around it, the crew attached rolling spacers in intervals at vertical bars along the edge of each cage.

Daily spot checks from Foreman Felix ensured that the construction manager was on site during this stage of construction.

Foreman Felix from his perch

Coming next….Retaining Your Form

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING (Weeks 2-4)

Recap of Week 1

We mobilized our brains and prepped areas of the existing house to make room for the major home addition, which will consist of a kitchen/living dining area, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a small office in the rear yard of the property. All of the existing kitchen casework and appliances were removed for a new kitchen reconfiguration.

Week 2: Breaking Up Isn’t So Hard to Do!

First, two sets of old and deteriorated exterior stairs were taken apart to make way for the new addition. Then, the cantilevered portion of the kitchen that projected into the future new master bedroom area was demolished. Finally, the gaping hole in the middle of the house was covered with a temporary wall. We no longer felt as if we were living in a dollhouse!

Concrete patio to be removed for pier foundations

Our foundation contractors arrived to set up their work. Their first task was to remove two old juniper trees and branches that hindered access to the site. A medium-sized excavator with a jackhammer attachment arrived to cut up the concrete pad, making way for seventeen piers to support the new structure. Ten 25+ ft deep foundation piers will be cast into bedrock and seven shallower, 8 ft piers will be drilled for the deck.

With the slab broken into chunks, the excavator and bulldozer worked in tandem to remove the concrete rubble, loose rocks, tree roots, dirt and debris in a confident, orchestrated tango. Dancers, efficiency experts, and strategists could learn a lot from observing these moves, as we did.

Excavator clawing its way to happiness

With a box seat in the corner of the dining room overlooking the patio, Felix was fascinated by the unusual activity right outside the window. He watched ten minutes at a time and could have easily lasted longer. He did learn how to cover his ears, however, and practiced using his hands as sound buffers. You’ll hear more from him later.

Week 3: Holey Moley!

The foundation contractors began drilling four 18″- diameter holes up to 31 feet deep along the existing house to support concrete piers for the new addition. Six-foot long steel casings, soldered end-to-end, were immersed into the ground to prevent the soil from collapsing along the entire length of the hole.

Pier drilling along the edge of the existing house and clearing drill bit

Being only two miles from the Pacific Ocean and on a hill, our soil conditions are what you expect from a windswept, coastal environment. The original sand dunes with deep rock underneath produces fine, dry, soil with no compressive strength; it’s so loose that the drill appears to wallow in water. The excavator drilled the four piers with a rotating auger bit that avoided vibration and noise of other methods.

Only the soft whirr of the excavator could be heard during normal weekday work hours. Undeterred by noise, Felix was fascinated by the cacophony of new sights and sounds.

Felix watching generator startup for welding of casings

Coming next: Concrete solutions to constructive traveling

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING

During the early days of the pandemic and restrictive travel in 2020, I republished earlier Silk Road travels taken between 2014 and 2019. They started in Mongolia and China, and followed a string of Eurasian countries through Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Like ancient traders, Europe was the final destination.

In November, 2020, I started a Pandemic Diary that traced five months of travel in New Zealand. Our family enjoyed the luxuries of a COVID-free country, that bit the bullet early with strict lockdowns in the Spring of 2020. We went to the cinema, restaurants, performances and indoor shopping the same as we did in the States pre-COVID. As reported, being in a bubble felt strange and lonely. We were not able to share our experience with others as the rest of the world suffered.

Until now, I have recorded events and activities surrounding physical travel. We aren’t likely to see the end of the pandemic soon, so what’s next? In addition to continuing the Pandemic Diary, I’ve decided to switch to a different kind of adventure. I’m going to share Travels with Myself and Others through a building project on our property.

Like travel, construction involves planning, design, a budget, and a schedule. You meet new people, and learn about their social, political and cultural habits. These individuals impact our lives. And of course, many decisions need to be made, and changed. Stories will be hatching and churning as we continue to live in our house during construction.

What is an “ADU”?

Commonly referred to as an “in-law” unit, the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) we are building is an opportunity for residential owners to provide direly needed housing. Cities want landlords to legalize non-conforming spaces or to develop units to increase the housing supply. Both cities and the State of California offer favorable legislation to homeowners and even offer permit fee waivers to build more housing units.

Our goals for the project are to develop multi-generational housing, allow seniors to remain in place, and to provide rental housing. After two years of planning, design, and final permit approval, construction is underway. The project adds two bedrooms, two baths, and an office to the rear of our existing home on two levels.

THREE ARCHITECTS AND A BABY

My daughter, an architect, is acting as the construction manager for the project. She is job-sharing her daily tasks of looking after her one-year old baby with her partner (an architect) and me (also an architect). As Owner-Design-Builders, we are multi-multi-multi-tasking! I’ll be posting some observations through the eyes of Grandson Felix who is watching all the construction unfolding before his very eyes.

PROJECT KICK-OFF

7:45am:  Demo contractors showed up on time to start the demolition of the existing kitchen. We needed to remove a “pop-out” projection that will be displaced by future ADU space. I explained what appliances would be kept, and which ones would go. The two workmen wanted to make sure that the temporary toilet was functional.

Portable Toilet tucked under the trees

8:30am: Project Supervisor arrived to confirm where the appliances were going to be moved. They demolished the granite countertop and removed each section of cabinetry. They moved the refrigerator into the dining room. The existing cooktop and dishwasher were moved into the garage The vent hood and the sink were discarded. We were undecided about the double oven so kept it in place for the time being.

Noon: The two workmen took a lunch break and slept in their cars. There was the occasional banging from the tile or granite being cracked into pieces for removal.

4:00pm: They removed the doors to the casework and a portion of the vent duct. The plumber showed up to cap the gas and water mains to the kitchen.

When I asked the plumber for his name. He blurted out “Fong!” so of course I delighted in telling him that his last name was the same as mine. He asked me if I was from Hoi Ping (a densely populated agricultural district where many local Chinese Americans families in San Francisco are rooted). I detected a slight disappointment when I told him that I was from another district, Zhongshan. That was the end of our brief conversation in Chinese.

5:30pm: The work stopped. The photos show the countertop removed and the remains of the kitchen at the end of the day. 

Since the kitchen was going to be “down” for at least awhile, we converted the dining room to a makeshift kitchen. We purchased a used hot plate and convection oven from Facebook, an Ikea sink for $127, and recruited four existing rice cookers for active duty!

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Dresden

As we enter into an uncertain future over the next few months and the advent of the holiday season, it seems inappropriate to revel in travel experiences. Yet they bring fond memories of a time past. I wonder whether we will ever be able to have such joyful experiences again. The COVID pandemic has indeed affected every country to a large extent because of travel. Globalization has taught us that there are drawbacks to a shrinking planet, and costs to mixing human interaction, culture, economies, and democratic principles.

Nevertheless, here is my defiant celebration of the past. Secretly, I hope that the world will rebound in the coming year. In doing so, perhaps we will be older and wiser at our choices, and ensure greater appreciation of our relationships, our environment, and protecting both.

Dresden 2019

In previous posts, I confessed about my love for Dresden. Granted, Berlin topped my favorite city in Germany, until Munich came along. Like children, it’s hard to give way to one over another. Nevertheless, I maintain great fondness and admiration for Dresden, the first city where I studied German and formed deep impressions about Germany.

Music and art surround you in Dresden. The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph regarded Dresden as having one of the best music festivals in Europe, with popular performers like Rufus Wainwright and Eric Clapton showcased along with world-famous classical conductors and symphonies. When I first studied art history in college, I became curious about where Dresden was (pronounced DRAYS-den by Germans). Many famous Romantic paintings were located in Dresden.

I returned to Dresden several times–for the music, the beautiful Baroque architecture, historical museums and art collections, the intimate surroundings, and the familiarity.

The new state of Altstadt vs. the old state of Neustadt

The location of Dresden’s landmarks are confusing, because the old part of the city was rebuilt after WWII and should be called Neustadt. But the neighborhood to the north of Dresden on the other side of the Elbe River is already called Neustadt. It was named that after a big fire in Dresden in 1685.

The beloved original Baroque buildings have been imitated every 200 years or so and throughout generations in between. So it is barely detectable whether they are from today (21st century), yesterday (19th century), or from its original reconstruction (1685). Dresden is fixated on the urban massing and proportions of five-story blocks with mansard, gabled roofs. It has committed itself to an elegant and functional building form worth repeating.

Altstadt

The plazas and central area of Dresden surrounding the major museums, the Frauenkirche, the Residenz, and the Semper Oper continue to impress old and new visitors to this historic imperial city. The large pit that was left open for a few years in the middle of the city due to archaeological excavations have been filled. In its place are replicas of the old Baroque buildings that were bombed during WWII. (See header above).

In the center of town, numerous free musical events took place throughout Altstadt (the old new part of the Old City). Fellow German classmate Vladimir and I reconnected and caught a couple of young and old rock bands, two choir groups, and a brass chamber music ensemble. The often shuttered Japanese Palace was open on the weekend to host some of these events.

Neustadt

The Neustadt neighborhood, created after a major fire in the heart of Dresden’s Altstadt, or “Old City”, is still relatively historic and elegant, with Baroque buildings from the 18th Century. So it’s a bit of a misnomer and confusing to first-timers here. The streets are still relatively narrow in scale, with streetcars rumbling along the cobbled streets in a predictable ambient noise level. They are punctuated by the occasional bells ringing from the many local Protestant churches nearby.

The Neustadt area where I live is jammed with young residents and visitors. It’s a lively scene every night. Party-goers on bicycles invade the corner and perch on the curbs for hours on end. While the noise is evident, the scene is manageable. The bauhof or courtyard in my apartment building provides just enough sound separation to make any noise barely detectable.

The true test will be the annual local festival in the area next weekend, when the neighborhood comes unwound for three days. Clubs and restaurants will offer free music in nearly 20 different locations.

Inner Neustadt

Courtyard buildings, designed to allow light and air into the deep superblocks, create intriguing walkways and chasms of sunfilled delight and discoveries from the busy thoroughfares now laden with shops and restaurants.

Inside the Kunsthof Passage, or “Arts Passage”, is a delightful array of new buildings designed in the same proportion and massing as the surrounding Baroque buildings. Exteriors are decorated with tile artwork in a fanciful display of creativity and fun. “Lila Sossa”, a resturant now becoming an institution in the area, serves organic dishes and desserts from Mason jars.

Food, Naturally

I’ve been buying my groceries at the corner Bio-Markt. It’s a minature supermarket complete with organic produce, fresh meat, dairy, and bread. I avoided the bread and wine to promote healthy living, but I did buy some landjaeger, one of my favorite dried sausages. It is packed with flavor, great for a snack or outing, and demonstrates one of Germany’s culinary skills: sausage-making. A joke on twitter said the Germans, facing COVID lockdown, have now resorted to their würst-käse scenario.

Food is still inexpensive and inspired by international standards of quality and diversity. I had a vegan rice wrap with glass noodle and spring rolls with tea for under $8 for dinner last night, but had trouble deciding among the extensive selection of Japanese, Afghan, Indian, Turkish, and even German specialties within a one-block radius of where I lived.

Germans are learning how to eat better and their culinary adventures are catching up with the rest of the world. Germany has the second highest number of Michelin star restaurants after France. Like the English, German latter day culinary awareness is under-appreciated. The fruit basket on display at a fair is a reminder of how ugly fruit and vegetables are wasted for visually-appealing choices.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Although I am primarily in Dresden for a German course, I feel like I am leading a double life. I have been researching Music Festival concerts being held for another week here. I have managed to squeeze three performances in three days while attending classes. If you were ever contemplating how to learn about music by going to performances, this is the place to do it.

Prices are reasonable and with student “rush” tickets from the Goethe Institute, you are in business. I paid 20 Euros for “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a piano recital at the Albertinum Museum. It turned out to be a double bargain, since access to the museum was free immediately before the performance. 

In a fascinating program combining music and art, Tokarev first  played Tsaichovsky’s  “Character Pieces for a Year” for piano. Each month’s themes portrayed different moods and feelings, from romantic songs to grand celebrations. The second half was followed by Mussorgski’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The tunes were skillfully enhanced by a video installation.

The program certainly increased my appreciation of the two composers, and it communicated the beauty in their work. Kandinsky’s “Large Gate from Kiev” painting from 1924 was featured in deconstructed movement and timing. Everything was seamlessly coordinated into an exquisite visual and musical experience.

Nikolai Tokarev, the soloist, has won numerous European piano competitions, performed alongside many European orchestras, and produced CDs interpreting beloved Russian composers. 

The Albertinum Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Bauhaus” was the second windfall. Created in Germany in 1920s, the Bauhaus included members shown in the exhibition such as Maholy-Nagy, Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky. It was a good warm-up to the performance.

The teachings of the Bauhaus formed the foundation for my undergraduate training in design at UC Berkeley. The Bauhaus developed design concepts and tools for mass production. Art, technology, architecture, painting, sculpture and construction are integrated with each other and this approach was developed from this movement.

Two-dimensional geometric lines and color like those by Piet Mondrian evolved into three-dimensional shapes. It is easy to see how industrial design and furniture like those by Marcel Breuer were an extension of isometric details and design.

The attendees at the Exhibition were exhibitions themselves. One woman wore a tastefully chosen black and white polka-dotted dress with red heels and accessories. Another more casually dressed gentleman clad in classic German black pondered in front of a textured wall. It served as a backdrop for artwork designed in the 20’s as part of the Bauhaus movement.

Last but not least, a quick rip through the classical section of the Albertinum revealed many forgotten items in storage and on display–a sad reminder of the dilemma of wealthy collectors.

After the end of the performance and three encores, the warm evening air outside reminded me of what a special place Dresden is in place and time. The view below is photographed from the Albertinum in Altstadt. Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland, built most of Dresden’s original Baroque buildings here in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.

An irresistible ticket price of 10 Euros drove me to the Semperoper to see Angela Georgeiou, the Romanian diva, in Tosca. Despite being in my favorite opera house, sitting in the fifth row slightly off center, a “clean” stage without a distracting cast of thousands, and the bargain, the performance was disappointing.

Here are two other concerts I attended:

Grigory Sokolov Piano Recital

Born in 1950, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov can still apply all faculties and fingers to a long and rare public performance. The audience was extraordinarily attentive, reflecting the pianist’s skillful yet delicate playing.

The Germans, as I have mentioned before, are stingy with kudos but you know you have seen something worthwhile when the audience gives multiple standing ovations (after stamping their feet). Sokolov showed his gratitude by performing several encores. It didn’t hurt that the newly renovated Concert Palace in the heart of Dresden is acoustically perfect. Musicians travel to the venue by bike and tourists arrive by public transportation at the front door, so pre-concert traffic is non-existent.

Dresden High School for Music

Music permeates daily life in and around Dresden. The Dresden High School for Music demonstrated its mettle with a high quality string orchestra consisting of 11 to 19 year olds. Serious students and attentive audiences symbiotically promote a strong future for classical music in Germany. The school was beautifully and acoustically designed for music and performing arts.

Rather than for me to carry on about why I love Dresden, I will defer to earlier posts written in August 2014. You will find them in the search or in the summary of posts for that month.

We will be pausing the Europe Series/Silk Road Extension next time, in order to feature real-time postings from New Zealand. Be sure to join us for new insights of traveling in a country that has managed the COVID pandemic better than most other countries.