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July 08, 2003

El Grullo

Friedrich --

I've noticed something, I'm wondering how to explain it, and I'm hoping you've got some ideas.

What I've noticed is that people are more open-minded and adventurous where some art forms are concerned than others. Where music's concerned, for instance, it seems that almost everyone is comfortable with the idea that there are many different musics: western-art, rock, folk, rap, jazz, the infinite number of different "world" musics ... You may prefer one or the other, and you have have secret feelings about the innate superiority of the ones you prefer. But I'm deliberately dodging lots of important aesthetic/critical arguments here to focus on my main point, which is: almost no one, as far as I can tell, would argue that any of these "aren't music." You'd be laughed out of the room if you tried to.

People seem supercomfy interacting with music as they see fit. You may (or may not) think that Pierre Boulez is the greatest living musical genius -- but, hey, that one Shakira song is silly but also pretty sexy, and that collection of Handel arias makes life seem a little sadder but richer. There's nothing like soukous when you want to dance a little, or Mahalia Jackson when your spirits need lifting, or Townes van Zandt when you want to wallow in the blues, or Barry White to put you and your sweetie in the mood. Many people are even familiar with the pleasures of sincere insincerity. I know serious people who adore -- I assume in a semi-camp way -- Britney, and as far as I know there are still downtown cool cats who dig lounge music. We all seem to know that we left school long ago, that we don't have to spend our lives aspiring to appreciate only the greats, and that it's up to us to pick and choose.

As I say, we just go ahead and put it together for ourselves where music is concerned. We've got the confidence to do this; anyone who claimed that one, and only one, kind of music is "really music" and the rest of it "isn't music" would be dismissed as a superpriss.

Yet we put up with exactly that kind of outlook where some of the other arts are concerned. Books I've blabbed about before and will no doubt return to in the future. (Comes from spending years following the biz.) People often seem to think that writing that appears in books is automatically more weighty than writing that appears elsewhere, and that some books -- by mere virtue of the kind of book they are -- are automatically more important ("more worthy of serious consideration") than other books. Often very bright people let themselves get blinded by the idea of the "real book" vs. all those books that apparently aren't real books, let alone all the other reading and writing in the world.

How about the multitude of ways in which we actually interact with reading and writing? Nope, for many people real reading isn't going on unless they're plowing their way through a book from beginning to end. All their other dealings with writing and books (with magazines, the web, crossword puzzle collections, atlases, tax-advice references, cookbooks, travel books, self-help, textbooks, email) -- none of it's "real writing," and none of what they're doing with it qualifies as "real reading."

Yet in a de facto kind of way, we already all put our own reading-and-writing lives together for ourselves. So what are we holding out for? I'm currently playing with about seven different books, only one or two of which I'll probably read from beginning to end. And, as ever, I'm flipping through magazines and surfing the web. It's more than possible that I'll enjoy, and get more out of, some of the more casual reading than I will out of the grinding-it-out reading.

We all know that's how we interact with reading and writing. So why, where the public conversation is concerned, do so many people have a ponderous, one-fixed-point way of seeing reading-and-writing? They'd never put up with such an attitude where music is concerned. Deb can probably tell us about the better and worse knitting books; the Dorling Kindersley city guides and the Taunton Press picture books about woodworking are phenomenal pieces of design and manufacturing; Brian (here) and Alice (here), among many others, run terrific blogs; my friend Nadine in Paris writes the most charming emails I've ever received; I'm always eager to see what Malcolm Gladwell's up to in the New Yorker, though I might just as well read him on the web (here); you can find one of the best essays I've ever read here, and then print it out and read it over breakfast. OK, a couple of breakfasts. I enjoyed Virginia Woolf's journalism, diaries and letters more than most of her fiction; I almost never read every word in a biography (all that detail -- lordy, who's got the time?); and I think that some of Norman Mailer's best books are the collections of his occasional pieces. David Pogue writes a terrific computer-tips column for the NYTimes, as well as terrific computer-tip books. Am I supposed to value one above the other? I'm not a great fan of much contempo-lit writing and find that I often enjoy q&a's with current authors -- like the ones Robert Birnbaum does here -- more than the books these authors write. This might dishearten the authors (not that any are reading this blog), and Birnbaum will make his usual gallant case for the lit scene. But what do I care? I'm talking about my own reading-and-writing life, and about my own pleasures.

Are these reading-and-writing achievements and pleasures the same as those sometimes delivered by the written-straight-through, eye-on-the-critics, one-for-the-ages, heavily-pondered "real" book? No, they're different -- and isn't that great? So why go along with the idea that they somehow don't qualify? (On what scale is it that they don't qualify? And whose scale is it?) A plea from M. Blowhard, bookbiz vet: hey, folks, there are many kinds of books, many kinds of writing, and many ways of interacting with it. Besides, you're already exploring a wide range of stuff, and you're already putting your reading-and-writing life together for yourself. So why get hung up on "the real book"? Why not instead take note of what the world of reading and writing actually consists of, and of how you're already using and enjoying it?

Architecture's another such field, darn it. Amazing the way so many people seem willing to accept the claim that only the kind of thing the press-and-prize-certified star architects design and build -- what I've referred to here as "egotecture" and what David Sucher at his wonderful blog City Comforts (here) calls "precious-object architecture" -- is "really architecture." So what do we make of all the the other building that goes on in the world? The gas station down the road. The hotel in Hawaii where you last stayed on vacation. The new school they're taxing you for. The Italian restaurant you and your wife favor. The deck your neighbor's adding. The farm stand where you buy fresh strawberries. What kind of sense does it make to think of these spots as "not-architecture"? Yet the same people who'd never allow anyone to try to argue that what their favorite C&W singer makes is "not-music" seem perfectly willing to accept the idea that the cineplex they enjoy at the local mall is "not-architecture."

Bizarre and annoying. And, to my mind, unfortunate too. Why? Because these "real-books"/"not-real books," "real-architecture"/"not-real architecture" attitudes blind us to much in the way of reading and writing, and they blind us as well to the many buildings and neighborhoods that we're surrounded by. When your brain says "not-architecture," you tend to cruise through without taking note of what it is you're cruising through, let alone giving it a little pleasure-and-aesthetics consideration. You've switched off.

Too often, as we hold on to our (to my mind childish) fantasies of the great work -- whether in books or in architecture -- we write off the background against which the whole drama plays itself out. We're holding our breaths till we turn blue. What was that great John Lennon quote? "Life is what happens while you're waiting for something else to come along?" Something like that, anyway. I'd adapt it a bit and say, reading-and-writing is what you do while you're waiting around for a "great book," and "architecture" is what's happening while you're looking for a "great building." (The fact that great books and great buildings do occasionally come along doesn't invalidate this in any way.) As any art student knows, one of the first things you have to learn as you begin to see things from an aesthetic point of view is the importance of "negative space," the space between objects. You learn to give all the elements of a picture consideration, including the bits between the objects. The background's as important as the foreground.

What might it be like to interact more openly with the world of building and architecture? I can't think of a better way to get started than to check out David Sucher's City Comforts blog (which, again, is here). David writes about parking lots, traffic circles, and sidewalks; he writes about blocks that work and blocks that don't work. He also writes from time to time about the buildings of the star architects -- but when he does, he puts them in context. Star buildings can have a role too; David calls them "the raisins in the oatmeal" -- but he never loses track of the fact that the raisins ought to be about enhancing what we might think of as the more general oatmeal experience. And, let's face it, a bowl of good-quality oatmeal can be a wonderful thing even without any raisins, while a bowl of raisins with a few dollops of lousy oatmeal? Yech.

My (I hope helpful) suggestion to the one or two people who've been foolish enough to ask me for a tip about how to find the groove of architecture has been to ignore the architecture press and critics. Let 'em go. Start paying attention to your own feelings vis a vis your physical surroundings instead, and do it on the most mundane and basic level, where you're already most comfortable; no one's more of an expert on the topic of your experience than you are. Where do you like to go to eat? Where in your own house do you go when you want to read? Which museums do you prefer? Where do you like to go on vacation? How do you imagine retiring? Which parks do your kids enjoy playing in and which ones do they dislike? Where do you like to take a walk? When it's really hot outside, where do you take shelter?

It took me an embarrassingly long time to find my way to this point of view. (The architecture authors I make a point of suggesting -- Krier, Alexander, Salingaros, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, Witold Rybscinski, Roger Scruton, David Watkin -- are the ones who showed me the way.) I've told friends, Do this, and you're likely to start taking note of a much greater portion of the built environment. You'll start enjoying more, and you'll start seeing things more clearly. Who needs theory to get them going when the architecture, and your reactions to it, are already there waiting? As with books, we interact with architecture in many, many ways already. We're also already putting it together for ourselves, and pleasing ourselves as we see fit. We already have our favorite coffee stores, malls, restaurants, hotels, rooms, porches, blocks and neighborhoods. We prefer parking in one lot to parking in another. Of the four possible routes we might take to work, we prefer one or two of them. We know where we like to buy a newspaper. We've already got our pop pleasures (a movie theater that we enjoy more than most), and our folk pleasures (an old house with a great porch).

Convenience and price considerations play all too big a role in many people's lives, and often have to. But even people who simply barrel through the day and then hole up at home have their pleasures -- a favorite room or couch, a place to take a nap. What characterizes these places? I'm an architecture buff who's given himself a halfway respectable conventional architecture-history education, yet many of my architecture faves couldn't be more banal: barns and farmhouses; diners; courtyard apartment buildings; magazine stores; lakefront shacks; Mediterranean-Spanish houses. I indulge in some cool-guy and camp pleasures (swoopy old drive-in restaurants, gas stations and garages that haven't changed much since the '40s and '50s ), and I'm passionate about arcades and plazas that work. And why not? Architecture -- enjoying it, anyway -- isn't rocket science. We like shopping in one place rather than another. We'd rather live in one neighborhood than another. The question, "Where do you like to go for Sunday brunch?" opens up what to me is a far more important and enlightening architecture discussion than any theoretical issue the academics and avant-garde might want us to crack our brains over. Plus, as I say, we're already doing this kind of thing all the time anyway: "Where shall we meet for drinks?" is an example. Why not take note of the elements these questions call into play?

In the spirit of this, I want to pass along a few photos I took during my recent stay in Santa Barbara. Glorious small city, of course, with a huge number of buildings, blocks and neighborhoods to be enjoyed. This visit, the building that grabbed me most was a small roadside Mexican restaurant called El Grullo, slightly outside of town on State Street on the way towards Goleta. The building itself is just an old concrete-block building that might once have been a tire store, and it's on an unpromising block that you might even hesitate to call a block; it's really just some space where the road turns, near some on and offramps. Walkby traffic? Nada.

Yet what a delightful place. Jose Jimenez, the patron, is an immigrant from Guadalajara (the restaurant is named after his tiny home town) who worked for 24 years in a ritzy resort's kitchen, as cleaner, dishwasher, and bartender. He's a class act who knows his business, and who has an instinctive feel for the virtues of David Sucher's immortal Three Rules. The parking? On the side and behind, not in front. Although the building is set back too far from the sidewalk -- not Jimenez's fault, he just rented and adapted the building -- look at how he's used plants and flowers to bring the activity right up to the sidewalk. Is the place open and welcoming to passersby? Jimenez has used the plantings to create a beautiful bower and entryway experience.

Look as well at the wonderful two-part patio. One of them is great for private get-togethers, the other terrific for group shebangs. The light scatters and is screened in a lovely way, the colors sizzle, there's always something to delight the eye, and the spaces, while open, have terrific character. And, heck, I've always loved outdoor bars and corrugated-metal canopies.

"Who did the paintings, the plants, the lights, the signs?" I asked Jose. "I did!" he said. "We did! It's all family. The cooking. The shopping. The carpentry and painting." Well, all I can say is that his family's got quite a knack for festive and welcoming color, design, and spatial layouts. And, hey, the place really hops on Friday and Saturday nights.

What kind of architecture does El Grullo represent? And what makes this place so wonderful? These are the kinds of architecture discussions I'm happiest having. I guess I'd begin by falling back on music terminology and venturing "folk/world." The place is heavy on the Mexican-traditional vernacular, of course, and Jimenez is also clearly working the Mexican theme for the benefit of himself and his patrons. Yet there's nothing theme-parky about the place; you never feel that you're being squished into a cell on some corporation's spreadsheet. Nope, you can settle into El Grullo for hours, enjoying the breeze, the food, the drinks, and the sights. It's nourishing and friendly. "Negra Modelo architecture" -- maybe that's better.

So hats off to Jose Jimenez and El Grullo, 4123 State Street, Santa Barbara. Good strolling guitarists (cousins), and excellent food, too: Fab guacamole, beans, and iced tea, and some of the best-cooked chicken I've ever had -- crispy/chewy on the outside while bursting with juice and taste inside. Be sure to visit if you're in the neighborhood. As for me, I'd rather spend time here than exploring Rem Koolhaas' latest. Marvelous restaurant, good prices, terrific job of enhancing what neighborhood there is, and a very talented way of making space enjoyable. The place has heart, and there's much here to be loved. Why doesn't someone like Koolhaas come here to learn? He might be a better, or at least more likable and humble, architect if he did.

Anyway, how to explain this discrepancy: Why have we come to our senses where music is concerned, but not where reading-and-writing or architecture are concerned? My hunch about reading-and-writing is that people have funny (and god knows tenacious) religious feelings about books. But how to explain the architecture conundrum? I can't puzzle this one out. As for music? I suspect that the Boomers loved rock so much they couldn't stand for it not to be respected, so they took care of that particular argument. But it seems that there are some other arguments that haven't been attended to yet.

Ranting a bit today, sorry. And nostalgic, now that I'm back in NYC, for some good Mexican cooking,


posted by Michael at July 8, 2003


The John Lennon quote you're working toward is: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." From the song "Beautiful Boy" on the Double Fantasy LP, 1980. Not that I've ever been a Lennon fanatic or anything...

Posted by: Craig on July 8, 2003 04:50 PM

Ah, many thanks. Much snappier than my reconstruction of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 8, 2003 05:08 PM

I have a (probably moronic) off-the-top-of-my-head answer to your question about why different art forms are thought about differently (that is, some have lots of hierarchy and exclusiveness, others tend toward pluralism and inclusiveness.) To wit, that the more independent experience you have with a given art form before you become subject to an academic "authority figure," the more pluralistic you'll be.

Everybody hears lots of different types of music before they ever study it under an authority figure in school. Now once people start to study, say, classical music in school they immediately bump into hierarchies and value judgments; but for other types of music, it's too late: no professor can lecture you about your tastes in pop music.

Everybody eats lots of different food from an early age, and somehow cooking never became a fine art, so authority figures can't exactly lay down the law on food, (although a number of food writers keep trying.)

People see lots of different buildings from an early age, but exposure to "high" architecture as a liberal art generally only develop in an academic setting under the influence of a professor. (Hence the boring discussions of what is and is not "architecture" that have plagued us from time to time.)

Reading is not only encountered first in school, but "literature" is definitely a fine art, so "serious" literature will always be a mine field full of value judgments and hierarchies. But because we all read all sorts of things from an early age, the "underbelly" of entertainment fiction is quite pluralistic.

In other words, the schoolteacher and exclusionary hierarchical categories of art go together, no?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 8, 2003 05:59 PM

I think Friedrich's on to something here. Although I don't particularly let it guide my reading, I do feel somewhat sheepish about some of the books I read.--not because they are poorly written, but simply because they aren't "literature". That's something I picked up in K-12, and probably even more from my Mom, who always used to hint that I should try reading something more elevated than that science fiction I read all the time.

(God bless her; she never went beyond hinting.)

But I think it also depends on how common and familiar the skills are. Most people can cook, at least a little bit; most people sing, at least a little bit; many, perhaps most, learn to play some instrument at least a little bit. Relatively few people have written a book, or even tried, and even fewer, I'm guessing, design buildings.

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 8, 2003 06:36 PM

Great post. Lots of thought provokement there. Viz books and reading, I can only say that categorization of my book-case would be futile, because basically, much like what Will says, I have been reading my whole life. Nothing has been denied to me, and the reading experience has not been sullied by over-educated, emotionally-invested professors. (Hey, look -- a cool new way of saying I never went to college!) So reading to me is whatever I have in front of me that requires processing. Just about the only distinction I make anymore is online vs. offline, and even that is blurring.

It's interesting that Will brings up cooking, since that is something you HAVE to do to live. Everybody cooks, or at least I imagine they do. My cooking has gone from exotic gourmet fare to the totally simplistic in the last few years. The crazy search for weird Indian/Chinese/Chilean ingredients is no longer fun. For me, now, it's getting the best taste (and compliments) out of the least work and worry at a low price. It helps to have an appreciative audience, like my family, who think beer can chicken liberally dusted with chili powder and smoked over mesquite wood is dreamy. I get massive kudos for a $4 frier and $1 in charcoal, chips, and chili powder.

Architecture, though, REQUIRES immense knowledge, at least as I imagine it. The first thing I (literally) think of is load factors of various materials, and how poorly I would do with such considerations. Look at the decks and roofs and pumphouses that I've built -- WAY overengineered for their intended purpose, according to the experts, simply because I didn't want the damn things to fall down and hurt somebody. Given that my favorite architectural forms are predominated by decoration (Art Deco, for one), I tend to think of the Deco part as frippery. Maybe I've gotten confused with design, architecture and construction. My point, though, is that I treat architecture and reading with the same thought process as music: either I like it or I don't, and this late in life, there's not much out there that's gonna change my mind.

PS for Will -- there are some of us who never learned any musical instrument. And I never sing unless I am hammered makes small children cry for five counties.

PPS Damn, this would have made a nice post. Bastards.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on July 8, 2003 08:48 PM

I just realized that I think of architecture and buildings as two different things. Buildings are where I live, work, park my car, keep the lawn mower, get my gas, buy my groceries etc. Architecture is marble and echoing chambers and feelings of awe....It's like cooking and cuisine--my mom was a fantastic cook but the cuisine was definately MidWestern. I wonder if there's a similar difference in books and literature. You describe reading as activities involving basic literacy like reading a job application, doing the xword puzzle, reading a recipe etc. Somehow reading books which involve narrative feels different. Hmmmm....

Posted by: Deb on July 8, 2003 10:19 PM

I do think Friedrich's right in one way---I think certain types of "art" are always presented in a way that implies you must have studied them to know what the hell you are talking about, and thus become intimidating. Even "classical music" as opposed to other types of music requires "appreciation." The minute English teachers start making you figure out the "climax" and the "denouement" (OK--I'm not a speller, as I've previously admitted) of "literature"'re sunk as far as "just enjoying what you enjoy." (I'll always remember--the "climax" of "Catcher in Rye" is when Holden Caulfield DOESN'T get on the merry-go-round. Now--did this make it a more enjoyable book?). And the vocabulary, even of "architecture"---postmodern, decon. Huh? Does anybody refer to John Lennon's music as "pomo"? Maybe music majors, I don't know. I always remember a music major I knew in college waxing rhapsodic over a Barry Manilow tune--hardly snobby taste---but specifically about how artfully he felt Manilow used key changes. OK---never took piano lessons---you mean that cool part where it feels like the music and the mood surges? Key change? The minute there is "vocabulary"---you start feeling like you need to "know something" in order to participate.

Posted by: annette on July 8, 2003 11:02 PM

I was just scanning through the essay and was grabbed by "[i]t seems that almost everyone is comfortable with the idea that there are many different musics: western-art, rock, folk, rap, jazz, ...". In my world of retired seniors just the opposite is true. These people are not as learned as most respondants here but they almost all have just one music: western, folk, jazz, and all others are considered "noise".

Posted by: Janes_Kid on July 9, 2003 02:34 PM

I think Friedrich's point about experience preceding authority is basically good. It seems to me that there's something pessimistic, though, about it, perhaps in his choice of the word "subject". An encounter with authority doesn't mean automatic and permanent submission; not everyone can do it and not everyone who can do it can always be bothered to do it, but authority can be overcome with a bit of effort, pluralism doesn't have to be killed off by. Which is, I'm sure, probably the position Friedrich normally takes, it's just that his formulation above has a slightly defeatist tone. Or maybe I'm just misreading him.

Posted by: James Russell on July 10, 2003 11:51 AM

Dear Mr. Russell:

Yes, of course you're right. It's just that most people make the mistake, seeing a person in a position of authority, of assuming that their opinions should be accorded weight. In my experience, at least nine times out of ten, the notion that an authority figures opinions are based on superior knowledge or insight is not a justified assumption. But respect for hierarchy lives on, presumably implying that it has some kind of genetic basis. The Briggs-Myers personality test would certainly imply that acceptance of position-based authority is a trait that differs significantly among the population by temperament--and that most of the population will tend to respect authority, rationally or otherwise.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 10, 2003 12:22 PM

I've been thinking about this essay a fair bit. It raises some very interesting questions. The key one for me is "why do people treat buildings differently than they do music?"

Maybe part of the issue revolves around this sentence:

"What I've noticed is that people are more open-minded and adventurous where some art forms are concerned than others."

And the assumption later in the post is that "architecture" is an "art." I don't mean that good architecture doesn't require skill and judgement, but architecture is different from EVERY other "art" --- it is bounded by some finite and very practical tests: does the roof leak? do the stairs "walk" well? does the site plan contribute to the social goals of the community?

No other "art" even remotely has any practical requirements placed upon it (except -- perhaps -- to make money.)

Another factor is scale. It's not unusual for the individual to make music, to hire musicians for a party, to pay for a concert ticket much less than to simply buy a CD (what a quanit idea!)

But most individuals are very very far removed from creating a building. Even custom houses are a tiny (1% at most) part of new construction in the USA. Very few people EVER get a chance to interact directly with the buiding process. So of course they are timid about having opinions and rely too much on "experts." I think it takes a certain amount of "working with the material" for a person to have confidence in their own judgment. And by the scale of the physical city, it is rare for an individual to have been able to directly influence the shape of a building. Even prestigious Boards of Notables are timid and fall for the palaver of a "starchitect."

Posted by: David on July 11, 2003 01:02 AM

Regarding the Restaurant "El Grullo" I am originally from this Town south of Guadalajara, Mexico and I can tell you the way you describe this restaurant is just the way I know people from el Grullo are very talented and the town it self it's very interesting. Let me know if you would like to visit as I am moving back there soon after living in Ft Lauderdale FL. and Houston TX. for the last 20 years.

Posted by: Oscar Hernandez on December 21, 2003 06:15 PM


Posted by: cindy on April 5, 2004 04:20 PM



Posted by: CINDY on April 5, 2004 04:24 PM

My my mother is from La Cienega Jalisco, and I have some relatives that live in El Grullo and in El Limon also. I was wondering if you have any pictures taken of La Cienega or la "Agua Caliente" (which I believe is in El Limon,Im not sure), and of El Grullo. If you do, can you please send them to me at my email adress? I want to show some of my friends where Im from, but I dont have any pictures.
Thank you very much.

Posted by: guy on June 2, 2004 06:37 PM

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