Monday, 18 June 2012

Telling tales in and out of school

Women construction workers during WWII
As the unseasonably chill May wind sends leaves and dust whirling around the southern approaches to Waterloo Bridge, our little group of volunteers from the Association of Women in Property (WiP) gathers in the welcome warmth of the National Theatre coffee shop. We are awaiting the arrival of the other half of the team, which is walking from Lilian Baylis Technology School in Vauxhall with 125 students aged 11 and 12. By popular demand, we are repeating The Ladies Bridge, the roadshow with a difference.

The idea grew from discovering a documentary film made by historian Dr Christine Wall and film-maker Karen Livesey telling the story of Waterloo Bridge being rebuilt during World War II by a workforce that was 70 per cent female. The fact was written out of official history but well enough known to Thames Riverboat men that they still refer to it today as The Ladies Bridge. Two years ago, WiP Director Fiona Alfred and I decided that we could use the story as the basis to give school students an insight into the wonders of construction and engineering. Our instinct ( plus experience) told us that it might be easier to engage teachers and students with an intriguing story linked to the history curriculum than trying to sell a construction and property careers presentation.

Raising hands for silence at The Ladies Bridge

Our instinct proved correct.The response was so positive, that the school has asked us to repeat the event - with twice as many students. So here we are again at Waterloo Bridge,with the temperature not much warmer in late May 2012 than it was in early December 2010. Nevertheless, the students appear to engage with the explanations of how to construct a bridge across a fast flowing river, with particular interest in the concept of expansion joints to allow the deck to flex in varying temperatures. 

After brain food, the picture quiz
On return to the school, students' momentary dismay at the requirement to complete a picture quiz about the elements of a bridge is quickly dispelled on discovering that chocolate croissants are included in the roadshow programme. So we have a lecture theatre of 11 and 12 year olds relatively still and quiet after an hour's walking and fortified with a bakery treat - or brain food, as Fiona puts it.

Lisa Jane Risk tells the audience something about her job as  Property Director at Bizspace, the UK's largest provider of managed workspaces, before giving them a slideshow featuring famous bridges around the world. We play a specially edited version of The Ladies Bridge film and then Cathy Stewart talks about her work as an architect and shows them plans and pictures of her projects. I follow up with telling them how structural engineer Jane Wernick devised how to make the London Eye stand up and keep turning. The questions flow until we have to stop for lunch. We learn that teachers have organised an afternoon of bridge building using drinking straws and other materials to keep the theme running.

Into the theatre for the movie

We receive an enthusiastic letter from the Head Teacher, reporting that he has been stopped several times by girl students telling him about the event and that the WiP work is a highlight of the school year. The Assistant Head Teacher thanks us  for arranging and funding the roadshow, describing it as educational, enjoyable and thought provoking. He goes on, "The follow up work students did this afternoon showed they listened and learned a lot about bridge construction, the vast majority attempting something a little more adventurous than merely a beam bridge. Some teams actually modelled something that looked as though it could work and certainly took the weight of a heavy model truck."

A few days later, I receive the feedback forms from the students themselves, which make interesting reading particularly compared with the analysis of the event just 18 months ago. A significant group (38%)  enjoyed visiting Waterloo Bridge itself - a sobering fact discovered during the event was how few students had ever walked along the river or looked at the bridges. Unlike 2010, there were no complaints about the walk and a significant number positively enjoyed it. The number of students who say they know someone working in construction and engineering has risen and several commented that the reason there were more women working in the sector today was because of equality laws.

But perhaps the most telling finding was how many of this year's students (37%) said how much they enjoyed the film and the presentation because they liked  ‘facts’ and learning about the different bridges and how they were built. Following the toe-curling coverage of the Jubilee Flotilla by celebrities rather than experts, it is worth remembering that people - and especially young people - are hungry for information about our world. Buildings and bridges, and the people who design, construct and use them, have great stories to tell through the lens of history.  BBC please take note!

The flotilla marking the opening of old Waterloo Bridge in 1817

Friday, 8 June 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 6

From rosy sunset to white dawn

A State of extremes
We wake at 6.00am in a room bathed in a cool eerie light. Looking through the window our view has become monochrome, the trees covered in snow with more falling from the pewter grey sky. Closer inspection shows our dark grey car is transformed into a white model. The weather forecast indicating a 70 per cent chance of snow was a conservative one.

As my trusty Italian hiking boots had parted company with their soles on our mountain hike in the Ponderosa we had planned to pick up replacements or at least some rubber boots in the Yavapai General Store in order to make the most of the day. But seeing the deepening snow, and conscious of our lack of clothing, not to mention our flight back to the UK on Monday morning, we decide to leave a day early.

I put on two pairs of thick socks, the emasculated hiking boots and tie plastic bags on each foot as temporary protection.  We clear the 10 cms of snow and ice off the car with the plastic plates out of the picnic box - very effective - and carefully make our way out of the Park, driving in the tracks of others who are making the same decision. The temperature is 28 degrees and snow continues to fall. 
We reach Williams, passing a number of snowploughs which are focusing on the local airfield, and get on to Interstate 40 (the good old Route 66). The conditions are still pretty grim, but at least we are on a highway. Then, after just 20 miles, we see a police car facing us on the hard shoulder with warning lights flashing. We slow down and then come to a complete stop behind a long line of cars, pickups and huge American trucks. We tune into various radio stations but there is no traffic news. There is no network coverage on our phones. Nothing moves.

Route 66: Nothing moving ahead...
After half an hour Rod gets out to stretch his legs and chats to the driver of the car in front, who is doing the same. He tells Rod that there are three separate truck crashes on the way to Flagstaff, and that we are likely to be stuck here for two to three hours. The information has been obtained by telephoning his son, who went online to get the info. He offers us water. This is the last thing on my mind, as although Rod has managed a comfort break by one of the sparse trees on the roadside, the bleak and open Arizona  topography offers no opportunity of discrete cover for me.

...and plenty backed up behind.
The snow continues to fall. Two paramedic vehicles pass by sounding their sirens. Rod tunes into a local radio station called Calm, which provides unexpected entertainment as we try to guess the origin of each incredibly laid back, lushly orchestrated number. We find a small bag of peanut M & Ms and share them out.

Then as forecast, after 2 hours 28 minutes, there is movement. Driving carefully on the snowy highway, we pass the three accident sites, each close to an intersection, where tow trucks are manipulating the crashed lorries. We pass another accident scene. The snow starts falling more thickly and the temperature drops to 24 degrees. It seems extraordinary that only three days earlier and 150 miles away we had been seeking shade in the 94 degree heat of Phoenix. 

As we approach Flagstaff, conditions worsen and each slip road and exit presents a challenge. Snow falls thickly and swirls of mist obscure traffic and signs. We negotiate on to the highway going south and at last, as the elevation starts to fall below 4,500 feet, the temperature begins to rise and the snow is replaced by squalls of sleety rain.

Stormy skies in  Red Rock Country

We see the familiar rosy mountains of Red Rock Country, glowing against dark clouds, and the welcome signs for Sedona and Oak Creek Village. We pull into the Canyon Villa B & B, stretch our legs and retrieve our suitcase. Sadly there are no rooms free that evening, so we decide to fill up the petrol tank and make a run for Tucson. I change into my new Navajo socks and dry trainers. We call Cathy and Steve, tell them we are arriving back a day early and ask them to reserve a table for us all at a local restaurant for dinner.

The landscape changes to the familiar pale ochre desert dotted with the welcoming arms of saguaro cactus reaching cheerily up to the clear blue sky and as we sweep into the driveway lined with palm trees the temperature has risen 40 degrees to a balmy 64. After a shower, shampoo and change of clothes we set off to enjoy margueritas,  Mexican food and a Mariachi band – and marvel at the contrasts of Arizona.

Back to sunny Tucson
Photographs by Rod and Sandi Rhys Jones.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 5

The tortuous road through Oak Creek Canyon

Friday the Thirteenth - the Grand Canyon
The wind rises and sky darkens as we take the scenic route out of Sedona through Oak Creek Canyon up into the mountains. The Garmin valiantly tries to show the hairpin bends of the road but eventually gives up and the car icon simply spins round and around on the screen. We reach the peak and pull into the national park viewing area. It is also an approved trading post for native American Indians to sell their handmade arts and crafts. A cluster of stalls filled with jewellery, pottery and feathered dream catchers are ranged in line. The Navajo Indians huddled under hoods and umbrellas against the biting wind are cheerful, charming and informative. We buy intricately woven bracelets for the grandchildren, each with a sheet explaining the various images.

We walk to the viewing point. The view is spectacular. Huge ravens soar and dip above our heads. Excitable Japanese and Italian tourists arrive, crying out "Bald eagles, bald eagles!" Their jocular and patient guide does his best to convince them otherwise, but in the end decides to opt for the possibility that they are turkey vultures. This seems to satisfy them and after various combinations of photo opportunity all move back to their minibus.

We too retreat to the warmth of our vehicle and continue down the scenic route to Flagstaff. After a rather challenging negotiation around the town we find the road west to Los Angeles and then strike off due north to our destination, the Grand Canyon. Skies to the west have encouraging stripes of blue. Skies to the east are distinctly grey.
First view of the Grand Canyon

The Ranger issuing our pass at the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park tells us that there is a 70 per cent chance of precipitation, between 2 and 5 inches. Precipitation means snow. But shouldn't be a problem, she smiles. Rod looks thoughtful.

We check into Yavapai Lodge, where a tall chap with wire-rimmed glasses, whispy beard and prominent Adam's apple welcomes us cheerily. He too assures us that even if there is snow, it shouldn't be a problem, although he would advise against taking the tortuous scenic road back Flagstaff if the weather does change.

Our room on the second floor is large, comfortable, nicely furnished and very warm, with a wall of windows overlooking the pines that creates the feeling of being in a tree house. We go back to the car and open the boot to get out our suitcase. It is not there.

I stare in disbelief. How come someone managed to steal it without setting off the alarm? Was it the two grubby hippies munching burgers in a battered station wagon parked next to us when we stopped at the art gallery in Sedona? I sit down on a rock on the pathway, thinking of my computer and my jewellery roll. I also remember jokingly telling friends that as we were visiting the Grand Canyon on Friday 13 I would stay away from the edge. The jinx has clearly taken a different form.
Rod quietly says, "I left the suitcase in Sedona."

I remember him carrying it down the stairs from the room. "In the car park?" I ask.

"No, in the corner of the registration office," he replies. Relief that it has not been stolen or left in a car park overrides panic at the loss of a computer. Even lack of fresh underwear, contact lenses and make-up are minor issues. A call to the Canyon Inn, Sedona confirms that they have our case and have even sent us an email, not yet received due to intermittent reception.

Extraordinary glow at sunset

Dedicated snapper
There is only one thing to do - go and take a good look at the reason for making the journey. And it is worth making. Like other extraordinary sights of the world, photograph and film do not do justice to the sheer vastness, grandeur and colour of the Grand Canyon. We walk a stretch of the Rim Trail, visit the geological museum and take lots of photographs, despite knowing that many of them will look like rosy porridge.

We call into the General Store, which proves to be impressively large, well stocked with fresh food, household goods, clothing, crampons and hiking gear. Toothbrushes are purchased, together with milk and muffins for breakfast, humous, crackers and red wine for a restorative appetiser. As we return to the lodge, a mule deer strolls nonchalantly along the edge of the car park, nibbling the grass.

Reading the park newspaper reveals a wide range of activities, including a talk this evening entitled Gold, Glory and discovering the Grand Canyon. We set off, wearing all the clothes available from our limited stock, topped with our windproof macs. The auditorium fills with a mixture of mature, serious types, young hikers and multiple generation campers with offspring ranging from babies to teenagers, including a collection of what turns out to be Noisy and Unmanageable Toddlers.

The young, bearded Ranger lecturer strides energetically around, interspersing rapid fire questions to the audience (What make the Grand Canyon grand? What did you learn today?) with a galloping ideosyncratic and entertaining history of Spanish kings, errant daughters and conquistadors who wandered the desert like ancient mariners searching for Cibola and the seven cities of gold.They didn't find the gold, but they did discover the Grand Canyon.

The Noisy and Unmanageable Toddlers cause mayhem, impervious to the shushes and increasingly disgruntled comments from the main audience and a plea from the Ranger. Eventually relegated to the lobby by their spookily silent mothers in floaty skirts and wool beanies, they continue to run amok. Nobody bothers to shut the doors but eventually the volume dies down. At the end of the lecture the Ranger tells us to leave the site quickly as street lighting is kept to the minimum in the park in order to reduce light pollution. We head off for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge, the historic place we would have liked to stay but which, like El Tovar, is booked a year in advance. 

Warm welcome at Bright Angel Lodge

Bright Angel Lodge is warm, welcoming and stylish. Designed by the innovative architect Mary Jane Colter in 1935, it is built of wood and stone, with a blazing fire in a magnificent fireplace to greet us as we walk through the lobby door. Above the fireplace hangs a large carving of the thunderbird, the Bright Angel of the canyon and namesake of the lodge. Sadly the history room is closed, so we cannot admire at first hand the fireplace which Mary Jane Coulter had constructed of rocks to match the geological formation of the canyon itself.

Regarded as the best-known unknown architect in the national parks, Mary Jane Colter's philosophy was that a building should grow out of its setting. Her style of architecture became known as National Park Service Rustic. “It should belong to its environment as though indigenous to that spot,” according to her biographer Virginia Grattan.

Colter became interested in building and design whilst working as an apprentice architect to help fund her art studies. She spent 15 years as an art teacher but in 1902 she found a summer job with the Fred Harvey Company which specialized in railway stations and hotels. After doing interior decoration for the Indian Building adjacent to the new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, Colter was commissioned to design the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon.

Mary Jane Colter
Although these projects were successful, it was another eight years before she was offered a permanent position at the Fred Harvey Company. But she remained there as architect and designer for 46 years and was responsible for 21 projects, including La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, La Posada in Winslow and the Union Stations in Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Despite her regular commissions and the magnificence of her designs, success did not come easily in a male-dominated profession. She was not listed as architect on many of her buildings and her name did not achieve the recognition of many of her peers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Irving Gill. 

Today all six of her public structures within the park are included in the Mary Jane Colter National Landmark District or have National Landmark Properties status.  More people tour a Mary Jane Colter creation in a single busy weekend than visit some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous sites in a year. A satisfying thought.

Endless vista
We go to the large dining room, combining rustic wooden panels with ornate light fittings, intimate alcoves and tables to accommodate a dozen or more people. We eat excellent steak with fries and salad and share a rainbow sorbet, at a very reasonable price. I note how our fellow diners wrap up in multiple layers as they leave, discussing how cold the weather has become. I buy a pair of bright Navajo patterned socks from the excellent shop (the closest I get to taking home Indian weaving).

We find the car and start to find our way back in the intense darkness to Yavapai Lodge. Our Garmin lady descends into a semi-hysterical babble, trying to guide us on to non-existent roads, one way streets and dead ends. As she tries to persuade us to turn right onto the railroad track, I consign her to the glove compartment and just as we think we shall have to resort to navigating by the stars, we spot signs that relate to the rather vague map and triumphantly locate the lodge. After a warming glass of red wine, to compensate for lack of night attire, we go to bed.

All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones, except for portrait of Mary Jane Colter, from the National Parks Archive.