The Original Green

I am a big fan of NPR (National Public Radio for those of who live outside of the US), and I recently listened to a broadcast in which the commentators explained the virtues of this great invention called "Green Roofs"!  A green roof (also known as a living roof) would be great for the environment because the vegetation and the soil used as a "roofing material" would absorb the excess rain, provide insulation, and prevent the Heat Island effect.  This made me chuckle because, while I think green roofs are a great idea, they are hardly a novel one.  Our current and certainly necessary desire to save the planet has led us into such acrobatics...or as a dear friend of mine would say "techno green".  Installing a green roof is expensive, and depending on the type it could also be expensive to maintain, not to mention the structural complexity necessary to support the different plant species, the soil, and the irrigation and drainage systems.  

All of this got me thinking of other living roofs, the ones that are part of a culture's vernacular and because of their antiquity don't catch the attention of the more "techno green" oriented folks; the Original Green, if you will: Take for example the Viking houses in Newfoundland, which are covered in moss; or the Sod Roofs  in Norway in which the roof is made of birch bark and the sod holds the bark in place.  Another type of living roof is one that I grew up seeing in school excursions and family vacations in the foggy mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua:
Chapel.  Selva Negra Mountain Lodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The simple masonry structure is covered in moss, ferns, and sometimes orchids!  All this vegetation helps insulate the building, absorb rain water, and filter and cool the air in the vicinity, just like our friends at NPR would suggest.  The differences between this rustic chapel and the rooftop gardens built in Manhattan and elsewhere are 1. The lack of soil on the roof because the native ferns, mosses, and orchids of Matagalpa only need some friendly cross-pollination to attach to ANY surface available, therefore no soil is required.  2. The type of plant material: ferns, mosses, grasses, instead of heavier, larger species. 3. No irrigation system because the climate in the mountains of Matagalpa is categorized as a cloud rainforest, with a constant mist over the hills and heavy rainfall year round, so the plants follow a natural growth process.  4. The (oh so revolutionary) idea of a sloped roof, which renders a drainage system unnecessary; any water that is not absorbed by the plants is shed by the slope of the roof and then absorbed in the surrounding vegetation.  People in the mountains of Matagalpa are constantly fighting their ferns, but Mausi Hayn de Kuhl and Eddy Kuhl, owners and residents of the Selva Negra Ecolodge and Coffee Estate have engaged the encroaching forest most advantageously.

Chapel, side view.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Selva Negra is a magical place; its name refers to Der Schwarzwald, the Black Forest in Southwestern Germany, and it is a reminder of the wave of immigration that flowed into Matagalpa in the 1840's.  German settlers planted the first coffee trees in the land, and the coffee market attracted hundreds of European immigrants, whence Mr. Kuhl and Mrs. Hayn de Kuhl are descended.

Don Eddy, as he is affectionately known, holds degrees in Architecture and Civil Engineering; Doña Mausi studied Architecture as well, and in the early years of their marriage they established a building enterprise together, that is until they heard the call of the Land.  Don Eddy and Doña Mausi have created in Selva Negra a true oasis of sustainability, where the Ecolodge is just a small perk in their greater commitment to preserving the cloud rainforest, working the land with as little impact as possible, promoting social welfare, and (in my own very biased opinion) producing the best organic coffee there is!

The Shade Grown Bourbon and Caturra (Arabica) coffee varieties produced at Selva Negra.
I have visited the Ecolodge many times, my family and I have lit the fires in December in the Viejo Otto (Matagalpa is blissfully cool), we have hiked the trails, we have rowed in the lake, and once my cousins and I were chased by a flock of hostile geese.  But it was not until my most recent visit, when my husband and I toured the "Beneficio" (where the coffee is processed) and La Hammonia farm,  that I truly appreciated the work performed in the estate.  Every vegetable consumed, every glass of milk and slice of cheese, every cut of ham and meat, is grown, raised, prepared, and processed on the land. 
Vegetable patch.  La Hammonia Farm.  Selva Negra.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Energy is produced with hydroelectric turbines in the lake.  The methane used for cooking, which burns cleanly, is produced from coffee waste.  The soil is nurtured with compost created with manure from the farm, waste from the hotel, algae collected from the lake, and coffee pulp, which is fed to worms and the refuse is gathered and mixed in the soil.  Trash and water are recycled, nothing is ever wasted, especially the coffee by-products:

Worm Compost.  La Hammonia Farm, Selva Negra.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The process of separating the bean from husk, or milling, is also an interesting one.  You'll notice the sign behind the Mill has a little mural with an inscription that says "La Hammonia 1891".  Selva Negra preserves buildings dating back to the German immigration; the Chalet for example, was built by Hans Bosche in the 1890's (which is recent history by Nicaraguan architectural standards), and it is possible to rent it for lodging.  But I digress, we are talking about processing coffee. The coffee beans move through the mill by water, the force of the water breaks open the husk that covers the beans and they are separated from their pulp and their coating:

Mill.  La Hammonia Farm.  Selva Negra.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

The coffee is then placed in basins to be fermented.  After fermentation is over the beans are washed and they are sorted for quality.  The heaviest and highest quality beans sink to the bottom, the "floaters", which are of lesser quality, are removed.  We were told by our guide that those are purchased by companies that make instant coffee, but none of them make it into the Selva Negra cut:
The Fermentation Process.  La Hammonia Farm.  Selva Negra.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
In a society where poverty is endemic, the memory of wars is still seared in the mind's eye, and political corruption trickles from the top, it is easy for plantation owners to revert to feudalism, exploiting their workers, many of whom are illiterate and many of whom are children. 
An old tank marks the turn on the country road towards the Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The Kuhls' reverence for the land extends to the well being of their workers (permanent or seasonal), who I understand fare much better than at nearby "beneficios" and farms in the rest of the country.  The permanent workers live within the estate, and the seasonal workers are provided lodgings on the property as well.  The workers eat in the cafeteria the same fruits of the land that are served those who visit the Ecolodge.  Doña Mausi has created a clinic at the village, and there is also a school and a library.  I was told that youths are not allowed to enter the fields without first completing their education, this prevents both child labor (which is still a problem in Nicaragua) and opens up new avenues for them: our most excellent tour guide told us how he grew up on the estate, and was able to attend university where he studied Tourism and Hotel Administration (a very popular major of study, considering the developing industry of tourism); he has now returned to Matagalpa and works in the administration of the Ecolodge.
Workers Village.  La Hammonia Farm.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua. 
Selva Negra is also committed to preserving the biodiversity of the surrounding cloud rainforest.  Aided by Marena (Nicaragua's National Environmental Agency) the Kuhls patrol the hills to prevent hunting, littering, deforestation, or burning.  Selva Negra is equipped with a research center, and nurseries full of native species ready to replace any that might be lost:
Nursery.  La Hammonia Farm.  Selva Negra.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Selva Negra is a peaceful place, one will not find many TVs or loud entertainment sets on the grounds; instead the living room of the Lodge is equipped with board games and a small library.  Don Eddy and Doña Mausi can often be found at the Lodge, particularly at meal times, and they also conduct tours of the farm when their schedule allows it.  Don Eddy takes a personal interest on his guests and will often sit with you and enjoy a cup of (what else?) coffee.  He will regale you with many stories about the history of the area, or Nicaragua in general, and best of all, he will share with you the many ways to brew and prepare a cup of coffee. The visitor is encouraged to take part in many leisure activities like horseback riding, rowing, hiking, or to simply relish in the contemplation of Nature at her very best. 

Entrance to the Mountain trails.  Selva Negra cloud rainforest.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Selva Negra is a quiet place, so quiet that one can easily hear the birds calling and monkeys howling; and in many fortunate occasions, one can be visited by the many animals that inhabit the forest:

Guardatinaja.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Selva Negra is a beautiful place.  It is a well loved child raised to maturity throughout many decades.
The Lodge.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The lake, with the children's playground on the right.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
A creek along the mountain trail.  Selva Negra cloud rainforest.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Glorieta.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The Path to the Cabins.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Selva Negra is a Green place; I am fortunate to have enjoyed its riches, its beauty, its peace, its people.  I hope one day you will too.

Glorieta.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Guest Cabin.  Selva Negra Ecolodge.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
All images by NPL

- Selva Negra Coffee can be purchased in the United States, exclusively at Whole Foods where it is called "Allegro Origins Nicaraguan Organic Selva Negra".
- Selva Negra Coffee can also be purchased directly from the Kuhls' youngest daughter at Java Vino Coffee & Wine House in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Visit Selva Negra to learn more.



The Material Basis of Classicism

My friend the Ph.d. and author of Architecture/Cosmopolis has published this video taken at The School of Architecture of The University of Notre Dame during the Palladio Conference last month.  I was pleasantly surprised to see our fellow classmate Travis Kline building an arch according to traditional methods.  Well done Travis!



A Stay on Pirate's Island

"The Colonel", gliding in the waters of Offats Bayou.  Galveston Island, Texas.
Galveston Island has a rich and diverse history that begins with its native inhabitants, the Karankawa; and continues with it's many incarnations as a Spanish province, a pirate settlement, and capital of the Republic of Texas.  Galveston's strategic position in the natural harbor of Galveston Bay in the Gulf of Mexico made it, by the end of the 19th century, the center of trade in Texas; and it would have probably continued so if not for the Great Storm of 1900 and the building of the Houston Ship Channel.

I have a certain fascination with Port cities because they make me think of the routes in which people move and the paths that they travel throughout their lives.  Having lived in so many different cities and countries myself, migration is to me a personal subject.  Galveston is of particularly interest because of its link to Nicaragua during the California Gold Rush: Forty-Niners (and so on) would travel from the Eastern cities of the United States, make a stop in Galveston to refresh, and then head south to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.  Once in San Juan del Sur they would sail in the San Juan river and fight their way through the jungle until they reached the other side of the Central American Isthmus; at which point they would sail north from the port of Corinto, Nicaragua towards San Francisco, California.  But the influx of people worked in the reverse as well, and many Nicaraguans (including some of my relations) sailed northbound in the ships, either as crew or passengers, and entered the United States for the first time through the port of Galveston.

This constant flow of humanity made Galveston Island a very diverse city, most evident in its Architecture.  While the prevalent architectural style is Victorian, many others mingle in the tropical air of the island, and all are executed with such enthusiasm and exuberance as if to scandalize the proper English and European folks from which said styles were first learned.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  Galveston, Texas.  Texas Historical Landmark.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  Galveston, Texas.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  Interior.  Galveston, Texas. Image by Gruenemann.
The present-day Sacred Heart was built 1904 by architect Nicholas Clayton, after the original Victorian Romanesque building was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1900.  The new design combined elements of Byzantine and Moorish architecture within its Gothic structure.  It is interesting to see that the (then) fashionable taste for Exoticism and Orientalism makes an appearance in Galveston, so far away from the sophisticated Paris Salons.

Custom House.  Galveston, Texas.  National Register of Historic Places.
The Galveston Custom House was the first federally owned building in Galveston.  Its design is based on an earlier three storey Palladian one produced by architect Ammi Burnham Young in 1857, which was modified in 1859 by architect Charles B. Cluskey to accommodate a Post Office and reduce the building to two stories.  The Custom House was finally completed in 1861 and it was soon occupied by the Confederate Army, which set up camp there.  The building survived a fire in 1885, and it is a hero of the Great Storm of 1900; for many years it served as a courthouse, and in 1999 after six months of restoration it became the headquarters of the Galveston Historic Foundation. 

Galveston Custom House.  Galveston, Texas.

Galveston Custom House.  Courtyard Detail.  Galveston, Texas.
Though the orders used in the building are Roman Ionic and Roman Corinthian and the actual inspiration for this building is the work of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, this building has been categorized in the style known in America as the "Greek Revival" (first half of the 19th century).  As America relished in her new found independence, it looked to Athens and Republican Rome as examples of democracy, emulating not only philosophy, but also fashion, art, and architecture.

Even as the taste for all things Greek faded into the later part of the 19th century, the taste for Palladianism and Classical Architecture remained, and it is evident in some of the more sumptuous houses on Broadway Avenue:

Isaac Kempner House. 1906. Galveston, Texas.
The Kempner House was designer by Charles W. Bulger and altered later by noted Houston architect John F. Staub.
Isaac Kempner House. Texas Historic Landmark.
 Two more beautiful classical houses on Broadway avenue:

Carl C. Biehl House on Broadway Avenue.  Built in 1916 by architect Anton F. Korn.  Galveston, Texas.
Notice the curtains blowing in the coastal breeze, in the brick house (below) and the second floor loggia (above).  Whether it is the enfilade of the modest "shotgun" houses, or the clever clerestory windows set in the dome of the Bishop's Palace, all historic houses of Galveston Island are built to take advantage of the winds coming from the gulf.
Italianate House on Broadway Avenue.  Galveston, Texas.

And now let us visit the exuberant Victorian ladies:
Julius H.Ruhl Residence.  1875.  Galveston, Texas.  Texas Historic Landmark.
The house above was completed in 1875 for Julius H. Ruhl, a native of Prussia, in the "Ginger Bread" style so characteristic of Victorian domestic architecture.  Its decoration also incorporates "Italianate" details like the slender colonnettes and the modillions and brackets that support the second storey cornice.  The photograph above shows the house, and its luxurious landscape, decorated for the 4th of July Independence Day festivities.
Gresham Castle "The Bishop's Palace".  Galveston, Texas.  Texas Historic Landmark.  National Register of Historic Places.
Gresham Castle on Broadway Avenue, was designed by architect Nicholas Clayton and built from 1887-1892.  It remained in the Gresham family until 1923 when the Catholic Diocese of Galveston bought it from Mrs. Gresham.  The house today is open to the public, and I was fortunate to participate in a tour of its interiors.  I will dedicate a detailed post to this building, so make sure to check for updates!
Powhata S. Wren Residence. 1873.  Galveston, Texas.  Texas Historic Landmark.
Ashton Villa. 1859.  Galveston, Texas.  Texas Historic Landmark.  National Register of Historic Places.
 The "Italianate Victorian" Ashton Villa was completed in 1859.  It was the first brick house to be built in Texas, and the first of the "palaces" built on Galveston's Broadway Avenue.  The Villa was built by owner James Moreau Brown - who had apprenticed as a brick mason after running away from his New York home - and his slave Alek, who was a brick mason.  The design of the house was based on one found in a Pattern Book - as it was common at the time - published by Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan.
The Willis-Moody Mansion.  1895.  Galveston, Texas.  National Register of Historic Places. 
The Willis-Moody Mansion was built between 1893-1895 by the English born architect William H. Tyndall in the "Richardsonian Romanesque" style; adapted with porches, galleries, and strategically placed windows, all designed to catch the coastal breeze.  The house original owner was Narcissa Willis, the widow of merchant Richard Short Willis, and in 1900 it was purchased from her heirs by William Lewis Moody Jr., whose business enterprises would influence the development of Galveston over the next five decades.  
Fashionable place that it was, Galveston was not immune to the Arts & Crafts Movement.  As the Island recovered from the Great Storm of 1900, her architecture continued to evolve with the times and we see several examples of the Arts & Crafts, notably in the Adriance-Springer House, designed in 1914 by L. S. Green:
Adriance-Springer House.  Galveston, Texas.  Texas Historic Landmark.
 Most people today think of Galveston Island as a holiday destination, and the urban focus has shifted towards the beach and its hotels; but the historic charm of the city center remains, a reminder of the flourishing commercial and port center that it was once:
The Strand.  Galveston, Texas.
The elegant Tremont House Hotel. 1879.  Galveston, Texas.
Shops in the Historic Center.  Galveston, Texas.

The Strand.  July 4th, 2011.  Galveston, Texas.
The "Italianate" details on the Hutchings-Sealy Building.  The Strand.  Galveston, Texas.
Many of the buildings in the Historic Center have colonnades on the facades, which mercifully shade the pedestrians from the inclement tropical sun:
Eibands Building ca 1870.  Galveston, Texas.

The Eibands Building National Landmark plaque.  Note the 1900 Storm 'Survivor" designation.
The Strand.  Galveston, Texas.
And then there is the major reason most people visit Galveston:
Independence Day revelers on The Strand.  Galveston, Texas.  July 4th, 2011.

Wild Life at Moody Gardens.  Galveston, Texas.

Cruise Ship at the Marina.  Galveston, Texas.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay on "Pirate's Island".  I was also one of those revelers who paid homage to the beach gods, but there is no need to blog about biggest enjoyment, as you can imagine, came from the charm, history, and resilience of this place.
Seagull.  Galveston, Texas.
All images by NPL unless otherwise noted.



Of Gods and Heroes

"Art is a vehicle for self-expression", any artist will tell you that.  Why is it then that our contemporary art world has turned into a self-conscious, introspective exercise on the use and virtue of paint; where every piece is called "Untitled", and the only ideas explored are the color wheel, the texture, the density, and the aquosity of paint?  Where is the meaning?  Where is the message?  Where is the touted "self-expression"?  I grow weary of such Art.  Which is why I was delighted when I recently attended a reception benefiting the The Houston Area Women's Center (an organization that fights domestic violence) at Archway Gallery in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, and met gallery director and artist John Slaby.

It was immediately clear to me that Mr. Slaby was no ordinary contemporary Artist, starting with the refreshing fact that he is full of ideas - philosophical, religious, social ideas and he is not afraid to paint them.  Add to this his (rare) scholarship in Art History and his superb technique, and you are standing in front of someone truly unique.

"Heroic".  Oil on Canvas. 24 in x 24 in. 2009
The first painting that caught my eye was one similar to the one above and also titled "Heroic" (and unfortunately I could not find an image of it, so you will just have to visit Archway Gallery to see it in person).  It depicted a marble statute of Athena, goddess of Just War "di sotto in su" (seen from below).  The painting, like the one above, was splattered in blood (alizarin crimson paint, really) and it made me think of how appropriate this was:  Is there ever a "Just War"?  That's when I decided to go weave through the party to search for the person who had created the painting.  Mr. Slaby further explained to me that he wanted to express how the reality of all these monuments ("Heroic" above depicts Napoleon from the Arc de Triomph in Paris, crowned by Nike, goddess of Victory) that glorify War and Victory is that they are also glorifying all the blood shed in the process.

"Menace"  Oil on Paper.  9 in x 12 in.  2011
"Menace" is a small painting with a big message.  Mr. Slaby asked me to give him my interpretation on this work and I said that this was an example of how one person can yield so much power and cause so much destruction, create so much fear.  He used the verb "to amplify".  This spoke to me on a personal level, having grown up in Nicaragua where one charismatic leader after another has turned into a tyrant.  But he also said something else: he pointed out the obvious fact that the shadow was cast by a toy, a child's toy; implying the horror the child could one day become.  "Menace" is hung appropriately next the "Heroic" painting of Athena.

"After Christmas"  Oil on Paper.  9 in x 12 in.  2011
The first thing I noticed about "After Christmas" was the virtuoso depiction of candle light and the translucent glimmer of the melting wax; and I very boldly told Mr. Slaby (and very boldly state here) that it reminded of a Georges de La Tour (there I said it!) to which Mr. Slaby responded, that he was indeed inspired by de La Tour and all those penitent Mary Magdalenes; which I suppose is fitting since Christmas is after all a religious holiday.  Mr. Slaby has depicted here a sad, tacky, and melting Santa Claus candle, a reflection of our consumerist culture; empty and depressed until the next great sale.

Since meeting Mr. Slaby I wanted to see more of his pieces, so I went to his website: and was not disappointed.

"Push"  Oil on Linen.  48 in x 60 in.  2001
Mr. Slaby's work is not only beautiful but meaningful and thought-provoking.  I imagine Mr. Slaby pushing the boundaries of paint as the man above does in "Push", but more importantly, I imagine Mr. Slaby pushing himself every day towards excellence.

John Slaby's work can be seen
online at:
In person at: Archway Gallery

Many thanks to John Slaby for letting me write about him. All images images and work are the copyright of John Slaby and have been used with his permission



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