Feb 26, 2012

A fat hallelujah

I don’t know, but it actually sounds better in Swedish, Fettisdag, which is the same expression as Fat Tuesday, maybe because putting fat and Tuesday together creates a new word, also pronounced a bit different. Of course Mardi Gras has a whole different and more exotic ring to it, although it’s still means exactly the same thing. And it comes with traditions.

February in Sweden is way too cold for parades, and we aren’t much of a parading people anyway. Seattle did some of that in the late 70ies, but it ran amok and was first banned for a while, then too controlled and boring and therefore abandoned. Today though, Fat Tuesday in Seattle is a family-friendly face painting event, and lots of great music at the clubs down in Pioneer Square.

So, what do the non-parading Swedes do on Fat Tuesday? Well, we are performing a different and very well behaved kind of parade. All over the country people are lining up in pastry shops hoping for one of those seductively tasty buns impossible to eat without dipping your nose in that wonderful whipped cream. Or of course, you make them yourself, out of your grandmother’s recipe. In both cases, the first semla of the year is a  hallelujah moment. Those buns have a name: semla. In plural: semlor. The word probably comes from the German Semmel, rooted from Latin semila, which means light flour.

I grew up in a bakery. Yes I did. My father was a pastry chef. Yes he was. And yes, it was nothing but wonderful. And of course my father and his colleague’s semlor were the best. My childhood Februaries were a heavenly mix of snow, sun and dad's semlor. A semla is a round bun made from light wheat, spiced with cardamom. The bun is cut in half, so the upper part makes a top. In between there is this filling of whipped cream mixed with almond paste. Yes, hallelujah. And on top of the top part of the bun, a bit of icing sugar. Hallelujah. And there is no way you can eat this thing without getting white tasty stuff all over your face and hands. Triple hallelujah.

So, as my father is no more around and he never taught me how to make semlor (that’s another story) the Fat Tuesday that just passed I simply had to buy these desirable items that is something in between a pastry and a light wheat bread. At 4.30 pm the bakeries and coffee shops can be all out of semlor, big notes on the door and disappointed people walking away, dropping their heads to the chest in a big saddened sigh; day ruined! But I was lucky this year, a few of them still on the shelf. And I learned that only in this bakery 6000 semlor were produced during Fat Tuesday! There are six-seven bakeries in the Umeå area, assume they all made about 6000 semlor each, it adds up to around 40 000! Which actually isn’t that many, considering a desiring population of 115 000 people. So, do 75 000 of us make our own semlor the way our grandmas did? I need to do some research on that part until next year. And more important, I need to find out my father’s recipe. And make myself a February hallelujah moment.

Feb 19, 2012

Being bold on a scale

Making big changes when it comes to city planning is a tricky thing. Well, all changes are tricky in one way or the other, but changing the physical environment in the place we call home is serious business. To feel safe, we need to know our way around, the practicalities. We don’t even have to like them, the force of habit is so strong that we a lot of times prefer things as they are, because anything else is unknown and therefore scary. Our comfort zone is a powerful force.

Big changes are to come in Umeå and in Seattle as the two cities front porches, their waterfronts, are going to be redesigned. As if that wouldn’t be hard enough, both cities have chosen to hire people from out of town for the job. Ohhh. What would they know about our city? What would they know about us? Who we are? What we need?

In 2004 six acclaimed Scandinavian architects presented their different visions for the river waterfront in Umeå. They flew in with their models and eyes and minds seeing things in our city we weren’t aware of, telling us things foreign to us. The reactions were all over the map, from anger to happy excitement, but I would say Umeå landed on overwhelmed skepticism. The proposals were bold, the match with the more modest residents of Umeå was hard to reach and nothing of it happened at that time.

So, it was interesting reading Seattle Times the other day, quoting Marshall Foster, planning director for the city: "We're not afraid of bold. We love bold. But now we're trying to make it fit Seattle.” He was referring to the redesign by applauded James Corner of James Corned Field Operations of the downtown waterfront, proposing a grand promenade between the Pike Place Market and the Seattle Aquarium, including a series of tiered plazas and staircases overlooking Elliott Bay and the Olympics. Corner is now scaling back, responding to the local architects and city planners.

The City of Umeå’s way of scaling back was to take back the overall design of the waterfront, and hiring an out of town celebrated architect only for the new building for cultural arts, Kulturväven. Kjettil Thorsen of Norwegian firm Snöhetta, responsible for the building that is actually now going to happen, has an awareness of these matters: “ We have these ideas about everything old being beautiful and needs to be taken care of. So; everything new is foreign, scary ugly, and makes us uncomfortable. Snöhetta is trying to make contemporary architecture available to the public, to make it positive. If we succeed in bringing out that contemporary architecture adds something to the community, we have come a far way.

Feb 12, 2012

Building solid foundations

The light is coming back! Every day is now noticeably longer in Umeå, the cold has been paralyzing (-23 F the other day) but it’s stunningly beautiful as the low sun is making tall blue shadows on the sparkling snow, promising that spring isn’t that far away after all.

I was surprised to see the building cranes moving, in spite of the cold. It’s pretty quite though down at the waterfront. It will still be some time before the main attraction down there, Kulturväven - the new building for cultural arts, is to get started. The project has been stalled by appeals, preservers fighting developers. Democracy is a wonderful process, which can be as constructive as it can be annoying.

Important projects need a solid base. In the community as well as at the physical sight. And in both my cities some basic foundational work needs to be done before the big waterfront projects can take place. Seattle has to replace the sea wall protecting downtown from the powerful sound. In Umeå it’s essential to refurbish the riverfront; the streams of the water is a violent force.

So, what about the foundation in the community? Well, the City of Umeå did invite to a number of public meetings. There is a problem though: those meetings tend to draw the same group of people, quite a small crowd, mostly former city officials and well known preservers. The City webpage about Kulturväven http://www.umea.se/kulturvaven is kind of silent. It’s possible to put in a question and you are promised an answer, but the form is a bit stiff and not that inviting.

Väven AB, the City and Balticgruppen (The Baltic Group, the main developer in Umeå) joint company, which will be building the new Umeå landmark, has a webpage too, http://www.kulturvaven.se/. It’s a bit more promising. Filmed interviews with, among others, the architect makes it more alive, there is a web cam at the building sight and we are invited to ask questions via email. It still feels a bit dumb though.

Seattle is making a very ambitious try, involving the public in the design of the new waterfront. The webpage http://waterfrontseattle.org/ greats us with the inviting and challengingly statement “Its your waterfront, help us shape it, come join us”. The calendar tells us not only about the public meetings, but finance, stewardship and executive committee meetings. There has been surveys addressed to the public, and I must say the questions give the impression the City and The Central Waterfront Committee really want to know how the inhabitants of Seattle would like their waterfront in the future.  A series of public discussions on the subject takes place this winter, and the project presentations by James Corner of James Corner Field Operations are open, draw a big crowd and I can watch them in Sweden on the webpage. I get the impression the City and The Central Waterfront Committee intend making the whole process as transparent as possible.

Because of this, I was very surprised finding that my Seattle friends (who are all very engaged in the city and the Seattle community) didn’t know about these efforts at all! In fact, I was better informed than they are! Asking about it they all gave me the same answer: “There is a fatigue among Seattleites about the waterfront. And if anything is going on down there, it’s all covered by the ever ongoing discussions about the Viaduct and the tunnel.”

I would say that fatigue has been a wet blanket in Umeå too, when it comes to the waterfront. But the sleepy state of mind is now exchanged by equal parts hope and skepticism. The cultural arts communities were invited for discussions about the contents of Kulturväven. Some are now happy, others disappointed, and the inside of the building is going to be decided on in June. June is also the month when a strategic plan for the design of the Seattle waterfront is going to be delivered to the mayor. So, will the future be built on solid foundations?