This is a really interesting interview Kelly and Christopher Grunenberg, about colour, originally posted on one of the Tate online magazines but no longer available. It was re-posted on fARTiculate here.
Must pull out of the long weekend, now that it is past. Although the 24th of May is this Friday and our Victorian holiday usually moves to synchronise with the USA's Memorial Day, which lessens its meaning somewhat, this year it didn't. Inexplicably, we had the 24th of May on May 20.
Yesterday another visit to the NC 139s .
Ellsworth Kelly, he of the huge colour block paintings in primary colours, drew flowers and leaves in pencil on paper for most of his career. Many are collected in a book, Plant Drawings 1948-2010 (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2011) with an essay by Michael Semff and an interview with Kelly by Marla Prather.
Kelly is quoted: 'They are not an approximation of the thing seen nor are they a personal expression or an abstraction. Nothing is changed or added: no shading, no surface marking. They are an impersonal observation of the form.'
This is how we, as young architects in the conceptual 1970s, were taught to draw, and I suppose by extension, to think. The mind was put into a kind of zen-like suspension as the shape of the leaf went through the eyes directly to the hand; the hand was holding a pencil and a drawing was made. The line was all. Although there was a bit of Matisse knocking around in the brain, Kelly's strictures on making the drawing were tight: a pencil, a large sheet of paper, all line, or all shadow, or all shape. The leaf above is the essence of leafness as held in this particular leaf, and all other leaves.
Flowers are just very beautiful things, however Kelly isn't drawing their beauty, he is drawing the lines of the plant, which we perhaps, or not, find lovely. Remove the colour, the sunlight, the garden, the season, the history and one is left with the line, and a tremendous affection for the flower. It is wholly itself.
This for Canada's Victoria Day weekend, probably the last place in the world that still celebrates Queen Victoria's birthday.
From another time, that other country: 'The twenty-fourth of May, is the Queen's birthday. If you don't give us a holiday, we'll all run away.'
Or, if you were Edward Oxford, try to shoot the Queen, be declared insane, and then be sent to Australia.
It was always explained to me that the US Interstate system was primarily a Department of Defense project, meant to extend to all corners of the country with a military-specification super-highway connecting dispersed military bases, plants, installations and depots, rather than concentrating such facilities in one or two key sites in the country. This was a response to the fear that Chicago during the Second World War constituted a key target as the nation's railways all converged there: take out the Chicago railyards and transportation would be frozen. Chicago wasn't bombed, but the cold war and the threat of larger weapons with greater reach kept the threat alive.
Above is an image from 1939: oil transported by rail. Oil is essential to the prosecution of war. And as Al Gore said in an interview yesterday on CBC oil is oil, once it is on its way, as a commodity, it doesn't matter where it goes (I paraphrase). He pointed out that when Alberta bitumen gets to the Texas coast, it will be sold on, and that is the critical factor for approval of the Keystone pipeline. This isn't a great fit with the desire for energy security, which is how pipeline projects are sold to us – no more reliance on dodgy sources in the middle east or the Gulf of Mexico, North America can find and refine and consume its own product. Gore was suggesting that the raw bitumen is extracted in Canada, refined in Texas and then exported, a different proposition entirely.
On the map the Keystone pipeline appears to go right down I-29 to Kansas and then I-35 to the coast. I remember this route, there is a little jog on I-70 through Topeka to get from I-29 to I-35. So not as straight as the proposed pipeline route. Whatever. Perhaps rather than going through farmers' fields and disrupting their herds, woodlots and endangered species, the pipelines should go down the already disturbed landscape that is the Inter-state highway system. Those freeways are like culverts with huge gravel verges, surely a pipeline could fit alongside them. We might start to think of the interstate system not as a transportation network but an industrial-military network of channels carrying vital resources for the defence of the country. This actually seems more likely than the Interstate as a traveller's joy.
Found this on an exciting discovery, Aaron Eiland's typetoy.com, a huge collection of graphic images. The ribbon writing on this perhaps late 1940s French oil can, is very like Ed Ruscha's gunpowder drawings of the late 1950s.
Last week I was early for a meeting at the Canadian Architectural Archives, located in the UofC library. Time to kill, and a shelf of NC 139 big fat art books right by the door, I went through Margit Rowell's Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha (Steidl, 2008). Pages of plates of drawings of words, so banal they are almost without meaning, or conversely, so banal they are loaded with meaning: Quit, Sin, Pee Pee, and so on. They start with graphite and proceed to gunpowder, then on to chalks and pencil crayons - cheap, easily found drawing materials. It is never about money, art.
At the time that the abstract expressionists were flinging paint all over, Ruscha was doing these painstaking drawings, rubbing powder into paper.
Emergency housing has such a hold on the imagination, so wrapped up is it in development and dependency issues on one hand and on clever identi-kit solutions on the other. I wrote a paper on the dependency side in 2004 for a conference organised at Ryerson by Robert Kronenberg on the transportable environment. The conference and the book from it tended to concentrate on technology: pop-up shelters, mobile pavilions, 3rd-generation walking cities, mechanical expandable structural systems – the extravagance of which I viewed in the context of Architecture for Humanity's 2001 competition for mobile clinics in Africa – for example, Ruimtelab and Linders & van Dorssen's project included a mobile phone as one of the most important tools in any kind of mobile environment.
My point, at the time and probably still is, was that historically people subject to disasters swing into a kind of reclamation/restoration process immediately after the quake, or the bomb, or the flood: a response that we in the west generally do not understand. Here, trauma counsellors are first on the scene, something aid agencies extend to other cultures in other places. They also bring in all the often hi-tech emergency shelters, they organise camps in straight lines, the newly homeless are detached from their land, their place, their property and their autonomy. This was a critique of emergency shelter that dates from Ian Davis in the 1970s, that culture is left behind in aid agency panic to establish relief, rather than it being the organising factor.
Nonetheless, flat pack dwellings are great fun to design: how small, how simple, how efficient and transportable can a house be? One can be ingenious. That there are millions of Chinese shipping containers pressed into service all over the world as housing isn't as much fun.
Shelter Box: a box is delivered, clearly people are expected to interpret it, and then deploy it. The tent probably does not require 6 burly World Vision volunteers to erect, the box could be thrown out of a plane and arrive intact. Shelter is just a tool, not an object, despite its object/fetish nature.
When the Gruen's left Germany, just before the outbreak of war, they went to New York and did a number of shops (Lederer's, Ciro's) plus eleven branches of Grayson's, a clothing store. Both of these images contain all sorts of first iterations of something so commonplace that we don't even see them anymore: strange leaps of scale, an ambiguous play of sun, shadow, neon and armature in the signage itself, so that it is never quite the same at any one time, the facade as billboard, the ambiguity about where the sidewalk ends and the store starts – the blurring of boundaries between in and out, private and public: it is all chimerical, but still involved in the serious business of commerce.
How does one make shopping accidental, inadvertent yet habitual, where one drifts into an impulsive purchase rather than marching, money clutched in fist, to buy something very specific? The blur between cash and credit is anticipated in these storefronts. Consumption has indeed become inadvertent, the point of purchase is never quite clear.
d.talks showed this film last week and then invited some local speakers to discuss it in front of an audience, which they actually didn't, discuss it that is, but talked instead about Calgary shopping malls, where the Gruen effect is alive and well.
Highlights: Calgary expects to develop 15 million square feet of shopping centre retail space, or 10 Chinook Centres, over the next decade.
Alone, of all of North American cities, Calgary has not experienced any effects from the economic downturn that started in 2008. It exists in a bubble of prosperity and retail consumption has simply continued to increase.
Shopping centres compete to provide memorable experiences, such as a 5 minute snowfall every afternoon in December in a mall in Florida: magical, calming, unforgettable.
The documentary discusses the irony of Victor Gruen's ambitions and plans: the original shopping centre was meant as a community centre in the suburbs (where there was by definition no centre) along the lines of central Vienna – an open mix of courts, parks, cafés, department stores and shops, plus services such as libraries and banks. No cars, a safe environment, easy access. Rapacious development interests gradually eroded the service side in favour of total retail space. The filmmakers returned to Vienna, which like most European cities, has become tourist magnet in its downtown core: a panoply of brand names and luxury stores, street entertainers and more tourists. City centres have become like shopping centres themselves, placeless, or rather everyplace.
Calgary's downtown core is a three-storey, two and a half-block long shopping mall built in 1975, anchored at one end by the Bay and originally at the other by Eaton's, but now by Holt Renfrew in the next block. TD-Scotia Centre is the heart of the +15 system which connects major buildings throughout the core at the second and third-floor levels.
The subtext of the Gruen Effect documentary was that the social ambitions of Gruen were sabotaged by a virulent capitalism that extracts maximum revenue from the retail environment. And that public spaces in today's downtown cores are actually private forecourts to corporate entities that 'look' public, but actually aren't. As in, one cannot photograph them, sit in them, etc. This is all true of Calgary, which I expect was the motive behind d.talks showing the documentary.
The d.talks discussion, as always has been in this city, was dominated by the complaint about the lack of any sort of interesting scene for young urbanites, most of whom I expect grew up in a suburb somewhere. The mall representatives, a manager and an architect, talked about how malls have become nicer, with lamps and leather chairs, more like home, and two young entrepreneurs with a very cool men's clothing shop spoke about the economic advantages of being in the informal non-mall retail sector where their shop becomes a destination for client/friends to spend some time.
Informal is my term because it seems that is how retail seems to divide. Independents vs brands, each with its own architecture and urban spatiality. Shopping centres and malls: islands in a sea of parking, food fairs and an exhaustive itinerary of unsurprising chain stores. Independents: street parking and bus lines, small shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bookstores, a hinterland of streets and houses. This 'independent' landscape is necessarily dispersed: each inner city neighbourhood now has a relatively hip but short main street down its centre, each with its own character. Not every street has the same things, so they aren't like open air shopping centres as these informal retail streets aren't masterminded into a complete and balanced retail program. They are intensely local, and there is the difference.
Calgary, in its seemingly endless search for a character (which it confuses with its brand), looks for amenities to provide pleasant experiences, rather than recognising often awkward and stubborn independent ambition which doesn't try to be all things to all people, but is local and thus invested in the city.
What is the proportion of informal to formal retail? I asked, but it wasn't answered. I expect it is very small. Does size matter? No, of course not, but there has to be a critical mass of both clients and entrepreneurs who value small independent venues, and support them. It is a question whether Calgary, because it developed after the 1950s and is thus is constructed from fifty years of suburban models, has that critical mass. If it does, they live in the pre-1950s inner city neighbourhoods and in the new downtown condos, but this is, relative to the whole city, a very small demographic. Small, always present, and that actively discusses urban issues.
Much dismay that the Vancouver Art Gallery is going to move out of its present location, the classical Rattenbury court house on Georgia Street, and into a new building on the site of the old bus depot on Cambie. The streets don't mean much to those who don't know Vancouver well, but the bus depot site is at the end of Georgia that is accumulating large cultural edifices: the CBC building, Vancouver Public Library, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and now the art gallery.
The QE Theatre — an opera and ballet hall – is in its original 1959 Affleck building, the library moved from its 1957 Burrard Street location and building into the 1995 Safdie coliseum-referenced library on Georgia: Library Square with huge public spaces in and out, often used by the CBC as performance space. The CBC is in a 1975 Merrick building on Georgia, expanded in 2009 (Dialog and Bakker) to include a 4000 square-foot performance studio and a glassy public face on the street. The 1958 McCarter Nairne Post Office building, also on Georgia, its future very much in danger, has been discussed as a possible home for the Vancouver Art Gallery: right location, large industrial spaces, although its massive structure would make changes almost prohibitively expensive, plus it was sold in March for $159 million to a developer.
The Vancouver Art Gallery's first building was built in 1931 on a 66'-wide lot (the original CPR survey grid based on chains for residential plots) a couple of blocks away on Georgia from the Hotel Vancouver. It looked like a bank vault, which says something about the way art was perceived, as a precious commodity meant to be safeguarded.
The building was given an International Style renovation and expansion in 1950 by Ross Lort: a part plate glass front wall, part slab, all offset planes and classic white gallery space behind. It had become a small, exceptionally accommodating gallery that under the direction of Doris Shadbolt and Tony Emery, was at the centre of the explosion of art and performance, from N.E. Thing Co to Gathie Falk, in Vancouver in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Then, in 1983, the Vancouver Art Gallery moved to the Erickson-renovated 1911 court house building, made redundant by the 1980 Erickson-designed Law Courts complex and Robson Square which filled the two blocks to the west behind the court house. It seemed appropriate in the ghastly post-modern 1980s when protests on the Court House steps were over, and museums, opera companies and symphonies turned to block-buster shows for survival, that the VAG be housed in the pomposity of a building shouting out its authority.
Art goes on no matter what the official gallery is, artists challenge and change; where they do it and where you see it is worthy of attention. In the 1980s artists were like the punk scene occupying marginal and arcane spaces, they certainly weren't in the main spaces of the new Vancouver Art Gallery in the way that they had fluidly slipped in and out of the old modernist unpretentious gallery down the street. The more we pull access to art out of the everyday, the more inexplicable it becomes to the everyday. Much like the original 1931 vault-like gallery, the court house gallery demanded, simply by the architecture itself, reverence for the exceptionalism of art.
I'm not unhappy to see the Vancouver Art Gallery leave the court house building, but one does worry about the current civic support, all over the country, for Bilbao-effect galleries and museums. By their very spectacularity they become objects rather than fabric, appropriate one would think perhaps for programs such as justice, or health, or governance. Historically, art is deemed to be one of these important conditions requiring separation in a significant architecture.
Might we have something more wabi-sabi: a necessary anchor for history, retrospectives, biennials and curation, plus the infiltration of the rest of the city, starting from that block, with a rootless, opportunistic, transient architecture that reflects the kind of programming most major galleries are engaged with today. There must be some place for a gallery architecture to constantly renew and reconstruct itself if it is to be an embedded part of the processes of cultural renewal and reconstruction, and not just the place where, after the fact, such changes are displayed.
Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, which is perhaps what spurred the posting of this 1970 BBC documentary of Peter and Alison Smithson talking about the design of Robin Hood Gardens, the conditions they found in Britain after the war, the lack of intelligent housing. It is filmed in classic Grierson style by B S Johnson with long slow pans of the project in construction interspersed with Alison and Peter talking about it: Alison with a strangely constructed accent — Alison from Doncaster in north-east England, who studied architecture in an era when no women studied architecture without a lot of trouble and yet, with the earnest Peter in a sparkly silver tie, can speak so passionately about the hopes and expectations of architecture while wearing a silver leather jacket. I don't think we have any idea what her back story was.
The documentary style with the slow pans: compared to today when no image is allowed to be seen for more than a second, preferably shorter, this was typical of the still, contemplative, postwar mise-en-scène of longueurs, of silences, of the populating of landscapes with people just outside the frame. It is a style revisited by Patrick Keiller in London, 1994 – the same slow suppressed anger. The Smithsons On Housing is strangely elegiac considering it was made before Robin Hood Gardens was even finished.
Why did Robin Hood Gardens become redundant? Society changed, moved on. The housing Robin Hood Gardens replaced was a Victorian fabric of terraces: no front or back yards, back-to-back brick rows and shared privies, incapable of expansion or change, interspersed with temporary wartime housing and outmoded dockland infrastructure. Robin Hood Gardens replaced fabric with an exceptional model: expandable, collective, much open space for children, all on the CIAM derivée: one lives up in the light and air and frees the ground plane for play. This isn't fabric, although the people destined to live in it were the fabric of the working class. By the late 1960s when the project was designed, that class was in violent transition; when Mrs Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and arranged for the privatisation of council housing, projects such as Robin Hood Gardens – which relied on social solidarity, a shared understanding of values and one's place in life – became not only redundant, but an active hindrance to individualistic striving.
Somehow Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithson's earnest, thoughtful, intelligent analysis of what was needed in housing completely misinterpreted the times. Typically it is architects who wanted the buildings listed and protected rather than condemned: a handsome place to live with all its trailing social idealism and visions of a collective understanding of deep history and place, of London's industrial past, of – above all – solidarity, a now deeply outmoded concept.
The 5 acre site that had carried Robin Hood Gardens's 252 units in what had been the Poplar district, will be part of a larger 7.7ha (19 acre) Blackwall Reach development of 1575 units, double the density. The demographic has changed, the regeneration of East London is in full flow: how many new reports did we see in the run-up to the Olympics from that extremely glitzy, high-end shopping mall with reporters saying 'this isn't the old east end' ? – dozens. However the new schemes still show tower blocks, slab bars of housing, green parks between; the buildings will still be concrete, but now they look white, rather than concrete-coloured. There is a homeowners association, thus there is a financial commitment by future occupants to Blackwall Reach: it will be a 30-year mortgage rather than a weekly rent. Is this the significant difference? Participation in a financial structure which has shown in the past few years to be so unsteady and insecure?
Robin Hood Gardens could have been renovated, restored, divided into separate titles even, but its form is so embedded with a belief in the essential good of government and people, betrayed as soon as the building opened in 1972, that it has become a tragic glyph in a rather tougher economic text.
Neville Mars, solar forest, shade, energy for charging stations. If the grumpy comments on design boom are anything to go by, an expensive solution: the plates have to rotate to follow the sun, lifespan of a panel is only 6 years, so much maintenance of the forest, etc etc.
Solar Forest reminds me very much of SOM's giant 1972 oasis at King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah, a tented open-air terminal to accommodate the millions of Haj pilgrims that go through the airport each year on their way to Mecca. 120 acres/2.8 million square feet: it is large. From the AIA site:'The tent structure that makes up the terminal’s roof strongly resembles vernacular Bedouin shelters and Hajj pilgrim tents that spring up around Mecca during the Hajj season.'
Well, that is a hook I suppose, much as Neville Mars' collection of charging stations strongly resembles vernacular forests. Might we have a planted forest, pumping out oxygen and acting as a CO2 sink, with short poles with sockets on them, something like block heater plugs in parking lots in the great white north? Something like this:
A nice minimalism here, makes one wonder what all the fuss is about in our cities: the acres of asphalt, the huge signs, the added gimmickry. Gas pumps have always been tidy curb-side affairs in Paris, but perhaps we, here, will learn retrospectively from charging stations, which are the new equivalent.
The 26 stations were on the highway from Los Angeles, where Ruscha lived, to Oklahoma City where his mother lived. In an interview for Artforum, Feb 1965, he said "I have eliminated all text from my books – I want absolutely neutral material. My pictures are not that interesting, nor the subject matter. They are simply a collection of 'facts'…" By 1982 he positioned the gas stations metaphorically, akin to the Stations of the Cross, but he was older then.
Ruscha took 60 stations, edited them down to the 26 most un-eloquent photographs, and published them without any text. Dave Hickey has written about the kind of numbness that happens when one drives, repetitively, long distances; he mentions John Baldessari's 1963 documentation of the back of every pickup truck he passed between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. In 1985 I took a photograph out of the side window every 50 miles between Duncan, BC and Halifax, NS, a trip I had done several times. Fifty was a round number, there were 72 slides, 2 rolls of film exactly – the curious thing was that the 50-mile slices missed every city, so it was a long trail of rocks, trees, horizons, mountains, trees, highway guard rails, trees and one very small town in New Brunswick. The only narrative was the process, something that was very exciting. All the deconstruction of motive and meaning came later.
Ruscha photographed the trail of gas stations for all sorts of painterly reasons: serials, ready-mades, a rejection of aesthetics, photography as surface linked to the surface conditions of pop art, the iconography of the everyday. Plus, there was Kerouac and Cassidy's spooling out of On The Road, and there were cars, cars, cars. John Chamberlain's crushed car sculpture, Billy Al Bengston's car-enamelled panels: the car was a material with which one could make art.
Walter Dorwin Teague, the designer of the Kodak brand from logo to cameras to stores, was commissioned in 1937 by Texaco to design a corporate identity that included a standard gas station. Texaco sold gas in each state of the USA, unique evidently, as well as throughout Canada. Teague had gone to Europe in the late 1920s, seen Corbusian modernism and brought it home. The Texaco Service Station was a clean, white vitreous enamel-panelled box with a canopy. Three green bands tie the canopy to the box, red stars are affixed above this dado, the T of Texaco sits in the red star of Texas. The stations are like three-dimensional line drawings, delicate, much like the vitreous enamel panels – the material of pots and pans, strangely durable and at the same time fragile if in the wrong place.
Because of the clarity of these stations, they sit in their landscapes much as Arne Jacobsen's station did: a precise bit of industrial sculpture. 20,000 were built between 1940 and 1960. They linger, these white stations, although the company is gone from public view, as have gas stations: they are now, generally, self-serve pumps attached to convenience stores, part of an invisible, banal service landscape. The Teague Texaco station in this neighbourhood, closed as a gas station in the late 70s, sold computer parts for a long time and now is used, by someone, for storage. The wide plate glass windows are full of cardboard boxes.
This image isn't the one in my neighbourhood, it is somewhere in New York I think, but no matter, they were all the same.
Drawn in 1936, actually built, and now preserved as a museum. There is a quality to this drawing much like early Disney films, or George Herriman's drawings: so much space, such sunny landscapes, just three years before the start of WWII.
Just had a look at Texaco's timeline. It started as a company that shipped heavy crude and was already in Antwerp by 1905, shortly after it was founded in Beaumont Texas in 1901. In 1936 it was supplying oil to the Nationalists in Spain and continued to do that throughout the civil war. It also joined forces with Standard Oil/Chevron in 1936 – using its Bahrain oil fields and refineries, to market throughout Asia and Africa. In 1940 Texaco's chief was forced to resign over his connections with the Nazi Party after his support of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War became public.
In the 1950s and 60s, Texaco put on a public charm offensive with the jingle that told us 'you can trust your car to the man who wears the star'. For many of us, the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons were just part of the landscape of each week. That's the thing with oil, it flows everywhere.
United Oil owns about 100 gas stations, leased to Chevron, Conoco 76, Shell and Arco. This Chevron station in Cerritos, California was designed by Los Angeles architect, Kevin Oreck.
The canopy over the pumps is covered in double-faced solar panels which use reflected light from the ground as well as direct light from above. The convenience store is a beautiful thing. Here is the architect's description: This gas station consists of a custom-designed steel canopy structure over the pumps that support clear glass solar panels that will supply the electricity needs of the station. The triangular convenience store is faced with strips of folded glass, reminiscent of cascading water, that terminate in reflecting pools. A generous portion of the site will be covered with drought-resistant landscaping.
The Fine Arts and Historical Commission of Cerritos voted to consider the convenience store public art.
Landscape Design: Schwentker-Watts Design
Photography: Fred Licht
This is, perhaps, what branding should become: no more signs, local knowledge, recognition by beautiful architecture alone. I only think this, because of its absence.
United Oil, Carson, California. Jeff Appel, CEO, loves architecture and has been commissioning architects to do spectacular gas stations, including this one, by Kanner Architects. United Oil stations are clean, beautiful and the gas is on average cheaper than other stations. This one, on Slauson and La Brea cost $7 million; usually a gas station, car wash and convenience store is about $2+ million. So there is a strategy: load money into the front end, make a statement, build the brand and sell the product cheaply, breaking even on volume. For us, we get to look at something quite neat, we get to be in a bit of clever architecture while doing a very mundane and repetitive task.
Gas stations in general, not a good thing, of course they should all be re-charging stations.
As architecture, not sure if this is an ode to the glamorous 1950s when it was all starships, space and the future, when gas was 10 cents a gallon and the environment was where you went to go camping. If so, not sure this needs valorisation. Or it might be a paean to the optimism of early modernism that by the 1950s had made it down, so democratically, to diners, gas stations and motels.
To build this way in 2009 is to signal something about the past, in the guise of the future. As a comparison, I live in a city that in its ordinary byways and highways is so exceptionally dreary that it is painful. Architecture here, outside a few projects found in magazines, has become simply a service industry: conventional, not cheap but cheap-looking, utilitarian, no delight. It isn't signalling anything than one can actually critique except at the most functional level, such as should we have gas stations at all. Perhaps LA, the city of dreams and whizzy gas stations, is all botox and blonde hair, but it acts on its dreams. It actually seems to have dreams.
I'm not sure that the old binary that good architecture only comes from totalitarian systems, that social democracies never produce much that is 'exciting' – a discussion that horrifyingly is still alive, especially when discussing places such as Dubai, has any validity at all. Architecture can't just be the tag for exceptional buildings and large projects. The everyday environment – going to the store, the library, the gas station, the bank –if there is no loveliness here, then architecture has failed, no matter what the political or economic system in place.
Richard Wentworth has been photographing tiny interventions in the inadequate way our urban world works since 1973. A boot holds a door open, a small dog is tied to a heavy shopping bag: one cannot leave without the other – that sort of thing. This photo, of intercessionary bricks on a set of stone steps is, of course, completely baffling. Can it be that it simply pleased someone to do it? It renders the capacious steps dangerous; it makes the bricks beautiful in their variety.
Above is a 1939 photograph of Kemnay Quarry on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms. We are looking at, according to the description, grey muscovite-biotite granite, a 122m deep pit and a pile of tailings at the top. In the foreground curbstones and setts are tidily stacked.
We are very used to monolithic surfaces that pour onto our streets and sidewalks, are flattened down and then harden into great impervious sheets of grey, where every street becomes a culvert. The re-examination of permeable paving for all sorts of reasons, water management and urban forestry being the main ones, could lead us back to the hand units: bricks, setts, cobbles and paving slabs, except that such systems are labour-intensive. Modern processes increasingly point in the direction of automation: the macro-scale of production and results, something almost guaranteed to increase the number of desperate little solutions to uncongenial habitats.