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On Site review: other ways to talk about architecture and urbanismContains things you will never find anywhere else.

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who we are


books on holiday

R. de Salis, photographer. London Library book on vacation. August 2007, Morea, Greece.

Now here is a nice project.  This enigmatic photo is of a book from the London Library, written by Patrick Leigh Fermor who recently died.  The book is his 2003 Words of Mercury, which I gather in 2007 Fermor took on holiday to Morea in Greece.

In 1933 Fermor walked to Constantinople, carrying Horace's Odes and the Oxford Book of English Verse.  During WWII and in the SOE he was posted to Crete and conducted wholly novelistic underground operations eventually made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde.  This is a kind of British life I'm not sure exists much any more – or at least isn't heroised in quite the same way as it was throughout the twentieth century.  

Books on holidays: a chance to fade in the sun for a bit, a break from the dim stacks.  And books do travel: a friend who had done his three year sentence at the University of Manitoba for his BES took a year out working on a fishing boat off the west coast.  He arrived in London to start at the AA, carrying with him a Laurence Durrell book borrowed from the Vancouver Island Regional Library branch in Tofino.  As my father was the director of this regional library system and used an honour-based borrowing system for all 30 branches (you didn't have a library card, you just signed your name; he came from a Patrick Leigh Fermor world) the arrival of this book in my one-up one-down in South Kensington was completely magical.  I doubt it left London, Tony certainly didn't. 

The book had returned to its site of publication, better travelled than most people.


Urbanbees: Fleur de sel

Urbanbees. Feur de sel, 2011. Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens Photo JM-1102

This year's International Garden Festival at Les Jardins de Métis includes Fleur de sel, a salt garden by Urbanbees, an international group which includes Farzaneh Bahrami who wrote on the use of public space in Tehran in On Site 25: identity, and Enrique Enriquez who wrote a meditation on exile in On Site 24: migration

Enrique describes Fleur de sel in a pitch for On Site 26: dirt – 'a contradiction thing that came to my mind using a material that it is considered for landscape designers as the first enemy for plants. But salt is a simple tiny material that can speak a lot about our maniac cleanness in the society we live in now.'

Going to Extremes is a Channel 4 documentary series running on Knowledge where Nick Middleton, an Oxford geographer, travels to the hottest, coldest, wettest, driest environments with particular cultures that have evolved, survived and even thrive. Last night Middleton went to a region called Dalloi in Ethiopia, once a sea which as it dried left a five metre deep crust of salt.  It is mined, hacked out in concrete-like slabs, loaded onto camels and walked out – a two day walk to the nearest source of water. 

It will be interesting to see how Fleur de sel at les Jardins de Métis fares over the summer. It will be in situ from June 25 - October 2, 2011, through rain storms, high humidity and dew.  Will it turn to a hard crust as happens with my lovely pink salt from Afghanistan, sitting in its salt cellar on my table?  Will it stay like sand?  Is it Morton's Salt: 'when it rains it pours', a slogan I heard all my life and only just got?  Will it create an eco-system of its own over the three months?  We shall wait and see. 


Katie Holten: drawing trees

Katie Holten. Paths of Desire.  Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2007.  mixed media, dimensions variable 

Katie Holten, Irish artist, currently in THE MODERNS, an exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.  Writing it up for the Irish Times, Aidan Dunne explains her thus: her work is generally informal and slightly alternative, looking to patterns and connections outside the mainstream. It is, in other words, rhizomatic – in the words of cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari. Holten’s piece spreads and grows in the manner of a plant species finding a niche and expanding exponentially in a new slice of terrain – as tidy an encapsulation of a rhizomatic practice as ever read.  As with plants, some terrains are congenial, some hostile, some roots are hardy, some tender.  To be an artist is almost by definition to be hardy.

This video shows something of how and why Paths of Desire, above, was constructed.


Giulio Petrocco


Giulio Petrocco, photographer. Juba, 2011Giulio Petrocco  took the photographs for Joshua Craze's article on Juba, South Sudan in On Site 25: identity.  Petrocco is an Italian photojournalist who places himself in dire and dangerous circumstances: see for example, his work from Sana'a, the Yemeni spring which becomes progressively more violent, or a curious site: a neighbourhood in Queen's which was built on a swamp and was a mafia dump.

 Through Petrocco's lens the third world seems to exist anywhere there is struggle.  One wonders if the first world is a definition of sleep walking with plenty of rights and lots of food.  

He keeps a running commentary on his blog What I Learnt Today.

Joshua Craze is an essayist based in Juba, Southern Sudan. With Meg Stalcup, he investigated counterterrorism training in America, which was published by the Washington Monthly.  Now maybe I am a naïve first world sleepwalker, but I found this study really upsetting – not that there is terrorism and counter-terrorism, but the massive distortions of identity and affiliation that can get one so easily killed.  His piece for On Site wasn't quite so dismaying. It was about South Sudan, new country, no identity other than tribal groups which have animals as totemic markers.  There was a perhaps spurious plan to rebuild Juba, the capital, according to a plan the shape of a rhinoceros, the totem of the current power group, the eye being the seat of government (and no doubt a great site for future protests – a Tahrir Square in the making).  Frankly, I thought it looked reasonable as a plan.  As reasonable as any other kind of abstract diagram upon which to base a city. 

The distance between this idea and Juba's reality as shown in Petrocco's images is indeed vast, but the plan is so hopeful, so clean, so deceptively simple.  For something of the complexity of this area see Craze's piece on Abyei in The Guardian.

Proposal for the rebuilding of Juba, South Sudan, 2010.



Christopher Adams: natural selection

Christopher Adams. Natural Selection. Installation view, 2011

Natural Selection
Hosfelt Gallery, New York
23 June - 29 July
from the blurb —

Adams' art considers the concept in biological speciation called adaptive radiation, in which a pioneering organism enters a relatively untapped environment, reproducing profusely while differentiating rapidly and extensively.  At the same time, the organism never departs too dramatically from the original form.
Each of Adams' pieces starts with a common structure and evolves into an ornate form.  Some are broad and brightly-colored, others are mottled and shrunken or morphologically reduced.  Some appear floral, others cephalopodal, and others have no identifiable counterpart in nature.
Christopher Adams has a degree in organismic and evolutionary biology.


Pedro Gadanho: Casa em Torres Vedras

Fernando Guerra, FG+SG, photographer. House in Torres Vedras, Portugal, by Pedro Gadanho

Another package of beautiful photographs from Fernando Guerra in Portugal: Casa em Torres Vedras by Pedro Gadanho.  This is a nineteenth century house with a massive renovation that owes a lot to utopian visions of the 1970s: plastic, colour, capsules, re-inhabitation where modernism bumps up against plaster mouldings, pre-fabrication, James Bond and Star Trek done by Zefferelli.  There is a kind of sentimentality here, not for a pre-modern costume drama past, but for a pre-cynical view of the future.   

Clearly Lisbon of the 2010s is the Barcelona of the 1980s.  Its architects seem particularly free to break from any kind of deference to any kind of thing.  Although Guerra's photographs strip out all signs of inhabitation showing just the abstract space and surfaces – this in itself a high modern tradition – this folio led me to Gadanho's blog, shrapnel contemporary: completely exuberant, messy, articulate, provoking, graphic, self-serving, terrifically interesting.

Gadanho's discussion of the Casa de Carreço (below) is a brilliant little text about making architecture: a miniature manifesto, and all the more powerful for its throw away form.

Fernando Guerra, FS+SG Photography. Casa de Carreço, Portugal.


face hand camera | rock paper scissors

Richard Hamilton Swingeing London. 1968-9 Acrylic, collage and aluminium on canvas. 848 x 1030 x 100 mm. Tate Collection T01144


the open hand of chandigarh

This comes by way of Reza Aliabadi, of atelier rzlbd.


souvenirs: opening borders/opening objects

Sofia Isajiw. A plate from the Veselka Restaurant, New York.

Opening Borders/Opening Objects is an online curated exhibition from the University of Western Ontario: little information on it, such as who was the curator, just a map showing where the contributing artists are from and where they live now, a really interesting curatorial statement and a list of artists that link to a souvenir they chose to explain.

'Opening borders' refers to Bourriaud's 'fertile static on the borders between consumption and production'.  It questions the modernist view that artistic production somehow has an authenticity lacking in objects of consumption – souvenirs, tourist rubbish, reproductions, things from WalMart, or any sort of market anywhere.  Opening Borders/Opening Objects presents often mass-produced objects of little obvious inherent meaning as embedded in a number of very personal factors: who chose it, where was it, where does it live now, what memories does it trigger, what were the circumstances of its first sighting, what is it?

Opening Borders/Opening Objects also places the artist in the twenty-first century as among the most mobile people in our societies: they travel a lot.  They come home.  They bring things.  They give things away.  They get gifts.  What aesthetic or cultural values reside in these objects? for this isn't about money, rather it is about indifferent objects that conjure other worlds, other times, other places.  

There is a good reference list with the curatorial statement: a defining discussion of material culture theory in 2011.

The exhibition will be online from May 1, 2010 to August 30, 2010

Victor Trasov. An S-Bahn ticket from the Berlin of the DDR. Jamelie Hassan. A Syrian glass jug.


Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan: the illustrated dictionary of received ideas

Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan. The Illustrated Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Gustave Flaubert. Dictionnaire des Idees Reçues
A dictionary of received wisdom: misguided, banal, what everyone thinks and never questions.  In 1852 Flaubert wrote 'It would be the justification of Whatever is, is right'.

Jorn Barger in 2002 did an analytic reorganisation of the dictionary into broad categories such as 'things to make fun of' (Philosophy: always snigger at it), things to thunder against' (Whitewash (on church walls) Thunder against it.  This aesthetic anger is extremely becoming). 'Things to pretend (Illusions: Pretend to have had a great many, and complain that you have lost them all).

The kind of person, or people, defined by this dictionary of admirable philistinism is familiar to anyone who has ever read a British novel about the class system but to find it so sharply defined in France is surprising when most of what we know of France is Proust (one must claim to have read it, a long time ago though), Sartre (did him in university – brilliant), de Beauvoir (unrequited lover/feminist – really responsible for Sartre's success) — this is catching, this received wisdom stuff. The clichés come so easily, they must be just below the surface.

Anyway, wouldn't have known about Flaubert's dictionnaire if I hadn't heard about Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan's ongoing project to illustrate the dictionary.   They hold public drawing sessions, one of which was at Artexte last October and another is today, June 1 at the Art Gallery of York University.   They've built a special desk to do these drawings on, taken from Flaubert's last and incomplete book, Bouvard and Pécuchet, so we are looking at a large project, part performance, part book making, for there are books, small, that come out of this – one is published by Artexte (edition of 150, $40), others in smaller editions from other venues

Flaubert on what everyone knows about architects: Architectes --- tous imbéciles.
--- oublient toujours l'escalier des maisons.

Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan. Illustrated Dictionary of Received ideas. here- Antiques: Are always of modern fabrication. Antiquities: Commonplace, boring.


Rouleau, Saskatchewan

George Hunter. Rouleau, Saskatchewan 1954. CCA Archives.

Rouleau, Saskatchewan (1903), photographed from the air by George Hunter in 1954.  This is the classic image of a prairie town, located within the Dominion Grid (laid down between 1879 and 1884), wood grain elevators lining the tracks, the world of Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), a train stop on the SOO Line (to Chicago) built during the wheat boom that ended sharply in 1910.  Lots of dates, but all within the space of fifty years.

Rouleau, Saskatchewan. Google Maps, 2011Rouleau on GoogleMaps.  Not a lot has changed.  Rouleau is in the infamous Palliser Triangle, an area (officially a semi-arid nutrient-rich steppe) deemed by John Palliser, who surveyed it in 1858, to be uninhabitable because it didn't support trees.  The whole area suffered greatly during the droughts of the 1930s, but nearby is Claybank Brick Plant, now a historic site.  The clay was particularly suited to firebrick, used to line fire boxes in train and ship engines: CPR, CNR and RCN all in expansion mode up to WWII  – voracious clients for firebrick.

From 2003 to 2008  Corner Gas was filmed in Rouleau.  The iconic Saskatchewan rural wheat town was the physical fabric that supported a vision of Canada as a friendly but sometimes sharp-edged community, funny, pathetic, brave, funny, ridiculous, heroic, funny, everyday.  Corner Gas was the Canada that we like to carry about within us, without actually living there.  

Rouleau's slogan is 'Saskatchewan's First 1 Million Bushel Town!'  Does this mean much to any of us not from a farming background? No.  Does Rouleau care?  No.  Is this a brand?  No.  Does this say a lot about Rouleau?  Yes.


Gil Scott-Heron: April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron.  The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, 1974


civic identity 2

Went to a discussion on Calgary and Identity last night: the panel was a fellow from Heritage Calgary – an oxymoron surely, a sustainable cities Newfoundlander who walks everywhere and hasn't got a car, and the local leader of Jane's Walks.  Not typical Calgary, but typical of a particular sector of the city.  The discussion never really got much beyond 'Calgary does lots of things right, early LRT, great inner city neighbourhoods, an active association of 140 communities, downtown a bit forbidding, Jan Gehl's Copenhagen not going to happen here'.  

Well fine.  It is one thing to know the history, another to actually rub up against it in this city, a rare thing.  It is one thing to live and work downtown, but it is a soulless downtown.  It is one thing to live in one of the chic inner city neighbourhoods, another to have lived there for thirty years and suffered through the bikers, the prostitution and the drug deals.  But to mention that is to be unacceptably negative – a glass half empty sort of attitude.  

Okay, let's think about New York instead.  How does a city get to the size where its identity is complex, powerful, unassailable and seemingly independent of branding slogans, earnest discussions of reinvigorating the downtown core, getting more people on public transit?  How does a city get to the point of an Empire State of Mind – for that is what identity is, a state of mind.  

Of course everyone has an individual identity and lives in a fragment of their city: one does carve out a life that suits, but at some point one must feel that one's individual identity contributes to the civic identity in some way.  When the gap between the personal and the civic is unbridgeable, then I think we have a problem.  There are several articles in On Site 25: identity about landing in a new city and starting to make one's way.  Migrants bring with them a set of urban values that must be cobbled to fit the new circumstances, however, the cities that legitimate and even valourise that process are the ones in which newcomers have the greatest stake.  

Look at the appropriation of New York in Empire State of Mind: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys own this city, not just because they are rich and famous, but because they are New Yorkers.  And New York is large enough, and generous enough, to encompass them, Donald Trump and The New School.  

My family has been in Calgary since 1906; I grew up on Vancouver Island thinking Calgary was a terrifically romantic place based on family stories that went up to 1947, then in 1977 I moved here and found that the pre-oil boom city which had been small and jewel-like was being bulldozed away in the second oil boom.  Now, thirty-five years on in the extended third oil boom we have a city that inspires a kind of frantic boosterism within it and vies with Toronto as the city Canada loves to hate.  

Calgary's brand: The New West is a phrase that obliterates the old west of ranching and farming with the new one of oil and gas.  Oil and gas is an industry, not a culture. Both of them, the old west still encapsulated in the Stampede and the new west of the shiny, thrusting downtown core, exclude so many things, so many people.  Without being totally anodyne, how does a city indicate that it is generous and allows a wide diversity of people, ways of thinking, histories – something beyond the statistical indications that we have a sizeable immigrant population.  Perhaps the city should stop the branding thing for a while and develop some sort of critical consciousness rather than being threatened by every comment that might be construed as negative.  Perhaps it, and everyone in it, could become a bit more generous, not in terms of money, but in terms of welcoming alternative urban dicussions.  It is one thing to know that other cities have developed all sorts of strategies for alternative land use and spontaneous urban demonstrations, it is another to actually legitimise them on your own turf.

Not everywhere is New York.  There is Newport. 


Gerster 2: land prints

Gerog Gerster. Harvest, Idaho, 1988

Is ploughing, cutting and threshing so individual that their patterns act as a fingerprint?  Something like the individuality of a welder's seam?

I would hazard that these are fields not part of the Dominion Survey, or in the States, the Land Ordinance Act, both of which divided the land into a 6 mile grid, implacable and immutable.  Such fields are square, ploughed squarely, unless there is a slough, or an erratic, or some awkward bit of topography in the way.  Or maybe farmers just get bored.

Well, no. The point of contour ploughing is to increase water retention in sloping soil and to prevent water erosion, survey grids notwithstanding. So something indicates the need for water conservation in these fields.

Gerster seems to have returned to this area, eastern Washington and Idaho many times.  Almost all his work, which is from all over the world, is about the interaction of industrial practice with the landscape – the mark of man, the hand, the machine and the land.  

Georg Gerster. Lentils, USA, 1980


Georg Gerstner: land

Georg Gerster. Felder im Palouse, USA, 1979

Okay, done with the hand for now, the closest landscape we have.  Georg Gerster, German photographer, did a lot of aerials from helicopter and small planes from the 60s to 90s.  Beautiful photography, National Geographic stuff, very photogenic landscapes.  The one above, found in his photo gallery on his website, is a ploughed field in eastern Washington State, near Palouse, shot in 1979.  

Wonderfully graphic, one does have to ask why it is so.  Looked up the area around Palouse on Google Maps and found that on the western slope of the Rockies it is indeed highly topographic, contour ploughing raised to land art.

We have a call for articles out for issue 26: dirt.  Land is dirt, dirt grows crops, crops determine planting and harvesting with large machines these days, those machines make patterns and we find them often enchanting.  

Google Maps: Palouse Washington USA


palm print identification


a handful of drives

Polly Hill. Driving map of Santa Cruz, 1912

There is a nice write up of this hand map on Strange Maps.  It reminds me that there was a time when people got into cars and drove around, looking at things, usually on Sunday afternoons.  Let's go out for a drive!  Who today in their right mind would think this was a treat?  but it used to be.

Driving has become such a chore: too fast, too much road surface, too noisy, an A to B experience, preferrably without incident.  No time to look at scenery, no stopping for gas and finding a courteous attendant, in fact little courtesy on the road itself.  It is all such a struggle. 



Loha Pol, Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan

Not sure how sati could operate as a form of colonial resistance. Although sati was banned by the British in 1829, when in 1834 the maharaja of Rajasthan, Man Singh, died his 15 wives left their hand prints at the inner gate to the Mehrangarh Fort before they laid themselves on his funeral pyre.  Many would have been children, unfairly widowed at 10 years old, facing either sati or a solitary life dressed in white, dependent on charity, working as menials.

Roop Kanwar committed sati in 1987, a voluntary act that pointed out a serious clash of values between urban India and traditional village practice and lead to a trail where eleven people were charged with glorification of sati.  

It seems all of a part with purdah, the burkha, child marriage, honour killings– things incomprehensible to me, child of the late 20th century west that I am.  Feminist theory claims that empowerment comes from 'owning' such things, finding power in being scorned and reviled, viz the current furore around the slut walk.  In theory perhaps, but in practice, one needs to live several centuries to see the benefits.


telling stories

Women at the Ndebele Cultural Village, Loopspruit, Gauteng, South Africa 1999

I was looking for a picture of handprints used as decoration around the doorway of a mud brick house somewhere in Africa, stuccoed and painted by women.  Clear in my mind, can't find the image anywhere.  

On the way, found plenty of information on Ndebele house painting. This is a case of cultural coding that describes family values and histories passed down matrilineally (as the women did the house painting) that was completely opaque to the colonists.  It is like having great billboards for resistance movements in a covert language that is, in the meantime, very decorative and so considered harmless.   Also probably considered benign as it was smiling women doing it.

So many forms of cultural expression were banned in the colonial era if there was a hint of subversion to them or if they simply were not understood: the outlawing of the Salish potlach – something threatening about power and property there, the outlawing of sati – undue sacrifice of Hindu women to their husbands, outlawing of Blackfoot initiation dances – violent and frightening.  Many of these things go underground and reappear as entertainments, living on often as performances for tourists but still speaking, under the radar, to those who understand what they really mean.


hand prints

Bridal mehndi

The fingerprint, the handprint, somehow we feel they make us unique.  However, nothing is like the henna designs on hands, arms and feet found at a Muslim wedding.  I think the picture above is a traditional Pakistani design, a tradition that has exploded across cultures, subject to fashion trends, co-opted by all and sundry as a kind of temporary tattoo.  Arabic designs look to me more like Victorian lace fingerless mittens.  Modern fashions seem to tilt towards floral sprays scrolling away over the body. 

There are zillions of mehndi sites.  The one the picture comes from (above) gives us a look at the extreme decorativeness of Pakistani, Indian and Arabian wedding jewellery, saris and mehndi: ornate, elaborate, fanciful, arduous to produce, signs of great attention and no doubt wealth.

It is all about the hand, our interface with the world, the holder of our fortunes.  The good luck khamsa of Morroco, below, is at once a handprint, a mehndi hand and a hand held up to warn off misfortune.

Morrocan khamsa charm