on site review

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


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onsite 19 individually archived articles

read onsite 18: culture onlineonsite 18 individually archived articles

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Richard II 2

Richard II, thinking of the Wilton Diptych, is also one of the roses in my backyard, which started out maybe 40 years ago in my parents' garden, got too big, was moved to a lot in the woods on the Cowichan River where, one winter, it accidently had a woodpile built over it.  Several summers later I found a thin branch struggling out of the woodpile with a beautiful pink rose on it.  Unearthed, it then struggled for lack of sun and water, and I eventually dug it up again and moved it to Calgary, where Richard II thriveth.  

Why he became known to us as Richard II is because the original tag had RICHARDII on it, which I now realise is rosa richardii, also known as rosa sancta, the holy rose because its five petals corresponds to the five wounds of Christ.  It is ancient, thought to be a cross between rosa gallica and rosa phoenicia and still grows around graves in Ethiopia, where it is known as the Holy Rose of Abyssinia.
In an Egyptian second century tomb excavation in the 1880s a dried wreath of roses was found, which when soaked in water for some strange discontinued archaeological practice, became fresh again: the rosa sancta.

Richard II has fearsome thorns that point back along the stem, each thorn with a tiny lethal hook at the end which will rip open a long gash in the skin if one brushes against it.  Perhaps this has something to do with its historic longevity, this powerful anti-social mechanism.  It explodes into flower in the week between June 21 and Canada Day, very lovely, the rest of the time it is a great green bush on the attack.

In this intangible world of electronics and consumerism I quite like that ground level is full of ancient things that have travelled the world for centuries and arrived in our back yards.  That they survive each winter here is always a surprise, and the source of my great affection for them.


the Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–99), tempera on wood, each section 57 cm × 29.2 cm. National Gallery, London

The Wilton Diptych has come up a few times recently, on tv and yesterday as I was reading Alan Bennett's Untold Stories.  It is a fairly mysterious small pair of paintings, just 12 x 11" each, hinged, a personal altarpiece for Richard II, painted near the end of his reign.  He was born in 1367 and became king at ten in 1377, deposed in 1399 and died at 33 in 1400 of starvation, the imprisoned last of the Plantagenets.  

Not sure why it keeps popping up in public view all of a sudden unless it is part of a general reclamation of the past that underpins European's problems with multiculturalism.  'They want to change our culture', or our way of life, or our laws, or whatever it is.  I'm sure the British don't mean the culture of binge drinking and football hooliganism, no, it is glorious culture, safely lodged in places such as the National Gallery.  Genius, the series on British scientists introduced by Stephen Hawking, Downton Abbey, the bloody History of Scotland — Britain is intent on reminding itself, on television, just what it was that made it Great.

The diptych is a lovely thing.  On the left panel, the boy king kneels, flanked by his patron saints Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr, both once kings of England, and John the Baptist carrying the lamb of God.  Richard kneels on stoney ground, not unlike Sudbury.  
On the right panel is a phalanx of angels, all wearing Richard's emblem, a white hart lying on the ground.  They, and Mary, stand on a carpet of flowers, their blue robes are Marian blue, the blue of heaven.  Their crowns are English roses, their powerful wings a fractal of feathers on a wing.

Richard's earthly life is being sanctioned by something on a completely different scale.  This is the power of faith, earthly life may be hell, but there's an end to it, and a field of flowers will be achieved.  This encourages endurance; a lack of faith perhaps encourages impatience with an unsatisfactory life in the here and now.
Our touching faith in technology as a solution to the energy crisis is cast as a kind of achievable heaven, but on such a different scale that there will be many generations whose lives are sacrificed while we plan for a future none of us will see.


destination earth

Tidy segregated piles of construction waste placed in between piles of blasted granite.  They take on a kind of beauty as they subside into the landscape.  The gently sagging drywall might simply be fill, but given that one of the remedial actions on an acidified terrain is to spray it with lime, perhaps gypsum has the same effect. 

Drywall. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Brick. Sudbury building site, Sepember 2011

Concrete. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Aha! The ubiquitous blue tarp. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Tire mat, used to blanket a rock explosion. Sudbury buidling site, 2011



making ground

Janine Oleman, photographer. From Be Not Afraid of Greatness, Musagetes Foundation 2011

One of several problems with this new housing on the ridge overlooking Sudbury is that the horizon has been broken by buildings, making it close and limited.  Horizons are like frontiers: places of potential simply because they are so abstract and so distant.  They appear without scale, the line between land and sky.  Here there is a horizon limited by the temporal and limited quality of the housing development.  A roof is not a horizon.  

There was much made in rural Britain in the 1960s about preserving horizons: one could build on a hillside as long as the roof line did not interrupt the natural top of the hill when observed from a main road, or a town, or a footpath – in other words, nothing could be built on top of a hill because it interrupted some sort of sacred understanding of topography.  

Behind this row of drab new housing is a field of rubble: the process by which rock, seen as obstructive, is reduced to ground, seen as fertile for building.  It is a small tragedy; the mistake would be to think that it is the rapacious nature of development or the limited thinking that insists that services be installed as if it was a loamy field.

Instead, the tragedy is one of imagination. There is value in a difficult landscape millions of years old that puts a natural limit on building within it.  In our late capitalist world progression is still seen as positive, growth is necessary, stasis indicates a slipping backward, rather than a stillness.  Must this be?  Why must Sudbury try to expand, and so expand into newer and more difficult terrain?

Building site behind the houses in the photograph above


the north

Terminology, very confusing.  As a child I learned that the difficulty in laying down the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s was crossing muskeg, which swallowed tracks and even whole trains.  This is what happened in the north, which I assumed was in Northern Canada, somewhere in the Northwest Territories, and as with things you learn in grade 8, I never examined it again until this past week in Sudbury.  

It is not that muskeg isn't a treacherous thing, great wetlands that form where there isn't drainage: bogs, full of decaying plant material, trapped moose and train tracks which eventually form peat and I suppose, ultimately coal.  No, the other treacherous thing is the word north.

The northern imagination written about by Northrop Fry, Margaret Atwood, embodied in the Group of Seven and Georgian Bay is not the north I thought it was, The North, north of the provinces.  It is actually western Ontario.   
This came as something of a surprise, given that Sudbury sits at 46°N and has a growing zone of 4b.  Calgary, which no one would consider north at all, sits almost 600km north at 51°N in zone 2b.

In another instance, the Ring of Fire is generally known as the zone of earthquake and volcanic activity that rings the Pacific Ocean, where the Pacific tectonic plate grinds against the North American plate, the Eurasian, Australian and Nazca plates.  In the west we hear a lot about it, especially in Vancouver where all buildings have been essentially rebuilt to earthquake standards.

But in Ontario, Ring of Fire is a mine in the James Bay region where chromium was recently discovered and for which a smelter is planned, much to the purported benefit of First Nations in the area.  It is seen as a revitalisation of Ontario's mining interest and will be introducing Chinese development interests to Sudbury.   I only know this because I watched Steve Paikin's Agenda last night on TVO where there was a debate on whether industrial development or species protection was more important in the north.  Their north.  The wishy-washy conclusion was that we should have both, which means that mining and forestry will proceed with glee and with a few ameliorative concessions to fish, birds and migrating herds. Who do not vote.

It is a different country, Ontario.

Preparing the ground for flatland housing development. Lonely yellow hydrant awaits.  
Anyway, this train of thought was triggered by a new subdivision (above) on a ridge that looks down on Sudbury.  Downtown Sudbury has a problem with drainage, sitting as it does on the bedrock of the Canadian Shield.  Water sits in lakes or in muskeggy wetlands, (they'd be called sloughs on the prairie, bogs on the coast).  In older districts, streets and the little houses lining them in the bottom of the basin in which downtown Sudbury sits, regularly flood, the streets become culverts and swales, the water hasn't got a lot of options.  Thus, new development perched on ridges above the city has a certain appeal.  

Putting in services for new development requires, by convention, that they be underground.  But there is no underground here, it is solid rock, so ground is created in a cut and fill way.  The rock is blasted into rubble and shifted around to make flat sites for houses with the sewer and water safely installed beneath.  
There are a lot of similarities between Sudbury and Yellowknife, where new development does exactly this, rock blasted into coarse gravel for developer houses on cul-de-sacs one could find anywhere in Canada.  Aleta Fowler wrote about this in On Site 14: does one go to the north to live as if one was in a southern Canadian suburb?

Kenneth Hayes has introduced the term geo-cosmopolitanism to the discussion of urban development which, in its rough outlines means being aware of and taking into account the deep geo-logic of place.  The naming is important, we can put geo-cosmopolitanism in all its complexity onto a different way of looking at cities, more deeply rooted in their history, their industries, their place in the world. 



Musagetes Foundation held a Café in Sudbury last week, part of a series of investigations in how artistic thinking, practices and strategies can inform medium-sized cities whose industrial bases are either shifting or leaving.  Rejka in Croatia, Lecce in Italy, Sudbury in Canada.

The Big Nickel: didn't realise this had been a Centennial project, not authorised by the City, independently funded and built by the mining community and originally placed 36" outside Sudbury's city limits.  

The Big Nickel, 1963-4. 30' high, Sudbury OntarioN E Thing's 1969 photograph of an empty billboard in Sudbury.  This one is like the Stanfield fumble: he caught the football a dozen times in a row for a photo-op, fumbled one and of course that is the one they used.  The empty billboard is of course surreal, the empty frame, but only coincidently was it in Sudbury. 

Ian Baxter, N E Thing Company. Sign. Highway 17 near Sudbury, 1969
Sudbury Saturday Night, the girls at bingo, the boys are stinko, Inco temporarily forgotten.  Well, that bit was prescient.  
The Trans-Canada through Sudbury, a channel blasted out of the Shield, chemically blackened by ore-reduction processes that also produce slag heaps.

Kenneth Hayes has written a most amazing essay about why Sudbury even exists.  It is a history 2 billion years old, giant meteor hits the earth and splashes nickel, which may have been in the meteor but may have been deep in earth's core, into a great ring.  Nickel is what hardens steel for stainless steel.  Confusingly, much of the ore is smelted in Norway.  
There are other minerals, copper - lovely pale green river-run pebbles on gravel roads, and iron staining cliffs red when they aren't already black, all this found accidentally when the CPR was going through in the 1880s.  

However, mining requires less people these days, Inco is now Vale (Brazil), Falconbridge is now Xstrata (Switzerland), at the base of the Creighton Mine is a neutrino observatory, there is a new university, Laurentian, soon to have a new architecture school, there is a medical centre with a cancer research component that serves the Sudbury region, there are lakes, there is a fierce re-greening program and there is a hell of a lot of civic pride that appears to rest mainly on the ability to be in a canoe, on a lake, 10 minutes after leaving home.

The thing about stereotypes is that they can act as a protective shield.  The rest of the country can dismiss Sudbury, lodged as it is somewhere in Stomping Tom's 1970s, meanwhile Sudbury has been extremely busy developing itself for better or for ill, almost without attention.  

The swimming-pool blue of a tailings pond. Sudbury 2011


the canadian shield, yesterday

17 September 2011, 12:30 EDTWhere the flat, polished Canadian Shield slides into Georgian Bay, and

17 September 2011, 5pm MDTan oncoming storm, east of Calgary, looking over what was Lake Agassiz 10,000 years ago, ice age meltwater caught between the Rockies and the Canadian Shield.

addendum:  well, that isn't quite right.  Evidently we are looking at the Bassano Basin, formed by the same melting of the Wisconsinan Laurentide ice sheet.  Calgary is 1048m elevation, Winnipeg in the Agassiz Basin is 238m, Regina, halfway between them is 577m.   The land sank with the melting of the glacier, and Bassano drains south into the Missouri system, rather than north as does the Agassiz system.  So somewhere on the great flat prairies that seems like a table top if you are driving across it, there is a series of different divides, different ancient watersheds. 


Theo Jansen's Strandbeest


the veteran's charter

The bungled demobilization of Canadians returning from the First World War contributed to a period of intense political, social, and economic upheaval. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ottawa - having learned from the previous domestic turmoil - immediately began planning for the return of veterans, who ultimately numbered more than one million, to civilian life. On to Civvy Street tells the story of the development and administration of the resulting program, which shaped an entire generation.

This came in a McGill-Queen's University Press notice yesterday. I'm pleased to see it.

It has always disturbed me that the WWII veterans, as a group, were such Liberal-hating Conservatives when it was the Liberal government under McKenzie King that put the Veteran's Charter together.  One of the provisions was paid tuition at university for veterans, allowing tens of thousands to get professional degrees that without the DVA grants would have been impossible.  Others were given the downpayment on a mortgage, allowing hundreds of thousands entry into home-ownership.  Both these things, the resultant baby boom (couples could afford to have children and they had a house for them) and the twenty-year economic boom of the 50s and 60s shot several generations into almost unaccountable prosperity. 

However, the veterans never forgave the unification of the forces or the changing of the flag.  Now that we have the RCN and the RCAF back, will we be going back to the Red Ensign?  The gutting of the Veteran's Charter is the real issue, not the names.  Pat Stogran has been vociferous about this. And he was fired, by the Conservatives that all the veterans vote for. 

Oh well, we haven't got any Liberals anymore, veterans of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia are living in tents on Vancouver Island according to yesterday's documentary on The Current, and photographs of the Queen are replacing Canadian art in government buildings.  We seem to be going backwards, but not to the right things.



signs of patience

Calgary, August 2011

Someday, when you have lots and lots of time and absolutely nothing else to do, and a great bag of finishing nails you know you will never use, you can make a number plate for your garage like this one.


writing and power

Bab Al Aziziya compound monument, Tripoli. August 23 2011


Jack's wall

Jack Layton spontaneous memorial wall. Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto.

It is all printing.  
Somehow the expressive illegibility and personality of handwriting is irrelevant compared to the loss of Jack – his clarity and his passion. 


the MacLean's method

The MacLean’s method of handwriting. 
H. B. Maclean, Victoria, c. 1921. Developed in Victoria by educator H. B. MacLean between 1921 and 1964, the MacLean method was used across Canada as the official handwriting method in schools, particularly in the Maritimes, parts of Quebec, Manitoba, and BC. Sources
Text: Shirley Cuthbertson’s “H.B. MacLean’s Method of Writing” in BC Historical News
Photo: Allan Collier Collection

It all looks very odd now, but this is how I was taught: pages of O's done moving your whole arm sliding over the desk with ease.  Practice makes perfect, and perfect was entirely without character or identity.  When I looked at Jack Layton's wacky little fillips on his highly legible signature – well, this was usually  the only place that individuality was added (much later in life than elementary school) to this relentless, flattened commercial script.  

One could completely change one's writing style, especially if one went into architecture where you either did drafting printing for the rest of your life, or went to some sort of arty italic calligraphic script.  But now, most people don't write at all, except blurted little shopping lists or illegible signatures at the bottom of a VISA bill.

Writing is like drawing, something we don't often do much either these days, preferring to cobble images together with Illustrator and Photoshop – activities that engage a completely different part of the brain than drawing, on paper, with a curious instrument holding either ink or graphite, in the hand. 


june loves geoff

Tiny, tiny message, pencil on brick, seemingly indelible. 

Who has been named June since 1946? Geoff spelled the English way. The J and the G as taught by the MacLean's Compendium of Penmanship.  This on the side of Sevenoaks Court, a commodious brick mansion block in east Calgary. 

Where do these impulses to speak the hidden in public come from, these declarations of selfhood?  This one so small and so easily overlooked, but so permanent. 



Spiller Road, Calgary. August 18 2011

Is this the new graffiti – small and repressed, taking over the huge bubble letters that are everywhere and completely unintelligible?


auto courts

T U Auto Court, Cache Creek, BC. postcard, late 1930s.

Auto courts preceded the motel, or motor hotel of the 1950s, and followed rough and ready camping with a car in the 1920s.  They weren't always out in nature, like campsites are today, rather they generally in town: in Nanaimo the U-Court, still standing but as very low-income rental cabins, was right off the Island Highway in what is considered today to be the inner city.  
They were individual little cabins with a central building for laundry, exorbitant groceries, toilets.  I've stayed in many over the years from Nova Scotia to California.  A famous one, the 2400 on Kingsway in Vancouver, is being embedded into an area redevelopment plan, as is McMorran's Auto Court in Cordova Bay, a fairly toney part of Victoria.

McMorran's Auto Court, Cordova Bay, Victoria, BC. 1939 postcard. City of Calgary Archives. M001201. Plan for the Sunshine Auto Court on Elbow River, 1940
This drawing (click to enlarge) is of an auto court on the Elbow River right by the Exhibition Grounds, now the Stampede. It had it all: gas pump, store, tent space, trailer bays, cabins single and joined, lots of play space, sunshine and, of course, the beautiful Elbow River. 

There were many auto courts lining MacLeod Trail, eventually joined up to make little motels – the last demolished just a couple of years ago. This is too bad.  I once was put up in an auto court in Austin, Texas which had been transformed into a boutique auto court.  The central parking lot was a pool and garden, the cabins had become terribly elegant. 

Americans do this kind of nostalgia for their romantic mid-twentieth century past so very well.  It is all one with wearing faded levi's with a $2000 blazer – the Ralph Laurenisation of a nation's recent history.  For striving cities such as Calgary, history is something to be eagerly erased, as if the intimacy of the auto court for travellers in a big city is somehow too close to a less affluent past.


promises of 1957

unnamed fridge, circa 1950

from Thomas Lux, New Poems.  Mariner, 1999

Refrigerator, 1957

More like a vault -- you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners -- bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child's?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.


fiat 500: 1957

 another little bit of Italy on this sunny August day:

 So nimble, so little, so clever.  The irony is that Fiat now owns Chrysler, which in 1957 was doing this:


I think I'll take Italy.


Fred Scott: re-using buildings

This is the accompanying image to a short text by Fred Scott on architectural recycling.

Oh Italy.

Scott's 2008 book, On Altering Architecture, (reviewed here by Graeme Brooker) takes interior work as the re-occupation of the architectural frame, adjusting the frame, bending a new programme to fit – a real act of spatial and material collaboration where neither the architecture is ascendant, nor is the activity within it, with all its clutter, subordinate.  

Of course this presumes that we have architecture, and the various programmes that are fitted into it over time have some sort of spatial identity.  I've been rather swamped lately with images of 3 story office park buildings where all that changes is the — well, nothing really changes much from one to the other.  The same goes for the inside.  It is all very inexpensive great grand-daughter of burolandschaft – tan if it is a middle of the road installation, grey if it is slightly cooler.  

Scott's re-use and re-occupation is a much more active, passionate, flinty relationship than unthinking co-habitation.  With no such thing as pure architecture, unless as a drawing or a model in a vitrine, the reality that all buildings live in a conflicted world of conflicted people in identity struggles with each other and their environments simply has to be acknowledged.  If this was considered our starting point, messy as it is, we would have much different architecture. 


Ingrid Mida: construction 

Ingrid Mida. What Lies Beneath, 2010. Mosquito mesh and ribbon on mannequin. copyright Ingrid Mida

Thinking last week about how buildings in construction are always so exciting, all floor plates and breezeways, came across Ingrid Mida who, among other things mostly to do with fashion, has an interest in substructure.  Here, a chemise, corset and pannier worn under an 18th century gown, not literally of course, this is art, but somehow the transparency, the bones and webbing that make a form is always very interesting.

This is what the flat plate shapes drawn out by Diderot for the Encyclopédie lie upon.  Unlike today where the shape of a garment is held in place by the body itself, in 18th century court dress there was an intervening cage that was supported by the body and in turn supported the garment.  It is indeed architectural, this idea that with clothing one makes an inhabitable space and then protects it from the weather, sometimes decoratively, sometimes grimly.