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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



My house was built in 1929.  When I got it the back yard was lawn from picket fence to picket fence.  It is now stuffed with biomass: apple trees, carraganas, roses, raspberries, peonies - the prairie gardener's friend, lilacs, little pieces of lawn for the dogs.   Still, and this is after 30 years of a lot of digging for vegetable patches and for moving things around, one cannot stick a fork in the ground without turning up a marble.   
Not surprisingly, given that playing marbles mostly involves shooting marbles into holes in the ground, many are lost, only to turn up decades later clutched by roots and earthworms.

Of those found in my yard, some are quite old, a couple are clay, most are well worn. When I was little, crystals were really special but now, with my collection of back yard marbles, I quite like the china ones – the ones that look like china rather: white glass with fat slashes of colour. I suppose if one was a marble archaeologist one could date them, but I think the marble playing heyday started to wane by the late 1960s.

I was rubbish at playing marbles, never really got the game.  It was also the new postwar era of marketting toys to children: bolo bats, hula hoops: cheap toys with built in obsolescence.  Marbles, clearly, are indestructible, subversive anti-consumer products. Their only problem was in getting lost.


chat noir


I seem to recall that the paper sleeve this came in said it was le chat méfiant, or perhaps just méchant, whatever, it is meant to keep birds off the fraises.  Bought in Paris, it has hung in my yard for 30 years. It doesn't work that well, certainly not against magpies who are proving very adept at clipping off tomatoes this year.  It now hangs in the front window to prevent sparrows from braining themselves as they try to fly through it.  


mediterranean blue

The thin papery string used to tie up elegant little boxes of pastries about 20 years ago in Barcelona. It always matched the packaging and the signage in the shop itself.

The tape is actually ten fine threads wide, held together with a thin wash of starch – a really simple product, so important to the sensibility of the city.




circa 1975. 

ref. historic connection between France and Russia.

Jean-Pierre Leaud in a Shaggy Dog, a particularly irreplaceable shetland sweater worn in Paris in the 70s.

Jean Eustache's La Maman et la Putain of 1973.

no cares.




Clearing out my garage I found a box of stuff from 1984 when I first set off teaching, throwing everything in the house into either the basement or the garage before I rented it out.  Some boxes never bear looking at, but sometimes they surprise.  

I found 5 Brasso tins,  2 Silvos, a bottle of blueing and a box of starch.  I must have been an obsessive housekeeper at one time.  This Brasso tin appears so heroic, imperial, brave; nothing like the version we get now.  I would have bought it at the corner store, Chinese-run, pressed tin ceiling, next door to the Inglewood Café, Chinese-run, pressed tin ceiling, both found in every neighbourhood and every small town in western Canada.   The corner store today is Suzie Q's beads, and the café is the Spice Road Merchant. Such are the perils of gentrification, and we can't buy a quart of milk in this neighbourhood unless it is organic and $5/litre.

Brasso was made by Reckitt and Colman in Montreal.  Colman was the mustard company and Reckitt was the starch manufacturer.  How do I know such things?  They are just there in my childhood memory of household packaging.  It is curious when one finds that such artefacts look so old, from some other historic era.  1984 wasn't that long ago, it isn't as if this tin was from the 1920s, but somehow I don't think the design had changed much – there is a British Empire feel to it.  

The knurled lid is a nice touch.  There is a whole industry reproducing such tins – a Restoration Hardware sort of product, making our domestic lives more interesting in this era of photoshopped and illustratored graphics.  I doubt the repro tins come with Brasso in them. 


all for one, one for all

Is this the most unnecessary thing I have ever seen?  yes.  

It came in a press release for Paris Design Week and will be found at Autori Vari, 17, rue Saint Sebastien between the 12th and the 18th of September, 2011.


Eduardo Paolozzi: lil dolink

British Museum Press, 1985

While I was looking up the history of the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh yesterday, I found it contains a large number of works by Eduardo Paolozzi, who was born in Leith in 1924.  Italians in small Scottish and Irish towns — it is a culture that includes Paolo Nutini, born in Paisley, a third generation of Italian-Scots and hopefully more accepted than those of Paolozzi's generation who were interned at the start of WWII.  Paolozzi's grandfather, uncle and 446 other internees died when the ship taking them to internment camps in Canada was sunk by a U-boat.

However, Eddy Paolozzi, maker of collages, dense works of many layers, assembled the Krazy Kat Arkive, thousands of items that represent popular culture, the machine age and the iconography of the hero, and gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It is all of a piece with his collages: assemblages that act as archives, illogical collections of diverse things assembled within a certain era.  He once was given free rein in the Ethnography Museum in London, to take things from the collections and to curate an exhibit from them, in which he intervened with material of his own.  I saw this – it was in the mid-1980s, with an accompanying book, Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl.  Not dissimilar to Picasso's discovery of artifacts at the Trocadéro in Paris in 1907, it is the kind of appropriation of cultural  property that can't be done today; the material culture of the world is not curious material for the making of European art.  

But there is an enchantment in looking at things that through one's own ignorance are pure sensual form without a cultural reading.  Lost Magic Kingdoms was perhaps the last instance of this, not that Paolozzi was unaware of cultural meaning, but he was a sculptor whose work used component parts according to different rules.  Krazy Kat rules.  

George Herriman. Detail of a Sunday page in which Ignatz, disguised as a painting, hurls a brick at Krazy Kat who interprets it as an expression of love. Published November 7, 1937


Richard Wright: The Stairwell Project

Thomas Hamilton. Dean Orphan Hospital, Edinburgh,1933. Photograph from 1850

If there was ever a meditative painter it is Richard Wright, Scottish, who paints directly on walls.  He received the Turner Prize in 2009 exhibiting at that time No Title (05.10.09), a gold leafed baroque pattern blown up the size of a gallery wall, in fact laid onto the gallery wall and necessarily ephemeral.  

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art commissioned Wright to do a permanent work in the public stairwell of gallery, previously the Dean Orphan Hospital built in 1833.  Terry Farrell + Partners did the conversion in 1999, but it remains a classical Georgian building, tilting into the Victorian era, still full of light and space.

The Stairwell Project consists of small black twisting fleur-de-lys each positioned about  4" apart, but in no discernably regular pattern.  As the flowers are directional, it gives the surface of this stairwell a tension and a liveliness that paradoxically isn't actually determined by the architecture, although literally painted on it.  Rather, Wright's painting seems to sit on the surface, but is not of the surface.  

Now, clearly I'm intuiting all this from the photographs, but what strikes me about the project is that in its conceptual simplicity so many things happen: the moire patterns of any semi-regular array of marks, the references to death and the death of children: the flowers are black, the are small, they are faintly disturbing.  The daunting nature of the interior architecture, which has been considered inviolable for the last fifty years: Georgian classicism is considered a near perfect case of mathematical and cultural elegance.  The obvious quiet of the actual painting (small brushes, close work, unvarying marks: not expressionistic, narrative or biographical), just the process of painting each small  figure.  

It is meditative in the way that artisanal craft is meditative: there is a goal, and one's hands get you there, no matter how slowly.


oh Calgary

Tsuu T'ina Nation, 9th Avenue East, Calgary, waiting for the Stampede Parade to start.


Greg Barton: Sir John Soane's Venetian Cabinet


Cy Twombly (1929-2011)

Cy Twombly. Leda and the Swan (Part III), 1980. Oil on reverse of an artist's proof on handmade paper. 64.7 x 50.3 cm

Cy Twombly, died Tuesday at 83.  I had a note about him last fall  in the context of artists' lists.   Tacita Dean made a film about him recently, Edwin Parker (2011) showing all this summer at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
Of all the artists of the 1960s, Ad Rheinhart's black canvases, Rauschenberg's dense messy collages, Frankenthaler's stains and Morris Louis's pours plus pop and op art – all exploring the carrying capacity of the canvas surface, Twombly was the most calligraphic, the most like writing and drawing: no erasure of the hand here.
The early work was so delicate, it seems to get louder and in a way angrier with each decade.  Young man's work in these two pieces.

Cy Twombly. Untitled 1970. Distemper and chalk on canvas. 70.5 x 100 cm


summer solstice wreaths of Latvia

from the archive of Adolf Cops. Camp Sidabarene, Milton, Ontario. Celebrating summer solstice in the 1950s. Solstice, or Jani, is still celebrated each year in Sidrabene.

Zile Liepins wrote in On Site 24: migration about a summer camp at Milton, Ontario, built by Latvians who left Latvia in the 1940s, emigrating to Canada.  This was in the context of a larger discussion of Latvians who stayed, dreaming of life somewhere not Latvia, while in Canada, especially at the summer solstice, they dreamt of the Latvia they knew.  The picture, above is from Zile Liepins' family, taken in the 1950s and shows the wreaths of wild flowers the women wear for the solstice.

This video, below, is from Latvia, taken in 2006 and shows the making of the wreaths – flowers for women and oak leaves for men, accompanied by much singing, singing, singing, which is also what they are doing in Zile's photo. 


Queen Meda's wreath

The Queen’s wreath found in the antechamber of the tomb of King Philip II of Macedon and associated with his wife, Queen Meda. gold, 80 leaves and 112 flowers surviving, circa 310 BC, 10.2'"diameter

A real crown: The Queen’s wreath – a gold myrtle wreath found in the antechamber of the tomb of King Philip II of Macedon

This is from an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford (until 29th of August, 2011): Heracles to Alexander The Great: Treasures From The Royal Capital of Macedon, A Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy and is a collaboration between the Asmolean and the Royal Tombs at Aegae.

There are no images on the Ashmolean site, but an amazing and extensive collection of photos and maps can be found here, posted by Elisabeth Carney.


Virgil's muse

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. The Reader Wreathed with Flowers (Virgil's Muse), 1845. 34 x 47 cm. Louvre, Paris.

This is the painting for July on my calendar: Corot, The Reader Wreathed With Flowers (Virgil's Muse).  A realist portrait of a mythical subject: how tenderly it is painted.  Can one imagine going outside to read a bit, wearing a delicate circlet of ivy on one's heid?  well no, but why couldn't we?  Why couldn't we wrap our brows with cool leaves?  a garden crown.

Virgil wrote Aeneid (29-19BC), a bloody legend about Aeneas's travelling wars from Troy in what is now Turkey, to found Rome by way of Carthage, just outside what is now Tunis.  It starts with an invocation to the Muse:

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?

ah.  It was Juno's fault.  We mortals are simply blown hither and thither by a quarrelling pantheon.

The 1840s: Nash was building in London, Ingres painting in Paris, the Irish famine occurred and Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre.  Georgian elegance and French empire neoclassicism were about to be pushed aside by a rough gothic realism.  Corot is sited between neoclassicism (mythological landscapes and gods) and impressionism (actual landscapes and people drawn from real life).  Virgil's muse is a rhetorical figure, but the painting of her is of a very real, serene woman, her foot firmly places on the earth, her broad forehead wreathed in ivy.  In the language of flowers, a Victorian conceit, ivy indicated both endurance and fidelity – there is something about Corot's muse that is as solid and as still as a rock.  


oh Canada

covers all the angles I think. 


rivers and borders

International Joint Commission map of the Souris River Basin

The Souris River is flooding Minot, North Dakota.  On the CBC news a Minot resident blames Saskatchewan for this, 'they should have done something'.  The Souris eventually joins the Assiniboine, after it crosses the border again, back into Manitoba.  The Assiniboine flooded earlier this spring and will perhaps flood again.  Winnipeg also keeps its eye on Fargo, North Dakota, on the Red River.  The Assiniboine joins the Red in downtown Winnipeg.  In the 1996 Red River flood Winnipegers blamed Fargo for not better controlling the river flow. 

BC Treaty Commission. Statement of Intent. Traditional Territory Boundary, Sliammon Indian Band.The 49th parallel is an abstract political division that serenely ignores topography: global mathematics trumps geophysical realities.  Before the US Survey, before the Dominion Grid, before enlightened Europeans started to delineate territory in this seemingly empty-ish land, there were aboriginal territories: precise, negotiated at their borders by treaty, surveyed orally in a metes and bounds system.  
Sliammon First Nation territory clearly is topographically based: it controls the watershed on the western slopes of the Coast range, the waterway and fishing beds of the inland passage and the opposite beach, securing the whole width of the strait.  Fresh water systems, food, sea borne transportation capacity, security: these are the things that boundaries delineate. 

 Arid Region of the United States, showing drainage districts. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana-MissoulaThis 1891 map of watersheds in what was called the arid regions of the western United States shows a division of land that could have been a series of small states, with control over their own water resources and all the potential agricultural and animal resources a watershed contains.


Pre-contact North American cultural areasOr, looking at a map of pre-contact cultural zones in North America, one can see how there is a huge territory that controls the Great Lakes.  Another has the whole western watershed of the Mississipi, another group the eastern side.  The Great Divide separates the peoples of the watersheds that go to the Pacific from those of the plains: the north to Hudson's Bay, south to the Gulf of Mexico.  The boreal forest is one huge cultural group, as is the high Arctic. 

Topological environmental divisions as political territories: what a novel idea.  One could only blame oneself for mismanaging one's resources.


delicate landscapes

Georg Gerster. Orchard in Jordan, 2004

Clifford Wiens, grand old man of Saskatchewan modernist architecture, did a campsite on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Maple Creek, that looked like this orchard.  I stayed in it in the mid-80s and all the trees were thin and weedy, indigenous species such as poplar and aspen, saskatoons and willows.  The layout was like a miniature version of the Dominion Grid, each camp site a section.  It was enchanting, so deeply rooted in a historic organisation of land, so proud of prairie trees that flutter in the relentless wind, so very orderly and in its way, unsentimental about what is needed when one pulls off the highway after a long day of driving. Strangely I seem to have forgotten completely the heroic concrete entry pavilion that usually represents this project:

Trans-Canada Highway Campground Maple Creek, 1964. Photo courtesy OFOF Clifford Wiens and John Fulker.

In 2001, driving back from Halifax, I tried to find it, actually to camp in.  This after a whole day of driving across Saskatchewan and finding the network of small towns that had existed just fifteen years before completely gone, and this campsite abandoned.  The trees were tall and untended, some had fallen, one ripped off my radio aerial as I drove in thinking I might stop there anyway.  But it felt haunted, a tragic failure of provincial pride.  A most uneasy site.   It had been a small thing, approached with a brave sort of rigour.


building a forest

Colour-infrared image of Sudbury region using Landsat imagery from 1987. Vegetated areas appear in reddish in colour where urban/disturbed areas are green. The yellow boundary represents the study area for vegetation change detection and approximates the municipal boundary of the City of Greater Sudbury.

I heard this story on the news a while ago, but it took a while to figure out the keywords necessary to find it again.  In the lunar landscape that is the old Sudbury nickel mines and smelters there has, over the last 40 years, been a massive tree planting program, however because the soil is so acidic and toxic, there is no forest floor – that blanket of leaf mould, seeds, bugs, little animals, lilies and orchids, wild flowers, birds, from which new trees grow.  

When new roads are hacked out of the wilderness, such as the twinning of the Trans-Canada highway through Banff National Park, first the forest is logged, then bulldozers come and shovel and grade the top metre of ground into road bed.  All the little seedlings and mice die instantly.  

What Sudbury is doing is removing mats of ground cover and top soil from nearby road construction sites and placing them in the reforested areas that lack that essential floor that sustains a biodiverse ecology.

Pictures show the depth of these mats as about 4".  Is that enough?  Is the soil still toxic underneath?  I'm sure someone has figured all this out otherwise the project wouldn't be so extensive, however it does make one realise how very thin the skin is that supports life.  It also questions the expectation that it will be technology that reconstructs the toxic landscape of the oil sands: cutting and laying turf is not high technology.  It hardly even low technology.  Plants and insects are perhaps more powerful agents in reconstruction than we realise.

Land Reclamation 1978-2008. City of Sudbury.

City of Sudbury Re-Greening Program

there is a short video on this CBC report of the programme:


beautiful annabelle lee

This has been sitting on my desktop for ages, waiting for a suitable day, which never seems to come.

so today it is.


Rare earths mining

BBC. 16 June 2011.

This clip advertising BBC's power of Asia month, is not embedded here.  Click on it to go to the BBC site where it will open automatically. 

As our dependence on plastic supports oil extraction, so does our dependence on electronic devices support rare earth extraction.  Plastic and cell phones: they are everywhere in the world – no place too remote, too untouched, too undeveloped.