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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


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


more identity

Yves St Laurent. Fingerprint necklace, 2011.

Well, what have we got here? 
Issues of identity are in the air. 


civic identity

Michel Lambeth. Kensington Market 1955

Susan Crean's project on Toronto, research for a book, starts with this statement:  I’m looking for the city that is part of all our lives. Not just the one that exists at City Hall, or in books at the TPL, but the city we carry around in our heads.

In the context of the current issue of On Site: identity, it occurs to me that the gap between what we know and feel as individuals and what we are told is important to know about a place – its brand, its economy, its heroics – is a huge crevasse, a significant alienation.  My instinct is that this gap should be bridged in some way, but the official city reading is shooting off at such a speed that I don't think we can catch up.  Where does this leave us?  Looking at the details, despairing at the 'big picture' and eventually realising that we don't live in the big picture.  Physically, perhaps.  Intellectually, maybe.  Emotionally, no.  The tendernesses in Susan Crean's Toronto are in the past, brought forward to the present by telling the stories.

On Site recently had an article about a large community garden, kitchen and market in a Toronto park, where the sun appeared to continually shine, children were fulfilled, adults wore interesting shoes and glowed with a green organic fervour.  This is the potential of Toronto, to have such a park. The woeful miscalculation of the ascendence of the right wing of the Liberal party with Ignatieff at the helm is also the potential of Toronto.  I am incapable of reconciling these two things as they play out on the civic terrain of the city.  They are narratives that never meet.  

The language of each narrative – the vocabulary, the syntax – is almost unintelligible so freighted are both with ideology, righteousness and history.  Is there a Toronto, or a city anywhere, whose meta-narrative can encompass all fractions and factions?  This is the task of city administrations, supported by media and marketing.  Susan Crean's project pierces the ambiguities and lacunae of official histories by asking for personal considerations of what Toronto is, and it seems this is a story that can only be told in details. 


things of beauty

Pistoxenos painter. Aphrodite on a swan, 460 BC. Found in a tomb in Kameiros on Rhodes.





Snøhetta. Turner Contemporary, Margate UK. competition entry, 2001

In 2009 Snøhetta paid £6 million to Kent County Council over the failure to keep the Turner Contemporary costs under control.  The project, won by competition in 2001 had been estimated at £7.4 million but had gone up to £25 million by 2006 when the project was cancelled. 
It was a lovely project: a great wooden shell on the water: like all Snøhetta work, visionary, conceptual and sculptural.  We published it in On Site 4, 2001 and at the time I thought that if Margate, a disconsolate seaside town with a sad pier notwithstanding J W Turner painting there in the 19th century and thus the Turner gallery project, if Margate could choose such a brave path why couldn't the rest of us.  Architecture can be anything, why not make it romantic and beautiful.

Unfortunately for my architecture of possibility, this project came to grief.  But what is worse is that the Council did not go back to the other 5 short-listed projects from the original competition, but instead launched a second competition and chose David Chipperfield.  His £17.5 million project recently opened and is something of a shock, not for its beauty but for its extreme dullness.  It is like very cheap Meier: utilitarian, conventional white galleries – a warehouse no doubt technically proficient, but as a serious building for contemporary art, a real default position. 

The architecture of the new Turner Contemporary proposes that art is a curious phenomenon that the building must avoid while going through the palaver of keeping it temperature-controlled.  Snøhetta's original project proposed that Margate had a maritime history, that contemporary art was interdisciplinary and collaborative and would collaborate with the architecture, and that space has a presence rather than an absence. 

It is terrible that the choice is between an architecture that is emotional and brave and one that is technocratic and bleak.  This isn't modernism, it is utility and budget control masquerading as modernism.  

David Chipperfield Architects. Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK. 2011



Bob Marley, live in Dortmund, 1980.


Tim Hetherington

Tim Hetherington. Still from Restropo, 2010.Tim Hetherington was a British news photographer who made a career covering conflict for news organisations and for Human Rights Watch.  He was not a removed observer behind the camera, but an engaged humanitarian who intervened either directly or through a sustained commitment to struggles such as the Liberian civil war, and the current Libyan war in Misrata, where he was killed on April 20.

Current estimates put the death toll in Libya between February 16 and April 21 as two and a half thousand opposition and eight hundred Gaddafi loyalists.  It is an ugly war with executions, lynchings, rapes, mercenaries, untrained troops, betrayals, lies and human shields.  The death estimates indicate the asymmetry of this war.

Restropo, from which the above still is taken, was a 2010 film about US forces in Afghanistan, in the Korengal Valley.  The image could have been from many or any war: dugouts, trenches, blasted landscapes, small indications of soldiers trying to stay human. Photo-journalists, such as Hetherington and Chris Hondros, also killed on April 20 in Misrata, or Rory Peck killed in Moscow in 1993, reporters such as Orla Guerin – they are witnesses, for us, at great personal sacrifice. 


Schatten, 1960

Hansjürgen Pohland. Schatten, 1960Another quite wonderful Pohland film shot just before the wall went up. 

It looks at the city without looking at it.  It is all ephemera which, curiously enough, is timeless.


architecture and identity

T E Lawrence. Cloud's Hill, from a BBC Documentary, One Foot in the Past. 1997

Identity is the theme of the current issue of On Site review – very slippery, very mutable, it starts with a question: do you fit where you live?

A couple of days ago I mentioned T E Lawrence's house in Dorset, Cloud's Hill.  Here is a clip from a BBC program, quite a while ago if Ralph Fiennes' lovely youthfulness is anything to go by.  It isn't embedded, as that has been disabled, but the image is linked to the video. 

Cloud's Hill was, to Lawrence, part of himself: it was him.  It was like him, he made it, it corresponded directly with his values and his identity.  It is not often that can be said of where we live. 


rooms with a view

Virginia Woolf's writing lodge, Monk's House, Sussex, 1921-1941Virginia Woolf's writing room at Monk's House in Sussex.  Originally a tool shed, evidently it was full of garden distractions in the summer, cold and damp in the winter.  But it was hers.  And her £500 a year income was inherited from her aunt.

She wrote in A Room of One's Own, 'Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time'.

Like the vote, we have so many of the material things that people around the world are dying to achieve. and we do so little with them.


Cloud's Hill, Dorset

Cloud's Hill, T E Lawrence's cottage, photographed after his death in 1935

Thinking about T E Lawrence, buried in Moreton, Dorset, about the great European carve-up of the Middle East that he and Gertrude Bell were part of in the 1920s, and his cottage, near Bovington Camp, that he renovated while serving out his last few years in the RAF in the early-1930s.  He had finally got it right, installing a porthole from HMS Tiger in what he called a slip of a roomlet, not having a bedroom, when he was killed, in 1935, in a hit and run motorcycle accident.

Interiors did a photo-essay of Cloud's Hill years ago – it is a National Trust Property and open to visitors.  I remember that the cottage did not have a kitchen, just a wood counter with three beautiful glass cheese bells in a row.  In 1933 he wrote to a friend,  'I have lavished money these last . . . months upon the cottage, adding a water-supply, a bath, a boiler, bookshelves, a bathing pool (a tiny one, but splashable into): all the luxuries of the earth. Also I have thrown out of it the bed, the cooking range: and ignored the lack of drains. Give me the luxuries and I will do without the essentials.'

This seems about right I think.

It was quite small, this cottage: two rooms up and two down, upstairs was opened into one room, the book room, lined with bookshelves.  The downstairs was the music room. He was delighted by its austerity and self -sufficiency: '...books and gramophone records and tools for ever and ever. No food, no bed, no kitchen, no drains, no light or power. Just a two-roomed cottage and five acres of rhododendron scrub. Perfection, I fancy, of its sort.'

Perfection, but also a kind of punishment, but perhaps he had lived too much and needed something elemental out of life and house.  It is curious, one's house should not be one's life, yet it inevitably is.