current issue


32: weak systems

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

back issues

31: mapping | photography

30: ethics and publics

29: geology

28: sound

27: rural urbanism

on site 26: DIRTonsite 25: identity online

onsite 24: migration onlineonsite 23: small things online

read onsite 22: WAR online

On Site 22: WAR has sold out in the print version, but you can read it online

read onsite 21: weather online

read onsite 20: museums and archives onlineonsite 20 individually archived articles

onsite 20:museums and archives has sold out in the print version, but you can read it online

read onsite 19: streets onlineOn Site 19 has sold out in the print version, but you can read it online.

onsite 19 individually archived articles

read onsite 18: culture onlineonsite 18 individually archived articles

onsite17 individually archived articles

who we are



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.



Alabaster windows, San Paolo fuori le Mura
, Rome. 13th Century

Alabaster windows – a search for images has taken me to some very odd tourist sites, but never mind, these windows seem quite wonderful.  This is the tradition from which Sigmar Polke drew, adding colour from stained glass traditions.  Before glass there was alabaster, before church windows as text.  



Laurence Whistler

Laurence Whistler. Engraved windows at St Nicholas Church, Moreton, DorsetLaurence Whistler, 1912-2000, younger brother of the more well-known Rex Whistler, was a glass engraver who, over 30 years, engraved all the windows of St Nicholas Church at Moreton in Dorset.  This church is also more well-known as the place that T E Lawrence was buried in 1935. 

The church itself is delicate, built in 1776 in a Georgian form of Gothic, it was hit when a German bomber jettisoned its load, blowing out all the windows. The engraved windows are equally delicate, like frost patterns.  There is little florid glory in these windows, but much that is elegaic. 

The double readings that one gets through engraved glass renders the world outside the church as the backdrop to all that is held within the Church.  Like Sigmar Polke, who said 'I can accept the power of nature as religious' Whistler, in dreary postwar Britain broke away from the stained glass tradition which screens the world but allows in a redemptive light. After two world wars and the loss of two generations of artists, to pursue the stained-glass tradition redemptive polychromed light must have felt, to Whistler, unreasonably bombastic.  Thus these windows, which ask little of the congregant other than to register a pale, persistent nature-based faith. 

The Whistler windows, ca 1950-80. St Nicholas, Moreton


Sigmar Polke's Agates

Sigmar Polke. Agate Window, Grossmünster Cathedral, Zürich. 2006-2009

Sigmar Polke, who died last June, apprenticed as a stained glass painter before going on to art school and studying under Joseph Beuys.  The work we know him best by is heavily layered, referential work - drawings over drawings so that a dense surface appears to be made of many transparent and translucent screens, all holding different kinds of information. 

Sculpturally he worked with deeply, geologically romantic, translucent materials such as jade, quartz and amber. His last work was a set of windows for the Grossmünster Cathedral in Zurich (2006-2009), five of which are drawn from Old Testament figural descriptions, seven are thinly sliced agate held in place as with traditional stained glass by lead track.
The windows conflate narrative, biblical time and geologic time in a most graceful way, all held within the frame of the 11th century Romanesque stone cathedral.  There is a book about them with a number of essays: Marina Warner et al. Fenster-Windows for the Grossmünster Zürich.  Parkett, 2009.

I think as with most of the art I love and which I have never actually seen, it is the concept of these works which appeals.  I know there would be a phenomenological intensity, and here with the agate windows, a spiritual space that one can only experience by being there.  This is the ongoing problem with art in the age of reproduction, we only get a diagram of what a work is.  It will have to do – for me I'd rather have the diagram than not know about this work at all. 


Ceal Floyer 2

Ceal Floyer. Overhead Projection, 2006. Incandescent light bulb and overhead projector


Ceal Floyer

Ceal Floyer. Things, 2009. CDs, CD-player, speakers, cables, woodCeal Floyer, born in Pakistan, studied at Goldsmith's in London, lives and works in Berlin and currently has an exhibition that fills the four floors and annex of DHC/ART in Montreal.

This work could not be more minimal, more delicate, more gentle in its humour.  Like Duchamp, there is a visual pun and then an unspoken onslaught of art history, contemporary theory and pop culture.  It is as metaphorical as all get out; it is also as simple as can be.  Whatever references are stirred by each piece, it is all to be found in the mind of the viewer – previous knowledge we bring to the work, rather than written on the surface of the work itself.

There is quite a fierce clamp on the images, so cannot show here Door (1995) which brings tears to the eyes.  An existing steel door in a dim corner has a projector on the floor in front of it, humming away, projecting a bright bar of light at the very bottom of the door  One registers the mechanics of the piece, as I just did, and then in a flash it becomes magical: there is a sunlit room beyond this too-short door, inaccessible to us, but clearly so brilliant, so hopeful, so illuminated. It is like being ill, as a child, in a dim room, aware of the bright strip of light at the bottom of the blind telling you that the world outside continues on without you, an elysian field. 

Things (2009) is a gallery of 30 white plinths about 5' high with a white speaker grill inset in the top.  The plinths are more or less evenly spaced but not gridded: a field of posts.  Each speaker erupts with the word 'thing' cut from a wide range of pop songs at irregular and unsequenced intervals.  There is nothing else but these blasts of things that never continue.  It is very funny, not just because the wall of sound in most pop music is so absurd when you only get a split-second of it, but because the set up is so immaculate, so formal, so white-wall gallery, the modern gallery itself is so very gently mocked. Then, again in a flash, the deep connection between all the galleries one has ever been in, all the installations, all the music that ever accompanied your life are concentrated in a single moment, in a room full of white posts. 

Deceptively simple, again, is Working Title (Digging) (1995) which is set in the opening of a small bay: you hear the sound of a shovel hitting a pile of gravel from one speaker,  and then farther into the bay from another speaker you hear the gravel landing.  Having done a lot of shovelling in my time, the speakers are too far apart, the gravel would land sooner than the tape tells us it does: the landing is delayed, so somewhere in the bay and in the time within the bay is a suspension, an interregnum unaccounted for. The space between the speakers – a physical distance on the floor – is paradoxically stretched by the space registered by the sounds coming from the speakers. 

I haven't seen such beautiful work for many a year, nor a show that restored my sense of humour, sorely tried recently.  



broken ice on the St Lawrence, March 26 2011ferry on the Salish Sea, March 26, 2011


Vivienne Koorland

Vivienne Koorland. Close Your Little Eyes, 2010. Oil on stitched canvas 31" x 27" inches (79 x 68 cm) Collection the artist

Vivienne Koorland works in New York, is currently showing in London at East Central Gallery and grew up in South Africa, leaving it before the end of apartheid.  Her mother was a hidden and smuggled child in Poland during WWII, ending up in a Jewish orphans home in South Africa in 1948.
Koorland's work is characteristically complex where everything from the kind of marks made, the material they are made with, the canvas or burlap or bookcovers they are made upon is heavy with historical memory, from her own conflicted childhood in Africa to her mother's loss of childhood and family to her own exile and homesickness for an impossible childhood that cannot be revisited.  
It is not just Germany, or just the holocaust, or just apartheid, or just the unfairness, or just the loss of material goods, or talents, or love; it is all these things, constantly jostling on the crowded historical surfaces of her work.  Letters, writing, ledgers, sheet music, popular songs, maps – they all lie together.  

Her working method reuses her own rejected drawings and paintings, burlap rice bags are stitched together to make a full canvas, their printed labels worked into the content.  Her work is constantly being remade and re-referenced.  
Although nominally about the past, it is the present that is often discussed: a magnificent gold map of Africa is so simple, yet so complex in reference to gold mining, to a shimmering beautiful potential and a hateful process of extraction.  This is work that sinks in complexity rather than skimming on a too easily grasped surface. 

Vivienne Koorland. Gold Africa, 2010. oil and pigment on stitched burlap. 68.5 x 61 inches (27 x 24 cm) Private Collection, London



Approaching dust storm, Fort MacLeod, Alberta. 1930s. Glenbow Museum Archives NA-2928-28So, is this weather, or the result of a war with the land?  Literally tons of soil blew east from the centre of North America dropping on the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean during the 1930s: a drought combined with very poor farming practices that stripped the prairies of the indigenous grasses that held the soil and moisture in place with their roots. 

It made excellent mulch, evidently.  Of course it would; fine topsoil, perfect for planting seedlings.  The process of getting it spread all over your fields however was catastrophic.  



The Great Dust heap at Kings Cross. Photograph: Wellcome Images/Wellcome Library, LondonThere is a new exhibition at the Wellcome Library about dirt and our changing views of cleanliness.  A very good write-up by Christopher Turner is on today's Guardian website.

Dirt is also the theme for the upcoming Fall issue of On Site (see the call for articles here). 

The exhibition at the Wellcome, a medical library, is based on Virginia Smith's book, Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life, a historic survey of our attitudes to dirt and propriety that affects every corner of our dusty lives, our buildings and our cities. 

Living on the prairies is characterised by a fine black dust that blows off the land and settles on windowsills even at the heart of the city.  One is always dusting, sweeping, shaking out mops.  Our streets in Calgary are washed once a year, a great production of fleets of street sweepers, water sprinklers and then another pass by the sweepers.  There isn't a lot of rain here, so the streets and consequently the air are dusty again almost immediately.  Now, on the coast, where it rains all the time and one has to work hard to find dust, even fine dirt in the gravel bed that is the back vegetable garden, these streets are washed 4 or 5 times a year. 

It seems that this is an issue of perception.  On the prairies, dust, gumbo, mud, grey film, clouds of dust off unpaved roads and city alleys – that's okay.  Blowing grit on city streets that gets in your eyes, your hair, your collar – no problem evidently, until you go to a very clean city where the sidewalks are clean, the air is rain-washed, your white dog is actually white, then you realise how slapdash the cleanliness factor can be elsewhere. 


Jompy 2

Quite a beautiful graphic.  Makes the task clear.


the Jompy

David Osborne. The Jompy water heater.This was one of the entries into the Shell World Challenge last year.  It is very clever: a flat coil of hardened aluminum alloy, like a flat skillet, that sits between the fire and the cooking pot.  What looks like a handle is attached to water, cold or contaminated which circulates through the coil, is heated and comes out of the other end of the coil hot and boiled. 

Although in use in South Africa, Kenya and India, in theory it is the same as the hot water on demand burners which are slowly replacing the elephantine hot water tank that lurks in most basements.  The Jompy is much more minimal however, and consequently more adaptable to different conditions and uses. 
David Osborne, a plumber and gas fitter from Troon in Scotland was on his honeymoon in a water-challenged part of Africa and figured out this inexpensive way of boiling water with fire already doing some other task such as cooking food. 

The website, is a bit cumbersome, but all the information is there, plus various videos, including the World Challenge introduction

David Osborne. The Jompy in demonstration in Kenya by Celsius Solar's enthusiastic representative, Kalfan Okoth, just reminding everyone that this is a Scottish product.


Sarajevo Survival Tools 

Isak Albahrij's Oven, 1992.The Sarajevo survival tools project is both an exhibition and a virtual archive of the tools, implements and re-inventions from the Sarajevo siege of 1992-1996. 

Seige, whether by war as in the 3-year seige of Leningrad or by sanctions as in the last forty years for Cuba or by environmental disaster as is now unfolding in Japan, means a lack of everything: food, water, medicine, fuel.  It shouldn't be that total deprivation makes people creative, but it does. 

Sarajevo survival tools run from the watering can made out of a cooking oil tin delivered as humanitarian aid,  to a sat phone left behind by fleeing UN workers and quickly appropriated.  There is a double-barrelled rifle, minimal in the extreme, and a hand crank flashlight made out of a bicycle lamp.  This isn't a return to primitive technology, many of the materials are taken from electronic equipment and re-engineered with considerable sophistication.  However, even making an oven out of an aluminum drum results in an object that sustains life and therefore is necessarily beautiful.

Isak Albahrij's Oven, 1992.


responsibility to protect

Prague Spring: January 5 - August 21, 1968

Hungarian Uprising:  October 23 - November 10, 1956.

Benghazi:  February 21, 2011

Irving Cotler wrote about Libya and R2P in the New York Times (28 February 2011)The situation in Libya is a test case for the Security Council and its implementation of the RtoP doctrine. Yet it remains the case that, as the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, put it, 'loss of time means more loss of lives'.  The Security Council must do more — and fast. It is our collective responsibility to ensure RtoP is an effective approach to protect people and human rights.

And when, in all the news reports, did Libyan anti-Gadaffi protesters become 'rebels',  semantically removing the sense of peaceful protest in favour of a word that has such violent confrontational references?   A civil society has been established in Benghazi, the first they have known.  Can one have rebellion against a rebel? For surely that was both Gadaffi's history and his present: violent confrontation in the pursuit of power.  We should be careful with our words.  Gadaffi supporters are advancing on and quelling supporters of civil society.  Would that make the responsibility to protect a little clearer?