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signs of remembrance

Moina Michael, secretary to the YMCA in New York, started the wearing of the poppy in remembrance of Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Through the American and the French YMCA, poppies were sold to raise money for war widows and their families.  She started by buying silk poppies at a trimmings store: the poppies actually looked like poppies.  Today, the poppy-wearing nations, generally the Commonwealth, have distinctive poppy shapes, abstracted from the original.

In Grade 2 in the annex to Craigflower School that we had, and in love with things miniature, I remember inspecting my poppy: it had the red bit, and in the centre a black piece of felt with a serrated edge and in the centre of that a tiny bright green felt dot that the pin went through.  The petals were flocked cardboard, on the back it said the poppy had been made by veterans of Canada.  The Canadian poppy was first worn in 1922, made by disabled vets in workshops in Toronto and Montreal, sponsored by the Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment (later Veterans Affairs).  It provided them a small income.

The Legion eventually took over production, and poppy production is now outsourced to a private company.  Today our poppies are stamped out of flocked plastic, so light and slippery that it is impossible to keep them on your coat unless you bend the straight pin with pliers into a sharp hook. However, ours look good on TV as they are so graphic: circular, black centre. 

The British poppy has only two petals, a plastic stem and a leaf. It is made by the British Legion in their factory in London.  As late as 2008 their poppy appeared to have four petals, circular, with leaf, but somehow two petals have been lost, or there are alternative poppy producers in Britain.

A Flanders poppy, Great Britain between the wars. Modern British poppy

The ANZAC poppy in New Zealand is similar, but without the leaf, felt not paper, and has a flag attached for the Returned Servicemen League. ANZAC Day is April 25th; Remembrance Day is a more minor memorial event. ANZAC poppies were made in New Zealand from 1931 until 2010 when the contract was moved to Australia where poppies are now assembled using parts made in China.

ANZAC poppy, New ZealandThe Australian poppy (seemingly different from the ANZAC poppy, it is a bit confusing here) is a lovely thing, it actually looks like a poppy.  First sold in 1921, the poppies were imported from France where they had been made in orphanages.  The proceeds went to the RSL for its veterans' welfare work and to the orphanages.   It seems still to be made by the Returned Services League but can't find details.

Malcolm Cowe, November 12 2010, Perth, Western Australia

In Scotland, poppies have been made in Lady Haig's Poppy Factory in Edinburgh since 1926.  It still employs 40 disabled ex-servicemen who hand-make 5 million poppies, crosses and wreaths a year.  They make a range of poppies, including these long stemmed silk poppies out of silk.  

Lady Haig's Poppy Factory poppies. Sir Alastair Irwin, Edinburgh.The poppy has never become a general symbol that slips between war and peace, battle and non-violence.  It is absolutely lodged in that one event, the Armistice at the end of The Great War, the war to end all wars, but the terms of which led to the Second World War and on to the Cold War.   It is, in McCrae's poem whence it all springs, a reminder of what are now called 'boots on the ground' – the actual people who fight our wars.



Winston Churchill demonstrating a British V for victory against Nazi Germany.

V for victory is how it was used by Churchill in WWII.  We know now how very close Britain was to defeat; it was important for Churchill to show indomitable surety that victory was nigh.  
It is a combination of the hand of solidarity and the letter V.  It is also the two-fingered Cub salute: the two fingers are the ears of Akela, the wolf cub.  You remembered that didn't you?

Victory and peace.  We also know now that victory does not automatically mean peace.  Nixon used to hold both hands up in a fractal of two-fingered Vs at the end of a two-armed V – this where the V for victory in Vietnam was at odds with the V meaning Peace, man.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 70s peace meant withdrawal, not victory, an absence of victory as the battle was given up rather than waiting for defeat.  

The V hand sign has emerged again in the Arab Spring, where valour, valediction, validity and victory has been signed by every child, every woman, every student and rebel in each country as entrenched power structures were dismantled.  Tunisia and Egypt's demonstrations were non-violent resistance movements; this didn't work in Libya and isn't working in Syria.  Here V stands for a victory not of the individual who as he is rushed off on a stretcher manages to lift a hand and weakly flash two fingers, no, here the victory is for a people who will never go back, no matter what it takes, even if it takes generations.  

A young Libyan girl flashes the "V sign" with her two fingers painted with the old national flag's colours, during a demonstration against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi outside the court house of Benghazi.Shockingly, in looking for the images here, I found recent pictures of Ahmedinijad in Iran and Saif al Qadhafi both complacently saluting their audiences with a V: here they are indicating their roots in revolutionary movements from a long, long time ago.  The green flag of Qadhafi's revolutionary movement, the target in the Libyan uprising, represented the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya: green is the traditional colour of Islam.  Green was the colour of protest in Iran in 2009, one sees on the news Palestinian coffins draped in green.  The V and Green seem to be very specific in their applications depending on which people are using them, where and at what stage are their revolutions.

There is something about all these symbols and signs that coalesce around peace, non-violence and solidarity, and revolution, war and victory.  These conditions seem to be all very closely linked and the symbols oscillate between them.


at the sign of the fist

NEHouse. painted fist, 2009

The fist of solidarity.  No letters here, just a clenched hand as a measure of intent.  Wikipedia tells us it dates from ancient Assyria as 'a symbol of resistance in the face of violence'.  It was adopted by the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1917.  It was the Republican salute in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-39, and the salute of Smith and Carlos at the 1968 Olympics during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.  It has become a symbol for human rights.

All of these symbols originate as demonstrations against violence.  The fist works two ways: one as a punching fist, the other as a stilled hand: closed, the opposite of the open hand of the nazi salute.  It is almost as if there is an implicit threat in the fist which can be a weapon but which actually comes from numbers, rather than any threat of individual action.

All the symbols this week have been against violence at the state level: civil and human rights, disenfranchisement, discriminatory policies.  And while not all are ancient symbols, none of them are new; they aren't brands thought up by a marketting agency.  Somehow these symbols carry a great dignity with them; their original intentions are so powerful that their message bypasses the intellect.  I do wonder if this bypass of the intellect is not at the root of power, and can be used for both good and ill.


The golden fist of Qahdafi crushing an American jet, 1986. Tripoli

Below is a stencilled version of the sign for Autonomism, which is allied with socialism, marxism and anarchism, influenced by the Situationists and has a number of autonomist wings in several European countries.  As the word suggests, it favours autonomous action against the structures and processes of capitalism, rather than an sort of organised mass movement.  It appears to be more guerilla-like, under the radar, with activities such as absenteeism.  But they have a sign.  

Autonome, at the Ernst-Kirchweger-Haus in Vienna, Austria



order and disorder

Russell Bassman, May 31, 2008. Evanston Illinois

More letters: the A of anarchy and the O of order.  Proudhon, who we really should know more about and who said in 1840 that property is theft, wrote in The Confessions of a Revolutionary that 'anarchy is order without power', or often quoted as 'anarchy is the mother of order', slightly different in meaning.  Proudhon and Marx correspondid and some of the basic tenets of communism, such as wealth should be transferred from capitalists to workers comes out of this relationship. 

Black is the colour of anarchy, black for absence.

The A in an O was first used by the International Workers Association in Italy in 1868, but only became a commonly seen symbol in 1968, used by the Circolo Sacco e Vanzetti.  Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists in early 20th century USA, whose conviction and execution for murder in 1920 remains controversial and unresolved.  Italian anarchist history is complex and long. At its most utopian, anarchy is an extreme socialism, and is against class, violence and materialism.  It hoped for revolution without violence, although violence seems to have characterised most of its actions.

But it is an easy cipher to mark on walls and has come to represent a general disaffection with government structures and all their systems of order.  Can there be order without power?  We should all read Orwell's Animal Farm again.


signs of revolutions betrayed

Bolshevik Revolution: hammer for the industrial proletariat bonded to the sickle for agricultural workers; red from the red banner of the Paris Commune, 1917

No letters here, just action: the hammer as the tool of industrialisation, the sickle the tool of agriculture.  They are wielded by hands, neither of them are weapons.  One could be writing in the world of synecdoche here, and perhaps that adds depth to a symbol, but one can also write about hammers and sickles, factories and ploughs literally, without losing any meaning.  

In pre-revolutionary Russia Orthodoxy, red was the colour of Easter and the resurrection: how easy it was to elide that with the resurrection of the Russian people, the peasants and serfs, over the European aristocracy that ruled Russia.  And how simple to equate Christ's blood with martyred revolutionary blood.  

The  Phrygian cap of Liberty, le bonnet rouge of the French Revolution: Phrygia – today's Anatolia in Turkey.  Paris, the cause of the Trojan War, was a Phrygian and wore what we could now describe as a soft Turkish fez.  Red as the colour of liberty dates from the Roman Empire when freed slaves wore red Phrygian caps. It is interesting how involved ancient Greece was in what we consider today to be the hotbed of the Middle East.  It is contiguous by land and shares the eastern Mediterranean.  Modern Greece's default from European values, as it is being put, is perhaps more deeply rooted than the EU can accept.  

In 1976 Andy Warhol did a series of silkscreens called Hammer & Sickle where he photographed an actual hammer and a hand scythe in various collaborations. No one will ever be able to convince me that Warhol and pop art were not political.  One can say Warhol valourised the American commercial landscape and endorsed celebrity, but this does not allow him a deep anarchic sense of irony, if that is not an oxymoron. 

In the depths of the cold war, by de-coupling the symbol from the tools, he referred to the Soviet Union as industry and agriculture, not nuclear bombs.  After the fall of the USSR when many previously inaccessible 'ordinary' people were interviewed and we were able to read literature of the era from the other side, what was revealed was a fear of the west and its weaponry, precisely what we had been taught to fear about the east.  What a waste of the twentieth century it all was.  So many died.


Andy Warhol. 
Hammer & Sickle, 1976 
 acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas (182.9 x 218.4 x 3.2 cm.)
 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh


signs of non-violence

the semaphore alphabet

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol was designed by Gerald Holtom for the Aldermaston March at Easter, 1958.  It is composed of two semaphore letters, N and D, for nuclear disarmament.  

Semaphore, the signalling with flags, was used in both WWI and WWII and is still taught in the Navy.  For distances under 2 miles and in daylight it is faster, evidently, than flashing lights which can be more easily intercepted. The hand-held flags developed from the semaphore tower, an invention of Robert Hooke in 1684 to send messages through a series of such towers: 150 miles in two minutes according to The Flag Press.

Holtom had been a conscientious objector during WWII, so his experience of semaphoring was not learned in the Navy, but it was a familiar enough system of signs still that the N and the D, held in a circle for earth had currency.  The N and D diagram above clearly shows a boy scout demonstrating the alphabet.  

We know now that nuclear disarmament does not necessarily mean peace, it means ongoing dirty ground wars with increasingly high civilian collateral damage.  The symbol was used during the Civil Rights movement and came to be associated with non-violence, and then by the anti-Vietnam War movement.  Its now general linkage to peace has dropped all the particulars, and if there was ever a word that has become discredited by overuse and over-application it is the word peace.

The transportability of this symbol, literally as buttons, but also easily drawn, applicable to almost any kind of protest movement including the anti-abortion lobby, and its affiliation to unconventional life styles has rendered it near meaningless other than its core message that still semaphores non-violence.  This must be what has given it such a long life.

from designboom: the first badges were made by Eric Austin of Kensington CND, using white clay with the symbol painted black. They were distributed with a note explaining that in the event of a nuclear war, these fired pottery badges would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno.


the colours of protest

WSPU medal for valour, 1909.

Badges of honour, medals, ribbons, rosettes: delicate little things that carry great meaning.  The Women's Social and Political Union was founded in 1903.  Its priority was to somehow get British women the vote.  The decoration, above, was given by the WSPU to women who had been imprisoned for demonstrating, for 'occupying' the railings outside Parliament.  Once imprisoned, they would go on a hunger strike and then be force fed by very primitive means.  Their tactics were to be noticed, to be seen, to escape somehow the patronising male gaze that preferred them to be angels of the household.  

The colours, green, white and violet, stand for give, women and vote.  Other noble qualities were ascribed to these colours: hope, purity and dignity, but their earliest incarnation is as an acronym.  And it wasn't a secret society, it was to the WSPU's advantage to have this tricolour everywhere.  

At the time, in the early 1900s, violet was also the colour of half-mourning, that period after two years of full mourning in black crepe.  Green was one of the colours of the aesthetic movement, and peridots were re-discovered in 1900 when, after 2000 years, the island in the Red Sea that had peridot deposits was rediscovered.  The combination of violet and green was often seen in Liberty style dress – a combination of the aesthetic movement and art nouveau.  So the WSPU colours were very current, aesthetically, culturally and politically –  violet and green were not the robust primary colours found in military banners and flags.

The art nouveau pendant below is another version, less overtly militant than the medal on a ribbon, but no less powerful in its declaration of belief.


Suffragette jewellery: peridot, pearls and amethyst, ca 1900

In the ex-colonies of the British Empire, New Zealand's women had been givne the vote in 1893, Australia in 1902.  The UK gave it in 1918 but only to women over 30.


Isabelle Hayeur: Underworlds

Isabelle Hayeur. Lampsilis.

Isabelle Hayeur has been photographing bodies of water since 2008 – as she says, 'the turbid waters of navigation canals, troubled waters of dubious, uncertain origin'.  

So often we register changes in rivers, lakes, oceans and wetlands from standing head height, rarely from the water itself, in section.  Hayeur's images record the death of so many waterways de-oxegenated through pollution at a massive scale.  Rather than the glittering reflective surface that is so deceptive, her work takes us below to a world both disturbed and disturbing.


Troy Nickle: nature as culture


So very tired of the bloody wars, environmental collapse, the 99%, the bad news.  Troy Nickle's exhibition in Lethbridge calms the mind somewhat.


call for articles for On Site 27: rural urbanism

Is this Saskatchewan?

We've announced the call for articles for On Site 27: rural urbanism.  

Although I started thinking about this theme with the launch of  OIL: a new town in a resource extraction region and the array of choices for new towns, we also had the example of reoccupation of agricultural villages in Italy, an article by Lauren Abrahams in On Site 23: small things.  We had a photo-essay of Prince Albert Saskatchewan in On Site 19: streets. I had a recent report of Michael Taylor's observation of an urban flight to small towns in Denmark.  And on the BBC last week a discussion of the English village as the holder of a vision of England that is both outdated and important.  And last month in Sudbury, the Musagetes Café on the identity of small cities whose original reason for being has changed: the mine has closed, the smelter gone to China, the pulp mill defunct, the fishery closed – a variety of reasons that leaves small non-diversified towns at a loss.  

And visiting Chelmsford, one of the small towns that encircle Sudbury where the four important sites, the CPR train tracks, the Algoma Tavern, the school and the church all sit together in a row: this is not a village with a central square or any of those models where the power base is singular and evident: this lines them up all together.  We need a name for this, a way to speak about the realities of rural organisation.  

So, have a look at the call for articles, have a think, and see if there is something you would like to say about rural urbanism, a much overlooked and scorned subject.


or is this Saskatchewan?


the impossibility of dissidence

Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell's defaced library covers. The Guardian. Comment is Free, October 14, 2011

Click on the image and it will take you to an article by Jonathan Jones on the impossibility of dissidence in art today.  Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, young unpublished writers in the early 1960s used to take dull dustjackets in the library and change them into something subversive, definitely something very funny.  They were sent to prison for it.

Jones points out that outrage has become such a general condition of art that it is impossible to actually be outrageous.  One just has to read The Daily Mail, that stalwart of conservative ladies of middle England, to see how far outrageous celebrity culture has penetrated a most unlikely society.  

Something in this reminds me of the architectural conversations of thirty years ago, when modernism all of a sudden was named a rupture in a more organic development of traditional spatiality.  Modernism was the outrage, and the radical position was to excise it.  Yet the very notion of radical acts is itself a species of modernity.  

Is it more that there is nothing one can do in art, or architecture or design that is so offensive, so radical, that it shakes the viewer out of complacency?  Is it that we are immune to shock as the time-space continuum is so compressed that we have seen it all?  This would seen to indicate that the passivity of consumption has rendered us complacent on a grand scale.

Will the Occupy movement be consumed in the same way?  Perhaps, and it is this that will drive people to violence – the impossibility of dissidence in a 'liberal' society.


later, this very same morning, I came across Chloé Roubert's post on just how riots are being commodified. 


Lukas Peet, lamp

Lukas Peet. Hanging light ~ 24k: a pendant light that literally hangs from its electrical cord. 2011


Newfoundland's postcolonial architecture


DJ Mehdi, Tonton du Bled

from Chloé Roubert's site:

DJ Mehdi and core-periphery relations



1024, Les Grandes Tables de L’île

Île Seguin, Paris, temporary garden and cafe on the site of a pending Jean Nouvel project.  Plywood box lodged in a scaffold covered in greenhouse panels.  Inside looks like a lunchroom on a construction site.  This being France, they have a brilliant chef, and this being 1024, the building extends itself at night with an array of video and lighting projections. 

1024 have this to say about perennial buildings, which this cafe is not – sitting so lightly on the land, dismountable and untraceable: 'As architects expected to build for eternity we found that the rules and limits of perennial projects are so far-fetched that they often limit possibilities and creativity. The fleeting dimension of our projects allows us to be liberated and open to larger and more stimulating grounds for expression and freedom'.

Instead, 'we use many simple, raw and standardised materials, most often from the world of construction or linked to industrialisation, transport, or packing processes. Scaffolding, containers, timber framework, pallets, nets from sites and thermo retractable plastic (used for mass packaging or in asbestos removal projects)... are found in our 'catalogue' of favoured materials. As for our favoured technology, obviously video projection and more specifically mapping, which consists of projecting directly onto a three-dimensional volume rather than a flat screen, but we are sensitive to all products which generate light, from LEDs and lasers to simple construction site neon tubes'.


surveillance 2

The Kooples advertising, France, 2011

The Kooples is a French ready to wear company, one of a number that use mass-marketing and manufacturing techniques (cheap off-shore labour for production, point of sale data collection) in combination with luxury market branding (good stores at good addresses, good design).  The image above is from a The Kooples advertisement.  It promotes couples shopping together, rather than shopping as an individual act.  Well fine, whatever.

What is striking about the photographs in this ad is that they are taken from the vantage point of a CCTV camera. And somehow this is made to seem okay.

Coincidently, I just finished reading The Dying Light by Henry Porter, written in 2009, about a very near future, maybe 2012 or so, in which security systems and the corporations that provide them are so embedded in government that they in fact run the government.  Since 9/11 so many civil liberties in so many western countries have been suspended because of anti-terrorist legislation that the right to privacy has been eroded to the point that there is none.  

This has long been Henry Porter's main theme.  After The Dying Light I quickly re-read Remembrance Day, written in 2000 before all this supposedly started. Cell phone technology was key to a complex plot to destabilise the Northern Ireland peace process.  As a document, this earlier book is very interesting: terrorism was still the purview of the IRA and Eastern Europe; Ireland could be understood in terms of retaliation and revenge, Eastern Europe in terms of greed for power.  Nine years later he writes The Dying LIght where terrorism is industrial, based on total surveillance of one's every action, and at the core of British government.  

My father, who was a great reader of a particularly addictive kind of action thriller where a captain (usually) in the British Army came up against all sorts of nefarious plots involving the abuse of power by the brass and/or the secret services, said that one reads novels to find out what is actually going on in the world, not history books, because novelists have a prescience gene; the act of writing is an act of gathering clues and thinking them into a future that the reader will recognise when they read it.  

So, as a reader, I look at The Kooples ad and see an acceptance of the state of surveillance. London has more CCTV cameras than all of Europe – a great help in the almost instantaneous arrest of 3000 people and the charging of a thousand in the August riots, which echoed similar riots in Paris in 2005.  A facebook group was set up to help the Metropolitan Police identify people caught on CCTV with 900,000 members.  Much was made of the tactics of the police, batons and water cannons, and of the causes of the unrest, little was made of how suspects were identified.

Charging anyone from the Vancouver riots is bogged down in too much surveillance footage, including voluntary surveillance from private cellphones.  The Canadian government has, for the first time, posted a most-wanted list on the web, inviting us as citizens to recognise and turn in these people, one of whom was apprehended almost immediately. We are being turned into informers.  And this role is being eased in to our society by images such as the one above, where being watched is normal, cool even.


Taysir Batniji's Watchtowers

Watchtowers (Israeli military miradors in West Bank, Palestinia), 2008 serie of 26 photographs B&W, digital prints, 40 x 50 cm (photo Dieter Kik).
Taysir Batniji is showing a series of photographs this year at Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), 2011 which investigates the relationship between art and politics. Batniji's series, Watchtowers, consists of watchtowers on the West Bank border with Israel.  There is a project of witness here, the recording of the watchtowers' existence, and there is a formal project, the typology of the watchtower, and there is a project of photography, the implications of the processes and products of the Bechers, their watertower series in particular.  

Water Towers (Wassertürme), 1980. Nine gelatin silver prints, unique, approximately 61 1/4 x 49 1/4 inches (155.6 x 125.1 cm) overall. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © 1980 Bernd and Hilla Becher

Batniji describes the watchtower project:
Significantly, the project registers the attempt (or the situational difficulty in trying to attempt) to follow the Bechers’ method. The particularly perilous conditions of these photographs render them compromised. As a Palestinian born in Gaza I am not authorized to return to the West Bank, so I delegated a Palestinian photographer to carry out these photos. They are out of focus, clumsily framed, imperfectly lighted. In this territory, one cannot install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take the time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait days for the ideal light conditions. Aestheticization becomes a vivid political challenge, both in the creation of these photographs and in their reception, as these images challenge viewers to see these functional military constructions as sculptural, or as a part of a formal architectural heritage.

Aestheticisation is such a danger and must plague all photographers in war situations where the camera both sees and makes beautiful simply because it isolates a dynamic and horrific scene in a detached and calm image, and the calmness, and our inevitable space-time distance as viewers from the scene, sanctifies it somehow.  The janus-face of documentary photography.


Nick Cave's Soundsuits

Nick Cave, Soundsuit 1, socks, paint, dryer lint, wood, wool, 2006

Nick Cave, not the singer, but the artist from Missouri who was with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and is now director of the fashion program at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Above, is a Soundsuit.  Soundsuits' references are wide and deep, they are sculptures, costumes, installations.  They are assemblages, they make sounds, they refer historically to various African ceremonial garments.  They appear in performances and in art museums.

I lived in the middle of Kansas for a year, my first teaching gig, and spent a lot of time driving back country roads and finding installations of what was known as folk art then, outsider art now.  What they all had in common is their obsessive convictions and their marginal relationship to orthodox art and architecture – the Watts Towers in Los Angeles were not unlike Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in their mad-builder concentration.  

More recently, Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg project in Detroit has rejuvenated a despairing neighbourhood by saying, your house is yours, make it into something that is you.  And because this is an economically challenged place, such transformations inevitably are done with discarded and then re-found materials: the essence of folk art: all invention, no money.

What is interesting about this and where it comes back to Nick Cave and Soundsuits is that these projects cannot be included under the patronising rubric of outsider art: Nick Cave is firmly in the centre of American art production, and Heidelberg is a well-documented demonstration project of urban renewal that does not involve mass destruction.

Last week Gloria Steinem in an interview on Q  said it takes about a hundred years for a social change to really become an embedded part of the social fabric. Second wave feminism is about 40 years old and so, no, we are not in a post-feminist era, we still have 60 years of feminist struggle ahead.  The civil rights movement in the USA happened in the 1960s, just 50 years ago.  We are only now starting to find work that is  embedded in the orthodoxy of contemporary art discourse: it is not post-racial, for it is so very African American, an identity that is critical to the work.  But it is allowed to take its place within the discourse, and that is new.


hothouse sections

Joseph Paxton, original glass house at Chatsworth. In the foreground is the stove, also by Paxton, used for the growing of soft fruits, often pineapples. early 18th century.

Just when you think that there is nothing left to mine in the Mitford archives, they find another 6,000 letters and another Mitford book comes along.  They were awful people, fascists to stalinists, privileged and offensive, they all wrote effusively and were very funny.  Deborah, the youngest of the Mitfords married the Earl of Devonshire in 1941.  I visited Chatsworth in 1986 or so, shortly after it had been made a charitable trust (I find) endowed by the sale of a zillion old masters.

Memorable was a hothouse – a long, double brick wall with fireplaces in it, fed from the back (above, in the foreground).  The front was, in profile, a glasshouse by Paxton with espaliered apricot trees pinned to the south facing brick wall.  It was elegant, quite minimal and full of beautiful fruiting plants.  

The visiting of these 17th and 18th century country houses is in a way a rite of passage for a certain kind of architect.  Chatsworth the house was not as memorable as Blenheim which had a most wonderful library – a tall long room, one side wire-fronted book cabinets, the other side windows, in between a universe of big chairs, a piano covered with silver framed photos, apricot and blue persian carpets, slightly unkempt parterres outside the windows.  It was a most perfect room for so many reasons.  I have no photo of it, for in those days as a student we carried notebooks not cameras.  And I think because of this, it remains so potent in my memory.  

Google images being what it is, there are plenty of photos of Blenheim and Chatsworth on the web, none I can recognise. It is interesting though that both the library and the stove (a curious term that refers to this long, one-sided, heated hothouse) are similar in section: a thick back wall and a glass front.   It is a profile familiar to any sort of energy-conserving house, but never as romantic as when it was done in the 18th century.

James Justice’s plan of the pineapple stove, 1721, published in The Scots Gardeners’ Directory, 1754.


Gerhard Richter's panoramas

Gerhard Richter. 
Stadtbild Paris, 1968 200 cm x 200 cm. Oil on canvas. Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany

The Tate Modern is holding a Gerhard Richter exhibition, Panorama, this fall.  He painted a townscape series in the late 1960s and early 70s, taking mostly aerial photos of cities and painting them on canvases in a way that the scale of the buildings is completely lost: one brushstroke, with all the scale of the hand and brush that made it, perhaps equals one side of a 30-storey building.  Yet the work retains its photographic clarity, mostly because of the high contrast between shadows and sunlight in the original photos, and because of the recognisable patterns that cities have, that no other organism shares (the actual patterns, not the ability to become abstract pattern).  

This, in the context of Piano's Shard in London, a kind of architecture where clarity is paramount, makes one wonder why we value clarity so much.  Complex urban landscapes are often not legible for a number of reasons, mediaeval security for one, such as one finds even today in Rio's favelas.  Or the illegibility of the POPOS landscape: privately owned public outdoor spaces presaged by Richter's blurred and ambiguous renderings.   

Yet, we understand such complexities if it is our own city.  We do not need a tourist map all laid out in graphic clarity telling us where we should and should not go.  Cities at ground level have millions of small clues that keep a kind of social order.  When something such as the Shard, or almost any new project crashes into this fairly delicate understanding, something is sterilised, made very clear.  It takes decades, if not centuries, for a re-colonisation of the area by the complexity of everyday life.