on site review

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


on site review group

back issues

34: on writing

33: on land

32: weak systems

31: mapping | photography

30: ethics and publics

29: geology

28: sound online

28:sound links site


27: rural urbanism

27:rural urbanism online


on site 26: DIRT onlineonsite 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


Tim Pearne: ground, Goode Beach, Western Australia


Shelagh Wakely: ground, 1991

Shelagh Wakely. Curcuma sul travertino, made up of loose turmeric scattered in baroque patterns on the travertine marble floors of the British School in Rome, 1991

What might be the opposite of all those assertive pieces of last week?  Perhaps Shelagh Wakely's large ephemeral pieces that lie flat on the floor, and if not a sheet of gold or turmeric, then small fruits and vegetables, covered in gold leaf, that slowly collapse.  Her potted biographical note shows both the RCA and a BSc in Agriculture which might be one of the roots of her affinity to the horizontal surface, its inscriptions and patterns.

©Shelagh Wakely. Partial recreation of Paisagem Inutil, 1997.   Camden Arts Centre – Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window, 2014. photo: Marcus J Leith


cloudscape: Richard Serra

Richard Serra. Corner Prop No.8 (Orozco and Siqueiros) 1983 Cor ten steel (2 plates) Upper plate: 182 x 191 x 6.3 cm 71¾ x 75¼ x 2½" Lower plate: 145 x 150 x 6.3 cm 57 x 59 x 2½"

I suppose it dates me, as does so much in this journal, to like Richard Serra's work.  This piece was in an exhibition in the 1980s of Serra and Keifer at the Saatchi Gallery – can't think of two more powerful artists at the time – it was overwhelming.  

This particular set of works was all about balancing extremely heavy sheets of steel in configurations that leant against the gallery walls, or against each other.  It was dangerous, fragile, deceptively still.  A heavy lead pipe sagged quietly in a corner.  The gallery rooms were small, silent, all that metal lying not quite inert. 

This drawing, however, from 1972, being just oil stick on paper, races off the page.

Richard Serra, Untitled, 1972-1973, Paintstick on paper, 37-13/16 x 50", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase with funds from Susan Morse Hilles, 74.10, © Richard Serra, Photo: Sheldan C. Collins.Have always seen Serra's work as a series of registrations: of land, of physical forces, of structural properties – that intersection of a natural world of weather, people and, usually, civilised urban spaces and Serra's great slabs that in interrupting the natural order we never think about, actually point it out, heighten it, makes us think about the drones in the gallery system installing these dangerous works, or the office workers whose ant-like paths across the plaza are diverted, annoyed, or the allegedly neutral walls, floors and spaces of the gallery or museum which are forced into strenuous support of a temporary installation. The work is so structurally and formally engaged that it forces us to engage with it.


cloudscape: Hiroyuki Hamada; landscape: Luise Valdes

Hiroyuki Hamada. #73, 2011-13, painted resin, 46 x 70 x 25 inches

Found Hamada's beautiful work originally in Raw + Material = Art. Found, scavenged and upcycled, 2012 by Tristan Manco, a survey of a wide international range of artists using non-traditional materials. 
I used to find scavenged materials really exciting, especially in building: the transfer of dadaist collage to architecture, but after this book I sort of lost a bit of interest.  The work often seemed gimmicky: not arte povera so much as art clever clogs.  Hamada has quite a few of the pages from this book on his own blog  including the Chilean Luise Valdes, whose 'Cocinar', part of Casa de Karton, I quite like as it looks not unlike my own house: small, white, basic, hand finished – it reminds me of the irregular rooms hacked into the cliffs above Alicante which were all nicely tiled.  Not that my house is a sculpture, or that Valdes was building a house, but the nature of the surfaces are hand-worked, not the product of a machine or an industrial process.  This is increasingly rare to see, the marks of the hand.

Luise Valdes. Casa de Karton, 2008Two ends of a material scale: Hamada's resin finished like ivory with inlays and thin seams of ebony, and Valdes' whitewashed cardboard.  One immensely calm, solid and contemplative, the other earnest, fragile and beloved.  The Hamada piece above, #73, does not appear in Raw + Material = Art, but is on his website along with a number of prints of this folded shape:

Hiroyuki Hamada. B18-04.

This work is all material and shape and has gone on for years within a very limited formal palette.  Valdes is about material and material culture: form is supplied by the everyday world and as such rich and complex and intimate.  I like this pairing.


Christopher Lavery: Cloudscape, 2010 

Christopher M Lavery. Cloudscape, 2008-2010 $120,000 public art commission, Denver International Airport Emerging Public Artist Project. Steel, polygal, LED Lighting, solar panels.



And just to round off the week, BIL, the counter to TED: an open stage for ideas and stories, admission by donation, anyone can do one.  The main BIL website shows that besides California, a lot have happened in Tunisia.  Spaces are donated and so are typically warehouses, disused caverns of stations, theatres and other marginally appreciated volumes.  There is one happening now in Vancouver, the unconference 'fully participant powered'.  This is crowd funding done by turning up, by participating – the line between speaker and listener blurred, the conference driven by contributors.  

As Michael Cummings said this morning on the radio, TED has jumped the shark, by which I take it that TED has become so establishment, so controlled and directed that the anarchic BIL has popped up to fill the void.  We'd all like to listen to interesting people talking about what they are doing; I don't want to have to apply to attend a symposium and then pay a lot of money to go in person.  One can watch each talk on line, but one still has to pass along a credit card number.  Smart people can only talk to rich people?  What is the point of that?

On Site review was established as an open venue where anyone could write for us if they had something really interesting to say: the only gatekeeper was the theme for each issue, and me, of course, but I can count on one hand the number of submissions that were, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, turned away, and not for the ideas, but usually for their inadvertent racism, or their total ignorance of history.  Somehow, On Site review never attracted shameless self-promoters or corporate types – there are plenty of other, more successful venues for that kind of architectural discussion.  So I can see how BIL attracts participants that aren't even interested in being a TED talker, although the format is much the same.  Someone stands up and speaks.  Pecha Kucha for everybody.  Now that is another open stage thing that was taken over by expensive admission tickets, sponsors and rules.  Like Detroit Soup, I hope BIL never attracts corporate interest.


Detroit Soup: very, very resilient

Detroit Soup is a program, started in Detroit but expanding to other cities and countries, that sets a monthly potluck dinner and charges $5 for soup, salad and bread. Everyone votes for a project that has been pitched that evening and the gate money becomes the pot handed out to the project with the most votes. The projects are community-based, creative, involve local people and small, small enough that $1000 is terrific seed money to get going with.  

From the website detroitsoup.com:

Detroit Soup from Dandelion on Vimeo.

There has been a BBC program on this week, 'Can Soup Change the World' where one of Soup's founders, Amy Kaherl, explains it all. She is a down to earth, calm, massively competent person wearing normal clothes. (cf. Resilient Cities, below) This is her project, hers and a number of other people collaborating, volunteering, working and benefitting from these micro-grants.  

It is interesting to compare this program with Resilient Cities (polar opposites yet both hoping for the same results): there is just one small diagram for Soup that uses four words that do not appear anywhere in the Resilient Cities material: Art, Urban Agriculture, Justice and Social Entrepreneurs.  Detroit has hit rock-bottom and stayed there now for at least a decade: the city is bankrupt, discussions still go on about selling its art collection, people lose their houses which are promptly gutted so they can't be squatted in but neither can they then be fixed up, neighbourhoods look much like New Orleans' Ward 9 after the water receded.  This is the kind of place where innovation, creativity and self-starting projects find fertile ground.  Any project, no matter how small, is needed, not just wanted as a nice idea, but needed.  And as Detroit has bigger things to worry about, does not stand in the way of either Soup or its crowd (literally)-funded projects.  

To me, this is true resilience: flexibility and commitment from below, not from some corporate model of transnational cooperation that focusses on expensive infrastructure – the Halliburton model: a service company that operates far beyond its remit when 'resilience' activities are needed. Soup is something else.  everything about it appears to be provisional – the Jam Handy warehouse they use, the pot luck dinners, the donated bread from a local bakery, the micro-economy they swim in, the youth of the participants, the seriousness with which street kinds, homeless people, struggling single mothers, guys who never take their touques off are considered, listened to and treated.  There is no hierarchical structure; everyone is valued, everyone is fed. 



Tulsa: not resilient yet

Tulsa’s Resilience Challenge Officials are prioritizing civil engagement and working on an innovative floodplain management plan.

Tulsa Oklahoma, one of the Resilient Cities 100.  Trying here to figure out exactly what Resilience Cities are and do.  It was, once, the centre of the US oil industry, but diversified to 'telecommunications, finance and aviation'.  What does this mean?  call centres? airport hub?  But, it has poverty in minority communities.  Of course it does.  Not only is it in need of resilience from being located in Tornado Alley, local civil society, especially the poverty sector, must be engaged with.  Tulsa has 391,900 people.  This is the extent of the information on Tulsa as a resilience challenge.  

What am I expecting?  Microsoft is working with the Resilient Cities 100 on emergency communications during extreme weather events.  A Chief Resilience Officer, a CRO, is needed.  As Tulsa's challenges are listed as Hurricane/Typhoon/Cyclone, Social Inequity and Tropical Storms, it can be linked to 51 other cities from Belgrade to Arusha.

Resilient Systems, another diagram with rollovers explaining some key terms, all very good, desirable and unchallengeable.  Reflective: able to learn. Robust: limits spread of failure.  Flexible: has alternate strategies. Integrated: systems work together.  Resourceful: can easily repurpose resources.  Redundant: has backup capacity.  Inclusive: broad consultation and communication.  

Last night on the news CBC showed a new way of teaching grade fives how to analyse problems.  The task was how to make a playscape for their school.  Lots of bubble diagrams were created, arrows, priorities, who does what.  When it came to materials the pupils dutifully wrote in their bubbles 'swings', 'slides', 'monkey bars'.  Good god, for all that analysis, they still see a playscape as a traditional playground set that's been in every school yard since 1952.  Somehow all this systematic organisation seems to reorganise knowns and givens while excluding lateral, creative thought.  One suspects that no amount of bubble diagramming or rollovers will come up with a vegetable garden in the corner of the school yard – that kind of idea floats in from some different universe.  

If we have CROs, CEOs and CFOs, we have governance structures and hierarchies.  If there was anything revealed in On Site review 32: weak systems, it is that hierarchies are rarely robust and are structurally incapable of being resilient.


Can't resist:



Resilient Cities

The introductory blurb about Resilient Cities outlines resilience in response to both climatological shock and systemic social problems.  Dandy.  I read on, I watch the videos – they are smooth, earnest, sophisticated; everyone dresses and speaks in the language of the boardroom.  Such groomed spokespeople.  

I find it something of a revelation to find that civic resilience is a project of 'partners from the private, public and NGO sectors'. It indicates that this is primarily an economic project that works on infrastructure and the delivery of services. This is big money. It gangs cities together to pool ideas and strategies: we can all learn from one another.  

There is not a small dose of TED-talk enthusiasm here: what can possibly be wrong with all of this?  Individuals shouldn't have to struggle on in isolation, always learning as they go, reinventing the wheel, cut off from advanced technological solutions; Resilient Cities is like a global think tank that all cities can access.  Forget culture and history, cities are machines that can be fixed.  Ultimately this is what it comes down to, these strategies for resilience. They are like strategies in war: always the same no matter who the antagonists, what the century, what the technology.

Two immediate questions: Vanuatu and Syria.  Aleppo, Damascus, Port Vila: not on the list of selected cities.  Montreal and Barcelona are however.  I think resilience is relative.  I worry when I am shown a diagram of what constitutes resilience.  Can't imagine that it is all so tidy and universal.  Shall think more about this.


Urbanistas: London

Zaha Hadid. Roca London Gallery, 2009-2011Roca, a Spanish bathroom fixtures corporation, is behind Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid in 2011.  Based on the movement of water evidently, it is curvy white space and currently has an exhibition, Urbanistas, curated by Lucy Bullivant, showing the influential work of five architects, women, young and successful: Alison Brooks, Muf, AWP, J&L Gibbons and Irena Bauman.
In a long article in the Guardian, Bullivant explains just what defines their work.  It is a commitment to 'a public realm of social value' and this spins off into climate, weather and seasons, multiculturalism, the knitting together of infrastructures, nature and landscape – long term strategies that, as Bullivant points out, are the opposite of development quick turn-arounds.  In this article are statements from each architect: none talk about gender, rather they simply talk about their aims for architecture and urban design.  Landscape Urbanism hovers in the background.  Irena Bauman mentions the 'professional vanity and commercial growth as the primary drivers of [the architectural] business model' and explains how the work of Bauman Lyons presents an alternative, including only accepting work within two hours road travel from their studio, not going for awards, working a 4-day week, and collaborating on and co-producing work.  Collaborating.  

Women collaborate, and Bullivant indicates that as there are now more women in the profession they have a larger influence on it.  It has long been difficult to collaborate with a profession that valorises the Ayn Rand hero, and if this seems a cheap use of a cliché let's just say it is based on experience of a certain generation, thankfully now at career's end.  Liza Fior's sentence,  'We endeavour in all our projects to make spaces where more than one (fragile) thing can coexist at a time' indicates just how far the professional discourse with which these five architects are engaged has moved.  

Lucy Bullivant's essay – all that is available to me, in stead of the exhibition – is encouraging, rewarding and very inspiring.  I am heartened.

Malmo Quay, Newcastle: visualisation of a project by AWP, Featherstone Young Architects and Mikhail Riches Architects. © sbda


Agnes Martin via Anna Rieger

Agnes Martin—Paintings, Writings, Remembrances published by Phaidon Press. Texts by Agnes Martin and Arne Glimcher. Hardcover with dust jacket, 282 pages. 250 × 290 mm. Art direction Henrik Nygren. Studio Henrik Nygren Design

This is a beautiful book designed by Anna Rieger on Agnes Martin.  The end papers are sheets of calculations for Martin's building projects; other notebooks appear inside as inserts.  The common theme for Martin's writings is the struggle to remain calm, to let things go, which makes me wonder if the tension in the apparently hyper-rational grids and geometric planes isn't what distinguishes Martin's work from, say, Le Witt's which doesn't have the restlessness hers has. 

After hearing a long CBC archive program yesterday on Emily Carr, another passionate painter who was a near-recluse, perhaps the closely-guarded privacy is defensive and sustaining: just leave me alone to do my work! We can hardly, today, understand such a combination of fierceness and self-effacement.

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960, Oil on linen, 12 × 12". © 2006 by Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Agnes Martin: 1912-2004

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1963

The minimalist of all minimalists, Agnes Martin, presents us with surface, often inscribed to a numbing field of equivalence.  She came from Maklin Saskatchewan (born on a homestead NW 19-38-27-W3), grew up in Vancouver, moved to the States at nineteen, taught through the 30s and 40s, moved to New York for the 60s, discovered Taoism and Zen and ended up spending the rest of her life alone in New Mexico.  Below is a minimalist interview: talking Agnes Martin in front of a white stucco wall, fixed camera – a numbing field of equivalent statements about not being an intellectual, or having ideas: she just responds to the inspiration. I'm not sure exactly what that is, but it leaves her with a clear mind, she says. 

Above: interview by Chuck Smith & Sono Kuwayama with painter Agnes Martin at her studio in Taos in November 1997. longer version here


Agnes Martin in her NY Studio, 1960. Photo Alexander LibermanAn earlier image, when studios were uninhabitable and unheated spaces. Martin's work demands contemplation; there is no image, just surface which has been touched, by her. The importance of Martin to twentieth century painting, and her massive influence on the conceptualists, mocks, a bit, her statements at 85 that she has an empty mind and so when inspiration crosses that empty field she can see it.  Painters are rarely wordsmiths, most are inarticulate when talking about their work after a lifetime of doing it.  I'd rather see an interview of Agnes Martin at 48 as she was in this photo when New York was the centre of the new art world afire with experimental art, when critics such as Rosenberg and Greenberg were defining and undefining painting and installation.  On the other hand, perhaps she was seemingly as unconnected to things then as later, but the climate of ideas picked her up and ran all over the field with her.  In the interview she sounds overly simplistic, and one wonders if this was a terrific defence – goodness knows the robust masculinity of the twentieth century New York art scene made short work of women artists.  To be a Taoist and to work minutely, almost obsessively, on huge canvases must have been unassailable.

In a fine and revealing essay in artcritical, Deborah Garwood mentions the increasingly violent politics of 1960s America: Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Weather Underground.  In such a world the calm, investigative studies that are Martin's works from the early 1960s perhaps codify that turmoil – the grain of sand that contains the universe.  Much has been written of her shared sensibility with John Cage: both erase noise and let the ears and eyes register some sort of deep space.


Sara Barker: minimal stories

Sara Barker Conversions 2011 Steel, aluminium, various paints 215 x 115 x 65 cm

A different kind of minimalism, Sara Barker's work is dense with allusion and allegory based on framing absence.  The frame, by definition a marginal element, carries all the responsibility of the witness, and in Barker's work the frame is usually incomplete.  Slices of painting, normally the surface that carries meaning, are partial stories so removed from a full narrative to be just single words or lines, without context.  Yet they are bound together in a construction that captures the meaningless space of the gallery, or the studio: one feels that in their installation, wherever it might be, what is being framed isn't the story at all, that the frames hold the key to a story one must participate in without knowing what it is.  This is magic and mysterious. 

Here is a 2013 video from the Baltic in which she discusses the spatial nature of the construction processes, and shows some very large and complex works:


passport to pimlico: 2015

scheme 025 of the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge competition

Found this image in a list of what someone thought were the more interesting entries in the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge competition for a pedestrian and bike bridge across the Thames from an old district to a rebuilt old district now covered in glass towers.  This scheme, 025, presents itself as a Turner painting, a minimalist way of crossing the river, everything thinned to fragility. In true modernist fashion, the differences in the two sides of the river are neither exacerbated or promoted; the bridge is an instrument of locomotion, functional within an engineering context, which is a long, rich and exciting history.

After looking at the rest of the submissions, here, I became very depressed. Except for a few, they are the worst of some first-year studio exercise in a not very good architecture school. Open competitions are always interesting for they give one a register of current architectural conversations and the degree to which the architects and designers who enter the competition are in touch with some of the more rarified levels of the discourse. 

Increasingly, the 'discourse' as practiced in the schools and critical journals does not seem to reach any other level, especially not the levels that actually do design things.  Or even pretend to design things by showing a shallow idea drawn by software that accurately puts reflections of said bridge on the river in all weathers. Even if not a blueblood modernist, the agonies of post-modernism are also missing. Where is the deep context for most of these proposals? Whatever it is, it is abstracted as a meaningless background to The Object: The Bridge.  Why am I depressed?  Because this is a conversation that has been played out for the entirely of my now-long career. It never seems to move on. All the work I have done, all that I have taught and written about, has been totally ineffective, because although this is Nine Elms to Pimlico, my own small Canadian city is also engaged in the acrobatic pedestrian bridge as the locus for civic creativity, with similarly irrelevant results. 

I'll have scheme 025, above, please, but I doubt it will be the one chosen. 


Giuseppe Penone: from 1970 to 2013

Giuseppe Penone. 'Albero di 12 m', 1970. Legno, cm 1213x25. Courtesy Moderna Museet, StockholmIt is a long life, art.  Penone did beautiful deconstructions of trees in the 1970s, cutting away tree rings to reveal the young tree inside a massive trunk.  Recent work, a series at Versailles in 2013, is still about trees, but there is bronze, there are castings, there are interventions in how a tree grows, there is Versailles and its Le Nȏtre landscape, there isn't much povera any more, other than the insistence that trees grow and resist sculptural intentions.  Weather intervenes; the cast tree bark is from a cedar that grew at Versailles, damaged by a storm.  And as we in the boreal forest know, beetles and climate do more to shape the environment than any number of landscape architects and gardeners.  There is an existential reality to trees – the remaking of trees/nature in the image of the divinity of man is what Penone has always resisted.  

Giuseppe Penone, Tra scorza e scorza, Entre écorce et écorce, 2003. Courtesy of Giuseppe Penone. Photo by Tadzio


Turner-Yamamoto: Hanging Garden, 2010

Sinji Turner-Yamamoto. Hanging Garden | 2010 | dead and live white birches, soil, water, metal structure/support for broken trunk, water irrigation system, | deconsecrated 19th century Holy Cross Church (National Register of Historic Places), Cincinnati, Ohio

Sinji Turner-Yamamoto, studied in Kyoto and Bologna.  Hanging Garden is part of on ongoing series (so far eleven), the Global Tree Project, with installations around the world that put trees into iconic spaces.  His website is a cloud of poetic fluff about wisdom, life and meditation; the work is more interesting.  

Arte Povera is a clear influence in this piece: the tree itself containing its own history in its structure, its surface form a tip of an iceberg of biomass.  Here it is two trees, one living and one dead, meeting at the point they enter or emerge from the earth.  A built mirror, both a small tragedy and a clever statement.

The deconsecrated 1889-1901 Holy Cross Church in Cincinnati?  What a beautiful thing.  An Irish immigrant church and an attached monastery, it suffered in the decline of the Catholic priesthood and closed in 1977.


slum tourism

Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment Volume 14, Issue 2, 201.2 Special Issue:   Global Perspectives on Slum Tourism

Is this what it is, our interest in how barrios organise themselves and rebuild squatter settlements into self-directed, autonomous living environments?  Slum tourism?  

Is our interest in informal urbanism actually aestheticising of poverty as proposed by this issue of Tourism Geographies?  or do tourism geographers see everything as a species of tourism, which is, by nature, grounded in the 'gaze'?  The underlying premise of tourism is that there is an interface between two different kinds of people, usually one with more money than the other, one more mobile than the other, one more 'scientific' than the other.  Tourism as a form of coloniality.  

Despite having done a Phd in geography, this is one particular aspect of geography that I've always found problematic.  It attaches social conditions, ideology and political meaning to urban spatial conditions, usually deserved and valid, such as hierarchies of power in city planning trends. However, it does not allow any other determinants of form than the social, the ideological or the political.  As an architect, this meant that everything I'd ever done, studied and taught was considered completely naïve, mis-judged and really, really toxic.  Found this a bit hard.  We all live and work in social ideological and political contexts, but in the making of architecture these things are inadvertent and perhaps that is where we have been deaf and blind to our own position in society. With a modernist and early postmodernist education I was taught first that the ultimate goal of architecture was not the naked display of power but a better world for all people, and then later that everything had meaning and one had to look after the meanings that buildings radiated. Well, yes, this is a bit naïve.  

Of course there has always been slum tourism.  Slumming was probably around in the eighteenth century – that frisson somewhere between horror and delight in observing the depths of social despair.  Anyway, slum tourism is a whole issue of Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment.  How embarrassing is that.  Nonetheless I find it difficult to think that all study of favelas, barrios and other informal settlements is at heart touristic.  The installation of outside escalators up the hillside barrios of Medellín has physically linked neighbourhoods previously at war.  That drug lords control the small plazas at the top and bottom of each escalator indicates that turf rules still hold, but an escalator is not an impenetrable wall, nor is it a dangerous path through dense housing, nor is it an armoured vehicle.  To find this device that reputedly unites communities is not touristic, rather it is a lesson probably humbly learnt. I don't know of one difficult topography in our cities with an escalator, and personally I don't care who thought of it first.

I think this is at the heart of the Uneven Growth project which is asking for collaboration from the megacities with dense and difficult housing conditions. In theory it could be an elitist project: planners picking and choosing what is 'interesting' about Mumbai; it also could be a chance to hear from community planners in Mumbai itself.  One never knows precisely the status, background, political position or colonised education of developing world voices: is what we are hearing authentic?  authentically postcolonial? an intelligent voice or a sycophantic fool?  How do we get a chance to ride with the rebel side and not be a tourist with it?


Uneven growth: tactical urbanism

From the MoMA Uneven Growth website: 'Challenging assumed relationships between formal and informal, bottom-up and top-down urban development, the resulting design scenarios, developed over a 14-month initiative, consider how emergent forms of tactical urbanism can respond to alterations in the nature of public space, housing, mobility, the environment, and other major issues of near-future urbanization.'

Megacities, and the poverty within them, seem to outline a future of more concern than war, perhaps because slums have long been pathologised as behavioural sinks, a view that prevailed throughout the twentieth-century and is now being challenged. Turns out there is more humane urbanity in a barrio, stronger organisation and more design automony in barrio councils than in any OECD city.  Ideas are flowing from south to north, an indication that our complacent wealthy cities suffer a deficit of design intelligence.

in On Site review 32: weak systems Eduardo Aquino wrote about beaches as systems of human interaction found nowhere else: an egalitarian, non-judgemental field sitting between the city and the ocean where new and free relationships can form.  There is simply no equivalent condition in the contemporary northern city – parks haven't the same transitional spatiality. Aquino's archetypal beach is in Rio de Janeiro, and he cites Lina Bo Bardi's boardwalk in São Paulo; somehow our beaches don't seem to work this way.  Is it weather, where we are all clenched against the cold, even in summer?  — a defensiveness that infects all aspects of our lives and makes us uncharitable and rigid?  Perhaps I exaggerate, but the most exciting urban critiques and constructs are coming from the informal sectors of southern megacities where conventional urban planning, rooted in European urban culture, has never ventured.


Dorchester Projects Archive House, Chicago

(c) 2006-2014 - Theaster Gates. Archive House Past (2009) and Present (2013) photos: Sara Pooley

Dorchester Projects, a cluster of houses and storefronts on South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago, includes this house, before and after.  Gates' explanation is that he 'purchased the neighbouring two-story vacant house [next to the storefront he was living in] and initiated a design project to restore and reactivate the home as a site of community interaction and uplift'.  There is a gallery of photos on his website which show how the interior has been largely stripped to structure and resurfaced with floor to ceiling bookshelves, slide trays, recycled board sheathing.  Despite the street-front propriety of the house in 2009, it was abandoned and must have been unuseable inside for such a massive re-configuration of surface to have occurred.  

Unuseability is not just cosmetic: the hierarchy of spaces in a prairie four-square house is also without utility.  Of course anything can occupy and make do with any kind of space if it has to, but the project here is not just to move into an old house because it is all you can afford, but to make that old house spatially part of the community.  The slide room is itself, not a previous bedroom: the present bears no relationship to the past.  This is the difference between repurposing and renovation. Gates bought a structure and stripped away everything that did not apply to his project of community building, replacing it with salvaged materials that come with no evidential history.  

Nor are the collections of music and books cast-offs, discards: the front of the store is a listening room for the 8,000 LPs from a former local record store, Dr Wax Records that went under in the economic downturn in 2010.  The back of the store is a reading room for the Johnson Library: the Johnson Publishing Company's in-house editor's library and the Ebony and Jet magazine archive.  Johnston Publishing is the largest African-American-owned publishing house, and was founded in Chicago in 1942. The Dorchester Projects grounds these African-American histories in buildings whose purpose is to keep them alive, rather than locking them into some sort of museological archive.  This is yet another part of Gates' project – to keep history close.  

The sink, below, properly plumbed in but without a cheap vanity from Home Depot holding it up: this is like cooking with completely unprocessed foods. Given the pre-processed and over-manufactured rubbish that appears in building dumpsters, no doubt a cheap or even a good vanity could have been found, but the 'vanity' comes with so many bourgeois associations of, again, propriety where the facts of plumbing have to be hidden, that it becomes a negative force in the house.  An assemblage of beams, frames and trims to get the sink to a useable height has no references: the material was free, it fulfills a need.  This isn't art, although it is arty enough, this is identity politics.

Theaster Gates Studio


Theaster Gates: Dorchester Projects, Chicago

Still from "What does it mean for us to be generous with one another?" with Theaster Gates. https://blogs.uchicago.edu/feast/2012/05/what_does_it_mean_for_us_to_be.html

In his 2013 essay, 'Complicating Theaster Gates', Andy Horwitz asks: 'does an expanded frame of artistic practice demand expanded frames of critical engagement?'  Gates describes himself as an urban planner and sculptor who has also 'assembled gospel choirs, formed temporary unions and used systems of mass production as a way of underscoring the need that industry has for the body.' Not sure what the last bit means other than something about the de-population of industrial processes in favour of technology, but with the first two, Gates orchestrates normal community practices into what is, critically, called art.  Because Gates is an artist, is everything he does art?  Or is what he does as a community organiser defined as art?  Or does buying property and turning houses and old shops into an extended community arts centre, make the real estate transaction art?  And if not art, then an expanded practice?

Horwitz's essay outlines different, expanded forms of critical evaluation for what has been presented, probably by Gates himself, as an expanded art practice.  The Dorchester Projects involve money, entrepreneurship, real estate, equity or lack of, market, investment, capital – all areas with clear matrices for success and return, and not matrices applied to art practice. Yet, as Horwitz points out, increasingly these are the matrices used by arts funding agencies: how many visitors see each work, what is the projected audience, how much do they pay: i.e. what is the public investment in art and how is it measured? I come up against this (something I am woefully unprepared for) when filling out grant applications for On Site review.  What is a subscription's public impact; what is the community benefit of an architectural journal; is a single copy sale the equivalent of a ticket to a single opera performance?  Increasingly funding agencies are not that interested in content; they are interested in financial viability measured by the financial statement and a diversity of investors.  Can I say, or can Gates say, that each reader or each kid who drops into the arts centre, is an investor? if not in money but in social capital?  How is this quantified?

Horwitz's discussion of Gates, the limits of artistic practice in conventional terms and the unlimited potential of an expanded artistic practice reveals the emphasis put on epistemological categories drawn from a near-archaic critical tradition, while the on-the-street reality of Gates' expanded practice involves everything any small business has to go through: planning permissions, approvals, utilities, etc.  For this, we need to revisit how we talk about art.  

Gates is acting as a developer while calling his Dorchester Projects art.  Fine by me, but it seems to rankle with some that art should be used so instrumentally.  This is, however, the definition of activist art, that it is instrumental.

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