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33: on land

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



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who we are


once strong, but now weak, systems

This video, Andy Merrifield outlining the basis for his book The New Urban Question, came by way of Rodrigo Barros, a Chilean architect currently training as a construction logistician for Médecins Sans Frontiers.  Barros did a brilliant piece for On Site review 31: mapping | photography on the 'rightness' of maps that centre on the United States and allow South America to drift off the global view.  His is the view from the South.
This particular view, after forty years of intense geopolitical theorising from Latin America, is his lens, and so he picks up on a certain theoretical vocabulary found in Merrifield's brief outline of just how Manuel Castells' explanation of urban social movements has been superseded by a new form of divisive capitalism.  

When states can no longer afford the social services they subsidised in the full flush of postwar capitalist development, their disinvestment in such things as health care and housing pushed such services into the private sector.  This gave rise to urban social movements which struggled to hold governments to their role as keepers of some sort of public faith.  Merrifield feels that the turn to mass privatisation in the 1980s and 90s obliviated urban social movements and that a new paradigm must be developed that returns public space to the public, public health to the public, public housing to the public, the public service to the public.  

Just yesterday there was an interview on CBC with the head of Canada Post whose former position was as the head of Pitney Bowes. There we are. Pitney Bowes is an American private mail and data service for businesses.  Under the Pitney Bowes model, Canadian mail is no longer a public service, it is a corporate business, thus the end of home delivery, the shocking price of stamps and the full support of our current neo-conservative Thatcher/Reaganite form of government. This gives me particular grief.  We are a non-profit publisher with a publications mail contract with Canada Post which gives us a discount on mailing On Site review, except for international mailings which tend never to arrive.  Or if they do arrive it has taken six months to get to, say, Denmark. In contrast, Valery Didion's Criticat is sent from France at a book rate, €2.95, which gets here in a week.  In return I send On Site back to them at publications rate which may or may not get there several months later, or I spend $18 to send it letter mail which gets there in a week.  

Somehow Canada as a wide, dispersed country only sees urban social movements of any consequence in Toronto and Montréal, especially Montréal, infrequently and now rarely, Toronto.  In the rest of the country there isn't the critical mass to act collectively from say, Alberta to Manitoba, so sparse is the population. CBC used to be the glue that held us together, its recent cuts have been lethal.  It is all one with the sacking of scientists, the gutting of census collection and analysis, the cutting free of wounded Canadian Forces from their pensions, cutbacks to universities: the private sector is supposed to be picking up the slack, but it isn't.  And the time is past, according to Merrifield, for Castells' urban social movements to have any influence at all.  In this country, we missed that phase altogether.  


very weak systems

Years ago, when I first went to teach at University of Texas at Austin, there was a bunch of GSD and Yale people on the cut that I was in who were very exercised about weak form.  At the time it was a keen discussion and now, twenty years later, trying to fix a 1930s mantel clock where the brass frame that holds the glass on the front has parted ways with its hinge, I find I am deep into weak systems.  The glass is held in by a flimsy gilt bezel which acts as a loose spring.  It is surprisingly effective.  As I am not a jeweller by trade and can't actually do a fine pinpoint weld to attache two pins to the brass frame, I have devised a circle of wire to also act as a spring, that will sit just inside the frame, and the ends will stick into the holes drilled in the hinge bit that is bolted to the clock face wall.  

Whatever, it is still very interesting to think about weak things that exert just enough pressure on the world to exist and to do whatever their job is with an utter economy of means.  It would be interesting to re-survey the whole world of weak systems that work together to hold things together: in architecture and urbanism, infrastructure and construction.  Such as the flimsy flimsy 2 x 4 props that support precast walls of great thickness and strength before the structure that holds them up permanently is in place.  And so on.

I wrote this a couple of years ago and it is the basis for the present call for articles on weak systems. My wire spring didn't work, I realised the bezel had been broken and a section had been lost so the spring was incomplete and couldn't muster enough tension to stay in place.  Eventually it went to a clock man in Victoria who stuck the glass to the frame with great blobs of silicon and said, with great satisfaction, 'this will never come apart now.'  Well, this is true, but not so elegant.


Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014

Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014. Tate Britain, London

Phyllida Barlow is the artist chosen for the Tate Britain Commission of 2014 and her work has recently opened – riotous spills of debris from the doorways and halls of the neo-classical Duveen Galleries.

The Tate Gallery has always been about British art and there has been much problematising of its founding and its legacy: Tate & Lyle was a Victorian Quaker sugar refinery established after the abolition of slavery, nonetheless sugar as a prime commodity was part of the infamous Atlantic Triangle of the eighteenth century: Africa for slaves sent to the Americas to extract resources shipped to Europe for refinement and consumption. The International Slavery Museum shares the Albert Dock with Tate Liverpool.  Henry Tate had the Tate Gallery built to house his art collection which he donated to the state. Duveen was an art dealer whose family wealth came from importing art and antiques to Britain.  He funded the extension of the original 1890s Tate in 1926 and again in 1937.  Patrons and collectors of art – Clore: finance, property, retail, Courtauld: textiles, Tate: sugar — without them, and many others, Britain wouldn't have its public galleries at all.  

With this kind of financial, industrial and accumulative spatiality, Phyllida Barlow's work is particularly human, warm, messy, chaotic, inexpensive, temporal and ephemeral. She has worked her whole career with detritus gathered from skips and building sites.  Her project is not the diamond encrusted skull that critiques the twenty-first century art market, rather it is the making of 'things' from rich found materials, the assembly of structures from the unusable. Barlow herself saw the Duveen site as having 'two particular contradictory aspects: the tomb-like interior galleries against the ever-present aspect of the river beyond'.  dock ambles and shambles through several galleries with vast paintings pinned to complex wooden constructions that both crawl and tower.  It is, apparently, much like most of Barlow's work: massive installations that are dismantled after their exhibition, i.e. work with no commercial value but clearly of great import.

dock isn't just great piles of junk; the name itself takes one to the noise, the cranes, the hectic nature of docks from a time when they dealt with more than just shipping containers.  Once on a passenger ship docked briefly at Le Havre, I watched as a crate of wine being winched aboard fell back to the dock splintering into a pile of sticks, bleeding burgundy across the concrete.  Docks were full of tremendous incident.  Even watching logs loaded at the CPR docks in tiny Nanaimo was fraught.  

Although I can't see Phyllida Barlow's dock, from the photographs one senses that these pieces must rustle and creak – they are wood, wood always moves.  Leaving the term dock aside, as sculptures they are unfixed, they cannot be perceived without walking in, around and through them, as one does architecture.  The scope of this installation is complex and extended, it rings of bomb sites and redevelopment clearance, poverty and an obsessive love of materials, no matter what their status. 

Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014. Tate Britain, London


Powell & Moya, Skylon, 1951

The Dome Model with Si Sillman (bending), Buckminster Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, Roger Lovelace, and Josef Albers. Photo by Beaumont Newhall. Courtesy of the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate, Scheinbaum and Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico. © Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate.
As we have a call for articles out for On Site review 32: weak systems.  I've been thinking of such things: Buckminster Fuller's postwar experiments with geodesics and space frames: how light can structure be – how much material can be removed so that what is left is the stress diagram alone?  Jeffrey Lindsay was one of his young engineers – from Montreal, ex-RCAF WWII pilot. It all coalesced evidently in 1948 at Black Mountain College where a combination of sculptors, Josef Albers, John Cage, Fuller, Merce Cunningham and ex-pilot engineering students who had learned about geodetics as navigational theory (straight lines that describe a sphere) experimented with building domes out of lath.  

Lindsay moved to southern California, but continued to work with both Fuller and other architects: he was the engineer for the vast space frame at Simon Fraser University, 1966.  If you look him up on wikipedia there is a huge image of Fuller's geodesic dome for the US pavilion at Expo 67.  These are dramatic structures: transparent, minimal material with huge impact: architecture no longer a solid against the world, but a structural system that mediates between internal space and the outside – it turns the outside into a romantic vision of otherness, seen through a scrim.

Powell & Moya, Skylon, Festival of Britain, London. 1951.And from a different angle altogether, another example of structural minimalism is Powell & Moya's 1951 Skylon, the overriding symbol of a magical technological future for Britain.  It really was a lovely thing, a javelin balanced on three slack cables strung from three steel posts canted away from the centre to balance the weight of the skylon.  It is stabilised by near-invisible guy wires. How exhilarating it must have been to see, unlike anything that had ever come before.   This was not to be inhabited but to be looked at: straight symbolism, which was also its downfall as it was dismantled and cut up for scrap when the government changed from Labour who used the Festival of Britain as an event to mark the change in Britain's fortunes –away from rationing and bomb sites to a gleaming future; not surprising that it fell given the postwar economic state – to the Conservatives under Churchill, cold warriors who felt Britain should recover its imperial trappings from half a century and two world wars earlier.  

I don't think American structural minimalism ever had this political charge – postwar United States was in its technological ascendency, a consequence of the space race, another cold war contest. The American reaction was to rush toward this conflict, rather than bluster about a glorious past.


John Stezaker on collage

In this lull while On Site reivew 31: mapping | photography is being printed, forgive me if I am over-enthusiastic about Gestalten, a Berlin publisher of all things architecture and design, which I have just discovered.  There is, which these videos come from, there are stores, there are fonts, there is much to look at and think about. 

This is an interview with John Stezaker on collage, which he sees as a subtraction of material rather than the building up of material usually attributed to it.  And he comments on the sheer weight of images we live under, that the bombardment of images reveals an 'unconscious mythology' made evident.  He works in film - this excerpt opens with a bit of one. 

I've always thought in Stezaker's work there was more than a passing reference to the German collagists of the 1930s and 40s – Hannah Hoch for example, especially in Stezaker's use of images from that era, reassembled in an eery grotesque, but when he speaks about it, you get a different sense, of someone who is working almost as a photographer capturing moments where the scene suddenly assembles itself and speaks.


John Stezaker—Resonating Nostalgic Lyricism from Gestalten on Vimeo.


the violence of drawing: Yara Pina, 2011

From The Drawing Center's description:

Yara Pina is one of 54 artists chosen for The Drawing Center’s new Open Sessions program, which will  explore drawing as an expansive practice, tool, metaphor and  theme. Open Sessions offers alternative opportunities for contextualizing and exhibiting artwork, bringing a range of artists into conversation with each other. Pina’s work dialogues with traditional drawing by using one of its most tried-and-true tools, charcoal, to aggressively deconstruct the gallery space.

Yara Pina. Untitled 4, 2012 ; Untitled 2, 2011 - videos in loop from Yara Pina on Vimeo.


The Weather Diaries, 2014

News of this, The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale, by Cooper & Gorfer, came by way of Nicole Dextras, no slouch at weather herself.

The video is a look at a very distant, very connected, place.

The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale by Cooper & Gorfer from Gestalten on Vimeo.

The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale by Cooper & Gorfer from Gestalten on Vimeo.



Afterlife, 2013

The Arcade Fire video, Afterlife, directed by the remarkable Emily Kai Bock.


London calling

Joe Strummer, London Calling, circa 1979

Yes, it is writing, a heap of writing, the sign of the hand, a document of visual culture, but it also sings at us embedding the music, the words, the exhilaration of hearing it again, and again for the rest of the day.  I don't need the recording, it is in this scrap of paper. 


Robert Smithson: a heap of language, 1966

Robert Smithson. A Heap of Language, 1966. pencil drawing, 6 1/2 x 22 inches. The Over Holland Collection. © Estate of Robert Smithson

My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas - i.e., "printed matter". R.S.June 2, 1972.

The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, New York, New York
University Press, 1979


before delete, cut and paste

The first two pages of chapter 11 of Jane Austen's manuscript of Persuasion, written in 1816 and published, after her death, in 1818. The British Library, Shelfmark: Egerton MS 3038, ff.9v-10.

The original pages appear to have been trimmed and pasted onto larger sheets and bound into a book.  Slow composition, time to smooth out thoughts and ideas.  Do ideas come to us more quickly because we can now type more quickly?  or is writing with a straight pen a form of editing as you go.

Why do I turn so often to images of handwriting?  Perhaps because it is a form of drawing, mark-making, with its own rhythms based in the hand, the arm and the body; the hand, the pen and the ink; the brain, the hand, the words.


Jonas Dahlberg: memory wound, 2014

Jonas Dahlberg. Memory Wound, winning competition entry to Memorial Sites After 22 July. image: Jonas Dahlberg Studio

Memory Wound, above, is one of three memorials to the victims of the massacre at Utøya, Norway in 2011.  The rock cut out of the Sørbråten peninsula to make the channel will be used to make another memorial in Oslo on the site of a car bomb, also Anders Breivik's responsibility.  

According to The Guardian, Dahlberg has spoken of poetic rupture, beauty indissolubly linked to loss. One wall of the cut is inscribed with the names of the children killed, the other is carved out into a ledge from which to view the names.  The cut is aligned with Utøya – it doesn't eradicate Utøya by being placed literally on the site of the massacre itself.

This is how such massively inexplicable deaths are memorialised these days, by massive land art.  There is little else that we feel is significant enough to approach the scale of war, for this was an act of war between a race-based fundamentalism and an unwitting, wealthy, liberal and secular populace.  It seems to be too difficult to explain how Anders Breivik came to be, the best we can do is to set up sites where we can contemplate what he did.  Memory Wound is a powerful place to do this; does it address the rise of anti-islamic fundamentalism in Europe? Not really, it addresses the children, their absence – the effect of a cause that remains active, not absent.

Land art puts human activities into the context of the earth as a planet, the sun as a star, time measured in light years – things almost beyond comprehension for all we have been taught how geology and astronomy works.  These things have become our ineffable, things so detached from the development of the human race that they absorb human failings.  It's cosmic and all, but there are other Breiviks out there, and they are unmoved.  


John Thomas Serres: an artist in the Channel Fleet, 1799-1800

John Thomas Serres, Point de Roquilon, France. Captain M. K. Barritt. Eyes of the Admiralty: J T Serres, An Artist in the Channel Fleet, 1799-1800. London: National Maritime Museum, 2014. Image: United Kingdom Hydrographic Office. Don't think you'll find it on the UKHO website however, this appears to be a working website of great complexity for contemporary documents, maps, charts and shipping publications.

About the time I was young and tooling around on a little sailboat in Nanaimo Harbour, I found a book of drawings of the BC coast done by an artist on Captain Vancouver's ship. They looked much like Serres' paintings (above) – navigation charts, meant to point out signal points, rocks bays, harbours and dangers.  These and Vancouver's drawings, which I've never been able to find again, delineated land, not from land itself but from an opposing position on the water.  The land is the objective other.  

It is interesting, from our map-dominated representations of land today, that in the eighteenth century elevations were as necessary as reckoning by the sun: they are visual one-to-one maps without translation to a plan.  Of course they eventually had charts, but Vancouver was in uncharted territory: a drawing or a painting bypassed translation, gave the context and the scale of the coast, especially if it was potentially hostile.  

From the water, the land-bound built environment is very small – a toytown between the sky, the mountains and the sea, all huge. Even approaching a city such as Vancouver by ferry, its complex urbanity is itself but a pale cluster, not very tall, almost irrelevant.  From the middle of the strait one can see that the Island is the top of a mountain range, that the strait is full of small islands, that there are dozens of boats from tugs to freighters, container ships to barges: daily life on a terrain that remains mysterious to those on land.


on metaphor

James Gallagher, Domestic 2, collage, 2010 

This is how many of us feel after the grant and essay submission deadlines of last week – the whole community of architects who write or curate exhibitions, or try for the Prix de Rome, and publishers of same, and then [brkt] setting its call for submissions deadline on the same day: it did a lot of people in.  

James Gallagher feels (as quoted by Rick Poyner in 'Collage Now') that 'collage is the perfect medium for coming to terms with a culture saturated in images, both printed and online ... today's collage artists carve out fragments from this frenzy and force the disparate pieces to become one...'   This is probably the definition of all art, that one accumulates things: ideas, marks, scraps of paper perhaps, maps, photos – everything trailing histories, accumulated meanings, ambitions and contexts – and then makes something out of them, in some other medium. 

I doubt that fragments ever re-coalesce to 'become one' leaving their separateness behind.  Rather they are used to force a metaphor that might have some sort of unity, but which is only effective if it is complex and layered enough to cut through the frenzy of information, images and ideas with which we are surrounded.  But is this frenzy actually a frenzy, or is it just a very rich world we live in?

In previous times it was probably organised belief systems that sorted out our information for us; in a secular world lots of other things step in and on competing terrains of ideology and politics we are confused.  We have always turned to art to make sense of things in that completely illogical way that artists consume and transform and represent the confusing, from mediaeval religious icons that stood in for the utterly ineffable, to poets that crammed it all into fourteen lines, to composers who shout into an open piano, as did John Tavener for The Whale, planting the transcendent and very useful understanding of metaphor firmly into our young heids.

Whether or not metaphor is actually what allows me to make sense of things, I don't really care.  It does, and that'll do.


Saskia Sassen: dense urbanised terrain – not a city

Uneven Growth, Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities. Part of a series, this one with Saskia Sassen, on the MoMAmultimedia site.


Thomas Morrison: families on the isle of Lewis, 1900s

Island life: a Lewis family, photographed by Norman Morrison in the first decade of the 1900s. Photograph: Tormod an t-Seòladair

The kinds of faces that built Canada, Highlanders and Islanders from Scotland. These, from Lewis, were photographed when they didn't know what they looked like – there is no rearranging of their faces for the camera: this was them.  No one is allowed that grim set to the mouth anymore, even if you actually feel it.  

For such a hard life, living in that pile of stones and sods that is a black house, every woman has a bit of lace somewhere - a collar, a shawl, a bed cover — clearly something so clean and precious, in which to invest one's pride.  

The image above is linked to an article on how the photos were found, and the one below takes you to a slide show of them.

A family group taken between 1910 and 1920. Photograph: Tormod an t-Seòladair . This was the era of mass emigration from Scotland to the Canadian West, especially; my own great grandparents in 1910 for example. It was hard in Scotland, it was hard on the Canadian prairies.



architect: Joshua Prince-Ramus. photographer: Bjarne Jonasson, stylist: Tasha Green. New York Times, 2014

okay, here is the ultimate expression of architecture's current stars: a Wall Street Journal article from January 2014 on what they call Koolhaas's protegés, cleverly named as out of the Rem Schoolhaas. ho ho.  I had a friend who went off to work in Koolhaas's studio in 1984 or so, and found it really grim, utilitarian, hyper-efficient: they got work done.  This is the antithesis of the WSJ article, that carefully sets up young people who have worked with him, left him, and now dress in Prada and Lanvin.  Is Koolhaas responsible for this?  I don't think so.  

Koolhaas writes, he is clever, he has a photogenic topographic Dutch face, he had many years in the conceptual wilderness of the 1970s before he even got on the lecture circuit.  OMA started with Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, passionate Europeans to the core; they started small, interesting and significant. His protegés are more savvy however, they trade on his name.  How, on earth, would they ever have agreed to this photo shoot if they hadn't known that today, publicity trumps all.  


failure to update: 20 February 2014

What is the point of Google satellite maps if they only present clean copies taken in the summer? Is there no satellite path near Independence Square/ Maidan Nezalezhnosti/ Майдан Незалежності in Kiev these days? 

Here is the structure of the square: divided in two by a main road. 

and here is the reality of Thursday, 20 February 2014:

or marginally closer to the ground:


Argentina's Playlist for Freedom

Part of BBC's Freedom 2014 programming: Natalio Cosoy's passionate explanation of the music of Argentina's often coded popular and folk songs during both military rule and after.  A wonderful half-hour of 'anthems to perseverance', as he says, 'what music can actually do, in terms of instilling freedom into society.'

Manifestación de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo en 1983, // Click on image to take you to the BBC page. Not ever sure how long these things are available for, but this image gives you all the tracking information.

This is an exciting series.  Here is a link to hip-hop in Africa.  For someone, me, who came to African music in the pre-African Rap late-80s, this program explains much that I had seen as neo-colonialism.  Again, it and the words were and are coded, flying under the radar of convention, tradition and military regimes. 


Nancy Holt: 1938-2014

Nancy Holt. Sun Tunnels, completed in 1976. Photographed by Mary Kavanagh (image is linked to her site). Four large concrete tubes are arranged in an open X. The 9' diam x 18' long sections of culvert are pierced by holes of varying size that correspond to the pattern of the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. The tunnels line up with the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstices.

Nancy Holt, who died last week, was one of the original land artists working in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, along with Dennis Oppenheimer, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson, all of whom had little time for the constricting space and rules of urban galleries and art museums.  They said they were making art for the land, the ultimate expression of 1960s freedom – at the beginnings of the environmental movement and working at the scale of infrastructure, the military and the mining industry.

Land Art had its roots in Minimalism and Conceptual Art, where 'art products' are often ephemeral, unrecognisable or self-destructing.  Looking back on it now it appears as a real struggle to return agency to the artist: Nancy Holt bought the 40 acres of Utah desert for Sun Tunnels, and hired, as she listed: '2 engineers, 1 astrophysicist, 1 astronomer, 1 surveyor and his assistant, 1 road grader, 2 dump truck operators, 1 carpenter, 3 ditch diggers, 1 concrete mixing truck operator, 1 concrete foreman, 10 concrete pipe company workers, 2 core-drillers, 4 truck drivers, 1 crane operator, 1 rigger, 2 cameramen, 2 soundmen, 1 helicopter pilot and 4 photography lab workers' to install it. Plus the culverts.  

The places that Land Artists worked were marginal – in those vast deserts of the American southwest, there were hardly any roads.  When in 1982 Reyner Banham wrote Scenes in America Deserta, a reprise of Charles Doughty's 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta, Banham was well aware of the elision of desert and deserted.  And in the mid 1990s when I tried to plot a winter route from central Texas to Calgary through all the flat bits, I found one cannot cross Nevada from north to south.  This is a deserta militaria, for most of those deserts are used as test sites, training exercises, speed tests and places to go mad in.

Nancy Holt did not go mad; she married Robert Smithson and continued to work in land art, film and photography from France to Finland and across the United States.  There was an exhibit of her photographs last year at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery, whence this lovely image comes.

Nancy Holt, Concrete Poem, 1968. composite inkjet print on archival rag paper taken from original 126 format black and white negatives, printed 2012

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