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who we are


Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun.  Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.

There is, of course, controversy.  Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty.  He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party.  Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less.  This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.  

The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth.  He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s.  With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write.  As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.  

Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's.  The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating.  How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler.  Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery.   Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.

I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos.  It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean.  I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them.  The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance.  The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009


Terror Háza, Budapest, 2002

Attila F Kovacs, Architeckton RT, architects. House of Terror Museum, Budapest, Hungary, 2002. photographer: Janos Szentivani.

The Terror Háza in Budapest, where 'terror' is the same word in Hungarian.  The building was used by the Arrow Cross Party (National Socialist) in WWII, then in the postwar soviet sphere, headquarters of the State Security Department, ÁVO.  With both, the windows were either covered, blocked or painted over: a literal signalling of secrecy and opacity. Is this the first necessity of security systems – that detention, interrogation, torture and homicide be conducted without windows?  Evidently.  

The colour black is indubitably connected to such darkness, and not for nothing is there a whole collection of associated sites and actions: black ops, black sites of secret extraordinary rendition, black projects – rogue, but sanctioned, secret but documented, somewhere.

The Terror Háza, a museum about fascist and communist regimes, is a member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience; the building was bought by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History; the exhibition hall and the treatment of the outside is by Attila F Kovács, who painted it black, embedded ceramic miniatures of victims at eye height around the base and added the cornice — what?  brise-soleil?  an extended plane that casts the word terror over each façade: a complex reading because it uses sunlight, light, enlightenment to cast an inverted shadow over something already historically shadowed. The word cast is not hopeful, despite the sunlight, it too is dark.  

There is ongoing protest and negotiation in Hungary about the proportion of exhibits and thus blame given to communism over fascism.  Which was worse?  It depends on who you are.  Or were.  Similar debates, angry and hurt, are conducted in our War Museum in Ottawa and the Imperial War Museum in London: was Bomber Harris a war criminal or a successful strategist?  Terror is a tool of war, whether hot or cold, civil or revolutionary, used by all sides.


tough form

Bas Princen, photographer. Cooling Plant, Dubai, 2009

Aaron Rothman, in Landscape and Illusion, writes that in Bas Princen's images 'buildings take on the morphology, presence and muteness of mountains'.  This particular piece has all the presence of a giant meteor flung from space to the glassy ephemeral surfaces of Dubai. It is a building, but it is also an image, and the particular mise-en-scene with the indigo jumpsuited workers, the heaps of rubble, the dirt road — could be cut out of the Khyber Pass – places the cooling plant as a hinge between making something and looking at something, specifically the towers of the super-rich in the background.  The towers need this plant, the plant needed the workers; that bit will soon be erased.


Wayne Thiebaud's San Francisco

because it is just so beautiful.


Wayne Thiebaud: Dark Country City, 1988

Wayne Thiebaud. Dark Country City, 1988. Soft ground etching with aquatint and drypoint 21.9 x 32.2

There is something so geological about Thiebaud's view of the city: buildings and roads are like shards of rock, as vertiginous as cliff faces.  These are drawings where the x-axis has been multiplied by 10, the unbuilt landscape is mysterious — an enormous clamshell holding itself to itself, the road is both brave and intimate: a tremendously exciting place to live, as San Francisco is.  Thiebaud introduces a powerful scale with which to identify one's place in this city way beyond the vocabulary of urbanism.  The city is like a Krazy Kat mesa: a figure in the landscape that one lives up against.


krazy landscapes

George Herriman. Krazy Kat. Ink over pencil with scraping out and paste-on, June 8, 1941. ©1941, King Features, Gift of George Sturman to the Library of Congress


more Thiebaud


Wayne Thiebaud. Heart Ridge, 2011. Hard ground etching with drypoint. 12 x 9 on 17 x 13. Crown Point Press

No surprise then, that he says Krazy Kat was always an influence. 


more sandwiches

Wayne Thiebaud. Club Sandwich, from Delights, Crown Point Press, 1964. etching on paper plate: 4 x 4 7/8 in. (10.2 x 12.5 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Mr. Frank Lobdell, San Francisco


sign making

Bottom of the Cup Tea Room, New OrleansThis beautiful sign comes by way of Ginger at Deep-Fried Kudzu, a huge site of folk art, material culture, food, landscape and buildings centred on Alabama, but also on the South in general. 


sign painting

Kenji Nakayama's hand.

Kenji Nakayama, mechanical engineer, shoe designer, artist based in Boston, here.  Detailing and lettering of great exuberance. 

And below, a vimeo trailer for a well-discussed film on American sign painters.  For something so fundamental to the look of America, the painters are a near outlaw lot. Well, maybe that is the point.  Lose the signwriters and lose that nostalgic, hand-made quality that used to characterise the States, but increasingly ceases to do so.

SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from samuel j macon on Vimeo.



how to write a well-proportioned letter

&! Art of Signwriting, 1954

&! Art of Signwriting, 1954


hands, doing things

How to make Bread from The Joy of Cooking, illustrations by Ginnie Hoffman and Beverly Warner, 1931

Everyone has always heard that Andy Warhol was an illustrator, originally, of shoes and cookbooks.  I was convinced my old Joy of Cooking was done by him, but it turns out these disembodied hands in Juliet Greco sleeves were actually done in 1931.  Somehow I don't believe this date.  These hands are so like Warhol's in Amy Vanderbilt's 1961 cookbook, below.  Nonetheless, such drawings are both clear and bizarre: what the hand needs to know about making  bread, or rolled sandwiches.  Pinwheels these were called.  Just a couple of years later the Velvet Underground was formed as Warhol's house band.  

In American Masters: Lou Reed, rerun on PBS on the weekend, Reed said that Warhol had a levelling eye – politicians, stars, soup cans – all were treated the same. This determined indifference is the ultimate democracy: the line drawing of two hands cutting the side off a loaf of bread means nothing other than cutting off the side of the loaf.  It isn't a cleverly-shaped baguette or a whole grain loaf — it appears to be an unsliced wonder loaf.  These hands don't even have sleeves.  The bread board has no perspective, neither does the loaf; there are no crumbs.  The knives, the long pin and their blunt attacks on the bread are both clumsy and sinister.  I find the drawings both wry and amusing.  They are unarticulated, but not inarticulate.

How to roll sandwiches from Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Cookbook, 1961, illustrations by Andrew Warhol


not safe, not suburban

Suzanne Moore wrote a good piece in the Guardian about how postmodernism put paid to the avant-garde which can perhaps only exist within modernist certainties.  She writes:   Reed's death has hit my generation because his presence anchored us into a time and a place when the avant garde was still meaningful. .. His death made us remember the music that made us want to leave our small towns and our small lives, a time when transgression was not simply a marketing technique.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side was all over ordinary radio in 1973, when I remember listening to it, in Nanaimo, during my year out from the AA.  It didn't shock, it seemed right, I got it, as did we all.  

It was reportage.

sorry, I didn't ad the ads, they just all of a sudden have started to appear.  damn. 

Marketing, the bane of contemporary life. 


Krauss, Twombly and graffiti, 2000

Coronation of Sesostris, panel 8, 2000. / Acrylic, crayon, and pencil on canvas. with erasures

A dandy piece by Rosalind Krauss on reading, or not reading, Twombly.  It was written for Artforum in 1994 about the catalogue raisonne of Twombly's works, overseen by Heiner Bastian. Krauss writes about the various projects that assign meaning to Twombly's paintings from those who take the classical references, such as Virgil scrawled across a canvas, as evidence of Twombly's classical humanism and a deep reading of the deep past, to Barthes, who throws all that out and speaks against analogy in Twombly's mark making, where 'Virgil' is a citation running against any sort of classical reference, and is instead a position, modern, cultural, irresponsible.  

Krauss writes instead about graffiti — 'performative, suspending representation in favour of action', which is what Action Painting wanted: all emotion and gesture.  She writes that 'graffiti's character is the strike against form, ensuring a field in which the only way the image of the body can survive is a part-object, a concatenation of obscene emblemata...'  There are marks, but they aren't symbols, ciphers or citations, rather they are fragments that protest the self-reflexivity of his Abstract Expressionist peer group, Pollock, de Kooning and Motherwell.

Twombly has a writing hand.  The work from the 1950s, yesterday's Poems to the Sea, is perhaps a protest against the vigorous, obliterating masculinity of Motherwell, but it became how he made his marks.  By time he had appointed Bastian to assemble essays for the catalogue raisonne, the summary of an artist's life, he quite liked the idea that he was a channel to Apollo and Dionysus.  One might, towards the end of one's career find it more noble than being a thirty-year old artist working through artistic differences with one's friends in New York.

Rosalind Krauss, always true to the work, restates the critic's responsibility to make an independent reading. I love her for this. 

I looked up Sesostris, whose coronation we are presented with, above, and found this sculpture, below.  
I would say that in Twombly's Sesostris we are looking at a crown. A fragment of a sculpture.  Sesostris III has departed.

Rosalind Krauss. 'Cy was here; Cy's up'. Artforum International Magazine, September 1994


Berger, Twombly and graffiti, 1959

Cy Twombly. Poems to the Sea, Rome 1959. Sheet 16 of 24. / Oil, crayon, pastel and coloured pencil on paper, 12 ½ x 12 1/4 in. (31.7 x 31 cm.)

Language is always an abbreviation.

John Berger, 'Post-Scriptum'. Audible Silence: Cy Twombly at Daros.  Exhibition catalogue, Loewenbraeu-Areal in Zurich, 2002


grafitti 2

grafitti, Southbank Centre, London

I published a photo of one of these mushroom columns during my concrete discussion last year, which covered issues of formwork, brutalism and transparent construction methods.  The historic value of brutalism, erupting in England over the demolition of Peter and Alison Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens, has reached this brutalism backwater, where the only truly béton brut building we have in this small city, the Planetarium, is never discussed, but dreary copies of copies of le Corbusier are.  It is as if theoretical debates are heard as murmurings from distant stars – misheard actually and applied to completely inappropriate pre-cast concrete-panelled buildings.  

The photo above, of a kind of grafitti paradise, says nothing about the architecture, its function or ownership (so this isn't political protest) but does say something about the identification of concrete surfaces as durable canvas and about gaps in surveillance.  Elaborate wall paintings take time; time is allowed here.  It isn't the grafittiists that disrespect the buildings, but the owners of the buildings themselves who are responsible for their care. 


I learnt this from crime...

'I learnt this from crime' Soflies, Melbourne

yes, it is stylised, yes it is an elaborate tag, but it is also still writing of a kind. It reminds me of Nude Descending a Staircase, the fractured edges of each mark, the haze of intentions falling off us as we move.    


MacLean's method 2

On the list of stats for this website, a post I did on MacLean's compendiums a couple of years ago gets a surprising number of visits, every week, week after week.  I actually found a compendium in a box I was sorting through after the flood, not mine, but my brother's, from Grade 5. 

It starts with the correct way to sit, to place your arm, to angle the paper.  In fact the whole compendium is not just about the correct way to write, but how to conduct yourself as a good person, how to write nice thank you letters, get well letters, all in a beautifully smooth hand. If someone hadn't commented on MacLean himself, that he appeared at schools and did magic tricks, I would find this sort of teaching unbearable.  As it was, out in Victoria, he never came to our school and we were left with the rules.  I was an earnest student, tried hard to have perfect writing.  My brother clearly approached it all with a sense of irony.

It looks sort of asemic to me. 


Quadraat, 1992

Fred Smeijers, design sheet for Quadraat, 1992.

Fred Smeijers, Dutch graphic designer, formed a design studio called Quadraat in 1992, in Arnhem. 
Punch cutting is a 16th century way of making type that Quadraat, the typeface, is based upon. A counterpunch is a punch that makes punches.  

When making a piece of type for a letter press, the original was cut on a steel punch, then a mould was made from it, and then type was cast from the mould.  To cut the original letter, the steel had to be cut with sufficient depth into the matrix.  Internal curves and angles are extremely difficult to cut deeply, so a tempered steel counterpunch, harder than the matrix, was used to cut the negative spaces inside the letter.  The counterpunch, used for each letter gave a consistency to the corners and curves.
Smeijers wrote a book about this, Counterpunch: making Type in the 16th Century, Designing Typefaces Now

In terms of writing, it is always interesting to find that no matter what the historical investigation, or the mechanics of making a font today, there is this scrap of paper where the letters are drawn out by hand; where the writing of the letters, the drawings, are so delicate.


writing without meaning

Mirtha Dermisache, Asemic writing

Asemic writing: writing without easy translation into meaning, leaving one to contend with the marks themselves.  I'm not sure that marks that look like writing are, actually, writing.  I think they are drawing, and all the senses that they resemble writing are mechanical.  The hand makes marks.  Sometimes the marks are encoded, and we read them; other times the marks carry other things, and all we can do is look at them.  

This comes byway of an article by John Foster in Observatory on Michael Jacobson's website, The New Post-Literate: A Gallery of Asemic Writing.  Out of the long list of examples with the Observatory article, I picked this one.  It looks like something I understand, some of the others I don't.  Perhaps I understand how these marks are made, and so feel a kinship.  This is not meaning however.  I don't know what this page says, if it says anything other than that one can make such marks.  It is not text. 

Nonetheless, there are books written asemically, no doubt as magical as viewing any kind of calligraphy in a language one does not know.  It could be saying anything at all and we would never know.

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