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32: weak systems

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who we are

Monday
Jan132014

the air that I breathe – Abdulnasser Gharem: Flora and Fauna, 2007

Flora and Fauna by Abdulnasser Gharem from Installation Magazine on Vimeo.

I would say this tree had been pollarded, pleached and trimmed. 

Friday
Jan102014

Pleaching

Pleached hornbeam: Carpinus betulus

More ways to make a tree not look like itself.  Pleaching, more or less, is where a hedge is elevated on bare tree trunks, to provide shade or privacy while leaving the ground plane free.  How it differs from pollarding is that branches above a certain point are bent and interwoven, much like an espalier, so that the individual crown is lost, and all the crowns work together to form a solid whole.  

Invariably, the images for all these ways of using and reshaping trees come from Europe, and Britain in particular, from classic avenues to agricultural hedges.  Space is tight, people are close, edges must be maintained, land marked.  It is almost a form of manners, necessary to the functioning of civility.

But we don't do it that way here.  I live in an old inner city neighbourhood with a picket fence.  Twenty years ago, the entire street had picket fences, one by one they have been removed, and new infills don't do fences at all.  It seems a suburban kind of thing: no front fences, your front yard bleeding out onto the road, little delineation between private and public realms.  But nobody uses their front yards anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter.  Prairie city hedges tend to be the ubiquitous caragana which can take a good four feet off each side of your lot, eight feet sorely missed.  I've never seen one such hedge pleached; however, my hedges are now on notice: pleaching ahead.  

We seem strangely reluctant to shape nature – is it a North American new city thing?  Simply planting something is enough, then we let it go.  Our relationship with trees and bushes is quite laissez-faire until the tree becomes annoying and it is chopped down altogether.  What a relationship.  I like you till you become too big then I'll kill you. 

Thursday
Jan092014

Pollarding

Pollarded willows

More ways to torture trees. Coppicing was for woodlands where new shoots are easily harvested, springing as they do from ground level. Pollarding is similar except that the original tree trunk is cut off at 8-10 feet high.  This was used where the land was used for grazing and new shoots at ground level would be grazed off.  
Stobbing is when you cut a tree off at head height and so do not have to use a ladder.  Ancient practices these, all meant to control the height of a tree to lessen the shade cast by a large canopy, to structurally strengthen the tree by reducing the proportion of canopy to trunk girth, or to provide easily accessible building materials.

Both coppicing and pollarding are finding new life in permaculture management of biomass, but pollarding's longer history is, like coppicing, that of harvesting even, small-diameter trunks off an existing and vigorous root system. This is incredibly ugly looking in the winter – massacred stumps, and when in leaf, extremely formal, pollarding being one of the methods used to control avenues of trees in nineteenth century gardens.  When you think of it, it is rather like turning tree trunks into pilotis: the open ground plane, buildings floating above. 

1913: pollarded elms, ten each side, on the avenue to Christchurch Priory, Dorset. They succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease and were felled in 1975. The local history article from which this photograph has been taken seems to think it a good thing, the avenue masked the architecture of the priory, which now sits baldly on its bare lawn. No one cared to replant the avenue. Local history societies have a lot to answer for.

Wednesday
Jan082014

Coppicing

Coppiced lime, Dunwich Heath, England.

Why do I feel I need to know about coppicing?  Because trees grow, often in the wrong places in a small yard, and one must do something about them or they will take out your foundation.  

We are a country of forests and timber, most of which goes for dimensional lumber and pulp.  However, in countries with hardwood forests, ancient forests that have cohabited with centuries of settlement, forests are managed.  

Coppicing is where a single-trunk tree which normally would fractally divide and subdivide from tree trunk to twig, is cut off at the base allowing shoots to sprout from the still-living roots.  These shoots differ from the original tree trunk, in that there are many of them, they are thin and straight and, because of the vigour of the root system, literally shoot up without dividing.  Then they are harvested, which is interesting, as there was, and is, a need for straight pieces for rails, poles; whippy shoots for wickerwork: this is using wood without re-shaping it in a mill.  

A coppiced tree can last for centuries, perpetually young if harvested regularly with none of the shoots actually allowed to mature into a full tree.  I'm sure there is a rather brutal metaphor there, if one cared to work it out.  It is a dying practice, the need for hop-poles and thatching spars sadly diminished.  Ray Arnatt once showed me his car from the 1920s he'd brought from England when he emigrated, which had a wooden frame and was sheathed in painted canvas: the frame was bentwood, like bentwood chairs, steamed into shape.  This would have been coppiced wood, probably ash — strong and inviolate, the integrity of the whole cross-section of a tree complete.

In comparison, our clear cut treatment of softwood forests seems shockingly impatient.  It is a habit we do not investigate, perhaps because we don't inhabit our forests with any kind of intimacy, they are a hinterland to our cities or our agricultural territories, a backdrop we don't know very well.   Aboriginal peoples knew the forests well, they had those centuries of cohabitation, but the proportion of people to trees was low.  There were many trees they did not know individually either.  

But we have the tools and technology to harvest full trees and make them into any kind of shape we want – it is a luxury of excess product and we are profligate with it.

Tuesday
Jan072014

Elizabeth Jane Howard: 1923-2014

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman, ca 1950A photo of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard with Robert Aickman in 1950 or so, co-writing a book of  stories, We Are For the Dark, published in 1951.  

Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died on the 2nd of January at 90, was known for her precise delineation of English domesticity during WWII, and secondarily for her middle career marriage to Kingsley Amis whose loud reputation completely swamped hers.  Hilary Mantel said last week that Howard had been unreasonably sidelined as a writer of small domestic dramas – after all, even Hamlet is about families.  
The twentieth century was alternatively liberating and repressive for women: suffrage achieved, access to education allowed, professions opened (a very tiny bit); one could get there, but one couldn't get ahead.  

I thought I'd re-read the Cazalet books, four published in the 1990s, and one published last year; the Calgary Public Library, one of the largest in the country, has just two of the series, not the new one and many versions in large print, indicating that someone has deemed Elizabeth Jane Howard as reading for elderly ladies.  How can one break into such an obdurate mindset?  And why, I ask, in 2014 should we have to?

Friday
Jan032014

a jewel in Ethiop's ear

Amharic music of Ambassel, by Bahiru Kegne. 

The comments on the YouTube placement tell of a lonely Ethiopian diaspora who hear this music directly in their hearts.  Another video of terrible audio quality, low resolution, moves one to tears in some sort of empathy.

More at www.ethiofekade.net/Ambassel

Monday
Dec302013

el nido de las horas

George Herriman, Tic Toc. click on the image for a large version.

Tuesday
Dec242013

gentle light that wakes me

Ian Drever and Duncan Chisholm, live, terrible audio, not much to look at, but a beautiful piece for Christmas week. 

all the best to you all.

The Gentle Light that Wakes Me, written by Phil Cunningham.

2008 Orkney Folk Festival.

Monday
Dec232013

Christmas, rough

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

should be accompanied by the Pogues:

Friday
Dec202013

Saul Leiter's winter

Saul Leiter, Red Umbrella, 1957. Gelatin silver print; printed later 14 x 11 inches Signed in ink on print verso. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

We've always had the winter, but not the photographers.

 

Saul Leiter, Postmen, 1952. Gelatin silver print; printed later 14 x 11 inches Signed in ink on print verso. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Thursday
Dec192013

christmas cakes

Puza Mandla fruit cake

It is a curious struggle to be on the right side of history.  Someone once mentioned that if everyone in France who said after the war they were in the Resistance actually had been, the war would have been much shorter.  
Something like this is happening in South Africa: evidently almost everyone was a Mandela supporter, for decades, even during apartheid.  Had that actually been true, he wouldn't have been on Robben Island for 27 years.  

The Robben Island Christmas Cake Story: depending on the source, either Mrs Brand, the wife of a warden on the political prisoner's wing, made a cake for the political prisoners each Christmas from 1985, continuing even when they all were in parliament, or Laloo Chiba, a fellow detainee, made the cake from 1978 on.  

Now, this recipe is structurally unlike anything I've ever encountered, ever.  I need a chemist to tell me how it works: a bread pudding (bread torn up, sprinkled with currants and cocoa powder) made in a round biscuit tin, but instead of eggs and milk to make it all stick together, you use puzamandla.  Puzamandla is drink made of sorghum, corn meal and yeast, so it is fermented, like sourdough starter or injera.  It was part of the Robben Island food rations, but in a very weak version.  Anyway, you pour puzamandla over the bread and raisins, let it sit 6 hours then put a plate on the top and a brick on the plate to press it all down for another 6 hours.  It isn't cooked.  It was a terrific treat.  

And for those of you who watch cooking programs, make sense of this, the new South Africa: 

Anel Poltgieter has messed around with the recipe a bit, baking a bread pudding.  But the real recipe is Laloo Chiba's from Anna Trapido's 2009 gastro-political biography, Hunger for Freedom.

Wednesday
Dec182013

on food and survival

Apartheid-era prison diets on Robben Island

Watching the archival photos of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers of Gee's Bend during the 1930s it is obvious how thin they were.  And when Mandela was released, he too was terribly thin, and stayed so.  What did they all eat?
There are many images available of this typed-up sheet of the specifications for 'Coloured/Asiatic' and 'Bantu' food allowances posted in the museum that is now the Robben Island Gaol. Clearly everyone takes a photo of it in shock. None of these racialised words exist anymore, but the intent is clear.  

I calculate that Mandela existed on 700 calories a day and Ahmed Kathrada on perhaps 750 calories a day for 27 years.  These are generous calculations, not taking into account the quality of the food.  Neville Alexander was released in 1974 after ten years on Robben Island and wrote a dossier on conditions there, Robben Island Prison Dossier 1964-1974 published in 1994.  The food conditions are in Addendum Seven, p137.  How did they survive on a diet so nutritionally bereft of value?  Evidently the metabolism slows, organs shrink, many die.  

For Alabama, I quote Harvey Levenstein writing about Depression conditions in Paradox of Plenty, part 12, 2003:   'In Alabama sharecroppers scrape by on their historic diet of the three M's: meat (fat salt pork), corn meal, and molasses.  Shrivelled gardens stop producing green vegetables and fruit is but a memory.  When rations run out before Saturday payday, people simply go without eating.'

Those shrivelled gardens had been root crops and greens: the slave tradition had been leftover plant material – turnip and beet tops, dandelions and collards, discarded cuts of meat, plus, if allowed, foraged food, none of which was available to the South African prisoners. 

The monotony of the food on Robben Island must have been appalling, as were the three M's.  Would this mean one never cared much about food again, or would it mean that with prosperity one ate all that one could?  It could go both ways.

Thursday
Dec122013

Gee's Bend women

Right.  Having spent most of the morning watching various Gee's Bend videos, have found this absolutely beautiful one on vimeo posted by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.  It says it all. 

28 minutes long.

THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND from Souls Grown Deep Foundation on Vimeo.

 

Wednesday
Dec112013

piecework processes

Lorraine Pettway, born 1953. Medallion work-clothes quilt, 1974, denim and cotton/polyester blend, 84 x 68 inches.

This is a quilt made from work clothes.  Rather than linking the image to the original site, it is linked to a larger image where one can see the size of the squares that make up the colour blocks.  Blue chambray work shirts (usually from J C Penney, but Sears did them – each brand slightly different in detail and fabric) faded to this pale sky colour in the sun, leaving darker patches underneath the pockets and at the bottom of the sleeves which were usually rolled up.  They disintegrated across the back and at the elbows.  The pieces in this quilt would have been from shirts patched and mended until they could be mended no more, leaving the tails, the cuffs, collars and pockets.

Like any sort of piecing activity: dry stone walls, broken tile mosaics, quilting, each piece in the pile of material becomes intimately known for its colour, its shape, its peculiarities that allow it to fit into a greater whole.  Each piece is considered, set aside, reconsidered elsewhere, set aside and finally used in precisely the right place. In this process all the pieces become characters in the larger narrative that is the quilt, or the wall, or the floor.

This is also a process whereby the weak, the broken and the otherwise unuseable become strong.  Worn out fabric, easily torn, is stitched through a cotton batt layer to a backing cloth, so that it has no stress on it: strain is taken collectively by the batting, the stitching and the backing.   

What these pieced surfaces look like is an entirely different discussion.  Of course each piece is chosen and placed to make a beautiful surface.  But it is not by design, rather it is by detail at the scale of the fingers and the needle, and this is where the Gee's Bend quilts part company with modern quilting as supported by the contemporary quilting industry of patterns, books, new 'vintage' cottons, fat quarters and all the rest.  

I would say, not being an African-American from Alabama with a history of slavery, poverty and the church, that we could read these surfaces as conversations between each piece of fabric and the woman assembling and stitching the pieces.  And like conversations they are unpredictable, idiosyncratic and emotional.  They switch direction mid-stream, they are sometimes angry. They can sooth and they take a long time.   

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. "Lazy Gal" -- "Bars," ca. 1965, denim and cotton, 80 x 69 inches. All images: Tinwood Media

Tuesday
Dec102013

Gee's Bend quilts

Pearlie Kennedy Pettway, 1920-1982. "Bars" work-clothes quilt, ca. 1950, denim and cotton, 84 x 81 inches.

Gee's Bend, Alabama: a small community in a near-oxbow of the Alabama River, originally the Gee cotton plantation, settled in 1816 with 18 slaves.  This had increased to about 150 when slavery was abolished, and most became sharecroppers still working for the landowner.  Its isolation was grave: a ferry and a single road in, during the Depression it received assistance from the Red Cross and the Resettlement Administration which eventually purchased the plantation, re-renting it to its tenants who in the 1940s were able to purchase their plots.  Because of its historical, cultural and social isolation, it has been much studied as a community: its music, its speech and its quilts.

Much has been made of the quilts.  During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee was formed which sold quilts outside Gee's Bend – difficult as the ferry had been eliminated to make voter registration in nearby Camden hard: by land it was an hour's drive. Ferry service was only restored in 2006.  

The quilts received critical attention almost immediately; they were exhibited, documented, they appeared in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, at the Whitney and the Smithsonian and they've been on US Mail stamps.  It's a big deal.  Despite having done a slew of quilts in my time and collected a number of African American strip quilts from my time in Texas, I only heard about the Gee's Bend quilts on a BBC jazz program  (you can no longer hear it but the playlist is there) about the Jaimeo Brown Trio whose music is based on the Gee's Bend quilters' spirituals that they sing as they quilt.  

When I looked up the quilts, many of which feature on the Smithsonian site, I also found a much-repeated critical stance on Gee's Bend quilts, this one typical: 'There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making, writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts [Houston].'

Once again, we have something with its own history, economics, traditions and modes of production likened to abstract art.  Because it looks like abstract art doesn't mean it is abstract art.  Perhaps to an art historian, this comparison of visual similarities was once the foundation of some sort of taxonomy, but today?  I don't think so.  Wardlaw, above, likens the 'improvisational range of approaches to composition' to the same range of approaches found in abstract painters of the same era: mid- to late-twentieth century.  This doesn't add credibility to the quilts; it does outline the way that art curators seek to legitimise work outside the tradition of western painting.

The quilts need no legitimacy, they are themselves.  For this, the Smithsonian essay is good.  It doesn't bang on about how abstract they are because they have spoken to the quilters themselves, who recall things such as Martin Luther King's visit, adding bits to a quilt that is too small, great-grandmothers sold for a dime (not the quilt, the great-grandmother), picking cotton and okra, and sewing a quilt out of your father's work clothes after he died, to remember him by.  

None of this is abstract at all. And nor are the patterns.  They are determined by the size of pieces of fabric to small to use for anything else.  This is an art of poverty, where nothing goes to waste.  Anything less like the economic system that is the art world would be difficult to find.  

In 2007 two quilters filed a suit against dealers who had claimed to own the intellectual property rights to pre-1984 quilts and had used photographs and quotations to promote sales.  The case was dismissed, but it indicates a certain degree of ongoing exploitation of labour, just at a more decorative and sophisticated level. 

Rachey Carey George (born 1908). Work-clothes strips, c. 1938. Denim (wool trousers, mattress ticking, cotton). 82 x 72 inches. The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance.

Sunday
Dec082013

Johnny Clegg and Savuka: Asimbonanga, 1987

This video was made before Mandela was released from prison.  From 1964 to 1990, the only image in circulation was from before the Rivonia trials — this is the one used in the Clegg video.  When he was released and appeared on the tv walking through the crowds, I couldn't even recognise the young face in the 72 year old man.  The suppression of his appearance had been utter and complete.

And then, later, in 1999 in France:

Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the Island into the Bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona

Saturday
Dec072013

Youssou N'Dour: Xale

from Set, Virgin Records, 1990

Xale : Freedom

Thursday
Dec052013

Nelson Mandela

18 July 1918 - 5 December 2013: a twentieth century life, in all its cruel outlines, and where this turned out to be training for political grace.  

1966: Mandela sits and sews inmates' clothes in the yard of Robben Island prison

Tuesday
Dec032013

William Klein, irrepressible

This came out in 2012 as a BBC program.  It is long, perfect for watching, as I did, while a snowstorm rages, drifts, beats at the windows.  Like, alright already. Yes it is winter. 

Never quite realised how influential Klein was until this film. His images were everywhere at one time, in magazines mostly: they taught us all how to compose a photograph, and probably a lot more, just about life.

Friday
Nov292013

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

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