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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


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.


Queen of the Rushes

Michael and Paddy Rafferty in Galway, September 1982. 

This is lilting, puirt a beul in Scottish Gaelic, portaireacht bhéil in Irish Gaelic: rhythm and tone, mouth music, coded messages perhaps, perhaps vocables.  Can't understand it, but I do like the ties, the shirts, the concentration, the relative immobility of the two brothers, the relentless beat.  This is a lovely thing.


Picnic grounds

It isn't enough just to build public parks, orchards and other kinds of urban forests and urban farms, there must be a culture to support such things.  Farzaneh Bahrami in On Site review 25: identity, wrote about the public tradition of use in what we might see as the very inhospitable landscapes of modern transportation infrastructure:

Picnic on highways of Tehran, 13th day of spring (response to a Persian tradition to spend 13th day of the year in nature) photograph: Farzaneh BahramiThere is memory, history, tradition, culture and family here, not dependent on the quality of the space.  The point isn't to design a better highway median, but rather recognise that there is more to all of this than aesthetics.

Part of an ongoing research titled "Tehran, In the Search of Lost Public Space" by Farzaneh Bahrami. The paradoxical nature of Tehran's public spaces. photographs: Manuel Llinás

One may read Farzaneh Bahrami's essay 'Tehran, Occasionally Public' here: