Tornado in Denver last week, travelled up the eastern slopes of the Rockies and parked: much rain. Mandatory evacuation order issued in Calgary's river valleys Thursday, but not my block, the last before the railway tracks. Curious. Voluntary evacuation on the street left just four houses occupied. Very quiet; dystopian moment Friday morning in the back alley – bottle picker cutting the lock off a mountain bike, cycled away whistling. Kept walking every few hours down to the river, three blocks away, empty streets, very eerie, reminded me of the end of On the Beach.
By Saturday I'd had enough of flood, however at the eastern end of the neighbourhood a great chunk of bank was swept away putting a long block of new houses right at the edge of a cliff. In comes the army and lots of heavy lifting equipment and bolsters the cliff with large concrete blocks.
Sunday, water in the Bow about 6' down, neighbourhood still evacuated, now not even any gawkers – boring now that the water isn't bashing at the bridge deck, usually about 12' above water level.
Spent Friday moving the contents of the basement up to the ground floor: the archive of my life – much too much stuff. The fear is always of reverse sewer action filling one's basement with toxic glurk. This flooding thing will happen again, so vow that what goes back to the basement will be very thinned out.
Saturday, doing some thinning: acres of paper, photocopies of articles and essays – Barthes on the Eiffel Tower – never seen it before but the margins are full of my notes. I appear to have been quite smart once.
A beautiful essay by Aijaz Ahmad of which there were several copies so I must have given it out in a course. How to take all the excitement out of a favourite essay: assign it. Half the students don't read it and try to wing it in the discussion. A quarter don't read it and tell you it was irrelevant, the rest read it but don't know what to think about it, one person quotes it appropriately in their term paper and you give him an A.
Sunday, looked at the river, evacuation order still on, but so is the power and the gas, so I'm lucky. Downtown last night inky dark as the power is off protecting the transformers. Mowed the lawn, listened to Gardener's Question Time – guaranteed to restore equilibrium in times of unease.
Too much rainfall filled the Elbow River at its source in the mountains, it over-filled the Glenmore Reservoir and then joined the already flooded Bow River at the western corner of my neighbourhood: it crested here Saturday morning, and that crest is travelling at high speed down the Bow where it will meet the South Saskatchewan River and Medicine Hat later today. Then it will continue east, through Saskatchewan and all its river towns, on to Manitoba where it will eventually enter Lake Winnipeg, not unknown to flood. every year.
It has been very odd living in an empty neighbourhood, just us and the birds, no cars, no neighbours, no roar of traffic on the nearby Deerfoot Trail but a more local sound of a sump pump bailing out the basement of an old apartment building on 9th Avenue, the main street. The water coming out of the hoses is clear and sweet, not the milk chocolate colour of the river water. It feels like a much earlier time.
On yesterday's photo of the landings at Juno Beach soldiers appear to be landing with bicycles. I thought when I saw it how far we have come from bicycles to drones in the conduct of war, given that some of those fellows in the photograph are probably still alive: many of them died that day however.
The bicycles: BSA [British Small Arms, a Birmingham manufacturing conglomerate that made everything from rifles to London taxis] made 70,000 Airborne Folding Paratrooper Bicycles between 1939 and 1945. As with all things military there are many sites devoted to the most arcane details of this bike, its rifle holder, its pedals, its colour (green). This one is very complete: Bcoy1CPB which will mean something to anyone connected with the Canadian Forces: B Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion I think.
BSA was famous after the war for its motorcycles; our geography teacher, Mr Knight used it as a mnemonic for the names and order of the great northern lakes: Bear, Slave and Athabasca — good, eh?
In the D-Day landings, the bicycles were to be used by the second wave regiments to speed their way to the front, but the troops found the roads so congested that they couldn't ride and most were discarded. B coy reports that they were intensely disliked: probably weighed a ton, and after the war many were sold as surplus: $10 though the Hudson's Bay Company, $3.95 at Capital Iron in Victoria, BC.
Oh, Capital Iron, a most wonderful weekend tradition of my childhood: huge, dark and gloomy, smelled like metal, oil and canvas, aisles of barrels of nails and tools and incomprehensible metal doodads. The ceiling was dense with hanging flags. I suppose it also operated as a reality check, all that metal and machinery, for the men who miraculously found themselves in clean safe jobs with little families and houses with back yards just ten years after the end of the war.
Jeremy Deller, passionate chronicler of the tangents of war. The reviews have called his installation at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale aggressive. Angry, yes; resigned perhaps; this video captures something else. Deller's 2008 piece at the Imperial War Museum, It Is What It Is, was made from a bombed Baghdad car: there is something about the gratuitous destruction of cars in this film that with that earlier car in mind seems obscene. As does the aftermath of the inflatable Stonehenge: heritage as entertainment, the critique levelled at Danny Boyle's orchestration of the positive side of Britain for the opening of the 2010 Olympics. There is a place and time for critique and the London Olympics was not one of them. Deller has no such restrictions.
He isolates contradictions in Britain – the gap between pride and insignificance, between a blithe skipping along and a still, red in tooth and claw, countryside; between an imperial history and its modern incarnation as entertainment and celebrity. Perhaps not contradictions, rather they are complex, near-inexplicable realities which artists and critical theorists keep trying to explain, reframe, re-present. Adrian Searle calls Deller's Biennale installation a war on wealth — maybe, obviously I haven't seen it, I'm not British and I receive such works through a different lens, however, it seems that at the heart of Deller's work is a critique of war that uses a panoply of images used to disguise the project of war as a series of successes, heroisms and parades.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Will Gompertz on BBC World last night reported on Jeremy Deller's Venice project: the language a classic put-down. 'Aggressive' figures as the first word in every review, every report. If someone is angry, and as Deller said, these things had been in his mind for a long time, they can be dismissed as being aggressive, much as how angry women are written off as strident.
And then, and this is unforgivable, Gompertz called Deller's angry, close to the bone murals that show just how socially conflicted England is today, 'the heir' to Danny Boyle's Olympic extravaganza. This trivialises Deller by giving him a critical biography not from art but from the world of entertainment. Controversy safely contained.
This is a really interesting interview with Kelly and Christopher Grunenberg, about colour, originally posted on one of the Tate online magazines but no longer available. It was re-posted on fARTiculate here.
Must pull out of the long weekend, now that it is past. Although the 24th of May is this Friday and our Victorian holiday usually moves to synchronise with the USA's Memorial Day, which lessens its meaning somewhat, this year it didn't. Inexplicably, we had the 24th of May on May 20.
Yesterday another visit to the NC 139s .
Ellsworth Kelly, he of the huge colour block paintings in primary colours, drew flowers and leaves in pencil on paper for most of his career. Many are collected in a book, Plant Drawings 1948-2010 (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2011) with an essay by Michael Semff and an interview with Kelly by Marla Prather.
Kelly is quoted: 'They are not an approximation of the thing seen nor are they a personal expression or an abstraction. Nothing is changed or added: no shading, no surface marking. They are an impersonal observation of the form.'
This is how we, as young architects in the conceptual 1970s, were taught to draw, and I suppose by extension, to think. The mind was put into a kind of zen-like suspension as the shape of the leaf went through the eyes directly to the hand; the hand was holding a pencil and a drawing was made. The line was all. Although there was a bit of Matisse knocking around in the brain, Kelly's strictures on making the drawing were tight: a pencil, a large sheet of paper, all line, or all shadow, or all shape. The leaf above is the essence of leafness as held in this particular leaf, and all other leaves.
Flowers are just very beautiful things, however Kelly isn't drawing their beauty, he is drawing the lines of the plant, which we perhaps, or not, find lovely. Remove the colour, the sunlight, the garden, the season, the history and one is left with the line, and a tremendous affection for the flower. It is wholly itself.
This for Canada's Victoria Day weekend, probably the last place in the world that still celebrates Queen Victoria's birthday.
From another time, that other country: 'The twenty-fourth of May, is the Queen's birthday. If you don't give us a holiday, we'll all run away.'
Or, if you were Edward Oxford, try to shoot the Queen, be declared insane, and then be sent to Australia.
It was always explained to me that the US Interstate system was primarily a Department of Defense project, meant to extend to all corners of the country with a military-specification super-highway connecting dispersed military bases, plants, installations and depots, rather than concentrating such facilities in one or two key sites in the country. This was a response to the fear that Chicago during the Second World War constituted a key target as the nation's railways all converged there: take out the Chicago railyards and transportation would be frozen. Chicago wasn't bombed, but the cold war and the threat of larger weapons with greater reach kept the threat alive.
Above is an image from 1939: oil transported by rail. Oil is essential to the prosecution of war. And as Al Gore said in an interview yesterday on CBC oil is oil, once it is on its way, as a commodity, it doesn't matter where it goes (I paraphrase). He pointed out that when Alberta bitumen gets to the Texas coast, it will be sold on, and that is the critical factor for approval of the Keystone pipeline. This isn't a great fit with the desire for energy security, which is how pipeline projects are sold to us – no more reliance on dodgy sources in the middle east or the Gulf of Mexico, North America can find and refine and consume its own product. Gore was suggesting that the raw bitumen is extracted in Canada, refined in Texas and then exported, a different proposition entirely.
On the map the Keystone pipeline appears to go right down I-29 to Kansas and then I-35 to the coast. I remember this route, there is a little jog on I-70 through Topeka to get from I-29 to I-35. So not as straight as the proposed pipeline route. Whatever. Perhaps rather than going through farmers' fields and disrupting their herds, woodlots and endangered species, the pipelines should go down the already disturbed landscape that is the Inter-state highway system. Those freeways are like culverts with huge gravel verges, surely a pipeline could fit alongside them. We might start to think of the interstate system not as a transportation network but an industrial-military network of channels carrying vital resources for the defence of the country. This actually seems more likely than the Interstate as a traveller's joy.
Found this on an exciting discovery, Aaron Eiland's typetoy.com, a huge collection of graphic images. The ribbon writing on this perhaps late 1940s French oil can, is very like Ed Ruscha's gunpowder drawings of the late 1950s.
Last week I was early for a meeting at the Canadian Architectural Archives, located in the UofC library. Time to kill, and a shelf of NC 139 big fat art books right by the door, I went through Margit Rowell's Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha (Steidl, 2008). Pages of plates of drawings of words, so banal they are almost without meaning, or conversely, so banal they are loaded with meaning: Quit, Sin, Pee Pee, and so on. They start with graphite and proceed to gunpowder, then on to chalks and pencil crayons - cheap, easily found drawing materials. It is never about money, art.
At the time that the abstract expressionists were flinging paint all over, Ruscha was doing these painstaking drawings, rubbing powder into paper.
Emergency housing has such a hold on the imagination, so wrapped up is it in development and dependency issues on one hand and on clever identi-kit solutions on the other. I wrote a paper on the dependency side in 2004 for a conference organised at Ryerson by Robert Kronenberg on the transportable environment. The conference and the book from it tended to concentrate on technology: pop-up shelters, mobile pavilions, 3rd-generation walking cities, mechanical expandable structural systems – the extravagance of which I viewed in the context of Architecture for Humanity's 2001 competition for mobile clinics in Africa – for example, Ruimtelab and Linders & van Dorssen's project included a mobile phone as one of the most important tools in any kind of mobile environment.
My point, at the time and probably still is, was that historically people subject to disasters swing into a kind of reclamation/restoration process immediately after the quake, or the bomb, or the flood: a response that we in the west generally do not understand. Here, trauma counsellors are first on the scene, something aid agencies extend to other cultures in other places. They also bring in all the often hi-tech emergency shelters, they organise camps in straight lines, the newly homeless are detached from their land, their place, their property and their autonomy. This is a critique of emergency shelter that dates from Ian Davis in the 1970s, that culture is left behind in aid agency panic to establish relief, rather than it being the organising factor.
Nonetheless, flat pack dwellings are great fun to design: how small, how simple, how efficient and transportable can a house be? One can be ingenious. That there are millions of Chinese shipping containers pressed into service all over the world as housing isn't as much fun.
Shelter Box: a box is delivered, clearly people are expected to interpret it, and then deploy it. The tent probably does not require 6 burly World Vision volunteers to erect, the box could be thrown out of a plane and arrive intact. Shelter is just a tool, not an object, despite its object/fetish nature.
When the Gruen's left Germany, just before the outbreak of war, they went to New York and did a number of shops (Lederer's, Ciro's) plus eleven branches of Grayson's, a clothing store. Both of these images contain all sorts of first iterations of something so commonplace that we don't even see them anymore: strange leaps of scale, an ambiguous play of sun, shadow, neon and armature in the signage itself, so that it is never quite the same at any one time, the facade as billboard, the ambiguity about where the sidewalk ends and the store starts – the blurring of boundaries between in and out, private and public: it is all chimerical, but still involved in the serious business of commerce.
How does one make shopping accidental, inadvertent yet habitual, where one drifts into an impulsive purchase rather than marching, money clutched in fist, to buy something very specific? The blur between cash and credit is anticipated in these storefronts. Consumption has indeed become inadvertent, the point of purchase is never quite clear.
d.talks showed this film last week and then invited some local speakers to discuss it in front of an audience, which they actually didn't, discuss it that is, but talked instead about Calgary shopping malls, where the Gruen effect is alive and well.
Highlights: Calgary expects to develop 15 million square feet of shopping centre retail space, or 10 Chinook Centres, over the next decade.
Alone, of all of North American cities, Calgary has not experienced any effects from the economic downturn that started in 2008. It exists in a bubble of prosperity and retail consumption has simply continued to increase.
Shopping centres compete to provide memorable experiences, such as a 5 minute snowfall every afternoon in December in a mall in Florida: magical, calming, unforgettable.
The documentary discusses the irony of Victor Gruen's ambitions and plans: the original shopping centre was meant as a community centre in the suburbs (where there was by definition no centre) along the lines of central Vienna – an open mix of courts, parks, cafés, department stores and shops, plus services such as libraries and banks. No cars, a safe environment, easy access. Rapacious development interests gradually eroded the service side in favour of total retail space. The filmmakers returned to Vienna, which like most European cities, has become tourist magnet in its downtown core: a panoply of brand names and luxury stores, street entertainers and more tourists. City centres have become like shopping centres themselves, placeless, or rather everyplace.
Calgary's downtown core is a three-storey, two and a half-block long shopping mall built in 1975, anchored at one end by the Bay and originally at the other by Eaton's, but now by Holt Renfrew in the next block. TD-Scotia Centre is the heart of the +15 system which connects major buildings throughout the core at the second and third-floor levels.
The subtext of the Gruen Effect documentary was that the social ambitions of Gruen were sabotaged by a virulent capitalism that extracts maximum revenue from the retail environment. And that public spaces in today's downtown cores are actually private forecourts to corporate entities that 'look' public, but actually aren't. As in, one cannot photograph them, sit in them, etc. This is all true of Calgary, which I expect was the motive behind d.talks showing the documentary.
The d.talks discussion, as always has been in this city, was dominated by the complaint about the lack of any sort of interesting scene for young urbanites, most of whom I expect grew up in a suburb somewhere. The mall representatives, a manager and an architect, talked about how malls have become nicer, with lamps and leather chairs, more like home, and two young entrepreneurs with a very cool men's clothing shop spoke about the economic advantages of being in the informal non-mall retail sector where their shop becomes a destination for client/friends to spend some time.
Informal is my term because it seems that is how retail seems to divide. Independents vs brands, each with its own architecture and urban spatiality. Shopping centres and malls: islands in a sea of parking, food fairs and an exhaustive itinerary of unsurprising chain stores. Independents: street parking and bus lines, small shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bookstores, a hinterland of streets and houses. This 'independent' landscape is necessarily dispersed: each inner city neighbourhood now has a relatively hip but short main street down its centre, each with its own character. Not every street has the same things, so they aren't like open air shopping centres as these informal retail streets aren't masterminded into a complete and balanced retail program. They are intensely local, and there is the difference.
Calgary, in its seemingly endless search for a character (which it confuses with its brand), looks for amenities to provide pleasant experiences, rather than recognising often awkward and stubborn independent ambition which doesn't try to be all things to all people, but is local and thus invested in the city.
What is the proportion of informal to formal retail? I asked, but it wasn't answered. I expect it is very small. Does size matter? No, of course not, but there has to be a critical mass of both clients and entrepreneurs who value small independent venues, and support them. It is a question whether Calgary, because it developed after the 1950s and is thus is constructed from fifty years of suburban models, has that critical mass. If it does, they live in the pre-1950s inner city neighbourhoods and in the new downtown condos, but this is, relative to the whole city, a very small demographic. Small, always present, and that actively discusses urban issues.
Much dismay that the Vancouver Art Gallery is going to move out of its present location, the classical Rattenbury court house on Georgia Street, and into a new building on the site of the old bus depot on Cambie. The streets don't mean much to those who don't know Vancouver well, but the bus depot site is at the end of Georgia that is accumulating large cultural edifices: the CBC building, Vancouver Public Library, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and now the art gallery.
The QE Theatre — an opera and ballet hall – is in its original 1959 Affleck building, the library moved from its 1957 Burrard Street location and building into the 1995 Safdie coliseum-referenced library on Georgia: Library Square with huge public spaces in and out, often used by the CBC as performance space. The CBC is in a 1975 Merrick building on Georgia, expanded in 2009 (Dialog and Bakker) to include a 4000 square-foot performance studio and a glassy public face on the street. The 1958 McCarter Nairne Post Office building, also on Georgia, its future very much in danger, has been discussed as a possible home for the Vancouver Art Gallery: right location, large industrial spaces, although its massive structure would make changes almost prohibitively expensive, plus it was sold in March for $159 million to a developer.
The Vancouver Art Gallery's first building was built in 1931 on a 66'-wide lot (the original CPR survey grid based on chains for residential plots) a couple of blocks away on Georgia from the Hotel Vancouver. It looked like a bank vault, which says something about the way art was perceived, as a precious commodity meant to be safeguarded.
The building was given an International Style renovation and expansion in 1950 by Ross Lort: a part plate glass front wall, part slab, all offset planes and classic white gallery space behind. It had become a small, exceptionally accommodating gallery that under the direction of Doris Shadbolt and Tony Emery, was at the centre of the explosion of art and performance, from N.E. Thing Co to Gathie Falk, in Vancouver in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Then, in 1983, the Vancouver Art Gallery moved to the Erickson-renovated 1911 court house building, made redundant by the 1980 Erickson-designed Law Courts complex and Robson Square which filled the two blocks to the west behind the court house. It seemed appropriate in the ghastly post-modern 1980s when protests on the Court House steps were over, and museums, opera companies and symphonies turned to block-buster shows for survival, that the VAG be housed in the pomposity of a building shouting out its authority.
Art goes on no matter what the official gallery is, artists challenge and change; where they do it and where you see it is worthy of attention. In the 1980s artists were like the punk scene occupying marginal and arcane spaces, they certainly weren't in the main spaces of the new Vancouver Art Gallery in the way that they had fluidly slipped in and out of the old modernist unpretentious gallery down the street. The more we pull access to art out of the everyday, the more inexplicable it becomes to the everyday. Much like the original 1931 vault-like gallery, the court house gallery demanded, simply by the architecture itself, reverence for the exceptionalism of art.
I'm not unhappy to see the Vancouver Art Gallery leave the court house building, but one does worry about the current civic support, all over the country, for Bilbao-effect galleries and museums. By their very spectacularity they become objects rather than fabric, appropriate one would think perhaps for programs such as justice, or health, or governance. Historically, art is deemed to be one of these important conditions requiring separation in a significant architecture.
Might we have something more wabi-sabi: a necessary anchor for history, retrospectives, biennials and curation, plus the infiltration of the rest of the city, starting from that block, with a rootless, opportunistic, transient architecture that reflects the kind of programming most major galleries are engaged with today. There must be some place for a gallery architecture to constantly renew and reconstruct itself if it is to be an embedded part of the processes of cultural renewal and reconstruction, and not just the place where, after the fact, such changes are displayed.
Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, which is perhaps what spurred the posting of this 1970 BBC documentary of Peter and Alison Smithson talking about the design of Robin Hood Gardens, the conditions they found in Britain after the war, the lack of intelligent housing. It is filmed in classic Grierson style by B S Johnson with long slow pans of the project in construction interspersed with Alison and Peter talking about it: Alison with a strangely constructed accent — Alison from Doncaster in north-east England, who studied architecture in an era when no women studied architecture without a lot of trouble and yet, with the earnest Peter in a sparkly silver tie, can speak so passionately about the hopes and expectations of architecture while wearing a silver leather jacket. I don't think we have any idea what her back story was.
The documentary style with the slow pans: compared to today when no image is allowed to be seen for more than a second, preferably shorter, this was typical of the still, contemplative, postwar mise-en-scène of longueurs, of silences, of the populating of landscapes with people just outside the frame. It is a style revisited by Patrick Keiller in London, 1994 – the same slow suppressed anger. The Smithsons On Housing is strangely elegiac considering it was made before Robin Hood Gardens was even finished.
Why did Robin Hood Gardens become redundant? Society changed, moved on. The housing Robin Hood Gardens replaced was a Victorian fabric of terraces: no front or back yards, back-to-back brick rows and shared privies, incapable of expansion or change, interspersed with temporary wartime housing and outmoded dockland infrastructure. Robin Hood Gardens replaced fabric with an exceptional model: expandable, collective, much open space for children, all on the CIAM derivée: one lives up in the light and air and frees the ground plane for play. This isn't fabric, although the people destined to live in it were the fabric of the working class. By the late 1960s when the project was designed, that class was in violent transition; when Mrs Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and arranged for the privatisation of council housing, projects such as Robin Hood Gardens – which relied on social solidarity, a shared understanding of values and one's place in life – became not only redundant, but an active hindrance to individualistic striving.
Somehow Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithson's earnest, thoughtful, intelligent analysis of what was needed in housing completely misinterpreted the times. Typically it is architects who wanted the buildings listed and protected rather than condemned: a handsome place to live with all its trailing social idealism and visions of a collective understanding of deep history and place, of London's industrial past, of – above all – solidarity, a now deeply outmoded concept.
The 5 acre site that had carried Robin Hood Gardens's 252 units in what had been the Poplar district, will be part of a larger 7.7ha (19 acre) Blackwall Reach development of 1575 units, double the density. The demographic has changed, the regeneration of East London is in full flow: how many new reports did we see in the run-up to the Olympics from that extremely glitzy, high-end shopping mall with reporters saying 'this isn't the old east end' ? – dozens. However the new schemes still show tower blocks, slab bars of housing, green parks between; the buildings will still be concrete, but now they look white, rather than concrete-coloured. There is a homeowners association, thus there is a financial commitment by future occupants to Blackwall Reach: it will be a 30-year mortgage rather than a weekly rent. Is this the significant difference? Participation in a financial structure which has shown in the past few years to be so unsteady and insecure?
Robin Hood Gardens could have been renovated, restored, divided into separate titles even, but its form is so embedded with a belief in the essential good of government and people, betrayed as soon as the building opened in 1972, that it has become a tragic glyph in a rather tougher economic text.
Neville Mars, solar forest, shade, energy for charging stations. If the grumpy comments on design boom are anything to go by, an expensive solution: the plates have to rotate to follow the sun, lifespan of a panel is only 6 years, so much maintenance of the forest, etc etc.
Solar Forest reminds me very much of SOM's giant 1972 oasis at King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah, a tented open-air terminal to accommodate the millions of Haj pilgrims that go through the airport each year on their way to Mecca. 120 acres/2.8 million square feet: it is large. From the AIA site:'The tent structure that makes up the terminal’s roof strongly resembles vernacular Bedouin shelters and Hajj pilgrim tents that spring up around Mecca during the Hajj season.'
Well, that is a hook I suppose, much as Neville Mars' collection of charging stations strongly resembles vernacular forests. Might we have a planted forest, pumping out oxygen and acting as a CO2 sink, with short poles with sockets on them, something like block heater plugs in parking lots in the great white north? Something like this: