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Entries in culture (65)


Denys Lasdun: modernism deeply dyed

Denys Lasdun. Royal College of Physicians, London, 1960

Lasdun felt his best building was the 1960 Royal College of Physicians, set into the Georgian terraces of Regent's Park, London.  We don't get this kind of outside space anymore, noir-ish, uncompromising, heroic: terraces for the dark life of the soul.  Instead, having looked at an archive of drawings over the last year of contemporary civic public space proposals, according to the renderings, we must all gaily trip through our cities in full colour, casual clothes, balloons flying, children laughing.  

The public spaces of modernism were adult spaces. They weren't spaces of power but of public access, and that was, given the history of European property ownership and display, a serious business.  History wasn't interesting – it had caused two ghastly wars and in the 1960s the tall capacious houses of Regent's Park were likely to either be offices or carved up into a dozen cheap bedsits.  The bones of the elegant curved terrace could be honoured, but not much else.  

Denys Lasdun's son, James, seen below in an excerpt from a talk at the New York Writers Institute in 2009, speaks about the fierceness of the modernist tenets he grew up with.  Ironically, especially when he says that postmodernism was anathema to Denys Lasdun, James has recently published a book, Give Me Everything You Have, on the ultimate postmodern crime: he has been cyber-stalked since 2006 by a student he once taught at NYU.


Cape Breton coal mines

In 1978 when this NFB snapshot was made, Cape Breton coal mining was already being memorialised.  But the song is jolly, full of optimism.

Canada Vignettes: Men of the Deeps, Cape Breton by Sandra Dudley, National Film Board of Canada

By 2009, this performance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Cape Breton coal mining has become a tragedy.



Frank Williams and Judy with her Dickin medal, May 1946

Judy, a pointer and mascot on HMS Gnat, transferred to HMS Grasshopper which was sunk in 1942 along with HMS Dragonfly in China.  Judy and the crew sailed to Sumatra in a junk, hiked across the island and were captured by the Japanese.  Judy spent the next two years in Medan Camp, generally looking after the POWs, alerting them to the approach of camp guards, snakes and abuse and living off shared rations, which could not have been very much at all.  

In 1944 Judy and the crew were rescued from the camp and sent to Singapore; the ship they were on was torpedoed and Judy rescued several men by bringing them flotsam to hold onto.  Recaptured, Frank Williams, her handler – although clearly their relationship was much greater than this, found Judy, or Judy found him, in a new camp; they were sent back to Sumatra where the POWs were used to lay railway lines.  Judy lived nearby in the jungle to avoid the not-sympathetic guards at this camp.  Eventually when the Pacific war had ended she was smuggled back to England and given her Dickin medal.

Williams and Judy went to work in East Africa in 1948 and she died in 1950.



Life would be unsupportable without them.

These Were Our Dogs, photographs from the Libby Hall Collection, Bishopsgate Institute.

set this to full frame:




A clifftop campsite in Crimdon Park, County Durham, England. 1946

Okay, it is 1946, everyone camping here, the men at least, just spent a lot of time in tents in north Africa, in Burma, on the plains of Lincolnshire, but this is the summer holidays, in England.  The war is over.  Wouldn't one think that anarchy would be a welcome release and tents were higgledy-piggledy?  Clearly not. 

The English once were a sociable people, not for them the extreme privacy of camping in a BC government or National Park campsite, all winding roads through the woods and deep seclusion on one's little clearing with picnic bench and firepit.  Sometimes it would be nice – and feel safe – to be just one more tent in an array such as this one.

and gosh, look at all the army bell tents.  One wonders if the release of army surplus after the war spurred on the development of mass camping and campsites.  As a kid, our tent was a huge Hudson's Bay Company canvas tent with an extension: not army surplus, but so capacious. It smelled like summer.


aesthetics / anesthetics at Storefront

Aesthetics / Anesthetics. Storefront for Art & Architecture, New York

on birds, axonometries, children, green, comics and 30 Storefronts
June 27 - July 28, 2012

What is it that an architectural drawing does and how does it do it? How can we distill beauty from cosmetics? How can new modes of representation produce new architectures and new sensibilities? 

Aesthetics/Anesthetics is an exhibition about architectural drawings.

The above is from the press release.  There is a clever gif halfway down the Aesthetics / Anesthetics page on the Storefront site.

Frida Escobedo is part of this exhibition.  On Site, early early on, maybe issue 5 or 6, published two houses by Perro Rojo, which was Frida Escobedo and Alejandro Alarcon at the time.  Young Mexican architects, like Canadian ones, do some very interesting early work, then go off to the GSD or Yale and hook into The Young Architects Forum, Storefront.  Escobedo is in the Mexican pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.  There is a kind of new internationalised trajectory for critical practices that are rooted in their own countries and participate in a slate of venues that really have no specifically cultural location, other than their culture of diversity.



Plan of Bangalore, 1791

This plan of the original fort at Bangalore is from a most interesting site, deeplythinking.  The note across the top says: Plan of Bangalore (with the Attacks) taken by the English Army under the command of the Rt Hon'ble Earl Cornwallis March 22 1791. He was related to the Cornwallis, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, who founded Halifax in 1749 to counter French interests established at Louisbourg. 

Deeply Thinking Guruprasad says this attack plan map was part of the Third Anglo-Mysore War and shows the fort, the walled pendant hanging from the town which was surrounded by thick bushes and hedging. Bangalore became a British military base in 1809, developing over the next hundred years into the old town, the Petta, and the new station.

Bangalore, 1924What a diagram of British colonialism: the old town, the Petta and fort supervised by adjacent gridded suburbs, the station separated from the native quarter by a wide zone of parks and parade grounds.  Richards Town, Fraser Town and Cleveland Town northeast of the Cantonment Bazaar were probably named after officers and their companies, much the way Halifax streets were named after the companies stationed in barracks on them.  On the native side are the jail, the plague camp, the cemetery, the veterinary camp for the horses. On the British side are the Maharaja's palace, the polo ground and no doubt other sites of safety. (go to the original site by clicking on the pictures for enlarged versions of these maps – they are really interesting in detail)

In fact, this is all much like Halifax which, as late as 1960, allowed African-Canadians to crowd into Africville at the extreme northern end of the city, separated from the city itself by commons and an ambiguous zone that contained a mental hospital, a jail, and the city dump.  No such thing as disinterested urbanism: social relations are deeply embedded and last for centuries.



branding oil: Stavanger

Stavanger, Norway

Stavanger is Norway's Calgary, in that it is the site of oil companies' head offices for the offshore oil industry.  Once could say that the oil sands were offshore for Calgary as well, as it doesn't have to deal with any of the environmental or social fallout associated with oil extraction.

Stavanger, I read on Science Nordic, is seeking to re-brand itself, acknowledging that the association with oil will not always be positive if climate change continues to threaten our existence.  Evidently, Stavanger is 'historically Norway's teetotallers' town and also the golden buckle of the country's bible belt'.  Its pre-oil industry was canning, but curiously has 'no distinct proletarian culture', unlike Oslo.  I feel as if I am reading all sorts of things between the lines, but can't understand what they mean.  

With neither history nor the proletariat suitable for a modern brand, they are working on Stavanger as an energy town (their italics).  What a surprise.  Calgary's newest brand, coincidentally, is 'Catch the Energy'.  The vagueness of energy: it could mean nuclear, solar, wind, nano-technology, wood stoves – it could even mean people doing a lot of jogging.  It will do well for the future as almost anything can be fitted to it.  

This being Norway, Stavanger, predictably, has a young architecture firm, Helen & Hard, doing beautiful work.

Helen & Hard. Ipark, an office complex for young, innovative companies in Stavanger, 2012From Helen & Hard's description of this project: 'the design concept is based on a simple principle of stacking prefabricated timber elements to create the façades. By horizontally rotating the elements, two spectacular cantilevers are created accentuating the entrances'. 

Norway has trees, we have trees.  Norway has oil, we have oil.  Norway uses wood extensively: Oslo's airport has a large wood egg-shaped bubble hovering over the concourse, the counters in the train stations are wood, the panelling on the transit carriages is wood.  We, on the other hand, do not use wood extensively. I'm pricing spruce and cedar planks to replace my back deck; I am told by every lumber company that I should buy the plastic wood decking instead. 


Louis Edouard Fournier: the funeral of Shelley

Louis Edouard Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley, 1889. Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 213.4cm. The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822 when his yacht was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Spezzia, Italy. His body was cremated and his remains later buried at the Protestant cemetery in Rome.  He is watched over here by Trelawny, Leigh Hunt and Byron.  He was 29; Keats had died the previous year, Byron two years later: the Romantic triumvirate, their recklessness with life and limb echoed in the romance we still attach to Kurt Cobain – the dead boy.  Romance is all in the perception of death, not the reality.


an interesting read: Richard Holmes on the mythologising of Shelley's death, part of the National Portrait Gallery's Interrupted Lives lecture series in 2004.


Patrick Keiller's London, 1994

I've been waiting to see this again for years, since 1994 in fact:


tents, non-military

Tent City, Coronado, California, 1909

Coronado Tent City, California 1900-1939, started out as tents on the beach, from this 1909 postcard.  Then the tents were given thatched roofs, then by the 1920s half walls, a trolley, a fire department and a police force.  There was a fun fair, concerts, a promenade and a pavilion; the tents had beds and chairs, there were cooking tents, one could rent a palm tent in 1919 for $1 a day, $15 a month.  The half-walled tents were called cottages, they were $23 a week.

Tent City, Coronado, California, n.d.Tents are portable, temporary, lightweight buildings, yes, but they are also vulnerable: to weather, to light and dark, to tearing, to wind.  This community of holiday tents is so different from a campground where one's tent is pitched between RVs with flat screens and the 24-hour hum of AC units.  And so different from a motel, those maximum security cells with permanently locked windows.

Of course there was crime in America in the 1910s and 20s, there were gangs, there were drugs, gambling, prostitution, murders and all the rest, but somehow, like the shift in warfare from entirely military casualties to now mostly civilian collateral damage, Tent City must have been somehow protected by its innocence.  It was not part of an equation of drugs and gang violence which took place in some other battlefield where no one was playing on the beach in their bathing suits.  

It seems civilised, this partition between civilians and violence, both in war and everyday life.  Not sure it exists anymore. 

Tent City, Coronado, California, 1906


Jon Rafman: what google sees

Jon Rafman. Google Street Views, 2010

Jon Rafman. Google Street Views, 2010

I was very sloppy with this post a couple of days ago: got the dates wrong and hadn't thought too deeply about these images.  What I quite liked about them was that they themselves had no meaning: caught by a camera programmed to photograph the street in nine different directions every ten feet or whatever it is, they simply are raw information. 

Jon Rafman chose, out of billions of such raw images, a collection that he ascribed some sort of role to, simply by selecting them.  Many of the people caught in many of the images know they are on camera and act up for it, others don't notice.  There are many traffic accidents that seem to have happened just as the Google van went by.  The stone house and the roadway, above, are simply beautiful ideas, which is why I selected them out of the hundreds on Rafman's  There are so many selection filters one could apply, it turns viewers into search engine filters themselves. Which is of course how we all negotiate our own worlds.



the Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC.

The Empress Hotel was built between 1904 and 1906, shortly after the death of the real Empress in 1901.  It was a CPR hotel, Francis Rattenbury the English architect, also the architect of the Parliament Buildings and the Crystal Pool.  Unless one is from Victoria, Rattenbury is better known perhaps for being killed on his wife's instructions, the story told in Terence Rattigan's 1975 play, Cause Célèbre.

The Empress is pinnacled and towered, looming and gothic, now covered in ivy.  One doesn't make architectural criticisms of it because it is such an institution: the archetypal outpost of Empire, like Raffles in Singapore but not so racy: the Empress is famous for tea.  Of course.  This is Victoria.

Next to it was the Crystal Pool where all little Victorian schoolchildren learned to swim up until the 1960s – either there or at Elk Lake in the summer in the Daily Colonist swim classes.  Yes, that was the name of the newspaper.  The Crystal Pool, built in 1925, was a large glass house: no curved pieces, all flat plate glass on cast iron structure, at the time known as the largest salt-water pool in the Empire.  It was a wonderful space for a child – light streamed into the pool, glittered on the water, the palm trees dripped, exotic as any Hockney pool in California.  

This was my Canadian childhood.

Crystal Garden pool. F M Rattenbury and Percy James, architects. Victoria BC 1925


Victoria, Empress

Queen Victoria, 1893

Queen Victoria in 1893.  As she never left Britain, this oriental tent/pavilion was probably in the gardens at Osborne.  She is working on her dispatch boxes. Victoria seems to have been a woman of great passions: she loved her husband to distraction, her groom, her personal muslim servant who taught her Urdu, her Prime Ministers, especially Disraeli and his expansionist policies which led to the second Anglo-Afghan war.  She 'rescued' India from the ruling British East India Company after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, believed in religious freedom for India and other protectorates, saw the empire as civilising and protective.  However, the empire was conducted by governments and ministers who were not always so benign, and the influence of monarchy is constitutionally marginal.

This lovely painting of Victoria at four: a hat in proportions Marc Jacobs has just resurrected.

Stephen Poyntz Denning 1795-1864 Princess Victoria aged four, 1823. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London



Royal Mail. series of 50, produced by the Royal Mail in conjuction with Wills Tobacco, circa 1930

When mail was in an envelope, with stamps, delivered by hand no matter where you were or what you were doing, mail delivery scheduled the day, the week, the month; time lags were sometimes great, pictures were rare and precious.  Yet, yet, society functioned, ideas were exchanged, romances grew, news was heard. 

Why must everything be instant now? Maybe that isn't the question.  Perhaps it is something about patience, and lack of it.  It isn't about technology, but something that drives technology.  That progress has always equalled speed: speed of change and literally going faster.  The underpinning of sustainability discussions is the interrogation of 'progress' and whether or not it can still be seen as a postitive, or is it just a pernicious aspect of modernism.  it is an old debate, as old as the enlightenment.  What is surprising is that it can still be made.  


A man's a man, for all that

Not sure who is singing this, perhaps Graham Duncan who put the video together, but it is a gentle version.  compared to Paolo Nutini.  

As this is the week of all things Scottish, can't help think of Nana – Nellie Bruce, born in 1896 in Kemnay, Aberdeenshire and who was brought to Canada at 14 by her family, and for whom even the thought of eating haggis was a shocking insult, it being some sort of horrible boiled sausage thing eaten by peasants in bothies.  Of which, needless to say, she was not one.  

Her mother wept for six months with shock at leaving her little stone village for the wind-swept prairies and forever after quoted great reams of Tennyson and her favourite, Wordsworth's Lucy Gray, mournful and melancholic: 

Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray:
And, when I crossed the wild,
I chanced to see at break of day
The solitary child.

No mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wide moor,
–The sweetest thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!

You yet may spy the fawn at play,
The hare upon the green;
But the sweet face of Lucy Gray
Will never more be seen.

'To-night will be a stormy night-
You to the town must go;
And take a lantern, Child, to light
Your mother through the snow.'

'That, Father! will I gladly do:
'Tis scarcely afternoon-
The minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the moon!'

At this the Father raised his hook,
And snapped a faggot-band;
He plied his work; – and Lucy took
The lantern in her hand.

Not blither is the mountain roe:
With many a wanton stroke
Her feet disperse the powdery snow,
That rises up like smoke.

The storm came on before its time:
She wandered up and down;
And many a hill did Lucy climb:
But never reached the town.

The wretched parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.

At day-break on a hill they stood
That overlooked the moor;
And thence they saw the bridge of wood,
A furlong from their door.

They wept – and, turning homeward, cried,
'In heaven we all shall meet';
– When in the snow the mother spied
The print of Lucy's feet.

Then downwards from the steep hill's edge
They tracked the footmarks small;
And through the broken hawthorn hedge,
And by the long stone-wall;

And then an open field they crossed:
The marks were still the same;
They tracked them on, nor ever lost;
And to the bridge they came.

They followed from the snowy bank
Those footmarks, one by one,
Into the middle of the plank;
And further there were none!

– Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living child;
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome wild.

O'er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.

This too is a Scottish immigration experience.  It isn't all kilts and bagpipes you know.


ravens as witness

Robert Bateman. Young Haida Raven. Lithograph

Quite a few years ago one of the houses on my street was rented by an organisation that re-rented houses to aboriginal families, many of whom oscillate between urban homelessness, remote reserves and multi-family houses.  They were great, setting off in the morning to walk the city, laughing, their clothes carefully tuned to a code unreadable by the rest of us: romantic, moccasined, with dogs and all the time in the day.

The weeping elm in the front yard of this house was occupied that summer by an owl, two ravens and a family of indignant magpies.  I'd never seen an owl in my neighbourhood, and ravens too were new although I'd once seen one in Bragg Creek.  The summer ended badly, with one of the beautiful girls attacking another girl who was carrying on with the first girl's husband.  Bloodied people were carried off in ambulances and police vans.  
The owl went immediately, then the family moved on, the ravens went with them, the house was empty for a couple of years, the magpies stayed.  

Several years later a Blackfoot woman from Siksika First Nation told me that owls announce that a death will occur.  The ravens, continually plagued by the magpies, just sat all summer long, dignified and waiting, and when it was all over, they disappeared. 


Main Street

Independencia Avenue, Chihuahua, Mexico. circa 1960

Vintage Everyday this week has a small collection of Mexican postcards from the 1950s and '60s.  Far from looking like a foreign country, these small town street scenes look like anywhere in Canada of the same era.  Prairie towns such as High River, or Olds, still have a scrappy one- and two-storey main street with cars and trucks angle-parked on both sides.  They look like these postcards, and like lots of little towns in the American southwest today.  

This was thirty years before NAFTA integration; cartoon Mexico of the 1950s was Speedy Gonzales.  And yet, US penetration into both Canada and Mexico was so pervasive that small town morphology in each three countries followed the American frontier model.

Of course the Jai Alai arena, the bullring in Nogales, or the churches are specifically Mexican, but the signage — a mix of constructivism and art deco, the neon, the products, the cars — it all looks like Hastings Street in Vancouver in 1958.

The past is a foreign country and it looks like Mexico.


gabions 2

Gabions at Studland Beach, Dorset

Gabions counter erosion on beaches, usually under soft cliffs such as limestone and sandstone, or they protect roads and paths next to the beach. Lots of them in soft calcareous and slatey southern England: above, Studland Beach in Dorset, tidy genteel gabions made by a masonry culture – they look like dry stone walls.  Below, rough gabions in rough, granitey Scotland.

Duncan Astley. Gabions at Loch Hourn, Corran, ScotlandGabions are transparent to water, but obstruct larger things: sand and rock. A near-perfect solution, water is not thwarted, it comes and goes, but in a diminished way, its force absorbed by the gabion.  The fill would be formless and weak if not held in place by the wire cage which, with the lightest of touch, forms a fighting unit of rubble.


DJ Mehdi, Tonton du Bled

from Chloé Roubert's site:

DJ Mehdi and core-periphery relations