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Salish Sea

Thinking about the flatly named Park Bridge of yesterday's post – maybe there was a Mr. Park connected to the CPR or Golden but it is hardly a name to capture the imagination – yesterday on CBC there was a repeat of Paolo Pietropaolo's radio documentary on the Salish Sea.
This is the new name for the waters known as the Johnstone Strait, the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Georgia for George III, named by George Vancouver, happy coincidence that.  Juan de Fuca was a Spanish explorer who was in the area in 1592 looking for a northwest passage.  Peter Puget was a lieutenant on Vancouver's expedition in 1792.

The Johnstone Strait is bordered by Queen Charlotte Strait and is towards the top eastern end of Vancouver Island.  James Johnstone was another member of Vancouver's expeditionary fleet and was the one who ascertained that Vancouver Island was an island.  Queen Charlotte was the queen of George III and also the name of one of the ships of George Dixon who surveyed the Queen Charlotte Islands, known now as Haida Gwaii.  Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are within US territory, the rest are in Canada.   The Strait of George is sometimes known as the Gulf of Georgia, thus the Gulf Islands, which extend into US territory and are there known as the San Juan Islands.

This whole waterway shall soon be officially known as the Salish Sea, surrounded as it is by the Salish peoples.  The naming of the Salish Sea removes the political markings on the water delineated by colonial names.  The old names are all related to land ownership.  Salish Sea is about the sea, not the land.  One of the Salish chiefs called in 'our highway'.  Interestingly it includes, within this name, the watersheds of the streams and rivers that feed it, thus extending way into the land confounding our usual notions of a sea as being something like a salt water lake.  The Salish Sea defines a very precise bioregion, reminding us that colonial political boundaries almost inevitably sliced apart all the natural divisions of the land and people.  The naming of the Salish Sea is a rather miraculous decolonising act, and one that is, equally miraculously, supported and promoted by all the governments within its territory. 


Park Bridge, Golden BC

Park Bridge in construction, 2006. Kicking Horse Canyon, east of Golden, BC

One of the most spectacular bridges on the Trans-Canada is the new (2007) Park Bridge on the descent into Golden.  Now that it is open you barely know you are on a bridge, so wide and smooth is it, but during the several years of its construction you drove on the old highway underneath it (the highway and the CPR tracks show in the image above).  The central piers are about 150 feet high, tall and elegant; from the old highway it was clear we were all going to pitch off into space way up the hill, shoot across the ravine and catch the hill on the other side, bypassing the dangerous twisting old road all together.  You can't see any of this now from the new road, it is all just more highway, safe and fast and that marvellous registration of the extreme topography is lost. 

Anything under construction is so exciting.  It is when concept, theory and practice are all evident to the eye, and the architecture, in its widest sense, is diagrammatic and understandable.  Construction workers give the scale, one understands the size of the project.  Once it is all done, scale is subsumed by a comfortable opacity, the process of building has become an object, with a function, and we use it unthinkingly.

Placing the girders on the piers

This photo is from the Park Bridge girder launching on the Kicking Horse Canyon highway construction website photo gallery.  This is the link to the girder launching, but the rest of the site is worth a look.


James Trevelyan

James Trevelyan. Frozen Lake, 1986. 27 x 20", mixed media on paperThis drawing came up for auction recently.  There are four large Calgary art auctions a year, each with about 600 lots, maybe 400 of which are paintings of the mountains in landscape format, blue skies, sharp shadows on the peaks, snow at the top, usually a river in the foreground.  The views are often recognisable from the road or from hikes radiating out from the old CPR towns - Banff, Lake Louise, Field, Craigellachie, Glacier, Golden and date from the days when artists came from England or Ontario and Québec via the CPR to Banff to paint.  It established a way of looking at the mountains: from a safe distance, from a valley, in the summer.

Today these same towns are ski centres, contemporary art has long turned away from landscape painting, and although there are some brilliant abstract painters of landscapes across the prairies, few look at the mountains and it is rare indeed to find much work painted from the depths of winter.  The obvious reason is that it is bloody cold in the winter. 

Perhaps a less obvious reason is our fear of winter.  The winter on the prairies and in the mountains is not the cozy Group of Seven kind of winter where snow lies like puffy duvets on everything and shadows are a lovely violet or a deep azure.  This is black and white winter, hard and mean. The frozen lake in James Trevelyan's drawing is scoured clean by a high mountain wind, its ice like basalt.  And yet there is a lovely intimacy in this piece, an ambiguity of surface and light that one never finds in work painted on bright sunny days. 

Like lots of Canadians, lots of Canadian artists go to Mexico for the winter.  I'd take this view of a sere, cold, empty, beautiful winter over the florid landscapes of the south any day.  Visually, I get this climate. 



Roger's Pass

Trans-Canada Highway at Roger's Pass, winter.

How to cross something so impenetrable.  Everyone, from First Nations to the railway to the highways followed the rivers, but rivers drop down from summits, and there is always a point where the mountains must be crossed.  The railways drilled long tunnels through mountains, the highways that followed eighty years later couldn't and so we have a series of rather heart-stopping passes throughout BC: Roger's Pass, Crowsnest Pass, the Creston-Salmo Highway, the Coquihalla, the Hope-Princeton.  One approaches them gingerly and with great respect.  

On this drive, three thin lines: the CPR, the CNR and the Trans-Canada are the only visible signs of our occupation of these huge landscapes.  In the winter there is little traffic, campsites and viewing spots are all closed and under 10' of snow, radio is inaccessible, one can drive for miles without seeing another car.  One is thinking of absolutely nothing other than driving and the road.  It is remarkably calm.  Then a truck hurtles by, throws a rock at your windshield and the rest of the trip has a big silver crack across your view.


British Columbia

This map is from Derek Hayes' 2002 Historical Atlas of Canada, the most beautiful of all the historical atlas projects. The image is linked to Google books where one can see just how beautiful.

One of the conditions of the colony of British Columbia joining Canada in 1871 was the building of an overland link from BC to the rest of Canada.  This was the commission given to the CPR and completed in 1884.  Is BC a different world than the rest of Canada?  They certainly think so.

This map, drawn in the 1870s when much of BC was simply unknown to surveyors and engineers, shows just how much of a conundrum this territory must have seemed. After sailing breezily through the flat land of the prairies where nothing can be hidden from view suddenly there is the wall of the Rockies. Even today, on the much improved Trans-Canada, one cannot get through BC quickly, and the older Highway 3 through the Crows Nest is very convoluted. However, such roads keep one more alert than driving through southern Saskatchewan in a 500 mile straight line.

I like this map for the dismay it seems to exude.  BC was going to be a hard project.



Eric Ravilious. Spitfires on a Camouflaged Runway, 1942. watercolour on paper 45 x 62 cm. Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon

Ravilious, above, shows a camouflaged air field, with an added stream, road and shading to indicate topographic variation: complex patterns for a complex landscape.  If the RCAF training field in Vulcan had been under threat from the Luftwaffe it would have been painted to look like a wheatfield with rectangular plowing lines. 

Aisling O'Carroll wrote about military camouflage in On Site 22: WAR.  In her section on deception she outlines the array of dummy trucks, tanks and airstrips elaborately laid out to divert attention from real trucks, tanks and airstrips all cunningly camouflaged with paint, netting and big boxes.  She tracked down some great pictures from the National Photographic Archives at Kew – one showing a tank lurking under a very crude truck form as part of the grand counter-installations for el Alamein.  The scale of the deception is staggering: an entire army was recreated in a part of the desert far away from the real army. 

Camouflage does not seem to be as much about veracity as pattern recognition.  The scale worked at is the texture of the landscape with objects, including shadows.  It is an activity at once huge and intimate.


National Air Photo Library

Spruce Cliff, Calgary 1951

Before Google's satellite, we had the National Air Photo Library.  It started after WWI with Royal Flying Corps pilots at loose ends in postwar society who were put to work photographing Canada from the air.  After WWII the program was boosted by returning RCAF pilots.  Photos were taken at a specific height at measured intervals with two cameras producing stereo images. 

The University of Calgary map library has a complete set – probably most university libraries do. There are volumes of maps with the flight paths charted on them, with thousands and thousands of photos in box files according to date and path.  You look at them through stereo lenses set on a little stand.  They are absolutely fascinating.  Sure, Google Earth can do it all, but these are a photographic record over a century, made every few years. There is of course, a website for the NAPL, but the paraphernalia is missing.

I've used these photos in research.  I love their glossy surface, I love the fact that it started as a make work project for young RCAF pilots, I love the stereoscope nature of the project: buildings leap up off the surface of the photo.  And you can take them out of the library and scan them yourself.  It's amazing.  They did the whole country. 

Spruce Cliff, Calgary 1953

The two photos here (click on them to enlarge) show the century-long process of Calgary moving into farmland, quarter-section by quarter-section.  The top left hand corner shows Spruce Cliff, an escarpment plateau over the Bow River, with the CPR main line at its foot.  It had been subdivided in the 1900s but almost all the lots reverted to the City during the depression through tax default.  A golf course had been made in the 1920s, but there hadn't been much development in Calgary from the 1920s to the late 1940s.  Then it exploded.  In 1951 you can see the edge of town, the golf course and a farm.  In 1953, the farm is a building site for Spruce Cliff Apartments, a Corbusian array of four-storey blocks that had roof nurseries and laundries and were, briefly, a very good place to live.  Spruce Cliff was a high-modern model that didn't take off here.  It still stands, but in a much altered state.  Which I won't show you. 



WWII surplus

link to original Google map

Not quite sure how I got this Google aerial here, but shall continue anyway.  The marker points out Vulcan, Alberta, sitting clearly in its 6-mile by 6-mile township.  If you go to the bottom of the township, where there is a clear east-west road, just below this road in the second quarter-section along is a tiny triangular airfield, roughly 45 degrees south west of the marker.

This one was built as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Program in 1943. There is a website for these  small disused airfields all over southern Alberta and Saskatchewan: learning to navigate here would have been like flying over graph paper.  My father who learned to fly in the CATP base in Medicine Hat said you'd fly around and if you were lost, you'd find the highway to Med Hat and follow it in – a nice straight run.

The Vulcan air strip had a number of hangars, the seventh of which was recently removed.  What a great project it would have been to have made all of this into a series of studios for writers, musicians, sculptors, painters.  Must artists colonies always be located in the clichés of either nineteenth century landscape painters (mountains and lakes) or the industrial areas of cities greater than 5 million people?  The depopulation of the rural prairies has left a lot of building stock, a lot of which stands until it falls down.  We could use these places.


the Dominion Grid

an image that everyone on the prairies has: incoming weather, driving in a straight line, fall fieldsThe Dominion Survey turned land into property in the tradition of the Enclosures Acts in Britain, where land commonly and traditionally farmed was enclosed by fences and walls by often self-appointed land-owners.  The Dominion Survey prepared the ground for the CPR and western settlement. Land held for millennia and used in accordance with constantly re-negotiated peace treaties, all of a sudden within a few years in the 1880s, was ruled off into one-mile squares, 6 mile sections, 36 square mile townships.  Road allowances were made at the edges of the sections and the first nations were bundled into reserves.

Metes and bounds, the survey system that measures land between this rock and that river, this mountain ridge and that path at least acknowledges that land has form, and in determining reserves in eastern Canada often the boundaries were negotiated according to an organic and aboriginal understanding of land use.  Not so for the Sarcee Reserve, now the Tsuu T'ina Nation, which was given three townships sitting in a row, a 36 x 6 mile rectangle running from 37th Street in south Calgary to the mountains.  Rivers and streams cut into this block and out again.  One could perhaps understand the same area being defined by the watershed of the Elbow River perhaps, but not this indifferent and random assignation of land. 

If you can measure land, you can draw it and if you can draw it, you can sell it.  Is this not at the base of survey systems?  I grew up with a western Canadian and an architect's love of the Dominion Grid, its absolute rationality that was nonetheless full of errors, correction lines that occur because of the curvature of the earth, delightful incongruities as a road slices over a hill and down a valley, standing on an escarpment and seeing the road go to the horizon twenty miles away.  Old Saskatchewan farmers could still reel off the legal description of homesteads they'd left in the 30s:  Section 22, Township 26, Range 2, West of the 4th Meridian.  I thought all this was magical, and in some sense still do.  But I also see it as a commercial project.  The CPR was given astounding bonuses for building the railway connecting BC with eastern Canada: $25 million (about $500 million today), 25 million square miles (exactly half the land) in a 50-mile zone either side of the main line and a monopoly on rail connections to the US.  Why does most of Canada live within a hundred miles of the US border?  Does the CPR have something to do with this? Are section roads straight?

CPR land was evenly dispersed, effectively limiting the size of a homestead (obtained free from the Canadian governmnent) to one section.


Eric Ravilious: the scale of the land

Eric Ravilious. Chalk Downs, 1940. watercolour. 23 x 14 in. (56 x 47 cm)Eric Ravilious was a British war artist who died in 1944 when the RAF reconnaissance plane he was on disappeared off Iceland.  He did a number of things before the war: murals, woodcuts, graphic design, drawing and painting in the pale, flat sketchy way that a number of artists who had studied at the Slade used in the 1930s and 40s.  Supreme draughtsmanship, coupled in Ravilious's case with a deep love of the Sussex landscape which was at the time under threat from development, informs the painting above. 

It is small, and the brushmarks are those of a watercolour brush, used quite dry, and in places stippled.  It was a way of working that was fast and portable.  For Ravilious, nature is not wilderness, it is the impacted landscape of earth worked for millennia under many belief systems for agricultural use.  The fence line is important: it delineates territory, the road cuts the growing surface of the land the same way as the huge chalk hill carvings such as the Westbury horse, or the Cerne Abbas giant.

The chalk drawings are neolithic, perhaps druidic.  They are made by removing the thin layer of turf to reveal the limestone below.  They will disappear if not kept clear, which they have been for 3000 years.  It is this immense continuity that Ravilious sees in his landscapes, combined with the modernity of the age in which he lived.  A steam train chugs across the plain beneath the Westbury horse.

The Imperial War Museum held a centenary Ravilious (1903-1944) exhibition in 2004.  A most beautiful book was published to accompany it: Imperial War Museum. Eric Ravilious. Imagined Realities. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003.  Their website gives an overview.

Eric Ravilious. The Westbury Horse, 1939. © Estate of Eric Ravilious 2004


Barbara Ballachey: the scale of the hand

Barbara Ballachey. An Ordinary Hill #1, 1980. 48 x 64 in. (121.9 x 162.6 cm)

This was a painting I could not afford to buy at a recent auction.  It is a particularly bright view of the foothills landscape south of Calgary – gaily coloured, exuberant brush strokes – just a beautiful painting.  In the online catalogue it looked like one thing, in reality it is very large: it is 5' wide.  On line I had understood each mark at the scale of the hand, at most from the elbow to the hand.  In reality the marks have been made with the whole arm, from the shoulder, and likely with the whole upper body moving with each stroke. 

A luddite-ish friend who has recently discovered the wealth of architectural images on the web wondered why he needed to travel all over the world now photographing buildings; he might as well stay home on his computer.  For the economically-challenged, the web is as close as many of us are ever likely to get to serious architecture.  The unfortunate thing, and this is the same with any form of reproduction, is that one has no idea what size anything is.  Still, all these years after Benjamin, we believe that to see a photograph or a reproduction is to 'know' the piece.

There is something introspective about buildings, landscapes, paintings that allows us to examine the materiality, the marks made in construction too small to register on a photograph but which are so telling.  If anything the reproduction does not allow us to consider the longue durée to which architecture, land and art are the witnesses. 


Nicole Dextras

Nicole Dextras. Yucca Prom Dress.

Nicole Dextras is a Vancouver artist who works with ephemeral materials: plants, water, ice, names, myths, clothing destined to last and yet never to be worn again.  It is her work, Toronto Island 2007, on the cover of On Site 20: museums and archives.  It shows a delicate organza skirt and a black velvet jacket caught, frozen in the ice, all the immanent life in clothing pinned the way that iridescent beetles are pinned in natural history museum specimen trays. 

Dextras has contributed several articles to On Site, beginning with 'Belonging.  Sous le pont', an extended series of installations under Burrard Bridge that crossed First Nations narratives with blackberry vines, willow branches, Mountain Ash berries woven and tied into fragile, but flexible structures (On Site 18: culture).

On Site 21: weather showed work she'd done in Dawson City in the Yukon, constructing moulds for large free-standing ice letters.  What does one write with 10'-high letters in ice?  Dextras wrote L E G A C Y .  She wrote names: Cléophase, Elphese, Gédéon – noms a coucher dehors.  The past  is the subject, the medium is the weather, the tools are un-constructed materials at hand.

If Dextras' winter material at hand is ice, her summer material is plants. Still ephemeral, still delineating the structures of other, past lives.  I just find this work so beautiful, the antithesis of the world of war On Site has been engaged with now for months and months.  War does grind one down.  Nicole Dextras's work does lift one up. 

Nicole Dextras. Sunday


Christina Maile

Christina Maile. Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) at a hydrant on Kings Plaza Station.

In 'Sewing the Landscape' (On Site 8: Sewing and Architecture), Christina Maile looked at the colonisation of hard urban surfaces by plants – resiliant, sturdy survivalists.  Since that article I have not ever passed by a stop sign, or a concrete median, or the gutter where the curb meets the pavement without looking for and finding a frilly green edge, or a sunny yellow flower, or now in November, lovely arrangements of seed heads and dried leaves.  Was there ever a text that changed my perception of the everyday city at the smallest scale so dramatically?  I don't think so.

Thinking of the city as a landscape that had been invaded by concrete is what actually happened, yet we perceive the opposite, that plants have re-occupied a landscape that never contained them.  Like the plants, we become guests in the city, rather than the city being an instrument that merely mediates the weather and facilitates travel in a much greater landscape.  If that larger landscape is under threat, as it is from enormous urban off-gassing, perhaps we need to reconceptualise our relationship to urban spaces, the landscape and to our own agency.  The mugwort, above, might be humble, but it is not self-effacing: concrete holds no terrors here. 

We have a call for articles right now for On Site 23: small things.  Looking at weeds on the sidewalk is a small thing.  Small things are seeds for larger ideas, for radical re-thinking. 


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