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oil: moving it

Nov. 26, 1939: Oil transported by tank cars. Though oil had been shipped in the United States since the 1860s, dozens of commodities made their way around using tank cars in the 1930s. During World War II, tank cars almost exclusively shipped oil as part of the war effort. Photo: Wood Aerial Surveys. NYTimes Archive.

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.


Arne Jacobsen: Skovshoved gas station

Arne Jacobsen. Texaco Station, Copenhagen, 1936

Drawn in 1936, actually built, and now preserved as a museum. There is a quality to this drawing much like early Disney films, or George Herriman's drawings: so much space, such sunny landscapes, just three years before the start of WWII. 

Just had a look at Texaco's timeline.  It started as a company that shipped heavy crude and was already in Antwerp by 1905, shortly after it was founded in Beaumont Texas in 1901.  In 1936 it was supplying oil to the Nationalists in Spain and continued to do that throughout the civil war. It also joined forces with Standard Oil/Chevron in 1936 – using its Bahrain oil fields and refineries, to market throughout Asia and Africa.  In 1940 Texaco's chief was forced to resign over his connections with the Nazi Party after his support of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War became public. 

In the 1950s and 60s, Texaco put on a public charm offensive with the jingle that told us 'you can trust your car to the man who wears the star'. For many of us, the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons were just part of the landscape of each week.  That's the thing with oil, it flows everywhere.



United Oil gas stations

Kanner Architects, United Oil Gas Station, Los Angeles, 2009

United Oil, Carson, California.  Jeff Appel, CEO, loves architecture and has been commissioning architects to do spectacular gas stations, including this one, by Kanner Architects.  United Oil stations are clean, beautiful and the gas is on average cheaper than other stations.  This one, on Slauson and La Brea cost $7 million; usually a gas station, car wash and convenience store is about $2+ million.  So there is a strategy: load money into the front end, make a statement, build the brand and sell the product cheaply, breaking even on volume. For us, we get to look at something quite neat, we get to be in a bit of clever architecture while doing a very mundane and repetitive task.

Gas stations in general, not a good thing, of course they should all be re-charging stations.

As architecture, not sure if this is an ode to the glamorous 1950s when it was all starships, space and the future, when gas was 10 cents a gallon and the environment was where you went to go camping.  If so, not sure this needs valorisation.  Or it might be a paean to the optimism of early modernism that by the 1950s had made it down, so democratically, to diners, gas stations and motels.  

To build this way in 2009 is to signal something about the past, in the guise of the future. As a comparison, I live in a city that in its ordinary byways and highways is so exceptionally dreary that it is painful. Architecture here, outside a few projects found in magazines, has become simply a service industry: conventional, not cheap but cheap-looking, utilitarian, no delight. It isn't signalling anything than one can actually critique except at the most functional level, such as should we have gas stations at all.  Perhaps LA, the city of dreams and whizzy gas stations, is all botox and blonde hair, but it acts on its dreams.  It actually seems to have dreams. 

I'm not sure that the old binary that good architecture only comes from totalitarian systems, that social democracies never produce much that is 'exciting' – a discussion that horrifyingly is still alive, especially when discussing places such as Dubai, has any validity at all. Architecture can't just be the tag for exceptional buildings and large projects.  The everyday environment – going to the store, the library, the gas station, the bank –if there is no loveliness here, then architecture has failed, no matter what the political or economic system in place. 


salt mines

Crews work on a new salt crushing unit, deep in the Sifto Salt -Compass Minerals mine in Goderich, Ont., Thursday, December 18, 2008. The Sifto mine, already the largest salt mine in the world has begun a $70 million expansion as the demand for highway deicing salt increases. photo: Dave Chidley

Sifto Canada: produces road-salt, has enough stored and last year laid off a fifth of its workforce because its salt is transported by boat, and a harsh winter meant shipping was difficult.  Sifto's cellars were filled, mining had to cease for the season.

Sifto is in Goderich, Ontario and provides road salt mostly for the Great Lakes region.  It is a Kansas-owned subsidiary of Compass Minerals International, with salt mines in Cote Blanche, Louisiana and Cheshire, England.  Of course.  Nantwich was the salt producer for Victorian England, and Cote Blanche sits in Holocene coastal marshes full of salt domes.  A salt dome, thank-you wikipedia, is formed 'when a thick bed of evaporite minerals intrudes vertically into surrounding rock strata'.  Evaporite: crystallisation by evaporation, in this case, salt.  Oh, it is interesting, the layer of salt is put under pressure where it begins to flow, being 'more buoyant than the sediment above it'.  Eventually it breaks through the layers of sedimentary rock above it and forms excrescences — salt diapirs — at the surface where it can become a salt glacier.  Gosh.
Salt domes, being impermeable, can trap oil above them — the source of most of the oil reserves along the Gulf of Mexico.      

Nantwich salt was used by the Romans; 'wich' means a brine spring and Nantwich's pre-Roman Celtic name indicated a sacred grove.  Do we want to know how old Nantwich's salt reserves are? yes. They are Triassic, 220 million years ago, formed from salt marshes.

Goderich's salt is Silurian (443 million years ago, since you ask), discovered in 1866 by a petroleum exploration crew, 300 m below the surface.  Today, the mine extends over seven square kilometres 500m below Lake Huron. 


Oil: highway 63

Employees work at the new Devon airport near Conklin, Alberta. October 28, 2011. Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail

On the news this morning was how Highway 63 to Fort McMurray has become a no-drive zone for engineering and oil companies.  The Alberta Construction Safety Association has had a no-drive policy for a couple of years, and the major oil sands companies such as Suncor, Statoil, Devon and Syncrude have either their own airstrips at their operations or airports capable of landing a 737.  Suncor flies 25,000 passengers a month; collectively all the airports in the oil sands move 750,000 people a year.  Add that to the 750,000 people that move through Fort McMurray's airport and one starts to have an inkling of just how vast the oil sands region is, not just in area but in personnel.

So, who is left travelling the deadly Highway 63?  Trucks, equipment, ordinary people (it is the only all-weather road into Fort McMurray), families, busses of oil sands workers too lowly to fly, cars, pickups, lots of Newfoundlanders: search the accidents on Highway 63 and CBC St John's always has the report.

The Alberta government regularly announces the twinning of this road, now scheduled to be completed by 2016, but it seems to be waiting for the Oil Sands Development Group to pony up much of the financing.  Meanwhile, clearly there is a wide economic class division growing between those who safely fly, and those who drive.  The fact that there is an official no-drive pollcy amongst corporations and their ability to completely bypass the issue by building their own airports indicates just how autonomous they are.  As the Alberta government is fond of saying that this is the economic driver of Canada, the industry must be kept sweet.  The twinning of Highway 63 for all the people forced to drive on it seems way down the list of priorities. 

It's a class thing.

A roadside memorial stands along highway 63 near Grassland Alberta on May 2, 2012, where three people where killed in an accident along the dangerous highway to Fort McMurray. Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail


Aberdeen + oil

Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Aberdeen City Garden, Aberdeen 2012

So, Aberdeen, population 200,000, oil capital of Scotland, is preparing for the end of North Sea oil extraction within the next 20 years.  

A recent and controversial project, Diller Scofidio+Renfro's transformation of Union Terrace Gardens (sponsored locally and privately, not publicly) will build the 'green heart of the silver city', a reference to the silvery granite of which Aberdeen is built. Ultimately it is the privatisation of a public amenity and has been protested muchly, but has recently narrowly been approved in a referendum.  Renamed Aberdeen City Garden, all is explained on its website.  It is undoubtedly very beautiful, a topographic landscape/building, all angles and shifting ground planes.  The images show hordes of people engaged in vigourous public mingling.  

Daniel Jauslin has written a review of the project in Topos, pulling out all its many architectural and historical references.  

Because I've been looking at Calgary recently, I'm struck more by the desire of oil cities to raise their ante with very expensive internationally-designed projects, whoever they are funded by, for their public spaces.  Having just gone through five decades of drawings of Calgary plazas full of the same people as are shown wandering through this new Aberdeen landscape, I do wonder if the driven lives lived in oil cities envision evenings of strolling about in lovely parks instead of coming home from work and then working on all evening till they crash into bed.

This is nothing to do with the actual designs, other than the experience of a city that when oil is booming, has little time for leisure, and when it isn't, is very depressed.  Very sobering these days are the images of all the near-abandoned buildings for the 2004 Olympics in Greece: nothing to do with the quality of their architecture, which was pretty stunning as I recall, and everything to do with economic  collapse, whether civic or personal, unexpected or planned for.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Aberdeen City Garden,Aberdeen 2012


Maracaibo: oil city

Riccardo Morandi. construction photo of bridge over Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela from - The Concrete Architecture of Riccardo Morandi by Giorgio Boaga & Benito Boni. Praeger, 1966

Maracaibo was isolated from the rest of Venezuela across a large lake and closer therefore to Colombia, until  El Puente Sobre el Lago was built by the Jiménez regime of the 1950s.  A competition had been set in 1957, and won by Riccardo Morandi, an Italian structural engineer, who designed it in concrete. It was the longest prestressed concrete bridge at the time, 8.67km.

Maracaibo is the oil city of Venezuela; the lake is attached to the Maracaibo Basin, part of the Gulf of Mexico and the site of Venezuela's oil reserves.  In 1964 part of the bridge collapsed after being hit by an Esso oil tanker. There wasn't a resultant oil spill, however there is no such thing as failsafe oil transport.

Puente Sobre el Lago de Maracaibo visto desde el paseo del Lago

The Esso Maracaoibo II, the tanker, had been the US Navy gasoline tanker, USS Narraguagas.  It had been bought by the Compania de Petroleo Lagos in 1947, so the US Navy must have been decommissioning its support fleet after WWII.  It ferried crude oil from Lake Maracaibo to a refinery at Aruba.  At the time of the accident it had 236,000 barrels of crude on board; an electrical failure occured and the tanker drifted, smashing into the bridge and a 248m section collapsed.  Seven people, in four cars, fell off the bridge and died. 

Hace 44 años el Esso Maracaibo se estrelló contra las pilas20 y 21 del coloso sobre el lago 259 metros de la estructura se desplomaron El capitán español Avelino González Zulaika no pudo controlar el barco debido a una falla eléctrica . Ocho meses y una semana se tardó la Creole Petroleum Corporation en reparar el Puente Rafael Urdaneta. Hasta 1985 el Esso Maracaibo estuvo navegando aguas venezolanas.


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. 


oil in Khanty-Mansiysk

Erick van Egeraat. Chess and Billiard Club, 2008. Khanty-Mansiysk, RussiaKhanty-Mansiysk is something like the Calgary of Siberia: a glossy oil city.  Erick van Egeraat was one of the founders of Mecanoo, and now has one of those globalised practices with offices in Rotterdam, London, Moscow,  Budapest and Prague.  The Chess and Billiard club building was commissioned by the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region in 2008, and underwritten by Gazprom.  It isn't large, just 8000 m2, but it is special, built for the 2010 Chess Olympiad.  On van Egeraat's website he says that Khanty-Mansiysk 'understood the need to deliver signature buildings that underline the prosperous state the city is in'.  

I've recently been writing about Calgary, which has Foster's behemothic Bow Building as evidence of its prosperous state, and an enormously expensive Calatrava bridge.  Sometimes one wishes that the prosperity was spread about a bit, in small projects such as chess clubs, throughout the city.


another kind of oil town

Huntington Beach, Los Angeles. postcard, n.d.Oil wells at Huntington Beach, Los Angeles.  Not that historic, I went there once, and yes, the beach was on one side of the road, and heavy industry on the other.  

And, below, Echo Park, 1895-1901.  I can't imagine that driling technology, safety and escaping gas were done any better then than now.  Were all these people destined for a very short life?  No heroic socialist project here, but a different kind of compliance with modernity. 

Echo Park, 1895-1901.


La Cité du Pétrole

This is a trailer for Marc Wolfensberger's La Cité du Pétrole / Oil Rocks - City above the Sea, 2009.

And this, a map from


Neft daşları and soviet modernity

The Neft daşları project, in this video, indicates something of the heroic nature of this oilfield town built in the middle of a sea.  Somehow, socialist modernism, the invention of new urban forms in strange places such as the Azeri oilfields or Siberia, was always heroic, something that all through the Cold War we, on this side, were taught to ridicule – a legacy that still holds.

Consider the Alberta oil sands – a project of capitalist modernity – which is always grooming its image, not pushing the workers to the fore as in soviet propaganda, but foregrounding economic benefits and, belatedly, environmental reclamation.  During the oil boom of the late 1970s, they were officially called the Tar Sands.  Athabascan canoes had been caulked with tar for centuries, not oil, but even the name of the product has been smoothly and cleanly re-branded.  What is real here?

Oil sands workers live in camps, fly in from all over the country for two and three week shifts, either send their money home, a real third world economic practice, or blow it out through the narco-economy.  The workers are not even foregrounded for propaganda purposes. 


OIL: Neft daşları/Нефтяные Камни/Oil Stones

Neft daşları.  A town of 5 000 oil workers, 100km from Baku, Azerbaijan and 55km from shore in the Caspian Sea.  It is a spread out little company town where what one would normally think of as fields, is water.  There are sports fields, hostels, bits of lawn and gardens, a bakery, a clinic, a cinema.  Miles of trestle bridges connect an array of rigs, docks, wells and pipelines. A gas turbine electricity station makes the oil field operations completely automonous.

Built in 1949, this was the first offshore oil platform in the world; by 1958 the town was built and continued industrial and residential construction up until 1978.  There is a core population of 900, and a rotating population of several thousand shift workers, but no families or children. Water and food are brought in.  Pipelines have gradually replaced tanker transport as weather on the sea is violent and unpredictable.

Neft daşları is sinking, or the sea is rising.  There are other platforms in Azerbijan that have superseded Neft daşları, some of the 200km of trestle roadways have collapsed, some rigs are inaccessible.

Here is a good explanation of the project, and below, an overview:


wood matches and plastic lighters

The remains of an albatross © Photo: Chris Jordan -

Went to buy some matches yesterday, looked all over the supermarket, none to be found.  Asked, told that all 'smoking paraphernalia' was over in the gas bar.  Trudged through the slush to the gas bar, asked for a box of matches: what a strange request.  The girl had to find a ladder to get them from a locked top shelf.  I could buy two huge boxes or ten little boxes, no the packages can't be divided.  
I said, this is winter, we light candles and kindling; matches aren't smoking paraphernalia, they light fires.  Here is the answer: people use disposable lighters or, for candles, those long butane filled wands.  

Which is better for this world, a match made of wood or cardboard, or a lighter made of plastic, metal and lighter fluid?

Midway Atoll is located in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five floating continents of plastic litter and chemical and organic waste.  Midway is an albatross colony: pieces of plastic, about the size of disposable lighters evidently look similar to squid, the main component of an albatross diet.  This plastic is eaten and then regurgitated to feed albatross young.  Who die.  The corpse decays and as it was stuffed with plastic, a tidy collection of matter incapable of decay is left on the beach.  

Plastic never goes away, it just gets smaller and smaller and thus is ingested by smaller and smaller animals.  Who die.  And while we seem to be able to sample the debris in each of the oceanic gyres, there is so far no solution for its collection.

The photo above is by Chris Jordan, who has made a film about Midway.  I heard about it on Radio Netherlands' Earth Beat a few weeks ago. 


building a forest

Colour-infrared image of Sudbury region using Landsat imagery from 1987. Vegetated areas appear in reddish in colour where urban/disturbed areas are green. The yellow boundary represents the study area for vegetation change detection and approximates the municipal boundary of the City of Greater Sudbury.

I heard this story on the news a while ago, but it took a while to figure out the keywords necessary to find it again.  In the lunar landscape that is the old Sudbury nickel mines and smelters there has, over the last 40 years, been a massive tree planting program, however because the soil is so acidic and toxic, there is no forest floor – that blanket of leaf mould, seeds, bugs, little animals, lilies and orchids, wild flowers, birds, from which new trees grow.  

When new roads are hacked out of the wilderness, such as the twinning of the Trans-Canada highway through Banff National Park, first the forest is logged, then bulldozers come and shovel and grade the top metre of ground into road bed.  All the little seedlings and mice die instantly.  

What Sudbury is doing is removing mats of ground cover and top soil from nearby road construction sites and placing them in the reforested areas that lack that essential floor that sustains a biodiverse ecology.

Pictures show the depth of these mats as about 4".  Is that enough?  Is the soil still toxic underneath?  I'm sure someone has figured all this out otherwise the project wouldn't be so extensive, however it does make one realise how very thin the skin is that supports life.  It also questions the expectation that it will be technology that reconstructs the toxic landscape of the oil sands: cutting and laying turf is not high technology.  It hardly even low technology.  Plants and insects are perhaps more powerful agents in reconstruction than we realise.

Land Reclamation 1978-2008. City of Sudbury.

City of Sudbury Re-Greening Program

there is a short video on this CBC report of the programme:


Primary Russian Oil and Gas Pipelines to Europe

Living in oil & gas industry-obsessed Alberta, I find this map very interesting.  This is why Russia must be kept on side.  This is the underpinning to the cold war; this is all more important than the arms race/reduction treaty. 


OIL: a new town in a resource extraction region

Just a reminder of On Site's exhibition / competition / call for entries for a new town in a resource extraction area. 
We are looking for ideas, ideas, ideas.  There are resource links on the call for entries page for general starting point information, however, you are being asked to figure out what the strategy should be, in 2011, for starting up a new town. 

On the Strand over the weekend there was a piece on video artist Diana Thater's installation on Chernobyl, which was effectively a new city built in the 1970s, something I hadn't realised when it was abandoned just 20 years later.  It is now inhabited by animals, wild horses walk the streets, swans nest on the tailings ponds.  Thater says it is a necessity of nature to persist.  She also talks about what a post-human world looks like, where political systems that built such installations were abandoned along with the site. 

We usually think of designing or planning a new town from point zero, or near to it, that builds into a community with shape and form.  One might also think of the new town when it becomes a discarded post-nuclear installation: what will it say about what we were?