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Entries in publics (9)


once strong, but now weak, systems

This video, Andy Merrifield outlining the basis for his book The New Urban Question, came by way of Rodrigo Barros, a Chilean architect currently training as a construction logistician for Médecins Sans Frontiers.  Barros did a brilliant piece for On Site review 31: mapping | photography on the 'rightness' of maps that centre on the United States and allow South America to drift off the global view.  His is the view from the South.
This particular view, after forty years of intense geopolitical theorising from Latin America, is his lens, and so he picks up on a certain theoretical vocabulary found in Merrifield's brief outline of just how Manuel Castells' explanation of urban social movements has been superseded by a new form of divisive capitalism.  

When states can no longer afford the social services they subsidised in the full flush of postwar capitalist development, their disinvestment in such things as health care and housing pushed such services into the private sector.  This gave rise to urban social movements which struggled to hold governments to their role as keepers of some sort of public faith.  Merrifield feels that the turn to mass privatisation in the 1980s and 90s obliviated urban social movements and that a new paradigm must be developed that returns public space to the public, public health to the public, public housing to the public, the public service to the public.  

Just yesterday there was an interview on CBC with the head of Canada Post whose former position was as the head of Pitney Bowes. There we are. Pitney Bowes is an American private mail and data service for businesses.  Under the Pitney Bowes model, Canadian mail is no longer a public service, it is a corporate business, thus the end of home delivery, the shocking price of stamps and the full support of our current neo-conservative Thatcher/Reaganite form of government. This gives me particular grief.  We are a non-profit publisher with a publications mail contract with Canada Post which gives us a discount on mailing On Site review, except for international mailings which tend never to arrive.  Or if they do arrive it has taken six months to get to, say, Denmark. In contrast, Valery Didion's Criticat is sent from France at a book rate, €2.95, which gets here in a week.  In return I send On Site back to them at publications rate which may or may not get there several months later, or I spend $18 to send it letter mail which gets there in a week.  

Somehow Canada as a wide, dispersed country only sees urban social movements of any consequence in Toronto and Montréal, especially Montréal, infrequently and now rarely, Toronto.  In the rest of the country there isn't the critical mass to act collectively from say, Alberta to Manitoba, so sparse is the population. CBC used to be the glue that held us together, its recent cuts have been lethal.  It is all one with the sacking of scientists, the gutting of census collection and analysis, the cutting free of wounded Canadian Forces from their pensions, cutbacks to universities: the private sector is supposed to be picking up the slack, but it isn't.  And the time is past, according to Merrifield, for Castells' urban social movements to have any influence at all.  In this country, we missed that phase altogether.  


Argentina's Playlist for Freedom

Part of BBC's Freedom 2014 programming: Natalio Cosoy's passionate explanation of the music of Argentina's often coded popular and folk songs during both military rule and after.  A wonderful half-hour of 'anthems to perseverance', as he says, 'what music can actually do, in terms of instilling freedom into society.'

Manifestación de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo en 1983, // Click on image to take you to the BBC page. Not ever sure how long these things are available for, but this image gives you all the tracking information.

This is an exciting series.  Here is a link to hip-hop in Africa.  For someone, me, who came to African music in the pre-African Rap late-80s, this program explains much that I had seen as neo-colonialism.  Again, it and the words were and are coded, flying under the radar of convention, tradition and military regimes. 


Rodney Place: art and revolution, 2012

Brett Murray The Struggle, 2010 Silkscreen 100 x 70cm Edition of 22. Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Something to think about: the artist, after the revolution.  We are so distant here in this snow-muffled northern country, the end of apartheid so abstracted, that Mandela's gracious processes of reconciliation have effectively buried the bodies.  

However, on the ground in South Africa the revolution continues to play itself out.  It was announced today that Mamphela Ramphele has become the head of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition to Jacob Zuma's ANC, which is perhaps a different animal than the ANC of the struggle.  Ramphele was Steve Biko's partner, her cred is enormous, as an activist and as a now wealthy mining executive, doctor and World Bank director.  

Rodney Place in a 2012 essay about the place of the artist in post-revolutionary times, speaks about the relativism of the word 'freedom'.  In the balance between control, as seen in the limits of how and how much the artist can speak, and actual freedom historically charted in other revolutionary times, control has all the weight: the more weighty the control, the more rapier-like the tiny artist must be.  But only if the artists are up to it, and for this, they must be uncorruptable, immune to such things as  fame, market, comfort and the refuge of apoliticism.  Ha.  

The occasion of this essay was Brett Murray's 2012 exhibition in Cape Town, Hail to the Thief II, a collection of vicious satirical pieces that rant on the venality of current South African political culture.  The exhibition evidently was the site of public protests against such a critique, and it was to this that Place's essay responds.  

Revolutions betrayed are tragic, no less so in South Africa than in North Africa and the Middle East.  The Arab Spring has turned into a geography of proxy war on a dozen fronts.  Rodney Place excoriates artists who, as he says,  'want revolutions but we usually prefer being left alone to make art.'  Can art be the gun?  A romantic idea; when it happens it reveals polarities covered by other more pervasive mythologies. 


the silence of the labs

Silence of the Labs, Fifth Estate. CBC 12 January 2014.

Lyndon MacIntyre on the closing of environmental research labs across Canada, 45 minutes.  Science in support of particular policy decisions okay, such as the oil sands. Science that studies pollution, deep arctic history, health of people and waters – no longer deemed important.  

As Neil Young is saying this week, 'we are trading the integrity of Canada for money': close the libraries, fire the scientists, forget researched anthropological history: throw money at the War of 1812 and the Franklin Expedition, two British projects, the first before Canada was even an entity, the second a failure.  The Museum of Civilisation becomes the Museum of History as seen through the lens of Canadian war, something one would think was already covered by the Canadian War Museum.  Subsequent problems of contemporary wars such as the suicide epidemic of ex-Afghanistan veterans, the cutting of veterans' benefits -- these things are not easily rewritten as our glorious war record, so forget them.

What kind of country have we become? 


Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun.  Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.

There is, of course, controversy.  Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty.  He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party.  Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less.  This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.  

The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth.  He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s.  With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write.  As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.  

Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's.  The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating.  How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler.  Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery.   Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.

I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos.  It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean.  I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them.  The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance.  The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009


Picnic grounds

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

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

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

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


Lisbon: two projects:: Zuloark, Toran and Kular 

The Universal Declaration of Urban Rights

Zuloark (Spain)

Universal Declaration of Urban Rights, Zuloark, 2013

The introduction:  'Between 1986 and 2002, the Portuguese Association of Landscape Architects’ rules, codes, ethics and mission were designed, written and conducted from within the walls of the palace.

Presented as an infrastructure for communal reasoning about the rights to the city and the rights of being a citizen, the intent of this project is to build a Universal Declaration of Urban Rights, aiming to reach a consensus about the methodologies that regulate the construction, legislation and use of public space. Every Tuesday at 19:00, there is a Parliamentary Session led by guest speakers, open to the public, that contributes to the making of one article. Based on a trial and error methodology, the declaration will evolve as the project develops, throughout the course of the exhibition, written in successive drafts, throughout the course of the exhibition.'


In Dreams I Walk With You

Noam Toran (US) & Onkar Kular (UK)

Noam Toran & Onkar Kular. Mário Castelhano, 1928 © Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. On 31 January 1912, 620 anarcho-syndicalists were arrested in the then headquarters of the movement, located at Palácio Pombal. Expelled from the building at gunpoint, it was reported that the anarchists proudly sang “The International”, before being led away.The description:  'A theatrical piece inspired by the “Worker’s Theatre” of the early 20th century in Europe, whose remit was to depict the struggle of the working class with the aim of arousing social consciousness and collective action. The subject of the play focuses on the relationship between Mário Castelhano (1894–1940) and Manuel Rijo (1897–1974): railworkers, militant anarchists, and syndicalist organisers who shared most of their adult lives in exile or imprisonment. Set in a degree zero architecture, the prison cell, the piece depicts a series of daring 'escapes' in which the prisoners mentally construct varying utopias to imaginatively travel to.  The work is accessed in the form of a written script, facing a theatre set empty of actors. At once a commemoration of the humanist values of political anarchism and a reflection on the fragility of contemporary political culture, the work is a meditation on the inherent problems of, but necessity for, the desire and production of utopias.'


Frida Escobedo: the public stage is the quite confusing but graphically beautiful website for the triennale.

The Lisbon Triennale is launched, its theme: When do we produce architecture?  Frida Escobeda, who we published a long long time ago, issue 13 perhaps, has set up the Praça da Figueira as a stage. 

The intro says: 'What happens if a real-life public stage, a civic stage, is suddenly unveiled in our cities? What would happen if we reframe the tamed reality of public space into a theatrical site of exchange were can collectively perform our aspirations? Would fiction become real life and vice versa?'

The program, New Publics, has scheduled a number of performances and acts on Frida's stage, a floating disc, above, including City Acts, below, described thus:

'City Acts are three long-term city initiatives that address the domestic, the social, and the public space. Developed similar to ethnographic projects, they frame consistent dialogue and fieldwork as the main motor to create diverse and dynamic civic spaces. The success of all three initiatives relies on community support, which demonstrates the power of people working together.'  


Ground Floor Act, 2013 © ARTÉRIA. This group is made up of Artéria (Portugal), Daniel Fernández Pascual (Spain) and Unipop (Portugal))The triennale runs from September 12-November 10, 2013. 


The Smithsons on Housing, 1970

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.