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Entries in weak systems (26)

Thursday
Mar192015

Detroit Soup: very, very resilient

Detroit Soup is a program, started in Detroit but expanding to other cities and countries, that sets a monthly potluck dinner and charges $5 for soup, salad and bread. Everyone votes for a project that has been pitched that evening and the gate money becomes the pot handed out to the project with the most votes. The projects are community-based, creative, involve local people and small, small enough that $1000 is terrific seed money to get going with.  

From the website detroitsoup.com:

Detroit Soup from Dandelion on Vimeo.

There has been a BBC program on this week, 'Can Soup Change the World' where one of Soup's founders, Amy Kaherl, explains it all. She is a down to earth, calm, massively competent person wearing normal clothes. (cf. Resilient Cities, below) This is her project, hers and a number of other people collaborating, volunteering, working and benefitting from these micro-grants.  

It is interesting to compare this program with Resilient Cities (polar opposites yet both hoping for the same results): there is just one small diagram for Soup that uses four words that do not appear anywhere in the Resilient Cities material: Art, Urban Agriculture, Justice and Social Entrepreneurs.  Detroit has hit rock-bottom and stayed there now for at least a decade: the city is bankrupt, discussions still go on about selling its art collection, people lose their houses which are promptly gutted so they can't be squatted in but neither can they then be fixed up, neighbourhoods look much like New Orleans' Ward 9 after the water receded.  This is the kind of place where innovation, creativity and self-starting projects find fertile ground.  Any project, no matter how small, is needed, not just wanted as a nice idea, but needed.  And as Detroit has bigger things to worry about, does not stand in the way of either Soup or its crowd (literally)-funded projects.  

To me, this is true resilience: flexibility and commitment from below, not from some corporate model of transnational cooperation that focusses on expensive infrastructure – the Halliburton model: a service company that operates far beyond its remit when 'resilience' activities are needed. Soup is something else.  everything about it appears to be provisional – the Jam Handy warehouse they use, the pot luck dinners, the donated bread from a local bakery, the micro-economy they swim in, the youth of the participants, the seriousness with which street kinds, homeless people, struggling single mothers, guys who never take their touques off are considered, listened to and treated.  There is no hierarchical structure; everyone is valued, everyone is fed. 

 

Wednesday
Mar182015

Tulsa: not resilient yet

Tulsa’s Resilience Challenge Officials are prioritizing civil engagement and working on an innovative floodplain management plan.

Tulsa Oklahoma, one of the Resilient Cities 100.  Trying here to figure out exactly what Resilience Cities are and do.  It was, once, the centre of the US oil industry, but diversified to 'telecommunications, finance and aviation'.  What does this mean?  call centres? airport hub?  But, it has poverty in minority communities.  Of course it does.  Not only is it in need of resilience from being located in Tornado Alley, local civil society, especially the poverty sector, must be engaged with.  Tulsa has 391,900 people.  This is the extent of the information on Tulsa as a resilience challenge.  

What am I expecting?  Microsoft is working with the Resilient Cities 100 on emergency communications during extreme weather events.  A Chief Resilience Officer, a CRO, is needed.  As Tulsa's challenges are listed as Hurricane/Typhoon/Cyclone, Social Inequity and Tropical Storms, it can be linked to 51 other cities from Belgrade to Arusha.

Resilient Systems, another diagram with rollovers explaining some key terms, all very good, desirable and unchallengeable.  Reflective: able to learn. Robust: limits spread of failure.  Flexible: has alternate strategies. Integrated: systems work together.  Resourceful: can easily repurpose resources.  Redundant: has backup capacity.  Inclusive: broad consultation and communication.  

Last night on the news CBC showed a new way of teaching grade fives how to analyse problems.  The task was how to make a playscape for their school.  Lots of bubble diagrams were created, arrows, priorities, who does what.  When it came to materials the pupils dutifully wrote in their bubbles 'swings', 'slides', 'monkey bars'.  Good god, for all that analysis, they still see a playscape as a traditional playground set that's been in every school yard since 1952.  Somehow all this systematic organisation seems to reorganise knowns and givens while excluding lateral, creative thought.  One suspects that no amount of bubble diagramming or rollovers will come up with a vegetable garden in the corner of the school yard – that kind of idea floats in from some different universe.  

If we have CROs, CEOs and CFOs, we have governance structures and hierarchies.  If there was anything revealed in On Site review 32: weak systems, it is that hierarchies are rarely robust and are structurally incapable of being resilient.

 

Can't resist:

 

Tuesday
Mar102015

Urbanistas: London

Zaha Hadid. Roca London Gallery, 2009-2011Roca, a Spanish bathroom fixtures corporation, is behind Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid in 2011.  Based on the movement of water evidently, it is curvy white space and currently has an exhibition, Urbanistas, curated by Lucy Bullivant, showing the influential work of five architects, women, young and successful: Alison Brooks, Muf, AWP, J&L Gibbons and Irena Bauman.
 
In a long article in the Guardian, Bullivant explains just what defines their work.  It is a commitment to 'a public realm of social value' and this spins off into climate, weather and seasons, multiculturalism, the knitting together of infrastructures, nature and landscape – long term strategies that, as Bullivant points out, are the opposite of development quick turn-arounds.  In this article are statements from each architect: none talk about gender, rather they simply talk about their aims for architecture and urban design.  Landscape Urbanism hovers in the background.  Irena Bauman mentions the 'professional vanity and commercial growth as the primary drivers of [the architectural] business model' and explains how the work of Bauman Lyons presents an alternative, including only accepting work within two hours road travel from their studio, not going for awards, working a 4-day week, and collaborating on and co-producing work.  Collaborating.  

Women collaborate, and Bullivant indicates that as there are now more women in the profession they have a larger influence on it.  It has long been difficult to collaborate with a profession that valorises the Ayn Rand hero, and if this seems a cheap use of a cliché let's just say it is based on experience of a certain generation, thankfully now at career's end.  Liza Fior's sentence,  'We endeavour in all our projects to make spaces where more than one (fragile) thing can coexist at a time' indicates just how far the professional discourse with which these five architects are engaged has moved.  

Lucy Bullivant's essay – all that is available to me, in stead of the exhibition – is encouraging, rewarding and very inspiring.  I am heartened.

Malmo Quay, Newcastle: visualisation of a project by AWP, Featherstone Young Architects and Mikhail Riches Architects. © sbda

Thursday
Feb122015

slum tourism

Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment Volume 14, Issue 2, 201.2 Special Issue:   Global Perspectives on Slum Tourism

Is this what it is, our interest in how barrios organise themselves and rebuild squatter settlements into self-directed, autonomous living environments?  Slum tourism?  

Is our interest in informal urbanism actually aestheticising of poverty as proposed by this issue of Tourism Geographies?  or do tourism geographers see everything as a species of tourism, which is, by nature, grounded in the 'gaze'?  The underlying premise of tourism is that there is an interface between two different kinds of people, usually one with more money than the other, one more mobile than the other, one more 'scientific' than the other.  Tourism as a form of coloniality.  

Despite having done a Phd in geography, this is one particular aspect of geography that I've always found problematic.  It attaches social conditions, ideology and political meaning to urban spatial conditions, usually deserved and valid, such as hierarchies of power in city planning trends. However, it does not allow any other determinants of form than the social, the ideological or the political.  As an architect, this meant that everything I'd ever done, studied and taught was considered completely naïve, mis-judged and really, really toxic.  Found this a bit hard.  We all live and work in social ideological and political contexts, but in the making of architecture these things are inadvertent and perhaps that is where we have been deaf and blind to our own position in society. With a modernist and early postmodernist education I was taught first that the ultimate goal of architecture was not the naked display of power but a better world for all people, and then later that everything had meaning and one had to look after the meanings that buildings radiated. Well, yes, this is a bit naïve.  

Of course there has always been slum tourism.  Slumming was probably around in the eighteenth century – that frisson somewhere between horror and delight in observing the depths of social despair.  Anyway, slum tourism is a whole issue of Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment.  How embarrassing is that.  Nonetheless I find it difficult to think that all study of favelas, barrios and other informal settlements is at heart touristic.  The installation of outside escalators up the hillside barrios of Medellín has physically linked neighbourhoods previously at war.  That drug lords control the small plazas at the top and bottom of each escalator indicates that turf rules still hold, but an escalator is not an impenetrable wall, nor is it a dangerous path through dense housing, nor is it an armoured vehicle.  To find this device that reputedly unites communities is not touristic, rather it is a lesson probably humbly learnt. I don't know of one difficult topography in our cities with an escalator, and personally I don't care who thought of it first.

I think this is at the heart of the Uneven Growth project which is asking for collaboration from the megacities with dense and difficult housing conditions. In theory it could be an elitist project: planners picking and choosing what is 'interesting' about Mumbai; it also could be a chance to hear from community planners in Mumbai itself.  One never knows precisely the status, background, political position or colonised education of developing world voices: is what we are hearing authentic?  authentically postcolonial? an intelligent voice or a sycophantic fool?  How do we get a chance to ride with the rebel side and not be a tourist with it?

Wednesday
Feb112015

Uneven growth: tactical urbanism

From the MoMA Uneven Growth website: 'Challenging assumed relationships between formal and informal, bottom-up and top-down urban development, the resulting design scenarios, developed over a 14-month initiative, consider how emergent forms of tactical urbanism can respond to alterations in the nature of public space, housing, mobility, the environment, and other major issues of near-future urbanization.'

Megacities, and the poverty within them, seem to outline a future of more concern than war, perhaps because slums have long been pathologised as behavioural sinks, a view that prevailed throughout the twentieth-century and is now being challenged. Turns out there is more humane urbanity in a barrio, stronger organisation and more design automony in barrio councils than in any OECD city.  Ideas are flowing from south to north, an indication that our complacent wealthy cities suffer a deficit of design intelligence.

in On Site review 32: weak systems Eduardo Aquino wrote about beaches as systems of human interaction found nowhere else: an egalitarian, non-judgemental field sitting between the city and the ocean where new and free relationships can form.  There is simply no equivalent condition in the contemporary northern city – parks haven't the same transitional spatiality. Aquino's archetypal beach is in Rio de Janeiro, and he cites Lina Bo Bardi's boardwalk in São Paulo; somehow our beaches don't seem to work this way.  Is it weather, where we are all clenched against the cold, even in summer?  — a defensiveness that infects all aspects of our lives and makes us uncharitable and rigid?  Perhaps I exaggerate, but the most exciting urban critiques and constructs are coming from the informal sectors of southern megacities where conventional urban planning, rooted in European urban culture, has never ventured.

Tuesday
Jul082014

the world of patents

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 2,682,235 BUILDING CONSTRUCTION Richard Buckminster Fuller, Forest Hills, N. Y. Application December 12, 1951, Serial No. 261,168, p. 1.

Investigating the world of patents in conjunction with Buckminster Fuller's 1951 patent of the geodesic dome, which made him quite wealthy as he licensed the rights far and wide, I have discovered a) that patents only last 15 years and then are released to the public domain, and b) that there is a certain madness in the patent world.  
Evidently inventions must be novel, useful and not obvious.
Novel we get, not obvious means that it can't be a logical development of a previous patent, but useful?  This clearly is a wide and ambiguous quality.  

Many patents are genuine developments that advance medical technology, etc., but someone wants to put a clamp on the developments to make money from it.  Well and good, research and development costs.  Others seem to respond to some really annoying problem someone has in their daily life and god dammit they are going to solve this, patent it and make a fortune.  Such as the bird trap cat feeder, which catches sparrows and feeds them to cats. 

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 4,150,505 BIRD TRAP AND CAT FEEDER Leo O Voelker, Linn Kans 66953 Application August 8 1977, US1977000822683 p.1.Now, what world does this person live in?  Is there a personality type that easily loses perspective in the blinding light of their own genius?  What is wrong with sparrows that they should be so cruelly hunted – it is something like finding out that the Elizabethan delicacy, lark's tongues, required a thousand tongues to make a single serving.  Was Elizabethan England overrun with larks?  Was Kansas in the late 1970s visited by a plague of sparrows?  

Oh no, there is a large section of google references to sparrow control.  Evidently they are invasive, successful and displace little native birds.  This is one of the discussions we are having in the contributions to On Site 32: weak systems – successful invasions of the small and insidious.

Monday
Jun232014

Black Mountain College

A. Lawrence Kocher, Studies Building, Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, North Carolina. 1941

Black Mountain College, North Carolina, started an interdisciplinary summer arts school at Lake Eden in 1944 during a war, when things rarely start, and continued to throw artists, musicians, dancers and experimental types together through the 1950s.  One of these was Buckminster Fuller who had done his startling dymaxion work in the 1920s and 30s and by the late 1940s mostly taught, did workshops and mentored people.  One of these was Jeffrey Burland Lindsay, an engineer-industrial designer in Montreal who headed up the Buckminster Fuller Research Institute, a grand name which turns out to be Lindsay and Ted Pope in a small space on the Plateau.  One of the summers Fuller was at Black Mountain, Lindsay too was there: the practical fellow to Fuller's inspirational stuff.  They built a 48' geodesic dome in 1948, called by Elaine de Kooning the Supine Dome, as it failed, gracefully.  From the pictures it looks like they were building it out of ribbon.

One Black Mountain listing says 'the college played a formative role in the definition of an American aesthetic and identity in the arts during the 1950s and 1960s'.  It must have done, it appears to have been stacked with emigrés from the Bauhaus, plus Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers; there were poets, there were painters, all was possible.  Students included Ray Johnson, Noland, Rauschenberg, Twombly, John Chamberlain — these are the ones I know, there are many others I don't know, but it was clearly seminal, formative, an essential part of American postwar modern art. 

The college was located on Lake Eden, planned in 1938 by Gropius and Breuer but development was suspended during WWII, and then after the war Lawrence Kocher took over the design of the main building. It was built by students and faculty from 1940-41, plus, for sustenance and extra cash, there was a farm and a mica mine.

This is a curious episode in American architectural history, one senses that money was tight, creativity and optimism high, materials were often found, the country itself was in the grip of a military-agricultural complex.  Kocher's austere, Gropius-influenced, minimal campus building, the stamp of which is in Frey's canvas house of the 1930s, and so similar to a wartime barracks, is also not unlike a North Carolina tobacco-drying shed: wood frame, clad in corrugated galvanised steel.  And it has aged like a tobacco-drying shed, leaving behind its bauhaus modernity and revealing its deeper connection to a local vernacular.

This series of images, taken in 2007 at the Lake Eden Campus of the Black Mountain College, focuses on the Studies Building. Designed in 1940 by A. Lawrence Kocher, the building was completed in 1941 and is the largest structure built by the college.

 

Thursday
Jun192014

breakaway walls

Damage from Hurrican Ivan, 2004, in the southeastern USA where breakaway walls are necessary and mandated.

This structural detachment of structure and skin is very helpful in extreme weather: in hurricane-prone coastlines houses have breakaway walls which are ground level enclosed areas for parking or storage, where the enclosing walls will actually break away from the structure when hit by high winds and water.  The house is instantly piloteed, water and wind rush right under it.  Breakaway walls are bylaws in many areas, and there is a FEMA manual that outlines specifications. The principles appear to apply only to ground floors; the house itself is conventional construction where walls are meant to protect, not flee.  

Because of our northern climate, all our woodframe houses sit on basements that act like concrete boats: they resist frost heaving but in a flood fill up with water immediately.  And every time there is a tornado in a non-tornado zone such as happened in southern Ontario last week, the houses are deconstructed leaving piles of studs and shredded plywood.  In Places in the Heart, a 1980s movie set on the prairies during the Depression, a tornado was coming and Sally Field rushed about the house opening all the windows before taking the children into the storm cellar. The house was made as transparent to the wind as possible. A storm cellar is accessible from outside the house, no convenient basement stair, and so even if the house is blown apart, the cellar is a separate underground bunker.  This was in The Wizard of Oz, which we've forgotten.

In this new era of violent weather, our bulwarks against traditional weather where the worst that happens is that it gets very very cold — three weeks of -30, no problem, the houses are snug.  Our houses have always been built to resist — we feel the whole house ought to be a storm cellar — rather than to bend.  We are getting new weather, we are going to have to rethink it all. 

Wednesday
Jun182014

Albert Frey: cotton house, 1933

Albert Frey, Swiss, studied at ETH Winterthur, a critical point as technical schools taught construction and technology. He graduated in 1924.  What a time to be a young architect: he worked with LeCorbusier and Jeanneret in Paris from 1924-28 alongside Sert and Perriand, then moved to the States.  He joined Lawrence Kocher in New York and worked with him until 1935.  Kocher was also the managing editor of Architectural Record, a journal that promoted American modernism.
Frey worked on the Museum of Modern Art in 1937-9 and after this moved permanently to Palm Springs, falling, like so many European architects, for the freedom and space of the American south west.  

Two Frey and Kocher houses: the Aluminaire, a demountable house faced with aluminum panels, which was moved several times in its life, and a canvas cabin, both done in the early 1930s.  They did permanent houses, including one for Raymond Loewy, but these two are in the nature of workshop experiments.  
The canvas house, built for Kocher, consists of painted sail canvas stretched over a redwood frame, insulated with aluminum foil.  These details come from Joseph Rosa's book on Frey, but compared to the Aluminaire there appears to be little information on the canvas house. The images here are from a single website.

Frey and Kocher, canvas weekend house, 1933

However, in Popular Science, February 1933 the canvas house appears.  For 15¢ (20¢ in Canada) what an exuberant little publication this was: packed with ideas, inventions, the wonder of developing technologies and sheer curiosities — it shows a most positive and active engagement with newness that I just cannot see anywhere today. Here is a pdf of the Feb 1933 edition.

Popular Science, February 1933, p42

On p 42, just above identifying dogs by their nose prints, is 'Architect Designs Cotton Houses'.  The write up:  'Houses of cotton are proposed by Lawrence Kocher, noted architect, to solve the low-cost housing problem.  Models of two types, a $1,500 five-room home and a week-end house, have been designed.  A weatherproof exterior is provided by a roof and walls of fireproofed cotton ducking stretched over a wooden structural frame.  Inner walls are also of cotton.  Insulating material may be added to exclude heat and cold.  Since the canvas is flexible, it is adaptable to any shaped surface. '

This is the Villa Savoye for Depression-era America: inexpensive, democratic, inventive, flexible. 

Tuesday
May202014

keepods

When I started to write these posts, in 2009, the second posting was about the Jiko stove, which I'd seen on the Shell/BBC World Challenge, an annual competition of solutions to problems in parts of the world without services, especially electricity and clean water.  There were rafts of efficient and safe braziers designed that would minimise the amount of fuel used and the smoke emitted; there were ingenious water purification solutions such as the Jompy where a water pipe ran through the stove and purified the water in the process.  There was the Sudeepa, a beautiful little glass jar with a screw on lid and flattened sides used as an oil lamp that if knocked over would not roll.  2009, the invention of devices was in full throttle.   

Gradually the Shell/BBC World Challenge changed from solutions, such as prosthetic limbs made from melted down pop cans, to something more entrepreneurial, so that now there were cooperatives that made things, such as baskets out of telephone wire, or ottomans from crochetted plastic bags, or honey from collective bee hives, that needed the competition money to get such things to market, especially foreign markets.   Projects such as these are the staple of the Thousand Villages stores, and recently, Holt Renfrew's oddly disjunctive charity-based product cabines full of interesting small things, bangles and satchels from places like India or Ghana.  

There was a shift from products to solve local problems to the marketting of local products calibrated for conscientious westerners.  World Challenge stopped running.

Now, in 2014, five years later, the most revolutionary products are technological: how to get the still developing world hooked into global systems and this is happening with lightning speed: the underbanked, 50% of the world, increasingly use mobile payment networks such as M-Pesa, a mobile network moving quickly through Africa, Afghanistan and India. The fellow living in a street market selling stuff to tourists isn't paid in cash, but through his mobile phone.  Would I know how to do this?  uh. no.  

Keepod is an IT project, developed by Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi in Tel Aviv.  It loads a USB flash drive with an Android 4.4 operating system that then uses any kind of discarded computer whose hard drive has been removed as a temporary facilitator.  They have separated the hardware (simple mechanics and can be shared with many people) from the software (individual and portable). This is, so far, running in Kenya – pictures of lots of children with their keepods on a cord around their necks.  In an interview, Bahar and Imbesi said that within minutes children were posting images to facebook – it isn't that the knowledge of the rest of the world is lacking, even children know what they can't do, it is the equipment that is lacking.  This is quite different from one laptop per child which requires literally millions of computers.  This requires millions of USB drives which Bahar and Imbesi feel can be sold at $7 each: $5 for the drive, $2 for the program, loaded and upgraded locally at a keepod point in a market – a new small business.   

The keepod is the latest solution to what is ultimately an equalisation of access, and is actually more nimble and sustainable than anything I see around me. 

Monday
May122014

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.  

Wednesday
Apr232014

very weak systems

Years ago, when I first went to teach at University of Texas at Austin, there was a bunch of GSD and Yale people on the cut that I was in who were very exercised about weak form.  At the time it was a keen discussion and now, twenty years later, trying to fix a 1930s mantel clock where the brass frame that holds the glass on the front has parted ways with its hinge, I find I am deep into weak systems.  The glass is held in by a flimsy gilt bezel which acts as a loose spring.  It is surprisingly effective.  As I am not a jeweller by trade and can't actually do a fine pinpoint weld to attache two pins to the brass frame, I have devised a circle of wire to also act as a spring, that will sit just inside the frame, and the ends will stick into the holes drilled in the hinge bit that is bolted to the clock face wall.  

Whatever, it is still very interesting to think about weak things that exert just enough pressure on the world to exist and to do whatever their job is with an utter economy of means.  It would be interesting to re-survey the whole world of weak systems that work together to hold things together: in architecture and urbanism, infrastructure and construction.  Such as the flimsy flimsy 2 x 4 props that support precast walls of great thickness and strength before the structure that holds them up permanently is in place.  And so on.
 

I wrote this a couple of years ago and it is the basis for the present call for articles on weak systems. My wire spring didn't work, I realised the bezel had been broken and a section had been lost so the spring was incomplete and couldn't muster enough tension to stay in place.  Eventually it went to a clock man in Victoria who stuck the glass to the frame with great blobs of silicon and said, with great satisfaction, 'this will never come apart now.'  Well, this is true, but not so elegant.

Monday
Apr072014

Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014

Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014. Tate Britain, London

Phyllida Barlow is the artist chosen for the Tate Britain Commission of 2014 and her work has recently opened – riotous spills of debris from the doorways and halls of the neo-classical Duveen Galleries.

The Tate Gallery has always been about British art and there has been much problematising of its founding and its legacy: Tate & Lyle was a Victorian Quaker sugar refinery established after the abolition of slavery, nonetheless sugar as a prime commodity was part of the infamous Atlantic Triangle of the eighteenth century: Africa for slaves sent to the Americas to extract resources shipped to Europe for refinement and consumption. The International Slavery Museum shares the Albert Dock with Tate Liverpool.  Henry Tate had the Tate Gallery built to house his art collection which he donated to the state. Duveen was an art dealer whose family wealth came from importing art and antiques to Britain.  He funded the extension of the original 1890s Tate in 1926 and again in 1937.  Patrons and collectors of art – Clore: finance, property, retail, Courtauld: textiles, Tate: sugar — without them, and many others, Britain wouldn't have its public galleries at all.  

With this kind of financial, industrial and accumulative spatiality, Phyllida Barlow's work is particularly human, warm, messy, chaotic, inexpensive, temporal and ephemeral. She has worked her whole career with detritus gathered from skips and building sites.  Her project is not the diamond encrusted skull that critiques the twenty-first century art market, rather it is the making of 'things' from rich found materials, the assembly of structures from the unusable. Barlow herself saw the Duveen site as having 'two particular contradictory aspects: the tomb-like interior galleries against the ever-present aspect of the river beyond'.  dock ambles and shambles through several galleries with vast paintings pinned to complex wooden constructions that both crawl and tower.  It is, apparently, much like most of Barlow's work: massive installations that are dismantled after their exhibition, i.e. work with no commercial value but clearly of great import.

dock isn't just great piles of junk; the name itself takes one to the noise, the cranes, the hectic nature of docks from a time when they dealt with more than just shipping containers.  Once on a passenger ship docked briefly at Le Havre, I watched as a crate of wine being winched aboard fell back to the dock splintering into a pile of sticks, bleeding burgundy across the concrete.  Docks were full of tremendous incident.  Even watching logs loaded at the CPR docks in tiny Nanaimo was fraught.  

Although I can't see Phyllida Barlow's dock, from the photographs one senses that these pieces must rustle and creak – they are wood, wood always moves.  Leaving the term dock aside, as sculptures they are unfixed, they cannot be perceived without walking in, around and through them, as one does architecture.  The scope of this installation is complex and extended, it rings of bomb sites and redevelopment clearance, poverty and an obsessive love of materials, no matter what their status. 

Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014. Tate Britain, London

Friday
Mar282014

Powell & Moya, Skylon, 1951

The Dome Model with Si Sillman (bending), Buckminster Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, Roger Lovelace, and Josef Albers. Photo by Beaumont Newhall. Courtesy of the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate, Scheinbaum and Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico. © Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate.
As we have a call for articles out for On Site review 32: weak systems.  I've been thinking of such things: Buckminster Fuller's postwar experiments with geodesics and space frames: how light can structure be – how much material can be removed so that what is left is the stress diagram alone?  Jeffrey Lindsay was one of his young engineers – from Montreal, ex-RCAF WWII pilot. It all coalesced evidently in 1948 at Black Mountain College where a combination of sculptors, Josef Albers, John Cage, Fuller, Merce Cunningham and ex-pilot engineering students who had learned about geodetics as navigational theory (straight lines that describe a sphere) experimented with building domes out of lath.  

Lindsay moved to southern California, but continued to work with both Fuller and other architects: he was the engineer for the vast space frame at Simon Fraser University, 1966.  If you look him up on wikipedia there is a huge image of Fuller's geodesic dome for the US pavilion at Expo 67.  These are dramatic structures: transparent, minimal material with huge impact: architecture no longer a solid against the world, but a structural system that mediates between internal space and the outside – it turns the outside into a romantic vision of otherness, seen through a scrim.


Powell & Moya, Skylon, Festival of Britain, London. 1951.And from a different angle altogether, another example of structural minimalism is Powell & Moya's 1951 Skylon, the overriding symbol of a magical technological future for Britain.  It really was a lovely thing, a javelin balanced on three slack cables strung from three steel posts canted away from the centre to balance the weight of the skylon.  It is stabilised by near-invisible guy wires. How exhilarating it must have been to see, unlike anything that had ever come before.   This was not to be inhabited but to be looked at: straight symbolism, which was also its downfall as it was dismantled and cut up for scrap when the government changed from Labour who used the Festival of Britain as an event to mark the change in Britain's fortunes –away from rationing and bomb sites to a gleaming future; not surprising that it fell given the postwar economic state – to the Conservatives under Churchill, cold warriors who felt Britain should recover its imperial trappings from half a century and two world wars earlier.  

I don't think American structural minimalism ever had this political charge – postwar United States was in its technological ascendency, a consequence of the space race, another cold war contest. The American reaction was to rush toward this conflict, rather than bluster about a glorious past.

Wednesday
Dec112013

piecework processes

Lorraine Pettway, born 1953. Medallion work-clothes quilt, 1974, denim and cotton/polyester blend, 84 x 68 inches.

This is a quilt made from work clothes.  Rather than linking the image to the original site, it is linked to a larger image where one can see the size of the squares that make up the colour blocks.  Blue chambray work shirts (usually from J C Penney, but Sears did them – each brand slightly different in detail and fabric) faded to this pale sky colour in the sun, leaving darker patches underneath the pockets and at the bottom of the sleeves which were usually rolled up.  They disintegrated across the back and at the elbows.  The pieces in this quilt would have been from shirts patched and mended until they could be mended no more, leaving the tails, the cuffs, collars and pockets.

Like any sort of piecing activity: dry stone walls, broken tile mosaics, quilting, each piece in the pile of material becomes intimately known for its colour, its shape, its peculiarities that allow it to fit into a greater whole.  Each piece is considered, set aside, reconsidered elsewhere, set aside and finally used in precisely the right place. In this process all the pieces become characters in the larger narrative that is the quilt, or the wall, or the floor.

This is also a process whereby the weak, the broken and the otherwise unuseable become strong.  Worn out fabric, easily torn, is stitched through a cotton batt layer to a backing cloth, so that it has no stress on it: strain is taken collectively by the batting, the stitching and the backing.   

What these pieced surfaces look like is an entirely different discussion.  Of course each piece is chosen and placed to make a beautiful surface.  But it is not by design, rather it is by detail at the scale of the fingers and the needle, and this is where the Gee's Bend quilts part company with modern quilting as supported by the contemporary quilting industry of patterns, books, new 'vintage' cottons, fat quarters and all the rest.  

I would say, not being an African-American from Alabama with a history of slavery, poverty and the church, that we could read these surfaces as conversations between each piece of fabric and the woman assembling and stitching the pieces.  And like conversations they are unpredictable, idiosyncratic and emotional.  They switch direction mid-stream, they are sometimes angry. They can sooth and they take a long time.   

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. "Lazy Gal" -- "Bars," ca. 1965, denim and cotton, 80 x 69 inches. All images: Tinwood Media

Monday
Oct072013

paid parking

One of the original Park(ing) day spots in San Francisco

Park(ing) day, originally a guerrilla project in San Francisco in the mid 2000s, now spread over many cities around the world.  On one day in September, parking meters are fed and the parking space is made into a temporary park, rather than being occupied by a car.  Fine, point made, city streets are inhospitable with their wall-of-steel edges, when they could be lined with boulevards of grass and trees instead.  

However, a festival aspect has entered Park(ing) Day, a celebration of pop-up parks: it is not longer a guerrilla action, it is sanctified as a street festival in many cities, street fair licences are bought, the protest element has been infantilised. Balloons abound.

The surest way to disarm protest is to commodify it, to bring it on board as a celebration.  What is actually being celebrated here?  That one day in a whole year, car parking is suspended in a few streets?  Point lost.

 

'Lighter Than Air' Park(ing) Day balloon installation at Public Bikes on Valencia & 17th St., San Francisco

Sunday
Apr282013

Vancouver Art Gallery

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.
Vancouver Art Gallery under construction, 1931. Art Deco single storey gallery on a 66' lot in a residential area - 1145 W. Georgia Street. CIty of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Bu P401.1McCarter Naire Architects, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1931The 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. 

Ross Lort, architect. Vancouver Art Gallery, 1950.

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.

Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983-present.

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.

Wednesday
Oct312012

Lebbeus Woods: May 31, 1940 – October 30, 2012

No one as influential to my generation as Lebbeus Woods.  He did not build, he drew, he thought, he continually shifted, like light and shadow, through the space of architecture. 

Lebbeus Woods, an imagined wall that would protect Bosnia where others failed.

'The wall would be built very high, with a vast labyrinth of interlocking interior spaces, creating a structurally indeterminate system that would be extremely difficult to bring down by demolition charges or artillery fire. Tanks and mobile artillery could not be brought through the wall. Foot soldiers could not climb over the wall in large numbers, but would have to go through it. Once inside, they would become lost. Many would not be able to escape. They would either die, or, as it were, move in, inhabiting the spaces, even forming communities. Local farmers from the Bosnian side, could arrange to supply food and water, on a sale or barter basis. In time, they would move in, too, to be close to their market. Families would be living together. The wall would become a city.'

War and Architecture

Monday
Jun252012

weak systems

Massound Hassani. Mine Kafon, 2011

This is Massoud Hassani's Eindhoven graduation project, Mine Kafon, a lightweight bamboo and plastic large dandelion puff that is blown by the wind over mined fields, detonating the mine and destroying itself in the process.

It is interesting, that the detonater was not conceived of as a large, mechanical force of technology that rolls over mines, survives them, and rolls on to the next land mine.  Like children who mostly detonate land mines, this is a lightweight, expendable, one-time use detonator.  Each unit contains a GPS that maps where it has been, showing areas that are safe.
It was tested by the Ministry of Defence of the Netherlands, and a second version is being developed that moves less randomly and is not so reliant on the wind.  It is likely to be used to indicate a mined area, rather than clearing the area.  Thus in the development process it becomes more controllable, probably heavier.  

Hassani is from Kabul, smuggled out at 14, ending up in the Netherlands in 1998.  On his website he talks about flying kites as a child and making other small things that caught the wind, the genesis of this project.  The project has won a slew of awards so far, in its original bamboo form.  The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is cautious: 'What the ICBL and our members, many of whom are humanitarian mine clearance organisations, are focused on is not the financial cost of clearing landmines but the humanitarian and socio-economic cost of not clearing them.'  I'm not sure what that means. 

Friday
Nov252011

rockfall net

Rockfall netting, Trans-Canada Highway, Kicking Horse Pass near Golden BCThis is a prosaic image of the steel mesh curtains in the Kicking Horse Pass just east of Golden, on a dangerous, narrow, steep, winding part of the Trans-Canada where there is only half a shoulder and no where to stop.  I usually pass these curtains in the winter and have seen them covered in hoarfrost, or wet and shimmering in the sun, or packed with snow.  They are very beautiful, but it is suicidal to try to take a photo of them while driving.  And one cannot stop.  

This is Burgess Shale territory and both the highway and the railway tracks sit on narrow ledges hacked out of the cliffs cut by the Kicking Horse River.  These cliffs, limestone and slate, shatter with the freeze/thaw cycle and crumble away landing on the road surface, thus the curtains which hang in front to catch falling rock.

A little farther east, the rubble beside the road is pale green, a particular formation that is compressed calcium carbonate, they say.  All this rock is fragile, it weathers easily and continuously.  The road is in a permanent state of repair and reconstruction and is often closed.  There is no radio signal, cell phones do not work: one is in the middle of a large stretch of unalloyed geology.  There are gabions, there are straw erosion bales, there are curtains, there are tiny cars and trucks hurtling their way through it all, there are accidents and a primitive understanding that this is still a dangerous landscape.