31 October 2008

Prince Albert, Saskatchewan

Tim Atherton
After being established in 1866 Prince Albert experienced early success and prosperity, but this turned out to be a fleeting and often temporary experience. The Canadian Pacific Railway chose a more southerly route that sidelined the city. When the important institutions were shared out, Prince Albert lost the university to Saskatoon and got the penitentiary instead. Since then, the city’s fortunes may rise and fall – but never quite far enough to be disastrous or truly prosperous.
So, downtown Prince Albert and its Central Avenue didn’t undergo all the periodic changes that other prairie cities went through. And now the central core can either appear mildly depressed – following the closure of the Weyerhaeuser pulp mill – or, a year later, now optimistic with the potential of a diamond mine from DeBeers, the mood judged by the opening of the new cappuccino bar.
Walking Central Avenue you find yourself going from the brand new hopeful and contemporary Forestry Centre to pre-First World War stone faced bank buildings to false-fronted early twentieth century shop-fronts to the flourishes of tinwork frontages and Prairie Historicism all within a couple of blocks.
Big wall-sized mid-twentieth century advertisements still remain painted on brick-sided buildings for O-Pee-Chee chewing gum and Old Chum Tobacco, faded almost to transparency. Elaborate cornices and touches of Romanesque are noticed if you take the time to look around.
Along with this, the post-modern migration – even in such a small city – from centre to edge continues unabated. The first generation of malls, dying and almost empty, are now being replaced by new parking-lot surrounded mega-stores – the home building/lifestyle supplies stores, the super-Walmarts, competing supermarkets and the drug store chains that now sell everything from cough syrup to milk to summer garden supplies.
John Szarkowski, Director of Photography, Museum of Modern Art said, ‘these pictures have a kind of fragile, tentative beauty that I associate with such northern places (including my own home town) where the idea of civilisation itself seems an experiment, on probationary status’.
In Prince Albert the grain elevator just hangs on and civilisation here does indeed often seem to be on probationary status, still an experiment.

Atherton, Tim. 'Prince Albert, Saskatchewan' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Tim Atherton and On Site review


rejecting an architecture of fearRobert Billard
Planning departments and elected officials of small Canadian communities constantly struggle with what form growth should take: is it the preservation of history or the need to foster a vision consistent with the needs of today’s society? Is it a struggle to find any sort of coherent vision out of a history of seemingly haphazard development? This last one is Nunavut.
From decades of federal government initiatives to maintain sovereignty in the north, communities were built on the sites of seasonal hunting or fishing destinations. Within a general commitment to all Canadians, the government invested in infrastructure for these new settlements. To say that the same care was taken with northern communities as with those in the south would be a gross error.
These new settlements were approached in the same manner as setting up a military or mining camp — in many cases those that worked on the architecture and planning were those that supplied services for the military or industry. Expediency and cost, overriding factors that shaped the architecture of the north, continue to direct built form, fostering a vision that could be described as an architecture of fear – that plagues community governments and inhabitants.
City councils should not be the ones to set guidelines for form and function, although councils have a role in speaking out on people’s behalf. Responsibility lies with the architect, developer, contractor, owner and general public, whether local or visiting, to understand the land and culture they are about to impact. There is no excuse for subsistence architecture where expediency and cost are the only mitigating factors. Striving only to meet these criteria is bound to fail on a far more meaningful level. Submitting to fear, whichever form it takes, stunts the positive growth of a community. While design should pay attention to cost and the entrenched views of local populations, these fears should not steer architecture.
Fear of the Environment
Fear of weather created a knee-jerk architecture that stuffed a yawning hole we had created in the first place. The hulks of Inuksuk and Nakasuk schools are a testament to this: fibreglas mounds with bullet-hole windows designed to keep out the environment at the expense of sunlight, fresh air and consequently students’ health. Houses were made small and culturally useless with materials that are alien to the landscape. Despite this, it was perceived by southern populations and those that knew nothing different in the north, that developers and distant governments were doing the best thing – providing a humanitarian service: housing and schooling. In the absence of anything else and the publicity nightmare of northern homelessness and English illiteracy, any solution southern architects and contractors could offer was accepted.
Fear of the cost of building in the north fostered a use of substandard materials and an inappropriate use of others, and a complete abandonment of the idea of actually making buildings look and feel good. While the south had long abandoned the frontier mentality, the Arctic was built seemingly in just that way.
Things have begun to change, in part due to the development of better building materials, and, to a lesser degree, the fact that Nunavummiut began to ask for more. Local people began to travel south and saw what they were missing in the way of architecture and sustainable, healthy communities and people from the south began to move north expecting to have what they had before. Thus was born the second phase of the architecture of fear: the fear of simply being here.

Fear of Place
Northern houses often copy nondescript subdivisions south of 60° or, even more distressing, resemble First Nations’ reserves of the 1970s. Northern contractors and prospective homeowners plagiarise plan magazines, adapting them to suit steel-piled foundations, no basements and tanked domestic water and sewage.
Rarely does much thought go into how any kind of house might sit on its site apart from a possible view of the bay. Few engage the landscape or create a dialogue with their surroundings; there is more regard for set backs than wind, plants or daylight. It is as if southerners do not want to acknowledg the north; they retreat from the world around them and leave the Arctic behind.
Social housing has atrophied from a complete lack of understanding of local culture and environment. To combat this, local jurisdictions and social housing organisations have solicited the help of southern architects and planners to develop prototype housing for all of Nunavut. This will only perpetuate the problem by forcing yet another stifling blanket of homogeneity coloured by a limited understanding of the culture and landscape.
When buildings do not engage the landscape, there is little attention to the streetscape, to exterior place-making, or to the human experience of the building. Communities are full of buildings that most of us will never enter but nonetheless experience everyday. This relationship has to be recognised. Many Arctic communities suffer from a complete lack of a sense of architectural place. Expediency and fiscal restraint, repeated designs and a cookie-cutter mentality peppers the north with identical air terminals, health centres, schools and arenas. If it weren’t for the differences in landscape, it would be difficult to tell which community you were actually in.
From this fear blossoms yet another: the fear of trying anything different.

Fear of Change
Anything not a box, or with an angle other than 45 or 90 degrees, or that uses a different material than commonly accepted is perceived to immediately add 25% to the building cost. To compound this problem, the trades, when forced to abide by the will of the designer or owner, can be ill-equipped to handle deviations from the norm. Piles go in wrong locations, designs change over night without consent from designer or owner and corners are cut.
Recently things have started to change. Recognising they must compete with southern contractors now moving into the northern market, there are some builders who are willing to try different things, developing an appreciation of challenges to the norm. Local governments have begun to expect more from their designers and are demanding innovative solutions to their projects. Federal projects, required to meet LEED™ Silver sustainability levels, have raised the bar on architectural problem-solving. The aesthetics of a project are more in the forefront and quality of space is actually being discussed.
The Nunavut Legislature and Government of Canada buildings in Iqaluit, the Kugaaruk High School in Kugaaruk, the Killiniq High School in Cambridge Bay and some more challenging house designs by Full Circle Architecture and others have spurred an appreciation for design and are developing local form: a Nunavut architecture that fights its fears.
Billard, Robert. 'Nunavut: an architecture of fear' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Robert Billard and On Site review

The Streets We Need

mechanical and social developmentAlfredo Landaeta
Not so long ago, streets were very simple: no sidewalks, curbs, infrastructure or public transit, and without strict differentiation between pedestrians and other means of transportation. Ancient mesopotamian cities show narrow streets and cul-de-sacs that provided access to courtyards linking clusters of dwellings belonging to extended families or clans. Streets were not a continuous system connecting urban settlements but rather the minimum necessary space required to delineate distinct clusters. It is perhaps this concept of the street as the in-between that first tinted it with a social undertone, establishing such spaces as the meeting place, the political arena, the place of commerce.
Mediæval streets show a similar simplicity: street networks evolved, becoming more complex, intertwined and hierarchical in nature and, in many instances, actively incorporating trees and landscape as part of their design.
The street as a socially populated void with minimal technological attributions is still very much in use today. Informal settlements in developing countries, products of completely unregulated and unplanned development, usually generate dramatic streets and alleys, uncannily proportioned to the human scale, uncaring of accessibility codes or infrastructural logic. These spaces arise purely from the tension between the pressure of occupation and the need to circulate. There is an organic quality in these spaces that is clearly lacking in the formal city.
In many contemporary cities, streets have become flow: their value is not for what they host, but for how good they flush; the simplicity of the original void has been filled as an inevitable consequence of modern life, with a long list of stuff: parking, public transport lines (at times in exclusive rights-of-way), mail boxes, lamp posts, power lines, storm water channels – and all that just above the surface. Below grade is almost as crowded with water pipes, telephone lines, electrical cables, gas and sewage lines, fibre optics, metro lines, district cooling and heating, even grey water lines for landscape irrigation. In fact, streets are the de facto location for most of our ever-increasing infrastructure needs. To design a street these days is to necessarily accommodate, combine and reconcile all of these different requirements.

This mechanistic conception of the street as a device for the mobility of people, vehicles and services leaves little room for the street as a true public space. Good streets not only function as conduits for all types of transportation and services, they also must perform as social ground, negotiating transitions between zones and loaded with historical and cultural content.

The value of the street is based in the complex ballet of movements and carefully timed rhythms and sequences that it hosts (compellingly amplified and portrayed by fast-motion movies such as the 1983 Koyaanisqatsi) than in its spatial qualities. This exhilarating tapestry of movement and activity is the very definition of modernity; it is what draws rivers of people to urban centres and what simultaneously repels and attracts us.

Let us look at a typical mid-density neighbourhood street servicing a mixture of residential and commercial uses. Depending on the culture, context and climate we will find that the street, conceived as a technological device, is designed, calibrated and built with the intention of maximising the performance of non-human elements — the social component is often negated entirely. Differentiated strips for pedestrians, trees, vehicles and public transit facilitate the uninterrupted flow of traffic, justified by arguing that this clear separation is for the safety and congeniality of otherwise incompatible uses and activities. As such, the contemporary street is inevitably hierarchical and specialised, predestined at the design stage to fulfill a specific role within the urban continuum.

What happens if the initial assumptions established at the planning stage no longer hold true, or if significant technological changes begin to affect the behavioural patterns of people? What if political and cultural changes cut deep enough to affect the nature of its use, or if the basic assumptions related to the cost of mobility are challenged?
Our paradigms for developing and designing our cities, and by extension our streets, are currently under revision. Growing environmental awareness is placing great pressure on a way of life that is increasingly wasteful and responsible for our current state of environmental deterioration. As this awareness permeates the core of our values, changes will begin to accelerate. Streets will require as radical a redefinition as will our production-consumption-disposal cycle.

Wishful thinking? No. This transformation is of similar proportions to the one experienced when the industrialised world transformed itself into the car-oriented society of today. Car manufacturers in conjunction with the oil industry successfully lobbied for an aggressive highway system that put suburban development on steroids, making it not only a possibility but the preferred alternative to traditional urban life. This transformation was unstoppable; there have been very few other historical moments with such a concurrence of interests: the cultural perception of a better way of living complemented quite neatly by the interests of big corporations, swiftly backed up by politicians with the necessary regulatory backup.

Climatic change and emerging environmental awareness are creating a new alignment of interests based not on a perception of how we might live better, but on the assumption that such a transformation will ensure that life itself will continue. As research and scientific evidence amasses, the future looks bleak indeed. As pressure on leaders and political institutions to deal with global warming and environmental degradation increases, cities are likely to become the preferred ground for a fair number of initiatives — escalating oil prices and pollution levels demand measures that reduce car dependency, favour public transit and increase densities.

The potential for the most change exists in personal and public transportation – more bicycles on the road, more designated bike lanes. Bicycles and pedestrians will share the public realm with alternative mobility options such as Segways and electrical bikes, replacing some or most cars (even if alternative technologies reduce the nasty side effects of internal combustion engines, personal cars still require significant and unconscionable space to circulate and park while consuming massive amounts of resources for production and maintenance). Public transit can be diversified: high capacity buses with reserved lanes, people-movers along pedestrian corridors and personal rapid transit systems (PRTS), where small automated vehicles in dedicated lanes transport people directly to their destination. Streets, therefore, will be forced to accommodate different overlapping systems of mobility at the expense of driving lanes. As with most human inventions, accumulation of knowledge results in better and more elegant solutions.

It is impossible to know how streets and cities will evolve and change as society shifts paradigms; technology, education and social aspirations seasoned with ample doses of chance will play equally important roles in defining the emerging dominant trends. No matter how they develop, streets as design artifacts will have an obligation to be responsive to climate and location and, most of all, to be tailored to reflect local values and cultural standards. Streets should be the sites where people act in concert, as Hannah Arendt defined politics in its broadest sense. Maybe then, by understanding the streets as spaces of true social interaction, they will echo a new and better urban ideal.
Landaeta, Alfredo. 'The Streets We Need' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Alfredo Landaeta and On Site review

The cul-de-sac

private streets, public spacesHavva Alkan Bala and Hassina Nafa
The curving, narrow streets which give you the feeling of an old town may sometimes lead to somewhere or may not. A dead end road is not a cul-de-sac, neither is it a dead-and-street. It certainly isn’t the second one. It is obvious that a culture like this has not experienced such a dead end road. A young child who sits looking out of a window on to a dead end road will never get bored. This is the sitting room of the neighbourhood. Even though it may seem like the houses in the street are leaning against each other, once you walk through the garden gates you can feel the independence. Some are gardens, some are just backyards. Whichever type it is, it is just a sitting room with four tall walls around it but doesn’t have a ceiling. —Balamir 1994

cities are composed of buildings, open spaces between buildings and the streets that connect them. These elements are arranged in a way that reflects their culture. Cul-de-sacs in traditional Anatolian cities represent Ottoman as well as Islamic city culture. Although mediaeval European cities have similar dead-end streets, the usage and the approach to cul-de-sac phenomenon have been completely different. In the traditional urban texture of Anatolian cities the cul-de-sac is a semi-public street safe for children and a semi-private social space for adults: it is well known that crime is less predominant in such urban layouts: cul-de-sac in the Islamic/Ottoman context is to do with segregation, privacy through space, hierarchy and control.
In modern cities, cul-de-sacs are not much appreciated in streets designed for motor vehicles. Although the cul-de-sac has a function as a transitional space between public and private space, they are disappearing in modern cities.

Cul-de-sac is defined in architecture and urban design literature as ‘the street pattern open only in one side and connected to other larger streets’. (Keles 1999), (Sözen ve Tanyeli 1992) (Figure 1).
In Western logic cul-de-sac triggers something not positive: dead-end street, blind alley, blind path are used alongside cul-de-sac, namely dead, numb, dead, lazy, sluggish, lethargic, shiftless, indolent ways (Keles 1999). Cul-de-sac is either a semi-private or semi-public road for residential groupings with only one-way access.

Traditional Anatolian cities were organic, free, rhythmic, not geometric (Aru 1998). The pattern of traditional residential areas was 1-3 floors, having a courtyard belonging to house and a cul-de-sac, curved, narrow and full of bends (Aktüre 1978). The cul-de-sac pattern gives to users a sense of belonging, a territory where they feel safe and protected. The public, semi-public, semi-private and the private overlap (Stewing 1966) (Figure 2).

The growth of these cities occurred in two ways (Figure 3). The first way was the filling the gaps (graveyards and un-constructed areas) in the city pattern. The second way appeared as an expansion of urban settlement areas out at the edges (Raymond 1995).
Under Ottoman rule, people and animals that carry loads used the Anatolian city (Schwarz 1959) — cabriolets were either limited or used on the main road (Yerasimos 1996), hence the roads are generally narrow and change direction frequently (Schwarz 1959). Narrow and broad streets follow each haphazardly, their dead ends have short or long branches and widely varying widths.
Dead ends, divided from each other by gates according to their value and ethnicity, are a civic transportation system organised through closed districts. Ethnic or denominational differences hold the potential for social conflict. Such mixed districts are divided from each other by doors and walls that construct a cul-de-sac (Lapidus 1967), (Stewing 1966) (Figure 4). As well, neighbourhood and family relations affect urban patterns, particularly when a son gets married an extension is added to the house of the family. These extensions make a cul-de-sac by attaching two separate houses (Figure 5) — not legal but it in line with constitution and traditions (Yerasimos 1996).
Dead ends seen in Mediaeval cities (Mumford 1989), (Morris 1979), (Moughtin 1992) do not share the same peculiarities with the cul-de-sac of Anatolian Ottoman and Islamic cities. According to Stewing (1996), Islam attaches more importance to private property rights than public property as long as such rights do not directly harm other people, and it is Islamic city culture that defined the spatial and physical structure of the cul-de-sac. Islamic cities are not spaces one can bypass from one point to another, one quarter to another as one wishes. There is a soft, gradual and hierarchic transition from the most public spaces such as the mosque or bazaar, the square or large street through the garden gate to the most private spaces of garden and house. Oleg Graber defines Islamic cities as ‘human-faced’ where cold laws disguise humanistic warmth in streets (Armagan 1996). Although urban and rural areas are unplanned and uncontrolled due to absolute individualistic interests at the forefront in housing, and positioning according to parcel of land (Cerası 1999), this too is a reflection of Islam. Stefan Yerasimos (1996) in this context clarifies this warmth in a legal dimension.
The status of dead end is a wonderful example in terms of the priority of the rights of natural person. The partnership of property in dead end is not monotype; every resident is the partner of the property, which starts from the entrance of dead end and ends in the threshold of his house. Therefore he cannot enlarge his threshold towards the dead end without the approval of the other owners of the property. The area of the dead end, which is getting more private towards the inner area, becomes the private property of the owner located at the end. Social status of the street residents follows a decreasing order towards the open end (Yerasimos 1996).
In Islamic cities private property is more important than public property and the border concept is shaped through this understanding. The concept of boundary separating private and public property in Islamic cities is called fina, and is used in place of border, which means the progressive transfer from one unit to another. The phenomenon of cul-de-sac, turns the public area into private area in accordance with the fina enabling the transfer from one property to another in Islamic law (Yerasimos 1996). It is a kind of privatisation process of public usage based on the agreement of property owners of buildings that have a surface facing towards the cul-de-sac. (Stewing 1966, Yerasimos 1996). The owner of private property can occupy the street in front of his private property; moreover he can have the right to use this area permanently. Therefore, this street becomes his fina. Two neighbours facing one another may break off the road and divide it into two dead ends with the permission of the street residents. These two dead ends become the property of the residents. Thus, people in this area could privatise a public area.
Administrative, legal and economic alterations were observed in Anatolian countries under the rule of Ottomans after the 1839 proclamation of ‘Tanzimat’ which was a series of Western-influenced regulations (Denel, 1982). These alterations comprise the transforming of the traditional Ottoman city pattern into a grid by deteriorating traditional city patterns. The social logic which creates cul-de-sac has become ‘the other’, starting from the Tanzimat period. When new spatial hierarchies were taken into consideration, the modern city lost the cul-de-sacs as interface.

mots dernieres
Modern movements in architecture and city planning have contributed to the neglect of the street and its architecture. Le Corbusier was one of the main offenders claiming that streets no longer worked and we have to create something that will replace them. One of the significant problems of today’s cities is the sharp-edged transition between private and public space. The cul-de-sac has offered a traditional solution to this sharp-edged transitional problem, with particular buildings between public and private spaces, which provide soft, gradual and hierarchic transition.

Bala, Havva Alkan and Hassina Nafa. 'Turkey: the cul-de-sac. Private Streets, Public Spaces' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Havva Alkan Bala, Hassina Nafa and On Site review

Porta Portese

the evolution of a Roman street marketDanielle Wiley
Each Sunday morning, the Porta Portese market overwhelms the Portuense neighbourhood of Rome, spreading through streets, sidewalks and squares. Although its architecture consists of lightweight bancarelle, the market is one of Rome’s densest spaces. There are 1000 official vendors, but the Comune di Roma estimates the actual number to exceed 30 000. While the surrounding neighbourhood gives shape to the market, the market reciprocates by actively shaping its milieu. Over the past six decades, bus and tram lines have been deflected, segments of streets have been widened into piazzas, and the municipality’s ambitions to redevelop the neighbourhood have been stymied. The city and market are mutually constitutive, on a very tangible physical level as well as on a cultural one.
Porta Portese is Rome’s largest Sunday-morning market and also one of its youngest. When in 1943 the main avenues into Rome were bombed and blockaded, a spontaneous group of black market carrieri materialised, running private cars with contraband food and goods into the city. By 1965 the demography of vendors at the market had shifted. The new majority were Neopolitans who would spend six days trolling the Campagna region for wares, sifting through local beaches and farmhouses abandoned during the war. They would then arrive in Rome at midnight on Saturday to secure the best spots along Viale Portuense. Today, most clothing stalls along Viale Portuense are managed by recent immigrants from North Africa and India. Along Via Ippolito Nievo, established vendors of predominantly eastern European origin sell furniture, while contraband peddlers compete for space on the sidewalk, laying out CDs on sheets of cardboard. A recent wave of Chinese vendors selling home electronics and digital novelties reflects Italy’s new political relations with China. The shifting demographics, activities, wares and territorial boundaries in the Porta Portese market describe a facet of the city’s evolving identity.
The Porta Portese market is a loose space – relatively self-organising and highly adaptive. The market might serve as a vernacular precedent for the kind of event space that is de rigeur in contemporary architectural theory and practice. More deft than a formal piazza, the market responds to changes in the city’s cultural, political and economic conditions. This responsiveness may stem from the market’s paradoxical status as a marginal space within the city’s centre. The market negotiates many boundaries: the ancient Aurelian wall and its seventeenth century portal, an industrial riverbank of the Tevere, an edge of the mediaeval city and tracts of modernist post-WWII palazzi. Many contemporary urban scholars, including the Rome-based Osservatorio Nomade, argue that the peripheral zones of historic European cities have the greatest capacity to generate new urban forms, experiences and identities. The Porta Portese Market, although embedded in the city centre, has the qualities of an urban edge. The market’s generative capacity becomes apparent through its weekly transformations. Each Sunday morning produces a new iteration as the stall keepers negotiate their territory and adjust their wares according to season and fashion.
The idea of a street, square or market as an archetypal public space becomes contentious in view of transnational and cross-cultural dynamics in places like the Porta Portese market. Even the most basic precepts of public space come into question: what it is, where it is, who is it for, what it should do. Since the late 1990s, the diaspora of people between and within Italy, the EU, Africa and Asia have caused rapid shifts in the make-up of local districts in Rome, particularly in Esquilino and Portuense. This intense movement of peoples, at a global and a city scale, is paralleled by transnational flows of commodities, information, images and ideas — in Rome, which once maintained a mono-cultural image in the face of all contrary evidence, nowhere is this transnational mobility as evident as in Porta Portese market.
Those who participate in street life now carry with them a much greater diversity of historical models and different, possibly conflicting, symbolic expectations of public space. Some fear that the public sphere might become too fragmented to sustain a dynamic yet cohesive street life. Over and above the pressures of absorbing so many multiple interests into urban public space are the challenges that an expanding digital public realm presents to the street as a primary scene of encounter. The permeation of the city by communications technologies – which, in fact, make this mobility between the global and local possible - transforms our sense of place. Contemporary urban theorists suggest that the new role of public space is to reassert a sense of place by expressing local identities in relation to a globalised public domain. What does this prescription for public space mean for architects, who take the front line in making public spaces?
Vernacular precedents are valuable models for architects to study how these broad concerns play out in ways that are in fact very material and case-specific. The Porta Portese market, for example, demonstrates how layers of permanent and temporary structures, everyday practices, regulatory policies, and changing economic and cultural conditions can create a vibrant and resilient public space – one that is, in the end, very particular to Rome. Porta Portese also raises questions for how such sites are observed, mapped and, finally, interpreted in an architectural design. Architects might consider what investigative and representational strategies would be appropriate to a public space that, like the Porta Portese market, is best understood as an encounter between a place and its inhabitations – one that is extended through time and embedded in a specific cultural milieu.

Wiley, Danielle. 'Porta Portese:the evolution of a Roman street market' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Danielle Wiley and On Site review

A Tale of Three Streets

Oakville Ontario, Phoenix Arizona, Edmonton AlbertaGordon Stratford
Over the years I have had the good fortune to experience first-hand an eclectic variety of thoroughfares – Unter der Linden in Berlin and its elegant boulevard park setting, Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road with its frenetic array of look-at-me towers, Savannah’s Barnard Street and the genteel southern squares along its path, and Shinjuku District streets in Tokyo, amazing on a rainy night after watching Blade Runner with Japanese subtitles in a local cinema. I once thought that the only streets worth paying attention to were the classics, like stately Unter der Linden, but energetic upstarts like Sheikh Zayed Road and Shinjuku District have given me pause to consider what makes a street really work. It would be worthwhile to set aside the worldly destinations, and take a closer look at some less exotic locales such as Oakville, Phoenix and Edmonton.

My family spent several years looking outside Toronto for the right place to call home. One of our key goals was a community whose heart was not a shopping mall: it had to have a healthy downtown. In the suburbs this is not easy to find, and then we found Oakville.
Lakeshore Road in downtown Oakville has the feeling of a classic Main Street that has grown, changed over time and actually thrived. It has just the right width, the right bordering building height and mix of uses. It has a choice of shady and sunny sides and promenading is alive and well. There is a nice bit of traffic complexity with curbside parking, trucks stopping in the middle of Lakeshore to make deliveries and slow speeds to take in the sidewalk life. A transcending civic moment, thanks to a well-designed pedestrian square midway along the street, provides a fine outdoor living room for cultural events and midnight-madness shopping. All seems well but I feel uneasy. Lakeshore feels like an incomplete portrait of the community, lacking that vital grit that balances gentrification. If you want the true main street heart of Oakville, you need to mix well behaved Lakeshore with nearby Kerr Street and its rough-edged alter ego.

I was told that the only place worth visiting in Phoenix was the main street in Kierland Commons –everything else is just suburban. Kierland Commons is touted as a prime example of the newest wave of development in North America, the mixed use urban village concept. Having decimated the traditional downtown with malls and big box shopping centres, developers are now recreating the essence of what had been destroyed. But do they succeed?
Kierland Commons is an odd thing, a taste of live/work/shop/entertain urbanity surrounded by the low density sprawl that represents most of Phoenix. Its main street has all the right ingredients, borrowing heavily from the genetics of streets such as Oakville’s Lakeshore. The proportion of street width to building height is comfortable, it is attractively landscaped and shaded sidewalks promote pedestrian activity – in itself is remarkable given Phoenix’s usually hostile pedestrian environment. There is street parking and traffic is nice and slow. A small square borders this main street, for daily use and special events. According to reports Kierland Commons is a great success, probably because it possesses what people long for and the rest of Phoenix seriously lacks.
It’s convincing but undone by an essential missing ingredient, authenticity. Along the street there are too many of the same stores that you would find in a shopping mall, servicing is too neatly hidden away from view, the main street ends unexpectedly and the transition to the real world of Phoenix is abrupt. The street never transcends its feeling of a manufactured stage set with not enough there there. Perhaps time, more local shops and expansion to a critical mass of urban streets, blocks and civic spaces will make the difference.

When I started visiting Edmonton on a regular basis, I asked a local where to stay in the city. I was told Whyte Avenue is the place to be. Since then I have experienced this street in all seasons, during festivals, through NHL hockey finals and on regular days.
Whyte is a bit like an awkward teenager, almost an adult but oddly put together and with a good dose of attitude. The street is wide, making it feel like the car is king. The buildings seem too short and the sidewalks too narrow to adequately frame the space. Oversized auto dealerships with enormous neon signs fight for attention with a multitude of small shops. The closest thing to a square is the Tim Horton's parking lot, with its revving motorbikes and smell of exhaust.
The design part of my brain tells me that this is all wrong, but the rest of my brain differs – Whyte works! A big factor is the number of small, local, eccentric stores with comparatively few big chain outlets. There is a full mix of people making street life active, rich and sometimes unusual –such as the nose flute player, and sometimes dangerous – Whyte is a street that can party: once a perfectly inebriated stranger grabbed me on a sidewalk packed with thousands of fans after the Oilers won a quarter-final series.
This one street captures the pulse of its community, where nothing is done in small measure. I am slowly learning that conscious design is not always the mantra for saving the world and making it a better place. Successful streets are proving, to me, that adhoc authenticity and inconsistent conditions win over choreographed strategies.

Stratford, Gordon. 'A Tale of Three Streets: Oakville, Phoenix, Edmonton' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Gordon Stratford and On Site review

Jiewa Park, Yellowknife

land of shadowsWayne Guy
Walking through the downtowns of most North-American cities can be characterised by tall buildings coming directly to the sidewalk creating hostile thoroughfares with little reprieve for the pedestrian to loiter, relax or enjoy. Yellowknife is much the same in this regard having adopted the worst aspects of urbanism though on a diminutive scale.
The Wall, a project completed by Guy Architects, seeks to arrest, nurture and invite citizens to loiter, sit down and take it all in. This runs counter to the culture that predominates in the City of Yellowknife in which loitering is seen undesirable, bad for business and practiced only by less fortunate souls in the community. It is indeed the predominant hostility of the urban environment that typically provides only parking lots and back alleys to meet and share, that characterises the predominate failure of the city. As such areas are marginalised, they require additional policing and monitoring as they become prone to vandalism. It is the premise of this project that if you create comfortable places for people to spend some time with good exposure to sun and view, it promotes congregation. With more people from a wider cross section of society, the group is self-policing and in this urban living room individuals get to know both their community and each other a little better.
The new park is a triangular niche on the north-west side of Franklin Avenue, Yellowknife’s main street. It faces directly south with a north wall serving as a wind break and a climbable screen to the adjacent basketball courts.
Benches sit around a one-foot by one-foot concrete tile mosaic chessboard, part of a games area. The wall’s staggered, geometric lattice pattern has an immediate and beneficial effect: the sculpted forms play with light during the course of the day, marking the passage time and conveying images and pattern which have myriad meanings for those in the park. The wall reminds some of crosses, others, a line of Inukshuks. These wide cultural interpretations marks it as an effective piece of urban art, a sculptural piece which provides an animated backdrop for thinking, for participating in community life, for loitering.
Since The Wall and the adjacent plaza have been opened, street people have begun to use the park, as have a growing number from the community at large. In this new milieu pluralism, tolerance and understanding is nurtured as citizens of all ilks can now share a common experience. It is a sanctuary of inclusiveness, a gesture of generosity in a predominantly selfish environment where the private thoroughfares of malls dominate public streets.
At the end of the day, for most days of the year, it is collective public experiences which mark the success of an urban environment. The more of these we have, the greater the city. The Wall has been Yellowknife’s first baby step to claim the street back from the strictly utilitarian movement of vehicles to a place which contributes to the identity and image of a city.

Guy, Wayne. 'Land of Shadows: Jiewa Park, Yellowknife' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Wayne Guy and On Site review


marking our place on architectureSarah Zollinger
When we become lost in the cities we live in, we rediscover our place by responding to the stories that architects tell with our own marks — words and images that tell stories in the cities we inhabit. Writing one's name on a building claims space and makes place: it makes that building surface ours. Design cannot be spontaneous, but graffiti needs to be. Architecture may be hard and solid and slow, but writers move quickly. Writing names and identities onto the city is how we engage the slowness of architecture and put ourselves into the stories of the places we live.
Aldo Rossi's city is a collection of the architecture that makes it up: a human-built object, an assembly of artefacts; often a collection of the ‘nameless architecture of large cities, streets and residential blocks’1 — LA, Houston or Toronto—but when we look more closely a counter-definition starts to emerge. Lives lived within these architectures add layers to the palimpsest of a city. With architectures as repositories, cities are ‘the production and distribution of discourse, writing, including the bodily traces of a building's occupants, and its divisions of space, time and movement'.2 This ‘visual litter’ both private and commercial, is part of our dialogue with the city. Competing images and texts might seem entirely chaotic but ‘neither cities nor places in them are unordered, unplanned; the question is only whose order, whose planning, for what purpose, in whose interest’.3
When the modern city disregards the individual in an attempt to plan for the universal, graffiti, stickers and stencils are some of the ways that urban dwellers physically and visually make their individual presence known. This urban art is part of a long tradition of marking the places we live. It is the trace of people we know and things we can identify. Because of the marks made by others like us the city becomes ‘a place that we can identify ourselves within’. 4 Each mark is the trace of another person ‘…every graffito can … be seen and/or read as a miniature autobiography of a member of a society in the sense that the graffitist reveals a part of himself and his society in all that s/he writes’.5 This idea of autobiography is at the heart of graffiti and what makes it unique.
Graffiti is about naming: writing ones name in the city allows ‘an announcement of one’s identity [as] a kind of testimonial to one’s existence in a world of anonymity’.6 Whether it be to sign a contract, or write yourself a name tag, or tag a wall, ‘when one makes a mark, one leaves something of one's self behind’, claiming both identity and belonging.7 For urban youth in a culture of nameless-ness and identity-less-ness, graffiti is a route to belonging, not only in a group but also in a large and anonymous city.8 Naming and re-naming implies the creation, or re-creation, of self and serves as a means of empowerment.9 The subsequent marking of one's name on a public surface adds to this the physical claiming of space and the delineation of boundaries within the city. There is a sense of pride in seeing your name or the names of friends impacting the city. One belongs by marking one's presence.
In this, buildings, the collection of stories told by architects, become the backdrop. The anonymous walls of anonymous buildings become canvases where the average person comes in contact with the city and meets the moment when our lives can inscribe the rigid world that we live in. This is where the people that walk the streets make architecture human: flexible, changeable and where we urban dwellers, who live our lives in the shadows of buildings, push back at an unyielding architecture.

Zollinger, Sarah. 'Inscriptions: marking our place on architecture' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Sara Zolllinger and On Site review

Cold War Neon

WarsawElla Chmielewska
In the common imaginary of the West, gray was the colour of the communist city; the drab and uniform tone was only punctuated by the red of the flags. This ideological urban myth could be unsettled by the remaining artefacts of the communist era in Warsaw, though they have been disappearing fast from the surface of the city. Displaced by garish noise of printed advertising and cheap signs of hyper-capitalism, the evidence of the little know urban phenomenon of neonization of the communist cities in the 1960s has been crumbling, leaving only street photographs to attest to the spectacular aspects of socialist modernity.
After the death of Stalin and the political changes of 1956, Warsaw was released from its Socialist Realist shackles, and allowed to become modern. Mies-inspired buildings appeared in the city centre, and elaborate neon signs sprouted everywhere on rooftops and building facades. Architectural and design journals called for surrounding the citizen with beauty, light, and clarity of form and discussed modern uses and the compositional-aesthetic sense of light in architecture. References to the fantasy and ‘magic of city lights and advertising’ and ‘illuminated composition’ illustrated the metropolitan ambitions and highlighted the role of graphic space in urban design. The new metropolitan street was posited as an evidence of aesthetic taste, sophistication, and ‘European elegance’.1
The celebration of light and colour, however, was not to be spontaneous nor chaotic as chaos was seen as characteristic of capitalist cities and their ‘obscene spatial compositions’.2 In a socially progressive city, technology, industry, art and urban detail was to meet in the careful choreography of neon signs that constructed the proper image of the socialist metropolis. Not ‘the nonsensical fashion for neons’ not synchronised with architecture, but the careful design of the street interior, was called for; order, harmony, and centrally coordinated urban composition. 3
At first, the term neonization meant a critical reference to the visual noise on the urban surface.4 Later, the term came to mean the comprehensive programme developed and implemented in the1960s and carried through the 1970s, the programme coordinating harmonious design of ‘night architecture’ and the city’s daytime image carried out by the special office of the Chief Designer of the City.5 The office functioned from 1972 to 1991 alongside the position of the Chief Architect of the City of Warsaw and was responsible for the aesthetics of public space, urban signage and advertising and all issues related to information and decoration in the city, including engaging artists in consultations regarding the colours for building façades, design of neons and illuminated signs, shop windows and public displays.
The Neonization Programme established an elaborate design and approval process requiring careful consideration of site, building scale and detail, the context of other signs, relevant views, colour sequences, as well as the signs’ graphic form, typography, and even the wording. Technical aspects of signs, their sequence of switching, specifications for the materials and mechanisms, were also part of the stringent approval process. Most importantly, the neon signs were not treated in isolation, and the approval process was not a mere regulatory formality. The design of urban signage, advertising and occasional decorations became an important source of revenue for the local graphic artists and architects, and the approval documents provide an astonishing testament to the quality expected and the attention to detail demanded of the projects.
The neons were not simply positioned in available spaces. They were designed into the buildings’ exteriors: forming hypersurfaces, as it were, enveloping the buildings, outlining them, respectful of their form and detail, highlighting their silhouette. They retreated during the daylight, with only a delicate line of writing visible against the sky, or the building surface. The neons, like the posters visible on the streets of Warsaw, were designed by graphic artists and were used in the rhetoric of modernity and the Polish contribution to European (Western) culture.6

1 Jerzy Hryniewiecki. ‘Ksztalt przyszlosci’ (The shape of the future), Projekt, no.1, (1956). pp 5-9; Stanislaw Jankowski, ‘Urbanistyczne wnioski z Festiwalu’ (Post-festival urban reflections) Miasto (The City), 61 no 11 (1955) pp 26-29.
2 Henryk Sufryd. ‘Zagadnienia sztucznego oswie tlenia architektury’ (Problems of the artificial light in architecture) Miasto, 55 no 9 (1959) pp.12-15.
3 Ibid.
4 Olgierd Budrewicz, Stolica (The Capitol), March 1958, p. 9.
5 Stanislaw Soszynski, Chief Designer of the City of Warsaw 1972-1991 (interviews, May 2003). See also: Archives of the City of Warsaw, Neonizacja, 1969-1972, document AB.UA-647-71.
6 Ella Chmielewska ‘Sites of Display: The iconosphere of Warsaw, 1955 to the present day.’ Peter Martyn (ed), City in Art. Warsaw: Institute of Art, 2008, pp.127-143, fig.1-51.

Chmielewska, Ella. 'Cold War Neon' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Ella Chmielewska and On Site review

Cliffside Slips

Mason White and Lola Sheppard: Lateral Architecture
The urban street traditionally united three physical roles: that of circulation, that of public space and that of built frontage and address.
— Stephen Marshall1

typological studies of traditional streets have tended to focus on the dimensional and qualitative characteristics of good street-making: the width of vehicular lanes and sidewalks, the presence of trees, benches, lighting and so forth. In such studies, the temporal and programmatic aspect of the street is typically overlooked. With the advent of the modern city, the street was reconceived as infrastructure in service of efficient mobility, effectively liberating road form from city block form and divorcing the street from its role as a programmatically charged, public realm. This phenomenon has reached its greatest impact in the sprawling margins of cities.

Cliffside Slips is a project that attempts to re-integrate mobility and the public realm through a reprogramming of streetscape infrastructure. The project centres on the crosswalk as a space capable of re-appropriation and new occupation. Like the sidewalk, the crosswalk has the potential to serve as an extension of the public realm. Akin to connective tissue, it invites a continuous urbanism across connecting thoroughfares.
Cliffside Slips is a proposal that will reconnect a neighbourhood and stimulate a retail zone bisected by Kingston Road, a six-lane arterial. The proposal uses a range of connections to stitch together a community that is divided physically, socially and economically. The retail and urban conditions of the road are asymmetrical; the buildings on the north side establish a recognizable main street form, while on the south side buildings are set back from the street in a strip mall typology. The six-lane main street presents more than a physical separation, it reinforces a psychological barrier between the north and south neighbourhoods reducing connectivity and discouraging urban vitality.

Urban Marina
The Kingston Road proposal takes cues from the fleeting informal urbanism occurring at the nearby marina beyond the Cliffside Village bluff. Cliffside Slips produces a new infrastructure / urbanism hybrid. The intention is to create a main street that translates the idea of docking, bridging, anchoring, and temporary occupation to incrementally convert the suburban strip in Cliffside into an urban marina of roving activity and vitality. Cliffside Slips uses an inventory of existing urban infrastructure elements that includes pocket parks, crosswalks, medians and temporary parking lot occupations to connect both sides of the street into a dense public space.
Pocket Parks
Pocket parks, places to rest or play, act as attractors along the street. The pocket parks, which could be rented or purchased by the City or the Business Improvement Area, take advantage of open lots or derelict properties in the area, adding value to the adjacent properties and the rest of the street. The program for the parks would relate to the adjacent businesses and arrangements for shared public-private space could promote activities such as outdoor cafes, playgrounds and other activities. Pocket parks are often extensions of the crossing slips and act as an urban attractor.
Crossing Slips & Medians
The crossing slips and medians act as the connective tissue of the village. Slips merge crosswalks and pocket parks, and are inserted along Kingston Road at intermittent locations. The use of slips slows traffic, encourages pedestrian fluidity between the two sides and makes a series of places each with a distinct identity. Depending on local conditions, these slips project differently; some connect to pocket parks while others connect across parking lots to the strip malls on the south side.. The crossing slips act as progenitors for anchoring temporary events within the large parking lots in underused times.

The existing median, currently an inaccessible island in a sea of infrastructure, is expanded to become a resting point and to serve as a linear green buffer, providing a more intimate scale of street, both on the north and south side. The median also accommodates the proposed streetcar along Kingston in the future, incorporating transit shelters and rest points.

Dockings are temporary urban infrastructures that bring street life to the parking lots of the strip malls on the south side of the street when they are not being used. These urban insertions allow for larger, temporal programs such as markets, outdoor cinemas and festivals. These would serve as early catalysts for the project, attracting people and extending the retail life of the surrounding shops.

Incremental Urbanism
Cliffside Slips is an incremental project not a master plan. The project recognises that it is economically and logistically more feasible, in the short-term, to transform the public space of the street, particularly through program and temporal interventions, than it is to change the physical configuration of the built fabric. The crossings, slips, parks and occupations can be produced over time as the economy and culture of the neighbourhood changes and develops.

Public space is defined not solely by built form, but equally by program, event and infrastructure. Appropriating existing street infrastructure such as the cross-walk, the median and the parking lot, allows a shift away from the purely pragmatic function of movement control to suggest new ways of occupying the public realm.

1 Stephen Marshall. Streets and Patterns: The Structure of Urban Geometry. Abingdon, New York: Spon, 2005.

Sheppard, Lola and Mason White. 'Cliffside Steps' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Lateral Architecture and On Site review


Cote-des-Neiges, MontrealNathalie Heroux, Olivier Boucher and Gabrielle Nadeau
Côte-des-Neiges presents itself as an exemplary axis, representative of Montreal’s harmonious cohabitation of diverse populations. The axis is literally serviced and used by a heterogeneous population, of all ages, all social statuses and of all origins.
Here, the different cultural impressions draw themselves subtly by commercial activities where the local forces express themselves by densely setting up small establishments on the street. The path’s usage does not become less bounded, controlled and regulated, segregating commercial activity from that of the sidewalk and that of street.
Inversely, in many countries, particularly in Asia, the chaotic investment of the street blurs these limits and leaves the way clear for the social forces to saturate all available zones. This standpoint is in complete opposition to the North American attitude concerning the street, which favours the establishment of a controlled environment, and that opposes citizens’ freedom of organisation.
The work sites that are currently dispersed along Côte-des-Neiges road challenge the way that we apprehend the street, transforming the normally banal progression into a true obstacle course, temporarily disturbing the established order. These forbidden zones invade the street in a random and unexpected fashion; they form an ideal alibi for the construction of ludic social installations. Our proposition of using road works as deceptions allows for spontaneous, marginal or foreign practices by using a disruptive code accepted and assimilated by all.

Heroux, Natalie. 'Investments' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Natalie Heroux and On Site review

An Impermanent Vernacular

innovation without architectsZahra Ebrahim
Some of the world’s greatest and most innovative architecture occurs on the streets of global cities on a daily basis, without the assistance of architects. Fly over Mumbai during monsoon season and you will see the rains bring a flood of blue tarpaulin: temporary shelters for the homeless seeping towards central skyscrapers. Take an elevated walkway over the streets of Hong Kong early in the morning, and watch the calm of shuttered storefronts give way to the people, the bustle and the newly erected awnings, stands and sidewalk-stalls. Drive through the Lower East Side of Manhattan and look to the streets to see the innovation, the creativity and the resilience of the homeless population whom have constructed homes from wood platforms, crates and plastic that have the aesthetic of an eyesore but upon closer inspection, the essence of home. It is in these places, in our very neighbourhoods, on our very streets that architecture is affecting people yet it is often unrecognised for it is architecture without an architect.
Temporary architecture, ephemeral architecture, is one of the world’s oldest models of the built form. It is reflective, like vernacular architecture of the local area, the local needs and of local human interest. The ephemeral architecture of today provides shelter, safety and comfort while simultaneously evolving with local changes in climate, political conditions, gentrification and social change. It remains because of cultural tradition, displacement or transience – an architecture of the dispossessed. This temporary architecture, created anonymously, does not occur in rural, invisible areas but rather in urban centres, most often in urban slums. It has moved over the past hundred year from the unplanned, unlegislated rural to the strictly zoned, planned urban. In 2003, the United Nations reported that one billion people – approximately one third of the world’s urban dwellers and a sixth of all humanity – live in slums. Architecture is occurring without architects in the same places where it is occurring with architects. This provides an interesting point of comparison at the success of these spaces as they are juxtaposed against each other. Although primitive, these shelters and this architecture, juxtaposed in the urban environment is acting with the same intention as much of the post-modern canon. Temporary architecture is actively responding to the form, function and environment on a daily basis.
Visit Mumbai, India, in the months of July to September, and experience the ultimate act of architect-free architecture. Mumbai is home to one of the world’s poorest urban populations as well as housing one of the world’s largest urban slums. In an effort to manage the spread of these slums, they are periodically razed by the government, leaving the dwellers forced to reinvent and reconstruct their homes, adapting them to current climate and political conditions. From July to September, monsoon season dictates the aesthetic of the architecture and the box and board constructed shanty towns are covered in a blue mass of tarpaulins, literally highlighting the polar class divisions in the city.
Both in Mumbai and Hong Kong, cultures have long been defined by a history of displacement. Colonialism in both countries affected the movement of indigenous populations, forcing them to constantly adapt to new surroundings. In Hong Kong the urban fabric has long been defined by informal and impermanent architecture. It is not only on the corners of the urban areas where this occurs, but on the main streets, where a big-box retail location is neighboured by a storefront selling fresh grilled squid and various forms of dried sea creatures – this storefront is obsolete by nightfall. Similarly, rounding a corner into a street market, by day a thriving and bustling metropolis of colour, smells and sounds; by night almost unrecognisable except for the odd abandoned piece of fruit or cardboard bearing the price of the day’s catch. Night markets (specifically in Asian regions) also bear this character. By day, abandoned, often dilapidated alleyways; by night, thriving, loud, exciting urban spaces that leave little to be desired.
In North America, due to highly regulated zoning rules, the most common form of architect-free architecture is the architecture of the dispossessed, the architecture of the homeless population. Whether in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver or the Lower East Side of Manhattan, these forms often are a combination of boxes, crates, parts of old machinery found on the street, and various remnants discarded by urban dwellers that are creatively integrated and purposefully used in housing for this demographic. In 1993, New York Times writer Patricia Leigh Brown interviewed Pepe Otero, a Manhattan homeless man who had constructed a makeshift structure out of discarded objects in an effort to carve out the closest thing to a home that he could manifest on the streets of Manhattan. Instead of being ashamed of his current living situation, he seemed proud, almost boastful about it. ‘You know something? It took character to build that. A lot of feeling went into it. Building it shaped my attitude. You realize you can do things for yourself. People who build for themselves have an interest in themselves. As long as you don’t forget, you’re not forgotten’.
What is most paradoxical about urban ephemeral shelters is that they are often looked upon as primitive by the majority of the urban population. As necessity is the mother of invention, and innovation is essentially born out of need, it is these impermanent spaces that make use of materials indigenous to urban centres, consistently adaptable to all conditions, and often amongst the most sustainable as they can be constructed and demolished with little or no damage to the environment (40% of emissions are caused by building construction and demolition) and are constructed from re-used – and therefore sustainable – materials. Bernard Rudofsky wrote (in 1964) that it is simple, even primitive dwelling types that we escape to when we need any form of relaxation (to get away from our technological mania), and it is in primitive surroundings that our chances of finding relaxation hinge upon. These anonymous builders around the world are providing an untapped source of architectural innovation.

So how does one recognise architect-free architecture? By its very nature it is defined by unpredictable streetscapes, streetscapes whose aesthetic changes on a daily basis. It is a return to vernacular that addresses local necessity by using local resources – an evolving architecture that speaks to its ephemeral contexts. Temporary shelter comes as a result of years of experimentation rather than years of architectural education. This vernacular, an impermanent vernacular, is creating not only creating architect-free architecture on the street level, but an architecture of empowerment that forces the boundaries of innovation.

Ebrahim, Zahra. 'An Impermanent Vernacular: innovation without architects' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Zahra Ebrahim and On Site review

Mat Building in Halifax

rebuilding the mat in the contemporary urban landscapeMatthew Neville
Density is a contentious issue in Halifax. A region characterised by a slow growth conservatism, the city appears divided, even paralysed, between heritage preservation and new urban real estate development. Misrepresenting density as purely height, coupled with excessively rigid and paradoxically vague municipal building regulations, Halifax shows a great disconnect between social and spatial perceptions of the liveable city. One process, called mat-building, defines density as both physical and of social characteristics at the ground plane, and is measured by levels of intensity and mixitié; mat-building is density at the scale of habitat. As a strategy to increase density in low-density North American cities, mat-building can enrich the presently hostile [sub]urban pedestrian environment, offering an alternative to the relatively unchallenged New Urbanism model. With a fine-grained historic fabric and many vacant sites ripe for redevelopment, Halifax is an ideal testing ground for mat-building. It would give the city valuable insight into the tribulations and contradictions of its rich history, culture and its unique sense of place.
Introduced by Alison Smithson in 1974, mat-building provides individual freedom of movement through the city by weaving close-knit patterns of association between objects, supported by a dense internal language of circulation. Mat-building emerged from Smithson’s fascination with the traditional Arabic casbah – its rich texture, ‘full of starts and stops and shadow…with a high degree of connectedness to allow for change of mind and the in-roads of time’. As connective tissue in various phases of construction, destruction or decay, mats are never finished: they encapsulate the continuous evolution of urban form.
Mat-building is a process: it structures high density patterns of living. Mat-building requires delicate interplay between variations and repetitions of form; it is governed by connections and thresholds rather than by geometric boundaries. In contrast, a grid is indifferent to and detached from topography; no where is this more evident than in the 1749 British plan for Halifax where a flat military grid was laid upon a steep hillside. The ultimate objective of mat-building is total integration of building, tissue and landscape. From building to city block, mat-building intensifies the relationship of landscape to culture by emphasising process and organisation over objects.
Mats are close-knit, fine-grain fabrics with a dense internal language where choice of movement for the user is maximised; they allow for easy appropriation of space; they welcome organic, incremental growth and various states of construction, destruction and decay. They are produced under the influence of culture, landscape and time.
Remnants of mats are visible in Halifax as one navigates from the top of the glacial drumlin where a 19th century citadel remains, through the historical residue scattered over the slope, down to the harbour and the edge of the ocean. As the grid pattern aligns the short side of the blocks with the water, it increases the east-west porosity –the number of choices– of the fabric. Personal space unfolds; each part of the route is governed by time and a series of sequential, changing thresholds.
Although the Citadel and harbour seem to present a stable bi-polar system while peripheral areas fill a dynamic role to meet changing urban needs, recent history tells us this is not the case. Such monuments act as divisive objects that fragment the tissue as well as the city. At a smaller scale, there are numerous vacant sites scattered throughout the fabric that act in similar ways by creating barriers, dead zones and areas of exclusion that further degrade quality of place.

The site of the former Halifax Infirmary (including two adjacent parking lots) is the most significant vacant site on the peninsula. With no shortage of ideas for its redevelopment as residents, business leaders, politicians and developers express their desires through many recent visioning exercises held by the city, the debate over the future of this site is only just beginning. Many proposed uses are institutional (a library and courthouse) while others focus on more residential and commercial space in the area. The site is a strategic location, next to the Dalhousie’s schools of engineering, architecture and planning, and between Citadel Hill, a national historic, Spring Garden Road, a main shopping area and Barrington Street, a proposed heritage district. Rather than highlighting these differences by engaging in acts of monument building, the city is in desperate need of a strategy to build associations and social and spatial interdependence in this area. As a site where distinct urban areas collide, it has the potential to act as a threshold between the primarily residential south end of the city, commercial areas to the east and north, and the hospital and university areas in the west. Instead of creating an exception in the tissue, the city requires a reciprocity that weaves together old and new physical elements, and social patterns of use and behaviour, creating a dense fabric that remains active throughout the busy summers and often long winters.
Imagining a new centre of stability in the city – anchored by strong existing public institutions – the elements that fill the site must take on an unconventional, anti-monumental shape. Through an organic understanding of the in-between – a sort of interstitial urbanism – these elements can not only form the physical construct of the site, but can create habitat and allow for unexpected patterns of human behaviour. Such a process requires one to step away from buildings and plans viewed from above and to explore the hidden potential on the ground, in the city, on the street and in the landscape.
Aldo Van Eyck predicted an end to architecture’s fascination with form, to be replaced by a ‘culture of determined relations’ where ‘the relation between things and within things are of greater significance than the things themselves’. Mat-building continues this push for a shift in architectural design from static imagery to organisation, temporality and transition. It places architecture closer to the humanities and in a position better able to deal with the dynamics of contemporary cosmopolitan forms of urbanity. Mat-building is place-making in a phenomenological sense – using the experiences of people as the foundation of design. The mat is a discussion of density, city life (in buildings and in the street) and cultural differences in the use and meaning of space. In this sense, the mat may be the most appropriate ’ground cover’ for culturally diverse cities as it embraces the overlapping and complex structuring of social and spatial elements of urban life.

Neville, Matthew. 'Rebuilding the Mat in the Contemporary Urban Landscape' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Matthew Neville and On Site review


a nature scene for parking lots in Los AngelesLia Maston
The 20th Century left an enormous asphalt footprint on the earth’s surface. Cities sprawled horizontally. Impermeable, bituminous seas surrounded malls, commercial centres and industrial parks. Rising from the asphalt sea, a cloud of smog produced beautiful pink and gold sunsets. Too soon the hot, mineral city began to asphyxiate itself.
Could the architecture of the 21st Century actively reverse the effects of 100 years of asphalt? What would it take?

Inspired by the mythology of building with nature, Paradise is a hybrid architecture: part living, verdant air filter; part concrete and steel. An undulating, floating network of greenery rests on tall stalks which are implanted in parking lots in Los Angeles (one parking space per stalk), evoking the hanging gardens of Babylon. The plant life support system consists of suspended hydroponic hypertextiles that are breathable and flexible; a construction inspired by the traditional wire mesh garden topiary. Living suites and gardens are nested in the shaded folds of these hydroponic drapes. People and mechanical services travel via the concrete stalks from the parking level to the garden level. The gardens, terraces and social spaces of the dwelling (kitchen, living room and dining room) are located on this level – open to the sky. The intimate spaces of the residences are suspended below, completely immersed in the verdant sheets. As a result, the views from bedroom windows are always across screens of leaves.
Far from the tame nature that holds up Laugier’s hut, the plant life in Paradise is assumed to be an independent force with its own needs, capable of growing, dying and being reborn. It recalls the idea of living in a state of negotiation with nature, as the giant vaults of a gothic cathedral built in the image of the medieval forest, or the beanstalk in the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, which embodies a fantastic will beyond the control of Jack or the villagers. In Paradise, to reinforce this wild quality of nature, giant topiary rabbits jump freely through the scene.
A playful and figurative representation of nature, Paradise is destined for a popular landscape. The most ordinary, ubiquitous urban situations hide incredible potential. Not only could lost real estate above surface parking lots be recycled, the parking lot itself could benefit from the microclimate introduced by a fantastic new parasol. The ecological movement’s living air filters, green roofs and walls (as much symbolically evocative as effective), could be liberated from their building envelopes. They could take on greater proportions, becoming breathing parks, floating above other surfaces generally intended to prohibit plant growth.

I thought of this project after looking at Ed Ruscha’s paintings and photographs of freeways, advertisements, strip malls and parking lots in Los Angeles. Ruscha captures a streetscape of rapid production and consumption, built to be experienced from a vehicle traveling at a high speed. Absurd, instantly appealing, and charged with a Hollywood romanticism, Los Angeles is urban sprawl at its most enhanced.

Consider such sprawl in all of its mania and fun, and rethink the composition of our cities where asphalt is often the largest land user.

Maston, Lia. 'Paradise: a nature scene for parking lots in Los Angeles' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Lia Maston and On Site review


the fine lines of the public realmAntoín Doyle
Significant literary work can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fit its influence in active communities then does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book - in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.
—Walter Benjamin, One Way Street

The bollard is a prompt piece of building that relates the jurisdiction of control and bounding of site to the human body. It takes its function from other bounding elements – railings, fences and walls – yet its force lies in the space inbetween.
A bollard connected by chains becomes a barrier, a vehicle for exclusion; its potential is capped and controlled. When left unfettered, it can be inhabited, its function is more fluid, its response more prompt and active. These bollards direct and channel through their combined collection, they control through co-operation.
It is the inconspicuous gap between bollards that shows itself actively equal to the moment of the street. Within this regular rhythm and order, there is the opportunity to support an attachment to the city and a compatibility with the street.
Unlike chain, fence and railing which represent an over-determination in the city to support a regime of control, restricting desire, habit and pattern, the gap between bollards presents a porosity of territory to the city’s occupants and allows an opportunity for action and innovation in the interval. The drama of the instant can exist in the intermission.

The diameter of modern steel bollards allows little opportunity for contribution on the street. A broader bollard, more column than baton, has the potential to expand to the moment, allowing for multiplicity of use. By increasing its weight on the street, it is better able to respond to the demands placed on it by individual and collective action. Its particular height, girth, strength and materiality allows people to sit, stand, lean, rest and act. Its initial function is invaded by other uses, responding to the spontaneity and instant of the street. In this way, the identity of the bollard is subverted from a tool of territory and exclusion to one of occupation and contribution. The structural redundancy and strength required in a bollard for safety and security, mean that even when compromised it can still function as a light, a seat, a stage, a podium.

This bollard inhabits the commonplace yet illustrates a collision of functions and level of collaboration that is an indication of the level of substance and support that needs to be supplied to the street by architecture, building and design.

Doyle, Antoín. 'The Fine Lines of the Public Realm: Bollards' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Antoín Doyle and On Site review

On The Road Again

artist-run galleries in disarrayJennifer McVeigh
In Calgary today, whole buildings are demolished overnight, leaving only rubble that will soon be cleared for the next development. Apartment buildings are emptied of their tenants and turned into upmarket condominiums. Homelessness and near-homelessness are at an all time high. Even small businesses and non-profit organisations are displaced as prices continue to increase.
How do we absorb and adapt to this recurring cycle of displacement, erasure and transformation? How do we rebuild our homes, identities and communities when our physical environment is in constant flux? In Hollow City, Rebecca Solnit notes that ‘to have your city dismantled too rapidly around you is to have the relationship between mind and place thrown into disarray’.
This dichotomy has been especially challenging for members of Calgary’s art community. Each of the city’s artist-run centres has a nomadic history, constantly recreating themselves in more affordable locations with the city’s boom and bust cycle. The New Gallery in particular, has taken temporary refuge in a storefront at Eau Claire Market shopping centre (itself slated for demolition) while its former quarters were razed to make room for a new office tower.
On the eve of the building’s destruction, former Gallery director Heather Allen proposed an opportunity for artists to respond to the situation. The result was On the Road Again – a collaborative performance art project conceived by Tomas Jonsson, realised with the support of several community groups, and which took place from September 10 -23, 2007. During a public workshop at Eau Claire Market, wheels from bicycles, strollers and roller blades were installed on furniture purchased through the Calgary Dollars local currency community, along with found and donated pieces. The following weekend, a hardy group of artists and activists gathered with their hybrid vehicles at the top of Centre Street hill, the starting point for an endurance-length procession to commemorate sites of transition throughout the downtown core.
The first site was the former location of the Brick furniture warehouse. After the store’s closure, the building was turned into a temporary winter homeless shelter, then demolished to make way for an additional driving lane for the trans-Canada highway.
Next was Eau Claire, an area on the Bow river. In the 1980s, this older neighbourhood was replaced with a large shop-ping and entertainment complex. Never a commercial success, the complex is now slated for redevelopment as condominium towers.
On 9th Avenue SW, the group stopped to examine what remained of the former New Gallery building. Halfway torn down on the day of the procession, the gallery’s rooms were sliced down the middle and exposed. Strangely, a single wooden chair was still perched in the space.
Finally, a stop was made at the latest artist-run centres to be affected by the boom. The building that houses Quickdraw Animation Society and Emmedia Gallery and Production Society was recently sold to developers, and its tenants given notice to vacate.
The following day, On the Road Again was taken to the launch of Homeless Awareness Week Calgary in Riley Park. The furniture created a social space for conversation facilitated by activists from the Calgary Housing Action Initiative. Citizens recounted their memories of the city and its transformations, as well as ideas for creating stronger, more welcoming communities.
After a week-long exhibition in the centre court of Eau Claire Market, On the Road Again was disassembled and its components donated to city furniture banks. Though temporary, the project was a human-scaled intervention in face of the astounding rate of transformation happening in the city.

McVeigh, Jennifer. 'On the Road Again: artist run galleries in disarray' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Jennifer McVeigh and On Site review

Crossing the Grid

Dundas Street, TorontoPaul Whelan
Dundas Street meanders across Toronto’s orthogonal street grid leaving odd-shape lots and angles. Throughout its length the built response to its diagonal cut has created a variety of compromises as buildings twist to face the street while remaining aligned with the side property lines.

This particular example is in the Junction area of Toronto, a prosperous industrial town from the late 1880’s through to its absorption into the City of Toronto in 1909. The earliest surveys of the Junction show the strain of builders trying to decide which property line should establish a building’s orientation. Over time the Dundas Street alignment has become dominant, but 2867 Dundas retains a vestigial memory of this alignment conundrum.

The resulting convoluted shop entry optimises this site geometry to provide street frontage for three entries – apartment, bar and basement office. The incredibly demur bar occupies the most recessed and street-distant portion of this pocket of space. The decorative floor treatment, wood framed doors, glass displays and the brass and iron handrail are a necessary embellishment to entice passersby. The resulting space has become a semi-public extension of the sidewalk snaking into the heart of the building.

Whelan, Paul. 'Crossing the Grid: Dundas Street' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Paul Whelan and On Site review