18 July 2008

Cultural Literacy, Visual Default

The Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta
Myron Nebozuk
Twenty-odd years ago, my first year architecture professor presented our studio with a description of the human body resized to proportionately represent nerve endings. Parts of the body that have a lot of nerve endings, like finger tips and genitalia, would become grotesquely big and other parts of the body with fewer nerve endings, like the top of one’s head, would shrink. I’ve never forgotten this image, interpreting it as a call to engage all senses and to view any subject from a number of vantage points.
Fast forward to last fall and I’m leafing through Canadian Architect’s annual awards issue. I stop to read the jury comments for the proposed Ukrainian museum in Edmonton, Alberta. The jury waxes poetic about the quality of spaces and sequence presented. I study the drawings and conclude ‘who can tell?’. The information presented in the magazine is purely visual; perhaps the jury had access to some secret key just out of view, enabling them to decode the drawings. I see only two things: firstly, the rendering style reminds me of a popular video game from a decade ago called Gadget. Gadget was set in a bleak, tobacco-coloured cold war world populated by grim apparatchiks in long coats, so well rendered you can almost smell the vodka, cigarettes and sausage on their breath.
My second visual cue is the architectural style employed by the winning firm. Although the design solution is an addition to an existing building, the design team cleverly contrasts the original historical brick structure with something that reminds me of exposed-to-elements-and-neglect constructivism. I know something of such abandoned in-place heroic constructivism because there’s a lot of it within walking distance of my in-laws’ home in Budapest, where it plays poorly with the locals.
The submission’s constructivist references immediately strike me as dissonant because this style was embraced (for a few years at least) by the early Soviet government. Applying this style to a building that commemorates the struggles of a people that by and large sought to escape czarist and communist Russian persecution seems like cruel irony.

The design team and curators might argue back and say this museum represents the experience of all Ukrainian Canadians, irrespective of political orientation. However, one can clearly see the built manifestations of two different political perspectives within a few blocks of each other in downtown Edmonton. Whereas the opulent St. Josaphat’s Cathedral was bankrolled by people whose values would have been in stark opposition to the new Soviet regime, persons sympathetic to the new Soviet government built a comparatively modest hall a few blocks north. This perception is supported by Orest Subtelny’s Ukrainians in North America (1991). The author estimates that the proportion of religious and nationalist Ukrainian immigrants coming to Canada outnumbered socialist Ukrainian immigrants ten to one. So, it follows that the much larger group built the enormous, Byzantine-centric church and the other group settled for a comparatively simple stucco box. For several generations, neither group wanted to have anything to do with the other. Placing these opposing groups under one roof and making like one big happy family would be either naive, ignorant or a willful revision of history.
Could things get worse? Let’s consider one more idea: historian Richard Evans has written eloquently about the many obstacles that stand in the way of a fair and balanced historical record, recognising that history is typically written by the victors. The Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum might be the exception to this rule, dressed in an architectural style associated with one of history’s biggest losers.

Although I don’t expect any jury to understand and comment on minute political currents within cultural subsets of our society, when juries establish architectural merit based on the visual sense alone, folly usually follows. The experience of buildings involves all senses at least, and at best includes messy cultural layers that add additional complexity.
Why then do adjudication processes give primacy to the visual sense? Since the Renaissance, the visual has ascended to dominate discussion and evaluation of the built environment. Save Rodolphe el-Khoury’s recent history of architecture based on the sense of smell (History of Shit. MIT Press, 2003), the vast majority of architectural criticism and history has assumed that the visual sense has driven all that is meritorious in architecture and urban design. Had a multivalent approach been used by this design team and jury, someone might have precluded the oh shit! moment that comes right after a big ball is dropped. Instead, we are faced with the prospect of the curiosity presented by my first year professor, all hands and genitalia, possessing very little space between both ears.

Nebozuk, Myron. 'Cultural literacy, visual default'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Myron Nebozuk and On Site review

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