27 November 2009

Rock and Liberty

Açalya Klyak

Speaking bluntly, there are not many significant differences in the construction of the classically draped Liberty Statue and Frank Gehry's recent buildings.


Clothing is an area of concern that modern architects often dealt with, referred to in their writings and made direct comparisons with architecture. Similarly, tailors, fashion designers and editors talk about the 'construction' of clothes, which begins with flat patterns and becomes three-dimensional after a series of operations, i.e. cutting, sewing, and stitching. However, drapery is a word rarely mentioned in architectural discourse.
What exactly is a drapery? Basically it is a piece of cloth. It is the simplest method of clothing. It can be hung or laid over the body without cutting or sewing the material. A drapery can be made from either one rectangular piece of cloth or several cloths of various sizes, having no form by itself. It moves freely with the positions and movements of the body and it behaves differently according to the thickness of the cloth. In antiquity, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans used clothing of this kind.


The representation of the draped body, associated with luxury, wealth, and nobility, has been a widespread theme in fine arts for centuries. Yet, compared to sculpture or painting, the rendering of drapery in architecture is quite rare. One notable example is the 151 feet tall and 225 tons of Liberty wearing a green copper drapery, designed in 1880s by the French Neoclassical sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi in direct imitation of antiquity.
The Statue of Liberty is habitable; unlike other statues, its skin encloses an interior space. Her loose copper drapery is hung over the armatures placed on her iron skeleton, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The inner surface of Liberty's copper skin and the iron skeleton are not intended to be visually connected. This uncanny conjunction is also a part of the visitor's experience. Bartholdi conceived Liberty entirely in terms of its outer contours. After settling the final form in a clay model, it was enlarged to a full-scale set of plaster fragments in his Paris workshop. Following the contours of the plaster, massive wooden moulds are built. And then thin copper sheets (2.5 millimetres in thickness) are forced into shape of the moulds by hammering. The copper panels are fastened together, hung on the iron skeleton and eventually present her webbed 'skin'.

Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, opened in June 2000, was the first large-scale Gehry building after Bilbao. EMP is a music museum, dedicated to the memory of the Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix, thanks to the cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allen's love of rock music and his 240 million dollars.
The museum's webpages explain that EMP's structure symbolises the energy and fluidity of music; while an electric guitar is the source of inspiration. One can imagine Gehry, a classical music fan, going to the guitar store in the neighbourhood and buying several electric guitars. After taking the guitars back to his office to examine, Gehry ends up being inspired only by their shiny finish. EMP shimmers in vivid red, purple, blue, gold, and silver, dominating the Seattle convention area.

Strictly speaking, in the complete monograph of Gehry, only one section and a few plan drawings if EMP appear. There is an obvious reason: try to imagine the difficulty of describing the building by means of conventional drawings. The traditional plan, elevation, and section are no longer employed by Gehry. Building EMP from orthogonal drawings would be nearly impossible. In a similar instance, Robin Evans wrote that in Scharoun's Philharmonie project construction workers confronted serious difficulties in setting out the foundations. Only after taking large-scale sections at very closely spaced intervals across the breadth of the building, could workers continue to build. To describe EMP one would need to chop the building into billions of thin slices. Instead of this burdensome task, Gehry's office employed a digital three-dimensional model as the single source of information for the entire project. Working with a wire frame model of the exterior surface of the building, EMP is conceived from outside in, not unlike the Statue of Liberty. The way in which EMP is constructed also presents similarities with Liberty. Gehry begins with a study model. Once he decides on the final form, the model is digitised and scaled to full-size in the computer environment. At this stage one can experience the building constructed virtually in three-dimensions. The software, acting like a weaving program, allows the three-dimensional forms to be charted two-dimensionally. In a method similar to tailoring, cutting machines produce each shape from flat sheets of metal.

One can speculate that L. William Zahner, the head of a steel company in Kansas City, Missouri, is equally a tailor. Working directly from the digital model provided by Gehry, Zahner's firm produced the nearly 4,000 panels that form the exterior skin of EMP. Each panel holds about seven shingles that have a unique shape and size, tailored to fit exactly in its designed location and each panel is woven together in situ. As a result, the building's surface looks like a patterned drapery. Consider the time, energy, and amount of money spent in draping the metal shingles over the EMP's structure. Given the materiality and weight of the building, rendering of a drapery is not an easy task.

What one sees in EMPs drapery is the representation of technology. The other representation beneath the glossy surface is the unlimited budget of the client. It seems that drapery continues to suggest luxury and wealth as it did in art for centuries. Recall the practice of depicting drapery in European Renaissance paintings linked to the rise of rich merchant families. There was no purpose for depicting drapery in those paintings other than 'to take delight in the way it looks'. It is also interesting to note that over-draped fabrics were derided by reformers in the nineteenth century because it was believed that they just represent 'a millionaire's notion of the pretty and nothing more'.

Anne Hollander, writing on the role of drapery in art, explains the concept of drapery as 'something which while it conceals, yet confers an extra ennobling or decorative dimension upon the essentially wretched and silly human form'. The question of what is behind the drapery in EMP comes to mind. Drapery directs one's attention to the presentation of the object, but what happens if the drapery becomes the main subject displayed? Unlike the Statue of Liberty, EMP is a museum — the structure is not its only material presence. The museum website tries to put the content forward: 'If you think its wild on the outside, just wait until you get inside. There you will find interactive exhibits, rare artefacts and a one-of-a-kind ride!' Paying $20 to get inside, rather than stopping at the exterior skin, is their aim.

The many connotations of drapery, luxury, excess, concealment and display seem unintentionally appropriate for EMP. The surface is almost a fetish. Although it appears as a loose drape laid over the structure, it is uniquely tailored, an expensive, shiny, boozy dress ready for a rock concert. Versace for buildings.

Of the statue and its structure, see Marvin Trachtenberg. The Statue of Liberty. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1976. p 119-50 Repoussé is an ancient technique (i.e. Greek bronzes, made of hammered sheets of metal), revived in many nineteenth-century large-scale architectural and sculptural projects, ibid., 121. Robin Evans. The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995. p 120-1 Anne Hollander, 'The Fabric of Vision: The Role of Drapery in Art' Georgia Review 29 (1975): 431. Gen Doy. Drapery: Classicism and Barbarism in Visual Culture. London, New York: IB Tauris, 2002. p 11 Anne Hollander. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking Press, 1978. p 15

Açalya Klyak. ''Rock and Liberty'
On Site review, no. 9 Spring 2003
©Açalya Klyak and On Site review

23 November 2009

Sewing the Landscape

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) at a hydrant on Kings Plaza Station, New York

Christina Maile

Nature is the secret order of things, which requires only the essence of our pure and rational thought to make itself truly understood. We believe our survival depends on the success of this search for order. However, every supposed revelation of pattern has become for us, in turn, a compelling pattern for remaking the world around us. In the end we have been conditioned by the conditions we have created.

Our cities and buildings have come to reflect a perception of nature, as it should be — symmetrical, inflexible, ordered, and predictable. To be uncivilized is to live illegibly in the cluttered wilderness of nature, dressed in the skins of animals, the ragged remnants of manmade cloth hanging like the tattered ends of rationality. Against this, the vast cities we have created cover the earth like a fabric, an unwavering, unending fabrication. It is an intelligence of hard, opaque disjunctive pieces in tight, complex displays of designs and motifs, encased in grids. The metaphor is obvious. The manmade environment is a Cartesian quilt of surfaces.

Upon it, the scissored, precise, regulated landscape (no longer nature) is serrated to the geometries of architecture and artifact. Trees are the green’pieces’ of landscape sewn between the grey and blue ’pieces’ of concrete and asphalt. Any foundation planting, including the largest - city parks - are sentimental appliques of pastoral art, neatly stitched into the grid of the city. Like the scenic curtains from which our current view of landscape is taken, the grass is never long, the trees never too large, and the shrubs always clean, tight and numerical. Maintenance-free and as real as the flowers of the city which are never picked, but purchased — the urban landscape is scentless, nameless and ultimately rootless.

There is no here, no site specificity in the landscape of the city. We stand in the snow and stare through the glass at the pieces of gigantic palm trees sewn (at great environmental cost) into a mid Atlantic skyline and never say,’Isn’t that sad.’ We hurry by oaks buttonholed into tiny concrete boxes and never cry bitter tears. There are no roots in the urban landscape because there is no origination. Like fabric, the landscape exists on the surface, gridded, denatured, sterile. Seeding, fruiting, growth and decay all denied, the urban landscape takes on the properties of a commemorative urn, a sputtering eternal flame kind of presence, fed by petroleum, more’4ever green’ than green, more funereal than real. In the city, landscape is the death of nature, and the death of our perception of it. Save for one spark of beauty.

For like a quilt, the surfaces of the city, its structural pieces, are not seamless. They must all meet in adjacencies. No material melts into another continuously. Old concrete against new, asphalt against steel curb against stone, there remains a void, a space, a joint, an interstice between the two materials. These joints, as do the materials they buffer, eventually open as the result of successive waves of weathering. Form follows tempo. Asphalt unravels, concrete frays, metal shrinks, and glass tumbles. Edges are created. And into these small openings, the hereness of the city, the wild and crazy roots and shoots of nature break forth, ripping open ever-larger seams. The bed has assaulted the quilt. (Innuendo intended).

Sex, sex, sex, rampant seeding, fruiting, pushing, shoving, thrashing, tumbling, clasping, unclasping, bursting forth. The edges of the city that are everywhere are alive with a voracious beauty, possessed only by the wind, the sun, and the rain. Enemies of good design and moral order, they are not the right plant in the right place. Instead they boldly and promiscuously push themselves outside of, inside of, on top of, and all around the gates of paradise (the walled Garden of Eden). They are called many names - mulleins, lambsquarters, eleusine indica, mugwort, goosefoot, and soldago, to name a few. But the name everyone knows them by is …weeds.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a weed as an economically useless plant of wild, obnoxious growth and unsightly appearance whose presence either excludes the growth of more valuable plants or contributes to the disfigurement of the place. That is the landscape definition of a weed. But not mine. Rather these incredible beings, these shimmering threads of stubborn desire are the city’s true connections to the fertile, chaotic bed of organic creativity lying just beneath us. The fabrication of the mind, this urban fabric is, in fact, rent by a deeper fabrication. An earthy, prowling subconscious whose initial manifestation — a bumpy rosette of tough knotted stems — represents the continuing presence of nature’s irrational behavior. And our failure to destroy it. To weed: to free from something noxious, offensive or superfluous. It is not surprising, then, that weeds are described as growing in disturbed areas. For we are greatly disturbed. They dare invade our gridded neighborhoods, unthread the brocade of our tidy streets and gardens. Hanging around at all hours of the night they just , it seems, appear overnight. And now in broad daylight, there they go, strutting their berries, wiggling their tiny flowers, their erect panicles indiscriminately casting seeds to the winds. They colonize every raveled edge, every joint, rooting themselves in, uprooting our stuff out. It’s criminal. Call the cops. Weeds should be charged with disturbance of the ’piece’.

To ‘wear weeds’ at one time referred to a fabric especially woven (wede - to weave) and worn to indicate an occupation, a situation or a position. Now it defines only mourning. And while that meaning may resonate visually in the somber straight lines of the urban landscape, the key word is weaving. For what we see in the homonymous weeds is a testimony to their occupation as healers, as weavers of green and fulsome blankets which spread stitch by stitch, warp by woof to cover the beaten and broken remains of the natural world. They mend, no, they amend all that is missing in our geometries — spontaneity, authenticity, growth. Whether we come up on them as small gestures of grassy stems with fuzzy ends, or bold sweeps of branches coruscating against stony skies, what we truly come upon, long hidden and obscured by culture, is the genius of the place. The absolute hereness of weeds. Not the here denoted, or the here designed. Not the here of utility, or of property. But that inexhaustible, nimble hereness which arises from a particular, fortuitous swirl of sun, rain, wind and edge. The hereness that creates place. It is the here whose center is not I-standing-here. It is the here where our carefully-hemmed natural order is undone, where unloosened the knots which keep us bound to the things we have created disappear. And it for this reason we fear this or that place where weeds grow, and grind back into dust or concrete their unbidden, heedless therapy. The oak in its box, the palm tree in its glass. That’s how nature should be, forever indebted, grateful to us for life, no matter how mean, brutal, shallow, sterile and short.

Yet here where weeds grow, what nascent beauty is endlessly being embroidered beneath the curling edges of asphalt at our feet; what forests contained beneath the mantle of these small tough leaves; what sudden valley, what shadowed stream? Weeds are the memories of earth. It is their presences, furtive, unwanted and denigrated which connect us, tie us to the natural world, and undo in endless filagree the hard edges of chaos we have created. The cracks of the city are the furrows for their lessons; weeds, persistently ‘weaving the weeds’ of exquisite permutation, of place, of immortality.

We are proletarians subjugated to the opiate of rational order, delirious with geometry, forever coming apart at the seams. Weeds are the warnings against the catastrophe of perception which continues to generate the monoculture known as the man-made environment. If we continue to see them as destroyers of our order, if we fail to recognize in them the fate of our own shining beauty, the darkness will continue to descend over our wounded eyes.

Maile, Christina. 'Sewing the Landscape' On Site review, no. 8 Fall 2002
©Christina Maile and On Site review

19 November 2009


Chris Hardwicke

It’s Monday morning. You grab your gear and strap your bag onto your bike. It is cold and raining, and the traffic’s heavy, but it’s only a few minutes to the bikeway. Here it is. A quick lane change and you are pumping your way up the onramp and gliding through the entrance. The street noise falls away as you join the flow. Already you feel the draft of the other cyclists blurring past in the fast lane, their steady wind pulling you forward. You relax into the rhythm and the tension leaves your shoulders as you let down your defences. No more cars breathing down you neck.
You ride along, matching your speed to those around you and looking through the raindrops on the glass-domed tube at the panorama of the city. Up ahead, you see a friend’s familiar bike trailer– he’s taking the kids to daycare. Pulling into the slow lane you chat for a few minutes before they get to their off-ramp.
Soon the bikeway opens up, widening to six lanes as you pass the commuter train station. Hundreds of suburbanites on yellow bikes merge smoothly into traffic. As you cross a valley, high above the expressway, the sun breaks through the clouds. You shift down, and take the next exit to work. Checking your watch, you notice you are early again.
Welcome to velo-city.

Velo-city is a highway for bikes, a network of elevated bicycle roadways connecting distant parts of the city. There are three lanes of traffic–slow, medium, and fast–in both directions, each direction having a separate glass-roofed bikeway tube. The separation of directions reduces wind resistance and creates a natural tailwind for cyclists. The reduction of air resistance increases the efficiency of cycling by about 90 percent, allowing for speeds of up to 50 km/hr.
Because it is elevated, Velo-city can be located in existing highway, power, and railway corridors, adapting to the built environment while requiring no additional real estate. Bikeways float above intersections and fit into spaces where trains, subways, and roads simply can’t go due to their size, noise, and pollution. Light and compact (you can fit seven bicycles in the road space taken up by one car) Velo-city produces no noise or pollution, so it can run right beside or even into buildings.
For commuters, Velo-city delivers total travel times that rival any other form of high-speed transit, and it is active rapid transit. In contrast to the passivity of taking a train or a bus; it includes exercise as an essential part of an urban lifestyle. Personal independence is expressed in individual freedom of movement. By working as a parallel infrastructure connected to subways, railways, highways, and parking lots, the bikeways expand commuting choices, while reducing congestion on our transit systems and highways. Bikeways are the ultimate in efficient, health-generating rapid transit.
Maintenance costs for Velo-city would be substantially lower than the expense of keeping subways and highways in good operational order, because the weight and vibration of bicycles is considerably less than that of automobiles or railways. And because Velo-city is covered, the lane surfaces would be sheltered from weather distress.
The culture of a city is often defined by its transportation system: yellow cabs in New York City, bicycles in Beijing, streetcars in San Francisco, freeways in Los Angeles, double-decker buses in London, scooters in Taipei, vaporetti in Venice, cyclos in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Paris Metro. Modes of transport create interdependent relationships with urban forms and city culture. Think of the relationships between cars and shopping malls, subways and skyscrapers, streetcars and main streets, scooters and roadside stalls. Over time, Velo-city will create a cycling culture for the cities it inhabits: kiss ’n’ rides, shower facilities, cycling fashion shops, velodomes, bike parks, health clubs, cycle path stalls, repair shops, bike couriers, bike picnics, car-free housing and intermodal stations. Velo-city would simply give bicycles the same level of dedicated infrastructure that other modes of transportation have enjoyed.

The bicycle has been around for more than a hundred years. It was a brilliant, modern invention back then, and remains one today. Bicycle enthusiasts have always been tenacious and devoted. And now, perhaps, it is an idea whose time has come back – bicycles now outsell automobiles in North America.

Hardwicke, Chris. 'Velo-city' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Chris Hardwicke and On Site review

24 August 2009

Archival Magpies

the role of photography in the work of Measured Architecture

Matthew Woodruff

If you’re a collector, you’re a collector, and we are collectors. We collect furniture, books, old bones, plants, music, collaborators and eccentric friends. We also have a profound desire to catalogue the world; to gather textures, colours, forms, effects, places and moods. Starting at home we’re searching for tidbits that could find their way in to our work. Photographs are seductive because of their transparency. Do they represent things, or are they things themselves? A collection of photographs is seductive as well. It’s substantial (due to quantity) and ephemeral, for the meaning often lies in the space between the images. The digital age only enhances this contradiction, with our collection existing as it does only on the office server, and in a few ratty printouts. What, beyond the knowledge of it, do we really have?
As archivists we draw meaning from a group of images. Our desire is to record everything that exists, as a means of understanding it. Do shadows fall differently on a wall than a floor? How does concrete age? Which walls get graffiti, and which don’t? We have inventories of stains and plants, of forms and textures. We’re interested in the liveliness of old spaces, and the sterility of new ones (including ours). Where does that come from? Photographs are a good way to explore this.

Our practice is grounded in the belief that architects are storytellers. We tell the story of the site and the path of the sun, the story of construction, and the story of daily life. We also tell the story of our client’s values. As communicators we find that photographs help us to explore these stories and then tell them effectively. Photographs can be tremendously powerful, as much because of what is left out as what remains within the frame. A photograph is a way of simplifying chaos. The problem of course is that life itself is not so easily digestible.

Each project in the office starts with a pinup wall filled with images, and the first few meetings are always spent with clients gathered around this wall, seeing what they respond to. Because we use images to start thinking about a project, the narrative of similar spaces, of effects and experiences, modified by our discussions, becomes our departure point. But, we are wary of the pitfall of the Facebook generation, which can confuse photographing something with actually seeing it. It’s not enough to have the document, it has to be understood, absorbed, digested and reworked. At best, each photograph represents an idea, but it must contribute to the project and reinforce the concept as a whole to have a place in the building.

The virtual world (and images, especially photographs, don’t have much weight as things themselves) has created a virtual life, where the record of an event or a place, becomes a surrogate for it, thus creating a filter to the past. In contrast, our process is deliberate and only begins with the click of the shutter. The best images are tagged and printed, pinned up and rearranged in a search for meaning. Certain images become touchstones. Why is this? We like to think it’s because they communicate a mood, but perhaps it’s just because ordinary experiences are delivered in bite-sized pieces. Our buildings tend to solidify slowly around events and we use photographs as surrogates for the experiences we are planning. It’s meaningful to a client to explain where they will see this or that shadow, or the colour of the light by pointing to a picture. It makes an abstract idea come alive.

Ultimately, architects are shameless magpies. We would be fools if we argued divine inspiration over mimetic skill. However, by accepting the visual language of modern life, and surrounding ourselves with these stimulants, we can absorb, digest, work and rework them, until they finally appear as ideas in our projects. In the end, we can trace the thread of a shadow from Cairo to a house in Vancouver.

Woodruff, Matthew. 'Archival Magpies' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Matthew Woodruff and On Site review

Home Movies

film archives

Jen VanDenBurgh

There was once an archive housed in the basement of post-WWII, Levittown-inspired, pitched roof house in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. The street was Cortland Crescent in Applewood Acres, so named in honour of the apple orchards that were razed to build the neighbourhood. Now I draw your attention from the exterior design of the street space where everything looked the same, choreographed to keep kids playing in view of their parents, to the basement where no one but an invited guest was meant to look and I doubt that ever happened. Guests belonged upstairs. This subterranean space was for family, a museum curated by my grandparents as a monument of who they believed we collectively were and their hopes of what we would become. In this place, we would watch my grandfather’s movies.

Cool, damp and dimly lit, the habitable portion of the basement was a ‘finished’ box of acoustic tile on a dropped ceiling, speckled black and white linoleum squares, and faux wood paneling. While the rest of the basement was ‘for storage’, this room, too, stored objects in the spirit of utilitarian reverence, housing treasures from Gramps and Jeannie’s family homes, from the family they made together, and the travels they had together once their family had grown. A leather rocker and a large circular mission-style coffee table came from my grandfather’s side of the family. On the table, scented hotel soaps and restaurant matchbooks, trophies from my grandparents’ travels filled the basket and the lacquered ballerina box that my sister and I dumped and sorted and sniffed through. If my sister and I answered a geography question correctly, Gramps would dole out artifacts from the ‘secret box’, a trove of trinkets from Christmas crackers, airline freebies, and office supply relics from his time at the Red Cross and the Ministry of Education stashed in his leather studded desk beside the stairs. An L-shaped bench-style couch wrapped two of the main walls and was upholstered in black, synthetic ‘wool’-covered foam. Its size was important since it allowed my family to huddle together: me, my sister, my parents, my grandmother, and, on occasion, two cousins, and an uncle and aunt. Here, we would sit and watch my grandfather set up the awkward and threatening spring-loaded screen, and thread his 8mm projector as my father played the piano that had come into my grandmother’s family when she and her eight brothers and sisters were asked by their father whether they wanted to spend that year’s farm surplus on a piano or a car. Behind the piano hung a gilt-framed painting of a fancy Victorian woman lounging at a similar piano, done by Blair Bruce, Jeannie’s storied cousin who left Hamilton to find his fortune as a painter in Europe, and though well-thought of now, impoverished his parents by requiring patronage and having the misfortune of sinking the bulk of his work on a downed ship.

Here in this basement museum, my father’s childhood and mine existed simultaneously, separated only by a reel change. In Gramps’ films, dad jumped into Georgian Bay at the same age as I was only moments before, silently dancing all arms and legs before the camera. All of us in the family had our moment as babies wriggling on Jeannie’s white flikkati rug. In these images we were indistinguishable, even to our mothers who scrutinised and discussed our telling features. This identification was part of the tradition – ‘was this 1966 or 1968?’ — but the point, I think, was that we blended together. Watching these films was an exercise in how connected we are in the passage of time. My father instantly transformed from a child on the screen to a parent before me. I’m sure other families have identical film archives, collections of Christmases and vacations that are interchangeable with mine, but that is also the point. The archives might be the same, but the space and lived experience of every family museum has particular variances and rituals, a language of its own. My dad played the piano during the reel changes and when the film melted in the gate. This was the culmination of years of disgruntled practice that he passed down to my sister and me, music history memorised off of Gramps’ shirt cardboards because Jeannie said it was to be done. This, like the rack of hats from around the world that my sister and I would wear for these occasions, were rehearsals in the cultural capital my grandparents hoped we would represent. This museum architecture had purpose. This space that smelled of soap and damp, that felt so cool on the feet with just enough room to seat my family together, to laugh at the screen, no one for the moment preparing a meal or otherwise distracted. This was a museum where we munched on After Eights, watching the past, knowing the future was quickly rushing in. Here I learned with all my senses the feeling of being embodied in time and in a family, knowing the bittersweet truth that it would pass.

VanDenBurgh, Jen. 'Movies' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jen VanDenBurgh and On Site review

07 August 2009

Necessary Stories

the Black World History Museum

Jaclyn Jones

In 1996, Lois Conley opened the Black World History Wax Museum in a renovated 1916 Catholic school building, in a predominantly African American neighbourhood on the north side of St. Louis, Missouri. More than a decade later, the museum is a significant institution in St. Louis’s cultural landscape. Nearly twenty life-sized wax figures of prominent African Americans, dressed in period clothing and surrounded by contextual material objects, form the basis of the exhibits, designed to introduce visitors to the contributions each individual made to American history and culture. The exhibits expose visitors to lesser-known aspects of common American histories as told from an African American perspective without succumbing to the pitfalls of American exceptionalism often encountered in American history exhibits accessible to children.

The museum’s four main rooms and single wide hallway contain wax figure displays and text panels arranged in roughly chronological order. Starting from a poignant exhibit about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, visitors move through the years to the final exhibit, which features the Reverend Earl Nance, one of St. Louis’s most well-known African American contemporary religious leaders. In between, visitors meet George Washington Carver, Dred Scott, Sojourner Truth, Madame C J Walker, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Clark Terry, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and several others whose striking likenesses help tell their respective stories.

While much of the impact of the exhibits comes from their ability to place visitors within reaching distance of each memorable figure, the most moving exhibit does not highlight any one notable individual. Rather, the trans-Atlantic slave trade exhibit features a collection of anonymous brown bodies, barely clothed and chained in small stalls, surrounded by rats and filth. This is where visitors are instructed to begin their tour of the museum, by boarding a full-size portion of a model slave ship. On the top deck, netting surrounds the wax figure of a small black child trying in vain to climb up and off of the ship, and two wax models of a white man fending off a mutinous attack from a black man. In the holding area below, the life-sized wax models of African people lie, chained and crowded. Mirrors expand the scene infinitely in either direction, giving an appropriate impression of the size and depth of the original slave ships. A large mirror placed in front of the ship spans the entire width of the below-deck area, so that visitors who go below-deck see themselves amongst the captured Africans. Stepping onto the slave ship is a powerful experience, making it the most successful of many successful exhibits in this museum.

For its ability to connect with current African American fashion and culture, the exhibit that features Madame C J Walker is impressive and impactful. Walker was a tremendously successful St. Louis cosmetics entrepreneur who pioneered a national line of hair and makeup products made specifically for black women in the early part of the twentieth century. Through a large collection of African American hair care products and tools from the turn of the century through the 1970s, we learn about the strenuous efforts black women took to create ‘socially acceptable’ hairstyles, striving to achieve a standard of beauty dictated by a white-dominated beauty industry. Also displayed are a 1940s-era standing electric hair dryer and a list of African American superstitions about hair. As is the case for many exhibits in the museum, these items speak to a larger phenomenon than Walker herself and provide a trajectory into the present that may prove powerful for young African Americans today.

The very presence of the museum as a black-operated cultural institution in an economically-depressed neighbourhood performs important work as well. Before the museum opened, the building in which it is housed sat empty and deteriorating for nearly eight years. Today, as it was in 1996, it is surrounded by empty lots, vacant row houses and abandoned apartment buildings. Over the last five years however, signs of revitalisation have started to materialise and Conley is proud to have been one of the first individuals to bring a vibrant, stabilising element to the neighbourhood. With a low admission fee of $5, she ensures that working class and poor African American families, as well as young students, can visit the museum. For Conley, it has been important and meaningful that the museum become part of a community that is racially representative of the figures within its walls.

Nonetheless, a limited budget makes publicity and upkeep difficult; visitors cannot miss the poor physical condition of some of the wax figures inside. Although their presence reconstitutes the context of the surrounding artifacts, missing fingers and peeling facial hair damage their potential life-like aura. However, in spite of the damage, visitors of any demographic will leave the museum with an increased understanding of the many African American contributions to the wealth and growth of the United States, and adults in particular will recognize the singularity and importance of the museum’s mission. Hopefully, some will leave a donation on their way out the door.

Black World History Wax Museum
2505 St. Louis Avenue
Saint Louis, Missouri 63106

Jaclyn Jones. 'Necessary Stories' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jaclyn Jones and On Site review

Marginal Stories

South Point Douglas
Gregory Beck Rubin and Conrad Dueck

In the process of junking its tools of production, Winnipeg has assembled the objects for a museum. Curated by homeless people, bound by trees, tall grass and water, Sheldon’s junkyard archives without restriction the making of the prairie city. And its location is symptomatic of development in Canada – build it, junk it: there’s so much more land. But a closer look at the topography of Point Douglas reveals the framing of the junkyard, and this frame anticipates a new kind of museum.
Covering roughly one-half square mile, South Point Douglas is marginalised in part by its proximity to Winnipeg’s downtown. It is bordered on the west by Main Street, the premier street of Winnipeg, which constantly revolts against efforts at gentrification. Bending around the south and east of the site is the main waterway dividing the city, the Red River, badly polluted and threatening to flood every spring just after break-up. The train tracks that bisect the city pass through the Point, and compose the northern edge of South Point Douglas, ultimately isolating this area from normal city development.
Containing the old Canadian Pacific Railway station, South Point Douglas is a former city centre, one in a string of attempted civic re-inventions. At its tip is Sheldon’s junkyard, a swelling of the city’s waste under casual surveillance, the final destination for decommissioned industrial machines, heavy metal, rusted truck cabs, antique domestic objects, dunes and dunes of paper. This is a museum that documents the possible lives of objects, but the collection is uncontrollable, wild and under constant tension.

Behind the main gate is a factory wall punctured by the openings of delivery docks; the factory has been closed for years. Parts of the brick wall have been tagged by graffiti artists, and the ground is scattered with countless stoves, fridges and other domestic appliances. It is a jumbled lot, and it is hard to focus on any particular point.
We notice the sound of water, closer than the river. Its gurgling draws our attention to the far end of the wall where there’s a pipe hanging off the roof, in front of a window. It’s a peculiar water collection system: discharged from the pipe, streaming in front of the glass before landing and running down long sections of ductwork; the water trickles through an opening to the long aluminum counter top along which it rolls neatly to the corner, slows down, and pools. The pool reflects the sunlight on the wall, and the water slowly drips off the counter and into a black bucket on the ground. Vegetation has crept through the spaces of rusted metal, and little plants grow along the top of the ductwork towards the pipe. The industrial cabinet is tilted, and the peeling paint reveals coats of teal and salmon mousse.

Near the tracks to the east of the compound is a yard littered with machines, swallowed by paper in drifts like snow banks. The paper creates a malleable landscape, an elaborate topography engulfing cars, forklifts, bins, switchboard, and containers. It curls like roots into the spaces in and between them, crawling through the windshields, twisting itself to fit through engines and broken glass. The limits of the paper topography are unclear: it appears to reach all the way to the river. We are tempted to step onto this landscape, but like a snowdrift, it could refuse to support us and we would fall in.

We are looking for the responsiveness of objects to multiple forces. We seek out the proofs of decay and reinvention; we want to gauge the vitality of things that fill places like this. Every element of the junkyard makes apparent the wide-ranging and co-existent forces trespassing the site, with no distinction drawn between causes. Objects are moved by people with divergent motivations, causing new systems to develop: an abandoned factory, a flourishing architecture; technology transcending its original function. The site, as a part of the city, demonstrates the inevitability of continual change, redefinition of an area that has been considered as finished.
Leadership is taken from the margins, in terms of the systems of power in the city. The curator is neither a single person carefully crafting a single line, nor a group of people working in concert, rather curation is a series of decisions in competition with one another, undermining and reframing what others have thought to have completed. And almost every action is anonymous.
The person who comes to observe this museum is just one of a diverse group of trespassers, all of whom curate the collection: whether out of necessity or curiosity, they all activate this site. Unlike the normal order of museum-making, objects sit in an apparently unplanned state: time will elapse, objects will move, the specific interaction, the play of water, will have changed – the experience may or may not be repeated – the junkyard museum is an organism, never static.

Rubin, Gregory Beck and Conrad Dueck. 'Marginal Stories' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Gregory Beck Rubin and Conrad Dueck and On Site review

14 July 2009

The Katsu Kaishu Peace Museum

A Small Protest

Steve Chodoriwsky

When I asked the composer Nakai if he could recommend an interesting museum in Tokyo, he began to tell me the rumour of one dedicated to a certain Katsu Kaishu. ‘Actually I’ve never been there myself’ he said. He had heard that to visit this private (or was it public?) collection, you would first need to bring an object that somehow deals with its namesake. Your contribution is both the ticket and price of admission. There appeared to be some sort of screening process as well. ‘I think it can be anything’ Nakai said ‘as long as you can prove to the owner how it relates to Kaishu’s life’ (as it turns out Kaishu is a critical figure in late seventeenth century Japan – statesman, naval officer, swordsman, peace advocate and one of Japan’s first international representatives. It was his diplomatic skill that is considered instrumental in Japan’s transition of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to the reinstatement of Imperial rule).

Nakai then put me in touch with the architectural historian Nakatani, who was at first puzzled by my interest. ‘You are making a very personal request’ he told me when we met, ‘the museum is just my father’s house’. I soon learned that the so-called Katsu Kaishu Peace Museum is the ongoing project of an 83-year-old retired mathematics teacher and lifelong Marxist, and an anomaly of a museum in what often feels like an entire city composed of anomalies.

The corner property has three parts: a sturdy but featureless two-storey concrete house (which Naktani’s father himself designed), the remaining portion of a mid-century wooden dwelling and a courtyard garden. As is so often the case in Tokyo the lot is tiny and surrounded by a patchwork of neighbouring buildings. Nakatani and his father led me up to the second floor of the concrete building, where the exhibition occupies but a single room. The flick of a lightswitch revealed four walls covered with carefully hand-drawn maps and black and white photographs, coupled with several anti-violence texts focussing on the life and virtues of Katsu Kaishu and, a bit unpredictably, the thorough decimation of Tokyo during the Second World War. In fact the general site of the house is not without significance. Located in a neighbourhood just north of downtown, it was an area largely destroyed by aircraft bombing and completely rebuilt after the war; Nakatani’s father had at that point moved to, and has lived on, this property ever since.
Nakatani then explained to me his father’s activities. For several years, he has been conducting a slow and meticulous archaeological excavation of his property. Sure enough, in the corner was a small glass display case with the objects unearthed so far, dating ruins of the fire-devastated area, centred around everyday life: fragments of ceramic bowls and saucers, bits of glass or crystal, sake cups, utensils, buttons and jewellery, half bottles and pieces of jars.

Nakatani is at least in part his father’s co-conspirator. He has designed a conveyor belt will which transport the objects up to the second floor to be sorted for display. And he is poetic about the implications, referencing the original wooden house on the property. The earth, he explained, is part of the domain of the ground floor. It is used in traditional dwellings to form the doma, a hard-packed earthen floor mixed with hardening components such as bittern and ash. But here the site’s earth goes through a process of displacement, where its bits and pieces are upended and elevated, examined and exposed.

The garden takes up half the property and is thriving in midsummer with watermelons, grapes, rice and sweet potatoes growing amongst recently-planted saplings, various digging sites and collections of pebbles in the midst of being sorted. ‘My father has a long history of being a protester’ Nakatani explained as we wandered through the small wilderness. By excavating objects from his property and categorising them, it is, in his own peculiar way, a protest against violence – the violence that obliterated this and many other areas of Tokyo, and the violence that Kaishu rejected by never drawing his sword. The yield of fruits and vegetables, off of which Nakatani’s father largely lives, then becomes a next stage of the site’s rehabilitation.

The original concept of admitting only those bearing Kaishu-related paraphernalia has since fallen away, but the museum remains a work in progress and subject to its creator’s curatorial whims. For instance, on the property, the remaining portion of the original post-war wooden house contains fifty years’ worth of collectibles, documents, household objects, and ‘trash’, in a state of perpetual disarray. Unfortunately I was unable to see inside. The future intention, I was told, is to assemble it all into a ‘museum of ordinary life’, which would complement the excavated artifacts found on the property.

A thought occurred while talking to this spry octogenarian that this bizarre little conceptual complex, dedicated to peace, is less the product of an old man’s contempt for lethargy and more a device, in its own personal way, against the act of forgetting. ‘Therefore, doesn’t it succeed as a museum?’ I asked Nakatani upon leaving. Ever the patient observer of his father’s escapades, the architectural historian shrugged, musing ‘Maybe, at the age of 83, the difference between useful everyday things, trash things, and art things is really not so much’.

Chodoriwsky, Steven. 'A Small Protest' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Steven Chodoriwisky and On Site review

10 July 2009

At the Titan Missile Site

rehearsing the end

Joseph Masco

‘We don’t strike first; we strike fast’ says our guide, a former cold war Titan missile commander now taking us through a simulated launch of a thermonuclear missile. We are standing in the control room of a Titan II missile silo, 30 miles south of Tucson, in Sahuarita, Arizona. We are buried deep underground, facing a wall of lime green computer terminals that look much too archaic and quaint to produce any real degree of violence. We play out the authorising of failsafe launch codes, the countdown and launch sequences, and imaginary nuclear war – an act that happens daily in this room just as it did for the two decades of the Cold War (1962-1982) in which this Titan silo was a central part of the US nuclear deterrent. Now presented to us as ‘history’, the nuclear war logics that support mutual assured destruction and the necessity of the Titan missile system are visible today only as relics, seemingly disconnected from the nuclear militarism of the contemporary United States.

The Titan Missile Museum is the only place in the world where you can see an intercontinental missile system on public display, joining a number of new US history museums devoted to the cold war security state. It stands as both a museum and an archive of cold war technology, presenting an all too rare chance to walk through the infrastructure of the nuclear ‘balance of terror’ and interact with the former Titan missileers that now staff the museum. A museum visit consists of viewing a small display of artefacts and cold war history, a film presentation which gives background on the Titan system (hosted by Chuck, a pony-tailed narrator who looks more like a forest ranger than a cold war veteran) and in my case, a tour of the missile silo by a former Titan commander. The Titan Missile was part of a global system for nuclear war, linking the US and the USSR in a shared technological apocalypticism. We learn, for example, that the Titan Missile bases were located as close to the US - Mexican border as possible to maximise the time for radar to pick up Soviet missiles coming over the north pole, giving the missile crews time to launch their retaliatory strikes.

The Titan Missile itself is over 100 feet tall and protected by eight-foot thick steel blast doors hardened against nuclear attack. The entire facility sits on giant springs to absorb the impact of nearby nuclear detonations; even the electrical and plumbing systems were designed with enough slack to allow 18-inches of bounce.

Massive silo doors (now bolted open to allow satellite reconnaissance of the decommissioned missile) are the only visible aspect of the silo from ground level. However, an above ground museum site is now populated with outdoor displays of the multiply-redundant communication and security systems, plus an exhibit on rocket engines and fuel management systems. [overleaf, top] Much of the tour however is spent underground rehearsing the security of the site (working through multiple code words, safes, telephone checkpoints and procedures for crews entering the facility and various failsafe mechanisms for preventing infiltration or an unintentional launch) and playing nuclear war.

We learn early on that crew members carried a pistol at all times while on duty, marked as necessary for site security but also to ensure that a reluctant crewman ‘did his job properly in case of a launch order’. They needn’t have bothered with this implied threat. The crew was pre-selected and trained precisely for their ability to launch a thermonuclear missile on command. Our guide tells us, for example, about daily life in the missile silo – the four person teams (two on duty, two off) that would work 24 hour shifts, and spend each minute on alert checking and double-checking the equipment. This constant rehearsal of maintenance and launch sequences served also to make the crews robotic in action and thought regarding the facility.

Our guide states repeatedly that the US would never launch first – even though Air Force policy suggested otherwise throughout much of the Cold War – underscoring the strange moral authority required to be a cog in a larger nuclear war system. The one-shot Titan missile was, of course, pre-targeted by military planners. The silo crew (which rotated shifts between multiple silos) never knew where any of the missiles they controlled would land: their job was simply to maintain the facility and to push the launch button without hesitation on order of the President. Crew members simply knew that ‘58 seconds after the launch keys are turned the engines will ignite’ and ‘thirty minutes later a target on the other side of the planet will be destroyed’ — where, when and why was someone else’s responsibility.

Today the technology looks so archaic as to be incapable of being truly violent. The computer controlling missile guidance – ‘state-of-the-art 1963 technology’ we are told – has a total of 1 kilobyte of memory. ‘That 1K is less than the ring tone on your phone’, says our guide in the best laugh line of the tour. But consider what this 1K system could unleash: lifting off via a two-stage liquid fuel rocket, the Titan II ballistic missile could reach near space orbit and then send its heavy payload, in this case a 9-megaton thermonuclear warhead, back to earth with enough precision to destroy an entire city. Withstanding radical acceleration and vibration as well as extremes of heat and cold, the Titan missile system was designed to launch within sixty seconds and deliver absolute destruction from over the horizon to anywhere on the planet in under 30 minutes. Never has the potential for mass death been rendered as automated, anonymous or immediate as in the Titan system.

The Titan II missile system was a central part of the technological and psychological infrastructure of the nuclear age. Built in terrified reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in 1957, the Titan missile was a response to the perceptions of a ‘missile gap’. Top-secret reports at the time imagined a Soviet Union deploying hundreds and soon thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles. John Kennedy was elected President in 1960 in part to solve this so-called missile gap through a massive arms build up. Soon after his election the new top secret Corona reconnaissance satellite provided proof that the Soviets had deployed less than 10 missiles, not the hundreds imagined by US planners. The phantom Soviet missiles of the 1950s that produced the Titan Missile complex were very much like the phantom Iraqi WMDs in 2003 that ‘enabled’ the invasion of Iraq. As fantasy they say much about the power of fear and militarism in American culture. At the Titan Missile Museum there are only hints of this history and its over-determined form, for example, in the exhibit on nuclear overkill. Overkill is a theory of nuclear targetting that accounts for imagined future failures in the system by exponentially multiplying the number of nuclear weapons used. In its ultimate form, this produced a US nuclear arsenal of over 36,000 weapons by 1968 and a target list designed to enable a simultaneous global nuclear strike on all communist states. It is difficult today, despite all our current rhetoric of terror, to imagine the social conditions capable of producing a technological system of such total destruction or a national culture that could accommodate the apocalypse so completely within everyday life that it was soon rendered all but invisible.

The Titan Missile Museum is today largely devoted to veterans, who make up the vast majority of visitors. It is run by veterans, caters to military tourism and is designed to enable Cold Warriors to have a public site of recognition and remembrance for their service. However, this call to memory is complicated, supported as much by amnesia and repression as by recognition and commemoration. This is because the national security state fundamentally relies on, and strives to produce, an absence of public memory. The ability to shift public fear from one ‘enemy’ to the next relies on a combination of perception management and state secrecy enabling, in the case of the U S, the constant roll-out of new threats and new technologies to meet them. Just as declassification can change our understanding of past national security policy and conflicts, public memory is always at odds with a national security apparatus that relies on such a highly flexible approach to the production and management of danger.

Put differently, the fears supporting the Cold War ‘balance of terror’ can morph into the ‘war on terror’ today not because it makes any real sense but because the images of threat can be presented to American citizens as both coherent and eternal. Efforts to unpack the detailed history of the Cold War, or to address the specific claims of current counter-terrorism, inevitably challenge the rationale of the national security state. For this very reason, the public history museums and archives that address aspects of American security are both essential and highly politicised. Thus, when Chuck, the narrator of the Titan Missile Museum film, tells us that ‘peace is never fully won, it is only kept from moment to moment’ and then thanks the Titan missile crews for a ‘job well done’, he merely underscores survival. However, walking through the technological infrastructure of a cold war nuclear complex also forces us to think about the constant nuclear war rehearsal that took place in Titan Missile silos (and in other places, then and now) and to consider the production, not only of a nuclear deterrent, but also of a highly militarised, nuclear culture. Cold war ‘defence’ produced a minute-to-minute ability to destroy human civilisation and a militarised national culture that continues to naturalise such a possibility as simply an aspect of the world system. The Titan Missile Silo Museum provides access to the origins of this project while occluding the continuing power of these ideas in the US by presenting them as archaic technology.

The ultimate question provoked by the Titan Missile Museum is, then, what would it take to imagine, let alone engineer, a world that does not rely on such mechanised terrors and a society that will not naturalise such apocalyptic potentials?

Masco, Joseph. 'Rehearsing the End' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Joseph Masco and On Site review

03 July 2009


travelling the silk road, archiving empires

Gerald Forseth

Samarkand, Uzbekistan has a growing population over 425,000 of which 50% are 15 years or younger. The city is divided neatly in two: east (old) Samarkand, and west (new) Samarkand, each with a distinct spatiality.

East or Old Samarkand
Old Samarkand is an Asian town near the mid-point of the ancient Silk Road with tangled alleys on hills and valleys, tightly constructed spaces, hidden courtyards and beautiful, contemplative and reflective public places. The oldest buildings and squares remain important places of pilgrimage and visitation, and close to each other. Walking is easy and pleasurable. The main axis is Tashkent Kuchesi between the sumptuous, historic Registan Madrassah and Maydoni [public square] and the central bazaar – a frenetic and colourful display of shawls, embroidered dresses, traditional coats, western jeans, turbans and hats of every nationality and every era. The west boundary of old Samarkand is Koksarai, a modern Russian-built maydoni on a visible old/new division line running north and south.

West or New Samarkand
In Central Asia, the Russian imperialists of the late nineteenth century built beside existing towns, leaving the old intact, liveable and protected. In west Samarkand shady European avenues radiate from the Koksarai Maydoni, the modern heart of the city and province, and adjacent to the old heart, the Registan madrassah complex. Russian empire planning contributed underground sanitary services, broad boulevards, tree-lined streets, large plazas, immense parks and gardens, gigantic fountains and monumental sculpture. Beaux-art façades were built of local beige brick and stone, continuous and long on the street, with grand doorways, sculpted jambs and headers, and lofty interior rooms. Soviet planning, particularly in the 1950s, installed Corbusian planning theory: isolated, tall, concrete buildings within large green parks surrounded by wide streets specifically scaled for fast-moving automobiles. This planning has led to a continuous, sprawling footprint. Covering west Samarkand on foot requires much traversal of heroic concrete plazas, green parks and long distances. Using public transit is necessary, now handled by thousands of small Daiwoo vans.

Samarkand Through History
Samarkand (known as Marakanda to the Greeks) was founded in the fifth century BC. It is one of Central Asia’s oldest settlements, located on the edge of the Khryzlkhum desert east of the Caspian Sea, nestled into the foothills of the Tian Shen and Fan Mountains, and situated north of the great Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges. In 329 BC Alexander the Great from Macedonia conquered central Asia and married pretty Roxanna from Samarkand.
At the crossroads of the great Silk Road between China, India, Persia and Italy, Samarkand grew to a city larger than the one we see today. From the sixth to thirteenth centuries it changed hands about every 100 years, occupied by Western Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhamids, Sejug Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorizmshaw. Amir Timur, born near Samarkand, a powerful tyrant and a grand patron of literature and the arts made it the capital of the Tamarlane empire by 1370. Timur and his grandson Uleg Beg (1400-1447) forged Samarkand into a new, magical, economic, cultural and intellectual epicentre with extraordinary fortress walls and gateways, mosques, madrassahs, minarets, mausoleums, palaces, bazaars, caravansaries (traveller’s inns) and an astronomical observatory.
In 1868 the army of the Tsars of Russia arrived, constructing the Trans-Caspian Railway in 1888 as a fast link to Moscow. In 1924 Samarakand was declared, briefly, the capital of New Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic, but in 1930 lost that honour to Tashkent.

Samarkand Today
Samarkand is an archive of its imperial pasts. There are archaeological sites with exposed parts of the original Arks [fortress walls] destroyed by Alexander the Great in 329BC, by Atilla the Hun in the fourth century AD, by Ghengis Khan and his Mongol horde in 1220 and by his grandson Kublai Khan in 1250. There are historic and sumptuous UNESCO-protected buildings (Zoroastrian and, after the seventh century, Islamic) commissioned by, for example, the Samini tribe (ninth century), by Amir Timur, the greatest builder in Samarkand (1369-1408), by Uleg Beg, ruler, scholar, mathematician and astronomer (1410-1450) and by the feuding Khanates from Kokhand, Bukhara and Khiva of the 1800s. There are the adjacent broad streets, immense plazas and monumental buildings parachuted into Samarkand by the Russian empire (1873-1917). There are immense and brutal concrete apartments, offices and bureaus constructed under Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev and later Soviet presidents (1917-1993). Finally there are contemporary steel /glass hotels and offices to accommodate global tourism and multi-national petroleum companies, and replacement public sculpture dedicated to the pre-Russian past representing post-Soviet unfettered capitalism and heroic nationalism (1993 – now).
By 100BC the Silk Road, linking Europe to Asia, was pretty much established. Cultural conversions and conversations moved quickly along that road – around the same time the Chinese Kushan dynasty converted to Buddhism. The peoples of the Silk Road worshipped a mix of Greek, Roman, Buddhist, Iranian and Hindu deities; this mix continues – in Samarkand today some people live as they might have the fifteenth century. Others sport iPods, buy Guess-designer clothing and drink mocha lattes. Samarkand exhibits the great mix of Europe and Asia, past and present. It also impressively presents people and places that profoundly and proudly showcase European and Asian linguistic, music, fashion and food distinctions. All this contrast can be easily and precisely observed at the boundary that separates extant old Samarkand from new Samarkand.

Forseth, Gerald. 'Samarkand' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Gerald Forseth and On Site review

24 June 2009


city as museum as landscape

Matt Williams
I came to Collioure, a small French city on the Mediterranean coast, during a walking trip that took me across the French Pyrenees. Starting from the Atlantic Ocean, my travelling partner and I traversed various sections of the Grand Randonée 10 trail until we reached the sea, just north of the Spanish border. Over the course of the journey I discovered the ‘noble art of walking’ as Thoreau declared it.1 Walking provides a fine-scale experience, revealing the details that would go unnoticed by travellers in cars, buses or trains. These details become central to the walker’s experience. The minute vernacular – door-knobs, house interiors, tiny gardens – is discovered when you enter a town by way of a trail or side-street and not the main road. Walking then became the central mode of travel as my partner and I made decisions as to how and where to spend our time. For two months we moved from place to place primarily on foot and camped in hidden fields, mountainsides or tucked away campgrounds. Thus we arrived in Banyuls sur Mer, the end of our pre-determined travelling plan, and decided to continue walking up the Mediterranean coast. After a day we came to Collioure.
The landscape in this area of France is a hot, dry shade of brown, with white, clay-roofed stucco buildings, dissected by green lines of vineyards. Tall, globe-shaped pine trees bubble over the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees that gently fall into the sea. Cascading pink roses, blue shutters, yellow doors and an ever-changing and endless sky radiate from the brown and white landscape. As I discovered Collioure and its vibrant palette I could see how, after spending time here in the early twentieth century, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain founded the style of painting that became known as Fauvism.2
In Collioure, Matisse and Derain were struck foremost by the quality of the light. ‘Above all, the light. A blonde light, a golden hue that suppresses the shadows’, Derain wrote.3 This light, paired with the brilliantly coloured landscape, encouraged Matisse and Derain in their use of bright, vivid colours in flat tracts, the characteristics of Fauvism. Derain, particularly, found the culture in Collioure a magnificent subject for recording.
The city forms a natural port and is divided in two sections along the coast by a large royal chateau. Jutting into the opening to the sea is a promontory on which sits the picturesque Notre-Dame-des-Anges, a lighthouse converted to a church. Away from the sea, narrow streets are lined with irregularly shaped and brilliantly painted buildings that break to form quiet public spaces. In Derain’s time, the beach was crowded with small, multi-coloured fishing boats and their Catalan captains returning with their daily catch. Today, a few of these boats remain, mainly for historical and tourism purposes, and annually, during July, many boats gather in celebration of Catalan fishing culture. At this time, the sea becomes dotted with white sails and the shore clustered with bright boats and characters.
The legacy of Derain’s and Matisse’s artistic achievements made in Collioure is vivified throughout the city by the placing of reproductions of their work at locations depicted in the paintings. Twenty works are displayed, forming la Chemaine de Fauvisme. This path can be followed, but more often the works are simply encountered casually throughout the city, a way to view the work in a manner not offered by the Centre Pompidou, Musee d’Orsay, or any other museum. This interface, between the painting, viewer and landscape, allows the viewer to make connections between the place and the painting. It allows one to consider how a landscape could be abstracted, what assumptions were made by the painter, what details were glorified or suppressed and to speculate what the painter was trying to express about that landscape in time and space.
Landscapes themselves are cultural creations. They are a phenomenon where human and natural systems coalesce and do not exist until they are interpreted as something beyond their mere physical composition. Landscape painting thus reflects a personal, and by extension, social understanding of our environment through the composition of various elements, real and imaginative, that exist in the world or in our minds.
Collioure is not a static French village clinging to its heritage as tourist promotion. Its arts community continues to thrive, with numerous galleries of recognised artists. The countryside thrives with vineyards producing the regional aperitif Banyuls and its hand-cured anchovies are a French delicacy. It has an everyday life similar to most rural French villages, though its Mediterranean climate and culture provide good reason for a large influx of visitors during the summer. As a gallery, Collioure provides the unique experience of viewing the Matisse and Derain paintings, but it also provides viewers the ability to frame their own paintings and develop their own interpretations of the landscape. At various locations throughout the city empty frames are positioned to provide both prominent and everyday views of the city. These frames allow viewers to stop, dwell upon a scene and develop their own interpretation and abstraction of the landscape.
Collioure, as a city as a museum as a landscape, creates opportunities for greater understanding of landscape and culture by communicating and exhibiting its heritage in situ. Perhaps visitors sharing this experience will begin to develop a greater appreciation for their own daily surroundings. Perhaps they will begin to see their surroundings as worthy of a work of art and the city as a shifting cultural institution that ‘exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment’.4

1 Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. San Franciso: Harper Collins, 1994 2 Freeman, Judi. Fauves. New South Wales: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995
3 Derain quoted in Freeman, 1995.
4 What a museum does, as defined by the International Council of Museums.

Williams, Matt. 'Collioure' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Matt Williams and On Site review

20 June 2009

The Teatre-Museu Dalí

the architecture and archive

Miriam Jordan and Julian Jason Haladyn

We arrived early in the morning in Figueres, Spain; we had spent the night on a train and got little sleep. It was therefore all the more dreamlike when we came upon the Teatre-Museu Dalí, a surreal mirage at the end of a street, a majestic pink building dotted with triangular loaves of bread and topped with giant eggs. Our reason for visiting Figueres was specifically to see this museum, designed by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to house his artwork, his extensive collection of art – which is displayed as the context for his work, and his crypt. But, more than simply a site that contains Dalí’s artwork, this structure is, as the guide book for the museum notes, ‘a Dalinian piece, a work to which Salvador Dalí, with his typical stubbornness and thoroughness, devoted thirteen years of his life’1. In other words, the museum can be seen as a grand architectural-scale work of art that Dalí produced to present his work in a context that reflected and embodied his artistic interests and motifs.
The Teatre-Museu Dalí was constructed out of the ruined Teatre Principal, an auditorium built in 1849 by the architect Roca Bros, which had been virtually destroyed at the end of the Spanish Civil War; all that remained was ‘a dramatic semi-circular shell of blackened stone’2, which Dalí incorporated into the building of his museum. Although Dalí proposed the idea in 1960, the project was not realised until 1974 when it finally opened to the public. This project represented a significant accomplishment for Dalí, whose ambition to establish a major collection of his work, specifically within his home country of Spain, and his home city of Figueres, was of the utmost importance to him, particularly in terms of the manner in which the location serves to contextualise the artist and his work.

From the moment of our arrival, we entered a Dalinian world; the landscape of the surrounding countryside was like that of so many of the artist’s surrealist depictions and the abundance of pomegranates served as an appropriate frame for Dalí’s kitschy museum, an architectural fantasy that appears to have emerged from the artist’s strange paintings.
The equally quirky interior of the Teatre-Museu Dalí – walls, ceilings, windows, arches, stairwells – function as a canvas for Dalí’s imaginative artistic vision. He rebuilt the stage of the ruined Teatre Principal underneath a latticed dome, which resembles the compound eye of a fly and designed by the Spanish architect Emilio Pérez Piñero. To link the geodesic dome with the supporting vault, Dalí painted the vault with a red lattice, mirroring the lattice of the dome, on a blue ground. The vault painting bleeds into the supporting walls which Dalí covered with blue paint spatters and draped with several of his giant shaped plywood paintings, made specifically for this location: one wall sports an enormous nude titan with a cube for a head squeezing a blue sheet; another wall bears two gigantic hands draping a white sheet over a fluffy cloud, while countless nude figures spill down the walls to the floor.
Dalí covered the back wall of the stage with a huge painting on canvas copied from his original scenery for the 1941 New York production of the ballet Laberinto for which the artist also created the libretto and costumes. The stage is rebuilt as a fantastical stage-set that displays the inherent drama of Dalí’s artwork to its fullest advantage – a quality that can be found in every detail of the elaborate museological construct.
One of the most significant spaces in the museum is the Mae West Hall, which houses Dalí’s room-sized installation Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used As an Apartment (1974) constructed by the artist with the assistance of the architects Óscar Tusquets and Pedro Aldámiz. The museum visitor can survey the optical illusion created with this installation by climbing a set of stairs and peering through a reductive lens, which Dalí positioned beneath the belly of a plastic camel. From this vantage point, the visitor sees Dalí’s literal transformation of a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional image of Mae West’s face as a drawing room, complete with the ubiquitous sofa lips, Saliva-sofá (1974), constructed by Tusquets from red spongy material. To claim that we had entered the world of Salvador Dalí, in this case, would be a literal description of the experience of this room.
Through his consistent use of the architectural space of the museum to actively frame his artwork, Dalí constructs an life-sized cabinet of curiosities for the visitor to wander through and interact with. Like much of Dalí’s artistic production, the museum is an erotically charged space that at times disorients and creates a feeling of paranoiac unease through the juxtaposition of architectonic space and artworks made out of eclectic objects. Reprising the organisation of Surrealist exhibitions – for example, Rainy Cadillac, located in the middle courtyard, directly references Dalí’s famous Rainy Taxi from the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme – this museum actively defies visitors’ attempts to make sense of this space in any coherent manner. Instead we find ourselves meandering through countless rooms of cultural objects and historical minutiae; an experience epitomised in the Palau del Vent, a series of three rooms filled with oddities, such as a golden gorilla skeleton positioned next to a giant seashell bed supported by curving dragons, both of which are positioned beneath a tapestry reproduction of Dalí’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory.
As an archive, the Teatre-Museu Dalí represents more than a space provided to passively view Dalí’s artwork and collection, but instead exists as an artwork to be actively experienced and remembered. Ironically, we can only remember it as a dream.

1 J.L. Giménez-Frontín. Teatre-Museu Dalí. Madrid: Tusquets/Electa Guides, 1997. p 9
2 Giménez-Frontín, p 13

Jordan, Miriam and Julian Jason Haladyn. 'Surreality' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Miriam Jordan, Julian Jason Haladyn and On Site review

19 June 2009

La Musée Rodin, Paris

House and Home

Jordan Ellis
Beside the grand golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, sits a relatively more subtle house. It is hidden by an old wall inset with a modern stone and glass entrance and the sign Musée Rodin. While this house/museum and grounds are surrounded by a high, hiding curtain, the art inside is the opposite. The separation of art to viewer (voice to listener) is as transparent as the spaces are to the art within: here is not the submissiveness of the modernist white box, nor the fight for attention provided by many new gem galleries — intuitively I feel a historical similarity, a cohesion in the relationship between space and object. But is there really such a relationship? From where I stand with my digital camera and space-age mind I am looking for more than just an old thing and an older thing.

The older thing (house-museum) is the Hôtel Biron, built in 1728-30, and not home to artist Auguste Rodin for its first two centuries. It lived lifetimes in possession of many people before taking its current role. In its penultimate (to date) existence, it was hotel to several prominent artists, such as Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, with Rodin moving in, in 1908, in admiration. Quickly, Rodin began to place his sculptures in the garden; he drew and painted on the walls; there was always some physical relationship between his art and his space. But it is just another old house, no? What interests me is the question: would his work have been realised differently if he had lived in another space, another place?

I am reminded of Salvador Dalì’s house in Catalunya, truly of his mind. It is not so much that he was influenced by his surroundings, but rather that he formed his world as an illustration of his imagination. So, in this surrealistic building there is no segregation between object/space because they were constructed coincidentally. Rodin, on the other hand, had little control over his surroundings, which may be why, in 1911, he began to consign his life’s work to the French state upon condition that a museum be devoted to him at the site of the Biron. Could the museum be as confident in its artistic holdings if it was at another site, like so many other artist museums that are continents-removed from the place of artistic creation; is this relationship little more than historical efficiency and regional politic?

Outside the house is the garden, a small-scale formal layout of pathways, parterres and fountains. Along the path, and at nodal points, are cast sculptures of human characters forever locked in personal or relative tension. If art and its ‘poetics can be articulated only in a broad collaboration and over time’, then while the object remains quantifiably the same, how we see it is forever changing. Perhaps this regular French garden works in favour of Rodin, then. Its iconic and historic conventionality converges with Rodin’s figures, so that over time the viewer increasingly sees a kind of correctness about the placement.

Inside the house lies what we might call the soft arts; paintings, marble and clay objects formed in contrast to the cast-bronze garden figures. The precarious craft of these objects is reflected in the delicate fabrication of detail on walls and ceilings; nonetheless, the solid construction of the building protects the brittle art works. Any building could [hopefully] do this. What is special about this building that makes the art belong here? If the artist’s intention cannot be immediately read, then we must look at his story: ‘there can be no narrative without a narrator and a listener’ writes Roland Barthes, and it is not the canonic form, but rather the regulated transformations that truly matter. It is not what the artist wanted us to see a century after his death, but the transformation of meaning with each new visitor. By neither hiding in the shadow, nor dominating the object, the museum lends itself to an adaptable narrative. Rodin did not necessarily make art specifically for his surroundings, but that does not guarantee dichotomy or offense between one and the other.

I will not intuit Rodin’s intentions, inspirations and the degree to which this hotel influenced his work. As Mies wrote, ‘the visible is only the final step of a historical form, its fulfillment […] then it breaks off and a new world arises’.

What I hear now is not what necessarily what was spoken a century ago. While I am thankful that enough care was taken to keep the house looking as it did when Rodin claimed it as the proper venue for his work, I expect it should not remain this way forever. Whether this building could house any other art collection, and whether this art collection would be the same elsewhere, I will say only that Auguste Rodin thought it appropriate that his artistic expression have a home in the Biron, and while the building may not look like a Rodin sculpture, I certainly appreciate the dialogue between object/space, in/out, and all other sides.

Ellis, Jordan. 'House and Home' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jordan Ellis and On Site review

13 May 2009

Corrado Feroci's Museum in Bangkok

a home far away from home

by Tonkao Panin
Upon entering the Fine Arts University in Bangkok, one passes through small gardens and courtyards before one sees, hears and smells art productions of all kinds. Students walk in and out and sit at small courtyard cafes looking at exterior walls that are never left blank but always adorned with ever-changing images. Despite its many public art galleries welcoming visitors, this is only a tiny university occupying only half of a small street block in the heart of Bangkok’s old city. Its location is just opposite to the prime tourist spot, the Grand Palace, thus the university is at once a public arena and a small private universe, depending upon who you are and why you are there. At once tranquil and lively, it is a place one easily feels at home already on the first visit. A hundred years ago, this was not possible. Such a place simply did not exist.

Art education in an ‘old’ country such as Thailand is something surprisingly ‘new’. And the man who made it all possible was brought in from far away, Florence, Italy. In 1923, King Rama VI sent a request to the Italian government for a sculptor to train Thai craftsmen. The man who came for this temporary task but ended up staying in Thailand for the rest of his life was Corado Feroci, a sculptor from Florence who left his family behind for the task entrusted upon him. Feroci first served the Thai government as a sculptor under the Royal patronage, and was assigned to train Thai artisans of various trades. Shortly afterwards, his reputation as a unique art teacher was known, thus he was asked by the Thai government to establish a curriculum and textbooks for the formal training of artists, which never existed before in Thailand. Thus was the first art school in Thailand born in 1937 with Feroci as its first director, known as Silpakorn School of Fine Arts. In 1943, amidst the turmoil of World War II, the school became the first university of Fine Arts, with Feroci as the first dean. He continued working for Thai government, creating 18 famous monuments, and taught generations of Thai artists until he died in 1962 at the age of 70.

Throughout the 38 years Feroci lived in Thailand, he occupied a rather small studio inside the university. It is located near the school’s entrance, on the first floor, allowing him to observe dynamic changes throughout the day. As he was usually the first person to arrive and the last to leave, everyone would see him working, hear him repeatedly singing Santa Lucia which later became the school’s anthem. Feroci’s years in Thailand were dedicated to rigorous teaching as well as artistic productions. Generations of artists and art students regard him as the father of modern art in Thailand. On September 15th of each year, Thai artists and art students commemorate and pay homage to the man, his life and work that made others’ artistic lives and works possible.

Today Feroci’s working space has been transformed into a museum – its name, once Feroci’s studio and now Feroci’s museum, already suggests the past, something that is no longer current and active. Despite the fact that almost every object in the studio is still present, the place seems haunted without its active owner. When in use, everything was simply an integral constituent of the place, acted and reacted in concert with the man who conducted them. They occupied their logical and participatory locations, though not always composed and tidy. Thus the crucial question for the organisation of this museum is ‘how should all the objects be placed in relation to one another?’ If left in their original positions, the objects may emphasise the sense of missing spirit, so much so that they would simply become ghosts that linger in a place of nowhere. If orchestrated into a composed display, the objects may become just nameless antiques, far detached from the life they once lived. How could such a museum be organised to represent both the life it once housed, and the true sense of time and value the objects hold in the present?

The solution turns out to be quite simple. Helped in that it is less than a hundred square metres in size, everything is organised into two layers of story. While the first narrative deals with the past, the second is aimed at the present. Feroci’s actual and active occupation sets the spatial framework for the place. Pieces of furniture act as architectural elements determining the configuration of the place as a whole. One moves and turns within the small space the same way Corrado Feroci did decades ago. Yet, objects are deliberately ‘misplaced’, for while some are in their logical positions, many are not. A number of objects are set to become ‘active’ reminders of the past activities, but many are orchestrated into an overtly museum-like display. Together they create a strangely familiar place, at once real and unreal, given a sense of both being somewhere and nowhere. In other words, it becomes a place that the memory of Feroci both owns and disowns. As we walk into it, the structural configuration made me feel as if we are probing into someone else’s private life, yet looking closely at objects and art works we are suddenly brought back into our own life and time. It is a place that allows both kinds of experience to constantly fluctuate within the same visit.

A few years ago, Romano Viviani, Feroci’s only son came from Florence to visit the school and the museum. Even though the place his father described in the letters was certainly unfamiliar, he finally acknowledged that however small, it represents a dream, a determination, a sacrifice and a hope for Thai art students. This confirmed the presence of the person he remembered. Upon entering the ‘studio’ Viviani admitted he could no longer picture his father in the place, but somehow it was the smell and sound he used to imagine.

Panin, Tonkao. 'A Home Away from Home' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Tonkao Panin and On Site review