30 January 2009

Watering the Seeds of Doubt

Jamelie Hassan's garden of light questions the process of peace

Miriam Jordan and Julian Haladyn
The Lester B Pearson Garden for Peace and Understanding was designed by the landscape architect Paul Ehnes in the grounds of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. It commemorates the life of Pearson, who graduated from Victoria University in 1919 and served as Chancellor from 1952-1959. As the fourteenth Prime Minister of Canada and the 1957 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Pearson was a fierce advocate for peace who, as the inscription on the railing overlooking the garden reads, 'established Canada's reputation in the 20th Century as one of the world's great peacekeeping nations and helped define Canada's modern foreign policy'.

A small waterfall flows from beneath this railing and cascades into a calm pool of water surrounded by a lush perennial garden that includes bugleweed, anemones, coneflowers, globe thistle and heuchera.1 Flat stones in the pool make a shallow, gradated water garden, punctuated by larger rocks similar to the space in a Japanese garden. The calm and peaceful atmosphere of this tribute to Pearson comes from Paul Ehnes' use of 'water in all of its states to illustrate the process of education which is essential for peace'. 2

The winner of the 2001 Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, Jamelie Hassan's practice as a Lebanese-Canadian artists, writer and curator often confronts issues of colonialism, patriarchy, militarism, censorship, sexuality and cultural identity. She explores personal and public histories often ignored in public discourse, such as the salient fact that peace is not a daily reality for all too many people throughout the world. She chose the Lester B Pearson Garden as the context for her installation Garden of Light, a site-specific artwork that was part of Nuit Blanche, an all-night art event that took place the night of September 30, 2006. This event featured more than 130 contemporary art projects that interacted with other sites throughout Toronto, including Maize Barbacoa, a corn roast in Yorkville Park by Hassan's partner Ron Benner.

For Garden of Light, Hassan added night-blooming lilies, plastic flowers that let of a soft glimmer of light when placed in the water and, also in the pool, a series of 10 letter-shaped ceramic pieces that spell the word 'eventually'. Through these elements, Hassan invited spectators to reconsider the concepts of peace and understanding specifically where Ehnes used water as a symbol for the process of peace.

The most interactive element of Hassan's installation was the glowing plastic flowers which could be seen floating throughout the space of the pool adding an intimate illumination to the garden. The flowers were transformed into an element of delight. When people realised that the flowers stopped glowing when removed from the water, they started to play with these flowers, picking them up and throwing them back into the water as through making wishes. This interactivity between the spectators and Garden of Light turned the calm, passive and meditative space of the Lester B Pearson Garden for Peace and Understanding into an arena of communal activity. By relating this participatory project to the conceptual construction of the garden itself (water as symbolic of peace and understanding), Hassan invited the spectators to become participants, actively working towards peace through the communality of play. The coming together of spectators from all walks of life during this one-night encounter illustrates the necessity for people to work together to forge real and enduring peace throughout the world.

This is heightened by the ceramic letters scattered throughout the pool. That these white letters might combine to form the word 'eventually' can easily be overlooked – a discreet reminder that peace has not been achieved in spite of our intentions, a reminder that we cannot sit passively by and hope that people will be achieved 'eventually'.

How easily this was overlooked can be seen in many responses published after the event, in which Garden of Light is discussed almost entirely in terms of the beauty of the glowing flowers. But anyone familiar with Hassan's work knows that her presentation of beauty is always accompanied by political commentary; in the case of this installation the commentary is very subtle and must be pieced together using the original intentions of the garden itself – a meditation on peace and understanding. The beauty of Garden of Light is that the peacefulness of the installation depends on a fragile moment in time when visitors come together and forget their differences in the play of the lights and water. The addition of the scattered letters adds to this participatory experience, in which the activity of piecing the word together required visitors to walk around the garden and, as was often the case, to talk to one another, communicating this little secret.
'Since that night', Ashley Gallaugher writes in her article on Nuit Blanche, 'when I look at the garden on my way home from class, it seems like something vital is missing. It was great seeing people interact with the garden'. 3 What is missing is the community that Hassan brought together for one evening with Garden of Light. The water in this garden symbolises the clarity, enlightenment and understanding that comes with peace. By situating her installation in this water Hassan planted a seed of doubt about whether we have truly reached this state of understanding. The fragmented letters drifted in the water, implying that if the currents come together in the right way, peace will follow – eventually.

1 For a list of the perennial plants in the garden, see http://www.vicu.utoronto.ca/Alumni/The_Lester_B_Pearson_Garden_for_Peace_and_Understanding/Perennial_Plant_List.htm
2 Victoria University website on The Lester B Pearson Garden for Peace and Understanding, http://www.vicu.utoronto.ca/Alumni/The_Lester_B_Pearson_Garden_for_Peace_and_Understanding.htm
3 Gallaugher, Ashley. "Nuit Blanch help us up all night, in a good way". The Strand, 15 October 2006: 11.

Jordan, Miriam and Jason Haladyn. 'Watering the Seeds of Doubt' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Miriam Jordan and Jason Haladyn and On Site review

29 January 2009

We Are The Environment

plug us in, connect us to the earth and we might start to get it

Jonah Humphrey
We are altering the chemistry and biology of our world: human endeavours are not just limited to the local, but now operate at the scale of the globe itself.
The earth, spatially and temporally, is immense. We fear that our alteration of life-supporting processes will be irreversible and uncontrollable. However, when combatting environmental changes, we often react against natural transformations such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. Our fear and uncertainty wants a kind of permanence. We try to prevent 'natural processes' from changing and evolving.
We must reconcile our own personal spatial interactions with the new global connectivity that exists between technology, the material products of our cultures, and the natural environment. Global connectivity was a twentieth century concept —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller each saw a coming hybridisation of technology and nature in new spheres of global interconnections.
Teilhard de Chardin believed that our capacity to generate complex systems and technologies of interaction mimics the evolutionary and biological development of consciousness. After the geosphere, and the biosphere, comes the nöosphere – a sphere of thought that now surrounds the earth. McLuhan saw this connectivity as driven by global media to the point that systems of sound and video will be so inter-linked as to form our environment entirely. Fuller demonstrated technological and biological interconnectivity in a geodesic dome, a geoscope, the interior of which was lined with aerial images simultaneously displaying flows of economic and natural resources: a control centre for the earth's cultural and ecological processes. Link the world wide web to contemporary theories of global ecology and we experience the earth as an enormous entity of organic, fluid and artificial system interwoven in a network of physical and virtual space.

Why then, with such powers of transformation, do we have a fundamental fear of altering the environment?
We need a better understanding of the inherent forms of feedback that already exist between the world and us. As we adapt to drastic environmental change, we can measure the perceptions and preconceptions we hold of ourselves compared to the environment's own character, state and nature.

Land|Scope, a theoretical project, addresses some of these things. It defines landscape as a combined realm of ecology and culture borrowing ideas from Fuller's Geoscope to find new applications for responsive technologies – systems embedded in structures that allow them to sense, think and act within the environment. Whereas Fuller's proposal was an enclosed, spatially separated global system of control, Land|Scope is an integrated landscape of interaction, offering a place for interpretation and reconciliation with the environment.
This project is sited at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (CCIW), home of the National Water Research Institute (NWRI), which researches and tests natural and man-made water-based systems. CCIW sits on Hamilton Harbour beside the Skyway Bridge that connects Burlington to Hamilton – a site between suburban development, industrial lands, remediated wetlands and the open waters of Lake Ontario; a site quite literally at the centre of many of Canada's leading environmental concerns, including the state, the natural environment, industrial production and pollution, and fresh water reserves. The NWRI houses Canada's Global Environmental Monitoring System for freshwater (GEMS/WATER), part of the United Nations Environment Programme.
It is precisely this monitoring that Land|Scope aims to use as a basis for interpretation and response. the current monitoring done at the NWRI, as well as monitoring of new systems in a hybrid natural/industrial landscape surrounding the site, will be brought into the architectural component of the project – a monitoring centre where our interactions with the local ecology can be publicly accessed, showing the connectivity between the wetlands surrounding the facility, Hamilton Harbour and the biosphere.
Responsive architectures – whole environments of connection – have the potential to free us from the rigid ideas that we currently use to define our environment. Within new hybrid environments, we might better understand phenomena present in nature and technology alike, reacting and adapting accordingly as both the living creatures and the cultural beings we are.

I would like to extend my thanks to Michael Forbes, Science Liason Officer for Environment Canada, and the NWRI, for allowing me to tour the facilities, and providing me with the information to make my research and design work possible.

Humphrey, Jonah. 'We are the Environment'
On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Jonah Humphrey and On Site review

27 January 2009

Draping Vancouver

accidental urban typologies
Joey Giaimo
The perpetual buzz of building activity in downtown Vancouver — 46 residential complexes currently [2007] under construction — is contributing to the accumulation of a single building type. The exalted condominium tower on a podium has resulted in thousands of hastily injected living units in the downtown core. Planners have long recognised the shortcomings of this typological saturation, yet have had to accept the consequent exhaustion of downtown lots.
Besides a questionable density of inhabitants, with each concrete pour the end product is clear: another podium, another tower, another quasi-public space. Difference is presented in tweaks and gimmicks rather than forceful pushes towards less predictable, more challenging directions.

Fleeting Occurrences
Every new hole in the ground, the inevitable erection of the crane and its associated surface activities interrupt, disrupt and reorganise public space. In Vancouver the choreography of city building is well-rehearsed, as are the concessions made by those who walk, pace and wander through it. Downtown flâneurs have prudently unleashed those turtles that haven't already been crushed by the ten-ton trucks which jerk and chug from one site to the next.
There is always room for optimism — these transient disruptions provide an alternate way to negotiate city surfaces and form. But a different kind of construction activity is also taking place, one linked with two words, leaky and condo, always spoken under Vancouver's breath, and one that, catalysed not by construction fever but by its failure, inadvertently re-represents or even de-represents architecture in the cityscape.

Ghost Building
In the frenzy of building activity a number of scaffolds wrap previously completed structures. Scaffolds come in various guises buy typically are cloaked with an emerald green perforated fabric — a unique and detailed veiling. However, there are variations: several skids of brick in the lane behind one building signal cladding replacement. To maintain a consistent mortar temperature, the scaffolding has been wrapped in an opaque, silky white sheathing to hold tempered air between drape and façade.
A phantasmic presence, this wrapped building marks a striking difference to the stock of condo towers dotting the downtown core. It may look like just another leaky condo but it is also a spectacular and captivating phenomenon, a changeling in this ephemeral condition.

Mute Rendering
Formally, the Ghost Building presents itself like all the others, twenty to thirty-something storeys extruded vertically and placed the bylaw-eighty-feet from its neighbours. In its simple slip, it has masked itself from the city and bowed out of the point-tower posturing race. However, this new typology has inadvertently transformed the everyday into event.
Ghost Building grabs attention with an undeliberate ingenuity that other condos would like, but can't have. The draw of its pillowy skin is immediate. It undulates. It shakes and shivers. It billows and shimmers. At night it is a glowing collage with subtle punctuations of colour from the still-occupied units inside. Positioned in a field of static sameness, this wrapped building makes no overt claims for attention, but its silence commands attention anyway. Muffled and mute the building is inconclusive. Ghost Building's detached, new intensity contests the city's zealous efforts to provide the perfect mould for city living. The decorative nips, tucks, swirls and swooshes of the neighbours look insufficient and superfluous against its tremulous mass.
Androgenous, silkily clad and not its usual muscular brick self, the Ghost Building also obscures all those involved in its original presence: the planners, the advisory design panels, the city's council, local community groups, the architects, the engineers, the endless assortment of building consultants, the marketing team and ultimately even the building's own inhabitants, who register only when their lights are on at night.

Something of Difference
I don't wish to present Ghost Building as good architecture or as an urban success story. Its premise is based in failures that are a menace to its inhabitants; it is ethereal but an aberration. But by effectively shutting itself off, it questions both the external and internal uniformity of high-rise residential living throughout the peninsula.
While condo marketing and architecture collude to sell the ideal interior condition, Ghost Building has propelled this condition to its absurd apotheosis. Ghost Building's fabric has imprisoned the inhabitants in an interiority that has everything they paid for, except that all-important view. In a further irony, the fabric delights only those looking at if from the outside, turning he whole notion of privileged lifestyle on its head, and pointing out how transitory a thing lifestyle is.

Beyond Lifestyle
Processes of construction, decay and repair flag the shortcomings of unrelenting urbanistic production: Ghost Building's interruptive architecture displays all the urban and formal contradictions of Vancouver's insistent residential tower type.

Giaimo, Joey. 'Draping Vancouver'
On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Joey Giaimo and On Site review

São Paulo's Water Ways

redefining the power of São Paulo's infrastructure
Fernando de Mello Franco
On the verge of summer, when pluviometric rates in São Paulo are at their highest, the chronic problem of flooding resumes. With the intense process of disorderly urbanisation, the soil has become excessively impermeable. The transformation and occupation of São Paulo Basin riverbanks and fluvial plains, which used to control water flows, just worsen the problem.

The entire population is hit by the flooding. Underprivileged populations who live close to water flows in historically depreciated areas are directly affected in their own dwellings. The risk situation of these populations represents for every public administration a reason for concern, which might be either of lower or higher level, according to their social commitment. This issue has never been tackled in an effective manner, and suffers with continual government changes and discontinuity.

The population not affected in their own dwellings is affected by difficulties imposed by a lack of mobility when the main road system, situated on a tableland and strategically placed parallel to the water ways, floods. As water incapacitates traffic flow, the problem gains a metropolitan dimension, also reaching production sectors.

As flooding is a factor of urban diseconomy, harming the efficient flow of people and goods, it belongs to the city administration plan and political agenda, to which successive governments have allocated funds, although never enough. In this investment, there is an opportunity for action, pinpointing needy areas throughout the metropolis.

Articulating Systemic and Local Concerns: the network of piscinões
The issues involving water resources — urban drainage, sanitation and water supply — are complex and demand efforts at both macro and micro levels. Since 1990 it has been dealt with by the State Plan of Water Resources (PERH) and Macro-drainage Plan for the Upper Tiete Basin.
One of the solutions proposed for city flooding is the construction of a set of large reservoirs, piscinões, to retain and control rain water, holding it back from city rivers and streams, reducing any overflow. In short, the piscinão replaces the original regulating function of the fluvial plains, now occupied and fully impermeable.
Presently, there are about 319 built reservoirs out of a total estimate of 131, which will be sable to hold 15.5 million cubic metres of water. They are distributed throughout the micro-tributary basins of Tiete River, covering the entire São Paulo water system. Many are located in peripheral areas, close to informal sectors of city occupation. Thus, in order to face the metropolitan dimension of flooding problems, there must be some meaningful public investment in peripheral areas. Finding a fit between the metropolitan and local dimensions of this question is the starting point toward any solution.
The 'informal' sectors have the most need for public spaces. In São Paulo, where disputes over space are often mediated by violence, there are still some unoccupied areas: pieces of land usually devoted to football fields, and other community activities. In the informal sectors, samba, funk dance and football matches are important events for the construction of social and communal networks, highly necessary for the strengthening of relationships to resist the adversities present in a large metropolis. They are a spontaneous manifestation that shows the value of public space in these areas.

This collection of vacant urban spaces in São Paulo can be converted into an opportunity for a new network of public spaces. For example, the piscinão is only active about 3 to 4 months out of the year, during high-water periods. For the other months it is idle. New programs can be added to the piscinão, building on the future steps of the Macro-drainage Plan.
Piscinões unit both the system of the borough's public spaces and the technical system for the drainage, treatment and re-use of water resources. They can serve as a landmark and spatial reference on the cityscape of the borough, laying water's claim to the floodplain.

Re-urbanisation of Água Branca, São Paulo, SP, 2004
Fernando de Mello Franco, Marta Moreira and Milton Braga, in association with Camila Toledo Fabrini, Guilherme Wisnik, Martin Corullon and Roberto Klein.
São Paulo will have to be consistent in managing its natural resources in a sustainable and rational manner. In this context, the effective urban reconfiguration of an area as large as the proposed new borough in Água Branca can only be achieved through the infrastructural planning of the region. However, an intervention on this scale essentially means defining the design of that urban infrastructure, giving legible form to a strategic action on behalf of the public authorities.
The association between transport and water-related issues in São Paulo surfaces here as a project theme, broached through a consequent critical deportment.

New train stations on existing lines are proposed to fulfill a strategic role as points of mediation between scales, and to serve as links between the metropolitan transport non-polluting railway system and the localities. In our project, these train stations are organised as agglomeration points for public facilities, special services and social housing.

Another matter is the definition of public spaces in this project: recreational and gathering spaces, which seek proximity with the circulation system and with the watercourses, arise out of precisely this conviction. the resulting water square holds both the system of the borough's public spaces and the technical system for the drainage, treatment and re-use of water resources. Fruit of a wellspring of non-contaminated groundwater, it will serve as a landmark and spatial reference on the cityscape of the borough, laying water's claim to the floodplain, at once technical and symbolic, rigorous and crystalline.

de Mello, Fernando. 'Water Ways' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Fernando de Mello Franco and On Site review

23 January 2009

Urban Guerillas

sociopolitical architecture of the public realm

Christopher Roach
I [one]
On the east end of 24th Street in San Francisco, stretching from Valencia Street to Potrero Avenue, is a world that is neither exclusively Latin American, nor definitively North American, but is particular to San Francisco and, more specifically, the Mission District. I can get fresh masa to make tortillas at La Palma Mexicatessen, sip the best cappuccinos at Café Venice, buy fresh produce from several sidewalk groceries, feast on tacos al pastor for a few bucks at Taqueria Vallarta or have a malted milkshake at the St. Francis Soda Fountain. Tree-lined, two-way, crowded with slow-moving traffic on a busy Saturday afternoon, I can still call out to a friend across the street and jaywalk safely to shake his hand. Both sides of the street are lined with small storefronts, catering largely, though not exclusively, to the resident Latino community. There are relics of a more distant past, such as the St. Francis, when Mission was a working-class neighbourhood of Irish, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants. There is also a creeping, eminent gentrification: several stylish cafés and boutique stores have cropped up to serve the growing white professional class that is moving into the affordable Mission neighbourhoods.
At the other end of 24th Street, heading over the hill at Dolores Street and down into Noe Valley, is a different though not altogether alien world, where French bistros replace taquerias, and tandem strollers almost outnumber cars. At this end of the street I’m more likely to find artisan cheese and an expensive bottle of wine, or perhaps a nice pair of shoes, but I can still grab a greasy slice of pizza and watch a soccer game at the local pub. Punctuating the continuous row of small three and four-storey buildings is a small parking lot that becomes an upscale farmer’s market on Saturdays; further down, the local CalaFoods supermarket is set back behind its parking lot. Nonetheless, this end of 24th continues familiar, small-scale retail with a few storeys of housing above. The sidewalks are clean and most buildings have a fresh coat of paint, but there’s a noticeably more homogeneous and sanitised feeling on this end of the street. There are no murals, less graffiti, fewer street vendors, and I rarely hear a foreign language spoken here.
These two ends of 24th street represent a kind of urban dialectic of use and culture representative of larger forces at work in the evolution of a city such as San Francisco. There are certainly streets that are more grand, and others more important in the city’s history and culture – Market Street, Mission Street or Columbus Avenue – but in these 24 city blocks one can still read an entire dissertation on the particularity of a place and time in the life of the city. A hermeneutical reading of streets reveals a fragment of the underlying code of our entire society. By parsing the language of the social, political, and economic structures embodied in our streets, they can tell us volumes about ourselves and the world we have made; both the delights and the dangers that we face. For if we turn the page to read another street, we may find that the tale it tells is not one of urbane diversity and harmonious civility, but one of dislocation, disenfranchisement and decay.

2 [two]
Our streets, as much as our buildings, are a physical manifestation of our social and cultural values, especially those relating to the context of human settlement. Streets are, in their boundless ubiquity and variety of form, expressions of our attitudes toward communication, commerce, transportation, privacy, security, hygiene, dwelling, public speech, beauty, nature, geography, history and culture. As these attitudes shift and evolve over space and time, so do our streets, like a slowly evolving living organism.
Streets are, even more than buildings, the most pervasive and essential physical embodiment of the public realm.1 They are not just vessels and nodes in the circulatory system of the city, but are the fountainhead of civil society, and therefore one of our most precious physical and cultural resources. Streets are the public stage for our everyday lives as well as the singular events that mark the passage of a common history: battles and parades, protests and celebrations, markets and marathons, carnivals and funerals. On this stage we have played out the grand drama of our most celebrated and infamous social conflicts, from the barricades of pre-Haussmann Paris to the Civil Rights marches and anti-war protests of 1960s America.
But streets are also the theatre for the public performance of daily life, where we engage in the activities of civic Being, whether through commerce, recreation, spectacle, or speech. As Alan Jacobs notes in his seminal book Great Streets, ‘sociability is a large part of why cities exist and streets are a major if not the only public place for that sociability to develop’.2 Streets are where the personal and the political flow together, and for many, streets are the only place where sociability, or even identity, can form freely. Particularly in modern societies that are dominated by a homogeneous popular culture, streets have been the locus for the formation and dissemination of counterculture. In fact, contemporary North American counterculture is largely synonymous with street culture, whether in the form of punk, hip-hop, skateboarding, bikers or street gangs and their associated forms of music, dress, language, art and identity politics.
Most importantly, streets have historically been the locus for resistance, whether cultural or political, and resistance is a form of participation critical to the formation and existence of civil society. In our hermeneutical reading of streets, we find that resistance is still relevant, and necessary, because the physical and cultural space of our streets is threatened by the same encroachments of privatisation, surveillance, commercialisation and negligence that face civil society itself. Just as we witness the sale of our public institutions and infrastructure to private enterprise, so too can we find in our streets a creeping erosion of the public sphere.

3 [three]
Functionalism’s reign as the dominant paradigm of mid-century architecture and urban planning gave rise to a general philosophy of segregation of uses within the public right-of-way.3 This, combined with the ascendancy of the automobile, left a decades-long legacy of robust traffic engineering and weak urbanism. Ironically, the functional separation of uses that was supposed to promote health, safety, and revitalisation of the modern city mostly resulted in less safety, more congestion, and bleak stretches of empty asphalt cutting through entire neighbourhoods. Despite the eventual outcry by Jane Jacobs and the reformations of the Preservationist movement (and later, the New Urbanists), our streets remain bloated by increasing volumes of automobile traffic, and marked by the remaining artifacts of elevated highways, vast intersections, narrower sidewalks and stranded islands of nervous pedestrians. Moreover, functionalist zoning regulations and redevelopment failed to prevent, and may have even enabled, the flight of the urban middle class to the suburbs, resulting not only in the physical decline of urban centres, but also in the decline of the remaining residents’ political power.
Road building, once one of the great public works of the state, has now largely been turned over to private enterprise; our streets are increasingly entitled, funded, designed, built, maintained, policed and even owned by private or public-private entities. State and local governments stripped of funding and maxed out on their bonding capacity, can often no longer afford to build and maintain infrastructure and must turn to large developers to carry out the construction and administration of streets, public spaces and entire neighbourhoods. While these projects must go through the environmental review process and are usually handed over to the city or state upon completion, the profit motive inherently reduces the input citizens have on the form of their cities and communities. In the cases where these private entities retain ownership or administration of the streets and public spaces they construct, even basic freedoms we expect to be self-evident in public spaces are called into question.
As suburban flight has abated and as people and businesses have begun to return to downtown, political power over the planning process has once again shifted, but not into the hands of the long-time residents or cultural pioneers who created value where there once was none. Business and real estate interests have come to wield inordinate political influence over the urban planning process in cities that are experiencing an explosion of growth in the urban core. This is especially true in downtown shopping areas, where retailers’ perceived need to compete with the convenience of suburban malls drives them to lobby for policies that favour commerce over public amenity: increased capacity for automobile access and more parking versus wider sidewalks, traffic calming and green space.4 This erosion of public space is furthered by the intrusion of advertising into every aspect of the streetscape. The cacophony of signage, billboards and advertisements on bus shelters, benches, kiosks, newsstands and sandwich boards has become so familiar as to be virtually invisible, and is accepted by many as the cost of having a robust and free market.
Retail businesses rely on pedestrian traffic for their sales and are particularly interested in creating an environment of safety and stability, leading to the propagation of security cameras and private security guards and fostering a culture of surveillance and control on the street that has a chilling effect on free speech and expression. This has a subtle and insidious influence on what is deemed to be an acceptable use of the street, or even what is viewed as appropriate public behaviour. Public actors in the theatre of downtown streets are encouraged, provided they generally abide by the script of the marketplace. As long as they’re shining shoes, selling jewellery, hawking a sale or entertaining for a coin they are accepted, or at least tolerated. But as soon as they try to speak out, stage a spontaneous protest or performance or just do something ridiculous, they’re harassed, asked for their permit or just whisked away.
Many of these downtown neighbourhoods were once predominantly populated by a particular ethnic group or co-opted by specific fringe cultures. As they are being gentrified, the very rituals, customs and events that marked the outward expression of these groups and gave these areas their unique identities are coming under attack. The new residents and businesses that have become their neighbours pressure the city to crack down on parades and street fairs, either banning them outright, imposing prohibitive security and permit fees or moving them to other non-threatening sites.5 These lively street events, once the inheritors of the spontaneous expression of humanity’s inner chaos called carnival, are now so scripted, controlled, surveilled and commercialised that they are either disappearing altogether, or becoming mere symbols of themselves. The only events that seem to survive are able to do so through corporate sponsorship, or are themselves merely commercial events masquerading as festivals or parades.6
Even our remaining public open spaces may not be as public as they seem. Another disturbing artifact of the privatisation of the public sphere is the creation of pseudo-public spaces that appear to be public streets or plazas, but are in fact owned or administered by private entities. In San Francisco, a number of ‘privately-owned public open spaces’ associated with downtown highrise developments have proliferated as a result of a zoning ordinance that grants developers more building area in exchange for providing a plaza, roof deck, or atrium space accessible to the general public.7 POPOS8 may resemble a public space, but look closely, and you’ll see the security cameras, guards, and subtle markers noting that your right to pass is by permission of the owners. These and other pseudo-public spaces are becoming a common practice nationally and worldwide, the result of a Neo-liberal reconsideration, or outright questioning, of the public sphere.9

4 [four]
How are we, as architects, to engage in this discourse of multifaceted and often competing interests claiming ownership of our streets? How can we act to restore balance to the architecture of the public realm?
Architects may think themselves powerless in this battle, that the content and form of the streets outside the envelopes of their buildings are best left to landscape architects and urban planners who can operate more effectively at the scale of the neighbourhood or city. Architects relinquish to urban planners the messy business of working with the political power granted to them to leverage the resources of both the government and private investment to map out and achieve long-term planning goals. However, the power of the urban planner has been weakened by a lack of capital resources, called into question by opponents of government authority and challenged by his own disenfranchised constituents. This situation calls for all actors in the urban environment, including architects, to reconsider their roles.

Sociologist Peter Arlt calls for us to consider the role of the tactician in urban planning. In his excellent essay ‘Urban Planning and Interim Use’, Arlt draws on military theory to contrast the strategist who has the power and the money to overcome any external conditions blocking the way, with the tactician who must engage circumstances and adversaries to achieve the goal.10 Arlt argues that because urban planners have the political authority to act as strategists, but no longer the resources, they must now act more as tacticians, or ally themselves with tacticians to achieve the same ends. This means working with actors in the urban arena who propose, and impose, interim uses for urban spaces that are seen as opportunities for action, commentary and change.

The classical interim user is the squatter, but whereas the squatters appropriate underused space as an essentially antisocial act, there is a new breed of cultural interloper who seeks to temporarily appropriate a public space as a site for art, performance or political commentary. These urban guerillas are the prototypical tacticians; they operate locally in territory that is familiar, with support from locals and popularity in the media, and most importantly, are highly motivated not by money, but by putting ideas into action. ‘Enthusiasm’, says Arlt, ‘is the capital of interim users, and urban planners should recognize this and use it tactically’.

Architect Ursula Hofbauer and artist/filmmaker Friedmann Derschmidt have been having breakfast with friends and strangers in Vienna’s public spaces for over ten years. They begin by setting up a table in a plaza, street or other public space, and offering coffee and sundry breakfast items to any passers-by who care to join in. The only requirement for participation is that their guests organise another similar public breakfast the next day and invite others to join in turn. In theory, this follows the logic of a chain letter, so what may begin with four people grows to sixteen the next day, then sixty-four on the third, and on the tenth day over a million people having breakfast in public. In fact Permanent Breakfast, which began as a game, public art performance and urban critique in 1996, has since grown to take root in many European cities, as well as New York and Taiwan. The point of Permanent Breakfast is not only to surprise and delight those who appropriate public space for their own means, but to directly engage in a discourse with the limitations, both perceived and actual, to public space. As Hofbauer and Derschmidt claim, ‘it is possible to precisely gauge the understanding of just how public a location is by observing the reactions of other users and ‘protectors’ of the public space. Permanent Breakfast thus becomes a sort of litmus test for the accessibility of public space. In carrying out such breakfasts, it is possible to reveal the superficial look of invisible spatial situations, such as private, formerly public spaces or publicly disguised private spaces’.11

In November 2005, a group of landscape architects, artists, and others calling themselves REBAR ‘rented’ a metered parking space in downtown San Francisco and transformed it into a tiny public park, complete with grass, a bench for seating, and a tree for shade. The park lasted only for a matter of hours, and was met with a mixture of ‘surprise, approval, joy, and indignation’, but, surprisingly, no one was arrested or fined.12 In the two years since this intial act of guerilla urbanism, the idea has exploded into something of an international phenomenon. On PARK(ing) Day in September of 2006, REBAR installed five more PARKs, and were joined by other groups who installed 16 more in San Francisco, 13 in Berkeley, as well as PARKs in New York City, London, and Rio De Janeiro. In 2007, PARK(ing) Day grew to 180 PARKs in 47 cities worldwide.13 According to REBAR, the purpose of PARK(ing) Day is to broaden the discourse on public space in urban contexts by creating a ‘temporally distributed network of public open space’ and by testing reactions to these interventions in a variety of socioeconomic situations.

REBAR has also collaborated with the performance group Snap Out of It on a project called COMMONspace to systematically evaluate and critique San Francisco’s privately-owned public open spaces. In this project, REBAR have mapped the 14 official POPOS in downtown San Francisco and run reconnaissance missions in order to probe the explicit and implicit rules that govern these quasi-public spaces. In conjunction with Snap Out of It, they have returned to these spaces to participate in various paraformances, or Situationist-inspired performances which begin with individual plausibly-deniable actions and scale up to full-sized occupations that engage the public as audiences and participants.14 Similar to Permanent Breakfast, these performances limn the boundary of where the public and the private both meet and conflict.

Permanent Breakfast, PARK(ing) Day, and COMMONspace represent successful examples of tactical urban planning which, in conjunction with more strategic projects, can have a long-term effect on providing public open space in our streets. As Peter Arlt states, ‘Interim use is always seen as a provisional measure rather than as a permanent solution, although it can also be a way of demonstrating a concept’s success in order to convince an investor that the chosen use could also provide a permanent solution’.15 Thus, there is a symbiotic relationship between the strategic and the tactical. The tactical act relies on action and immediacy to influence its audience, and this instantaneous public outreach can lay the groundwork for broader support for more long-term changes. Strategic methods, on the other hand, leverage this political will with capital investments to implement change on a larger scale, legitimsing the tactician’s goals, and drawing a new front for further tactical action.
On PARK(ing) Day in 2007, REBAR collaborated with Public Architecture, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to pro-bono work, to install four PARKs on Folsom Street. These included a dogwalk plaza, a beauty plaza sponsored by an adjacent cosmetology school, and a sidewalk plaza in front of Brainwash Café featuring a sixteen foot long table where participants and spectators were invited to sit and enjoy a temporary spot to relax, sip a coffee or chat. These PARKs were not strictly intended to be temporary, but rather were full-scale mock-ups of a series of permanent sidewalk plazas that Public Architecture has proposed to provide public open space along Folsom Street. As a result of this engaging community outreach, and their work with several municipal departments, Public Architecture has been awarded a grant from the city to construct a permanent sidewalk plaza in front of Brainwash Café, whose owner will provide ongoing maintenance and the remainder of the construction funds.
This and future sidewalk plazas are part of an overall vision that Public Architecture has proposed to the city for transforming Folsom, Howard and other streets in the South of Market neighbourhood to provide traffic calming, robust public transportation and much-needed open space. Their vision has many more obstacles to overcome before it’s fully implemented, but it has already gained traction with the city’s Planning Department to the extent that it directly influenced their inclusion of similar ideas in the adjacent Rincon Hill neighbourhood plan.16
Public Architecture’s collaboration with REBAR clearly illustrates how an interim use of space can directly inform the planning process to influence its eventual permanent use. Thus, through the implementation of tactical means architecture itself can act on its immediate context as well as at the urban scale to bring about strategic ends. These guerilla actions are currently taking place at the margins of architecture and urban planning, but we must co-opt them into common practice if we are to counteract the erosion of civic space in our streets. Alan Jacobs has said that ‘the best streets encourage participation’.17 In the context of the current assault on the public realm, it may be better said that the best streets demand participation. p

1 Jacobs, Alan. Great Streets. ‘In the U.S., from 25 to 35 % of a city’s developed land is likely to be in public rights-of-way, mostly in streets’. p6
2 Ibid. p4
3 Le Corbusier, for one, perceived an ever-stricter segregation of traffic as an essential affirmation of social order — a desirable and ultimately inevitable expression of modernity. To this end, proposals were advanced to build vertical streets where road vehicles, pedestrians and trains would each occupy their own levels. Such an arrangement, it was said, would allow for even denser development in the future. These plans were never implemented comprehensively, a fact which today’s urban theorists regard as fortunate for vitality and diversity. Rather, vertical segregation is applied on a piecemeal basis, as in sewers, utility poles, depressed highways, elevated railways, common utility ducts, the extensive complex of underground malls surrounding Tokyo Station and the O-temachi subway station, the elevated pedestrian skyway networks of Minneapolis and Calgary, the underground cities of Atlanta and Montreal, and the multilevel streets in Chicago. Wikipedia .
4 For example, San Francisco’s Proposition H of 2007, which was largley funded by downtown developers and backed by the Gap’s Don Fischer.
5 Some of San Francisco’s most popular outdoor events such as the Haight-Ashbury and How Weird street fairs, Gay Pride, Halloween and the North Beach Festival have recently been threatened by organised neighbour complaints and exorbitant fees from city departments. See Witherell, Amanda. ‘The Death of Fun’ San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 23, 2006
6 For the past two years, Larry Ellison’s Oracle Open World conference has erected a tent over Howard Street from 3rd to 4th Street for an entire week, complete with massive LED screens at each end. On November 22, 2004, the band U2 took over the streets of New York to shoot a video for ‘All Because of You’, the second single off their new How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
7 Section 138 of the City of San Francisco Zoning Ordinance.
8 The term POPOS was coined by REBAR
9 Hofbauer, Ursula. ‘Horror Vacui’
10 Arlt, Peter. ‘Urban Planning and Interim Use” in Temporary Urban Spaces by Haydn, Florian, Robert Temel, eds. Birkhäuser, 2006. See also de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
11 Hofbauer, Ursula, & Friedmann Derschmidt ‘Horror Vacui’ in Temporary Urban Spaces by Haydn, Florian, Robert Temel, eds. Birkhäuser, 2006
12 REBAR estimated they provided an additional ‘24,000 square-foot-minutes’ of public open space.
13 All information taken from REBAR and their website www.rebargroup.org
14 Ibid. REBAR
15 Arlt, Peter. ‘Urban Planning and Interim Use’ p 39
16 Meanwhile, REBAR has also aadopted more strategic methods, handing PARK(ing) Day off to the Trust for Public Land, and advising the San Francisco mayor’s office on the city’s Better Streets program.
17 Jacobs, Alan. Great Streets. p9

Roach, Christopher. 'Urban Guerillas' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Christopher Roach and On Site review

Water Mythologies

building civic narratives that read like novels
In the skin of a Lion in many ways parallels Roman Polanski's equally mythic film, Chinatown. Ondaatje's dream-like quality sets it apart from Polanski's harder-nosed struggle over water supply in the creation of modern Los Angeles. Certainly there is a comparative reading in the privatised and violent nature of American birth as opposed to the civil service Canadian approach. But in the end there are the respective stories and their artefacts.

Paul Whelan
Lacking any kind of magical foundation story, Toronto craves a mythology. It's often left up to artists to create the magical bedrock for a city's future mythology. In Toronto, poet bp Nichol developed an urban imagery through a creative re-reading of its geography and street names. And it was Michael Ondaatje's 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, that widely disseminated a personal myth of the city's coming of age. The novel focusses on the Bloor Street viaduct and the Victoria Park Filtration Plant, both constructed in the 1920s and 30s through the bullheadedness of a remarkable civil servant, RC Harris, Toronto's Commissioner of Works.

Harris proposed that a 2-mile intake tunnel be built under Lake Ontario, terminating at a new filtration plant. In Ondaatje's novel the filtration plant is referred to as the Palace of Purification. The industrial processing of water may seem an odd choice for the basis of a new mythology, but as was well understood by all ancient cultures, the regulation of water underlies both the foundation of the city as well as its on-going well-being. Ondaatje portrays Harris as a mythic hero who provides the vision, ambition and political will while Thomas Pomphrey, the filtration plant's architect, provides the architectural expression to house Harris's project.

Early in the book, while talking with Pomphrey, Harris muses, 'before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting'. Toronto's filtration plant is a testament to this kind of imagining, an architectural anomaly mysteriously beached on the shores of Lake Ontario. Contemplating this beaux arts composition with its grass terraces, palaces and commanding views, it is almost sacrilege to believe that its raison d'etre was simply to solve Toronto's water purity problems by processing millions of litres of lake water.

The architecture is modernist in the direct way that structures sand their placement reflect the inward flow of water and the industrial production of clean drinking water. In contrast, the architectural styling shares nothing with a reductive modernist sensibility. The materials alone – yellow brick, limestone, copper, bronze, terrazzo floors, black marble, herringbone tile work and fine plaster, coupled with inventive detailing and fine craftsmanship – create a sumptuous environment in which the mechanics of the pumps and controls are elevated to a shining, functional art.

The pump house, in an elegant ballroom, is at the lowest terrace, nearest the water – an aqueous anteroom to the purification project further up the terraces. The alum tower marks the nest step on the water's path to purification. Water passes under the tower and coagulant is dropped into it before the underground pipe turns 90 degrees to approach the filer building on axis, a simultaneous beaux-arts compositional rule and a modernist functional diagram. Small particulates in the water adhere to the alum, sinking to the bottom of settling tanks. Clean water is then piped to the city. The tower could easily have been a simple metal tank, but is instead a vertical punctuation mark on a horizontal process. The functionally unnecessary top floor belvedere exists only to offer powerful views of Lake Ontario.

The upper ground is dominated by the sprawling filter building, buttressed by administration towers that flank a monumental arched entry. An octagonal rotunda marks the crossing of the filtration building wings and the administration building. In the centre of the rotunda is a pylon providing data on filtration rates, water capacity and time of day. Like the entire plant, this device only needed to be a prosaic piece of equipment, but instead is celebrated and elevated in an elaborately detailed stone obelisk.

At every turn our expectations about water filtration are eclipsed by the exuberance of Pomphrey's architectural ambition for mere infrastructure, almost as if Nicola Salvi and Pope Clement XII had re-imagined a Trevi Fountain to celebrate the arrival of water in the modern city.

What of Ondaatje's fascination with the Palace of Purification? It is possible that the Harris Filtration Plant is just one site for inventing a Toronto mythology. Perhaps Ondaatje's novel is a single particle of alum dropped into raw lake water. With enough alum, maybe a movie or two, the ooze that settles from the raw water will become the material of rumours and tall stories. And while we wait for the stories to accrete, we celebrate the delivery of clean water.

Whelan, Paul. 'Water Mythologies' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Paul Whelan and On Site review

22 January 2009

Bombay Dhobi Ghats, New York Laundromats

a laundry list for urban vibrancy: drip-dry urbanism

Aniket Shahane
In the Laundromats of Bombay and New York, water and power go hand in hand. Not only do they comprise the infrastructure required for the Laundromats' operation (water for washing and electricity for drying), but their availability as resources determines both how and how much space is claimed by this banal activity. The architecture of the Bombay Dhobi Ghats — a generations-old Indian public Laundromat – and the New York City Laundromat unveils the impact of infrastructure on people, activity and architecture.

India's infrastructure can be characterised as fragile at best. Although improving, the supply of both water and electricity are unreliable. Power outages are not uncommon and water is often unsanitary, if running at all. Low levels of water and electricity instill in Indians a frugal mindset towards the consumption of these resources. Water needs to be carefully allocated. Electrical loads must be at a minimum. But what India lacks in resources, it more than makes up for with resourcefulness. In Bombay, a city of 18 million individuals, the human hand is the best means to monitor the quantity of water that flows from a tap. Reliance on manpower is critical and is most evident in the architecture of the Dhobi Ghat.

Like many other Laundromats, Bombay's Dhobi Ghat provides complete laundry services for its clientele including clothing pick-up/drop-off, washing, drying and ironing. However, in contrast to Laundromats that have a stronger infrastructure at their disposal, the Ghat survives on a spartan attitude towards water and energy consumption. It works like this. Upon request, a courier from the Ghat is dispatched to a client's home to pick up dirty laundry. The clothes are wrapped in a brightly coloured sack and swiftly delivered to the Ghat by the courier, usually on a bicycle or other man-powered vehicle (water and electricity are not the only resources that are hard to come by in Bombay). Upon arrival at the Ghat, the clothes are sorted, marked and handed over to the laundrymen. Unlike washing machines, which provide little flexibility in water usage, washing men can regulate the stream of water from a tap so as to use only the amount necessary for a given load of laundry, minimising wasteful water consumption. After the appropriate amount of water is released, soap is added and the washing man begins his job. Knee deep in sudsy water, he dunks a few articles of clothing at a time, pulls them out, smacks the garments on a flogging stone in order to beat out the dirt, and then wrings the clothes of excess water with his bare hands. The process is repeated until the washing man determines the load to be clean, at which point he carries the garments in his arms to one of many clotheslines strung from one side of the Ghat to another to begin the drying process. The clothes are hung to air-dry individually one article at a time; the occasional Bombay sea breeze is far more dependable than the Bombay electrical infrastructure. Finally, the dried, wrinkled clothes are hand-pressed using a heavy iron heated in a wood-burning oven. They are then folded, packed in another colourful sack, and returned by courier to their rightful owner. The Dhobi Ghat is a place of messy, physical work that engages the entire human body and demands much from its architecture.

Above all, the Dhobi Ghat needs to house men performing an arduous job. Unlike the washing machine, a washing man requires more space and maintenance. He needs to be able to bend down, stand up, scrub and flail wet clothes. It's necessary for him to be able to eat, drink and communicate with other washing men. He is far less predictable and productive than a machine. He can slip and fall, take ill, bear a bad mood, or demand better pay. Moreover, the washing man lacks the capacity to wash as many loads as one washing machine. Therefore, in order for the Dhobi Ghat to run as a legitimate business, it needs to house many washing me. With such a complicated program, it is not wonder the Ghats are designed the way they are: they are not enclosed at all. An open Laundromat – one with no walls – gives the washing men enough room to manoeuvre as required while allowing plenty of natural air circulation to mitigate the pervasive dampness. In this open format, rows of concrete pens on the ground are sized to allow one laundryman to wash. Bundles of pipes feed the fragile Bombay water into each one of these pens through a spigot. Overhead a web of clotheslines make an ad-hoc trellis. In Bombay, where the act of washing and drying clothes can't be trusted to resource-guzzling machines, a man inside a concrete pen and a clothesline suspended in open air are the best substitutes.

The architecture of the New York Laundromat, in contrast, is far more subdued. The city's robust infrastructure gives New Yorkers the licence to use as much water and energy as desired, even at a time when the word 'sustainability' is all the rage. This allows the demeanour of the New York City laundryman to be drastically different than his counterpart in Bombay. Like the Dhobi Ghat, the typical New York Laundromat also provides full laundry services for its clients. Once the clothes have been dropped off at the Laundromat, the laundryman empties the bag of clothes into a washing machine, usually separating whites from colours. A plastic dial is twisted to select water temperature, while seven quarters are thrust into a metal try in order to start the machine. After exactly twenty minutes, it stops, at which point the load is assumed to be clean. The clothes are then unloaded by the laundryman, transported in a cart a short distance to the drying machine, and tossed into a dryer. A fabric softener sheet is added, another dial is turned to select the desired level of heat (i.e. electricity) for the job, more coins are inserted to determine drying time (one quarter buys six minutes of hot air), and finally a button is pressed to begin the machine drying process. the only part of the New York City laundryman's job that doesn't involve the use of a machine is the folding of clothes, which has to be done by hand. If clothes are folded soon enough after drying, there is usually no ironing required. Because the laundry process in New York is not nearly as labour intensive as in Bombay, it enables many clients to come in and do their own laundry – an option not available at the Dhobi Ghat. Locals will arrive at all hours, unload a bag of clothes into a washer, return thirty minutes later to transfer the clothes to a dryer, then come back once again to take the clothes home. compared to the Ghat, the New York Laundromat is an easy, tidy operation.

The architecture of the NYC Laundromat is a direct reflection of its resource-abundant, labour-deficient process. It requires space to accommodate a certain number of machines with identical dimensions and predictable behaviours. A rehabbed ground floor of a row house will do just fine. The Laundromat on Smith Street in Brooklyn is a typical example. Besides the overflow of glaring fluorescent lighting from the large storefront window, there is very little that gives away the activities that occur inside. The interior contains two rows of machines with a centre aisle. Washing machines are towards the streetfront, while dryers occupy the back of the space. The floors, walls and ceiling are a ragtag composition of vinyl and acoustic tiles, in order to provide an economical and acoustically sound enclosure. The architecture of the New York Laundromat is, for the most part, fairly discreet.

In both the Dhobi Ghat and the Smith Street Laundromat, space is generated not only by the physical form, dimensions, and organisations of men and machines; it is also a direct result of varying degrees of access to water and energy. Because the Dhobi Ghat has to be a physically open space in order to function, it is possible for the average passer-by to peer down on the space and witness the chaotic collection of people and clothes, wet and dry. The sound of laundrymen bellowing to each other and the smell of dirty cloth and caustic soda contribute to the public assault of one's sense. The Ghat's location next to the train line allows the activity of clothes-washing to be a landmark passed on the commute to and from work. In more ways than one, the Dhobi Ghat asserts itself onto its city. In fact, this kind of emphatic claim of urban space is typical of Bombay locals. When given scarce resources, countless Bombay residents take matters into their own hands. They claim the space of their city as their own, not just for washing and drying, but also for cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, entertaining, defecating, urinating and cremating. Bombay is a city of perpetual urban aggression – each individual carrying out in public what they cannot do in private.

In New York, on the other hand, the introverted nature of the Smith Street Laundromat betrays its city's tendency toward privatisation. The abundance of resources in New York affords a city that is luxurious enough to individualise almost everything, including access to a washer and dryer. Everyday mundane chores such as washing and drying clothes don't require the effort they do in Bombay and are mostly kept out of the public realm. Why air dry outside when there is plenty of electricity to machine dry inside? In fact, it is so uncommon to see clothes hung out to dry in New York that on the rare occasion when it actually happens, it often induces outcries from neighbours. Hanging laundry in New York today is seen as a sign of a neighbourhood in decline. It devalues adjacent property. So even if New Yorkers are tempted to air dry (to save on electric bills, for example), they will most likely opt to be good neighbours and use a drying machine instead. Alas, the price of living in a city with seemingly endless reserves of water and electricity is the burden of propriety: please use a clothes dryer rather than a clothesline to dry your clothes so my property does not depreciate; please grill in your own backyard rather than on the sidewalk so I don't smell your cooking; please play your music in your living room rather than on the street so my quiet evening at home isn't disturbed. The affluence of New York infrastructure has instilled in New Yorkers something that currently does not and cannot exist in Bombay: a common sense of civic etiquette. It is a reminder that commodities as basic as water and electricity have the power to affect people, behaviour and ultimately, space.

Considering the impact of architectural spaces such as laundromats on cities like Bombay and New York begins to shed light on the possibility that seemingly naive everyday acts such as cleaning clothes, washing dishes, or taking baths do much more than tap our collective infrastructure. They promote or sometimes impede urban vibrancy. A vibrant city is an arena for both celebration and conflict, a place that readily counteracts order and predictability with unanticipated spontaneity. Now is a time when New York, despite – or perhaps because of – all its resources, is in danger of becoming so bound by civic etiquette that there is less room left for New Yorkers to improvise on their streets. Conversely, if Bombay's infrastructure doesn't catch up to India's charging global economy it stands to marginalise millions of Bombayites, which could exacerbate, among other things, the city's serious problem of shanty towns (a most extreme kind of urban improvisation). Sustainability and globalisation gurus have drilled into us the notion that we are one global village, inter-connected and networked; consuming resources in New York equates to depleting them elsewhere. But what if New Yorkers relied less on water and energy not only to slow down global warming, but also as an excuse to bring to New York some of Bombay's penchant for spontaneous street intensity? what if the clothesline poles that stand in the backyards of so many Brooklyn brownstones were activated with clean laundry once again, not just to help save the planet, but also to help keep Brooklynites from co-opting their borough's air space? If the proponents of the Green movement are proven correct, then reducing the load on New York's infrastructure might eventually have positive repercussions in other parts of the world. What is certain, however, is that it will almost immediately shift more activity from New York's private to its public realm and help encourage a more free-spirited vigour on its streets.

Shahane, Aniket. 'Drip-dry urbanism' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Aniket Shahane and On Site review

12 January 2009


the architecture of waves
Zubin Singh
Through the act of surfing, as no other human activity, man enters the domain of the breaking wave, is contained by and participates in its broadcast, measures and is in turn measured, meets its rhythm and establishes his own, negotiates continuity and rupture at the scale of the body. What is the nature of this inhabitation? A bold proposition: surfing is an architectural act. Through it the surfbreak is drawn within the sphere of culture and the wave becomes an architectural domain.

Geographically the surfbreak represents an actual threshold between environs, but historically it has also been a symbolic Porta between two overlapping and irreconcilable realms, two inimical elements: the land and the sea, earth and water. On the one hand, the stable and the familiar: the ground upon which humankind has built its civilisations and institutions, established its relation to space and time, defined culture. On the other, the capricious and unknowable: the quintessential other, Nature at her most fecund and ruinous, that which is beyond, indeterminate. It is not accident that Hesiod's Aphrodite was conceived in the spume, or that Botticelli's Venus is born ashore on the crest of a breaking wave: the surfbreak has always been a fertile territory in the human imagination, a metaphor of paradox, of life.

As a point of departure: the pier, beginning with a comparison between surfing and skateboarding — an analogous relation between the surfer's appropriation of the pier and the skateboarder's appropriation of the urban environment. In Skateboarding, Space and the City (Berg 2001) Iain Borden present skateboarding as a 'performative critique' of the values associated with life in the modern capitalist city, specifically as they are manifest in architecture, as they order our relations with space and time. Skateboarding subverts the intended function of architecture (namely utility) by reducing architecture to a terrain — a composition of objects and planes to grind, jump or ride. 'Skateboarders analyse architecture not for historical, symbolic or authorial content but for how surfaces present themselves as skateable' (p 218K); 'the city for skateboarders is not buildings but a set of ledges, window sills, walls, roofs, railings ...and so on' (p229). While skateboarding often rejects the commodification of space (frequently the skateboarder transgresses the boundary between public and private) it is also a rejection of time as a commodity: 'Skateboarders are...more concerned with temporal distance as proximity (temporal closeness of things, temporal locality), and its repetition, than with time as a valuable resource or measure of efficiency' (p226). The surfer appropriates the pier in a similar fashion.

Ever since surfing emerged on the California coast its adherents have congregated around the pier (the Huntington Beach Pier is perhaps the most famous example) because of the structure's inadvertent tendency to create sandbars, whose presence enhances the shape and power of the breaking waves. The intended function of the pier, on the other hand, is primarily commercial. It exists as a simple structure built for fishermen (who pay to use them), or as a more elaborate commercial enterprise designed to attract tourists (e.g. Santa Monica Pier). As skateboarding does with the urban fabric, surfing subverts the intentions of the architectural object; the surfer rejects its commercial function, which she appropriates for her own purposes — free of charge. Surfing transforms this largely utilitarian artefact into an armature of the surfbreak, the locus of an alternative social realm: the privileged refuge of the individual surfer, engaged in the solitary session; or a remote commons, where local surfers gather outside the spatial and social bounds of conventional society. In the end however, it is not the pier but the wave itself to which the surfer is drawn; and it is ultimately the wave that determines not only the space of the surfbreak, but more profoundly the surfer's relationship with time.

In the water the surfer is constantly in motion, negotiating the ever-shifting regions of 'inside' and 'outside', the areas shoreward and seaward of a breaking wave that each successive wave redefines. In surfing timing is everything: not only while riding, but in simply finding the evanescent wave, whose rhythms do not obey the constructed meters of modern society. Surfing is not something to be scheduled; rather it must be scheduled around. consequently, in order to surf on a regular basis, all surfers must inevitably submit to the wave — the spatial embodiment of cyclical time.

Waves are created by vast pelagic storms; they follow the paths of the seasons, respond to the pull of the sun and moon, to the alternations of night and day — to rhythms that once defined our understanding of time's passage. The practice reflects this reality: surfers tend to return to familiar breaks season after season, year after year: the surf-session is defined by elliptical orbits — surfers paddle outside, wait for and catch a wave, only to return outside and repeat the sequence again; there is no score, no tangible goal, no clear beginning or end. This stands in stark contrast to the linear conception of time upon which the idea of progress is founded, the imperative which drives the modern world. As a result, surfers are often caught between the demands of irreconcilable worlds as well as inimical elements.

Even the surfboard spans two seemingly antithetical domains: the mass production of the foam 'blank' (the primary component of the modern surfboard) and the hand-craftsmanship of the board shaper; the impersonal and placeless nature of the industrial process, coupled with the fact that shapers often craft surfboards in collaboration with surfers in response to particular conditions and locations — the gently tapered lines of Malibu or the fast-breaking tubes of Pipeline.

In the threshold between land and sea, between progress and nature's incurable cycles, between the modern and the vernacular, dwells the surfer. In the shadow of the pier a wave swells, steepens, suddenly mortal; and on a thin blade of glass and foam a surfer strokes into the wave, rises to his feet and descends — at the moments of its collapse: a dialogue, an architectural dialogue, between permanence and change.

Singh, Zubin. 'Surfing: the architecture of waves' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Zubin Singh and On Site review