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