11 November 2010

Highway of Heroes: 65 overpasses on highway 401

arrival in Toronto

Christine Leu

The Highway of Heroes is a stretch of the 401 Highway between Canadian Forces Base Trenton and the coroner’s office at the Centre for Forensic Sciences in downtown Toronto.  It was renamed in honour of Canada’s fallen soldiers.
      Regardless of where a Canadian soldier is stationed, a soldier is repatriated at a ceremony at CFB Trenton, and then transported with a family and military automobile entourage to Toronto for an official autopsy.  The current count of fallen soldiers who have travelled this route is over 130.
      The Highway of Heroes began as a grassroots movement.  In an impromptu manner, people began to congregate on the 65 overpasses between Trenton and Toronto which represent the only safe and accessible opportunity for the public to pay their respects to the country’s fallen:  CFB Trenton is open only to family, military, dignitaries and media; the coroner’s office is also closed to the public.
    Despite the contentious nature of the Afghanistan War, the public ritual gained momentum and there were calls to officially name the route.  The big break was when an online petition was mentioned on morning radio airwaves.  The number of signees was a few thousand, but by 10:30am, the number had risen to over 9000.  A few days later on August 24 2007, the Highway of Heroes was officially designated by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, in the midst of his successful re-election campaign.

Each overpass is different due to variables such as landscape, topography, adjacencies, span and the period in which it was built.  A few are exclusively for trains, but the vast majority is for motor vehicles.  Human occupation was not considered.  It is no wonder as overpasses are inhumane places – they are like standing in a blustery wind tunnel and a howling pit stop at the same time.  On a typical day, overpasses are used almost exclusively by motor vehicles to traverse the great divide that is the 401 Highway.
     Around the time the convoy is expected to pass, however, these overpasses are transformed into impromptu mourning grounds.  The east-facing guardrails overlooking oncoming westbound traffic are lined with locals: civilians, former military, fire, police, ambulance workers and the media.  There is a surprisingly jovial air as people wait – people chat while holding their Tim Horton’s double-doubles; others rig their Canadian flags to the guardrails.  Below, truck drivers honk their horns and drivers and passengers wave the peace sign; people on the overpasses wave in response.
     That air changes to respectful silence as the flashing lights of the motorcade appear on the horizon.  It takes only a few seconds for the police escort, hearse and entourage to pass.  Then the overpass community quickly evaporates until the next soldier’s death.

Leu, Christine.  'Highway of Heroes'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Christine Leu and On Site review

Basic Gestures: tortured positions

Untitled (Abu Ghraib)

Shawn Michelle Smith
Private First Class Lynndie England became the most salient figure in the 2004 US media coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.  Few can forget the images of the woman holding the leash, or pointing to men’s genitalia and signalling ‘thumbs up’.  As the Abu Ghraib photographs circulated globally on the World Wide Web, the infamous ‘hooded man’ became the international icon of the anonymous Arab victim, and England, a white female soldier, became the international icon of the American torturer.  In many ways, England became a symbol of the war gone wrong. 

     Many were shocked to discover torture enacted by U.S. soldiers, and many more were shocked to see that torture perpetrated by a young white woman soldier.  England became a symbol of the perversion not only of American democratic ideals and military procedures, but also of an ideal of white American femininity.  If women soldiers have always unsettled ideals of gender norms, women soldiers as torturers did so doubly.  England figured as the negative and inverted image of that other gendered symbol of the war, the heavily scripted hero, Jessica Lynch.

     Now years after the revelation of torture at Abu Ghraib, the legality of American military procedures continues to be debated.  England has served a term in prison, but the orchestrators of the torture policy have not been prosecuted.  Today England figures as both torturer and scapegoat, as one of the few punished for a much more pervasive administrative and military strategy.

     In this triptych I reproduce the now iconic gestures of England, but reduce them to their minimal forms.  In doing so I hope to highlight the fundamental disconnect between these familiar, cocky, even seemingly innocuous expressions, and torture.  Choosing white silhouettes, I hope to evoke the ways in which England, and the acts of torture she has come to represent, continue to haunt American culture.  Ultimately I hope to trouble the disjuncture between ideas about American innocence and righteousness and the illegal provocations the nation has normalised. 

Shawn Michelle Smith is Associate professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Smith, Shawn Michelle.  'Basic Gestures: tortured positions'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Shawn Michelle Smith and On Site review

Dark Tourism: spectacle vs barbarism


Taïka Baillargeon
For about a decade now, newspapers and travel guides have talked about a growing phenomenon called Dark Tourism which is described as ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which has real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’.1 For some countries and particularly cities that experienced war in the last century, such tourism has become one of the most – if not the most – profitable branch of the local economy. For the purpose of tourism, sites are commonly transformed, redesigned, revamped, in order to be more accessible to the public. Malcolm Foley and John Lennon, who came up with the idea of dark tourism in 2000, talk about a ‘fundamental shift in the way which death, disaster and atrocity are being handed by those who offer associated tourism ‘products’’2 While this shift is promoted by politics, economy and media, it is often criticised, or at least questioned, amongst theorists. What is to be questioned here is not tourism itself, but the conversion of places of traumatic history into spectacles.

Some would argue that for most foreigners, going to countries that experienced wars and visiting memorials or remembrance sites seems to put them more directly in contact with a reality they don’t fully comprehend; it informs them. On the other hand, for local communities, the transformations of these places and/or their reconstruction often pushes a re-evaluation of history, forcing them to consider ethical and aesthetic values of space and building, which is necessary in order to go forward. Nevertheless, several theorists who thought about the importance of rebuilding and redesigning as an effort to embody – or simply remember – history, have mentioned their doubts on the commercialisation of theses places. The main problem is that promoting market-driven representations of history encourages reproduction instead of invention, as it keeps one prisoner of his past instead of turning him to his future; it also creates a slowing down of continuity and prevents the making of a new start. For Françoise Choay, the cult of patrimony ‘is justifiable only for a period of time: the time to take your breath in the present’s run; the time to re-insure a destiny and a reflection. Past this point in time, the mirror of patrimony would forfeit us with false conscience, fiction and repetition’.3 In this sense, even though a memory work is necessary, the ethics of it should be carefully handled.
What is to be feared here is that when history becomes a spectacle, the witness becomes a passive spectator. Although the spectacularisation of past events might have some cathartic and educational effects, it also keep the spectator uninvolved: ‘the alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives’.4  Guy Debord stated that ‘the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing than its wish to sleep’.5   By visiting these places, spaces used and transformed for the purpose of an industry, dark tourists as well as locals might end up avoiding reality – even if unconsciously: we accept a spectacle in order to refuse a reality, to remain still, if not, detached.
While reading Foley and Lennon, I was challenged myself: what makes me want to visit post-war cities?  Although I recognise that by going to these places I want to see and experience history, I think that perhaps Foley and Lennon have left something out. Dark tourism should also be considered as a more profound search for change, movement and creation in a time of global saturation. We might not visit these cities to see the end but the beginning. We might look for what is hidden beyond the spectacle in order to find something new. We are looking for a place where invention and movement is still possible and the destruction of certain cities and buildings doesn’t only provide new spaces for construction, it forces one to innovate and create. We therefore recognise destroyed sites and post-wars zones as purely inspirational. Global saturation pushes us to search for positive barbarism as Walter Benjamin described it in Poverty and Experience: ‘Barbarism? Yes, indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new positive concept of barbarism. For what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian, it forces him to restart from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go along way; to begin with a little and build further looking neither left nor right’.6   We, the contemporary dark tourists, are not necessarily voyeurs as we might not ‘[yearn] for new experiences’.7   We want to see and practice the making of a new start; we want to take part in the development of new mindsets.  

Belgrade – the wild
Thinking of Benjamin’s barbarism in this context also made me think of the countries that experienced wars in this context of global saturation. I then considered the wars that have occurred since the second half of the twentieth century and, referring to my own experience, I thought most particularly of Belgrade.
     During my few visits in Belgrade, I had a strong impression that everything was possible in the Serbian capital. As most Westerners, I first expected a greyish torn-down city, but then realized that despite its complex politics and critical war-history, the cradle of ex-Yugoslavia is extremely upbeat, lively and dynamic. Although the city was bombed five times during the twentieth century and regardless of the political and economic instability, the city experienced tremendous changes  – most of which were lead by the citizens themselves. In fact, Belgrade is for me a very convincing example of what positive barbarism can look like and bring in terms of cities, architecture and urbanism.

In 2002, Stealthgroup (a group of architects from Yugoslavia and the Netherlands) published an article in which they referred to Belgrade as a wild city.9  They explained that ‘the paradigm of ‘wildness’ emerged through non-planned and scarcely regulated processes. In the urban domain, these processes feature a remarkable degree of innovation and led to possibilities for redefining institutional participation in the creation of urban space. The project shows a city that acts as an incubator of new urban forms’.10  They portrayed Belgrade as a city that continuously redefines itself, presenting and analysing ‘the uncontrolled urban processes that took place in the city of Belgrade during the 1990s’.11 Since 2002, the Stealthgroup has presented many projects concerning urban development in the Balkans, always with the idea that these wild processes were to be considered by other professionals and foreigners as a powerful and creative new approach to architecture and urbanism. The main idea here is to promulgate a positive balkanisation that is very close to what Benjamin called positive barbarianism. The work of the Stealthgroup shows how the experience of war has permitted new mindsets.12  And this type of projects is – or should be – part of what makes us dark tourists, it should be what pushes us to visit a city that experienced war. We have to stop visiting the past and start visiting the new. We have to accept that war is over and acknowledge what happens afterwards.

We live in a society of the spectacle, a saturated world where everything is a reproduction, where life goes faster and faster and where competition, in every domain, forces us to go further all the time without ever fully experiencing renewal. As a result, some of us might suffer from something close to what Walter Benjamin called poverty of experience. When, following the First World War, Benjamin recognised a new poverty, it wasn’t related to the war itself but to the rapid changes that occurred after it. This rapidity never really slowed down since and what Benjamin was presenting a century ago is still present today. What is left for us is ‘to free ourselves from experience [as] we long for a world in which we can make such pure and decided use of our poverty […] that it will lead to something valuable’.13      

1  Stone, Phillip, Dark Tourism Forum, http://www.dark-tourism.org.uk, [June 2009].
2   Foley, Malcolm & John Lennon, Dark Tourism: The attraction of Death and Disaster.  London: Thompson, 2000.   p 3
3   ‘Le culte du patrimoine n’est justifiable qu’un temps : temps de reprendre souffle dans la course du présent, temps de réassurer un destin et une réflexion. Passé ce délai, le miroir du patrimoine nous abîmerait dans la fausse conscience, la fiction et la répétition.’ Choay, Françoise, L’Allégorie du patrimoine.  Paris: Seuil, 1992.  p 189
4   Debord, Guy, The Society of The Spectacle.  London: Rebel Press, 2004. p 30
5   Ibid p 10
6   Benjamin, Walter, ‘Experience and Poverty’ in Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings: Part 2, 1931-1934. edited by Michael W. Jenning, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005.  p 732
 7  Ibid p 734
8   1914 and 1915 (WW1), 1941 and 1944 (WW2), 1999 (NATO).
9  The StealthGoup: Ana Dzokic, Milica Topalovic, Marc Neelen & Ivan Kucina, ‘The Wild City’ in Hunch. Berlage Institute, 2002.  pp 106-127
10  The StealthGoup, http://www.classic.archived.nl/wildcity/, [June, 2009].
11  The StealthGoup, ‘The Wild City’ in Hunch, Berlage Institute, 2002.  p 108
12  We could easily visit such concept through a political point of view, for it could be seen as close to fascism or terrorism. This should certainly be looked at, but for the purpose of this text, it is more in terms of art and raw creation. This is not to make an apology for war but to acknowledge barbarism as Benjamin presents it.
13   Benjamin, Walter, ‘Experience and Poverty’ in Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings: Part 2, 1931-1934. edited by Michael W. Jenning, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005.  p 734

Baillargeon, Taïka.  'Dark Tourism: spectacle vs barbarism'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Taïka Baillargeon and On Site review

Ties That Bind

Deryk Houston

Ties that Bind was installed at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria BC in the spring of 2009.  In such work there is the legacy of a lifetime, in this case, emigration, the death of my young mother, and in the aftermath an awareness of the fragility of life.  There is also the present: the ongoing deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

War, and its inevitable deaths of soldiers and civilians, grandmothers and children, is the negation of so much about living that we take for granted.  It is argued that war is a necessary evil even if it is complete hell.  The counter to this is that life is precious and must be protected.  Life must be held together.

Deryk Houston’s work has focussed on peace issues for the past fifteen years, including a series of earthworks, the subject of an NFB documentary, From Baghdad to Peace Country, 2003.    www.derykhouston.com

Houston, Deryk.  'Ties that bind: (en)countering war'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Deryk Houston and On Site review

Deception in the Art of Camouflage

USS West Mahomet, 1918, in razzle dazzle camouflage
courtesy of Naval Historical Foundation, Washington Navy Yard

Aisling O'Carroll

Concealment and deception in hunting have been necessary for the survival of man since the earliest times. Survival in nature is a struggle in which speed, wit and especially concealment are vital. While many creatures have devices of camouflage and deception inherent in their physical make-up, humans have had to develop these methods of protection. The development of military technology was central to the development of camouflage in military activities.
Military camouflage falls into three categories: concealment, screening and misdirection.1 Concealment makes use of natural and artificial means such as colouration, paints or materials, or covering areas with netting to make the objects – for example, factories, airfields or troops – blend into their surroundings. Concealment is only effective with long-range weapons where attacks can be made from such a distance that colouration and shade conceal one’s position and machinery. Screens such as walls, hedgerows or smoke also can be used to hide military activity.
It is deception and misdirection that allows the widest range of approaches to camouflage. This method attempts to either mislead or distract the enemy. Rather than making an object disappear, it is made to look like something else. Deception provides the most interesting and surprising look into camouflage.

Deception in nature
Cuttlefish have the ability to change the colour of their skin within seconds to reflect and blend into their surroundings. This survival mechanism is produced by layers of cells in the skin, chromatophores – small organs containing dense pigment which can be expanded or contracted to show a dot of a particular colour on the skin’s surface. The layer beneath contains iridocytes, which produce a reflective or iridescent quality in the skin.2 Certain species however do more than disappear in their environment; Sepia officinalis uses disruptive patterning to distract and hypnotise both predator and prey. Wrapping around the central region of its back, irregular bands of light and dark colour radiate outward in a flowing zebra-pattern. This mechanism abstracts and confuses the contours of the body, distracting the creature in question long enough for the cuttlefish to either escape or make an attack.3

Dazzle Painting
Similar disruptive patterning was proposed in 1917 by Norman Wilkinson, a naval lieutenant and painter, to protect the British Navy from German submarines. Ships could not be made invisible through regular camouflage because of the constantly changing light and weather conditions at sea, but by painting them with strong patterns their recognisable shapes could be rendered as apparently distinct masses. Dazzle-painting, called Razzle Dazzle in the USA, made it difficult for a U-boat to determine the exact position or direction of the ship it wished to attack. The patterns were designed for maximum distortion when viewed using a periscope through which distance was normally calculated through a bioptic alignment of surfaces, something totally confounded by the stripes and colours of dazzle painting.4 Although there exists no real statistical evidence to prove dazzle painting did save ships, it was reported that sailors felt safer in them.

Decoy on D-Day
Deception can be used to produce two main effects, firstly to draw an enemy’s attention away from the real attack, and secondly, to distract from the real target and cause the enemy to expend its energy and ammunition on a false target. Both of these results may be produced by strategic use of decoys and dummies. A manifestation of this is the use of false radio transmissions and the planting of false operation directives and plans of battle. In many cases however, the decoy is quite literally constructed of dummy tanks, troops and artillery.
Camouflage was integral to the success of the D-Day invasion in WWII. By land and air different tactics were used to deceive the enemy. On the night before D-Day, dummy parachutists were dropped in a large-scale diversion over Normandy to distract from actual airborne landings. These dummies were designed one-third the size of a normal man, with parachutes to scale and weighted with sandbags. Noise mechanisms were attached to them to simulate the sound of weapon fire when the dummies hit the ground. As a small number of real Special Air Service troops were also dropped, it was the breadth of the operation that camouflaged the real from the decoy.5

In the North African campaign, also in WWII, an intensive plan of deception was laid out in order to break through the German lines, cutting their supply routes. Seven weeks were spent preparing for the October 23 launch of an offensive at El Alamein. While the main Allied infantry attack came from the north, a diversionary attack diverted German attention to the south. Once the northern infantry broke through the line, it was planned that armoured troops would follow to cut off supplies. Huge effort was put into concealing the vehicles assembling to the north, and simultaneously constructing enough decoy armour for the south to suggest preparation for a substantial battle. During the final stages of preparation for battle, trucks served as place-holders along the northern front, and would be furtively replaced by tanks on a night preceding the battle. The tanks themselves were disguised by ‘Sunshades’ – canvas covers giving them the appearance of trucks, so the Germans would not realise a switch had been made. As well as disguising weapons and vehicles, it became necessary to conceal 6000 tons of supplies. This was creatively achieved in a number of ways; petrol tins lined the walls of trenches as if they were masonry reinforcement, and food supplies were arranged in the form of trucks and camouflaged with canvas coverings. Meanwhile, similar effort went into bolstering the ruse of a larger offensive gathering to the south. As well as the apparent movement of armoury, the construction of a dummy pipeline to the south was staged. A trench was dug in regular stretches, with dummy pipes laid out alongside it. Each night these pipes would be moved forward to the next stretch, and the trench filled in. Dummy pump stations and filling tanks were constructed to reinforce the scheme.

After defeat in WWI, General von Seeckt was commissioned to reduce the German army as outlined by the Treaty of Versailles to a size less than the army of France. Defeat was not happily accepted by Germany, and while re-forming the Reichswehr according to the guidelines, von Seeckt also developed a nucleus idea – in theory, a small military nucleus could defeat a larger enemy with well-trained troops, superior mobility and mechanical strength.6
Mobility was addressed in 1930 when Fritz Todt, an engineer, veteran of WWI and close friend of Hitler, published a paper, ‘Proposals and Financial Plans for the Employment of One Million Men’, outlining his idea for a new national highway system. In theory this system was devised as a solution to the country’s unemployment problem, however also provided mobility for the armed forces. After Hitler’s election in 1933 Todt became the administrative director of the Reichsautobahnen and led the building of the Autobahn which was often presented as a facilitator of tourism in Todt’s magazine Die Strasse.7 Todt then went on to direct the construction of the West Wall fortifications, a 5-mile deep band of thousands of pillboxes, observation posts and anti-tank defences8 which drew the Allies to destroy it, even although it was not actually used in attack until near the end of the war.
In 1945 President Eisenhower presented his proposal for a National Highway System – an interstate network linking major cities. It was portrayed as an urban planning tool, reducing urban blight by redistributing population to the suburbs. Although this portrayal diminished the awareness of the network’s military uses, Eisenhower considered the system as a defence highway: ‘the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas, mobilization of defence forces and maintenance of every essential economic function’.9 With both the Autobahn and the Interstate Highway System, deceptive propaganda successfully camouflaged the military significance of monumental infrastructure projects, portraying road networks as simple vehicles of liberatory convenience.

For the camouflage to successfully aid both offensive and defensive plans, it must be integral to the organisation of the operation. In war, disguise and confusion rely on cunning and inventive deception to considerably help one’s chances where total protection is impossible. However, deception only works when everyone, including civilians, believe the camouflage, not the underlying military narrative.

1 Hartcup, Guy. Camouflage, A History of Concealment and Deception in War. Vermont: David & Charles Inc, 1979. p 7
2 Norman, Mark and Amanda Reid. A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish, and Octopuses of Australasia. Victoria: CSIRO Publishing, 2000. pp 12-18
3 Cott, Hugh B. Adaptive Colouration in Animals. London: Methuen & Co, 1957. p 96
4 Hartcup, Guy. p 43
5 Ibid. p 91
6 Mallory, Keith, and Arvid Ottar. The Architecture of War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973. p 111
7 9 Vahrenkamp, Richard. ‘Tourist Aspects of the German Autobahn Project 1933 to 1939’. Working Papers in the History of Mobility No. 4/2006. University of Kassel, 2006
8 Mallory, Keith. p 109
9 Branyan, Robert L and Lawrence H Larsen. The Eisenhower Administration 1953 - 1961. New York: Random House, 1971. p 545

O'Carroll, Aisling.  'Deception in the Art of Camouflage'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Aisling O'Carroll and On Site review

09 September 2010

walls of the cold war

 by Açalya and Jens Allmer

On a visit to Berlin chances are high that you encounter little colourful pieces of concrete advertised as parts of the Berlin Wall, the manifestation of the iron curtain, being sold as souvenirs. Do you end up buying one of them? – sure you do!

       Walls in architecture can be ambivalent: do they keep people in, or out? Unlike the Great Wall of China which kept out the Mongols, or a prison wall which protects outsiders from its contents, the Berlin Wall which separated East from West Berlin displays exactly this ambiguity. Built in 1961 as a response to brain drain from communist East Germany (German Democratic Republic) to capitalist West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) it was obviously meant to retain its inmates. However, propaganda in East Germany declared that the wall was protecting its East Germans from the threatening, all-engulfing, capitalistic ideology on the other side. 
       The Berlin Wall became an icon of the Cold War. No other military installation, from bunkers and missile silos to military airports and any other military construction, ever gained such visibility. Clearly, its roots were in the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent division of Germany into four parts, each governed by one of the Siegermächte. 
       Twenty-eight years after its construction, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down. Thousands of Berliners attacked the wall with any tool they could lay their hands on. Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the demolition of the wall, is a quite different scene: groups of tourists now visit the remaining wall segments, such as the East Side Gallery near Warschauer Straße, or the Mauerpark near Prenzlauer Berg. The physical destruction of the wall was straightforward but removing it from people’s minds proved more difficult. Years after you are still able to hear some West-Germans say: ‘Let’s rebuild the wall but make it higher’.
The wall in its raw form as constructed by GDR’s Walter Ulbricht can hardly be called a piece of art but countless graffiti artists enhanced the appearance of the side facing the FDR. Painted peace-related topics and comments on the existence of the wall itself added value to its existence. Without this illegal (as the wall was completely on GDR territory) artwork the Berlin Wall would most likely not be exhibited as widely as it is today. Many pieces of it have been presented to political leaders and museums around the world – the Imperial War Museum in London and the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum in New York, for example, underlining the historic significance of the object-nature of the wall: although either absent or dispersed, it still, fragmentally, exists.
       Shortly after the fall of the wall, selling its pieces, especially those with visible traces of graffiti, was very successful – buying a piece of the wall meant taking home a piece of German history. However, these pieces may represent more than a fragment of the wall; they can be considered a collective memory of what happened in Berlin. Through the wall’s elevation to a historical monument partially through its status as an artwork and mostly owing to its demolition, the Berlin Wall has been transformed from a symbol of the Cold War into its complete opposite, a symbol for overcoming differences and an icon representing peace.
       In the process of opening new construction sites, the authorities could possibly demolish the remaining fragments of the original wall. Soon we may no longer see the object that changed the lives of so many, that separated not only countries and ideologies, but more importantly families and lovers, just by its mere existence. It will become history in the word’s most literal meaning. 1
       Scattering its pieces as widely as possible (one per tourist, coming from anywhere in the world), makes it impossible to actually rebuild this wall. As long as sellers do not run out of wall fragments (how they do not is a mystery since large parts were exported and others were used in road construction), such a small piece of painted concrete sitting in your far-away house is not just a souvenir of Berlin but is also part of the dismantling of the Cold War. People who buy pieces of the Berlin wall take an active role in its deconstruction and may as well help in overcoming other, still existing barriers.
       Long after the complete disappearance of the wall from Berlin, with its memory dissolved in history, little pieces all over the world will collectively remind more people of its former existence than if it had remained on site. We therefore strongly encourage anyone to buy a piece of an amalgamation of history, art and peace. Is the piece you bought genuine? Doesn’t matter. With all the ambiguity and ambivalence of all walls, it is the concept that is important not the actual material.

1 A Deutsche Welle TV documentary on the Berlin Wall can be found at
Allmer, Açalya and Jens.  'Walls of the Cold War: Berlin Souvenirs'. On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Açalya and Jens Allmer and On Site review

07 January 2010

Fishing the Atchafalaya

Allons au camp!

David Courville

Here in Louisiana, Spring happens early and quickly. By the beginning of April, the fig trees are leafed out, the peach and pear trees have set fruit, wild berries are ripe, irises are in full bloom, crawfish are cheap and we’re waiting for the flood, the annual flood of the Mississippi River. What we’re really waiting for is the flood’s recession…and the start of Camp season.
8,277 square miles of Louisiana are covered by water. There are 4000 miles of navigable waterway, 7,721 miles of tidal shoreline, 6000 square miles of marsh and a whole lot of swamp in Louisiana. There’s a lot of water here, but it’s not as accessible as you’d think it is. Once you’ve gotten to a place where you want to be in the marshes or the swamps, you can spend only a few hours there before you need to leave.
There are 1800 square miles of swamp in the Atchafalaya River Basin alone, the largest swamp in the United States, where most of the photos in this article were taken. The buildings in the photographs are called Camps. They are the solution to being able to spend longer periods of time on the water.
Before the Basin was leveed after the 1927 Mississippi flood, there were communities in it occupied with logging, fishing, crawfishing, moss-gathering, trapping, frogging, crabbing, etc. If there were camps then, they were more than likely work camps. Leveeing raised the flood levels of the Basin to a point where the communities were flooded on a regular basis and the residents moved outside the levees. About that same time, the outboard motor became commonplace, World War II moved a lot of people from the farms into towns and the Basin, now more accessible, was the target of newfound leisure time.
Camp Culture
As one Cajun carpenter put it, when asked whether the impressive structure he was building on the Pecan Island cheniere was a house or a store, ‘Iss not a house; Iss not a sto’; Iss a Camp!!’ Camps aren’t houses; they’re not cabins; they’re not a place to go to get away from people. They allow people to get together in a setting where personal space is shared with bugs that bite, snakes that bite, alligators that really bite and lots of other creatures not that bad. There are different types of Camp, but they all have one thing in common: active, independent-minded people who want to be ‘at the Camp’. Income level, for the swamp Camp builder has, until now, been a minor consideration.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Camps were relatively primitive. Few had electricity. Some had cisterns. A few might have had generators by the 1970s. Now, you’ll see generators, electrical lines, water wells, air conditioning, TV antennas and even satellite dishes at the Camp. Typical activities include hunting, fishing, cooking, eating, gambling, water sports – nowadays, with the addition of more amenities, Camps are becoming more house-like and more family-oriented.
Camp Etiquette
It’s a job just getting to a camp, much less building one. Because they are remote and relatively small, being invited to a Camp borders on being bestowed with an award. You bring your best attitude and you make a contribution of effort to keep the Camp clean and organised. They’re a lot like small ships.
There are two primary determining factors in situating a camp. If the camp is built to float, the site selection is more flexible. The Camp can be situated entirely on the surface of the water. Floating Camps tend to be placed in navigable areas outside the current of the river and its associated bayous. Man-made canals left over from oil-field activity are ideal because of the adjoining spoil bank which can be used for creating small yards, elevating generators, etc.
If the Camp is land-based, the site selection is limited to those areas which allow the camp to be elevated to a height above flood stage and the outdoor components to be on the water. These sites tend to be near an intersection of a bayou with a lake or river, or on the bank of a chute between lakes, where the spoil from dredged channels has formed a mound. On a larger scale, more Camps are situated in the lower Basin where flood levels are less extreme, or outside the levees, where the swamps are relatively protected from flooding.

Access: the procession
The procession from ordinary places to Camps defines the layout of Camps on-site, especially those that are land-based. Access is by boat, arriving at the dock of the Camp, from which there is a walkway to the Camp, often including a stair to the porch of the Camp. The walkway either traverses or bypasses the waterside pavilion, where most of the daytime activity at the Camp happens: fish fries, crawfish boils, swimming, fishing, crabbing and playing. On the water, there are fewer mosquitoes, there is usually a breeze, and there is the View.
The most difficult part of camp construction is building the foundation. It involves either the construction of a floating platform or the construction of a raised platform. This phase of construction requires the heaviest logistics: pontoons, poles, heavy timbers, etc. After the foundation is built, the remaining construction is accomplished with modular transportable materials (small pieces that fit in a boat):
– sheet materials like plywood, and metal building components
– roll materials like sheet metal and roll roofing
– lumber and boards.
Camps were and still are built from leftover or salvaged materials.
New weather
Recent hurricanes – Katrina, Rita and Gustav – devastated Camp populations, especially in the marsh along the coast. The coastal Camps have sprung right back up, larger and stronger and with them, so have land prices and the Building Codes. On the other hand, the Basin Camps managed the storm surges from the hurricanes and were somewhat protected from the winds. Unfortunately, accessibility to coastal Camps has become a financial hurdle, rather than a physical one. But the Basin and other swamp areas are the holdout for the middle-income Camp. Building codes aren’t enforced in the swamp, yet, and the sites are generally leased from the State for a reasonable fee.

Courville, David. 'Allons au camp!' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©David Courville and On Site review

Ice Fishing

Village Life
Paul Whelan

As soon as Lake Simcoe starts to thaw, the fisher folk decamp their ice huts and wait out the summer heat until the next winter freeze. Not all the huts get transported to land in time and some poorly-timed hut removals end up in the water as boating hazards. The ice huts are extremely straightforward structures which directly reflect the simple requirements of ice fishing. Most importantly, the huts have to be light so they can easily be transported off and onto the ice. Even during the fishing season the ice huts get moved around as fishers tire of their location and chop other more alluring holes in the ice.
At first and even second glance, the settlement pattern villages appear completely random. These villages do not have to follow urban planning conventions. All the careful rules that Canadians construct to regulate every aspect of our built environment are abandoned on the ice. This is somewhat due to the lack of jurisdiction. The federal government regulates navigable bodies of water. When this water freezes, the local townships and villages do not have any power over activities on the ice. This regulatory vacuum sets up some unusual situations. Local restauranteurs complain to the City of Barrie about the unregulated food (and alcohol) businesses that supply the ice huts. Beer, rye whisky and high cholesterol foods are an important aspect of ice village life. Alas the local authorities have no jurisdiction so the ribs and rye continue to nourish the villagers.
As always with humans settlements, there is an ordering pattern, but it is not based on the criteria that drive settlement on land. The ice is free and there is no shortage of prime real estate. Instead the first ordering principal is proximity to a public road so the huts can be dragged onto the ice. Public boat launches and marinas are perfectly suited. The second ordering principal is established by the fish themselves. While the idea of ice fishing may seem rustic, the fishers use sonar to locate fish which generally congregate in the deeper underwater valleys. This fish congregation is further encouraged by the release of live minnows as ‘seeds’ for attracting even more fish. The huts are scattered in response to water depth and winter fish habitat. This critical settlement imperative creates an apparent random hut placement on the frozen lake.
On the ice, sanitation is rudimentary. This particular ice village had a portable toilet. Ironically it is much cleaner than the more easily serviced toilet on shore. It might be possible that at minus 20°C and with a strong wind howling across the flat ice, the fishing holes may do double duty.

The huts themselves are tiny. They are designed to permit two or four people to sit in deck chairs huddled around one or two holes. There is often not enough headroom to stand. The design is driven by reducing the hut’s weight and heated volume. Even within these constraints there is some variety and opportunity for self expression. While ice fishing may seem a northern rural phenomenon, its popularity on Lake Simcoe, within walking distance of downtown Barrie, suggests ice fishing also has a powerful urban draw. Aside from an obvious love of fresh fish, what is the draw? Perhaps this is the ultimate thumbing of the nose at winter. The fisher people simultaneously experience the over-heated claustrophobia of an ice hut while floating on a wind-swept field of frozen water. After all, it is impossible to forget that first needle-sharp intake of breath when stepping out from the fug of a dimly-lit hut into the blinding light of a sub-zero day.

Whelan, Paul. 'Ice Fishing 2' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Paul Whelan and On Site review

the ice huts of Lake Nipissing

Weather-causing architecture
Steve Sopinka

Every winter, the waters of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario freeze solid. The result is a frozen icescape, 875 square kilometres transformed into new territory for snowmobilers, cross country skiers, snowshoers and ice fishers. There is something intriguing about the reclamation of the frozen water — even more captivating are the ice-fishing huts that begin to appear and evolve into an ad-hoc frozen shanty village. These structures capture the eye of the prefab enthusiast, the mobile-architecture buff, the Ministry of Natural Resources and, most importantly, ice fishers who are reminded that fishing comrades are ‘out there’ and they are not. On Lake Nipissing, weather defines an incidental, accidental architecture.

If there is an architecture that has almost no cost, is void of conscious architectural style and exceeds the expectations of its dweller — the ice-fishing hut could very well be it. Depending on your need for comfort and your ideas of how to outfit an ice-hut, your hut may or may not begin to look like your neighbour’s. The list of materials used is both long and unconventional: used lithograph plates, recycled wood pallets, metal flashing (and lots of it), discarded road signs and $1 trouble lights. Rigid styrofoam SM insulation is an interior finish. A converted greenhouse and an old garden shed have been given second life as ice huts.
Given their often slapped-together construction, their random assemblage of otherwise discarded materials into ad hoc shelter, does considering ice huts as architecture give them too much credit? Maybe the taxonomy isn’t important. It isn’t to the ice fishers – it’s all about the fishing – just ask any of the inhabitants. Try to talk architecture or even building, and the conversation inevitably ends up in a discussion about lures, ice augers and more importantly, the weather.

Maybe it isn’t about the fish or the architecture. The most compelling aspect of experiencing these ice huts is the visual transformation of water into ice – to see the massive frozen expanse that begins underfoot and disappears into the horizon. The formation of this newly constructed icescape, brought on by the change in weather, is what is most fascinating.
We talk about buildings being connected to site, integrated with their surroundings, symbiotic with the landscape. An ice hut integrates directly with the snow-covered ice surface of the lake, literally freezing to the ‘site,’ as currents and wind shift the ice. There is something strangely indigenous about these huts. They have become something familiar — an icon, a symbol, a retreat, a weather vane, a black dot in an otherwise uninterrupted landscape.

The heroic effort of constructing a small hut, transporting it out onto the ice by snowmobile, maintaining it and securing it from being blown away during a sustained wind storm lies in the larger idea of weather-causing architecture: an ephemeral building, upon a temporary landscape, within a unique season. The ice hut grows out of the collective phenomena of weather and architecture where these two entities meet in a typology of low-tech habitation full of simplicity and honesty.

The idea of transformation, mobility, temporality and resourcefulness, combined with weather, over time, equals one ice-fishing season on Lake Nipissing. Land artist Andy Goldsworthy has said that ‘a landscape doesn’t have to involve land – time is a landscape’.

Why does an ice-covered lake in Northern Ontario accommodate some of the most honest, dynamic, and vulnerable architecture to have evolved directly out of the weather? It is both out of necessity and functionality, but also is underpinned by the seasonal climate change that reclaims of a body of water and establishes static boundaries usually unassociated with such undefined and expansive territory.

The ice huts demonstrate and reveal value as objects, as shelter, as a means to survive and simply as a way to connect with uncommon ‘ground’. The weather, the economy and current architecture trends all have something in common, but the ice hut has a life of its own. It is sustainable by default. It has the potential to weather the climate and recession with resilience.

Sopinka, Steve. 'Weather-causing Architecture' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Steve Sopinka and On Site review