Great video shot on Hallowe’en, October 31, 2013. Over 1000 dolphins swim alongside a BC Ferries vessel on its way to Vancouver through Georgia Strait.
CBC report confirms they’re Pacific white-sided dolphins which usually congregate farther out to sea. Some have suggested that dwindling food supplies have driven them nearer to shore. I saw a pod of about 200 from a ferry in 2011.
Ferry captain is a joker. “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s quite the dolphin show off the starboard side. Tickets can be purchased from the chief steward’s office.”
Vancouver artist Ken Lum took the opportunity of a Pecha Kucha appearance to talk about the his city, its history and its habits, and its demolition and disappearance. Though he said little about his own work, none of the concerns or ethic of his art were missing. His offhanded, throwaway tone only barely conceals outrage. And there’s a surprise ending.
Like me, Ken is one of the few Vancouverites with deep roots here. Of course Ken has now left the city, and we miss him.
How many others will leave now that the city is up for grabs by Big Money, derelict government and careless stupidity?
Ken’s right when he says that the demolition of the Pantages Theatre—the oldest vaudeville theatre in the country, soon to be condos—was an “abomination.”
The following slide got an immediate laugh of recognition from the audience. ”It just shows you how crummy the details are now when you look down at the street…”
Why aren’t we using building materials like Aerblock instead of wood? Habitat Forum 1976 alumni Michael Baron is involved in manufacturing this safe, lightweight, storm-proof, insulating, healthy-air concrete material that mimics ancient pumice building blocks.
Aerblocks are so light they float, and yet they withstand major natural disasters. Their application is almost universal—from disaster reconstruction in Haiti and Jamaica to full-scale luxury housing and large building projects.
Construction lobbies have helped thwart the adoption of this material in North America, but it is used in many parts of the world. Why does North America lag so far behind? The only region to have adopted it in any significant way so far is Florida, only thanks to a hurricane problem that is so severe it has overridden the efforts of business to block it.
In other parts of the world, the adoption of Aerblock would aid in health and community development. Not only does it keep out the heat and other threats to health, it is a simple and intuitive material to build with. Its interlocking blocks fit together so simply that untrained and uneducated builders can put together a decent shelter with the aid of pictorial instructions. Because Aerblock doesn’t require grout, which requires training to apply and is a major a source of failure, it’s more likely to be democratically adopted and buildings are less prone to fall down. It mimics an ancient style of building with pumice blocks, a natural building style. It’s worth noting that some of these ancient pumice buildings are still standing today.
Baron contacted me in relation to my book research on Habitat Forum ’76, and then went on to tell me about his work with Aerblock. I asked if Aerblock would work in a rainy, cool climate like Vancouver, and he said that contrary to popular assumption it would be ideal here. He has in fact been attempting to set up a small manufacturing plant here as a result of his long ties with the city. I asked him why this hasn’t been adopted in construction, apart from the deterrent effects of the wood lobby, and he pointed to something I’ve witnessed myself in my own attempt to salvage my building. There is a great deal of inertia in the construction industry. It’s cheaper to go on doing the same old wasteful things than it is to take the time to reeducate yourself and invest in newer, more sustainable technologies – even when the materials are ultimately cheaper or when they clearly benefit the homeowner. I had to battle subcontractors and suppliers over choosing newer, more ecological materials.
It’s interesting how many alumni of the groundbreaking Habitat ’76 conference are still working on sustainable architecture and appropriate technology 37 years later. Why are we right back where we started when we first began to talk about these things? Rhetorical question.
“Our Mission: We strive to play a crucial role in furthering the advancement of aerated, lightweight cementitious technologies here in the US and around the world, as a legacy building material, for generations to come!”
Below: Vlack Temple in Colorado, constructed with Aerblock; Haiti reconstruction; fully modern, large-scale house;
“According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan. It uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building. It also performs worse than the Goldman Sachs headquarters, maybe the most similar building in New York—and one with a lower LEED rating. It’s not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.”
“LEED has helped create a market for sustainability where one didn’t exist before. The problem is that real-estate developers have been able to game the system, racking up points for relatively minor measures. A USA Today series last October found developers accruing points simply by posting educational displays throughout a building and installing bike racks—and avoiding measures that might be more costly and effective.”
““What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want—namely, green publicity, not energy savings,” John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin, testified before the House last year.”
Cheryl Barnes singing Easy to be Hard, probaby the best track from the film version of Hair. The song was written by Gerome Ragni, co-author of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. The musical debuted in 1967 and hit Broadway in 1968. Milos Forman’s film version was released in 1979.
Too much bitter, hard political infighting on the left lately.
Cheryl Barnes’ performance was nothing short of monumental. It was her one and only public performance, too; she was working as a maid when she was discovered, and after Hair she had a career teaching piano.
In case you think that what follows is an exaggeration, please take a quick look at the recent articles listed below. They are only a small selection from a rising wave of articles on gentrification and the new super-rich. It’s interesting that the New York-based City Limits piece mentions Vancouver first; we are after all a world leader in unaffordability, non-regulation, luxury towers and property speculation. But the Paris article is particularly depressing. I’m not even going to go into the mega-developments inflaming Istanbul.
I’ve noticed little consideration of what the disappearance of the middle class is going to mean, in a concrete way, for cities, architecture and design.
As most of us are quickly priced out of our former living arrangements by the buying and investment practices of the new global elite—by the lack of regulation that allows these practices and by the real estate development industry that profits from them—most of us have only two choices. We must either migrate out to suburbs or outlying towns, or we can attempt to hang on in the cities, accepting smaller and smaller spaces, higher rents, higher land prices and rising property taxes. (Or move to another city altogether, hoping for a job in a place not subject to global speculation.) Meanwhile the very urban “density” supposedly designed to combat unsustainable urban sprawl now sits largely empty, awaiting infrequent or nonexistent visits from jet-setting owners, and sprawl proceeds apace while big developers make wild fortunes at everyone else’s expense.
It feels increasingly creepy that the “shelter magazines” promoting home decor haven’t really dealt with this yet, except in an accommodating manner. Yes, they’ve always pandered to the very rich, and to those who like to look at the homes of the very rich (myself included), and they will keep doing that. (Though I’m not sure how they’ll deal with the increasing unease about income disparity that is starting to seize all sectors of their readership, at both the top and near-bottom of the income scale.) Meanwhile there is now an entire industry in “decorating in small spaces” publications. Despite being a homewares designer myself, I realized lately that somewhere along the way I stopped buying shelter magazines. Maybe it’s that their disconnection from reality crossed a threshold into a creepy surreality that’s part Brazil, part David Foster Wallace, part generic dystopia. That whole world seems to have its fingers in its ears right now. La la la la I can’t hear you.
As for the design effects, the eradication of the middle class is almost certainly already affecting the design and quality of manufactured items, as well as the form of our architecture and the development of architectural styles, in ways no one seems to talk about. I’d be curious to know if anyone has yet inventoried these formal changes and market patterns. The loss of quality, the loss of design integrity, the cheapness at the low end, the grotesque baroquerie or conspicuous consumption at the top.
The first pattern that comes to mind is architects taking a back seat to developers and marketers in the profit-maximizing climate. The result is what’s known around here as “marketecture.” Increasingly the form of buildings has nothing to do with what city-dwellers or planners would like to see built, or that good architects would envision. Instead it has everything to do with what developers can get away under the limits imposed upon them by building regulations and horse-trading with city halls. The architect of these structures is pure profit maximization in partnership with what’s allowed by building codes. Insert those two parameters into a blender and what comes out at the other end is a generic glass tower. When a think tank of Harvard planners visited Vancouver last year, one of the remarked upon looking at downtown Vancouver from across False Creek “can you have good urbanism without good architecture?”
Pardon this meandering essay, which takes on too many points at once around the issues of income disparity, design, property speculation and a host of related problems. Just thinking aloud.
As for the design magazines and house porn I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at beautiful places, or that it’s wrong to be curious about how others live, nor that we should spend every minute in painful awareness that we’re fiddling while Rome burns, even if we are. It’s just that personally I don’t want to browse through any more photos of tiny, boring, contempo, cream-upholstery-with-dark-wood-veneer, cheaply built 600 sq.ft. condos that cost half a million bucks as if everything is still fine. Why are we willing to live in cramped and indebted conditions when all our surrounding culture and vibrancy is quickly exiting our cities and relocating in the suburban sprawl? While small living is good, environmentally speaking, cramped living must be offset by other cultural benefits and vibrancy. The thing is, the opposite is happening. The current speculative climate is driving those compensations away, leaving us just with unaffordability and urban sterility.
We should be pushing for multiple forms of regulation of the real estate industry, including tax deterrents and other mechanisms, and we should be forcing on governments the understanding that housing, like food, should not be viewed as just another class of asset or investment tool. Housing must be viewed as a human right and should be protected as such.
This will improve not only the affordability of our cities, and thus ensure the vibrant mix of people who live in them, but it will also improve the physical form of our cities, architecture and design. But I think the architecture and design communities can no longer behave as if they operate in a realm separate from an increasingly distorted political economy.
What can we do? Vote in civic elections, and make sure we don’t vote for any candidate or party that takes donations from developments. That’s rule no. 1.
To read about my book project on Vancouver's UN-Habitat Forum event of 1976 concerning just and sustainable urban settlements, click here. Few know that Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Mother Teresa, Paolo Soleri and Maggie & Pierre Trudeau, along with many thousands of others, came to Vancouver in 1976 to talk about better, safer, fairer and greener cities worldwide. In fact it was the founding conference of UN Habitat, an agency built around a foundational document called The Vancouver Declaration. My book is about what happened that year and is a snapshot not just of Vancouver but of how people around the world began to view cities and themselves differently in the wake of, among other things, the first oil crisis.
This blog is a long, somewhat messy photo essay on design. I started it because I felt that the historical context of design - design of objects, dwellings and cities - is too often ignored. History can be fugitive in the New World, with everything so decontextualized in the flow of commodities. Don't even get me started on tumblr and pinterest.
I am more interested in the modern/contemporary and the ancient than I am in what lies in between. I don't understand the appeal of cathedrals which I find garish and oppressive. I like the space-age, the futurist and the rustic, the utopian and the anti-utopian, the unstuffy and the unstaid, the frugal but sensual, the possibly-not-entirely-lost promise of the 1960s and 70s, the creative, the practical, the ingenious, the mixed, the unorthodox, and the way people actually live in real spaces. I am interested in bricolage, in making do, and in the way necessity mothers invention.
I like the sheer level of cultural borrowing evident in design, the actual impurity of design traditions long considered pure, and just generally the wild miscegenation of everything.
That's not to say that all mixing is a good idea. I'm definitely not talking about the faux-historification of our cities, the demolition of our actual past followed by its replacement with a faux nineteenth-century 'originality'. That's when you get elements of the past and the future, combining to make something not quite as good as either, as the Mighty Boosh would say.
Because design is never divorced from anything else, this long essay is also about urban planning, philosophy, art, political economy, architecture, sociology, geography, neurology, pyschology and anything else that pertains to design, which is everything.
The word "ouno" is a name in both Finnish and Japanese, two of my favourite nations for design. Apropos of nothing, the word also contains the symbols for both zero and one, and it's the same right side up as upside down. My dad was a mathematician in love with puzzles, so please excuse the nerd quotient and arithmophilia.
Speaking of which, this blog makes no attempt to avoid being nerdy or critical. There are plenty of nicey-nice boosterist design blogs out there and if that's what you're looking for, you will happily find many of those. I wouldn't blame you for going there. I just think that without critique and complaint, the design of dwellings and cities in North America won't get any better. And it needs to get a lot better than it is—less creatively impoverished, more democratic and a lot more pleasurable. We do after all spend almost all of our lives in buildings and towns and cities and altered landscapes, all of which have a overwhelming impact on our conscious lives, our unconscious lives, our health, intelligence, creativity and our social interactions. These things affect us every moment of our lives whether we're aware of them or not. And not only do we need more humane spaces in which to live, we need—above all—to ensure affordable housing for all. Without this, all our interest in decor is just privileged fiddling while Rome (or insert your city here) burns. Housing is a human right. Public policy and regulation are the only ways to insure people are housed and can afford to live in the cities where they work. The market and private industry are not going to get us there.
We all need to fight the worsening property speculation! Dear Canada and the USA and beyond, quit letting developers run—and ruin—this show.