Monthly Archives: July 2012

Another New City Plan for Christchurch

Between the anti-government reflex to hate everything they produce, and the pro-Christchurch desire to support any sense of progress and vision is a more constructive critique of the announcements of the new city plan. This is an attempt to make such a critique, quickly.

 The CCDU documents can be downloaded from here.

In short, it doesn’t seem like enough information to justify 100 days of hard work by a large team of international and national designers and planners. If we accept that everyone was working really hard to achieve this vision, then we have two options, either I’m underestimating what it takes to get to this level of details, or there is a lot of decision making that has taken place that is not in this plan. I’ve seen small teams of architecture or design students produce as much as this in 100 days before, so I’m led to believe the gritty detail in this has been left out on purpose. I’m also inclined to belief that some big and controversial decisions have been made and not announced today to protect the good news of the delivery. The absence of any announcement on the town hall is characteristic of this. It doesn’t appear in the plan, and rumour suggests that a decision has been made for it to be demolished, yet it makes only some vague comment about it, with no information about land quality, cost, or decision making criteria.

The announcement today was always as much about how well it was delivered as it was about the content. I don’t mean this to dismiss the huge importance of the contents of the plan for shaping the future of Christchurch, but the dominant processes that constitute the rebuild are controlled by CERA via Gerry Brownlee and cabinet and must always be read first and foremost as political decisions. As such, today was the governments bold attempt to regain control of the rebuild narrative in Christchurch and shatter the unsettling sense of crisis establishing itself here. A good delivery would create a sense of vision and progress that would both appease the increasingly restless population, and bring certainty to investors and businesses. A bad delivery would see the crisis evolve and spread, something this government can’t afford on a national level. How funny as it that the Waitangi tribunal decision on water rights came out at the perfect moment to disturb the attempt at relentless good news of the the New Christchurch Plan. The government knew the delivery of this plan is everything which is why we saw the three salesmen, Gerry Brownlee, John Key, and Bob Parker out in force today.

For me the plan largely produces a sense of relieve in that it broadly follows the logic of the council plan released late last year, but with a a more aggressive approach to key sites. It announces nine key precincts where government or council money will lead building. Look at the plan here for details of these but they include large areas for sports, cultural, arts, justice precincts.

Like much of the todays announcement these seem like a good idea in principle, but don’t give enough information to verify whether they have been thought through thoroughly. There is no population metrics to test the scale of these versus the need. There is no budget or business case to show if the income generated matches the cost. There is also no clear sense of who might design and build the large areas, or how a process might work to decide this. It is the same firms who did the master plan? Will there be international competitions? Will it be split into smaller jobs? Will it be by design build entities? Is it going to be PPPs or more conventional modes of procurement? Jessica Halliday has noticed the frightening news that the previously announced urban design review panel has being reduced and will now have one representative from the Christchurch City Council, CERA, and Ngai Tahu. Which is just plain strange. This is a city blue print designed with out any urban designers, and an urban design panel with no specific architecture or design expertise.

We have some sense of a master plan for the city now. We do not have:

– Any detail at about existing buildings. Which current buildings get to stay? who decides this? through what process?
– Any costings at all. Sure a stadium is a nice idea, but how much does it cost? How much will it earn each year? etc.
– No real timeline. This plan is at best a ten year plan, and probably closer to twenty, and yet there is little or no indication of which project happen first, which ones are financial priorities?
– Any real sense of the architectural values of the buildings. They have thankfully kept the 7 story limit in most of the city, but we have no sense of scale or material with the projects. The precincts are far too huge, and are likely to become large deadzone for much of the time in the city.
– Any mixed use in the planning. The plan cites best precedent but seems to have dismissed the importance of mixed use in the huge precincts.

I don’t mean this to come across entirely negatively as the basic decisions seem sensible. But this is the barest possible amount of information to produce a vision for the city. I wrote a letter few months ago that criticised this government and its approach to Christchurch for a lack of shared vision and a complete lack of transparency. The announcement today goes someway to establishing a shared vision but does almost nothing to address the astoundingly small amount of information about why and how decisions are being made.

I think the plan contains the seed for a great new city, but it needs install a process to assure that these projects and the plan is able to catch the mistakes that are inevitably made, and to enable the people of this city to gain ownership of it again. While it would be nicer not to read this whole process as a series of political acts, the lack of real information forces us to critique what we can. The increasing sense of crisis across the city has probably been just diverted by the announcements today, but at the same time it enables the focusing of a larger number of smaller acute crisis to develop. This is an good step for the city.

There are many varied battles to continue in Christchurch, the most pressing of which is to get the housing crises moving and to take some responsibility to get people out of the terrible housing conditions at the moment. The plan needs to address a number of other things such as:

-The need to establish a heritage policy for what is left of the CBD.

– It needs to reintroduce the mixed use principles that were in the last city plan, and

– Reconsider the huge scale of the precincts.

– Most importantly CERA needs to establish some proper modes of consultation and communication with the city.

Um, I suppose I should conclude with something.

Of course, my favourite Voltiare quote.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Its ok to make mistakes, lets make sure there are processes in place to catch small mistakes before they become huge ones.

 

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Everyone should go to church once in a while.

Tadao Ando’s Church of Light in Ibaraki, Japan.

I have had this experience twice before, when you walk into a place and have an overwhelming feeling of enlightenment. Once at the small temple located within Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia and once when I walked into the completely empty, decaying Athens Olympic stadium.

These are the moments in life you don’t expect to be great, however there are many you walk into with great expectations and these are the places, people, experiences which we are often disappointed by. I walked into Tadao Ando’s Church of Light in Ibaraki Japan with 9 years of architectural educational and practice worth of expectation and it did not disappoint.

Even my arrival was some sort of achievement; the church is located in a typical Japanese suburb, a cram of tradition and modernism on the outskirts of Osaka, that I had navigated the local train and bus to the point of suburban obscurity was the achievement. Then I had to hunt for the church. The siting and surrounds of the church is not a secret, it is described often in writings however I had chosen to ignore this and found myself surprised that the church wasn’t sitting alone on top a hill surrounded by beautifully manicured Japanese gardens.

The building is unassuming, it is not trying to be a great piece of modern architecture, it is just being a small church for a local congregation. That Ando was able to create the sense of escape this building has in its setting is testament to how Ando has resolved and refined the idea. The contrast between the haphazard suburban setting and the beautiful simplicity of the interior only heightens the experience of visiting this church.


I recently heard a talk by Kjetil Thorsen of Norwegian architectural firm Snohettta in which he discussed a principle of materiality where by you do not let more than three materials come into contact at one time, this building is an exemplar of this idea; Ando uses only concrete, glass and black painted timber. There is no symbolism or iconography so common to traditional churches, save the voided cross, this allows your own understanding of spirituality of the place to be the focus of attention.

As I sat and drew the light changed its position and intensity, there was no denying the outer world feeling this place has, regardless of religion, as the light streams in through the cross and onto the beautiful, yes beautiful, concrete.

When I am there it is late on a Saturday afternoon and predominantly the church is filled with architecture students taking photos and mucking around, as they leave I am left in this place on my own and I am struck by how quiet and sanctuary like the place is.


I visit the Sunday school built years later and imagine what it would be like filled with children- I can’t, it fells like these buildings were meant to be experienced in solitude, so that each of us can have whatever type of experience suits us, it doesn’t have to be spiritual- I can imagine it would be a great place to read a book or spend a day trying to capture sunlight on the concrete in a photograph. I can only guess as to how someone else would react, but I hope it does get added to the list of place to visit.

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Ducks (and Architecture) in Christchurch

It closes soon but I encourage anyone with interesting ideas and the time to enter.

It is a peculiar brief that demands some radical creativity to transcend it.    Three of the five goals of the brief are about the promotion of: architecture, architects, the local branch, and the New Zealand Institutes of Architects.  One is for it to be relocatable, and the last for it to be usable by other groups.  Incongruously, the brief asks that the project provide weatherproof and secure space for exhibitions, and that the exhibitions be able to be viewed by the public after hours and without anyone resident.  This is a great design challenge.

In light of the enormously generous projects that have popped up around Christchurch that provide physical and cultural amenity for the city such as neighbourhood water fountains, dance spaces, free cinemas, petanque courts and a new cross-city mini golf course, it seems extraordinary that the primary goal of this building is to promote architecture and NZIA.   We might as well install a giant sign saying THIS IS ARCHITECTURE.

Although, perhaps this is an enlightened challenge to the architects and designers of our times. What is architecture about architecture? Is this possible? Is it is an oxymoron?  What is the function of a building that primary purpose is to promote architecture?

We all know that this city is in desperate need of good architecture, and to develop a culture that promotes and understands the role that design can play in making this an even more beautiful and liveable city.    But I’m not sure if we need architecture that is about architecture.   It reaks of the eighties.    One of the great post-modern texts on architecture called Learning From Las Vegas says there are two types of building.  The first, Decorated Sheds are generic buildings with expensive and expressive signage that communicate its function; think service stations, the warehouse, and even the new gallery in Christchurch. The later is The Duck, which raises the symbolism of what it is to the architecture, at its most literal a duck is building that sells ducks, a giant hot dog that sells hot dogs, a building with a steeple that reaches to the sky is obviously a church, you get the idea.

Should the pavilion be a duck or a decorated shed?  Well to answer that we need to understand its function. What is this building for?  To promote architecture with exhibitions about architecture by architects.  Its all spirals into self-referentiality;  I can’t help but think the first exhibition will just have pictures of the building inside it, will those pictures have little pictures of the pictures that are in the building in the pictures?

Perhaps we should just build a giant duck that acts as a building, and it can sell little bath-sized-duck-buildings.  This surely is what the brief is asking for, this giant duck will once and for all convince the public on the need for good quality architecture.

Has the NZIA  demonstrated an extraordinary inability to connect with reality. Look at all the suffering, people living in garages, extraordinary high flu rates, destroyed heritage buildings, angry red zoned people, a council that has lost its democratic powers, a broke and broken university, a bully with dictatorship powers ruling the city, inefficient and non-communicating layers of government control; eqc, sera, council, and the strange sense that its the Insurance Companies with their $20 billion mountain of cash that is making the calls in this process.  All this and the architects of the country think the most important way to spend $30,000 is to design architecture about architecture.  Its like the organisation that represents architects like to think that architecture isn’t political.

Now, I would enter this competition. You think I’d be the sort of person they’d want to enter this competition.  I’ve been involved in the design and fabrication of complex contemporary pavilions in both Melbourne and Sydney, won design awards in NZ, Australia, and Europe,  worked on the design of temporary builds for the Rio Olympics, and now I’m doing a PHD looking at the emergence of temporary architecture in post-earthquake Christchurch.  But the rules of this competition state you either need to be a member of the local branch of the NZIA or team up with one.  So not only is it an architecture about architecture by the institute of architecture; only people associated with the institute of architecture can enter the competition.  Which is funny given how few of the amazing projects that have arisen since the earthquakes have any architects involved with them.

This is either a remarkably self-serving display by the NZIA, or a move of critical genius designed to facilitate much needed discussion about the role of architecture in the rebuild.  The latter seems unlikely, but then the former is too depressing to contemplate. I don’t know what to believe.

The only thing I have any confidence is that we can, on occasions, do brilliant design, and that there will be some people much less cynical than me who will push their way through this peculiar brief and propose a building that contributes meaningfully to what is happening to Christchurch at the moment.

I also have confidence that the judges will know what this is when they see it.

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Žižek on toilets and the Christchurch rebuild

A few years back, I was wandering through an art gallery and came upon a room with a video projected on a large white wall. The video was short, only a few minutes long, and since it repeated on a loop, I watched it several times. The video was of a speech given by a wild-eyed man with a shaggy beard who I later learned was the modern philosopher Slavoj Žižek who has since become an intellectual hero for members of the Occupy movement.

In the video, Žižek talks about the connection between objects and ideology using, as examples, the different types of toilets he encountered while traveling through Europe. He reflects on three types: the French, the German and the British toilet. For the uninitiated, I shall briefly describe each. In France, the toilet is designed with the hole at the back of the bowl so the waste falls immediately into water and can disappear unseen and unacknowledged by its maker. The German model is the exact opposite. The Germans place the hole in the front of the bowl with a raised shelf behind. When you use the toilet, the waste collects on the dry shelf below you, affording the opportunity to inspect it for disease before you flush it off the shelf and into the hole in the front. The English design is a compromise that places the hole in the center of the bowl with a larger amount of water. This lets the user decide whether they wish to confront their waste or not.

Noticing these things, Žižek wanted to know how these different designs had come about. Architect friends supplied him with technical books on the subject and he describes how each designer tries to prove their design is the best in a purely functional sense. Since they are all ultimately variations on a theme, Žižek says this argumentation merely reflects the cultural ideology behind the features of each design. While there may be technical arguments for one design feature or another, the best combination is ultimately a matter of cultural taste. To those who would argue we live in a post-ideological world, Žižek says you only need to go to the toilet to find you are literally sitting on ideology, so to speak.

While it may seem ridiculous (and perhaps a bit gross) to spend too much time pondering toilet design, I find his argument compelling on a number of levels. Every man-made object is, in varying proportions, both utilitarian and symbolic. We have items that are almost entirely symbolic which, like a king’s scepter, have almost no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. At the other extreme are things like the humble toilet, which are so banal and commonplace that we can forget they carry any symbolic baggage at all. The toilet is an especially extreme example since the act of using the toilet is considered by most cultures to be a vulgar necessity, to be done in private and not to be discussed, further negating any potential symbolic value. A designer wanting to make their mark on the world is not likely to choose the toilet as their medium. But there it is: holes in different places, shelves, different water flows, and we haven’t even left Europe.

These small differences can have lasting social impacts. To this day, most German men urinate sitting down, precisely because any attempt to pee directly on the German shelf from a height results in urine being splashed all over the room. Although the German-style toilet is disappearing (perhaps understandably) from German homes and public places, the culture of seated urination for men is alive and well. Foreign men living in the country for any length of time are likely to encounter signs urging them to sit down and it is not uncommon for a German host to ask for this directly, even if they have an English-style bowl. It makes me wonder how many habits I carry around from objects now gone or completely different from their antecedents (the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing on comes to mind).

To point out that objects carry cultural and ideological values with them is perhaps to state the obvious. But I think that objects and buildings have the potential to develop multiple layers of ideology that can, with time, eventually build up like geologic strata.

Take the example of an apartment building. There is the original mix of utility and symbolism infused by the designer and the builder of the time (and likely the funder as well). On top of this, users of the building add their decorative flair and periodic renovations from new owners leave architectural time stamps in the form of a 19th century banister here, 70s carpet there, and modern windows that open in and out in every direction imaginable.

Historical events and movements add a layer as well. I have been living in Berlin for the past year and the city is full of apartment buildings with abrupt endings and odd gaps, likely the result of Allied bombs. The plain architecture of the new buildings erected in these gaps show the urgent need for housing at the time, communist leanings, or both.

It is on the more meta-scale of the building scape where these ideological features are most pronounced. In addition to the scars of war, many of Berlin’s surviving buildings have blank spots where swastikas once were (or the hammer and sickle for that matter). These added layers of historical symbolism reveal the past struggles of identity and belief and reflect them back on the current users. The rebuilding of Berlin since the war and after the fall of the wall forced Berliners to reflect upon who they were and what they believed. It has also played a strong role in creating the feeling of possibility and reinvention that is a hallmark of the town.

Berlin is perhaps the most extreme example, but I think a similar struggle for identity is underway in Christchurch at the moment. In a city where people still care about which of the four original ships their ancestors came on, the brick buildings lost in the earthquakes are not only a matter of heritage but are also symbols to Cantabrians of how they have traditionally seen themselves—the most English of English-New Zealanders.

English is what most Pakeha have considered themselves, with people as recently as the 1950s still referring to Kiwis traveling to Britain as “visiting home”. New Zealanders only really began to define themselves as a separate national identity after WWII and were forced to confront this issue through a series of events: the loss of colonial trade links in the late 60s and early 70s, the rising legal recognition of the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Springbok tour in the 80s, and the continuation of anti-nuclear policies to the present day.

Discussions about New Zealand identity are few and far between these days and tend to be mixed in with racial issues (the “kiwi, not iwi” National slogan and Paul Henry’s breakfast show comments come to mind). The Christchurch rebuild therefore provides an important opportunity not only for current Cantabrians to consider what mark they want to leave on their town, but also for all New Zealanders to envision themselves more broadly in terms of bricks and mortar (or rather wood and steel, considering the circumstances).

It is interesting that these changes are happening in one of New Zealand’s more conservative cities. This is likely to mean that innovative designs, if they are to be accepted, will need to have both a vision for the future, and a connection with the past. I hope New Zealand’s design community is successful in this regard and is able to shape something positive out of what has been one of New Zealand’s most traumatic natural disasters. It certainly won’t be easy.

I wonder what sort of public toilets they will have.

 

Picture of a German toilet.

 

Picture of a please sit down sign.

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35m2 pas plus…

It is the thin strip of light piecing through the barely opened shutters that wakes me just before 10am. It’s Sunday, traditional day for the grasse matinée, French for ‘sleep-in’, but literally translated as ‘fat morning’ and what I have ingeniously termed as having a “Fat Martin”.

Next to me Nicolas is reluctant to wake, odd seeing as he is generally always the first to rise. I quietly jump at the opportunity to grab the first shower and enjoy breakfast in the kitchen undisturbed before he plonks his large, lovely, French feet on the floor and proceeds to wake himself up. I haven’t felt the morning time boost since I moved in with him and I realise that it has a lot to do with our living space.

Come in Space Control…

Nicolas and I live in a 35m² apartment in the south-west of France in an equally smallish sized town, oddly named Pau. Before moving here I lived in a 37m² 4th floor apartment of my own with a view of the Pyrenees mountains and the grey tiled roofs of the town, their terracotta chimney pots dotted in sporadic lines. Being high up has it’s advantages in adding a rare sense of space as you look out over the pointy a-frames and shadowy eaves of the buildings below. The vide from the balcony also gives you a sense of free-falling, which is fine as long as you don’t suffer from vertigo that is.

Living in such a small space takes a lot of self control and discipline, plus order, and if you’re sharing then add to that a great deal of mutual respect and self-ease. Most importantly is being sure to constantly clean up after yourself, for as the mess grows larger, the space you have to hide grows smaller. Over three days leading up to my moving in here, Nico took on an epic ‘remodelling’ of his apartment, in order to offer me some space of my own and to make things easier on both of us with regards to those stock standard daily gests such as moving, sitting, standing, eating and of course, breathing…

Feng-enuity

Battered from jetlag after a trip home to Oz, I arrived to find Nico’s one-room 35m² apartment had been split in four designated “areas” segmented by a small crossroads! There was the sleeping area (bed on the floor with bookshelves proffering the tell-tale classics… notably in comic form), the working area (a desk in the corner with vintage leather one-seater cornered off by mid-waist open-backed shelves creating a ‘bordered space’), the dining/entertainment area ( large, low, square coffee table with bamboo poofs, cd player and speakers and Nico’s guitars) and finally… would you believe it.. a walk-in wardrobe and dressing area, ingeniously created by taking the doors off the existing inset wardrobe and surrounding the space exterior with easy build shelves where we store out clothes.

Sadly, as much as I appreciate the “feng-enuity” of Nicolas in creating a more habitable abode for us and his clever ideas to create a more user-friendly room, never in my life had I imagined myself living in such an elfin space, not to mention sharing it with an Ent. Australian houses are enormous in comparison to 1-2 room French apartments in which around 45% of the country’s population live; my family home would have covered at least 200m²!* I can’t say I didn’t profit from every fresh-aired opportunity, as I fiercely appreciated that wide open space. Having grown up in country Victoria, I was left to run wild with an innumerable count of bugs, birds and beasts as my companions across 5 hectares of land, and so I live evermore intensely the claustrophobia from being in such a small residence now. You can no more stretch 5 hectares from 35m², than you can stretch 36m², and the absence of my never-ending green horizon, the field attached to my backdoor, haunts me slightly with the feeling that I know longer have a parcel of my own.
* family home : http://www.homehound.com.au/listing/details-popup.php?id=3560581&pos=3560581_02As

Jaunty Suprises

To deal with this claustrophobia, Sunday mornings are not often filled with “fat martins” for Nicolas and I, as we go in search of hill pastures and hiking trails to expire our town legs and expel our cooped up apartment ambitions. The French countryside is always full of little surprises and today is no exception. Despite the showers predicted for the afternoon, we grabbed our jackets, jumped in the car and headed out to find Le Chappelle de Rousse and a vineyard trail we had noted a few months back.

Arriving at the Chappelle after dodging several cows coming back from pasture and stopping off to say hello to some baby donkeys, we got lost (a French pastime) within the first five minutes of stepping out of the car. We had of course ignored any sign of direction in our haste to move and took the first muddy path that presented itself to us. After taking the steep turn down the hill and struggling back up again, we re-examined the placard, actually read the directions and set off between the vines.

At the domain Lapeyre, a small vineyard falling inside the Jurançon appellation, the Larrieu family has been cultivating wine for three generations, with the most recent generation taking the farm down the path of organic viticulture. They have opened up their land so that people like us who lack field exposure can wander through their property and learn a little about the cultivation of the grape at the same time. We set off taking our time to wander through the vines and read the panels of information informing us of the history of this quaint little cepage, hoping the rain would hold off long enough to walk the hour long trail. We regrouped at the bottom of the hill and followed the arrows around, climbing back up the other side. With the air warm and humid and the dirt soft underfoot, you could almost mistake yourself for being in a plantation in Africa, the noise of crickets in the grass and the smell of clean earth.

Following the arrows, we rose midway up the hill and admired the hawks circling in the mottled grey sky, sporadic drops of rain glancing off our cheeks. We looked up the hill to survey the climb and notice a small wooden bank with a blue box underneath it… Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Practical Work
1/ Take the bottle of wine from the icebox
2/ Serve yourself 5cl of wine (and not 7!)
3/Look
4/Smell
5/Taste
PS : Even if the best wine is always that which we want to repour ourselves,
don’t fall into the temptation, rather… take yourself off to the cellar!
Salute!

As we sat back, chinked our glasses and looked out over the sloping hill covered in lines of sprawling spring vines, my thoughts trailed back to my own adventures in paddocks, crouched down in long yellowing grasses, enjoying goodies I’d pilfered from the kitchen. These thoughts lay far from the cramped conditions of our apartment as we giggled and raised our glasses, cheekily pouring out even more than 7cl each and praising our luck for having passed by on this day. In hindsight however, it was not so much luck that aided us to happen upon the bottle of fine dry white, but more so our apartment and our need to stretch our bended limbs; to seek out new horizons which traverse the space of others and cultivate territories softly with our feet, as they cultivate our minds with the memories they replant.

Nicolas : the evolutionary chain, from grape to man
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