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the Open City : an experiment in design and living


La Ciudad Abierta de Ritoque is a settlement of 270 hect. located 16 kms. north of Valparaiso, Chile. The land includes extensive dune fields, wetlands and includes an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna, a small beach, streams and fields. It was founded in 1970 by poets, philosophers, sculptors, painters, architects and designers. Today it is still inhabited by many of the original founders and other like-minded people/families. The students of the architecture department at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso co-participate actively in it’s ongoing construction through workshops, dinners and other events. Living in the “Open City” means that you are a partner of the Corporación Cultural Amereida and thus must carry a certain amount of detachment from “your” home, because nobody owns the buildings that they inhabit. Every inhabitant gives input to the construction of the houses and “your” particular home is understood as a gift. The original idea was to establish a type of a city, but not in relation to the number of people who live there, but in relation to its structure, which thus contains the unusual, the des-order. The land chosen is as fluid as the dunes and such at the mercy of the wind.

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Chucking Bricks in Christchurch

Christchurch has lost it’s chimneys. Perhaps it should have lost them before this. Tens of thousands of homes now have holes in their ceilings after their chimneys collapsed in the feburary earthquake, and now residents can’t light fires when they need them most. I am not a great fan of chimneys anyway. We don’t live in the stone age, and just plain burning stuff is a stone age way of heating, no matter how romantic it may be. If going to the toilet on the footpath was romantic, then it’d be behaviour on a par environmentally with heating your home by using a fire.

But Christchurch was a city built disregarding it’s environment anyway. Someone just let a town sprawl out over a shallow windless depression of drained marshland, and then let people heat everything in it with coal and wood. Many of them still did until a few weeks back. I used to live in Lytellton and cycle to work in Christchurch over the bridle path track. I’d crest that hill, sweating, at 8.30am of an autumn morning, and ahead would be a lake of coal smoke with a few tall buildings poking up through it. I’ve commuted by bicycle in Los Angeles and London as well, and Christchurch was worse to ride in than either because of it’s dependence on this insane victorian style of heating.

I like a room with a mantlepiece and a fireplace, but I really just like leaning on the mantlepiece and pretending to smoke a pipe. A fireplace nicely breaks up a boring wall, and is handy for putting bookshelves up on each side of, but actually lighting a fire in an open fireplace isn’t something that happens much in my experience. Uncontained wood burns with amazing swiftness, and almost all the heat produced by it goes straight up the chimney and warms the globe rather than warming you. Woodburners of course aren’t quite so inefficient, and they don’t need those two or three metric tonnes of brick that you can feel hanging over you in these shakey isles either. Woodburners just need a shaft of pipe, and that isn’t going to collapse and hurt anyone, or take a large chunk of roof down with it either.

I’ve lived in many old houses with chimneys, and I’ve liked all those houses, so it’s odd that I should be arguing against a part of them, but I just can’t help myself. Chimneys are inefficient, and whilst I love old buildings, I’ve never seen chimneys as being defining points of their character. If you’ve ever looked across the London rooftops, out over that sea of grotty victorian and edwardian sprawl that ends in an assault of brick on the sky, you’ll know that it’s one of the most sordid and grimy views that the world has. All that those ranks of chimneys speak of is the bad old industrial revolution. Child labour, coal smoke, the mill-worker’s failing lungs, the seamstress’s clouded eyes.

I haven’t liked the old houses I’ve lived in because they’ve had chimneys, but because they’ve been beautiful houses, even if sometimes their charm has been that of decaying grandeur. One house in Aro Valley had two chimneys that were unusable and lacked witches hats, but also had a peaked roof with a fine view. We ran left and right speaker cables down the chimneys and set a waterproofed speaker atop each, and lo, with the addition of a decent ladder a summer of fun afternoons was born.

There was another hatless chimney which used to moan oddly on windy nights. When it started to smell as well as moan I excavated it and found a dead possum atop of a lot of wet 80’s newspapers that were stuffed up there. I buried the possum, gave up on heating the room, and just put some ferns in the fireplace to catch the drips. They thrived. I didn’t.

An issue like redundant chimneys in New Zealand feels a very small thing to be concerned about in respect of the serious devastation in Japan, a country that’s never been cursed with these weighty pieces of victorian architecture. In the context of Japan’s earthquake I could grumble about nuclear power, or our insane reliance on oil, and what is more I could argue with much more force and vigour about these things than I can about chimneys. But people have long been talking about the problems with nuclear power and with oil, and no-one’s listened, and nothing’s changed, and in the mean time I might as well make an argument for getting rid of these mildly dangerous and mostly obsolete structures all around us. I doubt that the powers that be have much vested interest in chimneys, so here we might actually make a difference.

I just feel that rooftops are prime places for better things. All of our energy comes from the sun in some way (except for geologic energy and nuclear energy, and we’ve had enough of those), and rooftops are sun-traps. Brick chimneys aren’t hard to dismantle either if you tackle them carefully in a top-down fashion. I feel more people should get up there and do things with all that sun-drenched space.

You could divert your guttering to collect rainwater for the garden, or throw up a solar water-heating panel. I know of people who’ve successfully dissembled their chimney down to the mantlepiece without even putting up scaffolding.   Sure, a non-structural chimney is work to remove, but it’s not difficult work. And then you’ve got a fine hole just waiting for a skylight.

And a pile of bricks for the garden.


Marcus McShane



For practical advice:



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Myth more important than history

Recently I’ve been enjoying the Power of Myth TV Series released by PBS in 1988. The series has six episodes, each featuring an hour long discussion between host Bill Moyers and famed American ‘mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, collected over several years prior to Campbells death in 1987.

Here he speaks on a topic dear to Free Range:

During the Power of Myth the conversations are focussed around the traditional roles of mythology and ritual in human societies – topics ranging freely around subjects like Star Wars, animal sacrifice, catholicism and cannibalism. At the core of the series is Campbells understanding of the essential traditional roles of myth:

  • Justifying the existing social order
  • A record of observable cosmological information – an early instance of science
  • General guidance through life
  • Creating appreciation for the essential mysteriousness of life

He suggests the last two functions are needs not adequately provided in contemporary urban society, largely because rational scientific thought easily dismisses mythology as absurd. Therefore he has based his career, as a teacher and writer of mythologies, around the motivation that  ‘the most necessary form of societal change is teaching people how to live again.’ Whatever you think of this, he’s a wonderful generator of quotes, to give you a few:

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”

“The person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave.”

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”

“Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. …Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.”

One fundamental discussion he has with Moyers is about where responsibility lies in contemporary society for the communication of myth. He contrasts the traditional myth-delivering Shaman with a contemporary Priest who is ordained into an existing body of knowledge and teaches from this. He describes the Shaman as a figure experiencing a schizoid-type breakdown and given powerful access to their unconscious, whereas the Priest represents a contemporary institution that often seeks to maintain a status quo (for example through alleviating guilt). Instead he suggests artists, a necessarily ‘elite’ educated group, have the responsibility of re-interpreting traditional myth into contemporary figures – something that I would suggest is conspicuous in good art be it film, music or gallery art.

What do you think about this? Does our society lack this mythic awareness as urgently as Campbell argues? Are many of our so-called problems caused by this absence? Or does Campbells thinking suggest a nostalgic view of human nature and society? Perhaps more interestingly, do any myths have this type of life guiding power for you?


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Coming Home & The View Back

I flew back toward Home recently, on an airplane at about 850km/h, at about 8km off the ground.  I’ve found myself in the air a fair bit recently, with that ritualised placelessness made most obvious when flying internationally.  An idea I pondered when first flying from Copenhagen to Wellington in 2007 (after a six month stay) was whether I truly felt that I was going ‘back’ home, or ‘toward’ somewhere ‘next’.  I hoped excitedly it was the latter, but I don’t think it worked like that.  Then I left again.  Now, after two years away from New Zealand, I begin to believe and feel more authentically that I come ‘back’ to Melbourne now, sort of.

So as I sat there hurtling through the sky above the Tasman Sea, I watched Through the Wormhole, a TV-documentary series, cooly narrated by Morgan Freeman.

The episodes I watched covered two subjects that I realised were relevant to my thoughts about Home, and Abroad.  The first revisited the creation of our Home, otherwise known as the Big Bang theory; the second took a stab at the question of life outside Planet Earth, the ultra-Abroad.


Coming Home, 250 metres per second.

Home(s) with 11 Dimensions.

The first question raised, scientifically, wondered how stable the current theory of the Big Bang could really be, because it seems very difficult to explain or justify that there simply was Nothing prior to it.  It also raised the likelihood of the Multiverse, where ours might not be the only Home.

“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

-King Lear, Act 1.1

“From nothing comes life”

-Apostle Paul, apparently.

One alternative theory to the Big Bang makes an analogy to an analogue watch, which ticks (the second-hand makes a discreet movement), then pauses, before repeating a discrete movement. In this model, the Big Bang (which in itself, as a massive, unbelievably uniform distribution of energy is not really disputed) occurs at the pause, which mathematically represents a nothingness.  Hence our current Universe is the ticking of a second-hand, to eventually arrive (i can’t remember how far we are through, but maybe passed-half, explaining the Universe’s alleged slowing speed of expansion) at nothingness again, and then Bang Bigly again.  Not too fancy, and sort of understandable.

The second alternative gets a bit trippy, and is only fathomable, maybe, to the three dudes that came up with it. M-Theory which is thoroughly not understandable, incorporates the super-string theory, with its 10-dimensionality, and adds time, to make an 11-dimensional fuckoff theory of how the Universe works.  The authors of this theory propose that membranes exist, called P-branes (mmhm), which are multidimensional objects (it can have 0 to 9 dimensions), which something something something (if I copy in Wikipedia it wont make sense anyway).  If String Theory’s account of the Universe is analogous to a body of water (continuous, fluid, and very messy, but accountable on a micro-level), M-Theory (I think) speculated that the Big Bang was more like a ripple, caused by two of these multi-dimensional P-branes colliding, sending a massive, but dissipating force out from the point of contact (explaining in its own way the slowing speed of the Universe’s expansion).  The animated diagram showed two shaky blobby masses (two Universes I guess) slowly colliding, and bouncing back. They also said these P-branes could be as little as 10cm away from us (meaning the 4-dimensional realm we can fathom), at which point I stopped trying to get it, but went, “hmmmmmm.”

And so I wondered who the other-dimensional being was that might be 10cm away from my lacklustre 4-dimensional cognitive ability, and whether he already knew about me, and could fathom me, and maybe, could ‘see’ me, and my Home.  I was glad we were both at Home (dimensionally speaking), and were wondering about the Other.

At which point, I realised how close theoretical physics is to various spiritual experiences.  It is not hard at all to imagine enlightenment, transcendence, and angels as useful analogies of such multi-dimensional being.  I have considerably little experience in either field of study/practice, so can’t really go deeper into the thought, so will keep it as a (public) thought.

The View Back

The second episode covered the usual base of the search for extra-terrestrial life forms, namely the work of the SETI Institute [Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence] .  Rather than zealous alien hunters, the SETI Institute’s Mission is “to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe” which seems pretty useful and profound.  It also resonated with my thoughts about Place and being-an-Other.

It’s become scientifically well-known that the existence of living organisms as we know them on Earth is the result of a microscopically, unbelievably unlikely chemical coincidence, which is so unlikely that it makes for a pro-God arguing point.  The phenomenally low probability that there is life at all (on Earth in our case) has a few scientists thinking the scary thought that, shit, maybe we are alone. Beautifully, these scientists reassure us that our yearning for knowledge and the study of Life and our Home is only made more precious by this position.

The ways we are looking for life is really what hooked me, particularly when the reverse notion was tabled: if someone was looking for us, would they see us?  Our first radio-waves (with any considerable strength) were sent out around the sixties, at the usual pace of 186,000 m/s.  Unfortunately, these messages have covered only a microscopic distance in astrological terms (about 50cm of 10km) to the nearest Solar System, and only 50cm to the equivalent of Mars in terms of reaching the edge of the known Universe.  That’s a bit disheartening, but when we start photographing space, we are fortunately more effective.

I don’t understand how precisely, but developing from the Doppler Effect (where the appearant frequency of (light/electromagnetic) waves are effected by relative movement and gravity) we are able to map distant solar systems, and even now, their planets, and even their size, gravitational field, and chemical composition of their atmospheres.  Apparently, the most effective way to search for signs of intelligent life is to look for something un-natural, a disturbance in the known laws of physics and chemistry.  Scientists are well aware that they may not be looking for humanoid life (especially when you start thinking about the small fraction of time that our ‘bodies’ have been around on Earth, and the haste with which they are changing with technological extensions/appendages), so what they are actually looking for is a trace.  It might be on the scale of a Solar System, or it might be an atmospheric anomaly.  Then they really flipped me out, by declaring that the best trace of our intelligent life is global warming.  Our strongest astrological beacon is the horrendous trampling of our ecological equilibrium.

It’s a funny one really, right now I don’t know where to go with it.

It does seem to somehow tap sharply at a part of me, a part that wonders about the nature of our dwelling here, on our Home.  I guess I’m just naturally curious what that inter-dimensional dude might be thinking, whether he’s on the next P-brane, or in the same Universe, wandering what the atmospheric anomaly might mean, if anything.


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Hominid Rights

It was not that long ago that the divide between Human and Animals was considered a vast and fundamental one.  Even science maintained an almost religious separation, where our mighty self awareness was separated from the fleshy automatons that were animals.  Above are the gods, below the animals, and between the tragic humans,  with the self determination of the gods but with mortal bodies like the animals.

The last 30 years have smudged these comfortable divides and we are increasingly realizing that the separation between us and animals is a lot smaller than we once thought, about 1.6% small.   There is an increasing weight of evidence that suggests the massive changes that have occurred because of human intelligence are dependent on a few very small, but obviously critical, aspects of our genetics selfs.  Namely, our upright position, our hands, and our ability to make complex noises and thus speak.

Much of what we used to think was exclusively human is also definitely shared by our close genetics cousins, the chimps, gorillas, orangoutangs, and probably by other more distant relations, parrots, dolphins, whales.    There is a compelling argument that if we can endow our selves with inalienable rights against torture, freedom from ownership, etc. Then surely at least some of these rights should be extended to those animals that illustrate qualities that we share such as intelligence and self awareness.

Strangely enough this movement was first supported by sovereign legislation by the NZ government in 1999. ” All members of the Homindae Family (humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) share complex cognitive aptitudes not shared by most other animals. Yet only human hominids have legal rights to life and personal security. The campaign to win fundamental rights for all hominids took a small but significant step forward in 1999 when New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act banned the use of non-human hominids in research, testing, and teaching except where such uses are in the hominids’ best interests.”

A Step at a Time: New Zealand’s Progress Towards Hominid Rights

Its one of those great moments in politics where a brave and pioneering bit of legislation was passed that was never going to affect anything because NZ doesn’t do scientific tests on hominids anyway.  However it does set a good legal precedent, and its one I can’t see any reason not to support.  One only has to visit the chimps at a Zoo and reflect on this sentence below by Jared Diamond in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee to know that something just ain’t right.

“The first chimp that I saw being used for medical research had been injected with a slow-acting lethal virus and was being kept alone, for several years until it died, in small, empty, cage.”

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The Wrong Way Home

The Wrong Way Home by Edward Taylor

All night a door floated down the river.
It tried to remember little incidents of pleasure
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they’ve got big plans, they’ll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
The moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that’s what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.

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