Category | The City

The concrete layer cake of my childhood

Part 1: Lost in Time and Space

It’s 1988. The same year that Seoul had the summer Olympics, Sonny Bono was elected Mayor of Palm Springs, the former Soviet Union was initiating its economic reform (Perestroika) under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sonic Youth’s fifth studio album ‘Daydream Nation’ was released and incidentally also the same year I somehow managed to get myself locked into the Dunedin Public Library for one whole hour.

I shall now inform the reader that this short tale as a whole is indeed ‘factual’ by nature (well mostly let’s say); fragments are inevitably from the dusty recesses shelved (or not shelved as the case may be) within my memory or ambiguously pieced together from forgotten dreams.

To begin the story, it was like any old weekend school trip to the public library. Yes, you heard me… weekend. I was eight years old at the time. It was the same weekend that Margaret Mahy was going to grace us with her presence and read us some stories at the library. As someone who grew up in Dunedin, the curious behemoth of layered concrete known as the Dunedin Public Library (designed by the City Council’s Architectural Division) always had a seemingly omnipresent, yet comforting feel as a ‘civic surveyor’ of the Octagon city-scape.

Ms. Mahy had read us kids a story during which the mid-afternoon light shifted across the surfaces of the room. The light danced across her rainbow wig like a penumbral halo, gifted to us temporarily from the heavens above. From that point on, my memories dim. I vaguely recall people emptying the space around me as unconscious peripheral shadows during which time the teacher had somehow miscounted the head count.

Voices muffled. Daytime faded into early evening. I was lost in my own little world, doodling I suspect. Within moments I found myself alone… alone to explore my ghostly surrounds.

I had always thought of the building as a giant ‘layer cake’, where the spongi-ness was present as concrete. This now reveals my former obsession with dessert treats. I remember various past school trips, trolling through the shelves and finding myself lost within the books. It seemed all too easy to escape into the womb of my imagination by venturing into a window box or simply resting on the warmth of the carpet floor.

The escapism was most definitely the jam filling between the layers of concrete sponge. In a sense, I feel that libraries lead a wonderful double life with their role as public places in the city – as public places they facilitate both collective and personal intimacy as a refuge for the mind and soul.

Alas my hour was soon at an end. The scene was retold as a slightly embarrassed but relieved teacher escorting an eight year old kid out of the building whilst clutching colouring-in books and looking at his shoes the entire time.

For me, the Dunedin Public Library has and always will be about Margaret Mahy’s rainbow wig, colouring-in books, felt-tip pens and that single hour of my life where I thought the world was quite a different place.

Part 2: Stories of Time in Space

An interest of mine is stories of buildings and places. The belief is that both personal and wider social narratives have the possibility to do more for architectural production than one can anticipate or perhaps, to an extent, appreciate. As one important Sociologist Henri Lefebvre, has already mentioned in his book The Production of Space in the most devastatingly succinct manner possible:

“(Social) space is a (social) product”

The simplicity of this statement belies both an intricate and complex set of overlapping relationships concerning the production of space – where everybody produces space – from the personal to the political and the social to the representational. Stories in this sense have the ability to bring the flux of time and thus life into space; ‘the lived experience’ as embodied memories to buildings and places within a phenomenological dimension; i.e. social, cultural, political, historical, mythological and of course personal time.

Acknowledgments and thanks to the staff at the Dunedin Public Library for allowing me to photograph inside.

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Beyond 2000

You can fight progress 

If you had told the makers of Beyond 2000 that by 2012, we would be carrying large phones around in the pockets of our skinny jeans, they would have laughed in your face.
“By 2012,” they would have replied, “cellphones will be invisible and weightless.”
“And as for skinny jeans, what normal person can look good in those?”

WELL UP YOURS BEYOND 2000, BECAUSE THIS IS OUR REALITY NOW.

In the short(ish) time since I finished high school, cellphones have gone from very large, to very small, and back to quite large again.  Meanwhile, trouser legs have tapered away at such an alarming rate that new vocabulary has had to be invented (cue the “jeggings”).  It’s a cruel twist of fate that one can barely fit a foot in a pair of jeans these days, let alone a smart phone.

Is this progress?  Is this the brave new world that scientists of the 90s promised me?  Because when I watched Beyond 2000 as a child, I saw (somewhat pixelated) images of a futuristic utopia, filled with hovercrafts, solar-powered cars, and robots that could cook you breakfast with a single thought.  Like Darth Vader – but nice, and helpful around the house.


I did not see images of my future self dangling my (ex-) boyfriend’s cellphone out the window after one too many ‘technological mini-breaks’.  I did not see myself shaking my fist at the sky as yet another friend textually cancelled our plans at the last minute (yes, I just used the word “textually.”  THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT).  I could not have fathomed the technology-induced rage my future self would experience, all in the name of progress.

Now, I don’t consider myself an angry person.  But I am not above a good old progress-induced rant.  And if I had to order and number my rants of late, they would probably look a little bit like this:

1. Facebook status updates.  
I don’t want to know what my more popular, happy and successful acquaintances are having for dinner, or whose perfect boyfriend has cooked them pancakes and found the cure for cancer in the last ten minutes.
GET OFF THE COMPUTER AND GO EAT YOUR FRIGGIN’ PANCAKES.

2. Text language
OMG. WTF is up with TXT language?  Trying to read it pains me.  Hearing it spoken aloud makes we want to sit in a corner and rock gently.
As I understand it, abbreviations were created to shorten words and make life easier, so saying them aloud is in direct opposition with that intent.  For instance, the letter ‘W’ is three syllables when spoken.  The word ‘what’ is only one.
WHY ARE YOU MAKING IT HARDER FOR YOURSELVES?  And also, WHAT ARE YOU SAYING???

3. Flakiness.
In times BC, (before cellphones), you made plans to do things and then you went and did those things.  You simply didn’t have the option of flaking out on someone, because that would make you the arsehole who left your friend waiting in the rain.  And nobody wants to be the arsehole who left their friend waiting in the rain…right?
The gift of cellphones has also given us the blessed gift of an escape clause; from any event, for any reason, or hell – for no reason at all!  Tired?  Got a better offer?  Just throw a few words into cyberspace, and you’re off the hook!  LOL.

4.  Technological slavery
Our forefathers worked damn hard to abolish slavery.  We owe it to William Wilberforce and his compatriots, and to the slavesthemselves, to resist the new and oppressive force of technological slavery.
JUST BECAUSE YOUR PHONE BEEPED, DOES NOT MEAN YOU HAVE TO LOOK AT IT.  Friends must be liberated from the perceived need to interrupt our very WITTY AND FASCINATING conversations, in order to read a message that is probably just their cellphone provider reminding them to top up.  It is WRONG and UNJUST, and also, it is ANNOYING ME.

5.  Divided attention
Buddha must be rolling in his grave, because never before has there been a society less present to the given moment.  Case in point, between starting and finishing that last sentence, I replied to an email, wrote a text message, checked facebook, and asked my flatmate if he wouldn’t mind picking up some milk on the way home.
I’M SORRY BUDDHA.  I’M SO SORRY.

6.  Conflict resolution
In the past, the art of healthy debate was alive and well.  I spent hours, weeks, of my teenage life debating petty and irrelevant details with my friends, without anyone conducting a google search and spoiling the fun.  I recall a particularly heated argument over how many times the word “gonna” featured in the N’Sync song “It’s Gonna Be Me”, and then another about whether it was the air or thetension we were proverbially cutting with a knife.  That debate ended, not with a conclusive google search, but with a lunchbox hurtling through the air.
And life seemed the richer for it.

I know, I know, it’s not all bad.  Technology has given us real gifts too.  Like the ability to watch videos of cats from all over the world; to skype friends and family; and to watch little videos of ourselves in the corner of the screen while we are skyping friends and family.
What did they just say?  I DON’T KNOW BECAUSE I WAS CHECKING MYSELF OUT.

I know we can’t go back.  If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t even want that.  I came to that sudden and unexpected realisation when, halfway through writing this, my laptop was stolen from my flat.  My first reaction was to wonder if the technology gods were smiting me for my ingratitude.  I tried to see the funny side for a while, but then I gave up and just cried instead.
It was like Janet Jackson said: I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.  I didn’t realise how much I loved my laptop until it had been wrenched out of the wall and carried away out my flatmate’s window.

My laptop wasn’t just a piece of technology that froze at the worst times and crashed without saving.  It let me watch Downton Abbey in bed.  It let me work from home when it was raining outside.  It let me email my insurance company, and order a new laptop.
And when it was suddenly gone, I had to find other things to do, like play the guitar and talk to my flatmates and not get jealous of events I was missing out on.

And to think.  I had so much time to think.  During that surreal THREE DAY technology hiatus between losing my laptop and acquiring a new one, I came to a decision.  I decided to stop ranting about technology so much, and to stop writing my rants down and publishing them in places for other people to read them too.  I decided, instead, to be the change I wanted to see in the world.
(SEE WHAT HAPPENS WITHOUT A LAPTOP?  GANDHI HAPPENS.  GANDHI.)

I would not pike on invitations that I had previously accepted.  I would only check my phone during a coffee date if someone’s life depended on it  (or perhaps while the other person was in the toilet).  I would only start petty arguments about things that could never be proven by a google search.  And I would stop inwardly berating people who posted excessively happy status updates on facebook.
God bless you, perfect pancake-eating couples.

Maybe you can’t fight progress.  But you can point and laugh at it a little bit.

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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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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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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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Dear Gerry and Roger pt I

[This is an open letter sent to The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction, Gerry Brownlee, and the Cera CEO, Roger Sutton]

Dear Gerry and Roger,

Re: Red Zone Decisions.

I am writing to express deep concerns about critical aspects of decision-making in Christchurch since the September 2010 earthquake. There are two areas in which your governance is failing. They are both difficult, but history and international precedent tell us they are critical to good governance. The two areas are transparency and vision.

Transparency is critical to the healthy functioning of democracy; it enables people to see why decisions are being made. In one of the most successful and well governed cities in the world, Vancouver, all council and planning meetings are held in public, filmed and archived. Deals between land-owners, councils, and governments are made in public, and are subsequently made in favour of public good.

I accept that decisions like red-zoning properties are not taken lightly, and that the motivation to protect residents in these areas is a noble one.  I also appreciate the incredible amount of detailed engineering expertise that is constantly contributing to our understanding of this very complex situation.

The people who work at Cera are, in my experience, very hard working and act with the utmost care and respect. I can only imagine the emotional toll it must take to announce night after night to communities that their homes and neighbourhoods are going to be destroyed.

This is, however a political issue, and the processes which have been created to work through these issues are, in my opinion, deeply troubling. There are much more complex and difficult situations in developing countries where the informal residents, who don’t own land, are accorded more respect and greater legal rights than the residents in the Christchurch’s red zones at the moment.

In its decisions to remove entire neighborhoods, the government has followed a course that has involved no real public or community engagement. Information is not shared with communities until a final decision has been made. For some residents, this vast chasm in communication has extended over a year now.

The decision to red-zone land is a complex one that necessarily draws on knowledge about geotechnical information, land use, property prices, and re-insurability. While there is undeniably a technical aspect to this work, the complete absence of community engagement in the decision-making process is paternal in nature and suggests a deep fear of or disrespect for the citizens who live in these places.

While it is obvious that there are complicated issues surrounding the liability of EQC and private insurers, the government should not permit this complexity to obscure the accountability of its own processes. Indeed, this complexity should encourage transparency of process. The “offer” to buy out houses cannot be presented as such if its refusal entails the withdrawal of both services and insurance. What is really on offer here is a forced removal from the land. The government knows well that the latter would call for  consultation, transparency, and for rights, such as the option of first refusal (if the land is resold at a future date) to be extended to residents. In its present terms, the government is offering a Claytons choice that illustrates cowardice in the face of the incredible bravery shown by the people here in Christchurch over the past 18 months.

We ask that you start to engage with residents before decisions are made. Tell them what is going on. They have lived through the past 18 months, why is there a need to keep information secret from the public? This invites rumours and gossip. There are two types of information at play here; that which is not of the government’s making: the land condition, the engineering reports, people’s insurance contracts etc. We understand that the current government is not to blame for the immense difficulties with these issues. Then there is another type of information which the government is responsible for: the communication, the decisions since the earthquake, the amount of money currently at stake. Acknowledge that people are mature enough to make the distinction between these. Let the sunlight in.

Please consider extending the offer on red-zone land. Five years seems a more appropriate timeframe. If you want to leave now then great take the offer, start afresh in a new house. If however the residents want to know what is happening to the area, if they think there might be a review process, if they are worried their land is going to be a park or a condo, then give people 4 or 5 years to work this out. There is a housing shortage in the city. Why force people out of perfectly good houses for no immediate reason? Time and some sense of stability are the fresh air that people need in Christchurch right now. It is your job to give them this. Not to pressure them into decisions without full knowledge of their situation and in order to conform to timelines that have no apparent logic.

At the TEDx conference in May 2011 one of the speakers talked about Christchurch becoming the place that people in the rest of the world will refer to as exemplary: “let’s do what they did in Christchurch”. Coming only a few months after February, this was a generous comment that recognized the city’s potential to pave a way for others.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing us in this vision. Your relationship with the community is paternal rather than constructive, your timelines are slow and opaque, and your power structures are vague and unarticulated. The unseemly haste to demolish the heritage of the city is at odds with the long political delays in decision making in the red zones, planning, and other areas. The people of Christchurch understand the need to make decisions based on economics and supply of capital. You need to understand that while the heritage of the city does not have a direct financial value, it does have an immense social and cultural worth. It is the government’s role to protect this worth, not expedite its destruction with false excuses of haste and cost.   There are dozens of examples both residential and urban, such as the Avon loop neighbourhood and the Anglican cathedral respectably, where there is no need to make decisions yet, time can be used in our favour.

Slow decision-making is fine and often better if the decisions are careful and people are made aware of the processes and information as to why it is taking time and what may happen. The ponderous decision-making currently emerging from Cera is unacceptable because critical decisions, like housing support for those still homeless one year after the event, are late and ineffective. The country continues to embrace the idea that no one should be left ruined or damaged by the events of the past 18 months. The hundreds of families living in cold garages, the elderly living in housing unfit for humans, the people who are soon to be forced out of perfectly good houses, and the lack of appeal or review process all illustrate your lack of ability, or will, to accomplish this.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing to give people a vision for the future, and by doing so you are extending their suffering and sense of powerlessness.  You made the peculiar decision to separate the planning of the CBD from the rest of the city, asking the City Council to create a plan for this central area, but not the rest of the city/  Through the dark times of last year they created a remarkable process and a visionary plan, that was not without problems, but that did give vision to peoples voices and much needed hope to this city.   You then sat on this plan for endless months, only to finally accept to the vision but reject the process, as if the ends can be separated from the means to achieve it.  Once again transparency was removed and powerful decisions were made behind closed doors with out any sense of logic or honest agenda.  They appointment of professional teams to work on the city offers some hope, but again there is no communication about how they were appointed, what they are doing, how they hope to achieve it, and by what criteria their success will be judged.

Soon after the February 22nd quake extraordinary legislation was passed that gave you power to do what was needed to assure that people were protected in this city. At the time, many legal experts were worried at the scope and breadth of these powers. Dean Knight of Victoria University expressed concern that the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, “gives ministers vast and untrammelled power to change laws in the name of earthquake recovery – without adequate checks and balances and that this legislation violates basic principles within our constitution and upsets our democratic infrastructure.” His concerns were echoed by others in the legal community. These are concerns which still need to be voiced.

In an abstracted sense the earthquake legislation was concerning and dangerous, but we held our noses and let the extraordinary legislation pass as a response to the extraordinary times in Christchurch. Now, 12 months later, the practical impact of poorly considered legislation is playing out in Canterbury. The last remaining traces of democracy are being folded into Cera’s reach, as if the problems and delays were being caused by a lack of centralized power. Gerry and Roger, you of all people must understand that with power comes responsibility. You cannot demotivate, disempower, and demolish communities without taking on the responsibility to care for these people. Saying that “there is no problem” or that “the market will sort it out” or that we “are being hysterical’ or that you “can’t do anything about it” is simply an abdication of your power. The best that can be said of the Cera legislation is that is sets the conditions for a benevolent dictatorship. The key part of this contract between the government and the people of NZ is a benevolence that is lacking with frequent references the people must continue to suffer until the market responds to their needs.

Gerry and Roger, you have remarkable power in your hands. Please show some humility and change this short-sighted, opaque and ill-timed decision-making. Please engage with the people of Christchurch. If you are not capable of reflection and change, and if you are not capable of articulating, or even enabling a vision for this city, then perhaps it is time to open up space for those who can.

Yours Sincerely

Barnaby Bennett

 

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A First Attempt at Addressing Culture-Related Discomfort

Bali is one of those places in the world that people are mesmerised with, infatuated with. David Attenborough pretty much summed it up for me in his beautifully retro documentary The Miracle of Bali from 1969. It’s the culture, it’s mysterious, it’s in tact, it’s aesthetic and sensual and it involves so many rituals that you don’t have to understand to appreciate. And if you’re one of those people who have made Bali home, you would have come to love that smell of incense and the familiar offerings that line sidewalks and shop fronts, filled several times a day with flowers and treats for the gods.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in Bali, and being half Indonesian, I’ve always grappled with defensive feelings about the island being swarmed by tourists and expatriates. I know that the locals depend on both for their economy. I know that the influx of Indonesians from other islands are just as threatening to the Balinese, as Javanese builders for example are seen as more ‘efficient’ employees because they don’t have to take as much time off work to attend customary prayers and ceremonies, of which there are a lot.

 

In the past 30 years I’ve seen Bali go through many transformations. I’ve watched development spread from Kuta down the beach to Seminyak and beyond. I’ve seen it go from the hair braids and beaded tops of the 80s to becoming a hub a extreme hipness with one-off boutiques and cocktail lounges. I’ve seen it completely dead and quiet after the bombings, to becoming busier than ever not long after. And I’ve always loved it. Lots of people do. This is why they come from all over the world to live there, starting NGOs, opening schools, buying real estate, starting artisan businesses, and living the life-style.

But hot damn it makes me cringe when I read about the bohemian expats of Ubud (inland part of the island that has become popular in recent years), their sustainable yoga fashions and righteous seed planting initiatives. When I meet someone overseas who has their own jewelry or clothing business, and then they tell me that they get everything made in Bali, it raises my hackles. And as much as I know that I really can’t generalise, that there really are people doing amazing things from the island, why is my first reaction always one of suspicion?

Balinese locals are  themselves are often the first to complain that it takes some foreign attention to address local issues ranging from agriculture to waste management to infant mortality. And many local artists and designers wouldn’t have had nearly as much exposure nor opportunity if it wasn’t for some overseas investment. And maybe that’s what bothers me. Maybe it’s unsettling to see a culture championed by another culture in a way that seems superficial and self-serving. Maybe it’s also frustrating to feel like Indonesians don’t have the support or infrastructure to do the kinds of things that gain as much international acclaim and attention. It’s also painful to know that a lot of the very problems that are being addressed and ‘solved’ are often times an indirect consequence of a lifetime of tourism cum expatriation. While the solutions were there to begin with. But now they have fancy English words for them – sustainable, permaculture, holistic, organic, fair trade, yogic, free range, biodynamic – and these concepts have become globally trendy, so they’re being given back. The problem bringing the solution, surely there’s a fable to illustrate. Does this make any sense? Probably not, OK I’m done.

 

 

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Ranting about the love of God

Damien Hirst’s retrospective opened at London’s Tate Modern on April 4th and I didn’t want to write about it. In fact I didn’t even want to acknowledge its existence. But having attended a range of exhibitions lately where the gallery spaces resemble more of an amusement park than places of culture and learning, I had to see the Hirst show and wonder for myself if his show represents the place  where public spaces are heading?

I don’t mean this in a grumpy, ‘everything must be serious all the time’ kind of way. It just seems that more and more galleries are relenting curatorial rigour to making galleries all play, no consideration in order to draw the crowds.

Reading about Christian Marclay, another artist on the White Cube rota, put these suspicions to light.  Marclay spoke with The New Yorker about his work The Clock and exhibiting it in public spaces. This seminal 2010 video work is a 24-hour montage of thousands of film and television clips all showing glimpses of time as captured on celluloid. The work was created to be shown in real time so as well as providing an ambitious montage of time-specificity, the work acts as fantastic, impractical clock. Exhibited to huge critical acclaim, Marclay found himself embroiled in an intense bidding war over the six copies available of the work.

For Marclay, he felt that the museum curators involved in the bidding, didn’t think through the subtleties of showing his video. With the lengthy real time aspect and a carefully orchestrated score, The Clock requires specific viewing conditions of simultaneous comfort and concentration. Marclay said of the process, “Venerable museums are acting like greedy kids. There’s a lack of scholarship. It’s all about how many people they can get through the doors.… They just want a hit.”

Well if a gallery wants a crowd drawing hit, with easy to digest surface scholarship, retrospectives are an easy option, and Damien Hirst is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The debates surrounding his work have never centred on any notions of aesthetics (he’s a repackager), method (assistants make everything) or what lasting importance his work will have. Rather, to talk of Hirst is talk about publicity, money, of how that skull sold for £50 million.

But unfortunately, it’s a no-brainer that galleries are susceptible to market forces. Ben Eltham wrote an excellent piece recently on  how museum directors being susceptible to market forces and in a similar vein, Robert Storr talks about the reality that contemporary museums are increasingly business-oriented in their approach to every aspect of operation, often at the expense of artistic vision.

But if these are the facts, why get so caught up in the fact that one of the world’s most renowned artists is enjoying a retrospective? At the time of writing, two other major career artists are enjoying sold out London shows (David Hockney and Lucien Freud) so why not feel so vitriolic against them?

The difference is that Damien Hirst represents the way the art world has gone and holding a retrospective for an artist who is known more for his publicity skills and commercial acumen than his art represents a huge leap from his forebears. In The Mona Lisa Curse (2008), Robert Hughes argues the traditional values that judge art by its quality have been overridden by marketing and hype, and that in the present consumer culture, the only meaning left for art is a financial one. Hirst defines this rule and of the artist, Hughes says “The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multimillion pound realm is ludicrous. [The price] has to do with promotion and publicity and not with the quality of the works themselves.”

Showing an artist such as Hirst is a very public confirmation that galleries are curating shows that will guarantee crowds, but not necessarily critical acclaim. Perhaps I am degenerating into an irrelevant rant. In this era of smart phones and sensationalist TV, most people don’t want ‘high culture’ rammed down their throats and being sensationalist is perhaps the only way to get people to pay attention.

But ranting is important. Galleries at the end of the day were founded on vision and art has always existed to reflect and question our condition. Damien Hirst might regurgitate aspects of our world, but he doesn’t really manipulate them and he certainly doesn’t make make much of a comment beyond the monetary factor. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle says at the end of the day, his retrospective is repetitive. “My problem with Hirst is not the money (Picasso made lots, and nobody cares), nor the vulgarity he has opted for, but his capitulation as an artist. He could have been so much better. It is an enormous disappointment.”

If you need any more convincing, check out Hennesy Youngman’s thoughtz on Damien Hirst. He’s hilarious and he’s spot on.

 

Rozzy Middleton is on occasional arts and music blogger. 

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Proposals for a Resilient City: Christchurch Design Ideas Competition

Design ideas are sought for Christchurch, that address any or all of the following concerns:

Regeneration:
Activating regeneration of the built and social fabric of the city, building social capital, encouraging economic activity.

Memory:
Recognising the earthquake sequence and its effects as a part of Christchurch’s future history and identity. Proposals for Christchurch’s future may different to a business-as-usual approach, due to the unique situation of the post-earthquake environment and the collective experience of its people.

Resilience :
Enhanced resilience of buildings, urban fabric, and communities. Resilience against future natural disasters, providing social benefit through resilient communities; and as a leading example for other cities in NZ and around the world to follow.

The designs may be addressed from the perspective of a range of disciplines, including but not limited to: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, Engineering, Social science, and Event and Performance Design. They may be at any scale, and the site(s) must be in Christchurch City or its suburbs.

Documentation of real world projects under way are also acceptable as entries.

Entry requirements and conditions:

1. Entries are required to be single A1 landscape format. Digital and paper versions are required. Digital versions can be pdf or jpeg, sent by email or file transfer. 10MB max file size. 150dpi maximum recommended resolution.
2. Entries should be predominantly visual, and contain no more than 150 words of paragraph text.
3. Entries due by 4pm Wednesday 11th April 2012.
4. Open entry, group entries accepted.
5. Winner and runner up determined by a panel of four expert judges. Entries will be judged anonymously, and will subsequently be displayed with entrants name, location and affiliation.
6. Prize money $1000 winner, $500 runner-up. Special honorary commendations may also be made.
7. Entries will be judged according to how the proposal convincingly addresses one or all of the stated concerns of Regeneration, Memory, and Resilience.
8. Entries will be displayed at the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering Conference, Canterbury University, Christchurch. 13-15th April 2012; and published online. Entries may also be displayed at other additional locations following the conference.
9. Paper entries are unable to be returned.
10. Copyright remains with the author of the work, and the organiser has the right to display and publish the entries, crediting the named authors of the work.

To register contact luke.allen@gmx.com providing your name(s) and email address, location (town), and any affiliation you would like to state. You will be assigned an entry number to be displayed on the work, and given the address to send paper entries to.

This information is also contained in the competition website http://conference.nzsee.org.nz/designcomp.htm

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Make-Space for Architecture : Draft One

On March 28 we’ll be unofficially opening the doors on a shifty new architecture dedicated gallery for Sydney named Make-Space for Architecture. Unofficially. Officially we open in May – and not a day sooner with all the work still to be done – but in the meantime we’ve been generously offered a space in Sydney’s historic Rocks to (confusingly) pre-open in.

We’re setting up this gallery to be an independent venue promoting the agency of architecture in Sydney, focussing particularly on engaging the public in thinking and talking about architecture. We’re also playing with – at least initially – making the gallery mobile so that it can temporarily inhabit various places around Sydney.

In line with our tentative developmental state, we’ll be ‘not opening’ with an exhibition called Draft One – an informal series of events loosely forming a month long conversation about contemporary Sydney, architecture, what Make-Space could be and who would like to be involved (this involvement invitation extends to all freerangers, of course). Documenting this will be an on-site drawing (inspired by Byron Kinnairds wonderful ‘The Institution of Architecture’) collating Make-Space’s draft documents with anything that gallery visitors feel compelled to add around 3 themes: The Way We Live, Architecture/Make-Space and Utopia.

A series of small events will provoke and support this conversation:

  • An evolving 3-dimensional drawing that engages the public and visitors in 3 topics: The Way We Live, Architecture/Make-Space and Utopia.
  • Online conversation occurring across Facebook and Twitter
  • 3 public conversations with local experts: Politics in architectural production, Ethical/Critical Praxis and Experimentation
  • A series of public meetings discussing organisational aspects of Make-Space
  • Hosting screenings for BLDBLOG’s Breaking Out and Breaking In Distributed Film Festival
  • Continuous streaming of videos and podcasts about architecture
  • Hosting student design studios

We’ve also compiled an over-ambitious and broad set of goals to simmer and reduce over the next four weeks:

MAINTAIN INDEPENDENCE : Agility to respond. Support diverse and pluralist points of view.

CATALYSE CREATIVITY : Seed creative moments through events. Unlock creative potential.

NURTURE CRITICAL PRACTICE : Use design as a tool to challenge the status quo. Explore the extremes of practice modes.

FOSTER PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT : Engage and inform communities and the public about the agency of design and architecture in the city.

AGITATE POWER STRUCTURES : Publish and support alternative positions on established power structures.

DEMYSTIFY DESIGN PROCESSES : Open up the priorities and processes of architectural production to public view and scrutiny.

RECALIBRATE VALUE : Explore alternative value structures within the city.

SUPPORT URBAN EXPERIMENTATION : Learning through failure. Incremental development.

EMBRACE DIVERSITY : Retain an inclusive and diverse platform of opinions. Examine pluralism in urban society within a framework of rigorous debate.

POLITICISE DESIGN : Expose the political nature of design and it’s use in the manifestation of ideologies.

If you’re in Sydney in April, come visit us in the Rocks – otherwise our progress can be tracked here (www) and here (twitter) and here (spacechook)

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