Category Archives: art

Reviving Newcastle

It can take a heroic effort to bring an ailing city district back to life but often all it takes to spark it off is one person or one small group. Marcus Westbury‘s efforts to revive Hunter Street, the ailing main street of the Australian industrial city of Newcastle (think rustbelt if you are not in Australia) have certainly been heroic. He is staging a “Renewing Newcastle” information night tomorrow night Wednesday 10th of September at 6:30pm. The venue is the Lock Up (next to the now derelict Post Office) at 90 Hunter Street Newcastle.

Vacant shopfronts in the Newcastle CBD should be opened up to community arts and not-for-profit groups, under control of a property trust that assists building owners with tax concessions.

The idea is simple enough, it’s worked before, but can it work here?

It was pretty amazing to watch the numbers rising on his facebook site when he sent out invitations so here’s hoping it will work. If you are anywhere near there make sure you attend.

Out of the closet

Why does the humble wardrobe have so much appeal as a refuge, an escape to a different world even. From children’s stories like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Indian in the Cupboard, to farces and cartoons where everything from lovers to dead mothers are hidden in them, somehow wardrobes seem to be hotbeds of activity.

And it’s not all fictional. There was the story a few years back about the woman whose lover lived in the wardrobe, emerging one day to kill her husband and then in May this year there was the story of the Japanese man who found a homeless woman had moved into a closet in his house.

Perhaps our tendency to treat the wardrobe as a miniaturised house is an archetypal fantasy of having a nice safe nest, a fantasy that also plays out in cubby houses, tree houses, tiny buildings and caravans, Japanese tea houses even. It’s a sort of fantasy we fall into easily

and maybe that’s why Sydney artist Adam Norton‘s recent exhibition at Gallery9 was so appealing. His wardrobe, adaptively reused as a sort of inner space capsule had all the necessities for a long term hide away from the world.

All bodily functions are catered for, there is storage for food and water, as well as cooking and washing facilities.

There is even a periscope so that you can check if the coast is clear before getting out and stretching your legs.

The reading is admittedly of the most survivalist type but this is where theory and practice are synthesised into an entire lifestyle, and the clock, notebook and paper allow you to document the experience as well, thus creating a complete loop of self referentiality, so to speak.

It’s not as luxuriously roomy as the International Space Station

but it at least seems on a par with early US space capsules. Perhaps later versions will expand to fill the space available, a wardrobe as large as the room it stands in.

Of course there are more ways of hiding than hiding in a cupboard. Norton’s other works include suits for urban camouflage allowing the wearer to lie around inconspicuously in the urban outdoors or even hide within a map.

Abjects in the landscape

The problem of redundant nuclear power stations can’t easily be swept under the carpet, you need something bigger than that, like a small mountain perhaps? Magnox nuclear power station

If this dinosaur technology gets revived cleaning up after it will become a chronic problem so it’s interesting to consider a 1994 project to adaptively reuse the Trawsfynydd Magnox nuclear power station in Wales. Built in the late 1950s and designed, amazingly, by Sir Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame, Trawsfynydd had the usual controversial history. It was claimed at the time that it would blend into the landscape and if you believed that then we have some Nigerian friends you may like to meet, they want to give you millions of dollars. Echoing Soane, Spence more realistically quipped “Will it make a beautiful ruin?” .

Landscape reuse aficionado David Barrie (with whom we feel a natural affinity) created the project to explore solutions to the Trawsfynydd decommissioning, a process predicted to take over 100 years.

Arup Partners proposal for Trawsfynydd

We liked the sweep-it-under-a-mountain solution,

site architects Trawsfynydd proposal

and the paint-watercolours-that-make-it-look-like-a-romantic-ruined-castle solution has a lot going for it as well. In fact they are all pretty interesting, even the Michelin-man-fat-suit solution.

Personally, we would propose a more brutal sort of Picturesque solution, use random explosive charges to collapse half of both buildings leaving giant shattered stumps, sprinkle them with something that softly fluoresces in the moonlight (this may be unnecessary) then add some ivy to finish it off. In other words, adaptive reuse as a monstrous landscape garden folly. Perhaps a few oversize Welsh gnomes by Ron Mueck would help.

Check it out on David Barrie’s blog, in fact read the whole blog, it’s worth the effort. (Note to David Barrie: the content is great, but the white on black theme…? IMHO)

Catching up

We’re back after a desperately needed break, last year was far too busy and problematic, hence the slow posting. Hope you all had a happy buying season and paid due obeisance to the gods of consumerism – at least you can be sure they exist.

Santa confesses he and Jesus aren't real

Let’s do a bit of a round up to get us started.

This turned up in our email from Etienne Meneau titled La Maison Elastique

The elastic houses are made for those who like instability and precarious, who like to be awakened by the sound of the rain, those who like to sleep under the boats returned. They will be recalled at any time to the realities of gravity, rocked bywind and earthquakes. The elastic houses therefore ask its inhabitants a strong sense of balance and a real taste for the experiments.

And we are of course great lovers of the unstable and the precarious. But that image has already got a bit of a run from a few other blogs.

We preferred this,

a more minimal interpretation of the hammock adaptively reused as a hang out, so to speak.

And the roof is also wonderful but the reason for its wonderfulness eludes us, it just has that certain minimalist indefinable je ne sais quoi.

(Photo cdstar)

Meanwhile the High Line adaptive reuse project is progressing nicely although this garden will be sadly missed by someone. It illustrates perfectly how it’s the stolen places and lost spaces in the cracks of urbanisation that so often make cities livable. Here are some photos of the work in progress. And speaking of stolen places, just in case you missed this story, how about living (secretly) in a mall?

Studio Jo Meesters in Eindhoven in the Netherlands has been adaptively reusing old tea services as, er, new tea services by sand blasting them

And near by in Brussels time is up for RDF811,

the temporary headquarters of Brussels group Rotor, also squeezed into a waste space if not exactly lost or secret.

In December 2006, Rotor took the initiative to build a temporary HQ in the rue de flandres. One year and a 2 months later, we are starting to plan its disassembly. Deconstruction is scheduled for 22, 23, 24 of February, and we are still looking for volunteers who can help us. Concretely, we are looking for 10 volunteers for each day, but if you can only spare a couple of hours, you are welcome as well.

If you’re in Brussels with a hammer in your hand contact them through their new website .

We liked their kitchen of reused diecutting stamping boards but we doubt if there are enough to go round, just like there weren’t enough of the book that has come out on our favourite architects Lacaton Vassal and sold out before we even heard about it. It’s a hard life.

But at least those bats won’t miss out,

their new home is on the way.

Finally, we are so used to seeing great films stolen and fucked up by Hollywood remade (there is nothing in the universe that can’t be made cheaper and nastier under the direction of an accountant) that it is great to see a project that could be described as an adaptive reuse of a film classic with the potential to be as interesting as the original.

Dziga Vertov‘s early cinematic masterpiece Man with a movie camera is being remade shot by shot on the internet in a sort of open source film making exercise where you can provide your own version of a scene from the original.

Individuals are invited to upload shots and scenes based on scenes from the original film, creating a database which then streams as a film. As a collection of personal visions this montage is in Vertov’s terms “a continuous exchange of visible fact”. Uploads to the site will take place continuously: the nature of the database is infinite.

We loved the original and we are sure this will be a classic as well. (Thanks for the link Deb)

Memento mori

You can always rely on the military to make a right mess of a place. Sometimes it’s incidental, sometimes it’s intentional and often its downright consciously genocidal. The US military in Iraq have probably been responsible for all three categories of mayhem.

Unfortunately, their appalling adaptive reuse of the archaeological site of Babylon

(Photo labanex)

as a military base pales in comparison to their destruction of the historic city of Fallujah which can only be described as a war crime.

(Photo labanex)

In fairness, it must be said that Sadam Hussein’s treatment of the Babylon site was little better,

(Photo labanex)

replacing original ruins with his mickey mouse “restoration” – dictators have a tendency to ignore the ICOMOS Burra Charter principle “do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it usable, but otherwise change it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained”

But militaries also build on an enormous scale, and they always have throughout history. We tend to forget that the Great Wall of China was a military installation

Part of Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, UK. (Photo bluemoose)

as were most of Europe’s numerous castles. The Maginot Line, inexplicably restored by the French after WW2, is still partly in working condition – if that can be said of something that never worked. What could it be adaptively reused as? A very large wine cellar perhaps? As one of history’s most expensive and laughable failures it could be regarded as the prototype for the US attempts at developing a missile shield.

Yet strangely enough, in one of those contradictions that confound observers, the US military is among the world’s best practitioners of building deconstruction, the skill of careful demolition to ensure the maximum reuse of the buildings materials.

And of course entire military bases can be adaptively reused although usually they are simply removed and the land turned over to housing.

An extraordinary exception is the Chinati Foundation in the remote west Texas town of Marfa. Although there are times when it seems every declining community in the world fantasises about a destination museum led revival, the Chinati Foundation is undoubtedly one of the most unlikely success stories.

Cats love art. (Photo Mr Frosted)

Minimalist sculptor Don Judd purchased the redundant army camp, Fort D.A. Russell, in 1979 and began converting its buildings into a museum for minimal and installation art.

(Photo informedmindstravel)

(Photo trixie skips)

(Photo salut aimee)

Despite its remoteness and Judd’s death before the completion of the project, it has survived and prospered partly because of Judd’s sympathetic approach to the the long term display of works

(Photo Mr Frosted)

and an ascetic built and natural environment

(Photo informedmindstravel)

that provides little distraction to the careful contemplation of the art works.

(Photo jabzoog)

It would be hard to imagine a destination museum that contradicts the Bilbao model so completely. Architects must look at it and weep in the same way that artists weep with rage when confronted with the unsympathetic monstrosities that self indulgent superstar architects inflict on them.

On the other hand Marfa now has a Prada store nearby

(Photo jabzoog)

to ensure that the isolation doesn’t make art world black packers feel too cut off from conspicuous consumption.

But museum conversions can’t solve every problem. Some military installations remains so threatening that even after half a century of abandonment they cannot be digested by their surroundings.

(Photo dblackadder)

The Vienna flakturm (flak towers) are a case in point. Built by the Nazis during the Second World War as platforms for the flak guns defending Vienna from air attack, they have proved too strong to demolish. If the destruction of the most symbolic built culture is an essential military tool in the process of subjugation, so too is the building of new symbolic buildings. Hitler intended the flaksturm to be reused as war memorials after he had achieved world domination and in some sense that is how they remain, sullenly resisting most attempts at adaptive reuse.

(Photo scope II)

One has even been converted into an aquarium

(Photo timbrighton)

with a surrounding plaza,

(Photo pokpok313)

a climbing school on one wall and a Lawrence Weiner art installation on the top

(Photo watz)

and yet its essential brutalism remains.

(Photo jvhemert)

Others stand like grotesquely overscaled follies in parks where they can now only be regarded as memento mori, the Roman Et In Arcadia Ego writ very large.

(Photo weisserstier)

A bitch about rich kitsch

Avant-garde and kitsch“, an early essay by the once almighty US art critic Clement Greenberg, defined kitsch as “ersatz culture” manufactured for the urban masses

… who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

But for this definition to make sense there must also be this thing called high culture,

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.

In other words, kitsch is high culture (or at least its mannerisms) adaptively reused to profitably entertain rather than enlighten the unwashed masses.

(Nymph by J H Lynch)

To qualify as high culture a work must embody self referential values to be found only in art, values lost on the vulgar masses but universally recognisable by the educated and the perceptive … and it’s here that Greenberg, at this point in his life ostensibly a marxist, gives the game away. Suddenly the holy trinity of wealth, power and art are brought together into an eternal truth, proof that the ruling class really is superior, while kitsch is a sign that the inferior masses deserve crap…..

There has always been on one side the minority of the powerful — and therefore the cultivated — and on the other the great mass of the exploited and poor — and therefore the ignorant. Formal culture has always belonged to the first, while the last have had to content themselves with folk or rudimentary culture, or kitsch.

Well, what a topsy turvy old world we now live in. This eternal truth of ruling class ideology has been shattered once and for all by the esteemed bagmaker Louis Vuitton who have just produced a masterpiece of kitsch surpassing all others, and they’ve done it by the exact process that Greenberg describes. They have taken the make do bricollage and adaptive reuse that has been the hallmark of working class street fashion and outsider fashion for a century or more, codified it, rendered it meaningless and exploited it. As Greenberg put it, they have borrowed street culture’s “devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, convert[ed] them into a system, and discard[ed] the rest. ”

Yes, it’s the Louis Vuitton Tribute Patchwork bag, the most expensive handbag in the world (US$42,000 in a limited edition of 24)

made in two different versions by sewing together twenty or more of the other most expensive handbags in the world

in a bizarre parody of the now familiar adaptive reuse patchwork style. Who said you can’t carry more than one handbag at a time? Even the hilarious fashion victim site Bagsnob was agog with horror at its sheer vulgarity. And of course it was almost immediately faked!

Greenberg has been debunked for thirty years or more and his ravings generally recognised as little more than ideology dressed up as art criticism (although many in the art world still identify with his sense of self appointed superiority and even occasionally try to revive the mummified corpse of his sociopathic formalist aesthetics). The release of this handbag may be a monumentally trivial event but it is just one more small proof of how often he was wrong. Class condescension is essential to the concept of kitsch and if kitsch is universal then it’s a meaningless term.

This may seem an irrelevant thing to be commenting on until you think of the implications. Ruling class ideology in every era aims to emphasise and legitimise the the power of those at the top while undermining the power and initiative and creativity of those at the bottom – the concept of kitsch is an illustration of how items that could best be described as simply derivative in design and shoddy in manufacture,

(Crying boy by Bragolin)

and that should reflect badly on their manufacturer instead become markers and enforcers of low status in the viewer.

Repeatedly in our world we see that great ideas in fact come from everywhere but more of them come from below because there are more people down there, writing open source software, rehearsing their bands in their garage, making stencils and graffiti, inventing, you name it. That’s why it’s far more likely that most of the solutions to our climate change disaster will come from cultural innovation at the bottom, they will be small scale and distributed, not large scale and centralised, and they will involve endless personal epiphanies and tiny adaptive creativities.

Meanwhile, most of the resistance to reform will come from Greenberg’s supposedly superior “minority of the powerful and cultivated” who will defend climate destruction to the point of criminality because they benefit from it and then they will try to impose large scale top down “solutions” (eg “clean” coal and nuclear) that maintain or even increase the power of the socio-economic memes that got us into this mess.

This bag should stand as permanent reminder of how clueless, vulgar and basically unworthy many of the “powerful and cultivated” really are.

The real post-modernism

We’ll confess we’d like to be corrupted and this post is a straight out attempt at getting some payola. Admittedly the subject, the Dutch designers Meesters & Van Der Park, deserve all the praise we can give them but unfortunately they have just announced the split up of their partnership.

So we’re saying nothing but the nicest things in the hope we will be rewarded with one of these for free, surely they’ll find a surplus one as they work out their property settlement?*

We’d been saving up the link to them so we could write a post where we talked about the sheer beauty of their design which, like much recent Dutch design,

combines a nostalgia for the old with a surface of the contemporary,

an aesthetic of adaptive reuse, eg this carpet made of blankets

or this sand blasted and perforated cupboard.

They have adapted the aesthetic of archaeological repair (with added windmills and big Mac signs).

And they’re even into social knitting, having designed new products for Eindhoven Red Cross volunteer knitters. In other words they are the very model of the modern cool young designers. And we’re not just saying that because we’d love to have ……

No, the real reason is because we wanted to write about them as a perfect illustration of the developing post-hydrocarbon aesthetic, as defined in this very interesting essay by Richard Heinberg in Energy Bulletin

At first thought, aesthetics might seem utterly incidental, given the survival challenges imposed by Peak Oil, climate chaos, mass extinctions, and so on. However, art is part of the necessary process of cultural adaptation. People inevitably find ways not just to endure, but to enjoy — to find happiness in the midst of change. We are, after all, environment shapers. As birds build nests, we build campsites, fashion clothing, and (if we are civilized humans) build cities. But as we shape our environments, those environments in turn mold our perceptions, our judgments, our expectations, our very consciousness.

After analysing the aesthetics of the industrial revolution and the Arts and Crafts movement followed by “the tragic interlude of cheap abundance” and “hydro-carbon: big, fast and ugly” he goes on to list a number of likely characteristics. Now if there is one thing you can say about art history it is that it can take extraordinary and unpredictable turns, but his predictions are very convincing. The work of Meesters & Van Der Park and many other contemporary designers undoubtedly display some of the characteristics of the transitional era he describes (forgive the long quote)

8. Because the transitional era (i.e., the coming century) will be one in which species will continue to vanish, and because people will find themselves having to adapt to weather and other natural conditions (since they will no longer be able to insulate themselves from these with high-energy buildings and machines), workers will probably be inspired to incorporate themes from nature into their products.
9. In their efforts to identify aesthetic themes appropriate to hand labor and natural materials, workers will likely end up drawing upon vernacular design traditions.
10. Because people living in the transitional era will be witnessing the passing of the fossil-fueled machine culture of their youth, they will probably be inspired to incorporate occasional ironic or nostalgic comments on that passing into their artistic output.
11. Beauty may to a certain extent be in the eye of the beholder, but there are universal principles of harmony and proportion that perennially reappear; and, given that workers will be required to invent much of their aesthetic vocabulary from scratch, they will no doubt fall back upon these principles frequently.
12. Since we are entering an era of declining availability of raw materials, the new aesthetic will by necessity emphasize leanness and simplicity, and will eschew superfluous decoration. The Zen architecture of Japan may serve as an inspiration in this regard.

Now go and read the whole essay, it’s worth it.

*We should explain that the reason we haven’t posted much in the last few weeks is because we’ve had the excavator in ripping up our garden, again, for about the tenth time now in the last three years. It’s all because we have about an acre of land that has in its time been everything from a general store to a car wreckers yard and a bus depot so it is now more than a metre deep in buried car wrecks, road fill, kerosene shale, endless contaminants etc.

We took on the project of fixing it up and turning it into a contemporary garden, ie one that combined remediation with food production. It’s been great fun but the excavator is now a machine burned indelibly into our subconscious.

Magic carpet ride

A few months ago when we did a post on the Cambodian norry railway we searched high and low for similar DIY railways but all we found were high tech/high capital experimental projects. But we had something like this in the back of our minds,

and because it seemed such a good idea we knew someone would have done it already, somewhere. Well, here it is (via Cory Doctorow and BoingBoing), the Tapis Volant, part of the Train project by HeHe (artists Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen)

Seen above in Istiklal, Istanbul in 2005, they describe the mechanics of its magic.

Tapis Volant appears as a rectangular red cushion with beaded tassels dangling down from each of its sides. It runs along a single tram track, using it as a monorail, its wheels propelled by an electric motor. The cushion lies on top of a mechanical system that allows the driver to balance when seated in the Lotus position. This posture not only mimics the operation of a ‘real’ flying carpet, but also links body posture to movement in a way that driver has to be Zen to operate

We were interested to find that the underlying impulse for the project was a conscious understanding of adaptive reuse:

The TRAIN project shares the fascination for a personalised automated travel experience, however, its inspiration did not derive from a system of vehicles, but from the idea of using an existing architecture, The Petite Ceinture (The little belt) in Paris. The Petite Ceinture is a magic site: an industrial monument, a rail track that encompasses the city of Paris, abandoned in 1934 due to the extension of the metro lines towards the Paris suburbs.

As well as the Istanbul and Paris version (here seen near Basilique St Denis)

they have produced variations for events in Slovakia,


and a surfing version for San Jose.

The artists describe themselves as follows:

HeHe reverse cultural engineers the technological systems that surround us: From transport design to pollution monitoring, from public advertisement to meteorology, from architecture to public lightning. Their work seeks to go back in time, re-work past and as a result, re-phrase the existing into a new critical usage, a social function, with the spectator in its epicentre. At a time of ongoing technological expansion, progress starts to fray on its edges. How can we use and re-use, not only as a semiotic resistance against those who prey on the new, but also to return back to original invention, which have become clouded by recursive innovations. In this way, the work of HeHe is a process of reduction and subtraction until they find a point of departure, from which they can develop a usage with a plain functionality.

Translating the slightly clumsy artspeak, we think that means they are on about exactly the same thing as us, a back-to-fundamentals approach to adaptively reusing heritage and technology to bring about cultural change. Its always comforting to find a few more out there.

Broken Angel

(Photo Douglas LeMoine)

Broken Angel, the Brooklyn house made famous by Dave Chapelle’s Block Party, may have been saved by an adaptive reuse deal according to the New York Times.

(Photo Douglas LeMoine)

The spectacular example of outsider architecture has been suffering a near death experience following a fire in early October 2006. According to the owner’s son, Christopher Wood,

The building Broken Angel is a unique melding of art and architecture designed by my father Arthur Wood, and located in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. The original building was bought at a city auction in 1979, and major construction was completed in 2002. On 10/10/06 a structure at the top of Broken Angel caught fire. Thanks to the quick action of the New York City fire department no one was harmed, and only minimal damage was done to the building. Unfortunately the fire brought the attention of the department of buildings (DOB) who vacated my parents, the owners and guardians of Broken Angel. My family is currently working with the architecture firm, Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, to bring the building to code, however we are still being threatened with demolition by the DOB.

It is unclear how much of the Wood’s constructions will survive. They have agreed to submit engineering plans to dismantle the building’s 40-foot rooftop structure, the main violation of building codes. The Woods have also entered into a tentative agreement to share ownership with a local developer, Shahn Andersen, who would turn most of the building into condominiums including some form of community space, along with living and studio space for the Woods. Mr Wood says he was forced into the deal because he was running out of time and afraid the buildings department would tear down his home.

(Photo Douglas LeMoine)

Although it’s debatable whether Mr Wood is an outsider artist in the usual sense of the word there is no doubt that his building is intended to be a complete environment and any demolition will depreciate its eccentric charm. (There is an excellent article by Samantha Krukowski about the complete environments created by outsider artists and their difficult relationship with art markets) Despite a few prominent examples like Watts Towers, outsider architecture usually ends up being demolished, unlike the bleaker monstrosities produced by developers.

There are numerous interior and exterior photos of Broken Angel at Christopher Wood’s flckr site .

The Busycle

Last year we linked to Moz, the creator of one less ute, a load bearing bicycle designed to carry up to 200kg. Given a recent random encounter with the man at a new years festival, it was hardly surprising that Moz should show up again, this time as part of the crew behind the construction of the Busycle.

Conceived of as a “public art project” by Heather Clark and Matthew Mazzotta, the Busycle is a “15 person 100% pedaled vehicle”. It adaptively reuses materials “ranging from office chairs to steel bed frames” in a creation where the emphasis is as much on the communal effort involved in building and powering it, as it is on the creation of an alternative mode of transport.

Over 50 people participated in the design and construction of this vehicle with an impressive diversity of backgrounds and expertise contributing to the project’s realization. A quick look at the bio’s section of the busycle website is enough to send Nicolas Bourriaud into a frenzy. His term “relational aesthetics” has vicariously attached itself to many modes of artist production as well as to notions of “newness” and “the avant garde” in contemporary art. In some ways projects like the Busycle are responsible for reclaiming and reinvigorating the territory which the term relational aesthetics sought to map out. The collaboration and engineering involved in creating the Busycle moves the relational beyond its formulaic application in the art gallery context, into territory where its identification as art becomes unimportant.