Category Archives: ideas

Happy Birthday, Mr Darwin

” Charles Darwin ” 1840. Chalk and water-colour drawing by George Richmond (1809-96).

Today, February 12 2009, is the bi-centenary of Charles Darwin‘s birth, a fact that cannot have escaped our educated readers. We’re glad to see there are no shortage of celebrations and we’ve already paid a visit to our monument in our local Charles Darwin Park.

Darwin is important not only as one of history’s greatest scientists and not just because  the theory of evolution explains human origins. The theory also provides crucial pointers to the necessary action that may, just may, save humanity (and millions of other unwitting species) from the perfect storm of multiple disasters we have created.

Among the many things he told us, remember,

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

and you can add

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”

– an appropriate thought as the contemptible era of extreme capitalism draws to an ignoble close.

Happy Birthday, Mr Darwin.

Renovation madness

As you may have noticed, we’ve been doing a bit of renovation.

home renovation mess

We may have been slow with the posts last year due to unavoidable circumstances but we were thinking hard. Let’s be blunt about it, this blog started off as an amusing diversion, turned a bit obsessive then got partly derailed by physical frailty. Nonetheless its readership has continued to creep up way beyond anything we had expected so we were faced with a dilemma, just keep spluttering along or get a bit more serious about it.

Getting serious partly means “monetising” as they say in the trade. “Monetising” is of course a bit of a joke, our optimistic hope is that we’ll make enough to buy each of us at least one cafe latte per month, but putting in the Amazon bookshop allows us to select a range of interesting and relevant books. We spend a lot of our time dredging through Amazon and other book stores so it was a logical move. The real joke is that Amazon, in its technical brilliance, is unable to pay anyone outside the US in anything other than credits – no EFTs for them – so if we make any money we”ll have to spend it on books. Talk about working for the company store!

More importantly, getting serious means expanding our scope a bit and turning this blog into a real adaptive reuse resource as well as a site for our self indulgent commentary. Of course we’ll continue with the current thread of commentary but we’d like to start another thread showcasing the more conventional but often exemplary conversions and renovations that we have tended to ignore simply because there are so many of them. Since every architecture firm on the planet now claims to be expert in adaptive reuse we have no doubt that you are all champing at the bit to send us info on your latest project. If we can slowly build up a gallery of projects we hope that we can create a resource base that will help advance adaptive reuse as a universal strategy. You can email us at and soon we will have a special send-us-your-ideas contact form when we manage to fix up the nightmare that is emails and PHP and WordPress. (Yes our beautiful contact us form doesn’t work, your message will go nowhere until further notice, cforms is the greatest WordPress plugin ever but the whole thing still doesn’t play.)   You can now contact us via our special send-us-your-ideas form or our contact-us form on the menu above.

We’ve also moved links so we have room to do more with them, and we’ve done a bit of redecorating, increased the type size for tired, computer wrecked eyes (have you noticed that “serious” blogs use smaller type, it’s like the snobbery about tabloid and broadsheet newspapers) and as a result we now have a cleaner simpler page, despite the added advertising. For those who are into that sort of thing we’re using a Sandbox theme called Essay (thanks Ian Stewart, great design) but we’ve hacked it about so much we’ve destroyed its essential integrity which was its 28px grid. If you want to see it in a purer form have a look at one of our other blogs where we have used it with only slight modifications.

We’ll introduce a few more changes in coming months. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your comments, suggestions and ideas.

Spiralling out of control

A quick addendum to our last post. You can be sure that archaeological sites all over Iraq are in danger. The Art Newspaper has just reported this, a police barracks being built on a site next to Samarra’s famous spiral minaret.

Alastair Northedge, Professeur d’Art et d’Archeologie Islamiques, Universite de Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) comments

From the angle of the photo, it is possible to calculate that the complex is being built at E 396388 N 3785995 (UTM Zone 38 North) or Lat. 34.209760° Long. 43.875325°, to the west of the Malwiya (Spiral Minaret), and behind the Spiral Cafe. While the point itself may not have more than Abbasid houses under the ground, it is adjacent to the palace of Sur Isa, the remains of which can be seen in the photo. While the initial construction might or might not touch the palace, accompanying activities will certainly spread over it.

Sur Isa can be identified with the palace of al-Burj, built by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil, probably in 852-3 (Northedge, Historical Topography of Samarra, pp 125-127, 240). The palace is said to have cost 33 million dirhams, and was luxurious. Details are given by al-Shabushti, Kitab al-Diyarat.

Samarra was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO at the end of June. The barracks could easily have been built elsewhere, off the archaeological site.

The report was based on info from the blog of Jeff Emmanuel, a reporter with US Special Forces. Since it’s Halloween here’s something really deathly freaky and scary – his opinions.

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.

The return of the dispossessed

(Photo Sean Hemmerle)

You will have noticed that we’ve been updating our links since new year. While trawling our bookmarks we noticed a thread of links about apocalypse that we discussed in our last post but also about attempts to adapt to catastrophes/war/dystopias, providing visions of a future that is all too possible.

Beirut seems to be the test bed of cataclysmic adaptation. The most interesting Beirut link, because of its clear personal tone, is the unbuilt architecture blog, the source of this image

which did the blog rounds recently.

After destruction through war or any other inhumane deployment of technology, capital and energy, we are left with sites, minds and societies unbuilt. Leveled to the ground. Making room for denial, doubt and a divided society. Understandable but unacceptable. This condition needs those who dare to envision perspectives beyond the ruins…

Bullet holes adaptively reused as art or lighting? or their public space project?

Unbuilt do their public space project in Beirut’s dysfunctional public spaces but the lack of public space is common throughout the developed world, a physical reflection of the atomised social pathology. First world cities increasingly consist of private spaces pretending to be public where you are welcome only if you have money to spend,

(Photo helixblue)

places like Boca Raton, Florida where the only genuinely public spaces are the roads.

ArtAfterCrisis, ” a weblog reporting on the role of art in crisis areas” also visits Beirut. Author Chis Keulemans describes his mission to document creative adaptation

I am interested in the ability of artists and intellectuals to reinvent society after the peace has been signed or the dictator has been toppled. How does their work reflect the horrors of the past? How do they reclaim public space in their cities? Do they contribute to or criticize the new collective identity of their society? How do they communicate with the world outside?

Talking about Hassan Choubassi’s map

of the (fictional) Beirut Metro he says

Riëtte, my girlfriend and photographer, spent hours with Choubassi visiting several of the most prominent stops on his fictional Metro Map: places that were crossroads on the demarcation line between the Christian East and the Muslim West parts of town during the civil war of 1975 to 1990.

How do these places look today, and what were the stories behind them?

Adaptive reuse is the only possible way to live in a war torn city.

In the book Traces of Life (2003), the result of a research [Tony Chakar] did with colleague Naji Assi and their students of architecture into the maze of a poor laborer’s neighborhood called Rouwaysset, he describes how densely populated slums like these create their own urban space. ‘The relationship of a building in Rouwaysset with the surrounding buildings and spaces is a relationshiop of mutual and continually renewed violence – a violence that both defines the shape of these buildings and spaces and is defined by them.’

What strikes me is the use of the word violence. Building places for people to live, eat and make babies in is not usually associated with violence. And he is not talking about the violence that may come with the razing down of whole neighborhoods to create spaces of power (like in Ceausescu’s Bucharest) or commerce (like the Jakarta shopping malls), he uses the word to describe the day-to-day push and shove of new additions to existing infrastructure, the perpetual festering of concrete, glass and iron that goes on so stubbornly in Beirut, that it makes it seductive – here more than in many other cities – to compare it to a living organism. Layer upon layer, it grows into a never-ending palimpsest of histories.

Finally, there is a section about Beirut in Worldview,

a web-based project of the Architectural League of New York that invites architects from around the world to present reports on what is new and interesting in architecture and urbanism in their cities, with a particular focus on cities and regions that are not adequately reported on by the mainstream architectural press.

Elie Haddad edits the section on Beirut and he comments

Some historians have attributed the destruction of the city to a latent hatred for what Beirut had come to represent for many of those living on its margins, i.e. an exclusive concentration of economic and political powers that reduced the rest of the population to a condition of subservience. In one post-war documentary, a militiaman candidly recounted the feeling of satisfaction that he and his comrades felt as they entered one of the grand hotels, heretofore a symbol of those in power, and violently took their sweet revenge on the place and all that it symbolized.

Therein lies the warning that cities like Beirut pose, that the exploited and dispossessed will have their revenge. The most immediate and effective solution to global warming would be the immediate and complete destruction of western industrial consumerist society. The disastrous consequences of consumerist greed are now being visited unfairly on the vast majority of the planet’s population who never received any of its benefits. Who could blame them for the most violent retaliation, especially as the destruction of our industrial economies would put an immediate end to the source of all emissions?

(Photo Abdallah Kahil)

Anyone who believes that would be impossible has not learned the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and now Iraq, that a low tech society can always ultimately defeat a high tech military. And a low tech society will be best adapted to survive the next few centuries of chaos.

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.

Have a Merry Izzy Stone Day

One way to adaptively reuse Christmas would be to move it back a day. December 24 2006 would have been the 99th birthday of Isidor (Izzy) Feinstein (Stone),

probably the greatest investigative journalist that ever lived and a birthday far more worth celebrating than Christmas – after all, at least we know Izzy Stone actually existed. He is now justly recognised as the proto-blogger, the journalist-activist whose relentless campaigning exposed Maccarthyism and racism and the fraudulence of the Tonkin Gulf incident that was the excuse for US intervention in Vietnam. As Wikipedia says

as an outspoken leftist journalist working in often hostile environments, Stone’s stories needed to meet an extremely high burden of proof to be considered credible.

He was often wrong but admitted it, more often right but suspicious of himself when he was and always willing to revise his opinons when more facts became available – as a youthful communist fellow traveller he later criticised Stalinism and as a zionist supporter of the foundation of Israel he later developed sympathy for the Palestinians. He was a man who tried his best to never be blinded by ideology and wishful beliefs of either the right or the left. Truly a figure for our times.

He was also a modest self-critical man distrustful of honours, but he had a great sense of humour. (see Jerry Brucks 1973 film I.F Stones Weekly). He might have enjoyed the joke of being honoured with his own day as long as the right presents were given. What presents would it be appropriate to give on Izzy Stone Day? Well, we’ve found just the place to get them, Individual Icons whose adaptively reused hardware is described as “jewellery that works”.

There is the magnifying glass necklace for close examination,

the plumb bob necklace to help you stay upright

and the spirit level necklace to keep you on the level,

a ruler bangle to help keep things in proportion,

thermometer earrings for when the heat is on

and a compass ring so you don’t get lost.

Some odds and ends like grommets and Phillips head earrings can come in handy too, just to hold everything together.

And in case it all turns nasty,

you should wear a bullet proof rose.

Made of black heavy-weight ballistic grade nylon, this “bulletproof” bloom will protect your heart and love in times of conflict.

You can get it from Generate. Have a Merry Izzy Stone Day!

Adaptive repair

We’ve been a bit slow with posts in the last few weeks because we’ve been moving this blog and a few others we are involved in from blogger to their own websites, a small sign of their growing success. But we’re back to work now.

Let’s start with Bower, a repair and recycling centre in Addison Road Marrickville that does a neat line in new products…

hey, more inner tube bags…

nice light shades…

and The Platters.

But they also have a very sane argument in support of developing a repair and reuse culture. Nothing could be more unfashionable but as an occasional antique dealer with a very big shed full of half fixed furniture I can only agree with their worthy sentiments.

Looks familiar, sounds familiar

Anything can be reused and that includes software, imagery and ideas. In fact adaptive reuse is really another way of describing the process of evolution, a process that applies to all activities. One of the reasons Microsoft is beginning to falter as a business is because it operates on an “intelligent design” model while open source software is the evolutionary product of innumerable minds working in a process of constant small adaptive steps. But that’s an argument for another day. Let’s look at imagery and ideas.

Imants Tillers has been a friend since we were teenagers and he’s having a retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. In many ways his whole career has been based on collecting and adapting imagery from other artists to illustrate ideas of his own. Imants has used this process to illustrate the whole cultural condition of non-indigenous Australians thereby making a positive of a colonialist attitude that has condemned many other Australian artists to derivative mediocrity. He must be almost the only Australian artist to emerge from the appropriationist movement of the 1980s with any credit.

But there are other ways to reuse imagery. Walt Disney has in fact developed a production method that involves the reuse of animation cells to cut production costs.

And one of our favorite bloggers, Pete Bevin, has reused one of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel paintings to extract donations to support his blog.

Which gets us to the reuse of ideas. Another favorite blogger, Jhuger does a hilarious adaption of Pascal’s Wager, (Pascal’s famous argument for Christian belief ie what have you got to lose, if it turns out that god exists you’ll be on the right side, and if there is no god it won’t matter) in an attempt to blackmail gullible christians into sending him money.

Closer to God or to Satan? Note the adapted 666.

And here you can find his poster of the ten commandments, the first of three versions in the bible that was adapted by later biblical writers to progressively ban more things. The ten commandments evolved? You mean even the ten commandments weren’t intelligently designed? Is nothing sacred?

Market solution

In Australia, the lackey country, politicians and other business rent-a-reptiles constantly parrot the dumbest US propaganda, eg that we can’t do anything about CO2 emissions because it would hurt the economy, as if we have a choice, as if we won’t be fried (along with our economy) by global warming as long as we ignore it. The same applies to recycling, renewable energy and sustainability in general.

Meanwhile, as our moribund capitalist dinosaurs resist reality, other countries have faced these issues. The result is that new products, new materials and above all innovative manufacturing techniques are being developed and the creativity of capitalism has been unleashed to solve the problems rather than create them. These new entrerprises may still be small, but 30 years ago Microsoft was a two person operation.

Take Freitag for instance. They make bags out of truck tarpaulins and other recycled materials. The bags are great, the website is the best online shop I’ve ever seen, but above all they have developed a way for you to design your own bag, making your own cuts from a tarpaulin.

The world won’t be saved by recycled bags, but it may be saved by new ways of doing things. And this is the way its going to go, consumer control of computerised maufacturing techniques through small scale high tech companies.

And now after a decade or so, Freitag have their own skyscraper, a new shop in Zurich that has made me break my ban on running stories about shipping containers. I first saw it on we make money not art (the worlds best blog, the Diderot’s Encyclopedie of our age), resisted mentioning it for a day then got an email from varp about it and finally had to succumb.