Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Out of Sight

On view at the Vancouver Art Gallery through September 1, an exhibit centered on 80 photographs by Harold Edgerton, master / inventor of the ultra high-speed stroboscopic photograph. From VAG:

Taking Edgerton's remapping of the possibilities of space and time as a thematic starting point, New Acquisitions explores artists' engagement with ideas around perception and representation, challenging viewers to reconsider what it is we see in our everyday encounters.

Another great example of an ultra slow-motion window into a scale of time beyond our regular perception is the work of Werner Mehl (see below). If you don't have time for the full video, fast-forward to [8:10] for stunning footage captured at 1 million frames per second...


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Street Names of Vancouver

Despite having lived in the neighborhood for 18 months now, I still have some difficulty orienting myself to the street names of Vancouver's West End. Unlike the rest of the city, where streets run north / south and avenues run east / west, the downtown peninsula is a (wonderfully) convoluted matrix of roads, rotated 45 degrees from the cardinal directions, and all sharing the suffix of "Street" regardless of orientation.
In an effort to commit the West End's street grid to memory, I have also found myself wondering where the street names of the neighborhood came from -- there are some familiar sounding names, but no clear rhyme or reason offering a clear logic for the whole. Fortunately for me, and anyone else that has ever pondered the City's street names, Elizabeth Walker has written an incredibly comprehensive and encylopedic history on the origins of every street name in Vancouver:

It turns out that the streets of District Lot 185 (the West End) were hastily named by surveyor / land commissioner / city councilor L.A. Hamilton, who "applied names from an admiralty chart of the Pacific Coast."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Matter of Perspective

Most of my days are spent inhabiting mostly the same small corner of this planet; tending to many of the same daily routines and retracing many of the same well-worn paths. There are times when the habits developed from routine can make the familiar seem, superficially, rather perfunctory. How gratifying then to happen across something new, something previously unseen, in even the most everyday spaces. There is much to be said for making the familiar rather unfamiliar again.
Sometimes it's good to be reminded that we are all hanging, quite miraculously, from the underside of a great blue sphere...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Through the (Looking) Lens

New ways of seeing the world are often the product of those working at the intersection of multiple disciplines. One such individual was little known artist / inventor Cornelius Varley, whose work was recently on display at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia. Varley was primarily an artist, and exhibited talent for watercolor landscapes and portrait drawings; but also displayed an innate curiosity in the natural world and scientific instruments.

In 1811, Varley invented the "Patent Graphic Telescope"--a portable "camera lucida" which allowed him to see a subject observed through a macro- or micro-scopic lens superimposed, through a series of mirrors, onto a drawing surface in front of him. This allowed Varley to produce a collection of beautifully detailed images of the living botanical world seen through his microscope with a near photographic accuracy.

The images deserve a closer look to appreciate the graphic detail of his work: a narrative of thoughts and observations are interwoven with the images; arrows suggest the movement that Varley observed as he was recording; all transcribed on rich watercolors rendered with scientific precision and organic artistry.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Through the (Panoramic) Lens

I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation hosted by local historian Michael Kluckner at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre last month on the photographic work of William J. Moore. The panoramic photographs were all taken with a rotating No. 8 Cirkut camera and capture a remarkable collection of landscapes and portraits from early 20th century Vancouver. It is of course immediately striking how completely the identity of the city has changed in less than one hundred years. The images also beg the question, what will today's Vancouver look like as seen from one hundred years in the future?

An extensive collection of W.J. Moore's panoramic photographs have been digitized by the City of Vancouver Archives and posted here. The images are best viewed in the 'original' size setting, where the incredible resolution of the photographs (the original negatives measured 8 inches by as much as 8 feet) truly bring the historic landscape to life.

Downtown Vancouver from World Building (1921)

Pacific Construction Shipyard (1919)

CPR Terminal Dock (1926)

Reclamation of False Creek Flats (1921)

Stanley Park Causeway (1921)

Pennant Day at Capilano Stadium (1913)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why Architecture, Mr. Cruz?

What if an architect were concerned not with the order of columns but with creating communities? What sort of design practice emerges from this line of thinking? Architecture can be defined not just as physical infrastructure but also as social practice. This is not to suggest dispensing with architecture per se; but rather shifting the focus of the designer's attention from the artifact to the sociopolitical context in which we build our surroundings. Architectural design on its own can never match the impact of redesigning policy.

How might an architect take up the challenge of designing the conditions from which new architecture can emerge? It is necessary to begin by redefining the problem. A reconsidered practice requires an intimacy with territory and history; with ecology and psychology; with economies and with public affairs. It is through the conflicts of interaction and negotiation that hidden values are translated into the reconstruction of paradigms.

This is a world of economic pro formas, policy frameworks, spatial tactics, and imaginative speculation. It is a world of choreography and collaboration; of investigation and experimentation. It is a world ripe with possibility.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Explicit Rules / Implicit Tactics

(originally published as "Grass" in Vancouver Matters, 2009)

Southwest Marine Drive marks a threshold in the City of Vancouver. To the north, Dunbar’s grid of single family homes and neighborhood shops roll over the heights; the pulse of traffic and everyday urban life keep time. To the south the scene shifts. Automobiles yield to horse and rider along the roadways. Immaculate 18-hole golf courses stretch out over much of the landscape. Many of the properties boast private tennis courts, pools, and pleasure boats. Early century cottages are being replaced by opulent and expansive estates which capitalize on some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. This is the Agricultural Land Reserve in Vancouver.

A local developer boasts that “Southlands will make you forget you are still in the city.”  Southlands can just as easily make you forget that you are in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Occupying ground that is zoned provincially and locally for agricultural use (Vancouver’s only RA-1 designation), the area is surprisingly, and almost completely, devoid of what might be considered traditional agricultural production. Livestock, vegetable fields, and modest farm homes have been replaced by equestrian clubs, fairways, and lavish mansions. Today, the community exists as an exclusive, semi-rural “leisurescape” -- a hybrid landscape that values urban leisure in an idyllic rural setting over a working agricultural landscape.  

Recontextualizing the ALR 

The ALR was established in 1973 as a special provincial land use zone designed to protect and preserve British Columbia’s diminishing supply of farmland. Lands designated under the Act included those deemed “capable and suitable” for agricultural use, land that was at the time under cultivation, and land zoned locally for farming. The intent of the Act was to preserve land vital to provincial food security while sustaining the agricultural sector in the province. In terms of protecting the overall agricultural land base, the Reserve is often cited as a remarkable success – the ALR’s original boundaries remain largely intact and thousands of acres of farmland remain dedicated to agricultural uses. However rising land prices, urban growth, and fluctuating global markets continue to pose serious challenges to the viability of much the province’s prime agricultural land along the Lower Mainland’s urban/rural edge.

Under increasing pressure from urban encroachment, the edge has become a site of opportunism. Land values at the urban edge vastly exceed those of adjacent ALR properties. This disparity is the driving force behind the hundreds of exemption claims fielded each year by the Agricultural Land Commission – the economic value of agricultural land increases exponentially when freed from the land use restrictions of the Reserve. Millions of dollars are at stake in each acre of land along this threshold. Where the line exists, it inspires creative interpretation by land owners and speculators eager to capitalize on the inherent value of their land. While the institution of the ALR is expressed as a permanent condition, the volatility of political whim and the high economic stakes involved ensure that the reality of the Reserve’s legal framework remains malleable and open to negotiation.[1] Despite the strong presence of the ALR, the complex urban forces present at the edge sustain a perpetual tension.

Synthetic Landscapes

Though defined and codified in singular terms, agricultural land in Vancouver assumes complex and abstract forms at the urban/rural edge. Beyond serving as simply a space for cultivation and food production, the edge is comprised of multiple constituencies and interest groups that are invested in the future of this landscape. Though understood and imagined politically as a singular agrarian condition, the ALR edge has been strongly influenced by the urban domain. An emergent urbanism influenced by civic interests has woven its way into the fabric of the landscape along the ALR’s edge.  Not fully suburban and not fully agrarian, Vancouver’s Southlands function as a hybrid landscape—a site for a “rural urbanism”. The typologies that result are representative of the different ways that the rural landscape is valued and codified by an urban society.[2]

The Reserve itself exists as a political framework—a set of land use policies and guidelines that govern how ALR land can be used. Because this landscape is “imagined” in a regulatory sense, it is vulnerable to distortion—the exploitation of loopholes, political manipulation, and subversion of the rules are manifest in the physical fabric of the Reserve: dozens of “community institutions” (temples, churches, schools) have been constructed on ALR land at the edge; local urban teens exploit fallow parcels for social events; construction waste is smuggled to illicit micro-landfills hidden on farm parcels; water parks and go-kart tracks sit amidst active farm fields; driving range carts harvest golf balls, while farm machinery operates simultaneously on the other side of a screen netting.

Cultivating Potential

The result at Southlands is a heterotopic space in the city—a site of remarkable “otherness” and juxtaposition. Here, and elsewhere along the urban/rural edge, the ALR represents recreational, scenic, environmental, and economic opportunity. These interests operate both in conjunction and in conflict with agriculture to produce a contested landscape. The ALR in Vancouver has acquired a complexity that goes beyond its singular categorization. Exploring and understanding these anomalous conditions opens up a new set of possibilities along the edge. Neither strictly urban, nor strictly rural, the edge has assumed a multiplicitous character that defies conventional definitions and challenges existing notions of what is possible here. The edge has the potential to cultivate an exchange between a diverse and complex set of ecologies.  By engaging and investing multiple interest groups in this land­scape, its future existence becomes more secure by virtue of embedded advocacy. Change is inevitable, and productive, for any landscape; but the question of how change manifests itself at the ALR edge is what is at stake -- and is open to design.