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It’s… Nobel Week! October 14, 2009

Posted by mmonla in Architecture, Politics.
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Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom for her Nobel Prize in economics. It’s refreshing to see a political theorist win the coveted prize and I’d like to see this trend continue. I personally disagree with the view that economics is somehow more “scientific” that political theory or sociology. By exclusively rewarding market theorists, we’ve been cementing the notion that economics is a stand-alone discipline that can successfully exist independently of a social and political context. In fact, this should have been a social sciences prize all along.

According to Robert Shiller, a Yale University economist, “this award is part of the merging of the social sciences. Economics has been too isolated and too stuck on the view that markets are efficient and self-regulating. It has derailed our thinking.”

As for Ms. Ostrom’s work:

Ms. Ostrom’s work deals in the concept of “commons” shared by a number of people who earn their living from a common resource and have a stake, therefore, in preserving it. Her most recent research has focused on relatively small forests in undeveloped countries. Groups of people share the right to harvest lumber from a particular forest, and so they have a stake in making sure the forest survives (NY Times).

I’m interested in seeing what implications her work may have on architecture. Privatization of land has always been used as a solution to the overexploitation of a common resource, otherwise known as the tragedy of the commons. In particular, I’m thinking of public space – the private shopping mall vs. the public street. Could our public spaces be designed and/or programmed in such a way as to encourage the kind of behaviour Ms. Ostrom is describing?


mister glasses April 1, 2009

Posted by mmonla in Architecture, Humour.
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The death of modernism has finally made the big screen! Well, sort of.

I’m especially amused by the note: “this is a video response to Philip Johnson on Charlie Rose”.


What do you have to say? February 28, 2009

Posted by mmonla in Architecture, Art and Design, Politics.

“Welcome to Palestine. After 620 kilometers of fence & Wall, all around, you are back where you were.”

These words can be found on www.sendamessage.nl, a website set up by a Dutch marketing group paired with local Palestinian NGOs. And thanks to them, you can now “buy” a message on the wall, have it spraypainted by Palestinian volunteers and even get digital photographs of your wall art emailed to you. In a true globalised fashion, anyone today within reach of a computer can leave their trace in an area they would most likely never have any physical access to.

From wedding proposals to humour to political statements, there is no limit to what can be seen painted on the concrete barrier. It not only provides financial relief to Palestinians whose livelihoods have been affected by the wall but also questions the nature of the separation, one post at a time.

As one contributor put it… “love conquers (w)all”



there is no use looking back December 15, 2008

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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There is a commemorative plaque that stands at the site of St Ann’s church in Griffintown, the heart of what used to be a large Irish community. Today, although there is little left of the Irish, Italians or Ukrainians that populated the neighbourhood, there is nevertheless much to learn about what the area now is. To find out, I trek southwards from Little Burgundy to 1500 Ottawa Street, site of the abandoned Canada Post sorting facility. As for what Griffintown should become, there is much controversy and little consensus – the area itself offers few indicators for its future. If any insight is then to be found, it may be time to look elsewhere.

I begin my trek at Georges Vanier metro station and walk slowly southwards towards 1500 Ottawa Street, through neighbourhoods that have never had a place in Montreal’s official tour guide. First there is Little Burgundy: terraced houses and back gardens, then a large communal garden followed by the community church. The streets may have been empty that day, but there certainly was no lack of vibrancy in church. For a day that wasn’t Christmas or Easter, I have never seen such a roomful of people gathered in a church hall for service. The entire scene felt like a surreal movie set about an idyllic community whose vitality was unquestionable.
The vitality of my trip however was short lived. Barring a brief locus of activity at Notre Dame Street, the community feel was all but gone as I continued towards my destination. By the time I walked down Guy’s last stretch, all that was left was an underused semi-industrial landscape. The narrow street’s low-rise red brick warehouses were marked only by a few back doors and some graffiti. It wasn’t homely here anymore.

Three thousand miles away in Silvertown, one of the industrial wastelands to the East of London, I was given the same, albeit more dramatic, impression. It wasn’t welcoming there either. On a cold winter day, I precariously walked along a highway leading to Silvertown, ironically the only walkable link between the two closest DLR stations. On one hand, the ground plane had been replaced by warehouses holding up a derelict council block and an old church. On the other, a dramatic empty river-front landscape was pierced by a small factory. Save the millennium dome that could be seen in the back across the water, the scene spewed more of post-war desolation than 21st century London. A friend of mine once told me it reminded him of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has never been to the Middle East.
Silvertown shares not only a similar sounding name to Griffintown but also the industrial past, the workers’ housing, the post-industrial dereliction, the nostalgic accounts of life in the slums, the developers’ recent interest, the cities tired of the underuse… It seems every city in the western world hides a small Detroit somewhere. And by now, there is no community left in Silvertown either: “If you play hunt-the-corner-shop you might eventually find a small parade with a Costcutter, a chippy, a bookie and a greasy spoon, with a strip club two corners away.” (more…)

Silvertown Blues December 8, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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I went on a little eastwards walk the other day to Silvertown in the East End of London. The area is an industrial district that is home to the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery, a few abandoned buildings and a sea of warehouses. I was there mainly to see a small twelve flat affordable housing scheme by Niall McLaughin for the Peabody housing trust. Why? Essentially to see the building’s striking facade: two levels of an iridescent paper-like material produced by 3M are fixed behind the glass on the main elevation. As you walk along the street, even on an overcast day, the building glows like petrol on water.

I find it a bit unfortunate that the idea is in no way reflected inside the flats. You want to believe that it glows on the inside too but in fact the material is simply used as a facade treatment, in a way denying the living areas behind the screen the opportunity to gain from the concept. Having said this, the subtle reference to the history of the site (and its many chemical industries) as the basis for the concept makes this simple building somehow more ‘credible’ than the erase-and-rewind houses around there.

Here are a few pictures that I’ve taken from the architects’ website. Further down, I’ve posted a few pictures that I’ve taken around the area.

Peabody 1 Peabody 2

Pebody 4 Peabody 5

Silvertown 1 Silvertown 2 Silvertown 3 Silvertown 4

Tales of Wales November 17, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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I spent last weekend in Wales and had the chance to visit (by complete luck, really) the Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley. By no stretch of the imagination, it is the most impressive sight I have seen in Great Britain so far. Originally built in 1131 as the first Cistercian abbey in Wales, it housed a group of white monks that placed uncompromising value on poverty and favoured seclusion. That explains the location of the abbey, deep in the Wye Valley and far from any notable settlement. When Henry VIII disbanded the monastic orders, it was abandoned; left to decay and occasionally quarried for its stone. That is, until it was rediscovered by the romantics, among whom the poet Wordsworth and J.M.W. Turner himself.

Almost a century after it was built and though roofless and windowless, the abbey maintains an imposing presence on the landscape. Go visit it if you’re ever in Wales, and make a point of climbing to the devil’s pulpit to see it from high above.

“Good architecture becomes ruins, bad architecture disappears.” – Salmona

Tintern1 Tintern2

Tintern3 Tintern4

Tintern5 Tintern6

Umbra Sumus October 30, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.

The Jamme Masjid mosque on Brick Lane is an amazing example of a building’s dependance on its context. But more importantly, it illustrates the remarkable history of London’s East End as a gateway for successive waves of immigrants. First built as a protestant church by Huguenots refugees after being expelled from France [1743], it was later converted to a Methodist chapel by Irish immgrants [1819], a synagogue by the neighbourhood’s growing Jewish population [1898] and finally a mosque by the latest wave of Bengali immigrants [1976]. Yet unlike other examples of religious appropriations around the world, there was no violent cultural takeover, no grand architectural statements of annexation. The nondescript brick building simply remains the spiritual centre of a community that keeps changing.

A sundial, with the latin inscription ‘Umbra Sumus’ (we are shadows), is set above the entrance. Fitting, isn’t it?

Pictures of the mosque


Masjid 3 Masjid 4

Traces of the old Jewish community

Jewish 1 Jewish 2 Jewish 3

Traces of the current Bengali community

Bengal 2 Bengal 1

Wrap it up! October 12, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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I recently came across a project by German architects Fink+Jocher for a student residence in Munich. That same day, I sat in on a design review for a similar project, a student residence here in England. It was a good scheme as a whole but one thing was missing: none of the windows were operable and no terrasse/balcony space was provided (though there were no lack of great opportunities). Both the architects and the clients (read: mainly the clients) seemed genuinely scared of students, and specifically of students throwing themselves or things off the building at the slightest occasion. Sure, it’s a big liability to be fair and probably a fairly reasonable concern but this is where F+J’s inventiveness lies: they’ve turned what I assume to be similar constraints to their design advantage by… wrapping the entire building in a steel net.

Fink + Jocher - Garching Student Residence 1Fink + Jocher - Garching Student Residence 2Fink + Jocher - Garching Student Residence 3

Circulation is constrained to the outside of a simple rectangular plan, along the net and giving access to the individual rooms. Huge windows looking onto the communal walkway are provided for each individual dwelling. A lack of privacy was my first concern but after some thought, I believe that the standards for housing and student housing just aren’t the same. Frankly, when I was living in student accommodation, we used to sit outside our individual doors in the hallway to chat since there simply weren’t many communal areas. Making friends is the main reason most students choose to start off in a residence and that makes the choice of a wide exterior walkway effective in my opinion. Will it be used like a street is used outside a pub in London?

And it get better: climbing plants will soon be taking over the entire netted façade, turning a very transparent building into a very introspective one. This leaves me with a thought: will the ivy encourage more students to stop along the walkway to socialize by providing some coverage from the street? Plant growth is a very subtle way of providing privacy from the street, and I’m curious to see if this will affect the residents’ habits.

A building in a net; why didn’t I think of that?

The architects’ page

Detail magazine downloadable article

Built Memories July 1, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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I’m halfway through the book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Bevan. In it, he establishes the relation between repressing a people’s physical memory (their buildings in this case) and death itself. Cultural repressions is a tool of war in itself: to the risk of sounding too Jung-ian, since buildings are meant to outlast us, then their destruction is a loss of a people’s collective identity. Whether by means of actual conquests, revolutions or ethnic strife, Bevan builds his case quite clearly through his examples: Bosnia, Dresden in 1945, Ireland, Palestine, etc…

And in fact, the strength of the book lies in the breadth of the examples that are given. Bevan focuses on deliberate attacks to architecture, which he claims are a means of cultural annihilation and repression. A few of the examples given: the Mostar bridge, the World Trade Center or the Taliban’s destruction of the 1500 year-old buddhas.

However, I think a case can also be made for wars’ collateral damage to architecture. Though not intended as acts of “proto-genocide”, the result is nevertheless a modification, granted not an erasure, of the collective memory associated to a place. Of course, these changes also occur in peacetime, progress and development alter cities. But as Bevan notes, the focus is on brutal change linked to societal “collapses and upheavals”.

Both of these lines of thought (intentional and collateral damage) lead to some important questions with regards to, among other things, reconstruction. Since the memory has been altered, what is the effect of rebuilding the destroyed or damaged structure? If in theory we were to posses all the plans of every single building destroyed in Bosnia for example, should they be rebuilt in replicas?

As a final note, here’s a picture I took a few years ago in Beirut. This house was still inhabited, probably by refugees, when the shot was taken.

Ghost House

Il fait beau dans l’métro! May 19, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture, Art and Design.

The Stockholm subway is a good example of public art, exhibiting the work of about 130 artists over 110km of track. In fact, it’s called the longest art gallery in the world… and sure, I can believe that. Some of the stations were dug out of solid rock with the ceilings and walls left with a cave-like feel. In short, they’ve managed to transform what looks like a set of fairly standard subway tunnels into a very interesting experience. Judge for yourself below, I’ve posted a few pictures taken from this site. Seriously, doesn’t it make commuting to work just that much more fun?

Stockholm Subway 1

Stockholm Subway 2

Stockholm Subway 3

Reminds me a bit of the Montreal metro (not just because of the trains): both systems were built around the same time and incorporate art into the designs. In the case of the Montreal metro, though stylistically out of date and with its own set of problems, there’s an added bonus of some absolutely great spaces. I’d emphasize the lengths to which the designers and engineers went to in order to incorporate natural daylighting into the deeper stations, especially in the underground multistorey spaces like Monk and Verdun. Instead of backfilling the holes into narrow corridors and low ceilings, the underground spaces are left either completely open in the case of Verdun, or equipped with mezzanines and balconies in the case of Monk.

Verdun 21.9m deep:

Verdun metro 1 Verdun metro 2

Monk, 18.3m deep:

Monk metro 2 Monk metro 1

I found the pictures at this metro aficionado‘s site. Check it out for more info on the metro, it’s bilingual for your convenience and has a comprehensive rating of every station!

So now what? Well this short rant serves as a preamble to my finally visiting the 3 new Laval stations. We’ll see what judgement befalls them…

Urban assault meets theme park May 10, 2007

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BLDGBLOG has an excellent post on the not-so-new-anymore urban assault training complex at Camp San Luis Obispo in California, halfway between the cities of Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Urban warfare is something that has been gaining momentum in the minds of military strategists. Just think of the attacks conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in 2002. Forget alleys, doors and windows; the IDF decided to move through the city by blasting holes through people’s walls and floors. The same thing is happening in San Obispo, but just very far away from any real conflict. Soldiers are being prepared for urban conflict in third world countries by emulating the anticipated combat setting: three mock middle-eastern style houses were built solely for the purpose of training troops, complete with Moorish style walled-in courtyards and even fake media interviews. “Call it the new International Style, or perhaps Military Arabesque”. This is a new take on what already exists as mock American cities used uniquely for military and police training. You can see some photographs of these amazing cities at the following website.

Nablus 2002 San Obispo

Personally, I can’t help but think of Disneyland here. The makers encapsulate a certain temporal or spatial condition, often both, into what Diane Ghirardo calls “one manageable, idealized setting”. Take for example Frontierland, Disney’s cowboy and pioneer wild west. Disney presents it as “the tranquil movement of happy citizens into uninhabited lands rather than as also a government-approved campaign of conquest, land stealing and genocide”. Or say, Main Street USA. At 7/8th real scale, Main Street thrives solely on consumption and “lacks industry, poverty, and, most of all, political life”. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Disney is selective about which elements it glorifies to promote the idea of a utopian setting. So when it comes to recreating ‘typical’ cities for military training, how selective should you be?

Military architecture is nothing new. Cities as isolated from each other as Paris and Kandahar still use the memories of their defensive architecture as landmarks. These two cities’ expansion may have destroyed their walls, but the traces linger in the language: Porte de la Villette and Porte de Saint-Ouen in Paris, Herat Gate and Kabul Gate in Kandahar. In fact, walls are still used today as defensive statements: the Mexico-US border, the Israeli-Palestinian wall, the Baghdad wall, gated communities… But while these examples are designed to respond to a certain given context, San Obispo is completely removed from the setting it emulates.

As I see it, the risk is that selectivity, relatively benign in the case of Disneyland, could lead to dangerous under-information in a military context. The more removed from history and context the training grounds are, the more disingenuous the replica becomes. And this could mean two things. Firstly, since the training camp cannot take into consideration the endless variations that time and location impart on a place, it could just end up as misleading preparation. Secondly, the removal of context ‘virtualizes’ the camp, making it no different than one of the Department of Defense’s fancy video games. Except this is real and built.

So is the U.S. Department of Defense at the forefront of architectural innovation? Not really, Disney had it all figured out a long time ago.

More information on military urbanism? Sure, an entire blog right here.

Sea Organ April 22, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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The Sea Organ (Morske orgulje), designed by architect Nikola Basic, was built in Zadar, Croatia in 2005. The musical installation is built into a set of marble steps leading down to the sea. Series of undergroung organ pipes produce the sounds that emanate from openings in the top steps. These seven groups of pipes are alternately tuned to two chords of the diatonic major scale. For more information on how it works, check out this report.

Sea Organ

Sea Organ

The result sounds like a cross between dolphin echoes and Philip Glass. Nevertheless, this looks like a very succesful seafront development. The project deals with an ever-increasing touristic area (especially after the city’s decision to accept cruise ships at the outermost pier) without turning it into a consumption-driven welcome dock for tourist. In essence, it satisfies the tourists as well as the locals. The steps are just the right height for a comfortable seat and the project itself is only a short walk away from the city, making it a reasonable option for an afternoon stroll. Good public space is hard to achieve but Basic seems to have figured it out.

On that note, Alfred Hitchcock is said to have stated that the most beautiful sunset in the world can be seen from this precise spot in Zadar. Think it’s worth validating?

Somewhat unrelated: check out this amazing shot taken in Zadar.

Montreal Sketches April 21, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.

Claddagh Irish Pub

Claddagh Irish Pub

Stair in the Leacock building, McGill.

Stairs in the Leacock Building, Mcgill.

Stair detail at Redpath Museum.

Stair detail in the Redpath Museum, McGill.