We tried to get to the Bill Reid Gallery, but it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays so will have to wait. We decided to check out Christ Church, the Anglican cathedral, instead. Oddly enough, almost the first thing we saw on entering was a collection of three Bill Reid prints, which are on display at the back of the church, just under Susan Point’s “Tree of Life” stained glass window.

Christ Church has to be the least impressive cathedral I know. Indeed, it’s less impressive than the majority of British parish churches. In part that’s because it’s now so comprehensively overlooked by the office towers that surround it; in fact it has to be one of the lowest buildings in downtown Vancouver. But even before it was outpaced by the city in which it is set, it can’t have been the most prepossessing of structures. At the best of times, the building seems to hug the ground, as though afraid of both heights and, more generally, public interaction. The style is Gothic Revival without the Gothic’s sense of the vertical. It’s testament to the surprising timidity of Britain’s imperial ambitions here at the turn of the twentieth century: it’s as though Vancouver’s early settlers were (already) afraid to make too much of a statement.

As the building is so non-descript, it’s therefore no great surprise that in 1971 most of the congregation agreed to have it torn down, a plan that only failed after wider public disapproval.

But the cathedral has its redeeming features, and you have to be one of the few who actually go inside to appreciate them. It’s understandable that not many cross the threshold: they are hardly enticed to do so. Because of the church’s squat horizontality, you imagine that its interior could very easily be oppressive: the soaring heights of the traditional Gothic cathedral are what draw your eyes up and impart the impression of transcendence. But Christ Church is saved by the fact, first, that someone had the good sense to paint the interior walls white (though they weren’t always that way) and, second and more importantly, that the exterior stone gives way to wood once you are inside. The ceiling is made of cedar planking, while the beams and floor are old-growth Douglas Fir. The floor is particularly striking and beautiful, and it’s shocking to think that for fifty years (before a 2003/2004 renovation) it was hidden beneath fiberboard and linoleum.

Inside the cathedral, then, there is little of the sense of weightiness or frigidity that sometimes attends nineteenth-century churches built in the Gothic style. The wood is warm and welcoming, and the soft light that survives the heavily stained glass (not to mention the persistent Vancouver rain) is transformed from gloom to glow.

It would have been nice had the architecture taken still more from the vernacular West Coast tradition. If anything, if you are looking in Vancouver for the sense of awe and grandeur that a cathedral is supposed to impart you are more likely to find it in the Arther Erickson design for the Museum of Anthropology‘s main hall, whose concrete and glass is based on indigenous post and beam. (In nearby Victoria, you might look to the Empress hotel!) By contrast, Christ Church feels homely and domestic at best. But the fact that it does feel comfortable–that it isn’t simply forbidding in its awkwardness–has everything to do with the care taken on its upholstery, if not on the structure itself.


The Saturday photo, part XI: The Milwaukee art museum at dusk.

The last rays of the wintry sun hit the museum’s folding roof, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

I was in Milwaukee thanks to an invitation to speak at nearby Madison. I took the opportunity to look up old haunts (I did my MA at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and stay with old friends.

In a brief tour of the city, piecing together my memories of fifteen years ago, realizing how much I had half-forgotten, and looking at what had changed, I found myself downtown and headed towards the museum.

I suddenly realized that I’d got there just in time to see the roof close. It was majestic, especially in the low sun surrounded by snow and looking over the lake. And it was also quite magical.


Boa Vista is not far from the site of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World,” and at times it feels that way. The capital of Roraima State in Brazil’s far north, near the border with Venezuela and Guayana, is a tropical backwater.

Down by the Rio Branco, the river on whose banks the city sits, there is a small complex of restaurants, bars, and cafes, but even on Saturday night half of them were closed and the other half were almost empty. Two solo guitarists, singing Brazilian popular hits, competed for what little attention that there was. A few couples lounged around, either at the outside tables or on the benches of the park alongside. A small child running around provided what little life that there was.

Earlier in the day there had been some kind of festivities on the other side of town, part the “Festa Junina,” celebrated throughout Brazil in honor of the Summer Solstice and the Saints Anthony and John. Stalls and playgrounds had been set out, and loud music blared. But by five o’clock things had already wound down, tables were being cleared and chairs stacked.

The architecture, and the history that that architecture reflects, probably doesn’t help. Boa Vista is quite clearly a planned town, with wide avenues radiating from a large (but quite unfrequented) central park. From above, or rather from Google Maps, it looks rather like the “arched window” from Play School.

Though there are a few older buildings down by the waterfront, mostly (with the exception of a beautiful church, painted in strident yellow) in a state of some disrepair, the town is now characterized by broad expanses dotted with the occasional modernist monument. The cathedral, for instance, is composed of sweeping concrete curves. A stadium further out shows similar attempts to make an architectural statement. The tallest structure in town (and no doubt the only one from which a “good view” can be found) is a concrete tube whose purpose is not immediately evident. Overall, it’s as though Boa Vista had been envisaged as some kind of mini-Brasilia, a means to impose order on an otherwise dauntingly vast landscape of forest and plains.

But Boa Vista’s history goes back further than Brasilia’s. The small cluster of older buildings has been supplemented by a concrete, three-dimensional mural commemorating the pioneers and their “courage and hope” that founded the city back in the early to mid nineteenth century. It depicts a mounted settler who is leaping out of a canoe, his arm thrusting forwards, only to land on the shoulder of an oversized, naked indigenous youth.

For this is also the territory of Macunaíma, and so in some ways of some of Brazil’s founding mythology. Macunaíma, here represented as the first inhabitant of the Rio Branco, is the eponymous subject of Mário de Andrade’s 1928 novel, which traces the young man’s journey from the jungle to Rio and São Paulo and back again, in the process uniting ancient and modern, indigenous and white, interior and coast in the image of a single if diverse national culture.

In such narratives (and there are many other similar ones–the successful film Central Station comes to mind, for instance) backwaters such as Boa Vista are recreated less as the site of a lost world than as the place where Brazil finally finds itself.

Perhaps no more. When I asked at my hotel’s reception how to get to the town center, I was directed neither to the historic nor to the modern centers, but to what turned out to be a huge supermarket some blocks from either. Are Brazilians, too, now lost in the supermarket?


The paradigmatic space of contemporary neoliberalism is the shopping mall. Malls constitute a space that is simultaneously local and universal, sited in a particular geographical location yet also hermetically sealed from local context, part of a world of commodities that knows no national borders. Moreover, as Beatriz Sarlo notes, the mall “creates new habits [. . .] familiarizing people with the ways in which they should function in the mall” (Scenes from Postmodern Life 13). In Chile during the dictatorship, a quite distinctive version of the mall flourished in Santiago’s upscale neighborhoods such as Providencia: the caracol or “shell,” so-called because they are shaped somewhat like seashells, with shops lining a spiral walkway surrounding a central atrium. First to be built was the “Caracol Los Leones,” in 1975; other examples include “Dos Caracoles” (1976), “La Rampa de las Flores” (1979), and “Caracol Vips” (1982). Though their popularity has since declined, Cecilia Gutiérrez Ronda recounts that the caracoles were all the rage in the late 1970s: “Everyday Saturday, as was the habit at the time, Providencia was the big draw for shopping” (“Caracoles”). Unlike the typical North American mall, which tends to be no more than two stories high, and to be built to an “L” or “T” plan with major department stores at each extremity, caracoles have no such “anchor” stores, but are rather occupied by up to 200 more or less equally small retail outlets strung out over the equivalent of five or six stories. Moreover, they also lack the meeting points characteristic of other mall architecture. These common areas, usually located at the intersection of the mall’s main thoroughfares, are a legacy of the philosophy of pioneering architect Victor Gruen, the so-called “inventor of the shopping mall” who designed Detroit’s Northland Mall (the United States’ first multifunctional regional shopping center) in 1954, and Minneapolis’s Southdale Center Mall (the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center) in 1956. Gruen, “a fervent socialist” as Jeffery Hardwick notes (Mall Maker 3), hoped that malls would counteract the increasing atomization of 1950s US suburbia, by uniting city center functions and services under a single roof and serving as the modern version of the ancient Greek agora or medieval city square.

But the Chilean malls, by contrast, accentuate atomizing tendencies. In the caracol, even the atrium floor is usually at a basement level, and so bypassed by shoppers. Thus there are no areas of special intensity and no points for downtime to break up the shopping experience; the caracoles construct a smooth space which is relatively undifferentiated along the whole length of its gently sloping gradient. These malls can only be successfully negotiated by very small groups or by individuals: any larger congregation of bodies would cause congestion on the narrow ramps. Shoppers are separated out by the gaping void of the atrium. Processes encouraged elsewhere by the dictatorship, such as the dissolution of group identities, are therefore facilitated in the course of reverent interaction with boutique-packaged commodification. No wonder that the North American building that the caracoles most resemble should be Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim museum: both are secular shrines whose centrifugal force draws people away from each other and towards a collection of riches to be venerated. In the malls, however, a state logic of disassociation combines immediately and immanently with the market presentation of seemingly limitless choice lining a prescribed but otherwise aimless path, to generate a cultural practice of anomic consumerism. The endless, spiralling drift up and down that they encourage is a post-ideological disaggregation of potentially subversive bodies; and there is neither outside nor inside, only a moebius strip of commerce winding round a central abyss.


Caribe HiltonFrom an architecture designed to repel nomads, to one whose aim is to attract them…

I was staying last week in San Juan’s Caribe Hilton. (I know, it’s a tough job; but someone has to do it.) At first sight the Hilton is just another hotel like so many others. But in part precisely for that reason, it turns out that this is an important piece of Caribbean architecture, and of “tropical modernism.”

According to Enrique Vivoni-Farage’s “The Architecture of Power”, the designs presented by US architects for this 1949 building were in Spanish Renaissance Revival style, in line with Conrad Hilton’s own desires. But all three Puerto Rican submissions to the competition were in International Style, inspired rather by the Modern Movement.

As Periferia puts it, the values the winning design promoted were modernity and efficiency, over “the curious and the picturesque.” This fit much better with the spirit of “Operation Bootstrap,” the economic and political program by which Puerto Rico would be propelled into industrial modernity.

bar at Caribe Hilton
Apparently, the hotel’s original bar was quite a striking example of postwar modernist styling. Now, after a recent extensive refit, its aesthetic is much blander, much less hard-edged. As James Russell observes, today the neighbouring Normandie, designed in 1939 Art Deco imitation of a cruise liner, has in fact the much more interesting interior.

Back at the Hilton, a touch of the exotic has been returned with the presence of two caged parrots in the lobby, opposite the check-in desk–though sometimes, it appears, these birds are allowed to sit on top of their cages, rather than simply within them.

Perhaps this is an emblem of the false freedom that Vivoni-Farage reads in the Hilton’s modernism. He sees the choice of the International Style as an illusory decolonization, in which culture stands in for politics. The rejection of Spanish Renaissance style

gave the Puerto Ricans an illusion of “freedom” instead of truly liberating them from a colonial situation. Architecture served as a palliative, where the Modern was synonymous with freedom and the good life.

By contrast, it is the opposite that is usually said of the rest of Latin America: that formal political independence in the 1820s has never really been backed by true cultural autonomy.

Meanwhile, and via The Morning News (full article here), some suitably modern guests of the Caribe Hilton, from 1959:

Caribe Hilton Guests


What would the architecture of the Caribbean be without the pirates from whom the Spanish Empire constantly sought defence and protection?

The Spaniards constructed an elaborate system of fortifications across the Caribbean basin: from Veracruz, from which the fleet carrying Mexican silver would sail; to Panama and Nombre de Dios, through which Peruvian and Philippine treasure was routed; on to Havana, where the fleets converged; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, which Philip II called “the key to the Indies.”

map of Spanish Caribbean forts
The walled city of San Juan, and the El Morro fort that guards its harbour, are particularly impressive. The first defences were constructed in the sixteenth century, and helped repel Drake’s 1595 attack. Three years later, another English privateer, the Earl of Cumberland, took the fort by attacking overland rather than from the sea, but this expedition was defeated eventually as his men succumbed to dysentery. The Spaniards then rebuilt El Morro stronger than ever, and saw off a Dutch attack in 1625. Further building continued for another 150 years, producing massive walls and further forts all around the island on which Old San Juan sits.

El Morro was subject to US bombardment during the war of 1898, but the Americans subsequently themselves rebuilt parts of the site in World War II pillbox fashion, turning it into a lookout now against the possibility of German U-Boats advancing across the Atlantic.

El Morro fort
But although the prodigious engineering that went into this edifice is ascribed to the Irish-born Colonel Thomas O’Daly, surely this architecture of counter-insurgency should also be credited at least in part to the nomadic pirates against whom it was arrayed?


In another context, Glen Fuller of Fuller’s Speed Shop points me to an entry of his about “dead wood”, near the end of which he writes briefly about the affect of airports:

there is an announcement broadcast continually over the PA at Sydney Airport that begins with: “Due to increased security measures…” This message has been played over the PA for a long time, I noticed it about 7 months ago. It captures the affective of the ‘to-be’ journey in pretension with itself. That is, the futurity of the present is in an affective tension with the eventuality of the future. The word ‘increased’ increases the polarity of the tension across scales of temporality – of coming and going bodies with various anticipations of the future. The anticipating body is in tension.

I’m not entirely sure what he means, but it has got me thinking…

Airports are often portrayed as very neutral, affectless environments. Think of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, for instance, as the semi-subliminal soundtrack for a place that tries to be as characterless, blank, and unremarkable as possible. I guess that this results in part from the fact that the architecture of airports is characteristically modernist–form following function–unlike the ornate neo-gothic ornamentation that characterizes the great railway stations of the late Victorian period. (Is that the problem with Euston? It’s a train station masquerading as an airport; or vice versa. In any case, it sticks out like a sore thumb compared with the other London terminals, not least its nearest neighbour, St Pancras.)

Of course, airport architecture is also at times spectacular, and supposed to be visually impressive. But still usually its affective tonality is cool. Concrete and curves, glass and grace. Think of Stansted or Vancouver International, two very fine airports, at least the first of which was built by a notable architect (Norman Foster), and the second of which is full of impressive native art: none the less, both aim at quiet seduction rather than brashly drawing attention to themselves.

Of course, too, airports are increasingly becoming bustling bazaars, with barely a square inch of peace (apart, that is, from the VIP lounges) as more and more of their space is given over to commerce. If you thought malls were nightmares, meet the mall without an exit.

But still, the affective image of the airport remains that of unperturbed modernism, a dampening of affect rather than its exacerbation. This is the affect of the “non-place” of liminal insubstantiality.

Yet at the same time, and perhaps here’s the reason, these blank backdrops are the setting for an unending series of affective outbursts. Airports are sanctioned sites for the display of a fairly complex range of emotions, and as such quite different from most other public spaces. Notably, there are the hellos and goodbyes of that membrane separating “airside” from “landside.” “Public displays of affection” are permitted, even expected, here: the lingering embrace or frantic snog of boyfriend seeing off girlfriend, the balloons and flowers waiting for visiting relatives, the tears of the bereft, and increasingly the anxiety of those not merely afraid to fly but reminded to be vigilant, suspicious.

Tiredness and waiting (the bodies draped over chairs as their flights have been delayed), sadness and elation, even drunkenness as somehow when you have a early morning flight to the Algarve 8am is never too early for getting in some lagers at the bar. All possible attitudes of the body are to be seen here.