Creating the Void

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ACAD Graffiti Stairwell (Photo by DimensionalDesign)

mC:t    2015.06.22    #mct #yycart #relationalaesthetic 

Producing a space to produce culture

As a teenager, I encountered this some what odd phenomenon. I was attending a summer camp at ACAD, with one of my friends from highschool. ACAD is loosely programmed around its six primary paths of circulation, huge cast concrete stairwells arrayed in a rectangle (2×3). The southeast most of these stairwells is somewhat exceptional. It is termed The Graffiti Stairwell, and is explicitly a zone where the usual rules about painting on the walls don’t apply (Note: It’s art school, so they only kind of apply elsewhere.) The result of this policy is a space that’s very exceptional. Every inch of it is covered in dozens of layers of lurid paint. I haven’t tested this, but I strongly suspect that if you ask people with only a passing familiarity of the building to describe a space this is the space they will describe. Interesting and visually appealing though a stairwell covered in all manner of graffiti is, more interesting I feel was my friend from highschool’s reaction when he first encountered it. Here was a young man, who aside from a penchant for 4chan was in every way a model citizen, a young man who you would certainly never find spray can in hand in some alley at night, but who when confronted with this stairwell immediately wanted to participate. Before the summer camp was out, he was already in there putting up stencils and refining his technique. The existence of the space caused a person who would not otherwise have engaged in a mode of cultural production to begin engaging in it. Call it relational aesthetic as applied to the built environment. (Relational aesthetics is an artistic movement that seeks to forge social bonds between people engaging with the work through shared activity. Alternately to paraphrase Hennessy Williams, the way someone with an MFA and poor social skills meets new people by forcing them to make art at their own art opening.) The analogy is clear in my mind, to phenomena where widening roads fails to reduce congestion, because wider roads lead to more people choosing to drive.

Iconic instance of people with MFAs meeting new people, The Candahar, by Theo Sims (Photo The Candahar (2006-2011), mixed media installation featuring Chris and Conor Roddy, variable dimensions. Photo: Guy L'Heureux.)

Iconic instance of people with MFAs meeting new people, The Candahar, by Theo Sims (Photo The Candahar (2006-2011), mixed media installation featuring Chris and Conor Roddy, variable dimensions. Photo: Guy L’Heureux.)


With that in mind, this production of spaces, which demand to be filled, this relational aesthetics of the built environment, seems to be a rich line of inquiry. The Graffiti Stairwell, is something of an odd hybrid in this discussion, given that while it operates at the scale of a building, it is also wholly enabled by a policy, rather than any sort of form. Any space in an art college demarked as free for painting on would, presumably be occupied in the same way. Because of this the stairwell is something of a middle ground between traditional works of relational aesthetic (Colage party, the Candahar) and this idea of a built relational.

One example I feel that perhaps better embodies the application of relational aesthetics at the architectural scale, however unintentionally, is the Peace Bridge.

Remarking that the Peace Bridge is redundant is a fairly popular endeavour (“There are three other bridges in that stretch of river!”) which, as a statement of fact is fairly irrefutable. The thing that that statement fails to account for (well there are several

Calatrava Peace Bridge (Photo "The Peace Bridge in Calgary an HDR photo" by Ryan Quan )

Calatrava Peace Bridge (Photo “The Peace Bridge in Calgary an HDR photo” by Ryan Quan )

things, but the one pertinent to the topic at hand) is that the Peace Bridge has substantial cultural value, not only as a landmark, or a work of architecture, or the product of a starchitect, but as a device for the inducement of unrelated cultural production. Having crossed the river in that area many times, one way in which the Peace Bridge is set apart from the pre existing bridges, is that unlike those other bridges, the Peace Bridge invariably has a busker present.

The pre existing bridges, on the same scenic stretch of river did not, yet the new bridge does. I think that there are a few reasons for this. First off the formal consideration of the bridge. The bridge on the wide side for a pedestrian foot bridge, and features an explicit demarcation between areas for pedestrians and areas for cyclists. This creates a space that actually has room to accommodate a person sitting and producing some culture. It also helps avoid the feeling that one must press one’s self against the edge of the bridge to avoid being clipped by an errant cyclist. Without exhaustive analysis it also seems like the Peace Bridge possess commendable acoustic qualities. The canopy with its even rate of curvature and rigid surfaces should effectively distribute sound while also offering a relatively long reverb time. Way more importantly I think, though, the Peace Bridge is really cool. It is unlike other structures, it is visually impactful, it is self lighting, and it’s bright red.

Detail of separated cyclist and pedestrian circulation on Peace Bridge (Photo by author)

Detail of separated cyclist and pedestrian circulation on Peace Bridge (Photo by author)

If the Peace Bridge does in fact function as I speculate, then its ability to fulfill that role seems to be down to two points. It is an environment that supports the mode of cultural production in questions (there is room to sit with a guitar and it is acoustically useful) and tends to contain the sort of social environment necessary for the mode of production (In this case that means that it is always popular, always swarming with people. In the case of the Graffiti Stairwell it benefits from being relatively quiet and secluded.)

This tendency for people to seek to infill with cultural product any space amenable to it is a powerful one, and one that could be exploited for the betterment of Calgary. This city is oft bemoaned for having only high culture, to the total exclusion of popular culture; the symphony, but never street art. The methods for constructing built conditions to rectify that seem relatively clear. For that matter though, tell me in the comments what spaces (either here in Calgary, or in other cities) you feel enact a relational aesthetic in architecture.




[1] All original copyrights remain with the authors of the photographs