Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape was written by James Howard Kunstler’s and first published in 1993. Though tracing the development of place in the United States, Kunstler argues that America’s built-landscapes, both urban and rural, have declined for numerous reasons, central among them the advent of the affordable automobile and the political, economic, and cultural forces that resulted. Although the book is nearly twenty years old, the issues Kunstler discusses regarding the places we live continue to be problems in the United States and Canada. Sprawling cities, declining local economies, developments that ignore human scale, and architecture that ignores traditional relationships people should have with their surroundings are still resulting in the dislocation of people and communities.

Since the 1980s a school of design has emerged called New Urbanism, which promotes a high standard of living through thoughtful, common sense design practices. Many of the tenets of this people-centred design paradigm can be fulfilled through the conservation of heritage resources. Conserving buildings and landscapes keeps our communities unique and builds sense of place, fostering local identity and pride. Retaining open spaces like parks and town squares ensures a continued public realm that helps maintain community ties, an important consideration in an age when commercial and suburban building practices marginalize public space in return for creating more profitable private space. Furthermore, many historic buildings were constructed for mixed commercial and residential use on a human scale, creating integrated communities, walkable streets and meaningful interaction between people and buildings.

I would strongly recommend The Geography of Nowhere to anyone interested in the evolution of North American human ecology.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Fire has Shaped Alberta’s Main Streets

Amid leaping flames and clouds of smoke, Fort Saskatchewan lost its landmark Fort Hotel on the evening of January 18th, 2010. Situated in the city’s old commercial core, the hotel had provided lodging since 1914, and was a well-known watering hole in the small city north of Edmonton. Though tragic, fires have historically been a common occurrence in Alberta’s communities and were an influential factor in shaping the province’s Main Streets since the early 20th century.

In the early 1900s fledgling communities in Alberta were composed mostly of homes and businesses built using inexpensive wood frame construction. In commercial areas such as Main Streets, buildings were huddled together with shared walls, sometimes separated by alleyways cluttered with storage sheds, outhouses and debris. Local business owners and residents feared the hugely destructive fires these conditions regularly caused.

Communities took precautionary measures to guard against the possibility of fire by establishing fire regulation zones around Main Streets, controlling the use and storage of flammable materials, and requiring permits to burn trash. Builders were encouraged to include fire walls between buildings and to use non-flammable materials such as brick, stone, and later concrete block. Buildings constructed of these fire resistant materials provided higher rents to owners and spurred growth by giving communities an air of permanence, thus attracting more residents, commerce and industry. With the advent of municipal governments, local taxes could be raised to establish volunteer fire departments and municipal water systems, the legacies of which continue to serve their local communities today. Some residents opposed these precautions because they led to increased taxes, and because the fire-resistant buildings were more expensive to build. However, most people supported the measures because they limited the destructiveness of fires and lowered the cost of fire insurance.

Despite all of these measures, devastating fires still occurred regularly. This element’s destructive legacy has left its mark on almost every city, town, and village in Alberta. Particularly devastating fires occurred in Athabasca in 1913, claiming multiple buildings. Around that same time in Rockyford the south half of Main Street was reduced to ash. Almost an entire block was lost Olds in 1923, and a 1932 blaze in Peace River saw one third of downtown reduced to rubble.

Disastrous fires such as these enabled the construction of clusters of new buildings that helped to redefine their communities. Streetscapes of brick, stone and concrete block are common sights in Alberta’s towns and villages today, and few of the original wooden commercial buildings remain. Alberta’s scenic Main Streets are tangible representations of the community’s evolution. The recent fire that claimed the Fort Hotel, while regrettable, is a continuation of process.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

CHIN Digital Heritage Symposium 2010

On February 4th and 5th, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) held a Digital Heritage Symposium at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Through the generosity of the Public History Program at UWO I was able to participate online. It was my first online academic event, and I was pleased with how it turned out. I had originally thought that not being there in person would limit my interaction and ability to network; however this was not the case. Symposium organizers included a box through which online participants could submit questions, and by Tweeting my way through the proceedings using the appropriate hash marks (#dhs2010) I was linked to other online participants, and had some meaningful interaction with not only other participants, but with some presenters as well.

Of the nearly 25 speakers those two days, the following talks stood out for me.

Agnès Alfandari, Head of the Multimedia Department at the Louvre, discussed some of the Louvre’s partnership with the DNP Lab in Tokyo. The exhibits the partnership is producing are extraordinary.

Chris Mathieson, head of the small Vancouver Police Museum gave a great talk on social media in museums, a fitting topic since he has built the second largest Twitter following for a Canadian museum. During his presentation Chris mentioned that social media is the great equalizer between large and small museums (evidenced by the fact that Agnès Alfandari of the Louvre asked his advice on social media) as well as between museums and their communities.

The very engaging George Siemens, currently with Athabasca University, summarized the first day’s proceedings in a talk that included the future of digital technologies in museums, particularly social media and visualization.

Graham Larkin of the National Gallery of Canada spoke about their Provenance Research Project relating to their Nazi gap list (works that might have been stolen during the Second World War). This project is now complete, and Larkin would like to see a similar project done throughout Canada with the support of CHIN.

Stephen Fai of Carleton University spoke of the Cultural Diversity and Material Imagination in Saskatchewan Architecture project, which deals with the digital conservation and presentation of ethno-cultural building practices on the prairies.

The Reciprocal Research Network, discussed by Museum of Anthropology’s Susan Rowley was an excellent example of the potential for collective intelligence in academic research.

Artist in new media (read “digital”) Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was also present. He spoke about the challenges museums face in relation to new media/digital art, but also discussed a number of his works, which I found fascinating, particularly as I am currently enrolled in an interactive exhibit design class. Two projects which I found most interesting were his works Pulse Room and Under Scan.