Volume 40: Devices (Spring 2019)

In Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go, 1987, tires roll and fuses ignite, seeming to carry a chain reaction through 30 min of interconnected movements, a Rube Goldberg machine that is all flair, no function. (1) The film never reveals the whole of the apparatus to its audience, a fact that only increases the frustration and delight that the piece elicits, and surprises and absurdities abound (a ladder trundles down a ramp, a series of tires rolls uphill). The work looks and acts like a deviant device, or a series of them, twisting the viewer’s perception as the connections accumulate, defying them to explain the space or the situation.

Clever machines that adjust the parameters of our world, devices surround us, though they appear differently depending on who’s using them. To a screenwriter they are the points that keep a plot moving; to a Western engineer they are “the mediation needed to intervene in natural processes.” (2) Medical devices are mechanical adaptations applied to the body, restricting, supporting, or enhancing processes and functions to alter and extend the life of their user. There are no prescriptions limiting their simplicity or complexity: a magnifying glass is as much a device as a computer. Like the surprise that comes from a good metaphor or the slow build of anticipation locked into the rhythm of a sentence—literary devices that are the design elements of a text—strong devices create strong effects.

Devices in design are often tools—they proliferate as ways to measure and enhance, from a surveyor’s sight to a smart phone that puts the control of a room in the palm of your hand. They often operate at the scale of the body, extending an architect’s perception beyond the abilities of human senses and the user’s intent to the far corners of their domain. As an aid to exploration, devices translate perception into data, and vice versa. They are as integral to colonial catalogues that divide land for use and occupation as they are to the experimental approaches to our understanding of the environment, built or otherwise. In California, the Center for Land Use Interpretation scales landscapes up and down, revealing the hidden devices in their topographies. Elsewhere, the Unknown Fields Division packs the tools of design and analysis into the specialized equipment of the expedition. Other tools of looking and feeling serve as intermediaries that heighten rather than distance a person’s relationship to a place, as in Gunther Vogt’s refiguring of the Swiss landscape. (3) They can enforce a measure in the form of a rule or offer conflicting or dependent ways of acquiring information, unsettling the binary oppositions of city and land, urban and not-urban, rural and metropolitan. By offering alternative points of access for research and experience, a well-conceived device exposes the ways in which different spatial forms infiltrate and affect the social and phenomenological experience of our environments.

The upcoming issue of the The Site Magazine is interested in examples, proposals, and theorizations of devices that function not as bluntly defined instruments, but as tools that enable phenomenological manipulation through the same means as architecture. Borrowing from architect CJ Lim’s definition, these types of devices use “space, time, sound, and materiality to interact with [their] audience in a performative relationship.” (4) As catalysts for new perspectives and narratives, they are capable of recording both qualitative and quantitative aspects of the environment, documenting architectural form, urban space, and vast landscapes. We are interested in what happens when the traditional precision devices of the surveyor and the cartographer are set alongside mappings of low frequency sound, solar time, and distorted vision. How can devices, as twists and turns in perception and understanding, reinforce the links between context, information, and narrative that guide architectural interventions at the personal, local, regional, national, and global scales? In answering this question, we will test the capacity of the magazine, as a device itself, to pull ideas together and send them outwards, to shift and circulate, to alter our understandings in surprising ways.

(1) “Seeming” because the film is not a continuous shot, but rather a carefully edited piece that gives no indication of what might have occurred, or not occurred, in its skillfully concealed gaps.

(2) Mathew Wells, “Devices as they appear to a Western Engineer,” in CJ Lim, Devices: A Manual of Architecture + Spatial Machines (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), 248.

(3) David Gissen, “Architecture’s Geographic Turns,” Log, vol. 12 (2008), 59-67;; Gunther Vogt, Introduction to “Recording - Acknowledging and harnessing the subjective human experience of landscape” in Wunderlust/Wanderkammer, ed. Gunther Vogt (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers); Alessandra Ponte, “Desert Testing” and “Journey to North of Quebec: Understanding (McLuhan’s) Media” in The House of Light and Entropy (London: AA Publications, 2014).

(4) CJ Lim, Introduction to Devices: A Manual of Architecture + Spatial Machines (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006).

Other sources:

volume 39: Foundations/Disruptions (Fall 2018)

Technology is the answer—but what was the question?

—Cedric Price

Just 20 years ago, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, anticipated that the post-information age would remove the limitations of geography. Digital living, he said, would allow transmission of place itself. (1) This prediction that technology would destroy distance and that our physicality would lose relevance did not hold true; rather, it expanded the meaning of physical space by making it more complex and inseparable from its digital dimension. (2)

The translation of the built environment into digital information—through robotics, big data, and smart sensors—creates a new definition of what is spatial. (3) As the industrial revolution drove automation at the turn of the nineteenth century, the social, cultural, and political motives ever-present in open discussions and behind closed doors gave shape to social values and standards that define today’s cities. If we are in an age of a similar turn, it seems that currently ubiquitous techno-optimism and the sheer pace of development is thwarting our ability keep stride with any adequate scrutiny. While optimization and efficiency become the highest regarded value systems for maximization of profit, all other values seem to be deemed irrelevant.

Whether at home or in the public realm, the digitalization of our space comes with a shifting locus of power. The four most powerful tech giants, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon—known collectively as GAFA—keep track of every step we take in order to know our needs before we do, from highly personal scales to the scale of the environment and the city. The urban realm has become an arena for technological experimentation that happens without our conscious participation.

“Cyberspace,” the sharing economy, cryptocurrency, and AI all emerged from a quest for equality, yet their utopian manifestoes increasingly project capitalist agendas and their expanding reach raises concerns of very significant violations of public privacy, security, and that very equailty they set out to protect. Is the internet a public utility? Can Bitcoin build sustainable wealth when mining a transaction costs more than powering a home? Where does the individual stand in a fully networked and digital society? Are we reduced to consumers or elevated as agents by our seemingly limitless options for customized existence? How will projects like sustainability or community, in opposition to fast-paced consumption, retain relevance? How will architecture adapt, reconfigure, and develop to shelter us from our digital shadows and provide structure in our augmented lives? Will it preserve the elements of human existence that cannot be reduced to an algorithm and sold for cash?

Data and numbers offer quantifiable truths, but output is not debate and technology as a force that acts on and within human societies and global ecologies is anything but neutral. As technological change rushes relentlessly forward architects play catch up, pushed to consider a blurring of our foundational dichotomies: interior/exterior, public/private, urban/rural. Volume 39 seeks critical perspectives on the role of technology within the built environment. We are interested in the social, economic, political, and ecological implications of technological “progress” as it relates to architecture, design, and urbanism, and in examinations of the role of architecture that go beyond a purely reactionary model. How should we extend the definitions of architecture and urban design to encompass virtual places as well as physical ones? Digital modernity is upon us, and the human is still at the centre of this paradigm shift, determining the courses charted by our machines. Who do our choices leave behind and who do they empower?

(1) Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Alfred A Knopf,1995), 165.

(2) Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, City of Tomorrow, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 16.

(3) Chistoph Thun-Hohenstein, Sense and Sensibility in the Digital Age, (Vienna Biennale 2017 Catalogue).

Volume 38: Feminisms (Spring 2018)

In architecture, feminist discourse has long hovered on the margins of a male-dominated discipline that has often seemed unwilling to interrogate the assumptions underlying its universalist ideas (the ungendered user, the human-scale space, the context-free structure). But architecture has stakes in feminist discourse from the organization of a house to the design of a city. Early feminism was born in strictly ordered spaces that coded and confined ideas of the feminine. It began, in part, with ideas for a domestic revolution and by critiquing the structures of private life. Early American feminists including Melusina Fay Peirce, Mary Livermore, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman challenged patriarchal ideas of "women's work" and a "woman’s place" through housewives' cooperatives, kitchenless houses, and day-care centres. Modernism offered its own reconfiguration of femininity, including domestic spaces in its rational aesthetics. But a modernist home doesn’t necessarily reorganize labour: even when women have access to professional life, domestic labour is often shifted to other disadvantaged workers (mostly women or minorities) who take on tasks perceived as burdensome, undesirable and essentially feminine. What would it look like for a domestic revolution to confront the forces of globalization and neoliberalism?

Beyond the confines of the domestic, feminist spatialities are also about the body, politic, and the body, public. They are about definitions and expressions of femaleness and femininity as states of being. What does it mean to be feminine, and does it mean something different in public than it does in private? How does public space enable or guard against visibility and vulnerability? The Women’s March brought together, in some cities, hundreds of thousands of people, proposing a gendered occupation of public space as an umbrella term for diverse interests. How do gendered urban spaces address conditions of exposure, belonging, and presence and who gets to influence what the priorities of public space are? Whether in private or in public, to see women as subjects or women as stakeholders changes the orientation of design discussions to include gendered differences of political and embodied experiences.

Feminism, like the city, is not a monolith, it is constructed of a plurality of experiences and agendas. From post to radical, at the contested intersections of race, class and an ever widening conception of the possibilities of gendered experience. Feminism multiplies as it collides with unique contexts and differing political and societal constructs. How can we use the spatial tools of architecture and urbanism to understand the complex origins and trajectories of feminisms that are theoretical, political, and aesthetic?

Built environments spatialize historical and contemporary definitions of female and feminine, gendering space according to use, access, and control. How can we bridge the gap in feminist and architectural discourse? Can the intimate, the personal, the private and domestic disrupt conventional economies? How does gender influence the way we approach design? What are the histories of all our varied feminisms? What spaces do they inhabit? And what do feminist architectures mean for the future of our built environments? How might feminist design tools offer radical and experimental approaches to creating more sustainable and resilient mental, social and environmental ecologies?


Volume 37: Future Legacies (Fall 2017)

2017 will mark Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary. With 150 years to reflect upon, this anniversary compels us to cast a critical eye on the legacies of the past century and a half and how they stand up to their early visions; and simultaneously to project ideas for what the next 10, 50, 100 or 150 will bring. Our frame of reference, however, is not limited to Canada nor only to celebratory reflections. We welcome broader discussions of past and future legacies–the successes, the failures, and the unknown outcomes–across countries and continents and across scales and time. We are interested in those elements that have left a lasting mark on our spatial, social, political, and cultural environment; as well as the forms and methods used to express, represent, and project those legacies.

This moment–a looking glass of sorts–is one to speculate on the past and future together, and collapse them into the now.  

On Nations and Globes

What specific role has design played, and what role can it play–from infrastructure to products to policy–in nation building? Or concurrently, at a time when ubiquitous globalization confronts the (re)emergence of nationalistic assertions, should design play a role in any national project?

On Memories and Anxieties

Questions of national identity inevitably rely on readings of collective memory. But history and memory run in parallel, so how are these readings influenced as the point of origin shifts in relation to our past, present or future perspective? Are our anxieties of the present making us increasingly nostalgic for a familiar future? What role does memorialization play in extending past legacies or liberating future visions?

On Scopes and Scales

As the scope of human influence shifts across extreme scales, from the geological to the digital, how will our current and future legacy-making be distinguished from that of the past? And as designers, what are our  ethical responsibilities in shaping future visions within such extremes?

On Words and Pictures

What specific methods do we invoke to represent and communicate reflections on the past and speculations on the future, if it is even necessary to distinguish or reconcile the contrast between vision and reality? Is the manifesto still relevant?

We encourage contributors to reflect on these questions or put forward their own. We are particularly interested in submissions which explore alternative methodologies for communication in an effort to break down traditional boundaries and linear relationships between speculation and reflection, drawing and writing, as well as the conventional expectations of architectural image-making.

As the poet Paul Valery once said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.”

Let’s reflect on what the future once was, what it could be today, and as designers, what role we play in shaping and translating it. In the context of the history of Canada’s national project, and our global condition, what can architecture say about our past futures and our future pasts?

Volume 36: Vernaculars (Spring 2017)

Building is a universal phenomenon: long before there were architects, people have crafted their own homes, built cities, and designed systems to harvest requisite natural resources such as water, wind and light.  Today, as climate change threatens, as engineered solutions spur new problems, and global politics fall short in addressing local issues, architects are turning to the vernacular: the informal, the spontaneous, the regional and the handmade.  Is it mere nostalgia that drives us to seek examples from the past?

Vernacular architecture, made from local materials using techniques that respond to the local climate, present a vision of architecture where human needs exist in perfect harmony with the landscape.  The craft is rooted in an instinct and respect for the land.  Cultures that still practice vernacular construction often have an intimate relationship with nature and a strong sense of environmental stewardship.  These traditions contain valuable lessons for today's socio-environmental concerns.

Yet these same cultures, such as the Native people of Canada, are also marginalized by colonization, resource extraction, and political decisions that have lead to their displacement from landscapes deeply connected with their identity and way of life.  Can vernacular traditions continue to thrive in this context?  Moreover, modernity brings new technologies, new affluence, and new social desires to traditional communities.  How do vernacular typologies evolve and adapt to contemporary living?

The construction industry is driven by cutting-edge technology, computer-aided design and fabrication, and benchmarks for building performance efficiency.   Are the homes that people build for themselves, work that is done by hand, using found materials rather than mass-manufactured and certified products fundamentally incompatible with the future of construction?

Amid a looming awareness of the fragility of the environment and its finite resources, are there new answers to be found by revisiting the constructions of the past?  Beautiful though it may be, is vernacular architecture still relevant today (and tomorrow)?


Volume 35: Borders (Fall 2016)

A border is perhaps the most necessary, ambiguous and political architectural tool. The line that defines an area on the one hand has the power to create, and on the other an equally great capacity to divide and destroy.

Borders delimit to diminish the scale. Thanks to borders objects can become objects, buildings can become buildings, forests can become forests, countries can become countries and so forth. We often see borders foregrounding their prohibitive role, but limits can often be valuable and their lack can become equally oppressive as borders themselves. The inability to define and comprehend can turn into a lack of an alternative, an impossibility to escape or to create something new.

Even though borders still define objects, buildings, forests and countries today we cannot interpret them only as walls of brick and mortar, cliffs or other kinds of hard edges. They are also soft, invisible and intangible barriers. What does it mean today to delimit a territory? What does it mean to control society, when repeating after Deleuze we are living in a time in which “man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt”? In a context in which the access to the Internet becomes more desirable than the access to natural light – how do we define exclusion or detainment? When “all that is solid melts into the air” also borders become redefined and less tangible. How does that influence the way we define our identity? Are borders defined by what divides us or by what connects us and which one of those do we find more important nowadays?

When discussing borders it is difficult, however, not to talk about danger, fear, protection and shelter. We tend to think that a fight for territory belongs to the past, that territory has become almost irrelevant because the power is distributed and controlled through capital. Yet we are currently experiencing one of the biggest migration crises in recent history and it is all about the territory. We should also not forget about the fact that the capital continuously materializes itself in various forms. It is in real estate, oil platforms, gas pipes, telecommunication cables and many other forms that are actually different forms of physical borders. Fear also finds expression in physical forms, even though walls seem not to be able to protect us from contemporary dangers anymore. How does that influence our idea of dwelling if safety is still one of the most important values in defining domesticity? And what does it mean today to protect a territory – be it a household, a country or the planet?

Borders are always political, but all of them are constructed– either through geological processes, planetary relationships, political and social contracts, distribution of wealth or built environment. What defines borders is eventually also how do we act upon them, our attitude towards them. Do we accept them? Do we trespass them? Do we create them? Do we comment on them? Or do we destroy them?

Issue #35 will explore borders as political, solid, ephemeral, creative and exclusive delimitations of space. We are interested in critical contributions reflecting on borders in the form or articles, artworks, models, theories, technical drawings, poems or any other way that can be somehow represented or documented in print and/or online.

As of issue #35 On Site review is going to transform and become –Site Magazine, perhaps in itself it will also become a border between the old and new On –Site review.