At the very end of March, I went back to Mississauga, my home town, city, conurbation (I don’t even know what to call it!) to visit my elderly parents. My dad was up for a heritage award for his work in a campaign to restore the steeple of the church, (Presbyterian), he and my mother have been attending for years. A charming little brick edifice dating back to the 1870’s, its steeple was smitten from the tower by lightning in 1920, and then hastily replaced with an ignominious asphalt shingled pyramid, which stayed there for the next 90 years. As a retirement project, Pop, who was, by the way, brought up a Swabian Lutheran, organized getting a replica of the original (wooden) spire made in lightning resistant steel and he and the other parishioners were thrilled to see it hoisted into place by a giant crane. The result, it has to be said, is quite handsome as the church sits atop a hill and has now regained its long lost stature as a landmark, with a much more commanding presence over the nearby houses and the vale of the Credit River, a visible link to the past in a context in which most such points of historical reference have been wiped out.
On the unseasonably hot (it was only the end of March after all!) globally-warmed morning of the award ceremony, we drove to Mississauga’s strangely triumphalist, Adolf Speer inspired city hall, left the car in its subterranean catacombs, made our way across a desolate plaza and eventually entered the council chamber where we settled into the gallery to wait for dad to be summoned. There were several bonhomous speeches about the value of Mississauga’s heritage, but my God, I thought, almost the entirety of the places I had known there as a boy had long since been obliterated by strip malls and low rise industrial parks. Yet dad got his award and deservedly so, from the mayor no less, a minuscule lady, so ancient she seemed almost animatronic in her proficiency, performing her duties, astonishingly well, I might add, despite a tubercular sounding cough.
‘She’s been ruling Mississauga with an iron fist for 33 years,’ I heard someone say. ‘And everyone’s damn proud of her – Damn proud!’
Perhaps I caught a whiff of UBIK, or something, but as I sat there I was overcome by a strange feeling as if I’ve been asleep for a long time and had awoken, like Rip Van Winkle, into a distant future. It is 1968 and I’m a boy standing in a warm field of yellow goldenrod and mauve Virginia asters and into the shimmering distance sweeps a blonde expanse of pasture and corn stubble and here and there, a weathered grey barn or a small woodlot punctuated by the vermilion of sumac and swamp maple. Above it all, the crows caw and wheel and a contrail dissolves slowly into the great blue dome of the sky, reminding me that it is, after all the jet age. It was a dirt road that brought us here, my father and I, and we have come to shift the wire pens that contain the flock of unruly geese we are raising in a not-very-profitable after-work venture that dad had concocted to ‘help make ends meet,’ as he likes to say. The farm has been rented by a certain Mr. Baker, a taciturn workmate of his from the factory at which they spend their days supervising the machinery that spits out concrete blocks onto an assembly line and he is in the background right now quietly, as is his manner, tending a couple of horses that belong to his teenaged daughters.
It was all so clear to me but – so what? Forty four years later, everything has changed. Everything that is, except the contrails, which are still there, only there are many more of them. Driving around with my now elderly parents, dad points out a parking lot and says ‘do you remember Oliver, the place where we raised the geese?’ – just one parking lot in a continuum of parking lots that have entombed the soft earth of my boyhood fields beneath their genericizing tarmac. There is nothing, absolutely nothing left of the bucolic landscape I once loved – the red brick farm houses with the white trimmed front porches, their quiet lanes overarched by the green tunnels of elm trees, the raucous retort of ring-neck pheasants erupting skyward from the shrubbery as we passed them by, the dust billowing behind us with me in a heat daze in the back seat , the bobolinks, the meadowlarks, the ancient snapping turtles, covered with water moss, with their eyes tearing up and their anuses straining as they exuded their glistening ping pong ball eggs into the holes they laboriously dug into the gravel of the railway embankment, holes dug with their hind feet, holes they would never see for their precious eggs that also remain invisible to them, because these sad and ancient beasts never looked back and after they deposited their precious burdens they’d track like weeping suitcases across the dirt roads and fields, back toward the mire of their sheltering marshes, the mire which is all now gone and has been gone for years and years.
There are few of us left now who remember the mire and the burble of the marsh wrens and the swoop of the bank swallows attending to their burrows in the grey clay bluffs by the river. Was it all worth losing? Not that we had any choice. We’re having coffee now, mom and dad and I. They are old but the three of us were all born in the same last century, they closer to the beginning of it and me, toward the end of its middle. ‘What’s that?’ I ask, pointing to a sort of mountain rising up on the other side of the highway, a yellow bulldozer creeping up its summit, spewing red dust across the white blue of the Southern Ontario sky. ‘It’s topsoil,’ says dad. ‘They pile it there and sell it back to people.’ ‘Oh,’ I reply and watch a paper cup blow slowly across the coffee shop parking lot till it hits a concrete barricade and then just sits there quivering.
Robert Crumb’s version of North American History from Fall 1979′s Coevolution Quarterly
I’ve just spent the better part of a week in Portland Oregon, hanging out amidst a living experiment that might just point the way to the future of the North American city. The Planet Repair Institute headquarters, once a typical West Coast style home on a typical West Coast street, has been modified by owner, architect Mark Lakeman and an ever-changing crew of cob builders, natural plasterers and urban permaculturalists into an earthy badger mound of mmm-mmm, organic goodness. Lakeman and his many collaborators espouse a kind of participatory architecture in which everyday people learn how to use common natural materials such as straw and clay to make architectural interventions that help humanize urban neighborhoods. The result is a kind of re-organic-ization of the built environment, a softening of the predominantly rectangular aesthetic with blobby, communal pizza ovens, loaf-like street corner benches and hobbit-worthy backyard pavilions. These cheerful earthen structures, encrusted with whimsical mosaics and botanically themed bas reliefs, may have the form and texture of supersized Christmas cookies, but I believe they also suggest something much more profound. Here is a handmade, participatory architecture that seeks to re-design the city from the bottom up, in marked opposition to the traditional top-down impositions of architects and urban planners. The handmade nature of the building technique invites participation, and the constructions take on the character of those who work on them, a truly open source methodology that, with minimal instruction, even young children can learn by molding clods of mud into the cob material that can be then patted into almost any shape imaginable. As an added bonus, the clay used is in abundant supply at local cemeteries and can be had for the asking. It is an inevitable byproduct of the many holes that tend to be dug in that business. The sand and straw constituting the rest of the mix are likewise easily sourced and are of course inherently natural and biodegradable.
Aside from the biomorphic look and the participatory building process, I think it important to point out that Planet Repair’s architectural methodology is often used to ‘re-skin’ existing structures, making them more ecologically sustainable by adding substantial insulation and thermal mass to both the insides and the outsides of buildings, as well as conferring a pleasant, natural aesthetic. The inside walls of the front room at Lakeman’s southeast Portland home have been retrofitted in an extra layer of stuffed straw soaked in a slip of clay, considerably upping the building’s ‘R’ value and giving it a lovely grassy ambiance. Out the back, his office in the former garage has been ‘frosted’ on its outside walls like a yummy birthday cake with layers of earth-toned cob replete with arboreal design motifs. This is architecture as palimpsest, a refreshing contrast to the tear-down mentality of many urban designers who in the past have been all too eager to raze the embedded history of locality in the service of their personal vision. The re-use and re-skinning of existing structures has an environmental benefit as well, keeping demolition debris out of the waste stream and reducing the need for newly manufactured materials. Given the the global ecological and economic crises, this approach makes more and more sense.
Re-skinning with Cob
Straw Insulated Interior Wall
The other Portlandia trend to watch is the increasing fashionability of unplugging from the power and sewage grids. Photovoltaic panels and homemade solar hot water heating systems festoon these nouveau urban pioneer villages, and there are numerous composting toilet and ‘humanure’ initiatives, where, at least in the one I toured, human waste was being re-processed into plant food in a surprisingly odorless, backyard set-up. As civic infrastructure continues to erode under government disinvestment and bureaucratic neglect, these do-it-yourself, autonomous methodologies will become a valuable part of the city’s ‘immune-system,’ and, if replicated and scaled up, might begin to stand in for the centralized systems we once relied on, as they collapse around us. Even in the short time I was there, Lakeman was given the heads-up by a municipal employee who warned him that leaf collection in Portland would soon be under the cut-back axe, and the city was examining the feasibility of downloading these duties to neighborhood volunteers. Lakeman’s response was to promptly organize a block wide, leaf-raking blitz, during which, in about an hour, a large group of us managed to rake up almost all the available biomass on the block’s sidewalks and streets to add to compost heaps and use as mulch on communal garden plots.
Public Tea Kiosk at Intersection Repair
The strategies of ‘block-repair’ and ‘intersection repair’ are key components of Lakeman’s architectural activism. In addition to installing cob structures and edible plantings around Portland intersections, he has overseen the painting of the asphalt surfaces of the intersections themselves with colorful, circular, crowd-sourced murals that calm the traffic and turn previously generic crossroads into pedestrian-friendly neighborhood meeting places. People like hanging out there and drivers tend to slow down. The intersection becomes a place to be rather than to simply pass through. This sort of conscious place-making revivifies the local and re-connects Portlanders to each other in shared urban experiences, alternative to the dominant commercial systems of exchange. Though the aesthetic tends a bit toward the Tolkienesque, the intersection repair projects are an unqualified success, and Lakeman is trying to export the idea to other cities such as Vancouver that have expressed interest. Lakeman’s ‘repair’ paradigm serves to realign the power relationship between the urban planning profession and the people and places that are traditionally subjected to it. By making planning and building participatory, democratic and fun, Lakeman’s techniques empower neighborhoods to re-invent themselves and implement their own site-specific solutions for how they want to be. In this light, perhaps, the failing civic infrastructure of North American cities could open up many new possibilities. But will the besieged municipal governments be willing to relinquish enough control? We probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.