VA stands for Viciously Average

The Visual Arts building used to be a parking garage, and it shows.

If you’re not a student in fine arts, you might never have had the privilege of witnessing this fine institution. Allow me to paint you a picture: imagine a bland, grey-brown box filled with austere, harshly-lit studios. That about sums it up. 

The VA Building is located on René-Lévesque Boulevard., about a five-minute walk from the core of the downtown campus. Before the EV Building transitioned to hold a number of art facilities, the faculty of fine arts used to be concentrated in the VA. At one time, the building’s atmosphere was much more lively—there even used to be a student-run café called Café X, until it was closed in 2017. 

Thinking about this building’s missed potential reminds me of recurring thoughts I have about architecture and how under-utilized many spaces are. We spend so much of our lives indoors; I think these spaces should be as beautiful as possible. It’s especially ironic for an arts building to be so un-artistic. 

The exterior walls of the VA Building seem like the ideal candidates for colourful murals, but are instead blank and gray. This makes what they call a “brutalist” architecture even more foreboding and doesn’t exactly foretell an inspiring atmosphere. Imagine if students were tasked with the job of beautifying the building, and how inspiring it would be to walk into a giant work of art (to go create more art!).

The issues with the building are not just aesthetic, however. Numerous factors make learning an unpleasant or even inaccessible experience. There often seems to be issues with the toilets (especially on the third floor), and the water fountains have been ineffective almost all year (they’ve been replaced by water coolers, to be fair, but still). Don’t even get me started on heating—what began as an icebox has turned into a furnace, and these fluctuations seem to occur minute by minute. Rumour has it that the ceramics studios needed a space heater brought in to help with temperature regulation.

What’s more, the VA Building is often referred to as a food desert. Without any food options nearby, students have spent many evenings nourished only by vending machine cookies. (Yes, I should probably get better at meal prepping, but still—food should be cheap and accessible for students, especially given the brutal four-hour studio classes.)

Sometimes I imagine how wonderful the space could be. My utopian vision for the VA involves a brightened exterior, a revamped student café, and improved social spaces. Students do better work in better spaces, and art should be done in a place that evokes inspiration (and comfort!). 

In the meantime, things could always be worse. Actually, I lied—the vending machine was out of two-bite brownies the other day. We have truly hit rock bottom over at the arts building. From now on, every time I create a seriously mediocre painting, I’ll just blame it on this Viciously Average building.

Ar(t)chives Arts

Habitat 67: Moshe Safdie and the influences behind his work

An architectural innovation with Marxist undertones

Approaches to architecture vary from one architect to another. Some approaches are based on design aesthetics personally favoured by the architect, while others arise out of deeply rooted ideologies based on specific movements, socioeconomic contexts, and or even childhood memories that affect the architect. This creates a structure with a defined purpose that will stand the test of time. 

Habitat 67 was designed by Moshe Safdie, a McGill University alumnus that had some radical ideas — for the 60s — about housing and architecture. Safdie self-identified as “kind of post-Corbusier”; he employed a human-centric perspective and design that reimagined living spaces. Safdie was deeply concerned with how to achieve a balance between privacy and community, as well as communal work and individual work. 

Additionally, we can observe how Safdie’s cultural heritage and upbringing brought Habitat 67 into being, and influenced all of his later designs. In a discussion regarding his influences, Safdie stated that his “own work has been dominated by five personal themes: gardens, steps, sites, building blocks, and ritual and procession.” Safdie’s architectural design has always been driven by a passionate belief in a better environment and by a kind of architectural socialism that saw him adopt Buckminster Fuller as his political mentor. But also, rub shoulders and exchange ideas with Louis Kahn, Nicholas Negropont, and many members of the Metabolist movement. However, one of the most important things Safdie mentioned were his philosophical influences around how architectural design of living quarters interacts with the experience of the resident of the particular living space. His views on living space were centered around community, self-sufficient building-cities, and a holistic consideration of the living experience. These views were the foundation for the final design of Habitat 67, and although not fully realized, they permeate the structure and its surrounding locale.

Safdie’s convictions on community and building-cities, along with Fuller’s architectural design ideologies, shaped the finished design of Habitat 67.  Safdie described his political mentor (Fuller)  as — an American theorist, architect, and inventor— as a kind of Marxist thinker in the realm of design. For Fuller, architects should always have to try and do more with less, not for aesthetic or stylistic reasons, but so as to provide people with more design usability and practicality. He argued that the welfare of humanity is about doing things efficiently with minimum means to maximum effects, further citing his upbringing. “[I was] brought up in the socialist nirvana of the collective movement and the kibbutz, which were extremely radical communities based on the idea that ‘we live as a community, we own everything and we share everything equally’. […] The kibbutz was really one of the most utopian constructs ever developed, […] especially now that I am living in ridiculously inegalitarian North America.”


The latter is reflected in his work, and is particularly apparent in Habitat 67. The staggered layering of houses/pods and the intention to have a variety of facilities and amenities — i.e. a garden for each apartment, open space, parking, and easy access to the city. The aforementioned were  available to Habitat 67 residents, and it created a city within a city as well as a suburban feel within an urban locale. This was akin to what Safdie’s life was like in the kibbutz. Safdie wanted to stray away from nationalism in the design by creating a shared pavilion for all the different countries’ athletes, but that proved impossible at the time as the countries wanted their own private spaces.

This information and some key identifying markers in his design, could link Safdie to the Marxist ideology of social architecture. Regardless of whether Safdie nurtured Marxist ideologies regarding the built environment, his connection and activism towards a type of social architecture is evident throughout his work on Habitat 67. His desire to create living spaces and residential architecture that relates to his life back in Haifa in the kibbutz, and to his fascination are prevalent throughout his architectural designs.

Visuals courtesy Taylor Reddam and Wikimedia Commons

Ar(t)chives Arts

Gordon Matta-Clark’s unique vision of urban space

American artist Gordon Matta-Clark is well known for his technique which involved cutting shapes into buildings

Gordon Matta-Clark was an American artist who specialized in architectural interventions and photography during the seventies. He is best recognized for his transformation of abandoned buildings through holes and shapes he cut in their walls and floors.

Matta-Clark’s conceptual art was based on his concerns and critique pertaining to the urban reality of New York. One of his first outdoor interventions, created in 1972, was titled Dumpster Duplex. The artwork was composed of an opened garbage dumpster with home furniture, walls and doors placed in it. This piece of art was featured in the neighborhood of SoHo in downtown Manhattan. Through this work, Matta-Clark critiqued housing challenges that the poorest communities of New York were facing at the time.

Matta-Clark also opened the restaurant Food in SoHo with artists Carol Goodden and Tina Girouard. This restaurant was a place where artists could gather to eat and work. Despite only being open from 1971 to 1973, Food is considered to be one of the first restaurants of the area. In terms of Matta-Clark’s work, this restaurant added to his process of investing in and rethinking urban space.

His vision was also transmitted through his Reality Properties: Fake Estates project. He bought 15 plots of land for prices ranging from 25 to 75 dollars between the years of 1973 and 1974. They were small and often unusable due to their location. The artist took pictures of the micro plots. He created collages combining the photographs, maps of the area and his property deeds. The project aimed to critique the unaffordability of real estate in New York.  While he visited most, Jane Crawford, Matta-Clark’s widow, explained that the artist never got the opportunity to see one of the plots he owned since it was surrounded by private buildings.

One of Matta-Clark’s best known projects, Splitting, highlights his iconic building cuts. These art interventions consisted of pieces of a built structure being taken off through strategic cuts with a chainsaw, which transformed buildings into a deconstructed space. The artist described his work as “anarchitecture,” a play on the words anarchy and architecture.  Created in 1974, Splitting consists of restructuring large cuts that were taken out of a house that was supposed to be demolished. Matta-Clark and his team created separations and holes in the dwelling’s structure. The walls were deconstructed to create new spaces between the different rooms. They also performed a cut that went through the house, beginning from the roof and ending in the basement. The artist documented his work through photos, which he gathered in a book titled Splitting. These photographs echo his work on the house. He made collages with the photos, cut them and combined them together to imagine even more modifications to be done on the house.

Matta-Clark continued to perform his building cuts, making them more spectacular. A notable one is titled Conical Intersect. This work of art was created in Paris in 1975. Matta-Clark made cuts in two buildings that were going to be demolished by the city. The round holes he created granted pedestrians access to a look inside the 17th century buildings. The circular cuts left by this art intervention started a pattern for the artist. He created similar round holes in other structures during the following years.

Matta-Clark called his creations on abandoned buildings “non-uments.” The artist’s on-site interventions did not remain, but his photographs and notes were conserved after he died in 1978. His work presents an awareness of architecture, which is still pertinent today as more humans live in cities and are surrounded by dynamic, ever-changing urban environments.


Graphic by Taylor Reddam


The fate of our homes

Reflections on Gordon Matta Clark’s Rough Cuts and Outtakes

As usual, I was arriving late, not stylishly late, just expectedly late, as is expected of me. I have gotten better at this, and I had real justifications for it. I was swinging by from the FASA general meeting which happened to coincide with the vernissage of Rough Cuts and Outtakes, a collection of Gordon Matta Clark’s work exhibited by Hila Peleg, but by a couple of minutes.

So, as I was outside of the Canadian Centre of Architecture (CCA), I started to freak out a bit. The whole entrance was completely desolate, except for a pair of young boys who were kicking a football around and telling each other to go f*ck themselves. The buildings impressive white facade dwarfed them, making it feel even lonelier.

Considering this was the opening of an exhibition, I had expected at least a couple of stragglers waiting outside, having cigarettes or whatever people waiting for shows do – and considering I was a mere 10 minutes off it didn’t seem like an impossibility. I entered the reception lobby and greet the ticket sellers. Embarrassed by my tardiness, I hesitated at first but asked if the exhibit opened the following day, thinking I was a day off. They assured me that no, I was there at the right time and that the speaker had began, I just had to turn to the left. While I was momentarily relieved, I was still sent on a scramble down the long empty corridors of the CCA, accompanied only by fake plaster corinth pillars and victorian decor.

The speakers had begun, I could see from the far most right corner of the amphitheatre. It was dark and impossible to see if there were any seats left. An usher assured me there were seats but at the leftmost corner of the room, right at the front. I still could not see anything. I crossed the back row and stopped, seeing there was a cameraman aiming down the catwalk towards my expected seat. The usher finds this unacceptable, comes to me, and asks me what’s up. I said that everything was alright I just didn’t want to get in front of the camera and that I was happy to remain standing, but she wouldn’t have that and dragged me promptly to an empty seat.

When I finally settled, it was not just my cheeks that were relieved, but I had skipped out on the terribly boring introduction and hadn’t missed any of the juicy stuff. Hila Peleg, the curator of the exhibition, was only then walking towards the podium. Simultaneously, a large grey projection screen slowly scroll downwards. The lights on the stage went off and a projection flickered to life as grainy images of a sad looking and dilapidated house appeared. These were the cuts and extras from Clark’s famous work Splitting (1974), an intervention piece in which Clark and collaborators vertically sawed their way through the entirety of a New Jersey suburban residency that had been abandoned after residents were evicted in the wake of an upcoming urban renewal project.

Except again, this wasn’t Splitting proper. These were outtakes, the waning moments before the cutting began as the camera explores masses of personal objects strewn about by the yard of the residence while Clark and his collaborators crawl along the residence roof making measurements. The clips are few, damaged, and collaged together. Their only identifiable feature was that they are all images of the same house. But perhaps these off-hand shots are more defining and revealing as to the nature of Clark’s work than his mystical and anonymous spatial carvings will ever appear to the uninspired viewer. The great truth of his works lies in the old mattress, left to right in the cold sun. It speaks of people evicted and their homes and neighborhoods destroyed,and perhaps in their vernacular simplicity, they embody their energy and troubles better than any house ever could.

The city of Englewood, where the film shooting took place, is composed of mostly working class neighborhoods. The area has an almost equal number of African American residents to white of the city population. The particular neighborhood where Splitting was done was mostly of African American descent, according to census readings, hence it shouldn’t be surprising then to see how exclusionary social policies ended up mostly clearing out the neighborhood.

Other snippets of Clark’s work drew some of the same conclusions in different ways and forms, but it all came down to the same thing. Has architecture failed us?

This is the same question that resonates from the abandoned clutter of household items to the tired mistreated structures that star in Clark’s work. This is an amusingly loaded question coming from an ex-architecture student, a heated discourse that is a mixture of both personal feelings of shame and maybe relief.

I love architecture, don’t get me wrong. I love looking at buildings and losing myself in their mysterious contours and repetitions, but my question aims more towards the general policy of most architecture in the 21st century. Undoubtedly, construction is linked with urban planning, but for something meant to be a force of beauty and social cohesion, architecture usually comes down to money and time (as most things sadly). A surrounding rhetoric has been that of speedy cheap construction.

In a vain pursuit of grandiosity and efficiency, much has been overlooked. Splittings’ few, second-long outtakes capture this in the refuse pile, pulling our attention away from the building by refocusing on the original subjects, the inhabitants. Despite all its ambition, architecture and to that extent construction is about making spaces that promote the health and prosperity of people. While they are definitely important, maybe the lofty ideals architecture claims to promote are utopian delusions. Through his life, Clark criticized established architectural practices,most notingly with his group Anarchitecture. In its manifesto and ideology, Matta rejected the orderliness and efficiency of modern cities, and celebrated the disorder of densely packed inner city life. I believe this celebration can be felt in those veering shots of the forgotten personal articles. The structures that are supposed to keep us warm and safe are bargaining chips that can be tossed at any moment with little regard for the tiny beings that inhabit them, much less for their few personal belongings. Conical Intersect (1975) is another display that shows buildings in pain, mutilated and left for dead, which isn’t too far a cry from the people evicted from those very structures, and left out in the cold.

Additionally Clark displayed a longing interest for ethnography and, in particular, archeology. Some of the secondary material that will be shown in January of next year will include a great deal of the photographs he took during his trips to South America. From the snippets shown, these include the gloomy images of Inca and Mesoamerican relics.The importance of these is that constant interest in people, their customs, vestments and the role that they play or represent in the imagined spaces left by their ancestors. But this is nothing new, there has always been a profound interest in ruins by poets, writers and artists. From biblical descriptions of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and their damning  implications, the fantastic imaginings of the members of the mostly italian capricci movement in the 16th century, to the apocalyptic prophesying of european artists in the inter and post war period. There has been a historical shift in the portrayal of ruins, from one of mystical and nostalgic allure to one of foreshadowing of destruction, ironic considering the fate of most of Clark’s work.

Perhaps the haunting beauty of contorted shapes and spaces is the promise for narrative,and ultimately, human connection. We search tirelessly old sites and tombs to see that timeless connection between us and our ancestors, to see our humanity echoed generation through generation. Ruins, for this reason, could almost be seen as universal places of worship. But these places are perhaps disappearing faster than we realize, or more accurately, less future ruins are being produced.

Toronto-based architect Brandon Donnelly, and Canadian/American architect, professor and writer Witold Rybczynski, both commented in architectural blogs on the shortening lifespan of buildings in our day and age.

Concrete, steel, and glass, for all their scale, are a lot less durable than one might imagine. Projects built even 60 years ago require major renovations that can come to be several times more expensive than the original costs at their conception.

Put this next to the impressive basilicas of the renaissance, the pyramids or the temples of Teotihuacan that have lasted for hundreds to thousands of years. Now, it is simply cheaper to knock down ugly buildings that we make for whatever necessary reason. For the community of Englewood, it was urban renewal. In Beauburg, Paris, a facelift was ‘needed’ around the then anticipated Centre Pompidou. And constantly a problem that arises is that there was a lack of foresight. Useless or unneeded structure are built, that have little consideration for local communities and necessities. For example, one only has to look at the many failed housing projects in the US (Pruitt Igoe, Cabrini Green), Chinese ghost cities, or Venezuela’s Mission Vivenda. Perhaps the buildings in question were not the most beautiful or impressive. Perhaps they weren’t the most economically efficient use of space, nor the greatest investment. But perhaps that also speaks of a culture that isn’t building things meant to last. The human element is trampled, again and again.

There are still historical societies remembered through the preservation of their architectural structures today, but is there any concern for the preservation of our present or future structures, or will rebuilding every forthcoming day reach the point where history ceases to exist? And to that, what can be said about us, the tenants of these badly built structures. Are we to remain prisoners of badly constructed homes or should we demand better quality construction meant to foster better social equality?

The CCA is open from  Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Thursdays, during which they are open until 9 p.m. Admission is free for students any day of the week. For more information visit their website.


Photos by Annita Parish

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