cul-de-sac: a dialogue on suburbia

Much has been said and written in criticism of the North American suburb. It has been seen as the antithesis of design, a banal cartoon facsimile of some dreamed of sylvan ideal. To some, the suburb represents all that is wrong with modern life: rampant consumerism; the commodification of place; the homogenizing tendencies of global capitalism; a lack of community (and a lack of appreciation for community); the destruction of the environment (both in the invasion of the suburban accretions into the rural, and in the unsustainable nature of the suburb itself, what James Howard Kunstler has called the ‘greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world’); the ferocious pursuit of greed by developers, as well as the ostentatious and misdirected displays of wealth by the nouveau riche in the form of monster ‘McMansions’; the erosion of street life and the disappearance of the pedestrian (not to mention the corresponding degradation of the health and quality of life amongst suburban dwellers); and on and on…

There is, at least amongst designers and cosmopolitan urban dwellers, simply no question that the suburbs are inherently WRONG; that we need to in some way convince the inhabitants of the suburb that the quality of their lives are tremendously degraded by the very circumstances in which they choose to live. From the point of view of the architect or urban designer, the phenomenon of the suburbs can be seen within the larger context of the continuing evolution of the North American city as a kind of utopia out of control. The history of suburban development is a history of failure on the part of architects and designers to co-opt the collective imagination towards a more vital vision of the city.

Many of the criticisms that have been leveled at suburban sprawl focus on functional issues. The New Urbanist polemic, for example, focuses upon the idea that the inherent sense of placelessness arises from morphology. Vital community life does not exist in the suburb because there is no street life; there is no street life because suburban places are designed not around accommodating pedestrians, but around the needs of the automobile. Many of the strategies that have arisen out of the explorations of the New Urbanist polemic revolve around issues of injecting meaningfulness into the non-place of the suburban realm. There is a sense that by changing the morphology of the suburb so that it functions more like a vital urban place, it will acquire a greater sense of meaningfulness for its inhabitants. It has the power, in fact, to change the behavior of its inhabitants. But is this true? Many of the New Urbanist developments which have come to fruition have been criticized precisely for their inability to change peoples’ behaviour. Places like Celebration, Poundsbury, Seaside, or (closer to home) Markham, have proven to be successful as a marketing model for developers but ineffectual in terms of really changing the behaviour of their inhabitants. These are still ‘greenfield’ developments; they are by and large still homogeneous residential enclaves that rely heavily on the automobile; they have not successfully incorporated a diverse mixture of income levels; the quality of community in these places is questionable. I see in this polemic not a solution but re-branding of the same anti-urban cult of the individual that created this situation in the first place. The ideal of a house in the country of a traditional suburb has been replaced with a new ideal of the small town. Either way, the sentiment is in opposition to true urban life, and relies on a set of morphological and visual signifiers which remain skin deep. Does a simulacrum of the campo in Siena really acquire some value simply by virtue of its form? Perhaps this can be justified with the argument that New Urbanist communities are a step in the right direction, a kind of half-way house for the rehabilitation of the suburban dweller; but if that is the case, what is the next step?

It seems to me that what is really at issue when speaking about meaningfulness – about making meaningful places – is the question of how cities accrete history. It is [possibly] demonstrable that the suburb does not develop meaning in the same way that a truly urban place does - it is not built for evolution; it is a temporal place that exists as a snapshot of the ideal as it manifested itself at the time of its construction. However I do not believe that truly diverse and vital cities that exist in North America today have any monopoly on meaning. One of the themes I would like to explore in this thesis is the idea that ‘meaningfulness’ is divorced from vitality when we are speaking about places. I believe, and I would like to demonstrate, that on the one hand the cultural wasteland of the suburb is not as empty as it is often believed or assumed to be; and on the other that the vital landscape of the city is equally capable of becoming commodified, of having its meaningfulness co-opted... I would like to explore the basic assumptions about the suburbs in order to understand the undeniable success with which this mode of life has occupied and consumed the collective imagination, in order to seek avenues for entry into that collective imagination.

In order to approach this, I will begin by asking the following questions (and many more, no doubt!)…

Who are the people that inhabit the suburbs? What are the common links (beliefs, backgrounds, economic situations, tendencies, fears) that cause us to choose this way of life? Of what do our / their hopes and dreams consist?

What forms of community exist within the sprawling periphery? What are the networks, dialogues, identities, organizations and connections of these places and how are these influenced or generated by the mode of living defined by the morphology of the suburban city? To what do we look for self-identification when our situation in the world becomes so non-specific as to exist anywhere and nowhere at once?

Is there beauty here? Is there a future for us in this landscape?


RECONSIDERING UTOPIA- The inverted grid city

In the context of global climate change and an escalating energy crisis, leading to further desertification of arid zones among them the Negev desert in Israel, this region, as many other drylands, is faced with prospects of a bleak future. A state of crisis brings about a need to re-examine and inform a re-organization of social and urban structures, as a pre-requisite for prosperous survival within this complex ecosystem. At the dawn of a renewed and urgent search for alternative global sources of energy, the Negev is presented with the opportunity to utilize and capitalize on its most abundant resource: solar radiation.

This thesis will explore how communal ideologies and urban texture co-evolve dependently on one another. It will suggest new paradigms for a post carbon world, mainly in the planning of community infrastructural patterns. In the particular case of desert communities, it will propose the inversion of the electrical grid to a multi-directional system. Energy production is envisioned as a viable source of livelihood for such remote communities, enabling them to shift from a consumer to a producer role. Such shift will inevitably destabilize the existing urban grid and with it an outdated social structure in need of reconsideration.

This context represents an opportunity, embedded within the obvious crisis, to re-envision desert communities. Inspired by a critical look at a rich array of earlier visions for this area, from the biblical profits to David Ben-Gurion’s ideas of a flourishing Negev, this work wishes to establish a contemporary vision of a sustainable, diverse and productive desert society.

Smart Things for an Ironic Future

This thesis is concerned with a complex and essential tension that I perceive in our relationship with technology, which I associate with the images of the cyborg and the hermit, the cyborg being the manifestation of the will-to-technology and the hermit being the manifestation of the impulse to reject technology.

The capacity to make and use technology is a crucial attribute of humanity. We are tool users. Furthermore, technology seems to develop following clear but largely unarticulated lines of desire. But yet we are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by our technology. We are both hopeful that our technology will liberate us and fearful that it will contain us. We both love the power that it affords and anxious about the fragility of our waxen wings.

This drama is played out at the scale of the dwelling unit, posed here as a basic frame for our existential condition. There is a reciprocal quality to the dwelling unit: we give it form and it forms us, and thus the connection between it and us is strong. The dwelling unit frames our dwelling; we exist in it, with it, and through it; we see the world through it. We remember, imagine, and project the world from it.

In this sense, we have always been sort of architectural cyborgs, indeed, we have always had a close connection with all of our tools. But yet there is something totally repulsive about the very closeness of this connection. There is something unreal about it, something that makes us want to run into the woods and return to the land in a desperate bid for authenticity. Heidegger, Jung, and Al Purdy all give strong evidence of this tendency, and likewise in all three we see fascinating examples of architecture’s potential for engagement with our self-creation. Their houses were intense sites of dwelling and sense-making, both of the world and of the self.

Strong nationalistic tendencies in both Purdy and Heidegger must make us sceptical of their projects, however. And Jung’s stripped-down, stable model of the (fully individuated) self is outmoded. The true nature of nostalgia, sentiment for the land, and longing for unity, both in their very positive and understandable aspects and in their potential for violence and exclusion must be addressed.

This thesis then tentatively attempts to work with the changes in contemporary technology and the attendant changes in us. And a number of important changes are taking place: the extent that we are becoming embroiled in large, unfathomable networks is causing disindividuation and re-mystification such that technology assumes a mystical, almost semi-divine aura; the merger of physical reality with virtual reality (the emergence of mixed reality) together with transcendence of the purely visual interface are causing a more harmonious relationship to develop between mind & body; the split self, or ecological model of self is supported by technologies that structurally divide attention, opening the potential for ironic attitudes towards truth, and more pervasive acceptance of plurality and multiplicity.

Traditional boundaries are blurring between mind and body, self and other, humanity and nature, between classes, ethnicities, genders (Haraway). These boundaries are becoming negotiable zones. How can architecture navigate these boundary zones? How can we design meaningful architecture for our new hybrid condition? How can our architecture accommodate both inner peace and inner multiplicity, the possibility of rootedness without the solace of race, religion or nationhood?

The architecture of our dwelling unit represents a threshold between the ecosystem that we are, of beliefs, thoughts, desires, body, and machines, and the larger ecosystems, both of earth and world of which we are a part. It is a tool through which we confront our cosmos (Bachelard). The careful calibration of this tool is a matter of responsibility. We must also carefully calibrate architecture to the scale of our ‘technological flesh’ (Perez-Gomez), to craft a sensual engagement between us and larger-scaled systems as a potential antidote to the alienation exacerbated by digital technology. If our architecture implies a ‘way of living’, let that way of living be tolerant and liberal, and open to plurality.

This thesis follows from the identification of primal ‘value’ in the mundane elements of the house demonstrated in Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and also Pallasmaa’s brief article “Identity, Intimacy, and Domicile”. It tracks the tendencies of the cyborg and of the hermit through these elements, focusing on: the chair, the bed, the water closet, the window, the stair, the dining table and the hearth. In treating these elements, the thesis presents historical accounts and poetical descriptions as well as gestures of design in the hopes of bringing about both a more intimate knowledge of these foci as well as speculating about a position in the tension between the cyborg and the hermit.


Architecte Acadien

This thesis is about a special place in time and memory. The place is now known as Caribou Harbour, Nova Scotia. This thesis will attempt to create a place to honour the memories that have an attachment to this place and allow a certain awareness to occur through the act of creating space and designing a way to see and understand this place. The act of making this place through the use of a variety of tools is an attempt to bring out the greatest awareness and most comprehensive understanding of this place.

That said; in creating this thesis it is admitted that it in no way can this one body of work compensate for the overwhelming magnitude of shared memories and collective space it occupies within the greater Canadian social imagination. What this thesis will do is strive for an authentic and pluralistic approach to synthesize the essence of this place through the means available to an architect.

The overarching theme of this thesis is the condition of Acadian Diaspora and becoming more aware of what it is. Questions on the subjects of place, time and memory will be examined through the polarized lens of an architect’s perspective as a striving of understanding through science and art will bring with it an academic bilingualism appropriate to Acadian cultural tradition.

Caribou Harbour is a special place that anchors the discourse related to Acadian Diaspora, it offers to all Acadians (in the most inclusive use of this term) a place to rest and contemplate. It allows Acadians a connection with the past as well as presenting them with a bright future and an outlook on the possible changes that can occur for them and the generations to come. The very name Acadia has with it the strong connection to the greek name “Arcadia” meaning “refuge” or “idyllic place” . It is in this spirit that this thesis will attempt to construct a contemporary space at Caribou Harbour.


Sleepless Night: Longing

You made me wait so long, so long that
I got used to missing you
You came back after a long time
I now love longing for you more
than I love you


“Longing” is a significant characteristic in the ideology of Iran. It is a spiritual path in which, one detaches from earthy concerns and wishes that which “the beloved” whishes: his own wishes are gone, he is emancipated from his wants, and in this process is where he finally beholds his nothingness. This is the moment a follower becomes a wanderer. Through withdrawal from all rationales, the hidden world reveals before his eyes and amongst the “gap” is where he approaches “the otherness”.

In the art and architecture of Iran void is an essential element; an ineffable hollow in the center that is detached but a source of attachment; that is visible but concealed. Is it the embodiment of longing? Is it depiction of “the other thing”? Is it the path towards it? Is it a mystic halt through which the beloved reveals?

Questions like these raised in the Iranian art after Islam outlawed illustration of the good. Any divine concept to any mundane object was banned to be portrayed as it was considered idolatry. It was undeniably a pause in Persian art history; however, resulted in flourishing of Persian literature. Iranians, who were politically and theologically conquered, began engaging in a cultural war of resistance and succeeded in forcing their own ways on the victorious Arabs. They used their well-founded literature which was the only legitimate media as a turn-around in narrating and picturing concepts that other media were unable to engage with. The prohibition soon became a source of prosperity and brought three-dimensionality to Persian literature that resulted in the renowned works of Rumi, Omar Khayyam and etc.

Calligraphy was one of the primary companions of poetry amongst the visual arts along this era. It as well evolved to a medium for disclosing impression beside its textual obligation. As a result, Persian calligraphy branched from Arabic calligraphy and became more fluid and free in order to equitably represent the openness of Persian poetry. The poems are mostly multi-layered and full of hidden implications. Quite harmoniously, Persian calligraphy becomes another layer of mystery in the process of storytelling. In some cases it becomes complicated to read due to its composition, as a result, conceals some words of the passage and create some gaps in the text. It is now the reader who fills in the gaps and creates his own plot. In this respect, the intention of modern arts movement is quite similar to that of the classic Persian calligraphy where the reader is being engaged in playing an active role and possessing the narration.

In later stages, Persian calligraphy becomes more about the void rather than the solid and in this respect intends to elevate the notion of the gap rather than the figures. This research aims to transcribe the qualities of Persian calligraphy into architecture. It is a translation of one media into another; a journey from the classic values of eastern traditions to the modern language of western art. Architecturally, it is an effort towards emphasizing the notion of the otherness in space: reunion of impression and space what is given less concern in our modern life’s architecture.


I just want to take pictures

“The silence of the photograph. One of its most precious qualities, unlike cinema and television, which always have to have silence imposed on them - though no-one ever succeeds in this. The silence of the image, which requires (or should require!) no commentary. But the silence, too, of the object, which it wrests from the deafening hurly-burly of the real world. Whatever the noise and the violence around them, photographs return objects to a state of stillness and silence. In the midst of urban hustle and bustle, they recreate the equivalent of the desert, a phenomenal isolation. They are the only way of passing through cities in silence, of moving through the world in silence.”
Jean Baudrillard
Photographies, 1999.


Urban Celebration

This Thesis looks at the transformative nature of Carnival in Trinidad on the city of Port-of-Spain. Carnival in Trinidad embodies a unique cultural confluence that is born from the conjoined European, African, Indian and modern West Indian narratives that shape the Caribbean consciousness. The transformation that occurs during Carnival is of a civic, personal and perhaps even spiritual nature. This thesis will explore in depth the urban artifices of Carnival, looking at the anatomy of the festival itself, that is, the history, characters, places and moving parts that comprise its celebration in the city. Through this exploration of masquerade and urbanism, I hope to create a realistic understanding of the syncretic nature of this festival and its emancipating role in West Indian society.

Carnival in Trinidad evolved as a vehicle of emancipation for the ex-slaves of the society. Its celebration is a centrifugal force within the society; drawing on the many parallel histories of the island and bursting onto the streets in the ecstatic celebration of a unified myth and reality. The problems of identity, spatial ownership and belonging that are inherent to the post colonial mind, on the days of Carnival are temporarily non-existent. This thesis therefore aims to create the beginning of an new urban understanding of Trinidad that is rooted in Caribbean history and Caribbean behaviour, rather than in borrowed attitudes and fractured codes.

Link to site: http://urbancelebration.blogspot.com/