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Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on December 18, 2012 at 12:36 pm

We've all heard certain stereotypes used to describe Vancouver before (Vancouverites = yoga-fanatic, organic juice-guzzlers). But as is the nature of cliches, while they may contain a kernel of truth, they also ignore a deeply layered lived experience that is not so easily summed up in buzzwords and cute expressions. In MOVments this week we're looking at the city through the lens of a few well-worn adages and in the process deconstructing and complicating some of our civic assumptions.

(Heritage) Home is Where the Heart Is. This story from the Vancouver Sun about the relationship between heritage buildings and densification got us thinking about the notion of "home" and our historically-rooted aesthetic expectations. As the article suggests, in a city that is constantly changing, Vancouverites are being forced to reevaluate what the "quintessential Canadian home" will look like in the future. It also poses an interesting idea from local historian John Atkin: while there seems to be an "inherent" cultural beauty to heritage houses, given time, Atkin believes that our contemporary glass towers will also take on a similar emotional and nostalgic resonance.
 
The More Things Change..."Housing costs are high, but we can't afford to throw up our hands and say we can't afford to build many more houses until costs come down again. In a city growing as fast as ours this would be the counsel of stupidity and despair. We must have more homes and we must have them at prices people can afford to pay." Sound familiar? It was pulled from a Vancouver Sun article from 1958. The Tyee reflects on the findings of the Mayor's Task Force on Housing Affordability, putting them into historical context for us in this little article from a few weeks back. Nothing like some good old-fashioned archival research to shed some light on contemporary issues. Great read!
 
Beggars Can't Be Choosers. Chances are you've heard of Mark Brand's sandwich token program at Save-On-Meats. And chances are if you know about it, you also know that it's been surrounded by controversy from the get go. The Mainlander laid down some harsh criticism of the project that encourages restaurant goers to purchase meal tokens for panhandlers in the area, in this recent article. Peter Driftmier argues that the program's basic conceit ("beggars can't be choosers") is based on an assumption that the homeless cannot be trusted to make "appropriate" purchases with money given to them. He says,"Instead of playing into stereotypes about poor people and tokenizing the poor, it’s best to trust and empower all residents to make the best food choices possible for themselves and their families." Stephen Quinn further complicates the story in his piece for the Globe and Mail where he provides a more nuanced perspective on Brand's social enterprise but also ponders the efficacy of treating the symptoms of poverty rather than the causes.
 
At the MOVeum:
 
January 17 - Built City@MOV
 
[Image: English Bay, c. 1937. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives CVA 1376-569
Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on December 10, 2012 at 11:00 pm

This week's MOVments is all about the bottom line: money, moola, coin. Well, not exactly. After all, when is business ever really just about business? News of W2's near-eviction from the Woodward's building, TransLink money problems, and falling housing prices, has us thinking about the social and political change that necessarily accompanies fiscal shifts (and vice versa) in our fair city. 

W2.0 After receiving an eviction notice for November 23, W2 Community Media Arts Society has been given a 90-day stay by the City of Vancouver so that it can restructure its finances. Megaphone quotes Councillor Kerry Jang for their article on the situation: “It [W2 Media Café] wasn’t making any money,” said Jang. “The business model that was there clearly wasn’t working. That’s what our city staff and everyone are trying to figure out now: how to reinvent the space, how to reuse the space in order to make a go of it.” But as the comment section for the article suggests, W2's brand of social development may not fit so neatly into a conventionally profitable business model. Problematic? Sure, but it sounds like Mayor Gregor Robertson is supporting the organization in exploring some creative possibilities for a sustainable business plan, at least for the time being. For a thorough exploration of the complex relationship between the city and W2, check out this Globe and Mail article.
 
Mo' Transit, Mo' Problems? In response to the new proposal for a subway system along the Broadway corridor, Pete McMartin has written a rather existential piece for the Vancouver Sun. In it, he poses a couple of philosophical questions about the meaning of, well, TransLink; he asks "Is [TransLink] an agent of change or reactive to change? Does it create cityscape or service it? Most important, in this time when the effects of global warming are making themselves apparent, is it an environmental agency or merely a people mover?" McMartin argues that we need to start answering these questions in order to move away from car-based transportation infrastructure. He also suggests that the Fraser Valley region should take priority over Broadway for rapid transit given the sheer number of vehicles moving from this area to Vancouver everyday. Your thoughts and feelings?
 
Chilly Housing Market. It appears that just as we head into some more wintery weather, the housing market in the Lower Mainland is cooling off as well. As the Vancouver Sun reports "the number of home sales dropped to 10-year lows in the Vancouver area and average sale prices dipped across the region." Some of us don't need to be told that there could be benefits to a drop in housing prices, but the Vancouver Sun makes it official, reporting that while a further drop in prices will hurt some, it would also boost the economy by encouraging movement to BC by both retirees and first-time homeowners. As with other economic trends only time will tell where these falling prices will take us but we will be keeping a close eye on the developments.
 
At the MOVeum:
 
January 17 - Built City: Reinvest
 
[Image: W2 Woodward's, Perel Gallery. Photo by Kris Krug]
Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on December 4, 2012 at 6:58 am

This week in MOVments we celebrate the season of colds, flus, and general respiratory discomfort with a selection of news related to that ever-annoying winter symptom: congestion. Whether implementing tools to relieve overcrowded transit systems, promoting creative congregations in public space, or consolidating civic institutions the issues are the same; the city is challenging itself to bring people together while facilitating their fast and efficient movement through space.

Port Mann Progress. Landmark progress has been made in speedy inter-urban travel with the opening of the new Port Mann Bridge on Saturday, December 1. But while the eight new lanes look like they're providing faster commute times for many, ongoing construction on the westside of the bridge continues to cause considerable delays for others. Another minor glitch? An express bus, the first public transit to cross the bridge in over two decades, currently only has stops in Langley and New Westminster, leaving Surrey out of the loop. This understandably has some Surrey residents bent out of shape, not the least of whom is Mayor Dianne Watts who is pushing for a Surrey stop in place of upgrades to an existing exchange hub.

Billion Dollar Ride on Broadway. In other transit news, the city has unveiled a proposal for a subway system along what is currently the busiest bus route in North America, the 99 B-Line. As the Vancouver Sun reports, the seemingly endless line ups associated with the 99 could be a thing of the past if funding can be found for the 2.8 billion dollar project. With the memory of the Canada Line construction in mind, city officials are hoping that by running the proposed system underground problems such as restrictions on turning and loss of trees and parking along the corridor could be effectively avoided.

Block 51 Revisited. Last week we were lamenting the proposed reopening of Block 51 to traffic and with it, the loss of a dynamic, innovative place for Vancouverites to congregate in the downtown core. As the Vancouver Public Space Network reported recently, Vancouver City Council has confirmed that it will allow traffic through the block again until a more comprehensive plan can be made. As the article points out, it's hard to ignore the results of a recent survey that showed tremendous public support for a permanent public square in area. The city seems to be committed to conducting research on the best solutions to traffic problems related to permanently closing the block, with city staff agreeing to report back to Council with findings before summer 2013. Fingers crossed.

Number Crunching. For any of you who wanted detailed numbers on how many staff the city employs (or for that matter, how many old mattresses city garbage workers picked up last year), you've finally got your chance. The city has just released a 177-page budget that offers a wealth of information regarding services, income, and expenditures. Notable for the heritage-minded, the document contains a money-saving proposal for consolidating the historical photographs in the City Archives and Vancouver Public Library's collections into one location. As Frances Bula reports, "The city is reviewing the overlap between the two collections and looking at whether some or all of the archives, possibly the photographs, could be moved to the central [library] branch."

At the MOVeum:

December 6 - Curator's Talk & Tour with Viviane Gosselin
December 8 - Love You Forever Tattoo Parlour
January 25 - Vancouver I Love You But...

[Image: UBC bus stop. Photo courtesy of Tony Chang]

Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on November 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm

This week a shout out to a beloved, but long gone butcher shop on Granville got us thinking about instances where the city missed a chance to preserve its social institutions and foster its creative forces. From saying goodbye to a car-free block downtown to a long-awaited report on the Downtown Eastside missing women, there are certainly plenty of things to ponder on the current social and political horizon. However, these do not just represent some missed opportunities, they also offer chances to reflect, critically analyze, and move forward from where we are now.

Block 51. It looks like the pedestrian-only block adjacent to the Vancouver Art Gallery on Robson Street will revert back to its former incarnation as a transit and traffic artery in the city. As the Globe and Mail reports the public space provided by Block 51 has been very popular over the summer but as the winter has set in, it has become much less animated, leading to the decision to open it to traffic again. While this may be the end of a central gathering place in the vicinity for the time being, the city has recognized the vital importance of these kinds of spaces, identifying other areas on Robson, Granville, and Hamilton as potential permanent gathering places.

Missing Voices. Commissioner Wally Oppal has submitted his final report on the investigation of the missing women cases in the Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002 and as the Georgia Straight reports, it will be made available to the public in mid-December. However, some have already pointed out some flaws. Kasari Govender of West Coast LEAF stated, “This inquiry was a missed opportunity to include the voices of marginalized women, of marginalized communities, and those who were directly impacted by the subject matter of the inquiry. It perpetuated the very problems it sought to alleviate,” But as the reaction to the report has already shown, many legal organizations, non-profits, and media outlets seem to be poised to continue the conversation, critically reflecting on the ongoing discrimination against women, Downtown Eastside residents, and sex-workers in the city and making their own recommendations.

Dude Chilling Park No Longer Quite So Chill. In case you missed it, Guelph Park in East Vancouver was briefly renamed Dude Chilling Park last Thursday. Artist Viktor Briestensky installed a sign with the new name after being inspired by a sculpture of a reclining man that inhabits the park. As the Province reports, Briestensky's goal was simply to promote intergenerational dialogue using humour. And although the sign was removed early Friday morning, it appears that Briestensky has partially succeeded; an online petition calling for the official renaming of the park is creating quite the buzz online, especially among Internet-savvy Vancouverites. Only time will tell if this ends up being a missed opportunity or an exciting example of art being used to reinvigorate an underused social space. You can check out the petition here

At the MOVeum:

November 28 - Evolving Geographies of Immigration in Vancouver: History and Horizons
December 6 - Curator's Talk & Tour with Viviane Gosselin
December 8 - Love You Forever Tattoo Parlour

[Image: James Inglis Reid Ltd. business card for the Granville Street butcher shop. Museum of Vancouver collection, H2004.12.32]

Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on November 20, 2012 at 12:40 am

This week the Illustrated Vancouver blog posted an artist's vision of the Museum of Vancouver building from 1966. Of course when it actually opened in 1968, the museum looked just a little bit different. Unsurprisingly, Vancouver's landscape of shifting expectations is no less visible today. If we look around the city we can find plenty of predictions that haven't turned out quite as we'd anticipated. Read on for some contemporary adjustments to how we might be living, shopping, and doing business in the future.

 
Moving in Together. Chances are that most of us didn't expect to be living with roommates past our 20s (alright, maybe our early 30s). Even the word "roommate" can conjure up negative memories of messy bathrooms and passive aggressive notes. Well, Vancouver Cohousing is providing a different framework for shared living, one that incorporates values like sustainability, community building, and intergenerational bonding. As the Vancouver Courier reports, a cohousing fair last night (November 19) aimed to educate people about a living strategy which organizes separate units around a central shared space used as anything from a communal dining room to a playroom for children. There aren't any cohousing communities in Vancouver at the moment but it looks like we can definitely expect increased interest around the subject.
 
Kingsgate & The Class Divide. For years, what is arguably one of the weirdest malls in the city has provided an eclectic neighbourhood with an eclectic assortment of stores. Now with the new Rize development in the works across the street, Kingsgate Mall is set for redevelopment as a mixed use residential and commercial complex. It's clear that both developers and residents are anticipating a shift in the climate and culture of the neighbourhood, one very much connected to tricky issues of affordability and gentrification. For more on these contentious topics, The Atlantic Cities website recently put out a fascinating article exploring growing class division in the city. As the author Richard Florida suggests, our expectations of "Lotus Land" are quickly diverging from the lived reality: "Even the city widely recognized as the world’s "most livable" cannot escape the growing class polarization of our increasingly spiky and divided world."
 
Social Venture Award. Finally, two Vancouverites may be changing expectations around what it means to do business here. Carol Newell and Joel Solomon of Renewal Partners, a venture capital firm, have just been inducted into the Social Venture Network’s Hall of Fame. Newell and Solomon have invested in businesses like Happy Planet juices and the Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (SPUD) to fulfill their mandate of providing a seed fund for socially aware start-ups. Currently, their Renewal 2 Investment Fund is also giving out larger sums to companies like Seventh Generation, encouraging growth of already established businesses. Congrats, guys!
 
At the MOVeum:
 
 
[Image: Kingsgate Mall sign, 2007. Photo by Greg McMullen]
Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on November 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm
In this instalment of MOVments we're taking a look at some pretty momentous happenings in the city. From a North Vancouver case that concluded in a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, to an unprecedented move forward by the provincial housing strategy, some key moments unfolded in civic history this week. And as a bonus, we're exploring some crucial junctures in something that, from a cultural standpoint, may be equally as important: the history of department store shopping.
 
Support for Special Education. A fifteen-year legal struggle with the North Vancouver school system is finally over for Jeffrey Moore and his family. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Jeffrey, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, was discriminated against when he was not given the help he needed with reading and literacy at his North Van school. As the Globe and Mail suggests, the implications are much broader than Jeffrey's case alone: "Advocates for the disabled were overjoyed by the judgment. They said that school boards that cannot furnish compelling evidence to justify under-funding must henceforth provide genuine help to children with learning disabilities." However, in his opinion piece for the The Tyee Crawford Kilian responds to the ruling, problematizing the way that school boards in the province have had their budgets rerouted. It seems that as always, the story is a bit more complicated than at first glance.
 
Hopeful Housing. The opening of the Sanford Apartments last week was a monumental occasion indeed: it is the seventh of 14 supportive housing developments planned for city-owned land in Vancouver. The housing complex also provides facilities such as a library and computer room for Vancouverites at risk of homelessness. As Mayor Robertson said it, “Safe and supportive housing is one of the most urgent needs of residents living with mental-health challenges, especially for those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.” And it looks the former Ramada Hotel may be next in line for redevelopment as a social housing complex for seniors. It's the first non-downtown property the city has bought for conversion into low-cost housing.
 
Bay Day. And finally, David Look spends a day at the The Hudson Bay Company at Granville and Georgia and in the process weaves together a thoughtful piece on history, shopping, and memory for Ballast magazine. As he explains, "My idea was to get to the root of the 21st-century lifestyle that the Hudson’s Bay Company and its flagship stores throughout Canada represented. What became apparent was how deeply that lifestyle was entrenched in my own sense of personal history, and how my day spent there was, in part, an attempt to connect with it." Read it and you may just learn a thing or two about the shifting culture of department stores in Canada, the new Top Shop store, and the author's lived experience of it.
 

At the MOVeum:

November 18 - SALA SPEAKS @MOV: In Praise of Ambiguity
November 25 - SALA SPEAKS @MOV: Children in the City
November 28 - Evolving Geographies of Immigration in Vancouver: History and Horizons
December 8 - Love You Forever Tattoo Parlour

 
[Image: Pedestrians on Georgia Street outside the Hudson's Bay Company, 1940s. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 1184-1005]
Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on November 6, 2012 at 10:03 am

This week's MOVments is examining the multiple, overlapping geographies that affect how we think about the city and how we situating ourselves within it. Read on to find out about the Museum of Vancouver's position in a shifting urban landscape, the geo-political perspectives that are influencing the shark-fin soup debate, the city across the sea that is giving Vancouver a run for its money, and the city-within-a-city that might be popping up near you.

Museum on the Move? It's no secret that while the Museum of Vancouver may have one of the best views in the city, our location doesn't exactly get mobs of people rushing through the door. Last week the Globe and Mail ran a feature on how we are looking into the possibility of leaving the quiet beauty of Vanier Park for a grittier home in the heart of the city. While our new programs and exhibits have attracted diverse, creative types from across Vancouver, in the absence of an easily accessible bus route or heavy foot-traffic in the area, walk-in visitors are virtually non-existent. We've got our eye on the former courthouse if the VAG ends up moving. What do ya think?
 
The Politics of Soup. As you may or may not have heard, local restauranteur David Chung recently called city councillor Kerry Jang a "banana" for his support of a ban on shark-fin soup in Lower Mainland restaurants. While the use of the word to categorize Jang as "too white" seems outmoded and even slightly comical, Chung's comments offer insight into the contested territory of Asian-Canadian identity in our province. For Jang, growing up in Vancouver meant that he was simultaneously considered "too" Chinese by his white classmates and not Chinese enough by newer immigrants from China and Hong Kong. 

Stockholm Syndrome. It looks like someone over at The Tyee has fallen in love with the captivating city of Stockholm. Crawford Kilian recently visited the northern European city and found out that it while it is similar to Vancouver in a number of ways, it's also doing a lot of things better than us, way better than us. From dense, aesthetically pleasing residential areas to an unparalleled public transit system, Stockholm seems to be the green, cosmopolitan urban centre that we've always wanted to be. As Kilian describes, "Streetcars drop slightly at stops, enabling easier access for wheelchairs and baby carriages, and space is allocated for them inside. Drivers don't take money; passengers buy tickets or monthly passes at convenience stores and other outlets, and can transfer easily from one line to another. Dogs are welcome on board." Okay great, we're just gonna pack up our dogs and move there now. 
 
Oakridge Mini City. And finally, plans are still in the works to redevelop Oakridge mall into what some are envisioning as a small city. Architect Gregory Henriquez has proposed a mega-project that would include "2,800 townhouse and apartment units, a high street, a public commons on the mall roof that includes everything from a wedding pavilion to tai chi spaces, a chunk of office space, a community centre, a library, and street connections to the neighbourhoods around it." The project will have a strong focus on pedestrian and transit routes and is looking to heavily reduce car use in the area. We're excited to see what kinds of innovations spring up here in the near future. 

 

At the MOVeum:
November 8 - Built City @MOV: Urban Evolution "Rescale" with John Robinson & Sadhu Johnston
November 11 - SALA SPEAKS @MOV: Hallucinating in Public
November 18 - SALA SPEAKS @MOV: In Praise of Ambiguity
November 28 - Evolving Geographies of Immigration in Vancouver: History and Horizons

[Image: Planetarium, 1971. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, 2010-006.192

 

 

Posted by: Guest Author on November 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

 

 

In an age of rapidly-changing cities, is it time for city museums to embrace a new outward-looking, activist mission? As keynote speaker at the recent International Council of Museums CAMOC conference at the Museum of Vancouver, renowned urban planner Larry Beasley raised the challenge. This is an edited transcript of his address,“The City as Museum and the Museum as City” on October 24, 2012.           

Cities are the most complex and mysterious of human inventions.  They are rich in harmony and contradiction; in accord and discord.  They are as different around the world as the societies that have created them.    They are tenacious and some are actually very ancient.  They are forever changing and evolving.  As of just a few years ago, they have now become the primary habitat of human beings.  And, of course, they are endlessly fascinating.

Also fascinating are city museums – your museums.  You are a repository of the history and culture of your city – you portray the essence of your place.  I have visited many city museums and they are always jaw dropping and awe inspiring. You tell a very compelling, vivid story.  That is what you do – with research and curation and display and all the professional tricks and art of your trade.  As a City Planner, frankly, I am not sure I have much to offer that would positively contribute to the already great job that you do to build and deliver the city museum.

What I may have to offer is a different perspective – looking at a civic museum not from the point of view of the curator of the museum but from the point of view of a creator of cities.  That’s what I do – that is what City Planners are all about – our job is to envision and then manage the creation of the city.  So, I want to pose the question of what the city museum can do as a part of the ongoing creative process of a city that is forever changing and being re-created.  How can the museum of the city join the design energies and the political energies and the bureaucratic energies and the private sector energies and the people in a city as a civic lens to contribute to the form and personality and quality of that city – not just as an observer but as an actual player?

How can museums reorient outwards to join civic life? 

I think that is an important question – and let me tell you why by giving you a sense of how I do what I do.  My profession is an unusual one – it is part science and part politics but a big part of it is art.  Now, having said that, I also have to emphasize that it is a somewhat peculiar art – city planning is a politicized art, it is a collective art.  Everyone shapes the city every day with almost everything they do.  It would be like if a painter picked up his brush to dab the canvas and a thousand hands grabbed the brush with him to decide just where the paint is to go.  The city you experience is created by millions of independent actions.  A City Planner is a choreographer of urbanism, working with people who have their own ideas and take their own action – and generating through interaction with people the plans and the management mechanisms for how the city or parts of the city should grow and change or, sometimes, be protected from change.

Connoisseurs of urban life

That, of course, is the great strength of city planning – but it is also its potential Achilles heel because, like art, city planning needs to be about some kind of coherent result rather than just randomness or the lowest common denominator.  The more people are all over the place, the more of a problem it is to find a shared way to move forward with your city.  On the other hand, the more people share a vision of the city, the more coherent will be the art of building the place.  The more people understand what I call the “urban DNA” of the city – not only its history but also its current dramas, its issues, its opportunities, its patterns, the way it tends to grow and the way it tends to fade – the more coherent will be the art of building the place.  With that collective view, even if people do not support the same solutions, at least they speak the same language, understand the genesis of ideas and share a sense of the options and implications that can help a city find a positive and maybe even an innovative direction.

Of course, what I am talking about is “urban connoisseurship” – an understanding and sensitivity of cities that informs people about what is good and not so good, what works and does not work, what is progressive and not so progressive.  It is an urban connoisseurship that starts at a personal level, and when everyone gets together, it is an urban connoisseurship that becomes collective.  It is also an urban connoisseurship that is dynamic and constantly evolving just like the city itself.

This kind of understanding and sensitivity comes from discussion and debate, it comes from education and being informed about what is going on in the world of cities, and in a very substantial way, it comes from tangible urban experience.   But, it may shock you to hear, that in almost all cities there is actually no agent to convene the discussion and education and experiences that fosters an urban connoisseurship.  Planning departments go out and talk to people when they have a specific job to do – they call it public consultation.  Politicians go to the people at election time.  The media covers issues from moment to moment.  But there is no constant force for an ongoing engagement and dialogue and interface between people and the diverse realities of city life.  And cities are certainly worse off because of that.

I think that force could be the city museum.  I think that force could be you.  In fact, I think you might be the very best institution within local culture, uniquely suited to be that force because of your special skills and integrity and perspective.  And I firmly believe that, if you took on such a role, the city would be a better place for more people.  City planning and urban design would be a more productive activity.  City government and politics would work better.  People would be more connected and therefore more fulfilled by their life in their city.  And a potential for collaboration would be set up that would be genuinely new in the city simply because of the ethics you would bring to the task.

So this leads me to offer a proposition that is the main theme of my presentation today – for the city museum, my proposition is that you pursue:  “the city as museum; and the museum as city”.

Let me explain what I mean and offer a few illustrations of what this might look like in the form and agenda of a museum of the city.

The city as museum

Let’s start with the “city as museum”.  We live in a mobile world – we can easily get around to whatever it is we need or want to see and our institutions need to come to us more than ever before.  We also live in a virtual world – our reality reaches well beyond our physical capacities and so do other realities that touch us every day.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the museum of the city could tap into these opportunities?  Perhaps the city museum of tomorrow could be equal parts physical and mobile and virtual.  Perhaps the walls and spaces within which you now collect and curate and educate can be exploded, blown away, redefined.  Perhaps the city itself – its streetscapes, its parks, its theatres, its neighbourhoods, its palaces and its slums – could become the actual museum; or at least a significant part of the museum.  Perhaps its airwaves and websites and every single I-phone and computer could become a significant part of the actual museum.  Maybe you could take the entire museum package on the road.

You could curate its treasures as well as its embarrassments on the streets. You could program and re-set its spaces to expose the meaning of those spaces to different kinds of people in the past, in the present, in the future.  You could challenge its contradictions and celebrate its harmonies.  You could set up discussions by everyone everywhere about something specific somewhere through social media.

With the city as the actual museum, you could not just interpret your city; you could join the energies that transform it.  The artifacts that you could work with would not just be the artifacts that you collect or borrow – they would be the actual walls and spaces and landscape and water and monuments and even the people of the city.  And I can just imagine the results that could come from you applying your rigorous research and interpretation and curation and presentation and communication and education methods and skills, with the kind of high integrity, independence and inquiry that is de rigueur in the museum world.

And what fascinates me about this whole idea is that you can engage in a way that few other institutions can do, and that government institutions find it especially hard to do – integrating high culture with everyday life;  integrating fun and lighthearted experimentation with serious inquiry and discussion of hard issues; making the funny or sad cross-connections.  Yours is a world of emotion as well as hard facts and it is the emotional side that really connects with people, that causes them to stand up and take notice, and remember, and shift their opinions.  You really do teach people and they are forever changed by your teaching – that is exactly what we need for urban connoisseurship to flourish.

Just imagine you are entering the City of Vancouver and you are also entering the Museum of Vancouver with a lot of cues and urban incidents to let you know about that.  You could bring the museum all around us as a constant force for dialogue and understanding and reconciliation and even to engender critical review on the one hand or love on the other.  The “city as museum” could be a powerful contributor to urbanism.

Now, I am not talking about this idea of the “city as museum” taking the place of the actual museum facilities – these have a very interesting potential in the future that I will come back to in a minute – but I am talking about the city museum team reaching out beyond the walls of its buildings to the larger setting around it.  So, let me give you a few examples that might be a part of this reaching out.  I am going to talk about some things that I have seen that do not necessarily come from museums but could easily have done so.  Here are just a few ideas to get people thinking.

Urban interventions

One way to curate the city is to refurnish it or redress it for a dream of something else.  In Dallas there is a group called “Team Better Block”  They are a somewhat rogue group of activists that pull lots of people together, often over a weekend, to create what they describe as quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great streets.  Their whole gig is to transform one or two blocks of a streetscape to show what it might be like.

One day a street will be in a dull malaise, rundown, with high vacancy rates, a real mess.  The next day it will have trees and landscape, often arriving in pots, it will have temporary little shops and cafes, with lots of sidewalk presence, there will be art and lighting, there will be all kinds of pedestrian activity – there will be a buzz.  Then they invite in the neighbourhood to experience and enjoy the place, with a lot of music and fun.  The result is usually that the community is energized to make the dream a reality.  Landlords are offered new faith.  Consumers make a new commitment to come back to the place.  City officials are charged to make the public realm improvements real and lasting.  A happening becomes a force, which becomes a change on the ground, which becomes an inspiration and lesson for that place and other places.

In Dallas, the Build a Better Block project creates instant and ephemeral street retrofits.

Now imagine if the sponsor for this is the city museum.  Imagine if the idea was diversified by the museum.  Imagine if the refurnishing is not from bad to good but from new to old.  Imagine if you could transform a 21st century streetscape into its 19th century form so that people can understand and experience the reality of an antique street.  What if the effort included players in costume - docents who could also be the interpreters of what used to be?  Or what if the streetscape is re-vamped to illustrate a use or activity that was once typical on the street, to show how an area has evolved?  I think the experiential quality of such heritage curation could be more powerful that all the exhibits that can be pulled together in a museum space – and the experience would be accessible to more people.

Or what if the streetscape is fitted up in an imagined future form to explore new forms of urbanism?  The ideas are endless, but the point is that the streetscape – and there could be many of them all over a city – would become an integral part of the museum; an extension of the museum; a rich canvas upon which the museum can do it job of curation and education and all the rest.  As an analogy, I think of the temporary changes regularly made around Vancouver by the movie industry to make a film scene.  They are always pretty interesting even though they are done for private purposes.  The public interest in public stories would be even more provocative.

Of course, once we start talking urban interventions, we do not have to stay on a street.  The city museum could also be the agent for installation of temporary parks – borrowing the “porta-park” idea from the recreationalists – or of tableaus to tell all kinds of stories in different spaces or buildings or of plays and other performance art to tap into the essence of a place or the anxiety of a community about urban change or to expose social tensions or contradictions or for any number of other fascinating motives.  In Dallas they are initiating a spontaneous temporary program they call “activating vacancy”.  For a city with vast empty surface parking lots and wind-blown empty sites, you can imagine what they have in mind.  In all of this, the city museum would find the setting for its work within the fabric of the city; expropriate that setting for a time; and then move on to other places – with just endless possibilities.

Imagining the future city

Another method of outreach and use of the city as museum is suggested by what in the late-90’s in Berlin was called the “InfoBox” or the “Red Box” in Potsdamer Platz.  Once the Berlin Wall came down, a huge redevelopment of the once no-man’s land was envisioned that would heal the terrible scars.  People were excited; people were worried; people were perplexed.  So the authorities decided that they needed to have a vivid focus for explanation of the new plans and input about those plans.  In the vast open field of the future development they planted a temporary structure that was five-stories high, painted bright red, which offered the whole story about the place – its ecology, its history, its political traumas and ultimately its future development form.  As people went through the building, they learned a lot and then they were engaged by staff to offer their stories and their ideas and their reactions to the new proposals.  The Red Box was big and bold and it drew hundreds of thousands of people over the several years that it existed.

The "Info-Box" on what would become Potzdamer Platz, Berlin. Source: Archnewsnow.com.

Now just imagine a similar installation by a city museum, perhaps more modest in size but nonetheless effective.  Every city has new development areas and they are both interesting and difficult for people.  If the city museum zoomed in with the right kind of dispassionate and helpful facility, it could do a great service for a community.  What would be especially powerful is that as museum professionals you would know better than almost anyone about how to make the installation fun and moving and meaningful as well as just informative and engaging.  What might be even more interesting is that the installation could stay through the development and occupancy process for the new area to become an outpost for exhibitions and presentations by the museum on an ongoing basis.

For example, look at the pavilion for the first transcontinental train, now permanently placed adjacent to the Roundhouse Community Centre, near False Creek in Downtown Vancouver.  It is very popular with residents and visitors alike; and it vividly informs people of what the area was once all about as well as giving them a fun experience of an authentic train – the very train that make that first fated trip.  Maybe cities like Vancouver that have so much redevelopment need their green and red and yellow boxes all over the cityscape to interpret change through the artistry of the city museum.  

My favourite of these outreach concepts that use the city as the theatre for activity is something called the “BMW Guggenheim Lab,” which has operated both in New York City and Berlin.  Charles Montgomery, who introduced me this morning, was part of the team conceiving the original lab in New York.  As Charles describes it, these labs bring together willing, curious participants and offer resources and logistical support for them to undertake informal urban experimentation.  That is why they are called “labs”, because they turn the city into a laboratory.  He is quick to point out that these labs are not research institutes but rather a fun and provocative place to talk about new ideas.  In the New York case, they tested the emotional effects of public places on participants using sensors and in Berlin they added various games and tests to augment the data.  Everybody had a good time, information was collected, and a lot was learned.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab occupied an empty lot in New York City in 2011.

Now that information and those people can be part of actively shaping these cities for a better future.  Well, of course, this idea has so many possibilities for the kind of outreach and city engagement that a city museum might want to do.  For example, what if the lab can be used by residents to do a neighbourhood audit?  You could start the lab in a successful beloved area where the participants could document all kinds of metrics and take all kinds of measurements.  Then you could move the lab to the participants’ neighbourhood to see how their home-base performs in comparison.  Because this would be a completely experiential process, learning would be fast and solid and I bet people would act directly on what they have discovered.  What if the data collection could be channeled through social media to sites where it can be instantly mapped and analysed against other norms and standards and regulations – the whole idea just gets more and more powerful.

And I think the city museum might take all of this even one step further.  Why not actually convene people to key locations in a city to participate in that place in a certain way – to make a point or to learn something or to shift the use of a space.  We’ve seen hundreds of cyclists convened to reclaim streets from cars.  We’ve seen crowded white dinner parties convened to repopulate empty spaces.  We’ve seen schools of children convened to use crayons to rededicate a pedestrian mall and playground.  The convening possibilities of social media are amazing and the civic museum, using the city as its museum, could tap into groups of people and have them become part of the museum experience in vastly more effective ways than are possible by trying to draw them into the museum building.  And the experience can be more fun and hip and edgy and enticing.

The museum as city

Now, let’s shift to the opposite side of my original proposition – let me turn to the idea of the “museum as city”.  This is really the concept to turn the museum of the city into the agora of the city – the place where people come together to learn about issues, debate the future, consider new propositions and evaluate the various development moves that are changing the cityscape every day.  Again, the idea is that the museum barriers come tumbling down and the physical plant of the museum becomes not just a repository but also a safe and respectful gathering place.

We live in a world where there is wide-spread debate but the convenor of that debate is often not what I would call disinterested.  It is often not led by the needs of the people but rather by the needs of those hosting the debate.  We have seen what can happen when people en masse rebel against that arrangement and use social media to convene their own debate and expose their own information.  In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East this provoked its own forums and facilitated a people power like we have not seen for decades.  That was a very good thing, but we all know that that same power can be manipulated for other than altruistic motives.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the museum of the city could tap into these same energies and networks within the context of high ethics and a dispassionate dedication to the fundamental needs of the people and fair democracy of the people?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could become the acknowledged epi-centre for a rich community inquiry and discussion of all the important urban issues of the day?  I can tell you that there is no place to do that and no one is doing that in almost any city right now.

But a city museum could be that place and you, the curators and programmers could be that convenor.  Wouldn’t it be great if every citizen could expect to find a solution to their urban problem or an answer to their civic question by coming to the museum?  Perhaps marginalized people would find a special voice to explain their life position and to draw out resolutions to help them cope that are not coming from the politicians or social workers.

Perhaps regular folks who feel under siege from the change around them could think first of the city museum as the place to go to understand that change and to be offered a way to affect it.  Perhaps people interested in the preservation of urban heritage or the introduction of new urban structures could come first to the city museum to introduce their proposals to the people and to build support for those proposals before starting into the complex City Hall processes for formal endorsement or approval.  Perhaps the city museum could be the custodian for web-based voting by citizens on those new ideas or proposals.

Once we have the “museum as city”, you will enter the fray of the urban revolution or evolution.   You will become the agent of change and the advocate for the fairness and equity of that change.  You will become the actual voice of the people or the facilitator of their voices.  Just imagine what it would be like if entering the Museum of Vancouver you were also entering one of the City Halls of Vancouver, where the business of the day is actually conducted not just observed.  Once again, the “museum as city” could also be a powerful contributor to urbanism.

Now, I’m not talking about these new functions displacing the fascinating activities and shows that you already do.  I am taking about adding this agenda to what you already do.  So let me offer just two examples to give a taste of what this might be all about.

Urbanarium

There is one concept that has long been afloat in Vancouver that would be a perfect format for the museum as city.  It is called an “urbanarium”.  The idea of this is to have a place where everything about the city can be collected and explored and where people can get together to talk and work toward better city forms and processes and images and institutions.  Usually it has a physical focus in a grand model of the city, such as the wonderful one in the Shanghai Planning Museum.  This model has to be big enough so it really thrills people to see it and so they can really understand what they are seeing.  This model has to be always changing and being updated so it is current to the state of the city and to the agenda of change in the city at any point in time.

Scale model of Shanghai in that city's Planning Museum. Image: Harry Alverson, Wikimedia commons.

This model has to be backed up with maps and aerial photography and all kind of statistics so that people can see the relationship between the three-dimensional form of the city and the inputs that generate that form.  This model might also be backed up by a social model and an ecological model and even an institutional or political model.

Then, these models becomes a framework for discussion and experimentation. Proponents can insinuate their new ideas and plans into the model so we can all judge the fit.  We can use the model to test the impacts of big events and climate change.  And, to a great degree, the model can become a focal point for all the dialogue we need to explore any aspect of the future of the place.  It seems to me that a city museum is the perfect institution to become an urbanarium.  You have the venue and the profile and the expertise and the power to convene.  Around the model you can create endless programs and events.  With the programs and events, the link between people and their ideas can be facilitated with their government and with the private market place. 

A related idea is exemplified by a place called the “Centre for Dialogue” at Simon Fraser University here in Vancouver.  This is simply a well-designed place, an agora, for community discussion and debate.  It is designed to facilitate exchange.  It is staffed to offer assistance and logistics.  It has all the digital technology for every kind of documentation and broadcast. This strikes me as the kind of facility that a city museum could offer to the community and as they use the space, the museum becomes the centre of the community.  As a convener, the museum becomes the arbiter.  And, it seems to me that the dialogue can be both active and passive – sometimes more edgy; sometimes more safe.

For example, what if the agora had a wall of ideas or even a wall of protest where, as in Chinese culture, anyone can post their thoughts and once a month those thoughts are collected, collated and presented to the local government and to the world.  Of course, a blog could also be included and with social media, hundreds of conversations could be going on all at the same time.  All of this dialogue would be channelled into the continuing change process of the city – and it could really make a difference, both in what specific aspects of change are endorsed and how people understand that change.

And whether we are talking about the “city as museum” or the “museum as city”, I see a big role for what are called charrettes.  These are big workshops where regular people come together with urban experts to consider problems and find solutions, usually through the medium of design.  These involve a lot of drawing and a lot of talk and a lot of site exploration in a high-energy environment where expert knowledge and local knowledge are merged into fresh solutions to tough urban problems.  These can be convened in the heart of the museum building or they can be offered in tents on key sites that are facing direct change.

In any event, they become the place where surprising solutions can be found.  The civic museum could become specialists in these charrettes and by offering such a venue as a regular feature in a city, they could transform how people deal with hard challenges or big opportunities, how they come together, how they find common ground or, at least, how they frame realistic choices.  I could see charrettes becoming the standard modus operendi of the civic museum as it embraces its mission to be at the centre of civic discourse.

Participants reimage and redesign their city at the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Another form of artful outreach is exemplified by what in Rotterdam is called the “Architecture Biennale” – which is an interesting name because it is not just about architecture and it is not done just on a bi-annual basis.  It is really a public engagement and research format about all city issues and especially urban design issues that comes together in exhibitions based on sometimes years of preparatory work.  The Rotterdam Architecture Biennale raised its head in Istanbul to report on a planning initiative it recently completed in an Istanbul suburb to show how growth might happen consistent with the environment.  It does these events in Rotterdam, focussed on its home city, and at locations all over the world.  Wouldn’t this be a perfect format for a city museum to energize its own space and locations throughout its host city?  Wouldn’t it be a perfect format for a city museum to engage in an ongoing program of creative urban research and even reach out to other cities for a rich exploration of urban issues?

The museum should be a force for democracy

My point in all of this is that the city museum can be as much about urban creation as it is about urban curation.  In the future, I think the city museum could even be a central actor in that creation – connecting citizens with the vectors that re-define the city.  If the museum of the city – your museum – could become the “museum as city” and the “city as museum”, then we could truly join forces in both building urban connoisseurship and choreographing the ongoing re-invention of the city. But more than for City Planners, you would become a vital force for the people of your city and an agent for the kind of informed natural spontaneous democracy that seems to have gotten lost in the halls of power for a very long time.  Our cities need a design fix at this point in history; they need a political fix; they need an environmental fix; they need a social fix – and for that they need to raise the bar of both the processes and the knowledge that we bring to bear.  No one is in the wings right now to offer that – it is a real gap in urban life. 

But in a dialectic of both exploding the traditional museum concept yet reinforcing its solid core presence as an artful arena for urban discovery as well as urban memory, the future museum of the city can be that vital urban force – you have the venues; you have the resources; you have the morality; you have the know-how; and you have the independence.  I am hopeful that you also have the courage.

It might interest you to know that, in the Catholic faith, the patron saint of City Planners is Saint George.  His mythology was that he “slew the dragon and saved the city”.  In a metaphorical sense, the museum of the city may be the Saint George of our time.  If you can slay the dragon of our own urban discontent, our urban disconnect, then it may be you who finally saves the city of our dreams.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, would be a very good thing.

Thank you.

Larry Beasley is the retired Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver. As principal of Beasley and Associates, he teaches and advises on urban planning around the world. He chairs the National Advisory Committee on Planning, Design and Realty of Ottawa’s National Capital Commission. He is Senior Advisor on Urban Design in Dallas, Texas. He is on the International Economic Development Advisory Board of Rotterdam in The Netherlands. As Special Advisor to the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, he oversaw new plans for the city to more than quadruple in pop by 2030. He and his team have just won a competition to design a new capital district for Moscow. He has been named a member of the Order of Canada, the highest honor this country bestows.

  

Posted by: Anna Wilkinson on October 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Ever since the ground literally moved under our feet this weekend, we, like the rest of the province, have been thinking about how we can prepare for potentially earth-shattering changes in the future. The earthquake off the coast of Haida Gwaii has had Vancouverites rushing out to get trained in emergency preparedness procedures but other potentially seismic changes also have city-dwellers stirred up. Read on for some examples of how we're gearing up for changes to our community gardens, the density of our neighbourhoods, and the availability of sustainable lumber products.
 
Community Gardens Threatened. The possible demolition of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts may mean that Cottonwood and Strathcona community gardens could be displaced. This fascinating piece from The Mainlander looks at the history and social significance of the community gardens in the area and raises the issue of "eco-gentrification." As the article points out, condominiums co-opting the "language of sustainability" have begun creating their own community gardens. However, they often do so without offering the same socio-economic benefits that come from more democratic, grass-root projects.
 
Dense Districts. Two areas in the city are looking at major changes in the near future: Little Mountain and Grandview-Boundary. While highrises are being proposed for one section of the soon to be redeveloped Little Mountain area, residents in the area adjacent to the site are consulting about what new "ground-level townhomes and multi-family units" will look like in their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, city officials are looking for ways to fund infrastructure for a new high-density commercial zone at Grandview-Boundary. The former industrial area is in need of improved sewer systems, sidewalks, and bike lanes to serve residents living and working in an area that has attracted big businesses such as Bell and HSBC.
 
UBC Prof Makes Good (Wood). Like most of you, we here at MOVments had no idea what Lauan was (or why it's so bad) before reading this recent Globe and Mail article. It turns out that the wood used to make the majority of movie sets in North America does huge environmental damage in places like Southeast Asia. But UBC professor Garvin Eddy is helping to change that. He has had a hand in developing Oregan-produced ScenicPly which is sourced from sustainable forestry projects. Although it costs more, Eddy is confident that it will provide a viable and environmentally-responsible alternative: "It’s never going to be as cheap as Lauan. [But] if you’re going to use Lauan, why don’t you just go and hire a bunch of 10-year-old kids to work in the studios? Because it’s the same thing."
 
First World Car Problems. Oh, and this happened in Richmond recently. Sigh.
 
At the MOVeum:
 
[Image: Old Georgia Street viaduct, 1939. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 371-2242]
Posted by: Guest Author on October 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm

By Carolyn B. Heller

Among the many people the late Tobias Wong shocked and surprised with his art was his own mother, Phyllis Chan.

“He really had lots of crazy ideas,” Chan admitted during Show & Tell, an event which brought Wong’s family, friends and admirers to the Museum of Vancouver to discuss the artist and his often-controversial work, now on view in Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong.

To make her point, Chan showed the audience a picture of her son as a young man. There he was, standing on a sidewalk in New York City, selling what he purported to be his own dreams in plastic bags.

If her son could successfully sell sacks of air as dreams for $1 each, Chan said, she knew that the then-aspiring artist “would be able to survive in his future.”

Wong’s audacity did indeed bring him to the fore of the international art and design scenes before his death in 2010 at age 35. Everything he made, every collaboration, every performance, had a story.

Tobias Wong on a Manhattan sidewalk.

From Selling Dreams to Selling Dots

Pablo Griff, Wong’s former roommate and frequent collaborator, described another art adventure that he and Wong launched – the “Dot Placement Project.”

They were working together in a New York design store, where they ordered an array of big, colourful dots.

When customers came into the store, Wong and Griff would offer themselves up as Dot Consultants, telling prospective clients, “If you pay $100, we’ll place dots in your home.”

They actually got several people to pay for their dot consulting services, including some who understood their ironic stunt and used the opportunity to talk with the two about their art.

Their little caper turned out to be a “good learning experience for Tobi,” Griff said, which helped him define and promote his artistic concepts.

For those who took the project too seriously and considered the dots some kind of status symbol, though, Griff confessed, “We looked through their drawers and everything. We basically did this just to look around rich people’s homes.”

Panelists Phyllis Chan, Pablo Griff, Tim Dubitsky and Omer Arbel. Image: Tilo Driessen.

Material transgressions

Designer Omer Arbel told how Wong created his 2003 piece, Doorstop. Wong filled a curvaceous glass vase by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto with concrete, using the piece as a mold. To release his work, Wong had to smash the Aalto vase.

“It was an insult,” Arbel said, “a big ‘f**k you’ to Alvar Aalto.” But it was also more than that. For Wong, "the materials were secondary to the questions that a work raised in people's minds…..[he] had a symbolic way of working with materials that I find totally foreign and totally fascinating." 

Another piece in the Object(ing) show, This is a Lamp (2001), also started with a famous artist’s work. Wong managed to buy a Philippe Starck Bubble Club Chair just before its North American premiere, then wired the chair to turn it into a glowing light fixture.

Displaying his lamp-chair a day before Starck unveiled his own chair earned Wong plenty of attention in the art world. As Pablo Griff told the audience, Starck was reportedly angry that he hadn’t thought of the lamp idea himself.

“It’s a nice chair,” Griff pointed out, “but it’s much more beautiful as a lamp.”

Doorstop, concrete cast in an Alvar Aalto vase.

“This Beautiful Soul”

Despite Wong’s sometimes outrageous antics, his friend Nancy Bendtsen said that Tobi “was very generous, always giving gifts. He had this beautiful soul, where things were always possible.”

Bendtsen met Wong at Inform Interiors, the Vancouver furniture store she runs with her husband Niels Bendtsen. Tobi turned up with “all these ideas. He had, maybe, 50 ideas” for projects they might do together.

Tobi’s world “was full of ideas and friends,” Bendtsen said, brushing away a tear.

Wong eventually worked with the Bendstens to design a sofa shaped like a pentagon, with all its padded seating facing inward. They built a prototype of the unusual five-sided couch, which they intended to display at a design show in Brazil. Unfortunately, Brazilian customs confiscated the crates.

It was shortly after September 11th, Bendsten recalled, speculating that the sofa – named “Pentagon” – may have been seized because of some imagined connection to the attack on the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.

They never retrieved the sofa. In one of the last conversations Bendsten had with Tobi before his death, Wong insisted that he would return to Brazil one day and track it down.

 Tobias Wong/Inform Pentagon: disappeared in Brazil.

Design That (Really) Lasts

Wong loved working with other artists, his collaborator and romantic partner, Tim Dubitsky, recounted, frequently convincing them to “go out of their way to participate” in his projects.

One such venture was a pop-up tattoo parlour, in which patrons would pay “a significant amount” to have various artists’ works tattooed on their bodies.

The idea, Dubitsky said, was to test how far a fan was willing to go for a work they admired.

Wong himself was prone to this compulsion. At a gallery opening in New York, he convinced the artist Jenny Holzer to write her yuppie manifesto on his arm: “Protect me from what I want.” Wong promptly had the words tattooed in place, effectively appropriating the phrase as his own.

(Inspired by Wong’s tattoo parlour, the MOV will host its own tattoo event, “Love You Forever: A (pop-up) Tattoo Spectacle,” on December 8.)

Protect me from what I want: Nancy Bendtsen compares her temporary tattoo to the original on Wong's arm. Image: Tilo Driessen.

Coke Spoons in Heaven

After sharing their memories, Wong’s mother and friends walked the audience through the Object(ing) exhibit, where more stories – by friends, fellow artists, or others who knew or collaborated with Wong – accompany each work.

One of Wong’s most attention-getting creations was Coke Spoon (2005), in which he dipped a long, thin McDonald’s coffee stirrer in 18-karat gold. Pablo Griff said that McDonald’s, which apparently didn’t appreciate being linked even tangentially with the drug culture, got a cease-and-desist order to prevent Wong from producing more of the gold-plated spoons.

Next to Coke Spoon is a comment by artist and writer Douglas Coupland:

“The spoon hung on [my] kitchen wall above the sink for years, and then it vanished…. I hope that Tobi took it and has it with him in heaven.”

Object(ing): The Art/Design of Tobias Wong runs through February 24, 2013.

As a child, Tobias Wong created this miniature scupture for his mother. He 'appropriated' the form from a sculpture in her home.

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