November 11, 2005

Dancing about architecture

My imminent departure has been announced at work, which leaves fifteen architects scratching their heads and trying to figure out what exactly it is that I'm leaving to do. Anthropology's clear enough, but my attempts to explain that I'm focusing on archaeology seem to have confused the matter.

Last week I asked an architect if I could borrow his X-acto knife for a moment. He held it out. "This one?" "Yeah, I just need it to cut this paper off this box." He withdrew his hand and put the X-acto back on his desk. "It's for architects! Not historians!"

The Southern architect and the shorter project manager both, blessedly, get it. She was talking to me about cliff dwellings and ancient empires yesterday. He found me looking at a heap of papers underneath the plotter and shook his head. "That's too new," he admonished, "you have to dig down further to find the old stuff."

The JCA, or junior Canadian architect, is having some trouble. "Dinosaurs," he guessed yesterday, and I reminded him that archaeology, unlike paleontology, only deals with human timeframes. The Southern architect's mention of petroglyphs got him straightened out, but also steered us back into general anthropology territory. The JCA mentioned the anthropology museum at the University of British Columbia, full of First Nations cultural artifacts. I nodded excitedly -- lord knows I like museums -- and pressed him for more details.

He looked thoughtful. "It's a lot of glass," he said. Glass?, I wondered, trying to formulate an intelligent question about it. "And concrete," he continued, "these big arches. It's really open."

Reasons to escape architecture #572,316: Once they teach you to look at buildings, you can never see anything else.

Posted by dianna at November 11, 2005 01:49 PM

Well, to be fair, the UBC Museum of Anthropology was designed by Arthur Erickson, who apparently is one of Canada's most famous architects. UBC gets pretty emphatic about that, because architecturally speaking the campus is a bit of a mishmash, since it was put up one building at a time for 100 years; while Simon Fraser University, the other university in Vancouver, is nicely coherent and well-put-together, because it was designed from scratch by... Arthur Erickson. So when you hear a UBC-er talk about the Museum of Anthropology's architecture, you can mentally translate whatever they're saying as "Look, we know how to hire big fancy architects too".

Unfortunately I can't supply you with too many details about the Museum of Anthropology either. I have been there, and I can confirm that it is indeed chock-full of First Nations cultural artifacts, as well as others from around the world. The only interesting tidbit I can relate is this: during the time I was at school, the big issue the Museum was confronting was the ethics of holding onto First Nations cultural artifacts, particularly since the artifacts had been relatively recently "collected", and the cultures they had been taken from were still alive and active. One point of view was that saying that the Museum "owned" these artifacts was like saying that having a Ph.D. means you're allowed to steal stuff. So without making too big of a deal about it, the Museum started sitting down with tribal representatives and working out what things would be given back, what things would become "long term loans", what things would tour back and forth between tribal holdings and the Museum, etc. And the entire issue would most likely have gone completely smoothly and publicity-free, except for two things: 1) some of the Museum's "artifacts" included the skeletal remains of deceased First Nations people; and 2) many of the artifacts had been treated with old-school preservative agents, which tended to be heavy on the mercury and cadmium and things like that. And there's something about saying "Here's your great-grandfather back, ummm, he's kinda carcinogenic now and you can't bury him" that just can't be spun positively at all.

But yes, lots of glass. And very open.

Posted by: Andrew at November 11, 2005 03:53 PM