Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Urban restrictions in the City of Alhambra

Aerial picture of Alhambra in the area of 710 freeway.
Another aerial picture of Alhambra, East of previous picture in the residential zone.

Alhambra is a city inhabited by a majority of Asian and their descendants in America, followed in percentages by Chicano population. In residential areas, the Zoning Code allows to build a lot coverage of 50%, with a FAR of 38%. Supposedly, for a bigger lot, a bigger house could be built.
Legally, for any new house or addition, given the project complies with the Zoning regulations, the final decision of the house square footage will be taken by Planning Commission. The problem here is the criteria and methodology to take this decision.
The process begins with an investigation of the declaration of surfaces of housings, according to the office of the Assessor´s of collection of taxes, in a radius of 300´ around the house in question. Main issue here, in several cases this information is not updated and - obviously - it doesn't include the illegal additions that are also part of the urban fabric and city growth. Once the planners have a list of all square footages in this area, they take an average of this chart and force the homeowner to respect a maximum square footage according to the average of the other houses inside the radius map, regardless the lot size (!).
Nowadays, we have many research tools to analyze the city and have outputs of the best way to avoid urban sprawl. I do not mean to use powerful softwares based on fractal morphology, or land use as GIS (geographical information systems), but at least apply a reasonable criteria.
Let us see an example. If the area selected includes the small houses of workers, annexed to the local 710 freeway, any person with a big lot here, will be absolutely restricted by the average. Continuing with the example, Planning Commission would overlook the fact that these houses were built between the years 1934 and 1939. This type of urban politics stop the neighborhood overall growth. Most probably, these houses will have a record at the Assessor’s with 900–1000 sq ft. That I consider substandard for the current necessities of a modern family, specially if the majority of population in Alhambra is Asian and Chicano, cultures that are grouped by kinship and an average of five people could be living in each house.
A possible action, could be to displace the 300’ radius map. But this is not acceptable, the radius map has to strictly show the house selected in the center. What is an abstract geometrical concept that does not reflect the real urban issues.
The strict numeric analysis does not take into account urban perceptions, habits, morphology, land use, culture of the inhabitants, urban fabric. It is just a number, and citizens are not numbers.

Concepts on Fractal Urban Morphology

Fractal simulating a concentric city. Personal archives Fractal analisis of Baila in Africa. Personal archives
This discipline is based on the chaos theory. We call chaos to everything that we are not capable of systematize.
In 1970, challenging the classic physics, some few scientists from United States and Europe began to look for an alternative route through the disorder: it was the beginning of the theory of the chaos. Mathematical, physical, physiologists, economists, chemical, biologists, tried to look for connections among different types of irregularities; they meditated that although there are phenomena that can be lineally described, -that is to say that the result of an action is proportional to its cause-, most of the phenomena in the nature is non-lineal, "uncontrollable", as the climate, the turbulences, earthquakes, the traffic in a great city, fluctuations in the bag, the physics of the human body, etc. The search for an explanation to all complex phenomena using mathematical models, originated the Chaos Theory.
The urban research was then related directly and formally with the natural world - the forms of the clouds, the arterial bifurcations, the lung texture, the groupings of stars, etc. All these shapes were described as opposite to the Euclidan ones, they were defined as folded, fractured. The word to define this conditions is “fractal” as opposed to “Euclidian”. Fractal is the geometry of nature; the geometric representation of the Chaos theory.
A fractal has a very fine structure, it is detail in scales arbitrary small.
A fractal is too irregular to be described in the traditional Euclidian geometry.
A fractal has a certain kind of auto-similarity, approximate or stadistic.
The best example to illustrate a fractal, is a coliflower. It has a complex shape, and every small part is auto-similar to the whole.
For a city, we do not say the auto-similarity is perfect, we speak about tendencies to fractality.
The key of the understanding are the computarized images arisen from equations. The union between shapes and the world of numbers was an obvious rupture with the past.
The urban morphology is discontinuous, fractured and chaotic, with the same laws of organization of a biological organism. They seem to be examples of structures self-organized inside the chaos, as product of local actions (mutations) that imply some operation way until the process is stabilized.
The reasons above indicate that it would be insufficient to take an Euclidean geometric model to study the urban morphology. Instead of it, if we adopt a theoretical fractal structural model, we can study the morphogenesis of urban agglomerations and predict their possible future shapes in the aftermaths.
These autopoietic urban models can be verified with computer softwares of fractals generation and simulation of urban growth or dissapearance of urban tissue.
The creation of models is important in the understanding of the complex systems, since they can be built to test hypothesis or to create other new ones.
The models can be iconics, when they appear as what they represent (ex. an aerial picture that captures a scene) or, when the iconic models cannot be created, perhaps because the system that is represented doesn't have physical materiality, analogical models are appropriate. The models can also be a prediction tool. One of the validation methods, would be to enter initial data (input) in a model for which the final results are known and to compare them with the result (output) of the analogical pattern.

What is Urban Morphology?

Morphological analisis of four blocks in La Boca, Buenos Aires. Personal archives.Morphological analisis of four blocks in East L.A., applying Fourier Transform. Personal archives
Urban morphology is an analytical method that explores the urban form as a physical expression of the interdependency of the built environment (cities, towns, primitive settlements) and open spaces, its formation and transformations, the street patterns, building sizes and shapes, and the relations between urban elements. We also understand the city as the material expression of the social structure originated by the inhabitant cultural community. It also involves mapping and describing patterns of land use in order to analyse the processes producing these structures.
The first approach is to find a classification for the shape of the city, it could be a grid, clusters, axis, concentric, fractal, among other patterns.
This discipline, specially when related to complex communities cultural rules, with so many meanings require a transdisciplinar approach that conforms a body of knowledge: physics, mathematics, history, archaeology, geography, architecture, urbanism, sociology, etc. All these disciplines have quantitative features in common and may relate to the fact that the complex interactions that characterize theses systems could be represented in some geometric system. Then, the scaling and universality features of different complex systems may ultimately be understood in terms of the connectivity of geometrical objects.
Contributions to the field are the following:
.- Archaeology and town analyses
.- urban shapes after and before floods.
.- Urban shapes after and before earthquakes and wars applied to urban conservation
.- Urban regeneration for post war reconstruction.
.- Contributions to planning practice, creation and modification of Zoning-Planing Codes.
.- Cross cultural perspectives in Urban morphogenetics.
.- Urban landscape management
Special attention is given to how the physical form of a city changes over time and to how different cities compare to each other. This sometimes reflects the geographical and social aspects of the matter, as the influence in between cities go beyond the boundaries of individual countries. For example, the subfield of sociology and imaginary applied to urban morphology deals with the study of the social shapes which are expressed in the built layout of a city (barrio, town, etc) and conversely, how physical form produces social configurations.
The analysis could have interpretations from three basic points of view:

Meanings-cultural habits

In the following levels:
The geographical spatial complex
The blocks
Street patterns
Domestic interior spatial configurations

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Memories of the Berlin wall

Berlin Wall in 1963: Fetcher’s memorial. (copyright James B. Obson)
Berlin Wall in1999: A German sofa creates a new place next to the wall. Artists: Bali Tollak and Wolfgang Denning. (copyright Heiko Burkhardt)
We must be aware that the standard habits, inclinations, perceptions, and activities in one's culture with its own collective memory, may seem exotic to other. In this context, there is no “appropriateness”. Spatial patterns can be attractive for many or be highly controversial, up to sickening, for others.
We link this idea with Terry M. Mikiten concepts of declarative knowledge, as one form of knowledge in contemporary cognitive science. Two ideas are linked, and when memory of one member of the pair is activated, the two ideas come to the surface together and can be responsible for strong emotional experiences. Clusters of linked concepts are called association networks or conceptual structures. Intuition, would be the cause of mental processes that create and store concepts and links between them. So, memory is accompanied with perception and thought. Everyday experience is defined as perceiving something, remembering it, thinking about it. (Mikiten, 1995).
People is considered to have both short-term and long-term memory. All sensory experiences first pass through short-term memory and are held there. Then, they are converted for long-term storage in a process called consolidation. When we enter a building, or stay in an urban place, and suddenly we feel the “something else”, here it comes the relationship among ideas we find familiar. Sometimes, it is very obscure to understand and we pass through the metaphorical understanding that tries to characterize the unknown in another recognizable concepts.
One important condition for it, is that different locations (places) in the same space will differ in the quality of their sensibility.
William James (1890) explains it simply in this analogy: “If the skin felt everywhere exactly alike, a foot-bath could be distinguished from a total immersion, as being smaller, but never distinguished from a wet face. The local-signs are indispensable; two points which have the same local-sign will always be felt as the same point. We do not judge them two unless we have discerned their sensations to be different.”
A similar situation happened with the Berlin Wall. Though not an architecture building in itself, it had promoted different situations (places and sentiments) along the years. In his interview with Hans Obrist, Architect Rem Koolhaas expresses his feelings on the Berlin Wall. And he was surprised to discover that a wall with one important historical meaning was different in many locations.
“That was one of the most exciting things: it was one wall that always assumed a different condition…… In permanent transformation. It was also very contextual, because on each side it had a different character; it would adjust itself to different circumstances.”
Koolhaas had his own reflections. When submitting a proposal involving the wall space, he was shocked by the wall lack of remanents as a living memory. This time the impression comes from the emptiness.
“We thought that the zone of the Wall could eventually be a park, a kind of preserved condition in the entire city. I've been appalled ever since that the first thing that disappeared after the Wall fell was any trace of it.”
And what is more, he explicity feels that the City has kept, somehow, the Nazi spirit in his buildings and to exorcise them is not enough with the construction of new buildings. Is it a kind of phenomenology in architecture that goes beyond the existence of buildings that generated it?
“For instance, their conversion of the Reichstag is at least as strange as the emphasis on Prussian building, because these are two forms of innocence or naïveté, and to think that in the Reichstag you can exorcise the spirits with a new sort of dome is a sort of very polite gesture and a very compromised esthetic……..realizing that they actually have to inhabit Nazi buildings as their new ministries, with the anxieties that emanate from that, that demand exorcism, but do glass and steel still drive out evil spirits?”.
Koolhaas concludes that the whole Berlin, is scary. This is his feeling extended to the city in the comprehension of its buildings.
“That's the whole point, Berlin is very scary. And somehow everything that tries to cover it up, either by an Ersatz past or by a kind of Ersatz exorcism (which is what modernity is doing), is equally implausible. I also believe that the monumental production of monuments is not going to work either, because that's part of an "official exorcism.”
Finally, he admits to be an admirer of the aesthetics of emptiness, which can be so appalling as the built environment.
“The Berlin Wall as architecture was for me the first spectacular revelation in architecture of how absence can be stronger than presence. For me, it is not necessarily connected to loss in a metaphysical sense, but more connected to an issue of efficiency, where I think that the great thing about Berlin is that it showed for me how (and this is my own campaign against architecture) entirely "missing urban presences or entirely erased architectural entities nevertheless generate what can be called an urban condition….. For me, the important thing is not to replace it, but to cultivate it. This is a kind of post-architectural city, and now it's becoming an architectural city. For me that's a drama, not some kind of stylistic error.”
The threat to familiar atmospheres -integrated by places, spaces, buildings, materials- is also a threat to identity, to the collective memory which keeps a group's consciousness and feeds its spatiality, as a liminal experience needed in order to survive as social beings.

Creating one's space from scratch

Chechenian woman selling sheep’s heads amidst the ruins of Grozny. Picture by Sergei Loiko, published in L.A.Times, reproduced with his permission.

The theory of “territoriality” exists in many variants, but the first principle is that the organization of space by human beings have been originated in a universal, biologically impulse in individuals to clearly mark “ territory”, from which the others will be excluded. The second principle is that this concept can be extended to all levels of human grouping. The collectives will defend a territory in the same way as an individual.
It means that space will be generated as an “external projection” of social and mental processes, which is separated from its spatial dimension. Usually structural anthropologists see this space as a product of something else which existence is anterior to that of space and determinative of it. Much of this thought about space is directly intertwined with the architectural and urban form of people’s surroundings, that could be independent of another pattern-forming dimensions of society, like kinship, systems, mythology.
People spend most part of the day in a built environment of streets, buildings, parks, parking lots, squares. Therefore, much of their thought about spatial judgment, memory and movement through space has to be shaped by the urban forms of the surroundings. It is “perceptual organization”.
I´m showing here a picture taken by Sergei Loiko, reproduced with his permission, a Chechenian woman selling sheep’s heads amidst the ruins of Grozny. No words responding to this image can go beyond the field of the observer, the situation has to be understood and experienced, more than seen. The conformation of space here, in the middle of nothing else but the aftermath of war attacks, is at the level of individual space, rather than the level of the system of spatial relations that constitute the “missing” environment. But to disappear does not mean to be eliminated. The woman must have her collective memories, she is smiling and beginning again, just the first embryo for social space. We need a theory that could describe not only systems and morphological divergencies, but also patterns that are born from the non-order to the order, from non-meaning to meaning. It would be a great contribution to develop a theory of space

Evolution of Mexican landscape in painting

José María Velasco. Valle de México. Internet download
Rufino Tamayo. Paisaje con rocas. Internet download.
Chicano painting from Cheech Marin´s collection. Downloaded from Marin´s web page

The concept of landscape was born in Europe, in the Modern era, as opposite from the free nature. The earliest evidence of this concept was the landscape painting, sometimes with the intention of giving shape to wetlands and unexplored lands.
The landscape is not only the complex system of elements such as air, water, soil, plants, it is mainly the scenario for human activity. Though many authors defend the universality of aesthetic preferences, the heterogeneity of issues and theoretical orientations in anthropological studies on the landscape have far avoided a cross cultural applicability.
In Europe, the concept of landscape was born with modern times (Renaissance), when man freed himself from the tight bonds of Nature.
Now, particular attention is given to approaches focussing on the relation between nature and cultures, historical imagery to identity, as well as landscape cognition and finally globalization.
The earliest evidence of this process is the birth of landscape painting. In Mexico, after the European Schools of the Colonial times, with their religious themes, there were two major representative figures of the XIX century Mexican national landscape painting, Eugenio Landesio and Jose Maria Velasco.
It is interesting to see that as the multiple theories on cultural landscape developed along the years, they paralleled in its artistic representation, reflecting a new approach, specially in the Chicano painting.
The classical one point of view landscape, with no more connotations than a photograph, gave place to a reformulation of the multi perspective space, first in the surrealism of artistic vanguards (ex. Rufino Tamayo’s paintings) and nowadays in a kind of figurative abstractism-pluralism emphasized with the addition of daily objects representing folk art in themselves.
The folk art is spread in the back yard, where one of its forms is the utilization of recycled objects as car tires, painted cans and chicken pots, etc. This practice may originates from the poverty, but once the objects have the plant inside, they look very attractive.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A new European plaza in Bellflower??

Both pictures are from Bellflower Downtown.
The original legal title for Bellflower city in Southern California dates back to 1784 with one of the first Spanish land grants on which the herds of livestock were grazed. Bellflower developed on a piece of land bordered by three ranchos: Santa Gertrudes, Los Coyotes, and Los Cerritos. In 1869, the area known as Somerset Ranch, was comprised of 4,000 acres of what would later become Bellflower.
With a general store, a school, a post office, affordable lots, and ready access to Los Angeles, the population of Bellflower rose rapidly, increasing from an estimated 100 in 1908 to 1200 in 1912, and so did the support shops on Somerset Avenue.
During the 1970s, several Southeast Los Angeles cities were taking the benefits of bringing regional auto and shopping malls to their communities. Bellflower, however, opted to court the smaller Mom and Pop stores that had sustained it for decades. Rather than being part of a national chain, the mom and pop store offers a shopping alternative in a single location, to consumers who wish to deal with businesses that are native to a given city or town, and where the owners of the business are established members of the local community. Every small town contained a business district that was anchored around a locally owned general store. Today, the mom and pop store still thrives in a number of forms. Some of these corner stores are found in neighborhood business districts and are intended to meet consumer needs for a limited geographical area. The consequences of shopping mall and auto dealers rejection are explained in Bellflower’s web page:
“However, as retail shopping centers caught on, Bellflower’s choice to focus on smaller businesses left the community with no formal redevelopment plans and, worse still, no federal redevelopment funding. As a result, the City’s revenue streams dwindled, and in the early 1990s, the City sat on the verge on bankruptcy. Through fiscal conservatism and the establishment of a redevelopment strategy, the City today continues to make strides to play “catch up” with surrounding communities by attracting new businesses to town, improving business facades and upgrading infrastructure such as roads, medians, sidewalks, and public facilities”.(bold is mine).
My related story is about a friend of my husband, good and wealthy Bellflower citizen who bought a retails property in a corner of the historic street. He was painting the façade in the usual stucco palette, when the City stopped the works. He called my husband and asked him to have a meeting with the planner assigned, to see what the problem was and what was expected from him. I couldn’t avoid join the meeting.
We asked the planner why the City stopped the painting and he said this particular street was the historic street. And I could remember only the Theatre, because the rest was only a few old mom and pop shops, with no special historical characteristics, at least under my point of view. Then, we asked, what the City expects here?
And the planner took out a wide book from his plentiful library, a book of beautiful European plazas. We examined some pictures, and understood the idea was to build a fountain surrounded by landscape, in the mere corner of my husband’s friend, to propose a social space. All of this has to be paid by the retails’ owner.
Anyway, the idea was quite a temptation. We explained to the retails’ owner the situation, and I was so ingenuous to give as an example an orange tree patio inside a Museum in Buenos Aires, it would be nice, the planters, the fountain, the clay pots with the fragrance of the orange trees… I think everybody was dreaming except for the interested party. He asked us where the existing parking in the wide sidewalk would be relocated, if he built the plaza, (literally) “do they want me in bankruptcy?” “What do we do if the cars cannot park any more or only a few at the back?” “And orange trees? Do you want people eating oranges and throwing the peel in the sidewalk?” (It never occurred to me!).Community meetings? In a corner with retails? Oh, let’s call it loitering”.
This European plaza was never built, up till now. Though the City has initiated a wide range of community beautification projects throughout Bellflower, converting dilapidated lots into public parks, that have nothing like the Europeans ones in the planners’ book. It was just an illusion, the cars reality do not fit in this plaza.
And, there is something else. Do Bellflower need a European plaza? Why not a Mexican plaza, if after all the race & ethnic origin per 2000 Census was:
Hispanic 43.2%
White 46.1%
Black 9.7%
Asian 9.7%
Native American 0.9 %
Other 25.1%
All these races dispersed in the city, except for the white that are strictly concentrated in the City Council J
And the percentage of Hispanic has been increasing, considering Bellflower is too close to Latino majority of Downey, where they have the new shopping malls and the Film studios.
It is only one year for me to wait to 2010 Census and post again the new ethnic plaza I would suggest for Bellflower, but next time, please pick up a vacant lot!

Roofleaves as the Olinkas´God

Drawings of African huts. Internet download
Round African huts. Internet download.
Parallelly to the works of Rapoport, the works of the ethnologist and architectural anthropologist Nold Egenter were based on the posture that the architecture is characterized fundamentally to be a meta-language. Their procedure spreads to an universalism of the architecture, what the man builds in a wide sense, is not primarily related with the aesthetics, but with the man. Universally, the architecture would mean all that has been built by the man and possibly for its predecessors.
A reconstruction like this, as an anthropological continuum brings much more complex considerations that mere aesthetic judgements.
The biggest difference with the posture of Rapoport, is that the anthropological architecture is not based on aesthetics or culture, but in the man, whose constructive behavior in the habitat doesn't come from standardized necessities inside a productive process, but rather it is immersed in theoretical reasonings inside the field of the architecture from the beginnings.
“ -as always- not only perceives, but integrates the spatial structure defined by buildings and reproduces this structures in other contexts, thinks with it, works with it. If we manage to show that this type of spatial structure, generated by buildings, influences man along an anthropological continuum and lives in our language, in our thoughts, keeps the arts living and even supports originally metaphysical ideas, then in new ways we could reconstruct cultural history on the basis of the “object architecture”.... architectural anthropology thus constructs a new macrotheoretical approach”. (Egenter, 1992).
This way, the initial perception of the material would be united to a spiritual approach. If the architecture is a human general phenomenon that extends synchronously on individual cultures, then diachronically, it includes all the cultures. In consequence, the investigation in the architecture of several cultures can be carried out through analogies.
Egenter corroborates its foundations starting from the roots of sub-human conditions. The primitive stadium was represented by the use of fibrous organic materials that could only be worked with the hand. The original cabin would have been built by observation of the constructive behavior of the simians, when carrying out its nests. The theory passes the corroboration test in the scientific environment, since the construction-nests are practiced by the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra and the gorillas and chimpanzees of Africa, and it has been verified that it is an acquired ability. When urging a baby simian raised up in captivity, to build a nest, these animals show appropriate motor movements, but they cannot manipulate the material firmly. In general it is the mother who teaches them this task, and the learning process can last three years.
The first shack would be a vegetable bundle, with a dome form that would raise its branches to the sky. The space is defined like a precondition of the religion, and it would be developed jointly with the architecture. This time the transcendental order is symbolic, the symbolism comes from the sky -that would be the dome-, the extended canopy on the man. Therefore, the current recognizable shape of a dome doesn't imply a roof, neither the limits of a space, but rather it would imply a sign of a sacred place.

I’d like here to remind one of the letters from the book “The Color Purple”, by Alice Walker. Though the story is fictitious, Walker provides us a very interesting example of huts, roofs and religion. To explain this, I’m setting aside the most important issues for sociologists and anthropologists, that is the African women struggles in the tribes, the habits, the consequences for cultural behaviour.
In page 156, Nettie has just arrived to Africa and meets with the people of the Olinka tribe. …”Coming out of little round huts with something that I thought was straw on top of them but it was really a kind of leaf that grows everywhere. They pick it and dry it and lay it so it overlaps to make the roof rainproof”.
The tribe people then is ready for the roofleaf ceremony and they recite the story that it is based upon. A long time ago, the chief took more and more of the common lands to make abundant crops. He also began to cultivate the land where the roofleaves grow. “But then there came a great storm during the rainy season that destroyed all the roofs on all the huts in the village, and the people discovered to their dismay that there was no longer any roofleaf to be found”. The storm destroyed the huts and most people died. It took five years to the leaves to grow back again.
“On the day when all the huts had roofs again from the rootleaf, the villagers celebrated by singing and dancing and telling the story of the rootleaf. The rootleaf became the thing they worship”. (excerpt p. 160. The word used here is rootleaf instead of roofleaf).
This story is a clear example of the adoration of a roof element, that is part of the Architecture but also part of Nature. The leaf became the God of the Olinkas. Religion, Nature and Architecture have been developed together, conforming one single space.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Urban sprawl in California

Example of American urban sprawl. Internet download.
The freeways' knot. Download from

Cars in the American freeways. Internet download.

By august 28th, 2008, LA Times published about a revolutionary bill that would reverse the increasing California urban sprawl. “The number of miles Californians drive is growing almost twice as fast as the state's population, as housing developments sprout farther and farther from commercial centers. Not only does this urban sprawl put upward pressure on gasoline prices, it creates freeway gridlock, worsens air pollution and makes fighting global warming next to impossible.” .. “The bill wouldn't eliminate suburbs, but it would provide more choices for people who are forced to live far from their workplaces because they can't afford a home in the city”. To reach these goals, planners would provide incentives to impose smart growth, it means to build houses with a bigger density, close to urban centers and public transportation corridors. In exchange, builders who construct projects closer to public transportation will be graced with lighter requirements for environmental studies.
There were concerns, as the cost of housing would be automatically increased, the Cities would lose the right to determine the use of its land, and there was fear that California would not grow, but the bill was ultimately supported by environmentalists, local governments, and builders.
Those identical condominiums can be built thanks to car culture. Though the gasoline prices have increased in the last years, a recent study found that 68 percent of Americans haven't altered their cars’ habits, and that only 7 percent use public transportation. The reason seems to be that Americans live further away from their schools, jobs, malls. But I can tell that there is not enough public transportation to produce a radical change. You do not have a car in California, you can’t move, or at least just travel in a few restricted areas.
The bill, aims to strengthen the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). This protects more than 850 parcels of federal land scattered across the American west from urban sprawl. But some groups are concerned by the exclusion of a New Hampshire-sized portion of the California Desert Conservation Area. Omitting this land would allow utilities to build power transmission lines and open it up to energy development.
A lot is said against urban sprawl and it won’t be easy to find a solution, though California lawmakers have tried for decades to keep sprawl under control. Up till now, my worst impression was at the 5 freeway, a few miles South from Silicon Valley, were a multitude of identical houses have been built, clearly to provide dwellings to many international employees. Because they are destined to temporary immigrants from India, China, Japon, Israel, Pakistan, Philippines, among other nations. It is difficult for me to understand, why planners accepted immense condominiums with repeating styles and patterns ad infinitum. I’m wondering, for example, how a Pakistani feels compared to a Chinese living in the same habitat, having as main distinction the apartment number. My conclusion, they all work with numbers, they are treated –in consequence- like numbers. Not like people with different back grounds, culture and habits.
As a moral, I’d like to bring up the subject of a short story I’ve read a few days ago. It is “Twice Around the Block”, by Lawrence Treat.
It is a mistery story, a man had the perfect alibi to kill his wife and stay with her lover, Velma, who was his neigbor. I did not enjoy the story because when Lawrence described the sprawled neighborhood with the identical houses, well, I saw it coming.
“He never could understand why a woman like Velma had landed in Sunny Hills, where even the small, neat houses were so monotonously alike that you hardly tell them apart”.
And at last…he was a mistaken assassin:
“Harry straightened up, and stared unbelievingly at his wife. A quick, hard lump seemed to rip at his stomach, and he grabbed the doorway for support –the doorway that was identical with Velma’s”.
Further readings:

Cities like brains: the scaling laws issue

Concept city tower in Shangai. Internet download.
Concept towers in Shangai. Internet download.
There is a publication, in Science Daily, dated September 19, 2009, regarding a new study by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: cities are organized like brains, and the evolution of cities mirrors the evolution of human and animal brains.
“Just as advanced mammalian brains require a robust neural network to achieve richer and more complex thought, large cities require advanced highways and transportation systems to allow larger and more productive populations” …
It means that as brains grow more complex, in the chain of species, and with the human brain on top, they modify their structure and organization in order to achieve the right level of interconnectedness.
Mark Changizi explained “As with brains, interconnectedness is also a critical component of the overall function of cities”. “One couldn’t put together three copies of Seattle (surface area of 83.9 sq. miles) and expect the result to have the same interconnectedness and efficiency as Chicago (surface area of 227.1 sq. miles). There would be too many highways with too few exits and lanes that are too narrow”.
In his research, Changizi found evidence linking the size of a city or a brain to the number and size of its supporting infrastructure, which would scale up as the surface area of brains and cities increase. And he mentions a number of mathematical exponents that would reflect the scaling rule.
I understand his conclusions could apply to some important cities in U.S.A. But I cannot avoid remembering that some “freeways” (well, they are not “free” ways, a payment has to be done) built by the Junta Militar in Buenos Aires, simply cut the city in slices and without extensions or infrastructure to support them. They are just “freeways”, ending somewhere in the South.
I would make an exception if we go up North, as the Autopista del Sol was built outside Buenos Aires downtown, in open areas, and further constructions including public and private buildings, routes and avenues supported it, the further, the less support, just the minimum needed for the rural neighborhoods.
And it comes to my mind another situation. The scaling laws mentioned here are related to fractality. And for mathematical models, the theory usually applies to extended cities, as the examples mentioned above. My question is, what happens if the city is extended high, let’s say, in one point, with a huge tower (for example the futuristic projects for Shangai) where the tower has fractal Dimension D=0 (seen far from the sky), but it still has all the properties of an extended city, only that concentrated. I am wondering how Changizi’s formula would apply here, also supposing the tower could be completely isolated. If the tower is a city in itself, and depending on its design, it could probably not comply with fixed scaling laws. I think there could be findings of partial scaling laws. Let us remember a city can be studied as a living biological organism, but it does not work as a real one, every situation has to be particularly analyzed before releasing universal rules.

Installations and urban memories in the work of Ilya kabakov

"The Toilette" Kabakov, 1992. Internet download Exterior view of "The Toilette". Internet download.
Detail from "My mother's album", 1993. One of the corridors with the landscape pictures. Internet download.

Some of the more prominent artists of the “Perestroika”, among them Ilya Kabakov and Eric Bulatov, had been associated with the shows of “unofficial art” from the Soviet Union which were seen in Western Europe in the late 1970’s. Though political journalists received them very well, Western Arts critics dismissed them stating that these authors were simply imitating outdated artistic manifestations. In the ‘80’s, however, they realized that Russian artists were not following the Avant-garde in the West, but they had produced encoded expressions of the Soviet official art. It means, in order to understand the new Russian art correctly, the spectator had to see the artists’ love-hate relationship in the retoric of Soviet official art.
The Soviet way of life has been present in Ilya Kabakov’s series of provocative installations in the field of Visual Culture. This academic subject usually includes some combinations of cultural studies, art history, critical theory, philosophy, cognitive science, neurology, image and brain theory, anthropology, etc., by focusiong on aspects of culture.
By using fictional biographies, inspired by his own experiences, Kabakov has attempted to explain the birth and death of the Soviet Union.
At the end of the millennium, it was fashion to speak about the "end of history" and the "end of art," without saying anything about the end of the world. The philosopher, arts critic, essayist, Boris Groys, has commented that Soviet civilization was the first modern one whose death we have witnessed, and there are more to come. Kabakov's work fits in well with this theory where Art is remaining as a therapy of survival. He utilizes the museum not merely as an institution, but as a personal refuge, building his “own” museum, changing walls, ceiling, floors, and lighting, the totality of the installation is always precarious; but there is always an empty space, a white wall where artist and visitor can find their escape. Kabakov's installations are in direct relationship with architecture, habitat, and urban memories in the shape of temporary homes. For example, “the toilette” reminds me the poverty of post wars, the poverty of refugees, conventillos overcrowding, the simple accomodation for the first immigrants anywhere…And there is so much more to evoke.
“Labyrinth (My Mother's Album)” is a large-scale installation consisting of a series of narrow corridors in the dim light of bare bulbs. The viewer enters the installation through a door and is lead through progressively shorter corridors at right angles until he or she enters a small space in the centre of the labyrinth. This room, only a square metre in size, contains bits of wood and other debris. The corridors are constructed to resemble the interior of a shabby Soviet apartment block or civic building, with grey and brown boring walls interrupted by some pine doors at irregular intervals, the dirty floor is made from grubby wooden boards and the ceiling is supported by cheap, unpainted timber frames. In dispite of this, the sad urban memory contains the happy memories of freedom, in the black and white photographs hanging on the walls, taken by Kabakov’s uncle; they are a clear allusion to the Russian love of Nature, which survives even in the worst urban conditions. Kabakov has described his personal memories of corridors in these words ‘Numerous corridors have persecuted me all my life – straight ones, long ones, short ones, narrow ones, twisted ones, but in my imagination, they are all poorly lit and always without windows, with closed or semi-closed doors along both sides ... All the corridors of my life, from earliest childhood on, have been connected with [the] torture of endless anticipation’ (Kabakov, ‘“The Corridor (My Mother’s Album)” 1988’, The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, p.369).

The psychological importance of a door

Magritte's painting. "Surprise Answer"
Some years ago I accompanied my husband to see a house in Riverside. First time for me to go to Riverside, and could not imagine the trip would be so terribly long if we took the 91 Freeway at 3pm. A trip that would take 1 hour for us, took five hours, only to arrive at the mountains, and from there, we were driven somewhere in the dark, uphill. Considering we had to stay approximately one hour, then go back, (maybe it would take two hours), I found it reasonable to ask the homeowner permission to use the restroom. She offered me to use the master bathroom. To my shocking surprise, the master bathroom had a huge beautiful jacuzzi, but only a tiny curtain separated the toilette from the master bedroom. What was worst, there was somebody watching tv in the bedroom. My first reaction was to get away from there, directly, that was it. But the rational area of my brain, ordered me to be polite, I love anthropology, I love to study about people and habitat, culture, etc., I couldn't be so silly. And I wouldn't make it if it took hours to get down the mountain and find at least a gasoline station.
It is very common in California that the regional parks do not have doors in the stalls. To avoid drugs consumption and whatever bad acts you can imagine, but a private toilette...that was weird for me.
Now, if I analyze the facts, a standard interior hollow wood door is not sound proof; it covers the opening the same way as curtain. At last, it is the same concept with different materiality. What was the problem then? The habits, the memory of certain objects and their strict functionality. When the problem is exposed so brightly as Magritte did, I feel happy that somebody else has shared my concern about doors and privacy.

Immateriality in Painting and Architecture

Fig. 01. Internet downloadFig. 02. Internet download
Fig.03. Internet download

Immaterial architecture is more a state of mind than a tectonic quality. Architecture theory leans towards abstraction, virtuality, immateriality, the representation of what is not tangible; while the practice of it remains based on materials properties. The term is also related to the architecture in a state of “disappearance”, a building simplified and reduced to its essential elements; lightness, transparency. In Architecture and painting, since the advances on digital painting in the 90’s, the term recalls an analogy between software design and architecture; even virtual reality as a reduction of the physical and immaterial worlds. But this is not the rule….
There are many possible representations for the purposes exposed here, but we recur to two paintings and one picture only, as they are very significative.
René François Ghislain Magritte (November 21st, 1898 –August 15th, 1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist. His work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. In Magritte’s paintings, the rose (fig 01) is realistically painted, but suddenly the object is denied when we understand the clue: it is too big for this room, it reminds us the almost complete occupation of the interior space, the room is there, but is hidden; the rose is highly sensitive for the viewer, in its color, texture, and smell. It becomes so important that the room loses significance except to emphasize the rose’s huge scale. These Magritte’s domestic objects (fig 02) are out of context too, what immerses us in uncertainty; they invade the space we suppose interior, but we are not sure, as exterior view is superimposed to the interior; the walls are the sky, or even better a representation of it, given the corners and the ceiling are materialized showing a certain kind of techtonics. A similar situation is shown on Robert Mottar’s picture, New York 1959 (fig 03). The construction provides the frame and people provide the materiality. This conjunction allows us to consider “a building” in itself. In a strict sense, the building has no materiality. People is the building’s soul. Without people, this building would be nothing else that the configuration of a structure.
It seems to me that in the examples shown, we have an invitation to “look at”, but not to look at any specific thing, we have to ignore all particulars to appreciate the total gestalt. An element could dominate the scene, but it is impossible to reduce the artistic and architectural concepts to that specific picture. This is a kind of “apperception” of space.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The storage as a bedroom is a social problem

Garage converted into a living unit plus two storages (at least with windows). Personal archives
House and storage in Southgate. Personal archives

There is a common trick in California to sub rent the property: the installation of a storage. To add a storage in a house is not a problem, while it is located on a concrete slab complying the set backs. A storage can be bought at Home Depot, Sears, etc. and there is specialized people to ensamble the parts. In my country, it is very difficult to find such storages in the city, as the lots are too narrow, so my first impression was to think that the American storage was too much. But this is not, considering Americans use not only storages to keep furniture, old things, garden tools, etc, but they also use the garages as full storages.

The Latino mind goes further. Of course, this is not for all, and it is not a rule. But it happens frequently. The storage is part of "making the living", as there is no special regulation about it. In the picture's case, the blue storage has been painted like the house, it was built to match the house. The property was vacant by the time I took the picture, but there was no doubt for me, somebody has been renting it. The storages above, have a window added. And the garage had been clearly converted into a "second unit".

Planners are always worried about the lot coverage, to avoid urban sprawl, but forgot to include the storage in the counting, as it is an accessory structure. Unless the storage is too big, it will be considered just a place to keep the tools. A problem like this cannot be considered under the light of the lot coverage. The social problem, the lack of dwellings, have to be resolved first.

In present times, Los Angeles is becoming a city of rich and poor, with those of middle class that go away every time but toward the suburbs. The city began the decade with but of 372.000 units of overcrowded dwellings, of which 102.000 were severely overcrowded. And the situation continues worsening, from 1990 to 2000 the city population incremented in 300000 people and the numbers of housings has grown, for the same lapse of time, in 30.600. (Data from the Report of the Housing Crisis Task Forced, year 2000).
“The small number of units now being built are either luxury units for high income households or government-subsidized units for low income households. While higher income families build ever larger houses in the city’s most expensive areas, the solution for the middle class in search of single family homes has been to move out to suburbs in north and East Los Angeles County and to San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The solution for the poor has been to double and triple up in existing housing and to add new, sometimes substandard housing through unpermitted accessory units and converted garages in many of the City’s neighborhoods. Such units can even be found in aflluent areas”.
“In the absence of professional developers who assemble land and finance to construct new housing, individual property owners throughout the City are supplementing their incomes and subsidizing their own home ownership by creating illegal rental units. At a time when new construction cannot meet the housing needs of a growing population, residents are clearly finding ways to accommodate growth.”
This paragraph belongs to Report of the Housing Crisis Task Force, 2000, and subrepticially mentions that inhabitants, as a dynamic system, have found a way to accommodate.

Buying a house with illegal constructions

Illegal "bedroom" at the back of the property.Personal archives
There is a generalized situation in California, related to the Real Estate desperation to sell properties everywhere. It is to sell properties with illegal constructions, sometimes outside as we can see in the example, sometimes inside. I'm sorry to say even in the property disclosure, the fact of illegality is not clearly shown. If the buyer has experience, suppose he is a general contractor, he will probably take the opportunity of illegality to drop the house price. It is important to know that the illegal square footage does not count for insurances, does not count for taxes, does not count for the real price of the house, as it has no record in the City Hall, and what is worst, there is a possibility that it cannot be legalized, in case the construction is not good or is affecting the house layout, the set backs, or ventilation, illumination, and so on. No need to say illegal constructions have never fire protection.
People usually buy houses considering the square footage they see (or they are told); the typical is the patio cover enclosed, converted into a family room. The best way to reverse this situation is to include in the disclosure a real record of the property, a record taken from Planning Department. As far as I've known, no realtor shows the records .........
What I found funny is that the disclosure has a question, if somebody has died in the property in the last three years, what seems a weird question, but considering all religions in California, people could think that a phantom is living inside. That's important, together with the earthquakes and landslides, tsunamis, but the house record seems not.(!)
Now, who is guilty in this situation? For the City Hall, the new homeowner is guilty and he has the obligation to legalize the property completely. If the illegal construction complies with the current Codes of Zoning and Building and Safety, it can be legalized without further problems, correcting whatever is wrong. If not, just wait for an order of demolition. If the homeowner do not demolish, he is sent to Court. If time goes by, and there is still no demolition, just wait to be sent to jail.
If any reader has a specific question, feel free to send me an email

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Belly of an Architect
Movie shot. Internet download.
The Belly of an Architect is a 1987 very interesting film about architecture (and more) directed by Peter Greenaway. The movie stars are Brian Dennehy and Chloe Webb.
The film's protagonist Stourley Kracklite (Dennehy) is an American architect who has been commissioned to construct a giant exhibit hall retrospective in Rome, dedicated to the architecture of 18th Century architect, Etienne Louis Boullée. However, doubts arise among his Italian colleagues to the legitimacy of Boullée among famed architects. Kracklite's physical and social ruin conceptually corresponds to the decline of his idol Boullée. He has very bad feelings about himself, he is humiliated to be old, to be fat, and to be surrounded by Roman art and architecture whose perfect scaling and imposing architecture he has always admired. As time goes by, Dennehy finds himself addressing Boullée’s buildings as icons of the man himself, and he is even scripting a series of postcards to the extinct architect who suddenly seems resuscitated.
The character of Kracklite himself becomes obsessed with the historical Cesar Augustus after hearing that Livia, Augustus’ wife, supposedly poisoned him. Kracklite assumes that his own wife has tried to do the same due to his increasing stomach pains. Greenaway himself, who conceived of the film while suffering a psychosomatic illness in Rome, claimed it was about the many ways human beings reproduce: in buildings, sculpture, painting, photography, photocopies, and bed. Greenaway's visual technique heightens Kracklite's alienation, to the point that the main character Kracklite starts his photocopies obsession with pictures of bellies, indeed, of his own belly.
Peter Greenaway is the only filmmaker who could think at the same time of…obscenity? sex? and geometry. That is impressive. But more impressed I felt when I saw Kracklite mapping his own intestines –his belly- as the rounded forms alluding to the spherical constructions designed by Boullée, and his wife’s pregnancy belly.

Here we can see the impressive picture of the architect in relation with the monumental exhibition. Picture downloaded from Internet.
Even the fruits are part of the buildings models. Picture downloaded from Internet.

The wrong assignment

I was a student in the last years of Architecture career when I was working at a Studio in Buenos Aires Downtown. One of the associated architects began working at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism in Buenos Aires, teaching architectural design in the second year.
One day he felt terribly bad and we asked him what happened. It was a consequence of a students's assignment. What I would recall years after, as a Chief of practical exercises, as the wrong assignment. The Design chair asked the students to find a "design" problem in each student's family house. It was expected the new students would say, for example, " the kitchen is too big compared to the bedrooms", or " there is wasted space in circulations"...etc.
The architect of this story asked a student what he had found. And he answered "my house is full of humidity stains". Because it was the real problem for his family. The astonished professor, explained that there would be many DESIGN problems apart from the stains.......and he listed the possibilities, following the objectives. He saw the tears running down on the student's face: he had realized that his house was worse than he had ever supposed.
It is inevitable to discover the "mistakes" in the family houses, once you learn how to analize a house. What you learn at last in the professional life is to respect anybody's house, poor or rich, a castle or a shack. It always depends on the context. I've selected this picture to show that even the beautiful buildings get older.

Struggling for the front lawn

House in Bellflower: the forbidden front lawn. Personal archives.
Two different front lawns in Bellflower. Personal archives.

Communication has verbal and non verbal components. If we can decode the non verbal information, cultural patterns will be revealed to us. Those patterns can be expressed in clothes, houses design, food, music, and so on. People’s gardening is another cultural manifestation, which becomes very important when it is the front American lawn. Americans do not need to follow the City Hall design guide lines to read the environmental cues in the neighborhood. The neat front lawn somehow communicates an expected behavior, and the struggle begins when the behavior is out of the common rules.
Amos Rapoport was an American architect and anthropologist, who wrote about an interesting case in the suburbs of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in 1972. “Given the local climate, and the particular orientation of her house, a woman decided that she would have her vegetable garden in front –where a lawn is normally to be found in Anglo -American culture. The Municipality was outraged, and many special council meetings were held. Court actions took place and the case eventually reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court”. (Rapoport, The Meaning of the Built Environment, p. 129). At last, the woman was allowed to grow her vegetables. This case shows us that the front lawn is much more than a piece of grass and that there are feelings involved in its arrangement.
The picture I show here belongs to a house in Bellflower, Southern California. It is interesting to observe that native species are freely grown everywhere, specially cactus, the Mexicans’s favorite. What makes me think the homeowner is -or was- from a Mexican family. I found it fascinating, and astonishing if I compared it with the rest of the houses front garden layout. A couple of months after taking my picture, I went back to the place, and to my surprise, the plants were completely removed, new grass was planted and of course, the trees were still there, but neatly trimmed.
There are two possibilities here: the house was sold or a neighbor called Code Enforcement inspectors. Though, there is no specific regulation on the front lawns, but as a silent Code, “everybody should have the same lawn for the benefit of the City”.
We had a similar “ Wisconsin” case in my childhood barrio in Gran Buenos Aires. Our old Italian neighbor across the street, also decided to grow vegetables in the front lot. With the great difference, I mean huge plants of corn!. All neighbors could live with it, until she used fertilizer. As I remember, everybody thought there was a dead animal somewhere….Nobody needed to go to the City Hall and complain. It was a matter of rights. Her right ended at the neighbors’ right. A few knocks at her door, and some angry words were enough to resolve the situation. She never planted the corn again, but we have never seen the “expected” garden, only loose earth….

Mexican immigration in California and family ties

First generation of Mexican immigrants in Southern California. Internet download.

Family structure is an important aspect of ethnicity. For Mexicans, “family” means an extended, multi generational strong tie group of persons, who have specific social roles. Mexican and Chicanos are very family oriented. And those who moved to US tended to work and live in ethnically homogenous settings. Historically, male Mexican immigrants come first. Subsequently, relatives and friends follow the immigrants, completing the family units and eventually extended family and friendship networks forms in the following years.

They keep the family structure as they should have done in the rural areas of Mexico: the nuclear family, the secondary kin, and the fictive kinship. “Typically, the Chicano extended family also includes compadres, or fictive kin. As godparents (padrinos) of a child, compadres or coparents have a special link with the real parents of the child. Compadres tend to be close friends or relatives of the real parents, and the relationship of compadrazgo is expected to last a lifetime. ….Mexican Americans are believed to value familism more highly than Anglos and to know more relatives, see them more often.”(Keefe and Padilla, 1987)
The first generation of immigrants, less acculturated, less educated and lower in socioeconomic status, become barrio residents. For Keefe and Padilla it is impossible to say whether barrio residence reinforces one’s ethnic identity or whether those with loyalty to the ethnic group choose to live in the barrio. In our opinion, and just for the conversations held with those coming first, they establish wherever they have a contact, a friend or relative of a friend or any known person: a fictive kin who will help him offering any room, tent, garage, mobile home or even a garden storage. So, not necessarily the barrio is the first establishment.

To Keefe and Padilla statement (1987) that there is no indication that urbanism bears any significant relationship to extended familism, we opposedly state that this strong ties with real and fictitious family generates a fractal growth and modification of the urban morphology, and its first reason is to assist the immigrant/s in finding a location, usually precarious as the poor are likely to have relatives who are equally poor, with few resources to support visiting and exchange (Keefe and Padilla, 1987).
People who migrate logically stand to lose their primary family, but contact is maintained with relatives over distances. This does not end here, but a process of feedback is produced, a phenomena of transnational families influenced by the families living in USA. In fact, when the head of the household migrates, it is common for the rest of the family to expand the house, thanks to the remittances sent from the United States. Or most probably, due to wishes of well being, to invest in appliances. So, family ties must be viewed within the framework of the formation of transnational families. (see Alejandro Canales, 2002).

Night Blooming Cereus Ritual

First stage of blooming. From my personal archives.
Final stage of blooming. From my personal archives.

The action of inhabitat (“habitar”), to live and act in a certain culture, is frequently dispersed in multiple partial aspects, all contributions from different disciplines are really important to understand how humans behave in their environment.

One of the most exotic plants we could find in the deserts of Southern Arizona, East to Western Texas and Southern Mexico to California is the Night-blooming Cereus, which is a member of the Cactus Family. It seems a very insignificant sprawling plant most part of the year. It is rarely seen in the wild because of its inconspicuousness. But for one summer's night in July, each year, its exquisitely scented dramatic flower opens as night falls, emitting a sweet musky fragrance that attracts its pollinators, moths and bats. Then, early in the morning, it closes for another year, but followed by a red-orange, short-spined elliptical fruit.
Cereus is a name from the Greek, and refers to the candelabrum like shape of the leaves. It is also reported that Spanish servants used them as torches, after the branches were cut, dried and dipped in oil.
The Epiphyllum oxypetalum plant is also called Orchid Cactus and Queen of the Night (Reina de la Noche), and the flower was the inspiration to create the fragrance Desert Queen. The specific healing field is heart diseases.

What’s so fascinating about this beautiful flower? The whole affair is extremely sensual, from the anticipation inspired by the bud as it swells like a balloon. The day of the blooming, the process would begin about 9 or 10 pm, and would be wide open, up to 8 inches diameter by midnight. You can literally see the movement. Once it is fully open the scent is noticeably strong.
This “magical” event has a social logic. It triggers a family ritual throughout the world, neighbors and friend are called to participate. In many old Spanish American houses, fiestas were organized on the night of the blooming.
Just a simple flower is the motivation for space organization around the plant, as a ceremony held around an altar. There will be discipline, feelings, all five senses enhanced, in relation with the minimum expression of the landscape.
The flower causes the man to inhabit (habitar), as he can experiment an event that has become highly significative for him.

Here we are waiting, everybody conforming space, watching in fascination.

Notes on June 28th 2013:
My friend, the owner of the beautiful night-blooming cereus gave me a cut, maybe 4 years ago. After struggling under cold and windy weather, here are the current pictures of my plant, and maybe, who knows, I´m lucky to see it bloom this year:

Night blooming cereus. Personal archives. See the leaves how the grow from other leaves

Another shot from my night blooming cereus. Personal archives

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Medicine Wheel design in Southern California

In my research, I came across with a stone arrangement in Southern California, which I supposed to be a sacred garden. I’ve consulted the photographer, painter and garden designer expert Elizabeth Murray, who explained to me that I was in front of a Native American medicine wheel.
In Native American spirituality, the Medicine Wheel represents harmony and spiritual connections and it is considered a major symbol of peaceful interaction among all living beings. Many stone Medicine Wheels are scattered across Northern United States. Some of them have a diameter longer than 12 feet.
A Medicine Wheel is a physical manifestation of Spiritual energy, an expression of an internal dialogue between Spirit, Self and Nature.
The term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, the most Southern and the largest in existence. That site consists of a central circle of piled rock surrounded by a circle of stone.
The mystery that surrounds the Medicine Wheel has no written records and its purpose has not been exactly found by archaeologists. Of the many theories to their purpose, the two learning theories are: the wheels contain significant stellar and cosmological alignments, and/or, the performance of specific rituals and ancient ceremonies.
Medicine Wheels are still used today in the Native American spirituality, however most of the meaning behind them is not shared among Non-Native peoples. Though the one I found was created by an American white woman.
What separates Northern American natives from the Egyptian pyramids to Stonehenge arrangements is how non-intrusive characteristics their structures were.
The stones are not monolithic, just lots of small laid down stones on the ground in certain patterns. Medicine wheels appear all over Northern United States and Southern Canada, specifically South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Most of the wheels have been found in Alberta.
One of the prototypical medicine wheels is in Big Horn County, Wyoming. This 80 foot diameter wheel has 28 spokes, and is part of a vast set of old Native American sites that documents 7,000 years of their history in that area.
Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center cairn of stones, and surrounding that would be an outer ring of stones, then there would be "spokes", or lines of rocks, coming out the cairn. Beyond that, there are many variations on this basic design, in the one we show here, four angels are symmetrically displayed and a log is added, supposedly as a bench to rest and meditate.
The four animals commonly represented in the medicine wheel are The Bear, The Buffalo, The Eagle, and The Mouse. However, there are no rules about which animals represent the directions of the Medicine Wheel.
Each wheel works with the number 7, which is the Dream of the Creator's number. The wheel has 4 cardinal directions: South, East, West and North. As we journey through life, we will encounter each of these stages in our physical, mental, and spiritual growth.

These are the associated powers of the 4 cardinal directions:

SOUTH - Fire - Passion
This is the direction that deals with the heart, emotions, innocence, trust and childhood. Growth in the South it is the time of Summer. From the bloom we transform into the fruit of the labors.

EAST - Air - Flight
This direction's power lies with the rising sun. It represents vision, inspiration, a new start and endings, where matter and spirit touch, and the springtime planting and sprouting of seeds. Beginings start in the East - from where the sun rises. East is the direction of the physical body and newness including children and new borns. It is the time of change for all is a new beginning. Corresponding season is Spring.

WEST ( Blue) Water - Emotions
This is the direction of the setting sun. Later adulthood, the time of Fall, the time of the setting sun - twilight. The daylight fades and brings a new awareness in this time of gradual change. It is related to Fall season.

NORTH (Green) Earth - Wisdom
As we get older our hair turns white, as we come to our time of winter. White (and purple) also symbolize spirituality. With experience and age we gain wisdom. North is purity and wisdom, a great place of healing.

There is a case taken to Court, “Wyoming Sawmills v. United States Forest Service”. A federal appeals court ruled in September 2004 that this logging company did not have grounds to challenge government regulations preserving for religious purposes the site in Bighorn National Forest that is sacred to Native Americans.
The judges panel ruled that the logging company failed to show how its First Amendment rights had been subverted by the Forest Service's management of Medicine Wheel, which is an eighty feet diameter sacred stone circle and a National historic landmark to several Native American tribes located on Medicine Mountain in the national forest in North central Wyoming.

For further reading:

Appeals court upholds Native American Medicine Wheel.

The pictures belong to my archives. Please contact me for references. Do not reproduce without permission.


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