InspiringPlaces#3: Limestone Coast, South Australia

If, like me, you’re intrigued by the history of the French exploration of Australia, then the South Australian region known as the Limestone Coast will be a revelation. Outside the small fishing port of Robe, ragged cliffs demonstrate the relentless push of the sea, suggesting the many dangers faced by Baudin, de Freycinet, Lapérouse and other men of the Enlightenment who were curious and foolhardy enough to make the long journey south to the “Terres Australes”. Some of the place names they left behind (Fleurieu, Vivonne, Lacepède) are still scattered along the Australian coast, like abandoned shells.

Limestone Coast, Robe, SA
Photo by Catherine Howell, 2007

InspiringPlaces#2: Tinside Lido, Plymouth, Devon, UK

Brunel’s bridge over the Tamar River is spectacular. No doubt about it. But Tinside Lido wins my heart every time. Sunny (even when Britain isn’t), extroverted, elegant, it speaks of the short-lived social optimism of the 1920s and early 1930s. A leisure complex like this offers a total environment (a familiar concept today), and it envisions and demands a confident and hedonistic society. When lidos went out of fashion in the late twentieth century, Tinside suffered years of neglect. S. Wibberley’s design is now Grade II heritage listed, and was reopened in 2003 after extensive renovations.

Classic lido in Plymouth UK
Photograph by Catherine Howell, 2006.

InspiringPlaces#1: Grace Nicholson Building (Pacific Asia Museum), Los Angeles USA

The InspiringPlaces Mini-Project

For the next few weeks, once per week, I’ll be posting a short description of a building or a place that I’ve found intriguing, beautiful, or thought-provoking. One place, one photo, 100 words or less. I’m hoping this small set task will be a discipline that will help get me into the practice of regular writing. I’ll keep doing it until I start repeating myself or feel that the project has run out of steam. OK, so now for the first InspiringPlace (…drum roll…):

Grace Nicholson Building (Pacific Asia Museum)

I discovered the Grace Nicholson Building on a visit to L.A. in 2004. Walking in Pasadena, I was intrigued by its swooping roofline and inviting archway. Begun in 1924 by a local architectural firm, the building stands as a monument to a unique woman, Grace Nicholson (1877-1948), an art dealer and anthropologist who specialised in Native American arts and culture. The design is not kitsch; it is a carefully-researched example of traditional Chinese architecture and a peaceful sanctuary for the arts that is extraordinary in the context of L.A.’s glitz and grit.

Note: there are some atmospheric historic photographs of the building, some from the mid-twentieth century, at the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration.
Entrance to the Grace Nicholson Building, Pasadena
Entrance to the Pacific Asia Museum. Photo by Catherine Howell, 2004.

Project update: Belonging Place

We completed data collection for Belonging Place last year. Now it’s time to try to make sense of the dense ‘stuff’ we’ve collected: photographs, video footage, diaries, observations and notes. Thao started this work in November/December, using NVivo as our main analysis tool, and I’m now reviewing our codebook and reading background stuff on time-use analysis. I’ve been going back to the 1970s and some of the seminal work in this area by Torsten Hägerstrand, Nigel Thrift and F. Stuart Chapin, among others. This early ‘social geographic’ work on studying human activity patterns, particularly in urban contexts, really resonates for me and I’m particularly struck that it appears not to have taken root in education. It also chimes with my interests in activity theory – although I’ve yet to see the two approaches brought together.

Last week, I submitted an abstract for the IVM 3 conference (Third International Visual Methods Conference) to be held in Wellington later this year. That paper, ‘Eyes on the Studio’, will unpack some of our findings about the lived experience of studio culture in design disciplines. Our student participants were wonderfully frank about the benefits and challenges of studio practice during what was, for them, one of the peak periods of the year in terms of workload. It will also be a chance to showcase some of the photographs our participants took, documenting the day-to-day flows between home, work, rest and play. It should be no surprise that in the worlds of university students, third spaces like cafes or other informal eating spaces play a very significant role.

What is wrong with this graph?

Research outputs by 2-digit FoR code. ERA 2010 Report, Australian Research Council (Section 1, p.16).

Visual literacy is a critical social issue for educators today. Not only do we live in a world dominated by mediated images, but increasingly, critical decision-making within our own organisations depends on visual representations of data. Graphs and charts are used to “tell us” (and our leaders and managers) whether students are doing better or worse in their studies; whether school or university drop-out rates are growing or declining; how satisfied students (and staff) are with their lot – and much, much more. Social media and mobile technologies have created vectors for the transmission and circulation of information that verge on chaotic: the half-life of an image is unpredictable.

We need to up our expectations in relation to these materials, because the stakes are high. Three interesting questions: (1) How transparent, how reliable, how inclusive is the visual “telling” in these representations? (2) What is the nature of our own agency in relation to these visual tools, these aides-memoire, these distillations – are we able to interpret and interrogate the information that is presented in a critical fashion? (3) More broadly, how can we educate ourselves and our students to be critical interrogators of the visual world?

Within complex organisations such as hospitals and universities, a wealth of “business intelligence” is produced in part from the cyclical production of images such as that shown here: drawn from the Australia Council’s ERA 2010 National Report (Section 1: ERA National Overview, page 16).

I feel a bit sorry for the Australia Council, because this graph (along with so many more like it in the report), abounds with instances of chartjunk and is virtually useless when it comes to extrapolating meaning. To note just four of the worst offences: the use of the pie-chart format, with its intrinsic associated difficulty in attributing meaning to proportion; the poor labelling; the meaning-free use of colour; and the attempt to “3D-ify” the pie-chart (creating an odd, puffy effect that is similarly pointless). The graph looks suspiciously like it has been produced using Microsoft Excel – why?? (If using Excel is really unavoidable, why not review Edward Tufte’s advice on how to avoid Excel’s worst excesses).

The experimental film-maker, dramatist and writer, Marguerite Duras, famously castigated the “Himalaya of images” which she saw as an effect, or side-effect, of the commoditised production of spectators by the Hollywood image-machine. Unless we set ourselves higher standards with respect to our own visual representations, we risk producing a similar Himalaya of meaning-lite charts and graphs along with a similar commoditised spectator, the mindless consumer of commercial software defaults.

Lantern parade this Monday, 29 October

The student lantern parade for Virtual Environments, curated by Stanislav Roudavski and Annie Walsh, will take place this Monday evening. Come along to the Atrium, Architecture Building, from 5:30 – 7:30pm to support our students, celebrate the end of another semester, and see some cutting-edge digital design.

Design exhibited at BodySpace, Fed Square, 2011, a show of LED-lit lanterns designed by students in the subject “Virtual Environments”, at the University of Melbourne. Curated by Stanislav Roudavski and Annie Walsh. Photograph by Catherine Howell.

Life Through My Lens launch: Monday 22 October

Life Through My Lens launches on Monday 22 October!

To celebrate, we’ve created a digital poster that is currently on display at six locations around the University of Melbourne Parkville campus. These include the Eastern Resource Centre (ERC) and the Architecture Building. Thanks to the folks at Living Poster for the screen real estate and to Thao for organising everything brilliantly.

Catherine is seen here at the Architecture Building installation. Photograph by Warren Sellers, ABP Teaching & Learning Unit.