A Pile of Dirt

A pile of dirt in Trinity Bellwoods Park, Toronto, Canada. Photo: Josh Thorpe.
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On the occasion of Architecture Fringe 2018, a Scotland-wide festival of art and architecture, I recently delivered an informal talk entitled “Piles of Dirt and How to Talk About Them.” This article echoes that talk. It begins by contemplating a particular hill of sand in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, and it ends with a fantasy for the future of discourse around architecture, art, and our experience of material culture.

Some of you reading this will know the hill of sand I’m referring to. It sits in downtown Toronto, in a sparsely wooded area a few hundred paces north of Queen Street on the west side of Trinity Bellwoods. It’s about 12 feet high when it’s in good shape, and maybe 20 feet wide at the base. When I lived in Toronto I walked past this thing many times, barely noticing it. Then one day I stopped, scratched my head, and thought, Now that’s something.

Children love this hill of sand. They climb it, they roll down it, they dig into it and reform its sides. They run circles around it, they use it to play an immediate and elementary form of hide-and-go-seek, they stick things in the sand to make ad hoc sculptures, they pour water on it to make mud, and they grab fistfuls of the stuff and chuck it at each other. This hill of sand is so fun for kids it often draws a bigger crowd than the nearby playground, one complete with monkey bars and slides. And if the hill should happen to be empty, only one child needs to arrive before others are drawn in. And then a slower pull brings their adult people over as well, who stand in a loose perimeter drinking coffee and trying to avoid the regular volleys of sand.

A hill is one of landscape’s basic elements: a convex landform. Yet a simple landform like this operates in complex ways. It is a landmark; it allows people to orient themselves and communicate with each other about place; it creates microclimates, sheltering your body from prevailing winds one moment, blowing sand in your face the next; and if you climb to the top you get this slightly privileged view of the surrounding landscape. You also get a bit closer to the sky.

There’s a lot going on with this hill, but no one seems to know for sure just how the thing arose. All the sand used in Toronto’s parks and recreation facilities is quarried in Huntsville and trucked 200km down to the city, so it seems likely that some of this Huntsville sand was lying about one day, leftover from another purpose, and someone at Parks just decided to dump it in Trinity Bellwoods to see what happened.

One day there was sand there, and the next day people were using it. They used it so well, in fact, that the City has been in a sense educated by the public to attend to the pile of sand, to groom it and refresh it when it gets low. And it needs tending to, because it changes; it is not a static piece of landscape. It gets underneath everyone’s fingernails and in their shoes and then, when they leave the park, an amount of sand is redistributed throughout the city.

When I noticed these things, I started asking people in the neighborhood about the hill and I met a woman named, coincidentally, Anna Hill. She brings her daughter Chloe to the sand hill to play. Her husband, it turns out, is Jim Creeggan, the bassist from Barenaked Ladies. He and his long-distance running group use the sand hill as a place to practice because when they compete they have to compete also on sand. And these guys have friends who own a turtle, and those people like to bring the turtle to the hill, too; I imagine they think it likes the feeling on its skin.

So, for me, this little hill became a rabbit hole. It tripped me out. For one, it brought about all kinds of wonderful thoughts about landscape, and plugged me in to a network of people and narratives I’d otherwise have missed. But it also kind of gave me a craving, made me keen to discover what other unexpectedly strange and complex things were going on in the world around me, hidden in plain sight by my inability to see their strangeness and complexity. I guess that’s part of the ideology of the city, closing perceptual doors, ushering us through constrained and darkened corridors.

As an artist working in the public realm, it’s certainly caused me to notice an opportunity that I and my fellow artists often miss: the opportunity to intervene in the landscape, to maybe introduce new complexity, new play, to moments of urban life. In most of our cities we have flattened hills, filled ravines, buried rivers, imposed hard on soft, and regulated irregularities at every turn. Once in a while, a wad of cash becomes available and opens an opportunity to do something “creative,” but in these cases we as a culture seldom think beyond the erection of a large object. In fact, the state of public art seems to be so lacking in critique, experimentation, and play that most art people seem to turn away from it in embarrassment. I would argue, though, that the conservatism and the ideological challenge presented by public-realm projects especially invites critique, experimentation, and play. It may seem a tall order, but if a simple pile of dirt can do it …

Artists will find this difficult, however, without more landscape literacy in their own education and in the popular imagination. We should be teaching ourselves as a culture to look at a street or a park or a shoreline and see how it is what it is, and think about why.

It also points to a broader need, I think, to do discourse differently. To more often disrupt the habit of the way we talk and think and write about art, design, and material culture. To question the mundane, and critique what we overlook, seeking to uncover the strangeness of the everyday.

Actually, I sort of tried to do that. I pitched a story about the hill-of-sand to the Globe and Mail. To my surprise, they bought it. It would do well on a “slow news day,” they said. Two years later, there has been no day slow enough for the hill-of-sand story. I find that genuinely sad. Not for me. I just want there to be a news day that slow. That would be a wonderful day.

Or I want a conception of the news that holds such things important. A place for a discourse-of-other-relevance. Piles of dirt and condensation and soundscapes and somatics. How the sidewalk moves your hips this way and that and changes your mood; how a color recalls a smell; how dreams inflect pop culture. It could be a place where the poetics of someone like Lisa Robertson could help us see the imbrication of language with architecture and in turn with our bodies. Where the political ecology of Jane Bennett could animate our sense of our surroundings with images of oozing chemicals and lively particulate that is coextensive with the mind and the body and the spirit. Where the rhetorical experiments of Daniel Coffeen could show us the absurdist slapstick routine involved in the material reality of the martini glass (a heady cocktail is delivered in a manner that dares you not to spill it, and which embeds a giddy tension in a simple drink). Where we could experiment with new ideas without mastery of our subject – perhaps because it isn’t a subject yet. Where people could be thanked for writing with subjectivity and uncertainty or without access to the normal channels. Where we could reinvent the world as we know it a few words – or a few sand hills – at a time.

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