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Of locals from aboriginal community of Kitcisakik, five hours north- west of Montreal, working with their hands to rebuild their homes with Montreal architect Guillaume Levesque.
Of locals from aboriginal community of Kitcisakik, five hours north- west of Montreal, working with their hands to rebuild their homes with Montreal architect Guillaume Levesque.

Lisa Rochon

Creative muscle in a digital world Add to ...

Caine’s Arcade is an Internet video sensation about a nine-year-old boy in Los Angeles whose imagination and capable hands allowed him to construct a multi-game arcade using scissors, tape and cardboard boxes from his dad’s auto-parts shop. If Caine Monroy’s fantasy design hadn’t attracted the attention of L.A. indie filmmaker Nirvan Mullick, whose subsequent short documentary has had more than 2.4-million YouTube hits, we might have been inclined to pity the kid. He was forced to spend an unscripted summer without the diversions of overnight camp, art lessons or World of Warcraft to while away the hours. Instead, we are mesmerized and moved by the determination of a kid with nothing to do but design and build an idea from his mind.

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Here's what a wondrous child can produce when left to his own devices, unprogrammed and liberated from school: Caine cut a long slot into a cardboard box to create his imperfect but credible version of an arcade claw machine, improvising with a string and a hook to mimic the prize-grabbing game he loves to play. He devised a miniature basketball game with a plastic hoop saved from his favourite pizza joint. He created a mini soccer field with toy soldiers as defenders and a scrunched-up paper ball that moves when propelled by the flick of a finger.

When filmmaker Mullick turned up at Caine’s dad’s shop to source a door handle for his old car, he noticed a small city of stacked cardboard inventions spread out before him. And there was this kid with smiling brown eyes, wearing his sky-blue Caine’s Arcade T-shirt with “Staff” emblazoned on it. He’d been waiting for weeks for his first customer, sweeping the sidewalk and dusting off his carefully assembled cardboard inventions, then sitting patiently in a child-sized director’s chair. Naturally, he had endured taunts from kids at school that no such arcade existed.

Saying the $2 fun pass for 500 plays was an “awesome deal,” Mullick purchased and played, discovering that there was a generous level of design detail that invited skill and delivered rewards.

Caine gave Mullick with a “security” pin number, which he could punch into calculators taped to each of the five cardboard games. When Mullick shot hoops or scored soccer goals, Caine crawled into the boxes to manually push out a long row of yellow bonus tickets. And then there was a tantalizing array of plastic prizes pinned up on the wall of the auto parts shop.

Nobody can argue with the creative allure of Caine’s Arcade. But without adoring close-ups by Mullick’s camera and the flash-mob surprise party he organized to make Caine’s day, it would have remained like most other cardboard contraptions and make-believe forts constructed by children – stuck in basements or under kitchen tables, invisible to the world except the parents and siblings who, for small fees, are granted a chance to play make-believe.

The industrial age was built on what’s classified as non-muscular manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean creative muscle ever disappeared. The defenders of the arts-and-craft movement fought long and hard for the cause of man-made design. Elbert Hubbard abandoned his well-paying job in marketing at the Larkin Soap Co. in Buffalo and in 1895 founded the Roycroft arts colony in the nearby village of East Aurora, N.Y. By 1910, approximately 500 members of the arts and design colony, who worked with their “heads, hearts and hands,” had gathered there to print their own leather-bound books, design and build solid oak furniture and forge their own iron fences.

During a recent stay at the finely restored Roycroft Inn (1905) and its surrounding campus of 18 buildings, designated inin 1986 as a National Historic Landmark, I discovered impressionistic, brooding murals painted in the main reception hall, ethereal green light fixtures in a large, timbered dining hall and guest rooms individually designed in distinctive patterns of wood and wallpaper to reflect the character of the creative geniuses they honoured, from Chopin to Rembrandt to Robert Browning.

Is it possible that we’re actually bored with the smooth, hands-free aura of our techno age? Judging by the way we gaze at our computers and phones more than we do each other’s faces, I’d have to wonder. On the other hand, when we connect design with the human desire to craft and construct, the way that Caine magnificently did in East L.A., the heart is pumped back into architecture.

Montreal architect Guillaume Levesque, 33, understands the need for muscular creativity in an age of non-muscular design. Three years ago, in response to the appalling housing crisis in aboriginal communities across this fair land, Levesque volunteered with Emergency Architects of Canada, taking time from his practice in Montreal to train aboriginals in the small, impoverished community of Kitcisakik, five hours northwest of Montreal, in the practical art of house construction. The walls in their homes, like those in Attawapiskat, were paper-thin and sick with mildew.

He showed them how to retrofit their homes to become super-insulated and water-tight, and to reframe windows to better capture natural light. Exterior porches were added on so that the people could safely corral young children or prepare moose meat outside rather than butchering inside.

Young intern architects from Quebec responded to Levesque’s call for help, coming forward to work alongside locally trained residents to help rebuild dozens of homes. Besides teaching how to raise a roof or insulate the floor of a house, he learned about the prejudice that exists between native and non-native people and gained a more subtle appreciation of what the native people could teach us. “I feel that aboriginal people don't see the time in the same way we see it,” he said. “They are very calm and they don't need to rush in any way. They also take the time to do things and to be.” Now, Levesque’s design and construction project with the people in Kitcisakik is poised to win a major national award, the kind typically given to architects of major civic institutions or capital-rich homes.

It may seem that the junkyards of east L.A. and a remote Canadian aboriginal community have nothing in common – except for the power of the human hand to evoke emotion and inspire change. Like Caine, the aboriginals in Quebec found solace and healing through careful, deliberate and inspired construction. When time stands still, there is nothing to do but build in a new way.

For more on great design ideas from around the world, follow Lisa Rochon's blog chasinghome.org

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