31 October 2008

An Impermanent Vernacular

innovation without architectsZahra Ebrahim
Some of the world’s greatest and most innovative architecture occurs on the streets of global cities on a daily basis, without the assistance of architects. Fly over Mumbai during monsoon season and you will see the rains bring a flood of blue tarpaulin: temporary shelters for the homeless seeping towards central skyscrapers. Take an elevated walkway over the streets of Hong Kong early in the morning, and watch the calm of shuttered storefronts give way to the people, the bustle and the newly erected awnings, stands and sidewalk-stalls. Drive through the Lower East Side of Manhattan and look to the streets to see the innovation, the creativity and the resilience of the homeless population whom have constructed homes from wood platforms, crates and plastic that have the aesthetic of an eyesore but upon closer inspection, the essence of home. It is in these places, in our very neighbourhoods, on our very streets that architecture is affecting people yet it is often unrecognised for it is architecture without an architect.
Temporary architecture, ephemeral architecture, is one of the world’s oldest models of the built form. It is reflective, like vernacular architecture of the local area, the local needs and of local human interest. The ephemeral architecture of today provides shelter, safety and comfort while simultaneously evolving with local changes in climate, political conditions, gentrification and social change. It remains because of cultural tradition, displacement or transience – an architecture of the dispossessed. This temporary architecture, created anonymously, does not occur in rural, invisible areas but rather in urban centres, most often in urban slums. It has moved over the past hundred year from the unplanned, unlegislated rural to the strictly zoned, planned urban. In 2003, the United Nations reported that one billion people – approximately one third of the world’s urban dwellers and a sixth of all humanity – live in slums. Architecture is occurring without architects in the same places where it is occurring with architects. This provides an interesting point of comparison at the success of these spaces as they are juxtaposed against each other. Although primitive, these shelters and this architecture, juxtaposed in the urban environment is acting with the same intention as much of the post-modern canon. Temporary architecture is actively responding to the form, function and environment on a daily basis.
Visit Mumbai, India, in the months of July to September, and experience the ultimate act of architect-free architecture. Mumbai is home to one of the world’s poorest urban populations as well as housing one of the world’s largest urban slums. In an effort to manage the spread of these slums, they are periodically razed by the government, leaving the dwellers forced to reinvent and reconstruct their homes, adapting them to current climate and political conditions. From July to September, monsoon season dictates the aesthetic of the architecture and the box and board constructed shanty towns are covered in a blue mass of tarpaulins, literally highlighting the polar class divisions in the city.
Both in Mumbai and Hong Kong, cultures have long been defined by a history of displacement. Colonialism in both countries affected the movement of indigenous populations, forcing them to constantly adapt to new surroundings. In Hong Kong the urban fabric has long been defined by informal and impermanent architecture. It is not only on the corners of the urban areas where this occurs, but on the main streets, where a big-box retail location is neighboured by a storefront selling fresh grilled squid and various forms of dried sea creatures – this storefront is obsolete by nightfall. Similarly, rounding a corner into a street market, by day a thriving and bustling metropolis of colour, smells and sounds; by night almost unrecognisable except for the odd abandoned piece of fruit or cardboard bearing the price of the day’s catch. Night markets (specifically in Asian regions) also bear this character. By day, abandoned, often dilapidated alleyways; by night, thriving, loud, exciting urban spaces that leave little to be desired.
In North America, due to highly regulated zoning rules, the most common form of architect-free architecture is the architecture of the dispossessed, the architecture of the homeless population. Whether in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver or the Lower East Side of Manhattan, these forms often are a combination of boxes, crates, parts of old machinery found on the street, and various remnants discarded by urban dwellers that are creatively integrated and purposefully used in housing for this demographic. In 1993, New York Times writer Patricia Leigh Brown interviewed Pepe Otero, a Manhattan homeless man who had constructed a makeshift structure out of discarded objects in an effort to carve out the closest thing to a home that he could manifest on the streets of Manhattan. Instead of being ashamed of his current living situation, he seemed proud, almost boastful about it. ‘You know something? It took character to build that. A lot of feeling went into it. Building it shaped my attitude. You realize you can do things for yourself. People who build for themselves have an interest in themselves. As long as you don’t forget, you’re not forgotten’.
What is most paradoxical about urban ephemeral shelters is that they are often looked upon as primitive by the majority of the urban population. As necessity is the mother of invention, and innovation is essentially born out of need, it is these impermanent spaces that make use of materials indigenous to urban centres, consistently adaptable to all conditions, and often amongst the most sustainable as they can be constructed and demolished with little or no damage to the environment (40% of emissions are caused by building construction and demolition) and are constructed from re-used – and therefore sustainable – materials. Bernard Rudofsky wrote (in 1964) that it is simple, even primitive dwelling types that we escape to when we need any form of relaxation (to get away from our technological mania), and it is in primitive surroundings that our chances of finding relaxation hinge upon. These anonymous builders around the world are providing an untapped source of architectural innovation.

So how does one recognise architect-free architecture? By its very nature it is defined by unpredictable streetscapes, streetscapes whose aesthetic changes on a daily basis. It is a return to vernacular that addresses local necessity by using local resources – an evolving architecture that speaks to its ephemeral contexts. Temporary shelter comes as a result of years of experimentation rather than years of architectural education. This vernacular, an impermanent vernacular, is creating not only creating architect-free architecture on the street level, but an architecture of empowerment that forces the boundaries of innovation.

Ebrahim, Zahra. 'An Impermanent Vernacular: innovation without architects' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Zahra Ebrahim and On Site review

No comments: