27 December 2011

Mongolian Migrations

Rob Story and Giovana Beltrao

Migration can be a comfortable pattern or a tumultuous struggle. A culture built on migration has it woven into life. Movement is integral, anticipated and essential. But migrating a culture out of that pattern can be a different story. 

The people of Mongolia have migrated for centuries, routinely carrying their iconic gers with them as the seasons changed. But now, many have made the last migration - into the city, the migration of a culture, a pattern of life, an economy and an architecture. The move is not only theirs. It is a global phenomenon over which a nomadic family has little control over the pushes, pulls and consequences.
People are pushed by nature, pressures on resources, a collapsed economy; pulled by awareness of alternatives to the hardships of traditional life, by the draw of the city's bright lights. The young leave and the traditional cycle collapses. The search for a replacement life is inevitable, but the consequences can be traumatic and adjustments complex.
The draw of the city often dumps people into an urban poverty worse than the rural one they hoped to escape. A new settlement pattern must be adopted, a new economy must be entered, accessing basic needs must be re-learned, and an architecture must adapt. Developing governments are seldom ready to cope with the needs, and neither are many families. Sprawling slums are the result.
The traditional Mongolian family is nomadic and self-sufficient, moving with its herds through the hostile environment of the open steppes from summer grazing to winter protection. Long-standing communal traditions of land tenure recognize which families have grazing rights in a particular watershed and where their winter camping spots are. When the season ends, it takes only a few hours to fold up the family ger, pack it onto a couple of camels, or into a creaking old Russian truck, and move.
Architecture is the management of environments for people and their activities. By definition it must be holistic. Good architecture embodies the realities of a community's social structure, cultural beliefs, environment, economy and available technologies and materials. Indigenous architecture is always good architecture, it has no choice or it disappears. Best of all it is innately affordable and without formal debt. The well-know ger (yurt in Russian), is a perfect example. It evolved over generations in pragmatic response to that very set of drivers. When the drivers change, the architecture will follow. The situation in Mongolia exemplifies the challenges in doing so.
The ger is designed for the pattern of seasonal migration. We are familiar with the ger's classic kit-of-parts design, the hardware components, but less familiar with the software components, traditional family roles, social structure, household routines and the community relations that the ger encompasses. Migrating to an urban setting changes all of those. The software components are the first to feel the impact of urban migration, then the hardware must evolve. On the land the squat, decorated ger door opens from the expansive steppe to culturally ensured hospitality. A visitor need never knock. The mandatory salty butter tea is always on the stove. In the city, the door is behind a high fence, the gate is locked, the door is locked and the stove may be cold with family away in the cash economy.

Four contemporary events dramatically altered Mongolia's nomadic norms: the rise of Soviet control in the 1920s, its subsequent collapse in 1990, a twist of nature and globalising communication.
Under Moscow's direction, supply-driven rural industries were established throughout the countryside spurring a wave of migration off the land as families opted to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in favour of sedentary employment. Many brought their gers with them while others took advantage of Soviet-supplied workers housing in blocks of typically poor quality flats.
The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered another wave of migration. Overnight, rural industries became unsustainable and collapsed. Former nomads were stranded in small towns without employment, and without the ability or desire to go back to the land. The option was to migrate again, this time into the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Then nature kicked in with two consecutive devastating winters that decimated the herds of the remaining nomads and launched yet another wave of rural-urban migration, this time straight from the land to the capital.
Compounding all of these, globalised communication is beaming exposure to lifestyle alternatives into even the most remote rural ger with its satellite dish and solar panel attached to a car battery. Aspirations rise, migration accelerates.

Ulaanbaatar is centuries old having evolved as a trading hub and a religious base anchored by Buddhist temples from which nomadic monks provided far ranging support. During the 70 years of Soviet domination, large portions of the simple traditional core of Ulaanbaatar were transformed into the semblance of a developing 20th century city with a combination of grand Soviet public buildings, shoddy apartment blocks, wide streets, centralised infrastructure and central government land control. The social and architectural contrasts between the two eras are stark.
With the end of Moscow's subsidies in 1990, government resources to manage urban growth disappeared. The result is that about 70% of Ulaanbaatar's built-up area is unplanned, sprawling beyond the Soviet-era core in poorly serviced, informal ger areas.
The nomadic perception of free rural land usage is dramatically different from that of an urban sense of ownership with a cost. Government guidance to orderly development of land, infrastructure and economic development should come first as the framework for growth, but the pace of rural-urban migration far outpaces government's capacity. Families can't wait and the building is always first. Real life replaces planning. Government then struggles to overlay some form of land tenure and insert infrastructure into the organic form of an informal settlement.
Incremental processes of development and densification over time are readily evident in Ulaanbaatar's "suburbs". New families arrive on the edge and plant their ger behind a new fence. Whatever plan, infrastructure and control exist have not made the transition to urban needs. Someone will claim land ownership, official or not, and payment for a "fence" will be needed, but without recourse to a Central Land Titles Office. It may be hundreds of metres to the nearest source of water with a wheelbarrow to pay market prices  up to 20 times that of the subsidized urban core. The sanitation system is a hole in the ground. Food comes from a shop and shops want money and that needs employment.
In older ger areas a single "fence" may have densified to contain two or three gers and several contemporary structures built as the family grows, aspirations are realised, or relatives arrive to share the space. Gers may have even been replaced all together. Corresponding improvements to infrastructure, however, are usually far behind. Bankable land tenure is not in place. Primitive pit latrines remain frozen through the harsh winters, then melt in spring and flow into the dirt passages serving as streets. Coal, dung and wood smoke from thousands of rural stoves choke the urban winter air. The struggle to enter the cash economy can rapidly alter the familiar family structure with the men migrating for work, women leaving the house and kids on their own.
It is true that the perceived social and economic opportunities of the city exist, but for far too many they remain out of reach. Migrations will continue. Cities must embrace the dynamic processes involved and target the key points of intervention if the goals of urbanised social, economic and environmental health are to be met. With the framework in place, a new vernacular architecture will evolve.

Rob Story: a Calgary-based architect, urban planner, traveller and photographer working with human settlement issues throughout the developing world for the past 25 years. President of HABICO Planning + Architecture.  Giovana Beltrao: a Brazilian-born architect and urban planner who started working in the favelas of Brazil 18 years ago and continues to work on human settlement projects throughout the developing world with Rob and HABICO.

Story, Rob and Giovana Beltrao.    'Mongolia Migrates'  On Site review, no. 24 Fall 2010
©Rob Story, Giovana Beltrao and On Site review

13 December 2011

Dust Bowl Designs: the Federal migrant camps of the Great Depression

by Joseph Heathcott
Beginning in 1932, the topsoil of the American plains took to the wind and scattered eastward across the country.  Decades of sodbusting, mono-cropping and deep furrow plantation had exhausted the fragile soil structure, leaving it vulnerable to drought.  When the rains failed in 1931, the earth began to dry up.  By 1934, the United States was experiencing its worst drought in history.  As the soil desiccated, the fierce winds of the plains gathered tremendous plumes of dust and carried it over millions of square miles.  All told, a billion tons of earth moved on, devastating farms, wrecking communities and setting in motion the great westward migration of families seeking work.
In response to this ecological catastrophe, the Roosevelt administration reorganised the rural relief effort and charged the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to coordinate a range of housing, credit, health and education programs for farm families, migrants and itinerant workers.  As part of an expansive New Deal state, the ultimate goal of the FSA was to democratise land ownership by eradicating rural tenancy.  The immediate challenge, however, was to organise temporary shelter for millions of people in motion – the displaced and the dispossessed.
In 1937, the FSA launched a government camp project to provide shelter and services to migrant workers in 15 states, mostly in the West, but also in farm and fishing communities in the Northeast and the South.  For many migrants, shelter per se was not the foremost challenge – many families took refuge in their vehicles or in makeshift squatter camps.  The main problem was that a lack of stable housing forced them to spend large portions of their income on fuel in order to keep moving.  Thus, the FSA would not only supply shelter, but would site camps strategically in order to maximise transportation efficiencies.  FSA officials used government trucks to transport workers to agricultural jobs in the areas around the camps.  This enabled migrants to spend less on fuel and to retain a larger share of their earnings for essentials.
While shelter was just one part of the larger array of challenges migrants faced, the FSA viewed its provision as a top priority.  The Roosevelt administration, Congress, and FSA leadership regarded the unhinged population with alarm, worried that the lack of stability could lead to radicalization.  For government planners and architects, self-built squatter camps that cropped up across the country presented an ungovernable landscape full of moral and physical danger, magnifying the already dire conditions of the Great Depression.  They argued that only the rational delivery of modern shelter units in sufficient numbers could draw people out of their makeshift interstitial communities.
To build the camps, the FSA liaised with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other federal relief agencies.  With primary responsibility to construct dams, bridges, hospitals, post offices, and other government buildings, a great deal of architectural and engineering talent was concentrated in the WPA.  The CCC maintained an in-house staff of land surveyors, planners and road builders because of its work in constructing state parks, fire roads, retreat camps and other rural facilities.  By the end of the decade, the FSA had built up its own stable of architects, engineers, planners and surveyors, managed by a vertical system of national directors, regional administrators, and local camp officials.
The FSA deployed a range of measures to scale up design and construction of the migrant camps.  Rather than hire one architect or firm for every project, the FSA retained a pool of architects to develop standardised plans around a limited and uniform program of building.  While the FSA contracted with private construction companies to build the camps, it retained control of the supply chain of materials in order to reduce costs and speed production.  Civil engineers moved from site to site in order to oversee the surveillance, grading, utility installation and other site preparations.  Many camp services were delivered through mobile rather than stationary means, including dental and health clinics installed in manufactured structures and mounted on trailers.
In general, the FSA favoured modular, functionalist design, reflected in the work of some of its most well-known staff, such as landscape architect Garret Eckbo, architect Vernon de Mars and civil engineer Nicholas Cirino.  FSA camps attracted notice from modern architecture circles, including the influential Pencil Points architectural journal, which devoted an entire issue in 1942 to the camps.
Most camp buildings were wood frame clad either in canvas, wood or metal.  In some regions, architects made attempts at vernacular design adaptations. Camp Osceola in Florida, for example, featured small porches and low-angle gables on stilt-raised residential buildings not unlike local houses, while community facility buildings in Texas and California were often open to the air; camps in Arizona used adobe for wall construction.  But most camps rose up according to a set of centralised codes and specifications meant to accelerate the process of construction and multiply the number of sites in the pipeline.  This centralisation of design led to such follies as tin roofs in Texas and metal cladding in Florida, forcing residents out of their units in the long summers.
As federal architects and civil engineers sited, planned and constructed the camps, the Head of the FSA Information Division, Roy Stryker, dispatched twenty-two photographers throughout the country to document the effort.  He employed many of the top photographers in the United States, including Dorthea Lang, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and Marjory Collins.  He supplied his photographers with 'scripts' describing the range of subjects and treatments deemed appropriate to the purpose.  These photographers left a detailed visual record of the camps, with tens of thousands of unique images.         
FSA photographs depict rural families adapting to life far from their Kansas and Oklahoma farms.  Planners organised each camp on some variant of an orthogonal grid surrounding a public square, a landscape condition largely alien to the residents' experience of rural agricultural life in the Midwest and Great Plains.  People shared water sources and bathing facilities, recreation spaces and dining halls.  In many of the camps, the FSA operated co-operative stores, day care centres, adult education classes, libraries, health clinics and kitchens.  Architects invariably sited camp manager offices next to the gates in order to enhance surveillance.    
And yet, these images of the architecturally uniform and rigorous camps belie the fragility and transience of their condition.  With the 1940 elections, the political winds in Congress shifted against bold federal experiments such as the migrant camps.  The entry of the United States into World War II in 1941 absorbed millions of migrants into the military and defence production force.  In 1943, Congress shifted all migrant relief programs into the more conservative and narrowly conceived War Food Administration in the Labour Department.  By the conclusion of the war, the federal camp program was shuttered.    
In the end, the camps presented highly ambivalent landscapes.  They were less communities than collections of strangers, coming and going at intervals, forming rapid but tenuous connections amid dire circumstances.  The architecture itself expressed this ambivalence.  On the one hand, camp planning and organisation spoke of a tentative optimism in the provision of the public good.  On the other, it expressed the aims of government through modular and temporary construction suited to the immediate provision of shelter, but less suited to the broader goal of the New Deal to remake American democracy.  The camps had sprung up amid volatile political and economic forces – by the time the government had constructed a sizeable network of camps, federal priorities had shifted to the war effort.  Migrants disappeared into factories and defence housing springing up in cities; construction materials flowed out of FSA warehouses and into war production.  In hindsight, the permanent state of the camps had always been impermanence; they were momentary and ephemeral, much like the dust that drove people westward in the first place.


Heathcott, Joseph  'Dust Bowl Designs'  On Site review, no. 26 Fall 2011
©Joseph Heathcott and On Site review