31 March 2012

Clean Defences, mapping Rom culture and territory

Emily Moore

For nearly 800 years Romani, who constitute the largest ethnic minority in Europe, have migrated through the world1. Neither agricultural nor industrialised, they are economically dependent on surrounding societies, their nomadic and secluded ways often drawing much suspicion.
Diverse theories as to Romani origins, cultural validity and ethnic identity share the hypothesis of an Indian origin and a collective belief system called romipen.  Studies of how romipen organises the Romani built environment are confirmed by my own findings on an annual Romani pilgrimage from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in France, to Rome.

Linguistic similarities between Romani language and Sanskrit, and genetic ties between various Rom clans around the globe and contemporary Indians, confirm a shared ancestry.  Roma across the world negotiate the perpetuity of their culture with pressure to assimilate into a host culture.  Because the Rom are an ethnicity without a designated homeland, their vernacular is not a regional material or style, but a strong tie to romipen — a belief system about the body, its place in the universe, and a myriad of pollution boundaries. Similar to the role religion plays in many cultures, romipen enforces both a collective identity and a ubiquitous isolation.

Despite 800 years of migratory dispersal from India through Persia, the Byzantine Empire, the Balkans and Europe, Romani settlements in England, western and eastern Europe and the Americas show clear similarities in the organisation and treatment of living spaces, demonstrating the importance of the built environment as a means by which traditions, taboos and cosmology have survived time, place and confrontation with a multitude of cultures.

Romipen [Rom coupled with the Indic suffix -pen meaning -ness or -hood] encompasses everything that distinguishes the Rom from other ethnicities. Most prominent under this code are the pollution boundaries that maintain the purity of the Rom culture. Romipen beliefs and taboos thwart contamination of both the individual and the people.  Romipen is fundamental to the creation and continuity of both symbolic and physical boundaries dividing Rom from gadze (non-Romani) cultures, regardless of place or site. 
Unlike western cultures, with their future lying ahead and their past behind, Rom do not organise themselves temporally; in fact, time has little importance compared to the body. The Romani concept of the body begins with a formal distinction between inside and outside. The outer self is a public presence that may take on a changeable persona determined by circumstance. The inner self must be kept pure, housing the ethnic being that sustains the individual and contributes to Romani people as a whole. The conception and codification of the rules of romipen ‘are resolved in their symbolic application to the body’2.  The upper and lower halves of the body are separated by the waistline as an axis mundi. This division determines various uses of space and strict distinctions between wuhzo (pure) and marime (polluting) behaviours. Because defecation, childbirth, menstruation and death are considered to be marime these processes must occur at a distance from the home and even the settlement. The distinction between the upper and lower halves of the body is also expressed in the manner and space in which all washing is conducted. Separate vessels for washing are designated for food, cutlery, the body, and clothing. To separate these activities, almost all personal washing and laundering is done outside the home, while the washing of food and cutlery is done inside in a more celebratory manner.

Many Rom settlements appear to be modest camp sites made up of campers, shanties, converted containers, or kit houses. There is only one entrance to the camp and the dwellings are placed in a circle defining an internal common space. The single entrance discourages outsiders and maintains a relatively continuous boundary around the site.  Besides the obvious distinction between interior and exterior, there is a series of thresholds that one crosses from the periphery of the settlement to the actual interior of the dwellings. These thresholds are defined by their degree of cleanliness. In general, the exterior of the site is untidy and considered a dumping ground for waste. This is not bothersome to the Rom who are predominantly concerned with the cleanliness and ornamentation of their immediate living quarters. Much like the treatment of their outer personal appearance, the Rom are not attentive to the public façade. It is their homes and the liminal spaces between them that are manicured. In many of the camps that I visited the transition from exterior to interior cleanliness was drastic. The periphery of the camp was often treated as a landfill, cluttered with any and every unwanted object. Passing the initial threshold, the clutter subsides and central common areas are almost always immaculate. La Foce camp in Genoa was overcrowded and thus lacked a large central space; narrow alleys between houses were considered communal and were kept clean by piling unwanted objects on the roofs.  The treatment of the interior and exterior of both home and encampment parallels the inner and outer body outlined in romipen.

The boundaries of encampments range from the monumental, such as cliffs or large retaining walls, to permeable — gestures that imply a threshold, such as rubbish along the periphery. Each camp I visited established its boundary in a different way. Sometimes the natural landscape or urban elements were used as a protective shield. Where a site did not have a barrier, the Rom often placed their homes very tightly around the edge of the camp forming a fortified wall.  In extreme cases, fencing and vegetation completed the barrier. One of the largest naturally confined settlements is outside Granada in Spain, where up until 1963, as many as ten thousand Rom lived in the caves of Sacromonte.  For the Rom, these caves offered a natural barrier behind which they could isolate and protect themselves from gadze intrusion. Near Sacromonte another group of Rom settled in a ravine sixty feet below street level where they live peacefully in a state of invisible symbiosis with gadze society.   

Although barriers shield the Rom from the dominant society, the cultural clash between Rom and gadzo is becoming more tumultuous in western Europe as eastern European countries enter the European Union. Rom are travelling more freely and will continue to travel. Often viewed as parasitic by gadze societies, Rom depend on romipen and their isolated encampments to carry their culture.  Strict adherence to the romipen vernacular is unlikely to waver — after all it has survived 800 years of drifting through other cultures with non-nomadic vernaculars that challenge romipen.  One hopes that awareness of romipen as a cultural vernacular with deep historic links will lead to an affirmation of the unique and tumultuous symbiosis between these disparate cultures.

1  The word gipsy, or gypsy, derives from the word ‘Egyptian.’ There are several theories explaining why Gypsies are connected with Egypt, however at present Romani (Romany, Rom, Rrom, Rromani, Roma) is the prevalent usage.
The Romani word for non-Romani people is gadze (plural gadzo). It is not an offensive word; it means only ‘non-Romani people’. Other spellings and pronunciations have been widely used such as: gorgio, gadgio, gaujo, gawjo and gawja.
2 Okley  p80

Fonesca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Vintage, 1995
Hancock, Ian. We are the Romani People. Hertfordshire, England: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003
Harvey, D, Ward-Jackson, C. The English Gypsy Caravan. London: Redwood Burn, 1986
Mayall, David. Gypsy Identities 1500-2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-Men to the Ethnic Romany. London: Routledge, 2004
Okely, J. The Traveller Gypsies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983 
Pearson, Michael, Richards, Colin. Architecture and Order: Approaches to Social Space. London: Routledge, 1994
Rapoport, Amos. House Form and Culture. Englewoods Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969      
Yoors, Jan. The Gypsies of Spain. New York: Macmillan, 1974  
Emily Moore.  'Clean Defences.'  On Site review, no. 18 Fall 2006
©Emily Moore and On Site review

Military Estates

Nick Sowers

I step off the train in a western Tokyo suburb at 8 am. A few minutes' walk past the mini-marts and four-story apartment blocks brings me to Camp Zama, headquarters of the United States Army in Japan. I approach the pedestrian gate where a Japanese guard stands, automatic shotgun at the ready. I show him my American passport and proceed to a call box, where I phone ahead to my contact, Fukaya-san. He is a Japanese civilian who works for the Army's Installations Management Division.
While I am waiting for my escort, under observation by the guard, I study the base edge. A column of 12-story apartment buildings springs up from the sprawling city and looms over the base like towers over Central Park. [see e_tower.jpg] The barbed-wire fences and weathered 'No Trespassing' signs hold this piece of land at bay from the city's appetite. It is astonishing that sixty-four years after the surrender, Tokyo still has American troops occupying its corners. While the Soviet threat—for four decades the principle justification for continued US occupation—has passed, North Korea, China, and a 9/11 repeat are among the perceived threats which perpetuate the US presence in Japan. Whether or not the bases are necessary, I am here to study what impact they have on the surrounding civilian fabric.
As cities develop around military bases once laid out far from city limits, the noise complaints, zoning conflicts, and repossession of military land begin to chew away at the operative capabilities of the base. The proper military term for this is 'urban encroachment,' something important enough that the RAND Corporation recently produced a study on it entitled The Thin Green Line (2007). Many bases in urban areas have set aside staff to seek out ways to mitigate encroachment. What ensues is a pitched battle between the encroachment team and the denizens of the base edge.
Fukaya-san, Camp Zama's encroachment expert, pulls up in a minivan. We exchange business cards per the Japanese custom, and then after filling out some paperwork at the checkpoint we head off on a tour of the base perimeter. In the van are two more Japanese civilian employees of Camp Zama: Awada-san and Oguro-san. No one explains to me the purpose of their attendance, but I begin to feel like a visiting diplomat. After all, I am a United States citizen and my country has signed a treaty with Japan called a Status of Forces Agreement, permitting the occupation of Japanese territory in exchange for augmenting their defense forces. I am here to observe the spatial negotiations of this treaty as they are manifest at the base edge.
We pull up to the first site of encroachment, a tree with branches hanging over the fence. Is this a joke? I can see the news headline: US Military Base Overrun by Cherry Blossom Trees. But if the branches hang over onto the base property, why can the military not just lop them off? Fukaya-san explains that they must go through a process of asking the Japanese federal government, which then must ask the local municipality who then may or may not demand that the tree-owner prune his tree. This particular tree is a local violation to international treaty space, so Camp Zama's staff cannot take direct action. I look at the tree not without a bit of reverence.
We move on, one by one, to observe each example of encroachment on the base. Clotheslines, scarecrows in the form of plastic bottles spinning in the wind, and small gardens outside the fence but on military property are among the sites of treaty violation. We stop to look at a birdfeeder in the form of a halved orange, impaled on the top of the fence. Awada-san tells me that if I want a photo of it, I have to inform Oguro-san. He will take the picture with my camera. Suddenly, I am the film director of a bizarre production, with my military entourage: Fukaya-san the encroachment expert, Awada-san his chain-smoking co-producer, and Oguro-san the camera man, a can of BOSS Black coffee in hand.
These seemingly trivial moments of intersection between the military and civilian worlds are, in fact, significant. They are the beginnings, the fraying of edges which eventually lead to tears, rips, and rending of the whole. What would happen if we amplified the scarecrows and birdfeeders, the clotheslines and vegetable gardens? The military base would actually be taken over by trees and birds and gardens. Fuchu Communication Station, a nearby base returned to the Japanese Defense Force in the 1990s, is overgrown and fast decaying. If this is the future of bases, then an incipient strategy for the reclamation of military space is in action along the fences.
In preparation for such a strategy, I have documented the phenomena of the base edges across a number of installations in Japan: Yokosuka Naval Base and Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Tokyo, and Sasebo Naval Base near Nagasaki. I am also documenting here Okinawa, a small island which shoulders an unusual burden of 75% of the bases in Japan: Kadena Air Base, Camp Hansen, and Camp Schwab.
These tunnels of space are latent opportunities for larger interventions. As a collection of spaces they serve to undermine the integrity of the base edge, eroding it and lending an unfinished, temporary quality to the base. Like Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estatesi, the territory is difficult and sometimes impossible to occupy. Because the land is negotiated by an international treaty, it is also an impossible space to act in unless the action is illicit, or, perhaps, the terms of the treaty become sympathetic to bird-feeders and vegetable gardens.

1 In the 1970s as part of an unfinished work entitled Fake Estates, Gordon Matta-Clark bought up unwanted slivers and triangles of land in Queens and documented their edges in rich detail. Many parcels were simply inaccessible, islands of space sealed within a city block. Other fragments were so narrow that nothing could possibly be built there and travel through them was difficult. His close-up photographs of the property edges exposed a world of erosion, plant growth, and concrete fracture. Fake Estates declares that a property edge is more than a line, it is a space to be inhabited.

This essay, and project, about the very fine line between a US Military base just outside Tokyo, and the Japanese community just outside its chain link fence, was published in On Site 22:WAR.
Nick Sowers also has a very interesting blog which documents his sound projects in and around San Francisco, Soundscrapers

Nick Sowers.  'Military Estates.'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Nick Sowers and On Site review

Aikido Architecture

Ivan Hernandez Quintela

I like to think of myself as a Japanese warrior, who moves so slowly that you do not see me coming.
~ Ivan Hernandez Quintela,  

In the martial arts of aikido, one learns to use an opponent’s strength to create one’s own strength. I like this because it offers tactics to people that might seem as the weaker player to confront bigger opponents. I have always thought that a similar tactic could be used in the practice of architecture – a practice where one single individual could impact the city one gesture at a time. This individual would work with his or her body, one spot at a time, but that each small gestures could be contagious, could be reproducible, could spread all over the city; a sort of acupunctural architecture where one invades one zone of the city but could actually get to affect a much broader area. One would use the existing patterns, habits and idiosyncrasies of the city towards itself.

I picture myself as an aikido-architecture practitioner and intervene the city with small projects called urban prosthetics. These projects attempt to shake the city one spot at a time. I would like to use one example to explain what I mean by aikido architecture. The Insinuated Furniture project attempts to call attention to a lack of pubic furniture in Mexico City at the same time that it draws attention to the way inhabitants empower themselves against it. The project consists first of walking around the city noticing architectural surfaces that people use to lean and rest their bodies even though such surfaces where not designed for that purpose. I then draw over those surfaces, with masking tape, silhouettes of familiar furniture, such as the silhouettes of a chair, a bench, a table or a bed in order to call attention to them. I feel that such an act makes visible the creativity that everyday users of the city practice.  I feel that my silhouettes could be drawn by anyone, and that soon, the entire city could be drawn over, making all surfaces inhabitable. I feel that such acts make anyone feel that they can conquer space. I feel that such gestures could provoke a new participatory attitude towards the city, where each inhabitant could construct little by little alternative ways to interact and inhabit their city. I feel that all of us have an aikido-practitioner within us waiting to be released – that all of us are makers of our city.  

Ivan Hernandez Quintela is a long term contributor to On Site – the first was in issue 4, a shade arbour framework for roadside vendors.  His studio, Ludens, is engaged in low cost, low technology, sophisticated thinking around furniture, education, community needs and urban social relationships.  Ludens' Learning and Innovation Network is written up in Architecture Record this month, and their RIA classroom project for rural Mexico will be in On Site 27, out later this spring.

Ivan Hernandez Quintela.  'Aikido Architecture.'  On Site review, no. 23 Springl 2010
©Ivan Hernandez Quintela and On Site review

07 February 2012

Urbicide. A Crime Against Urbanity

 Erin Koenig
On August 25, 1992, the National Library in Sarajevo and its contents were destroyed over three days of incendiary grenade attacks launched by Serb forces. The library, a fusion of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architectural styles, housed over a million books, one hundred thousand manuscripts and centuries of historical records from the Balkans. For days following the attack, residents described a thick cloud of ash that hung above the city as pieces of charred books and manuscripts floated to the ground. “It was the most apocalyptic thing I’d ever seen,” said Sarajevan Aida Musanovic. The horror had not been directed toward an army or intended just to annex territory; to borrow Musanovic’s words, it rather “sought the cultural eradication of a people and all evidence of that people’s culture and existence”.1
In 2002, the Israeli Defense Force launched Operation Defense Shield, which left 140 multi-family housing blocks completely destroyed – 1,500 significantly damaged – and some 4,000 residents homeless2 in the Jenin refugee camp. The weapon that dominated the operation was not a machine gun, tank or even incendiary bombs – it was rather the D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer.
Three years later, Robert Mugabe initiated a large-scale government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across Zimbabwe. Described as a crackdown on illicit housing and commercial activities, Operation Murambatsvina3 deployed police across Zimbabwe's urban areas in order to uproot millions of people; among other weapons, the bulldozer played a key offensive role.

These examples – and countless others – serve as disturbing illustrations of an emerging phenomenon. Termed urbicide, this process undermines the city and its inhabitants by disrupting urban rituals and spaces. From unrestrained destruction during times of war to chronic urban blight, urbicide can occur in a variety of forms; what remains consistent is the objective of forcing urban inhabitants into the surrender of not only functional but also symbolic urban spaces. It is a process intended to corrode cities by attacking their foundational places – of worship, education, exchange and commerce – and characteristics – density, cosmopolitanism and heterogeneity.

As cities bisected by walls, architecturally and psychologically, Belfast, Berlin and Jerusalem have a complicated relationship with their urban barriers. Walls are often introduced to inhibit violent clashes amongst the population; however, such responses are urbicidal in that they hinder any possibility for collaborative local democracy. According to Thomas Fraser, Provost of the University of Ulster and Coordinator of the Belfast-Jerusalem Civil Society Partnership4, the closer people are emotionally, culturally and spatially, the more difficult it is to build walls and divide into homogenous communities. Based on the work of the partnership, Fraser makes an obvious yet oft-neglected point in that it becomes more difficult to fight and to hate someone if you are actually able to recognize them. If you literally don’t see the enemy, then it becomes easier to fear them and to hate them.

In cities such as São Paolo, Mexico City and Johannesburg, fortified enclaves have emerged as a popular housing option, which illustrates yet another manner of urbicide: these communities change the shape and operation of the cities in which they are built. Social boundaries become increasingly rigid and, as they are complemented by physical structures, residents of all groups have some sense of exclusion and restriction. Truly public spaces are eroded, left to “the poor, the homeless and street children, who are left vulnerable to violence and abuse by various control groups, including criminals and the security forces”.5

As the majority of the world's population now lives in urban areas, cities have become critical to human interaction. Precisely due to this emerging reality, urban spaces have materialized as an influential variable to human and socio-economic security. To be sure, organized settlements have always been targets to some extent, as urban areas are not only strategic for mass destruction but are also frequently associated with wealth and power.

However, in a world with 3.5 billion urban dwellers, the impact of violence deliberately aimed at cities has become a grave threat. Not only are the potential consequences much broader but urbicide itself can be perpetrated by a variety of factions, including political authorities, insurgent groups, military forces and citizen groups – depending on the political or economic situation of a given society. In fact, it can even be initiated by a single individual – just the threat of a suicide bomb interrupts the use of schools, public markets and places of worship by urban inhabitants.

In any of its incarnations, urbicide opposes interconnected, resilient cities and seeks to disrupt urban citizen networks. Yet, municipalities have so far been compromised in their ability to respond. Despite the fact that cities over 20 million possess larger populations than 75% of the world’s countries, the bombings in New York, London, Madrid, and Baghdad suggest that large cities remain as vulnerable as ever.

Human security must be recognized and addressed by all levels of government, as both State and non-state actors increasingly act out their respective political, religious and ethno-nationalist struggles on an urban stage. Whether cities are targeted by conventional weapons or bulldozers, the intent to damage and destroy both the symbolic and the mundane remains consistent.

A growing body of analysis suggests that urban security can be enhanced through cohesive spaces, which counter social and spatial instability. Therefore, the most effective approach for inoculating cities against urbicidal acts is ground-level policy directed toward building social cohesion and ensuring consistent social and spatial entitlements for urban citizens. Without an expanded interest in cities that acknowledges their unique territorial and architectural character and influence, municipalities will remain defenseless in countering urbicide.
1 Quote taken from Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1998: 1, 5.
2 Steven Graham, “Lessons in Urbicide”, New Left Review, No. 19, p. 63 (2003).
3 This title is in Shona, an African language spoken by nearly 80% of Zimbabweans, and translates to ‘Operation Drive Out Trash’ in English although the Government translated it as ‘Operation Restore Order’.
4 Based at the University of Ulster, this initiative was established to address the effects of urban intolerance. It enables cities coming together or moving apart, to learn from each other's mistakes through examining best practices that have evolved in ‘divided cities’.
5 Landeman, K. and Schönteich, M. “Urban Fortresses: Gated Communities as a reaction to crime”. African Security Review. 11(4). 2002: 8.

At the time of writing this essay, Erin Koenig’s research focussed on the nature, transformations and implications of spatial and social relations in cities.  Her work has been published in a variety of periodicals, as well as on behalf of Amnesty International, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Erin has served as a consultant with UNESCO’s Human Rights Section in Paris, an international electoral observer in Chiapas and El Salvador, a peace and reconciliation educator in Ireland and worked with the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, located in Costa Rica.  She is a member of PeaceBuild, attended the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation.

Erin Koenig.  'Urbicide. A Crime Against Urbanity.'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Erin Koenig and On Site review

30 January 2012

What About the Aesthetics of Dirt? A manifesto for contemporary urban design

WAI Architecture Think Tank

 As a dim light gradually brightens up the pitch-black scenery, the silhouette of 19 dancers is slowly revealed through a thick haze. The sound of Henryk Gorecki’s melancholic Symphony No. 3 (The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)heavily echoes through the thin air, and accompanies the visually leaden movements of performers hastily crossing a velvet-cushioned stage that seems to sink each time deeper under their steps. The spectators are soon absorbed by the metaphoric maze of this urban epic.

Chinese choreographer Wang Yuanyuan’s dance piece was heavily inspired by a city striving under the effects of air pollution. In fact, it appeared as if the small particles of dust and sand that so commonly float through Beijing’s air, had penetrated through the acoustic walls of the Performing Arts Centre. The scene unfolds a sharp vision of blurred environments. Haze is a contemporary dance performance about a contaminated environment. Haze is a subversive performance about Dirt.

Art as deus ex machina
Unfolding in three parts, Haze displays the bodies of the dancers in a continuous struggle with the pollution of the contemporary city. In the performance the urban tale is narrated with a strong visual mise en scène as it reflects our own behavior within a hostile environment, when the dancers embrace a series of attitudes that include mirroring, judging, and persecuting each other. Portrayed through a blurred atmosphere, Haze is a perfect illustration of the potential of dirt to inspire art, and the potential of art to address an unpolished version of reality.  When art is inspired by the neglected features of our surroundings, a new dialectic relationship can be established with our urban context.

Following a similar strategy, Andrei Tarkovski’s 1979 film Stalker, exploits a smudged environment and makes it into the visual catalyst of the whole plot. In Stalker, dirt acquires a transcendental role as the plot reveals the journey of three characters that are in search of a mystical zone, and will go from a grimy village, to a contaminated landscape of abandoned buildings, and polluted ruins of old factories. While the bodies of the personages are constantly dipped into stagnant water, sunk into  mud, buried into the soil where syringes, bottles, and every kind of dirt lies, the real pollution is converted alchemistically into a strikingly beautiful imagery.

Has art managed to address a topic so long ignored by the discipline responsible for thinking, understanding, and designing cities? Can urbanism learn from other forms of art and deal with the issues it usually ignores? What if, for once, dirt and other neglected inherent areas of our urban domain stopped being a matter of our repulsion, and instead were transformed into the source of our inspiration? What if we were able to reconsider the aesthetics of the urban imperfections?
Why if dirt is usually in the city, it appears as if doesn’t belong to it? Why if art can address the problems of the urban environment, urbanism has distanced itself from them? Why is dirt never diagrammed, mentioned, analyzed? Why do the renders always show clear blue skies and immaculate streets? What about the potential of the aesthetics of dirt?

The modernist case

Ever since modernism (although justified) became infatuated by hyper-hygienic urbanism, dirt has turn into a topic of taboo on the urban sphere. The modernists got rid of dirt from their diagrams, but dirt didn’t disappear from the city.  Why then, if the city has proved to be more than the four Le Corbusian values of urbanism (habiter, travailler, circuler et cultiver le corps et l'esprit), has dirt remained an elusive topic?

Why have the only brushes with the topic of dirt come in very sporadic proposals, like the diagram by the Team 10 in the fifties (Bidonville Grid, 1953), or the project by Koolhaas in the seventies (Exodus or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, 1972)? Why is it easier to flirt with floating cities, and gravity-less architecture, than to face dirt? Has our cleanliness become a Potemkinesque illusion of an unfathomable obsession?

A call for narratives

As a strategy to address neglected topics on urbanism, we have been working on a series of architectural narratives. The creation of these urban episodes allows us to discuss topics that usually will be left out of any discussion. The first of the narrative series titled Wall Stalker uses Andrei Tarkovski’s film as inspiration and as a theoretical framework as the main protagonists and its inherent grimy environment become part of our reflection on urbanism. The images of the animation display the journey of a three man exodus out of a failed city in search of a mystical wall where they wish to find the essence of architecture. The animation contrasts the visually puzzling effect of urban abandonment with that of the ultimate form of hygienic architecture: a colorless, featureless wall. This monumentally silent element enhances the presence of all the neglected parts of the city from where the three characters came from.

Like Haze, and Stalker, the animation proposes to activate urbanism’s inner convictions, and make dirt as much a part of the aesthetic cannon of the discipline responsible for thinking our urban environment. In order to achieve this, the images of desolation, neglect, dust, and haze have to form part of our visual repertoire, both as provocations, and as rhetoric pieces of intellectual dialogue. We must not strive to glorify or work to achieve dirt, but we should include it as a potential tour-de-force. Dirt must be part of urbanism’s lexicon; it must be discussed, analyzed, and represented. As with Wall Stalker, we propose a subversion of the dirt and all that “it” represents. In order to achieve change, and make urbanism relevant again, we propose to make it part of our representations, and the aim of our efforts. We call for a manifesto of Dirt.

WAI Architecture Think Tank is a workshop for architecture intelligentsia based in Beijing.  Co-founded in 2008 by French architect Nathalie Frankowski and Puerto Rican architect Cruz Garcia, WAI constantly asks, What About It?
Their website is here: www.wai-architecture.com

A synopsis of Wall Stalker, an animated architectural narrative, in which the characters of Andrei Tarkovski’s 1979 film Cталкер (Stalker) (based on Roadside Picnic) become the protagonists of a three man exodus from a city of icons, in search for the essence of architecture,  follows: 

A Stalker is what people in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971) call a whole new profession of misfits that risk their lives in the Zone (a mystical place of transcendental powers) to seize valuable things. A Wall Stalker then, is somebody who is taking the same risk to grasp whatever he can find in an equally mysterious Wall.

Wall Stalker is an animated architectural narrative, in which the characters of Andrei Tarkovski’s 1979 film Cталкер (Stalker) (based on Roadside Picnic) become the protagonists of a three man exodus from a city of icons, in search for the essence of architecture.

After opening with the title illustration, the first image of Wall Stalker shows an overview of Egoville, the capital of Ego in which the skyline is highlighted by a wasteland of desolated icons. This post-apocalyptic environment offers no hope for the three characters as they decide to break away from this city product of the cynicism of man, and reach for the legendary wall, where they believe the essence of architecture can be found.  Once the characters leave the city behind them, they find themselves melancholically traveling through a purgatorial landscape of post-iconic desolation. Submersed in a forsaken desert with their last hopes about to evaporate, they finally spot the legendary wall they’ve been looking for.  The mysterious presence of this mystical element becomes accentuated by its striking visual silence. Free of any kind of symbolism and stripped of any ideological aesthetic, the wall only offering for the three exhausted men its inherent inertness. After completing their intended journey, the new predicament of the three wanderers will be how to grasp the mythical “essence” of the wall. From that moment on, their lives and the city will never be the same. 

Wall Stalker is a graphic journey through the fictional subconscious of architecture. Using pieces of Jan Garbarek as acoustic background the architectural narrative is built around twelve chapters/photomontages that depict the three men odyssey through the dialectics of architecture and the city they created. The compositions of the twelve chapters not only absorb into its plot Tarkovski’s film but also pieces of El Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatlin, Paolo Soleri, Caspar David Friedrich, and Giambattista Piranesi in the form of collage, in order to create a scheme full of symbolism while simultaneously being disconnected from any other plot.

Wall Stalker is divided into three parts with four chapters/photomontages in each. The first Part is titled Egoville and includes The capital of Ego, The Meeting I, Exodus, and The Last Glimpse. The Second Part is named Un Voyage Purgatoire and includes Les Portes du désert, Sea of Sand, The wanderer, and Conquest. And the Third Part is The Wall, which includes The Meeting II, Inquisition, No turning Back, and Blindness.

Wall Stalker is the first of a trilogy of architectural narratives of WAI Architecture Think Tank that explore the essence of architecture.

By Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia (WAI Architecture Think Tank)

WAI Architecture Think Tank.  'What About the Aesthetics of DIrt? A manifesto for contemporary urban design..'  On Site review, no. 26 Fall 2011
©Nathalie Frankowski, Cruz Garcia and On Site review

17 January 2012

The Soviet Kommunalka

Kira Varvanina
A Room in Between
   The fact that the English word “private” is not easily translated into Russian can be explained by the word's ambiguity. On one hand, it implies any entity that is not run by the government, which explains its derogative meaning during the Soviet regime. On the other, the term carries individual and confidential connotations and is simply substituted in Russian with “personal”.  As a result, in Soviet terms, private space is not owned by an individual but is considered national. In many ways this explains the bizarre fusion of private and public worlds in the everyday Soviet lives. In this essay I attempt to look at the influences of communal living arrangements on the tightly intertwined realms of national and individual identities during the USSR era.
Throughout the first years of the Soviet Regime, much of the working class was relocated to urban centers and colonized in cramped kingdoms of "kommunalkas"— large flats that once belonged to the Tsarist ninetieth century bourgeoisie. They were later redistributed among the working class, often leaving as many as fifty people co-existing in ten living rooms, one large kitchen, two water closets and a bathroom. Even though these apartments were similar to dormitories, where sharing of public space was part of everyday life, kommunalkas were permanent places where inhabitants could have lived their entire lives.
    While the name “kommunalka” is a vernacular short form for a communal apartment, the long mazes had little in common with the Western flat. Firstly, the residents were placed there by the state, which resulted in a diverse and forced social structure of these quarters. Secondly, there was a clear division between what “belonged”  to an individual and what “belonged” to nobody (in other words, public). Living and sharing the “national territory” of kommunalka resulted in constant clashes between neighbours and often developed into comical settings. For example, because there were only two water closets shared by numerous inhabitants, it was common to own and carry around one’s personal toilet seat. This seat would have its own hanging place in the safety of a family room.
The original grand rooms of nineteenth century bourgeoisie apartments and smaller cramped family “corners” in kommunalka had very little, if anything, in common. Divided numerously into smaller spaces, what was often inhabited by entire families, many rooms were narrow. High ceilings, chandelier cords hanging unpretentiously in the corner and disproportionately large windows were the only traces of the building’s former use and grandeur. The lack of space made every corner of the room valuable for potential functionality. A window often served as storage for food and the ceiling would house a clothes line. Consequently, the quality of Soviet life was often measured in cubic meters — the fact that generally defined individual desires and needs.  Curiously enough, even within one’s personal space, one could not necessarily count on privacy. Proximity of neighbors and lack of personal space made kommunalka’s environment transparent to the views of cohabitants and altered the sense of personal confidentiality. 
The communal spaces, however, were true manifestations of the individual within the realm of national and social. Accompanied by rules, public settings carried a sense of the impersonal and ownerless.   Here the theatre of life, so often despised for its lack of humanity, was played out by common Soviet people. Although each family owned part of a stove , a table and a cabinet, the kitchen was often in a state of war for territory. This was not a space for a peaceful dinner or other functions associated with a home, but a place where one would line up to wash the dishes, argue about the electricity bills or discuss communal matters. Bathroom had its own schedule as well. Imagine numerous washing machines and drying clothes illuminated by a steamy, stifling incandescent lamp. Inhabiting shared environments tested the extent of human compassion and defined one's consciousness within the society. 
Living with strangers was not an easy task, considering that it could potentially last a lifetime. Especially in the first years of USSR, individual idiosyncrasies, those that distinguished persons from each other, were not only judged and discouraged within the public atmosphere, but most significantly, scrutinized within one’s home. During this time the meaning of the word “private” gained a negative connotation. Being exposed to the eyes of the state and neighbours resulted in the lost sense of personal identity within the greater Soviet population. The living conditions during these years depicted a simple truth – what was humane and personal was replaced in favour of the national.
Perhaps the picture described above will seem gloomy to most, but that is not my intention.  The sketch was an attempt to show the distinction and, most importantly, coexistence of a national consciousness and conditions of individual identity within the structure of communal living. Of course, the aspects of collective life were not limited to negative insights, where war and argument constantly preoccupied tenants. On the contrary, the kommunalka was, and still remains, a diverse and fascinating environment, where endless personal stories are intertwined with the stories of old and new generations and both the past and present histories of Russia. 

Kira Varvanina has Master of Architecture degree from Carleton University and is currently an independent installation artist based in Toronto. In her work Kira explores spatial transformations by means of technology and interactivity.  Kira Varvanina and Edward Lin work together as Studio 1:1.  www.studio1to1.ca

Kira Varvanina  'The Soviet Kommunalka.'  On Site review, no. 25 Spring 2010
©Kira Varvanina and On Site review

12 January 2012

Interview with Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Atelier Bow-Wow, Tokyo

Steve Chodoriwsky

I'm interested in the connection between your small-scale preoccupations and your larger scale urban research. Do you feel that there are appropriate, effective ways to shift from the small scale to larger scales, or vice versa?

In terms of scale, the biggest programs can also be embedded in the small scale. This idea always encourages me to be brave or proud to be working at a very small scale. I like to deal with large issues through a scale that can be really handled. Because you need a good ear to hear the echo between a very small thing and a big issue. I really like to make this comparison. Showing the sound of the echo between this and that can be sometimes very enigmatic, sometimes elegant . . .

. . . And sometimes humourous. In a recent essay you wrote that, when designing a small house in Tokyo, it's impossible to have an effect on the city, and so "it is allowed to be dreamlike—an object of our imagination." I've always felt that in your small works, they're somewhat fleeting, maybe even suitably incomplete. They’re not microcosms of grand concepts—you don't tend to work like that—you seem more concerned with articulating this echo relationship . . .

I learned this from Jean-Luc Godard, when he was criticized by French journalists for not going to Vietnam to shoot a film; instead, he stayed in Paris. And Godard said, it's not necessary for a film to go to Vietnam, but the more important thing is to let Vietnam pour into the film. This is an issue of echo. I like very much this attitude to the world, that you cannot be representative of the whole world, but you can create an echo with it.

Much of your work focuses on a serious consideration of small space as bona fide space—not as something nostalgic or cute, but rather as a contemporary fact, something both useful and enjoyable. What are your thoughts on this?

I think smallness can be a very strong tool for directing a design. For me, the very important thing is to handle the differences that emerge in every level of architectural composition and articulation. So if you want to make even a simple composition between rooms, some differences already emerge. Each room is just a room, but once they’re connected, their relationships create great differences—where you go in, or where you look . . .

. . . It becomes complicated very quickly . . .

It starts to be full of difference through these things. I think that, currently, the architectural discussion in Japan is based on how to deal with these small differences: how much you rationalize inevitable differences, how much you avoid or accentuate given differences from the outside environment—like site conditions or sunlight. If you start to be conscious of these changes, you need to break down levels of understanding into smaller elements and dimensions. For example, if you are aware of the temperature, this part of the room is really different from over there, near the window. The light condition also changes. This is my interest with smallness—how to open up these kinds of different investigations, to understand the different qualities of space.

The concepts "Pet Architecture" and "Micro Public Space" come up consistently in your activities. With them, how do you feel smallness is linked to promoting good spatial practice?

I am interested in the concept of smallness as it relates to body consciousness—a relationship between space and the body. Since most of our basic understanding of urban space for everyday living is very segregated, life becomes quite mechanical somehow. All the pieces are articulated as a kind of packaged service within the city, and if you have enough money, you can enjoy this itinerary, visiting these packages, one by one. The body, though, is something which tries to go beyond this controlled experience, through inventive spatial practice. In certain places, right when the body goes beyond this package, you can feel like you have discovered the earth—a kind of wild aspect of the living condition of human beings. I like very much the feeling of de-packaging these services. So if you buy a house produced by Sekisui [an industrialized housing company], in a new suburban development, ninety minutes from Tokyo Station by train, your whole life could be packaged. But on the other hand, in Pet Architecture buildings, which we found to be very interesting, they don't fit into this framework . . .

Yes, although they lack size, they retain extremely customized functions, and also personalities . . .

Their time and space are not served by anyone or anything, they're really there, and this condition is irreplaceable. And the participation of the real body really supports the existence of that combination of time and space. This is quite strong for me; it stimulates my sensibility of urban living conditions today. Our intention was to show Pet Architecture as the foreground—I think it is often just pushed to the background.

Do you think they play the role of urban monuments?

Yes, I think it's a kind of micro-monument, a witness to the transformation of the city. I found that Pet Architecture emerges out of specific contexts, where new or enlarged streets cut through old urban fabric, or, in spaces where the geometry of curving rivers or railways encounter orthogonal street patterns. They always appear at very unique points where these interventions occur. In that sense, they definitely have a monumental aspect . . . And people are really fond of these buildings, they become imprinted onto individuals’ memories. If you ask someone to talk about Pet Architecture in their neighbourhood, they can usually mention at least two or three really tiny buildings . . .

Compared to an individual’s daily routine, which you frame as a series of complete packages, Pet Architecture becomes a kind of jarring interruption.

This tells of an insufficiency or incompleteness in the packages of these buildings. But this allows them to open to the environment—that’s an important quality. They can't be closed-off systems; they must be helped by other buildings . . . I really like the generosity of Tokyo, which allows these kinds of structures. The city doesn’t want to clean them up, or force every building to be formal. Of course new construction must fit to regulations, but still, they can keep a feeling of informality . . .

This is part of an interview between Steve Chodoriwsky and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto from the spring of 2010, specifically about Pet Architecture and micro-urbanism.
At the time of writing up this interview, Steve Chodoriwsky was at the Tsukamoto Lab, Department of Architecture at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He then participated in the research program of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu which he said was 'a one-hour train from Fukuoka, a two-hour plane from Shanghai, a three-hour boat from Busan, and a glorious thirteen-hour bus from Tokyo'.  He is currently a researcher in the Design Department of Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, Netherlands. 

Steve Chodoriwsky  'Interview with Yoshiharu Tsukamoto.'  On Site review, no. 23 Spring 2010
©Steve Chodoriwsky and On Site review

02 January 2012

First Dereliction, then Occupation. Architecture and the Unspeakable

John Szot

In this building proposal, a partially-completed building is temporarily abandoned and left at the mercy of New York City’s street writers and guerrilla artists to be provisionally occupied and abused without supervision. By exposing the raw structure to all the violence and rambunctiousness of a metropolis, this experiment allows us to capture activity and ideas that usually lie beyond the architect’s grasp in a manner that does not compromise their cultural currency. The result is an authentic slice of urban subculture that occupies a legitimate position within the urban fabric, and thus within the identity of the city.

This is an inversion of the typical life cycle of a building. Here, dereliction occurs before inhabitation. Therefore the final product remains unknown and outside the reach of conventional architectural documentation. In order to bring some degree of insight into the process during design development, the entire structure was subjected to a simulation in which we developed a narrative to describe the activity that might take place during the period of ‘induced dereliction’ and do justice to the subtleties inherent in this unlikely marriage.

links:  http://www.johnszot.com/archandtheunspeakable

John Szot    'First Dereliction, then Occupation.'  On Site review, no. 26 Fall 2011
©John Szot and On Site review

John Szot is a designer working in New York.  His work has been exhibited in Chicago, New York, Portland and the Netherlands.  He currently teaches architecture and digital visualisation at the Graduate School of Architecture + Planning at Columbia and is one of the directors of the Experimental Modern Arts Collective.