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.