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

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