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 fa├žade. 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