Photograph extracted from the book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City by Greg Girard and Iam Lambot, Watermark, 1999.
Thanks to Ethel and César, I got to re-read the fantastic book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City by Greg Girard and Iam Lambot (my own copy is in France!) and it got me wanting to wonder about this question, why do architects dream of a world without them? Few decades after the 1964 exhibition Architecture Without Architects curated by Bernard Rudofsky at New York MoMA, there is a clear interest from many architects – in which I most certainly belong – for architectures that did not necessitated the intervention of the architect as an expert. We can thus see a multitude of projects set-up around the various slums/favelas of the world. Some of them are interesting, some others are incredibly inconsiderate, but this does not explain this sort of professional “death drive” that makes architects fascinated by the production of their absence.
This fascination’s reasons are maybe to be looked for with another one, also specific to this current period of time, that makes us, architects, willing to integrate the appropriation of architecture by its users as part of its protocol of creation. Once again, I am fully including my own work within this influence – one might want to say “trend” – but it is important to interrogate our obsessions. Is the notion of appropriation a way for the architect to dismiss his own responsibility and his power? Is it a philanthropic pulse that allows us to offer generously our work to the collectivity? As always, the answer probably comprises both of this extreme propositions.
In the case of slums, vernacular architectures, and other immanently constructed buildings and towns, the appropriation is total as it is concomitant of the construction of architecture itself. The latter is in continuous evolution and cannot ever be defined as achieved as it does not follow any transcendental plan that would have clearly states what its finish state should correspond to. The modernist dream of architecture thought as a “living machine” which can adapt to any need of its users could not be achieved through the limited understanding for life of an architect. On the contrary, these immanent architectures, freed from the architects and the urban legal framework, can attempt to negotiate such an adaptation. As Peter Popham writes in his introduction for G.Girard and I.Lambot’s book,
It is not the first time -nor it will be the last probably- that I evoke the Kowloon Walled City (see this past article for example) as a Proletarian Fortress which is very interesting to look at as it provides us a historical example of a district which immanently constructed its own form of urbanity. In few decades, this housing block like it exists many of them in Hong Kong, got transformed by its inhabitants into a compact piece of city in which all object and person finds its place and function despite the density. The section drew by Japanese architects for the book 大図解九龍城, is very illustrative of what life has been like in the Walled City as it includes a multitude of micro-scenarios animating the district from the darkness of the ground to the aerated rooftops. The Walled City, by its relative self-sufficiency was the object of many myths from the outside population and authorities who was seeing it as a criminal neighborhood, argument that was used to destroy it in 1993. The density of the district as well as the addition of many alternative bridges and pathways was making it indeed very difficult to control and the police is said to have simply gave up on it. From what several authors who worked on it tell us, although the walled city was a shelter for drug addicts, criminals were not living in it.
Graphic narratives seem the right way to describe such district as it allows the restitution of the richness of micro-events and sociality that were occurring in it. The global section (see below) is therefore full of small annotations describing those micro-events. Rio Akasaka had the good idea to translate them into English and to put them online. I also extracted a dozen of significant details from the section that can be seen below.
Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham. Portraits from Above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Berlin: Peperoni, 2008.
Those of you who know a bit about the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal are probably aware of the existence of a lecture series entitled Learning from… based on the well known Learning from Las Vegas written by Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour. This Thursday (May 3rd), the CCA organizes a new opus of the series with Learning from…Hong Kong by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham who will presents their photographic and architectural analytical work about the informal rooftop communities that they collected for their book Portraits from Above.
Hong Kong is a city so dense that all space have to be claimed, used and optimized and rents are part of the highest in the world. Confronted to this observation and empowered by the necessity, some people built-up their own houses on the roof of existing buildings. R.Wu and S. Canham’s photographs and drawings constitutes a non-exhaustive collection of those architectures without architects as a possible manifesto for the incredible city that Hong Kong incarnates.
Learning from… Hong Kong: Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham
3 May 2012, 7:00 pm
Presented in English
The event will also be live streamed
Excerpt from Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco (2000)
During the Bosnian war (1992-1995), the small city of Goražde was surrounded by territories under the Serbian army’s control and had to organize its daily life in a self-sufficiency that was supplemented by a UN enforced humanitarian corridor. This self-sufficiency includes the power supply that was lacking at a systematic level. Goražde inhabitants had therefore to cope with this status off the grid and individuals and neighbor groups undertook to tinker various machines amongst which those micro hydro power plants strike us for their ingenuity. Both the drawings of Joe Sacco in his documentary graphic novel Safe Area Goražde (see also The Fixer in a previous article), and the photographs taken by Zobrazit during the war constitute rare witnesses of their historical presence on the Drina River.
Extracted from Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples by Bernd & Hilla Becher. Dia Center for the Arts, 1991.
The world photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher is fascinating as it often introduces fantastic architectures which yet have been built in the absence of concern for an architectural quality. Whether they photograph the Ruhr factories, the various water towers of the world or, in this case, the Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples, their pictures present buildings translating their function as literally as possible. In the case of the coal mine tipples, architecture reflects even more its craftsmanship and the absence of architect. Structures seem (deceivingly) fragile and clumsy, enclosures are approximate and materials seem to have been found in the direct environment of the building. For all these reasons, this architecture without architects is exemplary for architects to achieve a high degree of vernacularity, both for its materials and its construction methods, as well as for its ‘laisser faire’, allowing a high degree of flexibility on site and a lack of differentiation between people who conceive and those who make.
Lebbeus Woods: Early Drawings at the Friedman Benda Gallery (2012)
There is an on-going exhibition at the Friedman Benda Gallery (New York) presenting some of Lebbeus Woods’ early drawings. This show is still on for few more days (until April 14th) but I figured that I would release a dozen of these drawings that are not necessarily well known in his work.
Many of us have seen numerous of Lebbeus Woods’ drawings and could maybe feel, somehow blasé to the idea of looking at some more; however, it seems difficult not to feel a strong enthusiasm and inspiration from this new (old) series. What seems so appealing to me in his work is his constant ability to design architectures that seems to narrate the absence of architect. As much as a building drawn by him is immediately recognizable as such, the elements that composes this architecture clearly tell us a story in which its construction involved a spontaneous collective effort with no particular presupposed plan. Metal sheets, wood posts, loose pipes, visible truss beams, all the pieces stands together in a very interesting balance of immanent approximation and skilled control. Those drawings seems to come from an uchronia (a steam punk one !), mix between medieval age, industrial revolution and post-apocalyptic future, when architects and builders were (will be) the same person.
I have been recently commissioned to write a short article for the first issue of Studio Magazine entitled [from] CRISIS [to] and I was happy to write the text that follows this introduction. This issue exists in its digital version, but also very soon as a hard copy in Milan where RRC Studio, the editors are practicing architecture. They came up with an interesting mix of mediums between essays, reportages, fictions, photos, architectural projects etc. with a very good graphic design. I therefore recommend to explore this issue either via issuu or by downloading the pdf version.
Tower Of Joy, Ulan Bator, April 1992
By Léopold Lambert
A few months after my friend and mentor Theodore Antonopoulos had passed away, his wife suggested that I organize his archives that had grown to consume the entire building of their home in New York. This “assignment” came to overwhelm me, as I was discovering a multitude of previously unknown books and references that seemed to have influenced Theo’s work considerably. I decided, then, that I would dedicate all of my efforts to exploring what made his films and novels so powerful.
At the end of my fifth day spent in the chaos of his archives, I realized that, so far, I had only succeeded in making the hundreds of documents, books and films of the house more disorganized. As I stood dumbfounded by this observation, my eyes encountered some text written on a VHS that was partly submerged in a pile of films covering most of the room’s floor. The caption was reading “Tower Of Joy, Ulan Bator, April 1992”. The fact that Theo shot a movie in Mongolia did not come as much of a surprise as I often reflected that he may have visited every country in the world; nevertheless, this title, “Tower of Joy,” piqued my interest enough that I stole it away to watch later.
photograph by Julia King
In last February, the NY Times wrote a (bad) article about a very interesting skyscraper in Caracas, the Torre de David, that seems to carry a good analogy with the current Venezuelan situation since Hugo Chavez has been elected since 1999. In fact this 150 meter tall building is currently hosting about 2500 squatters who find in it, a good way to dwell in this housing crisis time. This skyscraper that was originally supposed to become an architectural symbol and an economically operative building of the Financial power never finished its construction because of the national financial crisis in the late 90′s.
This tower reminds of those in Bangkok or in Shanghai whose construction has been stopped and that is now hosting bands of stray dogs but in this situation the symbol is obviously much stronger as inhabited by humans.
Some additional construction work had to be achieved from the squatters themselves in order to create various enclosures and to occupy some space on each slabs to build up dwellings. What used to be one more glazed office tower is now a concrete behemoth which has been immanently appropriated with recovered brick and other found materials. A micro-economy also developed as there is no elevator and each floor has therefore a small supply shop. Imagining this population never coming down to the ground would probably be creating a myth as most people seems to have a job “on the ground”, but this Torre de David most certainly recalls the fantastic High Rise described by James Graham Ballard in his novel.
Where Ballard seems to be off (and so is Robert Silverberg) in his prospective description is to think of the tower as a literal symbol of hierarchy, thinking of the tower as an architecture in which the high and powerful social classes live upstairs while the poors have to remain near the ground. What seems to appear is much more a separation between the towers for the rich or the powerful (look around !) and some others that have been appropriated by the poors like this one (which reminded me of an old vision I had) or Rio de Janeiro’s steep hills.
Several of the articles that describes this vertical slum presents this tower as symptomatic of the deficiency of funds dedicated to housing by a government that has been elected with a socialist program. Most people I have been talking with (outside of Venezuela) seems to agree that those expectations have been not reach their fulfillment. However what appears to me is that on the contrary of the quasi-totality of the Western countries (one might see the exception with some micro-nations), the 2500 squatters have not been evicted which justifies the proletarian appropriation of a part of capitalism’s structure. The fact that the life conditions in this building are regrettable does not change another fact which is that a speculative territory has been reclaimed and obtained “de facto” by the collectivity.
There is always something highly disturbing in the dehumanized interest architects can have in elements of tragedies when the latter does not concern their world. However, what happened to those trees in the province of Sindh in Pakistan during the 2010 flooding that killed about 2 000 people, must have surprised even the inhabitants of this region themselves.
In fact, in order to run away from the water, an amazing amount of spiders climbed up the trees and weaved those fascinating webs all around them. Those photos have been taken by Photographer Russel Watkins for the UK Department for International Development who observed on site that those spiders even brought an important relief after this tragedy as they captured most mosquitoes which usually are carrying Malaria, especially after flooding.
Arne Quinze continues his obsessive beautiful work on the tracks of Tadashi Kawamata and Yona Friedman. This new installation will be soon visible at the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk (Denmark) from June 1st to October 2nd.
My Home my House my Stilthouse & my safe Garden is an investigation of the notion of domesticity and neighborhood. Each “building” is, as always, architecturally recounting its own fragility and self-construction.
Kowloon Walled City can obviously not be literally considered as self-constructed. However, this Hong Kong district acquired a kind of autonomy for years and could not stop densifying itself until it was demolished by Authorities in 1993 (See Ryuji Miyamoto’s photographs of the empty Walled City, ready to be tear down).
The Walled City tackles an interesting problem about the connection such autonomous district could have with legality. In fact, there has been a strong phantasm of insecurity about it, probably encouraged by the authority when some neutral reporters like Greg Girard and Ian Lambot (read their “City of Darkness” from where almost all photographs we still have come from) affirmed that the district was the shelter of drug addict but not criminals.
Before it was demolished, the Walled City was the home of 50 000 inhabitants reaching an incredible density of 1 920 000 inhabitants per square kilometre.
As far as self-construction is concerned, let’s quote City of Darkness:
“With lifts in just two of the City’s 350 or so buildings, access to the upper floors of the 10 to 14 storey apartment blocks was nearly always by stairs, necessitating considerable climbs for thos who lived near the top. This was partly alleviated by an extraordinary system of interconnecting stairways and bridges at different levels within the City which took shape -somewhat organically- during the construction boom of the 1960′s and early 1970′s. It was possible for example, to travel across the City from north to south without once coming down to street level.”
Let’s add to this description, the one of this grid placed over the district’s temple (right in the center of the Walled City) on which inhabitants having their windows on the courtyards throw away their garbage, transforming the temple’s environment into a shadowy underworld.
Amazing video of an huge real ants’ (this time) farm, cast and then disintered.
At the end of september will be celebrated as every year, Durga Puja
all over India. This festival celebrating the goddess Durga is particularly important in West Bengal and more specifically in Kolkata (Calcutta). During six days, some temporary structures called Pandals are being built with mostly bamboos and fabric to host all the celebrations. It means that for one week, the city is getting transformed and might be out of control for a short while of urban creation freedom.
Our friend Daniel Fernandez Pascual
recently published two very interesting articles involving very cheap processes of construction.
The first one
introduces La Havana’s Barbacoas
(unformal mezzanine added illegally to the old colonial buildings of the city) and Andiamos
(scaffolding preventing buildings to collapse), the second ones inviting (or suggesting) the first ones to exist in a beautiful ambiguity of decay and urban appropriation.
Lots of things have been already posted online about the Metropolitan Museum’s current terrace exhibition, Big Bambú by Starn Studio; nevertheless I decided to publish some of the photographs I took yesterday while visiting the exhibition. But, rather than attempting to explain the form of this installation (that you can probably find somewhere else), I preferred to insist on the complexity of the lines in order to lost the viewer.
One has to admit that Big Bambú is not as extreme than in its former version (see previous post) since the MET requested a horizontal platform for people to walk on (at least, those who survived from the pretty bad organization of the museum) which forced the installation to re-adopt a more traditional structure made of vertical and horizontal lines than the previous one.
Despite this fact, one can still imagine a giant bamboo forest populated by hundreds of Barons in the Trees moving from branch to branch without ever touching the ground again…
From April 27th to October 31st, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts will host a giant work in progress on its roof. The installation called Big Bambú is designed by twin brothers artist Mike and Doug Starn and is composed by 3200 bamboo poles constituting a huge three dimensions scaffolding maze. One very interesting aspect of it is that the installation will be build up little by little during the exhibition time reconfiguring continuously the space that will be open for one part to the public to climb it up.
To know a little more about it, you can read the New York Time’s article about it.
French artist Romain Pellas
created several platforms installations that uses a very cheap and rough looking architectural vocabulary. With Ceiling
(Paris 2006) (photograph above + last one & video), this vocabulary implements a strong contrast with a bourgeois apartment, thus creating an architectural dialogue as violent as interesting.
Platform is only one category of work for which Pellas uses this “bricolage” language. Much more interesting installations can be seen on his website
Ladonia is a micronation within Sweden territory, proclaimed in 1996 by the artist Lars Vilks after he built a monumental labyrinthine sculpture on it in 1980. This splendid structure called Nimis is at the center of an extremely long trial that ended in the decision of demolition but thanks to an issue of ownership it actually never happened (however another sculpture has been removed by a crane boat in 2001).
If you want to read more about Ladonia or even ask for the citizenship you can visit the national website.
In 1992, Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata
(see previous posts here
) was commissioned to create an installation around the abandoned Small Pox Hospital on Roosevelt Island (NYC). Faithful to his craft language – he was using it for more than ten years already – Kawamata and his team produced a wooden labyrinthine structure whose rough aspect was strongly contrasting with Manhattan skyscrapers.
What is interesting here is not as much the final product than the three months that this group of people led by Kawamata needed to achieve the construction lightly embracing the heavy stones of the severe hospital.
A very interesting construction takes place on the lake Titicaca
(between Peru and Bolivia). In fact, the Uros
people regularly build up islands with rushes and mud. The islands are then floating and probably drift a little bit with the current.
These islands can also recall the British Project Habakkuk
during the Second World War which was proposing to build aircraft carrier islands made out of wood and ice !