Something Is Coming: MAS Context CONFLICT

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The latest issue of MAS Context examines the theme of conflict. It’s little wonder this theme elicited a strong set of entries: if there’s one thing I’ve learned about architectural projects in the past few years is that they’re all riven by conflict. Of course, the same thing could be said for software projects as well, as I can attest. The difference is that architects try to make conflict productive instead of immensely aggravating.

The whole tone of the issue can be summarized by Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, describing the working conditions in Afghanistan:

Yes, it’s a war there. It’s a war politically and socially, and as violent as a physical war is. We have to think that architecture never cre-ates peace, never. But it creates the vessel and the place where peace can happen. For architects, if they understand that they are not the leader, if they move like a guide, then it’s architecture without ego and it’s more humble in its approach. The best way to face a conflict is with a humble approach.

image from Or with no approach at all. Nora Niasari reports on the transportation hubs of war-torn Beirut. The city once had a modern and efficient public transit system until the 1975 civil war. She examines three hubs that have emerged, largely unplanned and uncontrolled, to move people around the city. The hubs can best be described as better than nothing. Naisari regards them as symptomatic of “the ongoing failures and conflicts of contemporary Lebanon.”

It’s possible to regard Beirut’s postwar bus and railway systems as a triumph of free market improvisation, but they’re chaotic messes because they lack the planning and operational efficiency of a centralized public transportation authority. However, centralized planning can produce its own kinds of conflict. In the late 1960’s the East German city of Weimar considered rebuilding itself as a proving ground for functionalist high-density housing techniques. Astonishingly, the scheme was abandoned after the president of the Forschungs- und Gedenkstätten der klassischen deutschen Literatur in Weimar, Helmut Holtzhauer, explained to the city government that they had a stupid plan. One suspects that some officials were coming around to the same conclusion. As author Simon Scheithauer dryly notes, “Traffic counts, for example, indicated 3000 cars passing one of the major junctions in a period of 16 hours. Needless to say, that means a little more than three cars per minute, which is why the drawn conclusion to extend the street to four lanes must be irritating.”

The Weimar authorities were dealing with a national housing shortage compounded by an anemic national economy. They may have wanted to trade problems with the city of Vienna, which has a lot of prostitutes, or more accurately, a lot of male citizens who patronize prostitutes. Charlotte Malterre Barthes and her collaborator Valentina Genini hint at dark Foucauldian schemes to control sexuality, but the history they trace reveals relatively benign efforts to shoo the prostitutions off the streets, more like making taxis line up at a stand than hammering desire into paranoid forms of rationality. In the end the problem solved itself: Austrian prostitution now operates primarily online, like book selling.

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While Vienna wants just enough prostitutes, but not too many, Rotterdam wants just enough water, but not too much. David Garcia Studio contributes their prize-winning entry in the International UNESCO Delta City of the Future competition. The architects designed an elaborate system for the city in which buildings would lift themselves up in the event of high water, rather like a woman hoisting up a hoop skirt. The architects thoughtfully included special pools that allow residents to watch sea levels rise in real time. The solution is elegant, but possible not as reassuring to residents as the architects intended.

Another ingenious adaptation to local conditions comes from Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of Urban-Think Tank. They rescued a hilltop community in Caracas, Venezuela from a government plan to ram a highway through it. “At the time,” the authors write, “we urged the government to build on the specific qualities of the barrio, arguing that this was not a hill covered with houses, but a house the size of a hill.”   (See image at top.) They suggested installing a cable car system to transport people over the dense cluster of houses on the fill, a suggestion that was followed.

Brillembourg and Klumpner, like Cameron Sinclair, advocate an architecture of modesty when confronting the new challenges architects face in the twenty-first century, particularly in the vast urban environments of the developing world. Brillembourg and Klumpner declare,

Simplified forms of construction are the only realistic design position possible for architects operating in slums. The cities we imagine will not be new, but rather retrofitted. Novel urbanisms will emerge on top of existing models. The concept of planning an ideal city or new town for the vast majority of people is unrealistic. It is a concept grounded in the modernist denial of limits and diversity. It is a mode of design that claims omniscience without proof.

If conflict has always been a factor in building projects, reading the CONFLICT issue it becomes apparent that architects are facing a whole new set of challenges. From the intractable strife of Beirut to the immense slums of the Caracas San Agustin to the rising waters of Rotterdam, cities face unprecedented challenges. The old solutions no longer work, and no one knows for certain if we can solve the problems to come. In an interview with Peter Eisenman entitled, tellingly, “Changes Are Coming,” the architect thinks we’ve moved beyond modernism and post-modernism, but he admits he doesn’t know what’s coming next. “I think we are in lateness. Something is coming.”


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