Monday, July 7, 2008

Crisis? What crisis?

The latest, sixth, volume of architecture ‘boogazine’ Verb begins with a familiar kind of declaration: “Faced with unprecedented political, social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges Verb Crisis recognises that architecture cannot carry on as usual.”

It’s easy to affect a jaded cynicism when faced with this kind of rhetoric. After all, haven’t we always been faced with unprecedented challenges? When did anyone ever say: “Don’t worry, the world’s fine as it is, lets all go back to bed.” But Verb backs its claim up, eschewing the usual suspects and focusing instead on some genuinely thoughtful and provocative work.

The book is divided into three fairly self-explanatory sections: Places, Positions and Projects. It focuses on a few key cities: Dubai, Madrid, Detroit and Tijuana. Detroit in particular is fascinating and represents the diametrically opposite problem to that of Dubai. Instead of relentlessly spiralling levels of development there is depopulation and an emptying out of the city. New York based architects Interboro Partner’s contribution not only documents this process but finds, hidden below the surface, a new kind of development occurring there.

They describe the process of what they call ‘blots’, newly vacant plots of land where the houses have been knocked down. These blots have then been absorbed (mostly through legitimate purchases) into neighbouring properties, becoming home to garden overspill, additional parking, recreation areas and, in some cases, complex architectural extensions. As the city empties little bits of ad-hoc DIY urbanism grow back between the cracks. As Interboro say, this is important “however unspectacular”. Theirs is not strictly a proposal, more a process of observing and, to borrow a phrase, learning from what is going on.

This combination of empirical research and actually looking at the city to see what it is like - as opposed to wishing it was something else – is a strong theme in all the work included. There is a valuable sense here of architects actually engaging with the processes by which cities develop, and with the needs of their inhabitants. A healthy criticism of some of the more banal thinking within the profession comes across in most of the contributions.

Geographer and architect John May describes the Staten Island landfill site of Fresh Kills, recently the subject of a high profile architectural competition to turn it’s vast and festering piles of trash into a new park. May raises pertinent and uncomfortable questions about architecture’s complicity in such boosterism, and its role in supplying the glossy images to go along such venal developments. He also exposes the hollow posturing of the profession, the endless posing as ‘radical’ or ‘cutting edge’ by an architectural avant-garde long since removed from any sense of social purpose.

The most impressive project included is perhaps also the most modest. Elemental Architecture’s social housing scheme in Chile allows residents to expand and adapt their homes over time. This approach allows more homes to be included simply by building less of each one and letting the residents fill in the gaps when they can afford to do so. The photographs of this project show the spaces filling up with lean to’s, diy bay windows and bolted on extensions. It reminded me of Le Corbusier’s housing scheme at Pessac after the residents had added window boxes and pitched roofs, except here the adaptations are a deliberate and positive part of the story.

Verb Crisis is deliberately un-glossy. It comes in a brown plastic wipe clean cover, like a welding manual. It is simply and straightforwardly laid out. But, if you ever wondered whether there were any architects left with any sense of critical or social engagement, or an interest in the wider political and economic realities of their practice then Verb is worth a look.

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