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“He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?”—Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
Most people tell me they remember things from 2 or 3 years old. I don’t. I remember this game in kindergarden where all the kids would sit under this big enormous beautiful whirling piece of colorful fabric. That’s the only memory I can say with certainty is my own - so many others I feel like I remember came from a description I was told, or a photo. But I guess that’s how memory works. The inability to place its context is why perception is so important.
Response to Rachel Tanur’s Above Photograph: “African Street Scene”
Architecture maintains a unique relationship to social conditions that is both constituted by them and produces them. This ambivalence results in a certain autonomy of an edifice; not entirely defined by the factors that brought it into being, a building stands as history’s silent witness to cultural adaptation, economic evolution and environmental manipulation, often changing alongside these developments but at a slower pace. This photograph embodies this discordant set of temporalities, making the eye shift between them in productive indecision. A very clear “presentness” is captured in the human subjects; an interest in the now which is common in many of Tanur’s photographs shows their clothing undirtied by the muddy ground - suggesting a recent arrival - and their thoughts relocated to some event of the near future – the passing of a bus perhaps, or the arrival of other expected persons. However, the present event is complicated by its antagonistic relationship to the longstanding colonial building which demarcates the space in front of it - much like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York City defines its most important social space of ideological resistance: the plaza in front of it. (1) The word “palace” may faintly be discerned on the building’s facade, made oddly theatrical due to its state of dilapidation in contrast to the building on the distant right. Through this a proscenium is defined, and on its stage transpire countless narratives of colonialism, commerce, infrastructure and exchange. One could easily extend the interpretation to symbolize the suspended temporality of much of African development, continually negotiating the push and pull between ill-conditioned infrastructure, the inheritances of colonialism’s abuses and the structural and institutional changes actively sought for the future.
In addition to conflicting temporalities, the question of power is crucial to this image. If we imagine the dirt-defined “plaza” to be a stage, it is one on which it would be apt for Habermas to debate his discourse of modernity with Foucault’s ideas on the limits of human agency. Unfortunately for us, Foucault - like Rachel Tanur - has already passed; thus this debate and Tanur’s images must maintain their vitality through our own interpretation. The question of power is visually articulated by a number of things: foremost with the coloring of the scene. The red, yellow and blue storefronts are eerily reminiscent of Shell’s logo colors combined with Exxonmobil’s – a color palette perhaps ingrained into the recent cultural memory of Africans. In contrast with the expansive browns and grays, this color composition makes the image resonant with Ed Kashi’s photographs in the book: Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. While the red, yellow and blue could just as easily be Africa’s own proudly vernacular version of a Mondrian painting, one thing is made certain by the stores suffixed with the anglo-designation of “Limited.” That is, power relations between countries, cultures, sellers and buyers are actively in negotiation – among people, buildings and the multiple temporalities they compose together.
(1) K. Michael Hays, “Abstraction’s Appearance (Seagram Building),” in Robert Somol, ed. Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-Garde in America, (New York: Monacelli Press, 1997) , 276-291.
For more on Rachel Tanur, and the Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize Competition, visit http://www.racheltanurmemorialprize.org/.
Photograph: “Illegal Aesthetics,” Guanacaste, Costa Rica 2009 by FAH
This photograph was taken as part of a study that investigated what role aesthetics play as a physical and experiential component of well-being for individuals residing in informal settlements. This sought to expand upon Amartya Sen’s capability-based determinants, which took definitions of poverty into more subjective realms. Aesthetic manifestations of housing serve as visual evidence of need-instigated processes and power relations involved in dwelling. A painted door frame here, the use of decorated fabric there – all contribute to the individual identity of a home that makes it uniquely valuable to its inhabitant regardless of social status. Often this adaptation marks a change in household headship or another identity shift in one’s life. The value and sense of pride is gained even when the home is illegal due to its informal status.
Such aesthetic maneuvers also alter the residents’ perception of their own living situation. While many informal residents would be considered in a state of dire poverty according to strictly quantitative analysis, subjective and visual research allows a better understanding of the forces that contribute to empowerment and well-being. Aesthetic adaptation is such a force. Considering that many governments today actively engage in slum relocation projects moving individuals to pre-built and often unalterable concrete housing, it is crucial to consider what happens to the individual’s freedom to make his or her own aesthetic decisions.
In his work on the “freedom to build” in Latin American informal settlements, John Turner famously argued that the important thing about housing is ‘not what it is, but what it does in people’s lives’ (Turner 1976). Resonant of Heidegger’s existentialist notion of being in ‘Dwelling, Building, Thinking,’ Leonardo, the man photographed here - a single father with a teenage son, living in an informal settlement in Guanacaste, Costa Rica - eloquently stated in my interview with him that building a home is equal to ‘being a man’. Interestingly, he claimed that he would never paint any part of his home even if given free paint of his favorite color, because it wasn’t worth it due to the possibility that the home could be taken away at any point due its illegal status. Yet he has lived here for twenty years, and it is visually evident that he had chosen various pieces of reclaimed wood to construct his home, all of various colors, obviously composing them so as to group similar colors together. This resulted in a colorful and rather beautiful facade, with delicate fabric in the window and doors aligned so as to emphasize the pastoral setting. This greatly contests the universally homogenized conception of what a “slum” looks like.
The aestheticization of poverty begins with language but can be powerfully contested with photography. Although many terms exist locally to refer to informal settlements, from “bustee” in Bangladesh to “kijiji” in Kenya or “tugurio” in Costa Rica (Sylvia Chant 2009), the international adoption and accreditation of the term ‘slum,’ not least by the United Nations, has universalized informal settlements into a largely unidimensional connotation. Even the State of the World’s Cities Report of 2008-9 refers to the term 83 times before ever defining it on page 92.
This is why household level qualitative research is invaluable. The contradiction between Leonardo’s words and his actions - illuminated through this photograph - leads to a crucial understanding about the value of aesthetic adaptation in his life, albeit limited by his house’s status of illegality. The people I interviewed and photographed in twenty-two other households in Guanacaste led me to discover equally personal and empowering demarcations of space, sometimes limited by gender relations within the home and sometimes by government. Legal or not, the aesthetics of a home provide a form of agency that every individual has a right to.
If you stop to think about it, it’s kind of fascinating how long it takes to realize that people are different. Sure, we hear it all the time, we see it all the time, we all think we already know it and it’s obvious, but it can take a mighty long time to realize just how much it means. I would challenge anyone to ask themselves if they really get it. Are we spot-on aware and accepting of this seemingly self-evident little fact, while using that knowledge to be ok with how things are? I think we try to; we probably even think we are successful at it. You know you’re saying, “Oh yes, I’m one of the open-minded ones” and I would say that too – but this understanding might actually be more of a never-ending process than we think.
Countless people who feel the need to make some kind of major outward impact with their life articulate that desire by saying they want to “change the world.” Scholarship committees look for this quality; future leaders are supposed to be overflowing with it. The phrasing might become a little more eloquent the more mature we become, and the more we improve at the self-evaluation which leads us to realize that ego has a big part in that otherwise altruistic desire. However, the bottom line never quite escapes us: we straight-up want to change the world. Why? To make things better. What kinds of things? Oh, I don’t know - famines, social inequality, responses to natural disasters, homelessness, malnutrition, crime, corruption, collapsing economies, racism, sexism, global warming, warfare, child warfare, physical diseases, mental diseases, extinction of plants, animals, cultures and languages, poverty in all its varying definitions, unhappiness, ugliness, heartbreak, “evil,” - basically all forms of current or impending doom. We may also just want to solve problems, because we enjoy it, and well – because they need to be solved. Design is largely about the solving of problems; programming could be said to be about the same thing. How can we go about living and relating to one another in better ways – whether better means more efficiently, more productively, more healthily, more experientially aware, more beautifully, more pleasurably or otherwise?
I know next to nothing about programming. In fact, I’m still waiting for an invitation to a second date from the apparently measuredly paced programmer who got me thinking about all this after our first date – which ended with an impossible-to-interpret casual hug. The he-likes-me he-likes-me-not uncertainty was further fueled by the revelation toward the end of the date that he’s Jewish, making me uncomfortably aware that my not being Jewish might cost me a chance with someone whose company I had just spent four hours thoroughly enjoying. Ironically enough, my awareness during-the-fact that I was actually enjoying rather than ruling out the person sitting across the table from me – a preciously rare occurrence when seriously evaluating men as possible future partners - only made me all the more nervous, inarticulate and self-aware. This in turn probably led me to come off as arrogant (I caught myself citing past achievements, which I’m guessing must be a faux-pas among the list of “dating rules” I’ve never cared to learn), equivocal (I was unable to choose among my diverse – read “schizophrenic” - interests to clearly describe the aspirations for my current doctoral work and professional life), and perhaps even unintelligent (I was only comprehensible when describing to him the process I used to make a sculpture, as if art-making was the only language I knew how to speak). In actuality I possess more-than-negligible amounts of only one of those qualities, yet I simply have no way to know how I was perceived by a person who is distinctly not me, myself or I. People are fundamentally different, and the ramifications of this knowledge affects more than just people. It affects entire disciplines and thus the effectiveness of all those fields and people within them that are trying so hard to “change the world.”
While I have yet to learn exactly the extent of what programming is, I think I learned enough to discern that while my field of design and my date’s field of programming both intend to solve problems, the toolset for doing so is starkly different. During our delightfully cross-disciplinary dessert, I found myself eager yet unable to stand in strong defense of the intangibly subjective qualities of space, behavior and beauty. My date, if I understood him correctly, said that in programming he seeks to understand and replicate processes of human behavior in the design of systems. His work relies on the fundamental presupposition that interactions can be mapped - I hesitate to use the word “reduced” although it was my initial impulse – to a kind of diagram that can predict the outcome of specific processes. This knowledge then helps people to do things better. It was readily apparent that my handsome date thinks methodically, logically, intently; he is perceptive and reformulates what he perceives in very legible, rationally relevant ways - ways that are perfect for his career, helpful in offering guidance, and possibly ideal for complementing me as a potential mate. Me? I’m an all-perceiving being, pulsing with absorptions of the world around me that go in and out in various inexplicable ways, always intensely felt but not always articulated, usually fueled by an inexplicably instant perceived bond with the people around me that drives me to need to do things for them– be they family, a lover, friends or strangers on the street - and usually processed through some sudden inspired gush of creating music, painting, sculpture, film, food – or not quite in the same vein: architecture.
I say “not quite in the same vein” because architecture’s arena is productively problematic. It is both subjective and concrete. It is reliant on imbued creativity and the laws of physics. The trope has been used for centuries: it is a ceaselessly dialectic negotiation between “both art and science” which rarely reaches a synthesis that is entirely satisfactory to both. The project of writing architecture – somehow teasing out the criticality of architecture’s embattled operations, the historical consequences of its specific manifestations and the agency within or external to it - is arguably even more complicated. Yet the challenging collision of two entirely different worlds and modes of thinking within one specific space of creation is to me what makes architecture the thing to spend a life on.
When trying to explain programming to me, my date related it to the description of architecture as a system able to structurally support a certain set of calculated forces – a description that is in no way wrong. When we looked at some of the visually stimulating yet functionally mysterious projects on exhibit at my school, he admitted to me that a project wasn’t appealing to him if it seemed impossible to make into a reality. I agreed that a built work must be able to eloquently fulfill both sculptural and structural demands. The best architecture in my opinion has a masterful hand at both, as well as playing a social role. But how could I tell him about the “something else” of space: that “something” which cannot be mapped (but interestingly might be diagrammable), the “something” which only the most word-crafty Michael Hayses and Sanford Kwinters of the world can even attempt to describe in words? I wanted to talk about architecture in terms I couldn’t quite find: terms that would be nearly poetic without being overly subjective, experientially resonant without being abstractly intangible, enchanted but not blindly infatuated - terms that would somehow explain why an amazing space becomes inspirational by being so much more than the sum of its parts. Ironically, in writing this I realize these terms could also describe my intuitive attraction to him – a totally unjustified impulse embracing the perceived beginnings of some imagined future love story that time, rationality and disappointment had not yet had a chance to take part in. I didn’t find them.
Nonetheless, I did come to some fruitful realizations about difference during what continues to be an occasionally patient, occasionally agonizing wait for some indication of where this guy stands. While I may analyze a situation based on how I would behave in his place within the same set of conditions and come to various conclusions based on what value I give to one or another variable – (i.e. his not getting in touch for five days must mean he’s not interested because I myself equate interest with getting in touch sooner rather than later) – it is entirely unhelpful, if not destructive, unfair and baseless. We simply cannot judge or even attempt to interpret the actions of others from the purview of our own set of defining characteristics and personality traits. I could spend - and admittedly have spent – a significant amount of time considering various yay or nay possibilities about the situation from his assumed perspective, such as:
a: he’s calm, contemplative, in no rush and probably busy; thus not getting in touch in no way means he’s not interested,
b: his kind demeanor and enthusiastic words were a form of encouragement,
c: face it, he’s just not interested
d: (it can go on forever).
I suppose embracing difference does not mean simply acknowledging that different people handle things differently based on their personality, experience and situation. It doesn’t mean simply refraining from passing judgment on a decision that is different from the one you would have made. Nor does it mean relinquishing your instinctive inclinations to think or feel a certain way simply because someone else thinks and feels differently. It is entirely acceptable and necessary to react to difference, in whatever way, or else it would have no viability. But that reaction must be paired with an opening up to the fact that there are nearly seven billion other reacting, feeling, acting beings all bundled up into individual bodies and called “persons.”
I think embracing difference means gracefully welcoming a profound interruption into your daily life. That interruption is the acceptance of knowing that you do not fully know, understanding that you do not fully understand, and letting life and time gradually expose an understanding to you, without expectation. By welcoming a plethora of disruptive unknowns into one specific play space – your life – upheaval and mystery can be smiled at simply for being there. If you’re anything like me, this isn’t always easy, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting and enjoyable than the terrifying alternative: a planet crawling with seven billion clone copies of moià.
If the mystery of another person’s unknown perceptions, desires and intentions is unsettling, I can at least take joy in the fact that all the unknowns from all the different people in my life – some in it for a second, others for a lifetime – make for a delightfully messy workshop in which I get to play architect. I am designing a space around me that artfully welcomes and negotiates multiple, often conflicting forces and ways of being. Hopefully, the productive difference within that space will allow my life to be structurally sound, artfully exquisite, and to have that “something else” which is much more than the sum of its parts.