THE FUNAMBULIST is a bimestrial printed and digital magazine complemented with a blog and a podcast (Archipelago) edited by Léopold Lambert. Its subtitle, "Politics of Space and Bodies," expresses it ambition to bridge the world of design (architecture, urbanism, industrial and fashion design) with the world of the humanities (philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, etc.) through critical articles written by long-time collaborators as well as new ones.
Over the past few years, i've been following Lambert's investigation into how the built environment is used as a political weapon. Much of the content the architect produces is free. But because Lambert's work is of high quality and pretty unique for the grounds it covers and the rigorous way it approaches it, it felt natural to me to just click on 'buy' as soon as i found out he was publishing a magazine.
The Funambulist magazine is bilingual french and english. This first issue looks at the violence of military organization in the city and postulates that the violence is not necessarily something that come from the outside. In many cases, the architecture of the city contains this very violence within itself.
The first part of the books analyzes in depth 5 specific case studies: Beirut, Lahore, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Oakland.
Since 2009, Mona Fawaz, Mona Harb & Ahmad Gharbieh have been mapping security in Beirut. The temporary checkpoints, security cameras, screening measures in large department stores, barbed wires, speed bumps, sand bags, tanks, and other physical elements of the security apparatus not only condition the way inhabitants navigate the streets everyday, they also install a segregation that shelters politicians and "high income city dwellers" inside their own bubble. More importantly, these security measures create a visible architecture of fear that affects every citizen's experience of the city.
In her research covering bomb blasts in Lahore, Sadia Shirazi calls this Pakistani city one of the greatest unacknowledged casualties of the United States' "war on terror." She demonstrates convincingly how security apparatuses delineate boundaries, reduces public space and restrict movements and experiences of the city. The result is a city that looks more threatening than secure.
Mohamed Elshahed focuses on the multiple forms that the militarization of Cairo has been taking since 2011.
The Demilit group (Javier Arbona, Bryan Finoki & Nick Sowers) takes a bunkered telecom hotel tower as a symbol of how the city of Oakland is being vacuumed by a consortium of public and private security agencies.
Finally Nora Akawi uses the poster designed for Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's 2015 graduate exhibition as a starting point to explores Jerusalem and the Zionist's fantasy of an empty land, open to be inhabited and built upon. While denying Palestinians the possibility to plan for the future
The rest of the publication is equally engrossing. It features an interview with Philippe Theophanidis about the legal and logistic processes that govern a 'state of exception' such as the one that characterized the manhunt of Boston in April 2013 when 2,500 police officers were deployed in the city to arrest Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombings 4 years earlier
Next comes an astonishing photo series showing Jerusalem from above. The most striking feature of the photos is the wall. Not the ones that attract tourists from all over the world but the 500 km wall started in 2002 by Ariel Sharon.
The magazine closes on a series of projects by students in architecture that further speculate and investigate these Politics of Space and Bodies.
I highly recommend that you either download or get the paper version The Funambulist. The pages make for an interesting and informative read that stay with you long after you've closed the magazine. The essays, photos and discussions invite readers to look at their own city in a more critical and inquisitive way, making it hard not to question every barrier, new 'security' measure, parking interdiction, private security booth and other, more subtle way to control the flow of citizens.
You can still get plenty of free content on The Funambulist blog and on the Archipelago podcasts but this first issue of the printed/digital magazine is so good that Lambert's work is definitely worth a very affordable subscription.
Publisher OR Books writes: On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.
Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.
For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat's Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action.
Some 15 million migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, form the vast majority of the labor force in most Gulf states. In the UAE and Qatar, 90 percent of the work force and the population are migrant workers (both white collar and blue collar.) No matter how many years they have lived and worked there, or even if they were born there, these people have no voting, representation, or association rights. Thousands of them are currently working on construction sites to create Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), a £17bn cultural hub in Abu Dhabi that will soon host the new premises of international cultural institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.
The men constructing the architectural 'icons' designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid (aka the It's not my duty as an architect to look at it lady) and Tadao Ando, are trapped there since their passports have been confiscated, they receive lower than expected wages, are confined to substandard housing, are submitted to 10pm curfew, poor food as well as segregation in the official labour camp, etc.
Because of the notoriously low wages they receive, migrant labourers often have to work for years before they manage to pay off the debt they contracted to cover the recruitment and travel fees to the UAE. This recruitment debt is central to the system. No one would labor under such conditions unless they had to pay it off.
If they protest against the poor living/working conditions or unpaid wages, the workers get punished or deported.
And anyone who speaks in their favour isn't welcome in the country...
The editor of the book, Andrew Ross, is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. Earlier this year, he wanted to do some research on labor issues at Abu Dhabi, where a campus of his university is located but he was informed at JFK Airport that he could not enter the country. Similar rebukes awaited other members of the Gulf Labor Coalition. Artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to travel to the UAE. Walid Raad was turned back at the Dubai airport.
The artist group Gulf Labor Coalition has spent the past few years investigating and denouncing migrant worker abuse. But while the UAE and other Gulf governments can largely ignore the group's calls, the European and American cultural institutions who will be present on Saadiyat Island need to protect their 'brand' and the values they stand for. As Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon write in their essay for the book: it remains urgent to continue to use our leverage as artists and scholars to hold US and European museums and universities accountable in their home countries for the abuses against human dignity of workers thousands of miles away.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor charters Gulf Labor's fight in a series of texts written by members of the coalition.
Some of the authors explore Western institutions complicity in migrant worker abuse on Saadiyat, other analyse the place of construction workers in the building process, report on visits and interviews with deported workers, look at the artists who have engaged in direct political action, draw lessons from examples of art and activism in the global stage, document performances organised inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, a 'Gulf Labor spinoff devoted to direct action' Global Ultra Luxury Faction, etc.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor is lively, opinionated and eye-opening book. It is an important publication because of the realities it reveals and investigates. But it does more than that. The essays it contains can be read as a series of lessons for anyone, journalists, artists or activists, who want to take a stand, protest and challenge every complicit element leading to a situation of abuse and injustice.
Because things might be slow to change but that doesn't mean protesting is useless. As Sarah Leah Whitson notes in the foreword:
The efforts of Gulf Labor have prevented these world-class institutions from sweeping their complicity in the exploitation of migrant workers under Abu Dhabi's desert sands.
Most significantly, these efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.
And the campaign has even led the UAE grudgingly to adopt some legislative reforms, including electronic payment of wages, changes to the sponsorship system that allow workers to switch jobs under limited circumstances, and greater supervision of work conditions by a vastly expanded pool of government inspectors.
By the way, Hyperallergic is doing a great job at keeping up with Gulf Labor latest actions.
Publisher Island Press writes: Short-term, community-based projects--from pop-up parks to open streets initiatives--have become a powerful and adaptable new tool of urban activists, planners, and policy-makers seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. These quick, often low-cost, and creative projects are the essence of the Tactical Urbanism movement. Whether creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight or re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places, they offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.
Tactical Urbanism, written by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, two founders of the movement, promises to be the foundational guide for urban transformation. The authors begin with an in-depth history of the Tactical Urbanism movement and its place among other social, political, and urban planning trends. A detailed set of case studies, from guerilla wayfinding signs in Raleigh, to pavement transformed into parks in San Francisco, to a street art campaign leading to a new streetcar line in El Paso, demonstrate the breadth and scalability of tactical urbanism interventions. Finally, the book provides a detailed toolkit for conceiving, planning, and carrying out projects, including how to adapt them based on local needs and challenges.
Tactical Urbanism is a grass-root approach to urbanism. Tactical Urbanism is what happens when citizens, frustrated with the hurdles of civic administration, take the future of their neighbourhood into their own hands before someone else, someone with a political mandate, someone who doesn't actually have to live there, does it for them. Tactical Urbanism is a method for transforming 'an orderly but dumb system into one that's more chaotic but smart.'
The authors of the book, Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, believe that the city is the perfect laboratory for testing out dreams and ideas. They show us how to experiment with, reclaim, redesign or reprogram vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, local markets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots and other underused public spaces.
Garcia and Lydon have been documenting and applying Tactical Urbanism practices for the past 4 years. That's not a very long period of time but they have learnt a lot in that period. More importantly, they've learnt mostly by doing: they released Tactical Urbanism guides, organised salons and also worked alongside citizens, government officials, advocacy groups and developers on a series of projects.
The authors also admit that they haven't invented everything. The second chapter of their book looks at moments in history that have paved the way for Tactical Urbanism. The journey starts much earlier than i had expected, with the Neolithic settlement of Khoirokoitia in Cyprus, one of the first citizen led planning process in history. Garcia and Lydon then explore and explain how the Roman castra (temporary roman military camps with easily navigable gridded streets) literally set the first stones for European cities to settle and develop. How in the late 1960s, people in Delft started to strategically place trees, bollards or bike racks in order to slow down traffic and give the street back to the community. How parents in the city of Bristol appropriated legislation designed for street parties to close street to cars so that their children can play safely. The initiatives in both England and The Netherlands ended up being officially condoned by their national governments.
The following chapters contain many more U.S.-based examples and lessons. They also analyze the reasons for the current resurgence of Tactical Urbanism (growing disconnection between citizens and decision-makers, people moving back to the city, the current recession, the rise of the internet.) At this point, however, i was starting to lose interest in the book. Apart from the historical section, it was firmly grounded onto the U.S. soil. Nothing wrong with that, i just expected the book to either make me travel all over the world or apply to a reality i feel closer to (i should probably mention that some of Street Plans publications focus on other parts of the globe.) I was also a bit annoyed with the constant talk of 'empowering' citizens. But then the word 'empowering' has that nails-scratching-on-chalkboard effect on me. I just can't help it. If I did carry on reading, it's because the experiences shared in the book are indeed very uplifting, each story is written in a clear and engaging language and then there's that chapter 5....
Chapter 5 is a gem. It is a very detailed and informative toolkit for aspiring Tactical Urbanists. The pages explain how to use online tools (such as Neighborland, Mindmixer, etc.) to widen engagement, how to identity your project partners, fund the project, apply for a permit (or not as it appears that sometimes applying for special event is enough if you want to test drive an intervention in public space and get the ball rolling), where to find the materials to make it happen, how to build a prototype, measure its impact and learn from the results, etc. There's even a cheat sheet with important guiding questions.
But as the authors make clear, Tactical Urbanism is not an off the shelf solution or a check list, it's a process that should also allow for frequent adjustments. It's also decidedly small-scale, short-term and low-cost (and often surprisingly low-tech) but it should also serve a larger purpose.
The concluding chapter is mostly preptalk, an admonition to go out, use this book and take action in your own community.
Furl: Soft Pneumatic Pavilion is another* project i discovered at the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a Bartlett School of Architecture research group and Masters Programme headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin.
Bijing Zhang and Francois Mangion explored the field of soft robotics and its future applications to create an adaptive architecture that responds to the human body:
"Furl" combines Electroencephalography (EEG) with advances in soft silicone casting of "air muscles". The introduction of soft robotics replaces the mechanical principles in interactive architecture through a biological paradigm. EEG allows sensing of human brain functioning so that our environments begin moving and responding to our very thoughts. The designed components have a wide palette of deformation patterns of inflation. Through combination of soft and hard architectural elements, "Furl" creates a new platform for a kinetic responsive architecture which can let space interact with users needs and adapt itself to environmental conditions.
Quick conversation with one of the creators of Furl:
Hi François! I hope I'm not going to shock you but I find that Furl is very fascinating but also a bit repulsive. It's a bit of an upsetting creature. It's mechanical but it also looks like it has some flesh that moves and 'lives' and that makes me uncomfortable. So why didn't you decide to make a cute little soft robot?
It is not a shock at all, in the Interactive Architecture Lab, people often attach some kind of a distinct behavioural character to their work and Furl is no exception. We always thought about Furl as a curious 'creature' of polarities, soft responsive moving components in contrast with the stiff sharp structure.
The description text in the catalogue mentions applications of soft robotics in architecture. Where do you see these applications happening? What would a 'soft responsive architecture' be able to do for us?
There's a lot of interest in robotics in Architecture right now. Mostly in fabrication but increasingly thinking about how buildings and space as whole can be kinetic in their response to inhabitation. The problem is that robotics and mechanisms are typically rigid, sometimes dangerous, and generally incompatible with close proximate behavior to people. Soft robotics creates a new platform for architecture, to interact much more sensitively and directly to the human body. These physical properties of soft materials offer a potential to create 'soft' architectural structures or components which can shift shape, rotate, bend unlike anything we've seen in architecture to date. It might be sometime before such techniques are commonplace but we think it opens up new horizons in biologically inspired architecture, an interdisciplinary approach that could potentially lead to a revolution towards a 'soft responsive architecture'.
Could you briefly tell us how the soft part works? In particular, what makes it inflate?
The soft responsive components forming Furl are "air muscles". Made of two layers of silicone with different degrees of elasticity and with air channels cast within them. This difference in mechanical properties and the arrangement of the air channels makes the muscle transform in different ways. You can essentially programme the behaviour of the air muscles by varying moulds for casting the soft material so that it can produce different 'gestures' based on geometries (such as thickness, ratio, depiction) of the solid part the air muscles and air channels. A lot of material experimentation was lead by Bijing Zhang based on work by previous members of IAL including Ben Haworth and Rom Khampanya.
Can you explain me the part about Electroencephalography: "EEG allows sensing of human brain functioning so that our environments begin moving and responding to our very thoughts." How does it work? What can EEG sense exactly? And how does Furl respond?
Our approach to brain sensing was developed in collaboration with DSI (Data Science Institute) at the Imperial College. Using their brain sensors we were able to get raw data about levels of alpha (α), beta (β), delta (δ), and theta (Θ) brain waves. The EEG signal is closely related to the level of concentration of the person. As the activity increases, the EEG shifts to higher dominating type of brain wave frequency and lower amplitude. If people concentrated it alters the theta brain waves frequency and this would active the muscles to inflate. This was actually quite a simple response to what is actually much more powerful data that harnessed with pattern recognition and learning algorithms could spell the end of needing to touch or speak to devices or environments to control them.
Since we're exploring the softness of material, we felt that brain sensing in some way, was the equivalent in soft control. Even more powerful to simple control would be buildings able to take the data and predict and anticipate our needs even before we do. Its an exciting and equally terrifying area of research we're starting to explore and this was just a prototype of that idea.
What was the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while developing the work?
The biggest challenge we had to deal with was to acquire the knowledge of the material's physical properties and develop full understanding of the change in the dynamic behaviour of the air muscles with respect to the specific internal air channels. Through a series of design and fabricated tests we were continuously exploring the capability of mimicking a more natural behaviour and interaction.
Are you planning to push this research into soft robotics any further?
Yes, definitely there are still a lot of challenges we have to deal with and the scaling up to architectural scale at this stage is something that we have to explore. On the other hand we also want to investigate the possibility of prototyping a one functional component with embedded hard materials for structural, interactive and dynamic capabilities. We also look forward in developing further the brain sensor control aiming towards full-scale soft responsive architecture.
* see also The Eye Catcher.
Imagine Architecture. Artistic Visions of the Urban Realm, by Lukas Feireiss and Robert Klanten.
Publisher Gestalten writes: Contemporary developments in the visual arts are often reflected in urban landscapes. Imagine Architecture explores the ways in which visual culture develops in public spaces and how it shapes those spaces. This book focuses on the fruitful exchange between visual culture and architecture and follows up on the themes introduced in our previous release Beyond Architecture. It compiles experimental projects and creative perspectives from the fields of illustration, painting, collage, sculpture, photography, installation, and design.
A young generation of creatives sees the urban landscape as the starting point for their work. When these illustrators, sculptors, or photographers engage with architecture, their art overrules conventional doctrines on the use of space. They use buildings as a medium for their ideas, breaking norms and triggering new tensions. Whether they make sculptures that are created within the context of a given structure or street art whose forms and colors impact its surrounding architecture, all of the featured projects interpret and reflect their spatial settings in compelling ways. In the process, these visionary concepts are playfully expanding the definition of architecture. Their creativity has the potential to breathe new life into public spaces and promote the evolution of our cities.
Imagine Architecture follows Gestalten magical recipe: a theme which will catch everyone's imagination, a straightforward introduction, a brief description of each work and lots of very big images. The formula works every time.
It's not my favourite book from Gestalten though. It's still a brilliant one but i opened it with the assumption that artists exploring architecture were always going to be far more thought-provoking than architects expressing the radical or outlandish ideas you'd expect from an artist. I looked back at architecture titles i've reviewed in the past (in particular the two i've just linked to) and realize that i was wrong, i shouldn't dismiss architects' creativity.
Now to what i like about the book: the title and content might be catchy but that doesn't reduce the Imagine Architecture to a catalogue of what was cool and trendy on design and art blogs these past couple of years. The editors have brought to light gems from exhibitions and portfolios that haven't reached the mainstream yet. Some of the works are deeply political. Others have no other ambition than be poetical. Some are paper models of an imaginary city that, like a real one, is ever growing, ever-evolving. Others are typographic experiments that attempt to dialogue with architecture. Some explore architecture through the introspective lens of the home. Others look at the arrogance of men who hope to control and dominate from the height of the towers they've built.
Right, i can see now that my arid review hasn't probably done justice to the book, let the images speak then:
Tom Sachs' The Island is a modified model of the radar tower of the USS Enterprise CVN-65, "The world's first and finest nuclear powered aircraft carrier." It's also one of my favourite works ever.
The Fog Factory is the model of the area around the train station in Nancy, France. Fog, which creeps over the streets, constitutes the architecture, an artificial copy of a meteorological phenomenon, mechanically produced but randomly distributed and imponderable.
Beth Dow looks at the American environments, and its penchant for fake antiquities. My pictures of faked antiquities are an attempt to evoke nostalgia for inaccurate history, to wrestle with ideas of authenticity, and to question the value we place on classical ideals.
Laurent Chehere looks for understated and overlooked examples of architecture in Paris. From caravans to circus tents to sex shops. He photographs them and then sends them high up in the air from his digital manipulation room.
Collapscapes are fictitious industrial spaces made of glass. Called Chemical Plant, Mine Shaft, Super Collider and Gas Depot, the objects look at industrial architecture and the contraction (or collapse) of industrial sites that follows increasingly mechanised production.
A synthetic cotton treehouse for children in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
Daryl Chen's New Socialist Village explores what the UK can learn about planning from the community living in the village of Caochangdi, an atypical 'new socialist village' outside of Beijing. In the space created by the Chinese government's evolving planning laws, the village's growth is driven by the instincts of local peasants and the bohemian opportunism of artists who have established a set of unstated rules governing urban form.
Jiang Pengyi creates Unregistered Cities, miniature abandoned cities. He then places them in the historic abandoned houses that Beijing's hunger for "excessive urbanization, redevelopment and demolition" has left to rot.
Views inside the book:
Yesterday was the press view of Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at the Barbican Art Gallery. I eagerly go to those journalist tours because i'm allowed to take photos to my heart's content. The day after it's often strictly verboten.
Constructing Worlds looks at how photographers have documented key moments in the history of 20th and 21st century architecture: the skyscrapers rising up in New York, the remains of an industrial Europe well past its glory days, the glamorous Californian lifestyle of the 1940s, the unstoppable urbanisation of China, the traces of colonization in Africa, the aftermath of the war on Afghanistan, India's enthusiasm for modernity as built in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier, etc.
I was particularly seduced by the photos from the 1930s to 1970s. Their authors looked for beauty and evidences of social changes where most people would have only registered dust and mortar.
Constructing Worlds exhibits the work of 18 photographers only. But that's good enough for me as i'm no fan of those Barbican shows that asphyxiate you by their discouragingly high amount of images and information. I'm therefore going to follow suit and keep my comments short.
In 1929, Berenice Abbott traveled to New York City after having spent eight years in Europe. In her absence, countless 19th-century buildings had been razed to make way for skyscrapers. She decided to stay in the country and document the changing face of the city. By 1940, the photographer had completed "Changing New York," an invaluable historical testimony of a life in Manhattan that has disappeared.
Walker Evans is famous for the work he did for the Farm Security Administration documenting the effects of the Great Depression. I've seen these images several times before but i doubt i'll ever get tired of them. The photos were taken at the same time as Berenice Abbott's.
Guy Tillim's work examines modern history in Africa against the backdrop of its colonial and post-colonial architectural heritage.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 January 2015.