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Portrait via critical spatial practice

Herman Joshua Wallace has spent the past 38 years in Solitary Confinement (or closed cell restriction) in Louisiana's State Prison System. For a minimum of 23 hours a day, he is shut up in a six-foot-by-nine-foot (2m x 3m) cell. It is very likely that Wallace didn't commit the crime he has been sentenced for.

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A wooden cell based on Wallace's solitary confinement cell. As exhibited at Alternator Gallery, Kelowna BC, April 2008

Along with Robert Hillary King and Albert Woodfox, Wallace is part of The Angola 3. It is believed that the men were framed for trying to speak out against inhumane treatment and racial segregation on the prison. Using non-violent protests, they were trying to draw attention to the corruption, discrimination and abuse reigning in the biggest prison in the US, Angola, an 18,000 acre former slave plantation which got its name from the country most of the slaves traveled from. On a page listing a few facts about the prison, one learns that every physically able prisoner (78% of whom are black) is required to work for 4 to 20 cents an hour a minimum of 40 hours a week. Inmates work fields of sugar cane, soybeans, cotton and corn, they also look after a 1,500 cattle beef herd. They even built a 11,300 seat arena which houses the annual Angola Prison Rodeo. The Louisiana's State Prison provides more jobs than the local nuclear power plant and paper mill combined. Even more surprising, Angola boosts a Prison View Golf Course on its grounds.

Wallace was originally imprisoned for robbery but he, Woodfox and King (who was freed in 2001) have been confined to solitary after being convicted of stabbing to death prison guard Brent Miller in 1972 during their protests. The circumstances of their trial was so suspect that there are no doubts among their supporters that the men are innocent. Even the victim's widow, Teenie Verret, doesn't believe in their guilt.


Trailer of the documentary In The Land Of The Free

In 2003 artist Jackie Sumell contacted Herman Wallace and asked him: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' X 9' box for over 30 years dream of?"

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Blueprints (credits: Maison Orion of Los Angeles) of the house that Wallace imagined for himself while in solitary confinement

I discovered their project, The House That Herman Built, during a presentation the artist gave a few weeks ago at the International Design Biennial in Saint-Etienne, France. Through exchanges of hundreds of letters, phone calls, and numerous visits to the prison, Wallace and Sumell have been sketching and designing the dream house together.

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Sketches of Wallace's cell as exhibited earlier this month at the International Design Biennial in Saint-Etienne

The construction of the house is currently being funded by a network of activists, artists, architects and other concerned individuals.

Hopefully, the House will one day be a place for Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox to comfortably retire. But until Herman is able to win his legal battle, the house will be maintained by a network of volunteers.

Practically Herman has asked that the house be used as a community space that is committed to youth education and drug prevention. The house is design to be a open space that encourages the exchange of ideas, art and activism- a space to live and dream, and for anyone to visit.

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Model by Jackie Sumell, 2003-2008

Jackie Sumell's objective with this project is not only to bring Herman Wallace's story to the public attention but also to raise awareness about oppression, institutionalized racism and injustice in the United States.

A documentary of the same name was directed by independent film maker Angad Bhalla.

The Angola 3 are the subject of 2010 documentary In the Land of the Free, directed by Vadim Jean and narrated by Samuel L Jackson. They were also the subject of a 2006 documentary film 3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation and of a music video produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.

Download PDF from the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.

Related stories: YOUprison, Some thoughts on the limitation of space and freedom, America's Family Prison, Lyon Biennale - Pedro Reyes, Artur Żmijewski: The Social Studio, Trapped: Mental Illness in America's Prisons, etc.

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A collaboration between the chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design (ETHZ) and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), ShapeShift explores the potential application of electro-active polymer at an architectural scale.

Electro-active polymer is an ultra-lightweight, flexible material that can change shape without the need for mechanical actuators and acts like the living, supple skin of a building. Responsive environments or spaces can be created that dynamically adapt to external influences.

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One doesn't run from one architecture biennale to another without hearing about electroactive polymers. I'm ashamed to admit that i had never taken the time to look deeper into their potential, challenges and promises. Until life threw Manuel Kretzer my way. Kretzer is an architect, designer and Scientific Assistant at the Chair for CAAD, ETH Zürich. Together with Edyta Augustinowicz, Sofia Georgakopoulou, Dino Rossi and Stefanie Sixt, he has developed a prototype of EAP. I've asked him to give us more details about the development of ShapeShift and to share his thoughts about the new spatial experiences that electroactive polymers could bring about.

What makes ShapeShift stand apart from other existing high-tech Electroactive Polymers?

Mostly scale and visual appearance. We're using the material's properties not merely as an actuator replacement but are emphasizing its aesthetic qualities. The thin film functions as a possible alternative for conventional building skins and envisions the concept of a soft and responsive architecture. The component based form results from the material's desire to return into its original shape combined with specially designed flexible frames. This minimum energy structure retains a variable stiffness, which allows for a variety of deformations within a given range.

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Which kind of real world applications do you foresee for ShapeShift? In design? Architecture? Other areas of everyday life?

We are now looking into possibilities (and funding) to continue this research on a larger scale. The concept of independent devices, networked together and affecting each other's behavior can easily be combined with computational approaches to collaborative intelligence and self-organization. In combination with further transformational materials, sensors and embedded control units this can allow the creation of complex and smart environments that dynamically adapt to external influences and physically respond to human inputs. Electro-active polymers have the potential to replace existing mechanical actuators such as motors or hydraulics, and at the same time can become aesthetically interesting, visible and structural elements that lead to new spatial experiences.

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Now if you could go wild and imagine what ShapeShift could do in a scifi-esque context, where would it be applied?

If ShapeShift could evolve further and become a truly independent, component based, extremely thin and flexible but still insulating, harmless, translucent (maybe partly transparent) and responsive structural skin without the need of external "backbones" or supports then this could replace every facade, ceiling, floor, door, window or even furniture.

More thin film materials like PV cells, OLEDs, Aerogels, "phase change materials" or "self healing materials" could be included. This soft membrane could then take any desired shape and retain it for as long as desired. Wall segments could open, close, rise or shrink, change opacity and appearance or join with other segments to form new spaces. If this "organism" had a collective intelligence and would be shape shifting without us realizing it, this could be a solution for overpopulation and the distribution of space in (a far) future. Rooms would only emerge where and when they are needed and spaces of any size, shape and appearance could be generated.

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ShapeShift was recently exhibited at Starkart in Zürich. What were the answers from the general public and the professionals from the field?

Reactions at the Vernissage were extremely positive. The visitors were fascinated by the "organic", smooth and completely silent movement of the sculpture. Unfortunately the components are still very weak and fragile so by the end a few of them were broken. Professionals from the EAP field were very impressed by the students rigor and enthusiasm and what they achieved in this very short time. They liked that the aesthetic sides of the material were emphasized as this hasn't been taken into account so far. The installation is now shown at the Schweizer Baumuster Zentrale.

If you could have your pick and leave ShapeShift into the hands of a renowned architect (or several) of your choice? Who would it be? Who do you think would best exploit its qualities?

I can't name anyone specific. In the 60s and 70s there were big visionaries like Archigram, Constant or Kiesler who experimented with new materials, technologies and forms. I think a similar playful and radical creativity would be necessary to use the material in a way that it really generates something new and unique.

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Do ShapeShift and other Electroactive Polymers make sense in a world that should be more and more worried about ecology?

EAPs are in principle capacitors. So the energy that is needed to actuate them could in theory be reused in a closed loop. Also technologies to harvest renewable resources are constantly evolving. I don't know enough about the manufacturing process of the materials components or their recyclability to judge whether they are sustainable or not.

Would it be cost prohibitive to apply ShapeShift to the scale of a whole building today?

So far EAPs are still far from mature. The components are very expensive and the process of making them long and difficult. They are very fragile and their longevity is restricted. Also due to the high voltage they are a bit dangerous.
If there was a true interest in using this material at a larger scale I think the manufacturing could be automated and the insulation improved. With a rising demand also the costs for the individual components would sink.

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Can you explain us the involvement of CAAD, ETH Zürich in the development of Shapeshift? And what was the role of the students exactly? Were they involved throughout the development of ShapeShift or only when it came to develop prototypes and applications?

My personal research at the Chair for CAAD focuses on the application and integration of new, "smart" materials and technologies into architecture. Therefore I established contact to the EAP research facility at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) in Dübendorf, close to Zürich. The complete physical and conceptional development of the project was a cooperation of a team of MAS (Master of Advanced Studies, a postgraduate program at our Chair) students, namely Edyta Augustynowicz, Sofia Georgakopulou, Dino Rossi and Stefanie Sixt and was closely supervised by me. The students executed endless experiments at the EMPA research facility - with support from the people there - and from this knowledge a dynamic structure evolved. The installation was then presented to members of the chair and the public.

Thanks Manuel!

Let's take a break from those Milan and Turin reports and head back to Aachen, shall we?

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The Ludwig Forum is hosting until the end of the month West Arch - a new generation in architecture, an exhibition which introduces to the broad public the work of 25 architecture studios from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

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The studios singled out by the curators are characterized by the witty, experimental, and often unconventional strategies they adopt to respond to contemporary demands and issues. Moreover, many of the architects represented in this exhibition are embracing collaborations with other disciplines such as visual art, design or graphic design.

From the curatorial statement: We assume that a pragmatic, partly ironic approach is predominant: acceptance of the factual leads to a new realism. Putting existing structures to a new use is a strategy that is not only helpful from an ecological and economical point of view but also creates new aesthetics. Theory and practice are not conceptually separated. In times of economical crisis the production of ideas is redeployed to what is possible.

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Impeccable selection of architecture studios, perfect distribution of the works within the space, clear description of the works on show, a catalog that contains the right balance of illustration and information, engrossing documentation made of models, films, photos, books, drawings and plans. I wish i'd see shows like this one every week.

A few projects i (re)discovered in the exhibition:

Modulorbeat used perforated metal to erect the translucent temporary pavilion switch+ for the 2007 Skulptur Projekte Münster.

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Modulorbeat, switch+, 2007

LAb[au] collaborated with Frederik De Wilde to create EOD 02, an installation starring fish that perceive their environment and communicate with each other by emitting electric signals, either in pulses or waves. Each of the four aquariums contain an electric fish that discharge different electric signals. The electric communication between the fish is captured by antennas and transformed into sound. Under each aquarium a matrix of LEDs pulses according to the intensity and rhythm of the signals.

Using only recycled pieces of washing machines, Rotterdam-based architects 2012architecten built the Miele Space Station, an experimental structure compounded out of five separate modules, each of which can be carried by two people. Once on site, the segments can be placed in various configurations so that the object can be used to host a bar, office, music shop or serve as an information kiosk.

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2012Architecten, Miele Space Station, 2003-2008. Photo credit: 2012Architecten. More images

Teaming up with with Jeanne van Heeswijks, 2012Architecten carried on experimenting with domestic appliances and built the Recycloop, a pavilion made out of kitchen sinks.

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More images at desmint

In order to meet local zoning regulations of this nature preservation area, half of the program of Villa 1 by The Powerhouse Company lies below the ground. Above the ground, the Y-shaped building looks like a glass box while the space below feels as if it has been carved out of the earth.

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Powerhouse Company, Villa 1, 2005-2008

With A-Cross, Brussels-based Anorak questions the application of art, architecture, design and graphism within the use of public space through a common language: a 558 cm-wide white cross erected in various archetypal situations.

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Anorak, A-Cross, 2009

To recreate a traditional Inuit collective dinner with seal meat Mediamatic in Amsterdam, DUS Architects designed a huge table that almost completely filled the room and surrounded by one continuous sofa. Only members of the Proviant-Klub-Room (named after environmentalist Brigitte Bardot) were invited to the celebration.

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DUS Architects, Proviant-Klub-Room, 2010

Another of DUS architects' project, the Gecekondu Summerhouse Hotel aimed to import Istanbul's illegal urban setup (one third of all housing) into the increasingly regulated Dutch urban space. Gecekundu, the Turkish name for shanty building, literally means 'built over night'. Because these buildings are built in one night, the founder of the building receives ownership rights. The building bricks of the Gecekondu Summer Hotel that DUS made at Almere Beach are the typical nomadic bags, the so-called china bags (or 'turkentassen'), filled with sand from the beach.

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DUS, Gecekondu Summer Hotel, 2009

Rationator is a detached house for a family with 3 children in Overath, a small town at the outskirts of Cologne. Located along the bank of the Agger River, the house is threatened by floods up to 2,5 m above ground level. BEL's design anticipates possible flooding with flood resistant materials and construction techniques.

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BEL, Rationator, 2003-2004

Views from the exhibition:
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My images from the exhibition.

West Arch - A New Generation in Architecture remains open until 14 November 2010 at Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst in Aachen, Germany.

Also on view at Ludwig Forum: Eros und Stasi.
Related: Living inside washing machines, Architecture Biennale in Venice - The Belgian pavilion.

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Another update from Artissima, the contemporary art fair taking place this weekend in Turin. There's vodka in the press bag, the art girls wear Melissa shoes, they still rock those pointy shoulder jackets, the men are strongly encouraged to make sartorial efforts, and photography seems to have fallen out of favour.

Meanwhile half of the public is either walking up and down the scaffoldings of raumlabor's life-size maquette of an experimental museum or relaxing with friends on the huge heap of smelly discarded clothes that the Berlin-based collective has 'erected' by the bar. When i saw the mountain of clothes from afar i actually thought it was a scaled-down version Christian Boltanski's Personnes at the Grand Palais in Paris.

raumlabor's construction -which you can find at the back of the exhibition space- was designed to host the fair's cultural offer, a program mixing dance performances, literature, film screenings and architecture. The idea is brilliant and the structure certainly attracts more passersby than the white rooms where the conferences usually take place.

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The House of Contamination forms a parallel architecture in clashing contrast both with the sleek volumes of the Oval building where the fair is hosted and with the squeaky clean walls of the gallery booths.

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The walls of this experimental museum are built with compressed stacks of plastic, paper, metal, fabric and wood. All the material is recycled. The books of the library are kept inside disused fridges, tables are installed on top of upside-down washing machines. A huge fan intermittently blows wind that moves the fabric walls of the corridor. Up there, a rudimentary skywalk allows visitors to get a better idea of the architecture of the museum.

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As the description of the House of Contamination states, all rooms are intercommunicating, the only dividing wall can move merging cinema and theatre, simultaneously sealing the literary salon.

Let's see if this experimental museum gets a life beyond the 4 days art fair.

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raumlabor, House of Contamination, 2010

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Abitare has interviewed members of raumlabor about the House of Contamination.
More images of the House of Contamination.

By bringing the focus of their exhibition on the thousands of buildings that remain unoccupied in The Netherlands, the Dutch Pavilion puts an ironic twist on "People meet in architecture", the theme of the ongoing Architecture Biennial in Venice.

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Even the building where the exhibition takes place has been empty for over 39 years since its inauguration in 1954. The Dutch Pavilion -just like any of the pavilions of the giardini- is indeed open for just a few months per year.

Rietveld Landscape, the office appointed by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) as curators, has emphasized the vacancy of the pavilion by leaving the ground floor of the pavilion completely empty. Only by walking the stairs up to the mezzanine can the visitor discover that what looked like a foam blue ceiling is in fact a suspended landscape made of the models of vacant lighthouses, schools, water towers, factories, hangars, offices, etc.

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A 'placebook' on the wall shows the connections that could between vacant buildings and creative professionals:

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The exhibition Vacant NL is a call for the intelligent reuse of temporarily vacant buildings around the world in promoting creative enterprise.

Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas is not only an appeal to creative talents to exploit the value hidden in society but also unsolicited advice to countries who want to advance up the table of global knowledge economies but don't know where they can find the hidden strengths. The transition to a creative knowledge economy demands specific spatial conditions. Offering young talents from the creative, technology and science sectors an affordable place where they can share their knowledge, creativity and networks is a way of promoting mutual influences, enterprise and innovation. Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas shows how architecture can contribute to tackling major social problems.

Project Team for the pavilion: Curator Rietveld Landscape worked with Jurgen Bey (designer), Joost Grootens (graphic designer), Ronald Rietveld (landscape architect), Erik Rietveld (philosopher/economist), Saskia van Stein (NAI curator), Barbara Visser (visual artist).

Previously: Architecture Biennale in Venice - The Belgian pavilion.

The Venice Biennale of Architecture runs until 21st November, 2010.

Sorry i've been a bit lame and vague in keeping up with my reports from the Venice Architecture Biennale. I'm going to post a couple more stories about the event then we'll move on with our life.

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Image by Eric Mairiaux

Just like two years ago, the Belgian pavilion was the one i liked the most. This has very little to do with my nationality. I entered having no idea of what i'd find there and was almost immediately struck by the simplicity and charm of the exhibition.

This year's Director of the Biennale Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA invited participants to explore the relationship between architecture and human occupation. No one has taken the theme as literally as Rotor at the Belgian Pavilion. By focusing on the mundane and the overlooked details of architecture, the collective brought poetry, history and emotion to the biennale.

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Two double flights of stairs. Image by Eric Mairiaux

Called Usus/Usures, the exhibition investigates a specific phase in the life of construction materials: the time when they are subjected to use and are gradually re-shaped by human beings passing through them, walking on them, touching, pressing, stroking, scratching or holding them.

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Photo by Eric Mairiaux

The Rotor collective spent years touring public buildings in Belgium to document and collect sections of walls, banisters with chipped paint, wooden floors, stained carpets, tired stairs, elevator cabins, plastic chairs, door handles, windows, and other worn out fragments of buildings. A selection of them hang on the white walls of the pavilion. Taken out of their original context, the objects looks like minimalist sculptures.

Rotor's interest in fatigued bits and pieces of architecture started as a study to evaluate the viability of a resale network for construction and demolition waste. Their concern, however, was not entirely ecological:

Like any product, they also elicit an aesthetic evaluation and, indeed, an emotional one. Traces of wear play a crucial role in this. They frequently evoke a sense of repulsion from potential buyers, but occasionally evoke attraction and even fascination.

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With wear and tear, the material gains a new dimension that is both physical and situational.

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A few pictures i took. Image on the homepage by Eric Mairiaux.

Usus/Usures is a project by Lionel Devlieger, Michaël Ghyoot, Maarten Gielen, Benjamin Lasserre, Tristan Boniver, and Melanie Tamm, in collaboration with Benedikte Zitouni and Ariane d'Hoop.

The Venice Biennale of Architecture runs until 21st November, 2010.

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