Sarajevo, 2008. ©Wolfgang Thaler

Last week, just a few hours after having landed in Switzerland for the IETM Autumn Plenary Meeting (which focused on the very sexy theme of 'misunderstanding'), i was sitting in a train to Basel. Like an automaton, i had been drawn to the city to visit Balkanology, New Architecture and Urban Phenomena in South Eastern Europe, the ongoing exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum.

SA M explores contemporary architecture and urban design from a trans-disciplinary perspective, not just at national level as its title might suggest, it also puts architecture into a global context.

Having been very impressed by their previous show, Re-sampling Ornament, i was more than eager to get very enthusiastic about the current one. Expectations were high. Expectations were met.

It started well right from the start. The exhibition design by Thilo Fuchs & Oliver Mayer of Tatin, with Oliver Theinert was a delight. Floating panels, writings on the floors, elegant typography and graphics.

© Tom Bisig


Now about the content of the show: Balkans generally refers to South Eastern Europe, a region with varying geographical definitions. Going beyond clichés and the pathos, the Balkanology exhibition focuses on the impact of recent socio-political changes on architecture and urban planning, drawing a variegated picture of urban development in the region and the forces that determine it.

Prishtina, 2008. © Kai Voeckler

Curated by Kai Vöckler, the exhibitions focuses on two main themes:

- the way inhabitants solved the lack of housing and initiated construction projects on their own account.
- a comparison between outstanding yet hardly known buildings of socialist modernism in Yugoslavia with contemporary architecture.

Prishtina, 2008. © Kai Vöckler

Since the collapse of the socialist economic system in ex-Yugoslavia and Albania and the war that lead to the split of Yugoslavia, a new form of urbanisation typified by extensive informal building activity has appeared on the territory. Taking advantage of sketchy legal frameworks and governments initially too weak to enforce rules and regulations, inhabitants have taken the issue of housing shortage in their own hands, they started building new dwellings from scratch and adapting existing edifice for their own purposes.

Prishtina, 2008. © Kai Voeckler

In this context, a term often used in all its negative connotations like Balkanization takes a radically different meaning: it stands for the improvisation and adaptation skills of architecture. Some of the many questions the exhibition aims to raise iinclude: how can a combination of governmental and social control offer the best possible basis for a successful retro-active 'post-regulation? To what extent unregulated, informal urbanism develops new typologies and urban forms, and how these forms could also emerge under the banner of neo-liberal de-urbanisation in the rest of Europe.

These unregulated forms of urban developments have often bypassed the expertise of architects. This makeshift architecture has nevertheless developed its own style and culture characterized by a new intermeshing of spaces through visual worlds communicated by the media, migratory movements and cash flows.

As part of a broader research on Belgrade informal architecture, Dubravka Sekulic and Ivan Kucina have compiled a fascinating archive of Belgrade roof extensions. The project in longer run wants to examine the cultural habits that provoke this kind of action in the city and their implication on architecture and public space of the city.

More images of the roof extensions in the PDF report

In the other chapter of Balkanology, examples found in Belgrade, Zagreb, Kotor, Prishtina and Tirana illustrate the way architects, artists, urbanists and activists from South Eastern Europe are dealing with these rapid new transformation processes. The outstanding yet hardly known buildings of socialist modernism in Yugoslavia are compared with contemporary architecture.

National and University Library, Prishtina, Kosovo, 1983. Architect: Andrija Mutnjaković. ©Wolfgang Thaler

Using selected cases, Maroje Mrduljaš, editor of Oris, and architectural historian Vladimir Kulić show how Yugoslavian architects and planners have tackled "modernity" and "internationality". As you will see in the following examples, the outcome of their investigation oscillates between the depressing and the exhilarating.

©Wolfgang Thaler

New Belgrade, a residential area built across the river from Belgrade by Tito after 1950, was conceived as a city of 'light, sun and future' and planned following the principles of the CIAM (the International Congress of Modern Architecture). The challenge at the time was to erect as many buildings, as fast as possible, in order to accommodate a displaced and quickly growing post WW II population. The initial vision of functionality and modernity was translated into what has been defined as a 'brutalist architectural approach'.

Image by Jim Skreech, via Belgraded

One of the most striking projects that demonstrates the modernity of Yugoslavia is Rijeka's Flexible Swimming Pool, designed by Vladimir Turina in 1949. The auditoriums of this 'architectural device" would have been place on railway tracks to be moved from inside to outside depending on the weather. The inner pool could be easily turned into an exhibition hall or an airplane hangar. All the elements could have been constructed with the technology of the time. I couldn't find any image of the project online so let's drift to another project i found particularly appealing:

Zlatko Ugljen was a student interested in the reinterpretation and modernization of Bosnian Ottoman heritage when he started the Šerefudin's White Mosque project in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. What started as a modest project made pro bono for the local community ended up as one of the most internationally celebrated buildings in former Yugoslavia: it was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983 and in 2007, Hungarian architects declared that the mosque was one of the three best designed sacral places in Europe. More images.

On the left, the minaret and mosque as seen from the graveyard. © Jacques Betant. On the right, inside view. ©Wolfgang Thaler

Balkanology, New Architecture and Urban Phenomena in South Eastern Europe runs until December 28 at SA M, the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel.

One final recommendation: get your hands on S AM No. 6 - The publication accompanying the exhibition Balkanology - New Architecture and Urban Phenomena in South Eastern Europe, edited by Francesca Ferguson & Kai Vöckler.

Related entries: The K67 kiosk.

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As i mentioned a couple of days ago, the Heartland exhibition on view until January 25 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL) is one of the best shows i've visited this year.


Heartland roughly follows the Mississippi River, taking in an area from New Orleans up to Minneapolis in the north and including Omaha, Kansas City, Detroit and Chicago. The curatorial team, a collaboration between the Van Abbemuseum and the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, commissioned new pieces and selected existing works by contemporary artists who live in the region or have undertaken residencies there in order to produce new work. The programme includes musical events at the Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, debates, lectures, a photo exhibition, a magazine and publications.

Heartland is a precious exhibition. The U.S. are all over our (European) newspapers because of the upcoming presidential elections. Yet, most of us know very little of the art and culture of the area that lies between the East Coast and the West Coast. And what we think we might know can often be reduced to a bunch of cliches. One of the main objectives of the exhibition is to offer a more penetrating picture of the 'Heartland'. Indeed, each of the works on show engages dynamically with the city and area it comes from, rising issues peculiar to that place and the people who live there . Another aim of Heartland is, as the curators added in their press release, to questions traditional definitions of cultural centers and peripheries.

Alec Soth, Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Alec Soth 's photo series Sleeping by the Mississippi brings you right into the heart of the subject. The result of several years of road trips along the legendary river, the photographic prints capture America's "third coast". While the area appears to be the essence and backbone of the whole country, its landscapes, people and interiors evoke a sense of neglect, loneliness and melancholy.

Marjetica Potrč , New Orleans: Shotgun House with Rainwater-Harvesting Tank, 2008

Marjetica Potrč has spent several months studying the changing landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans. With the help of FutureProof (a sustainable design consultancy), she focused her researches on issues of sustainability, water, and the emergence of new geographic and political territories based on changing ecology.

The 'Shotgun House with Rainwater-Harvesting Tank' builds upon two recent trends in New Orleans: the revival of the local architectural style known as the Shotgun House, and the move toward self-sustainability. Inhabitants have customized this local style by adding elements that allow them to harvest rainwater and solar power. These post-Katrina developments reflect the search for a new social contract for democracy. The two caryatids represent the citizens of New Orleans whom she sees as the 'supporting columns' of the reconstruction of the city.

Marjetica Potrč , Surviving in Pieces, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Max Protetch Gallery

The drawings and prints that accompanied the installation echo the ways in which infrastructure is created from the bottom up by individuals either in response to political or ecological change or simply to improve their lives. The societies she examines, including New Orleans, have undergone political or climatic changes that have made Modernism's social contracts untenable.

Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, Museum Benches, 2008

The exhibition presented also independent cultural organizations and artists' platforms whose activities are deeply rooted in their local environment. One of them is the Tree of Heaven Woodshop is a Detroit-based network of specialists, craftspeople, researchers, artists and enthusiasts who work exclusively with wood processed from what the Chinese call the Tree of Heaven. In the Detroit, the tree received also the nickname "ghetto palm" because of the way it populates abandoned lots and deserted factory sites all over the city. The tree survives, even in a polluted area, where there is poor or very little soil as it is often found climbing out of abandoned factories and houses, lamp posts and even sidewalks and concrete structures, make this tree the plant of post-industrial landscapes.

Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, Detroit Woodshop Burnt House Tree

The quantity and height of Tree of Heaven specimen indicate how long a place might have been abandoned. Interested in the ongoing effects of de-industrialisation on communities and environments, the Tree of Heaven Woodshop decided to take advantage of the tree ubiquity. By using existing infrastructure and supporting small local businesses, the Woodshop turn the tree into an agent of communication. Processing trees into raw material for sculptures or furniture might not be regarded as a very sophisticated concept. But in the light of this specific city and the qualities of this specific tree it becomes a demonstration of the possibilities of this place in time.

Kerry James Marshall, Dailies (Rhythm Mastr), 2007

A whole wall was covered with the comics (more images) of Kerry James Marshall. Marshall used to read a lot of superhero comics as a kid and one day, because all of a sudden the character of the Black Panther appeared in the Fantastic Four, he and many other with him realized that there were no black heroes in comics. Hence this ongoing project, Rythm Monstr, which explores black American culture through its own super heroes. They are the comic, swearing, talking (in both Chinese and english) and jumping version of archaic African sculptures. Each of them subtly summons issues of racial tensions, the civil rights movement, Afro-American traditions and communal solidarity in the 21st century.

The Wexner Center has a nice video interview of the artist.

If you can't make it to Eindhoven, internet comes to your rescue: the curators traveled the whole 'Heartland" to research the exhibition and posted their impressions and photos on the Heartland Research blog.

Heartland is on view until January 25 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL) and will travel in a modified version to the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago next year.

Previously: Michael Rakowitz' Dull Roar at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL).

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" is not only the title of a 1966 song by the The Beach Boys, but also the title of an exhibition about wishful thinking in art and design at London's Somerset House. Before its stop in the UK, the show was on at the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Geneva and at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich.

When Brian Wilson wrote the song he was imagining "what you can't have, what you really want" so, almost in reply, the show proposes a "modest form of utopianism, a whistle of optimism for how things could be, set against a bass note of misgiving".

The weapons of choice in this case are art and design and the changing landscape between the two, with "traditional divides falling away, yet the specific contexts for works for art and design remaining quite distinct."

Ten artists and designers, plus another six in the so-called Studio in which temporary installations and performances take place, offer their take on other possibilities.

Wouldn't It be Nice_alignment4.jpg

Dunne and Raby are showing a wide range of their work, including the bright, pink installation Alignment, created in collaboration with designer Michael Anastassiades. Their description of it is so good, I'll just quote it in full: "A small pressure gauge indicates that it is operational. It could go off at any time. When the planets are in the appropriate configuration, the airbag is filled. An explosion of pinkness. It takes seconds, like an airbag in a car crash. Voluminous. Fantastic. A triclinic crystal: a form with no 90 degree angles. Perhaps no-one sees it, only the aftermath. A landscape of shocking florescent pink rip-stock fabric in sharp fractal forms, strewn across the living room floor. When the owner returns home, they decide what it means and what to do. It could be about love, money, or career."

It means having an explosive piece of furniture to live with which could go off in a pink eruption at any time, associated with something that is important to its owner, however arbitrary and secret. It knows and when it goes off it means that something significant has changed and it will prompt a decision or demand a promise to be kept. It's a strange and beautiful concept which has a great open-endedness about it in many ways.

MoF 94.7% (Photo: ©Francis Ware)

Artist Tobias Rehberger is showing a "modular, easily assembled" sculpture called MoF 94.7% that visitors are invited to copy. After seeing the show, visitors can purchase a certificate which will render their replica-to-be an original artwork by Rehberger. If they send him a photo of their work, he will even add it into his own list of works and number it. The visitors' work technically becomes a real Rehberger is "worth at least a thousand times more on the art market" than it would be as their own. Posing interesting questions about the notion of the original in sculpture and the age of digital reproduction (in a museum where they are really fussy about photography), he likens his sculpture to a mother and the copies to children which will be genetically similar in terms of the idea but all different in their appearances.

Collective Furniture (Photo: Sylvain Deleu)

The work of designer Martino Gamper is interesting in the way that it reflects on the way we treat old things. In Geneva and Zürich, Gamper focussed on the "real needs of its employees and visitors", scouring the cities' junk yards and second-hand stores and then creating something new in an on-site workshop in an intense atmosphere that pushes him "towards work that is less conceptual and more driven by intuition and emotion." At Somerset house, he focussed on ideas about storage and collection, creating huge shelves and hybrid furniture creatures.

The MacGuffin Library (Photo: Gunnar Green)

Lastly, the initial exhibit in the Studio was Noam Toran's and Onkar Kular's MacGuffin Library, an intriguing laboratory of materialized narrative devices. Attributed to Hitchcock, MacGuffins are cinematic plot devices, usually an object, serving to keep the story in motion while lacking intrinsic importance in itself: "What everybody covets in the film and what drives the characters to move through space and time." The mysterious glowing suitcase from Pulp Fiction is a somewhat recent example.

Hitchcock's MacGuffin (Photo: Sylvain Deleu)

In the exhibition, the MacGuffin Library was presented as a lab-environment where objects are constantly being materialized using a 3D-printer and added to the collection on display. However, the narrative plots which they stem from are not necessarily cinematic. Apart from one nod to Hitchcock, they come "from a disparate range of interests and inspirations. Re-enactments, unorthodox fantasies, Borges and Carver short stories, forgeries, urban myths, high and low-brow cinema, alternative histories, and the relationship between media and memory."

Objects taken from Sixteen narratives, created in collaboration with American writer Keith Jones include the original MacGuffin (a lighter from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train), Hitler's tea pot from Buckingham palace in the time of the Anglo-Nazi Reich, custom engine parts engineered for the Enthusiasts' "civilian fantasy machines" and the carcass of a bald eagle from post-apocalypse America.

Civilian fantasy machine (Photo: Sylvain Deleu)

The MacGuffin Library takes its strength from the fact that a highly advanced fabricating technology as rapid prototyping, often regarded as the future of manufacturing, is being juxtaposed with the imaginary in the way that it gets to create objects from fiction. At the same time, this represents a very interesting approach to experimental storytelling, since in this case the fictional artifact is in a sense leapfrogging its usual role in theater and film and gets much closer to the audience who then takes it as a hook for their own imagination. Here, the objects make the story.

Wouldn't It be Nice continues through December 7th. Currently in the Studio space is Chosil Kil, upcoming artists will be Dexter Sinister, Åbake, Europa and Ryan Gander and Julia Lohmann.

There's quite a few things i miss about Belgium. On top of the list are: eating grey shrimps in Ostende (especially when the sky is grey and the sea even greyer) and the ridiculously small amount of time it takes to be out of the country. Last week i sat 2 hours in a train and i was in Paris. A few days before that i took another train and after 30 minutes and hop! i was in Maastricht, a city which has a very powerful magnet for me: NAI Maastricht , the little sister of Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.

The entrance of the exhibition, with the sculpture of Peter Sandbichler. Photo Guus van den Akker. Image courtesy NAI Maastricht

The ground floor of the institute was occupied by State Alpha, on the architecture of sleep, an exhibition that explored (it closed a couple of days ago) the theme of sleep as a psychological inner world, while drawing on such areas as film and product design to visualize the relation between architecture and that inner world.

That was a very satisfying exhibition. My mind kept feeling stimulated (not an easy task, believe me), the works selected were good, the archives fascinating, the information was shooting in all directions, the graphic design was stunning (congrats to Experimental Jetset) and there were beds all over the place to watch the videos and fall asleep on a quiet afternoon.

Different aspects of sleep were examined in six chapters.

An impression of the archive of NAI on the subject 'sleep'. Photo Guus van den Akker
Image courtesy NAI Maastricht

Phenomenology of Sleep is a collection of film fragments that show the rituals of falling asleep and getting up within their architectural context.

The Architecture of Sleep, a medical expression that describes the structure of the sleep process, gave the lowdown on the current state of sleep research. On the other had, the chapter Science of Sleep compared how other (pseudo-scientific) expertises such as Feng Shui deal with sleep and its spatial effect on how we organize our bedrooms.

People listen to the visions on 'the house in the dream' of Lacan-experts Walter Seitter and August Ruhs. Photo Moniek Wegdam. Image courtesy NAI Maastricht

Dream House investigates the dream house within the housing market but also the house as a symbol in the subconscious.

The fifth chapter, Economy of Sleep, focuses on the opposition between sleep as a gift and source of vitality and sleep as a product around which an enormous market has developed - beds, scents, masks, creams, herbs, therapies, medicines...

The final chapter, Sleep without Architects, presents several examples that escape the clutches of architecture. By highlighting the position of the homeless and other 'alternative' ways of sleeping, this chapter raises the discussion on the role of architecture and the way in which it organizes sleep. This is the chapter i'm going to focus on.

Parisian homeless (sans-abri), photographed by Bernhard Cella

Providing a shelter for sleep is far from being the exclusive domain of architects. Austrian photographer Bernhard Cella shows us the Parisian sans-abri as amateur architects who arrange their sleeping place and deliberately reckon with the look of passers-by.

In the gallery was a video of Roman Signer's 1992's Action, Garenne Lemot, Clisson. The artist installed a tent in the middle of the park of La Garenne Lemot and he slept every night there for a week. Inside the tent was a microphone connected via an amplifier to powerful loudspeakers hung on trees in the nearby woods. Because Signer snores, the sound of hi snoring was played in full blast (and only at night) in the surrounding landscape.


T.R.A.U.M., bedsculpture of Barbara Caveng, which can be used free of charge after advance reservation. Photo Mathias Schormann

Barbara Caveng left the T.R.A.U.M. ('dream' in german) foldaway bed right in front of the NAI for people to take a nap there any time they wanted. All you had to do was make a reservation if you needed it on a particular day or night. Unfortunately the bed was destroyed during a Summer night.

The piece of furniture was originally a wall bed that the artist found in a Berlin road tunnel in 2004 and modified several times. The most important aspect of this piece is not the beauty of this glass encased bed sculpture. What matters is the gesture that comes with it, it is a social sculpture with a practical and generous use.


In her video Research for Sleeping Positions, Anna Jermolaewa experiments with a variety of possible sleeping positions on a bench of the type of a growing number of public benches constructed so as to prevent people lying down or sleeping. The bench she chose is located at Vienna's Westbahnhof, the place where in 1989 Jermolaewa spent her first week as a refugee in the West. By designing public space furniture that discourage people from lingering there, city administration is also setting social mechanisms of exclusion.

The idea of a 'natural' nocturnal sleep is a naive one. Most cultures have adopted more than just night-time monophasic sleep. Think of the Mediterranean siesta, for example.


Japanologist Brigitte Steger researched a unique Japanese forn of multiphasic sleep that sees people responding to their need of sleep by taking a nap in full view of wakeful people and in public places. This peculiar behaviour is called Inemuri. Even in their sleep, people are supposed to behave according to rules of the social setting. The phenomenon makes it clear that sleep is organized more by social rules than by architectural measures.

The concept State Alpha, on the architecture of sleep has been developed by Liquid Frontiers. The exhibition design is by EventArchitectuur. The graphic design is by Experimental Jetset.

Here's a slideshow of the images from the exhibition:

State Alpha, on the architecture of sleep is the first in a diptych. The second part will open at the end of October under the title Changing Ideals.

Previously at the NAI Maastricht: Edible City Part 1 and part 2.

Related: Conflux - Vertical Bed, Urban furniture to accommodate the homeless.

A couple days ago, Eyebeam in New York City opened what by some has been called their best show so far. It is titled Untethered, and was curated by visiting fellow Sarah Cook to be "a sculpture garden of everyday objects deprogrammed of their original function, embedded with new intelligence and transformed into surrealist and surprising readymades". Many pieces are from Eyebeam's fellows, residents or affiliated artists while a few external people were invited to participate as well.

Dead Star

The show works well as the open-plan warehouse on Chelsea's 21st Street is being transformed in a wonderland of white plinths with obscure objects on them, many of which invite to be touched, looked at, and discussed about as in all cases, their traditional function has been tampered with in one way or the other.

In Sarah's words: "a show of objects that have been tinkered with, invented, and allowed to be "generative", that is, open to experimentation and other use. Untethered presents a deliberate reference to Jonathan Zittrain's notion of "tethered appliances", technologies, such as iPods, or that contain proprietary software and are tied to single uses or networks."

As the range of modifications is wide, here's a few examples and favorite pieces.

Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive

Joe Winter, an Eyebeam alumni, has created a beautiful solar system called Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive, which centers around a photocopier. The piece consists of the machine, sitting in a sort of cubicle and several robotic light sources, moving around it. The machine keeps making copies which somewhat resemble a photo of a night sky. For Joe, "the sculpture at once models the movements of distant bodies and presents itself as the the primary object of observation, creating a self-reflexive, self-imaging media production system". A very interesting take on science as narrative and it's dependency on the frameworks that the production of what we consider to be factual knowledge is happening in.

Kelly Dobson of MIT Media Lab is showing her responsive hacked technologies, including Blendie, Toastie and a vacuum cleaner, all of which are part of her Machine Therapy series. It's a well-known project, but it's still incredibly strong in the way that it establishes a link between an arbitrary appliance and its users (and their bodies). Plus the videos are too hilarious not to be watched again:


Germaine Koh from Vancouver presents a work from her from her Fair Weather Forces series. As Eyebeam is at the tip of 21st street and thus very to the Hudson River, she installed a sensor for the current water-level which is remotely linked to a velvet rope barrier in the gallery. As the water changes, the height of the barrier will almost unnoticeably change and act as an ambient display for the natural surroundings of the built environment. (Especially interesting to watch since there was flooding forecast on the night of the opening.)

Fair Weather Forces (water level)

Sascha Pohflepp's (disclosure: that's me) Buttons is a camera that, instead of taking a photo, takes a moment. It then connects to the web to find someone else's photo that happened to be taken in the very same instant and displays it. The project aims to comment on photography as an increasingly networked practice and uses our trail of data to to create a connection between two strangers on the basis that they did the same thing simultaneously: press a button.


A highlight for me was Michel de Broin's work. His piece Great Encounters consisting of two refrigerators, joined by a single piece of acrylic, results in "their solitudes uniting, through a canal connecting their inside worlds." His work questions the roles that we attribute to everyday objects and in doing so gives them sort of a new personality. The way in which that happens reminded me a lot of Roger Ibars' concise Self-Made Objects. Another piece from the same series, which kind of became the eye-catcher of Untethered, is his piece Dead Star-a sculpture made from household batteries. All at the end of their life-cycle and previously used in all kinds of appliances, they slowly drain until there is no more energy in them. Although not on show in New York, his Shared Propulsion Car from 2005, a pedal-powered car, is great as well.

Great Encounters

And there's more. Jessica Banks created an interesting table as part of her Cubed series which is levitating on a magnetic field, there's Thomson & Craighead's Unprepared Piano that plays random MIDI from the web (and has the Star Wars theme as its Hello World), Paul DeMarinis' hacked metronomes Hypnica, JooYoun Paekʼs bicycle disguise made of garbage bags, a chandelier by Ayah Bdeir and again Jessica Banks, Hans-Christoph Steiner's hacked PDA's, Max Dean's self-erasing clock and Nor_/d's reactive architecture-photos of all of which you can find here.

Show's up through October 25th in New York's Chelsea. For more information about the individual works, Eyebeam have also put interviews with all the artists online.

Related: Interview with Sarah Cook

The excuse for my visit to Paris was SmartCity, a conference organized in the frame of the festival Emergences. Emergences is an 'international festival of electronic cultures and new art forms'. However, one must accept that in a city like Paris the word 'international' doesn't necessarily that tacit rules will be respected and that the activities and conferences will be held in any other language than french. That's probably why i enjoyed the event so much. While both the issues discussed and the quality of the speakers invited to the panels were definitely of international relevance, the festival had a homely feeling with an audience ready to participate and dialog, un-refrained as they were by any lack of knowledge of the ubiquitous english.


The conference focused on urban activism and artistic interventions in public space, a theme which offered a splendid contrast with the venue of the conference: the very chichi Maison Internationale at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris.

Perfect venue to discuss alternative uses of urban space

There were some good moments but the one that got me glued to my seat, pen in the hand and eyes on the screen was the presentation of mOmentoMoNUMENTO, a joint project by Brazilian collective Coloco & French experimental architects of Exyzt whose pavilion at the Venice architecture biennale of 2006 i had enjoyed so much.

Exyzt's works engage mostly with temporary interventions, ephemeral constructions and the presence of diversity in urban space. They have recently joined forces with Coloco to submit to the institution Cultures France a project that will be part of the official programme of the French Year in Brazil (February-July 2009).

When located in urban centers, skeletons provide opportunities

The final project stems from a research started in 2001 by Coloco.
The Brazilian collective observed, analyzed and documented a phenomenon called 'skeleton dwellings': in big cities, groups of people decide to occupy then inhabit buildings which were left unfinished and abandoned because of economic crisis, ups and downs of the estate market, war, cataclysm, etc.

Result of the dead-end of the estate market

The desire of these people is to live in the center of the city, close to the services. They organize the general functioning of the building: bathroom and garden for the collectivity are installed, trash collection is organized, spaces on ground levels are reserved for the elderly, etc. Sometimes, the dwellers are kicked out of the building but in some cases, they manage to reach an agreement with city officials (conscious that the abandon of the center of a city for the suburbs is a growing problem) and their dwelling become permanent and 'legitimate'.

Coloco came to consider that these inhabited skeletons of buildings give way to an unexpected collaboration between the construction industry and invention prompted by necessity. This idea is at the origin of the skeleton dwellings: a safe and assembled structure is supplied to a group of inhabitants-builders. It can be improved according to the needs and resources of its occupants, who contribute their labor, advised by professionals.

Prestes Maia (Sao Paulo): This building has been abandoned 20 years ago. Its debt in taxes almost equals its value

The skeleton dwellings derive from a logic of opportunity, being easily inserted in dense urban areas and diversifying the supply of low-cost urban housing.

Building their dwellings, recycling these abandoned structures

Neighbours organize themselves informally

Prestes Maia (Sao Paulo): Each family lives in roughly 20 sqm

Gloria, Rio de Janeiro: Even after renovation, some facades can't hide their history

Meanwhile, Exyzt is also working on the rehabilitation of disused spaces and on alternative and cheap forms of dwellings.

A first project they presented is République Ephémère where 450 architectural students from Europe were given some rudimentary tools and materials to organize for 2 weeks their life as a big community in the enclosed space of the two wharehouses?

The challenge took the form of a one-to-one scale construction game that doubled as a laboratory of architectural and social research. The conceptor team built the main collective equipment (kitchen, washrooms, a hotel) beforehand. The rest would be a village autoconstructed and automanaged by its inhabitants.

Each student was untrusted with a survival kit, including a construction manual and security instructions, and a defined quantity of scaffolding and textiles. Geometrical problems could arise, as this amount of scaffolding, sufficient to build one cubic room could then be combined with others: for example, 2 kits put together could give rise to 3 dwellings.


The affinities and exchanges between the participants were gradually translated into architectural terms. More complex, personalized structures were developed over time. The implantation looked like a cross between an organic. medieval village and a refugee camp. It kept transforming itself, not only on the level of the individual sphere, but also on the level of the collective organization.

The second project Exyzt spotlighted was an intervention inside and outside of the Palast der Republik, a gigantic relic of the communist era, now demolished and about to be replaced by the (very tacky imho) reconstruction of its predecessor, the Berlin Stadtschloss.

Der Berg (image southwarklido)

Under the menace of a demolition act, Raumlabor, one of the most brilliant group on the German architecture scene, decided to occupy and open the monument to the public. They called Exyzt to give them a helping hand.

Der Berg (in german: the mountain) is an artificial mountain, a surrealist architectural performance built to react to the absurdity of making a tabula rasa of a part of Berlin's history in order to build the replica of a long disappeared building.

This collaboration resulted in a 20 meters high triangulated structure made out of scaffolding and fiber glass textile. The installation invaded the theater, while another team made it spread through the roof and onto the front porch of the building. Der Berg became a monument inside a monument.


After this introduction, Exyzt and Coloco focused on mOmentoMoNUMENTO, the project they are working on for the official programme of the French Year in Brazil (February-July 2009). The idea is to follow on the steps of the French tradition to 'offer' monuments to foreign countries (think of the Statue of Liberty). This monument, however, is already on site. Well, sort of. The architects have obtained the help of the city of Sao Paulo to spot one of the many skeletons that have been standing for years in the city center, waiting to be reconquered by Exyzt and Coloco.

Saõ Paulo: an apartment building for the wealthy overlooks a favela, ironically called Paraisópolis (Paradise city). Photo: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (bigger view)

The building they've set their sight on was built in 1965. It is the first building with a facade entirely made of glass. Occupied at some point by the federal police it has now been left to decay. The main problem the architect have to solve is that living inside the building is almost un-conceivable without air conditioning which has been dismantled in the meantime. The whole electrical setting has to be re-installed as well (especially if one wants to have access to the top floor by lift.)

The project responds to Sao Paulo government's desire to find new solutions that will inject life back into the center of the city: inhabitants have moved to the edge of the city, leaving many abandoned buildings and a thick infrastructure of roads behind them.

The building is left at the disposal of the architects for one year. If at the end of the project, the result is deemed good enough by the city, it could become a space left permanently occupied by cultural organizations, art galleries, artists residencies, etc.

Exyzt and Coloco want to make the rooftop (originally planned as a landing spot for helicopters) accessible to the public.

The project is currently self-funded. Any help and feedback would be most welcome.

Related: Global Cities, The Morrinho Project at the Venice Biennale and Juan Freire - From the Analogue Commons to the New Hybrid Public Spaces.

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