Approaching Rocinha

I fled New York, and now I live in Rocinha, Brazil, the biggest favela in Latin America. The other night as my friend showed me that an alley I always passed without a second glance led to my house, he said “E um laberinto” and laughed, repeating it, “Um laberinto.” Every path draws me deeper into the catacomb, the walls of the houses leaning in til you see only a jittery little strip of sky snarled in wires, and every window opens to another window, another wall. Impossibly narrow staircases climb every which way, in the minute gap between the exposed brick walls of neighboring buildings, or spiraling up through a ragged hole in the floor of the deck above. Trees grow out of barbershop walls, chains buried deep in their graying bark. Look down any street and you see a riot of textures, the bright peeling paint and green-veined stick-on marble and cobwebby concrete of dozens of kitchens and living rooms. Everything wreathed in the dense, sticky dust that I instinctively associate with the open sewer flowing in its little channel through the heart of my neighborhood. Steeply descending walkways take you past houses cluttered with birdcages and rusting bikes and through a tangle of sounds and smells. Alleys so narrow you have to turn sideways to get through open unexpectedly on tiny plazas where old guys eat blackish acai ice cream and play cards at chessboard tables, shoulder to shoulder with their stripped down motorcycles. Other common sights that bends in the road reveal: little packs of sleek dachshunds chasing each other, guys selling hot dogs (the Portuguese name is an exact translation) bedecked with quail eggs, mini French fries, and corn, parents barricading the street and dragging out an enormous trampoline (where do they store it?) for their kids, who bounce to obscene baile funk, kids fishing in the sewer canal, and everyone taking like ten minutes to get out of the way of a dairy products truck that is almost exactly as wide as the street. At one tortuous twist in the street that cuts a jagged line across the whole neighborhood, a square concrete framework, the remains of a collapsed house, frame a postcard panorama: the glittering hotels and beaches of Ipanema, and the Christ statue rising out of the dense greenery on its silvery peak. Only then do I realize how high we are above the city and how steep the hill is, how stubbornly the houses have to hang on to their stone slopes to keep from sliding into the jungle.


Architectural Acromegaly

"In the tradition of his forebears, he encased the old temple in the new, shaping the imagery of the new temple into a unique and spectacular expression both of cosmic order and of the sanctions that bound the fate of the community to that of the king. Through this building and the otherworld portal it housed at the junction of its dark corridors, Yax-Pac began his lifelong effort to ward off the impending disaster that hung over the valley."

-A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, Linda Schele & David Friedel

Whether or not it is fit to fill this role, people often turn to architecture for reassurance. This reassurance can take two forms, the first of which flows naturally from the essence of the medium: stillness. By virtue of its weight, solidity, and tendency to stay put (under non-explosive circumstances), a building is a natural emotional anchor in times of frightening change. Just as important as the musical element in Goethe’s quote is the comforting immobility of the built environment. Architecture’s permanence, in addition to isolating the fleeting beauty of music for prolonged delectation, steadies people overwhelmed by turmoil. It will stand unchanged from one year to the next, as chaos swirls around it. Architectural preservation movements demonstrate this conservative attachment to buildings.

But this reassuring consistency can turn to mockery when the crisis becomes too dire, and life continually changes for the worse.

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Wavering Between Hysteria and Repression

On most days, the division between well-adjusted norms and conspiracy theorists is pretty clear. The normals don’t dwell on the North American Union or the eerie “face” formed by craters on Mars. Whether or not they accept the official explanations, they don’t devote much time to the unexplained. Their obsessive counterparts huddle in Lone Gunmen-style hideouts, rewatching Zeitgeist (don’t click that link unless you have an hour and lot of credulity to spare) and commenting on the Vigilant Citizen's latest Rihanna/Freemason expose (definitely click that one!). Being a lot closer to the latter type than the former, I am pleased when things happen that are too weird for even the norms to ignore. The thousands of dead blackbirds that rained down on Arkansas this week were mysterious enough to get sensible people wondering, however briefly, whether the world they inhabit is not merely a shimmering facade, behind which invisible forces move and collide.

Animals—or unexpected objects—have fallen from the sky at various times throughout history. Rains of fish, frogs, and birds have been reported periodically over the past few centuries. The animals are often alive, although some freeze to death while they’re up in the air. These showers understandably shock those who experience them, especially in the terrifying case of a rain of spiders in Argentina, in 2007, or the "tangled clumps of worms" that fell the same year in Louisiana. This has never been satisfactorily explained, although in most cases it seems to be a weather phenomenon: violent winds or waterstorms pick up the unfortunate animals and dump them elsewhere. In the case of the spider rain, most people hypothesized that a tornado dropped the creatures. This does not explain why large groups of a single type of animal are dropped though, without any plant matter or debris. In 1876, residents of Kentucky reported that large pieces of beef fell from a perfectly clear sky.

The latest instance of this phenomenon is undeniably ominous: the birds blackened the ground at midnight on New Year’s Eve, on the brink of a new decade. The corpses show no sign of disease, but had suffered internal bleeding, which could have been caused by loud noises from pyrotechnics or hitting something hard. The incident occurred in the middle of the night, but blackbirds normally fly only by day. A few days before, 85,000 fish were found dead in the Arkansas river. Even stranger, a second, smaller rain of dead birds fell in Louisiana yesterday. They showed no signs of damage, and included starlings as well as blackbirds.

Most people will surely accept that the birds were disoriented by fireworks and died when they hit the ground. I doubt that even Reverend Fred Phelps himself really believes, as he claimed, that Arkansas gays are responsible for this evil omen. But I hope that a few people will be so shaken by the surreal sight of dead birds falling from the sky that they understand the deep suspicion and awe of the visible world that i feel every day.

An extremely suspicious story is circulating that a movie studio orchestrated the macabre precipitation to promote a remake of The Birds, but the planes dropped the birds over Arkansas instead of California. This sounds totally phony: the movie doesn’t come out until 2013, and that’s probably illegal, and it doesn’t even make sense to use dead birds to promote a movie about live, homicidal birds. It makes even less sense, though, to take credit for a failed prank you didn’t really pull. Maybe the movie exec is so afraid of the unknown that he would rather offer an absurd explanation than face the mystery and spiral into a netherworld of cattle mutilation and numerology.

More Decadent Frivolity from the UAE

As if Saadiyat Island weren’t enough, the United Arab Emirates have another island of cultural extravagance in the works: Isla Moda, a fashion wonderland off the coast of Dubai, will boast couture boutiques, private fashion shows, and those staples of overblown development projects, luxury hotels and villas. Which will surely fill up as fast as the office space in the Burj Khalifa. Karl Lagerfeld was all set to design the manmade island, but something tipped him off to the surprising fact that this may not be the best time for a project devoted to unbridled consumption. Huh. It probably would have sunk back into the sea as soon as they finished it anyway.

Regardless of the idiocy of “Isla Moda,” the renderings are pretty great. I think at this point, announcements of new projects in Dubai are just an in-joke. No one actually entertained the notion of building this Jurassic Park geode-mall, did they?

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Dubai-ing Mecca

"To lose all that is familiar-the destruction of one’s the threat of a loss to one’s collective identity."

-Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory

No city is safe from the scourge of sensational pastiche and grimly uniform luxury towers, even the sacred center of Islam. According to the New York Times, The Saudi government has begun an ambitious plan to redevelop Mecca along the lines of hedonistic Gulf fantasies like Dubai. The centerpiece of the project, bizarrely enough, is a towering replica of Big Ben near the Grand Mosque, capped by a crescent spire, and housing the requisite mall and hotel. The Mosque itself is slated for expansion as well. The government claims that new construction is necessary to accommodate the three million who make the pilgrimage every year, but the profit motive is barely disguised.

The clock tower under construction

An opportunistically fundamental interpretation of Islam sanctions the destruction of historic areas to clear space for highrises. Historical events after the time of Muhammad are seen as corrupt, so there’s no taboo on bulldozing remnants of the city’s past. Of courses, what springs up in their place will hardly be admirable from a Muslim standpoint either; catering to the super-rich contradicts the Islamic ideal of egalitarianism. The planned apartment towers threaten the Grand Mosque visually and socially. The buildings will block views of surrounding mountains, many of which are also sacred sites, as well as encouraging wealthy visitors to isolate themselves from the crowds below. Ostentatious luxury and class striation mock the concept of the hajj as a time set apart from worldly concerns. And, as in so many cities, gentrification will drive working class locals out of the center.

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Judd not, lest ye be Judd

I never gave much thought to minimalism until this year. My art history education went straight from Pollock to identity-politics postmodernism, and I had no point of reference for the movement. If someone had asked what I thought of minimalism, I probably would have replied that I hated it, as the word brought to mind monochromatic canvases and white blocks indistinguishable from the plinths that hold what I considered “real” art. I assumed it was all about rules, austerity, and high-minded ideology. In short, I stereotyped minimalism as anti-fun and grueling to view.

As is probably obvious, I was very narrow minded about art for a long time. This was mostly due to stubborn traditionalism—painting was art, installation was a bunch of crap in a room—but some of my naïve irritation was justified. I still don’t understand the audacity it takes to declare a canvas painted flat white a finished work of art, and most of the work I see in galleries enrages me with its heavy-handed gaucherie. However! Thanks to the insistence of a dear friend, and a drive through west Texas, I discovered an abiding love for minimalism and, consequently, a more optimistic view of art in general. 

A few weeks ago my friend convinced me that a visit to the Dia Foundation in upstate New York was worth the exorbitant price of a train ticket, and we set out into the bucolic Hudson Valley. I had seen a show of California minimalist art in Chelsea a few months before, and I expected to have a similarly spa-like experience at Dia: relaxing lights, saturated colors, and comfortingly simple forms. Our day trip to Dia left me not soothed but exultant and energized. There are many wonderful pieces there: Michael Heizer’s dizzying bottomless pits, On Kawara’s hypnotic date paintings, and Imi Knoebel’s mysterious, inviting studio.

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Rest in peace, Harvey

This isn’t related to architecture, but I wrote a piece for The Millions on Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer and subject of the film American Splendor (perhaps the best movie adapted from a graphic novel). He died two weeks ago.

Construction Paper and Gelatin

My friend sent me these photos of topographical maps that her sixth graders made. They depict the ancient cities of Baghdad, Turfan, Samarkand, and Xi’an, although I’m not sure which is which. The red line represents the Silk Road. I don’t have much to add here, except that I think these are really cool.

See more!

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An Ancient Mystery Solved

How did they do it?

Without the mighty efforts and bitter tears of the Israelites, it’s hard to imagine how an ancient society could move and shape massive stones into enduring monuments. Stonehenge is one of the most puzzling ancient sites: theories about its construction range from the mythic (Merlin asked a giant to transport it from Ireland (leaving the question open as to how it was built in Ireland); the devil did it), to the extraterrestrial (perhaps the same aliens responsible for the Great Pyramids and the Anasazi lines), to the natural (glaciers!), but all agree that tremendous man-power would be needed to recreate the process without mechanical aid; the stones themselves came from Wales, so they were transported a great distance as well as upended and arranged. Wally Wallington, a Michigan construction worker, claims to have figured out how the feat was executed, and is building a Stonehenge-like site to prove it.

Watch how he did it.

I find this endeavor quite endearing.

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Architectural Communication Across Millennia

I took a sculpture class once devoted to scale, and one of our assignments was to build a model of a monument. The monument I designed, and built out of wire and mud, was the wreckage of a twentieth-century power plant half interred in a barren mesa; it was supposed to be a wordless warning to future civilizations to avoid the environmental hubris of our civilization. It was also an excuse to work with mud, one of my favorite mediums. I was partly inspired by this image, although it did not actually function as a warning in the film; I assume the apes were impervious to the pathos of the scene.

The appeal of ruins is a subject that has been fully appreciated and explored elsewhere, but their ability to communicate highly specific messages, rather than just the inevitable downfall of decadence and the eroding effects of the sands of time, deserves further investigation. Most ruins provide a picturesque memento mori, a reminder that something went terribly wrong, but using ruins to determine what the ancient disaster entailed is more complex.

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Qatar’s Cactus Building

While most of the high-profile architectural innovation in the Gulf is derided for its wasteful luxury (Versace-funded air conditioned beaches, indoor mountains), the region’s desire for novelty and willingness to experiment could prove an incubator for progressive design. Moreover, the Gulf cities are more open to imagination and fantasy than more conventional urban areas. Although so far most of the showpiece buildings in Qatar and the Emirates are little more than hulking trophies, the quest for spectacle engenders an interest in buildings that do something, as opposed to sitting there declaring the city’s extravagance. Buildings like the rotating skyscraper do a lot more to change our idea of what a building can be than whatever deconstructionist pile of blocks Frank Gehry is computer-modeling right now.

This interest in dynamic architecture could potentially make the Gulf a pioneer in green design. Ideas that are normally confined to Eugene Tsui's drawing board have a chance there, and ecological design is certainly not opposed to spectacle; I think the two could have a powerful symbiotic relationship.

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Abu Dhabi Defies Parody

In a development almost too delightful for words, Abu Dhabi has reinforced its commitment to luxurious absurdity with gold-dispensing ATM machines.

Laughing in the face of world-wide recession, and specifically neighboring Dubai’s hubris-driven financial ruin, the Emirate now boasts Gold to Go ("The Gold ATM") kiosks in the lobby of the Emirates Palace Hotel. The ATM monitors the price of gold and offers plutocrats their choice of bars or coins, each packaged in a black velvet gift box.

I just discovered this video by Rob Carter, in which architectural fragments of Gothic churches sidle up to Corbu’s buildings, and spread over them like creeping vines. I’m not quite sure what the filmmaker’s point is—he’s just pasting flat images over the original buildings, so his technique is more like trompe l’oeil wallpaper then reconstruction. It’s a charming animation though, and the sound effects are particularly cute. I found it through entschwindet und vergeht, the surliest, and thus best, architecture blog I know.

Internet Colossi

One of the strange aspects of the internet’s ever-growing presence in our lives is the way we carve trails into the online landscape. Visiting the same sites regularly mimics the feeling of a neighborhood; a group of familiar spaces whose imagined proximity increases through frequency of visits. Many functional sites recreate features of a neighborhood, like banks and stores, while others provide the security of being close to home. Wikipedia’s list of the world’s tallest statues is, if I can stretch this analogy a little further, equivalent to the corner bodega in my online geography, while their colossal statues list is the liquor store down the street. I certainly spend more time at these pages than I do at C-Town Town, my local supermarket.

I return to these lists partly to discover strange monuments that I hope to visit someday. New Yorkers may be dismayed to learn that, when it comes to female colossi, the Statue of Liberty is comparatively puny. The amazonian Mother Motherland is nearly twice Liberty’s height.

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Anish Kapoor at the Guggenheim

The sculptural qualities of light have been explored in depth by contemporary art. Illumination is a cornerstone of minimalism, and artists like James Turrell and Anthony McCall create beautiful, architectural pieces using only light. Darkness has yet to be the subject of so thorough an investigation. Anish Kapoor’s installation at the Guggenheim, Memory, demonstrates that it can carry as much structural and emotional force as its opposite.

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