Monday, July 16, 2012

Liquid Modernities: On Kim Anno Water City, Durban 2012, Goethe Institute

Photograph #1: A suit-clad young man stares at the camera, his back turned on the ocean, the water, timeless, boundless, unidentifiable. The viewer knows that the invisible city behind the beach is Durban, but she can’t see it. “Watching,” 2012.
Photograph #2: The frame captures the profiles of two suit-clad young men staring towards the ocean, facing the water, timeless, boundless, unidentifiable. This time, the city has entered the frame, the backs of the two men turned against the urban landscape of Durban. “Two Men Facing East,” 2012.
Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity alerts us to the frantic rhythms of the present, the modern solids that have now turned into liquids, moving freely and formlessly from one vessel to another (Polity, 2000). What happens, however, when liquidity stops being a metaphor and becomes a natural threat? What happens when an exhausted, abused and overstretched modernity melts nature’s solids into water? Water Cities happen. Liquid modernity is the projected, almost apocalyptic future of a failed modernity.
 When Bauman described deterritorialization and the dissolution of boundaries brought forth by modernity in its late, liquid form, the borders he had in mind were not coastal ones. However, the young “actors” –as the artist calls them– in Kim Anno’s work are faced with the very real watershed of Bauman’s liquid modernity: a menacing, mobile, watery border, anticipated in the form of a natural disaster –discursive, and at the same time, potentially factual.
Similarly, the young actors in the two photographs described above gaze either towards, or against the liquid future ahead of them and, respectively, the present and past of their lives in the cities they live in. But Kim Anno’s work challenges precisely this other invisible border marked by the opposite directions of the two men’s gaze: the border between future and past, between the event and the mundane, between disaster and the everyday, between, even, the liquid and the urban, water and earth.   
So how do we imagine Water Cities? What will, if, everyday life be like? Together with the young actors she captured with her camera, Kim Anno devised a new beach game, a water sport: one ball, a few bodies and water. Water, the quintessence of the everyday in the port cities faced with the threat of sea level rise, acquires a peculiar quality: it embodies the looming anticipation of disaster, the potentiality of another everyday, dystopic, bleak and excessively liquid. Yet the photographs and videos maintain an uncannily peaceful and mundane leisurely quality. To paraphrase the artist herself: “Even in the eve of disaster we remain humans, we need to play, to move on.” In “Donna,” 2012, a young actress, is flipping through the magazine “artsouthafrica” while floating on water; in “Bed,” 2012, we see a liquid still life, once again blurring the boundaries between the future and the past, the everyday and the eventful. A floating mattress, a dress on top, a cushion, a necklace.
The actors wear suits, ambiguously corporate and businesslike as if to mirror the failed modernity that induced the natural disaster of sea level rise. Yet, the suits are further evidence of the quality of the everyday that Kim Anno tries to capture with her art: life goes on, the young actors in Water Cities still have to go to work after the event, while engaging in some play in between. “Who is it that will be affected” (by the disaster?), asks Kim Anno.
“Hidden” somewhere in the photographs and installation, lies a commentary on the role of the nation state in handling natural disaster. Or, rather, the failure, as the artist believes, of the nation state in preventing climate change or managing a disaster partly caused by its politics. “Raising no man’s flag,” 2012, in the water, the newly acquired (or lost, depending on one’s respective) territory of the Water City. No man’s flags, artificial ironic symbols of non-nations that point to a fellow viewer’s observation, the fact that is, “… that it is because of the environment, rather than human matters that we need to think beyond the nation state.”  
Installation #1: A projection of young actors, suit clad, playing the new water sport of the Water City. The value of leisure. At the front, a floating paper city, alluding to the moment of its transformation into a Water City. As if the wave washed away the artifacts of the everyday: buildings, a car, a chair, a lighthouse, a ball. Is it the same ball they used for their game? “Water City, Durban,” 2012.
Alexios Tsigkas

Architectural confrontations with landscape

Belmont House with tropical planting invading doorways at garden level
JWTC interviews Joshua Comaroff, architect and critic, director of lekkerdesign, Singapore. http://www.lekkerdesign.com/

What relation, if any, do you see between architecture and the domains of nature?

This relationship is complex, historically contingent, and--at least in the past hundred and fifty years--a space of anxious renegotiation. In our essay on Insurgent Natures, Shing and I have suggested that the vegetal has always presented a kind of useful threat to the hygienic self-image of architecture, to its rectitudes and its conceit of being "autonomous" with respect to the world. In fact, a kind of scandalous back-alley conversation has been taking place, in buildings where the natural has provided a kind of liberating, corporealizing spirit. We see this in works linking Giulio Romano to Bernard Maybeck, to Schindler and Wright. It is thus very amusing to us that "green" architecture is now sold as something new, an invention that might be attributed to the likes of Norman Foster and Ken Yeang.

In some of the most interesting architectures--and even in some of the most modern--we have seen how natures serve to open up the boundaries of architectural possibilities. This was certainly the case, for example, in the masques of Stuart England. We trace the same line of thought to the Palazzo del Te, to the Miami hotels of Morris Lapidus, to the Trevi Fountain or the grotto at the Playboy Mansion (which follows a very similar cultural logic).

Since Modernism, the conceit of architecture is that it is drawing ever closer to the domains of the natural. Or at least, that a certain transparency--both "literal and phenomenal," as Colin Rowe put it--allows the outside to approach the quotidian of modern life. However machine-like its image, the modern building always seems to draw on the natural as mirror or necessary foil. This is why, perhaps, so many of the most iconic avant-garde buildings have been figured in a field or clearing (The Villa Savoye, the Farnsworth House, etc) and not in an urban context. This "drawing near" seems ambivalent to us, at once making nature visible and keeping it at bay. This is particularly relevant in an age where the "markets of nature" seem to propose, ingenuously or otherwise, that architecture begin to naturalize itself.

To what extent have 'markets of nature' transformed the fields of architecture and design in a place such as Singapore?

These markets of nature have transformed the production of architecture in Singapore, certainly. What is interesting is how uninterestingly they have done so. During a very brief period, the codification of "sustainable" design has led to an ossification of exciting potentials in the relationship between architecture and the natural. Facile "solutions" have transformed the contemporary building from a wildly destructive, anti-natural force to a mildly destructive, anti-natural force.

What is yet more distressing, for us, is that public expectations of "green" architecture have been even less imaginative, more fearlessly literal than even those of technocrats and developers. It is enough, in most cases, that a building look green--never mind the fact that some of the most environmentally advanced buildings are not festooned with vines to prove their good intentions. The expense of money and of energy to grow trees and shrubs precisely where they do not thrive--blown to pieces on roof decks and "sky gardens," for example--shows very clearly the performative nature required by the market of new solutions. The resulting "integration" of landscape and building is, in every sense, superficial: plants are added around the building's surfaces, where they are most conspicuous. And in many cases, this is enough.

While some improvement is better than none, this remains disappointing for those who saw in the rise of the environmental challenge an impetus to new accommodations between buildings and landscape. This would include ways in which, for example, energy-efficiency might force forms and functions to reinvent themselves. In the case of greenery, it might allow a less comfortable, less distanced role of natural elements within the building, in which softscape would be allowed to re-occupy the very centre of the architectural object.

That is, the spectre of an ecological crisis might have served to force a kind of anxious reconciliation between natures and architectures, one more productive of new objects and ideas.

Is the idea of 'natural architecture' an entirely crazy idea?
House design with earth mounds at center, spliting house into four
The idea of natural architecture is crazy, yes. But it is currently a very popular form of madness, a kind of mass hysteria among designers. It is quite common, for example, to hear about buildings that claim to be "bio-mimetic," or "self-replicating," whatever this might mean.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these architectures of the "natural" have tended to rely heavily upon digital means of production--scripts, codes, three-dimensional modeling and visualization technologies. So-called "parametric design", in which software generates proto-natural assemblages of units, is only possible in light of recent breakthroughs in processing and design applications. In this way, the free-form character of the organic seems to recognize itself in the euphoric visions of the internet age. The resulting buildings seem to embody a certain neo-liberal social vision: a market of parts; quasi-independent; related without congealing into something so dull as society. Some of these architectures are startlingly complex, alarming, or beautiful. But they are rarely meaningful. At the end of the day, their "point" is a rejection of architecture. They are the latest in a long series of architectural "naturalisms" that gleefully reject authorship or intention.

For precisely this reason, the notion of "natural architecture" is not very desirable for us. It is precisely the conceptual problems of the building, its overtly human articulations and ambiguities, that are of interest. And the confrontation with landscape--which has, in many ways, a very different set of rules and environmental and aesthetic considerations--is compelling precisely in that the latter throws architectural conventions into sort of heightened relief.

In this confrontation between architecture and nature we prefer a middle ground, which stands somewhere between the two extremes mentioned above. It is neither the superficiality of plants hung from a facade--as in, say, Jean Nouvel's Musee Quai Branly--or in the total collapse of architecture into the bio-mimetic. It would seem more interesting to play the rules of and hierarchies of the buildings against the rather different expectations of the designed landscape. This was the case with our Stain House, where the action of weathering over time became the source of a new ornamental vocabulary. Or in a recent design for a mosque, where the envelope of the prayer hall was as much a grove of trees as a building in any conventional sense. This was a kind of archi-natural ruin, but one in which the fragments were allowed meaning and dignity as human products.  

To many a critic, the futures of nature will depend on the outcomes of the on-going struggles around what constitutes the "artificial" and what distinguishes the "artificial" from its opposite...

In Singapore, we do not see a "struggle," so much as an eclipse or reordering, in ecological or biological terms, of the artificial and its opposite.

For example: it is a peculiarity of Singaporean natures that the fake often precedes the real. How does this happen? Possibly like this: an infrastructural canal is excavated to relieve the flooding of a new neighborhood. The canal serves an urban area, and the latter likely suffers the hydrological problems that attend large impervious surfaces, compacted soils, and so forth. Some time later, well-intentioned greenies will militate--with absolutely no reflection or irony--for the removal of the concrete surfaces, for the planting of ecotopic species, and for the "naturalization" of the drain's relationship to tide and ground water. The authentic drain becomes a fake river. It joins the natural environment, via a procedure that recalls Maurice Sendak.

Many of the island's other ecological aspects follow a similar logic. Artificially introduced species join the ecosystem, and begin to play roles within it (good or bad). New coastline is "reclaimed," and offers a substrate for natural systems. A myriad of experimental ecologies emerge, half accidentally--while some fail utterly, others become the basis for new natural accommodations.

Stain house, Singapore
The radically anthropogenic character of the Singaporean landscape, the monstrous legacy of its colonial (mis)management, has rendered the restitution of the "natural"--the non-artificial--virtually impossible. For a "native" ecosystem to be restored, in most cases, it would need to still exist; the contemporary Singaporean environment would have to be largely destroyed, in order to foster the fraught re-instatement of species that were extirpated in the mid-19th century. Paradoxically, the destruction of the artificial would require an almost total ecocide, in all but a few of the island's most recessive enclaves.

For this reason, the equatorial city has been proposed--for example, by Richard Corlett--as a site where new ecosystems must be imagined, curated, cultivated. As landscape designers, we have ourselves been forced to reject the distinction between the genuine and the artificial. It is not that such a distinction does not exist, nor that it is unmeaningful. It is, however, unhelpful in Asian contexts where the genuine and the artificial are so promiscuous, so inter-digitated, as to become the progenitors of new synthetic entities. Singapore is florid with a kind of third being, a hybrid condition that spans human and natural, artifice and authenticity.

Its products are "nurtural"--for the lack of a more elegant term. These rely in large part on the workings of the non-human, and, at the same time, upon their continued cultivation by people. Some very quickly achieve self-reliance. Others are "sustainable" only in that they need to be sustained, or can be sustained, by us. However, what such phenomena have in common is their intricate admixtures of biological performance and the intentionalities of design.

Whatever it may be, the future of nature has limited place for the genuine. For those of us who are sentimental lovers of nature, however, it may be a comfort that the artificial seems to be a similarly endangered species.