Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Architecture of Fear at the CCA


I'm extremely pleased to say that a very small portion of the work on this website was selected as part of the current exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The exhibit is called "The Good Cause; Architecture of Peace" and runs until Sept 04, 2011.

If you happen to be in town of feel like a road trip, please check it out and let us know how it looks. Above is a great photo of the legendary Phyllis Lambert taking a look at some of our work with co-curator Lilet Breddels of ARCHIS.

Also check out the great website for The Architecture of Peace.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Architecture of Fear in PLAN Magazine



Check out the March 2010 issue of PLAN magazine. It features an article on architecture and bloggers called "Meet Joe (and Josie) Blog" and profiles those behind A Daily Dose of Architecture, We Make Money not Art, BLDG BLOG and Archi-Ninja (see cover) as well as The Architecture of Fear. It's flattering to be mentioned in the same company as they are all great blogs.

Its interesting to hear the different opinions on the relevance and roles of blogs in architecture as each comes from a unique angle.

Stay tuned for new posts in the coming days.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Architecture of Authority




Recently I came across a visually interesting book by Richard Ross called the “Architecture of Authority”. The book is a dramatic collection of photographs chronicling architectural space of authority. The images include a classroom, prison cells, incredibly rare photographs of interrogation rooms and classified interior photos of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. If left to dwell on the images one gets shivers contemplating their purpose and effects on the mind and body. To use a cliché, these images are hauntingly beautiful in their own right.


















In the forward by John R. MacArthur he finds himself “struggling to evaluate the harsh political meaning versus the gentler artistic content” p7. While indeed the images in this book are all loaded with political meaning which cannot be wholly separated, it is the gentler, artistic aspect which intrigues me. What MacArthur confirms is that in part, the fear of these spaces is subverted by celebrating or at least examining them in an aesthetic or artistic way. Richard Ross himself explains that even when photographing in extremely sensitive locations like Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib in Iraq that “most people were disarmed by my interest in photographing the architecture rather than people. They felt this was more benign” p143.

This begs the question then that if while looking at these striking photographs we are in some way removed from the purpose and fear of these spaces, is there some way to achieve this in the real world? Can we subvert architecture of authority, of fear by changing our perceptions? It’s much easier said than done granted, a change in ones perception usually occurs as the result or in response to something rather than at ones whim. I will do well if ever detained to appreciate the zero detail work of the interrogation room I am locked in while awaiting a good cop, bad cop grilling.

I suppose what I am really thinking is what if you were to take an image of one of the isolation “rubber rooms” and tell people that this is your new gallery space? Better yet what if you were to actually build it and do that? I know I’ve heard the term “prison chic” from somewhere before.

But in all seriousness if one were to actually look at the elements of these images that give them their zen like effect I would have to say that it’s the resounding consistency of a feeling of order and in a lot of cases this is also derived from an incredible austerity. MacArthur writes about fitting into a system as a theme. This is evident with the first image of the circle on the floor of a Montessori school and in the photos of the Central London Mosque or the barracks at a Marine Corps Depot. What strikes me in all these rigid and controlled environments is the lack of distraction. In all of these cases its purpose is to foster some form of obedience. In even more extreme examples, waiting rooms, interrogation rooms, and segregation cells, I assume the complete lack of detail or interest is deliberate method of fostering fear. MacArthur notes that “what’s visually absent is likely to be filled in by the viewer” p10. Now in this instance he is referring to those of us looking at the book but I don’t think it’s a far stretch from what might happen to those unlucky enough to find themselves actually in these spaces. Does the elimination of distraction eliminate the ability of the mind to think or does it create a blank canvas for the imagination?

This makes me think about hyper detail. In an all white room with no detail, no distinguishing features of any kind I wonder if the mind would just zoom up the scale and start to pick apart even the smallest bumps in the paint, or the cracks in the wall? Imagine that you were designing on a level so minute with the aim of manipulating the users. Even if the only distinguishing feature is an uneven tile pattern, the most untrained eye will still notice given enough time alone in that room. Now this sounds completely diabolical, but what if it were just another level of design in someone’s house? I’m curious about the non-militaristic applications of this, if there are any.








Another thing MacArthur mentions that makes me think is his separation of images as “frightening and sinister” or “elegant and inspiring”. While none of the photographs in the book show any actual people in them, the difference is that the “elegant and inspiring” images have cues to the inclusion of an audience or witness. He includes the UN Security Council and a Santa Monica courthouse as inspiring. In both these cases the inclusion of a witness or committee equals fairness. It is the isolation and the vulnerability that it implies that is truly frightening.

Ross’ book is a fantastic window into many places we have heard of but never seen. His presentation of the spaces on their own without the influence of people allows for a deeper reading of just what they are or what they could be. If you can take a look at it and stare at the photographs on the page, let your imagination wander and hope that don’t ever find yourself there.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rattling the Gates - Full Post

I thought I’d take a moment to post the full version of the VOLUME article from the spring, complete with full images. It appeared originally in VOLUME #15 and was edited by Lilet Breddels.


Rattling the gates; A guide through Secure Zones in Kabul

"Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to Afghanistan. Canadians in this country should leave."
www.voyage.gc.ca, official Canadian Foreign Affairs website.

Despite receiving the usual concern from family and friends, ‘Isn’t that a bad idea? Don’t people get killed there all the time? Isn’t the situation unstable?’ and so on, I joined the RSVP trip to Kabul. To be perfectly honest, while the initial culture shock and visible poverty take a little getting used to, I was not uncomfortable, least of all afraid during my week there, except for a few hours one afternoon.

On the second to last day we met Anne Feenstra, a Dutch architect with a busy practice in Kabul. Anne had immersed himself in the ways of the city and the country at large. Among his many interests and concerns in Kabul was the prevalence of ‘security’ and the way it had destroyed Kabul’s public realm piece by piece. It turns out that Mr. Feenstra takes it personally when organizations set up their walls with blatant disregard for those around them, a practice taken very much for granted - so much so that most of the embassies and missions have completely ignored a decree straight from President Karzai to remove them.

Over lunch Anne showed us the impressive collection of security badges he had accumulated during his time in Kabul. I found one particularly interesting; out of frustration Anne and his office (AFIR) had created their own security badges to combat useless and meaningless checkpoints. The tag was an AFIR badge identifying himself as an employee of AFIR and stating that he had clearance to enter any secured area and had access to all information. ‘You wouldn’t believe how often this works,’ he told us.

Our plan was to pick a few areas in the city secured by various check-points and essentially off limits to the public and see how far we could get as a group of eight or nine with his security badges. Along the way we witnessed the extent of the city which had been cordoned off as property adjacent to embassies or government offices and see first hand the often arbitrary and sometimes useless screening process at these checkpoints. My father had always told me that if you act like you belong somewhere you usually won’t be bothered. I had a feeling we were about to put this to the test in the most extreme way.








Our first stop was an area of the city known as Wazir Akbar Khan, an area home to quite a few embassies. Not surprisingly the US embassy is the largest and most heavily secured not just in that area but in all of Kabul. Our initial point of entry was a gated check point along a road which led to the Canadian, Pakistani, Finnish, South Korean, British and Japanese embassies. We were stopped at the gate by Afghan guards who demanded our papers. To make our way into a secure zone we had to clear three gates through which we were funneled by huge concrete pylons blocking the rest of the road. Three or four armed men in military uniform congregated by the first gate. This was a common sight in Kabul. We had been continuously filming from the van, carefully excepting secure areas and gated checkpoints. This became a little difficult to do now on a tour of secure areas and gated checkpoints.

Once through the first set of gates, we were stopped at two more checkpoints in succession before finally entering a zone of eerie calm. A wide, empty street with a group of armored embassy SUVs were parked at one end; there was little sign of people. We drove the van up to the gates of the Canadian embassy, got out and started wandering
around. Although we had easily passed through, walking around this empty street was quite unsettling. Even as the only westerner I felt more comfortable walking through a busy street market than there. Standing in a canyon of reinforced concrete walls while having every move presumably watched really made me aware of my strategic disadvantage. During the entire excursion I felt pressure to leave, immediately.

Ironically, of all the places we visited I was unable to get into the one to which I was legitimately entitled; the Canadian embassy was closed for the weekend. I’d have to come back tomorrow, I was told by the guard. I returned to the group who were now talking to two young Afghan boys on bicycles adorned with Canadian flags. How they managed to be there I have no idea but they were the only other human beings in this deserted street and seemed as though they often were. They tried selling us maps and books and told us how much they liked Canadians (most likely because they sensed a sale). They were curious about our presence as we didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. Given that we were in a secured area and wandering around with our cameras out it was kind of funny that the most attention we received was from these two 10-year-old boys.




After making a right and being denied at the Japanese embassy, we ran into a middle-aged Canadian (with a Canadian flag tattooed on his arm). He was kind enough to stop and talk to us although when I asked if he could let me inside the embassy he told me he was the only one there. I thought this a strange admission to make given the paranoia about security. After my suggestion to storm the Canadian embassy was quickly turned down by the rest of group, we moved down the road to another checkpoint. We noticed a sign advertising a restaurant on the block which no doubt was there before the area was cordoned off by makeshift concrete walls and nervous guards. I wondered if the restaurant was still open and what other businesses and families had been forced to close or relocate. This was something that would come up again in our tour that day.

The next gate was the first check point for the South Korean and Finnish embassies. This time on foot, we were forced to wait a little longer before they accepted
Anne’s UN credentials. We were led through a single gate flanked by concrete walls into a much narrower street. Other than the occasional government employee in business dress walking past us to the gate, it was deserted. This street also felt different. Because the street was narrower you could tell that many of the walls facing the street were not original to the compounds as at the Canadian or Japanese embassies but had been added after the South Koreans moved in. Also evident were crow’s nests where guards could see into the street from above the walls. At the end of this block was another gate, staffed with Afghan guards. It was here that we reached our limit. Anne tried very hard to talk his way in to the point that the guards became visibly annoyed. Talking our way past armed guards at a security checkpoint was undoubtedly the most unnerving part of my trip. As Anne persisted, asking to speak to supervisors, the guards at the gate became increasingly suspicious of us. It’s not as though they became hostile, but the simple change from credible passer-bys to potential threat was palpable. Knowing when to back off, we decided this was far enough and headed back the way we came. Anne explained that the South Korean embassy backs onto the American embassy which is why it was more difficult to gain entry.

Leaving through another street, we passed a heavily fortified gate which looked like a bunker due to the 12-foot high concrete walls built around it. We were told that this was an entrance to the American embassy,
we didn’t slow to look.



Second on our trip was a block which was home to the Asia Foundation, an economic trade group. Anne pointed out the standard compound walls and the marks on the sidewalk where larger concrete fortifications had been built. We spoke to a security guard at an adjacent site and he explained that prior to the Asia Foundation occupying that site it was home to DynCorp, an American security company. During that time a car bomb had been detonated next to it and done severe damage to the neighboring area. DynCorp then left and the Asia Foundation arrived. As mentioned, all NGOs and embassies had been instructed to dismantle their fortifications by presidential order. The Asia Foundation obliged and what we saw was the pared down version. We were told that since they had done this the residents of the neighborhood felt much safer as by creating the outward appearance that they were trying hard to improve security, the compound still remained a target. This was a typical example of a kind of ‘security machismo’ which was rife in Kabul. I would guess that more than half the people we saw driving in big, armored SUVs were doing more harm than good by calling unnecessary attention to themselves. I felt perfectly safe for the duration of our stay in our small, unassuming Toyota van. I’ll take stealth over strength any day.




Last on our stop was the Asian Development bank. Given the current situation, the bank had closed the street in front of it along the entire block. At each end of the block were gates surrounded by huge concrete pylons. We made our way through the check-point to the middle of the block in front of what outwardly was the most heavily fortified compound we saw all day. In addition to the original walls, massive concrete slabs stacked three high well above the height of the original walls had been added. We entered the compound through the small gate and checked in. We spoke to a representative who refused to answer questions even about how he personally felt about working in such a place. We left, ending our field trip for the day. Without embarrassment I can say I was glad to get back to the un-walled city, where I felt much safer.

Monday, April 14, 2008

VOLUME Magazine, Issue #15 – Secure Public City Supplement


I know it’s been some time since my last post, believe me, I don’t need to be reminded. In the meantime, as loose proof that I have actually been able to find some time to devote to the Architecture of Fear, pick up a copy of VOLUME magazine, Issue #15. Included with this issue is a special supplement on Kabul and the RSVP event that took place this past October. Take a look at two articles written by yours truly. The first, “Rattling the Gates; A Guide Through Secure Zones in Kabul” chronicles an afternoon’s adventure through the gated secure zones of embassies and taunting men with Kalishnakovs. The second is a small piece, a suggestion really, for a project called “Urban Canvas”, a proposal which calls for the city’s miles and miles of blank walls which divide and alienate the city be subverted by making them a canvas ready to accept and broadcast the inhabitants voices. Take a look.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 4

Friday October 26th 2007

Empty Pool – Empty Neighborhood – Empty Security

Day number four started with the sound of leaves being loudly raked outside my window. It was cold again and I wasn’t having much luck focusing my radiant space heater (which I was constantly afraid would burn down my room while I slept) towards my bed. Our day today would begin in yet another bizarre place in Kabul.

At 9 am we met at the top of yet another hill in the city. This one was about half as high as the TV Mountain we ascended the day before. We drove through a quiet neighborhood at the base of this hill. It was different than the more elaborate residential areas or the compounds off of the main streets which we had seen. The houses were still mostly behind walls but there were no guards stationed out front. They also appeared smaller in size overall. I think that these homes were used either by actual Afghan families or other NGO organizations for permanent residences. After getting lost and finally finding an unmarked dirt road at the base of the hill we switch-backed up the side of the hill passing the empty and stripped hull of a soviet tank until we reached the large flat plateau at the top. Here, was a very remarkable sight. Like a piece of sculpture was this solid concrete swimming pool, Olympic in size set in this large dusty plateau.


Aside from a few acrid puddles of god knows what at the bottom the pool was completely dry. It was such an anomaly. Built as a public pool by the soviets, this large public work apparently never functioned as a pool. In later years during Taliban rule it was used as a place of public executions. In contrast, the Puerto Rican artist

Louis Berrios Negron pulled of an amazing architectural performance in the pool in 2006 where he transformed it by filling it metaphorically with water with the help of several arts students at Kabul University.
Our experience at the pool was also not without art students from Kabul University. On our first day in Kabul we met with some fine arts students, some of whom worked with Louis Berrios Negron on his installation. We revisited the site and took in the views of the North side of Kabul. It served as a great opportunity to talk with the students. Ironically when we asked a few of them of their impressions of the Negron piece they seemed strangely indifferent to it. They seemed happy to have been a part of it but also disappointed with their role in the project. The feeling was that they had hoped to have had more of a creative role in planning the piece where instead they felt much more like assistants or labor to help with the installation. We asked them if they had planned any installations or events within the city. They told us of a modern art showing which they had installed outdoors that met with mixed reactions at best. It seems as though many of the general public did not understand the abstract nature of the work and chided them for it leaving a lasting impression with them. When we asked them if they had any future plans to display their work in public the reaction was less than enthusiastic. One of the students I spoke with expressed the feeling that they were in between movements, that they were unsure of what form to manifest their voice, that with the elimination of the Taliban the opportunity was there but that the social fabric of Kabul and Afghanistan was still residually rigid and therefore difficult to situate themselves in. I hope for their sake that they do find their mode of expression; I hope also that in some way our visit and conversations also helped them to realize that others beyond the city were interested in their work.

Visible from the hill was a neighborhood called Sherpur. Ajmal Maiwandi, an architect working with the Agha Khan Trust in Kabul was our guide and pointed it out to us. He made us note from our view a small corner of land, maybe two or three small blocks of mud brick houses huddled together at the base of the hill, sandwiched between a cemetery and obviously newer far more expensive houses. Ajmal told us the well known story of Marshal Fahim Khan who as the minister of defense appropriated the neighborhood of Sherpur and then redistributed it to his political allies and other cronies. It is a very visible and blatant reminder of the corruption which plagues Kabul. All but this small parcel of land is what remains of the original inhabitants. While they stubbornly cling to what they have left, looking around at the intensity which the surrounding area has been developed there seems like little chance that it will survive much longer. Ajmal suggested that fittingly it was the protection of the cemetery which was keeping them alive, an unsettling piece of irony to be sure.

We hiked down the hill through the cemetery and descended into this remaining original neighborhood in Sherpur. We found ourselves funneled into a narrow walkway that took us down the hill farther, towards the line where the new construction began. Along this path, narrow corridors led to doorways of the homes which lined it. There were few windows and although the buildings were only a single story in height, it created the sense of walking though a mud brick canyon. Of the few people we saw we were met with looks of curiosity and skepticism. Ajmal on the other hand greeted each person with a handshake and spoke with them about what we were doing, he was much better received than we were. Down the center of the path was a narrow channel about 4 inches wide which acted as a gutter, mostly for what appeared to be sewage, at least that’s what our noses told us. At the bottom of the slope and then end of the path this channel intersected a bigger open channel where all the runoff apparently collected. The color of the water was a very surreal blue green. Extremely careful not to fall in, we hopped over and were now in the new Sherpur.

The first thing you notice about the new construction in Sherpur is the distinct and repetitive style of all the houses built. I heard it described as a couple different things; Pakistani Style, Wedding Cake Houses and my favorite was Photo Houses. Imagine if you will two to three story houses maybe 2000 to 3000 square feet with flat roofs and distinct horizontal banding at each level. On top of this, every single surface of the building is adorned in the most gaudy ornament and coloring. Often this is done with ceramic and metallic tiles of all color. The term photo house was explained to me in this way; when you buy a digital camera they each claim that they pick up to 5 million colors visible to the human eye or something to that effect. If you take a photograph of one of these houses, it will actually use all 5 million colors of the spectrum.

These gigantic houses all of course exist behind the now stereotypical solid concrete walls and razor wire. One person in our group couldn’t help but notice that these huge houses looked more like prisons than places people would choose to live. As we walked through the neighborhood we quickly came to the realization that we were being watched closely. Keeping in mind that we weren’t exactly being discrete (it was a group of about 10 people with cameras and video cameras) there was a heavy security presence. Each walled house had a security hut outside and guards similar to what we saw in the heavier trafficked parts of town where the embassies and guesthouses were. Ajmal told us that this was essentially the ritzy area of Kabul. Anyone who was well to do lived here. It made for a mix of foreign government and non-government agencies, wealthy Afghani contractors, Afghani politicians and warlords. We were told that it was because of the warlords that the roads were not finished properly.
Often in places the roads were barely passable, this in a block with finished palaces with armed guards. It was explained to us that by making the area less accessible it was safer for those who lived there. If one wanted to quickly drive up and get away or detonate a car bomb, it would be very difficult to do so on a barely level road with holes big enough to swallow a Toyota. My mind went to the “speed humps” often employed in North America, both in cities and in the suburbs as a means to curb speeding. It’s a practice which for which local fire departments oppose since it means that they can’t respond as quickly to emergencies; an important lesson to be learned, if you slow down those about to harm you, you also slow down those about to save you.

One particular house which gave me particular chills as we moved past it was the palace of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a very famous figure in Afghan politics and war. A general who fought for the soviets, then against them, then against the Taliban, he was a very powerful figure in fighting for the Afghan people. He also is well know as a war criminal who committed atrocities against civilians during his extremely harsh rule. It should be no surprise that he was an ally of Marshal Fahim Khan. When we moved close to the palace as we walked along the street we were immediately shouted at by the guards. In a neighborhood where every house had a concrete wall, razor wire and guards this one stood out. It had a higher fence, more wire and honest to god gun turrets at street level armed with guards in full military gear (flak jackets, helmets, etc). Needless to say we didn’t push the issue or take any great pictures in fear of our safety, we quickly moved past and snapped pictures and video from a safe distance down the street.

After our experience of being shouted at by security from behind their walls we had the chance to get behind those walls. Posing as foreign NGO workers interested in renting one of the houses we were able to convince security of one of the vacant buildings to let us in to see one of them. In we went filing through the steel man-door in the gate of the thick concrete wall, we wandered through the three floors of this massive house. It was completely empty and felt very large. A large circular staircase dominated each floor as you went up. There was dust everywhere, as in the kind of a building that was just recently a construction site. The whole thing was tinted a salmon pink color by the windows in the building. This one hadn’t had them obstructed by corrugated steel like we had seen on others in the area. As we stood on the upper level terrace, looking out onto the front yard and the street we waited for a group of foreign tourists to pass by so we could shout at them to move along but sadly no one came.

As if we hadn’t had enough exposure to security forces for the day out next tour would surely satiate our appetite for irritating men with guns. We met again with Anne Feenstra for lunch and to head out for a “field trip”. Among his many interests and concerns in Kabul, the prevalence of “security” and the way which it had been taking away piece by piece Kabul’s public realm was one. It turns out that Mr. Feenstra takes it personally when organizations set up their walls with blatant disregard for those around them, a practice that is very much taken for granted (so much so that most of the embassies and missions completely ignore a decree straight from President Karzai to remove these blockages and walls).

Over lunch Anne showed us a collection of security badges he had accumulated during his time in Kabul which was an impressive set. One I found particularly interesting; out of frustration while dealing with local authorities Anne and his office (AFIR) had created their own security badges to streamline useless and meaningless checkpoints. The tag was an AFIR badge identifying himself as an employee of his architecture firm AFIR and stated that he was clear to enter any security level and had access to all information. “You wouldn’t believe how often this works” he told us.

Our plan was basically to pick a few areas in the city which were secured by various check-points and essentially off limits to the public and see how far we could get as a group of 8 or 9 with his security badges. Along the way we would witness the extent of the city which had been cordoned off as adjacent property to embassies or government offices and in general see first hand the often arbitrary and sometimes useless screening process at these checkpoints. My father had always told me that if you act like you belong somewhere you usually won’t be bothered. I had a feeling we were about to put this to the test in the most extreme way.

Our first stop was an area of the city known as Wazir Akbar Khan, an area home to quite a few embassies. Not surprisingly the US embassy is the largest and most heavily secured not just in that area but in all of Kabul. Our initial point of entry was at a gated check point along a road which led to the Canadian, Pakistani, Finnish South Korean, British and the Japanese embassies. We were stopped at the gate by Afghan guards who demanded our papers. To make our way into a secure zone we had to clear three actual gates which you are funneled through initially by huge concrete pylons blocking off the rest of the road. 3 or 4 armed men in military uniform congregated by the first gate. This was common sight in our day to day Kabul. Before this we had been continuously filming from the van with careful exception around secure areas and gated checkpoints. This was fine but a little difficult to do now on a tour of secure areas and gated checkpoints.

Once through the first set of gates we were stopped at two more checkpoints in succession before finally entering into a zone of eerie calm. Essentially a wide empty street with a group of armored embassy SUVs parked at one end there were little signs of any people. We drove the van up to where the gates for the Canadian embassy were got out and started tooling around. Although we had been easily passed through the feeling I had while walking around this empty street was completely unsettling. I think I felt more comfortable walking as the only westerner through a busy street market than there. Standing in a canyon of reinforced concrete walls while having every move presumably watched really made you aware of the strategic disadvantage you were at. The entire duration of our excursion I felt an unspoken pressure to leave, immediately.

Ironically, of all the places we visited, I was unable to get into the one I was legitimately entitled to. The Canadian embassy was closed for the weekend when I tried pass through the gates. I’d have to come back tomorrow I was told by the guard. I returned to the group who were now talking to two young afghan boys on bicycles adorned with Canadian flags. How they managed to be there I have no idea but they were the only other human beings in this deserted street and seemed as though they often were. They tried selling us maps and books and told us how much they liked Canadians (most likely because they sensed a sale). They seemed curious about our presence there as we didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular like most people I assume they met. It was kind of funny that given we were in a secured area and wandering around with our cameras out, the most attention we received was from these two 10 year old boys.

After making a right and being denied at the Japanese embassy we ran into a middle aged Canadian man (this we were sure of as he literally had a Canadian flag tattooed on his arm). He was pleasant enough to stop and talk to us although when I asked him if he could let me inside the embassy he told me since it was Friday that he was basically the only one inside. I thought this a strange admission to make given the paranoia about security. After my suggestion to storm the Canadian embassy was quickly turned down by the rest of group we moved on down the road and found another checkpoint. During this stretch we noticed a sign advertising a restaurant on the block which no doubt was there before the area was cordoned off by makeshift concrete walls and nervous guards. I wondered if the restaurant was still alive and what other businesses and families were forced to relocate after their newest neighbor was a foreign embassy. This was something that would come up again in our tour that day.

The next gate we arrived at was the first check point for the South Korean and Finnish embassies. This time on foot, we were forced to wait a little longer before they accepted Anne’s UN credentials. We were led through a single gate flanked by concrete walls and into a much narrower street. There was the occasional government employee in business dress walking past us to the gate but otherwise no public of any kind. This street also felt different. Because the street was narrower you could tell that many of the walls facing the street were not original to the compounds like at the Canadian or Japanese embassies rather they were added after the South Koreans moved in. Also evident were crow’s nests where guards could see into the street from above the walls. At the end of this block was another gate, staffed with afghan guards. It was here where we reached our limit. Anne tried very hard to talk his way in to the point where the guards were getting visibly annoyed. This was undoubtedly the most unnerving part of my trip, provoking armed guards into letting us past a security checkpoint. As Anne persisted, asking to speak to supervisors, the guards at the gate became increasingly suspicious of us. It’s not as though they became hostile towards us but the simple change from credible passer-bys to potential threat was palpable. Knowing when to draw the line we decided that this was far enough and headed back out the way we came. Anne explained to us that the South Korean embassy backs onto the American embassy which is why it was more difficult to gain entry.

Leaving through another street we did pass a heavily fortified gate which looked like a bunker due to the 12 foot high concrete walls built around it. We were told that this was an entrance to the American embassy, we didn’t slow to look.

Second on our trip was a block which was home to the Asia Foundation, an economic trade group. Anne pointed out the standard compound walls and the marks on the sidewalk where there had been larger concrete fortifications made. We spoke to a security guard at an adjacent site and he explained to us that prior to the Asia Foundation occupying that site it was home to DynCorp, an American security company. During that time a car bomb had been detonated next to it and done severe damage to the neighboring area. Afterwards DynCorp left and the Asia Foundation arrived. As mentioned, at the universal order of President Karzai, all NGOs and Embassies were supposed to take down their fortification. The Asia Foundation obliged and what we saw was the paired down version. We were told since they had done this the residents of the neighborhood felt much safer since by creating the outward appearance that they are trying very hard to secure themselves, the compound still remained a target. It was a typical example of a kind of “security machismo” which was rife in Kabul. I would guess that more than half of the people we saw driving in big armored SUVs were doing more harm by calling unnecessary attention to themselves. I felt perfectly safe for the duration of our stay in our small unassuming Toyota van. I’ll take stealth any day over strength.

Last on our stop was the Asian Development bank. In this situation the bank had closed the street in front of it for the entire block. At each end of the block were gates surrounded by huge concrete pylons. We made our way through the check-point to the middle of the block in front of what outwardly was the most heavily fortified looking compound we saw all day. In addition to the original walls they had added massive concrete slabs stacked three high in front of the walls well above the original height of the walls.
We entered into the compound though the small gate and checked in. We managed to speak to a representative who wouldn’t even answer questions about how he personally felt about working in such a place. Tight lipped and tightly walled, we left ending our walled field trip for the day. Without embarrassment I can say I was glad to get back to the un-walled city, where I felt much safer.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 3

Thursday October 25th 2007

A Real Mountain – Soviet Ghosts

Day number three. The day began by adding another member to our group. Joining us from the Netherlands (although its possible it was from some other corner of the globe with his travel schedule) Ole Bouman arrived in the morning. As well as other things, Ole is well known in architecture circles worldwide as a writer and critic of architecture from his previous tenure as the editor-in-chief of Archis, a Dutch architecture magazine of high regard, his current tenure as Editor-n-chief of VOLUME magazine and most lately as the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI). This is in addition to the countless other publications. To the rest of the group who work with Ole this could have felt like just another working assignment with him as they all knew Ole and had worked with him before. For the first day I felt much more like I was in the presence of a foreign dignitary. I had seen Ole before, when he came to the school of architecture at Columbia to speak with Mark Wigley and Rem Koolhaus for the launch of VOLUME. This was experienced with the same distance reserved for other architecture royalty who visited like Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry. You could understand why it would be a bit intimidating knowing I was going to spend the next three days straight with him most of which would be in the confines of a small Toyota van. In the end as I had hoped, I was put at ease and he was just another odd Dutch person in the group I was tagging along with.

Picking up Ole meant the rest of us took the trip out to the airport to get him. Also in our group, Jeanno had arrived the day before and of all of us there, been the only one to have her luggage misplaced. To be honest I was amazed that she was the only one, I definitely expected my luggage to vanish or at the very least be damaged by a sheep in flight in the cargo hold; so poor Jeanno had spent the night with just her carry-on bag in a guest house that had no electricity to boot. We all hoped that her bags would be there and that they had power or at least put out some new candles in her room.

Coming back to the airport after going through the somewhat nerve racking and awkward experience of meeting my driver without any instruction felt strangely satisfying. I was happy to know where I was, where I was going and also to have people around me that I knew. It was a rare comfort that even during trips to less hostile environments I usually didn’t have. I found it ironic that of all the places where I felt this comfortable traveling it was in Kabul.

When you arrive at the airport by car you are funneled past a roundabout proudly displaying what I can only guess is an old Soviet Mig fighter jet. From there your registration is noted (similarly to our entry to the University) and you are more than likely questioned about your where you are going. When I left at the end of the week, my bags were removed and passed through a metal detector before we even made it to the parking lot. We made it through the checkpoint and on to said parking lot. Only one of us and Jeanno were allowed in to meet Ole so Joost, Lilet, Tehir and I all waited outside the gate to the airport. When I say gate, I don’t mean the kind inside the terminal, I mean a real gate, a fence if you will manned by two men in army uniforms. We were outside with a large group of Afghans all presumably waited to arrivals as most of them didn’t make it past the gatekeepers. After a short while Niloufar emerged with Ole and Jeanno returned empty handed, one more night without her bags.



The plan was to meet Mowdood Popal, our unofficial guide to Kabul for a semi-official tour of the TV Mountain right in the center of the city, cutting it in half. I say semi-official because we required state permission to access the very top of the mountain which was a secured area for as you could guess, television broadcast. The drive up the winding dirt roads would take us up through the thousands of informal settlements built on the slopes. It was something I had been looking forward to since noticing the solid growth of these homes on all the surrounding hillsides of Kabul.



One thing that struck me about these informal settlements was the way they were constructed. I had originally imagined something like a Brazilian flavella, a collectively supported network of piecemeal structures. The houses built in the hills of Kabul all seemed to be made of solid looking mud brick or larger blocks. I couldn’t help but feel that these homes were better built than most of what I had seen in the city below. To think this is however to overlook a few things. First of all, I didn’t realize until we drove up the hill just how long it takes to make it up to these settlements. There were very few if any stores or means to get supplies up in the hills, everything was down in the city below. It took us what seemed like a half an hour to drive up, I can only imagine the walk. Secondly there are no services there. Like in many cities with squatter settlements, the city tolerates them but does not support them. They have no running water and no reliable electricity. One amazing thing I saw was a single telephone pole being choked to death by illegal cables connected to rusted and old circuit boxes. They had literally grown two deep on this pole. I can only imagine how many homes this one pole served.

Another thing that was difficult not to notice was the amount of children I saw by the roadside. Most of them were around 6-12 years old, playing in small groups or wandering up or down the road as we drove past. It was the middle of the day on a Thursday, obviously these children had no school and I assume their parents were down in the city working. I was saddened by this and at the same time amazed at the independence and strength of these children.




We arrived at the top of the TV mountain. Again I had a James Bond moment as we surveyed the small enclosed summit of the mountain which included a few shed like structures, a big television antennae, the requisite two military guards and the very modest shack they slept in. I felt like at any moment Bond would sneak up the ledge from one side and incapacitate the hapless and undermanned guards before destroying the communication lines of the Soviets. There was even a cold war era olive green painted jeep parked at the top to complete the set, uh I mean scene.



From the top we were afforded a 360 degree panorama of the entire city. My first thoughts were that this city couldn’t be this big! Driving around in the van it felt much smaller. As the places we had been were pointed out to me I realized just how far away they really were. This is even more amazing because you’d think with the crawling traffic everywhere the city would feel even smaller. Standing at the top of the mountain looking towards what I think was the south you could see a very dense concentration of the city. It was similar over on the north edge. I’m not sure whether it was entirely because of the low smog cover but you couldn’t make out the edges of the city. It just filled the bowl between all the mountains, spilled out as far as the eye could see and then up the edges. It was interesting to soak up the different parts of the city from this privileged view. We had been touring around for a few days so we had seen a little bit of what the city was about. There were a lot of walls and from this point they were completely useless. It was a nice reversal. I could see into the walls of the traffic police academy, the military hospital, the British embassy, all of the airport, and countless other compounds. It makes you think that if the people who truly are the worst off are living in the hills then they have the most power over those in the city in the valley who wish to segregate themselves by erecting walls no one can see over.




From the top you could also fully absorb the fabric of the city. You could make out the major arterial roads that seemed small and twisting because of the traffic before which now looked straight like mini highways. You could begin to connect places and make the visual relationships between places we had already seen in the city. You could make out an array of building types, grand mosques being constructed, highrise buildings, glass facades of new wedding palaces, the aforementioned compounds, outdoor markets, and streets lined with mid-rise commercial buildings. At one point I saw a main road which flanks the riverbank through the city which was faced by multi colored 3-4 storey buildings with pitched roofs that reminded me of Copenhagen strangely.

After wandering around for a while longer I noticed down the slopes a path outlined in painted white rocks. I asked our guide Tehir about them. He explained to me that the painted rocks indicate what parts of the mountain had been de-mined. After he told me this I suddenly became aware that it wasn’t just this path below us but these stones were all around us. Many of them were painted two colors, white on one side, red on the other. These rocks were placed in a string on the ground where the white was on one side and the red the other. You always want to be on the white side he explained to me. Red side equals mines. Well not exactly, being on the red side means that they haven’t swept for mines and this is generally cause for concern. Afghanistan is one of the 3 most heavily mined countries in the world. The particular hill we were on was the location of heavy fighting between the soviets and the Afghans and as such was heavily mined. As we walked around some more we found literally piles of heavy shells ringed by white rocks which meant that someone had collected them and put them there. There were no shortage of red rocks below us on the hillside and the thought of buried mines stayed with me for the rest of the trip whenever I wandered too far off the beaten path.




The trip down was just as bumpy and long as the way up. We eventually descended into the loud frantic pace of the city that we had been detached from for the last few hours. We decided that we would visit a friend’s office on the way back to the guest house before heading out again to Anne Feenstra’s house for a party. On the way there we happened to pass by an amazing sight which we had noticed before but not stopped to explore. With the daylight running out we decided to make a quick digression and check out this amazing ruin of a soviet workers and culture palace. Its exactly as you might imagine a cold war era soviet shrine to communism and the common man, all heavy concrete, brutal orthogonal forms and grand in scale. The site was surrounded by a fence but the gate was open at the front and we made our way onto the site, much to the discomfort of our guide Tehir. In hindsight I can see why he thought we were crazy for wanted to run around an dilapidated ruin of a building which housed any sorts of squatters (and drug dealers he told us afterwards).




To make things interesting for him we immediately scattered in this labyrinth of a building with our noses in our cameras and camcorders ooing and awwwing. By some chance Tehir ended up with me and diligently was one step ahead of me in every room, sweeping it for anyone he thought might have given me a hard time. The building having build in the brutalist soviet style made for a perfect ruin. The interior was a solidly built as the exterior. That’s not to say that it hadn’t suffered over the years. It was obvious to anyone that it had been the site of some ferocious battles. Every inch of the exterior was covered in bullet holes. Parts of the building had been blown clean right through leaving gaping holes which now let light into the dark space. Inside you walked over piles of brick ruble, occasionally coming to a room that had completely collapsed. The central building we entered was a theatre I think as I found my way to a large open room with tiered seating where the roof had completely collapsed and was now an open air amphitheatre if you didn’t mind pulling up a seat on twisted mangled metal that was once the roof.

We eventually all trickled out of this building through the other side and into the center of what actually was a large complex of several buildings. There were adjacent buildings, similar in style, a bunker like feel with mortar and bullet accents. In these buildings you could clearly see blankets hung over mortar holes by people and families which lived inside, we even had a few of them wave to us. Behind the main building was a large open space where several children were running around playing and kicking a ball around. The kids were equal in number to the herd of goats which were loitering in the courtyard as well. With our arrival the kids took interest in us, the goats not as much. Around this open space were other single storey buildings which looked like they were service buildings at one point, also large storage tanks, now empty and unable to contain even rain as they were sprayed with holes. Outdoor we found a true outdoor theatre and an empty swimming pool which was now full of rubble and I even noticed what looked like a mortal shell in the deep end.



With the light about to go we wisely made our way back to the van, much to the relief of Tehir. I’m sure he might have found it interesting and I doubt he would ever find himself there on his own, I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought about following around these weird archi-tourists and the bizarre requests we asked of him and places we wanted to see. I hoped that on some level he enjoyed it as much as we did. He certainly never let on that he didn’t.

Back in the van we were now late for Anne’s party. A quick stop to pick up some pomegranates as a party gift and we arrived at Anne’s house. We had been there before albeit to visit his architecture studio which is attached. Anne and his girlfriend
Aunohita showed us some tremendous hospitality in the true Afghan fashion. They had invited pretty much everyone we spoke to up until that point on the trip and even others who we hadn’t met yet. We dined on traditional afghan food, non-alcoholic beer, of course some vodka and someone even managed to find a bottle of wine! We gathered in their large living area under dim candle lights and on Persian (or I guess in this case Afghan) rugs and talked until the early morning. After everyone had had their fill, we were even treated to some live Afghani music! Two young men whom Anne knew came and performed on the bongos and on an instrument that resembled an accordion but that was played on the ground. The show was excellent and ended with some audience participation on the bongos.






All in all it was a fantastic way to meet even more people and really have a better chance to talk frankly and comfortably with our new friends. We owe Anne many thanks for inviting us into his home and in general for all his help during the week. Tired and content we left the party with a ride from Mowdood, another eerie drive through the empty and dark streets back to our guest house and the end of another long day.