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.

Monday, November 12, 2007

RSVP Kabul Recap

For more on the RSVP Kabul event take a look at the official website from Archis.

Also take a look at Archinect for notice of the event and the sidebar for the updated link for Archis RSVP Interventions.

Images for the posts are on their way as are the rest of the logs from the week. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 2

Wednesday October 24rd 2007

Kabul University – A Turquoise Mountain

After a solid nights sleep, the morning started abruptly. Waking up to the sight of my own breath, it had become so cold overnight that there was frost on the plants outside my window. Thankfully my prayers were answered and there was hot water for a shower. A quick breakfast of naan bread and honey and we were on our way.

Leaving the guesthouse in the morning we were met by our guards who opened the gates to let us out to the street and our waiting van. Writing this brings to mind that there is very little difference between keeping people out and keeping them in. Should the guards at any time have decided they probably could have just held us captive, not that I’m implying they would, it just would have been that easy. Over the course of the week there were several other instances of homes and other buildings that were described simply like prisons because of their heavy handed security measures.

Over the trip we would also have several other interactions with various armed security guards ranging from our guesthouse to checkpoints outside embassies. These interactions all passed without incident although not without some tension. I wondered how the guards felt towards us as we passed through to secure areas where they were only privileged to stand in front of or into establishments that catered only to foreigners because of cost or in some cases because of blatant segregation. The whole thing left a very uneasy feeling with me. Later in the day we would meet with Mowdood Popal, a successful American Afghan who returned to Kabul with his whole family and now runs a successful construction company. During our conversation he would offer great insight into the hierarchy in the security industry. Needless to say that Afghan guards are the lowest paid and often hired as “static security” which means they sit there all day long. More on that later.

The van ride to our appointment at the Kabul University took us through a more diverse cross-section of the city. We drove past embassies with their high walls and razor wire, past single story concrete buildings used as shops, past three or four story buildings with glass facades, and past markets which look to have sprung up from the open muddy lots they occupied.

The Kabul University campus was vast. You get a sense of this on the drive up to it. We approached it from the wrong side and drove around most of it to get to the main entrance. It’s fairly obvious once you are at its perimeter. The normal chaos on one side of the van gives way to a very rare uniformity of the same wall for blocks and blocks on end. In another city this might not seem strange but for the most part property lines are easily defined by the façade put to the street. The result is a patchwork of vertical surfaces as you drive down a block. At the University the wall becomes normal and more importantly different from the others. Where as almost all the walls you see have a blatant concrete utilitarianism to them, the wall around the University possesses a subtle ornate-ness, nothing fancy, maybe something you would see at the edge of a suburban subdivision in North America, which in Kabul is different enough to be pretty unique. The wall had a rusticated stone base and then rose up out of red brick the rest of the way with plain iron work at the top. In a city of walls which shout at you to go away, this one seemed more to be saying “this is a place of importance, and worth protecting”.

When we finally made it around to the gates (which of course had guards) our van was stopped and our registration recorded. In a country which still follows strict religious codes towards men and women it was a happy surprise to see just as many women as men walking through the campus. Once inside the gates there was a long main avenue down the center of the campus off of which there were various departments and buildings. Separating the buildings from the road were treed green spaces, largely unkempt and un-manicured. You could make out the distinction between which field was male or female as there was rarely any mixing. In the areas with men you could see groups congregating, smoking, embracing, conversing or reading. On the female side you could see groups of women reading or talking. There was very much an air of dignity in a city where this was often absent. The whole thing gave me a very strong feeling of what the ancient Agora must have been like in classical Greece. The collegiate atmosphere combined with the semi-rugged park setting gave the impression that one could walk up to any group and overhear an intense philosophical debate.

After our stroll through time we arrived at the school of architecture and engineering and met our contact Sayed Maqbool (head of the faculty of architecture). The building had a heavy and solid Soviet feel to it. We walked through its wide concrete halls, again taking us back in time, this time to the cold war, and then snapped back to the present by the sight of a digital projector and laptop setup in one of the rooms. The school also boasted a computer lab with an assortment of programs which unfortunately we couldn’t get into. The classrooms were stark but large and well lit. The ones we visited had drafting tables lined in neat rows.

The architecture program is a five year program; after which the graduates are entitled to refer to themselves as architects. This is of course a small problem as architects in Kabul suffer from a small self-esteem problem. The professors we spoke to lamented the fact that in Kabul it was more prestigious to be an engineer than an architect. “There is no architecture in Kabul….only construction projects”. Most of the students were recruited by engineering or construction firms as draftsmen a year if not more before they even graduate. The massive construction boom in Kabul is fueled by money and necessity and leaves little room for aesthetics. There were signs of hope for the next generation of Afghan architects. We sat in on presentations in Fahim Hakim’s fifth year studio where students were presenting sketches for a monument to the architecture and engineering department. Amidst sketches of building sized pencils, compasses and t-squares there emerged a few artistic and somewhat abstract designs of merit. One of the difficulties explained to us, aside from the students wanting to be engineers, was that many of the students had been educated under the Taliban regime. The first year of their education was just spent trying to un-brainwash them from the simple and narrow perspective they had been fed. We were told that simple issues of life safety were completely omitted during this time which reminds me of another interesting conversation we had. When asked how he approached the topic of safety when teaching his students one professor responded by outlining design elements like fire exits and stairwells. After adjusting the question to mean “security” he continued to discuss earthquake design requirements. Finally we broke down and spelled it out “how do you teach them to deal with attacks like suicide bombings?” “Oh, we don’t really do that”, a very telling statement. Over the course of the week it became more obvious that most of the “security” evident in either architectural or human form was dictated by international influence.

From the Department of Architecture and Engineering we made a short walk and backtracked to the Department of Fine Art. The building was set off the main road down a dusty lane with old trees and piles of old office equipment and furniture fading in the sunshine. Walking towards the Fine Arts department one could be excused for thinking of these heaps of nondescript chairs and desks as sculpture. We made our way to a second floor studio to meet a contact and the rest of her class which was in session. In a large concrete and well lit room we found about a dozen students in front of easels, working on their oil paintings for a year end show. We asked them about there work and the display of their projects. The school has a gallery where they will display the work. “What about on site installations?” we asked them. As it turned out the students had done an outdoor public showing of some abstract work in the past year with a less than enthusiastic response from the general public. “I don’t think they were ready for it, many of them laughed or asked what it was”, said one of the students we spoke to. Despite this the resolve of the students to try it again was impressive. It seemed to me in speaking with the students there that they were aware of their position between the old regime which had been pushed out and the new opportunity that presented itself with the open scenario to work in whatever way they wanted. That being said, it also seemed like this newfound freedom also was very fresh and had them unsure with what to do with it. We left with their promise to come on the Friday to an open meeting to discuss ideas for the city of Kabul.

As we left the University, we picked up our friend and resident urban planner Peitro Calogero on our way to meet Mowdood Popal. Mowdood as mentioned was raised in the United States before moving with his entire family back to Kabul where he now runs a lucrative construction company and his brothers also run a security company and some other businesses in the city. The Popal family was the perfect example of the Afghan Diaspora returning to the city after a long absence. Mowdood met up with us for lunch, again at a restaurant behind closed walls. We all sat down to lunch and we quizzed Mowdood for almost an hour on the way things work in the city.

We began our conversation with the topic of security as we always do. It was interesting to learn about the hierarchy of guards available. According to Mowdood security companies charge up to $2000 day a per person for a security guard, this number being on the high end which could land you a well qualified and skilled American of British ex-military type. If that’s too rich for you blood than you can drop to the next bracket and go for a South African, Canadian, or French ex-military type which would run you a little less or go for the bargain Gherkas which are only $500-$1000 a month or keep it local with Afghans for a mere $200-$500 month. We continued talking about security companies and the bad apples which had apparently gotten into a little trouble over the past few years in Afghanistan. Key players in security industry in Afghanistan were companies like Dynacor (Halliburton’s security arm), Blackwater (known for shooting civilians in Baghdad) to local mega companies like Saladdin and to a lesser extent Mowdood’s brother’s outfit Wattan Risk Management. We talked about the corruption and instances of security companies robbing locals and banks, an occurrence Mowdood told us that was limited to the smaller security companies you don’t hear about. For that matter, he told us that the Afghan government was forcing all the local security companies to close as a measure of tightening their grip. It might be a futile effort. We spoke about the security companies driving the politics of fear; that the companies know they are the only real sources for genuine protection in a country where the government is powerless and corrupt and the police are useless. This position he said allows for them to dictate the security situation for all the ex-pat community who rely on them while in Afghanistan. The result he said was that they drive the fear into their customers through daily or hourly reports of threats (some through SMS messages) to keep the fear in their customers and continue business. It’s an ugly cycle and not unique to this area. Before our food arrived I asked him about how local Afghans respond to security threats in their own homes. Obviously you’re unlikely to see a 12ft high concrete wall with guards around a modest Afghani home in Kabul and Mowdood set the record straight when he said that most of them would be more concerned with the decoration of their home than fortifying it. There are however a new class of local Afghans made rich by the rebuilding effort or in some small cases the opium trade who live in brand new mini palaces which adopt all the ex-pat methods of security right down to the razor wire dressing on the top of the walls.

After lunch the entire group made the drive over to an amazing operation run by a foundation called Turquoise Mountain. Turquoise Mountain is a non-profit organization which focuses on traditional Afghan arts and building techniques, a craft which had suffered greatly during the conflict in Afghanistan. We would have two tours through projects that TM was working on, this one through their Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture. Essentially a huge outdoor laboratory, the centre is where they take traditional building methods using local materials and teach unskilled Afghans so that they can work and teach others. What is most amazing about the setup there is that they are also making subtle changes to these traditional techniques which incorporate modern knowledge. Case in point a wall section using a rain-screen made from dry fit stones, rice sacs filled with sheep’s wool, and mud brick. They have also been messing with admixtures to make exterior plaster last longer through the seasons. Small things like this make big differences. They take these hybrid ideas and then build full scale mock ups on site in their Centre. When we visited they had several mock-ups which they were leaving up through the entire winter to test their performance. What impressed me the most about this scenario is the underlying idea behind it. By utilizing local materials which are simple, accessible and cheap they allow themselves to build now, and when using traditional techniques which are often simple they are easily passed from person to person. This combination of building now with the ability to teach others is an excellent combination for achieving tangible results in situations which are complicated, compromised and generally found in conflict or disaster situations. The added advantage of modern modification allows the correction of shortcomings and might even allow for certain techniques to transcend their original uses. I think this is an idea that should be explored further. What materials are local and inexpensive in other situations like post hurricane Katrina or post tsunami Asia? These questions could help create better and more responsive solutions.

After a long day and a lot to digest we went for dinner to an ex-pat restaurant called L’Atmosphere. As you can probably guess it was a French inspired restaurant. The restaurant was actually half of the setup, L’Atmposphere is also a well known bar to ex-pats in a city not known for its night life. We were there the night before. Typical to the international catering establishments this bar was located behind a non-descript wall with one guard outside. A discreet note posted on the outside states that if you don’t have a foreign passport you can’t come inside, something that essentially boils down to segregation. Upon entering the exterior door you come into a small closed room somewhat tastefully decorated with a kind of Moroccan/French theme. In this small room is a man with a metal detector who pats you down and a small cabinet that reminded me of the old card catalogues in libraries. Each drawer had a key and on one night, a friend of a friend in our group unintentionally demonstrated what these were for when he removed his firearm from his hip and locked it on there on the way in. It came as a bit of a shock to us especially because he had been with us most of the evening and we didn’t even know he was carrying! Anyway, just like the Wild West, once your gun is checked at the door you walk along a narrow outdoor path through to a courtyard type garden complete with pool (or fire pit) depending on the season. Facing the courtyard was an all glass façade which was the bar and the restaurant next to it. Stepping into the bar it was full of people. The sounds of English, French, and Australian accents could be heard above the din. I ordered a Heineken for $5 USD and joined our group.

As it turned out I recognized someone from my flight into Kabul that I had spoken to at the airport in Dubai. A fellow Canadian he was a “security consultant” and had offered me some advice while we were waiting to check in. The fact that on our first night out in Kabul we ran into each other at the same place speaks to the size of the ex-pat community in Kabul. We met up and he introduced me to some of his “teammates” who also were ex-military types, one from Scotland, one from Australia I think, all very very drunk. At the airport this person had been very helpful to me, he had given me some suggestions on where to get a secure taxi and some other insights into Kabul for someone who was going for the first time. Speaking with him at the bar, with his colleagues was a much different experience. Almost immediately after starting the conversation they proceeded to tell me about how they could walk around the city with total impunity, a story I heard a few more times after speaking to other ‘security consultants” or mercs (mercenaries) as I heard one of them refer to themselves. This ignorant bravado combined with a disregard for Afghans that became increasingly more obvious in further conversation, painted a very unflattering picture. These guys were cowboys. They prided themselves on their cavalier attitudes and enjoyed the power they had over others with these security jobs. I met a few people who were like this, all in the security field and all made me uncomfortable. It was an excellent example of the distance between the local community and international community and how the methods of security which are being deployed are obviously generated by one with little regard for the other. It was the last time we went to the bar.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 1

New York – Dubai – Kabul

Ordinarily I wouldn’t get into personal experience in this blog as the format until this point has been largely academic but given the nature of my trip and the experience in Kabul I think that I’ll share with you my accounts in the hopes that it might shed some light on the actual situation or at least my perception of it.

The trip begins in New York. My first flight from JFK left at the cheerful hour of 8:30am so the shuttle came to pick me up at 6 am and of course they were early. I must admit given the concern from family and friends before my trip I wasn’t really worried about it. Up until the morning of I was anxious mostly as the result of some frantic last minute planning and some complications with my flight booking from Dubai to Kabul. Now that the day had arrived I suddenly had a sinking feeling in my stomach. What have I gotten myself into? I’m going to Afghanistan.

The flight from JFK to Dubai (all 14 hrs of it) was one of the most pleasant of my life. The plane was relatively new, I could catch up on dozens of movies I’ve missed on my own personal TV screen (although the touch screen probably works best for people with toothpicks for fingers) and most importantly and luckily the flight was only half full. There’s nothing better than actually being able to spread out and sleep on a long intercontinental flight. I must admit, much of my anxiety at this point went away.

I arrived in Dubai around 7:40am local time. My flight to Kabul left at 12:00pm at terminal 2 where as my flight from New York arrived at terminal 1. Terminal 1 is as one might expect for a new international terminal, big, bright, and uses ample brushed aluminum throughout. The one thing that makes it distinctly Dubai is the unending billboards and ads for development and real estate corporations, a not so subtle hint at the building frenzy going on outside. A friend jokingly told me once that the official bird of Dubai was the crane because of the endless construction cranes ceaselessly working away in the city.

Terminal 2 was nothing like terminal 1. Pulling up to the departures entry the scene was crowded by taxis and cars trying to both get in and out at the same time and resulted in neither. The entire façade was covered in hoarding and the only indication was a small sign saying “entrance” pointing to a narrow painted plywood corridor where people were doing their best impression of the traffic out front. Upon entering the hall there is a large open space and qeue for a metal detector and x-ray machine before even approaching the check-in counter which was more like a check-in stand. During this process my passport is checked and I’m asked for my ticket which worries me since all I have is a print out of an email confirmation from and agency in Toronto. This seems to be sufficient and I’m now in another hall looking for the KamAir counter (one of two Afghani airlines, the other being Ariana Air or Scariana as I hear it referred as). Also represented in the hall are the Iranian Airline, Paksitan Airline (PIA), Pamir which also flies to Kabul, Gulf Air and UN chartered flights to Kabul. Its obvious that this hall serves mostly destinations that might be considered a little more obscure or secondary. Along with my flight to Kabul there were flights to Char Bakar, Lar, Bandar Lengeh, Erbil, Chelybinsk and Kish. I have to be honest, I have no idea where any of these places are. The departures lounge was another interesting place. Cleaner and newer than the rest of the terminal it was a holding area for some interesting characters and made for some unique people watching. I felt a little like I was in a James Bond movie, checking out an assortment of potential villains on their way to meet at some illicit arms bazaar. First of all there were the military contractor or security consultant types on their way to Kabul. They were easily given away by what I assume is their unofficial uniform of cargo pants and sunglasses with the strap to hold them around their necks as if they were about to go water skiing. Next were the NGO workers who looked like a bad example out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue, complete with button up shirt, jeans and hiking boots of some kind. To spice up the mix there were also some serious looking Russians (what Bond movie is complete without Russians?) ethnic Afghan’s, Pakistani’s, Indians, Iranians, Saudis and for good measure a few Korean tourists which where primarily preoccupied with the un-proportionately large and bright duty free shop.

We boarded our flight from the tarmac. The plane was not exactly new but not as old as I imagined. It was obvious now that I was spoiled on my flight in from New York. With the ball of anxiety beginning to creep back I fairly unsuccessfully slept through the two and half hour flight. Looking out my window occasionally between naps the landscape below looked forbidding. Not a speck of color other than the harsh color of lifeless dirt. Not a road or a town could be seen. This eventually gave way to equally forbidding looking mountains. To say the Afghan landscape is rugged is an understatement. I should say that after conversations with many people who have traveled outside Kabul, the landscape is actually very beautiful from the ground.

The plane landed making a series of abrupt corkscrew turns. I imagine this is because the airport, situated in the city, is protected by a ring of mountains which make a long straight approach unpractical. I had also heard of this technique being used for flights into Baghdad to avoid anti aircraft fire. Looking out the window as we taxied to the main building you could see both construction of new hangers and the remains of bunkers and gun placements, symbols of Kabul’s conflicted past and optimistic future. Also visible were a few Soviet looking helicopters and fighter jets belonging to presumably the ISAF.

Holy shit I’m in Afghanistan. The thought hit me as I was walking from the plane on the tarmac to the terminal with a big “Kabul International Airport” sign on the roof. I had been hoping and planning for this day for months and my feet were finally on the ground. Through passport control to the one baggage carousel, I eventually find my driver sent to pick me up. He puts my luggage in a well worn Toyota van and we are on our way to the guesthouse.

Traffic in Kabul is chaotic to say the least. There are no more than 2 or 3 working stop lights in the city which has a population between 2-3 million people, its pretty much anything goes. God help you if you are one of the poor traffic police who wave at the cars in a futile effort to direct traffic through the roundabouts. Our driver almost ran one over and the whole thing seemed pretty funny to him. I’m not sure why in most developing countries the cars are almost always Toyotas. Even the big new SUVs driven by the UN, embassies and NGOs with their bulletproof windows, radio antennae and snorkels were Toyotas…well except for the Americans who also found some way to bring their own Chevy’s with them. Every now and then you would also see a military convoy of 2 or 3 armored trucks with troops at the top, machine guns at the ready to shoot anyone that drove too close. These instances were probably the only times I actually felt threatened by a gun during the trip. I attribute this to the fact that only on these convoys did I notice the gunners with their fingers on the actual triggers of their guns. The Afghan locals knew this as there was usually a gap of about 50 yards between the next closest vehicle and behind that a huge backlog of traffic slowly but respectfully following along cursing them for the regular inconvenience.

The drive to the guesthouse could be described as dusty. The buzz and movement of the city also created this constant cloud. Along the main road to the airport which is the symbolic main drag of Kabul, you could see single story sheds being used as shops selling everything from pomegranates and spices to car and appliance parts. This became one of the things that impressed me about Kabul, that anything can be reused and most importantly in some cases resold.

Further along the drive you get the sense of what a large part of Kabul is like. Either side of the streets are flanked by unremarkable yet solid looking walls, often adorned with razor wire crowns and matching armed guards and gates. The city is host to an amazing number of international governments, NGOs and a huge UN presence. Each one of these groups has at least one if not several compounds in the city. Even most homes are within the confines of a solid 12 foot high wall protected 24hrs by guards and their Kalishnakov machine guns, a site so common I took it for granted by the end. Each gate had these guards who not only worked there but lived, often 2 or 3 in a small make shift hut by the gates where they slept. This kind of situation in the security industry I was told is known as “static security”. As far as I could tell, these guards were always Afghan, either police, or private security forces. Later on the trip we would meet people with their own “dynamic security”, their own armed bodyguards following them 24hrs a day.

We arrived at the Naween Guesthouse, a UN certified guesthouse which meant that it met certain requirements set out by the UN such as the aforementioned armed guards, walled compound, and a set distance of the building from the road or walls. The contrast between the walled canyons outside and the inside was dramatic. After entering our secure home away from home, the main building opened to a green courtyard where the traffic could barely be heard ( a nice side effect of being far enough away from potential suicide attacks). Guest rooms lined the courtyard and over the walls you could sometimes see kites being flown by the local kids. The situation reminded me of all the fancy villas I’d walked past in Italy, only to catch a glimpse of the private courtyard inside through the gates. Not quite Italy but close enough.

Just after settling into my room (which surprisingly had 60 channels of TV and internet connection) I met my dutch colleagues Niloufar Tajeri, Lilet Breddels and Joost Janmaat. An hour later we were back in the van, this time joined by our trusty guide Tehir. Tehir has lived his entire life in Kabul and no doubt seen it all, an older gentleman with a warm smile that never left his face (not even when we insisted as a group to explore through an old ruin currently housing squatters and random drug dealers). He quietly and confidently led us through everything in Kabul.

The business of meeting our Kabul contacts began with Dutch architect Anne Feenstra. We arrived at his office and home, the first of several experiences behind the walls of the rest of Kabul. Anne is a Dutch architect who opened an office (AFIR) in Kabul a few years ago, an excellent observationist and expert on the urban fabric of Kabul. He led us through the spacious building now converted into an architects office with all the amenities you would expect to find, CADroom, conference room, office model room etc… Anne, a former architect at Wil Alsop’s in London, proudly showed us a project he completed in an outlying province so remote that it required staying there for several weeks during construction. An experience he would share with us over dinner, the project demonstrated sensitivity by using local materials and building methods. Another project of his which we would see repeatedly displayed throughout town was one of the few mapping surveys of the city. It demonstrated Anne’s interest in the city fabric and his frustration with the choking security, something we would explore further with him in the coming days.

From his office it was off to dinner. While there are hundreds of places to grab a kebab on the street, sit down establishments are a little harder to come by. We made our way to a place nearby called “Rumi”. Like most restaurants catering to western visitors, it was sheltered in a walled compound. Once inside, a tranquil garden and a low rise windowed building created a serene contrast again to the street. Sitting down to candle lights and the flickering of the lights above reminding us of the instability and rarity of having electricity in the city 24 hours a day, we were joined by Sayed Maqbool, the head of the Department of Architecture are Kabul University and Pietro Calogero, an urban planning professor at the Kabul Polytechnic University and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. As the food arrived we discussed our list of contacts in the city and our trip to visit the architecture and fine arts departments at Kabul University the following day. When we returned to our guesthouse I was barely able to keep my eyes open and gladly passed out, happy to finally be in Kabul and looking forward to uncovering more to this chaotic city.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Architecture of Fear on the Road; Pack your bags for Kabul

Its official, the flights have been booked and the hotel (well guest houses) have been reserved, the Architecture of Fear is going to Afghanistan!

You might remember mention of the Archis RSVP events in a previous
post, well after a few months of correspondence and a lot of organizing (all on their end) the event is taking shape. I will be in Kabul from the 23rd to the 28th and am looking forward to an amazing and perspective altering few days. I’m especially looking forward to meeting the talented people who are lined up to participate.

See below for an outline of the event as provided by Archis:

Archis RSVP event 11: Kabul
Oktober 2007

Drawing from earlier experiences with RSVP events on a global scale, but also from an identified local urgency to think through future urban development in Kabul, we will instigate an event with the main goal to formulate specific projects and actions in the public domain in contemporary Kabul.

The two main goals are:
1. To make an inventory of real needs: that can range from the practical to the intellectual.
2. To rethink public space in a way that opens up fresh ideas and helps to create an agenda on a larger scale.
From this we create an action list to be elaborated on in the follow-up.

Further we would like to create an alternative perspective on Kabul’s contemporary society then is usually conveyed in the media.


How do we know Kabul? As a city of warlords, a frontline, a zone of utter destruction caused by modern warfare, a place of religious intolerance, the capital that is painstakingly reconstructed while a war is fought in the south. Kabul is a far-away place, dangerous and hostile - this is our outsider’s point of view. Reality, however, is more complex.

Makeshift Metropolis

Kabul is probably the most heterogeneous territory in the country, perhaps even of Central Asia, obviously greatly scarred by almost three decades of war. Its present situation as an awakening city that faces unprecedented urban growth reveals, however, the potential to become a booming Mega City within short time (it has grown from 500,000 people in 2001 to currently 6 to 7 million people). Its inhabitants are hopeful, energetic and eager to build up their city – strikingly enough they form the main driving force of reconstruction bootstrapping new settlements and economies in all parts of the city and throughout all parts of society.
But is there an overall governance of it all? Are there forces that provide people with infrastructure, water, electricity, security and thus create a setting of fairness and equality? Local authorities and the government along with international and military organizations face tremendous problems in collaboration. And not only do they struggle with their tasks but, as being inhabitants of the city themselves, fashion their direct surrounding according to their own needs, cultural habits and interpretations of security.
The result is the privatization of public space - a city of barb wired spaces and concrete barricades emerging from and simultaneously fostering distrust and the loss of dialogue among citizens. At the same time unregulated occupation of space follows Darwinian rules negating the process of democratization.

How do people assimilate to this fight over public space? How do they respond to violations to their freedom of movement and assembly? How do they shape their environment when the state withdraws? And what kinds of interventions are possible in this context?

Archis RSVP Kabul
RSVP Kabul will focus on the role and function of the public spaces in the city. It will investigate how public space is used in practice, and to what effect it could be used as an instrument of engineering the urban society.

The event will focus on a small number of specific sites. It is on this very local level that we ask participants to Repondez SVP; to formulate observations, witnessing and recommendations.
We intend to pinpoint these sites for the formulation of specific projects in order to foster change. Bringing together local energy of architects, planners, artists and writers will lead to alternative ways of solving practical urban issues regarding planning, restitution, design, identity and memory.

During a period of four days we will explore several sites in Kabul and have on site discussions and fact finding – meetings with the task to create an action list. A few pilot projects will be identified to elaborate on in 2008.

Archis Interventions will advise and monitor the concrete and practical projects from the action list and helps to find partners and financing. Furthermore A.I. seeks to discern the pivotal issues from the local debate that are of interest to a regional and international discourse. These debates will be voiced in Volume magazine and lead to the formation of regional networks.

Proposed Partners in Kabul

- AKDN, Anna Soave (AKTC)
- Department of Architecture (Kabul University) Hemayat Azizi
- Pietro Calogero, a Berkeley PhD student specialising in urban planning who is presently teaching at the Faculty.
- Sayed Maqbool, urban planner and teacher at the Faculty, who is now also working for KURP (Kabul Urban Reconstruction Project)
- Lida Abdul, artist
Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA) Rahraw Omarzad (artist, writer, editor of “Gahnama-e-Hunar)
- Fred Levrat, architect
- Anne Feenstra
- Rafi Samizay
+ Students (4th-5th year of the Faculty of Architecture)

+ other participants

Knowledge Partner
AKTC, the cultural branch of the Aga Khan Development Network, is the knowledge partner and host of the first RSVP event in Kabul. Main agreements on venues and dates will be developed in collaboration with AKTC.

Proposed Public Sites for investigation (further suggestions are welcome)

1. Park Zarnegar - the “waiting room” of the city centre, it gathers hundreds of people in “transit” between destinations, it is surrounded by a number of highly contrasted buildings and functions (e.g. the municipality, the great mosque, the Serena Hotel, the Istiqlal School, the Public Library, the commerce etc).

2. Shahr-e Naw Park, green recreational area next to Park Cinema.

3. The awkward space fronting the Spinzar Hotel, on the riverfront. The typical public square that has been lost to parking, toilet and informal vending.

4. The green spine down the Silo Road, just below the InterContinental Hotel. It has been recuperated, protected, greened and is now used (little) by the growing number of people that are moving into the houses built along the road.

5. The embankment of the river Kabul, from Pul-i Kishti to Park Nauroz (Deh Mazang)

6. Chamane Huzuri, a place with a very rich history, an iconic public space that could do with some great ideas for its revival

7. The hilltop of the Nader Shah Mausoleum hill? (where kids fly their kites) – a bit of waste land that has become a ‘hanging out’ place for young people

8. Park Sare Shomali, the spine of green along the road that goes to the Shomali plain, just before the mountain shoulder. Informal (grabbed land) settlements on both sides, with no water or services.

9. Olympics swimmingpool on Bibi Mahru Hill. Popular place for gathering in week-ends.

About us

Organization from the Netherlands
Archis Interventions, NAi, Partizan Publik

Archis Foundation is a cultural think tank devoted to the process of real-time spatial and cultural reflexivity.
Archis Publishers is publishing Volume Magazine, a project by Archis, AMO (Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and C-Lab (the architectural laboratory of Columbia University)
Archis Interventions organizes international events that initiate interdisciplinary debate on spatial and cultural issues and intervenes in deadlocked situations;
Archis Tools advises (governmental) social and cultural organizations and private companies on a variety of urban and spatial issues.
See also

NAi – The Netherlands Architecture Institute is more than a museum of architecture. It is above all a cultural institute which is open to the public and which uses a variety of methods for communicating about the shaping of human space. The institute offers facilities for research and a platform for discussion. The NAI presents exhibitions and issues publications which aim to inform, inspire, and stimulate both professionals and the general public.
See also

Partizan Publik is a think and action tank devoted to a braver society.
The Partizans explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments, which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings. As such we take part in the complex and continuous process of global social engineering by implementing capacity building projects, instigating social research, producing journalistic accounts and organizing public events.

See also

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New ID Photos Added & Jane Rendell coming soon...

New items added to the Improvised Design photopool. Check them out.

Coming up soon. Jane Rendell's "Art & Architecture, A Place in Between". Where do improvised architectural responses to crisis fall in relation to architecture with a "A" and the world of "in-situ" and "off-site" art installations? Rendell makes some interesting assertions about functional art that might make you question your assumptions. More soon....

Monday, August 13, 2007

Improvised Design Photopool

Haha, take that summer, score one for the Blog.

The "Improvised Design Photopool" is up and running.

Please take a look and more importantly please contribute to this fledgling collection of the worlds mostly unrecognized yet universal examples of how design exists at all levels of scope, budget, time and location. The improvised designs of those who build and make out of necessity should act as an inspiration for those who have any interest or connection with the world of design. It’s my hope that with the combination of inspiration through exposure and the background of training in design that new ideas can be fostered from this less than mainstream source.

The link again:

My apologies in advance if you are not a FLICKR member but registration is required to post images and is free and highly worth it for this reason and many others.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Improvised Architecture Photopool - Coming Soon

Fighting back the strong summer urges to give-in to the heat and associated laziness, I have been able to follow through on at least one of my plans. In connection with previous research and the Improvised Architectural Device proposal I’d like to put together a catalogue of Improvised Architecture and Design. Included in the proposal is the concession that “improvised design” exists today in abundance mainly through necessity. In many of these cases these designs offer relief in the form of shelter or other highly functional design. This innovative design is also largely created by those who use it and with little or no training as designers or builders.

It is this bridge between functionality, necessity and design which I find so interesting as well as the unexploited opportunity for the design community to embrace.

In order to inspire and in general to make visible this element of the world around us I will be creating a photopool of images through the FLICKR website which will be open to all to join and contribute to. It is my hope that through a collaborative effort we can expose each other to unique and otherwise unseen examples of design ingenuity which will in turn excite and motivate those who by training can make informed design decisions to apply this concept to other situation of equal necessity and challenge.

The details of the Improvised Design Photopool will be forthcoming in the next week as I prepare the site with some initial content. Please stay tuned for the announcement of its launch and in the meantime please keep your cameras ready and eyes open for that which is improvised, unique and inspiring.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cities UnBuilt - VOLUME Issue #11

Today in conflict areas around the world architecture is being targeting in a kind of genocide of the built world. So says Ole Bouman and Robert Bevan and a host of other authors in the 11th issue of VOLUME magazine titled “Cities UnBuilt”. The term unbuilt is an interesting one. With the systematic targeting of architecture based solely on the cultural and social value of the buildings and not those inside (termed Warchitecture in Sarajevo in 1993), cities are picked apart during the course of war. This is a new tactic since historically the destruction of the built environment was considered a military necessity or merely collateral damage. With this surgical unraveling of a city or town’s fabric they are essentially becoming unbuilt. I do think that we should be careful in how this term is thrown around in reference to the destruction of buildings. During war, the destruction of buildings is exactly that, destruction. To be unbuilt I feel implies a certain care which can only be claimed at the scale of urban planning. To unbuild a specific building would I think entail its deconstruction in a similar but opposite way to its construction. It implies an incremental process, not the wholesale instantaneous leveling of a building. Anyway my point here is not to debate the term but discuss its effects and the conditions following it.

Ole Bouman in his introductory piece “The Architecture of Destruction” starts framing this debate by suggesting that violence and conflict are now seen as inevitable and even taken for granted. Bouman tells us that through the specific targeting of our buildings, the goal is to incite outrage and fear as these targets are symbols of the opponent’s value system. He claims that architecture is not set up well to deal with despair or to place itself in a society which acknowledges the human condition as possibly a dangerous, fanatical and destructive force. One easily then makes the connection from architecture to its parents, the architects, and asks should architects take responsibility in considering the destruction of their buildings?

In a way they do. Consideration must be given to the gradual effects of gravity, the environment and the users so in this sense they consider the slow unbuilding but not necessarily the outright destruction of their buildings. This destruction might occur through acts of war or through other disaster.

What role then should we adopt as the contributors to the built world around us. Is it enough to merely recognize the targeted destruction of the buildings around us and the associated erasure of history and culture as well? Should we speak against it as creators/activists/preservationists and advocate its protection and exclusion from such treatment? Or should we go beyond this, take matters into our own hands and protect our own buildings. In thinking about this it leads me to consider the link from protected architecture to architecture as protection and we are back to the conversation about buildings as our own personal bunkers. Lets entertain the idea that significant social and cultural architecture should be protected and excluded from destruction during war. Its interesting to think then that in this case what you have created in essence is architecture as protection only instead of using four foot thick concrete walls, you are using the history and cultural importance as a shield. It’s a sticky situation to get around and for that reason probably why in most cases there is no such thing as untouchable architecture in the world of warfare.

So lets say then that there is no protection of our precious architectural achievements and that the architectural circle of life must continue unabated. In Ole Bouman’s aforementioned piece he makes a statement I find powerful. He says “Perhaps the most daring and at the same time uncanny position is for architects who devise strategies to cope with destruction by finding ways to deceive, ridicule or pervert it and in doing so possibly help to avoid it.” This I think is fantastic.

Niloufar Tajeri’s essay “Towards Non-destructive Aid” highlights the fact that relief architecture in response to conflict “negate and erase contexts” and that more often than not they are deployed temporarily but never are. The problem here is that this is the norm. The cookie cutter solution does not subvert the destruction which it responds to in any way. In Esther Charlesworth’s essay “Architects Should Act!” she makes a call for what she describes as roaming, collaborative, mobile agents to work outside traditional constraints. I think this would definitely take steps to address the problem that as architects we are not responding quick enough to the vacuum created by a post conflict situation.

Traditionally architects have thrived on post disaster situations due to opportunities for rebuilding. In this day and age, the architect’s role it seems has been relegated or by choice limited to maintaining an established image of an environment which already exists. In other cases it is to establish this same image in a location where it is at least is deemed safe & ready to accept it (ie. Dubai). What architects need to do is pounce on the opportunities created in post conflict scenarios despite the discomfort and embrace the potential to implement new non-western language (or western if its appropriate) and create something unique to the situation. This may require a more Macgyver (untraditional ad-hoc) methodology of design but the challenge should provide for interesting results. These unorthodox solutions could subvert the destruction and as a consequence devalue the violence and its necessity. Its time to bring the Wild West to architecture, attention all architects, get on your horses and ride.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Postopolis Recap

So its almost been a month, I figured I should probably recap The Architecture of Fear's participation in what was a great event. Take a look at the links below for other opinion on the day and the blogger panel specfically:

and almost full coverage at City of Sound.

The conversation was a short one and pointed out most interstingly the lack of female bloggers at the event although as it was then pointed out that they are out there. Other conversation centered on the relation of new content to site hits and the beauty of anonymity in the blogging world. Post discussion drinks were had and the conversation picked up. Introductions were made, emails were exchanged, and the seeds for grand plans of collaboration were planted. I'm excited for some potential spin-offs in the future as a result.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

RECAP: Davis+Virillio+Miessen+Colomina+Trüby

Often times I find myself working on something for long enough that when I realize how close I’ve gotten to it I need to pull my nose off the page. Sometimes a little perspective or retrospective is necessary. In my case this was literally accomplished during the installation of the GSAPP Year End Show exhibit. By being able to stand back and take it all in I was also able to critically examine some common threads of thought between the different authors I had been critiquing individually.

I want to begin with a connection made across Mike Davis and Paul Virillio. One of my favorite thoughts expressed by Davis was the need for us to adjust our perspective towards change and disaster. I like this because it’s not something that you commonly hear and because of the potential to view this as a slightly cynical position. You can just imagine a group of people whose homes were wiped off a mountainside in a mudslide reacting to someone saying “You should have seen it coming!” You never hear that because it’s insensitive, it’s insensitive but it’s true. Anyway, Virillio in his book “War and Cinema” makes a similar point in regards to military battle, “…the history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” I’d like to bring these two thoughts on perspective and perception together by referencing Beatriz Colomina and her writing about the Underground Home. Colomina illustrates the conversion of the home to a battlefield through its use of technology pioneered by military use. If she argues that the home is now a battlefield then it too might be subject to radically changing fields of perception as Virillio states. Danger from disaster, war and even around the home all require regular reevaluation of perspective and contextual understanding.

In contrast to any kind of adaptive contextual understanding, all the authors at some point make comment about either boundaries, borders or definitions. Davis is especially critical in an urban planning sense about policing through architectural boundaries whether it’s through physically gated communities or by police controlled zoning laws. Stephan Trüby claims that its difficult to define the difference between what architecture is and what could be the world around it. Virillio speaks about war without war as the state acts with military power without defining it as war in a game of political semantics. I think this tendency towards the definition of terms, boundaries, edges, etc, relates to the larger concept of outside versus inside, or often times as us versus them. This language of division is essential in defining defense, fortification (which only exists with two sides of a wall) and conflict (which needs two sides). Inside versus Outside is the architectural representation of combat and conflict. Davis claims that by establishing hard boundaries or reversing the traditional roles of these spaces that they have become marginalized (he cites the new suburban streetscape as a sewer for cars devoid of human life). Colomina outlines the extreme interiorization and exclusion of the exterior in the home. These are signs of our attempt to tame the exterior and domesticate it. If using the Underground Home as an example then Trüby certainly has a point about the fuzzy definition of architecture.

Markus Miessen’s essay on the architecture of deprivation also demonstrates the language of inside and outside as he speaks about the detachment of the exterior and the introverted effects of space designed to deprive. In this case the fear is generated from within. According to Trüby’s explanation of fear the internal location of fear qualifies it as risk versus an external origin of fear which qualifies as danger. In all of these examples it becomes apparent that when looking at the role of architecture in relation to the effects of fear one of its primary roles is that of separation. This notion can have many different labels; defense, fortification, protection, zoning, interior, exterior, public, private, secured, unsecured, or opaque and transparent.

Finally I want to touch on two smaller themes I found interesting. Both the mention of Scale and the Culture of War intrigued me. I thought Colomina’s essay on the Underground Home was interesting because of it’s reduction of the scale to the home. The home was one of the first places where the military apparatus was introduced to the common man/woman through appliances and the scale of the individual. Trüby addresses the scale of the individual towards the end of his essay on 5 Codes with some thoughts on a pervasive protected space which he envisioned at a personal scale.

Both Trüby and Colomina also speak to the Culture of War, Trüby in his discussion of classical society and its seamless integration of the celebration of war into its architecture and Colomina in her observation of the home as engaged in combat. I’ve heard the argument that Culture and War do not mix and to that I’d quickly direct anyone towards these writings and authors. War is heavily engrained in our culture, whether it’s classical society or today; look at any classical triumphal architecture or the current pop-culture use of camouflage. These are obvious examples and the list goes on.

Postopolis! Update

So the schedule has been finalized. I'll be part of a panel discussion with bloggers Alec Appelbaum, Abe Burmeister, John Hill, Miss Representation, Aaron Plewke, Enrique Ramirez, Quilian Riano, Chad Smith, and others to be announced beginning around 5pm on Saturday June 2nd. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Postopolis and the Architecture of Fear

Many thanks to Geoff Manaugh and Jill Fehrenbacher for inviting me to participate in the Postopolis! event at the Storefront for Art & Architecture here in New York.

Its happening Tuesday, May 29, to Saturday, June 2, 2007 at the Storefront for Art & Architecture.

I've been tentatively scheduled to participate in a discussion on architecture and blogging on June 2nd, time has yet to be determined. Stay tuned for more details as they emerge.

For more info check out BLDG BLOG.

A description from the Storefront:

Postopolis! is a five-day event of near-continuous conversation about architecture, urbanism, landscape, and design. Four bloggers, from four different cities, will host a series of live discussions, interviews, slideshows, panels, talks, and other presentations, and fuse the informal energy and interdisciplinary approach of the architectural blogosphere with the immediacy of face to face interaction.

End of Year Show Wrap-Up

So the semester is over and the show has just wrapped up. Take a look below at images from the opening of the Year End Show and a little explanation about the exhibit:

The intention of the exhibit was to provide a glimpse at my thought process and to illustrate literally the connections I’ve made across the research conducted during the course of this past semester. As one can imagine, visually representing pages and pages of written notes and blog posts in an interesting way was a little bit of a challenge. Conveying the interactive nature of the blog as an outlet and forum for the topic of the Architecture of Fear could have also been problematic. As a response to both challenges the exhibit consisted of two layers.

The first layer illustrated information specific to the blog. In previous work I had come across a beautiful and informative world map put together by a crisis management company which showed levels of threat caused by terror and the groups which could be responsible. This image became the basis for plotting the locations of blog hits over the duration of the study which were surprisingly diverse (in as much as it can be expected being a blog in the English language). The overlapping of this info could also correlate the interest in the site with high risk areas. This could be true however strictly on the basis that developed nations (ie with reliable access to the internet) are for the most part the highest targets of potential terror attacks.

The second layer contained all the writing completed for the blog postings and the notes which preceded them. The goal was to make the summary of the reading (the notes) available to view and then the corresponding blog post. The connections between the notes were then literally connected visually with twine. One color (light green) was given for internal connections (between the notes and the corresponding post) another color (dark green) was given for external connections (ideas and concepts found in multiple posts). A third color (orange) was assigned for the viewers to make their own connections as they saw fit since they were provided the information to make their own decisions. This aspect of the exhibit was less successful and admittedly wasn’t anticipated as being the most popular (dozens of pages of tiny text still doesn’t lend itself to quick digestion by a full house of gallery patrons). Finally as a last ditch effort to draw in participants, pins were provided for them to locate their hometowns and places of origin to chart the crowd which viewed it. This was a little more widely used. Anyway as an exercise it proved valuable on my end since putting it together allowed me to see all of the work I’ve done as a connected body and not just as individual thoughts. I hope to get more on these connections and the digestion of the viewer input up in the near future.

Thanks to all those who attended and participated and to the school for providing me the space.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) is having a Year End Exhibition of which this Independent Study will be a part of. Check back in the next week for images of the event or if you are in the neighborhood please feel free to come see for yourself. Details for the event:

GSAPP End of Year Exhibition
Opening Saturday May 12th 6pm - 8pm
Avery Hall, Columbia Univerisity
116th St and Broadway
New York City

The Architecture of Fear will feature an interactive exhibit and will be located in Avery Hall on the 4th Floor.

The exhibition will continue until the 25th of May.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Improvised Architectural Devices

As mentioned in a previous post, Archis magazine is hosting global RSVP events with calls for submission on subjects from Heritage to Paranoia. With the upcoming event in Kabul this summer focusing on Security the lure was irresistible. As an extension of my research this is a great opportunity to connect ideas to a tangible architectural product. As a combination of both written research and built research, each will contribute to the other by making links between them and thereby strengthening the work. Below is a synopsis of my proposal. Stay tuned for updates as the deadline is the end of April and decisions will be made shortly after.

Improvised Explosive Devices vs Improvised Architectural Devices

IED’s can be prepared almost anywhere and used anywhere.
They are quickly made and used
They use ready made and found material
They are low-tech
They are flexible in scale, application, and type
They are inexpensive
They create and define space in places without boundary or definition beforehand (through zones of destruction and trauma)
They affect emotion (through fear and destruction)
They create a lasting effect long after their original use (through trauma left behind)

What if we were to create Improvised Architectural Devices? (IADs)

IADs could be prepared almost anywhere and used everywhere
They could be quickly made and used
They could use ready made and found material
They could be low-tech
They could be flexible in scale, application and type
They could be inexpensive
They could create and define space in places without boundary or definition beforehand (through zones of construction and comfort)
They could affect emotion (through safety and shelter)
They could create a lasting effect long after their original use (through their utility)

Essential in this proposal is the understanding that IEDs while detestable objects, have redeeming architectural qualities which can be re-implemented in positive fashion. Their reasons for utility and effectiveness are what we wish to harness for our purposes. These qualities I have identified above. Beginning with the IED’s ability to be constructed and deployed anywhere, IADs must possess this property. Their construction should be as such that they can be built on site or off-site and easily transported to their final site.

This is facilitated by mimicking IED’s use of found and ready made material. The use of simple and economic materials allows for this and also allows for low or no economic cost. This is critical in making IADs accessible to any group regardless of their financial situation and resources. As a consequence of using found materials, the lack of complexity or need for specialized tools is also necessary.

In order for IADs to be architectural, they must acknowledge space in some way. They don’t necessarily need to create enclosed space but they must make reference to the definition of a space, separation of a space or absence of space. In engaging space they must also adapt to multiple scales. IEDs come in many sizes and are tailored to their specific tasks, IADs should be no different. They should also seek to create comfort in their resolutions. It is one thing to create a solution to a problem, but the interest of the IAD is also that it understands the human requirements and interactions of its users.

IADs must be substantial enough to make a lasting contribution or at least address the problem for the duration of its existence if it is a temporary condition. They do not necessarily need to be temporary constructions. IADs must address a problem even if at the smallest scale, they cannot be installations or art pieces. They should however seek where possible to achieve a contemplated and conscious aesthetic, they are architectural after all.

Potential Uses:
One can envision IADs deployed in the following examples including but not limited to:

reating shelter for children within the home from shrapnel or gunfire through weaving found and discarded clothing with found metal to create a homemade ballistic shield
-Creating insulation to line the home or apartment from found material
-Creating a locking enclosure to secure valuables
-Creating a privacy screen between living units providing visual, and audio separation

Since the implementation of IADs is predicated on the response to specific contextual parameters, each solution will be different and therefore it is difficult to speculate on the exact nature of each.

Extension of Concept:
The need for real and timely architectural solutions in crisis situations is not unique to developing nations but is a global condition. It is my hope that through the implementation of an IAD in Kabul the development of the concept through this trip will foster an interest in expanding this idea and implementing it in all conditions whether conflict stricken locations in a developing nation or in public housing in urban America. Every condition is unique but the underlying essence of the IAD is its adaptability it takes from the IED. Because of this it lends itself to be applied on a greater scale and in a diverse way.