Earth's Habitat Change

Pouchulu architect

9 - Architectural Actions: Survival

The pre-human natural scenario is long finished. We have to adapt to what is left. The inertia of the environmental damage produced cannot be stopped. Two actions must be taken: first, we have to live with the consequences of our industrial civilisation, eliminating all highly contaminant industrial production, optimising the rest; second, we must change our precarious habitat conscience to avoid further damage in the future. Oceans, land and atmosphere have been modified beyond turning-back possibilities. According to the majority of scientists, Geo-engineering (intervening climate in global magnitude) does not seem a good option. Agricultural lands, coastal and river populated areas will not remain the same, which is irrelevant considering the life-span of the Earth's evolution, but quite severe when framed in human's life-span. To re-balance what will be left must be our objective, and stop pollution forever, a command. The Argentine aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo pictured below circa 1982 (former UK HMS Venerable R63, and Netherlands HNLMS Karel Doorman R81), seems to be the type of construction -in this case mobile and on water- that could be assimilated as architecture: a floating piece of land, a platform with a tower on top and infrastructure underneath. I discussed on this subject with Sir Peter Cook back in 1998, some afternoon at the Bartlett and, according to Peter, it is interesting to consider certain kind of ships (in this case, a major one), as a piece of architecture. 

Argentine aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo (former UK HMS Venerable R63, and Netherlands HNLMS Karel Doorman R81), circa 1982.

In fact any mobile construction or machine can become architecture if certain conditions apply: first, it has to be thought and designed not just with ergonometric parameters, but for an explicit multi-spatial functionality; for instance, a caravan is a vehicle that travels on a route and then stops, opens its back or side doors and suddenly is integrated with the surroundings: then it becomes a temporary camp for its occupants, which is clearly an architecture action; second, it should not only offer shelter against weather, but serve to certain specialised living qualities: working, resting, playing; third, it has to be flexible enough to offer different unexpected or unplanned activities. There are a few architectural principles in history so clearly defined like Organicism, which in many ways has to do with survival, I will explain why. The spirit of a building is something not difficult to see or perceive... if it has one. In general, classic architecture had a strong link with nature and mind (geometry, maths); this relation was not only figurative -anthropomorphic language represented in the Orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) but the whole architecture system was based on a repertoire of signs, that referred to proportions and human scale. This is the first principle abandoned by Modern Movement (CIAM, Le Corbusier), however kept by a few masters like Walter Gropius or Richard Neutra, not associates with the former, and both admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Second, proportions also had to do with the ergonometric vector of a person walking in continuity both in outdoors or surroundings of the building and in its interior.

Pouchulu's London Bridge Project, London, UK, 1998, a living bridge (linear city on top) on legs (flats) over a road bridge, connecting the North with the South of London: waiting for sea level rise? Pencil, coloured pencils and oil on Canson.

This has not been seriously considered, but classic architecture, from the Hellenistic times till the late 19th century was primarily a complex reality perceived and experienced from the point of view of the user. It is not possible to explain the approach to the Partenon, walking from the Propylaea, passing by minor temples, changing the angles of vision, preparing emotionally in complex intimate perceptions, to finally enter the Pathenon, where the Athenea goddess sculpture was standing, I repeat, it is not possible to explain it in any drawing or model representation: you had to walk, and that path was a procession in real time, at a particular moment in the afternoon, in a determined day, architecture was real. We cannot recreate that in a screen, or in any virtual representation, even if we put a helmet and imagine we are there...we are not. Classic architecture had the complexity and beauty of reality, which in the Acroplis included the dramatic qualities of the air, the long perspectives and the effect of mist, the wind, the olive smell, flowers and the humidity of the stones.

Pouchulu's London Bridge Project, London, UK, 1998, the "belly" under the main platform, towards Southwark. Pencil, coloured pencils and oil on Canson.

Classical architecture was represented as a language, not as a metalanguage like today, where we gave up reality and got conformed with representations that simulate and copy reality, impersonating reality, but they are not. The discussions, most of the time, assume that once we "all" thanks to hyperrealism capacities (computer generated BIM models, animations), the process of architectural creation is finished. The results are, to say the least, catastrophic. Built architecture tries to copy or assimilate virtual renderings, not the intentions of the architect's hand. In the classic world, as we pointed in previous chapters, architecture and the urban space started to be figured, suggested by hand-made drawings and then completed and modified during construction thanks to the hands of builders and dozen different artisans' métiers. Therefore, the final result was always richer. This, in the context of professionals and experts that knew how materials worked, how they looked, how they aged. That beauty of reality, so much adored by Romanticism, was emulated for the last time during Brutalism and Structuralism, in the sixties and seventies. It is sad to see so many noble structures to be demolished... because their concrete became darker and greenish. Because of the "clean image" produced by industrial prefabricated materials that belong to the indeed beautiful aesthetics of cars and machines -precise, straight and polished like never before- and the extreme cold neatness of digital rendering, the sensitivity of architects evolved into a "plastic" type of reality where materials have to be glossy and smooth, they cannot have any smell, age or become deteriorated. At the end, by rejecting materiality, we are denying Father Time. Like many up-nose upper-class soup-flavoured old women, our buildings have plastic surgery on a regular basis... How beautiful was the trace of time in our cities! In that sense, only a few places, like Venice, parts of Rio de Janeiro, remind how the old world looked like. Now, why this has to do with survival? It is simple. The more input and effort we put in forcing the response of a building against time, the more expensive and anti-ecological it becomes. Indeed, materials deteriorate, even stone, but one thing is to assume we must replace our whole environment after a few years because it looks old or out of fashion, another thing is to admit we must replace parts here and there to extend its life-span. Idealism is anti-ecological.

Pouchulu's London Bridge Project, London, UK, 1998, main level, upper platform floor. Ink on film.

Our approach to architecture has to be fully revisited, in times of Habitat and climate unstability and even chaos, in order to define what kind of environment and investment we are willing to offer if we want to become sensitive about our lifestyle in relation with Nature. In the best scenario, and simultaneously if the worst prediction becomes a reality, we will have to conform with extreme situations where the lack of energy, materials and available habitable land we force us to accept whatever shelter to protect from the elements. We have been extracting materials and destroying forests for many millenia, in the last two hundred years we waisted time, energy, money in endless useless theoretical discussions about language, images and representation. Time to revisit the work of Joseph Paxton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Kenzo Tange. Game is over.

Ships are mobile architecture, floating shelters that silently fight for survival against the immense ocean and fierce winds. It is not science fiction but a reality the imminent need of mobile architecture, industrialised, light and modular, to face the changing requirements of our near-future extreme environment, which is amplified by overpopulation and overexploitation. The UN knows about this, not only that temporary camps are needed in increasing numbers year after year, but social housing. There is no budget for that, and, if we keep on building heavy and expensive stuff, it seems there will never be. Millions of climate, war and economic displaced communities are slowly but increasingly moving from inhabitable areas to more appropriate ones. As the process is relatively slow and far from big cities, media is not showing it with the real drama it requires, and if it does, again, it is not real, but something we see in a screen. In the last few years (2012 onwards) hundred of thousand of timber homes were burned to ashes in California, Spain, Portugal, China, because of extreme temperatures in regions naturally dry, in some suburban spots now covered up to 30% with asphalt and concrete, that facilitate the concentration of heat and does not allow night cooling. Mobile architecture is an issue rarely explored in a large scale, and is becoming imperative to protect lives, belongings and memories, even whole communities. The drama of refugees is not normally understood. We seem to be blind for those news. Ordinary people not affected seem to have been hypnotised by preserving virtual memories in the so called Internet "clouds", not realising that one printed photo is worth million digital images... because that picture has the fingerprints of lost loved ones, the smell of places... Again, we are ignoring Time, we pretend our memories are immortal and we play with this supposedly immortality though virtual images, ignoring that the traces of life in objects, places, cities, is what brings our memories alive. To protect our life, keeping our memories and a few valuable objects with us is something inherent to any culture. Whether we consider this type of shelters a sort of mobile architecture or plain sophisticated tents is not relevant. We must give an answer, using all available and affordable technology, to an increasingly habitat protection demand. It is not visible yet, because it did not affect those who manage the news media. Sooner or later it will. 

In reality, any modern cruiser is a good shelter for a few thousand people, they could easily be transformed in temporary, mid-term or even permanent shelter. It happened during WWI and WWII, where all cruisers of countries involved were transform in logistic, hospital or accommodation ships. If for any reason small communities decide to live on the sea, is it sustainable in the long term? Shall we start building floating cities? All indicates that it is feasible, particularly if close to existing coastal cities.

Read the next chapter, here.


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