Monday, April 04, 2011

waving the black flag

Through the timber window frames and the countless books on the oak-tree shelves of the library, I could see Fortnum & Mason. Two days ago members of an anarchist initiative occupied the building during the marches against spending cuts and I was standing in front of the very windows that I now looked through. Back home, long time ago, old friend S. had been a member of an anarchist-communist initiative. He wrote for the short-lived Mülksüzler (carefully chosen name, with a slight inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed), and to Kara Kızıl Notlar (Turkey's admittedly first theory-based anarchist journal). He co-ordinated a group of us translate parts of a manifesto. These had followed our days of occupation and boycott of the university's privately-run cafeteria in their very naive but sincere and well-organised attempts to get the lunch meal prices down. Long gone were the days of action and quasi-autonomus movements now... But two days ago I wondered if I would run into S. during the marches as I now remembered him for a moment whilst gazing out onto Piccadilly.


We had just attended a session titled Preservation / Destruction as part of the Royal Academy: Future Forum series, held at the Geological Society. Ippolito Pestellini and James Westcott of OMA discussed the provocations and implications of preservation, exploring how “our obsession with heritage is creating an artificial re-engineered version of our memory…” The presentation was an extension of their project titled Cronocaos which was exhibited at the 2010 Venice Biennale. It was in a way, as they described it, an explanation of what they exhibited at the Biennale, which was not fully understood by the audience. The idea of Cronocaos was initially to focus on 26 projects that have not been presented before as a body of work concerned with time and history. However, there was also a secondary meaning attached to it, as described in their words: "2010 is the perfect intersection of two tendencies that will have so-far untheorised implications for architecture: the ambition of the global taskforce of ‘preservation’ to rescue larger and larger territories of the planet, and the – corresponding? – global rage to eliminate the evidence of the postwar period of architecture as a social project".

As OMA claim, "while 12% of the world's surface is listed as heritage site (only a small proportion, 1.8% being built-up environment, whereas the rest include natural environments); there is an ongoing destruction of some other sort of heritage that is mainly driven by certain ideologies". This destruction was mainly carried out on postwar socialist architecture, the likes of which include many housing estates, including Robin Hood Gardens or Woodberry Down Estate in London (LSE Cities recently held an informal screening event for a documentary film titled Utopia London that also touches on this issue). Such examples are abundant throughout Europe, not limited only to the discourse of postwar socialism, but to a wider range of issues to do with the language of modernist architecture, be that a building for residents or for cultural or political enterprises . In Istanbul, the debate around demolition of Ataturk Kultur Merkezi and Istanbul Manifaturacilar Carsisi, prime examples of modernist architecture, can be recognised as part of this phenomenon, especially at a time, when an entire neighbourhood occupied by Roma people, next to the Theodisian Walls, was razed to pave way to construction of neo-Ottomanesque rows of villas, a government-led action that was a product of a semi-romantic ideology that rejects any heritage it the style of internationalist movements. OMA describes this phenomenon in the following terms: "There is now a global consensus that postwar architecture – and the optimism it embodied about architecture’s ability to organise the social world – was an aesthetic and ideological debacle". Although the aesthetics of this debate does play a crucial role, as much as the long-term incapability in supplying the necessary social infrastructure for its users, further crippled by the policies that followed after the periods of modernist movements in architecture; this is far from a unique occurrence in the history of built environment. OMA also touches upon that: "Our resignation is expressed in the flamboyant architecture of the market economy, which has its own built-in commercial expiration date". Expiration date does in deed matter, and there seems to be a random function has determined the extension of expiration dates of certain architectural heritage.

After all, there is significance in what we decide not to preserve (hence destruct, or allow for decay and destruct), and what we decide to. The presentation touched upon this through quite various and clever examples (including that of a project held in Venice and a house that was listed within the month it was constructed). The underlying message was that it is difficult to play with and evolve a preserved, or rather, a listed building or a site. Of course they did not fall short of establishing the fact that "preservation" was introduced within the Western culture and has primarily been a preoccupation of this very culture. Introduction of their "Project Japan" tried to support this theory albeit failing to do to appreciate the complexity of the diverse anthropological meanings of the term "preservation" in different contexts. "Mass preservation" may only be a relatively recent Western construct (which helps boost tourism revenues for countries with listed sites, and establishes for them an additional cultural benefit), one can actually go as far back as the ancient civilizations to trace the origins of this idea of "designing buildings that would be listed even before they are built". After all, the notion of "building to last forever" was arguably an ancient, and one that was always embedded in part of the Western understanding.

On the other hand, much was not discussed in this forum about the very different understanding of aesthetics and progression in the Eastern cultures. Japanese do "preserve" some of the ancient traditions, as was rightly noted, and in deed sometimes destruct and re-construct them. This was displayed with an example of a temple that was re-built 14 times. But the Japanese have also embedded a unique form of modernity through constant progress that frequently means demolition of the idle in masses, without necessarily re-constructing the same form (I am trying not to go into the unavoidable forms of total erasure through natural disasters such as earthquakes, here). A history of Meiji restoration, which went chronologically and culturally parallel to the late Ottoman and the subsequent early Turkish modernisation, helps us understand the nuance in the approach to "preservation". But of course, the time and the scope of the session would not suffice to go into these debate. Although they may not have had the time for it during the presentation, Ippolito Pestellini did actually appreciate a comment from the audience during the Q&A session, that suggested that the current "stasis" in Europe's cultural and political dominance, as well as the decline in its rate of progress could help us understand the roots of the establishment of these heritage codes that were being criticised. One may argue that the recent notion of heritage management is an attempt to re-establish the cultural superiority of the Western ideals in a frontier in which the post-colonial discourse still seems to hold relevance.

In their final analysis, OMA's presentation did also hint to a clever provocation of re-thinking "preservation", and with it, the notion of "destruction", for which they had adopted the Unesco's Heritage document and re-written an "agenda for progressive destruction". The floor was then given to three respondents, followed by a very well chaired panel discussion and Q&A by Christopher Woodward.

The first respondent,
Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, started his response by stressing that listing buildings and sites for heritage are not acts of "preservation", but of "conservation". He defined preservation as "an attempt to keep the qualities of a building in its original form" almost in a stage of stasis whereas conservation meant "protecting a building by improving its conditions, and managing its already available resources while keeping loyal to its original qualities". Making the obvious comparison between the passive and active qualities of the two actions, well known by architects and planners, he claimed that English Heritage sought to conserve buildings that were significant to the built-up environment of English architecture. That said, with a hint of criticism of OMA's presentation, Thurley did go on to approve of their idea that a fetishist approach to listing heritage sites created problems for progress in the business of conservation. However, he also claimed that, according to the studies they carried out, the public in England felt that more buildings than currently listed should be included as part of the English Heritage. Of course, conservation is not a very cheap business and much of the debate around what should and should not be conserved revolves around the issues of values and revenues protected and created by the act of conservation. It was interesting within this context, that a question from the floor by a gentleman at the Q&A session, who had worked long ago at the respective offices of local communities, regarding whether any calculations were made by English Heritage to estimate a threshold (relating to a monetary value of costs to keep maintain the building and run its conservation management) beyond which the costs of conservation would be regarded too high to decide to going ahead conserving the building would not be viable. His experience, as he has shared it, was that decisions on preservation were taken somewhat randomly and these were mainly either a "yes" or a "no" decisions, without much thinking done into the long-term future of the conservation project. He did not observe any such calculations to be made whilst these decisions were taken. The audience was unfortunately not given a very clear answer by Thurley on this question neither.


Following the end of the forum, we moved to library of the Geological Society where people had gathered for drinks. We went on debating the different values of conservation, the obvious social and political implications of preservation/destruction on not only the buildings themselves but also the people who use, live, love, and care about these buildings. We also tried to generate hypothetical urban planning scenarios that dealt with densification, which is a major part of K.'s research. It was then that I realised that the ethical, the cultural, the historical and the aesthetic rationales of conservation seemed to matter less for me than the pure economic benefits of a carefully constructed scenario of non-conservation (destruction, or replacement) that could ensure both short-term and long-term revenues. I did find it myself difficult to construct such strong scenarios, but I was nevertheless surprised to find myself less interested in the conservation of the ornamental ironwork of Fortnum and Mason and the significant history laid in the architecture of the building it occupied. A few years back, I would be fetishisising the knowledge of which architectural era and type I was observing during my history courses in university. Although still far from being anarchistic, I felt this new approach was still a much more progressive line of thought. It could easily lead me to come up wia brutally authoritarian and aesthetically mundane scenario or to a well market-oriented neo-liberal solution were the Fortnum and Mason building to be "destroyed" in this hypothetical scenario.

I then had a final long gaze at the building across the road, behind the timber frames. K. made a quick move to fixed her hair with a not-much-needed attempt to "preserve" its shape. I watched the windows of Fortnum and Mason reflect the traffic signals and cab headlights in absolute calm. A small merry go round was revolving in the underexposed background where the fluorescent blurred onto its shiny surface.

No comments: