Pieces of the city are forming, like islands

[Image: “Shopping mall parking lot, Dubai,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

Photographer Bas Princen has a fantastic new exhibition, called “Refuge,” up at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Tonight, Tuesday, May 11, Princen will be at the gallery for a public event and opening, and it’s well worth checking out.

Storefront describes the show as a “photographic fiction”:

Although it is the result of extensive travels and research in five cities of the Middle East and Turkey—Istanbul, Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Dubai—it could just as easily pass as the pictorial record of a dérive through a single, imaginary city: a city without a center, populated by extraordinary and at times implausible architectural artefacts; an urban laboratory whose physical traits are defined by migratory flows, spatial transformation and geopolitical flux on a continental scale.

[Image: “Cooling plant, Dubai,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

As part of a poster published in tandem with the exhibition, former Storefront director Joseph Grima interviewed Princen about his work, starting off with an inquiry into how Princen’s own background in architectural studies might have affected his photographic approach to the built and natural environments (the interview is also available at Domus).

[Image: “Sand ridge, Amman,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

Princen remarks that, for him, “the camera [is] a tool to construct ideas on space or places, or ideas on architecture and landscape.” For “Refuge,” in particular, he explains that:

My main objective with this project was to create a series of photographs in which Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Dubai and Istanbul disappear as individual cities and as specific places, dissolving instead into a new kind of city, an imaginary urban entity in formation. This premise directed me to specific places in the periphery where pieces of the city are forming, almost like islands, and this accounts for my interest in the refugee camps and gated communities.

Zeroing in specifically on the architecture, Grima then asks him about “the ubiquity of the modernist reinforced-concrete slab-and-column structure,” a construction technique clearly visible in the photographs reproduced here.

[Images: “Former sugarcane field, Cairo,” (2009) and “Ringroad, Cairo,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

Grima suggests that, as a tactic for assembling buildings, this construction technique is “strongly reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Maison Domino.” Princen’s response is brilliant, and worth quoting at length:

It is fascinating that Maison Domino, the quintessential modernist prototype conceived as a universal answer to the housing problem, has in the end inspired the method of choice for informal construction, with or without the help of architects. The many interpretations of the famous Maison Domino prototype I’ve seen are a clear indication that is has become the most universally successful type of construction, but nothing prepared me for Cairo, where this structural system is really pushed to the limits—not only because these buildings in red-brick-and-concrete grids rise to 16 or 17 floors, but also because three quarters of the city is constructed in this way. It is a mesmerizing fictional experience: driving on an elevated highway through this city of red brick towers, trying to imagine who is actually living there.

This latter remark—Princen’s difficulty in imagining these sorts of landscape humanly inhabited—sets the stage for a remark, later in the interview, when Princen mentions that he attempts to maintain a human presence in his photographs—in other words, they are not anthropologically empty landscapes.

[Images: “Mokkatam Ridge (garbage recycling city), Cairo,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

He adds that “the so-called ‘middle distance'”—the scale inhabited by humans—”has not been used much in recent architectural photography,” an industry that tends now to focus on one of two extremes: “the architectural object on the one hand and the cityscape on the other.” But “it is exactly in this middle distance,” Princen counters, “that the human figure becomes an interesting element: it cannot be shown as the main subject, but will always be defined by the relationship with its surroundings, to put an extra meaning or layer on the landscape or object that is photographed.”

As a result, Princen’s photos show us diminutive humans, stranded amidst incomprehensible architectural forms and massive landscapes, neither urban nor rural, pursuing admirably self-directed goals through which to give themselves meaning or, depending on how you look at it, utterly vacuous tasks that they refuse to admit should be abandoned.

[Images: Spreads from “Refuge” by Bas Princen].

Princen has rapidly become one of my favorite photographers; his earlier work, for instance, collected in the stunning Artificial Arcadia, shows, in Grima’s words, “the contemporary landscape as something invariably artificial, even when there is no sign of human intervention.”

What this means, more concretely, is that the book documents transitional landscapes scattered here and there around the Netherlands: “future suburbs,” highway overpass construction sites deep in forested housing estates, thickets planted for no ecological reason other than to block the sounds of a nearby airfield—landscapes that are at once highly abstract, yet ingeniously colonized by the local residents who have turned them into 4×4 race tracks, kite-flying grounds, fishing ponds, sites for paintball tournaments, and more.

They are also landscapes that have been generated, as if unconsciously, by industrial processes seated and operating elsewhere; as such, Princen shows us clay and sand depots, harbor excavation sites, and dumping grounds for contaminated silt and soil. But then, there, on top of those strange landforms, built on no recognizable human scale, there are weekend nature enthusiasts with their cameras out, stalking rare insects and birds that have settled these disrupted terrains.

The book, frankly, is pretty incredible. Take the “acoustic forest”: as mentioned above, it is a landscape “maintained to cushion the noise of a military base and airfield,” showing us an artificial ecosystem as military-sonic camouflage, like something out of Nick Sowers‘s research.

It’s the small humanist flips, however, that interest me so much; a sand dyke, for example, built ostensibly for the same purpose as above, “to shield a new housing estate from the noise of a military airfield,” but that has since been transformed into a communal meeting place where “residents gather on the sand dyke to watch the planes.”

[Images: Spreads from Artificial Arcadia by Bas Princen].

These makeshift, highly unexpected communities—such as model-airplane enthusiasts hanging out together in remote hardware store parking lots—are rampant throughout Artificial Arcadia and, indeed, Bas Princen’s work altogether. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the site of a new highway being constructed through forested suburbs; far from the paving stage, however, it is simply a muddy scar through the trees, looking more like a landslide, with no actual sense that the construction crews are even coming back to finish it. It is, Princen explains, “a 30-km long highway construction site, cutting through forests and farmlands, skirting villages,” that has since become “a gathering place,” like a piazza or churchyard.

The back of the book states that Princen is interested in documenting “the complex qualities that construct contemporary landscape, such as accessibility, wind direction, water currents and communication networks. In addition the use of certain products, such as kites, mountain bikes and GPS monitors, has a bearing on the way in which landscape is understood.” The landscape is instrumentalized, we might say, distilled through dense layers of technological abstraction to become, once again, a place inhabitable by human activity, however pathetic or impressively persistent it might be.

[Image: “Valley, Beirut,” (2009) by Bas Princen, from “Refuge“].

In any case, the exhibition opening tonight, May 11, at Storefront for Art and Architecture—where Bas Princen will be present in the gallery to kick things off and answer questions—features only his work for “Refuge,” but it promises to be one of the more compelling photography shows in New York this year.

#glacier #island #storm

By way of a quick update, several fantastic new posts have joined this week’s ongoing series of linked conversations, part of the Glacier/Island/Storm studio at Columbia’s GSAPP.

[Image: Map showing a straight baseline separating internal waters from zones of maritime jurisdiction; via a456].

Here is a complete list so far, featuring the most recent posts and going backward in temporal order from there [note: this list has been updated as of February 26]. By all means, feel free to jump in with comments on any of them:

—Nick Sowers of UC-Berkeley/Archinect School Blog Project on “Super/Typhoon/Wall

—Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes of mammoth on “saharan miami,” “translation, machines, and embassies,” and “islands draw the clouds, and glaciers are wind-catchers

— Mason White, Maya Przybylski, Neeraj Bhatia, and Lola Sheppard of InfraNet Lab on “Particulate Swarms

—David Gissen of HTC Experiments on “A contribution, a mini-review, a plug

—Enrique Ramirez of a456 on “Baselines Straight and Normal

InfraNet Lab on “Islands of Speculation/Speculation on Islands: Spray Ice” (nice comments on this one)

[Video: #climatedata by by Michael Schieben; via Serial Consign].

—Greg J. Smith of Serial Consign on “Glacier/Island/Storm: Three Tangents” (interesting comments developing here)

mammoth on “Thilafushi” and “The North American Storm Control Authority” (enthusiastic comments thread on the latter link)

—Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon on “Islands in the Net” (interesting comments also developing here)

—Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography on “The Ice Program” (great comments here, too!)

mammoth on “A Glacier is a Very Long Event” (another interesting comment thread)

InfraNet Lab on “LandFab, or Manufacturing Terrain

—Nick Sowers on “Design to Fail

Finally, I was excited to see that Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes Nájera have jumped into the conversation, adding their own thoughts over at dpr-barcelona; and Alexander Trevi of Pruned has also supplied a Glacier/Island/Storm-themed guide to his own archives in this hashtag switchboard. And that’s in addition to some ongoing posts here on BLDGBLOG.

It’s been a great week for new content, I think, and all of the above are worth reading in full.

Maunsell Towers

[Image: The Maunsell Sea Forts, photographed by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

I missed an amazing opportunity the other week to visit the Maunsell Towers – aka the Maunsell Sea Forts – with Nick Sowers, author of an excellent Archinect school blog and one of my students from this summer’s studio down on Cockatoo Island in Sydney.

For the last year or so, Nick has been traveling around the world on a much-deserved John K. Branner Fellowship, documenting army bases, abandoned bunkers, and other sites of historical military interest. From South Korea to the Maginot Line, from classical war zones and medieval walled cities to “bunker recycling services” and D-Day, Nick’s itinerary is breath-taking. It is also, I hope, intriguing enough to catch the eye of future publishers or gallerists who might want to give Nick the space in which to break down all that he’s seen; there are very many of us who would love to learn more.

Of course, we could also hear more about his trip: Nick is acoustically-inclined, and he has been documenting the sounds of these militarized landscapes over on another blog he runs, called Soundscrapers.

[Images: Photos by Nick Sowers].

So Nick and his wife were in England the other week, and we unfortunately missed meeting up – but they managed to take a boat tour out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, iconic architectural structures in the Thames Estuary, inspirations for Archigram, and one of the few real-life buildings (if you can call them that) that gave me the idea to start BLDGBLOG. In fact, I’ve mentioned these places in lectures and I’ve posted about them on the blog before – but I’ve never had a chance to visit.

Nick’s photos, presented here, alongside photos by Pete Speller, will tell the story instead.

[Images: Photos by Nick Sowers].

As Underground Kent explains, “The Thames Estuary Army Forts were constructed in 1942 to a design by Guy Maunsell.”

Their purpose was to provide anti-aircraft fire within the Thames Estuary area. Each fort consisted of a group of seven towers with a walkway connecting them all to the central control tower. The fort, when viewed as a whole, comprised one Bofors tower, a control tower, four gun towers and a searchlight tower. They were arranged in a very specific way, with the control tower at the centre, the Bofors and gun towers arranged in a semi-circular fashion around it and the searchlight tower positioned further away, but still linked directly to the control tower via a walkway. All the forts followed this plan and, in order of grounding, were called the Nore Army Fort, the Red Sands Army Fort and finally the Shivering Sands Army Fort. All three forts were in place by late 1943, but Nore is no longer standing. Construction of the towers was relatively quick, and they were easily floated out to sea and grounded in water no more than 30m (100ft) deep.

They thus entered into the imaginations of speculative architects everywhere; they helped give visual shape to Archigram’s Walking City; and they continue to offer a kind of real-life spatial analogue for Constant’s New Babylon for anyone with access to a boat.

[Image: The Maunsell Sea Forts, photographed by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

Nick explained in an email that he visited the structures with Tony Pine, a “sound engineer” – i.e. pirate radio operator – who spent the afternoon “telling stories of the days in the 60s when Archigram came out to visit the structures, and also about incredibly cold winters when they burned the wood-fibre linings of the tower interiors to stay warm.”

Also along for the ride was Robin Adcroft, director of Project Redsand, who “describes himself as the caretaker of the structures.” Adcroft points out the genealogical importance of these structures:

The Thames Sea Forts are the last in a long history of British Marine Defences. The Army Anti Aircraft forts have played a significant role in post World War 2 developments. Notably in offshore fuel exploration and drilling platforms. The successful rapid deployment of the Maunsell Forts soon after led to the construction of the first offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1940s.

Both conceptually and materially, the Maunsell Towers have an architectural legacy that seems oddly under-explored.

[Images: Inside the forts; photos by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

But “it’s interesting,” Nick adds: “no one actually owns these things.”

Apparently the transport authority wanted to give Project Redsand a deed but they declined it, not wanting the liability. A ship crashed into Shivering Sand (an outpost which is visible from Redsand) in the 60s, taking out one of the towers and killing two maintenance personnel. Red Sand is not actually in the shipping lane, but it is very much a hazard. The original 1/4 inch plate steel is rusting through to a paper thickness. We had to wear hardhats when the boat pulled in next to the structures.

Project Redsand has more information about efforts to preserve the forts – and they link to this short YouTube video in which you can see how these clustered towers might be stabilized and maintained for generations to come.

[Images: Photos by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

Meanwhile, be sure to follow Nick Sowers’s slowly-ending travels around the militarized world on his Archinect blog – and he can also be found on Twitter.