GAS, I AM A HAPPENER, 1966, East Hampton


GAS-HAPNER Btn.

 

“I think we are in the rats’ alley Where the dead men have lost their bones.”-T.S. Eliot

Someone was barking through a megaphone: “Keep moving … not too fast.. don’t look at the cameras…” and we were told to walk deeper into the sandy pit, slowly, towards a group of people wearing black plastic capes at the bottom of the slope. We wore pink buttons that read: “GAS – I AM A HAPPENER” and blew whistles as we marched downward towards a sandy cliff and stacks of multi-colored oil drums that were pushed from a ledge. Then we were told to roll them back up the slope through the sea of fire-fighting foam. I guess I was too young to pick up on the sexual allusion at the time, but the foam felt oddly comforting as it oozed around my ankles and bubbled up to my waist, making me want to pee in my pants. Mud stuck to the drum which made it all the more difficult to roll it up the slope, but I kept pushing because there were men with movie cameras and I was going to be on TV!

Even though I was only fourteen year old, I sensed a topsy-turvy shift in the mood of the day, an altered state of perception.

What’s easily forgotten today is the pre-digital fizz of untethered space and effervescent spontaneity that bubbled everywhere in the late 1960s, in the street, on campus, in mini busses, geo-domes and communes and even in outer space with Apollo astronauts bouncing through the gray shadows of the moon. It started somewhere in a whorl of swirling lines and color emanating from the source, pulsating, protoplasmic, spiraling outward like one of Jung’s mystic mandalas. Suddenly the air was charged with an ineluctable sense of gathering as in a storm brewing or the threads of a fable being woven around an ancient fire. My first inkling of something different, something unpredictable, came, oddly enough, at the East Hampton Town garbage dump in the Summer of 1966, Summer of the Happening.

****AG in Happening, EH Dump 2

Happening #3: descending through foam, blowing whistles, Garbage Dump, East Hampton, NY, August 6, 1966 (AG in red circle)

 

kaprow_gas_springs

Happening #3, Saturday, August 6, 1966, East Hampton Town Dump

Years later I learned that this wasn’t as spontaneous an event as I had imagined. A New York artist named Allan Kaprow orchestrated this and several other happenings in the Hamptons area, all scripted and produced for a CBS show called “What I Did On My Vacation.”  As defined in the Columbia Encyclopedia, a happening is an “artistic event of a theatrical nature, but usually improvised spontaneously without the framework of a plot.” Kaprow himself had coined the phrase back in 1959 with his ground-breaking “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” a melange of sensual experiences that verged on street theater and broke from conventional art boundaries. To the younger generation of artists, including Kaprow, Jackson Pollock’s ritual splatterings (as captured on film by Hans Namuth) seemed more important as performance than conventional painting. Noteworthy happenings of the period included Claes Oldenburg’s “Store” (1961); Robert Rauschenberg’s “Map Room II” (1965); Robert Whitman’s “The American Moon” (1960); and Kaprow’s own “Calling” (1965). These early happenings were precursors of the performance art that would come into fashion twenty years later.

17 Yard 1967 in Pasadena_1


The Hamptons were already in the process of change. The old WASP gentry of the Maidstone and Meadowbrook clubs were giving way to a much more flamboyant summer crowd. The first real auger of disruption came on August 31, 1963 when a debutante party for socialite Fernanda Wanamaker Wetherill turned into an all-night bacchanal. Affluent young guests rioted and practically destroyed an ocean-front mansion in Southampton. Windows were smashed, people literally swung from the crystal chandeliers and a grand piano was shoved onto the beach and destroyed. The party, a spontaneous kind of Ur-Happening without any art critics in attendance, made front-page headlines and marked an end to Social Register ways. There were reports of pot parties on the beach and free love in the dunes. Mitty’s, the first discotheque on the East End, opened in Watermill. L’Oursin, a club that featured psychedelic light shows, opened in the North Sea area. Then came the happenings, transforming the quiet summer enclave into a multi-media event.

Locations were scouted beforehand. “Picture that dump yard for cars–the one on the way to Springs,” said Kaprow. “I want to have beautiful little children eating picnic lunches in the cars there… Something unthinkable and strange-and magical!” An announcement was made at East Hampton’s Town Hall, and the organizers ran ads in the East Hampton Star and other papers.

It started on Friday, August 5, with a parade at the Southampton railroad station. People pushed oil drums down the street. Others carried weather balloons inflated with helium. A woman was dressed up as “Miss Liquid Hips” in a silver skating costume with white Courréges boots and a space helmet. She stood atop a homemade hover craft and floated down the street. Kaprow himself was dressed as the “Neutron Kid” in a black plastic poncho and World War I aviator’s helmet, riding his own strangely menacing hovercraft device. It was incredibly loud and threw up gritty clouds of dust and sand.

Neutron Kid, Southampton, NY

Happening #1: Allan Kaprow as “Neutron Kid” driving hovercraft device, Friday, August 5, 1966, Southampton, NY (near RR station)

The flyer for the next afternoon’s events read:

Gas – A Happening
Place: Amagansett Coast Guard Beach
Date: Saturday, August 6, 1966
Time: 2:30-3:30 PM
Procedure: Children and adults may help
release helium balloons, frug on the
beach, help to start plastic skyscraper,
swim.

Two different rock bands were playing simultaneously, but there was a technical glitch and no one could figure out how to get the generators working. One band finally got going and played a strained rendition of the Stone’s “Satisfaction.” Girls in bikinis danced the Frug while giant helium balloons were released into the sky. A skywriting plane flew overhead and spelled out the word “A-R-T” in giant letters. Everything was going according to plan when a red smoke bomb exploded and four skydivers jumped out of an airplane. They were supposed to parachute onto the beach but two of them were blown out to sea and almost drowned. A group of young men paddled out on surfboards and rescued them. For seven-year-old Eric Kuhn  the day started off just like any other. “I didn’t know my first Happening was even happening,” he said. “A magnetic flow of people moved eastward along the shore and I followed them towards this giant black inflatable thing.”

Happening # 6, "Soft Skyscraper," plastic inflatable, Indian Wells Beach, August, 1966

Happening # 2: “Soft Skyscraper,” plastic inflatable, Indian Wells Beach, August, 1966

This, the “soft skyscraper,” was being inflated by four vacuum cleaner engines but it took a long time as the tower waved flaccidly back and forth, and there was much comment and sniggering from the crowd. “The fun is in the struggle,” remarked art critic Harold Rosenberg who happened to be standing nearby. The inflatable finally reached its fully erect position for a few spectacular moments before toppling over and exploding. Then, in a Lord-of-the-Flies moment, it was torn apart by a group of young boys.

***Blk Infltble

On Sunday morning there was a happening at the Shelter Island South Ferry. Kaprow’s idea was to have nurses in white uniforms (recruited from Southampton Hospital) beckoning like sirens from the ferry slip. They pulled a big black curtain across the slip and cars coming off the ferry had to drive through the curtain. The nurses then climbed into hospital beds that were parked in the middle of the road.

***Nurses-Shltr Islnd

Happening # 4: Nurses from Southampton Hospital stand behind black curtain, waiting for the Shelter Island Ferry, Sunday, August 7, 1966

Later that same day another happening, the final act, was staged out at Montauk Point. Fire-fighting foam spilled down the cliffs and onto the beach. I arrived late but made it in time to run through the foam on the beach and say hello to Kaprow who was supervising. This, in many ways, was the most lyrical and painterly of all the happenings and of all Kaprow’s pieces that weekend, felt most like a tribute to Pollock’s spirit: overlapping lips of foam descending and engaging with the  landscape, streaming over the ridges and outcroppings of rock and dirt, the stoney beach, waves rolling ashore, foam meeting foam.

Foam at Montauk Point, Sunday, August 7, 1966

Happening #5: Foam at Montauk Point, Sunday, August 7, 1966

Allan-Kaprow-montauk-bluffsTime magazine later described the Hamptons Happenings as a “combination of artists’ ball, carnival, charade, and a Dadaesque version of the games some people play.” Each event was loosely scripted and open to free-form elements of chance, but at the same time Kaprow’s happenings had to be coordinated within a fairly tight agenda for CBS. (The budget was more than $30,000.) In the end, Kaprow was disappointed by the general lack of spontaneity. “I was looking for more surprises, and everything came out very orderly,” he said.

I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time. To me, the foam and balloons and plastic inflatables were all a kind of fairy dust, a hint of wilder things to come…

****Montauk Foam 66

• • •

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TRANSPARENCY, 1960: Learning About My Father’s War

At first, it’s hard to tell what it is, a section of flesh against a canvas backdrop, a limb, oddly posed on a little stool or step, gradually revealing itself to be a man’s leg with tropical ulcers, the calf deformed, bent in the wrong direction, and scarred by pockmarks or perforations, like blackened cavities. The pale foot, almost lost in the light, has been flattened out, splayed, as if crushed by something heavy.

My father was all-thumbs when it came to anything mechanical, so I helped him set up the projector in the back of the living room. I propped it up with a book so that the lens was pointing at the right angle. We set up the retractable “Rocket” movie screen in the far corner of the living room, the same corner where the Christmas tree always went. When he gave me the signal, I would walk around the room and switch off all the lights so that the presentation could begin.

Setting up the machine and showing the slides was something of a ritual, a way to get closer to my father and that part of his life that I barely understood. For me it became a rite of passage: I would take the slides out of the yellow box and hand them to him, one by one, each in its “Ready-Mount” cardboard sleeve, each one numbered. The machine’s cooling fan was so loud that he had to raise his voice to be heard above the whirring noise. He told his war story in simple, elliptical sentences: the battles, wounds and imprisonment boiled down to essential ingredients, stages of a pilgrimage, a kind of 20th Century Pilgrim’s Progress, that led inevitably to the central mission in his life: his ministry, his faithful service to Christ.

The projector had a powerful bulb that sliced through the gloom and made a perfect cone of light. More images flashed by: ghostly apparitions clustered around a pyre, bodies near the edge of a pit, men in loincloths, lined up with vacant faces, humiliated and exhausted, hands tied behind their backs, the stump of a severed arm, a makeshift prosthesis made from bamboo, a hand resting on a bloated belly, hands holding onto shovels or carrying logs to shore up the rail bed. I try to imagine him there, but it fills me with anxiety. Some of the figures are slumped over, dying or already dead, struggling to sit up and put on a smile for the stealthy photographer. Overlapping ridges of stone appear rumpled and folded. Vines and branches fuse into tangled adumbrations. Human limbs metamorphose into aerial pockets of dust. As far as my mother was concerned, these were forbidden images, and she scolded my father for letting me stay and watch, claiming I was far too young. A few months later, she relented and agreed to let me stay up to help him. After all, she had criticized him for not spending more time with me, so at the least, this was a form of father-son bonding.

He had a story for every slide–the soldier who stole a single potato and was hung by his thumbs; three officers who tried to escape, were caught and executed without trial–but there are moments when he loses concentration, pauses to clear his throat, straining, working the mechanism, sometimes fretfully, in an effort to regain whatever stream of thought he had going.

I look back at my father, standing beside the projector, talking to the guests, (grad students, friends, visiting faculty) who’d been invited for dinner, not necessarily suspecting that they’d be watching a slide show about the Railway of Death. They shake their heads in disbelief, look at one another and then look up at him, tall and handsome, wondering how he managed to make it back alive.

The next slide shows a cartoon-like sequence of torture: a man being wrapped in barbed wire, a hose forced down his throat, his stomach pumped full of water, and then he was kicked to death.

How did it make me feel to see these images as an eight-year-old? It was sickening, and in some cases I closed my eyes and refused to look, but it was also how I learned about my father’s war, about his long ordeal and though I often wished he was more like other dads–dads who showed vacation slides of Yosemite and the Jersey shore–I knew that this was what set him apart and made him a heroic figure in many people’s eyes.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but my father was just beginning to form a narrative, finding a way to speak about the unspeakable, while learning to map out his own internal landscape, trying out different voices, different story lines on his dinner guests, and he used the slides as prompts to help him reconstruct the most convincing sequence of events. (Years later, I would learn that several important parts of the story had been left out.) It would be at least another year before he sat down to write his own book about the Kwai River, but the informal slide talks were a formative part of the process.

There were periods when it felt as if I were living among the forbidden images, and they were like sentient beings, phantoms and figures, lost souls, rising from the darkest part of my father’s psyche and sneaking into our peaceful home–the faces of the dead, voiceless and forsaken–haunting my eight-year-old imagination.

I crouch in a corner, patting Fiona, our four-year-old Golden Retriever, and listen to my father’s voice coming from the back of the room, explaining how the darkness serves as a background for the light, a common theme: darkness as background for light, punctuated by relevant passages from the Bible: “Light shall shine out of darkness… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light…”   But who was this man who called himself my father? Sometimes, I looked up in disbelief, and it feels as if I have two fathers: one who is healthy, robust and living in the present; the other who is beaten, almost dead, imprisoned in the past.

More than once he rushes the presentation and forces a slide into the chute before the last one has been properly retrieved. A tiny flange on the aluminum sleeve bends back and causes an irrevocable jam, forcing the slides to sandwich together and produce a bizarre double exposure: a map of Thailand overlaid with a belly distended from beriberi.

The photos are grainy and out of focus, often shot with primitive, handmade devices. Many of the exposures were ruined by jungle humidity, and the images simply dissolved or went completely black.

Being caught with any kind of camera brought severe punishment; often death, and many of the images in my father’s slide show were shot at great personal risk. George Aspinall, a young Australian POW, concealed a folding Kodak 2 camera throughout his period of captivity. He used single strips of X-ray film that he’d stolen from a warehouse in Singapore and learned how to process the negatives himself, in the middle of the night, pouring fixative into bamboo containers, rinsing the negatives in a stream near the camp. (Aspinall’s most iconic photograph shows three human scarecrows standing in front of the medical tent at Shimo Songkurai).

Some possess the density of early glass-plate photographs, an eerie sense of time withheld, the way that light filters through the tiny aperture over a long exposure. Some are so murky and out of focus that it’s impossible to tell what’s taking place within the darker folds and overlapping shades of gray. In one, (“Dysentery Block, Kanya, 1943”), a shadowy black mass pushes forward at an angle, dividing the composition into four equal sections. Towards the left, there are poles, a low fence and a cluster of human figures lying on the ground. Perhaps these are the dysentery patients gathered in their misery, hanging over the open latrines, but it might just as easily be a stack of lumber, or sacks of rice.

In another, also by Aspinall, there’s a platform made from bamboo with a stream running through it, or it might be a raft sinking into the river, and there’s a tangle of human bodies crouching to one side, as in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, huddling together in a single mass. Are they washing themselves in the river or are they cowering in fear? Another shows the railway cutting at Hellfire Pass and it looks as though the rock embankments have liquefied into molten matter, as if the film’s emulsion of cellulose nitrate had dissolved, the only certainty being the curving metal rails that catch the light as they recede towards a narrow cleavage of light.

When I first saw the man hanging on the wall, I assumed it was my father, and I kept looking for his face among the skeletal figures lifting railroad ties, or among the men waiting to be fed, gaunt-faced armies and their emaciated bodies, ashen, toothless, burdened and dark-eyed in the slow, blurred exposures taken with secret pin-hole cameras. Would I be able to recognize his face among so many others? There was a line of them waiting for their daily ration of rice. One of them had a hairline that receded in such a way that it might have been my dad.

POW slides - EG_0001_NEW copy

I would gaze into the shallow darkness, anticipating a moment of recognition, hoping to find him there, in the middle of a group or in the jungle that loomed around the periphery of the frame, but so many of the photographs had been corrupted by tropical humidity and it was impossible to tell. Would he not stand out for being taller than the others? Would he not emerge from the background as a gaunt and emaciated presence, if only I looked hard enough? Sometimes I imagined that he had only just stepped outside the camera’s frame, but was actually there, only a few feet removed from recognition.

Another showed a group of POWS lowering a railway sleeper into place–it must have been further north, near Takanum–and one of the workers, a figure on the left, wearing only a hat and loincloth, had the same shoulders as my father, but he was turned away from the camera at such an angle, and it was impossible to see any facial features.

Then there were the drawings, the hurried charcoal sketches and ink renderings scratched onto paper with a bamboo nib. These were as disturbing as the photographs, maybe even worse. Drawing was strictly forbidden in the camps, so the renderings were done in haste and then, just as quickly, concealed. Philip Meninsky was caught doing a caricature of a Japanese officer at Tarsau and beaten senseless, close to death. It was an act of resistance, and perhaps it was the fear, the sense of defiance, that made the images so urgent and, in some ways, closer to reality than the photographs. Unnecessary details–facial features, fingers and hair–were left out, and this made for a raw kind of expressionism made up of bold gestures and elementary forms.

Jack Chalker sketched a pack of fifty men crammed inside a salt car, all shadow and overlapping forms, except for a single beam of slanting light. The drawings of Lt. John Mennie, a former bombardier in the Royal Field Artillery, were starkly metaphysical: elongated figures walking through battered landscapes with lightly rendered, almost ethereal, backgrounds. Leo Rawlings, who my father knew at Chungkai, drew the railway viaduct at Wampo with a burnt stick, in deep chiaroscuro. He managed to capture the complexity of the crisscrossing timbers, the improbable geometries, the turn of track, the semi-vertical baulks stacked in seven tiers, curving and diminishing in perspective, shrinking in size as they receded into the distance, not an easy effect to achieve with nothing but a burnt stick. (Rawlings hid his artwork in an old milk tin that he kept buried behind the latrines. Mennie rolled his artwork into a bamboo walking stick.)

The artists improvised with whatever materials they could find. Brushes were made from bamboo and human hair, colors from wild flowers and onion skins. Pigments were ground down and bound with rice water. Charles Thrale mixed his reds from boiled roots and lipstick. Rawlings made his browns out of blood and clay, his greens from crushed leaves, his blacks from boot polish mixed with ash.

At some point, after my ninth birthday, I learned how to load the slides myself, remembering to drop them into the holder backwards and upside down, not fully understanding how the imagery was reversed–quite mysteriously–by an internal alignment of mirrors. I pushed the mechanical arm into the side of a box-shaped apparatus–to the sound of soft alloy dragging against hardened steel–and it caught a crimped notch on the sleeve, pulling the slide through a slot into the body of the machine, sometimes requiring a jiggle of the red plastic knob or a gentle push to force it through.

Gradually, I became quite an accomplished operator, better than my father, and he allowed me do run the machine myself, which gave him more freedom to concentrate on his talks. He would give me a nod, meaning that I was supposed to advance the next slide and adjust the lens so that each image came into focus. At one point he bought a special attachment, a kind of multi-slotted magazine that allowed us to load as many as twenty slides at a time and project them without interruption. I became quite obsessed with the machine, the powerful AO-300 slide projector, manufactured in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with its gray, non-chip finish. I read the instruction manual and learned how to clean all the parts with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. “The Model AO-300 provides the rugged construction, uniform illumination and superior blower-cooled operation for which American Optical projectors are justly famous,” read the manual. I wanted to understand how it worked, so I unscrewed the side panel and drew a cut-away rendering of the inner workings–all the wires, switches, mirrors, lenses–as accurately as I could manage.

While operating the projector, I observed how the light was more compressed after it came out of the lens and how it widened and began to dissipate as it reached further across the darkened room. Flecks of dust were caught in the celestial cone of light and they were swept upwards by drafts of air. It was all about the angle of light, luminous precision, the focus, reading through the penumbra, forcing oneself to look without distraction, to stare into the tumescent gloom, into the deepest part of the shadow, the umbra, and continue looking until you found the thing or the person you were searching for.

I wondered if the dust was everywhere, or only isolated within the tapered channel of light and multiplied there, as if breeding. Did the light curve around the darkness, or did the darkness give shape to the light? I imagined a luminous world in which humans were specks of dust caught in the cone of light for a moment before drifting into the infinite abyss.

“God is light and in him is no darkness,” said my father who concluded his talk with the image of a jungle altar and a message about how God came into the camps towards the end of captivity and brought a spirit of self-sacrifice and compassion that flourished among his comrades. “Suffering no longer locked us up in the prison house of self-pity,” he said, standing in front of the projector. “It brought us into what Albert Schweitzer calls the ‘fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.'” Then, I would switch off the projector and turn all of the room lights on again. The show was over.

The POW images still haunt me today, more than fifty years after the fact. Shortly after my mother died, I helped my father move into a smaller house and that was when I rediscovered the 35mm slides. They were in a brown box marked “POW Lecture”, almost exactly as I remembered them. It would take another week before I could bring myself to look through them, one by one, in an old-fashioned Bell & Howell viewfinder, confirming the fact that they were real enough, not just the exaggeration of a young boy’s macabre imagination.

•  •  •

 

 

This is the fifth in a series of “discoveries” about

my father’s extraordinary life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3 Landscape & Trauma: Glen Coe

#4 Clynder: Summer of 1939

 

 

 

LOST WORLDS (In the American Jungle with Mark Dion)

“Gardens are philosophy made concrete”.
– Mark Dion

Karl Ove Knausgraard, chain-smoking, angst-ridden Norwegian author, recently announced that “the physical world is gone”, and he has a point. So much has been lost to Google and flat-screened placelessness that we can hardly estimate the damage to our personal geographies. Knausgraard himself fought oblivion by writing a 3,600-page novel that recreated his own physical world in Proustian, sometimes crushing detail.

 

Mark Dion, artist, has conjured up his own incantations for the physical through a lifetime of rummaging, collecting, cataloguing, exploring, traveling, and digging through dead people’s attics and archives. He assembles, arranges and exploits that same materiality to reach a kind of equilibrium in which of all periods of history (including the future) converge and press down on a self-conscious present.


“Gardens are philosophy made concrete,” said Dion, who was recently invited to create an installation at the Kampong, a botanical garden in Coconut Grove, Florida, that was the former home to botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild. Fairchild is an heroic American figure, co-creator of the Everglades National Park and founder of the Seed and Plant Introduction Section for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, he was responsible for bringing more than 58,000 species into the country. He also helped to define the city of Miami as much as any developer, architect or urban planner ever did, and it’s impossible to understand the genie of the place without understanding Fairchild’s vision, a vision that is fully manifest in the gardens and workshops of the Kampong.

In his books–Exploring for Plants (1930); The World was My Garden (1938); the World Grows Around my Door (1947); etc.–Fairchild comes across as a Zelig-type visionary and latter-day Johnny Apple Seed, who goes everywhere, meets everyone, travels the globe to gather rare specimens with Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy bachelor, imports mango trees from Trinidad, tung seeds from China, alfalfa from Peru, shaddock seeds from Iran, raisin grapes from Italy, sausage tree seeds from Egypt.
In 1905, he marries Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. They hang out with Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers as they take their first manned flights in North Carolina. In 1916, he buys the Kampong and converts the seven-acre property into a family home and experimental laboratory, and plants many of the species that he gathered during his travels. His seven-acre garden flourishes and expands to nine acres as Fairchild claims this part of south Florida as the only true jungle in North America.


His refuge through all of this was an old building made from oolitic limestone that lies on the south side of the property. In 1923, he converted it into an office and laboratory and surrounded himself with plant samples, books, maps, horticultural charts, and this was where he documented, cross-fertilized, photographed, and wrote about his subject with increasing passion. Dion’s brief was to reconstruct the interior of the lab in a way that Fairchild might have left it if he’d walked out one day and never returned. The work is part historical reconstruction, part 18th-century Kunstkammer, part poetic exegesis. Working with scanty evidence, a small collection of original documents, and one or two grainy photographs, the artist assembled a roomful of artifacts, arranging books and objects on shelves and table tops with old botanical prints, maps and typewritten notes pinned to a cork board, specimen jars, tweezers, pencils, plant presses and drying racks, seed pods lying in enameled trays, rubber stamps, drafting and measuring tools, an encyclopedic litany of material culture culled from the first half of the 20th Century.


At times, one feels suspended between artifice and authenticity, but that seems to be the realm that Dion chooses to inhabit, the ultimate bespectacled amateur–archeologist, entomologist, ornithologist, paleontologist–armed with pith helmet, butterfly net and fine-arts degree, surfing a thin line between museology, botany and installation art. It’s a liminal realm he’s explored in both his personal life and art, whether in collaboration with other artists and scientists, in museum installations, or in his founding vision for Mildred’s Lane, the hundred-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania that continues to serve as experimental Petri dish for artists, dreamers and students, a place where the accidental and natural often converge.

While many of the prevailing assumptions about the natural world have, since Fairchild’s time, been dismissed as leading to environmental catastrophe, Dion’s Kampong installation is not a platform for critical analysis or condemnation. There are allegories and clues throughout, and intricately composed vignettes that might be read as fragmentary narratives within an art historical context, however arbitrary they might be in the positioning and overlapping of textures, colors, volumes. Rusting awls, hammers, snips and knives are hung from a custom-made tool rack, fetishized like a Beuys installation, as is a cluster of mason jars filled with organic specimens suspended in clear liquid. A still-life grouping of stoneware jugs summons forth Morandi, while below that, a collection of wooden boxes has been stacked and clustered like a Cubist relief with a red Savarin Coffee can as the only moment of pure color and reminder of Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (1960) that also featured a red Savarin can. This may be reading too recklessly, but the point is made that Dion’s practice is as much a selective exercise as any form of studio art.

The internal artifice leads inevitably out to the riotous tangle of the Kampong’s grounds–Fairchild’s true laboratory–nine acres under the “big-finned palm, the green vine angering for life”, the Royal and Talipot, Sagisi and Pejibaye, the bright orange fruit of the Arikury palm (from Brazil); jackfruit, heliconias, mango trees and cycads laced and interwoven with bell-shaped figs creeping up the walls of the main house, ant trees, rubber trees, succulents with frazzled white threads, Soursop, the flamboyante from Madagascar, a swelling baobab from Tanzania, the Ashok or so-called “sorrowless tree” from Southeast Asia, and carpets of tiny flowers leading down to the saltwater inlet now filling in with thickets of mangrove and stalked by a somnambulant iguana.


A giant banyan (Ficus benghalensis) hangs over the main entry with veils of shaggy air roots, threads, shoots, buds, and all of these plants and vibrant colors, these “green sides and gold sides of green sides” can be seen within the context of Fairchild’s greater legacy: a museum of living matter, indexed and catalogued despite the apparent wildness.
While Dion never lays hands on the exterior landscape, his reclamation and reconstruction of Fairchild’s second-floor laboratory serves as a kind of lens through which to view, re-frame and re-experience the living thing itself, the garden of forking paths and “slovenly wilderness” while shedding light on the very culture of exploration and selection that Fairchild helped to invent.

Quotations in italics are borrowed from Wallace Stevens’ “Nomad Exquisite”, 1923.

All photographs by Alastair Gordon.

FIRST CONTACT

“Well, as I say, the first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up.”

– Captain Bal Hendry

*EG Singapore copy

The bedroom is small with barely enough room for a queen-sized bed, a chest of drawers and a chair, but my father seems happy, looking over the luminous waters of Gardiner’s Bay. The name that got us started was Titikarangan. I was startled. While his short-term memory continued to disintegrate, his long-term memory seemed to be getting stronger, and now this odd-sounding name arose from the depths of his subconscious like a magic incantation: Titikarangan. I had never heard of it before, but he said it with absolute conviction. I Googled it and even though my spelling was wrong, the name popped up on a map of modern-day Malaysia, a real enough town in Kedah Province, just to the south of Merbau Pulas.

*EG, Port Dickson, Malaya copy*EG & ? , SIngapore? copy

The battle started early on the morning of December 17, 1941, only ten days after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were dressed in native turbans, wide-brimmed hats and sarongs and were moving out from the rubber trees and onto the road, as if they might be Malay workers taking flight from the Japanese advance. Everyone was fooled. Lt. Bremmer cried out: “hold fire,” in a loud enough voice for everyone, including the Japanese, to hear, revealing ‘A’ Company’s position and thereby losing the advantage of surprise. (It was the Argylls first encounter with the enemy).

Map of Titi-Karangan copy

There was a brief moment of hesitation when my father had to remind himself not to run or hide, but the moment passed and he felt a relative sense of calm, considering the fact that live rounds were now buzzing past his head, shredding leaves on the tulip trees. He was fine. The fear was only in his mouth, dry and metallic.

The first wave went down, wounded or dead, or playing dead. Then came another wave, ignoring the crossfire of the Bren guns. “They came crawling through the monsoon drains and crawled into the Lalang grass,” said my father who now realized that the Japanese weren’t the soft targets they’d been ridiculed as being in the Straits Colony press, with buckteeth and bad eyesight. They were fearless and fast, all too eager to run straight up the hill, bearing their chests to the fire, falling willy-nilly.

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My father got up and shuffled into the bathroom for a pee, but was now sitting in bed again, clear-eyed and remarkably lucid. (Could it have something to do with his Parkinson’s medication?) He told me about the battle with a breathless urgency that I’d never heard before, almost as if he needed to get it off his chest. He began to sketch a map on the back of an envelope with a wavering line for the Karangan River, a double line for the bridge and another, straighter line for the road that ran south through Serai and Terap. (He drew “X’s” to represent each squad, “O’s” for machine gun placements and “M’s” for mortar positions).

The enemy troops were bunched up together, confused and unsure of where to move next and they made easy targets in the cross fire. “We killed more than two hundred during the first assault,” said my father, leaning to one side, while I handed him a mug of tea. The official history puts it closer to a hundred, but it was surprising to me that after all these years of being a Servant of Christ, he was still proud of the number that had been slaughtered that morning.

EG Pass Book, Malaya copy Now my father could see them scattering, rolling down the escarpment toward the river. They didn’t mind getting killed and they continued to run quite recklessly into the barrage coming from the other flank. There was a brief lull and then another wave came up the hill, even faster this time, making a flanking move to the north. That was their strategy: the deep circling move. The Argylls killed another thirty but that didn’t stop them and my father worried that his men might be cut off and have to fight their way back to Serai or be forced to surrender.

The ones who’d been in the vanguard were already down but more kept coming, heads down, carrying Type-92 machine guns, trying to set them up with their clumsy tripod legs, but those men were also shot, and then another squad moved in to take their places and managed to maneuver themselves into a better position. My father was convinced that this was the vanguard of the encircling movement and he felt the urge to move up, laterally, towards the enemy and cut them off before they could gain further ground. One of the Japanese snipers climbed a tree and started firing at an angle across ‘A’ Company’s position. My father signaled L. Cpl Gray and two others to move back behind the sniper which they did but the sniper shot Gray and turned to shoot the others but somehow got his feet tangled in the branches of the tree and Pvt. McEwan was able to shoot him from the other side. (He promptly fell to the ground, dead).

That was about when my father stood up, all six-foot-three of him, and started running, waving two of the jocks–Pte. Logan and Pte. Gibson, he thinks–to follow him as he raced along a narrow footpath that traversed the ridge. (I imagine how he ran that day, with his loping gait, as if he were back on the rugby pitch at St. Andrews, slightly dazed and out of breath, not wanting to fuck up).

All he felt was a ping and numbness in his hand, then a damp red circle blooming on his shirt. “I seem to have been hit,” he said to Sgt. Skinner in the most nonchalant way. Then he couldn’t catch his breath because one of his lungs had been punctured by a 7.7 mm round from an Arisaka machine gun. (The bullet also penetrated the deltoid muscle and shattered part of the scapula and clavicle). His heart stopped, missed a number of beats and started again, rapidly this time and out of rhythm, and that was when he passed out, both knees buckling, his large frame tumbling through space. Was there a second explosion near his feet, or something inside his head unspooling, some neurological fail-safe that created the impression of extracorporeal suspension when, in fact, he was simply dying, going from brightly sparking networks of thought to nothing, apa-apa, as the native Malays called it? Two of the jocks dragged his body around the back of the Cengal tree and that was where he lay for what seemed like hours.

He could see how their legs were bowed out like cartoons and a part of him was still running towards the high point, as if his other body, his wounded body, were still in forward motion after he’d fallen, as if he could still engage and withdraw and recapture the ridge. Was he hallucinating or were there decisions still to be made? Could he fall back to the river, through the kampong and rendezvous with ‘C’ Company with their armored cars on the road to Serai at No. 14 milestone, or to Captain Bardwell of ‘B’ Company who was holding the narrow bridge with three-inch mortars?

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He was vaguely aware of black branches on the tree overhead, and he was aware of warring factions within his own nervous system, adjusting to the shock, sending out contrary signals–prepping for death?–and he imagined a network of bifurcating nerve ends, skipjacks and wireworms. He should have seen them coming, re-routing and bypassing the damaged tissue, but he faded in and out and there was an incandescent burst near his head and then another to the west. He could see cassia, stunted palms, ancient mossy angsana around the blurred periphery of his vision. Were those birds or were they bullets? He couldn’t be sure.

Something flies in and away… 

He’s dead and someone is coming towards him. There’s no golden stairway or white light, but there’s an oddly pleasant sense of release, of running up Whim Hill behind Aunt Jean’s house, and a ghostly figure standing by the oily tarn off Roxburgh Street where the boys broke bottles. He thinks he hears a woman singing somewhere near the slit trench, a woman’s voice coming from the very heart of the battle, while a slanting part of his consciousness is telling him to wake up and take command.

His soul, or whatever had been flapping its wings outside his body, was suddenly back inside his body and he could move his hands again. He tasted cordite in the air and the sweet nectar of ginger blossom, of being alive, and slipped back into his damaged corpus, suddenly aware of the fact that he was lying in a shallow depression behind the Cengal tree.

The advance was beaten back and the hill was retaken.

Cpl. Boyd of the medical corps sprinkled sulfa into my father’s wound and applied a field dressing. This being Boyd’s first combat casualty, he may have over-injected the morphine, and my father remembers vomiting, tripping on the morphine and experiencing an expanded sense of the infinite, while assuming, once again, that he was being left to die.

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The battle was over in less than two hours and the Japanese faded back into the swamps of Perak Province. The Argylls, after calling off their plan for a counter-attack, fell back to Kupang.

Padre Beattie, regimental chaplain saw blood pooling around my father’s neck and assumed he was gone. “Dear Lord, embrace this your servant…” They took him to a dressing station at Terap where he was revived and given a blood transfusion. Two days later he was transferred to Kuala Lumpur and then, during the endless train ride south to Singapore, he began to wonder about the voice that sang to him on the battlefield, just after being shot. There was something familiar about it. (His mother, Sarah, was an opera singer).

As a child, I’d always seen something numinous in the outline of my father’s war wound. It looked like a vaccination mark, but bigger, a circle of crinkled skin, about the size of a quarter. It was his badge of courage, and during the summer, when he went around the beach house shirtless, he would let me touch the damaged tissue with my finger and trace the trajectory of the bullet as it went in and came out the opposite side. The scar was the only tangible connection I had to his war, a one-inch-diameter portal to his past. By touching it, I felt a connection to his pain and suffering.

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But my father never spoke about the battle. He never wrote about it, not did he bring it up in his lectures or sermons. I never knew that he was one of the first to be wounded and knocked out of action. I wasn’t so much disappointed as I was surprised because I’d carried impressions since childhood of ongoing battle in jungle conditions with retreat and counter attack over a period of many weeks, even months. But that wasn’t the way it happened. As Bal Hendry, his best friend and succeeding commander of ‘A’ Company, said: “The first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up,” stating the facts as they occurred.

We were done for the day. My father turned over to take a nap and ended up sleeping for the rest of the afternoon. I picked up the lunch tray and carried it into the kitchen. It had been a good start. Some door had flipped opened and I wanted more. A few days later, he had a visitor, a woman in her seventies, sniffing around, now that my mother was gone. I didn’t disturb them and let her talk about the old days, but after she left I showed him the book I had bought on amazon.com.

“It says here that your commanding officer yelled at you for getting wounded,” I told him. It was a freshly published history of the Malayan Campaign and as soon as it arrived in the mail, I flipped to the index and found twenty-seven references to “Gordon, Capt. E.”, but it was the passage on page 53 that grabbed my attention: “The wounded Tiny Gordon, a very big man, was assisted back,” I read out loud while my father climbed back into bed, trying to suppress his irritation.

“‘Stewart approached him,'” I continued to read, “‘and according to some accounts Gordon, far from receiving any congratulations for ‘A’ Company’s efforts, was fiercely and very publicly reprimanded…'”

“Nonsense!” cried my father, interrupting, but I ignored him and kept going: “‘…reprimanded for allowing himself to be wounded so early in the battle. A year of jungle training wasted!'”

“Is that true? Were you reprimanded?”

“No! Stewart came around to see me,” he said. “He was concerned.”

“Why would anyone write that if it weren’t true?”

“How should I know? I never received a scolding from Ian Stewart. He only expressed sympathy for my wound.”

According to the author of the book, it was David Wilson, another captain in the Argylls, who’d been the source of the “well-known” story. But why was Wilson telling tales at such a late date? Colonel Stewart didn’t mention anything about it in the official account of the Malayan Campaign that he published in 1947: “About 10.45 hours Captain Gordon, Company Commander, was wounded and Captain Hendry took over.” That was all. He didn’t say anything about reprimanding my father, nor did he criticize any of the actions that he’d taken as commander of ‘A’ Company. Perhaps Stewart was frustrated that he’d lost one of his best officers so early in the campaign. I could understand that and perhaps he said something to my father in a scolding but friendly way: Och, did you really have to go and get yourself shot so early in the day? Something like that which might have been overheard and misinterpreted by one of the men?

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After some research, I learned that Captain Wilson hadn’t been anywhere near the battlefield that day. He was 400 miles to the south, at Fort Canning, safely eating breakfast with General Haig’s staff, so why would the author cite him as a reliable witness when he wasn’t even on the scene and probably only heard about the incident second hand, if indeed there had been such an incident in the first place? (Was Wilson harboring resentment against a fellow officer? Had he been passed over in some way?) I wanted to believe my father’s version, but I also felt that there must have been some vestige of truth to the story. Had he screwed up somehow? Disobeyed orders? Shown hesitation or cowardice? I don’t know. I prefer not to think about it. If anything, it made him more existential and human, less of the heroic action figure. I felt ambivalence mixed with curiosity, torn between wanting to stand up for my father, while remaining detached. (Now I understood why he never spoke about the battle. It was complicated.) And anyway,  almost everyone involved was dead so I would probably never know the truth.

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The photograph was taken early in 1942 against a darkly mottled backdrop at the Imperial Studios on Jervois Road, and it’s signed in the lower right corner: “Best Wishes, Ernest, 21/1/42”, January 21, 1942. On that same afternoon, five RAF Hurricanes were shot down over Queenstown, so there’s an understandable degree of urgency in the eyes, intense but distracted. Yamashita’s 25th Army had reached the Johor defensive line, and the city was under constant bombardment. The morning heat caught the smell of rotting flesh and spread it across the entire harbor area. There were three corpses and a dead horse lying in a ditch near Keppel Road. Mitsubishi bombers were coming in from the east, dropping anti-personnel grenades that exploded overhead and sent deadly shards of metal into the streets.

While everything outside the camera’s frame was chaos, inside the frame he’d conjured up the impression of calm, measured calm, looking straight into the lens, eyes wide open, very awake, alert. It’s amazing to me that he had the time and temerity to walk into a studio on Jervois Road and have his photo taken when, all around, the skies were crashing down. Only five weeks earlier, almost to the day, he’d been shot through the shoulder, but now he wanted to send proof home of his robust state of health. He looks shorn, his hair cropped on the sides but rising over his forehead in dark, glistening waves. He’s lost quite a bit of bulk after three weeks in hospital–the morphine made him sick–which only accentuates his square jaw-line and forehead, yet the lips lie gently across the face, soft and shapely, almost feminine. This would be the last photograph he sent to his parents before the fall of Singapore. They wouldn’t hear from him for another three and a half years.

 

 

This is the fifth in a series of ‘discoveries’ about my father’s life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3 Landscape and Trauma: Glen Coe, 1945

#4 Aloft: Pre-War Summer, 1939

 

REFLECTION MACHINE Jean Nouvel Does Miami

160229 - Monad Terrace - VUW - Lagoon Sunset - Low ResThe image is post-apocalyptical, foreshadowing an uncertain future yet, somehow, utopian and hopeful. It appears to be the end of the day, the end of a season, the end of an era, with the sun setting wildly over the skyline of downtown Miami. In fact, it’s a rendering for a new condominium project on Miami Beach. But the rendering goes beyond mere real estate promotion and verges on something more ambitious as renowned architect Jean Nouvel and his partners at the JDS Development Group offer up a more visionary and flood-resilient alternative to Miami’s standard pie-in-the-sky condo tower. But how does a single architect make an impact when it comes to pressing matters like climate change, failing infrastructure and income disparity? It’s impossible to make a real difference without the support of a responsible government body. Without it, the individual designer can only hope to set the moral tone on a smaller scale.

The enlightened architect can offer new visions and allegories, even if they are only small parts of an evolving narrative — what might be deemed “urban poetics.” But sometimes the urban geographer is obliged to dig deeper and reveal the prevailing threads of invention, no matter how arbitrary they may seem on first impression. Such is the case with Herzog De Meuron’s highly porous design for Pérez Art Museum Miami, which allows for a 10-foot hurricane surge to pass underneath the museum. Norman Foster’s Faena House condo, finished in late 2015, rests on a “plinth” of reflective water and black concrete walls, while Renzo Piano’s Eighty Seven Park in North Beach now under construction will be surrounded by a continuous ring of water when it opens in 2017. In each case, the future possibility of a sunken city, a New Atlantis, is inferred, however obliquely. Nouvel’s project takes the trope a step further and includes a man-made “lagoon” at its very core, almost as if a wedge of the Everglades had been lifted up and transplanted to the shores of Biscayne Bay. It is not a chlorinated pool but a naturally filtered environment that hosts an array of lush vegetation — imagine Henri Rousseau’s post-Impressionist jungles — with giant ferns, sea grape, spider plants, yaupon, mondo grass, palms and palmettos sprouting all about the lagoon.

“My ‘personal vision’ comes from the very needs of communities, the climate, the history and the culture of a city or of a neighborhood,” said Nouvel in an exclusive interview this week. “All these elements belong to a specific context. This context guides all the decisions I took in Miami as it guides all the projects I build.”

%22The Andes of Ecuador%22 Frederic Edwin Church, 1855

Nouvel’s romantic renderings evoke a sense of the sublime and remind me of a painting by Frederic Edwin Church’s called The Andes of Ecuador (1855). A solar haze animates the outcroppings and craggy heights, the palm trees, a lake and waterfall with moody luminosity, as if all of nature were awaiting the moment of final awakening. Nouvel’s version has the same quality of diffused sunlight and heightened expectation. Buildings are placed peripherally on the site, as if only temporarily there, protected by veils of metal-mesh screening that create a shimmering, multi-layered effect.

While he has made earlier proposals here, this is Nouvel’s first project to be built in Miami. He now joins the pantheon of design gods — Zaha Hadid, Herzog & De Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry — who have bestowed their Pritzker-Prize genius on this subtropical paradise, a metropolis that suffers chronic Attention Deficit Disorder in its furtive search for new and operable identities. Nouvel managed to change the face of Paris with paradigm-shifting projects like the Arab World Institute, the Foundation Cartier, the Musée du quai Branly and the recently completed Philharmonic Hall. While not as flamboyant or prolific as some of his peers, Nouvel brings to each new project a zealous imagination and passion for discovery. There may not be a single signature move or logo that instantly identifies his work, but each resonates with a meticulous attention to detail and sense of materiality that suggests patience and even — that rarest of virtues in today’s disposable skyline —craftsmanship. Nouvel prides himself on responding to the specifics of a site and, in a sense, starting from scratch every time. No two buildings are alike.

When the Arab World Institute opened in 1987, it signaled a new kind of modernism, one that was alive with kinetic energy, apertures that opened and closed, changing configurations that were intimately responsive to light and weather. Cutting-edge technology merged with ancient forms of poetry and pattern making, and the e4839d983ec329aa5299e38973aae77bproject made Nouvel famous. He won the prestigious Aga Kahn Award for Architecture in 1989 and continued to explore the margins of science and metaphor in projects like the Golden Angel (Zlatý Anděl) in Prague, the Doha Tower in Qatar, the Torre Agbar skyscraper in Barcelona, and One New Change in London. His recently completed 100 Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan features a glass-curtain facade of 1,650 panes set at different angles to create what Nouvel refers to as a “vision machine.”

Monad Terrace Site Plan 2
On South Beach, 13 small private lots off of West Avenue were pulled together to create a single elongated site that runs east to west. A prior developer proposed a fairly massive, 150-foot-high condo block on the site that was never approved. In Nouvel’s design, mass has been broken down into two narrow structures. One is 14 stories high, the other only seven stories — mere slivers compared to some of the neighboring towers — containing 54 condo units in all. The towers are slightly cranked and open to the bay, in contrast to the seemingly counter-intuitive trend of maxing out building lots with monolithic facades that block views and cast broad shadows across the beach. (Such is the case with the Surf Club Four Seasons at 90th & Collins, a project designed by Richard Meier and Kobi Karp that seems grossly out of scale with its Surfside neighborhood).

The outer walls of the Nouvel structures are staggered and overlapping like metallic shields but translucent and perforated — more like a sieve — giving their the double-skinned membranes a hovering, ephemeral quality. The two-story-high lobby will be transparent; for passersby on West Avenue, it will appear as an open garden landscape from curbside to bay with uninterrupted sight lines through lobby, past lagoon and narrow swimming pool, and across the bay.

Moand Terrace Reflection Machine, AJN
In the renderings produced in Nouvel’s Paris studio, plants such as jade vine, Spanish moss and tillandsia hang down from rooftop terraces, helping to minimize solar heat while adding all the more to a sense of future ruin and dystopian precognition (think WIlliam Gibson, think Philip K. Dick.) Outer facades will be buffered by vertical gardens supported by stainless steel mesh for shade and privacy. A public-access pathway will traverse the south side of the property and connect West Avenue to Baywalk, a public promenade that remains incomplete.

Monad Terrace Lagoon, Detail “The site proportions were very elongated in the east-west direction,” explained Nouvel. “We chose to arrange the project on the periphery of the property in order to free the center of the site and allow all to experience the best views.”

The neighborhood along West Avenue is Ground Zero for sea-level rise and the city’s costly attempts to mitigate future flooding with raised streets, pumping stations, bizarre hillocks and sunken sidewalks, in what appears to be an urban-scale version of Miami-style plastic surgery. “We are working to accommodate the water rise through the landscape and the lagoon itself,” said Nouvel. “We also are working with the new road elevations along West Avenue.” An underground parking area has been built in what developer Michael Stern calls a concrete bathtub with a flood-proof lid.

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Parts are broken down and tapered towards infinity. In fact, the entire complex acts as a kind of giant infinity pool — Nouvel calls it a “reflection machine” — with its softly feathered edges, vanishing points, wavering lines of sight and other mirage-like effects. The architecture is sponge-like, open and inviting to the waters of Biscayne Bay and the fleckless Miami sky. The architect appears to be seeking a unity of purpose and compromise between future and past, an imaginary realm of wild sunsets, mating manatees and tangled mangrove roots before the coming of Flagler, Fisher or the Kardashians: a 70,720- square-foot slice of Eden, rebooted.

The Monad Terrace proposal was enthusiastically approved by Miami Beach’s Design Review Board. The DRB cited it as a model for future waterfront development. One board member even expressed interest in living there when it was completed.

A version of this story appeared in the Miami Herald on May 13, 2016.

 

A SPIDER IN THE SAND, Paul Rudolph’s Antidote to Cold War Paranoia

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I set out on my auspicious little outing to Sanibel Island, driving across the lower instep of Florida, marshy light deflecting off the windshield, sheet-flow expanding incrementally as the car moves westward along the pencil-straight line of Route 75, otherwise known as ‘Alligator Alley’ (although I never spot a single gator along the way), past fences and swales and empty parking lots, the sky turning milky and oddly rippled with altocumulus clouds, sucking up moisture from the shallows of the Everglades.

I’m going to visit the Walker Guest House, Paul Rudolph’s little beach-house gem, built in 1952, just after Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House opened in New York City and the nightmarish “Tumbler-Snapper” nuclear device was detonated in the Nevada desert. Richard Nixon gave his infamous Checkers speech that same month and the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, was launched in Groton, Connecticut. Indeed it was the heyday of the Nuclear Age, the age of the “Good Bomb” and MAD (“Mutually Assured Destruction”) with the perceived threat of Communist infiltration and back-yard bomb shelters. Into this Faustian landscape, Rudolph’s little pod dropped as an antidote to Cold-War paranoia, open to views on all sides and liberating to the human soul.
The 24-by-24-foot frame of the original rests wistfully on a bed of crushed oyster shells, high enough to catch breezes off the Gulf of Mexico and also withstand hurricane floods. An outrigger structure provides support for the ingenious, Rube Goldberg contraptions that Rudolph devised for raising and lowering the large wooden window flaps. These are hinged along the top and operated with rope and pulleys. There are eight flaps in all, two on every side, and they can be set in a variety of positions.

****IMG_2124The most memorable elements of Rudolph’s design, however, are the eight counterweight balls (weighing 77 pounds each) that hang from steel cables and help to raise and lower the wooden flaps. This accounts for the nickname: “cannonball house” favored by family and locals, while others prefer the more prosaic “house with balls.” The spherical counterweights are said to have been cast in beach sand by pouring wet concrete into the negative form of a beach ball, a most poetic touch, but one that may be apocryphal.

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Rudolph’s single-family vacation homes of this period were thoroughly urban constructs with flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass. (The Miller Guest House in Casey Key, built in 1949, and the Cocoon House on Siesta Key, built in 1950, were the earliest examples.) They signaled independence, self-sufficiency, and a celebration of the natural elements: sun, sea and a well-shaken martini. While providing little more than shade and a place to sleep, the Walker house expressed an open-ended lifestyle for a generation who’d survived World War II and were intent on building a brighter, more hopeful future for themselves and their families. Today, the house can be seen as a prototype for sustainable living with its small footprint and simplicity of plan. It was inexpensive, self-cooling, raised against floodwaters, and easily closed up for hurricanes. Just as importantly, it was light-hearted, even whimsical, with its dangling cannonballs and flip-top walls, fitting seamlessly into the natural setting, and barely disrupting the sandy contours of the Sanibel beachfront.

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

The Walker house was the first independent commission after Rudolph established his own firm., and Walter Walker proved to be an ideal client: son of a prominent Minneapolis family, culturally sophisticated and with a love for the outdoors. He was the grandson of T.B. Walker, the Minnesota lumber baron who’d given his renowned art collection and part of his fortune to create the Walker Art Center. He went to Harvard medical school but ended up working in the family lumber business. In his 30s, he contracted tuberculosis; the family physician prescribed a warm, quiet place to recover. This was originally why Walter bought the waterfront lot on Sanibel Island as a kind of one-man sanatorium, but he didn’t think about building a house there for another few years. In 1950, he contacted Sarasota-based architect Ralph Twitchell, who advised him to hire his young associate, Paul Rudolph. “He’s fresh out of Yale and full of ideas,” said Twitchell. Walker took his advice and commissioned Rudolph to design a small guesthouse on a back corner of the property. (Later, in the 1970s, a much bigger house would be built on the dune overlooking the Gulf.)

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Paul Rudolph’s design for the main Walker house, 1950 (unbuilt)

Rudolph worked with basic materials that could be found at any lumberyard. Standard lengths of two-by-four lumber were doubled up to create I-beam-style supports for the footings, and the hurricane flaps were made from plywood and peg-board sandwiched together. It was to be the simplest of pavilions. Its many openings were originally designed without screens, but Walker insisted on having them to keep out mosquitoes and sand flies. He spent the next 30 winters living there until finally building a larger house on the top of the dune.

Floor Plan, Walker GH

Up at the main house, the sun is bright, almost blinding, and Mrs. Elaine Walker, a spry 91 years old, sits on a shaded porch, looking out at the liquid light rising off the Gulf of Mexico. She is warm and welcoming with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “There was ****Mrs. Elaine Walker - photo by AG.2157 2nothing here. It was the absolute boonies!” she says, laughing. “There wasn’t even a telephone!” Wearing a blue-green dress and bone-white spectacles, she sits in a low-slung hammock chair and explains how she met her husband Walter in the 1960s. He’d recovered from tuberculosis by then but was going through a drawn-out divorce, as was she. “We kept going out to dinner and then we fell in love,” says Elaine. After dating for almost two years, they decided to get married, but when Walter brought her to his little escape pad on Sanibel Island, she was shocked. “He told me that he had this little house in Florida and when I came down from Minneapolis I thought ‘Why would anyone want to build in such a place?’ It was so isolated and I’m a city kid by nature.” The roof leaked when it rained and there were gopher tortoises living in the crawl space. When Elaine wanted to make a phone callshe had to walk half a mile up the dusty shell road. “You call this a house?” she said. “Not exactly what I’m accustomed to–only 24 by 24 feet–you must be kidding!” But Walt loved it small and simple, and he liked to lie in a hammock strung between two palm trees and watch pelicans skim across the water, counting them as they passed. By the end of the first winter season, Elaine was learning to adapt to the quirkiness of Rudolph’s little experiment. “It was just like camping and I learned to be a good girl scout,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be a Girl Scout.” She and her husband would go swimming in the morning, collect shells along the beach and read books. Elaine pinned up a few art posters and Walt made little scenes out of driftwood and shell. He even agreed to put in a telephone. “It was really quite charming, after all,” she admitted.

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Walker Guest House - drawing - archival 2

Even with only 580 square feet of internal living space, the house felt expansive with its all-around views and basic geometry. The interior was divided into equal quadrants for dining, cooking, living and sleeping, something like a well-ordered boat, with everything in its place. Rudolph had worked as a naval architect during World War II. He learned about thin-shell construction and how to make the most efficient use of space. “I was profoundly affected by ships,” he wrote. “I remember thinking that a destroyer was one of the most beautiful things in the world.” Rudolph would apply what he’d learned in the shipyards to the Walker Guest House and other projects. In early photographs you can see that he’d originally used a deep indigo blue in the living/dining area to create a cool, cave-like space and offset the sun-struck dunes that surround the house. He designed most of the furniture himself, including a steel-and-glass dining table, a low-lying bookcase as spatial divider in the living room, and several deck chairs. Floors were charcoal gray linoleum and the ceiling was covered in a pale grass-cloth to create texture. “It was just as cozy as could be,” said Elaine Walker, remembering the times she stayed in the house during inclement weather. The flaps could be lowered half way to keep the rain out but there was still enough light for indoor activities. “You know, Rudolph told my husband that sometimes it’s nice to be in a cave and sometimes it’s nice to be in a pavilion,” she said. “With the flaps down it was a cave. With the flaps up it was a pavilion.” With a few adjustments the flaps could also be made to funnel Gulf breezes through the house, as there was no air conditioning, but occasionally it was sweltering and Mrs. Walker remembers having to run down to the beach every half hour for another dip in the Gulf. “I never got out of my bathing suit,” she said.

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The skeletal structure fulfilled Rudolph’s desire to make the house “crouch like a spider in the sand,” with spindly legs reaching out on all sides, eroding all sense of mass. The house’s profile would change almost daily, depending on the weather, the season, the angle of light and the moods of the homeowners. The counterweights moved up and down so that when the flaps were shut, the balls hung high and when the flaps were open, the balls hung low. The wood bracing, pull ropes and tension cables also created narrow lines of shadow–a kind of drawing or delineation–that Rudolph used to further animate his three-dimensional composition.

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When construction was finished, Walter Walker climbed up on the roof and detected a slight lateral movement in the bones of the structure. He called Rudolph and the architect quickly devised a solution: crisscrossing tension cables were strung across the openings to strengthen the structural integrity of the framework.

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McCall’s Magazine

The guesthouse received an inordinate amount of attention for such a modest commission. McCall’s Magazine ran a feature in 1956 with color photos and a breezy text about the “house for carefree summer living.” (Plans could be purchased from the magazine for 25 cents.) It appeared in architecture journals and became an inspiration to a generation of young American architects. Peter Blake, architect and friend of Rudolph, designed his own house in Water Mill, New York, in the same configuration with a 24-foot-by-24-foot floor plan. Instead of hinged wooden flaps, however, Blake used horizontally sliding barn doors that could be moved back and forth on metal tracks, but it was essentially the same idea: a box that could be shut up for a hurricane or a season.

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

“I had no idea that our little guesthouse would become so famous,” says Mrs. Walker. “It’s really quite revered in the world of architecture so we try to maintain it as best as we can.” The counterweight balls were originally painted a bright pimento red, like an exotic fruit, and stood out in contrast to the white walls of the house. Now, they’re more of an aubergine or purplish red, while the woodwork has been painted a pale gray in place of the original white. “I like a little bit of change now and then,” says Mrs. Walker who has kept the house in pristine condition ever since her husband’s death in 2001. Windows are re-sealed; wood surfaces are sanded and painted fresh almost every year, while an assistant keeps the mold at bay with frequent doses of bleach.

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Apart from a few minor repairs, the house is made of the same materials it was built with in 1952. Even the fixtures in the tiny kitchen and bathroom are original. After years of exposure, the wooden flaps have become water logged and harder to lift. It usually takes two people to open them. “My husband would stand inside and pull the rope while I would go outside and push with my fanny,” explained Mrs. Walker.

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****IMG_2190 2Jack Priest, her son-in-law, stands in the doorway of the little guesthouse, wearing pink rubber clogs and a marlin-print shirt. He points to a metal escutcheon in the ceiling and explains how one of the pull ropes breaks every so often and has to be replaced and threaded through a hidden pulley, out through a hole in the fascia board. “It takes real concentration,” says Priest, who’s learned how to guide the rope through the openings with a stiff wire.

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Elaine Walker and her family — her children and grandchildren — continue to cherish the diminutive scale and close-packed ingenuity of a house that forces everyone to slow down and return to the simple pleasures of waterfront living — picnics, swimming, outdoor showers, beach combing, living in synch with nature — so that winter vacations on Sanibel have become a beloved family tradition. “I didn’t come to appreciate the architecture for a long time,” admits Mrs. Walker. “But it was wonderful to be in a place that made my family so happy.”

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Paul Rudolph’s name has been tossed about in the news lately because several of his buildings are under threat of demolition. While the early beach houses are generally cherished and well monitored, the concrete walls and bulky forms of his later “brutalist” buildings are harder to love. Many find them cold and alienating, such as the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY (1967) that is scheduled to be torn down in the next few months. As a kind of precautionary measure, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) recently announced that they are creating a full-scale replica of the Walker Guest House, one of Rudolph’s crowning achievements. Architect and contractor Joseph King is fabricating the facsimile in his workshop in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota. Sponsored by the SAF and Dr. Michael Kalman, the revision will be exact in every detail except for the fact that this 21st-century variation will be a demountable kit of parts, easily broken down and moved from venue to venue. King is milling all sections from micro-laminate lumber that will help to strengthen the structure. Parts will be attached with screws and bolts instead of nails, but as per the original, linoleum will cover the floors. (The Armstrong Flooring company happens to still make the same charcoal gray product.) When finished, it will be a walk-though artifact for the purpose of educating people about mid-century modernism and the architectural legacy of Paul Rudolph. Even the furniture that Rudolph designed for the interior is being replicated. The facsimile edition of the Walker Guest House will be unveiled in November 2015 and remain on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota for another 11 months. After that, it is scheduled to travel to Miami in time for Art Basel Miami 2016. For info: http://www.ringling.org/

BUOYANT CITY: Amsterdam

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Holland is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It is highly urbanized and ultra sensitive to environmental conditions. For generations the country suffered the threat of inundation from the North Sea and learned to survive in a precarious balance with nature, learning a respectful stewardship for the dry land that they did possess. Large areas have been reclaimed–as much as one-third of the country is below sea level–protected and micromanaged within a complex infrastructure of dikes, sluice gates, pumping stations, man-made polders and artificial islands. Holland also has a tradition of tolerance, in both its social and cultural realms and continues to support a degree of experimentation in its public projects.

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Amsterdam, the largest city, with about 800,000 inhabitants continues to suffer a housing shortage with long waiting lists for subsidized housing, a condition that has forced public agencies to come up with makeshift and sometimes idiosyncratic solutions. The city expands outwards and inward at the same time, rediscovering and reinterpreting older, often derelict industrial areas. Former warehouses and factories have been converted and entire new neighborhoods have been transformed from former industrial parks and shipping wharfs into high-density residential zones. One new area called IJburg, has been built from scratch on a series of artificial islands in the IJ estuary. But still, it’s never quite enough.

S038_N597_mediumOne of the most successful efforts that set the template for future schemes to come, was Borneo Sporenburg, built in Amsterdam’s Oostelijk Havengebied (eastern docklands) on two large piers that had once been used for unloading ships coming from Dutch colonies in the Far East. During the 1980s, many of the warehouses in this neighborhood were populated by squatters and artists in search of cheap housing. The city government designated the entire area for housing in the 1990s; squatters were thrown out and most of the old buildings were demolished.

S038_N512_mediumOn the cleared land, the city mandated a density of 40 units per acre, which is high, even by Dutch standards. A master plan was conceived by Adriaan Geuze, principal of West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture (a firm based in Rotterdam), and Geuze’s so-called “Swiss Cheese” concept called for a high percentage of open spaces, “voids”, to be dispersed throughout the solid blocks of 2,500 dwellings with open plazas, gardens and parks. In addition, a 30%-to-50% void was required within each house in the form of patios and courtyards so as to draw in as much natural light as possible, making the relatively small interior spaces seem larger and more expansive, while simultaneously directing the eye out towards water views whenever possible, to help foster what Geuze called “a contrast between intimacy and cosmic open space.”

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“Sublmine Continuity”, Pieter de Hooch

His initial inspiration came from the kind of small, traditional villages that used to line the shores of the Zuiderzee, as well a painterly influence from 17th century Dutch artists like Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer, a sense of what he calls “sublime continuity” between inside and outside, a saturation of sea-reflected light, and a clarity of vision in which every brick appears to possess an almost mystical certainty of its place in the universe. The houses at Borneo Sporenburg are high density but low rise so the impact on the city’s historic skyline has been minimal. Only three stories are allowed but the first floors are extra tall, measuring 3.5 meters (11.48 feet) in height versus the standard 2.4 meters. “Greater height not only increases daylight penetration in the homes, and the quality of living, but also gives an urban atmosphere,” explained Geuze. (The extra height also allows the possibility of future alternative functions such as shops, cafés, studios and offices.) More than a hundred international architects submitted designs for the individual residential units, including top firms like OMA, MRDV, UN Studio and Neutelings Riedijk, so that each unit has its own distinctive character and together create an animated patchwork of varied colors, textures and materials. Each architect worked with a slightly different combination of internal spaces, proportions, variations in height and setback, sometimes with small porches, projecting balconies and alternating window treatments. A brick facade with small, steel-framed windows might butt up against an all-glass facade, or a facade of grayish-blue slate with pulpit and clerestory windows, or a facade of pale orange with large, wood-framed windows, etc. This kind of rhythmic diversity helped to create instant character and a grounded sense of place in what might have otherwise been another blandly uniform environment. Tenants further personalized their respective units with potted plants, banners and benches as well as small docks and moorings for boats along the waterside of the community.

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About thirty per cent of the 2,500 dwellings at Borneo Sporenburg are subsidized social housing while the rest are priced according to the current real estate market. This makes for a stimulating economic mix of low, high and middle-class tenants. Two large apartment buildings, known as “Meteorites” (the “PacMan” and the “Sphinx”), are set on the diagonal to break up the linear monotony of the low-rise units. These super blocks are much higher than the houses. They have public gardens, interior courtyards and are surrounded by large, open plazas. (A third housing block, called the “Fountainhead”, was never built as local residents wanted to keep the site for a park and sports field.)

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The Python, Borneo Sporenburg, West 8

To further embellish and help people navigate their way around this new urban landscape, West 8 designed three flamboyantly sculptural pedestrian/bike bridges that link Borneo Sporenburg to the adjacent peninsular communities. (One of the bridges called “the Python” was made from bright red steel and undulates just like its name implies.) The particular kind of spatial diversity and customized design strategy that made Borneo Sporenburg such a success, seems to have been difficult to perpetuate in later phases of development. After the first 250 units were finished, the developer asked the city to limit the choices to six standard designs to help lower costs and speed up construction, but Borneo still served as a role model for other peninsular developments in the Eastern Docklands, including KNSM Island, Java Island and Rietland that followed similar patterns, but with larger-scaled blocks that lacked the intimate scale and architectural diversity of Borneo Sporenburg.

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From across the waters of the Westerdoksdijk, Silodam looks like a stack of multi-colored shipping containers or giant Lego pieces. It is, in fact, a massive housing block that hovers on tripod-style pylons. The old dock upon which the building rests was originally used for storing and shipping grain, hence the name, “Silodam”. Two of the old grain silos are still standing on the site and the new structure was designed by MVRDV, one of Holland’s most innovative and playful architecture firms, who took a very different approach than the low, village-like clusters of Borneo. (The same firm designed the iconic WOZOCO housing block for the elderly in the Osdorp neighborhood of Amsterdam in 1997.) At Silodam, they created vertical “neighborhoods” within the ten-story block of 157 residential units, offices and public spaces.

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Silodam, MVRDV

The animated treatment of the exterior is reflected on the interior with a variety of apartment sizes and spatial configurations. Each neighborhood includes between four to ten units of the same type clustered together, each one color coded for ease of internal navigation. Individual living spaces are interspersed with patios, balconies, a small marina for boats and a rooftop communal terrace, called the “crow’s nest” that’s perched on the top floor and offers views of the harbor.

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Floating House, Ijburg, Marlies Rohmer Architects

As the city expands outwards, every kind of alternative has been explored. IJburg, one of Amsterdam’s newest neighborhoods, is a mixed-use development that reaches into the waters of Lake IJmeer with an archipelago of seven artificial islands. Reclamation began in 1997 and continues today as a work in progress with two of the islands being designated for single-family housing, divided into small plots that individual owners are encouraged to develop with an architect of their choice. Like Geuze’s Borneo plan, IJburg has encouraged architectural innovation. Marlies Rohmer Architects designed an entire floating community, or Waterbuurt (“Water Quarter”), for more than 1,000 residents and it’s unlike any other community in the world. Once again, necessity served as mother of invention and the Waterbuurt responds to two of Amsterdam’s most pressing issues: the chronic housing shortage and the threat of rising sea levels. “The main thing is to make a social structure where people really like to live and can put their own ideas into the project,” said Rohmer, who works out of an office on Cruqiuseiland, just across the water from Bonreo Sporenburg.

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House Boats, Sausalito, California

She was inspired after a visit to the alternative houseboat community in Sausalito, California, where she was fascinated by the wildly eclectic houseboats and the “social platforms” that had grown up, organically, and how the homes were connected by different kinds of ramps, boardwalks and jetties. “There was even a floating town square,” she recalled. She borrowed ideas from Sausalito and combined them with basic elements of traditional Dutch canal life–such as the relationship between the street, the canal, and the houseboats that are moored along the wharfs–and these gave her the basis for a 757-Waterwoningen-412-PL1op500totaalvoorwebsite-550x484master plan. “We are 757-TVN-032-363x484used to building on water,” said Rohmer. “It’s our nature.”[*] Climatology experts have predicted that sea levels may rise more than three feet (9 meters) by 2100, and since more than two-thirds of the country’s population live below sea level this has become a major incentive in Dutch planning. Instead of building dikes and dams to keep the water out, the tidal waters of the IJmeer have been “invited in” with canals and inlets interlaced throughout the new development. 

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Most of the floating houses are three-story, single-family townhouses. “I see them as a kind of hybrid, somewhere between a boat and a house,” said Rohmer. They are white, grid-like boxes–imagine a Sol LeWitt installation adrift–resting on precast concrete shells or “hulls” that are completely watertight and were engineered to submerge no deeper than five feet. There’s a minimum of rocking, although heavy furniture can make the houses list to one side. “When you put a big couch or piano on one side of the living room, you have to balance it with something on the other side,” explained Rohmer. All components were prefabricated at a boat yard forty miles to the north of IJburg, then towed along canals and through a series of locks to reach the Waterbuurt site. In a sense, the delivery process gave Rohmer her modular dimensions since the houses had to be less than 21 feet (6.5 meters) in width. “They had to be designed with the exact same measurements as the locks to fit through,” said Rohmer.

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The 275-square-meter houses were laid out in an elegantly triangular configuration separated by narrow jetties and anchored to the Kadegebouw along the Waterbuurt’s southern flank. All of the buoyant units are held in place by two steel mooring poles that keep them positioned close to the jetties but allow the structures to move up or down with changing tides. The traditional Dutch wijk (“neighborhood”) has become a stationary flotilla, a kind of modern-day Venice with small boats moored in front of every unit, children swimming in summer and skating on the ice that sometimes surrounds the community in winter. Rohmer even designed a “drifting terrace”, a kind of public event space that can be moved from place to place and used for parties.

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Floating House, IJburg, Hollands Zicht & SOOH

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On the east side of IJburg there are another 38 floating houses, much more eclectic in design than Rohmer’s minimal white cubes, and each one has been designed by a different architect. A handsome wood-framed black box with trellis stairway was designed by Hollands Zicht & SOOH.  In addition, a set of floating apartment blocks were designed and developed by Eigen Haard, a public housing association, while Anne Holtrop, a young Dutch architect, has proposed a hydroponic “garden/spa wellness island” in collaboration with French landscape designer Patrick Blanc that will float on the waters of Lake IJ and serve the needs of the island’s water-bound residents, providing a pastoral landscape of rolling green hills, something rare for Holland, even if it is completely artificial.

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Garden Spa Wellness Island, IJburg, Anne Holtrop & Patrick Blanc

Large-scale housing developments like IJburg and Borneo Sporenburg were made possible because of a well-lubricated infrastructure of economic, political and cultural systems that fostered innovation. “The city worked closely with developers and social housing companies,” explained Wouter Onclin, an urban planner based in Amsterdam. “The cities made money from selling land, the developers were able to build because of high demand. Banks would finance 100% of our homes with no down payments and mortgage interest was deductible from one’s income so the tax benefits made it beneficial to carry as much mortgage debt as possible.” According to Onclin, all of this changed with the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Now developers have to rely on private capital and less on debt financing. “The tabula rasa method of clearing entire areas will not happen anymore,” he said. “It’s smaller and more organic now. The role of the individual and consumer is becoming much more important.”

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Repurposed Shipping Containers, Houthavens, HVDN Architects

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Floor Plan of Houthavens Housing, HVDN Architects

Houthavens, in the northwest, is one of the city’s newer neighborhoods, mainly inhabited by students and young artists, still very much in organic mutation, transforming itself from a derelict dockland/industrial zone into a thriving residential/business area through small and sometimes guerilla-type actions as a larger development plan awaits approval and financing. Several clusters of modular housing were built as was a floating block of artist studios. Temporary housing was also provided in a former cruise ship. An abandoned ferry and a deep-sea oil platform were transformed into restaurants, and a new theater was built on a former factory site. HVDN Architects, a young collaborative, created an “instant community” with recycled shipping containers stacked three stories high and placed around two courtyards to create 715 student units and 72 larger apartments. It took only twelve months to realize from conception to completion. Facades were made from pre-fabricated molded plastic panels with a variety of window treatments, setbacks, and brightly colored Plexiglas inserts (something like a hipster reinterpretation of De Stijl modernism), all of it helping to soften and disguise the industrial rawness of the corrugated steel containers. Indeed, HVDN’s design was so well implemented that what had originally been considered “temporary housing” turned into a semi-permanent status and gave the neighborhood a sense of center and destination that it previously lacked. But everything in Houthavens is in continual flux, and HVDN’s container village is scheduled to be removed by next summer. Students received notices that they will have to vacate their apartments to make way for a new master plan that will include a series of islands similar to IJburg with housing designed by different architectural firms. The economy is beginning to lift and Amsterdam continues to reinvent itself.

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Rem Eiland

A version of this article first appeared in Design Anthology, Issue #3 (Hong Kong)

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* As quoted in: “This Floating City May Be the Future of Coastal Living,” Noah Rayman, Time, June 26, 2014.