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Those who’ve shared a public platform with me know my advocacy for radically higher urban densities. And I would argue that defending the preservation of
mediocre, scantily-worked buildings from another era purely for a shared history lesson is a risible practice, (e.g. the mid-century modernist Parker Center).
Yet, I’ve generally found the polarizing dialectic of Development versus Preservation – even as battle lines have hardened - to be a false one. Or, rather, it simply seems the wrong race in which to pick horses by rote.
Where it’s easier for me to find a position is in the dialectic between what might be called Disorderly Precincts and Renewal. The de rigeur face of the Renewal side, almost without exception, promises greater security and public welfare, while, quite precisely, destroying it.
The most obvious (and most systematically American) case of modernist Renewal was the combined partitioning and destruction of urban black communities by freeway-building in the mid-20th century, (Illustrated is Detroit's I-375, which displaced the city's culturally vibrant, river-side Black Bottom community in the early 1960's).
A contemporary instance, on an exponentially more massive scale, has been the destruction of both historic courtyard housing and newer squatter housing throughout Beijing. These neighborhoods were lively and dense; and the tone of official announcements
suggests that the rationale has less to with inspired urban planning than it does with tourism, classism, and genting up the neighborhood.
These demolitions have consistently brought protests from the city's artists, not least because their own studios have often been targets of the displacement.
At the University of Kyoto, the 1913 Yoshida Dormitory was recently the target of a Renewal effort. It is, by all acounts, an unremarkable building. Students string ethernet cables across the rafters. There is more laundry visible across the facade than glazing. The 'student lounge' is an ad hoc tent; and the 'music room' is a basement hallway.
Nonetheless, the University's proposal to replace the facility with a contemporary dormitory - with concomitant building code safety, sustainability, and improved 'quality of space' - has been vehemently opposed by the students.
I suspect this is not about architectural preciousness. Rather: they know that an 'official building' will offer them a handsome warehouse of habitation, but nothing like the resourceful community that they've crafted - continuously eccentric, fluctuating, and more-than-slightly appalling to grown-ups.
In a similar instance, at Tokyo University in 2001, some 573 security personnel forcibly moved students out in the middle of a record typhoon. But thus far, the outcome in Kyoto is that both college administration and government – with a local tradition of taking students, their learning, and their perspective with respect – have taken a step back from the planned demolition. Kudos.
A less sanguine result is promised for a burnt-out cabin in Kashmir, which has recently been claimed by young artists, who, lacking university studio space, have used the cabin as a working laboratory and ongoing gallery. A university dean: "The building is a threat to public safety. The Department of Fine Arts has been shifted [sic] to the university in a temporary arrangement."
Underlying the Disorderly Precinct, (and distinguishing it, from, say, a skid row), are a number of organic, unspoken principles.
- In the denizens' embrace of wildness and eccentricity (so abhorrent to various policing agencies) a lived, empathetic restraint is evolved.
-What appears organic is guided and sustained by nurturing hands.
-Beneath the layers of accrued history, there is a fundamental, earthy, material durability.
-Such places are patently false when 'designed'.
Architectural icons can now be dashed off in a few years; but it takes time for a Disorderly Precinct - at any scale - to come to maturity. One glue that often binds such a precinct across time is the poverty of its beginnings. Barren foundations are followed by DIY accruals that keep over-writing each other in a palimpsest of ineptitudes.
New things are brought - by one or another - into such a precinct, and they are cobbled on in places that just somehow seem the best fit.
What no cherished layer in this evolving sandwich can resist are the weatherings, the erosions, and the oxidations of time. You could say that this brings to each layer a co-habiting empathy for the others. Material takes on memory and soul. The layers transmit the long story of their making, of fitting-in, of heart-pains and pleasures, of war, peace, and compromise.
A perfect stranger, present or future, who has the good fortune to stumble into such places - and who looks, really looks - will invariably find a form of renewal.