Saturday, July 4, 2009

Leftover Rightunder

I'm just back from Lexington and a dayplus as Guest Artist at the Governor's School for the Arts, as organized by The Kentucky Center and hosted by Transylvania University.

This year, GSA auditioned over 1600 students and 225 high school juniors and seniors were selected to participate in the three-week program in one of nine disciplines: architecture, creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, musical theatre, new media, visual art, and vocal music. Students, faculty, and guests focus on topics and issues within their fields, even as disciplinary boundaries are crossed effortlessly. Students room with a student from another field, each student is required to attend a minimum of three "smorgs" (a smorgasbord of one-hour short courses offered by faculty members in each field), and faculty share breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables along with a late night table near their residence hall. One guest artist from each field makes a morning presentation to the entire GSA group as a kick-off for an immersive day dedicated to each discipline.

Steven Ward, Donna Sink, and Jeff Rawlins, assisted by Mark Richards, are teaching the architecture component to eighteen young architects. The thematic: "found" as in (from my perspective) found materials, found sites, found artifacts, found spaces, found lives, and maybe even found careers and happiness!

To kick off the Architecture Immersion Day on July 1, I offered "Leftover Rightunder," as in, so many offsites, gonelives, and immaterials so taken for granted, or not, that we don't see them or believe they exist.

On June 12 I visited East St. Louis with Olon Dotson and students in his " The Applicability of New Urbanism in Our Inner-City Communities” seminar. This "leftover space"--two abandoned houses that nature has reclaimed--were among our sightings. (all photos by the author, for more photos, see this set)

I like this category "leftover" as it expresses the complementary relationship between things that we traditionally perceive as being unused or unconsumed and things that remain as residue. Synonyms bring out the interconnectedness even more: leftover indicates remainder--rubbish, odd, or waste--AND excess--surplus, bonus, dividend.

In this, your garbage is my prize, that wasted space can welcome our event, and a person considered homeless, someone we won't acknowledge passing on the street, or the individual we try to keep out of our neighborhood, house, and life, is, I say is, of interest, importance, and potential.

This quality I term "leftover spaces, leftover materials, and leftover people" and the title "Leftover Rightunder" refers to the presence of such rubbishes/dividends everywhere around each of us.

In East St. Louis, near the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from the Katherine Dunham Museum, an apartment complex is being deconstructed, with oversized brick-blocks saved and palleted for future use.

As part of my presentation, I asked the assembled students and faculty, from the nine disciplines, to shout out words or phrases that capture this quality of "leftover" in their fields. Among the suggestions:

ghost image
double casting
short ends

I like this. Am I, a licensed architect with a PhD, am I an UNDERSTUDY of a self-builder in Buenos Aires, both learning from him and having my knowledge undercut and simultaneously underscored by his ideas, works, and practices? Is a self-builder in a planned informal settlement in Panama City, Panama a GHOST IMAGE of the professional constructor he practices in the formal economy during weekdays, or is the formal downtown high-rise that he builds the ghost image of the construction one finds in informal settlements around the world? Does one pollute the other? Are they so different? With a professional education, do we DOUBLE CAST students as both knowledgeable enough to begin a career and unknowledgeable about almost anything outside the conventional bounds of the profession? By SHORT ENDS, are we talking about those most in-need getting only what are the cast-offs of the middle class? Or are we talking about the very best, maybe as a way to acknowledge that slumdwellers -- who appear to own so little -- have a great deal to teach designers about sustainable practices?

East St. Louis again, background = a long abandoned building in full collapse, middleground = open land with partial basketball court + players, foreground = my colleague Olon Dotson.

For now, to continue this interest in language, and in finding new words to express new ideas, to become aware of unknowable settings, or to believe in what we're seeing because we have language with which to communicate, I'd like to add a onesmallproject.glossary, just for fun, and to suggest a range of words and ideas and approaches for your consideration.

As in "a system of outdoor community courts, convened for genocide cases" in Rwanda.

"Gacaca was designed to reward confessions, because the objective was not only to render rudimentary justice and mete out punishment but also to allow some emotional catharsis by establishing a collective accounting of the truth of the crimes in each place where they were committed."

Source: "The Life After," Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker, May 4, 2009.

Getting Baptized
"A generation ago, it was a given that if you were a black man in Detroit, you worked in an auto plant. A job on the line was a birthright, reporting to the employment office of one of the Big Three a rite of passage. 'We called it 'getting baptized,' a retired African-American autoworker, General Baker, told me.'"

Source: "G.M., Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class," Jonathan Mahler, The New York Times Magazine, June 28, 2009.

"Whether via neglect, fire, or the odd Cajun musician, block after block of Detroit succumbed to the bulldozer over the decades, but it wasn't until Monday, April 26, 1993, during a budget presentation to Detroit's City Council, that the city's unbuilding binge rocketed to national attention. On that day, Marie Farrell-Donaldson, Detroit's ombusdman, proposed that blighted sectors of the city be put out to pasture. Detroit would literally be downsized at '20, 25 blocks at a whack.' The plan called for residents to be ferried from moribund districts to those where a spark of life could still be found. Derelict houses would be demolished, empty stretches fenced off, and the whole mess turned over to 'nature.' Farrell-Donaldson, a former city auditor who was Michigan's first black female certified public accountant, titled her report 'Management by Common Sense.' She explained in terms familiar to the Motor City's hard-pressed automobile executives: 'What we would be trying to do, in reality, is to downsize the community. We're talking about rightsizing the city to correlate with our budget.'"

Source: Jeff Byles, Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition. New York: Harmony Books, 2005, p. 233.

Urban Prairie
"A vacant lot in a city that has been neglected for some time, thus having grown weeds or other assorted vegetation. Usually found in not-very-nice or neighborhoods populated with abandoned houses. 'I liked the apartment, but I'm not sure I should take it--that neighborhood has an awful lot of urban prairie.'"

Source: Urban Dictionary, downloaded July 4, 2009.

Walking Point
"as a reference to military service and as a way to be in the city, to be aware and alert at all times, to live in the city as one would live in a war zone"

Source: conversation with Michael Orange, Mechanic Street between 4th and Broadway, Camden, New Jersey, October 2008. (for photos of Camden, see this set)

This is a first five.

All Leftover Rightunders.

More to follow.

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