Monday, October 26, 2009

Reading List: Beyond No. 1

Perfect airplane fare, on a recent trip I had an opportunity to borrow Beyond No. 1, entitled Scenarios and Speculations, featuring a range of short stores on the 'post-contemporary', edited by Pedro Gadanho. An interesting idea, the slim volume takes a different tack: "...dedicated to new, experimental forms of architectural and urban writing, a bookazine in which, amidst other goodies, an extended network of young and upcoming writers are given the freedom to survey the outline of themes and things to come."

:: image via boiteaoutils

The inaugural volume includes a range of work from authors both known and new, opening up a new wave of potential future reading. Some highlights from my reading were from included 'The Last Market' by Antonio Scarpini, (p. 50) Scenarios and Speculations' by Lara Schrijver (p.12), and an inventive graphic novel by Wes Jones on 'Re:Doing Dubai' (p.88) all offering some specific commentary on our current contemporary life.

Also notable is the humorous short story by Gilles Delalex entitled 'Ventolin, Inc.: A Diary of a Voluntary Prisoner of the Motorway' (p. 36) offering a meditation on a life on the road from a mobile photo diarist/social narrator that spends days on the road and eventually is enveloped into the movement, unable to reconnect with the non-mobile counterpart of dead suburban normalcy.

He heads for home, then is overtaken: "As he approaches the last ramp leading to the familiar suburban streets of home, a cold wave of doubt sweeps him over. Exalted by the sensual freedom of the flow, Maitland wonders about the static nature of his home town and the ostensibly stable and local meaning of his old suburban life. He slows down as if to enjoy a littler longer the addicting feeling of his new nomadic life. Will I ever be able to return to my old suburban streets? Or is my real community here on the motorway? Maitland misses the exit deliberately. He knows that the motorway has become his new home, and he may never come back." (p. 41)

This suburban escape is appropriate as well to my favorite essay, from Bruce Sterling, in a story entitled 'White Fungus' which extrapolates on the life of a fictional architect and his work in the anywhere locale, which is the title of the story: "...the edge city. Semi-regulated, semi-prosperous, automobilized expanses of commercial European real-estate. Mostly white brick, hence the name. White Fungus had paved the region, which city planners were bored, or distracted, or bought off." (p. 19)

The story focuses on place as a major character, showing off the non-place that exists in the non-architectural, and looking at the social constructs that exist (or lack) in what is left over. There is also the hope, through the work of a series of builders that addressed a 'new vernacular' that used ephemeral materials and styles - hovel-like parasitic buildings that were dangerous but at least real.

Another aspect is the reinhabitation of junkspace: "Traffic islands. Empty elevator shafts. Gaps within walls, gaps between administrative zones and private properties. Debris-strewn alleys. Rafterspace. Emergency stairs for demolished buildings. Nameless spaces, unseen, unserviced and unlit. They were just - junked spaces, the voids, the absences in the urban fabric." (p.26)

Essentially a meditation on a new architecture - it seems apt giving the economy and the need to reinvent the role and relevance of the designer in this brave new world. As stated by the narrator: "Our architecture did not 'work.' We ourselves were no longer 'working' as that enterprise was formerly understood. We were living, and living rather well, once we found to nerve to proclaim that. To manifest our life in our own space and time." (p.27)

The fiction of Sterling is apt, along with the similar pomo sci-fi of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson (prior to going all historical on us) - of envisioning not a fantasy world, but something maybe happening next year, but giving it a reality that we can grasp and possibly imagine. What is that if not architecture, creating utopian visions of a new, possible, world that reacts to time, capitalism, and culture and reflects it back on us - both good and bad.

The summarizing quote is from Aaron Betsky, in his essay 'The Alpha and the Omega' which shows the power of both the media and the message: "Architecture is a fiction... Some of the most powerful pieces of architecture do not existing in buildings. We inhabit them through stories, whether they are myths, fiction or poetry. Fictional architecture moves us beyond buildings, in time and space, as well as in possibilities non-built buildings can offer. It shows us a wider range of possibilities and evokes spaces impossible (for now) to inhabit."

And Beyond No. 2, focusing on Values and Symptoms, is soon going to be out, and worth checking giving a look with essays from Douglas Coupland amongst others. This is the kind of reading that gives you a bit of a break from heady volumes - but still provides a way of engaging urban thought in new ways.

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