Monday, November 10, 2008

Harvest Time

culture night

architecture office on a boat

So, the last point on my journey was a bit of a culture shock – despite the fact that I’d been in Scandinavia for most of my travels, experiencing a new place through the eyes of an architectural tourist was in sharp contrast to the dig in and make myself useful approach of my previous stays. Although it was a pleasure to see the many dynamic aspects of Copenhagen and the creativity of contemporary Danish architects, I found myself wanting more evidence of the life of the city. The buildings were lovely, but who were the communities that they housed? Complex to put your finger on, but certainly a kind of eye opener in contrast – I’ve been looking at the building environment predominantly through the eyes of the people working to form and maintain a community, so seeing the buildings as objects, even as background, left me with an empty shell feeling.

So, architecturally, I leave the experiences I’ve had with the realization that the social element of forming the built environment actually makes the process of architecture immensely more rich and compelling. After all, it is in reaction to the life and activities of groups of people and individuals that a building has its true function and any semblance of meaning.

Luckily, there were several experiences in Copenhagen that gave me a view into some of the social life of the city. The first was that I arrived on the city’s ‘Culture Night’ which was a series of events held city wide allowing people to check out the buildings, music, food and general culture of Copenhagen. I toured the ruins of the old foundations under the city Palace, hung out at the Copenhagen Center for Architecture where they were conducting a kind of music/ poetry experiment involving separating musicians in different rooms of the buildings during the exhibition, then mixing their music to poetry at a final performance. I went to an artists collaborative and did some life drawing, and finally just walked about looking at some light sculpture and lines of people moving through the various squares and buildings in the city.

the black box

new concert hall

youth boat house - PLOT

The next night I stayed with a group of very friendly fellows who had formed a co-op, sharing food expenses and spending a good amount of their social time together. They were having a Halloween dinner, which was great fun. Although I may have overdone it a bit with the libations, it was nice to have a blow out at the end of my trip.

Was able to tour Christiania with a young lady who had lived there for some time and knew the scene quite well. It was a very interesting place, and perhaps had the most exciting atmosphere in the city, although the buildings were lacking the high design touch, the streets and public buildings felt somehow like a medieval town might have felt. People were just out in the streets, actually talking to each other and enjoying the city life, instead of this sort of isolated, event and scene based movement through entertainment, shopping and work venues. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the place had a rather complicated and perhaps overly political social structure, favoring the power of older residents – although it makes sense in a way. I imagine if you’ve spent a great deal of sweat and emotion continually fighting for the existence of your home you’d feel a high level of ownership. Overall though, it was very impressive that the place exists and has managed to hang on for all these years. It’s so centrally located and idyllic – it’s really a great inspiration of collectivism and counter-mass culture. I hope they can continue to maintain its existence and find ways to generate a more securely established position over time.

one of the houses at christiania

interesting protest project related to waterfront development proposals

So now it’s back to Boston with my head overfull of ideas, impressions, feelings and thoughts. I’m not at all clear on what’s next or where these various experiences will take me, but I’m eager to find out and so very grateful for the chance to take them in and the freedom to explore their potentials.

Tandem Experiences

yes, that's our ride

Moving on to the last community of my trip – Holland seems somehow appropriate, like a kind of lively farewell. Arrival at Obdam was somewhat indefinate due to some schedule mix-up. I was lucky enough to talk to a man who lived over the train station, and was familiar with De Nieuw Proef. He graciously gave me a ride. Yet another example of how fortunate I’ve been on this trip, relying on the kindness of strangers. And another testament to the good will of humans in general.

De Nieuw Proef main house

greenhouse, gardens and orchard beyond

De Nieuw Proef is a rather exciting young community, having only started 5 years ago, they have made great headway into their project, fully renovating a a traditional dutch stolpboerderij (a kind of farmhouse) into 8 apartments. They have also made great progress with their farming and gardening projects – lots of effort and success.

It was a pleasure to be there in terms of the meals we had. Everyone seemed to be quite inclined towards food and culinary concerns – and there were many feasts during my 12 days living there. Also had a chance to travel over to the nearby town of Hoorn, which had great character due to the shifting, water affected ground conditions, buildings leaning many different directions, and interesting connected waterways and irrigation systems. Also went there to hear some music from a band that one of the community members was involved in – quite a fun combination of people at the community. Various ages and interests.

Had a nice time thinking about their debate/performance space, and experimenting with an individual interview approach to developing the design ideas. Also got going on an exciting sauna design. Overall, it felt like a very civil community they were building – lots of friendliness and emphasis on living a good quality of life, based on the basics. In fact, it felt in a way, closer to life in the states than the other places I’ve visited – more typical in household amenities, and more people having standard jobs, while still living collectively and enjoying the benefits of pooled resources. A very practical kind of collectivism. This has been a key thought in my developing ideas about collective living – that in order for it to be a more widespread option, it needs to be thought of in pragmatic terms instead of, or at least as a higher priority than, utopian ideals. That the benefits of living collectively are quite simple and really normal to how we are as social animals – it helps us live better lives on many levels.

Next stop Copenhagen, where I’ll spend some time doing normal tourist things before heading back to Boston to spend some time digesting all of these various experiences. I’m eager to see what I can make of all of them, how I can turn them into a direction for my career and my potential skill use.

Old School

suderbyn barns

My time at Suderbyn was full of recollection. That is to say, I was immersed in history, and in learning skills that have been around for ages. Suderbyn Eco-village is situated on Gotland near the medieval trading town of Visby. The setting is idyllic – both dramatic and graceful. You can feel the patina of age on the island, both in terms of nature and the human activity.

It was a delight to live with Robert, Ingrid and family – I could feel their passion and anticipation, delving into the realization of a long-held dream. It was inspiring to be with them, seeing a real example of a family busily engaged in living in closer coordination with natural systems, living by what they believe in. It was rather impressive to see the toilet of the house torn out, after just two weeks there, replaced by a composting toilet system.

My time there was spent busily helping with preparations for an international workcamp, as well as with various minor house improvements. It was a nice chance to get involved with the nuts and bolts – Lifting and carrying rocks for a new grill, preparing and helping with barn roof reparations, and otherwise using my skills to help things where I could. It was also quite fun to be there to help with the beginning of the work camp. Many delightful people participated, from around the world. All good hearted and friendly – wanting to do what they could to learn about eco-living and to think about what they could do to improve our relationship to the broader system.

near by chapel

nice cliff stair

My time wandering through Visby was somehow deeply influential in a way that I’m still processing. I find again that I’m fascinated by the evidence of human life in a city. That it’s less about the building as an edifice than it is about what people are doing, how they’re living, and how well the edifice allows for that life. Visby, as a very old city, has the great quality that maybe only comes from many many feet passing over its stones. Still I’m hopeful that my skills can be used to generate such power. Buildings with facades and walls have changed many times over the years, showing generations and telling stories. Maybe buildings should be thought of in terms of the stories they can tell about human life. How well do they behave as a kind of parchment for the writing of our experiences? Can they be used like a sheet of news print, brainstormed over, marked up with sharpies and bits of charcoal?

Visby images

So, my appreciation of the old continues to bud – and it’s not to say that I dislike modern advancements, it is to say that there are many things we have learned as a species, that we quickly forget – but maybe to our detriment. So I hope I can use this passion for simple technologies, to perhaps fold some early ideas into new compositions and uses. Or alternately, to combine them, and remind people of our bare handed vulnerability and folksy abilities.

Some experiences to remember: Collecting beach wood with Suderbyn resident Disa, Lifting a few rocks that took everything I had, Outdoor shower at night in the cold and mist, Lovely dinners with a fascinating group of people, Making a hay bale seating area in the loft of the barn, making harness’ from rope, and proceeding to hang from the roof with Robert, wielding hammers, flat bars and screw guns, feasting on apples from the many trees.

Robert and workcamp at beach

new grill in process

No Rules Rule

Staying at Gaija up near Ahtari, Finland brought many things into perspective. They have been starting their community for the past 2.5 years, and are moving along reasonably well. The people involved have rotated with about 4 of the 10-12 people remaining from the original startup. What made my experience there particularly interesting was the apparent complete lack of formal rules regarding how much or what kind of work each person there does. They basically have the agreement that if you see something that needs to be done, do it. Ask for help if you need it. But there’s nothing that you have to do.

So at first this seems like a recipe for lost efficiencies, and perhaps frictions between people who work a lot and people who aren’t working. But as I lived there more, it seemed that inequalities in work didn’t seem to be much on the minds of the people involved. Things were getting done, and although it was the case that the burden seemed to be on the backs of about half of the group, everyone was contributing in some way. Additionally, the people involved all had the impetus placed on their own shoulders, so it seemed like it made people more aware of what needed to be done, and more dynamic in terms of taking initiative and problem solving. I’ll be curious to see if this continues, and how they will manage what seem to be inevitable conflicts that will arise between people at close quarters. Still it was very interesting as a way of living.

Gaija main building

Aside from these structural interests, the people there were really interesting and friendly. A nice combination of no nonsense practicality, hard edges, and soft fantacies. I especially enjoyed being involved with potato harvesting, and very much enjoyed the various conversations that developed, along with sharing of music and making use of their excellent kitchen.

Spent time helping with the harvest, making food, cleaning up, gathering berries, helping with animals a bit, and doing some deep cleaning here and there. Had some very nice saunas and a great memory standing in the shallows of the lake at sunset with swans flying across the horizon.


Leaving there with some new ideas about structure in community arrangements, or more specifically, with a higher tolerance level of low amounts of structure. I think people have some amount of built-in social structure, and this works well even without formal structure. Although I think some amount of common formal structure is a good idea, I am thinking it can be much less than I had formerly imagined. Next stop, Suderbyn at Gotland. Went through Uppsala with a quick visit to Petra and family, as I was delayed in my travels and need to take care of a few errands as well. Excited to see what they’re developing at Suderbyn. They seem very enthusiastic and I’m looking forward to being involved.

Path to sauna and lake

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Manly Men

Kuusamo Airport, with taxidermy

Had another nice visit with my friend Vesa, beginning with our arrival to the Kuusamo airport, which has a stuffed reindeer in the middle of the baggage claim area. We always have interesting talks, and this time was no exception. Got somewhat deeply into the questions of art (including for our discussions, music and architecture), what makes it good, where the  line between high design and vernacular acceptance lies, how to make high art more accessible, dealing with the elitism of high design, and the apparent erosion of quality related to marketing and selling of the arts. 

Some interesting ideas that came out of these discussions: maybe there is a potential to develop more ideas related to the connection of art and marketing. Perhaps some art projects that blur the line between marketing and art. Like the yes men, etc. Also, a variety of thoughts about the experiential nature of art, perhaps projects could be developed that are devoted to orchestrating experiences for participants. Additionally, gets me thinking about whether to place my efforts in this grass roots community design approach, or to spend time on the marketing side of things, promoting good architecture, making it accessible, etc. Well my main inclination has been towards the former, but it does have my mind going.

Besides these discussions, we had a nice time listening to music, going to Ruka, and eating Jettimunkis! Big round cardamom spiced doughnuts. Mmmm. Also picked berries, made pie, went on some good long hikes, had sauna, cooked good food, lived it up! Also went to a concert in Helsinki called Deathfeast which was lots of fun. Everyone was very loveable, in black t-shirts and friendly moshing.

beard and laplands meadow

Went around and saw some great Aalto buildings and also wandered through the connected buildings and underground of Helsinki – such nice and interesting public spaces there. Connected courtyards and covered walkways. Aalto’s work is very nice to see in person. Quite basic in some way – like not overly articulated or fussy. He seems to be comfortable with the existence of mistakes and idiosyncrasies.  Localized variation and expressed connections, without being as complex in articulation, like you might find in the work of Scarpa for example. Went to see his town hall at Saynastalo, which was so very nice. Such a great public building for a small island town. Somehow the brick and scale fits just perfectly in the tall pines. 

Academic Bookshop, Helsinki, Aalto

Aalto's house

Saynatsalo Town Hall

Saynatsalo Town Hall

Otherwise, I’ve been realizing how moved I am by the older buildings around Europe. They have a kind of gravity and a certain display of rigorous care. These days it seems we don’t make much that feels so well grounded, like it’s really a part of the city, part of the geography of the city. Hope I can get some of that gravity into my own work. Stockholm and Helsinki have both been inspirational in this way. And Uppsala still blows me away.

Helsinki, Academic Book Shop in Middle

Helsinki Main Terminal

coffee at the Swedish National Theater in Helsinki

Wooden Boats

Meridiana Main House

It was a lovely time with Thorsten and Kora at Meridiana. They have many interesting ideas forming, and it seemed like the timing was very good for my involvement and help. They’re doing a fair amount to generate a sustainable settlement with their guest house and personal home, and are working hard to establish fertile grounds for ecological settlement on Kumlinge, Åland.

We had many nice meals together, and I was able to help construct a storage closet with the additions of some places for shelves/spice racks. Felt good to be engaged in physical work and construction. Went around the island by bicycle and foot and even had the chance to go out sailing in their smaller wooden boat.

It was also a lot of fun to help with design ideas for their winter garden. Fortuitous to find some tangible design connections to boat building and ecology. They were great to work through ideas with, and I think we arrived at a solution that made use of lots of good thinking from all of us. Also was very interesting to meet with their neighbors and develop some broader coordination about the overall vision for the area. We developed some very interesting ideas and toured around the immediate vicinity, looking at places with good potential for future ecological houses. Also arrived at the idea that it would be a good to start with some smaller bungalows that could be used by people who are considering moving there or need a place to live while they build their own.

Sailing with Thorsten and Kora

Visioning and Design Session with neighbors

This has led me to think about many ideas, including the possibility of developing various types of design/build courses to create these bungalows, and perhaps other projects in the eco-village. Also has gotten me thinking about ideal settings for community. The strengths of Meridiana relate to the connection to nature and the island feeling, as well as small scale agricultural potential and interesting local community. Their challenge will be to find people who are interested in living away from the city in a more self-sustained manner. I think they can manage, and it gets me thinking about how you generate interest in communal settlement in general. It suggests a rather large step aside from the normal living situation. I think efforts need to be made to associate community arrangements with more “normal” living situations. This may suggest working disassociate it from the perception of counter culture, or rebellion, as in the communal movements of the 70s. This is of course in the interest of spreading community options more broadly. In the case of Meridiana, I think they will do well to make use of their interest in nature and holistic medicine to develop interest. Although I also think tapping into the local interests in maritime tradition and perhaps art and natural retreat could also go a long way.