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