Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Underneath the Armory

A few nights ago I had the very rare and fiendishly creepy privilege of getting a tour of the historic San Francisco Armory building hunkered down on the corner of Mission and 14th Streets, a monster relic right smack down along a scrubby industrial edge in the Mission district with a vital revolutionary past.

You can read a short history of the armory at Wikipedia which has also done a good job of tracking the many different proposed plans to re-use it ever since its closure in 1976, from dot.com office space (as you might have guessed) to (yes) more condos, to much sorely needed post-homeless housing, to, of course, what it is now finally being used for – sex films.
In the past it served intermittently as a place for social events like boxing matches, but for decades the armory has largely remained untapped in a big disappointing and unimaginative way. At the very least this space could make for an amazing installation venue, a temporary art space, a wicked pavilion or bazaar for a weekend wandering of sorts. But, anyway…
As we read, “The Armory served as a stronghold and rallying point for the National Guard in their suppression of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike (an event known as "Bloody Thursday").”
Essentially, it is a 152,000 square foot concrete behemoth with a brick façade that I spent the good part of over a decade myself walking around trying to climb up to the lower level slivers of look-out space that have remained for the most part boarded up ever since I can remember, just to see if there was any way to peak in, to get even a semi-worthless glimpse, the vaguest of ideas, anything about what the hell was or was not going on inside. And how could nothing have been going on, especially for so long? I tell ya, for a place this mysterious something sure as hell better have been happening in there, that’s all I can say.

[Image: The opened door to a prop room for Kink's fun little stash of props that properly reads "Fuckign Machine,", though, unfortunately it was empty, doh!]

I can’t count how many times I’ve circled this landmark hopelessly plotting, strategizing in vain as to how I might manage to sneak in, if even just to try in order to gather some bits of realism for a much more exciting future dream about sneaking in and wandering around inside this old military beast, where clandestine CIA operations were coming together or maybe being botched, or the NSA had set up another illegal domestic wiretapping facility, or entire secret societies of revolutionary squatters had secured the coolest fort in town, or where crazy avant-garde performance sex-art parties were happening completely unbeknownst to me in all my callous lack of urban cool wisdom.

Damn, for years this place occupied a menacing architectural fascination for me, that I have to say could only have been satiated by this eerie freaky-ass flashlight tour I got from one of the nutty caretakers there who was more than willing to let me indulge my pent up curiosity by running around like a fearless raving madman fishing for answers to my bottomless soul in the pits of the fortress’s urban dark.

With massive wands of light in our hands we kicked and crawled our way through the darkness of abandonment, a little group of us fingering and poking our way down the half-lit stairwells into hallway after hallway, getting darker and darker, combing every random room off to the side I could find like a dog let loose in a new property, sniffing out every corner nook and cranny, mapping a secret geography of his new domain.
In actuality the interior of the entire fortress has been kept excessively clean, I mean, really clean – like psychotically mopped and buffed over and over again. I swear Jack from The Shining must have been hiding somewhere watching us from a dark furtive corner while we admired his obsessive bleach work. Needless to say, the cleanliness was ironically chilling, purely spooky.

[Image: This was hilarious. A classroom setting with a simple desk, and a chalboard that reads over and over and over again, I will not leave my cage without permission again.]

But, irritated by my attachment to people, I bolted off alone following only the nose of my intrepid flashlight into corners of old officers quarters that had now been adorned with mirrors and turned into little unknown dance studios; or, wide open office like spaces from where I climbed onto indoor balconies that I should not have until I heard sounds of creaking wood and bending metal; that being my cue to backtrack into new clefts of storage space where little infrastructural skeletons of ancient trusses and bolted beams were revealed in jagged light fragments, while my panting nostrils siphoned pungent wafts of bleach and old wood just like an old ghost dog on the prowl in some purgatorial compound.

There were rooms with absolutely nothing in them, and others with out of place desks, displaced closet spaces, isolated chairs – presumably basic props for silly sex scenes I’d probably never see; black rooms with half walls holding up pitiful ceilings, bathrooms cautiously taped shut, rusted old bathtubs ideal for a horrendous torture flick.

Through lesser obvious rooms with crumbling door frames I found a set of ramps that led down even further to new hallways lower and lower until the groups’ giddy voices and cackles were trapped in far-off corners, searching for something (always searching for something) yet still lower until I skipped across a section of slimy planks and rotted boards that stretched over a water-logged floor where cold concrete walls whispered in drippy voices, gaining speed to just reach an end or a bottom to the armory until I finally tripped over a bucket and some strewn hardware. Finding a mess of tools and crap there with my light a small gang of drills and saws stared back at me like little mechanic heathens looking as if I’d just interrupted their orgy, or as if they’d just been turned off seconds before I got there. Moving past them until alas I heard Mission Creek oozing by my feet, and this was it, the bottom of the well, the absolute bowels of this massive concrete body where it finally met the earth and could sink into it no more; for a moment I could have sworn I saw a body flowing through the river of black foam as I stopped to just realize my point in time and place on the planet.

Down some more steps that led into the thick slush I flashed my camera over and over again, pretending to be the forensic psychologist I always dreamt of being, alone by the blackest creek in San Francisco, lost to the world inside the remains of an old shooting gallery where the walls had been blown to pieces, waiting for some dead hand to reach out from the water and pull me in, drag me under, on my way to some Subtopian neverland.

Then, I caught a whiff of some thing’s insides, unmistakably the stench of a mammalian cavity and I hustled back up the stairs rummaging through the blocky labyrinth with a flickering flashlight in my hand, catching my toes in ground rivets and looking for a new forward exit, until I swept past a series of cages tucked under a walkway, reminded for a moment of scenes from the recent film Children of Men where immigrants were stashed in stockades screaming in vain, when these were more likely at some point packed with rifles and ammunition, but which now had curiously and freshly mounted hooks for chains I figured ready to lace some secret little S&M scene for a flick soon to be available in Hi-Def on your TV.

Scrambling up some stairs I found the infamous boiler room with its scalded walls, and on my way up and up past the original half-lit stairwells from which I began further north until eventually I was funneled into a room with no other place to go than out an open window where empty beer bottles beckoned me towards a rooftop ladder that scaled dangerously the side of the rooftop where suddenly there I was staring at a view of San Francisco I’d never seen before in one fell swoop.

[All images courtesy of Subtopia, 2007.]

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Extreme Border Sports

Well, I may have at least found a partial answer to the question from my previous post: could the fence be transformed into a kind of bridge to at least begin the process of deconstruction, towards a structure that unites?
Well, in this case it certainly hasn’t helped to progress any type of border fence deconstruction (that’s for sure), nor has it really helped to unite U.S. and Mexico in the sense of creating a more open border – but, without a doubt, the border fence in San Diego (at least for some indeterminable amount of time) had been turned into a bridge. Literally!
Check it out.

Apparently, yesterday, some Customs and Border Patrol Agents discovered a rather clever ramp system that had been mounted to both sides of a lower level of fence nestled up against another kind of extensive boulder pile there to help act as a de facto barrier. So sophisticated in fact, the ramps could be assembled, used to drive over the fence, disassembled, and the tracks brushed away all in a matter of minutes according to this report. Wow, that's a serious job.

After following a suspicious truck bolting off from Route 94 towards Mexico, this article tells us, the agents were led to a scene where “20 people had crossed into the U.S. and put up welded metal ramps over the top of the border fence.” Upon the BP’s arrival they all took off back into Mexico but the ramp was left behind and, well, we got some good pics right here for ya.

Look at that thing, pretty bad-ass, actually. The truck that was stopped contained “60 packages of pot valued at $735,000” weighing 916 pounds. That’s some serious cashish right there.

It just amazes me, the types of ingenuity that go into these little secret infrastructures of informality, particularly in and around the border.
In case you’re a new reader, I‘ve been trying to track some of these under a category that I’ve loosely referred to as Improvising Sub_Base landscapes. Mostly, border and smuggler tunnels, but there have been some fascinating tales of smugglers using rope and pulley schemes underground across the border, too, that I have learned about adopted from old Vietnam tunnel-warfare tactics. Of course, a border ramp is nothing exotically novel, but certainly nothing I’ve come across yet. The typical border-crosser ladders are about the closest thing.

But, it also gets me back to my original curiosity of what the border fence could theoretically and imaginatively become, perhaps even ludicrously out of context. For example, maybe both sides could rig up dozens of more of these ramps, properly reinforced, to host a kind of border derby using the fence as a massive stunt superstructure; dune buggies busting flips off the fence, soaring back and forth from California to Mexico in amazing aerial loops, like border-crosser daredevils, almost as if it were some long-winded skate ramp. That coud be cool, too. Turn the fence into a transborder skate park. Cross-border derby stunt jumping contests could become the new craze. Extreme Sports would host annual skate competitions down there, BMX rats would develop insane new tricks off the old useless rusted sheet metal. I mean, come on, that'd be awesome! Why not?

[All images have been heisted from this article on the NBC News website, where there is also a video: Agents: Drug-Smuggling Ramp Found At Border.]

An Exodus with Nowhere to Go

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Art of Fencestration

Now, it’s no secret, I am in to all things fence-related. I know, kind of an odd statement. In fact, I’m probably the only jerk out there you know that has a full-on fence fetish, if I must own up to it. Analyze that. Well, wait – don’t.
Anyway, so, when I saw a few days ago that Inhabitat had posted on a project by Dutch designer Tejo Remy who uses the fence as a structure for something other than just as a means to divide space, I knew had to relay it here.

[Image: Emily at Inhabitat writes, "not only are the protrusions and recessions of the fence eye-catching, but they allow for a more active interaction between those on either sides of the fence, providing seats, benches, nooks and playspaces for children."]

With ‘Playground Fence’ he turns the barrier into a kind of space unto itself beyond its normal purpose as a mere object or plane between two spaces. Instead, the fence becomes something imaginatively more dynamic, engaging even (from both sides nonetheless), which I think works very well in this context as Remy has executed it.
But, of course, being the border-fence junky that I am, it also makes me think about the same notion applied in those other more brutal contexts where borderzone politics are far more intense than the interface between playground and pedestrian walkway in an urban neighborhood. What about this type of fence-space in divided cities, and places where violence is far more institutionalized in the barriers themselves, where neighborhoods and communities – entire nations for that matter – are split in half by highly fortified security walls, border fences, defensive barriers, and so on?

[Image: Playground Fence, a project by Tejo Remy, via Inhabitat.]

Could this same playground concept apply to these other scenarios, could it be useful in some geopolitically intense border-divided context? I realize the prospect alone may sound totally absurd, especially if I were to ask, could the Israeli Separation Barrier, for example, be converted, recycled, re-used, or re-adapted in a similar fashion... could we go as far as to somehow help it become a space within itself to help suture rather than exacerbate the volatile tensegrity of the spatial divide that is invariably created by the controversial barrier?
In essence, I guess what I am trying to ask, is: could the security wall have any other purpose, dare I even say, a bi-nationally constructive one, other than just serving its current spacio-cidal colonialist strategy of imprisoning the West Bank under the auspices of preventing suicide bombers?

Well, I may have already answered that in a previous mention about how the Israeli Security Wall has enveloped one Palestinian family’s house so that they are now literally inhabiting the wall, imprisoned by it, forcibly detained and trapped within its flexible path completely against their will. So, that would make the short answer a big fat NO.
In a recent interview I did at Postopolis! Lebbeus Woods said of his own considerations about the wall, that to do anything with it – in terms of trying to re-imagine it – would only inevitably turn out to be a de facto endorsement of the wall. And so, in his judgment the only thing more that could be done with the wall at this point was to simply tear it down. Of course, he had an idea for how that should happen which you can read more about in the interview.
Still though, I am curious about the wall as a membrane through which both sides can possibly share something, exchange in a positive embrace. Not because I support the wall, but am just curious to explore all of its effects and consequences, perhaps even possibilities in the interim of attempting to bring it down permanently, wary of course that any positive use in that time may only help to buttress its existence indefinitely.

But could the fence be transformed into a kind of bridge to at least begin the process of deconstruction, towards a structure that unites? I’m not sure what that would look like or whether it is even possible. Before, Subtopia has proposed the idea of setting up an International League of Border Ball Players, for whom some have already appeared to have accepted such a challenge. We’ve also pitched the idea of turning the world’s walls into a kind of global border musical instrument. Surely, the wall can be recontextualized in some way as an early stage in the means of dismantling itself.
If you have any ideas, let us know – love to hear them.
With that said, I have no real final thought here other than to suggest that part of bringing the walls of the future down might somehow be done creatively, as a “creative act” like Lebbeus said. In the very act of re-approaching the wall and destroying it both sides could somehow come together to construct something new simultaneously in the process. So that in the end it is not just one side achieving victory over the other or a massive collaborative celebration of destruction in and of itself, but a re-construction of sorts could come about in its place. Perhaps the materials from a dismantled wall immediately become recycled and go into the construction of another joint project nearby built and shared by both sides. The wall could come down only as fast as an adjacent mutual project could come up in its place.
Etc., etc., etc. Anyway, I'll keep working on it.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The DARPA Trip

We pause from our normal programming (or, maybe not) for a moment to take a brief – albeit hallucinatory – intermission.
If the ‘robo-snipers’ and ‘automated kill zones’ didn’t freak you out then perhaps this will. Check out this video – DARPA’s iXo Artificial Intelligence Control Grid: 20 cyber-bugged minutes virtually adrift inside the surreal cytoplasmic warfare-obsessed cerebral distortions of DARPA’s techno-militaristic planning regime. If the war machine could dream this would surely be it. Seriously, this is some freaky-ass shit.

The dudes over at Ignorance Isn’t Bliss put this together. In their own words:
This was constructed almost entirely using government / military quotes, animations, videos, images and photos. The narrative is sourced from government quotes from start to finish. It is the “official version”, if you will, but in an unprecedented format.

It unveils the governments numerous and ongoing programs related to A.I., “NBIC”, the “Global Information Grid”, nanotechnology, biotechnology, autonomous drones, “naval sea-bases”, space weapons, weather modification… or more directly: domestic and global totalitarian technological domination. American Imperialism meets Artificial Intelligence.

Needless to say, it plays like some narco-induced Rumsfeldian mash-up of war-play gameification, complete global surveillance mechanization, programmed battlespaces and landscape lobotomization, all timed to the frenetic and pummeling gait of a sci-fi drum ‘n bass soundtrack that is absolutely perfect in a swarming entomomechanophilic army kind of way.

I want to project the whole video onto a chunky battered bunker wall in some undisclosed location for a future subtopian meeting of the minds, so to speak, or, well, some other vaguely viable reason.
Though, I wonder if the good ol' boys at DARPA have seen this and whether they actually like it or not. You never know about the unintended consequences. Maybe they will use it as a "hip commercial" of some kind.
Either way, turn up your speakers, sit back and trip over the psycho-urban assault.

(via the Alien Intelligencer)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Balochistan Divided

A quick update on the controversial border wall Iran is building along side its neighbor Pakistan, that I mentioned a few weeks earlier.

[Image: A new image of Iran's border wall with Pakistan, Iran to wall off Baluchistan border (Al Jazeera, 2007). ]

According to this journalist from Al Jazeera who recently toured the border town of Taftan – which is, as he says “Pakistan's only legal official border crossing into Iran,” and better known by locals as the "road to London" – the wall is primarily to prevent illegal immigrants and smugglers from traversing back and forth which has become a problem for both nations. While trade between the two countries is booming, he says, so apparently are the more informal networks of cheap fuel runners and product pushers. Ironically enough, he makes no mention of the impact of GWOT (“Global War on Terror”) and how that may or may not be effecting the migrations of refugees and militants through out the region. I would be very curious to get some statistics on the numbers of Afghani refugees who are fleeing the resurging Taliban, or the American presence for that matter.
However, the controversy over the wall is not necessarily between Pakistan and Iran (Pakistan recently went so far as to claim that they did not even mind that Iran had not consulted Pakistan before deciding to erect the barrier, saying merely that building such a structure was “Iran’s own business”), the controversy surrounds the border town of Balochistan that has lived on and traversed both sides of the borders for generations.

[Image: A basic map of the border region in question, via Al Jazeera, 2007. ]

The same journalist’s report indicates that “Pakistan, Iran and India want to build a pipeline that will travel over Baluchistan's challenging terrain.” And apparently the current leadership of Baluchistan is not resisting this effort, so much that “The opposition leader of Balochistan Assembly, Gatchkol Ali has demanded a change of governor's post,” who would not even allow debate to take place in assembly over the wall’s construction and what it meant for the people of Balochistan.
Ali claims the 10-foot high 4-foot wide concrete and barbed-wire wall is “a blatant endeavor to divide the Baloch nation on either side of Pak-Iran border.” Furthermore, he says due to any “impending conflict” between Iran and the U.S. this land would invariably need to be used for border defensive. Throw the pipeline in the mix and a whole host of complicated agendas seem to be converging on this border town who will essentially be split in half by the wall over time.
I guess I am just most interested in the political (or absent of political) process of how these border fences emerge, at what costs, for what purposes, profits, in what strategic locations, and how those sites may or may not fit into a larger geopolitical picture rather than simply existing as local conflicts in local contexts to themselves. And to what degree they are designed to stem flows of "militants, terrorists and smugglers" as opposed to blockading the sad tides of refugees and asylum seekers perpetually uprooted and wandering adrift as a result of regional conflict and geopolitical policy. There are just so many layers that seem to constitute the complex production of border space today, and as I get more into it of course nothing is ever as it seems. For example, the border fence in Balochistan, which could be simply to prep the landscape for a major pipeline project between Iran and India, who knows, may also go as far as primping the deal I mentioned earlier between India and Burma to trade militarization assitance in exchange for larger infrastructural trade development.
Anyway, these distant connections between regions as possibly glimpsed through the prism of a single and relatively small under-the-radar border fence fascinate me; like mysterious global economy valves or something quietly being engineered in small corners of the earth.
Keeping my eyes on it, I will report further as I learn more.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Automated Border

If you’ve been reading Subtopia for the last year now you’d know that one aspect of urban militarization we’ve been paying close attention to is the evolution of the border fence. It seems in the last year alone several key features have emerged bringing some security planners’ defensive wet dreams that much closer to fruition.

[Image: From a U.S. Border Patrol Remote Surveillance camera, in this research piece called VideoAutomated Video Security put together by the Southwest Research Institute.]

I’m talking about a completely futuristic border barrier where human personnel are entirely substituted by unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligent robots, networks of surveillance cameras and satellite-connected border posts, self-adjusting light systems, ground sensors – essentially, technology which potentially could eliminate the physical constructs of an actual fence altogether; invisible walls, hidden checkpoints, secret surveillance landscapes, border security that – for all visible intents and purposes – has been designed to not exist, or, rather to disappear.
In our own nightmarish speculations we’ve referred to the maturity of this frightening prospect as a nomadic fortress – a future border wall that not only aspires to curb the incomprehensibly tangled and intractable flows of global migration but that actually moves and re-adjusts itself, nomadically re-articulates its own geographic prowess, redrawing territorial boundaries, cinching contested borderzone real estate, snaking in the shadows of some Orwellian surveillatopia like something akin to the new Great Wall of sorts, only updated with all the latest technology; in today’s scenario, this could be perhaps the world’s first fully automated global border fence. The Great Wall of China, though without a single stone.

[Image: The Mini-Samson RCWS developed by developed by Israel Armament Development Authority Rafael and the IDF, via Israeli-weapons.com.]

Well, recently there have been reports of the Israeli Defense Forces starting to deploy “robotic snipers” along the border with Gaza. These are autonomous vehicles that take video footage and relay it back to operators who then can scan the footage and control the armed vehicles to fire upon intruders or suspects. There is also the “see-shoot” program, developed by Israel Armament Development Authority Rafael, which, according to the same article is part of Elbit Systems' Ground Forces “modernization program,” which does the same thing by allowing these intelligent turrets to be set to shoot at certain targets. Scary-ass shit.
Throw in advances in CCTV facial recognition, or cameras that actually vocally reprimand you, crowd movement pattern recognition, automated behavioral analysis, and you’re that much closer to having weapons along the border that are fully capable of acting on their own, firing without the aid of human determination.

[Image: South Korea is deploying Samsung's SGR-A1 "Intelligent Surveillance & Security Guard Robot" at key installations and along its border. An immobile robot, but one deemed sufficient for defending bases and areas along the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea.]

This is something the Saudi’s are apparently looking at for their future barrier along their border with Iraq.
But, will we ever really allow the day for weapons systems to completely decide on their own who and what is and is not a legitimate target, and then to act on that? I don’t know – call me crazy but the idea of a massive surveillance wall stalking the globe’s conflicted borders with automatically programmed robotic snipers just seems like the creepiest thing ever.

For a more thorough breakdown of how this weapon technically works, using Sentry Tech and elctro-optical sensors, protected by retractable coverings, check out the piece in the ever vigilant Danger Room, which is where I first discovered this story.

More stories:
Israel Wants Robotic Guns, Missiles To Guard Gaza Border
Robots Take Over the Danger Zone
Israel Deploying "See-Shoot" RWS Along Gaza
Israel’s Novel “See-Shoot” Electronic Device Is No Substitute for Human Deterrence
Bouphonia: Kill the Intruders!
South Korea to field gun-cam robots on DMZ

Friday, June 08, 2007

Subtopia Meets Lebbeus Woods

It was Thursday, May 31st, sometime after 5:30 PM, essentially, midway through Postopolis! High-noon for our 5-day event, so to speak. All the swivel panels of the Storefront’s façade were wide open and people gathered around the sidewalk to peer through them. It was hot, sticky, the gallery’s dank industrial textures were flaking off, and inside gathered a flock of curiosity with lights and cameras aimed and ready to fire. A supple breeze spread a petrol-infused veil across the air while a stream of delivery trucks groaned over the potholes of Kenmare St. rattling the space’s foundation to its core – almost like some nuanced stream of mini-earthquakes that proceeded his looming wake. In a matter of minutes a bluish pre-twilight tint set the tone inside our SoHo bunker. The gallery reached a buzz it had not until that point – it was at last in full effect.

With chit-chat percolating over the last minute movements of a squirmy gallery scene, he suddenly appeared. Lebbeus Woods, a gregarious man with a deliberate soul to match, stuck out his big old paw and introduced himself. I shook his hand and thought (in one of those absurd little parentheticals that you have about people when first meeting them) that was the hand that held the pencil, probably as light as a bird you wouldn’t want to hurt nor let escape; that was the hand singularly responsible for drawing some of the most incredible renderings I, and a whole generation, had ever seen. Geoff and I smiled and cracked up together seeming to share this thought. Lebbeus is, after all, an architectural legend who has pushed the medium of drawing into the collective imagination perhaps like very few other people have done, that will surely leave an imprint there forever. If drawings could express the ethereal conceptual nature or complex political dimensions of architecture, or, could somehow depict the vast morphologic mystery of the earth’s chaotic crust, then Lebbeus’s work has no doubt achieved an epic, cultish even, stature in its own sheer visual right in this regard.

What follows is a rough transcript of a panel talk between Geoff, Dan, Jill, Lebbeus, and myself at the apex of Postopolis! Nervous, fidgety, anxious to see where it would lead, the four of us were suddenly sitting there passing back and forth a microphone beside the man himself, hurling question after question at him, for which, I must say, he fielded in the coolest of manners.
• • •

Geoff Manaugh: One of the reasons I'm such a fan of your work is because of its ongoing theme of the earthquake, or of terrestrial instability – the idea that the terrestrial referent kind of disappears. Sometimes there might be a building that's not even on the Earth's surface – like Einstein's Tomb – or, there's a kind of a post-earth condition to the architectural structures that you design and in various scenarios that you set up. So I'm wondering if you could discuss that in more detail, and what attracts you to that. How can an architectural structure account for an unstable terrestrial foundation?

Lebbeus Woods: I suppose that my life has been unstable. I was a military brat. I grew up in different places around the U.S.A., always moving from one place to the next. Seriously, that kind of autobiography figures into these things one way or another. But also, I was born in 1940, already in the 21st century, and over those years there’s been tremendous kinds of changes, particularly socially, culturally, and intellectually. I’ve been a witness to all these kinds of changes so there’s a big instability that we have to deal with in our culture. In a sense, the earthquake, or the war are just the most obvious manifestation of it, right? So I think my interest in dealing with instability is an interest in dealing with our condition, our human condition at the present time. I could go on, but we don’t have all that much time so –

Bryan Finoki: My question is, well – I’m sort of interested in your thoughts on the evolution of the political nature of architecture and the political production of space. And I’m wondering, if we’ve come a long way from – or if we’ve come full circle – say, from the times of the Roman Empire and the early inventions of the frontier and notions of borders, to a point now where we are armoring our skyscrapers, and border fences have become a new kind of urban phenomenon. We’ve got these full on detention islands and, so, how – I mean, your book War and Architecture was really interesting, but maybe moving on from those thoughts – I’m wondering, if there’s a different sort of political nature of architecture today, given the ‘War On Terror.’ How would you relate the ‘War On Terror’ and architecture, and how has it shifted the nature of space today?

LW: Well I think architecture as we think of it as a profession and as a practice isn’t very far from the Roman Empire. Still the main thing is to build these monumental buildings, which are kind of valorizing of the hierarchy of power, authority and society. Even if it’s a museum it’s about the elite’s ability to gather works of art and put them in a very special building – maybe a work of art itself. So, I think we are still in that moment, or mentality. Look at the architecture magazines, and so on. That’s the way people think, that’s the way architects think. Not all architects, though.

Fortunately one of the reasons I am out here today are these blogs – your blogs in particular – but, generally, the internet is a place for some other view of architecture to emerge, and therefore it becomes incredibly important. You mentioned security for buildings, or for neighborhoods, gated communities and the rest. Yeah, this is part of the defensive posture architects are forced to enter in to. Rather than having a kind of open and outward moving posture it is about how can we secure these enclaves of power and of wealth. And that’s their job – to beautify it and make it look good, and that making it look good is a major preoccupation.

Dan Hill: This idea of instability or unpredictability and returning to that from a craft perspective, almost, and looking at the professional architecture you describe, we actually have had a lot of talks over the days about the notion of the master builder really dissipating, and architects effectively having to become managers across multiple disciplines, so they're not experts anymore, y'know, they're not acoustic engineers; we have acoustic engineers to do that kind of thing. I am wondering if there is some relationship – I was reading a lecture that you gave about rod-and-cable constructions in Vienna and Paris – you almost created a set of guidelines or rules for constructing things, but you haven't given the details of the implementation. And in a way you're letting the implementation being decided by the people on site, presumably, who may not be architects at all. Does this enable this instability to be configured on site in some way?"

LW: Well that’s the idea. In other words, I think the role of architecture – not all of it, because we’re still going to have the monuments, the big expensive buildings, that’s just the way it’s going to be – but, if there’s going to be another movement, another direction in architecture, it has to engage people differently. Other than saying, here, look at this, isn’t this amazing? It has to interactively involve them other than as spectators, or, as a ‘society of the spectacle.’ It has to engage them as creators.

Now, see, I lived through the sixties when there was a great interest in empowering people in lower economic class communities, right? They were in very bad conditions and architects said, you know, well, let’s go in there and help them improve their conditions. So they went in – it’s called “design advocacy.” I don’t know, you are all so young, and you probably don’t even remember the term, but there were lots of things written in the sixties and early seventies – design advocacy. So, the architect became the advocate of the people in the community. And they’d rent a room, put out a table, a big table – or a lot of tables – then, they’d have meetings with the people in the community with anyone who’d want to come and join us. And provide tracing paper and pens, and help them express their architectural ideas with other people about the community. It was a noble effort but it was a total failure. Why? Because the people in the community couldn’t think in terms of designing. They weren’t educated for that, they just weren’t prepared. So, nothing much ever became of it. There were a few little brick houses that were built, whatever, but it didn’t come out as a real movement in architecture.

Okay, I don’t want to go on too much about this but just to say – my idea is that, 1) you have to engage people, but you also have to give them the tools to work with. You say, the rules of the game. Yeah, you have to give them the rules of the game, like when you play Poker you have to give them the rules of Poker. You can’t just start throwing cards around. So, you give them the basic rules of the game, then you give them some basic techniques: this is how you move this here, and this is how you move that there. You don’t say where you are going to move it. And then, if you’re really starting at a rudimentary level you show them some examples. You say, now it could look like this, or it could look like that, if you follow these rules.

So, this way you are giving people a leg up in the story. And some of the projects I have done in the last four or five years, particularly – although it also traces back to some of the work I did in Sarajevo during the siege of the city in the nineties – these are the things I have been putting out there. Now, whether they will be any better than the design advocacy from the sixties, I don’t know. It hasn’t really gained that kind of momentum, yet. But, being an American I believe people have to choose to do it. I don’t think this is something that should be imposed from the top down. They have to want to do it this way. They have to want to participate.

GM: You have a huge following outside of architecture, in fields like set design, film, and even in comic books. Your work seems to pop up everywhere, throughout the arts, and so I'm wondering if you could address what you see as the appeal of your work. Also, with students you've worked with, and with certain publications you've helped mentor into existence, there are ideas that go beyond architecture – they set up entire situations or scenarios. Things like Arctic research stations, or moving machine cities. All of this seems to capture the imagination of people outside of architecture. So, could you talk about how your own work has that appeal? Especially if there's someone here in the audience who's an architect but who wants to attract a different kind of audience.

LW: Well, I’ll say, first of all, if what you say is true, and I believe to some extent it is, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled, you know. Although, the irony is, I’ve always addressed my work to architects. I’ve never addressed my work to, you know, to people in the arts or to others, it’s always the architects that I wanted to talk to and say – what can architecture be, let’s look at it and ask, what can it be? And to me, that responsibility is primarily in the hands of architects. There are the ones who say, that’s what I want to do. So, they kind of assume the mantel of responsibility for the field of architects. So, I’ve always talked to architects primarily. It’s kind of ironic that others would pick it up. I’m happy because maybe many of the architects are asleep. [There is a chuckle from the audience.] Maybe, they don’t care. If others do, I’m thrilled. I think I generally approach architecture, in a sense, from a broad way – kind of philosophically, on one side looking at ethics, questions of politics and so on. My whole interest in cybernetics dates back to the late fifties, early sixties. Am I alone with that? So, that’s one side.

The other side is always a visceral kind of gut-feeling that has to work with a visual communication. Because that’s where most of the information in the world goes in, though our eyes – we’re lucky enough to have vision, you know? It has to communicate visually. So, I was working from the philosophical side and the visual side and I try to put those together. I’m still trying to do that. It’s not that I don’t fulfill my own ideal of doing that, far from it. But, if many people can take this into a product realm and get a certain spirit from it, I’m amazed and delighted, if that’s the case.

BF: My next question is kind of about drawing. Actually, one of my favorite pieces of yours is not a drawing at all. It was in Michael Sorkin’s book Against the Wall, which is about the spatial dimensions of the Israeli/Arab conflict. At the very end of the book you propose a border wall game – The Wall Game, I think is was you called it, which I thought was fascinating. [At this point, Lebbeus turns around to me curling his fingers with an A-Okay gesture of approval. We smile, clearly, he is happy I brought this project up.] For those of you that don’t know this piece, or haven’t read it, it’s about this structure, this border wall structure – the security wall that divides the Arabs and Israelis, in fact – that mediates this mutually-created game between them. It sort of demands that one side take away a piece of the wall while on the next turn the other side adds a new piece to it. Simultaneously, adding to and taking away from this border wall as a metaphor for how they are both responsible for constituting and keeping the structure in place, at the same time avoiding this fearful feeling that the wall could at any moment collapse. Taking turns back and forth, putting pieces in and taking them out. It’s a massive balancing act that conjures the thought: what would happen if it did come crashing down? There’s a sense of fear that props this fence up.

So, I’m wondering, a) if you ever did any drawings for that, because, of course, if so I’d love to see them, and, b) if you start with a very definitive context and then go to the drawings and come up with an idea? Or, to what degree you just start drawing and let the context kind of emerge out of that?

LW: Well, it’s kind of a unique piece of work in my body of work over the years. It came about in a really unique way. You’re going to have Michael Sorkin here tomorrow, right? [We quickly explain to him that Sorkin will not be able to join us.] Well, okay. Anyway, I was talking to Michael Sorkin some years ago and he said, I’m going to do this book called Against The Wall with Israeli and Palestinian architects, or, more so, critics and writers. And I said I really wanted to do something with that idea. He said great, great, do it. So, time went by and as I was thinking – I mean, myself, I was completely against the wall – that it was very hard for me, because I felt that anything I did was going to endorse the wall. You know, if I want to put a mural on the wall, or, I want to transform it into housing, almost any other idea is going to actually justify the existence of the wall in some way. So, finally, I realized that the wall had to come down. In thinking about it I imagined it could be an act of creation – a creative act, in the sense of bringing it down creatively, involving both sides somehow, because it is a two-sided conflict. And the idea of a game arose – because we all know it’s just a big game. All of this is just a very serious game. And if it’s just a game in the end we have to understand the rules.

So, I set up the rules in the book. And there are drawings – some very rudimentary drawings, though. Much in the spirit I described a moment ago when I said that I wanted to show some examples to demonstrate rules. And, well, I haven’t gone back to the Israelis or the Palestinians to find out whether or not they want to play this game – they’ve got other things on their minds over there, let’s face it.

DH: You talk about communicating visually, and your drawings are extraordinary, quite impressionistic, which reinforces what you've been saying about your approach (to open-endedness) ... I just got through reading Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows and Juhani Pallasmaa's book The Eyes of the Skin, which is about the senses and how architects deal with other senses, not just sight. And about the dominance of sight within Western architecture ... I wonder, if this, this dominance, devalues for us, smell, sound, taste and so on ... movement, shadows, etc., I wonder, if you've ever explored working with other media for conveying your work other than visually, through drawing. Any involvement in sound or with sound pieces themselves? Or, films and so on?

LW: Not exactly. In the last two or three years I’ve been involved with a few installations. In 2002 in Paris, there was one installation where there was a strong sound component. But you’re absolutely right, though, it’s not my thing. I just haven’t gone there really. Actually, just recently, I thought, maybe I should go back to the idea of making film – a movie. In 1990 when I was working on this film Alien 3, the director called me and asked me to do it, so, I agreed and I worked on it for a few weeks in L.A. and London. And it was an education. He told me at the time, you don’t want to be a designer working in the movie industry, because you are the lowest of the low. And they just take what you do, and they just toss it usually, or, they just change it into something unrecognizable.

You know, architects complain that clients don’t appreciate their work. Movie studios and directors and producers and studio executives could care less about that stuff. So, I did have the fantasy of making a big budget Hollywood movie. I actually wrote a screenplay. I got the famous book by Sid Field, uh… the famous book on screenwriting, I can’t think of the title right now, but a famous How-to based on Robert Towne’s Chinatown, and wrote a script. Anyway, I wrote a screenplay based on my Underground Berlin project, which I did in 1988. The movie is called Underground Berlin. And I, actually (because I made a few contacts in Hollywood at the time), sent the screenplay out to one lawyer/producer friend of mine. He showed it around and said, well, you know, people thinks it’s got some possibility, but it’s going to need a few changes.

In Hollywood you don’t produce a product, you create a process – it’s always about process. So, a screenplay is a process; a film is a process. You can’t look at it as an art. Anyway, these are very intriguing mediums because for me the drawings are about ideas only. They’re not about drawing. I mean if they were about drawing I’d get very bored. It’s about communicating ideas – it’s about finding ideas. Use the drawing to find an idea, and then develop it. You can use the movie in the same way. It can be an incredible medium. If it’s a decent movie we can see how the visual dominates cinema, and whether it presents us with a good vision of the world, or, something to say about this world. But, by and large it’s formulaic. Like buildings, they’re all about the same thing.

GM: You say that all of your work, or most of your work, is directed at architects, but I'm wondering where you turn to when it comes to finding inspiration – when you're looking for a new idea, if you look at architecture but also comic books, films, novels, built spaces, etc. In the process of answering that, I'd like you to address how you incorporate these things into your work as a teacher. I'm interested in how you impart knowledge to a new generation, or to one of your students, and how the educational process works for you.

LW: Okay, there’s two parts. The first part, I can’t honestly say where the inspiration for my work came from. I think it came from reading. It came from texts, from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, it came from, you know, Jean-Paul Sartre. These are the ideas that got me worked up and inspired. It wasn’t so much the visual things that inspired me. Although, of course, there were plenty of painters in history that I admired all the way from Brueghel to Goya, to Picasso – because everything visual stimulates me. So, there’s so much stimulation there that I can’t point to any one thing being a sort of origin. I mean – texts and writing, points of view, ways of looking at the world – this is what I found along the way, I think, and, ultimately what decided what I chose to do.

Now as far as education, you know, teachers are sometimes the prisoners of their school. But I’ve been very lucky, I’ve taught at Cooper Union for, well, going on twenty years, off and on – mostly on. And I have had two deans that I’ve worked with both down here, John Hejduk and now Anthony Vidler, who have more or less given me my latitude. I’ve taken the opportunity to try and work with students the way I would work with any people. I mean students are just people, aren’t they? [We all laugh at the simple truth of this, and perhaps the refreshing tone of such a statement.] I think. And, I almost hate the term student, alright? But, I understand that it has a particular meaning. So, if I were working with a group of people who are making an installation project I would work with them exactly the same way I’d work with the students. So, I set out a question, lay out some rules, and we get to work and develop modes of answering the question. I believe the most important thing a teacher does is ask the right question. If the teacher asks the wrong question, or a question that everyone already knows the answer to, then you can’t learn anything. You have to ask questions that you don’t even know the answer to yourself, and together you work towards it. To me that’s education.

BF: And I think that’s the essence of architecture, too. It has to ask questions, pose challenges – it has to be willing to push through experimentation rather than always just be willing to fall in line and do what we’re told – of being a practitioner, or merely providing a service. I’m also curious what you are working on today, what sorts of things excites you at the moment? What projects have you got cooking, or, where will you set your sights next? Or, what may be your future plans for the institute, or, even, what your plans are right now? Could you talk about that?

LW: Well, that’s hard. I’ve always worked, more or less – except in certain moments – alone. I’ve got an office. I have collaborators from time to time that I work very closely with. Basically, I sit down, usually sitting – although, recently I’ve been doing some pretty large drawings where I have to stand up on a ladder – but, I basically work alone. I spend a lot of time thinking. Not necessarily doing anything. I don’t feel like I have to do some product necessarily. I think a lot. I read. I draw. And the ideas that interest me now, I don’t know – there are several.

I’ve always been interested, I think – if you look back at my work from the beginning, really – I’ve always been interested in the idea of the artificial landscape. Reforming the landscape. Architecture being a method of reforming the earth’s surface. We reshape the earth’s surface, from architecture to paving streets, to parking lots and buildings that are really reforming the surface of the earth. Reforming nature, taking over what we find. And we’re mushing it around and remaking a new earth – or, what we used to call Terra Nova. So, that’s what I’m thinking about, that’s what I’m still doing. Still making drawings in that direction. Less and less they’ve become populated by any kind of buildings. I haven’t worked on any building-like structures for quite a while.

There was a project in Vienna in 2005, it’s called “System Wien” – I happen to have my collaborator here, Christoph Kumpusch – and we’re really investigating architecture as energy, as the accumulation of energy, as the materialization of energy, and try to look at architecture and the making of space that way rather than enclosure, and so forth. So, we don’t look at the vectors and shifting vectors, contours, limitless boundaries of space. It’s an investigation that I am still carrying on today, primarily in drawing and some writing.

Now, socially, there is a dimension to that, and something I think we are all going to have to deal with, eventually. And architects better start dealing with it – that is the notion of slums. You know, Mike Davis wrote an amazing book and he kind of called everyone’s attention to it but, they’re out there, and we’ve all been aware of them. I was certainly aware when I went to Brazil in 1987 and saw the favelas in São Paulo, Brazil. I was shocked and even wrote about it in one of my earlier books, but this is nothing new. It’s just that I’m beginning to feel I better start while I’ve still got life left in me – that I better start turning some of my attention to this critical problem. Because it’s really an architectural problem.

The main thing is that the living environment is desperate – the living environment is awful. It’s oppressive, and that’s what we architects do: is deal with the living environment. So, it kind of makes sense that we should be looking at how to solve the problem. So, I have some ideas. It’s a little preliminary to say, but it’s along this line – that if we can do something from the outside, for them who are inside the slum, it’s going to be to empower them somehow; to transform the slum from the inside. You’ve got to figure some methods to empower people in the slum to change their own environment. It can’t be us airlifting in ready-made solutions. That’s what I think.

BF: I’d like to respond to that actually. I’ve been thinking about the slums too and have been through a few myself. But for me, as interesting as what architects can do from the outside is to look at what’s already being done by themselves, and maybe architecture can approach enablement that way – by not necessarily bringing something in from the outside but, more or less, working with them to help translate what they are already improvising on their own. Potentially, squatters have already become the future architects of the world given the particular innovation that’s going on there and the survival mechanisms of that. It’s certainly an interesting relationship. I agree that architects have to learn how to intersect and get involved but I also think there is a lesson there to be learned from them, too.

LW: Oh yeah, that’s where we have to look. [Switching gears, letting us know he is readying himself to leave, Lebbeus hints at the fact that we are running out of time.] That’s where it has to go. I mean, it can turn up in books and publications and so forth, but, I think the internet – and what you guys are doing – is so incredibly creative and powerful, and alive, that I want to be part of it. That’s why I am here today and I appreciate the opportunity. So thank you.

• • •

And just like that, the dialogue was over. But, was it? It seems like the themes and ideas Lebbeus is talking about can’t help but to evolve, perhaps more so outside the field of architecture, because his work is about the process of evolution itself and not the mere products that are the result of it. And, sensing that perhaps architecture’s real future lies to some degree on this periphery, his enthusiasm for the prospect of a new movement is intrepid and unbound, and ultimately comes from a sense of raw curiosity that is primarily human before architect.

Lebbeus is quite obviously motivated by the exchange of ideas even more so than their representation, and as much as his results are in the end usually a drawing, it is about fostering some form of growth, forging some new landscape of architectural introspection. This artistic type of self-awareness was evident in our conversation and was incredibly down to earth, engaging on an extremely rooted level; cogent, embodying the kind of visionary antithesis of what architecture has become to symbolize today. Without romanticizing his work, I wonder how the two will continue to emerge – the exceptionally conceptual and the devoted advocate type of architecture – is it that collaboration that will in some sense maybe even save architecture from itself? I don’t know. Lebbeus’ conversation was refreshing and for that I want to sincerely thank him for joining us.

[Finally, in case you missed it, Dan also wrote up a great review of this discussion with his own thoughts and reflections, not to mention the miraculous coverage he has provided of the whole event. Check it out if you crave even more. And, evenif you don't! And a majority of the photographs were taken by Quilian Rilano, while others have been lifted from the pool. The artwork is obviously courtesy of Lebbeus Woods.]