Friday, 24 August 2012

Making of #2: stories for the 13th Venice Biennale


[Gods' Cemetery, model and photograph by draftworks*architects]

Maybe one of architects’ most distinctive tasks is answering to questions. Now, there are two ways of answering; the first is to answer directly, like solving a problem, like proposing spaces to satisfy physical needs. We admit that this is maybe the most important and time-consuming way and it takes a lot of our own time andenergy too. There is, however, also a second way of answering, which is more indirect, more oblique, just brushing by reality, which, at the same time, means observing reality from a different standpoint.  In this particular way of answering you shift a little bit from the answer, you avoid answering directly to a problem and play dump a little bit. This does not mean avoiding reality, this does not mean escapism, this means entering into reality from another door. We remember the words of the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis who asks for:
‘A small turn of the head
Which could mean a turn of the whole world’

This means that a change of perspective can trigger a change of understanding things, which may trigger in turn a transformation of the world, a personal one.

For us, a way of doing this is by using techniques and strategies that the narrative arts -like literature or cinema- use: metaphors, allegories, speaking in first person and telling a story, instead of describing scientifically a condition. This way of answering to a question through a story also appeals to people in a different way than a building does, maybe not as users but as people that have the gift of imagining and who want to use it, which is the need that literature, for example, appeals to.

Our project consists of stories, drawings and models. The protagonist, who is an explorer that travels around a region of Athens, narrates the story in first person. In his travel he encounters imaginary tribes, each one of which has developed distinct habits and eccentric uses of space. Each tribe is also attached to a specific type of the urban environment of Athens.  The block, the crossroads, the space between blocks, the unused patios within the blocks, are the prime materials through which the eccentricity of each tribe emerges: Pandionis worship a different god every week and use to burry him in their ‘Gods Cemetery’ by the end of the week. Erechteis are against finishing things and they celebrate their peculiarity in their ‘Unfinished Cathedral’. Hippothontis believe that they originate from the night sky and they want to have the stars and constellations glowing in their back yard in ‘Clair de Lune’. Leontis are sure that their dreams is a night-reality that is as real as the day-reality. Aiantis have built a wall around their block beyond which, they believe, is the realm of the gods, the animals and the dead, in ‘Pomerium’. The allegory of the tribes at each case refers -but is not limited- to human conditions, their relationship with each other and with their city: passions, fears, desires, dangers, needs, limitations and prejudices can be read between the lines of each story.  

With the use of urban types of Athens and their imaginary transformation through narrative, we note that the city is made of a prime material, which can be transformed with the use of imagination.  This may not be the architect’s major task, it is however as much important. 

The Gods' Cemetery, a story 'Made in Athens' #1


[Gods' Cemetery, model and photograph by draftworks*architects]

Excerpts from the story THE GODS’ CEMETERY, part of the project 'Athens: Northwest Passage', by draftworks* Exhibited at the 13th Venice Biennale, Greek pavilion [curators: Panos Dragonas, Anna Skiada] 

       ‘In the little Greece that we have left, the only thing that you can still do is pray to your gods. Which gods? Oh, but they are many. As many as the population of this country. Two meters below ground, or over your scratched sidewall, they stay awake. With broken noses, one arm cut-off, a little green of old times on the cloak or some crimson on the shoulders and a sight that does not stop on you but goes beyond‘
Odysseas Elytis, Idiotiki Odos 

Pandionis, Day 3, devout worshippers

Among the tribes of the Northwest Passage one is the most eccentric of all. Pandionis people are the most devout worshippers. They praise their god all through the day and night and at all occasions; when they talk, when they walk, when they take a shower, when they make love, in front of the TV, in front of the shop window, in the market. They worship their god all through the week, from Monday till the next Sunday. And this is exactly where their eccentricity lies: they worship their god for a week, and a week only, because then, every Monday, they kill their god and immediately invent a new one. 

This habit makes Pandionis a tribe of many gods, however in a strange way they cannot be considered impious or unreligious as they are uninterrupted worshipers; they have never run out of gods, and there was not a single day that they didn’t have a god to worship. They even have spare gods. Although they usually bury their gods themselves, sometimes the unexpected can happen: the god may die by himself before the week has ended. That is why they keep a couple of them as a backup, in case they run out.

Pandionis, Day 5, the burial feast

At the end of each week Pandionis people celebrate their biggest feast. This is when they bury their god. There is a place especially reserved for this kind of god-burial and they call it the ‘Gods’ Cemetery’. It is a place with crossed paths made of wood, placed on different levels. As the paths cross there are bits of ground that can be seen remaining between them like patches.


Depending on the size and the importance of the god they choose the burial site. There are gods so tiny, buried with only a few bottle tops or soda cans, plastic bottles and used pens. There are also gods so big, buried with their inflatable elephants and 12-valve cars, vending machines and commercial signs.  Accordingly there are tombs that are humble, with just a few rocks on them, and others that are grandiose, extravagant and tall, and can be seen from a few blocks away.


Then something beautiful happens: you can see bushes, colourful flowers, and some times trees, to grow over tombs. These gods are the luckiest. Due to the trees that cast their shadow, the bushes that attract the bees or the musky flowers that please the passengers the gods that lie underneath can be forever useful. Although their divinity week has already long expired. Then, they can be even remembered at times, mostly in spring.

[...]  it was the God of LifeLost, who was buried with a loading of guns, the God of TimeLost who was buried with boxes of folders, office desks, old PC’s and stamps, but also less pompous gods, like the god of lilac, who was buried with lilac lipsticks, lilac earrings and lilac flowers, the god of lids who was buried with used coffee cup lids, wok lids and pod lids, or the god of hair, who was buried with all the hair that have fallen from all the Pandionis people heads during the week of his kingdom.

There was also once that they worshipped the God of Danger, they buried him with a bomb. Some people say that this habit of burying their gods may someday be the Pandionis ending. Someone may forget and step on the God of Danger ‘s tomb. 

[draftworks*2012. All rights reserved]

[Gods' Cemetery, drawing by draftworks*architects]

[draftworks*2012. All rights reserved]

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Making of #1: models for the 13th Venice Biennale

[Image of one of our models to be exhibited soon at the forthcoming 13th Venice Biennale. Picture: draftworks*architects ]

Architects usually talk about their models as finished objects, already charged with representations and symbolisms. They rarely talk about the process of making them, either because they didn’t make them themselves, or because they did make them themselves but they didn’t enjoy making them, or merely because they don’t care about the process of making them: Usually models, such as drawings, are means to communicate, they do not have a value per se.

Well, the latter was something that I reconsidered the moment I got to work on own models at a proper workshop. Despite the dust and the noise or the annoying timetable, having every possible machine at hands’ reach was a life-changing experience; the opportunity to play with them was a main reason for enjoying the process. That was when I discovered the wood and especially the birch-plywood. With it I could have mass, but also surface, I could have a uniform surface, but also a striped one when I wanted to give some scale or texture to the model.

J.A. Fay & Co.'s band re-sawing machine, 1876
[ Graphic of an old band-saw machine. Picture by Marcel Douwe Dekker's photostream ]

Plywood is one of the two main materials/techniques that we used in making the models for the 13th Venice Biennale. We used it both for making the volumes of the buildings and for making textured surfaces, such as ground, corridors, or walls. Plywood can also be cut so thin, that it can even glow if you put it in front of the light. If you want to use wood as a model-making material maybe the best is to find a carpenter’s workshop, if he likes you he may even let you use it for free, but try not to meddle too much in his work. For the last two years we couldn’t have access to a wood-workshop and decided to buy a small band saw machine for our own use. There are some that are portable, but they do make some considerable noise, so you better have a corner where you will not get into people’s ears too much. Have in mind also that you will have to arrange proper ventilation (if the space is not open) or wear a mask, because the machine produces a cloud of dust, which you won’t want to inhale. Eventually it is a mess, but if you love it –like us- you can see only advantages. The price is not too low, but also not too high, but it is a good investment. We also bought a portable grinder and some other smaller tools. And we were lucky enough to get a Dremel as a gift! (thanks Yiorgos+Yiannis!) And there was our portable wood workshop!

Luke Skywalker
[ Luke Skywalker holding the laser-sward. Image by m4calliope's photostream ]

The second material/technique that we used was laser cutting. To tell the truth, it was quite recently (a couple of years ago) that we discovered this technique (we wood-cut since 2006 but laser-cut since 2010), but we soon got deep into the dedicated laser-enthusiasts cult. We rarely use it for cutting that can be done by an old fashioned cutter-knife, but every time we are around the machine we cannot help but experiment and explore its potentials in unconventional engraving, cutting, patterning etc. Laser cutting is a quite new thing in architecture model making and it has a lot of uncharted areas ahead. A problem is the access to a laser-cutting machine. It is quite unlikely to find a portable laser-cutter like the one Luke holds in the picture (but if you do please do let me know) and it is –still- much expensive to buy a machine –even a small A4 or A3 machine. Most likely is to find a workshop that uses one or an educational institution that you are affiliated to somehow and use it with an hourly fee. Anyways, it also vale la pena, so do not be afraid to look for it.

What we did in most of the models was a combination of the two materials/techniques, with each one contributing its distinct characteristics. We used the plywood to make the models’ mass, the forms or the backgrounds and the laser-cut paper for introducing details into the models, forming surfaces or layers (we love the burned patina on the snow-white paper...). Sometimes you may also have to use a third part, a catalyst, in order to marry the two materials. In some of our models this catalyst was the light, led-light stripes that were put in-between the materials. We plugged the light in and –wow- the model became a story. (Although -I am afraid- it is more difficult than it sounds...but won’t have to talk about it now)


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Haarlemmerstraat playground, the forming power of imagination

Herenmarkt_1      At the west side of the old city centre of Amsterdam, off Haarlemmstraat (a small street with local stores and cute lunch shops) there is the old ‘West-Indisch Huis’ aka the home of the Dutch ‘West-Indies Company’, the organisation responsible for the Dutch colonial activity during the 17th century (The NY city founding pact was signed there in 1625). 

    Now, hidden behind the building there is one of the most well preserved Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds. I had the chance to visit it exactly three years ago in August 2009, during a research trip to the playgrounds. In the middle of it there is a rectangular sandpit. It is ten by ten meters in size with a short continuous concrete verge surrounding it and a cylindrical altar-like stone in the middle. Three children were playing in it the day we visited it, totally absorbed by the world of their play. I stood there for a few minutes and imagined how the sandpit would work in the children’s imagination: the verge could take the form of a monumental wall, or a home couch, or a long table, and the altar would count as an imaginary large magical stone, or a stove to bake sand-balls or even the centre around which the world turns. However, the most prevailing element of all was the sand. It filled the sandpit and with its uneven surface looked like a stormy sea. The sand created the impression of a matter that there was always there and not just as an infill of the pit, like a primordial substratum that extended underneath the whole city. What kind of force could create this absurd impression?

     Van Eyck in his writings highlights the importance of children’s imagination, not as a cute childish thing, but as a power that can motivate the city. He discusses that imagination is the form of power that can re-combine things creatively, that can transform things and he pushes his argument so far as to support that eventually the only things that exist are those that are filtered through imagination: 
      'All things are recreated continually in the mind through the power of imagination –they would not exist otherwise, for only what passes through imagination really ‘exists’ –consciously or unconsciously – and is born anew. As all things pass through the continuum of man’s mind –the continuum of interiorized reality –they merge, become permeable and are recreated, transformed’ Aldo van Eyck, Writings 

     Looking back at the sandpit through the filter of imagination one could probably agree that it was not just a pit filled with sand. The concrete verge worked as a frame that opened a window to a second ground of the city, below the first man-made one, connecting our reality with a mythical landscape. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this landscape through the frame of this pit. The verge, the altar and mainly the fluid matter of the sand were then formed in the hands of the children into small fictional worlds. Shouldn't the city offer such kinds of matter which, like sand, can be formed in the hands of children? Or in the imagination of the adults?


Friday, 10 August 2012