Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Urban Acupuncture

Presentation Text
Marco Casagrande, architect, visiting professor / Tamkang University Department of Architecture, 2006

During my studies I had a clear picture how an architect should look like and how he would work. My school (Helsinki University of Technology Department of Architecture) carried a strong tradition from the modernist movement and especially that of functionalism. Alvar Aalto was our sage and all my professors had worked to him.

I set up the Architecture Office Casagrande & Rintala together with my close friend Sami Rintala during my studies in 1998 since we could not wait to graduate (eventually in 2001). Pretty soon after the start we found out that something was going terribly wrong. We had clients and secure bread and butter but our architecture turned out to be really bad. It was not because of architecture itself but because of us, we were so week. We were the ones always to compromise with our designs to the clients to financiers and to politicians. Architecture was always the first one to start saving with, and we agreed because we were week. After half a year we sat down feeling sick and decided that actually we are no good and the choices that we have is either to continue like this till the end of time or to change…but how.

Land(e)scape. Casagrande & Rintala. Savonlinna, Finland, 1999.

As a result of a very traumatic period we decided to give up, to make a business kind of a Harakiri a commercial suicide with pride. We decided to make our last work so that we ourselves would be the clients, we would be the architects and we would produce the money and eventually – we would build it. And so became our real first work, the architectonic installation Land(e)scape.

After granting ourselves this liberty of fully controlling the design process we ended up with a serious question: what do we really have to say? Both me and Sami come from the more rural areas of Finland. I come personally form Lapland, the arctic part and Sami comes form Carelia closer to the Russian border. When we go today to our childhood villages they do not exist as they are in our childhood memories. Most of the people have moved away to the cities of the South and have abandoned the villages and also ways of life hundreds of years old. All this has happened in a very short period. We decided to make a work commenting on the desertion process of the Finnish countryside.

What we did was to collect three abandoned barn houses that you see everywhere in Finland and raised them on 10 meters high legs so that they can also start walking after their farmers towards the cities of the South. We mounted the barns on an abandoned field and did all the construction work together with our friends who were paid sausage and beer.

When the installation got up it got very famous. The media started to use it as an icon of the desertion process and it started to gain political influence. All this was something we could not foresee. During the construction period we learned a big lesson of being present with the architectural work from the very first sketches till it is done and so being able to react on changes or more finer layers of the work revealed during the process. This also helped us to feel and understand the energies of the work which led to another question. I did not feel comfortable to leave this installation to stand on the field forever. I was worried about losing the energy and to make this control more simple we decided that the installation must have time frame which also means that is must end somehow.

We started to negotiate with a Finnish contemporary dancer and choreographer Reijo Kela about he end and came up to a conclusion that in the end we must sacrifice the installation, slaughter our architecture. Together with Mr. Kela during a 47 minutes performance we set the barn houses on fire and burned the installation. We announced in a local newspaper that we will give free vodka and sausage and some 4.000 people came. This is a short way to success in Finland.

Marco Casagrande & Sami Rintala, burning of the Land(e)scape installation.

Of course we could not predict how people would feel when we burn the houses which was another great learning for us what comes to public works. It is not needed to explain to people what you want to say or what is the story of the work. People must create their own stories and all of these stories can be different. This is beautiful. We must respect the people and they will respect the work. What comes to shocking cry-out art usually seen in performances or dealing with personal traumas through art works as art therapy is second class, if not just cheap. All of this can be won into a more constructive way – all our life is a compost.

When the houses started to burn people formed spontaneously a circle to watch them and some people started to cry and some started to predict future from the burning barns. All together the atmosphere became strangely very religious, shamanistic.

I always thought that this work was very much a “Finland” –work but surprisingly enough it started to gain also wide international publicity and in the end won the second prize of the Architectural Review’s “Emerging Architecture 1999” award. It got also invited into the Venice Biennale 2000.

Besides the exhibition of the Land(e)scape the director of the Biennale Mr. Massimilliano Fuksas wanted us also to create a new work for the Biennale to comment on the Biennale’s general theme “Citta Less Aesthetics More Ethics”. He wanted us to make another architectonic installation.

What we wanted to do was to get an industrial boat and plant a forest into the boat and then to sail it into Venice and open it up as a public park. We did not want to add any extra weight on the already sinking islands but wanted to touch them gently but still making a strong impact. I call this Urban Acupuncture.

60 Minute Man -cross-over architectonic installation in the Venice Biennale 2000.

In the end we found the ship “Topogiggio” abandoned in the port of Chioggia some 50 km South of Venice, still in the Laguna area. During 7 weeks of work and with a crew of 15 we cleaned up the ship and made it waterproof again. We cut a series of opening to the central axis in order to make a set of interior spaces. After this we tracked down the place where all the human organic waste – the digested sludge – goes after flushing a toilet in Venice. It all goes to one place supervised by a fine character called Dottore Codato. This place is a high environmental technology MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment) unit where all the urban waste gets separated and recycled.

Together with Dottore Codato we calculated the exact amount how much human waste Venice produces in one year and then took this amount in 60 minutes worth of human waste which we biologically cleaned and then composted into top soil. We took the soil into our boat and planted a small forest of 24 oaks on it. In the end we covered the top soil with a layer of white grave from the Alpine rivers so that the people would not see on what they are standing on.

In the last room of the boat there is no trees anymore, just a marble stone on which is carved “THIS PARK HAS BEEN PLANTED ON 60 MINUTES WORTH OF HUMAN WASTE PRODUCED BY THE CITY OF VENICE”. It was nice to see the reaction of the people when they realized on what they are actually standing on.

It became important for me trying to understand what kind of materials streams are going on in cities and in society. This led me to think of the impact of these materials streams to environmental problems and how is the human mind together with all this. I realized that I need to do works revel different aspects coming out from this field and that the works must be so that everybody gets something. In a good work there must be enough layers so that I can talk in a professional level and that a truck driver feels, this work is for me.

Casagrande & Rintala crew and the freshly arrived top-soil in 60 Minute Man, the composted human waste in its al-dente condition.

There was only one issue left for me: nature and human nature as part of nature.

I continued to work with Sami Rintala till 2003 doing architectonic installations, urban planning, environmental planning, houses, tv-productions, teaching, environmental art and construction work. In 2003 Sami moved after love to Norway and soon after that was my time to move to Taiwan. We both have continued the ways of work learned during the time being physically together.

Treasure Hill

Casagrande Laboratory is a very flexible band of people working internationally and very interdisciplinary commenting on social and ecological questions through works of architecture, art and science. The main strongholds for us are in Inkoo Finland, Weimar Germany and Taipei Taiwan. I am personally involved in every C-LAB work.

Casagrande Laboratory in 2004. Marco Casagrande, Philippe Gelard, Eri Asano, Ilkka Törmä, Dirk Schultz, Kergy McGhee, Tuomas Makkonen, Little Monkey, Daniel Guishardt, Chrisian Edlinger, Urho Kekkonen, Martin Ross.

The first touch for me of Taiwan came through an invitation from architect Ti-Nan Chi who wanted me to participate in the Urban Flashes –symposium in Taipei. I had been before working quite a bit in Japan and was quite looking forward to see how Taiwan is like. I was quite surprised of the city, mainly because I felt that the official city and the very high humanistic energy of the streets didn’t mix. I also thought that the environmental control and the pollution was terrible, I despised the Taiwanese for that. Nature is holy.

When I got back to Finland after this maybe 5 days visit to Taipei the city came along with me. Taipei was very powerful for me and I could not exactly articulate why? I wanted to get back to Taipei to work. I even send the City Government a letter saying that YOU WILL DIE and explaining why they would die. No answer of course. Then Chi invited me to Austria, to another session of Urban Flashes.

In Linz Austria was when I met again architect Roan Chin-Yueh who was the moderator of my speech. Later that night I got heavily drunk with Roan and found out that his soul has a very deep perspective. Same sort of an experience that I have met in Shamanistic rituals in Finland. This was the first glimpse for me to the Chinese character and remembering Taipei I could not be more curious.

Step by step together with Roan and Taipei City Government I finally got an invitation to work in Taiwan. I didn’t know exactly what to do. One of my ideas was to jump from an airplane (with a parachute) and spread seeds over Taipei. These would maybe eventually grow vegetation. I haven’t got the plane – yet.

After landing to Taipei I still couldn’t understand what to do. I had already worked in maybe 20 countries and done a lot of realizations and learned that the work will come to me, I don’t have to invent it. In Taipei, like many times before, the work just did not show up and I really didn’t have any clue were to look for him. I also knew, that if I start looking, he will not show up and I will end up with some artificial shit.

Great help for me then was architect Kang Ming-Jay who maybe felt where I move and started to take me to temples – Taoist, Confucian and Buddhists. He even allowed me to do some fortune telling. Some sticks said that I would not realize anything but my presence is merely for a philosophy. I saw Kang Ming-Jay was a bit confused because of course he has much a deeper understanding for the stick than me but my own reaction was just like a rat in a corner – full frontal attack: the God’s are telling me that I don’t realize anything, this means that I should forget thinking and just start building. I was laughing to the message, which was wrong.

Treasure Hill illegal community in Taipei. Small napalm torches lighted up during Marco Casagrande's performance in 2003.

I don’t know how, but Kang Ming-Jay took me to Treasure Hill to have a look. One look at that place and I knew my work had finally come. Professor Kang organized me free hands to operate in Treasure Hill and the next day my construction begun: I became the cleaner man.

I became the cleaner man in Treasure Hill. There was no garbage bins and the small snaking allies were full of filth. The people were hiding behind their windows but I saw that they were old. In the foot of the hill some three stories of houses had been demolished, bulldozed away and instead of the houses there was green grass. A lawn instead of a settlement because officially now this was a park zone. For nature lawn is the same as concentration camp. It is nothing. It produces a shameful amount of oxygen and is merely the roof of a worm. And these people had been living there for some 50 years and these people were gardeners, I saw the fragments everywhere – village people, growing their own food. City had stepped in and the village people had to go. Same old story.

So I became the cleaner man. The first day the people were hiding and I started to clean and transport trash from their streets down of the hill to be picked up. The next day the same. On the third day there were already some buckets waiting for me and on the fourth day the people were cleaning themselves too. Together with me was also an increasing amount of architecture students from Tamkang University and National Taiwan University. Soon the little settlement of Treasure Hill was cleaned from the garbage and I started to build up stairs to connect the remained stairways of the torn down houses. By that time Treasure Hill was a dead end and I needed to create a loop for circular movement.

In the end of 3 weeks I had 200 students working with me and architect Shieih Yin-Jun had come down from the mountains too. With Shieih every morning we met and agreed who builds where. I don’t know what language we spoke. In the end the steps were built and even a small parade took place. Treasure Hill could stay and the bulldozing was stopped. In the place of the lawn where once the houses had stood was now a vegetable garden, food. City learned to appreciate this small sustainable settlement – a small urban poem. It helped that the poet Liao was in the charge of the Department of the Cultural Affairs.

Marco Casagrande in Treasure Hill, 2003.

Treasure Hill was important for me maybe because I felt that the place was so real and the city around it was so fictive. So many external powers in the city dominating the humanistic energy and in Treasure Hill none. Now after a couple of years I am happy to see that Treasure Hill still survives. I survived the heat and the construction process partly due Missis Chen, the matriarch of the settlement, who gave me Chinese medicines and feed me fish and a lot of beer. The gardening is going well of course, since these people know what to do if given a chance. There is still a lot of lawn, a useless layer of artificial nature which should be a garden too. It is good that the city is injecting new energy to the place by some artists working there but I also felt the danger of the real settlement becoming a background for art pieces. Now when I go there most of the junk laying around the mango trees and water streams are from art works – light stands, posters, pieces or worthless installations etc. If art becomes the junk of Treasure Hill, what is that? People don’t have to exploit Treasure Hill or use it for anything, people should just appreciate it. What comes to art or action in a place like Treasure Hill – build another one. Build a new Treasure Hill, the Ultra Village in the hearts of Taipei.

Forget the Forgetting

So now I have partly moved to Taiwan since getting the honor of visiting professorship in Tamkang University. My work remains the same. I want to end up this presentation with some photos from Japan.

The small town of Obihiro (maybe some 200.000 people) in Hokkaido contacted me and Sami and asked us to run a workshop for the city architects and urban planners. The Obihiro people had been complaining that the city is boring, that the architects and urban planners had done a poor work. When you say things like this in Japan, they take it seriously.

We flew to Obihiro and said that the conditions are such that you must take your children to a gym and there will be some basic materials like card board and paint. In the gym we told the children that now you are the architects and your mothers and fathers are just cheap labor. You tell them how to make a good house and they will do exactly how you say. The only condition for the house is that a child must fit in.

The houses got done. We took the children inside the cardboard houses to a walk into the city as a walking street. People liked. Sometimes the children needed to take a rest and an instant village took place. It was good to see the organizing of the urbanism based on that the grocery store has to gossip with the church or alike. The children maybe had patience to stay put for 3 minutes and then the grocery store would move to another location to talk with somebody else. All of this was documented carefully by the Japanese.

In the last picture you see the child’s house. There is even smoke coming out of the chimney. The house behind him is done by his father. It is interesting to think that you can draw a line between these two houses and during this line a lot seems to happen. Something what we call education or growing up. Anyway, when you see the child’s house, we forget a lot and real architecture is to forget the forgetting.