— Building and Planning

mccaffrey_roof-sm2

Surveying, as a practice, is the preservationist’s link between what is socially valuable and what is materially possible. These survey documents are my study of a farmhouse in Zhejiang’s Wencun Village, which is also the site of Wang Shu’s most recent village renovation. In this case the roof was deemed structurally beyond repair, but the sequence of courtyards that it served in a small block became integral to the design phase. Even if the roof is removed as a structure, it is still possible to retain its material technique and spatial characteristics in the overall renovation.

 

Read More

06_quinta-da-malagueira_evora_siza_popup

Women at work in Evora, Portugal. In the background, Alvaro Siza’s social housing project was under construction in 1978.

Siza’s building project for low-income housing residents who could no longer afford the city center has great social and practical considerations. This image of the building under construction, foregrounding women at work wearing traditional dress, is a part of that social project of representation. We are not looking only at a building or a woman – fetishizing their respective individual appearances – but instead see only the details of their relationship. In 1979, Siza wrote,

Most of my works were never published; some of the things I did were only carried out in part, others were profoundly changed or destroyed. That’s only to be expected. An architectonic proposition whose aim is to go deep . . . a proposition that in- tends to be more than a passive materialization, refuses to reduce that same reality, analyzing each of its aspects, one by one; that proposition can’t find support in a fixed image, can’t follow a linear evolution. . . . Each design must catch, with the utmost rigor, a precise moment of the flittering image, in all its shades, and the better you can recognize that flittering quality of reality, the clearer your design will be. . . .That may be the reason why only marginal works (a quiet dwell- ing, a holiday house miles away) have been kept as they were originally designed. But something re- mains. Pieces are kept here and there, inside ourselves, perhaps fathered by someone, leaving marks on space and people, melting into a process of total transformation.

This image and project both have been powerful for me for a long time. It seems fitting to share it now given the current political situation.

Read More

mccaffrey_maps2

Forming Narragansett Bay                                       Flooding Providence                                                


 

This fall I am teaching a fourth year architecture studio titled ‘Natural Construction’ (自然建造) at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Although each professor is responsible for their own syllabus, an integral part of the coursework is a week long trip to the rural villages, where students produce a book of extensive survey documents. In the past these survey documents have provided the studio’s building language for the remaining 15 weeks, thereby designating a clear relationship between vernacular structures and a studio-wide definition for what is ‘natural.’ This relationship is visible in the work of Wang Shu, who has served as dean of the CAA School of Architecture since its founding ten years ago.

As the fourth year studio is completed right before students enter their thesis year, Natural Construction Studio plays a transitional role in each student’s education. And yet after discussions with faculty and former students, as well as seeing previous studios’ work, it seems clear that no one knows what the class should be specifically teaching. The fourth year architecture students are already extremely competent in drawing and modelling and, being at the China Academy of Art, they are well-versed in the language of vernacular building systems. Before their thesis, most students are developing their own visual language, differentiating themselves from their classmates, and producing work that will help them get a job after graduation. This is the difficulty of studying vernacular building systems in the contemporary design education system: the work has a tendency to stray toward individual acts of spectacle (nostalgia included), despite the best intentions of a larger academic structure aimed a the cultural rehabilitation and preservation of historical structures.

These problems seem to arise, in part, from the treatment of survey drawings as operative tools. In recording the rural villages as they exist in great technical detail, the survey becomes a kind of mausoleum of visual facts-to-be-deployed rather than interpreted as maps of a larger building culture. Landscape architect James Corner distinguishes between these forms of drawing as such:

 

“Mapping precipitates its most productive effects through a finding that is also a founding; its agency lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather in uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds. Thus, mapping unfolds potential; it re-makes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences. Not all maps accomplish this, however; some simply reproduce what is already known. These are more ‘tracings’ than maps, delineating patterns but revealing nothing new.”

James Corner. ‘The Agency of Mapping’

 

The idea here is that there is not, and cannot be, a neutral technique of surveying or representation; as soon as a survey document becomes a technical document or takes on a certain style, it works more as an operative ‘tracing’ rather than a process of understanding and synthesis. This is not to say that a technical survey is wrong, only that we ought to be aware of how those documents function in a school of architecture: what attitudes and forms of work it precipitates.

The two images shown above are my own survey-maps of Providence after reading Corner’s article. While these maps deal with much larger scales than the students in Natural Construction will (1:10,000 and 1:1,000), and of course very different locations (Zhejiang Province, CN and Providence, US), they represent a synthetic point of view which may prove critical to the rural project that the China Academy of Art is working on. At  these large scales, Providence’s most lasting and unique structures are its geological and natural formations. In ‘Forming Narragansett Bay,’ the northeast landscape is a rock surface eroded by thousands of years of glacial recess. In ‘Flooding Providence,’ the city’s urban development narrows the canal’s edges and widens the flood plain.

In Zhejiang Province today the vernacular housing structures already have this level of extended, far-reaching tectonic history. The mapping of this extensive history and opening up a discussion about it may serve students in a more synthetic understanding of ‘what’ rural space is and how it works, rather than the stylized effects of a technical survey. Ultimately, the politics of economic development programs make it very difficult for architects to work and affect change in the Chinese countryside. Without a doubt, these realities ought to be reflected in the survey and mapping of their vernacular systems such that they remain active spaces, culturally relevant, and not subject to continued social and material degradation.

Read More

Construction escalated quickly after the 2016 Chinese New Year, when millions of residents returned to Hangzhou after the annual visit to their ancestral villages. It was March, six months before Hangzhou hosted the G20 summit and its attendant fleets of polished black cars. In the downtown West Lake area, mazes of street-level scaffolding, looming dust-clouds, and provisional traffic barriers were the first signs of a strategy for city-wide intervention.

Teams of workers crashed through the city’s streets, hammering into Buddhist temples and hair salons alike. Within days, a road was repaved into a slick black surface without blemish or measure. Within a week, housing blocks had shed their scaffolding and debris nets to reveal reframed wooden windows, restored stone cladding, and uniform boxes concealing air conditioning units.  Straddling a temple roof three stories up, workers let slip a replacement beam and shattered the stone sidewalk below. Pedestrians take note. Freshly hewn blocks (delivered daily) were hammered into place by teams of greyscale men and women emerging from clouds and mounds of stone dust.

The year-long preparations for the G20 rendered Hangzhou a construction site with 8 million residents. The muted surfaces of traditional grey-brick housing blocks were at once patterned everywhere onto local malls, and the temples had wifi and security checkpoints installed; where old and new buildings differed in activity and scale, fresh paint, cladding and stone pavers furnished the edge and closed the image gap. The irony is crucial: in September, when twenty world leaders and their finance ministers arrived, the year of construction had rendered the entire city and its population a political invisibly of architectural proportions.

The renovation of six hundred fifty-one infrastructure projects in less than a year is not the backdrop for a summit on the stabilization of global economic policy; it is an entry ticket, a form of authorization. The cloud of stone dust is not a visual metaphor for economic power floating into China, but is itself the material evidence of widespread political authority in action: the clumsy process of filling in, smoothing over, and taking away made manifest. Conversely, the image that is still seen by world leaders, TV cameras, and residents alike is that of the mythologized capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, where as much as been removed as has been preserved. In images as in global politics, not everyone is invited.

img_1844 img_3120

Read More

DSC02160

Hangzhou has an earnest, if sometimes invisible, connection between what it used to be and what is has become. Nearly everyone you encounter here is a tourist or has been living here (outside the city center) for the last few years; the residents live in older housing blocks behind commercial streets, small shops, and plastic surgery advertisements that line some of the more visible areas of the city. In many ways their storefronts act as barriers, an economic and spatial fence, between a more strictly consumer and tourist society and the more traditional values associated with housing and habitation in Chinese cities. The storefronts are a buffer zone allowing inhabitants within the block to sell small goods to tourists on the street, removed from the conditions of their housing areas.

The temples and preserved landscape areas – West Lake in particular – are physically immune to the forces of political and economic modernization that characterize this relationship. Their preservation turns them into cultural monuments whose stable meaning serves as a specific and continuous backdrop for what is an otherwise constantly changing social and political system. It is presumptuous, however, to say that traditional housing blocks and preserved monuments are examples of a battle going on between ancient and modern China. China, or more specifically Hangzhou, has already begun the process of physically and mentally industrializing as a society, and it will continue to do so according to its own principles. Rather than suggesting winners and losers of a battle between historical culture and images and the contemporary consumer economy – when what we mean is a simplistic battle between backwards tradition and progress – we should rather look at these different kinds of images and ask how they co-exist together as parts of a modern Chinese city.

It seems important, then, not to ascribe a false sense of time to either of these conditions; it should be clear that they both exist now and are greeted with the same enthusiasm by residents and visitors alike. West Lake, and the innumerable surrounding pagodas, are curtained off from rapid urbanization in a similar way that the older housing blocks are from the busy street. In this way it is easy to misinterpret the modern city as a discrete marker of economy, and the landmark as a discrete marker of culture. West Lake is a tourist destination for millions of Chinese every year, and this fact alone makes it one of the most striking symbols of economy. That very same economy allows governmental oversight and planning in defining the geographical regions of preserved landscapes, and funds not only the more visible forces of ‘modern’ urbanization at large, but also the modernization of culture and its images as well.

 

 DSC02073DSC02112

DSC02075DSC02169

Read More