Future‘s Dialect – Complex Design and Syrian Voices
‘Al Houa – The Breeze 2.‘ for Breeze 1 click on the link
exhibition and research concept
It is not easy to describe what the exhibition is about, as we stand in the middle of events, pretending to have a privileged point of view though a shift of perspective in time or space. Events appear like a huge whirling crowd – or a field, or a rubbish heap – and we try not only to describe the outcome, but we want to predict it – to create it. To create what? The future.
We have some historical roots, but the none of the models fit exactly, and all the utopian ideologies are rooted in history, mirrors of historical imagination. We are tempted to return to prehistory.
1. What is Social Design?
One of the roots of the phenomenon, which I would like to describe with the exhibition is the notion of Social Design. It is rooted in the very first design events, Josiah Wedgewood’s (1730-1795) simple ceramics, which aimed to express our desire and the necessity to return to something that is perceived as natural, human and simple.
Today we connect the notion of Social Design to one of its great pioneers, Victor Papanek, and his book, Design for a Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971). He designed useful things for the poor, one of the better known examples being the “Third World Radio” (Victor Papanek and George Seeger, 1962-1971), which was produced for less than 9 cents.
This was a functioning radio made of tin, with energy provided by wax. There was no decoration: the inventors’ philosophy was to let the users decorate it according to their own taste and local culture.
Another example in Design for the Real World are Paulo Soleri’s first simple domes made in the desert close to the West coast of the United States.
Paulos Soleri’s earth-concrete dome – photo from the book Design for a Real World by Viktor Papanek
A third example was refrigerators for India, which did not need electric power. The goal was recently adapted, re-invented and developed by inventors and designers from India. Today we can find the Mitticool (mitti = mud) on the internet for sale in India, alongside other popular products, in which the special cooling and filtering qualities of mud are employed. The Mitticool functions in a similar way to the cooling system of ancient clay and ceramic pots and bulbous jugs, but this is a functioning refrigerator for vegetables.
New design from India: Mitticool
The First Earthdomes
In a state of transition, we try to find anchor points and closed primary forms. One of these forms is the cub, as they call it in the village where my ancestors live in Northern Syria. It is called in fusha, the official Arabic أدوبي قبة (adobeea cubba). But village people use simple the ancient name, cub ( which in English means dome) which is still present in English (also spelled cob, cobb: a round form, from mud as building material), in Welsh as clom, and in Hungarian as kúp (which in English means cone or taper). Nearly all languages have preserved the word in some form.
The anchor point for the exhibition concept was the ancient and perfectly minimalised form of the cub, and my childhood memories of Syria, detecting the turn from an archaic lifestyle in the 1970s to a modernist lifestyle through the architecture of Northern Syrian villages.
The harmony and specificity of these archaic domes is one of my main aesthetic statements. I investigate the current aesthetic and scientific interpretations of the archaic form though my drawings and though the research of contemporary applications of earth architecture.
A primary question I ask is whether the revival of these archaic forms might help reduce or ease the suffering of the Syrian refugees who have to bear the summer heat and the winter frost in UNCHR tents, and if the natural protective air-conditioning qualities of the cub could be employed to keep them warm in the winter and cooler in the summer.
I have written on the topic and created a series of drawings on the spatial experience within these domes (R. El-Hassan, “Beehive: on natural air-conditioning methods from Northern Syria”, 2012, on http://www.roza-el-hassan.hu in menupoint texts, downloadable pdf).
Building from earth means building from nearly nothing. Building from the air, the sun and what we find under our feet (cement and brick are burned, wood is cut, while earth is just present). This philosophy has also served hi-tech construction, as when Nader Khalili iranian architect and pioneer developed super-adobe from the adobe and brick domes of poor people in Iran, and replaced the adobe bricks or burned bricks with sandbags.
Why did he do that? To make life easier for astronauts on the moon. They couldn’t carry cement bags or burned bricks to the moon. Khalili suggested taking some light empty bags up to the sky, to fill them with moondust and to build from these earthbags the first buildings on the moon. The round form of my dear grandmother’s house was the first edifice on the moon.
(Thousands of images appeared: the camel carrying a solar cell to provide electricity for a mobile medical station, an inventor in the United States sitting on top of his house with a weird post-Tesla device, in order to change the direction of a hurricane. Later, however, weather modification experiments would be banned by law.) Knowledge and know-how became accessible even to the self-educated genius sitting on his roof in the most hidden American desert village, to the Touareg doctor in Africa building his practice, and to the Hungarian engineer constructing a lab in his garage. It is incredible what individuals managed to invent over the last three decades.
postcard from our family album, with cubs used to store heating material (dark round dry cubs mixed with the dried organic excrement of sheep)
Super-adobe plan for the moon by Nader Khalili
Super-adobe under construction:
2. Decentralised Aesthetics – Architectural Slang – Design Dialect
– alongside mainstream – if something goes wrong
In aesthetic terms, even alongside all the achievements, things can still go wrong.
What happens when the aesthetic canon of architecture and design is radically decentralised by countless self-publishing platforms on the internet? The amateur and the genius come ever closer, and in literature we also refer to the new genre maliciously as “vanity publishing”, since everybody can be a proud publisher and artist, writer, poet, architect and inventor. Meanwhile, the TED elite of thousands say: Spread your ideas! Spread them in a twenty-minute talk, and let the people know how you can change the world. Where has the reductive turn gone, the simplicity of style?
Theoretically, you can download a recipe to build a nuclear power plant in a shoebox and dig a well in your garden. You never need to pay another electricity bill. You can build your small house in an allotment garden (Schrebergarten), or transitional shelters as a refugee. Please download our freeware for this. We are part of Creative Commons.
Do you want to follow the eco-movement? Do you live in Germany? Then just google “Waldorf School homemade” to discover how to knit your house, your toys, your pullover. Have you liked Smurfs since you were a child? And you do not like or know Moholy-Nagy? Then build your eco-earth house in “Smurf style”.
Are you from Hungary? Google Hungarian slang, like buhera or ciki, awkward aesthetics, aesthetics of the weird, embarrassment par excellence, or in German: hausgemachte Möbel, homeliness, tinkerer-DIY aesthetic, cringe-worthy aesthetics, cooking-show architecture.
It is nearly impossible to translate the slang, while we know exactly how these things look, and even find the cringe-worthy endearing, since we all have a neighbour, uncle or aunt who is a famous tinkerer. Our family often bans her from the allotment garden, garage or weekend house. I have seen one of the most heartbreaking examples of radical urban eclecticism in Prishtina, Kosovo, after the siege, in 2004. I cannot describe the way the urban environment revealed the people’s stories, but made a series of photos, and based on the photos and discussions, a sculpture, Hagar drinks Coca-Cola (2004). Of course, there is a radical avant-garde and social attitude, which might justify a lack of elegance and design from time to time: as the radical avant-garde says: “Not Nice – but True”. This is present in Papanek’s work, in the movement Hanemszép / IFNOTNICE, by my dear friend, Toma Sik (Hungarian-Israeli vegan, pacifist), the movement’s founder.
One of the most influential German artists of the 20th century, Joseph Beuys, also suggests the handmade aesthetic, less as functional design, but much more as metaphor for an alternative social formation, including his Soziale Plastik (social sculpture). Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler – Everybody is an artist.
The autodidact inventor’s situation or fate has changed a lot over the past thirty years. In the 1970-80s, none of Papanek’s ideas could enjoy a broad following.
All of his suggestions of how to use the bicycle in creative ways were pushed away by the auto industry as a status and life-style symbol.
Prior to the internet, the centre and the periphery, the Developed and the Developing World, the scientific laboratory and the suburban garage workshops, were light-years apart in terms of information and knowledge. By now, it is all accessable.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari spoke of the rhizome instead of trees or pyramids to depict social and knowledge structure. They return to metaphors of the pre-cultural, or rather to the pre-human. Since the publication of their A Thousand Plateaus (1980), many of their models have become quite fashionable. We tend to depict human society and the new collective knowledge of the third industrial revolution caused by the computer as an anthill, or honeycomb, while the internet is meanwhile obviously imagined as a spiderweb, but also as a bird’s nest, or wickerwork. And since the 1990s, there are also trendy, hi-tech aplications in contemporary architecture, with fluid forms, of new desktop design (e.g., P_Wall by Matsys Design) algorithms and fluid buildings (Zaha Haddid), no matter if fluid walls make sense or not. One of the greatest interdisciplinary suggestions is a field of research using the name of a bacteria: Bacillus pasteurii, to build a wall to halt the expansion of the Sahara. The inventor is Magnus Larsson
also to repair cracks in concrete or stone façades
Such solutions are in high demand, with 419,000 views of the TED talks.)
Deleuze und Guattari speak of striated and smooth space, instead of the traditional geometric spatial constructions, perspective or mechanically produced space. It is clear that all the network, anthill and rhizome constructions – all the organic metaphors for a digital electronic creation or phenomenon – derive on the one hand, from the realm of data-mapping and computing, and on the other, from their interdisciplinary character. In my project, QRcodes for Syria, I made an interdisciplinary attempt to combine human rights activism and social transformation with data-mapping. This was motivated by the urgent need for social design, charity and system change. I tried to open windows for access, and hoped people would find the numerous human rights and social initiatives of Syrian civilians, activists and artists, who began an incredibly dynamic process of self-organisation during the first weeks of the Syrian revolution. You can read more about this on: http://www.qrcodesforsyria.wordpress.com and on http://www.syrianvoices.wordpress.com “For a Better Future”.
Civil society’s self-organisation would work very well, if there were no barriers or weapons. QRcodesforsyria has not yet succeeded, but I hope that success will come.
Despite all our efforts of data-mapping, computing often goes beyond the limits of human perception, considering the quantity of spatial narrative and audio-visual information. Herbert A. Simon, Nobel Prize-winning economist, who wrote the renowned The Sciences of the Artificial (1969), and later Models of Bounded Rationality, suggested to use the notion and methodology of intuitive design: to listen to our own intuition, in the midst of the world of overloaded data transfer. While an economist, Simon’s notion of intuitive design became in the following decades a keyword for architects, urban planners and system designers.
3. The Refugee
The starting point for my research was the question of whether the old cubs could be useful for Syrian refugees as shelter during the hot summer in the camps, or while rebuilding the country.
Millions of people have suffered displacement during the last three years in Syria. Many of them live in transitional shelters. Zaatari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan is a tent city with up to half a million inhabitants, depending on the situation in Syria; it is now the fifth largest city in Jordan, but still not the only tent city created provisionally by UNHCR for the stream of refugees fleeing Syria.
Nomadism, a trend in philosophy, social science and media theory during the nineties, has become a horrific, harsh reality.
Displacements on a monumental scale, caused by the terror of a regime, as in Syria, have displaced masses on an unprecedented scale, through war and natural disaster. These masses are often from the middle class, with the human disaster hitting urban and rural people in the same way. They have never before lived in nature or in tents.
Architecture is always close to reality. I began research on transitional shelter and mobility, and have found incredible architecture and design material, developed over the last ten years.
Ikea creates flat-pack transitional shelters, and countless individual architects and artist collectives create strong interventions in the field of transitional shelter. Krzysztof Wodiczko has designed mobile shelters and homeless vehicles, while Shigeru Ban has made paper-tube homes. The archive is enormous and too visual to describe though narrative and text. Mobility is, of course, different in the developed countries, which are not affected by violent conflict, where top managers, employees and financial refugees share the fate of mobility imperatives (see: Be mobile, be flexible, “Be Creative”, an exhibition by Marion von Osten and Peter Spillmann, Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich, 2002). In natural disaster areas and in war and terror zones, as in Syria, large portions of the poorest population flee on foot, walking for their lives, women carrying their children in their arms, often starving to be able to feed their children.
Yet mobility is mobility, with human populations forced into permanent motion.
Humanity needs transitional shelters to survive.
My friends and colleagues Marion von Osten and Peter Spillmann depicted in 2002 a society, where attributes of creativity and flexibility, which used to be the domain of artists and freelancers, are consciously employed to adapt to the new situation to increase profit and effectivity during the economic boom of the nineties. Geert Lovink (tactical media theorist and founder of nettime and the Institute of Network Cultures) also picked up the notion and created a symposium and a comprehensive reader, entitled: MyCreativity – A Critique of Creative Industries.
In 2008, the global economic crisis also hit the art market hard, as well as nearly all members of society. States and large foundations began to employ the creative worker (who in the 90s, had been rather a servant of branding) for social structural issues; in other words, they became willing to support at least a number of model initiatives as pilot projects, including, e.g., myvillages.org, or an umbrella for several smaller initiatives, Economadic School (urban gardening, education niches, architecture and sociology), or my initiative NoCorruption.hu, as well as urban gentrification artists (e.g., Apolonia Šušteršič in London).
I have seen the second – and deepest – turn in 2011 in Syria and its neighbouring countries: the artist has taken on the role of activist, catalyst, re-organising society. Actors, musicians, filmmakers and painters chant and lead the demonstrations, and later, in 2012, artists and activists play a very important role in re-organising an entire society through civil collective and private initiatives, schools in refugee camps, newspapers and hospitals. At the same time, artists and non-violent human rights activists became the first target group of the regime to be detained, tortured or killed. The luckier ones escaped with a horribly bad conscience for surviving in exile. I wrote about the state of things in 2012 (with Shadi Alshhadeh) in Syrian Voices (CIMAM 2012 Annual Conference: Museums Beyond the Crises, Cambridge
Scholars Publishing, CIMAM, 2014). Most of the initiatives, schools, workshops and community spaces were displaced, operating after 2012 in the neighbouring countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and in June 2013, a second exile of Syrians occurred in Egypt, when much of the social structure was destroyed. The leaders of several organisations fled to Turkey, or on boats to Europe.
Ikea – flat-pack transitional shelter ( source: Ikea foundation)
Krzysztof Wodiczko: Homeless Vehicle, see also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59DV3k2fVfA
UNHCR – Refugee tent from inside
4. Syria Disaster Relief
How long will people have to live in transitional shelters? When and how can they return to their destroyed home towns and villages? To the country? How can disaster-hit cities like Homs be repaired or re-built? Should they be demolished, and completely new districts built?
In 2009, a large architecture foundation announced a competition for creative transitional shelters for Kosovo.
The award-winning project suggested placing living-space-capsules, modules and units for sleeping and for showering in the demolished houses, so that people could return immediately to their homes, even to those which suffered shelling and fire during the war. The project is visually brilliant: it reminds me of squatted houses in abandoned districts, where very fine sophisticated design elements are placed in old houses. In actual fact, residents were aided in squatting the ruins of their own houses. Small cages, or shelter cubes, to protect them while sleeping, were placed in the damaged rooms.
The war in Kosovo took place in small towns and villages. I was there in 2004: the houses in the countryside were burned, their roofs missing.
There are also villages and small towns to be re-constructed in Syria, like Binnish, Kafranbel, Daraa, and there are also historical sites, like Deir Al Zor Bridge.
Meanwhile, Homs had been a large city of one million inhabitants, and Aleppo had about 2.5 million. The shelled ruins of tall housing blocks might collapse at any time; they are too dangerous to be squatted, and the plumbing system is leaking, becoming poisoned and epidemic. It is an apocalyptic scenario. Soft Steinerian methods alone are not enough.
Each location needs locally specific solutions. Could or should Syrian reconstruction look like the huge Finnish social housing projects in the late 1990s, when large portions of the population in the north had to be moved within weeks to the south (when Finland joined the EU, and agriculture around the Arctic Circle was no longer viable). Complex apartment blocks to house 60,000 residents were built near Helsinki in Vuosaari. Beyond rational apartment block construction and production, people need hope.
Syria, Aleppo 2013 – photo Fabio Bucharila
5. Positive Utopia – and attempts to construct a point of view
Despite all the problems, I try to envision a positive utopia. We learn from rhizome theory in A Thousand Plateaus, that there is no longer one privileged point of view, no top of the pyramid or tree, from where we can construct one authoritarian mainstream reality or design solution.
We can still try to experience, touching and scanning its borders, its fringes in time and space: returning to the prehistoric sources, to biological models, as did Deleuze & Guattari, or to the archaic, the pure appearance of the logos through basic forms, gestures and iconic difference (as with the research of Gottfied Böhm). The dense and basic beauty of the Cub, deriving from the beginning of history, is one of the anchor-points.
I am convinced that creating aesthetic structures, or even through exhibitions, lectures or patterns of thinking in books, also creates pragmatic and rational solutions. I can see one example in the Modernist and simple beauty of Hassan Fathy’s clay building. (I see an inner relation to the space-creations and humanity of Paul Klee.) Another example is the beauty and simplicity of geometrically shaped dammed earth buildings, made today in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright.
All this is not just about one more revival or adaptation of the notion of nature in architecture, but much more an investigation of the question:
How can we (still) navigate in the realm of building, planning, invention, and the complexity of overlapping (eco, social, scientific knowledge and even mental, spiritual) systems, as suggested by Simon’s intuitive design? The exhibition maps what is today still “gestaltlos”, amorphous or formless, to make it less threatening, more transparent, and even holding the promise of a positive outcome.
Syria, Homs – in spite of all: urban gardening on the roofs – source: —-
Paris, urban gardening project by AAA group, source: AAAA group
Food boxes programme by AAA architects, Paris
Beyond the philosophical and aesthetic aspects, the exhibition has a very concrete aim.
This is the introduction of the necessity of intuitive and complex design principles during the reconstruction of Syria.
Complex design means simplified, that we do not design pots and pans which are bigger than the oven, though the pots and oven and kitchen are all made in different factories. It is an interdisciplinary process. All the objects and plans are connected and carefully embedded into a broader reality.
This is also a social, cultural and environmental reality. The region’s ecological problems are, among others, a hot climate, a lack of water, and social tensions.
Let’s consider the heat:
The façades of the houses in the city centres are rather disintegrated by the vast number of scattered air-conditioners. Dirty water drops on the streets, and the city’s electricity system collapses at noon, when all the air-conditioners run on high. (The municipality simply turns off the electricity for the whole city at noon to avoid collapse.) Besides the methods of the Beehive, there is a wide range of building methods, hi-tech solutions (solar-powered cooling), and urban planning solutions, which could make the cities more liveable.
Besides natural air-conditioning methods, urban gardening and water recycling, the ancient atriums also held imporant and local traditions, once growing lemon trees, grapes and herbs.
Envisioning a positive, beautiful future is superficially pleasant, operating on tourism adverstising, focusing on spas, hammams and Damascene teahouses with cooling water basins, but the Japanese case shows that it very important to use all the tools available to build up a lobby for architects, biologists, researchers, educators, activists, inventors, tinkerers, and civilians, to recreate a sustainable society on new ground. Or to put it in a nicer way: to render the idea of complex design and bright future plans popular, and to convince politicians and inhabitants that they can re-build a great model, following the human disaster of the past three years.
Air-well: water from air.
——————————– text by Roza El-Hassan, 2014, copyright the author and Syrian Voices. —- read also the earlier text: Breeze 1 on Beehive Houses.
With many thanks to Isabel Halene, Architect and Advisor and to Hubertus Adam , dierector of SAM, Basel
An exhibition related to the concept is is planned for 2016, SAM Swiss Architecture Museum, Basel – further locations are planned in 2015
English proofreading and editing of the text: Adele Eisenstein