Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fractal analysis of urban sprawl

Urban sprawl picture shown at the Biennale of Venecia. Picture from the Biennale web page

It is not easy to analyze urban morphology with a case of Urban sprawl like this. I propose here some tools from image analysis softwares that are helpful when we do not have a grid or urban quadrille or any other recognizable form. The first step, and this is pretty much for all softwares is to convert the jpg image into a binary file.

A profile plot of the picture will show the division between urban sprawl and a standard urban pattern. The peaks will show the grey intensity. For the purposes of the exercise, I did not take the time to adjust the greys from the original image to accurately show the empty and fill areas. Anyway, a white area means empty, and we have the option to reverse it.

The depression is showing the freeway. On the left side of it, the peaks are pretty even, it means the urban sprawl is like a uniform shape in its complexity. On the right side, the buildings are not uniform.

I can also count the particles. It is important to notice that the softwares conjoin particles that are very close, so if  infinite particles are seen, it is not considered like this. Because when houses are touching each other, they will conform a conglomerate, we cannot count one by one any more. The red spelling are numbers with the account of particles.

The surface plot is a digital analysis of rugosity in 3D. Notice the difference on the buildings side.
The exercise above is a quick way to compare two different morphologies in the same regional area, or in the same city. If we are interested exclusively in the urban sprawl, we focus strictly in this area of the picture.
I remove the freeway and tall buildings and look for edges to find a definition of the form. The process begins again. If edges are shown, particles, plots of profile and surface will be different. That is why it is so important to select adequate filters. Adding noise is a good option to fill the emptiness, to a certain degree.

Do I find a structure here? Well, it is a fractal urban pattern with fractal dimension D=1.9396, when D is close to 2, the plane (space) is occupied almost completely. This is true for urban sprawl.
Is there any hidden structure? An analysis based on Fourier transform will confirm it.

This Fourier transform of the urban sprawl image tells us that there is no buildings or streets of particular interest, the urban morphology is absolutely uniform, it must be read as a conglomerate. This last image is also a fractal, with D=1.9862. The similar result to the previous image shows that the analysis of fractality, even in the analogy of the FFT image is correct.
All images of analysis by Myriam B. Mahiques.

Here, my video of how to calculate the fractal dimension. A brief exercise and part 2 with an extended explanation. Though the video is in Spanish, you´ll easily understand the methodology.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Students and Problems of Creativity in Design

The historical antecedent of the project is the composition, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, continuing in the Renaissance period, and until principles of the modernity in the SXX. The composition was governed by treaties and manuals that dictated the aesthetic and norms of construction organization in architecture. An organization by means of union of interdependent parts, with the ideal man as base of its proportions, and never including the emotional, social aspects.

Obsolete this compositive system, the project arises as a mediator between the society and the built building; however, the designer works from the creative subjectivity, with meta-linguistic speculations that give more significance to the architectural object (a plus value). This procedure is legitimate as soon as it motivates the design investigation generating new knowledge of problems solving, and its verification will be reached if communication is achieved between the building and the user or inhabitant.
The classic teaching of design at the University classrooms, is usually based on the search of "Leonardos", like Alexander and Chermayeff would define, and the students are confronted to the difficult task of finding the creative IDEA that will give birth to a future project.
The students, fundamentally those that are in the first levels of the career, are spokesmen of their families and their social groups, they are imbued of pre-disciplinar knowledge that is part of their experience. The current pedagogic processes discard those opinions and knowledge, in acts of repression, since they are not considered important in the discovery of an original IDEA.

Here the creativity is in an unusual metaphor of the “idea”.
I believe that we are all creative, but we meet different profiles inside the discipline of Architecture that sometimes show that the creativity does not reside in the brilliant idea, but in other not-so-abstract factors of the creative process.

For the students, this road toward the creativity is full with frustrations and deceptions, especially in the stage of "incubation" of the idea, when the unconscious processes pass to first plane. The blockade derives in static conflict if the student lacks the force or will to carry out the action -he is unable to take a resolution-, or derives in dynamic conflict, if the action grows slowly, in transitions. The intensity of the conflict will be determined by the individual's willpower; it can become extremely serious, also highly increased if socio-economic issues underlie, it can reach a crisis and ascend until its culmination, forcing the individual to take a resolution that could considerably alter the course of his life. And in many cases, the resolution consists on the abandonment of the university career.
Dr. Daniel Goleman, (Harvard University), in his book "The Emotional Intelligence", writes about the consequences of the emotional interferences: the neurologists use the term "operative memory" for the capacity of attention that takes into account the essential data to solve a problem. However, the intense emotions -anxiety, anguishes, anger, etc- can affect the capacity of the operative memory, it is for that reason that when we feel altered we cannot think correctly. Goleman concludes that the constant emotional interference ends up causing deteriorations in the learning, and that the intellect cannot operate in a good way if the emotions are not used in an intelligent way. The good news, if everybody has potential in any different intelligence, everybody has an opportunity, specially in our career that has so many ramifications across multiple disciplines.
The design problems cannot be solved only by means of the logical analysis. Improving the designer's creativity, does not consist of achieving a multiplicity of shapes, but of achieving the metaphysical structure of the mere idea that will be represented in the possible variables of design.
The theory of the lateral thought proposes a different road in the search of the creativity and it is usually implemented in quick exercises, sketches.
1. - our brain is a system that is self-organized, it is not prepared for the creativity, but rather it fixes schemes of routines and it abides to them.

2. - if new elements appear, the mind will try to be related with them following the rules of the established scheme.
3. - the objective of the scheme is to find similar data to those which to assimilate the new information.

4. - alternative mechanisms that lead to the creativity of the thought exist and they produce ruptures in the pre-established schemes. They are the "lateral" roads, that is to say the innovative ways.
These border exercises, are similar to the decisions in terms of "the end justifies the means", since sunk in the anxiety, some students do not end up solving the outlined problem, while others arrive to a brilliant resolution. For the first ones, there is a point when the professor takes the decision to provide or not a “clue”, and see if the student discovers a potential idea to develop. In my own experience the professor has to help the student that is making efforts to advance, because one project with no inspiration is not the end of the world and there could be many good possibilities in the future. This issue is very important for the first levels; in the last levels, the student has enough experience to skip –at least precariously- the lack of inspiration, maybe by reinforcing the technical or functional aspects of the project.
There are a few items I propose for the implementation of creativity:
MOTIVATION: to promote the student's interest for what he is making, from different planes. The design classes, are interesting when they are structured in a progressive sequence, not lineal, in processes of multiple decentralization.
The promotion of the dialogue in teaching, is an interesting emotional incentive, specially the "reciprocal teaching", corresponding to the dialogue among educators and students, because in the reciprocal exchange, one of the parts acts in answer to the other one, assuming in turn the role of educator.
P. Woods incorporates the emotion as a contrast to the emphasis in the rationality; if the student listens with sensibility, empathy and attention, a liberating climate that stimulates the self-teaching takes place.

A creative idea of an unusual situation. Maybe it could work…

EXERCISING: to propose the exploration of alternative routes, -even with the possibility of developing a project that was born unusual-, using interdisciplinary combinations, for instance: mathematics and design, music-painting-design, paragraphs or a chapter of a novel and design, etc. The professor will use the appropriate language to achieve the understanding of the topic, either by means of metaphors, presenting cases, space modelations, etc. This way the student obtains a secondary route for the resolution of a problem. In this point, it is necessary to clarify that the educator will verify that the student carries out the corresponding translation from the pattern to the discipline.

In general, exercising of design is based on processes of abstraction that consist on representing the common aspects between two or more objects or events, for symbols, letters, diagrams, geometric constructions, etc.
After selecting the representation tool, this symbology can be combined in several ways, following certain rules. The resultant, is a pre-established idea, or sometimes the product of trial and error.
APPLICATION OF TECHNOLOGIES: it highlights the importance of the use of the technology in support and enrichment of the discipline.
COOPERATION: not to foment the narcissism, to avoid the education centered in some individuals and the sensation of incompetence in others, situation that is given when the standard of competition is unique.
CONCEPTUALIZATION: The classic theories requested definition of concepts; the new theories request linkings among concepts. Therefore to explain is to demonstrate the relationship among fields. When the educator works making references to other disciplinary fields, conceptualization must not be extremely complex, so the students can make the corresponding reconstructions.
On the other hand, mentioning the multiple ways of understanding and interpretation, P. Woods finds alternative points of view in the arts (closely related with Architecture), where it would be very difficult to explain "the mystery" implicit in the works, and he concludes that when the explanation is not worthwhile, it is important to teach the students how many things we do not know, allowing their imagination to fill the spaces in white.

N. C. Burbules, “El Diálogo en la Enseñanza. Teoría y Práctica”, Amorrortu Editores, 1993.
H. Casakin, “El Uso de Representaciones Visuales en los Problemas de Diseño”, Revista Area No 8, SYCIT, FADU, diciembre 2000.
T. Fischer, Christiane Herr, “Teaching Generative Design”
S. Chermayeff y C. Alexander, “Comunidad y Privacidad”, colección Ensayos, Ediciones Nueva Vision, Argentina, 1984
F. Fondevila, “Te doy una idea? Edward de Bono enseña como pensar creativamente”, artículo publicado en la revista Clarín, pág. 48 a 51, 2 de septiembre de 2001.
Howard Gardner, “Multiple Intelligences. The Theory in Practice”, Basic Books, New York, 1993
Daniel Goleman, “La Inteligencia Emocional”, J. Vergara Editor, Buenos Aires, 1998
M. Lipman, “Pensamiento Complejo y Educación”, Ed. De la Torre, Madrid,1997
Nilson J. Machado, “Epistemología e Didática”, Cortez Editora, Sao Paulo, Brasil, 1995.
“Science for All American on line”, chapter 2, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Project 2061 http://www.
Jorge Sarquís, “Investigación Proyectual: Historia de las teorías, los procedimientos y las técnicas.- Theorias, praxis y poiesis, Revista Area No 8, SYCIT, FADU, diciembre 2000.
Daniel E. Vedoya, “Innovaciones en la Enseñanza de la Tecnología”, XIII reunión de ATYDA, FADU, mayo 2002
Peter Woods, “Investigar el Arte de la Enseñanza. El uso de la etnografía en la educación”, Temas de educación, Paidós SAICF, Buenos Aires,1998
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Three More Variations on the Triangle of Sierpinski

These are three more of my artistic variations on the Triangle of Sierpinsky.
For a brief description of this fractal's characteristics, see my previous post:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Imaginary and Nepantla in Chicano Dwellings

Chicano painting with Nepantla manifestations. See the Virgin Mary inside an Aztec image. The moon below is part of Virgen de Guadalupe image. Web download.

Interior space in Chicano dwellings contain clear manifestations of their Mexican culture. And more, because per their nature as Mexican immigrants’ descendants in USA, they create something new from the feeling of in-between-ness, a culture in-between other cultures as a junction between Anglo –Mexican- Indigenous culture. The sense of a group boundary still persists and this can be sustained by shared habits and characteristics, and the sense of a tied group with a common past. At this point, I want to introduce the concept of “Nepantla” which is considered as a transitional phase.

“Nepantla” is a Nahuatl (Aztec language) term connoting “in between”, “the space of the middle”. The postmodern paradigm refers to the creation of a New Middle, the rehabilitation from the colonial occupation as a psychological means of survival. Some literature authors refer to the term as living in “Borderlands” or cross roads, and the process of creating alternative spaces in which to live and work.
One strategy of cultural survival is the process of transculturation, as a reinterpretation of a cultural difference.
“Chicana and Latina spiritualities are diverse, they are complex, they are old, and they are new. They embody and reflect the ambiguity of mestizaje, the chaos and richness of the borderlands, and the tension and creativity of nepantla, a Nahua term, meaning in the middle.
Nepantla is not syncretism in the traditional sense, but an example of transculturation, or a continuous encounter of two or more divergent worldviews. Once the tensions of nepantla are understood and confronted, and the native Self is recovered and continuously healed, nepantla becomes a psychological, spiritual, and political space that Chicanas/os and Latinas/os and other marginalized peoples transform as a place of meaning-making. Nepantla spirituality does not exist merely to make us feel good. It is spirituality concerned with recovering ancestral ways rendered silent so that contemporary struggles for justice can be heard.”
(Excerpt from Nepantla Spirituality: Negotiating Multiple Identities, Faiths and Practices, by Lara Medina).

Nuestra Madre (Our Mother), acrylic by Yolanda Lopez. The Virgin of Guadalupe is transposed to an Aztec god image. Exposed breast and snakes are enough proof....1988.

Henry Lefevre (1999:33) suggests a triad of space that incorporates social actions.
1) Spatial practice: which embraces production and reproduction.
2) Representation of space, related to the production of “order”, as signs, codes.
3) Representational spaces, embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded, sometimes not, and generally related to the clandestine side of life. This is the space lived through its associated images and symbols that “This is the dominated –and hence passively experienced- space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects”. (H. Lefevre:39)
The third space or “Nepantla” would be included in the third classification.
The origins of “Nepantla” are close to the baroque images of the Spanish conquest period. The image is tied to space; however, the Aztec images have been in principle, erroneously contextualized in the medieval Latin environment of popular beliefs and terror; what has become to false categorizations. This way, the word image whose root comes from imago -ghost-, has gone through the ghost-demon-idol denomination. This last one, an object of annihilation, unless it becomes object of art... This idoloclastic scenario could not be separated from the Cortesian project, founded in the Iberian piety. The fixation of those "old Christian" with the images arose reinforced in the Reconquista.
The conquerors disembarked with colored and sculpted celestial images, among architectural volumes of “new” space organizations and, without being able to confirm the nonexistence of the autochthonous divinity by means of the substitution and absolute destruction, the persistence of the ambiguity of the imaginary was allowed, amidst partial destructions, exchanges, substitutions, and associations with the divinities of both universes, until conforming a new one imaginary as expression without speech of the organizational principle of the universe, reproduced everywhere.
The ancient institutions had been condemned, while the ones that friars imposed were still strange and incomprehensible. In consequence the natives found themselves “in between” (Nepantla).
The Virgin was welcomed for the tribes, probably as Mother of her gods. To the point that, in periods of peace, in the Templo Mayor, the cross and the Virgin were exposed together with pagan idols - inevitably associated with demons -.
The imaginary was constituted, this way, in opposition among the goodness (the Christian figure, colored, sculpted, carved images) and the evilness (the idols). This situation of beliefs, has left an indelible print in our times.
The Christian figure in the times of Cortés, understood each other as tricotomy from the celestial pattern to the terrestrial copy: the celestial pattern (in itself); the copy in the object (constituent material); the emanated power of the image (action).
The indigenous adoration was not limited to the anthropomorphic figure. The repression and the wisdom, led them to cohabit among objects of insconspicous appearance, which were attributed divine presence. These objects, are very familiar for us today, and they are still found inside the Mexican-Chicano houses in California: flowers (originally offered to Camaxtle; stones with heart shapes (the heart of the sacrifices); mirrors (with the property of the "speaking"); a seat in front of which a recipient was located with chicken, corn pasta or tamales. It is debatable if these objects were "in memory of" or an "object of memory" which was adored.

Chicano’s house. Behind the screen brick wall, Aztec and Jesus Christ small statues are displayed. Picture by Myriam Mahiques.

At the moment, the accumulation of object-images in a Chicano house persists, and it could be considered excessive and confusing if the historical aspects that originated this model are not taken into account: to consider the objects in itselves, isolated from their contexts, would be a serious mistake. The current saturation of space is intimately bounded to the Baroque pictorial production at the end of SXVI and the arrival of European painters to Mexico, I refer to the Baroque image, covered with allegories in search of the sophistication and multiplicity of meanings - Eruditio and Artifice -. Under the Inquisition of Torquemada, in Mexico, God became a collage of attributes and symbols: birds, butterflies, vegetation; God was forged in the cloth like absolute creator that governed on the men and the nature.
Not only in the art, but also in the religious architecture we see the same cognitive constructions; among the proliferation of columns, cornices, piazzas, the frescos that still remain in several places, all of them give sample of a treatment of recurrent decoration: the saturation of the images covering the walls.
In the domestic interiors, Aztec images still coexist with the Virgin of Guadalupe intermingled with crosses, prints, - that is a representation of Nepantla - and there will be no lack of flowers, neither the kitchen in full activity, neither souvenirs, armchairs with floral printings, pictures, several statuettes, etc. We understand that the community, already divided in Christian and Catholic groups of deep rooted faith, has lost the understanding of the original meaning of the object, however, the objects are still exposed like in the first times, also containing, an emotional value that the collective memory has assigned to them. If the object is religious, it is believed that it is capable of emanating power and "to grant answer to the prayers". This way, the object becomes a symbol, a code of ideas that difficultly can be explained with words.
“The symbol is direct and does note require linguistic mediation. An object becomes a symbol when its own nature is so clear and so profoundly exposed that while being fully itself it gives knowledge of something greater beyond”. (Yi-Fu Tuan, 2007:114)

Gruzinski, Serge. Images at War. Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner. EEUU. Duke University Press. 2001
Gruzinski, Serge. The Mestizo Mind. The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization. New York. Routledge. 2002
Medina, Lara. Nepantla Spirituality: Negotiating Multiple Identities, Faiths and Practices.
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Brief Concepts About Urban Morphology and Culture

Urban fractal simulation for Labbezanga settlement, Africa. The morphology shows the roots of the African culture. By Myriam Mahiques

The theoretical support of regionalism in urbanism was developed by Christian Norberg-Schultz in 1964, and it was based on the psychological evidence that all the forms, including the urban ones are culturally perceived, that is to say through outlines learned in a culture. Therefore, this coming back and forward between the culture and the object of perception implied that the form would be never free of meanings.

Kenneth Frampton, used the term critical regionalism from phenomenology –a method to return to things- to supplement his arguments. Frampton’s “critical regionalism” is not the same as regionalism; the last is related to vernacular architecture in a conscious way. He emphasized the topography, climate, light, tectonic form rather than scenography and the tactile sense than the visual.
In 1965, the attack to the exacerbated regionalism, criticized as "infantile regression", opens the way to the technopolis, since more and more, the society moved away from the cosmologies of the closed societies; the society was already changing thanks to the communications, of which it depended.
The new urban system was superimposed to the previous one, without destroying it. The city was considered as a group of many separate subcultures, each one with its mythology and its identity, beginning with the tribalism and concluding in the anonimity. The physical place had less and less importance, since the flexibility of the communications was increasing. The concept of community of place was then substituted by that of community of interests: a person chose a work more for its interests and accessibility than for its physical localization. It no longer cared the space distribution with their Euclidian territorial divisions, but the interaction among the inhabitants, living in a discontinuous, pluralistic, complex and dynamic space.
We are here before a statement of the theory of chaos.
By the end of the decade of the ´60, the urban designers already understood that the city was an organized complex such as a biological organism that could only be analized by means of new conceptual tools. In this context, Christopher Alexander writes "A City is not a Tree" that was published in the entire world, influencing especially in Italy, France, England and Japan. Alexander substituted the ramified form by a reticular complexity (lattice), and so he demonstrated that this was the only appropriate way to solve the complex problems. He affirmed that all the historical –“natural”- cities have many overlappings or subsets that imply their diversity. When using the graphos theory, Alexander took the design process to a high level of abstraction.

Urban fractal simulation for Labbezanga settlement, Africa. By Myriam Mahiques
Urban fractal simulation for Labbezanga settlement, Africa. By Myriam Mahiques

Lately, in architecture and urbanism, the epistemological physicalism and the organicism are studied through the theory of complex systems, under the Chaos theory. In this context, urban morphology concepts have strictly geometrical meaning where words like Euclidean, Isotropic, infinite could be applied. “The idea it evoked was simply that of an empty area”. (Lefevre, 1999).

The relationship between mathematics and reality (physical or social reality) was not so obvious, and the mathematicians released the problems to the philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists, each one with different superimposed theories for neighborhoods and –let’s say- people living near each other.
Epistemology has the notion that the status of space is that of the “mental place”, complementary –if not opposed- to the notion of territory and locality; sociologists have neglected territorial groups in favor of structural ones; anthropological studies focus upon social groupings defined by distribution in areas; linguistic studies is also important in territorial groupings. “As a rule, linguistists have approached separate language groupings as spatial units irrespective of the structural differences that obtain within them. In fact, one of the common methods of determining the time at which two groups separated themselves in physical space is a measure of changes in their language usage”. (Suttles, p. 7, 1973)
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two Interesting Cases of Human Territoriality

An Asian vendor defending her spot amidst the ruins. Web download

Some days ago I came across an interesting article about the famous Chang and Eng Bunker conjoined twins, in a National Geographic, June 2006. They were the men who originated the term “Siamese twins”. They were born in Siam (Thailand), in 1811 and settled in North Carolina, USA, in 1839. When they began to date the sisters Adelaide and Sarah Ann Yates, the townspeople disapproved, so they scheduled a separation surgery in Philadelphia. When the fiancées found out the decision, they preferred to avoid the risk. So, they had a double wedding. After fourteen years of living as a foursome , the twins split their property to build separate houses. By 1860, Adelaide was living in another house, not only because of the numerous children they had, but mainly because wives wanted their own place. When wives decided to live apart, Chang-Eng followed a strict regimen of three days at one house, and three at the other brother’s house. Though it seems a bizarre story, I see it as a very ingenious resolution of the defense of each brother’s family territoriality.

Eng and Chang Bunker.

Territoriality is in the interest of multiple disciplines, like environmental psychologists, architects, sociologists, social psychologists, planers, anthropologists… Territoriality has many properties and dimensions. There are different types of territoriality and we cannot think that they operate under the same rules. Main question is if territoriality behavior is inherited since we were born or if it is learnt. American psychology states that it is primarily a result of learning and environmental factors. There is another possibility, that territoriality might have a biological and evolutionary basis. Or maybe both biological (innate) behavior is combined with learnt behavior. I have just shown the concern, and I cannot intervene in such a controversial issue. It is difficult to find an answer for primitive eras, as we do not have written information. Some scholars state that for nomadic tribes, with no herds or agricultural practices, territoriality was based on obtaining food, from trees, herbs or animal meat. They obviously had control on the territories where they could get their food. For the evolutionary theory, territories consisted of areas defended against intruders. But, if we include the necessity of food, we shall have sets of territories that overlap. The pattern would overlap depending on the availability of food, water, shelter. We are back at the starting point. If territories are stable, there is no question any more, we are in front of an ownership figure.
In a general sense, we have three kinds of human territory: tribal, family and personal. There is also a regulation of territoriality that involves scale. Territory could be occupied and controlled by individuals, or communities (small or big ones) with different boundaries. The minimum example is a public seat in a bus –it is not important- but private territories are psychologically central and really important for their occupants. Even if the house is a shack, built of scrap materials, there will be articulated boundaries, a personalization of the environment, any territorial indicator, that will show the right to own this place. It is a challenge against the neighbor. Physical fighting is possible in the need to defend the owned spaces, in animals, children, gangs, prostitutes, neighbors, armies and so on. The list is endless.
Personalization is a manifestation of culture and identity, and it goes from desks, to bedrooms, to public displays. All objects arrangements are part of the exertion of the owner’s dominance. Objects are used to reinforce the sense of ownership and it is extensive to plants, trees, guardrails, fences, whatever shows a boundary-line or a sense of boundary, it does not need to be strictly shown as a barrier. When personal spaces are invaded, defenses for the territory are strengthened and intruders will be surrounded by hostility; if there is no need for a fight, symbols will be enough expression to keep intruders out, since man is a cooperative specie but also a competitive one. Dominance is shared out in varying degrees of ambitiousness, where self includes the individuals and the social collectivity.

A Painted House shot.

Another example I have in mind, is a situation in John Grisham’s novel, “A Painted House”. It is inspired in his childhood in Arkansas. Set in the late summer of 1952, the story is told through the eyes of seven year old Luke Chandler, the youngest in a white family of cotton farmers. Luke’s grandfather and dad, hire two groups of people to help them harvest their cotton crop: the Spruills family, from the hills and some few Mexican migrant workers. All of them have to live somewhere in the Chandler’s farm. This is how conflicts begin.
“Long before we arrived at our house, we saw smoke and then a tent….
“What’s that?” I asked.
“ Looks like a tent of some sort,” Pappy said.
It was situated near the road, at the far end of our front yard, under a pin oak that was a hundred years old, very near the spot where home plate belonged…..
The Spruills had taken control of half our front yard….Two sides of the tent were open, and I could see boxes and blankets lying on the ground under the roof….
Their truck was parked beside it, and another canvas of some sort had been rigged over its bed. It was anchored with baling rope staked to the ground so that the truck couldn’t move without first getting unhitched. Their old trailer had been partially unloaded, its boxes and burlap bags scattered on the grass as if a storm had hit.
Mrs. Spruill was tending a fire, hence the smoke. For some reason, she had chosen a slightly bare spot near the end of the yard. It was the exact spot where Pappy or my father squatted almost every afternoon and caught my fastballs and my curves. I wanted to cry. I would never forgive Mrs. Spruill for this.”
It is important to notice that the Spruills somehow are trying to fix their truck to the ground. The longer description of the tent anchoring is clear about this. And, as if it were not enough, domestic objects and sheets are demarcating a bigger territorial space in the Chandler’s family yard. Even the fire, Mrs Spruill’s spot is the most painful experience for Luke. (Up till page 23…).
On the other hand, the Mexicans are more respectful, but all farmers have the problem of providing them shelter, as far as possible from the house. The Chandlers offer them a clean barn, being it their own possible shelter. And the boy explains “Most of the farmers put them in abandoned tenant houses or barns. There’d been a rumor that Ned Shacklford three miles south had made his live with the chickens”. (p.20-23). Luke is not the only one suffering. An upset grandmother asks Pappy to move the Spruills from the yard. She has a no for response, if they are moved, they’ll be upset and leave, ruining the harvest.
This story has a plus for territoriality purposes. The recognition of cultural behavior in two different cultures, immigrant Mexicans and local migrants in USA.

Altman, Irwin; Chemers, Martin M. Culture and Environment. USA, 1984.
Grisham, John. A Painted House. 2001, USA.
Morris, Desmond. Territorial Behavior.
“Together Forever”. National Geographic Magazine. P. 148. June 2006

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Metaphor in Gilbert Grape's House: Building or Body?

“While my House was burning” By Rob Nye.Oil, ink, pastel and acrylics. San Rafael, California.

Metaphors are processes where abstracts are transformed into material or visual image. They are important in interdisciplinary works, they communicate the ideas in an overall sense and promote discussion.

Sometimes authors make use of metaphors to explain feelings and emotions.
In architecture, we find three types of metaphors. The tangible or analogy of form; the intangible, that includes a hidden message; and a combination between tangible and intangible; Architecture and metaphors could be interpreted in the multi dimensions of the interdiscipline, always noting the significance of its users.
I have selected the novel of “What’s eating Gilbert Grape”, by Peter Hedges, to show a symbolic condition that invites us to make the connection between the obese mother and her house. Most essays on this novel have as a central point the relationship between Gilbert and his retarded brother, and set aside the underlying association between the mother and the house, that I take as an unconscious assumption of life and death.

Gilber Grape's family.

The awareness of our bodies can be related to the place where we live. Gaston Bachelard’s house is a personification in its own negation. The inhabited space is the non-I that protects the I. (Bachelard, Ch. 1, p.5). The house comforts us with the illusion of protection. So does Momma.
“…I was saying that nobody has broken in here because I stand watch. They will have to get by me before they can get to you. I dare someone to try and get by me.”
She is right. No way is any criminal or killer even going to think about coming into our house as long as she sits in her chair. Momma is our sentinel.”. (p. 201)
In Bachelor’s description, the house has an attic, -a place for night dreams and memories-, a ground floor where the life occurs, a basement, where subterranean sufferings and secrets dwell. Based on this idea, the house has a certain human condition, and is embedded with the personality of its inhabitants; the house represents the human body and the human body is the metaphor of the house.
The mother’s obesity is one of the many conflicts in the novel that could have been unnoticed –just another oversized body- but we can feel it by means of the metaphor, and it may be read in its interaction with the house.
When I say “oversized” my reference is Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s drawing based on the correlations of ideal human body proportions with geometry, described in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. Subject that was also developed by Leonardo Da Vinci, Leone Battista Alberti and in modern times, by Le Corbusier and his proposal of Modulor. But no woman’s body was ever considered in these studies and we can also see here that there is no such an universal set of proportions for the human body.

Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation of the Vitruvian Man. Juniperimages.

Le Corbusier's Modulor.

Momma is always sitting in her chair, and the floor below her is about to collapse into the cellar; she is literally falling through the floor, directly to a hidden obscure situation, the husband’s suicide that originated her desperation. The house is claiming for help too, when Momma stomps both feet on the floor, the dining table jiggles, and a picture falls. The floor “begs” to the family:
“What Tucker, what?”
“Gilbert. It’s a grim”.
“What is?”
“The floor.”
I don’t know what to say.
“It’s all changing.” Tucker says. “Your mother is like twice the size of when I last saw her.”
“I know.” (Excerpt from p. 57)
In his comment, Tucker implicitly notices that both Momma and the house are changing. At the end of the novel, Momma tries a final effort and goes upstairs, to her own bedroom, in which she has not been for long years. The huge effort has the prize of reaching the dreams again, or I should say the last dream. Her death make her sons and daughters realize that her body, far behind the Vitruvian proportions, have converted the house in its own prison. Now, the body cannot be separated from the house, unless part of the building is opened and a crane is hired to take the body out. They suddenly decide she does not deserve it.
The metaphor is leading us to the truth. The ruin of the body, is the ruin of the house. When the body dies, the house is burnt down, the body has become part of the ashes, and only memories are kept.

Metaphors: A Creative Design Approach or Theory by ChristineWonoseputro
Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret). The Modulor and Modulor 2. 2 volumes. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2000. Reviewed by Michael J. Ostwald
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. The classic look at how we experience intimate spaces. USA. 1994
Hedges, Peter. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. New York, 1994
Safe Creative #0910274774364

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Air Architecture" and Social Reform Through Immateriality

The Baron in the trees.

In the early 50’s it started an interest in the regulation of society by artistic means. When Abstract Expressionism research was exhausted, artists began experiencing with materials. The collage methodology was a philosophical step, textures were something that artists created, collage had a plus value, the “ready made” things, the objects associated with environment, that were the central innovation of Dada. Assemblage was also the way to show feelings of disenchantment with international abstraction. It provided the starting point for two concepts that were fundamental to artists: environment and the Happening.

In Europe, an equivalent of the American Neo-Dadaists was the New Realism, which major personality was the French artist Yves Klein (1928–1962). He was important for what he did –the symbolic value of his actions- rather for what he made. (E. Lucie Smith, p. 123). This period of the 60’s was marked by an artistic and architectural experimentation as a challenge of the “systems thinking” enlightened by a postwar cybernetic thought and military operations, where people and machines were part of information processes systems. In time, the artistic practices developed into the theory of dematerialization. The theory involved a re-evaluation of the Modern Movement planning ideas predicated by the Team X. The set of practices were beyond disciplinary boundaries, they all had in common a concern for environment and immateriality. In this realm, Italo Calvino writes “The Baron in the Trees”, the fictitious story of a 12 years old Italian nobleman Cosimo Piavosco di Rondo who decided to live the rest of his life on the trees and never set foot on the ground again, in protest against his family and society in general. The story could be analyzed on a number of points of view, as a romantic story, environmental, sociological, and in questioning the role of man and the community.
Immateriality is also a political critique. Society was to be changed, and architecture was part of this. If for the Team X architecture and machines were on top of men, the relationship had to be reversed. The change would develop from society’s internal processes and architecture and planning would be submitted to them. The consequence of this idea was a tendency to give primacy to program, that is, use and events supplanted the architectural form as the soul of design. The extreme was that no architect would be involved in designing projects, only artists, musicians and engineers. The spatial experience would be made up of sound, light, mist and reflections. The designers’ job would be relegated to build the hardware to regulate the intensities of flow within systems. Architecture was a form of life support that could not impede human interaction. In this context, immateriality was the ideal state of architecture.

Fire Column and Fire Wall installed in the garden of Mies van der Rohe's Lange House in Krefeld, Germany in a still from the 1961 color, silent film Monochrome and Fire. From

“Air Architecture” was Yves Klein’s concept of an immaterial architecture, made of ephemeral elements of nature, such as air, fire and water. It was the symbol of materiality liberation, humans would have complete access to the space of Universe.
In 1957 Klein began to design schemes of buildings and cities inspired by ancient Islamic palaces with pavilions, fountains, sky; the exhibitions included films, drawings, plans, construction details, installations. He was working along with architects Claude Parent and Werner Ruhnau. Engagement with climate was at the beginning of the design: walls of fire were proposed for cooler northen climates and walls of water for the south; shelters were shells of moving air, providing protection from rain, which could be blown away before it landed.

Air Architecture by Y. Klein.

Air Architecture by Y. Klein.

This Utopian habitat was like a legendary Eden where people would be in direct contact with Earth and the elements; privacy was not important; everyone could live outdoor without partition rooms, using air made invisible furniture; the bathrooms, kitchens, closets, storages, were in underground quarters. This concept of Eden was rooted in Klein’s formation. He was a jazz musician, a Rosicrucian and a judo expert. In Judo, the opponents are regarded as collaborators and this notion is underlying in his projects. His work is also influenced by Zen concepts, what he described as “the void”. It is like a nirvana state void of worldly influences, a zone where attention is only paid to sensibilities, and to reality as opposed to representation. The artistic resolution for Zen was his adoption of unorthodox methods, the objects were not represented in standard artistic ways, Klein wanted his objects (let us say subjects) to be represented by their imprint. At his directions, women smeared with blue paint and flung themselves on to canvas spread on the floor while musicians played Klein’s monotone symphony , a single not played for ten minutes which alternated with ten minutes of silence (the void, the negative space). That was a public ceremony, a prelude to the Happenings manifestations, recorded in the film Mondo Cane. These actions have a poetic-philosophical-metaphysical meaning that was absent from the more elaborate Happenings in New York. His audience could simultaneously “feel” and “understand” the ideas in a new sensibility of space.

Happening by Y. Klein.

Since 2004, his provocative projects are exhibited once again in museums, together with the work of the Italian Superstudio, in a revival of immateriality and the absence of objects in arts and architecture.

Lucie-Smith Edward. Movements in art since 1945. Issues and Concepts. 1995. London.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stories About Appropriate Technology

Let us briefly describe first what appropriate technology (AT) is. It is technology that has been designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community it is intended for. Typically, it required fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment, compared to industrialized practices (from This definition implies the design of experts in research departments, but some people, -mostly in the Third World- can invent, create and contribute to this technological concept much more than experts do. That is because they understand their needs, they deal with them everyday and know exactly how to prioritize them, at least in the small scale at the local level.

When I was reading Robert C. Wicklein’s conference about Appropriate Technologies (see reference below) I remembered a conversation that I had with my friend and colleague architect Rodolfo Rotondaro, a couple of years ago.
Wicklein makes a list of criteria to judge appropriate technology. Item 2 is “Image of Modernity”, he refers to the citizens of many developing and industrialized countries who, in his criteria, want to perceive themselves as modern and progressive. And he follows “There is an innate desire within most of humankind to feel important and be perceived as worthwhile. It follows, therefore, that an image of being modern is important to the success of any technology”. It looks to me that he mentions item 2 as a sinequanon condition for AT.
Coming back to my conversation with Rodolfo, who is an expert in earthen architecture, he told me that he has seen a very interesting case in the North of Argentina, of a wino living alone (he said “borrachin”) whose main technology in the solitude of the arid North was his own bottles. He had developed a kind of structural system of connection between the walls (I believe they were mud walls) and the wood roof rafters in his shack dwelling using the bottles in a horizontal position, one next to the other. Architect researchers proved that his solution was great, specially for thermal insulation. Then, he explained to me that in some cases, the government provide houses “chalet” style to the indigenous people in the North, what he saw as very inappropriate, people felt uncomfortable in the new dwellings, they kept on living in their old impoverished dwellings and rented the “chalets” to other neighbors. As we can see, the image of “modernity” is not an universal condition.
The technology and cultural critic Neil Postman stated that new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups, statement that I find applicable to Rodolfo’s story about “chalets”: the government gained in politic propaganda, but people were not really helped in their needs.

“Tire building is an alternative construction technique that uses discarded tires and dirt as building materials. The tires are filled with dirt found on the property and then stacked to form walls” from

Tire house.

Cultural attributes play a substantial role in providing human satisfaction of needs. The appropriate technology has to be also adequate for people’s culture, knowledge, and most important, they have to accept it!.
I have another culture related story, this time coming from architect Victor Pelli (Cesar’s brother) in a course at Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism of Buenos Aires. He was showing slides to a large public of architects, of interesting wooden structures for domes that his group had thought would be the appropriate technology for roofs in some houses in El Chaco, Argentina. He told us his group built one as a test, there was no technical issue, and (as far as I remember), they prepared more domes structures and left the inhabitants to continue. The inhabitants not only despised the domes, but also dismanteled the ones ready to be located on the houses. When a perplexed Victor asked the reason of this behavior, local inhabitants said they thought these domes had the shape of “feminine breasts” (Well, maybe they did not use these literal words…). The story was terribly funny for us, the listeners, but it was an excellent lesson and I will never forget the moral.
“The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost.” (Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change)

Floating classroom in Entre Rios, North of Argentina. Designed for flooded areas, to attend the necessities of children that could not go to school due to floods. Isn't it a case of appropriate technology, though they are not trying to be modern? Web download


Clifford, Michael J. Appropriate Technology: The Poetry of Science. In Science and Christian Belief, Vol 17, No1. 2005
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, New York: Vintage Books (1993).
Wicklein, Robert C. Design Criteria for Sustainable Development in Appropriate Technology: Technology as if People Matter. The University of Georgia, USA.
Neil Postman online articles


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