Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ruin Academy - Casagrande Lab

Ariane Lourie Harrison, Yale School of Architecture

Third floor, professor's deck, Ruin Academy

Conceptualized and constructed by the Finnish architect Marco Casagrande and his collaborators in C-Lab, the Ruin Academy in Taipei is an independent architectural research institution and an unusual public space for cross-disciplinary exchanges. Its title both describes the lodging of an institution within an abandoned shell of a building, and is a metaphor for the projected ruin of the fortified mentality of academia. Gathering many disciplines around the ecological needs of the rapidly changing city of Taipei, Ruin Academy advances a projective idea of the ruin as the anticipated demise of hermetic thinking. The urban ruin recalls Gilles Clément’s description of the third landscape, a marginal or waste-space resulting from industrial use. Abandoned urban space can harbor biological diversity and political value in that it lies outside, if only temporarily, of the city's financial regime. The materiality and metaphor of the garden situated at the urban margins drives C-Lab’s Ruin Academy design. This case study will examine several of C-Lab’s key terms—the anarchist gardener, urban compost, and the third-generation city—to frame Ruin Academy’s posthuman design and ecological sensibility within the environmental politics delineated by Erik Swyngedouw and Gilles Clément.

Ground floor, Ruin Academy.

Anarchist Gardener
A term devised to align the anarchist’s revolutionary urgency with the gardener’s ethos of careful cultivation, the figure of the anarchist gardener has multiple figurations in C-Lab’s work: the name of the Ruin Academy’s newspaper; the title of a series of C-Lab’s architectonic interventions in Taipei and San Juan, Puerto Rico; a character within C-Lab’s performative design installations. In each case, the anarchist gardener manifests the political and ecological bias in C-Lab’s approach to the built environment.

This colorful figure originated from C-Lab’s close analysis of the Taipei basin: observing that parcels of the Danshui, Xindien and Keelong River flood-banks were being farmed informally (and perhaps illegally) by elderly women, C-Lab appropriated such “Grandmother-dominated community gardens” as a model to define a range of practices that engage urban ecology and operate outside of social conventions, and that hence take on an “anarchist” quality.[1] During urban research workshops undertaken with the National Taiwan University Department of Sociology, C-Lab discovered that these informal plots and community farming traditions overlapped with older formats of land ownership in the city, suggesting that the anarchist gardener recovers a history of land-use patterns around Taipei’s rivers. C-Lab's adoption “anarchist” draws on the counter-cultural overtones rather than the politics of violence of the term: sites for the “anarchist gardener” include urban farms, spontaneous zen gardens, and other marginal spaces in the city.[2]

A similar insight led to the “Anarchist Gardener” installations in San Juan for the Puerto Rico Biennial in 2002. In this instance, Casagrande himself personifies the character of the anarchist gardener, leading a six-hour pedestrian procession from San Juan’s suburbs to its city center. Casagrande's “anarchist gardener” in this instance disrupted urban flows. The procession created twelve spontaneous “CityZEN gardens,” protesting the erosion of pedestrian space by the city’s dominant car culture. Each CityZEN garden, composed from industrial waste materials, adopted the size and shape of an automobile’s parking space to mark the citizen’s resistance to the total industrialization of the city.

As a broadsheet, the Anarchist Gardener demonstrates the range of C-Lab collaborations in Taipei: the River Urbanism workshop blends sociology, civil engineering, and agriculture in working to return the river’s edge to its formerly productive ecosystem; the Urban Acupuncture workshop produces small-scale but socially catalytic interventions into Taipei’s fabric; and the Urban Compost research engages the metaphor and reality of industrial detritus as potential building material.

Ground floor, Ruin Academy.

Architectural Activism
Casagrande’s urban development proposal for Taipei’s Treasure Hill (2003) exemplifies the extent to which performative strategies inform his understanding of architectural activism. Treasure Hill is an urban squatter settlement perched on the Guan-Yin hillside of southwest Taipei, bounded by the Hsin-Dian river and characterized by improvised tiers of terraced dwellings which contrast sharply with the orderly high rises of cosmopolitan Taipei. Settled largely by immigrants and retired veterans, this zone of Taipei has been targeted for demolition to make way for a new urban park. Commissioned by the municipal government to propose an ecological masterplan for the area, Casagrande found that that this settlement, perhaps because of its illegal and marginal status, has evolved organically to operate according to an ecological model: recycling and filtering grey water, using minimal amounts of electricity (“stolen” from the city grid), composting organic waste, and repurposing Taipei’s waste. Casagrande relates his experiences of working on the site:

For the ecological urban laboratory I had to do nothing, it was already there. What I did was to construct wooden stairways and connections between the destroyed houses and some shelters for the old residents to play mah-jong and ping-pong.[3]

Going beyond the masterplan, Casagrande chose to protest Treasure Hill's demolition and instead to demonstrate the area’s potential as an “environmental art work.” He argued that Treasure Hill served as the “attic” of Taipei, containing the urban memory of pre-industrial modes of inhabitation, and that the “attic” contents should be displayed in a manner that was accessible to contemporary Taipei. The ideas for display ranged from a free flea market of scavenged objects to night-time street theater, featuring Casagrande in salvaged veteran’s clothing, torchlit and animating the ruins of the riverfront homes already partially destroyed by city mandate. Casagrande advocated also that Treasure Hill also be understood as a preserve for matriarchical social structure and “squatter self-sufficiency.” Together these two qualities immanent in the site comprised what Casagrande identified as a localized ecological knowledge.[4]

Casagrande staged a second street performance bringing the “memory theater” into central Taipei as an architectonic installation: steel scaffolds bearing an array of plants and books contributed by Treasure Hill dwellers were wheeled into the city center. This display instigated a barter-like exchange with city bookstores: trading Treasure Hill “memories” for books. That this exchange operates according to barter principles renders the performance work consistent with the vision of the ecological economy described by Clement in “The Emergent Alternative”:

Perhaps it is time to think about what will, almost mechanically, best accommodate an ecological regime for the planet. Asking what form tomorrow's currency would take is not asking which currency will dominate (the dollar, the euro, the yen, the euro-yen!) but rather it involves asking ‘what philosophy of exchange and sharing is required for the survival of humanity on this planet?[5]

Clement's proposition that ecology represents an alternative material economy, one that draws on the economic theories of Bernard Lietaer and Alain Lipietz, implies that the ecological (post-human) perspective describes a political project. C-Lab's Treasure Hill intervention offers a critique of profit-driven markets by establishing a non-monetary exchange of urban memory. The roving installation gave voice to the marginalized Treasure Hill community through objects that spoke of the ecological efficiency of this community.

C-Lab’s actual built interventions at Treasure Hill were minimal: stairways, platforms, and bamboo bridges, as well as a water drainage systems and water-filtering gardens.  A scaffold for a new farmers’ market made of bamboo completed C-Lab’s project: a gesture integrating an alternative to profit-driven mechanisms within what Casagrande framed as a paradigm of ecological living. This project, titled Organic Layer Taipei, attracted extensive media attention, an installation at the 2006 Venice Biennale, and sufficient political goodwill from Taipei’s municipal powers to preserve the Treasure Hill settlement, albeit as a cultural site and tourist attraction.

Second floor dormitory, Ruin Academy.

Third Generation City
Casagrande’s intervention at Treasure Hill addresses the concept of the third generation city as an alternative to aggressive urban development;[6] at Ruin Academy, architectural research, workshops and projects also seek to establish the ecological principles of the third generation city. If in Casagrande’s terms, the first generation city refers to modest urban development respecting the topographical and geological constraints of site, and the second generation city is an industrial city that exploits natural resources to drive its expansion, then the third generation city operates on ecological rather than economic imperatives: “the third generation city becomes the organic ruin of the industrial city.” The third generation city is envisaged to be an organic layer that promotes alternative modes of living as well as narratives, or "urban rumors," with the potential to erode the productivist mentality of the industrial city. Existing in the fragmentary organization of which the community gardens managed by "anarchist grandmothers” of Treasures Hill serve as the paradigm, the third generation city mirrors Clement's third landscapes.[7] In Casagrande’s unabashedly utopian conception, we find echoes of a resistance to capitalist regimes described by Clement, who writes of "a global consciousness developed out of environmentalist thought [that] upsets the balance between companies and individuals: a form of mandatory solidarity, inherent to the conditions of life on earth, anchors our minds beyond conventional conflicts of interest."[8]

Clement's theoretical propositions for landscape provide an important conceptual framework for understanding the implications of Casagrande’s third generation city. Clément’s Manifesto of the Third Landscape stresses the alignment of the concept with the Third Estate (the common people as opposed to the nobility or clergy) as an ideal collective. The biological and social diversity implicit in the third landscapes echoes the precepts of the third generation city and its informal community gardens, which stand apart from the ordered, industrialized city.  Casagrande locates evidence for this burgeoning sensibility in the informal community gardens that proliferate in Taipei along river flood banks, in abandoned construction sites and other plots of land the ownership of which is complex or unresolved. He notes that these informal gardens may be transient yet may represent decades of urban farming traditions, for example on the island in-between Zhongxiao and Zhongshing bridges. These informal gardens operate outside of official urban planning as the “voids in the urban structure that suck in ad-hoc community actions and present a platform for anarchy through gardening.”[9]

Performative architecture
C-Lab’s architectural creates performative installations out of the tension between urban detritus and the urban grid. In Ruin Academy, a similar performative tension is achieved by playing living organic material against abandoned urban structure. Operating in many ways like a microcosm of the third generation city, Ruin Academy inserts an organic materiality into the very fabric of its building. It is this layering of the organic into the built that drive the architectural performance.

Ruin Academy occupies an abandoned five-story apartment building affiliated with Taiwan’s JUT Foundation for Arts & Architecture and the Aalto University’s SGT Sustainable Global Technologies Center. All of the windows and interior walls have been removed to create an interior space with plentiful natural light to allow vegetation to grow freely within the building. Swathes of living bamboo and taro become the primary spatial dividers. Plant beds with bamboo, taro, Chinese cabbage, passion fruit, Asplenium nidus and ferns line the interior walls. The irrigation infrastructure for this organic layer is simple: six-inch cylindrical apertures puncture the walls, ceilings, and floors, opening the building and allowing rainfall to traverse the building section. The needs of vegetation override the conventions of human comfort, in some sense suggesting that the vegetation's is the primary inhabitant of the structure.

Ruin Academy operates as a metaphorical and physical “hole in the industrial volume;”[10] porosity to the exterior not only services the interior vegetation but also models the program of the space. Programmatic holes include several fireplaces (something of a leitmotif in Casagrande’s work) and a public sauna on the 5th floor. These holes issue different atmospheric materialities—smoke, steam, and moisture.

The section of the building provides the most powerful expression of porosity. Each of the five stories of Ruin Academy contains an element that escapes its built enclosure. The basement ceiling is blown open to permit the growth of olive trees. On the first floor, an open terrace gathers sunlight and emits smoke from its small fireplace. The second story dormitory is dotted with vegetable plots, for which the irrigation system involves rainwater streaming in from punctured walls and ceilings. On the professor’s deck on the third floor bamboo trees to sprout from unglazed windows. The fourth-floor lounge features another fireplace heat from which helps fuel the sauna on the fifth floor, producing a plume of steam that intermingles texturally with the fireplace smoke.  The floor, typically an inert surface in a building, is here refashioned as mahogany bridges, white-pebble zen gardens, light and rainwells, or organic plots: soft and shifting materialities underfoot stimulate the entire body, following a line of enquiry delineated by Architecture Principe in the 1960s. Yet at Ruin Academy, it is organic growth and decay, rather than the oblique surface that best counters the regimented spaces of modernist rectitude and purity.

Following the example of Treasure Hill, the community of Ruin Academy maintains a minimal environmental footprint with rudimentary work and living spaces. “This is academic squatting,” suggests Casagrande. The architect pairs contrasting worldviews, the institutionalizing agenda of academia and the improvisational practice of squatting, to suggest a new avenue for architectural research.[11] Assembling participants from Helsinki University of the Arts and Design, Tamkang University’s architecture department, and Taiwan University’s sociology department, Ruin Academy’s workshops bring an ecological approach to a mapping of the city’s informal activities. In this sense, lodging a constructed nature within an architecture of decay dramatizes the incursion of the organic in the city. Ruin Academy establishes a living fragment of the third generation city that counters the modern spaces produced by global technology and standardized construction methods.

An event-based program at Ruin Academy draws not only on the PR-logic of contemporary art, such as pop-up venues and mediatic urban theater, but also on the interpretation of the city as a platform for informal and impermanent programs—from night-markets and street vendors to karaoke and tai-chi stagings—that animate the city. Casagrande suggests in his texts and extensive internet broadcasting that events tap the collective mind of the city: “Something is going on . . . a whole city can be designed by rumors.”[12] Ruin Academy, in its form and program, embodies a radical approach to ecological living, challenging the architectural discipline to imagine urban inhabitation as a process of intertwined organic systems and historical architectures, accommodating the flux of rains and rivers as well as the city’s changing demographics. Ruin Academy designs a posthuman assemblage shaped by the forces of metabolic urbanization, in Erik Swyngedouw's terms: "Nature and society are in this way combined to form an urban political ecology, a hybrid, an urban cyborg that combines the powers of nature with those of class, gender, and ethnic relations.[13]

Ruin Academy 
Architect: Marco Casagrande and C-Lab
Site: Taipei, Taiwan
Date: 2010-present
Size: 500 square meters, five floors (20 m x 5m)
Program: Educational
Organizer: JUT Foundation for Arts & Architecture

1. Marco Casagrande, Ruin Academy, Anarchist Gardener, vol. 1 2010, 6.
2. Ibid.
3. Marco Casagrande, “Cross-over Architecture and the Third Generation City,” Epifanio 9, 2008), http://www.epifanio.eu/nr9/eng/cross-over.html, (accessed 2/29/2012).
4. Min Jay Kang, “Confronting the Edge of Modern Urbanity – GAPP(Global Artivists Participation Project) at Treasure Hill, Taipei,” paper presented in the Asian Modernity and the Role of Culture Cities, Asian Culture Symposium, Gwangju, Korea, December 4-7, 2005: 7.
5. Gilles Clement "The Emergent Alternative", see Section III of this anthology, 268.
6. Marco Casagrande, “Ultra-Ruin,” October 8, 2007. http://casagrandetext.blogspot.com/2007/10/ultra-ruin.html. (accessed 2/29/2012).
7. Marco Casagrande, "Urban Acupuncture, 2010, http://thirdgenerationcity.pbworks.com/f/urban%20acupuncture.pdf (accessed 2/22/2012)
8. Marco Casagrande, “Taipei Organic Acupuncture,” Anarchist Gardener, Issue 1 (2010): 6.
9. Gilles Clement, "The Alternative Environment", see Section III of this anthology, 263
10. Marco Casagrande, “Ruin Academy,” Epifanio 14 (2011), http://www.epifanio.eu/nr14/eng/ruin_academy.html, (accessed 2/29/2012).
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Erik Swyngedouw, "Metabolic urbanization", see Section II of this anthology, 181.

Text published in the book: 
Edited by Ariane Lourie Harrison
ISBN: 978-0-415-50618-2
Routledge, New York, 2013

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