Thursday, November 26, 2015

Marco Casagrande: Architecture must be pliant and weak like a willow

Published in the MAJA Estonian architectural review 3-2015

Finnish architect and environmental artist Marco Casagrande participated in Tallinn Architecture Biennale with his experimental project "Paracity". A few months before the biennale he had a conversation with the chairman of Estonian Centre of Architecture Raul Järg.

At first I would like to ask you about the beginning of your career. You said that the architect inside you committed hara-kiri. How did you become an environmental artist?

During my studies I had built so much belief in architecture that I somehow could not separate the idea of architecture and the architect. I saw them as one thing. When we set up the office and started working with clients, I thought that everybody would have the same idea about architecture – how great architecture is and how much it has to offer. I thought that the client would be totally aware of this and that they would come to have an architect help them with the processes so that these ideas could become true. But it was not like that at all. The clients were used to thinking that the architect is a tool, the guy who gets the permission, who makes the city allow them to do what they want to do. But that has nothing to do with architecture. They call it development, but usually it’s a kind of building pollution. Architects work together with money and so this bad development happens. And we were part of that. I started feeling sick of betraying my own dreams and beliefs so fast that in half a year I had become everything I always hated and then I wanted to kill this person.

How did you do it?

Now looking back it seems that I never lost my belief in architecture but only in the architect. Together with my friend Sami Rintala, with whom I was working at that time, we decided that we will do it in a very graceful way, honoring the big idea of architecture. In Japan this kind of suicide is called hara-kiri. So we tried to commit architectural hara-kiri. We put the little money that we owned into one project and decided that in this case there will be nobody else telling us what to do. We had to be the client to ourselves, make the design, get the permission and build it. Step by step we completed our first big architectural scale landscape installation in Savonlinna. It is amazing how much people believed in us. The construction workers were our friends; they volunteered to come in for weeks. The city gave permission immediately. There was no business, no speculations – people just helped us. It touched them and that was a big surprise for us. Then we did this big work and actually burnt it at the end – which was the hara-kiri. I guess some sort of honesty was so much around that this started our career.

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

You started to get invitations from different places.

Yes, and from places we were not even aware of. And that there were other layers in the architectural world, like biennales, magazines, some organizations that were actually working with the core of architecture. And it is pretty much the same idea we had in university.

You have done very different kinds of projects and art projects. What would you like to bring out yourself?

I have done maybe about 70 projects since 1999. Many of them are just opportunities that arose somewhere. Most of the cases are not financed. Those aren’t commissions in a sense that you are invited, how many square meters are needed, what is the budget and time-frame. They are more like opportunities where something good can be done. Sometimes I see an opportunity and have to find a client for myself – make someone else see this opportunity. Sometimes it’s like a Trojan horse – I’m doing something for the client, who is maybe even paying for it and getting what he wants, but besides that I’m doing something else too and that’s the real work. Sometimes the strategy works two ways. If the city doesn’t want to risk too much and commission me to do the real work, they ask me to do something else. And they know that I’m doing the "real" work too. If it becomes politically too risky for them, they will talk about only the work that they commissioned. But when the "real" work becomes good, they focus on it. Like in Treasure Hill.

Can you tell me some more about this project?

With Treasure Hill, I realized how windy the power structures are. Reality is total and it cannot be speculated. But when you deal with fictional power, it is always based on speculations. The city government had started destroying Treasure Hill, but when we started the counteraction and gained so much publicity that it started to gain political momentum, the same politicians changed completely. They saw that they can use it for their own good. If at the beginning they were 100% against Treasure Hill and wanted to destroy it, then after 3 weeks they forgot this completely. Before I used to think that destruction and construction are on opposite sides of an axis, but it’s more like a circle that is made up of both destruction and construction.

Treasure Hill in Taipei

Was the name of the place also Treasure Hill before?

Yes, it was Treasure Hill. It used to be an anti-aircraft position for the Japanese army. After WW II, when Kuomintang was retreating from mainland China to Taiwan, they took over the Japanese army positions and Treasure Hill was one of those. When Kuomintang’s soldiers came to Treasure Hill there had already been civil war in China for 25 years. It’s a very long time. Then they came there, put up their anti-aircraft guns and were waiting for the Maoist planes from mainland China that never came. So it was boring. Then they started to find wives in Taiwan, got married and had children. The wives started complaining that living in the bunkers was ridiculous. So they started to decorate the bunkers and build houses on top of the bunkers. They became homes and when at some point Kuomintang said that Treasure Hill had lost its strategic value and they must move somewhere else, the soldiers refused. Treasure Hill became a slum, an unofficial settlement of soldiers and their families.
Fast constructed steps in Treasure Hill, Marco Casagrande - Hsieh Ying-Chun, 2003.
At one point the officials wanted to demolish the site.

Yes, in 2002 they started the demolition and in 2003 I was in Taiwan and started to stop it.

At the end of the day it became like a tourist attraction.

Yes, that’s a shame. I had a very idealistic view of it. The Treasure Hill community was old – 80 year-old war veterans. On one hand, it was a wonderful 3-dimensional settlement without any cars. But actually it needed quite a lot of physical effort to use it – carrying the water to the hill and the garbage down. There were many empty houses because people moved away or died. So I thought that for the continuity of Treasure Hill and this very nice community way of living they need a new plan. The empty houses can be used by students or artists and they don’t have to pay rent but instead serve the old people. That was the idea. When they started moving in, it turned out different. They got so much attention, because great artists were there. The focus shifted from Treasure Hill’s original community to the new community. It gave a totally new vibe to the place and in the eyes of the official city it was so sexy so they changed step-by-step the whole of Treasure Hill into a place for artists. And then the original community died.

But maybe it gave new life to it anyway?

Yeah, the officials probably think of it that way. And it is true that the old community was so old that they died naturally. But the continuity became something different, now it’s fully artistic.

It’s not only this place where artists have taken over.

Yeah, it’s kind of a normal thing to happen, I guess.

Community garden in Treasure Hill.
Let’s talk about your recent idea – Paracity. Tell me the story behind it.

Paracity was born because of Treasure Hill. After Treasure Hill I got a professorship in Taiwan for 5 years, and then I was researching all kinds of settlements and local knowledge and getting deeper into that. The city government and the JUT developers at some point asked me to think about the potential for building floodplains on the Taipei river systems. When typhoons are coming the rivers rise a lot. There is a lot of land that is not developed. And on the other hand, the city is totally disconnected from the river environment. They wanted me to think about structures that could both develop these river bank areas and floodplains in an ecological way but also reconnect the city with the river. It was kind of no man’s land we were operating with: an island – 1 km long and 300 metres wide – that always disappears when the river is flooded so there are no houses. The city wanted us to make an urban structure there for 15,000 to 25,000 people. From the beginning I wanted to do a modular platform for people to actually build their own homes. In Taiwan there is a really high number of illegal buildings and illegal building extensions. People take it for granted that if they get an apartment house and it’s 5 floors, for sure they can build 2 floors more just by themselves. The facades become humorous. So it’s always been. It’s the same thing with the unofficial communities, they are fantastic – totally self-built and self-organized. So I thought that I wouldn’t even try to do a city that is ready or totally controlled. Like in Treasure Hill, people will come and start building their homes, and communities will start coming organically.

Paracity at the Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2015. 
The idea was very simple – we need to develop the primary structure of the city, kind of a scaffolding, where people can attach their communities. At the beginning I was thinking of steel because I admire the high-rise buildings in Taiwan when they are under construction: steel frames look really good and full of potential, but when the building is ready, it gets boring. Later I found out about this material CLT – cross laminated timber, and I got really interested in that because it would be ever more ecological if we could take this kind of wood from the Northern forest. In 2014 they opened the first CLT factory in Finland, so now we can get the material there. Now Paracity is a wooden structure. The dimensions of each module is 6x6x6 m and then put cubes on top of each other to make a village or a city. The wood element is 50 cm thick, which means it burns slowly. The charcoal surfaces take such a long time for the wood to burn so that it’s more or less fireproof and it has also excellent earthquake performance.

Ruin Academy in Taipei
In what phase are you with this project?

I hope it’s going to be built. Taipei is the first case study and we start building earliest in 2016. Another interesting pile of projects has come from North Fukushima in Japan. I’m going there to see three different sites they are considering a Paracity to be built in the tsunami area. Then there are other calls from Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro and interestingly from Pakistan. But nothing is built yet. One to one scale we have already built one module in Finland to test how fast it is going to come together and that the wooden joints are working and so on. In Tallinn we are doing 15 modules. It will be the first in the biennale to serve the Paracity idea, but it will certainly have an afterlife, become a permanent structure for something.

So it’s a kind of platform for people to construct their own houses on.

My ideal is for it to become a slum but in a way that it’s both ecologically okay and healthy. To make that happen we have to put some environmental technology inside. Paracity becomes "positive cancer" in the city – receives the leftovers from the city, treat them and turn them into resources. Just what slums are actually doing right now. But we make it more efficient and for that the environmental technology is needed. We are just copying how the unofficial settlements are already living or how slums live in symbiosis with the city.

I studied for quite a long time a chain of slums with 700,000 people in Mumbai, settled along the river. There the waste that can be treated, turned into resources, but all the rest gets dumped into the river. Then they wait for the monsoon and it becomes like flushing the toilet of the city. But in Paracity we don’t have to flush the toilet.

Nikita sleeping at Ruin Academy. 
Those concepts are more for cities in the East, or can they also be used for Northern or Western cities?

These concepts can also apply to Western cities. When you think of the method of Paracity, it is like urban acupuncture. Even in the West cities are a source of pollution. Small-scale interventions could also start affecting the cumulative development in Western cities. The biggest environmental questions are still in regard to emerging cities. In the West, the urbanization has already happened, but if you look at other places this is on a scale that it has never existed before. So Paracity could live together with the emerging city and act as the buffer zone.

Vegetable garden, Ruin Academy
This concept is connected with your idea of third generation cities.

I have made it very simple in my thinking. A first generation city is totally based on nature. A second generation city is an industrial city. A third generation city would be kind of a ruin of the industrial city. Identifying how an industrial city can become an organic machine. Ruin for me is when something manmade has become part of nature. In architecture it happens actually quite easily if you lose enough human control. On an urban scale the question is even more interesting. Paracity is kind of a method for ruining the industrial city. I would like it to grow into an industrial city from these acupuncture points and then start ruining the industrial city. And when this nowadays industrial core and these new organic layers find a certain balance, that is the third generation city.

Is that why you named one of your projects Ruin academy?

In Tamkang University I was studying the phenomenon of ruins and doing research on how nature is reading architecture. Then it just opened up more and more. Taiwan is easy because nature is so fast. There are trees that are growing on steps. Nature uses the man-made structures. I felt that I would like to move into a ruin and live there for a longer time, in order to have time to adjust my needs. So I informed the Tamkang University professor Chen who is the dean of the architectural department. We went to meet Mister Lee, who owns a small place half an hour from the university. There’s a river valley and rice farming. They had clean water coming from the mountains so they could make tea, a tea factory. But at one point it had burned so there was no roof, just the ruins. Also the rice factory was ruined.

Ground floor, Ruin Academy
I chose the rice factory, the tea factory I left for the students. So I didn’t go to the school any more but the students came there. First I had to decide where I can put my bed, but since there was no roof, I had to make it. And when I was building the roof I saw that below me there was a plant and it was growing there because there was no roof. So I fixed not all the roof, but kept a hole for the plant. Soon I took my wife Nikita there and then we stayed there for a couple of nights and finally she moved in too. Then I had to make ways to clean ourselves – there is a small river, so I can have cold water, but how to make hot water? How to make food? Like a civilization. It was of course very primitive but we stayed there. It was functional. I made the students live in the tea factory, not always, but they had to make shelters for themselves.

Penetrations, Ruin Academy
How long did you stay in the ruins?

One year, maybe a bit more.
In many cases rumors are powerful. The whole valley knew what I was doing. The rumors spread along the river so that one farmer from upstream came to me and said that we know why you are here and what you’re doing, so can you design us the house – we want to live in the ruin too. And I designed them the Chen house. It’s a designed ruin. After the Chen house one developer asked if I know some ruins in Taipei city and step by step it became a Ruin Academy.

I remember you once described the house as a boat.

Yes, the Chen House was also like that. It is like you have a site and it’s not just putting the building there but you somehow have to sail the building. You have to know where the big winds are coming from and how it’s changing. Also you find some natural shelters. So you consider these natural conditions and you sail this ship to the harbor.

Chen House at the Datun Mountains of Taiwan
In the beginning you talked about how you wanted to kill the architect, but the architect inside you is now reborn, you are getting commissions and real projects. So did you make the space around you, so the issues that bothered you before, are actual now?

No, they are not addressed so much any more. I’m getting a little bit freer. More and more people are starting to make apartment buildings out of wood. If I were making them out of concrete it would be a different story. Now everything out of the forest comes into the city.

You are working on "real" projects again.

Yes, we are doing quite large-scale CLT wooden apartment buildings in Finland.

Bathroom, Chen House
There are not many environmental artists in Finland.

No, but I think that architecture is an environmental art.

Let's finish the talk with another project. Did the Sandworm work come after the Ruin Academy? How did this idea come to your mind?

In 2009 I was working in Shenzhen with a project called Bug Dome. There I built a similar kind of structure out of bamboo. The migrating workers came from Guanxi province and I was asking them about their local knowledge. They said that they can do anything out of bamboo. You need just bamboo, water and fire. Then I improvised this building called Bug Dome. It’s very similar to the later one. Then I got an invitation from Belgium and I went to the site and I found that they are using willow a lot. Willow structures for canals are their local knowledge. Then I turned it upside down – used it above the ground.

It was a nice story, how people started to use it in different ways.

Yes, that is also something that quite often happens. You say form follows function. But I didn’t want to follow any function. The dunes are always the same shape because of the wind, so there already existed an architecture. This was actually just copying one dune.

But people afterwards find the function.

Yes, they called it the 'willow cathedral'. Some people got married there, kids were playing, there were a lot of picnics – like they would use the beach anyhow. It was not an interior or exterior space, but just a space. It was still a beach.

Sandworm at the Wenduine dunes, Belgium.
It was there only for one summer. Are most of your artistic projects temporary?

Quite often yes. Some stay, but many of them are not even meant to stay.

Temporary is an interesting quality. It seems to allow architecture much more freedom and psyche than a totally controlled, a totally fixed building. Tarkovsky’s Stalker says that strength is death’s companion – whatever comes stiff and strong will die. In this sense architecture must be pliant and weak, like a willow. It doesn’t help much if you are meant to “last forever”, but you are dead from the beginning.

For example cities are alive, they are collective human organism and also expressions of collective mind. But we treat them as something designed, regulated and controlled – expressions of mechanical human control, industrial laziness. This is a fundamental mistake and the source of stress and pollution.  As architects, we don´t know how to negotiate with the collective mind, and we definitely don’t try – we are cheap. We have shifted away from nature, including human nature. We have become pollution, death’s companions…


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James Horner said...

Such a interesting arcitechtures, truly loved them.
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