Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Open City has a gate...

Last year I participated in an international competition with Professor Rene Davids at UC Berkeley that was sited in Valparaiso, Chile. In a lucky stroke of fate we ended up winning and as I had never actually been to see the site, a pit stop was very much in order. Valparaiso was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in order to preserve the ascensores, cable cars that run directly up the steep hillside, as well as the vibrant culture of the city. Our proposal dealt with creating an economic and spatial stimulus in the city through the creation of "plug in pavilions", inflatable public spaces giving away free energy powered by wind kites in the hills. Going to the actual city in person, I'm still unsure of how the intervention would be taken by the inhabitants, but suffice to say I would like to see the little inflatable pavilions dotting the hillside.

While staying at "Hostal Caracol" in Valparaiso I ran into an incredibly interesting family from Cape Town, South Africa that was meeting up with more family members to travel around Chile and Argentina for close to a month. I only mention this occurrence because its going to come up later in another blog, which is called foreshadowing. After climbing the ultra steep stairs and back alleys of the city for a day or two, I was only slightly being passed by old ladies carrying heavy grocery bags with legs the size of small tree trunks. The city is one large stairmaster machine, and this is coming from someone who is no stranger to the terrain of San Francisco, California.

From my professor Rene I had found out about a place about an hour by bus North of Valparaiso called "Ciudad Abierta" or "The Open City" in English. Ciudad Abierta was started back in the 70's by a group of poets, artists, and architects with Utopian ideals to create an atmosphere outside of the stifling constraints of Santiago. The "city" is not truly a city in the normal definition of the word, nor is it completely "open" by physical standards. It is comprised currently of about 10 family residences and an equal number of public pavilions/meeting areas, closed in by gates and fences and broken up into two distinct sections on opposite sides of a busy highway. The property of Ciudad Abierta is right on the water and comprised of about 270 hectacres, or 670 acres. Many of the buildings there are built in the sandy dunes nearby, creating a constantly moving and shifting site.

One of the houses there, nicknamed the "Dune House" [or it is now anyway] is constructed completely within the dunes, prone to high winds and the removal of the very foundation it is built on. Also did I mention that it is in an earthquake sensitive region? The only thing that could make it a more challenging site to build on would be if an giant mutant moth started coming over the sand hills breathing fire. Slight exaggeration? Possibly. But the site necessitated a re-thinking of how to construct the house, and therefore how to design it. In order to allow for the wind taking away a majority of the sand that the building would be resting on, they started to experiment with a "floating foundation" system recently made more well known by the Canadian architect Mark West. West uses fabric instead of wood or steel for the formwork, allowing the concrete structure to bulb out where more strength is needed instead of a continuous section. For the dune house, concrete piles were cast down 2 meters or more in certain locations, but the majority of the foundation of the new addition is raised above the sand, being cast in strong fabric held in tension to allow the sand and wind to dig out underneath the beams instead of trying to fight the constant movement.

In order to account for the earthquake activity, the house has a completely suspended steel structure with many different joints to allow movement. If you stripped the skin of the building away, the hanging members would wobble something akin to a series of chains hanging from a ceiling. Indeed as it was being built, the main structure was put in place first and way only slightly stabilized once the floor was installed to give it a slight amount of rigidity. From the outside the dune house calls to mind the bleached carcass of a large animal that died from exhaustion while within site of the ocean. The wooden structure visually mimics bones, appearing to be ribs, though in reality, the houses are built in stages over the course of many years. Mainly from a financial point of view, the buildings many times start with a core element and then branch out from there as funds and more family members increase. In the case of the dune house, there are three distinct stages of ongoing construction. One being the main house that the family lives, the next is the open superstructure that is in the process of being expanded to a floating outdoor living area, and the final one is still in the initial stages of foundation being poured.

At Ciudad Abierta, the process of design is unable to be separated from construction, as they exist simultaneously usually. Rarely are anything resembling construction documents done, and the students that are the majority of construction force each take on different pieces of the project to make their own and elaborate on. No one technically owns the land that they build on, it is all managed through a corporation and all inhabitants meet together a few times a week to discuss future plans and how the construction of different projects are coming along. More to come on the Open City, as there is not enough time in the year to write down all of the fascinating occurrences or webspace enough to post all of the pictures of the incredible structures. They defy sketching and any attempts to think of how you would draw them makes your mind freeze up. I believe they are able to achieve such astounding complexity through the continual construction process, and not having it all planned out before. They start with an initial scheme and focus, and evolve continuously through that. Scattered all around the city are projects that pushed the limits too far, and therefore had pieces chipped off or incomplete. But the magic of the place exists for this very reason as well, for every "failure" there are 50 other locations where material exploration changes 8 times over the course of several feet. It seems to be in a constant state of renewal, never happy to look at a detail the same way again. Many of the materials are left over from other projects or donated, and students will grab whatever at hand to accomplish their goals.

The best example of this I can think of is when to get reception for a very high stakes futbol game, a few of the students living in a place called "the cells" started lashing together bamboo poles to create a makeshift antennae. Then brought over some bricks from a nearby pile to stabilize it, and presto, we're watching color TV! You get the feeling that many of the inventions started from this very functional perspective, and were infused with art through the process of making. All this writing and I haven't even gotten to my gracious host of Ciudad Abierta, Ivan! Stay tuned for the Adventures of Ivan and the Open City soon!

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