arch-peace editorials

19 May 2012

Bonjour Paris or Salaam Bombay?

As the summer approaches, the recruiting of architecture students to travel 'n learn programs in Europe intensifies.

As someone who, in every opportunity, pitches to directors of such programs that we should take the students to “other”, mainly east or south of the border places, I categorically get rejected as if offering dangerous dissent. To take the students away from the Eurocentric and highly developed world routes to far away places like African countries, culturally alien environments in Central Asia, India, Middle East and more overlooked places of architectural importance is not nearly as popular as leading a paid working/teaching vacation in the civilized world of European ancestry. The places to learn in this century, somewhat erroneously, do not include tougher locations.

Instead, sex and drugs and rock 'n roll in Rome, Greek Islands, Barcelona, London, Paris and other places of high end technology and Nordic cradles of civilizations usually take a priority. Of course, China is not to be missed since it is a place where the jobs are for the new graduates, even though soon it will be where the jobs “were” to the young architects similar to Dubai excursions which now dwindled and bad mouthing it, is already a norm.

All so familiar with giddy shots of backpacking, on the road feel of European rail systems, hand sketching and frolicking love affairs, these rooted and established summer travel study programs stand to preserve and protect the western foundations of cultural growth and sense of architecture and urban design. These travels guard and monopolize architecture as if it was invented by the northern hemisphere's highly evolved people who come on top in every calculation regarding civility and arts. Peek into the polished urbanism and architecture for the summer if you will.

On the other hand and however random, the travels to less beaten paths usually center on how to deal with extreme poverty, how to help to Africa and feel good, understanding the other and knowing about exotic architecture first hand. Perhaps, unknowingly feeding the colonialist mind set.

As we mention more and more that 21st century will be the century of rising sea levels, depletion of energy resources and century of urban nature, we still think the solution to these problems are once again will be produced by our far superior technological society as if we know these things better.
We don't.

Recently in a well attended conference on hydrology, I witnessed how terrified the attendees were when thinking about the possibility of losing backyard greenery due to scarcity of irrigation water. As someone who grew up with municipal water rationing and revolving cut offs and ad-hoc ways of storing water for daily use, I was stunned by the helplessness of the scholars who talked about water rationing as if it was the end of the world and in denial. The conversation quickly turned into an all optimistic gaze into the future and miraculously our luxurious western lifestyles were saved and even more improved by reducing our tens of gallons per day water usage only by few!

Conveniently the doomsday scenarios were attributed to the pessimistic cynical thinkers.
Do gooding and optimism won, people clapped and there was a race to the wine bar and imported cheese.

It showed me why we were resistant to look into know-how of less than wealthy and “unimproved” geographies and travel to their cities to learn their ways of dealing with diminished and scarce resources.

We don't believe in the urgency. We don't think we have things to learn from poverty. We don't see architecture in it and we don't send our students to learn from them. We still think the solutions to dire problems will be produced by making handmade sketches of Parthenon, visiting and photographing Maxxi Museum in Italy, knowing the floor plan of a Swiss mountain town and trekking in Norway during the summer.

Instead, we need to learn how to wash our bodies with one gallon (3.7 liters) of water, not drive but walk in our cities, waste less and reduce our rubbish exports, learn to live in smaller places with fewer light bulbs and humble up. We need to learn a lot of how to's from the third world scholars and invite them to our schools to show us. We certainly could use more manual lifestyles and handmade architecture and our cities can learn to be more organic. We need to find out how they manage with precious little resources.

Living with less requires know how which we desperately need to know better.

Orhan Ayyuce, Los Angeles
Architects for Peace, May 2012


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