Wednesday, November 10, 2010

topsy-turviness in a runaway world

Art and architecture at an intersection

"There is a big difference between art and architecture: the scales of involvement of the user. Seeing is not enough. Seeing is mostly an active distance. Looking at art is different from being in architecture."

- Vito Acconci

Sunday, November 7, 2010


A Fine Childhood

The mouth of a girl who had long lain in the reeds
looked so chewed up.
When we broke open the torso, the esophagus was so full of holes.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
we found a nest of young rats.
One little sister rat lay dead.
The others were living off liver and kidney,
drinking the cold blood and enjoying
a fine childhood.
And fine and fast was their death too:
we threw the whole bunch into water.
Oh, how those little snouts squeaked!

Gottfried Benn (translated by Supervert)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

the tourist gaze

Orhan Pamuk writes in Other Colors: “There are two ways of looking at cities. The first is that of the tourist, the newly arrived foreigner who looks at the buildings, monuments, avenues, and skylines from outside. There is also the inside view, the city of rooms in which we have slept, of corridors and cinemas and old classrooms, the city made up of the smells and lights and colors of our most cherished memories (69).”

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is such a tourist. In the Atlantic Magazine he writes about Los Angeles: “what must be true for a city to be legible? […I]t has to have a center. But Los Angeles has no center. It has districts, neighborhoods, even cities within the city, each of which has a center of some sort. But one center, one unique site as a point of reference […] nothing like that exist in Los Angeles […]. Los Angeles is, I fear, a city about which one can predict with some certainty that it will die.” Lévy behaves like a tourist; a tourist looking for the fictional city of movies and literature, the fictional city of nineteenth century Europe. This Eurocentric tourist gaze, though, overlooks that a multi-centered city is still a city.

Orhan Pamuk claims that there are two views on the city: the outside and the inside view. But isn’t a third – a middle – position possible? A position taken up by someone who isn’t really on the outside and not really – or not yet – on the inside. A position taken up by someone who goes back and forth. Beck calls such a person a place polygamist – even if this person is not a frequent traveler, even if this person doesn’t collect air miles. After all, not every person residing outside her or his country of origin – in the sense of birth place – is a tourist. Indeed, a tourist stays on the outside to gaze merely at surfaces, and the same can be said of most expats.

After so many years in Indonesia in Indonesia, I’m obviously – at least in my own eyes – no longer a tourist, and I like to claim an in-between position. For me, the city of Bandung has by now many personal memories for I have traveled its streets countless times. I feel at home here, even if I’m still seen as an outsider. Bandung has nested underneath my skin – the dust, the dirt, the heat, the jams, the noise – the thrills for me, the urban junkie.

language and the city

In the Oxford dictionary city is explained as “a large town” and the urban as “having to do with a town or city.” Of course, a dictionary is not of much help. Ultimately, language is self-referential. Moreover, Wittgenstein writes: “The power language has to make everything look the same […] is most glaringly evident in the dictionary […] (Culture and Value, 22e).” For example, the same Oxford dictionary explains building as “a structure with a roof and walls.” And as Nietzsche remarks in the Will to Power: “words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common (810).” And, “[t]he demand for an adequate mode of expression is senseless […] (625).” We have to make use, therefore, of the available tools without forgetting that meaning isn’t within these tools.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

designing anonymous facades

It is ironic that the New York City Sky Scrapers website claims to "A look behind the anonymous facades." Is it possible to design a sky scraper without an anonymous facade? After all, how can an architect be proud of a design which offers only an anonymous facade? Perhaps we can read the above statement as an analogy to today's fashion: We style ourselves in the latest fashion to be absorbed by the masses, i.e. fashion as a lifestyle instead of styling oneself as an individual. Fashion as a lifestyle only shows surfaces, deptless surfaces. Zygmunt Bauman writes that " through reducing the self to a surface, to something one can control and arrange at will, it offers the self security against intruders [...]."

See also the highrise project at the University of Edinburgh.

I took the above photo in 2007; the building in the background is one of the five 151 meter Taman Anggrek towers in Jakarta.

reflexivity: city as autobiography

In the Gay Science Nietzsche writes: “We wish to see ourselves translated into stone, and plants, we want to take walks in ourselves when we stroll around […] buildings and gardens (280).” And Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value: “Working in philosophy – like work in architecture in many respects – is really more a working on oneself. On one’s own interpretation. On one’s way of seeing things. (And what one expects of them.) (16c)”

posttraditional architecture: dystopia?

The manifesto of futurist architecture can be read here. Can we still imagine beyond our horizons?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Right to Bandung, Melbourne, Mexico City and Manilla

Arte-Polis3 Conference

Creative collaboration and the making of place

Learning from shared creative experiences

I moderated a round table discussion at Arte Polis3 conference, below my introduction.


· Tarlen Handayani is the founder and owner of Tobucil, which is a small bookstore where workshops are organized.

· Ade Tinamei is a lecturer at the school of architecture/ITB, she is the executive director/senior urban designer and planner at PSUD (Center for Urban Design Studies), and she is involved in Semarak Bandung that aims to reclaim the streets, Semarak Bandung is part of the umbrella organization Bandung Creative City Forum.

· Sergio Beltran Garcia is an architect in training and he is already practicing architecture with architecture lab TELAR in Mexico City. He claims that if people are involved in creating their own environment they will feel responsible for their environment.

· Bo Svoronos is currently finishing a practice led PhD on indigenous metropolitan festivals and reciprocity at RMIT, Melbourne. He claims that festivals can function as platforms so that a reflexive relationship between reciprocity and inclusion could become possible.

· Marika Constantino is an architect by training but a visual artist by profession, and she is a member of artist initiative TutoK in Manilla, which focuses on human rights and education. She claims that the past is a present concern.

Festivals and Public Space:

Civic Space and the Right to the City

There are no blue prints available for how to improve the city and thus urban living; therefore, it is important to learn from experiences in different cities around the globe.

Before turning to festivals as potential moments to (re-)claim the right to the city, I first qualify public space. Public space is understood here as political – or to be more precise: democratic – space. Moreover, I make two more qualifications.

Firstly, political thought is myopic and it is still captured by a nostalgia for bygone times, i.e. ancient Greek city states. This is problematic, because most people in ancient Athens were excluded: women, foreigners (including Aristotle) and slaves (in Indonesian cities, today, women, urban poor, Chinese and homosexuals are excluded). This nostalgia also says more about the present than about the past. We crave for order, stability, unity and oneness, which is for us symbolized by the ancient Greek agora, and this brings me to my second point.

Secondly, we should not see public space as a specific designated geographic location. Instead, public space should be defined by modes of action, behavior, responses, desires, etc., at certain places and times. A fenced park – for example, the National Monument (Monas) park in Jakarta – sanitizes, beautifies the city; at the entrance of the park there is a sign telling us how to and how not to behave, and who is and who is not allowed to enter.

Public space defined as modes of action means that a certain location in the city can be public at certain times – for example by occupying and using that particular space for a demonstration – and not at other times. The meaning of public space is necessarily fleeting, because we produce it by using our cities in multifarious ways.

Unlike in ancient Athens, the meetings between strangers with all their particularities and differences define public space in today’s metropolises. Democratic public space, while defined by inclusiveness (which should not mean that the Other has to become like ‘us’), is inherently unstable because of its openness to differences. Too often democracy is defined as a search for consensus by emphasizing the unity of the people, which hides conflicts.

The struggle over what is and what is not public space is much needed to create a city where matters of political importance can be discussed so that inevitable uncertainty and anxiety do not lead to violence against the ‘stranger’, against what is ‘alien’, against what is ‘ugly’, against what is ‘crazy’ (agoraphobia is symbolized by an architecture of fear in suburbia; see Nas).

Henri Lefebvre claims that festivals can create moments – or situations as Guy Debord and the Situationists claim – for this struggle to (re-)claim the streets of our cities. Festivals – again understood from a political perspective, thus not as entertainment to be consumed for merely commercial ends – turn the world up side down, joyous moments of spontaneity, of intoxication (at least as seen from the perspective of normal times).

The topsy-turvy world of Lefebvre’s festivals can be connected to his notion of the right to the city. The right of the city is part of what Hannah Arendt calls the right to rights or what Martha Nussbaum calls rights as capabilities, i.e. to be able to be or act in certain ways.

Henri Lefebvre writes that “the right to the city is like a cry and a demand. […] The right to the city […] can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life.” Lefebvre’s right to urban life is a call for creativity as a virtue: “the need for information, symbolism, the imaginary and play.” The urbanite as homo ludens (Huizinga’s term).

The right to the city is not merely the right to enter and use a city; it also means that we urbanites have the right to change our urban environment. As David Harvey comments: “We need to make sure we can live with our own creations […].”

The right to the city is a form of spatial justice. The right to the city radicalizes democracy, because it spatializes democracy: space is never neutral, space is always political, and politics is always spatial (Foucault).

So the question is the following: can small-scale bottom-up politics (Beck’s term) function in such a way that we will become able to reclaim the streets so that we actually are able to change our cities and thus change our lives?

The right to change our cities

David Harvey: "We've got to revolutionize the geographic subconscious; we've got to revolutionize daily life--that's what really matters. In changing the city, we change ourselves. The real question is: what kind of people do we want to be?" See also his essay on the right to city as a human right in the New Left Review.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

To death

Anna Akhmatova

You're sure to come. So why wait anymore?
I'm waiting for you. I am through.
My light is out. My doors are open for
The simple wonder known as you.
So take whatever guise you feel like: Lob
Your poison bombs across my room,
Or end me like a practiced mugger’s club,
Or damn my throat with typhoid fume,
Or, if you like, come as your bedtime tale
Known to the innocent
ad nauseam:
Show me the blue cap of the law1, the pale
House-porter's face and trembling hand.2
I could care less. The Yenisey still streams,
The North Star glimmers overhead
And in beloved eyes the old blue gleam

Is blemished by that final dread.

1 The blue cap of the uniform worn by the secret police
2 i.e. as he opens the tenants' doors for the inspectors when they come to round up suspects.

Translation by A.Z. Foreman.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the philosopher's stone is a square circle

to love one's mistakes

“The great difference between a writer and painter is that the painter reveals the traces of supposition whereas the printed work hides the hesitations of the writer. The painter exhibits his cancellations, his corrections, and he ends up loving them and imposing them.”

– Pierre Alechinky in conversation with Diane Kelder

The above artwork is by Agus Suwage.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"The meaning of a poem can only be another poem."

"Let us give up the failed enterprise of seeking to 'understand' any single poem as an entity in itself. Let us pursue instead the quest of learning to read any poem as its poet's deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or a poetry in general."

Harold Bloom

Thursday, April 22, 2010

wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein

inspirational value

Richard Rorty writes (in the second appendix to Achieving our Country): "Inspirational value is typically not produced by the operations of a method, a science, a discipline, or a profession. It is produced by the individual brush strokes of unprofessional prophets and demiurges. [...] If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Believing in literature

"There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto - God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we ever imagined."

Dorothy Allison

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

unearthing everyday urban life

To be able to pay close attention to and at the very same time to be critical of everyday urban life we need an adequate approach. Aesthetics is such an approach. Aesthetics should here not be understood as a prescriptive theory of what beauty is or should be, but, on the other hand, as descriptive. And this should be understood in two ways: describing the forms everyday urban life takes, and because these forms escape conventional research methods we need to develop forms to describe the forms of everyday urban life. Aesthetics is then a way to register what remains so far unregistered so that we come to acknowledge the extraordinary in the ordinary, the nontrivial in the trivial. It is therefore no surprise that the everyday urban life has so far best been described by novelists; Pamuk's Istanbul is a good example.

another day in the life of...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

place polygamist

Orhan Pamuk writes in Other Colors: "There are two views of looking at cities. The first is that of the tourist, the newly arrived foreigner who looks at the buildings, monuments, avenues, and skylines from the outside. There is also the inside view, the city of rooms in which we have slept, of corridors and cinemas and old classrooms, the city made up of the smells and lights and colors of our most cherished memories." But isn't there a third, a middle, position possible? A position taken up by someone who is not really on the outside and not really - or not yet - on the inside, thus: an in-betweenness. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls this person a place polygamist, even if this person is not a frequent traveler, even if this person does collect air miles. After all, not every person residing outside her country of origin - in the sense of birthplace - is a tourist. Indeed, a tourist remains on the outside, in awe with the spectacle. However, after some odd years in Bandung I like to claim such a in-between position. The city of Bandung has already provided me with a great many memories. I have traveled its streets. I have frequented its classrooms, its cinemas. I have come to love this town I call my home. This city has changed me. Its streets are part of my biography. For how much longer?


Logorama from Marc Altshuler - Human Music on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


This photo was taken by Katja Hogenboom in Umeå, Sweden, where I spent some time in the mid-nineties.