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Cities Need Space for Junk

August 16, 2009

Like many architects, I am in love with simple, minimal elegance, with clean lines and stripped down, ordered space.  But I have become increasingly aware of the cost which accompanies minimal design; behind any minimal looking design usual lies an inefficient mess hidden away somewhere, often far away. It is this dialectic of clean space/messy space which we need to recognize in design of any scale, including cities.

At the smallest scale of domestic space, this is the role of closets. In order to have a tidy, slick, minimal interior we do one of several things: 1. strip our lives of most of our objects, something many of us strive for but few really want to achieve, so we do 2. periodically throw the clutter in the trash, and when we need something go out and buy it, unless we are lucky to have sufficient storage space in which case we do 3. store the clutter but keep it nearby for when it might come in handy.  Of course, #2 is the least efficient and (if we dismiss #1 as a pipe dream) #3 the most.  It results in a place that is neither on stage nor discarded; a kind of wings where stuff can wait unobtrusively (a concept I recall as being key to the simplicity of Japanese homes).

I’m a packrat as well as a design snob, which means I fill this kind of middle space (my basement, storage lofts, walk-in closets) with things that I have no use for at present but anticipate some unknown future use.

At the scale of urban space a similar concept applies, but storage of detritus is rarely designed into master plans; it just happens. It fills the gaps alongside railroad tracks, it is tossed into landfills, and at best it shows up at flea markets and junk yards.  These places usually go by the label “blight” and urban design seeks to eradicate them, which only serves to raise the cost of waste and the need for consumption. This is not the “Junkspace” Rem Koolhaas extols. It is closer to Alan Berger’s concept of Drosscape, “large tracts of abused land on the peripheries of cities and beyond, where urban sprawl meets urban dereliction”, which in turn derives from Lars Lerup’s use of the term “dross” in contrast to “stim”, the deliberate, developed urban areas.  Kevin Lynch addressed the positive aspects of waste space in his last work The Waste of Place  and Denise Scott Brown, in a talk called Art of Waste presented at Basurama makes similar observations. Observations of third world squatter towns provide abundant precedents for the smart use of what we in the first world often dismiss and discard as waste. Scott Brown tells of the Cape Dutch farmhouse she visited in South Africa where the floor was made of cow dung and and peach pits, “seen as valuable resources, not waste, in that society.” Enough material exists on the space of waste (not to be confused with the waste of space) to devote entire urban design studios.

But idealizing/romanticizing “dross” is at best unnecessary and at worst pathetic and counterproductive. It should be recognized as useful piece of the urban puzzle, considered and provided but not aestheticized.  Of course, the gritty marginal spaces of the city feature prominently in fiction and films, think of Pasolini, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and countless others, but this is quite different from recreating the aura of abandonment in new design. Rather an architecture which deals appropriately with such space of waste should do so practically and ecologically, with the same approach we use for organic farming.  The goal should be to reuse whatever is on a site as close to the site as possible without damaging the health and well-being of the residents but rather contributing to the on-site economy.  [These are some of the issues I’m dealing with in the design project on which I am currently working, a zero-energy development in Rome’s Marconi district, which I will post in future blog]

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