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Fukushima Daiichi power plant and water tanks, image Kyodo/Reuters, August 20, 2013
In the lead up to the start of the academic semester we’ve had resiliency on our minds. It’s a concept that seems to be increasing in cultural resonance. Andrew Zolli, researcher of resilience, and curator and executive director of PopTech, recently wrote on his blog that usage of the word “resilience” has more than doubled since 1990. He also shares a link to Google’s Ngrams Viewer, which visualizes (in graph form) word frequency of books scanned by Google. The data gets interesting when one cross lists several terms, such as economic resilience, psychological resilience, ecological resilience, community resilience and social resilience. As a whole, contemporary humans certainly seem to be talking and writing more about resilience. Whether we are actually becoming more resilient as a species is an open question.
After listening to Zolli’s interview with Krista Tippett from early May, “A Shift to Humility: Resiliency and Expanding the Edge of Change” we’re convinced that resilience, inclusive of so much complexity across social, environmental, technological and infrastructural realities, is perhaps one of the most useful concepts for engaging the challenges of our contemporary moment. Zolli explains we are now living through, rather than waiting for, the effects of decades—if not centuries—of our own inaction.
In the interview, Zolli lays out a “design brief for the 21st century.” It includes thriving in the face of change, systems that sense emerging disruptions, systems that encourage cooperation, and the creation of systems that fail “gracefully.” Failing gracefully means that when one component of the system fails, it doesn’t bring down the entire system. For Zolli, resilience isn’t just an infrastructural affordance for navigating hurricanes and other natural disasters without suffering economic or infrastructural collapse. Resilience is also a human—and humane—concept that we must cultivate within ourselves as part of any resilient system that includes the built/cultural context in which we live. This can be an immense challenge, because we’re always engaged in an entanglement of systems that unfold at various speeds of effect and change which don’t necessarily happen at scales easily sensed by humans.
Still, as disruptions in our systems become more and more the norm, we don’t have to be destroyed emotionally, socially, or even materially. This claim puts a twist in current narratives about the challenges our species face, especially climate change. Zolli explains that if we aim to become a resilient species, individuals need solid, social networks (of the analog kind) and a set of “hearty” mental habits. He emphasizes that the social support systems need to be in place and nurtured before we need them. If you wait until disaster strikes, it’s probably too late. To believe that you are a resilient human, Zolli says, life has to feel meaningful and we have to believe we have agency. What would it take for each of us to feel resilient in the face of the next Hurricane Sandy? Or, more generally, to feel life as having deep meaning, even as we come to accept that resources aren’t infinite and disruptive, perhaps uncomfortable changes are going to keep coming? How can we feel enlivened by inhabiting this “expanding edge of change” and live it as a space of creative possibility? There isn’t a clear path or “checklist” on “how to” live in relation to these changes. In many cases, we will need to invent whatever amounts to the most resilient responses in the moment, and then navigate on as best we can. This work is vital creative work that requires individuals to spend time considering.
This fall, one half of FOP (Jamie Kruse) is teaching a first-year foundation course at Parsons, The New School for Design, called Sustainable Systems. The course is part of a new curriculum being rolled out this year, and it is included in The New School’s C6 project (Coalition to Confront Climate Change Challenges in Cities). The inclusion of the concept of resilience in the course description is encouraging, as is the overall brief:
This course is a required first-year course that provides a foundational understanding of the scientific and social issues related to the design of resilient urban futures. An understanding of the constraints, challenges, and opportunities presented by the need to design products, systems, and services that are more socially, environmentally, and economically resilient is at the core of a Parsons education. This course is where that work begins … By combining sequenced field trips and lectures to locations around New York City to prompt discussions and context-based learning related to sustainability, ecology, and systems with studio-based labs where fieldwork and applied scientific methods will be translated into informed art and design work, we will begin to build a creative agency that supports diversity, adaptability, and resilience in the face of ever-changing conditions.
It’s exciting to be engaged in a course with so much potential. I (Jamie) have spent some time developing my own definition of resilience, which has become a bit of a manifesto, and offered this to students for discussion on the first day:
Resiliency is the capacity to be flexible and adaptable in relation to complex events. Rather than striving to “recover” (return to what was) or “endure rigidly,” we instead aim to navigate change responsively. We make intentions and take actions that are made to lessen long-term impacts in the present, while attempting to keep future actions open to reconsideration and augmentation.
For example, we ask questions such as: Given this particular challenge or event of change, what response is appropriate to this moment, this place, this configuration of forces and materials? How might we best ensure that our processes and practices invite flexibility of response into the far future?
Zolli’s interview offers clear explanation of why it’s time to trade in words such as “sustainability” for the concept of resiliency. Unlike the concept of sustainability, resiliency doesn’t imply that we are aiming for balance, because balance is impossible. Nor are we working to develop solutions-based strategies. Sustainability’s aim for “balance” distracts from the magnitude of change at hand, where all actions have effects and consequences that often far exceed our capacities to grasp or control.
A big part of resiliency happens to be humility. Instead of being interpreted as “giving up” or “giving in,” humility means we get to embrace the reality of living in a complex system that truly always has been, and will be, beyond us. It also means we accept the inevitability that systems, many of which we have designed, fail. We actually suggest a break here from Zolli’s language. Rather than talking of system “failure,” we’d suggest speaking of system “change.” Stasis is what fails. Change is inevitable and the fact that it comes does not mean a failure has taken place.
So, what if we accept that humans aren’t necessarily masters of our technologies—or the planet? What might we invent from here? Might we begin to wager less on stability? We can’t help but wonder what different scenarios we might be seeing around the Fukushima event in Japan if such a stance became a part of our deep cultural background assumptions. At Fukushima, for over two years, a technological design has been failing in way that is far from graceful. Its reliance on a single component—electricity—continues to ramify catastrophe. Here, each hour spawns millennia of planetary effect. In this way, the event is an ongoing reality check regarding so many current practices and technologies in need of resilience.
concrete reservoir at Fukushima Daiichi, image Tokyo Electric Power Company
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driver Tommy Cash at a Colorado rest stop, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
Save the date! On October 3, 2013 we will launch Look Only at the Movement, our recently completed video work, at Parsons, The New School for Design. The video, accompanying map, logbook and site key will be on view in the Sheila C. Johnson lobby from October 3 through December 5th. We are excited to kick off the project’s two-year exhibition relay at Parsons, and we hope you can join us.
Look Only at the Movement is the culmination of a 12-day research trip staged last fall and supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. It’s the result of more than 10 months of editing and production work. On our research and travels, we came into contact with only a handful of the hundreds of nuclear related sites around the country. Our project offers primary documentation of storage infrastructures and engineered landscapes, as well as mobile infrastructures that facilitate the movement of nuclear materials along U.S. interstate highways. The work responds to not only these sites, but also their larger, environmental and topographical contexts in the American landscape and the mobile infrastructures and human beings who track and move-with these critical materials.
The opening at Parsons begins at 7pm with a brief artist talk and screening in the Bark Room. A reception and chance to view the work and share comments in the lobby gallery follows. Most of our travels for the project took place in the Western United States, but on October 3rd we will share details about the project’s “local” expedition to Niskayuna, NY, home to the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.
The Parsons exhibition includes two monitors that will continuously loop the nearly three-hour long, two-channel video. This upcoming spring, the project will be re-interpreted for the Santa Fe Institute of Art, and will include large photographic prints and Super 8 footage. From Santa Fe, the project will be reconfigured for exhibition at CLUI Wendover during their Summer 2014 residency season and then migrate to the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum for the Fall 2014. Look Only at the Movement will close at the Nevada Museum of Art in Spring 2015 with a site-specific exhibition that includes material traces and “tools” of our practice. We’ll share some of the processes and objects that we’ve developed over the course of several years in order to be “up to” the challenges of meeting and creatively responding to the movements, realities and potencies of nuclear materials as they flow through and alter American landscapes.
At each venue, a traveling logbook will be on display that invites visitors to relay messages, questions and comments to future audiences for the work. Keep an eye on the project webpage for highlights of the relayed comments and to follow along as the project’s exhibition circuit re-enacts some of the routes of nuclear waste transportation—and our research itinerary.
A potent tale has been set into motion across the American landscape, and it is only just beginning. Look Only at the Movement juxtaposes two entangled worlds as they unfold across one another: the streaming American Highway system and its travelers’ punctuating encounters with nuclear waste transport, disposal cells, and sites of remediation. The project offers a meditation-in-motion for audiences. It invites imaginings, curiosity, and logistical questions about how contemporary life, landscape, and infrastructure design will, for foreseeable futures, bend their realities around the need to contain and indefinitely move-with nuclear materiality.
inside the Clive Facility, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
inside the Clive Facility, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
inside the Clive Facility, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
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“There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale.”
– Japanese government spokesman and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Reality is going speculative in Japan with the recent decision to build a frozen wall of soil in attempts to contain radioactive groundwater currently spilling into the Pacific Ocean. We are in awe of this endeavor. The Japanese government has recently decided to intervene in the ongoing crisis and join Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) to create a “vast network of coolant pipes” that will create a 1.4km frozen soil barrier capable of stopping contaminated water from entering the Pacific, as it has been since at least June. The unfortunate truths are that the design will take at least 2 years to implement and there is no precedent for such a project. Tepco has already attempted a soil hardening project at the site, but this did not achieve the desired results. Ongoing failures aren’t surprising given that 1000 tons of fresh groundwater flow from the mountains towards the ocean each day and Fukushima Daiichi exists in the space between. Apparently, 400 tons of water end up inside the reactor buildings everyday, while 300 more tons flow directly into the sea after passing through contaminated areas. The Japan Times says another 300 uncontaminated tons flow daily into the ocean. Trenches have been dug to try to contain the radioactive water, but so far all attempts to date have not fully succeeded.
We hope for the best for this latest plan. But it is remarkable to witness how the overall project is predicated on stability of earth and electricity to support the project. And such stability is far from given in this tsunami ravaged and earthquake prone location. But there isn’t much of a choice, and there isn’t any simple way to end this ongoing event that has sustained a crisis pitch for more than two years.
It also seems important to remember that the plant at Fukushima was originally designed to be an energy generating infrastructure. It’s as if a total reverse of “power” has taken place. The crippled infrastructures now generate ramifying risk effects for humans. These will be economic (the earth-freezing project is projected to cost $400 million USD), cultural, social and environmental. Humans will be left to grapple with these effects for foreseeable futures.
We’re not sure how long the ice wall is intended to last. So far no reports have explain the life expectancy of the barrier. But we can’t help wonder how the containment design, reliant on stable earth and constant electricity supplies, can outlast the simple laws of gravity that will send water continuously from the mountains to the ocean for decades to come.
As we follow this story on The New York Times, it seems to us that we’ve all just crossed a threshold, into a situation for which humans are now required to become massively creative and innovative at speeds, scales, and complexities that are without precedent-—not, unfortunately, in the service of life-enhancing innovations and designs—but in the service of damage control and risk mitigation. Human lives and energies (as well as economies) will have to be redirected for untold futures in order to support this and other climate/environment altering endeavors:
“Indeed, the proposed ice wall is seen here as a symbol of both the daunting technological challenges posed by the cleanup, and the need — critics say desperation — for creative solutions as the plant, which already stores enough contaminated water to fill 160 Olympic-size swimming pools, is faced with having to store hundreds of more tons every day.
The plan calls for freezing the soil around the reactor buildings to keep out groundwater before it can become contaminated. The wall would run nearly a mile in length and reach almost 100 feet into the ground. Officials said no wall of ice on such a scale has ever been attempted before, and was thus beyond the capacities of Tepco alone to pull off.
But even as Tepco — and now the government — place a bet on the ambitious plans for the wall, experts have begun to raise concerns, including that the wall will need to be consistently cooled using electricity at a plant vulnerable to power failures. The original disaster was brought on by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out electricity.” – Marin Fackler and Hiroko Tabuchi for the New York Times
Some have suggested that in and as the Anthropocene, humans now have assumed a position at the center of networks of power and force, as we transform the planet we inhabit “all the way down” to its geologic profile. We’d like to suggest that rather than being at the center (or top) of the distribution of contemporary global effects, we humans are situated on and as the ground of those effects. We are sitting, along with the rest of biological life, pretty much in the crosshairs as receivers of effects we ourselves have been generating in recent centuries. We are setting up conditions that all present and future humans will have to mitigate. Just how we will creatively meet and navigate unprecedented (in human history) instabilities in planetary dynamics and material instabilities that we have, in part, generated, is unclear from here. Inconveniently, our best attempts at coming up with creative solutions capable of establishing some stability seem destined to be performed in the midst of increasingly unstable environments.
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“The physical experience of centuries-old ice from the glaciers of Eliasson’s native Iceland makes tangible a history that extends beyond the human life span—time that is measured in thousands of years rather than mere decades.” — MoMA Ps1
This summer, there are at least two sub-freezing spaces where heat-weary New Yorkers can retreat. One is the new Minus5 Ice Bar in Manhattan (with two other locations in Las Vegas). The other, a small room at MoMA PS1.
At the door of the Minus5 bar guests are offered parkas or faux fur coats and can sit at a bar sculpted of ice, drinking vodka out of an ice glass, in a space kept near 23 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The Minus5 website claims their frigid environment is constructed entirely of imported blocks of “100% Canadian ice.”
One hundred percent Icelandic ice that “broke off” from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, about six months ago, can be found at MoMA PS1, courtesy of the artist Olafur Eliasson (he first exhibited ice as art in 2006 in Berlin). To keep the glacial ice from melting further, the thermostat of the room at PS1 is set to maintain a temperature between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Eliasson’s project, provocatively titled, Your Waste of Time is a “module” of PS1’s EXPO 1: New York, an exhibition that describes itself as: “an exploration of ecological challenges in the context of the economic and sociopolitical instability of the early 21st century” (read more).
In full disclosure, FOP has visited Eliasson’s ice room only. Yet, when we consider these two icy chambers, one bar and one art installation, in juxtaposition and situated in New York City (a location increasingly forced to accept its precarious exposure to impending rising sea-levels induced by melting glaciers), some interesting resonances occur. Vast material affordances support the existence of both of these endeavors. Though the air conditioner at PS1 keeping the Icelandic ice frozen is fueled in part by the museum’s solar panels, when we asked a gallery attendant if PS1 would be keeping the panels after EXPO 1 is over, the reply was “no.” This seemed awkward, given the long view Eliasson’s work is attempting to make possible and the overall mandate of exhibition.
Regardless, it’s worth noting that, at least at this moment, both the artists and entrepreneurs who created these icy spaces inhabit a planet and economies that enable the existence of such resource intensive projects and their myriad and complex systems of support. For a look at how chilled landscapes that are in service to the American food supply play out on a daily basis across the entire continent, on behalf of all of us, we highly recommend following the work of Nicola Twilley and her co-curated exhibition with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Perishable: An Exploration of the Refigerated Landscape of America.
Ice filled rooms, at least in theory, would have been a seductive destination for anyone last week as New York City heat indices soared over 100 degrees. But these two spaces are also entrenched in their respective cultural contexts. They seem to be attracting the usual audiences that are drawn to hip art museums or gimmicky bars even on days when heat indices don’t trigger warnings. But, once you are at PS1 or Minus5, the physical impact of the cold presents a degree of exposure atypical in daily life. You can’t linger comfortably inside either, unless you have gear. So what kind of experience do you have if you visit the ice at PS1, where fur coats aren’t offered as you enter the room?
Eliasson said he hopes Your Waste of Time encourages “contemplation.” He also said: “most people are disconnected from the effects of climate change because they can’t physically see it.” While we attempted to take up this invitation during our visit, we could only endure the sensory onslaught for around two minutes. Several small groups of people raced in and out, mostly laughing and snapping photos of themselves by the ice before escaping in less than 30 seconds. No one seemed to be pondering climate change or considering the material origins of the displaced ice. The twelve chunks scattered around the room looked dirty and haggard under the glaring lights and peeling ceiling. Though a deep and mesmerizing blue could almost be seen below the surface of a few pieces, but loud fans blasting at very high decibels obliterated any attempt to gather one’s thoughts and “be with the ice.” The staging of the room felt like an afterthought, more akin to an industrial meat locker than a context capable of assisting visitors in grasping the complex and challenging material realities displayed before them.
If you are a dedicated art seeker willing to make a pilgrimage to one of New York’s outer boroughs, you can try to experience first hand how, as Eliasson says, “these glaciers bear testimony to our history-being suspended and frozen for thousands of years-and now they are melting away, as if our whole history is fading.” A fragment of this reality is materially present in the room. Perhaps the increasingly limited and precious nature of ice, its “endangered species” quality, is what makes both the Minus5 bar and the Eliasson sculpture so culturally magnetic, more in theory than in practice.
In our contemporary moment, buffeted by the forces of hyper-objects, it’s hard to pin-point just which of the so many systems that are “out of balance” is the most salient at any given moment. We should feel something “authentic” about being in chilling and intimate proximity to one of the forces of material planetary change — ice — and knowing that it would be melting away, even in waters off Iceland, if it weren’t on life support inside PS1. When we actually think about it, we know it should already be gone. When we take the time to project our imaginations to where this ice came from and pair that reality up with what the climate is like outside the walls of PS1 — it’s easier to comprehend how the change is irreversible.
What then, might we sense or imagine while visiting the bar at Minus5 ? Here, ice is offered more as a signifier for entertainment and luxury, a break from New York reality. It’s definitely not intended to raise questions concerning an impending environmental collapse. It’s easy to propose that it is the over-the-top material resources required to maintain such over-the-top rooms of ice that is driving the glacial ice across town into extinction, especially when it’s 105 degrees outside. But, most of us still can’t, or don’t want to cognitively connect experiences such as Your Waste of Time, to Minus5, to our collectively air-conditioned/heated/electrified homes, refrigerators, airplanes, offices, cars, museums and bars. And it’s here, in this gap of understandings about the vastly different scales of effects — of time and material change — that we miss engaging our window of opportunity to respond creatively and consider what it is that both the Icelandic ice at PS1 and the Canadian ice at Minus5 already “know” about our present condition, even if we can’t stay in the room long enough to realize it for ourselves.
According to Eliasson’s National Geographic interview about his project, at the end of EXPO 1 in early September, his ice will continue on the path it started before being detoured for exhibition in New York. It will melt. It is estimated to be around 800 years old, which means it was born in the last “Little Ice Age.” Despite being relatively young in geologic terms, we think that the spectacular transformation of its form, when 800 years of materiality will soon melt away in a matter of hours, is remarkable. It’s also potentially the most interesting part of the piece, especially if its waters are “released” into the Hudson River or New York Harbor. There, they could meet up with other glacial waters that will be flowing this way in due time. Disappointingly, allowing audiences to view the melting doesn’t seem to be part of the exhibition plan. And unfortunately that means the EXPO 1 installation might be remembered primarily as an eerie, repelling, air-conditioned “life-support” system for displaced Icelandic ice, rather than as a dynamic, aesthetic prosthesis for helping humans to sense and track the changes that are unfolding around us.
Minus5, on the other hand, will preserve their Canadian ice through summer and winter, offering ample opportunity to keep the illusion of ice-abundance alive.
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The new Herring Cove bathhouse, all images this post FOP 2013
Around this time last year, we wrote a post about the soon to be demolished, 1950s era, two-story monolithic-style, Herring Cove Bathhouse at the Cape Cod National Seashore (“Architecture for Retreating Edges“).
Over the past 60 years, erosion, storm damage and overall deterioration rendered the cement fortress-like architecture of the original Bathhouse no longer viable on this coastal edge. The old bathhouse was demolished last November and enjoyed an artful farewell. The new beach house, designed as a collaborative effort between the Park Service’s Denver Service Center, BH+A Architects and the Cape Cod National Seashore, opened in late June and celebrates its official grand opening today, July 11, 2013.
Herring Cove beach is a wildly popular destination — the most visited beach at Cape Cod National Seashore (876,000 visitors in 2012). Last year, with the old structure being demolished and the new bathhouse yet to be built, we wondered (in our post) what kind of structure should be built on a stretch of land that will inevitably disappear, whose grounds are in a constant state of drifting elsewhere? What kind of design must be invented for a place where geologic change doesn’t just unfold in centuries, but also in days, or mere hours on the occasion of a major storm?
We’ve been in communication with the Cape Cod National Seashore and gathered specifics about the new structure, which is intentionally designed to respond to the local configurations of forces that compose Herring Cove today, and into the future.
Building anything on this sandy edge is daunting, given the fact that the annual shoreline erosion rate is about one and a half feet per year. Answering this challenge, the new buildings are modular: four shingled cottages about 400- to 600-square-feet each. To lessen the impact of storm surges, they rest on pilings and are connected to wide decks. Despite the buildings and decks being placed at least 100 feet back from the existing edge of the coast, and raised about four feet off the sand, 50 years from now the new facility is predicted to stand a mere 18 inches above the approximate mean high tide. Remarkably, the structures are capable of being disassembled, moved further back from the shoreline and reassembled as needed. Strengthening materials and stabilizing “hurricane clips” were incorporated into their frames so that as erosion threatens, they can be moved back from the shoreline by crane. The process would take about a month.
The technical specifications testify to the fact that the structures were built as much, if not more, to address the uncertainties of a changing natural world as they were to afford human recreation. Building surface area minimizes lateral and uplift wind loads. The roof overhang is minimal for less uplift. The sheer walls of the small square buildings provide more stability than the previous single long structure. Fiberglass window frames have been installed with hurricane glass. The posts for the trellis can withstand 150-mile-per-hour winds. In many ways, the new structure is a stealth fortress: its strength lies in its nimble flexibility rather than in any attempt to battle the pummeling forces that are part of the seasonal realities that compose the Cape.
Ninety-nine percent of the debris from the former bathhouse has been recycled and the new structures meet Silver LEED requirements. There has been a 30% reduction in overall square footage in the new bathhouse and a 30% reduction in water use. The project includes open air, naturally ventilated spaces. High efficiency toilets use 20% less water and require no chemicals to clean. The landscaping requires no irrigation because established plantings are drought tolerant and allow dunes to migrate naturally. There is a grey water system that drains to grade and water is tied to the town’s sewer system. A solar thermal system is used to heat hot water for the bathroom and concessions stand. The solar panels will work year-round to “offset power used during the summer to reduce fossil fuel use and achieve net zero energy use.”
Last year the Cape was subject to particularly harsh winds and storm surges during storms Sandy and Nemo. With added financial pressure brought by sequestering, the Seashore faces significant challenges to keep the beaches open, safe and maintained. Luckily, the new Herring Cove bathhouse has survived the cuts. Now, these remarkable, humble and beautiful structures can provide inspiration for navigating the uncertain futures that we share with them.
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Hatch House, Wellfleet, MA, all images this post, FOP 2013
The Center for Land Use Interpretation has a practice of ending their seasonal newsletters with the phrase,“Thanks for being there!” We’d like to think this invitation hasn’t been lost on us. We try to “be there” (anywhere) as much as possible, since no other medium replaces really being somewhere.
We recently had the pleasure of inhabiting the Hatch House in Wellfleet, Massachusetts for 24 hours (a short tour of the house can be seen here). We first photographed the Hatch House in 2008, when it was in a state of amplifying deterioration. Remarkably, as of June 2013, the Hatch House is back to health with a new deck, historically and architecturally thoughtful renovations, and uncontested lease — and it is able to be inhabited by humans for the first time in years. This surprising structure (and a few of its contemporaries on Cape Cod) gained its second life due in large part to Peter McMahon’s efforts through the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. For the past few years he, and countless volunteers, including a group of Harvard’s GSD students, have worked to make this moment possible.
The Hatch House faces Wellfleet Bay. It was designed and built by Jack Hall in 1960. The Cape Cod National Seashore was signed into law a year later in 1961. Most of the houses that were built on what became Seashore land were given 25 year leases before they were to be absorbed into the National Seashore. The legalities of this arrangement, and the exceptions since allowed or taken to building/living on Seashore property, are storied and complex (and best researched elsewhere).
What remains interesting and remarkably contemporary about the Hatch House, which was built for Ruth Hatch, a painter from New York and her husband Robert, an editor of the Nation Magazine, is the spirit of experimentation that the house exemplifies. Its light, floating, boxy structure stands in stark contrast to what many consider the standard Cape style.
The house activates the modernist grid, and blurs inside and outside. To go to bedrooms, bathroom or kitchen/living room, one has to go outside onto the deck that connects all rooms. By going outside, one’s eyes are drawn up to the sky to take in sun, stars or clouds. Changes in temperature, humidity and light become part of the daily pulses of inside to outside, outside to inside experiences. Large hatches can be raised to provide abundant shade and lowered in extreme weather conditions, or when the house is closed for the season. Regardless, everything flows both in and out, either through small gaps in the wood or through huge screen windows.
We spent much of our 24 hours at the house awake and outside on the deck. Given the extreme swings that June Cape weather can deliver on extremely short notice, we knew we were very lucky to have the 24, sun and breeze-filled hours that we did. Thoreau’s quote from The Maine Woods seemed apt:
“I did not regret my not having seen this before, since I now saw it under circumstances so favorable. I was in just the frame of mind to see something wonderful, and this was a phenomenon adequate to my circumstances and expectation, and it put me on alert to see more like it.”
— Henry David Thoreau, as quoted in Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics and the Wild, by Jane Bennett
During our time at the Hatch House, we thought of traditional Japanese architecture and more experimental artist/architectural collaborations such as James Turrell’s House of Light and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field installation in New Mexico’s high desert. The Dia’s log cabin adjacent to The Lightning Field is a sort of inverse of the Hatch House. Both structures afford inhabitants the chance to directly experience the surrounding landscape in solitude, but the cabin at The Lightning Field is a solid, cave-like log shelter and offers a distinct break from the highly charged installation outside its doors. The Hatch House felt more like a sailboat, flying just above the sea. The deck — an extension of the hill that the house is nested within. In this way, the Hatch House might have more in common with Provincetown’s dune shacks, except that it’s a deeply intentional work of art/architecture, embodying a philosophy and a political ideal. Its spirit is about the humility of its materials and impact upon the land, as much as (if not more than) about the very particular configuration of its design. Its materials are aligned (literally), it seems, to afford inhabitants an opportunity to disappear along with the house into the landscape.
A few days after our stay, we had a chance to see the world premier of Built On Narrow Land at the Provincetown Film Festival. This documentary offers a compelling account of modernist architectural history on the Cape and illustrates the hopeful, yet uncertain future of how its legacy will endure from here.
Built On Narrow Land is a beautiful film, yet no number of striking shots or vivid descriptions erases the vast difference between experience and description. To pass hours with/in this house is magical. To access, through an embodied experience of dwelling, how the structure’s materials and design instruct movements, generate stillness, and expand the distance from the “noise” outside, is to enter into a rare relationship with a site and its architectural inflection. The Hatch House is by far one of the most intentional spaces we’ve stepped into. When we left that second morning, we were surprised how far we felt we had travelled, without having left the deck of the house itself.
Despite there being no translation or mediation that is up to the uniqueness of “being there,” we offer the following polaroid images. And, we once again invite all to support efforts to preserve these structures AND follow the Add-on ’13 project and exhibition taking place this summer. Add-on ’13 is an invitation to spark new building practices on the Cape. The project attempts to match the scale- and place-responsive architectural history of the area, and expands modernist house ideals to encompass current affordable housing efforts and sustainable building practices.
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“sits in a different dimension from the smooth running, flawlessly attentive, and all but anonymous machine that keeps public order moving so efficiently…”
— from Pico Iyer’s introduction to Natsume Sōseki’s The Gate
We’re back on the grid post Euphoria “dune shack” inhabitation. As predicted, we have much to share. For the Thirty-Six Views project, we will take our time working with the photography and videos produced during our Euphoria inhabitation. In the meantime, we’ve set-up a vimeo channel with 12 “video postcards” from our time at the shack, including a link to our 22 minute kite-borne aerial camera flight.
Still, most of our time in the shack was media-free. Without electricity, daily life quickly winds down around sunset (there’s only so long you can read by headlamp). One camera battery unexpectedly died on day one. iPhone batteries were intentionally preserved for an entire week without charging. We quickly learned to identify dog ticks and deer ticks. Most of the time we just sat on the deck taking in where we were. By the end of seven days, and pretty much four seasons worth of weather change, with temperatures ranging from 45 to 80 degrees F, we realized it had been a rather monumental and fully-lived week.
We noticed how much had changed since our last dune shack week three years ago, perhaps most noticeably our mediated information seeking habits (pre-this blog, pre-twitter etc.). This time around, we noticed we had traded in our addictive relationship to checking the weather online for watching the fully analog and accurate weather vane attached to our clothesline. We didn’t really need much lead time on the weather anyway, since we weren’t going anywhere except where we were. When we sat on the deck staring at clouds, we thought a lot about James Benning’s Looking and Listening class.
Euphoria amenities include a deck, a two burner propane stove, new propane fridge, small kitchen table, bunk bed, two small desks, gravity fed water filter, abundant iron-filled well water, kerosene lamps, small library of books, composting toilet, a stellar Norwegian wood stove (a famed Jøtul), and mid-distance views of the ocean.
While reading a couple of novels and essays on inhabitation that happened to use the word “wherewithal” several times, we found we had unconsciously taken to using the word ourselves. The shack had literally provided a context for being (some)where, with + all. The word “wherewithal” dates to the 1530s and refers to the “means by which.” In our case, Euphoria had become the “means by which” we started to reassess some of our habitual presumptions about inhabiting architectural spaces and the various affordances they provide. We were with the weather—whatever it happened to be from moment to moment. The shack’s “inside” was incredibly porous and responsive to outside. We were with all the changes in light, temperature, mood, possibility and affordance. We were discovering that a human being needs around one gallon of water per shower and toilets don’t need to be loud and full of water. We were realizing how often we don’t need artificial light while indoors. And we realized how much easier it is to follow and keep a train of thought when we don’t get interrupted by voices, traffic sounds, media or distractions (self-inflicted or otherwise). A difficult truth to accept was that we missed a lot when we were “on the grid.” As we design lives and spaces that distract or literally shield us from what’s immediately happening around us, we miss navigating and meeting the charged and specific forces that shape our lives from moment to moment. We are all to0 ready to (dis)locate our brains and awarenesses to spaces and times other than where we actually are. Lacking lived experiences of “wherewithal,” we suspect, makes it possible to take the grid for granted despite resource/material challenges humans currently face, and to imagine that it will run on and even grow limitlessly.
Euphoria is a very simple architectural space that assisted us in realizing where we were. Designed specifically for navigating the forces that make its particular location, it gave us an experimental expanse to reside within, and filled it with concerns and interests other than those that preoccupy us elsewhere.
A week after leaving Euphoria, as we looked at the ocean from a car in a parking lot, it seemed as though we weren’t really seeing the same body of water we saw from the shack’s deck. The car didn’t push us to feel the forces of the place. We had to accept the fact that the unfortunate grid-afforded sensation of looking in at the world from somewhere “outside” of it was slowly returning.
Architecturally minded readers might want to check-out the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, which is currently facilitating an ambitious project called Add On’13. The project aims to prototype and build affordable and sustainable structures on the Cape in the very near future. The project takes inspiration from the spirit of the experimental architects who came to Cape in 1950s (such as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer) and built modernist elaborations of the Provincelands dune shacks. Their projects became, in the words of the Trust, “manifestos of their designers’ philosophy and way of living, close to nature, immersed in art and seeking community.”