On FOP, Friends of the Pleistocene, a section of Smudge Studio, I found this link to a studio held in Toronto on divided cities, Border Town.
First of all it is interesting that one can initiate a 10-week design studio outside an academic institution simply because you want to investigate something. This is how it should be.
Second, what constitutes a border town is predictably open, from those towns where the line between one country and another runs down the main street, New Brunswick seems to have several of these. Or, between provinces, as in Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan. Or a container port, where the containers and their contents are not in this country, only physically, but not in any other sense.
The Border Town website has a number of provocative statements and diagrams as a group exhibition.
It is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall this year, and there have been many tv and radio documentaries recently: a terrible partition of a city and a people, released only with the economic and thus the ideological collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
What seems surprising now that Berlin and Germany are unified, is how Berlin was perceived in the early 1980s at the time of the 1984 IBA, the Internationale Bauausstellung, which focussed on the rebuilding of central Berlin, much of which had not been repaired since the war, and had further damage because of the wall. A residential 'heart' had to be re-established. IBA Berlin was like a world's fair of architects who went on to be stars and others who died a graceful postmodern death: Koolhaas, Hadid, Siza, Krier, Hejduk, Portoghesi, Botta -- it is a long list.
At the time, this was the only architectural conversation worth having, it dominated all conferences, publications from both Europe and the US, it made architecture a public conversation; pilgrimage to Berlin was mandatory.
But not for me, I think I was struggling to survive the economic downturn after the collapse of the National Energy Policy. However, discussions of the Berlin Wall are strangely absent in my memory. It is as if it was some sort of geological feature, a cliff that one could not scale, a natural edge to the city. What was beyond it was wilderness, not architecture's problem.
I wonder if IBA Berlin did not signal the death of architecture as an autonomous act, something that the Harvard Design Review devoted a whole issue to around this time. I have it, I loved it then. It gave architecture a kind of unfocussed and undeserved agency which is quite dangerous. Nonetheless, this way of viewing architecture survives, and it cropped up again at the Musagetes Sudbury Café in a session about architecture and aboriginal sacred space. There is much to blame architecture for: its linearity, its inhospitable cities, its dead and deathly materials (a tree has a spirit, cut down and made into lumber, the spirit is lost), and above all, its indifference to social and cultural realities. It does not live, it does not understand the longue durée.
In such a critique, both the role and the act of architecture are considered as having some sort of inherent power to blight one's life and one's culture. Its very indifference makes it malevolent. One can make the critique, but to make it one has to believe in architecture as an autonomous act with inadvertent social and cultural consequences.
The Berlin Wall fall did not fall because West Berlin imported a lot of excellent international architects who rediscovered perimeter block housing and made the city complete again. It was the project of a very prosperous state, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was because of an unsustainable political edifice which had effectively lived under a western embargo for forty years. Did architecture play a part in re-unification, other than to be yet another form of glamourous consumer durable?
Architecture is a tool, the power is in the hand that wields the tool, not in who makes it. But there are other kinds of architecture with much wider, less ambitious possibilities, architectures which can resist being made symbols of political power.