Change from Organic City

by Marco Casagrande

The current massive urban immigration movement in China, brings people from every areas of the country to the megalomaniac cities, that all are the same. These farmers’ hands are constructing the new anonymous cities. The same hands that know the rural Local Knowledge through physical labor and passing of traditions through generations, are ending up to grease up “modernization” of China. I was working with a couple of illegal immigrant workers from Guanxi province in Shanghai, and asked them to build up fast a community center for migrant workers and this came up in a couple of days: (WEAK!)

I ask myself, if we really understand and utilize the potential of the movement from the Chinese countryside to the cities, and the local knowledge that is pouring into the cities right now. Can we interpret this volume of organic knowledge? What kind of cities could we really build, with the help of these people? Maybe we should build an illegal city?

Architects’ and designers’ position about organic knowledge is tricky. We are not the ones who carry this collective genetic memory on, but we are in a better position to interpret and negotiate with it, step by step, like a shaman getting answers from the organic side. This can easily go very wrong, when architect starts copyrighting fragments of local knowledge under his ego. I guess often it would be enough to create a platform of accidents for the organic knowledge to surface, start cooking, and finding its own forms and dynamics. Design is not necessarily needed in here, and design should not replace reality – while organic knowledge is close to reality, nature.

In the East Taiwanese town of Yilan there is a fantastic natural pond and cloth washing place, which has become a community center for women. They have developed this place into a roofing structure that grows into the water. All the pieces of the structure are very small, size of one woman to carry along with her cargo of dirty clothes. These small sticks are then tied together with stripes from worn out clothes, and this insect architecture has grown to be in lovely harmony with the site, the water, the sun circulation, and the trees.

A local architect spotted this, and built an “ecological cloth washing center” just 50 meters from the original women’s architecture. In fact, I was brought to admire this concrete and steel made washing station, and just incidentally I did found the original washing space. There were nobody on the architect designed place, whilst the women’s self-built structure was full of happily chatting ladies and their children.

Same kind of thing happened with Treasure Hill. First I was fighting alongside with the local community to avoid the destruction coming from the official city. When we succeeded, the place became a very famous reflection of organic knowledge and soon the city, after spotting this fame, sneaked in and gradually changed the whole real settlement into “Taipei Artist Village”, and the organic knowledge disappeared.

Has it all to do with abstraction in design? During the process, when the work is becoming itself, I need to create a kind of perimeter, or even a vacuum around it. Inside of such boundary I can nurture the kind of environment that starts up the composting process of the site. The work starts growing out of this compost. It can very likely be so, that the “smelliest” places of the city provide the most fertile top soil when composted.

Things are very simple and pleasing to work with when they are going towards nature. Other people, passers-by, and truck drivers instinctively also feel this kind of a level of energy and they don’t hesitate to get close to the work, the working process or the author – which is not necessarily the normal case with “fine-arts”. Nature is not considered as art for fine people. The barbarian savage, the “native” is closest to this art. Only the natives can use abstraction in the powerful way – all the others are just imitating. They don’t feel the general resonating behind the birds’ singing.

I was raised up in Finnish Lapland, in a small village called Ylitornio on the border between tundra and taiga. My father was the chief of police, my mother a teacher. Therefore we were living in the “official building” of the village, inside of which government officials, post-office, telephone center, fire brigade, police station, jail, and jail for escaped hunting dogs were settled as well. All the rest of the village was about modest farmers, fishermen and hunters. But nomadic Sami people were used to come to our one-street village to buy milk and beer, and the care taker of our house was a professional hunter. I started to go with him when I was 5 or 6 years old, and thus basically grew up both in the forest and in the government house. I was equally close to the Sami people as to the police officers. When I moved to Helsinki I didn’t feel much of this kind of connection anymore, but I strongly found it again in Taipei, when I found the urban nomads harvesting in the official city. They are the care-takers of the third generation city and we have to force the official city to contemplate this wisdom. Taipei has a change. Maybe even China has a change, but the feeling of the organic knowledge is the key to survive – in Lapland like in Shenzhen.

Images of Ylan’s women architecture, after Marco Casagrande & Tamkang University students, This is this and this ain’t something else but this is this (