Aug '08 - Jun '10
With the fellowship travels now over, I have already been taking the next steps. There is an internal circuit to follow: the ever-lurking thesis. It is the final country to conquer, and what a vast territory it is. Thesis, my own infinite game. I'm trying to heed the advice of one of my advisors: "Edit, edit, edit. Think of a project that would only take a month to do because to do it well will actually take four months." From today, December 1st, I have about five months to go. So, one month to set it all up.
When I think about the thesis, I of course turn to what is most fresh on my mind. There are so many sites I've seen that would just make good projects: transform a Maunsell Tower, put Bunker Recycling Services into action, or reclaim Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Again, I hear the voice of another advisor: "Don't think of the thesis as a 'project' to do..." Thesis is more of something that is continuous with your other work, a set of strategies. Thesis is synonymous with a way of thinking. So I've tried to put blinders on to deriving a project from a place I've been to, and instead I think more about a trend of things I've been looking at. This blog is, in fact, a good indication of my world view.
A month ago, in Italy, I thought: What if I did a project for a site that I didn't visit? What about Afghanistan? That's not uncommon for a thesis student to pick somewhere distant. The abstractness provided by distance, by the lack of a site visit, gives license to an internal exploration, as though the geography emanates from your own mind. Distance plays with your perception. It forces the analytical gaze through the various lenses that we understand the world by proxy: news, fiction, film, or an old atlas. So there is the attraction, the exoticism, of a site in a far off desert land.
Everyone is paying attention to Obama's build-up. Not that that makes a case for a good thesis (e.g. post-Katrina, how many thesis projects struggled with what to do there?), and do I really want to walk that political minefield? Still I want to know how fast will the build-up happen. How temporary is a temporary base? What happens to the bases when everyone is supposed to pull out in July 2011? If Obama is serious about that date, then it would behoove the military to install a demilitarization time-bomb into the base design. Would that actually mean more permanent construction so that it is more easily re-used? Or a prefabricated, rapidly assembled/disassembled fortress of trailer units and sand bags. Something like Flatpak.
Danger Room's August visit to Bagram Air Base, where construction is beginning to look a lot more permanent, brings up a trend in the military:
(Brig. Gen. Steven) Kwast said the real challenge is to get the military to adapt to Afghan culture, rather than the other way around. “Let’s maybe live a little bit more like the Afghan people, because maybe, one, they can relate to us much better when we aren’t wearing sunglasses,” he said. “They can relate to us a lot better when we aren’t in a metal building that has no windows. They can relate to us much better when they can see us and shake our hand.”
Bagram Air Base via Danger Room
Sounds like what Teddy Cruz mentioned in the recent Archinect interview, that General Petraeus wants soldiers to think more like anthropologists or social workers.
This logic confirms what I've heard from another corner of the US military empire, at a Navy base in Souda Bay, Crete. A navy engineer told me about some of the challenges of designing bases in the Middle East. For one, they discovered that Iraqis were tearing out the toilets in the bases that were handed over to them. Why? Because some base planner didn't take note of the direction to Mecca. You can't sit on the toilet with your back facing Mecca. In A'stan, engineers discovered that Afghanis weren't using the top-of-the-line stainless steel kitchen equipment that the military put in. It would sit, unused, next to a wood-fired oven that the Afghanis carved out of the kitchen.
Or, leave alone the task of the military base to the military. We should be putting in infrastructure, and designing purely in the civilian realm. Schools, for example, constitute some of the more than $1 billion spent by the military on "high impact" projects in A'stan. The idea is that schools will keep kids away from the Taliban, who don't build schools. Coca-Cola vending machines might do the trick.
Joao Silva for The New York Times
And yet, a recent NY Times article made me realize how neo-colonial the whole enterprise is. Top of the line hospitals sitting vacant. Energy infrastructure running at a marginal percentage of its capacity. So what role could an architect, or could Architecture, possibly have there? Good will has no place when it's towed in by a tank.
I've been running thesis end-game scenarios like this for a project in Afghanistan, to test my moral satisfaction with the potential outcome. I could design bases that are easily recycled to civilian uses. It might even get fun designing things like a church which becomes a mosque, or a defensive wall which provides some kind of infrastructure for refugee housing. Making a base easier to recycle will also make it easier for the military to plant bases wherever they please, under the guise of providing future infrastructure.
Will a Thesistan be something I can even stomach, or will it just provide me for long sessions of banging my head on a concrete wall in Wurster hall?