UC Berkeley (Nick)



Aug '08 - Jun '10

  • anchor


    Nick Sowers
    Dec 1, '09 10:55 PM EST

    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?


    • Sbeth85

      Nick- I really enjoyed reading your thoughts, both about the general thesis process and about your personal ideas for it.

      You said that working with a site you'd never visited could be a good thing, since "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."

      Yet you then note how base planners lacked sensitivity to Afghani needs in their own planning. How do you propose to solve the problem of 'neo-colonial' architecture if you yourself would be doing the same thing, designing from afar and letting your own personal geography define the site? Wouldn't the opposite be true- by visiting not only the country but by spending extensive time with the local populace, you would become attuned to their own needs and not your own, and then be able to better design a base which could be re-used within a local context? How can you be so sure that your proposed church COULD even be converted into a mosque? I know that in other religions, this would never be acceptable, no matter how well thought out the design.

      I think your ideas are truly thought-provoking, but aside from getting a list of "Afghani Architecture Do's and Don't's," how do you propose to design that would be compatible with their way of life and SPIRIT of life, not just your own?

      Dec 2, 09 2:58 am  · 


      there is tons of (non-classified) info available about our neo-colonial planning process from all the rfps at Email me if you need help navigating. Many of the base expansion projects are listed as design build and entered the pipeline about one year ago.

      since my (former) office was part of a successful bid, I've learned a little about the overlapping and conflicting code/regulations inherent at the ACE.

      then again the 'planning' team likely never stepped foot on the ground where ever the base got built, and never asked about local customs (that's not what the tax dollars get spent on).

      Dec 2, 09 4:13 am  · 

      first of all, andrewblogadino, someone is having too much fun with manually produced spam. It's like the slow-food movement. We've gone back to hand-crafted spam.. check this out. I'm trying to think what it all means.

      Sbeth, you're absolutely right. You called out my principal struggle with the Thesistan. I think even if Afghanistan had been on my itinerary (my wife would have divorced me) then I would be faced with an incredibly difficult, yet worthwhile task, as you lay it out, of seeking out some nugget of cultural specificity.

      But the architect always goes back to his/her desk, no matter how rich the site visit, and at some point the creative process shuts down the realities on the ground and begins to produce something else. It's necessary, I think, to produce a critical work. Otherwise, you're just deriving the design purely from the limitations of your own perception on the site. What if you had visited in a different month, on a rainy day, or met a doctor instead of a banker in the village? How different would your building be?

      Just when the shutting down, the drawing-in happens, I guess that depends on what the thesis is really about. Is it about trying to improve life for the Afghanis, designing a holistic process of base conversion? That scares me, to try and do a good project in five months.

      Treekiller raises the necessary point about tax dollars - and you have to follow the tax dollar logic if you're going to do a project here. Maybe you would have to re-write the treaties that permit US construction of bases in Afghanistan. Then it's a thesis about treaty, law, and property - the legal underpinnings of our global empire. What if the treaty says you can't build if you don't embed the future civilian use of the base. Maybe the humanitarian projects that we do outside the bases suddenly have to be interwoven with the base structure itself, in order to justify the extra tax dollars being spent on the bases. Military and civilian wrapped up in one nasty bundle.

      Dec 2, 09 11:46 am  · 


      I'm a law student who is studying natural resource law and society in Central Asia, but I'm still an architect nerd on the side. I do some writing at Registan, a blog that focuses on Central Asian issues, and I leaned heavily on your work here:

      For the majority of the establishment, security = guns, and any sort of built environment issues don't get seriously looked at. I haven't seen a lot of work in Security Studies on any architectural considerations outside of the "Paris has wide boulevards so soldiers can put down riots" bit.

      There's a lot of interesting urban v. rural dichotomy in Afghanistan that's pressing the dialogue: The US can control urban environments more, but the majority of Afghanistan is still rural. The Americanization of the Afghan built environment would likely be seen more as an occupation than as a dovetailing along Pied Noir-esque lines, but there's obviously a lot of grey area that I haven't touched on.

      I'd love to see what you think about the post on Registan, and to get in touch about these sorts of issues. There's a lot of Afghan-specific context that the folks over there can help out a lot with (I look more at the Former Soviet "Turkistan" myself), but I think it would be interesting to get a dialogue going. I'd enjoy taking your time away from finishing your thesis, in short.

      Dec 8, 09 12:29 am  · 


      Thank you for the link and the quotes. I just had a read of your piece on Registan. It seems we are looking at the same thing from different angles and it would be well worth getting in touch over email. Just send me a message through archinect; I won't consider it taking time away from my thesis!

      Your highlighting of the urban v. rural is interesting, especially when you bring up the temporality of the urban. Yes, how many are refugees who will just return to their rural provinces when (if?) the violence dies down?

      That goes along with a lot of contemporary architecture/urbanism/landscape writing that challenges the separation of urban and rural. This discussion about the Afghan built environment should continue; it should be amplified because the discourse is not limited to the war in Afghanistan, it's also about how we re-develop economically depleted zones, slums, etc.

      It's funny to see how quickly these speculations from home are labeled as news from the front.

      Dec 8, 09 6:57 pm  · 
      Dec 20, 09 3:08 pm  · 

      Block this user

      Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

    • Back to Entry List...
  • ×Search in:

Affiliated with:

Authored by:

Other blogs affiliated with University of California, Berkeley:

Recent Entries