Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Research Itinerary


The object of the study is to examine works of architectural heritage that have been distressed by forces of contemporary urbanity, and subsequently explore how these artifacts can be adapted in new ways that enhance their historical significance while making them relevant to newer urban economies.


Istanbul July 1 – Sep 9 2006 2.5 months
Mumbai Sep 9 – Nov 5 2006 2 months
Bangkok Nov 5 – Jan 20 2007 2.5 months
Tokyo Jan 20 – Feb 20 2007 1 month

Asia is home to the fastest growing tourist economies in the world, as well as some of the most rapidly growing cities in the world. Asian cities are swiftly urbanizing the population, and embracing contemporary global economies that lead for a number of reasons to a more homogenous physical appearance. But a large part of the growth of these cities is due to the unique historical aspects that make the place unlike any other, a history that, apocryphal or not, leads to Hong Kong having a different presence than Taipei in spite of the obvious similarities in most of their contemporary architectural endeavors. This history finds a new life in applications to recent architecture, though mostly these are notoriously kitschy and arguably a disservice to the significance of the historical style imitated. At the very least, this historicizing tendency indicates a larger tension between the rapid growth of modernism and the city, and the desire for authentic, local, and rooted architecture. The mega-cities of Asia present a rich zone for the exploration of this tension with their specific mix of population, tourism and fiscal growth.

The criteria for establishing the cities are 1) their global importance (based on theorists like Saskia Sassen and Ed Soja; their growth in GDP and population; and the growth of international tourism), 2) density of canonical artifacts, 3) ease of local and international travel 4) seasonal weather patterns (i.e. avoiding 28 inches of rain in Mumbai).


Works of architectural heritage are sites of present day tensions between the authentic/local and the modern/global. On one hand, they are integral to the history that makes a place unique physically, but on the other create challenges to the contemporary functions of a city. They play a central role in the growing economy of international tourism, but are often obsolete remnants with little relevance to the everyday lives of citizens. Because of the obvious historical and social merits of these sites, not to mention the mysterious tug of nostalgia and patriotism, they occupy a unique position vis-à-vis the pressures of progress confronting rapidly modernizing cities.

There are five basic forms that buildings of cultural heritage take on, often as a blend of some or all: 1) Survivor: the building essentially functions in the same way that it did when it was conceived. Its formal language is still relevant and any additions are in the same vein as the original. 2) Shrine: The artifact has become a museum unto itself, with the cultural history of the original the subject of the display. 3) Vessel: The shell of the building is intact, but the programmatic functions are different, necessitating an overhaul of the non-exterior aspects of the building. 4) Memorial: There is no physical trace of the event or building that is memorialized, but instead a reminder of the episode in the form of a building or sculpture. 5) Palimpsest: The original object has become destabilized and subsumed into alternate architectures and urban conditions, leaving only traces of the original artifact.

The final category of cultural heritage, the Palimpsest, is the most intriguing for this study. This is where the original artifact leaves hints and adumbrations of its former glory, but has been eroded, pillaged, and otherwise distressed by the outside pressures of urban progress. Often, the various pieces of what was once an intact building are covered by newer layers of the city, stolen from their site by museums around the world, and eroded to the point of incomprehension. But what is most interesting is that these palimpsests exist as imagined projections in the contemporary condition; visions of what the original thing would be/was/is. In opposition of the literal and nicely packaged other forms of heritage, palimpsests allow for a certain “fuzzyness,” a range of interpretations that can be mined for coexistence in the contemporary condition. Palimpsests cast a visionary overlay on top of the quotidian existence of the city, a simultaneous timeless existence that folds into the everyday world around us. They provide a rich territory for exploration of interventions that can revive and protect the unique and irreplaceable aspects of local history, as well as creating architectural hybrids for the current rapidly globalizing economy. Nigel Coates calls this the “flywheel” effect, in which historic artifacts provide stability for a changing city, and can later be updated and made more relevant to contemporary users. They are zones of permanence that allow for periodic regeneration, with an inherent energy that can never be recreated.


The research will be undertaken in three areas: documentation, analysis, and speculation. Documentation will consist of locating and recording the most relevant examples of palimpsests in each city. The analysis stage will take that data and develop critical observations about the history, current use and strategic strengths of each site. Finally, the speculative stage will present scenarios and options for how the palimpsest could be made more relevant based on the guidelines of the study. The speculations will be highly site specific, based on observation and interviews that can only be done in situ, and result in provocative directions for future discussion. They shall be polemical and critical, attempting to generate new discussions around the topics of preservation, heritage, globalism and modernism. Elucidating the overlapping nature of these topics will be a primary target of the speculations. It isn’t clear what form the representation and content will ultimately take, but the goal will be to explore the liminal zone between local and international; history and progress. Traces of history will become the inspiration for architectures that protect the authentic, embrace the international, and leverage more than would be possible with the more common either/or scenarios. The results should bring relevance on multiple levels to distressed examples of architectural heritage.