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“we are not frightened by ruins”

March 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

The deadline was here, so I paused on other work and wrote this short essay about my Buenaventura Durruti poster, Providence, and the 2002-2003 mill demolitions in Eagle Square. The print is being included in a book of/about anarchist art, which will be published by the UK Anarchist Federation. They asked for some writing to go along with it: specifically looking for artists to articulate their visions for a post-revolutionary society, and the connections that they see between art and anarchism… in this case, between building (or architecture, though not formal “architecture”) and anarchism.

I wrote & re-wrote and, finally, in a last-ditch attempt to get it all to make sense, wrangled everything I was trying to say through an actual outline. Writing outlines has always been extremely difficult from me — this one was no different, but it proved essential to organizing my ideas and presenting them logically.

Here it is! I posted an edited & improved version March 26th. If you have thoughts, please comment below, or email me, if you prefer: secretdoor.projects (at) gmail.com. Thank you!


durruti poster

We Are Not Frightened By Ruins

an essay for a half-demolished textile mill, a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, and a world that is constantly changing.

Jean G. Cozzens

I made the drawing for this print in 2002, in response to the demolition of old factory buildings that I loved. The Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, to which I had recently moved, was dense with massive brick structures that had once housed the operations of the textile industry. The buildings had been crowded and active from the early 1800s to the 1940s, during the time when Providence was a center of industrial production and innovation. In the 1960s and 70s, that era sputtered to an end as fabric manufacturers fled the Northeast, first to the Southern states, then overseas.

The mills that the textile companies left behind, built huge and super-sturdy to hold vast arrays of weaving, spinning, and knitting machines, offered flexible spaces that could serve almost any purpose. Though no longer featured on the letterheads of the companies whose names they still bore, they remained heavily utilized, since their rough and un-precious state meant that anything could happen within them. Their interiors were divided up to provide an inexpensive, versatile home for local businesses and workshops, the few light industries and production facilities that still remained in the city, and the creative studios – and cheap, illegal residences – of artists and musicians.

In order to inhabit this space, the tenants had built lofts, ceilings, kitchens, bed-nooks, studio corners and work tables, practice rooms, recording enclosures, skate ramps, bathrooms, libraries. Some areas had been left open and spacious, in order to host the crowd that would attend a rock show, or just to let light flood in through the high windows. Even in the adaptations that were purely utilitarian, built by the secondary industries that had replaced the departed textile companies, self-construction and customization had accumulated, sub-dividing the spaces and providing creatively for storage, offices, work areas, and break rooms.

The buildings had been transformed from a scale meant for the mass-production of a commodity to a variety of scales that were uniquely human. They had been customized to the users’ individual needs by a purposeful combination of construction and sculpture, guided by whimsy as well as by necessity.

 *  *  *

In 2001, I was living in an old mill that was being painstakingly renovated by a group of artist-developers, across the street from a 14-acre tract of factories that were slated to be torn down to make way for a shopping plaza. Around the city, many other factory buildings were being demolished as well, due to neglect, arson, or the desire to make space for new buildings, parking lots, or highways.

I had always been fascinated by old buildings. At the time, in my third year of architecture school, I was becoming more and more frustrated with contemporary attitudes towards construction, and more and more interested in old ways of building. To me, the demolition of the mills was senseless and wasteful: it seemed that it would never again be possible to create buildings that had the quality, aesthetics, and strength of the old factories. I knew of no new buildings that were designed with such conscious care, or constructed with materials that were as simple and well-crafted. The mills were a valuable and severely limited resource. Why would you destroy something that could never be built again, something that was locally relevant and specific to our city – in favor of making a cheap cookie-cutter replication of a shopping center that could be found anywhere across the country?

I started getting involved in the activist struggle to try to save the buildings that were slated for demolition – the first ‘activist’ project I had felt strongly enough about to really jump into. I got to know some of the artists who were living in the buildings, and little by little became a part of the communities that had grown up there. Fostered by the cheap rent and endless possibilities offered by the giant, rough spaces, a shared life was flourishing, vibrant and creative, and as I began to participate in it my outrage and anger only grew stronger. Not only were the shopping plaza’s developers destroying the physical structures, they were displacing my friends and dismantling the culture and the structure of our community, as well as other communities that were supported, in different ways, by the small businesses and workshops harbored in the mill buildings.

 *  *  *

A fellow activist pointed me in the direction of some reading that was new to me, and I began to find global parallels for the dynamics at work in my neighborhood. I became aware that the issue went far beyond this group of mill buildings and their tenants, and that we were yet another iteration of the way that global capital tended to deal with local uniqueness and variation. Slick-looking, centrally-controlled chain stores being promoted over less-polished, homegrown businesses and projects; the replacement of the ‘light industries’ and production-based businesses with ‘service industries’ and consumer-based shopping; the destruction of complicated historic landscapes to create flattened, simplified new ground; the privileging of the marketable over the un-marketable, the new over the old, the safe over the quirky, the branded over the local… it had all happened before, was still happening everywhere.

The campaign to ‘save the mills’ progressed, with setbacks, accomplishments, and frustrations. After much heated debate, a certain amount of political art, and many impassioned City Council meetings, the company conceded to re-designing their development with ‘mill-style’ brick facades, creating a bike path, and preserving four of the fourteen original buildings. The rest would be demolished, and all the existing tenants would be, of course, evicted. Our high-profile protest had raised awareness of the contribution of arts and industry to the city, and had probably pushed the developers to do a little bit better than their banal norm. The group I had worked with claimed at least a partial victory.

As the weeks passed and work on the site began, however, what we had achieved seemed more and more symbolic and hollow. A feeling crept over me that the most crucial element had been left out: we had not been able to protect any of the messy, useful, inexpensive possibilities that the mills had offered. I began to wonder about the love I had initially felt for the old mills – by focusing on their physical structures, had I been missing what was really important about them?

 *  *  *

Even if the mills were saved and restored, even if the rebuilding was carried out by well-intentioned developers, there would still be limits on who could rent there, on what could happen inside. If the renovations were done with care, skilled labor, and quality materials, a certain amount of preciousness would result: the desire to protect the newly pristine structure from inadvertent abuse by working artists or production facilities. Even if the buildings could find owners who were excited to harbor a creative mess, the financial and legal demands that would be placed on them – to keep the investors, the lender banks, the city inspectors and code officials all satisfied – would inevitably tamp down much of the possibilities that the owners might have originally envisioned. In any case, the freedom that comes directly from living or working in a somewhat neglected rough-and-tumble structure would vanish. Whether demolished or converted, the mills would cease to provide space for industry, productive businesses, small entrepreneurship, and creative work. Renovation would cast the buildings in amber, preserving them while also freezing their ability to transform, to harbor activity, life, innovation, production, to be messy and changeable.

In one of the books I was reading, I had come across this quotation:

We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts, and that world is growing this minute.

It was printed in a large ‘inspiring’ typeface, and was attributed to Buenaventura Durruti. Who? There was little explanation or context in that book, and the only further research I did at that time was to figure out that he had been in an anarchist militia in Spain, fighting against the fascists in the 1930s. Durruti’s words seemed to speak directly to me, comforting and encouraging me in the face of the piles of ruins that, by that point, were indeed growing at a steady clip across the street from my living space. He reminded me that buildings aren’t relics, they are not irreplaceable, they don’t need to be regarded as precious. They had been built, after all, by people like us, creative and inventive and hard-working. They were useful, yes – but we will be able to build useful things again, if we decide that that’s what we want to do. The quotation also reinforced my growing awareness that what was important wasn’t the physical structure, as much as the life that happened within it; and that that life could carry on in the hearts of humans even if the world was destroyed around them.

These sentences from Durruti offered me hope for the re-creation of possibilities, the re-opening of the world of action even after this destruction of space for freedom. I had been wanting to make a poster about the mill demolitions, to share my sadness about their loss, and it became clear that the Durruti quote – and the hope it spoke of – belonged on that poster. In February of 2002, on a sunny-but-still-cold day, I found myself sitting outside on a pile of rubble to draw one of the mills in the middle of its destruction… and a couple of days later, realized that I had made the drawing that would go along with Durruti’s words.

 *  *  *

It took me a long time to make that poster. I had other commitments, to school and to work; and I wanted the print to be really coherent, not just hastily dashed off. I decided that I wanted to dig up more of what Durruti had said to include on the poster, because I felt that the quote as I had first read it wasn’t connected clearly enough to history and labor struggles, and that “building a new world” might be able to be interpreted as justification or encouragement for renovating the old mills into fancy new apartments. Finally, in the fall of 2006, during a break between other projects, I started researching a little bit more about the Spanish Civil War, and found a couple of versions, in Spanish, of an extended excerpt of Pierre Van Passen’s interview with Durruti, from which the quote I had found had been taken. Using my basic Spanish and recruiting the help of some friends, I was able to make a more accurate translation of the passage.

I worked on the poster off and on through 2007, then printed it in January of 2008 – six years after I had begun it. My thoughts have continued to develop and change, but I find that the quote still speaks to me very strongly in March 2009, as I print a second run of the posters, a little more than a year later. I continued to live in Providence after I finished architecture school, and watched my city continue along the same paths that had led to the demolition of the mills. The city’s marketing team focused its ‘re-birth’ efforts on promoting what a great hub it was for creative people – at the same time as it had its workers shut down independent show spaces, kick artists out of their studios, and scrape screenprinted posters off of walls and streetlight poles. Destruction was not only carried out by bulldozers: I saw ‘upscale’ mill renovations continue to push industries and workshops out of their buildings, watched the housing market become absurdly inflated by investors’ speculation, then witnessed the bubble burst, my neighborhood hit hard by foreclosures in a flurry of board-ups. All the supposedly constructive strategies of modern capitalism – actions based on the logic of profit – seemed intent on ‘blasting and ruining’ the world that we live in.

 *  *  *

In the years since making the original drawing for this poster, up to the present moment, I have thought constantly about buildings and spaces, measuring them and drawing them, observing (formally as well as informally) how people live in them, and of course, experiencing built spaces myself every day. All of the places I’ve lived were shared with groups of people: sometimes under headings such as “collective” or “cooperative”, sometimes taking on no title, but just living together, respecting and supporting each other, giving each other time and space to be alone while sharing other aspects of our lives.

I’ve also been part of various group projects, among them a community garden, a shared shop for sculpture and woodworking, a horizontally-organized afterschool arts program, and the collaborative designing and construction of a collective-house kitchen. In each of these situations, I’ve seen different models of interaction play out. People choose different ways to use, share, or refuse power; give each other freedom to experiment, take risks, and fail; challenge each other to learn new skills; figure out ways of communicating their needs, sharing space, re-thinking their expectations, building new alliances… all to be able to accomplish more than they could have on their own.

Over time, these spaces – the project spaces as well as the living spaces – have changed, and changed, and changed again, to fit the lives of the people who are using them. Some of the changes are repeated or adjusted on an hourly or daily basis, such as moving chairs into the right arrangement for a conversation, or setting up a big table to work on a project. Less frequently, there’s an opportunity to nail together shelves, re-organize a room, or re-position office dividers, in order to store tools better, change up the space, or get some privacy. Once in a long while, it’s possible to tear down some of the walls and re-think how the whole place could be organized, starting from an open floor plan.

Even in apartments or commercial offices that were originally intended for humans, the inhabitants actively modify them as much as they are able to, just as the artists and other tenants modified their spaces in the giant mills. Very few of these modifications have any input from professional architects – yet these are the crucial actions that make our spaces inhabitable and useful for our daily lives. The ‘architecture’ I had learned about in school – in which buildings were designed by architects, built by construction crews, and then lived in, passively, by ordinary people – was very different from this model of ongoing, incremental change.

Just as we practice new ways of relating to each other, trying to create new models for non-hierarchical interaction, we are also testing out our relationships with the space around us. Sometimes we slip into habits, getting stuck in patterns of social interaction that we find hard to change. Sometimes our space hems us in, restricts us from doing what we’d like with it, doesn’t allow the kind of interactions that we want to have. Occasionally, however, we are able to actually create a space that fits us; we are able to succeed in changing our frustrating ways of interacting. Just as we modify the way the spaces we inhabit are set up, we are able to build new networks of exchange, learning, and mutual support.

 *  *  *

This understanding offers me new insight on the quotation from Durruti. I wonder if the new structures that we carry in our hearts are not just physical spaces, but are the relationships we build and practice among ourselves.

Implicit in Durruti’s thought is the conviction that we are building this new structure now, already, at this very moment, as we creatively practice living together every day. We are not waiting for society to collapse or for centralized power to wither away before we begin living the lives we want to live. Risking, learning, and growing can happen at any moment, before the ‘revolution’ as well as after the disaster. These attempts, our continual practices of listening to and understanding each other, working and living together in co-operation, are already becoming the the materials from which we are building our new world.

The former textile mills remain an inspiration to me, for the flexibility of their spaces and the way that they can harbor a growing creative and productive life within them. I have also been inspired by the communities that we continue to create in the rest of our city, in small apartments and in garages and basements, in garden plots and backyards, in mill spaces where we still have them, in kitchens, on sidewalks, and in the streets. All of these places, constructed by the profit-focused mechanisms of our current society, are problematic and barely functioning: they have already been left to us in ruins. However ill-suited or restrictive they might be, they are our raw material, and they have a lot to teach us.

Instead of nostalgically re-creating old building types, though, we will need to imagine new spaces and develop new methods of construction that will fit us better, that will help foster our changing lives. The right forms for buildings, and the right structures for society, cannot come from the drafting table of a single, radically enlightened architect or anarchist. We will figure them out together, beginning with how we are living together now, starting from the skills and materials we already know.

The vitality of our lives together, and of whatever new society we build, will depend on the fact that our structures and relationships will not ever be fixed into a ‘perfect’ form, will never be completely known or fully understood. We will always be making new experiments, trying, failing often, succeeding occasionally, learning from our experience, and trying again. At times, we will have to ruin even the structures we create ourselves, whether they are societal or physical, so they do not become petrified and immovable. What I ultimately take from Buenaventura Durruti’s words is that we cannot be afraid to dismantle our lives – we must continually un-build and re-build the various frameworks of our own existence – to keep them flexible, to allow us and our communities to continue to change and grow.

Pierre Van Passen (a journalist):

And even if you win – you do know, don’t you, that you’re going to inherit piles of ruins?

Buenaventura Durruti:

…We have always lived in misery, and we will accommodate ourselves to it for some time yet. Don’t forget, though, that the workers are the only producers of wealth – we, the workers, run the machines in the factories, we extract coal and minerals from the mines, we built the cities… Why shouldn’t we rebuild them – new and better – to replace that which is destroyed?

Ruins do not scare us. We know that we will inherit nothing more than ruins, because the bourgeoisie will try to destroy the world in the last phase of their history. But, I repeat, we are not frightened by ruins, because we carry a new world in our hearts, murmuring forcefully – a world which is growing this very instant.

 

 


brief note of some influences / further reading ::

  • Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia
  • Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn
  • New Urban Arts‘ philosophy, practice, and existence
  • Nabeel Hamdi: Housing Without Houses
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper
  • John McPhee: The Control of Nature
  • Ursula K. LeGuin: The Dispossessed
  • CrimethInc Collective: the Harbinger newsletter, and other writings
  • Christopher Alexander and others: A Pattern Language
  • plus lots of ongoing conversations with awesome folks…

13 Comments »

  1. Jean, fantastic work! Really inspiring! I particularly love how clearly you’ve expressed the value of the mill buildings, here:

    Why would you destroy something that could never be built again, something that was locally relevant and specific to our city – in favor of making a cheap cookie-cutter replication of a shopping center that could be found anywhere across the country?

    But the formalist kind of architectural training (do this, do not do this) has as an advantage that by fitting the designer into certain paths, the designer can learn more about how buildings go together in a technical sense. There’s got to be some value in recapitulating existing work, because it helps you get to that next place.

    As an example, loft beds are a pretty cool use of space, but Murphy beds (fold up into a cabinet) are even cooler in some ways. But it’s nice to not have to design a Murphy bed from the blue every time you want to explore that option for sleeping.

    Comment by Jonathan — March 16, 2009 @ 11:27 pm
  2. Jonathan, thanks!

    yes, I would say that this essay’s weakness is the sloppy way in which I kick conventional “architecture” while it’s down, without really explaining myself… I decided at some point that the essay shouldn’t have a critique of architecture-as-practiced as its main focus, so I kind of glossed over that at the end. maybe that part early on doesn’t really belong in there, because I never tie it up clearly…

    I actually want to learn as much as I can about conventional building practice. One of my core interests/pursuits is learning about the techniques by which buildings are made, whether financial or physical, in our world as it exists today. There is so much valuable experience and understanding that I have yet to gain; I am not trying to dismiss that body of accumulated practical knowledge.

    What I am trying to critique here is the unnecessary division of practice, into designing/building/inhabiting; and also the unnecessary limitation by overly-convoluted code and legislation of what you can do when building, and who can do it.

    [I think many architects, contractors, and their clients would agree here, having themselves come up against the barriers of convention, finance, and/or code in trying to develop and construct buildings that are the best and most well-suited for their purposes.]

    Note the “unnecessary” in the sentences above. I’m going to quote from Martin Buber again, since he addresses this specific thing:

    …[T]he essential task… is to test day by day what the maximum of freedom is that can and may be realized to-day; to test how much “State” is still necessary to-day, and always to draw the practical conclusions. In all probability there will never — so long as humanity is what it is — be “freedom” pure and simple, and there will be “State”, i.e. compulsion, for just so long; the important thing, however, is the day to day question: no more State than is indispensable, no less freedom than is allowable. And freedom, socially speaking, means above all freedom for community, a community free and independent of State compulsion.

    Paths In Utopia, Martin Buber, p.104. His run-on sentences are so much longer than mine are! But he wrote in German, so I guess he’s got an excuse…

    * * * *

    Murphy beds: some people like them. for me, I am pretty sure that a murphy bed would either stay up or down: clearing away other projects to make room for it to fold down would be too much of a hassle at night, or clearing away the books, pajamas, pillows, cat, etc. off the bed to fold it up would never happen first thing in the morning, then I would be sitting on it all day trying to draw or type in my lap. the loft bed works for me because it separates the zones…

    however, your point holds true: there are many who would want an unconventional bed of some kind, but would not want to or be able to construct it themselves; in order that that customization should be available also to them, there should be “standardized unconventional” (??) possibilities out there… I think about this a lot, how to make those possibilities available to people, using common materials and tools, so that the end results will be inexpensive: “customizable” but not “bespoke”, if that is a distinction that makes any sense.

    [even though I am creeped out by their lifestyle-based marketing, I think Ikea is actually doing kind of interesting or novel work in this realm, to some extent — or at least that is what they are selling in their catalogs, the ability to design and put together your space yourself. but that is a topic for another essay probably…]

    Comment by jean — March 17, 2009 @ 6:53 pm
  3. I thought building codes were supposed to help people achieve livable spaces by ensuring that the people who doing their living in those spaces weren’t killed by fire, smoke, or disease.

    But you’re right on as to the unnecessary divisions: it would be good to have more ability for ordinary people to make their own living spaces, not to feel as if they were stuck in the same furniture for different purposes. I think that’s the Ikea benefit: the furniture is so cheap that it’s practically disposable. Very Victor Papanek.

    As for the murphy beds, I read this Joe Gores book the other day, and in it the main character has a murphy bed. No cat, however.

    Comment by Jonathan — March 18, 2009 @ 12:55 pm
  4. I thought building codes were supposed to help people achieve livable spaces by ensuring that the people who doing their living in those spaces weren’t killed by fire, smoke, or disease.

    ah, ideally it should be thus, should it not? but as my friend JJ (incomparable capitalist and building developer extraordinaire ) says in this interview, the way that building regulations exist these days is often as a maze of over-complicated hoops to jump through, that usually end up unnecessarily forcing projects to take longer & cost more than they should.

    Additionally, inspection departments tend to be very suspicious of new technologies and buildings that don’t conform to their ideas of what’s a good building, or to what they’ve seen before. Unique and awesome community-based projects like this building that combines residential, office, and entertainment spaces in a historic firehouse end up bogged down in inspection processes for months and months… while buildings that follow a more ‘normal’ model (more standardized, more speculative, less thoughtful, and in most cases, actually less well constructed) coast through the certification processes with ease.

    Thus we get more crappier buildings, built just up to the minimum standards to pass the codes… and fewer awesome buildings that actually are an interesting contribution to the life of the city.

    I guess that is the hallmark of a bureaucracy, maybe: a law made to protect the individual from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous profiteers — some number of years later, ends up a) making it harder for individuals to do interesting and unique things, and b) allowing the profiteers to get away with the bare minimum and not have to give consideration to people’s actual lives.

    Comment by jean — March 18, 2009 @ 11:49 pm
  5. I’m editing the essay, revised version should be posted thursday night. comments are being taken into account! thank you!

    Comment by jean — March 18, 2009 @ 11:55 pm
  6. Jean, great ideas, and so many of them packed so tightly together! So the mill buildings start out as your template for spaces that contemporary generations can inhabit and customize, and then you move along to pointing out the fact that contemporary architectural practices inhibit this process. But I can’t figure out how the Durruti quote really speaks to these processes.

    Comment by Jonathan — March 19, 2009 @ 9:34 am
  7. […] We are not frightened by ruins! A beautiful poster, an essay for a half-demolished textile mill, a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, and a world that is constantly changing.  (And here’s a cool CNT poster featuring Durruti. And here’s some Spanish anarchist folksongs you can download.) […]

    Pingback by Poumish « Poumista — March 26, 2009 @ 11:23 am
  8. Briefly replying to Jonathan’s last comment: That is what the whole essay is about, or at least the second half of it!

    As for my personal history, I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t stumbled across anarchist/anti-authoritarian politics (not sure how best to describe those viewpoints in few words), at this point I would be an architectural intern in a firm specializing in historic restoration/renovation of old buildings. That would not necessarily have been a bad outcome of my life, just a different one.

    However, I think that the outlook that is embodied in the Durruti quote, that I tried to extrapolate in the essay above, led me towards a more subtle understanding than I would have had if I’d followed the straight architecture path. The essay isn’t just about architecture (I don’t propose any specific systems or dimensions for buildings in it, after all) but it’s about change and complexity, having patience for situations to work out in not-easily-simplifiable ways, opening the way for mess instead of seeking after order and control. That applies over all areas of life, not just buildings. It’s something I struggle with and think about every day!

    And as I wrote above, good ways of doing things (whether building, interacting, living together, whatever) cannot just be designed by an architect or a theorist or a political visionary, cannot be created by one group of people and handed down to another group of people. It’s not about switching from one kind of architecture to another, it’s about changing your whole attitude towards the world, to let it be out of your control sometimes, to create more connections and possibilities…

    Comment by jean — March 26, 2009 @ 6:35 pm
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