No. 18

A letter from Hou Hanru to Hans Ulrich Obrist

The Yangjiang Group headquarters. © the artists.

Dear HUO,

I enjoyed very much reading your comments on Metabolism, and especially Damisch’s A Theory of /Cloud/. It certainly is pertinent to rethink the functions, forms and essence of architecture in light of the global trend in urban booms – sustainability being the central issue here. It evokes, among many possible implications, the utopian idea of architecture – and creation in general – as a process rather than a finished object. In the contemporary context, it implies desires, visions and strategies of resisting the logic of capitalist, consumerist and totalitarian systems of production – the production of the society of the spectacle that usurps the real meaning of life as a living process and an infinite horizon of change.

This dream was not unique to the Japanese Metabolists. Interestingly, across the Pacific in Latin America, where a similar economic boom was taking place in the 1960s and ’70s, there were also amazing movements in all fields of creation that conveyed the same revolutionary message and idealized the aspirations of social liberation. We are now all familiar with the Tropicália movement led by Hélio Oiticica, along with Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, inspired by the organically self-organizational way of living and process of space production in the favela. What is equally exciting and significant is that parallel to this art movement, there existed groups in the Brazilian architecture scene like Arquitetura Nova (Sérgio Ferro, Flavio Império and Rodrigo Lefèvre) who promoted the idea of process as the most important aspect of architecture and privileged construction over design, in opposition to the mainstream represented by “official avant-gardes” like Oscar Niemeyer. Their radical position led to direct political engagement and even terrorist acts as an extension of their architectural and imaginative ideals. Their practice also resonated with the global trend of idealism embracing flexibility, movement and change in architecture and urbanism that characterized Metabolism in Japan, Archigram in the UK and Superstudio in Italy.

However, Arquitetura Nova were far more radical and revolutionary. They drew their inspiration directly from and conceived their projects for the bottom of a society striving to partake in the modernization process, often marginalized and excluded from the mainstream of social transformation. This grassroots social force squatted and occupied urban and suburban lands and invented their own urban spaces and organization: the favela. Escaping the control of the authorities, this kind of “extra-territory” generated and enjoyed freedoms that were being eradicated by the official projects of modern society. This social force incarnated a key aspect of the making of the kind of multiple, non-Western and innovative modernities so cherished today by intellectuals, social activists and creators. The freedoms represented by the favela points, as John Turner has suggested, to the following:

The freedom of community self-selection; the freedom to budget one’s own resources; and the freedom to shape one’s own environment…squatters have a homogeneity of purpose but maintain the heterogeneity of social characteristics vital for cultural stimulation and growth. (1)

Arquitetura Nova used inexpensive materials and structures to construct housing projects – often small-scale and experimental – in order to provide the poor community an architecture that was simple, cheap and easily mass-produced; moreover, unsatisfied by the outcome of their experiments and their effects on social liberation, they later turned to direct and violent acts of social revolution, such as robbing banks and bombings – acts of terrorism. Thus they eventually became more closely aligned with movements like Autonomia and the Red Brigade than with contemporaneous architectural movements.

Richard J Williams came to an insightful conclusion:

The group [Arquitetura Nova]’s experiments remain important, however. Like the artistic experiments of the circle around Oiticica in Rio, they point up the contradictions in the official rhetoric of modernization and progress, and they argue convincingly that any meaningful process of liberation will necessarily be driven from below, rather than imposed from above. The objects they produced, finally, show how an aesthetic of play might be made central to building. Niemeyer and his circle wished to generate a sense of dumbstruck awe in the beholder – a position in which the beholder is (albeit temporarily) powerless. By contrast, the artists and architects described in this chapter [Arquitetura Nova, Oiticica, Pape, Clark, etc] wanted to empower the beholder. (2)

Interestingly, this bottom-up vision and strategy of social liberation, as well as self-organization and self-realization, is now being echoed around the world, prompted by the 21st century globalization of “liberal” capitalism. We are seeing unprecedented proliferation of self-organizational acts of resistance and alter-globalization everywhere, especially in the “developing world.”

China, the most spectacular theater of social transformation driven by modernization and integration into the mainstream global system, is also increasingly an intense and dramatic stage of social, economic, cultural and even political resistance and innovative initiatives of self-liberation. Not only do stories of violent confrontation between local residents threatened by gentrification and the alliance of developers and governments expelling inhabitants from city centers appear regularly on the front pages of the press, the art communities are also organizing to defend their rights to live and work in inexpensive studios under threats of demolition. They are producing creative actions and art works to give voice to their protests. One recent example is the violent confrontations between artists and demolition teams in Beijing’s Zhengyang Creative Art Zone in February 2010. The artists organized protest campaigns in the Art Zone with performances, posters and public debates before ultimately taking to the streets of Tiananmen Square – for the first time since June 1989 – as a collective protest mounted in a highly sensitive and strictly controlled site. They organized a project titled “Warm Winter Art” and produced a film (directed by Xiao Ge, et al) that was banned by the authorities from public screening.

Zheng Guogu’s Empire. © the artist.

At the same time, other artists opt to develop their own alternative projects to create autonomous zones for freedom of creation and personal/social liberation. Zheng Guogu and his collective with Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qinglin, the Yangjiang Group, stand out among them. Living and working in Yangjiang, a large new city developed from a small ancient town situated in the south of Guangdong province (the avant-garde region of China’s modernization, urbanization and globalization), they have witnessed the rapid urbanization of the region unfold with what I call “post-planning” – ie, urban planning that appears only after veritable occupation of land and the construction of buildings as a posterior corrective act and as a regulator of economic and social conflicts. This group of artists, or more precisely, creators – their work includes activities that transcend conventional definitions of art to include design, architecture, and all aspects of everyday life – intervenes in the urban expansion process in the most extraordinary and liberating of ways. In the 1990s, the Yangjiang Group created actions, photographs, installations, literature and designs reflecting the rebellious reactions of the younger generation inspired by the introduction of consumerist pop culture and their rapidly mutating everyday lives. Combining various resources ranging from contemporary art, architecture, poetry, traditional Chinese painting, calligraphy, gardening, folkloric crafts, electronic games, and so on, they produced extravagantly hybrid projects of zusammenkunstwerk that took over the interior and exterior spaces of different sites in the city. They inserted bizarre structures – something between deconstructivist architecture and traditional gardens – into street views tidied by the city’s uniformed commercial-style housing projects.

Of course, these interventionalist constructs were conceived, designed and built without any legal approval process and complied to no official rules. So what we see in the permanently transient process of Chinese urbanization is that the conventional, official urban planning process has almost systematically been surpassed by the reality of rapid construction and urban mutation, prompted by both top-down impositions of political and economic powers and bottom-up grass-root initiatives. The works of Zheng Guogu and his Yangjiang friends appear strange and grotesque but always joyous and funny. It is this hybrid of rebellion and humour, extravagance and pleasure, anarchism and optimism – tainted with hints of transgression and illegality – that most typically and powerfully embodies the genially creative spirit and inventiveness of this generation of artists negotiating for their freedom in a particular historical moment – both for China and for the globalizing world.

At the turn of the 21st century, encouraged by their experiences and the effectiveness of their ambitions, the Yangjiang Group became even more radical and inventive. They expanded their projects to a much larger scale beyond homes and gallery spaces: they infiltrated the outskirts of the city and took over farmland. Inspired by his brother, a champion gamer and acknowledged hero in the online network of “Age of Empires” (the game’s objective being to conquer a boundary-less empire in the virtual world; the game is pursued frenetically by youngsters across Asia), Zheng Guogu decided to create his own “empire” in the real world. In 2001, he bought a large tract of land (approximately 40,000sqm) from farmers in the suburbs of Yangjiang – although the transaction has never been officially sanctioned due to lack of proper laws (property rights in China remain undefined, which has generated numerous disputes and violent fights between various sectors of the society over the past few decades). On this land, he and his friends have designed a whole set of buildings and gardens, again, hybrid, excessive and, of course, humorous, creating a personal mini-empire for their families and the art community: a utopia emerging abruptly in the midst of a chaotic transitional land between urban and rural worlds. All kinds of experimental activities can take place there unrestricted; art is completely merged with everyday life, and everyday life is completely integrated with art.

Operating on the margins of the legal system in no-man’s land, Zheng Guogu’s Empire demonstrates a shrewd strategy for inventing and developing an autonomous land of freedom. But it hasn’t been an easy process. Without legal approval of the transaction, it has been impossible to apply for the installation of any infrastructure. The artists have had to resort to all kinds of tricks in order to install electricity and running water and erect buildings without permission. They have had to negotiate with the neighbors and bribe the authorities to obtain the basic conditions needed to continue the project. They have also had to rely on an unstable art market to sell their other works to generate funds for construction. After more than eight years, the project is still in the making, with only a portion of the structures fit for habitation. The process has been similar to the production of favelas. And like the favelas, it is within this uncertain and unforeseeable process, full of improvisation, that some of the most original and innovative designs are born and realized – miracles of creativity, transgressing all existing rules of architecture and spatial production.

And while the Empire is still under construction, Zheng Guogu and his friends have already launched another venture. This time, they’ve purchased a piece of land in the middle of a highbrow residential neighborhood full of nouveau riche-style villas, where they are constructing Yangjiang Group’s new four-story headquarters to function as their studio, office and gathering place, as well as an open platform for all kinds of social experiments. What’s most interesting is that the building is being built without any plans. Everyday, the artists meet with the construction workers and decide together how to continue on from what was built the previous day. New elements are constantly being introduced, and old ones continually modified. So far, behind the messy scaffolding, one can vaguely recognize something comparable to the Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters, but on a bigger and crazier scale. The process of construction will continue for a good deal longer, but the artists are already working inside. No one has any idea when and how this building will be finished. Everything is open and unpredictable. Only one thing is sure: this is an endless moment for freedom. And it’s not in the clouds, but firmly on the earth!

All the best,

  1. JFC Turner, “The Squatter Settlement: An Architecture that Works,” Architectural Design (October 1968), pp 355-60. Quoted in Richard J. Williams, Brazil, Modern Architectures in History. (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) p. 167.

  2. Richard J. Williams, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) p.182.

No. 17

Curators on the Move 1-14

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