Architects of Change

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Art, Articles

More than a decade ago, I sat down with the head of the academy of architecture in Pyongyang. The school was housed in a large, drafty building in the center of North Korea’s capital. Students were building models out of cardboard and wood. A few were in front of state-of-the-art desktops using the computer-aided design software that had become indispensible to modern architects. But there was one element missing from the architecture program. North Korean builders paid virtually no attention to energy efficiency.

This seemed odd to me at the time. In 2000, North Korea was still recovering from a major food crisis, which had been precipitated by shortages of energy used to power tractors and produce fertilizer. Its manufacturing sector had also collapsed, and its energy grid was in a perilous state. North Korea didn’t even have enough energy to extract its only source of fossil fuel, coal. During the winter in Pyongyang, everyone wore warm coats inside their offices because there was no heat in the buildings.

For a regime desperate to conserve energy for its industrial and agricultural sectors, building more energy-efficient structures seemed a no-brainer. And the head of the architecture academy was certainly interested in sending a delegation to the United States to learn more about double glazing and passive solar construction. But someone higher up in the North Korean government did not see the light. So the energy-efficient architecture exchange never went through, and North Korean buildings continued to be too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

The flaws in North Korea’s architecture reflected the larger inadequacies of North Korean society: too much emphasis on the monumental, too little concern for individual comfort, and no provisions for environmental sustainability. To reconstruct North Korean society, there was no better place to start than rebuilding North Korean architecture. But reconstruction was not yet in the cards.

In North Korea and elsewhere, architecture provides the language and metaphors of reform. We start with the proper foundation. We consult with the architects of our policy. We draw up careful blueprints. Indeed, architecture and politics have long been entwined, whether in Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to erecting public buildings that reflect American values or in Albert Speer’s translation of Nazi principles into grandiose edifices. It’s no surprise that the Masons – a semi-secret society that ties its creation rather fancifully to the builders of the great pyramids – were at the forefront of revolutions in Europe and, through Masons such as George Washington and Ben Franklin, in America as well.

In literature, too, architects are powerful political symbols. In Ayn Rand’s 1943 bestseller The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is the architect as demi-god, a creator who cares nothing about social responsibility and wants only to build houses for individuals craving solitude. He insists that the architect’s vision cannot be compromised and even destroys his own building when others mar its integrity. Brought to trial for this offense, he gives a final oration that divides the world into creators and parasites, praises the virtues of selfishness, and makes architecture into the supreme act of the ego’s transformation of surrounding nature. It was only a few steps from Howard Roark to Margaret Thatcher and the architects of the neoliberal revolution.

But aside from the occasional architect-autocrat – Frank Lloyd Wright was famously tyrannical about clients maintaining his houses exactly to specifications – Ayn Rand’s understanding of the profession was as deficient as her knowledge of economics and politics. Architects work through a set of overlapping relationships with clients, construction firms, and public officials (as Tracy Kidder’s book House so concretely demonstrates). Architects are team players. Their creations, even the mansions for the 1 percent, are embedded in the social fabric of utilities, land use, taxation. More ambitiously, architects can be part of grander social schemes.

Consider the latest project from the Open Architecture Challenge. Every other year, the group Architecture for Humanity comes up with a competition for architects to deploy their skills for the common good. This year, the challenge is to come up with alternative uses for military bases. This is not only a serious effort, it’s an urgent one.

“In the United States alone more than 235 military sites are scheduled for closure or realignment,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Chris Bystedt in Repurposing Military Bases. “The U.S. military was under orders to downsize 5 percent of its entire infrastructure on or before September 15, 2011 in accordance with the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) ruling. The ruling will force the relocation of more than 125,000 military personnel and their families. It’s not just inside the United States. Dotting the global landscape, decommissioned military installations leave their mark. They are symbols of triumph, pride, pain, and the unforeseen consequences of military aggression. These abandoned structures and ghost towns can disrupt neighborhoods and split entire communities.”

You might think that military bases would be the last place that architects could effect social and environmental change. But in fact architects have already successfully transformed military bases around the world. I visited a base in Banja Luka in Republika Srpska that had become an art school. The Philadelphia naval shipyard has become a hub for sustainable energy projects that has attracted, among other things, a solar panel manufacturer.

Of course, not all architects are going to offer communities with military bases such sensible alternative uses. Like poor Benton Harbor, Michigan – profiled in the recent New York Times Magazine – architects and urban planners may well offer golf courses. They might offer luxury resorts and energy-inefficient McMansions.

But if even North Korea is willing to consider green buildings, then architects are really onto something here. For, you see, the North Korean elite did eventually see the light on energy efficiency. Several years after I failed to convince the bureaucracy of the importance of the subject, the North Korean government signed a deal with a Swiss NGO to establish a center on energy efficiency in Pyongyang. It also agreed to work with the Fuller Center for Housing, based in Americus, Georgia, to build 50 energy-efficient houses for farmers working in a tree nursery just outside of Pyongyang.

If you build it, they will eventually come? Not exactly. But in this particular field of dreams, if you keep talking about building it and describing the advantages of building it and arguing that in today’s climate-change world there are no alternatives to building it, they will eventually come around.

Passing of an Era

The “Dear Architect” Kim Jong Il was traveling around North Korea on his latest “on-the-spot guidance” tour to make sure that everything was up to spec when he suffered a heart attack over the weekend and died. He was only the second leader that North Korea has ever known.

“In the end, Kim Jong Il didn’t fundamentally change North Korea or offer an alternative economic or political system that could rival that of China or South Korea,” I write in my dual obituary of Kim and Vaclav Havel. “He will ultimately be remembered as a transitional figure between his ruthless but transformative father and a future that has yet to be determined by his son and successor Kim Jeong Eun.”

We are witnessing a similar political transformation in the wake of the Arab Spring, as Islamists are winning elections across North Africa. “The Arab world is seeing a sea change,” reports FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo in Arab Islamists Are Here to Stay. “The Arab people are facing many crucial and important choices that will determine the future the Middle East. New Arab governments will face monumental challenges such as deep poverty, poor industrial infrastructure, broken health systems, and systemic corruption. And if the recent election results are any indication, the Islamists are here to stay.”

FPIF blogger Rob Prince, meanwhile, has been in Tunisia reporting back in waves on the elections. In his latest letter, he describes the excitement of Tunisians going to the polls. “The very people the U.S. media has denigrated, deformed their history, language and religion so out of shape that it is unrecognizable and so that people in the United States fear the words ‘Arab’ and ‘Moslem’…it is precisely these people who have responded by showing the world what human decency, democracy is all about.”

Occupy the World?

Winter is setting in, and city authorities are cracking down. But the Occupy movement continues to operate in Washington, DC and several other cities, in the blogosphere, and in the hearts of many who await a springtime revival.

Occupy movements radiated out from Wall Street to many places around the world. But, FPIF contributor Jason Hickel argues, it didn’t really become international in spirit. “True, Occupy protestors and their sympathizers have helped sound the alarm on issues of international concern like fossil fuels and climate change, as we saw recently at the COP17 meetings in Durban,” he writes in How to Occupy the World. “But as it presently stands the Occupy agenda is rather provincial – even Eurocentric. Aside from its radical elements, most of the movement’s American and European supporters simply want to reclaim their rights to live decent, dignified, middle-class lives.”

On Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea, the Occupy spirit lives on in the protests against a naval base that the South Korean government is constructing. “The Save Jeju Island campaign is what many international peace activists have been waiting for: an entirely winnable cause for peace with significant international implications,” writes FPIF contributor Matthew Hoey in Popping the Jeju Bubble. “It’s a shot across the bow against U.S. militarization efforts in a region that Washington increasingly sees as the next front after the Middle East. The Jeju Island naval base project is not only highly symbolic but also quite dire in its potential impact on global security.”

Exporting Gay Rights

The Obama administration, following a similar announcement by the UK government of David Cameron, has notified countries with homophobic laws that they might lose their foreign aid. FPIF columnist Kwei Quartey points out that although these laws are noxious, the linkage might only increase the stigmatism suffered by gays and lesbians in the targeted countries.

“In the final analysis, the Obama-Cameron-Clinton triumvirate could end up doing a disservice to those they claim to want to help,” he writes in Can the West Export Gay Rights? “On the other hand, if Uganda were to finally pass its on-again, off-again death penalty bill for homosexuality, it is hard to imagine how the U.S. government could fold its arms and do nothing. It would need to conjure up all its skill to walk the tightrope between mindfulness and meddling.”

FPIF columnist Stephen Zunes, meanwhile, takes a look at a Facebook ad from the Obama campaign that criticizes the Republican stance on cutting foreign aid to Israel. “The actual position taken by these Republican presidential candidates is that all foreign aid should initially start at zero as means of reducing the deficit, to be immediately followed by the resumption of aid on a case-by-case basis,” he writes in Obama Ad Condemns Israel Aid Opponents. “As they themselves have acknowledged, they would immediately resume aid to Israel and perhaps even increase it. Ironically, U.S. ‘aid for Israel’ goes almost exclusively to U.S. arms manufacturers, with which the Republican candidates have a close relationship.”

Finally, we review a graphic novel about the Green Revolution in Iran, Zahra’s Paradise. FPIF contributor Peter Certo highly recommends it for “skillfully employing the story of one family to elucidate a tenuous historical moment, fleshing it out in the richest of both human and political terms: history as an act of love and art.”

We’re taking off for the holidays. If you’ve read this far, you’re a loyal World Beat follower. Please consider following up on this loyalty with a donation to keep FPIF going next year. We depend on you!

See you in 2012….

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