Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2016 Venice Architectural Biennale


This is a post about the work I contributed to "Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City", the exhibition (curated by Andy Locsin, Sudarshan Khadka and Juan Paolo de la Cruz of LVLP ) that was the Philippine Pavilion in the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale. The work is a tripartite video sculpture I titled "Gillage", a meditation of socio-architectural issues examplified by the informal structures built on and around the Pandacan bridge. The exhibition consisted of 3 rooms of objects representing conjectures and meditations on the history, current state, and possible fate of various iconic pieces of Manila's architecture, which rapid development has been flattening like pancakes. 

“Gillage” is a portmanteau word composed of “gilid” (which means “border” or “edge” in Tagalog) and “village”. The word “village” in this case refers to the exclusive, gated communities that dot Manila. Gillages are the informal settlements that inevitably surround the gated communities. The architect and historian Paolo Alcazaren points out that gillages arise in the peripheries of gated villages, because the villages require an army of laborers that need to be housed. Since low-cost housing and efficient public transportation is unavailable, all workers who are not live-in domestics have to make their home in informal settlements near -- sometimes literally just outside the walls of – these gated communities. This state of affairs means that the gated villages effectively sustain, and possibly even generate the informal settlements that are conceived as their opposites. It is a particularly ironic detail of this arrangement that many of the security guards that these villages rely on to maintain their borders make their homes in precisely those settlements that their employers regard as the dwelling-places of criminals and undesirables.

It was a small step to realize that iconic buildings, which house businesses with their own labor requirements, participated in the same paradox. It was clear to me then that an exhibit that focused on iconic architecture ought to have its own gillage somewhere.

This realization merged with a long-simmering curiosity about the so-called “trolleys” that ply the tracks of the Philippine National Railway, which I had often seen crossing the Pasig river in the Pandacan area. “Trolleys” here refer to the makeshift, foot-propelled vehicles that, like jeepneys, have arisen in response to the shortage of  public transportation. The trolleys are  made of wood and bamboo, light enough to be carried by a single man, and strategically padded to facilitate this operation. They are equipped with umbrellas and a braking system, and they ferry passengers on the rails for a fee. Students of the nearby Polytechnic University of the Philippines avail of them to cross the Pasig for the princely sum of ten pesos (U$ 0.21) . Some of the students are children of the trolleymen, and help out with the family business when their schedules allow.

As an act of architectural hacking, the trolley is in the same class as the informal house. However, unlike houses, the stringent weight requirements of the trolley trade eliminates all extraneous details except those that directly address the needs of the enterprise. As every gram of the trolley’s weight is a gram that must be pushed and carried by the operator, the trolley has evolved into a distillate of successful, low-cost engineering choices in a strong, light, and stable frame. While ingenuity and improvisation are also called upon to make any sort of house from scratch, the trolley’s minimalist construction make these powers easily visible. Representing informal dwellings with structures made of trolley parts seemed a way to make visible the ingenuity and resilience that informal dwellers call on every day to make headway under the difficult circumstances of life outside the edges of property law and government interest. Finally, I want to say I find the trolleys beautiful in and of themselves. Their spindly, skeletal appearance reminds me of the way planes looked in the early days of powered flight, and the image of trolleys flying above the river is a moment of air and light in existences generally conducted in cramped spaces and dark interiors.

In Pandacan, a man called Tongkie builds all the trolleys for the area. My team and I tracked him down and commissioned him to build three of them for us. After we agreed on the terms, we asked if he might find three friends who might be willing to trade their old, patinated trolleys for our new ones. This Alladinesque proposal (“New lamps for old!”)  was initially met with some puzzlement, but three takers were eventually found.

For my contribution to Muhon, my team consequently took three well-used trolleys to the garage of a friend’s house and proceeded to break them down into their component parts. The parts were combined to make the stands for three video sculptures whose silhouettes fit into the dimensions dictated by the curatorial brief, and which allude to the shapes of office buildings and skyscrapers.

1)   The sculpture my team and I referred to as “History” was a structure of robustly joined trolley parts above which were raised two 32” video screens in portrait orientation that displayed video of a) Sketchup images of the Pandacan Bridge rendered in a style that alluded to paper blueprints and b) footage of trolleys and informal structures built on and around the bridge. The sculpture was intended to contrast the quasi-Platonic architectural vision of the structure with the messy augmentations produced by its collision with the sociopolitical realities of Manila.

2)   The sculpture we called “Modernity” is much bigger, alluding to the progressive expansion and accumulation of architectural hacks on formal structures. Four video screens feature looping videos of details of informal houses and trolley construction and use. Close inspection is rewarded with a view of jerry-rigged media players based on the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, encased in a way intended to reflect the improvised and recycled nature of informal settlements.

3)   The sculpture we nicknamed “Futurity” recapitulates the form of “History”, except that the video screens are suspended above a loose and amorphous pile of trolley fragments. This sculpture hosts video of a) An animated Sketchup perspective for an informal dwelling and b) video footage of the demolition of an informal dwelling by its inhabitants, who as a rule accede to demolition orders so as to maintain possession of their building materials. This final sculpture focuses on the cycle that informal settlements are embedded in, and the fate they meet when market forces raise the value of the land they occupy to the point that the profits that ensue from demolition outweigh the political benefits of inaction.