Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Form Language of the Ecocathedral

Today was spent at Mildam, at the Ecocathedral rather than at Kennedy Laan. I arrived at 7.30am (after getting lost on bike tracks) at the area I refer to as the Pinnacles (though I think Louis and the Stichting call it something else). This area is at the southern end and is the most elevated area with layers and layers of structures that end up perhaps 5-4m in total. I was working on another drawing of the complex (unfinished – I will post it tomorrow. As I said before, I suspect that drawing these “tables” is more complex than building them). I was listening to Tool on my headphones and was absorbed with the drawing when I suddenly noticed an old man looming above me on the stones – I jumped out of my skin.

It turned out I had met this guy before on a previous visit – he was a nearby neighbor, and very nice. He had a bucket and was picking out the odd small weed amongst what to my eyes, was a huge amount of weeds between paving. He discussed how he had introduced interesting plants that would colonise, and how these plants had been stolen by visitors. He also discussed working with Louis over 20 years, and I remembered how he had been raking paths between trees last time I had been there. I asked him if he was a member of the Stichting and he scoffed and said that they were “all talk – they don’t do enough work” he said, “when Louis was here he would work 10 hours a day”. He commented that the project needed a constant presence to keep it seeming safe and active. I remember from my own experience as a gardener that we had a similar role in parks for Councils. Gardeneers yes, but also kind of security. This is an important aspect because the Ecocathedral process is just that, a process, and visibility of people in action is vital to the perception by people of that time. This process could be staged to address the most visible areas, as it is already doing somewhat at the entry. This makes the piles like stages and the construction a performance. This is almost happening now at the Kennedy Laan.

I have been pursuing the drawings for a number of reasons. Yesterday, after my bike was stolen and I was stuck in the center trying to get a new one, I got so annoyed I sat by the canal in the center of town, on the grass in the shade and re-read the Culture : Nature book about Le Roy. I managed to finish the book in 2 ½ hours and was stuck by what a good book it is, and what I could add valuably to its coverage. There were a things that came to mind: Description of specific processes and techniques that I could observe in the construction or noticed through doing it; Social and cultural aspects of the Stichting that put the theory in perspective and; the constructions as formal configurations, in terms of the relationship of their seemingly ad-hoc construction to the type of space they created. Considering my expertise it is the last that seems to be most valuable and is important because they all don’t think that the forms matter, but put all their energy into them. And these forms they create have experiential qualities, that can be talked about. The pinnacles is a good example, and elucidates another principle.

ETO 5. All Ecocathedral construction is about building foundations.

Since the eco-cathedral is a process not a form or a thing, any construction is temporary. All work is at an intermediate stage. That is to say that there is no definite end to it and the end is not what is sought specifically. Since time passes both on site and during ones own life the amount of variables increases so that the design changes every time, if only slightly since one has last worked. Correspondingly what you build is both practically and ideologically, simply a foundation. This leads to a certain size since the start must be sized to allow a lot of improvisation in future. This activity builds the ground effectively and begins the process of elevation of the ground which is probably the formal basis of the project. It makes topography in a flat country. Louis regularly talks in metres, such as his desire to have a 200m skyscraper in 3000 (I will provide an obvious gender critique of such erections at a later date). So all the tables are built wide or long to accommodate future change, of an unknown nature, at a later date, The most important characteristic is actually that these forms do not PRECLUDE anything for the future. Its what they don’t do rather than they do that counts. They should not limit possibility. They must be suitably generic both constructionally and aesthetically. In terms of construction the aim is to make a large, battered masonry platform that has thick walls and consistent fill. If the form is a consistent rectangle then there is maximum possibility of other things to occur. Heres a drawing that shows what I mean:

The Pinnacles is very much a combination of foundations. The gentleman I met told me it had been built in approximately 1990, and that the rough surface concealed a pile of 390 massive Kerb blocks. You can read the stages of the construction in the overlap of the different overlapping and interlocking stages. Similar details, such as “The Bulge” (where the bond climbs outwards) and “The Strip” (the protruding line of flat blocks half way up) are used to give detail to the foundations. In the pinnacles one climbs gradually up a platform and then suddenly you see a tall pile that looks about 2m. Then you descend into a chamber and the pile is revealed as 4m high. The foundations have come together to make a space and so it’s a sort of interior-exterior space. I spent 2 hours in this space today and it was pretty magic – it felt very deliberate compared to Louis’ disdain for design. I like how these objects at times transcend simply being things but are instead an infrastructure. I am interested in the language that these objects have, not because I always love it but because its an interesting choice for this type of improvisation (jazz rock gardening is what Thomas and I have been calling it).

The form language of the project is something I want to consider both because I think it’s a contribution I can make, but also because iit is ill-considered, potentially interesting but also kinda hideous. To talk about the ecocathedral as form it to also talk about things like vernacular construction, community art and kitsch. The same conversation could be had about Watts Towers in LA, and numerous community development projects all over the world. They think that form is irrelevant without realizing that it is Louis’ ability to navigate art, design and concepts that have allowed the project to get esteem in these circles, rather than seeming just the work of some country teacher in a tiny town. There are things that Louis did with the form that were very canny even as he dismissed them. They are about the sensibility of the construction and also as a typology. When Louis is no longer the voice and visual arbiter of the project it will be difficult to keep these forms under control considering the more community orientated concerns of the project.

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