An interview with Marco Casagrande on the significance of ruins by Liva Dudareva / STRELKA Institute
How did you become interested in ruins?
There was a time when I felt kind of sick or kind of disturbed when I was looking at old drawings of ruins, that were displayed most of the time as romantic establishments relating to the period of the Enlightenment. But then I came across the book called “Dialectics of Enlightenment” by Max Horkheimer and Teodor Adorno. They both belonged to the philosophical school called the Frankfurt School. They had to escape Germany during the Second World War, and both went to the US, where they wrote this book. In short, “Dialectics of Enlightenment” is about how industrialism betrayed the Enlightenment. I was reading it, and somehow got interested again in ruins.
What does ruin mean for the city?
IN MY POINT OF VIEW THERE IS ONLY ONE REALITY AND IT IS NATURE. THE OFFICIAL CITY IS GOING TOWARDS FICTION. ITS JUST A SOME KIND OF MAD DREAM OF CENTRAL HIERARCHIES.
I used to live in Taiwan which has lots of ruins. When the Japanese left Taiwan, they left Japanese houses which the Taiwanese didn’t maintain but neither did they destroy them. Taipei has been growing very fast, and so nature had overtaken these Japanese ruins very quickly, turning them into small ecosystems inside the city. When you have a lot of small holes in the city, which nature takes over, they become points of acupuncture. The city is so fat and lazy, and industrial, and these acupuncture points in the form of Japanese ruins are actually doing some sort of good for Taipei in general, and people feel it. People are very interested, and I got interested in the question of how it is possible that there is this official city, which is polluted and basically trying to destroy nature, while inside the city you have people that are very real. They are using the official city in a very organic way and putting some new layers on top of it. I find it very hopeful. Ruins seem to play some sort of part in it. I started to research illegal communities in Taiwan, and in all settlements the jungle was playing part of it, and urban farming was playing part of it, and also the people. I was absolutely fascinated, because in Taiwan these communities could be in very high densities, without design, official systems or central power. They were real. And that is a key word. In my point of view there is only one reality and it is nature. The official city is going towards fiction. It’s just a kind of mad dream of the central hierarchies. Because it is not real, it is against nature and the symptom of that is pollution and so forth.
I got interested in the reality to the point that I asked TamKang University, where I was architecture professor at the time, to find me a ruin, because I could no longer live in a house. I wanted to move into a ruin. My wife would move into the ruin too. I would no longer teach in the institution, and students would also come to the ruin.
What kind of knowledge from nature did you gain while living in the ruin?
When I was working in the Treasure Hill, we changed it into the Third Generation City and it was real. Same thing when we moved to the Tea Factory – to the ruin of the Tea Factory. We had to find out what you really need to survive. It is not romantic. For example we had big cobras, that can kill you. I’m living in the same ruin with A cobra, or perhaps many cobras. You don’t leave your food around, because then A mouse or rat comes, and after the rat comes a cobra. These kind of realities start to come out of observations.
For example, the ruins had quite a few bonsais. Bonsai is a tree that has found out that The human made environment is an environment where he can live. The same tree could grow 20m high just 10m away from the ruin. But when he is living in the ruin, for example in an empty windowsill that has little topsoil, he decides to stay 50cm. He knows how water is coming in and how the sun is circulated, but also how strong the structure of the bricks is. I have followed this process. He doesn’t grow, he stays there. You can scale these things up and down, but it takes a bit of time to observe them, and you need to be there, and you need to be normal, because research is not normal and design is not normal. When things become normal, then you actually start finding something real.
The only way to feel normal is with nature. The whole mindset of nature is about A constant exchange of energy, and you are part of that. If i really put my energy in nature, if i go skiing, build a fire, pick mushrooms, I feel this energy exchange and it makes me feel normal. When I am in the city I won’t do that. Maybe I can, but still I do not feel totally normal.
Do you think you can bring this feeling of normality to the cities somehow?
Not somehow but totally. The answer must be totally and that’s the Third Generation City. The city must become part of nature, and then this energy exchange and everything will be normal.
It is about finding a balance?
…some sort of total chaos.
THE THIRD GENERATION CITY IS NOT SOMETHING THAT WE DESIGN. IT IS NOT AN ECO-CITY. IT SHOULD BE MORE LIKE AN ACCIDENT, SOME KIND OF JUNGLE.
The main challenge is to start giving up. Industrialisation has become more dominant or more powerful in our minds than nature. We became a long time ago the servants of industry. Now architecture and urbanism is at this point where we must start opening up, we must start to give up in order for nature to step in. We think our mechanical reality is independent from nature, but that’s a joke.
The Third Generation City is not something that we design. It is not an eco-city. It should be more like an accident, some kind of jungle. At the same time the whole system will be dying in one corner and in some other corner it will be coming up. There will be battle. It’s not a harmonious thing, it generates energy. Treasure Hill where I was working was very close to it.
You mentioned how illegal communities are using the official city. I wonder if an illegal city can exist without a legal one? Can a bottom-up approach exist without a top-down?
I THINK WE NEED A CONSTANT REVOLUTION, ESPECIALLY IN THE CITY. IF THE CITY BECOMES TOO FIXED AND TOO OFFICIAL IT IS A POLLUTION IN ITSELF, BUT WHEN YOU HAVE THIS CONSTANT REVOLUTION IT BECOMES SOME SORT OF ORGANIC MACHINE.
I think we need a constant revolution, especially in the city. If the city becomes too fixed and too official it is a pollution itself, but when you have this constant revolution it becomes some sort of organic machine. Whether this can be achieved with illegal communities or self-organised communities, or bottom-up communities, or peer to peer solutions, or whether the official plays any part in it, I don’t have the answer. I think they are all part of it, even the official, but it won’t be a linear process, and it won’t be a circular process. It has many layers, and these layers are not layered on each other, but rather overlapping, slicing each other. The places where slicing happens are where the energy points are – the hotspots, what we are talking about in urban acupuncture. How to interpret and understand that energy exchange or even information matrix is not easy, but it is probably an architectural task.
You talk about Third Generation Cities in the context of existing cities. What about new cities built without a context? Perhaps you could refer to the Asian conditions.
It’s hard to say what the Asian phenomenon is in general. I guess it is the same talk we had in Finland in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, where people were moving to the cities from the countryside. They were forgetting original values, forgetting how to live together with nature, and becoming a city man. Asia is doing the same thing, but on a very, very big scale. We were doing a project in Shenzhen with some migrating workers. They all came from the countryside, and they were all so clever. They knew how to build with bamboo and different kinds of materials, but those same people were building skyscrapers that all look alike. This is a moment when hundreds of millions of people are moving into the cities. They are bringing local knowledge from the countryside to the cities, originating from different parts of the country. China would be really clever now, if it could start to really appreciate this movement from city to countryside and use the local knowledge pouring into the cities. From this perspective it could become a Third Generation City.
You talk about local knowledge accumulated from previous generations. It is interesting to think what kind of local knowledge our generation is producing. What will we leave for the future?
Very good question, probably nothing so far. … Looks like zero. It looks like the city is the end.
Yes, maybe through ruins there is some possibility. The ruins in this case become like the Zone in “Stalker”, but you need the Stalkers.
But on the other hand “Stalker” also shows that you walk in the ruins in order to find the answer. But to find the answer you need to ask the right question.
The Zone is just nature. We have been in the city for so long that we don’t even know how to go to the forest. You disappear, and therefore you need just a normal guy who can set up a fire and catch a fish.
You need a guide?
Yes, yes, architects should become the Stalker.
Do you think a reversed scenario is possible: city man going back to nature?
I think that the big process is that most people will be located in the cities. They will be fed genetic food and will have such powerful information systems that you will be able to tell those people whatever you want. They will be completely dependent on social media. They will become this genetically manipulated information souls living in the city. But despite this mass of total uselessness they are still humans. They still have some basic human heart, and some strange good things will start coming out of that. Maybe that is the new local knowledge.