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  • Writer's picturePaul Dobraszczyk

Salvage cities

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City, 1995

In the mid-1990s, visionary architect Lebbeus Woods developed a series of projects intended to prepare the city of San Francisco for the ‘Big One’ – a hypothetical earthquake of magnitude 8+ that will almost certainly strike the city sometime in the future. In absolute opposition to the conventional policy of strengthening existing structures, Woods imagined a whole series of buildings that were constructed, transformed or completed by earthquakes themselves – ‘an architecture that uses earthquakes, converting to a human purpose the energies they release … an architecture that inhabits earthquakes, existing in their space and time’ (Radical Reconstruction, p. 21).

Lebbeus Woods, Shard Houses, 1995

Lebbeus Woods, Slip House, 1995

Woods’ characteristically exquisite series of drawings pictured the elements of his new self-penned Seismicity. Shard Houses would be built on the stable pilings of piers on the west side of San Francisco Bay, made out of the ‘scavenged shards of the industrial wasteland’. When the Big One strikes, the mud on which the Shard Houses rest would liquefy, turning the structures into floating homes. Meanwhile Slip Houses would allow for the movement of the earth by sitting on a nearly frictionless silicon surface; while Wave Houses, built from ball-jointed frames, would flex and re-flex in the quake. Fault Houses would literally inhabit the San Andreas Fault, harnessing the energy of earthquakes to determine their forms; while Horizon Houses would turn, ‘reorienting their forms and fixed interior spaces relative to the horizon’. Finally, Quake City – a gigantic structure that Woods imagined straddling a redundant industrial dock – would be an architecture without a point of origin, one that had simply accumulated over the years, with each successive quake shifting its ‘fragmented, irregular mass, reshuffling the plates that once might have been called floors, walls, or ceilings’ (Radical Reconstruction, p. 21).

Lebbeus Woods, Wave House, 1995

Lebbeus Woods, Fault House, 1995

All of these imagined structures are seemingly built from scavenged materials, whether discarded timber, corrugated iron and other sheet metal, or used piping and plastics. This turning away from conventional building materials is characteristic of Woods’ approach – he wanted architecture to be made from below, assembled by its users rather than fabricated in advance by architects and builders. For Woods, architectural salvage wasn’t just about creating a certain kind of aesthetic – a grandiose form of upcycling; rather, it deliberately shifted the power to build into the hands of users rather than architects – an anarchic architecture, or ‘anarchitecture’, as Woods described it.

Lebbeus Woods, Horizon House, 1995

Yet, self-built urban environments rarely look as beautiful as Woods’ drawings suggest they might. Instead, they aggregate on the fringes of countless cities in developing countries across the world as insanitary slums borne out of desperation rather than hope. Who indeed would choose to live in a house built entirely from salvaged materials? Woods might imagine salvaged houses as ‘freespaces’ created by citizens liberated from the shackles of authoritarian architectural modernism; yet, he presupposes that people would choose a nomadic and free-spirited urban existence in favour of the comfort and security offered by the conventional home.

Informal housing in Kibera, Nairobi

In a certain sense, Woods’ equating of salvage with freedom has its counterpart in another imagined future vision of San Francisco, post Big One, namely in William Gibson’s ‘Bridge’ trilogy of novels: Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). The Bridge that unites these novels is a reconstituted Bay Bridge, salvaged by thousands of squatters after the quake known as the Little Grande left it unstable and derelict. In contrast to the post-quake fate of San Francisco’s tallest building – the Transamerica Pyramid – which is held together by a steel brace, the Bay Bridge has mutated into a fantastic bricolage of salvaged materials:

‘The integrity of its span was rigorous as the modern program itself, yet around this had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imagineable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic. At night, illuminated by Christmas bulbs, by recycled neon, by torchlight, it possessed a queer medieval energy. By day, seen from a distance, it reminded him of the ruin of England’s Brighton Pier, as though viewed through some cracked kaleidoscope of vernacular style’ (Virtual Light, p. 58)

Upon the ‘steel bones’ of the bridge a vast assemblage of dream-like spaces emerged: ‘tattoo parlours, gaming arcades, dimly lit stalls stacked with decaying magazines, sellers of fireworks, of cut bait, betting shops, sushi bars, unlicensed pawnbrokers, herbalists, barbers, bars … while above them, rising to the very peaks of the cable towers, lifted the intricately suspended barrio, with is unnumbered population and its zones of more private fantasy’ (Virtual Light, pp. 58-9). A slum by any other estimation, Gibson’s Bridge is unquestionably defined as a utopian community very much in the spirit of Woods’ drawings. Throughout the course of the three novels, the social life and practical infrastructure of the Bridge is fleshed out in extraordinary detail. We are immersed in the everyday lives of those who live in the shack-like rooms; we learn about the improvised sewage and electricity supply networks; and we inhabit the heady micro-worlds of the Bridge’s countless bars, shops, and clubs that fill its interstitial spaces.

Gibson’s reconstituted Bay Bridge as imagined by Dahlia Inosensu

Gibson is not describing an urban environment that can be planned, or perhaps even drawn in the way that Woods imagines it can be. Rather, there is no agenda, no underlying structure to the formation of the Bridge community: ‘the place had just grown; it looked like one thing patched into the next, until the whole space was wrapped in this formless mass of stuff, no two pieces of it marched’ (Virtual Light, p. 163). What Gibson does so well is to contrast this anarchic form of urban growth with that envisaged by the mega-corporations who are seeking to remake San Francisco into a self-sufficient luxury enclave for the super-wealthy. What is at stake here is not how cities are made, but who is entitled to make them. Like Woods, Gibson asks us whether we truly do prefer to have our cities made for us by others, or whether we’d be willing to take matters into our own hands, joining with those who are already forced by necessity to do so.

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