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Occupy porosity

By Joseph Gelfer and Richard Goodwin - posted Thursday, 5 April 2012


Richard Goodwin is an artist, architect and academic based in both his own practice and the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. His new book, Porosity: The Architecture of Invagination (RMIT University Press) troubles the distinction between public and private space. As I read the book it occurred to me that Goodwin's navigation of space was a kind of artistic and theoretical rendering of what we have been actively seeing around the world in the Occupy movement. I spoke with Richard to understand more about porosity and how it could be mobilised in political activism.

Joseph: In a nutshell, what does Porosity mean to you?

Richard: Porosity: The Architecture of Invagination seeks to do two major things. The first is to prove that types of public space exist within the private spaces of the city and to index or comparatively score them for analysis. This is the "quasi science" of Porosity represented as a percentage for each building and calibrated for each city. The second is to use these forms to tell us, as architects and urban planners, what buildings themselves desire to do next, i.e., the licensed or approved creation of parasitic connections, which link the buildings or extend them beyond current planning restrictions. These types of transformations will often be linked with refurbishment and the updating of technologies, with urban agriculture and with power generation.

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The additional public space, often in spaces elevated above the ground, will be subsidised by allowing for a proportion of commercial activity, to be determined by planners and offset against the advantages of a more three dimensional city public space. Important to this complex sharing of internal access systems is the possibility of the public use of tower toilets, which exist along the networked journey.

Via this mechanism and theory, the natural Porosity of cities, now under threat due to "terrorism" and capitalism's tendency towards "gated communities", is encouraged. The expansion of public space via these connections, prejudices social construction and measures the capitalist equation by testing its boundaries. This revolution in city thinking drives and creates architecture and urban planning from the inside. Hence the title Porosity: The Architecture of Invagination. The phallocentric modernist city, with its grid of towers surrounded by parks, is reconfigured and expanded through interstitial interventions.

Joseph: How might Porosity be applied to political activism such as the Occupy movement?

Richard: Occupy uses the device of claiming the right to navigate the "access" territory (corridors, lifts and foyers, etc.) of city buildings as a foot in the door to ownership of the city as a social construction. This space includes the parks and foyers inhabited by the Occupy movement in New York's Wall Street area recently, and Melbourne's city precinct.

To remain static within these spaces of access is to inhabit them, and to inhabit them is to protest against the proprieties of the city and its politics.

Once people stop moving within the machine of the city, they start to talk to each other, to argue and debate. To echo Vito Acconci, they re-insert to Town Square. In 1789 they manned the barricades in Paris. This static rather than nomadic action is radical in the extreme, but familiar. And it lacks an overarching idea. Let's say idea instead of ideology.

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Once static, the mobile phones are still in action, but the headphones come off-just look at the footage from Cairo recently. People need to talk and to organise. They want collective ownership. Porosity is ownership. They want to have their say in the legislative control of capitalism beyond voting once every three or four years-or they want democracy or a type of it.

The revolution is the same revolution that created democracy, communism, fascism and so on. Firstly, like Occupy and every other revolution, it is about Porosity, or the lack of it, in their lives. Occupy has no other idea than architecture and technology itself, which makes it interesting within the typology of revolutions. Occupy and Porosity therefore combine in a desire for architecture to become invisible or porous and transparent. They also unite in their desire to make technology "second nature", ubiquitous and enabling but not part of the apparatus of control, and therefore not "first nature" as it sometimes seems to be.

Porosity maintains open movement and access, and a sharing of the sewer and amenities-that is the real communion of the city. Occupy should maintain its demands on the city but keep moving, stopping only for short rests overnight, building its caravan into an endless search for space and conversation which cannot be stopped. This way both it and Porosity, as an idea, will succeed in its conversation with capitalism and all other systems.

Joseph: The idea that Occupy should keep moving is interesting. In Melbourne, after the initial eviction from City Square and the difficulties faced settling a new location, it became clear to me that the signature for that city was one of movement: less an Occupation, and more a migration, or even a pilgrimage. Clearly Porosity tells us much about the tension between public and private space, but does it also speak to the tension between movement and stasis?

Richard: That's a good question. Tension between movement and stasis is in itself a definition of the city. Often in large cities the so called stasis of its occupants is a matter of only a few hours of sleep before they again have to start their endless journeys of commuting, child minding or managing, shopping, socialising, etc. The futurists were right, the city is about movement. To have free access to the city's internal structure, including its vertical movement systems, corridors, and rooves, should be a goal of the Occupy movement.

To date, the sheer mass of protesting numbers draws attention to the immediacy of Occupy's group issues. However their tent cities soon become slums without any of the charm that most real slums create. Movement is the key to this stasis.

Barricades can be put up to stop the protest groups from flowing through the city in certain patterns, but the crowd can simply react as a mass and flow elsewhere. Its relationship to the original "derives" of the Situationists can then be made as the mass movement embraces chance and even play as it channels a new psycho-geography.

Maybe it can flow out into the suburbs and test the Porosity of these settlements. People forget, and I speak as a child of the fifties and a teenager of the sixties, that during those post war years everybody's back door was open. Children played through strings of houses and across loosely formed town centres. The suburbs then were porous. Maybe they need to be porous again in order to mobilise the masses and to enhance the Occupy movement.

In Cairo the masses gathered but were in continual flux. They are still gathering and flowing inside the city despite the tanks and snipers. In the ambiguous spaces of Porosity, the "chiastic" spaces which I have defined, the appropriate behaviour is one of pausing. A delay within the blood stream of the organism. Occupy is a virus within the bloodstream of the city-a bloodstream which already suffers from the blockages of high cholesterol capitalism.

Joseph: There seems also to be a gender issue going on here, at least at the symbolic level. The subtitle of your book refers to "invagination", a folding in of spaces. What I noticed about many of the drawings in the book was these phallic private buildings bursting in an almost ejaculatory manner with public space: typically, private space is gendered as feminine, and public as masculine. So it seems like Porosity, just like Occupy, has multiple sites of contestation, a kind of intersectionality in both a literal and political sense. Does that sound like a fair reading to you?

Richard: I agree that Porosity and Occupy have multiple sites of contestation, both literally and politically, but let's get a few issues sorted out first. I am endeavouring to imagine public space as a three dimensional construction within the matrix of the city. This is in direct contrast to the very two dimensional groundplane on which public space is situated today. In order to do this, public space must express both masculine and feminine characteristics. When bridging between buildings with public space, the action will be gendered as masculine. Alternatively, when public space is found and claimed within private space the action will be gendered as feminine.

The explosions I created within my research are the expanding internal public spaces (chiastic spaces), which suggest how and where building towers might connect these public longings or desires. These studies, rendered as animations in Maya software, are indeed ejaculatory, as a provocation to urban designers. Ultimately the resulting architecture they make is the connective tissue of a new type of architecture within existing architecture (the "architecture of invagination").

The overriding gender of the resulting architecture is feminine in the metaphorical sense, as it is generated from within the existing body of architecture. The greatest challenge of these theories however, is directed towards the political systems which structure the city. As with the Occupy movement, this provocation by Porosity-challenging the proprieties and boundaries of private space-is essentially confronting capitalism with urban planning (social) failures.

Unfettered capitalism is already proven to cause catastrophe following the global economic crisis. Ultimately, market forces do not find stability like some "natural" system. Nature itself can only be defined as a tendency towards finding an equilibrium which it never exactly meets. Hence again there is no stasis, only movement.

The "market" is best described, in my opinion, as a slow explosion. This is another reason for my use of the explosion metaphor and graphics. Like Michaelangelo Antonionis' 60's film Zabriskie Point, in the end the beautiful modernist house and its contents explode in an iconic question mark for our capitalist future.

Today the explosion is the zeitgeist for a world exploding in conflict. I try to use this metaphor as a regenerative force, a positive way forward: the beginning of new formations, generated from within the wombs of the castles of capitalism's floor space ratio-driven riches.

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About the Authors

Joseph Gelfer is a coach and researcher whose books include "Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy" and "2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse." His latest book is "Masculinities in a Global Era", published in Springer's International and Cultural Psychology series. More information at www.gelfer.net.

Richard Goodwin is an artist, architect and Professor at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.

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