What would a City of Mercy be for humans—or for any other species? What is a House of Grace? The intention of this studio is not to build a place of worship as such, but to make a proposition for a place, a home, a heimat, in the most ontological sense of the word. Affordable, yet thoroughly designed, where the design itself carries the responsibility of the architect to create a place of rest and refuge.
Think we must. We must think.
The agency of architecture is tremendously powerful, complex and effective, both in terms of materiality of budgets and materials—on many temporal scales—and in terms of political, social and ontological context. Architecture reflects and materializes the sociopolitical philosophy of any given time and place. It cannot be otherwise.
Being aware of the importance of the ontological context of the human subject as well as the posthuman shift in paradigms, we will question the concept of human/non-human cohabitation, the social and technical infrastructures of living together, analyzing the limits of the subject/s in question, the structures of power and authority and thus limits of autonomy given to the human subject as well as other forms of living structures (flora, fauna, family structures, trans-family ties etc.).
Therefore we will study the home, from the doorknob and the restroom, to the frame itself; the feel and space of the home. But we will not stop there. We will investigate the threshold between private and public, understanding how the privacy of one’s own space merges with the next level of the social, the environment, the neighbors, whether they are human or of other species.
But a City of Mercy incorporates larger questions. We must understand how the home, the neighborhood, and larger environments connect to the greater web of infrastructure, both functional and social.
Accumulate thesis material and develop a personal program through reading, analysis and research for the following steps of the project:
PLACE OF REFUGE
—Explore the private, social and public aspects of a home, the tangible and sensory.
HOUSE OF GRACE
—Design a complex of 24+ units of affordable homes in modest sizes, along with areas that connect to the social, public and infrastructures
CITY OF MERCY
—Account for basic relevant infrastructures through drawing material and presentation
House of Grace
Náðhús is the strangest of words. Where is my dictionary of etymology? Is there some misunderstanding going on here? Did the house of prayer become the toilet? Is there a connection between the lowest chakra, the anus, and the highest, the divine one in the head? Or is there a refuge to be found there from the naked eye of the heavens, just while you bind your excrement to the soil in the ultimate transformation?
—Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir, Jarðnæði (2012)
In her native language, Icelandic, the word náðhús described by the writer in the passage above translates to English as house of grace. Oddly, this word was commonly used, without much irony, for an outdoor restroom. Leap of scale in one word, one construct.
The turbulence of day-to-day urban life and the introverted living conditions have been extensively analyzed, even scrutinized, by sociologists, philosophers and other critical thinkers for a long time — the earliest works dating from at least the turn of last century. This is, for example, reflected in the writings of Deleuze, Foucault, Arendt, Lefebvre, and not the least Simmel, whose words still ring strangely true over a century later.
It is not only that today’s urban citizens have been estranged from their former social and natural connections of pre-urban and pre-capitalist living; we have also moved into an age of permanent nomadism of components, data bits, goods and humans alike. Diplomats, professionals, academics, students, refugees, workers; the increasingly entangled web of capitalist consumerism and globalization has pushed the human subject into a whirlwind of directions, which one is coerced to follow in the search for higher wages, better deals, more interesting posts, work or refuge and security. Nomadism and cosmopolitanism, in the terms of Rosi Braidotti and the late Ulrich Beck, are key concepts in questioning the sociopolitical, economical and philosophical context of this condition.
The studio will investigate how we might think architecture differently, responding to the need for shelter in the turmoil of the world. We will explore the possibility of creating a house of grace, not for traditional worship, but as a space of reconciliation.
City of Mercy
Whether we realize it or not, we are all entangled, we all connect in a myriad of ways.
Our main question here must be: How, when we move away from the pre-modern rooting in more finite and comprehensible surroundings, is it possible to find time and space to fulfill the basic needs of the human subject; security, and being a social animal, i.e. fulfilling social contracts and satisfying the urge to belong, to be seen, to be valued? And on a larger scale—if no one has overview over the entirety of this intriguingly complicated web of things, flows, communications and power—where do we seek refuge?
Simultaneously, on the global scale: How can any one of us take responsibility for the effects of this wildly over-scaled reality? In her recent work, Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway suggests a take on the Anthropocene, by living in sympoiesis with other species as well as the objects and temporalities of the material world, “grieving with them”—“living and dying well.” To become responsible, or in her words respons-able, to enhance situated thinking and movement in complexity, Haraway proposes a positive take on the matter, the Chtulucene, making-with, rather then self-making.
Traveling up and down the scales of architecture, it is important to bear in mind that as of the year 2000, the human species crossed a critical stage of urbanization—signified by the fact that there are now more people living in cities than outside them. Most commonly, these are cities of approximately 300,000 inhabitants. This, along with the aforementioned globalization, the cities being hubs for markets, business, and distribution of resources, calls into question the context of the Capitalocene. The uneven distribution of qualities and goods—characterized by Michael Hardt as the shift from welfare to debtfare—is a fact of our time.
The immense complexity of tangible as well as concealed infrastructures; international, electronic, governmental, societal, social, religious, and the multitude of clandestine ones, affect us all. And thus they affect and are affected by the agency of architecture.
Irrespective of whether they intend to embark on a career in large-scale building or social endeavor through their architectural agency, students will first be invited to embark on a journey through the leaping scales of architecture through a multi-layered project in the context of our case study.
During travel week, the studio will pursue research in Iceland.
Iceland is an island on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, volcanically active and strategically placed between East and West, both in the Cold War context between the US and the USSR, and in the present cultural context between North America and Europe. Culturally, it is a part of the socio-democratic Nordic countries, but in the same way as its geographic location brings it closer to North America, so its prevailing societal mood shifts between the American and the Scandinavian, in rhythmic swings. 350,000 people are spread across Iceland’s 40,000 square miles, averaging less than 10 souls on every square mile (ten times lower than the US). But most of the population lives along the coastline, since the inlands are an uninhabitable desert of glaciers and sand. More than two thirds live in the capital area of Reykjavik—making this area a perfect case study for an average urban setting in the global context.
Before the financial crash of 2008, Iceland had recently opened its financial markets to the world and experienced a huge expansion in its economy. Icelandic bankers and businessmen had prepared to take on the world. This was reflected in a constant rise of new buildings at a scale that was unknown in the local economy—a version of a World Trade Center tower was even proposed in the low-key downtown area. The international financial turmoil of 2008 brought an abrupt end to all these new dreams, with three of the largest Icelandic banks going bankrupt, followed by an almost overnight 50% devaluation of the local currency (the krona) and a collapse the country’s economy.
The rebuilding of the economy has been surprisingly fast, in large part due to an incredible escalation in numbers of tourists visiting the country, initially spurred by the favorable currency exchange rate (for visitors). In addition, Reykjavík has become an interesting hub in the international music scene, a stopover also being normal for visitors touring the countryside, due to the city’s proximity to the international airport. This development has, however, not only been positive. With a predomination of hotel buildings planned in the fragile urban tissue of its downtown area and AirBnB revolutionizing the housing market, housing prices have exploded and many inhabitants of central Reykjavík are now being forced to move further out of midtown, into the suburbs.
Thus the young city of Reykjavík, a mere village at the beginning of the 20th century, expanding 700% in area under its development in the course of 20–30 years following WWII, is currently in a phase of re-identification. With its 250,000 citizens in the metropolitan area, one might argue that it was hardly more than a metro-village—but one has to bear in mind that as a capital city it has to provide all the services and institutions any other capital would need—supported by a much smaller overall population than most countries. This small number of inhabitants also has to support all infrastructures, including social services, security, and a comparatively large national road system for tourists and locals alike.
It has been a long journey from the predominant way of living at the beginning of the 20th century, when more than 90% of the population lived scattered around the country, in turf-houses half dug into the ground. Even though the country is blessed with enormous amounts of renewable energy today, including hydroelectric and geothermal power, these were distant dreams a century ago and common building materials almost non-existent, except for the driftwood floating from northern Europe and Alaska—and the occasional stranded ship.
Students will be invited to study the case of Iceland, with leaping scales in size, from the sublime but harsh nature of the country, which the miniscule humans have to make sense of, organize, harness and respect, to whatever small capacity they have. This demands thinking on multiple layers, understanding the land, and forming finely woven strings of security and collaboration across the country’s vastness and scarcity.
FRAKKASTÍGUR 1, REYKJAVÍK Frakkastígur is a well-connected site in a prime coastal location within the city center, in many ways the face of the city. This site has been chosen due to its importance in the building context of Reykjavík. It offers a new way to approach housing in the city, connecting the old with the new by creating an interesting, resilient and fresh typology. Frakkastígur crosses the main shopping street Laugavegur, and looking down from that main street there is a clear view to the ocean. Looking the other way up the road is Reykjavík’s best-known landmark, Hallgrímskirkja church. From the site one has a clear ocean view towards mount Esja. By the shoreline one will find another hotspot: the sculpture Sólfarið (Sun Voyager), a landmark in its own right. The site is also well connected by all transportation modes, with plans for a path for the Borgarlína (City Line) in proximity to the site along Hverfisgata.
Adjacent to the site are primarily residential high-rise buildings (up to 18 floors), among the highest in Reykjavík. Special consideration must be given to the heritage building that lies behind the site, a delicate wooden structure from 1900, formerly a hospital but now housing Reykjavík’s music school.
The size of the site is 800 square meters. It sits at the bottom of a north-facing slope. It has recently been selected to be part of the C40 Cities (Climate Leadership Group)—Reinventing Cities initiative. We will be working with the Head of the Municipal Planning Office of Reykjavík, who will visit the studio.
The plot is currently owned by the city of Reykjavík and is in the process of being developed according to the city’s new 2030 masterplan, which proposes a policy for the development of the city toward the distant future, setting out locations for residential and industrial areas of the future, where new roads and pathways should lie, and which areas will be set aside for recreation.
DAY 1 Arrival KEF international Airport—car rental
Visit to Geothermal plant Hellisheiðarvirkjun
Visit to turf house at Austur-Meðalholt
Overnight stay at the turf house
DAY 2 Departure from turf house
Visit to hydro-electric power plant Búðavirkjun
Visit Gullfoss waterfall/Geysir hot spring area
Visit to National Park Þingvellir (tectonic plates)
Hostel in Reykjavík
DAY 3 Walk around central Reykjavík
Visit to the site
Meeting with Head of Municipal Planning of Reykjavík
Hostel in Reykjavík
DAY 4 Morning: individual research in Reykjavík
Workshop in Reykjavík
Hostel in Reykjavík
(DAY ¾ might switch according to weather forecast)
DAY 5 Old NATO Airport in Reykjanes Peninsula (now an entrepreneur park)
Departure from Iceland
Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “1440: The Smooth and the Striated,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
Matthew Desmond, Evicted (London: Verso, 2014).
Cort Ross Dinesen, ed., Architecture Drawing Topology (Baunach, Germany: Spurbuchverlag, 2017).
Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London: Verso, 2014).
Donna J.,Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
Michael Hardt, “Two Faces of Apocalypse: A Letter from Copenhagen,” Polygraph 22 (2010): 265–74.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis (London: Continuum, 2004).
Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).
Arna Mathiessen, ed., Scarcity in Excess (Barcelona: Actar, 2014).
Jason W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016).
Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000).
Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, vol. 1, A New Framework for Architecture (London: Wiley, 2011)