Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Background Information

Colberg remarked in a recent piece that "Photography is very good at describing form, but very bad at containing background information" which on the one hand is sort of a "well, duh" statement, but on the other hand it got me to thinking, especially given the rest of his piece.

He's dead right, obviously. The entire point of any visual art is to split off the visuals of a thing, a situation, a person, from the rest of them in the same way that a stripping a bond separates the interest from the principal.

What tends to happen with a piece of visual art is that people will supply their own background, based on what they see, which leads to a choice for you, the visual artist. You can choose to lead them in the right direction, or in the wrong direction. There's a process of guessing how people will fill in background, of course, but being human we have a fair shot at that. We can make a picture which, essentially, looks like what it is. We can also make a picture that does not.

In the former case, we are, arguably, attempting to the lead the viewer to something like an accurate guess at background. In the latter case, we're trying to misdirect them.

That said, I find a couple of things interesting about Colberg's piece. In the first place, he declines to provide any background information for Vele which I find, well, to be an interesting choice. In the second place, having cast his remarks in these terms, he fails to recognize Vele as a work of the latter kind, instead treating it as a "this is what it looks like" exercise.

Second complaint first: Vele is shot at night. 'nuff said?

Colberg wants to complain about brutalist architecture, and about how terrible contemporary photography is, not really to tell us anything about Vele the book, or Vele the place. I found the background somewhat interesting, though, so I will give a little of it here. I suspect that the book is awful, being as Colberg says, essentially some film stills. The film the stills come from is a surrealist "urban explorer" exercise in boredom, although the stairwells in the Vele structure it's shot in are fascinating. While I suppose it might be possible to construct a good book from a stupid film, it seems unlikely.

Colberg links to the film, which you can watch here.

Vele is the Italian word for Sails. These housing projects were conceived in the 1960s as resembling sails, which they kinda do, if you squint very very hard indeed. The wikipedia article suggests that at the height of occupancy there were 40,000 to 70,000 people living in these things, and there may be up to 40,000 living in the remaining 4 structures. Based on various materials lying around, the large structures might contain as many as 500 apartments of about 1000 square feet each (100 square meters), probably a bit fewer. Careful measuring on google maps and matching against apartment floor plans, I came up with 200-300 units, but let us be generous.

The population numbers are obviously wrong. These buildings simply are not that big. At 10,000 people per structure, with the very generous estimates of sizes of these things, this is 50 square feet per person, which suggests something a hell of a lot more like an anthill than the essentially abandoned squats that one sees in pictures, videos, on google street view, and so on.

As built, the thing was 7 buildings strong, and my high estimate of 500 units per building places the total unit count at 3500 units, making it a very large housing development indeed by the standards of these things, and the peak population number of 40,000 becomes vaguely credible, although still extremely crowded.

My guess is that population numbers for the entire suburb of Scampia have, over the years, been conflated with population counts for the 7 building core development of the suburb.

Large housing projects of this sort always seem to be a problem. It is well known that tall, large, buildings create a sense of isolation. More than 2-3 stories up, and people start to feel disconnected from the ground. It is no longer our park or our street it is simply a park or street that is out in the world, albeit closer than other ones. For people who enjoy a social existence outside of their home, the neighborhood, this sense of isolation can translate into a feeling of security. For people whose social life would normally be built in terms of localness to their homes, these large dwellings foster a sense of alienation instead. It has very little to do with the details of the architecture, although I suppose the brutalism so common in the 60s did not help.

The upshot, though, is that rich people like being in giant buildings (secure) and poor people don't (alienated).

The Vele buildings were colored, and to this day retain some of that color. God knows how they got it. Did they dye the concrete itself? After 40 years of zero maintenance, surely anything else would have peeled off? This, by the way, is one of the tells that Zielony’s film and book are not really trying to get at these buildings as they literally are: at night, you cannot see the color, and are left with an impression of bare, grey, concrete, throughout. Which isn't quite the case. These things are not a riot of color, but they're less horrific than the film suggests. They never look great, and they do lend themselves to a dystopian, prison-like, visual. But they are more than that, and it appears that you have to position yourself with a little care to get the full dystopian look.

Zielony so-positions himself, with real gusto. He also waits for rain, so that he can get a properly Bladerunner-esque wet look to the surfaces, assuming he didn't just bring a hose.

Interestingly, the architect's vision for these things was subtly different, yielding vastly more livable spaces. As conceived the larger structures are split down the middle into two extremely narrow planes, joined by a complex outdoor stairwell structure. The narrow planes appear to be a single unit wide, allowing light to enter from both the notional exterior of the building, as well as from the stairwell/courtyard space between the planes. This is "light from two sides" which is a very important element of a livable space.

Does your residence have some rooms with windows/access to light along just one wall, and other rooms with such light on 2 or more walls? Which rooms do you spend more time in?

The builders increased the mass of the stairwells, and brought the two planes closer together, thereby largely blocking the stairwell/courtyard light source. The as-built courtyard/stairwell space is a dank and cluttered abyss, not a well of light. The large and possibly very nice park at the center of the complex is largely negated by the isolation created by the mass of the building. You don't send the kids to the park to play, it's "too far" away for that. It very much the distant park which we, perhaps, visit as a family now and then, not the anything like a proxy front yard.

Had the buildings been built as designed, the buildings themselves would still have been thoroughly ugly and isolating, but the dwelling units themselves might well have been lovely to live in. As it is, well, not so much.

Anyways. There seem to have been a host of problems with the development, including lack of access to shopping and transportation. That, together with the botched execution of the buildings themselves seems to have led to a rapid decline in occupancy. When, in 1980, an earthquake cost many people in and around Naples their homes, the Vele buildings became the target of large numbers of squatters. Faced with few options, the government seems to have turned a blind eye, and the situation continues today.

The buildings are, allegedly, condemned. Several have been demolished, but the remaining 4 are in a sort of regulatory limbo. Nobody wants to clear the squatters out, and take the inevitable blame when someone gets killed during demolition. There are half-assed plans to renovate one or more of the buildings into government facilities, and I dare say law enforcement rather likes having someplace into which crime can be chivvied, away from the civilians and into a known location. Everyone who needs it can get their heroin, and whenever the cops need to get tough on crime they can simply go arrest a batch of guys there. There's no down side!

By all accounts, the area is sketchy, but not an outright war zone. One can simply go and take pictures (the author of Vele for example did just that, wandering around these structures at night with a fairly expensive DSLR snapping 1000s of pictures, and did not die.) The people shown in the film seem perfectly cheerful, or neutral.

The structures of the stairwells are fascinating.

It strikes me that the guiding principle of Brutalist architecture is that reinforced concrete is great in compression. Sure, it's not bad in tension, shear, torsion, etc, but it's really really strong in compression. So, you end up with the interesting truss-like structures which, while not quite airy, are nontheless surprisingly in-flight as it were. But, being a truss, most of the load is compressive.

You could probably have built the Vele structures with dry stone, if you could have maneuvered everything in to place, like an insane flying buttress.

It has a sort of loopy beauty to it, although the closeness of the "courtyard" is almost immediately oppressive -- a feeling conveyed in the same way by every photograph. Oh, for the missing few meters of space in there. I will say, though, that there is no force on earth that could persuade me to use the staircases as-drawn in this concept drawing:

1 comment:

  1. The video is so crap it beggars belief. I had to stop 4-5 seconds in. Artists' videos, eh?