(…)L’élan de l’homme qui l’entraîne vers les îles reprend le double mouvement qui produit les îles en elles-mêmes. Rêver des îles, avec angoisse ou joie peu importe, c’est rêver qu’on se sépare, qu’on est déjà séparé, loin des continents, qu’on est seul et perdu — ou bien c’est rêver qu’on repart à zéro, qu’on recrée, qu’on recommence. Il y avait des îles dérivées, mais l’île, c’est aussi ce vers quoi l’on dérive, et il y avait des îles originaires, mais l’île, c’est aussi l’origine, l’origine radicale et absolue.
-Gilles Deleuze, L’île déserte et autres textes, 2002.
This is the tale of two dissonant islands, one protected by architecture, the other emancipated from it. An island as a tower and a wall around an island; one architecture is populist, even democratic; the other one is absolute, increasingly totalitarian. Fictions of opposite scales, the story of the tower is a nostalgic enterprise, the tale of the slab is a mission of despair. Both architectures are ideologically subversive. They incarnate a dream of Deleuzean dimensions: the fantasy of the island as a retour a l’origine.
Drawn in and around two opposite extremes of the globe—thirteen thousand kilometers apart—both stories are about urban prophylaxis; architectural artifacts deployed for the survival of endangered remnants of authenticity in the face of modernization. While both modernizations (Chinese and Puerto Rican) can be dated back to 1949, the urban struggles appear to be contrastingly dissimilar. Beijing is urban, and with the Chinese modernity it is the traditional substance of the city which has been jeopardized. In Puerto Rico there is no city as we know it; but a sprawling urbanization endangering the remaining natural environment.
The first story is about an Oceanic island, an artificial appendix to Beijing. This tale narrates how a mystical tower was able to resist the imminent erasures of traditional urban substance of the Chinese metropolis. The second story is about a Continental Island, or more precisely a fairy tale regarding a building in Puerto Rico, that although never completed, represents a last vanished hope raised against the mighty sprawl that destroyed all previous attempts of coherent development.
Both architectural appendixes are fictional exercises to explore the possibilities of other islands. The ultimate goal of these allegorical Babels is to generate the ultimate modernist oxymoron: modern architecture against modernization.
The Tower 39° 55′ N, 116° 23′ E
A tower stands in the middle of Beijing. Nobody remembers how it got “there.” It is a monolith with a base the size of a Hutong—a traditional mat of courtyard houses with irregular street patterns. Its footprint of four hundredth square meters blends perfectly within the post Olympic urban landscape. It is a bulk that consumes any kind of attempt at architectural iconography. During the day the tower looks inert, unobtrusive; its architecture is abstract, insipidly generic. After dark, the monolith turns into a kaleidoscopic spectrum of neon lit billboards, and crowded corridors. The spacing between levels varies through the building. The tower is a modernist apotheosis of the free plan. Every floor is a hangar of possibilities.
Traditional Beijing has been bulldozed by modernity. From the 7000 Hutongs that the city had sixty years ago less than 150 remain. The space of the traditional urban substance is being substituted by bigger, larger and banal edifice complexes. So in order to blend in with modern Beijing the tower uses generic aesthetics as its stealth. The difference is that contrary to the voracious contemporary developments, “the tower” doesn’t really replace what was previously “there.” This time however, there is no tabula rasa. Instead the generic slabs host the programs threatened by the Bermanean modernity. The Hutong is the residential program of the tower, and with it, gets transplanted all the disappearing urban typologies of Beijing.
The tower is forever mutating—always under construction, and under constant internal transformation. It is a vertical incubator of traditional Chinese programs. As an aberration of the four functions of the lecorbusian city—which never worked— the tower makes travailler, habiter, circuler et cultiver le corps et l’esprit functional again by getting rid of the definitive modernist typologies that came with them.
A city within a city the tower is a solid structure that shelters tragic forms of urbanism; tentative conditions with unfulfilled potential that a different rate became endangered by the ravenous pace of development. Like a bubble, the tower captures all the solid that melts into air.
The Wall 18° 15′ N, 66° 30′ W
A slab remains in front of the sea. Few people remember how it got “there”. Two miles of uninterrupted naked concrete structure display columns rhythmically arranged, stairs and empty elevator cores—an Archizoomesque diagram of tropical urbanization. Apart from providing shelter from the rain, and breaking waves during hurricanes, the slab is lifeless. Its architecture is abstract, minimalist; it suggests that the building could have been anything from a parking garage, to a touristic resort, to a shopping mall. A closer look at the slab would reveal proportionate spaces of meticulous calculation. The slab is the antithesis of Puerto Rico’s urbanization: condensed, compact, restricted, urban.
The building is not only empty, it is incomplete. The original blueprint reveals a Puerto Rican version of Il Monumento Continuo, an uninterrupted building alongside the 500km of coastline. The intention of the original master plan was naively pretentious: to contain all the programs of the island inside a slab, to house all its inhabitants, to act as a fortress around it, hence leaving the remaining natural landscape untouched.
After the tenth year of continuous construction work and its tons of poured concrete, the original plan was aborted. With the arrival of democracy such a building would have seemed too suspicious; its absolutism would have appeared too ambitious; its communalism would have seemed too utopian.
To the detriment of the slab, the island developed an urbanism of laissez-faire made of suburban sprawl and endless roadways. Acres of matter were virulently spread over the island without any kind of substance. A tsunami of entropic development splashing away any chance of coherent development. Meanwhile the slab was left motionless and impotent like a Noah’s Ark waiting for the flood despite the fact that is was land-locked in its shipyard.
A city without a city, the slab is a tragic structure that wasn’t able to host any kind of urbanism; a preservative without anything to preserve. A tentative architectural enterprise with unfulfilled potential, the slab couldn’t resist the imminence of its own fate; it became a ruin of something that never was.
Meanwhile, the slab remains motionless, extending for two miles from where the first foundations were excavated deep in the sand more than sixty years ago. The foam of the sea has made its way through the bare structure. Evincing the trifling fragility that this simple structure has, time and nature has conjoined to corrode not only the load bearing potential of the slab, but they also have evaporated into gas all the possibilities the building once had.