Friday, September 30, 2011

Material Dissections

Several years ago the city of Buffalo began a biannual bulk trash pickup day, where citizens can put out piles of trash up to 12'x3'x3' in total volume without being charged any pickup fees. To a couple of scavengers of odd items (and a horde of metal scrappers), this is practically Christmas. Going first around the Masten district and then Fillmore, the wastestream was endless. Not having our final site to work on yet, we can only speculate which of these things are useful.

Having amassed a bank of objects, we start to dissect them. Psychologically: what are the cultural associations and histories of each object? Architecturally: what material qualities do they possess and how might they be implemented into "building"? Anatomically: what are the inner workings of each object, and how can they be broken down (and reformed)?

Unpacking the empty suitcase

Water container turned water barrier

The luggage parts will likely go toward creating a small bike trailer, for greater loading capacity on our regular dives. The piece cut out of the pool was traced from the torn and permeable fabric top to the sun umbrella found several weeks ago. This will provide a dry shelter at our first squatting camp.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Squatting, Part II

Exercise in material acquisition and recombinance

Along Buffalo's west coast we find a strip of industrial development. Having acquired a few things we found along the way (the night before Niagara district's garbage day), we happen upon a number of discarded objects from the factories and warehouses. Most of these things appear to have been there for quite some time - out of sight and out of mind in the dead space between the warehouses, railroad tracks, and highway. This thick buffer zone, ironically composed of public elements, gives us the privacy we need for a new base camp.

There is little vegetation or terrain to help create enclosure, but at one point there is a tall section of fence. Still grounded, it's bent; taco'ed. 

Taking advantage of this 'natural' enclosure, we first span the curve with a straight 10' pipe recovered just 50 yards down the tracks. Getting into the space though, we find the plants to be dry, rough, and many have thorns. Luckily, several plastic and wood palettes lay just a bit further down and serve to get us away from the harsh vegetation and off the cold ground. Finally, a roof enclosure is made of roll-up window shades layered with tar paper for water resistance and a wind barrier out of a long piece of corrugated plastic.

Waking up to the cold wind from the lake, we realize the shelter although much more advanced than the previous, is not suited for the harsher cold and noise presented by the new context. After distributing the shelter's materials to avoid its detection, we now ponder whether to further develop the camp or salvage the materials for alternative use.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Poverty = Ingenuity

The humblest of times cultivate the greatest innovations. Here, Filipinos not only acquire essentially free lighting, but are able to do it by digesting the ubiquity that is trash.

Monday, September 12, 2011


At 92 Bird Avenue exists a three-story pseudo-mansion which has gained notice through a squatter initiative several years ago. Taking claim of the abandoned property, a small group of youthful "freeganists" began fixing it up and quickly won over their community members. When finally discovered and prosecuted, Judge Henry Nowak received a flurry of complaints and pleadings to let them stay. What had replaced an empty nest of crime and visual blight was renewed energy and hope. The squatters had essentially stabilized the neighborhood. While we continue the search for our home, we begin a series of experiments involving squatting; We are, after all, homeless.

Arriving to the Bird house via bicycle, we find lights on and music blaring from the second floor. On the front porch are four of the house's residents and at least as many dogs. Briefly explaining our situation to them, we're met with hesitation; "Who do you know here? Where did you hear about this place?" And we're left to play with the dogs while we await a decision from a higher authority within the house. Ultimately, it's explained to us that 92 Bird Avenue is no longer a squatter house but an owned home. While it presents an admirable example of demolition-doomed property turned beautiful affordable housing, we do not find the warmth and wisdom we seek. So we take our mission to the street.

The night is warm, so we opt to spend it outdoors. Retreating to an abandoned mini-golf course on the Upper West side, we find plenty of privacy and a few good patches of grass to call bed. But soon the evening dew starts to set in and mosquitoes buzz. Surely we can at least scavenge some material to sleep on top of, and luckily enough, it's the night before garbage day in the surrounding neighborhood. Within the first minute we find a rolled up runner rug, perfectly scaled for human use. Among other things found are: a large (12'+) inflatable swimming pool, a mop, blocks of syrofoam, three mattresses and bed frames, two very vocal dogs, one suspicious police officer, and more cardboard than we can possibly find use for. The real prize, however, is an outdoor umbrella about 8' in diameter, all of which is in tact except the vertical shaft which has snapped to produce a sharp point.

Taking the few things we're able to carry back to our camp on foot, we drive the umbrella into the ground with a small log, place our bedding materials beneath, and enjoy a peaceful rest.

Camp #1
We now foresee ourselves setting up a number of these small experimental squatter camps, as research into survival priorities and practice in material resourcefulness. The exact locations will be hard to pinpoint until we happen upon them, but will likely be guided by the schedule of neighborhood garbage collection in the future.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Man + Nature

Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever, -to be the dwelling of man, we say, -so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, -not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or to be buried in, -no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, -the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place of heathenism and superstitious rites, -to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we… . What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, -that my body might, -but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, -daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
— Thoreau. Ktaadn

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dwelling on Waste

This project revolves around scarcity within a culture of excess. We are living in the post-production era. In Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities there is a problematic condition; because of the decreasingly viable economic system and resultant large scale depopulation, much of the housing stock is unoccupied, unwanted, and left in various states of decay. Accompanying this is an alarming dependence on consumption, with little regard to the inevitable products of waste. We, the inhabitants of this postindustrial city, must respond to these degraded, yet abundant material conditions scattered throughout the city.
To bring ourselves from detached designer to deprived occupant, we will occupy such a neglected, leftover property. In situ research then provides the basis for the project, and we immediately begin to adapt the house and our lifestyles according to immediate conditions as well as foreseeable futures (ie: a concentrated place of warmth for winter). The housing stock in Buffalo that has become abandoned, neglected, or demolished will be used as an abundant source of building materials, and through rationing and prioritization, necessary conditions for living will be met and, eventually, exceeded. The process of retrofitting the house while living in it explores new forms of domesticity, and limiting our material palette to those things that we can salvage will explore issues of material recombinance. Need and resourcefulness become a means of inspiring new forms, assemblies, and organizations.
By cannibalizing the material and spatial remains of the post-industrial city, a new idea of domesticity is born. The survivalist architecture must address utilities (water, heat), security, varying climatic conditions, food storage, and mental comfort, always adapting itself according to what it has on hand. This method of design and the restriction of material palette remove the extraneous from the work. It addresses economy and sustainability through adaptive reuse of material and space. It confuses social order through a new mode of living, looking to squatting and alternative lifestyles as inspiration. It challenges political bodies by acting as a form of protest to current housing policies: demolition as a remedy to urban decay.
Ultimately, the result will be a reconstituted house – not necessarily a final product to be put back on the market, but a loose prototype for a new type of adaptive reuse that catalogs a series of experimental interventions: a series of spaces that addresses the basic needs for survival. Through constant documentation of the struggles in the house and the material and architectural solutions we use to resolve them we will create a document describing how this process could be practiced by other individuals and become a prominent mode of urban renewal in post-industrial cities.