Marjetica Potrc


> Moscow

I love to return to unpredictable cities. Thus I never tire of Moscow, which must be the most uncontrollable and unfathomable of European cities. It is a far cry from comfortable or harmonious; its fascinating, preposterous medley of architectural styles is like a labyrinth in which it is hard to find one's way. What if I get lost -- I don't even understand the language -- what if I get mugged? Anything can happen to me there. This unintelligible, precarious character of the city is what quickens my pulse. Although disfunctional, to my eyes Moscow is beautiful.

> Beauty and Use

Formerly, beauty had other connotations. In his book Michelangelo and the Language of Art, David Summers writes how during the Italian Renaissance the concept of beauty was identified with usefulness or function. He quotes Castiglione: "Columns and architraves support high loggias and palaces, but they are no less pleasing to the eye than useful to the structures..." Behind the notion that beauty never exists separately from suitability or function lies the idea that nature does nothing in vain; everything in nature follows the principle of order. Thus it has been possible to explain the universe and its processes, architecture and objects, man and his body, in terms of order. Likewise, the city has always depended on the principle of order. The words ordinare and ordinatio were terms for town planning even before the Renaissance. The whole notion of planning perhaps stems from man's desire to identify, differentiate and classify. After all, most of us seem to be constantly working on planning our lives, with varying degrees of success, to understand them better, control them better, and to move more freely inside them. And for all this, the points by which we orient ourselves must be readable.


> Pagan

Whereas Moscow is beautiful, dysfunctional, and very hard to read, Pagan is just plain beautiful. One does not read Pagan for the simple reason that there's next to nothing to read there. It is the former capital of Myanmar, formerly Burma. All that remains of the town is pagodas and temples scattered around the overgrown land. Years ago, farmers lived amid the pagodas, but they have been exiled, so as not to mar the view for the tourists who come seeking the solitude of ruins. Pagan's fate is however better than that of Tikal in Guatemala: in Pagan, the jungle has not yet become transformed into a park; in Tikal, the temples stand upon park-like lawns. The preservation of abandoned towns seems to have become a world-wide fashion, and the act of preservation can easily get out of hand. I adore going to see abandoned towns. The less I know about the civilization which built the town -- the less I can read there -- the more I am impressed by it. Empty towns fill me with exhilaration and a sense of loss at the same time. I go there to gaze at what is not my time and place, what is not the time and place of the city where I live.


> Vilnius

There are Eastern European cities that give me the same feeling as Pagan. What really sets them apart is the abandoned houses, neglected yards and unkempt lawns. Approximately a fifth of the houses in the center of Vilnius are empty. A local friend told me how he wished all the run-down houses in town would be restored. For a moment I pictured it in my mind: the deserted and shabby Vilnius transformed into an orderly German city full of stores and bars. I realized that if I had to choose, Vilnius as it is would be the more beautiful of the two - thanks to the vacant houses, which are so numerous they are unavoidable. When walking about, one is affected by them as one is by the unexpected vistas in an English park: entering a street one suddenly comes face to face with vacant windows staring back. Sometimes the sky can be seen through them, sometimes there is only darkness. It is the way it is with dreams: some of my friends claim they are light, others say they are dark. Dreams are also not clearly articulated -- often one does not even remember what one has dreamed about. Empty houses are just like that -- they simply abide there, and no more. In their windows there is nothing, or at least nothing tangible -- no piece of furniture or an old lady looking out. A vacant house only shows itself, its own body. The body affects us differently than a thought. We all know the power human touch has to confuse thoughts. It is the same with a city. When the body of a city moves to the foreground, the city itself becomes unreadable. And also unusable: as if it were shrouded in fog.

> Ljubljana in fog

Some years ago, when visiting a friend on a foggy evening, I wandered into such a thick patch of fog that I did not recognize the house I was going to. For a moment I was overpowered by anxiety; in my mind's eye I can still see the wall I stared at. The house was, naturally, the right one, but I felt as though I had never seen that wall before. The same phenomenon occurs in Venice when it is under water. It seems completely unfamiliar, as if seen for the very first time -- or when a heavy snowfall covers the city in the winter. Or when it gets so hot in the summer that there's noone in the streets. These are all situations that silence clings to. The city becomes useless. But still, even if one cannot find one's way around, the city at least offers its body. On an ordinary day in an ordinary city the body of the city is hardly noticeable, even the facades. There's the hustle and bustle of people, the stores are open. The blending of people and reality is the simple raison d'etre of a town. But I believe that there is another reason for the coexistence of man and city, a reason beyond usefulness. Peter Handke once wrote: "We live on illusions. Without illusions we would never do anything." If so, illusions are the precondition of reality. Cities need vacant, unused spaces and haziness, just as people need sleep. Furthermore, one does not need to go to faraway exotic places to gaze at empty towns if one has a similar vacant space conveniently close at hand. I grew up in Slovenia, where real space was not cultivated. Thus for me space has always been a fiction. Facetiously I might say I should feel at home in foggy places. Likewise, I should feel at home where things do not go like clockwork.


I always become skeptical when I am told of a planned, orderly city. Imagine a city where every single thing functions. How tedious in its predictability. Yet the idea of creating a city ex nihilo has so much appeal that the venture is repeatedly undertaken. There actually exist cities which are products of ideas. They are realized visions of great architects -- first they were rulers, later on urban planners. Nowadays we call them regulators, and they no longer work (or think) on a grand scale: they content themselves with parts, since they can not have the whole. But what they all have in common is that they strive to control the city, rationalize it and introduce order into it. Such ideas are linear and realizable in geometry. Recently I was leafing through a book on urban planning, when on one of the last pages -- probably dealing with city development -- I saw a schematic drawing of Caracas. A mass of criss-crossing lines represented the planned city, and on the periphery there were black blotches. Opposed to the linear geometry, they looked organic. The organic form induced a sense of malaise, as though the blotches were out of control and growing irrepressibly -- which of course they are. I know two examples of such a living body of a city: urban voids and unapproved construction, which in Brazil are called the favelas. These, like the realized urban visions, are imaginary places. But the latter have the advantage over the former of requiring no special effort: they grow of their own accord.

> Favela

Last fall I went to Sao Paulo -- it was spring there -- and I was unexpectedly enchanted by the city. It is like the future realized, like Babel: it is allright that the languages have gotten all mixed up. All manner of architectural styles coexist in perfect harmony, cheek by jowl: on the main street, in the midst of corporate buildings there is even a vacant house. There is also no shortage of favelas. Anyone who has ever seen a favela from up close knows it is fresh and beautiful. It is an assemblage of impossible and improbable materials, colors and odors. The time needed to get lost in a favela is a mere instant. It is an incarnation of confusion, obstruction, and proximity of touch -- of both dwellings and their inhabitants. Here the body resides: the body of the house which shelters the body of the inhabitant. These constructions convey a single message, they speak of man. They are dwellings and nothing else.

> Urban voids

There is a great deal of disordered space in Ljubljana. The squares have not finished delimiting themselves: there are always a few illegally parked cars in some corner, a cluttered yard, or a house shedding its plaster. I do not find this ugly, nor see it as the city's wounds. The walls of Venice sport the beauty of falling plaster with panache. Interestingly, the disorder in Ljubljana, as in Venice, appears to have a will of its own. These gray zones, these dysfunctional city areas, lodge in the teeth of the dark mutterings of urban regulators. And, of course, in such a gray zone a vacant house is likely to appear. Regulators have a funny name for vacant houses: they call them 'urban voids'. An urban void is defined as an abandoned space which embodies the promise of a locality useful in the future. Here is the catch. I believe that if all urban voids were to be transformed into functional sites, the city would begin to lose its body. A vacant house has a similar effect on people as a favela or a city enveloped in mist: then or there the city cannot be read in full, nor used in full. Which makes it easier to daydream in.


> Brasilia

In Brasilia, unobstructedness existed before the city itself did. The terrain on which the capital of Brazil was built is an arid plain, its flatness reminiscent of the piece of paper on which the city was drawn. Brasilia does not conceal its origin on paper. Everything in the city points to it. In Brazil, a country known for its rain forests, the capital Brasilia stands in a region perennially starved for water. There is no wild nature, no lush tropical foliage to grow of its own accord. The messy metropolitan life is minimized, as well, and the sky above the city is wide. The urban planners took great care to keep the city unobstructed. The sixteen shanty towns which sprang up simultaneously are separated from the city by a belt several kilometers wide. Is it possible then to regulate favelas, this virus in the planned body, this wild nature of the city? But then again, within minutes of the presidential palace squatters have built houses, without bothering with zoning laws.

> Iram

Somewhat like Brasilia, the town Iram from the Arabian Nights is a product of the imagination. King Shaddad has a city of many-columned Iram built as a terrestrial paradise. Once the construction work is complete, he sets out for it with his entourage. But they never reach the city, they never even see it from afar. "When there remained but one day's journey between Shaddad and Iram, Allah sent down on him and on the stubborn unbelievers a mighty rushing sound from the Heavens, which destroyed them all with its vehement clamour, and neither Shaddad nor any of his company set eyes on the city. Moreover, Allah blotted out the road which led to the city." God knew that visions are best when they are not realized: that explains the success of the idea of heaven. Realized visions never live up to expectations. The idea is usually more successful than its worldly outcome.

> Münster

Not so long ago Münster as a city also had to deal with its own accessibility. It was 1941 and Münster had to prepare for the possibility of Allied bombing. The city authorities made plans for bunkers to shelter the inhabitants. They were not some dank vacated cellars, but houses large as public buildings. Great care went into choosing their exterior image and location -- both were intended to fool the eyes of bomber pilots. Two of these bunkers are in the center of the city; one looks like a school building, the other like a castle. A compact building with two turrets, a draw-bridge (made of concrete), a moat (without water) encircling three quarters of the building -- these are all signs by which a castle is recognized, not only from up close but also from a bird's eye view. It is fascinating how firmly the planners believed in the readability of city form. I can relate to that, since I was raised to believe in form myself -- I studied architecture. Nobody would believe in form that way today, though. Nowadays, cities do not share an easily readable image. Meanings change; this has already become that. The bunker in Münster has taken on a new role: it has become an urban void in the city fabric. When I was looking for a vacant house for my first Skulptur Projekte proposal, no-one was aware of the quantity of empty space we had right under our noses, not to mention the mass of more than a meter thick walls. We had all overlooked the bunker. As a vacant house it had become a dormant and unnoticed area in the inner city. On the other hand, the clear visibility of the city was to Münster's detriment. The easy aerial readability of the inner city facilitated the thoroughness of the bombing: by 1945 nothing remained to obstruct the view from one end of the Promenade to the other. This void in the city brought about a new city which, like the bunker, has been in disguise since its beginning. The facades which appear old at first sight are in fact not, but conceal behind themselves modern architecture. Münster pretends to be old, but fools only the eyes, not the feeling. It feels like a displaced body, devoid of a genius loci. There is nothing wrong with that; I for one like it, since it makes me feel at home.


When presenting a city, people usually recite facts: its history and important buildings. What effect would it have if the strategy were reversed, if cities were spoken about from the perspective of empty space rather than facts? We would say that a Medieval town grows from its square, that Haussman's Paris embodies the array of avenues, and that modernist architecture displays transparency in all the glass facades, which enable one to literally see through the building so that the image of the building begins to disintegrate in one's gaze. After the transparent building came the reflecting building, which replaced glass with reflective windows, and the transparency of the body with the reflections of its surroundings. Because of that it resides in the city in a very special way. Contrary to other buildings, which strive to be present in space, it pretends not to be there. The reflecting building is practically the first conscious urban void. The current city presents emptiness in a new way, by exposing vacant houses. They are better than reflecting buildings, which only display emptiness. Vacant houses embody emptiness. There is nothing wrong if something in the city is resting. Vacant houses where nothing ever happens, and vacant cities the world over -- there is no rational reason for their continued existence, and yet they are there. I know I find vacant houses a sight to behold. Sometimes I feel we nurture and protect them as though they were alive. Every living being needs rest and sleep to regenerate. Cities need vacant houses just as we need sleep, this uncontrolled space of our existence. That is why I like looking into empty houses: it is like an insight into my sleep. Apart from taking on the traits of life by resting, vacant houses also behave like living beings: they grow. They appear unpredictably, organically, like wild growth in the city. The city is nowadays understood differently than in the Renaissance. Then it strove to follow the principle of order, to be understood and read, to be different from the wild nature beyond the city walls. The city of today, or rather, its urban condition, incorporates that wild nature -- all the unkept parks and vacant houses -- into itself.

Published in "Sculpture. Projects in Münster", Münster, 1997. Online at www.potrc.org

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