Monday, 27 July 2009

Urban Farming and Apocalypse Chic

Dalston Mill, London, 2009. Photo from Londonist.

When I was researching my recent feature on urban farming (Icon 072; not online yet, sadly), the same name kept coming up: Cuba. Cuba, it was said, was the face of the future: urban populations were effectively supplementing their diets from smallholdings within city limits, and were doing so with high yields achieved without agrochemicals. I now read on Carolyn Steel's blog that this isn't strictly true: Cuba's urban farms supply only 5% of the nation's food, and 75% of Cuba's farmers use agrochemicals. More would if they could. It's a great shame.

This is a problem with urban farming that I hinted at in the piece I wrote for Icon 072 and didn't really have the space to explore fully. Urban farming was forced on Cuba; whatever its admirable achievements, I'm sure many of those courtyard smallholdings would become carparks with the end of the economic crisis. They are a contingency measure until better times arrive.

Now, there are very good reasons to grow more food inside cities, and to encourage people to grow some of their own food where they can. We do not want to continue to be at the mercy of a bloated, destructive and wasteful industry that gulps petrochemicals, destroys ecosystems and ruins the lives of thousands. As well as being ethically ropey and bad for our health, the food industry is very fragile, with long, tenuous supply lines and vast resource requirements that make it very vulnerable to exogenous shock and sudden collapse. Our dependence on industrialised food is a huge risk; self-reliance, on an individual and civic scale, is a virtue.

But the proponents of urban farming often muddle up doing it because we must (that is, we face shortages if we do not) and doing it because we should (self-reliance being a virtue, food security being desirable and so on) - necessity and desirability. And it's the questions of necessity that tend to be the most powerful arguments: no one wants to face shortages. But if people see urban farming as only a necessity, it will only ever be seen as an emergency response to a crisis, to be rolled back when (if) more secure times return. This appears to be the condition Cuba is in. But that simply sets society back on the road to consumer-dependence of food produced invisibly elsewhere.

Moving to a more diverse and stable system of food production - including some urban farming - has to accent that is is a desirable option in good times and bad.

Hipsterising the Eschaton
Which brings me to the second prong of this pitchfork argument. I'm not terrifically impressed by the Barbican's "recreation" of Agnes Denes' 1982 urban art installation Wheatfield - A Confrontation. Here's a gallery of pictures from Londonist, including the one I borrowed at the top of this post; here's a gallery from the AR. Maybe I'm missing something, maybe it the photography. But it strikes me as pitiful. Denes' original was a flowing field on a sweep of land worth millions of dollars, with Manhattan as a backdrop. This "recreation" is a mangy rug in an enclosed patch of Dalston. It lacks all of the impact of the original.

But the purpose here is education as well as spectacle. It's a demonstration of urban farming; the wheat produced by the field will be ground in the windmill that has been built on site by voguish French practice EXYZT. Sadly, the windmill is not at all interesting. It is simply a windmill. The project has some merit in that it gives a small idea of how urban food production could be integrated with public social space.

But the aesthetics are, regrettably, an instance of apocalypse chic. For some reason, when young architecture practices confront the planet's combined crises, the reference tool they reach for is Mad Max rather than, say, anything attractive or optimistic. In an effort to make the project visibly post-crisis, it is deliberately informalised, made to look uglier, cheaper and more improvised than it could be. In order to make this palatable, it is made to be "fun", usually by installing a turntable. The overall idea appears to be to suggest that the chaotic transition from petroeconomy to whatever comes next is going to be like some kind of hipster yard party.

This deliberately informalised approach is delusional and counterproductive. It just makes necessary measures look like transitional patch-ups and workarounds, in place until normal service is resumed. It falls into the trap I described above, appealing to necessity rather than desirability. Why stick with this jerry-rigged arrangement when we could build version 2.0 of the industry that has given us individually wrapped bananas airfreighted from Kenya and the Turkey Twizzler?

You might argue that transitional jerry-rigging will be necessary for a time, and the aesthetics come later. That's not a bad point, but we know how to build a windmill out of scaffolding, and we did not need EXYZT to show us. Architects should be busying themselves with making a post-crisis future appealing, and doing so in a way that stretches beyond putting in a turntable. The model should be post-War planning, utopianism, not Waterworld. The future should be well-made and attractive.


muthacourage said...

I'm not so sure EXYST were trying to confront the apocalypse so much as trying to make a minimal structure that could be dismantled and recycled when the installation was over - their southwark lido project last year shares the same look and all the materials from building structure to sandals were either sold, recycled or distributed to neighbouring communities and project partners. To me the mill doesn't reference Mad Max so much as other temporary festival pavilions, eg AOCs LIFT theatre and it seems a mistake to confuse an experiment for a polemic. If anything EXYST should be applauded for (and judged on) their prioritisation of sustainability and sociability above the spectacular introversions of form and aesthetics - haven't we had all too much of that?

Will said...

I was a big fan of both Southwark Lido and AOC's LIFT pavilion, both projects that seemed to be far more considered and finished than this one. (AOC, incidentally, features heavily in my urban farming feature as a practice that has done some really interesting work in the, ahem, field.) Another similar and interesting project is the Baltimore Development Cooperative's Participation park:

My feelings about Dalston Mill aren't set in stone, something so evidently well-meaning doesn't deserve to be dismissed out of hand. What I can't see it doing is anything really new or interesting. If it is an experiment, what are we learning? That all demountable structures have to look like scaffolding? My point is that if our responses to the crisis are designed to appear slipshod, temporary and patched-up, then people will see these responses as being simply a temporary measure until "normal service" (that is, rampant industrial consumerism) is resumed. We have certainly had enough of spectacular formalism, but there's a well-made and attractive middle ground between that and Mad Max.

Will said...

PS thanks for commenting, this is certainly something open to debate.

muthacourage said...

I think the Mill missed some of the vibes of the Lido because it didn’t have as many opportunities to get stuck in, and even if I managed to get to a bread making class it would have felt more like a lesson and an “experience” than part of a daily routine of self-sufficiency...that’s stating the obvious but then how do you encourage broad, voluntary lifestyle change in something like inner city farming? I can’t help but think that compelling social practices (viable models of employment, volunteerism, distribution, remuneration etc.) will have more to say on this than communicative aesthetics. There’s also no telling whether or not submission to necessity will shade into voluntary desire, like an arranged marriage, we might not know until we do it, but the important thing is having done it at all.

Being well-made and attractive maybe even bold, is no guarantee of coherent commitment, as the flag-ship eco-towns prove - whole quarters of supposedly permanent solidity can support compensatory models of sustainability, where one community's profligacy can be (aspirationally) offset by another's efficiency.

Will said...

One of the many interesting things that John Thackara told me in the course of my urban farming research was that ultimately we need new forms of social organisation to emerge, in order to manage urban spaces that are turned over to cultivation. Obviously we don't want to lose precious open space in cities to private exploitation, so urban farms will have to be run along local co-op lines, according to practices and covenants we haven't really explored yet (although another interviewee pointed to the way that London's garden squares are run). It is, I would think, impossible to simulate that sort of thing on a small, temporary scale, so that's not something I expect of EXYZT. One of my wife's friends made a very telling criticism of Dalston Mill: he said it would have been much more fun if he had brough along 12 friends "like everyone else there". The sociality there is simulated, or rather imported, and a hipsterised space like that can be pretty exclusive.

Sure, necessity can become desire, but I think the process would be helped along if the facilities of the new age were well-made and attractive - desirable symbols that could be turned into rallying cries, like Finsbury Health Centre is here:

muthacourage said...

I’m going to pick up a copy of Icon before I end up repeating any more of your research! It’s just the hipster thing that threw me (being hipsterish myself)...

I'd put the preponderance of hip down to the convergence of art/design exhibition and dalston demographics rather than the draw of cynical shackitecture - relocate the finsbury health centre to another trendy patch of east london and stage an art/design exhibition and you might find modernism's social allegiances becoming similarly fraught. It seems an overstatement to say EXYST eschewed a bolder image of change for some glib post-apocalyptic aesthetic rather than pursuing a different definition of sustainability (why not temporary, seasonal, found?) given that they used the same components and techniques in their last project. Free of the mill’s programmatic and demographic determinations, the Lido seemed to encourage more casual and unaffected engagement from a broader crowd (maybe this means we can confine the eschaton to hipsterdom?).

This isn’t to say there weren’t many hipsters (there were many hipsters when I went too), only that attendant apocalypse chic wasn’t intended. Looking at the mill’s flickr stream I wonder if in fact this insularity was just my idiosyncratic experience, imported or not, there seem to be many more families and local people than I remember in these pictures: