Slum Architecture

I went to the Art Shack exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum, not knowing quite what to expect. I came out discovering an artist, Jeff Gillette, whose work completely enthralled me.

Jeff Gillette - Mickey Jakarta
The exhibition itself consisted of a diverse collection of built spaces, paintings, sculptures, video and installations - all representing various interpretations of the coastal shack architecture. Some artists and designers also drew from the Californian Assemblage movement of the late 1950's and 60's, while Gillette drew from third world slums.
Jeff Gillette - Slumscape
His two paintings, 'Slumscape,' and 'Mickey Jakarta' were so vivid and powerful; the images seemed to pop off the two dimensional canvas. I was transfixed by them. With his installations, he mixed bright and colorful images from pop culture and symbols of luxury real estate with found objects, discarded plywood and a dry sense of humor and irony to make some very provocative statements on class, inequality, ownership, home and the slums. But more surprisingly, what Gillette deftly manages to do in his creative displays of poverty is to show the viewer the weary beauty of shantytowns.
Jeff Gillette - Slums for sale - Slum Installation
This got me thinking about slum architecture. Is there such a thing? The UN estimates that about one billion people, that is 1/6 of the world's total population, live in slum like settlements. By 2030, that is in a mere twenty years, UN Habitat has predicted that the number of people living in slums will double to two billion. From Egypt to China, Brazil and India to Kenya and South Africa and so on, each location, each city, has their unique interpretation of a shantytown. Each is built completely organically based on found objects and easily accessible building materials, influenced by weather, culture and society. Both urban theorist Mike Davis and architect Charles Correa have written about the impact and social dynamic of the slums. However, aside from these two scholars, I found little else on slum architecture. How is it that we know so little about how one to two billion people live?

I think what impressed me most about Jeff Gillette's work, is that it made me take a second and third long and careful look at shanty towns and slums, when I would have normally shied away. It made me think, in my sheltered surroundings, of these meager homes, of the people who live in them and how they live and even of their jarring beauty and creativity.


The Controversy that defeated Terrorism

The frenzy in New York City this past week, brought on by the New York Landmark's Preservation Commission's ruling to allow the construction of an Islamic center and its mosque to be built 600 feet or two blocks from Ground Zero has reminded me of the America that I had once admired and respected and have long since forgotten.
I was living New York when the horror of 9/11 happened. I could not understand how a handful of terribly delusional and savage men could so easily kill 3,000 innocent people; perverting and violating a religion that stands for peace and education for millions of people around the world. From my bedroom window, not only could I see the damage they inflicted, I could smell it. The wind carried the debris of the two fallen World Trade Center buildings onto my street. For days I cried, overwhelmed by their hatred and wanton destruction of my city. I cried also for what I feared would come next. Hatred inspired more hatred. And the U.S. in retaliation, started two wars, which would only perpetuate this cycle of violence. The "better angels of our nature," to quote Abraham Lincoln, had failed on all counts.

Until now.
At a time when European countries from France to Switzerland are passing laws that impact a Muslim's religious freedom from the style of dress to the style of architecture, the city most visibly scarred by fanatics claiming to be 'Muslim' is rising above bigotry and ignorance and instead offering a hand of compassion, understanding and openness.

For me, it came from a very unlikely source - a politician. Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City gave an extremely moving speech shortly after the ruling, (a speech that I have waited almost nine years to hear), with ten religious leaders of various faiths standing behind him in support on Governors Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background. I have included some of my favorite excerpts below. To read the entire speech click here.

*Image from the New York Post

“We've come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted.... And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That's what makes New York special and different and strong...."

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life. And it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001...."

"This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that...."

"On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' What beliefs do you hold?'

"...Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. By doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam...."

"Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest."

A few days after Bloomberg's heartfelt speech, Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the extremely principled gesture of returning the prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize and the $10,000 honorarium he received from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) five years ago, because they, siding with public opinion, urged the Islamic Center be moved. The ADL insisted that they were siding with the rights of the victims. But as Zakaria clearly points out, dozens of Muslims were also killed on 9/11...and is bigotry acceptable if people think they are victims?

I can appreciate the discomfort some may have to a mosque built so close to Ground Zero. But the fact that New York City and its leadership and prominent figures refused to succumb or be swayed by bigotry or ignorance or fear and instead rose above it says volumes. It is an incredibly powerful and victorious statement about humanity and the "better angels of our nature." And with this strong principled stand, New York City defeated terrorism better than any war ever could.