Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard
The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.
Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:
Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
A broad view …
My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.
Envelope as infrastructure …
Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills. Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers. As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.
Societal glue …
Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue. The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.” Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.
The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources. The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.
And failure …
The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades. On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication. On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading. The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption. Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters. And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer. As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.
A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …
I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal. Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors. But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple. To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder. Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels. A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process. Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city. For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.
* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions. Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall. Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.
Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job
On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky! Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate. I’ll explain …
First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane. Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.
The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.
So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.