Category | Design

A Capitalist Disaster: The Disaster Capitalism complex at work in Christchurch

American writer and activist Naomi Klein coined the phrase “disaster capitalism” in the wake of the Bush Administration’s response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. This term became mainstream when her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ was published in 2007 and went on to become a No.1 best seller and later a feature length documentary. However, far from the accepted media view of an incompetent Government response, Klein’s theory is that this was merely an example of a growing worldwide trend involving the highly competent and undemocratic transfer of Public wealth and resources to private hands in post-disaster situations. It is hard to read this book without immediately drawing parallels with the current situation in Christchurch where a lack of real democracy and public debate around the reconstruction effort is apparent. However, as Klein thankfully points out in the final chapter of her worrying book there are alternatives to this top-down Neo-liberal economics approach to reconstruction which involve democracy through community level initiatives and participation in the process.

Disaster Capitalism

The theory of the rise of disaster capitalism is essentially that the neo-liberal global economic system seizes on disasters as prime opportunities to circumvent democracy and demand wholesale privatization of public assets without government interference so that even disaster responses are now conducted by and for the benefit of private contractors and industry.

In New Orleans post Katrina rather than help local people rebuild their lives the Government marginalized them and forced them to move, often out of the state entirely.  Poor African American neighborhoods and solidly built housing projects undamaged by the waters were demolished and replaced with condominiums and replicas of white suburbia. Public Schools were replaced with private ones to which local communities could not afford to send their children. New malls were built where houses had stood on profitable real estate and leased to multi-nationals. In the places where there were no real estate opportunities, properties were simply left to fester like ghost towns.

The chapter of the Shock Doctrine on the post Katrina nightmare states:

“The images from New Orleans showed that this was the general belief – that disasters are a kind of time out from cut-throat capitalism, when we all pull together and the state switches into higher gear – had already been abandoned, and with no public debate.”[i]

The main elements of this new approach to post disaster re-construction are that it involves a large scale transfer of Public Wealth to private hands and a lack of democracy or public involvement in decision making.  This was seen drastically in Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 where the Government effectively grabbed all land within 100 metres of the coastline from local subsistence fishing communities in the name of safety only to promptly sell it off to multi-national tourism developers to build resorts.  In addition, billions of dollars of aid money from the largest fundraising effort the world has ever seen was siphoned into these tourist developments and corrupt politicians coffers so that little of it actually assisted the affected people for whom it was raised.  For more on this, see the Documentary “From Dust” by Dhruy Dhawan [ii]

Relevance to Christchurch?

This lack of democracy and public debate has been a hallmark of every level of the New Zealand Government’s Reconstruction efforts in Christchurch after the recent seismic disasters. The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010 was rushed through parliament in a whirlwind three days without proper scrutiny and effectively gave the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) led by Minister Gerry Brownlee the authority to effectively do anything they like and requires no public consultation, environmental safeguards or other features of legislation respectful of democratic process.[iii] As the herald reported this Law “gives CERA specific powers to get information from any source, to requisition and build on land and to carry out demolitions. It can also take over local authorities if they are not working effectively on recovery work.”[iv]

A concern about the CERA approach is that there has been little discussion or public debate about what will be done with the valuable land in the uninhabitable residential Red Zone after it has been purchased. The Government has announced a buyout package for such affected residential land which is essentially a take it or leave it offer for residents who are prohibited from rebuilding on that land.[v] It seems there is overwhelming public support for turning the land around the badly liquefied Avon river and the Iconic Cathedral into public parks and wetlands for the benefit of the city.[vi] However CERA appears evasive on this issue and a growing suspicion is that the land may well end up as prime waterfront private property built on expensively remediated land.

A local community group ‘Action for Christchurch East’ have commented on the need for a cohesive response in an interesting blog post:

“The mistake we made since September was to assume that business and suited politicians are the best equipped people to deal with natural disasters. The government and decision makers have deliberately segmented the communities’ response. We are encouraged to deal with issues individually and are left hoping that our phone messages are responded to – think back to the community briefings where we were told to line up and deal with our issues “separately”, what a missed opportunity for the community to get organised! Groups that have created a collective response and have shown real promise are now being gagged and trodden on.”[vii]

This lack of democratic process or community involvement in Christchurch is allowing for the situation where private contractors are making huge public gains while taxpayers and private individuals all over the country are paying.  Stories are emerging of overbilling, unsatisfactory work and contractors effectively manipulating the system for their personal gain.  Fletchers Construction, a large Auckland based nationwide construction firm with powerful ties to many of the largest New Zealand companies and strong political connections was awarded a Multimillion dollar contract to rebuild the city amid allegations of conflict of interest in the tender process.  The now familiar approach seen in Iraq and New Orleans of companies sub contracting and sub–sub contracting out this work means that the local people actually doing the work get paid little and have little resources to do an effective and quick job while CEOs and shareholders make a tidy profit.  This approach does not create jobs for the worst affected local people and makes them reliant on insubstantial Government handouts.

The Government if elected for a second term will attempt to use the cost of rebuilding to justify speeding up the already planned privatisation of state assets and services further directing public reconstruction money into the private sector. On top of this Taxpayers are now funding $1 billion bailout of AMI Insurance who cannot pay out to insured people.  Increasingly it seems that a select few in the corporate sector will benefit from or have any say in the rebuilding of Christchurch while the working and middle classes will suffer big losses in the areas of living standards, employment, labour standards, public education, and social welfare.

The alternatives

The positive message to come from the awareness of the disaster capitalism complex is to stand up for your community, take power and exercise democracy by being involved in the process and in public debate.   We should not simply sit idly by and watch as our wealth and resources are handed over to corporate interests for individual gain. After Hurricane Katrina a number of communities simply defied the bulldozers and the laws and organized themselves to reoccupy and rebuild their own houses or public schools with little or no outside assistance. Similarly, in Thailand despite attempts by the Government to impose a law similar to the Sri Lankan one, many communities simply stepped over the barriers and started rebuilding their houses without waiting for permission or assistance. The resilience of these communities has led to them surviving as living entities whilst many others around them have not.

 

Worker self-management is a form of direct economics or democratic workplace decision-making in which workers manage their factories or farms as co-operatives.  Salaries are usually more equal and production, division of labour and other decisions are made democratically.   After the Mid 1990s financial collapse in Argentina this approach was used effectively by many local workers who occupied their defunct and bankrupt factories previously owned by wealthy elites and recommenced production with the support of and for the benefit of the community. This story is the subject of a documentary “La Toma” (The Take)[viii] also made by Naomi Klein and her husband Avi lewis.  Interestingly, the Spanish verb ‘recuperar’ used to describe these occupations means not only “to take back” but also “to put back into good condition”. When Police attempted to evict some of these locked in workers the local communities formed a human shield around the factories to prevent it until they eventually won the right to continue.

 

There are many stories of hope and resilience as groups in Christchurch are finding ways to navigate through the bureaucratic nightmare and get on with the task of rebuilding.Gap Filler’ is one initiative started in response to the Christchurch earthquakes which aims to temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city.[ix] Veteran New Zealand Human Rights and Social Justice Activist John Minto stated in his article ‘Anarchy to the rescue in Chch’  “It’s useful for some to remember that anarchy doesn’t mean ‘chaos’ it means ‘without government’. The Christchurch anarchists are showing the will and organisation to help keep their communities going while the resources of the government appear focused elsewhere.”[x]

For more detailed accounts of this from people on the ground in Christchurch check out the upcoming special edition of Freerange: ‘Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake.’

I’m not attempting to incite a riot or suggesting people storm the ‘red zone’ as neither are entirely safe or productive, however if we are able to work together as a collective force then the recuperation of our economy for the benefit of our communities is entirely possible.  As Klein puts it we are rebuilding our cities and our economy “not from scratch but from scraps.”  By this she means that anything left behind by the successive waves of natural and capitalist destruction can be salvaged and recycled into use in this new form of community led economic development. Participating in decision making and ensuring accountability in matters affecting our communities is necessary for achieving this. Investing time, money and energy into local level industry and initiatives has the potential to replace what has been lost and to build a truly local economy and a more livable environment from the ground up.

 

 

 

 


[i] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine Penguin Books 2007, p.408

[x] John Minto, Anarchy to the rescue in Chch, 27 February, 2011 http://thestandard.org.nz/anarchy-to-the-rescue-in-chch/

 

 

 

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Flotille

Flottille (detail) from Etienne Cliquet on Vimeo.

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the Open City : an experiment in design and living

 

La Ciudad Abierta de Ritoque is a settlement of 270 hect. located 16 kms. north of Valparaiso, Chile. The land includes extensive dune fields, wetlands and includes an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna, a small beach, streams and fields. It was founded in 1970 by poets, philosophers, sculptors, painters, architects and designers. Today it is still inhabited by many of the original founders and other like-minded people/families. The students of the architecture department at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso co-participate actively in it’s ongoing construction through workshops, dinners and other events. Living in the “Open City” means that you are a partner of the Corporación Cultural Amereida and thus must carry a certain amount of detachment from “your” home, because nobody owns the buildings that they inhabit. Every inhabitant gives input to the construction of the houses and “your” particular home is understood as a gift. The original idea was to establish a type of a city, but not in relation to the number of people who live there, but in relation to its structure, which thus contains the unusual, the des-order. The land chosen is as fluid as the dunes and such at the mercy of the wind.

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Chucking Bricks in Christchurch

Christchurch has lost it’s chimneys. Perhaps it should have lost them before this. Tens of thousands of homes now have holes in their ceilings after their chimneys collapsed in the feburary earthquake, and now residents can’t light fires when they need them most. I am not a great fan of chimneys anyway. We don’t live in the stone age, and just plain burning stuff is a stone age way of heating, no matter how romantic it may be. If going to the toilet on the footpath was romantic, then it’d be behaviour on a par environmentally with heating your home by using a fire.

But Christchurch was a city built disregarding it’s environment anyway. Someone just let a town sprawl out over a shallow windless depression of drained marshland, and then let people heat everything in it with coal and wood. Many of them still did until a few weeks back. I used to live in Lytellton and cycle to work in Christchurch over the bridle path track. I’d crest that hill, sweating, at 8.30am of an autumn morning, and ahead would be a lake of coal smoke with a few tall buildings poking up through it. I’ve commuted by bicycle in Los Angeles and London as well, and Christchurch was worse to ride in than either because of it’s dependence on this insane victorian style of heating.

I like a room with a mantlepiece and a fireplace, but I really just like leaning on the mantlepiece and pretending to smoke a pipe. A fireplace nicely breaks up a boring wall, and is handy for putting bookshelves up on each side of, but actually lighting a fire in an open fireplace isn’t something that happens much in my experience. Uncontained wood burns with amazing swiftness, and almost all the heat produced by it goes straight up the chimney and warms the globe rather than warming you. Woodburners of course aren’t quite so inefficient, and they don’t need those two or three metric tonnes of brick that you can feel hanging over you in these shakey isles either. Woodburners just need a shaft of pipe, and that isn’t going to collapse and hurt anyone, or take a large chunk of roof down with it either.

I’ve lived in many old houses with chimneys, and I’ve liked all those houses, so it’s odd that I should be arguing against a part of them, but I just can’t help myself. Chimneys are inefficient, and whilst I love old buildings, I’ve never seen chimneys as being defining points of their character. If you’ve ever looked across the London rooftops, out over that sea of grotty victorian and edwardian sprawl that ends in an assault of brick on the sky, you’ll know that it’s one of the most sordid and grimy views that the world has. All that those ranks of chimneys speak of is the bad old industrial revolution. Child labour, coal smoke, the mill-worker’s failing lungs, the seamstress’s clouded eyes.

I haven’t liked the old houses I’ve lived in because they’ve had chimneys, but because they’ve been beautiful houses, even if sometimes their charm has been that of decaying grandeur. One house in Aro Valley had two chimneys that were unusable and lacked witches hats, but also had a peaked roof with a fine view. We ran left and right speaker cables down the chimneys and set a waterproofed speaker atop each, and lo, with the addition of a decent ladder a summer of fun afternoons was born.

There was another hatless chimney which used to moan oddly on windy nights. When it started to smell as well as moan I excavated it and found a dead possum atop of a lot of wet 80’s newspapers that were stuffed up there. I buried the possum, gave up on heating the room, and just put some ferns in the fireplace to catch the drips. They thrived. I didn’t.

An issue like redundant chimneys in New Zealand feels a very small thing to be concerned about in respect of the serious devastation in Japan, a country that’s never been cursed with these weighty pieces of victorian architecture. In the context of Japan’s earthquake I could grumble about nuclear power, or our insane reliance on oil, and what is more I could argue with much more force and vigour about these things than I can about chimneys. But people have long been talking about the problems with nuclear power and with oil, and no-one’s listened, and nothing’s changed, and in the mean time I might as well make an argument for getting rid of these mildly dangerous and mostly obsolete structures all around us. I doubt that the powers that be have much vested interest in chimneys, so here we might actually make a difference.

I just feel that rooftops are prime places for better things. All of our energy comes from the sun in some way (except for geologic energy and nuclear energy, and we’ve had enough of those), and rooftops are sun-traps. Brick chimneys aren’t hard to dismantle either if you tackle them carefully in a top-down fashion. I feel more people should get up there and do things with all that sun-drenched space.

You could divert your guttering to collect rainwater for the garden, or throw up a solar water-heating panel. I know of people who’ve successfully dissembled their chimney down to the mantlepiece without even putting up scaffolding.   Sure, a non-structural chimney is work to remove, but it’s not difficult work. And then you’ve got a fine hole just waiting for a skylight.

And a pile of bricks for the garden.

 

Marcus McShane

 

 

For practical advice:

http://forum.doityourself.com/fireplaces-heating-stoves-flues-chimneys/197333-removing-chimney.html

http://www.ehow.com/how_5034337_remove-victorian-brick-chimney.html

 

 

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What’s going wrong in Christchurch?

The NZ Government has finally released their plans for a solution to the temporary housing problems affecting residents after the February 22 Earthquake.    The announcement is proof that the Government is successfully doing a miraculous job of delivering housing that is expensive, slow and low quality.  There is a well known management triangle  for project delivery that states that projects can be quick, cheap and good quality, but can only be two of these.  The government is proving innovative in its ability to fail at all three.  Lets look at this in detail.

Low quality design.

The design above is ripped from the article here on stuff is by one of the three official suppliers NZ Transportable Units who normally build cottages for farms and granny flats.   While the proposals will no doubt pass the low requirements on detailing and materials embedded in the NZ Building codes the above 10 x 5 design quickly reveals some peculiar planning.

  • no laundry,
  • it appears that the kitchen is completely walled in,
  • you can’t get to the 2nd bedroom without climbing over the couch,
  • the master bedroom 3/4 the length of the single bed,
  • inefficient separation of kitchen and bathroom plumbing.

Expensive

Each of these units is going to cost $85,00o, which might sound cheap for a house over ones head.  However, this unit is only 50 square metres. That’s a square metre rate of $1,700.   I recently saw an ad in Melbourne for a 456m2 house for $477,000 costing $1056 per square meter.  If we include the dollar difference that means the so called ‘Emergency’ Housing been proposed for Christchurch is twice as expensive as cheap housing in Melbourne suburbs.   The Government has set aside $38 million to cover the construction costs, however families will be charged between $170 and $336 per week to live in the houses, and will have to pay for their own installation costs if on their own land.   In Japan families have been given rent free use of the accommodation for two years.  The median income in New Zealand is around $33,000 per year, or around $667 per week.   Housing Stress or rent related economic pressure is said to become critical when a family spends more than 1/3 of their income on the housing.    So its clear that for many families with multiple dependents living around or below median income in NZ the rental prices being charged by the government for these houses will add to their pressures and problems rather than alleviate them.

Late

In Japan construction of temporary housing had started within two weeks of the disaster, in New Zealand it is now over two months and contractors for the job have only just been announced.   Show homes are promised to be constructed by mid may,  10-12 weeks after the disaster and still weeks and months away from the actual housing.  Japan is heading towards summer and Christchurch is heading towards what promises to be a cold and dark winter.

Problem

The source of this mismanagement is two fold.  Firstly I think the Government and the contractors are missing the crucial difference between Emergency housing and reconstruction. Emergency housing is often expensive but needs to be quick and the requirements are ones of shelter and safety.  Reconstruction is usually quite slow, can be cheaper if well thought out,  but needs to address future community needs and engage with proper planning and community involvement.  The proposed house designs are just low quality versions of what is built for permanent use in NZ and this doesn’t seem to suit anyone much. The second problem is a cultural and leadership one that sees no potential for innovation. It illustrates not only a complete lack of imagination, but also an ideology that is resistant to using expertise and international precedent.  NZ ran a state housing design competition in 2009 with many interesting and well thought through proposals which are now begin ignored. Is a nation with the technological skills to lead the world in movie making and boat design really incapable of producing anything more than the dreary and depressing designs currently proposed?

 

 

 

 

 

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Infostructures

Freerange Press is proud to release the first of its academic publications.   Increasing energy costs (Guardian Article today saying Britain needs to prepare for 70s style oil shocks) are putting massive pressure on our existing transport systems. This combined with ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives is creating new dynamic opportunities in public transport. INFOSTRUCTURE presents the vision of interactive and responsive urban public transport environments where new forms of communication and information access are enabled through an overlay of urban digital media technologies.

Featuring research and projects undertaken by master students in architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney and Bachelor students in design computing at the University of Sydney, the book explores the augmentation of existing public transport environments with urban digital media technologies, to set in motion a transformation from infrastructure to ‘infostructure(s).’

Precedent based research and technology investigations underpin the twenty featured student projects, that address a nexus of space, urban media, sensor and mobile phone technology. The research presented in this book is a foundation for a series of future infostructure projects.

Only $25 online. Please go to the Freerange Shop for purchasing details.

The authors of this book combine several years of experience in designing for public transport environments and in urban computing.

  • Nicole Gardner is an architect with project experience in infrastructure planning and design and is currently teaching and lecturing at the University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Dr. M. Hank Haeusler has researched, taught and designed media facades and information architecture and has written and published several books on media architecture. He is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Dr. Martin Tomitsch has a background in informatics and interaction design. His work has been published in international conferences on human-computer interaction and ubiquitous computing. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Sydney.
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Anti-kettling technology, What?

There is a really interesting article just published by the Guardian which outlines new technology being developed by a young bunch of folk in London.  The aim of this technology, which has its first run successfully on Saturday afternoon, is to use social media technologies to enable large crowds of protesters to avoid the aggressive containment techniques (kettling) currently used by the British police.   As the guardian article notes, while the main action is presently happening in Egypt, this development deserves a footnote in protest history. The new software is called Sukey from the Nursery Rhyme ““Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again.

The Guardian Article here.

and while we are here, a couple of good insightful articles into wtf is happening in Egypt at the moment.

Robert Fisk at the Independent:

Gywnne Dyer: Current Protests Reminiscent of 1989

and of course the great series of photos of protesters kissing security forces during the protests.

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Microcostas

Despite being a designer, its not actually that often that I see something and am instantly swayed by it.  This coastal decking by Spanish Firm Guallart Architects on the coast between Valencia and Barcelona got me however.  Its got all sorts of nice rational behind its form and design.  But for me it hit the sublime magic button that transcends all that stuff.  Stunning work.  Images from their site: www.guallart.com

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Weird apple contraption

The other day I was at a friends place and there was a strange little vice like contraption sitting on the coffee table. We all started hypothesizing about what its purpose might be. Something to do with honey extraction… a drill of some kind, a spool holder for threading wool or something… Until finally someone had the sense to go ask what it was and get a demonstration. It was far more specific and odd than any of us thought.

An apple corer and spiral cutter. Weird. It’s amazing to know that someone designed and mass produced these, maybe a good way to disprove the theory of supply and demand, who would demand this product?!

Check it out

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Archigram Archive Project might enliven Architectural speculation.

A few years ago now a small bunch of wellington architecture students and recent grads flew up to Auckland, excited by the prospect of a Conference about a radical Architecture Student Congress that happened in the 70s in Auckland.  There are a number of stories that have unraveled from this event, but a particularly memorable presentation that day was from Kate Heron (or was it Sam Hardingham, i can never remember, shamefully) from the University of Westminster, who had been working alongside David Greene -a poet and member of the Archigram group- anyhow, she presented on a particular project called the Invisible University -which we were invited to contribute ideas to (the presentation included a recital of a poem from Greene, which was particularly great, and should probably be posted here…I have it somewhere).

A lasting impression was the excitement that a revitalised and active member of an incredibly famous group (in the architecture community) was to some extent continuing its work some 30 years later, in a reasonably radical way.

Westminster University has just published the Archigram Archival Project online. It is an amazingly comprehensive digital archive of the entire Archigram oeuvre, containing hundreds of projects and thousands of staggering images produced by the group in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“Almost 10,000 items are included in this archive, including digital versions of drawings, collages, paintings, photographs, magazines, articles, slides and multi-media material, accompanied by original texts by Archigram wherever these are available. Around half of these items belong to the 202 projects currently listed and given project numbers by Dennis Crompton in the Archigram Archives. The rest are supporting and contextual material such as letters, photos, texts and additional projects provided by the depositors.”

What I find interesting given this new availability is the possibility for a renewed enthusiasm and experimentation in architectural representation, especially from the student body, which in large, produces increasingly frigid architectural representations –a tangential discussion to be had relates to the uptake of digital representation in architectural practice, which in my mind is still largely in a state of clumsy infancy in most conventional architecture schools and practices: the uptake seems too excited by production rather then quality-.

What I find interesting is the conceptual and intellectual rigour and consistency applied throughout the body of work, which radically attempted to imagine future conditions for modernity, the city, the suburb (and so on, the breadth is phenomenal), and to a huge extent has been proven as fairly accurate.  Commodity-fetishism, virtual nomads, techno-environmentalism and invisible network cities are just a handful of ideas flooding through the work, which remember, was created when only snippets of these conditions were evident -the mobile phone was really only taken up in the 70s.  In some ways the work might be framed as evolutionary, exploring and fantasizing about the things they saw around them, and developing those aspects they thought would persist.
A few favourites:

Sin Centre

“Entertainments Palace’ on the site of the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, London. Originally ‘failed’ as student final thesis project at the Regent Street Polytechnic

The Polytechnic failed the scheme and continued to do so several times even after its prominent display at MOMA and published status as an epoch-making and original technic icon.”

This makes me think of the stories heard (in nz…a few years back) of students being failed in final years of study, only to retort that the university wasn’t able to argue its case based on the assessment criteria, and eventually were forced to pass the student under legal presuure.  I wonder what it would take to fail these days, sure you could do it by being crap -maybe, but it would be interesting to see which directions you could take architecture that might be considered un-architectural enough to be denied by the university.  I know I tried… and there’s plenty to be analysed there, but I havn’t been bothered yet.

Plug In University Node

“The University Node was an exercise to discover what happened to the various notions of gradual infill, replacement and regeneration of parts on to a Plug-in City megastructure: but with a specific kind of activity.”

Instant City

“Instant City forms part of a series of investigations into mobile facilities which are in conjunction with fixed establishments requiring expanded services over a limited period in order to satisfy an extreme but temporary problem.”

Sorry about the clumsy formatting, but i like how hungry the images get all over the website.

Love it.

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