Keith Knows Best (Keith Stie Cel Mai Bine) Wes Janz in response to questions from Dana Milea & Mihai Zachi, editors, Arhitext (Bucharest, Romania) August 2012
1. How would you define the notions of squatting/squatters? I prefer a thesaurus to a dictionary, synonyms over definitions. I appreciate that some thing can be defined as different, but I start my understanding of some one based in what we share. For “squatter” my thesaurus offers: newcomer (new arrival, gate-crasher), settler (precursor), and tenant (occupant, homesteader). These are roles we know. Maybe you: are the new roommate, were told to relocate by an employer, jumped in a taxi hailed by someone else, couch surf, sat in an unoccupied “better” seat at a sporting event, like the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughan movie “Wedding Crashers,” used a coffee shop’s bathroom without making a purchase, fell asleep at a public library, or live with your parents. Such moments are common. We know something about squatting. I’m not interested in defining “them.” I want to understand us.
2. What are the differences (if any) between squatting/squatters in different political - economical environments (e.g., in developed countries vs. less-developed countries)? No doubt, we are on the move. UN-Habitat estimates that 180,000 people urbanize every day. Arrivals inflate cities. Many incoming thousands find informal settlements, buttress local economies, make life better for the middle class. Occupation can be alongside other homesteaders and for years. Departures deflate cities in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Rust Belt. A person, often alone, blends into a building – becomes one with a building -- until “found out.” That said, meeting just one person can reveal the limitations of our generalizations, our preconceptions. I met Adam in Flint, Michigan.
Flint’s story? General Motors was founded there 100 years ago. At its peak, 1960s, Flint was home to 190,000 persons and 80,000 GM jobs. Today, the population is one-half (102,000) and GM jobs are one-quarter (20,000). A few thousand houses broken were torn down, thousands breaking await demolition. I’ve been to Flint twenty times since 2006. Recently, in the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood, I saw two hand-painted signs hammered to a vacant corner house: HUMAN SACRIFICES NEEDED INQUIRE WITHIN Shrunken skulls wrapped in barbed wire perched atop fence posts. Small skeletons danced from tall poles. A bleating goat called out. I’d been warned: “He took after somebody with a chain saw.” He’s home. Adam. We talked. He’s a Halloween baby; the plastic skulls and skeletons are birthday gifts. Evangelicals exorcised Adam and the property. His searchlight discourages hookers, hustlers, addicts, scrappers. He’s suing the City and a nearby hospital for not addressing the immediate fatigue. And Adam continues to upgrade the property: clearing brush, adding new copper pipes, electrical wiring, and paint. Human sacrifices needed? Yes, the signs are his, to scare, intimidate. He wants to be left alone. Later, a housing agency worker told me Adam cannot prove he is the legal owner or occupant. And because there are bigger crimes in Flint, and maybe because of the signs, he remains. To nearly everyone in Flint, Adam is dangerous, a nuisance. I see that. I also see Adam as pioneer, homesteader, preservationist. Flint should be imagined as he imagines it, lively in the way that he is alive, built on his back. Let’s begin with Adam.
3. Can the squatting be considered a resistance towards an institutional power? If so, how free/uncontrolled is the squatter way of life? In 2001, I visited Yamuna Pushta, home to informal settlers in Delhi for fifty years. I was told 45,000 people lived there. Those dwellings and additional
Yamuna River settlements were bulldozed ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Estimates vary, but 300,000 to 400,000 people were displaced and 40,000 houses destroyed. People I’d met, laughed with, were gone. A few years later, the graduate student Amal Cavender photographed the informal settlers of Ayazma in Istanbul. The 120-hectare neighborhood existed for thirty years and held 3,000 dwellings, 5-8 people per household. In 2007, the settlement was demolished to make way for public housing. All were forced out, as low incomes did not qualify them for the new houses. Remembering residents in Flint, Delhi, and Istanbul I won’t write of the free/uncontrolled squatter way of life. Some do. I don’t. Resistance? Gene Sharp, in his writings on nonviolent struggle, makes the case that leaders do not have some built-in quality that equates to being powerful. Those in power rely on the subjects’ obedience. If people do not obey, leaders have no power. Sharp’s book “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation,” influenced the Arab Spring uprisings and includes this statement: “one can not defy/resist a power structure on the terms of the power structure…” Asking about resistance frames our actions within the terms of those in power. To free us, I offer 50 beginnings of a more useful vocabulary: adze, background building, big furniture, Buddhist economics, building resilience, compelling biography, contamination, critical practice, cutting session, deep democracy, deep map, emotional intelligence, empathy deficit disorder, encroachment, expiration date, extralegal, extreme low tech, fourth world, freegan, ghost image, guerrilla innovation, harm reduction, homeless blogger, improvisation, infrapolitics, insurgent stories, long wave patterns, loose fit architecture, macgyver, material misuse, organic intellectual, people’s processes, personal infrastructure, pet architecture, place taking, prisoners’ inventions, reality twittering, relational objects, remantle, reruralized core, resource inventory, restorative justice, short ends, situated knowledge, soft coup, suture, thrash effect, time lapse economy, urban acupuncture, vocational incubator, weapons of the weak. Maybe this “language of liberation” can contribute to new understandings of the “squatter way of life.”
4. In your previous articles you mentioned the concept of squatting mimicry. How would you define it with respect to the geo-economic conditions that produce squatting?
Oftentimes “squatters” design and build with whatever materials they can find, appropriate, or thieve in spaces that fall in-between, are invisible to others, or appear unbuildable. Squatter mimicry, then, is the work of aspiring/trained/professional designers inspired by the efforts of leftover people to potentialize leftover space through the use of leftover materials. This is how a dictionary defines “leftover”: something that remains as residue or remaining unconsumed. A thesaurus lists synonyms: remainder (rubbish, odd, waste); and excess (surplus, bonus, dividend). The leftover is a fertile category that takes in shared understandings of waste and rubbish as it recasts excess people, odd spaces, and found debris as outstanding, bonuses, or dividends. Believing in a leftover person inverts conventional sensibilities. We stop giving others what we think they need. People are engaged, not as consumers, but as co-constructors of knowledge.
5. What can communities?
Close social relationships are maintained without invading the privacy of others. Planning and architecture are flexible; all can and will be changed. Creative energies surge within the tightest constraints. Where most see hopelessness, those who have little find their way. Construction is continuous with improvements constantly imagined to an initial structure. There is a passion for architecture that should inspire us. It can be argued that leftover people are the world’s leading practitioners of “green” design. Repurposed building materials are gathered within walking distance and assembled without power tools. The Sun and winds are respected as sweating and leaving are the residents’ only options.
6. Could squatter communities provide useful models for other contexts of needed self-construction (e.g. displaced people due to natural, military, economic crisis)? I am not interested in “scalability” or “transferability” to other contexts or “big plans.” Most, if not all, of my colleagues focus on such concerns. I don’t. I think about each small endeavor on its immediate terms.
A gecekondu bölgesi (neighborhood) in Istanbul is different than the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, is different than Buenos Aires during Argentina’s economic collapse in the early 2000’s, is different than what was left behind after the government’s bombardment of the LTTE-controlled Jaffna Peninsula during the Sri Lankan Civil War, is different than ten thousand abandoned houses in Flint. (I visited all these sites.) With just five examples, we’re considering radically different “small d” and “BIG D” disasters, each with its own dimensions of fatalities, displacements, beliefs, locales, economies, governments, diseases, international and national responses, environmental injustices, broken infrastructures. That said, I have interest in how to support people in the re-construction of their sites and lives, post-crisis. When the Indian Ocean tsunami slammed Sri Lanka in 2004 more than 40,000 lives were lost and 2.5 million people displaced. I was the co-director of CapAsia, a semester-long field study program based at Ball State University and directed by Dr. Nihal Perera. We arranged for our 24-person group to be involved in the building of 30 new houses for the residents of Kalametiya, a 200-person village destroyed in the tsunami. As I wrote back to our university community: “Each house project is overseen by a Sri Lankan mason (a "bas") and his small crew, and the villagers are involved, digging alongside us, taking breaks with us, drinking tea with us. My faculty colleagues (Perera and Timothy Gray) and I remind our students we are here only to begin the project. It is the Sri Lankan’s village, these are their houses and homes, and locals have their own sensibilities about materials, construction rituals, and procedures. We will respect and learn from these local practices and beliefs, even as we use these experiences to ask questions about such moments in the U.S. There is great need here and the locals are well on their way to making their own futures, to finding their own way in their new worlds, lives, houses, and occupations…” We were told Kalametiya was the only self-construction project in Sri Lanka. We came to understand our role as “catalysts” working alongside the original and eventual homeowners. Maybe this is a useful model to pursue.
7. Can you give any concrete examples of real-life squatting mimicry? (of something we can/should use or have already used) A garage we completed in Indianapolis in 2012 is very likely the first permanent building in the U.S. to be constructed almost entirely of timber pallets and authorized with a building permit (STR11-02978, City of Indianapolis, Department of Code Enforcement, August 26, 2011).
Pallets are everywhere. In the small architectures of self builders in most major cities; in composting frames, hot boxes, and chicken coops in the Rust Belt and rural Indiana; and pavilions, installations, and furniture designed by architects. But, to the best of my knowledge, do-it-yourselfers and professional designers have not negotiated the gaps between and overlaps of informal and formal economies with an authorized pallet building. My colleagues: Paul Puzzello, Tayler Mikosz, Ashley VanMeter, Steve Kessinger, Scott Szentes, Andrea Swartz, Jon Schwab, and Randy King. Our constraints: to use standard 40” x 48” pallets fully, partially, or not assembled; and to anticipate that the means of making must be possible without electricity or machines. Working drawings (including a Structural Sheet submitted by consulting engineers) are posted online for free use worldwide. Pallet Garage is an argument for the inspiration provided by informal settlers, urban pioneers, and farm workers, AND evidences the knowledge architects and engineers can bring to found material systems, AS IT shares minimal, but meaningful, improvements.
8. In the context of an increasing number of squatters (Robert Neuwirth stated that in 2050 1 in 3 people will be a squatter): - at that point isn't it possible to reach a saturation level (and won't the sheer amount of squatting lead to a change in its present qualities - good or bad)? - what's the alternative to squatting? - what do you think will be the impact of "squatting urbanism"/squatters on cities/the rest of 2 out of 3 people? I’m a university professor for seventeen years. It’s obvious: our architecture students today see a more humanistic role for themselves. They too struggle with the scale and impacts of the massive population shifts you reference. As a graduate program director for ten years, I established a “global citizen-architect” platform as I advised students from Argentina, China, Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal, Panama, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and the U.S. Dozens of thesis explorations, for which I served as major advisor, explored the concerns you raise. Among them: Gabriela Valencia, with “From Rural to Urban,” asks “what physical and spatial sensibilities might rural people bring with them when migrating to large cities?” The specific case is Emilia Sanchez, the domestic worker who helped raise Gabriela, and “Ms. Emilia’s” move from Sona to Panama City. In addition, a typology of five existing informal settlement patterns in Panama City is described and a small building project is designed for each.
Following our graduate studio, Shalaka Sarpotdar realized, “my entire perspective about the poor changed due to the realization that an educated person like me is simply ignorant about the realities of the poor.” Her thesis, “Architects for Empowerment,” proposed a non-governmental organization in her home city of Pune, India to provide slum dwellers access to education, internet, and monetary resources “which will lead towards their enablement.” “From the Ground Up,” as set out by Matt Amore, reimagined one of the Rust Belt’s most “popular” ruins, the 16-hectare Packard Auto Plant in Detroit. There, he proposed to “nurture the small scale entrepreneurship already happening in the neighborhood and promote a new educational model focused on the inherent creativity and sense of purpose to be found in local people.” Starting with the aspirations, intelligences, and talents of a local person, this is the “alternative” we advocate and practice.
9. How should urban planning and architecture react to the squatting phenomenon (if it should), especially considering the facilities usually offered by institutions (e.g. health care, education, waste management etc.)? We must commit ourselves, first, to a better understanding of ourselves and second, to a better understanding of others -- to being empathetic, not sympathetic (as set out by my colleague Olon Dotson). Two people provide inspiration. On recent trips to Detroit (with students) I met with Grace Lee Boggs, a 96-yearold life-long activist. Her autobiography, “Living for Change,” includes this distinction: “Rebellion is a stage in the development of revolution but it is not revolution… A rebellion disrupts the society but it does not provide what is necessary to make a revolution and establish a new social order. To make a revolution, people … must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more human human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.” In 2012 I read Manning Marable’s biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” Marable observes that part of X’s legacy might be “the politics of radical humanism.” A “deep respect for, and a belief in, black humanity was at the heart of this revolutionary visionary’s faith” that in time “expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racial identities.” It is time, as Grace and Malcolm suggest, to place people at the center of our
work even as we determine the work to be contributed. Each of us must lead our personal transformation into a more human human being. And we must become radical humanist-educators and humanist-architects. These are the most important reactions possible. (And the most difficult.)
10. What to you think is essential to consider / to know about squatting and squatters? It’s essential to know Keith. There’s an open jar of peanut butter on the porch’s top step, a white plastic knife the marker of a man disappeared mid-meal. Maybe he’s always mid-meal. Or between meals. 417 Second Avenue. Flint, Michigan. Shopping carts, blue and red, nestle to the bottom step. Plastic milk crates, one upside down supports the peanut butter place setting. Blankets span the openings between columns, enclosing the porch. Glenn says: “Don’t touch anything.” The occupant, though illegal, has rights. This is his peanut butter, his plastic knife. This porch is his, for now. Without his permission, we’re walking through where he sleeps, checking out what he eats, his “I Am Me . . . I Am Okay” poster. Neighbors are complaining to the Genesee County Land Bank (the owners of the foreclosed property) and Glenn is sent to evict Keith from his squat. I happened to be there with graduate students. Unexpected, Keith walked up. We talked as he loaded a shopping cart, on his way to a new squat. (This was the first time for all the students – originating from Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Nepal – to talk with a squatter.) People in the neighborhood, Keith said, gave him jobs. That’s how he survived. When he was too cold, they gave him shelter and blankets. “I know where to get food and water,” he said. “I know how to hunt.” A student whispered to me: “Perhaps being an urban squatter is like living in the wild.” True story. When our group was on the porch, a man veered his car to the curb and called out: "Is Keith dead?“ As we departed, Keith said to me -- a squatter said this to me: “You can get as much as you want out of life. I believe in being positive.” People get on with their lives. We have no choice. Keith knows what is best. Should we listen to Keith?
Published on Nov 23, 2012
Written by Wes Janz in response to a July 2012 "collaboration request" from the editors of Arhitext magazine (Bucharest, Romania) to write a...