Walking is slow compared to riding a bike, sitting in a car or catching the train. The slowness allows me to notice and be free to stop and see more whenever I like. While I do walk to get somewhere, I often leave extra time so it could be more of a drift: the pleasures of being lost in unexpected places!
Walking is in-between. The space where one could wander through, between home, school, work, the streets, alleyways, semi-hidden paths, markets, foyers, libraries, grassy edges, river banks, bushes; playgrounds, parks, empty fields; public, private, shared spaces…
Walking is a way of knowing a place and its dwellers. ‘The earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the co-authors.’1 Walking, seeing, touching, reading traces left from activities of other beings. The awareness and attentiveness of ecological fieldwork can be equally applied in urban environments. Here are some of my own, from over twelve years of walking around.
1. Berms, sidewalks and other dimensions
As a child growing up in China, most of my waking hours revolved around school ‘education’ where it was all about doing well in exams. One of my escapes was to feed the spiders dwelling in the five sets of stairs on the way home. I would catch an ant, drop it onto the web woven in the corner of the stairs, and watch: how the spider, first startled, hurried to the struggling ant, wrapping it up in it silky cocoon, then sucking the juice out of it. What would it be like to be an ant, dying? Or how would it feel to be the spider, where most of the day seems to be about waiting, stillness, and sudden bursts of action? These are reminders of other realities, existing in parallel to my daily life of solving arithmetic riddles of counting rabbit heads and chicken legs. I didn’t know that Jakob von Uexküll, the Baltic-German biologist who introduced the concept of ‘environment’ in 1926, had asked the same questions regarding ticks and hermit crabs, and worked out that, in any given environment, there are infinite possible perceptual worlds, depending on whose perspective you see through.2
Kyohei Sakaguchi, in ‘Build Your Own Independent Nation’ (2016), recounted playing marbles in his childhood as an instrumental experience in seeing other dimensions parallel to the reality of school that he was forced to take part in Japan. He took that train of thought one step further as an adult in Tokyo: from the despair of being an architecture student and realising how many houses remain empty in the city, yet many people work themselves sick just for a place to dwell; then later discovering utopia by the riverside, where the so-called ‘homeless’ had built their own dwellings and economies of sharing. He realised that there are many layers coexisting in the world, and one’s task is to choose which layer to be part of, and perhaps, jump in-between them.
The berm is a strip of land between the footpath and the road where the vehicles go. Usually in Auckland, these are planted with lawn and mowed regularly, for no reason other than that being the ‘norm’. In this particular berm in the suburb of Mt Roskill, someone had planted a small corner into a succulent garden. Then sheep and dinosaurs are introduced. Suddenly there is a Jurassic jungle on the sidewalk!
This delight of scales is not restricted to children. In this street corner in Taipei, I discovered a miniature world on the edge of a parking lot, bringing unexpected pleasures for anyone who notices. Even better, its miniature landscape is rustic, a sort of an architectural ruin, yet constantly regenerating with plants sprouting out. A simulacrum of the bigger landscape around it. Robert Smithson3 would have smiled. The liangting (Chinese pavilion) had been mortared down, so no typhoon could take away the resting spot for the tiny wayfarers. There is the remains of what looked like a ceramic hippopotamus, now on the way to becoming an amphitheater.
Who are the caretakers? Do the regular passerby enjoy its change, and perhaps talk with the person when s/he is tending this garden of the miniature world? What stories do they make up in their minds?
2. Trees as…
A tree is not only a tree.4
The squirrels outside my kitchen window in Altona, they jump in-between the branches, from one tree to another. Or climbing up and down, twirling around in hide and seek with another. They experience the trees in vastly different ways to me, a human being with a not-so-agile body. For them, tree are networks of passageways, corridors, highways. What humans need civil engineering for, nature provides them already.
Perhaps trees are the original playgrounds, before the profession of ‘playground designer’ came into being. The kids in Phnom Penh and Auckland showed me, just how versatile trees can be: climbing, swinging, taking shelter from the blaring sun. The big leaves also make good sun-hats. Of course, trees follow no health and safety standards, so one learns how to take care, through doing.
There are lots of big, tropical trees in Phnom Penh, and plenty of enterprises on the street. In a motoring workshop, which has grown around the tree, the trunk becomes part of the workshop storage. Another street side, a tree turns into a kiosk: a piece of string tied up high around the trunk, and bags of merchandise hanging from it.
Ratchet straps are useful, not only for tying up tarpaulin on trucks. A letterbox is fixed onto a tree in Stockholm, without damaging the tree itself. Following a similar tactic, beside picturesque Lake Geneva, a circular table is perched around a tree, perfect as a beer stand on summery days. A tree is a readymade upright pole.
…sprouting out of ruins, rooftop paradise
Ever since my first visit to the White Buildings (Phnom Penh) in 2013, I have noticed a papaya tree growing on its roof, and wondered, how did it get there? A year and a half later, after living in the building for a few weeks, I found the stairwell that lead up to the rooftop. Turned out the tree was growing out of a rubble of compost and broken bricks. Under its generous shade, a master embroiderer was working a frame of delicate silk fabric, to become the gilded costumes of the royal court dancers. A very kind man showed me the rest of his garden, and handed me bits of it: fragrant herbs and medicinal aloes. A convivial encounter despite the lack of a shared language. In that concrete rooftop, I glimpsed a paradise: how human beings support the livelihood of other beings, and in turn, derives pleasure and nourishments from it. All it needed, was a pile of rubble and a daily bit of care.
3. Folds, porous membranes, corridors
Folds differentiate space, so instead of a homogeneous void, there are manifolds of niches: co-existing differences across space.
In ecology, the places where different ecosystems meet has the most diversity: the intertidal zone of beach ecology, the edges of forests bound by a river or clearing. Richard Sennett5 makes a distinction between borders, boundaries in the urban environment: borders contain and separate; boundaries allowing exchange and co-mingling, which could be tense or friendly.
So, what happens to walls over time? These vertical divides designed to separate?
‘The Berlin Wall, when it was built in 1961, no one would have imagined, that fifty years later, people would have flea-markets beside it, or place chairs next to it, and play music.’ The urban theorist, Christopher Dell said to me. Urban spaces and their use are dependent on the socio-cultural imaginary.
There are all sorts of ways that vertical divides designed to separate can be made to become something else. One of the most intriguing doors I had seen was at a flammkuchen restaurant in Hamburg. The door to the kitchen has an opening cut, on which perched a small ledge, complete with a bell, and a stab for paper slips. When a flammkuchen is ready to be delivered to the diner’s table, the chef places the food on the window ledge, and rings the bell for the waiter.
What could happen on a fence?
Fences not only fence in, but also frame spaces, creating exterior rooms and corridors, like the ‘intercellular spaces’ under the microscope. Unofficial corridors connect the more designed ‘public’ streets: alleyways, shortcuts, passageway for walking and biking.
What if, we consider both sides of a fence, as a place to divide and to perch from, like how the ivy grows with the support of the wall?
4. Car connections, parking lots to parks
‘The process of arriving in a house, and leaving it, is fundamental to our daily lives; and very often it involves a car. But the place where cars connect to house, far from being important and beautiful, is often off to one side and neglected.’ (p554)
In ‘A Pattern Language’, first published in 1977 C Alexander et al. suggested the following on car connections for private houses: ‘Make the parking place for the car into an actual room which makes a positive and graceful place where the car stands, not just a gap in the terrain. make it a positive space–a space which supports the experience of coming and going…. It may be achieved with columns, low walls, the edge of the house, plants, a trellised walk, a place to sit. A proper car connection is a place where people can walk together, lean, say goodbye.’
27 years later, parking places have grown. Rebecca Solnit realised, in a farcical comparison of the L.A. Getty Museum’s carpark to the hell and heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy: ‘The world seems to be made more and more of stuff that we are not supposed to look at, a banal infrastructure that supports the illusion of automotive independence…’ At least, where she was: ‘Los Angeles consists mostly of these drably utilitarian spaces, in part because cars demand them, and it is a city built to accommodate cars.’6
I have not been to L.A., but in my wanderings around Asia, I have found small touches which showed the human(e), from the caretakers of these ‘banal infrastructures’.
Seoul, Korea: I was initially intrigued by the road cone extensions, with colourful stripes resembling the work of a well-known New Zealand sculptor. (Similar cone modifications were found in Kyoto, and recently at Billstrasse, Hamburg, in a driveway frequented by large trucks.) Looking closer, I discovered, the extensions where made from printed plastic posters taped together with insulation tape, thus the banding stripes made total sense. Further down the road were other improvements on the standard road cone, such as one that sits atop the base of a former wheelie chair, thus adding extra stability and mobility.
Venturing into the parking lot, I discovered more things made from used posters: rolls of them woven together with string, tied to the wall and window security grills, acting as holder for cleaning tools. One corner of the parking lot was used for storage of these off-cut materials. Looking up at the shelter for this, I was awed by a string that runs across the entire parking lot, linking one corner of the rain shelter to the building on the other side. The fact that it seemed to have endured quite many months at least, is a testimony to Buckminster Fuller’s tensegrity principle. On the way out, one arrives at the caretaker’s cubicle, and all of this made sense: here is someone with a knack for making stuff for the needs of the situation: a lampshade out of an old plastic bottle, a chunk of himalayan salt as a welcoming statue, a clock for the drivers running to their appointments. Plenty of personality, without even meeting the caretaker in person. I felt welcomed already.
5. Affordance of ambiguous, simple forms
In ‘Design by Use’,7 Brandes et al. noted how few things in public spaces in western urban environments are designed for multiple uses. When things had been ‘designed’ for multiple uses, you get a kind of Swiss army knife – clunky and over-designed. Yet one can observe how simple, non-designed forms tickle our imagination for multiple uses: just think of the humble cardboard box. My favourite example was the foot-rest at the university audio-visual library, where I used to work: a cardboard box filled with old DVD cases.
While design catalogues are filled with elaborate chairs, the issue of taking a rest may be solved by very simple means: any knee-height mass could become seating. Or ramps, ledges, steps, low platforms.
So, when forms are left undefined and fuzzy, the invention/design of uses are opened out to the users themselves.
6. Non-standard modular joinery
Modularity, as in Lego or Meccano, are based on precise joinery or exact matching holes. However, there are other kinds of modularity that are more fuzzy, grown rather than prefabricated: connections repeated and gradually strengthened over time.The result is not smooth, but of variations, a building up of textures and layer, gradually weathering and changing over time. My appreciation for variation came from looking at roof tiles in vernacular building traditions: the Norwegian slate tiles, the earthenware roof tiles in rural Slovenia, roof of leaves in the huts in northern Thailand. They mirror variations through repetition, as found in nature.
The terra-cotta bricks in Cambodia come with four holes. On this wall, presumably hastily constructed to separate a former slum from the famous White Buildings in Phnom Penh, the exposed holes came in handy as a system for protruding horizontal sticks. The length of the bricks (around 20cm) meant that they can hold the sticks in place, without the sticks tipping over or falling out. Any stick roughly smaller than the holes could be used, which in turn becomes anchor for other things: shelves, hooks adapted from plastic plumbing pipes, hanging plants (with self-watering system), bags of sprouts, rubbish bag, metal pipes forming a C-shaped frame, awning, rainwater collection.
Why aren’t there more walls with holes on them?
7. Growing, weaving, building
Two examples where ecology, gardening, textiles, architecture are enmeshed with each other. These are multifunctional hybrids, conglomerations growing over time: intertwining, interweaving, with repeated non-standard modular elements and soft joinery.
This is a patch beside the historical train station of Dammtor on a path leading to the Hamburg Congress Center and its accompanying hotel. I have been observing it since December 2016 and even now, the garden persists despite the demolition and re-construction next to it. The garden grew and decomposed over the seasons, both the plants and the human-made construction. There were kale trees in the winter, chives coming out in the spring, and climbing beans in the summer. In winter some of the perennials were protected from frost with a cover of supermarket bags. The raven sculptures add a touch of whimsy. The fence is woven out of used grills, broom handles, tied together with the red and white safety strips, often placed around fallen trees during the stormy season by the officials and forgotten once the logs had been removed. The plastic strips do not last long, but they seem to get replaced regularly. Their form remind me of grapevines twining around wire forms.
I stumbled across this while following an untrodden path which I thought lead to the top of the Kobe Mountain. Being close to the city, and dotted with waterfalls and reservoirs, the area is a popular spot for day walks and picnics, even with a cable car to the top. I first noticed the silver tarpaulin cover, then this circular fence, the opening reveals a patch of potatoes. What is remarkable, is that the fence is densely woven out of braided fabric strips and sticks from the surrounding trees. So intricately constructed, its fine craftsmanship brought to my mind, the Scandinavian rag rugs, the Japanese boro textiles, and the slippers made out of old kimono cloths. How much patient hand-crafts gave birth to this, while the potatoes quietly grew beside it?
Peering into the enclosure, one could see that the fence leans inward at one point, and with the draped tarpaulin, creates a shelter for vessels of water and other materials, possibly makes a cosy nook for sleeping too.
Xin thanks Creative New Zealand for supporting her time to write this in Germany.
All photos by the author.
1 Georges Perec, co added by Xin.
2 Von Uexküll, J. (1934). A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men. In C. Schiller (ed.), Instinctive Behavior, New York, International Universities Press, 1957.
3 see ‘Hotel Palenque’ and ‘Monuments of Passaic’.
4 referencing Christopher Alexander: A City is Not a Tree, 1965.
5 Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, 2018.
6 Solnit, 2004 https://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n13/rebec.ca-solnit/check-out-the-parking-lot
7 Brandes, Uta, Stich, Sonja & Wender, Miriam. Design by Use: The Everyday Metamorphosis of Things. Birkhäuser, 2008.
This writing was made possible with the support of