Steven Holl’s curious Thrilla in Manila

One of the many significant benefits of what’s turned out to be my fairly frequent work-related trips to London is that the corporate-approved hotel just happens to be right around the corner from the Architectural Association in Bedford Square. Beyond my having left a ton of cash in their bookstore’s coffers, the primary consequence of this is that I’ve caught just about every show they’ve had in their gallery space these eighteen months.

Last December, the show on offer was a heady little retrospective aptly called “First Works,” featuring projects turned in by the likes of Thom Mayne, Cedric Price, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers when they were all younger than we are now, and still feeling their way in the world.

“First Works” is valuable, though uneven, as architectural history; as more than a few commentators have pointed out, it would be more correct to describe it as a review of those architects and currents championed by the AA itself. It gets richer if you’ve followed the practices in question to any particularly close degree, and though here we get a trifle inside-baseball, still more so if you’re interested in the evolution of these people as people…personalities, selves, what have you. (Even the Zaha depicted here has not yet acquired the full aura of command, though it’s clear from the snapshots provided that she’s already beginning to rock her signature imperiousness.)

Surprisingly enough, given that I’ve never carried any particular brief for him (despite being genuinely captivated by the interior spaces of his Kiasma), the “First Works” project that hit me hardest was an early effort of Steven Holl‘s. It’s an unbuilt 1975-’76 proposal for housing in the barangay (administrative district) Holl renders Daga Dagatan (elsewhere Dagat Dagatan), then as apparently now a squatter community in the hinterlands of Manila.

The way it’s depicted in contemporary drawings, Holl’s elegant intervention is essentially a dual, elevated concrete rail, establishing an arterial corridor through the barangay. Each rail is subdivided by its supporting pylons into neat bays, and the bays correspond to individual parcels of land. The existing squatter community was supposed to grow into, onto and around these points of articulation, almost like vines winding their way up a trellis, until the entire available volume filled up with housing, commerce, activity…life. As imagined, anyway (and there, of course, is the rub), it’s surpassingly lovely, both aesthetically and for what it implies about people’s capability to take care of themselves.

As Frieze‘s Douglas Murphy so correctly notes here, Daga Dagatan “remains relevant but bears almost no resemblance to [Holl’s] recent work.” The phenomenological inquiries to which Steven Holl has devoted the decades of his mature practice are, I suppose, interesting enough, but the ideas at the core of this early work certainly could have used some kind of empirical validation (or, for that matter, demolition).

Compare Daga Dagatan’s central conceit to Chilean practice Elemental’s more elaborate Quinta Monroy project: wouldn’t it have been useful, at the outset, for Elemental to have some idea how little in the way of construction they could (impose/get away with)? The question here, as it has been perennially for me: what is the very least amount of structure one can assert into a situation and still produce circumstances under which creativity can flourish, and spontaneous order emerge?

The Daga Dagatan project dates from a time when such site-and-service plans still had respectably cutting-edge lefty or even anarchist credentials in urban-planning circles: before, in other words, the central idea was discredited by the long, sad experience of the 1980s and ’90s, in which both residents and housing activists generally turned on such schemes. (I have no wish, here, to debate Hernando de Soto‘s notions of empowerment through fell-swoop juridical legitimation, or the continuing relevance thereto of site-and-service planning.) If nothing else, it’s certainly a document of its times.

But for all that, and especially considering the only documentation I can dig up on the project amounts to a very few drawings — three or four in Anchoring; the more recent Urbanisms: Working With Doubt yields similar bupkis, especially shocking considering the curious thematic affinities between the Philippine scheme and some of his latest work — it’s still also full of things we might conceivably learn from. Here in a world that much more crowded and desperate for safe, decent housing than the one that confronted Steven Holl and the squatters of Dagat Dagatan in 1975, we ought to be mining projects like this for every last gram of actionable insight. And that, in turn, is not such a bad thing to take away from half a December hour at the AA.

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