Friday, July 17, 2009

The Human Desire for Order

My good friend Agraphia Agraphia(or as he sometimes prefers to be called: "The Great Granddaddy of Funk") has a fascinating post up about an old development in Hong Kong called Hak Nam that was abandoned by both British and Chinese authorities for over 50 years, prompting its development into a self contained, literal urban jungle where streets and buildings sprung up with no planning and, from the sound of things, little contact with or regard for those outside of its walls.

This reminded me of an exhibition I attended recently at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design which focused on tulou, an ancient Chinese model of development involving circular, top-down, self sustaining villages. Urban planners in China have been returning to the idea of the tulou as a solution to the problem of mass migration from the countryside into the country's overcrowded cities and the subsequent housing problems that have emerged.

In many ways the tulou stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from Hak Nam though both employ an enclosed, vertical orientation. The tulou is perfectly calculated, wholly intuitive, a product of man's desire to have everything they need available in close proximity and accessible with minimal effort. One imagines that the communities that live within them are invariably conventional and close knit, an outcrop of their environment.

Hak Nam on the other hand has been romanticized as an anarchist's paradise, a place where people lived without boundaries or inhibitions, be they creative or otherwise. While this prospect certainly provides riper fruit for the imagination, the question remains as to which is more natural.

While uninhibited, unorganized growth is certainly a feature of nature itself, in human hands, the results tend to be less than ideal. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and it's hard to imagine a more perfect realization of the American ideal of decentralization. Yet far from a paradise of individualism and undefined creativity, the surroundings have produced only more conformity, more pressure to succumb to pressure from the top. New York on the other hand, with its rectangular grid, strict zoning, and centuries old neighborhoods has always been a beacon of diversity and eccentricity, place where citizens feel comparatively empowered and motivated to take action (it's hard to imagine neighborhood residents in Texas coming together to stop construction on an apartment complex. I don't even think there's a mechanism for them to voice their complaints). Like the human skeleton, the arranged streets provide a vessel for living tissue.

This leads me to believe that artists may have been looking at order in the wrong way. For better or worse, a majority of human beings have an aversion to violence (at least in their immediate person) and an impulse to group together. We are happy when we are at peace with our environment and free of stress from outside sources. You could even go as far as to say that the only way humans can achieve this sense of freedom from coercion is by being organized enough that the power of these outside influences is checked. In this way, one card argue that laws protect freedom, not encroach on it, by constraining the actions of people who hold power.

The same goes with regards to creativity. We often assume that systems exert a force that negates creativity. This is not necessarily the case. Systems can be used to refine and strengthen creativity. The great mistake that many without creativity have made, and the one which is the true source of annoyance for those who have it, is not to say that systems and creativity can coincide but that systems can be used to generate it.

Great art often comes from the most boring of places. Markets free of regulation have done little to encourage the diversification of business. These statements are at once paradoxical and ,in my opinion , indisputable. I wonder if we would have enjoyed meeting the people who actually lived inside the walls of Hak Nam.

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