D I A L O G U E S W I T H P L A C E S
II. THE PLACE OF ABSENCE
Cities can be very empty. Where I’m now is one of those; a small town in a touristic region, where both low season and its secondary status mean outside the peak season, there’s rarely one to be found after sunset. The town is composed of a small, historical centre, rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1755; white houses arranged in an orthogonal grid, with a main square in the middle and the waterfront as defining structures. A profusion of cobblestone sidewalks underlines a monuments centrality, extending and connecting streets in patterns and rhythms, in a play with maritime themes near the river, across which Spain can be seen. Distance from the central square marks a sad urban abandonment, with both derelict buildings - housing and factories from the old dominant industry of canned tuna, large abandoned parcels turned into disfigured lots with car parking and new, tall housing. These new buildings contrast with the traditional coherence in their new colours, materials, heights, and general lack of commerce on the ground floor. A significant portion of this housing is dedicated to secondary homes and vacation renting; thus, throughout the year, they’re lonely boxes with frames of closed windows and very little pedestrian movement. It’s a small, winter deserted town, sprawled outside its population needs, with lack of street life, tall weeds growing in the sidewalks of abandonment and a disconnection from its core settlement purpose. On its fringes, the town expands into villas and the disorganized secondary suburbs of housing and large supermarkets that punctuate so much of our landscape, designed for car use and energetic inefficiency.
It is quietness with a heavy feeling; a silence desiring to be something else. That can be heard in the strong winter wind that suddenly shakes the fig tree by the river, its sharp leaves waving in loss, trunk cut into changing seasons. There’s heaviness in the cold air, an expectation towards the river, looking to the other margin as if it brings something new. Absence is a relative to apathy and helplessness. But in no way it is insensible or lacking passion; nor the Stoics apatheia – a desirable state of distancing ourselves in relation to what’s outside our control. Places of absence play the keyboards of emotional sadness: discouragement, distraught, resignation, hopelessness, misery, despair, grief, sorrow, anguish. It can also reach the keys of disgust, dislike; of anger, by annoyance, frustration, exasperation; and perhaps also of fear, in its nervousness and anxiety, if not even dread and desperation (1). Places of absence – a general lack and discomfort – can be very difficult to deal with, causing distress. But like every passing phenomena, when well taken, they can bring many lessons.
Places of absence are unfamiliar, yet bringing the delicate, difficult art of being quiet and listening. This goes against the mainstream idea of our western society, pushing us into perpetual doing, claiming a communication centred around speech as if everyone has to be turned into a seller with exquisite articulations that contour reality and manipulate others and themselves with a particular end in sight, alien to its means. Talking and listening, doing and not doing; a resistance against the constant denial of constriction and the habit of pondering, as if listening has became a revolutionary act. Perhaps arising from a chronic lack of focus, the cultured inability to sustain attention for long periods of time - so much that human design seem to result more and more from a basic reaction to reality. Most things commercialised are simply restyled, a superficial change that doesn’t affect anything of its core. Yet, “design”, “innovation” and “creativity” are everywhere; branding without content, dissipating in thin air by enquiry and by the passage of time. Which would all be of no importance, if it wouldn’t be for we’re using our most precious planetary resources, destroying a significant part of other species and enslaving our own to have this worldwide commercial machinery working, in which creative disciplines play a pivotal role in the process of construction, differentiation and dissemination.
So the first lesson of absence, is - listen. What can be done?, - less. Places like this, with so little, bring attention to the need of care. A care that goes beyond the installed gesture of “leaving a mark”, that has ingrained so much of the arts and policies – sculpture, painting, design, architecture, city councils. That’s what we get in school, either the desire to leave a mark or to be an invisible part of a larger system that operates in mark making. If we look back, with the slight benefit of perspective; we see the millions of objects that have been created by so many, year after year. According to a recent article in Nature, much that what we, as a species, produce, has already overcame the mass of Earth’s living biomass. Undoubtedly, much of it has good intention: improving others lives with ergonomic objects and comfortable homes, workplaces, leisure and mobility areas. Much of it is equally trash waiting to be disposed. Who designs with the essential perspective of five hundred years time; what will be of this building, of this spoon; how will it degrade, how is it made, from where do these materials come from, how where they extracted, who did it and in which conditions. How will this look in one hundred years - not about fashion or fading style, not discarding the responsibility of that answer to those who will not chose to inherit it, nor what those ruins will say about the author or those who used it, but about a deeper meaning of things, their essence; our responsibility. How much have these artifacts and constructions, cared for and sustained other human beings and their surroundings, fully taking stock of each measure and grain like syllabus put together in a book. What if the gesture of marking was replaced with a gesture of care; the poetics of place. I rarely work with such perspective, which is why I decided to put it as one of my main goals. Dieter Rams, the influential designer behind much of what has been commercially produced throughout the twentieth century, recently acknowledged his regret of not having worked more towards sustainability. His lesson is important; I don't want to live with that regret. It must hurt. So, my sustainable goals also have this healthy selfishness motivation behind.
The place of absence is an empty vessel, from where observations emerge. What is lacking becomes evident and cannot be ignored: the unplanned urbanism, the misguided basic public policies, the tremendous insufficiencies that are felt with sadness and revolt by those who live here, and with surprise, compassion or derision by those who visit from abroad. Nothingness is also a great opportunity to think about what, and how, can the future be done. Economical constrictions like the current pandemic times are excellent motivators to further apply the concept of Degrowth, as enunciated by the Oslo Architecture Triennale in 2019 – of a new economy, challenging the supremacy of economic growth with human and ecological centeredness. It doesn’t take too much imagination to visualise possible interventions with extremely short budgets that in the short term, correct discrepancies in small towns like this one. Urban acupuncture interventions, such as the ones performed in Barcelona, provide an excellent example of small scale with large results. Creating new gardens for people enjoyment, shade, aesthetic quality and the lowering of temperature in this southern, ardent summer; trees can reduce local temperature until 5ºC, providing mental and physical health, establishing the grounds for social interaction. The exposure of southern Portugal to desertification and to the rising temperatures related to climate change leave its cities particularly exposed to the rise of heat-related deaths, of energy consumption through air conditioning to cool buildings, the air pollution caused by the production of this same energy, and reduced water quality. The local plantation of trees improves these aspects dramatically, with a small economic investment.
The open car parking on an abandoned parcel, an open wound in this town’s centre, could very well be reconverted into a green area. A more respectful approach to the town limits in its relation to nature – the river, the large woods, in its south, and the seaside, is essential, as well as land and building reconversion instead of new expansion, as well as the encouragement of sustainable mobility. All can be made simple, skilfully; small interventions can intertwine with wider policies that reduce our use of resources, replacing it with a more respectful care and relationship with our planet. This small town deserves it; is still one of those places where people do strange things like sitting in a public bench doing nothing - watching the landscape and those passing by, greet. It’s empty, so it’s quiet; that is relaxing. People trust newcomers and treat them well, as their own; trust and belonging are essential qualities of human settlements, not only walls. The human fabric is made of connection.
The smallest warmth is more visible in places of absence; the kindness and receptivity of them. Even in between the stones of the river margin, with a little bit of rain, the wild fig tree that lives with its branches towards both water and land multiplies its sprouts. Absence has implicitly within a seed of creativity and transformation. All it takes is to listen.
(1) For more details on emotions see Ekman, Atlas of Emotions.