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Lara Almarcegui, Guide to ruined Buildings in the Netherlands XIX-XXI Century, 2008
Courtesy: Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam and Pepe Cobo y cía, Madrid.

Under Construction

by Max Andrews & Mariana Cánepa Luna

Lara Almarcegui’s art deals with the physical matter of civilization – the bricks and mortar of buildings and cities, conceived as the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust. It is also intuitively concerned with its flip side – the social processes that glue together, unstick, bind and transform the built environment and public space.


Lara Almarcegui works in counterpoint to a contemporary impulse that weds city planning to urban regeneration schemes and landmark architecture. Engaged instead with another paradigm of development – the “soft”, slow processes of decay, chance, erosion or entropy – Almarcegui operates like an archeologist of the present, or, to use Gordon Matta-Clark’s term, an “anarchitect”. In her work, a building is also a collection of unarticulated materials, and a landscape is remarkable for the way in which it defies any categorical human use.

Since a series of projects in the mid-1990s that dealt with building restoration, her research-guided practice has formed into overlapping strands that have yielded publications, installations, slide projections, documentary photography, cartography and events. Yet her approach is defined less by object – or image-based outcomes than by often laborious activities. Among other things, she has calculated the masses of buildings, orchestrated structural removals, demolitions and excavations, and surveyed wastelands and ruins. Although she has worked in locations as diverse as Taipei, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, New Zealand and Norway, her native Spain and her adopted home of the Netherlands offer a specific lens for understanding her activities in terms of the postindustrial landscape and the vicissitudes of an overt culture of design. José Luis Guerín’s 2001 film En construcción (Under Construction) could serve as a prologue of sorts to one aspect of Almarcegui’s work. It follows the inhabitants of the Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona and the construction of a new building as part of the city administration’s regeneration of the area. During demolition, workers discover several Roman burial sites, which trigger a reflection not only on the ethical question of what do to with their neighbourhood ancestors’ remains, but on the contemporary city as a ruin and the consequences of rapid urban transformation following the impetus of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Lara Almarcegui, Guide to ruined Buildings in the Netherlands XIX-XXI Century, 2008
Courtesy: Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam and Pepe Cobo y cía, Madrid.


Like Barcelona’s post-Olympic remodelling, the city of Bilbao has become another celebrated case study in urban renewal since the arrival of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997. Furthermore, the city of Zaragoza (where Almarcegui was raised) recently hosted Expo 2008, a modern-day World’s Fair. In a countermove to the planning approach involved in such recent Spanish phenomena, the artist has worked in these cities by focusing on their wastelands. She produced a Guide to the Wastelands along the Bilbao River Estuary in 2008, and in the same year, instigated the legal protection of a 700 m² wasteland area comprising the flood plain and hinterland of the Ebro river in Zaragoza1. These works, part of a series of several guides and land-use projects, focus on forgotten, overlooked or derelict sites characterized by an apparent lack of design and unwillingness to conform to an impression of orderly or functional development. Her attraction to these sites lies in their often ambiguous legal status, as much as in the fact they are mostly remote or inaccessible to our everyday experience of a city. Whether seen within a discourse of environmentalist preservation or urban “legibility” and city branding, her celebration of the terrain vague questions our concept of wilderness or wildness, as well as asking why some places are deemed more special or natural than others. These guidebooks offer an alternative reading of the city landscape, encouraging readers to take part in an unsanctioned kind of sightseeing by visiting these indeterminate, transitional anti-landmarks. In the future, when most of the terrains she documents may well have been developed or changed through further macro-economic forces, the guides will nevertheless remain as witnesses to the passage of time.

Lara Almarcegui, Guide to ruined Buildings in the Netherlands XIX-XXI Century, 2008
Courtesy: Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam and Pepe Cobo y cía, Madrid.


For “Portscapes”, we invited Almarcegui to develop a project in her adopted hometown of Rotterdam, a port city with a proud architectural present that came after widespread bombing in the Second World War. Almarcegui researched seventeen wasteland areas and the resulting work, a freely-distributed newspaper, Wastelands of the Port of Rotterdam (2009) accompanied a guided tour with a Rotterdam-based botanist around four of the sites. She gathered photographic and textual information about each wasteland – collecting botanical, sociological and historical data in collaboration with researchers and Port of Rotterdam staff – to offer a portrait of past, present and future conditions that, to echo Bernard Rudofsky, suggested a form of “architecture without architects” operating within a country that has a prolific, “correct” design culture.
Like her wasteland guides and preservation projects, Almarcegui’s “construction materials” works involve a set of self-directed approaches that seem like scientific or statistical methodologies. Despite this, her research is always guided by an underlying personal curiosity that compels her to wonder what things are made of or what lies behind or beneath the fabric of human habitats. In order to work out the quantities of materials that comprise a particular building, often an art venue in which she has been invited to exhibit, she uses material-specific formulas that convert areas and volumes into masses. Compiling a simple, ordered list of the components by weight, she then presents the text on the wall of the venue – an industrial recipe of the raw ingredients for the building. Such matter-of-fact statements have evolved from companion installation works like Building Materials for an Exhibition Room (2003), in which Almarcegui placed the equivalent constituent elements of a gallery of the FRAC Bourgogne in Dijon within the space itself, including 29 metric tons of stone, 15 tons of gravel, and three tons of steel.

Lara Almarcegui, Guide to ruined Buildings in the Netherlands XIX-XXI Century, 2008
Courtesy: Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam and Pepe Cobo y cía, Madrid.


Works such as Construction Materials of the Museum of Contemporary Art Vigo (2006-2008) or Construction Materials of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (2008) simultaneously offer an institutional critique and ecological reckoning, since we can envisage the sources of the stone, steel, glass, concrete and so on, just as we might imagine the building in ruins, or its constituents recycled or buried by new strata of civilization. When seen from the perspective of the geological timeframe, these components live in, the buildings seem humbled, as they are demonstrably seen to be “nothing more” than a temporary conglomeration of materials within the flow of time. This line of work has found its most massive expression to date in Almarcegui’s calculation of the weight of the construction materials for the entire city of São Paulo, a seemingly-impossible task whose pithy end result – an inventory of 1,224,497,942 tons, encompassing everything from 446,818,460 tons of concrete to 74,110 tons of plastic – belies a huge amount of research and number-crunching.

As Lars Bang Larsen has discussed in relation to this work, Construction Materials of São Paulo (2006) breaks down the almost cosmic scale of the megacity and presents it as an abstract list, as a “not yet being” or as a “has been”2. Such a city may well weigh over a billion tons, yet Almarcegui shows that it is only truly formed as the myriad acts of its inhabitants’ everyday lives activate these raw “ingredients” and produce social space.




NOTES
1. Initial discussions in Zaragoza (Almarcegui was commissioned by the Expo itself) involved safeguarding the land for 75 years as part of the plan for a park, however, after further negotiations with the Ebro Hydrographic Confederation, the land will remain protected in perpetuity. As for the project itself, the artist has explained that she “thought it was necessary given the current speed of construction in Spain and the construction involved in the Expo; I somehow felt compelled to stop and preserve something in its raw state” (e-mail correspondence with the artist, April 9, 2008 and February 23, 2010).
2. Lars Bang Larsen, talk given at “The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Space”, New York, October 2009.
(01/15)

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