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So bad it's good: Koolhaas on Lagos - click opera
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Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 12:02 am
So bad it's good: Koolhaas on Lagos

At Berlin bookstore ProQM the other day I bought Lagos Wide & Close, an interactive journey into an exploding city, a DVD about Rem Koolhaas' study of the Nigerian city by Bregtje van der Haak. In a spontaneous demonstration of the fallibility of planning and the limits of high-tech solutions, the DVD failed to play properly on either of the iBooks in my house. I responded with characteristic human ingenuity, implementing a quick-and-dirty knowledge patch: I googled everything I could find about the jittery, apparently fascinating DVD and the jittery, apparently fascinating city. To show the amazing human capacity to cobble something together out of secondhand junk, I'm pasting the 10 most interesting bits here.

1. "In 2002 Bregtje van der Haak, in cooperation with architect Rem Koolhaas and The Harvard Project on the City, made "Lagos/Koolhaas", a documentary on self-organization and urbanization in Nigeria. As a sequel, together with designer Silke Wawro, she developed a new project: Lagos Wide & Close, an Interactive Journey into an Exploding City. This innovative DVD contains an interactive video documentary (60'), edited from 55 hours of unused material that brings the viewer closer to the explosively growing megalopolis Lagos. With bus driver Olawole Busayo, the viewer moves through the city and has a choice of a distant ('wide') or an involved ('close') perspective, at any random moment in the documentary." Subshop

2. "In Africa, despite a flagrant lack of infrastructure, certain cities succeed in joining in the worldly flux of exchange and therefore grow incredibly quickly. Lagos, the [former] capital of Nigeria, is one of these cities. It's a town which, despite its 15 million inhabitants, is little known in the developed world (there isn't even a satellite photo of Lagos) but which nevertheless "overturns all received ideas about the characteristics of what we call the modern city". In this way, starting from the Alaba Market, a new "market-city" took shape, with its own system of streets and addresses, its own police, its private justice, its churches, its banks, but without any overall control systems. An "enterprise city", in short, ruled only by the laws of the free market, whose fate may surely be to resemble more and more closely Dubai: a vast free market with world-scaled ambitions. And it works. Thanks to its proximity with Lagos airport, Alaba has within a few years become the entry point for new technology into Africa. For Rem Koolhaas, Lagos and its market are "the avant garde of global modernity", and perhaps reveal the "future state of Chicago, of London or of Los Angeles"." Transit City, translated from French.

3. "According to current estimates, well over a thousand people settle daily in Lagos in the hope of finding work; the city, which as late as 1960 had only one million residents, now has a population of around 13 million, a number expected to rise to 24 million by the year 2015. In view of its rapid population growth, one can no longer speak of planned urban development in Lagos. The city, marked by four and a half centuries of Portuguese and British colonial dominance, also lacks the basic structures for a well-financed and politically functioning city-wide planning structure. But the African metropolis occupies and fascinates artists, urban planners, and architects not least because of its apparent unmanageability." Artnews

4. "Lagos, home to an estimated 15 million people, is a dangerous, polluted and dysfunctional city. Architect Rem Koolhaas, with the help of documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, decided to study this megapolis in an attempt to understand the hidden logic that makes a 'dysfunctional' city function. His research revealed a population's unique ability to cope inventively within an urban landscape of disorder." Nai Booksellers

5. "There is some kind of function in the dysfunction. And Rem Koolhaas saw that. It's like some elusive perfume in the air. If you could capture it, put it in a bottle and spray it, your life would be different. There is an energy and a resourcefulness about Lagos that, if we could just learn how to manage it, would be a showpiece for the entire world to see." Pieter van Huijstee

6. "The people have a way of organising themselves in interesting ways to overcome the not-so-good things about the city. They sell items in the streets, they have “incredibly efficient” markets literally on the train tracks - they have to pick up and move when the train rolls past." Jurgen dot ca

7. "Talking of the chaos of Lagos, Koolhaas says: 'What I thought would be depressing was powerful, inspiring and brutal.'

Koolhaas is trying to prove that the well-intentioned architects who tried to tame the contemporary city with pedestrian precincts and conservation got it all disastrously wrong. They should have been trying to intensify the city's intrinsic qualities, not neuter them. 'What is amazing is that you can draw a genealogy between Jane Jacobs and Disney. Since the Sixties, the most well-meaning brains in our profession have con tributed to this final, terminal condition of shopping.'

The effort to preserve the street, the hostility to the car, the hostility to all those elements that were the inevitable elements of the twentieth century - all of this has somehow created the space for this preservation, and, in the name of preservation, the conversion of entire areas in the centre of the city to fundamentally anti-urban conditions. This ought to make everyone weep. Nobody could have guessed that the twentieth century could end on a Faustian bargain with a mouse." The Observer

8. "Lagos, whose catastrophic and yet productive chaos represents the terminal condition of the modern city. The photos of this Nigerian metropolis are heart-stopping. Lagos grows by hundreds of people daily, and every form of congestion is exploited for improvised commerce. "Lagos has no streets; instead it has curbs and gates, barriers and hustlers," writes Koolhaas' team. "Even the Lagos superhighway has bus stops on it, mosques under it, markets in it, and buildingless factories throughout it." Wired

9. JEN: Tell me more about what you're doing in Lagos.
REM: This time I was there with Edgar Cleyne, a photographer and an experienced Africa "recorder" who has been instrumental in the whole project. We borrowed the helicopter of President Obasanjo and flew over the city for two days.
JEN: What did you see?
REM: We made an unbelievable video about a traffic jam in Lagos, which is really scary because the sheer pressure makes everything liquefy. There are these jams that are mostly buses — rivers of yellow trying to go through arteries that are too narrow. Huge trucks — almost everything is public transport and trucks — really colliding and squeezing. And in between them, there are these people — almost like cement. According to the myth, they are dismantling the vehicles that are in the jam. Not only are you stuck in the jam — you're also being disassembled. Maybe that's the only solution to the jam. So it's not just a traffic jam. It's actually a traffic jam turning into a car market, turning into spare parts turning into a smoldering ruin. All in consecutive phases. It's really about metabolism and flows and scale. And unbelievable organization.
JEN: Organization? It sounds like a mess.
REM: Every residual space is put to use. There are these highway cloverleaves that lead to nowhere, but they are somehow cooperatively made into a car market. These cloverleaves are patterns of solid color, because all the car parts are organized according to color. That's how they exhibit them.
JEN: That must have been beautiful from a helicopter.
REM: The city has these unbelievable — you can only call it abstract — compositions. Red turning into white turning into black. You've never seen geometry at that scale in the world.
JEN: But why Lagos? What made you go there in the first place?
REM: Intuition. And I really think I was right. Nigeria's been independent for thirty years, so it's really an African story. With 100 million people, it's one of the most populated countries, and potentially the wealthiest. It has a complex history of colonization. For instance, Nigerian slaves exported by the Portuguese went back to Nigeria after they were liberated in Brazil and they imported Portuguese architecture to Lagos. It's like an infinite ricochet. And when they came back to Africa they became the authorities who controlled the people that never left. So that's an internal colonial situation. I like this connection to Africa because it's so unexpected, particularly for me... In Nigeria, there is at the same time an incredible slowness and an incredible speed. So people who first seem capable of not acting at all are then suddenly capable of incredible action.
JEN: What kind of action?
REM: At almost any point in Lagos, there is, somewhere in the periphery of your vision, someone who seems to just slumber — in the street, near a pool, at the station — but who at any moment can turn into a money changer who, in five seconds, organizes the transfer of a huge physical amount of Nigerian money. That's only one example.
Interview with Rem Koolhaas, Index magazine

10. "One can only hope that this fascinating report into uncontrolled processes in an African city of 15 million people, a city 'completely out of control', will not be interpreted as an urban recipe for the future of the European city. Even though the text refers to Lagos as 'a city at the forefront of a globalizing modernity', and even if it were true that Lagos could be seen as a foreshadow of the terminal phase of cities like London, Los Angeles and Chicago, that in no way implies that Lagos is an ideal model for the future European city or that no resistance should be offered to fend off this development. Lagos demonstrates that the city's potential for self-organization is much greater than many policy-makers would dare consider, and much can be learnt from that. Deregulated urbanism can apparently result in an urban condition that functions. But the piece makes no mention of the price that has to be paid. The living conditions of the 15 million inhabitants of Lagos, for example, are completely ignored in the text, just as they were ignored in the Pearl River Delta and The Generic City. When Koolhaas talks about the city, and he almost always talks about the city, then he never mentions living. That is his personal blind spot." Piet Vollaard

27CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 26th, 2005 10:25 pm (UTC)

Oops, I left out the analysis. Well, I suppose what I want to ask is this. Is Lagos "a bit of rough" for Koolhaas? As he flies over it in the president's helicopter, isn't he projecting "soul" onto Lagos in the same way Adorno describes sentimental bourgeois North Europeans projecting it onto poor South Europeans?

I personally like the Jane Jacobs to Disney trajectory. I like places where I don't feel like I'm going to be murdered. I don't think there's anything less authentic about shopping areas where things work and you feel safe than shopping areas (and Lagos is being proposed here as a huge shopping area) where things are chaotic and there's a crazy opportunism going on. But I do respond to the idea that when you stop planning things so much, you get interesting stuff.

I'm a bit dubious about Lagos being some sort of future model for London and New York and so on, though. I think there's something true about this, but I don't think it's a good development. I both share and reject the American love of hierarchy, the sense you get in New York of a super-entrepreneurial superpoor class ready to shine your shoes for a dime. Capitalism loves that superpoor class, loves the sense of economic dynamism that comes from there being a huge variegated hierarchy rather than a superflat society where everyone is equal. Now, I'm sure Sao Paolo is more exciting than Stockholm, but in principle I have to say I prefer Stockholm. I prefer flatness and safety. I don't want "a bit of rough" in my cities. And I don't want to have to say that only the poor have "soul".


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subtechnique
subtechnique
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 12:26 am (UTC)
Analysis? Yes. Romanticism? No

'Im sure Sao Paolo is more exciting than Stockholm, but in principle I have to say I prefer Stockholm. I prefer flatness and safety. I don't want "a bit of rough" in my cities. And I don't want to have to say that only the poor have "soul".

...

Yes.


While I'm certainly curious to learn about the ways people have adapted to and made the best of the conditions they find themselves dealing with in Lagos, and I have no trouble with those who try to understand how things work, there is that stumbling moment -- which perhaps Rem Koolhaas' DVD 'experiences' -- when you fall from understanding into romantic celebration.

This is when things -- that is, our understanding -- flies apart.

I'm sure the people of Lagos would prefer their city were more like Stockholm or Tokyo, only with its own Nigerian spin on the modern, functional city theme -- they have children and elderly to care for, lives to lead; it would be better to do this in a city where you weren't required to dismantle cars on jam packed highways to simply go from A to B.

Koolhaas' helicopter assisted pattern recognition is a good start but it would have been better if, as Piet Vollaard suggests, the "living conditions of the 15 million inhabitants of Lagos [...] completely ignored in the text" had been the next area of focus for Koolhaas' eye.


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mcfnord
mcfnord
shoop
Tue, Jul. 26th, 2005 10:55 pm (UTC)

i very nearly moved to Lagos for my senior year of high school. my parents would have taught at the American school. I don't want to sound lame, but I am glad it fell through. It sounded like a poor place. I am scared of poverty. Maybe it's great from a helicopter with a camera. I guess Rem points out some interesting dynamics. But I don't want to live there.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 26th, 2005 11:05 pm (UTC)

I think poverty is the key thing here. Many of the blurbs talk about Koolhaas "learning from Lagos" rather than seeing it as simply dysfunctional. Now, this is a theme I'm normally very keen on. We need to learn from the other, "to be aware of diversity not as an act of tolerance but as an imaginative empathy that puts you in the shoes of the other, respecting their games and the integrity of their rules", as Pat Kane puts it. In my battles with Marxy, I criticize his criticisms of Japan because I see him failing in this task of imaginative empathy, and respect for other rules. He responds that he sees Japanese social organisation as primarily economic rather than cultural, and therefore open to criticism by outsiders. Now, I think the difference between "learning from Tokyo's difference" and "learning from Lagos's difference" is that Tokyo is as rich as any Western city. That allows us to discount money—or lack of it—as a factor in its difference. However, when we compare Lagos and London, we really can't discount the huge economic disparity between them. What does extreme poverty have to teach us as a form of "difference"? And who are we to profit by learning from it instead of trying to eradicate it?


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mcfnord
mcfnord
shoop
Tue, Jul. 26th, 2005 11:15 pm (UTC)

Much of Africa skips copper wire and goes to cellular for phones, because copper laid in trenches by day is dug up by night and sold. Sure that's creative. Survival's a great motivator. I'd rather witness the ways we creatively enrich our lives after our basic needs are met.

I'm sure you've seen it, but I recommend 'Dark Days' about survival in an impoverished community underneath Manhattan.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 05:12 am (UTC)

"MASSIVe Change"


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 06:55 am (UTC)
eliminate risk

"I'd rather witness the ways we creatively enrich our lives after our basic needs are met."

That statement is symptomatic of what's sedate about the products and interactions of Western culture, or those of any animals for whom there's no question about bodily security or the availablity of food. People who are given an established, efficient network by which to exchange capital naturally have no need to seek alternatives; and the more successful one is within that network, the more this will generally be true, thus the have-nots' perennial complaint of entrenched special interests, social stagnancy, conservatism. A place like Lagos is interesting because little, if anything, is entrenched. New methods are needed to cope with volatile circumstances that could never arise in the world of omnipresent computers, corporations, police, and civil liability. Of course not many people would willingly put themselves in situations where their survival is in question, and that's why despite the incredible amount of information available in a first-world nation, by and large we still cling to staid traditions.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 10:48 am (UTC)
Re: eliminate risk

Well, isn't this basically a question of balancing various things we think are good? We think excitement and innovation are good, and we think "necessity is the mother of invention". But we become somewhat Mephistophelean when we argue that desperation and poverty are good because they bring excitement and innovation, especially when it's the desperation and poverty of others and not ourselves. We become even more diabolical when we start to argue that desperation and poverty are models which might be adopted elsewhere with salutory results. But perhaps it's more a question of thinking, "Well, look, all this poverty exists anyway. We have the choice either to ignore it, or to learn something from it. If we can learn anything at all, that suffering hasn't been in vain." So Koolhaas' Lagos is at once a big experimental petri dish where we can observe extreme experiences, and a Christian-Humanistic example of the process of "redemption". Or maybe it's just an architect sticking it to the planners who've made his job so much more boring over the years...


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 06:56 am (UTC)
lagos

abuja is the capital of nigeria, not lagos


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 08:57 am (UTC)
Re: lagos

Ah, since 1991. Okay, thanks, fixed.


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 07:23 am (UTC)

wow! your posts are so following the witte de with program in rotterdam (we just had the dvd shown last month)

so your next posts will be about controversial company art collections I guess?

;-)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 09:04 am (UTC)
Cities in fashion, cities in art

I think it's interesting how urbanisation plays out in the art world. The art world is usually fascinated by just one or two cities, and these go in and out of fashion quite quickly. For instance, some of the same people who published books and organised exhibitions about Tokyo in the 1990s then got interested in Mexico City and Sao Paolo around the turn of the century. Lagos and Shanghai are currently fashionable, with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv running just behind (as "cautionary tales" in shows like "Territories"). The Japanese are interested in Seoul.


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 09:26 am (UTC)
Re: Cities in fashion, cities in art

witte de with last director catherine david tried to focus on cities like beyrouth and cairo. when her term as director ended then the "contemporary arab representations" also came abruptly to an end. which I think is sad. it was an interesting project (though very badly received in public and press).


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 07:51 am (UTC)
Koolhaas at the Biennale of Venezia

In all a worthwile exhibition is the biennale in venezia, where there's also a piece of Koolhaas examining the relationship between modernization, capitalism and the rationalisation and organisation of art. He places the cancerlike growth of the Louvre and the British Museum, against the deterioration of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, disqualifying the first as an overorganised Disneyfication, leaving no open spaces for viewing art as opposed to the Hermitages decay that shows art as being part of a living structure. It also has a nice graphic of the exuberant growth of spent money on art in the last bit of the twentieth century.

Though it is maybe somewhat old fashioned to critisize modernity in this way, i like this adaptation of critical theory for the next century. Maybe it is not the elitist Adorno that ought to be looked at again, but instead Marcuse, who used Schillers 'Spieltrieb' as a way of applying art in bringing rationalization back to fysical man, alienating us from the alienation caused by the rationalization of modernity.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 09:06 am (UTC)
Re: Koolhaas at the Biennale of Venezia

I'll see the Venezia Biennale just before it closes in November.

Which Marcuse book are you talking about? "One-Dimensional Man" or "The Aesthetic Dimension"?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 11:43 am (UTC)
Re: Koolhaas at the Biennale of Venezia

I actually meant "Eros and Civilisation", which refers to Schiller and his spieltrieb as a means of getting back in touch with man's sinnlichkeit (as he has written in 'Ueber die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen' - http://tinyurl.com/eywmt) to resolve the desubjectivating emphasis on reason in modernity. Though the "Permanenz der Kunst" as i know "The Aesthetic Dimension" deals with the same view on art as a liberating force. A comprehensive and inclusive introduction to Marcuses view on art can be found in Reitz's "Art, alienation and the humanities" (http://tinyurl.com/7d8x6). The video portrait called "Herbert's Hippopotamus" is also a nice introduction (http://tinyurl.com/dr45h).

"One-dimensional Man" on the other hand is a visionary critique of the disclosure of western civilisation heading towards the cynic postmodern code, when surface became depth leaving no room for otherness, anticipating the views of Baudrillard. The integral book can be found online (http://tinyurl.com/769zq).

(How nice: speaking about the desubjectivating tendency and having to confirm i am a human to post this reply.)


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 08:45 am (UTC)

Taxi !

http://www.bellhelicopter.textron.com/


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 11:02 am (UTC)

I've only passed thru Lagos, but I lived for a while in Abuja and Umuahia. Nigeria is the Italy of Africa - a chaotic place prone to corruption, dictators, and mafias, with the inhabitants always shouting and gesticulating. Nearby Ghana is a lot more sensible and quieter. If Momus wants to experience an African city with a "Stockholm" feeling of safety he could go to Accra in Ghana.

XC


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 11:11 am (UTC)

By the way, I do think Koolhaas is particularly strong on the idea of global cultural "ricochets". He mentions returning Brazilian slaves bringing Portugese architecture to Nigeria, but doesn't mention the South American influence on Highlife music. There's a bit about this on the Tate's Century City exhibition pages, which I'd like to paste here:

"
Highlife Music

Highlife music is an expression of the creative effervescence of African popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The origins of this jaunty guitar music can be found in the music of the slaves. When these immigrants returned to Nigeria from Brazil, Europe, the US and the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, they brought with them a musical style that blended the sounds of all these areas into a new, Pan-African form. Many of these influences, such as Cuban rumba and Latin music, had themselves originally been based on African music. Since Highlife was multicultural and transnational, whilst deriving from original African forms, it captured the sense of an emergent African nationalism based on notions of cultural exchange. The great period of Highlife music arrived when the Ghanaian bandleader E T Mensah visited Lagos shortly after the Second World War. Almost overnight, the modern incarnation of Highlife emerged, becoming immensely popular with the new leisure classes. Highlife stars included 'Cardinal' Jim Rex Lawson, Bobby Benson and Victor Olaiya."

Highlife is actually ricocheting into other musics right now. The last two Black Dice albums, "Creature Comforts" and "The Broken Ear Record", feature distinctive Highlife guitar patterns.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 28th, 2005 01:39 pm (UTC)

I always heard a highlife influence in Marr's Smiths-era guitar work.


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henryperri
henryperri
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 12:47 pm (UTC)

Lagos looks more like a modern version (with busses and roads) of the Old West frontier trading city than any glimpse into a future London/Chicago, etc.

It makes sense that Koolhaus would be fascinated with the "edge" that the city has; those with liberal politics confuse a sympathy for the poor with a celebration of their poverty. That's why their policies (welfare, price controls & imposing unrealistic labor laws on the third world) are designed to perpetuate their economic situation rather than cure it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 01:24 pm (UTC)

Yes, that's the difference between social democrats and socialists, perhaps. Socialism is about eradicating poverty by giving the workers "the fruits of their labour" (ie the old UK Labour Party Clause 4, cancelled by Blairites).


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 29th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)

how is that worse then pontificating from behind the safety of your keyboard?


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bklyndispatch
bklyndispatch
in exile
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 06:44 pm (UTC)

While I agree that Koolhas comes off as romanticizing the lives of the poor, there is much to be learned from places like Lagos that cities such as London and New York don't offer. Creative recycling (done out of economic necessity as well as political belief) is one example...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 08:02 pm (UTC)

It is a real problem that virtues like high density living, or the use of bicycles, don't tend to be widely adopted because they're virtuous, but because people are forced by poverty to adopt them. As soon as they get the money to go low density and motorised, they tend to do it, despite the fact that it degrades the environment. So whether it's romantic to note it or not, there is a connection between poverty and virtue.

I keep running hither and thither on this issue!


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bklyndispatch
bklyndispatch
in exile
Wed, Jul. 27th, 2005 08:18 pm (UTC)

ahh but is it still virtuous if it is done by necessity?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 28th, 2005 09:27 pm (UTC)

http://claytoncubitt.com/blogs/usedfuture/2005/07/nigerian-badasses-by-pieter-hugo.html

Closer-up pictures of Nigeria


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