imomus (imomus) wrote,
imomus
imomus

Mr Pantouffle's self-fab skyhut

I escaped yesterday from winter-glitched Berlin (grit, dark, dirt, slush and slither) into the warm, clean capsule of sunlight-and-elsewhere which is the Walther Koenig bookstore. Soon I found myself flipping through an interesting architect's-coffee-table book by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham, Portraits from Above: Hong Kong's Informal Rooftop Communities.

Up on the roofs of Hong Kong buildings you often find them: corrugated shacks, little huts, self-built structures which replicate, up in the air, rural Chinese villages. "Informal" means, of course, that they don't meet any building standards and don't have any legal status, so living in one of these skyhuts is a precarious business in every sense; a government inspector will sooner or later mark your dwelling with a fluorescent ink stain which means that you have a minimal window of a day or two to vacate before they pull the place down and chuck its constituent parts onto a skip thirty stories below.



Wu (the Chinese-Canadian who did the meticulous cut-away drawings) and Canham (German, photographs) asked themselves the same questions I did: Who lives here? How do they live? Do they have wifi? Do they have running water and electricity? What's it like in there? Luckily, the pair were invited in quite readily, and allowed to document the living spaces.



Did I tell you I once lived for a year in a hen hutch? Well, it wasn't really a hen hutch, more a garden shed behind a house in Torry, Aberdeen. It was my last year at university, and I actually really enjoyed living there. I put a picture of Alexander Pope on the wall, taught myself Brel songs, warmed myself with a two-bar heater, and, when I had to use the loo or the bath, let myself into the adjacent house belonging to my landlady, Mrs Ross. So that's what I imagine living on a Hong Kong roof to be like.



Humble, fleeting, homemade, ramshackle and cheap, the self-fab skyhut is admirable in all sorts of ways. Okay, so the toilet appears to be in the kitchen in some of these photos, and they wouldn't keep the cold out if Hong Kong ever did get cold (today it's 20c, perfect!). But from the point of view of density, recycling, efficiency and sustainability these structures -- built in a spirit of dung-beetle bricolage -- have a lot to teach us. Up on the roof it's cooler and quieter, you're out of people's way, you have good views out over the city, you can befriend the birds and watch the sun set. You haven't used up any extra land, and you haven't spent a ridiculous amount of money on construction. You're up on the roof, hurting no-one, minding your own business, listening to the aircon.



The nice thing about books like Portraits from Above is that they provide a detailed decor into which you can insert characters of your own. Yesterday, after playing Grand Theft Auto for a while at the Transmediale hub, I invented a character called Mr Pantouffle. He's a semi-retired clown with a heart of gold, always being cheated by the people he meets down on the ground. Only up in his skyhut, with his beloved avifauna around him, is Pantouffle free. He hums, he feeds the birds, he works on his clown act, he scatters fresh rice into his pink plug-in cooker and flips the switch.

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Amazing, and very surreal. The third picture down gives me the terrors - look at how precarious they are! I'm not sure how quiet these would be - imagine all the noise from the street being funneled up then through the spit-thin walls. It seems more likely to be cacophonous, but perhaps so much so that it becomes white noise?

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 10:06:32 UTC 9 years ago

Come on Momus, you're basically begging to be mocked here! That kitchen/toilet combo looks hellish, quite apart from the mental stress of living somewhere you know you can get thrown out of at a moment's notice.
Maybe I'm weird, but the thing I keep finding myself imagining -- and it's a very positive fantasy -- is that I get to move into an old, poor Asian person's home the moment after they've died. I inherit all their stuff, and basically take over their life.



I don't want the apartment cleaned or renovated or restored to "neutral" and "acceptable" conditions. I don't want the rent hiked. I don't even want the hole in the window fixed. I pick up the old, poor Asian's life pretty much where s/he left off: feeding the cat, tending to the garden patch, working on the tatami frame, visiting the sento.

Anonymous

9 years ago

imomus

9 years ago

imomus

9 years ago

imomus

9 years ago

Anonymous

9 years ago

imomus

9 years ago

Anonymous

9 years ago

imomus

9 years ago

Anonymous

9 years ago

milky_eyes

9 years ago

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 10:17:49 UTC 9 years ago

You're kind of doing a roundup of key Momus themes for your last week in residence, aren't you? Yesterday it was the evil of Anglo culture, today it's slum porn, tomorrow flatchested teenage Japanese girls, no doubt...
Personality is destiny. It's also editorial policy.

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 10:39:56 UTC 9 years ago

Ooh look, I’m twenty posts late but I finally had my first momus dream! I’m glad it was while the livejournal is on, at least! It went like this: Momus was touring Brazil and asked me for a place to sleep. So I had Momus in my house, in a mattress in the living room. Some friends from back in the country came and I could not think of any way to explain what Momus *is*, so I simply said, « This is Momus », and they were like, WTF.

Then we had sex. I was insanely turned on by graying hair.

Then there was a performance or something where Momus played electronic drums. But the manager thought he was too quirky. At some point Momus improvised a percussion apparatus out of two plastic buckets and aluminum wire, and the manager kicked him out. Then he told *me* to play the drums. I told him I couldn’t play jack shit. He pointed out, « This is the bass and this is the snare. Just alternate between them, it’s what the audience wants. » I tried it for a while but it was too boring, so I gave up.

Next scene, we were in a café and the store was selling a Moka coffee pot for just R$12. I asked them about it and they said it was defective, but I could tell they just didn’t know how to use it. I was in terrible moral distress arguing with myself about whether it would be unethical to say nothing and just get it, then Momus said, « the design of the thing is so awesome, it’s not a sin to cheat for this » and I though « you _understand!_ » and bought it.
Inventive, but I think my enjoyment of the dream hinges on the age-old philosophical question R U CUTE?

Anonymous

9 years ago

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 11:02:51 UTC 9 years ago

tz?

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 12:33:51 UTC 9 years ago

interesting that 'do they have wifi?' comes before 'do they have running water and electricity?' or 'what's it like in there?', but is so obvious it's surely a bet with someone -how many comments do I get before this one?
Har har, yes. It really is the first question that comes to mind for me! The authors too, apparently. This is from their preface:

"There is no elevator. We walk up the eight flights of stairs, hesitating on the last one, looking at each other, out of breath: we have no right to be here.

"The roof is a maze of corridors, narrow passageways between huts built of sheet metal, wood, brick and plastics. There are steps and ladders leading up to a second level of huts. We get lost. Our leaflets in hand, Rufina knocks on a door. There is an exchange in Cantonese. Stefan stands in the background, the foreigner, smiling, not understanding a word. They hear us out, smile back and invite us into their homes.

"Later, we look down at the building from a higher one across the street. The roof is huge, like a village. There must be thirty or forty households on it. From the outside there is no way of knowing what is inside. Whether they have Internet or not. Whether they have a toilet. And there is no way of knowing their stories…"
Our landlord's job is to go to war and weather ravaged countries to help people build emergency housing like this for themselves (next stop Haiti). Last time I saw him he was telling me how they show people to use tetrapak cartons to insulate the walls.

He said to us although people can be incredibly innovative when in situations like this, ultimately they all want to have big houses and cars. Why wouldn't they? Ultimately it is only the privileged who will fetishise poverty, or try to emulate it on some level.
There's a sweet spot between austerity and hedonic-treadmill-style over-indulgence, between mass misery and individual piggery. We all need to find where that sweet spot is. Click Opera hasn't lived in vain if it's introduced people to, for instance, Richard Layard's ideas on this subject.

Anonymous

9 years ago

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 13:54:26 UTC 9 years ago

I can hardly wait until you've stopped blogging, you garrulous ass.

Love.

Hmm

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 14:59:11 UTC 9 years ago

I'm not really sure how to respond to this. In a sense, I've always wanted to live in an autonomous shack with just the minimal amount of space and creature comfort. I find it refreshingly insular. Yet, these dwellings provoke feelings of desperation rather than escape. A first-world slum, basically. I think you owe it to yourself and to your perspective to visit India or a similarly third-world country to see the fine line between destitute and disparate.

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 16:26:05 UTC 9 years ago

Regardless of any political angles, they're awfully appealing to look at. Kind of remind me of Kurt Schwitters' Merzbaus.
A bit unrelated to the actual topic, but now I can count two games that I know you play: GTA and DOOM. Are there any more games you play and have played? Which one did you enjoy the most?

Anonymous

February 5 2010, 17:41:18 UTC 9 years ago

Don't forget about Wii Sports, the only Japanese game I remember Momus mentioning.

imomus

9 years ago

cap_scaleman

9 years ago

jdcasten

9 years ago

Anonymous

9 years ago

Heaven to me! Absolute heaven momus. Ramshackle rooftop tropical gardens. And curiously, these photos remind me of the Hong Kong I knew, a place and time long since vanished, plowed under by progress's shovel. Gentrified and modernized into oblivion.

These videos (japan too) are the only things I have found that come close to showing what HK was like in the '70s.



How sad. Is this what it's come to? Romanticizing/commending/legitimizing the dire straits of late-capitalism? You've really shown your twisted middle-class bourgeois aesthete side here, Nick. Your politics ended up being closer to Groucho than Karl...

Instead of couching these economic horrors in terms of ingenuity and efficiency (one can see the bourgeois capitalist now, "Hey! Good for these people, they're making do quite well!!") why not ask --how/why-- things have come to this, and what, if anything, we as conscientious, worldly people could do about it. I mean a little more than figuring out a way to glob onto and live off of a horrific, late-capitalist society such as you've documented...
actually most of the sheds on the rooftops sprung up during the 50s, when there were many people fleeing from the cultural revolution from mainland china, and there was a shortage of housing at the time. These sheds grew up organically and are not products of the "late-capitalism" after the 1980s open door policy of Mainland China. Although I do agree many of these rooftop houses are not really safe and legal to live in, but some of them are well-built and can be comfortable. Some tenants actually prefer living in one of those than living in some super-packed public housing.

Re: Groucho Marxism?

Anonymous

9 years ago

Nice. Make no apologies! That's good. I wish I could be adopted by a family and make love to their daughter in one of these. Why not? There's only 1.3 billion Chinese.

I have often thought of finding a word that encapsulates the spiritual feeling that comes with the decor and environment of a Chinese restaurant in America: grease, fluorescence, life, pinkness, stained but cute clothes, red-cheeked girls behind the counter. Very Chinese, and very sexy and poor. How they have no idea what I think of them.

Who's happier? Americans who are stuffed with anti-depressives and anti-anxiety medicine living in isolated mansions playing video games and using porn? Mother Theresa thought the U.S. was spiritually desolate, and didn't feel good coming here. Compare that to India, where there is visible death and poverty, yet a certain serenity in the face of things anyway. Having said that, I am scared of China sometimes, and their ruthless practicality and willfulness to 'become somebody' in the face of just getting their act together on the world stage.

I just meant to write about Italo Calvino's 'The Baron in the Trees', about a viscount who retires to the trees to look down at society. Italo Calvino is nice, and especially apt at giving a sense of solidarity and humor in this current world where the rug is being pulled out from under our feet, with the sense that nobody really knows how to escape the conditioning that is turning everyone into a perpetual man-child.

"Mother Theresa thought the U.S. was spiritually desolate, and didn't feel good coming here."

Mother Theresa was full of shit. I advise you to read/watch Hitchen's book/doc The Missonary Position, which tells how this "saint" advanced the twisted policies of the Catholic Church, rubbed shoulders with tin horn dictators and ultimately took money from Michael Milken (1980s S&L scandal Milken) and then refused to give the money back when told it was dirty. All this and more from your precious Mother Theresa...

Re: Personality is destiny

Anonymous

9 years ago

Re: Personality is destiny

Anonymous

9 years ago

Nice. Make no apologies! That's good. I wish I could be adopted by a family and make love to their daughter in one of these. Why not? There's only 1.3 billion Chinese.

I have often thought of finding a word that encapsulates the spiritual feeling that comes with the decor and environment of a Chinese restaurant in America: grease, fluorescence, life, pinkness, stained but cute clothes, red-cheeked girls behind the counter. Very Chinese, and very sexy and poor. How they have no idea what I think of them.

Who's happier? Americans who are stuffed with anti-depressives and anti-anxiety medicine living in isolated mansions playing video games and using porn? Mother Theresa thought the U.S. was spiritually desolate, and didn't feel good coming here. Compare that to India, where there is visible death and poverty, yet a certain serenity in the face of things anyway. Having said that, I am scared of China sometimes, and their ruthless practicality and willfulness to 'become somebody' in the face of just getting their act together on the world stage.

I just meant to write about Italo Calvino's 'The Baron in the Trees', about a viscount who retires to the trees to look down at society. Italo Calvino is nice, and especially apt at giving a sense of solidarity and humor in this current world where the rug is being pulled out from under our feet, with the sense that nobody really knows how to escape the conditioning that is turning everyone into a perpetual man-child.

"How they have no idea what I think of them."
I do take offence at what you said. I think it is very demeaning to base your perception of the entire culture on the less-educated part of the people. I agree that many cultural output from Mainland China now has a "new rich" aesthetics(ie West worshipping, little understanding of the refined high culture of both the West and China). But there are modern Chinese culture that is not as vulgar. Taipei, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing all got their own distinctive culture, due to different dialects and political backgrounds. We are not as homogenous as you might think. It's essential to recognise the complexity within the Sinosphere.
I recommend you to read "My country my people" by Lin Yutan. It is a good introduction to reading the Chinese culture, beyond all the empty revolutionary fervour that many people like to mock China with.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin_Yutang
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