Milan Design Week 2012

May 23, 2012

The 2012 edition of the Milan Design Week has seen a shift in the manufacturing processes. 3D printing, open-source software and crowd-funding are emerging as alternatives to traditional furniture production. There were beautiful 3D printed designs and DIY machines that could morph soft materials into improbable shapes. More on this in my Milan Furniture Fair Coverage for Inhabitat.com at the bottom of this page.

Vitra at the Salone. 

Via Tortona, Established & Sons

Via Tortona, Heineken Club

Wonderful spaces

3D printing

The Salone

Ventura Lambrate

51st Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan 17-22 April 2012 | #SaloneDelMobile

2012 Milan Furniture Fair Coverage for Inhabitat, by PS

Pictures by PS

ARCOmadrid 2012 & 2013 Prospect

February 24, 2012
Nuria Mora for El País

Lighthearted, colourful and fresh. ARCO 2012 has been a delightful edition with more galleries than last year and mainly recent works.

This makes you wonder about two things: the current state of the art market and the profile of the target buyer. Galleries loaded with new works from youngish artists means to me sold-out stocks and high sales expectancy. And this can only translate as art market doing well. The target buyer was presumably international since the art works were too new (read risky) for the generally conservative local collector. Proof of this is that interesting young Spanish artists have been brought by non-Spanish galleries.

Very conspicuous at this ARCO edition has been the role of architects, cities and even architecture. Firstly, there were many trained or self-proclaimed architects among the artists (Tomás Saraceno, Ai Weiwei, José Dávila...) and supporters (see video of Norman Foster below). Then, the trending topic seemed to turn around buildings and coloured shapes, not so much so around a social message. Perhaps the life-size sculpture of General Franco in a Cola fridge was meant to be the exception... but no one perceived it as such.

The most interesting spaces for different reasons were El País and Ivorypress. El País has chosen this year to explore the Spanish street art and has invited Nuria Mora, 3ttman and Suso33 among others to perform site installations. The result was a colourful and lively space, more sensual than intellectual and very distanced from the sarcasm generally used by street art elsewhere.

Papiroflexia by Nuria Mora, 3TTMAN and Trojan TV Wall by Suso33

Ivorypress, the gallery owned by Norman Foster's wife Elena Ochoa and at Arco for the first time, has set a wonderfully different tone. It has brought amazing names (Anish Kapoor, Anthony Caro, Ai Weiwei...) and obviously great works. Possibly the most distinguished work was "Cuarteto Rebelde" a bespoke piece by Los Carpinteros, the Cuban art collective with studio in Madrid next door to Ivorypress. The most striking work for me though was a 2011 video installation by Michal Rovner. Sadly, no pictures.

Pillars, 2006 by Ai Weiwei. Work behind by Pedro Cabrita Reis

This is what I meant by the conspicuous role of architects, cities and architecture...

2011 by Tomás Saraceno
Philip Johnson Glass House, 2009 by James Welling
Lost Year's Words, 2011 by Raúl Hevia
Aerial, 2011 by Sachigusa Yasuda

Interesting the project Desert Cities (2007-09) by Aglaia Konrad. An exploration of city growth in Egypt.

The colourful part

Kuckei+Kuckei Gallery

Bärbel Grässlin & Heinrich Ehrhardt Galleries

Great works at Project B Gallery, Milan: Dionisio González (also at Ivorypress), Giada Ripa and Greta Alfaro.

Fall on us, 2011 by Greta Alfaro

Fall On Us, And Hide Us (excerpt) from greta alfaro on Vimeo.

Cinthya Soto for Galeria Des Pacio, Costa Rica.

Secundino Hernández widely represented at Arco. Below Wimbledon, 2011

Same for Juán Asensio. Below Untitled, 2012, for Galeria Elvira González.

Untitled, 2011 by Julian Schnabel at Galeria Soledad Lorenzo.

Installation by YlvaOgland. Hoet-Bekaert Gallery.

And a tribute by Galerie Lelong to the great Antoni Tapies who passed away a few weeks ago. Jannis Kounellis in the background.

ArcoKids has been a first time initiative in collaboration with the Pequeño Deseo Foundation. A space where groups of kids have created a joint work under the guidance of artists.
Picture by Alda Rojo  

Suggestions for Next Edition
ARCO director Carlos Urroz has done a superb job in turning ARCO into a fun and lively event. The lightness of this year's edition felt just about right as a counter-balance to the gloomy scenario out there. But you wonder if this complacent art can hold in the long run. With 23% unemployment and 22% of the population living below the poverty line, Spain is on the verge of collapse. It would be responsible, nonetheless empathetic, to pick up on this. And not merely to document it but to interact with reality possibly by giving individuals a voice. As Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA, quotes: "The current social circumstances dictate new forms of art". It would be a shame not to use this extraordinary opportunity and the power of art to try and move to a different place. 

ARCO International Contemporary Art Fair, Madrid 15 - 19 February 2012

Michal Rovner
Tomás Saraceno
Greta Alfaro
Nuria Mora
Antoni Tapies 
Aglaia Konrad
Julian Schnabel
Secundino Hernández
JR and his Inside Out Project

Ivorypress Madrid
Project B Gallery Milan
Galerie Bärbel Grässlin Frankfurt
Galería Heinrich Ehrhardt Madrid

Pictures by PS unless stated otherwise


The Medina of Fez : Analysis of a Superb Compact Town

September 12, 2011
12 September 2011

The old Medina of Fez in Morocco also called Fez el Bali is a pedestrian medieval town with small-scale buildings and twisting narrow streets. It is a compact and dense place, full with artisans and food stalls. In its 220 ha you can find markets, mosques, universities, schools, hospitals, private gardens and even industry (manufacturing). You can cross town by foot in about 40 minutes. And if urban density doesn't do for you, the countryside is right outside the city walls. 

by Joshua Sy
There are many aspects of Fez that impress you. The composure of its people is one of them. Paul Bowles, who seems to share opinion, has an interesting view on it:
"Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry."
The absence of cars is partly a result of how the city is structured. In Fez, primary activities, i.e. "live, work and leisure", are all mixed, meaning that you live in the proximity of your work and of your social activities. This reduces the travel distances greatly, making the use of a car unnecessary. Mixed-use results as well in a lively city, constantly in use and rich in social interaction.

 by Google Earth
Fez is a city with a dense building fabric. Its streets are narrow (between 0.5m and 5m) and buildings (single-story to 4-story) cover a vast amount of its surface (100% of the total surface is developed). Although there is only one large public square there are plenty of small improvised squares created in the residual space of the irregular urban grid. Most of the socializing happens in the streets and in other public spaces such as the mosque, the hammam and the marketplace.

by Florentina Georgescu
There are allegedly 30,000 artisans in the Medina: Potters and ceramists (zelliges), tanners, copper- and brass-blacksmiths, woodcarvers, embroiders, weapon-makers, weavers... Each guild occupies its own district and has its dedicated market (souq). There is the carpenters' souq and the henna souq; the perfumers' and the shoemakers' souq.

Artisans have small workshops, roughly 2x3m, open to the street. These shops are generally full of stock and equipment.  It is therefore not unusual for artisans to work on the streets, adding interest to your journey. Freight is delivered by donkey or handcart.

by John Moravec
The district of the tanners is quite impressive and worth a description. The Chouara Tannery is the largest in Fez. It is a vast urban hole filled up with vats. The tannery processes manually the skins of sheep and goats and turns them into leather. The skins get prepared for tanning by being immersed in liquid lime and treated with a mixture of pigeon poo and cow urine. They are then soaked by hand in coloured pits for dying and laid atop the rooftops to dry.

It is fascinating to see how an activity that is considered noxious, and has traditionally been relegated outside the city walls, is today a major point of attraction. The unusual structure of the place, the spectacular colours of the liquids and the singularity of the business make a visit to the tanneries worthwhile, notwithstanding the pungent smell. The tanneries are still one of the most important sources of income and trade for the city.


The houses in Fez are conceived around a courtyard. Some courtyards are bigger, nicer and greener than others but the arrangement is similar for all houses. The street facade is a high naked wall with a door more or less ornamented and some grated openings (if at all) somewhere along its height. The inside by contrast is rich and sensuous. I could impossibly come up with a better description than Paul Bowles' so here is what he says:
"When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside - nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A noncommittal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one's own.  A miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world."
by Magnum

by Alessandra Grillo
In spite of its many sustainable attributes, Fez el Bali has had serious urban issues in the past years. When the UNESCO listed the old Medina a world heritage site in 1981, it also stretched that it was threatened with collapse due to overpopulation and neglect. Sylvio Mutal, an urban specialist with UNDP describes the situation:
"Ironically, the city's problems may in part be a result of its past success. The ancient city was not abandoned. Far from that, it remains an essential center of production; some two-thirds of the inhabitants of the metropolis live there. Rather, what happened could be seen as the over-activation of the center of a fragile city that, in many ways, remains an exemplary model. [...] The result is that pressures mounted with which the city could not cope, to the point that precious architectural ensembles became dilapidated, the ecological balance broke down and water supply systems became saturated, and the city's traditional craft industries were threatened."

A plan for a complete rehabilitation of the Medina was submitted after a five years' study by Morocco and UNESCO and 1989 the ADER-Fes (Agence pour la Dedensification et la Rehabilitation de la Medina de Fes) was created. It is a semi-private organization responsible for carrying out and co-ordinating the rehabilitation programme. The estimated total cost of the rehabilitation was around $600 million. Initial funds came from the Moroccan government and UNESCO, then 1993 the World Bank granted a loan.

The "Rehabilitation Project for the Fez Medina" included upgrading dwellings, restoring historic buildings, providing incentives for commercial activities, improving infrastructures and creating an emergency circulation network. Already completed, it is considered to be an exemplary rehabilitation project not only because of the town improvements and the boost to the local economy but also because it has proven that private funds can have their returns investing in heritage.

The Millenium Challenge Corporation does know a lot on this. It is a US foreign aid agency that provides developing countries with grants to fund country-led solutions for reducing poverty. The MCC analyzes the likely impact on economic growth of its programmes by the use of an Economic Rate of Return Analysis (ERR). They analyze proposals as investments, with payoffs going to households and firms in partner countries. They seek proposals with high ERR and broad impact i.e. high poverty reduction.

2007 the MCC granted $111 million for the "Artisan and Fez Medina Project" with the aim to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty among artisans. In the framework of this project, the MCC issued via the "Agency of Partnership for Progress" (APP) an international architectural competition to redesign the area around Place Lalla Yeddouna, key area along the Medina's tourist circuit. The prize was awarded March 2011 and project is due to completion in 2013.

The MCC model expects the project to have an economic rate return of approx 21% over 15 years. Profits will be generated by the businesses on the site, by additional spending of tourists and by transferring large portions of the renovated site to the private sector through sale or long-term lease.

These ERR numbers are estimates and it remains to be seen what the real return will be. However, certain thing is that the Fez Medina remains through the years an attractive place to live and visit, trade and invest. And I dare to attribute it surely to its beauty and people but also to its density, size, mixed activities, absence of cars and cultural heritage... a killer combination very few cities can be proud of having.

Fez el Bali's data
Area:  220 ha (UNESCO data)
Population:  300,000 inhabitants in 1980 / 200,000 in 1993 / 156,000 in 2002
Population Density: 136,363 inhabitants / km2 in 1980 /  90,000  in 1993 / 71,000 in 2002
Number of businesses:  5,330 (artisans workshops) making up for 42% of the total workshops in the Fes municipality (2005 data by Al Akhawayn University. The Chambre d'Artisanat de Fes could not provide data!). 
Craftmanship: source of income of 75% of the medina population. Textile and leather employs more than 67% of the regional workforce
Revenue: estimated $1.1 billion a year  (based on figures provided by Invest in Morroco)
Number of tourists/year:  350,000 (2006 data by Observatoire du Tourism) 
Tourists/Year growth rate:  9% (data Observatoire du Tourism)

"Fez" by Paul Bowles / 1984 
"Fez: Preserving a City" by Josh Martin / 1993
"Medieval Urbanism in Morocco: Lessons for the Modern World" by Randy Ghent
"Morocco: Artisan and Fez Medina" by the MCC
Place Lalla Yeddouna International Competion
"The Medina of Fez" by UNESCO
"The Medina of Fez - Crafting a Future for the Past" by Genevieve Darles, Nicolas Lagrange / 1996
"The Morrocan Medina" by JH Crawford / estimated 2002
"The Rehabilitation of the Fez Medina" by the World Bank / 1999
"Traditional Building Techniques in Fes" by Alessandra Grillo / 1988
"Urban Conservation of Fez-Medina: a Post-Impact Appraisal" by Hassan Radoine / 2008

without caption by PS and VB 

Prefab Housing: Can That Be All?

June 22, 2011
July 2011

Modular living, the upgraded wording for prefabricated homes, seems to be on the spotlight. Small and sexy homes have started popping up in stunning locations, looking so incredibly cool that in relatively no time they have become the ultimate object of desire. But what would happen if this were to become a trend? 

The success of these houses hasn’t caught anyone by surprise: the soaring home prices, the continuing barriers to access financing and the disappearing of the nuclear family have contributed to rethink the traditional living model and to look at alternatives. The early adopters, a breed of professionals looking for exciting living, thank the possibilities offered by the new information technologies and argue that without the facilities given by employers regarding working by home, living remotely wouldn’t be a reality.

In this context, imagine a house that costs a little more than a car, it is delivered in a few weeks, doesn’t require planning permission, adapts to the owners changing needs, has a beautiful design and can be placed anywhere you like. Sounds like the housing world could be on your side again. If the house then comes with the added bonus of being completely independent in terms of services your options of where to live become incommensurable.

Architects have done their homework, teamed up with manufacturers and come up with an interesting range of products. There is a prefab home for every taste and budget.

Left Blob VB3 / right Loft Cube

But what would happen if this concept of "affordable living anywhere you want" became so successful that it turned to be the rule for housing rather than the exception? According to the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) the UK will face an estimated home shortage of 750,000 by 2025. Imagine for a moment that every citizen in need of a house would buy or lease such a planning-permit-free-home and in line with their acquired rights, would place it anywhere she or he would like to: urban holes, green field sites, roof tops of existing buildings etc. How many of these homes could a rural landscape take and still preserve its beauty? What would happen to the urban fabric? Would we still want to go to nature to relax if it was full of small manmade structures?

An extreme example of this can be witnessed in post-disaster Haiti where many temporary homes (mainly tents) have been placed out of towns creating new settlements following no particular planning other than being efficiently aligned in rows. The emergency of the situation and the temporary nature of the shelters have in this case justified the lack of planning. We do know however that although the term “temporary” implies either an upgrade or demolition followed by new construction, in reality it doesn’t mean more than an option rarely executed. Temporary becomes permanent in a short time. An informal settlement turns into a town sooner than we think it would. And if planning has been neglected or omitted, the town hardly catches up at a later stage. The new town becomes an unsustainable place where distances are big, communal transport and infrastructure inexistent and working opportunities rare. 

Left Treehouse configuration / right Camp Corail, a provisional camp North of Port-au-Price, REUTERS

The lesson to be learnt from the emergency tented camps is that no matter how temporary a structure is, a few serious thoughts have to be given about its context. A mere matter of volume: one single structure randomly placed is no issue, 20,000 are. So how shall temporary structures be organised and where?

Before answering this it is worth revisiting what temporary living may mean nowadays. Is a nomadic lifestyle still desirable? Long time ago there wasn’t an alternative: populations had to move around to protect themselves from enemies and to guarantee their food supply. There are still some communities that move around following their livestock or hunting such as the Tuaregs in the Sahara, the Eskimos and certain populations in Central Asia. Other XXI century nomads include the so-called Gypsetters, upmarket neo-hippies in search for creative travel experiences in remote parts of the world. The term was invented by American reporter Julia Chaplin (gypsy + jet-set) and refers to artists, fashion designers, photographers, musicians and surfers, “whose work is based on and reflected in their lifestyle and whose lifestyle is based on and reflected in their work”. Although Gypsetters spend time in remote locations, their activity is still bound to major cities. 

With the exception of these communities, the rest of the population moving around in search of work opportunities or escaping disasters, aim for a settled life. At least for the whole duration of the period they spend being displaced, emigrants or expats. With this in mind, a home may be temporary but it has to be in a permanent context. And since cities are the engine of economic growth, this permanent context is an urban one.

How can prefabricated homes be part of the urban context? We can think of two ways: by retro-fitting in an existing fabric and by urbanising afresh. Retro-fitting would seek to fill the urban gaps, derelict spaces and even building roofs with the new prefabricated structures. These structures would plug into the existing fabric at designated locations that have been identified to cope with the increased population: larger roads, vicinity of railway stations etc.

Urbanizing afresh would mean gathering a number of prefabricated homes and arrange them according to a masterplan. In order to avoid past urban mistakes - such as urban sprawl, congested streets and polluted air - the community would need to be compact. Compact communities are walkable and reduce the need of a car.  When we think of prefabricated homes we have in mind a single detached home. But prefabricated homes can also be high-rise. A compact city would be made out of high-rise buildings, possibly four or five stories high.

Prefabricated, high-rise, compact living, delivered at a low price and in very short time. Isn't this the real challenge?

Article published under the title:
Summer 2011 / Issue 17

Prefab Houses
Micro Compact Home
Ego Modulo
Hangar Prefab
Blob VB3
Loft Cube

Pictures by others. Cover picture: Top left Treehouse. Clockwise Micro Compact Home, Hangar Prefab and Ego Modulo
Copyright © Not Only About Architecture: Art, Land, Climate