All posts by Tommy Dunn

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The Wild East

As an untempered development boom surges in Yangon, an uncertain fate is placed on the architectural icons of Old Rangoon.

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n 2011, the enigmatic country of Myanmar, once isolated country under nearly six decades of violent military rule, installed a quasi-civilian government bent on its reformation and integration into the world. Soon after, the U.S. and EU eased fifteen years of sanctions, thrusting the country into a surging real estate development boom with aggressive players from both the West and the East. Corporate offices began quickly outpacing new residential and hotel properties, with even the most astute developers and urban planners puzzled on how to best calibrate the developments in the absence of sound regulations.

During the military rule, citizens endured a dark age that saw streets lined with child soldiers and myriad human rights violations; political opponents and journalists released from jail, then thrown back in again, but it appears now that the transition towards reformation and integration is prevailing, if still incomplete. In November 2015, the country held its first democratically held election in 25 years – the first was discounted by the military – and just three months later, the National League for Democracy led by noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi sat as majority rulers in a country that once imprisoned her in her home for 15 years due to her calls for democracy.

For the country’s former capital of Yangon and its residents, decades in isolation and economic stagnation had brought life in the once burgeoning British-ruled port city to a complete standstill, while the military-tied elite stood as the privileged few who would mount meaningful new business.

Most in the city of over 5 million, meanwhile, had to use what they had, making homes of abandoned banks, office buildings and even within the hundreds of dilapidated structures their former colonial masters built there at the turn of the 20th century.

With the reformist government finally taking power, foreign backers began flocking to the city with hopes of pouring investment into rejuvenating one of the world’s most promising economies: a country still rich in underutilized natural resources.

Yangon was finally set to thaw, and as the stench of oppression began to fade, a shocking reality about the dwellings that once served as the pride of Southeast Asia began to emerge.

img-2The long abandoned alternative entrance to the Balthazar Building.

The sight is a common one. Heavy traffic and betel nut splattered roads surrounding once gorgeous Edwardian or Victorian architecture, now weather stained and mutated, with carefully lain bricks now carelessly kicked out to make way for makeshift plumbing.

Large rats and street dogs overrun parts of the town and the smell of open sewage is widespread, while tenants hurl their trash into the alleys.

Standing over the railing of his second floor apartment, 74-year-old U Than Win, a former Burmese naval officer, points down into the open-air courtyard of the building, now being used as a dumpster.

“Look, there is garbage everywhere,” he says. “I moved into this very old building one year and seven months ago to live with my daughter, but there is too much damage.” Win is just one of the building’s 60 or so residents that wish to see the building, known affectionately by locals as the Balthazar Building, restored to its former glory. Instead, it stands as a Relic of Rangoon.

Built by Armenian merchants in 1905, the iconic structure in downtown Yangon stands today as one of the most important examples colonial-era architecture in Myanmar. Today, it’s more significantly an example of the eastern city’s rich architectural heritage which is vanishing in the wake of the development boom.

The scale is staggering—as much as 35 percent of downtown Yangon, or about 1,800 buildings, were destroyed between 1990 and 2011 to make way for new development projects, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). Established in 2012 by Harvard educated historian Thant Myint-U, the YHT is composed of prominent historians, architects and scholars who collectively lobby government bodies to preserve the city’s unique architectural legacy.

Since the reformist government took over in 2011, the country has experienced unprecedented growth in foreign direct investment and swelled to $9.6 billion in 2015-16, according to data released in April, up from just $329.6 million in 2009-10.

Ne Win’s government seized control of Myanmar in 1962. For most of the last six decades of autocratic rule, Yangon’s heritage buildings have been left to spoil and the Balthazar Building is no exception. An Edwardian red-brick façade, Italian marble art-deco tiles and intricate iron rails leading up the three floors of the building hint romantically at the prosperous past of the Balthazar Trading Company, but these glamorous architectural features are now covered with mold and cobwebs, its walls dilapidated. The enchanting birdcage elevator that rests on the ground floor has been defunct for nearly 40 years.

img-3To the left is downtown Yangon’s historic City Hall and to the right is the Sule Pagoda.

Most of Yangon’s colonial architecture was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the city, formerly known as Rangoon, was a major trade hub for the region and as such served as a major source of income for the ethnic Indians that inhabited it at the time. Downtown Yangon contains a wealth of heritage buildings including ancient Buddhist pagodas and monasteries, churches of various denominations, over a dozen mosques, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue and the country’s only Armenian church.

In fact, Rangoon was in the early 20th century the second biggest port in the world behind New York.

So well-known and fascinating was old Rangoon that it drew the likes of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived there as an honorary consul of Chile in 1927, and English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling.

According to conservationists, city officials are at a pivotal crossroads, where they can opt to showcase its heritage as an aspect of its attraction to the tourist trade, much like Malaysia’s Penang has, but will face relentless pressures and obstacles marked by new developments.

“It was a major center of international exchange. Famous writers and famous people lived here and wrote about it and so it has a legacy that is completely unique,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. The WMF, which has been advocating for at-risk landmarks over the last half century, added downtown Yangon to their prestigious World Monument Watch list in 2014.

“I also think in 40 or 50 years if that’s successful, Yangon will be the Charleston or the Boston of the Orient in terms of having utilized its history as part of its vision for itself in the future,” says Burnham.

With the downtown cityscape consisting mainly of inhabited older buildings in poor repair, the issue for the government has become striking a balance between preserving the city’s heritage and promoting modernization, says U Toe Aung, director of the urban planning division of the municipal Yangon City Development Committee. “Both of these have to be harmonized.”

Win Khaing, president of the Myanmar Engineering Society and vice-chairman of the Myanmar Engineering Council, says that while conserving Yangon’s past is essential, it also has dire infrastructure needs that includes providing adequate housing for its 5 million inhabitants.

“In terms of infrastructure, we are below par. We need a lot. What we have now is nothing,” says Khaing.

Many of the new projects slated to reinvent Yangon as a modern commercial town are being built on the cheap and without guidelines, endangering the neighboring historical sites and residents in the process. In particular, the area around the 2000 year old Shwedagon Pagoda is widely considered holy land that is supposed to remain free free of new development. Yet what constitutes this land is vague and large projects jutting up into the skyline overnight.

“We can still see improper developments going on and some of it is quite threatening, especially near Shwedagon [Pagoda]” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the YHT. “Unless you really care about the issue, or have insight about its potential impacts before you notice the damage happening, it could become irreversible.”

According to Lwin, only 189 buildings throughout all of Yangon are protected by the municipal government’s regulatory body, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), while urban planners do not have a concrete definition of what a heritage site is.

Add to that, there are other challenges to the preservation of Yangon’s heritage, as confusing leasing agreements bury revitalization plans of well-known public buildings in red tape, and confused ownership rules around private property prevent signatories from investing in the upkeep of their buildings.

Another issue, according to Rupert Mann, senior program officer at YHT, is that land owners will often intentionally allow for buildings to become dilapidated with the hopes of gaining government approval to partner with developers to demolish it and build more profitable structures.

img-3A resident of the Balthazar Building looks down the elevator shaft of the building from the top floor.

“As a result,” says Mann, “the land owner refuses to allow the upkeep of the building because the longer they can make the building look like it’s going to fall over the more they believe that they can convince the YCDC to allow them to demolish it. Meanwhile, the tenants are sitting in there. They are unable to pay for a new roof, or upgrade the façade or even fix broken utilities or stairs.”

While the most trafficked city in Myanmar, only an estimated average of 250,000 visitors pass through per year. This is in part due to its isolation, but equally due to its modest hotel infrastructure, another side effect of years of underinvestment. (Only 3000 of the 8000 hotel rooms are considered suitable for tourists.) Without the restoration of landmark properties alongside grandeur and mystique of its historic architecture to lure travelers from far flung locales to its storied cultural center, Yangon is at risk of a future identity crisis.

While the question of which new economy will emerge in the city over the next ten years is one many are trying to answer – cultural tourism, or an offshore colony of corporate offices – the answer will shape the skyline.

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RUSH THE HOUR

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n 2012, the French city of Rennes, with its fast growing metro area of 700,000 inhabitants, recognized it had lost control of its morning rush hour. Between 7:40 and 8:05 a.m. on the sole subway line, tension was mounting in the overcrowded train. Some riders were getting into physical scraps while others struggled to make an exit at their respective stops. Quips were increasingly made about the public transport functioning as a moving circus container, but there was a deeper unease at play.

By some mysterious force that same year, thousands of Rennes’ local university students had their schedules moved back by 15 minutes. One year later, the city’s notoriously crowded rush hour had thinned out by 17 percent. The unlikely puppeteers were a unit of social engineers called the Bureau des Temps, France’s well-oiled and omnipresent but often invisible Office of Time.

“When it’s crowded, the first reflex for public transportation operators would be to increase the number of subway carriages, not to go talk with the people who have the ability to control the rush,” says Evelyne Reeves, manager of Rennes’ Bureau de Temps.

Determined to find a more fundamental solution, Reeves spent a year meeting with “time producers” at universities, hospitals, local businesses and administrative offices. What Reeves and her colleagues in the bureau discovered was that by staggering the start-time of 18,000 university students at the local Université Rennes-2, they could engineer an effortless commute for the citizens of Rennes. And it worked.

The Bureaus des Temps are the clockmakers of contemporary urban life in France, juggling the diverse daily rhythms of French citizens with those of government and private institutions. Many initiatives have been put into motion in France over the past ten years, crafted from these studied attempts to enable its cities to function better.

Working with local firms, the city of Lyon has developed a virtual carpooling system for employees who live and work in the same area. In Paris, the city’s 20 arrondissements were once accustomed to Saturday morning wedding jams – it was the only window in which City Hall would be open. Now, the halls stay open through the afternoon in 9 arrondissements, transforming scrums of bored and anxious intendeds into blushing brides. In the French capital, where some swimming pools now stay open until 10 p.m., the sports clubs and associations who use them become the defacto employees for a few hours. In the southern Montpellier, the public library is now open on Sundays and until 9 p.m. during the week, holding students and avid readers in its aisles of narrative and out of the rush hour.

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With time becoming an increasingly valuable commodity around the world, in parallel with the greater use of new technologies, time management has become an essential concern, evidenced by vast supply of tips, lectures and books – something more capitalistic societies have been obsessed with since the 1980’s – but without the shrouded society of clockmakers to retool the gears of the city.

Through simple data collection, the bureaus work determinedly to identify the intricacies of their respective districts in order to improve the quality of time. They are governed by the belief that such is equal to quality of life, which in turn correlates to the virtues of a city and its ability to stay relevant and prosperous. “We produce surveys to understand how much time people are taking to get around the city, how they are using their leisure time,” says Lucie Verchère, manager of Espace des Temps in Lyon, where time and space are considered interconnected.

In the wake of World War II, the French went back to work and coined a famous expression anchored to the mundanity of their daily ritual: “Métro, Boulot, Dodo”, or “Subway, Work, Sleep.” It was this way until the city passed a law that would shorten the work week, resulting in leisure time as a new commodity. “It all started with the first Aubry law on the 35-hour working week and the new work-life balance it implied. We all knew it was going to change people’s needs and lifestyles,” says Verchère. But at first, there was a general perplexity around how to manage it.

One out of 8 French citizens now works on Sunday and more than 7 percent of employees have a night job. While the city dwellers enjoy living in a high-speed society, some pinpoint a social pressure to be time-efficient all day long.

“In the 19th century, the way people were dividing their time was easy – family, working in a field or in a factory and the church” says Reeves. But as life expectancy has increased by 31 years since then, French work time has been divided by 3 and leisure time multiplied by 4. “We’ve never had so much time for ourselves,” says Reeves, “yet we are living with a constant feeling of pressure.”

The Bureau des Temps originated in 1980’s Italy where a newly emerging feminist movement started challenging the burden of a double workday. Female breadwinners with children were caught between their responsibilities at work and at home. Recognizing the stakes, city offices organized committees to find solutions and ease the pressure of time by extending hours for city services.

In 1986, a communist deputy, Livia Turco, who would go on to become the Minister of Social Affairs, suggested the idea of “a right to time.” Since 2000, every Italian city with more than 30,000 residents has to feature a Progetto Tempi della Città, or a City Time project.

Similarly, some of the French offices started with a focus on gender equality to improve accessibility to city services such as childcare for women working unusual hours. In recent years, with gender equality inching towards equilibrium in France, the root focus has shifted to reflect a more vast and intricate society.

“We went interviewing all the [Paris] mayors with concrete questions. We did not want to philosophize,” Verchère explains of a 2002 project. After meetings with parents, childcare administrators and associations, the results were more nuanced than anticipated.

Thierry Halay, one of the project’s managers, is by trade an author of books on Paris’s history and neighborhoods, and co-founder of the Association of History and the 20th Archaeology Borough (AHAV). He recalls,“We realized that residents in East Paris – which includes a significant part of low-skilled jobs – would prefer day nurseries opening early in the morning, while residents in western Paris featuring more executives asked for late-afternoon shifts.”

But extending opening hours means longer working hours for employees, which in turn often leads to collective bargaining regarding wages and working conditions. And naturally, cities are inherently full of conflicting objectives and agendas.“You get neighbors in popular nightlife areas who complain more and more about the noise, you get bar owners who complain about legal rules of closing time and liquor-licensing laws and you get night workers concerned by their safety,” explains Thierry Charlois, the nightlife project manager of the city of Paris.

Verchère refers to the early years of 2004 and 2005 as a golden age for these Bureaus des Temps, acknowledging that “… afterwards, we realized that [the subject of] time in urban public policy is a much more cross-disciplinary issue. [So] we have become an innovation lab.”

After working on mobility and flexible working hours, the main focus of her work has been set on leading new projects such as “Gare Remix” which calls on transportation users to share clever ideas on what useful or fun things people could do while waiting for their train. Meanwhile, in Paris, the focus of the Bureau des Temps has shifted towards nightlife.

Verchère concludes, asserting the importance of these near mythical collections of time makers – “Digital technologies cannot solve all issues. Most people consider the fastest way to drop one child at school and another one at kindergarten during their morning commute without the help of an app.”

Artwork by Trash Riot.

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Freshkills Reconsidered

Will the transformation of an infamous landfill into a majestic park break the outdated stigma of Staten Island?

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n Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story set in New York City’s near future, Staten Island has become the city’s hippest neighborhood, the future’s version of mid-2000s Williamsburg. In this world, the Sri Lankan restaurants and dusty immigrant markets have been replaced by “The People’s Republic of Staten Island” full of “half man half wireless bohemians” in vintage hoodies, pushing state of the art strollers up Victory Boulevard past pricey Victorian houses. The story’s ending is no paradise–as violence engulfs the rest of the city, the main characters are forced to flee via the Staten Island ferry to the relative calm of St. George and Tompkinsville.

Shteyngart’s hipster dystopia may have farcical roots, but there are also signs his vision for Staten Island as the final frontier of New York City may not be so farfetched. On a course of reinventing itself, a critical catalyst is at work as the stigmatic Fresh Kills landfill undergoes a monumental transition into the majestic Freshkills Park.

The current adaptation of Freshkills from wasteland to wilds has brought far more than birdsong to the area; the new wetlands are acting as an important buffer between residential areas and the impact of future storm surges, while the park’s redevelopment is playing an essential role in the rebirth of a once forgotten borough.

If the name itself echoes some familiarity, it’s likely because Freshkills is formerly the site of one of the largest collections of waste in modern history. Receiving over 29,000 tons of trash daily during its height, the Fresh Kills Landfill (visible from space as the largest man-made structure on earth) received its last load of refuse in 2001; soon after the environmental rehabilitation began. Today the land is a burgeoning eden of urban escape housing a playground, a soccer field, and a rotating series of events and programs. When it’s completed in 2036, Freshkills will be 2.7 times the size of Central Park and contain a wetlands preserve, extensive bike and pedestrian paths, recreational facilities and large scale art installations.

RUINS took a private tour of the park and commissioned landscape photographer Sam Kweskin to document the environs from above, capturing the active transition in its most vulnerable stage. Fields and lakes have risen to consume what was once barren and inhospitable. Crests of grassy knolls offer views of the Statue of Liberty and the southern Manhattan skyline unspoiled by mega-high rises and noise pollution, hinting at the promise of a nature-bound borough.

The park’s development is taking place as Staten Island cultivates more attractive draws for visitors and new inhabitants. With Manhattan’s real estate becoming increasingly inaccessible, and buzzy outer boroughs like Brooklyn sharing in the trend of housing shortages and escalating rents, Staten Island is suddenly being looked at as a viable if not highly compelling destination for early adopters of the next great migration.

To give context to its history, the Fresh Kills landfill was conceptualized in 1947 by the the powerful and polarizing master city planner Robert Moses to serve as a temporary solution to Manhattan’s waste dilemma. Soon after, New York City’s population began to boom beyond expectation and the need for a slightly distant dumping ground became fixed, sticking the borough with a stigma it has since worked hard to distance itself from.

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obin Nagle is the New York Department of Sanitation’s anthropologist in residence. To research her book Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, Nagle actually worked as garbage woman in order to understand the culture of waste disposal and stigma attached to it. In her resulting essay “To Love a Landfill”, she connects the area’s origins from wetlands to landfill, to a darkly sacred space that contains much of the debris and remains from the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Landfills are a common resource, Nagle argues, and the act of extending the shoreline with trash is a technique that has been used to grow New York City for centuries, creating areas that benefit the collective good.

“In Manhattan, below City Hall,” she writes, “33 per cent of the land is built on street sweepings, ashes, garbage, ballast from ships, dirt and rubble from excavated building sites, and other forms of solid waste dumped along the shore.” Considering that roughly 20 percent of contemporary Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx is landfill, old perceptions of Fresh Kills’ linger begin to feel a little less justified.

Nagle describes the area as an early twentieth century immigrant utopia: “Old women roamed the marshes harvesting herbs, wild flowers, grapes for jelly, and watercress. Italians came for mushrooms and mud shrimp. In the fall, truck farmers harvested salt hay with scythes, while Jewish elders and rabbis cut carefully chosen willow twigs for Succoth.” Native American artifacts found in Fresh Kills have been dated to 10,000 years.

Constructed on top of an impermeable cap laid in 1997 and aided by the area’s natural clay liner—whose powerful organic sealant against contamination first attracted Moses to the site—Freshkills is being monitored by government agencies ranging from the EPA and the DEC to the New York City Parks Department, who conduct frequent testing of its soil and water. This liner also provides a crucial hydraulic barrier between the trash below and wildlife above, preventing water from flowing to the waste and promoting storage and drainage of water above. This critical layer also prevents noxious gases from entering the atmosphere.

Also in place is a complex system for collecting and controlling the gas emissions from the subterranean level of trash via a network of wells, connected by pipes below the surface. Put bluntly, these pipes suck the gas up through a vacuum–dotting the verdant landscape like periscopes. Once harvested, the methane is either burned or turned into renewable energy and sold to National Grid, helping to power the area and providing a unique source of revenue.

Through studies conducted by the Parks Department, it’s been proven that “gas emissions, non–methane organic compounds (NMOCs) and other hazardous pollutants are reduced by almost 100%. In addition to this active gas collection and recovery system, a… safety system is in place to prevent the migration of gas off–site.” While it will be at least thirty years before the site’s gas dissipates, the Department of Environmental Conservation has established that no area would be open to the public before it was deemed safe.

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he island itself has never ceased to attract urban explorers, history buffs and adventurous foodies. Urban photographer Nathan Kensinger has been documenting New York’s industrial and waterfront neighborhoods for decades. He had first taken an interest in Staten Island’s development in 2006. “I was drawn to the island because of its many historic sites,” says Kensinger, one of the few to capture Staten Island’s disappearing history as wartime infirmary and sailor retirement community. He explains, “Freshkills Park will be an interesting new addition. It’s part of a whole system of new parks that the city is creating in post-industrial areas as it tries to re-establish waterfront access for citizens. Brooklyn Bridge Park was created on top of a demolished system of waterfront shipping warehouses.”

Freshkills program manager Mariel Villeré adds, “I like to compare it to going out to Dia: Beacon but on your MetroCard.” It’s also drawn speculative comparisons to the Storm King art center, which draws hordes of visitors each summer. Villeré has also come to appreciate some of the things that make Staten Island unique—like the Sri Lankan restaurants that punctuate communities in Tompkinsville and Stapleton, as well as culture treasures like Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, and Crimson Beach—the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in New York City.

But is it realistic to expect the borough-hopping trendsetters to put Staten Island in their sight lines?

“I love my borough and am quite happy here, but I understand all too well about the inflating prices in this city,” says Brooklyn DJ and musician Lauren Flax, who spins at some of the most elite clubs internationally and has collaborated with Sia, Miike Snow and Tricky. “I would absolutely work on something music related on Staten Island. I’ll back anything that can bring and maintain creativity–because what is New York City without its art, its music, its culture? If things were like this when I first moved here 13 years ago, I may not have survived.” The “things” Flax is referring to are the staggering rent prices that have led to an exodus of creatives from a city that has long been regarded a world class mecca of artistic zeitgeist. Priced out of the more popular boroughs, Staten Island is well positioned to become a new enclave for creatives and young professionals.

Ground has broken to develop the waterfront along the St. George area, including the 630 ft. tall New York Wheel which is earmarked to become a world class attraction for New York City. (It shares a lead engineer with the London Eye). Further south on the Stapleton waterfront, Urby – a forward-thinking mixed use residential development – just opened its doors on over 900 modern units. Architected by Concrete, the cutting edge Dutch design firm, it’s a dense and stylish block of smartly designed, space efficient apartments and proprietor-driven retail spaces. The residents benefit from built in perks intended to connect the new transplants to the uniqueness of the landscape itself: free bicycles to roam the rambling island, an expansive urban garden, a swimming pool and integration with the waterfront esplanade.

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A communal coffee shop at Urby Staten Island (operated by Coffeed) serves as an intersection for residents and the local community.

These new developments are engaging arts and farmer communities already simmering on the island, such as the Snug Harbor Arts Association, Lumen, and Maker Space—a creativity incubator run and founded by local and commuter artists.

“I mean, anything stands a chance,” says party promoter and life-long New Yorker Nicky Digital. “10 years ago who would have ever thought people would be gentrifying Bedstuy and Bushwick?” Asked if the park’s site as a former landfill would dissuade him, Digital responds, “I think that’s a great use of the land.”

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he park also suggests a more promising boon to its surrounding residential areas than other dumping ground adaptations throughout the five boroughs; visionary landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations (lauded for The High Line) has been commissioned to carry out the design and cultivation of the vast park. Meanwhile, the high levels of eco-maintenance the grounds undergo by local officials could make it one of the cleanest and safest areas in the city.

By contrast, popular Brooklyn areas like Greenpoint and the Gowanus Canal still languish on government lists as toxic Superfund sites with frequent warnings about looming “toxic plumes” and the need for vapor testing in residential homes. Interestingly, this has done very little to stunt the growth of either neighborhood as attractive housing and nightlife destinations.

As Nagle points out, “No one can heal land that has been claimed for a landfill; Fresh Kills will never again be the salt marsh that it was before 1948.” Still, she and many others believe we can fashion from the framework of the landfill another kind of commons; a public space that combines the best of what we as a society and culture have to offer while acknowledging that the future of a post-industrial coastal city is intimately tied to environmental stewardship and adaptive reuse.

While the culmination of Staten Island’s evolution towards becoming New York City’s next important destination might be a slow burn, it appears the wick has already been lit.

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VENUS AND THE MOON’S Albatross

RUINS PRESENTS A HAUNTING NEW MUSICAL COLLABORATION FROM RAIN PHOENIX AND FRALLY HYNES, FEATURING RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, CHRIS STILLS, AND A UNIQUELY FRENCH TWIST.

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enus and the Moon’s Frally Hynes and Rain Phoenix are two prolific singer-songwriters who have no penchant for idle hands, and thrive in spartan settings. Their title track “Albatross” was composed in an empty house on Mulholland Drive. The minimalist Katie Davison-directed video – exclusive to RUINS – was shot in a raw industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. The piece echoes of the intertwinement of emotional engagement, both light and burdensome, often entangled and evolving.

Venus and the Moon was born at a birthday party when, upon meeting, a creative spark born of mutual recognition was ignited between Hynes, who grew up in Australia, and Phoenix, whose childhood harkened back to Venezuela. They began to compose other-worldly siren-like harmonies together, laying down the tracks for “Albatross” and “Hungry Ghost” before embarking on an international tour with Cat Power.

While Phoenix has been performing on notable stages since childhood (at six, she performed with Crosby, Stills and Nash at the Hollywood Bowl), Hynes had a quieter evolution as a pianist and poet, having lived between Nashville and Los Angeles, and recorded her first album in 2010.

With both singers recognizing the bonds they share with their brothers, fathers and past and present paramours, the duo made a conscious decision to expand upon the feminine origin of the band’s concept to create a new album honoring the great men in their life.  Phoenix produced the upcoming album Brother, Son (July 2016) and recorded it on her late brother River’s 4-track, bringing her musical process full circle. The new album will be released in July.

See Venus and the Moon live in Los Angeles at the Hotel Cafe on July 13th, and at the Bootleg Theater on June 15th.

Arne Svenson

“I am much more interested in the way light illuminates the turn of an arm or the back of a head, conveying an infinity of possible situations and emotions, than I am of capturing a face which, in all probability, when confronted with a camera will be shrouded in well-practiced, derivative expressions.”

Despite the public fervor whipped up over Arne Svenson’s telescopic intrusions in his watershed series The Neighbors, the photographer is certain that his images were never intended to be about surveillance—and the courts of New York agreed, exonerating him twice from claims of privacy invasion. Svenson argues that his act of non-consensually photographing his neighbors from windows was instead intended to capture the nuances of motion.

The right to photograph people in public has long been established legally. It’s the cornerstone for a surveillance regime that blankets practically every corner of our cities and leads to the adoption of new technologies like police drone surveillance. Many artists, Trevor Paglen for example, are trying to engage directly with the surveillance state and questioning its power and challenging its basis. But how does Svenson see his place among these artists? We reached out to Svenson in New York to try and explain this disconnect between how he sees his art and how the greater public might see it.

RUINS: We’ve seen your work labeled as “surveillance art,” a medium that Andy Warhol helped to popularize and which has historically been interested in the idea of privacy, national security issues, and the act of secretly documenting something. Your work, despite the mechanical similarities, seems to focus far more on gestures and moments rather than the political underpinnings around the work’s production. What do you think of this label and how it applies to you?
SVENSON: Given the nature of the work, I think it inappropriate: surveillance, and the topical issues surrounding it, was the furthest thing from my mind when I began shooting for The Neighbors project. My intent was to record the nuances of motion, or lack thereof, which reveal who we are, the tiny scenarios and gestures that define our humanness. Vignettes of quietude were what I was really searching for—those times when we are drained of action and contemplation becomes a visible, recordable event. I felt that the only way to capture these small ripples of emotion were if the subject was unaware of being photographed, hence my turning the camera to the building across from my studio.

Also, regarding the surveillance label: Throughout the series I was stringent in not revealing the identities of the subjects because to do so would have severely restricted the narrative possibilities inherent in the photographs. I am much more interested in the way light illuminates the turn of an arm or the back of a head, conveying an infinity of possible situations and emotions, than I am of capturing a face which, in all probability, when confronted with a camera will be shrouded in well-practiced, derivative expressions.

Shooting through windows gives the images a “painterly presence” that you seem to have pushed even farther with Workers. What do these overt connections between your images and academic painting mean to you?
I’ve long been interested in melding thematic, stylistic and illusionary aspects of painting and photography, but when I started shooting The Neighbors I had no idea that any such connections would surface. It wasn’t until I looked at the initial image playbacks that I realized the mullions of the windows created a Mondrian-like structure within which discrete visual narratives appeared. And when we printed the work, it became apparent that the dirt on the windows was refracting the light in such a way as to give a painterly cast over the photographs. After viewing these phenomena I started seeing specific paintings as I shot and certain unconscious memories of historical work by artists such as Hopper and Vermeer seemingly guided my eye.

With The Workers series I actively courted the painting reference by not only shooting through light-distorting dirty windows again, but by formatting the images as ovals, referencing the 17th century Dutch portrait paintings of Frans Hals, among others. I used the oval format as a framing device to signify a window but also to confer a class status not usually afforded those that work with their hands.

So where we experienced the subjects in The Neighbors at leisure in their luxury apartments, here we see the worker’s hands, elbows, backs and shoulders concentrating on the task at hand—building more palaces in the sky.

Will you continue to work in a similar vein or do something different —what’s next?
Currently I’m working on The Birds, a series I photographed in Scandinavia earlier this year. Though unpopulated by people, it is a further exploration of that amorphous region between painting and photography.

Sam Kweskin

“Everything we build we’ve taken from nature. The ideas, the materials, the way things feel and look. Urban environments are human, but all the ideas and all the concepts come from nature, so there’s a direct correlation between the two.”

Nomadic environmental photographer Sam Kweskin often looks for the intersections between nature and the built environment, both capturing elegant shots of cities and machinery, while subtly highlighting where man is encroaching upon the natural world. He alternates between the macro and the micro, capturing much of his work from an aerial angle, but also observing urban life from a distance, and infrastructure from so close the naked eye fails to grasp the identity of a larger iconic site.

RUINS: Your personal work has a tremendous sense of scale, and a unique graphic quality to it. What led you to aerials and landscapes, and drew you into that graphic approach to the aesthetic?
KWESKIN: When you get up in the air, it really sets the scale, and sets the tone for how big we are in the grand scheme of things. I try to find those places where nature and man are coming together.

How much planning do you put into your shoots in advance, versus how much of it is an instinctive, on-the-fly kind of thing?
It’s a combination of both. I start with an idea of an area, and then it becomes an exploration. In the past, it was very much just—get in the car— or I would just be on a plane and find somewhere new, just kind of stuck with wherever you’re kind of driving through. Now, more and more you can use Google Earth, you can get a little more planned, and be more intentional with what you’re doing. I’d say for the most part it’s kind of random exploration, like on the L.A. River series. I definitely had intentions I was exploring, and the river was my entry point—same with the Corn series.

How do you relate to the urban environment in your work?
In a city environment, I guess it’s a bit more of trying to see the moment before it happens. It becomes a game of trying to predict the future, or lining your self up and trying to get just that right moment.

What do urban environments have in common with nature, having shot both prolifically?
You find similar forms. The urban environment’s what we’ve organized, then you get out to nature and nature’s organized everything. Everything we build we’ve taken from nature. The ideas, the materials, the way things feel and look. Urban environments are human, but all the ideas and all the concepts come from nature, so there’s a direct correlation between the two.

What city has left the deepest impression on you?
Something about Paris has always really resonated. It’s so organized, and it’s so refined, and it’s such a contrast to Los Angeles, where I grew up. It has similar light to Los Angeles in a weird way, but something about the organization and refinement out there is really interesting. There’s something about the fact that most all of the buildings are at one height that really just gives you a sense of horizon that you get in nature, but you rarely get in urban environments. You are able to see this mass of humanity, but then see really far at the same time, just by getting slightly elevated of a view. The clouds seem to roll in more often than not. You get such a variety of light.

How might you imagine the future of cities from above? What do you imagine Paris being like in like, 2050? How will that change the information in the photograph?
It’s kind of stating the obvious, but as the sprawl continues, there’s going to be more and more opportunities for people like myself to find those interactions between the raw nature and where mankind is approaching and taking over.

What do you imagine in the actual infrastructure, and technology, and architecture of the cities, how that will change in the course of the next 35 years?
Inevitably, we’re going up, both physically with the buildings, and more and more with our travel. Even just from the time I started doing aerial stuff, 10 plus years ago, and now, look at drones. Not everyone has the ability to have that perspective, and it’s becoming more and more of a normal perspective for people to experience. I think instead of being on the XY axis, we’re going to have third dimension up there. We’re going to be flying around cars in the not so distant future.

What is the next step for your work?
I’m going to be getting into more work about consumption, and waste. As I’ve seen these cities grow and push further and further into nature, and you see how much stuff is being used. I think we need to find a more harmonious way to interact, and to live, and to consume. Fresh Kills that we shot is an example where you just had these huge lots of space that are just filled with all of our waste. It’s interesting to find a way to reuse that space and turn it into something pretty again. We also really, really need to figure out a way not to be putting that much stuff back into the ground. I don’t want to feel like I was on this planet, and just consumed a bunch of stuff, and just lived a very selfish life.

What struck you the most about shooting Fresh Kills?
I was surprised how big it was, the scale of it was pretty amazing. It was a little haunting to think about all the 9/11 debris in there. I was thinking about some of those ghosts.

Is there anyone who influenced your work, or influenced your decisions to go into photography?
I would say Edward Burtynsky, the contemporary photographer, was definitely influential. I saw his first show about 15 years ago. There is a craftsmanship in his imagery and a beauty, then there’s a thought-provoking side which is very masterful. Also, the photographer Harry Callahan. He was a working class guy from the Midwest that did amazing work shooting the streets of Chicago and the natural environments of the surrounding area. His playfulness with light, form, and texture play heavily in my work. Over 10 years ago I saw a show of his Nickel Tailings series from Canada and it blew my mind. To make work that beautiful, and to inform the public of the effects of our so called progress on the planet in such a way, is a very powerful combination to me.

caged-pillows-2

The Caged Pillows

RUINS PRESENTS A FULLY LOADED TECHNICOLOR DREAMSCAPE IN THIS ORIGINAL ANIMATION FROM GALEN PEHRSON, FEATURING JENA MALONE, ROSE McGOWAN, GEMMA WARD AND JAMES FRANCO, WHILE SOUNDTRACK FEATURES MUSIC BY DAFT PUNK, DEATH GRIPS, FUTURE ISLANDS AND DEVENDRA BANHART.

F

or our launch we commissioned director Galen Pehrson to create an exclusive hand-drawn animation piece that merges art and entertainment, and shatters the mold of traditional short formats. The resulting Caged Pillows is a pioneering medium that speaks to a highly interactive world where media and human contact are opposing forces, and, in turn, is a cornerstone piece for the tenets of Ruins itself—artistically and thematically.

“On the surface, The Caged Pillows is a story about the way we’ve come to communicate, removing ourselves from human touch, alone but together,” explains Pehrson, who was raised in the woods and off the grid in Nevada City, CA. “Screens feed us standards—from the media, from each other—and project images that define what success, happiness, and beauty look like.”

The psychedelic narrative follows the paths of Ediza (voiced by Jena Malone), a nocturnal teenage cat who lives in the suburbs, and Monday (Rose McGowan), a glamorous city-dwelling actress duck who represents the lifestyle of your dreams—James Franco lends his talents as a boilerplate upbeat talk-show host, while Gemma Ward is the siren song of a hypnotic late night commercial. Interwoven with Pehrson’s compelling imagery throughout is a soundtrack featuring music by Daft Punk, Death Grips, Future Islands, and Devendra Banhart.

The work was also crafted to be an interactive piece that extends beyond the video itself—it invites the audience to connect and contribute to the World of The Caged Pillows across social media and a unique 1-844-ASTRAL LOANS hotline, which launched with the exclusive release of “Trash” by Death Grips.

“As the director, I don’t offer the answers,” says Pehrson. “Instead I abstractly approach the topic as a media-oriented Guernica; I present the topics, characterize the subjects, and let the viewer create their own internal dialogue.”

5-cities-cutout-2_home

RIO | OSLO | NEW YORK CITY | JUBA| REYJKAVIK

To Protect and Serve has varying definitions across a global stage. Here, a look at excessive force through the lens of five cities.

Rio De Janeiro

In 2015, an NGO that monitors police violence found that the Brazilian police force kills an average of six people a day. Amidst many years of soaring crime rates, Rio De Janeiro’s police in particular have long been criticized for their vigilante-style “pacification” programs within the city’s favelas (slum neighborhoods). On the eve of 2014’s soccer World Cup, which cost the Brazilian government $15 billion including security, police arrived with armed rifles in Pavao-Pavaozinho in an attempt to clear out the drug traffickers and armed gangs who control much of the neighborhood. The body of a 26-year-old dancer, Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, was discovered during the process, and amidst claims he was beaten to death by police, deadly protests and fires broke out. Ahead of the Summer Olympics in Rio this August—costs similarly projected at $15 billion—police raids and pacification units have stepped up armed security in more than 40 of the city’s favelas.

Oslo

Norway is one of the few European countries where the police are not routinely armed, but in November 2014 they were ordered to carry firearms at all times. The experiment resulted from a threat assessment predicting that a terrorist attack was likely to happen within the next year. With the threat deemed to be over, they were permanently disarmed in February, and now officers in Oslo have returned to carrying weapons in their patrol cars. From 2002 to 2010, the most shots fired by Norwegian police in one year was six, and the most deaths from police shootings during the eight-year period was two. Jørn Schjelderup, deputy chief of police at the Norwegian Police Directorate, credited Norway’s high levels of police training for their officer’s restraint when handling weapons.

New York City

In 1993, after a rising number of deaths in police custody from “traumatic asphyxia,” the NYPD issued an order banning the use of chokeholds. “We are in the business of protecting life, not taking it,” Chief John F. Timoney said at the time. A year after the ban Anthony Baez, a 29-year-old security guard, was choked to death in the Bronx by an officer attempting to arrest him. Baez had been playing football outside his mother’s house when a stray pass had landed on the officer’s car. More recently, in 2014, Eric Garner died after an officer used the banned restraining maneuver while trying to arrest him for selling illegal cigarettes. The videotaped arrest shows the 43-year-old lying facedown on the street audibly gasping, “I can’t breathe.”

Juba

Despite gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011, the hopeful Republic of South Sudan swiftly plunged into civil war and widespread corruption, right down to its poorly paid, ill-trained police force. As with most of the world’s conflict zones, violence against women is rarely considered a crime and largely goes unreported, and religious mores are just another layer of bias. “Woman is inferior to man—this isn’t just our tradition, it is written in the book of God,” explained a local officer from the capital Juba. The Israeli NGO IsraAid program is currently training local officers to deal more sensitively with victims of gender-based violence. According to Angelo Ingi, the NGO’s protection program manager, in the year since the project began there has been a significant increase in hospitals and social workers reporting rape and domestic violence cases to the police.

Reykjavik

In December 2013, a man with a history of mental illness was shot and killed by Reykjavik police after he opened fire on them during a raid in his apartment building. It was Iceland’s first death at the hands of police and it set off a bout of national grieving. (The average number of people fatally shot by U.S. police in 2015 was estimated to be at least 2.8 per day.) The police chief apologized and offered condolences to the victim’s family. Many believe that the main reason for Iceland’s low violent-crime rate is social equality.