Piece 5

Modern anthropogenic climate change, chronic erosion and human pollution in the atmosphere have forced many outcomes. One of which is Hawaii’s response to how urban and regional developers intend to tackle island sustainability through architecture.

I continued my journey to Kalapana, eager to observe the highly specific living circumstances embraced by its community. Kalapana is located on the south rift of the island, where deadly volcanic eruptions and irrepressible lava flows, travelling from Mauna Loa directly towards the ocean, have buried entire towns under 50ft layers of thick, black lava – erasing history in the process. The apocalyptic landscape is visibly distinct, but not unusual from others on the island. Punctuated by singular homes built upon cooled lava, creating unique living conditions for a brave and private few.

Given its deadly history and contrasting backdrop, there is an obvious urge to romanticise the landscape. Analogue felt like an acceptable vocabulary to implement at this time, given its commonality with the layered surface, structural weakness and irreversible change drawn from the atmosphere. However, when I chose to visit this site I had hoped to come back to the questions that I was preoccupied with in Waimea. Keen to explore Kalapana as an anthropogenic source, I considered three architectural questions: How had Kalapana continued to maintain itself as an experimental topography? Could living on, what some might consider, ruined land, in a high level lava zone bring you closer to a true sense of sustainability? What building techniques, if the residents had any, are used to protect and preserve homes from extreme environmental conditions? I considered all of these questions as constituent components in my approach to photographing the site.

As I moved rapidly around the site, I noticed half buried cars and the remnants of housing structures, symbolic of 1940-60s dystopian landscape aesthetics and coincidental echoes with dystopian fiction such as Pixar animation Wall-E. Arguably holding onto an element of fear and alienation through their use of vernacular building techniques, most residents have chosen to live ‘off the grid’ with no connection to electricity, water services or plumbing infrastructure. This private community engages in what Raymond Williams describes as “a western cultural double – think at once basking in the narrative of progress while simultaneously hoping for a return to simpler times”. By this, I believe residents endure a long process of trial and error living upon the lava with the reward of “simpler times” and a strong affinity with the natural landscape. However, given the constant threat of “a return to brutality”, in this instance being natural catastrophe or mass produced architecture, their quality of life is constantly characterised by examples of dystopia [10].

Prior to my trip, I researched documentaries and news reports about the conflicted relationship between Kalapana’s reclusive neighbourhood and curious tourists, which the site inevitably attracts. In doing so, I found that Hawaii and other natural disaster sites have become a notably recurrent theme in contemporary architectural practice, with many architects, “eager to discover forbidden land” [11]. Kalapana became the recent focus of architects at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. In a recent publication, Bartlett graduates proposed a building that would function as a compromising ground between the two communities. Placing local topography at the core, the building served two functions: firstly, an evacuation centre for all and secondly, an observatory tower for visitors during the day. They proposed that the buildings structural core would be made from concrete and built according to the contours of the coastline. Providing residents and visitors evacuated to the tower protection against the extreme heat of lava, whilst also reinforcing the importance of the buildings ability to blend into the landscape.

The Bartlett’s study has a clear emphasis on the ground, illustrating what architectural historian, Andreas Ruby describes as “inflated ground”. She explains, “instead of depositing the program as an object on the ground…it is injected like liquid”. With this satisfying description in mind, I turned my focus towards the ground space and the depth and surface of its coastal topography [11]. I photographed homes built on and sunk into the coastline with curiosity rather than ridicule, trying to tenderly capture the vernacular architecture built into the surface with its various climatic modifications.


Piece 6

For my final days on the island, I stayed anxiously in Pahoa, in an accommodation located five miles from the notorious Hotspot. I trekked along the coastline during the day, taking advantage of the humidity and volcanic atmosphere to document luxury coastal estates. I observed artificially landscaped properties designed to offer residents tranquillity and privacy, described in Dezeen as “elevated versions of the islands laid back style, driven by restraint and understatement while designed for tropical liveability” [12]. In retrospect, Kalapana and the diversity of its neighbouring towns present an interesting depiction of resource politics. Material use in a location that has to ship its construction materials half way across the Pacific is a concern for most building projects on the island. For example, shipped corrugated metal cladding is a common material used throughout Hawaii and has proliferated through most islands already experiencing the effects of global warming. Though often regarded as cheap and temporary, this material can be seen as an expression of endurance and economic restraint. In contrast to this example, the economic reality of some coastal homeowners gives them the ability to invest in high performance technology and purposely engineered materials to provide protection from natural disaster. The architecture built by the “individualistic ethos of entrepreneurial capitalism” [13] from an elite minority, seeks to protect human infrastructure against external factors, but is arguably counterproductive in our anthropogenic age.

Successfully nestled into the dry land, some properties in Pahoa seemed invisible from a distance. However, what is clearly visible were the large panels of solar controlled glass that divide the interior and exterior of these dwellings. I initially thought of glass as a fragile component in the context of an island experiencing intensified atmospheric change. However, as I continued my study I found that the use of glass, for these buildings, is utilized to achieve climate and acoustic control from humidity and high winds. The large glass facades act as key regulators for achieving an optimal homeostatic condition, in contrast to the metal cladding more commonly used in island practice. Loud vibrations from heavy rainfall and humidity retention deem this material as inefficient, but for most it is comprehensively suitable for their essential activities, as many prefer to spend large amounts of time living outside. In island context, the economic superiority associated with using glass provides an environment that nurtures a human desire for isolation whilst being deceptively open and transparent. As the building can only be experienced in solitude this use of engineered glass creates the feeling of exemption from the effects of global warming. This way of inhabiting the landscape is representative of large-scale alienation from familiar native practices and local solidarity though somehow interacts with the notion of scenery in climate controlled comfort. Reminding me of Robert Smithson’s explanation of architecture and its relationship to economics, “it seems that architects built in an isolated, self-contained, a historical way. They never seem to allow for any kind of relationship outside their grand plan”[14].


Piece 7 – In a wider context

Some locals feel it’s incumbent on us all to adapt in order to minimise the negative impacts of global warming. Within the realm of adaptation, architecture is currently at the forefront of this debate. Rising sea levels have led to shoreline erosion, which in turn threatens the infrastructure built along the coastline throughout the (Hawaii) islands. Homes along the coastline regularly experience the effects of hurricane storm surges, tsunamis and large ocean swells. During these events, countless waves crash onto the beaches and propagate across vegetation before finally moving into and damaging ground floor homes. In many neighbourhoods, I observed the construction of new homes, raised from the ground on concrete footings, built for the anticipation of a swell event. Water can effectively run under the home with the added benefit of creating regular airflow to cool the house. As a result, coastal effects become an essentially minor event in a family’s personal economic scenario.

Historically sea level rise has led to the construction of sea walls, built to stabilise shorelines whilst protecting and maintaining the value of private property. I discovered that this has led to significant sandy beach loss at an average rate of approximately one foot per year. Hawaiian beaches are subject to a very specific geological condition whereby if the sandy beach is allowed to erode is will continue to grow.

For many years the University of Hawaii has been working on proposals to acquire large areas of beachfront land. Their intention is to remove and relocate properties and highways in order to restore the natural process of erosion needed to achieve beach growth. However, this is an almost impossible task due to this land being occupied by some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Although their research empirically shows beaches in Hawaii are in a state of chronic erosion and sea levels are continually rising, suggested changes such as this are not seen as a priority to the state. Instead, governing bodies apply a critical, short-term, crisis mode approach which typically results in the construction of sea wall defences and temporary fixes to infrastructure; fixing potholes and repaving roads, as opposed to rerouting and withdrawing from the ocean.

Before flying back to Honolulu, I had to return what had become my most valued object throughout this journey, my gas guzzling jeep. Rising sea level effects on beach loss are deceptively slow and subtle in comparison to the immediate and visible aggregate of rust and corrosion virally affecting transportation on the island. Consistently and undoubtedly, salt water is now rising up through potholes, leaking into transportation corridors resulting in deep pools of ocean water on the intersections. Cars are considered to be a vital lifeline to some and therefore this visible and tangible shift in Hawaii’s most valued modern-day object presently undermines their economic future.


Piece 8 – Afterthoughts with a few points of refinement

By making this brief submission I hoped to essentialise the infrastructure throughout Hawaii Island as a means to comprehend architecture in the Anthropocene. The sites visited describe an increasingly unstable ground and map out vessels for descriptive language and critical analysis that align with questions regarding building and the politics of making an environment. From this short encounter it’s clear to me that further distinctions and comparisons between each of the sites visited can be made to address architecture as a “forceful geological agent” [15].

My rapid approach and low-profile infiltration belongs to a tradition of photography that stretches as far back as Andre Breton’s photographic expeditions in 1920s Paris and has been commonly implemented by contemporary photographers ever since. Travelling across urban and national sites I made short, rapid impressions with restricted time for focusing. This spatial approach was implemented to record all technical irregularities that occur throughout the analogue process when exposed to harsh atmospheric fluctuations such as extreme humidity. Due to the itinerary like nature of the trip, I found value in analogue’s limited spatial information density, in contrast to the extreme sharpness of digital technology.

Dedicating time to reading, writing and thinking about architecture has been hugely beneficial to my practice. Engaging with this process has redirected my interests, mobilised my efforts to collaborate, open up dialogues with architects, engineers and other practitioners and further encouraged me to study Architectural History at master’s level. Receiving this funding has had a profound effect on my production and helped me to recognise the valuable ritual of physically going to see something and to comprehend and contextualise my work through retrospective writing. Travelling to and across a foreign territory has reinstated my drive to capture an image and further solidified my interests in the relationship between human infrastructure and the natural environment. The nature of the trip helped me to pull away from where I feel comfortable and to begin to make images that don’t always have a system or technical value. After writing this report, I have found value in the process of making a small publication with the images I made in Hawaii, as well as before and after, as a way of connecting my work through its surface.

The peripatetic nature of photography and drive shown by an increasing community of practitioners that move from site to site continues to shape the effects, risks and rewards of international travel. Throughout the trajectory of this process I became aware and necessarily critical of the contradictions associated with occupying an exotic locale for a brief period of time. This notion underscores the role of an artist interacting with a system that they can neither see nor understand and queries their commitment to interact and contextualise issues within a broader global context. Adopting the strategy of international travel in an artist’s practice can result in inconsistencies of site and centre, and in some cases an unbalanced cross-cultural exchange.

On the other hand, changing one’s environment can often initiate a rupture, shift or movement in the continuity of thinking in your practice. With critical attention paid to inherent preconceptions and the influence this can have on your work, the movement of travel can be used to great effect. Visiting and developing a better understanding of existing regions, helped to recharge my practice and contextualise issues that were pertinent to my ongoing study of the Anthropocene. My experience therefore owes a lot to Hawaii’s landscape and the funding I received from a-n Artist Information Company. I doubt I would have chosen to investigate current contemporary discourse focused around architecture and its intrinsic relationship in the Anthropocene in a less palpable landscape.


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