Rightfulness of Preservation

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Rightfulness and Two Questions

In many case of ‘preservation’ in the city, there are controversies of the application of ‘rightfulness’ as fundamental condition required for the attitude towards preservation, as well as its implementation. As such, the ‘rightfulness’ needs to be answered by many ‘questions’, for example, “what can be preserved?”, “why it needs to be preserved?” and “how it should be preserved?”.

However, in order to understand the ‘rightfulness’, we need to identify the nature of those questions. One of the ways is by categorizing them into two broad types. Some related to ‘the questions about meanings’ (for example, “What is the preservation?” and “Why do we preserve things?”). The others related to ‘the questions about values of instrument and purpose’ (for example, “What is the purpose of preservation?” and “What benefit can be expected by preservation?”).[1]

In the ‘questions about meanings’, we can recognize diverse types of question asked in order to construct a common vision of a city. For example, in the context of urban (re)development, people will ask about the meaning of ‘preservation’ based on their own experiences and interpretations of the history of the built environment. However, in reality, the ‘questions about values of instrument and purpose’ are more often asked. It is practical. And it seems to represent the desire of the ‘majority’ in the society who shares similar identity and interest. Nevertheless, the bases of such questions are opportunistic, i.e. how much contribution and benefit that preservation can give to the ‘majority’.

When historical buildings and/or urban spaces are recognized as social resources by the public, memories and experiences are celebrated nostalgically in order to reinforce the ‘rightfulness’ of the majority’s identity. At the same time, the ‘rightfulness’ will also be recognized as a tool to generate benefits for the ‘majority’. Preserved landmarks/landscapes, and its nostalgic and glorious images, will create opportunity to (re)develop its surrounding areas, while expecting new and massive influx of people and money from outside the area. The answer for the ‘questions about values of instrument and/or purpose’ in urban preservation acts as medium that directly connects the majority’s identity and their economic activity. Yet, such premise does not considering to find an alternative definition and meaning of preservation. As such, the notion of the ‘right preservation’ today can be understood as a realization of ‘theme-parked identity’. However, we must imagine and discuss possibilities of alternative concept of the ‘rightfulness’ in urban preservation.

Some references should be introduced. One example is the redevelopment of shop-houses area in Chinatown in Singapore that re-applies colorful paintings on building facade and constructing huge weatherproof canopies in between buildings. For Chinese descent citizens who are the actual majority of Singapore society, such attitude is accepted as the ‘right one’ that reinforces majority’s identity and brings economic advantages. This also supported by tourists as global consumers. However, for minorities who are not sharing same background and behavior, such preservation project seems to propose ‘empty urban space’ where none of them able to project their identity onto it. Another example of the ‘right’ preservation could be found in small local cities in Japan. In order to revitalize economically depressed city, an idea of “Retro-Town Program”[2] is applied into the planning strategies of redevelopment project. The effort to revive urban environment is supported by ‘rightfulness’ for majority, but minorities, such as both foreign and domestic migrants and recent generations, perceive difficulties to maintain and sustain this ‘someone else’s history’. In fact, they are the ‘prisoners of unreal past’.

Through understanding above references, we can recognize a similarity between practical way of preservation that answers the ‘questions about values of instrument and purpose’ and ‘master planning’-type of urban (re)development. Both have a tendency of fitness for purpose and exclusiveness. Yet, on the contrary, city has been (re)produced organically and sustainably by accumulation and network of small actions of people’s daily life. For such condition, what is the ‘rightfulness’ of preservation?

Micro-Projects vs. Master-Planning

In recent years, I have been focusing on the urban settlement in Asian cities as important reference to answer those questions. If we step into any settlement, we will be able to recognize small actions of residents that are constantly performed to maintain and improve the quality of their daily life. Even though most of the residents in those settlements are belong to lower-middle class, the place is rich with realities and dynamics.

In 2010-2011, I directed an urban study project ‘Camp-on Kampung’ in Surabaya, Indonesia. This project covers living environments of Kampung–urban settlements that spread throughout the city. It focuses on social structures, living environments and local daily activities of the settlement at specific site. The project emphasizes on their system of self-organization, as well as to “how the identity is sustained”.

We observed many small programs done by the residents to maintain the continuity of the built environment, which I call ‘micro-projects’. We considered them as strategic materials for an alternative way of urban re-production. Furthermore, through the study of possibilities of linking and networking of the ‘micro-projects’, we tried to propose ‘methodology of urban design system and/or urban management that can contain a potential of complexity of urban ecosystem’. As such, we hoped that the analysis would be able to overcome the risk of negative impact and singularity of the quality of the built environment in ‘master-planning’-type of urban development, which rapidly growing in many Asian cities recently.

For the purpose of this study, it was necessary to understand the potentials and possibilities of Kampung and the city itself. Instead of depending on objective analysis of measurable data of the city, we went through various cooperative study activities with diverse local actors from Kampung, government officials, academic societies, business, civic groups and mass media. ‘Master Planning’ seems to be considered as exclusive method of investigation that carried out by a specific team, while we opt for cooperative method that can suggests an open-system process to explore possibilities of spontaneous and dynamic urban activities.

Sample of “micro-project” at KampungKetandan. (image: Orange House Studio)

Sample of “micro-project” at KampungKetandan. (image: Orange House Studio)

Sample of “micro-project” at KampungAmpel. (image: Orange House Studio)

Sample of “micro-project” at KampungAmpel. (image: Orange House Studio)

Preservation: Visual Interface of City

In the first phase of project, ‘micro-projects’ were gathered. Diverse facts and possibilities of the connections and relationship were analyzed and translated into visual information. Daily life activities in Kampung were diverse; and their complementary forms were also complex. In order to understand the complexity of Kampung’s system, we developed a technique to visualize the urban information. A specific icon was given for each ‘micro-project’, and their specific relationships were carefully mapped in, so called, the landscape photo.

Icons for ‘micro-projects’  (image: Orange House Studio)

Icons for ‘micro-projects’ (image: Orange House Studio)

Visual interface of Kampung’s ecosystem (image: Orange House Studio)

Visual interface of Kampung’s ecosystem (image: Orange House Studio)

The visual information was not a tool to understand physical and measurable information of an environment, but rather a tool to recognize the quality of an environment. For us, it was important to step back from the conventional attitude of using measurable urban data that can be applied for ‘master planning’.

Preservation: Cooperative Behaviors

In this phase, this urban study project was geared to design and apply a Kampung’s urban system to an actual city. A public exhibition was operated by various participants (Kampung residents and their communities, government officials, academic societies, business, civic groups and mass media). It was considered as a prototype of alternative way of urban preservation.

 The theme and title of the exhibition is ‘Refugees of Future Cities’. In this time of massive economic growth of Asian city, we tend to imagine a future vision of city with ‘master-planning’. But should we challenge to look for a new future vision of city instead of compromising ourselves to choose and live in a ‘master-planned’ city, we might end up become refugees of a future city. All residents in this world have a potential to be a refugee in the future.

Visual interface of Kampung’s ecosystem (image: Orange House Studio)

Visual interface of Kampung’s ecosystem (image: Orange House Studio)

A military tent was provided by city government and it used for a main exhibition space. (image: Orange House Studio)

A military tent was provided by city government and it used for a main exhibition space. (image: Orange House Studio)

The exhibition became a platform to recognize, consider and share critical issue of our built environment. We wanted to stress that this “refugee” is not necessarily negative or tragic terms, as we imagine that in order to survive in the future city, a person will be forced to produce positive actions and search for various possibilities. This exhibition delivered a message to all residents in Surabaya that everybody should be an active producer instead of being an active consumer.

The aim of this exhibition was to provide a public space to share and discuss the possibilities of urban system of Kampung. It consisted of three parts: architecture, design and art. Each part offered various activities, such as art exhibition, performing arts, movie screening, craft workshop and conference. The structure of program was produced through an extensive and comprehensive discussion among the stakeholders of the city. In a way, it was also an experiment to apply urban systems of Kampung into public and social activities.

Three Kampungs in the city joined as the main collaborators of this exhibition. These Kampungs are facing different types of critical issues that conflicted with ‘master-planning’ of Surabaya, particularly in this transition period. Specific problems of each Kampung were introduced to the public through various activities that offer the participants to consider these problems as their own problems. Each activity in the exhibition was programmed as a ‘micro-project’ in Kampung. Each exhibition meant to be independent, yet had a certain connection and intersection to each other.

Audiences from Kampungs at movie screening by local cultural organization ‘Kinetik’. (image: Orange House Studio)

Audiences from Kampungs at movie screening by local cultural organization ‘Kinetik’. (image: Orange House Studio)

Public discussion with residents of Kampungs and other cooperators, such as students, designers, architects, educators, government officer, journalists, owner of broadcasting company, and etc.(image: Orange House Studio)

Public discussion with residents of Kampungs and other cooperators, such as students, designers, architects, educators, government officer, journalists, owner of broadcasting company, and etc.(image: Orange House Studio)

In the end, the collaborators and participants realized that the quality of exhibition would depend on a degree of their participation. They also recognized how much hidden problems and possibilities of city they could found, if they were deeply committed to cooperate in urban activities. Such interactive experience should be considered and even suggested as a methodology to re-produce our built environment, as it also suggests us to try to apply ‘questions about meanings’ for both social and physical environment of city in order to discover ‘rightfulness’ of preservation of city.

The city that encompasses variety of issues and area of expertise can be defined as a platform to receive simultaneous issues to be considered. As long as the investigation and study are proceeding by the proper induction technique, urban activity can be a public intellect, and it should be a clue to preserve a motivation of urban residents, hoping for the future of the city and encouraging participation in their own built environments.


[1] We borrow this way of questioning, little abstract but critical, from the writing of Mr. Takeshi Oba, a Japanese professor in analytic philosophy. This is helpful, for us, to re-understand and re-define the meaning and value of our ‘work’ in contemporary society.

[2] ‘Retro-Town program’ is an idea (and name) of the planning strategy of urban revitalization project, just like “Eco-Town”, “Hi-tech Town”. In general local cities/towns, a lot of abandoned “old buildings” can be discovered anywhere in Japan. Stakeholders of urban revitalization, such as government, developers and citizens recognized that can be a “resource” of city to (re-)establish a strong image and a brand of city. They emphasize a historical character of city using these “old resources” and expect to have people from outside of city (tourists and migrants) and to avoid a population exodus.

Kenta Kishi
Direktur dari LWL (Lab for the wonderlanscape) sejak 2003 dan CDN
(Crisis Design Network) sejak 2007. Pada tahun 2010, melakukan sebuah proyek studi urban di Surabaya sebagai API (Asian Public Intellectuals) dari Nippon Foundation. Mendapatkan gelar BA di arsitektur dari Tokyo University of Arts dan M.Arch dari Cranbrook Academy of Art di Michigan, USA. Ia juga mengajar sebuah studio desain di Tokyo Zokei University.