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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Walls, Fences, Gates, Zombies, and Mutants

Whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, we humans are really territorial beings. We draw imaginary lines in our maps. We carve and slice the islands and continents that shaped our planet into tiny countries and sandwiched between these countries, we draw something called 'border'- a mark to emphasize what's "yours" and what's "mine".
On smaller scale we also create borders. By legal means we own a piece of land, a piece of property. Again to differ between what's "yours" and "mine" we create borders, we create something called "fences".

So what exactly do we need from our fences in our front yard? Suppose there were no rules of law governing how to build them, perhaps we would all build them as tall as possible like the days of the Old West or the city-states in Middle Earth as imagined by Tolkien. Every house is not merely a home for us, it's also our own little fortress. Our own sovereign little country.

Just take a look around us. Around your neighborhood. Or even your very own home. The tendency of today's Indonesian homes is to install poly carbonate sheet along the wire-meshed BRC fences, creating an ambiguity between "transparent" and "opaque".

Perhaps this ambiguity comes from a paradox within our collective consciousness. We want to look as inviting and friendly as possible, but we also don't want to lose our privacy. We don't want to look pompous but we also sometimes feel like the Hulk-just want to be left alone. We want to be a part of the public but we also want to keep some fractions of our lives to ourselves.

Yes, there is a red Hulk now. Don't ask

What's private for us has also grown and evolved throughout the years. It's no longer you don't want to be seen wearing nothing but hot pants from the outside. Now, perhaps what's private includes your chairs or sofa, your TV and even perhaps your car.

This leads to another reason for fencing your property : security. In the first and second year after the 1998 riot, a new 'style' of architecture emerged in Indonesian large cities. Buildings were made at least two stories tall, with thick fences at least as tall as the first story, with windows only made in the second story. Even there it was fortified with railings.

The first story of the building was designed as if it was a necessary evil-because you cannot fly directly like Superman to your real home in the second story. The first story was always cold, barren, and uninviting.

And then there is something called the 'gated community'. A group or cluster of housing segregated themselves from the surrounding environments due to various reasons. Mainly because they have better environment design (sport centers, swimming pool, etc) than their surrounding.

Usually for marketing reasons these houses carry the same 'theme' such as "Victorian-style housing" or "Japanese-style" or whatever else the names the developer can think of. Making the residents essentially live in a theme park-carrousels and all. A real-life implementation of the concept 'simulacra' that would make Baudrillard proud.
And since these type of houses usually cost quite a fortune, that makes the residents are relatively homogenous, at least in economic level.
Seth M. Low (2007) wrote in his book Housing, Theory and Society,"individuals and communities in cities are encouraged to protect themselves from perceived threats, thus contributing to the emergence of a new pattern of civic militancy even at home"which then begs the question : can facilities and security be a base of a strong enough reason to divide society?

What is it that we actually fear? What causes the fear? Instead of isolating ourselves in our own version of Superman's Fortress of Solitude, aren't there better ways to solve the security issues, by communicating, perhaps? Isn't segregated societies only stab a deeper wound to the already growing matter; the so-called 'social jealousy?'

Gated communities such as these I think the perfect example of architecture of fear and paranoia. Fear of 'perceived threats'.

But what if the perceived threats are real?

Comic books have provided us with such scenarios throughout the years.
British comic book anthology 2000AD every weektells us the classic story of Judge Dredd, a law enforcer in a dystopian future where most parts of the world are deemed too dangerous for normal people to live in due to the nuclear war in 2070 (and later the Apocalypse War of 2104).

People are forced to settle in a gargantuan city-state called Mega City One, a so-called city-state covering much of what is now the Eastern United States. Protected by thick, towering walls, only inside this city can people live normally albeit the hyper-density population, because outside the massive fortress is the roaming place of the mutants-victims of the radioactive fallout from the above-mentioned wars (not to be confused with Marvel's type of mutant e.g the super-powered-with gorgeous-physique-but-emotionally-angsty-kind-of -people).

This city is what happens when the concept of 'gated community' taken into extreme.

Another example of extreme gated community can be found in the pages of Image Comics' hit series The Walking Dead. In this series, a handful of survivors try to live in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

The Walking Dead-and many zombie flicks for that matter-illustrates for us what would happen if (again I use these words) those so-called perceived threats are real, what if the society-and the technology-we're depended upon is crumbled and failed to provide us, failed to protect us?

The Walking Dead (or writer Robert Kirkman, to be exact) shows us that if such scenario ever occured, our primal instinct would tell us to find a way to survive; to run, to hide, and to find a thick wall to protect ourselves. To find a fortress.

In this comic book series our protagonists found such heavily fortified walls first in a form of a prison-again another type of extreme gated community and later (in a sweet irony an architect can appreciate) in a gated, small community of fellow survivors protected by tall concrete walls
in the suburbs of Washington, DC (of course this being is an ongoing series, we don't know yet what the fate would bring to our heroes).

It's interesting that in so many fictions the notion of a gated community is often used as a survival means in a post-apocalyptic world setting (another example that comes to mind is Mel Gibson's Mad Max movies). Perhaps this is what Nan Ellin meant in Architecture of Fear (1997)-that "fear has never been absent from the human experience, and town building has always contended with the need for protection from danger" but ironically efforts such as home design, security systems, gated communities, semi-public spaces (shopping malls, theme parks, casinos, office atriums), zoning regulations, and cyberspace are nothing but "disjointed efforts exacerbate rather than eradicate the sources and perception of fear and insecurity".

For me-not only in the context of Indonesian modern urban landscape-gated communities are both unnecessary and doesn't make sense. This phenomenon only emphasizes and strengthens what's already a problem in our society-the ever-growing social (and economical) gap and only serve to alarmist, apocalyptic treatments that never offer solution(s) to counter both real (actual crime) and perceived (media-magnified) problems in contemporary society.

Perhaps amidst the cacophony of ads and promotions promising the many advantages and facilities of living in a gated community (or 'thematic housing'), we should all re-consider and ask ourselves , are all of these exclusivities and seclusions the worthy price for our ever-declining social order?

Or perhaps we consider the ones who can't afford all the luxury of these fences,walls, and gates ARE the zombies that will try and eat your brains if the fences,walls,and gates disappear?

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  1. This is a well-written and fascinating post. Love the way you incorporate comic book mythology into your articles. I'm going to tweet it.

  2. Nice blog & good post.You have beautifully maintained, you must try this website which really helps to increase your traffic. hope u have a wonderful day & awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Matthew. Glad you liked it.
    @Lydia, also thanks! I'll give it a try!


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