Sunday, November 25, 2012

On Pastiche

Every city has at least two faces. One face is the city as it appears to the walker in the street. The other is the city as it is seen as a whole.

From the pedestrian's view, Bangkok is a tangle, a wonderfully complex maze of side streets and markets, canals and footbridges, artisans' shops and wooden houses. It is a massive city of small-scale neighborhoods.

But from a taxi speeding along the Don Mueang Expressway an entirely different Bangkok is revealed. It becomes so obviously flat, constructed on a baking plain near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. It is a flatness that only deltas can have, and as such it fits the same topographic profile as Venice, Alexandria, and New Orleans. The skyscrapers are the induced delusion of verticality in an estuarine city.

And from this vantage, the city becomes a horror. The endless flatness is punctuated here and there by cheaply built apartment blocks, painted egg-yolk yellow and swimming pool-tile blue, the residents' laundry hanging from balconies, window frames rusted. And from every angle, unbelievably high electric pylons march diagonally across the landscape, before becoming obscured in the smog-hazed distance.

The same back alleys that strike the walker as so full of life-- corner stores and kids playing football in the street, groups of middle-aged men idling their way through the Sunday afternoon over a case of beer-- are revealed as dusty, cinder-block canyons of identical shophouses, planned in vast, oblong developments delineated by plastic-choked canals that have long since ceased to irrigate the rice fields.

It is Brasilia in reverse. In the absence of grand-scale modernist planning, we have a city that, while often lovable and homey on the ground, is an amoebic blob from the bird's eye. Even the Buddhist temples, contributors of rooflines that give Bangkok an exoticism to the Western tourist, reveal their sameness. The constantly repeated three-tiered red roofs remind me of nothing more than a thousand Pizza Huts.

The concrete apartment blocks, the squat office buildings, the carbon-copy townhouses might be ugly, sure, but at least they are functional. I don't find them bothersome per se. What are truly contemptible are the countless, manifold attempts at imitation, especially the wholesale copying of historic Western architectural styles.

You see every piece of pastiche nightmare, again, from the freeway. The cityscape bristles with primary-colored mansard roofs, with concrete arches that attempt to replicate Tuscany or Provence, the chintzy Mediterranean villa McMansions of the gated communities of the north suburbs, the velvety baroque sleaze of the towering bordellos on Ratchadaphisek Road, the cast-off Roman colonnades and Ionic capitals, the faux-brick imitations of London dockyards, the toy windmills and aluminum red barns stolen from the set of Green Acres. Robert Venturi and his giggling, self-fellating architectural compatriots suggested that we "learn from Las Vegas." In an absolute and willful ignorance of cultural, environmental, and utilitarian considerations, the commercial builders of Bangkok have learned with the diligence of Confucian scholars.

What might be equally horrifying is when Bangkok commercial architecture makes attempts to replicate past Thai forms with hyper-industrial materials. A particularly hideous and familiar example is found in the false rustic-brick fronts with simulated peeling paint at Asiatique. I'd also point to any number of steroidal rice barns-- complete with buffalo horns and rusted plows-- that serve as music venues.

Now one could argue that this sort of adaptation and imitation isn't new. Human behavior can probably be summed up as bricolage, and syncretic aesthetic sensibilities have developed all around the world. In Bangkok specifically, one can look at the shophouses of Chinatown, built with features adapted from the Portuguese. Or the Grand Palace, with its deeply Thai roofline grafted onto a Georgian structure.

But those old buildings were built to last. The new Bangkok commercial architecture looks painfully cheap and throw-away and plastic. The architectural detritus gives the metropolis the appearance of a toy city built by a massive toddler, easy to destroy and easy to replace.

It should be no surprise that these structures are deeply prone to the flooding and typhoons that mark the season cycle, and those built in the early '90s are already ravaged. Whitewashed cornices and concrete Cupids become streaked with acid rain, taking on the look of worn-down styrofoam stacked high, encasing greasy, sliding-sash windows. Inevitably, all of these buildings will crack like Playskool furniture left out in muddy front yards, sun-faded, leering over the surrounding belts of slums, saying nothing to the citizen-observer quite so much as "fuck you, Bangkok."

Art historians, have, over the course of the past couple of centuries, tended to smile at what we now regard as monstrosities, think of them as the kitschy artifacts of a more innocent era-- and maybe even find a strain of beauty in them. Despite my serious doubts about whether these structures will be so lucky, or even survive (think of all the imploded Vegas casinos), I have no power over what future observers will think of when they look out at the skyline of the new Bangkok. So I point my eyes forward, take a sip of my coffee, and do my best to laugh rather than despair.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Fate of Mes Aynak

Within a couple of months, in all likelihood, a few pieces of construction equipment will climb a highland track in a remote area to the east of Kabul. They will begin to scratch away at the earth, dislocating stones and drilling deep bores, piercing the vast reserve of sulfide minerals at the heart of the mountain range.

Two thousand years ago, this was an intersection of beliefs, a point on the transit route between the empires of the East and the West. Through these dusty passes came caravans loaded with silk and cinnamon, ultramarine and celadon.

Now it is a remote nowhere on the fringe of human dominion. Above here are the vertiginously high Spin Ghar Mountains. Irrigation systems provide enough snowmelt for agriculture, and, in a province where only a fifth of adults can read or write, the local people's existence relies on what they can extract from a lunar landscape.

Here are the old monasteries of Mes Aynak. As at other archaeological sites the world over, new layers are constantly being found, cities atop cities, a new town always superseding a predecessor. Here were Chinese and Persians and Punjabis and Greeks, Zoroastrians and Shiites and Nestorians, and the countless peoples and faiths that have long been forgotten, their practices unrecorded, their deities beyond memory.

What remains is the Buddhist city, an arrangement of temples and wells and steles. Once, this area was ruled by King Menander, who sat in a throne hall asking the Buddhist sage Nagasena about consciousness and perception. Faithfully adopting the tenets of this new religion, he commissioned the building of stupas with Grecian columns and Corinthian capitals. The Buddha statues of his kingdom possessed the same straight noses and impassive curled lips of the Olympian gods as rendered by Praxiteles.

And as the city fell out of use, it became a simple campsite. Countless armies warred over control of the region, as progressive waves of Mauryas, Parthians, Sassanids, and Mongols marched through, only to be followed later by Brits and Soviets and Americans. It's hard not to think of this area as a cursed place: a lovely mountaintop garden torn apart by the demons of history.

Yet it survived. Unlike the Buddhas of Bamiyan further west, it was never targeted for destruction by the Taliban. Their troops camped here, on the run from the Northern Alliance.

But its destruction is imminent, not because of the old reasons of ideology or religion or feudalism, but for reasons of simple economics in a neoliberal era. With global copper prices quintupling in value over the past decade, and with Afghanistan becoming just stable enough to pillage, the mining companies are moving in, and within six months, the arches and friezes too, will pass into memory.

The mining industry refers to this area as part of the Tethyan Eurasian Mineral Belt, named for the prehistoric ocean that was dried as magma from the mantle of the earth surged to the surface. The ocean, in turn was named for the titaness Tethys, who, in legend gave birth to the rivers of the world. Even the history of a name passes from myth into geology into engineering into business.

There's been some sound and fury in the West about the site's destruction. Online petitions have been drafted, which, as with virtually all Internet-based activism, are exercises in self-congratulation. Global mining syndicates continue their pillage, and the Afghan elites who run the country from their condos in Dubai continue to line their pockets. A Kickstarter fund has been started to fund a documentary film about the site and the project. But that, at the end of the day, will probably be some very lovely footage of a site that will have already ceased to exist-- a rather more intellectual equivalent of a snuff film.

The Anglo-American news media is at pains to point out that the company with the contract to mine the copper reserves at Mes Aynak is, of course, a Chinese company, thereby absolving the profligate consumers in the NATO member states of any guilt.

Every article and every campaign, the above paragraphs included, are alienated experiences predicated on a deeply abstract relationship to the site of Mes Aynak. Somehow we want to identify with these temples will almost certainly never visit. Regardless of all of the entirely good reasons we want to preserve a piece of history-- archaeological knowledge, aesthetic virtue, preservation of the cultural heritage of a third-world nation-- much of our desire is something ineffable. It's that beyond the logic of capital that seems to dictate and delimit our daily life, we still aspire to some difficult virtue that lies just beyond a distant horizon.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Human Condition at Poipet

For all of the exoticism advertised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the baking plains of East Central Thailand remind me far more of Arkansas or Tennessee more than the sun-dappled beaches one sees on billboards. This is the Thailand of scrapyards and used car lots, hand-painted signs directing motorists to stop for coffee or noodles, Coca-Cola billboards, and bonfires burning in gravel lots with solitary huts of plywood and tin rusting in the corner. In the distance, the worn-down nubbins of old mountain ranges emerge from the level plain, eaten away at by millions of monsoon seasons, countless mudslides, and the humidity that transforms the ancient granites and metaconglomerates into quartz fragments and vermilion-colored silicate mud.

The highway terminates at the syphilitic border settlement of Aranya Prathet. Beyond is the Cambodian city of Poipet, a casino town just a few hours from Bangkok. In the wastelands around the border, you can feel the ghostly presence of the countless Khmer Rouge refugees who once streamed across the border in the late 1970s, and Aranya Prathet, with its desultory town square and squalid market, seems a testament to the cruelty and ugliness of old wars.

I get out my pen and notebook in the buffet in a lightless casino basement, which is as depressing and tawdry as a lightless casino basement in a Cambodian border town sounds. The food here has a sickly, sugary, fatty quality to it-- rubbery, greasy eggs, croissants that leave oil slicks on the roof of your mouth, gristly, gray pork-- that mirrors the activities going on outside the buffet gate.

Upstairs, 50 year old Thai women in jewel tones, all of them looking like they're participating in an Imelda Marcos lookalike contest, affix themselves to video poker and roulette wheels that rotate electronically under glass like pies at a diner. This isn't Las Vegas or Macau or Monte Carlo or even Atlantic City. This is the equivalent of those bleak Mississippi and Illinois towns that look to legalized gambling as a way to rebuild their devastated, post-industrial communities.

All, here, is luxury. Or rather, "luxury," ease, cheap entertainment: low-stakes gambling, gaudy stained-glass chandeliers that look stolen from the bar of an Applebee's, sugary cocktails, sour-faced hostesses, stages festooned with lavender bunting, and grotesque singers in the Wayne Newton mode, hair thinning, with the overfed yet sickly look common to decaying third-tier celebrities and Henry VIII.

A casino is made all the more disgusting by the sheer earnestness of it, its plainspoken and hard-nosed attitude, Nevadan decadence on top of Chinese cynicism and wreathed with Southeast Asian bourgeois kitsch. Why yes, the architecture seems to say, we want your pension money. The great race to build bigger and more high-tech casino resorts in Vegas throughout the '80s and '90s built greater and greater temples to Mammon. But in Poipet, they don't even bother to cover up the corrugated ceiling-- this is a temple to, at most, the 99 baht sale.

But, at the end of the day, what makes Poipet more horrifying than its American equivalents it that it is a Southern casino town transported to the third world, staffed by refugees and surrounded by filthy-faced Khmer children picking up trash and hawking cheap plastic trinkets, looking sad and stoic. Beyond the green zone of entertainment venues, the surrounding landscape of Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey Province is littered with landmines and inhabited by some of the poorest, most exploitable people on the Asian continent.

This is the face of modern fascism. The fascist architecture that marks Poipet isn't the grand scale neoclassicism of Albert Speer, but rather the hearty gem├╝tlichkeit of fake Bavarian cottages, the plastic imitations of a mythic past-- look no further than the stabbing concrete attempt at an Angkorian gate that marks the entrance to Cambodia. Inside the hulking entertainment palaces, the middle classes ensconce themselves in the fantasy of affluence. Outside, a peasant girl, her face smeared with red clay dust, stares into the smoke from the trash heap, and watches as it obscures the rising evening star.