… a multistory structure on a commons in a city. A building with a most peculiar history: it would be built so as to be torn down and reconstructed once a year. Every year the building site is cleared and the entire building is constructed from the ground up. Construction takes two weeks of concentrated co-laboration, and it requires the work, the skills, the enthusiasm, and the financial support of the entire neighborhood. All of these are brought together when the time for construction is nigh. A collection of tools and skills, plans and paints, everything needed for this task remains in the neighborhood all year around, and the construction itself proceeds as the work of several teams that compete with one another and with their own history, for speed and skill. The teams have practiced their coordination and strategy throughout the entire year. Most materials are recycled in the process or distributed to the neighborhood for use.
The object is to make the building complete again as fast as possible. At the end of construction a grand party inaugurates the building for public use. People who visit the city only occasionally and walk through the neighborhood would see the building with its neighbors, standing there as if it were like the surrounding buildings, but always somehow looking newer than the others. These visitors may not realize that the building is simultaneously the same and different from the one they saw last year.
Each year, within its completeness, something new is added, and perhaps something else has been forgotten. Most of the people who use it (and who participate in its rebuilding) are not actively aware that it changes over time. They see it as their building, something whole.
Anyhow, the changes are appropriate to the space and its use. Two years ago the second floor was converted to a day-care center. Last year they added fiber-optic cables that connect each room to a computer network. And this year they took out the wall that separated the office of neighborhood’s committee chairperson from that of the secretary. There are plans for more skylights, and for a passive solarheating wall on the south. These changes keep the building alive.
And the ability to change is what allows new neighbors to add their newness to its completeness. Newcomers can either join one of existing building collectives or start their own. Last year, three families from Guatemala and another from Bosnia decided to add their own addition. And so an extra alcove that was never there before looks out over the street. It seems to fit just right, and its sudden presence is not at all obvious to most, but the newcomers point it out whenever they pass by—it is their piece of the local whole.
There are two main ways to destroy this “festival”
As a festival, this building is the most ephemeral of structures. There are only a few tactics that can keep it going, and so many ways for it to fail.
No matter how many years this building is built, it still takes a enormous amount of resources to complete it. Not everyone is happy with this situation. Hours and hours of rehearsal, planning, and coordination meetings are needed just so that the construction can begin. And during construction everything else, work, play, even sleep is forgotten. Employers get angry, the schools are not happy, and the local businesses complain about traffic tie-ups and lost revenue. Besides, the building is a perfectly good building. Why tear it down every year? Why not every three years? or five years? or ten? There are families who have not taken a real vacation in years. Why not give them a year off? And why is there this need to keep changing the building? It would be much simpler to have one plan and stick to it.
Meetings are held, votes are taken. But slowly, with some subtle arm-twisting, a majority is reached on a plan to construct the building every seven years using the plan that was constructed last year. There are to be no new cooperatives, and the existing cooperatives will each elect a single representative. These representatives will meet together as an executive committee and make all required decisions.
The first seven year period ended and the building was reconstructed. It took an extra twelve days, and some of the interior remained unfinished for three months, but the building was renewed. After the second seven year period, three of the cooperatives were unable to provide enough volunteers to construct the main structure. After a month, the roof was still not finished. By the time the winter came, the building was still not ready to be occupied. On a cold winter night some persons found an entry and lit a small fire that destroyed the building. The site remains vacant to this day.
Festivals are vulnerable to “slack” times. Because they maintain their own memory in their practice (unlike most sports which are codified in a manner that allows them to be relearned) they can be forgotten when enough people stop performing them. They are also relatively vulnerable/open to innovation, and so they change more rapidly than spectacle/rituals.
To preserve the memory of a festival it is important to maintain the continuity of its practice, under the festival logic. During slack times, the performance can be allowed to become smaller (the building can shrink in size), but it will not survive if the time between performances is too long. To counter arguments that the festival “takes too much time” the many diverse outcomes of the festival need to be understood.
In the case of this “building” festival, one might look at the improved condition of other buildings in the neighborhood (so many people know how to build), at the number of jobs that residents acquire in the building trade, and at the special qualities of the building itself, and how these might be better used. Document the interactions that take place in the planning and execution of the construction, and note the conversational opportunities within the event.
SCENARIO TWO: The museum effect
Let’s say that one year the city determines this building and its practice of rebuilding is of “historical interest.” They acquire this property, and they make a careful study of its rebuilding. Then they hire building experts to perform the rebuilding every year according to the precise calculations they have made. They advertise the rebuilding event to draw in tourists, and they set up television cameras to show this to the nation. The building is made a national monument. Books are written, tours arranged. And every year it is rebuilt in exactly the same way as the year before.
By this, the state hopes to preserve the building and its construction for centuries to come. The neighborhood no longer is burdened by having to perform this enormous task, and the tourists that come bring income to the local merchants.
However, by this the state has destroyed much more than it “preserved:” the building is now just another museum. There is no more festivity in its annual reconstruction. The stakes have changed: the goal is to do it “right” according to some preexisting determination. The art of incorporating change and invention in the festival/construction has been lost. The game is no longer a game but a duty, a ritual with only the most shallow resemblance to its prior logic.
The neighborhood needs to realize that it owns this event. It must tell the city and the state to not interfere. If the city/state is interested in this festival, then the festival participants can organize workshops to teach other neighborhoods how to do the same event in their location. The idea would be to spread the logic of the festival in its original form: local, democratic, always-changing.
In this case the “festival” and its logic could also extend to any social activity where periodic volunteer effort is essential. And so any “community-based” organization, physical or virtual, is subject to the same problematic: they are expensive, in terms of inputs of time and talent, but they promise something greater than the sum of their costs.
Photo Credit: Flickr CC attribution licensed by Jule_Berlin