To capture the essence of the primitive matter that is continually filtered out of the modern city - we need look no further than the specks of debris that smear onto our office windows over time. This very slow occurrence is a byproduct of living in the natural world - and we filter it out by cleaning our windows once a fortnight, or paying someone to do it for us. The physical presence of debris is hardly inimical or hazardous, but it is largely considered to be an unwanted phenomenon that we would certainly eradicate if we could. Living with debris is a reality for all cities around the world. But hiding this reality is the mark of a modern city. The presence of debris is positively absent in the glossy rendered images that architects and designers produce to sell their ideas. We actively design out this sub-natural reality from our buildings. But what would happen if we took a more conscious approach to curating and reshaping this occurrence? Could the gradual formation of debris be an asset to an architect's design? And how would this asset change the aesthetics of the urban landscape as a whole, and our ability to live with primitive matter?
The desire for the eradication of things deemed to be too primitive is a common theme in the history of modernity. And occasionally, attempts to remove primitive forces have been met with devastating side-effects. During China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ from 1958 to 1962, Chairman Mao spearheaded a series of campaigns to rapidly transform the country into a modern socialist society through rapid industrialisation, bans on private holdings, and the eradication of primitive pests. One of the first nationwide campaigns introduced was the infamous ‘Four Pests Campaign’ in 1958. Mao considered the existence of rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows to be a nuisance on the modern Chinese society - and urged his people to completely eradicate them from the country. Rats, flies, and mosquitoes were demonised as disease-spreaders. While sparrows were declared to be a “public animal of capitalism” that steal grain seed and fruit. Chinese citizens dutifully came together to hunt and kill these four creatures; banging pots and pans to scare sparrows from their nests, and holding informal competitions on the collection of rat-tails. According to an article in TIME magazine on Monday, May 05, 1958: “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won, proclaimed the Peking People’s Daily. At dawn one day last week, the slaughter of the sparrows in Peking began, continuing a campaign that has been going on in the countryside for months. The objection to the sparrows is that, like the rest of China’s inhabitants, they are hungry. They are accused of pecking away at supplies in warehouses and in paddyfields at an officially estimated rate of four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. And so divisions of soldiers deployed through Peking streets, their footfalls muffled by rubber-soled sneakers. Students and civil servants in high-collared tunics, and schoolchildren carrying pots and pans, ladles and spoons, quietly took up their stations. The total force, according to Radio Peking, numbered 3,000,000.” (article: “Red China: Death to Sparrows”)
With nowhere to hide from the public, entire flocks fell from the sky due to exhaustion, and were collected as trophies. But a few sparrows found an unlikely safe haven in the only place where Chinese citizens could not enter. The grand architecture of diplomatic missions were utilised as safe houses, and sparrows began to fill embassies and consulates from around the world. Most notably, the Polish embassy denied requests from the Chinese to enter their premises in order to scare away the sparrows. As a result of their unwillingness to cooperate with Mao’s campaign, troops surrounded the building armed with drums. After two days of constant drumming, the Poles were forced to open their doors to clear the embassy of all the dead sparrows that had piled up inside.
The campaign was aggressive, but short-lived, as ornithologists began to warn Mao of the damage that would be caused to the wider ecosystem. It was thought that by killing off the sparrow population, the country benefit from an increase in rice yields. But instead, rice yields and other agricultural industries plummeted dramatically - as locust populations grew exponentially, swarming across the country and destroying crops. With so few preditors to manage the locust population, the ecological imbalance was compounded. The entire country suffered as a result, and the campaign was later seen as one of the key causes of the Great Chinese Famine.
The primitive elements of our societies are an essential part of a wider ecological network that we often take for granted. And the urban terrain, especially, is postulated as a cultural phenomenon, despite the very real fact that it relies on, and informs, the wider web of nature. Our obsession with drawing distinctions between the natural and the cultural is itself, a primitive act. Rather than striving to purify ourselves from the natural environment - perhaps the most modern approach we can now take is to identify ‘primitive’ matter, and consciously design with it.
Written by Steven Hutt