Genius Loci: Habitation and Form
While graduate students at MIT, we spent a summer traveling across Western China to a place called Turfan. We were funded by an award from the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and joined by Paul Hajian, our friend and classmate at MIT. Paul is now a professor at the Massachusetts College of Arts, where he teaches design and he has a practice in Boston. We traveled by train from Beijing, riding in the ‘hard seats’ and covered the last 50 miles in a van with little suspension. Our supposed purpose was to join an on-going research project that was excavating and documenting ancient cities along the silk route. We were to do drawings of the sites.
Arriving, we found no on-going project and no research group to join. Instead, we were alone without an agenda, stranded in an oasis, and surrounded by the Taklamakan Desert. Our prospects in a place where the days get to be 110° in the shade, were questionable at best, and it did not help that Turfan was not immediately picturesque. This was no village perched on a cliff above the Aegean Sea, but rather a modest environment with a view consisting mostly of walls. The people though were wonderful and they made a sweet wine that was consumed along with music in the cooler hours of the evenings. We learned how to bribe the girls at our compound to hide the cold beer from the other visitors and we taught the town how to play frisbee. But more importantly, during our time in Turfan, we learned to see it.
With no research project to join, we decided to embark upon one of our own. Knowing nothing of the place, we agreed to start drawing and because we knew nothing of the place, we started by drawing everything - walls, screens, uses, furniture, gardens, things, ducks and light. While the data we gathered was not of great consequence, the lessons were profound for us. In hindsight, we have always thought it was the modest quality of the environment that helped us see its form rather than being transfixed by its image.
There is a thematic structure to Turfan’s organization, one made of screens, walls, water, and the modulation of light. It is a spatial structure with a hierarchy of collective territories, charged by the temporal appearance of water in canals that line the streets. There, form can be seen as systems, language, and use in support of a culture and a landscape. As we drew, the appearance of this form became more coherent and the environment increasing hospitable and inviting. When we returned to MIT, the three of us drew up our documentation and we wrote about it for Places .
We thought this was a good place to begin our blog and plan on returning to this experience from time to time see what else we might see.
The article is here : Thomas Chastain and Renee Chow (1987) "Observations of Turfan," Places, 4:2, 21-32.
In the notebook: Turfan