Revisiting an Architectural Landmark, Hannah Collins Asks Whom it Serves

Hannah Collins, Still from 'I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head,' 2018. (© Hannah Collins)

When surveying the construction materials slated for a New Jersey suburb in 1967, American land artist Robert Smithson famously referred to them as “ruins in reverse,” as “buildings [that] don’t fall into ruin ... but rather rise into ruin before they are built.” What Smithson postulated was not the creation of place but the negation of it through the absence of prior history.

Hannah Collins creates a similar sensation of contents without context in I Will Make Up a Song, her exhibition of photo and video works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Appropriately, she builds her ruins in reverse on the basis of historical fact.

In 1943, the Egyptian Department of Antiquities commissioned architect Hassan Fathy to build a village in the Upper Nile called New Gourna, a new home for the residents of Old Gourna. The centerpiece of Collins’ show is a single-channel video, elaborately titled I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head. Playing like a revolving slideshow of images, the video chronicles the mud bricks of New Gourna and nearby New Baris as they slowly devolve back into the desert expanse from which they came.

Hannah Collins, Still from 'I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head,' 2018. (© Hannah Collins)

Today, nearly 40 percent of Hassan’s New Gourna buildings are lost. UNESCO initiated a restoration project on the village that halted in 2011 (due to Arab Spring uprisings) and the remaining residents still live in poverty, a fact evident in Collins’ images. Fathy’s proposed solutions to the social problems plaguing his country never fulfilled their intended purpose of longevity. And yet, he is internationally revered for pioneering environmentally-conscious, affordable and long-lasting solutions to rural poverty.

Fathy, who died in 1989, alleged that this rural community’s poverty drove them to loot the contents of ancient tombs upon which their original city was built (hence the involvement of the Department of Antiquities). Even this short distance into the story of New Gourna, the ingenuity in Fathy’s constructions becomes suspect. By removing competition over an archeological jackpot, did Fathy incentivize a governmental commission to displace a community? Where does his lauded desire for sustainability fit in?

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Collins’ photographs, taken in 2018, make this displacement visible. Her images suggest the presence of bodies—we see shoes removed for prayer and linens hanging on a line—but people themselves rarely appear. An accompanying experimental score by Duncan Bellamy echoes the austere images with the white noise. This effect, one of sonic distance, reveals the disjuncture between utopian ideals and their application. In the accompanying text, Collins writes that the residents of Old Gourna were reluctant to move to Fathy’s New Gourna; they felt “forced to adapt to a new, prescribed existence.”

Hannah Collins, Still from 'I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head,' 2018. (© Hannah Collins)

In her text, Collins contextualizes Fathy’s reputation. He borrowed stylistic gestures from neighboring Bedouin, Roman and Nubian structures, and used mud bricks in his constructions, an inexpensive and plentiful resource in Northern Africa. He hoped to train the inhabitants of New Gourna to construct their own buildings with these methodologies, and he applied them to a second commission at New Baris. Construction on New Baris stopped in 1967 and lies unfinished to this day.

In a fitting juxtaposition, I Will Make Up a Song is shown next to an exhibition of John Beasley Greene’s 19th-century photographs of Egyptian archeological excavations, some of the first images taken of these sites. The ancient tombs and temples resonate with the current state of Fathy’s mid-century buildings. Somewhere between relics of the past and intellectual fodder for the future, neither fulfills architecture’s central principle–utility.

Fathy’s structures were built to alleviate symptoms of systemic poverty, and yet they did not. Their incomplete restoration reinforces the significance of this negligence. Both Collins’ and Beasley Greene’s work highlights a disconcerting practice of prioritizing the history of a place over those who inhabit it.

Installation view of 'Hannah Collins: I Will Make Up a Song,' 2019. (Photo: Katherine Du Tiel, courtesy SFMOMA)

Collins’ opening piece, a framed photographic triptych, highlights the far-reaching impact of Fathy’s vision for New Gourna. The central panel shows the doorway of an unspecified Fathy building, through which another doorway opens on a desert vista. From this vantage of sequential “frames,” the viewer moves from the present through layers of past construction and into an unspecified future.

The contrast between Collins’ images of imploding roofs and disintegrating walls and the intention of Fathy’s novel designs are particularly tangible in San Francisco. It’s here that estimates identify at least 8,000 unhoused individuals and more than 38,000 empty homes (that’s 4 homes for every person). But as Fathy’s New Gourna shows, providing just housing doesn’t remedy a lack of economic prospects, or systemic disadvantages.

Like the obstacles faced by those advocating for affordable housing today, the ingenuity of Fathy’s architectural philosophy faltered because the powers that be did not facilitate its success. Fathy’s structures, lauded for their innovative use of past methodologies, fail to supply the present. However, Collins’ images suggest that Fathy is also to blame, through a lack of empathy towards the residents of Old (and New) Gourna.

Collins’ installation doesn’t suggest a solution to humanitarian crises like poverty and homelessness, but it does position audiences to reconsider the potential for oversight in celebrated past “successes.” We often look to history when searching for solutions, but we can’t always depend on the past for inspiration—especially when faced with thoroughly modern problems.

'Hannah Collins: I Will Make Up a Song' is on view at SFMOMA through Jan. 5, 2020. Details here.

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