No Cure? Caring for Burnout in A Neoliberal Age

Project

Architecture, urbanism, and design, have always been affected by anxieties and obsessions with health.

Today’s hyper-efficient cities are the breeding grounds for burnout, the chronic illness of our time. Infected by neoliberal attitudes, contemporary minds operate at speeds beyond the biological body. Burnout can thus be defined as the destruction of the biological body in its adaptation to the enhanced mind.

In a world where value is determined by both physical-mental optimization, the attention economy heighted by technology overstimulates both human and non-human entities. By banishing “imperfect health” and death to geographic peripheries, society harmfully circumvents the consequence of over exploitation to promote 24/7 productivity. Urban cemeteries of Hong Kong, previously integral as civic spaces of gathering and pause, are likewise speculated to rapidly disappear for the city to grow.

Acknowledging the impossibility of retreat, this thesis proposes an Apothecary Grave-Garden for victims of burnout in a still functioning urban cemetery. Seven multi-scalar interventions, The Commons, Garden of Remembrance, (Bad) Memory Palace, Feasting Post, Flower Bar, Herb House, and Caretaker’s Castle, fragment the forgotten sanatorium typology to create a third (public) space between the home and the clinic. Formally, these multi-scaler Architectures of Care demand hyper-awareness by provoking both cerebral and corporeal counterparts. Meandering through this intentional but open ended experience that highlights the gift of life, perhaps architecture can serve as an alternative medium in realigning the mind and body.

Projected to co-exist with the still functioning urban cemetery, this apothecary grave-garden simultaneously cares for burnt-out bodies and space, taking the issue of health from individual responsibility and restoring it more appropriately to our social surroundings – a reminder to embrace slowness and inefficiencies in a Neoliberal Age.

Interview

What prompted the project?

Over the summer (2019), as part of my travelling research fellowship, I visited still functioning but decaying sanatoriums in 11 countries around the world. Isolated in the countryside in the name of fresh air, sunlight, clean water, and proximity to nature, these sanatoriums, although failed as cure for tuberculous patients, were temporary quarantine wards of care. They were places where both the mind and the body went to be healed, in essence the humanist and functional beginnings of modernism. In a time where the rich were healed at home, sanatoriums were hospitals before antibiotics and the age of modern medicine. In my research, I also discovered a secret social life and community that is often omitted from architectural history.** I’m currently working on a publication titled, Secret Sanatoriums (and where to find them)**

Unknowingly, this research trip also staged my own temporarily escape from the land of the useful – the city. I came back to Cornell for my thesis semester more physically and mentally well rested than ever before. This got me thinking about the role of architecture in caring for both our mind and body. If the 20th century focused on maximizing the body and riding it of all illnesses – for example tuberculosis through discipline and exercise – then the 21st century is about the speed of the mind. We are in the age of the attention economy after all. Perhaps burnout is the most prevalent (self diagnosed) syndrome of today. We’ve made architecture, or spaces of work, so efficient that they are no longer doing us good but rather harm. Armed with my sanatorium research, I was not under the illusion that architecture could act as cure, but simply wanted to experiment with how architecture could care for victims of burnout, both human and non-human.

What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

For me, the project in its most general terms, questions architecture’s role alongside or against mental health. What is burnout, and can architecture do something to alleviate it, even if temporarily? If we dive deeper into the thesis, it also address questions of privilege and access, individual and communal, public and private, life and death, human and nonhuman, prescribed and open-ended, fast and slow. What is architecture’s relationship with time, and how can a physical architecture slow down time? In a lot of ways, the project intentionally avoids binaries. It is simultaneous many states at once, highly unstable. You could argue for so many readings of this project, and I’m okay with that. Most importantly, I wanted to embody and create something I’ve coined Architectures of Care – sometimes they make you feel better, sometimes they don’t, some people believe in its abilities, and some don’t. Its intensely personal, the agency is on the individual or land, out of the hands of the ‘architect’. Perhaps it’s placebo architecture, a term I’ve also been thinking about for some time now.

How did books as Xray by Beatriz Colomina influence and inform the project?

Books and text in general were an important part of the thesis. I made a strong attempt to keep the project 50% research, 50% design. My overarching interest is to translate theory into work, and vice versa, for a larger audience outside of academia.

Renown architectural historian Beatriz Colomina’s X-Ray Architecture is a documentation of architecture’s age old obsession with health. However, the book focuses on the x-ray inspired glass aesthetics of the modern style and lacks analysis of non-architect bodies of imperfect health – ill, injured, disabled, or dying bodies, the book re-enforces the concrete cruelties of architecture today, concluding with architecture increasing inability to serve as cure in the face of modern nerves. This book alongside the CCA exhibition catalogue of Imperfect Health, The Medicalization of Architecture influenced my thinking on what the role of architecture could be the face of ‘no cure’ against modern nerves.

German-Korean philosopher Byun Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society, delineates how we as humanity have reached today’s contemporary condition. Notably, he describes how the bacterial infection age ended with antibiotics, and the age of discipline (Foucault). The 21st century is the age of infarction, and burnout is defined by neurons and caused by an excess of positive stimuli. Chul Han’s text was seminal in my thesis project and is the theorical background that inspired my own analytical decisions.

Famed anthropologist Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World: Life on Capitalist Ruins inspired the choice of site. Her body of work explores non-human centric models of thinking and the possibility of functioning with, and within ruination. In caring for victims of burnout in an urban cemeteries, the boundary between the living and the dead – as the final ruins of our modern day systems – is blurred.

What would you say is an important reference for the speculation?

Conceptually, the books mentioned above were important foundations for the speculation. Architecturally, I will just list a few crucial ones: Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Aldo Rossi, John Hejduk…. As the process, delivery, and reception of the project was intended to be aligned with the thesis as a reminder to embrace inefficacy and slowness in a Neoliberal Age, the method of production and visual representation was also heavily influenced by Hieronymus Bosch. One must hold their mind and body still in order for the narrative and its details to unfold in the 220 x 200 cm fragmented tryptic painting (analogue, mixed medium).

What informed the 7 different approaches? How do these operate together and on individual levels?

The seven approaches are all informed by existing materiality and scales; the dimensions of a tombstone plot (800x16000mm) was the base unit. In toying with familiar forms on site, be it the coffin, the Chinese resting pavilion, or site extrusions as the left over spaces between the car path, the seven interventions work together to provide an uncanny experience that makes one hyper aware of their surroundings. Individually, these interventions are designs for specific moments of mind-body consciousness, but also an appreciation for the natural and manmade environment – the urban cemetery. I think at some point, the project takes on a life of its on, and you as the designer become in service to it. For me, that was when I realized that although caring for burnout was the initial intention, the results of this seven part apothecary grave garden is much more open ended. To design for hyper specific users (humans and non-humans of burnout), the project details, or one can say design decisions are unique, yet simultaneously generic in its result. By this I mean, collectively, the project is a garden, a grave, and an apothecary, a place to rest, mourn, gather, reflect, or simply to pass by. One does not have to battle with burnout in order to visit the project. I think in today’s attention economy, its increasingly hard to create free, therefore inefficient spaces, especially in the city of maximum quantities and minimum dimensions of Hong Kong.

How do they respond to and reconsider the role of the graveyard in our contemporary society?

Graveyards were once hyper incorporated within the city (for example the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris) and also the object of fascination for many architects. A breathtaking example is the 1994 Igualada Cemetery by Enric Miralles in Barcelona. In Hong Kong specifically, the battle for land not only happens in the land of the living but also the land of the dead. Thus, densely packed urban cemeteries run on an inhumane reburial system. Every 6-10 years a body is dug up and replaced with another in the name of profit. Even in death, there is no rest or escape from the Neoliberal system. Moreover, inspired by Byun Chul Han’s analysis of burnout as a product of excess positivity, I draw parallels with this in terms of Hong Kong’s urbanism. Physical manifestations of negativity, cemeteries (death) and hospitals/mental institutions (imperfect health) are increasingly pushed aside to let the city and its inhabitants flourish. Without spatial and visual obstacles acting as reminders that we are not suited for 24/7 productivity, it is much easier to give in to self-exploitation and the endless rat race.

The apothecary-grave-garden is designed to re-emphasis the role of the graveyard as free civic spaces of rest and reflection, for all. In an age where even public space is increasingly privatized and equipped with anti-loitering defensive design, perhaps the graveyard can re-emerge as one of the last possibilities of common space. (My notion of Commons is heavily informed by the work of Silvia Federici).

How and to what extent is the project a commentary on existing structure or our health?

Historically, public structures for mass health were a given, it was built within city planning and rested heavily on the responsibility of the government (Haussmann streets etc). Today, this right is commercialized and repackaged as self-care, an individual privilege. Rather than free health care, clean streets, parks, and communal spaces for rest and recovery, what we are left with are luxury spas, pay per entry gardens, and expensive health care. Moreover, alongside the increasing dependence on modern medicine, prescription drugs from pharmaceutical companies are seemingly preferred over affordable natural remedies and ancient wisdom. This is not to say that one method is better or more effective than the other, only that all alternatives should be made available, perhaps with the possibility of work together. Especially alongside the ongoing climate crisis and the emergence of antibiotic resistant diseases, the project advocates for a more natural approach towards burnout – a mental condition with physical repercussions, and dares to (re)offer architecture as a possible tool that can be applied towards health.

How and to what extent has the project influenced your agenda and perspective as an architect as a result?

The thesis was really a testing ground for the method in which I would like to work in the future, 50% research, 50% design, and to approach architecture through interdisciplinary thinking. The project also solidified the social agenda that has always been the foundation of my work.

During my travels last summer, I was simultaneously reading This is Not a Drill by Extinction Rebellion. This book stressed the importance of our ecological crisis and was highly influential in my thesis, specifically to design for non-human victims of burnout: to care for the land itself. Guided by the works of anthropologists such as Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, the project has shifted my perspective to a less human centric method of working as an architect. The social agenda is inseparable from the ecological agenda.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

For me, our bodies are the most important tools. Out of the 5 known senses, our eyes have been privileged in architecture for too long. I think we neglect our ability to observe through sound, touch, taste, and smell. If we acknowledge those senses as valuable tools, or according to Arakawa and Madeline Gins the thousands of unnamed senses that we have yet to discover, the architecture we produce can be so much more engaging, welcoming, and inspiring.

About

CoCo Tin is an architectural designer and researcher. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a minor in Art History from Cornell University. Her passion lies at the intersection of art, architecture, and theory, specifically how works at this intersection can be created for audiences outside of academia. She was the 2019 Mellon Collaborative Studies Fellow, and is the current KPF Travelling Fellowship Recipient, with ongoing research ‘Secret Sanatoriums (and where to find them)’ investigating architecture and health. Tin’s architectural focus merges art and activism in the public sphere, forming a bottom up, interdisciplinary approach to architecture. She currently lives and works between Hong Kong and New York City.

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