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This is the New Orleans post

Sunday, April 23, 2006
New Orleans Sketch
...in a current tradition of delayed updates....from my trip there, let's see....over a month ago. It’s been so long in coming because I got bogged down in how I should present my peep into an overwhelmingly complex situation. In the end I decided to write an A-Z, for lack of any better external structure that would limit my inevitable rambling. And then later I took out the descriptions that were too boring….

....here is a mishmash of what I came into contact with during the two weeks I spent there in March.

B ring New Orleans Back – the mayors co-ordination effort…….see the initial reports here.
C onferences. Everyone is holding them. I spent a lot of my time with the organisers (Dan Etheridge and Alan Lewis) of this one - Reinhabiting NOLA - a collaboration between the Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, the Tulane School of Architecture and the Neighbourhood Story Project. The conference last November brought together 150 academics, professionals, scientists, artists, community leaders and environmentalists for two days in New Orleans and included a number of displaced residents who were flown in for the weekend.
D evelopment. While I was there the 'rebuilding' media focus was on a plan labelled ‘neighbourhood viability’. To receive reconstruction funds a neighbourhood must prove its ‘viability’ through a critical percentage of returning residents and its adjacency to two other qualifying neighbourhoods. Many potential rebuilding efforts were on hold until the release of FEMA base flood elevation maps this month.
Barn_New Orleans
E arth Science Perspective on Katrina. A lecture I went to on my first evening and my introduction really to the environmental complexities of the situation. Louisiana has 40% of the US coastal wetlands, which protect against storm surges and are estimated at an economic value of $5 million per square kilometre. Monitoring of the coastal wetland loss in the 1980s measured an acre being lost every 30 minutes and identified it as the most severe environmental problem in the country. Caused in large part by the interference of natural systems by the levees, the wetland loss problem was exacerbated by the oil and gas industries in the last century as they dredged commercial shipping canals that in turn created open passages for storm surges. I felt very indignant about the fact there were only nine people at the lecture until I realised that dozens of talks and discussions are taking place every day across the city....
F EMA. Of course is the easy scapegoat. I don’t really know enough to comment on the numerous and fierce accusations of incompetency, cronyism and no-bid contracts but one anecdote from Ronald Lewis, a resident of the Ninth Ward, really struck me. He was part of a self-organised rebuilding effort when Hurricane Betsy devastated the Ninth Ward in 1965 and there was no FEMA to step in. Ronald was assigned to a community sheetrock team that redid twenty to thirty houses in the neighbourhood. His opinion: FEMA has disabled people’s ability and will to self-organise while failing to provide any more effective alternative.
G round. “This city is built on chocolate mousse”
I -10. When the massive I-10 was built in the sixties it bisected many lower-income neighbourhoods with no consultation process at all. In the Sixth Ward the giant concrete columns of the freeway have been painted with live oaks and mythical imagery, a neighbourhood’s way of reclaiming their lost space. The offer to help ‘Rebuild’ is thus treated suspiciously in many communities – I-10 was just such a project.
Freeway_New Orleans
J ournalists. Contrary to popular reporting New Orleans is not a city below sea level. More than half of it is at or above sea level, making it similar to hundreds of coastal cities across the world. Nor was the flooding restricted to low income neighbourhoods, it in fact cut across racial and class boundaries, devastating, as well as the Ninth Ward, the middle to high income neighbourhoods of Lakeview that were built on land reclaimed from swamps and the lake around the fifties.
L evees. The levees actually collapsed in three places, each efficiently wiping out a different area of the city. It turns out that at no point were they ever holding any more water than they had been designed to. So their failure was one of construction more than anything else. All around the Ninth Ward there were signs asking for witnesses of the levee break. Rumours abound that they were dynamited. Dan told me that there was actually a precedent for this. In the early 1900s men would guard the levees on their side of the river during storms in case a neighbour on the opposite side tried any tricks. Even if there was no actual dynamiting in 2005, in Dan’s opinion there was a metaphorical ‘dynamiting’ over the years as commercial shipping interests were systematically privileged (and heavily subsidised) over the interests of residents of the Ninth Ward and beyond.
Pink House_New Orleans
Ninth Ward House_New Orleans
M ississippi River Gulf Outlet (Mr Go). It was the widening of this canal from 500 ft to 2500 ft in the sixties that encouraged the storm surge that devastated the Ninth Ward. Calls now are for the canal, which was an economic drain anyway (only two to five ships use it each week) to be closed immediately. Ideas have included using all the waste from the storm to dam it, which though not environmentally sound may be better than it all going to landfill. Right now all the wood waste is being turned into wood chip mulch by Halliburton to be sold nationwide. Not sure if it will specify its potentially toxic origins.
N eighbourhood Story Project. An inspiring documentary project that is collaborating with the Tulane School of Architecture. It empowers high school students to record the stories of people, traditions and histories in their neighbourhoods and in doing so to challenge the negative stereotypes of those areas often perpetuated by the media. The by-line of the program is ‘our stories told by us’. I was at a seminar led by Rachael, an anthropologist and one of the founders, and Ashley, a student who wrote one of the six books that were published just before Katrina. Ashley is a resident of the Lafitte housing project which has been closed by the authorities since the storm. The most striking things she said during the seminar: “I didn’t know I lived in the ghetto…..…..till I heard it on the TV”. Hear her on New Orleans Indymedia Radio here.
O pposition. A group from an area called Broadmoor published an article in the Gambit about their self-organisation into an activist group after coming across a diagram in which their neighbourhood had been replaced by a large green circle. The story recorded their anxiety to find out what that meant and their anger at the lack of consultation with them. Various phonecalls unveiled the fact that it was part of a hastily drawn up plan by a Philadelphia group in a very short amount of time and that it was not in any way a fixed plan. The green circle apparently indicated ‘where a park could be’ if residents agreed. An interesting illustration of the politics of representation and the problem of interpretation. It also seems to have been a catalyst for an impressive amount of neighbourhood organisation.
P arades. The wonderful tradition on which New Orleans has built its cultural energy. During ‘second line’ parades the audience and performers form one dancing, singing crowd that winds through the streets for hours, stopping to honour places of community significance, churches, stores, people’s homes, and honouring the recently deceased. Rival ‘Social and Pleasure Clubs’ exist purely to organise annual parades, which are funded, with a considerable amount of sacrifice, by members of their community. Rachael described it as the cultivating of ‘cultural resiliency’. I imagined this in the context of bureaucratic interpretations of ‘urban renewal’ processes. There was a big debate this year about whether Mardi Gras should be cancelled and the money put aside for rebuilding, but this missed the point that parades have been an embedded part of the social and cultural renewal of the city fabric throughout its history.
Mardi Gras Float
R onald Lewis. A long time resident of the Ninth Ward - architecture students from Kansas State are working to rebuild his Museum of Dance and Feathers, which was once housed in his carport. Ronald is a Mardi Gras Indian costume maker, an artist who spends all year making intricate beadwork costumes for parades. His museum contained all his costumes, as well as newspaper clipping and photos dating back decades, objects which are impossible to value for an insurance company. He saved perhaps 10% of his collection - beautiful beadwork patches and photo albums full of people in costume with wonderful Indian names. For Rural Studio folks, Ronald blends Amos’s patriarchal nature, AJ’s artistry and Music Man’s all-consuming spirit. He is hoping that as he rebuilds, others in the neighbourhood will gain the confidence to as well. He hosted a crabboil one night which functioned both as a crit with the students and a party for neighbours who have returned. What better review than to have drawings pinned up on the side of a house on site, with a torch illuminating them in the fading light, beers in hand and Cajun sausage on the grill? Here him on NPR here.
Mardi Gras Costumes_New Orleans
Mardi Gras Costumes_New Orleans
S ixth Ward. The area in which Tulane has chosen to locate its pilot Urban Build studio (see ‘U’). It is one of the traditionally working class neighbourhoods that form a belt through the centre of the city. The Sixth Ward is within seven blocks of the French Quarter, an example of the surprising spatial integration across New Orleans. It is basically at sea level, and because of its proximity to wealthier areas it is likely to be awarded ‘neighbourhood viability’. It is a neighbourhood of extremes; dilapidated and cramped, full of ragged structures, vacant lots and isolated families occupying only one or two porches on every block, but imbued nonetheless with the vibrancy, vitality and intense charm of historic New Orleans that knocks you sideways.
Looters Shot_New Orleans
T ulane. The university is in a particularly interesting position to co-ordinate a powerful network of action both locally and nationwide, at a grassroots level and at a political level. Reed Kroloff and Ila Berman, the Dean and Associate Dean respectively, are on the Mayor’s Urban Design Committee. Meanwhile every one of the ten design studios at Tulane has been charged with tackling an aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans this semester. In addition they have started a nationwide design/build consortium, the Tulane City Center, to co-ordinate the energy and resources of all the schools who are interested in working in New Orleans. In conjunction with Architectural Record, they held a prototype housing competition, the entries for which I helped unpack and display for the jury session (which I didn’t get to be present for!). And see here proposals they also commissioned from a series of Dutch and American firms for a ‘radical’ rethink of the city at various scales. This is all going to result in a series of different exhibitions across the city at the end of this semester.
Oh, and Reed Kroloff is also engaged in an all out war with the New Urbanists, ‘the ‘Mcdonalds’ of architecture, according to Ila Berman, who are literally knocking on the door of New Orleans after sweeping along the Mississippi Coast with highly organised charettes and attractive hand-drawn watercolours. His article in Metropolis in March claiming 'to be black' caused quite a stir. Read it here and some of the responses to it here and here.
T rees. One way to tell which areas flooded is to look at the trees. Magnolias don’t fare well in salt water and are dying all over the city. In contrast live oaks are fairly resilient. They are some of the most magnificent structures in the city, their roots heaving up huge chunks of the pavement everywhere you walk. It is striking to drive along the Gulf Coast where barely a single house, casino or commercial strip remains but where all the ancient live oaks still stand, the secret lessons of survival embedded in their roots far under the soil.
Live Oak Roots_New Orleans
Live Oak_New Orleans
U rban Build. This is the studio that emerged from the ‘Reinhabiting NOLA’ conference. A double pilot studio is up and running, hoping to expand to six studios running concurrently if all goes according to plan. One studio is working on an affordable prototype for a house in conjunction with a community centre and affordable housing group in the Sixth Ward. The other is trying to tie that project into a larger scale vision for the neighbourhood as a whole, in my opinion a much harder project to take on as a ‘real’ project. At the scale of the single house the relationships are manageable and the boundaries clear, and the studio a well-adapted setting for carrying out intense collaborative student work. These relationships and boundaries become infinitely more complex at the neighbourhood scale, particularly in this situation. As a result students at the mid review seemed to have stayed within the safe boundaries of what can be physically measured - massing, street layouts, ‘green space’ (the apparent cure for all ills) - and represented through diagrams, while marginalising the social complexities of the area and failing to acknowledge the value systems which allowed them to casually demolish an entire housing project with the click of a mouse. Despite a claim to community consultation I searched in vain for one anecdote of an interaction with a resident which informed someone’s strategy.
V olunteers. The only people virtually to be seen in the ghost towns of the Ninth Ward and similar areas were clusters of students gutting houses on what had been termed the ‘alternative spring break’ project.
W aste. Toxic mostly. After the storm there was six feet of polluted sediment in some areas. The sediment has been cleared but the environmental hazards remain uncertain. The EPA is delaying making any sort of definitive statement about it, claiming more studies are needed. Barrels of DDT from a factory that once made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were found in people’s living rooms. A consortium of architects and community groups have started the Katrina Furniture Project, a recycling and craft program which will train young unskilled workers in furniture making using the waste wood from the storm. And you can normally tell how many people are back in a neighbourhood by how many piles of debris there are outside people’s homes.
Bike Trash_New Orleans
New Orleans Trash House
X. An aggressive, fluorescent branding marks each house in New Orleans, indicating when and by whom they were inspected after the flood. The number at the top marks the date, to the side which authority checked it, and at the bottom how many dead bodies were found. I’m glad to say that I only ever saw zeros.
Branded House_New Orleans
Z ero feet above sea level. An extraordinary datum now exists across the whole city, the brown watermark scar on buildings which allows you to read how far the ground is below sea level at any given point. As you drive from Lakeview near Lake Pontchatrain back into the city it gradually decreases from eight feet and over, down to two or three until finally it disappears when you reach Uptown and the Garden District.
New Orleans Watermarks

Austin Antics

Saturday, April 22, 2006
Bamboo Shade Structure

A weekend collaboration between Robie and me just before I left for New York. The mesh columns were already in place courtesy of Jay's sculpture class homework a few months previous. We added slightly wobbly shade structure composed of two sheets of cattle mesh (?) from the NYE Austin First Night installation, bamboo leaves trimmed from the garden, cardboard tubes from the garage, a bag of zip ties and some 2X4 stubs. It feels good underneath it in scorching Texas sun. Also carefully placed a storm-safe distance from the house.

New York baby....

(from April 14)... I squeezed in this visit on my way home to London, elongating a stopover from Austin into a three day sensory overload of skyscrapers, graffiti, fire escapes, people-watching, bookshops, strong coffee and screeching subway trains. The city sidewalks sent some kind of vital energy fizzing up through my body and everything seemed vivid and surreal and thrilling. Staying in Fred’s loft space, which boasts elevated plywood nests, a giant warehouse window and proximity to the Hudson River, rounded things out nicely.

New York Hudson River

Some last minute research into people and places I could pester for insight revealed that the planets are indeed aligned. Things like….one organisation I wanted to visit, the Hester Street Collaborative, turned out to be co-run by a Rural Studio alumni I’ve met before - Alex Gilliam. He in turn recommended I contact Damon Rich of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, who Gretchen had already put me in touch with. I met both of them, visiting Alex and his band of charismatic high school interns at their office in Chinatown, which is tucked in between storefronts selling jellyfish and chopped eels….and Damon at his office in an old canning factory in Brooklyn, who inspired me with his anecdotes about getting an experimental non-profit off the ground. The two of them co-teach a weekly architecture class to high school students through the Cooper Hewitt education program. It happens ‘on-site’ at the Fulton St Mall, the main shopping area of Brooklyn, which, like most of New York, is engaged in a heated debate about the future of the area. I took part in the class on Wednesday afternoon, which involves the students sketching, interviewing, recording, improvising and the girls at least turning down repeated advances from crusing teenage males.

At the Pratt Center I had a stimulating two hour conversation with Tara Siegel, a Rose Fellow, who introduced me to some of the fascinating political complexities of working in the field of affordable housing in New York and gave me a good overview of their work which stretches across architecture, planning, policy, advocacy, fundraising and tenant organising.

Maybe best of all I met Jennifer Monson of iLAND, another friend of Gretchen’s, an experimental dancer who is interested in the collaborative potential of dance and science to explore kinetic understandings of nature. Her performances on vacant lots and across cities are informed by natural cycles and migration patterns that aim to dissolve mental dichotomies between nature and the built environment. One of the best facts I learnt from her was that certain rare plant species, which disappeared from wilderness areas in Maine and Vermont due to acid rain, have been emerging in vacant lots in Harlem where broken concrete slabs are producing unusually alkaline soils.

And apart from that…….I noticed that in New York, unlike anywhere else I’ve spent time in America, you enter the bathroom directly off the restaurant. You open a door next to your table and there it is…and always unisex because there’s only room for one. Space-saving strategies manifest themselves at all scales.

Read on for details on a symposium I rushed to off the plane on my first day (more aligned planets).....

New York Blossom

Fred's Doorbell_New York

New York Bricks

Where: New York City, West 61st Street, just across the road from Central Park, near the giant Time Warner complex at Columbus Circle that was just a slick rendering on a billboard the last time I was here (four years ago).

What: ‘Should the Future be Designed? Alternative Approaches to Activism, Politics and Professional Practice in the Design Disciplines’

Who: All the people that the dazzling Ananya Roy at Berkeley weaves together in her lectures on cities and all the messy processes and politics that construct them, including David Harvey (‘Spaces of Hope’, ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’), Marshall Berman (‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’) and Michael Sorkin (‘Variations on a Theme Park’) (I haven’t really read any of these incidentally….)

Why: Because they clearly stole my research proposal so I had to check whether there was any litigation potential and that their ideas weren’t any better than mine.

When: Monday night, after transferring on standby to an earlier plane from Austin, lugging two suitcases on the subway to Fred’s apartment in Brooklyn, then dashing back onto the train into Manhattan and missing half of the event.

Of Special Note: Marshall Berman turns out to be a small, goblin-like, wildly-bearded radical who’s still trying to pretend it’s the sixties. His fluorescent tie-dye t-shirt was quite a contrast to the otherwise academic attire of his colleagues (wool sweaters over shirt and tie etc) and the perfect way to earn instant respect from his fresh-faced audience. I also learnt the word ‘urbicide’ from him, which means ‘murder of the city’.

What Else: David Harvey argued for a more sophisticated understanding in the design process of the larger social and political forces in which any project is embedded and “a better grasp of what the problems are in trying to design the future”. He also dismissed the Internet as a democratising tool when two thirds of the world don’t have access to electricity. Christine Boyer criticised the architectural avant-garde’s “inability to act” while “standing amongst the debris” of urban catastrophes and preferring to “dabble in the development of intensely radiating objects rather than the ensemble of the city at a much more complex level”. She cited Katrina, asking why seven months later there has been a total absence of large-scale projective schemes for rebuilding from the architectural profession with the singular exception of Andres Duany and the Congress for New Urbanism (interestingly the New Urbanists’ response to criticism from the ‘avant-garde’ is exactly that - they don’t have any better ideas themselves). Meanwhile, ironically it might be the military who is at the forefront of developing operational tools for understanding the city: “we’ve seen the future of warfare and it’s urban”. Unnerving, definitely.

Space for Action: Develop witty and unpretentious opening line in order to be able to approach Marshall Berman (or similar) during prosciutto-guzzling aftermath. As opposed to the current formula of staring wistfully from a distance like a weedy wallflower. I bought a book by David Harvey but even this lame excuse for interaction was doomed - he had already left so I couldn’t get him to sign it.

Houston, infamous city of freeways......


(from April 01).......oil money, zoning freedom….and also it turns out gorgeous live oak boulevards and famous art institutions …. An hour stopover on my way to Austin from Berkeley turned into a two day stay when I decided to miss my flight, rent a car and meet Robie instead, who was on a trip with his boss to visit petrochemical plants outside the city. This also made possible a visit to Project Row Houses and the famed Menil Collection by Renzo Piano, which are in turn symbolic really of the incredible wealth and poverty that exist in the city. They are both centrally located, but divided by the I-10 freeway. On one side you enjoy the handsome live oaks, museums, chic antique stores and the Rice university campus. Across the other side I drove slightly self-consciously around a neighbourhood of dilapidated houses, vacant lots filled with wild flowers and boarded up bars and storefronts.

Live Oak Boulevard_Houston

Supreme Lounge_Houston

Project Row Houses was ‘open’, meaning that I could wander in and out of the eight renovated shotgun houses, each of which housed a fairly unremarkable installation tackling themes of race, poverty and social justice. The shotgun houses are complimented by a two story brick building at one end of the street, which houses a gallery, administration, a free bread counter and shelves of art magazines. The walls are filled with ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the renovation process which was instigated by a group of young African-American artists with a vision to integrate the arts with grassroots community revitalisation. Another row of shotgun houses behind the galleries have been renovated for single mothers to live in rent-free while they pursue an education and I recognised four bigger houses behind those designed and built by Rice students as affordable housing prototypes for the area. Also on the 'campus' were the headquarters of the Row House CDC and the skeleton of a building which I found out later will become the on-site workshop and headquarters of the Rice Building Workshop.

Project Row Houses_Houston

Meanwhile over the other side of the freeway I enjoyed an unexpected William Christenberry exhibition at the Menil, including a photograph of downtown Greensboro in the thirties and a startling Dan Flavin installation in an auxiliary building. And then I had the pleasure of driving 45 minutes ‘out of’ the city, through miles of strip malls, to the Holiday Inn in Bayview, home to the most oil processing plants per square mile in the world…..or something reassuring like that.

Houston Sketch

The last vehicle in the world....

Tuesday, April 04, 2006
.....that I imagined Shannon Flattery might be driving was a gold Mercedes. But the fact that she was made her all the more interesting, I like it when people don’t fit patterns of expectation. And besides it was a kind of retro 1970s model. So we drove around Richmond, homicide capital of the Bay Area, and she gave me a short history of her work and the project that she has been developing in the last couple of months.

I had contacted Shannon after receiving an email via a Berkeley list about her project in Boston, Touchable Stories, which engages neighbourhoods which suffer from high crime rates, poor employment prospects, gentrification pressure or all three. Similar to the premise of the Neighbourhood Story Project in New Orleans the idea is to empower residents to tell their own stories about where they live and in the process to challenge negative stereotypes. I wanted to meet Shannon because I am increasingly interested in what architects can learn from the qualitative methods used by artists working in the field of urban revitalisation. As a professional, your analytical tools inevitably condition how you come to understand a place and in turn how you choose to intervene. Architects tend towards information that can be represented in a diagram - physical attributes, quantifiable data, classifiable typologies (residential, commercial, open space, infrastructure etc). What can we learn from anthropological methods that seek to understand and define a place and its needs through narratives and stories?

The final outcomes of Shannon’s projects are interactive installations in a local ‘non-art’ space (a church hall, a disused municipal office….), a series of rooms by different artists, each exploring a particular theme which in some way defines the neighbourhood (for example languages, industries, landmarks, dreams, housing, spirituality, violence). The exhibit is open to the public for a year and often becomes a temporary social hub in the neighbourhood. During this time the organisers (a collaborative of artists and local residents) arrange special tours for ‘targeted’ groups. These are the people they believe need to hear the stories in particular - city officials, police, local businessmen, future investors, school teachers and so on.

The installation only begins to materialise after eighteen months of intense local interactions. This process takes a number of different forms, from interviews with up to a hundred individuals from a range of backgrounds, to community dinners (“to get people at the table whose voices should have been heard long ago”) and weekly volunteering for local organisations (“making ourselves useful too”). My favourite anecdote was about the tours of the city which Shannon has been given by cops of four different ethnic origins, African American, White, Hispanic and Asian, and the different perspectives they each have on the city. It was one of those who had introduced her to the best view of Richmond, which turns out to be from the parking lot of the golf course on the hill and which is also where we sat in the gold Mercedes while she explained how Richmond developed.

Since the realisation of each project depends on the participation of a network of local artists Shannon organised a dinner to which she invited a hundred artists who live in the area. She described how pleasantly surprised she was when sixty came and each one expressed a desire to help in any way they could. It was an interesting reminder that an ‘outsider’ can be a positive catalyst for local action.

I was also fascinated by how she had interpreted the relationship between Berkeley and Richmond, “two totally different worlds”. A wealth of research has been produced about Richmond in the past, “though you wouldn’t know it to look at the city”. Since much of it is stored at Berkeley, one of her goals is to provoke a discussion about how all that intellectual and financial energy can be channelled towards the city in more productive ways. So another of her dinners involved getting together as many academics as she could in Berkeley who had studied various aspects of Richmond in recent decades.

As we drove through the Iron Triangle, the ‘no-go’ area in the centre of the city so-called because it is framed by three railway tracks, Shannon was emphatic about the one thing she has continually learnt from her experiences - “that no-one has ever really taken the time to listen to the people who live here”. She is certainly honest about her bias against well-paid officials, consultants and….architects! Interestingly, her past installations have often been a catalyst for an influx of neighbourhood investment though this is not an explicit or even implicit goal. In this sense it will be interesting to follow her progress in Richmond which has suffered from disinvestment ever since the shipyards which effectively brought it into being closed after the Second World War (though a planning and design group in Berkeley has just been paid $1.5 million to draw up a new masterplan for the city…..) She drove us (Jay and me) out to an old Model T Ford Factory, the first on the West Coast (?), a giant edifice of a warehouse, which sits empty on the edge of the bay, beautiful and bleak, right next to the displaced city hall which apparently moved out into an isolated strip development while refurbishments were taking place and seems not to have raised the money to move back into town.

I had only a snapshot glimpse into Shannon’s project but her mode of working corresponds with what has caught my imagination about the people that I’m going to work with in Europe (more about that in another post), some of the speakers at Structures for Inclusion and the Rural Studio – the notion of the on-site presence, where interaction through everyday activities in everyday spaces dissolves the formal boundaries and professional divides of official ‘meetings’ allowing more subtle, complex understandings of a place to emerge. This unfortunately is the ‘time’ which is not easily categorised in the balance sheet of budget-tight consultation processes.
I’ll look forward to seeing her developments when I return to Berkeley next Spring!