The House of the Shelter

Ingenuity with which humans have been creating a shelter out of anything at hand is stunning. Most interesting is that we ought to have in mind not only certain long forgotten experiences, but actual practices as well. Millions of people in Africa and Asia are still building shelters the same way their ancestors have been doing through milleniae. Millions more are creating their home using whatever has been thrown away by their more successful neighbors in big cities. Thousands are choosing creating their home without using anything from what modern Civilization is offering them but junk, because that’s exactly their aim: they feel that resources are getting scarce, they know everyone can not be rich and they want to show the way.

The 19 century with its fast industrialization brought new crowds into the cities already overcrowded. Low wages and high rent were making the living conditions of the lower classes unbearable. Few phylantropists among industrialists initiated bold projects to improve the situation by building model housing for the workers. In smaller company-towns those were ment to consist of small cottages but for bigger cities with their land expensive high-rise housing was unanimously decided to ve the way. Naturally enough, nobody thought much about comfort — the idea was to give a room to a family (although a lot of boarding-houses envisaged exclusively lonely tenants with strict rules forbidding entrance to humans of opposite sex) providing that shared sitting-rooms or reading-rooms, bathrooms and laundries were present. As usual the architects were rather quick to grasp the new trend and, taking prevailing artistic radicalism of that age into account, one could be prepared that they would push the notion to an extreme. Specialists in hygiene in Germany were at hand calculating that a human being needed for primary rehabilation no less than seven square meters of habitable space for his/her exceptional use. German architects immediately produced models of “minimal” housing to answer that demand. European designers were fascinated with functional efficiency of a Pullmann railroad coach with its sleeping compartments or a ship cabin, and yet this was usually mere rethorics in specialized magazines. Their Russian colleagues, ready to help their leaders moving revolutionary country from feudalistic capitalism to communism in a single jump, went even further. Their reasoning, or rather the extreme expression of that presented by Mr.Kuzmin was simple if not simlistic. A progressist human being has got certain physiological needs as well as social ones. Both could be subdivided into 2 uneven parts. To sleep one had to have a narrow bed. One had to have a small cabinet for personal clothes, a shelf for two dozen books borrowed from the library, and a small table for studies in late hours. Everything else should be shared, and huge spaces were envisaged for public libraries and public cafeteria and sporting facilities and public sitting rooms. In Mr.Kuzmin’s famous project even sexual intercourse was to be a special activity in special places, while children were to be immediately taken off from mothers to be passed into the hands of professional nerses, then to a kindergarten, then to school. Mr. Zamiatin’s book “Us”, the first of the anty-utopias of the 20 century clearly depicts that project. Others were more modest, and did not imagined regulating personal hours to that degree, and yet the idea of minimizing personal space continued to be popular, and not only in Russia.

While America after the Second World War happily plunged into unlimited suburbian paradize tending to fulfill the Great American Dream: a family house for everyone, European countries strongly influenced by socialist ideas was pushing forward highrise housing with tiny apartments. Again Russia took the lead when Mr.Krushchov declared the State Housing Programme, and the architects had to stamp upon their professional self to make the smallest possible family-owned apartment. They did it: those apartments were equipped with a 10 square feet bathroom, an 18 square feet kitchen, one or two small bedrooms, and a narrow passage. No sitting-room, no hall, no cabinets.

It would be rather difficult to call that type of dwelling now being torn down in Moscow and, perhaps, in other Russian cities as well a Home by any Western standard, and yet it was a kind of privacy, that Russians were deprived of for decades. This was one’s own Shelter, and the shelter ment happiness.

Expressive as it is, it would be a mistake to kling to Russian experience. Municipal housing created in UK during two decades of the Labour rule was something similar, so the 90s have been witnessing a lot of destruction or cosltly restructuring in any major British city. The French, the Dutch, the Swedes built hectares upon hectares of the same type of high-rise, betraying the notion of Home as idealism and thinking instead about shelter for the thousands. So, let’s make a swift trip through time and space to know more about THE SHELTER.

Sir Bannister Fletcher who spent his lifetime to explore into the earliest experience of prehistoric man wrote: “A simple cave could be enlarged, changed in shape, have another chamber added to it behind, to one side, above or below, linked by ramp, stair or doorway, and then enother chamber beyond that, and yet another, perhaps, in a different direction, or branching off from one of the new chambers” (Stone Shelters). This simple notion helps us to understand that any permanent place could never be anything like a natural shelter, this would always be man-made to a degree. The degree could be varied, starting from light alterations and ending with something like the famous Cappadocia Cones. There, in the middle of Turkey, where so many early steps towards Civilization were made, natural cones of soft volcano stone, the tufa rock cones had been turned into houses by hollowing them up. Cappadocians carved entire cities this way, and as cones were climbing the mountain slope, these cities got up to 16 stories and down turning into a kind of skycrapers clusters, often connected with tunnels. Cave cities that were built by dozens of generations through Ancient and Medeival times have turned no less complicated even though less spectacular than in Cappadocia, and one can find them anywhere: in Greece and in Crimea and in India.

A variety of intermediary forms is known since time immemorial as well. In Petra, that glorious Necropolis in Jordan consealed from any intruder till 1840s, only tombs were cut deep into reddish tufa rock, their elevations elaborately carved, but in places like Seidnaya village in Syria people still do produce a house in two steps. The first step is to cut soft limestone blocks out of the mountain slope and to put them aside for a while. The second step is to build a front wall and short side walls using the blocks previously stored. When in that village one first has the impression of a regular village street, and one needs to enter the door to discover that the house is 3/4 a cave.

Or take incredible grandeur that has been achieved by Indians in mountaineous Arizona who had built compact townships very similar to any European Medieval town with their three to four storeyed houses, but unlike anything else these are to be found under immense monolythic ceilings, the huge rock cornices created by erosion.

A fabulous sight is frozen in time in Scara Brae on one of the Orckney islands far to the North from Scotland. A small cluster of dwellings survived five thousand years or more because everything to the last item of a household was made of stone. A small honeycomb of artificial caves, something that should have inspired Tolkien to think of Hobbits, was composed of very thick walls and very narrow passages leading here and there to a small living compartment. Stone bedstands, stone cupboards with shattered stone dishes, stone benches and stone cabinets — all of that had to be far more tidy and comfortable due to rags and furs and thatch. And the most important feature was a door, a real door, that created feeling of intimacy so vital to a family always. Places like Scara Brae, or Chatal-Huyuck in Turkey, the eldest village unearthed it seems, have proved beyond doubt that at least seven thousand years ago a shelter for a small family was the dominant type of dwellings. This was home, sweet home all right.

At another extreme where not a stone could be found in proximity of a hundred miles the Marshmen of Southern Iraque have been producing really imposing structures using the only natural resource they posess, reed. Giant read that grows to a hight of 20’ along the lower Tigris and Euphrates where their waters mix had been excellent building material in the age of Gilgamesh, the legendary god-king of Uruk. It still is. Reed is first bound into huge bundles, up to 3’ thick. Those bundles are stuck into the ground creating rows of columns opposing each other. Then a master climbs a kind of tripod made of reed as well, and while two teams are pulling the tops of two pillars down and inward, he ties them together. The whole is covered with redd mats, the gaps between pillars are covered with reed lacing, and the resulting effect reminds strongly of a gothic chapel with its huge arched ribs and its traceried windows at both ends. These houses called mudhifs have been in constant use for at least five thousand years — to disappear completely in twenty or thirty years.

The Dogon living in Mali have invented a brilliant intermediary style in housing which caused a kind of turbulence among modern architects when it had been widely publicized in the 60s. With their complicated symbolism of any shape and any opening the Dogon have invented an ingenious construction system, using a skeleton of dry branches to be infilled with bricks of mud molded into halfcones and later to be carefully sculpted with the help of clay mixed with water and shrot cut grass an horse manure. The complex shape is so artistically complicated, the surfaces are so much alive with human energy, so much handmade, that no one can tell where the border between architecture and sculpture could be traced if at all.

The Southern Seas people have produced fantastic variety of light structures with utmost skill in using palm trees, palm leaves and banana leaves to create comfort and beauty of their home, easily torn down by a hurricane and quickly rebuilt from scratch.

Ancient Japanese who were taught through sad experience that an earthquake could put an end to any solid structure, managed to invent a house that would not kill its residents with sudden collapse. Its wooden frame was light and delicate, its roof thatched and partitions made of thin bamboo tracery framed in wood and sliding in the groves. With scarce decoration and perfectly embracing a mini-garden that house proved to be an everlasting type still luring generations of architects in the West.

One often forgets that a mobile home in its primordeal shape is still widely in use. Fefteen minutes by car from Jeruslaem, and there they are, the black tents of the Beduin Arabs with their sheep and goats in the desert. The main structure is a roof rectangle made of woven goat’s hair with sheep’s wool added sometimes. Together with poles and ropes it makes a space-frame upon which two narrow exterior curtains are pinned with several inner curtains subdividing the interior added. The length and the number of supporting poles reflect the wealth and the inmportance of the household. Half an hour ride from any bigger Morocco city, and one will inevitably discover the Berber shipskins tents, the roofs of which would make an exquisite double curve due to the main supporting arch fastened from small fragments with the help of ropes. The structure is known since the Tabernacle for the Ark of Covenant with its sheepskins and woven hangings of linen. A little farther into the Sachara desert, and one may soon detect the mat tents of the Tuareg which could be erected in half an hour. The wooden bed is placed upon the cleared ground. The curved wooden pieces constituting the three arches and the pronged posts to hang upon them all the belongings are buried in the ground. The arch pieces are lashed together and the two horizontal crossbars are fixed to vertical sticks buried in the ground. A long cord is wound around the high middle arch to form loops for the insertion of still slender rods forming semiarches in the longtitudinal direction, the narrow ends of them lashed together. The tent structure ready to be covered with mats, the solitary builder has to put them on in strict order elaborated through millenia to perfection. Several million people in North China, Mongolia and Tibet, Kirghizia and Turkmenistan have been doing very similar operations with their yurts, although there are more pre-fab wooden details, a central compression ring makes an opening above the fire pince and as harsh winter demands that the yurt would be covered by two layers of thick felt and canvas, two camels are needed to transport this perfect mobile dwelling.

What a pity that one is bound to speak about timber more in the past than in present terms, as the dwellings of the former wood people have got such a splendid long history. Its beginnings are lost in time, but due to diggings in Northern Europe or in Japan we might be sure that before introducing iron tools in large scale around 700 BC only the main supporting logs were sharpened to get them in soft soil deep enough while all the other structural elements were together with skilful use of prongs. The peasants exploited the new efficiency of iron axes and adzes to create a new type of structure using the whole logs. Deep grooves were cut into the vertical poles, so horisontal tongued loogs coulkd now be hammered between them making a rigidly braced grid wall. Later this structure was mostly used for fortifications — each crate would be filled with stones and dirt and covered with turf to protect it from fire, and that structure would still be used in Eastern Europe and America in through 17 century.

The scale of construction is bewildering. In Southern Ukraine there are still remains of enormous villages where thousands of people lived together in rows and rows of structures covered with logs cut along and barl and clay mix. Calculations show that those Tripolye villagers had to cut down miles and miles of virgin woods to build those places simultaneously making their fields. Long before invaders pulled those villages down their inhabitants had to move further on to the North to cut down new woods and to create new fields leaving behind them the new Steppe where wild grass soon started to build the famous black soil.

In Northern Europe the house builders learned to save a lot of effort disposing of the solid structure. They put up an open framed grid of timbers, mortised and tenoned at the joints to ensure rigidity. The apertures could then be left open as windows or doors or they could be filled with panels of daubed clay or woven wattle. A shelter that was to last till the end of the Middle Ages was born.

The timber frame looks so simple in itself that one has certain difficulty to understand how varied the result could be acheived in different countries. Sometimes people who never heard of each other invented similar things, like the hogan of Navajo Indians and the darbazi of ancient Georgian in Caucasus, in both cases logs being adiasted to make a kind of so-called false dome structure. In other cases people were inventing forms so different as an English cottage and a Russian log hut or a Japanese house although they used the same thatch for the roof.

The two great migrations, that of the Americans going West and the Russians going East brought to being new ways of construction with adobe blocks (wellknown in Middle East for five thousand years) and with studs and with soddies. Wars and revolutions often caused reinventing still more primitive earth dwellings or fast assembled twig and reed and clay structures, like those that were to be erected in thosands when millions of people moved from endangered regions to Southern Siberia and Kazachstan in the fromer Soviet Union during the Scecond World war.

When the Hippy movement gathered momentum in the United States semi-improvised construction brought new interest towards traditional and non-commercial way of making a home. Let’s use a small extract from a treatise published by Eric Park in 1970 under the title Residence Renaissance. Recycling a small city house: “It’s about hard work, it’s about craft, it’s about recycling low-cost housing. Debby and I have just recycled our first home in Springfield, Oregon, over a period of thirteen months, from August... It was more than just a living, and more than just a place: it was a job, a craft that we learned as we went along. We’ve read William Nickerson’s memoirs, and we’re convinced that any dunderhead with sufficient singleness of purpose, by concentrating exclusively upon Mammon and Nickerson’s way, can make a million in real estate. But we are not into finance juggling, contract labor, rapid turnover, rentals or even, strictly speaking, profit. We’re into making obsolete the American obsolescence economy. We’re being willing to “rough” it for a few weeks or months in a substandard dwelling, in order to make it attractive and livable. We’re into saving the millions of trees cut down each year by the builders, when there are homes that can be saved through a little honest labor and elbow grease. And we’re finally, at three removes, into making a living by patching the roof over our head.” Step by step, through gathering experience and using advice, both reasonable and not, Eric and Debby Park did what they wanted to do, and thousand more have been doing it all the time — building their own home.

All kind of strange people who are thought to be bizarre, have been following this way. A certain Dr.Tinkerpaw who called himself Captain Nitwit as well, was famous in the 70s for creating a fantasy castle out of junk in California. Bob Anderson managed to build “a hiperbolic paraboloid shelter” with nothing but eucaliptus poles and plywood. Dick Keigwin spent four summer months to create a fantasy dwelling using exclusively driftwood from the beach and mostly bent and rusted nails. In summer 1972 John Welles and his friends built a timberhouse in Connecticut woods being inspired by a book by Eric Sloane on early American structures. Keith Jones from Alaska spent a lot of time proving how persistent an arctic tent shelter might turn when insulated additionally by a grass layer put between an inner and an outer tent. Kelly Hart from California or Dennis Turnguisy from Minnesota were busy with making there own mobile housecars, and as Dennis put it, Junck cars have been ignored too long. They have roofs, windows that open, and doors, all of which are most expensive in house building. Old trucks can be a semi-portable foundation for a house. I put my old Pegeaut roof with its sun roof on stilts above the bed of my ‘49 Ford 1 ton, high enough so that I could stretch in the morning and added on till I ended up with this Transient Home called outrageous, turtle, ingenious, satirical, etc. by the admirers. Joaquin de la Luz transformed an old Chevvy flatbed into one of the most unique home to roll America’s roads. Others used horse and vagon or building elliptical campers of wood and poliuretane foam. No end to that type of creating the Home ever anew.

And one should not forget about boat-houses, be it in Canton or Amsterdam. Or about towers urge for which has always been strongly embedded into some people subconscious. The famous Watts Towers built by Simon Rodia in Los Angeles and after some fight acknowledged by the authorities as a landmark is but one example. Rodia who finished his task in 1954 spoke about it: I no have anybody help me out. Had to do a little at a time. Nobody helped me. I think I hire a man he don’t know what to do. A million times I don’t know what to do myself. I never had a single helper. Some of the people say what was he doing... some of the people think I was crazy and some people said I was doing something in the United States because I was raised here you understand? I wanted to do something for the United States because there are nice people in this country.

At another level as sophisticated mind as that of Carl G.Jung revealed the same time of obsession, well seen in Dr.Jung’s book Memories, Dreams and Reflections: Words and paper, however, did not seem real enough to me; something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faith on stone. That was the beginning of the Tower, the house which I built for myself at Bolingen.

In was setlled from the start that I would build near the water. I had always been curiously drawn by the scenic charm of the upper lake of Zurich, and so in 1922 I bought some land in Bollingen. It is situated in the area of St.Meinrad and is old church land, having formerly belonged to the monastery of St.Gall.

At first I did not plan a proper house, but merely a kind of primitive one-story dwelling. It was to be a round structure with a hearth in the center and bunks along the walls. I more or less had in mind an African hut where the fire, ringed by a few stones, burns in the middle, and the whole life of a family revolves around this center. Primitive huts concretize an idea of wholeness, a familial wholeness in which all sorts of small domestic animals likewise participate. But I altered the plan during the first stages of building, for I felt it was too primitive. I realized it would have to be a regular two-story house, not a mere hut crouched on the ground. So in 1923 the first round house was built, and when it was finished I saw that it had become a suitable dwelling tower.

The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start. It represented for me the maternal hearth. But I became increasingly aware that it did not yet express everything that needed saying, that something was still lacking. And so, four years later, in 1927, the central structure was added, with a tower-like annex.

After some time had passed — again the interval was four years — I once more had a feeling of incompleteness. The building still seemed too primitive to me, and so in 1931 the tower-like annex was extended. I wanted a room in this tower where I could exist for myself alone. I had in mind what I had seen in Indian houses, in which there is usually an area — though it may be only a corner of a room separated by a curtain — to which the inhabitants can withdraw. There they meditate perhaps a quarter or half an hour, or do Yoga exercises. Such an area of retirement is essential in India, where people live crowded very close together.

In my retiring room I am by myself. I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission. In the course of the years I have done paintings on the walls, and so have expressed all those things which have carried me out of time into seclusion, out of the present into timelessness. Thus the second tower became for me a place of spiritual concentration...”

A friend of mind, a brilliant man from Berlin who likes to be called a Gardener has been living with his big family in a nice row-house with a charming backyard garden in a very nice wooded part of the metropolis, and yet he had found peace of mind he felt necessary only when he had assembled a yurt he had brought home from Mongolia. Another one, himself an Architect, living in windy Wales had found his peace of mind at the moment when he had completed remodelling a house to the point where every smallest thing, like a doorknob, was shaped to a certain state by his own hand. Vladimir, an Architect from St.Petersburg, never could feel happy till he had erected a house in the woods far off city working exclusively with his axe as ancestors did, using mortise and tenon, without a single nail... A meditation place and a very beatiful house it is indeed.

One may wave these high-brow attempts off as well as many others, seing in them nothing but excentricity, and yet the problem stays, because so many people can’t afford so-called affordable housing and are badly in need of a simpler shelter built with their own hands. Charles Jencks mainly known by his treatease on so-called Post-Modern Architecture years before wrote in ‘Architecture 2000”: “Why should governments try to do everything in their power to suppress squatter settlementswhen often they work so much better than the government housing that is supplied at much greater cost and effort? A most striking example of this absurdity occurred in Lima, Peru where at least one quarter of the population now live in squatter settlements, or barriadas. The way these barriadas were formed is instructive.

After the Second World War, they spread very quickly because of rapid urbanization. They were immediately regarded as social evils, as seebeds of communism and as centers of crime and prostitution. In fact, as it turned out, the realities were quite different: the incidence of crime was much lower than in the urban slum and the sociopolitical views of the inhabitants were, ironically enough, conservative. But the government, the social workers and architects were determined to regard them as social evils, and therefore they were made to fit this role at all costs. Naturally, the would-be squatters became activists in a litteral sense. The only way they could gain rent-free land and leave the unendurable, urban slum was to form organized platoons and invade government-owned land during the night. Invasions were to be carefully organized wwith an avant-garde made up of lawyers to choose the site, lay-out men to draw the boundaries for streets and lots, and a woman known as the ‘secretary of defence’ whose precise role is somewhat obscure but whom one imagines acting both as a normal secretary and a buffer to the police. After an invasion (there have been more than a hundred around Lima) the police manage to counterattack and lose, or if they do happen to win and clear the site, it is only a matter of time before it is reoccupied and sooner or later recongnized by the authorities.

Then given a few years, a two-stage development sets in where the squatters set up more permanent abodes, built of cement rather than straw, and start their own form of sociopolitical organization. Soon they are organizing yearly elections of their own governors in a country where local democracy was unknown for more than sixty years. Inevitably there are drawbacks of an administrative kind: the squatters have trouble constructing large-scale facilities such as sewer systems and often have to depend on the central city for schooling. But the area in which they undeniably excel is in community spirit and popular initiative. There are endless examples of communal construction and communal services and, perhaps more important, self-help. In the barriada, the individual can construct and destruct his house according to need without government interference. For instance, if he needs a second story or a new room he can add one without restriction; if he needs a yard for raising chickens and ginea pigs he can chop down an old room. Thus the needs are satisfied according to individual priorities and not according to bureaucratic protocol: shelter comes before amenity; walls and roof before electricity and a bath. In a very real way, the barriadas are now proving that the best and most satisfying low-cost housing, is in fact the cheapest. Hence the Peruvian government has even had a change of heart and is now beginning to support their development and ask architects such as Aldo Van Eyck, Christopher Alexander and James Stirling for their suggestions on aiding the ‘Young Towns’ as they are now approvingly called.

The reason for the recent popularity of barriadas in architectural circles is that they dramatize in a non-romantic way the opportunities for determining one’s own way of life and life-style. Many other examples of this individual initiative could be given in the West, from the ‘self-build’ groups in England to ‘Drop-City’ in America, but none of them go to the extremes of the barriadas because the city authorities are much more adept at fighting off invasion and keeping the poor in their place. As some activist has said, the only way to get out of a Western ghetto is to burn your way out. There is no chance of occupying new land and the poor can only rent tenements from public housing authorities or from slum lords.”

An Italian film created in the 50s by a director moving with so-called Neo-realism trened was called The Roof. In many respects that was also a kind of barriadas, the only way to get a home of one’s own among the poor was to build it on government belonging land without permit. The law represented by local police had to look that such a dwelling would be destroyed with a stipulation that a structure with a roof had to be considered a proper house thus being protected from destruction. I do not know how realistic that picture was (it seems it was quite), yet by all means it struck the right tune, as that has always been the roof that made the house. A roof over one’s head — that’s an expression in many languages stating that the roof symbolize the whole shelter. Natural enough that a roof without walls should be considered a perfect house in that symbolic sense, and so many shelters has been fitting perfectly into that picture, being domes.

The remains at Chirochitia, Cyprus, prove that a structure reminding a proper dome had been invented at least seven thousand years ago: successive courses of stonework were overhaging over the lower ones till they met at the top. The walls had to be extremely thick to prevent the whole from collapse. Long before the Romans local tribes in Southern Italy learned to build small masonry domes of brick or cut stone. Thousands years ago the inhabitants of Northern Africa, being short of timber, had mastered first a barrel vault and later a dome of hand-made bricks to be built without wooden centering. The Aleut discovered that a nearly perfect domed house, an igloo, could be built of blocks cut from snow, and they even mastered adding a small barrel vault as an entrance to crawl through. In the beginning of the 20 century one could still find and make a picture of an impressive chief’s house at Samoa with a huge dome the frame of which was made of woven bamboo thatched with sugar cane, or a thatched dome of a Zulu tribesman.

Then in 1922 Dr. Walter Bauersfeld in Yena had invented a subdivided isacohedral hemisphere. Its structural framework of light steel bars was covered with a very thin layer of concrete making the first geodesic dome light and strong like an egg-shell. And then came Buckminster Fuller, who patented the same principle and was propagating geodesic domes so many years, so that young radicals of the 60s could have picked it up building the Drop City and “zomes” of plywood and cardboard. The story came to its end which proved to be similar with the very first step of a shelter in Chirochitia.

For a long period of time only some SF writers, like Ray Bradburry, were talking about volnurability of the house, about its growing dependence on huge and anonymous technical networks. For centuries but few people tended to build a house with their own hands to pass one’s own strength and energy to walls, and floors, and ceilings, to doors and windows. Not so many manage nowadays to transform a shelter into a house. And one is to have a glimpse at miles of the ‘Shoe-boxes’ decaying in California after the residents left moving elsewhere to start everything anew after discovering (they had just completed their 20 years payments to the bank) that a fragile structure would not endure more. Then one discovers how fast a Home could be degraded to a shelter for homeless and for animals, and later for animals only.

Anything could be a provisional shelter, and yet so often a solid house betrays its inhabitants loosing its protective power as it happened in Saint Louis, USA, when a whole public housing block called Pruit Igoe previously awarded and hailed was disposed off with dinamite as it had turned the worst slum imaginable. One had to see thousands of town dwellers suddenly turned homeless in former Yugoslavia, and in Chechenia, or to know about a million of Burundians who had to flea their village huts, in order to understand that the story of shelters, sadly enough, would never end.


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