Sunday, December 27, 2009

How long does it take to get the work done?

When trying to estimate the time you need to get something done, there are some laws you might need to consider. In fact, it turns out not to be a question of efficiency or productivity, but of our inevitable human nature.

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.
Coined by Douglas Hofstadter in 1979, this law tells us the reality of planning fallacy. Neil D. Weinstein's researches in the 1980s discovered that the majority of people are actually egocentric and therefore tend to have an unrealistic positive belief about their future (called "Optimistic Bias"). Underestimating the probability of negative events certainly leads to miscalculating time. Half-jokingly, Hofstadter offered a rule for correction: double the number and step up to the next higher units. For example, a job estimated at 1 hour can be accomplished in 2 days, while a 3-month project will take you 6 years.

Parkinson's Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson stated this law in his 1955 article in The Economist, followed by statistical evidences drawn from his historical research, such as the fact that from 1914 to 1928, the number of British Admiralty officials increased almost 80% while the Navy diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships; and also the increase of the Colonial Office staff during the decline of the British Empire. Parkinson explained these with two motive forces: an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and officials make work for each other. Have you ever had the feeling that your team leader was always trying to get more people on the team, and would always come up with something for you whenever you were just about to open your web browser?

Student syndrome: Many people will start to fully apply themselves to a task just at the last possible moment before a deadline.
We've all been students and we all remember how we dealt with the long-term assignments. We might start early, but the last minute would most likely be stressful anyways. You may think procrastination relates to either laziness or perfectionism. Psychologically, it's just caused by two basic human tendencies: we would relax when things seem easy and try to avoid the things that seem to be difficult. That's why it's so hard to start organizing a messy room or working on the portfolio. Some scholars also pointed out the importance of motivation. If the task is boring or I don't feel rewarded for doing it, why would I spend time on it now when there is so much fun out there?

OK, how long does it take to get it done? I guess the perfect answer would be "When is it due?"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Man identity

(It sounds weird that Human is writing something about Man. Well, yeah...)

The Jewish Museum organized a Man Ray retrospective with more than 200 works from the significant modernist's 60-year career. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, son of Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, and then being the only American in the Paris art circle, Man Ray consistently tried to avoid his roots. With the contradictionary need to obscure and declare himself, his desire was to "become a tree en espalier," a tree trained to grow on trellis that form a single plane pattern other than growing in its natural mass. This is a plant that has a strong presence yet its origins disguised. It is both "notoriety" and "oblivion" at the same time - a famous nobody.

Man Ray's mediums span from paintings, collages, objects, to photographs, films, and poems. Dadaism provided him with a good vehicle to subvert traditional authority and cut loose the previously specific relationship between name and self. But of all the tools he explored, photography reflects most powerfully his double-sided intention of revealing and concealing identity.

When photography was first invented, it was admired as the perfect tool of factual documentation. But Man Ray used it as an instrument to blur authenticity and identity. He described himself as one who “so deforms the subject as almost to hide the identity of the original, and creates a new form,” Through various manipulative techniques, he demonstrated how transformable any subject could be. In his photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse titled Le violon d’Ingres, you see the back of a beautiful woman, yet with one tweak: two violin f-holes were inscribed. Suddenly the identity of the female body is blended with the identity of a music instrument. The lover acts as muse across different forms of art, and the artist acts as the alchemist.

Le violon d’Ingres, 1924

The signature series of "Rayographs" is another example. By exposing objects directly on photographic paper, cameraless shades were created. The objects are blurry, translucent and overlapping. They are usually recognizable and yet stripped off their original identities. The defamiliarizing composition transforms the known into the unknown, and opens the possibilities to a whole new alternative reality.

Rayograph, 1923

Perhaps nothing is more telling than self-portraits in terms of how someone sees his own identity. Man Ray's earliest self-portrait (1916) is a multi-media collage. There's a handprint in the center conveying the idea of "self," but its location - where the mouth would roughly be - also implies silence. A door belt is fixed at the bottom. But if you ring, there's no sound, as if saying "I am not telling you." Man Ray once said, "People keep asking me where I was born... You know what? That's too long ago and I already forgot." Later self-portraits include many blurry and distorted images, and my favorite is a frame with just a carnival mirror inside.

Self-portrait, 1916

What's Man's attitude? His epitaph puts it the best: "unconcerned, but not indifferent."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Elements of happiness

A recent study by Andrew Oswald (University of Warwick in England) and his team ranked the US states according to their residents' life satisfaction. At KJ&J's suggestion, I started to collect information and tried to find out what make some states happier while others less cheerful.

Geographically speaking, the Sun Belt appears to be happier, with the exception of California. The Rust Belt seems to be pretty gloomy. I guess weather does affect the mood a lot.

There are also socio-economic aspects. The chart below is trying to decipher the meanings of living environment, race, income, health, education, family, religion, safety, and politics, in relation to the notion of happiness.

(click to enlarge)

The comparison doesn't seem to be very conclusive. But at least we can see some tendencies:

- Curiously enough, race, money, and family don't seem to matter much.
- High density can cause stress but low density doesn't necessarily make you happier.
- Fat states tend to be happier.
- The pattern of the education column looks quite random but at least the percentages of Bachelors and higher in the top 16 happy states are all under 30%.
- People who live in the top 10 happy states obviously care more about religion than the bottom 10. Actually, the area of "Sun Belt minus California" is called the Bible Belt.
- Crimes don't seem to affect people's mood much either. In fact, the crime rates of the top 6 are quite high.
- Politically, I think everybody can see blue concentrating at the bottom.

Living in the least cheery state of all, I actually consider melancholy a cool thing. (Yay Charlie Brown!) It gets you to think, to contemplate life with the will of improvement, not merely satisfaction. I would rather be "unhappy" than being a fat ignorant conservative, living in the suburbs with no ambition, and going to the church every morning...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Notes: "Al Manakh 2" debate 12/12/09

I went to the "Al Manakh 2" debate at Studio-X last Saturday. Al Manakh is a collaborative effort initiated by Volume, Archis, OMA/AMO, Pink Tank and NAi, to monitor, reveal and forecast new urban developments in the Gulf region. Though I frequently heard the names Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the last few years, I don't really know much about the Gulf. So this post is intended to be just a summery of notes instead of trying to put in much speculations.

Mark Wigley: Dubai is a symbol, both of the boom and the crisis.

Alex Deffner: Planning is about improving the image and marketing is about promoting the image. The two seem to be intertwining.

Alex Deffner: People's first reaction to the crisis is to cut leisure and transportation. You don't see as many people at the JFK these days...

Waleed Hazbun: The iconic images of Dubai are blurring the present and the future, the real and the imagine. The city presents itself as a promise. The present identity is based on the future.

Waleed Hazbun: Five alternative futures of Dubai:
1. A spectacle of decline;
2. A monument to the moment of early 21st century (a dated image of when architects could do whatever they wanted);
3. Nationalist retrenchment (reclaiming identity through local heritage);
4. A boutique "neo-liberal" city for the global elite;
5. A creative pluralist cosmopolitan community and sense of place.

Jeffrey Inaba: The western model of desert is the site of experimentation (from Taliesin West to the Bucky dome to the NASA Mars project). Its remoteness gives a sense of freedom, like you would choose to experiment in your garage but not in the living room. In the Gulf region, the desert is not externalized from living. Rather, it's the very site of inhabitation. The notion of "responsibility" becomes more important.

Jeffrey Inaba: There's a paradox of increasing desertification and increasing urbanization.

Daniel van der Velden: Dubai is in a way branding Abu Dhabi. With the image of Dubai, Abu Dhabi doesn't really need to do anything.

Daniel van der Velden: In the future, there would be no central branding figure. The citizens themselves become the "brand ambassadors." What the Obama campaign showed us is the power of the mobilized crowd. The center is relatively a void.

Mark Wigley: Diplomats are not only familiar with their own side. They can also easily represent the other sides since they have to understand what the other sides are thinking. So in a way, diplomats have no identities.

Mark Wigley: A city is like the computer - the value lies in what it can do, and the entire network behind it.

Alex Deffner: There are intentional marketing and the unintentional one. The German town of Bohmte was getting rid of all the street signs and traffic regulations. All of a sudden it became famous.

Landscape, etc.

James Corner of Field Operations gave a lecture at the Cooper Union last Wednesday. The projects were mostly the usual suspects, such as Fresh Kills, Governors Island, Nordhavnen, and the High Line. But it was still nice to hear him speak and learn the points he was trying to make.

He started the lecture with a peaceful landscape painting and said, "This is what people usually think landscape architects are doing." Something picturesque out there even before painters and poets romanticized it. By this definition, landscape is just something beautiful to look at. You are not part of it, not engaged in it. To Corner, landscape should be full of interactions - it should be seen as the ambient background of life. There's nothing pictorial about what landscape architects do. "Nothing cool." He then moved to explain his fascination about the American rural landscape, arguing that the pictorial aspects of the survey grid and water purification facilities come from the pragmatic use of the land. Here, beauty is defined by use.

Nebraska landscape

Following the same line, design acts like catalyze, or an agency, to amplify the latent potential of the site and its surroundings. One example is the High Line. In addition to being a nice public space, it is also an instrument to affect changes in the West Side of Manhattan. The sheer variety of ways to use it far exceeded anybody's expectation. Corner said Field Operations had been trying to design their projects with a site-specific approach, avoiding pre-defined aesthetics or style, although he recently started to rethink that "maybe style is not necessarily a bad thing." (Is this what people say when they realize they do have a style?)

Corner described Fresh Kills as a "theater of processes." It's simply so big; and there are so many players and contested requests for identity. The project has to be phased into several stages of developments. He raised the question: "What if there are different values in different stages so that there's no final climax stage? No 'end-game'?" I think it's an interesting concept of time - design is dynamic and responsive over time. It is endless evolving growth, or cultivation if you will, both literally and metaphorically.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The culture of splits

After learning from the news that FOA is closing as Farshid and Alejandro split, and then going to the JDS book launch at Storefront, I just can't help but think that design partnerships tend to eventually fall apart, no matter how much you emphasize the importance of collaboration at the beginning. Here's a list of splits that I can think of... in the world of architecture:

Foreign Office Architects
Founded in 1995 by Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi.
Split and started different offices in 2009.

Founded in 2001 by Bjarke Ingels and Julien de Smedt.
Split and started different offices (BIG and JDS) in 2006.

Abalos & Herreros
Founded in 1984 by Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros.
Split and started different offices (Abalos-Sentkiewicz Arquitectos and Herreros Arquitectos) in 2006.

Coop Himmelb(l)au
Founded in 1968 by Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky, and Michael Holzer.
Holzer left in 1971. Swiczinsky left in 2006.

Enric Miralles and Carme Pinós
Founded in 1984, split in 1991.

Founded in 1972 by Thom Mayne, Livio Santini, James Stafford, and Michael Brickler. Michael Rotondi joined in 1976.
Stafford worked with Eric Owen Moss in the late 70s before setting up his office in 1980. Rotondi left in 1991.

Founded in 1975 by Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis.
Elia Zenghelis started his office in 1987. Zoe Zenghelis gradually worked more on her own paintings.

It is natural that people have different agendas and different opinions, not talking about egoistic personalities and financial conflicts. Design partnership is a kind of particular bonding that requires way more trust and tolerance, given the subjective nature of design. I guess you need to be kindergarten friends to work together like Herzog and de Meuron.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Welcome to Tatooine

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Well, it was a long time (millions of years) ago but right on our planet Earth. After volcanoes Erciyes and Hasan erupted, ash and lava formed a region of cones and valleys, now known as Cappadocia, Turkey. From then on, wind and water erosion sculpted the rocks into thousands of spectacular mushroom- and chimney-like forms. Early settlers hollowed out the soft volcanic-deposit rocks and made them into their houses, churches and monasteries. Nature and men shaped the region of Cappadocia into an amazing landscape. It feels almost like being on Tatooine, the Star Wars planet where Anakin and Luke Skywalker grew up. (Actually, George Lucas did plan to shoot Episode 1 here.)

Uçhisar Castle is a good example of how people inhabited the soft rocks. This type of architecture can be seen all around Cappadocia, including the famous Göreme anchorite community dated back to the 4th century.

Paşabağları is famous for its fairy chimneys. They were formed when erosion wiped out the softer tuff but left a piece of harder, less easily-eroded cap rock at the top. OK, I know what you think they look like. Let's just say mushrooms.

Ihlara Valley is a 16km long, 150-200m deep gorge carved out by the Melendiz River over the centuries. Byzantine monks came here and cut hundreds of churches into the base of the towering cliffs.

Reading the transcript of Rem's lecture on sustainability in an Uçhisar hotel room seemed to be a nice coincidence. Rem was talking about advancement vs. apocalypse strands of thinking, talking about radical inventories of the world, both of cultural and natural elements, about people interacting with nature in a way that doesn’t show any tension or alienation. Looking out of the window, I thought Cappadocia is definitely one of the early examples of how culture and nature could coexist.

(Many thanks to Nikole Bouchard for generously sharing photos of her trip to Cappadocia.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

When pedagogy became a team project

What's presented at the MoMA Bauhaus show is not only an extensive survey of drawings and objects produced in the school, but also a collective effort of its faculty to reform art and architecture education. I was amazed by the strong connection between what I saw as a fascinating collection of works and the fascinating group of people behind them. These people experimented together and pushed the limit of design, injecting the ideology and discourse into pedagogy that rigorously shaped the identity of the school, and consequently the identity of a generation of architecture.

The marriage of design and making was the key to Bauhaus since its formation in 1919. As Gropius claimed in the Bauhaus Manifesto, "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! ... Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together." To "embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity," the school was formed in a workshop-based fashion. After completing a compulsory preliminary course (Vorkurs), students would pick a workshop, which was headed both by a fine artist and a master craftsperson. In the workshops, the basic theories of the craft, together with design parameters, were directly combined with practical experience.Principles laid out a plan. Its execution relied on a group of brilliant teachers who work together as a team. It's interesting to walk through the chronologically-organized exhibition and see how the ideas of the school evolved as the faculty members changed over time.

(click on timeline to enlarge)

1923: Itten's departure

The works shown in the first room display a strong influence of Johannes Itten, who taught the preliminary course from 1919 to 1923. Itten's teaching focused on the principles of abstraction, including studies of color, form, and materials in themselves. The goal of the class was to release the students' creativity and give them an opportunity to find out their specific strength. All this was rather personal and subjective, even spiritual. Itten would start his almost cult-like classes with gymnastic and breathing exercises in order to put the students in a relaxed state. The problem was, individual sensibility didn't seem to be teachable.

As the exhibition turns to the second room, a new slogan pops up: "Art and Technology – A New Unity." To me, this new direction was not just about technology per se, but rather an engagement in social changes, in the commerce of mass production. Gropius wanted to run the school as business, and Itten hated it. He resigned in March, 1923. The dramatic Gropius-Itten conflict reminds me of the earlier Werbund debate, when Henry van de Velde argued for a craft basis for design and Hermann Muthesius insisted on implementing industrial prototypes.

After Itten left, the preliminary course was split into two: László Moholy-Nagy assumed the more theoretical aspects, and Josef Albers took over the practical perspective. Compared to the expressionist works directed by Itten, Moholy-Nagy's class took a more constructivist approach, emphasizing the notion of structure and the conveyance of a preconceived concept. Similarly objective, the studies of materials in Albers's class pointed directly to workshop manufacturing techniques rather than personal feelings of the textures.

1925: The young masters

The idea of "New Objectivity" intensifies as the exhibition unfolds forward, especially after 1925, when Bauhaus moved to Dessau and four former students were appointed masters. Herbert Bayer headed the workshop for printing and advertising, Marcel Breuer the cabinet making workshop, Hinnerk Scheper the wall-painting workshop, and Joost Schmidt the sculpture workshop. In the same year, the Bauhaus Co. Ltd. was founded.
(From left to right: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer. December 5, 1926)

Exhibits from this period expanded to the full spectrum of art: textile, mural, sculpture, poster, typography, tables and chairs, lamp, kitchenware, performance, stage set, puppets, toys, photography, collages, film... Teachers were exploring design together with the students, creating notable pieces such as Breuer's tubular steel chairs, Gunta Stölzl's wall hangings, Marianne Brandt's samovar and ceiling lights. The school united as an enterprise that provided good design to the society of modern life.

1928: Gropuis's resignation

In order to focus on his architectural practice, Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin. Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, and Bayer decided to leave at the same time. As new director, Hannes Meyer advocated a more scientific approach in the work and the classes. He demanded the exclusion of any aesthetic criteria (which he regarded as forms of elitism), criticizing the former direction at the Bauhaus as too formalist. Under his leadership, works after 1928 became mostly charts and diagrams, precise calculations of light/heat/acoustics, and the relentless repetition in Ludwig Hilberseimer's drawings.

1930: Mies in power

Hannes Meyer was dismissed in 1930. Mies van der Rohe took over and was supposed to ease the political tensions and revitalize the aesthetic aspect of the Bauhaus. I had the feeling that this rebound had gone too far - the preliminary course was no longer mandatory; the architecture course became more important while the role of the workshops, and therefore of industrial design, was reduced. This is why there are not many objects displayed in the last room of the exhibition. Ironically, the loose organization of this last room resembles the faltering Bauhaus at the time. The school was forced to a sad dissolution in 1933.

Walking through the exhibition and seeing what these people were doing 90 years ago, I can't stop comparing with the academia today. No school still keeps the integrity of design as a unity of various disciplines, nor the integrity of design and making. Students are out of touch from reality and have little idea how things are actually made. Professors have stopped advancing the design discourse and only concentrate on the fight for tenure. What's wrong? Do people still care about "bau" at all?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Water on the Moon

NASA scientists announced on Friday that they had found water on the Moon. Spacecraft LCROSS struck twice (7:31am/7:36am EDT, October 9) into the Cabeus crater, a permanently shadowed region near the Moon's south pole. After a month's analysis, NASA concluded that the impact kicked up 26 gallons of water, in the forms of ice and vapor. This is exciting news, even though the invisible plume on October 9 turned out to be a huge disappointment. (Yes, I did wake up and watch it live on NASA's webcast, partly due to jet lag...)

This discovery opens a new page for lunar research. The moon is no longer seen as a dead place, but rather an attractive destination. A base camp for astronauts becomes possible. And in the future, water on the Moon could even influence our own lives...
Bottled water shipped from the Moon - no pollution whatsoever!

Fancy resort on the Moon? Bucky Fuller dome over a crater!

How about a fish farm? Seafood will soon have a variety called "moonfood."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The future of megaprojects

The megaprojects symposium at the Cooper Union last Saturday was a weird event. It was organized by the Institute for Urban Design but there weren't many designers there. I always think it's helpful to hear opinions from politicians, lawyers, and businessmen. But if the most mentioned terms were "incremental", "human scale", "suburban town center", it would be just a waste of time.

Fortunately my tolerance was high enough to stay until eventually Thom Mayne, our newly named representative in Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, showed up and injected some interesting energy into the event. I was also glad that I could actually extract some interesting points from the limited number of interesting speakers, and at the same time quietly built up my own arguments against the majority of unbearable conservatives.

What's qualified as a megaproject?
Tony Vidler opened the symposium by mentioning the 1960s and 70s. But to my surprise, none of the rest seemed to think Archigram or Superstudio were relevant. With the help of my iPhone and Wikipedia, I found out the definition of megaproject has in fact more to do with investment than form. It's more an infrastructure-related concept. OK, I admit my assumption was wrong.

Some design-based speakers did talk about form. They presented their "nice" redevelopment projects for some suburban town centers. The proposals were to subdivide the site with the most boring "human scale" streets you can ever imagine, criticizing the massive form of the original shopping mall. I think the problems of malls were not about the size but the ignorance of the opportunities bigness could provide. Bigness creates intense activities. Megastructures such as the New Babylon and the Continuous Monument contain the entire city and its diverse urban life. There is freedom of navigation, open possibilities of impromptu interactions and misuse. What's in a mall? One thing - commerce. Look at the huge parking lot around it! And look at all those little houses beyond it! These segmented large pieces convey nothing mega to me, although I am sure they were truly mega-investments.
Villa Italia. Lakewood, CO. 1966

Mega = sprawl?
The problem of American suburbs, as Robert Fishman of UMich pointed out, is the paradox that they are megaprojects that were not meant to be big. There was tremendous ambition and courage involved in Levittown, but the image is just massive smallness. The whole "New Town" movement was an escape from density. But is density something we should be afraid of? Escape is always simple. But what about the complexity and richness of life in a dense community? It could be difficult sometimes, but it's always full of energy and excitement. Vishaan Chakrabarti of Columbia University used sustainability as an argument against sprawl: "What's the point of driving three hours to your super-green home?"
How much do we rely on our cars?

The "new towns" in Asia present a totally different image from the American ones. They are not satellite towns far from the city core, nor picturesque "paradise" in the woods. They are actually an extension of a dense metropolis urban form. Behind these images are visions to think big. Robert Fishman called them "grand manners." To answer the question of what we are seeking when we build big, Vishaan Chakrabarti compared how stimulus money were spent in different countries. In the US, the majority went to offsetting governmental deficits, while the Chinese package lays out an extensive list of large infrastructure projects. If we think big and see the opportunities for new infrastructure around high density, we will understand how megaprojects can bring along other megaprojects. We call this progress.

Is bold vision what we need?
After a boring description of large projects in Europe and the US, Susan Fainstein raised this question: "Is bold vision what we need?" Thom Mayne jumped. Of course we need boldness to rethink the issues we have!" The problem right now is precisely a lack of broad visionary thinking." Projects without visions are just soulless. I don't even think they can be called design. There's no content, no contribution to anything whatsoever.

This reminds me of the fight between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, although Fainstein is nothing compared to Jacobs. I do admire Robert Moses' contribution to the modern New York. You need boldness to get things done. What do you think is behind the efficient German railroad system, Copenhagen's finger plan, and the light rail system in Portland?

New Urbanism or Neo-suburbanism?
When someone from the audience asked about solutions to our current urban and suburban problems (what a lameo), Fainstein answered, "I think New Urbanism is a good antidote." Thom Mayne jumped again. "New Urbanism is the most irrelevant to urban sense. It's totally a nostalgic suburban idea. No complex issues involved. Nothing close to the metropolis we are talking about." Unfortunately, there were still quite some incrementalists in the room. Emily Talen of Arizona State University, supporter of New Urbanism as she herself claimed, condemned megaprojects as one person's visions, top down, controlled, incomplete and fake. I was amused. She actually thinks New Urbanist towns are not fake!

Sunday, November 8, 2009


"If you have an apple and I have an apple, and we exchange apples, we each have one apple.
If you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange ideas, we each have two ideas."

- George Bernard Shaw

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Systematic heterogeneity

I went to the Mass Studies lecture at Columbia on Wednesday. I was surprised by Mark Wigley's introduction when he said, "If there are five, six, or seven, no more than eight emerging architects in the current world who you should keep an eye on, this is one of them. What we see here tonight are not just some random projects, but a redesign of architects as a species." I feel this may be a little bit of an overstatement, but the lecture turned out to be a pretty brilliant one.

One of the most valuable things I saw in Minsuk Cho, founder of Mass Studies, is that he's very conscious and rigorous about his practice. This is not common nowadays, especially among young architects. They do 12 projects a year in average. Instead of throwing out impulsive schemes that come from random "inspirations," they structure the projects within a systematic framework. The result, as Mark commented, is not a loose collection of shocking forms, but a deliberate repertoire of heterogeneous solutions in response to an insightful speculation of the over-populated urban conditions and other contemporary cultural and social phenomena.

"Systematic heterogeneity" is a goal that Mass Studies wants to achieve. It's something between a rigid corporate and a chaotic atelier. It has the rationality of the Hong Kong high-rise housing and also the vitality of the old streets and markets in that same city.
"Systematic heterogeneity" is also a framework that Mass Studies' practice is based upon. Cho divides that into two categories:
- BIGGER: Mass Matrix Studies / Vertical / Spatial / Hilberseimer's Dream
- FASTER: Mass Movement Studies / Horizontal / Temporal / Digital Age Flaneur
Except for the vertical/horizontal part, i think this list makes a lot of sense.

Mass matrix studies lead to "spatial decompression." Projects in this category are various manipulations of a basic spatial structure: the matrix. They are systematically named as "Skipped Matrix", "Missing Matrix", "Eroded Matrix", "Cracked Matrix", "Wave Matrix", "Bundle Matrix", etc. These different actions are not merely variations of a formal exploration. Rather, they are reactions to problems specific in each project.
"Missing Matrix" is a residential tower with sky gardens as the "missing" voids. The structure transfers at the communal clubhouse levels through trusses and sits on pilotis that create a more open ground floor.

Mass movement studies lead to "temporal decompression." When architecture is trying to map out the intimate experience of urban life, the interaction between user and space becomes analogous to a Korean meal (I guess also Chinese meal). Throughout the entire process, you would be able to choose and navigate between all the different dishes as you wish. This experience is very different from the linearity of a western multi-course meal.

The spatial relationships in the Xi Gallery encourage diverse movements. Private and public spheres start to merge and invade each other. Purposefully disorienting...

Mass Studies' agenda is clear and consistent. But when it comes to formal expression, there seems to be some inconsistency. Sometimes I feel they still can't resist the flamboyant extravagance of our time. Some projects are just too much (like the 2010 Expo Korean Pavilion)... and some are even gross. (I have to use this word to describe the Seoul 2026 project...) But I believe they can improve over time. As Mark said, they are definitely worth "keeping an eye on."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Design and construction

In the Machine Age, architectural revolution started with new materials and new construction technologies. The Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower showed the world new possibilities of glass and metal. And then came the reinvention of ferroconcrete. Architects of the time - Corb, Mies, Groupius, to name a few - reacted to these new ways of construction and redefined the types and aesthetics of architecture, moving away from the heaviness and rigidity of stone construction and adopting a system of lightness and freedom. In this case, design innovations were originated from reality.

The integrated circuit has led us into the Computer Age. The change, if you refuse to use the term revolution, in architecture in the last decade had its origins from technology as well. But this time, it's not new construction methods but new mediums of design and representation. With the help of digital design tools, architects can explore whatever weird forms they want and create dazzling realistic images to show them. Unlike the situations in the early 20th century, construction techniques of our time struggle to catch up. What dominates the scene now becomes a wild collection of images of hollow funny shapes, and their clumsy realizations.

This is sort of a continued thought from the previous post. I am not sure where this comparison leads. I just feel it's something worth writing down...

Friday, October 30, 2009

R-O-B builds

A Swiss robot (named R-O-B) has finished building a brick wall on Pike Street, New York. According to Storefront, this is the first ever architecture project digitally fabricated on site. The design was developed through Gramazio & Kohler's research on architecture and digital fabrication (DFab), which was initially established at ETH Zurich, Faculty of Architecture in 2005.

Watching R-O-B in action is exciting -

The robot is mounted on a lowbed trailer. It slides along the construction site through the process.
It picks up a brick from the belt and puts on some glue...
then moves out...
and gently lays down the brick in the precise position.
The result is a 22m-long structure built from more than 7,000 bricks. The weaving form loops in and out in changing rhythms, lifting off the ground sometimes and intersecting with itself.

I don't want to sound dismissive of new technology, which is in fact fascinating. But at the same time, I also have some doubts:
- Integration of design and fabrication: We all more or less design digitally now. But the highly acclaimed digital designs often ended up as clumsy plaster works. (Need an example?) The marriage of design and construction is a big challenge. R-O-B certainly opens up a whole new array of possibilities. At least it's way cooler than the current BIM hype that made the ugly Yankee Stadium "Best Project of the Year in New York."
- Accuracy: If you want a complex geometry (yeah, if you really need it), it would be hard to make it manually. CNC processes can make sure the outcome is precisely what you want. But with this brick wall, is on-site digital fabrication really "the only way" it can be achieved? OK, perhaps I should accept the fact that patience and craftsmanship are long lost legends...
- Strength: The industrial robot unit is powerful. Lifting bricks? Why use an ox cleaver to kill a chicken?
- Speed: The whole process took 4 weeks. I am not sure how that compares to conventional brick wall builders.
- Labor: And we do need labor after all. Controlling the machine, feeding the belt with bricks, and taking care of the built part, at least three people were working on site. I am not talking about how many people were behind the scene programming and writing scripts. After the robot was done, they still need to remove some bricks at the bottom since the design asks for some suspended sections. I guess you just can't ignore the law of gravity when you lay brick walls.

When talking with Michael the project leader and Cesar the producer, I learned some making-of stories. DFab is actually quite done with brick now. They have built several brick walls since 2006 and have already moved on to many other materials and techniques such as structural wood, drilling holes in concrete, and spraying foam. However, for this project, the mobile robot unit was borrowed from one of the sponsors Keller AG Ziegeleien. It is a brick company so the material would be free too. Suddenly the answer to my doubts became clear. It's not that DFab hasn't fully recognized the great potential of R-O-B, but just everything comes down to power and money. It's the reality of getting things done. Most architects choose not to talk about it, and schools never taught that either. Students just sit in front of the computer and play with Grasshopper. Parametric design has neglected one very important parameter - money. Maybe we need a software that allows you to slide a "budget bar" and your model will automatically change form and material...