Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Teapot and architecture

In the documentary "Bird's Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China," Jacques Herzog said, "Architecture is impotent in many ways, but it's there. It will still produce some impacts. This is like a teapot - it may change the taste of the tea. I think it's the same case in wine." Herzog is not the first one to compare a building to a vessel. Lao-Tzu wrote thousands of years ago in his Tao Te Ching: "Clay is molded to form a vessel; because there is emptiness inside, the vessel is useful. Doors and windows are cut to make a room; because there is emptiness inside, the house is livable. Thus, we take advantage of what is there, yet it is the Nothing that we use (Chap.11)." This quote is so well accepted in China that it appears in every single "Architecture 101" textbook.

To extend the metaphor, Herzog actually adds a new dimension, or even a twist to it. What Lao-Tzu intended to emphasize is the dichotomy of being and non-being. In his mind, being exists because we need the non-being. To Herzog, there is not only emptiness in the vessel. A vessel contains something. Emptiness will be filled when the vessel is in action. The existence of a teapot is not just passive - its shape, materiality, density, and kiln temperature all actively affect the quality of tea in it. For example, clay teapots are meant for use with black and oolong teas, while porcelain ones are better for teas with strong aroma (such as jasmine tea). A smaller and denser teapot could help keeping the complexity of the tea. In the case of architecture, it is also more than space. A building is a container with contents. When occupied, it houses various user activities, layered or juxtaposed. And these activities ultimately compose a lifestyle. Architecture affects behavior. A visionary architect is ultimately curating lifestyles through the design of the building.

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