Monday, July 27, 2009

Principles, not just the look

Do you have to use natural materials to represent nature? Is choosing recycled material the only possible way to say you are environmentally conscious? The superficiality of the current understanding of environment really bothers me. Luckily, I found the freshness in Tara Donovan's work. It's all everyday synthetic materials - Styrofoam cups, plastic straws, Scotch tapes... with a single action repeated over and over. But this action is always specific to the property of the material itself. Tara Donovan's artistic sensibility turns the ordinary, even the condemned, into magnificence. It evokes not only the morphology of nature, but its systematic principles.

The recent installation at Lever House is made of 2,500 pounds of translucent plastic sheeting, loosely folded into a glassed cutout of a freestanding white wall in the lobby. When you approach from the side, you just see the plastic snaking in the box. Then you look at it frontally. Light comes from behind, squeezes and flushes between the sheets, bounced and reflected in different angles from the shiny curvilinear from. The kaleidoscopic optical effect is awe-inspiring. Then you study closely the accumulation layers. Density of the folds changes vertically. Our mother nature is interfering with her law of gravity.

I still remember the installation she had at the Met last year. The entire room was covered with webs of Mylar tape loops. The pins determined the general configuration, but the final shape of each cell actually evolved from the balance between the material's tendency to unfold and the forces of the neighboring cells. In Donovan's own words, “it is not like I’m trying to simulate nature. It’s more of a mimicking of the way of nature, the way things actually grow.” Again, the play of light and reflection kicks in and creates a unique phenomenological experience for the viewer.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Problems of inspiration

An exhibition on sustainability designed by J Mayer H Architects recently opened in the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany.

I don't mind the form at all - it looks dynamic and fun. But when I tried to find out how they got to the form, I saw this diagram. I was literally laughing out loud for several minutes. People in the office thought I had gone crazy because of stress...
Here's a paragraph from the news: "As one of the first prominent signs of the growing consciousness for environmentally friendly consumption, the well known PET-sign was taken as a starting point from which the metaphor of the extensively branched web was developed. This originally 2-dimensional sign was extended into the third dimension and through a series of step by step manipulations a complex structure was created, which allows for an abstract property of the topic to be experienced on a spatial level."

It does make architects seem like a bunch of pathetic morons. Anything can be the "starting point" of architecture, right? They extended a 2D graphic into 3D - wow that's space! Isn't that what architecture is all about? "A series of step by step manipulations" sounds very intellectually sophisticated as well. Blah blah blah blah... I suddenly remember our old friend Robert, who told us, "The sign is more important than the architecture."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Apollo virtues

Exactly 40 years ago (10:56pm EDT, July 20, 1969), Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon's surface. It was certainly one of the greatest moments of human history. The mission was carried out in a not only technically brilliant but morally inspiring way that seems almost inconceivable in the risk-averse world of today. Once again, I am amazed by the good old 60s - an age when dreams turned into visions, and visions led to accomplishments.

Curiosity. Men had seen the Moon shining in the sky for thousands of years. But only some wondered, "What is it made of?" "What's up there?" "What does it look like up close?" All these questions were brought together into one ambition: "What if we go there?"

Courage. Adventures suggest risks. For some people, those men were almost flying out into the vast darkness to kill themselves. There's nothing scary about the darkness itself. It's the unknown that we fear when we look upon it. But curiosity had conquered the territory of fear and courage turned the unknown into, as Buzz Aldrin described, "magnificent desolation."

Determination. RETRO? Go! FIDO? Go! Guidance? Go! Control? Go! TelCom? Go! GNC? Go! EECOM? Go! Surgeon? Go! CapCom, we're go for landing! It's exciting to hear them calling it out with firm determination. "Yes, let's do it!" Low fuel warnings? Radar data overload? That's all right - we can still do it! As JFK rightly put, "We must be bold."

Confidence. The operation was not completely smooth or flawless. At the moment of landing, Neil Armstrong realized the computer's landing target was in a boulder-strewn area just north and east of a 400 meter diameter crater. He decisively took semi-auto control and drifted forward to another spot. With full confidence, human decision overrode what technology was telling him to do.

Gratitude. No great work can be done by one man. In a TV broadcast before splashdown, Mike Collins said, "All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, 'Thank you very much.'" Unfortunately, it doesn't seem necessary any more for the public face(s) to acknowledge the effort of those who stood behind them...

Clearly enough, all this kind of missions have political intentions (prestige in the Cold War, distraction from Vietnam, etc.). But I would just embrace it as the greatest adventure of all men and women on earth. As Neil Armstrong said himself, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The event united people of all nations, who were all gazing upon the moon with tremendous excitement. Today, 40 years later, we shall unite once again, not only to celebrate this historic moment, but to revive the endangered virtues exemplified by the epic journey.

Friday, July 17, 2009

F@@k! 40 seconds!

Psychologists at Britain's Keele University recruited 64 college students and asked them to put their hands in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while repeating a curse word of their choice. Compared to when they were not allow to swear, they were able to keep their hands submerged in the water for an average of 40 seconds longer. When questioned about their perceived pain they also rated it as being lower.

Dr Richard Stephens, lead conductor of the study, said, "[Swearing] taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise the right brain, whereas most languages production occurs in the left hemisphere. Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists."

It's almost common sense that curse words are effective pain-killers. (Don't OD though...) But I guess it's interesting to see some numbers.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sausage and stuffed animal

There are two approaches of designing from outside in. I call them sausage and stuffed animal.

Sausage: We can certainly make the casing first. Any kind of meat can fit in this simple shape, even veggies! Who says a pig cannot be in a tube?
Stuffed animal: Cotton is great - it doesn't feel odd to be in any kind of shape. You have all the freedom to be creative about the form.

Sausage: The art of filling in an a priori generic shell.
Stuffed animal: The art of sculpting for generic contents.

Sausage: Too much meat? Just squeeze, or make it longer - but it has to be round in section and shouldn't look too fat.
Stuffed animal: The ears have to be that exact shape and size otherwise it's out of proportion. Just get some more cotton.

Unfortunately, the content of architecture is not ground meat nor cotton. Very often it requires a certain size or implies an optimal proportion...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Transgenic camel in the courtyard

First of all, I have to admit, MOS's PS1 Afterparty is quite photogenic. When I saw it in reality, I didn't quite hate it as much as before. After all, Michael is a talented guy. But the "grand premise" of "rethinking architect in a time of crisis" still haunts me.

FORM: A bunch of cones, wow! Smokestacks that echo the industrial history of Long Island City, wow! Bedouin tents and Roman arches, wow! But it just looks like a giant toy! I couldn't stop thinking about a wrongly cloned camel with soft legs trying to crawl across the courtyard...

MATERIAL: Hairy! Sexy! Sick! I actually like the funky look of the brown palm fibers, but I am not sure if it fits in this situation. This is so thick and hot (however you wanna interpret this word)! I guess rich women still want to wear fur in the summer - to show some understanding of an after party during the recession.

PROGRAM: None. Spare me from the charming list of the WarmUp schedule. That's not from the architecture. Since the form is a "shelter," urban or not, it's just a hovering canopy. Of course you can drink and dance under it, but there no interaction with the structure, except for some generic cubes that provide seating. Looking back to all the final entries in the last decade (there's a nice exhibition in the museum for the YAP 10th Anniversary), I found that allowing people to play with it was once a key element of the installation...

Recent fun

Estudio Campana for Lacoste 2009 Holiday Collector's Series

The Outlet Wall

Cardboard Cloud by Fantastic Norway

Walking Berlin, Fantastic Norway

Dan Graham: Beyond

Dan Graham's handsome show at the Whitney is truly a visual fiesta. First thing you see when you walk in the room is a dazzling glass pavilion titled Heart Pavilion. Two-way mirror panels arranged in the shape of a heart in plan, the pavilion plays with angles and curves, reflection and refraction. It's a simple geometry, but the distorting kaleidoscopic effects transgress the traditional spatial notions of in and out - it becomes strangely complex. The bodily involvement of the viewer puts the private self as part of a larger social context - layers of mirages of you and others. This installation occupies the center of the exhibition hall. It's almost a building within the building. The merger of sculpture and architecture disciplines is more explicitly pronounced in the slide show of Artists’ and Architects’ Work That Influenced Me, which includes architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Itsuko Hasegawa.

Compared to the glass pavilions, I actually found his early works much more thought-provoking. Some of them were even social experiments. Public Space / Two Audiences (1976) are two rooms divided by a huge glass panel. When views enter the rooms from two separate doors, they would watch the other room as if watching a TV channel. Performers become spectators and spectators are at the same time performers. A mirror wall on one far end doubles the space and put the audiences into directional confusion. The glass panel is sound-insulating, allowing no aural exchange between the rooms. People in the same room start to talk to each other, discussing the visual behaviors on the other side. The basic human desire of interconnectivity and instant feedback creates a collective identity in the same room - they act as a whole in response to the group in the other room.

My favorite piece is Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay (1974). It's a room with a set of camera-monitor on either side. The mirrors give you real-time reflections of the situation while the closed-circuit video feeds on the monitor are on time delay. Again, the viewer takes the double role of performer and spectator. But this time you can interact with yourself. Some people would stand in front of the camera-monitor, wave to themselves, and watch themselves wave back in 5 seconds. Some others just simply watch the other side of the room and wait for the "just past" to show up on the reflection of the monitor. The opposing mirrors create an infinite overlapping of the present and the past. The real existence is trapped in the layers of reflections of the present, reproductions of the past, reflections of the reproductions of the past, and on. It almost gives you an impression of the deconstructivist Différance.

Some put Dan Graham along with Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, and call them "minimalist sculptors." I would prefer to put his works in the realm of "conceptual art." In fact, his art peices are minimal, but that just proves that profound concepts don't necessarily require complex medium. Simplicity can also convey sophistication, just as the show is titled: "Beyond."