Sunday, March 29, 2009

Manhattan goes dark, Google too

To raise awareness of climate change, Earth Hour invited people around the world to turn off their lights for one hour on Saturday, March 28, 2008 - from 8:30pm to 9:30pm in their local time zone. On this day, about 3,000 cities in 84 countries around the world, including Sydney, Beijing, Hong Kong, Dubai, Cairo, Cape Town, London, San Paulo, New York, and San Francisco are holding events to acknowledge their commitment to energy conservation.

A dark Manhattan seen from Queens

Empire State Building stands ghosted

Some evils are still shouting out in Times Square

A memorable Google homepage

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Star check

The mascot of contemporary architecture Frank Gehry is turning 80 today. I am curious... how old are all those stars out there? So I did some research (age as of 2009):

Oscar Niemeyer, 102
I. M. Pei, 92
Robert Venturi, 84
Fumihiko Maki, 81
Arata Isozaki, 78
Peter Eisenman, 77
Alvaro Siza, 76
Richard Rogers, 76
Hans Hollein, 75
Michael Graves, 75
Richard Meier, 75
Norman Foster, 74
Rafael Moneo, 72
Renzo Piano, 72
Robert Stern, 70
Tadao Ando, 68
Toyo Ito, 68
Wolf Prix, 67
Eric Owen Moss, 66
Peter Zumthor, 66
Mario Botta, 66
Thom Mayne, 65
Bernard Tschumi, 65
Rem Koolhaas, 65
Christian de Portzamparc, 65
Jean Nouvel, 64
Daniel Libeskind, 63
Steven Holl, 62
Jacques Herzog, 59
Pierre de Meuron, 59
Zaha Hadid, 59
Santiago Calatrava, 58
David Chipperfield, 56
Kazuyo Sejima, 53
Ben van Berkel, 52
Winy Maas, 51
Alejandro Zaera Polo, 46
Greg Lynn, 45

How about the "dead stars"? (age at death)
Antoni Gaudi, 74
Victor Horta, 85
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 60
Louis Sullivan, 67
Gerrit Rietveld, 75
Aldof Loos, 62
Le Corbusier, 77
Mies van der Rohe, 83
Walter Gropius, 86
Frank Lloyd Wright, 91
Alvar Aalto, 78
James Stirling, 66
Paul Rudolph, 78
Luis Barragan, 86
Carlo Scarpa, 72
Kenzo Tange, 91
Louis Kahn, 73
Peter Smithson, 79
Alison Smithson, 64
Richard Neutra, 77
Buckminster Fuller, 87
Philip Johnson, 98
Eero Saarinen, 51
Jorn Utzon, 90
Sverre Fehn, 84
Marcel Breuer, 79
Aldo Rossi, 66
John Hejduk, 70
Enric Miralles, 44
Jan Kaplicky, 71
(For more and find out how they died: #1 killer: heart failure!)

I have to say, architects seem to be doing pretty well in general. Maybe a prerequisite for fame in the profession is a set of survival skills to deal with the tough hours...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Process and the goals

Jeff Kipnis said during a recent Columbia review, "Process justifies everything these days, and architecture is being pulled away from its goals." I was so glad he said that - it really captures the current state of architectural practices. At the same time I was surprised that it was him who said so, knowing his long "association" with Peter Eisenman.

Eisenman is all about theoretical/formal operations. For him, architecture is linguistic, it can be reduced to grammar - an independent, self-reflective system instead of being connected to the outside. Design starts with basic elements, a square or a grid as a letter or a word in language, then repeat, rotate, shift, superimpose, intersect... The result is traces of processes, a form generated by the manipulation of geometry. Abstract formal transformations dictate everything; the modernist ethics of functionality and social agenda have been marginalized. Architecture herein becomes an autonomous project.

Guardiola House, Peter Eisenman, 1988

As a protégé of Eisenman's, Scott Cohen pushed his mentor's 2D formal processes into perspectives. The end geometry is a projection of a projection of a projection... a highly distorted shape.
Patterns for Head Start Facilities, Preston Scott Cohen, 1994

As those guys were drawing intensely by hand, computer made its entrance into architecture. All of a sudden, reiteration is no longer just a theoretical jargon. Huge amount of data can be processed and visualized rapidly. You don't even need to design - the computer finds the form for you. As in Aranda/Lasch's "Rules of Six" mural, an algorithm sets the rules of formation. The modules grow, combine, assemble, and proliferate across scales. This self-assembly process is clearly the digital extension of Eisenman's autonomous project. The form "finds itself from bottom up..." Sorry, I found this claim rather disturbing. Will the "imposing" architect really "disappear" with the introduction of the computer? Does the emphasis on the "bottom-up" process make the designer a noble fella who despises authorship? C'mon! Who made the rules? Who set the parameters? Who wrote the scripts? There's still the "Hand of God" behind it! The so-called "unauthored" project is actually highly authored. But nobody dares to say "This is what I want" any more... Suddenly, a curve generated by a computer random algorithm becomes more justifiable than a curve drawn by Ellsworth Kelly...

Rules of Six, Aranda/Lasch, 2008

If we say form-finding is a design process, there's another process called construction. A process obsolete as that, is again, fantasized by the computer and catches more attention than the result. Next week, New York Construction will organize a bunch of AIA registered architects and LEED APs to speak about something they are all proud of - the new Yankee Stadium! What? That thing is ugly as hell! You have to pay almost 200 bucks to get in? Oh well, the stadium is a pioneer of the BIM (Building Information Modeling) process. "The industry's next great hope!" Fancy that!

Turner Construction considers the $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium job as its biggest “first generation” BIM projects.

Tschumi said, there are too many "WOWs" in architecture now and very few care about WHAT. HOW has been wowing people and overshadowed WHAT. To me, a more important question is WHY. That sounds like a more legit process. WHY as a process is important because it's a way to get to the results. It's a way of thinking. Whereas HOW only indicates steps of a procedure. Parametric design method is innocent. The problem is how you set the parameters... Currently it's mostly just about how to make forms. Once we can successfully plug in the functional, social, and economical aspects and introduce reasons, it will make more sense. Seems I am getting somewhere... Let me think more about it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Contextual Tschumi

Bernard Tschumi had a lecture at Columbia tonight. I have to say the Acropolis project looks terrible... So I'll just record the things that intrigued me.

He brought this up on the screen:When Enrique Walker asked him if this new trilogy replaces the old formula of Architecture = Space x Event x Movement, he said no - it just adds more complexity to the original. He said that his generation was trying to "anti-contextualize" themselves ("contexturalism" with the Stern connotation, I guess) and find their roots in the early avant-gardes of the 1920s. Looking back, you can see concepts there, contents (or program) there, but context was missing. When you solved some part of the equation, you can introduce more variables to it. Context is this new variable now.

The examples he gave were the Zénith Concert Halls in Rouen and Limoges, France. The two buildings have identical contents but are on very different sites. In the materialization of the concept, the contexts gave the almost identical forms distinctive materialities. I am not sure this is precisely what "context" means, but it's pretty funny.

He made an interesting remark on tabula rasa: "there's no tabula rasa; it's just some imagination in your mind." You may see nothing there and say, let's start from scratch. But there is always something. Starting from nothing is actually starting with an act - the act of erasure. You may cut all the existing trees. "And that will haunt you for a while."

Inevitably, Eisenstein was mentioned many times in the lecture. Now "technology allows," he even played a clip from Alexander Nevsky, including the piece he analyzed in the Manhattan Transcript. He also showed Choisy's analysis of Acropolis he found in Eisenstein's article "Montage and Architecture." Fantastic stuff. I wish he had got more inspirations from those than he claims he did.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Huaxi monsters

Didn't plan to write about this project. I simply didn't know what to say when I first saw the images - completely speechless... A few days ago I read a series of articles on the China Youth Daily. I think it's worth to spread the messages and write down some thoughts.

This is a "city creation experiment" orchestrated by MAD. The 11 participants include Atelier Manferdini (USA), BIG (Denmark), Dieguez Fridman (Argentina), EMERGENT/Tom Wiscombe (USA), HouLiang Architecture (China), JDS (Denmark/Belgium), MAD (China), Mass Studies (Korea), Rojkind Arquitectos (Mexico), Serie (UK/India), Sou Fujimoto Architects (Japan). Each of them got a piece from the master planner and designed a building for this wacky new "city center" in the middle of beautiful terraced fields outside Guiyang, the biggest city in Guizhou Province, China. An amazing group of talents, but sadly, the result is just a bunch of monsters dancing in the middle of nowhere...

I don't want to get into the whole "foreign-architects-experimenting-in-China" phenomenon. I don't think it's essentially a bad thing for a country where the title "architect" only exists for 30 years. But in this particular case, there are three points I want to make:

Floating Architecture

Rome was not built overnight. Nor can a CBD be planted everywhere. By definition, you need a lot of "business" going on in a CBD, which means a high density of population and activities, immense economic basis, and infrastructure support. These don't come out of thin air. Huaxi is a rural area 17 kilometers away from Guiyang - the capital city of Guizhou Province, which is one of the less developed provinces in the southwest part of China and famous for its natural landscape. Intense development here sounds very unpractical. As Luo Songhua, deputy head of Huaxi District said, "CBD is a big concept. Huaxi can't afford it." Who will put their headquarters over here?

In fact, everything is really just up in the air. The project was launched by a private developer (Homnicen Group) and the city knows nothing about it. The developer hasn't even got the land yet. When asked about the feasibility of a CBD in Huaxi, MAD's response was "This is not our business - not within our scope of work. We just take the survey maps from the developer and design within the assigned boundaries." So the architects' vision is just framed by the site boundary and never goes beyond that? Nobody wants to take on broader social responsibilities and go through a feasibility study? They are doing their little things with the windows shut instead of committed actively to reality. Whatever manifestoes they are trying to make are merely hollow big talks, floating with no solid grounds.

Billboard Architecture

Homnicen Group is said to be the biggest local developer. When the journalist tried to verify with them if this is just theoretical proposal, the response was "Think about this. If this is just an experiment, who pays the fee for MAD and all those foreigners?" Maybe it's not entirely hypothetical. Maybe the developer just wanted to put on a show and promote the deal? This certainly has been a successful business model. Architects are cheaper than movie stars anyways! Even politicians know the advertising value of fancy designs. See how much Bilbao made out of Frank! Architects seems to be enjoying the situation as well. Fuck the ethics of architecture. I'll paint your billboard, as long as I get paid!

Back to our own business. How about architects advertising themselves? How can you catch the eyes and get instant fame? Do something weird! Something people never saw before! All of a sudden, new things are created just for the sake of being new. Architecture is all about catchy imagery. Who cares if it can ever get built? Who cares what it does to society? It can always go to China or Dubai! (Sorry, not sure now.)

Hard Drive Architecture

We used to call those unbuilt experimental projects "paper architecture" because they just stay on paper. Now we should call them "hard drive architecture" because they only exist as a bunch of binary codes. For paper architecture, you still need to drawing every single line and color every single patch. That allows time for consideration and there were thinking involved. With new technologies, everything happens so fast and you don't even need to think. The computer does it for you!

MAD insists the goal for this experiment is not construction. "Concepts getting developed into drawings, this is already a way of realization." I do believe in the value of experimental designs. Back in the good old 60s, Archigram's fantastic collages contained so many thought-provoking elements. There are so many dimensions to it. In the discourse of architecture, they are of equal significance compared to built works, if not more. But now look at this bunch in Huaxi. Where is the social agenda? What does a computer rendering of alien invasion provoke? They are criticizing the "soullessness" of Manhattan and Chicago (is it true?) but are these monsters full of life? Maybe the biggest value of this whole thing is that it's so bad that it makes people reflect... OK, it makes me write. That's worth something.

Dezeen post (EN)
China Youth Daily article on Sina (CH)

Monday, March 16, 2009

The curious case of believing

Sometimes we would believe something so firmly even it's just some fabricated rumor or pure imagination. It occurs to me that believing is not always the result of objective reasoning or verification. Quite on the contrary, I think it's most of the time subjective - we believe only what fits into the grids of our own thoughts. The most powerful proof is actually the resonance in mind.

Human beings are curious creatures. We want to know. Unfortunately, uncertainty is inevitable given the fact that information always comes as bits and pieces. Nobody can get the entire big picture all at once. When we try to understand the whole situation, we have to fill in the missing parts. We would keep wondering and wondering, trying to escape from the uneasy state of bewilderment, until finally, we come up with something - bang! - that explains everything. This little something provides us with convenient answers. It might be delusive, but at least it makes sense for us now. Why not just believe it for the moment before anyone can offer a better explanation? It may sound contradictory, but we believe because we don't know.

Human beings are also emotional creatures. We love and hate. When it comes to rumors, we tend to embrace the positive ones about someone we love, and the negative ones about those who we hate. When a rumor comes the other way around, we will question every single detail and finally find a way to dismiss it. ("No no no, he couldn't have done that. He's a good guy!) Our judgment or prejudice acts as a very powerful determinant when we decide whether to believe or not. Another pair of common emotions is desire and fear. Think about this: Why did so many people believe that the iPhone Nano is coming out soon? And why did the rumor about Steve Job's death spread out so quickly? As hearsay spreads in a community, it becomes even more interesting because it's no longer personal. A widespread rumor reflects an underlying collective stance or state of sentiment. All the recent worries ignited by lay-off rumors revealed one thing - we are all scared.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Droog New York

To join the chic design cluster in SoHo, droog opened its first store in the US. The stuff in there, classic or new, is fantastic. But I was wondering... can they really put on prize tags like that in this environment?

"Sorry, no photography!" - Run, fat boy, run!

For more info: droog website