Sunday, May 31, 2009

Get the demon out

I went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex for the "John Lennon: the New York City Years" exhibition last week. A quote on the wall caught my eyes:
"Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me."
- John Lennon

Clearly, music is an outlet for John Lennon - a vehicle to express himself. Society, politics, humanity... But for us architects, is architecture an outlet? At a discussion organized by Storefront for Art and Architecture, Micheal Webb asked, "everybody was making a city in the 60s, but why is nobody doing that right now?" Oh yeah, we are busy building stuff. Who cares about visions? The construction boom in the last decade made design merely a commission-based business operation... Building without substance. What about now? When there's not much work, architects just all go to the beach? We should take our social responsibilities a little more seriously. The starchitects should probably use their influence in a more active way than just trying to get the weirdest thing in the world built.

Having substance requires observation and insight. You need to absorb, process, dream, take a stance and have it voiced. I dug a little further into Lennon's quote and found that he actually went on and explained how it happens: "It's always in the middle of the night, or you're half-awake or tired, when your critical faculties are switched off. So letting go is what the whole game is. Every time you try to put your finger on it, it slips away. You turn on the lights and the cockroaches run away. You can never grasp them..." I guess letting go doesn't contradict the necessity of critical observation - you have to make sure there ARE cockroaches before trying to grasp them.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A descent into the maelstrom

Roxy Paine's new sculpture on Metropolitan Museum's rooftop garden is awe-inspiring. As the latest and most ambitious project of his "Dendroids" series, the sculpture resembles a huge branching tree. But this time, it's not just a literal tree standing like in Seattle, nor two trees bending and connecting like in Madison Square Park. The stainless steel pipes do not just extend in diminishing size, but sometimes come together and form a blob. It's a network - almost a becoming-rhizome organism.

The abstract network form makes the object not only a tree destroyed by some force, but the force itself. As titled "Maelstrom," it is immersive. When walking between the branches, you can feel it - a whirpool of force around you. (May the force be with you!)

Roxy Paine's tree is a fictional species. Set at the edge of Central Park, it almost gives you the feeling that it's been uprooted from the park. Yet its artificiality puts it in high contrast to the real green trees in the backdrop. But wait, isn't Central Park artificial anyways?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

America consumes

Photographic artist Chris Jordan transforms statistics into a series of striking portraits of American reality. The visualization of data makes precision abstract, yet much easier to feel and understand.

30,000 reams of office paper, or 15 million sheets, the amount of office paper used in the US every five minutes.

1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags, the number used in the US every hour.

410,000 paper cups, the number of disposable hot-beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes.

Two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.

60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the US every five seconds.

426,000 cell phones, the number of cell phones retired in the US every day.

Sometimes the accumulation of objects are metaphorical. Like this, 65,000 cigarettes, equal to the number of American teenagers under 18 who become addicted to cigarettes every month.

One hundred million toothpicks, equal to the number of trees cut in the US yearly to make the paper for just junk mail.

320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the US every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage.
166,000 packing peanuts, equal to the number of overnight packages shipped by air in the U.S. every hour.

29,569 handguns, equal to the number of gun-related deaths in the US in 2004.

I like these political ones the best. 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. (The US has the largest prison population of any country in the world.)

125,000 one-hundred dollar bills ($12.5 million), the amount the Bush administration spends every hour on the war in Iraq.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What's new?

Some thoughts on innovation. Architects now crave for WOWs. They will do whatever to shock people, and call that innovation. It seems to me most of the wow factors are just being different. "Wow that's new! It's never been done before!" But does this "new" thing make any sense at all?

Innovations, by definition, are positive changes. They should make things easier and better, not just different. Think about 3D printing a cube, or CNC routing a square piece of plywood. Yes, those are new ways of making things, but do they improve efficiency? Productivity? Perhaps not even quality since the powder may come off and the plywood may get cracked by the bit. I do appreciate the value of asking "why not," but asking WHY is of equal importance, if not more.

Spontaneity vs. rigorous randomness

[Previously on
Jeff Kipnis says, "Process justifies everything these days, and architecture is being pulled away from its goals."

Some people claim form and function is an obsolete pairing in architecture. But I think it's still a valid issue to discuss now since I still see architects continuously struggle between beauty and performance. Flashy images show you either the talents of the magic hand, or endless manipulations of geometry. But when it comes to simple questions such as how to make circulation work, or how to run the ducts in there, nobody can answer.

Geniuses like to act upon impulses without premeditation. They will say, don't worry about those mundane constraints and you will be free to create art. But in architecture, a spontaneous process can only create problems. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, no matter how beautiful it is. When it's against the code, can you still fight for it? "Sure, the code-compliant version is so ugly!"

I don't mean I am against chance encounters. But explorations are adventures with goals and rigor. Experiment holds the purpose of discovery. "Opportunity favors the prepared mind." If you don't have any criteria set in your mind, you can't even determine "Yes, this is it!" when it comes up. But exploration is not a linear process either - not everything needs a reason. If there's no need or no way to control, just let it be. There can be equal probability results. Just pick one. In this case, randomness becomes a visualization of a rigorous mechanism. The Bird's Nest "randomly" comes to my mind. The apparently random pattern actually contains at least four layers of intentions: primary structure, lateral support, MEP ductwork, and circulation. This is a good example of what I would call "rigorous randomness."