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...