Monday, March 29, 2010

Phone calls - two fictional stories

#1: Tokyo, Japan

Ito: Moshi moshi?
Sejima: Sensei, I am very sorry...
Ito: Why are you calling me?
Sejima: Sensei, about the Pritzker...
Ito: What are you talking about? I've never heard of it.
Sejima: Please don't be mad at me. I didn't ask for it... Not before you get it. I feel terrible.
Ito: You said you were thrilled.
Sejima: That was just press language. I couldn't tell them I was upset, could I? I hope you understand...
Ito: What I don't understand is, that "idea of lightness and transparency" they were talking about... do they know where it came from?
Sejima: I am sorry Sensei, and I thank you for that.
Ito: I still remember the day when you knocked at my door and asked for a job...
Sejima: I was only 25 back then... It's been almost 30 years now.
Ito: How old is that kid you are running around with by the way? Are you still together?
Sejima: He's 44 this year...
Ito: Youngest laureate in the history of Pritzker! I can be his father!
Sejima: Renzo said the committee doesn't take that into consideration.
Ito: Of course he said that. He got it 9 years before poor Rogers did!
Sejima: I know, their ethics are very different... Maybe I should call them and reject the prize...
Ito: No need, kid. If you do that, they will just give it to Holl. You are not doing me any favor.
Sejima: Steven must be disappointed. He was leading in the online polls and all...
Ito: I bet he would cry when he reads about the "phenomenal properties" descriptions of your work in the jury citation.
Sejima: I know he started the phenomena thing...
Ito: Well, I guess they think you "explore like few others," - better than both of us two old men.
Sejima: Sensei, I sincerely apologize. Please accept.
Ito: Well... Daijoubu, kiddo. As long as you are really feeling sorry...
(Nishizawa in the background: Honey, cut it off! Sake is ready!)

#2: New York, USA

The phone rang. Holl picked it up. The other side of the line kept talking but he just remained silent, staring blankly at the bare wall. After what seemed like an hour to him, he slowly put down the phone, shook his head, and huffed...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Section and its dimension

This is the longest post ever! A Chinese version of this appeared in print in Time+Architecture magazine (Shanghai) 2010/#2 on March 18. The theme of the issue is "section."

Reading the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas

Chinese readers may know Dallas through the I. M. Pei-designed Symphony Center, the Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, or the Mavericks. On October 12, 2009, a new landmark joined the associations with the city – the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre (Fig.1) in the downtown Dallas Arts District, home to the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico. The innovative “stacked” design by Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX (New York) and Rem Koolhaas of OMA (Rotterdam) immediately drew public attention and was renowned as “the first vertical theater in the world.”
Fig.1 Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre designed by REX/OMA.

Vertical relationships in architecture are usually represented by section drawings. Geometrically, a section is a horizontal orthographic projection of a building onto a vertical plane, with the vertical plane cutting through the building. From sections, one can read the connectivities between levels, as well as the spatial relationships in height. In the case of the new Wyly Theatre, the section exceeds the purpose of being a representational tool. It was deployed as a design tool. The building was conceived from sections. Design with section introduced the dimension of vertical thinking, an approach that turned the section from a two-dimensional technical drawing into a truly three-dimensional articulation of space.


The former Dallas Arts District Theatre (ADT) was a dilapidated metal shed (Fig.2). It was precisely its shabbiness that freed its resident companies from the limitations of a fixed stage and the worries of damaging precious interior finishes. Artists and directors had the freedom to easily transform the venue into the settings and atmospheres they envisioned. The ability to reconfigure and refinish earned ADT the reputation as "the most flexible theater in America."
Fig.2 The dilapidated metal shed of the former Dallas Arts District Theatre.

How to maintain the successful characteristics of flexibility in the new facility became the main design challenge. REX/OMA took the challenge and turned it into an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent theater design. Traditionally, theaters are organized horizontally, with the stage and auditorium located in the center and support spaces wrapping around them in plan - hence the names of front-of-house and back-of-house. One typical example is Charles Garnier’s Opéra de Paris (Fig.3), where the audience approaches from the front, ascending the stairs and entering the marble Grand Foyer that connected to a series of spaces for socializing during intermissions. The performers enter from the back into the backstage and rehearsal rooms. Napoleon III had his own special royal entrance on the side. And on the other side was the carriage drop-off. In the middle of all these, the lavishly decorated horseshoe auditorium is encapsulated side by side with the stage, visible from the outside only as a green copper cushion on top of the massive masonry structure.
Fig.3 Plan of Opéra de Paris designed by Charles Garnier.

To avoid the staticity of a rigid plan, REX/OMA introduced a sectional move. What if the theater was arranged vertically? Instead of laying out the program in plan, the architects stacked it in section (Fig.4 & Fig.5). Some backstage support and administrative functions were combined with the fly tower, and placed on top of the stage/auditorium. The lobby and ticketing were pushed underneath, one level below ground. The arrival sequence starts from a large outdoor ramp, descending as opposed to the traditional exhibitionist escalation. New terminology has emerged from this atypical arrangement: “below-house” and “above-house” replace “front-of-house” and “back-of-house,” and with the integration of backstage facilities, the fly tower has evolved into a “superfly.”
Fig.4 Concept diagram 1: introducing a sectional move.

Fig.5 Concept diagram 2: Lobby, performance hall, and "superfly" were stacked vertically. This design liberated the performance hall’s perimeter to enable direct contact with the urban surroundings.

The stacked design is not only unique but advantageous. First of all, it engenders the Transformer-like flexibility. Stage equipment at the bottom of the superfly covers the entire Potter Rose Performance Hall (Fig.6), which can hold up to 575 seats. The distinction between auditorium and stage has disappeared. The fly system pulls up not only scenery but seating. Each of the three 135-ton balcony towers, both stair towers, and the proscenium can be repositioned or lifted out of sight using sport arena scoreboard lifts. The entire ground plane can change height, tilt, or rotate, with the mechanisms adapted from opera houses. As a result, directors are empowered to manipulate at will the relationship between performers and audience through a wide range of configurations, including proscenium, thrust, arena, traverse, and studio (Fig.7). It can also be reduced to a large flat floor, providing the possibility to hold events such as parties and car shows in the off season. Moreover, with the superfly picking up all the pristine elements, the performance space itself can be provisional. The stage and auditorium surfaces can be cut, drilled, painted, welded, sawed, nailed, glued, and stitched, because they were intentionally designed with inexpensive materials. All these design decisions have enabled the theater to explore all forms of performing arts: classical and experimental theater, contemporary dance, musical performances, lectures and more (Fig.8). Compared to the sumptuous “jewelry box” of Opéra de Paris, the Wyly is a hi-tech “theater machine.”
Fig.6 Performance hall with stage equipments covering the entire space.
Fig.7 Different configurations of the performance hall.

Fig.8 Performance hall during an event.

Another advantage of the stacked design is that it emancipates the performance hall from the envelope of ancillary facilities such as lobbies, ticket counters, and backstage facilities. The ground floor performance space is clearly visible from the outside, with transparent acoustic glass on three sides enabling direct contact with the urban surroundings (Fig.9). The operation of the theater has been demystified; passers-by can participate in the game of voyeurism. The optional vinyl black-out blinds make it possible to transform the interior atmosphere. Artistic directors can choose to close the chamber as a hermetic container where sound and light are fully controlled, or open to integrate the Dallas skyline as a backdrop of the show. In certain events, the two large pivoting doors on the perimeter can be left open (Fig.10), allowing the life of the theater to spill out and engage the surrounding urban park. Performances are no longer trapped within the walls. The threshold between fantasy and reality is now blurred.
Fig.9 Enclosed by transparent acoustic glass, the performance hall is clearly visible from the outside.
Fig.10 The glass pivot doors could open, allowing guest to bypass the lobby and enter directly into the performance hall.


The concept of freeing up the performance hall from fixed configuration and perimeter was clearly diagramed in section. But it was still a two-dimensional drawing. At the end, the building had to be constructed as a three-dimensional object. In the process of three-dimensionalizing the diagram, REX/OMA chose the most direct operation to add the third dimension: extrusion.

The result of extruding a rectangle is a platonic box. Compared to the prevailing overly complex geometries of today’s high-profile architecture, a box has a humble, almost too generic appearance. No blobby shapes, no glittery materials, nor flowery patterns. It doesn’t declare to the world that “I am a duck.” With a total floor area of 7,700 square meters, the Wyly Theatre is a relatively small building in the Dallas Arts District. Yet it has gained a strong presence (Fig.11). The stacked strategy certainly increased the height. But it is the simplicity of its platonic form that contains the power similar to the mysterious black monolithic in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It strips off any scale references, causing confusions when one tries to read its size. It is this ambiguity that brings the eye-grabbing qualities to the simple geometry. Strength without aggressiveness. The notion of “icon” does not necessarily call for extravagance or wackiness.
Fig.11 The Wyly Theatre in the context of downtown Dallas Arts District. An iconic presence was achieved by simplicity.

If a building is designed as an extrusion of the plan, the elevation would read continuous vertically, unless the architect wants to add on details due to aesthetic reasons. One good example of theaters of this kind is SANAA’s De Kunstlinie in Almere, the Netherlands (Fig.12). The entire building was extruded from an orthogonal plan, with only the two large theaters four to five times taller than the rest. The facade is almost a direct vertical trace of the plan. Glass and opaque panels stand next to each other, running full height of their own segments of the vertical plane. But in the case of the Wyly, the building appears to have two shapes stacked vertically – a solid box (superfly) sitting on top of a glass box (performance hall). This volumetric relationship manifests the vertical nature of the basic concept. The massing is not a vertical extrusion of the plan, but a horizontal one based on the section.
Fig.12 De Kunstlinie in Almere designed by SANAA.

When you get closer, you will find another level of detail on the surface of the opaque superfly box. Clad in a palisade of aluminum tubes, the facade has a rippled texture that looks like a giant stage drape curtain. Strangely, this tubular skin resembles the original ADT’s corrugated metal enclosure, but here as a more elegant version. Composed of 466 anodized aluminum tubes in total, the facade was pre-fabricated in Argentina and assembled on site into six different panel modules with random repetitions. The tubes came with six different profiles, varying in diameter from three to ten inches to create the rippled effect (Fig.13 & Fig.14). Geometrically, a tube is the extrusion of a circular cross section. In the case of the Wyly, where the tubes were hung vertically, the cross section became the plan. This creates an interesting directional contrast between the extrusions of the general massing and the facade.
Fig.13 Six combination modules of the aluminum extrusions on the facade.

Fig.14 Aluminum tubular facade mock-up.


The Wyly Theatre’s simple cubic appearance has successfully kept its complex interior in disguise. Peeling off the aluminum tubular skin, you will discover inside the extruded box a puzzle-like assembly of interlocking spaces in various sizes, shapes, and height (Fig.15 & Fig.16). Back-of-house spaces dedicated to performers and administrators are integrated and tightly packed into the superfly box. The intertwining nature of these spaces is best described by the architects themselves on REX’s website:
The patron’s lounge - which doubles as a second lobby - is connected to the small rehearsal room (Fig.17), which doubles as a black box theater. Both are looked upon by a conference room (Fig.18) that can serve as a control booth for the black box theater, and which is connected to the administrative offices above. The administrative offices adjoin the costume shop (Fig.19), which can be viewed from the education room, adjacent to an outdoor terrace on the 9th floor (Fig.20) that serves as an exterior break-out area for the main rehearsal room, which has access to a collective bar and terrace for the entire company with panoramic views over the city.
Fig.15 "Superfly" concept model. Spaces in various shapes and sizes were tightly packed in a cubic container.
Fig.16 Open cross section of the Wyly Theatre.

Fig.17 View to the conference room/control room from the small rehearsal room/black box theater.
Fig.18 The conference room overlooks the small rehearsal room, and is connected to the administrative offices above.
Fig.19 The costume shop and the education center above.
Fig.20 Urban skyline view from the 9th level outdoor terrace.

This is more than a simple extrusion. It resembles a Soma Cube, a 3x3x3-cube puzzle assembled from seven distinctive three-dimensional shapes. Here, the traditional notion of floors has been diminished. The location of floor slabs was determined through the negotiation between spaces with their specific requirements in height. Just as the layout of the walls in Le Corbusier’s free plan, the sectional layout of the Wyly is the equilibrium of forces between the rooms. The similar compositions of plan and section have yielded equal richness in horizontal and vertical spatial relationships, hence the richness of a labyrinthine experience. In such a complex organization, there is no single linear path. A singular, or “typical,” section becomes inadequate – you need a series of them, something like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to decipher the manifold spatial relationship.

The incorrespondence between a simple exterior and a complex interior provides another interpretation of the “theater machine” analogy. Machines, especially those of the digital age, tend to have a clean outer look despite the numerous tasks they are designed to perform. Back in the first machine age, “form follows function” was the golden rule. A closer look at James Watt’s steam engine reveals a boiler supplying heat to water to create high-pressure steam, which causes the piston to move in the cylinder, and then the crankshaft turning the piston’s reciprocating linear motion into rotation. Each component performs its job and therefore bears a form specific to the function. Such specificity does not exist in the case of a computer. There is the CPU – it is supposed to think, the hard drive for data storage, and RAM modules, which are in charge of short-term memory. But they have no registration of their functions on their forms. More confusingly, all the components are enclosed in a case with a cubic shape that has no direct relationship with what the machine does at all. The invention of the microchip has overturned the design axiom and loosened the relationship between form and function.

In fact, REX’s take on form and function is not to prioritize either one in itself. “We proffer the term ‘performance’ instead: a hybrid that doesn’t discriminate between use, organization, and form. We free ourselves from the tired debate over whether architecture is an art or a tool. Art performs; tools perform. The measure of high performance is relative to each project and the positions established with our clients.” The rational design approach and an objective gauging system are clearly expressed in the manifesto. At his TEDxSMU speech right before the Wyly opening, Prince-Ramus explained the three steps of REX’s design process. First, define core issues. What are the constraints and challenges of the project? Second, take joint positions with your client. This is the moment when architect and client collaborate to inject visions together. And only after all this is done, should the architect start to put forward architectural manifestations. Under this methodology, design is no longer a myth of genius behavior, but rather a collective effort. The team produces options, and the standard of criticism is simple – it is to see if the design manifests the position that the architect and client jointly took, and if it addresses the core issues successfully.

The Wyly Theatre is typically a result of such a design process. The unprecedented design was not an innovation for innovation’s sake. It was a solution based on the architect-client joint positions on the root problems of the theater both as a cultural institution and an architectural type. The strategy to design through section was not the original defining premise, nor the ultimate desired goal. Rather, it was the bridge between challenge and vision, not only responding to but further elaborating the flexible, improvisatory nature of the ADT's original home. The new Wyly Theatre building is performative art, and at the same time, a performative tool.

Image Credits: 4, 5, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16: REX/OMA; 1, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19: Iwan Baan; 10, 20: Tim Hursley.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When imagination (intentionally) went dull

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of FLW's Guggenheim NY building, the museum curators invited about 200 artists, architects, and designers to "imagine their dream interventions" in the rotunda," encouraging them to "leave practicality or even reality aside in their proposals." It sounds like an interesting idea - "contemplating the void," a dialogue between late modernism and contemporaneity, between positive and negative forms, between permanence and ephemerality. The list of invitees is quite an amazing group of big names, established big shots and rising stars alike.

And the results? Utterly disappointing... Imagination? Dreams? If all you can come up with is to put a giant sculpture or to plant trees in the middle, or to extend or mirror the original spiral geometry, I would say that's pretty boring.

Upper row from left to right: BIG, Liam Gillick, Gluckman Mayner Architects, Office dA
Lower row left: Bernard Tschumi; Right: Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset

Out of 193 submissions, I only found maybe 5 interesting ones. Mass Studies, JDS, and MVRDV's proposals at least address how people can actually interact with the rotunda space in some creative ways.
Mass Studies, ART/TRAP

JDS, Experiencing the Void

MVRDV, Let's Jump!

What bothers me the most is the sloppiness of the starchitects. Are you kidding me? You call those puny watercolor stains "light"? A colorful beehive represents the 21st century? Ink on Post-it? Photocopy? Some random stuff dated four years ago? I know I know, you like pointed corners, you like wavy forms, and you like blobs. But how are they relevant in this case? Can you at least think and show some care?? I am not even talking about contemplation... I hear some voices yelling in the back: "Give me a break. This is just like a fundraiser thing. I donated my work to Guggenheim, for Chrissake. They just want something for auction." Well... That clearly justifies the carelessness. I forgot architecture is really an all-for-profit business. There's no point spending time on pro bono work, right? The stars may still think no matter what they do, as long as their names are on it, it will be worth something. But to me, names don't mean anything anymore. Hey, we have a crisis! Of creativity or morals, a serious one either way.
Ben van Berkel, Chasing Light, 2009. Watercolor on paper

Toyo Ito, The 21st Century Grid, 2009. Colored pencil and ballpoint pen on photocopy

Michael Maltzan, Contemplating the Void, 2009. Ink on Post-it

Zaha Hadid Architects, Z-Wave, 2006. Digital print mounted on foamboard

Daniel Libeskind, Spiral Inspira....l, 2009. Ink and watercolor on paper

Monday, March 15, 2010

(Re)performing performance

Marina Abramović's retrospective at MoMA shows about 50 works that span the four-decade prolific career of the performance art goddess. The intensity in the galleries is mind-blowing. As you walk through, you see distorted faces, screaming mouths, bones, blood, and (real) flesh. I'm awestruck by the fact that many of these pieces were actually performed originally in the 1970s. Now we are in a new millennium, and they still seem pretty radical to many people, especially in a museum setting.

The major "oddballs" are the live naked people. They are there to reperform Abramović's works as "an endeavor to transmit the presence of the artist and make her historical performances accessible to a larger audience." I see no problem in nudity. The one thing that makes me wonder is whether the idea of "recreating performance art" can really preserve the authenticity of the original work. I think a good way to figure this out is to look back and see what Abramović was trying to say with her original performances.

A prevailing theme of her performances is the body. The vulnerability of it. The best-known example is Rhythm 0 (1971). She stood there passively for six hours, allowing the audience to do whatever they want to do to her body with the 72 objects she selected on the table. They could tear off her clothes, tickle her with the feather, cut her with the knife, and even point a loaded pistol at her head. Admittedly, the presence of the original performer was powerful. But would the performance lose its meanings if it were someone else's body? It was not about her. The horror could have applied to any body, really. At the MoMA show, Luminosity (1997) has been recreated. The young female sitting on the bicycle seat up on the wall is so lonely and exposed. So helplessly vulnerable although there's no immediate threat in sight. What you see here is not Abramović at Sean Kelly Gallery, but you can still feel the strong sensational quality of the work in this reperformance.

Rhythm 0, 1971

Luminosity, 1997

After Abramović met Ulay in 1976, the couple started to perform together. Relation became an apparent strong subject. Relation in Space (1976), Relation in Time (1977), Relation in Movement (1977)... Relation can be interdependence, like in Balance Proof (1977) where they were holding a double-sided mirror, taller than themselves, between their naked bodies. They couldn't see each other but they were both responsible for keeping the mirror upright. Relation can be combative, like in AAA-AAA (1978), in which the two keep yelling and screaming at each other. Or it may be both - a more thrilling version of complex relation in Rest Energy (1980). This time Abramović and Ulay drew a large bow and arrow, one holding each side. The arrowhead was pointing at Abramović's heart. The slightest imbalance could be fatal. This required the ultimate complete trust.

Relation in Time, 1977

Balance Proof, 1977

AAA-AAA, 1978

Rest Energy, 1980

Abramović and Ulay's interest in relation also included the relation with the audience. In Imponderabilia (1977), Abramović and Ulay stood naked inside the door frame at the entrance of Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, face to face. The space between them was so narrow that people were forced to squeeze sideways between them, facing either one of them. This piece has also been reenacted at the show. Live nudity certainly intensifies the awkward intimacy. It is interesting to see the reaction in this country where people wear such a big bubble around themselves that they rarely touch each other. After passing through, some people would raise their arms, as if to celebrate surviving the biggest challenge in their lives. To my surprise, among the many shifts, there is a couple of females reperforming the piece. Isn't this supposed to be a male-female duo? On second thought, it becomes clear that the relation Abramović and Ulay tried to address was not necessarily gender-related. In fact, Abramović repeatedly disavowed any interest in the feminist movement. For them, the body is just "a unit of an individual." Although they talked about male energy and female energy, they were more interested in a third existence - something they called "That Self." It carries the combined "Vital Energy" that is caused by but not dependent on the two performers. I can see this third existence being successfully reconjured by the younger performers at MoMA.

Imponderabilia, 1977

Heraclitus said, you could not step twice into the same river, because it would be at a different time and the waters would be at a different place. Theoretically, time and place is crucial to a event. Reoccurrences would never be the same. But for Abramović, the concept of time and space was not really about the particular moment and location. (Maybe the only exception is The Great Wall Walk.) Rather, it's about the abstract notions of passage and orientation. The 17 straight hours of Relation in Time during which Abramović and Ulay sat back to back with their hair tied together (like the Na'vi people) could have been another 17-hour period of any day, including the days of the MoMA reperformaces. The entrance way in Imponderabilia was in Bologna. But it could have been any other door, including the one between the MoMA galleries. The only new work at the show, The Artist Is Present, is also a good example of Abramović's abstraction of time and space. She sits there motionless whenever the museum is open, throughout the entire duration of the exhibition. Visitors take turns to sit across the table and exchange stares with the artist as long as they want. When I was there, the guy was sitting there all day long for 7 straight hours. I saw a new Ulay, together with Abramović, flattening past, present, and future. Time became timeless, form no longer existed, material slipped into immaterial, and the MoMA atrium became a mere void.

The Artist Is Present, 2010

So can performance art be recreated? I don't have a general conclusive answer. But in the case of Marina Abramović, whose messages were mostly abstract and conceptual, it works.

(A NYTimes slide show shows how the reperformances look.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Instant gratification - Part I

Watching All the President's Men, I was amazed by one scene: when Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) found the name Kenneth H. Dahlberg in the Miami D.A.'s office, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) started searching for the person in phone books. What is he doing? Oh I forgot, Google didn't exist in 1972, not even the term "internet."

When you hear an unfamiliar name or a strange term nowadays, the first impulse would be - Google it. So much information is available, and more importantly, searchable on the internet that most likely you will find what you need instantly. As of a few minutes ago, Google spend 0.26 second to find about 28,500 results for "Kenneth H. Dahlberg." No surprise, the first hit was an article on Wikipedia. I remember Rob Matthews once printed only the "featured articles" part of Wikipedia and what he got was a ridiculous-looking 5,000-page book.

The Information Age has turned the world into one big entangled web of digital data that is getting even denser every day. Everybody could be an expert of something with the help of the World Wide Web. The real skill now is to locate valuable information from various sources and piece it together. A new generation of intellectuals emerged. They don't need to know everything. Instead, they just need to know about things. Like ancient cartographers conquering the oceans, these neo-intellectuals surf in the cloud, facing the challenge of the storming explosion of information. Rather than learning the knowledge itself, they mentally build up a map of the largest library in the history of human civilization. When needed, they can locate the core information and have the experience and insight to bring in all the things related to it - images, graphs, events, researches, opinions, etc. I call this new comprehensiveness the art of "sort and connect."

Instant gratification - Part II

We want everything right away. When we have a question, we hope Google gives us the right answer instantly. (Good-bye, libraries!) When we hear a song we like at a bar, we Shazam it and download instantly. (Good-bye, Virgin Megastore!) When we learn about a good book from a friend, we order it through the Amazon smartphone apps instantly and have it shipped on the same day. (Good-bye, Urban Center Books!) If you say you are not that anxious, well... how many times have you complained about how slow your computer is?

One problem of this is that our generation gets more and more impatient, with an attention span that only becomes shorter and shorter every day. In the 1970s, college students could stay focused in a lecture for 15-20 minutes before their minds began to wander. The number in a recent research became 7-8 minutes - an all time low. People just want to get the work done fast, not caring much about the quality of it. "Quick and dirty" becomes the new norm. A five-minute sloppy piece that looks good at a glance can get more appreciation than one full day's careful precise work.

Once upon a time, patience was a virtue, when people still depended on pigeons to bring their mail. But in our society, where instant gratification is expected by default, waiting becomes a waste of time. We want instant communication. We send emails, text messages, online chats as fast as possible - don't even bother to spell or punctuate properly. And we expect instant response, otherwise we get all "textually frustrated." Many times, I found this counter-productive. Rather than saving time, it only creates miscommunication.

Technology is supposed to make our lives better, not worse. While enjoying the convenience technology brings us, we also need to beware of some negative implications that may turn us into those spoiled Axiom people in Wall•E.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Another perspective

When you go past a managed forest, you see a mass of tree trunks. Then at a certain point, you look again, and you realize they are all in perfect rows. Clarity. Clarity of vision. What you've been looking at from the wrong angle and not seeing at all. You labor. You sweat to see what you couldn't have seen from that other perspective.

- The Edge, in It Might Get Loud.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Positive attitudes

Michel Rojkind's Emerging Voices lecture tonight was uplifting. I can't say every single project he showed was fantastic. But it was the passion and the energy at the lecture that were refreshing. I saw again in the young generation of architects a cheerful and positive way of thinking, as I saw before in Bjake Ingels and Minsuk Cho. I started to think, what exactly are those positive attitudes that inspired me? Here, to list a few:

1. Up for the challenge.
One of the many interesting stories Michel told at the lecture was about the Nestlé Chocolate Museum. Nestlé called him one day and said, there was good news and bad news. Good news was they got the project. Bad news was, they had to get it done in two and a half months. Michel was all excited - "Yeah, no problem! We will call up all our friends and deliver the drawings in two and a half months!" Then the client said, no, two and a half months to finish construction. Crap! Better run away... But Michel was up for the challenge. They worked three 8-hour shifts (not two 12-hour ones) and made a lot of decisions on site. The building opened 2.5 months later.

Talking about Mexico, he said, "Some people complain about where they are from, whining about how fancy things can never be realized in their hometowns. But I love working in Mexico." Michel likes to experiment with digital design, but also wants to get things built locally. Construction techniques may be limited, but he went out to find local manufacturers who can do the job. For example, he hired auto repair workers to do the metal work for the PR34 house.

2. Never say "No" right away.
Here is another story about Nestlé. The client called again and said, "Hey, we are going to build another new facility. Are you interested? But you may not like it this time because you have to build arches. It's in a heritage site." "No no no, we love arches!" In fact, he doesn't. But he managed to pick up something undesirable, reinterpret, and perversely turn it into gold. Pseudoclassic arches became a series of intersected spherical excavations we see in Nestlé Application Group Querétaro.

3. Embrace collaboration.
Maybe it's the spirit of the tight-knit Mexican society, Michel believes in collaboration. Architecture is not a one-man show. "Everybody is working with everybody." You need consultants for your own projects since you can't possibly know every advanced aspect of building construction. And you would team up with other architects for design efforts as well, like Michel did in the Museo Tamayo competition with Bjarke Ingels.

4. Learn from mistakes.
Sometimes improper collaboration could be a disaster. Michel was invited by Ma Yansong and participated in the Huaxi project. It was an amazing collection of young architects. "We all wanted to do something together. But I don't know if we did it the right way." He admitted the result was not very appealing. But the good news is, since he realized that, he would learn from it. Constant denial of failures only leads to a blind self-indulgence. Every baby falls when he/she learns how to walk.

5. Think young.
Michel said, "I still feel like a boy and keep asking why about many things." To satisfy the curiosity and the desire to keep thinking, he and three other friends from different disciplines came together and formed AGENT, a "strategic intelligence embassy." To give an example, he showed their first project: CTRUS - the first transparent soccer ball. It has GPS/RFID and mechanical sensors, so it can locate itself and record kick force and travel speed. It changes color at critical situations such as goal, offside and out of bounds. Make sure you watch the video - it's cool!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Everything is envelope

Alejandro Zaera-Polo gave a lecture titled "Cheapness" at the Cooper Union last Friday. The narrative went like this:

Somebody said I didn't have much political sense, so I made the following observation: political movements in the last century were primarily about equality - social, geopolitical, class, race, gender, etc... Then a bunch of businessmen operated within the capitalist system and actually achieved equality through cheapness. Cheap food, cheap clothes, cheap furniture, cheap flights... I think instead of asking for more and more luxury, architects should think about cheapness too... There is a shift from plan and section as organizational devices to the envelope, which is the assemblage of massing and the construction of it... Now I will show you some projects.

Hmm... OK. Let me try to make sense of this. I think the "political statements" are valid and quite interesting. But how do they influence design decisions in projects? If "cheapness" is the conclusion, how does dressing an existing building with shiny wavy stainless steel illustrate the choice of cheapness? If the claims of intelligence are all about "I can make this sophisticated-looking pattern with only three types of tiles," or "the pattern is scaled in relation to the human head," I'll ask, do we need those patterns in the first place?

New Street Station Redevelopment, Birmingham
"The new envelope reflects different fragments of the context."

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, London
"The facade pattern consists of only three types of tiles."

John Lewis Department Store, Leicester
"The smallest circle in the pattern is the size of a head."

I saw a problematic theory/practice schism that prevails our profession now. It just sounds silly that everybody is trying to intellectualize things no matter how obvious or superficial they actually are. More disturbingly, these so-called theories are usually so stretched to include the whole world with one simple word or phrase - in AZP's case, "envelope." I couldn't keep from rolling my eyes when I heard "the city is envelope." AZP's logic is, envelope is almost the only thing architects are commissioned to do these days, so you'd better focus on it and try to get some theory out of it. A false premise can only result in unsound strategies. Architects are degraded from spatial creators to facade decorators. "What's your project about?" "Textile patterns from the John Lewis Archive!" "Nice!" "William Morris wallpaper!" "Cool!"

I also saw an effort to differentiate "envelope" from "skin," but I was not convinced. AZP kept saying that his concept of "envelope" integrates the pragmatics of construction. But the rhetorical efficiency of the three-tile inventory in Ravensbourne College is not even about the construction of the exterior walls. It could be interesting if the three shapes are building aggregates and they actually form the circular windows. But judging from the construction photos, they just form a thin layer of decorative pattern. How come this applied wallpaper dictates the shape of the windows and doors and therefore the type of wall construction behind? Oh, sorry. I forgot "ornaments have functions."

Ravensbourne College under construction