Monday, September 27, 2010

Important engagement

There are many differences in our world. Politics, cultures, personalities... They all have very different opinions and values. At the Al Manakh 2 launch event at Columbia last Friday, Rem Koolhaas situated the research on the Gulf region in the global political context, and argued that the topic of the Middle East is still extremely relevant and remains a very important engagement. He advocated, "the different political systems need a continued commitment to communicate."

Unfortunately, they are not talking. 911 and the current economic crisis were cited by Rem as events that made the US and Europe turn their backs to the rest of the world. Sorrow turned into anger and bias, and the narrow-mindedness stirred up our societies with controversies like the Danish cartoon, Swiss minarets ban, WTC mosque protests, and the stupid Koran burning proposal. Arrogance comes from ignorance. And the refusal to communicate only makes the sad misunderstanding even worse.

Rem was clearly annoyed by the fact that this ridicule even appears on an intellectual level, when he quoted Joshua Hammer's description of Dubai in his review in The New York Review of Books: "Here, Americans stick with Americans, Brits stick with Brits, Indians with Indians. Everyone keeps to his own kind." Rem said, "He wrote this critique as if its different everywhere else... In fact, when I was in Dubai, I experienced a level of social mixture that even this room can't compare."

In this context, Al Manakh 2 is a valuable attempt to understand. If Al Manakh 1 was an academic observation from the outside, this second installment is more a down-to-earth version trying to form an inside-out perspective. It features a collection of 140 essays, mostly written by local authors reflecting on their own situation and expectations. In a way, this has broadened the notion of research in our field to a rather open-minded and open-ended process of curation.

After American journalist Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered in Pakistan in 2002, his widow Mariane Pearl turned sorrow into strength. It was not strength to seek revenge but to continue Pearl's mission, to address the root causes of his death. She and the family formed the Daniel Pearl Foundation. The homepage of their website states: "The foundation's mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music, and innovative communications." This reminds me of a quote from Thomas Szasz: "The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget."

Related: Notes: "Al Manakh 2" debate 12/12/09

Monday, September 20, 2010

Simple complexity vs. complex simplicity

Today and tomorrow, 12 (sorry, 11) contemporary Sukkahs (temporary shelters of Jewish tradition to celebrate the festival of Sukkot) are on display in Union Square. They are chosen from 600+ entries from 43 countries in the Sukkah City competition.

Looked at the renderings when the winners were announced, you might be fascinated by how much we can do with the computer nowadays. All those shapes, materials, aggregates. Things can get so complex! But walking in the "City of Sukkah" is a different experience. It seems most of the architects didn't take reality seriously enough when they let their imaginations fly. When you try to cut and assemble zillions of different little pieces together, it's not as fun as modeling them in the computer. When the budget doesn't really allow state-of-the-art digital fabrication, some built results of these "state-of-the-art" designs look horrendous, some even led to structural failure.

Blo Puff. Huh? I bet they knew how the bamboo poles come up from the inflatable wall.
Fractured Bubble. Exploded hedgehog?
Gathering. Oh, you need to start with some vertical pieces? Oh, you need something to tie the parts together?
Repetition Meets Difference. Yes, very different.
Star Cocoon. Tell me this is a joke.
Sukkah of the Signs. After the tornado?
Time/Timeless. Very nice carpentry, but where did the curtain go?
Shim Sukkah. The shims give the walls a nice texture. But I am not sure when they start to unravel in all directions.
Single Thread. Made out of one continuous wire, the materiality is very interesting. It's probably the nicest among the complicated-looking ones.
P.YGROS.C. I am sorry, this one just collapsed right after installation last night.

When you think about it, all these complicated-looking objects are pretty much just simple one-liners. There's nothing really sophisticated about them. On the other side of the spectrum, some of the finalists still maintain a certain level of clarity, unpolluted by the seemingly "sexy" complex imagery. It just feels refreshing to see them standing out from the jungle of digital pineapples and mushrooms.

In Tension. Tensegrity is a clear and interesting structural idea. Maybe they took the low budget and temporariness a little too literally? Maybe the net is not dense enough for it to look substantial?

The best one is clearly LOG (by Kyle and Scott!). Praised by Fred Bernstein of the New York Times as "the most daring," LOG started with a simple idea: since the roof of a Sukkah must be made of botanical material that once grew in the ground, why don't we just use a giant log and make it float? It challenges the traditional image of the Sukkah yet still following all the rules. It pushes the limit of engineering yet still making it structurally sound. Its complexity doesn't rely on a complex but fake computer rendering. The designers don't need to prove their courage by proposing complex structure that fails. The magical moment comes from all the careful hard work behind a simple but powerful gesture.

LOG. Simply the best.
Looking up to the sky through the hole in the log.

There's a voting going on in Union Square as well as online here. The winner will stay in Union Square for the week of Sukkot while the rest will be gone tomorrow night. So if you haven't voted, do it NOW. Vote for LOG!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Have you heard the call?

Patrik Schumacher gave a talk at Columbia tonight. It was really a talk because it was all words. Too much of just words. The basic message he wanted to communicate was: there should be only one direction of architecture, and that one direction is Parametricism. It was unbearable. But I challenged myself and managed to stay until the end.

(Below: quotes in italics, reactions in regular.)

Part 1. One Direction

We the protagonists...
"Artists should be a kind of antagonists of their culture." - Keith Haring

There is a premise of a unified system of architecture, but we see no "collective action" by architects now.
A unified system doesn't mean a singular expression. If architects are all willing to take on their social responsibility, the "collective action" could be to make our world better. We set out with the same belief, but means may vary.

There can't be many parallel practices that contradict each other.
It's shocking that somebody still thinks like that in our level of civilization now. Our world has reached a degree of complexity that different voices can co-exist. The social structure is flattened by the internet platform and grassroots can express their opinions freely and make their talents visible. Healthy rivals bring more interesting colors to our world.
Architecture is an open discourse. There should be different trajectories that challenge each other in order to foster discussion. New ideas emerge from discussions, or even fights. If there were only one voice, our world would be monotonous and static. No discussion, no challenge, and there would be no development. Who's THE ONE we should listen to anyways? Are you proposing we just make our beloved Iraqi princess dictator of our discipline and put all the angry young men into a concentration camp?

Individual practice has to be coherent. If you do something different tomorrow, all your work today is undone.
I wrote about consistency before. It's important to try different things. And that doesn't make what you did disappear. I am not saying you should change your mind every day. But we should not just stick to one thing and reject other possibilities. Curiosity and the courage to explore is what creativity is all about.

That's Karl Marx's observation of social relations. Here I will talk about architecture and design.
Who are you?

Form is internal to architecture (self-referential), while function is external.
It sounds like autonomy all over again. Just drop the curtains and start masturbating!
Function is something imposed onto architecture? Architecture exists because of its forms? Ask Laugier about that.

Two binary codes of architecture: codes of utility - functioning (useful) and disfunctional (useless); codes of beauty - formally resolved (beautiful) and formally unresolved (ugly).
What an insightful observation! What a novel discovery!

Everything is bankrupt. Parametricism is the only way to avoid crisis. So many young architects are eager to jump on this ship because there's no other ship!
Yeah, you're right...

Parametricism continues the autopoiesis of architecture... It creates endless forms!
Alas! Form-making is the ultimate goal of architecture, and architecture can self-generate. Architects should just all die.

Part 2. Parametricism

Essential definition of Parametricism: All the elements of architecture have become parametrically malleable. The striking advantage is the intensification of relations.
I totally support parametric design technique for its superb capacity of dealing with complicated relations. In the digital age, our computers can handle such great amount of data in such a short time! The potential of dealing with intensified relations is huge. But from what I've seen so far, the only application of parametric design is to manipulate the FORMAL elements of architecture, not ALL the elements. When will the users come into the formula? How can we include the truly intense relations between all the socio-economic realms? Environmental issues?

Parametricism is the great new style after modernism.
I would agree this is a valid claim if there's not the word "great." Post-modernism and Deconstructivism were just transitional. And now parametrics is really everywhere! But the question is, do we really need it as a style? Or do we still need a style at all?

Minimalism is nothing but neo-modernism.
I wish I had been to Marfa so I can argue with more confidence. But I think I have seen enough elsewhere.

Where are we going then? Nature! We see complex variegated order!
Wow, almighty nature! There are many things to say about nature, but you forget one important fact: nature evolves. Diversity is key to evolution. And it always seeks a balance between different species. It's the harmonious co-existence of multiplicity, not singularity...

Principles of Parametricism:
Taboos - No rigid forms; no repetition; no pure difference (collage of isolated unrelated elements).
Dogmas - Soft forms (intelligent!); differentiation; correlation.

Really? Everything should only be curved because there are no straight lines in nature? Buildings should only look like jellyfish or slugs to be "smart"? I like the notion of correlation though. It tells the complex nature of design and suggests the inter-articulation of multiple sub-systems. They inform each other and adapt to an overall optimum. And for sure, parametric design is a great tool to test and visualize that.

(Pointing at some renderings)These are some arbitrary moves to initiate beauty.
Everybody dance!

Avoid to think in terms of essence. You should think about gradient fields of activity.
Wait, did you just talk about the "essential definition" of Parametricism? And why isn't activity something essential? Maybe by activity you mean the "arbitrary moves" mentioned above? OK, let's just stay with superficiality. Let's dance.

We gave our students a harder time in order to push them to do what we can't do in the office.
Why are  there double standards? What are the constraints limiting you from doing what you want the students to do? Structure? Site? Budget? If those are the reality of our profession, why should the students be set away from them? If you advocate to widen the distance between academia and practice, how dare you condemn Archigram and Yona Friedman as utopian nonsense?

(Note: I apologize if I sound like an old man who complains about every new change in life. I don't oppose parametric design per se. I value the effort to theorize things. It's just not convincing when someone pretends to be a thinker.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Learning from the past

Derek Lam's second SANAA-designed store opened in UES last Friday in conjunction with New York Fashion Week. Similar to the first one in SoHo, the store uses transparent acrylic walls to divide the space into zones for different collections. But this time, instead of individual bubbles, the acrylic panels form a continuous surface that wraps around and constantly alters the notion of inside and outside. This surface is not just a simple extrusion of a planar curve, but a drape-like loft with a smooth curve on top and a more ripply one at the bottom.

The effects are unique and stunning. (Good job, Jack!) And it all started with a very pragmatic consideration. In the first store, the acrylic is too transparent. Many people bumped into it when they were not paying enough attention. In this new design, the architects tried to make the acrylic wall more visible. Then the ripples make sense. The denser they get, the more multiplicity of reflections they create, and the more apparent they will look. The surface also gets more ripply at places where it needs to be structurally strengthened. (Same rationale as the Vakko slumped glass.)

It is also a less expensive manufacturing process. Instead of building giant molds to form the different curvatures, this free-form surface only requires a profile of the top curve and a profile of the bottom. Then the whole panel was cramped and put into the oven vertically. It's a relatively easy process and you don't need to worry about modularization or repetition in order to save money.

Learning from the past is golden. But in our time of big egos, it has become a lost practice. Very few people would look back and admit that they could have done better, not mentioning to express regret for their mistakes. How can you improve if you already think you are the king of the world?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Figurative painter of the void

The most known works by Yves Klein are probably the blue monochromes. But the French artist refused to be labeled as an abstract painter. Instead, he claimed himself to be a painter of space. Space is abstract, but it's real. It's empty, but it has depth. In order to paint the void space, you need physical traces. You have to be a realist and be in the void. A retrospective at the Hirshhorm Museum shows many examples of Klein's search of media, tools, and techniques to express the void throughout his short but prolific career, including amazing videos of the making of the artworks.

Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void), 1960

For Klein, the void, unlike other subject matters, has the quality of immaterial spirituality. You can't say this has nothing to do with his practice of Judo (he was a 4th-dan black belt). He started in the early 1950s with various pure colors, and eventually settled on an ultramarine blue of his own invention: International Klein Blue (IKB). This "color of the sky and the sea" produced the sensibility of freedom through which the artist felt "the sentiment of complete identification with space." When I stared at the blue in the gallery, I felt a difficulty to focus. It was precisely because of this inability to fix my focal point on a singular flat plane, I felt immersed into a void - space of expanse, depth, and infinity.

Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 67), 1959

Klein developed many different ways of applying IKB: with paint rollers, sponges, and ultimately "living brushes" - the human body. In his Anthropom√©tries series, Klein directed nude female models smeared with IKB to press their bodies against paper on the wall or drag each other on the floor, while an orchestra played Klein’s own 1949 composition "Symphonie Monoton." The paintings were not merely pigment on paper, but rather results of an act of performance. With these precise yet spontaneous processes, Klein attempted to distance himself from the artwork, and create a physical record of the body's immaterial cosmic energy and temporary presence through the intermediaries of the others. Energy and time are abstract. But what could be more figurative than a literal registration of the body?

Untitled Anthropometry (ANT 82), 1960
Untitled Anthropometry (ANT 84), 1960

Yves Klein continued his exploration of "living materials" and discovered fire. He considered fire "the universal principle of expression," a combination of human civilization and elemental cosmology. "Where the void is found there also lies fire." In his Fire Paintings, Klein used a gas gun as the new brush and burn marks as the new pigment. The process of making became a balance between control and contingencies, a dialectic combination of destruction and creation.

Untitled Fire Painting (F 67), 1961
Untitled Fire-Color Painting (FC 1), 1961

Yves Klein was not just an artist but a visionary inventor. The innovative media and techniques he used constantly and radically expanded the definition of art. His work marked a pivotal transition from traditional art’s focus on material objects to the contemporary notions of conceptual nature of art. Through the experiments to capture the void, he has paved the way for many movements of the postwar avant-garde, including minimal art, conceptual art, land art, pop art, and performance art.

Da Vinci the genius

There's an exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci at the National Geographic Museum (Washington D.C.) called "Da Vinci - The Genius." I felt weird about the title at first, mainly because I really have problems with the word genius. Plus, I would be more comfortable if it says a genius instead of the. But after visiting the exhibition, I wouldn't protest any more. We all know Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but a flying machine? A self-propelled car? Projector? Submarine? Old Leo invented all those more than 500 years ago! I have to agree, Leonard da Vinci is the genius.

In addition to painting, Leonardo also excelled in science and engineering. A vast number of inventions appeared as sketches in his journals, but he never actually built the majority of what he designed. Working from Leonardo’s drawings, modern Italian Artisans have faithfully crafted interactive and life-size machines and put together this handsome exhibition to show the great Renaissance master's achievements as an inventor.

Flight section
Parachute, 1483
The Aerial Screw, first ever concept for a helicopter.
Inclinometer (Level)
Wax Hygrometer
Civil machines section
Self-propelled Car (powered by spring)
Pole Erecting Machine
Screw-cutting Machine
Spot Light or Projector
Diving Gear / Breathing Equipment; Lifebuoy on the wall in the back
Paddle Boat
Anatomical studies and interaction section
Bevel Gears
Ball Bearings
Last but not least, here's a video showing how the "cam hammer" works (special thanks to the stranger who agreed to operate the machine):

These machines may work or may not work, but they are full of imagination nonetheless. I can totally see the Renaissance man sketching in his notebook like crazy, with lots of "what-ifs" in his head. He was curious, not afraid of dreams. When he had an idea, he strove to recreate his fantasies in reality, while others would easily dismiss it as impossible.