Wednesday, October 27, 2010

R.I.P. cassette Walkman

Sony announced last Friday that it had shipped the last order of cassette-based Walkman and stopped production of the line. First introduced in Japan on July 1, 1979, this iconic device reshaped culture and lifestyle in the 1980s. It was such a cool thing to have: you can "walk" with your own music! Since then, technology of portable personal music has evolved dramatically. It's interesting to see there's a pattern of roughly 8 years between generations of Discman, MD Walkman, and the iPod. Now what we do is to just stream music from Pandora with our smartphones. Where is our music? Somewhere in the cloud I guess...

"High-tech" gadgets become obsolete easily. When was the last time you saw a rotary phone? The last time you took a roll of film to develop? The last time you heard the modem dialing sound? I was actually surprised that Sony was still making cassette Walkman up till last week. It may or may not be a coincident that the end-of-Walkman announcement was made one day before the iPod's 9th birthday on October 23.

Apple is famous for killing old technologies. When the Virgin Megastore in Union Square closed last year, it was kind of ironic to see the "closing" sign right next to an iPod ad. With the first MacBook Air, Apple skipped the optical drive - with all software available online, we won't need discs to install anything. Now the second generation of MacBook Air has just been released and it uses flash chips for data storage. When Steven Jobs said, "we think all notebooks are going to be like this one day," he officially killed the hard drive.

Inside a second generation MacBook Air, there's no hard drive.

I remember ten years ago I was complaining about how inconvenient it was to work with teammates with an iBook - there's no floppy drive! Now I know, it was the first notebook to have built-in wireless networking! People say, things are constantly changing and we need to adapt and survive. I think in the process of evolution, instead of just trying to detect and adapt to the changes, we could be the ones who have visions and cause changes. I bet that's how people at Apple see themselves.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Adobe launched their Museum of Digital Media (AMDM) earlier this month. It's an institution that only exists in the virtual dimension. There are no doors, no guards. Admission is free, and it's always open. The mission of the AMDM is "to showcase and preserve groundbreaking digital work and to present expert commentary on how digital media influences culture and society." It is "an ever-changing repository of eclectic exhibits from diverse fields ranging from photography to product development to broadcast communications. To inspire fresh conversation on the constantly evolving digital landscape, exhibits are overseen by guest curators, each of whom is a recognized leader in the field of art, technology, or business."

Sounds revolutionary? I was pretty interested in the premise, so I went on the site and see how it really works. I was shocked. First of all, loading takes forever. Then the intro comes up with a wheat-looking twisting tower appearing in different real cities in the world. Then there's this jellyfish eyeball zooming in and out with a creepy sweet voice that sounds like V.I.K.I. in I, Robot. What the F is going on?

The Adobe Museum of Digital Media "building"
Virtual viewing device

If this is a virtual museum, why is there a building at all? Why is it a tower with such an overt physical presence? This "unique structure" is designed by Zaha Hadid veteran, Italian architect Filippo Innocenti. The "building tour" says, the atrium is a grand "space" designed to hold exhibits. "In the real world," it would span 57,680 square meters. There's a auditorium for live lectures and events. And for the archive and the permanent collection, "we have erected towers reaching 50 stories sky-ward." Give me a break! It's purely digital and you don't need 50-story towers to house the archive!!

Creative Director Keith Anderson says, "one of the things that we kept stopping and asking ourselves as we were developing the museum is: How would this work in the real world? How would it be in a real brick and mortar museum? We want to make sure that we can take the museum experiences that were familiar to people and then transfer those over to the digital space." I think they were asking themselves the wrong questions. What they should be thinking is how this virtual institution operates DIFFERENTLY from a museum in the real world; what it really means to have a museum solely digitally. Copywriter Mandy Dietz explains the reason why there's a viewing device: "we need to let people walk through the virtual museum because people can't physically walk through." But did it ever occur to the project team that people actually don't need to "walk through" the exhibits? We are not in MoMA. Visitors are sitting in front of the screen.

Actually, MoMA has been creating nice interactive exhibition webpages for most of their shows in the past years. To embrace the notion of virtuality, the key to curating AMDM is to put on things that start in digital form and end in digital form, i.e., something that is produced and consumed only digitally, not a scan or a photo of a physical art work in MoMA. If MoMA's webpages are to reproduce the experience in a physical museum, it's more like the Matrix - programs to simulate reality. You are not supposed to be aware of being in a different reality. But AMDM, with a more radical premise, should be like what Cobb knows about dreams in Inception. Time measures differently; gravity can be manipulated. It is a totally different world. Our existence and value system will be completely recalibrated. The inaugural project "Valley" by Tony Oursler is actually a good pick. It shows how digital media doesn't rely on any built space at all. Curator Tom Eccles calls it "site-specific." I am not sure if he's being sarcastic.

The index page of Tony Oursler's AMDM inaugural show "Valley"

Facebook reshaped how people interact with each other in the virtual space. But it didn't start with a common room with Victorian decorations or an urban plaza with grand Spanish steps. When virtuality becomes only an excuse to make the most overt thing ever, AMDM could only mean "Architects' Memorial of Delusional Masturbation."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The true reality

In his new book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking tells the story of goldfish bowl ban in the Italian town Monza. The town council official Giampietro Mosca explained the reason: "A fish kept in a bowl has a distorted view of reality... and suffers because of this." Hawking asks, "The goldfish's picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?" He goes on and suggests that reality is basically the observer's mental model. Since it's impossible to remove the observer from the perception of the world, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. Hawking calls this view model-dependent realism.

Reality varies from one person's perception to another. What seems to someone as something just happened naturally may be seen as the nastiest betrayal by someone else, like in the recent much-talked-about facebook movie (a.k.a The Social Network). Many reviews say the story is quite distorted and the real Mark Zuckerberg is not that arrogant and desperate for attention. But we have to know that this movie is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, and Mezrich's primary source was Eduardo Saverin - Zuckerberg's best friend at Harvard and later the victim of a facebook financial dispute. This is Saverin's side of the story, and of course it won't quite match Zuckerberg's narration if he makes one. I bet the Winklevoss twins would tell something different too. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin told Time, "There were a number of different versions of the truth coming from three or four or five people... Everybody has their own version, and everybody is right, and everybody is wrong." When it comes to Hollywood storytelling, it's just like what the second-year law firm associate says in the movie, "85% of it is exaggeration, and the other 15% prejury."

What did Mark Zuckerberg say about this? "It's a movie, it's fun." The movie is labeled as a drama so it's understandable that the events were dramatized. But when we talk about documentary, it's another story. Casey Affleck has become another recent talking point after he confessed that his new movie I'm Still Here is actually fake. When released, the film was announced as a documentary that followed Affleck's brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix on a descent into celebrity disintegration. But in fact, every single bit of it was acting. They hired actors and there were multiple takes. Where is the supposed honesty of a documentary film? Genre suggests expectation. If they said in the first place that the movie was a drama and the scenes were all staged performances, at least I would say Phoenix is a good actor. But now? I will just call it a lie.

Left: Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network; Right: Joaquin Phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix) in I'm Still Here

Casey Affleck defended himself with a quote from Picasso: "Art is the lie that tells the truth." But what did Picasso actually mean by that? We all know a portrait is not the real person; a landscape painting doesn't contain real trees. But there's a difference between being real and being true. Art is true in the sense that it shows the artist's observation of the subject and it tells the artist's version of reality. A Cubic painting represents an attitude totally different from, say, lip-syncing. When Ai Weiwei covered the floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with more than 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, he didn't pretentiously go around and tell people those were real sunflower seeds. Instead, he was rather true to the facts and open about the fabrication process in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. The seeds express Ai's view towards the phenomenon of "Made in China," and his association with China culturally, politically, and economically. The seeds are not real, but the art is true.

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds (at Tate Modern), 2010

Ai's Sunflower Seeds are sculptures of seeds. They look like seeds but they are NOT seeds. Some say, "Who cares whether they are real or fake? They look like real." I found this line of thought quite post-modern. "Look like something" doesn't mean "it is something." Maybe that attitude is the reason why people can be perfectly content with gypsum half Greek columns attached to a plaster white wall.

In Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin categorized direct falsities in architecture into three basic types: 1) structural deceits (e.g. steel structure that pretends to be stone or wood); 2) surface deceits (painting or cladding that confuses the reading of materiality); 3) operative deceits (false manufacturing process). Set aside the old-fashioned despise of iron and machine work, the bottom line of the argument is that if something in architecture is trying to look like something else, it is a lie. He elaborated with examples: the delicate fan tracery on the ceiling of Milan Cathedral is a deceptive act of painting, while the Sistine ceiling is no deceit because Michelangelo was not trying to trick you into the belief that God and Adam were actually up there.

Left: Milan Cathedral, tracery pattern painted on the ceiling; Right: Sistine Chapel

And there is also the issue of expectation, like the drama of The Social Network vs. the "documentary" I'm Still Here. In Ruskin's opinion, gilding in architecture is no deceit because nobody would actually expect the building to be made in gold; while in jewelry it is, because it could be understood for real gold. In general, we tend to believe rather than disbelieve (especially when it comes from our dear friends and loved ones), because honesty is regarded as a moral norm in our society. When someone makes a fake that very few can tell, it may be because the trick of counterfeiting is so well performed, but largely it is just taking advantage of people's common expectation for truth. One doesn't get credit by telling convincing lies. Rather, it is a narcissistic pretense to think that making oneself believed is more important than telling others the truth.

Kant said, "without truth, social intercourse and conversation become valueless." Deceit shatters the human intuition of trust. We can't even be confident in our ability to distinguish truth from falsity any more. When discover an untruthful part, we start to cast a suspicion upon the whole thing, and then even question the credibility of the person himself. Let's go back to Casey Affleck. Will you be fully convinced if he tells you he will make a real documentary film next time? Another frustrating thing about deceit is that it interferes with our effort to apprehend the true state of affairs, and therefore impair our judgments. With misleading information, we cannot situate ourselves correctly, nor can we make the fair apple-to-apple comparison. We may say things differently if we had the knowledge of the truth. Dishonesty and pretense are not merely playful jokes. It's utterly disheartening to find out all the things you built your assessments upon were not true.

Everybody encounters different constraints and difficulties in life. From time to time you find yourself in a situation that nobody else can fully comprehend. So it's natural that people construct different models of reality and base their decisions and actions on them. But being true is absolute. To maintain integrity and credibility, you must get the facts straight. No matter what actually happened between Zuckerberg and Saverin, neither of them would go all the way to claim that he alone invented facebook.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The girl who sat at the window

Congratulations to Iwan Baan on the Julius Shulman Photography Award! It sounds like a Monday morning quarterback now, but I always think Iwan Baan is the Julius Shulman of our time.

I still remember the story Iwan told me about how he got the close-up of a girl sitting at the window of Toyo Ito's Mikimoto building in Tokyo. He was taking pictures of the building from the other side of the street, and suddenly he saw this girl sitting elegantly at one of the windows. He quickly aimed the camera towards her, framed the shot, and pressed the button. He didn't know who she was at the time, but soon after, he was told that it was Kelly Chan, a famous Hong Kong pop singer. This reminded me of the two girls in Julius Shulman's signature photo of Case Study House #22. When the assistants were setting lights for him, Julius strolled outside of the house just out of curiosity, and he caught the classic moment that perpetually defines the image of Modernism in America.

Iwan Baan: Mikimoto Building by Toyo Ito.
Julius Shulman: Case Study House #22 by Pierre Koenig.

Clearly, Iwan took his inspirations not only from Julius Shulman but also figures like Henri Cartier-Bresson. It's a mode of photo journalism. Like Cartier-Bresson, Iwan loves to catch real people in action. He rarely stages the scene but rather let the architecture be the stage of life. He also travels continuously around the globe. It's actually hard to find him in one place for more than a week.

When hear the name Julius Shulman, one will almost immediately think about Richard Neutra. In a similar manner, Iwan Baan has been associated to his fellow Dutchman Rem Koolhaas. While Julius's pictures represent the pristine quality of Neutra's high Modernism - always clean, organized and efficient, Iwan's work dares to expose messiness to reflect a different Zeitgeist. He tends to capture the chaos of metropolitan life - the pulse of our time that Rem also addresses - while maintaining high quality light and texture. Iwan also utilized new media technology and created interactive virtual tours with the help of a Swiss-made mirror ball and computer software, taking architectural photography to another level.

Both Julius and Iwan had help from architects in the early stage of their photography career. And in return, they both took their responsibilities as members of the architectual community. Julius helped discover hidden gems like Herb Greene, and Iwan's photos have brought our attention to several new talents, including young Japanese Sou Fujimoto and Junya Ishigami, as well as Giancarlo Mazzanti from Colombia. In 1990, Julius "retired" as he was upset by the ubiquitous postmodernism. When he heard that a new owner bought the Kaufmann House and was willing to undertake serious restoration, he helped enthusiatically by providing all the photos he took of the original house, including eighty of them that he never actually printed.

The responsibilities were not limited to architecture. Julius was an advocate of environmental awareness. He initiated a program called "Project: Environment U.S.A." to show how architects could relate to good environment in their design work. Iwan has a keen interest in the developing world. He goes frequently to China, India, Mongolia, and countries in South America and Africa, covering issues such as poverty, cultural identity, and democracy. This enthusiasm could be seen as early as in his school thesis project: a report on the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus who founded the Grameen Bank in 1976, the first bank in the world dedicated to microcredit to the poor.

Here are just some of the obvious characters Julius Shulman and Iwan Baan have in common. Maybe another one to add: they are both so nice! As a professional and as a person, Iwan deserves to be the very first winner of this award.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The catalyst function of architecture

Maybe it was because of Architecture for Humanity, whenever people say "architects' social responsibilities," I always assume they only refer to providing low-cost shelter and reducing poverty. When I went to MoMA for the new exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement," I was glad to see the type of projects ranged from museum in South Africa to housing tower refurbishment in Paris, from an art school in LA to an urban cable car system in Venezuela. But at the same time, I still felt something inadequate about it... Aren't these projects still primarily talking about underserved areas? Building a school out of mud certainly sets a good example in Bangladesh. But is that all architects can do to be "socially engaged"? Then there's a second question: to what degree are the social changes result of architecture? We are talking about bringing changes to society, but how many architects actually started with a social concern rather than saying "Oh great, I can build an art school!"?

METI - Handmade School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh
Transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris, a new layer of balconies was added.
Inner-City Arts in LA, by Michael Maltzan
Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela
Community Living Room / Senior Housing in San Ysidro, CA, by Teddy Cruz

Rem told us, you also need to take on social responsibilities when working in places like Dubai. How to maintain the village-like lifestyle on the other side of the city? What's the significance of a Dubai project in the global political/economic/cultural/architectural context? When Le Corbusier envisioned the revolution of architecture, he always kept in mind architecture's social missions. (Happy Birthday, Corb!) A material and structural system to build efficiently in the new age, a lifestyle to reflect the zeitgeist, a city to live in harmony with nature... Issues of society are always diverse and complex, so the concept of social engagement must be broad and inclusive. It can be involvement in disaster relief as well as precaution of potential negative impacts. We should fight poverty as well as improve quality of life in general.

When I strolled down to the "Counter Space" exhibition, I saw the Frankfurt Kitchen. I saw the perfect answer to both of my questions right in front of my eyes! Designed in 1926–27 by Grete Schütte-Lihotzky, this compact and ergonomic space reflects a commitment to reshape the lives of ordinary (not just poor) people in a transforming society. The design addressed the notion of modernity in the domestic sphere, based rationally on new theories about efficiency, hygiene, and workflow. Its social agenda was to reform domestic labor through the reorganization of space, injecting a groundbreaking agency in the reconstruction of women's role in society. As Schütte-Lihotzky said, "Women’s struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an absolute necessity."

Frankfurt Kitchen in MoMA

Compared to the projects in the "Small Scale, Big Change" exhibition, nothing looks particularly fancy in the Frankfurt Kitchen. No intricate tectonics, no funny geometries, no wavy roofs. Perhaps a design doesn't really need to be "Architecture with a capital A" to perform as a social catalyst.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Architectural dance

Stephen Petronio stood at the edge of the roof at Whitney, leaned out, and balanced his body to a perfect horizontal position facing down. Then he started strolling down the wall as if he was walking on a horizontal surface. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The verticality of space was transformed into horizontality by the act of the performer. For a moment I felt like I was incepted in Cobb's Paris.

This was the re-enaction of dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown’s 1970 “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” as part of the "Off the Wall" show on her early works. One can say Trisha Brown's dances are very "architectural" because they display a particular interest in the movements of the body in relation to space. In a similar indoor piece "Walking On the Wall" (1971), dancers walk, jump, and run parallel to the floor along two intersecting walls of the gallery. The dance defies gravity and hence challenges our perception of orientation. The observed space in the room spins like a rolling dice. Up and down, left and right all become relative.

These performances remind me of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when champion gymnast Li Ning ran along the rim of the stadium to light the Olympic cauldron. In this theatrical finale, the inner wall of the roof was unfolded into a long scroll showing the footsteps of the torch relay.

Li Ning ran on the inner rim of the Bird's Nest's roof

Space always exists, but the definition of space is through inhabitation. Spaces gain and alter their meanings from different user interactions. In a way, the design of architectural space is the choreography of user movements. Of course, architects can't foresee every possible use of the space they design. Creative "misuses" of space, like in the cases of Whitney and the Bird's Nest, usually cause surprising yet convincing effects.