Thursday, January 28, 2010

iTablet, iSlate, and finally iPad

Rumors started long time ago that Apple was making a tablet. After many rounds of "discussions," geeks came to the following consensus:

- The tablet will look like a larger iPod Touch or iPhone, measuring approximately 10 inches;
- running a substantially expanded version of the iPhone OS, which will be named iOS;
- probably called iSlate;
- with a new, non-QWERTY interface;
- with Wi-Fi and 3G data connections, not exclusive to AT&T, but probably Verizon this time.
- possibly available in two versions, LCD and OLED, with or without webcam;
- and it will cost between $700 and $900.

Here's a collection of what people thought the iTablet, or iSlate would look like:

Finally this morning, the real thing surfaced. Steve Job announced the brand new (unisex) device called iPad.

- Yes, it does look like an enlarged iPhone.
- Measurements: 9.57"x7.47", 0.5" thick, 1.5 lbs. I think it looks pretty thin.
- 9.7-inch (1024x768 pixels) LED-backlet glossy display with IPS technology.
- In addition to the usual mail, calendar, maps, Safari, music, video, photos, etc., it runs all the iPhone apps, iWork, and the new iBook app.
- 10 hours of (surprising long) battery life.
- Sorry, no webcam, no DVD-Rom, no USB, no multitasking, and it still doesn't run Flash.
- But yes, you can have a keyboard dock, and it looks quite nice.

- (Too) many variations: with or without 3G; 16G, 32G, or 64G.
- Price starts at $499. (Not too bad.)
- Data plan still with AT&T, ouch!

Is this something you really need (in addition to an iPhone)? Probably not. But, it is a cool thing to have... Considering all the things missing, I find myself looking forward to the next generation already.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pole Dance and balls

MoMA/PS1 announced yesterday that Solid Objectives - Idenburg Liu (SO-IL) won the 2010 Young Architects Program to build the installation in the PS1 courtyard this summer. It is interesting because everybody assumed BIG would get this since their name stands out by so much that it seemed almost automatic. Funny enough, rumors indicated BIG as the winner some days ago, referring to Bjarke Ingels's facebook status.

No offense to SO-IL, I think this win is inspiring because it shows us a "big" name doesn't mean as much as we thought. Less known architects still have a chance to shine. I haven't seen BIG's entry. But judging from the limited resources online, SO-IL's proposal seems to be quite ingenious.

1. It's a field, not an object that you just walk around and look at.
2. It's interactive. You participate, and the actual form of the moment reflects the relationship between the structure and its users.
3. The contrast between a rigid grid and the dynamic swaying structure is interesting.
4. Obviously low budget and yet it provides a strong sense of place.
5. The notion of shading is addressed by a mutable (almost unpredictable) device - rolling balls.
6. It's FUN!

Link to the video - fun to watch.

Congrats to Florian, Ilias, and Iannis! Can't wait to see it in June!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Essential Zumthor

Peter Zumthor's lecture at the Guggenheim Museum tonight was a pleasant experience. It was not only the design sensibility which remains untouched by fads and trends, but also the occasional jokes that reveals the most recent Pritzker laureate's way of looking at things.

Zumthor presented only two projects, both in Norway: the Zinc Mine Museum in Sauda and the Memorial to the Burning of Witches in Vardø. There are some similarity between the two projects: simple geometry, wood exoskeleton, and a substructures that defines the space. In the Zinc Mine Museum there are actually four buildings: Service Building, Mining Cafe (where you can get mining soup), Mining Museum, and Mining Platform. But he kept referring to them as "four of a kind." There's only one primary material, one type of structure, and one type of joinery - oneness with variations. In the early stages, the boxes were part of the wood skeleton and helped structurally. Then he realized the boxes should be separate, and as light as possible. That keeps them true to their material and the structural clarity of the buildings.
Zinc Mine Museum, Sauda, Norway
Memorial to the Burning of Witches, Vardø, Norway

Zumthor compared the wood skeleton in Vardø to the long wood racks that the local fishermen built to dry fish. The tensioned fabric substructure is sailcloth, also linked to the local history of the fishing village. This reminds me of Therme Vals, where slabs of quartzite seem to naturally emerge from the landscape. Zumthor once said, “When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material.” I can see this impulse of materiality comes directly from the place.

The Magic of the Real
Like most other "old-school" architects, Zumthor believes in the power of physical models over the computer. The most impressive part of the lecture were the images of 1:1 detail models and mock-ups. His atelier would study wood structural joinery in full scale, finding the simplest one-screw solution. To try to test the atmosphere and the soft/mysterious lighting effects of the window boxes in the Memorial to the Burning of Witches, they built many iterations of 1:1 trial mock-ups in Haldenstein before the Norwegians started construction.

Letting loose
When talking about the placement of the windows, he told an interesting story. "I saw my project architect trying to design the windows and I said, that can be endless. Why don't you just let it happen by chance? Set six lines, and roll dice to determine the offset. He came back to me with the result and it looked great!" In fact, the project architect tried three rounds and picked the best one. Zumthor's comment was, "architects just won't let loose." I guess he himself is loose enough - he hasn't designed the door into the textile space yet. :)

The interior of the Zinc Mine Museum is very simple. In addition to a display of artifacts, there are three windows for three books, compiled by different collaborators on different subjects such as geology, history, and subterranean (mythology and world literature). Zumthor seemed to have had fun with those authors/editors, although he didn't remember their names. He enjoyed working with Louise Bourgeois on the Memorial to the Burning of Witches installation too. But when it comes to local engineers? Uh-uh. "I just realized structural forces are very different in Switzerland and Norway. I remember years ago when I crossed the border to Austria, I learned that the lightening there was completely different!"
Early version of the installation at the Memorial to the Burning of Witches by Louise Bourgeois

Initially Zumthor wanted to use old-fashioned light bulbs for the window boxes in the Memorial. He got frustrated when EU told him he has to use the new energy efficient ones. In the case of the Louise Bourgeois installation, the flame on the chair is always lit but the ring of fire around it will only light up when you get close. "To save energy they said. You can tell how much I like this kind of things... It just makes it (the installation) weak."

The citation from the 2009 Pritzker jury says, “In paring down architecture to its barest yet most sumptuous essentials, [Peter Zumthor] has reaffirmed architecture’s indispensable place in a fragile world.” I think the Pritzker has sent out a strong message: it's about time for architects to look back to the essentials of our profession. A return to the things themselves.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Where the tall things are

Burj Khalifa (formerly known as Burj Dubai) officially opened today. It's become the tallest building in the world with 162 floors and a spire height of 828 meters.

Talking about skyscrapers, people would naturally think about New York. But the height ranking diagram below (compiled from indicates something else.

Let's do some counting. Of the 28 tallest buildings that are built/under construction/approved, only two are built in the US: Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and the Trump Tower, both in Chicago. 5 are built in East Asia, and there will be 11 more coming soon, mostly in China. 7 new towers will join the Middle East scene. Who designed these things? Mostly Americans this time. Actually mostly SOM, who built 4 (Burj Khalifa, Willis, Trump, and Jin Mao) of the 8 existing towers and has 3 more to come. KPF built one in Shanghai, and designed three new ones. Then comes Cesar Pelli, who brought the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the IFC in Hong Kong. Europeans (actually all British) seem to be catching up. They are responsible for 5 new towers, although none of them is located in Europe. Sadly, East Asian architects are not doing so great in the large scale projects. Middle Eastern firms seem to be able to get a share in their domestic market, but I was really speechless when I saw their design...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Drawing with light

The title sounds familiar? Well, we are not talking about phenomena here. This is literal about light painting, or "light graffiti" - a thread of street art that uses light as media, photographed with slow shutter speed.

Michael Bosanko, Cardiff, UK
Under the Pier
Green Dragon
Light City 2

Lichtfaktor, Cologne, Germany
Starwars vs. Startrek
Energie in Motion
Blue Peter
Lange Nacht der Forschung
Beko All-Star

Lightmark (Cenci Goepel and Jens Warnecke), Hamburg, Germany

Eric Staller, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Synergy II

Eran Hakim, Istanbul, Turkey
Green Day

rafoto, ?

shubat, Brooklyn NY, USA
Creature of the Light
Light Creature of McCarren

The technique actually started a long time ago. During his first visit in Vallauris (1949), Gjon Mili captured Picasso drawing a centaur in thin air with a flashlight at Madoura Pottery. It was when Picasso's creative thrust kicked in after Mili showed him some of his photographs of light patterns formed by a skater’s leaps. Picasso reacted instantly with excitement, and started tracing through the air one intriguing shape after another. This "instant Picasso" is so intangible - vanishing right after born. Unlike clay, wood, metal, or paint, drawing with light requires decisive instinct and unimpeded expression of the artist’s inner vision.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A decade of grassroots

The end of 2009 means not only the start of a new year, but a new decade. Looking back to the 2000s (or the Aughts, the Noughties, the Naughty Aughties, whatever you wanna call it), we witnessed a significant social transformation. There was a power emerging from the bottom, triggered by the information revolution. Opportunities were created equally for everybody, no matter who you are or where you are from, as long as you have the insight and skills. Anyone could be visible without going through traditional hierarchical organizations or institutions. It is a tremendous shift that reshaped the flow of cultural creativity, business management, and political mobilization. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome an ethic of hyper-self-reliant grassroots and the annihilation of authority!

After launching in August 2003, MySpace soon became the most popular social-networking site. Although its #1 social network status was overtaken by Facebook in 2008, this virtual display platform forever altered how music was marketed - by musicians themselves. Artists and bands, famous or not, can upload their songs onto their homepage and have exposure to millions of people on a daily basis. Over the years, millions of artists have been discovered by MySpace users, among which are Lily Allen, Sean Kingston, and Arctic Monkeys.

In February 2005, YouTube was founded. A wide variety of user-generated video contents are viewed a billion times a day worldwide. You remember "Bus Uncle" in Hong Kong? A 23-year-old Korean playing Pachelbel's Canon on an electric guitar in his bedroom? I think it's fair to say SNL was more successfully marketed on YouTube (Andy Samberg videos) than the show itself on TV. Traditional media corporations such as CBS, NBC, and BBC felt the pressure to create their own accounts on the website. Businesses also felt the need to upload their TV commercials online. One recent personal experience: I have received links to the Droid commercial on YouTube from many different friends, but I've never seen it on TV.

Talking about media, traditional news felt intimidated by the grassroots as well. As of 2003, there were fewer than one million blogs, but now there are over 110 million worldwide. Bloggers report events before the New York Times knows about them, publish commentaries before the White House calls for a press conference, and release gossips with photos before People Magazine gets a hold on the stories. You may dismiss the credibility of Perez Hilton, but the success of Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG has earned him opportunities to lectures and (paper) publication, a teaching position at Pratt, and most importantly, respect in the architectural world.

In July 2006, Jack Dorsey created Twitter. The era of micro-blogging began. With a monthly growth of 1,382%, there are almost 60 million people in Twitterville now. Unlike Facebook's "What's on your mind?" Twitter asks users to post "What's happening?" with no more than 140 characters. This is a powerful tool for news and information exchange. With the popularity of camera phones, users can upload tweets and twitpics right on the spot. "Trending topics" reflect from the bottom the pulse of our world. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, eyewitnesses sent an estimated 80 tweets every 5 seconds. Twitter users also sent out vital information such as emergency phone numbers and the location of hospitals needing blood donations. CNN called this "the day that social media appeared to come of age." Ironically, the number of CNN followers on Twitter was later out-beaten by Ashton Kutcher (not quite a grassroot but at least an individual), whose followers reached 1 million on April 16, 2009.

The first show of American Idol debuted on June 11, 2002 on the Fox network. All of a sudden the girl next door can be the idol of the nation. But the more significant part of the program was viewer voting. The "judges" were there just to comment, and the true power of deciding who would win is in the hands of the general audience. No matter how much Simon hates her, you can still vote for her. In Season 8 (2009), more than 100 million votes were cast in the Finale and a record-setting 624 million votes over the season. On the other side of the globe, a singing contest with similar format called "Super Girl" gained enormous popularity in China. On August 26, 2005, 8 million SMS votes flooded into the finale and made Li Yuchun an instant national icon. Time Magazine Asia featured her on the cover and named her one of the Asia's Heroes 2005.

In April 2009, Susan Boyle amazed the world with her "I Dreamed a Dream" performance on the Britain’s Got Talent show. But what truly made her famous was not the show but the web. Within 9 days, videos of her song were watched over 100 million times online. The most popular YouTube clip was viewed nearly 2.5 million times in the first 72 hours. She released her debut album in November. Almost 3 million copies have been sold and it is currently No.1 on the Billboard album chart for a fifth week.

Authoring an article in the encyclopedia was regarded as an honorable recognition of "expert" status. But now anybody with internet access can edit Wikipedia - no academic credentials required. Since the first wiki went online on January 10, 2001, there have been nearly 19 million pages (more than three million articles in English) that went through more than 356 million edits. The crowds collaborate as editors, and at the same time the police to keep the entries (mostly) accurate. Wikipedia provides an open and flat platform for knowledge, and the source is the entire society.

Wikipedia changed the way research is done. Then what about the occasions when you need an image to illustrate your argument? Yes, Flickr. Since its launch in February 2004, this image hosting website has drawn more than 4 billion images, uploaded by more than 7 million users. Even White House photographer Pete Souza started to officially release White House photos on Flickr in May 2009. To make searching easier, Flickr encourages users to assign tags - keywords that describe and identify images. As a result, the cloud of non-textual data is categorized in particular textual topics, with the help of everybody. This new approach of "folksonomy" (folk-taxonomy) rapidly spread throughout the web.

The wisdom of the crowd also changed how businesses ran their tasks. Netflix launched the Netflix Prize on October 2, 2006. It was an open competition for the best collaborative filtering algorithm to predict user ratings for films, based on previous ratings. By October 8, a team called WXYZ Consulting had already beaten Netflix's own results. On September 18, 2009, the team "BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos" received the grand prize of $1,000,000 as the first to beat Netflix's own algorithm by 10%. This is just one of the many examples of so-called "crowdsourcing," a business model that relies on the general public other than employees to fulfill the tasks. Just as the Chinese would say, "Three stinky cobblers combined equal Zhuge Liang the mastermind."

Maybe the climactic moment of grassroots power in the last decade was the 2008 Obama campaign. It was the ultimate example of bottom-up political mobilization. On, features like "create your own event" and "create your own Obama group" created a voters self-organizing system. Obama HQ provided the tools for these people to meet, organize, fund-raise and canvass voters, and the crowds mobilized themselves spontaneously from within. You won't be surprised to see groups like "Anime Fans for Obama" and "Barack the Kitchen Club." Throughout the campaign, 2 million people created profiles on Obama's social-networking site, more than 1.2 million volunteered, and 3 million gave him money. The Obama campaign also launched an official iPhone app with details of the candidate's views on various issues, and features to locate fund-raising events near you. When you search Obama on YouTube, you see campaign ads posted by the official Obama account, while under John McCain there were only negative videos edited by web users. If the choice was between someone who will bring a Wii to the White House and someone who doesn't really know how to use a computer, the pick seemed obvious for the 00s.