Sunday, February 28, 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

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The sound of forms

The Iannis Xenakis exhibition at the Drawing Center featured over 60 drawings, photos, musical pieces and documents that span the avant-garde composer/architect's career from 1953 to 1984. I didn't know much about musical composition. But through the hand sketches and the almost-architectural diagrams of sound and rhythm, I saw the strong connection between music, mathematics, and architecture that Xenakis had explored throughout his life.

One piece that struck me the most (perhaps it was just the easiest piece for an amateur to understand) was Mycènes Alpha (1978), shown at a listening station with a flat screen TV. As the thin bar swept across the screen on a series of funny shapes and strange lines, I heard fluctuating noises. My first reaction was, "Is this even music?" But after a while, I realized what I heard came from what I saw - the graphics was actually a score. The pitch was represented on the Y- axis in relation to the X- axis on which you read the time from left to right.

This was the first piece of music generated by the UPIC (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu), developed by the Centre d'Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu) in Paris. Xenakis used a electrostatic stylus to draw waveforms and volume envelopes on the drawing board, which were then rendered by the computer into sounds. The visual-sonic translation was so literal that it was almost relentless. Did Xenakis know exactly what it would sound like? Probably not. But he was able to let loose the end result and make the act of composition truly experimental. This "arts/sciences alloy" enabled you to hear the "formalized music", the sound of forms - singularity and multiplicity, branching and convergence, chaos and order.

It reminded me of the so-called "parametric design" in architecture now. It's a lie compared to what Xenakis did 30 years ago. It will be convincing only when architects are 1) clear about the relevant principles and rationales (aka parameters); and 2) let go and stop micro-controlling the end object (aka design).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Here comes the Tiger

First day of the Year of the Tiger!
Happy Chinese New Year!

(Click to enlarge. Read carefully for the message.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The (killing) power of boredom

When you say "bored to death," be careful. It may be possible.

Scientists Annie Britton and Martin J. Shipley of University College London analyzed the data collected in a survey between 1985 and 1988, of over 7,500 civil servants who were between the ages of 35 to 55, about their level of boredom. They found that 10% of the respondents reported having been bored within the previous month, with women reporting being bored more than twice as often as men. Younger workers and people with menial jobs were also high in the boredom scales.

Then they tracked down how many respondents were still alive in April 2009. Those who had said they had high levels of boredom were 37% more likely to be dead than those who did not report being bored. The bored ones were two and a half times more likely to die of a heart problem. The researchers said the study was preliminary - boredom itself was probably not that deadly. But people who regularly/chronically feel bored are more prone to being unhappy and feeling unmotivated and unfulfilled, and this could lead to the adoption of unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, or drugs.

Christopher Cannon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard and spokesman for the American College of Cardiology, commented that people who were bored would be less likely to have a healthy lifestyle. That made them more vulnerable to a cardiovascular event. If boredom was ultimately linked to depression, heart attacks wouldn't be of much surprise, since depression has long been recognized as a risk factor for heart disease. It's possible that when people were bored, dangerous hormones were released in the body that stressed the heart.

Well... I guess my job is exciting enough!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The plurality of perfections

In a 2004 article from the New Yorker (recently featured in the book What the Dog Saw), Malcolm Gladwell mentioned a story about Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher, who received the task of figuring out the perfect amount of sweetener for Diet Pepsi. Pepsi knew that anything below 8% was not sweet enough and anything over 12% was too sweet. So Moskowitz logically set up experiments to give people batches of 8%, 8.25%, 8.5%, and on and on up to 12%. Instead of showing a concentration that people liked the most, the data were a mess - there wasn't a pattern at all. Then he realized people have different definitions of what's perfect. Rather than search for human universals, they should provide variations. "There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis."

The plural nature of perfection implies variations, and opposes hasty simplification. Sometimes I heard comments like "this will be perfect for China." What does that even mean? Extravaganza? Labor-intensive constructions? Or Feng-shui? (Stereotype is such a curious combination of generalization and specification.) Situation varies, so does "what fits in there." Rem's Maison à Bordeaux was perfect for a man who was confined to a wheelchair. But after he died in 2001, the moving platform became a constant reminder of his absence. His daughter couldn't live there any more.

The idea of plural perfections embraces difference, and facilitates co-existence. At the end it can lead to a colorful world of rich heterogeneity. This can be big as religion, politics, race, and gender, or small as how you want your coffee. There's not necessarily one best way to do things. Why can't we just listen and stop fighting? Why can't we try to understand different opinions instead of biasedly dismiss them right away? Why do we force everybody to like what we like and suppress all the other voices? Yes, you are right. But that doesn't mean others are all wrong.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

BIG ideas

I went to Bjarke Ingels's lecture on Friday. The main argument was pretty much the same as his
TED talk - I already wrote about that last October. But it was still nice to see him talk in person. Undeniably, he's a good salesman. I was deeply impressed by his energy and enthusiasm when I first saw him lecture at the GSD in 2006, although in the years that followed, I repeatedly found his projects a bit too naive and superficial. This time, I felt myself excited again - even starting to buy his hyper-optimism and hyper-straight-forwardness. It seemed like he actually knew what he was doing, judging from the following points he was trying to make at the lecture.

Say "Yes!"
Avant-garde seems to be always negative, pictured as this "angry young man" rebelling against the establishment. Most of the time avant-garde is defined as what it's up against rather than what it's for. As a result, the history of architecture appears to be a series of oedipal successions of generations that were always the opposite of their previous ones. Can we be positive about things and be radical at the same time? I think that's what Bjarke is trying to do. Be a "happy young man" and think "life is beautiful." Kazakhstan? Estonia? Azerbaijan? Hell yes! Let's do it!

Humor vs. architecture
BIG videos are always funny. A (Preiser-like) red peep running around the 8-house, for instance. And Kaspar's "My Playground" film featuring Team JiYo is utterly awe-inspiring.

To explain the use of humor in the presentation of architecture, Bjarke said, interesting design is like humor; "it's all about punch lines. They are surprising, but at the same time they make sense." Sometimes you say laughable things during meetings but after a while you realize they may not be that stupid. The key to nurturing interesting ideas is to have a relaxed atmosphere at brainstorming sessions so that everybody is encouraged to throw out "stupid" thoughts. Sadly, this kind of atmosphere is not a common practice these days...

Pragmatic utopia
Architects rarely have financial or political power to realize what they envision. So the work becomes a series of improvised reactions to incidents caused by the powerful. Bjarke described his strategy: identify the sphere of influence, and let the rest be context. At first it sounded like "the art of compromise." But in fact, judging from BIG's line of work, the sphere of influence turned out to be bigger than I thought. If you try hard enough, you may actually have considerable freedom within the framework.

"There is
a big difference between complexity and complication." In computer programming, complexity means to use the most efficient algorithm to process the maximum amount of data. You want a view in the other direction? I'll twist. You need infinite linearity for the stacks? I'll make you a circle. Simple and easy. All the other unnecessary noises will just blur the communication and eventually miss the point. Maybe the naive straight-forwardness is not a bad thing after all... At least it's easier to make projects into icons for the website. Alright, I'm sold.