Monday, May 31, 2010

Lively dead

Thursday night was the first time I went back to the Museum of Arts and Design since its opening. I went with good reasons. First it was a pay-what-you-wish night. And second, the current exhibition "Dead or Alive" is truly intriguing and amazing.
It's the kind of exhibition that could have been held in Hogwarts. Here you see ginger roots, lotus leaves, millet seeds, kelp, feathers, horse hairs, various insects, cocoons, oyster shells, snake skin, and even a skeleton of a centaur.

Shen Shaomin, Sagittarius, 2005
Bone, bone meal, glue

It's not the first time artists have moved beyond conventional mediums like paint and marble, but it was quite impressive to see this collective endeavor of exploring materiality, or "matter-reality" of organic substance. Cuban-born artist Fabián Peña talked about his cockroach wing mosaics as "a material that I can easily find," and "it's cheaper than buying paint." Of course the choice of material is more than just pragmatics. It's a challenge of our views towards the repulsive creatures. I saw two girls observing with great interest a heap of something that artist Alastair Mackie put together. When they finally realized what they were looking at, they frowned, "Ew, mouse bones taken from owl poop? That's gross!" Why didn't they say that when they first saw the heap? Well... I guess what it is does matter more than how it looks.

Fabián Peña. The Impossibility of Storage for the Soul I, 2007
Cockroach wing fragments, translucent paper, light box

Alastair Mackie. Untitled (+/-), 2009 (part)
Mouse skeletons, concrete

Some pieces like that may be eerily chilling, but overall, there's a certain playful tone. Nothing is really as strikingly disturbing as Damien Hirst's bull's head in "End of an Era." (He's actually part of this show too, but this time there are only butterfly wings.) I think it has to do with the fact that most of the objects in the show are smaller aggregates put together through either an unexpected arrangement or an intricate assembly.

Claire Morgan's flies, for example, are arranged very geometrically as a cube, with a spider disturbing the top and "causing" a couple of flies breaking away from the grid. Young Dutch artist Levi van Veluw applied (not photoshopped) miniature shrubs, trees, and animals onto the contours of his own head and created a series of self-portraits/landscape photos. The living human body becomes a platform and at the same time the core of a replicated nature.

Claire Morgan. On Top of the World, 2009
Bluebottle flies, spider, nylon, lead, acrylic

Levi van Veluw. Landscape I, 2008

Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of studio DRIFT gathered dandelions, removed the puffs and then obsessively glued them back seed by seed to LED lights. Tim Hawkinson's Point (2009) is also included in the exhibition. At first glance, it seems like a 3D printed object that resembles an organic looking Voronoi structure. In fact, the fragments were cut from eggshell, utilizing their natural curvature to form the delicate piece. Incredible imagination and craftsmanship!

studio DRIFT. Fragile Future 3, 2009
Phosphorus bronze, dandelion puffs, LEDs

Tim Hawkinson. Point, 2009

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Google, Pac-Man, and productivity

Last Friday, May 21st was Pac-Man's 30th birthday. Google turned its homepage into a playable Pac-Man game for two days. We all took breaks to enjoy the fun and then told our friends to do the same. Recently, RescueTime, a company that develops time management software, has gathered statistics and analyzed the impact of this first ever interactive Google doodle. Here's the math:

- Google Pac-Man consumed 4,819,352 hours of time (beyond the 33.6m daily man hours of attention that Google Search gets in a given day).
- $120,483,800 is the dollar tally, If the average Google user has a COST of $25/hr (note that cost is 1.3 – 2.0 x pay rate).
- For that same cost, you could hire all 19,835 Google employees, from Larry and Sergey down to their janitors, and get 6 weeks of their time. Imagine what you could build with that army of man power.
- $298,803,988 is the dollar tally if all of the Pac-Man players had an approximate cost of the average Google employee.

I am not sure about the money count, but the estimated 4,819,352 hours is a long time. It's almost 550 years! But does that mean our productivity is gobbled? I'm not convinced. First of all, when you add up to a total number, it always looks more stunning. According to RescueTime's data, the average user only spent 36 seconds more on last Friday. That's just 1/800 of a typical 8-hr work day! Second, these 36 seconds were not taken away from a 100% productive base. If there's no Pac-Man on Google, people would still spend time reading news or going on facebook anyways. Third, we are not machines. Breaks help to recharge our brains. RescueTime founder Tony Wright himself agrees that "Leisure surfing is critical to productivity." A study actually showed that personal use of internet at work would increase productivity by 9%.

So OK, sit back, relax, and let the fun continue! (In fact, Google did let it continue. Pac-Man is here forever!)

Friday, May 21, 2010

What's up with the taxi light?

It's funny that not long after I put up the last post about farfetched references and literal design, London announced their 2012 Olympic mascot Wenlock, and Paralympic mascot Mandeville. I actually think they are pretty cute looking. But when I started to read the description, I couldn't stop laughing.

From the statement of the designer iris: "Wenlock and Mandeville were created from the last drops of steel left over from the construction of the final support girder for the Olympic Stadium."
Some of the design features include:
- The headlight is the hire light of a hackney carriage – a London icon. (Really? That's the best you can do to relate to London?)
- The eye is a camera lens, allowing them to record their journeys. (Big Brother is watching...)
- The Olympic mascot wears the 5 Olympic rings as friendship bands, while the Paralympic mascot wears a personal best wristwatch which also displays the year of the games. (I thought Britney was cheesy.)
- The three peaks on the Olympic mascot were inspired by the 2012 stadium roof, while the Paralympic’s head shape has been inspired by the agitos – the symbol of the paralympic movement.
- The colour of the Olympic mascot shimmers through golds, silver and bronzes to reflect the colour of the medals. (Yes, because they are as slick as Zaha's renderings!)

Olympic mascots can be traced back to 1932, when "Smoky" the dog was born just before the games in the LA Olympic Village. The first mascot officially designed for the Olympic Games was Waldi, a German breed Dachshund dog, of the Munich 1972 Games. Since then, every Olympic Games would pick a mascot to reflect the identity of the host city and represent Olympic ideals.

Smoky, 1932, Los Angeles

Waldi (Dachshund dog), Munich 1972
Amik (beaver), Montreal 1976
Misha (Russian bear cub), Moscow 1980
Sam (bald eagle), Los Angeles 1984
Hodori (tiger cub), Seoul 1988
Cobi (a Cubist Catalan sheepdog), Barcelona 1992
Izzy (?), Atlanta 1996
Syd (Platypus), Millie (Echidna), Olly (Kookaburra), Sydney 2000
Phevos and Athena (brother and sister resembling ancient Greek dolls) , Athens 2004
Fuwa: Beibei (fish), Jingjing (giant panda), Huanhuan (Olympic flame), Yingying (Tibetan antelope), and Nini (swift), Beijing 2008

It seems a local animal would be an easy choice. In some cases this would also mean a national symbol, like a beaver, a bald eagle, or a panda. I like it better when there's also a hint of local history and culture. For example Cobi, designed by artist Javier Mariscal for the Barcelona Olympics, relates to Catalunya as a local sheepdog. And on top of that, you can see a (not-so-literal) touch of Cubist style that resembles Picasso's artworks.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Literally literal

It had always been exciting to open a new issue of El Croquis. But this time my jaw dropped. In issue 149, the second installment of "collective experiments" of Spanish architects, the Business Center and Hotel in Yerevan, Armenia by S&Aa (Federico Soriano y Dolores Palacios) really got on my nerves. How can someone design a building like that?

I was being nice at the beginning: maybe they had a good reason to use the alphabet like that. As I read through the description, I got more and more agitated. It goes on and on about letters being "the most powerful signs" of humanity, how they "take in our most intimate aspirations and desires," how a "mythical aura" is built up around an undecipherable text, etc. etc. OK, this is really just literally about letters.

One of the problems with architecture right now is that so much has been done already and people are still trying to shock. In order to come up with something that you've never seen, architects start to search outside of architecture, hoping that by expanding the repertoire of architectural language they can sustain their image as the innovative few. All of a sudden, architecture becomes “omnipotent” to absorb anything even extrinsic to it. Everything can be "architecturalized" just as Archimedes was saying, “Name a shape, and I will turn it into architecture.”

I've blogged about this kind of problematic inspirations before. But at least in that case there were some sort of transformations going on and it was not that literal. You can borrow things, be inspired by them. But a stack of letters? How can you even draw a section and study the structure and think that makes sense? "Well... at least it's unique and special..." Oh sorry, you are actually not that original at all. It's been done before. Back in 2003 when BIG and JDS were still PLOT, they did a project in Vejle where they literally made the name of the city into five small towers. (Btw, that looks horrible too.)

PLOT: The Vejle Houses, 2003

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fish and fishing

The first year studio review at Cornell last Wednesday got me to reflect quite a bit on teaching. It's not hard to imagine how crucial this formation year is to a student's future career. The question is, what does education mean in this process? What's a teacher's role?

A Chinese proverb says, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." When we talk about architecture, what education should offer are series of techniques and ways of thinking. It should be more about how to design than the design itself. If a teacher is trying to impose the form of a box, it's like saying "here's a trout - there's no other fish out there."

Even with my limited knowledge, I know there are also salmon, tuna, cod, herring, mackerel, sardine, catfish, and monkfish... Perhaps the first thing a teacher should do is to ask the student, "What do you want to achieve in your project?" The fundamental issue of design is its intent, or purpose. What does it do? Why do you make it like this? First year students may not really know how to clarify their minds. The teacher's job is to guide them through it, help them to discover good ideas from what they see, and keep the ideas clear through the process.

After we have a clear idea, we can talk about techniques. How many different ways are there to catch a fish? Wikipedia says hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling, and trapping. I've also seen noodling. And where to look for the fish? I'll suggest Norway or Canada if you want salmon. Southern US if you want to try noodling. Here, the design intent acts as a pointer to systematic and rigorous explorations. Various reiterations would be done but they shouldn't be random. Experiments are not aimless wanders - they are usually conducted in a structured way.

Suppose the student catches a big fish after several attempts. What's next? Well, time to cook. A good design still needs a good presentation, which includes graphic illustrations and verbal description. A teacher's role here is to help the student find the most effective recipe to communicate what the design is all about, from intent to process to the final materialization.

Imagine all the steps mentioned above went smoothly, we would have a yummy dish on the table. (Bon Appetit!) But don't forget, the bottom line is that the student should be able to have a same, if not better, quality meal again tomorrow.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On having a good eye

Photography before the 1920s and 30s was primarily big cameras on tripods making staged photos. Photographers opened studios, had the subjects sit or stand in a certain manner, and with a click of the flash, voilà! But this kind of "manufactured" photography did not concern Henri Cartier-Bresson. Rather than arranging the image beforehand, he went out to discover and seize it. He prowled the streets all day with his Leica 35mm camera in his hand, capturing and framing moments of life with his unique sensibility. A good example is Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932. Here, the reflective still water, the ladder, the ripples, and the leaping man were caught right before the man's heel touched the water. Cartier-Bresson managed to freeze action at this particular moment of tension. It makes the anticipation for the ripples around the man rather uncanny.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris. 1932

He didn't just stop at visual forms. The capacity of hand-held camera as a recorder of everyday life gave photography the potential of being an instrument of storytelling. In the late 1930s, Cartier-Bresson started to explore deeper meanings behind photographic expressions. He engaged himself in the rapid changing postwar world, developing the narrative dimension of images with his photo-essays. This new "real life reportage" style earned him the recognition as the father of modern photojournalism.

Photo-Essay: The Great Leap Forward, China. 1958

The subjects of Cartier-Bresson's photos are usually average people. Even when he covered the coronation of King George VI in 1937, he focused on the Londoners on the street and took no pictures of the new king. Through the lens of Cartier-Bresson, these people (individuals, small groups, or big crowds) and their intense emotions (joy, agony, love, or hatred) reveal the significance of the events. The reunion of a mother and son who had been separated throughout the war, the mourning crowd trying to get a hold on the train carrying Gandhi's ashes, the first time when some Chinese kids watched TV, and the enthusiastic young man trying out a new car in Paris... are all examples of meaningful snapshots. The images transcend the specificity of these people and act on a metaphorical level as illustrations of history.

New York. 1946

Train Carrying Gandhi's Ashes Leaves Delhi. 1948

The Great Leap Forward, China. 1958
These youngsters are seeing television for the first time.

Automobile Show, Paris. 1968

Cartier-Bresson certainly had an eagle eye to pick up the telling moments. Snapshots require a spontaneous instant when question and decision happen almost at the same time. For Cartier-Bresson, "Photography is simultaneously and within a fraction of a second the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact." This quick reaction to unexpected events doesn't come from nowhere. He involved himself in the situation, observed closely, and tried to understand the intricate relationships between human beings. As Cartier-Bresson said, "It is putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis." In order to see, you have to feel, to think, and you can't be ignorant.

This handsome Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at MoMA reminds me of another photography show I saw at the Met last year: "Robert Frank's The Americans" on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. This acclaimed photo album includes 83 photos that Frank took on several road trips in the US during 1955-56. The two European photographers, Cartier-Bresson and Frank, saw almost eye to eye on the themes about America around the 1950s: vulgarity, greed, class, and racism. Frank also used the method of street photography, similar to Cartier-Bresson's, to explore these themes. In Charleston, we see a middle-aged African American woman holding a baby with skin so pale that it looks almost out of place. In New Orleans, passengers on a trolley were seated in the social order that prevailed in a pre-civil-rights, pre-feminist, pre-youth-culture nation. The way Frank caught this moment is quite interesting. He was there shooting a parade. Then with an accidental swing of the camera, he saw the trolley from the viewfinder. He was in the right place at the right time. More importantly, he had the right knowledge and attitude to couple with intuitions and reflexes. Like Cartier-Bresson, Frank has a good eye that is aligned with his head and his heart. The camera is simultaneously a feeling and a thinking device, a sensor and a processor.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. New York. 1947

Robert Frank. Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office - Butte, Montana. 1956

Henri Cartier-Bresson. New York. 1959

Robert Frank. Charleston, South Carolina. 1955

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Nashville, Tennesee. 1961
An African-American student is denied entry to a theater. He keeps his hands in his pockets to demonstrate that his protest is nonviolent.

Robert Frank. Trolley - New Orleans. 1955

Yehuda said, "Intuition without knowledge is blind." That's so true. In my book, there is no such thing as an "ignorant genius." Being clueless and impulsive at the same time can only lead to ridiculous arbitrariness.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The type of things

At a GSD urban studio final review yesterday, I saw a lot of matrices, catalogs, tables, charts, templates... No matter what you call it, it's a way of typological study. Based on the philosophical premise of Plato's essentialism, we divide the world into discontinuous and immutable "kinds," or types. Through careful observation and statistical induction, categories are set up to promote a clearer perception of our world. In architectural and urban studies, types have been developed mostly according to the physical characteristics of buildings and cities. It can be geometry, style, or specific elements. J.N.L. Durand, Aldo Rossi, Christopher Alexander, and Leon Krier are all great contributors to the discourse in various ways (urban, suburban, and even - ah! - new urban). Their rational analytical approach provides us with a fresh and clear reading of our built environment. Adopting this methodology, the students developed interesting thoughts on types of interventions (large-scale redevelopments, small-scale catalyze), types of grid morphologies, types of block configurations, types of open spaces (plaza, passage, courtyard), types of dynamic forces (developer injection, local forces), etc. But when they tried to apply these types to actually design, their strategies seemed vague, or even faulty.

Why's that? I think the problem is the lack of a proper gauging system that links expression to intention. Christopher Alexander called his typology research a "pattern language." If design is a language, owning a dictionary doesn't mean you can speak properly. Vocabulary is important but you still need to know what you want to say first. In terms of design, you need to identify the problems and develop a strong concept, then you will know how to select the right design expression from the great manual of possibilities you've prepared, just like picking the right word from a dictionary. A convincing decision requires a palpable reason. Without clear intentions, expressions can be only random and empty.

In the professional world, we do design options. If the design study is rigorous enough, the options would exhaust all types of possible solutions. This is typological study as well. Just unlike the inductive observation in the academic version, this is rather a process of deductive creation. When you have all the possibilities on the table, carefully categorized in different types, all you need to do is to examine and choose the one that serves the design intention the best.