Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Alternative icons

Earlier this month, Steve Jobs unveiled the new Foster-designed Apple Headquarters in front of the city council of Cupertino. Judging from the mayor's reactions, Steve can really just build whatever he wants as long as he stays in Cupertino and pay taxes.

To be honest, the donut scheme is so BAD that I think it may as well be anything else. Perhaps they are better off just using their beautiful graphic and product design.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Size does matter

The Grand Palais is grand. How do you make it even grander? Insert a biblical sea monster, Anish Kapoor says.

For this year's Monumenta, the Indian-born British artist fills the glass-domed nave of Grand Palais with a giant inflatable sculpture titled "Leviathan." I am so glad that I made the trip to Paris, because this is definitely one of the most powerful artwork I've seen in recent years.

Through the revolving doors, visitors are ushered into a womb-like space flooded in vibrant red. "We are inside the beast," a friend says. Three pods extend in three directions, but you can't really tell how far they go. The eerie lighting condition and the monochromic environment cancel out the sense of depth. When the sun throws shadows of the metal roof structure onto the thin rubbery membrane, you start to read more clearly the curvy geometry, and the space takes on a different expression. But still, everything remains mysterious.

The exterior deserves a louder "wow" - this is huge! If the interior is more about the ambiguous atmosphere of a void, the outside is an enormous presence right in front of your eyes. Larger than the trumpet at the Tate 9 years ago, this new piece is 35-meter tall - almost reaching the roof. It uses 72,000 square meters of surface material, and weighs 18 tons. People look like ants around it, and at the same time, the super smooth purple surface makes the sculpture scaleless. I guess that's why most of my photos look like model shots.

Size not only gives strong visual impacts but also allows physical interactions. Walking around the structure, you feel the dynamics of the shape. This odd three-legged creature forms tangential spaces and arches, and creates interesting in-between spaces together with the Grand Palais envelope. There is sharp contrast between the plain surface of the balloon and the ornate Art Nouveau stairs and balcony, but the two co-exist in harmony.

Leviathan is immersive both in the physical and mental dimensions. It's experiential, and emotions give richness to the singularity of the physical form. Words or photos don't do justice - it is pre-language and beyond language. Anish Kapoor often says, "I have nothing to say." I guess we shouldn't intellectualize his work too much. In front of the immense and immersive sculpture in Grand Palais, words cease to have meanings.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jet d'eau

This jet of water is in all the Geneva-related things: guidebooks, postcards, websites... But seeing it in person is a different story. It's just utterly beautiful and awe-inspiring! (Duh...)

It all started in 1886 when a hydraulic plant at La Coulouvreni√®re put up a simple security valve to control excess pressure. In July 1891, the city of Geneva decided to move it into the harbor and make it a tourist attraction. Over the years, Jet d'eau has become a truly striking symbol of Geneva.
Original Jet d'eau in 1886

It took me quite a while to figure out how to describe my feelings with words. What amazed me the most is the unity of opposite qualities. Jet d'eau shows an ambitious yet humble city with a bold but subtle gesture. It is simple because there's no flashy swaying or musical rhythms. But it renders a powerful image with its sheer height, volume, and speed. It's also a perfect balance between the man-made and nature. It animates the harbor with sophisticated engineering, utilizing its own essential element - water. It is definitely one of the best example of urban editing I've seen.

Basic technical facts:
Maximum height: 140 m
Water velocity on exit: 200 km/h
Pump rate: 500 litres/sec
Total power of the two pumps: 1000 kW


Friday, June 3, 2011

Urban Editing

Heraclitus said, you could not step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing. All things change; our cities are no exceptions. The question is how to understand the changes and how to define the role of design in the process of urban evolution. The latest issue of MONU Magazine "Editing Urbanism" tackles this topic with full power, introducing diverse views from architects, landscape architects, artists, politicians, researchers and theorists. Once again, MONU proves itself to be an interesting and relevant platform for urban discourse.

The term "editing" implies intervention. In the realm of design intervention, we've seen alteration of use and consequently the trajectory of development, like the reactivation of the High Line mentioned in Sean Burkholder's contribution, and OMA's light but powerful revision of the platform in the Bordeaux House. Another type of editing can be to adjust the speed of change. Governments in China and Dubai speed up urban transformation to show their lively visions and ambitions. On the other hand, the fear of dying makes us want to slow down urban decay, prevent any type of changes, or even reverse the flow of time.
The High Line turns an elevated train track into an elevated park.
A large pillow transforms a work space into a relaxation area after the death of the former owner.

We could go quite intensive about this. In The Naked Lunch: A Stark Honest Discussion On Renewal, members of UNION3 talk about overbuilding in Spain and the Netherlands. We can see this in China and Germany as well. Since German reunification, more than 180,000 new residential units have been built in Berlin. But in 2008 the vacancy rate in the city was as high as 10%. This "urban bubble" materialized itself from the optimistic assumption that the new capital could lure big money and rapid population growth.

Another extreme is Venice. Ippolito Pestellini of OMA talks about his experience of working on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi renovation in Extreme Demolition and Extreme Preservation. In Venice, any kind of minor intervention could be against city legislation. This extreme preservation turns a once vibrant city into a touristy "museum" of empty shells - the lack of standard modern urban facilities simply makes it unlivable. What's more worrying is that this extreme preservation trend is spreading throughout the world. According to OMA/AMO's calculation, 12% of the world's surface is now blocked from any potential changes.

OMA's contribution in MONU #14

The purpose of preservation is to prevent disrespectful or careless alteration. But if it gets to the extreme like Venice, rigid regulations would rule out healthy progressions as well. We know cities adapt and evolve through time. Why do we freeze the moment and stop any type of transformation? Jarrik Ouburg argues in his contribution that the World Heritage status of Amsterdam's canal district may potentially kill the energy of this unique neighborhood. "The city of Amsterdam is praised by the UNESCO because of its town planning and engineering of the past, but will be punished for having the same ambitions for the future." The only future for the preserved district is to be what it was before. This paradox is wonderfully illustrated in Beatriz Ramo/STAR's In the Name of the Past. If the current logics of preservation were applied centuries ago, many of today's monuments, like the Duomo of Florence and the Eiffel Tower, would not even exit.
If UNESCO had existed in 1059, the Duomo of Florence would not be there
because it would obscure the views to Baptistery of St. John. (c) STAR

OMA/AMO brings up another paradox: what if something was designed to change? Kurokawa's Capsule Tower in Tokyo, for example, is facing the danger of demolition. Trying to get the historic landmark status seems to be the only way to save this early 1970s masterpiece. But static preservation is against the original design concepts of the Metabolism movement. Should we respect the abstract ideas or their concrete manifestations?

The biggest contradiction of preservation, in my opinion, is restoration - it reverses the passage of time! STAR compares this operation with the Photoshop retouch of Madonna's Vanity Fair cover. Former Superstudio member Adolfo Natalini further ridicules restoration practices by digging out a surreal image of flooded Florence created in 1972. "If you really want to restore the situation, why just restore to the 19th century? Why not restore the Renaissance situation?" Why not Medieval, Roman, or even Pleistocene situation? "In the Pleistocene situation, Florence was a lake!"

Madonna and her restored youth.
Flooded Florence by Superstudio

Obvious, the notion of decay and death is center to the struggle. As Natalini says in the interview Deadly Serious, "the reason we don't like our physical changes is that they remind us that we are moving closer and closer towards death." In Eternal Ise, Ouburg points out that the interesting rebuilding cycle of the Ise Shrine in Japan may be UNESCO's antidote. Since 690 AD, the shrine has been rebuilt every 20 years. The site is divided into two halves: one is the current building in use and the other is where the shrine was 20 years ago and will be in 20 years. This life and death cycle is like the rebirth of phoenix - a dynamic eternity. But of course, the reborn building is too new to be a World Heritage according to UNESCO's standards.
The self-replicating Ise Shrine

With all the struggles and paradox, the role of architects has become less and less significant in reshaping our built environment. Starchitects who make flashy icons are prominent within the profession, but very few of them are regarded as credible public figures. OMA/AMO points out that since Philip Johnson in 1979, no architect has appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In fact, I found it extremely ironic to see Zaha Hadid in the category of "thinker" alongside Steve Jobs and Sonia Sotomayor in the 2010 Time 100.
The public credibility of architects

In order to regain leadership in guiding urban transformations, UNION3 advocates for a new role of urban curatorship. Designers should understand the life of city and architecture and manipulate it with the right tools and forward thinking. This reminds me of Constant's New Babylon. What the designer provides is a completely re-arrangeable platform instead of a fixed settlement. It's a "dynamic labyrinth" where the inhabitants drift around, endlessly reconstructing the atmospheres of the spaces according to the moment of life. The continuity of a network allows mobility and its open-endedness (or open-mindedness) fosters spontaneous urban editing. As Burkholder argues in What not to Do: A Case for Design Neglect, "in a dynamic system, doing nothing is doing something." Designers can just "present signals of human intentionality and let the system do the rest." At the end, I guess the Taoist paradigm was right: to govern by doing nothing.
New Babylon by Constant