Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When people get old

(Based on true events...)

Rem: I'm done with cities. Let's talk about countryside. It takes up more surfaces of the earth, houses the other half of our population, consumes less energy, and generates less pollution.

Jacques: I used to like Hitchcock because it looks normal but there's always something special. Now I prefer Dali. It's right in your face!

Peter: I don't think architects have social responsibilities. We don't solve problems.

Frank: I like a lot of young people, such as Zaha. Starchitect? LEED? What the fuck are you talking about?

Zaha: Architecture is such a tough profession. Let's go shopping.

Norman: I only do interviews.

Philip: I am a whore.

Corb: Fuck it. Let's do Ronchamp!

(The other) Frank: The Guggenheim should be different from Fallingwater, right? Maybe pink?

Mies: Hmm... Let's do another box.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

OMA @ Barbican

For someone who follows OMA's work and ideas, the new exhibition "OMA/Progress" at the Barbican in London doesn't really provide much new information. But I find myself enjoying it because of the way it's organized and the way OMA's architecture is presented. Curated by the Belgian collective Rotor (not OMA), the show peels off layers of PR-engineered information and gets to the heart of the practice. The young and observant members of Rotor stayed in OMA's Rotterdam office for months and gathered objects and intelligence from the archive, and even from the trash. The result is a distant yet engaged interpretation of the firm's 35 years of history, providing a fresh look different from the singular narrative told by OMA on their own work (like in "Content" 8 years ago). As Rem said, this time "it's their show on our work."

The show starts with projects by AMO. (A message on the importance of broad thinking?) Then you see a chronological index of all OMA projects on a track before you get into the real lobby with a research area on the left and a shop on the right. Only now I realize the west entrance is also open, a gesture that turns this part of the lower level into a public passage cutting through the Barbican Estate. The life-size cutout figures here and there are probably signs to say "This is free."

Entrance with cardboard cutouts
AMO projects
"Project Machine" - index of all OMA projects
Research center with blue foam stools from the Milan Prada catwalk show
Public Zone

The ticketed part of the show starts with an almost empty room. Two small strange-looking lumps are displayed at the corner, lit like artworks. The description says, "It is unclear to the archivist whether these are models or just clay leftovers." On the wall next to it is a letter from Rem. I think it's a fantastic and funny juxtaposition, and the tone of the letter sounds so familiar...

The next room is about current projects under construction. The idea is an evolving gallery where the contents get updated every time the architects pay a visit to the construction site. The buildings and the exhibits are both work in progress in this case.

In the "Current Preoccupations" room, ideas, sketches and images are pinned up on the walls as simple A4 printouts, like a normal meeting in the office. On the other side, there are A5 tear-off sheets that allow the visitors to pick and make their own books. Here, you can see ideas spanning from the market economy, politics, religion, megacities, countryside, desert, Europe, education, preservation, iconic vs. generic, etc.

"Current Preoccupations" room

In the atrium is a 48-hour video that flicks through every single image Rotor found on OMA's server. There are 3,454,204 images and each one only shows up for about 1/20 of a second (close to the rate at which each frame of a movie is shown). This relentless flashy display of raw materials gives you a sense of "more or less what's going on," but more importantly, an impression of the sheer quantity of stuff OMA have produced.

The exhibition setup has been linear so far, although one can argue that the opening of the west entrance makes the public zone sequence reversible. The upper level, however, is organized as a non-sequential loop that doesn't specify a start or an end. The arrangement takes advantage of the gallery space, turning each of the eight semi-independent rooms into its own small universe with loosely related themes. These themes are not meant to set up a scholarly framework of architectural practice nor trying to cover OMA's entire body of work. They are intersections Rotor extracted from the crisscrossing of the multi-layered OMA thinking, a sampler of the zillion things that OMA is interested in.

Lower Level
Upper Level

You see a seat from Cornell's Milstein Hall next to a rotating skirt from Prada's "Waist Down" show in the room call "yet it moves," together with projects like the Dubai Renaissance, Guggenheim Hermitage, Prada New York, the Bordeaux house, and the Wyly Theater. The next room "sight lines" shows how buildings such as Casa da Musica, the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, and Seattle Library become lenses to look at views, but not in a naïve BIG way. There is a room with only white or shiny models, and another showing the museum typology as ways of display. In the room about structure, a 1:1 CCTV truss mock-up is placed opposite to the correspondence with ARUP on the wall. In the "ornament" room, you see fabrics designed by Petra, Prada LA foam, Cornell ceiling, several Casa da Musica finishes (gold leaf wood grain, blue tiles, black and white tiles), and 2x4's Mies face at IIT.

My favorite room is "Adaptation, instead of quitting." It's a collection of projects that experienced "crisis" during the design process. Examples include the compromise and subsequent demise of 23 E 22nd St, the long wait and realization of De Rotterdam, the half remaining Cordoba Congress Center, and the cantilever decision of Cornell. It's admirable to see an active attitude towards reality in the tough business of architecture.

Yet it moves
Living inside the truss
Places, and what to do with them: site visit slideshows
Two white models showing two generations of object-making
Museum as ways of display
The "secret room"

Rem said at his Cornell lecture, "We don't believe in progress any more." The Barbican show is not about progress per se, but more like work in progress. No real architecture is shown in the exhibition - everything is fragmented to the extent that it even surprised Rem. Through the bits and pieces of behind-the-scene materials and anecdotes, you get a glimpse into the design process and everyday happenings in the office of OMA. In a secret room that is not even marked in the official guide, the walls and ceiling are all covered with waste paper Rotor collected from OMA's Rotterdam office. It is brave to show architecture as a messy and complex practice, a reality far from the fancy image in Justin Bieber's mind.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Postmodernism now

The timing of the "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is both natural and strange. It seems to be a reasonable successor of the "Modernism" exhibition, following several other V&A exhibitions on major styles and movements like "Baroque" and "Art Deco." But it also sounds almost laughable just because of the tackiness of the style. Who would even think about organizing a retrospective on that?

The V&A had the guts to do it, and they've done it well. Presenting over 250 objects across the spectrum from architecture, furniture, to fashion and album covers, the exhibition is flashy, noisy, dynamic, and colorful, reflecting perfectly the aspirations of its subject.

David Byrne said, "I never understand why postmodernism had to define itself in the negative." With no clear definition in hand, the V&A curators chose to start with the negative as well. In the first room, you see the explosion of Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis on March 15, 1972, alongside the burning of Mendini's Monumentino da casa chair in 1974. Modernism was dead. Where were we gonna go? Charles Jencks said, "Let us then romp through the desolation of modern architecture, visiting the archaeological sites with a superior disinterest. After all, since it is fairly dead, we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse."

Left: Demolition of Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project, 1972;
Right: Alessandro Mendini, Destruction of the Monumentino da casa chair, 1974

Bruno Zevi wrote, "Whoever decides to abandon the modern movement can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas." But to postmodernists, the choice between a look back to the past and the ubiquitous popular/commercial culture was not to pick either one, but both. This "both/and" contradiction is typically postmodern - it's at the same time contemporary and nostalgic, elegant and tacky, cheerful and ruinous, complex and superficial. It's everything and nothing.

On one hand, Venturi and Scott Brown brought our attention to the signs and decorations on the Las Vegas Strip. Later, the Memphis Group and its charismatic poster boy Ettore Sottsass showed the freedom of design with bright colors, vivid patterns, and expressive forms. These almost silly looking chairs and shelves defined the "high taste" of postmodern consumerism.

Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi in the Las Vegas desert, 1966
Memphis Group design collection

On the other hand, architects including James Stirling, Ricardo Bofill, Michael Graves, and the Krier brothers started to "experiment" with architectural styles from the past. The V&A curators borrowed the theme of the first Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980 to summarize this tendency: "The Presence of the Past." All of a sudden, the cut-and-paste bricolage was great, and decoration became fashionable business. Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans illustrates perfectly what a design full of kitsch would look like.
Charles Moore, Piazza d'Italia, 1976-79. New Orleans, LA
Hans Hollein, façade from Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past, 1980
(reconstructed for the V&A exhibition, 2011)

History had a profound impact on postmodern aesthetic. Designers embraced not only historic motifs, but also the Apocalypse atmosphere of ruins. Examples from the show include ruin-like drawings and buildings. Rei Kawabuko's choice of putting her black knitted garment with open holes on a contorted "post-human" gesture also represents the dark sensation of the time.
Arata Isozaki, Tsukuba Center, 1979-83
Gaetano Pesce, longitudinal section of the Church of Solitude Manhattan, 1974-7
James Wines/SITE, Best showroom, 1975. Houston, TX
Rei Kawakubo (for Comme des Garçons), Ensemble, 1983.
Modeled by Susan Hess, photograph by Arthur Elgort.

Many have argued that postmodernism was less about style or aesthetic, but more an attitude. It was the defiance against the dogmas of modernism, against authority, and against singularity. I think the best illustration of this is teen star Felix Howard's portrait by Jamie Morgan on The Face magazine. You see a sort of "street" attitude in his eyes, with almost a gangster aura in the costume. It reminds me of Alex in the first half of A Clockwork Orange, representative of enfants terribles from a dystopian society, explicitly antagonistic to any rules.
Jamie Morgan (for The Face), The Harder They Come, The Better, 1985

The highlight of the show for me was the central plaza called "The Club," a space dedicated to postmodern musical performances. Here you have an androgynous Grace Jones, a David Byrne in his big suit, and the self-reinvented flamboyant Klaus Nomi singing in turns on the big screens. In the lower part, Annie Lennox's style breaks free from all gender norms, and a portrait of Andrew Logan at his 1973 Alternative Miss World show makes a loud statement of the gay rights movement.
"The Club." In the center is Jean-Paul Goude & Antonio Lopez's
Constructivist maternity dress originally worn by Grace Jones in 1979.
"The Club" with Klaus Nomi in the middle.
Mick Rock, Andrew Logan as Alternative Miss World host/hostess, 1973

I suddenly thought of Lady Gaga. She can fit right in this crowd. Her self-formation with shimmering synthetic appearances resonates so much with the postmodern idea of "what you wear on the surface defines who you are." As co-curator Glenn Adamson pointed out in an interview, "You wouldn't have Lady Gaga without Grace Jones. Lady Gaga in many ways is a completely postmodern person." Interestingly, she has also become the new gay icon, following the footsteps of Annie Lennox and Madonna, serving as a shining beacon for a community that is still fighting for its rights, struggling even for a proper kiss on TV.
Kurt and Blaine on Glee

We are now facing a social/cultural context not unlike that of the 1970s and 80s. Economy is down, authority is down, and the avant-garde is down. Lyotard's description of the postmodern condition "incredulity towards metanarratives" has never been more present. There is no "grand narratives" of any sort. Everybody just does whatever he/she wants - plurality at its best.

In terms of design, many styles today resemble postmodernism in many ways. Superficiality, nostalgia, indulgence, kitsch, pastiche, frivolousness, you name it. Some of them have got to such an extreme that they become amusing and cool. Stefan Sagmeister inherits both the witty and messy sides of postmodernism in his graphic design. Mendini's Proust chair (but without the Signac painting) resurfaced at the Milan Salone this year, where flamboyance fought against the minimalists, and Karim Rashid continued to lead the cuteness camp set out by the Memphis Group.

Sagmeister Inc., Zurich poster, 2003
The Proust chair at the Milan Salone 2011

Our built environment? I think it's fair to say that Beijing and Dubai now are probably more postmodern than Milan, London, or New York ever were. In a postmodern condition where the image is everything, many once-interesting architects have turned into merely icon makers. Former FOA principals were only interested in the superficial layer of buildings and the patterns on the envelope. OMA's recent interior work is trying to re-legitimize historic motifs as intellectually interesting references. "Emerging" young architects? J. Mayer H., FAT... I don't really want to say more about them.
FOA, John Lewis Department Store, Leicester, UK
OMA, Viktor & Rolf Store at Harvey Nichols, London, UK
Jürgen Mayer H., Danfoss Universe, Nordborg, Denmark
FAT, The Villa in the Heerlijkheid park, Hoogvliet, The Netherlands

The exhibition ends with New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" music video directed by Robert Longo in 1986. I guess we still have this bizarre love/hate triangle between the past, the present, and us. Look at what's all around us now. It's really the perfect time to review this strange period of history and think about today. As the closing remark of the exhibition states, "Like it or not, we are all postmodern now."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Oasis in an oasis

Peter Zumthor's Serpentine pavilion this year proves once again the architectural axiom of "You have to be there and feel it." Upon arrival, you only see an ordinary black box. It looks much more permanent and severe than most of the previous pavilions at the Serpentine. Following a curved gentle slope, you enter a narrow and dark corridor that circulates the perimeter of the box. Through another door, voilà! You are in a hidden inner space, a calm and wonderful wild garden designed by Dutch planting designer Piet Oudolf. Away from the noise and traffic and the smells of the busy city outside, here is a sanctuary with the full powers of nature.
Peter Zumthor sketch
Piet Oudolf sketch

Material is always key to Zumthor's architecture. This time, he uses a lightweight timber framed structure covered in gauze and painted over with a black Idenden coating. It gives a heavy and intense impression when seen from afar, almost like stone or concrete. But up close, you will see the softness of the scrim and its irregular texture. A slightly blue wooden bench surrounds the covered inner wall to provide seating.

Obviously, the garden is the heart and focus, and the architecture is just a frame, or a stage for the flowers and light. The sloping roof also draws attention to the sky and the trees beyond the walls. After staying for a while, I found myself starting watching other people, observing their behavior and interactions. People participate, but not in a party way. This is a place to relax, to contemplate, or to enjoy a slow lunch; a place for kids, young moms, senior friends and alike to hang out and chat.

There is no loud gesture, no big statement. In the era of icons and spectacles, Zumthor has delivered serene and almost spiritual atmosphere. If Hyde Park is an oasis in London, the Serpentine pavilion by Zumthor is another oasis within it.