Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Metamorphosis

BIG has finally made its North America debut with a 600-unit condo tower on West 57th Street at the Manhattan riverfront. The design takes a funny distorted shape. According to BIG, it's trying to merge the forms of a typical Manhattan tower-podium typology and a European-style perimeter block.

As usual, BIG tells the story through a series of diagrams, showing how the building morphs into shape. This reminds me of the recently completed 8 House project in Copenhagen, where Bjarke explains in a
video how the design becomes a figure 8 knot. If we look further back, the same approach can be seen back in the PLOT days like in the VM Houses.

The morphing of W57
The morphing of 8 House
The morphing of VM Houses

This is certainly a pretty convincing presentation technique. But the more I see it, the more I find it problematic. Let's run though the process again.

The origin
Where do butterflies come from? There are always origins. It could be the building envelope regulated by zoning, but it's not what BIG chooses to start with. Sometimes it's a platonic shape (like a cube or an extruded trapezoid) and sometimes it's a kind of architectural type (bar building or perimeter block). This suggests a bias towards simple forms. It seems in BIG's philosophy, the default solutions have no potential for good architecture. Architecture is all about strange forms.

Driving forces
As we've seen so far, BIG uses sun, privacy, view, and urban connections as parameters that drive the morphing process. It seems objective and analytical. But are these all we need to consider when we design? Clearly there are already personal decisions made here in terms of preferences and priorities. The bigger problem is, this seemingly objective process makes design always a passive act. It seems architecture can only respond to external forces. I don't think architecture should be purely subjective. But at least it should be more active. It should do more than just react to constraints.

The result
A simplified narrative of morphing omits layers of information behind usually complicated design decisions. It appears to be a linear cause-effect development, and the end result inevitably appears to be an easy one-liner. It's just a "big gesture" and it's almost purely geometric. (You see they can only name the project after its shape.) The plain straightforwardness makes the design attractive at first glance. But over time, the lack of sophistication actually makes it boring and dated pretty soon.

Conceptual clarity is important, and optimism and playfulness are good qualities for a designer. But I think it's a very fine line between that and being superficial and naive.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Found humanity

Totally unplanned, I went to the Davy Rothbart event at the CAC when I visited Cincinnati. Davy is the creator of
FOUND Magazine, a yearly publication that collects discarded notes, letters, memos, written chats, doodles, etc. At the CAC, Davy hit the audience with one after another funny notes picked up from various cities, seasoning them with his energy and extraordinary reading skills. The event turned out to be two sweet, hilarious, and amazing hours well spent between some art and a fancy dinner.

It all started after one snowy winter night in 1999 when Davy went to his car and found a note on his windshield. It was addressed to another guy named Mario:

Davy was fascinated by this mixture of hate and love. There was clearly a love triangle but Amber was still somehow hopeful at the end. With this passion, he set out to collect more found stuff and made it into a magazine. Then the readers started to send in their finds as well. After a decade, FOUND has become almost like a cult that worships little scraps of paper.

Here's one that seems to be a monthly budget typed up by a neat person. The list starts with rent 600, cell phone 50... food 500, liquor 600 (!), and... crack 600 (!!)... Another one is a comparison made by a woman trying to decide between two men. Andrew or Paul?

After a good laugh, I realized it was more than just something funny. We humans have all sorts of emotions, sometimes conflicting ones (like Amber). It's interesting to see how people would/could think and how they decide. These found notes give glimpses into other people's personal and intimate moments. As Davy's mom puts it, it's like "people watching on paper." The notes were written without any self-consciousness or pretense, since they were not meant to be public. So they reveal humanity in a rather raw and unfiltered manner. Through these notes, we can get a sense of all the kinds of lives being led around us, even if we don't necessarily connect with each other on a daily basis or in meaningful ways.

Davy saved his all-time favorite find to the end. I think it's about friendship. (Video found online, taken from another event.)


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's all about the twist

At the beginning of the month, I went to a Ben van Berkel lecture at the Cooper. Stan Allen did the introduction and the two joined force in a conversation after BvB's talk. I had the feeling that the whole evening was just about two words: "twist" from BvB and "diagram" from SA.

SA started off the introduction by talking about diagrams, saying that UNStudio's use of diagrams cuts across the usual program-form dichotomy. Then BvB took the stage. He looked back to the IFCCA competition entry that UNStudio did in 1999, where a series of diagrams mapped the performance of Manhattan and extracted parameters that defined the design of West Side. He said, diagram is in a way a "twist" of information, instrumentalizing it as a tool to organize program and infrastructure. He explained the method of
"deep planning," which means to plan in a formally rich way. By doing this, infographs are turned into abstract design models. They are like mathematical models that adapts easily. They give orientation to the design but not illustrating it. This mathematics of UNStudio's design models reminded me of their early Mobius House. Similarly, the Mercedes Museum clearly follows the geometric model of trefoil knot.

Cross Section of Mid-town Manhattan
Mobius House, Het Gooi
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart

Among the many design models, the twist is perhaps the most consistent in UNStudio's work. It appeared frequently across scale and typology. In Villa NM, the twist materialized as a physical expression of the spatial organization, visualizing the intertwining of domestic and social programs. In the Star Place in Taiwan, the atrium becomes a vertical twist - a "seamless organization of disconnected parts." (Yes, BvB showed that snake-horse-lion-man head again.)

Villa NM, Upstate New York
Star Place Atrium, Kaohsiung
Burnham Pavilion, Chicago

One of the recent works BvB showed was the Burnham Pavilion in Chicago's Millenium Park. He referred to it as a prototype, some sort of a 1:1 diagram rather than a building. He argued that there are currently too many external references (politics, economy, art, etc.) in our profession. He wants to concentrate on the internal forces of architecture. And geometric design models give him the opportunity to group the projects into series. Here I have some doubts. Is this autonomy all over again? Maybe he has cut across the usual program-form dichotomy and reached the side of pure forms.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Word play

Apologies for the lack of new posts in the last month… I was planning something important - a very complex sequence of events that needs attentive arrangements. There was stress, mistakes, and regrets, but in general I found myself enjoying the process. Perhaps it's occupational obsession. After all, architecture is mostly about planning complex sequences of events.

In addition to describing a person who designs buildings, the word "architect" also means a creator who devises and guides a plan in general, like in "the architects of the constitution," or "the architect behind the Italian job." So when we use the word specifically for architecture, it still indicates the planning of where to put things, how things are organized, and what comes first, etc. Architects are "schemers" (yes, we do make schemes), conceiving visions of the future and plotting steps towards their dreams.

But architecture is not only about plans and dreams. Etymologically, the word "architect" derives from the Latin architectus, itself derived from the Greek arkhitekton (arkhi-, chief + tekton, builder). So the profession (chief builder) has a component of execution. Unfortunately, there is too much blah blah blah in our current training and discourse, and the art of building seems to be neglected as something "uncool." But we should not forget, there is no such thing as a good plan when the planner doesn't care about how it's done.

In China, the term "architect" didn't really exist until Liang Sicheng redefined the profession in the early 20th century. Traditionally, scholars or governors came up with ideas, and builders finished construction according to standards (like Yingzao Fashi, the State Building Standards of the Song Dynasty). What we need now is a good combination of thinkers/planners and executors. And that's what the word "architect" really means.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Rabbit abundance

Happy Lunar New Year of the Rabbit! (Make sure to click on the image and zoom in to see details in the high-res card.)

In 1202, Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci, calculated the growth of an idealized (biologically unrealistic) rabbit population:

Suppose a newly-born pair of rabbits, one male, one female, are put in a field. Rabbits are able to mate at the age of one month so that at the end of its second month a female can produce another pair of rabbits. Assuming that rabbits never die and a mating pair always produces one new pair (one male, one female) every month from the second month on, the puzzle that Fibonacci posed was: how many pairs will there be in one year?

The answer, as we know today, is the 13th number of the Fibonacci sequence: 233.