Saturday, December 31, 2011

Measuring time

December 30, 2011 doesn't exist in the history of Samoa. The country chose to skip this day and went from Dec 29 straight to Dec 31. The reason is that they wanted to improve ties with major trade partners such as Australia and New Zealand by jumping over the International Date Line. Instead of 23 hours behind Auckland, Samoa is now one hour ahead.

The International Date Line is an imaginary line that designates the place where each calendar day begins. Crossing it eastbound or westbound would mean you lose or gain one day, respectively. It sounds familiar because people in many countries are used to losing one hour in spring and gaining it back in autumn.

All this skipping, leaping, and traveling back in time reminds me that the whole system of measuring time, or more precisely, marking time, is actually man-made. Time lapses. It does not bear absolute markers of the beginning or end of anything. But we found the natural cycles, and tried to organize time according to the cycles with a system called calendar. Most countries now use the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. It is based on the natural cycles but there are still discrepancies:
- A Lunar month is about 29.53 days;
- A sidereal year (Earth's orbit cycle) is 365.256363004 mean solar days;
- A tropical year (a complete cycle of the seasons) is 365.24219 days.

There have been different proposals for reform of the calendar, such as the World Calendar, International Fixed Calendar and Holocene calendar. The UN considered briefly to adopt such a reform in the 1950s, but eventually all the proposals lost their popularity. Anyways... until any change happens, Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The power of image

Last week, MVRDV released their design for two luxury residential towers in the Yongsan Business District of Seoul. A "pixilated cloud" connects the two towers in the middle with public amenities and outdoor spaces. There's nothing new about pixilation - Herzog & de Meuron, OMA, and BIG all did that before. And it's certainly not the first project to bridge between towers - Steven Holl and Cesar Pelli had that built in other Asian cities already. Yet the design caused huge controversy, mainly because of the eerie renderings. They really look like WTC on 9/11!

People do judge design purely from images nowadays. A bad image alone would be powerful enough to kill the entire project. I can't decide if the renderings were accurate representations of the design. But it is surprising that people at MVRDV, Luxigon, and from the client side all underestimated the power of image and missed the uncanny resemblance.

In response to the angry comments and harsh criticism, MVRDV apologized on its website and released a new image with an actual cloud covering the middle of the towers. They are trying to re-illustrate their concept without really changing the design. I am not sure if this new image (not necessarily new design) is powerful enough to manage the crisis and convince people.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Architecture trilogy

I've been saying this for more than a year now. For me, an architect is basically doing three things: study the program closely, come up with an interesting shape, and then put on a nice skin. Along the way, cultural/historic/site context, structure, and material would come into play to either inform or strengthen the decisions on those three main elements. Innovation in any one of the three is enough to make the project shine. If you got all three? It's a classic!

Recently, Jim mentioned the three reminders to architects by Le Corbusier: mass, surface, and plan. I started to feel that the two trilogies were surprisingly analogous. Perhaps I was influenced by Corb unconsciously. But at least the three reminders gave me a chance to reconsider and set my thoughts in context.

Corb said, "The plan is the generator." My understanding is that by plan he actually meant use. "Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and for the city." Even if we say modernity is history, the contemporary condition still demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of architecture and urbanism. "Collective necessities" create new program, and thus generate new types and new forms.

Corb advocated for simple forms - carefully calculated and engineered. Our time is full of weird forms. No matter how weird they are, the more successful ones are still the ones that make sense. Shape shouldn't be arbitrary. It is a tool of communication, a concrete expression of an abstract idea. Ultimately, "our eyes are constructed to enable us to see forms in light," and our brain wants to understand what we see.

"A mass is enveloped in its surface." Corb made simple forms, and at the same time he cared a lot about geometrical constituents on the facade, such as the directing and generating lines. He linked the surface to pragmatic aspects such as engineering and construction. Certainly, skin is not just about aesthetics. Our skin performs: it protects, senses, regulates heat and evaporation, and it breathes. The same should happen with the building envelope.