Sunday, October 28, 2012

Building anatomy

Thanks to Sergio for bringing up the comparison of anatomical drawing and MRI scan. Traditionally in medical sciences, we rendered organs and biological systems as components of the human body. Our perception of them was based on the three-dimensional shapes and volumes (morphology) of individual parts we saw when examining cadavers. With technological developments in the 20th century, we can now actually draw “plans” and “sections” of the body with the help of X-ray, ultrasound, and MRI.
Anatomical Chart from Cyclopaedia, vol.1, 1728
The Visible Human Project, 1989-1994
MRI slices of the head

The two modes of representation remind me of OMA’s competition entry to the National Library in France. There was a negative model that showed the voids like organs in a cube. Then a series of plans sliced the cube horizontally like MRI scans.
OMA: Très Grande Bibliothèque, Paris, 1989. Model
OMA: Très Grande Bibliothèque, Paris, 1989. Selected plans

Compared to the developments in medical sciences, I feel that the two modes of representation in architecture, at least in Western traditions, went the other way around. Plans and sections have long been the standard ways to describe a building, while accurate scale model as a professional tool was only getting popular in the 20th century. Many “old-school” architects still conceive their buildings through plans and sections. OMA’s way of designing the National Library was quite a groundbreaking milestone in this regard.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
Mies at IIT, 1938

Now we have computer applications. The powerful 3D programs and rendering engines have completely changed our expectations of representation in the design stage. And for better or worse, they have also changed the way we design. Perhaps the future lies in the up-and-coming Revit program, which offers a bridge that brings together the technical 2D drawings and conceptual 3D thinking of architecture.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Form follows content

In my recent trip to Paris, I visited two new museum expansion projects. One is in the Louvre – the world’s most visited museum, and the other Palais de Tokyo, the epic center of contemporary art in France.

The Louvre
First time since the glass pyramid was completed in 1989 has the Louvre introduced a second piece of contemporary architecture: the new Department of Islamic Arts opened last month. Designed by Italian architect Mario Bellini and his French colleague Rudy Ricciotti, the new wing covers the historic Cour Visconti with a shiny undulated glass and metal roof. Underneath are two levels of open gallery spaces housing the 2,500 objects from the largest and most significant collection of Islamic art in Europe.

Palais de Tokyo
In 2002, Paris-based duo Lacaton & Vassal renovated Palais de Tokyo – an old exhibition pavilion originally built for the World’s Fair in 1937 – and turned it into a contemporary art center. 10 years later, they have extended their work to the previously sealed basement, increasing the exhibition space from 8,000 to 22,000 square meters. Instead of adding or finishing, they basically stripped down the structure to raw concrete. It reminds me of HdM’s Tanks at Tate Modern. Just in this case, there’s an extra layer of French carelessness. It feels like in some old cistern or even disorienting sewers. (In fact, Paris is quite famous for its labyrinthine sewer system.) I love the floor in particular. It looks wet at first glance. But it’s actually a layer of special resin poured on the rough concrete surface to make it smoother.

Down to the basement
Resin floor
Only in France

Modernists believe in “form follows function.” These two Parisian projects are both exhibition spaces, then why the stark contrast? Some may say, “Form follows finance.” There was a steep price tag of €100 million for the 2,800m² expansion in the Louvre, while Palais de Tokyo paid €20 million for 14,000m² new spaces. But I would argue the power to get money is also linked to the contents in the exhibition spaces. And the contents would ultimately determine the overall atmosphere generated by the form. The new Islamic wing of the Louvre houses precious antiques, so they can afford some precious looking materials like gold and silver aluminum mesh for the roof and special black waxed concrete in the basement, and the architects would at least try to do some delicate details. Palais de Tokyo, on the other hand, doesn’t own any permanent collection. The ever-changing nature of the contents sets it free from the typical clean-room type atmospheres. In fact, construction work keeps going while the artworks are being exhibited. It’s a raw space where anything could happen.

The architects of the Louvre expansion denied the references to flying carpets, Islamic veils or musciarabia. But one could easily make the convenient associations judging from its floating undulated form. For Palais de Tokyo, the architects explicitly cited Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. And I think they did a good job to make it real.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Pushing the limits

“The decision has been made. Felix Baumgartner will jump,” the Red Bull Stratos live feed commentator announced. After being delayed for a few days due to weather conditions, the Austrian skydiver finally went up about 39 kilometers above ground tonight with a helium balloon and jumped back to earth safe and sound.

This is nuts! The successful freefall has made Felix the first human being to break the sound barrier and reach a speed of 1,342.8 km per hour (Mach 1.24) without a vehicle. He later explained that traveling supersonic was “hard to describe because I didn’t feel it.” With no reference points, “you don’t know how fast you travel.”

There was no epic small-step/big-step statement. “I’m going home now” was what Felix said before he jumped out of the capsule. When asked what he was thinking before the jump, he said, “When you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble. You do not think about breaking records any more; you do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing that you want is to come back alive. This became the most important thing to me.”

Such highly risky act cannot be accomplished by one man. There was a support team of 300 people on the ground, including 70 scientists, engineers, and doctors who had been working for five years on the mission. Among them was Joe Kittinger, the former US Air Force test pilot who set the record for highest freefall jump in 1960. He’s the only person who knows exactly how Felix feels. Now 84, he acted as mentor and was the person who guided Felix through the mission from the NASA-style control center, instead of being bitter about himself not being the record holder any more.

Joe Kittinger said, “Records are meant to be broken.” After the skydive, Felix said at the press conference, “I want to inspire the next generation. I would love to be sitting at the same spot where Joe Kittinger is sitting here, and there’s a young guy sitting right next to me asking for advices because he wants to break my record.”

This is the inspiring spirit of humanity. We need the courage to keep pushing the limits, and at the same time the humility to encourage other people to do so. Felix was brave to step out of his comfort zone and facing uncertainty. Curiosity and dedication pushed him to explore new territories. What his success symbolizes is precisely what drives our civilization to move forward.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

d(13): Occupy

The most striking works in dOCUMENTA (13) were outside of the main exhibition venues. They occupied specific locales and brought a new layer of meanings to their already rich histories.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla took over part of the Weinberg Bunker, a Nazi-era brick bomb shelter built into a hillside, for their new film involving a recently unearthed prehistoric flute and a griffon vulture – one of the oldest species on earth. Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas populated the upper terraces of Weinberg with his plaster and concrete sculptures. These curiously shaped objects revealed a parallel universe or a vanished civilization, creating some foreign yet familiar atmosphere.

Weinberg Bunker
Allora & Calzadilla, Raptor’s Rapture
Adrián Villar Rojas, Return the World

Turkish artist Cevdet Erek had his sound installations at Kunsthalle Basel earlier this year. This time at d(13), he occupied a large vacant space and transformed it into a similar installation. In a minimalistic setting, various types of sound systems amplified what he called “sonic time lines.” In this raw vacant space between Galeria Kaufhof and C&A, the piece looked much more powerful and stunning than in a museum setting in Basel.
Cevdet Erek, Room of Rhythms

In the northern depot of the Hauptbahnhof, Haegue Yang put up a series of venetian blinds on the abandoned tracks. These motorized blinds moved up and down with slats rotating, performing a ghostly choreographed dance that evoked the place’s industrial past.
Haegue Yang, Approaching. Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates took over Hugenottenhaus – a large old house destroyed in WWII and left empty since the 1970s – and refurbished it with scrap wood he salvaged from abandoned buildings in both Chicago in Kassel, as if to graft his own cultural existence to a German past and to patch up the trauma of war. Aesthetically it reminded me of Gordon Matta-Clark. But it was essentially different because the house was more alive in this case. Gates turned it into an ongoing construction site where furniture was constantly being built, and at the same time a live-in laboratory where talks, music performances, dinner, and Ping-Pong games happened. Gates and his team occupied the house, and the visitors occupied their work. The experience was a rather engaging and voyeuristic act of exploration and discovery.
Lawrence Weiner’s work on the wall
Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House

In a very dark room in the backyard of Hugenottenhaus, Tino Sehgal orchestrated another immersive performance piece. About 20 performers sang, danced, clapped, hummed, whispered, and hollered, creating an electrifying experience of free imagination in action. It’s the perfect example of the intangible dimension of art that was celebrated in dOCUMENTA (13). The room was filled with energy just by this series of simple collective activities.