Wednesday, February 29, 2012

(Almost) once in four years

Today is February 29. I feel compelled to post something on this once every four years occasion. As I searched around, I realized I was actually wrong about this four years thing. I always thought as long as the year is evenly divisible by 4, it’s a leap year. But actually in order to compensate the 365.256363004-day revolution duration (not exactly 365.25), when the year is evenly divisible by 100, it doesn’t count as leap year. What about 2000? There was February 29 that year! Right, there is an exception of this “100 exception”: when the year is evenly divisible by 400, it’s a leap year again. So 1600, 2000, 2400 are leap years, but 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100 are not. (Oh my...)

Some people say leap days should be holidays because our annual salary is based on a 365-day year. If we work 366 days, it’s like working a whole day for free. I think it makes perfect sense.


Your achievement or their statement?

Conversations between two Humans.

Feb 5
H-1: It was nice, right? I really enjoyed it.
H-2: It’s really a silent movie. Some Liverpool dudes actually asked for refunds because it has no dialogue!
H-1: I give big credits to the creative team for having the guts to produce something like that in this time of Avatar and Transformers.
H-2: I feel a bit hollow though. What does it have to do with this messed-up world outside of that theater? It’s just kind of a Hollywood kiss-ass.

Feb 13
H-1: Why did the Pritzker Prize start a .cn website in Chinese? Will there be a Chinese recipient this time?
H-2: Well, the only one who deserves it is Yung Ho Chang. But it’s impossible since he’s on the jury now.
H-1: Maybe Yung Ho pushed for Wang Shu? It can’t be Ma Qingyun or Ma Yansong...
H-2: Nah, too early for any of them. I think it’s just for the ceremony in China later this year. Maybe it will be in the courtyard of Linked Hybrid for good old Steven! He’s buddies with both Yung Ho and Zaha.

Feb 26

H-2: OK, The Artist got the Best Picture. So predictable, so boring.
H-1: Yeah, but it seems that it is the right movie to love right now. It’s so counter-cultural.
H-2: That’s exactly the problem! If you say you don’t like it, it’s so uncool. It’s like you don’t have any taste and you don’t understand art.
H-1: I think the director deserves his award.
H-2: His wife is so much better than that lead guy.
H-1: Dujardin? He’s is pretty romantically French though. I loved it when he said “I love your country!”
H-2: But why is an overly French portrayal of an American movie star considered good acting? I don’t even know if he’s genuine or just exploiting the stereotype. I think this whole thing is like the “Hollywood Ending effect” working the other way around. The Academy had to pick something French to show that they appreciate the arts.

Feb 27
H-2: Really? Wang Shu?
H-1: Shouldn’t you be proud? Finally someone really from China.
H-2: For some reason I am not... He’s done some good work, and he’s quite famous in China. But I don’t think he’s there yet for the Pritzker.
H-1: At least he’s not going totally commercial even though he works in China.
H-2: Yeah, he totally knows that too. Didn’t you watch his lecture at the GSD? He said, “Everybody has become a businessman. Very few architects still want to do serious thinking and serious experiments, like me.”
H-1: Well, it’s good that he’s critical about the situation in China, no?
H-2: Yes, but he also participates in the urbanization process he criticizes himself. The History Museum in Ningbo is one of the new landmarks in the New Town district, where there used to be villages and farms.

H-1: He recycled the bricks and tiles for the new building.
H-2: It just sounds to me like wearing a fur coat and saying “Well, the animal was killed already.”
H-1: But I think this award will be good for China.
H-2: In what way? Very encouraging by saying “You can build quick and crappy, and you are doing just fine”? Is it OK to have the imbalance between speed and quality?
H-1: No, it’s a statement about the important role of China in the future.
H-2: Now I understand! That’s what bugs me big time! It’s time for China, even though it’s not time for its architects yet! This is so political... It’s like the Oscars. Wang Shu is like The Artist. It’s more about the organization making a statement than the winner’s actual achievement. Read this from the Pritzker announcement: “The fact that an architect from China has been selected by the jury, represents a significant step in acknowledging the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals. In addition, over the coming decades China’s success at urbanization will be important to China and to the world. This urbanization, like urbanization around the world, needs to be in harmony with local needs and culture. China’s unprecedented opportunities for urban planning and design will want to be in harmony with both its long and unique traditions of the past and with its future needs for sustainable development.” Hallelujah!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Three encounters with Luis Mansilla

It was really sad to learn that Luis Mansilla had passed away. In my opinion, he was one of the rare geniuses of out time. His work offered the architectural world a fresh breeze of mixed simplicity and diversity, in terms of both form making and materiality.

The first time I heard about Mansilla+Tuñón was when I saw drawings of the Villa 08 in Nanjing. I was deeply impressed by the fluid and elegant form, and the smart way to achieve ambiguity between the inside and the outside - something oriental and very suitable for the site.
Plan, Villa 08 in Nanjing (2003)

But the first real encounter was when they taught at the GSD in the spring of 2006. Along with the studio, they put up an exhibition in the lobby of Gund Hall. Titled “Playgrounds,” the show displayed their smart playfulness in full power. It was the first time I could systematically learn about their body of work, which they summarized with a beautiful graph. On one side, the projects were (literally) showcased in wooden cases. On the other, full height images gave the visitors an immersive experience. As it was meant to be a traveling exhibition, the cases made perfect sense, especially when I saw them pack the things back for transportation.
Each project is a showcase.
Madrid Regional Government Archives and Library
Public Library in Jerez
History Museum in La Coruña
Cantabria Museum
Gran Slam Sports Complex, Madrid
Cross Construction, Teruel
Villa 08 in Nanjing
Cases make sense for transportation

In the summer of 2007, I traveled in Spain. Out of admiration and respect, I put three of the M+T buildings in my itinerary. It was really because of them that I made a detour to León. In Madrid, I visited the Madrid Regional Government Archives and Library, which was built in the former El Águila brewery. The driving force for the arrangement was the construction of voids and interfaces between the old and new buildings. Simple yet refined materials put the two in perfect harmony.
Madrid Regional Government Archives and Library (1996-2002)

León Auditorium is probably one of the most famous of their early work. On the facade, two diverse orders appear: the perimeter of the apertures reflect the geometrical logic of the construction, and the inner aperture of each window follows the requirements of the interior. As M+T puts it, “the constructed plane thus oscillates between a group of stacked windows that are equal in their being and different in their form of being.”
León Auditorium (1994-2002)

In Mansilla+Tuñón’s work, they’ve been always interested in equality and difference, like the family of skylights in the Zamora Museum and the family of windows in the León Auditorium. In MUSAC, it materializes as the different spatial experiences within a simple gridded plan. M+T: “This is an art centre that constructs a set of chessboards on which the action becomes the protagonist of the space; a structure that develops from an open system, formed by a fabric of squares and rhombi, allowing the construction of a secret geography of memory.”
Plan, MUSAC (2001-04)

Outside, the public space takes on a concave shape to hold activities and meetings. It is surrounded by large pieces of colored glass that take an abstract reference to the stained glass windows in the city’s Cathedral.

The last encounter was a lecture he gave at Columbia University in New York on February 3, 2010. Luis Mansilla talked about the design of MUSAC through six lenses: personal (the concerns we have as human beings, whether we are architects or not), intellectual (the concerns that architects have), geometric/material, historical, artistic/social, and natural. He spoke slowly, like a kind, humble and wise man, telling behind-the-scene stories and making funny analogies.
Lecture “MUSAC, Six Landscapes”

Here are some quotes I picked up from my notes:
- Light is the cheapest material in architecture.
- Architecture is impure art. We have ideas, but we still need to deal with reality, budgets, clients, regulations... Sooner or later, contradictions would appear. The intellectual pleasure of architecture is to deal with these contradictions.
- Keep a distance from things and be surprised by the results. Like the colors on the MUSAC facade, they don’t belong to us. (Hands-off process?)
- The most interesting and difficult things in architecture: the first one is to have an idea, and the second is to make it invisible in order to free up space for the others.
- Sometimes when we explain things, we need metaphors. But we don’t believe you can build architecture with metaphors.
- Imagine you are a gardener who plants ideas. Some flowers cannot resist water and decay, some have had too much sun and become dry. At the end you have one that can resist all that and you just take it. It’s nice to see something flows ahead and is able to receive different concerns like a vase.

Following his own metaphor, I think Luis Mansilla himself was truly a constant gardener - not just to dig, but to cultivate. His contribution to architecture was immense. His sudden death was a big loss to the architectural community, and the design community in general.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It’s not easy

Peter Zumthor’s new city gate in the small Bavarian town Isny im Allgäu, Germany stopped after 72% of the citizens voted against the project. I cannot say the design, commonly referred to as the “glass underpants,” is at Zumthor’s best. But it would still be an interesting piece of architecture with large glass bricks and a wooden ball. This story reminds me of what Zaha always says: our profession is really a tough one.
Peter Zumthor, Isny City Gate

Architecture usually involves many different constituencies. We can’t just sit in the studio and make things, then try to sell them in auctions. We have to face reality and make things work. One of the most powerful factors in the matrix is the client and their money. How many times, especially in the last few years, have we heard that a fantastic design would not be realized because there was no money? How confident can we really say that Museum Plaza would come back soon? In fact, one of the things that the Isny citizens couldn’t accept was the estimated 20 million Euros price tag.
REX, Museum Plaza

And there are historic preservation people. We know OMA have been having a hard time in Venice. Italia Nostra, a prominent heritage group, criticized what it called “very serious alterations which will change the fabric of the building” and filed an official objection to the project with the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Italian prosecutors. Steven Holl also had to pause work on the Hotel Loisium Alsace near Colmar, France because two local associations who opposed the project (Nartecs and Paysages d’Alsace) filed appeals at the General Council and the Administrative Court respectively. The Administrative Court of Strasbourg issued a suspension on the building permit in August, 2011. Mayor of Voegtlinshoffen Jacques Cattin was almost kicked out of his office.
Steven Holl, Hotel Loisium Alsace

Things get more complicated when the battle becomes political. Former president of the German state Baden-Württemberg Stefan Mappus also lost his job in the March 2011 election partly because of the largely controversial Stuttgart 21 project. Officially announced in April 1994, S21 is an urban development project with a renewed Central Station as the core. People protested for various reasons, but in the end was it all came down to the dissatisfaction of how the government treated its people. Of course, it’s heart breaking to see them cutting those 200-year-old trees. And you can always question if it’s worth 4.5 billion Euros. But I think it’s not wrong for the city to upgrade its infrastructure and have the ambition to put itself in the high-speed train connection between Paris and Budapest. A state-wide referendum was held in November 2011, and 58.8% people voted to continue the project.
Ingenhoven Architects, New Stuttgart Central Station

Another recent controversy is Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial. The Eisenhower family raised objections about the barefoot kid image. (I don’t understand what’s so wrong to say he’s just a human being, and he’s one of us.) A Virginia congressman asked a federal panel to reject the design. But the harshest criticism this time was from our fellow architects. Leon Krier bashed Gehry’s proposal with a 1,500-word essay on the Chicago Tribune. He called Gehry a “great but greatly confused artist, who was appointed by a commission who shares his intellectual confusion and distaste of a classical Washington, D.C.” He described Gehry’s design as “frozen melt-down and explosion, paralyzed tremor and arrested collapse,” and even went so far to compare to the remnants of the World Trade Center. He continued to claim that Modernism is “a theory that has been brain-dead for half a century but keeps dominating positions in academia and its dependent culture industry.” “The Gehry style is a century old; it seems ‘innovative’ only to the ignorant.” OK, I know you prefer some Greek columns there and think fake Classicism is more innovative. But strong words like that have already carried the criticism beyond constructive architectural debate, and it sounds more like a personal attack.
Frank Gehry, Eisenhower Memorial

Generally speaking, architecture is not as free as art. But in some cases, ambitious art projects also face the difficult reality. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Over the River has been on the drawing board for 20 years now. The artists have spent over $7 million for various environmental studies, mock-ups, surveys, and wind tests, just to prove that it’s a bold yet feasible idea. The proposed construction will include over 100 measures to mitigate any impacts on wildlife, traffic or safety during the installation and exhibition of the work.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Over the River

Last November, Christo finally received approval from the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns 98% of the riverfront. But the battle is not over. He still need to convince the local Coloradans. “We are fearful of impeding our way of life on a day-to-day basis for years to come. We are fearful for the wildlife and sanctuary that we enjoy,” Opponent Thomas Kainz of Howard, CO said. “Most importantly, fearful that we are faced with yet another case where someone with deep pockets and political connections gets their way like some spoiled child. Mr. Christo may see this as some wild juxtaposition between the line of fabric in the surrounding nature over the roaring river, but to me, I see it as a bastardization of the beautifully pristine, quiet countryside that I and many, many others choose to live in.” Boy! I don’t think a “spoiled child” would ever make so much effort to fight for a dream. And certainly, beauty can mean so much more than just being pristine and quiet.

Monday, February 13, 2012



After Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009), Gary Hustwit came back with the last installment of his design film trilogy – Urbanized. It’s equally charming, informative, and concise. It flows smoothly from Asian cities like Mumbai and Beijing to Santiago, Bogotá, Brasília and Rio in South America, to Cap Town in South Africa; from Copenhagen, Brighton, Stuttgart in Europe to New York, New Orleans, Detroit and Phoenix in the US, touching on key urban issues along the way, such as fast growth, shrinking cities, suburbia, slums, social housing, public infrastructure, public art, community gardens, energy consumption, technology, public involvement and protests. It’s packed with ideas and opinions from leading scholars and designers, including Ricky Burdett, Jan Gehl, Alejandro Aravena, Yung Ho Chang, James Corner, Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer, and of course, Rem Koolhaas, although his thinking has already shifted to the countryside.

The mood of the film is generally upbeat, even though it starts in Mumbai with its slums, where 600 people share one toilet seat. (Officially in Mumbai, one toilet seat for 50 people is considered adequate sanitation.) India and China are in the middle of a rapid development. At the end of last year, China reported for the first time that its urban population had passed 50%. (And the film predicts that by 2050, 75% of the world population would call a city home.) Many urban problems were created under the economic boom. As Rem says, market economy has so much power that there is very little room left for design and thinking. Mourning the lost quality of life in Beijing, Yung Ho Chang advocates a collective effort to correct the mistakes. “In the past thirty years, cities were conceived and designed to be part of the economic development, which is OK. But livability was really ignored until very recently. So it’s not convenient; it’s not comfortable.” Bruce Katz points out, “It can’t just take the recipe from 20th century America and apply it to 21st century China or India. That would be horrendous for them, and it would be horrendous frankly for all of us.”
Slums in Mumbai
The inconvenience of Beijing

20th century America? It was not a history of urbanization, but actually a vivid process of counter-urbanization. Endless sprawl hollowed out the center of cities, and the highways resulted in soaring car use and energy consumption. Is suburbia an “American dream” or a nightmare?

Interestingly, what’s happening in South America seems to offer fair examples of contemporary city building. In Bogotá, Colombia, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa believes “what creates traffic is not the number of cars, but the number of trips and the length of trips.” Therefore, he restricted car use by restricting parking, and introduced TransMilenio, a bus-based public transit system, to ease traffic jams. (It reminds me of the Metro Cable system in Caracas, Venezuela.) Peñalosa also promoted bike lanes. In the film, he proudly points out that in one section of Porvenir Promanade, a new road that connects low-income neighborhoods to the richest areas of the city, “the pedestrians and bicycles have pavement, and the cars are in the mud.” Another equally proud mayor Eduardo Paes of Rio talks about the high-tech Operation Center they built to take care of the everyday life of their people. All the departments of the city are here. “You got all that on a big screen, bigger than NASA, that’s what I like.”
TransMilenio in Bogotá
Mayor Peñalosa points out the mud road for cars while cycling on a paved bike lane
Operation Center in Rio de Janeiro

Alejandro Aravena talks about the Elemental projects in Chile. The innovative partnership rethinks the ways to deliver social housing. In the project in Lo Barnechea, Santiago (2010), for example, instead of a fully built tiny house, they provided half of a good house, and let the family build the other half with their own timing, according to their own needs. One intriguing story about this “participatory design” approach is the choice between a water heater and a bathtub. They didn’t have money for both. Politicians wanted water heater, but all the families preferred a bathtub. The fact is that “when they move in, they do not have money to pay the gas bill to heat the water,” so a private bathtub would be an easier step up in terms of quality of life.
“Half of a good house” in Lo Barnechea, Santiago

Talking about South American cities, Brasília is an inevitable topic. The film features the 103-year-old Oscar Niemeyer, who considers Brasília a wonderful masterpiece. He says, “I think architecture is invention. In architecture it isn’t enough to just have the right building that works well. It can also be beautiful, it can be different, it can create surprise. And surprise is the main thing in a work of art.” Jan Gehl disagrees. In his opinion, Brasília looks fantastic from the airplane, but when it gets to eye level, it’s a disaster. “Every distance is too wide; things are not connected; you have to trample for endless miles and miles along completely straight paths.” He continues, “A good city is like a good party.” “If people get involved in social activities, they will forget place and time, and just enjoy. Do not look at how many people are walking in the city. But look at how many people have stopped walking to stay and enjoy what is there.” Of course he means Copenhagen. He points out an interesting fact about the bike lanes there: there are usually parked cars between the bike lanes and the moving cars. It gives a sense of security and further encourages people to use their bicycles as much as possible. Now in Copenhagen, 37% of people who commute to work arrive on bikes. (I thought it would be more...)
Walking in Brasília
Bike lanes in Copenhagen

It seems everything is a design decision. Director of NYC Department of City Planning Amanda Burden claims, “When you walk down the street, everything you see has been designed.” But what I appreciate more are the “undesigned” aspects of cities, the “chance encounters,” as Norman Foster puts it. “Something unexpected will happen along the way, and you’ll make a discovery. That in a way is the magic of cities.” When designing the High Line, James Corner asked himself, “What will design actually mess up here? What through design will you anesthetize? Will you destroy?” In the end, it’s really just about “showcasing Manhattan in a way that is so authentic, it’s not overly manicured, overly scripted.”

It’s interesting to see the design film trilogy moves up in scale over the years, in search of the impact of design on our built environment. Helvetica was about a typeface, and graphic design in general. Objectified covered the objects/products and industrial design. And it had to end up in cities and talk about urban design to complete the explorations. Hustwit chose to close Urbanized with Edgar Pieterse’s remark: “Fundamentally as a species, we need things that can power our imaginations, that can get our passions going, that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That’s what drives cities forward.” Yes, it is the idea. And I think that’s really what drives all design disciplines, and ultimately humanity, forward.


PS. One quote from Rem that doesn’t really relate to cities (I told you he’s not thinking about that any more), but I found it quite interesting: “There is an incredible amount of wasted effort in the profession. A fair amount of it is generated through the procedure of competitions, which is really a complete drain of intelligence. I don’t know any other profession that would tolerate this. At the same time you are important, we invite your thinking, but we also announce that there is an 80% chance that we will throw away your thinking and make sure that it is completely wasted.”