IFP at Beijing Design Week

Don't miss IFP's shows during the design week. There is a lot going on around town but this is an antidote to the flatness of most of the design week programme. For some thoroughbred art and alternative design, come over, open your senses and stay for a while. More info at blacksesame.org

 

AsBIGasAsesame

IFP Sessions #4: Hans van Houwelingen

 

On November 24, the Institute For Provocation here in Beijing will host a talk by the Dutch conceptual artist and sculptor Hans van Houwelingen.

Hans van Houwelingen mostly works within the realm of public space and his artworks often take on ideological contradictions and ambiguities, representing them in a physical form.

Feel free to join us at the IFP Studio, heizhima hutong 13 at 6pm. More information about the artist here.

UPDATE:

The talk was very interesting and lead to the eventual interruption of the presentation as a discussion over one of the works (proposal for a memorial for guest workers in Rotterdam) became extensive. Indeed the conceptual nature of Hans' works are open to interpretations and criticism of various kind, and I definitely enjoy the way he discusses the meaning of things, rather than their formal attributes.

Below some photos of the talk.

Word on the street

The China of the Future will once again be the Kingdom of Bicycles - Yung Ho Chang (i) The reason why this quote makes me lose my faith in the gentlement who uttered it is that I just saw four (4) Bentleys on the twenty-minute bike ride back from the office. Sure, it's the right neighborhood of Beijing to spot this particular brand, since a Bentley dealership just opened in Sanlitun, but these were seen far away from it and I also saw a Ferrari passing a Maserati (in between Bentley number 3 and 4). I don't think I need to mention all the A8s, Mercedes Geländewagens, few Porsches and the mat-lacquered BMW convertibles which crossed my path. But more interestingly, just as I came out from the office in Chaowai SOHO looking around for my old Flying Pigeon, I heard a high-pitch roar and turned around to see an Audi R8, in polished aluminium finish (basically only a handful of these exist on the planet) swirling out on to the driveway.

When I was a child, from an age so early I don't have memories from to about 12, I was obsessed with cars. I could spot a Mitsubishi, a Citroen or even a rarity like Lancia from more than a hundred meters distance even before I could even say my own surname. Towards the final years of primary school, I started to hide it from my friends and classates since I was embarrassed to be interested in something so...mineral. I did go to the school discos and occassionally talked to girls but once a month when the latest edition of "Teknikens Värld" dropped down into the mailbox, I would dive into it and absorb every single technical specification, learning by heart the no of horsepowers of mundane saloons like Peugeuot 605 as well as super-sports cars that weren't even sold in my small Scandinavian homeland. I would digest every word of every virgin test drive and even chronicles about family life and the MGB club's trips to Jersey.

But again, after a certain age this fascination with the motorized world ceased, and I could move on to other, more important things like architecture, stopping on the way at Nirvana and flanell-shirts, Stussy jeans and Ice Cube, Graffiti, Skateboarding, Wu-Tang, Tommy Hilfiger, and finally German techno (which I still occassionally go out to enjoy). Of course, it was hard to rid myself of my past passion and I still have a habit of remembering the new car models when they hit the streets.

If I had seen a one-in-a-billion Audi, four Bentleys, one Maserati and one Ferrari in the course of 20 minutes as an 8-year-old, I would probably have thought I was dreaming.

Now I just feel sick.

I feel sick because I am in China and nowhere should you see so many ridiculously expensive cars in such short time frame but at a car salon, in Geneva, Frankfurt, Paris Detroit or Tokyo. Maybe even Beijing Car Show. But not on a Tuesday night at 9.15 in a developing country.

This place seems just sprawling with people who don't know what to do with all their piles of cash (yes, they do still use cash in China, for obvious reasons, and in huge amounts since the largest bill is 100RMB). And all they seem to have forgotten what it's like to ride on a bicycle, for never have I seen such egoistic drivers as here. Never ever do they stop until they are centimeters away from hitting you. Their automobiles are constantly in motion, as if they thought the engine would stop if they did (which is probably the case wth the first Chinese-made cars that were rolling on the roads). And as if to celebrate this fact, they never want to turn them off. I've gone through parking lots outside shopping malls where many of the cars were idling just to keep the AC on until the owners came out again several hours later!

Not to get too deep into it here, but I feel this topic is so loaded with political, economic and consumption ideals that it deserves to be studied, in facts and without judgement. I want to understand, both how this could become such a common way of unloading heavy wallets, and a symbol of China's growth and rise as a global power. How did the world's biggest bicycle-city become the world's biggest car-city in one generation?

(i) From The future will be...China. Thoughts on What's to Come Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Pinoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli/UCCA, 2012

Chinese Public Space Symposium

PROJECTING THE FUTURE FOR A CHINESE PUBLIC SPACE

- A symposium on the possibilities of a New Urban Realm

I am currently in the process of planning a symposium on the possibilities of a future Chinese Public Space. The aim is to start a multidisciplinary discussion about among those involved in the planning, design and realisation of China's future cities; their parks and landscapes. What are the possibilities for designing specifically "civic" spaces, belonging in the realm of society rather than for community or symbolic use?

Public space in China is a topic which crosses over into many other aspects of Chinese society; the political impact of the emerging middle-class, urban planning policies (or lack thereof), social stratification, congestion, urban cultural expressions and the emergence of a ‘virtual public space’ on internet sites, forums and microblogs.

In the Arab Spring and other forms of public mistrust towards political leadership, public spaces play a key role in providing a forum to meet and raise opinion, allowing political movements to gain momentum and eventually cause change. This fact has been, since the 1989 Tiananmen square protests, well noted among Chinese political leaders. As a consequence, urban designs of new Chinese cities often lack the kind of open, accessible squares and public meeting places found in urban centres around the world.

Before 1989, in cities designed during the Mao era, the Big Square typology was often introduced as a part of urban regeneration, to serve as a venue for political gatherings (for example during the Cultural Revolution), along with long and wide boulevards for military parades. In recent years these large squares spaces have often been invaded by commercial interests and become the staging ground for local governments’ self-promotion. At the same time, they have lost their public raison d’être as the urban population has found their place inside air-conditioned shopping malls. The boulevards have become highway-like traffic arteries for the ever-growing number of people moving around in cars, often dividing the city spatially and socially. We can see this development in Chinese cities of all scales and in every part of the country.

According to the German scholar Dieter Hassenpflug, the spaces of Chinese cities not belonging to either of two major institutions Family and Community are considered to be Open Space, which means that they belong to whoever claims them; for example cars, plants, trees, pedestrians, individuals or groups who use the vacancy for temporary activities such as dancing, tai chi, free markets etc. This typology is distinct from Public Space in the sense that its use is always negotiable, and the public - free individuals - have no universal right to it. This configuration is very different from the concepts of public space prevalent in Europe, and yet most of the architects and designers involved in the construction of Chinese cities have very little knowledge of this.

After a long period of negligence towards those spaces which still can be considered public, the growing middle-class is now at least beginning to attach greater importance to the size, design and safety of their urban environment. This is not to say that the space that these urban space are public in the sense of being civic, but instead they are often private spaces that have the appearance of being public (Example: Sanlitun Village, The Place, Jianwai SOHO). We can also see that China’s ageing population, which is increasingly urban, is putting high pressure on public parks, and making use of random open spaces such as memorial squares or generously sized sidewalks for playing music, dancing, playing boardgames and socializing.

This symposium aims to bring together the different stakeholders in the formation of China’s future urban and rural environments: Architects, landscape architects, urbanists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, cultural theorists and activists, for a discussion and exchange of views.

Questions to be discussed: What new concepts can be formed to describe the different conditions of open space in China? What kind of urban spaces in China fit in to the Western description of Public Space and how? What are the consequences of the shifting of public communication from urban spaces to online social media? What role can designers really play in the reappropriation of the urban realm? Will Landscape Urbanism save Chinese public space?

Organiser: Institute For Provocation (Max Gerthel/Jordan Kanter/Chen Shuyu)

Beyond Wang Shu

In connection to the recent appointment of Wang Shu as this year's Pritzker Prize winner, I recall a thought that I had around the same time last year when the prize was given to Edouardo Souto de Moura. My first reaction at the time was, probably like many others, that this prize is out of date. Not that Souto de Moura is not an accomplished architect, but in relation to the long list of previous laureates, most of them already well-known to the general public when they got the prize, he is a local Portugues architect with solid practice and a few good buildings to his name. No masterpieces, but quite nice. There had been a few laureates in the past with similar scale of output, and Souto de Moura was perhaps better known than in the architecture world than Sverre Fehn by the time he got his prize. But there was another aspect that made me conclude that this kind of prize has played out its role. The previous year, the prize went to Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who work together but also run their own individual practices. As many of the previous laureates, they have discovered new territory in the field of architecture and also created a long line of followers in their home country and elsewhere. This can hardly be said about the modest Portuguese who is mostly known as a former disciple of master builder and laureate, Alvaro Siza. There was a sense of lack of imagination in the jury's choice. Without doubt, there were other people more qualified to enter this exclusive club solely based on their contribution to the field. Indeed, the political dimension of this kind of prestigious award; the implied geographical correctness often works as a block for giving the prize to the same country or region too often. Many issues make it problematic: Either the choice is too predictable, too controversial or not famous enough.

The most difficult thing to overcome though, is that an increasing amount of architecture practices are formed as collectives, without a recognizable "mastermind". All the efforts needed in the process of erecting a building are by definition in need of a collective, as everything from drafting a programme to design to construction has a number of agents who provide their part of the process. More importantly, many offices are set up so that a group collectively produce designs which are then selected, and therefore the principals work more as an editors rather than designers. This needn't reduce their influence in the design process or even the end result, but when a collective efforts of a practice of several hundred architects can be reduced to that of one, then I believe something has been missed.

Until this year's appointment of Wang Shu, I felt that giving this kind of prizes to individual architects somehow feels outdated in the current world of architecture. The whole idea of the eccentric architect sitting at his drafting table next to a dried-out cup of coffee at 10pm sketching on manifold with thick 8B pencil feels kind of murky, perhaps also because this is my experience growing up. The photo of Souto de Moura by his desk did not exactly help to erase this image.

After reading Brendan's comment in Domus that I wrote about earlier today, and getting his secondary comment, I felt I had to empty all my possible points of view on this matter, only to realise that the prize actually has a purpose, and that it can reach deeper into the system and attempt to execute its influence more than it ever has in the past. Wang Shu might still be young, perhaps too young (some of his work could use a little of Eduoardo's austerity) but he is bold and smart enough to understand how he can do the most good. He realized early in his career that building in China is about putting things together, through a poetic game of give and take with the craftsmen. So far, I have only seen a handful of building that was carried out in full according to the architect's drawings. There is simply too big a gap between what we envision and how this vision will be executed. The only way to achieve something new in architecture in China is to explore that gap, and to invent by combining the existing construction technologies into new typologies and methods.

There is actually not a big difference between the two most recent laureates. They are both simple, noncommercial, nonfamous architects firmly grounded in their local traditions. In the end, the revolutionary thing about this prize is the fact that it praises individuals, who distinguish themselves through a high level of integrity in a world where architects have taken part in the collective demolition and eradication of thousands of years of history.

The Pritzker prize will doubtlessly bring Wang Shu a lot of fame, not at least in China. But while this new spotlight has already caused an inflated sense of self-pride in the motherland,  Mr Wang himself will presumeably keep building his career with brick, tiles and mortar.

Because Wang Shu

 

In this recent op-ed in Domus Brendan McGetrick explains his view of why Wang Shu got the Pritzker Prize. Compared with my own hypothesis (which is less elegantly formulated below) it's less about geopolitics and more about the decline of trust in architects following a global financial crisis and consequent recession. Indeed, there is a geopolitical side to the jury recognizing China's rise as a political and cultural power in the world, but Brendan argues that it is Wang Shu's methods and low-tech amateur approach to architecture which carries the most significance in his (modest) oeuvre.

Indeed it is reasonable to engage in such a reading of the event, and I agree with Brendan's arguments. However, I would like to put forward another hypothesis: Contrary to the Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize and the recent ascent of Ai Weiwei into superstardom following his 81-day detention, the Pritzker is less of a diplomatic meltdown. It will not create a Norwegian salmon boycott in Zhongnanhai or ignite mass-demonstrations around the art world, but it will shed light into a dark and remote corner of architecture and urbanism in China, one that is rarely highlighted by the regime and enjoys little understanding by the industry.

Mr Wang not explicitly political, but in my mind his works evoke many of the same attitudes as presented by the two dissidents. By working with local materials and craftsmen he is creating his own individual interpretation of Chinese architecture traditions, not a reproduction of a "global" "modern" "style" as so many of his peers who simply reproduce their own and others' work for the weekly submission of some medium-size-city urban planning museum proposals and mixed-use suburban drop-down bombshell. In addition, this is also how Ai Weiwei bagan his career as a builder in the late 1990's, and there are many interesting parallels in their careers and approach to designing.

In this 2008 interview of Wang Shu by Bert de Muynck, he describes some of his own working methods and attitudes towards the contemporary architecture practice:

"This month I have to design three museums, so my studio stops working for one month. Everybody goes home, so I can work on my own. I send them to the countryside for research or give everybody a list of books about traditional Chinese painting, French philosophers, movies or any subject that might be helpful. This is their homework. When they come back, we have a discussion, and then we work again."

He also reveals the need for architects (in China and elsewhere) to be pragmatists and grant the clients their less admirable wishes, albeit with a sense of humour and political irony:

"In the Contemporary Art Museum in Ningbo, for example, we designed two large floors. When we presented our plan, local authorities told me they had the money to build the museum, but no money to operate it. They needed a space they could let out in order to generate money. I told them that, apart from selling fish, they could do whatever they wanted on the ground floor to make money. But art should be on the first floor. When I said this to the mayor I used Marxist theory, explaining that a basement is about economy and an upper floor about art. I hope he got the joke."

All in all, despite his own scepticism of the appointment ("I'm still so young!") I hope that the prize will help shift the focus of China's reconstruction (a lot of it will have to be rebuilt soon again) from large to small, from global to local and from Wang (king) to Shu (book, calligraphy, script).

Read Brendan's text for yourself here.

 

Open Door Syllabus

 

Since February 20 I am leading a studio for undergraduate students of interior design at Tsinghua School of Art & Design. The studio will focus on basic concepts universal architecture and introducing a number of canonical works from the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Analytical studies will take up most of the first half, then gradually moving towards transforming the accumulated research into a small-scale project.

 

OPEN THE DOOR AND LET THE SUN SHINE IN - INTRODUCTION TO ARCHITECTURE

The main objectives of this 7-week studio is to:

  • Introduce the notion of architecture as a way of thinking through three basic concepts universal to architecture and neighbouring disciplines; landscape and interior architecture.
  • Expose students to architecture theory and analytical assignments in which they are forced to use language and images rather than design to describe their way of thinking.
  • Emphasize the process and the tools rather than the results, forcing the students to draw conclusions from their previous work.
  • Collect data and analyze canonical works of both Western and Eastern architecture, historical and contemporary and assemble it into a coherent archive.
  • Finally, to synthesize analysis and experiments into a design concept based on the previous findings.

The studio aims to give the students a basic knowledge of architectural history and theory through a number of lectures and case studies. These analytical studies will gradually lead to a design assignment based on the observations and conclusions drawn from the previous phase.

SCALE The notion of scale in architecture is ambiguous. Architects tend to assume that there is a general understanding of the concept of scale, but at the same time tacitly recognize that many different perceptions of scale exist and they are deeply rooted in cultural, historical and social values. In architecture, geography and many other disciplines, scale is used to define relationships between the real object and their representations. This use is instrumental to the conception of space, as the designer uses drawings and models to represent their intentions. Other uses of the word scale are more subjective and refer to the way we relate things to each other in real-world values (right scale, out of scale) or describe their size, importance or impact, (a large-scale military operation, a small-scale manufacturer, a medium-scale city). In Chinese, these are three different words, 比例 (relation, ratio) , 尺度 (proportion, measurement) and 规模 (scope, extent, size) which facilitates the use in the architecture field. Nevertheless, there is a direct link between the above mentioned concepts of scale in the English language.

The most fundamental reference for scale is the human body, a measure that as been used in most human cultures throughout history, and still prevail in many cultures (e g foot, inch). In order to build up an understanding of scale and its importance, the students will create their own system for referencing between different scales.

MOVEMENT In both Occidental and Oriental cultures, movement is a major aspect of architecture. Movement is not only about circulation within a building or a complex, but it is directly related to hierarchy, organization, perception etc. While this wide understanding of the concept has been extensively explored in the West, especially since the Modern Movement, there is a more implicit understanding of movement within the Oriental realm of architecture. The assignments will explore these different aspects and bring a conscious understanding of movement into the design.

ATMOSPHERE While the concepts of scale and movement are relatively well-defined within architecture history and theory, the notion of atmosphere is quite a lot more ambivalent. It generally ranges from the phenomenological aspects to the metaphysical, yet architecture can be analyzed and conceived using this notion consciously.

The assignment will focus on the phenomenological aspect of atmosphere, focusing on light, materiality, colour and relationship with the environment. As with scale and movement, the aim is to provide the students with a basic understanding through case studies and analytical drawings/models, all of which will compiled into a larger body of research.

 

List of architectural works for analysis:

WESTERN CLASSICS Le Corbusier - Villa Savoye Frank Lloyd Wright - Falling Water House Ludvig Mies van der Rohe - Villa Tugendhat Luis Barragan - Barragan House Villa Malaparte Adolf Loos - Haus Müller WESTERN CONTEMPORARY Steven Holl - Nail Collector’s House OMA/Koolhaas - Villa Dall’Ava Peter Zumthor - Kunsthaus Bregenz Alvaro Siza - Iberê Camargo Museum (ICM) Ben van Berkel/UN Studio - Möbius House David Adjaye - House For An Art Collector R & Sie (n) - Invisible House EASTERN CLASSICS Beijing Siheyuan (北京四合院) Temple of Heaven (北京天坛) Foguang Temple (佛光寺) Katsura imperial villa I M Pei - Fragrant Hill Hotel (北京香山饭店) EASTERN CONTEMPORARY Ai Weiwei - Red Brick Galleries, Caochangdi Kuu Architects - MINUS K HOUSE/ 南汇别墅 FCJZ/张永和 - Villa in Shanyujian, Huairou, Beijing Wang Shu - Xiangshan campus building Liu Jiakun - Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum

Retrospective addition

As we were in a crucial stage of the workshop last Wednesday for the final lecture, I didn't post anything about WAI's talk. I'd like to resume to that evening and recall some of the works they presented and the discussion which followed. WAI is Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski, and they present themselves both as a small architectural practice and a think tank that is trying to push the current discourse on architecture (or lack thereof) from a superficial flow of images (mainly on the web through blogs) towards a critical discussion about the role of architecture and architects in today's globalized consumer society. The projects they presented range from fairly conventional architecture proposals (fotball school in Puerto Rico, Fashion Museum in Tokyo) to speculative projects on preservation in Beijing, fictional movie makeovers and analysis of "hard core" architectural forms.

The lecture was a compressed version of one they did recently at the University of Puerto Rico, and apart from a few projects that were presented more in-depth, it was mostly a rather forced stream of images, including renderings from well-known global practices and drawings from architectural history, cut and pasted into new or rediscovered contexts. Despite the obvious ambition of dragging such a vast range of architectural expression into the same room for discussion and comparison, the presentation came across as somewhat superficial, and this was also well put by one member of the audience, calling it a "glossy lecture". I am quite sure this was not the intention of Ms Frankowski and Mr Garcia, they obviously tried hard to get all their ideas across by compressing this rather extensive presentation into less than half of its normal length.

This might not have been a good choice, as there was an overwhelming sense of image-washing in this which ended in a cascade of spot-the-manifesto accompanied by a loony jazz tune. Ironically, they also mentioned the problem of architectural drawings and collages being presented in museums all over the world as pure images, without the idea-historical context in which they were made. Truthfully, any image can be manipulated and reread through the way they are presented, and this is exactly the point that was being made. Rather than questioning this fact, I understand their work as personal interpretations, quite speculative sometimes, but very conscious.

Although they do write regularly for a number of architecture magazines, WAI's work seems very focused on images. Without them, the writing comes across as rather superfluous, reducing historical events to one-liners and focusing on the iconization of architecture. A relevant topic all the same, I can't say I am a big fan of the idea of using more images to fight the overflow of images, but if you are good at something, keep doing it. Indeed the most interesting projects presented were the more personal ones like the Wall Stalker story and the Beijing preservation monument tower.

Now I am starting to think of WAI as architecture theory's Kanye West: Young, ambitious and confident enough to be sampling from some of history's real tours-de-force, creating a new, imaginative and pretty groovy universe. All we need now is that they attack the next Pritzker Prize winner during then ceremony and claim it themselves. Keep it up, Nathalie and Cruz.

 

 

Junkitecture and wood SUV's

This text was originally posted on the blog of the upcoming workshop I am currently organizing in my studio, starting next week. Through the collection of reference projects, I have come across a few very interesting practices, and here is one of them:  

The work of German duo Köbberling Kaltwasser address a very contemporary issue with sophisticated social criticism and humour. Through their remodeling of redundant commodities: turning scrapped cars into bicycles, raising self-made pavilions from debris on empty lots in Berlin, and building a temporary theatre out of disused woodboards and pallets, they are seemingly interested in the processes of consumtion and its environmental impact. But this is not an idealist practice with a "save-the-world" approach. The issues they address also reach beyond the idea of reuse.

As an artist-architect couple, Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser also deal with sensitive ideological aspects of their own native country of Germany. By building full-scale models of Audi and Porche SUV's, they are poking at something deeply embedded in the identity of the engineered German society: Despite its ability to solve serious problems, most of the engineering ingenuity goes into creating advanced metal monsters for consumption with giant's appetite for fossil fuels, eating up valuable land in our cities.

Below a few of their works:

Musterhaus (Model House), Berlin 2006

Built on a green area of the Martin Gropius Bau premises in Berlin, the Musterhaus (Model House) is a one-family prefab model house. In its cube shape it rather resembles the T-Com House, a hightech house which a manufacturer of prefabricated houses has put on show in central Berlin to advertise the delights of suburban life. In contrast to this, we have made the Musterhaus from materials that are widely available on Berlin’s streets, disused lots and building sites: bulky scrap, used materials, random finds and construction waste. We put these production cycle rejects to new use and imitate the cultural technique of direct, sustainable, user-based recycling which is primarily practiced in the southern hemisphere. The Musterhaus brings the globally prevalent concept of informal building, which has also characterised the recent urban development of Istanbul, to the heart of central Berlin. The Musterhaus, just a stone’s throw from Potsdamer Platz, forms a marked contrast to the Berlin monoculture of block buildings and the rigid plans for the city’s urban development.

 

 

Jellyfish theatre, London 2010

Built from locally sourced discarded materials by 100 volounteers during the summer of 2012, the Jellyfish was used as a theatre for the Red Room Theatre Company. Seating 120 and featuring a lounge, dressing corridor and backstage area, the creation also created quite a lot of PR for the theatre, igniting discussions about the Themes South Bank area in which it was placed.

 

Crushed Cayenne (2007)

 

Koolhaas on ice

 

"SPIEGEL: Just now, when we were in HafenCity, standing in the new Unilever headquarters building designed by the Behnisch architecture firm, you said that ugliness can make a building more open.

Koolhaas: I don't think the Unilever headquarters is ugly. But the building is more disorganized and more chaotic. And disorder can have a stimulating effect. It is more accessible to people than a rigid form. What's more, it was louder there. But, with time, you'll get louder here. You seem a little unhappy with this building that was built for you. And you are skeptical about this new neighborhood in which the building is located. I get the feeling that what you need from me isn't so much an interview as an hour of therapy."

For more architectureal acidity read the full interview here.