Re(son)Art. Public Action and conference

Together with artist and IFP collaborator Tianji Zhao, I will participate in a conference on artistic research and public action at Centre for Architecture and Design in Stockholm Sept 9-12. Our contribution to the public actions, 'Hold Your Breath' will be performed in public space during the conference. More about the conference here

On Sept 12th I will also give a presentation about IFP at IASPIS/Konstnärsnämnden.

Looking forward to being back in Stockholm!

 

Image above from 'Parking Day Phoenix 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.

 

IFP Session #2 Film screening

Tonight at 6 pm in the our studio, Institute For Provocation will host Belgian filmmaker Bram van Paesschen who is screening his latest film Empire Of Dust. The film depicts the reality of the Chinese involvement in Africa through the eyes of two middle-men in on the ground in Congo Kinshasa. Synopsis: Lao Yang and Eddy both work for a company called CREC (Chinese Railway Engineering Company). They have just set up camp near the remote mining town of Kolwezi in the Katanga province of the RDC. The goal of the company is to redo the road – covering 300km - that connects Kolwezi with the capital of the province Lubumbashi.

Lao Yang is head of logistics of the group. He is responsible for the equipment, building materials and food (mainly chickens) to arrive in the isolated Chinese prefab camp. The Congolese government was supposed to deliver these things but so far the team hasn’t received anything.

With Eddy (a Congolese man who speaks Mandarin fluently) as an intermediate, Lao Yang is forced to leave the camp and deal with local Congolese entrepreneurs, because without the construction materials the road works will cease. What follows is an endless, harsh, but absurdly funny roller coaster of negotiations and misunderstandings, as Lao Yan learns about the Congolese way of making deals.

Bram van Paesschen

Born 1979 in Vilvoorde, Belgium. Graduated in 2002 from Sint-Lukas in Brussels, film/video specialization documentary. Lives and works in Brussels. (Except for when he’s elsewhere)

The work of Bram Van Paesschen is indebted to various traditions of documentary filmmaking, from "classical" to fake documentary and essayistic formats. What unites this very diverse body of work is a sometimes radical, sometimes playful reflection on the rapport between the filmmaker and the filmed, as well as the necessary and responsible involvement of both in creating the documentary artifact. (Katrin Mundt)

Date & Time: Saturday March 10 at 6pm in the IFP Studio, Heizhima hutong 13, Dongcheng District, Beijing.

Because of the limited space, please notify us by email to max@iprovoke.org if you plan to attend the screening and following talk. And please don't arrive after 6.30! Thank you

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.

 

 

ITERATION and conclusion

 

It's now been two days since we drew our last screws into the two projects that became the product of the ITERATE workshop. The first thing I want to do is to thank our dedicated students Song Yating, Zhai Jingyang, Wu Yulun and Yangyang Seunghee. Without their adventurous choice of joining this speculative workshop, it would not have taken place. The fact that we had a group of students pushed us to do our homework and prepare a rigorous theoretical framework for our exploration, presenting a wide range of precedents and references from many different fields. The point being that we are operating in a field that crosses over to many other disciplines, and the two pieces that came out of the workshop also constitute an ambiguous result in terms of definition.

Defining what it is we made is perhaps not the most important issue here, but it still one of the crucial points of criticism that we are now facing. Early Sunday morning I received a phone call from our landlord saying that a group of neighbours had gathered in the courtyard in protest of the installation of sticks and string designed by student Yangyang Seunghee. The problem was not only that we had failed to inform all the neighbours in the courtyard behind, but also that these suspended objects were hanging at a height where you would have to crouch down to avoid collision, creating an especially precarious condition because of the lack of lighting during night time.

In a different context though, this installation might have been understood as a temporary artwork which could be spared a few hours of existence, but in the context of one of the few remaining preserved Beijing courtyards, it was seen by the local retired residents as a threat to their security and therefore must be taken down. To make it simple, we were naive towards our neighbours' capacity to accept a temporary piece which would force them to take a different route, and they were perhaps overly dramatic in their reactions against this alien object. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the consequences and how they could have been avoided.

Which leads me back to the main topic; the content of our exploration and conclusions which can be drawn from it.

There was a series of underlying notions in the formulation of the framework this workshop, and by extension in the research project that now has started. From my own side, I would like to stress the ideological aspect of our project: Addressing the prevailing issue of the credibility of our contemporary consumer society. The workshop addresses this issue in two direct ways: By limiting our source of material to used or discarded matter, things that would have been disposed of in landfills or incinerated, we would not impose unnecessary pressure to the environment for the purpose of developing a specific new knowledge. The fact that these objects have unique variations in terms of form, colour and texture as well as possessing their own latent history, make them all the more gratifying to work with. In addition, we explored the social aspect of how these objects can be retrieved and harvested in the specific context of Beijing's old city. The second point is the fact that the tool we used in the reconfiguration/design of these materials, Processing, is a free, open-source software and coding language. This of course means that while you as a designer first have to design and customize your tool in order for it to become efficient, it also brings a lot of advantages. During the past two weeks we only scratched the surface of the possibilities offered by using this environment, but the future process will be directed towards developing and streamlining the code to our use.

Another major aspect is of course that of using our abilities as designers to propose and speculate on solutions for local and global issues. This aspect of the workshop is perhaps where we failed. Despite an ambitious level of research in the way some materials are used and how they are instrumental in the accretion of small reclaimed spaces in the hutongs of Beijing, the connection between our design process and these issues became increasingly blurred in the second week. In many ways, it is just as important to learn new tools as to be critical to them while they are being applied.

With better planning and stronger focus for the Processing classes, we would probably have come further in the form explorations on an earlier stage, giving more time to establish a solid relationship between our materials and the environment in which they were found. To resume to our mission statement, we wanted to explore the intersection between design, computation and public space. By designing without specificity in neither user nor site and erecting the pieces in a sheltered, semi-private courtyard we not only avoided confrontation with the public, but projected an sense of arrogance towards the local community. Instead of allowing our neighbours and our initiated friends from outside to meet inside a common fascination for our research, and despite good intentions, the works provoked a sense of alienation from the point of view of our neighbours.

 

To conclude, I would like to see this experience as part of an ongoing process, in which we tap into a wide range of material flows in the city, in production processes and socio-economic systems and reformulate unwanted output into operational synergies. In other words, turning waste, in whatever scale, into desirable matter.

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.

Zero Energy Slum

The other day I paid a visit to the newest addition to Huazhong Architecture School in Wuhan where I am currently teaching. I had found this Panoramio photo with description on Google Maps and I got curious to see what these new premises were housing. I quote from the description (presumably written by someone highly involved in the project): "The national demonstration project of renewable energy building in Huazhong University of Science and Technology, approved by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, is dedicated to construct a teaching or office building with renewable energy use to adjust temperature and comfort all year in hot summer and cold winter area. To begin with, the project has taken advantage of Active Dynamic Hollow Walls (ADHW) with fluid air layers and climate adaptive windows. Furthermore, renewable energy, collected and stored by circulating water in the underground heat sink or heat source, has earned its position in the project because of the local advantage of an underground temperature annul balance. Fresh air exchanges heat with the water containing renewable energy in an under-floor radiator to adjust its own temperature. The fresh air is released into the indoor through an under-floor air supply system, thus regulating comfort in an indoor environment. In addition, the annul power consumption of the comfort regulation system is no more than the annul power generation of solar cells on the roof of a building. In a word, buildings in the project succeed in utilization of solar energy, underground heat sink in summer and heat source in winter for anti-reason use and have achieved the goals of saving of energy, land and water along with building materials, of environmental protection and of pollution reduction."

High ambitions, no doubt. Actually, whether or not this building lives up to its environmental claims become quite irrelevant when confronted with the architecture and construction materials. Below are a few photos I took of the inside, and bear in mind that this building is built less than two years ago:

As an experiment to show that these energy-saving technologies are efficient, this building might be successful on paper. But the extraordinarily poor quality of design and materials completely undermines the possibility of convincing anyone that these techniques are compatible with ordinary construction procedures in China. Building it in the first place is not only a waste of money and materials, but a liability to the real research and work that is going on to find truly sustainable solutions to housing construction.

Guanxi, or The Power of the Section

Architecture is never an isolated entity. Regardless of whether or not you work consciously with the context of your building, new relationships will follow as a consequence, so by trying to predict and enhance them will be crucial. The essential knowledge of how to work well as an architect comes down to how to create interesting relationships. There are external relationships: Between the building and its context, the city fabric, the stories of the neighbourhood, the landscape, invisible social territories, between inside and outside, open and closed space, private and public, back of house and front of house etcetera. And there are internal relationships: Between different programmes, vertical levels, light and dark, wet and dry, warm and cool, service areas and served areas, active and passive, public and private etc etc. Out of the typical architectural drawing formats we have at our disposal - plan, section, elevation, site plan, perspective - I believe the most interesting one is always the section, because it is where those relationships become apparent. The plan is very good at showing movement and internal flows, but as a means of inviting the viewer inside to experience the life in the building, it is still too abstract and schematic. In the section though, you can tell compelling stories which not only talk about the building, but of a whole society. Since it cuts through many types of spaces; from the basement, perhaps full of illegal (im)migrant workers, to the rooftop, where affluent investors are entertained by lightly dressed ladies; the section is where our urban way of life become clear and undeniable.

There are a number of significant drawings which exemplify that the architectural section is as good as a novel at telling stories. One of the most striking is a survey of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, a hyper-dense illegally built housing block now demolished. The section above was carried out by a Japanese team shortly before it was demolished in 1993.

Another classic example is the famous section of the Downtown Athletic Club, featured in Delirious New York with the above section. The building is a materialization of the heyday of N.Y.'s Wall St bankers and lawyers in the 1920's. 38 stories including squash courts, golf course, medical baths, massage parlours, billiard rooms, boxing ring next to an oyster bar, grill, dining halls and roof terraces, plus 111 hotel rooms for the bachelors who were not set on spending their nights uptown with the society clubs. All wrapped up behind an anonymous red brick façade, making sure that the building remains inconspicuous relative to the social "athleticism" taking place inside.

Once in a lecture about late 19th century Paris by a professor at KARCH, Carsten Thau showed a cross-section of a typical Hausmannian house, showing the full spectrum of social strata composing the then-world-leading metropolis. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find it on line, so maybe I'll have to write to my old professor to know who made the drawing. UPDATE: I successfully tracked down the section, and although it actually precedes the Haussmann typology, it still serves well in depicting Parisian society in the 1850's.

Also please enjoy this slightly more beaux-arts water colour section by Steven Holl depicting MIT Simmons Hall, one of the projects finished in the early 2000's catapulting Mr Holl into stardom.

 

For the design studio I am teaching in Wuhan starting next Monday I will be focusing in on the architectural section as a driver for the design process. The students will embark on a journey by examining a cross-section of their own city, a section they will have to draw. A precise recording of a complex of relations in a city infamous for its chaotic urban composition which will hopefully become an interesting tool in understanding the city. One of the reasons why I find it most interesting to examine the section here in China, is that I have discovered a lack of interest in developing architecture based on relationships. Too often the designs here tend to form isolated objects or enclaves without a dynamic relationship to their surroundings. Perhaps it is understandable since most projects here are conceived as UIMs (Urban Integrated Megaproject) and often on virgin land lacking any previous urban condition. Nevertheless, with a better understanding of the possibilities offered by designing in the section, one can create and nurture new relationship, at least within the same project.

 

Join the cleanup

After passing more than one year in China and getting engaged in the local market for independent architectural services, I feel that it is time to start adapting my educational background and its preconceived notions of site, programme and regulation to the specific context of working in China.

As far as I can conclude, the context within which I am working is one where the concepts of tradition and modernity are still in conflict. By this I mean that the vast majority of Chinese live in a weave of systems that were developed in the west (although I object to this notion of  longitudinal quasi-cultural polarization), during a post-enlightened era of rapid industrialization, but nevertheless alongside a emerging democracy and increasing political pluralism. These systems, commonly known as socialism (in the political realm) and modernism (in the urban realm), have been imported and consequently distorted by a Chinese mono-cultural totalitarian regime. The same regime that is currently running this country (or at while bearing the same name) has also, in a perverse, twisted travesty of a political conflict, rejected its own culture and historical values, leaving the current generation with no other choice than to adopt a new global culture: Consumerism.

For the past thirty years, China's cities have become the main stage for a socio-economic upgrade on an unprecedented scale. But since these are essentially the same processes the developed countries in the west went through about 80-50 years ago, we are left to look at the incongruities; an authoritarian political system (Socialism with Chinese characteristics) and a vast population (almost twice the size of Europe). The third dimension which is much more difficult to approach, is what you could call Culture. There are many indicators that the business culture in China is the child of a marriage between socialism and confucianism.

Politics aside, it is time for me to find my own purpose. The only way to change things is to do things as good as you can yourself and hopefully inspire others to do so as well. Not that there aren't any good Chinese architects, it's rather an issue with the current Chinese Zeitgeist. Most people here are simply not ready to embrace new and different ideas about how to build. Admittedly, there are many new cities being built in China, but for the most part they look, work and smell the same. For all its image as being a place for experimentation, very few politicians or developers in China go out of their way to fully realize the high ambitions of planners and architects. And there are many examples to back this up.

So what can we do? Hope for the real estate bubble to burst so we eventually get a more balanced and mature market? Well, since this will happen eventually, we can either sit around and wait until the shit hits the fan, or we can try to act now, through small but ambitious projects that might draw a direct line between the verbs locate, design and build. Meaning, we need to realize that there will come a time when architects also in China will have to deal with small-scale projects, renovations and additions. Actually, the prospects for architects working in the "cleanup"-phase of China's future development are indeed looking bright.

So where to start? Bottom-up, unsolicited architecture. Ambitious, sure, but more and more people are doing it, also in China. For example, my previous tutor Li Xiaodong, professor in Tsinghua, built schools in remote villages in China together with his students, and eventually gained international recognition (which led to big commissions for commercial projects which led to a certain loss of credibility).

Nevertheless, during the Studio workshop in Wuhan I aim to locate a community, a local client of some sort, for whom to build in locally sourced materials using our competence as architect builders. Now I don't think this will be easy to realize in the first attempt, but hopefully with time we'll be ably to establish credibilty and enough local connections to carry out more of these projects.

God is in the details

20110630-210349.jpg I am sitting on the cheap but slow train from Malmö to Stockholm, where the French-owned operator is generous enough to include free wifi. But since I don't know what to use it for, I am using this delightful vacant time to read one of the the books I brought: Cradle to Cradle. Yes, as a manifesto for a cyclic and holistic approach to design it might be a bit dated; these days every other project on design blogs have feature which "give back" something to the environment they have been designed for.

One such example was a new type of concrete that absorbs Co2 from the air in the manufacturing process. More interestingly, the article was found in Wired magazine. You may excuse me for not being a dedicated Wired reader, but there is something refreshing about such an earthy piece of news in a magazine about the likes of Steve Jobs and Google-spinoffs.

As I am washed in broken sunset blaze spreading out across the Swedish Midlands I can't help but hope that there is a possible future when the stuff we create and consume actually are a part of the ecosystem. No doubt there is a long way to go, and all the plastic bags in the Pacific waste dump will never be safely incinerated, but as the public grows increasingly aware of the collective planetary impact of their individual behaviour, we stand a chance of making that fundamental shift needed to stay on this planet.

Re-quoting a 1992 conversation from the above mentioned book: Republican White House representative: " I see. You want an endangered species act for the whole world...and the devil is in the details". Evolutionary biologist: " No, Sir. God is in the details."

Whatever we do as designers, we'll never be able to match the almighty. So far, we have created such a gap between ourselves and nature that we have a lot of "giving back" to do before we can safely re-enter the eco system that surround us.

Unbuilt and rebuilt

Last week I was reading some references for my upcoming book project about Yongding river in western Beijing. One of them is Subnature by David Gissen, in which a number of "man-made" natures, the biological biproducts of urban activitites, are given special focus. In each chapter, Gissen retells the historical and philosophical background of a Subnature; how and in which context it has appeared in historical documents, how it has been used and viewed upon, and finally pairing it with one or a few contemporary projects which explore its architectural potential. The book devides these Subnatures into three categories: Atmospheres (Dankness, smoke, exhaust), Matter (Dust, debris, mud) and Life (weeds, pigeons, crowds).

Featured in the chapter about debris is Arata Isozakis Re-ruined Hiroshima from 1968, a project emerging from a mutual fascination for one the one hand ruins and on the other superstructures. In his collage the wasteland of post-nuclear Hiroshima provides a backdrop for these mysterious structures which, either appear to be constructed from the debris of the destroyed city, or, in a more fantastic interpretation, landed from above like an alien object, ready to redistribute themselves as the raw material for a new city fabric.

Either way, his striking view of this obliterated city seems curiously familiar when confronted with the desolate images inundating us, from the same country albeit further North. I am not someone to romanticize on destruction, especially with the (abstract) knowledge of how many lives were taken out and chronically disrupted by the earthquake and following tsunami. Yet one can't help start to wonder what kind of architectural response could be triggered by this devastating event.

 

If we conclude that the last decade in Japanese architecture has been characterized by playfulness, lightness and experimentation, it is also important to note that these tendencies to a large extent are restricted to a particular scale; that of single-family semi-detached suburban house. This limitation could of course be attributed to the level of development that Japan has reached, which on a larger scale has been coined the Japanese Economy Stagnation. In other words, large-scale construction is no longer a main component of the economy. Instead, the combination of a refined and well-educated middle-class and rather permitting urban policies have given rise to the continuous stream of meticulous photos of experimental houses reaching the laptops and coffee-table magazines of admiring (if not to say, jealous) architects around the world. Currently, though, we are perhaps not so jealous. The amount of damage done to the Japanese cities in the vicinity of the earthquake and tsunami are not small. Nevertheless, a few days after the earthquake, Japanese stocks were again rising because of the immanent need of reconstruction, which will generate well-needed growth to the economy.

Putting the economic issues aside, I am curious to see if and how our Japanese colleagues will change their practice in the coming years. Finally, an photo of Toyo Ito's Sendai Mediatheque after the earthquake. Badly damaged, it actually looks worse than it is, as the structure is still standing and most of the debris in the image seems to deriving from the suspended ceiling.

 

Revisited Mutations

Zhuhai - A city in the Pearl River Delta with "air so clean that it could be bottled and sold to other countries"

This afternoon when rereading Rem Koolhaas' text on the Pearl River Delta I was taken aback by this impressionist statement of the late 20th century (Originally from 1997, the text was published in Mutations (Actar, 2001)). What always strikes me about Rem's texts is their frankness; ultimately his ability to address an urban situation with the clarity of an overseas correspondent condensing a complex domestic situation into a three-minute recorded monologue. Explicitly, it is about finding keywords; in the case of his PRD Project on The City research, seventy-five of them.

Below are some of my favourite extracts:

"As a city, it represents nothing more or less than the coexistence of a number of apparently unconnected buildings which, by the simple fact of sharing a certain proximity, form an urban condition and which is inhabited without apparent anxiety."

"In China, curtain wall is sometimes pronounced "curtain war", and this has become one of our copyrighted terms: "The competition between architectures using the maximum variety that the glass-panel allows".

"Between the design of Central Park and our image of it, at least a hundred years went by. In Shenzhen, it only took seven."

"What does it mean to become Singapore? Here, above all, it has meant clearing unbelievable sections of ground in an orgy of tabula rasa where it seems as if the act of clearing becomes an act of faith. There is an apparently sacred pleasure in creating void spaces where tabula rasa is no longer an anticipation, but almost an autonomous condition."

"If China is destined to become a market economy, today it is only speculative and addressed to the rich. It is unthinkable that in the foreseeable future it will adopt certain things that we traditionally associate with the market economy, the first of which is profit. Here it is only a matter of speculation in terms of a future condition, linked perhaps to the incredible speculative energy of a communist system that always explained and amnestied the present with regard to an ideal future condition."

I cannot help but wonder what conclusions would be made if Rem and his research team returned to PRD ten years after (at least) these clear-cut statements and readdressed the situation. What predictions were correct? My impression is that most of the observations still are spot-on, while leaving a few of his comments on the speculative nature of the Chinese economy without further comment.