Archive for the ‘urbanism’ Category

In the Heat of the Sun

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

HeatoftheSun

In the Heat of the Sun

1994, 134 minutes
directed by:  Wen Jiang

As the first half of “The Future is Asian” theme drew heavily from the genre of “Asian Extreme” films, the rest of the films I will write about explore what could be called a more poetic sensibility about place, history, and landscape. These are films more concerned with la poetique de la situation, to borrow the phrase that Jean Nouvel, who was awarded the 2008 Pritzker Prize, uses to describes the focus of his architectural ambition. Last time I wrote about the brilliant film by Zhang Yimou, To Live, and this week is an equally well regarded film by Wen Jiang; even though it didn’t receive wide distribution in America, Time magazine called it the best film of 1995.

Huangbaiyu Village--a controversial model sustainable city by William McDonough

Huangbaiyu Village--a controversial model sustainable city by William McDonough

The very nature of China is an interrogation of the concept of scale. In China we are confronted with the reality that contemporary technology has allowed fewer and fewer individuals to affect greater and greater environmental change. Entire cities are designed by single architects due to the policies of a small ruling class in unchecked control of the world’s most populous nation. The issue of scale may be the most important lesson an architect can learn—it is no less than a sense of space itself and an understanding of our power and limitations as agents of change.

Rem Koolhaas w/ Madelon Vriesendorp, City of the Captive Globe, 1972

Rem Koolhaas w/ Madelon Vriesendorp, City of the Captive Globe, 1972

It is fairly surprising to realize that Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 book Delirious New York, and his following S,M,L,XL, was the first time that the issue of technology and scale in the relation to the contemporary metropolis was theorized. He called it “bigness,” but it essentially gave us a way to understand cities, and thereby buildings, as they have become manifest due to the influence of elevators and mechanization. However, developments since those books have left us with a new theoretical hole. If Rem’s “Captive Globe” project and Met Life diagram talked about the stacking and layering of discrete, autonomous spaces, then the internet, wi-fi, mobile com, and satellites have further reshaped space. What is the model or diagram of space under those technologies? Where is the XXL chapter?

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier), Plan Voisin, 1925

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier), Plan Voisin, 1925

It’s a simple question, but it has no simple answer. Le Corbusier, at the beginning of the 20th century, looked at the emerging technology of automobiles and airplanes and thought that cities must necessarily change. He shopped his ideas around to car companies to sponsor his research. After being rejected everywhere else, one French automobile company named Voisin bought it, and funded his design. He produced what we now study as the Plan Voisin for Paris. However, his ideas that the automobile eradicated the need for adjacency and proximity proved false, and cities like New Haven are formed in part by the ideological bastard children of that initial idea. He was right that the car, plane, and cinema would change the way we experience space, but not in the ways that he initially imagined.

Howeler Yoon's Eco-Pods, project for a tower in Boston using an "algae bioreactor," 2009

Howeler Yoon's Eco-Pods, project for a tower in Boston using an "algae bioreactor," 2009

For instance, it has been argued before that electronic communication and cell phones reduce the need for traditional, mechanical transportation such as cars and jets. People can stay at home and telecommute. However, if that were the case, and e-mail is becoming more and more ubiquitous, then wouldn’t that lead one to believe that we would need fewer airplanes and fewer airports? We know that is not the case, so the question remains: how does this new technology shape our space? Does it at all?

Collapsed building, Shanghai, 2009

Collapsed building, Shanghai, 2009

No contemporary urban theory even begins to know how to address China. Nobody offers either a position or a guide to base critical thinking, and thus cities and buildings are being changed without us. Asia is where these architectural challenges are being presented and where our future lies. It is in this way that the future is Asian.

-    quang truong (originally written April, 2008)

PDX

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

pdx2

If The New York Times was a Williamsburg hipster, Portland, Oregon would be its Asian girlfriend. I have never seen such unbridled journalistic fetishism of a town before. Not that it’s necessarily undeserved. Asian girls can be cute and design-y. Portland can be, too. Portland is like Brooklyn’s younger, less self-conscious, equally precocious, milder and fairer sibling.

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I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and now live in Brooklyn, which I love for all of the same qualities that Portland has in abundance: young, entrepreneurial kids, an ethos of self-reliance and independence, a collegial atmosphere and the indie mindset that comes from being in the shadows of flashier metropolises (Manhattan and Seattle, respectively). There is a focus on food, art, design, books and bikes that gets lost in the preening bling-bling of those older metropolis siblings. So this is just a shout-out to two great cities: Brooklyn and Portland.

brooklyn

(images from The New York Times)

Urban Palimpsest

Friday, April 24th, 2009
Photo: Matt Chaban

Photo: Matt Chaban

I’ve always thought the visual presence of disobediance was an indication of a functioning, healthy city. Too much is obviously bad, but too little is also disturbing. Graffiti, and other sorts of non-violent expression, indicates a certain amount of vibrant contrarian thinking and improvised, unauthorial artistic expression. This balance between authority (planner/designer) and improvisation (participant/user) was the driving force behind some of my earliest architectural projects.

BASQUIAT EXHIBIT

keithharing

So it is with a certain amount of disappointment, dismay, and resignation that I heard about the graffiti cleanup that is occuring right now along the new High Line in New York. I have mixed feelings about DS+R and Field Operations‘ design for the High Line, despite my high regard for both firms (I feel like there were better proposals from other firms), and I’ve written a little about the High Line before, but it is sad to me that there is still a lack of discussion in the public sphere about the merits of this sort of “street art,” despite the efforts of a few high-profile artists over a few generations now: Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 70s and 80s, but more recently Banksy, Dash Snow, and other contemporary “graffiti artists.”

Photo: Matt Chaban

Photo: Matt Chaban

I guess the best we can hope for at this point is that somebody does document what is literally being painted over as we speak.

Via A/N Blog.

Memories of Murder

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

memories2

Memories of Murder
2003, 130 minutes
directed by:  Bong Joon-ho

A friend and I recently had a conversation about the contemporary artist John Currin. He has had feature articles written about him for several years now, including one in the New Yorker, which is no small feat for an American painter alive and working today. He’s a graduate of Yale’s MFA program (Mafia of Art) and a critical darling. In short, he’s received no small amount of critical and professional success.

john-currin

However, there’s something palpably underwhelming about his work. It sometimes feels like what he’s doing is the art world equivalent of a PhD thesis. It’s intelligent and it represents diligent, hard work, but there’s no energy or fire. There’s no brashness. There’s no urgency. There’s nothing in them that really represents a real risk of failure. I don’t mean to single out John Currin for this, for I certainly like and respect his work. I think what is unsettling is the issue of risk. I think the Spanish have a word for it: cojones.

koolhaas_jussieu

In a way, the architects we reference the most were almost unpalatably punk in their youth—the competition-rule-breaking entries of early Rem Koolhaas, the suburban house by Frank Gehry, the distressed drawings of Thom Mayne, the paintings of Zaha Hadid, or the art and dance installations of Diller & Scofidio. They gained attention because they were desperately searching for a way around the established methods to get towards something more honest and expressive. That in the end is what creativity is, and that is why we know them today.

photo

Several years ago, when Jackie Chan made his first American production movie, several interviewers asked Jackie what the difference was between making a movie in America versus making a movie in Hong Kong. Well, Jackie said, the difference was that in America, the movie-makers actually think about things like safety, preparation, planning, and insurance. There is a whole industry that revolves around making sure people don’t get hurt. Apparently, in contrast, back in Hong Kong, somebody would dream up a stunt, no matter how insane, and whoever had the balls would just get up and try to do it on film. If that person got hurt, they would just get another guy. If, after a few maimed guys, they decided the stunt was probably impossible, they would just think of another stunt. And so a movie got made. In short, that was the path to success for Jackie Chan, who literally started his career as a stuntman, and apparently was the guy who survived all the stunts.

jackie_chan2

It seems there is no shortage of Asian people willing to do stupid things at a moment’s notice—which is precisely why it’s so exciting. Asia is producing so much: not only in terms of products, but most importantly, in terms of ideas. As I’ve written before, this is why Asia warrants attention; not only because new stuff is being done in Asia, but also because new ways of interpreting and expressing that stuff are being formulated. Asia is just so punk.

memories

The director Bong Joon-ho became famous most recently for his film, The Host, the highest grossing film of all time in South Korea, which the New York Times called a “feverishly imaginative genre hybrid.” This film, Memories of Murder, is arguably a better, more inventive and surprising film. That’s why, comparatively, the artist John Currin just feels like reading a good academic paper. He just went through all the established, formulaic steps to become a good considerate, professional artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

American IV

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

933037_20080320_screen017

I’ve written before about the emerging importance of video games as a medium, but I recently came across a great article in Time magazine about one specific game, Grand Theft Auto.

There isn’t much that I can really add to that article, but I remember walking around New York last summer when the GTA IV ads were all over the city and thinking about how wonderful it was that such a brilliant and ambitious work of art such as GTA IV was able to advertise itself with such prominence (see below). Because of the thematic nature of GTA, these things didn’t feel like advertisements: they felt like a narrative layering on top of the cultural atmosphere of New York. They insinuated themselves into the culture-scape of the city. There was something so uncanny, surreal (and dare I say meta) about it: a video game whose subject was the American Dream, based in a fictionalized New York City, being advertised in the “real” New York City.

From Nicknoromal via Flickr

From Nicknormal via Flickr

Imagine William Faulkner being advertised and celebrated on a scale like this in Mississippi, or Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. . .

zumthor1

Artists and architects have been trying to develop new ways to understand the city since the dawn of, well, history. The Situationists in the 50′s and 60′s used new media techniques (collage, montage, and psychotropics) to attempt to better represent and understand the city, and some of their documents are equal parts beautiful and challenging.

debord

There have been a number of articles that have talked about the way Grand Theft Auto represents the city. It’s more than I want to get into at this point, but I think it may be helpful to point out that not too long ago another medium was struggling for artistic relevance, dealing with issues that seemed outside of propriety and taste, and was starting to develop novel techniques to address those issues. That’s right, I’m talking about film; and I think the Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver is a good analog to compare Grand Theft Auto. It helps that both Taxi Driver and Grand Theft Auto share certain thematic ideas about the American city in general and New York City in particular.

taxidriver

It struck me that this may be a golden period for video games, much like the one enjoyed by movies in the 70′s  (a period where directors were working under a studio system that was flush with cash and willing to gamble on unproven talent): it is clear that video games are worth commercial investment, yet because the field is so young there isn’t an established authority to dictate the way that the medium will progress. In essence, video game creators are working with nearly unlimited means and almost no authority. No ivy towers, no establishment, no metaphorical patriarchs. One of the game’s creators says in the article that, “It’s not academicized; there’s no orthodoxy on how things are done, so we can do whatever we want. We make it up as we go along! As soon as we get told, ‘Yes, games are high art. They’re almost as high as painting and slightly less than dance,’ it’s over. Freedom is dead at that point. Then the argument just becomes about people’s egos.”

933037_20080320_screen004

I love Grand Theft Auto and can’t say enough about the game itself and the ambitions it represents.

The Future is Asian

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Poster_Spring2008

This next theme for this blog’s Film Architecture series is “The Future is Asian,” and will review a selection of films from various East Asian countries in an exploration of the cinematic products of a region of the world experiencing rapid economic and cultural change. Cities are being designed, developed and built at a heretofore unprecedented size and scale in Asia; it is a scale of architecture and planning for which we have as yet no theories. It is the missing XXL in Rem’s compendium of scales; it is the asymptotic limit to which no European dogma has a response. Right now, we have no criteria or ideas by which to judge, critique, or evaluate what is going on in the East. To put it academically, nobody knows what to say about Asia.

This selection of films, then, will attempt to survey the culture-scape of certain East Asia countries through their films—a contemporary medium which traffics their images, projections, fears, ideas, and narratives. Certain cinematic themes and tendencies are starting to emerge from Asian films which are having a broader impact upon the world than the previous generation of Asian films. Akira Kurosawa, for instance, was critically canonized but never really broadly imitated here in America; whereas 2007’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to an Asian film remade by Martin Scorsese (The Departed was a direct remake of Hong Kong filmmaker Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs), and the current spate of horror and suspense films such as The Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call, the Saw or the Hostel series are all either directly influenced by or literal remakes of Asian films. Accordingly, one focus of this semester’s theme will be on what has been loosely dubbed “Asian Extreme” films. These are films that have a level of violence—emotional, physical, sexual, or otherwise—which has surpassed anything imagined anywhere else. To anyone who has experienced the machinic orderliness of Tokyo to the “anything-goes” atmosphere of Seoul, these are the cultures which have been exporting the ideas and imagination that shapes the way the cities of tomorrow will be materialized. As architects, our responsibility is to shape the future of the built environment with our ideas, our skills, and our judgment. As such, it’s important that we give more than a passing glance towards Asia. The past is European. The future is Asian.

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Today’s post comes from Tala Gharagozlou, currently a graduate student of architecture at Yale.

Via Gizmodo

Via Gizmodo

i fell in love with the first cute girl that i met/
who could appreciate georges bataille/
standing at swedish festival discussing the ‘story of the eye’

–of Montreal

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

This was the subject heading of an e-mail from a friend of mine, a couple of days ago, Feb. 9th, 2009.

And of course, there were links to the photos of the CCTV’s unloved sibling immolating.

I was working in the architecture studio and the entire studio was of course abuzz within a few minutes of the event. But the pun on Bataille stuck with me for most of the day. This is after all, Yale University, and nerdy jokes take a strange life of their own.

Photos have been streaming in of this eerily “beautiful” spectacle. Jokes have been flying about what sort of fabulously bombastic manifesto Rem might make of this event, while others are about Ole Scheeren crying in Maggie Cheung’s arms.

Such a hubristic project is easy to mock, especially in the current times of economic gloom.

Yales A&A Building after the fire

Yale's A&A Building after the fire

But after all, the Yale School of Architecture is housed in one of the most emblematic buildings possible: Paul Rudolph’s A&A (I will never get used to the “Paul Rudolph Hall” name, btw. Will anyone ever call the CCTV the Rem Koolhaas Tower?? I doubt it, but Yale is a whole other type of totalitarian regime, thanks to a certain R.A.M.S…).

The burning of the A&A occurred at one of the most intense moments of social turmoil in America and on university campuses. The 1969 fire left the A&A battered, and it only survived due to a series of structural additions. Much has been made of the recent renovation project by Gwathmey/Siegel, but the fire itself remains a small source of fascination, especially because of what some students secretly felt was a justified sign to move on from a certain generation of patriarchs…

In a similar way, people have been wondering out loud if anybody even cared to “save” the CCTV? But as Bataille would put it, what would there be to save? CCTV was there to exist as the only voice. OMA’s pair of buildings has epitomized a certain architecture’s refusal to “serve” society. The CCTV is known as the building that has used the greatest amount of steel ever in history, for example. Its foundations are the size of several football fields (ask Cecil Balmond for the details here).

banksy_cctv

Architecture can be interpreted as the image society would like to see of itself. But Bataille is fascinated with the Aztec temples [see “Extinct America”]. Fearless of this relation between society and the death of the individual, Aztec architecture is purely dedicated to the immolation of individuals as well. The Aztecs “neglected to put in place the infrastructures that would have secured its future” and their architecture represented that. In many ways, CCTV’s is the symbol of China’s disregard for any idea of progressive institutions and a capacity to heedlessly build its own Capitalist guillotine.

So after all, could Beijing’s inhabitants feel slightly bad about this fire? The spectacle of architecture burning always holds the anxious sign that we can do little to go beyond death.

p339103-mexico-aztec_temple

On a side note, thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker for making “critical theory a little easier to use on dates.”

–Tala Gharagozlou

Pants on Fire

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009
Via Shanghaiist

Via Shanghaiist

The Chinese have nicknamed Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Building in Beijing “Big Pants,” or “Big Shorts,” and as many Western news outlets reported yesterday, it caught on fire (or, the adjacent building, part of the same complex, did, apparently due to some errant fireworks). The Chinese media, which is controlled by CCTV, of course, tried to hide that news.

Several years ago, Rem famously directed his studio, OMA, to avoid the competition being held to redesign the World Trade Center and instead focus on building this building. He famously said it was due to a fortune cookie that they received while discussing the decision over some Chinese food. Supposedly, the fortune cookie read: “Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Minced Meat of Memory.” You can read his “Beijing Manifesto,” published in Wired magazine, here.

First of all, when has anybody ever received a fortune cookie written like that???

rem-content

Secondly, what I originally considered a brilliant move on Rem’s part, to avoid the WTC re-design debacle, was neutralized by his decision to design a monument to the totalitarianism of China (and moreover, to the information/media-controlling arm of totalitarian China). What Rem didn’t seem to realize was that the symbolism of the form of the CCTV tower (so obviousy a product of the blue-foam design school of OMA) carried no meaning when plopped into the context of China and Beijing.

Rem himself writes in his manifesto: “First, was it merely a landmark, one more alien proposal of meaningless boldness? Was its structural complexity simply irresponsible?” He doesn’t really answer himself, except to say that “A refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense could foreclose China’s architectural potential.” Architectural potential to do what?

burj_dubai1

He has mentioned elsewhere that this CCTV building “killed the skyscraper,” because it doesn’t participate in the race towards higher and higher buildings (for the most ridiculous example of this, see the Burj Dubai). But it nevertheless is a close to 2 million square foot complex (180,000 square meters), making it one of the biggest buildings, regardless of height. The building also uses no small amount of steel for its structural hijinks. In the end, it seems like the old debate about length versus girth.

Anyhow, as reporters noted, many of the Beijingers watching noted that the fire was “inauspicious,” occuring as it did at the end of the New Year’s celebrations. Well, inauspicious it may be, but it also seems shockingly predictable.

Speed, Space, Structure, and Sounds

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

planvoisin

Sometimes I think it’s easy to imagine the enthusiasm that Le Corbusier must have had when he began to imagine the city under the influence of those two technologies of the early 20th century–the car and cinema. His Plan Voisin for Paris was named for the automobile company that bankrolled that project, after all. And his most famous residence, the Villa Savoye, was designed with both the automobile and the movie camera in mind, as Le Corbusier showed in his film, L’architecture d’aujourd’hui. And many of you know that in plan, the radius of that curve on the ground floor was exactly the radius of the turning circle of a Citroen car. It was a very precise and deliberate architectural gesture towards the impact of technology and media on a building in particular, and to urbanism in general.

411px-lallement-bicycle-patent-1866

It’s funny to think that the automobile and the bicycle were invented around the same time–I tend to think that an invention like the bicycle has been around since the dawn of time. But it hasn’t, and it’s sort of exciting to think of the way cities were experienced differently with that technology. A city biked is vastly different than a city walked, which is different than a city driven through, which is different than a city subway-ed.

For a time, my brother was a serious skateboarder, and he used to watch skateboarding videos in lieu of doing almost everything else (studying, eating, sleeping). And it was amazing to see the particular way cities were represented in those skater videos–through the fisheye lens,gliding across pavement (and only pavement) with considerable velocity, using the structure and space in a way that was probably more vibrant and energetic than what the architecture was originally designed for in the first place. In fact, skateboarding was how my brother saw cities. To my chagrin, in every city we visited on our cross country road trips, he knew of only the spots featured in those videos. You’ve never seen somebody so excited to see a certain flight of stairs and handrails. He avoided the museums and the usual spots, asking only to see the public schools or the under-bridge concrete parks. More recently, at the Richard Meier office, one of my coworkers recently put together a video of himself and his brother in Tennessee (spliced with my favorite song of right now, MGMT’s “Kids”). In the not-too-distant future, I can’t imagine a more fitting urban document of these times than these skateboarding videos.



In a way, it’s a creative and spatially pure way to experience a city. It’s outside of the proscribed “program” of a city, using your own locomotion and senses. It’s purely speed, space, and structure. One of my first architectural projects tried to wrestle with the way “neglected” areas of New Haven eventually found their own uses. I studied the graffiti of the area as well as watched some parkour videos (there is an amazing parkour video below). In all of these cases, the best environments seemed to happen by chance, or through a fortuitous combination of cirumstances. Rarely was a vibrant, energetic spot designed to be that way–it was more like the users made it that way through their own improvisation. In the life of the city, the buildings and structures recede, foregrounding the people and the activities. It impressed upon me how difficult it is for architecture to intentionally improve the environment–sometimes it seems as if the best architecture simply disappears.


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something beautiful

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

bluejakedotcomThese small photographs on my blog don’t do it justice. See some great urban photography here.