Archive for March, 2009

Momofuku Ko

Monday, March 30th, 2009

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I had the chance to dine at Momofuku Ko a couple of weeks ago, and I still can’t get the experience out of my head. It was a deliriously good time. You see, recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about food and its relation to design. I was first made aware of this connection years ago, when it seemed every other successful, interesting restaurant was run by a former architect.  This was the case with such famous restaurants such as The Slanted Door in San Francisco (run by chef Charles Phan, with an architecture degree from UCBerkeley), Freeman’s in NYC (run by Taavo Somer, who did a stint at Steven Holl’s office), BarBao (run by former architect Michael Bao) in NYC, and several others.

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I’ve also been reading about food almost exclusively lately, most recently Heat, by former New Yorker editor Bill Buford, and the life-changing book by Michael Pollan, the Omnivore’s Dilemma. I highly recommend both to anybody.

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I don’t really know where to begin in talking about how interconnected I feel are the pursuits of food-making and architecture. I could talk about the work that is involved in making something so seemingly simple–in Bill Buford’s book, an entire lifetime isn’t enough to learn how to make pasta properly, and analagously, architects often lament/boast about the extended hours demanded by the profession (and rightly so). Ambitious chefs pay for expensive schooling, then intern in foreign locales for no pay, and then work 16 hour days for many years in the kitchens of famous chefs. Architects do almost exactly the same thing. But this isn’t exclusive to architecture and cooking; especially in New York City, it’s easy to see so many people who are working so hard for such varied passions, food and design among them.

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There is also something incredibly holistic about both fields, if seen through the right lens. Michael Pollan, in the first few chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, manages to directly link agri-business to the military-industrial complex (and all of its geopolitical machinations). And it’s not far-fetched once you go through the logic of his argument. In essence, it has to do with commercial fertilizer, because fertilizer is a petroleum product. So he can successfully argue that the culinary and gustatory choices we make have wide-ranging implications on the world around us. Alice Waters and others have argued similar ideas. And I totally back it.

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Architecture, once you become attuned to the way in which it is connected to people and goverments and environments, operates in much a similar way. Design choices can take on the weight of a moral imperative, and I don’t mean this lightly or glibly, any more than saying that what you eat has political and philosophical ramifications. Architecture, at its most fundamental level, involves how we interact with our environment. It is a mediated interaction, and careful practitioners of architecture have argued beautifully for a wide-ranging spectrum of sociopolitical and philosophical imperatives, of which I believe they are fully justified in doing so.

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But this is all much heavier than I wanted this discussion to turn out. I began by talking about the joy of eating at Momofuku, and I guess this moment would be a good time to talk about the real, fundamental reason why I think architects and food often go together: because both are just such wonderfully sensual endeavors. Both architecture and eating involve a multiplicity of sensual stimulation. The experience of space involves something, that to me, seems like more than the sum of our five senses could register. The experience of a human body in the environment is the medium of the architect. The inverse is the case with food–cuisine is about the feel of the environment within us. A well cooked meal or a sumptuously built space is as profound an experience as is available to human being, and that is enough said.

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P.S.: The food images are courtesy of Tina, who runs a wonderful blog called The Wandering Eater. She graciously let me use her beautiful photos. Here is her post on her experience at Ko. Tina explains what exactly goes into a typical meal at Ko. Those ingredients, that preparation, and the execution: it is all so simple, yet carries so many ideas.

P.P.S.: At one point, I wanted to talk about David Chang, the chef at Momofuku, a Korean-American, and the vibrantly Asian-French-American food at Momofuku. In this way, it is tangentially related to my Film Architecture theme, “The Future is Asian.” The Momofuku restaurants are a phenomenon that seems an uncannily prescient sign of the times and the place (New York City). As one restaurant critic said about Momofuku, “only in America.”

The Gugger

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

guggenheim_2046_491025There is a show right now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City that is sort of related to my current Film Architecture theme, The Future is Asian. It is called “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia,” and the exhibitions’ webpage is here.

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The quality of the Guggenheim’s gallery spaces notwithstanding, it’s appropriate that the exhibition is being mounted in a Frank Lloyd Wright building, for FLW himself was heavily influenced by Asian artists. He was an avid collector of Japanese painting and prints (at one point supporting his architectural practice by dealing in Japanese prints), and some of his works show a very distinct Asian influence. Below is his Imperial Hotel near Nagoya, Japan.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, however, wasn’t explicity featured in the “Third Mind” exhibition (you could argue that the museum itself was a sort of third presence in the exhibition). In fact, I think the one impression I was left with during and after the show was the impossibilty of the curatorial mission. Imagine you are to select 100 pieces of artwork that are supposed to demonstrate the influence of Asia (already a dubious concept) on America (another dubious concept). Who do you select? Who do you leave out? What constitues an “Asian influence?” A specfic sort of minimalism? Or a brand of expressionism? Or a strain of geometric patterning? It just leaves me wondering, What is Asian? What is American? And boy, the Guggenheim NY sucks for displaying art.

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However, this isn’t to say the exhibition wasn’t worthwhile. Museums are always fun (at least to me, minus the fact that you have to trek all the way up to the Upper East Side). Though there certainly were some headscratching works,  there were a handful of transcendent works from Agnes Martin and Hiroshi Sugimoto, as always, but whose works don’t duplicate well (you have to stand in front of them). Nothing Asian or American about it. Simply transcendent.

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Memories of Murder

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Oldboy

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

oldboy

Oldboy
2003, 120 minutes
directed by: Park Chan-wook

Oldboy, a film from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, was a film powerful enough to generate two immense waves of infamy and notoriety. The first came when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where the jury, chaired by Quentin Tarantino, awarded Oldboy the Grand Prix, which led to a cavalcade of praise for the film as being the preeminent film in a new wave of significant South Korean films. South Korea, as anyone who owns a LG cellphone, Samsung television, or Hyundai car, or has looked around the graduate school studios lately, is well aware of South Korea’s burgeoning economic and cultural development. In a way, the critical reception to Oldboy as a significant film was essentially a ratification of the international importance of South Korea; for we know today that the most important exports of any country are not necessarily its economic products, but its cultural products. The ability of a country to successfully export its ideas and images is essentially what distinguishes First World countries from others.

From The New Yorker

From The New Yorker

The second wave of publicity for Oldboy came in the spring of 2007, when someone drew parallels between the violence in this South Korean film to the South Korean background of the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shooting. The idea that media is responsible for violence seemingly has its own specific historiography, from Mark David Chapman’s Catcher in the Rye, John Hinckley’s Taxi Driver, Charles Manson and the Beatles, to the Columbine killers and the music of Marilyn Manson. Nevertheless, Oldboy is certainly spectacularly violent, to a level literally unacceptable in America, as evidenced in one of the tamer scenes where the main actor, Choi Min-sik, eats a live octopus on camera.

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There is one thing I wanted to note about this movie, and it relates to the previous post about Grand Theft Auto. In one scene, the way the camera and the actors move through space, as far as I’m aware,  is fairly original. Or, I should say, fairly original for a movie. A clip of the scene is embedded below, and as the scene unfolds, the camera scrolls across the space horizontally. This may feel uncanny to some of you, and if it does, it may be because this type of tracking shot and space is very distinctly the space of video games from the 1990s (Double Dragon for the NES is a good example of this type of side-scrolling video game space). Space is practically two-dimensional, and it was a result of the limitations of the computer science at the time. It was space as a result of a technological handicap. However, to create this kind of space cinematographically requires an incredible amount of planning, building, and executing. Imagine the set that was built for this scene!

There have been other movies since that used a similar style of ‘side scrolling’ cinematography, most notably Zack Snyder in 300. It’s odd, because in the past, video game designers have always imitated film directors. The first video games to attempt cinematographical space and movement stole directly from Akira Kurosawa’s films (I’m thinking of the Final Fantasy games here in particular). But as video games have expanded their abilities to describe and conceptualize space, it seems like film directors have started imitating video games.

For many reasons, Oldboy is a film that has generated a lot of dialogue, and serves as a great introduction to this film architecture series and the cinema of South Korea.