Archive for June, 2009

To Live

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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To Live
1994, 120 minutes
directed by:  Zhang Yimou

This is one of the most powerful, beautiful films I have ever seen.

It is the story of a small, Chinese family during the Cultural Revolution. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Prize, Best Actor (You Ge), and was second only to Pulp Fiction for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year it debuted. There may be no more powerful film than this one about a family caught in the wheels of history. Though the male lead, You Ge, won the Best Actor awards, the film is carried on the back of Gong Li,  who projects a quiet strength that few other actresses can. The title of the film, to live (huozhe), “conceals a universe,” as Roger Ebert put it.

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As China is currently experiencing incredible growth and expansion, it may well be worth remembering that the country has always grown in fits and spurts—conversely, it has also experienced periods of incredible backwardness. The idea of progress, inextricably tied to utopianism, has been used to justify all manner of political and social harm, of which the Cultural Revolution is but one recent example. It is a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.

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I remember my first trip to China several years ago, and being enthralled, disappointed, and just dumbfounded by the magnificence and potential of this rough, barely kept together coalition of 1.2 billion people. At one point I was at a street fair, and this vendor was selling turtles, about the size of a thumbnail, from a plastic tray the size of a dinner place setting. And there were hundreds of these turtles in that plastic tray, and only one rock. And for some reason or another, every little turtle in that tray wanted to be on that rock. And so the entire tray was just this mess of turtles clawing and swimming and climbing as if for their lives, all desperately trying to get some time out of the water and on that rock. I sat there and watched, for maybe 10 full minutes, my head not so far from the turtles, as one turtle’s paw would use another turtle’s head as a leverage point; as a little turtle eye would seem to get poked out, as one turtle would flip and fall down into the water tumbling over other turtles. And in that mess of hundreds of beings fighting so fiercely for so little resources, I thought, wow, this is China. If only I had another rock.

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In China, progress seemed to be measured quantitatively, as opposed to qualitatively. In Japan, progress seemed to be a matter of how a new product, experience, or service affected life. You could see it in each piece of sushi crafted by a chef, or by the music, film, video, and advertising that vied for your attention on the confident, strutting streets of Tokyo. But in China, there was no strutting, the people didn’t seem confident, and there were the quiet reminders of desperation that couldn’t be kept hidden (amputees and homeless single mothers begging on every corner). And yet the buildings are being built at what must be literal break-neck speed. And as Chinese companies are starting to appear on international markets–Chery, Lenovo–they do so not by virtue of their innovation or technology, but by their ability to just produce more, cheaper. It’s hard for me to imagine China becoming the next world power anytime soon because of the incredible lack of creativity and ingenuity that seems to be the result of the last generations’ Cultural Revolution. Because isn’t today’s most important export Culture? And it seems like it will take another government in another generation to reverse the astounding wrongs of the last.

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As China experiences another one of its periods of intense growth, of which it has had similar periods before, it may be important to remember the power of our ideas, to question the role architects have in the built environment, and the families who are affected by it.

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(originally written in 2008)

Afterparty

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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In other “architectural” news, the firm of MOS (based out of Yale and Harvard) recently opened their installation for the PS1 Warm-Up parties, titled “Afterparty.” The photos above and below are via Flickr: downtownblue.

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It cuts both ways. . .

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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There are times when one feels utterly powerless against greater forces: in a perfectly played but losing hand of poker; in the passing of a completely unremarkable milestone birthday; or watching the passing of another historical moment that seems to gain no ground for the very idea of an expressive humanity.

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It pains one to see the tides of history sweep past unregarded citizens who were supposed to be its beneficiaries, and even more so when we had supposedly entered a new age where technological mediums rendered the oppressive techniques of the past obsolete. I wrote about this a bit in my review of the WWII-era surveillance film, The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), an excellent film.

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My studies had been roughly focused on the intersection of architecture and media–or, slightly more specifically,  between the intersection of film and architecture. My thesis is/was that changing modes of communication affect the way we inhabit, experience, and express space. This was borne from readings of McLuhan, Mario Carpo, Adorno, and extrapolated, used to explain the historical significance of architects such as Alberti, Le Corbusier, and Eisenman.

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Early on, many people pointed to the significance of new media to seeming alter the course of history. But as this article in Slate, titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized,”  argued, the new technology cut both ways. The same technology that could enable people could also be disabling. Yes, twitter was used to report on occurrences and organize groups of people, and major international news providers using video from cell phones as primary sources was no longer remarkable. But the chaos from so many “tweets” actually increased the confusion, and the government reportedly began using surveillance along with web volunteers to identify and imprison protesters. And because of the lack of true anonymity on the internet (tweets and postings can be traced), many citizens feel powerless or afraid of saying anything. Which exactly how they were supposed to not feel.  “The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced.”

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In other words, top-down oppression lives on, and the anti-hierarchical digitopia remains (at this point) another castle in the sky. Which can be seen as one of the oldest stories in the book. In fact, up until recently, the standard bearer for historical mass-oppression was China. Think of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, or the Three Gorges Dam project. The effect of these historical drives towards “revolutionary” ideas on individuals is difficult to begin express, but I’ve probably seen no greater filmic attempt than Zhang Yi Mou’s To Live (1994), which I will review in a following post as part of my ongoing “The Future is Asian” film architecture series.

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As I write in that review, the story of a small Chinese family through the middle Twentieth Century serves “a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.” It is an example of the attempt to affect change upon a certain scale, and how the scale and locale of our actions may be the most important thing we consider as citizens of a community. It nevertheless remains difficult to sit by, at whatever distance has been made possible by the contemporary medium, and read/watch/surf/blog/twit about the actions of a few which seem to bring strife to so many. It feels as if I am literally watching walls being erected between people, and knowing that so many hearts are being broken at once. What has changed?

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The images throughout this post are from Shawn Rocco, a photographer who uses a cell phone as his medium. Yes,  a cell phone was used to capture all of the above images (a Motorola E815, to be precise). More info about Shawn can be found on his blog called cellular obscura.

Iranian Architect

Friday, June 19th, 2009

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Not too long ago, I wrote briefly about the political implications of design ideology and practice, couched in a review of my experience at a particularly good restaurant. What I wrote is that “[architecture] 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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I don’t know how I feel about that last statement now, but it has come to my attention that Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition candidate in the recent Iranian elections, is a trained (and practicing) architect. This was brought to my attention by one of my favorite blogs, the A/N Blog (a web component of the print publication Architects Newspaper).

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This follows from a New York Times article published a couple of days ago, which called Moussavi “a soft-spoken architect who loves to watch movies at home and was overshadowed for years by his distinguished wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a professor and artist.” It also mentioned that Moussavi considered Renzo Piano a primary influence, spent most of his time studying painting and architecture, and has a daughter who is a nuclear physicist.

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The A/N Blog also posted a link to a blog, Tehran 24, that posted some photographs of some of Moussavi’s most recent completed building, the Iran Art Portico in Tehran (I’ve posted the photos here), as well as reported that Moussavi graduated with a Masters in Architecture from Shahid Beheshti University.

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Middle-eastern architecture is woefully understudied, and I’d love to see/know more about it.

New York Asian Film Festival

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Yoroi Samurai Zombie

“Blissfully free from the constraints of good taste,” says the New York Times. About what are they referring to? Well, in this case, it’s the selection of films from the annual New York Asian Film Festival, running from today (June 19, 2009) until July 5th at the IFC Center and the Japan Society. Above and below are some film stills from selected movies from the festival.

All Around Us

Though I’m woefully delinquent in posting ongoing reviews for my current theme, “The Future is Asian,” this festival is a great event for what is turning out to be a monsoon season for New York City. When it is supposed to be thunderstorming all weekend, watching a blissfully taste-free movie is a nice way to tuck in from the rain.

Love Exposure

Seriously, it’s been raining here in New York for the past month every day, it seems. I’m from Portland, Oregon, where people always tell me that it rains a lot, but it actually rains more in New York City and Boston than it does in Portland. I think it’s because the  Pacific Northwest climate is so mild, there is really nothing to say about it except that it rains occasionally. And Portland rarely gets snow, so the winters are about rain, which is fine, but at least in the summers it doesn’t get incredibly humid and rainy like it does here in New York.  So, yeah. That’s how I feel about that.

Cloud Architecture

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Blur Building

Clouds have always held a certain fascination for architects. This may be understandably unremarkable, because I believe clouds hold a certain fascination for everybody. How many hours were spent as a youth staring at clouds, lying in the grass in a field, through the window of a car on a long drive, or simply through the bedroom windows on a lazy sunday? Diller & Scofidio created their Blur Building (see above) as a deliberate and stunningly literal interpretation of “cloud architecture,” and Wolf Prix’s firm’s name Coop Himmelb(l)au translates to “Blue Cloud Cooperative” in his native Austrian (he also designs slightly less literal physical approximations of clouds–see below).

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But cloud architecture has a slightly different meaning today, and this is what I want to draw attention to here. In Tom Vanderbilt’s article in the New York Times Magazine, titled “Datatecture,” he delves into the world of data centers that are silently and conspicuously popping up throughout the country (including many near Portland, OR, from where I’m posting today). Data centers such as these are “like Fight Club; the first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.” Accompanying this article are some beautiful photographs by Simon Norfolk (see below). This is what cloud architecture looks like today. Very white, but not as fluffy.

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The article begins with an anectdote about the online community of people playing a particular Xbox game (over 60,000 at his precise instant, a number which is equivalent to the size of a small suburb community), and a moment spent wondering about where exactly these people were. In no less reducible terms, they exist in these data centers–these warehouses of servers that worldwide consume more energy than the entire country of Sweden. This “cloud,” which represents nothing less than the future of information, media, and technology, uses 1-2% of all the energy produced in the world and has doubled in the past five years, according to the article.

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In a way, what this points towards is a slightly changing idea of materiality (dare I say metaphysicality?). That was what was so brilliant about Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building (top), which was as direct and confrontational a challenge to architecture as we’ve previously defined it, even though many contemporary practitioners, including by Rem Koolhaas or Lebbeus Woods have attempted to do so in other, various ways. The blunt numbers, facts and statistics about data centers are surprising only in that they begin to illuminate a changing realm of media (the internet) that is beginning to have very physical, material impacts upon our environment. At this point, I can’t help but bring up Keller Easterling, whose writings tangentially approach these non-national, extra-infrastructural, “ecology of interrelationships and linkages.” In many ways, these ideas are in pointed contrast to the awarding of this year’s Pritzker Prize to Peter Zumthor, who works with a very different idea of materiality. Are those ideas mutually exclusive?

Public Service Announcement

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

I have a lot I’ve promised you I would post, including a review of (the now almost inconsequential) Terminator Salvation, a missive on Damien Hirst and his work, “For the Love of God” (see previous post), as well as some new “The Future is Asian” themed film architecture reviews. I also saw the mind-blowingly great Picasso show at the Gagosian in New York this weekend, “Mosqueteros,” and would like to record my thoughts on that as well.

But in the meantime, I thought I would post this quick link to one of my favorite childhood media figures.

“Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

What does this have to do with media, architecture, or design? You tell me.