Posts Tagged ‘architecture’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I choose impermanent subjects, such as water, and try to draw energy from the effort to harness the uncontrollable; then I funnel that energy into my architectural work, where I still seek to wield control but real-world compromises are inevitable. So, both fields are ways in which I try to control the uncontrollable. But painting is a contained, personal world in which I can actually succeed in this effort. Architecture, on the other hand, lives in the sprawling, messy world “out there” where such control isn’t possible.
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.
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???
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?
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.
The Lives of Others
(Das Leben der Anderen)
2006, 137 minutes
directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
You may or may not notice that this film is being screened in place of what was scheduled, that being Fanny & Alexander, a late film by Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, Fanny & Alexander would have made a great contrast to the earlier films in the series, being a study in the late style of an established and accomplished career of an international moviemaker. Not only did Fanny & Alexander win four Academy Awards in 1984, including Best Foreign Picture, but the movie was also one that Bergman himself was especially proud—enough to make him consider quitting filmmaking altogether, as he tells in this amusing anecdote:
“Making ‘Fanny and Alexander’ was such a joy that I thought that feeling will never come back. I will try to explain: When I was at university many years ago, we were all in love with this extremely beautiful girl. She said no to all of us, and we didn’t understand. She had had a love affair with a prince from Egypt and, for her, everything after this love affair had to be a failure. So she rejected all our proposals. I would like to say the same thing. The time with ‘Fanny and Alexander’ was so wonderful that I decided it was time to stop. I have had my prince of Egypt.”
I think that’s a fairly amazing idea to have at so late a stage in life, as Ingmar Bergman was when he said that, that you only have one love in your life and that once you’ve had it, it’s hard to continue. It’s a powerful idea, and one that has certainly propelled many an artist towards whatever pursuits they’ve endeavored towards. The idea that there is one perfect love that may be attained is certainly a potent idea, but maybe also fairly dangerous.
However, we’re not going to be watching Fanny & Alexander. The film is over 3 hours long and I know nobody has that kind of time in this kind of place. Instead, we’re going to watch a newer film, a film that potentially has more relevance towards architecture.
Towards the beginning of the semester I wrote about the relationship between film and architecture, and the nature of the cinematic apparatus as an implicit subject with political and therefore organizational implications. This film, a German film which won this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is about surveillance in mid-century Germany. Surveillance has lately been, in conjunction with the ubiquity and incomprehensible power of common electronics, taking on the presence of another metaphysical subject.
Michel Foucault wrote about a certain physical manifestation of this idea when he popularized Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison in his book, Discipline and Punish. The panopticon and what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call the idea of surveillance, both share the idea of the political power of vision. And they both assert the power of a presence of absence. But they way that surveillance is different from the panopticon is in the ubiquity of surveillance; it is, in effect, a new omnipresence distinct from theocentricism. What this heralds is uncertain. Even politically it is uncharted legal territory, as anybody who’s been paying attention to the national currents events is aware. Politics and architecture have always been connected, though, so it is no doubt worthwhile to spend some time pondering the culture into which we’re entering.
The next film architecture theme I will be writing about is “The Future is Asian.”
Originally written November 27, 2007
I have often thought that the most important skill that an architect offers is an understanding of scale (my friend John has different take). Scale isn’t just knowing inches to meters, or the width of a corridor, or how an 8 foot ceiling feels versus a 12 foot one, but also having a general understanding of the broader environment and each persons place within it. I know that’s vague, but that’s why, beginning with this post, I will post a short missive on the issue of scale every once in a while. This is the first one, and it has to do with pure numbers.
This is a thought experiment suggested by John Allen Paulos in his book, Innumeracy.
Without doing the calculation, try to guess how long a million seconds is. Now try to guess the same for a billion seconds. How about a trillion?
Ready? A million seconds is less than twelve days. A billion seconds is almost thirty-two years. And a trillion seconds is roughly 31,688 years.
I ran across this in a great article about the financial crisis in this week’s New Yorker. It makes you think when you hear all those numbers batted around about the cost of the war in Iraq, the financial bailout, playing the lottery, or the odds of dying in a plane crash, no?
I mean, what are the odds?
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.
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.