Saturday, July 26, 2008


Collection of projects from Next Gene 20
"NextGene 20" is the latest in a recent rash of celebrity architect developments, joining the ranks of "Ordos 100" in Mongolia, "Jinhua Park" in China, and the "Houses at Sagaponac" in New York. Each of these developments, excluding Jinhua Park, which is a sculpture park in a second-tier Chinese city where international architects were invited to design seventeen pavilions for public use, capitalize on spectacular design by name-brand architects as a marketing strategy for their high-end luxury subdivision. Next-Gene 20 seems to have taken this strategy to a totally different level. Particularly this video, prepared by noted animators Squint Opera, which gives the whole affair a certain Oceans 11-esque flair:

Team NEXT-GENE20 from iMage on Vimeo.

And architects, always willing and able to do a bit of marketing, branding, and self-promotion, are happy to oblige themselves to this campaign as well. For them, it is a win-win situations: They are offered tabula rasa type settings (particularly in Ordos--it literally is a desert), exorbitant budgets, and no nagging clients (at least, it seems as much, judging from their designs). In return, the architects offer their design skills and their advanced sense of aesthetics. More importantly, they offer their superior wit and finely honed skills of repartee to come up with names for their projects that are sure to have the designs selling in no time. Names such as“Elf on the Hilltop”, “Monsoon village”, “Latent dragon”, “In phrase of stratus”, “Twilight”, and the perennial favorite: “Shell under copious rain.” I can't get enough of that one folks, let me tell you!

Next-Gene 20 also seems to be a cut above the rest of these types of developments in terms of the ambitions for environmental integration, i.e., the architectures relationship to the landscape. It says, right there at the beginning of the video: Architecture in harmony with the landscape. If that is not enough to convince you just listen to these quotes from the Gene group's finely soundtracked website:

Building dreams on a vast ground:
Acquire the mansion of your dreams…Not only putting design into architect, also bringing light, water, wind, and nature into the atmosphere…so people can integrate with nature, and buildings can interflow with the earth. Let there be a presence of soul in nature, let there be a presence of world in the architecture, like a futuristic city atop a tranquil ocean surface.

Now, I don't mean to sound cynical about such developments because they offer excellent opportunities for the fields of architecture and urbanism. Fertile ground for exploration, innovation, and experimentation, with ample budget to do it. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of these architects, and since many of them are young or have built relatively little, it is a portfolio building opportunity as well. And these architects seem to be heeding the call. As one commentator put it, with this showcase you can "talk about every architectural cliche from the last ten years on display. Certainly formal exuberance, innovative building systems, and exotic materials all seem to be on display in the designs.
Fig. 2: Masterplans of Ordos 100 and Houses at Sagaponac

My only problem is that there is never enough urban experimentation (see fig. 2, or read Lebbeus Woods' critique), or truly innovative processes on display. This is no "futuristic city atop a tranquil ocean surface." No way buddy, not even close!! Because we all know that would look a little more like this. I wish that one of these days a developer would come along and attempt the kind of thing that only this type of project would allow designers to experiment with. What if, with one fell swoop, both of these demands were met through what I like to call "radical collaboration." Two options present themselves as viable for this scenario.
SITE's Highrise of Homes
Option 1: Let one of the architects be the master planner. Allow her to create a radical framework for the project--a matrix, as Lebbeus Woods would call it. Something that none of the architects could avoid, something they all have to contend with, such as SITE's "Highrise of Homes" concept, or Archigram's Plug-In City. The designers have to design an object that plugs into said matrix, which could act much like a shelf that showcases the designs as precious objects. It could be an updated version of the Megastructure as defined by Reyner Banham. Or, in SITE's own words, it could be in an urban setting and become a "vertical community" to "accommodate people's conflicting desires to enjoy the cultural advantages of an urban center, without sacrificing the private home identity and garden space associated with suburbia."

Next Gene 20 reconceived as siamese twin monstrosity

Option 2: Force the designers to collaborate together to create a megaproject. It could be done in a way that allows them to maintain their individual signature but forces them to respond to each of the other's projects. Maybe it is set up like that game where everybody sits in a circle and one person starts by whispering a sentence into the ear of the person sitting next to them and that person passes it on the next and that person passes it on to the ne-....ok, you get the point. One architect starts by designing an unfinished object. The next architect comes along, uses the first architects project as DNA for his project, but transforms, and so on. Each one could choose a particular theme before hand, but is forced to reconcile the previous architects theme with his own. The best results would probably come from connecting two designers who would make unlike bedfellows--the original odd couples.

What kind of monstrosity would this produce? What type of hyper-object would result? I don't know, but it'd be a super cool thing to witness--like some bizarre version of architectural Frankenstein-ism. Better yet, let's catch the whole thing on celluloid! "The World's Next Top Architect", or "So You think You Can Design." How great would it be to watch Kengo Kuma react when he has to connect to JDS' Twirl House? How could anything marry itself to the Latent Dragon? It sounds like the making of a good mockumentary.

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