Thursday, August 28, 2008

China Postcard

China Postcard, originally uploaded by o d b.

Hello from China!
Beijing Welcomes You!
and Dave does too.
the weather is beautiful (sometimes)
the scenery is nice
the people are friendly
what happens in BJ stays in BJ!
until it gets exported
wish you were here

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Discussion of the Week: SimpliCity vs. ComplexCity

One of our primary interests here at _URB_ is fostering discussion on issues relevant to urbanism and its related fields: architecture, landscape, and design. To help facilitate a more discursive atmosphere we are starting a new section featuring discussion topics that will be open to debate for one week. Please check in at the beginning of each week for the new topic. Also, if you have topic suggestions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Topic #1: SimpliCity vs. ComplexCity
The first topic that we would like to bring up for discussion is a debate between complexity and simplicity in the city. From the early moments of Postmodernism complexity has been celebrated as a worthwhile objective in both architecture and urbanism while the seemingly simplistic nature of the urban plans of the Modernists was vilified. Prior to Postmodernism the dissatisfaction with Modernist urban planning dogma had been growing for some time and is best exemplified in popular culture by the films of Jacques Tati such as Playtime and Mon Oncle. (1) In architecture the first signs of discontent began with the Team X group but it was perhaps not until Venturi first uttered the phrase “Less is a Bore” in Complexity and Contradiction that the floodgates of dissension were fully unlocked. Thus began what can beset be described as a disciplinarian full-court press in pursuit of the proper form of complexity that could overcome the damage that the elementarist attitude of the Modernists. (2) Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City, the research into the signs and systems of the ‘ordinary and ugly’ of Venturi and Scott Brown, the indexical mappings of Eisenman, the overlapping grids and fragmentation of deconstruction, and the montagic operations of Koolhaas/OMA were all attempts to imbue urbanism with the plurality, density, and ultimately the complexity that was determined missing from the Modernist City.

Over the last few years a new approach has developed, which is even known as the ‘Complexity Project.’ The complexity project’s most internationally recognized practitioners would be Hadid and Schumacher, but the group also includes firms such as Reiser + Umemoto (RUR), UN Studio, FOA, and countless other young practitioners. It is primarily associated with schools such as the AA in London (the DRL, EmTech, and Landscape Urbanism units in particular), Columbia University in New York, and the Angewandte in Vienna. In other words there is a tremendous amount of research and intellectual resources devoted to the Complexity Project.

The Complexity Project’s theory is based on a scientific understanding of complexity and is therefore related to computational, algorithmic, behavioral, and systems based approaches and ideas of emergence and self-organization. The complexity project is characterized by the use of advanced geometries such as Voronoi and Delaunay scripts; parametric software and the use of associative geometry are used to create fluid forms; and computational logics are used to digest massive amounts of information.

With these techniques they claim to trump both the mechanical approach of the Modernists and Postmodern’s rudimentary attempts at complexity. RUR claim that collage is the “accumulation of the merely different” and reject it in favor of “progressive differentiation” in their search for a “new conception of the universal.” This approach pushes for systems of variation rather than systems of variety. Hadid and Schumacher promote the concept of Parametric Urbanism and have developed techniques such as soft grids, fields, and pliant surfaces as a way to bring added richness to the city, although their strictly formal approach can be argued as not adequately contending with the real complexity of the city.

Recently I have been wondering if the Complexity Project is the appropriate response to the already overwhelming complexity of the contemporary metropolis. I wonder if we as designers should not be developing strategies to make them less overwhelming and more comprehensible. Using John Maeda’s concept of simplicity I wonder if we can come up with an idea for the SimpliCity. Recently there has been a backlash of sorts in response to the ComplexCity project. Some people argue that the diagrammatic fluidity of some of their projects belie a paradoxical lack of flexibility in the final fom--in it's use and adaptability. Groups like Dogma in Europe have been arguing for more formal autonomy and strong, identifiable geometry. This might be an initial way of understanding what the SimpliCity could be. I would also like to point out the progress of product design towards simpler interfaces and minimal design, Apple’s iPod being the perfect example (or think of virtually any Apple product compared to their competitors). In pop culture we might look to the evolution of the robot as demonstrated by Wall-E and Eva.

So now I would like to ask all of you, what do you think of the idea of the SimpliCity? What would it be? How would it operate? Would it create a desirable city or is the notion of complexity more appropriate for unleashing the potential of the city? How can we utilize simplicity without falling in the same traps as the early modernists?

In addition to these questions I am also providing some images below for visual stimulation. I cannot wait to hear what you all have to say!

1. Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities is obviously another example.
2. Best described in the first chapter of Reyner Banham's Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.

Monday, August 25, 2008

NYT - Curious World of the Last Stop

Over the weekend there was a great article in the New York Times which surveys every last stop on all the subway lines in NYC. It is supplemented by a super interesting interactive page featuring maps, photographs, videos, and interviews (see screen shots below). Is it just me or is NYT really taking these interactive features to the next level lately?

Here is some of the text by Andy Newman from the article:

At the city’s often-threadbare fringes, there is an inescapable sense of lonesomeness. There might be a Last Stop Deli, a forlorn bar, a maintenance yard populated mostly by rows of empty trains. There is, surprisingly often, a cemetery.

Yet to visit all the system’s extremities is to see that the last stop is not a single, monolithic place. There are subway lines that end, logically, where the city runs out of land; lines that end, anticlimactically, where builders ran out of money; even a few that fetch up in bustling downtowns of one sort or another. From the marshy lowlands of Tottenville to the lush hills of Riverdale to the ceaseless clangor of Flushing, the end of the line manages to take in the entire breadth of the city beyond Midtown Manhattan.

Photos by Richard Perry via NY Times

I have to mention that some of the photographs remind me of some of the "not last stops" of some of the subway systems in cities like Atlanta, GA, where, particularly on the south side of the city, some of the stations exist in desolation, quarantined from the urban areas they are intended to serve by other infrastructure or vast parking lots catering to that city's culture of auto-mobility.

Below is a diagram I produced last year showing why MARTA stations in the city of Atlanta produce the island effect:

It makes me wonder what Disney could do at these locations?
NY Times article found via Planetizen

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom

In the past whenever I heard the term ‘Disneyfication’ I always assumed it was used to describe negative transformational processes—particularly when it comes to the city. It connotes such thoughts as triviality, immaturity, and the giving up of authenticity to the onslaught of pure market-driven city building. We all remember what happened to 42nd Street, right? There used to be a darn good strip club where that Lion King theatre now stands!!

But I was reading Reyner Banham’s wonderful book on Los Angeles recently, The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and his chapter on the architecture of the fantastic caused me to rethink my misgivings towards the process of Disneyfication. Banham makes the argument that Disneyland has created a ‘transportation fantasy’ in which almost every mode of transit known to man exists in a complex interwoven tapestry of mobility. Banham writes that

Ensconced in a sea of giant parking lots in a city devoted to the automobile, it provides transportation that does not exist outside – steam trains, monorails, people-movers, tram trains, travelators, ropeways, not to mention pure transport fantasies such as simulated space trips and submarine rides. Under-age children…enjoy the license of driving on their own freeway system and adults can step off the pavement and mingle with the buses and trams of Main Street in a manner that would lead to sudden death or prosecution outside.

'The Lake' from Reyner Banham's The Architecture of Four Ecologies

One photograph of Disneyland featured in the book shows a monorail, a rollercoaster, a funicular, and a submarine all within the space of one frame. Which leads me to wonder—what if Disney’s Imagineers – the group in charge of the planning, design, engineering, and implementation of all of the Disney corporation’s theme parks and the not-so-tiny cities of hotels, restaurants, and support areas which are developed on Disney properties – created a consulting agency to teach cities how to create better mass transit systems. For, as Banham pointed out back in 1971, “Walt Disney was the only man who could make rapid transit a success in Los Angeles.” How much more efficient and well-executed would our transit systems become? How much more fantastic would our daily commutes be?

What if…

…We took it one step further and suggest that the Imagineers create their own urban design firm and begin designing the future cities of the world. They could develop a theoretical framework for their design—it could be called ‘ImaginURBanism’—and it would be the latest fad of city design for UAE sheiks and prominent Asian businessmen to commission and endorse. ImaginURBanism would blend high-end technical wizardry with thematic kitsch in a way no other urbanist could keep up with. “But wait,” you find yourself asking, “isn’t that what they are already doing over there?” Umm…yeah…good point!

The first question an ImaginURBanist asks a new client is “What’s your pleasure—Wild Wild West, or FutureLand?” The adventurous type might go for a swashbuckling dose of Pirates of the Caribbean. The megastructuralist would wholeheartedly endorse the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse—never has Kenzo Tange’s metabolism metaphor been taken quite so literally!

Or maybe the imaginURBanists would get back to their roots. The term ‘imagineering’ was given birth in the research labs of WWII as a combination of the words imagination and engineering. Imagineering was originally defined as "the fine art of deciding where we go from here.” (Wiki) Urbanism is often described as the art of scenario making—in a way urban design can be thought of as designing a stage for the future play of life to be enacted upon. Koolhaas has described his efforts at urbanism as being a ‘scenario-ist’ and a ‘script writer’ (see this interview with Charlie Rose). When thought about in that way, Imagineering and urban design are not so different. The Imagineers could potentially represent the most capable group of multi-disciplinarians ever formulated, and therefore the ImaginURBanists would be in a unique and fertile position to imagine the future potential of cities.

Would it be so different…

Archigram's Instant City

...From some of the zany utopian projects so popular among the architecture avant-garde of the 1960’s? Two of Archigram’s projects, Ideal Circus and Instant City, for example, are essentially travelling amusement parks that would travel among small towns to create an ‘event’ that would resemble the spontaneity and choice that is a result of the polyprogrammatic city. Peter Cook writes that “the town would be a City for a week—a city in terms of Event, sophistry, and offering.” When I was growing up in a small suburb in Georgia, I fondly remember the recurring event of the McNair Fair. Once every year or so the fair would come to town greatly increasing the town’s potential. Mobility is another theme that connects Archigram to the Imagineers. Both Ideal Circus and Instant City are mobilized urbanisms intended to create a network out of previously unlinked townships. Instant City, the more ambitious of the two projects, was a complex assemblage of trucks, inflatable tents, and dirigibles—in fact the circuit itself is intended to be part of the event. Perhaps the Imagineers could bring some of these future visions from the past to fruition.

'Canal City', by Jon Jerde, Fukuoka Japan, from You Are Here

Or would a city designed by the Imagineers be so different from an entire city designed by someone like Jon Jerde, or even Frank Gehry? Most laymen would probably not be able to tell the difference between the resultant designs. All would be shiny, wonky, and look like some incredible village from the future. Maybe it’s telling that they are all from Los Angeles—there must be something in the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the dirt they play around in that makes them all turn out that way.

Collage of Frank Gehry Projects

Lest we forget…

“Disneyfication…not only provides a fictional and often nostalgiac identity, but…also is purposely designed to brek the contingency of public space that is characteristic of urban culture, replacing it with a domesticated family friendly scenography of—often commercially controlled—pseudo-public spaces.”

So says Martijn de Waal about the downside of the Disneyfication process. It can be read as a cautionary tale about one of the potential downfalls of the ImaginURBanist dogma. Every future imaginURBanist must therefore remain focused on the original conception of Imagineering and not allow it to become a mere tool of developers in their not-yet-proclaimed war on the public spaces of our urban areas. As a method of keeping themselves in check an additional tenet to the ImaginURBanists doctrine could be this quote from Koolhaas: “Cities accumulate everyone’s desires; therefore they form the richest accumulation of potential for every individual to be himself or herself.” When combined with the Imagineer’s orginal mandate--the fine art of deciding where we go from here—ImaginURBanism might become of the most fecund '–isms' of urban design’s recent history.

Friday, August 22, 2008

LWB: Dude you totally stole my future blog idea!

picture via io9
I totally had one of those "Dude, you totally stole my future blog idea" moments tonight when I read Life Without Buildings post on megastructures and science fiction which totally made me scream out loud "Dude, you totally stole my future blog idea." I mean, c'mon dude, you totally stole my future blog idea. And you probably did it better than I ever would, which really sucks for me. But for now I can just highly suggest to all of you out there that you should check out this really cool post on megastructures, ship breaking, and starships.

His post was based on this post from io9, which I haven't had the chance to read yet. And it also reminded me of this incredible article on the relationship between urban design and cinematic cities called Architectural Representations of the City in Science Fiction Cinema.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Informal Toolbox

My good friends over at ProxyArch are working on a book for Columbia University's SlumLab that will be published soon. Called Informal Toolbox, it is a series of 'tactics' for working in informal settlements such as favelas. Here is the book's description from it's authors:
in 2008, the SLUM LAB visited Paraisópolis, a Brazilian favela in the heart of São Paulo, eliciting a series of architectural ‘tactics’ conceived to integrate and transform “critical urban areas”, sprawling tracts of informal housing that support a dynamic social and spatial life. Part architect’s journal, part field guide, the Informal Toolbox delves into the promises and perils of slum upgrading while offering a glimpse of the fantastic creativity and manifold instabilities of life in the favela.
The book is a result of a studio at Columbia University called 'SLUM Lab' lead by the Urban Think-Tank, the architecture and urban design group from Caracas recently made famous by the documentary Caracas: The Informal City (click for a link to youTube preview).

Monday, August 18, 2008

NewComers: Infranet Lab and New Geographies

Ho-Yeol Ryu, Airport, 2005, via Infranet Blog
InfraNet Lab is a new research organization founded by Mason White and Lola Shepard of Lateral Architecture. The new site for the group also features a blog of the same name which features a great breadth of work, research, and discussion on infrastructure and urbanism. I've long been a fan of Lateral's work and Mason's writing frequently featured on Archinect. Their work often deals with the relationship between suburbia, infrastructure, and geography. Their's is an earnest attempt to transfigure the suburban landscape through the reconfiguration and remodulation of its everyday matter--highway off ramps, big box retail, parking lots, and a nebulous landscape in search of definition. Here is a blurb about the site from its creators:
InfraNet Lab is a research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics. The laboratory posits the argument that a body of unique built works continues to arise out of the complex negotiation of, and competition for, biotic and abiotic resources. Operating in a manner similar to infrastructures, these works have evolved to merge landscape, urbanism, and architecture into a sophisticated mutant assemblage of surfaces, containers, and conduits.
'Wall' by Andy Goldsworthy
New Geographies is a new journal created by 'Doctor of Design' students that Harvard's GSD under the direction of Professor Hashim Sarkis. I had the pleasure of taking part in the seminal seminar of the same name a couple years back that I assume generated the idea for the journal. The seminar explored emerging concepts in architecture, landscape and urbanism surrounding the enlarging scale of design, an expanded scope for designers, and a new focus on a 'geographic' approach to design instead of a 'topographic' approach.
The last was one of the most interesting ideas of the seminar to me--a geographic project is one which attempts to reveal the inherent nature of a larger territory through the use of geography itself. According to geography originates from the latin word geographia which means "description of the earth's surface," from ge "earth" + -graphia "description," from graphein "write." A geographic project can be understood as a form of writing on the earth's surface in an attempt to describe it. A topographic project, on the other hand, is one which attempts to meld with the landscape. Geographic techniques might include using a strong geometry which allows topography to register against it, creating a micro-scale version of macro-scale geographic formations (see also image below and here), or any number of techniques used by land artists (Andy Goldsworthy's work, shown above, was one strong influence in the seminar).
Mansilla + Tunon, Museum of Cantabria
I have not had a chance to read the issue yet (being in China has me a little out of the print publication loop) but my buddy Chris picked me up a copy a couple of weeks ago and I can't wait to get my hands on it! It features articles by Charles Waldheim, Bruno Latour, and Sarkis himself. Here is the blurb about the journal from its creators:
For more than a decade, architecture and urbanism have been seen as the spatial manifestation of the widespread effects of globalization. As cities became denser, they intensified in their horizontal and vertical thickness with large-scale urban development projects, yet they also became dispersed with urban sprawl. Within the design disciplines, key words such as rapid urbanization, mapping, networks, and flows affected the analyses and interpretation of emergent mutations on the spatial and urban dimension; and design attitudes toward this expanding scale tended to oscillate between research/mapping on emergent urban/global networks and the extra-large (iconic) landmark. On one hand, the production and popularity of design in contemporary culture has increased immensely, and on the other, designers are being compelled to address questions—related to infrastructural, ecological, regional, and cultural issues—that previously were confined to the domains of other disciplines. By encouraging designers to reexamine their tools and develop strategies to link attributes that had been understood to be either separate from each other or external to the design disciplines, those questions opened up a range of technical, formal, and social repertoires for architecture.
You can purchase the first issue of New Geographies here.
(My apologies to Hashim and the rest of the NewGeo gang for my bastardization of their concepts)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The OC Part II: ‘Wildness’

The Opening Ceremony via Getty Images
Part 2 of ...
If the opening ceremony can be understood through the theoretical framework of the ‘mass ornament’ on the one hand (the aestheticization of the masses due to (1) the authoritarian state subordinating its individual constituents into a collective, and (2) the effects of Fordist production techniques on the psyche), on the other hand it can be said that the mass ornament was constantly contradicted and undermined through an emergent form of ‘wildness’, to borrow a term from Sanford Kwinter. While the mass ornament may be seen as the dominant technique used in the production and choreography of the OC, this ‘wildness’ maintained such a pervasive presence in the show to be recognized as a leitmotif, but a far more exciting and progressive motif because it is completely unexpected and demonstrates the surfacing of something new in Chinese society.

In the big show ‘wildness’ was demonstrated through the constant use of dissipation, gradients, waves, and swarms as a visual opposition to the strict geometrical formations of the mass ornament. The wild worked to dissolve the framework of the mass ornament into a more atomized form of expression.

The wildness first appeared during the countdown that began the show: after the drums made the figure of the number the lights would dissipate from the center outward. Later in the show it was demonstrated during the pixilated expression of the printing press segment—the rolling waves of their choreography and again the way that the letters dissolved in a random pattern rather than through a more rigid geometry.

Two other examples are the dove made from the lighted figures and the running of the tai chi demonstrators towards the end. In both, a strong formal figure (the dove and the circular formation) is contradicted by a more fluid, random expression. Of course, it could be said that these demonstrate the appearance of randomness and individuality, rather than its actual occurrence. At the very least I would like to believe that it is aspirational.

Even the Olympic architecture demonstrates a new direction in terms of freedom and expression. Nicolai Ossourouff, architecture critic of the NYTimes, writes “the National Stadium reaffirms architecture's civilizing role in a nation that, despite its outward confidence, is struggling to forge a new identity out of a maelstrom of inner conflict. HdeM have pointed out a subtle technique of subversion in the building—offering spaces within the shell that are difficult for control and surveillance—and the facades of the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest are much less rigid and authoritarian than their predecessors, the Worker’s Gymnasium and Stadium.

Swarms via Google

According to Kwinter, the “wild” is “the logic of animal societies (packs, flocks, and swarms) of the inmixings and inadvertencies of the natural world and of complex adaptive systems in general. They utilize three characteristics: intricacy, messiness, and indirectness. The last, according to Kwinter, “ is actually the secret to achieving a robust, adaptive, flexible, and evolving design…They are wild systems that range and explore and mine their environment, that capitalize on accidental successes, store them, and build upon them.

photo by Sze Tsung Leong via 'The New New City' in The New York Times

In the Chinese urban environment, the formal and informal coexist in close proximity to one another. Top down urban systems are appropriated through bottom-up mechanisms. Mario Gandelsonas has written about this in his essay “Exchange/Translation/Identity.” In speaking about the complex relationship between infrastructure and public space he writes that

“new freeways that cut through the urban fabric do not produce the ‘walls’ within the city that were created by the urban renewal of the American city. By utilizing leftover spaces for inventive public uses, such as parking for bicycles and fields for sports, they activate areas that remain quite dead in their original Western versions.”

Shuo Wang has discussed the wildness of Beijing’s urban explosion in his essay “Wild Be(ij)ing.” He states that

“In a decade, 5 million rural migrants have rushed into the city. Their new vision of the city reshaped the urban ground in an unprecedented explosive way. The largely uncontrolled economic upheavals presented its domestic urban condition as a paradigm of urban wildness that thrives against any prediction from the discipline. Beijing’s future is unpredictable; only one thing is for sure, that urban planning can never hold up the energy of constant eruptions.”

To me the ‘wild’, and its appearance in the OC, offers a positive view of the transition of Chinese culture. The wild is about self-organization—about a bottom-up, evolutionary process of becoming, and therefore contradicts our understanding of China as a heavy-handed authoritarian system. While the latter undoubtedly exists (any newspaper article written about the Olympics will tell you that side of the story) and while there is still problems with freedom of expression and free media, etc, there is something else happening in the streets and with the rapid transformations in Chinese cities and among Chinese citizens as they gain more economic freedom and more confidence. There is still a long way to go, but I don’t think the current system can sustain itself forever. How, and when, it will be undermined remains in question, but the fact that it is in progress is clear.

Previously: The OC Part 1: Mass Ornament

See Also: From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm (NY Times)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Top 5: Spa vs. Bar

Those of you in Beijing you may be wondering where to catch the big game. The giant screen in the public plaza? A sports bar like the new All Star bar in Solana? All of these may have sufficed in previous Olympics, or in the towns where you are originally from. But in Beijing, local tradition offers another great place to catch the game: the SPA. For all of you ignorants out there, here is Dave Brown’s Top 5 Reasons Why It’s Better to Watch the Big Game at the Spa Instead of the Bar.
1. Service
Sure, you can stand at the bar and wait for the bartender’s attention for half an hour before you finally get noticed and get to order your Tsingtao. Or you can come to a place where there are hundreds of people standing around ready to wait on you hand and foot: the Spa. (Literally hand AND foot)
2. Multiplicity
Where else can you get a massage in the first half, hit the buffet at halftime, the sauna for second half, and the warm spa during OT? The spa, of course! Oh wait, you can get a diverse experience at the bar too, right? Stand at the bar during the first half; sit at the bar during halftime. Of course you’ll probably lose your seat again for the second half when you take your WC break…
3. Synchronicity
Want to feel at one with the players? At the spa you can synchronize your activities with theirs: sweat when they sweat, shower when they shower, massage when they massage…the list goes on and on.
4. Preparation
We all know that making it to the big game requires years of preparation on the parts of the athletes. Fortunately getting ready for the club only takes a couple of hours! Spend game time showering, primping, and grooming yourself to perfection in preparation for the postgame festivities without missing a second of the action. You’ll dance circles around your competition—you know, those sweaty, smelly, and drunk buffoons who spent their time getting wasted at the bar. So come to the spa and get prepared for meeting that extra special postgame sweetheart.
5. Fraternity
Some of you may think "Yeah right, the spa. It sounds so pansy. What about traditional male bonding?" Well, let me tell you: There’s nothing like bonding over a little sport with a bunch of other naked, sweaty dudes. Just don't take your eyes off the TV screen.
I’m not sure but I imagine it’s a pretty similar shared moment for the females as well.
Bonus: Ok, I know there are only supposed to be five reasons in a Top 5 list, but because this is _URB_ I had to throw in one very special extra reason:
Urbanity (the +1)
This is not your traditional notion of the urban, but urbanity descended from the late 20th century masters who helped shape and define our contemporary understanding of urbanism: Gruen, Venturi, Beynham, with a little Ungers and Koolhaas thrown in for good measure. It’s part mall, part decorated shed + casino, mostly fantasy, a social condenser and a phantasmagoria of programmatic juxtaposition and overlap thrown into a Big Box and connected with an elevator.
Hotel + Restaurant + Leisure Hall + Tropical Paradise + Grotto = SPA
Take that you mono-programmatic sports bar!

My favorite: No. 8 Hot Springs Club

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The OC Part 1: Mass Ornament

Opening Ceremony of the 29th Olympics in Beijing
Part 1 of ...
At the 8th minute of the 8th hour of the 8th day of the 8th month of the 8th year of the new millennium, the Opening Ceremonies of the 29th Olympics of the modern era commenced with great fanfare in the city of Beijing. Described as the ‘coming out’ party of the Chinese nation it has been lauded as the greatest opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

For those of us watching the event with blurred vision—thanks to tears of joy, tears of pride—it may have been easy to miss the latent messages buried deep within the ceremonial event. A superficial reading of the ritual would have us believe that it was introducing the rest of the world to the incredible 5,000 year history of Chinese history—the inventions of paper, calligraphy, gun powder, compasses, and so on, the rich tradition of music and dance, etc—and on the surface this is true. But what is happening below the surface? Are there other narratives that begin to unfold once we peel back this outer skin? I think there are a few themes that begin to emerge once we start to look a little deeper. I plan to discuss them in a few part series on the opening ceremony.

Images from the Opening Ceremony demonstrating the Mass Ornament
i) Mass Ornament – The first theme that I think emerges from a closer look is that of the “mass ornament.” Most everyone who watched the opening ceremony commented on the quantity of people involved in the production. The NY Times stated that “The ceremony was filled with signature Chinese touches like the use of masses of people, working in unison into a grand spectacle centered on traditional Chinese history, music, dance and art.” This use of masses of people to create a grand spectacle can be compared to the tradition of the Mass Games, at once widespread among Communist nations but now only performed regularly in North Korea. Images from the Mass Games in North Korea reveal the basic raison d’etre of the form: “the subordination of the individual desires for the needs of the collective.” A 2003 documentary called State of Mind, made by the BBC, claim that the “mass Games are North Korea’s Socialist Realist extravaganza and a perfect example of the state’s ideology.”
Images from N. Korea's Mass Games

Sigfried Kracauer’s concept of the Mass Ornament, described in an essay of the same name written in the 1930s, offers the best theoretical framework with which to understand events such as the Mass Games and similar forms of entertainment which emerged in the early 20th Century. The description he gives of the Tiller Girls still seems relevant in a discussion about the Opening Ceremonies and their use of synchronized choreography among masses of people. Kracauer describes the intention of such events when he says:

The training of the units of girls is intended instead to produce an immense number of parallel lines, and the desired effect is to train the greatest number of people in order to create a pattern of unimaginable dimensions. In the end there is the closed ornament, whose life components have been drained of their substance.

These products of American ‘distraction factories’ are no longer individual girls, but indissoluble female units whose movements are mathematical demonstrations…one glance at the screen reveals that the ornament consists of thousands of bodies, sexless bodies…the regularity of their patterns is acclaimed by the masses, who are themselves arranged in row upon ordered row.

According to Kracauer, “the mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system,” which to him meant capitalism, and the effect that Fordist modes of production and consumerist ideologies were having on the public. The lack of rationalization on the part of those in control on the effect that the ultra rationalization of the new assembly line production methods were working together to create the Mass Ornament. Kracauer compares the Mass Games, the Tiller Girls, and the factory when he says that:

The production process runs its course publicly in secret. Everyone goes through the necessary motions at the conveyer belt, performs a partial function without knowing the entirety. Similar to the pattern in the stadium, the organization hovers above the masses as a monstrous figure whose originator withdraws it from the eyes of its bearers, and who himself hardly reflects upon it. It is conceived according to rational principles which the Taylor system only takes to its final conclusion. The hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls.

So what does it mean that China would use this imagery of the mass ornament in its opening ceremony? Unbeknownst to even the designers and creative directors of the event (because Zhang Yimou is well known for his use of similarly choreographed crowds in his films and theatrical productions as well), China seems to be telling the world that “Hey, we have billions of people. And we know how to choreograph and control them.” That was the understanding that my friends and I all had of the event. Maybe it’s just a ‘gentle reminder’ to the world about China’s greatest resource; an advertisement for its people.

Burtynksy's photographs of factories in China

This might not be a long stretch of the imagination. Images from China’s factories reveal a strong similarity between the factory floor and the stadium: the aestheticization of the masses. Edward Burtinsky’s photographs of factories in southern China, made famous through the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” demonstrate likeness in color, form, and suppression of the individual. In this age of China’s rapid industrialization this imagery seems to fit right in.

But at the same time, there is something different at play. The migration of the rural population in China is well known and all that do it are looking for a better life. Burtynsky, on his website, describes the transformation of China’s population from rural, agricultural workers to factory workers: “Working the assembly lines, China’s youthful peasant population is quickly abandoning traditional extended-family village life, leaving the monotony of agricultural work and subsistence income behind for a chance at independence.” At the same time you have one of the most rapid periods of urbanization occurring, the emergence of independent wealth in China, and a desire for freedom of expression.

Has this quest for independence been fulfilled in Zhang Yimou’s direction of the opening ceremony, and if so, how? I think that we can witness an emergent independence represented in the ceremony, and I will discuss this in the next part of this series.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pic of the... 11 August 2008

Beijing Opening Ceremony, originally uploaded by o d b.

Here I am at watching the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at Gong Ti (Worker's Stadium) Friday, Aug. 8. What an incredible show!

Bionic Urban Systems aka CyBURG

Two theoretical projects recently found on Archinect demonstrate the increased potential of bionic urban systems.

The first is an idea for a subway turnstile that generates electricity when people move through the turnstile through the rotation of the gear. It is designed by Chris Teeter and Chris Booth of Metamechanics. It is part of a broad movement of designers proposing to use the kinetic energy of everyday life as an alternative source of power. Many designs have been proposed, including public plazas with paving tiles that generate power as people walk over them, dance floors which transform the energy of people dancing into a usable form of power for the club, and human powered gyms in Hong Kongalready done in Hong Kong). The MIT Media Lab is producing tons of applications for this idea.

What I like about Metamechanics' proposal is both the brilliance in its simplicity, and the awesome illustration they produced to sell the idea. I love its use of the comic medium to make the idea more accessible. One scary thought: there is something very Matrix-like about using humans moving through a mechanical turnstile to generate electricity. Let's hope those turnstiles don't develop their own intelligence any time soon! Or one day we might find ourselves permanently trapped in the subway system.

To see the rest of the comic strip and an interesting discussion on the proposal click here.

The second project is more conceptual. It is the "Augmented Ecologies" project designed by Guido Maciocci, which is an installation which fully integrates multiple biological and technological systems into an interactive experience between man, machine, and nature. Utilizing computers connected to plants, users are able to modify their spatial environment through light and sound phenomena. A broader application was explored in his "Augmented Landscapes" project, which Maciocci himself describes here:

The deployment of biotechnological interfaces to mediate habitation of outdoor urban spaces is explored conceptually within the context of my thesis project situated on the Chatham Waterfront, Medway, UK. In this project spatial and ecological conditions emerge from the deployment of a modular surface that responds to the surrounding context in it’s variations of modular density, scale and intensity of folding. The surface is deployed so that the directionality of the modules attenuates surface flow (flood waters, precipitation, surface flow from the city) allowing diverse microhabitats to emerge between the modules. In time the landscape will gradually be populated by local species according to varying soil conditions created by the surface.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Round Up: Beijing Architecture in the News

You can not escape Beijing in the news these days, thanks to the Olympics. I'm having a hard time keep up with all of it. Unfortunately they all say the same thing. Architecture articles focus on how incredibly brilliant the Bird's Nest is (and it is), how western architects are creating an architectural extravaganza out of Beijing(they are), and how many hutongs, or vernacular structures of Beijing, are being eradicated to make way for the new structures. Articles on the games or the opening ceremonies tend to be a discussion of China's authoritarian government with a sentence or two about how incredible the ceremony itself was (and it was).
This is kind of a meta-post--a post that is merely a collection of all the posts and articles on Beijing architecture and urbanism I've come across recently. It's interesting to me--probably never in the history of the Olympics has there been such fanfare about the architecture of both the Olympic Venues and also the new architecture of the rest of the city as well.

New York Times
Bird's Nest Article
Bird's Nest Slideshow
Opening Ceremony Article
Opening Ceremony Slideshow
Hutong Article
Hutong Slideshow
Architecture Monuments Article
Architecture Monuments Interactive
Ai Wei Wei Interview: Pretend Smile

LA Times
On the Building Boom
On Ethics
On the Urban Makeover
On Chinese Architects

New Yorker
Out of the Blocks
Forbidden Cities
Situation Terminal
Slideshow on Bird's Nest

Vanity Fair
From Mao to Wow!

The Guardian
Secrets of the Bird's Nest
From the Highrise to the Hutong
Behind the Scenes in Beijing
Interview with Ai Wei Wei
Olympic Hubris: Comparison between Beijing '08 and Berlin '36

Seattle Times

Smog and Architecture

Subtopia: Olympic Distraction
Subtopia: Great Wall 6
Anarchitecture: Cooling China
Anarchitecture: Paying with the Bird's Nest
URB: Beijing Snapshot

der Spiegel
Interview with HdeM
Interview with Koolhaas

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Relic of the Ancient Future

This is a collection of photos taken of the unfinished galleries forming part of the "China No. 22 Creative Art Circle" in the Pingod residential development in Beijing. It is unclear whether they will ever be finished--they have not been worked on for months as far as I can tell. Some of the spaces have even been appropriated by squatters.

The building is an example of the "gallery bubble" occurring in Beijing at the moment as the red-hot market for Chinese art has created over-speculation in the production of art spaces. My friend Shuo claims it is a result of the unnatural gentrification of the Beijing museum scene, and the building will lie fallow until the land values raise and the developer can get a better return. Shuo, who wrote an article entitled "Wild Be(ij)ing", is a big fan of the bottom-up approach to urbanism, and his therefore suspicious of these market driven trends. In his exact words, "The soup in Beijing need more “organic” or “natural” ingredient that it is almost non-copy-able."

Despite all this, I think it is a beautiful building--a "mat" building that can be seen as an contemporary version of the infamous Beijing "hutong"--the vernacular form of densely packed, carpet-like courtyard housing. It is scaled up a notch from the traditional hutong and therefore is more conducive to contemporary uses. Once can imagine a acupuncture approach to upgrading the hutongs--providing them with modern amenities and spaces for modern programs--through the precise insertion of this type of structure. I consider it to be part of a movement in China similar to the "Critical Regionalism" promoted by Kenneth Frampton, et al. in the 80's and 90's, due to its use of indigenous materials-the ubiquitous gray brick of Beijing, and its anti-spectacle form.

I'm sure that most of what I find beautiful is the feeling of desertion, the raw, industrial nature, and its appropriation, and I doubt it will retain it's current beauty upon completion.