"Helsinki Polybrids: Nexus of Art, Agency and Society" has been recognized by the jury panel of the NextHelsinki international architectural competition chaired by Michael Sorkin. Among the jury members are Juhani Pallasmaa, Walter Hood, Sharon Zukin and Mabel Wilson. There were over 200 entries from 40 countries.
My recent work revolves around the term Lesser Urbanism. It is inspired by William Morris’s 1882 essay The Lesser Arts of Life. Lesser Urbanism curates, examines and presents aspects of urban life in high dense cities that are overlooked or ignored. Their presences are often negotiated, contested, and sustained along the margins of society. Although urban development is progressing at a relentless pace in Asia, I find there are still the vestiges of traditional rituals and local customs subsisting alongside and in quiet resistance against the process of globalization and gentrification. To disclose and celebrate these local cultures and alternative spatial practices where resourcefulness, creativity and sociability are called upon to overcome unfavorable situations and material scarcity is imperative in Asia, as more and more vernacular knowledge and places are erased and forgotten. My on-going research project on the Wah Fu informal public space in Hong Kong is one such effort. (http://www.studiochronotope.com/informal-religious-shrines-curating-community-assets-in-hong-kong-and-singapore.html). My interest in Lesser Urbanism transpires through a slow, deliberative journey reaching back to my early graduate work at Cranbrook, where I was concerned with the rules of forming and how elemental forms circumscribe space and propagates an emergent order through a bottom-up process of placement, aggregation, extension and configuration. In Lesser Urbanism, I am equally keen to articulate forms of individual and collective judgment and governance, both tacit and stated, as well as social conditions that give rise to, scale out and sustain localized spatial organizations. They herald a novel urban experience, alternative strategies of configuring spaces and make visible a vernacular poetics that are more representative of our contemporary splintered and tangled lives heightened by increasing contingency, scarcity and entropy.
Build a wall.
Document the process and experience.
Sunlight filters through the door
Sunlight lights up the inside of the door
The sun is captured by the door
Each day starts with an opened door
The door leaks in the light
The door locks in the light
The door is illuminated
There is a ray of light in every door
The door protects each day
The door lets in the day
The door lets in the sun
The light is in the middle of the door
Consciousness is a matter of the heart
One needs to be attentive to feel the light
A standing person who lets the light into his heart
One needs to be attentive and has heart
One feels each day with attention
Standing above the light, one feels with the heart
Standing above the light, one's heart is illuminated
Standing attentive each day to reach illumination
Standing each day is good for the heart
An attentive heart feels the light
An attentive heart lets the light in
An attentive heart is led by the light
The light opens up the attentive heart
One needs to be attentive to what the heart feels
Light illuminates the attentive heart
Light fills an attentive heart
Light bridges attention and heart
The heart illuminates those who stand
Gaps are everywhere. Some exist because of poor workmanship, a result of weathering and use or are designed as tolerances between materials. We have different ways of dealing with unwanted gaps. A gap between the leg of a table and an uneven floor is usually mitigated by a paper shim while a gap in a wooden window frame is lined with caulking and painted over to conceal it. One would commonly associate a gap with a space that is narrow or small but a room can be argued as a gap too, albeit one has been expanded to accommodate human activities. Unlike the unwanted small gap, we would not want to completely fill this up. We need this gap to exist so that we can live, even though we tend to pile it up with our stuff, memories, desires, fears and hopes. We feel safe too, in this big gap. It keeps us warm in winter and cool in summer. It keeps out the rain, the noise and strangers, although now virtual strangers can share the same gap with us remotely. Further expansion of this room-gap would result in a series of even larger gaps called a house, a neighborhood and a city. Within these larger gaps are smaller ones that co-exist with and sustain them. A storm drain is a linear gap along the street to channel rainwater away, which would otherwise flood the street if left alone. A gap between two tall buildings allow light to stream to the ground, which otherwise would leave the street gloomy. Narrow gaps called alleyways permit the placement of trashcans, to use as service lanes for delivery and for someone to run a business away from prying eyes.
These gaps keep humanity going.
Gaps are opportunities for new beginnings. Their imperfect alignments open up a space for actions and invitations for renewal. In the Chinese language, the word gap consists of the character 间, which also refers to time or interval. 间 itself consists of 2 ideograms- a sun within a door, which one can interpret as a door left slightly ajar (a gap) that permits a ray of light to stream into the interior. At times, these intervals can become opaque. They prevent us from remembering. They cloud our past. They make us lose our identity, our memory. They keep commonalities apart and differences irreconcilable. These impenetrable gaps come filled. We don’t need a shim or caulking. In fact, we need to do the opposite- to crave away in order to remember again, to see the light, to connect and to reach out.
The late New York Times journalist David Carr used the term Present Future to describe the state of journalism in the 21st century, where the present proliferation of news feeds that cater to a multitude of readers do not necessarily lead to a definitive, clear idea of what journalism will become in the future. Nonetheless, the future is slowly being shaped by these current developments and one should not shy away from them or be overly nostalgic with the past. Perhaps one can say the same for the future of design education and the practice of design? It is often convenient and easy to project a future scenario that celebrates technology (usually) and how it will herald a radical shift in the conceptualization, design, making and habitation of architectural spaces. However, we are also living in the present while making these projections; going through the daily, mundane but necessary rituals that sustain our everyday life. The body we carry with us still retains the memories of thousands of years of evolution despite continuing tempering by new technologies. Cultural background too, influences one's disposition towards new ideas and discoveries, which affect how fast the future becomes the present. Retaining the present with the future is therefore a wise and prudent step in our curiosity to uncover what lies beyond the horizon.
Urban Vessel: The New Maple Leafs Garden is a proposal that offers a new housing prototype for a congested metropolis. The vacant stadium was the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team for many years. The building has been left vacant ever since the team moved to the bigger and more modern Air Canada Center. The site is bounded on three sides by high-rise apartments, a condominium and hotels. The heights of the buildings and their proximity's to the Maple Leafs Garden created a canyon like experience along Carlton Street. In the proposal, the street-level walls of the existing stadium are removed to allow the continuation of the streets into the building, and the creation of an urban foyer. Retail and commercial spaces line the four sides of the foyer. Within the original stepped profile of the stadium. dwellings are terraced towards the pool, with the roofs serving outdoor decks and private vegetable gardens. On one side of the stadium, a public urban garden is designed for both residents and public uses. The new housing typology adapted the original form of the stadium and transformed the space into a desired living environment that provides the much needed green space for residents while preserving a sense of openness in the city.
The project seized the opportunity to provide the public a chance to be involved in the active remembrance of this much loved building through a process of dynamic re-programming and unbuilding over a period of two years. The library was a long established institution in the country and slated for demolition in order to make way for an underground expressway despite several public pleas for its preservation. Instead of closing the library and leaving it vacant till the demolition date, a series of events and uses of this building were proposed, according to their scales and temporal natures within the 2-year period. The notion of preservation and collective memory in the city took on a different meaning, while the idea of providing a slow passing of this building was akin to how we hold a period of remembrance when a loved one or friend passed away.
Interior Urbanism consists of a series of speculative projects that explore the intriguing world of vast, continuous and interconnected interior spaces in contemporary cities that include mega structures, arcades, underground pedestrian walkways, above ground link bridges and infrastructural spaces.
A hypothetical situation of traveling from Singapore to Toronto by remaining primarily within an interior or semi interior space. Starting from where I live, I can walk to the bus-stop using one of the many covered walkways connecting my apartment to the bus-stop. From there, the bus will take me to a multi-modal transportation hub that connects to the subway, which will in turn brings me to the airport. Traveling across national boundaries within the interior of a plane, and stopping over in Hong Kong, and arriving finally in Toronto, I can take the airport shuttle bus from the covered shuttle station at the Lester B. Pearson International Airport, and arrive at the Sheraton hotel. If I need to do business or visit some of the tourist sites in downtown Toronto, I can take the PATH, which is an underground network of passages that is linked to the Sheraton. Although I have taken an extreme position here, it is not an entirely implausible scenario.
A particular feature of Singapore’s urban landscape is the amalgamation of public transportation, commercial, retail, residential and recreational facilities into a synergistic urban assemblage connected by covered link-ways. Contrary to the term infra as underneath or hidden, public infrastructures such as the subway stations, and intermodal transportation hubs are architectural statements in city-state. A significant amount of resources, and time are invested in the conceptualization, planning and integration of these infrastructures into the urban fabric. They are spatially and programmatically connected to a network of buildings and open spaces; forming hubs of intensity and social interaction for urban dwellers.
The Changi Airport in Singapore has been consistently ranked among the best in the world by travelers. In 2010, it won the prestigious Skytrax World’s Best Airport Award, including the Best Airport Leisure Amenities and Best Airport Asia. However, unknown to most foreign visitors, the airport is also a highly popular destination for students. It is not unusual to find large groups of students in Singapore occupying the coffee shops, fast-food chains, and secluded, empty spaces in the city-state’s airport to study. For anyone unaccustomed to this ritual, it seems a rather strange habit on the part of the students to choose the airport as a place to study. Given the airport’s proximity to the city, and connected by a safe, efficient public transport systems, coupled by the availability of 24 hr food outlets, it is an obvious choice for the students. Besides converting the airport into study spaces, teenagers and residents also use the huge expanse of empty spaces to socialize. On weekends, one finds families at the viewing deck of the airport or patronizing the wide array of restaurants. Groups of teenagers congregate in quiet corners to talk, while retirees find the quiet viewing decks an ideal place to spend the weekday afternoon. Couples have also used the airport as a backdrop for their all important marriage day photography session.
The PATH serves as surrogate public gathering space especially during winter, since it is more desirous to meet and conduct one’s daily affairs in a warm and comfortable environment during this time of the year. Besides these organised events, the PATH also sustains a plethora of other spontaneous and informal uses and activities. In the foodcourt beneath one of the office building, senior citizens gather daily to meet their friends, while retirees have their morning coffees and work on their crossword puzzles. The fountain in the Eaton centre, one of the major shopping complexes in the PATH network of spaces, is a favorite gathering place for mothers and their babies in strollers during late mornings. Several spaces, especially the empty foodcourts on weekends are used as study corners, while connecting passages become temporary skateboarding venues for teenagers.
A lot has been published and spoken about creativity and innovation, with business schools jumping onto the bandwagon proclaiming design thinking as the big savior that will bring about innovation in the business world. Some even claim they teach design, and travel the world peddling their one-liners and design workshops. It is good, on the one hand, that the popularization of design has given the field a wider audience and expanded the scope of design services. However, it has also greatly undermined the deeper value of a good design education.
Therefore, Robert Grudin’s book, The Grace of Great Things is a breath of fresh air for me as an educator and a lifelong student of architecture and design. Grudin situates creativity and innovation within a larger social context that demands the persistent renewal and questioning of self and the world. To be creative requires the development of character, and enduring human values of imagination, integrity, courage and surprisingly, the value of pain as well. Pain in the creative process, which he identified four types; perception, expression, closure and self-expression, is vital if one were to overcome psychological barriers of stepping into the unknown, of persisting, completing and accepting criticism. For Grudin, modern society’s desire to remove pain, to avoid unpleasant moments, to be overly accommodating and to have excuses for failure to the point of blaming the system has developed into what he termed as a ‘rhetoric of failure’.
I was invited to this workshop that was held in conjunction with the Alvar Aalto Symposium in Finland. Drawing inspiration from the chest of drawers that revealed hidden gems, the alchemical vessels that formed an intriguing physical linkage to support the distillation process, and Giorgo Morandi’s watercolor renderings of everyday vessels, the goal of this collaborative proposal aimed to create multi-level spatial connections across Vainonkatu, the city’s main shopping street by linking the street, the roof garden of the Stockman store and the existing network of underground pedestrian passages. A gap on the market square’s southeast side is closed by means of a rooftop extension in the form of a new, elevated street that leads to the city’s hidden rooftop attractions.
Rules, unlike laws have no ambiguity. They are not opened to interpretations. If you are ordered to leave the park at midnight, you have to. That’s the rule. If a ‘No Sleeping’ sign is displayed, it means just that. Clear and simple. You will be hauled out of the space if you sleep and no amount of negotiation or pleading will help. Sol Lewitt’s well known instructional drawings are a form of rule-based art. His instructions are there to direct how the work is to be executed. But what is fascinating for me is the fact that human error, poor workmanship, uneven surface and even misinterpretation can ruin the process of making the art even though the instructions are supposed to be clear. When I read some of the instructions casually, they were definitely not clear at all. I needed to devote all my attention to every single line of the instructions and read it several times to make sure that I understood. Perhaps the presence and threat of ambiguity are always the lurking beneath the layers of rules. Sol Lewitt’s work is not unlike what an architect does when she writes a set of specifications for the tendering of a project and construction of a building. The specifications spell out clearly the who, how, what and where of building the artifice. It is also a legal document in the event of any building defect that leads to litigation. My work at Cranbrook began with this fascination with rules. I wondered how many ways could I bend, twist, overturn or bundle rules? I was equally curious to see what happened when I devised a rule for forming and followed it to its logical conclusion? Would it be so predetermined that I would not be surprised by the outcome? Would the process disrupt my preconceived idea of what it would become? What if there was an element of eccentricity built into the rule, like a virus, so that the form would naturally deform along the way and caused it to deviate from its logical end?
When walking around Hong Kong, one can still find the presence of the 地主神 or Landlord Spirit altar at the lower corner of many shop fronts. The 地主神 is there to bring business and good fortune to the shop owner. Although the original 地主神 altar has two lines of inscriptions that declare the protection of the owner’s wellbeing and to bring more businesses, recent ones are simply reduced to a single line that says門口土地 財神 or Fortune Earth God At The Front Of The Door. Some 地主神are well kept and there are special niches designed to house the altars. There are others that are simply placed in front of the shop corners. A few 地主神 were seen sharing the altar space with a neighboring 地主神, with the Sky God or are squeezed among other objects outside the shop. And there are those that needed a bit of cleaning while a few have fled the shop front when the shop owner relocated to another place or the shop closed down due to poor business. Perhaps the ability of the 地主神 to bring new businesses varies or because the shop owner did not take good care of the altar. Either way, the empty niche and the remnants of what used to be the abode of the 地主神 conveys a poignant picture.