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 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 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.
With the help of a social worker from the Salvation Army, I managed to interview a group of homeless residents who made the Cultural Center in Hong Kong their shelter for the night.
" You can make a shirt hangar by using a twig. The gaps between the tiles are big enough to slot them into the space. But you need to use a fresh one and some efforts are needed to bend it to form a hook."
"I use the old program pamphlets from the Cultural Center and spread them carefully over the floor. Important to have at least 2 layers to prevent the cold from seeping through. I overlap the pamphlets to make sure my 'mattress' is not scattered all over during the night. Don't worry, the pamphlets are for events that have already passed and we make sure they are disposed off in the morning. We don't want trouble from the authorities. We are also doing the earth a favor too by recycling these pamphlets!"
"The columns of the Cultural Center are excellent for us. We can slide in-between the two columns and the angled floor is like pillow. I wonder if the architect thought of us when he designed the center?"
"If I'm in a hurry, I'll just take a medium size cardboard and slide my body inside. It's like a blanket. I'll sleep in-between the columns to get some protection from the wind. Most important of all is to protect your chest!
I interviewed some Hong Kong residents who spent the night at McDonald's. They were an interesting group of individuals who, by choice or circumstance could be found in the 24-hr fast food restaurant for different lengths of time.
" I don't have a home. I usually spend my nights in the internet cafe if I get paid. There I can surf the web, chat online and eat noodles very cheaply. If I'm broke, it'll be the park or McDonalds."
"I come here every night. It's cleaner and safer. I even see women sleeping here! And it's definitely warmer during the winter months."
"Here I can get a cup of water from the counter staff. Some are nice as they know we have no money. But I also try not to create trouble."
'Why McDonald's? The use of the toilet of course. It's convenient especially for me. And I can also wash up in the morning"
"I'm not here every night. I can't sleep so came here to get something to eat and read the newspaper."
"Some staff can be quite mean. They will deliberately switched on the lights at the corner of the restaurant even though no one is around or they will put up some barrier to prevent us from using the space."
"You need to know how to sleep here. If you lay your head on the table, they will come wake you up. So you try to sleep upright. Not easy but you get used to it."
"I have a few McDonalds around the neighborhood where I go to each week. I try not to stay in the same restaurant every night because they may not like it. So I'll rotate my stay and so far it has been OK."
"I just finished work, so came here for some food before going home. Yes, I see many who seem to be using this place to sleep. I'm fine as long as they are considerate. It's empty anyway."