The city is filled with people engaged in a wide variety of daily activities every morning- going to work, buying breakfast along the way, delivering goods and services, cleaning the shop front, waiting for the bus, etc. These activities occur repeatedly each day without fail, to the point of being involuntary like breathing. But their repetitions also instilled a sense of dullness and monotony. What happens when we reframe these ordinary activities as various forms art, ranging from public sculptures to performances? Will we begin to see and value them differently? Taken from Hong Kong one morning, the various objects and human activities reveal the rhythm and relationship of space, objects and people in the fast- moving city.
Learning from Shenzhen: The City as a Studio, was conceived and led by Thomas Kong. It formed part of a series of studios organized by the Aformal Academy during the 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. In this 5-day studio, participants were involved in a number of micro, on-site investigations centered on the interplay of everyday life, urbanization and globalization in China’s first Special Economic Zone.
Everyone waits. Despite the fast pace and busy life of Shenzhen's residents, waiting is one common social phenomenon that binds everyone in the city while the cellphone is the indispensable electronic companion to alleviate the boredom of waiting. What do we actually do with our cellphones when we wait? What are we waiting for in the first place? These seemingly naive questions formed the basis of Lai Sihan and Gongyu's work.
The love hate relationship between Shenzhen students and their school uniforms was the focus of Xia Weiyi's work. As the city continuously erases and rebuilds at an incredible pace, the ubiquitous school uniform that Shenzhen students wear daily becomes an identity anchor for many. However, it is not just a passive acceptance of the uniform attire by the students. As Weiyi's work showed, the relationship is one of creative improvisation, and negotiation with personal identity, memory and authority.
Shenzhen's economic development has brought transformational change to the lives of the residents. The urban village of Baishizhou exemplifies the mix of hope, ambition, opportunity and squalor that comes with the city's relentless push for urban and economic growth. Inspired by their work in Baishizhou, Deng Yinjie and Huang Jiangshen set up an installation that solicited from the visitors to the studio their ideas of a good life in Shenzhen and beyond.
Form follows signage
Like tattoos on a body, the advertisement signs follow the contours of the building's form in Shenzhen. It is almost impossible to distinguish between advertistment signs and the building's surface. Taking this premise, Ali Keshmeri's work re-imagined a new architectural form arising from the locations and shapes of the signage.
Shenzhen Vending Machine
Lin Simin and Zou Yizhi’s designed and made a vending machine, which they placed in different parts of the city. The machine had three buttons- money, love and water. They were associated with the economy, the body and human relationship. Unlike the vending machines in the city, their version did not offer what it promised. Instead the machine frustrated the user by consistently failing to vend what was desired.
As the only participant who grew up in Shenzhen, Lui Min witnessed first hand the urban transformation of her city. She noticed places that had formed an important part of her life growing up in Shenzhen were no longer around. Through her mnemonic drawings, she recalled several memorable moments at different stages of her life.
The invitation from the Aformal Academy to teach a class during the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzhen, China was a pleasant surprise and a serendipitous meeting of distant minds. I have just written a proposal for a fictitious design school that aimed to reimagine the current institutionalized structure and organization of the architecture and design education. The proposal was motivated by my desire to search for an alternative design pedagogy less organized around the long cherished model of a design studio housed in a school and be more engaged in a peripatetic experience situated within multiple locales in the city. The biennale in Shenzhen offered a wonderful opportunity to undertake such a pedagogical experiment. Titled, Relearning, the Biennale hopes to question the basic assumptions of the architectural artifact, design of cities and by extension their impacts on our everyday lives.
Much has been written about the meteoric rise of Shenzhen from a quiet fishing village to a modern metropolis after it was decreed by the late premier Deng Xiaoping as a Special Economic Zone. The multitudes of social, cultural, economical and environmental challenges that accompany such an accelerated urbanization process are also well documented. What more can we learn from Shenzhen? And who else can we learn from besides the mélange of professionals, experts, city officials, thinkers and observers of Chinese cities? In the spirit of RElearning, RE not in the Greek god Sisyphus’s sense of repetitive actions condemned to eternal futility, but one that could refresh and redirect our learning of Shenzhen. The Shenzhen Flash Cards Project carries such an aspiration.
The RElearning happens at street-level and from the local residents through the process of crowd sourcing a Chinese character or字that best exemplifies the city at this particular point in time. The hand written character will be recorded on a flash card and the process repeated. The final collection of flash cards will consist of the accumulated handwritten cards over time. As a system of pictograms and ideograms, the Chinese language is most suited to this pedagogical experiment. The compositional meanings inherent in a Chinese character and its combinatory possibilities expand on what could first be perceived as a limited and narrow beginning. Like the use of flash cards to learn a new language, the city flash cards will hopefully offer multiple, drifting, colliding, commingling and shifting meanings of Shenzhen shaped by the forces of urbanization and globalization. The RElearning of the city through the Shenzhen Flash Cards Project does not proceed from a fully formed theory or will the eventual understanding be systematic, complete and unified. Rather the learner needs to interpret and filter a palimpsest of dreams, desires, fears and memories, which defies neat categorization and are ultimately fragmentary. In a sense, this is how a city appears to us and is experienced.
It is conceived that the flash cards will have educational, economic and cultural afterlives beyond the Biennale. It could be used by schoolteachers to cultivate awareness among Shenzhen students the manifold values and perceptions of a diverse group of city dwellers. It could be sold as a memento in a gift shop, which offers visitors to Shenzhen something beyond a packaged touristic experience. It could also be housed in the library as an archival material for future learning and reference. Or it could simply remain on the shelf of an academic, tucked among an assortment of books, papers and other personal objects, to be rediscovered only after several years have passed.
Architecture possesses a surplus.
It possesses a generosity beyond designing a building or the artifact itself. This surplus is what gives meaning to a building and permits architecture to exist in other forms and media. It reminds me of a statement that one can ‘do’ architecture without designing a building. Or when the late Raimund Abraham said that to be an architect, all he needed was a pencil and a piece of paper. Whichever journey one takes, the quest for architecture has to begin with the architect and no one else. In fact it begins with the education of an architect.
It begins with a search- by questioning fundamental aspects of the human condition both historically and contemporaneously because architecture is material form and space that articulates the human condition in all its failings and goodness. Recall the Nazi’s use of architecture in the expression of its warped, destructive and horrid ideology. On the other hand, see how Gaudi strived to embody the highest spiritual aspirations in humanity through his yet to be fully completed Sagrada Familia or John Hejduk’s poignant depictions of loss, remembrance, desire and love in his powerful drawings of angels and their housings.
The search has to manifest into an act (not necessarily in designing a building) and must be carried out with sensitivity and empathy because architecture must be an affirmation of what is ethical and all that is good about humanity. Sometimes the action demands the architect to resist or subvert. In other moments, to strengthen, protect and shelter.
The architect constructs a world.
By this, I mean the architect structures and orders spheres of human experience through the thoughtful and intelligent use of media. The process is as much influenced by the character and propensity of the media as the inner voice of the architect. It is a voice that is first recognized and nurtured while in architectural school and matures through the life of the architect. It is shaped by cultural specificities, personal experiences and reflections, which re-emerges from the architect in in myriad forms and ways. Donald Schön notion of the reflective practitioner echoes this act of design that is informed by a continuous feedback loop of reflection, understanding and action. Each stage of the process moves from confronting something new in the beginning, drawing from one’s past experience in probing, testing and transforming the initial condition while creating a new understanding for the architect. It is a process of educating oneself. In other words, the life of an architect’s education is inexplicably linked to the architect’s process of understanding and awareness of his or her place in the world, which does not stop after graduation but continues into the professional world. It is a lifelong process of questioning and searching that marks the arc of an architect’s growth and development.
Make a model of a building
Use only things bought from the Dollar Store
Title the model "A Mountain of Debt"
Trade or give the model away on Craigslist
This article in the Guardian newspaper made me think about how policy makers and architects (architectural educators too) still believe in the myth of the iconic architectural object as the economic salvation of a city but instead creates greater social inequalities. My Next Helsinki proposal was a counterpoint to this tired model of development.
"Such a myopic approach is a sign of our times: we want big projects that can be “unveiled” to spectators at a specific point in time. In reality, a more modest, piecemeal approach is often better both for the environment and for the socio-economic composition of large cities. Ideally, smaller-scale projects would be implemented in neighbourhoods across urban areas simultaneously."
Find a corner
Look at it lovingly
Draw everything you see
Call a random number
Ask for 'Thomas'
Repeat the act with another number
Stop when 'Thomas' answers
"Helsinki Polybrids: Nexus of Art, Agency and Society" has been recognized by the jury panel of the Next Helsinki 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.
”Almost like a dictionary of human thought and collective imagination.” (Free quote from jury member Juhani Pallasmaa)
'Almost everything in the world today is mobile. Why should art be static?' Juhani Pallasmaa #NextHelsinki
My shortlisted proposal and the other 200 over entries form a collective and creative counterpoint to the corporate driven art market initiative of the Guggenheim Museum. Our proposals are part of the major debate over the long term value of the Guggenheim Helsinki project, which has faced massive push backs from Finnish citizens and prompted the setting up of an alternative international architectural competition. Since the Great Recession, city officials are realizing that big, iconic projects are becoming harder to push through in parliament because citizens are demanding for greater investment in social infrastructures instead. However, to avoid financing public art is also ill-advised as it is an important contributor to the culture and economic vitality of cities. A new model of art-making, curatorial practice, presentation, support, housing and archival will need to be designed.
To avoid succumbing to the seduction of another one-off piece of iconic architecture costing billions of dollars to build, exploits cheap migrant labor and requires long-term, expensive maintenance, my entry re-frames the making, curating, exhibition and sustenance of artworks as a bottom-up, community driven activity that involves a broad spectrum of stakeholders in the city. It sees economic value of art not limited to how much one can afford to pay and sell at an astronomical price later but a more socially distributive model where the ecology of production, distribution and use (and re-use) is intertwined with the everyday life of the Finnish residents. Instead of scaling up even bigger as most contemporary museums seem to suffer from these days, my entry proposes to scale-out into the different neighborhoods by borrowing the city’s existing tram lines and stops. Through the process of creating the multiple art polybrids in the city, the tram lines and stops, which serve a vast section of the Helsinki residents and are in a state of decline, get to be refurbished and renewed at the same time. This twinning of art and public infrastructure makes good economic sense. The art polybrids are also way more accessible than a singular building, and are more effective in harnessing the collective imagination and creativity of the people. Museum goers are no loner passive consumers of a paid experience. They have the power and the opportunity to co-curate, to make art and in the long run, strengthened community bonding and identity, as well as fostering a more inclusive and socially resilient society. Helsinki Polybrids: The Nexus of Art, Society and Agency is therefore designed to offer a multi-scalar, horizontally distributed, economically and socially sustainable re-framing of art, its production and experience for a 21st Nordic city.
The entry was exhibited in the recently concluded Tallinn Architecture Biennale in Estonia under the Research and Development Lab, which saw 1600 visitors over 12 days. The result of the Next Helsinki Competition has also been featured in many influential architecture and design websites, and the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In 2016, the book UR: NextHelsinki by Terreform containing the short-listed entries and essays will be published to document the process and the discourse surrounding the alternative competition, which no doubt will rouse further interest and attention. Academics too, have shared their perspectives on the contentious issue. Writing on the shortlisted entries for the Next Helsinki architectural competition, Peggy Deemer (2015) wrote, “The cultural value of this competition will probably not be in the form of creative capital—although the shortlisted proposals offer excellent thinking on what makes a city work such that art can be appreciated.” (para. 9) Referring to the Next Helsinki architectural competition again, Deemer (2015) was convinced that, “its very existence as performance, display, and conversation—its cultural capital—forces the Guggenheim to scurry and scratch for its rewards.” (para. 9)
Besides being in a critical moment in the global discourse to unpack, critique and contextualize the value and purpose of such lavish projects, my shortlisted entry offered an alternative model to the Guggenheim museum franchise that weaved together the art, mobility, tourism, social support and ecological systems in the city. On a professional level, my proposal is a continuation of my research on and formation of a parallel architectural practice and education model inspired by the arts. According to the Legal Information Institute (2015), the definition of the ‘the Arts’ by the United States Congress includes architecture, besides the commonly accepted artistic practices such as sculpture, painting and photography. This inclusive definition opens up the possibilities for the creative renewal of not only the architectural profession but the teaching and learning of architecture as well.
The breadth and scope of design services have also increased enormously in recent decades to encompass service design, design activism and strategic design, to name a few of the new fields. The strategic design thinking and human-centered problem identification skills used by architects in their daily practice can therefore be developed and marketed as new skills-sets and services to buffer against another economic crisis. Fluid/Soundings in London and AMO in the Netherlands are excellent examples of such an interdisciplinary practice. On the other hand, the nomination of architecture collective Assemble in the U.K. for the 2105 Turner Prize in Art is a strong endorsement of design activism and the art-design nexus of contemporary spatial practice. In my conversation with a design strategist working in the multidisciplinary American architecture firm Gensler, it was very clear to her that their major clients are not only interested in just a well designed and sustainable building but also a strategic vision that aligns architecture with social and business innovations, as well as environmental stewardship. Architect Michael Sorkin, the organizer of The Next Helsinki architectural competition puts it most provocatively when he declared in an interview with the U.S. based Metropolis magazine, “We invite competition entries from any and all, includes any of the 1,700 losers from the Guggenheim competition whose work looks beyond simply building a museum on the site.” (M, Sorkin, personal communication. Jan 22, 2015).
Deemer, Peggy. (2015).The Guggenheim Helsinki Competition: What is the Value Proposition? Avery Review: Critical Essays on Architecture. Issue No. 9. Retrieved from http://www.averyreview.com/issues/8/the-guggenheim-helsinki-competition
Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from Cornell University Law School site https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/20/952
Revised drawings showing the ecology of existing infrastructure, education and cultural institutions, social agencies and parks as spaces for art making, sharing, presentation and community engagement.
Architect, Professor and competition judge Juhani Pallasmaa's acknowledging the Helsinki Polybrids entry in his essay, Back To The Starting Line.
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.
An inch of the sun
An inch of sunlight
An inch of the day
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.