I was a mentor to a group of high school art students for over 5 days. Working collaboratively on a theme set by Singapore's Ministry of Education, the students developed spatial propositions via models and drawings. A showcase of the works was held on the last day.
The energy and enthusiasm was infectious. The works carried a spirit of shear audacity that defied my expectations. What to make of a web of bridges that dared to confront our discriminating mind? Who wouldn't want to be in a place of peace and tranquility amidst a sea of noise and distraction? Or be thrown into a reality gameshow that do not simplify our desire for and repulsion of digital connection? And not to forget a tower that fostered sociability over coffee, gardening and a good book. Countless ideas and possibilities to keep us curious, engaged and inspired!
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.
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
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’.
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?
The hillside informal shrine in So Uk Estate is connected to a larger network of elderly walkers and informal social spaces. The shrine is situated along a path that winds up the hillside, which is a favorite spot for the mostly elderly residents and housewives to engage in their morning walks and exercises. The shrine is often a stop over for the residents. They would offer incense or a simple prayer at the shrine on their way up or down the hill during their morning exercise routines. Besides exercising, the residents have also undertaken small, self-initiated actions along the various exercising spots; such as plant caring, building of small concrete steps to link disconnected parts of the hillside and allow a safer walk up the hill, introducing resting spots, setting up support facilities for the morning exercises, and repairing broken planters. Water for the plants is collected from the natural run-offs from the hill in small pails and buckets. The So Uk Estate shrine and the adjacent exercising spots are excellent examples of bottom-up initiatives in place-making. It makes a strong case for allowing urban dwellers to take control and have the opportunity to shape their immediate spaces in the city rather than top-down initiatives that often miss the point and cost much more than they should be.