Ramblings on air

Apr 25

Resilience of Japan-ness

I was one of the four guest speakers at SOAS EAST ASIA CONFERENCE 2014, which took place at the Brunei Gallery in London on 11th March 2014.

I began my lecture with a few questions, one of which was: how is the idea of Japan-ness in architecture preserved and how is it strengthened?

By showing many examples, I remarked at the end that the idea of Japan-ness in architecture comes in many shapes and forms, that it is not at all static but fundamentally fluid, being much more malleable that we think.

I was feeling a little emotional on that day, as it was exactly a year ago when I was traveling in Tohoku to report on the reconstruction efforts 2 years on from when the disaster struck the area in 2011.

Sep 10

Gateway to the Perilous Future: Hiroshima Peace Park

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I am very excited to be sharing this link with you - my contribution to Portal 9, a beautifully produced, peer-reviewed journal from Beirut, published both in English and Arabic. The theme of its 2013 Spring issue was ‘The Square.’ I wrote about Tange’s Hiroshima Peace Park and the need for this place to disentangle itself from its current single narrative use.

Aug 03

Japan After the Storm
The devastation in Tohoku area of Japan is still markedly visible two years after the disaster. The trip to the north was very different from the numerous other trips we have made in the past, as it was more about the deficiency, rather than excess of new buildings. People, their resilience, as well as communities lost and found, were the focus of our journey. I tried to find projects and other initiatives led by various groups of architects however small they were. You can read more about these projects in the article above, commissioned by Architectural Review.

Japan After the Storm

The devastation in Tohoku area of Japan is still markedly visible two years after the disaster. The trip to the north was very different from the numerous other trips we have made in the past, as it was more about the deficiency, rather than excess of new buildings. People, their resilience, as well as communities lost and found, were the focus of our journey. I tried to find projects and other initiatives led by various groups of architects however small they were. You can read more about these projects in the article above, commissioned by Architectural Review.

Jun 19

My review of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion is now viewable online on Blueprint Magazine’s new website. The pavilion is by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, whose work I have been following for some years now. I was very happy to do this for the magazine, as I interviewed the architect in 2008 for their special Japan issue. I hope you enjoy the review. I have tried to give readers more of a sense of who Fujimoto is and what his work is about…I incorporate other critics’ remarks in my piece, but by far the best comment was made by my 7-year-old son: “it was really good but it was annoying that you couldn’t climb up to the very top!” (with an emphasis on ‘very’)

My review of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion is now viewable online on Blueprint Magazine’s new website. The pavilion is by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, whose work I have been following for some years now. I was very happy to do this for the magazine, as I interviewed the architect in 2008 for their special Japan issue. I hope you enjoy the review. I have tried to give readers more of a sense of who Fujimoto is and what his work is about…I incorporate other critics’ remarks in my piece, but by far the best comment was made by my 7-year-old son: “it was really good but it was annoying that you couldn’t climb up to the very top!” (with an emphasis on ‘very’)

Mar 11

My take on the latest revamp proposal for the Southbank Centre

Douglas Murphy is critical of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ plan for the revamp of Southbank Centre. You can read his article here; Rowan Moore has more of a measured response to it. In his article, he writes that they “fulfil their original intentions better than ever” but “architectural intelligence of the project” may be compromised by time & money. I feel very strongly that the Southbank Centre should have been listed in the first place. The original intention of the LCC architects was that the Southbank Centre could be further developed or expanded but the revamp needs to be carefully handled. It needs to be a gradual process, rather than a big jump, such as this one. Read my essay about its original spirit in here and make up your own mind about it.

Feb 11

Walking the Hills on the South Bank

High Hopes…

Here you will find a short version of an essay I wrote sometime ago about the high-rise walkways at the South Bank in London. As you will see, I do hugely admire the ambitious 1960s’ project, which to me signifies the kind of high-minded” (not to be confused with ‘arrogant’ or ‘aloof’) hybrid approach worthy of praise. The High Line Linear Park Project in Manhattan, which opened in 2011, is a lovechild of such an approach.

I believe we need to be able to pull ourselves back a little to see a bigger picture before we can actually bring benefits to the local/regional level. I’m not blindly promoting globalism per se, the blandness of which is obvious, but if we cannot see a bigger picture every now and then, we cannot be bold and pull ourselves forward. Certain amount of heroism is needed, realistic idealism. A hybrid of global and regional.

I read in the March issue of Blueprint magazine that similar projects using defunct highways, railways and river ways are beginning to appear in other cities of the world, such as Seul, Rotterdam, Madrid and Birmingham, and I thought that it might be interesting to revisit the high-rise walkways at the South Bank. It was an onset of something new…Read on!

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It’s all too easy to dismiss the development at the South Bank as a high-minded creation of an elite group of architects at LCC (London County Council) from 1960s slightly out of touch with reality. When the South Bank, or more precisely, the Southbank Centre – the area encompassing the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery – first opened in 1968, their idealistic concrete ‘mould’ received damning reviews. The Architects’ Journal labeled the Hayward Gallery as “secretive and repelling.” Comparing it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the article bemoaned the lack of a café or water fountains or indeed the “serenity” found at its American counterpart. Michael Levery wrote in Architectural Design that the area had “faint associations of a set for King Lear, abandoned perhaps before ever being completed…” The Italian magazine Casabella remarked that it was “a sad collection of Second World War bunkers.”

It is clear from a number of publications that the area wasn’t working well for a long time after it opened; it needed a policy change in 1983 to revive its spirit, as Charlotte Mullins makes it clear in Festival on the River: The Story of Southbank Centre:

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the buildings looked in on themselves, embracing neither their riverside location nor their proximity to each other. Only with the Greater London Council’s ambitious open foyer programme of 1983 did Southbank Centre start to come alive. The Royal Festival Hall’s foyers began to open during the day, with live music presented in the bar and exhibitions on the ballroom floor.

Despite the gloom and doom it attracted, there were some fervent supporters who could see its potential to do good for the people of London from very early on. In the article entitled “Adhocism on the South Bank,” written for Architectural Review, the architectural critic Charles Jencks described the raised pedestrian walkways at Southbank Centre as if he were a young boy again having fun on a boy-scouts mission:

One is slightly stirred to find out what’s hiding behind the parapets – storm the walls, leap the moats, cross the forecourt, jump the crossbridge, dodge the columns and burst through those fifteen inches of solid concrete to find out what needs so much protection and sanctity in the middle of the twentieth century. A concert hall and art gallery.

Jencks branded the buildings at the Southbank Centre as “pugnacious,” and his portrayal of the incredibly complex airway system that the engineers have devised for the QEH (tucked away inside a massive concrete box atop the Purcell Room) reads almost like an allegory of the experience one has at the place, but he was essentially approving of the way the new design celebrated our freedom to explore the city in an adhoc, playful manner.

Not surprisingly, the modernist architect Neave Brown was also seduced. What Brown liked about the Southbank Centre, he wrote in 2008, was the physical and mental challenges it imposed on visitors: “It had built-in limitations, which you had to outflank and outwit, but these imposed positive patterns of thinking. You had to work with the constraints, and every now and then you had to burst out of it - with the mezzanine, the terraces. […] its presence and difficulties add to London.

Ian Tuckett, Executive Director of the nearby Coin Street Community Centre, contrasted the open aesthetic of the South Bank against the closed, corporate aesthetic of the tall Shell Building behind the Southbank Centre: “…the area [at the time the Shell Building was developed] was not considered to be very desirable, so it was built effectively to keep people inside; therefore it has its own catering, swimming pools, and shops. As a result, there is no need to go out. Even though there are more people working in this area than in Covent Garden, there isn’t the street life that makes the area attractive; thus shops and other forms of small business are not encouraged to open up.”

The plan for the Southbank Centre was approved in 1961. Previously, the area had been heavily industrialized, with private businesses owning exclusive rights to the access of the river. The idea of vertically segregating pedestrians and traffic had been in vogue for sometime among the architects and town planners in the UK before the war. Concerned with such issues as our access to natural light, clean air, and road safety, the modernist architects who designed the Southbank Centre privileged the pedestrian experience of the city, the joy of which was deemed as being eroded through the rapid motorization of our cities and towns.

One of the earliest images of the high-level walkways was created by German architect Ludwig Hilberseimer, who taught at Bauhaus but left for the USA in 1938 to work for Mies van der Rohe. Hilberseimer’s idea was published in a book called City Plan in 1927. Le Corbusier subsequently derided Hilberseimer’s model, calling it “anti-reason.” In Radiant City, which was published in 1933, he ridiculed Hiberseimer’s proposal: “Is man to spend his life from now on gesticulating up in the air on a series of (inevitably) narrow platforms, climbing up and down stairways – a monkey up in the tree tops! … it is madenss. Madness, madness, madness.”

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Le Corbusier flipped Hiberseimer’s plan, confining people instead to the ground level and promoting cars up on the high-rise expressways. Jane Jacobs, who wrote the seminal book on urban planning, The Death and Life of great American Cities, criticized both le Corbusier’s vertical garden city idea, as well as his precedent Ebenezer Howard’s idea for horizontal garden city, claiming that they both killed off our street life, therefore destroyed the essence of our cities. Jacobs accuses Le Corbusier of being essentially anti-urban: “…like the garden city planners he [Le Corbusier] kept the pedestrians off the streets and in the parks.”

Le Corbusier’s vertical garden city, nevertheless, has had a wide repercussion in the post-war architectural world. Chamberlin, Power and Bon, the architects responsible for the Barbican in the City of London, took the City’s newly formed Barbican Committee on a study visit to the Hotorget district in central Stockholm in 1958 to show “a garden city which is at the same time truly urban.” The Barbican, completed shortly before the South Bank, however, does not have the same openness, mainly due to the fact that flats in the towers are now almost all privately owned, with 24-hour security guards exuding air of exclusivity. Its lack of openness is also due to the flaws in the planning that looks inward rather than outward. The towers at the Barbican now function much like the isolated ‘islands’ that Jacobs used to describe some of the garden city towns, with its high-rise walkways as barren as the rest of the City on Sundays.

In 1956, Alison and Peter Smithson wrote an article entitled as “An Alternative to the Garden City Idea” for Architectural Design. They were the ones who developed the concept of “streets in the air” in early 1950s but in this case, the alternative they were proposing was “an abolition of planning as we know it.” The article has a series of diagrams, indicating ‘mobility,’ ‘cluster,’ ‘growth,’ ‘re-assessment,’ and so forth. They wrote: “…municipal pre-planning cannot create the form of a new community. Form is generated, in part, by response to existing form, and in part, by response to the Zeitgeist of the time – which cannot be pre-planned.” You can see why Jencks, advocating adhocism, liked Smithsons’ work.

What would, however, Jane Jacobs have said of Smithsons’ idea? I doubt very much that she would have approved the abolition of planning, for the same reason that Anna Minton is weary today of the non-plan enthusiasts, because, as Minton writes, “[no plan] gives reign to market forces.” Yet what Smithsons were suggesting through this article - taking into account the specificities of the situations at hand, as well as taking care not to destroy the existing communities, being mindful of the new, emergent communities, etcetera - was not, dare I say it, so dissimilar to what Jacobs was alluding to in her book: Smithsons had put the street life at the forefront of the city life, which was in sharp contrast to what Le Corbusier proposed: “Death of the Street” (This is what he had put as a title of one of the chapters in his book Radiant City).

In practical terms, the high-level walkways were very difficult to implement. Large-scale restructuring of towns and cities was financially not viable. It also presented problems where original streets were still thriving. No one liked their familiar streets bulldozed senselessly no matter how noble the plans were. The project in the City was soon abandoned. And because of their piecemeal state, the high level walkways in the City were never properly used: most led nowhere and those that did lead somewhere were shunned by pedestrians if there were other, easier alternatives.

Elsewhere, Jane Jacobs discusses the “disneyfication of our neighbourhoods.” Our neighbourhoods have become sterilized, homogenized, and devoid of vitality, Jacobs writes. We are increasingly in less control of our cities. How does the South Bank fare in this context? Does it still possess the feel of what Smithsons were aiming for in their schemes such as Sheffield University and Berlin Haubstadt, namely, “the open aesthetic for open society,” both of which have been credited as the major influence over the design of the South Bank? Is it now so hopelessly commercialized that the original goodwill has all but evaporated?

We must not forget what the area was like before the Southbank Centre came into being. The new design opened the riverside up to the public, although the access to it was not simply ‘given’ to us. We were encouraged to discover it in our own adhoc ways. Unfortunately, some of this ‘openness’ has been eroded in more recent years. If you visit the Southbank Centre website, it tells you that “the stretch of land along the South Bank is privately owned,” and consequently, “photography and filming using tripods are not allowed on the premise without prior permission.”

Cities are the place of discovery and transformation. It’s where people - young and old, urban and suburban, domestic and foreign – migrate to, hoping to make something of themselves. Openness, diversity, conviviality and safety are the essential qualities that pertain to the vitality of our cities. Small, incremental ‘interventions’ of the recent years at the South Bank certainly have helped to keep those qualities intact. The most effective ones, such as the skateboard park underneath the QEH, have been spontaneous, owning much to the ‘looseness’ - or in Jencks’ word, the ‘adhoc-ness’ - of its original design.

What the South Bank displays is a struggle for a better future. We must cherish and nourish it because the essence of a great city is embodied in it. On the Archigram’s archival website, there is a newspaper clipping, which one of the members (N.B. the younger members of the architects responsible for the Southbank Centre had joined Archigram) must have kept, with a quote about the Southbank Centre enthusiastically marked in red pen. It reads: “We would like to see flats and cinemas on the South Bank too, so that it becomes alive; a place where people live and enjoy themselves in different ways, rather than just a cultural centre.” Let’s hope that the Southbank Centre can keep its doors open through whatever transformation it may face in the future.

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Bibliography:

Bradley, Simon. “Walking in the Air” in Pevsner Architectural Guides. London: Twentieth Century Society, 2001.

Brown, Neave.40 years of the Hayward - Relishing the challenge” in Building Design 1817. London: 02 May 2008.

Designing the future of the South Bank. London: Academy Editions, 1994.

Finch, Robert. “Wonders and blunders” in The Guardian. London: 24 May 2004.

Greater London Council. South Bank Arts Centre, GLC : Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Hayward Gallery. London : Greater London Council, 1976.

Gunn, Simon. “The Buchanan Report, Environment and the Problem of Traffic in 1960s Britain” in 20th Century British History Vol. 22 Issue 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press, December 2011.

Hebbert, Michael. “The City of London Walkway Experiement” in Journal of the American Planning Association Vol 59, No. 4. Chicago, IL: Autumn 1993.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. London: Pimlico, 2000.

Jencks, Charles. “Adhocism on the South Bank” in Architectural Review Vol. 144. London: July 1968.

Landau, Royston. New Directions in British Architecture. London: Studio Vista, 1968.

Le Corbusier. The Radiant City. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1967.

Minton, Anna. Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first Century City. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Moor, Rowan. “The London River Park: place for the people or a private playground?” in The Observer. London: 13 November 2011.

Mullins, Charlotte. A festival on the river : the story of Southbank Centre. London: Penguin, 2007.

Powers, Alan. 40 years of the Hayward - Relishing the challenge” in Building Design 1817. London: 02 May 2008.

Saints, Andrew. “Obituaries: Sir Hubert Bennett” in The Guardian. London: 23 December 2000.

Smithson, A. and P. Smithson. “An Alternative to the Garden City Idea” in Architectural Design. London: July 1956.

The Architects’ Journal Information Library. London: 10 July 1968.

Feb 10

At night, On this day…
I suppose you don’t get many poems here on tumblr.
I like writing poems every now and then. I like the feeling of completeness. Couldn’t be simpler.
I thought I share the latest ones with you. Poems for Friday - hey, why not?
The two poems I present here are not really related to one another but I wrote them on the same day. I also think that poems about day and night kind of belong to each other.
Enjoy!

At night, On this day…

I suppose you don’t get many poems here on tumblr.

I like writing poems every now and then. I like the feeling of completeness. Couldn’t be simpler.

I thought I share the latest ones with you. Poems for Friday - hey, why not?

The two poems I present here are not really related to one another but I wrote them on the same day. I also think that poems about day and night kind of belong to each other.

Enjoy!

Nov 16

This is a rambling on what it means to have style.
The world is divided into two halves: those who have style and those who haven’t. It’s black and white for me. There is no fuzzy bit in the middle. The division goes across class, religion, gender, nationality and age. In another word, you can be filthy rich and have no style, or you can be poor but have style. You can be male and have style or be female and have no style. You can also be Japanese and still have no style!
It’s also important to remember that no one is born with style. You must acquire it. This is the critical difference with other types of divisions, such as class, religion, nationality, which unfortunately are all given at birth. Moreover, style is not inherited. So even if your parents had style, you yourself may not necessarily possess it. Not yet, I should say, because you may, one day. It is more a matter of choice.
Children naturally do not have style. They can’t. They are too young. Teenagers, very rarely, indeed. Style comes with a certain maturity, it requires both emotional and intellectual integrity. You can’t just copy someone else’ style. It’s about knowing yourself, knowing what suits you, what tickles you most, and making a statement about that. That knowing takes time.
In fact, it is not dissimilar to fine wine. It needs ripening, a rupture of some kind, a struggle even. A designer with style spends a long time thinking about what he/she designs. A fashion student with style spends a long time thinking about what he/she wears. Having financial security does help because that means you can free up some head space to think about such things, but time is more important. Neither a commercial success nor celebrity status will bring style, in fact, they may actually hinder it. Whether or not you are a famous architect or a senior designer, if you do not have the kind of maturity that goes with fine wine, you may still very much lack style.
Having style is not at all about having a large ego. That is the interesting thing about people with style. You cannot be self-obsessed and have style, because you have to think about others. You need audience. What kind of statement are you making? You must be able to de-clutter the junk in your head before you can have a clarity of vision that goes with style.
See the picture above, for example. That bag with a zip at the bottom of it was what got me started thinking about what it means to have style…Why would a person design such a bag? And why would a person buy such a bag? What annoys me is the mindlessness that went into the production & the possession of it…I felt strongly that I needed to write about this.
Am i being harsh? I tell you, the world would be a much better place if we had more people with style…

This is a rambling on what it means to have style.

The world is divided into two halves: those who have style and those who haven’t. It’s black and white for me. There is no fuzzy bit in the middle. The division goes across class, religion, gender, nationality and age. In another word, you can be filthy rich and have no style, or you can be poor but have style. You can be male and have style or be female and have no style. You can also be Japanese and still have no style!

It’s also important to remember that no one is born with style. You must acquire it. This is the critical difference with other types of divisions, such as class, religion, nationality, which unfortunately are all given at birth. Moreover, style is not inherited. So even if your parents had style, you yourself may not necessarily possess it. Not yet, I should say, because you may, one day. It is more a matter of choice.

Children naturally do not have style. They can’t. They are too young. Teenagers, very rarely, indeed. Style comes with a certain maturity, it requires both emotional and intellectual integrity. You can’t just copy someone else’ style. It’s about knowing yourself, knowing what suits you, what tickles you most, and making a statement about that. That knowing takes time.

In fact, it is not dissimilar to fine wine. It needs ripening, a rupture of some kind, a struggle even. A designer with style spends a long time thinking about what he/she designs. A fashion student with style spends a long time thinking about what he/she wears. Having financial security does help because that means you can free up some head space to think about such things, but time is more important. Neither a commercial success nor celebrity status will bring style, in fact, they may actually hinder it. Whether or not you are a famous architect or a senior designer, if you do not have the kind of maturity that goes with fine wine, you may still very much lack style.

Having style is not at all about having a large ego. That is the interesting thing about people with style. You cannot be self-obsessed and have style, because you have to think about others. You need audience. What kind of statement are you making? You must be able to de-clutter the junk in your head before you can have a clarity of vision that goes with style.

See the picture above, for example. That bag with a zip at the bottom of it was what got me started thinking about what it means to have style…Why would a person design such a bag? And why would a person buy such a bag? What annoys me is the mindlessness that went into the production & the possession of it…I felt strongly that I needed to write about this.

Am i being harsh? I tell you, the world would be a much better place if we had more people with style…

Nov 07

I made a contribution to a new online magazine called Architecture in Development. This website is “a new architecture platform and a community to share information, knowledge and creativity about architecture and sustainable development.” I tweaked my original text on Takasugi-an by Terunobu Fujimori for this website and put some images up. I hope to add a bit more to this page (about the city itself, for example). Check it out…

I made a contribution to a new online magazine called Architecture in Development. This website is “a new architecture platform and a community to share information, knowledge and creativity about architecture and sustainable development.” I tweaked my original text on Takasugi-an by Terunobu Fujimori for this website and put some images up. I hope to add a bit more to this page (about the city itself, for example). Check it out…

Oct 23

Air as Architecture Lecture - Discussion

"where a journey - physical or spiritual - is fraught with protocol and ritual, overlaid and constrained by social standing. This is the inconsistency I was trying to indicate…"

I think your alluding to a dialectical perception of freedom. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, freedom does not exist as a universal condition but as a relational condition within a social structure. Following that all societies and cultures have necessitated restrictive practices to allow for varying degrees of freedom. 

But I think it is more a question of attitude(s) found in aspects of Japanese culture rather than anything overly comprehensive.

In the 1983 film Sans Soleil there is some beautiful commentary describing a ceremony held at Ueno Zoo in memory of animals that had died during the year.

"I’ve heard this sentence: “The partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us as it does to a Westerner.” What I have read most often in the eyes of people about to die is surprise. What I read right now in the eyes of Japanese children is curiosity, as if they were trying—in order to understand the death of an animal—to stare through the partition."

*Above comment has been submitted by bauhauswives