Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Jewish Roots of Spock

It was so sad to hear that Leonard Nimoy passed away on Friday. His Spock is such a classic that he will forever be the icon of a perfect combination of logic and emotion. Many people from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and NASA paid their tributes. Even President Obama issued a statement, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy… I love Spock.”

Nimoy’s great legacy certainly includes the Vulcan Salute – the universal sign for “Live long and prosper.” One thing I didn’t know is that Nimoy himself invented the famous gesture based on his childhood experience at the synagogue. The Priestly Blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim is with both hands, thumb to thumb in the same position, representing the Hebrew letter Shin (ש). Son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from now Ukraine, Nimoy understood the unique value of minority culture. “My folks came to the US as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.” He saw the need for Vulcans to have their own way to greet each other, and suggested this.

Now Zachary Quinto has taken over. Will he inject some gay elements into Spock as acknowledgment to another minority group?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sheep/Goat/Ram vs. Cousins


Today is the first day of the “Yáng” year. The word “yáng” in Chinese may refer to several different animals in the Western sense, ranging from sheep, goat, ram, to even gazelle. Brits and Americans are both lost in translation. Actually this is not the only Chinese zodiac sign that would cause confusion. “Shŭ” can be rat or mouse, “Niú” can be ox, cow, or bull, and “Jī” can be chicken, rooster, cock, or hen…

The Chinese language may be vague in terms of animals. But when it comes to people, it’s extremely complex and specific. In English, all non-sibling relatives of the same generation are call “cousins,” while in Chinese there are 16 types of cousins. In the West, male relatives of the parents’ generation are all called “uncles” and females all “aunts.” But there are 15 types of uncles and as many as 21 types of aunts in a Chinese family, depending on whether the person is related to the mother or the father, as siblings or through marriage, older or younger.

This certainly reflects traditional Chinese family values, where extended family members are still closely connected and hierarchy is well respected. We can also understand this as a result of different worldviews. Western traditions focus more on the relationship between mankind and the outside world. The narrative of Western civilization is the story of man understanding nature with science and enhancing it with technology. Chinese traditions are more about relationships between people, and the civilization is better represented by social and cultural achievements. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century when “Mr. Sci” finally arrived in China. That’s why Western thinking tends to be more direct, simple, and objective, while Chinese culture is a bit ambiguous, sophisticated, and subjective.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Trending in 2014

ArchDaily released the top 20 “most read” articles of 2014. I have to say, it should be more like “most clicked” articles. People nowadays click on the links but won’t necessarily read what comes next, at least not reading in the traditional sense.

1. Frank Gehry Claims Today’s Architecture is (Mostly) “Pure Shit”
2. 21 Rules for a Successful Life in Architecture
3. Four Ways to Learn About Architecture For Free
4. An App That Draws Impressively Accurate Floor Plans In Minutes
5. Does Italy Have Way Too Many Architects? (The Ratio of Architects to Inhabitants Around the World)
6. See all 1,715 Entries to the Guggenheim Helsinki Competition Online
7. Want to Land a Job at One of the Top 50 Architecture Firms? Here Are the Skills You Need to Have…
8. Free CAD Files of 241 Major World Cities
9. And the Best US Architecture Schools for 2015 Are…
10. From Friends to Frasier: 13 Famous TV Shows Rendered in Plan
11. Europe’s Top 100 Schools of Architecture and Design
12. Introducing “Potty-Girl,” The Architect of the Future?
13. 40 Architecture Docs to Watch In 2014
14. Interactive Infographic: How Much do Architecture Graduates Earn?
15. 6 Finalists Revealed in Guggenheim Helsinki Competition
16. The 9 Most Controversial Buildings of All Time
17. The World’s 10 Tallest New Buildings of 2015
18. 25 Free Architecture Books You Can Read Online
19. Norman Foster-Designed Scheme Aims to Transform London into “Cycling Utopia”
20. Hamburg’s Plan to Eliminate Cars in 20 Years

It’s sad to see what ended up being THE most visited page on ArchDaily last year. I don’t know whether it was “Frank Gehry” or “Pure Shit” or the middle finger picture that drew all the attention. But none of these deserved to be the most interesting topic in architecture. Not some showy rhetoric or gesture of some yesterday star for sure. There are more important present issues – the ones in the back of the list for example. Instead of talking about that middle finger, architects should spend more time coming up with more site-specific solutions, better glass façade details, or at least making sure their buildings don’t leak or don’t burn the neighbors.

Maybe architects these days are just a bit too anxious. They want to know the rules of success (2), get into the top 50 firms (7), and learn their craft for free (3). All these “tips” smell like shortcuts. I guess this happens especially when economy is bad and the profession is not respected well enough (5, 14).

Guggenheim Helsinki was definitely the most talked about competition of the year. A record number of 1,715 entries made it the most popular architectural competition of all time. I am glad to see the link to all the entries (6) attracted more page views than the 6 finalists (15) – it feels more grassroots this way. Some people condemned the competition as the biggest collective waste of time as a profession. But I guess in this economic downturn, that’s something we could only do. What really troubled me was the general lack of creativity and imagination in the proposals. You had all the time and energy to dream big, but the results were mostly either boring boxes or flamboyant forms with no meaning. There were no insights, no visions.

There are still some interesting and refreshing stories in the list: a thorough profile of a humble public servant (12), a list of controversial buildings (16) although it’s not so comprehensive (things like the Crystal Palace, Centre Pompidou, and CCTV are not in it), a good list of cinematic portrayals of architecture (13), and a somewhat nerdy but intriguing survey of architecture in TV shows (10). At least some gems in the exploding pile of rapid information.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year New Start

2014 was a busy year – not much time left for thorough thinking and writing.
2015 New Year’s resolution #1: resume my Scribbles activities!

Happy 2015 everyone!

Sunday, March 31, 2013


I spotted an article on the BBC website yesterday about open-plan offices. “They can be noisy and distracting or depressingly quiet, and frictions with co-workers are guaranteed,” the article writes, “so why do so many of us continue to work in open-plan offices?”

It reminds me of another article I read in Wired a few years ago. Both articles reviewed the history of office layouts and accounted the start of the open-plan office to the Taylorist idea of efficiency. In the American industrial boom of the late 19th century, bosses packed more and more clerical workers in a completely open environment, assembling them into rows of desks facing one direction, much like on a factory floor with production lines. We can see this inhuman condition in movies, and the great work room in FLW’s Johnson Wax building is a living example, although better design and better materials did warm up the space. Hierarchy here is clear – the managers oversee the employees from the mezzanine level, from their private offices with a view outside.

King Vidor, “The Crowd”, 1928
Billy Wilder, “The Apartment”, 1960
Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson Wax building, 1939

In the 1950s, Quickborner – a team of management consultants in Germany – developed a new office layout concept called “Bürolandschaft” (Office-Landscape). As a critique to the cold and rigid array of desks, this new plan looked free and organic. Desks were scattered in a seemingly random fashion, and clustered in work units of different sizes. Large plants softened the environment, and created some degree of differentiation and privacy. In fact, this overall arrangement was anything but random. It was based upon an intensive study of patterns of communication – between different parts of the organization and different individuals. The Quickborner team put company staff of all ranks together on one open floor, creating a non-hierarchical environment that encouraged communication, discussion, and debate, and at the same time allowing for future flexibility.
Walter Henn, Plan for Osram Offices in Munich, 1965
Osram Offices in Munich
Office Type Organizational Diagram

I don’t know if it was intentional, Ishigami’s Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop seems like a contemporary example of the Bürolandschaft idea.
Junya Ishigami, Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop, 2008

The Bürolandschaft concept inspired Herman Miller to produce the first modular business furniture system – the Action Office. It had flexible work surfaces that allowed the worker freedom of movement and the possibility to adjust work position according to the task. But the low dividers undermined the original openness and charmingly random quality of Bürolandschaft. Eventually, the competing demands of openness vs. privacy, interaction vs. autonomy landed in a compromise – the cubicle. This new solution defined personal territory while keeping chances to communicate with others, and it was cheap, versatile, and easy to assemble. Soon it became extremely popular and the sea of cubicles (a.k.a. cube farm) was born, although nowadays, especially in sci-fi movies, it has become the symbol of “ordinary and boring jobs.”
Herman Miller’s Action Office system
Jacques Tati, “Playtime”, 1967
Tron, 1982
The Matrix, 1999

A more open office environment may be too noisy and distracting. It may cause more conflicts, over minor things like windows open or not, absent-minded comments, inappropriate jokes, or even ring tones… But I am so glad that I don’t need to work in a sea of cubicles. I guess at the end a healthy office environment really depends primarily on the people who work in it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Phone calls – two new fictional stories

#1: Tokyo, Japan

Ito: Moshi moshi?
Sejima: Sensei, congratulations!
Ito: Oh you.
Sejima: We haven’t talked for three years…
Ito: Well, you never called. What do you expect me to do?
Sejima: I still felt guilty after we spoke last time. But now I am really happy. You finally got what you deserve!
Ito: Everybody says “finally,” like I’ve been really waiting for my whole life and my chances were gone. Well, nobody was betting on me this year anyways, not right after you and Wang Shu.
Sejima: Yeah, I was a bit surprised that Yung Ho was powerful enough to get two Asians in a row. Thank Buddha they didn’t pick that Danish kid.
Ito: I would have had a heart attack if they did that.
Sejima: You should have got the prize right after Sendai. It’s truly a masterpiece. The jury was very impressed by the structural tubes.
Ito: I just did what the computer showed. I am glad that it didn’t collapse during the earthquake.
Sejima: The earthquake actually gave us architects some interesting new work. Your “Home-for-All” was great at the Biennale last year.
Ito: I just wanted to bring some young energy and variety to the show, you know. Cheaperfield is quite boring. Can’t believe people bet on him this year.
Sejima: Yeah, he doesn’t change. But you’ve changed quite a lot. Yung Ho said you keep pushing the boundaries of architecture and you are “not afraid of letting go what you have accomplished before.” That’s very nice.
Ito: I am surprise to hear that from you. You know I don’t fix on skinny columns and white buildings all the time. I like to try new things, but they are not easy. People say I’m getting crazy with age. They hate the towers in Barcelona and the solar stadium in Taiwan, for example.
Sejima: It’s OK, sensei. They are not so bad. The jury citation calls you “a creator of timeless buildings, who at the same time boldly charts new paths.” you’ve developed a “syntax” that combines “a spectrum of architectural languages.” Those are very kind words.
Ito: They are basically saying I’m swinging a lot. I think last time they said sometime like that was to Philip Johnson. I guess I am officially the new whore of architecture now.
Sejima: Oh by the way, are you trying something new for the M+ competition in Hong Kong? What is it like?
Ito: Hold on. That’s really why you are calling, isn’t it? Would you tell me what your scheme is like also?
Sejima: Ano…
Ito hangs up.

Nishizawa (staring at Sejima as she puts down the phone): Seriously? The towers in Barcelona? That ugly blue thing in Taiwan?
Sejima: If I told him the truth, he would have hung up right then!

#2: Chengdu, China

The phone rang. Holl picked it up. The other side of the line kept talking but he just remained silent, staring blankly at the Sliced Porosity Block across the street from his hotel room. After what seemed like an hour to him, he slowly put down the phone, shook his head, and huffed, again.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Massive Messe

The new hall of Messe Basel by HdM had been standing at the end of Clarastrasse for some time before it officially opened a few weeks ago. Much debate was going on about this new gigantic structure: Is such a big building necessary for Basel? How bad is it to block the view towards Messeplatz? In response to the controversy, Jacques Herzog reiterated his vision of a metropolitan Basel that could adopt this large scale, and stated the fact that there had never been an axis intended through Messeplatz in history. On the contrary, the new “City Lounge” provided a covered public space with a dramatic open oculus, continuing traffic and activities from Clarastrasse, and creating a compressed threshold into Messeplatz and the fairs.

I couldn’t decide until a recent tour into the newly finished building. It was mind-blowing. The building is what it needs to be: a very large box with wide span and high ceiling. Standing inside the overwhelming exhibition halls, I felt the scale well justified. I guess it was the only time we could see the entire hall completely empty. But one thing was clear: size does matter.

This vast emptiness will soon be filled with pavilions for the upcoming BaselWorld – the annual international watch and jewelry fair. Rumor has it, the pavilions inside cost twice as much as this already fancy-looking “shell.” And the fair is so profitable that with only 5 days a year, Messe Basel can pay off the construction cost within three years. Crazy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Clarity vs. simplicity

According to Oxford Dictionary:

the quality of being clear, in particular:
– the quality of being coherent and intelligible
– the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound
– the quality of being certain or definite
– the quality of transparency or purity

– the quality or condition of being easy to understand or do
– the quality or condition of being plain or uncomplicated in form or design

By definition, both words mean directness of expression. But being simple implies being basic, free from complications and elaborations, while being clear requires sharpness in communication, free from obscurity or ambiguity. Some people get the two words mixed up, assuming something simple would naturally mean it’s clear. In my opinion, clarity is far more demanding than simplicity. Clarity is good with or without simplicity. In fact, it requires more effort to achieve clarity with complexity. On the other hand, simplicity is only good when it’s clear. Simplicity without clarity is just dumb and meaningless.

Design is an art of communicating ideas. Clarity is intelligence and simplicity is just form.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Even the Death Star has a dent

Human Wu: Hello Darth. Hello Dave. It’s an honor to have you both here today and discuss Brutalism in architecture. Let me start with Darth. You are currently supervising the construction of the Death Star.

Darth Vader: Yes. It’s the latest project by the Empire. It features the most advanced technology, and it’s very sustainable. Tarkin and I are very proud of it.

The Death Star under construction

HW: It’s not a concrete structure. Do you think it would look less powerful than those rough concrete buildings on Planet Earth?

DV: Come on you Earth people! Who says concrete means power? Look at Dave. I don’t even know what his 2001 monolith is made of!

Dave Bowman: I can’t tell either. I woke up in my room the other day and there was this mysterious black thing standing in front of my bed. It was not very big but extremely imposing. I think it was the pure geometry that gave it the powerful look, just like Darth’s sphere.

HW: It seems there is a new trend in architecture that everybody is doing pure shapes—circles, triangles, cubes… Would you define that as the new Brutalism?

DV: It depends. The idea of our Death Star is actually trying to blend in. Look around—all planets are spherical. So in a way the Death Star is highly contextual. Camouflage, you know. Someone from your planet stole the design and put it in the desert. That doesn’t work. That’s just brutal. I also saw you guys building a giant ring in a small town with a forest in the middle. I just don’t get it.

HW: It’s interesting that you brought up the issue of context. Dave, do you think that explains what happened to the monolith?

DB: You could say that I guess. But there’s absolute beauty in platonic shapes. They are so perfect and universal. They have this omnipotent capacity to accommodate any program. If you can solve problems with simple geometry, why use all those blobs and twists? When you have a pure form, even apes understand it’s something special. It makes the concept clearer and stronger.

DV: Fuck concept! Even the Death Star has a dent, for the force’s sake. You do what it takes to make it work. Architecture is not just about form after all. Over-simplification only causes problems. I do hate those pretentious twists and shit though.

HW: With that remark, I’d like to conclude our conversation today. Thank you both very much. I can’t wait to see the completion of the Death Star.

DV: Thanks. I just hope Luke doesn’t come and demolish it 50 years later. Kids these days never respect their fathers’ achievements. Maybe I should apply for a landmark status right away.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview do not represent the views of the author.)