Don’t worry, but everyone check your watch. No need to rush, but the pass closes at dusk, and we don’t want to be stuck in the valley for the night.
With that warning we scramble off the bus in an stream of camera bags, scarves and gloves. We pad along the snowy road, avoiding potholes of dirty slush. One woman poses by a field of scattered snow-covered blocks: the Temple of Venus. Her partner snaps a shot. Beyond the ruins, boxy modern buildings jostle for space, sprouting TV antennae and minarets. Storm clouds roil in the distance, but the sky is a brilliant blue.
I take a quick picture then dash towards the main entrance, risking wet feet to skip ahead of the crowd. I pause at the propylaea and skim the UNESCO signs before proceeding into the great court of the Roman ruins at Baalbek.
We met in Beirut, early on that February morning, and drank cold coffee in the storefront waiting room. Names checked, our guide directed us to the bus and we loaded up. As the bus climbed upward and inland, our guide breezed through Lebanon’s history, from the Phoenicians through the Romans to Islamic conquest and onward to present day politics. Once over the mountain pass and into the Bekaa valley, she pointed out the roadside tent cities where Syrian refugees had settled in temporary permanence. Along the highways near Beirut, billboards hawked plastic surgery, cars, watches, but as we approached Baalbek, the messages shifted to political slogans, portraits of religious leaders and recent martyrs, and the Hezbollah flag with its styled rifle held aloft.
The crisp winter air robs the scene of all but the crunch of snow, as I carefully walk across the great court, then hug the perimeter to duck into niches and appreciate the finely carved detail of the remaining columns of an ancient arcade. Other fragments are scattered about the court: acanthus leaves, lions’ heads, scenes from forgotten myths. A grand stair leads to the plinth of the Temple of Jupiter, vacant now but for a row of six precarious columns.
Snow starts to fall and the air sparkles as I explore the Temple of Bacchus, missing a roof but still standing largely-intact after nearly 2000 years of empire and decline, conquest, colonization, war. The snow falls harder, and I hear the Muslim call to prayer cut through the wind.
We made the pass with plenty of time to spare. Beyond the mountain ridge, the Mediterranean shimmered in the setting sun as the bus rolled us slowly back to Beirut.
Today, ArchDailyhas published an excerpt of my essay “Scalelessness: Impressions of Contemporary China” from Architectural Guide China. The full essay runs over three times the length of this excerpt, and expands on discussions of Chinese traditional art and authenticity. The excerpt follows after the break.
Before starting at LMN, I lived in China for over three years, where I became fascinated by the classical gardens of Suzhou. These gardens, unique to southern China, are populated by small pavilions and halls, sculpted rock outcroppings, shallow pools, and planted areas, all contained within a perimeter wall and arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner. While a pleasing arrangement of rocks may be enough to satisfy bored tourists, architects and designers find the gardens endlessly fascinating for the way they orchestrate experience, frame space, and create illusory depth in their limited boundaries.
Suzhou’s gardens are characterized by ambiguity of interior and exterior space, collisions of disparate forms and materials, and above all the intricate layering of space to create subtle perceptual shifts that serve to destabilize the viewer’s sense of space and scale, inspiring a kind of sublime wonder, a worthy goal for designers in any era or cultural context.
How are these effects achieved? Is Chinese garden design a lost art, or subject to codes buried in ancient design manuals? Can we leverage our computational tools to quantify what makes these gardens so beguiling? Could spatial analysis of these gardens hold any lessons for designers today? Continue reading →
When I first moved to Seattle, the thing that most surprised me was the number of hills. The city is, after all, better known for its rain and its coffee than for its topography. As an avid bicycle commuter back in (flat) Columbus, Ohio, I was discouraged by the steep slopes here: on many roads, I’d be forced to dismount and walk my bike, which takes some fun out of the ride. I found myself wondering if we could create an algorithm to map routes with a limit on the maximum grade, so I could stay up on my bike from start to finish. [Note: this post first appeared on LMN Architect’s Tech Studio blog]
As previously noted, I spent most of last December in Japan, leading a group of students and professors (from Ohio State University) on a tour from Tokyo down to Hiroshima and back. I’ve already posted my general day-by-day travelogue, and now as I continue editing my photos, I’ll be selecting a few buildings for somewhat deeper analysis. In recent months, I posted some thoughts on Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, and on the famous Ise Shrine. Today, I bring you the Okayama Orient Museum, designed by Okada Associates and constructed from 1979 to 1980.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly going through my photos from the Japan trip, and posting, bit by bit, to my Flickr account.
Today I edited photos from the Ise Shrine, where I took a few matched shots of the new and old shrines, for comparison. The new shrine is constructed (and consecrated) only once every 20 years, and after completion, the old shrine is disassembled and its components are shipped to other shrines across the country for reuse. We were lucky to be there during the few months when both shrines stand side-by-side.
Seeing the two identical shrines, one freshly built, one aged to an ash grey, really reinforced the cyclical nature of this sacred site… and makes one question perceived aspects of permanence and authenticity in architecture. Here, the ‘architecture’ is the process, the maintenance of traditional skills in service of preservation of a sacred site. It was incredibly moving, one of the most anticipated stops on the trip, and one with the greatest payoff.
As always, more photos on my Flickr page: Ise Shrine.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been in Japan, co-leading a study-abroad tour with professors from the Ohio State University. What follows is my more-or-less real-time stream-of-consciousness travelogue, typed mostly on iPad and supplemented with photos posted daily to Instagram. Continue reading →
In Shanghai, the distinction between public and private space is not always clear. I’ve written a bit about Shanghai (and pajamas) at NBBJ’s new “ideas platform,” nbbX. See more here: Public Space, Private Lives.
In December, several OSU professors and I will be leading a group of 30 students on a two-week architecture tour of Japan. With over 400 buildings on our “master list” and over 150 assigned as student research, we would obviously need some maps.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco for the first time. As I typically do before a trip, I researched the architecture of the city, plotted some points on Google maps, and sketched out a quick itinerary. San Francisco had a number of stunning buildings – perhaps second only to NYC in the US in terms of modern and contemporary architecture – and I had mapped out the de Young Museum (Herzog & de Meuron), St Mary’s Cathedral (Nervi), the SF Federal Building (Morphosis), a small gallery by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a half-dozen parks and interesting bits of urbanism like Chinatown, but I had somehow missed this: the Hyatt Embarcadero, by John Portman Associates, 1973.
It’s been nearly five years since I graduated from OSU with my M.Arch, and though I moved away – to Rome, and then to Shanghai, then Seattle – I’m still very much connected to the school. Professor Jackie Gargus has been kind enough to invite me – again and again – on her legendary European architecture tours, and together we organized and ran two tours of (eastern) China, in 2011 and 2012.
I was recently invited to write a piece for the AA’s “colour research cluster,” Saturated Space – “a forum for the sharing, exploration, and celebration of colour in Architecture.”
For my essay, I took on nocturnal lighting in Shanghai.
“In Shanghai, light and colour give designers, planners, and policy makers the freedom to present an idealized image of their buildings, their city. Dynamic, animated lights dance through the haze, but hidden by darkness, massive fissures split the sidewalks, the water is undrinkable, and the air is toxic. While the idealized image the city seeks to project is one of uncontested modernity, conditions on the ground (in the harsh light of day) deny this. Architectural lighting is thus instrumental – even essential – in the projection of modernity, and represents a key aspect of Chinese society’s reclamation of agency following a long period of oppression and turmoil….”
During the yearly art fair in Basel, Switzerland, the city is activated and reconfigured, and art is brought to the forefront of civic discourse. What, if any, impact could the fair have on daily life in a city of 7 million? How would this art-world mega-event translate to Asia? Some quick reflections on Art Basel Hong Kong, 2013.
Honest revelation of tectonics and materiality. The social potential of architectural form. As the world enters an era of mass-urbanization, the primary ambitions of the Brutalist project are more relevant now than ever.
While only architects and masochists could love Brutalism’s eponymous concrete (and let’s see that Venn diagram!), the spatial and social ambitions of the Brutalist movement remain relevant as the world enters an era of mass-urbanization, the first waves of which are most acutely felt in Asia’s megacities. Continue reading →
Thanks to the efforts of my friend, former classmate, and occasional colleague Zhiguo Chen, I’ve been published in Chinese! Chen translated my essay “Wang Shu: A New Vernacular?” (Originally published on Archinect and mirrored here) and worked to get it published in an issue of “The Architect”, one of China’s top architectural journals, available in shops across China.
For those interested in reading the essay in Chinese, I’ve posted the full text below (and on my Archinect blog.)
This past June, I joined architecture students from the Ohio State University on a two week tour through Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. Here, a selection of images. Full set (and full resolution) over on Flickr: KSA Europe 2012. (Sorry for the lack of recent updates… we’ll get back to China soon enough…)
[Note: this essay was originally posted as a feature article on Archinect, March 11th, 2012. The portion on the Ningbo History Museum was originally published in Log #24, Spring 2012]
Wang Shu may be a surprising choice for this year’s Pritzker Prize, but it’s an excellent one, and well-deserved. In recent years the Pritzker Committee has gravitated towards architects who produce work with an innate understanding of place, allowing their ties to local culture to infuse their work. The choice of Wang Shu (and, by extension, of Amateur Architecture and partner Lu Wenyu) continues this trend: his work is as culturally-sensitive and contextually responsive as it is aesthetically stunning.
One of the great, if seldom realized, promises of architecture is its capacity to affect change. The best architects seem to have this potential in mind constantly as they structure career-length narratives around the social impact that good design can achieve. While this is often hyperbole, and most projects are driven by functional or economic considerations, there is the occasional opportunity for artists and architects to create purely speculative work, where radical departures from established typologies suggest alternatives to the status quo. In these rare cases, novelty is embraced not for its own sake, but for its potential to generate new archetypes, to provide a glimpse into a parallel world where architecture truly has agency: where design can change society for the better.
[In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Guangzhou.]
Guangzhou, perhaps more than any other city, represents the diversity of urban form present in China’s post-colonial cities. From the well-preserved Old Town, the colonial Shamian Island, to the “hanging gardens” of Guangzhou’s elevated highways (which soften the brutal infrastructure of the city, and provide shade for informal businesses below) and the lifeless modernism of Futian, Guangzhou is nothing if not a collection of diverse urban ideas, a kind of living museum of urbanism.
[In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Shenzhen.]
Shenzhen’s short history is well known: In the accepted mythology, China’s Economic Miracle began here, with the establishment of the Special Economic Zone, that grand urban experiment with market capitalism. This auspicious tabula rasa – not even labeled on maps prior to the 1980s – was surely selected as much for its lack of historical baggage as for as its adjacency to booming Hong Kong. What better place to demonstrate the potential of the new China, free, finally, from imperialist aggressors, war, and the insanity of the Mao era? With no dynastic, imperial, republican, or communist fabric, Shenzhen was essentially a blank slate, free to be shaped into a modern – and specifically Chinese – city.
[Note: Over the past two weeks, I helped lead a tour of Ohio State University architecture students and alumni on a tour up the East China coast, from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, and inland to Beijing. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited…. Today: Macau.] Continue reading →