Thursday, 24 May 2012

Tri-ciprocal Cities

The 2011-12 Hong Kong and Shenzhen Biennale of
Urbanism /Architecture

Temporary pavilions of Taipei, Hong Kong and China expositions are erected with bamboo stems - the indigenous material that continues to capture one's imagination.

World Pavilion is packed with exhibits on walls and floors.  Some research studies are presented with dense writings that deter casual reading.

The 2011-12 Biennale is a massive exposition jointly held in the two cities from the autumn of 2011 to the spring of 2012.  If the coordinated efforts to showcase works related to the regional cities were not impressive enough, this event provides ground for cross-fertilization with inputs from other parts of China, Taiwan and Europe as well.  With diverse participation from architects, planners, academics, artists and other interest groups, the biennale is an ambitious attempt to address questions on relevant discourses.  

They might not be cutting edge in the strictest sense of the words, the exhibits do manage to shed light on the status of urban and architectural developments in one of the fastest growing regions of the world.  Besides, the free-for-all exhibition admission is worth commendation.  Since it is impossible to review all pavilions, a feasible approach of selected discussion and photo-journal styled commentary is adopted.  Having said that, only a small fraction of the exhibits is covered.

Hong Kong Pavilion

Largely pre-occupied with the contentious issues implicated by high property prices and unpopular government policies, the venue has a mixed-bag presence from the government, academics, practitioners and community forces.  

Choi Yuan Ecological Village

Most unsophisticated but straight-talking display has a marked difference from others.

In close collaboration with the habitants, the village masterplan and houses are designed by Wang Weijen Architecture, a low profile practice with convincing track record on eco-design.  The village is run under a commune-like system.  This closely knitted community of villagers is the reaction of a united front against the initially heavy-handed tactics from the government.

The case of Choi Yuan Village is perhaps the most grass root of all the exhibitors.  It relates to a group of farmers, with the help of volunteering activists and academics, who fought for their right to live on arable land rather than being re-settled to tenement blocks – a standard policy from the government.

After a series of long and arduous struggles, the farmers struck a compromise with the government to start re-building their village on a new piece of farmland.  It triggers a new model of alternative living in a city where middle class values dictate and thinking outside the norm is discouraged.  To the mayhem of architectural theorists, it is a successful case of no polemics from architects yet manages to achieve solid goals.

A Bed of Life

Caged House - the title offers at least two interpretations: type of depraved dwellings still thrive in this city and properties that trap individuals for life repayment due to their exuberant prices.  Both are grim but true scenarios.

Small Units - it reminds us that an apartment of 700 ft² cost a monthly rent of HK$10,000 to 18,000 in 2012.  This makes up an average income of what a graduate might earn in a month.

The outcry from this group of young planners is a topical phenomenon of acute living space in Hong Kong.  Fair accusations though these exhibits are, the incessant obsession to own property in this city is enough fat to nourish the ever-growing monstrosity of realty developers.  Critical fingers should fundamentally be pointed to the wider spectrum of issues on politics, social and cultural values that underpin the status quo.  Frankly speaking, planning, architecture and even land policies in this context only play the implementation roles with surface impacts.

Evolving Schools

Dull presentation by HKCU with classroom set-up begs the advent of the sledge-hammer from the film ‘Pink Floyd – The Wall’.

Of those representing the mundane, there is the data-filled report correlated by the HKCU School of Architecture on the archetype of public school design evolution.  Another equal to compare is the booth from the government on soft-selling the latest urban planning strategy that is being implemented in East Kowloon.  It is a typically top-down approach of large scale planning with little concern on organic urban growth and human values.

Romus Domus: Porcelain Cities

Plenty of white bowls make up this installation work by Thomas Tsang, an assistant professor of architecture in HKU.  Fair to say that it is a work of suitable visual appeal, perhaps esoteric in its message but definitely apocalyptic on the state of health in architectural education.  I quote from one official source that describes the work as follows: ‘Installation consists of domes, basins, bowls; reciprocal assemblage of split half-cut sphere, hemispherical dome can be half-inhabit [sic] by the viewers, each sectional profiles allow variant opacity of ceramic and translucency of porcelain. As utilitarian material still continue [sic] to “create” the common decorated domesticity, as well interplay [sic] to its plasticity to model building in the cities.’  

Try another: ‘This diorama installation consists over 700 monotone porcelain bowls, a repetition of the most utilitarian of domestic objects.  They are arranged into a single hemisphere with selected bowls acting as stages for speculative characters who occupy these hollows and migrate across a landscape of mass consumption and collective work.’  

Foolish enough to read this a few times, one still do not have a clue on what he is trying to advocate.  With this level of communication skill if not muddled thinking, it is alarming to ponder on how well our future architects are trained under teaching staff of this calibre.

Aqua Industry Islands

Using an existing pond, Eskyin tries to engage the viewers with romantic exploits by lodging three conceptual towers as if floating on water.  The buildings are designed primarily as residential and work units but there are other revealing marvels.  The architects propose a multitude of quasi-techno ideas of algae biofuel, magnesium alloy materials, hydrogen fuel cell and solar energy in the design.    They also spatter the ideas of fish farming, underwater filter system and artificial reef infrastructure at the base of the tower as other novel devices.
The work portrays a make-believe mentality of “technology can save the world” just like the fad of Hi-Tech architects in Britain of the 1980’s and 1990’s, who believed that technology can resolve on all architectural debates for the good of mankind.  This line of thoughts pushes the idea of technology as ideology – elevating the later as an end rather than a means to resolve all including social and cultural problems. 

From a different perspective, the consideration of costs, monetary as much as natural resources, are sidelined.  With restrained moralistic overtones, one might still be tempted to argue whether a programme of this kind should be encouraged.  If this project were completed and to be occupied tomorrow, it is likely that only the super-rich can afford to live in these towers of Babel.  Ironically, what might be initially started up with good intents, the end result can be challenged as contriving hubris.

JUT Foundation for Arts and Architecture

This stand-alone pavilion is dedicated entirely to the exhibits sponsored by the foundation.  This organization receives direct funding from the Taiwan real estate developer – JUT Group, the conglomerate that comprises an umbrella of wide-ranging operations in development, construction, design and culture (in the form of an arts academy).  To the skeptic, the academy might smell a hidden agenda of image-engineering for the parent company.

Illegal Architecture

Exhibits with limited information do little justice to the works by the architects under the subject of ‘Illegal Architecture’.  The internet remains a better source of understanding the project.

Wang Shu’s response entitled ‘Squarely Sphering’ is erected on the roof of an existing building in Taipei. (Photo from JUT Foundation)

View inside the timber structure – however with its design and well-resolved structure, it is anything but a reminder of illegitimate structure. (Photo from JUT Foundation)

Arcadia in the Back Alley by Hsieh Ying-Chun. 
(Photo from JUT Foundation)

White painted temporary props and furnishing help stimulate thoughts between legality and free will. 
(Photo from JUT Foundation)

Under the title of ‘Illegal Architecture’, it raises certain eyebrow to find the most subversive exhibit that celebrates ‘architecture’ without architect and buildings without developers.  The discourse is manifested as two pieces of structure with the appearance of illegal structure designed by Wang Shu and Hsieh Ying-Chun, the former is the receiver of the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize whilst the later a committed organizer spearheading developments for grass root communities. 

Not only does this project pay homage to the wisdom of unsung designers, it is an incision point on the dialectics of conscious design (by architects governed by polemics) and ‘organic’ design (by users driven by needs).  Though one might argue that the end products by both are contrived versions of illegal architecture, the two generate ripples of discussion on the subject – illegal in status but manifested to meet the genuine needs of the users.

Anarchist Gardener - Ruin Academy

Anarchist Gardener by Ruin Academy is under-presented with the wooden model and packed writings.

Experimental workshop, contained in a closed setting, takes up a defunct building owned by JUT Group.  The exercise yet manages to spark off other projects and public attention.  
(Photos from JUT Foundation)

The Ruin Academy is a workshop-based platform with the ultimate aim to build a ‘Third Generation City’.  It asserts that a society passes through the stage of agricultural and industrial development towards a post-industrial development where man would ‘re-connect’ with nature.  It further aims to repair city fabric with local culture, environmental concerns and cross-disciplinary efforts. 

The organizer, Marco Casagrande, believes in mixing architecture with other disciplines and works on a wide representation of people including local volunteers.  Three experimental workshops are conducted under the names of Anarchist Gardener, Urban Acupuncture and Taipei River Urbanism.  Success in a controlled setting though they are, it is worth following whether the impacts from these workshops can be sustained in a metropolis scale. 

In the long run, it is an open-ended case if the benefits gained from these actions may be overshadowed by damages inflicted by the profit oriented ventures of the sponsoring companies.  However, there is no surprise if these efforts are manipulated by the sponsoring company as ‘pet projects’ for image enhancement.  

The Vertical Village

Conceptual model of the Vertical Village replicated from a large  installation in Taipei.

Volumetric blocks are literally transformed as architectural masses; the model is further lined with landscaping, staircases and people.  The pretty looking model with simplistic clustering of forms opens to skeptical thoughts on how the polemical programme of MVRDV is materialized as a disappointing design.

MVRDV focuses on the problems of urban dwellers on retaining cultural characteristics, individual identity and quality of life in the same vein that people are assumed to enjoy in a village surrounding.  The architects advocate a bottom-up approach of user orientation, rather than the conventional approach of development led by government or developer.  They also criticize the invasion of tower blocks in cities, especially in the Asian context, that obliterates individual quality living. 

All is well said.  Upon inspection of the architectural models, there is hardly any quality that conjures up with the values of what MVRDV proclaims.  With due respect, it is questionable if a non-local architect can truly understand the living vibes of the people and resolve issues in the context of a culturally complex Taipei.

Story from Beijing – Memory, Transition, Arraignment, Practice

Curated by the magazine Archicreation, this booth explores the duel existence of development and preservation in Beijing.  The Chinese words ‘demolition’ are littered on ground that address one of the most common sights in China.

Exhibit points to various developments in the capital amid contrast with the controversial reality of tearing down old city fabrics.

Never denying the need to re-build due to future needs and 
the poor state of the former communist-styled architecture, the organizers however exhort the need to preserve heritage, tangible or not.

Dragon Skin Pavilion 

Save the patronizing title, it is an interesting enclosure for the public on the realms of spatial, material, tactile and structural possibilities for product and architectural design alike.

On the inside, the 163 pieces of post-formable plywood begin to make sense on the structure and construction principle designed by LEAD.

Fish in a Tree 

Wong Chi Yung, a multi-media artist with background of theatrical design, produces light bulbs with fish-shaped filaments in a penned forest.

Let the author speak for himself: ‘This project proposes using biomimicry to create a metaphorical link between humans and fishes, forests and oceans.’  ‘What if one day fish will live in the trees?  Would they destroy and build something only for their comfort, or, they will find a way to live with the environment.’

The In-between of Hong Kong/Shanghai

Excerpt from the Shanghai-based architects Lyndon Neri and Rosanna Ho that gives away the hidden agenda of promoting their projects: ‘Our installation presents a selection of Hong Kong and Shanghai neighborhoods that have been appropriated between the needs of the past and present times, people, and spaces.  As you meander through the alternating Hong Kong and Shanghai buildings, you will also find our current projects of the Austin Residence G in Hong Kong and the Waterhouse in Shanghai situated within.’

Mannequins, bunk beds and monotone set-up comprise the photogenic installation that concocts weak connections between the archiects’ own projects with the theme of the biennale – ‘The Time, The Place, The People’.

Assorted names of buildings in the two cities are placarded and connected frivolously by arrow pointers on the floor.  The buildings and their contrived correlation, if anything worth contemplating, are arbitrary.  It is one of the most obvious image-making and shallow presentations that render the architect as nothing more than an image maker.  However, it is a general tendency sadly gathering pace.

Click here and download catalogue from the official website of the Hong Kong exposition:  

Here for the Shenzhen exposition:


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