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    Trust and Architecture

    will galloway Dec 3 '13 10

    The Inujima Studio is continuing and our group has begun to understand better the main issues of the island.  What remains kind of confusing is who the client is, the 30 people who live on the island now, the 30,000 who visit it every year, or the unknown population that might choose to move there someday? And how do we talk to those people right now, or even understand who they actually are to begin with? 

    One of the great things about architecture school at Keio is that the students often build what they design, and this studio looks like ti has the potential to go that way as well if we can sort out some of the answers well enough. It is a good incentive, but means we need to learn a lot more about the client and the island, and that is what the students are up to now.  We have come to a moment where we kind of have some idea about the known knowns and the known unknowns, to borrow a Rumsfeldian truth-ism.  But it is going to be a bit more time before it makes sense. The uncertainty is good practice for the modern role of the architect though.

    By chance and luck we had a guest critic join us in Sejima San's studio this week from the GSD - Mark Mulligan - who gave our efforts a nice framework, in my mind.  What he had to say was not entirely unfamiliar but he summarized the importance of this kind of project very well and it is worth repeating.

    What he pointed out as we struggled with the amount of information we still needed to gather before we could do a proper design was that we work in a world where architects have two obstacles to deal with that are relatively new for us as a profession.  First, that client needs are not clear, and second, that our profession is no longer given a position of trust in society. And yet somehow we are expected to come up with a solution that makes sense of it all (whatever "it" is), and adds value to society as well, or at the very least adds a bit to the world of design.

    Design studios once might have provided enough reality with just a program delivered in square meters and room labels, but the modern world requires that we conduct research, analyze what we uncover, and then also do a design that puts it all in context and looks bloody excellent at the same time. Where the dividing line is between those areas is entirely changeable, and difficult to find. Working out a critical opinion based on the research is also important, and an essential skill for the world we are building - simply gathering data and finding truth of some sort is not remotely enough.

    For Mark that was an important part of the studio, and I have to be honest it is not one that I would have thought would be part of Sejima's studio. But now I look at her work the more I see it is embedded in much of what she has produced.  She simply doesn't draw attention to it so much, and maybe neither do the magazines. Perhaps that is one of the points about the really good star architecture, that it does all the basic stuff - like keeping out rain, not falling down, etc - but also has enough cultural depth that we can keep looking at it and see that there is something more to understand, even after a few years have gone by. Or it could be simply that good architects work out a way to have a critical stance at all. 

    I know it's a bit simplistic as observations go, but it feels fresh after so much design and criticism packaged for our internet-laden souls.

     

     
    • 10 Comments

    • Donna SinkDonna Sink
      Dec 4, 13 11:37 am

      ...but also has enough cultural depth that we can keep looking at it and see that there is something more to understand

      Yep.  Unfortunately I think most people, in the US certainly, see most architecture as first and foremost containing a profit for a commercial venture long before it contains any cultural meaning.

      bluesidd
      Dec 4, 13 2:56 pm

      "containing a profit for a commercial venture"

      I know I'm a sarcastic & cynical sonofa - but how is that not our culture?

      Thayer-D
      Dec 4, 13 3:57 pm

      Commerce and culture are intertwined for better or for worse, but usually for both.  This meme of demonizing "profit" is counterproductive considering we all work for profit.  How much profit is not greed is certainly debatable, but creating a moral stigma over the fact that someone profited in an architectural effort seems naive.

      First, that client needs are not clear, and second, that our profession is no longer given a position of trust in society.

      The fact that we are not given a position of trust in society is becasue we think we are above society and that we know what's best for them without consulting them.

      but means we need to learn a lot more about the client and the island, and that is what the students are up to now.

      It sounds like these students are in the midsts of regaining that trust.  Good for them, and better for the people they will deign for.

      will gallowaywill galloway
      Dec 4, 13 7:30 pm

      hm Thayer-D, I am not sure you will be happy with the outcome. It will almost certainly be modern and profoundly un-traditional when it is all done. The architecture is not what the discussion is about. This is purely about managing massive social change in a way that works well for everyone. The architecture could be wood, could be steel, or whatever. Japanese are maybe OK with that though since we don't have such a strong feeling that culture resides in old forms. Quite the opposite actually.

      There is a fine line to walk with regard to the residents as well. It is quite likely that the residents of Easter Island would have wished for more trees to burn in the last days of their culture, if they were asked. Simply because the people are central to the process and given respect does not mean architects also abdicate their common sense and training, which is kind of what you are implying here (and in other posts). I think that is the point of Mark's comment that architects need to take a critical stance based on what they learn from research and discussion with the residents. The solutions will not be automatic simply because the community is paid attention to. That seems to be a common misapprehension when it comes to this sort of work. I see it happen quite often. It is why I marvel at Bjarke and his ability to take the populist position and still be critical at the same time. Quite a feat. But effing hard. Not sure what to call that sort of thing. Its definitely not critical regionalism, though it has many of the same intentions. If the students can take away just a bit about how to work that way I will be quite content.

      Thayer-D
      Dec 4, 13 9:33 pm

      "It will almost certainly be modern and profoundly un-traditional when it is all done."

      Say it ain't so!  Not sure what the student's will learn from the local population, but if it's that's "the architecture could be wood, could be steel, or whatever" that would be setting the bar quite low.

      "(The Japanese) don't have such a strong feeling that culture resides in old forms. Quite the opposite actually.

      Are you talking about the nation that still has an Emperor?  The one that still puts such stock in ancestry?  And why is it that "old forms" can't coexist with "new forms"?  Surely their culture is a little more complex than you seem to think.  Plus,  I always thought that heterogenaity was the hall mark of a "modern" society, that modern societies could handle a plurality of life styles and forms of expression.  But I'll take your word that the work will be "profoundly un-traditional", especially since "architecture is not what the discussion is about."  

      "Simply because the people are central to the process and given respect does not mean architects also abdicate their common sense and training, which is kind of what you are implying here (and in other posts)."

      "Take a critical stance" if you'd like, I just happen to think that being critical is less important than being empathetic when listening to someone.  It doesn't mean that you abdicate common sense, it's just that you don't see yourself above the client.  You say you'd be content if students emulated Bjarke in taking a populist position while still being critical at the same time.    I'd be content if the people I was designing for where content, regardless of what forms it took, because that's what happens when you abdicate your common sense.  But I'm sure whatever forms people do prefer will be "modern", I just don't think that "modern" has a specific dress code.    

      Donna SinkDonna Sink
      Dec 4, 13 9:46 pm

      Well bluesidd it used to be that companies would invest in impressive buildings to show how successful they were.  So that is definitely putting financial success high on their priority list of what to express.  But there was also a sense that by building an impressive building one was giving to a community, both in aesthetic material form and in a physical commitment to a place.  A strip mall developed by an out-of-state company has none of that.

      Thayer you know that Will has lived and practiced architecture in Japan for many many years now, right? So I'm guessing he has a pretty good understanding of the culture and its attitude towards buildings.

      Thayer-D
      Dec 4, 13 10:24 pm

      I do know that Donna, and I will concede that Will know's the culture better than I ever will.  I'm even aware of Japan's love of technology, I simply don't think it equates to one specific aesthetic.  In our country, most of our progressive urban enclaves are very traditional, but that doesn't mean those communities would reject an all glass condo, the juxtaposition tends to put both aesthetics in a good light.  I simply don't think there needs to be a presumption of what forms are appropriate.  

      I agree that strip malls don't give back to a community as much as old main street buildings defining a public realm.  I also agree that those older buildings tended to imply a physical commitment to a place, unlike the disposable crap littering our landscape.  Unfortunately, I see the architecture world more obsessed with making object buildings than worrying about the public realm and a sense of place.   This doesn't mean I can't appreciate Bjarke's buildings, I just think the nature of his "critical stance" is lost on the public that we are supposed to be listening to.  

      Thayer-D
      Dec 5, 13 12:32 pm

      Maybe this article will better explain what I think of "listening" to your client.

      http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/kaid-benfield/20743/architecture-public-responsibility-and-art-listening

      will gallowaywill galloway
      Dec 6, 13 11:08 am

      the public ficking LOVES bjarke.  more than most architects do all truth be told.

      Japan does not place physical continuity on the top of the list even in its most sacred places. It's quite amazing - there is even a 1600 year old temple that is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years next to its original (Ise shrine), ritually destroyed and rebirthed to underline the point that nothing lasts forever. The style of architecture is traditional, true enough, but then that is not really normal anymore. One of Japan's strengths is that it does not reject the past but lives ruthlessly in the present like nobodies business. It's quite remarkable how this happens all the time without anyone trying all that hard to make it work that way.

      Tokyo was once called the city of fists and fires because gangs kept burning the place down (every 5 years or so). It hasn't really escaped the pattern of destruction in particular and very little in Japan as a nation can be said to be particularly old. Almost nothing is older than 50 years old cuz the Americans bombed the living hell out of a good chunk of this country in WWII, and anyway old is not as good as new...that sort of goes without saying.

      What is coolest is that tradition is in the people not the buildings...so yeah, it can be modern steel or aluminum or whatever and it can be appreciated as Japanese and sufficient, even by an island community.

      I would say the students aren't here to learn about a romantic version of the world but to deal with modern and painful truths about shrinking population and aging society. The community needs to be at the centre of any solutions they come up with and what they do should be sensitive to the desires of the community as well. Empathy is actually a given. But what does that mean when it comes to the task at hand? How will we take understanding of life on this island and make something that can make it better? It is a difficult task and needs an open mind if the outcome will be worth trying for real.   Like the first architects to make train stations or skyscrapers  the challenge is one that is about massive change and it needs unique solutions. If we can grasp just a few answers in this short project would be very impressive.

      Thayer-D
      Dec 6, 13 8:52 pm

      the public ficking LOVES bjarke.  - Ok, I'll take your word on that one.

      I would say the students aren't here to learn about a romantic version of the world but to deal with modern and painful truths about shrinking population and aging society  - Again, the assumption here is that one can't also strive for a visual pleasure as one takes on serious issues. Dealing with "painful truths" can be done in concert with creating beautiful and memorable places, I think. 

      I wish you the best of luck with your students though, it sounds like a very interesting project.

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keio university's architecture program is probably the best kept secret in the country. Hidden away on a campus an hour from tokyo the curriculum is wide open and connected to a campus-wide project aimed at dealing with climate change and innovation. students of economics can take courses in architecture and vice versa but we all are expected to take part in real projects somewhere in the world. there are a few starchitects on the faculty but mostly we are focused on making a difference.

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