Relocating Place, Form and Identity - Leading Innovation Today

Written by Farooq Ameen for Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century

Fumihiko Maki, the remarkably modest Pritzker recipient and architect of the new Four World Trade Center complex in New York, recently discussed his manifesto to a spellbound audience of nearly 3000 individuals in the most dense city in the world: Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It was not a coincidence that some of the world’s most creative designers, historians and activists had descended upon this unbridled South Asian megalopolis. The challenges facing its future and that of the large majority of cities will demand the most innovative design solutions. Maki’s ephemeral work is grounded by the timeless Vitruvial essentials of Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas, (Durability, Utility, Beauty), of which the third is the most critical for him. The real test, according to Maki, is not visual tectonics but that the users experience delight (Venustas) by claiming the work as their own. This is the true measure of success in design innovation.

The primary proponent of the field of material ecology, Israeli architect Neri Oxman reminds us that the act of imagination is the key to nurturing innovation and perhaps the most critical aspect in a designer’s creative agenda. This is certainly true of the select group of designers whose work and philosophy have been presented in this volume. Whereas the imaginations of the 50 remain uniquely their own, they are exposed directly or indirectly to the innovative work of accomplished designers who are leading the innovative edge in all aspects of the design of the environment. We might organize these aspects in several categories to highlight key innovative principles: ecological urbanism, bio-mimicry, reinventing fabrication, rediscovering material, architectural alchemy, hedonistic sustainability, and relocating tradition. As is evident in the work presented here, innovative projects incorporate multiple aspects resulting in a complex, layered response to the challenge of place, form, and identity.

Ecological urbanism: think like a king, act like a peasant The dynamic Beijing-based landscape architect Kongjian Yu calls his practice Turenscape, derived from two Chinese characters: Tu-Ren. He explains that Tu means “land” or “earth” and Ren means “human being” or “man”; and that the ideology of his practice (literally earthman landscape) is about creating harmony between land and people. Eschewing the ornamental and cosmetic that is geared toward a highculture-seeking pleasure, he declares that China’s landscape, like that of many other rapidly growing Asian nations, is about survival from a crisis of energy and a shortage of clean water. Yet, it is the scale and pace of the challenge that has enabled Turenscape to implement ideas that are generally considered theoretical in the West, according to William Saunders, editor of Harvard Design Magazine.

The Shanghai Expo Houtan Park is a 34-acre (13.8-hectare) regenerative landscape built on a former brownfield industrial site on the Huangpu riverfront in the heart of Shanghai. The primary ecological strategies included the construction of a 1.06-milelong (1.7-kilometer-long) wetland that is a living machine treating contaminated water; it cascades to oxygenate the nutrient-rich water and a series of terraces that enable connectivity in the nearly 16.5-foot (5-meter) separation between the city and the river. A habitat-friendly riprap protects the shoreline and enables native species to grow.

Similar regenerative techniques slow down stormwater flow at the nationally celebrated Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, a formerly deteriorating suburban site on a channelized concrete river. In addition to stormwater management, the park cleanses the water, recovers native habitats, and creates dynamic public space. In both these projects, Yu challenges us to consider bold ambitious strategies, but to learn from vernacular techniques, to leave aside the cosmetic (elitist small feet aesthetic) for the regenerative (peasant big foot survival). In his words, we must “think like a king, act like a peasant.”

Material ecology: bio-mimicry, computation, and fabrication

In juxtaposition to the vernacular bio-mimicry and grand scale of Turenscape’s work in China, Neri Oxman’s goal is to “enhance the relationship between the built and the natural environments by employing design principles inspired or engineered by Nature.” She suggests that the emerging paradigm is that of the “world-as-organism” where there is a desire to “instill intelligence into objects, buildings and cities.” She contrasts this with the industrial revolution, or the “world-as-machine.” The field of material ecology is thus grounded in the premise that the “age of biology” will overcome the “age of the machine.” At the Mediated Matter design research group at MIT, she directs research in an arena that emulates nature at the confluence of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology.

These four fields are brought together in the design and fabrication of the two-part Gemini Acoustic Chaise Lounge, using 3D printing technology. The chaise features an enclosure that cushions the body within a colored, multimaterial, 3D printed cocoon, replicating the tranquility of the womb. A solid wood shell exterior protects the composite digital color lining, thus combining natural and synthetic materials. The technology enables specific pressure points on the body to act as a soundproof anechoic chamber. The Gemini and similar projects replicates nature’s ability for multi-functionality and mass customization as opposed to the mass production of the industrial revolution. Oxman declares that when “matter, fabrication and environment are integrated into an undifferentiated scheme … architectural design will have arrived at an ecology of the artificial: a material ecology”.

Reinventing material and craft: green steel of the 21st century

The inevitable connection between social justice, sustainability and material use is gracefully articulated in the iconic work of Vo Trong Nghia. He observes that “Green architecture … elevates human life by embracing the powers of the sun, wind and water into living space. If the current way of thinking does not change, sooner or later citizens will actually live in concrete jungles.” This holistic attitude informs the work which has developed an architecture derived from embracing local materials and traditional skills with a modernist aesthetic and technology. In fact, Vo believes that bamboo will replace other materials and is the “green steel of the 21st century.”  The Wind and Water Bar is an elegant expression of this aesthetic, enclosed in a bamboo structure located in the middle of an artificial lake and using prevailing wind combined with the cool lake water to provide natural ventilation; an open skylight at the top of the bamboo dome functions as an exhaust mechanism for the warm air inside. The structural bamboo arch system for the main frame integrates 48 prefabricated units, each of which is made of multiple bamboo elements bound together and built by local workers over a three-month period. Vo acknowledges learning about the Japanese “way of thinking toward climate and natural features” and discovered similarities with that of Vietnam, where he has incorporated them.

The Pritzker recipient Shigeru Ban also learnt from his native Japanese traditions through carpenters working at his parents’ home and was captivated by the tools and construction, wanting to become a

carpenter. His work is characterized by an elegant innovation that builds on this resourceful access to traditiwonal methodologies. The Pritzker jury recognized this experimental approach and cited his “see in standard components and common materials, such as paper tubes, packing materials or shipping containers, opportunities to use them in new ways. He is especially known for his structural innovations and the creative use of unconventional materials like bamboo, fabric, paper, and composites of recycled paper fiber and plastics.”

Ban originally proposed paper-tube shelters in response to the 1994 conflict in Rwanda. The techniques were further developed after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, where he developed the Paper Log House for Vietnamese refugees. The aesthetics of cardboard tubes and bamboo have also been extended to conventional projects, like the Centre Pompidou–Metz or the Nine Bridges Country Club, which have undulating latticework roofs comprised of wooden strips inspired by a woven bamboo hat. Similarly, the Aspen Art Museum, a 33,000-squarefoot (3,066-square-meter) structure in Colorado has a woven exterior wood screen. As noted by the Pritzker jury chair, Lord Peter Palumbo, Shigeru Ban’s work demonstrates an “emphasis on cutting-edge materials and technology; total curiosity and commitment and endless innovation”.

Architectural alchemy and hedonistic sustainability

The innovative Danish architect Bjarke Ingels considers his projects as opportunities for crafting an architectural alchemy where “you take traditional ingredients that would separately be just “normal this” and “normal that,” and when you combine them, because of symbiotic relationships, you get much more out of the mix than if you were to leave them separate”. The work extends this perspective to a notion of hedonistic sustainability where comfort is creatively integrated, not compromised. He suggests that architects need to expand their role to become “designers of ecosystems” and not just individual buildings with static programs.

These notions are evident in the 8 House in Copenhagen, comprising a hybrid of offices and shops, two-story garden townhouses, and classic apartments. These are blended together in an infinity loop to form a figure-eight-shaped perimeter block where the row houses are located along a mountain path from the ground floor to the penthouse. This allows people to bicycle or walk all the way to the 11th floor and extends the public realm. The apartments are placed at the top, benefitting from sunlight and fresh air, while the commercial program unfolds at the base of the building merging with life on the street. There are two sloping green roofs strategically placed to reduce the urban heat island effect as well as to visually tie it back to the adjacent farmlands. The shape of the building allows for daylighting and natural ventilation for all units, a sort of hedonistic sustainability where form is shaped by environmental response. In addition, rainwater is collected and repurposed through a stormwater management system.

Bjarke Ingels Group’s reinvention of the “New York apartment building” is a hybrid between the European perimeter block and a traditional Manhattan high-rise. West 57th has a unique shape that combines the compactness and effciency of a European courtyard building providing density, intimacy and security, with the expansive views of a skyscraper. Its unique geometry opens up the courtyard to the Hudson River while bringing low western sun deep into the block. The work affirms the philosophy that “by hitting the fertile overlap between pragmatic and utopia, we architects once again find the freedom to change the surface of our planet, to better fit contemporary life forms”.


Relocating tradition

Kenneth Frampton’s seminal 1983 essay “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism” recognized that its practice “seeks to deconstruct universal modernism in terms of values and images which are locally cultivated, while at the same time, adulterating these autochthonous elements with paradigms drawn from alien resources.” The most prominent efforts until recently have been in the so-called developing world exemplified by the work of Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka, Luis Barragan in Mexico, or Balkrishna Doshi in India resisting forces of internationalization. In this millennium, we live in a reverse paradigm where many prominent designers from Asia, Africa and South America are incorporating traditional insights with practices located in Europe or North America.

In a recent interview, David Adjaye observed that his African-British identity gives him “an altered perspective from others in the profession, in which Mies van der Rohe or Palladio have their place, but so do mud constructions in Mali.” The approach is to draw inspiration from many influences around the world with an enthusiasm for issues of place and identity. For the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the entire building is wrapped in an ornamental bronze lattice as a historical reference to African American craftsmanship. The density of this lattice pattern, which is integral to its identity, can be modulated to control the amount of sunlight and transparency. In strong contrast, at the Moscow School of Management, the built form responds to the harsh cold winters of Skolkovo. The main elements of the building are assembled as a single entity in which a range of facilities is internally connected and made accessible without going outside as on a traditional campus.

The work of Qingyun Ma is based on a “transcultural mission and cross-Pacific practice” that is steeped in a deep respect for Chinese tradition yet informed by a robust global sensibility. This bi-continental practice (MADA s.p.a.m.) and Ma’s dual role as a prominent educator in Southern California consolidate the access to some of the most innovative thinking in North America. His strategy to integrate these notions and gain acceptance and community ownership of his work is to involve local craftspeople and builders. He considers the design of his Father’s House in Xi’an, China as a journey that is a dialogue with his father.

The modernist vocabulary and details are not traditional, but the material is local and the technology is familiar, and was built by villagers his father grew up with. Eventually, the house has become a temple (Miao—something unfamiliar) symbolizing the Chinese notion of “presence” that connects his father’s past with the future.

In a similar approach to repositioning tradition, the Xian Television and Broadcasting Center takes its form literally from the image of the city of Xi’an where the Wall is the definition of the City. In the newly designated tourism development zone, traditional architecture has been adopted as the official style. Ma reconsiders the tradition by deforming the wall, thereby manifesting an evolution and differentiation from the past. This attitude about relocating tradition consolidates Ingels observation that “Architecture seems to be entrenched in two equally unfertile fronts: either naively utopian or petrifyingly pragmatic.” He believes that there is a third way wedged in between these diametrical opposites and calls for “a pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.” In an increasingly connected global paradigm, the viability and competitiveness of our communities will depend on our ability to innovate and evolve while relocating our notion of place, form and identity.

Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century

Fifty Under Fifty: innovators of the 21st Century | Architecture Books | Design InspirationThe architects, designers, artists and others represented in Fifty Under Fifty are innovators of our time.

After a world-wide search of 50 top architecture and design firms by the editors, lead author Beverly Russell along with Eva Maddox and Farooq Ameen help bring together a unique body of work; all partners in these firms will be 50 years old or under at the time of publication, and represent a forward-thinking generation of creative people, aware of global issues that urgently need solutions through imaginative design.

Scott Mullins
Scott Mullins