Sunday, May 15, 2005

Playing while Revolting

As French film director Guy Debord indicated :" The capitalist need which is satisfied by urbanism in the form of a visible freezing of life can be expressed in Hegelian terms as the absolute predominance of the peaceful coexistence of space over the restless becoming in the passage of time" . It is noticeable that present urban area as developed in this century represent forms of commodity for the mass society. Cities usually provide image of efficiency, regulation and prosperity under a simple unification rational to generate streets and volumes to occupy the natural land.

To be more specific, current architectural profession has long been part of the production system which direct building industry to conform investment. Architecture has to take the crust of a building in order to prevail, while inevitably programmed and reduced into pseudo-needs to maintain economy. Those seemingly active theorizing of Modern, post-modern or deconstruction, chaos, fold etc. are vulnerably pushed aside as irrelevant stylistic indulgences. The hard-core determinant of built reality could never been truly independent as a free expression of genuine situation of living. In another word, architecture now could never be truly human and livable in a sense, let alone ushering creativity and imagination of 21st century.

Architects of my generation bounded to face the unknown changes of next century. Prophecies, whether mythical or scientific, allure us to an even greater uncertain and dreamy mood. My acquainted contemporaries probably all share a resisting hunch, trying to push architecture into the realm of sensational techno-syncratic topography to awaken individual situations, and to fight with the spectacle , imagery of urban empire, hierarchic society and grandeur of past memories.

Back to the Asian world, I would particularly state that, after post-colonial restructuring of global economy and politics, Asian societies jump into world cyber-information networks, which, in my view, risks continuing feudalism with a different costume. The masses could be just sleeping in an ongoing megalomaniac manipulation from an outer space of busy transmissions, simulations and amplifications. Meanwhile our urban development optimistically follow 19 century modes. Natural environment and traditional cityscape and texture are there for exploitation. Architectural innovation would usually mean the succession of national economic growth for which cost efficiency, profit security and profound image of massing are considered.

In 1984, when I just came out of military service of Taiwan, I started to watch closely the everyday space and people in Taipei. Some half-way done house and illegal constructions attracted my attention. What interests me is that these built works are spirited with very natural and spontaneous reaction towards living in a congested and always humid conditions. These habitants re-arranged their living environment by building up alternative structures of their own to meet specific needs, expressions and changing milieu. Some of these works are ugly. Some are utilitarian plain. And you can find some quite articulated and thoughtful cases. They respond to the surrounding forces in a very resolute, yet plastic way.

Groups of these kind of settlements scattered in the city, like nomadic wanderers seeking better place for home . They are particularly sensitive about genius loci of the site. Having been intentional squatting city corners or vacant lots, these structures revitalize the existing city. Sometimes these areas occur to be the most fun place for certain people in the city, either strolling or gathering. Until one day, when the city official starts regulating actions on these areas, soon they will disappear hardly leaving any traces except memories with local people and dwellers themselves.

The observation resulted in a drawing for the Shinkenchiku international competition 1984, A style for the year 2001 , in which I tried to delineate the chaotic phenomena of Taipei city while choosing the site of Rome, the eternal city in the West, Professor Koji Taki commented:" It does not depict poverty or slum conditions, and it would be a mistake to see its village of anarchic, primitive and punk-like vitality as the fate awaiting today's cities or to see the Asian city depicted in ironical contrast to the modern city" . Indeed, it was intended to be a positive and optimistic proposal for the city future, suggesting a playful and complex synergy of the formation of urban space without imposing any formal precedent.

I will not get too romantic in order to keep focused on the issue of urban architecture with psycho-geographical nature. Again, a situationist invention, psycho-geography is conceived of as the studies of the laws of specific effects on the emotion and behaviors of individual in the environment. My experiment on fluctuating lifeworld took the art form of installation. The work titled realism on space of Taiwan displayed at an alternative space in 1991 was an investigation on the private and sensual space obsessed by Taiwan people. The work occupied an ordinary townhouse floor with 10 narrow subdivisions as rooms in which re-designed traditional benches inserted and a TV monitor mounted on the inner wall. Flashing light bulbs were on top of several standing panels to create commercial signboard effect and an ephemeral atmosphere. It was a critique on the status quo, the kind of space one sees in the massage barber shop (brothel) or MTV, KTV chambers common in Taiwan. On the other hand, I realized that, with slight differentiations, the environment could alter drastically and the power of individual space is crucial.

In 1994, Z house project had the opportunity in dealing with both public and private domains. The site is a typical townhouse lot located alongside the major boulevard of Kaoshiung city, the largest industrial city in Taiwan. Within rapid high-rise real estate development and facing traffic flow, it planned to include private residence, research laboratory and gallery space altogether in 5-story building; it has to take a strong hold of its authenticity in contrast to the fake glory of the expensive housing nearby, a stance congruent to client's role as a sturdy historian. By compressing one site of the box, I created a concaved room for courtyard and for acquiring light for the interior space. Then, the frontal shape began twisted a little, standing as a figural gesture to the street. Inside of figural corn became an enclosed dark space of protection. Therefore, it is responsive and reserved at the same time, lively transforming the typical box-like townhouse into an individual situation asserting a rather idiosyncratic quality, while defending against the final siege of banalization by capitalist society.

Cited in SD review 1995, this design also emphasized the changing milieus and homelessness as the key issues for architects today. We no longer believe in a grand solution for human habitation, which tends to stagnate our life and history. Dwellings need not to be necessarily rooted in the ground. Each unit of living space is essentially temporary waiting to be changed, like one day a house could sit on the wheels moving to the seashore to watch sunset. This mobile inclination violates territories, shaking the urban condition into a new type of anarchy in which cooperative multi-layering social and cultural interactions can emerge.

Current rural landscape was under the same ideology reflects the other side of story of urbanism. Large industrial zones, amusement parks, vacation villages, suburban housing and shopping centers are integral parts of the urban strategy with consumeristic logic and values. Relief X , the national art park project won from the competition attempted to rescue natural land. I managed to redefine the land form by extending continuities of topographical features, by bending geometrical edges, by digging caves and, above all, by squeezing the land skin into a relief on earth, similar in shape as occurred in Z house. Man, as wanderers, will be encouraged walk on and through the site of feel this found landscape in which artist workshops, artist residences, galleries and other supporting facilities merge in. Thus, natural environment will be re-introduced and re-created, rather than deployed for purpose.

This radical attitude lies in the same direction as that of urban approaches which hope to set forth the ultimate concern of creative understanding and appropriation for the particular situation. Architecture is a way of discovering the truthful, not necessarily the truth, in the voyage of life and time. Architects have to play with the substance at hand while triggering the collapse of the edifice of dominance.

Being innovative without imperative.

Ti-Nan Chi
( This essay was presented at the International Symposium on Innovative Architecture in Asia 1996, Osaka, Japan )