Monday, August 15, 2005

Ways of Practice

PT: I would like to discuss about your architectural practice; how came you into the urban issue? Is it not difficult to run an architect office and also create urban workshops? How do you relate your practice to urban issues?

C: In principal I am thinking of setting up an alternative architectural practice: a kind of a collaborative practice. Today we know that there are two types of practices: One is the corporative office which is more like a company, a business oriented organization. The second type is more European which is more of an atelier for individual architect and more artistic.

I think there is another type or maybe there should be another type. That type is of a kind in between these two types. This in between type could be more about a networking of architects who share same ideas and similar approaches and work collaboratively. The network differs from a group of avant-gardes in a conventional sense. They still maintain each identity while interact towards the mutual goal. It is close to a NGO if you may want to have a reference.

And another realistic aspect is about the projects we could acquire. For corporative office they usually get more commercial jobs. Individual architects may have smaller commissions of individual residences or sometimes eye catching public projects. I think we could also try to formulate a new type of work. It will be sort of suggestions from the architect side to initiate projects rather than being passively waiting for the clients. Architects could be very actively involved in the social process to formulate projects. You see what I mean? That is another type of work. We initiate something for the society then we proceed to work out the design. That is a different kind of work.

PT: Initiating projects by architects… what is the debate or outcome of that? I guess it is very difficult for an architect who wants to follow to initiate projects, to deal with the power structure and established system. According that how an architect could take an active role in the society? How is it possible?

C: That is what we initiate which could be private or public, also both, a mixture of work to do. What is important is that with this kind of work architects are taking a positive role in the society. We try to solve the problems in the city and try to make it into a proposal then manage to realize it. This is the other way around. To work out something for the people rather than the client ask us.

The globalization as it is may end up only islands for the rich and the rest will be drowning. We feel that architects are so helpless in this. In many situations we can only obey our clients and can do nothing. Or, we could just stay within our own imagination and try to do something interesting to please ourselves. But, still no hope for the betterment. Quite depressing somehow… I think all architects feel so… even the big ones or the ones successful in commercial circle. Urban Flashes was certainly out of this motive.

PT: Do you think by this way, with this architectural practice you can reach all levels of the society?

C: I think each time for the UF workshop I try to get in touch with the local people, both ordinary people and high-ranking officers at the same time. In Istanbul I was trying to direct it to the public, but we didn’t go through enough. Maybe the system is a bit more rigid in a way to get in touch with the government and for people to understand what we are doing.

Before I came here this time I was in Bergen of Norway. We had a quite good discussion with urban planning officer of Bergen city government. There were seeds planted and we could wait for the growth. That’s the thing that it is very good for the city. Here, in Istanbul is more difficult.

PT: What it is the reason behind it; maybe the city is too huge and the system is unorganized but rigid…

C: Yes, but also the social system is hierarchic. The decision-making people are being hidden, sitting behind the society and looking at the society. Architects, on the other hand, are not motivated and being considered as draftsmen like in many countries.

The first UF workshop was in Taipei in 1999. At that time I invited architects and artists from aboard to look at the future planning of an abandoned brewery site in central Taipei. We tried to expose the proposal to the public through advertisement boards, major newspapers, TV channels and, then, the Taipei city government noticed us. Then, after one or two years both the central government of Taiwan and the Taipei city government actually took our advice and designate the site as a visionary park for arts & cultural uses, which is exactly our original proposal.

Before our intervention, they were planning to build a new council building on the side of existing office buildings of the central government. They already had a competition and selected a massive office building design. But we tried to say that we should build something else there, and they agreed. It is now in the process of implementation.

PT: For example in Berlin they transformed the one of the most important public space, the Postdamer Platz into expensive, huge office buildings…most of them are useless. Most of them are so expensive that people are not able to rent them; and also as a public space it was very important place for years, however now is useless. People are spending time and re-creating spaces in other parts of city and Postdamer Platz is now just for tourists or just for buildings. That is a kind of wrong urban strategy…

C: That was a disaster… That is what’s of pity in the current situation in many cities. I think it is a key problem what we are looking at all the time in different cities. The local people actually need our help, need our methods to intervene and to forge visions. And that could more effectively provoke the public and the government in respective city. We hope to work with the local people and try to disclose the true nature in their living environment and kick them to be aware….

PT: Like Yona Friedman since 60s, he has also same kind of strategies in urban and architectural scales. Once he explained a kind of method that operates with group of architects mostly intellectuals between the system and the local people that they can communicate and understand the local people. Mainly housing and this kind of problems and then translate and formulate and try to give a solution as a kind of “in between” group. It could be government or planning group and this group could work for the both sides for the public, local people and then translate and formulated to. But I told also to Yona, there is a kind of hierarchy, if I want to look in critical way. Because sometimes the local people don’t know their needs and isn’t it a kind of another hierarchy to operate as a translator group? If you want to look it in a critical way it is also a discussion I think when you work with local people. What do you want what do they want. Their needs are important not the architects or intellectuals needs.

C: I think Friedman was more about suggesting some kind of mega-structure of the 60’s, but what I am thinking is of a micro-approach. It is more about small things, insignificant elements and trying to activate these small areas in the city and then change the city. So I do not propose any big plans. Friedman’s mega-structure is a different approach.

I think more from the stance of ordinary people. Ordinary people can only have small things, such as a cup of Turkish coffee. They do not possess anything extra and cannot have more than that. They have to use these small things to improve their lives. So micro-urbanism is about how to use these micro-materials to re-organize and re-engage the city as a new architectural and urban design approach.

PT: Do you have or developed specific methods in mirco-urban practice, how you think these methods operate and works in different locations and do you think there is a general method or do you have to find the dynamics for every location itself?

C: Certainly. In contrast to macro-approach usually from top down, micro-approach is from bottom up and inside out. What I usually do is to identify the ‘micro-zones’ in the city, where ordinary people may have more attachments, encounters, and conflicts. Within the microcosms people manage to survive by taking immediate solutions to their problems, which could be recognized as ‘tactics’.

The linkages of micro-zones will eventually provide a map of micro-zone web of a city, which shows the real living conditions within macro-planning structure. The tactics disclosed will be transformed into design tools for shaping future scenarios, which include new programs, projects, and visions.

The new scenarios would deform the existing web found previously and further elaborate the tactics on a broader scale. The deformation is supposed to be the adjustment of urban development as chemical permutations rather than formal interventions. Visual and non-visual design proposals will be delivered accordingly that is the procedure. It is both a general method and an approach for specific locality.

PT: We know that there is the betel nut chewing habit, which affects the physical and also social texture of Taipei with betel nut business. Are there another effective factors like betel nut and if there is how these affect the urban condition?

C: As a small business, girls hired to sell betel nuts has to be very actively engaged with the customers who drive by, so they dress in sexy costume standing in a glass box with flashy lights and flirting with the buyers for fun. This is a common tactic I identify as ‘deception’.

The contemporary image culture is bred under the human need to obtain mis-oriented satisfaction. The advertisement alluring the viewers and conditioning the sensation and conception of the reality is not new. How we see these tactics in the light of a form of exchanges and re-place it in the architectural and urban design is more challenging.

PT: Do you borrow some ideas from the Situationists International (SI) movement from 60’s? Their spirit of urban tactics of SI is quiet influencing in urban and visual issues. What do you think of it?

C: Of course, if you see the design of the cover of Urban Flashes books, the red color and the arrows, which I use different kind of shape and simple line drawings of Letrism made by computer software are out of influences from Situationists. They are the main sources. But, what I am doing is probably different from the 60’s. My work is more about the next step to re-shape the city than being critical about its failure.

PT: How do you differentiate the Western and Eastern cities? What is the difference between those two types of cities physically, socially and culturally? Generally big eastern cities seem more chaotic than western cities, how do you evaluate the term ‘chaotic’ in urbanism?

C: Cities of the East in general are after Chinese models. Western cities in general are after Geek & Roman models. The Chinese model emphasizes supernatural orientation and the hierarchy of streets in grid system. The Greek & Roman emphasize the public enclaves and grand diagonal axises. The third major model is the modern mode of anonymous grid with building volumes distributed by land value.

Today European cities evolved more like a patchworks of different periods. The segregation of social classes is more obvious and somehow you have a sense that Europe is not really looking forwardly in term of cultural transformation. People prefer an idyllic environment. Modernization is more an utilitarinian tool than a new way of life.

Asian cities are more of a complex overlay of the traditional patterns and modern planning. In Taipei, you do not recognize the social differences from the area and the look of the buildings. Rich people may live next to low-income housing. And, a rich person may just be the owner of a food stand at the corner of the street nearby. Recent telecommunication technology is altering the priority of infrastructure in the city. More digital signboard, computer game shops, monitors, electronic devices, halfway stations are exigently installed and integrated into everyday life.

‘Chaotic’ is a meteorological term we use to describe the above-mentioned condition. For an analysis of a complex phenomenon, Chaos theory could illuminate a part of the transitional process in it. There always exits discrepancy in scientific reduction including the association with swarm of bees to decipher the urban complexity. I like to use plasm, plasma, or plasmodia to relate to urban condition which is in reality primitive, incidental and irrational. But, more importantly I think it is a new way of life which is of fast moving images, mobile connections, rearranged mixtures, time-sharing mechanism and intelligent animations. And people enjoy it.

PT: Generally non-western societies searched their own modernization process/paradigm. How was it for Eastern cultures?

C: In the East, people gradually adapted to the western ideas through intellectuals and books over hundreds of years process... The modernization was not forced by colonization. Only Hong Kong and some countries in South East Asia on the trade route were long term colonized by the West. Japanese emperor set up modern policies in 19th century and Chinese overthrew imperial dynasty in 1911. I think it was after WWII Taiwan and Korea starting to fully grasp technology and world market. Especially After 70’s, cities in East Asia were rapidly developed, including Tokyo, into a hyper-complex condition.

PT: I think they adapted new economical model, political and social strategies. I think they did in a very short time and maybe this is where complexity comes from; a complexity with the combination of local…

C: No, that happens before the 70’s. The modernization process occurred much earlier. After 70’s, it was another story of new conditions. The crazy development is not really a part of modernization, rather post-modern phenomena. In fact, I think we need to get out of the Western discursive track to find another term for this after-modern development in Asia.

PT: Yes, Yes, this is the problem from general economical crisis in 1970s. So, economical system gained power over states/nations. Private companies lead to post-Fordist economical strategies. So, I am speaking not about 1970’s, I am speaking about the economical problems above the cities after 1970s. How the cities where shaped with post-Fordist economical strategies?

C: Maybe before the 70’s, especially Taiwan and Korea are having the role as production backyards for the developed countries. Japan may already go beyond that stage at that time. After 70’s, Taiwan and Korea also went beyond that. Now China is taking this role as a production yard of the world where cheap labor is available. Paradoxically, when investment of production going to these places, in the meantime the technology is also being imported. Taiwan and Korea were under these forces gradually building up their competence of high technology and being more active as providers of sophisticated products.

The less formal sector was always an inevitable part of economy in Asia. The ‘home factories’ and entrepreneurs of small industries of specialization were key factors in the process of laying the ground of economy, especially in Taiwan. Japan also started from low-end industries after WWII, then reached the 2nd world economy in the 80’s.

That is why cities took rapid changes out of many inner sorts of drives after 70’s. People create new life styles, new types of public space, and new kinds of program and urban fabrics. Then, reached an unprecedented complexity, a kind of complexity in one way very interesting, on the other hand is quite mystic. So Rem Koolhaas is quickly tempted by these phenomena. However, he looks at it from a distance and doesn’t really understand it. He is simply using it as a tool for his work. May not even be interested in its true nature. Thus, we are very important voices here in this aspect. We have to say something from another angle.

PT: How do you see recently the western approach? How do you situate yourself as an architect in western paradigm? Do you think that architects from non-western societies could speak for themselves?

C: I think one of the reasons that they don’t understand is it is very new. I think they are thinking as they were in the 70’s in city planning and architecture. The Western cities and their profession haven’t really changed. For example, Archigram from the 60’s is considered farsighted in the West as they had proposed instant city, network city, image apparatus and mobile lodges, etc.. Those proposals are actually being part of everyday life in Asia at least since 20 years ago.

In general, The Dutch circle is quite productive with less quality. They continue to sell their aesthetics. The English-speaking circle is disinterested in reality. Some just merge themselves in form genetics through CAAD and CAAM. The German circle is hardheaded as usual. I think a new condition arrived and should try to do something else.

We also know architects in the West who do not like to be in a crowd. Therefore, I think a network of independent architects and artists globally is necessary. It is a fight.

PT: Do you want to say something about Istanbul and compare to Taipei and Istanbul?

C: Istanbul is a city I can learn a lot of things. It indicates the city in the process of formation. It is not about planning. It is more about the interactions of people. And then eventually evolves into this condition. I think Istanbul is a case probably more useful and relevant for today’s discussion. The condition here to me is a database showing how tactical moves define spaces. If we can achieve doing something here then we can apply the experiences to any other places.

Taipei is flat. Istanbul is hilly. Taipei is not a harbor city as Istanbul is. The population and density is roughly similar but Istanbul exceeds Taipei according to statistics. Taipei does not have deep history and not much left today while Istanbul has historical layers of thousands of years. I think what’s in common is the rawness of both city which displays a naked state of how people manage to survive in the city.

PT: You also wrote some books about architectural thinking and cultural observations. It seems to me that you are interested in more emotional and spontaneous way of thinking of architectural practice? How could it have effect on the education of architecture?

C: I always want to emphasize one thing: city or even architecture is not out of rationality. We had mistakes trying to rationalize it and provided the market for that. I think we should try to get a control of this rationalist idea and find another way to work. It is very important to set up a track in the future that could be a new route for education. Now the school is being kidnapped by mentality, which is out of insecurity of insanity. My idea is not really new. It has been tested throughout the history of architecture. I hope our UF workshop for example is a kind of educational platform. It is an education not only for the youngsters but also for all the participating architects. Gradually we will built up consensus and become clearer and to be confident about our approaches. And then we would be more on solid ground.

PT: It is a level of communication, creating a communication level. Architects, Urban Planner, Artists and Social Scientist have different methods and ideas, but with interactive way of establishing communication ways to create a consensus.

C: Also it is nearly more artistic. Artistic ways are not about working on clever stuff. I think it is more spontaneous more lively, basically, more from instinct and basic knowledge of life. Architect doesn’t need to be more intelligent or to be able to produce certain forms. I always say architect has to be formless. I think there is a side of very simple realm and at the same time artistic. It seems too individualistic from outsider’s view. But it is not individualistic at all. Everybody is an individual. The flow of actions and each has his own tactics to survive are so important and artistic.

PT: Could you please give examples from the project about your ideas/approach that are realized in various cities?

C:In Venice Biennale 2000, I exhibited a project entitled ‘Z Tunnels’ to demonstrate how to place small elements to enhance the urban transformation in a major park zone in Sin-Chu, Taiwan. The original commission to us includes a new museum, a new park, renovation of several old buildings, and reservation of a historical Confucius temple. We suggested to the city government to add new programs and new tunnel-like structures to weave detached tasks on the urban scale.

The tunnel-tubes were very detailed designed and carefully positioned in a random fashion to create a new layer of city orientations and walking network. Each tunnel serves a different function for the park zone and its related facilities. One of the tunnels was as humble as a drainage ditch on the ground with extra use as sitting bench. One located inside of museum is equipped with monitors, LED signs and interactive fiber lightings as an information tunnel. Some are more visible as a building or a public space being part of landscape.

These elements are seemingly useless and unnecessary, and it approaches formless. My intention is to give an example of micro-urban diagnosis and treatment by employ low cost means to improve the city. At Arsenale exhibition hall, we piled up hundreds of square candles to make a low wall on top of the flat design drawing on the ground. It is like the way we put simple elements in a city, which direct the viewers in the space. When candles lit up and burned out, the process is an ongoing journey of Odyssey.

( Interview with Ti-Nan Chi by Pelin Tan, XXI, Istanbul, 2004 )