Saturday, April 17, 2010


During my last visit to Switzerland, I have been invited to give a public lecture at the ETH Zurich and at the EPFL Lausanne. This was an opportunity to wrap up our last 2.5 years of activities, projects and theories, which we have developed at ice - ideas for contemporary environments. Louise Low and me have been developing this lecture, which tries to focus on the core thinking behind our projects: Complexity. This is an edited version of the lecture to fit the format of this blog.

As Architects, are we Simply missing the Forest for the Trees?

Since Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York inspired a generation of architects and students, who were feeling lost in the translation of Postmodern Text-Based Theory of Architecture, to explore the Reality of Living Deliriously, instead of Theorizing Deliriously, the City had once again reclaimed its position as a Driver of Ideas, sadly for a very brief history in the 80s and early 90s. Yet the challenge has become more complex with an increase in density, speed of development and complexity of program. New species have evolved, which challenge the status quo of modern typologies: Mixed-Use Developments, Urban Infrastructures, Live-In Factories and Boutique Buildings are reconnecting, what has been separated for decades. They bring together all elements of our daily procedures of living, working and playing in a miniature urbanism in a high density condition. We have been looking at the potentials, which derive from those typologies in respect to urbanism, typology itself, synergies and spatial opportunities.

Since then, the past decade can be summed up as the Return of the King, when Architects, along with their Signature Architecture, become Shining Icons on both the physical and the social landscape. This has been almost like a Golden Age for Us, when it seems the more fantastical and personal the architecture authorship, the louder the applause from a grateful society, from Shanghai to Dubai. And what fantastic electric dreams, shapes and forms are unleashed in the Anti-Gravity Ghost Space inside our most important and ultimate Machinic Phylum - the Computer. The Extension of Our Id (das Es), the Enabler of the Architecture Pleasure Principle. This Happy Condition is made possible by one of the greatest Unleashing of Financial Liquidity in Human History, and where Credit flowed, Architects prospered, Architecture sprouted, and Consumers consumed. Did the World advance, did the Cities progress? That is a good question. Unfortunately, Credit isn't Wealth, and with bubbles bursting, debts collapsing, property prices crashing, the withdrawal of Credit is threatening a withering of the Economy. Architecture is suddenly facing a Precipice. Or is it? Perhaps it is facing a Pendulum Swing - back to working for Main Street, back to the Reality of the Living, back to the City. Back to the consideration of the Forest after building the most fantastical Trees money can buy. We are interested in designing buildings, which perform than form. We want to see our projects as subjects within the context, rather than beautiful objects.

In our practice, we have come across more often than not, an architectural and urban conformity that fit into Static MasterPlans. One of our earliest projects in collaboration with Aaron Tan/OMAAsia/RAD is a Competition to suggest improvements to Orchard Rd, the prime commercial district in Singapore. If there is such a thing as a Country seized with the collective fear of being Boring, it will be Singapore. It has suffered this ignoble label yet it is in fact one of the most interesting societies to have emerged.

The problem of Orchard Rd is easy to spot - it is a strip of 6 lane traffic with Shopping Mall after Shopping Mall, Business Hotel after Business Hotel, extending for 2.4 km with eerie regularity. We did a Species study, and it offers very little variety in the experiences offered. In other words, Boring. Our proposal was to bring Complexity to Orchard Rd, introducing the 3 Ds - Difference, Diversity and Daring.

By identifying existing key Focal Points and augmenting them through Architectural and Infrastructural interventions, we heightened the Differences along a stretch of Monotony. We persuaded the authorities to encourage a greater Diversity of offerings, eg. Street Shopping, F&B, Civic Programmes, etc. instead of the repetitive Commercial Experience. We encouraged them to allow a little Daring and Chaos into Orchard Rd, of friendly Public Spaces, Street Parties, Free Spaces for Artists and Musicians and other spontaneous events and activities.

Ultimately, the most demanding challenge isn't to build the most superlative Architecture - the tallest, the loudest, the most expensive, the most fantastical, etc. It is a lot less simple, it is about building Complex Architecture for a Complex Environment to accommodate a Complex Creature, the Human Being who lives in increasingly Complex Societies. Their Context being the City. We have been confronted with this issue with a 200,000 m2 mixed-use project in Hanoi, Vietnam - a city which is rich of an urban context of low scale density. To put the program onto the site, which was given by the developer would have behaved like a giant UFO landed in the middle of nowhere. This effect would have been accelerated by the typical podium-tower configuration.

We started with the assumption, that the context should be integrated into our development and vice versa in relation to scale, density and program. Given the fact, that the context is of low scale (most of the buildings are Courtyard typologies, that are essentially mixed use projects already), we increased our challenge by a complex podium, which is split into a sky podium as well as a court podium. The result is a looped building, where the individual part are put into a synergy relation through the two podiums at the both ends of the project.

In Science, Complexity Theory studies systems that are too complex to accurately predict their future, but nevertheless exhibit underlying patterns.

Science usually examines the world by breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces until the pieces can be understood. Often using this approach we miss the bigger picture. Knowing all we can about an individual ant will not teach us about how a whole ant colony works. Dissecting a rat will never tell us all we need to know about living rats. Focusing alone on Buildings will not teach us about how people live. We have to get out of the box, mentally and physically.

Sometimes the way the parts interact is critical to how the whole system works. This is what complexity studies. Complexity is relevant to an enormous range of areas of study including traffic flows, earthquakes, the stock market, Jupiter's red spot, group dynamics, airline networks, the spread of viruses, the internet, urban planning and much more.

Stephen Hawking has stated, "The next century will be the century of complexity".

Human intelligence evolves from the non-stop interaction and triumph over an unforgiving environment - be they forests, caves, the weather, or the city. Are we building to engage this curiosity and mental courage, this complex mind and intelligence? Perhaps, but seldom by Architects.

The most dynamic and amazing urban environments, such as those you will find in pockets in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rio, are more frequently a result of Auto-genesis - a complex context evolves as a result of needs, demands, convenience and necessities, competition, seldom from planning or invention. Buildings in these pockets seem to be built as standalone fortresses to be broken down at the urban edge and invaded by stampeding pedestrians. Ironically, this process enhances a Building's Life as it becomes more plugged into the Pulse of the City with large pedestrianized networks, that span continuously between buildings over miles. They generate an urbanism, which is complex and -luckily- not driven by the architect.

Is it possible to understand this urban Complexity and harness its energy and dynamism to inform Architecture and Urban Design?

This has been an obsession of our office, to understand and harness this process.

We been lucky to test the ideas of complexity into a 65 story high-rise structure, where the challenge lies in the verticality itself, as well as the podium and entrance condition to the site. The project in Hanoi has been the result for an invited competition, which we have been rewarded with the third prize. As the citizens in Hanoi are not used to high rise buildings and prefer to reside in low rise dense urban areas, our focus was to generate a vertical urbanism, which maintains the courtyard house typologies, the citizens are used to, yet translate them into a vertical organism, which overcomes the typical podium tower typology. We have discovered an environmental benefit for the units by verticalizing the courtyard: The outdoor spaces will perform as interior outdoor spaces, which is highly beneficial to a tropical typology in for of ventilation as well as natural shading.

Complexity lies at the Edge of Chaos

As Science understands it, Life is caught in the tension between order and chaos. Too much order and everything becomes the same and there is no room for creativity or innovation. Everything fits into simple patterns. Too much chaos and there can be no useful creation, everything is just a destructive jumble. Between order and chaos is found the Edge of Chaos, the edge where there is enough chaos for novelty and creativity, but also enough order for consistency and patterns to emerge, take hold and endure. This point is the Holy Grail, where new territories and unimagined properties can emerge.

In our understanding of architecture as a complex species, we see the importance of architecture to disappear behind programmatic and synergetic relationships of spaces. The function of architecture lies in providing a framework for activities. It becomes a subject as it incorporates programmatic and circulation spaces, which tie together the context with the project itself. Yet it disappears as an object, as it is not form, but perform. It does not mean, that we are propagation the absence of form and space. To the contrary, we are promoting a more performance driven form, which incorporates complexity, but does not appear complicated. We have been studying the relation of urbanism and architecture as a framework in our latest project for Yerevan, Armenia, where we created a plateau in form of an urban village, where the architecture acts as shelter and vertical circulation only.

Complexity is therefore about Diversity of Species and Typologies that somehow work together through interaction, connection and percolation. With hundreds of instruments, instead of Cacophony, we have a Symphony, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Symphonies are possible through varying the instruments. In a Complex System, the Whole is Always Larger than the Sum of Its Parts.

Team: Ulrich Kirchhoff, Louise Low

© 2009, ice - ideas for contemporary environments

Develop to Not Develop

We just went to Hainan to look at four new sites for future projects. The Chinese government is currently pushing tourism development in Hainan. So there is a close-to-hysteria atmosphere on the island with everyone trying to be the first to grab the newly released sites (us included). Hainan is the only tropical island of China. Strangely it has been sleepy for the longest time. Becoming an own province in the 80s (after being part of Guandong Province until then) has not triggered anything - besides some development in Sanya. It has done the Island well. It is pleasantly relaxed, with clean air, beautiful beaches, lush landscape and friendly and humble people. Even the developers appear to be less greedy than anywhere else, rather achieving lower density, yet appreciating the nature more. So what will happen when the gold rush kicks in? What will happen to the definition of environment in terms of density and urbanization, quality of life and speed of development? Will we see another massive destruction at any costs as we have seen this in the pearl river delta for the last 20 years? Or is the label "tourism" helping to develop to not develop.

As Architects we are financially at the bottom of the food chain, but on top of the food chain when it comes to destruction of environment. I always believe, that if you have to be the bad guy, at least be glamorous and become rich from it. So thinking about our profession, makes me actually really sad. Especially in moments like those, when we entered Moon Bay in Hainan: It was the most beautiful site I have seen in a long time. Far away from civilization, only accessible via a small float, it rewarded us with a long white beach front with lush landscape behind and crystal clear water. Traces of mankind are only found in form of rubbish, which floats from all over the world to this untouched land.

And yes, we are only called in to think about how to develop this stretch of land. How to make it accessible and how to develop it in such way, that it becomes a commercial success. How to convince the client, that the biggest value of the site is exactly the opposite of development. How can we develop, in order to avoid development? We started discussing with the client a few options of how to build less but smarter, yet gain more from it in terms of revenue as well as preservation of landscape. Luckily, the client is a local developer, who loves his island. He is very perceptive to humble developments and we still hope, that when it comes to dollars and cents, he still will be...