Monday, July 19, 2010

Can You Do Classical?

One of the biggest nightmares for a contemporary architect is a client, who, after seeing your work, asks: Interesting work, but we have a big project here and we need it to be more in European Classical Style. Can you do it?

After the first shock, we usually start feeling deeply insulted, because we have spend so much time, explaining why we do design the way it is, in order to end up with a simple stylistic question. Then we weigh the balance of economic situation of the office (which obviously is always bad) and the interest in the project from a the perspective of a challenge (which is obviously always great). In that case, the client likes our contemporary designs ad has hired us several times already, but the government, who posed this question to both of us, leaving us shattered in ruins with a beautiful design, we have worked on for two months.

To start with, the site was located in Hue, the old imperial city and a UNESCO world heritage site. The Perfume River divides the city into two parts. North of its banks lies the huge palace and the old town, while south of it lies our site. It should have become a hotel with an urban village below. We put a lot of effort into programming the site, relating it to the context, in order to avoid a hermetically sealed podium, which only serves itself. Yet we had the vision to design an open structure, which incorporates patios, courtyards, lanes and other public spaces. The hotel should not act as a divider between, but as an integrator from above.

After having nailed a satisfactory sketch, we approached the government for some pre discussions on approval. Unfortunately, they did not care for public space or program, but only for the image of the cityscape and then they posed the dangerous question: Can you give us a (European) classical building? Having invested so much time and effort already, we agreed to give it one more try, not understanding what classical means and even less so, what european classical means in the context of a country, which has kicked out all of its invaders since the Chinese in 1300.

Back in the office, we tried to find excitement over the new task, evaluating if we should just hire a draftsman, who should be skilled to give us a classical facade or looking for another way, trying to understand first, why we do not like to design classical:

The difference between classical design and contemporary design lies in a different understanding of the design strategies. Classical design is about the elements of a building (window, door, column, beam) and its relationship to each other through the understanding of construction and material behavior (joints, etc.). With the introduction of casting concrete, all this was not needed anymore and we entered the contemporary phase of architecture. Modernism was still based on construction and technology. Yet with the introduction of virtual tools and the reduction of the role of the architect (from master of the entire building to just designer of the building), construction disappeared in our architect's mindset and technology is reduced to what the computer can do for me. We have entered the phase of operational design: Buildings are boolean operations, gradients, twists and everything, Rhino, Cinema4D or Maya can offer. All poured in concrete means, all is possible.

Was there a way to combine the two principles? Can we do a classical contemporary without faking one or the other? We were in search of the combination of elemental and operational strategies:

To our surprise, we actually liked what we saw. Not that we favor stylistic architecture, yet it seemed to please the client and suit the need of the city's representatives. Unfortunately, soon after, the government took the site away from the client, due to the long construction delay...

Team: Ulrich Kirchhoff, Claudia Wigger, Louise Low, Hugo Ma, Tim Mao Yiqing

© 2010, ice - ideas for contemporary environments

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reflections on the City in sizzling summer heat

With the summer heat reaching a peak at around 40 degrees and 95% humidity, it is time to escape the narrow, stuffy lanes to take relief on breezy peaks in the shade of large subtropical trees. Ascending to Mount Parker and the fantastic views it creates from its peak, it demonstrates again the quality, the city provides. The city planning not only fascinates from above, but the entire fabric amazes through its compaction and densification on all scales and stages: It is not only the dense build environment (which has stimulated and inspired futurists and cinematographer alike in terms of a darker take on the future), but furthermore the closeness to dense raw nature just five minutes away from the city. It is an invasive and mutual relationship between the city and its nature. While nature has been fought in the past and tried to be controlled for the most part of the city development, there is a shift in understanding on how the relationship could be beneficial.

But are we on the right track towards a greener city, more sustainable city, or do do we miss the chance by simply applying western ideas of beautified landscape to the urban fabric?

It is true, that the tropical nature is way more invasive and destructive to architecture, than, say tempered environments. Not only in terms of plant growth, but also in terms of pests. Yet the chance lies exactly in its rawness and ever rejuvenating force. Because of Hong Kong's geographic unique situation of being of volcanic heritage, the city had to evolve around many smaller peaks, most of them too steep and too large to be inhabited. They left natural corridors with a rich fauna and flora just next to the city. The mistake, which has been done in the past, is to cut off the connections to the nature next to the city, trying to tame the nature within the urban environments to become maintenance intensive spots of green, manicured islands, resembling the western suburb: pretty to look at, not to use. The finger like connections, which stayed intact, remained mere accidents because of the volume of the topography and high costs of removing them.

The chance for Hong Kong lies in reinstating the finger connection to its nature, introducing a more sustainable element of wild into the urban centers. Similar to the (on paper only) garden city vision for the urban renewal of Rotterdam in the 50s, which introduced green corridors, creating un-interupted connections between city and nature and an improvement of the climate, Hong Kong could use the strength of its tropical nature, to introduce green channels, which allow fauna and flora exchange, improved climatic exchange and a secondary circulation network for leisure and recreation.

Other than a manicured nature, the local wild species are in less need to be maintained. In fact, their intense growth introduces the need to cut them back constantly. Introducing a wild corridor would reduce the need for maintenance and increase the self sustaining power of such environment.

Those thoughts come through my mind on a hot summer day up on the mountains, where the environment is so much better than down in the environment, created by us. Even if it appears to be not feasible for now due to mainly economic pressure within the city, we will launch a research project on nature highways and wild corridors soon....

© 2010, ice - ideas for contemporary environments

Friday, July 2, 2010

Urban Retail

We have been invited by our friend a collaborator William Griffith II of Region 3 Design:, to join him on a panel discussion at the Hong Kong Retail Expo 2010 last week. As we are not "specialized" retail designers, our initial reaction to the request was as simple and as simplistic as defining, how can our core expertise can contribute to the discussion about retail: As all our projects are investigating, based on research on current user groups for our designs and potential future target users, how to increase the performance of each project, we chose the two extreme approaches, which cross influence each other in the office: Urban Planning and Interior Design. Both are very closely defined by program as well as organization of space (and in that sense they are much more spatial than architecture, which has retreated into the realm of shape and facade) and have taught us a lot about the logic and sequence of how to create a place: We believe, that the value experience of a place has to be based on a stronger understanding of the context and the very local habits. Other than the universal brand identity, which pours its habits onto anywhere, we think, identity comes from a local understanding of habits, user groups and aesthetics. The projects we were talking about were conveying these strategies of thinking: 3LT, which was creating an outdoor shopping mall for Beijing (where shopping malls have been failing all the time), combining the village with the one operator policy: and W-Spa, the largest spa in Asia (in 2004) inside the W-Hotel in Seoul, which was based on diversity and complexity of spatial sequence.

Team: Louise Low, Ulrich Kirchhoff

© 2010, ice - ideas for contemporary environments