of interest re: dialectics...learning from East

[Charlie Koolhaas on curating the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture.  December 2007.]

Shenzhen has a particular attitude to time which is unique

it was built in an instant 

it was a political symbol and invention and has influenced the economy of the world in a very short time period

it’s expiring because the reasons for its creation are no longer as relevant to its continued existence - they are building new shenzhens everywhere. 

Shenzhen has very little emotional significance - most people who live there see the city as a temporary but neccessary step on the road to a better life.

This is unlike London or Paris that survive on sentiment and nostalgia.

I watched the film blow up for the first time recently and realised that so much of london and so many londoners are trying to recapture that creative energy that London had in the sixties and seventies - they dress the same, create the same art, have the same conversations at parties. 

London is constantly reliving things - i myself go to ‘back to 95’ raves - i’m nostalgic for 12 years ago. 

Shenzhen on the other hand is unique as a city because it is not repeating itself. In fact it is currently searching for new models and activities. 

This is the reason for the biennale in Shenzhen in the first place – it’s a source of information - commissioned by the government for the citizens of the city. It’s about alternatives and possibilities. 

Shenzhen (and China more generally) is not fixed and as it changes certain trends and activities inevitably disappear so people are more open to this idea of ‘expiration’. 

You could trace this different attitude to change back to the origins of ancient eastern philosophy. 

LaoTzu said people ‘move towards the place of death...because they want to create an increase of their lives’. His philosophy and of course much of eastern philosophy is all about accepting life cycles. Using these life-cycles for self-improvement.

In the UK and the US the governments like to keep us in fear. But in China it’s in the government’s interest to keep its people feeling positive, to keep people flowing and fluid.

it has very little infrastructure so could potentially be dismantled in a couple of months and rebuilt somewhere else

thats the whole idea behind the CoER

it kind of envisions a light temporary city like Shenzhen

that measures its own necessity and then adapts perfectly to changing needs

therefore eliminating waste

and accepting death 

OK, there seems to be two models, or two possibilities, of a city that embraces expiration: a wasteful, exploitative one, and a more organic, ecological one 

no one in Europe wants to admit that a city will only last 30 years

therefore they build heavy buildings in order to create value and real estate

but in china people buy houses knowing they will fall apart in 5 years 


but you are always seeing things as opposites

i dont see that at all

we are suggesting different models of reinvention

that fit different places

of course it would be ridiculous to be ‘against’ masterplanning - because it has created incredible cities that have gone on to contain incredibly inventive human activity

it’s not about a dualistic spilt between organic or planned 

it’s about both happening at the same time - inevitably

yin yang

ma said in his manifesto that living in a city was like being a curator 

because you have to take care of and making a living from these cultural monuments that we live with yet we never have ownership over them or really create them  


presence-emptiness | real-abstract | singular-universal | formal-informal | figure-ground | object-field | order-chaos | topdown-bottomup | birth-death | whole-aggregation | urban-rural | imposed-natural | overpowering-picturesque | more-less | additive-reductive | right-left | static-transient | facticity-fiction | everyone-one | objective-subjective | grandeur-intimacy | event-everyday | direct-detour | structured-chance | narrative-happening | consumable-intangible | image-feeling

Contemporary culture presents new, and as such relatively unexamined, ways for people to engage one another as well as their surroundings.  Technology enables greater connectivity across greater distances and shorter attention spans.  Yet at the same time, the face-to-face interaction remains an essential part of human life.  Regardless of the mode of experience, popular culture has created a need to reassess our relationships, both to people and to our environment, through the lens of society at large.

In order to understand cultural interaction and engagement, we must understand ourselves and our environments.  To begin, “absolutes” are not relevant.  The human being is, like all creatures, perpetually remaking itself in every aspect: our bodies regenerate cells, our senses and organs constantly recalibrate according to varying input, and our minds are continuously adapting our understandings of self and the world around us as information is processed.  Other constructions of life—from social groups the built environment—are likewise perpetually in process.  A static definition will never adequately capture such entities; rather an understanding of ongoing relationships is necessary to begin to define almost any aspect of our human civilization.

Despite this, Architecture has been in the past frequently positioned in terms of dialectic relationships.  This, particularly Western, dependence upon binary definitions was helpful in characterizing certain aspects of the discipline but at the same time incredibly limiting, forcing design to define itself in terms of one or another pole.

Now academia and practitioners are more often trending toward the claim that Architecture must occupy a realm “in-between,” operating at the intersection of multiple disciplines at various scales.  Theories of design as “ecology” are emergent (In Art—a discipline with fewers constraints and so perhaps always a fewer steps ahead of Architecture—Sanford Kwinter suggests the emergence of a “New Synthesis.”).  However, while compelling, this re-conceptualization often leaves the field in ambiguous territory, glossing over this idea of “in-between” and so failing to characterize a clear role for architecture in society.

Returning to the idea that understanding ongoing processes and relationships is integral to understanding ourselves, the “in-between” then must capture these relationships between one entity and another.  If architects are trying to pursue, reveal, manifest new cultural “truths”—to continue to posit the designed built environment as fundamental and necessary—then Architecture must operate and be understood according to the interactive elements, forces, and contingencies, the limits and possibilities, that constitute contemporary life.  It must explore the meeting of people and of people with the environment.

relationships | simultaneity | network | synthesis | life | conversation | oscillation | mirror | politics | space | transformational experience

“Man’s allotted place was in any case never at the center but in a middling region, on a kind of spherical shoreline where matter and spirit met--the surface of the earth....  Anthropocentricity...had less to do with man’s geometric centrality than with his being in the middle of a nexus of communications between extreme states.”

--Robin Evans, The Projective Cast

(inspiration. place.)

-- meeting 22 oct

Leah, John, and I discussed the flow of (1) the more historical research I've done analyzing the tools and methods designers have utilized in exploring the connection between people and their environments--in defining place-- and (2) the more projective research/design that will follow, using these tools to come up with my own way of describing contemporary connections to place and testing strategies on case studies--testing Las Vegas.

Specifically, we suspect that while these historical examples operate in a sort of Utopian fashion, dependent upon an overall equilibrium, a more true analysis and projection of contemporary interactions would be much more dependent on deformation, though I may still be proposing a new version of Utopia.

Las Vegas.  We looked at City Center, the largest of all the city's planned developments.  For the first time, "starchitecture" is in demand, and they are selling an ambiance very different from the old themes of the Strip.  In fact, Las Vegas has been catering almost exclusively to high-end luxury themes for years now, getting away from the late-90s "family friendly" marketing of Vegas to the yuppie-enticing slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas..."

The problem now is definitely to push beyond an understanding of phenomenological aspects to address the psychological dimension in architecture.  Las Vegas, it seems, somehow fits psychological coercion in between the sign and signifier.  In cases where this psychological aspect is merged, the subject may be a more anonymous individual inattentive to her homogenized environment.  However, in Las Vegas the separation of these relationships creates a buzzing awareness of the individual's role in the scene.  John suggested that this is where we can bring in structural Marxism...

--Books to read:
Decerteau.  The Practice of Everyday Life.
Visualizing the City.  ed. Marcus and Neumann.

--Also, maps to scan from Pusey map library.

2 Method: analyzing reception of environment

This thesis deals with the question of subjectivity, connection, and ownership in increasingly ubiquitous, or disappearing, physical spaces. Specifically I would like to explore the different perceptions of space held by the “resident” and by the “visitor,” analyzing historical perceptions and interactions of these two characters in order to better understand contemporary subjectivities and interrelations between people, objects, and environments. As such, one thread of research is the analysis of the tourist’s consumption of the surrounding environment.

M. Christine Boyer’s 1992 essay, “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport” was published as part of series of essays exploring the transformation of America’s cities and public life at the end of the twentieth century. The essay focuses on the “just looking” tourist-consumer culture in a historically distinct, festival marketplace in Manhattan. 

Given that the essay was written around fifteen years ago, it offers a venue for historical analysis in prelude to contemporary, increasingly extreme conditions of tourism and consumption. I would like to examine specifically Boyer’s characterization of the tourist’s purely visual, image-based connection to the environment, in terms of reception and empathy, as well as the implications that this mode of consumption has in altering the nature of public space and interaction.

In examining the South Street Seaport as a “premixed design package,” Boyer must first define the relationship of architecture to image and consumer to that image. She describes the creation of image (or spectacle, when placed in relationship to a spectator) by tracing a history of reproduction. She asserts that by using already-known symbolic codes, simulations reproducing some affect of reality could draw associations between “images and places, resemblances and meaning,” the artificial and the authentic—thus reframing urban realities and taking the place of these realities in the spectator’s mind. The visual reception of these codes then offers a chance to reestablish a base for culture and tradition by association, without containing any actual history. This works because the spectator is here assumed to be an “inattentive viewer” observing the spectacle in passing, and so Boyer arrives at an understanding of the subject in this environment as one who is “just looking.”  In this superficial, visually acquisitive experience of the subject, the attraction offers “pure visibility” and reassurance, the “promise not to burden the spectator with the seriousness of reality.” Her criticism follows that because these spectacles were meant to be quickly scanned rather than analyzed, because “the pleasure of the view suspends critical judgment,” the subject is given a permissiveness to get lost in an idealized image of the past and to ignore completely any existing problems.  This emphasis on visibility allows the subject to be present as a consumer, yet disengaged from any presence in a different common reality—escaping from any experience outside the limits of the spectacle or between “featured” moments.

It seems that for Boyer, the spectator is definitively the tourist, coming to visit this festival marketplace temporarily, looking to enjoy oneself guilt-free, relishing the degree of naïveté offered through a solely optical experience of a place. The author implies that a deeper “look” might reveal some genuine condition of reality to the viewer, but does not elaborate upon alternate means of experiencing this event-place. Boyer claims that the design focus in this environment is on a “theatrical” connection between the architecture of the marketplace and “the city’s historical past,” re-representing the city through precisely constructed views. Attractions appropriate styles of the desired referent in order to create a mood through which this referent is filtered and received.  However, reinforcing the passive role of the subjective consciousness, this theatricality does not extend a relationship from the architecture to the spectator.  Rather, through codes, associated meanings are transferred from context to commodities, and the situation enables tourists to interact only with objects as the uniqueness of place and context are completely cast away. For the tourist, this “mood” further conflates context and commodity, and a relationship to one’s environment exists only through anonymous consumption rather than through specificity.

The tourist-spectator is “the new public of the late twentieth century,” receiving the festival marketplace visually and relating to it through consumption. However, because this environment is not temporary for all those present, there should be another viewpoint revealing a less-strictly-surface experience.  Were Boyer to define more specifically the communities at play in the festival marketplace, she would have to acknowledge another more ritually-visiting subject, perhaps the worker or resident of nearby Manhattan.  She implies the presence of an awareness beyond that of the tourist, stating that these spectacles obscure and replace actual history in compensation for present-day failures. But rather than discuss alternate subjectivities or modes of perception, she implies that by somehow looking more deeply one would catch a glimpse of these problems, whereas one’s awareness of real urban problems may denote a different kind mode of body knowledge and feeling altogether. 

Considering in this case the “resident” rather than the “tourist,” more static populations, presumably with greater the awareness of real urban problems, may have greater the love for simulation. She is perhaps hinting at these more lingering populations when she states that even cities and regions to market themselves with “imageability” as the new selling point. This is also where Boyer offers her strongest call to action, arguing that American urban regions are “disintegrating into unrelated groupings of shopping centers…and housing tracts….” These areas could be seen as in need of an “image” that will negate uprootedness and decomposition, creating place and connection. If architectural manipulation of historical or pop-culture imagery can stir nostalgia and consumption, it should by similar means be able to create unity and ownership.  The question becomes one of creating new images of empowerment, rather than appropriating those of the past that serve only as filters.

In connecting to their surroundings, it is evident that a tourist’s perception is distinct from, and to some degree more liberated than, that of another figure, as it is always based on a represented image that is different than a reality. By looking at different relationships between subject and environment together, it follows that the choreographed interaction between image and subjects could emerge as a dominant factor in the formation and activation of public space.  This image could use its power to distract and attract attention to more than an empty imitation of reality. 

Can tourists realize their power to imbue their scene with whatever values they see fit?  Can non-tourist architecture offer the same opportunities?

*OUTLINE* in progress


moving away from a dependence on binary relationships to exploring relationships, thresholds, "relational" architecture vs spaces of escape

1. SUBJECTIVITY and PLACE -- HISTORICAL ANALYSIS of the reception of our environments

1a. The repetitive experience (the resident): Body knowledge.

. ritual.  permanence.  ownership.  the engaged subject. 

. connection to place through interaction.

1b. The singular experience (the visitor): Optical consumption.

. momentary.  transience.  no responsibility/appropriation.  the freedom of the shopper.

. connection to place through image. 

 1c. Representation of these modes of perception: method for defining these connections, use in design?

1*. Transcendence/conflation of these experiences. 

. reversal of "resident" and "visitor" subjectivities in land art and monuments.  connection without ownership.  specific subjectivity.

. the intentionally (dis)placed subject.  pedagogical/politicized architecture of utopian designers.

  . homogenization in communities: second- and third-home urbanism.  ownership without connection.  generic subjectivity.

2. RELATIONAL -- NEW SYNTHESIS of subjectivity and place

 2a. Crisis: homogenization and collapse of dialectics

  . relevance: (collective) ownership today

  . privatizing public, public disappearing.  different outward appearances but same spaces.  crafting the same type of character, identity lost.  defining ourselves, our contexts, where we come from but operating with no common ground.  can we still preserve a sense of ownership and connection to physical space?

  . too much imagery, too much information: seeking our own individual experiences, but still acting as anonymous subjects.

 2b. What are we looking for?  CASE STUDIES

  . role reversals, new subjectivities, new definitions of place,connection,identity,collective

 2c. Focus on social interaction and revealing cultural forces: the contingencies of relationships between people, objects, environments

  . Architecture can sharpen consciousness of the self

  . And can thus empower people in environments of growing artificial ubiquity


Las Vegas offers ubiquitous images for both tourist and resident, though completely disassociated.

  . Mapping the communities: where are the tourists, where are the residents.  who is moving, who is static.  investment in the city?

  . Perceptions of the city.

  . Synthesis: the threshold between living and playing, reality and image, environment and individual


-- meeting 8 oct

In setting up my own design projections about connecting people to the environment, I need to clearly analyze past methodologies and definitions, launching off of established theories of place and environment.  To examine: Lunch, Evans, Venturi, Weber, Koolhaas.  All offer specific techniques of connecting subject and place.  This can then transition to some argument about today and Las Vegas. 

We also discussed presentation of information (the thesis prep "book").  References: Zone, SMLXL, the Bauhaus doc.  What's your shelving system?

1 Discourse: engaged?



1 the greatest representation of human life through time

2 the foremost embodiment of the collective

3 essential



1 the organization of information about human life

2 generic; branded; not representative of a collective

3 becoming a product (non-essential) 



1 the connections between elements that constitute contemporary life / human interaction; the organization of human life itself

2 the spatial manifestation enabling/amplifying the contemporary (redefined) collective

3 synthesis; creating an awareness/empowerment essentially connected to place, the physical body in space communicating with other bodies

(1 engagement with society?)

(2 with public life?)

(3 with the individual?)

first thoughts updated

Placed amidst the many dichotomies present in the discourse of architecture over the past few decades—autonomy vs historicity, formal vs social, intellectual vs subjective, permanence vs transience, object vs ground, less vs more, and so on—architecture seems now always to want to occupy a realm “in between,” ideally operating at the threshold of both one and another duality.  This is particularly true in the growing discussion of interdisciplinarity in the design world; as GSD professors and Advanced Studies students examined in last spring’s inaugural publication of New Geographies, architectural thinking must address new ideas of scale that certainly challenge the parameters within which we view “architecture.”  While this all offers a new and powerful way to conceptualize the role of architecture, it also posits the discipline in ambiguous territory, and the role of architecture—and the architect—in contemporary society may be growing less clear.


As the effects of globalization spread ever farther, architects today must provide a consumable, immediate “image” of a project in order to captivate any kind of general public interest, as most people will only see a building in a photo or magazine rather than visit it.  However, architecture by definition must be more than a sound byte; it must take authority in creating spaces for people to inhabit that are identifiable through a synthesis of physical and social contingencies; architecture must create connections.  Kwinter writes of the problem of lives “cut” or isolated by new “social technologies,” and his interest in the “chreod” or environment of potentials offers another reconceptualization of architecture’s realm, something between the hard and the abstract.


I would like to engage the question of architect as agent of social change, to the end that architecture can capture public attention and root it in present physical space in order to potentially create new awareness.  If people are forced out of the anonymity offered by contemporary life, they may be more likely to take responsibility, to respond to social critique.  Taking from new discussions of subjectivity, perhaps starting with the work of Koolhaas (which largely relies on irony and juxtaposition to arrest attention), I will position my project to operate in the “in between” of a problematic urban condition, likely that of Las Vegas, where the threshold between visitor destination and residential city calls for an architecture that will synthesize contingencies of context, scale, and user in a very specific yet hopefully exemplary approach.

[from september2008]

first thoughts

If architecture is to effect change, it must create awareness. 

Proposal: Exploring how Architecture can resonate with and empower a general public by looking at architecture's potential for creating self-awareness through connections to "place.” 


With the growing globalization of contemporary society, the role of the built environment is changing as Architecture increasingly operates as a product—a consumable image that one sees and immediately takes with them. This may be the only way for architecture to operate in a market-driven economy in which most people will only see a building in a photo or magazine rather than visit it. However, architecture still must take authority in creating identifiable spaces for people to inhabit, spaces that are known by feeling and association and that synthesize physical and social contextual environments—places that offer specificity as well as longer-ranging connections in the midst of ubiquitous globalization. 


Can Architecture transcend the boundaries of “image” while maintaining its unique ability to create provocative relationships? By responding to new understandings of how people interact with their environments, can we design places that in fact address the inhabitant’s consciousness of a specific set of contingencies—social, environmental, political? (Can the iconography of a building be the experience of it, its presence—building itself as context rather than simply form?) 


My site will likely be an urban condition of identity crisis, which can help me to set up an environment of potentialities. I would be interested in a site that calls for connection and rootedness, the interchangeability of figure and ground, in need of a synthesis of perhaps not-so-obvious contingencies and contexts. 


The program should offer a resistance of formal against informal, further questioning how Design as a formal art can interact with and enhance public (informal) life. I could see working with a program that is institutional and thus “global” in its function (i.e. museum) but that is simultaneously integrated with public accessibility and use, having a specifically local presence. 

[from may2008]