Spotting the Gap – How Important is HVAC?


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Years ago I named my personal portfolio “Filling the Gap”, referring to the gap between traditional Chinese architecture and contemporary architecture. Of course that was just a gimmick. Years passed, and apparently I was not able to bridge that gap in any way – not even close, but at this moment, I’d like to say I’ve found how that gap came along, and why.

First I wish to define what I mean by traditional Chinese architecture in this discussion. There’re regional differences of course, but under most cases, traditional Chinese architecture refers to wood/brick buildings built according to 《营造法式》. 《营造法式》is an evolving book containing rules on how to build appropriate buildings for both emperors and citizens, first published in 1103. It dominates how buildings should look like – buildings are important social tools too – and how they should be put together, hence eliminating the need for real architects. Instead, they were builders, or匠. Known features of this type of architecture is symmetrical planning, wood structural supports, large swooping roofs, beautifully carved doors and panels. The exterior wall materials vary depending on regional weather.


These buildings spread all across the ancient Chinese landscape and cityscape. They did change in form over the years, but very minimally, until the foreign settlers came along in 1845. The first settlement in China was the British settlement in Shanghai. Together with the soldiers and missionaries came arches and flat roofs. Many buildings built by the foreign settlers in Shanghai are today’s landmarks. With the total collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912, there was no emperor-style architecture (官式建筑) whatsoever, and there was no need to stick to 《营造法式》either. Of course the average citizens couldn’t afford to build their homes any more differently from before with the new materials and techtonics, but the investors could. Multi-story buildings rose up from the ground with elevators, just like the landmark buildings we know of today in New York City. The new building styles brought modern day conveniences and new materials; wood was running scarce more than ever for the ancient style. The balance started to tip, a lot. And that gradual death of traditional architecture paired with the rise of Western architecture makes up the majority of many settlement cities’ landscape. Fast forward to the current times, no new buildings are constructed in real traditional styles anymore; instead we see various electic styles. This is what I call “the gap”.

A historic view of the British settlement in Shanghai, 1930s

Now here is the why question. It seems pretty simple – because the traditional style couldn’t accommodate the modern uses. But think about Western architecture. That was a long time in history as well, but those styles made the transition pretty smoothly in comparison.

My take on this is that the traditional Chinese architecture does not separate the core from the shell. By shell I do not mean the exterior facade only; I mean building forms, styles and materials. The core, however, I believe is what has been neglected all along (or at least by me). The HVAC systems. Architects tend not to fall crazy for MEP, yet this is what sets our modern buildings apart from ancient ones. Drainage, cooling/heating, ventilation, transport. The traditional Chinese buildings depend on the architectural elements to achieve all this. We didn’t have gutters and downspouts, instead we have swooping roofs that shed water away. We didn’t have radiators or A/Cs, instead we orient the rooms to control heat intake. We didn’t have forced air; instead we place windows and doors in such ways to allow natural ventilation. We didn’t have elevators; instead we don’t build multi-stories (pagodas are not included in this discussion – it is indeed an adapted form from India). Essentially we didn’t have dedicated MEP systems; everything is skillfully integrated into building forms or avoided altogether. This brought forseeable trouble when the building shell is faced with changes, like around 1900s. We could’ve improved on building planning and materials, but we couldn’t easily transform the building style because it was so closely knit with the HVAC of a functioning building. That was a pretty wide and painful gap.

Western architecture, however, was different from the very start. Drainage system was utilized as early as Ancient Rome. The precursors of modern HVAC systems date back to the Industrial Revolution, also roughly when Greek architecture was finally accessed and re-discovered. Once an independent HVAC system was invented, the shell took on changes much more comfortably. Be it Greek Revival, Renaissance Revival, Neo-Classical, or Zaha Hadid.

You could argue that this was because the Qing China was dwindling and falling behind the rest of the world, but I tend to believe that even given an extra century, Chinese architecture wouldn’t develop an independent HVAC system ingeniously. This boils down to how we view the relationship between nature and human. Having spent five full years in the U.S. makes me more aware than ever of how secular we were, and have been. Born out of Taoism from the very start, the secular attitude covers vast fields, from architecture and religion to daily life and food. We go with the tide, not against it. And this is basically the essential concept of Feng Shui (风水). To be more precise, we build houses in the way that best suit the natural forces. HVAC and Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, aim to change natural forces. Hopefully this gives you an idea of the distinction.

Ancient Chinese people had progresseded amazingly in many fields, but science was not one of them. And there is a reason for that. We followed the tide. Admittedly there was an intense spark of new cultural and scientific awareness rising from the 1910s to the 40s. But a closer look at the sparkling young generation will reveal they were almost all graduates coming back from foreign universities. Had those gentlemen (and a handful of ladies) been more influential, the world would be a different picture today. But that’s also the beauty of history – always unknown, never reproducible.

The inexactness and leisure that derives from Taoism is even carried down to this day. Matt, a close friend of ours, pure white American, enjoys Chinese food and also cooks. What has bothered him is that when adding sauces and spices to the pot, we never quantify it. Ask any Chinese and he/she will agree. Instead we say things like “an appropriate amount of salt”, “some sugar”, “a little vinegar”. Matt cannot cook this way. And he uses his kitchen scale and measurement cup. Well, I’m glad food is not an exact science.

OK. Back to buildings. The integral system of architectural elements and its core systems has brought huge difficulty in preservation. The buildings are hard to adapt for modern uses because the core is locked in the shell. You can’t imagine Waldolf Astoria in NYC without central A/C and internet, or Palmer House in Chicago. But the traditional Chinese buildings could not get MEP updates so effortlessly. Some of them, now used as residences, have no planned or thought-out MEP system that doesn’t undermine the historic integrity; some of them never lived a modern life, and probably will not in the future; some of them were struck down for new buildings with modern facilities. And a lot of them simply deteriorated away with time. Buildings under Western influence in settlement cities ire luckier. Because they could look forward. And any preservation activity is for our future, looking forward.

Pingyao, an exploited UNESCO site packed with tourists. But what the local residents need is cars.

Pingyao, an exploited UNESCO site packed with tourists. But what the local residents need is cars.







其实类似大同古城的问题并不新鲜,美国威廉斯堡(Colonial Williamsburg)是弗吉尼亚州20世纪初修复并重建的一组历史建筑群落,展示的是18世纪初至美国1776年独立前的殖民建筑风貌。项目的特色在于“重现历史”,村落中有专人着当年的服饰,展示并解说历史文化及工艺。威廉斯堡每年能从相当可观的游客中赚取门票、纪念物,及周边旅宿收入。但威廉斯堡向来饱受建筑界的批判。今年年初逝世的建筑批判界鼻祖哈克斯柏(Ada Louis Huxtable)就曾称其为“贬低了历史的原真性,并牺牲了视觉效果稍逊但却血肉鲜活的历史遗产”。这样的情景是否似曾相识?但我们若将威廉斯堡群落看成一个历史建筑主题公园,其存在发展良性带动了周边经济的上升,它是否就不再那么罪不可恕?回到大同古城,民众和专家的分歧实际上在于重建后的古城如何定位,如果能够像很多欧洲的历史建筑保护与改造一样,明确标识出历史建筑与重建建筑的年代区别,或以施工材料与技术的不同,或以细节直接表明,如在重建建筑砖石上刻上建造年代,这既能避免把假古董与真古董混淆的危险,更给百年之后面对这座新古城的人们一个明确的解释。







A Brief Note on History and Theory




For an undue long period of time, I was used to accepting and throwing out the expression “history and theory” as if it were one integral idea instead of two individual concepts. Gladly I figured this out before it’s too late.

Peter Collins pointed out in his classic, possibly underrated, book Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture that during the second half of the 19th c. when Revivalism reached its maturity, a dilemma revealed itself to architects: what is the distinction between architectural history and architectural theory? I’d like to quote Collins directly here for his answer: ...that the theory of architecture is concerned with everything pertaining to the way people actually build in the present, whereas the history of architecture is concerned with the way people used to build in the past. (page 141)

This is pretty self-explanatory that I don’t need to further discuss it. It is intriguing, however, to ask ourselves why didn’t this become a problem until then? Again Collins provided a lucid and reasonable answer – because in the past people had always been seeking solutions to contemporary building tasks from the pool of historical styles, be it Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival or even Oriental. Essentially history and theory was one thing that together served the purpose of constructing. When Revivalism reached and passed its maturity, the demand for a new architecture that was completely dependent from the reins of historical styles grew stronger than ever, therefore ticking off the discussion on history and theory.

Maybe it is because that I’ve never really had proper academic training in art history, or maybe things just occur to me slower than warranted..It was actually during my reading Collins’ book that I realized how integral art/architectural history is to history in general. It sounded stupid, but hit me like a lighting. Let’s take Romanticism for example, this was roughly in line with the aftermath of the French Revolution when people seeked pleasure from a more distant past than their own. Parallel study of social and political history, economy, religious history, philosophical ideals, fine arts, architecture, and possibly other branches of humanities will tremendously boost the understanding of human history and why things happened. The pieces of knowledge used to be sporadic dots floating in my memory, and it was not until that I lined them up together in one time frame that the dots started to connect to each other, almost like a tree growing its branches. This is when memory becomes ideas. Unfortunately we don’t have such academic training in architectural history. We don’t spend much time on architectural history anyways because like Collins said, this is dealing with the past, not present. But preservation is another different story, and this kind of thinking is critical yet missing. I shall note, however, that it is much easier to examine the culture in which we grew up, simply because we are familiar about all these aspects – we might even be part of them. When examining foreign cultures however, the links become much weaker and invisible, and demands much more devoted time.

Lastly, as a post-MOMA syndrome, I was wondering how critics and historians write contemporary history on art. Do they? Because history and theory are so close to each other in this case that they might just merge into one from time to time. The other problem of course is that we don’t have enough room to look back and find a more complete and less biased image of history.

Identity Theft


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Many of you may have heard Xin Tian Di  (新天地) or even been there – a 2003 Urban Land Institute Award of Excellence renovation project in Shanghai. Despite its world-wide reputation and huge commercial success, I’m going to contend how this project is totally disasterous and dangerous.

Xin Tian Di is best known for renovated vernacular Shanghai residences, more precisely two-to-three-story apartment buildings, or known locally as Shi Ku Men (石库门). The architect was Benjamin T. Wood. To see a gallery of the project from his studio, click here.

You’d hear descriptions such as this all the time: “Xin Tian Di has absorbed the essence of Shanghai Shi Ku Men and revived an old architectural form into new vitality, revealing Shanghai’s gem to the world.”

And this is wrong.

We’ll do a very simple diagram comparing the spatial configuration of Xin Tian Di and a typical Ski Ku Men block.


First we have Xin Tian Di, then we have one block west of the first image. Both are oriented north up. It’s quite obvious that the classed-organization from street to units have been broken and shuffled to make way for the new public space. And in order to make the public space tick, the orientation of many units have been modified as well. As we can see, most units were originally oriented south-north (like most of all other traditional Chinese dwelling units). But since the public plaza runs south-north, the remaining fabric has to be turned 90 degrees within the confining shell of the house.

Undoubtedly urban revitalization will require some degree of dismantling or nothing new will ever live. But I say Xin Tian Di is dangerous, because for most Westeners (even those with professional architecture and urban planning knowledge), this is the most accessible and loud project representing hundreds of thousands of mundane but original apartment buildings of Shanghai, which we just proved is entirely disingenuous and misleading.

To make my point clearer, Xin Tian Di is not to blame for its own sake – it is indeed a great urban design project – but rather how it has been publicized as the epitome of local renovation project. Since its huge success, many more projects have aimed at “becoming another Xin Tian Di”.

With that cover, our true cultural identity is being silently lost. Take a look at the list of the restoration projects in the past decade: Bund 18, Peace Hotel, Rock Bund (外滩源), big banks, you name it. Similarities? Sources of funding. Essentially preservation is almost never government-funded, either state-wise or local, which directly results in the current “whichever-building-gets-more-money-will-be-restored” situation. Sounds a bit familiar? Like a century ago when the city was colonized (by investment) and the natives fended themselves in a walled city? Only that the wall has long gone and we are now wildly exposed. That’s, sadly, how our collective identity is being stolen, by ourselves. Because only part of the story is being told, and the rest sits in distant memories. Regarding how momories, though not generating material gains, is vital to our living, see my previous argument here.

Hopefully we'll go beyond just this.

On a not entirely separate note, Benjamin Wood was also one of the chief architects for Chicago’s Soldier Field renovation in 2003, which was dramatically de-listed from the National Historic Landmark after the renovation, because the historic integrity had been tremendously compromised. Vince wrote some very interesting piece here.

Finally it’s not just we make our identity stolen, we also steal others’. Let’s see some images in a non-descriptive residential neighborhood in Shanghai. (Note: this is actually a very genuine local neighborhood WITHOUT bars and nightclubs and high-end boutique shops. All the elements below were born in an attempted city-beautification program a few years ago.)

See the violinist and the arches? This is a traffic-loaded and confusing intersection where horns and dust prevail. The shops beyond are tiny body shops and such. On the right is some public trash receptacles. On further right, there is Shanghai Music Academy, which slightly explains what the violinist can possibly do here. I think the idea is that people on the main street (perpendicular to the one in the photo) would see the statue which serves as a visual clue.

This is a wild facade over a modest brick structure that houses a French restaurant. Supposedly the food is not bad since many Westerners frequent here.

And not just Gaudi, we have the American identity too.

Siding and shutters. And they are the worst type of shutters that don’t even close all the way to the center. This is also a brick building.

Efflorescence and some concrete relief patterns.

An interesting curve of the lot line makes the pedestrian versatile and available for street sculptures. A gentleman playing Saxophone next to an old-fashioned clock. This little triangular space used to be locals’ favorite spot for a popular summer-night activity – 乘凉-or sitting on a deck chair while enjoying breezes and chatting away with friends after a long steamy day. On the left we can see the sidings.

Newly-weds take wedding photographs on this street all the time.

This is actually one of the better sculptures – pointless but at least not jarring.

And on the opposite side:

As cultures merge in the inevitable globalization, they also start to lose their original identities. Only those strong enough survive. My worry is in the present preservation industry in China, money is the substitute word for strong.

Some Old and New Pieces in Shanghai


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A few weeks ago a post on ArchDaily caught my eye:

Desipite the fact that the concrete tea house could be well suited for any corner of the world, it looks interesting. So I’m determined to pay it a visit during my trip to Shanghai.

One of the soft spots – or sweet spots – of photography is that it deceptively shows certain aspects and hides the rest. I have wondered how this building would connect with the street. When I got there, mystery solved. The building is not standing alone but located within a large previous industry complex site. “Industrial”, contrary to it sounds, is one of the hottest item in Shanghai’s current adative use market. One reason is that the brutal forms (a bit like the 1960s U.S.) feature unique attraction for businesses, especially graphic and design related ones. The other (though needing verification) is that land prices are possibly cheaper in these deserted industrial complexes, because as industrial centers they would most likely be located along the water and off the city center, which has remained more or less geographically stable over the past century.

So long story short. This tea house is located in one of these complexes named 五维空间创意园 (which means the fifth dimension), originally built as an industrial town for the looming business (上海第五化学纤维厂) in 1946 incorporating factories, living quarters, gardens, hall, hospital, etc. It started to transform itself to a “creative industrial garden” as people call them, or  工业创意园区. And unfortunately I didn’t see anything that looks like the ArchDaily post so I assumed I missed the Tea House since I had limited time. Still I saw some really interesting projectss in the complex.

Here we see some skelton of the building now acting as a parking lot with two transformer-looking intallations made from I-don’t-know-what mechanical parts, which I assume came from this very site.

Tall brick chimneys are indispensable to reused industrual complexes. They’re almost like spires to churches.

This little building had many surgeries: glass into wood, roll-up garage door, but most interesting is the selected removal of the roof tiles and new skylight to reveal 云纹 – a traditional Chinese design employed in many costumes and graphics.

The wedding photographer is about to catch the moment when the newly-wed is jumping into the sky (and against some buildings).

This is the structure that intrigued me the most, only did I know later that the Tea House I’m looking for is hiding inside, along with the architectu’s studio: Archi-Union .

The wall seems rippling, and it is. It has a very delicate Chinese name: 绸墙, or Silk Wall. The twisting angles and the placement of the CMUs give such unexpected dimensions to the under-rated material that the blocks look soft, touchy, and even dancing with the wind – just like silk does.

Imagine how sunshine would have played into this.

The sensous, whistling bamboos inside the walls have further softened the tone of concrete.

And it feels good to know that these CMU blocks are recycled from this site – a factory that has collapsed partially, and thus we have the Tea House.


If you think this is cool, read on. There’s more. But if you are a vegan, please forward to the end of this entry.

Words are on the street that Shanghai’s most stunning restoration project to date is 1933 – a complex transformed from a 1933 slaughterhouse in Shanghai. The Chinese name is 19叁III老场坊

The official website is here, but don’t expect to see tons of historical or architectural information there, since money is the drive behind everything.

When built, this was the largest abattoir in the Far East, delivering 80% of the beef being consumed in Shanghai. (Try to refrain from thinking how much blood had washed over the concrete for hundreds of thousands of times.)

Unfortunately I cannot find the name of the architect anywhere. All I know is that he’s British, last name translated as 巴尔弗斯.

The real astonishing part of this structure is the exceptionally complicated and unexpected spatial organization. That is, from a pedestrian’s angle; but apparently it made sense for the cattles.

Today it contains some high-end boutique shops and restaurants, a cafe, a wine cellar, a spa center, a cigar club, and several photography studios. Parties, award events, celebrities constantly pop up to refresh things a bit. But how is it different than hosting the events in any other clubs?

A typical view of the bridges that connect the outer corridor and the central round core.

Despite all the initial wow moments, I find these adaptive use projects share something disturbing in common: history is under celebrated. For example, for a project as high-profile as 1933,  information on its original architect or how the structure actually functioned at the time with all these dazzling bridges is entirely missing. History has never played a major role in preservation or new architecture in China (preservation is not the perfect word for China; mostly it’s adaptive use). The main characters on the stage are materials, space, and more recently craftsmanship, that is excluding commercialization in the first place. Therefore these creative industrial sites look more or less the same. None of them is showcasing its own history within the specific context; rather, i’s waiting for the patrons to fill in: boutique shops, studios, etc. History, where things eventually boil down, is like ketchup, or anecdotes more precisely. It is such great poignancy to see that a nation in history as rich and diversified as China would not want to keep her most valuable treasures, while a country as young as the U.S. is pounding its history into everyone’s mind, the present, and the future.

I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that the Chinese have been down-to-earth secular and pragmatical for thousands of years, an we still are. The idea is further strenghthened since 1949 that intangible and spiritual things are evil. Basically most of us grew up without religions. Not that being religious helps a lot in preservation, but the attitude towards intangible, non-material aspects of everything –  history for instance – is worrisome.

For the Western world, there might be many similarities between tradional Chinese and Japanese culture, which is true. But in terms of viewing intangible heritage, it’s two completely different stories.

I recently got to see some notes of a lecture by Kenya Hara – art director at MUJI – on “emptiness”. I’ll skip the philosophy of the brand but focus on what emptiness means for the Japanese. And we shall start with Ise Grand Shrine.

Credit: Google Earth

This is a screenshot from Google Earth showing the location of Ise Grand Shine. The lot next to it? For the very same shrine. Because the Japanese dismantle the current building and rebuild the shrine from scratch exactly every 20 years. Keep an eye on Google Earth/Satellite as 2013 will witness the born of the 62nd generation of the shrine, meaning the vacant lot and existing lot would swap.

The purpose? Death, renewal, transcience. And the goddess being worshiped can enjoy her renewed yet ancient home forever. This is almost unthinkable in China. To squander tons of money every 20 years to do something back and forth, over and over, on something hardly existing? Yet the materials are not the focal point here, but what is beneath and within the lumbers. It is the emptiness. As a by-prouct, the shrine’s construction techniques have virtually stayed the same for some 1200 years. If not for the 20-year renewal program, craftsmanship is destined to be lost among the modern preservation techniques and materials.

Ise Grand Shrine is an extreme case in preservation as almost no other cultures renew buildings so radically. But there’s definitely something to learn from how the Japanese view intangible yet valuable things. Maybe our life.

Well, I just realized there’s no proper place for some real historic Chinese architecture in this post any more. I’ll save it for the next one.

Dishonest Architecture



Buildings, like humans, can be dishonest. They could be excellent architectural gems, but not necessarily honest – design details that do not reflect functionality properly and sincerely. You may find this quite familiar. Mies van der Rohe had his famous words “Form Follows Function”, and he will be the first one presenting some dishonest architecture. One example is the Kluczynski Federal Building (1974) – one of the several buildings of the Chicago Federal Center complex in downtown Chicago. The vertical I-beams on the exterior surface that travel across the entire facade does nothing more than decoration. Aesthetically it is pleasant to view; they add pattern and vibration to the massive structure; the material contributes to the overallness. However, these “beams” are clearly not based on function. There Mies betrayed himself.


We can say the same thing for Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. The building is well renowned to the world for its signature “shells”, which happen to be non-structural at all. And Adolf Loos as well. The Looshaus in Vienna – a.k.a the Goldman & Salatsch Building – is a steel concrete mass yet it’s openly showcasing four non-load-bearing pillars at entrance. Worthy of note is that the building was completed in 1909, 1 year after Loos wrote his famous essay Ornament und Verbrechen. (Ornament and Crime)



The list could go on and on for starchitect’s best works. On the other side of the story, truly honest architecture could be total esthetic disasters and money-driven beasts, which make up of the majority of the cityscape we have around the globe. They are the mundane residential and commercial projects that cater to needs and strive to be economical on every possible level. But mostly we do not even consider those “artisitic” because architecture, according to Philip Johnson is the art of how to waste space. So here we have honest but disappointing architecture.

But things don’t have to be so extreme and ugly. There definitely exist buildings that are both honest and beautiful. Viollet-le-Duc called it “Structural Rationalism” (though his practices, like those of Mies, went in the other direction from his theories); I call it “vernacular”. (I know these are actually quite different concepts, but they roughly line up within this argument.) It could be historic buildings that reflect regional tastes, social impacts, materials, natural elements, etc. It could also be contemporary ones. And the ones that evolve over time. Chartres Cathedral in France demonstrate two distinctly different tower spires simply because one of them was finished in 1160, and the other in the 16th century. The same applies to Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The key is that the building be specific to the time, to the site, to the people, and to the culture. It is what Walter Benjamin defined as authenticity in his essay the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) – here and now of the artwork, place and time from context: “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” Vince recently wrote about the emotional logic of authenticity, which is connected to this discussion but talks more about how our subjectiveness and sentiments influence the way we see authenticity.

In that sense, honesty in architecture changes with context, which is especially true of historic buildings. Any honest preservation projects would capture that change as well. Facadism is one of the familiar bad examples – an extreme in splitting the context away from its form. Colonial Williamsburg is indeed controversial for that very reason – denying the fact that authenticity changes.

But there’re much more interesting stories about authenticity in preservation – or not. Le Corbusier had designed a house for the worker’s village in Pessac, France in 1926 with pure modernist philosophies. But as soon as the building was occupied, the perfect form started to lose shape. Undefined front yard has been enclosed to mark property line; strip windows for picture-perfect landscape have been covered up by curtains; flat modernism roof has been pitched to shed water…Thus the maestro’s work has been patinaed (or you may say destroyed) – in an honest way that reveals truth with time. Standing on a preservationist’s ground, I would define the period of significance as the time when the house was freshly built without hesitation, because on one hand we have Le Corbusier and on the other we have the end users along with their random amateurish modifications. But which weighs more to the core of preservation? In other words, the mark of civilization? Which shows real authenticity?

According to Jane Jacobs, it is undoubtedly the end users. Her arguments against the mainstream urban planning theories in the 1960s are comparable to real-life patinas versus computer renderings. That patina, whether in individual building or a neighborhood, means honesty and authenticity. Our diverse, lively, aged, varied, homely, and honest cities.

MOMA, Again?! – P.S.1



First I have to make a note about the last blog on MOMA and modern art. I’ve consciously blurred the lines between modern and comtemporary, art and architecture – because I do not believe that modern architecture is dead in 1972, neither is modern art. Actually both are still quite active today, especially architecture.

I have been to P.S.1 before but never asked myself what PS means. Maybe an artist thing, I told myself. But clearly I was not looking  last time. P.S. apparently means Public School. And PS1? Yes the first public school in Long Island, 1892. I was really hoping to dig something intersting about this school building, but nothing much came up – unless I physcially go to the library/research center of course.

P.S.1 dates allegedly (every historical “fact” in this post will be allegedly since I can’t find any primary sources) to 1892, a handsome Romanesque Revival solid structure, served as the first public school in Long Island until its shutdown in 1963 and was turnd into a warehouse. In 1997, the building reopened as P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. The renovation was done by architect Frederick Fisher. Brief introduction of the project is here.

If you take a look at the overall composition from the above link, you can easily see that half of the building has been brutally sliced off to make way for contemporary intervention – entrance and courtyard. The common brick facades of previous courtyards have been exposed, which suit contemporary art quite well.

This entrance was added after 2009 I believe.

Like I said, not much historical information on this building can be found on the web. Not a local landmark, no HABS documentation, not National Register listed – essentially a non-descriptive building – just like thousands more scattered in the city. But at least this one has a new life.

All I can find is a few undated historical image of the building when it still served as the Public School. All three images’ credit go to the Greater Astoria Historical Society. Their website is here.

As usual I’m not an expert in translating cursive handwritings. Any ideas?

The same corner as it stands today (far left in the historic image):

And there’s that. The rest will be spent looking at contemporary architecture and art.

A slice of spring via the concrete perimeter:

Plan diagrams showing where the current exhibitions are located – written with a chaulk in hand:

A detail of the recessed lighting on the concrete wall along the courtyard. Recessed + Concrete is a great combo.

A travel trailer from Sovereign: now a mobile bookstore. Interior floor is made of plywood and squeaks a lot.

Interactive installation – Golden Ghost by Surasi Kusolwong. It invites people to dive in and find the gold necklaces which they can take home. But even if you don’t find anything, simply enjoy the texture – it would make you laugh.

Notably this is a double height space which seems to get hold of good art from time to time: last time when I was here there was a double-deck transparent swimming pool.

My shadow on an Ionic:

Graffiti everywhere on the stairhall walls:

Finally something historic again – boiler room. I would never guess historic HVAC would be so dazzling, 1902 to be precise.

Golden, glittering brass.

Oh, I almost forgot – this is also an art installtion: some grates on the floor.

MOMA and MET as Art Containers [part 1-MOMA]



Recent visits to MOMA and the MET over a relative short period of time makes me rethink museums as spaces with characteristics that cater to the objects they contain. Both architectural and exhibition spaces have different values in classical and modern museums. Here’s my adventure stories.

This is a gloomy grey Friday afternoon that I’m off work. Clean, crisp, white walls stand on 53rd Street. If one weather pattern has to be assigned to modernism, it should be this – looming unpredictable future just like the economy, precise and ambiguous meanings, objects that speak for themselves. MOMA is cool – in the sense of the materials being used: steel, huge glass panels, orthodox constructivisim. A few corners of the exhibitions simply extend as balconies that look over the streetscape outside – the busy, quiet, slender, mixed, hippy mid-town. Another long balcony against a blank wall look into the outdoor sculptural garden. The garden in the winter is a bleek, austere place that you can step back and enjoy. The level of indoor-outdoor communication is quite noticeable, if not significant, and this goes along with the overall atmosphere.

Early afternoon MOMA is still quite museum-typical, considering adult admission is $25 now. Although instantly there’s something eye-catching. It is the viewers. A lot of them are very self-conscious fashion dressers. A lot of French. A lot of art-student-looking ones. A lot of young energy bouncing around. Girls constantly pose and take their own portrait photographs with art works using IPhone, and I won’t be surprised if they immediatly upload them to Facebook. Museum art works have become a way to express the viewers’ lives, to give new meanings, albeit they might not quite understand what those are.

Architecture is a statement here. The vertical stairs core is off to one side in a long, slender strip of space that is painted white of course. In fact the entire museum is white. It seems like modernism should not have anything other than black and white and in-between to spoil it; sometimes not even in-between. It is Adolf Loos-y. The off-center vertical core makes it possible to visit any gallery you want without having to meander through a million others. The experience is quick, efficient, and user-friendly.

However, modernism in fine art is entirely different from modernism in architecture. Fine art is ambiguous, inviting, multi-layered; architecture is straight, black and white, laser-pointed. It is the ambiguity that makes modern art so close to us, and it is again the ambiguity that makes the classical critique world on fire. Modern art works echo with viewers by employing and defining everyday objects, materials, and even artistic approaches. Marcel Duchamp invented the vocabulary of “readymades” and shook the art world. Thus we as viewers are tricked into believing that modern art is something among us, something that intertwines with our real lives, while most of the time the art works strive to detach from reality at best and purposefully search for otherworldliness within the confines of this world.

A documentary on Renaissance art that I watched a while ago calls Renaissance the “modern” art of that time. Reversely, modernism is the renaissance of art in recent decades. Classical art has interpretations that fall into several pre-established categories – religious, mythology, historical scenes representations, etc. If you know annunciation, crucifixion, resurrection, you essentially can read a large sect of the classical paintings. By reading I mean understand the theme of the art work and why certain objects and figures are included and composed in the ways they are. These form a set of rules that speak for themselves. Brush is a tool to visualize the existing. We know it’s a Raphael because of its brush strokes, the composition, and the bright radiant perfect figures. Not because it’s Madonna, Jesus and John. In other words, meanings are universal and expected.

Things started to shatter from the turn of the century. Objects being depicted are still obvious, but broke from traditions entirely. They could simply be some hay piles, a group of prostitutes, some dancing girls. Meanings are solid, yet unclear. Why them? People wondered. To rethink our lives and rediscover this world. Until Kandinsky – who some deem the first modernism artist. Meanings are lost. Representation becomes the theme. Personal signatures are stronger and stronger, shouting out. This is not only about brush strokes any more, but about what lie beneath the brush strokes. Art has become an internal announcement of the artist, rather than external depiction. It is from this point that ambiguity took hold. No one really understands your work until you explain it. Unlike classical fine art works, meanings are now left to the viewer and the critique. The public loves it, because it engages us intellectually. We also hate some of it, because they frustrate us as we can read nothing from the art works despite their curatorial explanations. And the critiques don’t buy them either. After all, now that this is personal, no standards can be applied any more. New interpretations have been assigned to previously mundane themes, some not assigned by artist but left to us. Therefore modernism is like an open-ended story that viewers can be a part of. And this poses thrilling examples for young emerging artists. But it is also this open-endedness that makes modernism so dangerous. You could fall at any moment, when the art world is no longer satisfied with the meanings you assign to objects. Modernism is a coaster ride, for both artists and viewers.

[Part 2 on the MET to be expected – on a sunny bright day.]

We Are What We Build


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During the final hours of my last flight back to Shanghai, the view seemed familiar. Not like my memory, but like Chicago, where I’ve stayed for just more than one year. It was at night; numerous street lights wind out on highways from exploding downtowns outward. Toy cars ran around in the narrow streets defined by skyscrapers of glass and steel.

Globolization in architecture and urban design has bothered me from time to time. I’m undefeated yet depressed trying to find out why traditional Chinese architecture simply cannot survive in the contemporary society. Why so many places have lost their identities and starting to look like each other? Is there a way to revitalize the old?

After many months contemplating on the first two questions, I finally threw my hands up in the air. This IS our city, now. Like no others. Architectural design alone is not the whole story behind the urban image; how people use it weighs heavily. In the future when people (or myself) challenge me with cities blurring, there is my answer: cities and cultures grow, and that’s it.

This of course, is the trouble-free way to go. I know I was troubled because I could sense sth diminishing whenever I look at my home-city. I was reading Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness today, and a few lines indeed struck me. He touched on the issue of urban identity, and stated that cities do not have an actual preset architectural scene, but the qualities of the urban space is deeply associated with the characters of the people.

The most outstanding new traditional architecture is free from pastiche of any sort. Not to mention a blown-up giant dou-gong for the world exposition. The quality of the space and materials echoes with local people. Tado Ando immediately jumped into my head. This extra-brilliant Japanese architect does not have much public architecture in America, but if you got a chance, be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in St. Louis. All the Japanese Budahism, Zenism seems to float still in the garden (which Ando designed). There’s not a trace of traditional materials or proportions left. Rough yet delicate concrete surface, intricate plays of light and shadow all convey a sense of tranquility and inner reflection that is essential to traditional Japanese people (and thus architecture). This, I always believe, is the best approach toward renewed spirits in local architecture.

[Pictures of the museum to be uploaded later.]

So maybe complaining about the similarities between major cities around the world boils down to ourselves. People have become less confined by races, languages, locations. Ideas fly around by just one click. And so do buildings. I might blame globalization for slowly killing local architecture, but that is all subject to the economic trends. Apparently SOM can build some impressive commercial buildings in Chinese cities without even stepping onto the site once. And how do we expect localization in this context?

Willing or not, we gotta admit that our minds and lifestyles are practically determined by the buildings and streets around us, contrary to the other way around. And what about the contemporary Chinese people? That is something way too complex for me.

Behind-the-scene story of Anton Cermak House


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So a few weeks ago, I happened to know that my first National Register nomination has finally been approved (thanks Laluce!). Read Blair’s blog on this, click here.

The building is former Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak’s house that he inhabited for 10 years until his assassination in 1933. I’ll skip the whole Significance section here (in case you are interested to know more, leave a comment), and reveal some of the more interesting trivals that can’t secure a place in the National Register nomination but make the story really pop out.

2348 S. Millard Avenue, Chicago, IL

The house is located in South Lawndale, a heavily Mexican neighborhood. My first visit was on a sunny fall day with golden leaves sweeping the streets. The two-story brick building looked very ordinary, nothing particular to be distinguished from its neighbors.

The building was now owned by an extremely friendly Mexican couple, who rather to my astonishment, knew a lot about the building’s famous previous owner and his life story.

Cermak was prominant in establishing the Democratic Machine in Chicago, which has been Democratic ever since. His death, however, was an extreme tragic and worth a few lines here. On February 15, 1933 while in Miami with FDR on a presidential campaign, Cermak was shot by a bullet that some claimed was intended for FDR. The mayor struggled for 20 days until he met his final fate. The story goes that while in hospital, Cermak told FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” A few months after Cermak death, 22nd Street in south-side Chicago was renamed uanimously after him, now Cermak Road. Somewhere down in Lawndale, a portrait of Cermak was hanging in a bar, and completed with his last words to FDR.

Cermak with FDR, Miami, 1933

You might wonder why 22nd Street? It is obviously not for his home–this little building blends in so well that you might not call it architecturally exciting. Cermak has been largely a neighborhood’s man, who lived in the same area for more than forty years. Incredible. Especially for a mayor.

In the 1870s, Cermak, like many immigrants of the time, came with his Bohemian parents on a ship. Young Cermak was tough even in his Bohemian circle. He never received high education; his strong accent was more than once criticized when he gave political speeches. Cermak, however, never felt ashamed of his Bohemian accent and was even proud of it. His first job was like his father’s, mining. He later started his own businesses, and got into the political world, not without obstacles. From 19 to 60 when he died, Cermak has always been living in Lawndale, then a popular Bohemian neighborhood.

And congratulations if you get this from above: Anton Cermak is so far the only foreign-born mayor in Chicago.

Cermak’s close knit with his Bohemian neighborhood goes far beyond just maintaining residence there. He has been financially supportive for a neighborhood Bohemian bank–Lawndale National Bank for years before and during his mayoral term, which interestingly was designed by the same architect who built Cermak’s last home. During Depression, Cermak’s daily burden to collect money for the city got heavier and heavier. But indeed, even during this extremely difficult time, Cermak was providing money from his own pocket to support Lawndale National Bank and prevent it from bankruptcy. How’s that?

And let’s not forget Prohibition. Cermak was politically known “wet” at the time: as the Mayor, he still frequented a Lawndale bar on Saturday nights. Indeed very Bohemian.

Cermak did not enjoy his good fortune for too long though. Elected Mayor in 1931, experienced Depression right away, and eventually hit by a disastrous bullet in 1933.

While Cermak was in hospital, his three lovely daughters were all weeping at their father’s bedside. Cermak, an exceptionally tough man, believed that this was not going to be his last stop. After the girls left, Cermak blamed his sons-in-law by “not taking my daughters to parks and making them happy.” He determined that his girls should not be mentally burdened by the little bullet and shedding tears in the hospital.

The tough man was not tough enough for that bullet obviously. Cermak’s body was carried back to Chicago on March 8, 1933. It stayed at his last residence for one full day before the city funeral on March 10.

It was really at this moment that you may understand what I was talking about Cermak’s neighborhood connections. Freezing winter night (remember this is Chicago), hundreds of neighborhood people were lining up in front of this little building to have a final glimpse of their Mayor. Free hot coffee and cookies were brought to them as a treat.

The final destination for Mayor Cermak was the Bohemian National Cemetery. I noticed one of the plaques on the modest structure: “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” That was what left to us by the first foreign-born Chicago Mayor.