I can't necessarily write that the last Brainstorm unleashed a ceaseless shower of polemical fireworks, but our July talk certainly kept both speakers and audience engaged, and perhaps as close to seat-of-the-pants suspense and anticipation as any sunny, late-Saturday-morning-in-a-dyed-in-the-wool-Beijing-hutong-courtyard-café can get. We returned to our home at the Other Place with the vengeance, let’s say.
Not that it was the kind of entertainment you would get from watching Transformers 4, or anything of that stripe. Who wants that, anyhow? Can someone with a little bit more free time and the ability to withstand that movie – how are they not simply 35 – 40 minutes, by now? – write a piece on how somehow, collectively, we have condoned an industry that spends hundreds of millions of dollars on sequels that offer little to no change from their predecessors – let alone any fostering of bridging cultural boundaries or exploration of the tide pools of the human condition? The robot has a new jet pack, colored ultramarine instead of Prussian blue. And the new, Caucasian male lead has three days’ beard stubble, while the old, discarded lead was a “24-hour shadow” kind of guy. Hey, hey, Hollywood! Thank you for taking the banal to its terminus, & making it such a great pleasure and breath of fresh air to think about subjects as alive and relevant as architecture!
So that’s what was done. Young, western-trained architects based in Beijing, each finding different ways of building their careers in an incredibly difficult climate for young professionals in the field. I think I’m not alone in believing the talk, which currently holds the record as longest A.M. Brainstorm, could have easily gone on for 2 more hours without losing any appreciable amount of the audience. There were just far too many questions that could have / should have been asked.
Things like, “What are the limits of architectural intervention in crises or reflections of sociological decay?”; “How did you first arrive at your disciplinary ‘heroes’, and how has their influence on your worked changed over time?”; “What is the relationship between architecture and spirituality or a sense of mysticism?”; “If you had the time to study another subject intensively for a year that would benefit your practice and its derivative projects, what would it be?”; and “Can you achieve a harmonious balance between being a good, hard-working disciple of a particular methodology and/or school of thought and an ever-curious seeker of new intellectual terrain(s)?” Etc.
Some of this interest probably stemmed from the fact that a good deal of the audience were either architects themselves or in related fields. However, I’d submit that it also comes from the fact that: a) many of us non-architects thought of becoming architects at some point in our lives (could this be due to the fact that as children some of our first, “real” engagements with the world came through manipulations of objects in space, and exploring how those objects interacted with one another, and how the results of those interactions made us think & feel?); b) all of us, save those living some kind of swashbuckling, Robinson Crusoe kind of existence, are forever surrounded by “architecture" (in certain circles – here you are Cruz, my friend – there is a clear distinction between buildings as uninformed arrangements of materials so as to provide basic shelter, and constructions of Capital “A” architecture); and c) the spaces we inhabit from day to day are not merely frames for our activities that keep us out of the elements - their influences, probably most often at the subconscious level, shape our lives in both large and subtle ways…We are products of our architecture/buildings no less than of our domestic, economic, political, and cultural settings. Over time, buildings write themselves into our neurochemistry; I’m sure science will support this claim, if it hasn’t already.
Points of convergence would have shown themselves in time, but the primarily source of contention between the speakers came from the working definition of architect. To Jenny Chou, who finds inspiration from the mythical Daedalus, who constructed the Labyrinth of ancient Crete, the architect must have a strong foundation in the practice of building. This conception was rejected out of hand by Cruz Garcia of WAI Architecture Think Tank. To he and his partner, Nathalie Frankowski, it is unnecessary for an architect to ever actually have a design constructed (or participate in its construction). Some of the most seminal architects in history, they contended, have been thinkers, theorizers, and, one would presume, inspirational figures for others who have gone on and built. A 12-year-old child, to their thinking, could theoretically be a very capable architect. For formally trained architects who have gone through the hoops of rigorous academic training and/or accreditation, this is a surprising view, albeit it is one taken by those who have seen the system, intimately known it, and perceived its shortcomings.
Theirs is a welcoming conception – I wanted to ask them if a primary school teacher, without any specific knowledge of the history of architecture, could be considered an worthy architect, if she/he were to find a method of making ideas of form, function, and space infinitely exciting for young students…perhaps? – but it does have qualifications; an architect can assume many guises, but there are certain things that would disqualify one from legitimacy. Even if a given individual is fully certified, wildly celebrated, and “successful” (whether financially, through number of buildings constructed and/or their prestige), she/he wouldn’t be worth salt if there wasn’t an underlying respect for and sense of responsibility to humanity (Jenny Chou, having collaborated on projects to provide relief tents to refugees, fully agrees with this). Related, an architect must at all costs avoid further dotting our landscapes with thoughtless structures – think roadside motels and semi-on-campus dorms to most universities – that do no more for people than give them a place to hang the proverbial hat.