Thursday, January 04, 2007

Underlying questions - Ronald's post

Here's a post from Ronald. He isn't on the blog yet, so I'm posting on his behalf.


Hi there.

Ronald (the new member) here. I figured that if I didn't sit down to write my response to your post, I'll never get down to doing it. (As a disclaimer, I do not mean to be a wet blanket, but this post shall be the devil's advocate to KH's post)

I find the question of social consciousness particularly intriguing. Much of the underlying problematic is that we are trying to do it all: experimental architecture, social consciousness, public participation, personal passion/desire. Really Architecture suits the current purpose now because the over-arching umbrella is "anti-establishment" or "alternative-to-the-norm", and in a sense, puts everything in a refreshing dialogue. A common "enemy" (i.e. establishment) gives us reason to come together. This do-it-all-ness is a double-edged sword.

I start to be cautious when you suggest the need "single-mindedness" in a united approach. I am doubtful that the movement, with such a broad agenda and divergent interests of each member, can withstand unity and single-mindedness. As you aptly observed yourself, the terms of the discussion changes when you start asking yourself, "What would I like to do?" Every movement in architecture or art served a moment in history when interests converged, and inevitably had to end when interests diverged. The Bauhaus became apolitical, Team X or CIAM eventually disbanded, and the original members of the Metabolists ended up doing very different work.

It is at this point where I state my belief (that cannot be supported by logic or analysis) that no architect can be every thing to everyone. Every architect must make a personal choice on what architecture is to him, and how it relates to his self, unconsciousness, convictions, beliefs. Some choose to align themselves with art and sculpture, some with theory, some with philosophy, or with Chinese gardening, or with history. (each of these architects has to deal with the public at some point in time) The beauty is when each of these types of architecture comes into dialogue with each other.

Perhaps I could mention a few observations to explain why I raised this point. Frank Gehry is first and foremost a sculptor. His artistic ambition and goals rely only on the pursuit of that elusive form enabled by the computer. I don't know how socially conscious he was. Tadao Ando's pursues the elements of light, space, meditation, strict geometry, in a way that can touch the unconscious in the hearts of each who walks into them. I also don't know how socially conscious he was.

This brings me back to an earlier point that I mentioned that public involvement in the process should come external to the architect, as an external constraint, rather than the architect claim the additional responsibility under the guise of social consciousness. The modernist architects/planners who replaced old urban fabric with new cold spaces, after all, began with the best intentions. Our beautiful garden city with modern buildings / tabula-rasa dilemma began with the best intentions of Lee Kuan Yew and URA & HDB.

We all believe in public participation. Yes, I believe that participatory design can have the potential to achieve new kinds of spaces, possibly to higher levels of public satisfaction. But I sense that the process is not as easy as we make it out to be.

To begin with, architectural design is a long-drawn process, beginning with i)schematic design, then ii) design development, then iii) construction documents and iv) construction. Along the way, countless decisions are made. Then revisions made. Then more decisions are made, or reversed. Then revisions. You get the idea. My first question is, at which moments in this long-drawn process do we involve the public?

My second question is, in what roles do we involve the public? Are they solely the decision-makers / decision-reversers? (like clients) Or are they co-designers? (In which case, as egotistical designers with personal artistic ambition, how much of the designing role are we willing to relinquish?)

My third question is how do we obtain a reliable and constructive sample of public input or opinion? Personal A says one thing. Person B says another. Person C says another. Maybe Person A said one thing because he heard from Expert X that this thing is lousy. Person B, however said what he said, because he read an article in the Straits Times that said that this must be good and this is what he wants. Person C truly believes that Singapore is losing its Asian-ness, and the only way we can redress the problem is to add Asian roofs and moon windows to all new public architecture.

The only loose criteria we have is if Persons A, B and C unanimously like a piece of design, and hopefully Expert X and the Straits Times too. Yet, every idea must have its nemesis, for it is the most controversial designs that are the source of disagreements, raise the most critical questions, and push the scene and the discourse forward. This inherent discord/tension is imperative to the vitality of every society.

I end with a brief synopsis of a novel I recently read, Le Monument, by Elsa Triolet (Prix Goncourt winner, 1944) I don't think it's been translated into English yet.

In the novel, the protagonist Lewka is a sculptor in pursuit of what art is to him and what sculptor is to him. He is also loyal to the cause of his party, his nation, and his people. One day, he is commissioned to build a sculpture of Stalin to be viewed prominently in his city. Lewka dedicates the sculpture to his party and his people and works hard to create something that everybody will like. When he unveils his sculpture, it is instantly loved. It is well-received by the public and party-leaders alike, and Lewka receives a prestigious prize for his work. Ironically, he falls into depression and becomes deeply troubled. He ends by committing suicide. The reason-- that he has "assassinated art"

Only a tale as such could succinctly elucidate the dilemmas that lurk beneath our discussion.