Sunday, August 15, 2010

Onward to New Horizons: London, Zurich, and Cybernetics

Dear Reader,

It’s a beautiful day here in London! I just finished mass, lunch, and now I’m sitting here in my flat with the French bay window open; a slight breeze from Finchley Road is flowing through, stirring the curtains. London is buzzing, sirens and babies crying, women clicking the pavement with their Sunday afternoon heels and sundresses. My computer, in some cosmic way, is playing the song “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. A steaming cuppa sits to my right. Clouds of milk still stir in the amber liquid…..I take a sip. =)

It’s been over a month since I’ve last posted hasn’t it? I guess to begin, much has been going on, and to be honest it’s been quite overwhelming! I first went to Zurich, Switzerland in July for an interview with Gunther Vogt Landscape Architecture. I got the position, however they were looking for an intern that could stay for up to 6 months. Unfortunately, I only needed an internship for the summer, so I had to kindly decline. The good news is I have the option of working in Switzerland if I had the right visa! What an exciting thing- to work in Zurich, the birthplace of Dadaism! So why Switzerland? Gunther Vogt gave a lecture at ECA a few months earlier, and his perspective on design and life absolutely clicked with mine. It dwelled on minimalism for one, however it wasn’t an uncomfortable type of minimalism. Rather, he emphasized spirituality and clarity- reducing clutter in the mind and heart of landscape architecture to create modest, honest, open spaces….holy spaces it felt….like the Swiss Embassy landscape in Berlin, near the Reischstag. The goal of the German government, I suppose in essence, was to focus on redemption and openness. This became real in the architecture (Foster’s Reischstag), the Sony Centre at Potzdamer Platz, and Vogt’s parliament landscape.

I guess another reason why I was so attracted to Switzerland was it’s graphic design- it’s movements in Deconstructivism in Dadaism- the emotional responses to the World Wars made real in their advertisements and package designs. To bring it into modern times, think about the graphics for the band Franz Ferdinand, and to some extent Modest Mouse. That will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. I understand as a designer, it’s probably best to not re-create a style that was appropriate for the epoch it developed, but maybe it’s a starting point? For some reason it is taking me forever to grasp this style, and I’ve tried many ways to study it, maybe even duplicate it to enhance my own personal style of graphic representation. Maybe I’m struggling because I was not raised in the geography of the land it germinated. I grew up in Los Angeles, in a Filipino family, and my visual vocabulary consists mostly of swirls of light, heat, swimming pools, sunsets, movement, and dust.

After my trip to Zurich, and spending a considerable amount of time with my beloved Auntie Nena over there, I’ve decided to put it in my back-pocket and move on. I’m not sad, just curious to know if that will be a direction my life would go. For now, I have London to face.

Now, I’m in London because I’m interning for Raoul Bunschoten at Chora Architecture and Urbanism in Camden/Kentish Town. This direction is incredible as well, and probably loaded with more purpose, because my goal is to do more research on the Thames Gateway which will be the focus of my Major Design Project at ECA. There will be a considerable amount of focus on the regeneration of the Thames, especially in East London, close to the location of the 2012 Olympics. Also, since this will be my last year in the UK, I’m hoping to make it a good one (that is unless I can either stay a year longer for an art degree or working visa….more on that later…). One of my schoolmates, Liva, helped me get the position, and I’m eternally grateful. I’ve also met so many wonderful characters here- Helene Binet, Raoul’s wife, is one of the most talented architectural photographers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. She’s always having volunteers and interns walking in and out of her office (upstairs from the Chora office); and the interesting thing is some aren’t even photographers. Some are junior high school students, interested in art and/or photography. Some are architecture undergrads, friends of the family, or relatives, all pitching in to help her develop film, organize stock, and archive files. Quite simple work actually, but it makes me wonder if I could lend her a hand as well…..hmmmm….

Now, I’ve been working for Raoul for roughly 3 weeks. His method of thinking and design is completely different from what I’m accustomed to. He developed his thesis, from my understanding, through the work of Gordon Pask on cybernetics. I really can’t tell you what cybernetics is about because I’ve just recently begun to understand it (quite literally 3 days ago). However, if I were to give it my best, at least for Raoul’s thesis, it does happen to touch on the idea that creation, urbanism, and all that is material is static, unorganized, and constantly in flux. Design, whether it’s a building, a landscape, or a city, must accommodate this by providing a flexible structure, a place for growth, on the micro and macro levels, and definitely in the scale of the human being….

In another angle, by which I’ve begun to understand his thesis, Raoul emphasizes on the need to help the actors or stakeholders in an urban environment of study (he calls them “Sectors”, or if given a smaller/specific site, a “Prototype”), more aware of self-sustainability, and the power they have to make a positive change in the environment. It also touches on economics and “non-structural” systems, such as the unfolding of time, that would bring about change and the development of an existing urban environment; the key actors or stakeholders in these environments would be the participants in its design; therefore the architect is not designing the city, but rather its participants. For example, Greenwich Village in New York was first designed as a small/medium-scaled, residential, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood before the invention of the auto-mobile. The people who lived there were middle-working class New Englanders. They maintained an “average” lifestyle, and the neighborhood during its time, was very much “average”. As the rest of New York developed into a modern metropolis, Greenwich Village has maintained its physical character, or rather resisted the changes brought by the unfolding of time, by the dynamics between key actors such as the war between Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and the City of New York. Greenwich Village resisted physical/urban fabric changes as time unfolded, and but the people who live there now, the user-group of its “new” design, and presented by Jane Jacob’s influence, are grassroots activists, artists, environmentalists, and the city’s elite. It’s a jewel in the City of New York, because very few small-scaled neighborhoods exist within Manhattan.

With this case-study in mind, Raoul is creating an awareness, designing (“teaching” as a way to put it), the minds of students, stake-holders, architects, and other actors in emerging environments (aka: “Sectors”, like “Sector T”- for the Thames, the environment I’m doing research on), about the ways of sustainability, renewable energy, and so forth. Jane Jacobs knew Greenwich Village needed to be preserved, not only because she lived there, but also because of its people and it’s potential to become a beacon of sustainable growth in a city that was losing its history. This is what I’m doing for Raoul as I continue to study the Thames Gateway.

If you were to read any of his books, dear Reader, you would be quite confused. The language, or perhaps jargon used in his thesis uses metaphors, prose, or even iconography to describe an idea because, given the constant flux of urbanism, a taxonomic name would be too specific, and perhaps inaccurate. For example, how do we label a person, or a cause, or the existence of an object, if it’s constantly changing, or the perception of it is different from one person or being, to the next? I’m quite certain Jane Jacobs didn’t know she was helping with the design outcome of Greenwich, nor Robert Moses….However, I’m quite certain they had feelings involved as they participated in saving or changing New York. How would you place a label on a feeling? More so, how would you label Jane Jacobs? She wasn’t an architect, she didn’t have a college degree; she was a journalist, and maybe a shaper, but she wasn’t creating the Greenwich Village we see today….it already existed. Its perception has merely changed, and it’s method was the unfolding of time, through the hand of key actors or agents, a non-structural method of design...somehow Time choreographed it into a Metacity…..

This way of thinking has given me more direction, because quite often I would think or create a design that can’t be given a label; and quite often I would feel disappointed in myself for not knowing what to name it….For example, I designed a garden for a veterinary hospital in Edinburgh…but it’s name- a “Healing Garden”- didn’t seem quite right, and if I called it a “Space for Change”, or a “Space in Flux”, people would not understand it. In a way, branding it would be false, because there are so many ways to use the so-called “Garden” that I designed; and locking it with a label would restrict it to a specific use. At the end of the project timeline, I called it a “Healing Garden” because that was the best way for me to “sell” it to our Client. It was a bit frustrating, but maybe at the end of the day, I just had to settle.

Raoul’s way of thinking makes me feel happy- that it’s ok to leave things out in the open, to develop in its own. If you set a stage for the actors and players to do their own thing, you are doing enough as an architect or a designer; and most often you know you’re doing this out of love, at least to your best ability. For the larger picture, however, I’m still struggling on creating a method to communicate this concept in a simple and concrete format. I definitely could not teach it in a few sentences.....Yet, Raoul was able to win the hearts of Ken Yeang, Zaha Hadid, Eeclo Hooftman, and REM Koolhaas. Maybe it’s because they think like him…maybe it’s because they’ve known him for a long time, and therefore had the time to develop a history of communication among themselves. It’s incredible…..

All things considered, Raoul currently teaches in Dusseldorf, and also is a professor here for the London Metropolitan University. He’s also worked with the Architectural Association and the Bartlett (I think), so there’s loads of research done on his part. He’s also written quite a number of books including his thesis book: “Urban Flotsam”. I have the prototype book here, sitting so comfortably on my desk, with post-it notes all over it. =)

So here we are again, returning from the depths of cybernetics, London, and Swiss Dadaism. “Dust in the Wind” has transformed into “Heaven” by Lamb. The window is closed, my tea is cold, and I just inhaled the last gulp. I’m going to make more though, and accompany it with a few biscuits, because it’s 4pm; and as we all know, in Britain 4pm is officially Tea Time! I hope you enjoyed this read- I definitely did. It brought light to so many issues that have been floating around in my head; and I think I will enjoy my cuppa knowing I could return to work tomorrow with more peace of mind. I’ll keep you posted of more changes. Until then, enjoy the rest of your summer! =)

Love in the Clouds,
Lesley Ann