Thursday, January 15, 2009

China Musings 1: Pagoda Skyscrapers

In exactly three weeks I will be in Beijing, northern capital, formerly Peking. Once a great imperial capital, now a great Olympic city and growing megalopolis which is home to 17 million. I intend to write a blog when I am in China but in the meantime I will be publishing a series of short pieces on various topics of interest to me. One of my main interests in China is architecture and urban planning. Apparently, it is also one of the Chinese's main interests.

Since opening up to the rest of the world in the late 1970's, China has witnessed an economic miracle, modernization, and also the eradication of much of its cultural heritage and replacement with western ideas and practices, especially in the fields of architecture. Of course, to be fair, this vitriolic rejection of historic or "feudal" practices began in earnest under the Communists and reached fever pitch during the horrors of the cultural revolution of the 1960's in which old temples, palaces, and cultural artifacts and practices were destroyed and banned.

But the architecture of contemporary China and the processes of urban development of the capitalist age are now taking full effect. Most of the architecture currently going up in China is being built to compete with western standards, and often times is designed by the most accomplished American and European architects. Rem Koolhaas's mammothly totalitarian CCTV tower in Beijing, Hertzog and De Meuron's iconic "Bird's Nest' olympic stadium, and Lord Norman Foster's sprawling Beijing International Airport terminal are some of the most noted recent projects to go up in Beijing. Of the three mentioned above, only the airport, which Foster allegedly designed with traditional Chinese colors red and yellow and feng shui in mind, makes any attempt to achieve even the slightest contextual continuity with traditional Chinese architecture. The bird's nest and the CCTV tower, while striking and revolutionary, lack any cultural context or explanation. The recent Chinese National Theater, like the stadium possesing an evocative nick name ("the egg"), seems to go even further, its curvilinear pod alighting like an alien ship in the direct heart of Beijing, next to Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City. It replaced several hutong neighborhoods as well. (above)

There are countless other examples of incongruous and ridiculous modern architecture and I don't presume to argue that all new buildings evoke the traditions of the past, or use traditional forms and symbols. Oftentimes the desire to reconcile modern function with historical form ends up with the faux kitsch of Disneyland or the brutal ugliness of Nazi architect Albert Speer's grand neoclassical promenades built for Hitler's troop parades. However, I find it particularly fascinating and even inspiring when architects manage to achieve a striking modern building while at the same time incorporating traditional forms and symbols as well. There are several examples of this in China, some achieving a harmonious synthesis while some fall more in the category of kitsch. Usually, in my opinion, the most successful and graceful modern buildings have been the pagoda skyscrapers. These towering structures, the two most iconic of which are Shanghai's Jin Mao tower and Tapei, Taiwan's Taipei 101 (top, and directly above respectively).

I like these two buildings because they seem to me to exemplify a harmonious balance between traditional vocabulary and modern construction technology. The pagoda form is rei-magined for the twentieth century, and the result is something new. Of course, there is only so much one can do with the pagoda form, but in reality most skyscrapers follow some kind of design that tapers as it rised. The Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and many others follow this pattern for obvious structural reasons. The egg, while striking, seems dramatically out of place in Beijing. The CCTV tower and Bird's Nest are certainly culturally out of place but since their location is outside the traditional city limits of Ming and Qing Dynasty Beijing, their idiosyncratic forms are less damaging to the Beijing cityscape and can be appreciated for their futuristic beauty in the context of the modern cityscape making up most of Beijing outside the second ring road (which replaced the old city walls in the 1950's).

While cultural preservation in design is often hard to reconcile with the needs of a modern society, the pagoda skyscraper is one way to achieve this. The pagoda skyscraper can also be seen in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia where the Petronas Towers (once the world's tallest buildings) evoked the stuppa form of Southeast Asian Buddhist architecture, and formed a striking backdrop for Sean Connery and Angelina Jolie to climb on in the movie Entrapment. Certainly traditional, even religious architectural forms can be versatile, functional, striking, and even sexy. In Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing Mao is probably rolling over in his cryogenically frozen maosoleum seeing that religion (the opium of the people) and capitalism have come together to produce something new.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Glass of Diet Coke

It was a lazy hot summer school day, the crisply manicured lawns, respectable homes, greenbelts tranquil and motionless as the hum of a lawnmower buzzed in the distance. Inside my air-conditioned home in Irvine, CA. I collapsed on the couch in the family room. A lone glass filled with ice cubes and diet coke sat on the cool granite countertop. It was this scene that harkened me back to all those still suburban days of my childhood. The calm quiet of the afternoon unchanged from several years ago when I was living here. Of course, time passes, sic transit gloria, but things remain, physical traces of past memories.

For some reason the particular images that remain with you are never the ones you would expect. I can remember far far back (relatively) to when I was in early elementary school, it must have been around first or second grade. I have a distinct memory of my mom’s glass with diet coke in it, I remember the type of glass, for in our kitchen we have several different styles of glasses. It was a round glass, like many glasses, with a slightly larger circular base like an upside down chef’s hat. This one day, it sticks out for me…of course there were many days when this particular glass sat on the same granite countertop in the same dying sun of the afternoon. But for some reason this unremarkable image has remained ingrained upon my mind, a quotidian reminder of my childhood, a symbol of suburban contentment, American lifestyle, but actually probably not a symbol of anything. A simple glass of diet coke.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Bill of Rights for the Twenty First Century

1. Government shall make no law respecting the establishment of a Starbucks on every corner, a McDonalds in every city, prohibiting the free consumption thereof, or abridging the freedom of weight gain, or of inactivity; or the right of the people to peaceably demand more of said McDonalds and Starbucks, and to petition such companies for a redress of consumer feedback.

2. A well-regulated army of overweight citizens being necessary to the security of a free capitalist society, the right of the people to bear as much weight as possible shall not be infringed upon (said right does not confer the right to medical treatment resulting from such weight; this would be socialized medicine).

3. No citizen, in a time of peace, should be forced to abide by any rationing or sacrifice of basic needs, nor in a time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law.

4. The right of people to be secure in their three-car garages, bonus rooms, master bedrooms, and island kitchens against reasonable calls for good taste and moderation will not be infringed upon.

5. The right to be able to purchase 500 channels of television, including all sports and entertainment packages, and the right to purchase digital video recording systems with said 500 channels shall not be infringed upon.

6. The right to a warm shower.

7. The right to express righteous indignation on behalf of charitable causes the world over shall not be infringed upon.

8. Excessive critical thinking shall not be required of any citizen, nor excessive intellectual standards imposed on any candidate for public office.

9. The enumeration in this bill of rights of certain consumptive privileges shall not be construed to deny or disparage others of their rights to purchase any other goods or services, no matter how excessive or prodigal.

10. The rights to purchase products and services not delegated by this bill of rights, nor prohibited by the states, are reserved to consumers upon completion of customer satisfaction surveys.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tyranny of the Majority

In 1910 California became one of a handful of states to allow the initiative and referendum process, a political reform designed to make democracy more direct and bring citizens closer to the process of legislation. In its nearly 100 year history, the process has resulted in a variety of new legislation.

Several weeks after the passage of California's contentious proposition 8 restricting marriage to "between a man and a woman" activists are suing in the state supreme court on the grounds that the proposition amounted to such a large change in the constitution that it constituted a revision. If indeed it is a revision than it must be approved for the ballot by 2/3 of the legislature or a constitutional convention.

Only twice has the court struck down an initiative: the last time was in 1991 when the court invalidated the results of a proposition that would have restricted the granting of greater rights to criminal defendants beyond those allowed by federal laws. In 1948 the state struck down a ballot initiative that would have made wholesale constitutional alterations in a number of areas. But these propositions are just two examples of the often overreaching, unwise, and tyrannical power of special interests and/or the majority. The 1978 proposition 13, which limited the revenue that could be gained from real estate tax, has placed a huge financial burden on local governments, weakened schools, and fire departments. Proposition 187, designed to prohibit illegal immigrants from social services and ultimately ruled unconstitutional by a federal court is yet another example of the often discriminatory and reactionary intent of California's popular initiatives.

Direct democracy, as envisioned in its purest form, is impossible in a nation of over 300 million individuals and even in a state of over 30. The Ancient Athenian city state is often cited as the only historical example of a true direct democracy, but even this imagined golden age was restricted to free citizens with property and excluded women, slaves, and youth. The initiative and referendum as it functions in California today is direct democracy gone awry. Every election a new slate of propositions are put before the state, voted on by an electorate generally ignorant of the policy details and knowledge that they ought to have to make sound decisions. Sometimes, it is true, these measures turn out to do good: to extend rights, provide needed funds, or revise outdated restrictions. But this year's proposition 8 sadly falls into a much more shameful category: a step backward for civil rights and direct democracy. Proposition 8 is an example of the flawed democracy that French observer Alexis de Tocqueville described in his 1830's Democracy in America, a "government exposed to the whims of the majority." This was also the very type of populist excess that founding father James Madison cautioned against in his Federalist Papers.

As the old adage goes, "what is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular." I do not contend that the will of the people should be superseded by the minority, but too often in contemporary America it is in fact a loud and vocal special interest minority who controls political discourse and can pass through wedge issues with little oversight. The authors of proposition 8 were required to gather signatures of merely 8% of the voters who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election. This is indeed a minority.

California's flawed system must be fixed. Not being a seasoned legal scholar I can only assume some possible options include raising the number of signatures required, limiting the number of propositions allowed in a given election, or perhaps prohibiting initiative for constitutional ammendments. Because, the last time I checked, a constitution was supposed to guide the governing structure of a state and ensure its residents's basic freedoms, not take them away.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Orange County, Now Playing at a Developer's Office Near You

Brought to you by:

This day labor hiring area just a mile away from gated homes of Laguna Woods and Laguna Beach

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The goiter makes its fashion debut...

Designer Junya Watanabe
Tuesday: Paris Fashion Week from the New York Times website:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Master Planned Urban Community?

In my lovely master-planned hometown of Irvine, CA. a new housing development is sprouting up called Central Park West, touted as Orange County's first "urban master planned community," according to the developer Lennar's website.

I grew up in Irvine and I am quite used to seeing new housing developments being built almost continually. But until recently most of those developments were the traditional suburban neighborhoods comprised primarily of single family homes, and designed with close oversight by the Irvine Company, which owns most of the land the city is located upon. CPW is one of several (but certainly the largest) complexes being built along Jamboree Road that advertises itself as "urban" or "mixed use." The area, which has for most of its developed history been home to commercial buildings and a few shopping centers, is now the site of intense residential construction. While I applaud the construction of higher-density, pedestrian-friendly housing in a region whose leaders have often trumpeted single family homes with almost religious middle-class suburban zeal, it is important to understand just how urban these new apartment/condo developments are.

What comes to mind when you hear the word urban? Crowds of pedestrians, mass-transit, loud noises, a diversity of shops and restaurants, people, and environments, unique cultural attractions, right? Not a grouping of 8 apartment/condo complexes around a circular street, with names like "The Belvedere," "Astoria," "Chelsea." The names of small pocket parks wedged between housing further reference New York: Delancey, Tribeca, Rockefeller. It's not the urban I imagine but it is what Lennar Urban, the subgroup of massive home builder Lennar Corp (that recently purchased most of the land of the former El Toro Marine Corp Air Station) envisions. Or at least it's what they think will lure customers to an environment that offers all the convenience and density of urban living without the strange people, the uncertainty, the randomness...the charm.

The small "central park" being set aside in the middle of this block-sized development is the last reminder, if the cute historicized names referencing New York City were not enough, that this "master-planned community" is not an urban community at all, but a gimmicked, theme-parked reincarnation of it in a sunny suburban wonderland. Central Park West is no more an urban community than Disneyland's Main Street is an actual small town. And if we really are going to get serious about designing sustainable cities and communities and restoring public space and public life, we're going to have to stop deluding ourselves that developments like Lennar's Central Park West are really urban communities.

See for yourself: