"The truth is rarely pure, and never simple." Oscar Wilde, 1891
WHAT TO SAY?
I have been coordinating the Thesis Project at CUHK since 2012, the longest serving faculty member for this post to date. This means, I have been invited to write the foreword section of the thesis book five times prior. For what else can I say about the ‘thesis project’ that I haven’t already written in the past attempts? Perhaps through the lens of an (attempted) academic/ intellectual? Done that. What about from the role of a seasoned (somewhat) practitioner? Done that also. Maybe as a compassionate teacher who discourages the students from falling into tremendous self-doubt? Tried that in 2016-17. Perhaps to craft a coherent argument for continuing with the optimism for believing in this thing we do called ‘Architecture’? Yes, did that as well. After a long struggle, I have decided to write down snippets of provocations as my ‘gift’ to you but also as a reflection and critique to our own microecology at the School. The order in which they appear bears no intentional agenda or hierarchical order.
Architect Mark Rakatansky suggests that architects don't just make things, they also make up things[i]. Too often architects forget the second, often the equal if not the more important part- that architectural fabrication involves stories, scenarios and situations through which they can communicate to a larger audience. This is the narrative necessary in conveying a message through the proposed architecture. Isn’t the architectural studio part of the educating process in learning how to ‘make up things’? That in order for the project to be mesmerized by an audience, it must possess qualities like those found in a captivating works of fiction, qualities that appeal to the soul, intellect and the emotion? Such as: focus (the power to bring an issue into clear view); logic (a coherent system for making your points); a sense of connection (the power of personal involvement); simplicity (clarity and focus on a single idea); imagery (the power to create profound spaces with architecture); creativity (the ability to invent); excitement (designs with energy that infects an audience with your own enthusiasm); provocation (architecture that makes people think or act); a sense of Wow! (the wonder your architecture that imparts on an audience); transcendence (architecture that elevates with its heroism, justice, beauty, honor). That, my friend, is the highest form of architecture.
To be different is what architects that achieved notoriety says when describing their projects. It is the aim of what they hope to do and accomplish. It is also why their lectures are usually less inspiring than anticipated, typically organised linearly with pictures and drawings of their design, annotated with their words. The simple fact is, it is precisely because of their visual difference that we recognised their work in the first place. Therefore as an audience we go to the lecture to be enlightened by a narrative, to discover a revelation of a rigorous process, perhaps a unique methodology of design. But instead we learned about their non-transferrable intuition, a particular feeling to react, an eureka moment, and we hear the use of exhaustive metaphors. Therefore we leave the lecture room knowing nothing more than when we entered 60 minutes prior.
The Dutch architect Michiel Riedijk describes position as the ground through which the work is operated on[ii]. Not only is he articulating the physical grounding of the project, but the origins through which the work is conceived and rooted from, ethically, socially and technically. The position an architect adopts with regard to a given assignment is fundamental to the design of architecture. For example, should an architect work with any commission that comes her way, regardless of the social, political and ethical considerations? Should an architect work in every part of the world because she is able to? What is the financial condition through which the architect is working under? Should the architect be a service provider to the client, accommodating the client’s demands as best as possible? What role should the architect play in the construction process, as an observer or provide fantastical imagery without intervention to the production of the building process? These are not rhetorical questions, the nature of the position is utterly important particularly due to the permanence of the building and its impact to the city and the society at large.
The critic assumes the role of the judge which exudes an aura of authority, an authority whose command and mastery of the subject matter supremes over the students. Commentary and advice all come with an absolute and definitive undertone, plus an occasional hint of mysticism. Sometimes the authority is an elderly gentleman with a suit and tie who speaks with a deeply accented voice. Other times it is a young man in his early 30's that we see in the School. Despite his appearance, the critic is someone of a particular expertise and knowhow— so thinks the motivated year-one student. For why else would the critic be there in the first place? The student soon learns by year-three that the critic is not always the authority he is assumed or projected-to-be but in fact, someone who wishes to be away from the mundane of and relief from the everyday architectural practice. To return to the crit room is for him, a rekindling with the naiveté he once felt, that fuzzy feeling of optimism which propelled him to study architecture in the first place. So, in order to regain that nostalgic urge of making the world a better place, the critic accepts the invitation to attend the review.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
In the words of Frank Gehry, he describes the act of coming into being with himself when confronting the question of the beginning[iii]: “but what interest me- and I've talked about this before- is the moment of truth. Take the simplest example of a painter: you have a white canvas, a brush and a palette of colours and you look at this white canvas and now you've got to make a mark. And I call that moment of truth. It's clean and pure. It's direct. It's hand-eye coordination, it's the brain, it's your thoughts, it's millions of years of history of art packed into your brain, and it's what you had for breakfast and whether your kids were a pain in the ass, and all kinds of stuff. So that first moment is a moment of truth. And I kept looking for the analogy in architecture, because in architecture you can hide behind so many things. You can complain: 'Well, the client wanted this. I didn't want to do it but I had to' or 'The building department wouldn't let me do this' or 'The budget wouldn't let me do this.' So you have an excuse mantra that's two miles long if you want to use it to explain why the building looks like it does. I was looking in my own psyche and in my own life for the moment of truth where you're clean of all that; where you can't hide. I don't want to hide. I just want to get out there. I don't want to have any reasons. I've got to keep the rain out, maybe, but I only want very simple reason, so it's not cluttered. And Philip Johnson gave a lecture in which he talked about one-room building being the greatest buildings of all time. And that's it! 'You gotta just make the one room.' And so I started thinking of that as the moment of truth in architecture. And I still think about things that way. The rooms are discrete and they're objects in their own right, but then they're part of a continuum, part of a bigger picture.”
What is your moment of truth? What is mine? It is the search that most of us are still looking for. To the 22nd class of MArch graduates, my best wish to you. Having said all of this, I will have nothing else to say.
[i] Mark Rakatansky, “Fabricators”. Tectonic acts of desire and doubt, p12 – 27.
[ii] Michiel Riedijk, “The Drawing”. The architect’s raison d’être , P 42- 48.
[iii] Frank Gehry, “The Pritzker Architecture Prize acceptance speech, 1989.