How many make a collective? Two or a million?

Asian Cities of Influx

What we have learned through the history of the city is it has always been in a state of change. In fact, this is one of the key characteristics that distinguishes the city from the village or the rural conditions. Beyond its physical manifestation, change as an idea is inseparable from the city as a project. What we have also learned is that any conception in which the city is idealized as an idled formation like those “envisaged by total design such as Filarete’s plan for Sforzinda”1 will immediately be D.O.A. (dead on arrival). The reason was clear. The complex and contradictory nature of the city will almost always outperform the deterministic principles of the ideal city. Despite this preface, there has never been such a degree and speed of change as the one we have witnessed in Asia from the last century.

In recent years, Asian cities have largely followed the development model of tabula rasa, real estate dominance, and economic prioritization by focusing on the needs of the individuals. Concerns for the collective or the public life have been largely ignored, or at best serve as a negotiating chip between the powerful. The “fierce urgency of now”2  for architects to confront this issue of the public life or the collective has never been greater.


Hong Kong and Taiwan

Between the early 1960s and the 1990s, Taiwan and Hong Kong witnessed a rapid economic development propelled by a low-cost labor force. Both regions consistently maintained 7 to 8 percent growth every year, and each established itself as an export economy making consumer goods of its day.  

In the 1980s, when Hong Kong demonstrated its transformation from a manufacturing city to a world-leading international financial center, Taiwan, on the other hand, had proven itself for contributing to the information technology revolution. This progress came after three decades of emphasis on economic transformation, lifting itself out of the “Third-World” category. A change predicated on the inevitable transmutation of the urban landscape.

Rural farmlands in Hong Kong’s New Territories were urbanized within a decade. Its population multiplied from 300,000 in the 1960s to nearly 4 million today.3 The once agriculture community whose operation depended on sourcing of irrigation systems now requires a network of infrastructures to support its everyday function. In Taichung, the once vibrant city center has become old and derelict as people disperse outward to create new satellites in the suburbs. The reliance on automobiles further exacerbated the sprawling. This metamorphosis of Hong Kong and Taichung brought with it structural reorganization and completely reshaped both cities.4


Forming of a Type

Long before Rem Koolhaas’s ‘Elements of Architecture’ (Venice Biennale, 2014), there was Jean N.L. Durand's attempt to determine the fundamental principles of architecture. For Durand, it was necessary to establish the basic elements that characterize architecture as a discipline. Just as Euclidean geometry begins with the definition of ‘point’ and ‘line’, architecture also needs to have its own ascertainable elements. The fundamental elements of a building and, by extension, of architecture, were for Durand those that can be found in any building, regardless of its style. His theory was painstakingly recorded in Précis des leçons (Accurate Lessons) and published in 1802.5

Fast forward 150 years. What does it mean to work with the elements of architecture in the Asian cities of influx during the 1970s? Part and parcel of the rapid development of the city came the necessary byproduct of the ‘typical-type’ in architecture. The typical-type enables the infestation of mass housing, satisfying a growing post-war public. It is the great promise of Modernism put into real-world application. The mastermind behind this, of course, is not Durand but Le Corbusier

In Asian cities like Taichung, where valleys of farmland were eradicated and replaced by the Dom-Ino House, the axiom of Le Corbusier and the replicability of its fundamentals put all other challengers to shame. The sheer scale of its germination alone is unprecedented in the history of cities. In Hong Kong, hectares of waterfront and seashores were ‘reclaimed’6 to make way for thousands of cloned crucifix towers from the fiction of Ville Radieuse. Looking at Shatin7 from the eye of a flying drone, it is possible to see the smiling face of Le Corbusier.  


Path of Resistance: Revisiting the Typical

Premise upon the Asian cities of influx – of perpetual action, reaction and transaction – and as a starting point for the studio. Several questions were asked before establishing the pedagogical framework: What role does Architecture have in generating a collective sense of place, of creating a ‘pause’ within a city that is becoming highly transactional?8 Is it possible to use Collective Housing as an agency to trigger placemaking through a balancing act of architectural forms with cultural and social contents? If the motivation is to make a place in a highly urbanized city like Taichung, must the premise of the design project be ambitious in scale through enormous Floor Area Ratio? Could an alternative development model be possible, allowing the propositions to fit within the existing neighborhood rather than the prototypical blank slate approach? Is it possible to reimagine a new typical through collective intelligence? These are the questions posed in the process of forming the U5 Studio for our Year 4 students?


Collective to Collaborate

Deterritorialization is the norm in architectural practice today; it is not an exception but an expectation. It is anticipated that students of architecture will either work in an unfamiliar territory or on projects which disposition is foreign. Under this assertion, what are the means and what is the end to the path of education in preparation for this evolving profession? In other words, what should the form of knowledge in architecture be? How should it be conveyed and learned?  

Ever since the last century, architects have either worked in contexts that are alien to them or developed design approaches from their home of origin and transposed them to a different context. Whether it is Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence to and by Japanese architecture, or William Burton, the British national who helped to plan the city of Taichung, such exchange had become a common praxis. In this era of globalized architecture, the end is not about producing students with architectural knowledge catered to a local industry, but instead for them to develop architectural intelligence and skills that are transportable.  

Collective studio, by ways of collaborating with others students of architecture, is what we believe the first step toward familiarizing with this cross-boundary/cultural inclination. By departing from the students’ home city, it leaves behind their blasé attitude and stimulates them into seeing and experiencing with greater awareness. The curiosity to explore and deviate from the expected is further enhanced.


Critical Collectivism

For the first time since the inception of the compulsory U5 core studio, our students have the opportunity to consider the global challenge of housing design through the local conditions of Taichung. The objective of finding a middle ground between the universal necessity of habitation and the particular character and texture of the context echoes Alexander Tzonis and Kenneth Frampton’s call for a critical regional awareness of architecture.

For educators in architecture, it is a necessary step to reflect on the evolving and changing landscapes of architectural practice. One that is increasingly homogenous and globalized. The collaborative studio allows us to highlight the importance of producing architects with knowledge not catered to a particular industry or locality, but instead, it is for them to develop architectural intelligence and skills that are mobile and fluid, therefore enabling them to contribute and manoeuvre reflectively according to the specific situations confronted.  

This article began by posing the question: what is a collective? And how many people does it take? It is not only a provocation to bring awareness to the topic of collective housing, but also an attempt to seek a different way of working vis-a-vis collective intelligence. Like all the design studios in our School of Architecture, this U5 Studio is meant to sow a potent seed in the young minds of the students.


1 Pier Vittorio Aureli (ed.), “Introduction”, The City as a Project Hegel, Berlin: Ruby Press, 2013.

2 Is it possible to shepherd a collectiveness in architecture emulating the idealism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

3 Fan Shuh Ching, The Population of Hong Kong, Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 1974.

4 As people’s livelihood became more prosperous, the demand for quality built environment increased. The fundamental purpose of architecture was also questioned, moving from the basic desire for private spaces to an increased awareness of public spaces for social and cultural production. 

5 According to Durand, Architecture is a science and an art at the same time: like science, architecture demands knowledge; like art, it requires talent. Talent is none other than the just and easy application of knowledge. This correctness and facility cannot be acquired except by sustained exercises and multiple applications. In the sciences, one can know something perfectly after having done it a single time. But in the arts, one cannot know how to execute something well without having done so a considerable number of times.

6 Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Reclamation’ as: “the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right.” So why is occupying a former seafloor by human beings called reclamation? It is a highly anthropocentric word to which we have become numb.

7 A “new town” of 630,000 inhabitants with a density of 45,000/ km2, Shatin was built entirely on reclaimed lands previously nonexistent.

8 Economic exchange and monetary transaction as a form of social interaction as described by Georg Simmel in his essay “The Metropolis and the Mental Life”, in Donald N. Levine, ed., Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

Source: How many make a collective