Contextualism through wielded geometry

The East Wing of National Gallery in DC by I.M. Pei and The Tokyo Forum by Rafael Viñoly are two classic examples of matter-of-fact contextual response through their clarity of parti. Both projects are situated on a trapezoidal site with two particular elements of reference. For the East Wing, it is the West Wing designed by John Russell Pope in the beginning of the 20th century and the diagonal boulevard from L'Enfant's master plan; for The Tokyo Forum, it is the busy and bustling JR railway and the gridded urban context. Through the murmur of the site, both projects achieved its clarity of form through its simplicity of reinterpreted geometry. Most revealing is that, Pei was one of the judges -together with Kenzo Tange, Vittorio Gregotti- who selected Viñoly's scheme through an international architectural competition. The similarity between their approach to generate an architectural form through the site is quite profound.

Devil is in the narrative

Two buildings from two different continents and local conditions sharing similar idea on the making of public space and formal expression. Left is the Polytechnic University Community College designed by Hong Kong firm of AD/RG, right is the Museum aan de Stroom by Neutling Riedijk Architects from Holland.

Idea for the PUCC building derives from a reinterpreted ideal of the Chinese courtyard house. Instead of having courtyard in the center, it rotates upward around the edges of the building volume. This new interpretation takes place in the high dense urban condition of Hong Kong. Peripheral courtyard thus becomes the internalized cavity that engages the public realm.  While the PUCC refers to its context by making historic and typological references, the MAS engages its context in another way.

The concept of the design competition for MAS goes something like this. In a low profile city-scape of Antwerpen, there were three iconic towers that overlooks it. A tower of religion: the cathedral; a tower of power: the police central; a tower commerce: the bank headquarter, yet, none of the three offer its citizens a public access, or view from a high vantage point.  While most of the other submissions attempted to "respect" the context by staying low, Neutling and Riedijk proposes the fourth tower: a tower of culture. Not only does it symbolizes the fourth order, but it pushes the idea for creating a path where the public could circulate through the building in a quarterly view up to the roof terrace without the need to purchase a ticket. A cultural building with public space that its citizens could appropriate, freely.

In Pursuit of a Project

Creation really is a patient (re)search. Two of the most significant projects in the last twenty years took decades for its full fruition. Centripetal organising principle of the Guggenheim Bilbao (1997) was clearly visible in the Winton Guest House (1987). Across scale and functionality, entering the vertically inclined living room at the house is equivalent to that of the lobby at the museum, the central element gathers the family members and the museum visitors alike. Also the elongated garage at the house is reminiscent to the Richard Serra wing at the museum. For Koolhaas, the making of the Seattle Central Library (2004) was the result of two unsuccessful competition attempts to reimagine the "moral goodness" of the library typology through strategy of the void 2.0 of the Tres Grande Bibliotheque (1989) and the diagonal strategy of the Deux Bibliothèque Jussieu (1992). The first strategy being an attempt to establish a dialectical relationship between the stable (determine) and the unstable (indetermine) programs, while the second is to blur the programmatic and spatial boundaries.

Another project of significance, the Bruder Klaus Chapel by Peter Zumthor (2001-2007), a widely circulated and visited building. A building that serve less a practical purpose than a spiritual need. As important as it is, very little was known about its beginning. The final building constructed in the field on a gentle slope was the result of two projects previously designed but unbuild by Zumthor. Herz Jesu Church, Munich (1997) and Poetic landscape, Bad Salzuflen (1998—1999). In Zumthor’s own words, “The germ cell of the design for Bruder Klaus Chapel can be found in the “Poetry House” (individual structures designed to relate to a specific poem).” It is a design in search of the elemental: light and shade, water and fire, material and transcendence, the earth below and the open sky above. The same affinity is said of the Herz Jesu Church. A project embody the tension between dark and bright, earth and light, protection and exposure in vibrant lightness and darkness.

Cantonese Opera as an EXPERIENCE of confluence between subject and object

It is with great sadness to learn about Bing Thom's passing this morning. Although I never had the fortune to work with him, his lecture at CUHK four years ago, and the metro ride after was a memorable and enlightening experience that I will not forget.

He spoke about the particularity of the theatrical experience in the Cantonese opera, as the theatre of life, that the everyday experience is needed to be brought into the art form, where the subject experience is invited to immerge into the object of the play. This contrasting notion of the art form, from the European opera, set apart his design from others for the Xiqu Centre competition here in Hong Kong. In his proposal, the boundary of the architecture is meant to be porous, the everyday events of whispering, tea drinking and snacking are meant to be part of the threatre experience. All of it combined to soften the distinction between inside and out, to entangle the reality of the everyday from the fantasy of the theatre. It was a simple and clearly articulated concept.

Our thesis students were anticipating his Master Class last week, only to learn that he had fell ill during a client's meeting. What a lost.

HKIA- Past Present Future- Tracking Hong Kong Architecture

Between early 1960s and 1990s, and as part of the Four Asian Tigers, Taiwan and Hong Kong have witnessed a rapid economic development, consistently maintaining between 7 to 8 percent growth each year.  Propelled by a low-cost labor force, during the infancy stage both regions established itself on an export economy manufacturing consumer goods of its day.  Beginning in the 1980s, while Hong Kong demonstrated its transformation from manufacturing to a world-leading international financial center, Taiwan on the other hand, have proven itself for contributing towards the information technology revolution.  After the three decades of growth focusing on economic transformation lifting itself from the “Third-World” categorization, there is an increased awareness on cultural production as a way to further define its identity.  Contextualizing itself within the global community but also struggle to define itself internally seeking a sense of locality. As part of the continuum of economic and cultural development, the purpose of architecture is also being reconsidered in the midst of these changes.  Moving from fundamental necessities of dwelling (residential) and work (office buildings) to an ever growing demand for spaces of cultural production such as museums, theatres and artist villages.  
Through the topical platform of Paradigm Shift of Architecture as a Creative Industry in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the forum invite speakers to share with the audience on how architecture have been an agency within this continuum of change.

2016 Thesis Foreword

In the martial art of Karate, for instance, the symbol of pride for a black belt is to wear it long enough such that the dye fades to white as to symbolize returning to the beginner state.
John Maeda


The Thesis Project, as the last moment in the School of Architecture at which the production of architecture engenders and is engendered by a social, political, material, technological and cultural agenda, aspires to define our graduates as a creator working in between approximation and exactitude, converging creatively the sometimes foreign subject matter with the disciplinary literacy of architecture.  It is also an opportunity where one who can materialize the primary elements of what is at his or her disposal in order to establish criteria whose evaluation is both self-referential and open to debate for those outside of the process.  

The thesis which lends understanding to a thoughtful and reflective act straddled in-between the autonomous and the contingent object of architecture, where ideas and thoughts are expressed through architectural production, not only in abstraction but through spatial agency and ingenuity, which encourages students to critique and contemplate upon them, and is embedded in all decisions that go with producing the work.  

Fast forward eight months, at the conclusion of the thesis also marked the beginning of a new set of questions.  So what now?  Have they achieved what they’ve set out to do in September of last year?  If not, will they continue to find and defind of their search and research of the thesis?  What will they do? Where will they go?

Perhaps as suggested by Maeda in the Law of Simplicity, they could revisit their “thesis” not through the assuming attitude of a black belt, but instead with the beginner’s eyes of curiosity, questioning and fervor.  It is with that passion, that one’s architectural project may be continued to be learned and shaped.

Peep show panopticon

Over the past few years, the diagram of the panopticon has often come up, but today I found myself sharing a personal experience on the panopticon with a student. This was not the iconic Bentham panopticon but one involving strippers and peeping Toms (or curious teenagers).

Back in the 90s before NYC's 42nd street was over-taken by Disneyland, when it was still edgy and interesting, where drug addicts and pimps lined the street. Best friend Wei Tao and I found our way into one of those shops with the sign “Peep Show” on it. Not knowing what to expect, we explored our way into the meandering paths and ended up in a large space with a circular room in front. The room was sub-divided into smaller booths, little more than a person’s width, each with an access door.

Upon entering our booths and without any instruction, we knew what to do. Just like a video game, insert the coins and we expected something will show up. But instead of GAME STARTS NOW, the shutter opposite from the booth door was lifted, and right before us were the female performers clad in thin veils. The strippers gazed towards me, or us (I can’t be sure) and waved. It was the moment when I realize we weren’t separated by a one-way mirror. In fact, there was no glass at all. Seeing the Toms literally “accessing” the strippers, we were shocked, or at least I was. More fascinating than the performers in front of me was the fact that I couldn’t see the facial expression of Wei, one of the shiest people I knew, because he was in the booth besides me. To this day, I don’t know how he reacted when the shuttle first lifted.

There it was, the reversed panoticon where the subject is seen by
peeping Toms and two curious teenagers. Where geometry helped to prevent embarrassing moments between two friends.

2015 Thesis Foreword

Inflection is the genetic element of the variable curve or fold. Inflection is the authentic atom, the elastic point.  Inflection is the pure Event of the line or of the point.

Gilles Deleuze


57 Points of Inflection

The 19th Master of Architecture Graduation Exhibition titled 57 Points of Inflection is a thematic idea with much connotation and imagination.  Implicit to the idea of point of inflection is the notion of transitioning from one spatiality onto another, of repurposing its a priori, of moving towards a state of deterritorialization.  Within the context of architecture, deterritorialization is the norm to practice today; it is not an exception but an expectation. Students of architecture in droves will either work in an unfamiliar territory or on projects with which its 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 practice?  In other words, what and how should the form of knowledge in architecture be conveyed and learned?  More importantly, upon familiarizing with the knowledge, what should the students do with it?

What is the end?  Although we can hope and anticipate what the end may become but no one can guarantee for sure.  In the architecture of deterritorialized practice, the end is not about producing students with architectural knowledge catered to a particular industry or locality.  Instead, it is for them to develop architectural intelligence and skills that are mobile and fluid so they can contribute and maneuver reflectively according to the circumstance.

The process involved in the thesis project is one of the key attributes that enables this possibility: of defining a topic that is curious to the individual students but also relevant to the discipline of architecture; of deciphering through the overwhelming research to distill its core knowledge; of thinking independently without the safety net previously expected from the studio instructors; of choosing the tools and methods to develop the work; of developing the patience to sustain the thesis for two semesters; of staying the course during many temptations to deviate from the crux of their intent; or simply, to figure out which first steps to begin.

These are important struggles that require long consultations with their advisors and intense collaboration with colleagues, but much more often, it requires the student to think through reading, drawing and making in solitude.  I hope students feel rewarded with this experience, and more importantly, that this experience paves the way into the architecture of deterritorialized practice, so someday; 57 points of inflection will expand into 57 explorations of events, each one unique, fulfilling their individual inquiries and aspirations.

Metaphors in Architecture: Absolute or Circumstantial?

Metaphors are accepted as a way to communicate concepts of architectural solutions. Under the best circumstances, works created by the skillful are able to permeate the metaphor throughout the building in different extents and degrees.  However, even the most critically acclaimed projects, whether in the case of the Stranded Rocks coined by Rafael Moneo's cultural center in the city of San Sebastian or the Chinese Treasure Box describing Rocco Yim's Guangzhou Museum in China, however appropriate and symbolic it might be, the metaphor itself and its relationship to the built form is almost always incidental and circumstantial.  

When unfolding through its rationale, there is nothing absolute about the connectedness in the design of Moneo's Stranded Rocks to either the programming of a performance venue or with the genius loci of of San Sebastian.  Neither does Yim’s museum of art or the city of Guangzhou have an exclusive relationship with the so called Chinese Treasure Box that makes its linkage inseparable.  In both projects, the use of metaphor are the results of circumstantial conditions of site, program and time.  What makes these projects relevant or notable lies not so much in its “appropriate” selection of the metaphor but in its rigorous translation, development and execution of the metaphor.

Based on this theorized position, a pedagogical experiment was developed to explore the metaphor as an origin of architectural pursuit.  Each project were given a metaphoric concept in the form of an object from nature that one can hold in its hand.  The validity in the use of metaphor itself is not being questioned, instead are explicitly accepted as a starting point of a design.  The experimental framework intends to minimize the significance and reliance on finding a “brilliant concept”, rather it places emphasis on building a process of analytical thinking and making that is critically transformed from the natural object.  The project contains three interrelated phases: moving from Materiality to Concept, towards Analysis to Interpretation and finally arrived at Abstraction to Projection.  This paper intends to articulate the path of resistance with this working method and the surprised findings encountered during the design process.

2014 Thesis Foreword

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.

Noam Chomsky

As our students cross the threshold of CUHK, I hope they will bring the spirits of architectural education in their hearts to wherever they go.  Although one aspect of the learning is to prepare them for the practice, it is not the sole purpose.  Other intentions perhaps a broader and more important one, involves the nurturing of an optimism that one could make a difference through clear purpose of intention and instrumental persistence of action.  The glimpse of works exhibited in this thesis booklet demonstrates a seed of that optimism.

Essential to the thesis project is a curiosity that speculates and provokes the topic under investigation with an unrelenting questioning of what if?  Beyond the typical rigor required in the architectural pursue, such curiosity would not endure without a leap of faith and relies profoundly on a spirit of optimism.  An ideal that the research and design of the thesis could expand and refine architectural thinking, with the aim of contributing to the discourse of architecture and potentially beyond.
This spirit of optimism- of learning through making, of instigating opportunity from constraints, of generating qualitative values from the quantitative figures, of revealing potentials from the mundane- forms a critical part of the education that does not limit itself to the design of a building, but could be the enabler for many aspirations in life.   Thus, I hope they never forget the ideals of optimism that lies within the core of their architectural education and to make a positive difference in the world, no matter how big or small it might be.

2013 Thesis Foreword

Relevance of a profession

Architectural education offers two areas of study to students, they are instrument and intention.  Study of instrument involves the use of tools necessary to transform an idea toward a physical manifestation while being instrumental with the apparatus to achieve an intended outcome.  Study of intention is to find the purpose behind the action that one takes.  It is as broad as the study of instruments and does not start or stop at the threshold of the architecture school.  If instrument draws parallel to how then intention could be understood as the why.  

Works represented in Interlude are the result of this meeting place between instrument and intention; between the mind and the heart.  For most students it is the first time they are given the chance to select the instrument(s) of their choice, and their first opportunity to define and defend the ideal intentions for their architecture.  This is also the initial attempt in validating their relevance as a young architect (or in becoming one).  As such, it is an exciting and critical moment of their lives and this is what architecture has offered them.
As our graduates enters the workforce they will confront many “real life” issues ahead, where their purpose or intention for becoming an architect will be cluttered by existential choices.  Therefore, I hope they will continue to expand upon the tools of their instrument to maintain their relevance, and further clarifying their intentions as an architect even as their career develops.

POSITIONING a public space

A hall of this dimension doesn’t depend on its environment: it creates its environment.              Mies van der Rohe

Contrary Mies theory on exhibition halls, the design of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which I had the pleasure of working on with Tomo draws upon formal and symbolic references from its place of site: The City of Pittsburgh.


By working with references established by the geometry of Allegheny River and the City Street grid the building’s basic geometry was formed. By adopting the river and the city order as an operative geometry, it allows the building be responsive to the site. These two forces constantly served as a reminder to its positioning within the urban fabric. The shape of the roof which served as a figurative gesture, echoes the sister bridges of Pittsburgh.  It places the building into the context as a symbolic embedment. In many ways, the adopted guidelines from the site are justifications for context correctness. As opposed to the architecture of global homogenization.

Considerations of positioning also involves linking downtown to the Strip District, as well as the water feature connecting the City to the River.  Similar to Boston North End, where a separation was created by the interstate highway.  The connection between Downtown and the Strip are bisected by I-376, which separates one neighborhood from another.  To further establish the relationship between the City and the River, the Tenth Street Water Feature was devised.  Essentially a passageway linking the street to the river, the water feature opens up toward the Allegheny as the horizontal surface descents with two diagonal, water cascading surfaces, the water feature becomes a public space that downtown Pittsburgh lacks.

Essays on Metropolis 1.0

Walter Benjamin proposes "reception in a state of distraction" as fundamental to the redefinition of the artwork under conditions of technical reproducibility.  A new aesthetic categories and new types of objects is produced.  The change of perception in the subject itself is registered.  Reception in a State of Distraction is a way to understand the conditions of an urban life.  The stimuli created by many facets of urban experiences, forces one to filter the received information and to process them.  By processing these information under distraction, one becomes familiar with distraction through habit, blasé attitude as described by Georg Simmel.  The rapid and intense nature of the metropolis became a place for reconciliation.  A place where competing conflicts can be resolved and where incompatible elements can coexist.  Conditions created by modernity are on the one hand sensations of standardization, reduction and totalizing, while it is fragmentation and multiplication on the other.  In Simmel's essay On Individuality and Social Forms, he explained how the disengagement of workers to their line of task occurs.   The workers are placed along an assembly line to perform efficiently in completing a single task.  He never sees the completion of a product.  Instead, he sees only parts of the whole construction and perhaps not even the final product itself.  In return, workers became alienated from the production process.  The sense of authenticity and ownership on what he does becomes instead, bland; ambivalent and fragmented.

"The modern city, however, is supplied almost exclusively by production for the market, that is, for entirely unknown purchaser who never appear in the actual field of vision of the producer themselves.  Thereby, the interest of each party acquire a relentless matter-of-factness, and its rationally calculated economic egoism need not fear any divergence from its set path because of the imponderability of personal relationships."

P.327 On individuality and social forms/ Georg Simmel

The way in which the mechanized process of production have fundamentally and psychologically altered how one respond to its living environment is a significant one.  The modern metropolis is structured and formulated heavily based upon the idea of an economic or commerce production.  This idea of capitalism influencing the cultural agendas may be further explain by Kracauer's description of the Tiller Girls.  Kracauer describes Tiller Girls as a product "manufactured in the USA".  They are composites of figures that performed with sets specific and unanimous movements.  They are no longer seen as individual figure of bodies.  Instead, they are fragmented.  Legs and heads that are components 'efficiently' packaged.  He described them as sexless and simply as the 'abstracted signs of their bodies'.  Instead of a figure with body parts, one sees the parts as groupings.  His analytical criticisms tend to formulate around the idea of totality, where mass and quantity of units are describe as an important factor to achieve the sense of totality.   To ask how do mechanization and urbanization alter the social functions of architecture? One must first ask: What are the social functions of architecture?   As argued by Hays, architecture is an instrument of culture.  It is an interrelated, interdependent and interlaced process. One that establishes itself (architecture) by engaging in various aspects (social and economical) of our society.

"…technique of metropolitan life in general is not conceivable without all of its activity and reciprocal relationships being organized and coordinated in the most punctual way into a firmly fixed framework of time which transcends all subject elements."

P.328 On individuality and social forms/ Georg Simmel

"…the optimum relationship to be established between culture and form is one of correspondence, the latter efficiently representing the values of the former."

p.16 Critical Architecture-between culture and form/ K. Michael Hays

If one believe and accept this notion of social function in architecture, then one may consider autonomous architecture as the force that changes this notion.  However, to understand architecture autonomously, one must not solely look at its formal presentation, it is to engage from within, rather than look out for other disciplinary conjunctions.

"The intent is precisely to dismiss any of the worldly, circumstantial, or socially contaminated content of history, because such subject matter would necessarily impinge upon the intellect liberty of criticism and the availability for the formal strategies for reuse."

P.16 Critical Architecture-between culture and form/ K. Michael Hays

The critical term here is the 'strategies for reuse', meaning the reproducibility of the constituent parts, which will ultimately influence the final effect of the architecture.  We are returning to the notion of flatness, blandness and indifferent-ness of the society as a whole.  The effect goes beyond simply the visual impacts of the built environment.  It fundamentally changes the way we perceive our daily actions.

"Instead of reacting emotionally the metropolis type reacts primarily in rational manner, thus creating a mental predominance through the intensification of consciousness, which in turn is caused by it.

P.326 On individuality and social forms/ Georg Simmel

One may consider the urban sprawl phenomenon as a kind of permanent reception in a state of distraction.  The way, in which housings are made exactly from one to the other and where individual identity no longer can be identified, is a kind of distraction that comes from its blandness and totality.  The pre-designed, pre-fabricated architectural elements are pre-selected and built according to a commodity that is based on market values.  Each of the parts gradually loses its particularity, which in extent causes the whole community to become homogeneous.  Another kind of permanence of distraction in architecture is resolving a problem (project) in a utilitarian manner.  Instead of approaching a project towards aesthetics and authenticity of programmatic/ spatial relationship, emphasize is placed on the frequency of use, using data as a way to develop a project.  What the method implies is a dominant influence by the popular culture (the automobile, the office blocks, the shift of priority).  The position is situated on the factual, informational and indexicality criteria.  When compared to Le Corbusier's proposal for the League of Nation, Hannes Meyer's proposal seem to prescribe itself towards the description above.  The way Meyer has located the tower is a gesture to dignify its presence.  Regardless of the perverse effects it had on the context, he states that the tower carried a tremendous meaning and functional value.  This deserves its ease of access and prominence.  By placing the parking lot in the middle of the complex, he is insisting that the utilitarian aspects of the program carried more significance than the argumentative and historical traced meanings.  The quantifiable elements in this case overruled the qualifiable.  It is an approach to accept the popular and to make mockery on the intellectual polemics; it is an attempt to resist the forces of the common practice.  The metropolis is a place where ideas are exchanged, where multiplicity may occur.  It would be generalizing and simplifying to assume a unanimous way to describe the metropolis.  Through distraction there formulates an understanding of the existing yet, constantly changing urban structure, through shock, disjunction, disengagement.  The learned experience becomes an innate habit for dealing with the distraction and to receive from it.  The perception in a state of distraction is a condition difficult to describe singularly or categorically.  Only multi-sided, contradictory terms are capable to formulate and to understand the metropolis.



Kracauer, Siegfried.  The Mass Ornament New German Critique #5. Spring 1975.

Hays, Michael.  Critical Architecture-Between Culture and Form. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984

Simmel, Georg.  The Metropolis and Mental Life  The Sociology of Georg Simmel . New York: 1950

Benjamin, Walter.  A Berlin Chronicle  Essays, Aphorisms, autobiographical writings. New York: 1986

Huyssen, Andreas  After the Great Divide.  Indiana University Press, 1986