China has released a directive that could put an end to the country’s trend for bombastic architecture.
Just over a year after president Xi Jinping called for an end to “weird architecture”, the country’s State Council has released a document calling for all new buildings to be “suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye”, according to the South China Morning Post.
The directive is aimed at tackling the problems associated with the rapid expansion of Chinese cities, as well as increased urbanisation all over the country.
It states that cities will no longer be allowed to grow beyond what their resources can support, and that “oversized, xenocentric and weird” buildings will be forbidden. It also bans gated communities and non-permitted developments.
Xi’s original comments, made in late 2014, attacked projects including the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV headquarters in Beijing – one of many unusually shaped projects resulting from China’s construction boom.
Shenzhen architect Feng Guochuan told the New York Times that Xi’s criticism had already influenced local government decisions regarding new projects. “Generally speaking, local governments now tend to approve more conservative designs,” he said.
But the new directive comes as a result of a meeting held by the State Council two months ago – the first of its kind since 1978.
It reportedly stipulates that, instead of unusual architecture, simple modular constructions will be encouraged, and predicts that 30 percent of new buildings will be prefabricated in 10 years time.
Not only will new gated communities be banned, but existing ones will apparently be opened up to improve traffic flow.
Existing shantytowns and dilapidated houses are expected to be transformed, with more parks and green areas created.
Speaking to Dezeen last year, Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher said that work was already drying up in China for foreign architects, partly because the government was trying to promote more local talent.
The firm had previously enjoyed a long run of success in China, delivering projects including the Guangzhou Opera House and the vast Galaxy Soho development in Beijing.
“I feel that there is this attempt by the Chinese leadership to try to make itself more independent and rely on its own talent,” Schumacher said.
Bjarke Ingels Group has released a conceptual design for its latest project in New York: an office skyscraper wrapped in a ribbon of green terraces
Yves Bouvier made hundreds of millions of dollars selling paintings. Was it fraud?
The Geneva Freeport, which may be the world’s most valuable storage facility, consists of seven beige warehouses and a large grain silo in La Praille, an industrial zone a short tram ride from the city’s lakeside panorama of banks and expensive hotels. One recent morning, rain was falling on the chain-link fence that runs through the property, and snow was visible on the mountains to the south. Iris scanners, magnetic locks, and a security system known as Cerberus guard the freeport’s storerooms, whose contents are said to be insured for a hundred billion dollars, but the facility retains a blue-collar feel. There were signs to the showers. Men stood around in aprons and smoked. Everything about the place tells you to look the other way.
The freeport began, in 1888, as a group of sheds near the waterfront. It was one of countless similar spaces around the world, where customs authorities allow duties and taxes to be suspended until goods reach their final destination. In time, however, the Geneva Freeport became legendary. It grew very large, and its official status—the freeport is eighty-six per cent owned by the local government—and kinship with the opaque traditions of Swiss banking made it a storage facility for the international élite. Under the freeport’s rules, objects could remain in untaxed limbo, in theory, forever. Treasures came and they did not leave. A generation ago, these goods were cars, wine, and gold. More recently, they have been works of art.
Yves Bouvier was among the first to see the potential of the freeport as an adjunct to the art market. A blond, compact man of fifty-two, Bouvier is the owner of Natural Le Coultre, a moving and storage company and the largest tenant in the complex. For more than a hundred years, the firm shipped everything from citrus fruit to industrial machinery; during the First World War, Natural Le Coultre supplied prisoners of war with Red Cross food parcels. Since 1997, however, when Bouvier took over the firm from his father, it has handled only paintings and sculpture. Bouvier refurbished the company’s premises at the freeport, which include two showrooms, and encouraged a framer to open a workshop in the building. Since 2013, Natural Le Coultre has rented more than twenty thousand square metres in storage space and has had well over a million objects in its care.
Every item passes through a single packing room, where it is unwrapped, photographed, and studied for damage. On the morning I visited, a Bob Dylan painting had arrived, along with a Picasso bronze from Greece. There were hammers hanging in order of size, and a stack of crates containing works by Léon Pourtau, a minor Impressionist. Ramon Casais, who has worked in the freeport for the past thirty years, agreed to show me a corridor of locked storeroom doors only after he had gone ahead to make sure there was absolutely nothing to see.
Specialist logistics companies, like Natural Le Coultre, are the quiet butlers of the art world. They operate deep inside it but are not quite of it. When an artist has made a sculpture out of butter, or scalpels, or half a passenger jet, it is up to a shipper to get it from Hong Kong to Miami in the same condition as when it left, and to make no fuss. To do their work, shippers must know many things. They are given records of private sales and the names of collectors, in order to navigate customs. In the course of a typical day, stopping by the homes of dealers and the back rooms of galleries, they learn who answers the door and the phone number of the assistant, and see the other pictures on the walls. The shippers’ professional indifference means that they are often in the room at moments of extreme commercial sensitivity. “Imagine that I am in Basel and I need to show a client a painting,” Thomas Seydoux, a dealer and a former chairman of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, told me. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, you are going to show it with a transit agent.”
This intimacy means that, once you find your shipper, you tend to stick with him. Relationships last for decades, built on trust and a sense, usually unspoken, of absolute limits. In sixteenth-century Venice, diplomats were instructed to employ illiterate valets, who would be unable to read any secret documents they were asked to carry. A transit agent “should by default be a blind man,” Seydoux told me. “That is the very nature of his job.” Everything works fine, as long as people stay within their allotted roles. Seydoux said, “You can’t win somebody’s trust by saying you are blind and then open your eyes.”
Bouvier speaks an imperfect, gestural English, but he explained that becoming a shipper allowed him to immerse himself in “the feeling and the difficulty of art.” He had no formal training, just what passed through his hands. “It started with the touch,” he said. “You have all the panoply: small, huge, it’s with value, with no value. You have everything, so you learn.”
Shipping also introduced Bouvier to the complicated lives of the rich—their taxes and their divorces—and the other ancillary trades that help the art world go around: restorers, framers, hired experts, operators of tiny galleries in Paris clinging on from sale to sale. He realized they all had needs of their own.
Bouvier financed purchases that dealers couldn’t afford on their own. He sorted out cash flow and bills. He became adept at setting up offshore companies—Diva, Blancaflor, Eagle Overseas—to enable galleries to buy specific works and mask the identity of other investors in a transaction.
“When you buy, it is always to sell,” he said. “You always have the buyer before you have the seller.” On August 16, 2000, he bought a Paul Gauguin landscape, “Paysage aux Trois Arbres,” from Peintures Hermès, a Swiss gallery associated with the Wildenstein family of art dealers, for $9.5 million. Two weeks later, he sold the picture to Mandarin Trading, a Bahamas-based art fund, for $11.3 million, making a profit of sixteen per cent. Mandarin Trading later sued the Wildensteins for fraud, alleging that it was the victim of a scam to inflate the value of the painting. The case was dismissed in 2011. I once asked Bouvier what drew him to particular propositions. “In the mountains, it was the same,” he replied. “I go in the place which is the most complicated, the most risky place.”
Building a collection involves a thousand small, complex tasks: storage, shipping, condition reports, restoration, making copies, framing, due diligence, insurance. For these services, Bouvier would charge an extra two per cent of the purchase price of any painting he sold them.
Major buyers typically build collections through several dealers and auction houses, knowing that they will be charged the maximum the market can bear. To protect their interests, many also employ an art adviser or consultant, who works for them and is paid a retainer or a commission—in the region of five per cent—on the works that they acquire. Very rarely are all these roles performed by one person.
The relationship between art dealer and collector is particular and charged. The dealer is mentor and salesman. He informs his client’s desires while subjecting himself to them at the same time. The collector has money, but he is also vulnerable. Relationships start, prosper, and fail for any number of reasons. It is not always obvious where power lies. Over time, each one can convince himself that he has created the other.
Access to the oligarch was strictly controlled. “Besides his lawyer and his hairdresser, I don’t think he sees normal people at all,” Rappo once told me.
Hidden behind company names and, often, dealers working on his behalf, he tended to disguise his role in transactions. “To be invisible is the best way to make business,” he said.
The income from his dealing enabled Bouvier to expand his storage facilities. For several years, he had been looking to build a freeport outside Europe similar to the one in Geneva. In 2005, he settled on Singapore. In 2008, Bouvier decided to base himself in the country as well. The Singapore Freeport, which required new legislation to be passed by the national parliament, opened in 2010. Bouvier put Tony Reynard, his childhood friend, in charge. The freeport, which abuts the city’s international airport, is an over-engineered hybrid of vault and temple. It cost Bouvier a hundred million dollars to build. At first, no bank would finance it. “They thought we were loonies,” Reynard said.
A freeport offers few tax advantages and scarcely any security features that a standard bonded warehouse cannot provide. But Bouvier’s development in Singapore carried within it two ideas. The first is that freeports will become hubs in the sixty-billion-dollar international art market, destinations in themselves—places for scholars, restorers, insurers, art-finance specialists, consultants, and dealers. The second idea is that the ultra-rich don’t want just another warehouse. “If you buy a painting for a hundred million, what do you want? You want to feel well,” Bouvier said. “Why else do people travel in first class?”
In Singapore, Bouvier specified each component, from the fire-resistant walls, coiled through with steel, to the height of the doors: three metres, to admit the largest contemporary installations. “I chose everything,” he said. “The door handles. I’m obsessive about that.” He used a lighting artist named Johanna Grawunder, whose work he collects, and commissioned an enormous sculpture, “La Cage sans Frontières,” by the Israeli artist and designer Ron Arad, to stand in the atrium.
The opening of the Singapore Freeport, and its immediate success—Christie’s took a space—brought Bouvier international attention. The facilities tapped into a fascination with the tastes and financial shenanigans of the one per cent. Bouvier opened a second, slightly smaller freeport in Luxembourg, in September, 2014, and The Economist noted his role in the development of “Über warehouses for the ultra-rich.” He made plans to replicate the model in Dubai and to act as a consultant for a vast new project in Beijing.
He bought a Gauguin that had not been sold since the Second World War and a lost Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” that had been sensationally rediscovered. On its display at the National Gallery in London, the da Vinci became one of the most talked-about pictures in the world. According to Rappo, Rybolovlev wanted it for the wall of his study. Bouvier brought the painting to the Russian’s apartment in New York, where, Rybolovlev told me, he experienced a profound emotional reaction—“a vibration”—in its presence. He bought the picture for $127.5 million.
ery transaction at the top end of the private art market involves a chain, a cast of characters that stretches from the buyer to the seller: finders, agents, lawyers, lenders. It is rare for the principals to know everyone involved, and it can be improper to ask. Bouvier was a master at making chains—short, long, simple, or twisted, depending on the deal. If he knew that a seller would prefer an approach from an auction house, he would send someone, usually from Sotheby’s. Otherwise, Bouvier would send an intermediary. Often this was a Corsican named Jean-Marc Peretti, who was investigated for running an illegal gambling circle in Paris in 2009. Bouvier is attracted to outsiders in the art world. “The best people are just good businesspeople—they are butchers,” he said.
Bouvier told me that such blurring of who exactly owns what, and when a transaction occurred, is commonplace in the art market. When you walk into a gallery, you never know what the dealer is selling on consignment, what he owns outright, or how prices have been arrived at. “It is not lying,” he said. “There is always a part of the story which is true.” But Bouvier was ruthless in exploiting what was left unsaid. “Joueur de Flûte et Femme Nue,” which Bouvier sold to Rybolovlev for twenty-five million euros, he had bought the day before for just three and a half million. He made a sixty-million-dollar profit on the Klimt.
In the early nineteen-fifties, Rothko began experimenting with powdered pigments, solvents, and egg to lend extra force to the colors in his canvases. He wanted viewers of his pictures to feel as if they were inside them. When Bouvier drew back the curtains, the painting seemed to explode in front of his eyes.
Around this time, I spent a day at the Luxembourg Freeport. The building is made of sixty-five hundred tons of concrete. Heavy doors are locked with six-digit codes.
As he spoke, Bouvier kept four Nokias and a BlackBerry within reach at all times. When one of them rang, he would turn it over, to see which realm of his dealings the inquiry was coming from. He reminded me, in a not entirely unlikable way, of an animal busy in carrion, like a jackal.
“Can I see some hands raised? Who in the audience think of Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park as contextual?” (No hands raised.) “Who think of it as not?” (No hands raised.) “Since apparently none of you know, let me tell you!”
What follows is a lengthy exposé about what, according to the person asking the question, is a highly contextual piece of architecture. Speaking is Jeffrey Kipnis, theorist, designer, filmmaker, curator, educator, founding director of the Architectural Association’s Graduate Design Program and professor at Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University.
The exchange (if one can call it that) takes place during one of the parallel sessions at the biennial. Apart from Kipnis, the session includes Patrik Schumacher, design director at Zaha Hadid Architects; Peter Eisenman, principal of Eisenman Architects and a pivotal figure in American academia (present and past positions too many to list); Theodore Spyropoulos, founder of architecture studio Minimaforms; and me, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The panel has been assembled to express its views on a potential agenda for 21st-century architecture.
The composition of the panel seems odd: most of the panelists’ formative lives have been lived in the 20th century, and all the panelists are from a part of the world to which – unless all current indicators are completely misgiven – the 21st century will not belong.
The venue is The Gold Room in the Congress Plaza Hotel. Tickets have sold at $50 and, while that ticket price suggests the event is in high demand, the room is only half full, making its grandeur perfectly inappropriate for the occasion. One of African architecture’s rising stars speaking at a venue next door appears to have drawn a larger crowd. Still, the modest turnout hardly fazes the panelists. The epicenter of American academia thrives even in the absence of an audience.
Schumacher’s opening salvo is a proclamation of the end of pluralism (delivered with an impeccable German accent) and of the imminent global dominance of a single remaining master-style – his own. Eisenman, who is next, suggests a change of format: “Only Patrik should present, while the rest of us put up a collective resistance.” His request is denied and Eisenman has to content himself with “agreeing to disagree”. His presentation calls for “heroes instead of stars in architecture”. Not something anyone could agree to disagree with, although Spyropoulos tries. But here, in the context of an all-male, all-white stage, his call leaves a somewhat dubious taste.
After Eisenman, it is open season, not just for each of the panelists’ individual obsessions (in order of appearance: parametricism, Alberti, Gehry, Piketty and robots), but also for the audience. Someone, who introduces himself as humble teacher at a humble university, asks why there are no women on the stage. With almost Trumpian bravado, Kipnis replies that he LOVES women, but is dumbfounded by the stupidity of such a question, which he then views as a logical explanation for the career progress (or lack thereof) of the questioner. In an attempt to rescue the situation, Eisenman murmurs that women have become so popular these days that they have become unaffordable. We simply have to assume he means as panelists.
It is Kipnis’ turn. His idea of offering the audience value for money is to subject it to a kind of intellectual waterboarding. His positions are invariably introduced via the same discursive formula: “Did you know…? You did not…? You should! Since you don’t, let me tell you…” It is unclear to what extent – if at all – he is seeking a discussion. Kipnis tempts the audience with long pauses, invariably followed by “let me finish!” when someone interjects.
The main topic of his presentation is the Guggenheim Helsinki museum competition, a competition that to this day has not produced a realised building and doesn’t look like it’s going to any time soon.
He presents the many entries to the competition as a repository of contemporary design intelligence, showing a meticulously categorised inventory of apparently simultaneously emerging families of design solutions to particular problems. Akin to the prolific genres in contemporary music, certain “design waves” are identified and tagged with a name. Any link to the individual authors is discarded. Trends take priority over signatures. Originality is no longer a paradigmatic feature. The myth of individual genius is dismantled in favor of architects as a virtual, yet largely unaware collective.
His argument takes a bizarre turn when he digresses into a strange and unexpected endorsement of Frank Gehry, who in many ways personifies the exact opposite. Unlike the struggling souls of the Helsinki competition, Gehry is the ultimate signature architect. His approach to architecture is his and his alone, it permits no following other than through imitation. In bringing up Gehry, Kipnis turns his own suggestion of architecture as a form of collective progress into scorched earth even before it has landed.
Kipnis seems blissfully unaware of the contradiction. He proceeds to explain Gehry’s design intentions as if he were the oracle of Zeus. The silence that ensues at his question about the contextual nature of the Pritzker Pavilion is not so much a sign of the audience’s ignorance as it is of its bewilderment. Don’t all Gehry’s buildings look the same?
It is clear to everyone in the room (at least to those who have built a building) that whatever the magnitude of the intentions that go into a design, it must ultimately subside to the prevailing perception – however unfair – of its physical presence, at which point the only correct answer to Kipnis’ question is that it is irrelevant. If legacy is ultimately a question of numbers, what constitutes the more significant intellectual fact: one person’s supposed insight into Frank Gehry’s design intentions, or the vast majority’s willful ignorance of them? Who holds the key, Kipnis or the Simpsons?
As the evening progresses, the event turns into a painful X-ray of the current state of American academia: a strangely insular world with its own autonomous codes, dominated by some antiquated pecking order with an estranged value system and no hope of a correction from within. The often grandiose character of the debate stands in stark contrast to the marginal nature of that which is being debated.
The western architectural ivory tower has become a theatre of the absurd, blind to its decline into irrelevance. Self-referencing and obsessed by minutiae unrelated to the built environment, our academics need to break out of their closed information loop and get back into the real world.
Kipnis’ definition of context doesn’t go beyond the immediate physical surroundings of the architectural object. Any notion that architecture might be shaped by a larger political, societal or economic context does not seem to register on his radar. It is as though America’s architectural establishment is preoccupied with studying footnotes under a microscope hoping they will turn into a novel.
Those who attend the dinner afterwards are cautious with their alcohol intake. Even with the debate officially concluded, one has to remain alert. Dinners serve as extra time for the settling of undecided intellectual battles – a last chance to turn defeat into victory. When all other subjects appear to have been exhausted, for some unidentifiable reason the table conversation turns to the brain and the question whether it ought to be discussed as an organ or as a muscle.
Just when the vision of a brain without a skull is about to make me lose my appetite, Kipnis turns to a young woman at the table. He asks her to guess his favorite organ. When she looks at him in shock – she must be less than half his age – he smiles: “Rest assured, my favorite organ is my mouth.” Eisenman points out that the mouth is in fact not an organ. For the first time that evening, Kipnis looks genuinely unsettled, prompting Eisenman to ask the question of the day: “Jeff, have you been drinking?”
It may contain 300 Picassos but few have ever explored the riches in the Geneva free port art storage site, the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes reports.
The art boom has led to good times for institutions known as “free ports”: bonded warehouses in which all sorts of commodities, from grain, to gold, to fine art, can be stored, and remain, while they are in storage, exempt from tax and customs duties.
The Geneva free port is, from the exterior, a rather unimpressive warehouse in an industrial area of the city.
Inside, it is said to house the largest collection of fine art anywhere in the world, although it is hard to find out exactly what is in there, as both the port’s management and local customs officials refuse to divulge any information.
“I was led to a storage place where paintings were stored,” he explained, “and I had to go through Picasso works, so I was brought down in the morning and they locked me into the safe.
“At lunchtime I had to ring for them to take me out of the vaults. It was quite a strange environment because I was alone and I was surrounded by so many valuable artworks.”
It is estimated there are at least 300 works by Picasso alone stored at the free port, many belonging to the reclusive Nahmad family, who have been buying and trading art as an investment for half a century.
One Nahmad family member has been quoted as saying that “Monet and Picasso are like Microsoft or Coca Cola”, meaning that they are likely to be safe investments for a long time to come.
“We see art actually as a very good investment,” he said. “It’s a great way to diversify your portfolio, a good hedge against inflation. There are many reasons to consider art now as an investment.”
Still, the current boom in art means free ports are booming too. Geneva is building a 10,000 sq m (108,000 sq ft) extension, due to open next year, and new free ports are springing up in Luxembourg, and in Singapore.
But, said Jean-Rene Saillard, Geneva remains the oldest, the biggest, and the one with the most art.
“It would be probably the best museum in the world if it was a museum,” he added.
As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I cannot avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in London architecture which threatens to turn the city into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio. If walls could speak, these would tell tales of bad compromises and angry developers who, dissatisfied with the meagre notion of repair and reuse, are driven solely by remorseless greed.
Meanwhile, bullied into sacrificing historic buildings of merit, cowed planning authorities must take consolation in the small mercy of retaining a facade. The result is that architects are humiliated into creating passive-aggressive structures, like the examples you see below – gross hybrids of conflicted intentions that scream ‘Look what you made me do!’ in bitter petulant resentment.
‘A kind of authenticity’ is British Land’s oxymoronical attempt to sell this approach in their Norton Folgate publicity, as if there were fifty-seven varieties of authenticity, when ‘authentic’ is not a relative term – something is either authentic or it is phoney.
The Rural Studio’s 20K House is so cheap and has such innovative design that it’s changing the entire housing systemfrom mortgages to zoning laws.
The goal: To figure out how to bring the ultra-low-cost homes, called the 20K Home, to the broader market. “We’re in a kind of experimental stage of the program, where we’re really trying to find out the best practice of getting this house out into the public’s hands,”
Years of architecture students, and their advisors, have spent more than a hundred thousand hours tweaking each detail of the house to optimize both the function and the price. But the bigger challenge is fitting a house that’s completely different than normal into the existing system of zoning, and codes, how contractors do their jobs, and even mortgages.
“The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they’re really high-performance little machines in every way,” says Smith. “They’re built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements. … We’re using material much more efficiently. But the problem is your local code official doesn’t understand that. They look at the documents, and the house is immediately denied a permit simply because the code officials didn’t understand it.”
The foundation of the house, for example, uses cantilevers, seesaw-like joists that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would. But the design isn’t in the usual guides that code officials consult, so the architects had to go back and explain how it worked.
“There’s a thousand and one things in the houses that are like that,” he says. “You’d never see them, the construction techniques, but the house is filled with them. Construction techniques that make the house not just less expensive, but actually makes it perform better than they normally would.”
To bring the house to everyone else who wants to build it, the team realized they would have to create a detailed guide that explained everything from how to build each piece—with Ikea-like instructions—to how to educate local officials.
In Serenbe, their first problem was a zoning issue: The houses were too small. (It’s a common problem for anyone trying to build a tiny home.) But they also realized there were numerous other issues, from dealing with insurance, to the bank. In the pilot project, the homes will be owned by the community and shared with artists as part of a residency program. But in a typical case, when someone is buying the house on a limited income and can’t afford the $20,000, banks won’t finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money.
“We provide the information to you, so that if you wanted to sort of self-service the house yourself, it is a house that with the right set of instructions, anybody who wanted to could build it,” Smith says.
Haus III or the “House Without qualities” (Haus ohne Eigenschaften) is a late work by German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers which the architect built for his wife and himself. Constructed in Cologne in 1995, the house is considered an experiment on the reduction of architectural elements and it materializes the research on abstraction which Ungers had developed over the years; in this sense, the building can by seen as a conceptual model for a house which has been made real through building.
The house has a rectangular plan based on a classical architectural scheme, a central space and two side-aisles. It consists of two floors with five rooms, a central double-height volume and four equal rooms in the side-aisles.
Crucial in the design of the plan is the thickness of the exterior and the interior walls which are used to incorporate service facilities, like stairs, toilets, the elevator, bathrooms and storage spaces. The width of the walls is always the same through the whole plan.
The façades are identical by twos, symmetrical and constructed according to specific rules of proportions, no differentiation is pursued between the front and the back and the same window/door size is employed. The plan’s geometry is not made evident in the elevations in any way.
The extreme synthesis, the reduction of elements (no decoration, no hierarchy, no style) makes evident Ungers’ obsessive research for the essence of architecture, which the architect identified in the strict rules of composition.
I had graduated only six months earlier and in many ways my first job came as a complete shock. It was not so much the quality of the buildings I worked on that shocked me, or the gratuitous nature of decisions such as the above, but rather the fact that practicing as an architect appeared to have nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing to do with studying architecture. The first emotional state I recall as a practicing architect is that feeling of utter uselessness. My technical knowledge fell way short of what it needed to be, making me largely inadequate, and nobody was interested in the elevated philosophical considerations I had developed during my studies. For this job I was at the same time over- and under-qualified. It was an experience that I shared with other recent graduates. We kept our spirits up and tried to feel good about ourselves. Admittedly, we worked on garbage, but this was straightforward garbage.
Pay was good and working days were neatly confined 9 to 5’s. Still, in the face of a never-ending stream of seemingly pointless tasks, every day seemed to last a lifetime.
I was confident things would change with time. As soon as I would no longer have to execute the questionable design decisions made by others – in architecture they are that by definition – things would get better. Ultimately there would be room to put into practice some of the idealism I had developed in school. However, once I began working for myself, everything that had bothered me as an employee only presented itself in an exacerbated manner. This time there were mouths to feed. I quickly found that, in the face of economic needs, the architect is a largely powerless figure. Saying no, or questioning a client’s directives, is at best a matter of gentle persuasion, but never a battle of equals.
Many of my contemporaries resorted to teaching. Some did so fresh out of university. To me that seemed a strange career decision: a kind of pre-emptive and premature capitulation at the first sign of trouble. I also wondered what somebody barely having had a taste of the real world could possibly have to teach apart from what they themselves had been taught just a few years prior. The recycling of experience obtained from university in the context of a university seemed a strangely self-referential, somewhat incestuous process, which might help people to make it to graduation, but certainly not prepare them for a life beyond.
The creation of an educational bubble, even when invoked in the name of protecting academic integrity, seems a self-defeating purpose. In forever postponing and never confronting the shock of practice – god forbid we ever realize our own insignificance – it induces a strange state of schizophrenia. On the one hand the aspiring architect is encouraged to entertain almost megalomaniac ambitions, on the other he is left largely unprepared for the world upon which he projects this megalomania. I am not talking about a lack of technical or professional competence here, but rather about the ability to come to terms with a society wholly indifferent to his ideals. Once unleashed into the real world, the architect is perplexed by an utter lack of authority, stuck in a large gap between what he thinks should happen and what he ends up doing.
The more hermetic our schools, the more distant the realities of practice become. When practice is not engaged, it tends to become romanticized. In the context of architectural education, star architects have developed into virtual deity. (Sometimes the mere knowledge that you exist in the vicinity of one is enough for people to ask your autograph…) Still, star architects only account for a negligible portion of all that gets built. It is a weird delusion that, by having every architect aspire to that status, we can achieve even the tiniest improvement of the built environment as a whole. In the 1980s conservative policies in the US introduced the notion of trickle-down economics, in which catering to the super rich was ultimately thought to create a better situation for everybody. By cultivating a limited number of venerated architects as role models for an entire profession, we have created our own form of ‘trickle-down architecture’.
As a profession, architecture embodies a strange paradox. In economic terms it is a largely reactive discipline, a response to pre-formulated needs. In intellectual terms it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future. In this capacity architecture aspires to set the agenda andprecede needs. The unfortunate thing for architects is that both conditions are equally true, making architecture a curious form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency. This also explains the often Rasputin-like nature of architect-client relationships. A former employer (shortly before firing me) once said: “the most important thing for an architect is to possess charisma!” It is only now, when writing this piece, that I understand the full significance of his statement. Charisma – probably best defined as the appearance to know something others don’t without ever revealing what – is critical because, like a state of hypnosis, it has the capacity to obscure established relations of power. It is precisely the incongruence between architecture’s intellectual claims and its economic reality that causes something as vague as charisma to be of such importance. It allows the architect to temporarily suspend the disbelief of his patrons and get the upper hand in the absence of a real mandate. Charisma is pure psychology – that which mediates between the scale of one’s ambitions and the limits of one’s power.
Do I wish my education had been different? Not really. What I do wish however, is for my education to have been candid about the status of what I was being taught, that some notion of context would have been provided… a side note to explain that what I was learning was actually a relatively marginal form of idealism entertained only by a small minority; that the considerations that went into the built environment were of an altogether different nature than the ones we were being taught. It is not that I would have made another choice, nor do I dislike my profession. However, with a little more information I would have at least known what I was in for. In hindsight I would have used the six years of relative intellectual freedom considerably differently from the way I did. I would have spent less time on studying the profession’s intricacies and more time on studying its context, would have embraced the vulgarity of the real world as the only way to ultimately overcome it, would have developed more entrepreneurial and fewer artistic interests and would not have wasted the better half of my time in awe of role models which in the present world do not allow for emulation. I would have recognised Le Corbusier and Mies for what they actually are: history.
The education of architects is a precarious phenomenon. To disclose too early the realities of practice would probably discourage even the staunchest optimist. It would kill the productive idealism that you inevitably need as an architect. On the other hand architecture needs a real knowledge of practice if it is to produce any meaningful critique of that same practice. Architecture learns from what it applies and applies what it learns. The education of an architect is a permanent chicken and egg situation, where theory and praxis, idealism and pragmatism, resistance and surrender become entangled in an inextricable web in which it is forever unclear what prevails. In the context of architecture and its education, there is a permanent and inescapable interference between the object of critique (praxis) and the critic (the architect), who is formed by and complicit in that which he critiques. The contemporary architect – the human typology produced by this education – is generally doomed to be a mistrusted idealist even before he has properly started practicing.
How can teaching architecture prepare for practice without itself degenerating into a form of practice? Architecture exists by virtue of a conceptual distance from the arena in which it ultimately operates, as a hard earned space to think before doing (not something any of us would be keen to give up). Education is the perfect period to cultivate and explore such a space. Yet, for that very reason it also becomes hard to leave education, because it invariably means leaving this contemplative space. One learns to think only to find out that outside there is no real time to think, that one is condemned to an infernal rat race to keep up with seemingly incoherent demands. Such precisely was the formative experience of my first acquaintance with practice in London’s Docklands: a confrontation between carefully cultivated convictions and an absolute lack of demand for them.
Can architecture education be reinvented? Can it stop being a way to suspend practice in the name of thinking, and instead become a way to turn practice itself into the object of thinking? Here again, I am not advocating any form of radical pragmatism or some sort of surrender, but simply an enlarged curiosity: an eagerness to obtain a form of general knowledge of the context and conditions in which architecture is produced and with which it somehow has to come to terms. Architecture is a pinball in a maze of considerations and interests of which architects are often the ones least aware. Subject to ulterior (largely financial) motives, architecture is a fundamentally different phenomenon than for which architects hold it. More than a means to provide space, buildings are vehicles for investment, an indispensable pillar of the current economic system and, as we have seen with the financial crisis of 2008, also a potential source of its instability. Ignorance of this mechanism coupled with a misplaced hubris creates a lethal cocktail, in which the architect inevitably becomes complicit in causes antithetical to the ones he claims to profess.
Only when architecture confronts its true status can it be properly taught as a discipline. Clearly that will come at a price, as it will require honesty about all the things architecture should not claim, or at least not claim exclusively. One of the most important things to acknowledge is that nobody needs an architect to build a building. When it comes to architecture’s supposed core business, architects have become largely unnecessary. Architecture creates through design what happens otherwise by default. Buildings will get built, with or without architects. Building is a largely self-perpetuating phenomenon: the assemblage of a limited number of standardized industrial products, subject to an in-house expertise of contractors themselves. System building as a methodical science was supposed to have died along with the former GDR. Still, that is exactly what has become the dominant mode of building worldwide. In terms of technical expertise, architects are typically outwitted by contractors and even by some of their more professional client teams. The continued insistence that the work of an architect is the only way to arrive at a building, with abundant evidence to the contrary, forces architecture into a humiliating routine of self-legitimization. The vast majority of the built environment is of an unspeakable ugliness and the profession of architecture has done little to change that. Architecture’s own track record should discourage its claims to exclusivity; in insisting on it, architecture only contributes to its own demise.
What then is the ‘added value’ of architecture? What becomes different once an architect is involved?
In my view, the real merit of architecture does not lie in that it creates any less ugliness, but that it is aware when it does. That there is some internal system of critique that always offers hope for improvement. Economic pressure notwithstanding, architects are still a community of peers. They still combine a healthy mix of competitiveness with a sincere appreciation for each other’s work. There is a shared sense of quality among architects even in the absence of an overall consensus about style. Whenever one of them rises to an exceptional level, his or her colleagues are generally able to recognize it. Furthermore, a healthy dose of peer pressure mostly discourages architects from engaging in causes beyond their conviction. When they do, they know their colleagues are watching over their shoulder.
The other big difference is that architecture cultivates a motive beyond money. That makes it an exception in the current economic framework. I would not go as far as to say that architecture is not motivated by money, but that there is another goal that ultimately overrides money. Architects do not trade their labor for money. In fact, it is often difficult to find any correlation between their efforts and the financial reward. There is hardly a discipline that has made (unpaid) overtime the standard procedure in the way architecture has. This doesn’t even so much happen at the request of clients, but rather through an almost religious belief on the part of the architects in the importance of their labor.
In the long run however, any such motivation (work over money) will only be sustainable once the logic of money is properly mastered. In general, the exposure of architects to money is limited to dealing with budget constraints. The other side of the building economy, that of financial returns, for most part remains obscured from the architect’s view. Yet, it is these sums that make any financial expenditure on construction, including architects’ fees (defined as a percentage of construction cost) pale into insignificance. Buildings are invariably built too cheaply and sold too expensively. If architects would be aware, it would not only radically alter the nature of their work, but it could also mark a fundamental shift in the economy of architecture firms themselves. With architects’ indemnity insurance premiums going through the roof, ignorance of money is rapidly becoming unaffordable.
Even if, in an extreme case, architecture’s motives were to be exclusively idealistic, it is important to realize that also idealism needs financing. (The early communists funded their revolutionary activities by robbing banks.) To overcome the banalities of the real world you need to know all about the real world. Architecture has long thought it could defeat the real world by cultivating a form of splendid isolation. Ultimately, that will not work. In order to beat the system, we first need to play the system. Only when we know how to play the system, can we play the system against itself. Currently, the system plays us.
When it comes to the education of architects, what I would propose is a reverse play between architecture and its context, a temporary state of emergency in our educational institutions, in which for a particular duration studying the context of architecture takes priority over studying architecture itself.
With context I mean anything from high-level political considerations to the mundane financial logic that goes into buildings – an understanding of any ulterior motive that, for better or for worse, affects our work. Exposed to almost every facet of this context, architecture is in a unique position to extract from it a type of knowledge that no other party can. In a landscape dominated by specialists, the architect offers a rare perspective: that of the generalist, the narrator who can translate even the most banal combination of subjects into a form of discourse. In the context of complex construction efforts, he or she is the mediator who synthesizes various and diverging interests into an integrated whole. It is generally the architect who ends up acting as the spokesperson, even if the technical and financial complexity of these efforts far exceeds his or her professional competence.
Despite the general absence of evidence to support its arguments, architecture manages to exert a strange authority. In fact, the more it is seen to abandon the whole notion of evidence, the stronger its position. Somehow it is able to mobilize a leap of faith against the perpetual inconclusiveness of numbers. It is this ability that may well be architecture’s prime asset (and perhaps therefore also what should be conveyed in an educational context). Architecture is an ancient discipline that appears to be in possession of a wisdom no one else has. Even at his most helpless moments, the architect’s autonomy is hardly in question. (Charisma helps.) Architecture is a unique combination of both sovereignty from- and surrender to those disciplines. It doesn’t need to be territorial, as its territory is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
How should architecture use this power? When it comes to building, architecture is different from any other guest at the table. It is not one of the building disciplines, but rather a meta-discipline. It describes, theorizes and conceptualizes the very process in which it participates. It offers a possibility for a critique from within. It is informed by practice, yet in a position to turn its acquired insights against practice itself. Architecture offers space for contradiction. (Even in the context of this piece, I realize that I have contradicted myself at least five times.) As a consequence, architecture has the unique potential to become a disruptive force in the context of the self-perpetuating system that the production of the built environment has become. Architecture becomes a way of beating the system: bypassing supply and demand, cost and benefit, investment and return, LEED and BREEAM and all the other performance indicators which have come to dominate building practice. Almost by default architecture becomes political, a questioning of the ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable logic of the market economy. In a last instance, it is the mere possibility of an alternative that constitutes a political agenda, even when the specifics remain sketchy at best.
If architecture is to reclaim lost ground, it needs to accept its true nature. It should stop pretending to offer the same specialized expertise as the engineers, quantity surveyors, sustainability consultants and all the other supposed ‘experts’ that congregate around ever larger meeting tables (generally with a large hole in the middle) from which buildings now magically emerge. It should not engage in the tough talk. Only when we stop viewing architecture as a professional expertise on par with other building disciplines, can architecture be free to realize its full potential.
Arena, Blueprint, Platform, Framework, Theatre, Stage, Sphere, Structure, Façade, Base, Foundation, Model… The metaphors used to describe anything from organizational structures to corporate strategies and political agendas are proof of the ever-present conceptual force of architecture. Precisely at the moment when architecture seems wholly at the mercy of powers that be, its language is being used to articulate the constructs of those very powers. Even in the context of massive innovations in business and technology, architecture maintains a surprising degree of relevance. The thinking it has developed over centuries has enabled it to infiltrate other domains. In a final instance, that should also enable it to transcend its most important professional limitation: the obligation to produce buildings.
In the late nineties, the rediscovery of architecture as a primarily conceptual medium led to the formation of AMO. It was later applied in an educational context at Strelka. Our mission was to redefine architecture purely as a form of thinking, which could be applied to an array of subjects. Informed by the broadest possible context, it could in turn inform the broadest possible context. Apart from generating a number of interesting projects – projects which one might not immediately expect from architects – it has perhaps first and foremost allowed a progression of our own knowledge. We have become the students. With the formation of AMO, ten years after my first encounter with practicing architecture, working on- and learning from projects finally struck a balance: a catering to curiosities not felt since university, generating both a sense of engagement and personal progress.
‘I will learn you architecture’, Herman Hertzberger used to tell us as students at the Berlage Institute. In hindsight his bad English carries great profundity, a deep knowledge of the secret how knowledge of architecture is ultimately conveyed: a reciprocal process in which the question of who teaches whom is best forever deferred.
Spanish artist Xavier Corberó spent about forty years designing and building his own house, an intricate maze at the outskirts of Barcelona in the town of Esplugues de Llobregat.
Back in 1959, when his journey began, the still unknown artist squatted one of the abandoned buildings in town. Progressively, he proceded to convert the existing structures, to build on top of them, transforming a part of the derelict village in a surreal settlement and a huge display for his work. As time went on, Corberó acquired more terrain buying the surrounding houses while keeping building structures, adding stairways and underpassages, arches and enclosed gardens in an evolving composition which encompasses architecture and sculpture. Although the house is still a work in progress, Corberó manages to keep the overall design consistent, providing variety without turning the complex into a pastiche of styles and inventions while integrating anti-tectonic solutions like piers-less arches or isolated columns bearing no weight. The ongoing result, a difficult match between Peter Eisenman‘s early houses linguistics and Adolphe Appia‘s designed-stages, is a juxtaposition of theatrical views like these ones below:
Corberó converted the labyrinthine house in a residence for artists from all over the world. The invited guests are able to get a quiet and isolated space to let them work without everyday life’s pressures. The Spanish artist wished to provide a variety of spaces to enrich the inspiration of other artists, therefore he continued to add nooks, chambers and galleries where the visitors easily gets lost. Over the years the house reached over 10,000 square meters of deliberately anti-functional built space.
BC: In one of the pre-essays to the Biennale you wrote that architects don’t work for the state anymore. But you seem to be an example of the opposite.
RK: Yes, yes, I am a very untypical architect. And that is not for nothing. My sympathy is with that old-fashioned kind of architecture.
BC: Don’t you think other architects have these kinds of projects?
RK: Well, they do, I don’t think I’m an exception. But my discourse has been about the influence of the market economy on architecture, but on the other hand, I’ve kind of rigidly tried to adhere to the public project.
They wanted to pay tribute to the original architecture of the galleries by using it as a raw material for their work.
“As the space is a provocation to artists and curators, so the installation is a provocation to the building,” Diller told Dezeen.
“One of the obvious attributes is this transparency and how it creates a provocation to everyone using it. So our first instinct was to create a problem for that transparency and to flirt with it in a different way.”
The glass walls of the larger gallery space to the left of the main entrance are coated with a liquid crystal film that fades in and out of transparency as an electric current passes through it.
“Liquid crystal film has been around probably for about twenty years or more. Generally it goes off and on. What makes this film unique is that you can control it,” explained Scofidio. “You can actually dial it down so it gradually changes to transparent, to translucent.”
“We tried to make it as invisible as possible,” added Diller.
A red plastic bucket on wheels appears to be the only occupant of the room. Inside the bucket is a camera and sensors that guide its movements around the space to collect drops of water that fall from the ceiling, as if there is a leak. As each drop falls, a loud noise sounds.
“We came up with this kind of mischievous thing, this leak. Just a leak, but it’s a very smart leak with a very smart bucket that captures it,” said Diller. “The [idea of this] empty space with just one very kind of banal object that is actually doing something very smart – it grew out of that. And then we thought: okay what do we do with the sound of that drop? How do we relate it to the next space?”
The smaller gallery to the right of the main entrance is occupied by a large screen that hangs parallel to the floor like a suspended ceiling, but just one metre above ground level.
To view the images being shown, visitors are invited to lie down on black loungers supported on wheels and propel themselves underneath the screen or use curved mirrors controlled using long black metal handles.
Once underneath, the moving image they see is a blown up version of the video footage captured by the camera in the bucket moving around in the space opposite. As each drop falls into the bucket, the surface of the water ripples, with the effect becoming amplified on the screen.
The sounds initially generated to accompany the drops of water also become distorted in the second room and choral voices are added to the acoustic arrangement, which was devised by American composer David Lang.
“The notion of, in one space – in the big space – doing something very tiny, almost invisible, almost nothing, and then taking that to the other space, makes it into the comic here and the sublime over there,” said Diller.
“It’s doing something that’s very ethereal in a way, but also grotesque, with that very large image and that drop becoming very forceful and the compression of watching with that very low floor-to-ceiling height.”
“We started by doing installations in galleries and it’s only now that we are the other side of the wall,” said Scofidio.
“We never said ‘one day we’ll be doing this’ or ‘one day we’ll have a big office’. It was never our intention. We were simply doing things that interested us and using the way that architects conceive the world to investigate conditions which we generally don’t pay a lot of attention to.”
Koolhaas pointed out that decision-makers in countries like China tend to be younger, and therefore are more willing to take on newer and more adventurous aesthetics.
“My final conclusion, and this surprised me, is that the thing that matters most when it comes to designing buildings around the world is the age of the decision maker,” said Koolhaus, who is a professor at Harvard. “In China, the decision maker is 35, in Europe, the decision maker is 55. In America, the decision maker is a trustee, so they might be older.”
“Age is correlated with an appetite for risk,” Koolhaas said.
The world’s best airline experience, from Singapore to New York.
In 2008, Singapore Airlines introduced their Suites Class, the most luxurious class of flying that is commercially available.
The Suites were exclusive to their flagship Airbus A380, and they go beyond flat beds by offering enclosed private cabins with sliding doors that cocoon you in your own little lap of luxury. The interior was designed by French luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste and comes along with a plush soft leather armchair hand-stitched by the Italian master craftsmen Poltrona Frau. Perhaps most well-known of all, Singapore Airlines became the first and only commercial airline with a double bed in the sky.
However, the experience came with a hefty price tag. With round-trip tickets costing up to S$23,000 (or US$18,400), it was completely unattainable for most people.
Formerly, the only way for an average person to fly in the Suites was to take out a bank loan. And then I remembered that most of my personal net worth exists in frequent flier miles rather than cash.
So in September 2014, after splurging an colossal amount of miles…
I was booked on Suites Class to New York!
This is my trip in photos.
I arrived at Singapore Changi Airport and proceeded to the Singapore Airlines counters for check-in.
As I joined the line for check-in, I was promptly greeted by a staff.
“Good evening sir, how may I help you?”
A sudden realization hit me and I went “OH NOPE SORRY” and briskly walked away, leaving the lady astonished.
I had almost forgotten that Changi had a luxurious check-in lounge specially for First Class and Suites passengers.
It looks like a hotel lobby, and there’s even a bellhop who carries your luggage.
Soon, I was in possession of The Golden Ticket.
Flying in the Suites also includes an invitation to The Private Room, which the staff was proud to say that it was “higher than first class”.
I arrived at the lounge and was approached by an attendant. “May I escort you to The Private Room?” she asked.
I followed her past what seemed to be 50-60 people in the Business Class lounge. She walked noticeably fast, seemingly afraid that I would be disgusted by the presence of the working class. Here I was transferred to another attendant who walked me through the First Class lounge, and then through a set of automatic sliding double doors before being transferred to yet another attendant.
Finally, after 10 miles of secret passageways and being escorted by 3000 people, I arrived at The Private Room.
Entering the confines of The Private Room, the staff greeted me by name. It’s like they all already knew me before even meeting me.
I wasn’t hungry but I’ve heard rave reviews about the dining room. So I sat down and ordered a glass of champagne and had the Chicken and Mutton Satay plate.
…and the Baked Boston Lobster with Gruyere, Emmenthal and Cheddar.
…and also the U.S. Prime Beef Burger with Foie Gras, Rocket Leaf and Fried Quail Egg. Oh, and a Mango Smoothie too.
Completely stuffed at this point, I realized it was time for boarding.
There was a dedicated jet bridge solely for Suites passengers. Standing at the end of the bridge was a flight attendant ready to greet me.
“Good evening Mr Low!”
I realized that they would address me by whatever title I chose in my Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer profile. I instantly regretted not going with President Low or Princess Derek.
I was escorted to my Suite.
I picked the middle suite, which can be merged with the adjacent suite to form a double bed.
“Would you like a glass of Dom Pérignon, sir?” And I replied the only acceptable response to such a question: Yes.
“Sir, would you like a copy of every newspaper we have onboard today?”
At this point, the crew members came out to personally introduce themselves to me. Among them was Zaf, who was the Chief Steward of the flight.
As it turns out, he’s also the guy in the airline’s safety video.
Zaf told me that there were only 3 passengers in the 12 Suites, and joked that I could have a bedroom, dining room and living room if I wanted.
And so I picked my dining room.
Dom Pérignon and Iced Milo in hand, it was time to take off.
I took this time to check out what was provided onboard the flight. Headphones from Bose, for example.
Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kit, which included a full-sized bottle of cologne.
Everything else was Givenchy: blankets, pillows, slippers and pajamas.
As soon as the plane reached cruising altitude, I was offered another drink.
Seeing that it was almost 1 AM and I was just beginning to indulge in the whole suite experience, I decided to order coffee to stay up.
I don’t know much about coffee, but I do know the Jamaican Blue Mountain costs a ton. A pound of the Blue Mountain beans sells for $120 at Philz Coffee.
So I ordered the Blue Mountain, and was complimented by Zaf. “You have very good taste in coffee, sir.”
Zaf returns with the coffee and tells me about their selection of gourmet coffee, and how the Blue Mountain was “by far the most outstanding”.
I unglamorously gulped down the entire cup at once, while pretending to appreciate the finely-balanced traits of the Blue Mountain.
I asked him to recommend me a tea, and he quickly brought out a cup of TWG’s Paris-Singapore tea.
And then he knelt down next to me as I sampled the tea. He told me about the high quality tea leaves. He told me about the hand-sewn cotton teabags. He told me about the fragant cherry blossoms and red fruits infused into the tea. Somewhere in between, he might have mentioned about the history of coffee trade and the East India Company, but I can’t be sure.
He says that he has been with the airline for 19 years. Within the past 2 or 3 years, he has served Leonardo DiCaprio and Morgan Freeman flying in Suites Class.
I figured since Zaf was so available to recommend me coffee and tea, I asked him, “can you recommend me a movie?”
He picked The Grand Budapest Hotel, a fantastic movie which I thoroughly enjoyed. Off his head, he could name me the actors and talk about how brilliant their performances were in the movie.
“That’s incredible!” I exclaimed. “Are you like a savant of the cinema?”
“I just happened to be someone who likes movies,” he said, modestly.
“I will call you here every time I need a movie recommendation in the future!”
“Uh… okay!” he said, as brightly as he could.
As I settled in, supper service began.
Having stuffed myself with three entrées back in the lounge, I wasn’t particularly hungry so I settled for a 5-course supper.
For appetizer I had the Malossol Caviar with Lobster-Fennel Salad. And after clearing the plate in three bites, I asked for a second plate.
On to my third appetizer, I had the Duck Foie Gras with Shaved Fennel-Orange Salad, Beetroot and Mizuna.
I picked the Fish Noodle Soup for main course.
And Vanilla Bavarois with Raspberry Coulis for dessert.
After supper, I decided to burn off the calories by walking around the plane. I asked the crew if they could give me a guided tour of the A380 and they willingly obliged.
We walked up the front stairs to Business Class, down the length of the upper deck, and back down a spiral staircase to Economy Class. Zaf said he’d love to take me to see the pilots’ cockpit, but the airline has stopped allowing that in recent years due to security concerns.
When I got back to the Suites, the lights were already turned down indicating it was time to sleep.
In the Suites, you don’t just lie on a seat that has gone flat. Instead, you step aside while the Singapore Airlines flight attendants transform your Suite into a bedroom, with a plush mattress on top of a full-sized bed. When the adjacent suite is empty, the dividing partition can be brought down to create a double bed.
Zaf and a stewardess went about making the bed.
I don’t even know how to express this in words.
I probably need a poet to describe how amazing this was.
I jumped into bed squealing like a little girl.
I spent the next hour lounging in all possible positions.
Some people might say this seems to be the loneliest flight ever. And to that, I say this:
And while you’re doing stupid things like that in the Suite, you can use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ button for privacy.
Through the entire flight, the attendants check on you almost every 3 minutes without being intrusive or annoying. They would just briskly walk past you with quick glance.
I paid a visit to the restroom to change into the pajamas provided.
It’s a restroom, what were you expecting?
There’s a seat that folds down that’s actually more comfortable than most Economy Class seats.
And henceforth, I slept. Well, not on the toilet of course.
When I woke up, I saw the clock and my heart sank. A little over 3 hours to Frankfurt. I’d slept for 6 hours, or $6,000 worth of the flight.
So to cheer myself up, I asked for a chocolate and was handsomely rewarded with two.
We landed at Frankfurt for a two hour layover, and the three of us in Suites Class were escorted to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge which had a spa and hot shower.
Getting back on the plane, a new crew was onboard for the flight to New York.
It was 8 in the morning and I decided to begin the day with a Singapore Sling.
For breakfast, I used Singapore Airlines’ Book the Cook service.
It allows you to pre-order a specific meal before the flight, which is then specially put onboard the flight for you.
I had the Lobster Thermidor with Buttered Asparagus, Slow-roasted Vine-ripened Tomato, and Saffron rice.
And dessert, which I can’t remember what it was.
When it was time to nap, I didn’t want to trouble the crew for a full double bed, so I opted for a single bed instead.
The partition between the two middle suites slides up to form a wall.
The single bed is plenty spacious on its own.
Waking up, I was immediately presented with the second meal I pre-ordered through Book the Cook.
U.S. Grilled Prime Beef Fillet designed by celebrity chef Alfred Portale.
As we finally landed at New York, a huge problem presented itself — I didn’t want to leave the plane.
I have to say, after being served Dom Pérignon in a double-suite bedroom at 36,000 feet, I’m not sure flying experiences get any better than this.
But eventually I got off the plane, because New York’s not too bad.
SVESMI, an unassuming studio based in central Rotterdam, is at the center of a dauntingly complex project that may eventually see the renovation of 448 dilapidated and disused branch libraries in Moscow. Architects Anastassia Smirnova and Alexander Sverdlov balance their time between Rotterdam, which acts as their design studio, and Moscow from which, alongside architects Maria Kataryan and Pavel Rueda, they oversee the project at large. Faced by the potential challenge of reimagining over 450 public ‘living rooms’ spread across the Russian capital and demanding unusually high levels of spatial articulation and social understanding, the project is also unwinding the hidden narrative of Moscow’s local libraries.
a new small station in the framework of ‘Prettig Wachten’: Barneveld Centrum
The waiting area will be fully glazed. The idea is to turn all windowpanes into doors.
As such the building will no longer be in your way. You can enter and exit at any point.
By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.
New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:
It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.
For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.
It was like that for a long time.
But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.
We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.
“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
― Le Corbusier
“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry
Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:
Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:
The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.
The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.
This is what it means to never forget.
This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.
The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.
If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.
When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.
Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?
“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.
“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.
Oh. Yes. The 9/11.
“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.
Their disappointment was obvious.
This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.
But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.
Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.
In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.
Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?
Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?
Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.
Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.
Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.
My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.
WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.
A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.
But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.
This is what it means to forget.
Rem Koolhaas’ firm plans to restore the U-shaped building back to its original condition and complement it with a new exhibition tower, which will occupy the existing courtyard.
The tower will feature two sets of motorised levels that can be split up to create a total of four mobile platforms. These will be able to move up and down to align with different floors, allowing exhibitions to extend beyond the gallery walls.
“The mobile floors offer a new curatorial dimension, complementing the traditional use of the preserved structure,” said OMA in a statement.
“The architectural concept was derived from the need for flexibility – a common requirement for cultural institutions – and from the restrictions applied to the site by the city heritage authorities,” said OMA.