On: A Material Basis For Form

To make an extraordinary material special, is banal. To heighten one’s awareness of a humble material like brick, is poetic. In this, Lewerentz is drawing on a similar underlying ethic as Mies does in his Krefeld villas. Both architects are concerned to reveal the secret life which lies latent within their material. Both suppress structural expression to give the material an autonomy from technique, intensifying the idea of the material. Lewerentz and Mies are making the case for a material basis for form.
— Adam Caruso (Sigurd Lewerentz And A Material Basis For Form (Oase #45/46, 1997)

Pearls of Progress

When I graduated a decade ago from a university nestled in a picturesque town in south Holland, I recall R.K. telling us Europeans about the Pearl River Delta signifying a new kind of metropolis, "a city of exacerbated difference whose character is based on the extreme differentiation of its parts." Nothing like the gradual historical layering of a town like Delft: a place where the Dutch royal family have been laid to rest beneath a church located on a paved central market square since the golden sixteenth century of the Netherlands. The PRD was developing at such a pace that it made the considered practice of architecture seem inadequate as a means for dealing with the sheer quantity of potential speculation in China's new hinterland. Modernism, rationalism, minimalism, all were encumbered by dogmas of guiding principles. Rem even knocked that other catch-all in the name of expediency: "postmodernism has nothing to do with style or aesthetics, but is simply a way of doing architecture in less time with less sophistication. It's very expensive to invent. You need time and therefore you need money."

After a humble fourty-eight hours in Guangzhou, but with recollections of Shenzen and Hong Kong in my memory, I'm inclined to wonder: do the urban ambitions of cities - no matter how hard they strive to portray themselves as the latest bastion of human development - matter in the face of the sheer number of individuals by and large seeking a common goal: a better quality of life? For all its self-confidence in being an agent to progress, I sense design can only provoke a model of future(s). And if we're lucky, good design (usually only perceptible in hindsight) goes on to perpetuate common frameworks of life (work, play, dwelling) that instil pride, establish consensus, and engender shared liberties between the people it fosters.

To put it another way: what is an opera house devoid of a resident opera company? No matter how much I wanted to be impressed by its sleek gravitas, or could cynically bemoan its constructive shortcomings, Hadid (but also the other shiny edifices populating Guangzhou's CBD) left me feeling anxious. These pearls of progress can - in fact should - become more than orphans of speculation. Not because 'one billion people won't be wrong' (R.K. again): China's dilemma is the reverse of that other great power: E Unum Pluribus ('out of one, many').

Granted they mark a fresh and confident start, but it's still just that. These buildings are not merely the result of progress, but a means to it. My exit from China feels like a cliff hanger.


Feast at East Beijing

A few months ago while surveying a site in Beijing for a project I was overseeing for Neri & Hu, I took a detour and visited an old interior project completed by the office in 2012. Marketed under the banner ‘a business hotel with a life’, the East Hotel brand was created by Swire Hotels Group. Following the success of their Opposite House in Sanlitun designed by Kengo Kuma and the first East Hotel in Hong Kong, East Beijing caters to travellers looking for a place with convenient transportation links to the periphery without sacrificing a feel for downtown cool.

Neri & Hu designed a collection of interior spaces including a smart Japanese restaurant (Hagaki), a multi-level bar (Xian), and an all-day dining space: Feast (Food by East). The open layout of Feast’s dining area reflects the variety of international cuisine on offer. A long continuous counter fronted by blackboard menus contains different serving stations while restrained oak furniture is laid out beneath a playful array of custom pendant lights. The menu is eclectic showcasing dishes from European and Asian cuisines prepared in an unpretentious and timely fashion. Dishes can be ordered to share or for yourself, and the semi-buffet concept means you can select at your table or go and explore the different show kitchens. If you ever find yourself en route to your flight but have missed the chance to dine in central Beijing, I'd recommend forgetting the dire options at Beijing airport and swinging by here instead.


Shanghai Wen Miao

Proximity is a poor motivational factor when it comes to visiting a new place: that which lies closest to us often escapes our efforts, perhaps because we take its availability for granted. The Wen Miao (上海文庙) or Confucian temple of Shanghai is a complex I have been meaning to explore since moving to the city three years ago but somehow never got my act together. This autumn the combined enthusiasm of Dutch friends visiting China and my sense of playing host to them finally made a trip transpire.

The current complex was built in 1855 and is located within the south-west quadrant of the old Chinese City, but the original temple of the Yuan dynasty predates the founding of the city and was completed in 1296. The structures standing today were mostly restored in the 1990s following widespread damages during the turbulent Taiping Rebellion (in which the temple served as a headquarters for the Small Swords Society) and later the Cultural Revolution. The simple yet exact layout of its network of halls, pagodas, courtyards, and ponds offers a tranquil counterpoint to the congestion of the old city. In some parts, the only object disturbing the peaceful interior horizons is the new Shanghai Tower of Pudong, creeping past the temple’s intricately tiled rooflines. Trees beside the main Da Cheng hall have tokens of hope tied to their branches by past visitors from as far afield as France, America, South Korea and Malaysia.