xLAB Program

Studio I Jeffrey Inaba + Toshiki Hirano 2017.07.31 (MON) 09:00 @KOIL

Technology, Aesthetics, and Community
How does technology change architecture and the domain of architecture? How does it change communities? To tackle these questions, we explored a notion of “aesthetics”. While it seems that technology, community, and aesthetics are unrelated to each other,architectural aesthetics of each era has developed as representations of technologies of the eras. And these aesthetics has defined the nature of communities and the sensibilities shared among people “Japan World Exposition ‘70 Festival Plaza” in Osaka (1970), designed by Arata Isozaki (1931-) and others would be one example of this. Here, computers controlled water, sound, and light to create an interactive environment [fig.1].

[fig.1] Japan World Exposition ‘70 Festival Plaza

Isozaki writes:

“In 1970, solemnity and grandeur are already becoming things of the past. If anything is inspiring a new quality of wonder, it’s things that are subtle, precise, and complicated—things that are organized, uniformized, and supported by macromolecules and electronic technologies. This is probably why the various facilities of Expo ‘70 are kinetic, mobile, mechanized, and integrated. In light of this, contemporary monuments ought not to be designed as things that emphasize physical objects but as places that generate enormous events.”

“I designed Festival Plaza on the grounds of the Expo as a space that’s equipped to perform in precisely this manner. When people who are ordinarily isolated, unilateral recipients of information become engulfed in the space, they begin to move and frolic about, generating empathy. This creates a contemporary “matsuri” [i.e., “festival”] that is appropriate to an international exposition. If devices that make full use of modern technology are effectively deployed, they unite people and machines in time and space. These dynamic wholes can reasonably be referred to as invisible monuments.”
(“Soft Architecture”, Kenchiku Bunka, January 1970)

Instead of aesthetics of static objects made with concrete, steel, and glass, Isozaki proposed aesthetics of fluidity and ephemerality which are achieved by a new environment made with electronic technologies. This new aesthetics was intended to arouse people, create connections between them, and redefine communities. Several decades after Japan World Exposition ‘70, in the 1990s, Toyo Ito (1941-) discovered a new aesthetics in shelves of the convenience stores that were then multiplying explosively in Japanese cities at the time[fig.2].

[fig.2] Toyo Ito, Pao for the Tokyo Nomad Girl(1985)

Ito writes:

“Perishable food are covered with Saran wrap, and thereby homogenised and relativised. By being wrapped with sheets of thin, transparent film, all perishable foodstuffs are deprived of any sense of vitality, and take on a neutral, abstract, Symbolic existence. Rather than its original function of preserving freshness, the primary role of the transparent film is to ensure a homogeneity that guarantees the ability to make a fair selection.”

“To manifest the Saran wrap—in other words, to give that transparent film a structure—is to produce a ‘device that generates phenomena’. It doesn’t exist as phenomena itself; it is a substance that produces and enables phenomena. Iit is a device that generates landscape, a device that visualises the flows of invisible things like air, and a device that hints at human activity (communications)–that is to say, architecture as a device that generates programming.”
(Toyo Ito, “Architectural Scenery in the Saran Wrap City”, Tarzans in the Media Forest, 2011)

Ito notes that Japanese society became fragmented after the collapse of the modern family system and that people are now loosely connected with each other drifting in the city. He defined this new sense of community according to the aesthetics he discovered in Saran Wrap covering fresh foods.

After considering Isozaki’s and Ito’s explorations through the lenses of technology, aesthetics, and community, we rephrased our initial questions as follows: “What is the aesthetics of today’s architecture? What senses of community does it define?”

After Symbols
Today it is even more difficult to think about what defines a sense of community without mentioning technology than it was when Isozaki and Ito wrote the texts. Technology are increasing its influence even more on our sensibilities and making our world more intricate. For example, even if one exists in a single place in physical space, one can simultaneously communicate with people in remote locations through information space via Twitter, Line, or other services using a smartphone. In His essay “From Consumption to Participation, Then On to Production” (ÉKRITS, 2017), curator Sekai Kozuma (1989-) argues that what we consider to be reality—Kozuma refers to this as “real space”—is no longer absolute or formed solely from physical spaces; rather, is generated in multiple through feedback loops between physical spaces and information spaces. In other words, though our spaces seem continuous at a glance, they are actually severed into infinitely small pieces and fragmented. Amid all this, the traditional method of defining communities as things based solely on physical spaces has become obsolete.

Semiotic would be the most frequently used methodology in architecture to define community in the era of postmodernism. Here, people share a mutual recognition and understanding of elements that, for example, represent “Edo” and “Wa”: paper lanterns, Engawas, tile roofs, latticed doors, and so on. By distributing these symbols around in space, architects attempted to construct a sense of community based on a supposition of stable relationships between such symbols and their meanings. However, “Pokémon Go,” a game that was released in 2016 and became a social phenomenon, greatly undermined this supposition. (Kozuma also cites the game as one example of a feedback loop between physical spaces and information spaces.)

In Pokémon Go, landmarks scattered around urban spaces are established as “PokéStops,” spots that generate items and Pokémon. Large crowds of players throng particular spots in search of particular types of Pokémon. As a result, a peculiar sense of solidarity—that is to say, community—arises among them. The original meanings of these spots in physical space (the symbols) are entirely stripped away and new meanings (places that generate items and Pokémon) are overlaid in information space. This superimposition suggests that symbols no longer possess stable, one-to-one connections with fixed meanings and that infinite meanings may be attached to them. The Pokéspots in Pokémon Go were directly appropriated from landmarks in urban spaces that were tagged by players of “Ingress,” an earlier game released by Niantic, the developer of Pokémon Go. In other words, it’s unnecessary for Pokéspots to be landmarks (physical symbols) and the significance of the existence of these symbols has been lost.

Mist and Glitch
In the May 2017 issue of “a+u” titled “Emerging Architects in USA” which I served as a guest editor, I introduced the architects who seem to be responding to the conditions described above. Mark Foster Gage [fig.3] and Andrew Kovacs [fig.4], whom I categorized as “Neo-collagist” take advantage of the invalidation of symbols. By creating a flood of symbols that are stripped of meaning, they attempt to achieve architecture that establishes no connection with meaning—architecture that rejects any interpretations. Ellie Abrons repeatedly transfers objects between physical spaces and information spaces with the aim of producing a kind of mood in the objects that is inexhaustible as a collection of symbols. I define this methodology as “Interactions between physical spaces and information spaces” [fig.5]. Similar directions may be observed in the “New animism” of Young & Ayata [fig.6].

Proposal for Helsinki Guggenheim
[fig.3] Mark Foster Gage Architects “Proposal for Guggenheim Helsinki” (2014, Finland)
office kovacs
[fig.4] Office Kovacs “Proposal for Collective Living (Bust of Medusa)” (2015, USA)
[fig.5] Ellie Abrons and Adam Fure “Another Rock” (2016, USA)
Base Flower – Young & Ayata – Vase Pose A & Lignum Agri
[fig.6] Young & Ayata, “Base Flowers” (Originally shown at Volume Gallery Chicago, 2015)

Mist and Glitch, concepts explored by the two teams in our studio, can be considered as extensions of the above-mentioned experiments. The aesthetics implied by the concepts were articulated in the drawings and movies produced for the midterm review. Mist is an idea of blurring symbols in urban spaces to create conditions that allow the city exudes certain sensations. The team proposes generating a ceiling of mist along Chuo-dori in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. By controlling humidity and changing its height and density, the team aim to make urban public spaces that can be converted into either expansive or intimate spaces [fig.7,8].

[fig.7] Conceptual collage by Mist shown at the mid-term review
[fig.8] Conceptual collage by Mist shown at the mid-term review

Glitch, on the other hand, inspired by errors in information spaces, dislocates, distorts and fragments symbols in an urban spaces, and seeks to achieve inexhaustibility [fig.9-11]. The team focuses on buildings in the Nihonbashi area that follow a standard design code (scale, materiality, proportioning of facade elements, and so on) and proposed the interventions to the code by introducing local discrepancies such as distorting proportions to the extreme, inserting contrasting materials, and enlarging ornaments. Whereas the former concept attempts to define community through creating loose connections, the latter advances spatial fragmentation to an extreme degree in order to define a community in which the fragmentation itself is inverted.

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[fig.9] Conceptual collage by Glitch shown at the mid-term review
[fig.10] Conceptual collage by Glitch shown at the mid-term review

[fig.11] Conceptual footage by Glitch shown at the mid-term review

Toward New Aesthetics of Architecture
The two teams came up with these very promising concepts. However, their final proposals stayed in the realm of conventional architectural aesthetics. The mist concept ultimately became a proposal for a facade made of high-porosity lightweight bricks, upon which images can be projected [fig.12,13]. The glitch concept settled into a proposal for penetrating tubes that introduce fragments of outside environments into interior spaces of buildings [fig.14,15]. The concepts returned to the aesthetics of static physical objects.

[fig.12] Rendering by Mist shown at the final review
[fig.13] Rendering by Mist shown at the final review
20170811 section3
[fig.14] Conceptual section drawing by Glitch shown at the final review
[fig.15] Rendering by Glitch shown at the final review

I can’t help but imagine the possibilities that don’t stay within the existing aesthetics of architecture: the possibility of creating new sensations in a city by filling up the urban space with a mist which is formless yet figural and resists to become neither a symbol nor a phenomenon; or the possibility of generating glitches that resist against interpretation or reduction into a list of functions, from a feedback loop between physical spaces and information spaces.

The need for exploring the new architectural aesthetics is becoming imminent.

Toshiki Hirano

[fig.1-2] Shinkenchiku-sha
[fig.3] Mark Foster Gage Architects
[fig.4] Office Kovacs
[fig.5] Ellie Abrons and Adam Fure
[fig.6] Young & Ayata