Monthly Archives: July 2010

Voyage d’Orient

As I am arriving in Pamplona for this saison’s last conference – the International Campus Ultzama, in which the effects of mobility on future architectural practice are to be debated in a beautiful and secluded equestrian center by Francisco Mangado… – I must also gather my thoughts on my voyage d’Orient.

Strangely, when I was in the plane to Hong Kong, I had the sudden feeling I was traveling into the future. And while Europe is indeed economically stagnant (and maybe a little more than economically), one has to be in China to really feel what it means to have a growth of a staggering 11.6% (down from last year’s 13%).

Hong-Kong, for a start, is that place of many splendored things that showed the way ahead to the rest of China in terms of urban escalation, courtesy of the late British colonialism. The truly packed city.

Never I thought I could enjoy the luxuriant scenery of a tropical London, and yet here it was, in between Norman Foster’s still referential first masterpiece, the aerial pedestrian passages, the mix of corporate and jungle space, and the vertical growth of the city into the forest hills.

An important luxury here, as in Macau, Shanghai and Beijing, was to have good friends in the city – Map Office, in this instance – that could translate the city’s sights into meaningful stories of its permanent, incredible transformation.

In Shanghai, we were welcomed by Bert de Muynck and Mónica Carriço, from that other expat, dynamic architectural research unit called Moving Cities, who fed us on other stories of China’s recent urban development, right from the terrace of the historical Mansion Hotel.

If you are planning to go to Shanghai on behalf of the Expo 2010, please do. But forget about the Expo itself and enjoy the city’s massive impact. The Expo isn’t worth much more than the intelligence that went into the concept of the British pavilion or, quite a few points below, the loop feat of the Danish pavilion.

But Shanghai, apart from the sheer mass of people that circulates in it, is a breathtaking city, and culturally is starting to add new highlights to its Bund district with the recently opened RAM contemporary museum.

This, alas, was the moment in which I thought that images (if not the unutterable smells and flavors) are sometimes more powerful than any eloquent description.

As for Beijing – where Cláudia Taborda was our inexhaustible host – a few days were simply not enough to grasp the extension of the city. Its imperial expanse is so marked that you have to take almost a day just to explore a city block.

Ultimately, one is mildly satisfied just to understand OMA’s CCTV in context, to squeeze in the multitudes admiring the Forbidden City, or to spend an afternoon in the 798 art district – where also the new UCCA museum boasted the direction of Palais de Tokyo’s former head Jérôme Sans and Erwin Wurm’s latest show.

China may be lagging behind in a few areas – like in establishing democratic freedom or rediscovering its own creativity – but believe me, whether we like it or not, the future that is not simply an imaginary museum is indeed more prone to be on this side of the world. Expand your networks there.

My Grandmother is Nintendo

In his irresistible 1967 Play Time, Jacques Tati anticipated Jean Baudrillard by conceiving a city in which modernist simulacra had substituted for the “real” presence of traditional urban icons and representations.

Thus, the “real” Paris appears to a group of American tourists as only a transient mirror-image in some of the many transparent surfaces that invade the film. Samewise, the modernist slab appears throughout the movie as a repetitive symbol of the modern holiday vista – be it in Honolulu or Benidorm.

As my recent travels have confirmed, Macau is another rendering of this modern, global reality. As local architects claim that heritage and the traditional city image should be defended at all costs – even if as a tool for city branding – they tend to forget why the Chinese embrace modernism at such fast pace.

Modernity is, finally, more Oriental than Western. Modernity’s fleeting spirit is totally in accord with the Eastern philosophy of repetition and renewal, a way of thinking in which the “original” becomes unimportant and irrelevant.

So Macau bids farewell to its unique nature – that of retaining an ambiance of past cultural exchange, which would the opposite of Hong-Kong’s role modeling for the future – and embraces the spectacle of modern simulacra.

Casino culture, that is, corporate entertainment boosted by addiction, becomes the “real reality” – an economic reality that in Macau currently boasts the profits of already more than four Las Vegas put together.

Besides the city lights, the remaining urban context is but the lively stage set in which the personnel needed to oil the machinery of gambling generate a parallel, curious plot. And this is the old city, still interestingly displaying the complexity and layering of different urban pressures and cultures.

In the generic casino city that is occupying the new landfills, however, you can’t even delight in such plays of interpretation (and conflation).

The new Macau is straightforward decision-making based upon the American shopping mall, theme-park city model, i.e., a city which is destined for car use and is intrinsically hostile to public space, while mimetizing it as pure fake.

This is the city that was long ago condemned by Jane Jacobs, but only now is convincingly revealing its irrational unsustainability and expenditure.

In this sense, in all its glorious, decaying fascination, Macau’s mistake is not to have understood what even Beijing has already managed to grasp in spots like its ultracommercial Sunlitun Village: urban space is still best when it proves to be a machine to produce encounters – even if luck and play are also involved.

And to produce this machine one still needs architectural intelligence.

Beyond #03 – Trends and Fads

I’m glad to announce that everybody’s favorite summer read is now out and about and ready to be ordered through the appropriate… Sun Publishers.

Yes, it is true. While Values and Symptoms just got an excellent review at the influential We Make Money Not Art, the third take of Beyond’s fictional approach to the post-contemporary city is now fresh from the print, ready to find a nice niche in your brain’s pleasure centre.

Forget traditional distribution channels – that is, give up the hope of finding Beyond in a bookshop near you – and just enjoy it asap.

Meanwhile, I’m gathering notes on another stranger-than-fiction urban enclave, soon to be unveiled right here: Macao, long after Josef von Sternberg portrayed the devil – and this peculiar city – as another extraordinary woman.