I recently attended and presented at the “Global Asia: Critical Aesthetics, Alternative Globalities” conference hosted by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The symposium brought together scholars from around the world to discuss the idea of Global Asia through the lenses of literature, film, art, and architecture. I was humbled by the rigor and intellect of my fellow presenters, and among the many engaging lectures, learned what Singaporean noir fiction and documentaries have to say about how Asia is changing in the twenty-first century.
My own contribution was on contemporary Chinese architecture and its metaphor of culture. Overland has been working in China for some time now, and our work there can only improve through engaged analysis of other work. There are a key pair of questions to ask during all projects regardless of location: How is this building global? And how is it local? Finding the right balance between the universal and the particular is critical, especially when working in a country as guests.
Technology, Politics, And Aesthetics
I first looked to the beginnings of architectural theory, with Vitruvius’s assertion of the three essential qualities of a building—structural integrity, usefulness, and beauty. In recent years, the architectural process has received just as much, if not more, attention than buildings themselves. So how then does Vitruvius’s formulation translate from product to process? I believe technology, politics, and aesthetics are the three intertwined motivators that give rise to a building of structural integrity, usefulness, and beauty. These three considerations must be balanced in order for good buildings to be built, and my primary assertion is that, in the twenty-first century, aesthetics have been overpowered by technology and politics and play an all-too-limited role in the construction of our shared environment, to the detriment of human life everywhere.
Three buildings formed the focus of this study: one which was overly technological, another overly political, and one that struck a balance among the three through its strong aesthetics. The first, the Phoenix International Media Center, uses technology as a means to obliterate any global or local distinctions. The building uses complex computer-generated forms in steel and glass to communicate the message that China and Chinese designers are thoroughly modern, marching lockstep with the international avant-garde. But in doing so, the building extracts itself from the modern problem of China as a backwards nation only to fall headlong into the postmodern problem of China as an undifferentiated nation, a place just like everywhere else.
The second building, the China Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, suffers because of its overemphasis on the second problem. Its politically motivated mission is to highlight all of China’s unique characteristics, setting it apart from other nations. The end result of this showcase of “five thousand years of history and culture” is a building that emphasizes the possession of this culture at the expense of its content. Different historical tropes and cultural clichés are mashed together to form a gargantuan whole. But in reality Chinese culture is so complex, multifaceted, and regionally diverse, is one undifferentiated entity really its best manifestation?
The Ningbo Museum answers this question with a sonorous “no.” Through masterful negotiation of antitheses—natural vs. manmade, new vs. old, traditional vs. contemporary, built vs. unbuilt, critical vs. practical, and coherent vs. disparate—it recognizes symbolic narratives while at the same time disrupting them, creating a sense of disorientation that pulls the visitor back towards confrontation with the real.
Formally, the Ningbo Museum is more complex than the previous projects. Its shape is less easily definable; it is made up of multiple parts; and it presents different personalities from different angles. In this aspect alone, it already more closely parallels a cultural identity (or identities) as uncovered by sociological and other research, rather than as put forth by a state media apparatus. This is not to say that the building is complex in the same way that cultural identity is complex. Nor is the building claiming to be at all representative of Chinese culture holistically. Instead, it claims—precisely through its ambiguity and complexity—that this holistic representation is not possible. It fractures the illusion of wholeness as defined against other “whole” cultures, allowing for a culture defined unto itself to the point of being able to be in conflict with itself. This concept of culture, emphasized by the fullness of the center rather than the definition of the edge, is stronger and more self-sustaining than culture defined solely by difference or solely by similarity.
Research like this helps Overland continue to do work around the world that harmonizes new and old, local and global, natural and manmade. It also allows us to share our message and the value of architecture with more and more people. As the only architectural specialist at the conference, it was rewarding to see other scholars begin to think of architecture in a new way and consider how it might apply to their own work. Similarly, I will be reflecting on the lessons that the other arts and humanities have for architecture. Exchange like this pushes us to expand our thinking and improve our work, ensuring that we are always designing more than just a building.