Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

02 December 2010

Public Space and the 21st Century

Making a case for the "open museum"

This is a summary and review of a lecture I got to attend recently, given by Kazuyo Sejima, principle of SANAA (and winner of this year's Pritzker Architectural Prize) and Yutaka Mino, director of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art 

            Recently I heard Kazuyo Sejima lecture on architecture and the environment. She was joined by Yutaka Mino, director of the Kanazawa Prefectural Museum. Together they posed the question: Can the Museum become a truly civic space? They argued for the success of the “open museum” of which the 21st Century Museum of Art is the first example.

            The site selected for the museum was highly strategic within Kanazawa city, located between the City and Prefectural offices. Previously, a school, whose high walls raised an earthen obstacle to the flows of pedestrian and car traffic in the city center, occupied the site. SANAA’s design solution razed the walls to the ground, linking paths broken by the old school. The result is a single story cylinder binding cubes of different sizes. The cubes house places where people can have exchanges of various scales and storeys: auditorium, classroom, meeting room. Conceptually, if the city is an open filed with objects distributed within it, the museum is one object among many. However, upon entering the museum, one enters a second field full of free-floating objects. Inside the building, one experiences the city in a kind of miniature.

            If Sejima made the hard infrastructure of the museum’s architecture, Mino worked out the soft infrastructure of the museum’s function and programming. Mino described the museum as the city’s living room. The museum is meeting place, gathering space, event center, stage. The museum offers a site for the celebration of civic space. To encourage residents of Kanazawa to treat the museum as such, organizers led an enormous campaign inviting students to the museum. If students would come, they reasoned, parents and relatives might follow. Mino recognized that the success of the museum within the community will only become apparent after decades have worn away the crisp edges of its architecture. How to successfully program a museum so that local people will use it like a living room? Mino used the Hyogo Prefectural Art Museum as an example.
            Tadao Ando designed the museum, and construction completed in 2001. The museum was part of a much larger urban design led by Ando for the Hyogo Prefectural Government, in an effort to rebuild the Kobe waterfront where it had been most severely destroyed by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Along with the art museum, paved courts, earthquake memorial museum, psychiatric hospital, and disaster recovery hospital border a thin strip of waterfront park.
            Inside the Hyogo Art Museum, weekly live music concerts have earned the museum a reputation as a cultural music center among museums in Japan. Adjacent to the museum, weekly contests, tournaments, performances, and other spectacles organized by local schools attract throngs of kids and families, enlivening the grounds skirting the museum. On a quiet afternoon, one side of the building slowly steps down to the water with a grand staircase offering places for groups of various sizes to gather or form spontaneously as people sit on the steps and look over the industrial landscape. The key to a successful museum as living room, according to Mino, is the perpetuation and overlap of activites repeated on a weekly basis, keeping the site occupied and active with a variety of uses.
            Sejima’s strategy and Mino’s synthesis are familiar and reasonable. A structure, which is centrally located and physically easy to access, must also be programmed to invite and entice the local population over and over if it is to become a lasting local institution and a meaningful public space.
student's massing model of 21st Century Museum
            But must a living room be a museum? Mino argued passionately for the unique value of the museum as a place where a child could develop taste (creativity, imagination, sensitivity, and understanding of culture). He also mentioned that when studying in the United States, he found refuge from the stress of English illiteracy in the study places of  museums and libraries. Finally, he suggested that the museum gives people a place where they can do things they can’t do at home or at work.
            Sejima supported this argument in an ambiguous way. She showed five museums that she has designed as principle of SANAA. Two were notable primarily for the way they figured into local context: their physical figure fragments into the city fabric almost completely at Inushima in the Inland Sea (between Honshu and Shikoku). In a museum designed in France, the volume fragments over a triangular site, foregrounding casual circulation through the park and the singular procession through the building.
            In the other three examples: the 21st Century Museum, the Toledo Museum of Glass, and the New Museum in New York, each treated the museum as a large empty container or field into which objects of various sizes, shapes, and textures had been arranged, balanced, or crammed. Circulation between these volumes becomes narrative and thread tying the whole together. At the New Museum, additional program was added on the penthouse: an atelier that can be rented for craft parties, birthdays or other gatherings, with a clear view of Manhattan. At the 21st Century Museum, some of the volumes charge admission and others are more truly public. Because the museum wrapper can be entered free of charge, it is argued, the museum is a civic space.
Glass Pavilion Toledo Museum of Art
Asatte Asagao Project 21, summer 2007 installation at 21st Century Museum
            The ambiguity of this argument lies in the flexibility of the building’s purpose. It doesn’t need to be a museum. It could be a library. It could be a glass workshop. It could be a shopping center. It could be a school. The city wanted to provide its residents with a third place: a place where they can gather, plan, learn, celebrate, grieve, observe, perform. The title of this place is derived from local interests and funding sources. Similar goals derived the Seattle Public Library, the Sendai Mediatheque, the Faro del Oriente cultural center on the outskirts of Mexico City. To make a place where a selection of people feel comfortable is the sign of success.
            Sejima’s solution poses clean, blank surfaces within volumes within volumes. The compositions of her museum vacillate between playfulness and composure. Mino’s solution focuses in the foreground on events and programming. While in the U.S. this might fail due to the fragmentation of after school activities (I remember driving across town three times each afternoon to accommodate my extracurricular calender) according to Mino it works really well in Japan.
            It could be pointed out that the kid participating in the basketball tournament next to the museum can easily go home without imbibing any high culture. If he does wander inside (still sweaty from the court) how will his creativity and imagination be enhanced? Perhaps by enjoying the coolness of the Hyogo’s interior spaces and the play between the reflective polished concrete and absorbtive galvanized steel. Climbing the stairs, he can look down on the water from above. From inside, it seems less dirty and full of the gassy leaks of ships and bird poop. But if he goes into the gallery, is it not the same tired rarified experience of Western art viewing that artists and critics have been reacting against for most of the 20th century? Do we actually become more creative by looking at strange objects out of context? Or is that kind of creativity always there? If it is nascent, then we don’t need the art museum, we can develop sensitivity by simply being more sensitive: to the smell of the rubber ball hitting the pavement, the bumpy feel of its skin, the slap of it against the hand, the quick flashing moves exchanged between our opponents body and our own. The museum is a house of objects interesting to erudite obsessives. Why does it need to be next to a basketball court?

            It is not that I am arguing against museums, but it is perverse to consider the museum as the centerpiece of civic life. The 21st Century Museum will slowly turn into a community center: why would you go to an exhibit? It wouldn’t be the quiet, daylit space of a typical art museum, and it wouldn’t be the open, rowdy space of a sports hall or community center. It would be something in between. Would the mixing of spaces result in a change of behavior? Or would the museum-community center lack the distinctive character that one seeks out when one goes to the trouble of escaping from daily life? I’d like to go to a dark and smoky bar, or a light-filled and airy library, or a crowded and sweaty dancehall or to an open vista, or to a church filled with incense or a gymnasium filled with the noise of sports. Perhaps, however, the charm of the architecture, vacillating between sweet and sedate, makes its own character. The novelty and unique personality of the place might attract an audience seeking not a program* but a place.

*program : the use of a space, i.e. museum, community center, library etc. : axon photo of 21st c museum : plan of 21st c museum : toledo glass pavilion  : massing model of 21st c Museum : Asatte Asagao Project 21 : interior of 21st Century Museum

01 December 2010

Rivers and Markets in Seoul

            Seoul developed directly on top of a complex river system. At first, the city was small and bordered by a wide green belt. After forty years of rapid development and construction, it’s a sprawling metropolis.  Main transit routes are built over historic rivers. The simple logic of this endeavor is extremely satisfying: in a mountainous geography, the path of the river will not only follow the least steep and resistant path, in addition the river will, over time, erode adjacent topography, making a broader course. In Seoul, engineers converted rivers to roads either by filling a river with matter, or by constructing an elevated freeway conduit above a river still open to daylight. Most rivers left open were highly channelized, however, examples exist of pleasant river-parks complete with pedestrian/bike paths and native grasses fringing the edges. 

            If we imagine Seoul in plan, rivers and transit routes call our attention as the key figure. The ground from which this figure emerges can be imagined as a variegated, teaming agglomeration of market typologies upon a dense, paved surface. The glitter and dazzle of the night markets drew large crowds on a Tuesday night. It felt like commerce alone was making the city. The pump of money through the streets was palpable. I think this feeling came from the sheer variety and density of vendor typologies. Walking to dinner, we passed people sitting on blankets. The first person sold shoelaces. The next, fresh octopus and shellfish. The next person had a bicycle cart that could fold up and ride away. A pair sold roasted chesnuts and their cart included a Bezier. Another man sold a pot-cleaning solution. All afternoon he cleaned pots vigorously while sitting on a tarp. A voice on a loudspeaker egged him on. Perhaps it was a recording, or maybe it was live. The man kept his head down, scrubbing and I couldn’t see his lips move.

Greenhouse gives way to House
            As the markets and pavement bulge and spread out from Seoul’s center toward the periphery, they begin to overflow into the greenbelt. In Seattle, the greenbelt area consists of land over which freeways have been built, where other kinds of construction would now be very difficult, undesirable, or perhaps illegal due to zoning laws. This area provides connectivity for migrating animals, and also unoccupied land for a small population of homeless refusing social integration. In Seoul, the greenbelt area supports hectares of greenhouses fading at the edges to unoccupied hills, the city’s natural and political boundary.
            Since the Korean peninsula is very cold in the fall, winter, and spring (in November at night it froze), heated greenhouses support local food security. However, the economic potential of housing trumped the value of a collective resource with the inauguration of “The Green,” a housing complex the area of a small town poised on the edge of Seoul. The flagship building heralds quality and choice available for future homeowners. Three unit types combine energy efficient fixtures, wall and floor types, and spatial planning tactics in different ways, yielding a spectrum ranging in efficiency and expense. Windows, sited for natural ventilation, reduce noise and increase insulation. Floors insulate, reduce noise, potentially radiate heat, and support a geothermal pump. One plan type was touted as a kind of “future house,” inescapably referring to a long history of forward looking, convenience promising machine houses beginning with LeCorbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

            The kitchen might feature a wall that deconstructs into a table and chair so that the harried housewife might also be able to work from home, skyping in to important meetings. The master bedroom included an accordian divider to occasionally make room for a separate home. In a nod to nature, the entry sequence leads one to step up into the apartment, across a mud room, then through a tiny outdoor patio with green turf before arriving in the kitchen. Overall, the spaces felt replete with features and gadgets for modern life. Perhaps it was only the hard-sell nature of the showcase building, but my training in the making of authentic spaces rejected the space-age character of the displays.
            The luster of the post-war Western dream-house emerged perhaps from a similarly burgeoning economy and hopeful rising middle class. It has left the U.S. with a huge, dispersed network of suburbs connected only by cars. “The Green” is similarly isolated from public transportation. Planned in a single stroke for an immense and radiant future, the negative impacts of suburban construction include the dull repetition of a few building types spread across broad swathes of land.  Will things be so different in Seoul? “The Green” housing plan boasts accommodation for a variety of budgets and renting styles. However, the units on view were insufficiently distinctive to create a sense of variety and character to a planned neighborhood. While it could be argued that a demand for individuality to one’s home is a Western concern, the liveliness of a neighborhood emerges from the details of its occupation.

Making a Place
            What is it that makes a place feel like home? Of course, it is the labor of living in a space that gives it a lived-in quality. Additionally, the sense emerges out of the construction of belonging. Across town from the high-maintenance, technology-dependent solution to ecological living in the 21st century is a slum approaching its 4th decade. 

            Forty years ago, the mayor decided to clean up downtown Seoul. This required the removal of everyone who was living there at the time, many of whom owned his own land. The mayor selected a location far from the city center on steep hillsides for their relocation. Each person received land, but no other compensation. Protesting would assuredly result in beatings by government-hired men. No master plan was offered, no consulting body assembled. Given these meager parameters, the neighborhood is surprisingly orderly. Each family seems to have built a 2-3 storey brick house. Roads are straight, and about 3 m wide, enough for one car to pass, if nothing clutters the street. Scooters are a more common form of transport.

            All the windows have bars. No mason laid those bricks. About 10 years ago, apparently most people renovated their homes and some added on. They all used the same brick to update the facades, due only to the popularity of that veneer, not due to an organizing body. A neighborhood organization emerged, organizing the width of the streets at least. I am not at all sure about how people knew how to construct their own houses, or who they hired to help them, or whether they used cast concrete or concrete blocks, or what general percentage of houses leaked or fell down. How is crime managed? Do people live as a nuclear family, or as an extended family? Who adds on? Why? 

            While the housing situation was grim, we saw some elderly shopkeepers making kim chee in one of the wider streets where the houses ended and the steep hillside overtook architecture. The small indoor spaces forced the shopkeepers to perform the task of making kim chee outside. The width of the streets controlled the speed and amount of traffic. Climbing up the hill to find neighbors processing raw cabbage into the pickled spicy staple of every Korean meal reinforces a personal connection to local community in ways the efficient eco home can only dream of mimicking. Perhaps developers should not be so quick to sacrifice the food security and community networking potential of the low-density greenhouses in their greenbelt development area. Perhaps by combining growing and living in creative and variegated ways, designers and developers could address the demand for housing, improve the civic space of the suburbs, and construct an architecture for a more ecological lifestyle that does not depend so heavily on the vicarious and impersonal processes of machines.
City River Park
            It is not a matter of choosing the forced but perhaps jolly public space of the slum or the quiet, purring private space of the housing complex. With Jane Jacobs, I am only suggesting that the variety and liveliness of good cities can be studied and designed. Examples of new construction in Seoul offer a surfeit of built infrastructure, with consequential public amenities, rather than beginning with people and their movements.
            Importantly, the work by Jane Jacobs on which I am drawing is called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is highly possible that what works for an American city would not conform to a South Korean context. For example, in the U.S., a quintessential manifestation of local people demanding that the city pay them attention is the day-lighted stream. From Strawberry Creek in Berkeley to Ravenna Creek in Seattle, the day-lighted stream is a rallying point for a middle-class middle-aged population to beautify their neighborhood. It also offers an opportunity for folks meet their animal and human neighbors. Such is not the case in Seoul, in fact, literally it is quite the opposite with one city river park.
            As noted earlier, Seoul has grown over a network of rivers. Main routes are built over rivers that have been reclaimed or filled in with. When not filled in, single or double decker freeways glide on columns over waterways. Sometimes, the road takes an edge of a riverbed, and the river is developed into a public park.

            We examined one river-park more closely. A minute’s walk from Jongmyo Palace, a large park complex housing the sacred relics of Korea’s five centuries of royalty, the river cuts fifteen feet below street level in a concrete channel. Normal autumn flow rates apparently allow the river to go along like a small stream, however the channelization suggests that the flow can be much greater. The river is given a naturalistic, snaking form through which to flow and can be crossed at various points via broad smooth stones. It takes perhaps ten steps to get across. One bank is wide enough for a maintenance truck to pass, while the other is slightly higher and feels more pedestrian. Grasses soften the concrete edge and beautiful black and white birds a little larger than jays enjoy the atmosphere.
            Elderly men walk along, the occasional dog walker or runner escapes the traffic and smog above.
            Although it seems like a clear improvement to the neighborhood, a unique and pleasant refuge from above, the park was highly controversial. Locals enjoyed the traffic corridor that used to occupy the space. Traffic is dangerous and slow in Seoul: on a Tuesday night we counted 3 motorcycle injuries in the same 5-mile stretch within an hour. Transport is a huge issue that apparently outweighs demand for open space. In fact, in a labyrinthine building overlooking the river park, crammed between other small, dusty, commercial spaces programmed with everything from a restaurant to a church the office of the organization against the day-lighting project lurks, green and empty on a Wednesday afternoon.
            Historically, the river used to sprout a huge and lovely double layer freeway. However, as the infrastructure aged, it required expensive reparations. The mayor eventually became the president and finally got to remove what must have been an agitating thorn in his side, replacing it with the public park. Perhaps posterity will remember him as a good president for such an altruistic addition to the urban context of Seoul. But while living memory persists, the park was the cheapest solution for the president and the least convenient for the people.  
            The subversion of the day-lighted stream is evidence to me that the intertwining of rivers and roads complicates the case of rivers and markets in Seoul. Which is more important: river or road? Can the president actually claim that this channelized strangled stream has been day-lighted? Perhaps the open space of the Jongmyo complex is enough open space for Seoul residents. From a purely aesthetic and experiential perspective, it is pleasant to follow the river’s path, away from the traffic and hustle of the shops. A group of can suddenly feel its exact volume, a break from the fragmented and anxious following through the street. Periodically, a set of stairs connects the river walker to the street above. Visual connections to walkers and shops above maintain the secure, defensible feeling of the space, while the high walls frame the sky, excluding other urban details. It’s a nice break, down there. But this is only an outsider’s perspective, unconnected to the history of the site and its daily textures.