I had a packed five weeks in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, and Ningbo
boats on Westlake, Hangzhou
View over Shanghai
In the Forbidden City, Beijing
Canal & Garden City, Suzhou
Temple outside of Ningbo
Architecture Buildings at CAA Campus
Two new posts on my experience in China and how it came into the workshop I taught at the China Academy of Art can be found at designintelligences.wordpress.com , “Something out of nothing; sense out of nonsense & Finding your way. . .” can be found here and “Workshop at China Academy of Art” can be found here. The students who were part of this workshop are currently continuing this work in developing proposals for social housing in China. Jiang Weihua, a CAA faculty who taught this workshop with me, is continuing with these students and is working on a book of this work.
Beginnings are arbitrary, accidental and mysterious. It is hard to know exactly when a point in a process becomes the beginning of something. Moisture, barometric pressure, temperature, currents of air carrying pollen, dirt, crystals of salt off the sea gather and develop a direction and momentum that form fog, a front, a storm or tornado. It separates itself out with identity, a path, force and consequence that serves to replenish, inseminate, or destroy. But when did it begin? Like one weather system morphing into another, the creative process continues and inspires one work after another. Authorship is complicated. Guardianship of an idea is perhaps a more accurate characterization. At what point does intention declare itself if the beginning is arbitrary? At what point is the accident seized? At what point is the mystery recognized and pursued? And by whom?
All of this comes to mind when thinking of one beginning, one set of beginnings, a Rashomon set of stories of beginnings of a project that started more than 35 years ago. The stories, not the authorship of the project, may cohere.
The project involves an idea, the birth of an idea back in the early sixties, in New York. It involves one of countless ideas that went into the making of Lincoln Center, more specifically, the making of the Opera House in Lincoln Center. And more specifically than that, the idea behind the origin of the points of light that drop from its ceiling. I am referring to the design of the Chandeliers in the Metropolitan Opera House.
Metropolitan Opera House Chandeliers
You may have seen them. They make a spectacle at the start of every performance, an explosion of light refracting from crystals that ascend, literally ascend, to the ceiling to announce the beginning of an opera.
Genesis, the ultimate beginning, makes one think of the first book of the Bible for its believers, the origin of the universe as The Big Bang for non believers. Interestingly, physical evidence for The Big Bang was developed at about the same time as the Metropolitan Opera House design was being developed. With optical telescopes, the space between stars and planets is black; but with a radio telescope, a glow is visible; this glow is cosmic radiation. In 1964, scientists explained that this radiation is leftover from the origin of the universe, the first physical evidence of The Big Bang. There was excitement in the media about this discovery. The world was looking up and out into space. The U.S. and Soviet space program was in full swing. This context is the basis of a story of origin of the design of the chandeliers.
About the same time, a year earlier to be precise, The Austrian Government announced that it would make a donation to the new Metropolitan Opera House: a set of crystal chandeliers for its foyer and auditorium. In July of 1963, Hans Harald Rath of J. & L. Lobmeyr, a celebrated Viennese crystal and chandelier manufacturing company, came to New York to discuss the design of the chandeliers with Wallace Harrison of Harrison and Abramovitz, the architect of the Opera House itself.
Three years ago, I met Leonid Rath, the grandson of Dr. Rath at the ICFF. Both Leonid and his brother Johannes are the current head of J. & L. Lobmeyr. Mr. Rath was in New York to begin discussions of the dismantling and cleaning of the Met’s chandeliers. He told me that when his grandfather and WKH met to discuss the chandeliers, Harrison gave Hans Harald Rath a book on galaxies. This book served as inspiration for the chandeliers’ design. The crystals are held by metal rods that radiate out from the center of the chandeliers, making them appear like starburst constellations. They were installed in May 1966 and became known as sputniks, after the Soviet space satellites, from the night the Met opened.
On Sept. 13 1966, 3800 people were in the audience for opening night of the Opera House. It was an exciting evening, the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. The first ovation exploded as the curtain was lifted and 21 chandeliers rose toward the ceiling. Wallace K. Harrison, Hans Rath and my father were there. This brings me to a second story of the chandeliers’ genesis.
The genesis of genesis has an Old English origin of gignesthai meaning birth. The etymological dictionary entry states, “be born…see KIN.” While birth is the beginning of one that is distinct; kin carry shared family lines and history.
My father, Tad Leski, far left, with draftsman, and Wallace K. Harrison far right.
My father, Tadeusz Leski is an architect; and a painter. He was a designer for Harrison and Abramovitz. Harrison was a painter and an architect like my father. He was also a statesman, a businessman, and spent time in high profile social circles being  linked by marriage, socially and professionally to the Rockefeller family. This consumed his time. My father, who entered H&A in 1953, straight off the boat, so to speak, was a recent immigrant to this country. He had survived the war; fighting as a Pole in the French army getting captured and escaping work camps. He ended up in London where he finished architecture school and had just left England with his wife and young daughter and a portfolio of drawings under his arm. Harrison recognized the artist and architect in my father. They were close because of it. So close, that my father designed and built a house for our family on a piece of property adjacent to Harrison’s own house. It seemed to me that Harrison was drawn to my father and the kind of conversations they could have. They could converse by standing over sketches, marker or pencil in hand. I imagine that my father’s English wasn’t so good back then; but, he could draw beautifully. These exchanges were recluse for Harrison. He got to speak his favorite language of gesture, mark, space and form. It was a respite from the countless board meetings that I am sure Harrison had to attend.
My father was the designer for the Metropolitan Opera House—as he was for many H&A projects. And he prepared the initial design sketches as he always did, countless fast perspective sketches done in marker or ink and white paint washes on trace, vellum or even cardboard. He would meet with WKH and separate them out based upon strengths and weaknesses. The sketches would become orthographic projections—or plan, section and elevation, and models. Eventually the design would be rendered with a ruling pen and gouache.
My father, Tad Leski on the job site of the Metropolitan Opera House. He is standing to the left of Wallace K. Harrison
Along the way, in preparation for one of the meetings, my father was hurriedly finishing a perspective sketch of the Met’s interior. One fault of my father’s was that he never knew when to stop a painting or a drawing until it was too late. He would obsess over the work, changing one thing and adding another until, as he used to say, “he made a mess of it.” His disgust with the work because of the one too many changes, would make him abandon it; and only then was it done. So he was characteristically “finishing” this sketch of the Met’s interior with markers and india ink. In the rush to finish, as a charged brush traveled from a bottle of ink; it happened, a splatter –a fat drop of black ink—fell from the brush. The splatter extended across the image, resembling an explosion of fireworks. “Boże” (oh god) my father thought. “I made a mess of it.” He dabbed the splatter to soak up some ink. And then he thought that it looked like the explosion of light from a chandelier. He added white paint to the splattered droplets and attached them with lines so that it could be interpreted to be the points of refracted light projecting from an abstracted chandelier.
One of hundreds of interior sketches for the Opera House by Tad Leski
Harrison thought the sketches were great. And he particularly liked the idea of the exploded geometry of the splatter as the form of the chandeliers. An accident was the genesis of the Chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera House. A drop of ink followed the laws of gravity, surface tension and impact instead of the intentions of the artist. This moment of genesis is suspended like a drop of ink over a page just beyond where my father had intended and before an idea of exploded geometry came to light.
Origins are critical in establishing authorship. But like any beginning, the origin of a work of art or invention is not crystal clear. Constellations, the dots of light in the sky that we connect and name, are imaginary. They inspire myths of princesses, heroes, winged horses and sea monsters. We mentally connect the dots of light as mnemonic devices. Narrative connections serve our imagination and memory. The actual physical locations of these points of light are stars light years away from us, spread out in three and four dimensions. From another point of view, away from the Earth, the constellations would not be recognizable and could not be connected the same way. Different points of view inspire different stories which inform memory and shape what we know.
 WKH was married to Ellen Milton, sister in law of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s daughter, Abby Rockefeller. He was also a friend of Nelson Rockefeller.
On December 10, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects held its annual awards ceremony at the Narragansett Towers in southern Rhode Island. This year we submitted East Side Addition (Residential), Old Stone House Inn (Adaptive Reuse), Old Stone House Spa and Restaurant (Interior), and Au Bon Pain (Commercial/Industrial) –all four received Merit Awards in their respective categories. Take a look at our submissions and view other winners on AIA/RI’s website.
I had the incredible experience of Pop!tech this past week. The theme was “America Reimagined” and some of the luminaries who spoke were: Dan Ariely, Will Allen, George Church, John Fettermn, Daniel Goleman, Tony Hey,Daniel Nocera, Gideon Obarzanek,Dean Ornish, Katy Payne, Michael Pollen, Reihan Salam, Paul van Zyl, Luis von Ahn, Michael Wesch….
It blew my mind.
Kyna Leski at Pop!tech 2009,
photo by Kris Krüg
I also got the opportunity to make a presentation, that I call, “Cohering Entropy: Navigating the Creative Process.” You can read my entire lecture notes here. Some notes from parts of my talk:
A strange thing happened about 20 years ago, very early on in my career as a teacher. I gave a group of students this painting by Paul Klee, called Polyphonically Enclosed White, and I asked them to build the third dimension using only white glue and white museum board.
One of the students, John Schroeder, decided that he would assign different heights to each colored rectangle. He couldn’t tell me why he was doing this…but there was something about his sense of purpose that made me step aside and watch. He worked through the night and built this object and when he was done he held it up to the indirect sunlight coming from the north side of the building.
This is what he saw. He had somehow osmotically channeled the work of Paul Klee.
I am showing you this, not to mystify things… in fact….there is a good explanation of why the light is refracted in this way given the differing sizes and heights of this cluster of tubes. But there isn’t an easy explanation of how John arrived at this idea. This is what interests me: how we get there…or how we navigate the creative process.
I have been surprised and awed by the imagination many times since then. It has made me think I am an atheist and believe I am not. This dilemma draws me into the creative process in my teaching and my work.
How an artist gets to a discovery or invention is mystified in our culture…it’s outside the umbrella of words like “talent” or “genius.” These words keep us from seeing what is at work and keeps it in the periphery and not to be depended upon. I like to call talent or creative abilities, intelligences. One of the most important intelligences for an artist is sensibility. “Sensibility”—keen intellectual perception—not the optics of the eye or capacity of the sensory organs—but how we take this information and form a concept of the world and our place it. Sensibility is on the cusp between percept and concept…which is at the heart of intelligence.
. . .
Search engines gather for us. The founders of Google, stated that “if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, you’d be better off.” And that he and his partner’s ambition for “perfect search engine” would be one that could understand exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”
My ambition is the opposite: Creativity….is not in knowledge but in the way towards knowing. Discovery is about arriving somewhere other than where you wanted or expected. And invention is moving outside of what is known.
. . .
Dwelling in uncertainty is key to growth and moving beyond the known through the imagination.
Creative, process are two words neither of which are creative and both are more processed than process.I think of it as cohering entropy. A creative work makes its own necessity by cohering what wasn’t before and now we don’t want undone. Cohering by recognizing connections from the astronomical to the metabolic, by putting together what precedes, follows and is next to: coherence gathered, and meaning made.
A new video of the Biltmore Hotel Porte Cochère project has been posted on 3six0’s YouTube channel. The evolution of the project is condensed into a 30 second animation that illustrates material reasoning driven by the net-like matrix of the hotel’s lobby ceiling, and the canopy’s function as a sheltering entry-marker that reverberates with the historic architecture of the Biltmore Hotel and the city of Providence.
Where is ground level after all, where is terra firma? Hard to tell. Instead there is a strange sensation of hovering in a zone of water and sky as the earth drifts somewhere in the mix. – Michael Cadwell
The Querini Stampalia Foundation by Carlo Scarpa is a powerful reminder of architecture’s capacity to embody particular qualities without necessarily being literal. Querini Stampalia was originally a family palace built in Venice during the 16th that was converted into a small foundation devoted to “promote study of useful disciplines and nation and foreign knowledge” (12). After a series of damaging floods in the early 1900’s, Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to renovate the ground floor in anticipation of future flooding.
exterior of the Querini Stampalia Foundation
What’s exiting in this work is Scarpa’s understanding of water as an unsettling force – as a medium caught between the solidity of the earth and the volatility of the sky. Water is at once dependable and volatile – it is present like the earth, but in constant flux like the sky. And as Cadwell points out, Venice embodies this precariousness. “In Venice, buildings do not spring from the earth – they tether themselves to the mud below, or they hover above it” (8-9). This aquatic quality, this precariousness, pervades Querini Stampalia through details that unsettle and keep us on edge.
ground floor plan
For instance, the main entrance to Querini Stampalia is a small footbridge leading from the adjacent campiello directly into the ground floor foyer. Seemingly simple, the bridge is slightly eccentric so that the entrance to Querini Stampalia lies slightly below the campiello. So even before entering the building, Scarpa calls into question the solidity of the ground that is so precarious in Venice. The bridge drops us below the established ground line and brings us closer to the water below.
Inside the main gallery, we find a similar articulation of conflicting levels and an unsettling ambiguity regarding the location of water and ground. First, the gallery steps down from the entrance foyer, bringing the floor even further below the ground line outside. There are three columns in the space, but none of them align to establish a firm ground line. Finally, the floor is detailed for floods and wraps up the sides of the wall to define a waterline. Without being explicit, Scarpa places the visitor somewhere beneath the water, but where exactly is unclear. “So we are up to our ankles. The grass outside [in the courtyard] is above this line, but no matter, the water rises to our shins” (25). These waterlines all undermine any sense of a solid ground, but instead locate the room somewhere between the ebb of the tide. And though the gallery anticipates water and its presence can be felt throughout, the most unsettling part is the lack water and the lack of any reference to establish where that waterline actually lies. The gallery gives hints and suggests possibilities but provides no assurance. Instead it lies somewhere in the middle. Water is absent, but its presence is felt throughout.
The perimeter of the original walled city of Shanghai is still evident from aerial photography. The city wall was initially constructed in 1553 during the Ming Dynasty to protect the fishing village from Japanese pirates who were pillaging the coast. It is quite unusual for a village of such little importance to have an extensive city wall as the one that was constructed. This construction is testament to the strategic location of Shanghai on the Huangpu River just south of its convergence with the Yangtze River. The city wall was 8 meters high with a total length of 4.8 km.
After Shanghai became one of the treaty ports in the second half of the nineteenth century new urban development occurred to the north and west of the walled city. These European and American developments were referred to as the Concessions. Foreign residents in the Concessions lived and operated under their own governments and were exempt from Chinese law. The native Chinese population withdrew to within the city wall and the area became know as Old Town. The traditional Chinese character was preserved within the wall while the new architecture of the concessions was of a European style with traditional Chinese accents.
The city wall was eventually demolished and the moat was filled after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The wall was replaced by two curving roads, Renmin Lu to the north and Zhonghua Lu to the south. Replacement of medieval city walls and moats with modern ring roads was a common occurrence in twentieth century Chinese cities. Nowhere is this as strongly recognizable as in Beijing, where the square city wall was replaced by the Second Ring Rd in the 1950’s.
Location of original Shanghai city wall shown in red
Locational of Beijing city wall and its southern extension
Today much of the architecture in this portion of the city retains the traditional scale and density of Old Shanghai. Many of the buildings are well over 100 years old and are in deteriorating condition. Electricity has been brought to the structures as evidenced by all of the overhead power lines, but most of the structures lack plumbing. Public latrines and sinks are located along the lanes. This lack of infrastructure and the low rise/high density nature of the neighborhood have created a truly active street life. Shops and markets line the lanes and the distinction between private and public is blurred.
Traditional housing within city wall
Traditional housing within city wall
Currently there is much debate on how to handle these historic neighborhoods in quickly expanding Chinese cities. Activists are now speaking out against the widespread razing of the traditional urban fabric and are pushing for preservation. Preservation in the strictest sense is not a feasible option since much of the fabric is in such squalid condition and the needed infrastructure improvements are overwhelming. Turning the area into a “museum” is not a solution either since it would merely preserve the structures and not the active civic life.
Traditional building of Old Town
Portion of neighborhood being razed
With its transition from a production economy to a consumer economy, China is realizing its great potential as a tourism destination – both to domestic and foreign visitors. This opportunity has not been missed in Old Town with the development of Shanghai Old Street, a new shopping district created in the traditional architectural style complete with Starbucks and Pizza Hut.
Shanghai Old Street - modern recreation of traditional structures
The preservation/development situation in Shanghai is considerably different than in Beijing where the medieval urban fabric extends across the whole city and is quite expansive (although quickly disappearing). Since Shanghai was a village until fairly recently its area of old urban fabric is rather small and concentrated and is definitely of a manageable scale.
In any case it will be interesting to see how Shanghai responds. We will certainly have our answer within the year as the Shanghai World Expo 2010 site is a short walk to the south of Old Town.
3six0 was commissioned to restore and renovate the much loved but well worn Stone House Inn in Little Compton, Rhode Island into an authentic destination hotel. The renovated project is comprised of 12 hotel units, two restaurants and a spa.
The original Stone House was constructed in 1854 as a private residence in an Italianate style but soon after was converted into an inn.
3six0’s challenge has been to balance the preservation of the historic Inn with the client’s modern needs. The team’s approach has been to integrate green building technologies wherever possible with the implementation of its restoration and its contemporary use.
The project is currently under construction. Here are some construction photos of the Inn …
According to the placard outside this church in Davos, Switzerland, seven hundred years ago the builders built the steeple true and straight. Soon after the tower was complete it started twisting clockwise. Why did it twist? Another blogger jokingly suggested the Coriolis effect was to blame (think water down a drain and hurricanes). If that had anything to do with it then all the twisted steeples of Europe would rotate in the same direction. Apparently not. Theres as much clockwise rotation as there is counterrclockwise. Another theory is that all these steeples were twisted “by design”, built this way. that’s a tough one to prove, especially since these steeples have all been rebuilt/restored and the non of their cladding is original.
Apparently the green wood structure as it dryed and shrank , was the culprit behind the rotation of the steeple in Davos, (from the on-site information). Plausible? Without seeing the structure it’s hard to envision. A pastor in New Jersey speaking of his own church steeple problems suggested another possibility: after a tremendous wind storm, the tower had to be replaced, he said, because it had become twisted. The possibility of external wind forces contributing to the twist is compelling because it allows for clockwise or counterclockwise results while not discounting the internal force resulting from shrinking timbers. Sunflowers are a good example how twisting might be the result of two simple “forces” one internal and the other external. Sunflower seeds grow at a certain rate according to genetic instructions (internal forces) As they grow they bump into each other and are forced into a twisting geometry (external forces).
The steeple at L’Eglise du Grand Marchin, Belgium was one of the 40 or twisted steeples of Europe before it was destroyed in a fire. Despite it’s obvious “flaw”, when it came time to rebuild in the same timber technique, a decision was made to match the “flaw”, to transform it into design. A remarkable moment where material behavior is transformed into architectural “language”, the syntax is now purely synthetic, denoting something it is not : a twist formed through time, material, and force. Perhaps this is more proof that the twisted steeples of Europe were never intended to be so.
Allison Paschke, a local artist, is awaiting the start of construction of a 3six0 designed residence (see model of wall design below) at her loft in the Jewelery District in Providence.
Jewelery District Loft Wall
But, she’s not waiting idly. She has organized and curated an exhibition of nineteen artists (see the exhibition images) that aptly explores the themes of architecture and ‘deconstruction’. In anticipation of the demolition required for the renovation, the artists were given free license to paint, nail, drill and even tear open walls. The result is widely varied and immensely engaging. There are colorful murals, mysterious miniature constructions, and entrancing translucent glass panels that enliven the space with color and curiosity. Walls peal back to create new paths through the space. There’s several installations that seem to grow on the walls: a sticky wallpaper that has become fuzzy from collected dust, elegant little paper shelves that have colonized a wall, and an pixelated topography that floats a few inches off the wall and casts shadows.
Together it gives the visitor the sensation that they have stumbled into an abandoned space where the curious has replaced the quotidian. As if, while nobody was watching the space was colonized by creative little creatures of re-invention. In that sense, it is easy to imagine this installation expanding to other abandoned, foreclosed or otherwise unoccupied spaces in the city. It may just be the little bit of magic that is needed to enliven spaces at the edge of oblivion.
The show is open from 12-5pm until Sunday April 12, 2009.