On Utopian In Architecture
This fall semester of my senior year in RISD Interior Architecture, I proposed a project, 90s(Utopian) Town. 90s(Utopian) Town tells the story about a co-work plus live work space for a group of young professionals, selected based on unique occupations with various personalities, who were born in the 1980s-1990s in the creative field. This project grew, expanded, and had so much alterations throughout the process because of what I learned and read about in Contemporary Critical Theory class. Throughout this one semester I had a conversation with theory, philosophy and architecture at the same time. In the 90s(Utopian) Town project, I realized space and time is important, because they directly contribute to experience and memory of occupants and visitors being in the space I created. Individual identity is important as well as the power dynamics of the whole social group of 40 users that I am designing for. The idea of inclusivity in utopian society has been evident all the way throughout the design process of this project, and it is one of my current biggest philosophy in architecture.
All design decisions of 90s(Utopian) Town are made for close reasons with the thoughts documented below. This article also directly quoted and response to reading Chapter 7, Carnival and Utopia and Chapter 10, Space and Time in The Culture Study Reader, Third Edition.
“individual identity and language, social inclusivity, power of an architect, authority of space, ownership of space, essentialism, social constructionism, community and play”
1. SPACE AND TIME
A particular song, for example, just like a certain smell, or a kind of greenish blue neon light, always carries some memory of a particular experience. This happens to me countless times. When I hear a song, it immediately reminds me of some memory. I can immediately feel the emotion when I last listened to this song. I don’t have to try to remember who I was with at the time, what we were arguing about, where I was, how cold it was or how uncomfortable it was. A place or a space also has that power to carry memory and emotions.
This is not new, but if I listen to this song again, and this time is in hot summer, in some other part of the world, with someone else, discussing about other topics while sharing other kinds of meal. I would feel something irrelevant to how I feel in the first time when recalled with this same song again. Because I am having a different experience and it would form a new feeling. This is the layering of memories and emotions. Does a space, like a song, also do the same and carry some weight of memory?
In Interior Architecture at RISD, we emphasize adaptive reuse on the same site. It is like a surgery: selectively adding on something new and subtracting from the old. A hundred year old site was a kindergarten, and now the architect is proposing for it to become a meditation hall. The same place will then carry different energy and different emotion, while keeping some part of the structure or corners from the original kindergarten. This same site, for example, if proposed to be a museum a couple of years later, would naturally add a new layer of memory of museum while keeping its previous moments from both kindergarten and meditation hall. The building has memories formed by time and space. For us humans, memory is formed by personal experience, personal value and personal interpretation of a particular past experience.
Project 90s(Utopian) Town, featuring a group of neighborhood buildings that are all previously industrial and office buildings, located in an industrial area in South Boston, I proposed to turn the main office building into a residential building, re-define the old space and traditional work mode and bring the neighborhood a new live-work experience and creative co-work environment. Occupants will gain a different kind of emotion and experience when they are living in it, thus create different memories. When they are asked about the experience of living in 90s(Utopian) Town, for example, they would bring out a different kind of lifestyle experience where they could work privately as well as work with a team as their need varies depends on spatial and interior need change overtime. Embracing and combining is a layering process. For this site and most of the existing buildings, giving new life through adaptive reuse, making a site timeless and immortal, is the most meaningful and magical thing an architect can contribute to a space.
2. INDIVIDUAL: TRUE IDENTITY AND LANGUAGE
An architecture, a group of architecture, or a site, is just like people.
We must start with the individual to get to the community.
Languages — including literature work, gesture, visual graphic, verbal message, facial emotions, color palette, gender appearance — are all means that we express outward. Statements that we make as well as statements that will later be used by the outside world to understand us and to represent us.
Among above the “languages”, I, as a maker, am skilled in many “languages”, or communication methods: sketching, vertical miller beds, turning, CNC, 3d print.
As an architect, I am skilled in digital modeling aids such as Revit, Rhinoceros, VRay, AutoCAD, Adobe suites, as well as hand sketching, and physical model making.
As an artist, I am capable of painting, ambidextrous in writing and drawing, HTML, Java,
As a friend and family member, I hug, pat at the head, say I love you in English, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, Germany, Italian..
Which language is my true self and which language represents my true identity? Am I limited to only one? My answer has grown to be negative as I am exposed to more languages and culture systems over time. Like a mask, can identity be taken off and be switched like a mask as the social settings or interacting partners change? Just like one naturally switch to a different language and logic of reasoning in a different culture context. When I was a few years younger I was surprised and worried to find that my “personality changes” as I move through different countries because of the inherited different cultures and ways of social interactions. I tend to just fit in the social norm of current cultural territory bases on geographical location and thus it shows through my behavior. You would see me behaving somewhere in Asia in a way that’s completely different then how I present myself and blend myself in when I am in New York, Edinburg, or Copenhagen. Even the tone and feelings that I give out when I speak Chinese and French are different, while both of them are me.
Moving on, if one could have multiple faces, are they all authentic? Or does that mean they are all fake? What are the degrees of realness for each one of them?
For those who do have various self identity, is this a confident self-identity or self-value issue? Different people are free to interpret this situation differently. Friends who grew up having a similar experience in various cultural environments would likely choose to do/be the same.
My zodiac, blood type, view in politics and my ethical values, my genuine and empathy towards people, are less likely to change.
For architectures, atmospheres and visual narratives of the space can be and are often their language, while the architectures also becoming a language of the space, the symbol of the atmosphere, or the style of the visual narratives. Do the atmosphere or narratives change easily? They probably are received, interpreted, reciprocate differently if host different visitors? What are their true identities and values? Do they have a dominant image? Do they have a gender like French? These are things that I am curious about and will explore further in future projects in order to present a more well-rounded and complete stand point.
3. SOCIAL INCLUSIVITY
In the same way that memories, experience, atmospheres and impressions are built layer by layer, physical materials also are built in the same way.
In the longest debate between essentialism versus social constructionism(sociology and communication theory that examines the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumption about reality. In this believes that the meanings we attach to objects are the result of collective social agreement and conventions.), I am leaning towards the theory that the forming social groups is based on social constructionism, exactly like the layering of building materials, it is an additive process. In social constructionism there exists a social contract that all members collectively come up with, agree to and, are willing to be ethically legally bound by. The social groups are formed and bound by a mutual social contract. Members are together because they share same belief, a similar personality, similar wants and needs, or are going through a similar situation or life phase, the moment they decide to be together and all conform to the group, the moment they start to have be legally bonded and held responsible towards the current group values/duties/rules/goals. They are free to exit and say that they do not belong to this social group anymore, only then do they no longer have to conform to and follow with the group social contract.
Among the many people that I respect, Dr Yuan is a successful researcher, engineer, professor and business man in mainland China and Hong Kong. From the earliest when I can remember I know he had endless international business or academic trips abroad and was never home. I did not understand until when I grew up to be a bit more aware of the functioning of the world. A few months ago, after a family funeral, we were grabbing light drinks after a night hike at a mountain top in Island side Hong Kong. I forgot the exact conversations but during certain sentences, under the sparkling lights, I realized that he was trying out other options(lifestyles, culture, political systems) back then because he did not like the social contract of China. However with family relatives’s political position as a daughter of the General of the Army’s, it was not proper for him to leave China. “So that was why he did not leave eventually!”, I had that epiphany while staring at his wrinkles with the flourishing city night life lighting backdrop. He just sent me to the US so that I can have a broader perspective and philosophy about the world, thus more freedom to choose where I want to be and what I want to do while I am growing up. I realize his biggest and deepest pain that he never shows nor talks about is when he himself is a social constructionism but the social group that he is in is forcing him to be an essentialist and are asking from him the responsibility and conformity as some essentialists.
In the society like 90s Utopian Town in South Boston, the forming of society groups are much more free, inclusive and genuine to individual self identities. I wish I can build him a society like this and invite all my loves to come live in here because I feel like my heart is tearing apart since I witnessed Dr Yuan’s pain and wound. The society of Utopian Town does not have to be perfect, but it would be utopian for him if only there is not as much messed-up social contract.
This idea of “Utopian” in my head is super simple: celebrating, embracing, inclusive:
To self: we need to be not so serious.
It is an attitude that’s intellectual, and casual. It is the statement “I’m comfortable in being wrong. It is the celebration of self and the unique experiences. It is a thinking when you don’t have to pretend to be serious in order to be taken seriously by others.
I want to be able to, also want my dad to be able to say, “Whatever experience I might have today, and the random people that I bump into and have a conversation with, I will accept and enjoy those as they naturally come to me.”
To others: we practice “empathy”
This idea of “empathy” in design is what I learn throughout 5 years of RISD education. As a designer, at the beginning of every project I look for users’ wants, needs, likes, dislikes. To really know the occupants/ users, live with them, be like them, use their tools, do what they are doing, be in their clothes.
Luckily I was really good at being patient and considerate, and feeling others feeling by putting myself in their shoes. But still at times I have to just listen, I have to admit that I cannot solve everyone’s feeling, and I cannot change someone’s emotions about something.
To the community:
Community, like a nation, like a person, has personality, has its nature and its component. As a community, we value shared conversations and collective experiences. We need to respect individual knowledge and also value collective knowledge.
I have been noticing and observing below examples in architecture and inclusivity. Yet I still question how these two make impacts on each other, and how those impacts are bouncing back to surroundings and make impacts again.
1.The idea of Contemporary Play Space(https://lanajyuan.com/play-space), in this 90s Utopian Town project also in pretty much all of my projects, I make a conscious effect in building a communal play space where people can communicate and interact. This remains an available option even in a work space.
2.Meditation space(https://lanajyuan.com/reccenter-1) is a huge design topic for a while, this component is also included in 90s Utopian Town. That proofed psychological impact of a space is big. Have you ever notice how does a space/atmosphere/build surrounding environment change personality and style of human interactions?
3.Atmospheric design by Peter Zumthor, a famous architect, artist and craftsman with senses, is always my design bible. (Refer to my pervious paper “Spaces that Move Us”, “Atmosphere and Senses Engaging through Space Design”)
4.Adaptive reuse is an embracing act where the older version of the building slowly adjust to the newer version of the same site/ architecture. (RISD Intar, Liliane Wong, “Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings”)
90s Utopian Town, from functional and program blocking, spatial arrangement, composition, material selection, color palette, to concept and big gesture, is a manifesto of combination of the above four examples within a contemporary co-work/ live-work typology.
4. POWER OF AN ARCHITECT
Liberation and oppression, in discussion of this topic in architecture we cannot avoid mentioning the libra(zodiac) man Le Corbusier, with emphasize on his master planning project Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City) which contains affective energy use, transportation, greenery and sunlight, and his dream of utopian at the time: totalitarian, order and grid system, symmetry, standardization.
In Michael Foucault’s “Space, Power and Knowledge”, under the interview notes, he denied Le Corbusier as fully successfully on exercising liberty but acknowledged his intention on trying to be liberating.
Because it can never be inherent in the structure of things to guarantee the exercise of freedom. Foucault claimed, “What guarantee of freedom is freedom”, otherwise even law cannot make a promise. Foucault also thinks that architecture can and does produce positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom. Here it shows how an architect has to understand his/her occupants’ needs, wants, and behavior patterns- they have to be coming to a balanced place in terms of goal and belief. Most importantly the marry of programming for the design concept, with the existing site, as well as its existing conditions and limitations. This is very hard to achieve because of all the compromise and negotiations between the two, but 90s Utopian Town had the biggest struggle in this step during design phrase, the concept had to compromise a lot, in order to keep maximum of reusable structural part and budget while not losing the original character and high lights. As for oppression, Fuss’s article “On Oppression” has been inspiring in introducing new perspectives and deeper insights of “oppressing” and “oppressed” regarding to social class and gender. By raising the questions of “who is more oppressed than who?”, she proofed the coexistence of the two, which implies that we need to make sure to not be the “imposer” as we do not want to be the “victim” or “sufferer”.
Through all above show the need of action and practice liberation. Like all other social backdrop, in the field of architecture or space design, liberty is what must be practiced, must be exercised, must be the sets of complex exchange in between “idea” and “practice”. More specifically, it requires awareness, alertness, while at the same time flexibility, management and prioritization skills. It is certainly not easy to achieve liberation, especially through 90s Utopian Town, during the whole process of fitting design scheme to existing program structure, I clearly feel the power of an architect/ a space designer and planner, and bear some weight in all of these design decision making.
In architecture regarding to power dynamics between space and its creator (to what extend can an architect control the experience through manipulate space), is not that dramatically unbalanced in my eyes. What needs more attentions are these two question:
“Who has authority in the space?
Who has ownership of the space?”
Just like a meditation space is designed so that it is encouraging for composure, relaxation, and introspection from the visitors, thus when anyone is being inside the space, it calls for a relaxing stream of conscious even the visitor does not plan/want to. Interior in an architecture, as well as all forms of spatial design and art, if seen as ways to create, alter or re-define the space( or the atmosphere or the ambient dominants the space), does the same magical trick for occupant or the visitor. One cannot help but feel a certain way, thus behaves in a certain way, does some certain things and interacts with some certain people, and in the end create memory(or impression of the space) with those experience. You might like it or might not like it- nonetheless the designers have a say about this. Now, how much are the architects and designers willing to manipulate or control, or leave for user to decide are up to them. Through time when one find and come inside this space that was created, one might perceive these atmosphere differently, thus the space leaves you with different impressions. These impressions might change( to be drastically different or emphasized), as visitor add in new memories through new experiences and social interactions as well. On the other hand, these experiences that visitors are experiencing and being part of, could potentially have the power to change another person’s impression of that space, by making changes in their experience with the space.
Moving further, with above being clear, power dynamics change again. Instead of architect takes control, the first-comer has certain power and authority over the space, because of advantage in time and sequence. Can one then say “the first comer has the ownership of the space?”, that might not be true.
Architects are entitled to perform some small tricks that only architects/designers exclusively can do well: Such as altering the placement of table at the entrance to make the whole atmosphere more welcoming, make the corner of furnitures and pathways rounded instead of square so it is more friendly and gentle, take advantage of all the spatial and visual languages, change how people navigate through space to claim authority or to show positions of visitor/outsider and occupants, perform identity dots and make visitors feel a certain way.
The social position and role of an architect has no certain amount of power to persuade, in my idea, but have no dominant deciding or controlling power over occupants, even visitors. Just like a meditation space are designed so that allows a relaxing stream of conscious, but you can certainly buy the whole meditation hall and play music in it or turn it to your dog’s home, then the power is already not at the architect to maintain its intended function. Because users are all free to choose how they want to use the space and how they want to interact with the space, thus the power architect has is not the same type of power that political leader has but we do have a say, thus we have to be careful and consistent in what we are trying to say with language in way finding and visual hierarchy. We do have ethical responsibility towards it and that guaranteed us some degrees of authority.
Ownership is another concept, in reality architects own the design and the art, but not the building that we design, sometimes design are sold afterwards, not to mention at the beginning the design concept might be specially request by clients. As an inspiring architecture student, I do find myself getting emotionally attached in all the housing projects that I was part of, at the end of every project my designed space are always as precious as my child in my heart. Naturally during critique, when people say some critical construction opinion against my design I would think it over and make edition if I think its needed; When critics say something nice about my design scheme I would be very proud and happy and that’s when I can feel what my mother must be feeling when she hears neighbors say good things about me. I think this kind of emotional attachment sometimes get misunderstood as ownership- after all, is it not my child, it is merely one of my design proposal- that is the greatest in my view but might not even worth any attention in uninterested public’s eyes. The attitude I learn to face them is try to be detached and step back to view my design work, and always keep a critical eye, never to say “it is mine” or “it represents me“ or other ways to take the design work too personal, because then others cannot help you improve. Others will be too afraid to step in to your boundary or cross your line or falsely hurt your feeling towards something that’s yours, just like one of those childhood moments when your friends comment on your doggie being ugly you would fight back and say “it is mine dog you do not get to have a say!” In attitude, I see them not mine after this project is done, because I did receive peer’s help and professor’s guidance during the process first of all, secondly learning to detach can help in having more openness and readiness for future opportunities, and help me be more critical when revisit the project.
5. UTOPIA: COMMUNITY AND PLAY
When bringing up Utopia with architecture as part of the topic I was really nervous.
People associate utopia with entertainment: performance produced for profit, and performed before a generalized audience or the public by a trained pair group who do nothing else but produce performances which have the sole and conscious aim of providing please, or just offers the image of “something better” for audience to escape into. Thus pleasing and “something better” are associated as utopian.
We have to admit that architecture and design sometimes fulfill those purpose too, exhibition design for high end fashion show, stage design for performance, or sensual night bar interior lighting design. Just like professional entertainer, architect and designer just need to “identify the need” and “give people what they want”, when one group of architecture style becomes big they get to define those wants.
The classical “perfect architecture typology” theory that aims at takes over the society and solves every problem, does not exist because questions are different. I would like to steer clear with the idea of “utopian” in architecture in its negative usage. But I wonder if it be define as back to positive with a good meaning one day ?
This idea of a model of utopian town in my head is super simple: it just need to be a little bit more inclusive and liberating than we are now.
Go back to what I stated in ”3. social inclusive”. In the mode of social constructivism in social group forming, everyone should be more liberated and free to choose objectively.
Let me re-defining utopia in architecture: Can it be specific towards one group of people that has shared interest or shared needs or shared features/traits or belong to a shared social identity or social group? This group of people have a collective desire and need. One member of the group as a representative architect, who design a perfect place for the group that fits all their needs and desires and matchs what they want? Can this be utopian for this group. outsiders are welcome to participate or to try on without but cannot judge. so you can only conform but not doubt? Or outsider can judge and can make change after they conform and belong to this group for a while. When his identity completely fit in to the trait of this social group, then are they able to judge and make updates on some of the parts of the original design for living style but they can only. There will never be a set standard of “perfect living situation” thus will never be a truly utopian place.
In 90s(Utopian) Town project that’s exactly what I realized after spending a semester of time making edit on my architectural design to fit in the need of my social group. I divided them into sub-groups but found every individual has their own needs and that I could never assign them a certain type that has 1 shared bathroom or 2 smaller private bathroom.
As to the pursuit of “perfect utopian” never be a perfect solution or scenario for everyone under every social encounter and event, but there need to and ought to always have one answer that is unlimitedly close to a state of “perfection” that works well for everyone. My role and social responsibility as an inspiring architect to be still need to keep pushing the boundary, to strive for finding out the real answer.