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Design & culture

It’s Slow Time

South China Morning Post, 8 December, 2013. Heavy hitters meeting at a Thai eco-resort seek to avert environmental catastrophe by targeting and changing the mindsets of the world's most powerful people and companies, writes Jo Baker The night is clear and black, the stars are close and the voice of Johan Rockstrom echoes around the open-air cinema of a luxury Thai resort as he describes the world's impending demise. Reclining in the shadows with pre-dinner cocktails, a motley crew of problem-solvers listens. And as the leading sustainability scientist gets to a key part of his speech - on rainfall patterns - it feels as if the Earth has decided to make a point. Without warning, the heavens open. "I was just about to get to the good news," the Swede says, as his audience runs for cover. It may have chosen one ... Read the full article

Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee's siblings reminisce about their famous brother's life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone. The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years. Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend. "Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial ... Read the full article

Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but. This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker. And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.” The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the ... Read the full article

Duality Check

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011   Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries   Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. "A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins. “I like that better.” Considered one of his country’s top contemporary artists, Rana’s work has appeared in an impressive string of international shows, spanning the Musee Guimet in Paris to New York’s Asia Society. His Hong Kong debut, Translation/Transliterations, showcases his use of a distinct digital aesthetic to play with cultural motifs and social scenarios on one level, and study abstract visual ideas on another. Yet it is Rana’s satirical bite, along with his love of ... Read the full article

Bridging the East-West design divide – in London

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work. Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’. These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape. “The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or ... Read the full article

Architecture Week

Find my full series of articles written for this US-based publication here, including on Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid in China, Norman Foster's Beijing Terminal 3, China's emerging generation of architects, Alaska's Museum of the North (also covered for TIME), and Berlin's Grand Central Station.

The arts are a traveller’s window into the heart of San Francisco

South China Morning Post, August 2012. San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy. As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres. During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and 'heading west' has brought out the best in many writers ... Read the full article

Winning Ways

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011 Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built. This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for ... Read the full article

Manor in the works

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011 Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration. “Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.” As a writer, long based ... Read the full article

Crisis by design

Extended interview, March 2011 Architect, eternal optimist and founder of a now-formidable humanitarian relief organization, Cameron Sinclair chats about the transition from design to development guru, the politics of humanitarian intervention, and sending architects into many of the decade’s biggest disaster zones. “The idea of designing without ego …” When we won (the grant) from TED we were a 60, 000 dollar organisation, now we’re closer to 6 million; that’s in four or five years. It wasn’t TED that made us explode, though it really gave us awareness and projected our methodology to other people; the idea of designing without ego, sharing openly, using adaptation as opposed to repetition, which was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that. The thing that really made us explode was just prior to TED, when ... Read the full article

Between the lines

South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009 Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly. With its ... Read the full article

A Great Dame

  September 2010, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Veteran British actress Jane Seymour shares about life beyond Bond, her run-ins with Cantonese cuss words, and her recent renown as a Hollywood 'cougar' Guys and dolls I started out with a speech impediment and flat feet – I had to practice my Rs and take dance lessons. I ended up dancing with the Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden, hurt myself and became an actress by default. I started with a James Bond movie at 20 and I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. I finished that and went into theatre and shocked the newspapers, who kept saying I’d failed miserably because I was now being paid 12 pounds a week playing Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House instead of being a movie star... I just felt that I had a lot to ... Read the full article

A Brit Above

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 25 June 2010 British designer Tom Dixon brings his glam rock style to Hong Kong It isn't often a designer has to rein in his vision for Hong Kong's high-end club scene. Yet as Tom Dixon surveys his latest landscape, he has a few lingering regrets. Tazmania Ballroom in SoHo, the latest nightclub from the creators of Dragon-i, already boasts geometric wall buttresses, clustered globular chandeliers and brass pool tables, with imitation book shelves in white plaster that give it an ironic scholarly tone. Yet, "I was thinking water dripping down granite, and moss on the walls", Dixon laments. "And there was going to be a small fish and chip shop. But there wasn't enough ... Read the full article

Northern Light – a visit to Laos’ Luang Prabang

Gafencu Magazine, September 2007.  If you’re a fool for the leafy, romantic streets of Hanoi, the faded colonial architecture of Phnom Penh or Hoi An and the religious drama of Chiang Mai’s old wats, you’ll be equally beguiled by this lesser known cultural cache, nestled into Laos’ northern mountains. Arriving in the late afternoon, Luang Prabang lies gleaming serenely in the dying sunlight, its ochre spires, old wooden shop houses and leafy, somnolent roads cast in a tangerine glow. Therapeutic chants rumble on the breeze from a monastery across the road. It’s the closest thing to a civic pick-me-up you’ll ever experience. Luang Prabang’s change in status from remote outpost to burgeoning tourist mecca has been relatively swift since a modern airport was finished in 1998, and this culturally rich northwestern town is most easily reached from Bangkok or even Ho Chi Minh City. This convenient option has lately transformed Laos’ former royal and religious capital of around 22,000 into a ... Read the full article

The China Challenge

Prestige, Hong Kong, October 2009 US-trained designer Lyndon Neri had a hard time getting used to the mainland, but now he's revelling in the challenges. Though passion is imperative in any good designer, it can be taken too far. This is something Lyndon Neri learned on the day he accidentally collapsed his own lungs. “I wasn’t well and I hadn’t slept for three days straight. So I spent two days in hospital then went straight back into studying again,” chuckles the designer of his breakdown at Harvard. “It probably wasn’t the best approach.” Back then the man who would later co-found the Neri and Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai had been throwing himself full tilt into his thesis, about a pocket of a Californian Chinatown ... Read the full article

Full Steam

October 2008, Discovery Magazine, China Jo Baker takes the waters in Taipei   The air was dark and tinged with cool, old trees struck dramatic poses against the night sky and below them, a near-naked elderly man waxed lyrical about the stars. “This is a good place,” he said, a blue towel twisted jauntily around his head. “Out in the open air with the stars, the moon. It’s a very good way to relax.” The scene was a hopping Friday night at a Taiwanese public hot springs; the place, a sleepy town called Xin Beitou, just north of Taipei. When the Japanese gave up Taiwan after World War II they left a number of lingering legacies, among them great sushi and a penchant for orderly queues. But their ... Read the full article

Polo Returns to China

March 2008, Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong Jo Baker delves into the Middle Kingdom’s new highlife on horseback Download original: Prestige Polo A line of Australia’s finest polo ponies fidget unhappily in their stalls, one picking moodily at the stable planks with his well-bred teeth. China is in the throes of its worst winter in fifty years, and it’s not only the people here that are suffering. “They don’t really like being inside,” says Romiro Pellegrini, a young vet and skillful Polo player from Argentina. “They’re athletes. They want to be out playing, and this snow just gets them down.” The ponies of China’s new Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club may well be dreaming of last October; three days in which man and horse tussled on a field of verdant grass to a backdrop of fizzing champagne, hats of architectural daring ... Read the full article

Love is in the wear

  South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, April 24, 2009 Architecture with a lived-in touch is winning hearts When architect Bill Bensley was asked to design a hotel in Phuket not long after the tsunami, he found himself wanting to give it a deeper layer of meaning. That layer was found by his team of Thai and Indonesian designers at salvage auctions in the area, where they bought driftwood and other bits of wreckage wrought by the giant wave, and incorporated them into the hotel, Indigo Pearl. “We picked up a whole lot of materials and in various innovative ways reused them, in the structure, in sculptures,” he recalls. The hotel, which also uses a lot of old tin in tribute to the area’s tin mining history, has received rave reviews for its vision and its sensitivity. Using architectural salvage like this is ... Read the full article

Stay Overnight in a Turkish Mansion

May 14, 2009, Time Magazine "Make yourself at home" may be a refrain heard in guesthouses the world over, but it takes on new meaning when it comes from one of your host country's wealthiest families — and when your temporary "home" is their mansion. The Buyukkusoglu family, who made their fortune in the automotive industry, converted their 48,400-sq-ft (4,500 sq m) modern manor house in Bodrum, Turkey, on the edge of the Aegean Sea into a 12-suite hotel, and in 2007 opened it to paying guests as the Casa Dell'Arte. "We wanted the hotel to still feel like a house, and to be very social," says owner Fatos Buyukkusoglu, who led the hotel's design team and lives in a ... Read the full article

Basic Instincts

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, March 27, 2009 Keeping it simple is the order of the day as people seek comfort in uncertain times The opening of high-end serviced apartments in Sheung Wan last month saw a rare aesthetic for Hong Kong: the Yin’s 42 studios offer glimpses of brickwork, flashes of exposed piping, and baths carved out of stone blocks. This kind of warehouse-hip has been run-of-the-mill in other cities for years, yet in Hong Kong it has always struggled, and usually drowned, under heaps of suede, crystal and polished wood. Still, Philip Liao of design firm Liao and Partners thought that now might be the time to give it a go – albeit with a sanitized and slightly Zen-like twist. “I ... Read the full article