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 of the more luxurious conference spaces in the world, but try not to hold that against the Slow Life Symposium, which – in its fourth year – is threatening to become a driver of…

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Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee

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 arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial…

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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 trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been…

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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.

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.

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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 around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition, Cheers, for the UK China Art and Design Association (UCADA) Festival, which ran during September’s yearly London Design Festival.  “There are some issues that particularly affect Chinese designers here, and this was a way for them to talk about them, and also get some needed attention for their work.”

The association developed out of an informal group started by White and other graduates, mostly from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and it last year secured the formal backing of the Chinese embassy and the British Council.

China’s reputation as a manufacturing hub, combined with the negative publicity about its quality control and the youth of its design scene, can weigh heavily on Chinese designers looking to make it big overseas. Many move to the United Kingdom in search of a more cosmopolitan education and a stronger cultural design heritage, and hope to stay on and develop their career afterwards, at least for a few years.

But recognition is hard to come by, and they face stiff competition from their better-placed European counterparts.China is not yet widely known for its design talent, despite recent efforts by the government to reposition the country through international events, trade agreements, and by promoting the cultural and creative fields as new industry pillars.

Staffan Tollgard runs a high end interior design studio in London’s Notting Hill and credits Asian design as strongly influence in his work, but he believes that the manufacturing stereotype has done damage.

This year he co-launched a company, Kurate, to promote and import products by selected China-based designers, but he expects that, despite the success of the studios he’s working with, which include Neri & Hu, Design MWV and  HC 28, he has a task ahead in educating the British consumer.

“We’re basically saying that there are some really interesting things coming out of China at the moment, so please, rethink your idea that it’s just a copying nation,” he says. “The closeness of the designers with manufacturers there for example, means that prototypes are quicker to make and modify. We’re really seeing capabilities being pushed.”

In this sense, initiatives such UCADAs, that challenge conceptions of modern Chinese art and design, are coming at the right time. Last year David Jia, who founded one of China’s most successful industrial manufacturing firms LKK Design, opened a branch in London – his first out of China – and he sees the obstacles as unavoidable.

“It’s going to be a hard road. We have to change the European mentality about China’s ability to do good design, and there are always problems of cultural understanding, and of detailed communication between designer and customer,” he says.“But they can be overcome. And it’s our responsibility as a leader in this field in China to try to open this path.”
Through working and meeting with Diaspora designers, UCADA organizers have come across other issues that need addressing.  “Many young Chinese designers who arrive in London to study are less likely to have or build a good network, or self promote in the way that others do –  partly because of language difficulties, and a lack of confidence,” says Lucy Shum, who directs the UCADA festival.
Some of the exhibitors agreed. Taiwanese exhibitor Hsiang Wang says that he struggled to find contacts and exhibition opportunities in the UK after completing his Master’s degree. Shanghai-based Zhili Liu, designer of the delicate Shrub table, describes the isolation of a degree in Coventry University, which he spent mostly working alone.
UCADA has responded by setting up dialogues between UK and Chinese designers and an award for emerging Chinese talent and, following the exhibition’s successful run at the Beijing International Design Week in October as part of its London Guest City programme,  it is hunting for other overseas exhibitions to join.

Funding is a particular issue however.  Architect Guangyuan Li and his design partner Mohamed El Khayat took their Reading Chair to the last Milan Furniture Fair themselves, and were pleased with the interest and the opportunities that followed. Yet the chair alone cost them two thousand pounds to transport; they found that they were unable to afford the Beijing event, even though the chair would have made a noticeable splash among a relatively commercial programme.

The UK experience can be quite different for Chinese architects. Na Li works for Foster and Partners and exhibited her design for a Buddhist temple at Cheers. Ten years in the UK has given her a comfortable grasp of British sensibilities, and she believes that her background adds value to her resume.

“In a bigger company, as someone who can speak Mandarin and understand the cultural landscape, you can help it make a lot of connections in China,” she says.

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 around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition,…

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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 since – from Jack London and Jack Kerouac to Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.

For anyone wanting to get a real sense of the place – after the trips to Alcatraz and a few laps of the bridge…

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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 civic use. “They’re built with…

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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 in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding of vital themes. His books have addressed love, travel and, most recently, work, and he cofounded a small “cultural apothecary” in London, The School of Life, which sells books and holds philosophy workshops and secular Sunday “sermons” on selfdevelopment.

His successful 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness, ran in a similarly edifying vein and won him kudos from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Yet when it came to architecture, he felt compelled towards a more dynamic form of activism. The feeling grew as he explored forward-thinking home design across the world for the television series, The Perfect Home. “You find very good modernism in Asia. There are some beautiful examples of private houses, blocks of flats and civic building across China and Hong Kong; think of the Great Wall project, which has been iconic,” he says, referring to the Commune by the Great Wall project–12 strikingly modern villa projects designed by 12 Asian architects. He notes that China’s flirtation with Western historical cliché seems to be fading finally as its top earners appreciate the way that homegrown architects can mix elements of Chinese geography and geology with new international ideas.

In Japan, de Botton finds that many middle-class families are comfortable using modern architects, producing neighbourhoods that are adventurous but have a shared aesthetic. It’s a spirit that he identifies from his upbringing in Switzerland, but which he finds hard to locate among England’s suburban mock-Tudor housing estates. “The point is, when you’ve got an opportunity to build a house or stay somewhere, do you go for the ‘neowhatever’ mansion?” he asks. “Or do you accept that the architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history, but they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch?”

De Botton’s brainchild, Living Architecture, is an apt response to this question. The new, not-forprofit venture will see provocative modern holiday cottages sprouting bravely among Britain’s mostly rural beauty spots. Three projects are complete and at least three more are on the way, each by a different architect, and each defined by the customary tenets of good modern architecture such as light, functionality and a strong connection with the surroundings.

The scheme is part vacation, part education, and through it de Botton hopes to ease what he sees as the public’s suspicion of modernist design, and drum up the kind of popular support enjoyed by other fields of design innovation in Britain, such as product design or fashion.

Yet this is not a project for Britons only. “It’s a national mission in the sense that the idea is to raise standards here, but we’re aware that the way to raise the standards is to bring foreign architects here, at least in part,” he says, noting that as developers in Britain court the British fondness for home-grown “comfort” architecture, they leave little room for studios with strong modernist architectural traditions, such as those in Germany, the Netherlands and further north in Europe.

De Botton also sees the cottages helping to refresh Britain’s image overseas, by letting holidaymakers immerse themselves in the countryside without necessarily taking a trip back in time or compromising on quality. “People are used to London being hip, cool and modern, but once you go outside of the M25  you’re slightly in the wilderness,” he says. “We hope these houses will be clear and welcoming in a way that international audiences can appreciate.”

Yet despite these cosmopolitan sensibilities, most of the projects rework the unique architectural style of their area. The Shingle House, by Scotland’s Nord Architecture, is a stark reinvention of fishermen’s huts along the stony Kent coast, while the Dune House in Suffolk by the Norwegian Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects makes reference to local seaside buildings with a geometrical roof in tinted orange steel alloy. Projecting into the air above a Suffolk nature reserve, the Balancing Barn is a neat yet gravity-defying affair clad in reflective tiles, but features a local hammerbeam roof, and coming to Devon next year, Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat will attempt to use concrete and glass to spiritual effect, creating the vibe of a monastery or abbey.

But how have the British responded? Although the national media have retained their usual blend of hype and high-handed sting, local press coverage has been generally supportive. It’s a result, de Botton thinks, of striking the right balance between exciting and accessible design. “We haven’t had any fights with any locals,” he says, with a smile. “The house in Thorpeness  is very prominent and has really galvanised the area. People are coming forward and wanting to build their own houses. It’s become a complete talking point, which is exactly what we wanted.” It is also booked almost solid for the next six months.

Living Architecture has taken a brief hiatus from the countryside with its latest, equally radical project, though it is perhaps more publicity friendly than educational.

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 in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding…

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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 we started responding to the tsunami. We had partners with a website called World Changing, and we said…

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