What About the Digital WAIzine 2?

What About It? Part 2 is Now Available on ISSUU

What About It? Part 2 its now available on the digital publishing platform ISSUU. 

The second issue of the graphic narrative in magazine format created, designed, edited, and written by  WAI Architecture Think Tank includes essays, Manifestos, Projects, Collages and a series of Conversations with: Simona Rota (Madrid); Zhang Ke / standardarchitecture (Beijing); Bernd Upmeyer / MONU   (Rotterdam); and Perry Kulper  (Michigan).

A quixotic blend of graphic and typographic adventure, ambitious content, and original research, the WAIzine assumes the critical role of the intellectual enterprise and exploits the potential of the tools and strategies of the avant-garde, all simultaneously while asking “What About It?”

WAIzine Manifesto:

The WAIzine switches rhythm and pace, focus and aim, strategy and method. It goes from pure research, to retroactive manifesto, to speculative provocation. It is ambitious like architecture should be, especially these days of philosophical uncertainty, intellectual laissez faire, economic restraints, and social deterioration. 

Rejecting the role of mere spectators of the global spectacle that has been set up by previous generations, the new generation of thinkers should be eager to embrace and confront the world with a passion that burns and assume the risk  that comes with being intellectual and being avant-garde; the risks that come with asking “What About It?”

Chief Editors:
 Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia
 Ronald Frankowski
Assistant Editor:
Annie Wang

Printed copies were made available in a numbered series of 100.
To order a printed limited edition copy send an email to contact@wai-architecture.com
Subject: WAIzine copy

What About the Possibility of a Kynical Architecture?

Project: 1984 Air Strip One, MiniLuv Close-up
Project 1984

For an architect, in the instant that he has undivided attention of a patron with the power to realize his designs, literally nothing else matters; not a fire alarm, not even an earthquake; there is nothing else to talk about but architecture. 
 -Dejan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex

The fully developed ability to say No is also the only valid background for Yes, and only through both does real freedom [begin] to take form. 

-Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason

Four towers rise above the city like muscular trunks in a grass field. Their scale obliterates any possible question about the intentionality of their disproportionate size. The exaggerated disparity between them and the urban fabric could not have been accidental.  The towers were unquestionably built to be the main focus, the sole objects of attention. They are by far the most important buildings in the city. The towers deliver an explicit message of datum and order. Visible from any point in the city, the towers exploit the potential of architecture as iconography. They are archetypes of power. 
These identical concrete monoliths, three with facades perforated by square windows and the other one solid like a hermetic bastion, soar until reaching six hundred meters of height. Each tower represents one of the four governmental ministries: love, truth, peace, and plenty. 
The towers did not always exist. For them to be completed an architect had to be selected. The ministries joined to hold an invited competition for one architect to design their four ministerial buildings. The contest called for a “series of monumental structures that through their form, and their use of image, outstandingly portray the values of society. Buildings capable of communicating the permanence and importance of the institutions they host.”
 A group of the world’s most famous architects were invited to submit a proposal for the project. Without hesitation (how to resist the temptation of such an important competition?) each designer proposed a series of buildings. Although varying in form, the proposals recurred to a similar strategy: they were all architectural icons. Some projects were typical signature trademarks, buildings that responded more to a consistent development of the architect’s formal language rather than to the specificity of the competition’s program. Other proposals adopted a more generic approach presenting buildings with the predictable aesthetics of market-oriented architecture. One of the submissions stood out because of its obvious simplicity. Of all the projects it was the only one with four towers of identical shape, consolidating the competition subtext with a single form to make the ministries appear like omnipresent manifestations of power. 
Following the submission deadline, all the projects were displayed through a series of exquisitely arranged public exhibitions containing conceptual plans, detailed specifications, explanatory diagrams and all the physical models. Newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and radio programs flooded the public with newsflashes and continuous updates about the projects and the architects who designed them. 
Bursting the bubble of suspense, some weeks later the winner was announced. Following the award ceremony the Almanac of Contemporary Architecture, the most prestigious architectural publication, devoted twenty pages to the master architect under the title “Project 1984” featuring his watercolors, ink drawings, pencil sketches and some poetry verses from his sketchbook. 
One of the pictures from the Almanac displayed a group of figures, between them members of the respective ministries, representatives of sponsor corporations, the architect, and some expert advisors looming perversely over an architectural model. The scaled model of the master plan included a reduced version of the city, and from four different points of the almost homogeneous composition of low rise buildings on the surface, stood four behemoth towers of slender pyramidal shape and truncated tops. 
Strategically collocated at legible height, each one of the towers was engraved in the façade with the slogan of the ministries in bold, capital letters: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. 
Needless to offer the remaining plot of a story of already known resolution; it must be made clear that this story does not aim to defend the architect for either cultivating his political naiveté or his opportunistic ambitions. 
A mixture between architectural fairytale and social nightmare, this story imagines a preceding scenario for George Orwell’s political masterpiece 1984 (1949). It explores that perversely “ideal” moment on an architect’s career when he finally has the opportunity to bridge the gap to fame and immortality and construct the most prominent buildings in the city. That paradoxical instant when the edifice of humanity comes crumbling down hammered by the same forces that make the architectural chef d’oeuvre rise in the first place. 
As in 1984, architecture has been a fervent accomplice to some of the most atrocious political regimes in recent memory.  In the 20th century alone, architecture shifter from Nazism to fascism to communism to capitalism piling up a staggering amount of icons that oscillate from extreme historicist kitsch to extreme refined modernism. 
In fact, a closer inspection of the historical relationship between architecture and politics reveals that Iofan, Speer, and Terragni were not rare exceptions of a beautiful profession in search for tools for better quality of life, but the blunt symptoms of a discipline with the dangerous aim to achieve its grandiloquent delirium at all cost. 
How can a profession whose education and practice –based on selling projects through visual manipulation and redundant, subjective, apolitical rhetoric— maintain a critical stance when the conditions in the real world are completely fueled by politics? Is architecture the ultimate ideological anesthetic? 
In this fictional prelude to 1984 it is not coincidental that the architects were used as instruments for propaganda and political control.  With cynicism becoming systematically embedded in the architect’s intellectual repertoire since his academic days, the mantra that claims “architecture is architecture, and therefore should be judged as architecture” has been rendering architecture as an apolitical tool to serve politically charged ends.

In the real world, unless we are ready to challenge the way we teach, think and practice architecture, and consciously discover what tempts us to contribute to whatever awfully detrimental projects are being planned  by technocrats, CEOs and politicians, and finally become prepared to substitute the prevalent unconscious cynicism of the profession with a Sloterdijkean kynicism (the one that resists, provokes and subverts), we may not only continue being faithful contributors to some of the most dangerous regimes in the world, but we may even become the master  architects of Project 1984

Minitrue 1984
“The Ministry of Truth –Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering with concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 meters into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

From George Orwell, 1984

What About a Conversation with Zhang Ke?

Niyang River Visitor Center
standardarchitecture/ Zhao Yang Studio
Photo by: Chen Su

Challenging the Standard

More than ten years at the center of the Chinese architectural avant-garde, the role of standardarchitecture as an architectural paradigm solidifies more and more on international ground. Not interested in defining the new Chinese, nor to perpetuate the role of the status quo of the architecture of the spectacle, its focus consistently remains to present a challenge to the establishment. Everything from a growing extensive oeuvre that goes from building contemporary masterpieces in  Tibet, to the design of exquisite trays made in Milan, to the way that the office operates seem to be following no other direction than its own.
WAI sat down with standardarchitecture’s founding partner Zhang Ke to converse about the origins of standardarchitecture, its critical role in contemporary China, and how to challenge the standard.

WAI: We would like to ask you to draw us a picture of the conditions in which you had your education.

Zhang Ke: Now looking retrospectively it’s a super interesting moment in contemporary Chinese history which started with, let’s say, 1984 when China really started to open up. I went to school in the early nineties and I think it’s a very intriguing historical moment that we—my generation— suddenly got the opportunity to have an education when it was reviving.

Eventually all the information was coming in from the outside, but of course it was not enough at the time. Before I went to the US in 1996 I didn’t know what was going on in the international architectural scene at all, even after having finished a master’s degree in architectural education.

Just think that until that time (architectural education) was still very lacking in terms of information.

What was the architectural education about?

As I said a few times before, it was really a mixture of a sort of second-hand beaux arts, which was the UPenn graduate’s model of education, with some watercolor renderings, and the Moscow University, which was kind of visual craftsmanship training, mixed with a blind admiration for people like Frank Lloyd Wright. That was like the only thing that we got, which was really nothing about critical thinking.
The professors that taught these courses, did they go to the United States to study?

Yes, some of them. The professor who came back (from the US) to set up Tsinghua University Architecture School missed the education of Walter Gropius because Gropius went to the US a few years after he graduated.
I still think that Tsinghua as an architecture school still has something missing about the system of modernism of that period.

What was the difference between that generation of professors and your generation?

To start with, by having a clear picture of a certain degree of architectural ignorance while simultaneously being full of curiosity,  people like me, from my time were lucky enough to be the first group of people to go abroad to study architecture sponsored by themselves.

We were the first generation after the Cultural Revolution that was able to support ourselves, because the people that were before us—they probably went out in the late eighties—were either supported by the government or they emmigrated first and then started to study. So in a way, it was a very lucky time, coinciding with the booming economy, in which we were able to start as an architecture student to make a lot of money. I saved money for the tuition.
So that’s something that was really generated by the time.

Was the opportunity to figure out what to do in the future, to try to have an aim, a new one?
Before that, nobody was even daring to think that you can use your own money to go to school.

Do you think that it was critical for your generation—that new generation—to go out, in order to get a broader picture of the architectural education?

I went out merely because of curiosity. But with my generation it was a bit negative. They went out because they wanted to go out, but for some reason, I don’t know why, I never planned to stay out. I went out in order to gain knowledge and come back. I always planned to come back.
Qingcheng Mountain

Since the beginning you always thought about returning to China?

 I was the only one who never applied for a green card.

Did you develop your critical approach to architecture from when you were a student in China? Or did your experience abroad help to shape the model of your professional practice?

Before I went out (of China), while a graduate student I was involved in some real projects and there was an immense degree of fatigue because of what was happening with the big institutions, and what was being practiced, although without knowing exactly what was  a  good or healthy direction.

It was very easy to sense that it was not very exciting, and I was really feeling the fatigue of it, although I hadn’t even started the practice. So it was the “pre-born” fatigue of the practice.And what’s interesting is that later, this fatigue became a sort of desire to challenge the existing condition (of the architectural practice).
Namchabawa Visitor Center
Photo by: Chen Su

At that point was every architectural practice in China an institute?

Most of them, yes. At that time there were a few (individual practices). Yung Ho Chang started his practice, because he was much older. I think probably the same year that I went to USA, he started his practice.

But was it common to have an individual practice?
No. You had to have some specific connections to be able to start your practice.       

Talking about your practice, not only are you making an aesthetic stance against the situation of architecture through your constructed works, but you have created a philosophy and logistical model that is more like a mixture of academic institution, workshop, and architectural laboratory, where people don’t go there just to follow instructions.

You just don’t go to work to get bored; you go there to do something interesting.
Yarluntzangpu Boat
Photo by: Chen Su

But it’s not just that, the very unique conditions of the office organization, and the prospects it creates for the development of young architects; did you formulate that model with time, or did you have it since the beginning of your career?

It’s of course formulated with time.  That’s something interesting about architecture.

The question really makes me want to continue the story of how, having gone to the US I was to study at the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design) and this more critical thinking started there. At that time it (critical thinking) was really strong, with the Bauhaus tradition, and the discourse of contemporary thinking as Rem (Koolhaas), Rafael Moneo, Herzog & De Meuron, and Peter Zumthor were all there. This (experience) really opened my landscape to the whole world of architecture and most important to reasoning and methods of thinking.

But immediately after graduation we got overjoyed by idealistic academic thinking, and then suddenly when I started working in New York, I started to see another reality, which was again, of disappointment about the real world of corporate designers, and practices. This was again creating fatigue, or creating this hopelessness for young architects. And there (in New York), all of the young architects got together, like we’re sitting here, and everyone was complaining. All of us, like the elder generations; I can imagine Adolf Loos, Moneo, Peter Eisenman, Koolhaas, when they were in New York they were probably also complaining, but there were also probably millions more complaining.

But then, you see, the world of architectural practice is never very optimistic at all. It’s always something about struggle. Most people complain. And maybe just a few start to say “come on, stop complaining, if there is a battlefront let’s just go there, let’s just do it.” And that’s how I decided (to make a change). All of the practices are quite, I would say, sad  to see. There is so much talent, but really there is not much creative work being realized in New York.

Also, there occurred a big change in terms of beliefs. Before I went to New York—I think a lot of architects have a similar transition period—we believed that design and architecture was the driving force, but after having lived there for three years you start to realize that we are not the driving force, we only facilitate the financial power. Then it makes you either really desperate or it makes you think critically about the alternatives of life for a young architect.
I think it’s (a) common (situation). It’s not just for young Chinese architects, young European architects, or young American architects. In New York I found our fate—if you don’t struggle then its more or less the same— for  a large proportion of talents we were experiencing the fact that you were dead in your 30’s and you were only buried in your 80’s.

So it was this feeling that made me think that maybe we can (make a change).  The fact that the whole world, the whole profession is also changing, in terms of speed, in terms of interrelating with each other, in terms of geographical freedom which is increasing, which means there is more mobility, and the possibilities of more collaboration. So that’s how, I think, maybe we can start something that is not in the same track as “you start some projects, you get paid, and then you become anti-revolutionary”. You get established and you want to push every younger guy back to keep your status, and then so what?

So then, when we came back in 2001 after winning the city wall landscape competition, the former or local fatigue, and the new or global fatigue became this anger or desire to challenge, as I mentioned.  I think for young architects it’s probably good to have this, because you see something that’s not what you want. Then, I was thinking how we can practice in a slightly different way, which means that we work in a collaborative way and at the same time the management of the office does not function like a sweatshop like a lot of other practices that make a lot of people come in to work without getting paid. 

We want to be alternative, while simultaneously maintaining a very international standard so that everything is reasonable. At the same time, from the beginning I wanted to have something that allowed me to avoid that, when you become recognized, and you become bigger, you become less interesting, and people are not happy. Then, how can you have interesting work?

Then the idea came to me, can we have something... A different kind of  office. Because (usually) before you get established you want to struggle up, and you are probably positive, but as soon as you get recognized you want to stay there. So I’m always thinking why can’t we create offices like positive viruses?

(This new model) is different to most of the other big international names. In it, the most creative offices (within the office),  the ones that become sustainable by creating good work, realizing alternative work, make the culture more interesting and diversified. So, the idea was that if possible to have younger people grow out of the office as much as possible. This is something that as far as I know, doesn’t happen… (And we try it) even when we’re not so strong at all!

It’s a very unusual model.

We did start it with Zhao Yang, and in three years he got very successful. Yang Fang is doing one. And this year, we will probably have you.
In the end the idea is not to keep talented architects forever, but the more you can create great and sustainable offices the culture of architecture both in China and in the world, can be more dynamic and exciting.

The biggest intention is if we’re young we should keep on challenging the establishment.
As soon as you regard yourself as the establishment of course you should retire, or you keep yourself there but in fact you are retired.

If we talk about the Chinese situation, we have to talk about Mao. He won the revolution but he still wanted more revolution. In that way, let’s not judge so quickly if the Cultural Revolution is positive or negative. Of course it was frustrating for the generation, but it’s the fact that we have to challenge the situation.

Wuyi Primary School
standardarchitecture’s first built project is an auditorium which seats 520 persons.

In China the singular architect doesn’t have an infrastructure, but you are providing a space where it can germinate. Are you expecting the model to work?

I believe it definitively can work.

Then your practice should work as a kind of factory of singular architects, because you are facilitating  the gestation of them?
The only difference between a factory and this kind of mechanism is, in a factory you know the result of what you are manufacturing, and here you don’t know. It’s the unknown result that’s more fascinating.
 I think at the end there will probably still be a similar number of the known architects, but I just want to kick out all the unqualified known architects, because there are too many known architects that are not qualified. We need to have enough competitive good ones.
If you think of the renaissance, it was not created by three guys, it was created by three thousand great artists, and at the end there are three that are masters.

What are you trying to avoid?

I don’t want  to see the current situation in China where we have five hundred so called masters. In the end … Even in the world! The other thing is we are repeatedly declaring that we don’t want to see this boundary between contemporary Chinese architecture and contemporary international architecture. Why? Because this framework has already been broken. We are more interested in discussing and creating contemporary architecture. It may be based in China, but even in China it means a lot of different cultural backgrounds. It may be based in India; it may be based in Puerto Rico, Africa, in South America, Europe.

Do you think the challenge is an international one? 

The fatigue it’s not just a fatigue in China, it’s the fatigue of the whole architecture scene in the world.
There is something really superficial about the current young architectural scene in the world. Of course, it’s also very dynamic, but I think the challenge we want to create is not for China, it’s really for the whole architectural scene in the world. That’s why for all the international young talents here it’s very relevant.

In the future, if your model works, how do you see the profession?

What’s really interesting for our whole generation is the uncertainty. Without knowing what’s happening, we all know it’s a critical moment in architecture in the whole world. Our profession is changing very fast, both in terms of how architecture was drawn and models were made, to how buildings were fabricated. And even the role of architects is changing. The fact that we called ourselves standardarchitecture it’s a tricky name, it’s neutral and at the same time it means that we don’t like the existing standard. We want to regenerate a different standard, or continuously regenerate a standard; a new different standard

 This means that the whole profession is changing.  It’s more interesting that this profession is unknown. It’s like our life. It’s more interesting to not know your future rather that to know that you are sitting in that little glass room and dying without achieving anything.

Zhang Ke graduated with a Master of Architecture and Urban Design from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1996, and a Master of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 1998.

standardarchitecture is a leading new generation design firm engaged in practices of planning, architecture, landscape, and product design. Based on a wide range of realized buildings and landscapes in the past five years, it has emerged as the most critical and realistic practice among the youngest generation of Chinese architects and designers.

Consciously distance themselves from many of the other “typical” young generation architects who are swallowed by a trend of noise making, the office remain detached in a time of media frenzy and their focus is consistently positioned on the realization of urban visions and ideas. Although standardarchitecture’s built works often take exceptionally provocative visual results, their buildings and landscapes are always rooted in the historic and cultural settings with a degree of intellectual debate.

The office has now three partners: Zhang Ke, Zhang Hong, and Claudia Taborda.


What About WAI in Zawia?

Spreads from Zawia #00 

WAI has been featured in Zawia

WAI’s Project 1984 has been featured in the first edition of Cairo-based Zawia.  On the topic of Change contributors dissect and explore the attitude of the architects in front of a world with changing paradigms.

The first edition of the bilingual magazine (Arabic and English) includes among their contributions pieces  by Saskia Sassen, Stefano Boeri, Markus Miessen, Carlo Ratti, and Joseph Grima.

In this video WAI talks about their contribution to Zawia #00 Change: Project 1984.

For more information about Project 1984 stay tuned to WAI or read the WAIzine 2.

What About Poems of the Avant-Garde?

Cities of the Avant-Garde: Three Poems and a Collage
Spread from What About It? Part 2

Cities of the avant-garde
A thousand islands float
Where uncommon thoughts coexist.
They hover on the place where they should have collapsed long ago,
Because the avant-garde although dead, could never die.

Imposible fantasies built at unbearable speeds
Vanish from where the sight can reach.
Stopped by the collective mediocrity of a reality that’s too real,
That cuts short the fuel of dreams.

A vast archipelago awaits,
Far from the common horizons and where the light casts shadows.
It was pronounced dead,
But although
 no heart beat, the avant-garde still could never die. 

Towers crawl to the sky,
Like lost verses of dead poets, or the smoke of burned canvases of dead artists.
Modernity melts into air,
And pours back as rain decades later just to be again evaporated.

A redundant struggle endures,
About singular dreams of collectivity that although never lived, are declared dead.
The avant-garde was, is and will be dead.
The avant-garde
 can never die. 

Gray Matter
They are gray, 
Always gray.
It’s the gray of the concrete,
The gray of steel.
They are gray as the pavement,
Gray as glass.
Gray as the dust of the wind,
Gray as the mushroom cloud.
Gray floats in the sky,
Gray digs deep in the ground.
Gray is the wall that divides,
Or the cluster that floats over you.
Gray in different tones 
Of a Monochromatic palette.
Gray is the favorite choice of the ideal (utopia),
Of the ironic and the cynic.
Gray is not  absolute black, 
Nor a milky white.
Gray is gray,
Although gray could be closer to the silent tones of darkness,
Or to the washed away noise of light. 
Forms vary, from time to time,
But the color gray remains the same.
Gray is always gray,
It’s the neutral state of radical change.

The Rain
A city fell from the sky
Like a drop of rain
More cities followed up,
And the rain turned into a storm.
First it made a puddle,
Then it flooded into a lake.
The lake turned into an ocean,
With no shore in sight.
The first drops,
Or cities if you want to called them like that,
Looked original, because their forms were unique.
After the first shower stopped,
A second rain started,
This time the drops looked like the first ones.

Cities of the Avant-Garde
Spread from What About It? Part 2