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Cultural Kowtow

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The header painting, The Power of Blue, by the Russian artist George Pusenkoff caused a bit of a stir in 1995. It evokes a notion of Kazimir Malevich’s Red Square (less popularly known as Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions) from 1915, and it also evokes a bit more than a notion of Helmut Newton’s Miss Livingston I from 1981. Accordingly, Pusenkoff ran afoul of Helmut Newton’s legal team for the unauthorised use of a copyrighted image. In the ensuing brouhaha, the painting’s owner – another Russian – said he bought the painting because of the yellow square.


I only mention this to illustrate the fact that different things mean different things to different people. It’s called subjectivism, and it’s okay. There are arguments, such as this one for example, against beauty being totally subjective but, on the other hand, nobody these days believes that beauty exists inside something, like a spirit in a rock, after having been put there by an artist so that someone like a clever critic can identify it and tell us all about it.

One of the uglier sides of Post Modernism was the practice, trumpeted by Charles Jencks, of double-coding in which two supposedly fixed meanings were ’embedded’ and supposedly targeted at supposedly different populations. Aesthetic apartheid, if you will – one objective meaning for the smug cognoscenti and that was unintelligble to the hoi-polloi, and another popular or ironic (‘ironic’?) meaning for the masses. CJ thought this kind of cool. He was wrong to assume the meanings were fixed and their message controllable. But mostly they were.


Now that everyone’s supposed to be a critic, the way forward has been for buildings to come with press kits telling financiers, planners, judges, press and public what they represent. People are denied the opportunity to contemplate, say, Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North and conclude that its three bits perhaps represent the air, land and sea theatres of war – or possibly even a world shattered by war. Whatever. If a building can’t resonate quietly, it’s merely soundbite symbolism.


A viewer may well conclude that the building has undergone some sort of design trauma but, in the absence of coercion, what that represents is, quite literally, anyone’s guess. Subjective pluralism may trump single-coded or doubly-coded objective fascism but, in general, a building will most likely evoke similar ideas in people sharing similar cultures and levels of education. This is subjective pluralism, but at the level of cultures and it gives us phenomena like Taipei 101.


Wikipedia has several paragraphs on the symbolism of this building, most of which will be lost on Western viewers and (in the modern spirit of cultural imperialism) thought a bit naff.

  • The building is a world center where earth and sky meet and the four compass directions join. Wikipedia rightly demands a citation for this. I second that.
  • The height of 101 floors commemorates the renewal of time: the new century that arrived as the tower was built (100+1) and all the new years that follow (January 1 = 1-01)
  • It symbolizes high ideals by going one better on 100, a traditional number of perfection. The number also evokes the binary numeral system used in digital technology.[12]
  • The main tower features a series of eight segments of eight floors each.
  • In Chinese-speaking cultures the number eight is associated with abundance, prosperity and good fortune. In cultures that observe a seven-day week the number eight symbolizes a renewal of time (7+1).
  • In digital technology the number eight is associated with the byte, being 8 bits. A bit is the basic (minimal) unit of information.
  • The repeated segments simultaneously recall the rhythms of an Asian pagoda (a tower linking earth and sky, also evoked in the Petronas Towers), a stalk of bamboo (an icon of learning and growth), and a stack of ancient Chinese ingots or money boxes (a symbol of abundance).
  • The four discs mounted on each face of the building where the pedestal meets the tower represent coins.
  • The emblem placed over entrances shows three gold coins of ancient design with central holes shaped to imply the Arabic numerals 1-0-1.[12]
  • The design has also been likened to a stack of oyster pails, the take-out boxes used forWestern-style Chinese food.
  • Ruyi (a ceremonial sceptre in Chinese Buddhism or a talisman symbolizing power and good fortune in Chinese folklore) over the entrance and throughout the structure as a design motif.
  • At night the bright yellow gleam from its pinnacle casts Taipei 101 in the role of a candle or torch upholding the ideals of liberty and welcome. From 6:00 to 10:00 each evening the tower’s lights display one of seven colours in the spectrum. The colors coincide with the days of the week.

Thanks Wikipedia – good job! It’s a wonder the building stands up at all, what with the weight of all that symbolism. Nevertheless, for a building that was the world’s tallest building between 2004 and 2010 nobody much cared about it outside Taiwan. Chinese and Chinese clients like their symbolism literal but the most the English-speaking press could comprehend/stomach was the bit about the bamboo evoking notions of strength and resilience. In fairness, these are good qualities for a tall building to have. When the Arabs had all the money we had buildings like Foster + Partners shameless gold sand dune UAE pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 expo. It will live on in F+P’s website with photographs such as this to tell rich Arab clients that they can speak their language. Is it good architecture? Does anyone know anymore?


When it looked like the Russians had all the money, F+P produced this beaut in 2008


This text comes from here (and, it seems, with no sense of irony!)

The 80,000sq m scheme for a contemporary art museum with commercial elements and housing is for development firm Inteco, which is owned by the wife of the city’s mayor.

The project is influenced by natural structures including that of the orange, a historic symbol of opulence in Russia.

The circular plan, with five segments rising to 15 storeys, is designed to protect against the cold winter climate while allowing light deep into the building through glazed slots in the elevation.

The orange concept, like Taipei 101’s mixed bag of symbolism, doesn’t really travel well. Best to keep it simple and universal like Zaha Hadid Architects.


The Guangzhou Music Hall represents, apparently, “two pebbles alongside a river”. Thinking of their rich tradition of art, the Chinese will feel special


but most people in most other countries will also have some sort of notion of rivers and pebbles. Here’s a stock photo of some pebbles alongside a river in some country that is not China.


Over in Japan, Toyo Ito is also keeping it simple. Here’s his Tod’s building. It’s a tree and they have trees in Japan. The rest of the world gets it, and doesn’t hate this building. 


No one trick pony, here’s Ito’s Ginza Mikimoto building. It’s kind of girly and pearly for the people who matter but, over here, we get a feeling of an oeuvre happening and we like that.


Here’s his Kaohsiung Stadium. In China, it’s known as the “dragon stadium”.

2927264214_52c88c187d_b In the English-speaking press (, it’s found fame and him fortune as the “solar stadium”. Resistant to the virtues of its dragon symbolism, we get given photographs like this.


And some scaly/solar shots like this. The guy’s good. Working it.


Where will it all end? It won’t. We now have double coding on the global cultural level. One meaning for the Western capitalist consumers of architectural imagery and another meaning for the Eastern capitalist clients. This is the legacy of Post Modernism. After all these years, it’s still being digested like the sheep swallowed by the snake, distorting everything until it turns to shit in the end.

the separation of form (the mediagenic bits of the building) from function (the other bits)

We’ve already witnessed the separation of form (the mediagenic bits of a building) from function (all the other bits). This phenomena of cultural kow-tow might one day become sanitised by some name such as cultural pluralism but it’s really just a new mutant hybrid of ‘following the money’ and ‘milking it both ways’.