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Architecture Myths #27: Individuality

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Many years ago, one of my instructors showed the class a slide something like this next image. He must have been making some some point about the uniformity of the facade and, by extension, the lives of the occupants because I remember some receptive classmates making horrified noises. After class, I mentioned to my friend that I liked how everyone’s windows (and, by extension, their lives) were so different and she said she’d thought that too.

More recently, I used to live on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, a road with architecture often criticized for each building trying to be different in its own way. They’re all on plots of land 50m wide and 100m deep with 5m setbacks on the long sides. They don’t all look the same but somehow it’s possible to feel that something common is deciding their appearance.

People are quick to find an underlying similarity in Dubai towers and extrapolate those assumptions to their owners and occupants yet find it difficult to imagine individuality existing inside identical shapes or behind uniform facades. All this goes to show is that different people can look at the same thing and think different things. It also shows that we tend to see what we want to see.

I must have been living under a rock for the past decade as it was only a few weeks back when I first learned of ORDOS 100 and that it was “a construction project curated by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. One hundred architects from 27 countries were chosen to participate and each design a 1,000 square meter villa to be built in a new community in Inner Mongolia. The 100 villas would be designed to fit a master plan designed by Ai Weiwei.” It was made public in 2009. This is it.

With Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron chosen to curate it, I’d expect no ordinary subdivision and for it to have some meaning as art and/or architecture. But what?

Brainstorming the masterplan?

Now we’re living in the future it’s difficult to know, but asking one hundred different architects to design one hundred villas was probably in expectation of one hundred vastly different results. The point may have been to celebrate the freedom of the individual, the relentless architectural imagination, or perhaps cement their own positions as curators, kingmakers and social commenters. What we can be sure of is a display of the display of individuality. There’s also an implied criticism of centrally-planned residential developments whose very existence is anathema to those who trade in representations of individuality.

The perceived remoteness of the ORDOS 100 was central to the project’s existence as a media construct. It may just be press releases lazily repeated but Inner Mongolia is mentioned so frequently with regard to this project that, like Timbuktu, the place name becomes a euphemism for somewhere a long way away. Truth is, Inner Mongolia and the city of Ordos are only a two-hour high-speed train ride from Beijing.

Architecture appreciates an opportunity to make summer weekend houses for the wealthy.

Climate-wise, there’s not much difference between Beijing (left) and Ordos (right) in July, but Ordos will be more pleasant in June, September and October. August might also be a good time to get away, even if only for the air quality. Ordos 100 stacks up as a summer vacation village servicing Beijing’s wealthy.

What any of this means for architecture depends on how you look at it, and how you look at it depends upon how removed you are from the architectural media content zeitgeist circa 2009. I say zeitgeist but this project was conceived pre-2008 and so it instantly became ill-conceived in 2009 when the music stopped. ORDOS 100 the project was quickly shelved. One house was half built but many many interesting sentences were constructed. We can only guess at their meaning now.

“We decided to relocate our faith in architecture in terms of the discipline itself. We removed ourselves from any sarcastic, ironic or cultural contextual position in order to “Design” a house that will not only respond to the program but also to a more abstract order of complexities.”

“Because our site culminates the perspectival axis framed by the main street, we decided to lift the house in order to allow the landscape and views to go through, while idealizing the building in its detachment from the ground.”

“The freedom of possibilities was inevitable, where architects could keep to the compressed object building or expand that single volume into a plethora of spatial organizations.

“Early on we noticed that that the overall project siteplan is a cleverly devised urban scale display system for a hundred different architectural experiments. Instead of deploying traditional property lines where no audience can tread, pedestrian easements relentlessly surround every lot. Within the abstraction of the desert, each team is liberated: without formal guilt we are given license to create autonomous product-like villas that can be viewed on all sides by an equally abstract audience.”

This next image shows those pedestrian easements that reduce the “formal guilt” – a reluctant formism, I’m guessing – and give architects license to design the kind of architecture people think of as “sculptural” or “creative” and that architects have been calling “exuberant” ever since Zaha Hadid co-opted the word normally used to describe unrestrained stock markets. We’ve forgotten that in the run-up to 2009 there weren’t many people, architects or not, who thought architecture was anything other than the making of shapes. I don’t remember there being much guilt, formal or otherwise. I see ORDOS 100 not so much as preaching to the converted but more of an attempt to stifle dissent by sending a resistance-is-futile warning to any architect who still thinks architecture could be anything else. Submission is Individuality.

To cut a short story short, the hundred architects didn’t need much encouragement to be individual and you can dig out some of the projects from the ArchDaily oubliette. Here’s eight. The first one is Villa #1 by Alejandro Aravena before we knew him.

I quite like the last one, a negative space proposal, #34 by Swiss outfit NU architectuuratelie.

Their website includes the following image from Rudovsky’s 1974 book Architecture Without Architects, showing the vernacular underground dwellings of China’s loess belt that includes the city of Ordos.

I can see how living around a pit of cool air would be a good idea in July and August and how it would protect from cold winds between October and April. Some ten million people in China’s loess belt live in dwellings like these so there’s something to be said for it. Nobody bothered to say it though, probably because they thought intended purchasers and occupiers might think vernacular intelligence primitive and insufficiently aspirational. Nevertheless, #34 succeeds in looking different from all the other villas trying to look different. Configuring the house as negative space also makes it conceptually different and, to some, will evoke associations with the vernacular. The negative space concept for this house can also be seen as a reaction to the various positive space concepts of the surrounding villas. However, to simply react against something is no more an expression of individuality than being controlled by it is. They’re just different modes of coercion and so we have a conceptual pair – a unity. It was Ozzy Osbourne who said, “If you want to be individual, then don’t get a tattoo.”

My sample of the ORDOS 100 houses may not be representative but when I see many buildings trying to be different in their own way, I think of them as all the same. If all projects had only a visual difference and a conceptual difference then we would have Shape to DETACH but if we add this unifying pressure to be different into the mix ten what we get is Shape to DIFFERENTIATE – difference for the sake of difference.

The ORDOS 100 plots were all roughly the same size and the villas were all to be about 1,000 square meters. Already we have two levels of tangible Size to UNITE, a uniformity that suggests the presence of some unifying laws, rules or design guidelines – all ideas of Size to UNITE. As masterplanner, Ai Weiwei is credited with devising these physical and conceptual boxes in which architects were free to thrash around. I’m reminded of Daniel Liebskinds 2001 proposal for the extension to London’s V&A Museum.

ORDOS 100 invited architects and, by extension, us to celebrate a very limited architectural freedom in a market-funded Vitra zoo. Rather than distracting us from the cage, masterplanner Ai Weiwei invited us to accept the cage as the generator of freedom. This is a curious stance for an artist we think of as an activist. The project model exhibited by Ai Weiwei had the hundred villas constructed from the same material. The uniformity of colour and pattern combines with the uniformity of size, alignment and position to make the point that Shape is the only permitted conveyor of architectural meaning.

Another unfortunate association arises from the roads and pathways on all sides of the villas. We’re told these houses will be so fantastically and sculpturally architectural that people will want to view them from all sides. We accept this explanation all too readily. Wealthy people are said to enjoy the display of riches and may well enjoy being observed from all sides, and sleep easily knowing how easily their villa can be accessed by emergency services vehicles. Not having a back or a side fence to chat with a neighbor over also has its downsides.

Architectural spaces are by nature not only the spaces themselves but their relationships to the surroundings. However, architectural spaces of the “one type, one site” kind are planned and realized without any consideration of their relationships to their surroundings.

The bureaucratic system of government … treats architectural spaces as ‘facilities”. It isolates these highly independent package-like facilities from each other and manages them. This is an extremely ingenious method of management. By that. I mean that the method is ingeniously conceived as a way of administering the state in a bureaucratic (i.e. sectarian) manner.

The Institutionalization of Architectural Space,” in Riken Yamamoto, TOTO (2003), p009

This brings us, finally, to the users of ORDOS 100. Who are they? Who are these people for whom representations of individuality are so attractive? It’s not the target occupants for their individuality is not important beyond their wanting to possess an architectural representation of someone else’s. They are all alike in that they exist only as funders and consumers of the myth of individuality, as well as as avatars for our own fantasies. The invited architects all used the project to promote their own USPs for their own media ends so they’re not that individual either. The project generated far more media coverage than it deserved so maybe we’re all no different in wanting to consume images of representations of individuality. If ORDOS 100 had had something of actual value to offer real people, there’s a chance it might have been better able to withstand an economic crisis and been delayed rather than aborted.

We need to be suspicious of our manner of designing to the pseudo community of architects. For whom is the architecture we design intended? For whom do we design? We bear responsibility too for the reality of the users and the inhabitants of architecture. The more our consciousness is directed toward the island universe of architects the more tenuous becomes our consciousness of the actual inhabitants and users of architecture. That is, our relationship to actual society becomes more tenuous. We need to bear responsibility in an essential sense to the inhabitants of architecture. It is precisely those inhabitants who can liberate us from the island universe or pseudo community inside us.

ibid. p273