if the little mermaid was a man in qingdao (tbt)

Did you just have a nightmare from that post title? As I briefly mentioned previously a really, really long time ago, I went to Qingdao for a few days of sorta-R&R back in August. And … all in all, I was underwhelmed, but I’ll expand more on that later. Right now, I would like to direct your attention to the glorious photo below that inspired the post title:

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When you see a person on a rock in the middle of the water, you think of the Little Mermaid, right? This guy was fairly far out just chilling there for a while and I found it hilarious, mostly because I kept imagining the guy dressed up and posing as the Little Mermaid.

Anyhow, Qingdao is known for two things: European architecture (because it was a German concession) and its beaches. I really hope I don’t come across as incredibly elitist saying this, but I’ve seen better architecture elsewhere, I found the trash-covered beaches appalling, and I’ve gotten used to Shanghai-style China. Everything was just kinda eh. A lot of the people I encountered were mainland tourists, so to them, Qingdao is probably pretty fun, but I couldn’t get over how dirty it was and how rude people were (spitting, littering, pushing). I guess I expected more from a tourist town like Qingdao, because while the behavior wouldn’t phase me in the countryside, it’s downright low-class by Shanghai standards.

Here are some of the highlights from my trip:

But people don’t really go to Qingdao to see the sites or shop. It’s all about the beaches! When I went, the weather was super nice and the beaches were crowded. I was a bit iffy about getting into the water because of all the floating trash and algae, but I did end up wading in knee-deep and walked along three or four beaches, which was super tiring and gave me some pretty serious tan lines.

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Takeaway: Qingdao is good for a max. two-day trip (or as part of a larger trip as it was for me), just don’t expect too much and be prepared for a mass of tourists. Everything was fairly inexpensive and it’s a good place to get away from the city, walk along a beach, eat fresh seafood, and enjoy blue skies, but not much else. Qingdao was never on my must-see list of places to go, and although I doubt I’ll go again, I am glad I went.

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chandeliers in treehouses (tbt)

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Toshihiro Oki Architect P.C. with Toshihiro Oki, Jen Wood, and Jared Diganci, “tree wood,” 2013

This was a pretty cool project, and one that I almost didn’t see. The last summer I was in New York, I was living in Astoria, but didn’t explore much of my neighborhood until the last few weeks I was there. It was July (2013), and it was hot, but it was also so green and beautiful. Ah, how I miss TREES in Shanghai! Anyhow, it was my first time to the Socrates Sculpture Park, and for the most part I found the park to be just so-so – nothing wildly impressive, but a nice stroll.

This particular project “tree wood” was pretty cool, although it blended in so well with the trees I almost completely walked past it. Socrates is a sculpture park, but this was more along the lines of installation art or temporary architecture than sculpture. Basically it was a tree house structure of sorts, framed with two-by-four studs, with a chandelier, which just won the whole thing. With the streaming sunlight and the quiet tranquility of the park and the sheltering of all those leaves and branches, the project had a really interesting quality to it, natural yet manufactured, unfinished yet refined, public yet secluded.

Not sure if this is still up since it’s been over a year since I visited, but regardless, I love the idea of the project.

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And whaddaya know, the project was designed by architects … I wonder if that’s why I appreciate it so much. I think it’s true that there’s no such thing as a ‘former architect,’ because even though there are many of us who have moved on to other fields, I feel like there’s some sort of weird bond/understanding between architects (past or present) where we just ‘get’ each other. I was talking to a jewelry designer whose pieces I admired, and whaddaya know, she was trained as an architect. Maybe it’s suffering all those hours in studio that gains one entry into the imagined community of architects.

the (once vibrant) jing’an villa

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Jing’an Villa is a historic lilong (or nongtang) neighborhood in Shanghai, accessed from West Nanjing Road and Weihai Road. And apparently I am truly a horrible, horrible architect because I had no idea this place existed, let alone off a street I walk down frequently. I mean seriously, I’ve passed the entry gate a zillion times and was never even curious as to what was behind it.  Apparently this place used to be a pretty bustling little artsy place, sort of what Xintiandi and Tianzifang started as, that ideal mixture of historic charm, hip shops, and cafés. And all that is no more. Apparently a lot of the shops were illegally constructed or being run illegally so the local government had everything torn down last year. And I never got to see it! Sad.

It’s still interesting as an example of historic architecture, but it’s sad that kind of ‘young’ life is no longer there. Yes, architecture is part of one’s cultural heritage and it should be protected and laws should be followed. But to what degree? Is keeping it pristine and off-limits the best way? Putting something in a museum is great to make sure it’s protected, but it also removes it from the present, from the people, from the living culture. It sticks it behind a pane of glass and says: Don’t touch. This belongs to the past, not to you. I think there are too many HPers (historic preservationists) who treat architecture like some fragile artifact. In general, architecture is part of a community. It’s not an art object, it’s a functional habitat/shelter/home and should be allowed to adapt and evolve with society (within reason of course). The best way to encourage appreciation for heritage is to integrate it into your life, not segregate it out of fear. The question is where to strike that balance … because as we all know from Xintiandi and Tianzifang, too much money and hype easily squeeze out all the culture.

laundry – every day, every building

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Laundry. No matter how good any residential complex is designed, if it’s in China, its facade is going to be defined by laundry. Most people don’t use driers and still hang dry, so it’s a pretty common sight to see people’s underwear hanging overhead. Unless the building doesn’t have any balconies or large windows from which stuff could be hung out of. But that would be a fairly sorry complex.

bank … the gallery

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Geng Yini, Dreaming Luminous Pillow, 2013

A skip away from the Rockbund Art Museum is BANK, a gallery that was opened not too long ago by MABSOCIETY. The current show is Dystopia and Its Content(ment)s – 3 Solo Projects, and the space is divided between Marc Lafia’s Tumblrroom, Geng Yini’s Bad Form, and Ma Daha’s Everything which exists is a thought within the Mind of MA DAHA. Hm. I didn’t like any of it. It’s tricky making statements like that because although I found some of the work compelling and thought-provoking and I could appreciate it, I didn’t like it. I found most of it jarring, opaque, and awkward. I like things that I can read into, that I can look at for a long time and constantly discover new things – not necessarily visually, but conceptually and emotionally as well. Most of this stuff just seemed a bit thrown together.

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Geng Yini, Every Pain is Precious, 2013

I thought Geng Yini’s work was the most interesting and most well-developed, though I’m not a tremendous fan of her rough aesthetic. I found Marc Lafia’s work absolutely forgettable. And as for Ma Daha’s installation? Oh, now that was a doozy. A crazy I-have-no-words doozy.

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Ma Daha, Everything which exists is a thought within the Mind of MA DAHA, 2013

So yep. That’s BANK. But no, no, I can’t leave it at that. To me, Dystopia and Its Content(ment)s was a miss, but by no means am I suggesting you should skip it or write it off. Perhaps you’ll read something into it that I wasn’t able to grasp. After all, that is the allure of art – its openness. At a recent gallery opening one of the attendees was saying how he doesn’t ‘understand’ art. But I think that’s a common misconception. You’re not meant to ‘understand’ art, you’re supposed to enjoy it. I think it comes across as otherwise because the people who write about and work with art can get pretty crazy. My conclusion: Curators have incredible imaginations. We read things that aren’t there. We draw connections, we psychoanalyze our artists, and we shape exhibitions based on our interpretations, prejudices, and fancies. Just because we like art doesn’t mean we like all art – or ‘understand’ it.

Oh! And I almost forgot to mention the best thing about BANK – the space. The gallery space is nice, but the building it’s in is AMAZING. It’s a beautiful neoclassical heritage building, in a decided state of disrepair. The gallery is located on the second floor of the building (what they call the first floor due to using European conventions), but on the ground floor you can really see some of the neglect. It’s quite sad, but also kind of refreshing in comparison to the freshly-painted glitz and shoddy preservation jobs common to China. The building’s a bit forlorn, but in a way that makes it all the more breathtaking.

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BANK
1/F, 59 Xianggang Lu, Huangpu District, Shanghai
Tuesday to Saturday, 10:30 AM – 6:30 PM

reminiscing: why i’m an architect

About this time five years ago, I was sitting in the courtyard of Goldsmith Hall on the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas. It is there that I sat on a worn wooden bench taking photos of the petal-filled space. It was so quiet, I remember there being a slight chill in the air, and I was all alone. I loved that courtyard. I still love it. The space has an innate sense of calm that’s not shut off from the frenzy on the other side of the windows, but has the ability to recontextualize it and add some measure of beauty to the madness.

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Was I taking a break from a studio project? Ah no, that was my first semester without studio. Having finished the majority of my architecture degree requirements at that point, my schedule was filled with English and humanities classes. Perhaps that’s why I found myself back in the arms of good ol’ Goldsmith, visiting an old friend, a place I felt so comfortable in. This is a photo that has come to define me, and in many ways still does. It’s been my avatar on so many sites for so long, I don’t know if I’ll ever change it. Granted it’s not the best photo, not the best composed, and not the greatest quality, but I cherish it because it’s a moment from that time – that four years of time when I became an architect.

I was recently browsing one of my favorite blogs, Life of an Architect, and started thinking about that title. The life of an architect. The architect behind it, Bob Borson, is referring to his specific life as an architect, but moreso about the life of architects in general. He’s a University of Texas alum and practicing architect in Dallas, and I always find it interesting to read about and from architects, because it’s the life I could’ve had if I had stuck with practicing. But the truth is, I will always consider myself an architect. And my life will always be that of an architect. The truth is, I never wanted to be an architect and ended up in the major purely by accident (a result of some extreme procrastination that ended up being the best mistake ever). The truth is, as much as I am infatuated with art and as crap I am at architectural design, my perspective of the world will always be that of an architect. And the truth is that I will always consume way too much coffee, stay up all night all too often for no apparent reason, write with the black Precise V5s I buy in bulk because yes I have a favorite pen, obsess about details no one else cares about, and absolutely whole-heartedly love architecture.

I may not be able to legally call myself an architect, and practicing architects may frown on my choice to stay out of the field (trust me, I was crap at practicing), but that alone doesn’t make one an architect. So yeah, that’s why I’m an architect.

my new dream: making it as a google doodle

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Google has its faults (it’s desire to become an all-encompassing know-it-all for instance) but its search engine is unrivaled and good gracious it’s useful. Normally I don’t click on the Google doodles, but this one intrigued me … something about it stirred my architect little heart and I clicked it. And voila! Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, noted French architect and theorist. Heck, I wrote a paper on him last year. And without his Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle [Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century], my thesis would never have become what it is. So even though he was kind of a crazy ol’ fellow (seriously, you call that a restoration?), I owe him a lot.

Happy 200th birthday, Viollet-le-Duc! Congratulations on your Google doodle! It’s the true sign of making it in today’s world.

lic ps1: the stairs

PS1 is a museum in Long Island City (LIC), not too far from where I lived in Astoria, Queens. Dedicated to contemporary art, PS1 is located in a former school building turned warehouse and was known as the P.S.1 Contemporary Arts Center … then it got affiliated with MoMA so now it’s just called MoMA PS1.

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I think it’s cute that its moniker reflects the original building’s program (P.S. = public school). Also, PS1’s an exhibiting museum rather than a collecting one, which I suppose is fairly normal for contemporary art museums … because they’re all about the contemporary (id est, the now). I had been to PS1 once to attend a lecture/book launch that one of my professors was involved in, but otherwise the trek to LIC from the UWS was not worth it in my eyes. Anyhow, over the summer I lived in Astoria, so before saying adios to NYC I paid PS1 a proper visit. Nice place, but not my favorite.

I liked how there was art everywhere and it had a grittier work-in-progress feel to it compared to the Met (a ‘proper’ museum where things are in gilded frames and I always feel underdressed) or MoMA (a more free-spirited museum due to the type of art on display, but which still adheres to that typical ‘gallery’ look). PS1, however, however, is downright chill.

Take the stairwell, for example. Stairwell A, to be specific.

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This is art. A long-term installation called “In the Woods” (2004) by Ernesto Caivano. Yeah, it’s kind of a grungy space, but it’s the cool hipster kind of grunge that you’d expect from Brooklyn or some such. The walls and ceiling weren’t primed white before Caivano made the space his canvas, but it’s better because of that. It’s an interesting mixture with the concrete, chain-link fencing, hanging light fixtures, rough walls, and this beautiful scene of crossing branches and birds in black laid on top. It just works.

Other stairwells had paintings by other artists. And then some areas were left as … authentic grunge.

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turrell at the guggenheim

I have a shameful secret that I would like to share with all of you. Even though I am an architect and even though I enjoy modern architecture and modern/contemporary art, it took me two whole years of living in New York to visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Why did it take me so long? $18 tickets – and that’s the discounted price! And when you can get into MoMA and the Met for free (with a Columbia student ID), that’s just exorbitant.

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However, the temporary exhibition by James Turrell that’s up in the Guggenheim (June 21, 2013-September 25, 2013) called “Aten Reign,” combined with my impending move from New York to Shanghai, prompted me to suck it up and shell out the dough. Was it cool? Yes. Was it “oh my goodness, drop everything and go” cool? That depends on if you’ve seen a Turrell before. To me, it wasn’t worth 18 bucks. But hey, it’s the Guggenheim and it’s New York, so you have to visit at least once.

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First off, the building. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (aka “the only architect most people have heard of” aka FLW), the architecture is truly impressive. Built in 1959 and located on 5th Avenue at 89th Street, I’ve passed it plenty of times as I walked down 5th … but normally I pass it because I’m heading to or leaving the Met. It’s one of those buildings that always gets a mention in architecture survey classes, and for good reason.

For the Turrell exhibition the building was basically empty with its signature curving walls (where artwork is usually displayed) completely blank, and a netting on the other side so you couldn’t look into the main space as you normally would. There were two unrelated galleries for “Kandinsky in Paris, 1934-1944” (nice) and the Thannhauser Collection (blah), and then the store and cafe area were untouched.

There were a few areas with other Turrell pieces such as “Afrum I (White),” but let’s be honest: No one really came to see that stuff. People didn’t come to stand in a dark room and try to see some optical illusion, or to check out Kandinsky’s work; they only check out that stuff because they spent so much cash on the darn tickets they have to recoup it somehow by ingesting culture. When you visit the Guggenheim you’re supposed to start at the top and circle your way down. But seriously, I wonder how many people just walk into the museum, lie down on the floor in the main space, and never leave. Or just take a nap.

Cool. Do you remember those commercials for those Popsicle Lick-a-Color pops? “The COLORS, Duke! The COLORS!”

paley and pal – pocket parks on 53rd

A few days ago I posted about a series of sculptures by (Albert) Paley on Park (Avenue). Well, it’s only right that I follow up that post with one about Paley Park. Because … come on! Paley on Park v. Paley Park? Golden. It’s a teensy tiny little park, and it’s not really a park in the way that Central Park is a park (id est, no room to lay out or throw a football), but it is public, although technically a POPS (privately-owned public space).

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I gotta say, it’s a very nicely done park. Midtown Manhattan is a busy, crowded, kinda soulless place. But the park is so calming, so unexpected, and so removed from all that. It’s a few steps up from street level, there’s green ivy on the side walls, some trees for shade, and a freakin’ waterfall. It’s no wonder that it’s an extremely popular place to eat lunch. Unfortunately when I visited there was some construction going on, so the pocket park was made even tinier, and I didn’t get the full effect of the waterfall.

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Paley Park is on 53rd Street, between Madison and 5th. Walk a bit further east and you’ll come across another pocket park, which in my opinion is even more impressive than Paley (although smaller and not as well designed or aesthetically pleasing). But hey, it has a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Sorry, but as impressive as the waterfall wall is, it doesn’t beat the history of THE FREAKIN’ BERLIN WALL.

This park doesn’t get as much press as Paley Park because … it’s nameless. I guess it’s the courtyard or whatever of the building 520 Madison, because people refer to the park as 520 Madison. There are five sections of the wall, and they’ve been painted by two German artists, Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny. Not my favorite work, but how many people can say they’ve had lunch next to the Berlin Wall? And these people do it repeatedly. Amazing. New York = amazing.

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It’s also amazing to me because of how understated both of these parks are while being completely open. The whole setup is so New York. Hundreds of people walk by these parks every day – how many stop? But when you do stop and walk a few yards into that little space, you get the feeling that you’re no longer in busy Midtown, but at the same time you don’t feel cut off from the hustle and bustle that makes New York great. How many people realize that they’re walking by history? In a city like New York, there’s history and art and culture everywhere you turn, and after a while all that becomes so normal and comfortable that eating a tuna salad sandwich next to the Berlin Wall becomes commonplace. I think that’s what’s most impressive to me, that instead of confining pieces of history to a museum to be gawked at, they actually become part of the present and enrich our everyday lives.

Kudos, New York.