This is an essay provided by Hiroshi Okamoto, the founding partner of OLI Architecture and the lead architect of Muxin Art Museum. It is about the controversy about the similarity between Wang Zengqi Memorial Hall and his works, and the story behind Muxin Art Museum.
When the turbulent public opinion dissipated, Okamoto hopes to present his thinking in a more comprehensive and objective way. What moved us in particular was the silhouette of Mu Xin in a photo of a design meeting in the article.
Youfang welcomes more first-hand responses and objective discussions around industry hot spots. Looking forward to your contributions.
作者 冈本博Hiroshi Okamoto，AIA, LEED A.P.
译者 王孟瑜 黄恺 / 有方
It is perhaps fitting that this quote, which is attributed to the English cleric, writer, and art collector Charles Caleb Colton from 1824, was made famous by the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde, a literary giant that MuXin admired.
When I heard from my partner Lin Bing how the new Wang Zeng Qi Museum had some similarities to our design of the MuXin Art Museum, I immediately thought about Colton's quote. I admit I have not visited the museum in person and had not thought anything negative of the designers' intent, only a slight disappointment for Wang Zeng Qi whom I heard was a revered writer of his time.
My reaction came from looking at the comparison images between our museums and wondering how the designers came to make the MuXin Art Museum an important source for their design. I then began to imagine how, if we had been honored to be the architects for his project, our process would have been testing various ideas and methodologies through inquiry, in an exhaustive process to learn more about the subject matter, Wang Zeng Qi. This process is typical for all our projects, whether big or small, while we test and explore conceptual possibilities and inspiration always on guard to avoid missing an opportunity that would make the architectural concept and design better.
Admittedly, in our case for the MuXin Art Museum, it was a little different as we were able to meet with MuXin personally, first my partner in mid-2011 and then together in the fall at his home with Chen Dang Qinq, his disciple and faithful champion, before his passing in December of 2011. We were profoundly influenced by this meeting and our subsequent friendship and guidance from Dan Qing during the evolution of the four-and-a-half-year project.
In unpacking Colton's quote, if one imitates something or an act, it means one admires that thing or act enough to replicate it. Looking back at my reaction to the news of the Wang Zong Xi museum, disappointment was not, in fact, my very first reaction: I actually felt a small reflexive feeling of pride and gratification knowing that the product of years of hard work with colleagues, clients, stakeholders, and all of the collaborators was also being recognized as a model to be imitated.
It is undeniable that we as humans learn from each other as we are conditioned even from infancy to learn language and social skills through imitation, a behavior that is well researched. “Imitative learning resides in the social motivations and pressures which influence human copying behavior. In various societies and cultures, conformity is a powerful mechanism through which “cultural norms, behaviors, and attitudes are learned and maintained.” 1 Growing up in a traditional Japanese family, I was often confronted with the complex nuances of the pros and cons of social conformity living in dual, and often times, clashing cultures such as the United States and Japan. In fact, in most cultures, be it the US, Japan or many others, the motivation and pressure to conform is so great that we conform to beliefs even when we do not necessarily share those beliefs, seeking harbor in the safety of numbers or the security of being “average.” It is an instinctual ingrained survival mechanism, which may not be so different from the advanced mimicry many species exhibit to attract mates or to avoid predators. But what separates, humans from animals -- at least what has been widely theorized -- is that we have the unique ability to think, reflect, and imagine and not just to survive. We created time as a construct and our enormous capacity for memory affords projection and abstraction allowing for places where creativity can happen. Creativity which in turn makes art and design possible and meaningful and pushes societies and culture forward.
As my partner and I were greatly inspired and influenced by our mentor I.M. Pei, I knew before the first time I met him over twenty years ago that it was not the buildings I wanted to imitate but the skill, guile, ambition, strength, knowledge, and will it took him to create opportunities to shape some of the most prestigious institutions in the world. My goal was not to simulate the same rigid hardware, but to build upon the knowledge that I was to gain through years of tutelage to be able to position myself to push new ideas and possibilities, and to create new opportunities and outcomes for the betterment of the arts and society.
This is not to say that writers never imitate other writers, or artists or architects never imitate each other for that matter. They do as a way of learning, especially from those that move and influence them. In Asian cultures, there is a long established history of the traditional arts where imitation is often seen as a symbol of respect, especially in the context of master/apprentice relationships, yet I would posit that this is more an universal phenomenon that can be traced and correlated to long periods of established socio-economic value systems in pre-modern times. Pablo Picasso, one of the great western artists of the 20th Century is often (though it is open to debate), quoted as saying: “good artists copy, great artists steal.” In other words, a good artist simply copies another person’s art, but a great artist selectively takes (steals) elements from multiple sources and then imaginatively combines their influences to invent something that is uniquely their own through a process that takes analysis, critical thinking, synthesis, and iterative refinement -- or in other words: creativity.
With the explosion of technology and the ever-growing availability of sophisticated information, visualization, and fabrication tools in the architect’s toolbox, there are so many possibilities to exercise our creative energy and to bring new constructions and meaningful experiences to fruition. I am not a historian, but we are rapidly passing singular styles, trends, movements, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Deconstructivism, Neo-Modernism, and so-on and so-on. In some sense, we are in a Post-Post-Modern era and inundated with data and information where multiple styles can co-exist regardless of regional or historical context and devoid of their formative associative values. As air travel becomes ubiquitous, AI algorithms become more powerful, and instant access to imagery and commentary through social media recombine the typical causal relationships and associations to place and time, technology has allowed us to quickly unravel the historical narrative ties between representation to place and image to reality.
This accelerating trend is powerful and exhilarating, and yet also debilitating as I have experienced first-hand in the formative years of my career development, how contemporary architecture has proliferated throughout the world and become ever more inspiring, yet at the same time, ubiquitous. China, which has seen an unprecedented twenty-five year construction boom bringing new transformative architectural experiences to hundreds of millions of people is in my opinion, the accelerated archetype of this phenomenon. Perhaps it is the historical or a-historical context that provided the fertile grounds, but the new architecture of the past decade ranges from the mediocre, anodyne, corporate “western” architecture of everywhere (or now nowhere), to Zaha influenced fluid morphological urban interventions to intriguing vernacular mashups, and every flavor in between. Today, there is no doubt in my mind that some of the most interesting architectural experiments are happening in China . As my wife once told me, “The world is not getting smaller, people’s worlds are getting bigger,” and it is no longer the historical “few” insiders and experts that curate opinion for the masses or the “average citizen.” In this sense, it is understandable but ironic that mimicry becomes an easy alternative to co-opting meaning and value as the plethora of possibilities of making something new or meaningful may seem daunting and paralyzing for those tasked to produce but challenged by imagination.
As traditional critical rigor has waned, and architectural imagery and spatial representations have become accessible to the masses from a swipe of a screen, an exacerbating problem that happens too often is that one believes that acquiring the image, or viewing it, automatically allows the individual to quantify what the architecture is, objectifying the consumed image, and by default, architecture. Humans by nature are visual animals, processing up to 80% percent of input and impression through imagery, but what is architecture if we just consume it in images? I enjoy images as much as the next person, but the reality when you experience things in person can range from the typical disappointment to the occasional positive, life changing, transformative experience that reveals a new understanding of the world. It is these transformative experiences that we enjoy which are usually the best kinds of architecture. An elusive goal but one that guides our office’s aspirations.
When we set out to design the MuXin Art Museum, we wanted to understand the context of our chosen building site. We visited MuXin’s hometown of Wuzhen several times to see the restored landscape of canals, streets, markets, courtyards, bridges, verandas, and the centuries old riverway that was once a vital lifeline for the village. We imagined from the start that the museum itself had to be a landscape of intersecting experiences, similar in scale to the bustle of the popular canal town allowing visitors to construct various intimate experiences where the water was a connector as well as a divider.
We then set out to change the notion of time via the bridge which separated the visitor from the restored tourist town of Wuzhen to the world of MuXin where discrete volumes were to house various aspects of his life, from his early works and influences, to his music, literature, paintings, and writings. The “bridge” was also a metaphor of MuXin himself, a complex figure who was equally comfortable discussing great Eastern and Western philosophy, art, and literature. In other words, a bridge between cultures, yet still uniquely Chinese.
Upon successive site visits, the importance of scale became increasing evident as we scaled the project down and put all of the back of house and MEP areas, the temporary gallery, café, and the multifunction space below grade, essentially building a three story museum with 60% of the mass below the waterline. This allowed the building to be built to the scale of the canal town as a series of vertically and horizontally connected volumes affording the visitors various paths to weave their own story of MuXin, like chapters in his life, and to control the speed of time through experiential space.
When considering the materiality of the project, we knew that we did not want to copy the same material used in the restoration of the canal town. That was not true to our understanding of MuXin and we could not bring ourselves to make a facsimile of a facsimile. The town is essentially a restored masonry town of water, rock, plastered daub and wattle and timber siding, but our given site was a new extension of the town where Kris Yao’s Wuzhen Grand Theater was under construction and other planned cultural projects were under consideration. Our first concept sketches and renders which we showed MuXin, Chen Xiang Hong (Chairman of the Wuzhen Tourism Company), and Chen Dan Qing in the fall of 2011 used actual MuXin landscapes on abstract intersecting volumes placed along a central spine or “street.” To our relief, it was well received.
We then started to play with an idea of printing some of his landscapes as inspiration for textures on the volumes and using board form Architectural Concrete, studying even board length pixilation of MuXin’s landscapes using parametric tools. With our mentor, I.M. Pei, architectural exposed concrete is a material that we used quite often, and we were comfortable exploring various new ways of expression with it. It is structural, yet a highly malleable and extremely honest material.
As the project progressed through concept to design development, we placed the entire building on a three-dimensional module of 900mm. Sub-modules were created into 300mm where all components aligned in space, and then again divided into staggered and alternating 60, 90, 150mm wire brushed wood (Yellow Pine) board form modules so that every line on our elevation continues through the buildings as if a cut line in space. From there, to abstract the lines of MuXin’s landscape, we created rules to vary the depths of each board line in and out of the plan module and then created another rule to break the pattern as it went higher, giving a subtle lift and floating appearance. It didn’t escape us that our design and use of architectural exposed concrete was a bit risky for the context but subtlety and defiantly subversive that the wood or “木,” which was prevalent in the town as a finish on top of masonry, was used in reverse to cast a masonry structure. It was in our opinion, very MuXin.
We were still a very young company at the time and perhaps we had nothing to lose. Unafraid, we were driven to do the entire design in totality. Our fees were quite low, so we needed to do as much as possible ourselves, and although we hired friends to help or had the occasional pro-bono consultant meeting from gracious former I.M. Pei consultants to check on our progress, our scope entailed not only architecture to construction documentation and construction administration but also, lighting, graphics/wayfinding, interior design, exhibition, and showcase design, retail design, fountain, and landscape design. It could have been our youth and drive, but to this day, it is a scope we still try to negotiate in all of our projects, a project that allows as much as possible a crafted design that encompasses a totality.
As Mr. Pei always used to tell us, to make a great project, you need three things: a great site, a great program, and a great client. In retrospect, we view the MuXin Art Museum as a great project for OLI as those three important elements came together and we were fortunate enough in those four and a half years to be able to bring our design vision to fruition. We were not paralyzed by the opportunity but liberated by it. The last words MuXin said to us in our meeting with him before he passed away was, “let’s not be afraid to make mistakes.” These were powerful words that resonated with us throughout the journey, something that I wish I could have shared with Wang Zong Xi Museum’s designers.
 Over, Harriet and Melinda Carpenter. “Imitative Learning in Humans and Animals.” Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Edited by Norbert Seel, Springer, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_270
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