Thursday, June 18, 2009

62. Have a little humanity, but not too much...(part 1)

Last week Foster + Partners launched the design of a school in Sierra Leone at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London.

The project was developed in cooperation with Save the Children among others, and integrates passive ventilation systems and natural lighting.
Foster argues that it is based on a modular system that can be quickly assembled with conventional stock wood, local brush-sticks, and sheet metal. This gives the project some environmental advantages. Whats more, the modules can also be easily reconfigured to adjust to the specific needs of varying districts in Sierra Leone.
So the project is not only smart, it saves the children and the earth too.
Where I come from we say "thats a lot of bang for your buck right there!"

Starchitects worldwide should take note and follow the lead of Mr Foster. Why? Because this one is a token that comes straight from his heart.

One only has to look around at the current economic and social climate. We are in a financial crisis caused by unregulated greed and excess. Starchitects are seen as part of this piggish, extravagant and irresponsible finical sector or at least a willing accomplice. It has even come to jokes like this one:
Question: What do you call a bunch of CEOs, starchitects and bankers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
Answer: not enough, lawyers are saints compared to you wretches...

The image is of unrestrained self indulgence... bling bling that is...

To remain respectable and relevant one must change the image from the one above to the one below

In order to understand the utter sophistication in this move I may have to do something completely radical. I will take you on my magic carpet and sweep you off to TV land.

lets go!

The first stop on our journey is the magical cloudy zone called TV phenomenology. We come upon the hip and funky kingdom of the token black guy.

The urban dictionary defines it as:
Any fictional character of African-American descent that has been inconsequentially inserted into the plot a movie or TV show for the express purposes of creating an image of commercially safe, politically correct, and insipid racial harmony. In eras gone by the token black guys would be the first characters to be killed off. This phenomena of commercial cinema and television that would sacrifice the quality of their storytelling for the sake of attempting the impossible act of offending absolutely nobody, is succinctly satirized by the aptly named south park character, Token.

Token from south park, Charley in the TV show Friends.

Any black character in any movie that is neither the protagonist nor antagonist, is unimportant to the plot and does not significantly contribute to it, preferably dies before the end, usually does not end up with the girl. sometimes is the sidekick if the role is unimportant enough, and is very often comic relief (often in stereotype-enforcing manner).

Here the character squarely defines his token role

if the balance gets out of hand then it is swiftly dealt with.

The point of a token project functions amazingly similar to the role of token black guy: it is done more or less for the express purposes of creating an image of a commercially safe, and politically correct starchitecture firm whose radical days are gone (if it ever had one).

If we look at the architect's body of work as a set of characters. We can see the token project is unimportant to the firms portfolio and does not significantly contribute to it; a sidekick really.

A proper starchitect never let the ratio of such projects get out of control. Just a small token is needed. With this project, Norm firmly places a hand over your shoulder and says "hey! I am one of the good guys".

The chart below exhibits a healthy ratio for a thriving starchitect: The irrelevant is limited to a strict minimum. Like the culture necessary to produce a fine cheese, you need just enough to get the job done.

Now lets look at exhibit B. This shows the portfolio of architect Cameron Sinclair.
There is a problem here. Can anyone identify it?

Of course! He got it all backwards; this guy is totally off his rockers.
With a portfolio like this the Pritzker is nowhere in sight for miles and miles.
We will take a closer look at this eccentric next week and learn what NOT to do, in part 2 of this series.


Brent Thompson said...

Perhaps there is another way to look at this issue. In a recent issue of Time, Arnold Ekpe, the CEO of Togo based, pan-African Ecobank was quoted as saying “[The Chinese] are not setting out to do good, they are setting out to do business.” Then he said something that both resonated with me and completely changed the way I think about Africa: “It’s actually much less demeaning.” Those in need don’t need help nearly as much as they need respect, they need to be included in the world business community. By doing business with with those in need, we can both help them and help them help themselves.

I’ve seen this work first hand. In 1993, shortly after the fall of socialism, my former partner and I started an architectural studio in Prague. We were there to work, but in the process helped a number of Czech architects. These architects had spent careers in a theoretical haze because few projects were ever realized. We helped them learn to build, and to do so at a world class standard. I’ve since been able to do the same throughout Asia.

Perhaps it is more important that we work with those who need help then that we do good for, or to, them. Perhaps we help those in need most by respecting them. So if Foster is showing them respect, and showing them how to succeed, that is good, and will be understood as such. If he is trying to improve his image, and has no respect those in need, that will also be understood. The same standard applies to Sinclair.

inchirieri apartamente cluj said...

Regarding what Bren Thompson said:"Those in need don’t need help nearly as much as they need respect, they need to be included in the world business community. By doing business with with those in need, we can both help them and help them help themselves."

I don't understand what you mean by business. For me a business implies trade. Something changes hands. African people that live in a village I don't really what can they exchange. Because, if you involve them in your project (workforce) and you teach them how to work i don;t thing that is called business. That can be called humanitarian projects, charity projects.

XCD said...

Rest assured "Anonymous inchirieri" Chinese ARE doing buisness in Africa, and duly reaping the benefits much as previous colonial powers have done. Whether this is fair exchange is subject to debate. There are many like Mr. Ekpe who seem to think so.

With regard to a renowned architect working on a charity project, the value of the free publicity and goodwill should not be underestimated! In the USA, it even accounts for invaluable tax-deductible man hours.

Sometimes trade/exchange comes in different shapes and forms. Let's give credit, value and respect where it is due.

Conrad Newel said...

This could possibly be the farthest thing from reality and just a fictive product of my highly overactive imagination. But here is how I imagine the relationship between China and Africa. First, the Chinese government identifies a valuable resource that it needs and further discovers that massive amounts of it lies within the African continent. They go in and make a deal with the leader of an Africa nation (and this usually means a "democratically elected" dictator who amasses massive amount of his country's wealth for himself and family. He has several Swiss bank accounts, a luxury apartment in Manhattan, possibly a private jet or three while the largest portion of his constituents can barley afford to find their next meal). The deal he makes with the Chinese is that they can come in with their own people (engineers, planners, workforce etc), excavate the resources of that nation and then share a small percentage of the profit with that African nation. Said “democratically elected" dictator, further takes a handsome portion for himself and passes on the remainder to the government coffers to finance self serving projects and build monuments to himself.

Foster is not the Chinese government and he is not mining non-renewable resources. However one could consider the good publicity that one could generate by a highly publicized charitable act towards a poor African village as a comodity and a valuable resource within itself. Again this is purely speculative and based on my overactive imagination, but I would also hallucinate that striking a deal with a famous British architect to come in and build a village for your constituents would look very good on the political resume of a “democratically elected" dictator. This trade/exchange would forge a win-win situation for both disreputable starachitect and “democratically elected" dictator.

So as you say "Sometimes trade/exchange comes in different shapes and forms. Let's give credit, value and respect where it is due.". I would tend to look towards the disenfranchised people in this highly imaginative scenario.