Reading notes (2020, week 39) — On a new European Bauhaus, ‘surprise’ in contemporary Japanese architecture, and Socrates in love
Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: Ursula Von der Leyen wants to match style with sustainability; ‘ihyou,’ the concept that runs through much of modern Japanese design; restoring Aspasia as one of the founders of European philosophy; Karl Marx and what we value; what it means to live minimally well; the brilliance of Charlie Parker; Hanoi’s shophouses; Tadao Ando’s He Art Museum; and, finally, Mary Oliver’s instructions for life.
A new European Bauhaus
It is the design school whose legacy can be found in some of the world’s most iconic buildings and in many of the devices we carry. Appel’s Steve Jobs and Jony Ive both took inspiration from it, as did Dieter Rams, who studied at the Ulm School of Design. Now, the Bauhaus spirit has been invoked once more. This time in the context of the European Union’s grand plan to go green.
On 16 September 2020, speaking in her inaugural State of the Union Address to the European Parliament, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen outlined her plan to kickstart a cultural and sustainable movement in the European Union. “We will set up a new European Bauhaus — a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together,” she said.
This new European Bauhaus, which takes its name from the hugely influential German design school, will be part of the NextGenerationEU investment and recovery plan, worth €750 billion and put in place following the coronavirus pandemic.
Von der Leyen, or ‘VdL’ as she is known in Brussels, explained that culture and sustainability will both be the focus of the union’s recovery plan. The creation of the new Bauhaus was announced as part of the cultural aspect of the plan.
Von der Leyen wants NextGenerationEU to kickstart a European renovation wave and make the EU a leader in the circular economy.
“It is about making systemic modernisation across our economy, society and industry. It is about building a stronger world to live in. Our current levels of consumption of raw materials, energy, water, food and land use are not sustainable. We need to change how we treat nature, how we produce and consume, live and work, eat and heat, travel and transport,” she said.
But it isn’t just an environmental or economic project: “it needs to be a new cultural project for Europe,” Von der Leyen stressed. “Every movement has its own look and feel. And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic — to match style with sustainability.”
“VdL’s invocation of the Bauhaus might seem a little whimsical at a time when Europe is facing the double whammy of a pandemic and a climate emergency, but it does make quite a bit of sense.
The ambition of the Green Deal will not pan out without mass production. For example, the prefabricated insulation panels that are needed to modernize old, drafty buildings must be manufactured at scale, and fast,” David Meyer writes in Fortune.
“What’s more, they ought to look good. Such a monumental effort would be slowed down without the buy-in of the people who live in and around these buildings. Form and function need to go hand in hand, [the] Bauhaus-style — though taste [see last week’s Reading notes for an excellent article on taste by Stephen Bayley] is a personal matter, and there will doubtless be many people who don’t approve of whatever aesthetic the ‘new European Bauhaus’ comes up with.”
Meyer foresees trouble down the line, though. “Europe has a huge variety of architectural styles; the streets of Helsinki look nothing like those of Paris,” he writes. “The idea of coming up with some sort of distinct aesthetic for the EU’s systemic change, as [VdL] puts it, goes beyond the more typical Brussels fare of standardizing emissions targets and trying to create ‘European champions’ in the industrial and digital sectors; it risks treading on the contentious territory of standardized culture. But then again, the Bauhaus was always an internationalist movement, and its legacy could hardly be more impressive — and relevant — to this day. Maybe, just maybe, Europe really could come up with a successor that proves as useful and influential.”
The original Bauhaus, which translates literally as ‘construction house,’ was founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 and sought to unify art and crafts. Like the space Von der Leyen is envisioning, it was a multidisciplinary collective that brought together architects, furniture-makers, photographers, typographers and artists, including the painters Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy. During its short existence, it became one of the most influential design movements, with designers such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Anni Albers passing through the school before it closed in 1933.
The school would become famous for its approach to design, which attempted to unify the principles of mass production with individual artistic vision and strove to combine aesthetics with everyday function. Its modernist aesthetic and internationalism and social progressiveness still have a huge influence on designers.
Anni Albers and the forgotten women of the Bauhaus, by Dominic Lutyens (BBC Designed)
The Other Art History: The Forgotten Women of Bauhaus, by Jillian Billard (Artspace, July 2018)
How Bauhaus Redefined What Design Could Do for Society, by Nikil Saval (The New York Times Style Magazine, February 2019)
‘Surprise’ in contemporary Japanese architecture
“Throughout the 20th century, much of what replaced traditional Japanese structures represented a copy of Western designs, from prewar European-style municipal buildings to the postmodern edifices of the 1980s,” Blaine Brownell writes in Japanese architecture — building the impossible.
“However, with the approach of a new millennium, Japanese architects began to chart a new course for their craft. Radically contemporary and increasingly independent from Western styles and methods, Japanese architecture has once again found its identity.” But this identity isn’t guided by a particular or overarching style, even though contemporary Japanese architecture can often be identified due to its attention to material craft, spatial resourcefulness and conceptual purity. “Nevertheless,” Brownell writes, “there is a singular quality that pervades these works — a fundamental aspect that is as omnipresent as it is curious — which is the element of surprise.”
One Japanese word for surprise is ihyou, which means something unexpected. It “refers to the subtle yet powerful manipulation of expectations in the mind of the beholder. By raising the user’s consciousness and inviting interrogation, today’s Japanese designs leave an indelible impression.”
“Large surprises are quite easy, like saying ‘Boo!’ I’d like to make the surprises as small as possible, in order to enhance the process of discovery.” — Oki Sato
In his essay for Engelsberg Ideas, Blaine Brownell describes three fundamental approaches for ihyou, named after what Japanese architects aim to express in each case: impossibility, incongruity and totality. It’s a fascinating read, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. In this Reading notes, I will limit myself to a few thoughts on incongruity, which refers to something that is out of harmony with its context or out of keeping with conventional practices.
“One way Japanese architects achieve this result is by questioning everything: materials, construction techniques, programme, spatial configuration, massing, and so on.” The Pritzker Prize winning architect Toyo Ito achieves the unexpected “by undermining preconceptions of structural behaviour. For lay audiences, the results are not impossible so much as nonsensical. For example, a series of Ito’s works focuses on the use of diagrids, or diagonally framed structures. Buildings that eschew vertical columns are rare; however, Ito’s unusual approaches, which incorporate irregular spacing and member sizes, set his projects even farther apart from conventional practice,” Brownell writes.
“Ito’s temporary 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in London [see photograph above], designed in collaboration with engineer Cecil Balmond, was a single-volume building whose facade and structure were completely integrated. Conceived as the manifestation of a series of intersecting lines placed at different angles, the resulting envelope — composed of an intricate pattern of trapezoidal and triangular shapes — readily accommodated the binary functions of transparency and solidity. All structural loads were conveyed through this interdependent frame, without the separate vertical columns that would be a standard feature. The memorable result received many accolades, with [the] architecture critic Jonathan Glancey calling it ‘one of the most exquisite and revolutionary buildings of recent times.’”
“Incongruity is also attained,” Brownell writes, “by rethinking the relationship between a building’s programme and its physical form. This connection is a fertile territory for reimagination precisely because it has become so predictable. We can look at the Grace Farms designed by SANAA in New Canaan [see photographs above] as one example of this reconceptualisation. The project’s programme consists of a variety of different uses including an auditorium, cafe, library, and gymnasium, all set within a rolling landscape. The typical approach would be to create several small independent structures, each with its own grade level — similar to Philip Johnson’s estate [The Glass House] located in the same town. However, SANAA decided to create a single structure that unites the disparate activities under one roof. The building assumes a serpentine form that traces the ridges of the landscape like a river, its open colonnades providing views of the surrounding forests beyond. According to urbanist Sam Holleran, the unexpected manifestation is akin to ‘an ant farm — channeling through the earth, popping up from below, and dropping down into the folds of hillside.’”
“The three strategies of impossibility, incongruity, and totality all seek to induce a state of ihyou in audiences by generating novel experiences. Obviously, novelty is a relative state defined by some departure from ordinary circumstances. According to Japanese designer Kenya Hara, the key to understanding a baseline condition is to gain an appreciation for the sum of experiences and habits each individual has formed related to the built environment. The designer can then manipulate fundamental aspects of this set of experiences. ‘A designer creates an architecture of information within the mind of the recipient of his work,’ states Hara.
The approaches employed by contemporary Japanese architects to evoke surprise relate to theories of cognitive science. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that much of visual perception is ‘half visual experience, half thought.’ [In] Imagination and Perception, the philosopher P.F. Strawson discusses Wittgenstein’s scrutiny of the viewer’s moment of surprise: ‘He is particularly impressed by the case where they [visual contents] undergo a change of aspects under one’s very eyes, as it were, the case where one is suddenly struck by a new aspect,’ he writes. This ihyou phenomenon is enhanced when approached with sophistication and nuance. ‘I always try to convey the surprising moments of my designs with a degree of subtlety,’ says designer Oki Sato of Nendo. ‘Large surprises are quite easy, like saying «Boo!» I’d like to make the surprises as small as possible, in order to enhance the process of discovery.’
In short, ihyou is about making the common uncommon. By manipulating the everyday fabric of experience, today’s Japanese architects recalibrate their audiences’ expectations of what is possible within the built environment. At the same time, they infuse the user’s daily activities with delight, intrigue, and even awe. In the best cases, the work blurs distinctions between what is real and what is fictional. ‘Experiencing [new buildings in Japan] is a process of suspending architecture in a perpetually evanescent and temporary state of ‘in-between’ where becoming and fading away, growth and decay, presence and absence, reality and fiction, silence and speech take place simultaneously — or perhaps are one and the same thing’, writes architectural historian Botond Bognar. ‘It is in this sense that many of these designs evoke the images of elusive phenomena, of twilight, shadows, clouds, or mirage, and gain a certain ephemeral or fictive quality.’”
Socrates in love
Where did Socrates, the foundational figure of Western philosophy, get the inspiration for his original ideas about truth, love, justice, courage and knowledge?
According to research conducted by Armand D’Angour, an associate professor in Classics at the University of Oxford, as a young man, Socrates, came into contact with a fiercely intelligent woman, Aspasia of Miletus. D’Angour argues that her ideas about love and transcendence inspired Socrates to formulate key aspects of his thought (as transmitted by Plato).
“If the evidence for this thesis is accepted,” he writes in Socrates in love: how the ideas of this woman are at the root of Western philosophy, “the history of philosophy will have taken a momentous turn: a woman who has been all but erased from the story must be acknowledged as laying the foundations of our 2,500-year old philosophical tradition.”
“So. Could Socrates and Aspasia have fallen in love when they first met and conversed in their twenties? The fact that Plato accords Aspasia considerable intellectual authority over Socrates has alarmed generations of scholars, who have largely dismissed the scenario in [Plato’s dialogue Menexenus] as a parody of oratorical techniques.
Meanwhile, they have been happy to consider Aspasia a ‘brothel-keeper and prostitute’ on the strength of citations from comic poets of the day. At best, scholars have elevated Aspasia to the status of hetaira — a courtesan. But this appellation is not once given to her in ancient sources.
If we accept the evidence that Aspasia was, like ‘Diotima,’ an authoritative instructor of eloquence and an expert on matters of love — rather than a common prostitute or even an influential courtesan — a striking possibility arises. The notions attributed in [Plato’s] Symposium to ‘Diotima’ are central to the philosophy as well as to the way of life that Socrates was to espouse.
The doctrine put in the mouth of ‘Diotima’ teaches that the physical realm can and should be put aside in favour of higher ideals; that the education of the soul, not the gratification of the body, is love’s paramount duty; and that the particular should be subordinated to the general, the transient to the permanent, and the worldly to the ideal.
These ideas may be acknowledged as lying at the very root of the Western philosophical tradition. If so, identifying the fictional ‘Diotima’ as the real Aspasia makes for a historically sensational conclusion. In retrospect, the identification is so obvious that its failure to be seen clearly up to now must perhaps be attributed to conscious or unconscious prejudices about the status and intellectual capacities of women.
The time is ripe to restore the beautiful, dynamic and clever Aspasia to her true status as one of the founders of European philosophy.”
And also this…
“Human beings are the only species on Earth that do not know how they are supposed to live,” Martin Hägglund, the author of This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free, writes in The world to come: What should we value?, which is part of The world to come, a series in the NewStatesman on how the Covid-19 pandemic will transform our way of life.
“For human beings, […] the question of how we should lead our lives is always at issue, even if we try to forget that fact. We can discover the ideal conditions for other species by studying their natural way of life. But we cannot discover the best way for us to live simply by studying our present or past societies.”
Being hit by a pandemic, Hägglund argues, inevitably raises the question of who we are as a species and how we organise our societies.
“Our ability to engage the question of who we are — and who we ought to be — is t the heart of what the young Karl Marx called our species-being.” This idea is often dismissed as a naive appeal to a supposed human essence. However, such a critique is misleading, according to Hägglund. “The species-being of the human is precisely that we have no given essence. We are certainly subject to biological constraints — and we cannot even in principle transcend all such constraints — but for us there is always a question of how we are supposed to deal with these constraints.
Unlike other species where every generation repeats the same life cycle, our species has a history that reflects different ways of reproducing our life-form: we have been masters and slaves, lords and serfs, capitalists and wage labourers. Moreover, our species-being entails that we can take a stand on the goodness or badness of the way we live. As Marx underlines in Capital, we are the only animal that can imagine a better world than the one we inhabit, and transform the conditions of our existence in light of commitments rather than mere instincts.
“Revolutionary change, however, cannot happen merely through imagination and ideas. It requires material transformation of how we sustain our lives through production and consumption. The existential questions of our lives — what we value — cannot be separated from the economic organisation of our society.” But in today’s capitalist economy, “[our] well-being, and the well-being of the ecosystem of which we are a part, does not have any economic ‘value’ in itself but only insofar as we can profit from it,” Hägglund writes.
According to him, “[to] grasp our responsibility for the environmental crisis, and have any chance of shaping a better world to come, Marx’s analysis of the problem of value is indispensable. […] The generation of capital wealth has always depended and will always depend on those who have no choice but to be exploited as cheap labour, whether domestically or in poorer countries to which production is moved. […] Only the overcoming of capitalism through organised collective action can fulfil the commitment to a sustainable and flourishing world. We will be told that this is impossible, but the stakes could not be higher. The being of our species depends on it.”
Nicole Hassoun, a professor of philosophy at Binghamton University in New York, ponders over the question what a minimally good life is and whether we are prepared to live it?
Her proposal is this: “in order to figure out what this kind of minimally good life requires, we should attempt to avail ourselves of another’s perspective on their own life, and consider what we’d need to live such a life. And when we are reasonable, caring and free, we’ll set a standard that is sufficient for others given their particular interests. Moreover, if we put ourselves in others’ shoes in trying to figure out what a minimally good life requires, we won’t set the threshold too high. The question is not whether a fortunate individual would be willing to trade places with someone who is able to live only a minimally good life. Rather, the question is only whether the free, reasonable and caring person would be content if they had to live as that person does.
Since people have different backgrounds, goals, tools and resources, one might argue that different standards are appropriate for those who grow up in different circumstances (whether it be the cornfields of Nebraska or the slums of New York City). Furthermore, it’s commonly held that people deserve the advantages they have: since everyone has grown up in the ‘real world,’ they should know what to expect for their efforts. I believe that no one deserves to be born with what they have — their natural resources, institutions or tools. Everyone will try hard enough to live minimally well if they can. So, while some might need more than others, we should help everyone live at least minimally well. This doesn’t mean we have to give everyone exactly the same things — still, if we are, or consider ourselves to be, reasonable, caring and free, then we must help everyone secure the things they need to live minimally well.”
“[Charlie Parker] had a unique tone; no other saxophonist has achieved as human a sound. It could be edgy, and even sharp. (He used the hardest and most technically difficult of the reeds.) It could be smooth and big and sombre. It could be soft and husky. Unlike most saxophonists of his time, who took their cue from Coleman Hawkins, he used almost no vibrato; when he did, it was only a flutter, a murmur. The blues lived in every room of his style, and he was one of the most striking and affecting blues improvisers we have had. His slow blues had a preaching, admonitory quality (Parker’s Mood, Barbados, and Blue Bird). He would begin a solo with a purposely stuttering four- or five-note announcement, pause for effect, repeat the phrase, bending its last note into silence, turn the phrase around backward and abruptly slip into double time, zigzag up the scale, circle around at the top, and plummet, the notes falling somewhere between silence and sound. (Parker was a master of dynamics and of the dramatic use of silence.) Another pause, and he would begin his second chorus with a dreaming, three-note figure, each of the notes running into the next and each held in prolonged, hymnlike fashion. …”
“… He would shatter this brief spell by inserting two or three short arpeggios, disconnected and broken off, then he would float into a loafing half time and shoot into another climbing-and-falling double-time run, in which he would dart in and out of nearby keys. He would pause, then close the chorus with an amen figure resembling his opening announcement. Parker’s medium-tempo blues had a glittering, monolithic quality, and his fast blues were multiplications of his slow blues. All of them contained an extraordinary variety of emotion. He cajoled, he attacked, he mourned, he sang, he laughed, he cursed. Perhaps his reliance on drugs and booze was an instinctive attempt to replenish his creative well, for every solo was a free and wondrously articulated giving of himself.”
From Bird: The brilliance of Charlie Parker, by Whitney Balliett (The New Yorker, February 23, 1976)
“Hanoi’s shophouses, narrow, terraced structures lining alleyway-like streets bustling with vendors and motorbikes, have survived foreign occupation of the country, wars and revolution. Now they are under pressure from a modernizing economy,” John Boudreau and Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen write in Hanoi Shophouses Reveal City’s Communist and Capitalist History ‡.
“These multi-floor structures, known locally as nha ong (‘tube‐houses’), define Vietnam’s streetscape and, in particular, Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a warren of 36 streets in the city’s center, dating to the Ly and Tran dynasties. The streets are named for trades that once dominated neighborhoods, such as Hàng Tre (bamboo), Hàng Dong (copper) and Hàng Bac (silver or precious metals), where you can still find gold and jewelry shops. These elongated buildings are home to multi-generational families.”
“The value of a shophouse depends on its location — the busier the street it rises up from, the greater its worth, [the local architect Tong Manh Hai] said. The 100-square-meter building his tea shop is located in sits along a main thoroughfare, Hang Gai (silk) Street, and could probably sell for as much as 120 billion dong ($5.2 million), he said. The vibrant retail street attracted a Domino’s Pizza outlet, which faces a plaza on the edge of the historic area. The architectural hold shophouses have on Vietnam is beginning to slacken amid the desire of the nation’s growing middle class for international-standard comforts and conveniences.
They also must compete with sprawling new malls offering air-conditioned shopping and entertainment. In Ho Chi Minh City, the nation’s go-go commercial hub also known as Saigon, developers and officials flatten historic buildings for high-end hotels, office complexes and new residential projects. ‘In Ho Chi Minh City, a lot of stuff gets bulldozed,’ [Michael R. DiGregorio, the Vietnam country representative of the Asia Foundation who is an expert in urban planning] said. ‘They have a vision of Vietnam as a kind of Bangkok or Singapore. They build their tall buildings, each one trying to be a landmark but they actually destroy all these other landmarks to do that.’
Vietnamese nonetheless are not completely abandoning shophouses. Even as some Old Quarter shophouse owners move to modern residences for more space and accommodations such as swimming pools and supermarkets, family members or renters remain in the historic homes to oversee businesses. And those that do seek newer facilities tend to retain the shophouse communal spirit, sharing everything from babysitters to shopping duties with neighbors. ‘It’s the ruralization of Hanoi,’ DiGregorio said.”
‡ This article is part of an ongoing series by CityLab on the home designs that define cities. Other articles are on iconic floor plans in Paris, Brussels, Athens, Sydney, Singapore, London, Berlin and Amsterdam .
The He Art Museum (HEM) in Shunde, designed by japanese architect Tadao Ando, takes its name from its founder, He Jianfeng, the Chinese Entrepreneur who built Midea Group into one of the world’s largest appliance makers. The word he, however, carries multiple meanings, including harmony, balance, fortune, and union, all of which informed the design and spatial character of Ando’s design.
HEM’s interior is characterised by a ‘double-helix’ pair of staircases, which climb to the fourth floor and are bathed in natural light from a skylight above. this feature is inspired by the local architecture of Lingnan, which also makes use of rooflights, and ancient Chinese cosmology and philosophy that believed the sky was round and divine. The light from above permeates deep into the plan and exhibition areas, resulting in comfortable spaces that connect to the outside world.
According to Blaine Brownell, Ando is one of the architectural champions of the unreal. “Many of his admirers appreciate his attention to the interplay between light and shadow, the thoughtful assembly of platonic volumes, and the relentless drive towards material perfection,” he writes in his essay about ihyou, the element of surprise in contemporary Japanese architecture (see also above). “An equally important, although little discussed, objective in many of his works is the apparent defiance of natural laws. Specifically, Ando incorporates details that intentionally express an uncanny lightness, as if gravity is not a governing force. This seeming implausibility is enhanced by the heaviness of a predominant material language of reinforced concrete.”
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
― Mary Oliver, stanza 4 from Sometimes