Pawn
         

by Michael Holt and Marissa Looby

A teasing copulation? A sneaky frotteuristic quiver? An adolescent vice in a darkened bedroom? Or even a Renaissance quixotism of arousal? The term pawn, if audibly recited, would provide many with the notion of a prescient phrase: archi-porn. The harbinger of sleek renderings and curvilinear contortions currently transfixes the gaze of contemporary architectural observation and criticism. However, it would be folly to assume that the term pawn is used entirely interchangeably with that of the pornographic—the pun is merely incidental. But the actions of a pawn are strikingly familiar with its aural semblance, porn.

Architecture has long-since been linked to politics and power—from the Gothic church exclaiming the glory of God to Adolf Hitler representing the authoritarian supremacy of the Nazi Socialist Party. Or, even, Conrad Hilton purporting capitalist, democratic “freedom” through the specific placing of the Hilton brand during the Cold War period. Architecture is a political tool. A device in the hands of the political forces that play the game. In contemporary terms, the World Trade Center redevelopment site is arguably the most likely example of a statement of socioeconomic and political action. The masterplan architect Daniel Libeskind even went as far as to symbolize the date of the Declaration of Independence through the height of the Freedom Tower design which will stand at 1,776 feet, not to mention the asymmetrical design at its pinnacle which was representational of the Statue of Liberty, one of the defining symbols of capitalist democracy in the Western world. However, this is not a chronicle of the widely discussed “symbols” of singular, monumental power. Instead, what is more prescient in the contemporary is the multiplicities of what we feel are strategic projects emanating from China. These projects are not only of the civic, monumental scale, but of smaller scales as well, with multiple repetitions. This article is concerned with the movement of the West into the East, and vice versa; it is this kind of transaction that we are likening to pawn.

How, then, does this abstracted chess piece relate to the policies and power of architecture in China? China, in an attempt to be seen as progressive, in Western terms, has opened its architectural trade borders. It seems that under the circumstance of the pawn, the Western architect is the purveyor and the proliferating figure in economic theory facilitating the strategic penetration of the socialist market economy on behalf of the West. The West sees this as an opportunity to project political ideology on to the single-party, communist state. In this example, the link between architecture and power is inarguable; however, in contemporary terms it is used as a tool for the Western world to break the Eastern markets, and in return, for the East to be perceived as trading with the West. Not in an empirical sense, rather it is an attempt at economic conquest. That is, architecture retains its mantle as political power but it is deceiving. In the pawn analogy, this is what would be called the poisoned pawn position. The pawn is fiendishly placed awaiting the opponent to believe they are to take an advantage by seizing the piece. When it is duly dispatched, however, it opens up the game and the opponent actually seizes control: the pawn in architecture, the power play. What seems to the West as rearguard action is in fact the deception tactic. The pawn is positioned as part of the strategy for breaking the market; it will be sacrificed for the greater gain. It is important to note, however, that this is not a comparison that suggests the two sides are warring factions, menacingly at odds with one another. Far from it, it is a comment on architecture through the perceived maneuvers of Western architects in the Eastern economic market and its possible reciprocating consequences for the discipline and beyond. But which side draws out the pawn to leave the opponent vulnerable?

Economists predict a 2020 target for China to become the major economic power in global terms. This econo-political sovereignty, nevertheless, has its roots some forty years previous to the projected 2020 date at the inception of the Chinese Reform beginning in 1978. After overthrowing the Maoist faction, Deng Xiaoping began restructuring China’s economy, beginning with the decollectivization of agriculture, the implementation of a dual price system, and the encouragement of privately-owned enterprises. Under Deng, China opened to foreign investment through the initiation of a series of special economic zones, relatively free of regulation or other such interventions. This was the birth of the socialist market economy in the People’s Republic of China. It is this economic asymmetry that is most intriguing and something seeped into the architectural profession.

This kind of oxymoron is what architecture may be experiencing through the fact that the societal construct that architecture revolves in is an asymmetrical polity. In a lecture at Columbia University in September 2010, Rem Koolhaas was asked a question with regards to the changing role of the architect. His answer was found in the Reagan administration. President Ronald Reagan structured a “service economy,” meaning he privatized services and enacted a sectorization. Couple this with other such Republican ideologies on budgets and fiscal responsibility going back further to the Nixon administration—two groups were made distinct: Public and Private. Yet, what did Koolhaas mean in his reply? We believe the answer lies in the fact that the role of the architect has become—to use an architectural term—facetted. Koolhaas, whose agenda is not only in the realm of designing and constructing buildings, and theorizing on architecture, is also hugely influential in the discussion and implementation of urban planning policy. This access provides Koolhaas with a deep understanding of the political sphere in which the built world exists. Returning to President Reagan and the sectorization of services, Koolhaas suggests that the architectural discipline was significantly altered into a facetted service. The service rendered by the architect was removed from the aesthetic in a kind of functionalist approach to architecture, irreversibly changing the role of the architect as “master-builder” to architect as “overseer,” working in a team of developers, clients, construction agents, etc. This, in turn, led to a devaluing of the role of the architect as authority figure. Architecture—or the architect—has become a tool, an industry service. Not in providing specific programmatic needs or other such rudimentary aspects of the built environment but as a service to the econo-political tussle.

Governments require public relations, is architecture that device? Richard Nixon famously said about the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika that it was accepted only by the fact Gorbachev was a master of PR. In the same respect, is architecture acting as PR for Western governments, in effect becoming the sacrificial pawn in the act of drawing out the opponent? (1) There is an infiltration of the market through tactical PR plotting of architectural invention in specific regions. Architects gain from global recognition and huge returns on design and in effect allow for Western corporatism to settle in the East. Architecture as a political pawn. A veritable consulate! Much has been said in recent press of Koolhaas’s / OMA’s design of CCTV, Beijing, in political terms as a symbol of state apparatus ominously standing as a monolithic political power play which finds itself riddled with political overtures and analogies. Similar aspersions could be cast on Steven Holl’s Nanjing Sifang Museum of Art and Architecture, an edifice that stands atop of a rolling landscape as a “gateway” to a new cultural development, the Contemporary International Practical Exhibition of Architecture—a privately financed project set within a national forest some twelve miles outside of town. Or, in order to emphasize the multiplicity; other examples of projects designed by some of the profession’s most renowned practices which generate significant global interest but are more oblique in their political persuasion and representation are, in particular, Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House or, alternatively, Chaoyangmen SOHO development, Coop Himmelblau’s Dalian International Conference Center, not to mention more Steven Holl projects—notably the Linked Hybrid and the Horizontal Skyscraper. The aforementioned projects reap international attention, providing China with the supremely recognizable aesthetic of Western architects. However, single entities are not only what concern the observation of the pawn, it is in its entirety where the examples become fascinatingly overbearing in their political and economic objective, where the Western multi-singular conglomerate, acting as pawn, attempts to take hold of its Eastern opponent, most significantly the Ordos Project, Inner Mongolia, China.

Inner Mongolia is one of five autonomous regions in China. Ordos is an existing city within Inner Mongolia that witnessed large economic growth due a mining boom and, as many newly wealthy cities have done in China, the state sanctioned to build the new Ordos City next to the existing Ordos. This form of development is an efficient way for the state to increase GDP and other state targets. The economy is, in effect, stimulated via the building process. The housing in the new Ordos City consists of large apartment blocks and typical Western-style suburban houses and masterplanning strategies. In spite of the infrastructure and residential developments reaching completion, the new Ordos City is still yet to approach full occupancy—a relatively empty metropolis awaits potential residents. The more affluent have purchased property as investment; while those who, out of need or desire, would want to live in the new Ordos simply lack the means to do so. (2) Within the new city lies the Ordos Project; a masterplan for a suburban-type area located in the desert. The developer Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Ltd collaborated with FAKE Design, Ai Weiwei’s architectural firm, to create the masterplan which includes a large portion of suburban housing. Ai commissioned the Swiss-based architects, Herzog & de Meuron, to choose one hundred promising architects from around the world to build a single suburban house on an allocated 1,000-square meter plot with a construction timeline of one hundred days. (3) The architects were selected from twenty-seven different countries across the globe: thirty-three emanated from North America; five from South America; two from Africa; forty-nine from Europe; and the remaining eleven are native to the Asian continent.

 

 

 

The movement from East to West in this project is compelling; a Chinese artist collaborates with Swiss architects to oversee another group of architects from predominantly Western countries to design houses for the Chinese. The conglomerate of houses produces a project that is, on the whole, what could be labeled as an urban museum—a place of rich experimentation and cataloguing within loosely defined urban controls and parameters; the masterplan becomes the corridors, and the houses the museum walls. However, “[t]he Ordos 100 projects are challenged to go beyond the individuality of the villa in itself and achieve, in the togetherness of all 100 villas, an urban totality with a coherent sense of whole.” How is the objective of this competition more than individual architectural prowess? In looking at site model photographs of design proposals, the designs look strikingly unique in form and mass. The placing of one hundred up and coming architects on individual blocks opposite each other seems to breed competition—which architect was most successful? Yet, in the same instance, the project strives for an urban whole. What is also intriguing is the Eastern attempt at a conglomerate of Western-style houses to promote its “progressiveness,” alongside the race for one of the individual houses to prevail as the most aesthetically appealing or, more generally, architecturally successful; in effect, the individual competing against the mass. A wholly capitalist ideology. The chess piece pits itself against its opponent as the multiple piece (one of eight pieces on each side of the chess board) and yet is entirely alone when each piece is thrust into the chess game, ultimately coming up short in terms of its ability to overcome its opponent. The pawn may succeed in advancing one space or in over-throwing one piece, but it ultimately meets its own eventuality after only minor progressions.

 

 

Maybe this project is an attempt at innovation through experimentation. The Chinese have been widely criticized by Western commentators who tend to suggest that China replicates rather than innovates. For example, China is a significant exporter of technological, electronic, and other such goods but it is also the harbinger of mass piracy of software, largely pilfered from the Western market. “China’s elite, in government and business, are deeply concerned that their companies remain unable to create truly innovative products. The obsession with the fact that no Chinese citizen has won a scientific Nobel Prize stems partly from this worry.” (4) The Ordos Project aims not at architectural conviviality, or eclecticism, instead it could well be said that it is a direct attempt at importing innovation in a competitive environment. Perhaps this project is in order to find a prototypical house for the burgeoning Chinese population as their existing cities expand or mutate? Or, to answer more in alignment with this argument, it is an attempt for the East to seem to be keeping abreast with its Western counterpart even in the depths of the desert, within the in the most basic architectural typology—a suburban house. Again, the pawn rears its head in analogy here. The pawn would be comparable to the house typology which would mean, for instance, OMA’s CCTV building would be the all conquering queen power piece, rendering the pawn as the pikemen – the frontliner – at the periphery, in suburbia. The pawn would be sacrificial – the posioned pawn in regard to Western architecture's position in China – plainly acting as the piece that attempts to seem useful to the opponent, but is a point of tactical experimentation.

 

 

Jacques Herzog, one of the founding partners of Herzog & de Meuron, has carved a career on innovation, sometimes in collaboration with a number of famed artists. This innovation sometimes includes the appropriation of other artists’ work within their buildings. For example, the Ricola Europe Factory and Storage Building, Mulhouse-Brunnstatt, France (1992–3) uses photographic images by Karl Blossfeldt to pattern the facade of the building. The practice seems to function best when it has the ability to facilitate creative exchange, a coming together of arguably disparate fields, like art and architecture. The firm has taken a similar approach to the potential of working in China. Herzog, understanding the massive financial possibilities within the large scale cultural project work up for grabs in the East, has no qualms about reapplying the notion of collaboration, but in financial, not creative, terms. Indeed, at the time of completing the Bird’s Nest project for the Beijing Olympics in 2000, he was quoted in a Times interview saying “Literally everybody in the Western world trades with China. This is a fact. So why should an architect not?” (5) Herzog understands and capitalizes on the amount of global exposure his practice can receive in building or lecturing in China. He understands the exploitation involved. His position is one of taking the pawn, thinking this gains his practice an advantage, and it does. However, just how nourishing or toxic is the pawn to, not only Herzog & de Meuron, but to the profession at large? The wider implications on the discipline are what is more at stake here. Consequently, it weakens its own defense; unilaterally destabilizes and opens up the game. Architecture and the role of the architect will be further reduced, diminished. It is a short-term gain for an ultimate long-term loss. Architecture, as a piece of PR pawn is exploiting itself. It sells itself after flaunting and flirting its way around foreign land.

1. It is worthy of mention here that the debate could be further discussed in relation to the significant amount of construction activity in large portions of the United Arab Emirates.
2.For a concise overview see news report by Melissa Chan, “Building China’s Growth,” Al Jazeera English, November 9, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0h7V3Twb-Qk.
3. Ai Weiwei has previously worked with Herzog and de Meuron on a number of projects, notably the Bird’s Nest, Beijing (2008).
4. Leonhardt, D., ‘The Real Problem With China’, Economic Scene: The New York Times, January 1, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/12/business/economy/12leonhardt.html?_r=1
5. Dyckhoff, T., ‘We can Help Change in China Says Architects Herzog and De Meuron’, The Times, March 12, 2008

 

Michael Holt and Marissa Looby began collaborating at Columbia University in 2009, they write under the name ‘Untitled’- which is also the name of their architectural practice. Untitled – as a term – is oddly tautological, the contradictory mismatch. Untitled is intentionally ambiguous as they invent every project, never limiting themselves to something previously identifiable. Through a lack of particularity the article becomes defined. A project is not prescribed: stylistically or formally. Focusing on not focusing allows for the unexpected: the indefinable. Far flung corners of the earth spawned them, now they sow their seeds in New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
MENU
Introduction: To Call a Spade a Spade