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Fundamentals of Contemporary Global Practice

Fundamentals of Contemporary Global Practice

‘Fundamentals’ is the theme chosen by curator Rem Koolhaas for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which will run from 7 June to 23 November. Koolhaas has expressed his hope for a thorough exploration of architecture’s evolution into a globalised singular modern aesthetic. Along with this, he hopes to see investigations into the survival of unique national features and mentalities.

“The transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognise,” he has written of the theme, “involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions, and imperceptible ways of remaining ‘national’.” [1]Unique national features, he has observed, “continue to exist and flourish even as international collaboration and exchange intensify.”

It is crucial, he proposes, in “a time of ubiquitous Google research and the flattening of cultural memory,” [2]for local narratives to be resurrected and exposed in architecture; for the valid communicative potential of architecture to be resurrected in an age of anonymous formal extravagance. Thus, while his Central Pavilion exhibition at the Biennale will explore the history of different architectural elements (such as the balcony, wall, door and window), he has directed the national pavilions to explore each country’s unique architectural styles and typologies over the last century. [3]

The gobalisation of architectural programme and form (as a function of a global economy) on one hand, and the survival of regional accents (as an expression of culture and place) on the other, highlight the role of ‘local’ knowledge in architectural production. ‘Google-style’ architecture with regional accents may have become the norm for firms that are culturally rooted in the places where they build. But how might one discuss the ways in which the work of international practices, so common today, is conceptualised and articulated?

In an architecture of globalised programme (such as the ubiquitous mixed-use development of shopping mall plus office and residential), which typically embodies an air-conditioned placelessness, what is the relevance of the local ‘touch’ and how can it be defined? If it is manifested by a globalised practice of multicultural staff working in multiple locations, how relevant will it be to a place and its people? Furthermore, what influence does multiculturalism have in the identity and output of architectural practices?

An architecture of connection

“There is obviously a generally ubiquitous architectural language evident today, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” says SPARK Director Stephen Pimbley. “Perhaps we should try to embrace it rather than resist it – rather than try too hard to make everything entirely different and extravagant” – that is, focused primarily on a characteristic form rather than a connection with context. SPARK’s goal is not to produce vernacular architecture in the places we work, he says, “but neither is it to deliver ubiquitous abstraction. It is important for people to be able to take ownership of an idea. They can do that through stories within the design – threads about the surroundings that we can weave into the work. These enable people to form connections with a building. Without those connections, you might as well drop something in from outerspace.”

Perhaps approach – the ‘practice mindset’ that conceives of and meaningfully shapes those threads, or not – is the factor that distinguishes today’s globalised practices from each other. SPARK’s Directors are British, German, Singaporean and Chinese, and its offices are located in Beijing, London, Shanghai, and Singapore. SPARK’s staff derives from 25 nations (at the time of writing), bringing with them a variety of experiences, cultural and educational backgrounds. SPARK takes a collective approach to design, says Pimbley, and what underpins it is the capacity to attune to the cultural environments in which the firm works. “We use these cultural sensibilities to achieve something appropriate to Asia,” he says. “I’d like to think this comes down to mindset or approach, as well as the fact that our Directors have spent a lot of time in most of the locations we design for.”

Beijing-based Director Jan Felix Clostermann, for example, finds it important to respond to the existing physical context in which he works, as well as the habits of the people who live there. “Having lived in Chinese cities, I have a much deeper knowledge of them than I otherwise would. When I work in a place, I find it important to understand how people spend their time in the urban environment. People’s habits are very different across Chinese cities.”

In Fuzhou, for example, he has observed that people like to spend a lot of time outdoors conversing and sharing street prepared food with their neighbours. This habit influenced the shaping of the Fuzhou Wusibei Thaihot Plaza, with the development of a faceted façade that breaks up the building mass as well as a 24-hour street at the rear. He explains, “The idea was to make the experience of walking around this extremely big mass more variegated, to create different perspectives, and to allow for an activated street life that would encourage rather than discourage the continuation of existing behaviours.”

SPARK’s design for the Vanke Jiugong Mixed-use Development in Beijing responds to the citadel-like urban structure that Clostermann has observed in that city. “In Vanke Jiugong, we made an effort to break up the block, and make visible the connective routes between the city and the rooftop. An important characteristic of the project is making links with the city clear,” he says.

He acknowledges that “maybe the fundamentals of the Jiugong and Fuzhou projects are the same because they deal with a generic building typology. If Vanke Jiugong were located somewhere else, it would embody exactly the same fundamentals and main concepts.” But when it comes to what Clostermann calls “the more personal aspects of design,” the city influence emerges. “You can use that then as a pretext for why Vanke Jiugong looks so different from Thaihot Fuzhou on the outside,” he says.

“What is also different are the little homages, such as the use of a type of terrazo tile common to Beijing in Vanke Jiugong. They were once all over the Beijing subway and also in the housing where people grew up, so Beijingers tend to associate them with being cheap and from the past,” he explains. “A Chinese design team would never have proposed the use of these tiles. We liked the connection with local lived experience, and also the colours and durability of the tiles. We had a very nice response from the local people in the project team when we put this idea on the table. They said, ‘This gives me a warm feeling. It reminds me of my childhood.’”

Pimbley began working in Asia in the early 2000s, having previously practiced predominantly in the UK. “I don’t design any differently now than I used to in Europe,” he explains. But while his general approach may be unchanged, he has had to familiarise himself with the conditions of Asian cities and the types of expression appropriate to their people. “I don’t believe one’s understanding of a place and its culture can happen overnight,” he says. “You need to spend a long time in a place before you can participate in a dissemination of its culture, and that can only happen gradually. It’s quite surreptitious. The more you understand it, the more you can bring ideas about it into your work, and allow people to take ownership of your work through those ideas. You can’t pretend to understand a culture overnight.”

SPARK staff in the spotlight

Though projects are driven by Directors, SPARK’s working processes bestow a considerable amount of freedom on its staff teams for the intricate development of forms and solutions. How does their varied citizenry influence the way they work as well as the modes in which they interact with each other and their sites?

Uldis Sedlovs: Capitalising on difference via language

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Latvian Senior Architect Uldis Sedlovs joined SPARK’s Shanghai office in 2012 having previously worked in Riga (for Latvian firms) and Riyadh (for a Danish office). He studied architecture and philosophy (majoring in French literature) in Latvia. Sedlovs came to Asia with broad professional and personal goals, wishing to challenge his understanding of space and his ability to adapt to non-familiar situations and unexpected scenarios. He also seeks knowledge about the use of proportion in traditional Chinese architecture.

In his previous positions, Sedlovs was guided by team leaders who dominated the studios’ creative directions. Things are very different in SPARK’s Shanghai office, where the team works with far greater synergy. This, of course, opens up opportunities for collective authorship and the influence of multiple perspectives on the shaping of architecture.

“The idea of having an international team is based on the belief that cultural differences and culture shocks can lead to a more creative design process,” he notes. He has experienced, however, that the influence of one’s national background is less visible at SPARK (in terms of design-related decision making) than the influence of one’s personal characteristics. “The major difference between people is not do to with any culturally influenced idea of aesthetics; it is to do with one’s capacity for time management and decision making, which is based on experience.”

Perhaps this observation is an outcome of the rapid working style embraced at SPARK. Says Sedlovs, “SPARK’s approach is based principally on fulfilling clients’ needs with a fast-track approach that places equal emphasis on speed and quality. Never before have I seen such a balance of office-defined quality and the quantity demanded by the market. It’s a delicately managed relationship, and quite amazing! I guess part of the success of such an approach has to do with a balance between locally educated professionals and those from abroad.”

The multinational character of SPARK’s body of staff does influence Sedlovs, however, in linguistic terms if not ‘design’ or ‘aesthetic’ terms. He has observed the potential for the discovery and creation of new solutions through the varied use of language. He explains, “The way we describe space, time, and anything relevant or irrelevant on an everyday basis can be and is the most effective tool for imagining and creating the future. The multicultural use of language, the encounter of expressions you never have heard before, and the path to find a common ground of meaning has changed the way I work. Random misunderstandings and simple mistakes can create original solutions and new fields for future explorations.”

Sedlovs is currently working on a mixed-use development in Shanghai’s Pudong district. The project programme is still in development, but currently includes a shopping mall, street-level retail, three SOHO towers, an office tower, and a connection to an underground subway line that is already in operation. “We are still formulating the design guidelines, spatial language, et cetera,” he says of his early-stage work on the project. Consideration of changes in shopping habits and the situation of public space provision in China are influencing the team’s direction. “We are defining our own set of targets for the qualities of public space, seeking stronger relationships with future consumers. Our conception of this commercial architecture views it as a platform not only for shopping activities but also for other functions,” he says.

He has also been working on a large-scale project in Taizhou, shaping a new waterfront and new public spaces in a swampy and under-developed area of the city. Inspired by the Song dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival , the design for Taizhou Wanglinyang Island references traditional Chinese architectural settings and proportions. Sedlovs is cautious, however, about the incorporation of an overtly ‘Chinese character’ in the architecture designed by SPARK for sites in China. “Travelling around the country, I have noticed the way Chinese people can exploit their great history in a very questionable manner. There is a culture of duplicating ancient architecture in order to boost tourism. This is a reason to pay very close attention to the historical references used by our office. Although they can create a very strong narrative, are relatively easy to read, and can be readily appreciated by clients, there is a risk of representing a bankrupt identity. In the architectural realm, historical references can prove a challenge to sensible arguments.”

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Uldis Sedlovs has recently been working on the Taizhou Wanglinyang Island project.

Phi Lu: Discovering new ways of working and thinking

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Born in the southern Chinese city of Wuhan and educated at Nanjing University, SPARK Associate Phi Lu has not worked outside China, choosing to capitalise on the numerous opportunities for practice in her home country. Interestingly, her professional career has been centred on the offices of ‘foreign’ architects in China. She worked in the Beijing office of a European firm before joining SPARK’s Beijing studio in 2009. She has thus not only witnessed first-hand the massive changes occuring in Chinese cities, but also the changes to its landscape of architectural practice.

In the European firm’s office, she encountered a highly structured division of work between staff. Clearly defined roles were strictly adhered to, she explains, leaving little room for staff exploration in terms of design or methodology. “SPARK’s work structure is more dynamic and flexible,” she says. “The working process is much less like an assembly line, and staff have the chance to touch on every aspect of a project. It’s good for people’s professional growth and allows them the opportunity to find their own potential through investigation and interaction.”

In this more flexible and exploratory context, do the varied educational and national backgrounds of SPARK’s staff affect the way she works? “SPARK’s staff definitely have different ways of thinking and working based on their nationalities and educational backgrounds,” she explains. “It is very exciting to see the differences and learn new things from my colleagues. Working with them keeps me challenging my established ways of thinking.”

In broader terms, China’s rapid development has encouraged her to take an adaptive and strategic approach to her own design work. “Architects cannot change the situation of rapid development in China,” she says. “They can only adapt to it as positively as they can. Thinking from the client’s point of view is important, but so too is thinking of how to create more benefit for city residents.” She is currently working on a SOHO and retail project in Beijing, which proposes a generous urban courtyard at its centre.

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Phi Lu is currently working on a SOHO and retail project in Beijing.

Yun Wai Wing: In search of context

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Hong Kong-born architect Yun Wai Wing (who joined SPARK in 2013) studied sociology and architecture in his home city before undertaking his master’s studies at Delft University of Technology. “At that time I was totally amazed by FARMAX ,” he says, “thinking that architecture can actually be driven by social information.” He worked at MVRDV in Rotterdam for two and a half years, where he enjoyed the regular open design discussions and debates between all members of staff.

“Clarity of concept was of top importance at MVRDV. It was a very nice design environment,” he recalls. However, the academic approach and the emphasis on stunning design concepts led to the tendency for some projects to remain on the screen rather than emerge into physical reality, he explains. This led him to seek a different office experience.

“I think going through the process of realising a piece of architecture is as important as, if not more important than, creating an exciting proposal on screen. At the moment, Asia seems like the place where things can really happen,” he says. On the basis of a booming economy and client judiciousness, Yun believes that architects in Asia can go beyond pragmatism and find a good balace between striking concepts and ease of realisation. He is currently working on two projects located in China from SPARK’s Singapore office.

Does he perceive any differences in the approach of architects from different countries? “I sense a difference,” he says, recalling his own experiences of varying methodologies. “Dutch architects work a lot with the volume of the building. Massing models made with blue foam are the objects used to start a project, and this mode of study carries on till the very end of the design process. What I see from my British colleagues here is that they care much more about articulations of different architectural elements at the very early stage of the project. And my Filipino colleagues have a more technical perspective.”

Do such differences in methodological approach influence the way he works in different locales? “SPARK’s highly result-oriented approach to design influences the way I work more than the influence of the multinational or multicultural body of staff.” He continues, “Actually, despite differences between people in terms of methodology, I think SPARK’s Singapore office is relatively culturally homogeneous – in comparison to the Beijing studio, for example. This homogeneity relates to the amount of experience people have had in Asia. Stephen Pimbley and Peter Morris have had a lot of experience here. My three Filipino colleagues have all been living in Singapore for more than eight years. I sense a ‘Singaporean’ mode of cultural expression in them.” What emerges as a commonality, Yun suggests, is an understanding of context.

Yun’s design approach is influenced by his own quest to find meaning in the contexts of his projects. “Looking for what is relevant to the architecture in this region is perhaps my top interest at the moment.” The challenge of working at the scale of a 500-metre-long mixed-use complex in the Qianhai area near Shenzhen, for example, is leading him to seek references with which to ground design decisions – references of scale, intellect, or culture. In his own time, he has started to document the city of Singapore (his new home) in order to enhance his understanding of it.

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Yun Wai Wing’s work on the Qianhai project has manifested in a proposal for a hillscape-like architectural form.

Collage in the city and in practice

“I’d like to think SPARK’s approach is seamless, but that we are able to vary it when we need to in response to the conditions of the project,” says Pimbley. “Understanding that the entirety of the city – or our portfolio – needn’t be the same is important to us. We don’t work with a fixed stylistic agenda or way of drawing. Rather, I think of SPARK as a collective of individuals whose ideas are tied together through our non-stratified processes, and I think of SPARK’s work as the manifestation of various influences and references from the city and culture.”

He mentions the value of urban superimposition and city poeticsm as discussed by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter in their book Collage City [4], and the eclectic historic and modernist reinterpretations of James Stirling. Rowe and Koetter’s championing of a middle ground for architects and urban designers between ‘whole’ and ‘parts’ – between an overtly scientific approach and one of ad-hoc bricolage – seems particularly pertinent with respect to SPARK and its output. Practicing globally but looking locally, and feeding off the potentials of a multicultural perspective, could be looked upon as antidotes to the age of anonymous formal extravagance bemoaned by Koolhaas. The manner in which SPARK’s buildings are used, engaged with, and contribute to their cities is the ultimate measure of their success.


[1]‘14th International Architecture Exhibition/Fundamentals’,http://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/news/25-01.html , accessed 18 March 2014

[2]Ibid.

[3]Dezeen, ‘Venice Biennale 2014 will “sever connections with contemporary architecture” says Rem Koolhaas, http://www.dezeen.com/2014/03/11/rem-koolhaas-venice-biennale-2014-more-details/ , accessed 18 March 2014

[4]Koetter, F. and Rowe, C., Collage City , Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge), 1978