With booming economic growth, the East Asia of today looks radically different from that 20 years ago and will change just as drastically in the next 20. But modernisation often comes at the cost of tradition, and you can see in China that thousands of older, traditional buildings have been razed and replaced. The Building Asia Brick By Brick project wants to raise awareness for traditional architecture in a more playful way: Architects from China, Japan and Thailand amongst others were given kits of white LEGO building blocks and told to have just fun. The results, from Asiatic temples to futuristic towers to sustainable old-and-new city plans are currently touring Asia. PingMag talked to Andrew Maerkle of Art AsiaPacific and Wei Wei Shannon of People’s Architecture about their Brick By Brick collaboration.
Written by Michael Mahoney
How did the Brick By Brick exhibition come about? Who got the ball rolling?
Andrew: We wanted to do a feature on current architecture practice in Asia for ArtAsiaPacific magazine, and felt the need to engage architects in a unique way, seeing how the architects respond to an unconventional but fun challenge. LEGO created the custom kits for us, choosing the white colour and providing each participant approximately 8,000 bricks of 2×2, 2×4 and 2×8 dimensions to work with.
Was that just free play or did you give the architects a certain theme?
Andrew: The idea behind Building Asia Brick By Brick was to get architects to engage spontaneously with the materials; we gave them no instructions other than to have fun!
And: Why LEGO?
Andrew: That was spontaneous, but we felt it was really appropriate as many architects grew up playing with LEGO. We contacted the company’s representatives and they were behind us from the start, and the architects we approached all responded immediately as well. So the project was driven by a sense of spontaneity and play.
What was your overall goal with Brick By Brick?
Andrew: We wanted to use the resulting models as a way to promote awareness of architectural preservation in Asia where, unfortunately, a lot of urban development takes place at the expense of historically significant or unique buildings. And by raising awareness we are really just trying to get people to look at their environments critically, because everything happens at such a rapid pace – a whole neighbourhood can transform in a half a year or less.
Another entry by Sean Godsell Architects is a real head turner! Photo by Sean Godsell.
So, the next time people look around their own neighbourhood, they might question why the buildings aren’t nicer, or why a traditional communal structure, such as a hutong in Beijing, has been replaced by a more isolating apartment high-rise structure. In fact, they might start demanding that their high-rise apartments incorporate elements of hutong communal spaces. We’re not trying to impose any agenda here, but see heritage as something that extends beyond preserving the past to also preparing for the future. We hope that through “awareness” people can embrace whatever they feel characterises their environment, and take steps to preserve it.
Heritage protection legislation is not necessarily developed or enforced in cities in Asia the way it is in the US or Europe. Also, the very concept of heritage is constantly changing: Is a 50-year-old building worthy of protection? How about a 200-year-old building? People within the communities need to decide for themselves.
If you see the changes taking place for the Olympics in Beijing, or the restructuring in the Da Zha Lan district…
Wei Wei: Today, everyone seems to be preoccupied by the transformation taking place in China, but this cycle of destruction and reconstruction has been a recurring phenomenon throughout Chinese history. Each dynasty follows a different calendar, different ruling system, different philosophy – in some cases a different language or different measurement system – so the country has seen a continuing social, political, behavioural and spatial revolution for several millennia already. Architecture and urbanism are no different.
A tower entered by Bernard Khoury/DW5 from Beirut, by day …
… and by night. Photos by Roger Mourkarzel.
The Da Zha Lan district is an old shopping place in Beijing, south of Chang’an Avenue. The entire area was informally created by the people, houses were built without rules and regulations, which implies sub-par quality. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China, like other countries, hopes to use the opportunity to recreate the nation’s identity. A place like Da Zha Lan, where the houses are considered dangerous and inconvenient, will be torn down.
That’s sad to hear. What can you tell us about the visitors’ feedback then? The architects’ models have been featured in the travelling Get it Louder! exhibition all over China.
Wei Wei: People love it! Kids love it! The Get it Louder! exhibition was held at shopping malls, so all the kids and families stumbled upon our exhibition by chance. They really like the white LEGO bricks which, due to their pure nature, prompt the kids to think about structure and form, instead of matching colours.
The ‘Get it Louder!’ exhibit also contains a children’s workshop component, where kids are taught a bit about urban design and then encouraged to design their own structures out of the white LEGO. What do you want the kids to get out of it?
Wei Wei: Beyond all the architecture and urbanism jargon, the most important thing is to have kids start to think about their environments from a young age. If a good percentage of them at least take an interest in learning about architecture, design and urbanism, then that’s very fulfilling.
Kids are in some ways more creative than architects. We find that kids and adults teach and learn from each other. It’s not just the kids who are learning new creative principles through experimentation – the workshop leaders are also improvising and gaining experience as they go along!
Entry by Research Architecture Design (RAD) of Hong Kong. Photo by Marcello Kwan.
Tokyo’s own Atelier Bow-Wow presented a ‘house without oku (depth)’. Photo by Hiroko Matsubara.
When the event wraps up, the pieces will be auctioned off in New York. What happens then?
Andrew: We plan to donate proceeds to education. Ultimately, we see Building Asia Brick By Brick as a metaphor for reaching one child at a time (and the potential of that individual to eventually turn around and inspire somebody else), and providing for educational resources seems like the most effective way of archieving this.
Having fun building at the Beijing workshop… Courtesy of BABB.
…that was held this August, 2007. Courtesy of BABB.
What a nice and playful way to approach the kids. Thanks Wei Wei and Andrew. We hope to see the Brick By Brick exhibition in Tokyo soon, too.