Recently, asap/ was asked to consider the reconstruction of a traditional courtyard home in a Beijing hutong. This presented some provocative theoretical questions well outside the norms of historic preservation as it is practiced in the US.
American standards, distilled from generations of thinking in both the US and Europe, essentially prize historic authenticity above all else, requiring that “original” construction be maintained wherever possible, using a minimal level of restoration so as to avoid causing it to appear new. Further additions and modifications are to be built in a complementary but distinct manner, representing their own historical moment and not seeking to replicate historic construction. While adherence to these standards, in the US at least, often tends to follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law, the principle at least is clear.
A cursory glance at the situation in China, however, reveals the prima facie absurdity of even attempting to apply such a standard. The courtyard in question like most of the historic core of Beijing, did not contain construction older than the mid-20th century. Relative to the predominant pseudo-Qing style that currently prevails in this area, such construction cannot be considered literally “historical”. While it might fairly be said to be representative of a unique period in Chinese history, the Chinese political dynamic never fails to remind us that the spirit of the historical narrative is often preferred to facts on the ground, or under as may be the case.
The hutongs of Beijing, the network of alleys constituting most of the urban fabric of the historic core, can undoubtedly be described as historic and authentic. They have been the prevalent, indigenous form of Beijing’s urbanism for centuries, engendering a unique lifestyle with quirks all its own, different even from other Chinese cities. Beginning in the Communist era, Beijing’s urban growth began to take on very different qualities, borrowing heavily from dubious Russian and American urban models. That the hutongs survive at all, much less remain animated, is something of a miracle. What is most striking, and abundantly clear, is that their authenticity lies entirely in how they are lived and experienced, and minimally in their physical fabric, which is continually being built and rebuilt.
Further, in China it becomes difficult to talk about building in a manner appropriate to the current moment. Here, in the world’s high-tech electronics manufacturing epicenter, one can find contemporary megastructures dabbling in formal innovation with abandon, in some cases virtually alongside sites brimming with workers wielding expert artisanal skills, masons and carpenters able to turn out a traditional courtyard nearly as instinctively as a bird builds a nest. It’s difficult to describe such production as inauthentic when in fact it is a continuation of centuries, even millennia of history, embodied in the hands of individuals often trained by their forebears in the family trade. Indeed, the poster child for the wild Beijing formalism of the 2000s, Rem Koolhaas’s brilliant CCTV stucture — the erstwhile “big pants” — can be found less than 2km from timeless Beijing hutongs.
Naturally, upon embarking on a courtyard design of our own, interest immediately focused not on massing or the spatial configuration, which were essentially typologically constrained by the notion of a courtyard, but rather on how one might interrogate and ultimately push back against the reflexive use of Qing dynasty architectural motifs that had essentially become caricatures. The solution was readily apparent: why not make a shanzhai courtyard, a knockoff, using high-tech rapid prototyping equipment to create a cheap copy of the finest luxury architectural goods?
Using the emerging technology of LIDAR scanning, we could identify the finest architectural precedents, undertake a quick digital scan of their facades, then, using our newly-harvested architectural DNA, recombine these genetic fragments into a new hybrid creature that could satisfy the spatial and programmatic requirements of the present problem. Once reassembled, this organism could be brought to life by the complementary technology of CNC machining, creating digitally fabricated molds that could in turn be used to cast a concrete structure that would be quickly built at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional masonry and carpentry, but nonetheless containing fine-quality Ming dynasty detailing that the most talented artisans could only hope to equal.
In practice, the possibilities would have gone well beyond simple scanning and reproduction, with the sampling functioning as a sort of genetic respository from which new architectural organisms might be created, a sort of 21st century update of the encyclopedic ambition of J-N-L Durand’s Précis.
After successful proof-of-concept testing, this project was cancelled when it failed to win approval by the client’s mother.
As a proof of concept, we created a lidar scan and point cloud of a local building with similar textural qualities. This data was in turn used to generate a sample concrete mold, demonstrating the full cycle of the technology.
asap/ is a collaborative design practice founded in 2011 and based in Los Angeles with a second office in Buffalo, New York, USA. We seek to identify and advance design opportunities to develop the art and craft of design at all scales — from tableware to entire cities, while also reinterpreting and re-energizing programmatic imperatives. Our work is devoted to understanding and contributing to existing cultural and architectural contexts while deploying advanced design and construction technology in ways appropriate to contemporary life. Our design team comprises a talented group of professionals from diverse backgrounds with advanced professional degrees. We frequently collaborate with some of the world’s top specialist consultants in fields such as engineering, water features, and lighting design. Adam Sokol is a graduate of Columbia and Yale universities and has also studied at Harvard University and the Université-Paris IV Sorbonne. The work of asap/ has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications, and has been recognized with numerous awards internationally. He is a registered architect in the States of New York and California, and a member of the American Institute of Architects.
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asap/ 是一个协同设计实践成立于2011年在纽约州布法罗市，美国。我们寻求确定和先进的设计机会发展艺术和设计工艺在所有尺度 – 从餐具到整个城市，同时还重新诠释和重新编程活力当务之急。我们的工作是致力于理解和支持现有的文化和建筑环境，同时部署先进的设计和施工技术，适合现代生活的方式。我们的设计团队包括一个有才华的一批来自具有先进的专业度不同背景的专业人士。我们经常与一些世界顶级的专业顾问的合作，如工程，水景和灯光设计领域。亚当·索科尔是哥伦比亚大学和耶鲁大学的毕业生，还曾在哈佛大学和大学巴黎IV索邦大学。他访问架构的助理教授，纽约州立大学，布法罗为 2006-11。他的作品被刊登在纽约时报和出版物里佐利等等，并且已经陈列在纽约市的博物馆。他是在纽约州注册建筑师，美国建筑师学会会员。