What is Preservation?

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A Dialogue with David Gianotten and Michael Kokora

Han Awal & Partners Office. Friday, 13 December 2014 – 9:14 PM.

Earlier today, we were surprised by a presentation on the Jakarta Old Town Reborn (JOTR) workshop. Instead of collages, diagrams, and drawings, we saw slides with building pictures and happy photograph of OMA team with the owner of Tjipta Niaga building, taken a day before. They argued it was impossible to have a good and precise idea without deep investigation on the context.

However, David Gianotten and Michael Kokora did present their very basic idea using a white board instead. Michael drew the building section and divided it into nine smaller boxes. The idea was to inject diverse programs into the building, from residential, office, housing, school, etc. “Instead of seeing as one architectural point of view, we see a matrix of possibilities”, said David.

“We would like to make a place where everybody can go. Not only hotel for the rich and famous.”

Later that night, in a cozy gathering at Han Awal & Partners office, We – Yusni (Y) and Ivan (I) – invited David Gianotten (D) and Michael Kokora (M) to further discuss this issue about preservation.

We went to take a seat in a meeting room filled with material samples.

They looked very charismatic and professional in their matched white-colored shirt. Only David wore the short one, Michael wore the long one. David is the partner in charge of OMA Asia since 2010. He supervises (d) several projects in Asia, including the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the Taipei Performing Arts Centre, the Chu Hai College of Higher Education in Hong Kong, and the end stages of the CCTV construction. Michael is Associate at OMA and Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong since 2009. He has led multiple projects in variety of scales, from Shenzhen Stock Exchange to Kataoma Resort in Bali, which he collaborates with Andra Matin Architects.

OMA is well known for its criticality and boldness in architecture. They are the leading the modern architectural discourse and practice. Who would expect skyscraper to be (literally) a loop. CCTV marks the end domination of banal skyscrapers. In ‘Beijing Preservation’ project, they acknowledge preservation not about a dialectic relationship of old and new or ‘permanent center and ever changing periphery’, rather more dynamic relationship that embraces time. Preservation is a prospect, not a retrospect. Therefore, all parts of city equally deserve a chance.

And we were curious to ask about their statements…

Y: Oh well, let’s start… As an international architect, OMA is exposed and operated in the different parts of the world. It seems that you are almost always foreign to the local context. In such conditions, how do you operate or what is a local context to you?

D: Context is the existence of the project. No project exists without the context.

We try to be a step ahead in researching and gaining knowledge of the area we are interested in. Therefore, we always collaborate with people inside and outside the office. 70% of the employees in our Asian office are Asians, of which we gain our first knowledge of Asian context. Then, we collaborate with people outside the office, for example with Andra Matin Architect, to gain additional knowledge of specific area. We value knowledge exchange that benefits both ourselves and our collaborators.

Before designing, we start with research. We need to understand the context, the people we work for and with, expectation and aspiration of the people. However, we can never satisfy everything that comes out of the research. As an expert, we have to distill the right ingredients to compose a project. And, quite often our goal is directed by strategic decision based on those ingredients.

M: A project is also never ‘sketched by the master’. It is important to fuel it with discussion. It is really important that you asked this, since you (RUANG) is an online magazine. At the moment, online magazine and blog are more popular than the printed one. Because of that, we see people post instant reactions, instead of critical feedback, to a project. People are debating about the form or style that related to specific office. It is a pity. People are not making effort to understand a project in its context or as a result of a research and exercises.

D: Thirty years ago, information is difficult to access, but now internet can find all kinds of stuff. However, the problem is, people don’t take extra energy to check whether it is true or not. Often, people claim knowing the context because they read Wikipedia. That’s not an effort! Our client often said, “Yeah, the research component in OMA is very interesting, but that is something you can look up on the internet”.

 Internet is not an effort to understand a context. Understanding a context means being there, living there, understanding it, and having people who know it. Understanding a context needs time and effort!

I: It is interesting that you mentioned ‘time’. In China, the speed of the construction pushed you to produce as fast as possible. So, how do you deal with research and context in such conditions?

M: We are used to research. That is our modus operandi. In fact, we have a collective body of research (AMO). We also assign our internal staff who is expert in particular region. Having enough resources and experiences makes us fast.

D: On top of that, you probably know that I did lectures about “Speed in Architecture” (http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=12704). Speed is not so much how much concrete you can pour in a day or how to build the buildings in 4 days or 30 days. Speed in architecture is something about momentum. Speed can only be generated when there is a momentum. Momentum can only be generated when there is an idea, and an idea can only exist if there is knowledge.

People cannot be fast when they don’t understand what they are doing and why. If you have ideas and no momentum, you can start fast but then halfway you will get stuck and compromising. Always make a client aware that good results need good ideas and momentum. That’s the important thing that many architects forget. Often when asked to deliver an idea in 3 weeks, they go home and sketch. No! You cannot have a good idea in isolation, away from the client and context. For me, I will say to the client, “We can go fast …but we need to be precise, we need to have a dialogue. If you ask us to go fast, I ask you to be here with me.” When a client asks a question, don’t give him the answer, but give him the consequences. We are the specialist, not the client. If the client knew so well, then why he is hiring us. So, don’t be shy, go for the battle, create good ideas and momentum!

M: The best client will understand and appreciate that. In a way, it is also a time for them to step back and think about their intention and find good ideas. And if they don’t, why should we even pursue the project!

D: Yeah, exactly. They are probably the client that we don’t want to work for. They just after our name, but I am not interested in name. OMA is maybe a brand, David Gianotten and Michael Kokora may be a name. But, our ideas are not related to name. If they are not interested in the context and the content, I am definitely not interested in them.

I: You’ve mentioned the client and the context, but how do you consider the people that live around or the users?

D: It is simple, talk to them! Architects are builders. And to build something, we need connections. We are busy maintaining and making connections, including the users and surrounding people. Yet, our goal is not to satisfy everybody, but to explain what we are doing. If out of the blue, somebody is confronted something in his backyard, he will be unhappy and resist. But, if those people are part of the process, they might not like it, but at least they understand how we got there and why. That is the key behind participation. Don’t do participation because, by law, you have to or because you think it is sad for these people. Do it because you want to explain a process. And don’t expect them to always understand it, but expect them to follow. Therefore, explain everything in a simple term.

Be efficient, be true, and be fair!

M: It is also shown in our approach to Kota Tua. First, we talked to the owners and stakeholders, we tried to understand the context, and then we came up with strategy. Of course we can produce nice things in short time, but, it is more important to understand the owner and the context. If not, it runs the risk of being acontextual.

Beijing Preservation (Image: Designboom)

Beijing Preservation (Image: Designboom)

Y: Moving to the idea of preservation, we have read in your statement: “preservation and demolition is inseparable”. So, what is your view about preservation?

D: Preservation is not creating a monument or an assessment of things you like and dislike. Nor deciding to keep things you like and remove things you dislike.

Why do we like things? Because they are in a certain context, and they are excel in that context. Then, if we erase the context, that excellence is gone. It becomes an object, a monument. It is beautiful, but out of context. That is not our approach. We prefer to identify constellation of context: excellent buildings, neutral buildings and buildings that are not contributing much to the context, and add things to it. They should not only represent past or present, but also represent the future to progress.

So, if things are in a bad state and fall apart, so be it! We are not going to rebuild them in a fake way. Similar to us, in one hundred years from now, you’re dead, and I’m dead. Buildings also have its moment, and if they disappear something else will appear.

So, for us, preservation is creating situation to understand why things are there, appreciate and add new layers to it. It is not about aesthetic. It would be bad if Kota Tua turns into a Dutch heritage museum. Then, young Indonesians will not go there, only Dutch tourists, who fly with KLM. Is that what Kota Tua stands for? No! Kota Tua was the energy of the city. It has changed over the 300 years by people, merchants, cafes, bars and prostitutes. Therefore, it’s not about a shell to represent these 300 years, but about the energy that was there.

M: In other words, preservation shouldn’t be about freezing a moment of time or recreating and glorifying the past. It should become a catalyst for progress, alive and continuous. Once you isolate a particular moment and time of an area, it runs the risk to be a failure that cannot grow and evolve. A lot of European cities are facing these problems.

D: It is not contributing to the city, but to someone who wants to tick his bucket list. People who tick bucket list are boring people!

M: You should still allow new things to happen, for example modern architecture. Not everybody will agree, and the government perhaps. But, we believe that new things will give new life to the area. Preservation is not about contrasting the old with the new, but gives a future to it.

 Y: So, what are the bases for you to decide whether things need to be preserved or demolished?

D: I think one of the dimensions is simply ‘safety’. As an architect, we are responsible to keep a building safe for people to enter. Secondly, as a space planner, we need to look at the space. If the spaces are still relevant to be programmed in current situation, then it is worth to be preserved. If not, then why keep it. So, it is not about likes and dislikes, but a rational decision.

We are currently doing a project in China that is much larger than Kota Tua. The mayor has the power to say things to be preserved or not, based on likes and dislikes. But, we suggest him to do certain things for good reasons, he completely changes his mind. So, of course, it is understandable that many people don’t have the knowledge on preservation; therefore, we need to guide them. Nevertheless, the decision should be rational. And of course, sometimes, we make mistakes, but we also do a lot of good ones.

M: As good historians understand, preservation is not necessarily about preserving materials or spaces, but ideas that can continue exist. Buildings at Kota Tua have representations of history, technology or moments in the past. But, we shouldn’t freeze the time that has happened on them, we should allow time to exist and continue to show its effects on these building.

D: What is more beautiful: a girl who talks naturally to you out of her mind, or a girl who is silent, because she told to be silent and behaves? The first one! But, many preservationist or conservationist likes the second one! It seems that it is the preserved idea on how a woman should be.

 I: Ok. Then, should architecture be timeless/permanent, or temporary/replaceable? Are you envisioning your project for future use as well?

M: You probably already know the answer. Haha…

D: Look at our buildings; they were not built for eternity. They were made because there is a reason to make them at that moment of time. What we tried in our design is to understand the effect of the buildings to the surrounding and how people would use and change them over time. It is a living animal that constantly needs to regenerate its energy, even when we are not involved anymore.

Everything we do is based on the best possible judgment we can gave. However, I think that architects take themselves too serious these days. I’m against it. Architects need to add ‘fun’ to society. Architects are people with creative ideas. Even then, let’s not think we know everything, be open to suggestion from others. Be less black! We create beautiful things, but why we dressed in black? It’s seems a simple and artificial statement, nevertheless true.

M: Architecture exists in time, but ideas grow over time. Architecture is no longer about the zeitgeist and representation of moment in history of a culture, context, society, climate or anything. But, it is specifically built to represent a moment.

Architecture is not about a metaphor or even being regional, being Chinese or being Indonesian. Architecture is deeper than symbolism. It’s both local environment and global contemporary society.

The best architecture project is not an object, but something that gives future to its context and surrounding, and generates urbanism.

Post card diagram showing possible 'preservation make-ups' for Beijing (Image: Designboom)

Post card diagram showing possible ‘preservation make-ups’ for Beijing (Image: Designboom)

Y: One last question moving to Urban context. In ‘Beijing Preservation’ project, you made several approaches defined by grids on which are should and should not be preserved, some in a form of a triangle and…

 D: And many more, there were many that was not published. There were 16 or 17 of them.

Y: I remember that there are area which radically preserved to maintain the authenticity of one place, and there are others which totally liberated for developments. So could you elaborate more on that?

D: It is what it is. It is a negotiation between undisturbed area and area that opens for growth. In certain instances architects should interfere, while in others it is left to the people to develop. City is also living animals.

M: The project is not a proposal, but rather a question mark. We want to ask ourselves what preservation is. What it could meant in Beijing at this moment of time, especially in dealing the pressure of urban renewal. As obvious as global warming, even we try to avoid it, the sea level will rise. So, to be productive, we have to embrace what is going to happen. If some part of the city needs to be erased then how would we do it, which parts worth keeping and what will the tension between them. Therefore, It opens a dialogue and speculates on different a possibility.

Yusni Aziz
Alumnus dari double-degree bachelor program kerjasama antara ITS dan Saxion Hogeschool of Applied Sciences. Kemudian menyelesaikan riset di Berlage Institute pada tahun 2013, dan sempat mengajar di Arsitektur UPH. Saat ini sibuk sebagai penulis, dan fotografer lepas.
Ivan Nasution
Ivan Nasution lulus dari Arsitektur ITB pada tahun 2006, lalu bekerja di Park+Associates Architect, Singapura. Di tahun 2011, ia menyelesaikan pendidikan penelitian pascasarjana di Berlage Institute Rotterdam. Saat ini menjadi peneliti di Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities, National University Singapore. Di sela waktu luangnya, ia aktif menjadi fasilitator bagi Participate in Design, sebuah organisasi nirlaba yang bergerak di bidang desain, perencanaan, dan pendidikan.