An Architecture of Mediation

By David Brown

In the past few decades two approaches have defined how architects operate in the developing world. First, the Post-Critical ‘go with the flow’ attitude of complicity with the process of globalization and the ‘branding’ strategies of the market economy. And second, Critical Regionalism’s attitude of negative resistance to the effects of homogenization and cultural erasure of globalization’s march towards progress. Both approaches have massive conceptual shortcomings and are seriously misguided in their assumptions of prevailing material conditions. Recently, however, a new attitude is emerging that signals a productive third position beyond this polarized dichotomy. This emergent form of practice seeks to negotiate between these conflicting attitudes and the inherent inequality of developing worlds. In the place of complicit globalism and critical regionalism an architecture of mediation, or mediatory architecture, is under development as a speculative strategy for addressing the uncertain terrain of transitional geographies.

Any contemporary debate on the topic of importation and exportation of architecture will inevitably include a discussion of the ‘Bilbao-Effect’ – the use of ‘iconic’ architecture as a catalyst for urban and economic renewal. Such policy and urban design strategies have become especially popular since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was constructed in Bilbao, Spain in the mid-1990s. The controversy surrounding the Guggenheim Bilbao and the prolific use of this strategy over subsequent years centres around the so-called homogenizing effects of globalization and the tendency for brand name designers to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to design. Typically, such an approach to the problem of design has little concern with contextual specificities. Instead, we see a global traffic in architectural ‘brands’, where design concepts and models are ‘exported’ in a manner not dissimilar to the exportation of raw materials – it doesn’t matter where they go, as long as they are on the move and attract an exchange value.

Because of these kind of controversies, architects have had to develop strategies of localization to mitigate the shock of their iconic gestures. We can compare this to McDonalds and Starbucks’ attempts to ’localize’ their menus, adapting them to the particular tastes of local consumers. In the food industry this process leads to substituting local ingredients for the original. In China, for example, McDonalds’ apple pies transform into taro pies and Starbucks’ scones are made of red bean instead of blueberry. In architecture, however, the global-local conflict is often resolved through mere analogy. The initial shock that often accompanies the introduction of foreign design is mediated by developing a visual metaphor which appeals to local sensibilities. FOA’s Yokohama Terminal in Japan is compared to a painting of waves by famous Japanese painter Hokusai, and Herzog and de Meuron’s National Stadium in Beijing is described as a bird’s nest.

While such attempts at localization might create an affective bond between foreign objects and local populations, there are many consequences of global interventions upon the local that are much harder to anticipate and address. An instant transformation of a place or economy often leads to ruptures, an increase in local disparities, and global homogenization. This is where Critical Regionalism’s negative resistance to the hegemonic force of global capitalism has something to offer. Critical Regionalism views global architecture as a kind of invasive species that threatens the delicate balance of a region’s ecology, culture and history. Kenneth Frampton, one of Critical Regionalism’s strongest proponents, writes that

Architecture can only be sustained today as a critical practice if it assumes an arriere-garde position, that is to say, one which distances itself equally from the enlightenment myth of progress and from a reactionary, unrealistic impulse to return to the architectonic forms of the preindustrial past. A critical arriere-garde has to remove itself from both the optimization of advanced technology and the ever-present tendency to regress into nostalgic historicism or the glibly decorative. It is my contention that only an arriere-garde has the capacity to cultivate a resistant, identity-giving culture while at the same time having discreet recourse to universal technique.

The benefit of Critical Regionalism is its understanding that participation in the global economy is not available to everyone and that local material culture can reinforce cultural identity. The problem with Critical Regionalism’s stance of negative resistance is that it undervalues the positive impacts of progress to society.

This irreconcilable opposition between progress and resistance, globalization and regionalism, avant-garde and arriere-garde, is the transitional space within which the architecture of mediation seeks to operate. Practitioners such as Wang Shu and Zhang Ke of China, Alejandro Aravena/ELEMENTAL of Chile, Hashim Sarkis of Lebanon, and Airoots in India, are all examples of this emerging position. It seeks to mediate between a number of dichotomous states – a project’s intended scale of influence, i.e. its global and local effects; the conflicting interests of participants, both explicit and implicit; top-down and bottom-up planning systems; formal and informal design processes; and rural and urban contexts, just to name a few. Two Chinese projects are helpful in elaborating the concept of mediatory architecture

The Qincheng Mountain Teahouse, by Standard Architecture/Zhang Ke, is an example which uses construction techniques to mediate between local custom and progressive design. The building’s minimal forms and the geometric self-similarity of the plan connect it to contemporary global architecture. The design and construction of the roof was done in close collaboration with local craftsmen and uses modified techniques of traditional construction. Instead of insisting on a completely contemporary design that would have resulted in poor constructional quality, Standard Architecture relies on local knowledge to supplement and enhance their design aspirations. This demonstrates one important aspect of mediatory architecture – it replaces the deterministic stance of globalism with an opportunistic design sensibility.

The Central Academy of Art campus in Hangzhou, by Amateur Architecture Studio/Wang Shu, represents a more challenging aspect of mediatory architecture, dealing with the difficult transition from rural to urban geographies. In many ways the new campus acts as an urban economic catalyst for a small village outside of Hangzhou similarly to the iconic buildings of complicit globalism. But in place of the latter’s attempts at instant transformations mitigated through visual metaphor, Wang Shu’s campus produces a mediated transition using a process of rurbanization. This process is produced through a number of precise design strategies. The campus landscape is particularly noteworthy with its use of agriculture as its primary medium rather than the more typical use of ornamental landscapes. The use of agriculture restores the rapidly diminishing farm land of the village and is used by local residents. Thus the design provides economic opportunities for the residents and aids in their transition from village to city life. It also increases the socio-economic diversity of the campus and creates a symbiotic relationship between the campus and the village.

Mediatory architecture is a complex undertaking and involves an expanded vision of architecture. It is a multi-disciplinary mission which involves communication, media, research, conflict management and design agency. It requires architects to be inventive, adaptive, responsive, opportunistic, active and reactive to complex scenarios. Alejandro Aravena’s concept of ELEMENTAL as a ‘do-tank’ reminds us that action is a necessary condition of mediation. Finally, mediatory architecture requires architects to negotiate the conflicting interests within particular situations.

David Brown is an architect currently living and working in Beijing for the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. He is a recent graduate of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design where he received concurrent degrees in architecture and urban design. His current interests and research include infrastructural urbanism and the relationship between geography, geology, architecture and urbanism.