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Cities have come to be very multidimensional since the beginning of the century; cities no longer just comprise of the buildings and the people that reside in them, they now also comprise digital products which respond to the residents and the actions of the surrounding. Cities aren't any longer just physical spaces, buildings also function as much more than just a location - buildings are made "alive" by the arrival of this new digital era. Unavoidably, majority of cities will depend more on new media and their integration in the development of the city. Nevertheless majority of architects and urban city developers and planners are majorly concentrated on designing the "hardware" of the city, and programmers, artists and communication establishments mostly all move in after the city has been built to add "software.
In a city, development and evolution do not occur while under the command of just one person; the process is reciprocal between the designers and the residents and now some digital elements that can react to their surroundings and environment. The city then becomes dependent on not just the functioning of the individual sections, they focus more on a perfect combination of emerging media and buildings, we definitely require an improved understanding of new media and also of how they impact and affect in the architecture design practice, general aspects of everyday life and the buildings which are in construction process.
As soon as the term "new media" is mentioned, majority of designers and architects think of the tools they have available to them in the design process, tools such as BIM and Auto Cad. The fast development of technology has prompted different opinions from different designers. An artist-turned-architect Steven Wang, a graduate of UC Berkeley, noted that prior to this digital era, the process of design can be greatly tedious and perplexing for non-architects, this included mostly the clients. Not only did this make it very difficult for clients and designers when communicating their needs and visions, but it also reduced the speed in which projects are carried out and executed. The era of iPhones, digital cameras and other similar media means designers can now very easily document their momentary inspiration or share their thought and ideas instantly with clients or colleague's. Furthermore, most designers now have the ability to work on many different projects at one particular time, this gives room for more cross-referencing between the projects. The common man has experienced an immense explosion in perception through electronic media. Topics completely unfamiliar to him or below his average daily awareness have all of a sudden been pushed into the limelight and thrown into his face. With the new media, he also seems to have gained a voice even if he might lack the mental instruments to use it. What does it mean in the context of architecture? How has the perception of architecture changed for a common man?
"The audience (the tourist in front of a building, the reader of a journal, the viewer of an exhibition or a newspaper advertisement and even the client who is often all of the above) increasingly become a user, the one who gave meaning to the work. In turn, the work itself is changed." (Rattenbury, 2002)
Architects from East China Architectural Design & Research Institute Co., Ltd. (ECADI) have expressed similar sentiments on the issue. Not more than a decade ago, architects' biggest problem was communication with the clients. Non-professionals usually have a hard time conveying what exactly it is that they want, and architects didn't find it easy to explain their blueprint full of intersecting lines and circles to the untrained eye. With the 3D technology that is available today, architects can easily show clients renderings of their future construction, and they can even choose to provide a virtual guided tour of the building even before a single brick is laid. This has undoubtedly provided immeasurable convenience for architects.
However, Steven Wang also pointed out that with the rapidly growing availability of information, the expertise of most fields are decreasing. With the easy and wide access of the Internet, every interested individual can effortlessly retrieve information in any field, resulting in a decreasing specificity of professional fields. Therefore, architects might no longer be experts in the field, and they are slowly becoming "consultants," especially in a society where customer demand is highly valued. As an architect, Wang often faces clients who have envisioned a project for a certain purpose, and only visit the architect's firm to "consult" what is feasible and what is not. Of course, the renderings and other details are still the architect's responsibility, but Wang feels that the conceptualization is slowly being handed to the clients.
Of course, there are plenty of other architects who are less enthusiastic about the rapidly emerging tools. Igor Peraza, an architect from EMBT who worked on the design of the giant basket that is the EXPO Spain Pavilion, expressed his concerns for an architect's role in this vast ocean of new media. He thinks that an architect should first think about how people can appreciate a building, and the high technology merely comes along to make things easier. In his words, architecture is heavier on the humanity's side on a scale against technology. It is crucial to be aware of technology and adapt it to the building, but it should never be a primary concern for an architect. There is always the danger of following without rethinking the purpose and the ultimate effect, as not everything has to rely on technology. Rhino might be helping designers to render three-dimensional and quite complex structures, but good design principles still come from life.
In this light, designers at EMBT are interested in using old materials in innovative ways rather than being engrossed by newly developed technologies. Peraza's comments highlight the emerging difference between the Chinese and the European design philosophy. The general trend in China is luxury, not just in architecture but in many aspects of life, from cars to houses. New technology is always welcomed by the Chinese without a frown, because it gives another means to display what could be done in an extravaganza of emerging media
In addition to direct changes that new media have brought to the design industry, they are also of great help to China's architectural development socially. In this booming society that only picked up its pace in the 80s, social changes are happening by the minute, and the scale is stunningly pervasive. Architecture, on the contrary, is a comparatively slow-evolving field. The abundance of thought-sharing tools and community networks have expedited the development of architecture in response to the changes in social life.
Wang Xiao'An, Chief Designer of the EXPO Performance Center, mentioned that in the 80's, architects were accustomed to working individually in a private room. Now with the higher demand for communication, walls are broken down and a closer-knit community is formed. This new working space have allowed architects, artists, and clients to share resources and thoughts more effectively, and they have been applying this change to their design as well. About twenty years ago, the Shanghai TV Station had all of their programs recorded in separate compartments to minimize distractive interference and to ensure high sound quality. Now with the help of better microphones and related media technology, ECADI's new Shanghai TV Station, much contrary to the previous design, has an entirely open and singular interior that houses screens, desks, and recording devices all in a great hall. Wang asserts that such a design fosters community and improves efficiency.
Fu Haicong, Chief Designer of the EXPO Center, mentions that the original concept of "better life" points directly to the European life style and the pursuit of a quiet and simple life, as opposed to the luxurious one dreamed of by the Chinese. However, most foreign designers are only exposed to the commercial side of Shanghai and China at large, where the investment is much higher than most middle- and lower-class residential buildings. Ample apartments are handed back unequipped with pipes or water systems. Therefore, the majority of Chinese architects' concern now is to find a solution for these under-funded and mal-equipped structures before considering the use of new technologies and media.
New media are destined to bring about changes to city life. With the EXPO as a backdrop, many architects and designers have experimented with their interpretations of the slogan "Better City, Better Life." It is difficult to say what it means specifically, but the slogan definitely implies that city and life are inseparable. Giel Groothuis, a Dutch architect at FAR Architecture & Design Center in Shanghai, thinks that Shanghai is hosting the EXPO to search for new technology and strategies that can be used in the future. It is comforting to know that China is taking time to think about what solutions to implement in the country, as it is faced with an enormous pool of possibilities brought about by new media and the political issues that come along. For instance, electric cars appears to be a sustainable substitute for gasoline-driven automobile, but it might pose problems in a society with a high demand like China, including what to do with the large amount of electric waste.
It is crucial to note that aside from the technological advances that new media are bringing to the design industry, the social changes are no less prominent. In fact, with regard to the changes that new media might bring to the city, Steven Wang's stance is mainly social. The interviewer cited the emergence of wireless internet as an example and asked how similar technologies can change the design industry. Wang thinks that these technologies will not change the physical appearance of a city much, because for city-wide coverage of wireless internet, a device the size of a television tower would suffice. For instance, San Francisco has pursued this not long ago when Google and Earth Link collaborated in an attempt to promote a "connected city."
The project was aborted, but architects started to realize the social impact that these new media might bring. For instance, traditionally in the United States, people usually reside far from one another and an individual's circle tend to be really small. This triggers the growth of social networks like Facebook and Twitter that promote a new means for communication.
In China, similar changes are happening. For example, with the expansion of online shopping, the need for shopping malls will gradually decrease. Of course, this is not to say that shops and malls will completely disappear - there will always be products (e.g. clothes) that are better purchased in person. Nevertheless, shops like Best Buy might significantly decrease in store size. The existence of shopping malls will become more spiritual than material, much like churches in medieval Europe - a place for people to meet friends and socialize. Similarly, libraries might become purely an archival center. With these changes already in action, architecture will definitely need to catch up.
Fu Haicong has made similar remarks: shop sizes can become smaller, and public areas will need grow in size. Specifically, the airports that ECADI has designed in recent years feature smaller and smaller waiting areas as digital media are providing passengers with more accurate and real-time information regarding the status of their flights. Fortunately, Chinese urban designers and architects are gradually becoming aware of the inevitability of these transformations and are integrating them into their designs. However, in China, very frequently the content of the building is not decided before it is built. Therefore, architects need to design flexible buildings. In addition, the Chinese clients tend to be passive in the design process, and architects often have to force the client to give them what is needed specifically. Peraza felt that architects have to be ready for changes, and they have to get used to working without knowing the final purpose of the building.
The introduction of new media also brings hope as potential a problem solver for both design and societal issues that are unique to China. The country has a long and rich history, and this can be problematic in the rapid development that has been happening in the country in the last three decades or so. When asked about the current trend in China, most local architects replied with confidence that it is preservation over destruction. Wang Xiao'an pointed out that in the much-too-fast urban development that took place in the last three decades, most market demands has been on more buildings and more living and working spaces as a great influx of people moved into major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. It was inevitable that some of the older buildings that have lost their livability be destroyed to make room for new constructions.
However, all of the Chinese interviewees have expressed unanimous hope regarding the preservation of the tidbits of past that is left. Many have cited Shanghai's Xintiandi as an example. Popular among tourists, the area filled with stereotypical dark roofs and brick houses is famous for being one of the few places in the city where one can still see the old Shanghai even though the old residential area has been transformed completely into a high-end commercial district. The government saw hope through this project and realized that history does not have to be the city's burden and that it is possible to combine history and development to design an integrated city where the past is not abandoned.
Similar preservation strategies can be seen at Tianzifang, a Xintiandi-like shopping area in Shanghai, and Zhujiajiao, a resort an hour outside of the city famous for its rivers and boats. Nevertheless, as Steven Wang has pointed out, the culture has been lost. Hangzhou, a popular tourist destination in Zhejiang, offers us not only Xi Hu, a beautiful lake nicknamed "paradise on earth," but also hundreds of surveillance cameras leading up to it. Simply preserving the buildings is not enough; the core of the culture and the residents is what defines a city and makes it unique. The houses at Xintiandi are original, but the content has been replaced.
Giel Groothuis said from his perspective the current trend is still destruction, but he doubts that the Chinese see it that way. He thinks that the Chinese see it more as building up, adapting a new life style, and getting rid of what is no longer useful. People are certainly concerned about and aware of tradition, but they simply have more issues on their minds. To him it seems like preserving a building does not go beyond taking care of a shell. What is really at stake is to think about the future of these traditional elements, look under the cover, and keep the essence.
Currently, the exact opposite has been happening in Xintiandi, where the shell is preserved for a modern lifestyle based on consumption and leisure, and the original social content has been lost. Most architects have expressed an interest in finding out if new media can be somehow employed to allow the residents stay while still make use of the discarded buildings in new ways. This is where the future of architecture in China lies.