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Working in Series: Serie Architects by Christopher CM Lee and Kapil Gupta with essays from Brett Steele, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Sam Jacoby, Christopher CM Lee and Laurence Liauw

Serie Architects’ theoretically-pitched monograph

Working in Series is another book from the prolific Chris Lee, whose Typological Urbanism (a special issue of Architectural Design guest-edited with Sam Jacoby), appeared only in January. Working in Series precedes Urbanism, and is built around nine recent projects by Serie Architects, of whom Lee and Gupta are the principals. The book has been lavishly produced by AA Publications, in support of an exhibition of these works held at the Architectural Association last year.

Common to both volumes is a theory that purports to draw types from the city and subject them to serial transformations to arrive at architectural and urban configurations.

However, it requires having both volumes to hand to appreciate a debt to ‘the city’, because the emphasis in Working in Series is on the design of individual buildings; and the typological themes (or ‘ideas’ in Lee’s terminology) that serve as a way to group the projects seem fairly abstract, not suggestive of a vision of civic life or an urban typography.

The works themselves display an inventiveness and a wit, whose resources appear to lie outside the explicit domain of the theory. For example, the tree branch and canopy structure of The Tote in Mumbai (AR January 2010), seems at first glance to indulge a literal interpretation of the trees among which the pavilion sits.

But closer inspection reveals a quasi-parametric order to these branches, a construction in welded I-sections, a delicate negotiation with a glass plane and the whole painted white to find a species of abstraction that could be considered a re-interpretation of the tree
and vine iconography familiar from the ornament of Islamic palaces and pavilions.

This ‘reference’ is not mentioned in the text, although it is difficult to avoid simply because of the cultural context in which it is situated, suggesting clubs favoured by colonial Englishmen.

The emphasis in the text suggests that the work occupies an autonomous domain of form governed by the theory - even the two pages of construction photographs pass without comment, as if the equivalent of a digital printer.

The ambivalent beauty of the resulting work is remarkable, especially from the inside, where it appears to be at once invisible, a pure
form, and urgently referential, perhaps combining a grove with the festival tent of a Shah or Maharajah.

The factory conversion Xintiandi Factory H in Hangzhou, China, 2010, is more evidently an essay in typological composition. A disused factory building is to be transformed into offices, restaurants and bars for creative industries, to become the heart of a new settlement.

Instead of erasing the traditional masonry factory by packing it with a programme, Serie made it into the celebratory centre of a
new plinth of offices profiled to appear as a two-storey landscape wrapping around the base of the original building.

The dialogue between the old and new orders is negotiated by means of cylindrical forms which are either bamboo ‘courtyards’ (voids) or offices that project into the factory-hall (solids).

These cylindrical interventions into a landscape surface made an appearance in the seating for the Blue Frog Acoustic Lounge in Mumbai, (2007), as well as in Parcel 9, HX Urban Centre Housing in Guizhou, China, the next year.

All three projects are classified typologically as ‘plan, circles’. The three examples of landscape surface perforated with circular voids differ in scale and character, but the voids appear to consistently attract ‘intimacy’ in Serie’s thinking, whether for dining/drinking (Blue Frog), a relief from deep-plan offices (Xintiandi Factory), or a memory of the circular courtyards of Hakka houses (Parcel 9).

The communal character of the traditional example - a house implying a city - will necessarily be an aspiration for the inhabitants purchasing or renting units in the configuration; but even this aspiration is an improvement upon the industrial distribution of housing so familiar in recent Chinese urban development.

The hilly profile of Parcel 9’s surface also invites comparison with the surrounding hills as they appear in Song Dynasty landscape painting. Despite the formal similarity, it is unlikely that Song Dynasty landscape painting or Hakka were intended at the Blue Frog, but it is possible to see a generic ‘Chinese landscape’ reference at the factory.

That is, the type ‘plan, circles’ exhibits three levels of similarity or ‘typical’ behaviour: a) a formal similarity and scope for variation, to which b) iconographic references can be attached or not, and whose circles carry c) a generic reading of ‘intimacy’.

If this seems to exhibit opportunism in the typological rigour, it is possible to compare these circular voids to the windows of a facade.

Reading this perforated surface as a facade to the ground is encouraged by the vertical development of these circular interventions, whose mullions follow the lines of extrusion. From the exterior, the windows of a facade too exhibit a reference to ‘intimacy’ by suggesting the inhabitants within.

Moreover, the three-dimensional character of these intersections in the profiled surface develops opportunities for reference to the primary ground by doubling as ‘courtyards’ and ‘apses’ for entry (even if these appear to be purchased at some cost to convenience in the planning of the live-work units).

It is the manner in which the circular openings are repeated and operate within the surface that suggests such a reading. Indeed, on reflection, it is not obvious that the circles are necessary to what is evidently a new type; and although Serie may balk at ‘ground facade’, it is a terminology which, to me at least, suggests the scope of its content more than does ‘plan, circles’.

Serie approached the Xi’an 2011 International Horticultural Expo Masterplan Competition, for which it won second prize, by declaring its intention to overcome the cliché of a supposed conflict between city and nature by adducing the urban history of Xi’an, as well
as its most prominent urban figure - its city wall, once the boundary between civic and natural orders.

Like so many Chinese cities, Xi’an is in the process of high-speed mass expansion, and the creation of a horticultural park is never going to make up for previous ills, which are as much an offence to civic as to natural ideals.

In this context, Serie’s kilometre-long bridge-wall providing continuity to five climate zones exceeds the didactic intent to ‘re-validate’ the role of architecture in city-making, and attains to a radical manifestation of the reciprocity of architecture and nature.

The irregular rhythms of parabolic vaults host greenhouses when necessary and traverse a highway, a river and two immense walled squares (for flowers: one with hills, one flat) to arrive at a tall pagoda on an island.

It is possible to see this as a Chinese garden turned inside out, where the wall does not enclose but provides a measure for living urban and natural incident.

Accordingly, when the text for the project speaks of ‘idea’ (city wall) and ‘model’ (a set of structural and formal principles) - a terminology adapted from Quatremère de Quincy - I again detect an ambivalence regarding the theory itself.

For example, should not ‘nature’ (which is in some form more precise than its full scope between particle physics and body-culture) be part of the ‘idea’?

The essays, of which that of Sam Jacoby is the most mature historically, seek to understand Serie’s use of type and typology as a species of method for design whereby invention is constrained by rigour.

This is largely the result of Lee’s advocacy, not only of Quatremère de Quincy but also of JNL Durand’s combinatorics (Durand’s term).

What preceded Quatremère de Quincy was the Mannerist and Baroque concetto, which sought to reconcile particular situations with their more universal aspects (thus what was typical was universal).

Therefore, one would expect to see depth in whatever passed for ‘idea’, after the fashion of the concetto, where profundity accrues to universality. But Lee finds depth in the model - nominally a particular interpretation of the more universal idea - in respect of the model’s formal variation and material embodiment.

Already in Mannerism one can see that the emphasis on concrete circumstances is also speculating about conceptual possibilities oriented about geometry and logic.

By the time we get to Durand, this latter possibility has taken over, and the results are only a few steps short of space-and-form, the concept that governed 20th-century architectural production.

Laurence Liauw is right to observe Serie’s procedures in the light of the revival of the diagram, and of its chief limitation - which, like all theories that depend upon form/content, is the defect of silencing the creativity of particular situations of design for the sake of a re-assuring set of rules that can never be sufficiently rich or exhaustive.

Extreme (or relentless) typological redundancy is the hallmark of urban design according to space-and-form, whereas information - and, it might be assumed, urban quality - increases with randomness and complexity.

We may be discussing the difference between invention and creation here, but I can’t help but feel the affection for a theory governed by formal consistency places an unnecessary constraint upon Serie’s genuine concerns about the relation of architecture to the city and upon its evident imagination and talent.

Working in Series: Serie Architects by Christopher CM Lee and Kapil Gupta with essays from Brett Steele, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Sam Jacoby, Christopher CM Lee and Laurence Liauw

Publisher: AA Publications, 2010

Price: £20.

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