Mirae Venture Building: new photos from Seoul

Yesterday we received new, quality photos of the Mirae Venture Building (aka "Live Cube"), an office building we designed in Pangyo, on the outskirts of Seoul. The building was just completed, although lobby furniture is not yet installed. I have not yet visited it, so my only experience is through these pictures. I've shown them to a few people, whose first reaction is usually, "Are those renderings?"

This has been a growing "problem" over the last ten years or so. Most obviously, rendering quality has begun to match the resolution of reality. Conversely, reality has also improved, becoming more seamless and cleaner, so photographs often appear fake. 

This building in particular is susceptible because the front facade is conceived as a sheer plane, inflected in response to the sloped garden opposite. The digital sensibility of this plane helps the photos to read as renderings.

Generally I have found that a built project tends to resemble the rendering more than you might expect. The rendering is truer than the old physical scale model we used to make, for example. A model is tactile -- it is an alluring object. But the flat rendered images give a much better sense of what being there will feel like.

And now - some A/B comparisons between renderings and photographs... (as always, click the image to view larger)


Anonymity and human nature

On November 4th, David Brooks published a provocative piece in the Times in reaction to the Penn State scandal. He cites research reminding us how frequently people ignore misdeeds they witness and convince themselves that everything is normal, or someone else will take care of it. It gets more interesting at the end when he says, "In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness." People were continually reminded (in church or the equivalent) of their inner demons and encouraged to struggle against them. These days, we assume "inner wonderfulness." We react to atrocity by blaming conditions, institutions, cultures, etc. A different way to put this is that in our secular society instead of trying to suppress atrocity from the pulpit we use the law. His point is really that we all have dark tendencies, but we deny them.

Then yesterday I attended a good-natured set of debates at The Real Deal's annual forum. Lockhart Steele of Curbed and Frederick Peters of Warburg Realty debated the effect of real estate blogs, particularly the harm caused by sometimes nasty, personal comments of anonymous readers. Curbed is a great site that takes a gossipy, sometimes sensationalist, view of the real estate world. As long as there's been a public Internet, people have complained that anonymous comments remove a sense of personal responsibility or decorum that one finds in the physical realm. Yet, as Brooks reminds us, there is an overcorrection: people don't just suppress their bitchy comments, they suppress their possibly beneficial actions as well. 

We all know of the turmoil in Italy these days. I was in Naples last month, and the city is full of political graffiti (it seems not an accident that this word comes from Italian). This was once the primary form of anonymous commentary, the id of the city expressed. Now that has largely moved online and includes far more participants, who would hesitate to deface a public surface. When I launched the second MESH web site in '98, I included a "MESH graffiti" section, where anyone could post anonymously. There was a lot of noise, but I enjoyed the idea of a public wall where anyone coming through could leave a mark. A unedited reading of our visitors. 

Peters won the debate because he was charming and the room was full of real estate guys, but I think you have to concede the point to Steele. I would rather let that material come out and understand it and debate it than suppress it and deny that such impulses exist. The blogosphere and its attendant commentary is certainly no worse than today's news media, which feeds on itself in a constant battle for attention. It is arguable, in fact, that the blogosphere counterbalances the non-anonymous news media.



For the last seven months or so, my son Asher has been obsessed with a computer game that at first glance looks banal but is truly startling. It is called Minecraft, and it is amazing in several ways. First, to get this out of the way, it has been developed over the last 2 years by one person, Markus Persson, aka "Notch," who sells the game himself online. It has sold over 4 million copies at a cost from $15 (alpha) to $22 (beta) each, meaning Notch has made well over $50 million cash. And version 1.0 hasn't even launched yet. Minecraft 1.0 is releasing tomorrow, 11/11/11. 

In short, Minecraft is a first-person, world-building game. You create worlds, and you inhabit them, surviving and building. How is it different from other world-games, such as Second Life? It is what you might call low-level. It is about resources, physics, chemistry, evolution, invention. Not so much emphasis on character and what you are wearing. The world is lo-res, pixelated and blocky, divided into a 3-D grid of matter: stone, dirt, grass, ore, ice, water, air, and so on. To create iron to build with, you smelt ore in a furnace. You build a house, or a tower to climb to survey the lay of the land, and you light it with torches (but be careful because you can burn your house down). There is weather— rain  causes floods, freezing turns water to ice. You get the idea that instead of the game designer imagining a player's progression, he has simply provided conditions: natural resources, a few crude tools, space, and time. Players take the role of primitive humans, inventing technologies to enhance their world (or survive - - there are wild animals roaming around). 

The game sometimes looks like what is called a first-person shooter -- but without the guns. So players invented their own catapult-like guns from material on hand. In fact technological evolution within the game has paralleled the development of the game. Notch introduces new tools and higher-level technology as the game advances.

To me this is much more fascinating than the last big game about the origin and development of life, Will Wright's Spore. Spore developed in secret over years until its dramatic release. While it is impressive and staggeringly complex, it feels predetermined and closed, with too much of the choose-your-outfit, make-your-own-vehicle play that feels stale and tedious. 


 Minecraft feels atomic, like Lego imbued with physics and chemistry. You can build things the developer never anticipated. In fact Minecraft "mods" are all over the Net -- people have hacked in flying, mass-construction techniques, animals and weapons to enable hunting. But you always have to build your shelter. Asher's homes have typically featured towers for viewing (the chunky landscape can be surprisingly beautiful) and cellars full of furnaces churning out building material. He has pet animals, and while they seem to return home, he must be careful to keep the door closed to prevent them from wandering away. Life goes on when you're away from the game. You can come back to find your house flooded or burned down or animals running amok.  

Asher runs his own server on his laptop -- his own world that his friends can log into and inhabit. He wants his computer to be open at all times to keep the world open. He has been encouraging me to build all our projects in Minecraft. I must admit that the prospect is fascinating. It is a chance to see how the spaces we design fare in a primal, emergent environment. 


Naples Table

Our new Brooklyn house is satisfyingly situated on the East River and on the seam between Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo, but it is super-compact. We needed an efficient dining table to accommodate 8 people in a tight space. Looked at round, which is convivial and begs for a lazy susan. But I think 4' square is the way to go. At two per side it's snug/intimate, and it works for only 4 as well. It is efficient to fabricate, too -- a 4'x8' sheet of plywood cut in half makes the top. Such a table must be pedestal-supported. With 8 diners around it, no room for legs. 

The inspiration came on a ferry ride from Capri to Naples. As we pulled into the Naples harbor at Molo Beverello, along the left side was a long, slender, industrial pier with an enormous, round platform that I can only imagine is a helicopter pad. It was supported by an arrangement of diagonal concrete members that struck me as poetic and structurally elegant. I snapped a quick photo as we floated by, and this became the structure for the Naples table.



Ever since the second iteration of the MESH web site, in 1998, there has been screen space set aside for the general public to post comments, thoughts, whatever. It was called the graffiti space, and it was intended to allow some spontaneity and disturbance to an otherwise organized site showcasing the firm's work. A year later this space was joined with a webcam space that beamed images of the office to the outside world. 

At the same time we envisioned the site as a stack of cards, where each card was a project. The cards could be sorted into categorized piles, and visitors navigated through the cards via "holes" -- portals to the next card. This was high-concept, executed entirely in Flash (which was fairly bold at the time). The concept was a new kind of space - both 2-D (the cards) and 3-D (the cards arranged in space). 

By about 2003, however, Flashy sites for design firms had become de rigeur, as everyone tried to out-interface each other. But really it was already about the blogosphere. Steven Johnson and I were teaching a class called "Groupthink" at NYU's ITP about how ideas were spreading through a network of individual blogs.

We turned 180º the other direction and in 2006 launched a site with no graphics or animation. Using recent javascript innovations, we retained the idea of a pageless web site -- no tedious navigation back and forth between pages -- but made every packet of images and text about a project into a post. The entire site showing dozens of projects was a big feed. The main idea here was to allow for a more spontaneous site: instead of waiting until a project was done then presenting it formally on the site, we could post incremental updates for a fresher, up-to-the-minute site. Also, we could accommodate posts not connected directly to firm work -- about other architecture, personal experiences.

This has worked well for the most part. But we have felt inhibited from posting ephemera because they displace the clearly important function of displaying our work. In the end, screenspace and attention are limited. Also since that launch we have the establishment of proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which serve an important function of connecting people in sophisticated ways.

Thus we are re-organizing the MESH internet presence in an experimental way. We are reworking the site based on a standard CMS (Wordpress), making it lighter and easier to maintain, with a cleaner visual design using the standard JQuery library. MESH has a page on Facebook, which enables friends and clients to receive updates through that system, that is connected to the new site. 

MESHING is a space for me to post more personal thoughts and observations. By moving this function off the main site, my commentary on Minecraft won't compete with a clear presentation of MESH's work. I still enjoy the idea of this competition -- that a firm site can be a little noisy and spontaneous -- and we will see if there is a way to keep some of that sensibility as the experiment unfolds. 

I plan to focus my posts on the intersection of physical and digital space -- both of which can be architectural, in that both can be designed to accommodate programs of human activities (productive, social, educational, etc). And -- this is a big topic -- I will talk about how technological change transforms culture. Aesthetic innovation in art, music, architecture usually responds to specific technology. I enjoy the tracing of these connections.

-- Eric Liftin, principal, MESH Architectures