A conversation with Atelier GOM at MOA Studio
The role and future of Architecture in the contemporary society is a very critical topic. So many factors are involved in the architectonic project, from very local to global ones, such as from specific topology, culture, habits, social and political rules to worldwide environmental and economic issues. When I moved to China, some dynamics of architecture and design became more visible and tangible to me, increasing my need for exploration and reflection.
I had the chance to meet a spokesperson in the Chinese architecture scene, Atelier GOM, based in Shanghai. Although GOM is an International Architectural Company, it is still characterized by a strong design philosophy and an active role in the debate and evolution of Architecture in China.
I went to visit their new studio, called MOA, found at West Bund in 2015 and proved to be internationally recognized and awarded as a significant example of architecture.
I spent a whole afternoon in this unexpected, unusual and comfortable place having a wide conversation with Atelier GOM’s founder, who makes him call JJ, who told me about AlphaGo, AI, Social Housing, Architecture Realism, Rules to be changed, Music and much more.
I try to report his words and reflections.
Enza Migliore: I have read on the web that, in 1997, you called your Atelier “GOM” and this studio “MOA” after the ancient game of “GO”. It seems to be strictly related to your work philosophy. Can you tell me more about that?
JJ: GOM and MOA are two positions in the game of GO. It originated in China over 3,000 years ago. Winning this board game requires multiple layers of strategic thinking. So, it is intended to focus on empowering your mind rather than profit. Simply put, the Atelier focuses on development rather than seeking immediate benefits. After 2016, the game of GO has even more significance to me, since AlphaGo became the first computer program to defeat a professional human Go player, the first to defeat a Go world champion, and is arguably the strongest Go player in history.
From that moment, I consider AlphaGo, which is the highest level of Artificial Intelligence, as a God.
Enza Migliore: Aren’t you afraid that this “God” can subordinate human being capabilities and decisions? For example, in the Architecture process, do you think that AI might substitute the architect?
JJ: I think that a God is not interested at all to replace a man, he is there only to support him and to help to see beyond himself, to empower his knowledge.
When AlphaGo proved to be the best GO player in the world it meant that AI could go beyond the simple calculation activity and reach the human capabilities of “strategy and feeling”. This had a big influence on me. I truly believe that AI can simplify and help different human activities, including Architecture, to become more authentic, realistic and objective.
Enza Migliore: Apart from GO game, I know there is another analogy which helps to represent your work and your idea of architecture: it’s music, right?
JJ: I assume that all architects are educated to think of architecture as “solidified music”. I refer to music in terms of process rather than result. Music is mathematic and there are different ways to make it: there can be more players, like in a symphony, or a solo player, there can be an orchestra leader, different instruments. The most important thing is the rhythm and the right, perfect “coincidence” between several elements. The same happens in architecture, you have the client, which is the orchestra leader, one or more experts, different points of view and all of them have to find a moment of convergence/coincidence and build a rhythm.
Enza Migliore: This studio, called MOA and built in 2015, has been internationally appreciated and published. Do you think it represents your design work and approach?
JJ: This studio represents only one part of our work and has been an exciting experiment to put in practice some principles that it is impossible to follow in professional projects for clients.
We are located in a very special area with many new buildings dedicated to art and this one is a kind of architecture district made of low buildings hosting five renowned architecture studios.
Since the beginning, we don’t know how long the city will allow us to stay here and this uncertainty influenced the way we conceived and developed the space. Studio MOA taught me a simple truth: whether it is five years, ten years, or seventy years, there is no eternal architecture, no static space.
While our projects for clients follow strict rules of durability and very precise building methods and processes, this studio has been created day by day, transforming its space and functions on the base of our needs. I have learnt a lot; it is a design project lasted 5 years and still ongoing.
In 2015, we had another studio in the city center and here we designed and built only a basic space to host events. The first construction was only a structure with the four elements of Gottfried Semper: hearth, roof, enclosure, mound. Later we moved here, and we designed its extension in a very functional way. It started to transform from a structure to a building.
We conceived a very flexible space which could be ready to expand or even change in function and activities in the future; this is possible because we designed “a method” rather than a space.
The design changed during time, with no rules but safety and comfort. We focused on the balance between inside and outside and on sustainability, both in terms of costs, materials and efficiency. For example, we can easily convert a closed space into an open one thanks to light and moving walls and we relocate our workspace from one floor to another - we have two floors - depending on the season.
Enza Migliore: I am going to ask the last and maybe more critical question: can you explain this concept of “bitterness” you use to describe your position in the Chinese Architecture scenario?
JJ: Some Chinese words are hard to translate in English and have different interpretations. I think “bitterness” is close to what I mean. I refer to the feeling and reaction the clients experience while dealing with Atelier GOM. Clients are intended in the sphere of public administration. Being an architect in China is not the same as in other countries, such as in Europe or USA. There are rules, standards, paths that can’t be changed, challenged or criticized and you have to follow them. In some cases, this is due to the speed and size of the projects; in fact, they would be slowed down and complicated if you try to design in different ways. National building code wants to make things pragmatical, simple and fast and a rigid housing regulation make it possible. This is not entirely bad but produces side effects such as the “copy-paste”, which translates in housing solutions which aren’t the most suitable or effective and in a lack of urban plans and community wellbeing. Working on Social Housing is our main challenge to question the state of things. Atelier GOM is “bitter” because make a point of some rules and try to produce positive changes in public architecture. I have to say that Shanghai municipality gave us some opportunities to operate on the public and social level.
Enza Migliore: I think your engagement is very important in this scenario and can trigger new approaches to the Architecture project in China, while giving new insights to the International community. Changes in habits and rules are always very slow to happen, but they need “warriors” – I know you think this is not the accurate word to use – focusing their efforts and thoughts to make it real!
Thank you for your time and for your serious and realistic commitment to the design culture and practice.