VOICE-OVER: Design and architecture define the things we use, the spaces we inhabit, and the ways we see the world. Things, Spaces, Interactions presents key works from the M+ Collections that inspire us to look closely at the objects and spaces we interact with every day. This exhibition examines how developments in design and architecture across Asia are intertwined with shifts in the region’s economics, politics, and culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The first section of the exhibition is called ‘Hong Kong as Lens’. The objects on view here exemplify how M+’s design and architecture collections have been defined by the unique culture of the museum’s home city.
Design is shaped by the flow of ideas and objects across borders, and Hong Kong has long facilitated this exchange. There is a rich history of affinities between works produced in Hong Kong and those created abroad. In particular, the city’s urban growth exemplifies the value of both formal and informal approaches to architecture.
SHIRLEY SURYA: Hong Kong is known for its highly efficient urban planning, and so a project like Mei Foo Sun Chuen that was built in the 1960s is really exemplifying that sort of very high-density private housing estate of interconnected blocks. And yet, the unplanned is also what is characterising Hong Kong, and this is shown most famously by the Kowloon Walled City. Even though it was already demolished in the 1980s, it continues to capture our imagination of Hong Kong as something that is perhaps unregulated, but at the same time thriving. This actually made our team very much interested in informal architecture and urbanism and the potentials behind it across Asia.
So, these include projects such as those by architects that are based in Shenzhen called Urbanus. And this model here is actually one of a series of research models that’s called model for urban village. If you were to see this model, It's really a proposal of how you actually insert but also create linkages as opposed to completely overhauling an existing community. In this way, they're actually proposing a way in which you’re able to really keep the existing social as well as spatial fabric of the city.
And another project that is very key for us is by a Mumbai-based research collective called urbz. urbz invited local contractors to build models that [are] meant to be representing how they can improve the existing dwelling structures for the community that is [located] in a slum called Dharavi. At that point, they were really facing the risk of demolition as well as the government wanting to change the entire living environment. So, for them, by having these models and getting them to imagine a new mode of living [and] new materials, they’re actually showing the potential of these local craftsmen as well as builders to be able to improve their own living environments.
These two projects for us are very key in showing the collective intelligence as well as the hidden logic behind informal urban as well as architectural communities in such a way that would be giving a very alternative model to urban renewal as well as demolition.
VOICE-OVER: The next section of the exhibition, ‘Designing for a National Identity’, explores the roles played by architects and designers in twentieth-century nation-building. Following the Second World War, many countries in Asia gained independence from colonial powers. The aspirations of these new nations were reflected in architecture and urban planning, as well as graphic, product, and furniture design.
Through experimentation with form, construction materials, and building technology, architects sought to project a modern, internationalist image while responding to each country’s unique cultural, historical, and climatic conditions.
SHIRLEY SURYA: In the 1950s through the 1960s, architects employed a very sharply defined form of geometry as well as new use of materials—especially concrete—in order to mark a very visible break in terms of the kinds of buildings that were designed [in the] post-independence era with those that are of the colonial past. This ventilation shutter here is often used in many buildings in Chandigarh, and this one is from the High Court. It was meant to deflect sunlight as well as to regulate airflow. The design of this ventilation shutter therefore reflects a formal and technological response by architects in designing for the humid, tropical climate of post-colonial South and Southeast Asia.
In Cambodia, you'll find a similar strategy of being sensitive to the climate as well as the history of the region. This is shown in the design of the National Sports Complex by the state architect as well as the head of public works, Vann Molyvann. Built on a former marsh, Vann Molyvann actually made this stadium be designed according to the hydraulic system of the historic Angkor Wat temple complex as a solution to water drainage. In the entire Sports Complex, you will see Vann Molyvann’s integration of moats as well as perforation on the walls and the stadium ceiling, all of which were to provide cooling, natural lighting, and cross-ventilation.
VOICE-OVER: Design also helped spread various political and nationalist ideologies. Propaganda could encompass printed matter as well as a wide range of products. Designers often employed imagery associated with folk culture and historical motifs to cement modern national identities. Even under the political constraints of state messaging, creativity and individual expression could thrive.
Economic development, technological innovations, and expanded trade networks led to product innovations around Asia, exemplified by consumer electronics and furniture in Japan, the plastic industry in Hong Kong, and textile production in Thailand. The wide circulation of these goods put Asia on the map of global trade, manufacturing, and design.
IKKO YOKOYAMA: This case shows a unique example of Thai textile design development during the Cold War era. As a part of propaganda against communism, the United States supported the development of local craft industries in Thailand and also spreading their idea of the free world. In the late 1940s, American entrepreneur Jim Thompson came to Bangkok and rejuvenated the declining Thai silk production. And the very bright scarves here, you see—those are all hand-woven by the Muslim weavers. The scarf has a little tag and the weavers’ names on it. Without hesitation, Jim Thompson introduced the Swiss chemical dye to achieve this very bright colour palette and then also this unusual colour combination. Until then, the natural dye was more popular in Thailand, but people didn't like it, as the colour comes off on the hands and legs, so they loved this new vivid, fixed colour. It became immediate fashion, and it also became a very popular souvenir from Bangkok. So, what we associate today as a typical Thai textile—this bright colour—it actually comes from such an interesting historical background.
This dress was designed by a female African-American designer, Jacqueline Brandford Ayer. Ayer was a fashion illustrator working for Vogue in Paris and New York, and in the mid-fifties, she moved to Bangkok. And she met Jim Thompson, and he encouraged her to start her own fashion business and secured funding from the Rockefellers. So, she started Design Thai, a first-ever ready-to-wear garment brand in Thailand. It made an immediate hit and also changed the fashion industry in Thailand. Ayer designed the printed patterns. Those are silk screen-printed, and the motif she was referencing was from traditional motifs and then also the natural world and the colour of Thailand. So, here you see this dress has the lotus flower motifs; she got the inspiration from the temple paintings. The Design Thai dress was very elegant, but it's also very well-tailored, as the local tailoring business was big in Thailand then. And here, it’s interesting, the beautiful details: they wadded the belt and the neckline in the same fabric. The garment was exported internationally and gained popularity at the American high- end department stores.
VOICE-OVER: The architects and urbanist visionaries featured in this section of the exhibition reimagined what cities could be—and how people could thrive in them. The London-based group Archigram envisioned radical modes of architecture adapted to the profound social and technological changes of the 1960s. This presentation establishes a dialogue between Archigram’s work and influential built and unbuilt projects proposed in Asia, from work by groups such as the Metabolist architects in Japan to more recent practices like Ma Yansong / MAD Architects in China.
Drawing Architecture Studio created this mural as a visual interpretation of such a dialogue between past and future. Commissioned by M+, the mural depicts a high-density spectacle of movable, modular, and plugged-in structures. If you look closely, you can see projects by Archigram and like-minded architects, as well as similarly adaptive and expandable urban phenomena across Asia.
IKKO YOKOYAMA: This large triangular panel is a building fragment from an Expo Tower cabin from 1970 World Exposition held in Osaka. [It was] designed by Japanese architect Kikutake Kiyonori, who was one of the founding members of the Metabolist movements. So, the Expo ‘70 was a mega event to showcase techno-futuristic future to meet the needs of emerging post-industrial societies. Many of the architectural experiments were realised. This Expo Tower was 127 metres, and it was the tallest. And then the visitors can see the entire site through these round windows. The tower was a design based on the Metabolist idea of the regenerating architecture. Seven geodesic cabins were kind of growing around a tall vertical truss tower, and there was a high-speed elevator that took all the guests up to the cabin. Fifty-four of these panels make up the cabin. Whether the Expo’s idea and the Metabolist theory were realised in a reality or not, but this Expo Tower was one of the very few built structures based on that idea. And it has been functioning until 1990 as an attraction and also as antennas. Then, after the demolition, this panel was kept by the architect Kikutake until M+ has acquired [it].
In this exhibition, we particularly placed this panel in this gallery with the window, which has a Hong Kong skyline view, to have a dialogue to reimagine our future cities.
VOICE-OVER: One of the most captivating building types conceived by visionary architects is the megastructure. Massive, interconnected buildings that house multiple functions, these structures are veritable cities in themselves. Built projects like the Golden Mile Complex in Singapore, and unbuilt ones, like Buckminster Fuller’s floating city and WOHA’s Permeable Lattice City, exemplify how megastructures can offer solutions to challenges associated with population density and climate change.
Not all architects and designers aimed primarily to solve major social problems through their work. This section, ‘Anything Goes: Postmodern Design’, surveys an explosion of decorative surfaces, historical motifs, subjective individualism, and aesthetic contradictions. Postmodern designers and architects consciously went beyond the agenda of technological progress and functionalism and freely experimented with pluralistic imagery and techniques.
Works such as those by Japanese designer Kuramata Shiro—a key member of Milan-based Memphis Group—demonstrate how postmodern design could be wholly transnational yet simultaneously culturally specific. Kuramata’s imaginative materials and innovative craftsmanship can be experienced in the Kiyotomo sushi bar—a rare, wholly preserved restaurant interior at the height of Japan’s bubble economy, first built in Tokyo and then re-installed at M+.
IKKO YOKOYAMA: This group of works shows examples of how M+ sheds light on the lesser-known figures and their practices. This group of works was designed by Japanese designer Ohashi Teruaki. He was active since the sixties and defined a very distinctive design language. But, unfortunately, his premature death in 1992 and [the fact that] he also designed only bespoke furniture for architects made him a relatively unknown figure outside of his practice and even in Japan. The large sofa is called Hannan Chair Long, designed in 1984 for a house designed by Itsuko Hasegawa. And this piece shows the typical Ohashi interest in drawing from different furniture typologies and the culture differences.
First of all, it's very as a big sofa for a Japanese home. And then this exaggerated back with a scrolled metal wire and the colourful fabric are drawing the reference from the Western furniture typologies, while also you see the vintage Indonesian batik and the thin layers of mats as an upholstery that’s also referenced from the Asian traditional floor seating.
Here, it’s another piece: it’s called Tokyo Mickey Mouse. It's a very whimsical piece. It’s foldable picnic mats with their own little serving tray. And I assume he named it so from the shape of the headrest. And inside of the headrest, he's using the core of the volleyball, so it's soft and bouncy. The case shows Ohashi's drawing and the miniature of the furniture models. Ohashi was a very skilful drafter, as he studied architecture originally. And it was a common way to design, develop the design process those days, but it looks kind of extraordinary to our eyes today when we design everything by computers.
VOICE-OVER: Seeking new approaches apart from international modernism, designers in Asia reinterpreted regional traditions to rejuvenate age-old craftsmanship. They sought contemporary value in traditional archetypes, mythologies, and philosophies.
At the same time, postmodern design in Asia also expressed the playful exuberance of consumer culture. The retail and entertainment industries in cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong produced electronic products with high styling, and similarly flamboyant graphics [were] created with novel techniques.
SHIRLEY SURYA: To highlight the playful, exuberant, and highly transcultural nature of graphic output in the postmodern era, especially in the seventies and eighties, we have put together these works that are from Jakarta, from Tokyo, as well as Hong Kong together because of a similarity in the use of the airbrush medium. And the airbrush was a very popular medium for illustration because of its hyperreal as well very expressive effect.
In these three works, you can really tell the powerful medium of airbrush in depicting the empowered and multidimensional female figure. So, the first work by Yamaguchi Harumi—she’s a female illustrator. Her original artwork here is actually meant to be for a poster for PARCO department store in Tokyo. And you can tell that the woman here is really confident and self-assured in her stance but also in her look towards the audience. And, of course, this poster itself exudes this sort of superstar, glamour effect on the viewer.
The next work here is Alan Chan's commissioned artwork by Wong Kin Ho for the album design of Anita Mui's 1984 Leap the Stage album. Anita, here, is being depicted as someone who really, again, confidently struts out in a jumpsuit, and her environment happens to be surrounded by these interstellar objects. And you can tell, again, from the highly contrasting neon colours that she's meant to be in this world, again, hyperreal, at the same time also kind of superhuman.
And then the next work here is by Cahyono Abdi, a Jakarta based, very key graphic designer. And this is meant to be a poster for the graphic design society in Indonesia. There's a special ode to the airbrush technique because it's actually depicted in his poster right here of almost a woman but at the same time also a very androgynous figure that is completely embodying this transcultural mix. So, you can tell that she’s wearing this wayang dance headgear, but at the same time also a glam-rock hairdo and a bowtie.
VOICE-OVER: M+ is a museum of visual culture. Exhibitions here make connections between different disciplines and mediums. Artist Cao Fei’s work RMB City is featured in this architecture and design exhibition to highlight shared questions about how digital and physical worlds intersect. RMB City was a virtual metropolis built on the multiplayer web platform, Second Life. It was launched during the pre-2008 Beijing Olympics building boom. The room presents the work’s comprehensive archive for the first time.
RMB City is part of the last section of this exhibition, which poses five contemporary questions about design and architecture today. Where does the hand end and the machine begin? Manufacturing technologies such as rapid prototyping, 3D printing, and design by algorithm are changing the role of the designer. Where is the need? Many of these projects were initiated by designers to serve unmet needs by leveraging community resources. Who is the author? Design production has become increasingly complex and layered amid difficult social challenges. Authorship can be shared by multiple contributors, some of them anonymous. Where is nature? These works consider humanity’s fraught relationship with nature, which simultaneously involves stewardship, recreation, and exploitation. How do we interact? Digital technologies have transformed how we interact, simultaneously enabling us to communicate as never before while creating new barriers to understanding each other.
IKKO YOKOYAMA: What you see here is 165 of the first Emoji sketches. Emoji was born digital, so the originals are in the PICT digital file. What you see here is the printout for this exhibition purpose. Emojis launched in 1999 by Japanese telecommunication company NTT DOCOMO. DOCOMO’s developer, Kurita Shigetaka, he defined this graphic pictogram system Emoji and he defined which picture to be depicted. And he asked the Japanese architect Jun Aoki to design individual characters. So as you see here, the grid system was limited in twelve-by-twelve pixels. And the interesting part that Kurita has referenced is the graphic novel system from Manga culture, such as sweat or the stress or sleep or epiphany.
Here is the first mobile phone [where] the Emoji was installed: Fujitsu Digital Mova. The screen is very small, and it fit only the six lines by eight characters. So, the Emoji was immediately filling the gap to saving some words, but the especially important part was expressing emotion such as love or saying sorry or being sad or angry, which may have been very difficult to say otherwise.
Emoji became a norm of the Japanese digital communication since the millennium, but it took a decade until it became global. 2011’s Apple iPhone 5 was the first phone to install the Emoji outside of the country. But we had to wait until 2014’s [iOS 8] update, then Emoji became a default setting, then it became widely, became very quickly for the worldwide use. Here, we created this Emoji video to show the evolution of Emoji. Emoji became a part of the global language, so the needs of including and referencing such as culture diversity, sexual orientations, and inclusivity have become essential topics for the Emoji development of today.
VOICE-OVER: How do the images, objects, and buildings you encounter in this gallery enable you to discover, or question, the experience of the physical and virtual worlds? How do the histories of the works on view help you to see the interconnections between Hong Kong, Asia, and the world?