Author : Jie Zhang

University : Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge | MIT

Status : Master of Architecture, 2016

Advisor : Arindam Dutta

Title : Diplomatic | Letter from the Architectural Enclave

Short //

 

The social-spatial persistence of urban enclaves reveals great contemporary architectural frustration. When sustained inscription of physical and social barriers dissolves the urban fabric into archipelagos of enclaves and design efforts in constructing true public space are often rendered impotent, Architecture is caught in between the acceptance of and resistance against a role of service in capitalist development; between a nostalgia towards revolutionary expectations, and a pessimism about the prospect of an artistic avant-garde truly capable of withdrawing from the various processes and power relations which both determine and undermine its subversive aspirations; and between a refusal of productivity, and a desire to extend the dimensions of architectural agency.

Drawing from and reflecting upon a prior design experiment under the same title, this Master of Architecture thesis investigates spatial mechanisms of exclusivity and the state of the architectural boundary using the embassy typology as the epitome of a tangible as well as ideological enclave, and proposes the notion of an architect, rather than serving as a producer bound to the logic of production, performing as a diplomat. The result of a diplomatic architecture mediates between criticism and engagement, and with enough nuance, suggests a projective criticality.

In particular, the design project, being part investigation, part criticism and part design, exposes the absurdities in urban geopolitics while proposing ways of hacking into it. It describes a seemingly open US embassy for Beijing as an imploded fragment of a boundary, its incompleteness buttressed by other territories of privilege and its disparate barriers articulated as a process of filtration. Away from popular strategies of conceptual and spatial blurring, an architectural porosity is employed to orchestrate spaces of varying openness, as a nuanced response to both the embassy’s double identities and schizophrenic agendas of city-building.

Presenting an architecture that is diplomatic by function and diplomatic by disposition, this thesis declares an alternative methodology beyond the single pursuit of public-ness, capable of designing with oppositions, irony and latency.

 

Long //

At the beginning of this Master of Architecture thesis project one questions: what is the current state and renewed understanding of public space?

Just as the word “public” originates from terms referring to both the people and its franchised subgroups, the concept of public space comes in different shapes and sizes. Beyond a legal definition of governmental ownership and management, the spatial concept evolves with, if not slightly behind, shifting philosophical, political and sociological definitions of the public, the public sphere and the public realm. If the 18th century conceived of an indivisible public sphere governed by reason and serving the common good, the decades following Haussmann’s surgical renovation of Paris into arrondissements and neo-capitalistic invention of privately-owned public space saw a diversity of interpretations. While Karl Marx differentiates the population by social class and general intellect, Walter Lippman finds the capacities of the public a fiction for its lack of knowledge, agency and desire. John Dewey’s idea of the public as a posteriori after consequences from human acts predates Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere as an inherently liberal, democratic realm, yet both in contrast to later research by Nancy Kraser on the plurality of publics and counter-publics representing social groups whose power dynamics are constantly in flux. Recognizing ideological underpinnings from which spatial proposals spring, this project is less interested in designing better public spaces, but firstly concerned with the validity of these terms in describing today’s world.

With increasing mobility and information exchange come not only greater demographic diversity but also social needs to identify and cohere by commonalities in race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or ideology. As a universalistic public sphere dissolves into particular public spheres, common space is territorialized into ethnic enclaves, refugee camps, urban informal settlements, anarchist heavens, ghettos as well as gated communities, diplomatic districts and gentrified neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the internet as a democratizing tool lowers the threshold of information access and dissemination, facilitates collective action, and effectively produces a virtual counterpart of physical common spaces. In an effort to update the concept of public space for the ephemeral identities of digital age, urban and architectural proposals subscribe to a fashion of designing all-inclusive spaces that are open in theory but ambiguous in practice. Homogenous city plazas prevalent in developing countries could be one example where the untethering from particular cultural references also dispels any spatial specificity. Shopping malls and coffee shops could be another where seemingly universal access is conditional upon consumption and filtered by behavioral correctness.  

The vagueness of the term public space calls into question its innocence and efficacy, and demands a renewed understanding. How much of our public space is truly public? How much of our effort in constructing publicness stays effective? And what could potential strategies for public space be with the understanding of a multitude of publics and identities?

To answer these questions one finds it valuable and productive to research into an instance of the opposite of public space: the urban enclave and its implication of physical and virtual boundaries. Existing at a neighborhood or district scale, an urban enclave is simultaneously a contained and containing space. Aside from bounded communities with controlled access, areas that seem open could be effectively enclosed by invisible boundaries such as a matching architectural form and scale to emphasize solidarity, regulations on codes of behavior, or simply an aura that evokes one’s self-consciousness of being welcomed or the otherwise. By private acquisition of land or gradual gentrification, gated communities, conditioned corporate atria and self-sufficient architectural megastructures grow in size and multitudes, their interiority turning urban space into an archipelago of enclaves.

As a case study, this project looks into the architectural typology of the embassy as the epitome of an enclave. According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats retain full immunity from local laws. In most cases, the premise of an embassy also stays inviolable from representatives from the host country. Removed from its legal, social and spatial context, embassies sponsor differences ranging from temperature and food to laws and ideologies.

Essentially a walled city, an embassy is bounded by multiple layers that go beyond the skin-deep building facade to include the surrounding urbanscape. Two main barriers delineate a series of activities and experiences: the outer urban perimeter guarded by local police keeps out uncontrolled street life, from which buildings are setback 100 feet; and more importantly, the inner hardline, guarded by US Marines, separates screened public visitors and locally employed staff from limited-access core offices and information. While a lot of attention is placed on embassy architecture as the symbolic and functional apparatus of diplomacy, the ensemble of security control makes possible the extraterritoriality of an embassy. In extreme situations of attack or asylum, the successive perimeters of an embassy distinguish one political realm from the other, making the entry into an embassy building essentially irrelevant. In situations of peace, the grand staircase in the former London embassy designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen conveys openness, while layers of bollards, guards, and the building’s 100-feet setback from city streets defend against potential breaches.

The embassy also projects beyond its walls. At a larger scale of the city, the embassy cultivates a sense of privilege. The aura of influence surrounding an embassy that is a long-established landmark appeals to businesses and visitors, contributing to an elitist diplomatic districts with a certain persuasiveness. More concretely, the day-to-day activities at an embassy include facilitating dialogues, publicity, travels, immigrations and trade negotiations, tying a political entity with the introduction of foreign products and cultures. Outside the embassy complexes and their direct subsidiary residences and cultural centers, such influence helps promote a diffused network of commercial and cultural establishments alien to the host city, such as golf courses, service apartments, international schools, Starbucks, apple stores, foreign supermarkets and so on. Whether explicitly or implicitly, these territories through the thickness of their boundaries determine and stage differences, between citizens and non-citizens, protestors and visa seekers, the elite and the ordinary. A call for publicness in Embassy Architecture is almost a battle that cannot be easily won. The desire to simultaneously appeal to a large constituency and to pamper elitism produces a spatial schizophrenia, which also characterizes the act of city-building today as a delicate negotiation between inclusivity and security.

The following design experiment tackles this challenge by designing a new, seemingly open US embassy in the city of Beijing. While revealing a general lack of innocence in many so-called public programs, this experiment translates the observation of the public sphere as a plurality into object forms, and speculates on strategies of orchestrating a multitude of architectural boundaries.

 

While the current embassy, designed by US design firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, serves as a key landmark in Beijing’s Third Diplomatic District, the proposal turns to Qinghe Bay Golf Country Club north of the city’s 5th Ring Road, on an extension of the imperial axis, as an alternative site, and claims the intention of transforming it into a public park. The golf course was a 2008 development from farmland acquisition and a blatant disregard of a 2004 ban on new construction of golf courses. Currently, despite fines and national crackdowns, the club continues to attract high-end leisure and residential bordering properties.

The coupling of the embassy as a building form and the golf course as landscape is intentional – revealing both as relentless mechanisms for safeguarding elitism. Much like classic Chinese gardens hidden in the depth of upper-class mansions as a retreat from the outside world, contemporary golf courses are more exclusive than many other institutional or residential gated communities. Its ironic alignment with Beijing’s ancient gates, war monuments, Olympic stadia and national forest parks, all public facilities in principle, is a silent comment on the city’s increasingly restrictive civic and public realm.

The embassy, situated at the southern gate of the golf course, exists at an urban scale as a fragment of a boundary, a line, instead of a continuous border. And yet, seemingly contextual, the master plan of the embassy extends beyond the building footprint to include gentrified residential compounds surrounding the newly created park. As the announcement of the embassy’s location inevitably drives up land value, the dissolved boundary of the embassy finds a replacement in a combinatory border from these back-to-back communities with individual walls and security procedures of resident ID checks, parking permits, security cameras in lobbies and so on. A vast, seamless and depoliticized proxy network emerges, augmenting the normal security setback of the embassy from 100 feet to over 400 feet by exercising new and equally effective means of control through the filters of wealth or merit.

Architecturally, the embassy is a porous boundary. At the building scale, it collapses the distance between core functions and sponsored peripheral economies. The embassy building stands 250-meter-long in one direction, and in the other, is interrupted by vertical punctuations creating multi-story openings, and elongated appendages housing related public events, in this case, a business convention center, a library, a theater, a restaurant as well as the consulate offices. On the ground, the attachments array almost democratically as scaleless strips perpendicular to the length of the embassy, while within their depths the security perimeter is enacted by transverse walls and securitized entry points through body scanners.

What is unnoticeable from without is an internal, 10-meter wide gap within the building, separating public and semi-public volumes from embassy offices behind the façade. It is a void that is almost formidable as it rises up 10 stories and sinks to an unknown depth. Circulation is tightly filtered. At very few moments, a connection is allowed, where the selective act of becoming a citizen, the meeting with American companies, and the attendance at press conferences or official negotiations is concretized and ritualized through different typologies of bridges across the gap, some arched and some hanging but each evoking particular psychological responses.

Literally withdrawn behind the veil of the façade, the embassy exists as an unidentifiable headquarters in the grand mechanism of channeling influence. It stays secured at the help of the exclusivity of co-located programs. Only from the golf courses and residential enclaves does the embassy reveal its nature as a fortified wall. Otherwise, the scale of the building and its close distance from the nearest access road restrict perception to a flattened image of the eroded facade. For the remote populations, their reliance on imagery sponsors an illusory reading of openness.

Aside from revealing publicness as a perceived notion in the digital age, this experiment suggests several nuanced design strategies for social space. For instance, amid disparate enclaves where the building of common spaces is unlikely, one design approach could be the creation of socio-economical linkages between territories that could evolve from strategic alliances to inter-dependence and even a range of cross-border exchanges. Here, the masterplan of using residential plots as the embassy’s security buffer renders symbiotic the integrity of the embassy perimeter with the health of the real estate industry. When real estate developments boom, the embassy enjoys heightened off-site pre-screening; when it busts and developments are squatted by the poor, the embassy, alerted by the social climate of its immediate surroundings, would be forced to install conventional means of security control.

Secondly, considering space as a multi-layered continuum, a clear articulation of the territories and careful treatment of their shared boundaries could be more productive than the common strategy of blurring. In this case, the gap within the embassy opens up possibilities of the remaking of a border depending on political situations. As bridges are added or subtracted, the status of this void registers either the increasing erosion or persistent solidity of social barriers.

Finally, this experiment might point to a capacity of Architecture, in addressing complex social relations, to design beyond object forms. Using techniques of irony and latency diplomatically, design can unfold, map and eventually influence the codes, scripts, formula and processes by which architecture and urbanism are shaped, and in doing so, achieve a political criticality.

Interview

S//A : What’s the most important aspect of this project that we should be aware of?
Jie Zhang_ A methodology that allows Architecture to straddle between reality and fiction; a denial of noblesse oblige often embraced by (but only constructive for) the interior of the design community; the realization of a conscious diplomacy productive in complex political realities.

S//A : What other fields outside of architecture interest you?
JZ_ Economics, politics, journalism, alternative artistic practices,

S//A : Most important thing you learned in architecture school?
JZ_ As the official publication of MIT School of Architecture and Planning is titled, Test to Failure.

S//A ; Describe your dream project
JZ_ Khan in Bangladesh, Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, or Niemeyer in Brasilia