Buildings and the built environment are designed and built according to measurable, quantifiable and gradable standards, yet a community’s interaction with their environment is not measured within these standards. In this interview, Adrian Lai, curator of the Singapore Pavilion together with Melvin Tan and Wong Ker How, talk about the intangible in our cities, the difference between lovable and livable and the power behind asking the right questions.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
KOOZ Singapore’s National participation to the Biennale Architettura 2023, stems from the premise that “whilst buildings and the built environment are designed and built according to measurable, quantifiable and gradable standards, yet a community’s interaction with their environment is not measured within these standards” but can rather be understood and evaluated through unmeasurable reactions. What prompted your interest in exploring this more intangible aspect of our built environment?
ADRIAN LAI The correlation between the quantitative and the qualitative has been a constant fascination for us. We are interested in learning about the effect, affect and the context that any architectural work activates or investigates. Inspired by Kahn’s Unmeasurable, Le Corbusier’s Ineffable, or even the Nusantaran concept of Ruang,we wanted to measure the intangible in the built environment—what some call the soul of a place, the Genius Loci, the Aura.
And there is the call for urgency, too. We were keen in exploring how design can play a role in facing some of the most critical issues of inclusion, agency, connection and attachment. Does architecture have the power to design and materialise these values in positive ways? It seemed to us this is the call of our times—to reflect and to imagine the architectural innovations that will help this zeitgeist manifest.
This is the call of our times—to reflect and to imagine the architectural innovations that will help this zeitgeist manifest.
KOOZ In his latest publication architect, verb(Verso Books, 2023), AMO co-founder Reinier de Graaf dedicates an entire chapter to the phenomenon of livability indexes, tracing the emergence of the word live-able from the 1608 origin in England, when towns suffered severe outbreak of the bubonic plague, to the entry of the term within discourses around the city—Lewis Mumford’s essay “Restored Circulation, Renewed Life” (1956)—and ultimately the establishment of this as an objective within reports as “The Livable Region 1976/1986: Proposals to Manage the Growth of Greater Vancouver.” In 2005, thirty years after the reports implementation, Vancouver earned the top position on The Economists Global Livability Index, an “achievement” which not only resulted in an increase in house prizes of more than 300% but also the signalling of a shift of the word from its original associations with the protection of local communities, to a mainstream factor at the service of the countries’ real estate market. How does the research position itself in relation to these kinds of indexes? What is the danger in making the immeasurable measurable?
AL In theory, indexes like the ones you mention are wonderful because they created measures that spelt common good. They signal agreement, deliberation, higher standards, protocols—a plan to do better. Once these standards are in place, the second meaning of measures can start to take place—the series of actions to embed and materialise values. However, the mainstream adoption of such indexes is a double-edged sword, which should not stop us from doing the good work that we need to do. While widespread acceptance or aspiration is important, its abuse to exacerbate inequalities would be a real irony we should work hard to avoid.
Pavilion of Singapore, "WHEN IS ENOUGH, ENOUGH? The Performance of Measurement", 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future. Photo: Matteo de Mayda, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
In terms of making the immeasurable measurable, there is a kind of dichotomy in question. On the one hand, exchange value—making all things exchangeable, according to agreed rates of the market—has flattened the world. But on the other hand, to give an example, some people still argue that time is not meant to be measured. There are very real subjective times, and yet that subjectivity has not stopped us from agreeing that having clocks, and a way of telling time, has brought immeasurable benefits. It has also meant that we can decimalise our lives and be paid by the clock. This parallelism brings to the question the fact that there are at least two risks about capturing immeasurability: the letter of the law overruling the spirit and the risk of its adoption to signal desirability, which in turn translates to higher real estate values, becoming out of reach.
A third risk would be its “bastardisation”, or misuse, abuse, or misappropriation to “justify” other criteria that have less to do with a common good and more driven by real estate. All the more, practitioners should formulate and be custodians of these indexes and value systems. They can let them be exclusively driven by finance and economics.
There are cities we love but will not choose to live in; and vice versa. Lovable and livable are not mutually exclusive but they are not the same thing.
KOOZ The installation revolves around a centrepiece, the Values Measurement Machine, as well as other machines, with which visitors are invited to engage with and respond to a series of “questions that surface the intangible elements of the city and reflect on the qualities that can transform the urban landscape beyond a human-oriented city.”Ultimately the research specifically seeks to understand how we can build more lovable cities by measuring agency, attachment, attraction, connection, freedom, inclusion. How would you define a lovable city today? To what extent can one outline specific qualities/attributes that apply to all urban contexts/ cities? If so, which would these be?
AL My autocorrects are still replacing “lovable” with “livable” on my digital interfaces. These two terms are not in opposition and should really be complementary. There are cities we love but will not choose to live in; and vice versa. Lovable and livable are not mutually exclusive but they are not the same thing. Getting both right means that urban space improves for longer and for the benefit of more groups of people—visitors and residents.
Our use of A Relatable Question is the format of our exhibition and the exhibit itself.
This is deeply contextual and not cast in stone. The key is to not speak for the people but to find ways to give them a voice. For example, the Loveable Singapore Report arose from a Design Singapore Council study done in 2020-2022 among Singaporeans. In our research on public standards and state’s agency, we decided to turn the open-ended nature of the report on its head.
Asking the right questions helps articulate the values that will hold that society together from here on,The right question is a powerful weapon that reflects the values of the asker. Perhaps due to our particularly nurtured situation of personal responsibility-to-the-collective, we think the value of relatability is important, hence our use of A Relatable Question. The format of our exhibition and the exhibit itself. Inviting a pause for each of us to reflect—and to shift the focus of that reflection not just on ourselves but to the next person, or An Other—is key to finding the common good. What we decide is good for the Commons might not coincide exactly with everyone else, but it will lie on a spectrum. If we repeat this exercise to a large enough sample size, a large enough spectrum of a city’s demographic, we will not have to guess. This forms the crux of the Values Measurement Machine. We hope to commission more artwork in the coming months, in response to more Relatable Questions, as an ongoing method of inviting more participation in the imagination of our cities.
KOOZ Plotted on large calligraphic scrolls in the Pavilion, in a real-time display of consensus and contradiction that takes place over the six months of the Biennale Architettura 2023, how will the work ultimately develop after the closure of the Biennale? Is there an ambition for this to lead to proper policies through which we can shape a more inclusive urban landscape?
AL The Values Measurement Machine (VMM) is an architectural “survey” machine that goes beyond participatory design exercises. The value of the good question means we have a means to hear the voice and the values on topics and attributes that matter to the city’s residents. Is it the architect’s role to inform policy this way? If we choose to make an impact, to create the culture and the practices that reflect the best versions of people, then this is one way.
VMM is an architectural “survey” machine that goes beyond participatory design exercises.
In Singapore the compactness of the island city-state also means the policy-makers, the executive agencies and practising architects are in close proximity. Insights matter more in a technocracy-leaning city like ours, than opinion. The VMM and the architects that run it could be the conduit of consensus, visualising contradictions, understanding and choosing the trade-offs that inform the amalgamation of policy and its executing instruments. In many ways, the methods and route to liveable conditions matter in whether a city becomes loveable or not.
We have been in discussions with our co-commissioners, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore and Design Singapore Council, on the sustenance of this research and methods beyond the unveiling of the Venice pavilion. There seems to be great excitement and enthusiasm for it being reenacted with new questions and new artwork in various centres of communities—schools, community centres, town centres, etc. They are eager for us to provide the data from the VMM to glean insight and develop the work in greater depth, there seems to be belief in the method.
Born in Singapore in 1975, Adrian Lai graduated from the National University of Singapore's School of Architecture in 1999 and the Architectural Association, London in 2003; and trained as an architect in Wilkinson Eyre Architects in London and Singapore. With these foundations, Adrian formed Meta Architecture in 2012. Adrian started as Senior Lecturer at National University of Singapore in 2011 and in 2019 was appointed an Adjunct Assistant Professor at National University of Singapore. Major works include Khong Guan Building (with Meta, 2018), Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, UK and Guangzhou International Finance Centre in China (with Wilkinson Eyre, 2005-2012). Awards include the SIA Design Award 2019 and URA AHA Award 2018 for Khong Guan Building, President's Design of the Year 2013, WAF Building of the Year 2012 and RIBA 2013 Lubetkin Prize for Gardens by the Bay; and the RIBA 2012 Lubetkin Prize for Guangzhou International Finance Centre.