Chinese Culture University Tai Pei 2014 - 2019 Architecture BA
National University of Singapore 2019 - 2021 Architecture MA
Joseph Lyn engages in the connection between architecture and the social environment; he specifically interests in exploring environmental sustainability and the character of architectural localisation.
Space, Landscape, Narrative in Silence
J: Could you please tell us about the project you are currently making? And what’s your motivation for engaging in this topic?
C: I read about how pre-history megaliths degraded into natural landscapes due to their economic functionality perished. In response to that “landscape is the result of the dynamic interaction between human activity and economic demand”, I found many landscapes, ruins, heritages that sublimed into symbolic powers could be interpreted with this statement; also the definition could be used to explain how human landscape transit between economic achievement, survival installations to natural and cultural heritage. I think visualising how I would challenge its process, or depict the essence of this process can be interesting.
J: I wonder if this practice relates to any previous idea of yours? What is your inspiration?
C: Do you remember the neighbourhood we visited? The one with a KFC at its bottom.
J: Yes, I do.
C: Its design idea always fascinates me. You know the compartment comes with a potent notion of pragmatism, like an idealisation of complex urbanisation and social development process. We saw groceries and fresh food market located at its bottom, stairs on one side knives through public bicycle storage, mailboxes and gardens, finally, reach the residential area; on the other side, motor vehicle passageway crosses straight through the service area, restaurants, utilities and etc. Between them is a huge empty level, with a great view of the river and the old town, it is also where the management offices of dealers locate. But do not forget residential buildings at the top have a better view. The last time we went there, half of the floor was completely empty, not like declined, but untouched. I suppose it might be a designated improvisation space, a vacant space planned in advance. I felt like this community is a micro specimen of the dynamic society. Maybe, someone could live his entire life without ever stepping out of this neighbourhood.
Image Credit: Snowing Chou
J: Are you saying that this community is a miniature of society.
C: Yes, but also no. It’s more like the projection of the designer, of his ideal society, or, the old-fashioned “good neighbour”, “*Da Yuan culture”. Although there is unused space, economic activities like (industrial) manufacture cannot be done in the neighbourhood.
(*Da Yuan culture, 大院文化, Da Yuan usually refers to a living compound that assigned to residents that work at the same site. They were widely constructed when most of the individual occupations were allocated by the administration, houses/apartments in Da Yuan were distributed to labour families freely).
J: It’s too small.
C: I thought so. But, try to imagine...there are many more compounds like this in Shaoxing. We could imagine it as a lone island. As a matter of fact, back in those days,
these were probably the only buildings that close to high-rise. Like, the Babel. A few in one city, like nexuses of residential areas that decided where the centre of social activities is by its amazingly high density and multi-functions. They pile up the urban areas that were supposed to be flattened. If we bridged these towers, perhaps their space can be re-arranged. Some of them could be like, a vertical farm. Or, imagine, an apocalyptical flood swallowed the city at its feet. These communities suddenly became islands that maintain the original lifestyle. Those strips of green belts and gardens could be producer, with proper modification, of course.
J: True. A sustainable distribution to space often plays positively for the community. Those fig-trees, pomegranates perhaps are the producer you just talked about.
C: Indeed. And it is hard to imagine we were actually not on the ground floor.
Residential buildings are usually built onto the commercial area. Their ground floors already sit on the height of three-four floors, separated from the noise and everything below. But meanwhile, the design of the compounds guarantees sufficient space for socialising. Gardens, even private shafts, are distributed with space. Residents at corners often seal themselves in with private-built walls for some extra space and privacy.
J: How is this connected to your work?
C: The bottle one I am making. At the very beginning, I was thinking about, for example, recording the declined industry, rusty harbour facilities; hence the result of my practice had been granted a strong profuseness even before the exploration happens. In my words, I have to decolonise my gaze in order to find the true image of the landscape. Those previous ideas of mine were nothing else but assumptions based on information on the internet or in books. They were meant to be depicted as a static gaze in a self-righteous way. Like a tourist gaze, an ivory-tower academician way, although I am not an academician yet (laugh). Those designs came up without proper investigation in the landscape or immersive observation in the “Cornish experience”. Although imagine is an important approach that tooled to study landscape…
J: Tilley again?
C: Yes, Tilley again. I really enjoyed his study of Quoits. Where was I? Ahh, right. This preoccupied impression is undoubtedly in contradict with my proposal of “breaking the stereotypical image of a gentrifying Cornwall” that I wrote the last year. It is hypocritical, contradictory. I was making things I want to see or a specific group of people love to see.
J: You did “the preoccupied impression” and “the formation of preoccupied impressions” the last year.
C: That is correct. And I still am. You know those feedbacks I received when applying institutions, for example, the University of the Arts London loves a metanarrative-like context, where you need to demonstrate that you are familiar with the background in 1000 words, and your capability of narrowing things down to a particular question; Falmouth, on the other hand, prefers a start point on a precisely narrowed point, in the word of my reviewer, “like a specific year of a widow who lives in which town”, and then demonstrate the capability of expanding this topic to a wider context. I sent this version of writing to tutors at UAL, surprisingly and not very surprised at the same time; they worried about the lack of sustainability in this proposal. Recently I am working on the mining history of Cornwall, but it’s still about the preoccupied impression of the Cornish landscape; in the original contemplation, it was like, a chapter among the fishing and touristic industry.
J: They are all 1000 words?
C: Yes, all in 1000 words.
Image Credit: Joseph Lyn
J: Have you find anything different during your MAs after two years’ gap in China?
C: I’d say, the emphasis on the context. I think it changed not only the fundamental philosophy of my art making but also the way I talk. Like, an inverted triangle. Thousands of word to describe your reasons, with only a few sentences about the method. It is always different to describe clearly the indicative outcome. I know sometimes I’d have an image about, for example, technically, it is going to be an image book; or theoretically, these questions need to be answered. But that is not the point. I believe if I am technically making what I anticipated to make, that will turn everything into a process that purely relies on efficiency. Interestingly it is quite similar to my recent perception that human history is the history of increasing information exchange efficiency. We invented art and philosophy to describe a complex context or an abstract concept; science and engineering, on the other hand, build physical tools with technical approaches.
C: So, as an architect, do you think you would deliver a strong impact of ideas to users? Like, how would you deal with the communication between your users and your creations?
J: You talked about one approach I usually use, by leaving vacant space. I’d encourage my audiences to live in there and see what happens. Actually, users always have control. Architects indeed only project their idealised solution to reality.
C: So it is like a silent communication, architects and users are not making continuous communication to continually change the outcome?
J: I think what you’re talking about is called communication when receiving the commission. Like Party A, party B, the Commissioner, the Designer, it is always frustrating during the negotiation. And it cannot be dynamic. If you are talking about rearguing space, that would be a sort of active, continuous communication; but if you are talking about freely changing its structure, perhaps you have read too many science fictions.
For example, several years ago, explaining what the “male gaze” is could be very difficult. But after we all familiar with the idea, it only takes two words to introduce. I consider the varying expression method is the most concerning part. The word “outcome” to me is such an ideal concept. I feel it as a blurring ball of gas. I throw in my researches, sketches and make chemical reactions. The outcome remains unknown, but I do have the control of making tweaks in its process. But sometimes, I do have clear ideas. For example, those salt sinkers. I am thinking about expanding their scale, like hundreds more of them, could be fascinating.
J: How long does it take to make a so-called salt sinker?
C: More than two weeks. Crystallisation can be slow. Perhaps I am not doing it right? But extracting salt is troublesome enough. Eight pints of seawater only filled five little glass bottles.
J: Is it one of those bottles?
C: Yes, it is.
C: No, I mean, I can’t recall where I saw this, but I believe it was an interview in 1983, Michel Foucault talked about communication in silence, which is a social method among ancient Greek and Roman young people. They experience silent moments of different natures and see if the companion was comfortable. I believe we all have experienced the same scenario, like, suddenly no one is talking in the conversation, but somehow the individual character was being demonstrated via temperaments and manners. This conscious or unconscious display actually brings each other many more details for evaluation.
J: It makes me think about the narratives architects installed in their works. It is a common technique like sequential arrangement. Have you heard about Daniel Libeskind and his Jewish Museum Berlin? The construction heavily utilises light, space folding and exhibits. There is a corner piles with handcuffs. The direct light exposure onto it sort of silently interprets the nature of the space and the narrative. I think this beforehand designed interiority and the building’s functionality is the best communication between architects and users.
C: Is this what you have been working on?
J: Not quite. I’d say Taiwan and Singapore are quite different. Especially the year of pandemic significantly cut off opportunities like internship and site investigation. So I have an unusual amount of extra time to explore new ideas. I am more interested in culture recently—for example, the rice wine culture of Shaoxing. My graduation project is about connecting the perishing rice wine culture by architecture during the urbanisation process; and, in a sustainable way, makes the culture lives long and prosper, and eventually an irreplaceable part of our lives.
C: So it essentially is about the symbolic power that sublimed from materiality as well. Interesting.
J: You’d better not using an English interesting.
C: (Laugh)No no no no.
J: So why did you continue to another school, like jumping around these courses?
C: Well, I would say, a very basic instinct, the curiosity. I feel get to know something is really cool. And every time I discover a question makes me felt like it is a social responsibility to study, to challenge and to make sense. It’s also where I would like my personal value embodies.
C: Right. So I actually made the latter part of the proposed outcome while the initial idea still remains as sketches. You know the bottles, wall patches, and so. It is kind of like how George Lucas filmed the sequel first. It really changed the way I look at the prequel. Those sketches are still related to my preoccupied impressions; especially now I found I have to decolonise my own perspective. But luckily, there are two extra weeks now, which allows me to overturn a part and rework. The outcome I reached actually provides some inspiration for the second unit. But I still feel like I really want to skip the unfinished part if I was not in school, I’d straightly go dig into the relationship between different gazes, landscapes and landscape identities.
J: How would you describe the relationship between your work and the landscape you are engaging in?
C: My work often depicts landscapes that I monumentalised. I focus on the symbolic power and the process of subliming materiality, explaining the landscape’s personal meaning or in a wider context.
J: Could you please talk about how will you progress as an artist in the future?
C: Possibly, like most of the artists in history, doing things they don’t like while doing things they like. The only thing I know that it is going to be sweatful. I need to squeeze more time into my own research. And to be honest, I am not as clever as others; I have to put in more time to reach the same level. But of course, I wish I could enter an environment that supports arbitrary interests. Like, perhaps teaching at college, or maybe not teaching like college. Just somewhere I can continue my practice and research while not being starved, like, too hard. (Laugh)
J: Is there any future development of your current project?
C: Well. I applied EC during this unit because, you know, the pandemic and stuff. It is really frustrating, and quite depressing. The racism, the unspeakable hostility against the Chinese. Is it a little better in Singapore? I do believe you haven’t seen your family for the same long time?
J: Well there are a lot of Chinese here so I’d say…I don’t know really. And yes, I haven’t seen my family for two years. Please continue.
I enjoy shaping questions in an ideal environment, then introduce them to my audiences. There is a very interesting statement in my last tutorial. My tutor said our world is a collective result of different perspectives laying onto each other. It inspired me to push my practice forward to explore how human will be projected as the transformation of the landscape. Meanwhile, I am building up a background of theories and practices, seeking my own methodology in order to support something bigger, like, for example, a PhD degree. The uniqueness in perspectives I talked about also connects to my understanding. I have been trying to depicts the blankness between landscapes, exploring boundaries of landscapes, and defining unidentified landscapes. It’s like overlaying another map onto the known reality, re-interprete what we are familiar with. This kind of reflect-develop process is usually a general pattern of my practice.
Story Unheard of, 2019, photography
Model Credit: Matilda Chou
J: I think our understanding of how our works contribute to the field or to society may differentiate.
C: I would guess that you lean more on pragmatism before considering subliming anything?
J: Actually, I prefer the sustainability of architecture. Like, not simply tearing down the old and construct the new. I like reconstruct narratives to reassign space to satisfy new users while preserving memories of past generations. Without reckless sabotage of past experience is like a great success, an excellent contribution for me as an architect to a community.
C: Well, I depict questions, and question I invented. But undoubtedly, we must have agreed on this: that our
works are meaning fun when we contribute or are believed to contribute to social responsibility, no matter the definition of the responsibility. I do not expect that my work can overwhelm old masters, but at least its ultimate goal should be the expansion to the boundary of knowledge, to study something that never been studied before, rather than repeating soulless, decorative drawings.
J: You just said doing things you like while doing things you don’t like.
C: Oh yes, forced by life. We all have things that we have to do, aren’t we?
I started on a building joint, which is called Residential and Commercial Building. Despite this official translation sounds quite amateur, it precisely describes the nature of this architectural compound. The construction is licensed for business and residential purposes only. Its bottom is designed for the commercial area and utilities; vacant, improvisational space locates at the middle, then a large platform on the top. The platform supports eight or nine residential buildings, each building usually has two apartments at each floor. The design could be expanded in scale.
This kind of compound was popularised twenty to thirty years ago at my hometown, which, has a pragmatic purpose of distributing commercial space and solving residential problems for retail owners; centralising services to a vertical architectural joint also creates nexuses that stimulates the local land value back in those days my hometown was quite a marginalised and small city in the province. China joined World Trade Organisation in 2001. I do recall it took years to see family owned sedans become a common thing. Only a few skyscrapers existed in the city, hence made these compounds, especially due to its enormous structural, witnesses of the lift-off of local economy.
The philosophy of problem solving in China is straight-forward, sometimes lack of humanity caring. In a popular sentence of criticism, “destroy individual labels and replace them with a collective consciousness”, which is true. And by such methodology many histories can be reviewed and challenged.
If you are familiar with the word planned economy, that is when means of product as well as living rations were completely distributed by the state. For example, my grandfather used to be a solider, therefore he and his comrades was assigned to houses in a giant compound, which directly translated to “a big yard”. The big yards were massively constructed as an efficient method of managing population flow and solving residential dilemma in urbanisation process when China was nothing more than a third-world country. Living conditions may vary in big yards, which sorely depends on the family’s contribute to the greater good. For example, factory employee’s living area were usually determined by his or her employment length at the factory. Ranks in the military would perhaps brings you a better access to food and clothing, but the good thing was the invisible resources like education, healthcare and civil service that equally distributed, which means every house in the big yard has the access to the same service.
I’d argue right after the planned economy, the building compound I am talking about, its design has a very strong notion of the time of planned distribution. The only feature of free market can only be perceived by the ownership of the compound. Thirty years has past, the grocery stores at its bottom and the giant fresh food market is no longer competitive to newly planned residential areas and modern infrastructures. But the healthcare, education and land value continues to grow for its location is in the centre of the city. I saw the decline of an utopian landscape. Its original residents moved out, and white collars and families that seek the best elementary school which built next to it moved in. Gentrification reflects internally on the population, but is completely covered by dirty walls and rusty gates.
The stories behind the building compound was often biased in my gaze, which I would name as the scholar gaze, although I am not a scholar. I would critically reflected on the historic context of planned economy, and this pre-modern, primitive, but kind of constructivist solution to practical problems. However if I may speak in the defence of the building in a broader historical context, what is termed Autonomen Architectur, the autonomy of architecture, If we only take a look into the aesthetic aspect and its straightforward attempt of creating a condensed utopia, that reveals a lead to Collin Rowe’s writing of Collage City in 1973. The discourse was so radical and inspiring. I do remember there was a famous architect who quitted the Royal College in 80s, he produced a series of collages that relocates Londoners to 25 or more districts. Based on a point system, residents could be promoted and move to areas with better living conditions. I can’t remember his name and I failed to locate this project. If the critical perspective on the ideological, social and economic aspects of city planning was eliminated, and research only the architecture in architectural context, this projection of human will forms an idealised landscape is quite interesting, reflected similarly to Kenneth Frampoton’s studies of tectonic culture as well. What I examined was a landscape with a solid structural foundation, potential in material ways. A landscape with piled up buildings, utilities and services, without a point system and without hierarchy, but awkwardly shifted into a society determined by capitalisation and rapid urbanisation, which made it hollow, in any other ways.
Revisiting the compound as a playground
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