Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

The New China and Architecture: Finding Narrative

A few years ago an architect friend was contemplating what he might do with the rest of his life if he had ultimate freedom. Retire? Take up watercolor? Get his collected client sketches published in a leather-bound coffee-table book? Or no, he said, he thought he would go to China and build office parks. I recoiled in horror. In my mind’s eye the silk scroll of China had become one vast dystopian field of concrete boxes with bulldozers at the gate of each remaining village and in place of calligraphic clouds a swaddling fog of pollution. And he wanted to play there?

Last Sunday in the New York Times I read about a version of China that makes me consider my friend’s aspiration in a new light. The affluent class has developed an appetite for beautiful and adventurous architecture— and they are hiring American architects. They are also giving them almost complete design freedom, and this is what most interested me as an artist and designer. How exactly do you function creatively on such a huge platform — with no guidelines? Seattle architect Stuart Silk’s experience was quite revealing.

“A lot of emotions went through my head,” Mr. Silk says. “Disbelief was one of them. Then the anxiety that comes along with the responsibility to do something without direction. But ultimately it was very freeing and intellectually exciting.”

Each of Mr. Silk’s nine designs [for villas in the range of $7.5 to $15 million] was required to be distinct, but no stylistic guidelines materialized. For the first time in his career, he wasn’t an architect interpreting a client’s tastes and personality, but an artist facing a blank canvas. “It opened up a part of my brain that hadn’t been exercised in a while,” he said.

“Mr. Silk visited the Suzhou gardens, west of Shanghai, where he encountered signs interpreting the landscapes; they were written in poetic language. That prompted the idea of writing story lines from which each villa design could bud. His narrative for one home, called Bending Paths, begins in a meditative vein:

“Like rings from a stone dropped into a pond,” he wrote, “curving walls create a journey and define space.”

Although the design process depicted here concerns architecture it applies to the universal question of any artist or creator confronting a blank page. How do you go from emptiness and the unsettling feeling that all decisions are arbitrary to decisions that feel fated, necessary, and right? If narrative is the solution, where do stories come from? How do you find an authentic launching point?

In non client-driven work I sometimes have no idea what the story is and unbridled anxiety or some other powerful emotion itself becomes the driving force and the ‘plot.’  Once my Japanese calligraphy teacher gave me a set of characters to work with and refused to tell me what they meant. When I brought the work in she exclaimed that it was the best calligraphy I had ever done — and indeed I  agreed with her. I had felt completely inspired by the characters and assumed I was writing something with great spiritual meaning. Then she told me what it meant: “Autumn Sports Festival.” You mean, I asked her incredulously, football season??? Surely this can’t be. At which point she described in lyrical detail Autumn in Japan: the radiant skies, the leaves, the  children’s games played in the temples, a palpable and magical sense of spiritual and physical exhilaration —all of which I experienced a few months later in September on my first trip to Japan. Indeed I had followed a story in my work, even if I was guided by an unconscious understanding of its essence rather than its plot.

I appreciate the candor of Stuart Silk in speaking about his process and for showing the importance of narrative in finding a direction and path. If it’s effective in designing a fifteen million dollar villa then surely it will transform my next wordmark project.