Chronicling Covid-19 at Mei Foo Sun Chuen
Guillaume Othenin-Girard 義武
We live under the yoke of immediacy. The context of hyper communication takes us away from the moment. It prevents us from grasping onto and delving into the immediacy of experience.
This February, while facing our new normal, students in the BA in Architectural Studies fourth-year design studio realised that it was their responsibility to seize the present and make something of it. Hence the importance we gave to the search for attention.
A chronicler is a person who bears witness to historical events as they happen. Most often a chronicle is written. Sometimes it is factual, but it always retains a certain fiction that comes from recording a point of view. For the students to bear witness to the quarantine, to the new normal, it was fundamental for them to respect a certain sequencing that the chronicle demanded: 1) to observe, 2) to understand, 3) to act. Drawing has the capacity to compress all three phases together. Simultaneously, it allows us to project ourselves into the fiction created by the drawing in order to enact it. Moreover, drawing takes us beyond mere facts and brings out the unseen, underlying issues at hand. We became the chroniclers of our isolation and began to understand that the pandemic threatened the very idea of the collective, by revealing and intensifying latent fragilities within our relationship with otherness.
The site for the studio was the Mei Foo Sun Chuen estate, which provided the platform for an inquiry into collective living through the architectural problematics of housing. We used the specific circumstances of quarantine and social distance to question relationships between interior and exterior, both from an urban and a domestic perspective. We envisioned scales of collectivity and gradients of intimacy. We thought of housing as a collection of domestic fragments brought together around a narrative created by each student observer. Entrances, circulation and communal areas were understood as places that fostered invisible links within a community, creating opportunities for (in)formal encounters.
How can we image an architecture of proximity – the mixing together of different ways of living – that in times of pandemic becomes a ‘threat’ to the domestic? How can we not fall prey to the interior as synonymous with an architecture of security? Mei Foo deals simultaneously with both intimate domestic and vast territorial scales through the repetition and variation of the individual units. On the one hand it is an ‘urban landscape’. But it is also a collection of individual dwellings: ‘interior landscapes.’ Mei Foo speaks to the importance of housing and the individual unit as a repeated element within a wider territory. The studio presupposes that the unit is the nucleus of the city. The intimacy of the interior and the variety of the urban are intertwined.
The introduction of Concept Board (conceptboard.com) – a digital display wall – as an alternative drawing tool provided the studio with some sense of group cohesion. Students were able to upload, annotate and discuss each other’s proposals. Moreover, Concept Board added an extra dimension to the conventional studio display wall: memory. It kept track of what had been posted several weeks before.
On our wall, each ‘image’ is the bearer of a thought, a progression. Placing one’s drawings into space allows for collective reflection and a shared narration of the phenomenon. To draw is to construct a thought and a critical regard at a given situation.
Though, for the studio, to draw a phenomenon is not just to illustrate it or repeat it. Rather, drawing as a form of (re)search puts forward the importance of assessing architecture through multiple scales beyond that of the building. The studio aimed to reveal the inherent capacity of the architect to think both as a maker and a territorial agent, thus triggering an awareness of the designer’s social and environmental responsibilities within the design process.
If the pandemic reinforces the idea of equality – in that anybody could be infected – confinement reinforces a feeling of injustice in the hearts of people for its disparities.
Drawing allowed us both to inhabit our own condition as much as to project ourselves into others. Drawing trains our analytical mind along with our imaginative one. Through this lens, constructing the drawing means constructing one’s empathy and relation to the world. Connecting the drawing of the extraordinary circumstances of quarantine with the ordinary circumstances of the Mei Foo estate reveals an inseparable relation within our collective human condition, which is the ongoing confrontation with the ‘other’. Were we ever as aware of the ‘other’ as we are now? Can we ever forget it?
The nature of this collective experience refuses abstraction and generalisation, but rather demands attention. To abstract tends to forget not only the body, but the body situated in space, the individualised body caught up in tangible relationships that are not interchangeable, and not relativisable in the last instance. To draw attentively does not reduce the individual to a theoretical construct. To draw attentively is to measure specificities and engage with the concrete problems that a person faces as an individual living in a community of others.
Guillaume Othenin-Girard is an architect registered in Switzerland (MScArch, ETH) and an Assistant Professor of design at the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong since January 2020.
Nga Ting Cheung, Yi Go, Ka Chun Lai, Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Jennifer Cheuk Wing Lam, Ruoxi Li, Yin Li, Kent Mundle MacKinnon, Xiao Tang, Ka Lee Tsang, Long Ting Yu, Rochelle Charis Yu
All drawings part of Mei Foo Too
(Credit: Studio Othenin-Girard 2020)
1 Yi Go, Shared Airspace
2 Ka Chun Lai, Urban Interiors
3 Yin Li, Escape from Mei Foo
4 Ka Chun Lai, From Mei Foo to Jao Tsung-I
5 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Mei Foo CO-OP
6 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Shophouse Unit Floor Plan
7 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Shophouse Unit Section Cut
8 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Cross Laminated Timber Shear Wall
9. Ka Chun Lai, Virus Track
Fig.1 Yi Go, Shared Airspace
Fig.2 Ka Chun Lai, Urban Interiors
Fig.3 Yin Li, Escape from Mei Foo
Fig.4 Ka Chun Lai, From Mei Foo to Jao Tsung-I
Fig.5 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Mei Foo CO-OP
Fig.6 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Shophouse Unit Floor Plan
Fig.7 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Shophouse Unit Section Cut
Fig.8 Hin Fung Sherman Lam, Cross Laminated Timber Shear Wall
Fig.9 Ka Chun Lai, Virus Track