By Jason Foumberg
Chicago-based architect Jimenez Lai is a UIC professor and principal of Bureau Spectacular. This summer he debuts a pavilion for Taiwan (he was born there but grew up in Toronto) at the Venice Architecture Biennale, a prestigious international competition, opening on June 7. For Venice, Lai imagined nine new habitats installed inside Venice’s Palazzo delle Prigioni, a prison palace famed for its Bridge of Sighs. Lai’s “Township of Domestic Parts” nods to “The Little Prince” and its single-use planets, as visitors can hop among these structures, called “superfurniture,” to experience the particularities of Taiwanese life and culture, as redesigned by Lai. The architect recently gave Newcity a walk-through of several of his re-imagined houses.
House for Pleasure
The Taiwanese, like Americans, often have two distinct living rooms. Says Lai, “There’s the living room that nobody ever goes to, where you put your picture frames and your best silverware and ceramics. It’s a display of the idea of a home. Then there’s the living room that you abuse. It has the couch, the TV, you eat there. It’s often sloppy. You don’t bring guests there.” This house is shaped like a giant sofa.
House of Study
“This one is really specific to Taiwanese culture,” says Lai. “There is an examination to enter college, and your score determines how good of a school you can go to. People are stressed out over this. Some people take a year off to study. It’s a luxurious year of uncertainty. The House of Study is the gap-year capsule where people hide away to imagine multiple versions of themselves, which is kind of great.”
House of Shit
“A hilarious thought,” says Lai. “As far as relationships go, even when you’re domestically spending time with someone you truly care about, you need a break at times. This break is often in the form of going to the bathroom. The bathroom is one place where you have the luxury of absolute privacy as far as chamber of solitudes go. As you embark on this journey of isolation and solitude, often people bring a portal to another world there, like a book or iPad.” The House of Shit contains a double-seat toilet (non-functioning).
House for Social Eating
“When I was a little kid,” says Lai, “I remember outdoor weddings in tents. There were round dining tables with lazy susans, and all the plates were circular. Circles within circles within circles. It was a scattering of circles. The tents had tacky, distasteful stripes, but it was really beautiful in some way. The politics of eating is different in Western society. Here we eat peripheral to rectangles, where there is a power structure. But when you eat around a circle the edges are diluted or softened. It is the dissolving of power.”
House of Sleep
“I think of this as a movie set,” says Lai. “It is the backdrop for a lot of drama. The architect Morris Lapidus said, ‘If you set the stage, players will play their parts.’ Architecture can make someone slightly step out of their typical behavior.” Lai calls this one “the Romeo and Juliet Effect: It’s the relationship of looking up at a person on a balcony, and a person is below. There’s a visual connect. You know it’s socially acceptable to look. In fact, you’re kind of expected to look because of the distance, and it’s a well-managed distance. I’m interested in dramas. I want to orchestrate these things.”
Altar of Appearances
Says Lai, “In Taiwan there is the tradition of ancestor worship. It’s not religious, just a greeting of your grandfather or grandmother in your home, as a third living room. So you keep all the names inside the house. There’s a domestic shrine. You put offerings on the shrine for your ancestors. You put some cooked chicken or oranges there. As a little kid I didn’t know you’re not supposed to touch those things, so I would go and grab one, and get reprimanded. Fast-forward to today: in a museum you can’t touch art. It is sacred. Touch is symbolic of restriction, and certain surfaces are untouchable. I encourage touching in my pieces, for the most part.”
House of Work
“Architecture is taken for granted because we’re inside of it all the time,” says Lai. “When a building is extruded of only rectangles, of all glass, we have an impression of what that building does, and what kind of people go there, versus a building with a collection of concaves with pink plush inside the windows. That would be a completely different impression of what that building does or is. The construction of identity and of preferences can be spoken through architecture. Preferences are interesting. I prefer to eat pork. I like the color pink.” What if people hate being inside of a building? “I hate margarine, but they still make it,” says Lai, grinning.
Jimenez Lai shows the “Township of Domestic Parts” at the Venice Architecture Biennale, June 7-November 23, 2014.