Looking Good: The Best of Asian Design

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Inevitably, great architecture and design embody their times. At their finest, they not only feed on the mood that engenders them, they come to epitomize that mood in ways we could never have foreseen. In Asia over the past century, this has meant a passage from introspection to worldliness--and from an assiduous quest, common to all newly wealthy countries, for the slick and the new to a more recent appreciation of the culturally indigenous. Tallest building. Smallest car. Fastest train. Asia has been home to all three. But its real contribution to design this century is far broader than a building or a product. Critics like to bemoan the inexhaustible maw of America, which sucks up influences from around the world and repackages them for eager international audiences. Yet Asia's designers, too, have reworked influences and forms--from skyscrapers to haute couture--and sent them back to be emulated. From lands known for their antiquity, the region has increasingly come to be seen as the most fertile source of the new. FASTER, BRIGHTER, BETTER No other event this century has given birth to as glorious an array of excellence in design as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. They were not just a feat of technological and creative wizardry, but also a symbol of Japan's postwar industrial growth. Among the sensational innovations, the $1 billion shinkansen train transfixed the world with its record 200 km/h speed and sleek bullet-like form. In graphics, Yusaku Kamekura became a legend virtually overnight with a visually arresting banner-like design for a new Olympic logo. In addition, his tense, tightly choreographed poster campaign conveyed the drama of the Games at their competitive best, while Yoshihiro Yamashita's contemporary pictograms created a congenial, universal language. In retrospect, it is the side-by-side Olympic stadiums by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kenzo Tange that have come to define the Games best. Their elliptical steel-plated roofs, audacious for their theatricality, celebrated the future of modernism with a vocabulary that was equally individual and international. Tange's arenas announced to the world that Japan would follow a course in architecture that was neither vernacular nor Euro-centrically modern. They did so with the force of armored tanks--and with the grace of flowing evening gowns. A CAPITAL AT HOME IN ITS WORLD When American architect Louis Kahn was commissioned to create a complex of public buildings in East Pakistan in 1962, he had no idea what was in store. In 1971, the province seceded from West Pakistan and a bloody civil war erupted. After Indian forces routed West Pakistani troops, the nation of Bangladesh was formed. But Kahn persevered, designing at least 17 versions of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, the magnificent capital complex in Dhaka. Finally completed in 1983, more than two decades after he first took pencil to paper, it is perhaps Kahn's most mature work and one of the great monuments of 20th century architecture. Kahn once said that cities had lost the inspirations of their beginnings. Sher-e-Bangla Nagar is, in essence, a mini-metropolis: the site of the most important and symbolic buildings in Bangladesh, including an assembly building, a prayer hall, hospital and hostels for government officials. Situated on a man-made lake, the assembly hall is the centerpiece, rising like a citadel of bold geometric forms, a fortress of shadow and light. Remarkably, it manages to harmonize with its surroundings in one of the poorest countries in the world. Kahn was known in Asia as the yogi of architecture. On seeing Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, one knows why. ALL THINGS GREAT AND SMALL Born in 1979, the Sony Walkman personal cassette player was not the first Japanese product to bring the smaller is better mantra to an international market. (The 1975 Honda Civic has that distinction.) But the Walkman changed the way we lived on a more fundamental level, paving the way for the miniaturized, personalized, portable electronic culture we take for granted today. Inspired by pocket cassette recorders originally developed for dictation, the Walkman was first produced with headphone jacks labeled guys and dolls and targeted exclusively at the youth market. It was the right product for the right time. Plugging into the needs of the me generation and the growing fitness craze, it spawned two direct descendants--the Watchman micro television (1982) and the Discman compact disc player (1984)--and hundreds of varieties and imitators. The Walkman's greatest legacy, though, is its impact on lifestyle. How shocking to think of a world in which electronics products don't fit into our pockets. LOOKING UP AT THE FUTURE Hong Kong's most famous office towers--the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters by Norman Foster and the Bank of China Building by I.M. Pei--have little in common from a design standpoint. But together they exemplify a singular development in the evolution of the Asian cityscape: the rising appeal--fueled by the 1980s economic boom--of the skyscraper as a symbol of national power. When it opened in 1985, the Hongkong Bank building redefined the high-rise office block by making daily function an integral part of its design. Resembling a giant Erector set, it attracted visitors from all over the world. Not to be outdone, the mainland's Bank of China commissioned Pei to design its Hong Kong headquarters. Completed in 1989--no doubt with an eye toward the colony's 1997 handover to China--the 70-story tower was taller, showier, more streamlined than Foster's building some 200 m away. The Bank of China Building remains the skyline's primary punctuation point and a potent symbol for the island. Today, six of the world's 10 tallest buildings are in Asia, with Kuala Lumpur's 88-story Petronas Towers currently leading the pack. But the elegance of Pei's design and the intelligence of Foster's represent a standard that has yet to be topped. RECOVERING LOST TREASURES What may be the century's most forward-looking architectural statement is neither high-rise nor high-tech, and it doesn't involve a new building at all. The worldwide effort to preserve and restore the ancient Cambodian temple city of Angkor, one of the true wonders of human achievement, is a race against time to rescue the former Khmer capital from widespread looting and the encroachment of jungle. So far, half a dozen countries, including China, India and Japan, have sent teams of builders and archaeologists to preserve as many of the district's 72 major monuments as possible. The Angkor example has spurred similar preservation efforts in Vietnam's imperial city of Hué and Thailand's ancient capital of Ayuthaya. Indeed, after decades of reckless development throughout the region, there may be a trend toward preserving cultural heritage. The water level of awareness about historic conservation is rising in Asia, says John Stubbs, vice president of the World Monuments Fund. Asia's greatest design achievement in the next century may be to rediscover what it nearly lost. Carol Lutfy is a critic who has long specialized in Asian design