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ADS4: Legal Fictions

Ning Loh

Ning Loh is a designer interested in how culture shapes our interactions with technology. With roots in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Penang, she draws upon her own Chinese diasporic experience to interrogate existing conventions within the discipline of design and speculate on alternative approaches. She hopes to continue exploring themes of heritage and cultural identity in her work.

Prior to the RCA, Ning completed her undergraduate studies at the Princeton University School of Architecture. She has since worked on projects across various scales at Farshid Moussavi Architecture and Heatherwick Studio, including a new terminal for Changi Airport in Singapore and a shortlisted proposal for the National Portrait Gallery renovation.

In an era where innovation still operates under a system of western technological hegemony, High Mountains Flowing Water (Gāoshān liúshuǐ 高山流水) re-examines our relationship with technological tools in architectural design. 

Specifically, the project speculates upon an alternative technological future given the invention of the stringboard (Sīpán 丝盘), a new system for Chinese text input based on the Gǔqín (古琴) instrument. Characters are ‘played’ instead of typed, and musical expression becomes part of the way we interact with software. As a result, algorithms are developed that use music directly as instructions for designing a building.

Named after the famed musical composition from the Spring Autumn Period (722-481 BC), the project is presented as an architectural ‘performance’ of the piece. The same way music varies depending on the player, the same sequence of building instructions are open to interpretation- resulting in a nuanced architecture via individual craftsmanship. In contrast with the copy-paste high-rise developments taking over rural China today, the proposal returns to a traditionally Chinese approach to building; where the role of the architect as sole author did not exist, and craftsmen applied their own interpretations to a set of standards.

High Mountains Flowing Water (Gāoshān liúshuǐ 高山流水) — Under this speculative scenario, a musical composition written over 2500 years ago is also an architectural composition. Originally written for the Gǔqín, various versions have been played throughout history. Volume, phrasing and timing are not defined; thus the piece (and therefore architecture) is inherently open to interpretation and ‘feeling’. This particular composition uses a version played by Cài Shān 蔡珊 in 2017. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nuvbtl0jP4)
Cultural amnesia — The prevalence of character amnesia in China exemplifies how western-centric technological determinism leads to the erasure of non-western cultures.
Alternative modernities — By challenging Heidegger’s definition of technology, the project proposes a plurality of equally valid modernities. If this were the case, what would the architectural language of an inherently Chinese modernity be?
An Alternative Technological History — In this fictional scenario, the cultural self-rejection and rupture in the Chinese technological lineage did not occur; traditional cosmologies continued to be a part of modernity.
A string-based interface — The same way keyboards and typewriters developed out of piano keys, the stringboard interface came out of the guqin, an ancient chinese stringed instrument.
Evolution of the Stringboard — The 1920s version uses a phonograph to record analogue frequencies, the 2000s version uses electric pickups, and a contemporary version consists of a touch sensitive surface with raised ridges.
Mobile interface — The stringboard system on a 2010s smartphone.
Stringboard method — The four strings represent groups of fundamental strokes, which are plucked in different ways to build up a character.
Inputting ‘Han’ (汉)
Inputting ‘Han’ (汉) — The sequentiality and movement embedded in writing chinese is not lost through the use of digital text input technology.
Quiet Night Thoughts (Jing Ye Si 靜夜思) — A famous Tang dynasty poem by Li Bai (李白) is transformed into a sound piece when entered on the stringboard.
Individual interpretation
Individual interpretation — Like how a piece of music varies depending on the individual player, a set sequence of building instructions are open to interpretation. For instance, variations in key result in variations in proportion, and volume affects the scale.
Methodology — The first minute of the Flowing Water section was analyzed for musical expression type and sequence. Each type of expression was then intuitively mapped to a command typically found in CAD or 3D modeling software (Eg. slides and bends were mapped to parameter adjustment commands like extrude or scale). The sequence of commands are then applied to a sequence of elements in traditional Chinese construction from the Song dynasty building treatise (Yingzao Fashi 营造法式) that served as a standard for construction.
Potential applications in rural development — Assuming rural densification is an inevitable and necessary in reducing poverty, there is a need to re-examine attitudes towards what ‘modern’ could possibly be in rural China. By recentering design tools around a Chinese worldview, the proposed methodology evidently offers an approach to Chinese rural development that is inherently culturally sustainable.