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To Play

MArch I Thesis, 2018
Harvard Graduate School of Design
Thesis Adviser: Tom de Paor

1. Interpretations



In developmental psychology, the notion of “playing” could mean negotiating the perception of existence through the act of creating. 

Creativity is an urgent inner desire adaptively met the an external reality immediately available. 

2. The Birth of Reality

Let’s write a rational poem.

Let’s paint an authentic portrait. 

Let’s discuss existence objectively and explain true love in foreign slangs.

A pair of twins are delivered. Do they, for the briefest moment, perceive the same reality? 

One rests in the mother’s arms. The other waits on the stainless-steel operation table. Abandoned. Since then, each time he feels cold he feels abandoned. His body never forgets the temperature of birth. The temperature, of death. 


marker drawings on bristol paper

3. A Hero With Obsessive Yet Selective Recording Behavior 

He was born in 1959.

The North Point Estate was built in 1953, 6 years before he was born.

He lived in the apartment 305 of the North Point Estate till 1996, a year before Hong Kong was returned to China. He was 37. His first post on Facebook was in 2000. He was 41. In 2001, he came back to film the North Point Estate before the demolition. He was 42. 


He is fairly easy to stalk. He has a lot of albums on Facebook, recording his interest, travels, and daily life. From 2008-2010, he was in his early 50s. He put together an album for almost every month of the year, and named them “Life in ___(month), ____ (year)”. Why does he keep record? Why does he leave trace?  Why do we? 


As a teenage, he studied Motion Pictures Production and Journalism in Oklahoma University. He would post pictures of his days at the OU many years later (in 2010, to be exact. He was 51). He was the only Asian in those pictures. He looked very young. He looked innocent: innocently joyful and innocently confused. Just like his peers. He calls that album "Photos in the Attic - OU Days". He calls other albums "photos in the attics" too. Where did he get this concept of "attic" from? 


He likes to motorcycle. He got his motorcycle license in 2011. He was 52. Since then, he rides in Hong Kong, and in a few other countries.


He holds a green card. 


He detests the Chinese Communist Party. He was in the Umbrella Revolution. It was 2014. He was 55. The students and protesters occupied the streets for 80 days. He was there on the 13th and the 23rd day. He posted 22 photos of that event. The protest ended with the police’s clearance operations, resulted in no changes to the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. 


Twelve days later, he was traveling in Taiwan. He called that album “Stalking the Streets of Taipei”. In the album’s descriptions, it says, “I love stalking the streets of Taipei at night, especially in rain”.


He plays guitar. He sings (not an exceptional singer, but he sings). He goes to rock concerts quite often. He goes to the Fuji Rocks. He likes Bob Dylan and the Beatles. His favorite poster features “Love Will Tear Us Apart” of Joy Division.


He is single. As a matter of fact he is a loner. He admits it. He would invite people to travel / motorcycle / party with him on Facebook.


For a few times he would find something suspiciously old in his guitar case. Like a 40-year-old newspaper with a list of rentals on the Hong Kong Island. 


He also plays tennis. Weekly. 


In Hong Kong, he always lives in two-bedroom apartments. But there is no trace of who he is living with. As a matter of fact, there is no trace of his family at all. He only mentioned his "sisters" once. In 2011. No images though. 


He is now enrolled in the UCLA. He uploads his works regularly. Last month, he posted a video called “Passive Pessimistic Mood Exercise”.  Most shots were taken inside his apartment in LA: half eaten food, a dripping faucet, a slowly rotating ceiling fan - traces of life, yet the occupant(s) is nowhere to be found. Not even in the shadows or the reflection from the faucet. At the end of the video, another title emerged: “pessimistic peaceful - by alex ngan”. He is 59. 

(extracts from the Facebook of Alex Ngan)

(extracts an YouTube video "Place of My Childhood", uploaded by Alex Ngan in 2011

4. A Project About Housing

The North Point Estate was built in 1953 and demolished in 2003. There are 5 videos on Youtube that contain substantial records of the public housing in moving pictures. Four were produced by the government. One was shot by an anonymous nobody with a handheld camera. He is anonymous not because we don’t know his name. We do. He is Alex Ngan. Born in 1959. He lived in the North Point Estates for more than 30 years till 1996. He is anonymous because that is his role in this architectural event. It is an event that involves public housing as an architectural typology. It involves demolition and, in a way, preservation and reconstruction.
The subject is a nobody. Like all of us. Yet he leaves trace. Deliberately. Sometimes accidentally. He manifests himself, dedicatedly yet vainly. 
This is how we dwell. Such is the nature of housing projects. The efficient circulation. The pipes. Utilities. The repetition of dwelling space. The efficient anonymity registered in every single thought of the design, in every single line of the drawing sets. 
And then: the marks, the trace, the decay, the demolition. 
This is a project about housing, but this is not a housing project. 
And so, there will be student housings and apartments in this plot of 2,014sqm owned by the UCLA. There will be 45 2-bedroom apartments for graduate students. There will be common study, meeting rooms, dining halls and laundry facilities. There will be a circulation system that connects all of them. 
But there will also be two layers of facades. There will be a zone between the external facade and the domestic facade. What happens in that zone is yet to be determined, but the actual event that takes place inside the building (the event we call dwelling) shall not be expressed to the external world directly. There shall be a layer of transition in which the brutality of facts is misread, misinterpreted, misled, misunderstood. The brutality of existence has to be manifested in vain. It is the most private building ever constructed. 
All of the apartments are co-living space but it is extreme isolation that they celebrate. Those who share the same apartments shall be a non-existence to one another. They share facilities, they share utilities, they share space, they live in the same space, same apartment, same territory, but they don’t actually live together. 
And then there will be signs of incompleteness. The marks that suggest ongoing construction and ongoing decay. 
And finally, there will be balconies. Protruding from every apartment. Instead of revealing a distanced external world they unmask the bigger inner world - one shall be looking “out” to a bigger internality. The view shall declare not only the isolated condition, but also the vast and unbearably casual repetition of it. 
It doesn’t “treat” existence. It understands it.

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