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Into the world of Cybertecture

A chat with designer, James Law
Founder of Hong Kong based firm James Law Cybertecture, known for integrating technology with architecture, talks about its genesis and futuristic thinking.

by Apurva Bose DuttaPublished on : Jun 03, 2019

When visionary architect James Law (JL) coined the term ‘Cybertecture’ in 2000, little did he know that the term would find such a huge global acceptance in the future. With a commitment to create ‘better futures for people’, his firm, James Law Cybertecture is focussed on using architecture as a tool to better the society and its living conditions.

Managing James Law Cybertecture

  • James Law Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
ABD: What were the thoughts that led you to have a society-driven goal in architecture that aims to bring a positive impact?

JL: In the early days of my career, I was always focussing on creating landmarks and ground-breaking projects. But as I found out, often, this is very empty, ego-centric and self-absorbed for my own kind of intellectual satisfaction. In one of my career’s down moments, when I was forced to reassess what I was doing and why, it made me start thinking about my long-term career plans and the impact of my work on people. If that impact can be positive by alleviating suffering, in whatever form, that is the true value of architecture.

It was the journey of self-discovery that led me to think of a destination, which revealed that ultimately what I wanted to do was for other people.

ABD: Your work integrates art, architecture, technology, production as well as industrial, urban and interior design. How challenging has it been to balance these varied fields under one establishment?

JL: Initially we wanted to be a stereotypical architectural office creating architecture in the conventional sense. However, my personal philosophy of cybertecture - that whatever we design should integrate innovation and should impact not only in one form of the building, but all forms of technology, space and art, had to be embraced in my practice as an integral part of our business. It was several years of trying and educating my colleagues, the market place and clients that we could design more than just the buildings.

When you have a philosophy that drives the multiplicity behind the work, to confine the multiplicity to one thing, which is architecture in this case, is a defeatist way of doing work. We must try to execute philosophy and believe in ourselves before we sell it to other people; that is why we are driven to have as many multiple approaches as possible.

  • Master planning for Smart City infrastructure of Bahrain Bay Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture

Projects and Experiences

ABD: With the OPod Concrete Tube housing prototype, you proposed an alternative to housing in Hong Kong. What were the key challenges to this way of thinking?

JL: Whenever you are doing something new, the society/client/users do not know how to accept or understand it; the actual execution is also challenging where the construction industry, which is experienced with building the conventional way is asked to do something totally different. In both cases, there is a lot of friction and inertia to accept this newness. One must put in effort and time to educate and explain from their point of view and take them carefully and patiently through the rationale and benefits of doing any innovation; highlighting that ultimately doing this has immediate and long-term benefits as compared to the conventional way. For the construction industry, the benefits of what you are proposing could extend beyond this project itself. Having done OPod, they would have learnt new processes, strategies that they can perhaps further adopt in their constructions that would be useful to them.

We do not want to do innovation after innovation, which are just gimmicks. We want to do things that are rooted and are looking into the opening of practical and sustainable future avenues.

  • OPod Tube House, Hong Kong Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
ABD: How has the traditional architecture of Hong Kong as well as other countries inspired you in your design approach?

JL:  Rather than being inspired from what has been done already, my inspirations come more from seeing the current situation in architecture or city-planning, the huge gap they are leaving in solving problems and analysing their solutions.

One might see Hong Kong as a very brightly-lit, modern, well-designed country. However, if you are a local, you see the underlying problems of it being extremely expensive and the wealth gap that is leading to many people not being able to afford a home. I would say that any architecture in the world is not perfect, every architecture has lots of merits, but we also need to highlight weaknesses, and from there come inspirations and innovations.

  • AlPod – Aluminium Pod House in Hong Kong Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
  • AlPod – Aluminium Pod house in Hong Kong Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
ABD: You have worked on multiple projects in India, including the Mumbai Convention Centre and the master planning for BKC Smart City. What excited you the most about Indian architecture and design?

JL:  It was a blessing in my career to have been invited to India. What excited me and inspired me starting from my early visits, was the hunger in the country to progress and to build or rebuild itself into a better organised, designed and managed society.

When I was interacting with clients and other architects and students there, I was always so inspired and energised by this kind of innate feeling of optimism, of dreaming big and better, and to somehow be proud of India as a culture and as a nation and believe that India deserves to be better. When I did projects there, I felt that I had a very important responsibility towards my client and users. I wanted to say that I am an ambassador that can help and bring some of these ideas to here, and to contribute to this kind of optimism. It really is an inspiration to come to a country that is still struggling in some sense but also having people who believe in you to bring something new and special.

  • One BKC, Mumbai Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
  • The Capital, Mumbai Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture

Thinking futuristic

ABD: The excessive and unwarranted use of technology has come under the scanner today. Being a technologist, how do you maintain this balance and this debate to let technology stay as a mere tool in driving concepts and ideologies?

JL: Declaring that excessive overuse of technology is always a problem is incorrect. If we take narrow notions that technology is only the hand held, digital, gaming telecommunications, we can say that technology and nature (which is also technology!) are typically the same things with different complexities. We rely on the environment to survive, breathe, communicate, stay safe from weather; that is categorically overuse of technology too. Man has created technology around him - whether it is the cave, a car, a piece of clothing, a television, and we are obsessively using all of it because that is how we interact as a society.

It is important to rather question if we have lost our sense of judgement and wisdom of how we are using technology around us. Over-reliance on any one technology is dangerous. Similarly, with architecture, only relying on air-conditioning for controlling climate is obsessively relying on one kind of technology. However, if we can make our buildings green and sustainable and use the added technology of air-conditioning during extreme climate, it can help us build a healthy building. A broad approach to technology, an understanding of the need to have all kinds of technology and to know ‘high’ technology is not the only technology for us, will lead to better designs and ensure a higher contribution of technology to the society, and not only in terms of digital contribution.

  • A perspective view of Technosphere – a mixed-use development in Dubai Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
  • Skygardens - a green residential building in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
ABD: Your firm was established in 2000 to create ‘inspirational futuristic designs’. In this time, how do you think the concept and your own idea of ‘futuristic design’ has evolved?

JL: In every decade, I have changed a lot in my own interpretations of the essence of what I want to do. The statement of pursuing futuristic design at the time when I wrote it two decades back stemmed from the very young type of optimism about the future, and how futuristic things could be brilliant and uplifting.

It was not meant to be a stylistic approach or a kind of vocabulary that I was trying to pursue. However, one thing that has certainly not changed is that I still have immense optimism about the future, which drives my own work and passion. Through design, we can create an alternative future that is at least marginally better than today. There is an inner drive to strive to improve or extract greater meaning from around us; in that sense we are all futuristic. Whether or not I am doing things which are looking futuristic in the future or invisibly futuristic in future, it does not matter; the fact that if in every project we can break through into a better future, then we have made progress.

ABD: What were the thoughts that drove you to establish the Cybertecture Academy and how have the younger generation of designers responded to it?

JL: My mother was a humble primary teacher and her experiences were my understanding and motivation about what education in general could do, especially to children who were born with no direction.

Since having established the academy, I have been struck by the immensely innate talent that young people have in general. The fact that they get to learn about architecture, design or technology earlier than university means that we have activated little geniuses. Traditional education does not give them the opportunity to explore this exciting possibility. In these youngsters (aged 8–13), I see an immense future, soaking up ideas, and having boundless courage to think beyond, which adults struggle with because they have been told what is wrong or right. For these children, there is nothing wrong yet; they effortlessly get familiarised with new machines, approaches, computer software and newer ways of collaboration. I find this academy as a little test tube, proving the point that it is never too early to become a designer, or to believe in the impossible, or to activate the hidden talent within everyone.

What do you think?

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