Any architecture ultimately sets boundaries. Space, the common alibi of its agents, is merely the resigned outcome of a basic operation, the division – its most elementary feature. Peripheral by essence, theatrical by inclination, its performance is a liminary one: architecture is the indifferent margin of life. Settled between subjects, its scope is political and it range territorial; as the blessed child of clashing progenitors – economy, environment, society, program, vanity – its condition confines its product to a paradoxical figure: architecture is a radical consensus.
When you approach the project brief, do you imagine it to be physically built? Is this understanding an attitude that changes according to the nature of the project or is it always a similar procedure? To what extent does it affect the way you work?
What is essential to our work is that we never take a brief as a normative content; we believe that architects should remain critical towards what is given to them to such an extent that the profession ought to be allowed to question norms, a given program, even a location and call upon derogative legislative provisions. It goes without saying that the brief outlines an array of demands, yet what is at stake is to raise the project to another level of determination and responsibility, which does not only lie in the formulation of a possible answer but engages in the process of raising questions as well; architecture is a potential which should not be negatively defined into categorical feasibility; this is an essential provision and might well be one of the reasons for which we tend to often come short to winning competitions. We hardly consider a brief to be a problem as such, and it is definitely not sufficient a basis to develop a critical project; in order to do so, one should literally exceed the brief and consider all specific frameworks – legal, economical, social, cultural, historical etc. – to be potential assets rather than limitations.
One critical issue is to work at reconquering a certain authority lost through the improbable fragmentation of competences and driven by the only horizon that seems to mean something, namely short-term profit; and this can only happen through the project. Engaging in what has not been foreseen implies of course a specific modus operandi that reaches far beyond sheer utility: there must be a closer link between an expertise and a political authority and the architect should be involved much sooner in the process of defining the potential of a future development; moreover, competitions should advocate for the uncertain and bypass by the dictatorship of the unequivocal product.
This may be a way for the act of projecting to become political again?
Perhaps; but what we mean by political has little to do with what one might call civic architecture as for instance in the course of the 19th century when representativity was institutional. There is hardly any such architecture today as most of what used to be considered public is now under the prevalence and the authority of the private. Architects therefore can hardly claim to do political architecture, but they can develop architecture politically; as the vector of influence remains the architectural project itself, it is precisely in this framework that the architect can act …certainly not outside of it; that is, if one leaves the realm of architecture, one only does so as an architect. In other words, political action remains essentially within a given field of expertise; and questioning normative thinking and preconceived ideas perform at devising the architectural project politically.
Is it more of a behaviour?
Right, it is behavioural; but let me digress shortly for the sake of illustration. Jean-Luc Godard distinctly states in Histoire(s) du Cinema: rules are enacted to prevent from thinking outside of what is commonly accepted; therefore regulatory measures necessarily contain any action within a given frame of intended references and precedents, onto which they have been developed in the first place; in a way, regulations not only complement but also contradict the great contribution of law making, namely the jurisprudence, which always refers to specific cases and never applies to universal conditions. What I am merely trying to say is that architecture should not bow under restraining diktats and as a result give up its unsolicited potential; of course, such a thought has its corollary, so to speak, that of an increased criticality, avoiding the indifferent application of the norm. To do so would allow the project to develop its own coherence and to oscillate, say, between complexity and contradiction.
As mentioned earlier, the architectural project should not be assimilated to a feasibility study; yet the profession is unfortunately hardly confronted with anything else. The competition as a procedure should be a call for ideas exceeding utilitarian features. At an early stage, the project defines a potential with all its prerogatives: if needed, the tools used for it to become a built reality should be accordingly developed alongside its development. In this regard, the potential is an active agent of criticality.
How did we get to this point?
There are of course several reasons for it, one of them being that architects hardly face responsible authorities but almost exclusively irresponsible structures: within those, no one is really held liable for anything as each actor can shield behind normative and regulatory appeals. Or else said, the accumulation of predefined criteria discharge the actor of his real duty, that of nuanced and motivated decision; relying on sole objective principles does not lead to a more qualitative built environment, only to mechanically levelled one. Architecture has to do with life, and only with life, which cannot be universally constrained: it is essentially specific and as such phenomenal.
This propensity is again most evident in the process of competitions where a lineup of experts proceeds to a preliminary objective examination attributing [+] and [–] to anonymous entries, strongly influencing majorities of non-professional jurors; in addition to this, the systematic fallacious unanimism discouraging any democratic debate in order to guarantee a frictionless procedure, the smoke screen of the anonymity, the prevalence of technocratic juries, all tend to sentence the architectural project to a safeguarded product.
Another aspect can be invoked: there's no doubt that the oikos has now taken over the polis, not only in architecture but in most decision makings; and of course there are complex reasons for it, but it is kind of ironic to think of what the greek oikos was, a domestic realm deprived of political voice. Today, it is hard to comply with such a political configuration as the interests of private sectors drive most decisions. One has to hear Joseph Stiglitz on the economical policies under the Bill Clinton administration (Où va le monde M. Stiglitz? – Jacques Sarasin, Challenges DVD) to begin to apprehend what is happening – naturally the phenomenon is even more acute in the United States where a constitutional democracy was built bottom-up on private initiatives: the policy makers so to speak are the corporations whose sole horizon is once again, short-term profit.
It can be deleterious for a discipline like architecture whose development is a long and uncertain process on the one hand, but also an over-generational venture; and what is now described as sustainable should apply to the urban form far more than to quantifiable performances of the envelope.
It is also pretty clear that the plaza has not only lost its public necessity but its political relevance and the street is now under the strain regime of private interests. The discrepancy between architectural, political and economical times has grown to such an extent that any project stretching beyond a single legislature is strongly exposed to fluctuant contingencies. Such shifts have inevitably influenced the profession itself: the atomised authority has left the architect as a specialist overwhelmed by the contradictory demands of objective technicists and obscure benefits. Architecture should therefore remain to a large extent independent and critical, that is, aware of a complexity that lies outside of its domain of expertise.
Would you say independency as autonomy?
I wouldn't call it autonomy partly for the terminological reason that autonomy has been used and abused in the Swiss context a few decades ago. Architecture itself is of course never quite fully independent as it is essentially an array of concessions and there is no such a thing as a non-referential or absolute architecture; but one can still choose between a blind allegiance to contemporary demands and expectations and a critically articulated approach to it.
What regime do you think we currently experience?
Perhaps a sort of levelled aristocratic system; of course the analogy does not apply to all aspects of it but it can be enlightening. One of the characteristics of the aristocratic principle is that it cannot be followed by anyone not being part of it; the social lift, the ability to raise within a given social structure by own means, obviously did not exist at the time; it might well be an overstatement, but what one witnesses in the contemporary production of architecture is a line up of hyperbolic exceptions that cannot be adhered to outside of their contextual framework. Or else said, the leading figures of architecture do not work at producing models which one could not only learn from but whose features could potentially apply to other circumstances.
In his ABCédaire, Gilles Deleuze has a witty way to describe it, mobilising tennis in the ‘70s and its heroes: John McEnroe, the aristocrat who invented shots no one could ever reproduce and Bjorn Borg, the proletarian whose scheme remained obsessively elementary, and could therefore emulate. And if one would dare such an allegation, one could say that the modernist movement has been a proletarian one, striving at producing models to be carried out further in time and place; and it has been bound to a similar unfolding: a levelled formal repertoire and the subsequent broad implementation of its given principles. One could even expand on the analogy and submit contemporary architecture to a closer to us bi-partisan system and ask wether the current situation rather tends to a rightist or a leftist setup; and to do so, one could again refer to the ABCédaire: according to Gilles Deleuze, there is no such thing really as a leftist government because a majority, any political one, necessarily implies what he calls an étalon, that is a standard which in the field of politics would be man – adult – city dweller. And every government, respectively any majority, strives at doing everything for it to stay that way. To be a rightist or a conservative is therefore to cope with a certain status quo. On the contrary, to be a leftist is always about becoming a minority. So if we kind of loosely accept the analogy, we could say that despite the fact that our architectural time does not have per se a formal étalon, yet because of the exogenous instrumentalisation of its product, the opportunistic behaviour of its agents, the administrative and legislative sclerosis, the overwhelming authority of preservative measures, everything tends at upholding the current state of affairs.
If you try to apply the concept of “resistance” of Gilles Deleuze to architecture, would you say architecture should resist to a dominant regime?
The role of architecture is not to resist, and it cannot in fact resist. Its agent, the architect, on the other hand, can: most essentially as a citizen but also within the discipline itself by questioning through the project the adequate nature of contemporary expectations and fervour. Resistance and criticality do not apply to objects but they can become a methodological force on the way to a built reality. One has to remain alert and vigilant in order to become accurately inventive.
Architecture is simply not enough; one wishes that the profession would be more politically involved within the discipline and less of a fetishist corporation. By leaving one’s own territory, one feeds himself with outer problematics, triggering a criticality which reaches far beyond that of a constructive arrangement or a seductive plasticity. One can then return to his own expertise loaded with the responsible awareness to organise specific interests and to resist to dominant standards.
... architecture would be kind of a weapon?
Absolutely; and when Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about the machine de guerre (G. Deleuze and F. Guattari in: Mille Plateaux, Paris Editions de Minuit, 1980), they of course do not mean an apparatus to eliminate people, but a device prompt to positively and critically act.
That is also the way to become an actor rather than an author; and this is somehow connected to what you teach as a professor and to your position towards what it does mean to be an architect. Is this is a kind of formal resistance?
Not only; it would be profitable for students to realise that they will become political actors rather than formalist authors; and in the light of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, it is pretty clear that we architects do not have any authority, but that it is always, by means of a contractual relationship, an artificially granted one.
At Made in, we are mostly interested in trying to understand the world we live in. And to do so, one needs to accept that what is usually given to him as a basis to a project development is simply not sufficient to address relevant issues : in other words, the problem is to be synthetically built up by the architect himself. We think of the architect as a sort of facilitator and architecture can indeed be a catalytic feature, but not at solving issues, rather at raising questions and at disclosing and staging potentials; it can do much but the tendency is rather to either underestimate or to overestimate it; very rarely is the marker set at the proper level.
Do you think that we have lost our dignity towards urbanism because architecture did not react against the dominant class forces?
I do not know wether we have lost our dignity but it is most evident that urbanism has become quite a vain word and that technocratic resistance and bureaucracy have enslaved it. But we tend to forget that cities and urban contexts that we, as citizens, admire were most often initiated by authoritative decrees; and in frequent cases, such transformations have been as destructive as constructive: Hausmannian Paris is exemplary of such an alteration.
Our democracies and their complex system of antagonist forces now prevent such visions to take place; and for sure, the world we live in is in many regards a better place than it used to be. Yet, urbanism as a utopian force has definitely lost its vitality. And all feasibility studies bow under the authorities of intermediaries, condemning any insight to a sum up of compromises. Again, the framework is a negatively defined one: parametric components have supplanted visions of eu-topia and a so-called objectivity has overruled any challenging transgression.
Could this be one of the reasons for which architects go East where more authoritative systems rule?
I suspect that architects turn to more domineering regimes in order to reconquer part of that lost emancipation… with little success, not only for the reason that it is anachronous to search for a sort of despotisme éclairé, but also because we have lost our ability to even think urbanism in terms compositional imperatives.
Do you reckon that the aim of architecture could be to warn the political forces when they are not free, when they are dependant from the dominant class and accordingly when they are unable to properly address urban issues?
No, I do not think so; it would be misinterpreting the role of architecture, which definitely cannot act as a warning. But one can definitely investigate about complex issues in the academic context and provide young citizens and aspiring architects with the tools to better understand the world they live in: as such, yes, teaching can be, if not preventing, at least informative. The whole point about the semesters led at the ETH (Portraits I-IV, 2011-2013) was precisely to investigate problematic conditions and to use architecture to depict them. Yet, never have we considered it to be an effective measure to solve issues but rather activated it as a sort of telescopic devise: far from its point of focus, but able to scan a broad spectrum. Accordingly, the specificity of the series lied in the association of mutually enlightening, yet seemingly antagonist programs; the method claimed no historical loyalty, as sources and facts were being intentionally set up to serve a reducing purpose. These academic semesters aimed at evaluating contradictory encounters and stressed cross-fertilisation as a key asset in the design process.
Portraits I [Airport/Prison] addressed the condition of the society of control, first referred to by William S. Burroughs in the sixties and later actualised by Michel Foucault in Surveiller et Punir [Ed. Gallimard, Paris 1975]; Portraits II [Finance/Religion] enquires about the religious dimension of the world of finance through the notion of debt tackled by anthropologist David Graber [Debt: the first 5000 years, Ed. Melville House, 2011] and through Bruno Latour and Vincent A. Lépinay’s introductory essay to Gabriel Tardes’ economical anthropology [The Science of Passionate Interests, Ed. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009]; Portraits III [Territory/Politics] was even more ambitious, not to say greedy, as we proposed to gauge the urban fabric in the light of political philosophy, convinced that the ways our societies are organised define to a great extent the characteristics of our built environment; finally, Portraits IV [Architecture, literally.] attempted to embrace fictional and as such hyperbolic lives through an array of literary works, in which architectural features defined what one could call a milieu.
One can see through these examples how farfetched these topics must have been for young citizens and architects… but also for us, teachers; the question now would be: ‘What is your expertise when engaging in literature, political philosophy or finance?’ Well, we think that one does not need to be an expert to engage in such fields; to say the opposite would be to consider any discipline fire-walled into its own proficiency… it would be extremely impoverishing; but of course we are currently living in a time where the figure of the specialist rules and we do not think that the architect should become one; if anything, rather an unconcealed generalist open to the problems of his time and bridging over several fields of study. Moreover, there is need to withstand the prevalence of homo faber over homo sapiens as we tend nowadays to relegate anything that is not immediately productive to subsidiary contingencies: yet these are as essential to the development of an adequate architecture. Ultimately, it is really a matter of perception, not of expertise. Academic education could stimulate this transversality and to a certain extent leave the training of specialists to professional schools.
Could this transversality and cross-fertilisation be the secret agent of imagination?
It could indeed; imagination has very little to do with one’s own fantasies. It rather lies in the ability to correlate heterogeneous sources in a catalytic way, where an arrangement is more than the sum of all its parts. Made in works at staging signs of frictions, hence its interest not only in topics that outrange architecture as a discipline but also in history as an entangled continuum, that can potentially be re-activated. Faulkner has an elegant and unequivocal way to put it, when he writes that the past is not dead and not even passed; past is present.
What do you mean when you say "we work for history"?
Well, I do not mean we – Made in – but we architects; what we intend to say is that one should have another ambition than to work for his own satisfaction or even that of a client. This fulfilment is too shallow an aspiration; if for no better other reason, because architecture is to last longer than one’s expectations and is therefore bound to another liability, or another sustainability so to speak, that of the urban form. It is again a matter of perception and has nothing to do with complacency.
Is going after what has been made by earlier generations to proceed towards a new form of humanism and consider it as a step forward...
I can only say that I wished it to be that way; but it is certainly not a regression. Questioning history, its validity and acuteness is to search for awareness beyond one’s most immediate needs and instincts; ultimately, it is a very prudential approach to architecture.