Three of architecture’s most significant theorists – Kenneth Frampton, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley – visited Sydney recently. They spoke to three of Australia’s best young architectural thinkers
MARYAM GUSHEH You were last interviewed for Architecture Australia during your 1983 visit to Sydney, for the Conflict Conference where you presented your thoughts on “critical regionalism”. You returned to that theme in your recent public lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Can you elaborate on the shifts that have occurred in your formulation of critical regionalism?
KENNETH FRAMPTON At some point, I stopped lecturing on critical regionalism because students in the US would respond by saying, there is no regionalism here.
So, although that position could be argued with, I began to focus on the question of tectonics and on the “poetics of construction” in order to formulate a more specifically resistant attitude to the tendency for architecture to be dominated by fashion and spectacular images and by the spectacle in general. Through readdressing the specificity of the construction I thought one would be able to keep the fashionable image at a distance. This shift in position eventually led to the book Studies in Tectonic Culture of 1995.
This visit to Australia has been very interesting for me because participating in a sequence of public presentations has provoked me into thinking about how the idea of critical regionalism might be related in a more specific way to the issue of the tectonic or the “poetics of construction”.
MG In fact critical regionalism has been very influential in discussions of architectural production outside American and European centres – Australia for instance – where considerations of architecture are too frequently intertwined with the question of identity. The burden of belonging to the “region” so to speak!
In such settings, works valued under the banner of critical regionalism are readily appropriated as singular and “correct” expressions of local character. I am thinking of Renzo Piano’s Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, for example, which now serves as an iconic image of national identity. While this scenario is a reduction of your thesis, it is nevertheless a problematic symptom of its reception.
KF Yes, one of the problems of giving lectures with slides is that once again one is beholden to images, often insufficiently amplified images, because an image can be amplified by drawings with the result that the presentation could be made more discursive. You’re quite right to point out the tendency to short-circuit the creative process by simply latching on to a particular image and translating a certain set of local conditions into that image. The discourse about the poetics of construction is more generalized and open-ended than the kinds of fragmentary images I’ve used to illustrate what a critical regionalist culture might be.
MG In both discourses, critical regionalism and tectonics, you tend to privilege finely crafted architectural works, refined in their detailing and material quality.
Your critics have pointed to the cooption of such practices by the image-driven imperatives of governments or corporate institutions. Would such commissions undermine the theoretical emphasis you place on “resistance” and “criticality”?
KF Possibly because in some ways the process gets jeopardized and weakened when it becomes a surreptitious stylistic formula. At that point it’s rather automatic and not very carefully articulated. Obviously the specific articulation of the work is of utmost importance. Everything is relative, however, and one has to begin somewhere.
Perhaps not every work will be brought to the same level of refinement but a general culture production that embodies a tectonic aspect is beneficial in that it allows certain works to be brought to a higher level.
MG In relative terms, then, you emphasize the public realm as the appropriate site for such finely articulated architectural works – a position you assume with reference to Hannah Arendt and her promotion of the polis as the necessary physical and institutional framework for the enactment of democracy. How would you define the public realm in metropolitan cities such as New York, Sydney or Melbourne?
KF The emphasis we place upon individual ownership, individual rights and individual property means that the public realm is invariably held to ransom. The idea of the “space of public appearance” has been under considerable pressure for some time. Certainly since the end of the Second World War. Clearly certain institutions such as high schools, nursery schools, clinics, sports facilities and universities are potential vehicles for the generation and consummation of a public space.
MG During your 1983 visit you were quoted as having made a “passionate plea” for the development of urban approaches to the Sydney Opera House.
Does the East Circular Key Development satisfy the civic and urban qualities that you promote?
KF Surely the buildings along East Circular Quay could have been a floor or two lower, but all things considered, the architecture of that development is of a fairly high standard modern architecture. They’re not exceptional buildings but they’re nonetheless high-quality, normative buildings. So the result is not bad. It’s perhaps not ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world. All in all I think the result is rather successful.
MG Your current visit to Sydney has been, in part, motivated by a commission to review the work of Glenn Murcutt and his collaborations with Wendy Lewin.
Having visited their projects recently, what are your impressions?
KF What is very interesting about Murcutt’s work is the extent to which it has an internal consistency and precise energy. The work engages a series of ideas and constructional tropes that are carried over from one project to another and are transformed in the process. So his language continually evolves. While it doesn’t evolve with every project to the same degree, this evolutionary aspect is extremely important. It has been particularly marked of late in the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre and in the Moonlight Head Eco Hotel, which is currently under development in collaboration with Wendy Lewin. It is very surprising, the way in which they have adopted the syntax of the Boyd Centre to new subject matter.
MG Did you have the opportunity to meet with their clients?
KF Yes I did.
MG I ask because you emphasize the client’s agency within the creative design process.
KF Obviously the client plays a key role and while a good client can encounter a bad architect, leading to negative results, it is equally clear that an architect of high quality who is engaged by an indifferent client cannot produce good results either. I think one has to have a client who has a commitment to architectural culture and who actually desires to have a certain quality.
MG Your engagement with the Murcutt/Lewin work highlights your prolific role as an architectural critic. What would you say is the role of criticism in the context of a professional architectural journal?
KF Good criticism is hard to find and also hard to write. In the 1950s there was a habit of publishing buildings with a critical essay attached. This has also occurred more recently, in Italian magazines such as Domus or Casabella, and even in The Architectural Review under Peter Davey. But in general it’s regrettable that magazines are not very selective about the buildings they publish. In general today’s editors don’t seem to be very willing to commit themselves to the extensive publication of any building, not even when they think it’s worth publishing. They feel compelled to cover the entire field and you get the longstanding phenomenon of many different leading magazines publishing exactly the same material. This occurs despite the efforts made by certain magazines to corner the market on a particular building. Nonetheless, there is a universal tendency to adhere to fashionable received opinions about what are considered important buildings. So there’s a lack of editorial selectivity. Moreover, editors seem to be reluctant to write an editorial in each issue of the magazine.
However, Peter Davey still does and Vittorio Gregotti did so, very brilliantly, when he was editor of Casabella. But in the main there’s an evident fear of committing oneself to critical editorial comment. Gregotti’s editorials were not so much about specific buildings but rather about changing predicaments in the practice of architecture. Today that is the missing element.
MG To sustain an ethical, a political position. This is the role of the intellectual.
KF Yes, intellectuals have to be committed, I mean they should be prepared to assume a political position.
MG In this regard, certain North American scholars, such as the late Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, have been exceptional in the way in which they have opened the American academy to much broader public concerns and audiences.
KF Yes, they are indubitably public intellectuals, what Antonio Gramsci called “the organic intellectual”. They are exemplary figures from this point of view.
MG Your scholarly eminence, the multifaceted nature of your contribution, as well as the prestigious institutional context within which you work, underpins the breadth of your influence and public presence. You are also very open about the personal encounters that have shaped your thinking, an attitude that assigns the intellectual project a very public character. Are you sympathetic to the view that extends the role of the public intellectual beyond disciplinary specialty, towards broader concerns such as social justice and human rights? I am asking this, for instance, in relation to the current war in Iraq which our respective governments are party to.
KF The Iraq war is an example of a violent imperialist reaction. For me it’s extremely negative. The entire position of the American administration and the British Labour Government is nothing short of incomprehensible to me, bordering on the edge of paranoia. The war in my view was totally unjustified and a direct infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. There’s nothing more demagogic than this phrase “the war on terrorism”.
It is today’s version of newspeak, totally demagogic and manipulative. There’s no way to ever end the war on terrorism, because the malaise underlying terrorism is not identifiable. It is not in any one place. How could it ever be won?
MG Do you feel the explicit lack of value for human life, demonstrated in this war, among other political atrocities that surround our daily lives, will inevitably erode the optimistic notion of humanity, of human values that is emphasized in your writings?
KF I think the historical failure of the species to realize socialism with a human face is fundamentally tragic. This failure is responsible for many pathological conditions.
I personally feel that a lot of religious fundamentalism arises indirectly out of response to the collapse of the socialist project. But you know the collapse of socialism was to some extent deliberately engineered. I mean in the case of your own country, Iran, the CIA destruction of Mossadegh was a conscious attack on socialism. What else was it?
It’s this kind of imperialism that has directly fostered the Islamic fundamentalist reaction.
MG No arguments from me!
And I thank you very much for your time.
KF That will get me into enough trouble, I think!
Maryam Gusheh is a lecturer in architecture at the University of New South Wales. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on 18 June, 2004.
CHARLES RICE As Dean of Architecture at Columbia University, you must have particular ideas about how the academy relates to the architectural profession.
MARK WIGLEY At Columbia we have two responsibilities. One is to give our students the complete state-of-the-art in terms of professional and intellectual skills. That is, every student should be able to work with confidence and expertise in the outside world when they leave. But our second responsibility is to redefine the state-of-the-art. On the one hand, we have to give the profession what it wants, but on the other we have to give the profession a new idea of what the profession can be. So at Columbia our main mission is to redesign the very figure of the architect. In practical terms this means that a Columbia graduate is somebody whose explosive potential is realized about five years after they’re in somebody’s office. The kinds of questions that the architect is going to face are enormously complex and constantly changing, so every school of architecture around the world needs to be thinking about the future figure of the architect.
CR Is it primarily through the way you teach students to think that the future sense of what the discipline can be is articulated?
MW Yes, because the architect is in fact an intellectual. Of course the architect is seen by the public as some sort of interesting combination between a very practical person – somebody who can assemble very large lumps of concrete, steel and glass – and a very creative person, a person who can make these large objects sing and dance, and speak about society and so on. But in reality the architect is not fundamentally a practical person. The architect is much more like a kind of public intellectual, somebody who speaks to the community through buildings. In terms of the practical side, we trust much more engineers, consultants and so on. The architect is admired for one thing and one thing alone: the ability to think. So the role of a school of architecture is to train a certain kind of intelligence. This is extremely important. This intelligence never appears on a list of the profession’s requirements, but it is what makes the architectural profession unique. The architect is a thinker, an enormously sophisticated thinker.
CR Professional accreditation cuts in at this point.
MW The question is what does accreditation really mean. Accreditation is not about maintaining educational standards – it is a much trickier thing. Accreditation is all about saying to society we know what architecture is, and we know how to train somebody, and there is a minimum level of expertise. It’s essentially a kind of publicity campaign to give this enormously romantic, crazy figure of the architect cultural respectability. This is why accreditation lists never include the need for an architect to be open-minded, experimental and controversial – all of these things being characteristics of those architects that we admire the most. In other words, accreditation does not reinforce the things that matter most to architects. If you understand accreditation from this point of view, it’s just the attempt by the architectural profession to construct itself as a profession, as a group of people who have a fixed knowledge and expertise.
The inside of architectural discourse is uncertainty, doubt, debate, mystery. The outside is confidence, clarity – the figure of the architect is that of the arrogant self, an unquestioning authority. Accreditation, unfortunately, is a process that undermines uncertainty and in so doing undermines the intelligence of the architect, and thereby the beauty, strength and intellectual force of the buildings that we produce. Schools of architecture have to maintain vigilantly the space of doubt, questioning and so on. That is the space of the university. That’s what a university is: it’s a place disconnected from the pragmatic realities of the world in order that individuals can open themselves up to other possibilities. The mission of a school is extremely interesting: how to be dedicated to the pragmatic realities of existing society while also being equally dedicated to the unknown future of that society.
This is why the architect is such a brilliant figure, always poised between the known and the unknown. It would be nice to have accreditation that insisted upon uncertainty; that chastised a school for routinely providing students that were perfectly useful in a profession but perfectly useless in redefining the profession.
CR In this relationship between the academy and the profession, there is also a desire for each to promote what they see as the important intellectual agendas of architecture. In Australia at the moment, sustainability, and associated issues like place sensitivity, have been made into dominant intellectual agendas, rather than simply providing one kind of perspective in a basic understanding of buildings and cities from which varied and particular agendas might then be formulated. Or to look at it the other way, because sustainability is intrinsic to how architecture is framed in this country, it becomes the philosophy of a practice. The result is that it is difficult to discuss architecture on any other terms, which I find problematic.
MW I suppose the question is whether sustainability is a sustainable concept. The proponents of sustainability are like the proponents of any theory. They are convinced by it, and they are in the business of convincing us that we should be convinced by it.
As I was saying, the primary mission of the architect is intellectual. So of course it makes sense that sustainability is understood as an intellectual commentary. But it might be that most of the people committed to sustainability right now are committed to it precisely because they see it as the end of intellectual discussion, that sustainability is the answer to any problem. Then sustainability becomes a matter of faith. Now if sustainability is beyond criticism in the way that it is just seen to be infinitely good, then it marks the end of architectural discussion, the end of debate, and therefore the end of architecture, because architecture is about debate. It is about producing in one’s everyday life a kind of hesitation, a delay, a moment of reflection. Architecture is a call for us to think and to see differently. Sustainability can be a new and very exciting and interesting way for architects to make people think, but it could also be used as a way to stop thinking. We should encourage the thought that sustainability is perhaps one of the most interesting experimental and radically intellectual pursuits for the architect.
This means getting a whole different cast of characters involved in the discussion, and that’s also something that schools of architecture can do.
CR This picture of architecture as the context for discussion and debate is currently being met by urbanization on a scale never before seen. How do you see the need to experiment and debate in relation to such a condition of practice?
MW One of the most important things for a school of architecture to do is to discuss the possible roles for the architect. The assumption that the architect is somebody who makes buildings is just not good enough, because architects don’t make a very large proportion of the buildings on the earth. We make certain kinds of buildings, certain kinds of commentaries about buildings, certain kinds of plans, certain kinds of movies, certain kinds of exhibitions and so on. Architects are the people who think about buildings and who use buildings as a form of thought. So the question is, given any large city that’s exploding in growth, what would architectural intelligence mean in such a situation? And it doesn’t mean, for example, taking responsibility for a certain amount of the city. It means finding a new way of understanding the meaning of architecture in such a situation, and also understanding the situations in which the architect should not be involved. This is exactly why university education is very precious for the architect, because in being immersed within the professional context, it is extraordinarily difficult to redefine the terms of that context.
As you know, one of the remarkable features of globalization is the extent to which local conditions become globalized and global conditions become localized. So this new form of architectural intelligence will be a new kind of agility between local and global.
And local might even be smaller than regional, as I’m not sure that the region is the scale at which the architect will make a decisive intervention. Others will see it differently. For a very long time my esteemed colleague Kenneth Frampton considered the region to be the appropriate unit of architectural operation. I think the region itself has become so thoroughly diffused that the critical unit is probably getting smaller and smaller. It is certainly at the scale of the city or less. I suspect that the crucial unit for us will be the neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood expertise will be the key feature.
For example, the issues that one deals with in Sydney might not be fundamentally different from issues dealt with in Auckland or San Francisco, but the specific conditions generated in Sydney neighbourhoods might be very different. I think it is at the level of the neighbourhood that democracy itself is staged, because it is at this level that people are challenged by the other. It’s a face-to-face situation.
CR You are promoting the architect less as a technical operator or “master builder”, and more as a kind of advocate who is able to move between different constituencies and connect things together, being able to organize relationships in a way that promotes an architectural agenda.
MW Right, and it can be an advocacy for the absence of architecture. You can be an advocate with a building, or about buildings, but for me the concept of the public intellectual is the most important. The architect is a thoughtful person, a person who is able to think in situations in which other people cannot think, and a person who is able to allow other people to think differently. This is why the architect talks so much.
Architects are talkers, they are much more talkers than people who draw. The architect is a certain kind of communicator, a certain kind of public intellectual.
CR The danger is that this leads to a kind of stratification: you almost return to the educated architect versus the makers of buildings. Unless of course you say that this advocacy is actually in the mundanities of doing things in architectural offices. I think here in Sydney there is an issue about the way architects are perceived as architects, and developers are perceived as the makers of cities, for better or worse. It may be an intractable problem, but it would worry me if we simply reproduced an opposition between the educated architect and the producer of buildings.
MW Well I think the goal of the thoughtful architect is not to cover the world with their buildings, but to allow people to live well. There is always that astonishing sense that every architect seems to think that there’s not a single negative consequence of his or her work. Every architect believes that every intervention they make, no matter how small, is of good to society, and the more of it the better. A world entirely designed by architects is not necessarily a better world than a world entirely designed by developers. I’ll give you just one example: my home town. New York is designed by money. New York is a town that hates architects, and has resolutely made it impossible for the best architects to work there. There is the odd exception, but it’s a city whose skyscrapers are a direct reflection of economics, and the beauty of that city comes from the absence of architects. If we were to imagine a Manhattan entirely designed by generations of architects with different theories about what architecture should be it would be an awful city.
This gets us back to the original point: the role of the architect is not to make buildings, but to make discourse about buildings, and to make buildings as a form of discourse, and this is the most fascinating form of social commitment. I really admire architects and my feeling is that we should admire that part of architecture that is most brave and most generous.
Dr Charles Rice is a lecturer in architecture at the University of New South Wales. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in Sydney 2 June, 2004.
NAOMI STEAD The principal purpose for your visit is as a keynote speaker for the Sydney Biennale, an event more closely associated with the arts than with architecture. How do you feel about addressing an arts audience? Is your work more readily accepted or understood by artists? Is this different from the way it is received by architects?
BEATRIZ COLOMINA Well, I am very happy to participate in this Sydney Biennale, because the theme – Reason and Emotion – is very interesting. That was the first thing. The second factor is that I have very warm feelings for the art world, not because I’m very closely related to it, but because from the beginning of my writing I have had an extraordinary response from artists. Artists everywhere – in Europe, but in Australia too – have said at different points over the last twenty years that they have taken inspiration from my work. Sometimes I don’t see exactly the correlations, but I like this sense that you put your work out there, and aspects of it that you may not even be a hundred per cent aware of can mean something to people. That’s very interesting. It’s not an intended effect; I don’t say to myself, “I’m going to write for artists as well as for architects”, not at all. If anything, when I was starting I thought I was writing for historians: I was writing about Loos, I was writing about Le Corbusier, I was doing research in the archive. Then I was surprised to find out the effect on both artists and architects – on practising architects, and also on those teaching design in architecture schools, who said “oh, we did a very nice studio after we read your piece on the windows of Loos, and Le Corbusier”. That has happened with many aspects of my work, it has inspired specific design studios or artworks. It’s very satisfying, but it’s not deliberate, it just happens.
NS Are there any aspects of your thesis, about how architecture is constituted in and through the media, which have a different nuance or significance here in Sydney or in the Antipodes more generally?
BC No, I think it’s a universal. It’s a global effect. The media is everywhere. My thesis is precisely that, from the beginning of the twentieth century and coinciding with the emergence of new kinds of media, architecture has been produced not simply on the building site, but in all these other immaterial sites: the photograph, the magazine, the film, and then later the television programme, the computer, et cetera. So my point is that it’s not that architecture is built and then represented in these magazines and journals through photography, but that the journals act, from the very beginning of the century, as the site for an original production of architecture.
The media are tools that have been very progressive for architecture. Whether it’s collage, or a drawing for a competition, or a manipulation of photographs of your own work, you are creating in a different media and in that way transforming the practice of architecture. Heading into the media doesn’t mean abandoning the practice of architecture, but going deeper into that practice.
For example, if you think about Mies van der Rohe, it’s not that Mies was doing these wonderful buildings and then all of a sudden the magazines took notice and started photographing them. Mies’s buildings actually emerged out of the media. The magazine he was editing, the competitions for the most famous projects – the Glass Skyscraper, the Brick Country House – those are the most interesting works and they were produced for immaterial venues: exhibitions, publications, competitions. Temporary, presumably, but in fact they became more permanent. Even when he manages in 1929 to build the Barcelona Pavilion, his most famous building, it’s for a temporary fair.
It’s only later that Mies finally catches up with himself. During the early 20s at the same time that he was doing these very radical projects on paper, he was building the most conservative houses that you can imagine. So there was an incredible discrepancy between what he was able to do as a practicing architect and what he was able to do as an avant-garde architect/artist in the world of publications. In that sense I have a very positive view of the media, unlike that of other architectural critics, Frampton for example. This venue has been very progressive and it has generated extraordinary innovation in architecture.
NS Yes and, as you say, the buildings Mies was constructing at the time are largely forgotten, but the work that was in the media has become the canon.
BC It becomes permanent. It’s paper architecture, but in a way, in our imagination that’s more solid: a piece of paper is more a monument than whatever is built with bricks and mortar. In a nutshell, that is my thesis. It’s very simple. What is interesting is how long it has taken people to accept it, why it was received with such nervousness … %br%NS Your work was received with nervousness?
BC Oh yeah, mainly by conservative architectural critics. It was difficult for them to understand it, because it’s counter-intuitive that something on paper could be more permanent than something made of stone. That the history of architecture will be transformed by a statement in a journal, by a little book instead of a big massive building.
Even some people my age were very nervous at the idea that Le Corbusier, the great god of Modern architecture, may have actually been really interested in mass culture, in advertisements, in publications. I was not so surprised to find traditional historians of architecture horrified, but I was surprised to find people of my generation saying that I was projecting onto Le Corbusier the culture of our times. Sure, I have that lens. Every historian has the lens of their own time. But I came to that realization in the archives of Le Corbusier, through his own collections of catalogues and advertisements.
So it’s not bringing it from out of nowhere, it was based in solid research. But you know, over time I think they came to understand, in the sense that if you look at their work they now say very similar things.
NS You are described in the Biennale literature as a “cultural commentator”… %br%BC Oh, so nice! I didn’t know that … somebody else told me that in the programme they say that I’m from Portugal! I thought it was so exotic (laughs), but in fact I am from Spain, as you know. So I’m a culture commentator, but not consciously. I was trained as an architect. I studied in the Polytechnic in Valencia. Mine was a very technical school, I studied with engineers for three years. In fact, this was my strength, mathematics, calculus, algebra … that’s also where I was good in high school, in the sciences. I say that because some people think I’m a stream-of-consciousness person, which I’m very happy with (laughs), but at some point I wasn’t that way.
NS I’ve also read descriptions of you as an historian, theorist, critic or architect.
Given that many of these overlap, how would you describe and define your role?
BC Well, when people ask me this I tend to say that I am an architect who writes.
Architects work in many different kinds of media, and in each one of these media they produce what can be considered original or new architectural work. So I’m an architect who chose the medium of writing. It’s not simply that I do the history of architecture but that I build arguments about architecture. Some of them are to do with historical aspects, and are based on archival research, but basically they are constructions that reflect the culture in which I live, as much as any built work done at the same time does. Is that being a cultural commentator? I’m not sure about that – I think it’s different.
NS Do you also engage in architectural criticism? And how does your work relate to the production of contemporary buildings?
BC Well, that’s always been a bit of a dilemma, because it’s contrary to my position to assume the role of the critic. Architects, in my opinion – the best architects at least – do not need somebody to explain their work for them. So I’m more interested in what whoever – say Rem Koolhaas – has to say about his own work than what somebody else who just has a view of his work has to say. Looking at it historically, there is absolutely no doubt that it’s much more interesting to see what Le Corbusier or Loos say about their own work than what critics were saying about it. In fact, it’s interesting to look at what critics were saying because it’s actually so far off the mark that it makes you realize how difficult it is to evaluate work in your own time. Also, as somebody who writes you are always under enormous pressure from friends and from contemporary architects to write about their work, and that sometimes leads to friction.
NS Given your own awareness of the way the canon is constructed by historians and critics and through the media, how do you feel about being an academic “star” or celebrity? Does it impact positively or negatively on your work?
BC Well, I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. It is true that my work is recognized in many parts of the world and I’m extremely grateful and in a way surprised by that – as I was saying before, you don’t write for adulation, you write for very personal reasons. Who knows why we write? Why do artists do their work? I suppose it’s because you need to, something has to come out. If it happens to reach people, if they happen to find it interesting, that is very gratifying, but that’s not the reason I do it.
The second part of what you are asking is that when you are recognized in many parts of the world, and your work is translated or published, how does that affect your work?
Well you’re right, you become part of the same media, you become a media effect, so at that point you have to be extremely careful. You have to be very ethical about certain choices. When you have so many invitations in a year to give lectures, and it’s not possible to do more than a fraction of them, what is it that you decide to do?
What is ethical to do? I think it has a lot to do with not losing track of what is actually your mission. Of course another part of me would say, well, this has a lot to do with where you want to be. I’m a real traveller, I really love to see the world, and that is part of my personality. I have to confess that many times I do accept invitations because I want to go there.
NS You are, or have been, on the editorial boards of a number of publications in the US. Do you think that commercial or professional journals are able to be internally critical of their own role in the commodification of architecture, or would that be a contradiction?
BC No, it is possible. It is possible, and I think many professional journals, whether they understand it or not, do have a position, in the choices they make, in the contributors they choose, in the quotes they take. I have nothing against professional journals, they become incredible historical documents of what architecture has been in our times. I have made extensive use of both avant-garde journals and professional journals to understand what was happening at one particular historical moment. It’s very interesting – sometimes the professional journals, the kind of “straight” journals, are the ones that are really on the money, whereas retrospectively the avant-garde ones are missing the point.
NS At the end of your essay “1949” in the book Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant Garde in America you quote comments made by Charles Eames in a 1972 interview, where he described his turn away from architecture and towards exhibitions, films and furniture design as “chickening out”. You wrote then that “In the meantime, the number of architects chickening out of building is increasing by the hour. It would seem that experimental architecture today is rarely found outside the gallery or the university.”%br% BC This is what I was thinking then.
NS So do you think things are different now?
BC Yes, I think it’s different. That was 1995/96, I think the conference was 96.
Something happened then, and all these people who were elaborating the most radical and interesting ideas in these other media were able to finally start building. That happened simultaneously, in the late 90s, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this expression of actually quite radical and interesting built work.
NS What do you think happened, what was it that changed?
BC There was a lot of money for a while at the end of the 90s, and also a new awareness of architecture. This has become increasingly the case after 9/11, which had this extraordinary effect of putting the spotlight on architecture. In so many ways people have become more conscious of architecture. Bilbao had a lot to do with it, the fact that it was so successful, and entire cities thought “oh my god, it’s really a good investment”, you know? (laughs). So is this avant-garde? Well, I’m not sure it’s avant-garde at all anymore, but it could be again. It could be that architecture will use its possibility as a potential site for the exploration of very interesting ideas. Architects are opportunists, obviously. I don’t say that in a negative way, but you have to take your chances when you have them. Whether it’s a wealthy client or a museum or a competition, you have to throw yourself there and that’s your chance to do something.
And those chances come rarely. You have to be ready for them. It’s like an athlete, you have to train, you have to be ready to jump.
NS Thank you very much for your time.
BC Thank you.
Naomi Stead is a lecturer in architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in Sydney 31 May, 2004.