Luis Carrilho da Graça
In praise of the Airstream trailers Alison Smithson said: «It´s not that caravans are bad housing... but that most good housing isn´t as good as caravans». Isn´t the production of technology, of well-programmed machines (and thinking also of some architectural "outsiders" like Viollet-Le-Duc or Buckminster Fuller) the ultimate objective of modernity,?
Up until the end of the Middle Ages the builder was plunged into what he built. He was called upon a place to build, holding a body of knowledge in constant evolution. The technological possibilities of the Gothic were not fully exhausted when another vision, mainly "cultural", decided to intersect that "organic" process of the built world. Renaissance introduced another level of abstraction, Man became a subject of its own attention and understanding.
Palladio summoned the greek temple´s pediment and columns to build the villa, apex of a land-use capitalist system which entirely restructured the venetian terraferma agricultural organization. The modern architect icon the emerges from the possibility of understanding construction as a communication process which not only communicates its own logic but also transmits and holds other contents - the religious temple cliché /picture, for instance. If we are willing to accept the palladian villa as a prototype of modern architecture we can sense its virtues but also its weaknesses. On one side, there´s the rationalization of production procedures, agricultural ones, leading to the Industrial Revolution, to specialization, to specific functional performances; on the other, a fairly superficial mimicry of other forms of communication and artistic discourses.
One of my favourite architects - Jacques Herzog - claims architecture is not an art form, it is something that you feel; he also states that, due to the growing complexity of technology systems required to define a building, he finds himself inclined to study buildings´ skins. Is this the end of the modern architect? Do we have to come up with a new one? Architecture is struggling for its disciplinary survival and I think it can only accomplish that goal if it establishes the "reconstruction of construction" as its essential meaning. It can´t be just a language used to transmit contents alien to its own definition.
Won´t architecture become absent from the world we live in that way?
My point is exactly the opposite. Architecture can only exist in a space of clear social profitabilaty. There´s a huge gap at the moment between architects and societies, it will keep getting bigger if architecture, instead of dealing with its own substance, insists on the schizophrenical withdrawal of reality through the creation of abstract contents or the imitation of exterior subjects. But the lack of concern and technological knowledge makes it all happen in yet another level of abstraction.
Still, architecture aspires to be a summary of our enfolding world. During this century science and technology seem to have taken over that task.
Physics, for instance, can only be seen today as a form of philosopy. Architecture, even when it´s classified as high-tech, keeps flirting with romantic imagery instead of dealing with performance issues. When I first saw pictures of the Hong Kong Shangai Bank I found it fascinating and futuristic. But after a visit it seemed like an iron-frame building of the beggining of the century with few dissimilarities: highly sophisticated electronic contents and ventilation ducts but the aesthetics, the formal approach, the structural concepts were eventually less advanced than those of iron architecture. Then I saw an exhibition on Foster´s works and realised how rudimental and instinctive his architecture was. Yet, in other projects, Foster proposes true innovative solutions like Stanstead Airport´s typological reinvention, which we can address later.
So how do we incorporate these new technologies? Building "smart houses", like Bill Gates does?
When I talk about technology and construction contents I´m not thinking of electronic gadgetry nor dumb "smart houses". International architects seem to function more and more as physicians prescribing multinational antibiotics. If we look at recent buildings designed by Gehry, Eisenman, Libeskind, even Siza, we discover the use of similar materials and components: titanium zinc, roofmate, wallmate, geberit, glasses, door handles, iron fittings, etc. Big companies develop and streamline systems, materials and products and then architects are called upon as "stylists" to design the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Santiago de Compostela Museum, a building I truly admire.
Acknowledged, building technologies enjoy a certain kind of global domination status. But those "style-designers" are certainly trying to restore some glamour to their craft, like technology seems to have done. How can architects become leading players again?
The menace lies in the fact that products are being developed with marketing purposes only. Just look at the computer and high-fidelity sectors. A plot - with few dissidents - to sell products already developed for the highest profit factor possible.
You were suggesting some solutions should be reinvented...
Of course. I´m still more thrilled about the possibility of not using conditioned air - forcing us to close and open windows - instead of using it, even when it´s the ultimate statement in air-conditioning systems. In order to achieve that I have to study every strategy and concept about a building that will create other kinds of devices. They might not be high-tech but will probably feature complex technological operations. That intellectual process on the crucial aspects of a building, the construction of a program in a certain place, will warrant a new architectural sense of performance. I´m not that interested in outscoring Gehry, Libeskind, or their disciples on the sheer media impact of a building.
Your Knowledge of the Seas Pavillion and Siza´s Portugal Pavillion were some of the few buildings in Expo´98 avoiding a literal connection to a series of events that seemed to transcend architecture itself: people, shows, machines. They stuck to a certain quintessential power and meaning of architecture. On the other hand, they both housed high-tech contents - holographic projections, digital animation - responsible for other kinds of spatial experience. How do you contain such contents?
I´ve always envisioned the Knowledge of the Seas Pavillion as an extremely effective machine operating in a very specific setting: all these contents have to be shown and they´re very powerful and interactive. Tadao Ando´s pavillion in Seville immediatly came to my mind. You would go up an escalator and arrive at an outside platform leading your eyes into the exterior landscape and creating an interval just before the visit began, entirely conducted through an interior route. I started from there. Setting a landmark that would deny Expo´s visual overload and flamboyant contents. In what concerns the technological aspects linked to the construction of its spatial sequence, I like the idea of a design that is capable of inspiring a certain sense of awe to most of the engineers I talked to, the building seemed to have a technical effectiveness, an almost unchallengeable logic capable of successfully interconnecting all the factors it had to address.
Other featured projects, like the ISEL Dining Hall and Eurest Service Stations, also respond to a machine-like concept. The canteen seems to fetishize its functional diagram - as if it were a beautiful microchip - and the service stations even take on the idea of a scaleless prototype: small, medium, large.
I can only believe in architecture if it can accomplish that. If it can flawlessly respond to a program, propose new, well-suited, construction systems and then perform a vanishing act. When it becomes so obvious it does not need to communicate anything else. And yet it can still build a disquieting situation. Those projects want to be "intelligent". They seem to be diagrams "thinking" about their functions in an unmistakeable kind of way. When architecture attains such a degree of performance the rest is just romantic issues, but they´re also necessary: sometimes you have to look back and sideways. Architecture can only progress if it puts itself at stake using every kind of acquired knowledge.
How is portuguese architecture doing? Is it able to ponder about itself, its purpose and meaning?
There´s a contemporary portuguese architect with an outstanding status. A french architect once told me that Siza´s stardom blurred everyone else working in Portugal. As I totally disagree with that, I asked him to name an irish architect and he couldn´t. Siza´s work, which is very intense and still evolving, put Portugal on the map and made it possible for other architects like Souto de Moura and Gonçalo Byrne to appear and pursue international careers. The power of Siza´s work, who still risks immensely every time he designs something, is an incentive and a major reference to most of the portuguese architects. It makes a difference.
But people tend to stress out not so much the unique and unrestful aspects of Siza´s work but its clarity, a canonic side that seems to set the standards for the rest of portuguese architecture.
The canonic side is probably more transparent in Souto de Moura´s works and yet his less pure, less rational, less archetypal projects seem to interest me more: the cafˇ next to the Braga Market, the Manoel de Oliveira house, the Tavira house imply architectural history but seem to snap in a less rational way that sets them in a suspension state harder to define.
Those projects have a lot to do, as Siza´s Portugal Pavillion, with an iconical condition. They do imprint themselves in our minds with a certain clarity.
But that process only becomes interesting when it is intersected with a cloak of complexity and density.
Still on the icon issue - and thinking of a project with a strong sense of identity like Utzon´s Sidney Opera - doesn´t architecture also aspire to become an image?
The Knowledge of the Seas Pavillion and the Portugal Pavillion were probably the buildings more overtly against Expo´s visual frenzy but it´s fair to say they have created new images. These images are not self-generated, they´re not Photoshop trickery, they are born out of all the project´s intrinsic reasonings. If they can reach a state of grace, perfect.
This magazine features two different takes on the machine universe: yours and Neil Denari´s. Denari wants to plunge into a new uncharted and enfolding world. He´s not pursuing the creation of romantic machine-like imagery but trying to interact with new technologies, new production systems, new agents with rising agendas in our societies.
Inventing new programs and creating a different kind of industrial objects is very interesting. What troubles me is the direct formal link between machine imagery and building design, I´m not that keen on those pasting and sampling tactics. I prefer to explore the fundamental reasonings of the machine than to copy its past, present or future shapes.
Denari talks a lot about the logo, the trademark image. Maybe 50 years ago an architectural icon, easily traced by a diagram, could inspire all these ideas and desires. In a new logoized world hasn´t, for instance, the Nike swoosh overtaken that ability?
That is a communication possibility headed into the exact opposite direction of my concerns,I´m much more interested in the explanation Reyner Banham gave about a certain american ingenious spirit that invents gizmos like the outboard motor. Up until that moment, fiting an inboard motor required very complex boat-crafting skills. The outboard motor gave total freedom on ship hull design and increased the improvement pace of new engines. I find it more interesting when an icon appears like that, rooted in the constructive cunningness that separated those two elements.
Architecturally speaking that kind of action extends the schizophrenic separation between aesthetics and technics.
If we insist on denying true challenges and resort to "Nike cut-outs", yes.
Then how do you respond to an airport or a supermarket commission, programs and environments overloaded with technical problems which cannot be entirely controlled and designed by the architect?
I once attended a lecture Norman Foster gave on the Stanstead Airport, a very interesting project. He rearranges a complex universe by tearing down all the fake ceilings - everything functions on the floor or underneath it, every infra-structure, every duct will eventually come up through those "trunks" which in turn hold a thin skin that operates as the roof from where all the light comes. It´s a total reinvention of a typology without denying every acquired knowledge about it. The outcome is totally unlike hundreds or thousands of airports we see around the world.
Aside the construction issues of a building there´s still the question of how it responds to what´s inside. Is the building just a neutral setting of the devices it houses or does it interact with them?
When I was working on the design of the Lisbon Journalism School I saw ZKM, Rem Koolhaas´ project for Karlsruhe. It wasn´t a school but something fairly similar, a multimedia center, and the concept was this cube intersected by projections and sounds surrounded by office spaces. When I saw it I said to myself: «This really looks like something from the future and my school, which responds approximately to the same functions, looks like something from the past; there´s something weird happening». But then I thought it was almost suicidal for Koolhaas to associate the building to such a precise moment in the history of media technologies. The building would become sort of branded by what people could achieve at the time in terms of projections, sounds, etc. Maybe it´s more enticing to design based on more unchallengeable values: the presence of a hill, the orientation, the Sun.
There´s always a duality between vitruvian permanence and the desire to capture a zeitgeist...
A lot of people told me - I was never conscious of that - the School´s composition seemed to respond to the passing cars in the freeway. Now if in a near future cars cease to exist and people start floating in space, no roads needed, does the building lose its interest?
Presently you´re obliged to deal with a lot of highly unstable factors.
You have to be humble, not my favourite word, to acknowledge the fact that every time you design a building, you do it at a specific moment.
But cars, for instance, played an important role defining modern architectural forms and perception processes.
Yes, but if you look at old photographs of Le Corbusier´s houses with cars parked next to them it´s scary because the houses are still violently modern but those cars already belong to a certain romantic universe.
These aren´t just style issues, there´s a clear fascination with new devices and its operating procedures.
I don´t know if built forms should literally reflect what´s going on around us. We spoke about the Nike swoosh and maybe it is already possible to study the genealogical evolution of that logo or Coca-Cola´s. Coca-Cola suffered consecutive styling operations, from its origin up until now. A car has high performance levels in terms of its goals: speed, comfort, fuel savings, etc. It´s a ruthless logic with no room for mistakes. Look at the Formula 1 circus, a vicious battle to improve the cars, to push them to the limits. We cannot run away from these challenges, constantly interfering with our lives. We´re always driving a car or buying one, watching TV, we´re surrounded by these very demanding universes. How can construction ignore these extremely demanding standards?
So architecture should perform as efficiently as a car in order to restore its own credibility...
I believe that is the only future architecture can possibly have. It can only restore a certain social status in a healthy way if it achieves that. Just like when we buy a car: we check out a magazine to chose a model and chose one that does all these unbelievable things for a fairly reasonable price. It doesn´t work that way with buildings, it´s all clouded by far too many unreasonable aspects. There is no parallel, for instance, between architecture or construction critics and car critics.
Real estate advertisement campaigns operate that way, listing the functions and tasks a building is able to perform.
But they´re not examined, as cars are, by unbiased critics. Nobody does anything remotely like that on houses and architecture. Things work in a much more abstract level, you seldom read appreciations on the observed subjects´ truly decisive and existential aspects.
What is your take on virtual reality, keeping in mind an entire history of non-built architecture (Piranesi, Boullée, Sant´Elia) and the fact that architectural design is now undeniably connected to a virtual-based tool: the computer?
When I think about virtual reality I´m always reminded of all these hotel rooms where regardless of the place, the building and the views, you can always plug in a laptop computer and acess the internet, switch on a cable TV set, use a mini- bar and a fairly confortable bed. This is a new and unsettling condititon, a new world with unknown boundaries and awesome spatial and temporal implications. That is why I feel a strong need to relate architectural procedures to logical building processes that will try to achieve a particular set of performances, just like in the machine universe.
Some people have already envisioned "dreamhouses" where rooms holding huge LCD panels connecting them online to any desired landscape. Can architecture respond to societies´ increasing inclination to inhabit "non-places", sites (malls, supermarkets, cinemas) and devices (TV, videogames, internet) liberated from analogic space and time?
I think architecture should define itself as an exact opposition of that concept. This has also a lot to do with the debate on how contemporary art museums should be designed: a gigantig space with no "interference" whatsoever. It`s like we´re trying to run away from architecture. The "dreamhouse" you described or the hotel room are forms of non-architecture. But it´s normal, right now you can probably achieve a more intense and meaningful gratification from TV or from the internet than from what you can expect of your average building. What is left for us to do, as an alternative to these de-contextualized places, is try to architecturally establish specific and geographically precise significances. If we can build that appealing context with a single brick or stone it is much better than to do it with tons of concrete. Architecture has that kind of ability but can only restore if it presents superior performance levels, like cars and TV sets do. Like most of the things people use every day with undeniable interest and pleasure.
What are the practical and theoretical implications of the computer and what role can it play on that architectural performance goal?
I think it is an extremely interesting and powerful tool but almost in the exact opposite sense one could expect. I am particularly interested in the computer because it allows me to calculate and visualize situations, perform experiments, render specific settings that will allow me to understand where I want to "lay the stone" but I might still want to lay a single stone.
I´m addressing you on this subject because maybe the digital domain is searching for a certain kind of "topographical" condition. Just look at the address concept on the internet; the problematics of places might re-surface in another conjuncture.
I agree with you but that process occurs in a "decreased" universe, the same way Physics explain there is a reduction phenomenon when you go from analogic to digital. We´re talking about that reduction. When we visit an exciting building we are always fully captivated, when we look at a screen we are subdividing our focus.
But digital is the last output of a cultural process (also involving architecture) aiming to liberate mankind from nature.
Such an idea can be illustrated by the tale of the man who travelled around the world and owned several houses, all alike. He had built an autonomous universe from what he found outside each of his houses. But these are partial systems and I think the digital domain can alter things and turn them into something apparently more complex but it won´t be that different from a kind of experience we could, in a way, already conduct two centuries ago. We´re basically dealing with virtual frameworks imprinting themselves on the world we live in. Anyway, I feel the further we advance in terms of representation the further we should explore the presentation aspects, the way something presents itself.
What is the machine you feel more attached to?
The car. A few days ago I had to make a long trip, driving through the highway at full speed with music blasting out of the speakers: a totally independent capsule from the landscapes I was crossing.