Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia, founders of WAI Architecture Think Tank, have a unique approach to their practice that spans a variety of media including teaching, exhibitions, art, and literature. After completing their Visiting Teaching Fellowship at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, Frankowski and Garcia are currently teaching as the Hyde Chairs of Excellence at the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In this two part interview we discuss the role of advancing architectural discourse, the tools of an alternative approach, and the significance of literature and narrative. To learn more about Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski check out their work at waithinktank.com, garciafrankowski.com, or intelligentsiagallery.com.
First, could you give a brief overview of WAI Think Tank and the role you both play in advancing architectural discourse?
CG: We are Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcìa. We both studied architecture; Nathalie studied at Paris La Villette in France and I studied in Puerto Rico. We finished school in 2008. That year we both ended up in Belgium, specifically in Brussels for our first architectural job after school. A few weeks after arriving to Brussels, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. So, it was a very strange time to start an architecture practice because there was chaos everywhere around us. In the U.S. nothing was happening. Everything stopped, even academic programs were closing down. In Europe we were doing twenty competitions in two months and we knew after that there would be nothing because everybody was already fighting for work. It was really strange, there was a lot of pessimism in the air. It brought a lot of the worst out of people sometimes, especially in architecture studios. Everyone was trying to cover their own backs and young people were really left astray.
NF: It was also an interesting time because if you graduated when this happened it meant you had to question: What is your role? What are you going to do as an architect? Because the traditional path of going into an office and working on projects that are being built right away was not relevant anymore. There was no money and projects were literally stopping from one day to the next. As a young architect entering the professional world in that moment makes you quickly aware of the limitations of your field, but furthermore pushes you to question its real potentiality.
CG: It made you question the relationship of architecture with the market and if architecture can exist as something else. We always thought it existed as something else, but what you were seeing is that it was not really true across the board. Most of the time architecture was just an outlet for capital to build things, but not to think about how to improve our lives and make contributions to society. Most of the studios disappeared when there was no money, which means the role of the architect as a thinker is fake. If you need money to make buildings, maybe you're not an architect. You're just a builder. That's something that crossed our minds and we were thinking a lot about what to do because what we were seeing with all the practices was sort of banal in a way. Practices that we thought were interesting were not really interesting after seeing how they practiced. So we started to think about what we can do to pursue what we think is important as architects. In a train from Belgium to the Netherlands we sat down and started to think about a manifesto on what we wanted to do. Our first manifesto was a ‘foam manifesto’. It was criticizing foam as a material to make models and to produce a bunch of objects in order to satisfy a market. Instead we thought about foam as a structure where different elements relate to each other and create a porous system. We saw foam, instead of being a market driven object, as a cognitive structure. After that we spent some months thinking about what to do; at the same time we still had to find ways to be alive. Mostly, we were writing and trying to think of a concept for our practice. We thought about what we want to do long term, and about experimental projects and the history of architecture and how to find ways to discuss projects with a broader public. It was a long period of thinking.
NF: That's one of the reasons why we named our practice What About It? because we wanted to approach every project first with a question. To push a discussion further you can wonder how relevant it is to provide solutions only. Sometimes what is more interesting is to look at the thinking process behind it or to see different topics, interrogations, doubts emerging from it that add much more to the outcome too. For us what we value as more important is to ask the correct questions and engage in discussions that could bring more possible changes rather than just providing generic commodities that respond to a certain market.
CG: At the end of the day it's a think tank. It could have been architecture studio or something but the concept and premise of what we wanted to pursue is different from that.
In addition to WAI, you are both educators. Are the identities of WAI Think Tank and Education two separate entities with separate goals, or do the two paths cross or even merge at certain points?
CG: It is all the same, since the beginning. Something we talk about is a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." He's trying to talk about how you're only able to articulate what you can communicate, which means that every medium you know will allow you to research or communicate an idea. It also implies that you can only articulate what you can communicate, and you can only communicate ideas you can somehow represent. In architecture, or the arts in general, there are many mediums you can use in order to think about architecture. Education is one that is extremely important and has been very important for us. Even if we weren't full time teaching we always find ways to do workshops, lectures, and find ways to engage with people thinking about architecture. Education for us is extremely important, not only at the college level, but also with kids. So it's about finding ways to create these vehicles that allow you to communicate ideas to different audiences. Teaching at a university is one of those vehicles and it is embedded in what we do. For example, since the beginning we were always in contact with the university in Puerto Rico. Even as students we were always engaged in the politics of the school. Both of us come from public education, like state schools. They have a different role in society because they are the schools for the people in a way. So you always have that responsibility to give something back to society.
NF: Form the beginning of WAI, we did all different kinds of workshops, exhibitions, discussions, trying to involve very different publics, from very young kids, to high schools or college students, young professionals or a more general public. We like the diversity of points of views and approaches, and find it very enriching as practitioner too. There’s always a danger in remaining in your own circle, the discourses get repetitive very quickly, that’s why education is so important. It creates a dialogue between both entities. We learn as much (or more) while exchanging, exploring through those different kinds of platforms. And engaging more and more in education is something we really regard as central in our practice. It’s a way to share some of our experience, again create discussions, and prepare the up and coming generations to tailor their own path.
CG: The first thing we did was open a webpage, it was a blog. We had a role where we asked a question and had an audience we were waiting to engage with. That's pretty much what happens in an educational environment. You are there to expand research. Instead of one brain there are many asking questions and trying to figure things out.
I actually came across the old blog and it was interesting to see the changes between that and your current website.
CG: [Laughs] Yeah, there were no resources. Nothing. The format didn't allow for much design elements, but everything was pretty honest. Everything we're trying to do is there. Several things have disappeared; they're not in the website anymore but they're still really important to us and how we question things and stay engaged. The format of the website allowed us to articulate concepts by asking questions. In that sense it was very close to the identity of WAI as ‘What About It?’. Every article used to start with ‘what about…’ Different questions allowed us to address different audiences, and also to try to reach to different people. At the beginning we only communicated with the ones we knew. Little by little the audience grew. From a little website we could move to a printed magazine, to a pop-up exhibition, to a lecture, forum, and so on.
Besides the economic factors, what made you decide to take an alternative approach to your career as opposed to the opportunities you may have had in a more traditional setting?
CG: There are many reasons. Being bored doing projects that are not interesting is one reason. That also relates to creative freedom; you can talk about certain things and figure out what mediums work better even if they're not conventional. Not everything is solved with a construction document, a plan, or a section, so you have the opportunity to not only represent those ideas but to also make them part of your practice. I notice a lot of people work in those institutions they find boring because everyone needs a job in this current economic system. They end up having hobbies like drawing and film, but they have no connection with their practice. I find it kind of sad, it's like wasting time and running away instead of using those things to make the discipline much richer. But those practices don't allow that to happen because they have very set limits. Their world is very limited to what they can communicate. They are only interested in talking to clients and to the public when they're forced to.
NF: I think that goes back to Wittgenstein in a way. We believe that even experimental tools are still fairly traditional when you look at the history of the practice. But speaking about the variety of approaches and understanding the value of some architects and practice we can regard as influential, you understand that you can only explore a certain amount of ideas through doing a plan or a section, but if using different tools, even without knowing at first where it might take you, you can discover much more, not only in the outcome but also in the process in itself. The risk is always to find yourself limited because of the tools you are using. Then it’s up to you to expand “your language" in order to expand your world.
CG: It allows you the freedom to try things and make mistakes. Unless you have a very fixed set of things you want to do, then maybe you fit in an office that is perfect for you. But in our case I have a sort of intellectual ADD and Nathalie is much more culturally sophisticated, so we cannot just go into a practice making foam models, plans, and sections, and expect to be satisfied. So, by studying history and looking at all these interesting people we found that they always had to create a platform that would allow them to keep exploring their ideas. It was obvious that we needed to do that. We realized quite early, even in school, that this had to happen- at least to try it. If you want to pursue something you may have to create it for yourself. You may work for well-known architects that have interesting practices but they have nothing in common with you. Good for them, you can get some experience there but you will get a particular kind of experience that may or may not be related to whatever you’re looking for.
NF: Sometimes there's this myth that certain tools are better or more intellectually regarded to use as an architect than others. On the contrary, we always think that whatever surrounds you or whatever you're interested in has a value, and is something you can bring back to architecture. We are very lucky because architecture as a profession has the freedom to be defined by ourselves and made much more personal compared to other type of practices. You can bring your own interests and merge them with architecture. Our preconceptions about what architecture should be shouldn't restrain us. I think it's more interesting to bring outside interests and try to connect them with what we do or how we think.
CG: And maybe it's not something that was really on the outside to begin with but was just considered to be non-architectural. If architecture deals with life, and life deals with everything, then architecture may deal with everything too.
What were some of the early steps you had to figure out in order to sustain yourselves in an alternative approach?
CG: Most of the time we don't get paid for the things we do. But that's also standard for any interesting architectural practice or artistic practice, so to speak. You don't get paid for what you produce and you don't produce it to get paid either. As long as you know that, then you're okay with the rules of the game. You're not going to expect that each thing you do is going provide a return in the form of money. The drive is always there because you're excited about what you're doing even if people don't understand it. That's why art exists in the first place. People make art because they feel that they need to; people write poetry because they feel that they need to. Nobody is really paying them or something like that. That is pretty much how we see architecture too. Luckily, there are opportunities where a competition pays you, invites you, and gives you exposure that will bring you more opportunities. I think that has more to do with luck and timing than the work itself. We were just producing the work anyway. I think when you study history and see how precarious conditions can be- a lot of the artists we're interested in were pretty much working in a little cubicle and stretching their canvas from the bed because they didn't have any other resources or they were in prisons and concentration camps. Things are relative. Struggling today may not be that bad compared to people who were really running for their lives. I decided to follow this and instill some creative endeavor that will bring me some sort of intellectual satisfaction. So you take the risk. There was never a business plan or something. Even if we were lucky to meet successful business people who discovered that what we're doing, we're doing because we like it; they will support it somehow. Even if they know it's a crazy endeavor but it's necessary. People have to do it. You always need people who will follow their creative pursuits indifferent of whether it is successful or not.
CG: I think luck, being in the correct place at the right time, has brought opportunities that may not have been there otherwise. At the same time there's a lot of struggle. We're still very young and susceptible to the changes in the environment from economic to political. We were in China for seven years and every year was a struggle knowing if we would be there next year, the rent is tripling, we're not getting paid, and everything is way too far to ask for help. You are alone pretty much, you don't know the language really, so people will always see you as a foreigner. There are complications that come but you have to figure out how to keep on working while everything else is on hold. There is a lot of risk and a lot of times it comes to luck, being at the right place at the right time, taking initiative, trying to show people things that may be interesting for them, and a lot of hard work too. You can see and understand how things happen. Even important architects and artists were bankrupt for thirty or forty years. So you have to ask are you here for money, having a stable life, having a family, and so on? What things are you willing to compromise to pursue something else? Sometimes you don't have time to question. We come from a generation that's struggling anyways. It's not the same to talk about somebody born in the fifties or sixties in Europe or the U.S. with growing economies and a lot of job openings of any type. Now everything has been kidnapped by those people. [Laughs] Everything is controlled by that generation, they're kind of at the peak of power and they're not really into negotiating those positions. There are many things that come into strategy. We didn't spend money while studying, so whatever money we had, if any, it was invested in a career or projects we wanted to pursue. We're almost at ten years in WAI Architecture Think Tank. So we started doing this in our early twenties.
Beyond architecture, you’re both accomplished artists and even produce work in the form writing and poetry. To that end, could you talk about your views on text as it relates to architecture?
CG: I think Wittgenstein is going to keep coming up. More tools available mean the possibility of expanding our world. We see literature in many different facets. Obviously, there's a really long history of writing about architecture and trying to address ideas through text. We teach in seminars and studios a very important part our practice that deals with Narrative Architecture as a way to construct storyboards in order to address or criticize architectural ideology. We also see text as something important in general as a way to communicate ideas, but also as a resource that, as artists, we use as a structure. In architecture we may relate more to history and theory and constructing ideas. When we look at it as artists, it becomes a type of form we can use in the same way we work with triangles and squares. It's basically like having concrete or clay to play with. For us it's like a material.
NF: What we cannot express through a building, needs to be expressed through a different medium. As Cruz was saying, we use text a lot in our practice and in our teaching, and also in our art practice, but in very different ways. In architecture, because of the nature of the field and its responsibility, text is used for the construction of arguments, theories, as a form of critique, to construct fictions, and build narratives. In our art practice, text is freer. We play with words, meanings or even the sounds of words. But text has its limitations too. What we cannot explore through words can be expressed with a different language, like using shapes and compositions. We call those works poetry too.
CG: Those practices are related but are not the same. Architectural practice always deals with architecture and space, even if it's through text. Through our art practice, Garcia Frankowski, we deal more with the political, linguistic, and symbolic imperatives of language. That's another question that may not have to do with architecture. There we are freer to play with different tools without having to think about the future of societies and the role of architecture in it, and things like that. It started as a research project from an architectural standpoint. We were going back in time to understand the origins of the avant-garde projects and ideas that we were interested in and we reached a point where we couldn't go back anymore. We were thinking about what we could do now. So we started researching and creating in another medium, but we didn't want to mix it. We wanted to explore these ideas, concepts and projects in another realm. So we started with another name, making artworks, performances, installations, exhibitions, dealing with artists from the artist point of view. We were doing both (architecture and art) at the same time, but the people addressing the works have different backgrounds and very different ways to see things. In that same period we founded Intelligentsia Gallery, a space that served as a platform for the development of positions and discourses. Both, Garcia Frankowski and Intelligentsia have proven now to be very important platforms for us because they brought diversity of ideas and points of view. The allowed us to discover concepts and ideas we even use in teaching today because we can really talk about art and architecture from a comfortable point of view. We feel, we are insiders in both worlds. I can be in a completely artistic environment with only artists and curators and feel at home there. If I am in an architectural environment I'm completely at home too, from the highly conceptual and theoretical atmosphere to being more on the construction site. This approach really opened up the field of opportunities and the reach of our expertise. From curating a show, to designing an exhibition, to writing the program of a gallery, to teaching about these concepts, to designing a museum, or a gallery. We have been through it all. The same thing happened with text. Text dematerializes, potentially. So we can use text as a traditional way to communicate or literally use it as form. In that sense it's like those two practices have really opened up the field for us.
On a related note, how did you first become interested in exploring the notion of narrative architecture?
CG: We both have encounters with forms of Narrative Architecture before even starting WAI.
For me, personally, while I was in school I became really interested in the concept of Narrative Architecture. I was always interested in buildings, and design, but that was not the part of the discipline that really interested me as I grew older. It was the connection between ideas and architecture. The people that I really admire were people who were really able to bring a very wide breadth of work under the rubric of concepts and ideas, not only about the buildings but about society and how we live and approach the environment. The first time I really felt a passion for trying to figure out something other than building was reading the definition of Urbanism by two Situationist writers:
"Urbanism doesn't exist; it is only an “ideology” in Marx’s sense of the word. Architecture does really exist, like Coca-Cola: though coated with ideology, it is a real production, falsely satisfying a falsified need. Urbanism is comparable to the advertising about Coca-Cola — pure spectacular ideology. Modern capitalism, which organizes the reduction of all social life to a spectacle, is incapable of presenting any spectacle other than that of our own alienation. Its urbanistic dream is its masterpiece."
I read the quote in Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL, and thought it was much more interesting than any section or drawing I had ever seen. At the same time I was taking a literature course, a Spanish course, taught by Rafael Acevedo, a very interesting author at my university. In architecture school nobody could really talk to me about the background of this quote, but my Spanish professor was into cyberpunk and the sixties and explained to me the ideas behind May 1968. I found that there was a form of architecture that was not about making a house for a rich person. I started discovering all this work that was done in the sixties and seventies of people making stories about architecture in order to expose how ridiculous something is and how bad it is. Instead of telling you that you shouldn't be doing that, like, "You shouldn't make a parking garage in front of your house," somebody would make a project where everything is a parking garage, then you would see how ridiculous it is. By the time I was supposed to do my thesis, nobody was questioning my capacity to design, so I wanted to do a different type of project. I wanted to talk about Puerto Rico as a shopping mall where everybody decided to move away from the city and into the shopping mall because that's pretty much what we have. Everything is run by commerce and consumption. Nobody could understand what I wanted to do. In the process of doing that, instead of having architects in the team of my advisers, one of my professors recommended me to look at writers since text was so important and since they have the time to read what I'm writing. I started including writers and one of the writers told me, "I think the thing you have to ask is not how to make a shopping mall, but to make a theory that will explain what those projects were doing." So my thesis project was a book that tried to ask that question. The thesis went from being a project of Narrative Architecture to being a project about Narrative Architecture.
CG: Now, for us Narrative Architecture became a model of practice and we are actually writing a book with a larger theoretical scope. We are older, more experienced, and we have much more knowledge after reading so much about and exploring these works in the form of teaching, and even sometimes participating in exhibitions where our work is presented next to these seminal works. So, the focus of the book we’re working on now has adapted with time. Often the projects we study are referred to as dystopian or naive. They are not. Narrative Architecture is a critique and it's really important. Without Narrative Architecture, contemporary architecture wouldn't be here today; those architects that used that, changed the history of architecture. But today we still lack the vocabulary to address that type of architecture in a particularly way. To talk about it. To teach it. To practice it. Also, academia has been professionalized to the point where you're almost preparing people to go work for an office, instead of preparing people to be able to think, to question the discipline. To dissect it, cut it in pieces and put it back together. More interesting. More intelligently. Of course, some people question the current state of education and of the discipline, but about ten years ago architecture and its impasse were exposed by the self-generated collapse of Wall Street. It is problematic to think architecture is only technical and provides a service. Our role as architects is to think. Maybe the project could be addressed with a building, or maybe it will be a story about a building what allows us to move forward in a different way.
NF: At the same that Cruz was already experimenting with Narrative Architecture, I was studying in my final years at the School of Architecture at La Villette in the Department of Architecture, Art, and Philosophy. It was a similar experience than Cruz had with his thesis, instead of having to do a very traditional project, as my mentors were philosophers or filmmakers, I had the chance to develop a thesis with a more theoretical background. I worked on an architectural project relating to a written research thesis mixing architecture and philosophy theories, while also creating a movie which allowed me to explore the use of narrative. Growing up, I had several opportunities to experiment with film or with writing. My dad being a writer was very influential in this. Literature, art, cinema, photography, poetry, philosophy were important components for me. So finally, my last years of studying gave me the opportunity to start mixing those personal interest with architecture.
CG: Apart from several of my professors that were writers like Acevedo, Eduardo Lalo, Jorge Lizardi or Marc Jean Bernard, Ronald Frankowski (Nathalie’s father) has also been an important literary reference for me. The component of film became a really important tool for us in our work. So, for us film is something that is not only important for our practice but for our way of teaching too. We feel that film is a medium that is really common in our lives. We are always looking at moving pictures but it's much underutilized within architecture. Most of the time if you see a moving image, it is a really terrible walk-through a building and trying to sell you something. It is not really exploring the intellectual potential of that medium.