In part two of our interview with Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski, founders of WAI Architecture Think Tank, we discuss the definition of 'icon', the impact of utopian/dystopian thinking, their experience at Taliesin West, the implications of an alternative approach, and architectural discourse as a profession. To learn more about Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski visit their websites: waithinktank.com, garciafrankowski.com, and intelligentsiagallery.com.
How would you define “icon” and how does that definition influence you work?
CG: An Icon is an image that usually evokes a hierarchical parting from its context. An Icon is supposed to draw attention while portraying some form of power, either through symbolism or through sheer size. However, in architecture we see this concept in a more humorous way. We come from a generation when the internet was just starting to be an important part of our lives. I didn’t have a computer in high school, and didn’t own any digital device that allowed me to surf the internet until college—just to tell you how old I am.
While in college, we started noticing all these websites and blogs with similar images of buildings popping up in computer screens, and realized that we lacked any vocabulary or any intellectual tool to decode what we were consuming. We talked about architecture in ‘old’ or ‘outdated’ terms. Often when discussing architectural theory or history today, the seventies are talked about as if it was the last interesting period in architecture, and there are very few theories that allow us to understand our digital environment, or post-internet culture without having to go into the technical part of it. We’re not interested in talking about the computer. That’s not our expertise. But, we can talk about what we see, or about the information we’re getting through these mediums. So we started collecting images of buildings that somehow looked alike. Many pictures of what people would call icons filling our computer screens.
One day we got a transcript of an interview that Rodrigo Vidal did with Rem Koolhaas in 2002 and in it, when confronted with a theory of the work of OMA as being in a frivolous race for ‘newness’ Koolhaas claimed that people were saying that because ‘there’s an incredible, not conservatism, but hardcore architecture discourse in power.’ I’m reading this funny interview filled with confrontational answers and bold claims, and realized that someone needed to look into the definition of hardcore. It turns out that one of the definitions of hardcore is something in its most pure, or basic form, so this word became the title for a theory of architecture in its struggle to be emblematic or iconic. We first started publishing articles, essays and texts, with contemporary forms and shapes. The files collected through the new platforms on the internet provided us with a sizeable pool of evidence of similar formal strategies. We went from making a visual catalog of building shapes, to trying to identify the original archetypes or versions of these forms.
While we were lecturing and doing exhibitions with this developing theory we were often confronted by angry audiences arguing that we were saying that architecture is form. We thought, no we’re just collecting images and showing them to you. We were not passing ethical judgement about this form, but rather building a taxonomic ontology of forms. All these confrontations became a form of challenge to the construction of this idea as a legitimate architectural theory. At one point for Horizonte Journal for Architectural Discourse, an architectural magazine from the Bauhaus in Weimar we decided to write a piece that would consolidate our theory about contemporary architecture. While people were claiming that architecture really doesn’t care about form; we wanted to prove them wrong. So instead of just focusing on contemporary architecture, we started looking back in time. We wanted to write the first manifesto in history about pure form in architecture. We started collecting images from the beginning of civilization and wrote a text about it. So, while ‘The Shapes of Hardcore Architecture’ dealt with form in contemporary architecture, with ‘Pure Hardcorism’ we were looking at the origins of it.
We then developed a third chapter that discussed the role of iconography and politics in a way. We discussed how icons are also a part of artists working in highly ideological environments and how form can be recycled even if the concept behind it is lost. We were claiming that form outlasts ideology in that text. After that we wanted to make a pamphlet and send it around the world. We found that it was kind of difficult because we didn't have many addresses and lacked the logistical power to do so, particularly being based in Beijing. So, we sent an email to a publisher in (Black Dog Publishers) London because we had seen the diversity in their books so we thought we needed to design the book, since it will be an integral part of the concept behind it. We prepared a draft in Chinese and English and sent it to them. They said it sounded interesting but they told us that they didn't have a Chinese market so we could only do the English version. We worked for some months, and then we published Pure Hardcore Icons: A Manifesto on Pure Form in Architecture under its sister imprint: Artifice Books on Architecture. It became not only a theory that we think is really contemporary, but also one, that we could use as a pedagogical device. Since the beginning, this has been our argument: form is really important and often it's something that is taken as something that happens by coincidence. So we're engaging with it. For example, the classes we're teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one is on Hardcorism, or Pure Form and the other one is on Narrative Architecture. Simultaneously to the publication of Pure Hardcore Icons, Arch+, one of the most interesting and important German architecture magazine was preparing their 40th anniversary double issue. They wanted to make a magazine with some of our images along with work from eighteen contemporary European practices. For this double issue they translated our theories into German and used them to frame the work of several of these older contemporary and well established practices. By that time, Hardcorism, Hardcore Architektur, or Das Manifest des Hardcorismus became an officially adopted rubric to understand architecture. Meanwhile while some critics and part of the audience wondered, "What is all this hardcore stuff!?", they kept missing the humor behind the theory. And most of the time, that’s how theories are born anyways. Last week we learned that they are planning on releasing a second edition of our book. And finally after all these years, the first Chinese version of the book should be coming out around February or March 2018. We have all the text in Chinese and it will probably be a slightly different design. So hopefully this theory of universalism becomes really universal.
NF: What was interesting about the Pure Hardcore Icons book is that it became a very complete project, it was not just about working on the content but also thinking about the book as an object in itself. We designed the book as a total work, from the format, layout, images, cover, etc. That’s why the cover wears no title, and why the book has a square shape. The book, and its design, not only its content, reflects our practice.
CG: Because writing is also important for us, we use it as a vehicle where we can engage with ongoing discourses. We were published in independent Magazines in Europe at the beginning of our careers. At the same time, we were also making our own self-published magazines that were produced sporadically. Inside the first issue of ‘What About It?’ you can find the initial Hardcore manifesto ‘The Shapes of Hardcore Architecture’. It was published in the first WAIzine about six years ago.
NF: How we approach either self-published magazines, books or other contributions we write for various publications, goes back to a rule we set for ourselves in the beginning. Since our work involves a lot of text, pure research or new theories, architectural narratives, we always try to develop a visual content that complements it. That’s why we like to work with different mediums and combine them. Developing these elements in parallel to the text is entirely part of our working process. They are tools for us to explore and communicate an idea further. When the work is presented or published, text and visual content cannot be separated from one another, they work as a whole. For example, for the book of Pure Hardcore Icons, instead of just illustrating the text with reference images that already exist, we created new collages out of them and therefore added new meanings to the original material. So even regarding theory, an image can be very powerful too.
CG: We also understand that architectural history is boring as hell [Laughs], so we must find ways to make it appealing.
NF: So it's not just thinking about manifestos as text, but also considering the potential of an image or a drawing to become a manifesto in itself too. The question is always about how to communicate ideas in an interesting way, especially when you deal with research.
CG: We're working on a book of narrative architecture and we have the content but we're thinking of how to write this book without sounding like a history book. So that is something that is taking some time to figure out. We're thinking about if we're going to use just research images or if we want to create new content. That's the part that takes more time. So, it's not only the theory, but the way it’s done has a lot to do with what the book is communicating.
NF: We are also working on a series of children’s books. The Story of the little girl and the Sun is the first one completed but two other stories already exist as drafts. We are deeply invested in this project because it deals with the idea of engaging younger children with very diverse subjects. As a common theme, each book is set as an urban tale narrating the journey of a child through his or her unusual city. Each story is the opportunity to address broader topics that are part of our contemporary societies while depicted and blown disproportionate as a characteristic of such fictional metropolis. It also raises the important question about how to communicate ideas to different publics without having to over simplifying them and not falling in the trap of assuming wrongly that certain topics cannot be talked about and understood by anyone. Usually children stories are comprehended differently depending on the age of the reader, smaller children will understand it in one way which tends to be a quite spontaneous response to what they hear, older kids already employ more complexly their imagination, and adults are inclined to (over) interpret the story according to their societal biases. We like the idea of working with narratives that challenges the latter, children stories offering the perfect opportunity to introduce what we think are impactful questions that one can reflect upon at any age, while sharing a more diverse perspective on the world we live. Our urban tales bear also very optimistic messages holding the inherent and personal hope of constructing for the future more understanding societies.
How do your views of utopia and dystopia impact your research?
CG: That is something that is also important, not only the idea of utopia or dystopia but the idea that we can imagine and we should imagine a better world. People say you shouldn't be utopian, but I don't think you could accomplish anything if you didn't have utopian goal at the end. Even the constitution of the US with its aim for a ‘more perfect union’ or the declaration of Independence are utopian documents. You have to be utopian to write "every man is created equal," at a time when you own slaves. They were thinking about the future. They were thinking we should be equal; we're not right now. The reason why we have the internet and other mediums that impact our lives significantly is because big dreams bring you small changes. That is something that is really interesting for us, good and bad. On one hand you have beautiful things that have been achieved and then you have horrible things. The Nazis were also utopian. They wanted an Aryan world full of big ugly domes and classical architecture. So it is really important for us in the sense of understanding the background and evolution of these big ideas. Again, those are tools we can use to communicate ideas and educate. It is also important for our practice because we are dreamers too, we are thinking about the future all the time.
NF: People are often overcritical about Utopias because they tend to focus on their limitations rather than understanding the potential of them as tools for critical thinking. Utopias should be understood for what they are- ideas to intellectually provoke, spark questioning, arise doubts, or offer new perspectives, but they shouldn’t be considered as perfect solutions to be applied foolishly, because they are not. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for better future, better societies, better life, and equal system for all of us, and one powerful tool to try to make people conscious about our societal drifts or vices is the constructions of utopias/dystopias in the fictional sense. There’s always a wrong correlation between utopian being naive. If one doesn’t try to address the question of the future, the question of possible changes, possible scenarios or pushing the discussion to an absurd point for the argument sake, how can we all move forward? We cannot remain fatalistic and passive. We need at least to be willing to engage in the discussion, utopias/dystopias being one of the tool to do so. Of course, as Cruz mentioned, the ideals of one are not necessarily the ideals of others, but there’s a lot of basic consensus we should all share for all and each other.
CG: You can't move forward if there is no higher goal. The reason we aim to improve is that we think we can do much better.
NF: That’s how I understand the role of Utopias/Dystopias, by excessively magnifying a storyline, the arguments are made obvious, therefore becoming visible and consequently debatable. That’s one of the reason why we incorporate the use of Utopia/Dystopia in our work and in our teaching. There’s a very educative component to them as their blatant criticism offer a rich ground for discussion. It’s difficult to remain neutral. In the second-half of the semester of our narrative architecture studio, we asked our students to develop alternative scenarios challenging our way of living for a future where technology has replaced work as we know it. Through architectural projects, drawings, collages, model making and movie making, each student imagined very compelling and complex narratives, which very successfully generated a lot of new questions and debates that may not be all answerable yet but that certainly provoke deep personal considerations upon the topics raised.
What I also find really interesting about Utopia/Dystopia, in a more anthropological point of view, is that they usually strongly reflect the preoccupations of a society in the moment they were written in. We can learn from them, not only as commentaries about our past but also as interesting avant-garde attempts to test ideas to their limits, and sometimes what they have written about years ago end up prophetically reflecting some aspects of our contemporary societies. In that regard, the more contemporary the discourse the more it can inform us about our present too.
CG: Optimism is like the fuel that makes you work. When you asked: "what sustained you through the work?" It's the optimism, the utopian goal. People mock utopia and disregard it like you're not interested in reality. I am interested , that’s why I am utopian. I'm thinking about how things can be improved.
NF: As an educational tool it can be used not only to think about what the future can be, but to think about what the present is. It's because you understand everything addressed in the utopia of the future that you can reflect about the present or any short-term period.
CG: We’re not only interested in the concept of Utopia, but also on its evolution, on its effect on the ways we see, think about, and represent the world.
Could you describe your experience as Teaching Fellows at Taliesin West and how that role may have influenced you and your future work?
NF: We first met Aaron Betsky during the Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture that he curated in Shenzhen, where we were taking part together in discussion panel about megacities and the future of urbanism. He introduced to us the School of Architecture at Taliesin (at that time still called The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture) and later on he invited us to consider the visiting teaching fellowship position. As the new dean, he shared with us his vision for the school and at an educational level, we felt very enthusiastic about the potential of such an environment and teaching opportunity.
We moved to Taliesin in August 2016 from China and taught there two semesters, a first year and a second year (Master Program) experimental studio, as well as an advanced architectural theory and representation class and a pre-thesis class. Taliesin is a very immersive environment, living in community with the students and other faculty, fellows, and school members, allows to develop a pedagogy that doesn't limit itself to the classroom. Because of the nature of it, the exchange is more dialectical which is something sometimes lacking in other more traditional settings.
Just like our current position here at the College of Architecture at UNL, we were given the opportunity to teach more experimental classes that aim to encompass the different components of what we believe make architectural education complete, bringing theory, history, representation through design but also opening the discussion to more contemporary references.
When teaching the first year studio, we were approached a real request for a potential project to transform a discarded primary school from the early 20th century into a social condenser with housing for teachers and community programs. It was an interesting premise that implied the challenge of teaching to first year master students without previous studies on architecture the fundamentals of design, working processes and representation, history and theory of seminal housing projects and social condensers while still delivering a comprehensive project to the client (the school district) and the community of Miami, Arizona. This implied an extremely comprehensive educational approach that simultaneously could target the project’s real expectations.
We were also involved in different events, set-up exhibitions with student works, small film festivals, publications and collaborated with the students in the creation of WASH Magazine, and ongoing critical architectural publication with contributors from architects, thinkers, authors, urbanists, artists from all around the world. The magazine was an invitation to engage with history and theory in a proactive way, gathering and creating intelligence by confronting the subjects as opposed to the traditional method of just reading history or theory as something stagnant or still.
The experience at the school of Architecture at Taliesin reinforced our interest in questioning what architectural education should be. Because of its nature as a community, Taliesin enabled us to exchange much more at a one to one level with each student and directly see on a daily basis their progress or notice the difficulties that they would encounter. Therefore, being very interested in thinking and testing different teaching methodologies, the experience helped us to have a better understanding of it from the perspective of the students, especially for first years students that are confronted with a lot of to apprehend in a short period of time. Then it’s our role as educators to provide them with strong foundations that will give them the necessary set of tools to move forward in their explorations and also help them to start shaping personal interests.
A school of architecture should be an open platform allowing students not only to learn the fundaments, but also exchange around more contemporary topics linked to our profession, be exposed to different ways to practice or think about architecture and the urban environment, create different opportunities where the students can engage discussions within the school but also with a bigger context, take initiatives beyond the class requirements, open an early dialogue about how one can practice, think about architecture and encourage an environment where one can assert his or her own interests.
In that regard, Aaron has successfully managed to open the school of Taliesin to more contemporary discourses exposing the students to multiple ongoing events taking place at the school, bringing in interesting faculty, creating distinguished lecture series, seminars, where the students can exchange personally with the architects, thinkers, authors invited.
Education is the moment to experiment, discover, try and push out of your comfort zone. You may not realize it when still at school, but what you will explore during your studies will strongly influence how you will or want to practice as an architect.
CG: It was our first full-time teaching experience in the U.S. The school was in a transition period. Taliesin is an old institution that started first as a Frank Lloyd Wright home, studio, then it became an apprenticeship, and then eventually it evolved into a school. They had a challenge of how to deal with the history of the place without falling into the trap of the style. I think that's the biggest challenge. A lot of people that went there ended up replicating the work of Frank Lloyd Wright with a few exceptions like Paolo Soleri. The new dean Aaron Betsky, who is now the president of the school, thought that we could bring something that was different and kind of critical of the environment. So we liked the idea that we could think about updating the curriculum and dealing with the history of the school in a contemporary way. It made us think a lot about its contemporary potential and it was kind of a big challenge to engage with because you have to deal with a lot of expectations that people have about the place and at the same time devise projects that are going to help the students to be more critical and develop certain skills.
Teaching will be a much more powerful tool if it's related to something you dominate and understand, or at least if it addresses similar questions to the ones you are interested in asking. Our students didn't have an architectural background. They came from different undergraduate studies, meanwhile we had to deal with very complex architecture and conceptual projects. We ended up working on a proposal to transform a discarded primary school in the town of Miami, Arizona into housing for teachers and a social condenser for the community. We had to teach the students about plans, sections, mechanical systems, and scale while also teaching how to use drawings, collage, models and representation as ways to explore ideas, not necessarily as just a way to present the project to a client. They had to design while unearthing a history of social condensers in the 20th century. Our students were learning how to draw while learning how to develop conceptual projects, while also dealing with real issues of real communities, so you have to learn how to be idealistic and pragmatic at the same time. So there was learning about the Narkomfin and the Unite d'Habitation while learning how to draw and make collages.
We also lived in Taliesin and Taliesin West as visiting Teaching Fellows. Our neighbors were the students, the dean and other members of the community, including Taliesin fellows that have lived there for decades. You're there 24/7 so you really get to know the limitations, challenges, and potential of the students and of the environment. You also learn how to develop pedagogical strategies that can help you to reach students in a different way in order to maximize their potential. It is not that you're looking at their portfolios, but instead you get to really know how they work because you're there with them all the time. So we could really tell you about each one of them. We had to develop alternative ways of teaching too. Everything became a pedagogical experiment, even having lunch is a potential platform to develop discourse and discuss ideas. It also was important to be a role model for them, so they don't only see you as a teacher but as somebody they can emulate as a practitioner or thinker. We tried to bring as many platforms as we could. We were literally giving everything we knew, bringing in our publications, showing projects, and discussing philosophy, politics, and culture. We organized with our students the creation of a publication that instead of dealing with Frank Lloyd Wright as the usual subject, looked at architecture as a global phenomenon. We thought that because the students have enough exposure with the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, and being such a small academic institution, they could find ways to engage with architectural discourse from a more diverse perspective. They could learn about the process of creating a publication, while taking advantage of the great lecture series that Aaron Betsky was organizing by doing interviews and engaging with the speakers while documenting and publishing these exchanges. The students were invited to find works of photographers, artists, philosophers, and architects from all around the world to include in the magazine. So, WASH Magazine was created and the first issue was about Utopia, coinciding with the five hundred year anniversary of Thomas More’s eponymous book.
One of the seminars we offered there was about representation, and we told our students that in order to understand contemporary architecture, they could participate with it, and instead of just looking at books, they could view the work first hand, through interviews or by exploring interesting projects.
We created events, and found ways to engage with the history and the community. Being in Taliesin was a really important experiment about living and teaching, and being with architecture. After living in China for seven years we just got summoned to travel half a world and live at Taliesin, so suddenly we had to deal with the legacy of being in this place and dealing with the people that were there before us. You're getting all this history but at the same time you're trying to make new history that is not the same as before.
We had the opportunity to return to Taliesin West with our UNL students in a studio trip on the weekend of November 3. They stayed in the shelters where the students live. It was our first time being back and it felt like home. You can somehow see your contribution in the development of the students. We see texts by Wittgenstein and Sloterdijk laying on the tables, and we see the development of the second issue of WASH.
I think the current level of discourse is so much higher than at other institutions, considering it’s a school with around just twelve students, because the experience is so intense. I feel our former students are going to be much more critical and better prepared to engage with architecture as a discipline rather than just an act of building.
Around that same time, Architect Magazine published an article that described your migration from Taliesin, Wisconsin to Taliesin West in Arizona. Much of the article focused on your reactions to the American landscape. How did your exposure to this landscape, both natural and man-made, impact your outlook on architecture?
CG: In recent years we started contemplating on the idea of architecture without qualities. Borrowing the concept from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, an architecture without qualities would be indifferent to the changing values of buildings. What does it mean to have architecture that doesn't fulfill the characteristics of what the collective subjectivity expects in a building? Capitalism wants buildings to be a certain way, for example. It prefers skyscrapers as sign of accumulation of wealth, with glass facades and the look of transparency in order to make the transactions appear less shady. I think there is something very appealing about architecture that transcends and doesn't really respond to that imperative. What we saw in the open landscapes is that the most interesting architecture was the one that was harmonious and at the same time indifferent. It was just ‘there’ and dealt with the landscape in a brutally honest way. It was an unromantic architecture, offering no views to the landscape, presenting no material allegories to its surroundings.
Travelling through these landscapes we could spot utilitarian architectures although we really didn't know what purpose they served. It became a utopian way of dreaming about architecture freed from banal responses to external economic or cultural forces. People think of American architecture, Asian architecture, and there is architecture that goes beyond those simplistic classifications. Architecture that is just ‘there’ in the landscape. Because of its immensity, these landscapes reveal when architecture doesn’t fit. It makes ‘designed’ architecture, with its intended vocabulary look out of place.
I think going on that trip was quite revealing because it really showed that it's a really big country with a big territory and that the most powerful architecture is the one that people aren't even looking at. It tells you about the ‘qualities’ of society. There are things we usually overlook and don't think are important because we're looking at signs and symbols to identify with but they mean nothing. Then you have objects that have reached a sense of autonomy, serving their purpose in the landscape. We developed a series of photographs that were also in the article that we want to make into a book. You frame those objects and they become so powerful and you don't even know what they are. They are just so much more interesting than 99.9% of architecture around.
NF: Before our experience at Taliesin, I had spent a couple of days in New-York and in Chicago, but hadn’t had the opportunity to really be confronted to any other types of landscapes other than those particular iconic ones. In that regard, our first night at Taliesin in Wisconsin was a preamble to what we would experience next. We had just arrived from Beijing where we had spent the previous seven years in an apartment in the center of the city in a very vivid neighborhood, surrounded by twenty-four hour open restaurants, small stores, flashing neon lights and people in the streets at every time of the day. Our last evening there was at the image of the life in that city that really never sleeps, we had had a couple of different friends passing by at various hours in the night, a mixture of late night conversations and last strolls in the city streets. And a few hours later, we found ourselves in the middle of the Wisconsin country-side, in a small red barn Frank Lloyd Wright had built for his uncle, in the middle of the fields, in pitch-black darkness, with no sight of any kind of light pollution, with no sight of anything else other than thick fog surrounding us. It was a mesmerizing yet at the moment surreal scenery. From then on, because of the very disparate nature of those two settings, our fascination for the American landscapes grew and became an important theme not only in our personal research but also part of our studio’s syllabus.
As much as I find urban settings cinematographic, the ‘Great American Landscapes’ inspired a lot of our compositions, but also grounded new narratives, incited new research themes, sparked new affinities with the unbuilt territory. As narrated in his article published in Architect Magazine, Aaron Betsky invited us to join him on the traditional migration from Taliesin to Taliesin West. During the journey, we must have taken hundreds of pictures every day. We passed through six different states, and each day we were exposed to very different sceneries. From the rolling colorful hills of Wisconsin, to plain continuous yellow fields, to the Teton’s mountain range, to the vivid red canyons of Utah and Arizona, every landscape was a call for contemplation and collection of imagery. Something very ‘architectural’ was emanating from it. And coming from Europe, I was genuinely overwhelmed by the size of the country, because of my unfamiliarity with this type of scale to begin with I couldn’t grasp what I was confronted with. We would be driving hours through infinite like landscapes, continuous plains rolling in front of our eyes, without witnessing almost any kind of human trace, and always feeling the distinct yet at that moment overpowering presence of the sky. The extensive nature of some of the American landscapes makes you aware of a particular relationship between the sky, the horizon and the land. The Ed Ruschaesque compositional experience of these sceneries can be quite disturbing at first. Suddenly you lose all point of reference, the vastness of the natural elements seem to isolate you, and you find yourself unable to relate anymore to anything surrounding you.
While being disconcerting at first, it also creates a strong sense of fascination you can only experience with those types of landscapes. Another element that really intrigued us what we call the ‘architecture without qualities’, constructions, isolated structures, architectures, we found in the middle of those sceneries. We documented some along the way. It could be agricultural or industrial structures, silos, water tanks, small storage constructions, and so on. We called them ‘without qualities’ referring to a concept of Robert Musil in his unfinished book The Man Without Qualities, where what is without quality is actually what escapes from being categorized under a simplified bigger picture where all becomes object of consumption and speculation. We see that as an ultimate quality, it defines a new avant-garde. The value of these structures lies in their sculptural characteristics and in their relationship with the landscapes surrounding them. That is why we called our fifth and six year studio here at UNL, ‘Landscapes without qualities’, we were interested in identifying different possible archetypes and re-appropriate them through new narratives and new functions in order to explore their full potentiality as architecture.
The migration from Taliesin to Taliesin West was definitely a seminal journey for us, though we had previously experienced different types of landscapes through our travels, or look a lot at artists, writers, photographers working the theme of the Great American Landscapes through our work or teaching, to be able to be physically confronted with them is incomparable.
That’s also why we decided to organize our studio’s trip this year around this theme. We travelled four days by road from El Paso, to White Sands, Marfa, Taliesin West, Cosanti and Arcosanti. We wanted the students to also fully experience the sites we were visiting and understand how they consciously relate with their surroundings. Living and working in such settings as Taliesin and Taliesin West, recalling the origins of why they were initiated in the first place makes you more sensitive and respectful somehow to the natural habitat.
On a related note, how would you say you're experience with American architectural practice compares with what you're familiar with in your background in places like China and Brussels?
CG: I grew up in the American system, Puerto Rico is an American territory so we still have the same laws, AIA and all the other institutions. China is very similar to the American system, although instead of corporations you have the Government centralizing decisions. Everything from education to the way they run organizations could be strikingly similar to their American counterparts. Their focus on rankings, stats, numbers and corporations is very much alike. A significant amount of their seminal architects are educated and have trained in the U.S. too, so that would explain this condition.
In the U.S. there could be a general lack of knowledge about what architecture could be. Architecture may play no significant role as the construction of the knowledge of culture. Sometimes the public or even architecture students don't know that architecture can be many things. They see architecture as making office buildings, commercial buildings, or hospitals.
In Europe architecture is a part of the cultural history people are aware of. The general public may know what an architect does, in France Le Corbusier is known by the general public. In the Netherlands architecture is a very important part of the collective intelligence. So goes with Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia and many other places. Architects design many things, from text to installations, exhibitions, to any type of building, structure, or landscape. Here it has become so professionalized, so divided that it seems to be only responding to something in particular. So you have these offices that have a branch for hospitals, a branch for schools, and bizarrely enough they become the emblems of any general knowledge about architecture. I think it's really problematic that those ideas may leak into academia and confuse students into making them think that their ‘job’ as architects is to ‘design’ only hospitals in a certain, market-driven way. That's fine if you choose it, but it shouldn't be because there is a lack of knowledge about the options you have as an architect. In many ways you can affect the world as an architect from policy making, to writing, and to designing a building. I think it is problem of over-compartmentalization. Also, all the licensing is kind of strange if you think about it. You don't need a license in many places for a contractor to build garbage. The developer can go without licenses to do whatever they want, but architecture is so regulated. You may think regulations can give you great things, but not really. It becomes almost a joke, where you have these institutions to assert power in certain parts of society and in the end they do very little for society.
Institutions like the AIA could play a bigger role in anything that is important in the life of many people if you think about it. The ACSA can become an institution to expand the reach of architecture to larger parts of society. Often they lack power or ambition to reach to society at large. That could explain the lack of diversity in Architecture and architecture schools, or the lack of representation, or the lack of power in legislation. It could also explain why many people have no idea about what an architect does. Before getting to college I was not even aware of ‘architecture’ as a discipline.
What does your alternative approach to architecture mean to practicing professionals? What can they learn and how may they apply it in order to advance architecture in their own way?
NF: Because we graduated and entered the professional world in 2008, a series of circumstances forced us to rethink how we were going to practice. The financial crisis triggered by Wall Street marked the end of typical professional expectations and instead casted uncertain paths. It meant that there was no linear journey awaiting for us head, and that we had to redefine what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.
The economic turmoil that was slowing everything down, especially in a domain like architecture where money is involved in long term and large scale commitments, signified that if we still wanted projects to happen or discussions to be engaged we had to start these initiatives by ourselves. It was a time both to step back and reflect upon other ways to approach architecture, since most building projects were compromised. We saw that challenge as a real opportunity to question the field and started developing new projects that were intended to be the beginning of a bigger conversation we wanted to engage with others.
While nowadays the economic situation has improved, we still believe in the need for constant criticality about how we think and how we practice architecture. As we mentioned earlier, a lot of the components of our practice came from our last years at school where we could test different tools and mediums, and follow different intellectual explorations, so we already had affinities for certain ways of approaching architecture, but we still have the other part of our practice to focus on designing buildings, landscape or urban planning. That means that one can still construct a manifesto upon his or her visions and intended contributions to the field, while still participate in different types of project. There’s always a time to think and to question what we do as practitioners. The indeterminate nature of the definition of architecture is the essence of a practice that can always be malleable to us. To truly explore these possibilities we have to find the correct tools which are not always the ones we are used to work with in the first place. It also means that we can bring more personal components into play. Interesting practices in my opinion are the ones who stand out not because of the amount of projects they have but because of the quality of a discourse behind their work, a consistency in their approach or a personal endeavor to provoke discussions or push the boundaries of the field further. Architecture as a profession offers a lot of freedom to explore beyond what we already know, addressing issues through the build environment that affect different aspects of our society, asking the correct questions through built or theoretical projects while staying committed to what you are doing along the way.
CG: Questioning is key. Questioning makes the core concept of our practice, What About It? Always question everything. I think that's the most important concept.
Even if you think that what you are doing is very pragmatic, you need somebody capable of imagining it before in order for you to be able to build it. Even if you're not doing the thinking, somebody needs to do it for you, somebody needs to question why we design, why we build, for whom we design and build. We need to address difficult questions in order to move society forward.
To think about the strategies employed to present the questions we think about is something we also try to encourage. Think about uncomfortable topics that relate to architecture, but often we don't talk about. Like the idea of thinking about a future without work. It's an uncomfortable question, especially in places where it effects farmers and laborers of more traditional livelihoods that may disappear in the future. What is the role of architecture there? How can we use architecture not only to solve problems of real estate developers, but to also improve life? So, in order to improve life we also need to identify the challenges. Most of the time, architecture is not willing to ask these questions.
I remember an architect with a project in Detroit where he assumed the future of public schools was to turn them into charter schools. I asked him if he thought public schools are going away. He just said, well that's what we get and that's what we design. So all you're doing is responding to a brief? Why is this not a public school? You're not questioning the direction. The same with that stupid Trump wall. There were, I don't know, several firms proposing idiotic walls to build on the border. ‘Green’, ‘sustainable walls’, ‘ecologically conscious walls’, ‘simplistically beautiful’ walls. It's like a bad, tasteless joke. A joke South Park would do much better.
It's not only that architects are indifferent, it's almost like they can be criminal. They know that what they're doing is wrong, and they do it anyways. That's what the cynic does, the new cynic. The ancient cynic, like Diogenes of Sinope, would be questioning and going against the ideological wind. I'm sure if there was a concentration camp design competition, before next week you're going to have a thousand offices with a beautiful design saying, "Well, if I don't do it, somebody will do it worse. So, I might as well do it myself." You get a brief and you don't question the brief. Aren't we supposed to be making the world a better place? Not only do we need to ask questions, but we need to develop the tools to ask these questions. That’s what we try to do with our projects. To question. And also, to try to raise the awareness that questioning is possible as an architectural practice.
CG: Recently we developed a critical project addressing some of these ethical problems called The Beautiful Ceremony; it was a story about an Island where the elites go to see the ultimate developments of sustainable technologies. The structures and systems in the Island are built by migrants, and the migrants build a wall around it and then drown in the sea. The ones that make it to the island live in low cost workers housing, do the hard work of picking up the organic crops (of course everything is organic), and do the maintenance of the island for the elites that fly in and out with blimps and flying machines. It was the perfect island because it served the power in a non-disruptive way. All the LEED certified towers, perfect governance system and organic crops were sustained by all this cheap, forced labor.
In his poem ‘Questions from a Worker Who Reads’ Bertolt Brecht writes:
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
Most of the time it's people that are underprivileged and underpaid, but nobody cares. There are so many layers to architecture that we know are there but we'd rather not look at. If we are able to at least question those things, we may improve.
What advice would you give for emerging professionals who are more interested in a form of architectural discourse as a profession rather than traditional practice?
CG: First, look at history. You need to understand how things were done and how things change. There's a lot to learn from history because there is a long legacy of people trying to challenge how things are done. Second, always question. Why are you in a certain place? What things have you taken for granted? What is the role of architecture? What would you like architecture to address? How can architecture be more inclusive? More interesting? How can architecture improve our lives? And third, look, understand, and explore the use of multiple media. By studying history you can see how different media can be addressed to ask different kind of questions. That goes back to the Wittgenstein quote, "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." What tools do you need to develop in order for you to expand your repertoire of strategies? And how can you find ways to develop discourse? How can you expand your language so your world grows beyond its current boundaries? I think that's something we always try to foment with our lectures, seminars, studios, and workshops. How to bring history as a form of contemporary practice? How to look for ways to find not only the ideas we want to communicate but the tools that are needed to communicate those ideas? How to employ publications, exhibitions, symposia, interviews, teaching, performance, designing books, buildings, devising urban, rural, spatial, cosmic plans to do anything that helps develop ideas and have a dialogue with history in order to see all the possibilities that exist?
NF: While Socrates advocated for living your life as you are as a philosopher, one could say practice as an architect as you are as a human being. There are a lot of values and personal interests that we can carry with us in our professional lives, especially when being just out of school. It’s an important moment to reflect upon what we want to do as professionals but moreover realize what we don't want to do. Architecture is a wide and various field, and again there are many ways to practice as an architect. So one advice we would give to all emerging professionals in general would be to take the time to realize the different opportunities awaiting and not rush into a practice that may bring more disappointments than fulfillments. You shouldn’t be afraid of trying, aiming for your ideals. Some paths, especially the more alternative ones will require critical thinking skills as well as a vision, a lot of imagination and will probably imply taking risks. Everybody should think carefully from whom to learn, and how to build your professional experience without compromising the desired quality of the work or the strategies or the depth of thinking. If chosen wisely, the path of architecture can be closer to a long term life project than to a job. We should take this opportunity to define how we want to practice and what we can personally bring to the field.
Architecture is also a discipline that demands a high level of commitment. Architects still bear the responsibility of building or thinking about the built environment for others. When approaching a project, wherever it’s about urban planning, architecture design, or devising a theory, others may experience the direct consequences of the decisions that will be taken. A building, whatever its size, affects our build environment, not even mentioning its program that can trigger many other schisms. The same could go with architectural theories or architectural trends that can impact on many ways our societies.
That’s why I don’t believe in a dichotomy between traditional practice and architectural discourse. I’ll go further in saying that all practices should have a form of architectural discourse. All architects should be conscious of how they contribute to society, willingly or not. A lot of avant-garde thinkers, theorists, architects that we look at often through our work, research and classes can still be defined as traditional practitioners. That’s why we would advocate for practicing architecture consciously.
Architecture as a field is constantly evolving as it depends so much on our social and economic environments. In that manner it’s an open invitation to rethink constantly about the discipline and how we can contribute to it. Most of the mainstream architecture offices have been practicing for over forty years or more already; what the young generations are bringing to the architectural realm is yet to be defined. It’s important as emerging professional to realize the potential one can have to shape its own discourse and furthermore take initiatives, engage in discussions, write a manifesto, start self-initiated projects. Our contemporary condition as architects is still to be explored.