Conversation PRODUCTORA - Johnston Marklee
Wonne Ickx, Sharon Johnston, Mark Lee
Interview realized by PLOT Magazine (web), Entrevistas Rotativas No.4, 2012
Wonne Ickx (PRODUCTORA):
Mark and Sharon let me first explain as to why we chose to interview your office. First, our recent teaching assignment at the University of California Los Angeles gave us the opportunity to see your studio, get to know your work as well as have critical discussions particularly while being on student juries. This raised a series of fascinations, questions and doubts that we would like to address in this interview.
Second, your involvement in Latin-America for the View House in collaboration with Diego Arraigada in Argentina and the META project curated by Pezo von Ellrichshausen in Chile and your outsider vision regarding contemporary Latin-American architecture is an interesting perspective. We want to focus our interview on these projects that have a connection to the region.
Let us start with the first question about the View House in Argentina. The house has a very specific geometry which reminds me of ''Mathematical Forms'' by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. In this series of photographs, Sugimoto portrayed stereometric models and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century optical devices that gave visible form to unseen hypotheses. Although these forms are mathematically simple to describe, they create very surprising and poetic volumes.
This mathematical theme returns in the META project located in Chile, where two parabolic curves touch at a tangent, creating a deliberate moment of tension. The plan reads like a descriptive geometry drawing. Could you tell us bit more about your relation to mathematics and geometry in your projects?
Mark and Sharon:
It is interesting that you mention Sugimoto's photographs of turn-of-the-century stereometric models of mathematical formulas. While they are relatively small objects, they acquire a degree of monumentality through the lens of Sugimoto and become pure models that transcend scale, in a Rossian way.
We see our work belonging to a tradition that uses geometry as a tool rather than an end in itself. Therefore the source of the geometry, whether from a high or low sector of culture, is of less importance than what it does. We do not ask what architecture can do for the discipline of mathematics but what mathematics can do for the field of architecture.
Sometimes geometries are discovered from within the parameters of a project and sometimes they are imposed from without. For our META project in Chile, the elliptical form came from the desire to distinguish the asymmetry inherent in the positioning of the room; the half ellipse became a tool for us to approximate the form of the theatre. The doubling of the half ellipse resulted from our interest in the tangential relationship between two almost-identical but autonomous rooms. In this sense, the mirroring of the rooms creates a similarity that in turns amplifies their intrinsic differences.
In the View House with Diego Arraigada in Argentina, we used the 'geometric cuts' for two purposes. The first was to reinforce the house as an object on a corner lot, which lead to the placement of the cuts in alternating corners of the volume. The second was to establish a common language between us as architects and the builders. We figured that if they are familiar with building concrete form-work of a sphere, they could easily build a fragment of a sphere.
We always try to have elements of our buildings do more than one thing, which also applies to our use of geometry where adopt an opportunistic attitude rather than a moralistic one.
Could you describe PRODUCTORA's position on geometry? When we look at your work, we detect similarities in intention; such as the tension between duality and singularity in our META project and your installation on the stairs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, although we resort to different geometries to attain our goals. We also see recurring shapes or geometric relationships you have explored in various projects, such as the circle in Centre Promotion of Science in Belgrade and the Fiscalia project in Madrid; or the use of the diagonal in your Villa in Ordos and the Mexican Pavilion in Shanghai. Is geometry a tool for you to get somewhere or a condition that your work approximates?
Yes, indeed geometry plays an important role in our projects. When we develop architectonic ideas in our office, we try to find a suitable straightjacket for the project or a limited set of rules that can orchestrate the building. If this set of internal rules limits our range of possible decisions but at the same time opens up the possibility of compositional play and differentiation of space, it becomes an interesting operational tool for us. It is similar to a chess game; where a limited number of possible movements for each piece creates a rich and complex range of possibilities. In the case of the intervention at the Victoria and Albert Museum, precise geometric elements equal in plan view, create a mysterious and almost surreal spatial experience. The clash between a punctual and limited intervention and the spatial complexity it creates is very appealing to us.
I would like to ask another question. The dualistic rhetoric of the title of your recent conference intrigued me: ''Too Young to Reason, Too Grown Up to Dream''. Are you, or for that matter 'we' or 'our generation', really too young to reason and too grown up to dream?
Mark and Sharon:
The lecture title ''Too Young to Reason; Too Grown Up to Dream'' was taken from Bryan Ferry's song ''Slave to Love''. And the year prior, our lecture title was ''Too Dumb for New York; Too Ugly for LA'' which is a paraphrase from the song by Waylon Jennings.
We felt these titles reflect our own state of mind as well as one of a collective generation, of which we would extend an invitation to those who wish to lay claim. We feel that we belong to an in-between generation, one that came of age when architecture's patrilineal history died. Our generation could not care less about whether architecture is transgressing or what architecture is 'not doing'. We have the benefit of practicing at a moment when the polemical positions taken by the previous generation, whether of a rational or imaginary nature; have purged the path for a generation that is direct, positive, and projective.
For the generation of architects inheriting this ideology, buildings no longer have to assert their absence, deny their volume, nor violate any formal expectations; they simply assert their being, architecture just is. In other words this in-between state, being neither this nor that, is incredibly liberating.
A third issue that intrigues us, because it is a concern that returns in our own practice time after time, is the relation of your work to history. As we noticed when visiting your office Los Angeles, you have an impressive library that contains contemporary architecture to old tractatus. You have even acquired some rare books of Oswald Mathias Ungers, to give just one example.
In recent history, a certain group of architects have emerged who are obsessed with what one could call a breakthrough in the field of architecture: new technologies, digital media, complex surfaces, innovative materials and constructive systems are their main concern when developing a provocative contemporary architectural project. Simultaneously - or rather as a reaction to this - a certain resistance emerged and several young architectural practices began to show a renewed interest in old school tectonics, parti, composition, traditional materials, low tech attitudes, vernacular elements, and even using classical forms of representation for example, offices that prefer axonometric or black and white line drawings above renderings or virtual images.
How do you relate your own work to these two countercurrents? Especially when referring to your conference title: ''What Becomes Has Always Been''
Mark and Sharon:
''What becomes has always been'' is an obvious play with Louis Kahn’s ''What will be has always been.'' The phrase 'What has been' not only refers to history, but to the beginning and to the essence of things. We think that Kahn's use of 'What will be' conveys a certain degree of finiteness, that the end result has already been determined or conceived a priori. We chose to substitute it with 'What becomes' in order to imply that what happened in the past should be present at the beginning, or at the conception of a project; but should not necessarily dictate what the end result will be.
We have a lot of admiration towards architects who break boundaries. We do however prefer boundaries that are real instead of contrived in which their subsequent transgressions are easily forgiven.
We think the two poles that you have described is a recurring episode in history, perhaps the last rupture happened in the sixties, when architecture felt insecure and threatened by cultural, sociopolitical, and technological advancements. There was one camp of architects who confounded architecture with everything that was new and cultivated an allergy to whatever is old. Then there was another camp which took a defensive position against the new developments and propagated a complete retreat into history, which eventually evolved into a disciplinary autonomy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, the convictions taken by both camps were almost all right. The problem began when the convictions became extremist positions.
We think it is more important to take a reformist position today, a more measured approach towards both history and innovation. Architecture needs to advance along with humanity, but not blindly and at all costs. At the same time, the abuse of history in architecture is a not-too-distant memory and should serve as a caution. We view history as a tremendous resource of intelligence, sharpened over time through trial and error. It should not be a form of oppression as in the time of the Beaux-Arts, but a lineage to improve and build upon. Perhaps Aldo Van Eyck summarized this best when he said: ''I have heard it said that an architect cannot be a prisoner of tradition in a time of change. It seems to me that he cannot be a prisoner of any kind. And at no time can he be a prisoner of change.''
We are curious to hear how history plays a role in your work. Because there seems to be an essence of classicism in many of your projects, such as the CAF Headquarters or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lima. In the Vault House for example, we started with the vault as a point of departure which is an element that had a long history in architecture. During the development of the project, we realized that the house began to assume the likeness of an abstract sponge or coral; and we chose to invert the vaulted volumes of the clerestory windows in order to articulate this abstract image. While we always start our projects with things that are fundamentally architectural, as opposed to starting a project with a heuristic model by saying 'the house should be a sponge', we allow for the possibility of models outside of architectural history to enter and guide the design process. Could you tell us about your design process within this framework, perhaps in relation to a project we are particularly intrigued by: the House of Culture in Beirut?
History sneaks into our projects in a very unconscious and unintentional way. The fascination we have for 'historic' projects from pre-modern buildings such as pyramids, temples and observatories to our XX Century heroes from Mies, Corbusier, Barragan and Kahn to Hejduk, Stirling, Tange, Gwathmey & Siegel, Ungers, Roche & Dinkeloo or even Ambasz can only leave a trace behind in our projects. We make a very pragmatic use of history; every formal strategy that can help us resolve a project is evaluated as a possible solution to be implemented. In that sense I completely agree with the notion that 'history is a tremendous resource of intelligence, sharpened over time through trial and error'. The fact that it is 'historical' means that time has passed over it and a sifting process has taken place. We believe that quality will survive this sifting process. Apart from a few overrated architects or buildings, the more time that has occurred, the more powerful the examples handed over by history become. Therefore, it makes no sense (sorry PLOT) to read contemporary architecture magazines: they are too fresh, too new. No natural selection has taken place yet.
At last, I would like you to ask a very obvious question about your experience in Latin America. What main differences in attitude, cultural environment, and building experience drew your attention in your visits?
Mark and Sharon:
As outsiders who are just beginning to work in Latin America, it is probably unavoidable that we ground ourselves by resorting to familiar frameworks in order to navigate our way. One is the tradition of Latin American literature, the magical realism of Borges or Garcia Marquez, which evokes an ethos that straddles the everyday and the exceptional where the pragmatic and the poetic interchange seamlessly. Another is represented by Joaquin Torres Garcia's famous drawing of the inverted South America, which alludes to a mirroring of its Northern counterpart.
Working in a culture foreign to one's own, we are mindful of spending time to learn and digest the culture of the place for which we are designing, and not importing something completely unrelated to the place. On the other hand, we must accept that we will never know enough. Rather than seeing the latter as a handicap, it is important to take advantage of this foreignness, and exercise what the Germans refer to as narrenfreiheit, or the jester's privilege to do something that is forbidden without being punished. That way, we aspire to the quality of something that straddles the familiar and the unfamiliar, something that is of the place but also out of place.
Having spent more time in Latin America; meeting and working with architects such as you, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Diego Arraigada, or Adamo Faiden, we actually find more similarities than differences with our own pathos, the way we think about architecture, and the sense of purpose we try to bring to our projects. Seeing the work of Rafael Iglesia, Gerardo Caballero, Marcelo Villafane and the Rosario school; which is quite under the radar in the US, has also been an eye-opening experience. There is a sense of grounding and longevity in Latin America, where architecture is not solely a speculation of the real estate market or for short-term profiteers. We feel very liberated working in Latin America, in a way not unlike Torres Garcia's drawing; like meeting a long-lost twin for the first time.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mathematical form 0001 (Helicoid: minimal surface) & Mathematical Form No. 0009 (Conic surface of revolution, with constant negative curvature).