Interview with Samuel Penn, October 2012
Kindly edited by Irina Davidovici
samuel penn · Having practiced and taught architecture in London for over 18 years you have relatively recently decided to live and work in Switzerland. Can we start the discussion by comparing practice and teaching in the UK and Switzerland, focusing on the attitudes rather than the structural differences.
jonathan sergison · I’m not supposed to talk about structure but it’s quite difficult not to in a way. I was drawn to teaching at quite a young age and last night at the Salon Suisse panel discussion we were talking about the difficulty in English architecture education, particularly the London schools, of encouraging bright recent graduates back to teach before they have anything to say, and the dilemma in that situation, or the weakness, is the question of what they can bring to the task at that age. They can bring what they have just learned and nothing else, and I think that London schools are lost in this sort of cycle of regurgitating their recent explorations in education. And the experience of teaching in Switzerland is a very different one. I think like so many things in Swiss society it always has a very practical basis. The structure of the assistant for instance, the support that assistants give to the professors is a very logical arrangement because it means that as a young architect, just beginning in practice, you can find an opportunity to explore a more theoretical dimension to your practice but without all the responsibility of ultimately steering the course and ensuring that students are well taught. So the way I use assistants is really as a form of help, but I also take some responsibility to ensure that they are taught how to teach.
sp · This is something you talked about yesterday, your own experience as a young teacher.
js · Yes it was. The experience I had through Micha Bandini who was at the time the head at North London. These terms that exists in English and London schools, unit masters, studio teachers, but the title of professor comes with a certain weight. It’s based on experience and recognition and a sense that you’ve got something to say, something to bring to the school and you’re established in practice. And this is really the key difference I think, why it’s impossible for Stephen and I to imagine returning to teach in the UK is that it can only support through its financial structure people who are working almost at a charitable level. That means young people who frankly don’t have that much experience, or the practice itself is supporting the financial deficiencies of the institution. And that doesn’t feel right. I know Peter St. John has recently returned to teach at North London (MET), but I know what that means. There were many things that we in time felt were really unagreeable from the experience of teaching, particularly at the AA, this sense of having to sell your wares at the beginning of the year. This sort of sense of performance that goes on with the students deciding who they wanted to study with, and it was pure theatre, it wasn’t serious. And at the end of the year it was another really horrible experience because then you found that there were incredible rivalries and insecurities that emerged through the assessment of students work. And I must say that in our school (Mendrisio) we do present our studio position at the beginning of each semester but in a much calmer way, I mean it’s much more informative rather than competing for students. I think normally the students have mapped out in their minds who they’re going to study with for many semesters to come. So at the beginning of the semester in Mendrisio we make a presentation but I think it’s really much more about the facts and the nitty-gritty stuff. They are very short. Another thing that we encountered when we started teaching that the ETHZ, we found that there was very little guidance, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. We had complete freedom to set a course that we thought was a relevant one to the school, and this has been common to all our experience of teaching in Switzerland, the semester is so many weeks long, the expectation is that the students are doing building projects, you can say ‘building’ without having to apologise, and other words like ‘construction’ and ‘precedent’ and so on and so forth. And at the end of the semester we are given the responsibility for assessing the students in a way that feels appropriate, and there’s no need to argue for the mark that we give to the students to anybody, because we are trusted to do that job based on the experience that we have as teachers, and we’re there because we are experienced teachers.
sp · Well that’s the crux of the matter. They spend a lot more time making sure they get the right people for the job. But there really isn’t a great structural difference between the ETHZ or Mendrisio and our school system in the UK.
js · I think that it’s a very interesting point that in many ways the structures are equivalent, the length of the course is the same. The difference is a difference in mentality between an Anglo-Saxon way of thinking about things and the Swiss way, and one could extend that observation to understanding the way things are built in the UK and in Switzerland. I think in Switzerland people value things that have quality, and things that have quality tend to last longer, and they’re prepared to invest and know that it’s something that’s not going to fall apart in a few years time. I think the Anglo-Saxon mentality is more one of reducing the capital cost and securing the greatest profit. There’s less emphasis on legacy I would say. Now historically obviously this hasn’t always been the case, but I would observe it as a kind of contemporary condition. I mean if you think about what has been built in London in the last twenty years, a time of incredible economic prosperity, how much of it we are going to be proud of in the years to come is very questionable. And yet as I travel through Switzerland I see buildings that I know will look very fine in fifty years time. And there’s a sense that you build for future generations. And I think that mentality’s been lost. Coming back to architectural education, the big scandal is that students are now being asked to pay nine-thousand pounds for a frankly poor education, and in Switzerland it’s a fraction of that for an infinitely better one. If it wasn’t for the problem of language I could imagine that Switzerland will have a problem with bright young British architecture students finding their way over, I know they are trickling already.
sp · Saying that it’s an Anglo-Saxon condition is a bit of a broad sweep.
js · You’re absolutely right and in a way I’m using it as a kind of critique of the United States. It’s a North American attitude. Was it exported originally from the UK? I don’t know, but it has, I think, a very negative bearing on the status quo.
sp · So I take it that you wouldn’t go over and work in Princeton or Harvard?
js · You know, It’s never been of interest to me. Many of my colleagues have, but there’s such a dilemma in that country because the schools are reasonably good, or some of them are, but what happens to the graduates? They either get lost in theoretical academic teaching or in big corporate practices. I know Kenneth Frampton in this Venice Biennale (2012) has made a very heroic attempt with frankly feeble results to show good American practices. It’s pitiful.
sp · So do you see any solutions for us, or will there just be an exodus away from the UK.
js · Well it would be a rather gloomy conclusion to say that there’s no hope, that I’ve abandoned the possibility that things could get better. I do think there are too many architecture schools. I think most of the schools in the UK offer a very second or third rate education. You know, there were moments yesterday when I was in the Venice Biennale and you just see this sea of young people going around, and you know that they’re all students of architecture, and you just wonder, you know, it’s almost immoral, you create the opportunity for so many people to study the subject, when you know there’s so little opportunity in professional life. The profession cannot support so many people who are currently studying that subject. And I think it is a wonderfully holistic subject. I think it is important that people have the opportunity to study architecture, but there needs to be limits. It needs to be reasonable and I think at the moment in the UK it’s not reasonable. And it just leads to disappointment or complacency or a kind of neglect in a way.
sp · I’d like to shift the discussion to what we started to talk about yesterday, the importance of history both in practice and education. I’d specifically like to explore the teaching of architectural history, by that I mean the standard lecture course, and the emergence of a more operative use of history in the design studio. Do you see this as problem?
js · As you know I think the teaching of history is very important. If I think about my own experience in the first year, I had a kind of ABC of the history of architecture. At the time it was probably very general, but it was also very necessary. And I suppose because of my age I then found myself in an architectural education where through the distraction of post-modernism history was somehow reappraised in a very uncritical and superficial way, and really my education was a modernist one, and there was this sense of a denial of the past, and the priority was given to the future. I would say there was an uncomfortable relationship with the history of architecture. It’s taken me quite a long time to realise that that’s just such an incredible folly. But I think it’s taken experience. When I travel through Italy now I am so moved, but was I when I was in my second year? I knew I was supposed to be, but I didn’t have the experience to say what it was about a palace in the countryside that I was visiting that really moved me, and now that I have so many years experience of practice I know what I’m looking for. I mean I’m always looking. Everything can be a lesson if I’m receptive to it. I think there’s another aspect of your question that I’d like to touch on which is this tension that exists in nearly every school of architecture, the tension between those who teach in the studio and those that on their other days teach history and theory. I know, for example, my wife Irina Davidovici has been teaching history and theory at Kingston. She came to teach that subject firstly through a very regular architectural education and then through working for very good practices; Caruso St. John and Herzog & de Meuron, and it was at that point that she went into academia. But I think she finds it really difficult that students think, oh, these are the guys that we have to write essays for and this is where the real interest in the school is (meaning studio) and they never meet. And you know, on those occasions where you invite the history and theory to attend crits, because they don’t do it that often, naturally they’re not always that sharp as critics. And again it frustrates the situation, students think, yeah, they don’t really have anything to say that’s relevant to what I’m doing. So I think it is a problem, how you instil a sense of enthusiasm in the mind of the student on this subject. I know it’s difficult but I know it’s really important. As I mentioned in the conversation yesterday, this semester my students are working in Naples and we’ve devoted a lot of time to walking through the city, understanding its history, inviting people who really know about its history to explain it to the students in a way that’s interesting, comprehensible, exciting. But I also knew that it was a little bit of a risk to organise one day to take the students on the bus to Paestum and Herculaneum, but I chose them because they were archaeological sites, still spatial encounters, but the three temples in Paestum, you’re in no doubt what their presence was historically or in the past, and the same is true of Herculaneum. It feels like you’re walking through a Roman town when you’re there. They’re incredible sites. As you know, in our work, it’s not just high architecture that we’re fascinated with. I think it was Tony Fretton who instilled in my own sort of sense of enquiry the possibility that everything was a lesson if you knew how to reinterpret it. And I think the history of architecture has always worked on the basis of a form of learning that comes from copying, and through a mastery of known things in time invention happens, perhaps in the hands of great people. But first you need to know the rules and then you can begin to break them. Coming back to educational models. It’s certainly a problem I have with the very liberal model that exists in London schools where everything you do is kind of an act of creative genius. It’s just not good enough. It takes a long time to develop a position. I mean the way I teach could be seen to be quite old fashioned to many people. I take a lot of responsibility for the structure of the course that I run. I know that time is precious. I’m not complacent about the responsibility I have to pass on something that I know to the students and try and excite them through an exposure to a way of thinking in the exercises they do. At the moment our studio is very interested in questions of density in the European city and so for a number of semesters we are looking at a number of European cities as a way of investigating this subject. But every week of the semester the students are very clear about what I’m asking them to do, and they’re exercises that range from making urban investigations at one-to-five-hundred scale in model. Often when we go to a place we ask students to make surveys of a façade or a building that we think will be instructive later on in the way they are thinking about their own project work. The explorations that they make in their projects are plastic ones, there’s an over emphasis on model making. But on other occasions there’s perhaps a priority that’s given to the idea of a façade. We all know it takes a long time to know how to make a façade that really speaks. And on other occasions there might be an emphasis on the organisation of the plan. If you think about the Swiss context, in the discussion of competitions specifically for housing currently in Zürich I think a jury probably spends sixty percent of the discussion on what qualities a plan holds.
sp · The Swiss still have a lively competition system. There is a healthy stewardship in the profession that aims to guarantee chances for young practices.
js · Yes, the competition system is organised in a very practical way. Competitions that could be won by a young practice are open, and ones where the complexity of the project could not really afford for a young practice to win, are selective, and it becomes a shortlist based on expressions of interest. It makes sense. Fifteen years ago the architectural establishment in the UK said that the competition system was failing because too many were being won by young practices, that they didn’t have the competence to complete the projects. It was kind of like using a huge sledge hammer to crack a nut. It’s something that those involved in that particular campaign ought to take responsibility for because we know the situation is more sophisticated than that. There are instances where it’s absolutely appropriate that young practices should win. Without the opportunity to win a competition on what basis are you going to develop a project or learn the required skills, where’s the work ever going to come from? And so in Switzerland I think it’s a much more appropriate competition system and practitioners also know and it connects a little bit to this question of stewardship. You know we all have to attend juries occasionally, and know that has a responsibility and when you’re on a jury your role is to help the client find the most appropriate project for their needs, not impose your own will upon them, that would be a disaster. And unlike in the UK at the moment all competitions in Switzerland have an equivalent number of professional architects on the jury to clients and other experts. I must say Samuel, we’ve stopped looking at the RIBA competitions because we’ve never been asked to do anything in ten years, and you don’t even know who the one architect in the jury is going to be very often. And if you don’t know who the jury is, what’s the point? Because you’ve got to be able to trust the competence of the jury.
sp · So this wasn’t always the case?
js · It certainly wasn’t.
sp · Yesterday we began talking about style and taste as a formative force in architectural practice. After the war here in Italy, characters like Molino, Moretti and Dominioni, who recognised the importance of gusto (taste) in their work, saw it as a deeply common or shared aspect of society and therefore an important factor in the creation of culture. But since then this discussion has disappeared.
js · Yes it has, but one thing that gives me a lot of hope is the journal San Rocco which is really a breath of fresh air in Italy after so many years. I mean it has been a wilderness. Much as I admire figures like Gregotti and Rossi, they were also monsters, in that they created no opportunity for younger generations to emerge, and I think that’s criminal really. In my education I was told to avoid words like taste and style. You couldn’t talk about a style! In the nineteenth century it was the core of architectural debate and argument. But I was educated in a way where the argument for our work had to be made through other sources. When Stephen and I set up in practice in the mid nineties, it’s important to remember that that the country was in crisis, there was little work, the profession was held in such a low regard, which is still a problem now, but there was very little critical discourse. I think the revisiting of some of the works and ideas of Alison and Peter Smithson were because we saw an answer that helped us think about how we wanted to operate. I’ve got to say, at that time there was this sort of meeting of a number of people that held similar views, and because we didn’t have any work we had the time to talk. I think that was really invaluable. There was enough opportunity to survive but the greatest gift was the time to develop a position through discussion with people you felt an affinity towards. And I think when times are supposedly good, people act without really having a position. I remember that amazing collection of interviews that Martin Scorsese compiled on Bob Dylan, and I remember someone saying, you know that at that time what was the most important was what someone had to say, and I still think that’s the case. It’s what you do, it’s what you say, it’s what you write. For me such a small sentence is really a lesson for life. But at the time when we were meeting I remember the artist Mark Pimlott said something which really still holds a lot of resonance, which is: “when I look at something, what do I see.” I find that a profoundly interesting statement.
sp · When you talked about going back to the work of the Smithson’s to understand your position in the present you had to evoke a position from the past to propose your new world. I’m sure you were drawn to them for a reason.
js · I think that’s a very interesting discussion. What we developed at that time is what made sense to us then. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense now because things move on. In the end we were driven by an attempt to understand our own position. The Smithson’s offered us a clue to what it meant to be a British architect and I must say that we were attracted to them through their written work. Their buildings seem ugly, not exclusively, but they are challenging, we found that attractive as well strangely.