Interview with Cameron McEwan, October 2014
cameron mcewan · From your point of view how has this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale been received?
emmanuel petit · Without having seen the exhibition yet it’s quite dangerous to say anything. I think Koolhaas has a difficult relationship with the notion of disciplinarity. I have the feeling he is yet again teasing the discipline by saying that everything that has been defined as the discipline of architecture is arcane and complicated and that things can be easier, fresher and more directly related to real life in an unmediated way. I do not have a problem with mediation, with cultural mediation, language mediation, with intellectual reflection on the world. When you make an exhibit, when you do architecture, you never engage reality directly and immediately, but you mediate with all the tools that the discipline of architecture puts at your disposal. They include every cultural notion that you can think of and that includes language, history, the language and history of critique, the lineage of thinkers you want to be seen in relation with. That is how you build and cultivate the discipline, our discipline. Heidegger, who has been strongly appropriated by certain postmodernists who only highlighted one aspect, the more cosy side, the more heimlich side. What I have found so relevant in Heidegger is that he said in order to be, you have to cultivate being. It is the same with the discipline, meaning that the discipline is complicated and not necessary for our day-to-day existence. It does not necessarily produce better buildings but you have to cultivate it in order to be part of the discussion of architecture. I believe in that and I have the suspicion that the biennale is saying that architecture can be simpler; let’s just look at the elements, and that you don’t need to know how the elements go together because that is too complicated so look at the elements themselves. Having seen the photograph of a piece out of the escalator exhibition, a few steps. I am worried. I don’t think the steps of an escalator is going to get to the richness I want to get to in architecture.
cm · Yes, on initial reading it seems like the implication is toward the professionalization of knowledge in architecture, rather than architecture as intellectual reflection.
ep · Yet the title Elements of Architecture can be made into a disciplinary notion right away.
cm · So it’s a slightly paradoxical theme. Let’s turn to Stirling. It is interesting that Stirling has been recently revisited by Amanda Lawrence and Anthony Vidler to name two prominent critics. Why did you feel the need to revisit Stirling’s work, and why Stirling’s students? I’m thinking of the 2011 exhibition you curated at Yale.
ep · First, for a pragmatic reason. The Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal acquired the Stirling and Wilford Archive about a decade ago. The CCA together with the Mellon Centre in New Haven asked Vidler to curate a show on the work of Stirling. The Yale School of Architecture, where I taught, decided to do a parallel show on the work of Stirling’s students for the reason that Stirling taught at Yale for twenty-four years as a Davenport Professor, so he was not a tenured Professor but a visitor. A professorship he shared with Robert Venturi, which is weird; one semester Venturi would teach then, in the other semester Stirling would teach. I was interested in Stirling because when I studied in Switzerland, Stirling was virtually the only architect we were allowed to talk about who was post-1940. The name Venturi was dropped once in my six years in Zürich whereas Stirling was the good guy, the good postmodernist, if he was a postmodernist, but I don’t have an issue with that. So I was interested in Stirling anyway because he could manage or master the balancing act between being a modernist but also a postmodernist. He seemed interesting to me. When the opportunity came up to look at the students of Stirling I was interested in doing that because it gave me a way in to looking at the history of Yale because Stirling was there under many different Deanships: starting with Paul Rudolph who brought Stirling to the States, through Cesar Pelli, Charles Moore, and others. These are periods of the history of Yale that were recognisable and internationally interesting. It allowed me to look at work that was very Stirling-esque without being Stirling and to therefore help me to understand Stirling himself.
cm · What was the relationship between Stirling’s teaching and his practice in London?
ep · The first time he taught at Yale was in 1959 when Leicester started. Rudolph was completely taken by the Leicester building, which is why he invited Stirling to the States. Stirling loved to go; it gave him all kinds of freedom. He liked this international life of a practice in London and teaching in the States. He would assign projects he was working on at that moment in the office so his studio projects parallel his own career. He would ask students to work on Derby Civic Centre, the Tuscan Government Centre, the Staatsgalerie, Cornell Performing Arts, and the Sackler Gallery.
cm · These were the project briefs he gave the students?
ep · Yes, and he gave a prize at the end to the student who proposed a scheme most like what he might produce, a tie, or a blue shirt! But yes, there was a direct parallel between his practice and his studio teaching. Bob Stern wrote to the alumni who studied with Stirling and asked them to send in their work. So we built an archive of Stirling’s students work because it did not exist before. The advantage of working with an archive is that you don’t need preconceptions. The work is there, and you work with that. For me there were clear breaks that one could trace. These breaks were meaningful because they reflected a change in the architectural discussion in general, and so we divided the exhibition into five different stages. The early work is not terribly Stirling-esque, perhaps because he was more a casual visitor. That was from 1959 to 1964. The work still looks influenced by Rudolph the Dean, also Louis Kahn and Kevin Roche who at that time had completed the Oakland Museum. A building that looks like a cascade of terraces built into the ground and you could walk onto the roof. In Stirling’s studio there was a project that looks exactly like that. In the second half of the 1960s you get the whole pop Archigram English influence.
cm · That’s when he was part of the Independent Group.
ep · That’s also when he becomes formalised as a Davenport Professor and when he starts sharing the professorship with Venturi. You get this pop influence. Craig Hodgetts is probably the most famous and idiosyncratic student of Stirling at that time. He is an LA architect who also published in Archigram. That episode we called ‘The New City’. You get all the usual shipping containers with flashy colours, space ship architecture, hovering trains and such. Then ‘Urban Insertions’ was the next part of the exhibition that was around the time of the Derby Civic Centre. It’s about how to integrate new architecture into the existing city. This is the period when Leon Krier influenced Stirling. In 1977 to 1978, the Tuscan Government Centre episode we called ‘Architectural Agglomerates’ because it is about figure-ground speculations. These are meaningful dates because this is when Collage City was published. The Nolli map of the mid eighteenth-century became an important document in architecture discourse that led up to the Roma Interrotta workshop in which Stirling designed a quadrant. The last one, we called ‘Fragmented Reality’, which was the Postmodernism of Staatsgalerie and the Sackler Museum, a monumentality but questioned by fragmentation.
cm · The notion of monumentality and the theme of ‘Urban Insertions’ leads me to two questions. The first, to what extent was Stirling an urban architect, an architect interested in the monumentality of singular buildings or an architect interested in urban fabric? And second, does it suggest your idea of the double view of Stirling?
ep · This does get to the question of the double view of Stirling. Whether Stirling was more an architect interested in the object of architecture or in the city, the critics are split. Colquhoun or Frampton didn’t think Stirling was doing anything valuable after he switched around 1975 maybe with the Düsseldorf competition. This is when the split is recognisable. The path through the city becomes the dominant trope in his architecture while before it is more or less constructivist objects that acknowledge the context but are not contextual in the 1970 Colin Rowe or Cornell sense of the word. There were critics, and still are. They say that Stirling was a modernist because of his play on typology. Amanda Lawrence says that in her book, that Stirling is a modernist. For me it doesn’t really matter. Clearly he shifted toward other interests. The city played a big role. 1975 is the cut off date. Was he a postmodernist? Yes, both-and. His later work was as much a play on typology as it was a way to deal with the city as much as his early work. His British buildings are not only constructivist objects but deal with the city yet in a different way.
cm · Do you mean as urban types? Or more abstract geometric types? Both are present in Stirling’s work.
ep · There is a shift from one to another. In his early work he does deal with the city, the city block. How you progress through a block, how you walk by an urban wall. The urban aspect is not as pronounced as it would be later.
cm · So this relates to the double view?
ep · If one wants to understand this double aspect in Stirling, one must look at Auguste Choisy on the one hand, who represented his analysis of Athenian architecture from a worms eye point of view, which for Stirling meant ‘architecture was flying off into space’. What this means is that architecture is detached from the ground, the ground as the repository of metaphysics, of historical information. When architecture flies off, all that matters is the intrinsic logic of the object of architecture: so Choisy on one hand, and Nolli on the other. These are two references that played a major role for Stirling. The Nolli map is not about the ideality of form, it’s not about ideal form, but it is a record of the factuality of the urban texture. So it comes after the fact. It has to do with the here and the now of the city. This double aspect is to combine both in the same thought is a paradox and this paradox is what Stirling played with.
cm · Yes, Choisy is the opposite of Nolli. One represents the object of architecture looking up, the other looks down, one is a singular object the other is a city plan. These opposites are reconciled in Stirling’s work?
ep · You could also say that the double aspect haunts more people than Stirling. Talking about Eisenman, his series of houses are very Choisy-like, although he never represented them as a worms eye view, but they are all about the isolation of the object in a white space: only the object. His shift came later in 1978 with the Cannaregio project that was anti-Nolli, a Piranesian critique of Nolli. But there you have that double aspect as well. You could also take Hejduk; the Texas houses as isolated objects, and then he turns toward his narrative masks. There are others too. Stirling is part of that international shift. Stirling wrote less than many of the others so therefore has been a little forgotten until he has been picked up now by a series of people: Mark Crinson, Vidler, Lawrence, Alan Berman’s Red Trilogy and also the American buildings by Stirling.
cm · The other aspect of this double view is that it allows Stirling and others to formally de-construct the object into elements or components so that these elements or components can be combined and recombined via drawings and in his following projects. There is this serial or repetitive strategy at work.
ep · I like that you use the word elements since this is what we are confronted with at the biennale but it has a different meaning. Indeed, Stirling has his own elements that are autobiographical in the sense that he repeats the tropes he invented, he repeats in later buildings and transforms them again. Tonight I will be making a point about Stirling’s wit. This has everything to do with wit, meaning how do you create new elements of architecture? Stirling does it through wit. I will refer to Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of wit who says wit is to thinking is to disillusion in alchemy is to substances. Meaning wit has the ability to take everything apart: to be so analytic. If you are witty you can see through the logic of objects to the point you can isolate the elements of an object and recombine them in truly inventive and fresh ways because you are not worried about being too serious, you do not need to follow the logic of chemistry when you do alchemy, but you have the ability to combine things that are not combinable. That is what Stirling always did. It allowed him to design buildings that look like they could be taken from certain contexts but they are totally fresh because he turns shit into gold!
cm · It’s interesting; there is a kind of wilful attitude with Stirling.
ep · There is some cheekiness in Stirling. Without a doubt! Even in the early work. For example, Leicester is cheeky. You have to dare to do that. This is a serious university, a serious campus, in a serious country, and he comes along and designs this weird building. Of course it’s not funny yet. The intellectual strategy is analogous between the de-compositional structure of Leicester and later at Düsseldorf or the Staatsgalerie. It becomes more and more funny but you can only be funny when your position is safe enough that the world will take it. If you are funny without having established yourself you are just out. Funny guys don’t survive. Humour is the highest form of the intellect. Everyone can be serious. Only when you get to the serious level you can go beyond and be funny. You have to have it all then you can play with it. That is Stirling’s wit.
cm · Leicester is actually very serious building, so he became very serious quite quickly which then allowed him the opportunity to become wilful or witty, almost immediately.
ep · And he is British. The world expects nothing else from Brits than being funny, weird and eccentric. Krier is from Luxembourg. A Luxembourger cannot be eccentric. The world does not expect a Luxembourger to be eccentric. It is not expected.
cm · So you do it subversively then!
ep · I’m a different generation, part of a global culture where the rules have completely changed. This was not the case in 1971.
cm · So turning from wit to your book Irony, would you say that wit is critical?
ep · Because nobody is able to say yes or no, I think that makes it so. Meaning, there are these terms like wit or irony that we do not know what to do with because they are between everything that we can express in logical words. Irony can be funny but it can also be dead serious. That paradoxical existence of these terms is what attracted me to them. Architecture in my mind is structurally similar to those terms. They are neither this nor that, they just are. They go beyond what we can say about them.
cm · In your book you frame the discussion between the dates 1972 and 2001. The former as the demolition of Pruitt Igoe and the latter the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Beyond these events, what is the purpose of this chronology?
ep · First of all, the dates are polemical. I use them to make a point that things can start and end but in fact things don’t start and end that way. Jacques Derrida has had a big influence on me, partly because of Eisenman’s influence, and surely Mark Wigley’s influence. If you read Derrida it is clear that in texts you will never be able to situate where it begins and where it ends, that books don’t exist because only the text exists and therefore you don’t start at the introduction and end with the conclusion. So if you are influenced by that kind of thinking then you are unable to name dates, to know when things are beginning and ending so you can only quote someone else’s dates. The world expects a date but I don’t take responsibility for it. So in 1972 at 3:32pm on 15th July was Jencks’ ridiculous date for the end of modern architecture. For polemical reasons I use that date and for the same ridiculous reason I said since as Karl Marx says in history things appear first time as tragedy so maybe the death of modern architecture was a tragedy, then they appear a second time when the same fate happens to the buildings of the same architect—Minoru Yamasaki—in another series of buildings are destroyed, the World Trade Centre. If that is the comic version, although I don’t dare go that far, although I pick up in the Irony book newspaper articles that say now we have to get serious again because the World Trade Centre being attacked is a serious issue. It is a critique of the cultural playfulness that the west played; that we need to leave irony behind and move back to seriousness. For me that was extremely dangerous because there are cultures that are less ironic than the western culture and I don’t trust them more than the western culture. For journalists in the West to say we need to leave irony behind would be the ultimate disaster. This for me says that people do not know what irony can give. Irony has something to do with the Socratic way of living that admitted we don’t know everything. There is a modesty in that which is fundamental to western culture and I don’t want to give that up. For Socrates, irony is the idea that we know that we do not know. It is the ultimate paradox. It means we posit systems and critique them at the same time. Postmodernism was all about that, positing something then indicating in the object itself that we are unsure of the metaphysic stability of what we propose. In order to indicate this modesty, architects have used forms, they have questioned forms, simulated ruins, and they pretend that building is not a building but it is another scaffold, it is temporary, it is a fragment of something that is bigger in the imagination. All those different methods of questioning the perfection of the object that at one time was the request of architecture—that architecture represents perfection. A Renaissance church is a piece of perfection here on earth. In the 20th century that was not possible. It was only possible to allude to perfection with a sense of irony. Meaning here is the centralised church again, but the dome is cracked. Or in Koolhaas’ Arnhem Prison project in the drawing by Vriesendorp the dome is flying away.
cm · In the epilogue you say that postmodernism turned architecture into an intellectual discipline. What do you mean by that?
ep · I truly think what made the postmodern moment, mainly the 1970s, what made that so special and different, was the need to intellectualise everything. Architecture had never seen that before. Looking at where we are now, there is a nostalgia for that intellectual moment without the same kind of impact of theory on our discipline. I think that moment was a very intellectual moment. Horace said the world is a tragedy to those who feel it, a comedy to those who think it. It’s a tragedy to those who feel it because everything becomes so heavy. But if you think it, the world is funny. At the moment when architecture became so terribly intellectual it also became very funny at times. Postmodernism had very funny moments. That’s why I got interested in Stanley Tigerman. He is hilarious, also upsetting, but super cheeky. Everything turns into something very funny. He is also someone who said had he not become an architect he would become a Rabbi. He is someone very interested in metaphysics and someone who takes the whole notion of metaphysics seriously but needs to be funny because he could not bear his religious views.
cm · The other great intellectual period of architecture is in the 1920s when you have Le Corbusier, Hilberseimer, Mies, Gropius, Loos, whoever, putting forward theories and projects for architecture and the city in designs and in writings. Can these periods be compared? Is a comparison productive?
ep · Most of the writers from the 1970s who we read and appreciate have something to say about the 1920s. They not only talk about the 1920s but they also appropriate the architecture of the 1920s for their own work. Le Corbusier is so fantastic that it is difficult to not talk about Le Corbusier. He had the ability and the rhetoric that related to all aspects of culture. The only architect today that can do this is Koolhaas. He is the only one with this zeitgeist connection that no one else has. Others have tried to analyse and emulate it but it is not so easy to do.
cm · Turning now to the notion of ‘project’, a notion recently reassessed by Eisenman, Aureli, Daniel Sherer and others. In an issue of Log you open an essay on MVRDV titled ‘Projects for the Post-Ironic City’ with a definition of ‘project’. Can you expand on this idea?
ep · In that text I primarily critique MVRDV’s contribution to Nicholas Sarkozy’s Grand Paris competition in 2008. MVRDV produced a film that begins with a flying cube over Paris, which is supposed to be the volume of the built space that Paris will need for the next twenty years. The cube then nests beside the Eiffel Tower. What I am connecting to is the rhetoric of how architects think how the expansion of Paris will happen. It is very sci-fi in the sense that there is this ‘other’ intelligence that appears above Paris and nests itself in Paris. Once the cube sits on the ground, the cube breaks into numerous small cubes according to a swarm logic, then nest themselves in various locations throughout Paris and so build the future of Paris. My criticism of the MVRDV project is that it views architecture as some otherworldly appearance with its own logic and nothing to do with the cultural milieu that it appears within. I say in that text that this is not how it should work. Why would we want that world? I love sci-fi but in fact we are giving away our human agency. If the city organises itself according to the logic of numbers then we build a city of numbers, a city of statistics, and not a city that has a human project in it. That’s what I mean by project. As a human I don’t want to give away my agency. I don’t want to argue for a coolness of an agency that lies beyond the world or inside a machine or inside an artificial intelligence that will eventually eat me up! When technology takes over then we have nothing to say. What is the end vision of this? It is one that is absolutely uninteresting to me. In the article I start with Kant, who says that man’s enlightened state allows the ability of man to posit a real project by his own volition and by his own intelligence. In MVRDV, which is an important project commissioned by the President of France for one of the most beautiful cities in the world, if that is how the city expands; I don’t want to participate in that. If we leave it to machines, no thanks. They build for the future a city of statistics. Although I like MVRDV buildings, we can make anything look nice, but as architects we need to insist that ideas matter.
cm · The idea of project puts forward a view of agency, of human decision.
ep · The context you mention is mixed with leftist political ideas, which in my mind are dated. Lately they’ve had a Renaissance. In a global world, in a mediatised world, that idea of project that promotes a Bonjour Tristesse meaning the idea of an existentialist melancholia. De Chirico was interesting to Rossi and we understand that in that particular political and cultural context. De Chirico and the beauty of melancholia, of metaphysical poetry, has no impact on the world nowadays. Therefore the discussion of project in our discipline with its sentimentality for 1960s and 1970s leftist politics is nostalgic. The world is in a very different place now.
cm · Does project suggest a melancholic passive subjectivity then? As in we have no agency?
ep · One of the ideas is to give agency, but what agency can be effective in the world you live in? What the left oriented type of project is always interested in imposing ways of living to everybody. In a world where everyone is so mobile and connected, there is a sense of freedom that has emerged that I welcome. I don’t want to be told by the architect how I should live my life. But I like architects who have a strong view on what they think of the world. Yet I feel that the nostalgia of linear buildings that go through cities and destroy the city as much as help bring the city together is architecture slapped in your face. I don’t want to be slapped in the face. I was interested in Peter Sloterdijk who describes the world as the accumulation of individual spheres in which many things can happen. Different ideas should coexist. Today’s nostalgic revival of 1960s and 1970s leftist autonomy project is not adapted to a world in which mobility is increased exponentially and information is circulating fast. It is a different world. Building long walls will not have the same effect as before the Internet was invented. I do not want to say that we are in a crisis moment, where everything has to change in order for it to become the way it should be. That’s often how the critical histories are framed. Think of Tafuri; there’s a crisis and therefore something has to change so we go back to history and change everything. I don’t want to say that because I don’t think this time has a deeper crisis than another time before. It’s always those who think about a certain time they construct a crisis in order to advance their thinking about that time. Sloterdijk says that life is an issue of form. As an architect this interests me because form is the main instrument that architects have. Although Sloterdijk, as a philosopher, takes form metaphorically, then we as architects should take form seriously. It is interesting to read what Sloterdijk says on spherical space and that takes me to look at a building like Jean Nouvel’s Louvre in Abu Dhabi where we suddenly have a huge dome as an urban structure. I tell myself; well we haven’t seen a dome for a long time. The patron for this project is significant, the architect is someone who knows what he is doing, and the function of the building is important. Therefore we have to take this seriously. This was done with a high level of consciousness. After decades of non-linearity, chaotic space, deconstructed forms, all episodes of architectural history where form is fragmented and dissolved, and now we have a dome. What does that mean? I’m saying there is another world being crafted. My suspicion is that it has to do with the ecological threat, the idea we need to protect ourselves against natural things and other human groups. It also has something to do with global space. Meaning there is a museum that looks like a city and when you walk in it, it looks like Venice, but then from the satellite it looks like a dome. It caters to a different spatiality. Although I may not design a building like this, it is a building that is very contemporary and says something about space today.
cm · Yes, it’s a project that says something about architecture as well as culture at a particular historical period, like your MVRDV example that produces a city not made of form but a field of statistics that analogically reflects a particular sensibility. My last few questions relate to Eisenman. Why is he such a good educator?
ep · Two reasons. One, he has a very strong method of reading the world. Secondly, he is brutally honest. He tells you exactly what he thinks. If he sees something that is not working, he will say so. If you are going in the wrong direction, it is not a matter of tweaking the problem to make it better. If you are going in the wrong direction, there is nothing you can do to make it better and you need to think about scratching it and doing something else.