Interview by Cameron McEwan | October 2014
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Emmanuel Petit is an architect, writer, and teacher. He is editor of Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change and is the editor of Schlepping through Ambivalence: Writings on an American Architectural Condition, a book of Stanley Tigerman’s collected essays. Petit is the author of the book Irony, or, The Self-Critical Opacity of Postmodern Architecture and has recently been appointed Sir Banister Fletcher Visiting Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Cameron McEwan: From your point of view and the point of view of colleagues and press in the States, how has this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale been received?

Emmanuel Petit: Without having seen the Biennale yet, it is quite dangerous to say anything. But we know that Koolhaas has a complex relation toward the notion of disciplinarity; for that reason I have the feeling that he is going to tease many architects 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. But I do not have a problem with mediation – cultural mediation, rhetorical mediation, and with intellectual reflection on the world. Where architecture becomes ‘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 – language, history, criticism, and the like. These are the ways you build and cultivate any discipline. Heidegger, who has unfortunately been too much appropriated by those Postmodernists who highlighted the more cozy or heimlich aspect of his otherwise very tough thought, claimed that in order “to be,” you have to cultivate “being.” I feel that it is not so different with the discipline of architecture. Now, I have the suspicion that the Biennale is saying that architecture can be ‘simpler:’ that a look at the physical elements that go into the construction of buildings can somehow be a proxy for everything architecture is about. Having seen in magazines the photograph of a mechanical piece taken from an escalator and placed in the exhibition, I get a bit worried by this religious trust in the material world. I don’t think the steps of an escalator are going to generate the cultural richness and depth one can rightly expect from architecture. If this was the case, then any trade fair could be seen as a precedent for the Biennale; I do not hope this is the intention. In fact the Biennale was created because there was a feeling that trade shows were not good representations of the aspirations of the profession. But before I go on, I would like to see the exhibition first.

Cameron McEwan: Yes, on initial reading it seems like the implication is toward the professionalization of knowledge in architecture, rather than architecture as intellectual reflection. 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.

Emmanuel Petit: The Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal acquired the Stirling & Wilford Archive a bit over a decade ago. The CCA together with the Mellon Centre in New Haven asked Vidler to curate a show on the work of Stirling. In this context, the Yale School of Architecture under its dean Robert A.M. Stern 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. I was interested in Stirling because when I studied in Switzerland, Stirling was virtually the only post-1950 architect we were allowed to talk about. I heard the name ‘Venturi’ maybe once or twice in my six years in Zurich, whereas Stirling was the good guy, the good “postmodernist”… if he was a postmodernist, that is, but I don’t have an issue with that. So I was interested in Stirling anyway because he mastered the balancing act between being considered a modernist and also a postmodernist. He seemed interesting to me. When the opportunity came up to look at the students of Stirling I became interested because it also gave me a way to look at the history of Yale under a whole series of different deanships: starting with Paul Rudolph, who brought Stirling to the States, through Charles Moore, Cesar Pelli and others. This is a pretty relevant period of Yale history. It also allowed me to look at work that was very Stirling-esque without being Stirling and to therefore help me to understand Stirling himself.

Cameron McEwan: What was Stirling’s relationship between his teaching and his practice in London? Was that when James Gowan was a partner?

Emmanuel Petit: The first time Stirling taught at Yale was in 1959 when Leicester started. Rudolph was completely taken by the Leicester building and decided to invite him to come to the States. Stirling loved to go to America. 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, the Sackler gallery, and many more of those projects he had worked on.

Cameron McEwan: These were the project briefs he gave the students?

Emmanuel Petit: 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! … and then a second prize to the student, who came up with a better solution than his own. But yes, a direct parallel between his practice and his studio teaching existed.

Cameron McEwan: How did you distinguish the development of Stirling’s work?

Emmanuel Petit: 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 can start with an analysis of the stuff in front of your nose. The work is there, and you work with that. And for me there were breaks that one could easily perceive and 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 like a casual visitor in the school. That was from 1959 to 1964. The work still looks influenced by then dean Rudolph, but also Louis Kahn and then Kevin Roche – who at that time had completed the Okland … a building that looks like a cascade of terraces built into the ground and to walk on. In Stirling’s studio there was a project that looked exactly like that. In the second half of the 1960s you get the whole Archigram and “English” pop influence.

Cameron McEwan: That’s when he was part of the Independent Group.

Emmanuel Petit: That’s also when he becomes formalised as a Davenport Professor – a Professorship, by the way, which he shared with Robert Venturi. So you get this pop influence. Craig Hodgetts is probably the most famous and idiosyncratic student of Stirling at that time. He is an L.A. architect who also published his projects from the Stirling studio in Archigram. That episode we called “The New City.” You can imagine an architecture out of shipping containers with flashy colours, hovering trains and space ship architecture, and such. Then “Urban Insertions” was the next part of the exhibition and around the time of the Derby Civic Centre. This series of projects dealt with ways to integrate new architecture into the existing city. This is also the period when Léon Krier influenced Stirling. The time from 1977 to 1978, the Tuscan Government Centre episode we called “Architectural Agglomerates” which dealt with speculations about urban figure/ground. This is the exact time when Collage City was published. Giambattista Nolli’s map of the mid eighteenth-century became an important document in architecture discourse at this time, and led up to the Roma Interrotta workshop in which Stirling participated. The last part of the exhibition then we called “Fragmented Monumentality;” these were the late-1970s and early-1980s projects including the Staatsgalerie, the Sackler gallery, and the Cornell Performing Arts Center. All these projects had a sense of monumentality but ‘relativized’ by fragmentation.

Cameron McEwan: 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 this get to your idea of the “double view” of Stirling?

Emmanuel Petit: This question of the ‘double view’ of Stirling considers whether Stirling was more interested in the object of architecture, or in the city; because it is over this issue the critics are split. Colquhoun or Frampton didn’t think Stirling did anything valuable after around 1975 when Stirling participated in the Düsseldorf competition with his famous ‘lyrical’ project. This is the moment when Stirling’s turn becomes recognisable. The path through the city becomes the dominant trope in his architecture whereas before, he works with Constructivist objects that acknowledge the context but are in no way contextual in the 1970 Colin Rowe/Cornell sense of the word. Some critics still go on saying that Stirling was a modernist because his most important thematic was the play on typology. But he also clearly shifted toward other interests in the mid-1970s. His later work was as much a play on typology as it was a way to deal with the city. His British buildings are not only Constructivist objects but they also respond to the city; and they certainly do it in a different way than the Staatsgalerie.

Cameron McEwan: Do you mean as urban types? Or more abstract geometric types? Both are present in Stirling’s work.

Emmanuel Petit: 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.

Cameron McEwan: Does this relate to the double view? Can you expand on that?

Emmanuel Petit: 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.” In this view of things, architecture is detached from the ground – the ground as the repository of metaphysics and of historical information. When architecture flies off, all that matters is the intrinsic logic of the object of architecture. And then Giambattista Nolli on the other hand. These are two references that played a major role for Stirling. Unlike Choisy, Nolli is not about the ideality of 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. Stirling could combine both in the same project: this is a paradox Stirling loved to play with.

Cameron McEwan: 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.

Emmanuel Petit: You could also say that the double aspect haunts more people than only Stirling at that time. Peter Eisenman, for one, in his series of houses in the 1970s are very Choisy-like, although he never represented them as a worms eye view, they are all about the isolation of the object in a white space. Eisenman then also shifted to other themes, in 1978, with the Cannaregio project which was anti-Nolli, or a Piranesian critique of Nolli. But there you have that double aspect as well. You can also find it in John Hejduk: the Texas houses are isolated objects, but then he turns toward his narrative and poetic architectural stories. There are others too. So Stirling is part of that more general turn of thinking in architecture. Stirling wrote less than the others but has now been picked up and studied by a series of people: Mark Crinson, Tony Vidler, Amanda Lawrence, and Alan Berman.

Cameron McEwan: 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.

Emmanuel Petit: I like that you use the term ‘elements’ since this is at the notion we now find in the Biennale… only here it has been given a different meaning. Indeed, Stirling has his own ‘autobiographical’ elements – autobiographical in the sense that he invents tropes he later repeats and transforms in new buildings. It is a very witty thing to do, and in fact, tonight I will be making a point about Stirling’s wit. How you create new elements of architecture has everything to do with wit. I will refer to Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of this notion when he claims that wit is to thinking what dissolution is in alchemy. This is to say that wit has the ability to take everything apart and reassemble in unexpected ways. If you are witty you can see through the logic of objects and recombine them in truly inventive and fresh ways because you are not worried about being too serious, and because you have the intellectual faculty to combine things that are not (logically) combinable. That is the technique Stirling always used. It allowed him to design buildings that look like they could be taken from certain contexts but they are totally fresh because like alchemists he could turn shit into gold!

Cameron McEwan: It’s interesting, there is a kind of wilful attitude with Stirling!

Emmanuel Petit: There is some serious cheekiness in Stirling. Without a doubt! Even in the early work. For example, Leicester is cheeky. You have to have the guts to do what he did with that building on one of those English university campuses where you are probably not even permitted to utter bad words. 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 really funny, but it sure is cheeky and witty. The intellectual strategy is similar later at Düsseldorf or in Stuttgart. In the later work he becomes funnier, 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. Yet humour is the highest form of the intellect. Everyone manages to be serious, but very few manage to be funny or witty.

Cameron McEwan: Leicester is a very serious building so he became very serious, quite quickly which then allowed him the opportunity to become wilful or witty, almost immediately.

Emmanuel Petit: And he is British. By now the world expects from Brits to be funny and eccentric. Krier is from Luxembourg. A Luxembourger cannot be eccentric and the world does not expect somebody from Luxembourg to be eccentric.

Cameron McEwan: So you do it subversively then!

Emmanuel Petit: Oh I’m of a very different generation, which is part of a global culture where these national differences have eroded and where the rules and expectations have completely changed. But this was not the case in 1971. This was the time when Brits were supposed to be funny.

Cameron McEwan: So turning from wit to your book Irony, would you say that wit is a critical category?

Emmanuel Petit: 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 beyond what we usually express with logical words. Irony can be funny but it can also be dead serious. That paradoxical simultaneity of such opposite meanings is what attracted me to them. Architecture in my mind is structurally similar to those terms. It is neither this nor that, it just ‘is.’ And it always goes beyond what we can say about it, yet we have no choice but to keep talking: words are a building material you cannot do without, but they are very fragile and can easily leak; and when your sentences about architecture leak, the client won’t be happy!

Cameron McEwan: In Irony 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?

Emmanuel Petit: First of all, the dates are polemical, and I clearly say that in the introduction. I use them to make a point that things can start and end but in fact things don’t start and end that way; it is historiography that orders the past in such a way that stories have a beginning and an end. Jacques Derrida has had a big influence on me, partly because of Eisenman’s and Mark Wigley’s influence. If you read Derrida, it becomes clear that in texts you can never situate beginnings and endings. So if you believe this sort of intellectual ideology, which I do, then you are unable to name dates and know when things are beginning and ending: all you can do is quote someone else’s dates. The world expects a date but I don’t take responsibility for it. So Jencks famously dated the end of modern architecture at 3:32pm on 15th July 1972. I use that date and for the same ridiculous reason I quoted Karl Marx saying that in history things first appear as tragedy and then as parody: in my book, I point out that the same fate happened to the buildings of the same architect – Minoru Yamasaki – but for different reasons: first the Pruitt-Igoe buildings go down, then the World Trade Center. And the fact that irony brought down the Twin Towers was not my claim, but it was what all these journals and newspapers claimed at the time: it was they who claimed that now the Western countries have to get serious again because they sustained their culture on irony. It is a critique of the cultural playfulness of the West: that we need to leave irony behind and move back to seriousness. For me that was an extremely dangerous proposition because there are of course cultures that lack any sense of irony, and you would not want to trust them more than you trust the West! For journalists in the West to say we need to leave irony behind would be the ultimate disaster. Irony has something to do with the Socratic way of living which is fundamental to our way of being. Socratic irony is based on an intellectual self-awareness and modesty which I don’t want to give up. ‘To know that we don’t know’ is to posit systems and critique them at the same time. Postmodernism was all about that… to posit something and then indicate that we are unsure of the metaphysical stability of what we propose. In order to indicate this modesty, architects insinuated that buildings are mere fragments of something that is bigger in the imagination. All those different methods of questioning the perfection of the object which at one time was the request of architecture – that architecture represents perfection. 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.

Cameron McEwan: In the Epilogue you say that postmodernism turned architecture into an intellectual discipline. What do you mean by that?

Emmanuel Petit: I truly think what made the postmodern moment so special and different, was the need to intellectualise everything. Architecture had never seen that before. And today, to just mention an intellectual thought in architecture is seen as suspicious – everything seems to be about computation and fabrication: wherever that will get us! Horace Walpole 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 inevitably funny. At the moment when architecture became so terribly intellectual it also became very funny at times. Postmodernism had very funny moments. That’s the reason I got interested in Stanley Tigerman. He is hilarious, also upsetting, but super cheeky. With him, everything turns 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.

Cameron McEwan: 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?

Emmanuel Petit: Yes, but that was also a different kind of ‘intellectual.’ And 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. 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 most zeitgeisty of all living architects.

Cameron McEwan: Turning now to the category of project, a category recently reassessed by Eisenman, Pier Vittorio 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?

Emmanuel Petit: In that text I primarily critique MVRDV’s contribution to Nicholas Sarkozy’s Grand Paris competition in 2008. MVRDV produced a film which begins with a flying cube over Paris which is supposed to represent the volume of the built space that Paris will need for the next twenty years. The cube then nests beside the Eiffel Tower. The image evokes sci-fi precedents in the sense that it suggests that an “other” intelligence appears in the sky over Paris and then nests itself in the city. Once the cube sits on the ground, this ‘mothership’ breaks into numerous small cubes according to a swarm logic, which then nest themselves in various locations throughout Paris: this is how the future of Paris gets built. My criticism of the MVRDV project is that it views architecture as some otherworldly appearance with its own logic that acts independently of the cultural sphere. Now why would we want that sort of world? I love sci-fi but I don’t see the point of pretending that the future city gets built by a non- human agency. If the city organises itself according to the logic of numbers, as MVRDV argue, and if we build a city of numbers and of statistics, then we capitulate to pragmatism and lose our ability to intervene in the environment. That’s what I mean by ‘project.’ I don’t see the point in arguing for an agency that lies beyond the world or inside a machine or inside an artificial intelligence that will eventually eat me up! I like it in films when I devour popcorn, but find it infantile in the real world. What is the end vision of this? It certainly is one that is absolutely uninteresting to me. In the article I start with a reference to Immanuel Kant, who says that man’s enlightened state allows man to posit a real project by his own volition and by his own intelligence. It seemed to me that MVRDV’s project argues against this idea of enlightenment without, however, proposing an attractive alternative to it. I refuse to think of a city as a sort of code, where quantities get mechanically translated into spaces; how is that for pragmatism!

Cameron McEwan: So ‘project’ is a category that puts forward a view of agency, of human decision.

Emmanuel Petit: The context you mention is mixed with very leftist political ideas, which in this form are dated. But lately they’ve had a renaissance. This idea of project promotes an aesthetic of bonjour tristesse and of existentialist melancholia. In other words, we understand why De Chirico was interesting to Rossi and in that particular political and cultural context. But De Chirico and the aesthetics of melancholia and of metaphysical poetry, has no impact on the mediatised and digitalised world today: it’s simply ineffective to cause cultural change. Therefore the discussion of the notion of project in architecture carries a taste of sentimentality for 1960s and 1970s leftist politics and is often nostalgic. The world is in a very different place now.

Cameron McEwan: Does project suggest a melancholic passive subjectivity then? As in we have no agency?

Emmanuel Petit: One of the ideas is to give agency, but what agency can be effective in the world you live in? We cannot impose ways of living to everybody. In a world where everyone is so mobile and connected, there is a sense of freedom that has emerged, and I welcome it. I don’t want to be told by the architect how I should live my life just as much as I don’t want to be told by the government in which town I should live and where I should work. But I do expect the architect to propose an authored view of the world when designing a building. I have been very interested in Peter Sloterdijk lately who describes the world is the accumulation of individual spheres in which many things can happen side-by-side. 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. We live in a different world. Building long walls that slice through cities as a ‘critical’ act will not have the same effect as before the internet was invented, and when Superstudio proposed them in their original version. 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 that 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 events and against 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.

Cameron McEwan: 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?

Emmanuel Petit: He is the best teacher I have met, and that for 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 and nothing else. If he sees something that he thinks 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 do something else. It is a method of teaching and communicating that is absolutely effective.

Cameron McEwan: And Eisenman is in the book on Colin Rowe that you’re working on now. What will be included in the book?

Emmanuel Petit: Ten texts by ten architects and an introduction by me. The contributing architects were all close to Rowe but then tried to get away from him by turning towards very different interests. They include: Maxwell, Vidler, Eisenman, Ungers, Krier, Koolhaas, Colquhoun, Slutzky, Hoesli, and Tschumi. Had Stirling and Hejduk been alive they would certainly be included. The book testifies to the many directions architectural theory took in the second half of the 20th century.

Cameron McEwan: I look forward to reading it. Thanks very much for this interview.