Interview with Samuel Penn, December 2016

samuel penn · When we organized this interview we decided that it would be nice to talk about some of your influences; the Renaissance and Robert Venturi. One example that you find particularly potent is the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo. I wonder if you could explain why you think it’s an important reference in your work?

thomas padmanabhan · For us the Laurentian Library is one of these examples where there is a lot of architecture in a very small space and in a relatively small project. The Laurentian Library itself is built within an existing monastery complex and it only consists of two spaces, the staircase space and the library hall, and we’re mostly interested in the staircase, and in the idea that architecture can have an incredible intensity and depth in limited dimensions, within a limited scope, and yet contain everything that architecture is about. We think the importance of architecture and the scale of the building are not connected. You can have entire cities without any real architecture and you can have a single interior space that contains all the architecture of an age.

oliver lütjens · I want to be a bit more precise. It’s not the staircase that we’re interested in, it’s the vestibule; it’s basically the walls. Of course the staircase is amazing too, but when we speak about the Laurentian Library, or look at the library, we mostly look at the walls, and there are many things about those walls that we could talk about, and I’m not sure if we should do it now or maybe you have another question?

sp · No, I’m quite happy for you to talk about it.

tp · What we’re interested in is not to read it as a classical or a classicist system of architectural elements that form a consistent whole. Instead we are interested in seeing it as a conglomerate of independent architectural elements that come together, that are almost forced to come together. In other words, there are columns and there are pieces of walls that also project as volumes, and then there are all kinds of other architectural elements that are not connected in a conventional manner, but stand side by side, and by their proximity they create an entity and a wholeness, and that’s what we are interested in. We are interested in things that are independent, where each thing has its own value, and when they come together they form a whole without losing their value as individual pieces.

ol · I think in Michelangelo’s work this is always put to an extreme, I mean, Heinrich Wölfflin defined the Renaissance. Like Thomas said, it’s about individual pieces coming together, and he compares it to the Baroque which is kind of about one thing, where the individual thing doesn’t stand out anymore, but gets merged in order to form a whole. And with Michelangelo I think this individual piece, the intensity is at its highest, and in the Laurentian Library it’s not just the pieces but also the space between the pieces in that wall. It’s just amazing that when you look how close the columns stand together, or how close they are to those wall pieces, that there is another little pilaster between the column and the wall piece, and the space that they define, I think this is also incredibly beautiful, and so full of tension.

tp · To make the argument in a very general way, Roman architecture took a lot of the vocabulary of Greek architecture, the columns and the systems of columns, but it became an architecture that was mostly about mass and walls. So they somehow had to find ways to reconcile the question of the column versus the question of the wall, the treatment of the wall. That conflict between the wall and that kind of system of columns and horizontals, and that conflict continued in the Renaissance. In the 19th century people were looking back at the Renaissance through the eye of classicism, they felt the Renaissance was the beginning of a consistent grammar of architecture, where walls and columns are put in a correct relationship. We don’t believe in that. We think there is a conflict that is going on that cannot be resolved, there is no resolution between the basic idea of the column and the basic idea of the wall. But the collision of both and the contradiction and that tension between both is fantastic and can be exploited. So we are trying to sort of erase the classicist reading by looking more directly at Renaissance architecture.

ol · I think this is interesting because the Renaissance, in a short period of time, was incredibly inventive, all these facades or walls, they don’t really have a canon, everything is done in a different way, there’s individual solutions, and that’s very beautiful and they are very rich, and there’s so much you can learn from, no?

tp · It’s a bit like when you look at the early development of the human species. There was the Neanderthal man, you know, and all these different ancestors of ours, and we know a lot of them were unsuccessful, or didn’t have followers and somehow died out. Just like this the Renaissance developed so many, many ideas, and some of them became successful in the Baroque period or in classicism later, and others not. We are not interested in that architectural lineage, but we are interested in the creativity of each of these individual architects. So for example, in an odd way the architecture of Alberti is like a Neanderthal man, I mean he did fantastic buildings, but he did not develop models that were copied over and over again, like say, Vignola. We like to look at the creativity of the Renaissance architects, just as we look at the creativity of architects today.

sp · But is this not also a response to the culture we see around us today. Do you think there’s a link?

tp · I think there’s a strong link, and the link is precisely that we are in an age where we don’t believe in total design, we don’t believe in the modernist promise of having full control over design and the happiness of people through architecture. We think we are powerless and we can create bits and pieces in the city, in a kind of fragmented city, in an incoherent city, but we think that these bits and pieces can be really powerful.

ol · And another thing that we think makes the Renaissance contemporary in a way, or very urgent today, is that these guys built with very little means. The construction of these buildings is quite straightforward and simple. It’s usually a lot of plaster or other materials that are rather cheap. It’s not based on fantastic travertine or marble. It’s actually done in kind of a cheap way. It’s more about language than about craftsmanship, and we see a direct link to our times with the insulated building and walls that have to become thicker and thicker, but actually need to be thin to get the most area out of the building. You can’t rely on the pure thick concrete wall anymore, especially not in buildings that are in the city.

tp · Another parallel to the Renaissance situation is that we are not interested in the ideal visions of the Renaissance. We are interested in how the Renaissance was able to insert new architecture, new ideas, into the kind of compromised grown fabric of the medieval city. Most of the Renaissance projects are really insertions into existing medieval situations, and also the perceived chaos or organic character of these situations. And in some way we recognize our city in that relationship. We know that our cities today have no coherent idea of how they should develop, they are fragmented, they have many voices, and they represent in a way perfectly also our understanding of society that has many voices.

sp · Is this also why you’re interested in Venturi, because he understood pluralism? Is there something specific about him and his work that you find important today?

ol · There are many reasons why we like Venturi. I mean first of all, he’s a really good architect and his buildings have an incredible quality. But what is conceptually interesting about him is that he was looking at architecture just as what it was. When he wrote Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture he wasn’t really interested in the context of these buildings and in the history of these buildings, he was interested in the forms, he was interested in the language, and he describes bits of that language in the buildings and tries to conceptualise them. And this way of looking at architecture, we think is really fruitful, because you really need to look at the work and see what the formal possibilities are. And then you can translate that into the sensibility of your own time, and this is exactly what Venturi did. Another thing that’s really interesting is when he was building in these American suburbs, he wasn’t really looking, I mean, he was looking at the city around and tried to make buildings that were inclusive of their context and where the building is sited, but actually he was addressing a cultural framework that was much broader, that was really about historic precedent. That’s also a way of understanding an urban culture.

tp · What Ollie is describing is another way to understand context. It’s an idea of architecture in a cultural context that includes everything that the architects wanted to include, basically the common memory, in this case, western European architectural culture. Another thing about Venturi is of course that we think there is an incredibly positive tension between his book and his own work. His book is a huge promise, and in his first works he is continuously trying to fulfill that promise, and we find in many cases that he is very successful in fulfilling that promise. But the promises he makes in his book are multifaceted, so you could kind of build your whole career by looking at this book and thinking about what it promises.

sp · What promise did you take from it?

tp · It’s the promise that when you read through that book and you see the examples, and you look through your own work, that you don’t want to be disappointed.

ol · The promise is that architecture can be incredibly beautiful and complex and rich, and can be many things at the same time, and it can address many things at the same time, and that it doesn’t rely on where the building is, and it doesn’t rely on how the building is built, it relies on other things. This is what this book promises and this is what is really amazing because it actually allows you to do real architecture, wherever you live.

sp · I don’t want to reduce the discussion to essentials, because that never leads anywhere, but in the Laurentian and now when you talk about Venturi, you talk about a language of architecture. As I say, without reducing it, what do you mean in terms of a language of architecture?

ol · Laughs.

sp · Laughs—sorry to put you on the spot. I said without going into essentials.

ol · I think the language is about what you say and about how you say it, and we think the question of what you say is first where you’re based in history and time, which problems are given to you by your time, and we have for example the problem of the city which we talked about before. And then there’s how you say something depends on the common cultural experience. And that common cultural experience for us includes Michelangelo, but it also includes the art experience of the 20th and 21st century. For us, the experience through art and also through modern architecture cannot be excluded from our thinking; it’s part of it. So we like to look at architecture in a way so there’s no contradiction between these things, so that it’s one continuous way of looking at our profession.

tp · But I think you’re avoiding the question about the language, don’t you—laughs? I think we believe that ultimately architecture is about form. Architecture is a visual language in which form is constructed through different architectural elements in proportional relation to each other, like words in a sentence. When we talk about facades, or other things, we often talk about expression, which I’m not sure if it means the same thing in German as it means in English. In German the correct term is Ausdruck, expression sound to me a little bit too much like expressionism, and I’m not sure that’s correct.

ol · You could say that the Laurentian Library is quite muscular in a way, whereas Venturi’s mother’s house is quite flat, or let’s say there’s a lot of surface, and it’s about very fine things in that surface and therefore the building feels very light. So, those are things that I think connect to language, but I wouldn’t say we are super interested in a proper classical language.

tp · Let’s take an example from theatre. If you have a play by Shakespeare that was written many hundreds of years ago, and you have a very good actor, he will read the words of the play or recite them in a way that will seem fresh and of our day. For us it’s the same in architecture. When we do something we look at it and we discuss and we try to find out whether it’s fresh and of our day, but that’s not an ideological judgment, it’s a judgment of the eye. And the more we are able to re-appropriate elements and turn them into something fresh just like Robert Venturi did in his Mother’s House, the happier we are, because we feel enriched by the things we are able somehow to recover from history.

sp · I think you’re probably right. When we work on a building we’re never fully in control of making a language, or making a form, or a space. We tend to fight with a project. It tells us what it wants to be, and then sometimes we don’t like it, and sometimes it doesn’t tell us anything, but we certainly feel that when we’re working at that formal/spatial level, that there are right ways of doing things and wrong ways, and we try to strike the balance, or find imbalance. What I’m getting at, in terms of a language, is that it might not be purely cultural, not purely about something that you can refer to somewhere in the discipline. I think there are probably certain things that are continually wrestled with by architects trying to create certain spaces.

ol · Definitely, yes. I mean even Mies when he would speak of the Seagram Building, how it’s all about steel and glass, and that this is the construction of the time and it’s kind of as if the building would be the result of the way he chooses to build a building with steel. But then he glues many steel mullions on the facade, and these are means of language. Those are about trying to unify the facade and to make the volume one thing, and give it a certain delicacy and so on, and he was judging with 1:1 samples the proportions of those steel volumes for months until he could decide which were the proper ones. That’s the work of the architect on the language of architecture, and it has little to do with how the building is really constructed.

tp · Going back to Robert Venturi. I think for us, and certainly for him, the art and pop art and the different art surrounding pop art were very important for him to find his version of an architectural language. And I’m pretty sure that some of this art helped him to transform some of the elements and linguistic ideas of architecture into his architecture and into an architecture that felt right for that moment and time.

ol · And all that is well before he started to work with ‘signs’ and that sort of thing, which was then too much pop art and not enough architecture anymore. It’s not that he built bad buildings after Learning from Las Vegas but everything tends to be more didactic and conceptual, and the way he explains it are the same Las Vegas arguments over and over, even with buildings that he built before and didn’t have anything to do with his later ideas. It’s a bit of a pity but I guess it was just the success of Learning from Las Vegas that made him play his role and sell his architecture that way. But most of the houses that he built after are still great.

sp · I’d like to move the conversation to teaching. You often give the students two images to start with a Renaissance building and sometimes a Venturi or another more modern building.

ol · Yes, we work with pairs and there’s always a building from the Renaissance and one from the 20th century that form a pair together.

sp · Why do you do this?

ol · Working with references in teaching is very fruitful because it avoids for you to fall into contemporary banal things. It forces the students, but also us, to be experimental about things, and by doing a pair there is a space opening up between the two references. That’s something we discovered in our own work. I think the first pair was between Thomas and myself when we tried to communicate a vision for a building, and we put together a pair, and all of a sudden it had an incredible energy. The building just had a rectangular shape and we could see this and that at the same time. So a pair of references produces a certain energy and it produces a certain space, and within that space there’s probably an infinite amount of variables in how you interpret that pair. That makes it really great in teaching because, you know, some of the pair we use to explain our buildings, and some of them we use as inspiration, but then we give the same ones to the students and completely different projects arise from that. But it’s also kind of a guideline. If the students go too far off, and they kind of lose track, then you can always say, hey, look at what Michelangelo did, look at this idea, that constellation, this proportion, couldn’t you do that and that with your building as well, and then they learn from the reference but also they learn from their own project.

sp · Do you think by focusing on making the object look a certain way, by focusing on facade, you avoid dealing with the fundamental problems or questions of architecture?

tp · I think it’s not the case, because we find that in our generation, or architects of the present time often have problems with the expression of a building, and we think this method of teaching is somehow giving the expression and the facade of the building its own autonomy. It gives the students trust that the expression of the building has its own value and stands, in a way, on its own feet, that the expression of a building is a dialogue together with the plan and the interior structure of the building, it’s not a result, there’s no linear process, but you need an idea, a vision, a kind of Vorstellung an imaginary thing about the expression of the building to be able to design it. And that of course goes against the widespread idea of modern architecture, that the exterior of the building is the result of interior functions or needs, and with that idea of course we disagree.

sp · For Roger Diener the facade was an important question too, at least in his early projects. Were you aware, when you were working for him, of the influence it would have on your own work?

ol · I guess we were already interested in facades before. I was very interested in urban buildings and I loved Álvaro Siza and I loved Robert Venturi and it’s kind of by chance that I got into Roger’s office. I think what we learned most from him was that architecture is kind of an intellectual adventure, that it’s a leap into the unknown, and that there is a lot of doubt on the way, there’s a lot of struggle on the way, there are chaotic moments, but what was great in Diener’s office was that there was a lot of talk or discussions about the projects. It’s not like Roger is someone who sketches something and then gives it to someone who draws it and then there’s an iteration of a further development, there are open and long discussions about projects. And I guess when Thomas and myself started out the discussion was from the beginning in the centre of our design process and it still is.

tp · I remember the first competition we did together for a small building in Zürich, and the building on the corner in an urban context had quite an abstract rationalist façade, but we, from the first day tried to enrich it with a lot of secondary meanings, different in scales, Sockel (pedestal) and different lines, multiple readings and so on. Do you remember that Ollie? Yes, and so behind this kind of mute rationalist frame there was another interest in complexity, and also in a multifaceted idea of architecture that in our work developed further and further, and brought us to a place where Roger Diener would not go, because his work is dedicated to the architectural and cultural context of the 20th century. That’s his starting point and that’s also the limits he imposed on himself.

sp · It’s interesting that you mention doubt, that you doubt during the process. How do you know when something is right?

ol · Well, we try to produce work that is accurate, all the time actually.

tp · Ollie, it’s the process, I think it’s the process and we go step by step, and we have doubts about the steps, but we are quite confident that the process will get us somewhere we haven’t been before.

ol · No but what I wanted to say about being accurate is that we produce either a model or a drawing that has a certain accuracy so that we can then discuss it, and that’s the point from which you take the next step, you erase or move something and all of a sudden things solve themselves.

sp · This is the dialogue was talking about earlier. Not the dialogue between the two of you, but the dialogue you have with the thing you’re trying to create.

tp · Exactly yes, and we are in a way lucky because the jobs we get have a lot of constraints. They leave very little space for fundamental doubts. So when we start, like any other architect, we have to investigate the building laws, the volume and the constraints. Once we know that we usually have a very ugly starting point for our projects.

sp · Yes very ugly! I’m not talking about yours in particular, but form is very ugly.

tp · Yes—laughs, but we don’t have to blame ourselves for that ugliness. That’s a relief. So we can start from there.

sp · That is a relief! I hadn’t thought of it like that. Do you usually find that you start from something ugly?

ol · We don’t consciously think about ugliness of course. We just start. We realised, in the ten years that we are working together, that a banal starting point is usually quite okay, and that the ideas, the beauty, the cultural context and all that kind come along the way. We very rarely start out with a brilliant idea, and then the building is just that brilliant idea. We realise that you can start and you can accumulate things. You can accumulate ideas, many ideas, every element can have its own idea, and that therefore the building just gets richer and richer and more refined, and yes of course sometimes there are ugly bits in it. We try not to be too elegant I guess.

sp · I wasn’t suggesting that you try to create ugly buildings. What I was saying was that architectural form, at its most basic is quite an ugly thing, is quite big and cumbersome, and that you have to do quite a lot of work to refine it. In the end it’s difficult to make something wholly beautiful, that some of that basic form will always remain, and maybe should remain. When you look at the Laurentian, you see something beautiful but also quite brutal and elemental. The proportions of the space are not easy to handle.

ol · And I think it’s a bit an illusion. I guess we admire the work of Oswald Mathias Ungers for that reason, because he really tried to make the perfect project, and he realised that he failed somehow, but he went to the end to complete failure and then he tried something else. But yes of course, if you try to do the perfect project it gets very hermetic and it connects to nothing.

tp · Fortunately most of the Swiss programmes are very compromised and very difficult and you have to squeeze a building on to the site. So that’s a big advantage because we can be very idealistic without falling into Unger’s trap to somehow idealise the project until it’s dead.

sp · Ungers also suffered a lot because of this.

ol · Yes he even lived in his perfect building, House without Characteristics, when he was in his seventies. He moved in to this white thing with his wife, and sat on his own furniture, and it probably had a lot of acoustic problems.

tp · And it probably hurt him to sit in his chairs—laughs.

sp · Yes, probably a lot—laughs. Is there any more we can say about the Laurentian Library? I’d like to think about it some more. I mean it’s very much an interior space.

ol · Yes, and it doesn’t really feel like an interior space, does it? It’s an architecture that seems to have been created for an exterior.

sp · If it were on the exterior it wouldn’t be as interesting or good?

ol · Yes, and we realised, and it wasn’t very conscious, that in the last two buildings we didn’t really build interiors as well. They were more like architectural pieces put together. There wasn’t a notion of an enclosed space with its own wall cladding; they were more like urban plans in a way.

tp · We were even trying to, in terms of colour and materiality and the scale of the elements, we tried to bring the scale from the outside into the inside of the building, so that there’s no break of scale between the kind of brutal scale on the outside and the delicate one on the inside, but that it’s more like one thing. It has something to do with two things. First we had no idea of an interior culture that we think is relevant today, and the clients and users have no consistent interior culture. The way people live today is a bit nomadic, with not so much furniture, single pieces and things that they can easily transport from one place to the next. So the architecture is not just there to provide a neutral background for a complex interior arrangement, but it’s more that the architecture provides a specific interior landscape for someone to dwell for a certain and limited time.
sp · In contrast to another period in time, let’s say when Loos was designing houses?

tp · Or even when modernist housing was done and claiming that it was neutral. It’s like an architecture that you want to make specific, but specific as an architecture, and not user specific, our interiors are specific to the building, so they can be a very clear and obvious dialogue partner to the person that moves in.

ol · But we still think there are many possibilities of how you can live in those buildings, and many possibilities about what style of furniture the inhabitants bring, that doesn’t really matter, we don’t design something that can only be lived in with Eames furniture. I think we try to be generous, not make neutral space, but specific space.

sp · Of course specific, and I think you’ve said this before, that interiors should be figurative. So your work has something to do with being resistant to the neutrality in our culture.

ol · I think we also try to provide a certain richness of space so that there are small and big scales, compression and relief, so that the apartments themselves have a certain richness and more than one sense of space. So we have a few projects lately that use columns or pillars. Sometimes there is a single pillar that acts as focal or gravitation point in the space. For instance in the house in Binningen the pillar connects or ties three spaces together. It also helps to layer the space. It defines one big space and at the same time three different spaces. It is productive as an element that is totally different from the white walls.

sp · Your projects seem very coherent and formed at the moment, almost like a style. One could say that from Binningen onward it’s possible to trace a consistent line of thought. Are there things that you’re exploring that are taking you in different directions, or do you work on different ideas project by project?

tp · For us it’s project by project. However, for us there’s an interesting tension that we are feeling more strongly in the last projects between the heroic modernists versus, I wouldn’t say classical but another kind of architectural sensitivity. In the cultural context of Swiss-German architecture at the moment, we find some Neo-Conservative undertones, and we find ourselves, at least mentally, in a position where we stress our modernist side a bit more.

sp · Do you mean in terms of being more socialist?

tp · No, I think one of the ideas of Modernism was self-consciousness, honesty in a way, honesty to yourself, and the acceptance of being out there in the modern world, without glossing that reality over. And we are really interested in the condition of the modern time when you are exposed to what life is really about. That’s a reaction to some tendencies that surround us where architecture is kind of trying to soothe you, you know, protect you from the evils of the modern world. That’s not good. In modern architecture from the first part of the 20th century there were two currents I think. There was the current where architects tried to express equality and emancipation, the new world, and there was another phase of modern architecture where the brutality of mass society and authority and the meaninglessness of the single individual also became expressed. Russian Constructivism was always walking the line between liberating the people and reflecting a scale of society where the individual was at risk. And the question of mass society, even in our individualised society today, is one of the main questions, and so to pretend that we can work locally, and that we are not somehow subject to these forces is just not true. For example in the Herdernstrasse building, we thought of that building as being a bit Russian, in a kind of constructivist way, and it was a way of thinking about the darkness, the dark side of the building. We think it’s a successful building, not because it’s a happy building, but because it has a dark side to it. It’s basically the reality of the slaughterhouse next to it and the stadium that is not only bright, not only happy. This is not a pessimistic position. It’s rather the contrary, it’s an optimistic position, that a building can express these things but also give value to a situation like that.

sp · Yes, but in theatre or in poetry you would never even think to justify yourself in these terms, in terms of optimism or pessimism. A poem can express something pessimistic and be a great work.

ol · Yes that’s true, but I think architecture should always be optimistic. I’m not saying it should deny dark sides, definitely not, but it should be optimistic about life in the city. It should be giving and not taking.

tp · I guess the pessimistic or cynical is the commercial architecture we see all around us, where no thought is given to the kinds of things we’re talking about here.

ol · In some of the architecture that surrounds us at the moment in Switzerland there’s a kind of propagandistic undertone to some of the architecture, where community is evoked where there’s no community, where the visuals of the architecture are trying to evoke a bourgeois life that is long gone, and a city life that is long gone, and that same architecture is sometimes also operating with the idea of the authentic, and we think that often that idea of the authentic is propagandistic, almost in a socialist propaganda way.

sp · Is this something you want to explore further?

ol · It really depends I would say. We just did a school competition, which illustrates perfectly what Thomas is describing, and it’s very visible. At Herdernstrasse it might be a little less visible, but it’s also because it’s quite a small building. This other building is quite big and it also has a certain relentlessness, but at the same time also a fineness. It really breathes in this kind of cold modern condition.

tp · We think it will be a wonderful school for children.

ol · So in our work, even though we like Venturi and also some of the postmodern architecture, there’s no irony and nothing of that cynicism, nothing where we pretend that something is what it is not. I guess we are quite visible and vulnerable and idealistic. We don’t try to keep a distance, we try to engage.

sp · How do you try to engage?

ol · Laughs—that’s a typical Samuel Penn question! It’s like Boris Becker standing at the net and immediately smashing back. He’s done that so many times on me—laughs! I thought I made a really good point, then there’s a pause and, zack, a volley back!

tp · Laughs—no, it’s when you encounter a problem in a design, then you should try to turn it into something that has a value, so we don’t try to supress the problem. And I think that’s one of the differences to the majority of the architects before us in Switzerland, where many things were supressed so you could reach a kind of purity of design, and we don’t like to supress them, but to think that as many things as possible should have a voice within the project.

ol · It also comes from the fact that we usually build in very crappy conditions, in contexts where there is no architectural imperative, how what you do should look like, there’s no tradition you could lean on, because we always build in situations where there’s a wild mix of different scales. So, there’s a lot that our buildings have to provide in order to give a certain sense to the place.

sp · But I think there are other architects working in similar contexts that don’t react in the way you do.

ol · Yes, most in fact.

sp · So you arrive from an intellectual context. My hunch is that you would do this anyway, even if you were in Porto or in Edinburgh, in a stone city.

tp · That’s a really interesting proposition. I think if we had a client in Edinburgh we would have sleepless nights.

ol · Yes, how could you not build a stone building in that context? You couldn’t use these fibre-cement panels that we work with here. That would be totally ridiculous I guess. I can’t say what we would do. We think it would be totally arrogant to build a shabby cheap building next to one of these stone buildings Edinburgh.

sp · So how would you deal with a situation like that, if you had a classical context?
ol · Getting slightly sweaty hands! It would be interesting to find out, but yes, we don’t know.

tp · It would be very interesting to know if we have learned enough outside the city, to be able to continue along the same lines in the centre of a city. I mean Robert Venturi did it when he designed the extension for the National Gallery in London, the Sainsbury Wing, and we really like the project, but there are also some things that are not as successful as in other previous projects. For example, I would say, the way he builds the entrance situation with a folded, kind of staggering classical wall that has been cut out, with a foyer that sits behind, as a design I find it really successful and wonderful, but when you look how it’s built from a certain scale on, he forgets that he wanted to do a fragmented building. It becomes quite stable and maybe too stable. And I don’t mind the beautiful exhibition spaces, the enfilades, to be stable and to be done in that way, but the hinge point at the new entrance where you go up to the new wing is where he didn’t get enough out of the idea of the fragment, of the collage.

ol · Are you talking spatially or urbanistically? Because he was very unhappy with the entrance situation. Apparently he had a terrible time with the client. There is a whole text from Venturi, where he says if you visit the Sainsbury Wing, you should know this, and then there are about twelve points where he wanted things to be different. And I think the entrance hall is one of the big things he hates about the building.

sp · Good. We should go full circle and maybe finish with the Laurentian Library?

tp · Yes, in front of us we have the beautiful book by Bruno Zevi and Paolo Portoghesi on Michelangelo which has dozens of photographs of details from the Library. The photographs are by Portoghesi himself and when you zoom in to the building you discover that Michelangelo never stopped designing. His volutes, his mouldings and his details have a degree of sophistication that you can’t discover anywhere else, and that’s just incredible. It’s on the same level as his sculptures. There’s this prejudice against Michelangelo that he was only a sculptor, and people say he was not a great painter, not a great architect because the sculpture always completely took over and I completely disagree. In fact he was a fantastic architect and in this small building he went further than anybody else in his whole generation. And we respect Giulio Romano very much, but when you are sixty centimetres from a Giulio Romano building in most cases nothing happens.

ol · And with Michelangelo you can zoom in to the 1:1 detail and to the 2:1 and to the 5:1 and it’s still amazing.