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for Architecture and Education

INTERVIEWS

RAPHAEL ZUBER

With Samuel Penn, Chur, September 2015

SP
I’d like to begin by asking you to explain a little bit about a drawing that’s been hanging on the wall of your office since we first met. Why is it important to you?

RZ
Yes, I find it intriguing. It’s Prambanan, a Hindu temple in Indonesia. There are six towers standing on a platform in a square plan, and in this square there are nine columns defining a grid, in the four corners and one in the centre of the sides, and one in the middle. The question of the centre of a building is always an important question. You can’t avoid it. You always make a statement relating to the centre because there is always a centre. And this building I find an interesting answer to the question of the centre, because it somehow defines a grid with a very clear centre, this column in the middle which doesn’t have any function, and then the functional parts, or the important parts of the whole complex are somehow arranged or composed around this centre, within this order, defining another order, which is not very precise, you can’t really understand how it is done in detail. And then the most important of these buildings or of the six towers is attached to the column standing in the middle. So it is physically not in the centre but there is an idea that it is in the centre because it’s the most important thing. It’s about the question of centre.

SP
What is it about centre that you find interesting?

RZ
If you are in a space there is one point that is more important than the others and it’s geometrically the centre, and it’s only one point. It’s very different to be in a space where you can physically stand or be in this point, or you cannot be in this point, and what is in this point. Once you feel or know that you are standing in the centre of a space you also feel differently, or your perception of space changes. In Islamic architecture for example the centre is usually occupied so you can’t stand or be there. The courtyards usually have a well or a fountain in the centre so that you cannot be in the centre.

SP
It seems that in historical buildings the idea of centring is always present.

RZ
I think so. This question of the centre is more strongly articulated or thought about, the same also with structure. In Islamic architecture you usually don’t move in the structure, or through the column structure for example. You always walk in the spaces around the structure or columns, and this is much less clear in western architecture. In western architecture, but especially modern western architecture, there is a grid of columns and then somewhere there’s an elevator shaft or a staircase that also produces a kind of vertical order, but it’s just a functional element, and this usually doesn’t happen in Islamic architecture. In Islamic architecture the circulation or staircases are totally hidden, so that you don’t even think of them. The vertical elements in the space are much more consciously space defining. I don’t think that one is better or more interesting than the other, but what I like about Islamic architecture is that these problems are articulated and are usually answered very precisely. When you detach them, the things each have to be in their own order, their own system, and can’t just be a result of functional thinking.

SP
In these cultures the work was philosophically and mathematically motivated. These formal-spatial orders had meaning within the cosmology of Islamic thought. The idea of not moving through the columns in the space of the mosque will have had something to do with a specific understanding or idea of the world. The idea not to enter the centre would have meant something, or symbolised something specific quite apart from the spatial effect. The spatial effect came from a complete cosmological way of thinking. But it is undeniable that these configurations also produce a result now, for people who don’t share the cosmology of the people that created them. Why should it be important to understand these principles now in a world where they are no longer important, or other things are more important?

RZ
I don’t think it’s less important. For instance, in the example of the Indonesian temple complex, if you don’t know the plan or how it’s composed, you would probably hardly realise that there is a thought about this centre. After studying it, or walking around it for a while I imagine that you begin to realise somehow, and once you see the plan then you definitely know that this question is being articulated. And this adds complexity to it. It just starts a thinking process in your brain where you will never find an answer, but as long as I’ve known this building the question is still interesting to me: “what should the centre of a building be, what should this very specific point be?” I cannot make a project without thinking of the centre. Of course we could also imagine a building where there’s kind of no centre, but it would still be about the question of the centre.

SP
What is it about the idea of the centre that fascinates you so much? It’s not something that’s talked about.

RZ
No, and this is actually very strange. If you start to draw a rectangle, there are four corners and one centre. It’s just a simple fact. And these four points are more specific than all the others, but the centre is even more specific because it’s unique.

SP
People talk about the idea of centrality in art history when they describe cathedrals or churches, more within the structure of religious architecture, or in Islamic architecture. It comes from a way of thinking about the world where the idea of the centre had a specific fascination. Now we don’t talk about it at all.

RZ
I wonder why not? If I imagine entering an empty space, a rectangle or square or whatever, somehow you walk to the centre, or know where the centre is. But you think that nobody talks about it anymore? Maybe it’s true. I’ve never really talked about it other than here in my office. No it’s not true. When I worked with Valerio on the Yellow House where the column is not in the centre, this was a discussion there also. But there it was more a functional problem.

SP
There’s something about the plan of the temple in Indonesia that is immediately apparent. The columns are in a grid formation, and then the temple buildings are more chaotic, or human, like human figures.

RZ
Yes, one is more mathematical or abstract and the other is more physical. It’s a manmade order that stands in relation to the other one. The centre is one thing to think about here, but also an endless order.

SP
Did you already know about the temple in Indonesia when you worked on the competition entry for the Neuchâtel Art Museum?

RZ
No I didn’t know it then. Neuchâtel was a very pragmatic process. It was a building with no restrictions around it, or no problems. It was just standing in a park, so we could do whatever kind of shape, but in the end we came to the square because it’s the simplest geometry you can make, or we didn’t see a reason to do anything else. Then we didn’t know how to make a façade and tried to somehow connect the façade and the plan, so that they were not two different things. In that way it’s also a bit similar to the Yellow House, to shift the core out of the centre it makes the space more usable for different areas, for exhibitions, and structurally that the façade is very dependent on it. If the core was in the middle every column or façade would have the same distance to the core, so it would be a rigid order of columns on the façade. By moving the core out of the centre, each façade has very different loads to carry, which then creates a connection from core to façade. So here it was maybe less about the question of the centre, but rather about creating a dependence of all the parts of the building. Actually it’s all about finding reasons for why to do something.

SP
And in your house with a cross wall?

RZ
There it is very much about the centre. The site where the house would stand is very ugly. It’s an industrial area, so there’s nothing really specific around it. It’s just these boring industrial buildings, which of course are powerful somehow but it’s not that there is one view that is better than the other. It has this character of being lost in the middle of nowhere and by making this cross I thought that it could make this place a little more specific, put a stick in a certain place and by doing that making it more important. But a cross is more precise and a stick could just be a loadbearing column. The cross defines a centre where you cannot walk through. And by producing a building with four spaces, just these four rooms, if you had to walk from one room to another it would not be very functional or practical. So opening the centre is a solution to make it more practical, but also to break this schematic decision to create a cross. And it’s a long rectangle, 7 metres by 27 metres because that’s the maximum space I could get on the plot.

SP
Then you had to find a way to get up through the floors of the building without disturbing the centre?

RZ
I wanted to make it so you would enter each floor in the centre. Usually you arrive by elevator and the staircase is really just needed as a fire escape. So the elevator is not in the centre itself but kind of part of the centre, and you come out of the elevator into the centre of the building, and then you go into the four spaces. So the centre is the only circulation. Then the staircase should have the least possible importance. You enter by the entrance door on the ground floor and then I just wanted it to go along the façade or the border of the building. But because of fire regulations, you need this maximum 20m to reach the staircase, which made it so that the stair had to turn earlier pragmatically.

SP
You say it’s just pragmatic, but when you look at the plan of this house the stair is very present, almost emblematic. But in reality it would seem secondary?

RZ
I guess you would just feel it as a strange thing going through the space, but the staircase also makes the spaces specific, because they are all exactly the same otherwise. The spaces are not function specific. But with the staircase there is kind of a hint how best to use the spaces. But I think you would definitely feel the centre as the strong thing and not the staircase.

SP
And then you have the same idea in this competition entry for a school, the idea of a staircase coming up through the floors and breaking the walls.

RZ
I looked at this project again recently. What I like about this is that the staircase curves around the floors, you go up and arrive on the first floor, and then second, then third, and then it’s over. You turn around once and by having the elevator here it’s not possible to continue. It gives the building an end, this kind of staircase. And then the corridor has to switch direction on each floor of course.

SP
And again it’s a square, which is the most efficient geometry. But if it’s really so efficient, why do other architects tend to use rectangles more?

RZ
I would say because it’s more difficult, because you can’t develop your idea out of functional criteria. For example for a school you make a corridor with classrooms on both sides, so the width of the building is the result of function. But if you start with a square you kind of have to fit everything in to this square. This makes it difficult to work with.

SP
So you tend to begin with a square because it’s not wholly functional. What is it about function that doesn’t satisfy?

RZ
I would not say that it’s not satisfying. It’s just not enough, it’s just one part of architecture. But at this time when I was working I thought that if there are no restrictions to making a form, no site boundaries and so on, then instead of choosing a random shape I should instead use the square. Then after some time I didn’t want to do squares anymore and I tried hard to find reasons not to do them, and there are a lot of reasons of course.

SP
In your work, at least what we have looked at so far there are a few ideas that repeat. Obviously the centre is a question, but then also the idea of finding a limit to an endless order, and simple geometry is used to somehow disable function, or at least not to make it the primary goal. It seems almost philosophical. Is there something consciously philosophical about it?

RZ
Of course, it is conscious, but I would rather say that it just comes. Once I begin to think about an idea I also see that there are other dimensions around it. But I’m not a philosopher.

SP
Here in the sports hall competition for instance it’s not a square because everything was given?

RZ
If you do a sports hall in Switzerland there is one way that is the most functional. So here the question was how we could do something which is more than this thing that we know from everywhere. So we tried to make a building where you do sports outside, as a feeling, even though you are still inside. The standard type for a sports hall is made up of the large hall and then additionally on the side the storage spaces for the hall on the ground floor and on top of that the wardrobes where you change, and it’s always usually aligned. These are all spaces that don’t need daylight. So the only thing we changed from the standard type is that we moved this part of the building so that we would have a free corner in the hall. And then the other thing is the window which is low all around the hall, wchich gives the impression that the ground continues from inside to outside. And then of course this top-light here that follows from the entrance, which is in the centre of the wardrobe building into the hall. When you enter the hall you don’t enter centrally, you just enter somewhere. The top light is a crack that really divides the whole thing. I guess this, and the free corners really make you feel like you’re outside very strongly. So the functional part of the building is almost non existent, as an idea it’s not here. The cross shape on the right hand corner comes from shifting the two building elements. It’s required to stabilise the hall but also gives that corner a focus. Because there is this focal point in a cross shape I imagine it could make you feel like there is more space around it and make it feel even bigger.

SP
On the table in front of us there’s an open book with a picture of the Pavilion on the north side of Chahar Bagh in Isfahan, Iran. There’s something in these works where you sense real sincerity.

RZ
And also enormous care. This is a thoughtful building, and it’s serious. It’s very basic; a cube, with nice geometries and it looks beautiful. It’s a simple cube but you also understand that there is a very precise order in the composition. There is an order of openings that is related to the inside and one order of openings that relate to the outside. The outside order is larger than the inside order and is much more about the public space. It’s made with a lot of care, but not just craftsmanship, this can also be done very carefully but it’s not of any special interest. Technically it’s probably very easy to build these brick walls and the rest is composition. Today it’s almost the opposite. Today it would probably look different, so you wouldn’t take the look but the idea. The intensity, the carefulness and the thoughts could have the same intensity today as this has. This is what is lacking today. Also beauty is also not talked about. We don’t have time. We’re too busy with other things and we’re happy if we can build buildings in precious materials. Things are just too complicated today. We don’t come this point anymore. In the competitions, in the briefs, they always ask to be as efficient and as cheap as possible, they say costs are important, and architects in the juries they usually don’t chose the cheapest and most efficient projects. They think that something more expensive has to be better. They think that this is what architects should fight for. To make sure we can keep building with expensive materials. And I completely disagree with this way of thinking. I believe that by being totally pragmatic you are still able to do great things.

SP
I imagine things were just as complicated then.

RZ
Culturally yes, but technically not.

SP
And you can see the pragmatism in this building too. It looks incredibly efficient. In your last few designs there seems to have been a shift away from previous questions toward a more spatial and less conceptually driven architecture. Would you agree? I mean, where are you heading with it?

RZ
Yes and I don’t know yet—laughs.

SP
The Inverted House is quite different. It has very beautiful spaces, but seems to have less conceptual clarity.

RZ
In this building there is also the idea of the cross, two crosses.

SP
But in these works the edge, or the blurring of the edge seems to be more important; extending and fragmenting spaces. Looking at the plan we see much less contained space.

RZ
My early projects are very clear and I like this clarity. But I think there is more potential in the spaces they produce. Previously these were philosophical problems or ideas, but the spaces, I didn’t think very much about them. They were more or less the result of these overarching ideas. And this I find lacking in these projects, and maybe what I’m trying to explore more now. Because in the end we sit in one space and we see what we see and we know what we know, related to everything of course. But if the space is not good, whatever good is, if we feel it somehow, if we feel comfortable or not, if it’s not good then it’s just not enough even if there is this idea.

SP
I enjoyed the crashes and accidents of your earlier work, the conceptual consequences. But what comes out of these rules is a bit capricious isn’t it? Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect who didn’t leave anything to chance. All aspects of his buildings were controlled and didn’t feel diminished because of it. We call him a master and his buildings masterpieces because he exerted such control over his creations. Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn’t have thought to create rules to see what the consequences were. And yet isn’t it true that his works have all the elements, beauty, the wandering everywhere of it all?

RZ
And you just feel good if you enter his houses.

SP
So the conceptual is intellectual?

RZ
Yes, maybe.

SP
In the building in Isfahan there’s not one element that is the consequence of one individual’s rule, but probably rules that really related to the world and the time it was built in. Not some secondary order of rule making. It’s also probably why we think it’s very serious and full of care. I imagine it was also a very popular building, that it wasn’t about speaking to a small group of connoisseurs. Likewise, architects like John Lautner, who you admire, seem more open to the world, less conceptual?

RZ
But isn’t it also about maturity?

SP
It’s true that his buildings are not accidental or the result of rules, quite the opposite. You’re not looking to find the place where the system breaks down in his work. But we’ve deviated slightly from the ‘Inverted House’. Could this blurring of the edge also not just be a way of avoiding having to make a façade? I mean, look at the building in Isfahan. That’s a façade!

RZ
Yes, it’s beautiful.

SP
It‘s not a façade that you sit down and compose on a sheet of paper. It comes from somewhere. Everything is in order and has a reason.

RZ
Even three-dimensionally.

SP
The danger with not being able to make a façade is that you could end up extending space with steps, eaves and columns forever.

RZ
But to not have a façade would also be great. Didn’t we talk about this before with the Lautner buildings, that in his buildings you don’t have an idea of an object? You don’t even know what they look like from outside. You just remember you enter somewhere and then you’re in this world. You don’t think of an outside appearance. This I like very much.

SP
Do you always design from the inside first?

RZ
Actually yes, everything, even if it doesn’t seem like it. I mean in the school in Grono all the people that visit it always talk about what it’s like on the outside. But actually I never really thought about it from the outside.

SP
Because you started with the stair and the classrooms?

RZ
Yes and the outside is just a consequence. But this is a really nice thing with these Lautner houses. And of course a lot of them are overgrown and jungle-like in these gardens. But even the ones that are not you just don’t remember what they look like, it’s not important. Often they’re very ugly. His houses are all the same basically. It’s always the same idea. Usually there’s a long way through the whole building to arrive in the main space, then you walk the other way to the bedrooms. When you enter the houses you’re kind of looking at the bedroom windows but you never think about it. This is always the same, and you always walk to the fireplace. He just did one thing for the whole of his life. He basically did roofs, just a roof to protect a certain area, it’s the most basic thing you can do, make a roof.

SP
So is that enough?

RZ
To just create nice roofs for private clients? Yes, I would be totally fine with that.

SP
But it doesn’t deal with anything fundamental.

RZ
I would say the opposite, his buildings maybe don’t deal with anything fundamental philosophically; there are not any philosophical problems in his buildings. But being in the houses I always felt something fundamental or archaic. These are not the right words. It’s simple, I felt truth, a certain sense of truth and rightness.