AE Foundation
for Architecture and Education

INTERVIEWS

RAPHAEL ZUBER

Interview with Samuel Penn, January 2019

SP
Your new book is about the four projects you exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2016 titled Spaces. I’d like to begin by asking why you choose to present these four projects in particular?

RZ
At that time it was the ones I liked the most; from the time we made the decision to do the exhibition in Venice and not looking back too far. They were a bit recent and I think it was a good selection.

SP
Did the four have anything in common that you thought made them a good grouping?

RZ
They have, but I don’t think that was the reason. Maybe because they were the most clear.

SP
But they all have common features. For instance I noticed that the entrance sequence is very important in each. If you want to talk about space, then there’s one thing you do that is in each one of them, you have compression and release at the point of entering. I know it’s nothing clever but we should begin with the basics.

RZ
The Frank Lloyd Wright stuff.

SP
Yes, compression and release. You enter from a low space and then emerge into a larger space. At the university campus building in Mendrisio you enter the cross shaped space that is an outside courtyard from a low underpass. So you’re not inside the building yet but you’ve entered the building at that point. In fact I never really noticed where the entrance to the building is?

SP
There is no entrance–laughs.

SP
Laughs–and in the funeral chapel in Steinhausen you have the canopy.

RZ
In the weekend house on Harris there’s also this corridor.

SP
And in the apartment building in Ems you also do it, but you do it from the corridor inside the house. That door from the corridor leads into the space that you call an outside space, but that is actually inside and the living space, that’s the entrance into the space.

RZ
This, and also a bit the staircase. It’s a very different space when you come in.

SP
Yes, but you don’t think of that as the entrance. It doesn’t have the same significance because there you’re not entering the principal space. That space with the stair is part of the outside space. So actually you enter from inside the house.

RZ
Yes that’s true.

SP
Then the other basic thing is that your spaces are generally rectangular, long and tall. In each of these spaces you enter from a compressed state into a long rectangular space, and then you also tend to enter into the space laterally from the side, not length ways, so the space spreads out to either side of you. Is this conscious or not?

RZ
Not very conscious.

SP
You do in the funeral chapel, even though there it’s in the corner. Mendrisio has the same. You come into the space and then it spreads out, and in Harris and Ems too.

RZ
It’s about the movement and the complexity of the space. But then it’s also always about how the space relates to the outside and everything else.

SP
What do you mean by everything else?

RZ
I mean the immediate outside, the neighbouring plot, the city, the world, everything.

SP
Why is it important for you that it connects to the outside world, to the rest of the world?

RZ
I started to think about this when I saw Nishizawa’s work. I saw how opposite his way was to the way of Valerio Olgiati. Valerio’s work is always very enclosed and very detached from the universe. In his buildings I feel this ideal of Palladio’s Rotonda, where you make up a world. And Nishizawa’s work is rather about being an animal somewhere, in the universe, being part of everything. This I find an extreme opposite, and it changes the whole. I mean of course it’s a mental thing; it’s in your head, more than how you immediately feel being there. But still it changes your feelings, being there; your behaviour, your thoughts, everything, your whole attitude changes.

SP
In its relation to things outside, to the world?

RZ
Yes.

SP
What is it in Nishizawa’s work that made you think: “this is important”?

RZ
I don’t know, I just realised that Valerio and Nishizawa are extreme opposites. That it’s two completely different ways of living, with all that living means, and I appreciate both, and I could not tell which one more.

SP
If Olgiati is creating a universe of his own, is there something in this that’s not quite enough?

RZ
It’s not that it’s not enough, but I would rather like to be part of everything that is around, and not closed in this mental construct I made up myself.

SP
What is it about living in a mental construct makes you feel like this?

RZ
This is what I don’t know. On the one hand I find it great of course. But now thinking back on Nishizawa, his buildings have this lightness. In German I would call it Natürlichkeit. It’s almost as if it’s just there without having to think about it, even though it’s very complicated, and also constructed. I felt closer, and this I don’t know how to express either; I felt closer to animalism, closer to nature or reality, just more normal, Natürlich again. Not Natürlich in the sense of nature, but in the sense of ‘casual’, but without losing intellectual power.

SP
But there’s a another kind of thinking in his projects. When you talk to Nishizawa it’s clear that he’s not just interested in architectural ideas. He’s not constrained by wanting to say something specific about architecture.

RZ
I think so, yes. More also just letting himself go, experiencing.

SP
Do you see the same, for instance if you look at the work of Lewerentz. Which do you think he is, more open like Nishizawa, or conceptual?

RZ
This I find difficult to say because he changed so much in his lifetime.

SP
Let’s say the churches toward the end of his life.

RZ
Klippan is very different from the others. The others I don’t find so strong. He’s maybe somewhere between Nishizawa and Valerio. It’s also very precise, a constructed world, but it still has a bit of looseness, openness and this sense that it’s not this absolute.

SP
This is something we talked about years ago; that we should try to discover a looser and more natural architecture. Is the thing that you’re attracted to in Nishizawa’s work is that it seems more inclusive, that it’s easier to understand, and people can react to it in a simple way without having to have another level of understanding?

RZ
Yes.

SP
That most people who go into one of Nishizawa’s buildings will have an immediate reaction?

RZ
Yes, an instinctive reaction.

SP
And in Olgiati’s we have think a lot, to try to find something out.

RZ
And to confront yourself with it, to react to it.

SP
And to not stop until you do.

RZ
To say it simply, in Nishizawa’s buildings I feel part of everything and in Valerio’s I feel detached.

SP
And would you like your architecture to be more part of everything?

RZ
I don’t know, but probably yes.

SP
Are the four projects more attuned to Olgiati’s way of thinking; that to understand them you somehow have to unveil something? Or is there also a more immediate, let’s say ‘open’ part to them?

RZ
I find these four projects more open. More connected and less closed, probably because the spaces are less defined and bigger. For instance, the funeral chapel although closed physically is mentally very open. And Mendrisio is visually very open; the space doesn’t have a visual boundary.

SP
But I think that when people look at your work they are still expecting to figure something out, to try and understand it conceptually. And the question is whether these projects are conceptual, if you want them to be understood like this, or if you want them to be appreciated more naturally? For instance, the funeral chapel could be read as a story. If you understand all the parts then you understand the story?

RZ
I guess to understand something you still need a conceptual device. But I guess a person that isn’t thinking will just enter these spaces and experience something, and one that begins to think will have a bigger experience. It’s always like this.

SP
Why is this device important? The Pope Leighey house by Frank Lloyd Wright is very straightforward, maybe less intriguing, but spatially very comfortable. It feels like a house, like someone’s home. It doesn’t need any conceptual devices.

RZ
It’s just good. You feel good when you enter.

SP
Then you look at the kitchen, and it’s tall space, or when you enter the living space and it’s suddenly taller than the entrance, is that a trick? Do you think he’s trying to reveal something? I guess what I’m trying to get at, is why it’s important to have something to understand?

RZ
With Frank Lloyd Wright there is nothing to understand.

SP
But they are still stimulating buildings.

RZ
What is stimulating?

SP
The question is rather what it adds for the user of the building, this intrigue, when something has to be understood mentally, and can’t just be appreciated as a space. The intrigue is an added dimension, it’s not necessary, but you do it.

RZ
In Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, for me, there’s nothing to think. I enter, I feel good from the beginning and everywhere I go I feel good. Sometimes I think: “why do I feel good here, is it a good situation.” Then maybe you notice that the ceiling is lower, or whatever.

SP
Is this not enough?

RZ
Yes exactly, now the question is whether this is enough? For instance in Klippan, all these things also happen, but are over very quickly. I could imagine that if you live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house after quite a short period you won’t think about these things anymore. You just feel good being there, and it changes your lifestyle, maybe your way of living. In Klippan this is all there, but there’s also this question of the column that is not in the middle, that changes the whole space. This is a very constructed thing, and this is something you can always think about.

SP
So using writing as an analogy, we could say there’s the normal narrative of a story and then there’s a subtext; a deeper meaning. But that subtext is generally also constructed. Or maybe the author isn’t so clear about what they want to say, but there is always a conscious or unconscious subtext that explains or points to something deeper. So rather than intrigue or a conceptual device, we could call this dimension the subtext. In this analogy is your subtext something conscious or unconscious?

RZ
No I think it’s conscious somehow. Now thinking back, it’s this question about how to relate. The question, do I want to be part of nature, or not? Do I want to feel part of my constructed story, or existing as a small piece in the universe alone? Do I want to feel part of nature or not, is it something constructed that stands as a separate thing in the universe, or something loose that’s just part of the universe. Like for example the Zen Buddhist gardens that try to mix nature and artifice into one thing with the ultimate goal of connecting or melding them together into one thing. And as an opposite the Islamic garden for example that build up their paradise that has nothing to do with nature.

SP
Those are good examples. Both these ways of thinking about a garden relate to a way of thinking about the world: the otherworldly paradise and the perfecting of nature as artifice using nature itself.

RZ
It’s about the unity of everything, human, not human, animals, plants.

SP
The Japanese garden is less related to Buddhism than the Islamic gardens are to Islam, but both are generated by an organised belief that is bigger than one individual. Is this something you think about in your work?

RZ
For me personally, no. When I’m working on something I don’t think about this. But when I let it go then it’s part of the world, part of something bigger.

SP
Great works are reliant on great thoughts. Are you proposing a great thought, something bigger?

RZ
This is what I would like to do, yes.

SP
So the things you are trying to communicate are about human nature and understanding?

RZ
Yes, they are about bigger things.

SP
But do you know what this bigger thing is? Have you thought about this?

RZ
No I don’t know. I mean I’m constantly trying, but I don’t know it.

SP
I’m not saying there’s an answer. I’m sure the individuals who made these gardens also didn’t know.

RZ
No, but I do know that these four works and the ones before were much more part of the closed system way of thinking, a quite small closed system. And for example Corbu, the house I’m making at the Black Sea, is very different. I can still explain it, very precisely actually, geometrically, systematically, spatially, but it’s much more loose, much more open. But this is exactly what it is, what is this big idea? I see one in the work of Nishizawa and one in the work of Valerio that are opposite, and mine I see somewhere between, but I don’t know where and also not what it is. It’s because of this that I can’t really talk about it.

SP
We should try to keep it simple.

RZ
We should be as simple as possible, before getting complicated–laughs.

SP
Most architects that are notable had an objective. For instance, Palladio tried to create Greek temple facades and Sullivan struggled with the office tower. As things changed in society the architects that were most noteworthy tried to respond to the challenges in some way, Mies too, by asking if it was possible in the industrial age to make great architecture, or to make an architecture that could relate to the spirit of his time.

RZ
If a classical architecture was still possible.

SP
The question then is, is there something in society that you’re responding to?

RZ
That’s the big question. What would you say Valerio and Nishizawa are doing, if you explain it in these terms?

SP
I don’t really understand of course, but I would say that Nishizawa is trying to make the least building possible, to work with the unseen world. And Valerio is about the importance of the individual as author, to bring strongly authored works into the world.

RZ
To create his own world?

SP
I asked Siza and he said, “You’ve either got it or you don’t.”

RZ
Yes, exactly.

SP
Why are you publishing a book with these four projects in them? What do you want the reader to understand from seeing these images?

RZ
I thought that these were projects that you could understand differently by seeing the stills from the animations, but it’s probably not true. You could also understand them similarly by just having drawings. The renderings help a bit but just with drawings you can also understand.

SP
I think you need to see the space with these projects.

RZ
Chapel not, Ems not, Mendrisio maybe, Harris you probably need to see.

SP
So why did you want to talk about space in this exhibition in Venice? Was it that space would allow you to talk about your work in a more open way?

RZ
Not just to talk, but to work and think more freely.

SP
Space is quite difficult to quantify. You can talk about proportions, volumes, how you move from one kind of volume to another, but it’s never just about the space, and in your work too, we rarely discuss space itself but the elements in a space.

RZ
This is the same, the elements and the space.

SP
So the elements are the ‘space-making’ devices that make you act or see things in a certain way?

RZ
Yes.

SP
In your new house at Corbu you have a ceiling element that comes down into the living space. How would you describe what that does?

RZ
It makes it more cosy–laughs.

SP
Laughs–see that’s the difficulty! How can you ask anyone to write about that?

RZ
Just like that–laughs. That’s how you would write about Frank Lloyd Wright, the way you talked about the Pope house before, that it’s very good to enter compressed and then it opens, and the services spaces are high and so on, this kind of stuff.

SP
You could write about each of your four projects like that, by removing any subtext you could simply describe them.

RZ
Then there’s nothing left.

SP
You could say you come into the space and then there’s a cylinder and it’s tall and makes you feel this, and then you go under a wall and it makes you feel like that.

RZ
And then?

SP
There needs to be something that ties it all together in the end to provide a sense of the building being something.

RZ
Being an organism.

SP
Yes being an organism, or an idea.

RZ
Yes, an idea. I mean everything is an idea in the end, or every good thing.

SP
So if we can say that the idea is still important, is the idea in each building thought of uniquely or are there ideas that migrate? Are there overarching ideas that can be extracted from the works?

RZ
Maybe it’s about how to create a place, a specific place and how this place relates to all other places, or to everything else.

SP
But that doesn’t explain any of your work. That could be anything. This glass in front of me has a relationship to everything else. I think it’s all there in your work. Whatever it is, it’s there.

RZ
What do you mean?

SP
I think trying to explain causes a problem.

RZ
But usually we can somehow explain why we like things, and what it is about. Not clearly, but somehow.

SP
Yes, we can explain why we like things. But we can’t seem to explain these meanings. When someone writes about your work they’re essentially just interpreting it.

RZ
But isn’t it always like this?

SP
Yes, but it’s still not very satisfactory. Of course I can create my own interpretation.

RZ
But does that not mean that it’s impossible to write about any other work?

SP
It’s probably easier to write about more generic works, buildings where a good description and some context is enough.

RZ
And Mies?

SP
Difficult. Again it would be an interpretation if you want to get to the heart of his work. But Mies wrote about his own motives. Even though he wrote very little he wrote these few texts that were very precise. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote volumes and volumes.

RZ
And millions of other people also wrote about them.

SP
I’m sure someone could write a nice journalistic piece about your work. If I were a journalist or architectural critic it wouldn’t be so difficult. But I have things of my own that I want to say. Do you know what I mean?

RZ
I understand, but the lion in the Serengeti text for instance, that was a piece of authorship.

SP
Yes, but it doesn’t really relate to your works directly. It was more my feeling about things when you asked me to write something.

RZ
And what do you do as an author?

SP
The same as an architect.

RZ
I am also an author and you are also an author?

SP
Yes–laughs, and an architect.

RZ
Laughs

SP
I guess I’m interested in universal ideas and the human spirit. This sounds very vague. As soon as I feel restricted by specific and contextual subject areas then I begin to feel very limited, the ideas become too concrete.

RZ
Why don’t you write about this? But, what are these universal ideas–laughs?

SP
Laughs–now I know how it feels to be asked that question. When I write I’m thinking about the things that stimulate me.

RZ
But you write to find out something?

SP
Maybe, but more to show a way of thinking about something. I don’t really like academic writing. For me it’s too clever, too intellectual and lacks feeling. I think this is missing in the way that architecture is written about. It makes it difficult to relate to. This is a big problem for us. I would like it to be relatable. I’m not sure my lion in the Serengeti text is very successful in achieving this, but my intention was to strip things away, to communicate something on a more fundamental level.

RZ
When does it happen that you write texts that you’re satisfied with, or what is the initial moment? I guess you’re thinking about something, and then you think it would be nice to write about this and you just start? Is that how it happens?

SP
Yes. The other day I was looking outside into my garden and saw a group of sparrows. I thought about how they are all look the same, that they wear a kind of uniform. But of course each is an individual bird, probably with a strong personality. They are classified as something the same, but each is his own bird. This could be an inspiration for a text. There’s no clear method. It’s spontaneous. Then I wanted to start to write.

RZ
And why didn’t you?

SP
Because I was too busy obsessing about your text–laughs.

RZ
Laughs–so why don’t we combine your sparrow text with my projects?

SP
I want your book to be as clear as possible so that people can understand what it is, so that it doesn’t seem silly. For instance, I understand the scanned 1:1 images in the context of the artifice of the renders, to return to something immediate. They make sense, but they also don’t. I wanted to provide a good service.

RZ
I don’t want a good service.

SP
I got caught up in theory and writing about space, which doesn’t actually talk about space. Then the life dropped out of me. The other way was to do it journalistically but as I already said this I didn’t want either.

RZ
Yes, it’s banal.

SP
If you engage in the particulars the story disappears. But great writers can make the universal out of the particular. Great writing isn’t a critique. A text of the time will be of its time. The trick is to write clearly in your own voice. I find your architecture great, but I wonder if it’s because I can’t really explain it? Maybe I don’t understand it.

RZ
Yes, but all great things can be explained. Of course we can say about Mies that it was about building in his time and so on, but it’s just, we know why it’s good. What we said about Nishizawa, Valerio and Siza, all these guys; we don’t know what it’s about, really. Of course we know some aspects, but this is just marketing.

SP
So maybe it’s better not to write about.

RZ
Marketing-wise not, but really, yes. For example, about Siza I have never read a text about his work where I thought it’s interesting, or I understood something. I just go in his buildings and look at the space.

SP
I guess that’s my point. If you were to read a text about Fallingwater you’d soon get bored, but if you’re in the building then you’re completely captivated. You could stay a long time and still find new things to think about. A good text can also be like this.

RZ
And without all this talking.

SP
Frank Lloyd Wright writes about is life and his experiences.

RZ
And complains about his clients.

SP
But he writes in a very direct and charming way.

RZ
Yes, and the same with Nishizawa. I would like to know better what I’m doing and I would like to build more. But about this book in general, I just want to make a nice thing.