TALKS

VALUES

Angela Deuber, Adrien Verschuere with Samuel Penn, Penny Lewis
Saturday 02 July 2016, Evolution House, Edinburgh College of Art

AV
The idea is not to give a talk about the buildings we’ve designed; we could maybe do that some other time. But it’s more to address the issue of values, and maybe not directly, but more indirectly, and I hope that the talk we have together will broach this issue. So I’d like to address three things that I think are relevant for practice as an architect. They are not dogmas. They are just positions so we can discuss them later.
The first would be that architecture is mainly about ‘building narratives’. Architecture is essentially an act of thinking. It’s not about doing things ourselves, but rather doing, so others can make things happen. A large part of our activity is then ultimately about anticipating the real working in some kind of a fictional context. Our tools, words and drawings, help us to build our thinking through speculative fictions. In this sense, we could understand architecture as part of a larger artistic realm, like any other form of art. Making buildings, through the medium of space, is also for an architect about the construction of abstract signs, the construction of meaningful elements. Sometimes these signs act as traces in our personal memory. They could even be shared by a community and become then part of our collective memory. Place and memory share a lot together. Not only because they both act as complementary devices or structures, but also because our practice is ultimately engaging memories of existing situations that interfere with the way we think new ones. Architecture derives from iterative approximations, from metaphorical interpretations. Beauty lies in the possibility of multiple understandings.
My second point is ‘the constitution of choices’. Although it is very clear that buildings are only possible because of certain contemporary conditions, architecture has fundamentally to be understood as a timeless act. Our contemporary interpretation of existing buildings, whatever their own story, makes them, implicitly or explicitly, part of today’s way of thinking. Beyond the construction of a building culture, history gives us a fantastic repertoire. Without any kind of nostalgia, these precedents act as an incredible potential to reformulate narratives, by means of new compositions. Architecture is a performative form; it does not make sense for itself. Architecture consists essentially to build new relationships between people and things that exist, as they exist. Building new paradigms by means of new proportions. Architecture enables us to make critical choices, sometimes political, always rational but nevertheless subjective. If the architect is responsible for new organization of living, the nature of his choices constitutes the content of his proposal; it contributes ultimately to provide new values that go beyond the specificity of uses or contexts. Beauty lies in the dynamic migration of choices.
The third point is ‘the inefficient logic of means’. Architecture is a personal transformation of concrete observations. It is perfectly useless to know something that I could not modify. A project is always the construction of knowledge that would not only help to understand better our world, but mostly figure out the relevance of our choices. This process implies necessarily a personal point of view that goes beyond the self-will of the individual. The pragmatic use of observations tends obviously to an economy of means. Proportion, dimension and scale plead ultimately for the quality of this economy. Beauty lies in the inefficient logic of means.

AD
Beautiful music, like architecture, can connect people who have no common language, culture, neither past nor future. The search for beauty is what has brought me into architecture. In architecture the word beauty is almost not available. But I am driven by the search for beauty. Every time I experience a wonderful building. I think for example of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It inspires me to continue my engagement in architecture. “Beauty is the name for something that doesn‘t exist, a name I give things for the pleasure they give me.” as the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa says, because beauty is the name for something that doesn‘t exist I want to explain five architectural terms which are desirable qualities for me.
The first term is ‘physical presence’. It’s like a starting point, a basis. With physical presence I mean the strength of the corpus, the bodies that surround us; physical means corporeal. Presence means, what is there, or the strength of the presence. I’m talking about the boundaries that make up a space. These limits have to have a corporeal strength. The basis for the physical lies in the material. Architecture is, if it is built, materialised. Each material has a unique regularity, a right and a wrong. My intention is that we should understand which opportunities are inherent in the material, and then to build with this knowledge in the physical present. Physical means that the surface is the material behind. The surface is a result of the material as it is built, as it was thought, and should not be scenographic. Architecture is simultaneously an act of an idea, the concept, and the construction. Not the poetic construction, in the sense of a symbolic construction, or a detail-story. It is more about building with the material, the means to develop and to think about details and the structure from the material with simple rational, mathematically, logical conclusions. If the surface is thought about as the material that is behind, the surface will let us understand the construction retroactively. We live in a time in which it is almost impossible to understand how something is made. We should be able to understand this intuitively in principle, even as novices. The construction should be as simple and unsophisticated and intuitively understandable, comprehensible and logical as possible. The boundaries, the surfaces, the colour, the material should be a logical result of the material used. The way in which something is joined should suit to the material; it should be logical and pragmatic. Presence creates identity. Identity is important. Identity means to find ones way, in everyday life, in ones environment and in the world. We remember architecture that appears strong, striking and distinctive. Strong architecture can provide a place, an object, an interior space with its own identity. Architecture can be a strong opposite and still influence us.
The second point is ‘the interdependent whole’. By interdependent whole, I mean that the whole is complete and that each element is interdependent on each other. To be dependent on each other is a condition. To be a whole means to be unhurt, unharmed and complete. A whole is understood as the combination of all components. This means in the physical sense, integrity, actual determination and perfection. If I talk about a whole that is interdependent, I mean that nothing can be taken away or added to the sum of all parts. I want my buildings to be whole. Architecture should be physical present and a whole that is interdependent. This leads us to structure. If we imagine an arch, every stone gives the load to the next stone. The supporting structure and the spatial structure is identical. The supporting structure is a fundamental component of the architecture. Without thinking about the supporting structure it is not possible to think about a building. The nice thing is that there are very precise logical criteria of statics, which make a form. It is an exact science. Most decisions in architecture are not an algorithm, are not clear and executable action-rules that lead to the results. So I think we should be grateful, that there is a right and wrong in architecture. We should use these for the architecture and not work against them. The fragment or the implied space: a whole implies the fragment. Only if one has something that is a whole is it possible to have a fragment of it. The fragment lets us retroactive know something about the overriding whole. Within this whole I’m always looking for the break of the whole. I call it the break of the rule. The whole should be perfect and imperfect, because perfection is inhuman. The claim that there is a greater whole which is interdependent in itself leads to the question of the perfection. Again Fernando Pessoa: “We adore perfection because it is out of our reach; if we would reach it, we reject it from us.” Perfection has something oppressive. That’s why the fragment, the first and the second structure, the break is important. The break of the whole is something beautiful. In my architecture I’m first looking for perfection and then I look forward, by finding natural given problems, to making the perfection imperfect and human. The break of the rule contains the question of how we can, in an equalised society, make architecture without being arbitrary? Because it is important to reflect on architecture with rules, especially today where everything seems to be possible. We should think about what this rule is, and the imperfection, the break, and what thought is behind it.
The third point is ‘the optimal, minimal and poetic space’. With optimal, minimal and poetic space I mean to think of architecture as space from the beginning, optimal for people, for the program, minimal means to build adequately, pragmatic, economically and not more than we really need. Poetic is a dream; the definition, sizing, disposition, joining and formal design of spaces is the main task of architecture. Architecture without space is unthinkable. In a space a piece of life is directed. A space can be the backdrop for a work of art in which a piece of life is staged. One can imagine here a society or a person who are staged in a room in a given time frame as in a play. At the beginning of the space is a longing, a desire. In the beginning is imagination; it’s a feeling, a dream, a desire, a wish. Out of this, the building develops. In a purely conceptual design, the project is developed by itself. A concept is a rule without poetry. I favour an unnecessary beautiful space before a functional one. To make a beautiful unnecessary space, is more than what we can understand and more than what we need. Every space can be its own universe. We can think of beautiful spaces regardless of what happens in the next space, but starting from what would be nice, at a certain time in the year, at a specific hour, in a very specific place. The basic question is the how we want to spend our lives. Architecture is the backdrop. The essential factors are the cardinals, the light, and the orientation in space, the view and the atmosphere that should be in a room. Each room can be thought of as a world of its own as a separate universe.
The fourth point is that ‘to create and to construct need to be inseparable’. I am totally against the separation of the idea and execution. Architecture today is defined less by beauty than it is by ugliness. We should begin architecture with a longing, a desire, a thought. We have gotten lost in the complexity of architecture. Architecture is the backdrop for a piece of life for a society. When we build in the narrower sense, at the same time we build our life in the wider sense. We should take physical boundaries seriously again. Most things we build make our environment, not better but worse. Construction is an underestimated and intrinsic part of architecture, but since we no longer build with our hands, construction has become indirect, remote and alien. My work is an attempt to escape this alienation. The baseless separation of the idea and the execution degrades Architecture. To create and to construct need to be inseparable. As architects, we have a great responsibility in society, which we should take more seriously.
My fifth and final point is ‘the myth of the idea’. I conclude with an overall reflection on architecture. We can ask ourselves whether architecture is a pure building that is beautifully designed? Architecture needs more than just material specific thinking. A building may physically hold together, but if there is no spiritual support, it cannot exist in the course of time. A building must be physical and mental. But with this spiritual support I do not mean the idea, which means in common parlance, that something is never completely realized, or simply a lucky thought, or simply a difficult term. I am against the myth of the idea. A myth is something we heard so often, but don’t know if its true. The term ‘idea’ is misleading. I notice my students make meaningful and very beautiful projects, if they are searching for a specific target. Then they have a dream, an image, a feeling, a thought, they follow something they are personally interested in and fascinated by. The mistake is to think at this point it would be done. After this point, the challenge is to realize the immature new, to work out a solution. We first need to know everything about a possible project and then think about ideals and then think it through freely. We produce good, mediocre and bad, we have to sharpen and deepen our judgment to discard, to select, and combine all thoughts together to one thought that makes sense. It is obvious that the ‘anything goes’ ticket is anything goes for ugliness in the world. Architecture must make sense and something makes sense, when we realize coherence. We are fulfilled, when we see a multitude of correlations.

AV
As I said before we voluntarily presented our ideas as something a bit dry, but also to be provocative about certain things. The first thing I’d like to look at is ‘choosing’, since as architects we mainly make choices, like other people also, but what would be the reasons for these choices, and ultimately choices interfere with the idea of values, since I believe that the choices we make have something to do with content of values you made in the introduction. So I would maybe address you, Angela, to explain a bit about these choices, because you were talking about the interdependent whole, the value of holding things together. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

AD
For me it’s quite important to build something that’s an end, which is a whole, but at the same time it’s important for me to break it. So, why do I want this? When I look around in Switzerland there are so many things that are built which don’t make our environment much better. They’re very arbitrary and random. Maybe that’s why I have this wish to make something strong, which is a whole. At the same time I know that we’re living in the 21st century, and I don’t want to make something overpowering. It’s a balance, how we can make, in our time, architecture, a city, a building, which is strong but at the same time, human. I guess what the whole is, is clear, or?

AV
I guess we also somehow address the same issues that if a building is about responding to certain realities, like a site, economy, or use, that is of course maybe a starting point, or maybe not even a starting point, but like elements, that we work with as architects, these are things we do, but it’s not enough. And this also relates to the choices we make, where we start, of course by bringing attention to economy and the means. Is this close to what you call values?

SP
Are there any shared values between architects today? You both talk about the performative aspect of architecture. Whether it’s a value or not is another matter. But you both talk about architecture as a backdrop, or something that allows the staging of life.

AD
Maybe I can start. When I talk about the backdrop for life, for me it’s especially about how you design a building. You can think conceptually, with rules, for instance, a rule would be, I’m in Edinburgh, and at each traffic light I will turn right. That’s a rule. It leads me to something without poiesis (to make). It’s a way you can develop a space in plan, or as a concept, or as a grid. You can also develop it out of a perspective way of thinking, the way Greek city planning was conceived. That’s what I mean by a backdrop or a stage. Because I can’t think of all the moments of a building at the same time, so I have to focus on main points. It’s kind of a picturesque thing, even though I don’t like the picturesque. There should be more to architecture than just a concept, more than just rules, it’s important to have them to enable you to work clearly. I think to imagine architecture from a personal point of view, and asking the question: how do I want to spend my life? We have to know this as architects. Of course architecture is for a wider society and it has to include the art of boredom. I call it the art of boredom. It should be calm and open to interpretation. Architecture is not like art where you can choose what to put in a museum. Everybody has to deal with it; it concerns everyone. We grow up in houses, in buildings. It’s a public art.

AV
The thing you said about interpretation is very important. I think we both agree that we should try to define a strong moment, moments of intensity, but I wonder if these moments of intensity are really related to the way we live, a way of living. If you look to the past you will also see that it’s about interpretation. You know, architects one hundred years ago built a certain way, with certain values, but we are still able to live in their buildings, and more importantly we can interpret their architectural choices. I don’t really see the architect as the only one who controls the choices about how we live. We are only there to start the story and then there’s a long story after we did our part. I think the choices we make are very relative, that’s just what I wanted to say. History also shows us, I mean, we were talking this morning about Aldo Rossi, and he quite clearly showed that a building can transform itself, a building can have different meaning in time, so this is more the way I was trying to address this, as a performative form. It’s a moving (temporal) way to understand and to live in a building. It’s not something that’s superimposed from the bottom. It’s static somehow.

PL
I’m interested in this idea of strong architecture and weak architecture. Andrea Branzi says we live in a period of weak urbanism, and you Adrien are characterising the architecture of today as weak architecture, and then occasionally there’s strong work, and you Angela are saying that to make real architecture is to make strong work. Neil Gillespie and I were talking about this because we were having a discussion about Peter Cook criticising architects in London who produce a lot of brick buildings. He sort of dubbed them the ‘biscuit boys’, kind of saying that their obsession with building, detail, where a window sits, a kind of obsession that we associate with Switzerland, if you control nothing else, Neil says, then through brick you can at least control the building process. If we have weak architecture in Britain, which I think we do, certainly weaker than in Switzerland, or at least it feels weaker, then is building the actual act of realising the idea as an integrated process. Is building the best mechanism to guarantee strong architecture. Is a preoccupation with building the only way you can make strong architecture in the current condition, because it feels like that’s the world we live in. The best work is being produced by people who are very preoccupied with the integration of structure and the delivery of the product, if that’s the case, then the idea, I know you have a problem with the idea Angela, but the idea used to be something we got excited about, then we have to put all that on the back burner because building is the only terrain that’s left. I’m interested in what Neil thinks about that, but I think everybody is probably thinking that at the moment in Britain, is that the only means to control is to create strong buildings.

AV
We should talk a little bit more about what we mean by strong buildings. Personally I don’t see it as something especially radical, massive or robust. We were talking a bit about resistance, and for me a strong building is a building that can resist, responding to certain issues, the site, the economy, the social context, but resisting is also about time, and it’s not only about what we call pérennité (sustainability) it’s not about being robust so that it survives through time, but for me it’s also a question about memory. Is the building capable of addressing issues that people can recognise in the building throughout time? This could perhaps be a first definition of what we call a strong building. It’s about the resistance. It has nothing to do with the kind of radical architecture that we can see today. That’s the way I would consider it.

SP
You talk about memory, not inasmuch as you interpret memory to create a building but more that it creates memory?

AV
This is a nice issue I’d like to maybe address because the idea of memory is both about how you make the building, and maybe we can come back later to the idea of repertoire, of reference and of experience, but at the same time it’s also as a result something where everybody can project their things on to, and I still believe that if you go through cities, if you go to Milan or to Venice, it’s not only because people told you to go there, but it’s also somehow a way to meet memory, not only because we like old stones, but also because we identify ourselves to the particular values of our surroundings.

AV
Can we go to the idea of structure Angela? Because this is probably also an issue we share. So, the physical structure of a building, can you maybe develop the idea a bit, how you work with the topic, how you consider it?

AD
Structure is something that can create identity, it can be corporeal, something physically present. But at the same time it allows the programme for example, it allows us to be very open, to be very flexible. I have this example, the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua; it’s a Palazzo in the city. It’s an enduring timeless element that is not defined by the programme. The programme changed over time and after the site, the site lasts even longer, the structure remains. It’s not something we should over-value. I don’t like architecture which is just an engineer building, because it’s there that the interpretation is missing. It shouldn’t be the pure result of what the engineer says. I don’t want to build bridges, I want to make a building where the structure has an important part, and when I talk about this it’s not only the supporting structure but also the spatial structure or how the circulation structures something to give a certain clearness or calmness. When I was studying for example, Louis Kahn was the only one we could find in the library who wrote about monumentality, and I don’t mean we have to build monumental buildings, but with the structure there is a good opportunity to make both; to create identity but also to build something in the 21st century which is quite open and allows a lot of reactions. I don’t even want to control, to tell the user where he should put a wall.

AV
The structural issue is also interesting in the way that it is very precise, I mean this is the way we like to work with structure, because it’s very precise and somehow very objective, but at the same time it’s abstract enough to think about other things. For instance, in our practice, this is often a question we raise with clients, because it’s precise enough so we can talk about materials, and we know that when we talk about the structure it’s often defined as the physical structure, it still leaves a lot of space to talk about other things without necessarily talking about the whole project. One of the obvious things is hierarchy, because the structure defines what is first, what is second, if there is a hierarchy in what you want to propose. I guess it’s also a tool; a very clear, objective device to make the articulation between the dream you talked about Angela, and reality. It’s a bit trivial maybe, but in Belgium, or in Switzerland also, you know that when you do a building, in terms of budget, it’s more or less one third, one third, one third. One third goes to the structure, one third goes to the technical facilities, and one third goes to the architecture, and that already gives you a reading, an understanding about the reality of the architect. I mean, we can talk about energy afterward if you wish, but for a client basically, two third of the budget is not a discussion anymore. You want to have a building that stands. You want to have a building with ventilation systems, heating and whatever. So the only discussion we can have is about the other one third of the building, and this is why I think we should engage again the structure and also the technical parts of the building, because otherwise our spectrum is getting narrower and narrower, and of course the reaction of the client is to question the materials of the floor, not even the lighting system, but the curtains, the type of glass, the amount of glass, and I think this is the reality of the profession. If we accept it as it is then I think we are trapped. This is somehow my dream, to be able to think about the lighting system, or the ventilation, or all the things that is not part of our discussion anymore. I mean I’ve never heard of a client who asked the structural engineer to look at his calculations, same for the ventilation—never.

PL
But Angela was saying that construction has become alien. I mean alien to the public.

AD
We are living in a world where we have to deal with a lot of layers. Layers of insulation that protect against wind, water, warmth and so on. It’s a big, complex, expensive way to create a space. If we could just build one layer of wall that could do everything it would be such a huge progress for everyone, for the client it saves money, for the architect, on the construction site, everybody would be happy again. So how can we get there? With the students that I am teaching we develop projects that are built out of one material, only one, and for us it’s real, but when people from the outside come it seems like unfinished buildings, but I think we have to continue with this, and I’m not saying that everyone should go there, but intuitively we should be able to trust our environment.

AV
In our projects we already managed to change the ratio to fifty percent structure and fifty percent architecture, and then there is the technical, but with the technical there is a drawn line because they are these big lobby groups that control things. But clearly it’s a dream.

SP
I’d like to ask you about the idea of repertoire Adrien. Your understanding of repertoire probably differs from the conventional idea of reference. I know that Angela is very clearly against the idea of references in her work, but you are much more open in how you interpret it. What do you think they allow you to do in the development of your architecture?

AV
Your question is obviously about the making of the building, but it’s also about the building culture. For me, I could not think about architecture without considering the building culture around me. I mean, for me architecture is not a pure invention. I know that some people maintain that it is but we all have our own way of living in space, I’m not talking about values, if there is good space or not good space, but we all have our own personal knowledge of those spaces, and beside this we have a whole history of architecture. I don’t believe in modernity for instance. I think that modernity is kind of a continuity of other things.

SP
And yet you’re comfortable adopting themes of modernity in your own architecture.

AV
I’m not saying we should not build without regard to the time we are living in. But we are still free to look back into history and to consider it. That’s what I mean by repertoire. Then the way you use it is personal.

AD
How do you make your choice?

AV
That goes back to the ‘strong’ building I guess. A strong building for me is also a building that is open, and open for my own interpretation, to do something else out of it. It’s not only because I love the building, but it’s also because I feel there is a possibility of continuity somehow, and I guess it’s not personal.

SP
But we are in danger of seeing the history of architecture as the history of form. What I mean is that architecture is produced in a specific context, time, space, resource and so on, and if we take as architects the purely formal aspects as our basis for continuity then we miss the complete tapestry, and it could in reproduction, even in interpretation be emptied of meaning, the original meaning it had when it was created.

AV
Or you reinforce other meanings.

SP
But then you must be aware of the specific meaning you’re aiming to reinforce? For instance Mies van der Rohe is a thread in your work. Either you think that some meaning from that period needs to be reinforced in the present, or as I was suggesting with Venturi today, Palladio tomorrow, the charge could be made that it’s just playing around.

AV
But it’s not finished. He had his own sources. I don’t see it so much as a historical thing. History is what I try to address in my work. As architects, to know things for themselves is not very interesting, I mean we are transformers, we transform society. It’s our idiom. History for me is the same. You were talking about your students Angela, our students they often see history as something static, and for me history is not static. This is why I said that I didn’t believe in modernity as a static moment. And of course I realise that there are certain ways of building, certain societies, context and so on, but I still think it’s a moving element.

AD
But I think you should try to reach a kind of perfection, not necessarily in the plan and section for example, but in how you do it, how you think it. Frank Lloyd Wright was ninety years old and thought that he’d never made a great building, or Alberto Giacometti, he was always searching.