This talk was initially conceived as an opportunity to discuss what we as architects understand when we study other buildings, what we take from them, if anything. Raphael will talk about two buildings, one his own, the school in Grono, and the other, the Centennial Hall by Kazuo Shinohara. Christoph will talk about his and Emanuel’s recently published book of buildings called Pictures from Italy, from a journey they went on at the beginning of starting their practice together. We will have a chance to discuss after.
I’m going to present two buildings and I won’t interpret or talk about things that I like or dislike about them. I won’t put them in a general context. I will simply describe them as an architect.
The first building is the Centennial Hall in Tokyo by the architect Kazuo Shinohara. It’s a building that I’ve visited but there are still a lot of mysteries for me personally. For example I have never seen a construction drawing of it. The construction in general is very unclear. It’s not really readable, and for me personally this building is an on going thinking problem. The structure of the Centennial Hall is a three dimensional steel grid. It’s a grid of five by five by five metres in three dimensions and which is adapted or distorted where necessary. Sometimes there are also pieces that are added freely.
The building is a convention centre or a meeting place for the campus of the Technical University in Tokyo.
Photograph by Tomasz Saracen
The basement is an exhibition space; it doesn’t have natural light, except a cut in the ceiling in the northwest corner. On the ground-floor is a big open hall that is sometimes also used for big installations, and on the top floor there’s a cafeteria. In the basement there are different types of columns, there are two square ones, and then there are smaller ones that are round, then the staircase and the elevator, and everything else is just one big open space. On the ground floor you enter next to the elevator and staircase, and then there’s a service elevator outside that goes up to the café. Everything else is open, again with these two square pillars that go up until the underside of the top floor. The top floor lies over this very strict geometrical building. The basic geometry of the floor plan is two rectangles, one that’s ten by forty meters, and then another that is ten by twenty-five metres. Two facades at an angle of forty-five degrees connect them. The ground-floor is full of different materials. There’s aluminium, there are different colours, there’s concrete, steel beams, glass. It’s a mix of almost everything you can imagine. There are openings, with a piece of glass and then a piece of concrete, and all these fragments create a space that is not clearly defined. It’s almost part of the outside space even though its geometry is very precise. There are no windows; there are no holes in a wall, but rather pieces of glass here and there between structural openings that produce a direct connection to outside. It’s kind of unsystematic. What is systematic is the wall at the bottom of the small rectangle and at the top of the big rectangle, because these walls support the top floor. The axis of the space at the top is exactly in the middle of these walls. But otherwise when you walk into this space you don’t understand why the openings are the way they are, you just see some fragments of wall, fragments of glass. It’s like walking on a public plaza or square, half inside, half outside. On the first floor there are some offices and meeting spaces. The ground geometry is exactly the same; again the two rectangles connected with the forty-five degree walls. Then there are three void spaces through which you can see up to the underside of third floor from the ground floor. And on the right there is a bigger meeting room. The two square columns continue. Beams connect the grid at forty-five degrees throughout the building, not only vertically, but they also carry the floor slabs horizontally. To the south there’s another stair that is simply a fire escape added to the geometry of the building. In the left wall there are some square openings that are like normal windows. Then elsewhere there are parts that are glazed and parts that are walls. On the second floor there are bigger spaces. There is a foyer and a conference room. Then there is the top space, the café, which is one open space, slightly tilted, supported by the two walls, with two windows at either end. In section this floor is a tube that is just cut, not in the middle, it’s a round tube that is cut around one-third of its height.
Centennial Hall canteen
Photograph by Tomasz Saracen
The staircase defines where the room needs to be tilted. But this tube doesn’t have a direction that is pointing to something. I guess it’s random.
The second building I want to present is one of my own. It’s a schoolhouse and a kindergarten in Switzerland in Grono and it’s my first completed building. The building is a square, and the loads are brought down to the earth mainly through the façade and through the elevator shaft and a circular wall with the staircase.
School and Kindergarten staircase
Photograph by Javier Miguel Verme
The façade has big openings. On the side façades the loads come down on almost one single point, meaning the building isn’t rigid in that direction, it would fall. That’s why there’s a circular wall to take the horizontal forces. The front and rear façade has pieces that touch the ground that are wider. This makes the building stable in that direction. The site is surrounded by three streets, and one single-family house with a garden. The site is on a slope with the highest point to the northeast corner and the lowest point on the southwest corner. We connected these two points and made one continuous surface that is like a public square. In the centre of this square there’s a circular crater that makes a platform for the building to stand in. The building has two different entrances. One from the north that leads directly into the first and public floor, and one from the south that leads into the ground floor and the Kindergarten. The orientation is exactly north south over the diagonal of the building. Everything inside the circle is garden for the smaller children. Everything outside the circle is this public square which is also used by the school for a space for recreation. A small wall that is seventy centimetres high divides these two spaces. You enter the kindergarten from the south through a covered outside space, then into a corridor. On the left you enter a changing room and then go through into one big room, then there are some toilets and storage space. It’s exactly the same on the other side. At the back there is a room where everyone can eat lunch together. You enter the first floor from the north over a bridge and then through another covered outside space. On the left are the teacher’s offices, a computer space and a library, and on the right a big meeting room and the toilets, and all around is the public square. On the top floor there are four classrooms in the corners, and between there are two rooms for handcraft work. The border between inside and outside, or warm and cold, is simply glass.
The loadbearing structure is concrete that is pigmented to produce a slightly brownish tone. There are big wooden panels are for ventilation. The geometry of the concrete is more-or-less defined by the structural design. The openings form an arch that is tilted by ninety degrees. The openings where the structure comes down are exact circles. The big openings are half arches, a quarter of an ellipse, and it is always exactly the same ellipse, but they are moved and in different places in different floors.
School and Kindergarten
Photograph by Javier Miguel Verme
On the top floor the centre of the ellipse is exactly in the corner of the building, and then it moves, because the middle floor is thirty centimetres higher than the other two floors. In the bottom floor the structural part that touches the ground is smaller than the top floor meaning the ellipse has to move again, with the centre of the edge at the ground, which means that in the corner the ellipse is no longer at the highest point bringing the corners down a little bit. In the concrete, starting in the bottom of the corners and going up toward the top centre of the edge of the slab, there are pre-compression cables. These are steel cables about three or so centimetres thick which pull the corners up. At one end the cable is fixed into the concrete, and at the other end the cables stick out of the concrete. Then after twenty-eight days we tighten this cable that produces the pressure to prevent these arches from falling down. The principle of the arch is that every piece is under pressure which makes it stable, but if we cut it like we did here it’s like taking one piece out and it would fall apart because the arch is not under pressure anymore. And with this cable it’s under pressure, and it’s stable. The building is twenty-four point eight metres by twenty-four point eight metres that means that this cantilevering is around eleven and a half metres. Then all the other parts like the windows and the non-load-bearing walls are just added to this structure.
I’m going to show you some images from Pictures from Italy, a book we published in 2011. It’s a contribution to the discourse about what we understand to be architecture. We made the book for ourselves, and during the editing process questions arose about what we actually mean when we use the word architecture. The book is a collection of photos that we took when we started our office. We travelled to Italy, the ‘grand tour’ from north to south. And since there were two of us, Emanuel and I, this tour kind of became a common basis for our work together. When we returned from Italy we put the photographs away in our archive and forgot about them. Last year we looked at them again, revisited and reviewed them, and by doing this we suddenly realised how important they were in providing a common ground for us. These pictures from Italy are an interpretation of architecture, how we look at buildings, what we see in them and how they influence our understanding. As part of the book project we also included images taken by different photographers of our own buildings that have been built since our trip to Italy, assuming that there’s a relationship between them. We don’t look at buildings as historians, but as designing architects, to understand what the questions were, how they were solved, and to discover details with the eye of a designing architect. This is something we had to learn. In teaching our students we experience, every day, that it’s not easy to understand or read existing architecture, you have to learn to look at it in a certain way and to extract knowledge from it.
This is one of our first buildings, an extension to a single-family house.
Richterich Residence Extension
Photograph by Roman Keller
It’s a modest building with a beautiful garden. The extension is in the middle of the garden. It’s a concrete building, but the formwork is undulated fibre-cement, a typical Swiss product. The building is a petrification of this formwork material, a material often used for garden sheds. It has no detailing for the windows; the façade is like a ruin. It’s all about the wall, the surface and the perforations. At first we planned a space with windows, and then on the construction site we discovered, when the walls were painted with tar, that the darker the walls were, the stronger the view into the garden became. So the décor is a purely spatial phenomenon. It’s about light, darkness and brightness. The dark wall is a primary element in strengthening the relationship between the interior and the exterior. It’s the modernist idea of living in nature, of bringing the green through a view, into the house. But then we use quite a common way to attach the image to the wall using wallpaper.
The other image is of ancient Roman sarcophagi’s in Ravenna.
Church of San Vitale Ravena
The question is: “Is it a box, or a model of a house, or a real house?” We think the most interesting way is to understand it as a house. It has tiles carved into the roof. The whole décor refers to architecture and it’s made for a human body, it even has a kind of opening, a window or a door carved into the façade. The question of scale is very interesting. It’s not a scaled-down house, not a 1:5 model of a house. The tiles are in the original size, with five tiles next to each other and two rows, and even the elements in the corners are one-to-one elements. It’s a very small house, but a real one, and this question of what the limits of architecture are, when an object is still a house, were questions that are provoked by this encounter in Ravenna.
This is the very first building we built when we came back from Italy.
Studio House beside the Railway
Photograph by Roman Keller
It’s in a wealthy neighbourhood next to Zürich and the task was to build a house next to the railway lines. A villa next to the railway was not a very convincing scenario. It’s simple architecturally and we did everything to connect this house, typologically, with the railway. We drove along the railway lines in Switzerland collecting photographs of typical industrial buildings. We developed a typology of building that was attached to the railway. In the end we built this very pragmatic building. It’s all grey with a concrete plinth, a rendered façade, horizontal grey metal windows, and an external steel staircase that connects the apartment to the garden, to avoid having a balcony, to avoid any typical elements of housing. We built a house to live in that uses the architectonical language of buildings that are normally associated with the scenography of the railway and somehow we managed to add this aesthetic and spatial dimension to this house.
The next image is of a very surprising construction. We guess, that it was built in the 19th century, and therefore called it a house of the archaeologist on the Palatine in Rome, in the middle of the ruin of the emperor’s palaces. It seeks physical continuity by using the same kind of brick as the leftovers, and a construction that uses a Roman language, but then also develops a Renaissance loggia, facing St. Peters, seeking by its orientation and its language, a dialogue with the Papale, the Rome of the Renaissance.
And there are also rural elements, like the typical small farmhouse windows, a little chimney, a little door. This building brings together Ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome and rural Rome that we know, in this combination from Piranesi, his beautiful etchings of ancient ruins where cows and farms cohabit in-between. All these images are collected in this one single building, and it is aesthetically, physically and spatially connected to all these dimensions of architecture.
This is Palazzo Te in Mantua by Giulio Romano.
Palazzo Te, Cortile d’Onore
The façade is a kind of ruin, things start to become unstable or irregular. It’s a colonnade, but also a wall. In the interior the Sala dei Giganti is one space completely painted without any architectonic elements other than the small doors. The depiction of the architecture in this room is a reflection of the façade on the exterior; it also has these destructive or ruinous elements in it. This is a reoccurring topic in architecture, which usually looks for order. The colonnade that doesn’t have a clear rhythm, the rhythm is broken, a large space between columns, then small, small, large. What’s the rule behind it, is it really a colonnade, what is the relationship of this colonnade with the wall? This is a contradiction. It’s also a contradiction to have an arch with this middle stone and on the other to have a tympanum, which has this kind of roof, again, the question of order and disorder.
These are two buildings we built in Basel for handicapped people.
WohnWerk Urban Housing
Photograph by Roman Keller
In the rear a workshop and then on the street an apartment building for the handicapped people to live. You can see that it’s part of the block, that it has a lot in common with the architecture of the perimeter block with its punched hole windows, its rendered façade painted silver, and it is quite close to banal or boring architecture. How boring does architecture need to be to be able to integrate in the city and how much invention is necessary? The gap between the apartment house and its neighbour is an exception in this street, the opening leads the way in to the depth of this plot with the workshop building in the courtyard.
This room is in a palazzo but we can’t remember where it was.
It’s a beautifully proportioned space, a very high space, this ceiling, these windows, and this kind of aristocratic architecture that is then used as a strange office with these ugly fluorescent lights. This is an image that we like very much. When we deal with historic architecture in our refurbishment projects, we have to ask questions like is a lamp part of the architecture, is the furniture, or is it perhaps more interesting to isolate architecture as a building, the tectonics of the wall, of the ceiling, of the floor, to understand this as being architecture, and to make a clear differentiation of the elements, the primary space generating ones, and then the technical installation?
A piazza in Venice, these red and white colours which create some surreal effects like this house that looks as if it has been placed like a cube on top of this piazza, with only the colours defining the space of the piazza and give much more presence to this church which is red and really stable, and the minor architecture of this small house.
Campo San Francesco della Vigna
The importance of colour, which one could say is a very minor element in architecture, but still it is very strong and can overrule primary spatial and tectonic realities.
An office building we did for Roche that is about the beauty of the functional, technical buildings. Buildings, often built without architects, but no doubt, of a very high formal quality. We tried to do the same, in the knowledge of the paradoxical character of such an experiment. The new office building is part of a huge industrial site. It has horizontal windows, a typical element on that site, and the white façade is concrete.
Roche Office Building
Photograph by Christian Kahl
There’s a slight change in the heights of the windows, and a part where the windows are missing, creating a kind of loggia, giving a front to the building. This huge terrace, a kind of balcony, is an unexpected element in an office building, proposing a new form of working and of using the beauty of the site. The carpet on the floor, which is of course a suspended floor and therefore not part of the tectonic structure, is composed of different colours that create a pattern, as different carpets were laid on top of each other.
This is Villa Farnese, a fortress then transformed into a palazzo by Vignola.
It’s the volume of the building, which is the architecture. It’s not about the language. It’s not about a special typological invention. It’s just this building mass, and its position in the topography over a small town that makes it special. The next image is of a housing block in Rome, just as you can find it thousands of times.
Really boring architecture but somehow it’s what makes Rome so great, these outskirts, just the dimensions of these buildings, this typology with shops on the ground floor, somehow a very successful architecture, creating city in a much more convincing, urban and vital way than most modernist urban designs.
This is a transformation of an ancient chapel into a bar in Basel with this one single panoramic window, a kind of cut that establishes a dialogue between the interior of the bar with the park.
Elisabethen Park Café
Photograph by Roman Keller
A modernist idea, which had to be integrated in a relatively uninteresting, but still well made historic architecture, the circle opening leaves the massivity of the wall credible, it does not cut it brutally or dissolve the volume or destroy the integrity of the building. This strategy of transforming a pre-existing structure can be found in so many different examples in Italy, but it radically differs from orthodox rules how to deal with heritage. We learned this lesson on our trip, like many other things that concern the basic know-how of design.
I was struck by the simplicity of the Centennial Hall, but the complexity it produced. And Raphael, in your work too, I see an incredible directness, but also a richness of spatial experiences. What I understand from your talk Christoph is that you interpret architecture as an on-going production of types, and that the process is an anonymous one, that the city produces a kind of anonymousness. You were both educated at the same school and at the same time and yet you have very different ways of looking at architecture. Christoph, you seem to have inherited an urbanist tradition?
Switzerland has a highly classicist tradition of architecture and Hans Kollhoff is for us crucial in the way we understand architecture. He really formed us as individuals and helped us grasp the metier of architecture and the city, and the relationship between the two, and also the search for the architectonical object. He was a dominant teacher and personality, and as with all strong people you have to fight to find your own way. But we accepted his principles and the ways to understand an architectonical language. His idea was that the architectonical object was part of the city, and to insert an object should not just be self-referential or the product of a genius architect, but rather that it had a responsibility to the city, to respect the context and build up a relationship with it. That an architectonical object refers to the rules of architecture is important, not abstract ideas from philosophy, or electro-technology, or biology, but that the rules of architecture come from architecture itself. I think this is the classicist credo of Hans Kollhoff, but also of this larger architectural scene in Switzerland—Roger Diener and I would even include Herzog & de Meuron.
What rules of architecture?
First it would be some of the architectonical aspects that I already mentioned, the dimension, the physical body, which is of course supported by physical realities. Architecture has a top and a bottom. It has a direction. It’s not an object that you can turn. It has tectonic rules. It is a structure built out of materials that have to obey the rules of physics.
When we talk about tectonic rules we tend to think of classical ones, and architectural ideas that we’ve received culturally. Of course there are the more basic physical rules, and the physical world, the rules that determine those. But I think the ones we are dealing with here are the ones that come from architecture itself?
What we in our office, and as teachers together with our students are really concerned about is the culture of the city, a topic that was crucial to mankind for thousands of years. A city is a place where people come together and rules have to be established in terms of laws, in terms of everyday culture but also in terms of architecture and urbanism. Looking out this window at the multi-storey car park for instance is a disaster, I mean this is a bad example, but there are millions just like this around the globe. I think the culture of individuality and consumption, where whoever pays gets what he wants, makes it incapable for a society to build up rules to live together in a built environment. That’s where I see the biggest challenge and the biggest deficit.
Isn’t that beyond the scope of the architect?
But I wouldn’t first want to have to reduce it to have to build a common culture, a common ground, before we can build a city. It’s the architect that has to make the proposals and test it out in reality.
Are there any questions from the audience?
I’m very interested in this idea of convention. It seems that a lot of the people you were looking at or admired and the tradition you said you relate to, Kollhoff or that sort of tradition, is striving to find a language which is conventional, but it can’t really do that through any other way except through the ordinary or the mundane, the way that you attempt to develop a language of an urbanism and develop certain conventions are to go back to a period where people lived in the city and occupied the city in a different way. And I’m not entirely convinced banality is the same as providing a place for new convention. In fact, on the other side of things, at the tectonic level you also talked about convention, but the thing about tectonics is that you defy the conventional way of addressing the issues of gravity, and you know, you move things forward at the same time. I’m not saying that I know the answer to this, but I can understand the aspiration toward convention that is a perfectly legitimate one, and I think is important in relation to urban questions, but could lead you to quite a conservative position in terms of what you think architecture might contribute at a language or tectonic level.
I don’t agree because I don’t really think it’s about the convention of form but the innovation of typology. Even if this is a kind of postmodern architecture out there in the car park, I’m really happy with this background because it’s really helping the discussion. This is postmodernism that was really clear in its ideology; it was a criticism of modernism. But in fact what it does is create a city of objects that are absolutely not related to each other, not to public space, nor to the river. So there is no convention in terms of the understanding of the space. And I think this is a typological question that has much more to do with this ideology that’s still very anti-urban. We come from Switzerland where we have a completely rural culture, there were some attempts at urbanisation in the 19th century but they were very weak and then in the 20th century they gave up building cities. So we suffer from this anti-urban reflex, but there are modern cities like for instance Buenos Aires, which has an incredibly simple grid from the Spanish period, and they continue building in this grid today. There are many post-war neighbourhoods, ones built in the ‘70s and ‘80s which are super-urban, built with modern architecture but in the convention of the street as a street and the building with its address. It’s got a kind of modern modesty that creates the public space and not the dominance of the object. I think there are some successful examples that are able to build up these conventions within building laws. They are recent and that makes me somehow happy that we can go on, that we don’t have to go back to the 19th century to find models for an urban culture.
But if you compare Buenos Aires and this situation here, what is better in Buenos Aires, or why do you say that it’s more urban?
Laughs—is this not obvious?
Laughs—I mean, I also find it ugly to look out of the window here.
In Buenos Aires along the river you have a huge green park area with golf courses, restaurants and libraries. It’s just wrong to build a parking lot in front. Urbanity means bringing the complexity of a society together in a very small space, with different cultures, different economics, different uses, with public spaces where these differences come together. What we see here is avoiding the making of public space and I have no idea how this could happen. A street space is about very simple principles, about the dimensions of a space. In Buenos Aries the streets are quite narrow. The blocks are very dense, there’s a lot of density and activity and of course because of that the streets are very busy and full of people. So these are simple geometrical rules that lead to spaces where people meet, and here they don’t.
So you would say that on one hand it’s the program, what kind of functions are in the city, which connections, and the outside space?
Yes, the shape of the space.
So it doesn’t have anything to do with the building itself, or the architecture of the building? Or how much would you say does this influence this quality that you are talking about? Or I mean I could also say it different, if outside here, it’s a big open space, and I haven’t been out there but probably there’s not a lot happening, if outside here there would be a lot of buildings that we would consider beautiful buildings, would it be better or not? It could really be that it doesn’t matter. I’ve been in cities in India for example, smaller cities that are completely chaotic. Where the buildings are almost just ruins, but sometimes you happen to enter a beautiful building or a good space. Or I could even imagine having a house there that is almost invisible, but inside my house I have a world where I really like to be, that is a great place. And then maybe I have friends who have other places like that, and then I could imagine to live in another system there, and then you go out on the street and it’s messy and it’s dirty everywhere, but it lives, there is life going on, there are people meeting, there are cows walking and shitting, that it’s really alive. This is a quality that I don’t see outside here. But in cities like the ones in India I really don’t care what the buildings look like. And I don’t know how much of them are planned but they are cities with qualities and I would consider being very urban.
And what do you learn from them as a designing architect and urbanist from these examples?
I don’t know in the end of course. But in this kind of city what I find a problem is the kind of infrastructure they have, that the infrastructure doesn’t work, that it’s very complicated to get from A to B. And I’m wondering if it would not be a better strategy, for a person today doing urbanism just to define the infrastructure and maybe certain main roads, and systems and rules like building regulations, and then it just happens, it grows out of these few rules. But do we care how a façade looks, if it’s ugly or beautiful, or if the next is ugly or beautiful?
But you are also interested in creating beautiful buildings. Is that right?
I would like to control as much as possible of course, or at least as much as I can. If I have a job just to do an internal space, then I control everything in there, and if I have a job to plan a city of course I would try to control everything at that scale. But control doesn’t mean that I go and design every door handle but that I probably think of a system or of the genetics of something, of a starting point to develop it. Control yes, but I’m much more interested in the genetics than how it looks like in the end. Of course I’m also interested in how it looks because it help in how you read a building, it’s also part of it. But I also like that what it looks like is just the result of something that happens if it’s the consequent result of the starting point.
That you understand the intention you mean?
No, that there’s coherence between all the steps, the beginning intention and the aesthetic of the result.
If you build in a context in a city are you ready to accept the rules that are not defined by you? Are you ready to accept typological or even formal rules that are defined by an architect or just by history and the development of a site?
No, I will of course respect all the building rules, everything that is legal, or the rules of materials, construction and economy, fire, fire escapes, all this kind of stuff. But cultural rules, or history, or formal rules, of course not. But of course I’m interested to look at them and if I find something that I like or I could imagine developing or doing something out of it.
So you think as an architect you’re capable of inventing everything from scratch?
It can happen, yes—laughs. But also, I don’t know a lot of really good cities or buildings. And why should we adapt to something where we think it could be better?
I showed this example from Rome; the texture of the city needs certain rules, or a certain boringness of the object. I think there has to be a certain balance between the texture and the mass of the city and the object or the element that is part of the creation of the city grid. So I doubt that the architecture done by an author, in the case of Shinohara, who is doing everything to create a refined and expressive but totally self-referential object, I doubt whether this understanding of the author and his object can create a successful city. I mean a city like Buenos Aires is huge and it’s so boring and yet it produces a fantastic homogeneity.
And would you say that if in Buenos Aires there was a street full of buildings like the Centennial Hall for example, that it would be worse?
It’s difficult to imagine.
Any more from the audience?
Yes, I was going to say something earlier about the city, we’ve moved on a bit from that conversation, but I think there’s a question of quality that has come up under the guise of authorship, and we’ve referred to beauty a number of times, that might be worth addressing because if you look at the building outside, which was held up recently as a paradigm for a disaster, and it deserves that I think. It’s not really that it’s an aesthetic problem, I mean it may also be an aesthetic problem, but it’s about whether or not the person behind it was trying to solve real problems. And if you look at that building it’s kind of an imitation of this building that we’re sitting in. It has that kind of dialogue between the brick and the metal cladding, and it’s kind of a reflection of this building. But this architect, I don’t mean that this building is god’s gift to architecture, but it’s better than that one, the dialogue between the copper cladding and the brick had to do with this architect trying to solve the problem of how to sleeve a new building into an old one, and so there’s some kind of detailing that tries to deal with that problem. That building outside is simply an imitation of this one. It’s a new building and it’s simply imitating it without trying to solve a problem by doing it. And I think it’s in that difference between realising you have a design problem, and it may even be a problem that you invent yourself, but nevertheless having invented you then try to genuinely solve it. I think this is the difference we’re talking about here, and you can see that in the complexity and you can see it in the struggle that in a different age, I’m referring now to St. Peters, art historians used to call the terribilità of Michelangelo. It’s that possibility of reading into the object, the struggle of solving a problem. In Raphael’s work there’s clearly problems about geometry and formalism, and in your work Christoph there are problems of how a past returns through your sensibility into the present. I mean that’s very crude, but we can see problems that you’re working with, and whether we think your buildings are beautiful is almost irrelevant. I don’t really care if they’re beautiful. What I’m interested in is that I can see work having been produced. The work of architecture is about struggling with a problem, making sense of it, solving it in some sense, even not solving it. That Tokyo building, I don’t think it solved all its problems, but at least it was able to expose the problems, the formal problems, the structural problems are visible in it.
I agree. I think it’s about the passion in the work, really thinking while doing. If somewhere there is not good architecture I don’t think it’s the problem of, let’s say, the financial situation of a country or of a society or something like that. I think in the end it really comes from the passion of the architects.
Maybe it’s wrong to try and think of the question of convention and coherence in society and convention in architecture in parallel and to assume they have a direct correlation. I visited New York two weeks ago. New York at it’s greatest, and what it is is a product of a period of growth which is what’s very attractive about Sao Paolo at the moment, it’s growing, not like Dundee where we only see the rubbish that was built twenty years ago. But New York, you know, every single individual that built part of that whole built it with a very strong sense of personal will and authority and authorship, and yet it forms a coherent whole. The formation of a coherent whole is perhaps not an architectural question at all. It’s just to do with what happens in a society at any moment in time and for architecture to stretch itself out and think that it could do that is questionable. But architecture could attempt to look at its past in order to develop a sense of, not what its rules might be, but what the people within its discipline might learn from the past in a way that it can then carry forward. Christoph, presumably you’re trying to do that in school, trying to give the next generation, not a rulebook, but the capacity to go back and learn from architecture, not learn from the whole of urbanism. Sometimes I think when people say, it’s an object building, or it’s a contextual building, that you do object building and you do buildings that are made of context, actually that’s just in the imagination of the architect. In the end it’s just a plot and somebody builds in it and it makes or contributes to the city. The idea that one of you is making the city and the other’s abandoning the city may just be in the brain rather than in reality.
The difference is just whether you design four elevations or if you have party walls. I mean the next primary school you build Raphael could have two party walls and you would deal with that context. So I agree with you, it’s too easy to say that we have two different sensibilities, and that one is urban and one isn’t. I think that’s a question that both sensibilities will solve.
But isn’t that overly simplistic as well. I mean, in some respects especially through the Studio Basel programme, they don’t just look at the explicit rules of a city-scape, they’re looking at the implicit rules, the suggestion is that it’s a full-on phenomenological view, it’s a subjective view that they’re taking, and often the research studies appear to be throwing up things that are almost retroactive manifestos for a cityscape, not an explicit one. In that sense they begin to make that understanding public and it helps to define and to inform the development of that cityscape. As I understand it, in Switzerland for example having done the Urban Switzerland Study that it is feeding in to the political discussion about urbanism. To say that it’s the difference between designing four walls or between two party-walls is too simplistic, because it’s a certain sort of architect that considers himself engaged with the city at a scale beyond the project, and without making any qualitative judgment about that Christoph, it seems that your position is about engaging autonomously within that wider context, these are important differences.
Studio Basel has a completely different focus. Studio Basel started by defining Switzerland, 40,000 square kilometres, as one city. It has different city cores like Basel or Zürich and they have kind of a metropolitan railway system, and then there’s Geneva and Lausanne, you know Zürich and Basel are only ninety kilometres apart and you have a train every fifteen minutes. The attempts to understand this as a metropolitan network, and then you have some resorts like St. Moritz and Lugano. So it’s true that Switzerland has a coherent system of infrastructure and with seven million inhabitants is comparable to other cities like London for instance. This is a model that integrates the whole infrastructure, the so-called landscape, which in Switzerland is mainly controlled. And it tries to find a new vision for dealing with the territory. And the party-wall is a very important discussion which deals with architecture on a different level than Studio Basel or other territorial studies. Urbanism as a phenomenon of sociology, politics, economics, which is so important, but research cannot replace talking about the party wall or designing the window. As architects, we have to be able to define how the city should look like and therefore we must fight to connect the different fields to create a really contemporary architecture.