The Abstract Context Of
The notion of 'Morphosis' (which means formation) points somehow to experimentalism. Does this have anything to do with the need to remain an avant-garde?
If remaining an avant-garde means to be interested continually in asking questions, in not accepting conventional solutions, and in investigating architecture as to its possibilities… yes. The name “Morphosis” – the development of form – does reflect my interest in the nature of form as it responds to the unique and specific circumstances of its invention.
Although expressive in their nature, it seems that your buildings need further explanation.
The expressiveness I’m describing exists or emanates from a different place than does a discourse that might speak about the work. The ideas that are later expressed in the work are not things that I consciously put in or leave out of the process….they are simply a result of doing the work. Certain formal aspects of a building result from a set of interests or preoccupations – they are derived from strategies that I am aware of but I don’t particularly focus on. Im not interested in style particularly, its not something I spend time thinking about. Im interested in the operational procedures by which the work is formed and the various territories that I can investigate - in terms of directing the work. Does that mean I’m not influenced by the nature of whats going on around me? Of course I am, like anybody else.
I assume your structures result somehow from your impression of the site, but what does it mean for the user, who in many cases would not decipher the place according to your idea. Does it matter to you at all?
I believe that architecture can take place only when there is an integrated set of ideas. The user is always present: the user is the human element. Sometimes the relationship of user to building is very specific… the cancer clinic we did was highly specific in terms of the protocols of medicine. Or in the case of a school, the project will be loaded with both programmatic information, and in our case with a social pedagogy and a symbolic content as well.
I went to school in the sixties when the pedagogy was highly rational. We were taught to devalue intuitive form-making. Our interests were directed away from the intuitive toward the pragmatic solution of whatever was being questioned; quasi-scientific ideas of program and function. Of course that wasn’t the best approach because there is a much more complicated and tangential relationship between form and function that wasn’t being addressed. Of course there were periods when I was a student of a belief that one could, in fact, isolate and transform the rational aspect of architecture into some expressive thing.
When I started out, my first projects were attempts to pursue the nature of the generic. We were all looking for a kind of autonomous, anonymous architecture, gas-station architecture. My first three projects had to do with this stripped aesthetic that reflected a belief in a neutral architecture. This of course, in hindsight, produced an architecture that had a set of distinguishable qualities; cool, minimal, impersonal. But the projects were, in fact, highly specific. So we understood that we were making choices and discriminations having to do with all of these qualities.
Yesterday we went to look at Zvi Heckers housing project and our guide immediately said: 'This is terrible, I hate this project.' I said, 'How could you say this, tell me why?' He said he didnt like it personally, and that the residents hated it. But it’s ridiculous because they were forced to live there, so it was a meaningless conversation to begin with. This work, I think, is a valuable experiment, it’s a period piece of the sixties that shows the nature of the human character attempting to solve complicated issues in better ways. Its one housing project of thousands, and it should be honored by how we look at it. We visited one of the units; the inhabitants have reinvented the space with very old-fashioned furniture and provincial kinds of things. It was lovely, this transformation that was wrought to transform something abstract to something personal.
But Zvi Hecker was aware of the user before embarking on his experiment, because he was asked to design the project for a very specific group of users.
Why would they like it if they couldnt understand it? Should they be forced to live in it? Probably not. At some point there has to be a relationship between the user and the invention. All of us are more susceptible to liking things we understand. Look at the Apollo landing vehicle - to one person its ugly, to another its beautiful. Finally, if you understand it, there is the possibility of transcending the 'liking' or 'not liking' question to come into some kind of a comfortable relationship with the thing in and of itself. Once there is the possibility of coming to grips with the thing, it follows that there will be a place to enter the project. Architecture, of course, is the same.
What do you think of less rational architecture, such as that of the Old City of Jerusalem?
Its definitely special but its not real architecture. It’s comprised of fragments of accretive history built up over three thousand years plus. Its not a discussion about architecture really because, in fact, it is an archeological site, a tourist site. Its similar to Salzburg or Venice in that it is no longer a real city. It’s a historical city; it exists in its own category. Jerusalem seems to me to be a place that attracts people who are more interested in the reality of history than in acknowledging their own importance or their own personal history. It is an artificial place. In Italy, if you want to go to a real city you visit Milan, but for a glimpse at an historical reality, one that is being assiduously protected, you visit Florence or Venice or Rome. They are merely tourist places; they are not living places. There is nothing to do there other than to exploit or to utilize, within capitalistic means, people’s fascination with what came before them. Thats interesting to some people, but finally most of us have to live in the real world.
Jerusalem is a fascinating place specifically because its the centerpiece of the western culture as I know it. Its not going to be a place for the living in terms of a generative force, it cant be. This is not a negative or positive condition; its just what it is. There is no choice, really, unless you are willing to scrape away that history.
The real problem of Jerusalem is not the differences between the beliefs but rather between believers and non-believers...
Ive been fascinated with this ever since I began to read newspapers. The first thing I read in the newspaper everyday is world politics. I come from a completely different culture that makes it difficult for me to understand the power of the historical animosities in this region. I am a mutt, really, and my tribe, my nation, means comparatively little to me. I don’t identify myself by my ancestry, nor do most of the people in my culture. It’s not the social or cultural operational strategy of my culture to look back. We seem to be hyper-aware of the fact that our culture is continually forming.
I live in a city and my sons have grown up in a city of incredible diversity. My childrens favorite foods are not American. We don’t really have an American cuisine, do we? My youngest son loves sushi and has since he was five years old. My older son prefers Thai or Italian food. They’ve grown up on all the tastes and textures that are available in our city and with friends from all parts of the world. So when I come into this non-secular part of the world I truly feel like an outsider. Im looking at something that is more fixed, that feels more atavistic, in fact.
Jerusalem is also the center of my culture. But centers seem to de-evolve. Creativity evolves most often at the fringes, while the center tries to hold on to something. History is useful if it guides us, focuses us on some broader more comprehensive and deep perspective to allow us to solve our problems in the present, but the honor accorded to the simply 'old' is ludicrous.
As a static object by its nature, architecture needs 'random mutations' to urge its evolution. I believe that it is the conflict between people, between ideas, and between fashions that create movement in this process. In this respect, buildings like the Sun Tower in Seoul, or the Hypo Alpo-Adria Bank in Austria may well serve this purpose. On the other hand you can’t have a street composed of Sun Towers nor of Hypobanks.
I am interested in that idea. Looking at a structure like the Guggenheim Bilbao - a series of highly articulated objects, I would agree with you completely, but categorically I have no interest in making things different. To me, the building is a result of a mental process that is unencumbered and that produces a work with a feeling of inevitability to it, that finally becomes an important characteristic of the work. There cannot be, however, a street of Guggenheims. I would say the most interesting possibility would be at a middle ground that aspires to produce work that is both confrontational or evolutionary, while at the same time compatible with its surrounding urban fabric. So with Hypobank for instance, you would have to see the site, before you say that it is a Guggenheim, Bilbao. If you look at the plan you would see the building as highly contextual. The streets move through the building, and in fact, in reviewing the competition entries for this project, it was clear that ours was one of the only entries that had any interest in the city.
I would like to expand a little your statement that your work is a result of a mental process, although you continue emphasizing the site. If I recall correctly, when 'Morphosis' started in 1972, one of its major principles was the identity of the client rather than of Thom Mayne. How relevant are the principles of 1972 'Morphosis' in your work today?
Actually that is not quite correct. We used the name “Morphosis” rather than Thom Mayne in order to emphasize the collective nature of the architectural process, a process that includes the client but also the input of our entire team of designers, consultants, etc. In the sense that Morphosis also implies evolution, I think it is still quite apt. I am still evolving. I have not yet had the opportunity to realize all of my ideas. I havent worked as much as I would like in the urban context, nor have I had the opportunity to apply my ideas to institutional work such as museums, etc.
If you look at the work that Im producing right at this moment, I think youll find that it is very nearly impossible to understand outside of its context. The fundamental elements that are placed in front of me are the generative material of the essential strategies. There you definitely can separate forms or the language of the work from its organizational properties, which are representative of the connective tissue.
Im working on something in Cincinnati right now where there will be absolutely no meaning in the project other than that which has been generated by the specific site. Two important things are happening right now that are impacting my work differently. The first is that influences are becoming increasingly global as opposed to local so that 'contextual' begins to have a much broader meaning. Secondly, there is an increasing amount of building at the edges of cities where there is no established context other than that of topography. The issue today is to establish more comprehensive operational strategies that reinvent the social, political, and cultural structures that ultimately define a contemporary context, understanding that context is oscillating between global and local.