The WAIzine switches rhythm and pace, focus and aim, strategy and method. It goes from pure research, to retroactive manifesto, to speculative provocation. It is ambitious like architecture should be, especially these days of philosophical uncertainty, intellectual laissez faire, economic restraints, and social deterioration.
Rejecting the role of mere spectators of the global spectacle that has been set up by previous generations, the new generation of thinkers should be eager to embrace and confront the world with a passion that burns and assume the risk that comes with being intellectual and being avant-garde; the risks that come with asking “What About It?”
An Introduction to the Second WAIzine
The responsibility of the intellectual is not as much to answer questions but to ask them. The role of the avant-garde is not only to interpret these questions but to challenge the way in which the questions are asked.
WAI is born out of the dialectic between the role of the intellectual and the mission, tools, and strategies of the avant-garde. As a Workshop for Architecture Intelligentsia, WAI questions the state of architecture looking for ways to contribute to its collective intelligence, while to simultaneously explore, dissect, and analyze the avant-garde in order to reveal the validity of its intentions, its limitations, and potential.
If the first issue of the WAIzine ignited a dialogue on architecture that fueled a global series of exhibitions (Archizines World Tour, Magazine Library 10, What About It? Solo Exhibition), Lectures (Central Academy of Fine Arts and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Univeristy of Puerto Rico), and publications that presented an evolution of the research and projects of WAI Architecture Think Tank, the second issue not only expands the repertoire of provocative imagery and critical texts, but it juxtaposes essays, manifestoes, projects, photomontages, poetry, chronological timelines, drawings, and photography.
“What About It? Part 2” also integrates as a form of collectivization of architectural intelligence conversations that explore the visual, critical, and intellectual power of architecture, the built and the imagined environment. This conversation series oscillate from Madrid, to Rotterdam, to Beijing, to Michigan to discuss the seductive photographs of post-communist monuments and desolated European landscapes with Simona Rota (The Architecture of Photography); the intellectual ambition of a contemporary Magazine on Urbanism with Bernd Upmeyer, (The Ideology of Publication); the challenges of creating a critical independent practice in a previously state-owned architectural landscape with Zhang Ke (Challenging the Standard); and the value and potential of drawing and architectural representation today with Perry Kulper (Drawing Architecture).
With a quixotic blend of graphic and typographic adventure, ambitious content, and original research, the WAIzine assumes the critical role of the intellectual enterprise and revisits the potential of the tools, and strategies of the avant-garde, all while simultaneously asking “What About It?”
Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia
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Subject: WAIzine copy
More than ten years at the center of the Chinese architectural avant-garde, the role of standardarchitecture as an architectural paradigm solidifies more and more on international ground. Not interested in defining the new Chinese, nor to perpetuate the role of the status quo of the architecture of the spectacle, its focus consistently remains to present a challenge to the establishment. Everything from a growing extensive oeuvre that goes from building contemporary masterpieces in Tibet, to the design of exquisite trays made in Milan, to the way that the office operates seem to be following no other direction than its own.
WAI sat down with standardarchitecture’s founding partner Zhang Ke to converse about the origins of standardarchitecture, its critical role in contemporary China, and how to challenge the standard.
WAI: We would like to ask you to draw us a picture of the conditions in which you had your education.
Zhang Ke: Now looking retrospectively it’s a super interesting moment in contemporary Chinese history which started with, let’s say, 1984 when China really started to open up. I went to school in the early nineties and I think it’s a very intriguing historical moment that we—my generation— suddenly got the opportunity to have an education when it was reviving.
Eventually all the information was coming in from the outside, but of course it was not enough at the time. Before I went to the US in 1996 I didn’t know what was going on in the international architectural scene at all, even after having finished a master’s degree in architectural education.
Just think that until that time (architectural education) was still very lacking in terms of information.
What was the architectural education about?
As I said a few times before, it was really a mixture of a sort of second-hand beaux arts, which was the UPenn graduate’s model of education, with some watercolor renderings, and the Moscow University, which was kind of visual craftsmanship training, mixed with a blind admiration for people like Frank Lloyd Wright. That was like the only thing that we got, which was really nothing about critical thinking.
The professors that taught these courses, did they go to the United States to study?
Yes, some of them. The professor who came back (from the US) to set up Tsinghua University Architecture School missed the education of Walter Gropius because Gropius went to the US a few years after he graduated.
I still think that Tsinghua as an architecture school still has something missing about the system of modernism of that period.
What was the difference between that generation of professors and your generation?
To start with, by having a clear picture of a certain degree of architectural ignorance while simultaneously being full of curiosity, people like me, from my time were lucky enough to be the first group of people to go abroad to study architecture sponsored by themselves.
We were the first generation after the Cultural Revolution that was able to support ourselves, because the people that were before us—they probably went out in the late eighties—were either supported by the government or they emmigrated first and then started to study. So in a way, it was a very lucky time, coinciding with the booming economy, in which we were able to start as an architecture student to make a lot of money. I saved money for the tuition.
So that’s something that was really generated by the time.
Was the opportunity to figure out what to do in the future, to try to have an aim, a new one?
Before that, nobody was even daring to think that you can use your own money to go to school.
Do you think that it was critical for your generation—that new generation—to go out, in order to get a broader picture of the architectural education?
I went out merely because of curiosity. But with my generation it was a bit negative. They went out because they wanted to go out, but for some reason, I don’t know why, I never planned to stay out. I went out in order to gain knowledge and come back. I always planned to come back.
Since the beginning you always thought about returning to China?
I was the only one who never applied for a green card.
Did you develop your critical approach to architecture from when you were a student in China? Or did your experience abroad help to shape the model of your professional practice?
Before I went out (of China), while a graduate student I was involved in some real projects and there was an immense degree of fatigue because of what was happening with the big institutions, and what was being practiced, although without knowing exactly what was a good or healthy direction.
It was very easy to sense that it was not very exciting, and I was really feeling the fatigue of it, although I hadn’t even started the practice. So it was the “pre-born” fatigue of the practice.And what’s interesting is that later, this fatigue became a sort of desire to challenge the existing condition (of the architectural practice).
At that point was every architectural practice in China an institute?
Most of them, yes. At that time there were a few (individual practices). Yung Ho Chang started his practice, because he was much older. I think probably the same year that I went to USA, he started his practice.
But was it common to have an individual practice?
No. You had to have some specific connections to be able to start your practice.
Talking about your practice, not only are you making an aesthetic stance against the situation of architecture through your constructed works, but you have created a philosophy and logistical model that is more like a mixture of academic institution, workshop, and architectural laboratory, where people don’t go there just to follow instructions.
You just don’t go to work to get bored; you go there to do something interesting.
But it’s not just that, the very unique conditions of the office organization, and the prospects it creates for the development of young architects; did you formulate that model with time, or did you have it since the beginning of your career?
It’s of course formulated with time. That’s something interesting about architecture.
The question really makes me want to continue the story of how, having gone to the US I was to study at the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design) and this more critical thinking started there. At that time it (critical thinking) was really strong, with the Bauhaus tradition, and the discourse of contemporary thinking as Rem (Koolhaas), Rafael Moneo, Herzog & De Meuron, and Peter Zumthor were all there. This (experience) really opened my landscape to the whole world of architecture and most important to reasoning and methods of thinking.
But immediately after graduation we got overjoyed by idealistic academic thinking, and then suddenly when I started working in New York, I started to see another reality, which was again, of disappointment about the real world of corporate designers, and practices. This was again creating fatigue, or creating this hopelessness for young architects. And there (in New York), all of the young architects got together, like we’re sitting here, and everyone was complaining. All of us, like the elder generations; I can imagine Adolf Loos, Moneo, Peter Eisenman, Koolhaas, when they were in New York they were probably also complaining, but there were also probably millions more complaining.
But then, you see, the world of architectural practice is never very optimistic at all. It’s always something about struggle. Most people complain. And maybe just a few start to say “come on, stop complaining, if there is a battlefront let’s just go there, let’s just do it.” And that’s how I decided (to make a change). All of the practices are quite, I would say, sad to see. There is so much talent, but really there is not much creative work being realized in New York.
Also, there occurred a big change in terms of beliefs. Before I went to New York—I think a lot of architects have a similar transition period—we believed that design and architecture was the driving force, but after having lived there for three years you start to realize that we are not the driving force, we only facilitate the financial power. Then it makes you either really desperate or it makes you think critically about the alternatives of life for a young architect.
I think it’s (a) common (situation). It’s not just for young Chinese architects, young European architects, or young American architects. In New York I found our fate—if you don’t struggle then its more or less the same— for a large proportion of talents we were experiencing the fact that you were dead in your 30’s and you were only buried in your 80’s.
So it was this feeling that made me think that maybe we can (make a change). The fact that the whole world, the whole profession is also changing, in terms of speed, in terms of interrelating with each other, in terms of geographical freedom which is increasing, which means there is more mobility, and the possibilities of more collaboration. So that’s how, I think, maybe we can start something that is not in the same track as “you start some projects, you get paid, and then you become anti-revolutionary”. You get established and you want to push every younger guy back to keep your status, and then so what?
So then, when we came back in 2001 after winning the city wall landscape competition, the former or local fatigue, and the new or global fatigue became this anger or desire to challenge, as I mentioned. I think for young architects it’s probably good to have this, because you see something that’s not what you want. Then, I was thinking how we can practice in a slightly different way, which means that we work in a collaborative way and at the same time the management of the office does not function like a sweatshop like a lot of other practices that make a lot of people come in to work without getting paid.
We want to be alternative, while simultaneously maintaining a very international standard so that everything is reasonable. At the same time, from the beginning I wanted to have something that allowed me to avoid that, when you become recognized, and you become bigger, you become less interesting, and people are not happy. Then, how can you have interesting work?
Then the idea came to me, can we have something… A different kind of office. Because (usually) before you get established you want to struggle up, and you are probably positive, but as soon as you get recognized you want to stay there. So I’m always thinking why can’t we create offices like positive viruses?
(This new model) is different to most of the other big international names. In it, the most creative offices (within the office), the ones that become sustainable by creating good work, realizing alternative work, make the culture more interesting and diversified. So, the idea was that if possible to have younger people grow out of the office as much as possible. This is something that as far as I know, doesn’t happen… (And we try it) even when we’re not so strong at all!
It’s a very unusual model.
We did start it with Zhao Yang, and in three years he got very successful. Yang Fang is doing one. And this year, we will probably have you.
In the end the idea is not to keep talented architects forever, but the more you can create great and sustainable offices the culture of architecture both in China and in the world, can be more dynamic and exciting.
The biggest intention is if we’re young we should keep on challenging the establishment.
As soon as you regard yourself as the establishment of course you should retire, or you keep yourself there but in fact you are retired.
If we talk about the Chinese situation, we have to talk about Mao. He won the revolution but he still wanted more revolution. In that way, let’s not judge so quickly if the Cultural Revolution is positive or negative. Of course it was frustrating for the generation, but it’s the fact that we have to challenge the situation.
In China the singular architect doesn’t have an infrastructure, but you are providing a space where it can germinate. Are you expecting the model to work?
I believe it definitively can work.
Then your practice should work as a kind of factory of singular architects, because you are facilitating the gestation of them?
The only difference between a factory and this kind of mechanism is, in a factory you know the result of what you are manufacturing, and here you don’t know. It’s the unknown result that’s more fascinating.
I think at the end there will probably still be a similar number of the known architects, but I just want to kick out all the unqualified known architects, because there are too many known architects that are not qualified. We need to have enough competitive good ones.
If you think of the renaissance, it was not created by three guys, it was created by three thousand great artists, and at the end there are three that are masters.
What are you trying to avoid?
I don’t want to see the current situation in China where we have five hundred so called masters. In the end … Even in the world! The other thing is we are repeatedly declaring that we don’t want to see this boundary between contemporary Chinese architecture and contemporary international architecture. Why? Because this framework has already been broken. We are more interested in discussing and creating contemporary architecture. It may be based in China, but even in China it means a lot of different cultural backgrounds. It may be based in India; it may be based in Puerto Rico, Africa, in South America, Europe.
Do you think the challenge is an international one?
The fatigue it’s not just a fatigue in China, it’s the fatigue of the whole architecture scene in the world.
There is something really superficial about the current young architectural scene in the world. Of course, it’s also very dynamic, but I think the challenge we want to create is not for China, it’s really for the whole architectural scene in the world. That’s why for all the international young talents here it’s very relevant.
In the future, if your model works, how do you see the profession?
What’s really interesting for our whole generation is the uncertainty. Without knowing what’s happening, we all know it’s a critical moment in architecture in the whole world. Our profession is changing very fast, both in terms of how architecture was drawn and models were made, to how buildings were fabricated. And even the role of architects is changing. The fact that we called ourselves standardarchitecture it’s a tricky name, it’s neutral and at the same time it means that we don’t like the existing standard. We want to regenerate a different standard, or continuously regenerate a standard; a new different standard
This means that the whole profession is changing. It’s more interesting that this profession is unknown. It’s like our life. It’s more interesting to not know your future rather that to know that you are sitting in that little glass room and dying without achieving anything.
Zhang Ke graduated with a Master of Architecture and Urban Design from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1996, and a Master of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 1998.
standardarchitecture is a leading new generation design firm engaged in practices of planning, architecture, landscape, and product design. Based on a wide range of realized buildings and landscapes in the past five years, it has emerged as the most critical and realistic practice among the youngest generation of Chinese architects and designers.
Consciously distance themselves from many of the other “typical” young generation architects who are swallowed by a trend of noise making, the office remain detached in a time of media frenzy and their focus is consistently positioned on the realization of urban visions and ideas. Although standardarchitecture’s built works often take exceptionally provocative visual results, their buildings and landscapes are always rooted in the historic and cultural settings with a degree of intellectual debate.
The office has now three partners: Zhang Ke, Zhang Hong, and Claudia Taborda.
WAI’s Project 1984 has been featured in the first edition of Cairo-based Zawia. On the topic of Change contributors dissect and explore the attitude of the architects in front of a world with changing paradigms.
If “action painting” is produced by the dynamics of dripping, smearing, and sweeping brushstrokes of paint to reveal the complex character of abstract art, then “action drawing” would be something like juxtaposing lines, planes, volumes, typographical elements, photographs, and paper cutouts on a drawing that aims to uncover the intricate universe of architectural ideas.
Each of Perry Kulper’s architectural drawings is a cosmos of information and possibilities that resist the banal and simplistic reductionism so typical of contemporary architectural representation. Series after series, his drawings display objects as background, and background as object in a constant visual journey of an architecture that doesn’t settle and always evolves: an architecture of ideas.
WAI discussed with Perry Kulper the concept, intention, and potential of drawing architecture.
There was a moment in our academic experience in which we became very interested in the potential of representation strategy. This was at the same time as one of us was researching about the potential of the representation tools of the avant-garde in the 20th century, starting with Le Corbusier and ending in the late 1960’s with projects by Archizoom and Superstudio.
Following our studies we discovered in Europe, in the midst of the debacle of Wall Street, that the architectural crisis had started a long time before the crash of Lehman Brothers. We felt that architectural representation and its dialectical relationship with architectural thinking was being overlooked, as representation was becoming a mere sales exercise in which renderings and cartoonesque diagrams served as smoke screens that tried to disguise a lack of intellectual depth.
In order to continue our interests and answering a strong urge to challenge the situation we created WAI.
We would like to know about the origins of your fascination for solving the puzzle of architectural representation? Could you share with us how your interest in this realm of architecture started?
While I had a latent interest in architectural drawings in my time in grad school at Columbia (Archigram, Graves, Stirling, Abraham, etc) and in the offices where I worked, my active interests in architectural representation evolved through: a self reflection on my own limitations as a designer through a realization that I lacked the formal, material and representational skills to work on a fruitful range of ideas; an interest in trying to find ways to visualize and materialize thought; trying to find a way into unexplored disciplinary conversations; exposure to a range of architecture and art practices in Los Angeles that opened questions about what architectural representation might discuss.
My interests in architectural representation were motivated specifically by my early years of teaching at SCI-Arc where I was around a number of provocative people who were thinking and working on the potential of the architectural drawing including Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian of Studio Works, Andy Zago, Neil Denari, Coy Howard and so on. I was also beginning to think about the preferences of various kinds of architectural drawings and I was formulating thoughts about the ‘crisis of reduction’ and how the architectural representation might help avoid the reduction of things too quickly in the design of a project. I was also wondering how I might account for things that couldn’t be metrically, or instrumentally visualized and was moving from my more dominant formal predilections in design to relational thinking and how to structure various interests in spatial settings. This suggested to me that alternative forms of visualization, imaging and drawing might be more effective in relation to an increased range of ideational and architectural possibilities.
During that period of time have you seen architectural representation in general undergo substantial changes or has the essence remained the same although with a different set of tools?
Digital culture has and will continue to have significant impact on the roles that visualizations have played for the architect over the last 15- 20 years. What can be worked on, who can work on it and the translation of what’s being worked on have changed in contemporary life. Collaborative logics, forms of spatial generation, construction logics (linked to digital fabrication, in particular) have changed the roles, questions and operational positions for architectural representation. Arguably, the latent capacities and tacit knowledge gained through the making of a drawing have been changed through the instrumental techniques linked to various digital protocols. The changes are less dramatic in practice and perhaps more vivid with un-built projects and speculative research. Architectural representation has changed to include other forms of imaging and visualization ‘outside’ the conventions of drawing practices, opening alternative potential for what’s in play and what’s not in a project. In some influential discussions there has been a shift from what architecture looks like to how it behaves –a movement from the configuration and image dominance to parametric and performance logics. We’ve also witnessed an increase in the roles of the meditating visualizations, particularly the use of diagramming. There are certain questions that remain the same and others that will change. Key disciplinary discussions linked to a multitude of cultural shifts will be of increased importance as they become integrated in spatial production, particularly in relation to shifts in the augmented or changing roles of architectural representation.
Has your perception and understanding of architectural representation changed during your years of experience as a thinker, educator and practitioner? Have you seen an evolution or any dramatic change in your approach towards architectural representation?
Yes, my sense about the potential of architectural representation has both changed and been enlarged astronomically. Several key things come to mind including: an increasing interest on my part to augment the picturing of architecture (as the dominant mode of recognizing the potential of a project), to the generative roles of mediating drawings and their capacities to consider a wide range of ideas simultaneously, I have augmented imaging form or its abstraction through visualizations connected to relational thinking. In addition to what things look like I am particularly interested in: how they are structured; the roles that representation have played in expanding what I think is possible ideationally, conceptually and materially; a clearer understanding of the capacities of various approaches to architectural representation and when to deploy them relative to the different phases of a projects development; the value of moving between certainties explored in the space of representation and hunches, guesses and flat out shots in the dark; the latent potential of the drawing in relation to its explicit intent; an ability to work on and through temporally active conditions rather than static appearances; and an expanded sense of what might be considered as fodder for the architectural mill.
When you mention that the approximations, hunches, and shots in the darks have hugely increased, does that imply that the process has become more artistic in the sense of a programmatic freedom that allows you to explore representation “as” an end in itself, instead of representation as a possible building in the future?
Partially, as a result of allowing uncertainties to enter drawings I have enjoyed freedom of many kinds. A more relaxed and accommodating approach has allowed me to work ‘creatively’ (always a dangerous word) in broadened ways by supporting expanded relational capacities in the drawings to discuss things that might not otherwise be in play. I try to visualize and support ideas long enough to see if they might be relevant to a project in the long run. Increasingly, I am less judgmental about possible ideas for a project, especially in the early phases of a project –about whether everything in play is suitable for the piece of work. Depending on what I am working on I often make drawings, or parts of drawings that are not targeted at a synthetic building proposal, but are specific in their intent –studying erasure as a possible representational and spatial activity, for example.
With the liberations I’ve granted myself come different kinds of possibilities including an ability to make connections where I hadn’t seen them, to open the range of ideas that might belong to a project and to work on things that might not initially, or ever, make sense. Eventually, I tend to look for a fitness between the situation in which I am working (the situation might include a site, or sites and their respective histories, physicality, futures, etc, the cultural and disciplinary questions at stake, considerations of like projects in the world, my ambitions for the work, etc) and whatever I might propose –a kind of measure of what is relevant, or appropriate to discuss in a project.
Explored through certain kinds of drawing techniques, the hunches and approximations allow me to see other possibilities- the drawings and my understanding of the work frequently gets richer and talks about an expanded set of constituencies, or possible participants, real, conceptualized and as yet unimaginable. To be honest, I also simply need to support some considerations through drawing in the only ways I can at the moment because in the early phases of a project, in particular, I often don’t know how to resolve the geometric and material articulation for ideas. By allowing the co-existence of fairly certain ideas and hunches I relax a need to get it all right and enable conversations to emerge through the visualizations, discovering the project rather than attempting to prove it. If I had the skills to ‘convert’ the intellectual project into a geometric and material one immediately, I might not make mediating visualizations. On the other hand, the potential that emerges as a result of making drawings that try and move ideas to formations enables a multitude of unforeseen and sometimes profitable trajectories to enter a project. Ultimately, some of the drawing efforts have been testing grounds to examine the appropriateness of ideas and where ideas might come from.
On that same line, do you think that architectural representation can or should be appreciated as an art in itself, or should it always remain judged as a purely architectural exercise?
A great question- I’ve had a range of conversations with friends, colleagues and students over the years about your question. I think that architectural representation has a range of things it can discuss, both internal and external to the discipline. I think we should position and support a broad range of ways in which architectural representation works including its capacity to work as a design accomplice, to enabling musings without known outcomes, to speculating on alternative agendas for architecture (the roles of so-called paper architecture, for example) to, as you’ve suggested, being objects in the world with their own potential. I don’t think architectural representation should always be judged solely as an architectural exercise, absolutely not. From my perspective it’s useful to expose the roles architectural representations play, when and how they might be deployed, how they relate to other forms of architectural representation and how, if appropriate, they might find their spatial translation. For my work, I’m interested in finding appropriate modes of representation given the tasks at hand- the situational fitness of things again. I also value decisions I make in the drawings that are not linked to the situation in which I am working, but are linked to the agency of the drawing with its own potential.
Has any specific strategy or tool helped you to have a better understanding of the potential of architectural representation or of architecture as a discipline?
Amongst a range of things that have happened relative to your question a handful of key things occur to me. These include: the potential of composite architectural drawings, or visualizations- using multiple representation languages simultaneously in the same drawing; strategic plotting —plotting relations of agents, actions and settings, over and through time; analogical thinking —thinking and working through likenesses with things, events, conceptual structures, etc; and an expanded sense of the potential of architecture through the use of diverse design methods. I’ve indentified 14 of them and those means for producing work have allowed me to work on a highly varied range of ideas in different situations.
Referring to something you wrote in the piece “The Labor of Architectural Drawing” when discussing the risk of drawing as a confrontation with the “conceptual daylight of the blank drawing surface”, we can’t help but see an allegory with one of Jose Saramago’s literary masterpieces about a city in which a mysterious outbreak makes people go blind. The blindness in the story is not portrayed as the typical visual blackout, but on the contrary, it is manifested as an incessant light that drowns the sight of those affected in an ocean of milk in which any discernible contrast between the sky and the water has become imperceptible.
In the story, the hero is portrayed as somebody whose sense of duty and hope keeps her from going blind. In her struggle between her feeling of impotence in front of the overwhelming amount of problems of a blind society she has to carry the unbearable weight of responsibility and somehow guilt of being the only one able to see.
When you affirm that architectural drawing’s “potential for creative engagement with diverse ideas in a project are on the wane,” do you feel as if architecture has lost its sight, and that there are just a few architects able to see and understand the potential of architectural representation as a tool to think architecture?
The Saramago (‘Blindness’, if my thin memory serves) reference is interesting and useful, but I don’t think I am in a parallel world to the hero. I think I’m looking for potential in architectural representation that maybe others aren’t, but I also don’t expect them to —the cultural and disciplinary questions and interests are just different. I do see the world of architectural representation as amazingly well poised to act as cultural and spatial agents, especially in the midst of significant change –as a generative realm, not simply a descriptive medium, or a technique motivated position.
I think there are multiple sights, or sites for the discipline to work on. I don’t think architecture has lost its sight, it’s just seeing other potentially interesting things at the moment. To be honest (this is pure conjecture) I’m not sure there’s a broad interest in architectural representation, or more specifically the roles of the architectural drawing at the moment. In the early 21 Century architectural representation seems often to be used instrumentally, often bypassing the expansive potential of representation as a way to think through spatial problems and to enlarge what it is that architecture might discuss.
Parenthetically, related to my interests in situational thinking, in diversifying my skills as a designer and in trying to come to terms with what kinds of issues are relevant to work on in a project (its ‘scope’ towards a cultural and disciplinary ‘fitness’) and how to work on them (using particular design methods and representation techniques, strategically), I am often interested in sustaining multiple families of ideas, or interests in a project. Given my predilections the potential of architectural representation is huge on this front.
Do you see your architectural approach as a mode of intellectual resistance?
No. The approach, ethically, structurally and operationally that I champion might be entirely different from project to project, or from speculation to speculation. I think some people see what I do as a mode of resistance, but that’s not my intent. I consider my interests more a form of augmentation and challenging default positions rather than a mode of resistance. If there is intellectual resistance it has more to do with challenging the mono-project, while avoiding the crisis of reduction and in not taking the means and techniques we deploy in architectural production for granted. I have a desire to develop spatial scenarios that participate at several levels with multiple constituencies in a spatial proposition- culturally, disciplinarily and situationally.
And finally, referring to what you call the crisis of reduction, do you think that the current architectural scenario (disciplinary, academic, professional) offers a fertile soil for the development of new representation strategies, or is a radical change needed?
From my point of view, and very generally, I think the use of representational strategies is sometimes deployed instrumentally and that anything outside that usage is seen as peripheral, or outside what the discussion might be. Because of my frequent interest in trying to support and develop multiple families of ideas in a project, single, or mono- drawing approaches tend to be inadequate to the questions I ask. Said differently, I don’t always have the skills to figure out how to sustain ideas I’m working on in a project through conventional drawings like plan, section, perspective and so on. Given my predilections these drawing types, while historically extraordinary in their own right, implicate synthetic understandings of the ideas of a project at the time of their use. Sadly, my understanding and ability to make synthetic decisions is often not ‘in sync’ with the preferences or allowances of traditional drawing types.
And while I rely a lot on the conventions of architectural representation, in fact I grew up in architecture education and in practice through them; I have tried to understand their biases and preferences, so that I can deploy representation strategies more tactically, given what I’m working on. Again, I generally look for an appropriate set of relationships between what’s being worked on and how those things are being worked on. Said differently, drawing types ask the ‘lions to jump to the same platforms at the same time’ and my design skills and interests simply don’t work that way.
I think there is a reasonable range of representational strategies available disciplinarily, professionally and academically. I do think we might address the question about contextualizing the representational strategies available, what they’ve led to and when they are more effectively deployed as a way. I also think that it’s possible to innovate within what’s known, by shifting the relational assemblies, or relational contours within a representational approach. To be honest I do think that radical changes might be necessary.
Perry Kulperis an architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning. Prior to his arrival at the University of Michigan he was a SCI-Arc faculty member for 16 years as well as in visiting positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University. Subsequent to his studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (BS Arch) and Columbia University (M Arch) he worked in the offices of Eisenman/ Robertson, Robert A.M. Stern and Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown before moving to Los Angeles. His interests include the roles of representation and design methods in the production of architecture and in broadening the conceptual range by which architecture contributes to our cultural imagination.
Urbanism is one of those malleable concepts that defy definition. A flexible subject where, by trying to lock it within a specific scope, its validity sometimes gets undermined and its potential spoiled.
But when a magazine develops and maintains its own way to portray the multiple faces, forms, shapes, relationships, arguments, contradictions, images, consequences, and messages of the discipline that is supposed to carry the unbearable load of thinking the city, then the exercise of defining urbanism becomes an enriching intellectual journey.
MONU (Magazine on Urbanism) was born in 2004 in Rotterdam. What was originally an almost underground magazine made available through a pdf dossier and a stapled black and white print has evolved into one of the main independent publications, a reference for the collective intelligence of urbanism, and an icon of exquisite aesthetics.
Set to satisfy a growing urbanophilic hunger, MONU has thrown into the mix an intoxicating mixture of up-and-coming talents with household names. A microcosm of the urban intelligentsia, the magazine includes works, interviews, provocations, cartographies, analytical essays, critical manifestoes, political outcries, and fairytales. An expanding list of worldwide contributors form a global network of artists, thinkers, urbanists, architects, photographers, ethnographers and urban provocateurs to assure the inexhaustible variety and compelling heterogeneity of the publications.
Bernd Upmeyer’s intelligent elaboration of the call for submissions sets the tone for intense debates that question the status quo of urbanism through projects that flirt between pure research and dark humor.
WAI discussed with Bernd the ideology of publication.
WAI: To start the discussion, we would like to retake a topic initiated in the 15th issue of MONU dedicated to “Post-Ideological” Urbanism, and specifically to the call for submissions that argue that after the end of the times in which “revolutionary urban ideologies were not only conceived but actually, unlike today, also truly believed in”, if it is necessary today to bring back new or true ideologies when it comes to the city.
But, would it be accurate to still rely on the western perspective of post-ideology even when the basis of the argument of Fukuyama has been severely threatened by the social composition of rising powers in the East (China for example) that respond to a completely different set of structural values?
Bernd Upmeyer: I believe that, apart from the conservative neoliberals, most of the people never really relied on Fukuyama’s idea of “The End of History”, but did not see any real working alternative to liberal democracies and free market capitalism, which you could call post-ideological. But I think that that should not frustrate us as the possibilities within this supposedly final form of government have not been entirely exhausted and explored yet. In that sense, it is still the right thing to do in my opinion. Today, people are less naïve when it comes to ideologies. Everything is more about the small details and the grayscales after the black-and-white thinking of the past.
Following that line of thought, is not urbanism (as a profession) very much a tool that responds directly to ideology? If it is not to an ideological command, then to what form of social input does urbanism respond?
Yes it does, but urbanism is a huge field and cities are big and complex things and the production, organization and maintenance of cities involves so many different people and parties that all bring their own ideology into the different negotiations and discussions, meaning that you cannot speak of direct responses and impacts of singular or all-encompassing ideologies any longer. Everything gets compromised and diluted, at least in the Western Democratic World, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it reveals the level of democracy in a city. How a city responds to the input of people can be compared to how, for example, a harbor responds to the input of people. I experienced that when I recently had to pick up a package directly from Rotterdam’s harbor and had to drive around 30km to fetch it, having received only an address called “Harbour 5044”. Before that moment, I had always perceived Rotterdam’s harbour as one entity, but when I arrived at number 5044, it became clear that there is no such thing as “one harbour”, but thousands of individual people, mostly company and property owners, with thousands of different ways of looking at things and each of their individual decisions and actions make up what we think of as the harbour.
At the beginning of the 20th century in Europe several magazines started proliferating as a way to portray a new set of aesthetic and social values. De Stijl, L’Esprit Nouveau, G were just a few examples of the universe of publications that questioned the state of design in relation to society. These were critical magazines with an obvious agenda.
Simultaneously, other magazines were digging even deeper into their political affiliations in places such as Italy.
Up to what point could a magazine such as MONU today either become part of the communication apparatus of a bigger ideological agenda, or – in opposition – become part of a strategy to break away from predetermined ideological postures?
The biggest difference of MONU to magazines such “De Stijl” or “L’Esprit Nouveau” is that we never wanted to question “the state of design in relation to society” as you call it, but to understand how cities work. What MONU has been aiming at since the very beginning is exploring every kind of urban aspect, everything that appears around the city. The magazine was always intrigued to find out the hidden political, social and economic truths, formal realities and interdependencies in cities. Part of cities is of course also its design, but when we founded MONU at the start of the new millennium, it felt much more appropriate, in a globalized and increasingly complex world, to investigate topics such as architecture or even design as a part of a wider field – in our case urbanism. In order to investigate how ideologies impact cities, for example, we dedicated recently the entire issue #15 to it and called it “Post-Ideological Urbanism”. But since we have put that topic on our agenda and drew up quite a few conclusions around it, we wanted to move on and discuss other topics. There are still so many other topics to explore around cities. In that sense “Ideology” was only one topic besides others in the past that we don’t wish to stretch out and extend necessarily for ever. The important thing is that MONU remains critical and uncompromised, which is our main ideology. But I doubt that it would be a good idea that MONU becomes a part of a communication apparatus of a bigger ideological agenda that will make the magazine very inflexible and compromised in the years to come. In that sense, I would also never call a magazine “L’Esprit Nouveau”, because it is just a matter of time that it becomes “L’Esprit Rétrogarde”. Such a magazine would be too dependent on short-lived trends. MONU has been created to last for a long time. However, MONU is not a neutral platform. It has opinions and is, for example, generally critical of the fact that often urban spaces only fulfill the wishes and dreams of a powerful minority, who neglect the needs of most other people (MONU#12). The magazine also dismisses the lack of interest among architects and urban designers in dealing with the enormous potential of the existing urban material and topics such as urban and architectural restoration, preservation, renovation, redevelopment, renewal or adaptive reuse of old structures as socially irresponsible and economically and culturally unacceptable (MONU#14). And MONU disapproves furthermore of the non-ideological – or better post-ideological – conditions of our society when it comes to cities and aims for a new sincerity that is needed in a world consisting of a multiplicity of choices and urban outcomes without a single consistent urban ideology (MONU #15).
Being based in the Netherlands, and particularly in Rotterdam which can be considered the epicenter of both the Dutch architectural avant-garde and the architectural establishment, what strategies do you apply to keep MONU within a neutral international focus, and avoid (if this is the intention) reflecting the doctrines of the ideological influences of the Dutch architectural scene?
I could not say that we follow any strategy to avoid reflecting Dutch architectural doctrines. The Dutch scene does not have one particular ideology or one particular doctrine anyway when it comes to architecture and urbanism. There are several and completely different ways of thinking to be found. Nobody would ever try to influence or force you into one. It is rather the opposite. From an outside perspective it might maybe look as if certain relevant figures in Rotterdam rule and influence everything, but I don’t experience that being here. Maybe it is like being in the eye of a cyclone, but everybody is very open to new ideas and directions and most of the people have an international focus. In that sense, I don’t need to avoid anything, but join the ubiquitous international atmosphere and open-source mentality and try to contribute to it. However, MONU does not focus on neutrality, it clearly has an international – or better global – focus, but it is not neutral. I think that a magazine should never, and can never, be entirely neutral, but should only try to be as open as possible. Just by favoring certain topics and certain contributors and viewpoints the neutrality is already gone.
Along that same line, do you see MONU as an international magazine made from a Dutch point of view, or from a European perspective or simply as an international intellectual outlet in its purest sense?
I think that MONU would be pretty much the same magazine as it is, if it were produced in another country and another city in Europe or elsewhere. It is quite independent from its context. I believe that today, in our highly globalized world, viewpoints neither need a location nor to be influenced only where they were created. In that sense, you can probably find much more “Dutch” magazines in other parts of the world than in the Netherlands. But although we try to create a truly global magazine, its departure point for some topics is probably still pretty much from a European point of view, although our new topic “Next Urbanism” is clearly independent from a European viewpoint. And also, at the time when we introduced, for example, the device of “open calls for contributions” in our first issue as a tool of finding contributors, this was not very common for architectural and urban magazines in Europe, but more established as an academic method to finding conference presentations in the US. In that regard, MONU is clearly an international intellectual outlet, as you call it. However, you can still sense a European background, for example in topics such as “Editing Urbanism”. In that sense a lot of our topics are still motivated and initiated by European urban phenomena that we then try to expand and project onto the rest of the world. Furthermore, you might be able to see certain Dutch influences in MONU, such as the belief in the value of diversity in perspectives and viewpoints, as I mentioned before. But at the end of the day, you have to give us some credit here. With MONU we developed a magazine that is not just a product of its context. It has its own independent identity and pursues its own interests.
Is the critical agenda of MONU and the selection of topics related to specific events or moments of contemporary urban history, or are selected themes the product of more personal reflections on the evolution of the city? Have you noticed the development of a major “issue” with regard to the city or urbanism since the magazine was founded?
MONU’s critical agenda is truly based on the belief that it is necessary to criticize and question prevailing urban conditions in order to understand better how cities work, to fuel the debates around them, and ultimately to improve our living conditions within them. But generally speaking, we are most interested in contemporary urban phenomena that we usually try to evaluate in relation to their potential to impact cities in the future, and their relevance to the history of cities, before selecting them as topics. To what extent a topic may be directly related to a specific moment of urban history – for instance the financial crisis of 2008 – can probably best be seen in issue #12 of 2010, on the topic of “Real Urbanism” that investigated how the real estate industry shapes and influences cities on all kind of levels. But it has to be said as well that although this topic did fit very well and was clearly related to the aftermath of this crisis, it already had been bothering me for years, while walking around Rotterdam wondering who is actually responsible for all those uninspiring plans, all those faceless glass facades, and all those dysfunctional public spaces that comprise 98% of all our cities. I became desperately curious to find out more about the impact of the real estate industry on cities. I think that the example of how the topic of #12 came about shows quite well how MONU’s topics are arrived at in general. Nevertheless, every new topic of MONU has its own little history and its emergence could be described with one or another little anecdote. In that way, you could say, that most of the themes are both the product of personal reflections and experiences, and of specific historical events. But the proportion of these two sources of inspiration, if you could call them that are different with every new topic as no clear method is followed here, but only the conviction that a topic must be relevant, if it truly feels relevant. And, in the end, that is a very personal thing.
MONU is willing to explore the concept of urbanism from every possible angle, including the social, political, ideological and artistic spheres. However, something that is not being discussed is the contribution of MONU to the visual culture of architectural publications. An important element of the unique attraction of MONU is its layout (varying from article to article), typography and provocative covers that have featured Godzilla, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe, Superman, and John Lennon. Was the aesthetic approach for MONU a derivative of the content or was it a choice assumed from the beginning as a main concept for the magazine?
The fact that every article is different in terms of the layout was a clear choice from the beginning and we have been applying that concept ever since – although a little less wildly today. From the beginning, this choice was meant to emphasize the multiplicity and diversity of the articles and viewpoints and, on the other hand, the result of the fact that I always had trouble with magazines in which I got lost, not knowing whether one article ends, another one starts or images in between are merely advertisements. Some magazines are doing that excessively. I have always considered that very annoying. Therefore, this principle of the layout is not a derivative of the content – however, the emphasis on diversity clearly is. Principally MONU’s content always comes first and its layout only serves the content and its readability. MONU’s visual culture should not be overrated. When it comes to the covers, we started very naïvely, not knowing how relevant and important a meaningful and attractive cover for a magazine is. We started getting a bit of a clue when the magazine was already three years old and on display and for sale in more and more bookshops. Seeing the magazine on the shelves, especially in the bookshops in Rotterdam, made us think more about its cover, as the cover was the only thing people would see while walking around the store. In addition to that we recognized an increasing interest in the magazine and the moment more people are looking at you, you better get a better haircut, so as not to look like a fool. Thus, you can say that ever since the summer of 2006, starting with issue #5, we are putting more energy in finding interesting and inspiring images that represent the content of each issue. Since the “Godzilla” on the cover of #5 we are trying to provide more direct access to the still invisible content of each issue. But it is not simply about provocation, but more about the belief that a magazine with uncompromising and daring content also needs uncompromising and daring covers.
While the value of MONU as a platform for open discussion and experimental speculation is undeniable, the importance of strategies such as the “open call for contributions” should not be overlooked. Recent exhibitions like Archizines highlight a resurgence of independent publications that very often are created following this selection tool. When you created MONU, did you see it as an independent exercise or did you anticipate its paradigmatic potential? By the same token, do you feel that MONU, apart from its intellectual contributions, has served as a model for a young generation of independent magazines?
No, we definitely could not foresee its paradigmatic potential, but we were only hoping that it would help us making an interesting magazine. You have to understand that at the time we founded the magazine, we neither knew how to make a magazine, nor did we know any writers or potential contributors. We had no network whatsoever. Not that we believe in networks. Today, we actually avoid making use of our network, as we want to keep the magazine open to new people while avoiding inviting people that we know as most magazines traditionally do. But what is a choice today was a constraint in the past, as we simply had no idea how to get contributors for the magazine. We had a lot of ideas for topics, but no ideas for authors. Therefore, the “open call for contributions” was for us at that moment the only way to start a magazine. That we receive today so many proposals and submissions of such a high standard is incredible and fantastic and we are very grateful for that. I would be very happy if MONU served as a model for a young generation of independent magazines as I feel that that we truly did some kind of pioneering work here. As I mentioned before, in 2004, when we introduced the device of “open calls for contributions” in our first issue as a tool of finding contributors, this was not common for architectural and urbanism magazines. Being a role model shows that we have created something meaningful and interesting. That is a big honour for the magazine itself and for its authors. But what is more important is that in recent years MONU has contributed to bringing back a new critical edge to the architectural and urban discourse and if this approach has inspired others to start similar magazines, that can only be judged positively.
How would you describe the evolution of MONU from the first issues to the current ones and how do you envision the future of MONU?
The evolution of MONU has to be understood as a continuous attempt – driven by tireless curiosity – to improve the magazine with every single issue with regard to the diversity and quality of the contributions, the relevance of the articles in general and in relation to the particular topic of the issue, the relevance of each topic taken by itself, its appearance and layout, and finally its financial sustainability. In that sense, I believe that our last issue was the most elaborate – however, most of the earlier issues contain a lot of very good and relevant contributions too, coupled with the charm of something that is in the process of becoming something very special and unique. I see the future of MONU in the same vein: as a magazine that will continuously improve, yet will continue to take risks and flirt with failure. And as long as people are still motivated to contribute and we are not getting tired of initiating new topics and investing time and energy into something that will probably never have a secure and stable financial base, MONU Magazine on Urbanism will keep looking forward to its next issue.
Bernd Upmeyer is the editor-in-chief and founder of MONU magazine. He is also the founder of the Rotterdam-based Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD). From 2004 until 2008 he taught and did research as Assistant Professor at the department for Urban and Architectural Studies at the University of Kassel. In 2010 he taught as Adjunct Professor at the department of Urban Design at the HafenCity University Hamburg.
MONU is an English-language, biannual magazine on urbanism that focuses on the city in a broader sense, including its politics, economy, geography, ecology, its social aspects, as well as its physical structure and architecture. Therefore architecture is one of many fields covered by the magazine – fields which are all brought together under the catch-all term “urbanism”. MONU is edited in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Continuous publication began in June 2004. It refers to itself as an independent, non-conformist, niche publication that collects critical articles, images, concepts, and urban theories from architects, urbanists and theorists from around the world on a given topic.
From the eroded optimism of the heroic building-monuments in east-Europe, to the monochromatic banality of housing developments in the Canary Islands, the photographs of Simona Rota appear to be talking to us about the aspirations and shortcomings of architecture in both its megalomaniac and its quotidian streams.
Often lacking human presence, the photographs tell a tale of evaporated intentions, and failed dreams, making through the images a visual statement about the power of humanity to create, alter, and transform our environment.
Images of architecture about topics that transcend architecture, projects like Ostalgia, Instant Village, and Placelessness take us to a personal journey through some of the faces of modernity in Europe, while revealing simultaneously the seducing beauty of its ugliness, and the vulnerability of its invincible architectures.
We are drawn towards the fantastic journey of an upcoming visual story teller that equally dazzles us with an image of the Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction in the middle of a cloud of fog, or with the metaphoric clash of a natural sea made from the flat surface of oceanic water and an artificial sea made out of identical houses, terracotta tiles, and pitched roofs in Tenerife Island.
WAI discussed with Simona Rota what draws her to capture these scenarios, and about the architecture of her photographs.
WAI: Could you give us a brief introduction about your interest in the relationship between architecture and photography? How did your concern for architectural representation and reproduction start?
Simona Rota: My interest in photography and architecture respectively was encountered to certain point in a natural way. I am related to architecture through several ways. On the professional level a great amount of my best friends are architects. On the other hand, I studied Political Sciences and the project for my Master’s degree was about the construction, representation and reception of the national image, a topic that obliged me to go through the bibliography about the relationship between architecture and politics of national branding. Since 2004 I have been working and collaborating with architects in different ways, as Office Manager, as freelance communications consultant, as exterior marketing Manager, and in that sense, part of my work implies a direct relationship with architectural photographers and publications at the time of hiring photographers or selecting graphic material.
In 2008 after returning from a short holiday in Iceland, I sold some of my photographs to an architectural magazine. They were photographs of a building (designed) by the Icelandic architect Högna Sigurdadottir. I understood that small event –that was unprecedented and agreeable –as a sign and since then I have kept photographing architecture by commissions and with commercial ends.
On the other hand, in the personal projects, I am not sure that architecture in itself constitutes enough reason for me to generate a work of photography. Architecture is omnipresent in my works but is not the objective of them. It’s true, architecture is a passion, but even when my passion for food is even greater I don’t make photographic works that use food as a motif; I have realized that there are lots of things that I feel passion for that will never turn out to be a photographic project.
Because of that I think that my passion for architecture doesn’t explain my interest in it. My interest in Architecture in Photography is an election that has resulted from intuition and reflection. I choose to photograph architecture in the way that, for me, architecture constitutes an adequate visual tool to reflect about the use of territory, the configuration of the built landscape, the artificial context, the construction of images and the expression of power. Architecture is made by us, by humans. Even if in my photographs there are almost no people, my interest is not about the objects but about the authors of those objects.
How is the process in which you generate your photographic series (for example Instant Village, Ostalgia, Placessness)? How do you identify the buildings or the spaces that you decide to photograph? Do you have a personal relationship with these structures and spaces, or is it more about general interest and circumstances?
My photographic series are usually born out of the mal-être, of my impotent discomfort with some given circumstances. In the beginning it was something very personal, so personal that sometimes I trash incipient series because I don’t want them to be transformed into something exclusively autobiographical. To take them from me without suffering, I usually send them to a folder that I have called “yo que sé”(what do I know?), a folder that I will not try to sort out even in my euphoric moments. But the series that I keep developing are those ones that, starting from that personal preoccupation, appear to have the capacity to construct a bigger topic, a topic that could apply to or interest more people, as to myself. For example, Instant Village starts by a feeling of impotent disappointment towards the way in which the territory has been treated in the Canary Islands. I have lived several years in the islands, a spectacular place where it is not deteriorated through the imbecilic urbanistic interventions. I am not adept of the non intervention in nature; on the contrary, I believe that the natural environment needs the human intervention to be assumable. I think that in the Canary Islands the possibility of having a good built environment existed, but in exchange there is a lot of junk. This wasted great opportunity can’t be left without reaction, from me and from more people. I think that Instant Village, even when it’s a project generated by a personal anxiety, has the capacity to illustrate a topic with more general implications.
In order to determine if a topic could be something more than a personal anguish, I usually research, with more or less rigor.
I look for information about the topic, read, watch interviews, and look for other visual projects that could have been done about the same topic. In reality I use the exact same methods of research that I used to do a project in the University. Until when I started practicing photography, I was convinced that studying Political Sciences was the most useless thing in my life. Now I am not sure if it serves me more having studied Political Sciences than having studied Photography.
This reflection accompanies me during all the process, but always before starting to photograph and after, in the selection and edition of the images, and never while I am photographing on the site. While I photograph there is nothing more that the machine with its silly limitations, and me with my physical limitations and doubts, and the weather. If what I am doing doesn’t end up convincing me, I feel quickly tired and it costs me to keep moving. I know when a shot will be good when I get very nervous while shooting; I leave and return to the site a little later to shoot exactly the same frame. The decisions about the concept and the coherence I take them through documentation and reflection, while the decisions about the visual character I take them based on instinct.
In relation to localize sites and reach them, the help of my friends has been fundamental. I owe them a lot. And in the case of “Ostalgia” I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without the managing work of the Vienna Architectural Center and without the assistance of the local guides. Sometimes because they have seen my photographs some unknown people write to me to talk to me about similar places that could interest me. I have a handicap: I can’t drive a car and this, sometimes limits my capacity to move around.
Our attention is called to the narrative power of your images. At WAI we usually work with collages and photomontages that, through the mixture of images previously disassociated, aim to describe visual stories that, until that moment, only existed in our imagination. In that sense our images usually try to construct fictions. In your case, even when you work with real objects in existing environments, we have noticed a type of hidden language that goes beyond what is seen in the images. In the photographs the environmental factors, the tonalities, colors and textures, as well as the angles in which the pictures are taken seem to suggest that architecture (or the context) is trying to communicate a message. Is there a narrative or a theory behind the images? What do photographic series like Ostalgia or Instant Village try to prove? Is the architecture in your images the object of focus or a vehicle to talk about topics that transcend architecture?
If there is a hidden language beyond my images is something that I cannot know for sure. Maybe it is like that, but for sure I don’t try to construct it. What I can affirm is that photography or an image in general can result in being fathomless and give way to more interpretations than what was planned. Just as I see things, my photographs are an extension of me, of how I am and think in every moment of my life. When I decide to make a photograph, the how and why of it, I am not other than the same person that decides what to buy in a supermarket, and why to buy one thing and not the other. As everybody else, I have convictions, fears, opinions that go with me everywhere, also in my photographs. Perhaps that hidden language may be nothing else than the codification of myself and my life.
However, it is true that in every work I try to center the attention (first mine and then that of the public) about particular ideas and give them coherence through the visual expression. These ideas are sometimes very clear before starting to photograph. It happened like that with Instant Village or with Big Exit. I knew very well from the beginning what I wanted to communicate and how to do it. In Instant Village I wanted to talk about how artificial and damaging urbanism can be. I think that in certain moments, the series manages it with success and in others with less success; in fact, I think that this series simply needs more images to better develop the idea, I think that is more a question of quantity, or repetition. Other times, the process is reversed: I start to photograph following my instinct and when I have a certain amount of images, I try to understand myself, think, and discover the ideas that are present already in the images, discipline them, trash the anecdotic, and keep on. That has occurred with Ostalgia. I was photographing in the ex soviet countries, sent there by a commission; from time to time, an image was taken out of the commission, and was only “mine.” At the beginning, I didn’t knew what I was doing, but I kept photographing and when I had about 20 pictures of “mine” I analyzed them, and then I continued but already in a more disciplined way. And when I say disciplined, I mean to give coherence to the frames, to the type of light, to the atmosphere I was looking for, etc. What has had resulted, is a series that touches several topics: the representation of power through architecture, the inexistence of the individual in a society of authoritarianism, the failure of the soviet utopia, and the post communist decadence.
Have you tried to manipulate the photographs (reference point, tonalities, treatment of the pictures) in accordance to the message that you want to carry with each photographic series? Or Do you prefer to leave to the public the interpretation of the photographs?
I don’t know if photography can be conceived independently of the manipulation, as making photographs implies making frames, which mean cutting inside a wider view. From the point that there is a glass between the human eye and the world that shows in front of that eye, we don’t talk anymore about reality but about representation. The manipulation starts there, in the origin of the photograph, in the glass that separate us from reality and that offers an image in which are blended in the same plane all the dimensions of the world. That type of manipulation is the one that I use the most: the framing. On the other side, I follow a normal and necessary process of image optimization: equilibrate tones, clean dirtiness, emphasize a shadow or a light already existent but faded, straighten the canvas or verticals etc. I want to find an efficient image but with poor mediums. Until now, to achieve my objectives with photography, I haven’t needed more post production than a minimum flow of optimization. But maybe in the future I would like to experiment more things that will require the use of more complex tools of manipulation.
I can’t and I don’t want to control the interpretation that the public have of my photographs. It is good to listen or to read what people think about my photographs, it helps me to see them with a critical distance. Above all it helps me to hear opinions while I’m developing a work.
We see a visual relationship between some of the photographic series; have you traced a “master plan” of topics that you would like to photograph? Where do you want to take architectural photography?
I haven’t traced a master plan of topics to develop. I worry about recurrent topics, sometimes these topics become obsessions that don’t stop appearing on everything and giving a type of hidden unity so that ultimately the work seems to respond to a plan.
The topic of power or impotence of architecture appears to be a constant topic in some of your photographic series. The series Placelessness (2009) appears to emphasize on the weakness of urban scenarios of low architectural intensity while the photos that we have seen of Ostalgia (2010-12) appear to explore precisely the persistent power of monumental architectures even in their state of abandonment or decay. Is the relationship between architecture and power (or the lack of it) something that you seek to explore in these photographic series? Do you think that the ideas or topics of these photographic series are inherent characteristics of the object of study, or are these concepts a product of your interpretation as a visual artist?
At the beginning of the interview, I said that in my personal works, I am not interested in architecture in itself, but on the readings that can be made through it. I use and offer architecture as a key to access topics that I deal with in my projects. Between these topics the power or the impotence of architecture exists but as residual. If it’s about power and impotence that we are talking, what really interests me is the power or the impotence of humanity, as the sum of individuals or as a society.
As you mention, in spite of the omnipresence in your photographs, architecture is not the end of your work but a vehicle to communicate ideas about humanity, about the authors of the architecture, and about the repercussions of the ideas of these authors. Do you think that architecture and the built environment as an image is an effective medium to talk about the human condition, about the ambitions and failures of societies and their ideologies? Do you think that there could be other elements that could communicate these ideas with the same intensity? Following this line of thought, Is photography an effective tool to communicate abstract ideas about humanity?
I am convinced that the built environment (or deconstructed, as a negative) and then the images of it are an effective medium to talk about ourselves as a society. What we are, what we want to do, what we try to appear, are there, in how we appropriate the territory, life and death of our colonies. Maybe I haven’t been clear: by authors of the architecture I don’t mean architects, but society in general—which obviously includes them—but architects are not authors of their architecture at all, I think they are just agents involved in a process with every type of pressure, and with many more actors than themselves.
It’s possible that for a musician music represents the highest cultural skill to describe humanity. For me it’s not. In order to understand the world, I need its photographs.
Photography as an artistic element has the potential to convert even the most decadent space in a piece of art. In your Ostalgia series you talk about the failures of a utopia and the repercussions of this failure. Could the message of decadence lose its energy inside the beauty of the photographs?
I wouldn’t define photography as an “artistic element” and don’t think that it’s at all accurate to talk about a “message of decay.” I’ll explain in parts. Firstly, I don’t know how I would define photography. But what I have clear is that for me, photography implies documental attributes, in other words, it is the proof that someone or something has been there, looking or registering something, and photographing it in a certain space and in a certain time. Light is usually present in the process, but not always, that’s why the term “photo” has been made obsolete. In these terms a render is not a photograph, but an image. By being a document, photography is, in the first place, real information.
In second place, I think that the message is something that could or could not be derived from this information. I would say that (the message) is almost a prosthesis, an interpretation added by itself or by whoever that look at the photograph, but is not something that it’s contained inherently in the photograph. Photographs don’t contain messages.
The photographs of “Ostalgia” give indisputable information: buildings and places that don’t appear to be in their best moment. The day that you or me stop thinking and interpreting them, these photographs would keep on showing the same. On the other hand, my message is not so undisputable. In the first place, the message is not one, it is multiple, and in the second place it depends very little on me as the author of the photographs. It’s true that I had the intention of talking about decay, and you have reacted to this part, but also I have had the intention of talking about the conventionality of the occidental look to the East, and I’m afraid that this is something that I haven’t managed to transmit in an efficient manner, because nobody until now has commented about it.
My conclusion about the message is that it results from the interaction between the photograph and who looks at it. Every time it is something more personal that depends on the DNA of every individual and of his or her cultural assumptions. But for the message to be generated, first there has to be someone that would want to see my photographs. And what better way would I have to give them an opportunity if it’s not through seduction? I try to make my photographs attractive, I don’t want to say beautiful, that sometimes they could also be, but attractive.
If you understand the photographs as an extension of yourself, do you see them more as art pieces or as instruments for communication (political, social, personal)?
If my photographs are art or not it’s something that doesn’t worry me because it doesn’t depend on me but on a kind of exterior judgment. I see a lot, understand little, and remember even less. I have defects, but these ones at least I can ameliorate with photography. I have no idea what is art or artistic and of course I am very uncomfortable with calling myself an artist. I see too much, understand little, and remember less. I have more defects, but these I can at least ameliorate with photography and this makes me a better person. Photography keeps me alert and critical to what happens around me, it keeps me permeable. Furthermore, if my photographs make others - not necessarily have to be many - react, think and feel something, I think it’s enough.
Is photography what fascinates your or is it the message that you transmit through the images that calls your attention? Do you see yourself in the future experimenting with other tools?
I am fascinated by photography, first as someone that looks at photography, and only after as someone who creates it. Photography is a curious medium, it appears as if showing something everything as it is, all the details, so reachable that it distorts my capacity of comprehension. When I see a photograph I feel that I’m the same as my cat when he looks himself in the mirror and tries to come closer and touch the other cat that he’s looking at. So photography makes me have my mind awake and in a state of surprise. But when it’s me who generates the photographs, then the need of showing, of sharing, of communicating is more important that the medium I use. What I’m looking for is a medium that is adequate to my form of being and to what I want to communicate. For example, I don’t think I would have made painting, even though when at school I had talent for it, but I am very impatient and painting requires a process a lot longer than the one required for photography. Collage attracts me, I have always liked to cut images of whatever, from magazines, from photographs, and I collect them but I don’t know for what, maybe to make a collage in an undefined future.
Contemporary socio-cultural critique magazine Cruce, has featured an interview realized by Luis Ponce to WAI co-founder Cruz Garcia. The Politics and Society section of the Puerto Rican magazine discusses art, politics, literature and WAI’s critical mission. The interview has been divided in three parts.
The first part of the interview can be read here.
For the remaining two parts stay tuned to WAI.
Intellectual polymath Dr. Angel Collado Schwarz interviewed WAI’s co-director Cruz Garcia for the radio show “La Voz del Centro”(The Voice of the Center).
The program that airs every Sunday offers panoramic perspectives from historians, politicians, experts, writers, philosophers, artists and cultural players, on the history, culture and society in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and all the adjacent geographies of influence.
The interview that was held in Spanish will be broadcasted Sunday, April 1 at 7:00pm at WKAQ-San Juan 580 AM, WUKQ-Ponce 1420AM, WYEL-Mayaguez 600AM, WADO-New York 1280AM and WRTO-Chicago 1200AM (9:00pm).
The interview can also be accessed here.