Who is Architecture?

Who is Architecture?
Conversations on the borders of building

Brendan McGetrick


Published by Timezone 8 & Domus China Timezone 8 Limited 15D Entertainment Building 30 Queen’s Road Central Hong Kong www.timezone8.com info@timezone8.com Domus China Suite 612, 94 Dongsi Shitiao Beijing 100007 People’s Republic of China www.domuschina.com Copyright © Brendan McGetrick 2009, 2010 ISBN 978-988-18816-6-3 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. All images provided by and published with the permission of the interview subjects. While every effort has been made to contact owners of copyright material produced in this book, we have not always been successful. In the event of a copyright query, please contact the publisher.

Text designed and typeset in Minion & Myriad Pro by Brendan McGetrick Printed and bound in the People’s Republic of China

To Liu Mi, my favorite architect

Foreword 1 Michael Rock 2 Lu Zhenggang 3 Rory McGowan 4 Barry Bergdoll 5 Haas & Hahn 6 Reinier de Graaf 7 John Dekron & Markus Schneider 8 Jennifer Sigler 9 Mark Wigley 10 Tan Xiaochun ix 1 19 29 43 57 71 85 95 111 123

ARCHiTeCTuRe is a collaborative art. The achievement of a building of even small ambition requires the architect to commit himself to an array of specialists—engineers, a developer, a rendering company, plumbers, a photographer, etc.—each of whom is responsible for a vital piece of his vision. Long before building begins, she must design a production process that incorporates these outside abilities, that balances individual empowerment and general oversight and allows for meaningful interaction between professions that might otherwise never meet. in 2009, the Chinese edition of Domus magazine invited me to participate in its annual interview series. i was told that i could interview anyone i’d like on a topic of my choice, with the results published in each issue as a removable booklet. The previous series had featured several of the most celebrated figures in contemporary architecture, a fact that seemed simultaneously intimidating and liberating. Confronted with the need to maintain the magazine’s high standards and facing an already depleted pool of potential subjects, i decided to look outside, to the people and professions along architecture’s periphery. Rather than interrogating architects directly, i spoke to those closest to them, the collaborators on whom they depend to reinforce, realize, and expand their ideas. eventually the concept of a silhouette emerged: by filling in the areas around it in great detail, the series could produce an image of architecture in relief, a profession defined entirely but what takes place at its outer edges. This book presents the results of that effort. each interview reveals a different facet of collaboration, where architects have entrusted outsiders to make or break their designs— from an engineer ensuring structural integrity and a graphic designer providing navigational clarity, to a curator, editor, or digital renderer presenting it to the public, an educator placing it within thousands of years of previous efforts, and a contractor determining how best to build it. Together they cover many of the architect’s greatest challenges and reveal what is perhaps his most under-appreciated talent, the ability to achieve coherency from a mass of seemingly irreconcilable differences. Who is architecture? is an effort to celebrate architects by ignoring them. Most of the people interviewed have no architectural background, and the few who are trained have sought alternatives to professional practice. Rather than extolling the architect’s power— intellectual, aesthetic, organizational, etc.—it examines her flexibility, her unique ability to oversee and adjust, extract value and form connections, to, as Mark Wigley explains toward the end of the book, “combine forms of knowledge that don’t belong together”. unfortunately, there are many forms of knowledge that are not covered in this book but are vital to achieving a full sense of architectural collaboration. i hope that in the future this series will be amended and enriched by further discussions with developers, cost estimators, model makers, plumbers, government officials, etc. Still, it is a pleasure to present this series whole for the first time. The selection is incomplete, but the conversations are thorough and, together, they provide a new set of entry points to a profession that is understood by few but affects all. New York, February 2010

Michael Rock is a founding partner and creative director at 2x4 and Professor of Design at the Yale University School of Art.

1. Michael Rock
BRENDAN McGETRICK: Ever since I started working with architects, I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which they collaborate with people outside of their profession—engineers, contractors, clients, etc. Each of these has a particular position in an architecture project and through collaboration reveals insights into the nature of an architect’s work. The Domus interview series is planned with that idea in mind; the hope is that by understanding more about the roles of people working along its edges, we can better understand what architecture is. It seems to me that as a graphic designer you play several roles: you create signage and way-finding systems for buildings, but you also create publications about architecture. To start, let’s talk a little bit about those roles. MICHAEL ROCK: I once gave a lecture titled “In, On, Around and About,” and this is kind of our relationship to architecture. We do work that happens inside architecture and is somehow applied to it and the landscape around it, but we also do work about it. It was never an aspiration of ours to become sign designers, it was an accidental development of our practice. What’s interesting is that by working at an architectural scale as a graphic designer you operate at a completely different scale than you do for the rest of graphic design work. Often times the work is simply bigger or it incorporates materials in a different way, and that work—which is integral to architecture because it’s murals or it’s wallpaper or it’s surface decorations or patterns or signs or way-finding—is all driven partially by the scale of the work that it’s related to. But then there’s also the work that is about somehow expressing the ideas of architecture or explaining how it works. In the beginning we did a lot of that, because the architects who we were working with didn’t have a lot of buildings; they were still competing for projects and so we did things like boards or books or materials that tried to explain an architectural idea. Then it went over into books and magazines, things that were about architecture somehow, which still had to engage architectural ideas, but in a graphic way.
The following discussion took place at Rock’s apartment in New York on September 4, 2008

Rock, Michael. “In, On, Around, and About.” The Cooper Union. New York, 30 November 2006


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

So there’s a split between the work which is architectural in scale and the work which is graphic in scale but relates to the architecture itself. that’s the two major strains that you mention: broadcasting architecture versus work which augments architecture somehow. i think we see them both as commentary or critique in a certain way, because i think that the graphic work in the buildings is always somehow in dialogue with the building itself. there’s a contrast or friction between the things that we do and the architecture. in the most basic sense, if you think about way-finding: it simply annotates the building and tells you how to use it—it tells you to go here or go there, tells you these are the doors you’re supposed to use—and so it’s really basic labelling. But in a more complex way i think it starts to reflect the ideology of the building and it tells something about the story of the building and how you should feel about it. i think that’s especially true where the elements inside a building are elements of partition and not of structure. You’re basically decorating those elements to give them meaning, saying this is an important wall or not an important wall. You’re providing very basic functions for decorating the space, and in doing that you tend to explain the concept of the building. i like to think that the work that we do in relation to buildings plays a complex and integral part in the sense that we speak directly to the user of the building about the building. Way-finding is always seen as something that is directly related to the user experience of the building, not to architectural history and not to a theoretical idea but to navigation and to the way that someone moves in the space. But if you just extend that further out, it becomes about making a direct address to the users about the building that they’re using. that happens some times more than others, and it depends on the architect and the building, but i think that it’s the clash of two disciplines coming together that i find interesting. i still find it an interesting area to work and think about, and as technology changes it becomes an increasingly important one, because now you have digital things, LeDs, and dynamic elements that are projected into static elements. increasingly every building engages the graphic in more and more complex ways. it used to be very typical that the architect would finish a building and then the graphic designer would come in and decide where the signs went, but i think that it’s much more likely now that there is an early integration of the two practices and the graphic and informational part is considered a component of the architectural part.

You make up your own story about it


You mentioned graphic design in a dialogue with architecture. Is that dialogue the product of a real dialogue that takes place between a graphic designer and architect where he or she explains the priorities and then you try to make them more explicit? i think it happens in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s a real dialogue, and in the very early stages there’s a discussion around certain overarching ideals to do with the space, and then that plays out in graphic ideas. For example, in IIT, the building by OMA, there was an idea from the competition stage of having this portrait of Mies on the face of building; the idea of having big portraits was there from the very first concept. they were glued onto the first model that was made, and so there was already a thought about how the building would be graphic. it is a one-story building so the walls don’t hold up the ceiling, the columns hold up the ceiling, and the interior partitions were always just a series of fluid forms that demised the rooms. they were always thought about as covered with things to give them meaning or make them different. there was already a dialogue around that idea—not necessarily what the content would be, but that there would be something there—from the very earliest parts of the design process. there are other times where, as the design develops, there are certain conditions that arise and must be met somehow, but can’t be met with architecture for a variety of reasons—often because it’s too expensive. So then they’ll say, “We have this big blank wall. We should make something more interesting with this.” that calls out for an intervention by the designer. that is something that is unforeseen in the design process, but in the development process certain things come up and you make decisions about them for the sake of the unity of the design. Other times it happens on the graphic designer’s side in a purely analytical way. You don’t really have that much dialogue with the designers of the building so you make up your own story about it. it’s your own interpretation of the building to a certain extent, and that often happens in buildings that are quite far along and we’re brought into a situation where we don’t have a rapport with the architect so we just make up our own way of working and thoughts about the buildings. Sometimes they match the architecture and sometimes they work against it, to a certain extent. We did an interiors project recently–it was for the New York Academy of Science—where we did a

Further mentions IIT: 38


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

whole series of wallpapers about our own thoughts about scientific inquiry. It didn’t have anything to do with the physical architecture per se, it just became another element of the space. Do you see your role as sometimes trying to supplement a building in order to provide qualities that it lacks? I don’t think that it’s a matter of lack and I don’t think it’s a matter of supplement, because one seems recuperative—as if it’s solving a problem that wasn’t solved by the architecture—and the other one seems like it’s secondary. I think in both cases it’s more complimentary than supplementary. It’s another element—like lighting or sound—that’s part of the architectural experience. I think that a lot of it has to do with completing the atmosphere of a space. If you think of the Seagram’s Building, the graphic element is extremely understated and it’s played out in simple ways, in terms of patterning or typography, but it’s somehow completely appropriate for that building. It gives a sense of “50s modern business attire” to the whole thing. You can’t imagine it being done in a different way than in this almost transparent way. With CCTV or a project like that, the spaces are so dramatic, so big, so architecturally complex that the design program is actually incredibly neutral, because it doesn’t need that much. You just need some really basic way-finding. Sometimes you need things of big scale to match the scale of the structural members, because they are such a powerful element in the space, but it’s not a space that’s calling out for a lot of additional material, because the physical form of the building is so incredibly present all of the time. I think each space has a logic to it and part of the design experience is understanding the logic and somehow creating something that fits there. That doesn’t mean it’s something that is totally compliant in the space, because sometimes it can fit by being really annoying, but it needs to be complimentary to the whole experience. If part of architecture is creating these experiences, then the graphic and the visual is an incredibly important part of it. Often times one of the first things you see when you go into a space is the graphic aspect of it. The graphic acts almost as a buffer.

Further mentions CCTV: 6-7, 22-23, 29-36, 38, 133

Completing the atmosphere of a space


Architectural language is something that you experience in an incredibly visceral way, but it’s not necessarily apparent to people right away what it is they’re seeing or experiencing. You might walk into a space that’s very big, so that’s the first experience—it’s big, it’s open—but the intricacies of the architecture aren’t immediately apparent to most people. So often the graphic is an entry to it, something they can understand on a more human scale. Do you have a particular building in mind? I was thinking about Terminal Three of Beijing Airport. When you first step in, that space is pretty overwhelming. It’s almost like you have to look at 180˚ to comprehend the whole thing. You’re overwhelmed by this huge empty space and you don’t necessarily understand how the curve of the ceiling works or how the ceiling detail works or how all of those things add up to the overall experience. Often you’re focused on the simple, much more immediate experience of, “How do I find the check-in counter?” And in a way the graphic part has to work against the overwhelmingly architectural space just to make you feel like you can navigate it or understand where you need to get to or how you fit into the whole thing, because your first impression might be absolute bewilderment at the scale of it. Right, because the concept of Terminal Three is to try to combine under one roof so many of the elements that are spread across multiple terminals in the typical airport. That’s really a challenge, of course, because people have to understand the system so that they don’t end up at the wrong end, which is almost a kilometer away. In a way that airport doesn’t use any of the typical architectural ideas of progression to get you places, because you see the whole thing at once, and that’s such an unusual experience. You’re kind of high when you enter, then it slopes down away from you, so it’s almost like lifting the roof off a building and seeing it without all the room partitions. That’s a situation where the whole way-finding program becomes absolutely essential to what your movement through that building will be, because the architecture doesn’t necessarily lead you through immediately.
Further mentions Terminal Three: 6, 39


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

Another aspect of the way-finding in airports but more and more in other sorts of buildings as well, is the need for iconographic expressions that are independent of language. You almost need to a develop a visual Esperanto that can communicate even to people who are nervous and rushed and guide them through the building in an efficient way. I think that is almost a different discipline in itself, because airports or subway systems have problems unto themselves that don’t necessarily relate to an individual building. In an individual building you usually go through a certain progression of experiences that is pretty standard: you see the building, you walk across something to get to it, you walk through the front door, and then there are certain things after that. In an airport, because there are so many routes that you could take and so many things that you have to do in a precise order to get where you have to go, you really have tell people exactly: step one is this, step two is this, step three is this... In Terminal Three it’s interesting, because you go through the big framing gates where you check-in, and then everything keeps narrowing down until you get on that train. It’s a series of steps and I think it’s even played out on the floor: go here, go here, go here... You don’t really have any free will in the system. You only have one way to go through it and you have to keep everyone going that way, whereas in other places you might want to exaggerate the sense of free will and not make them feel too controlled in what they do. Airports are, by necessity I guess, authoritarian and design serves that. I think we’re in a stage where you can control small experiences graphically, but on a bigger level, outside of a single building or airport or highway system, all hell breaks loose and you don’t have much control over it. So you create these little pockets of logic or pockets of unity and then those all fit together in a completely illogical way. The airport is the exact opposite of a city in a way. Your movement has to be prescribed, the graphic has to be consistent, you have know how to get from one place to another. You can have the shopping street in the airport, but it’s always under signs that say “Shopping Street” and tell you when you’re in it or not in it. There can’t be anything left to chance. Whereas with the CCTV headquarters I think there are certain things that can be left to chance.

Little pockets of logic


What exactly are you doing for CCTV? Ostensibly we’re doing all of the graphic design for the site and inside the building. How all the signs work, how the way-finding works, when there’s electronic things and when there’s fixed things... But it started off more basic: What do you call the different parts of the building? How is it labelled or numbered? It’s a difficult building because, for instance, do you consider it two buildings or one building when you label it? Is there a Tower One and Tower Two? But what happens when they join together again? One of the towers has a different number of floors between the base and when they join together again, so there’s a certain point where you have to allow for some missing floors on one so that you get to the same number of floors when it joins the other one. There are a lot of basic logical problems to understand in that building. That was exacerbated in part by certain decisions that were made on a totally arbitrary level at the very beginning about how the sections would be called in the architectural plans. All of the rooms were labelled a certain way on every single plan, and when we got involved and started thinking about way-finding we found a certain kind of illogic to that, because you’d enter in Section E then go to Section C then A, because for another reason the rooms were labelled that way. So you’re stuck with a somewhat illogical overarching naming process. Then from that, you have to work out a new system so that it makes sense again. There’s also drawing the maps of the site and figuring out what happens outside, in the kiosks and all that stuff. How you get people to know where to drop people off... Then it works down to the really basic things like how do you label the cafes and what does it say outside the elevator to explain how to get to these different parts of the building. There’s a really complicated vertical movement pattern in that building too, because certain elevators go to certain floors and not to others. Then it goes to the more environmental part of it: there’s murals for some of the rooms, there’s parts of the visitor loop experience that are more informational. There’s a lot of different things to do in that building design-wise. And a lot of it is very dry. It’s much more interesting to figure out how rooms are numbered, but like I said, in that building there’s so much going on conceptually and architecturally that it just needs to be decoded mostly—to just get people simply from place to place.

Further mentions CCTV: 4, 6, 22-23, 29-36, 38, 133


CCTV Elevator System



Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

That idea of “decoding” a building is really interesting. I think that’s an aspect of the relationship between architecture and graphic design that isn’t well enough understood. Something like designing wallpaper is very easy to understand. You get a graphic designer to do that. But there’s another, deeper level of involvement where you have to enforce what the building’s intentions are, even when they weren’t clear from the beginning of the design process. I think it’s also part of the way that buildings are designed. Usually an architect designs the outside of the building—the basic concept of it, how it works, how it’s structured in terms of providing enough space to fit all the program needs. Then another architect, often unrelated to the first one, comes in and does the interiors. Even if the same architect does the interiors, often it’s a different team of people, and it’s only at the end that you really start to think about how people move through it or what they do when they’re there. I’ve been in many different projects where there’s no allowance for where you buy a ticket or something like that way into the process. It’s a museum and no one’s thought about where you wait in line to buy a ticket, because so much effort has gone into the overall architectural expression and the language of the building. And that’s not admonishing architecture, I think you just have different scales of problems that you have to deal with at different times. But at some point you have to deal with these really basic issues like decoding the building and how you use it. And I suppose it makes sense that you would need an outside perspective for addressing those issues, someone who can think more like a user. It’s interesting, because I find it difficult to understand buildings even from their plans and sections. I really have to work at that notion, because you constantly have to be imagining spaces not as formal volumes but as spaces that you move through. For instance, OMA’s Casa da Musica in Porto, until I went to that building and went through it I never fully understood how it would work or what the spaces would be like inside. That space is so complex and your route through that building is so interesting, the way one space opens into the next one is so interesting, but it’s a really difficult thing to imagine at the level of drawings.

Further mentions Casa da Musica: 37

The sea of architectural publishing


Photos too generally. Yeah, photos are such a low-level expression of architecture I think. The pictures that you see of that space don’t have any sense of the scale of it. There’s a really beautiful way that one space leads to the next in that building, but it’s almost impossible to explain through photographs. Which goes back to the other side of your involvement with architecture. Right, that’s the side that I feel less accomplished in at the moment. Maybe because I haven’t been designing so much print work recently, but maybe also because I’ve found that aspect so frustrating. It always comes down to this set of similar devices that you have for telling stories, and after a while it becomes really tedious I think: you have a group of plans and sections that are put together, then you have some photographs that were taken by a good photographer, then someone writes an essay about it... Those are the devices that you have to tell the story. The issue of Domus d’Autore that we did with OMA was an interesting attempt to at least catalogue the possible devices that you could use. It had people’s postings of images of themselves in the buildings and what people were saying on blogs. It had how the television stations covered it and how the newspapers covered it, and it attempted to make a list of all the different types of architectural representations. But somehow they still always seem deficient. So this whole sea of architectural publishing I feel more and more alienated from. There are more and more books, and nothing seems to get at it or penetrate it somehow. It seems like film or something interactive might be a better way to do it. But you deal with it all the time, so you must struggle with the same things. Yes, also because a building is so complicated and there are so many things that you could try to express. If you say, “OK, I’m going to concentrate on the experiential aspect of this building,” then there are things that you can do—you can interview users, you can ask the maintenance man for a tour, you can ask an author to write a piece of fiction that takes place in the building. But then there’s dozens of other things that you’re ignoring.

AMO/Rem Koolhaas. “PostOccupancy.” Domus d’Autore June 2006


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

Koolhaas, Rem and Brendan McGetrick., ed. Content. Köln : Taschen, 2004. OMA, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau. S,M,L,XL. New York: Monticelli Press, 1995.

Further mentions Rem Koolhaas: 13, 79, 87, 100-101, 103-104, 112 S,M,L,XL: 103-104, 106, 112

I feel really frustrated about how to move it beyond that. I’m doing a book with an architect right now, a totally classical book. It’s a series of 22 essays that he wrote and some pictures of the buildings that he talks about. I’m working with a very typical architectural publisher and they really wanted something “different”. But basically every idea that we brought to them that would have been different, they said, “Oh, but you can’t do that though, because books that size don’t sell...” And so we did all these covers and they were finally like, “What we were thinking was maybe like an architectural detail on the cover...” And I just said, “Well, basically now you’ve worked this book back to being 81/2” x 11”, it has this kind of typography, it now has an architectural detail on the cover, so it looks exactly like every other book you’ve ever published.” It just seems like all of the interest to do something different hits a dead end every time. For that book, we wanted to make it much more like a novel; if it’s all writing why not really publish it like a novel and make it look like that? But of course there was no capacity to think about it that way. Rem [Koolhaas] is one of the only people who experiments with publications in a way which is as radical as the way that OMA experiments with architecture. Whether you liked it or not, I think Content was a really interesting experiment to try to get at his practice in a totally different way. And obviously S,M,L,XL was a way and the issue of Domus d’Autore was a way. Each one attempts to crack through somehow or at least throw in some new ways of rendering the projects. I think that he’s come the closest of anybody to making a series of publications which reflect on architectural ideas in graphic ways: the actual graphic form of the thing itself and the way that the writing is assembled and the way that the publication is thought of is equivalent to the buildings in a way. Rem is someone who puts a lot of thought into the problem of representing architecture, because he suffers from the fact the architecture articulates itself so poorly to the outside world. Yesterday I went to this conference at a university for a little while. I have to say it was so bad. The presentations were so completely impenetrable, mostly incomprehensible really. I had no idea what these people were saying. In this case it was a conference of architects, but the language was so internal.

All of the interest to do something different hits a dead end


I know just what you mean. These academic discussions really are impenetrable and, worse, they drain your enthusiasm for architecture and architects. But what is interesting is that, having done Content and even with MAD Dinner, a book I edited last year, it’s become clear to me that if you don’t submit to that internal discussion and you try to do something different, you are almost sure to be dismissed by many architects and critics. If it doesn’t look serious and it doesn’t look like something they identify with, they immediately assume it’s frivolous. I think that is a major obstacle to the sorts of experiments you mentioned: the belief that architecture needs to be very serious makes it so much more difficult to experiment and, once you have experimented, to find an audience that is willing to make the leap of faith and try to appreciate it. I think it’s a combination. In some ways, there is an inferiority complex where architecture needs to be philosophical to somehow counteract the physicality of it. It needs to be proved that it’s philosophical or it comes out of deep ideas. But in doing that it completely alienates all of the people who could actually understand some of what is going on, and that was part of the problem of this conference. One of the questions at the end was so completely over the top. Literally it was, “I’m really concerned about the post-colonial idea of concrete and its hegemonic position in relation to local stone...” And I feel like I’m a fairly well-read, intelligent person and I just had absolutely no idea. I just thought, “How would I ever answer that question if someone asked it to me?” I generally support theory and the idea of criticism being an important part of architecture, but somehow it gets to the point where there’s no entry point to it. That’s why I thought that Content was such a daring book, because it didn’t feel labored in its attempt to prove something. It put a lot of things out there in a lot of ways that could be interesting. But what do you feel is the reaction to Content? Well, I’ve heard some fairly intense reactions on both the positive and negative side. On the negative, it seems that the cover alone turned off a huge part of the potential audience. People didn’t bother to read it or even open it once they saw the crudeness and graphic aggression of the cover. But actually in China I’ve met quite a few people who really love it, and young architects have even told me that it inspired them to study architecture.

McGetrick, Brendan and Chen Shuyu., ed. MAD Dinner. Barcelona: Actar, 2008.


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

I really like that book a lot. I thought it was actually really daring and unusual, fresh. It took risks where no one else takes risks. I talked once at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and people were criticizing Content and I said, “Look, our attitude was that there was no book like that, so we should make one. If in ten years there are dozens of books like that and Content seems like an amateurish, primitive attempt, then that would be great, because that would mean we have that many more interesting, experimental books. But as long as it’s the case that nobody else is trying to do it, then I think a book like that deserves a small amount of respect for showing what else is possible.” Right, what I liked about it was that it didn’t feel derivative. Or that what it felt derivative of weren’t architecture books. What was interesting was that it took a tabloid approach to a subject that had become tabloidized by the way it was covered anyway. I thought that was an interesting critical maneuver in a way. It was one of the only successful attempts that I’ve seen to apply this idea that architects often have of bringing in someone who has no idea what’s going on and getting them to apply that ignorance to come up with fresh ideas. Around OMA there was this recurring fantasy, “Yeah, we’ll let the lady who makes the lunches do the image selection and that’ll be super interesting!” And it almost never works, but it did for Content, because neither of the designers knew a thing about architecture or particularly cared to. So they simply applied this tabloid language, which was their native language, because they had been doing a magazine like that for years. That’s why in the end it feels authentic, because they couldn’t have done it any other way. I just feel really worn down by the architectural publishing world to a certain extent. It’s not where I go to find inspiration or interest at the moment. But I think maybe exhibits are a slightly more satisfying way to deal with architecture, because you can deal with lots of different media. You can have models and you can have movies and you can have text and sound. In that they’re quasi-architectural themselves, they might be a way to address the difficulty of books somehow.

Brand DNA


Some of the animations that are used to describe a building in design I think are pretty interesting in the way that they can conceptually assemble a building and move you through it. I’m talking about those Crystal CG flythroughs and stuff like that. In terms of telling the story of a building I think they’re pretty compelling. They’re cheesy in the sense that some of the graphic language is a little bit cheesy at this point, but I don’t think it’s fully developed as an experience yet. But on a Hollywood level, of course, you can start to make those things really incredible. I’m sure there’s huge potential for it, but it’s super expensive to do at the moment, so that limits what can be done. Over the years 2x4 has been involved in a few projects that have gradually expanded to include a variety of disciplines and media. The collaboration between OMA, 2x4, and Prada is maybe the most obvious example. I know that you also recently worked on Clo, a wine bar here in New York, where you ended up doing almost everything from the development of the name and brand identity, the web and interactive components, packaging, to the architectural and interior design. I’m curious about how this sort of total integration works. As you mentioned before, graphic design is a complimentary component to architecture, but so is plumbing or HV/AC and you rarely see the people responsible for those aspects entering any others. I think that branding has become so embedded in the way that everyone thinks about their business, their organizations, that all design, including architecture, is pushed into becoming an expression of that. If you’re going to build a corporate headquarters now, you’re absolutely thinking about how this selection of architects supports the overall brand of the company. So that’s part of the programmatic demand of architecture now, and because designers have always been pretty integral in developing what a brand is, it’s only a small shift from determining what it is to starting to create the expressions of it. Nike always talks about their “brand DNA”. They say that their brand DNA is so strong and you need to understand the DNA of Nike in order to understand how to make work for them. Once that’s established, everything has to be an expression of that DNA. Of course, you can say that the work Rem [Koolhaas] is doing for Prada is clearly an expression of Prada’s brand. Rem’s an integral part of Prada’s brand, and we’re a part of Prada’s brand also.

Further mentions Crystal CG: 19-27

Further mentions Prada: 14, 75, 85

Further mentions Rem Koolhaas: 10, 79, 87, 100-101, 103-104, 112


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

Further mentions Prada: 14, 75, 85

For a fashion company to associate itself with OMA is a branding statement and then the work that they do for them pushes their brand in certain directions, expresses it in certain ways. Because of that I think the distinction of what’s architecture and what’s graphic design becomes a little bit blurry, because all of them become equal expressions of this central branding. I think that’s actually a major change in the way that the world works. Of course, it’s probably happened in natural ways before, but when a museum becomes totally obsessed with what its brand is and what it means to have Renzo Piano design their museum for them, it changes the nature of what they’re expecting from their architects and what they’re expecting from their designers. It’s also implying that, for example, if Nike has really clearly defined DNA and the architects are working from that and I’m working from that, then naturally our work should somehow go together, because we’re all referring to the same object of representation. So I think that the change in our practice comes from the change in that understanding of brand. The more we work with organizations where our interaction with them is considered part of their essential branding, the more the things we work on changes, because we become expressers of their brand in all these different ways. With Prada it’s different, because Prada has a big brand that we’re a small part of. Also part of Prada’s brand is the unexpected, so if you do something weird it fits, because they’re dealing with unexpected things. But with Nike, for instance, they have very strong expectations about exactly how they represent themselves and what is or isn’t an appropriate Nike expression. So, as in this wine bar project, if you’re in charge of developing the brand of a company—its name and its feeling and the qualities that it’s supposed to exude— then you can move into other things for them as well: what the experience is like or what the space is like or what the interactive parts are like. Controlling the branding part of it allows you to have a much larger scope of what happens next, either by commissioning people or doing it yourself. So, as we’ve taken on these roles where we’ve become much more integral to the establishment of the idea, that allows us to have more scope in terms of the work we do. Does that make sense? Yes definitely. It reminds of a text I read on your website this morning. Something you designed for the skin care company Malin + Goetz was described as “a package that could function both as a logo and an architectural element.”

From the teaspoon to the city


there was this early modern notion of total design and the expression was always “from the teaspoon to the city”. the architect should be able to touch any one of those things and pull it into a design. And of course people like [Adolf] Loos or [Frank Lloyd] Wright were absorbed in the idea that they would design all the furniture and the light fixtures and it would all make up one huge, purely integrated art experience. i think brand, in a way, has become the newest form of total design. But rather than saying that the idea exists in the architect, it says that that idea exists in this kind of brand manual, which expresses who they are. then everybody adopts that as their working method. it’s a transformation of the total design mentality, and it’s ceded control from the architect to the client. the client is now in control of the total design idea and everybody becomes their servant. Mark Wigley writes about this idea that total design was always implosive and explosive, in the sense that it dealt both with the internal workings of something but also how it broadcast. that i think is the ultimate notion of it, where brand DNA somehow controls how the business is run as a practice, how people relate to one another, all of the products they make, but also all of their publications and how they express themselves to the world. it deals with the broadcasting of the subject and also with the design of it. in that way it unites promotion and product design. there’s something i haven’t quite been able to get at though, which is the sense that there is an insidious aspect to all this, which is annoying and controlling and inescapable. the whole branding notion bugs me ultimately, but i can’t see a way around it either, because it’s one of those notions that incorporates any rejection of it. You know, “We’re the company that’s against branding!” And then that’s your brand. “Our gimmick is there is no gimmick.” it’s one of those things that is so totalizing there’s no outside to it. it’s kind of what [Antonio] Negri would say, you have this sense that you want to rebel against something, but the thing is so big that there’s no way to be outside and rebel against it, every gesture is absorbed by it. Branding is one of those forms. it absorbs all its critique. i think that controlling branding gives you a lot of power and a lot of agency, but you never control it totally so you then become a vehicle of it or factor in it somehow. it doesn’t reside in you.

Further mentions Mark Wigley: 115-126


Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

Also when the business-side is given priority, scientifically-justified aesthetic preferences start to influence designs. You start hearing things like “green doesn’t sell” or “books of that size don’t sell” and it seems to me the number of options before the designer contracts. It does and it doesn’t. There’s a notion of branding that’s also expansive in the sense that, once you’ve established your brand then presumably you can move into anything and take it over. One of the tests for whether a company has a strong brand or not is to say, “If it started a chain of restaurants what would they be like? Can you imagine them?” And you can imagine what an Apple restaurant would be like right away. But if Microsoft opened up a chain of restaurants it’s very difficult to imagine what they’d be like. So if the brand is strong enough it allows expansion and redefinition, because it changes the subject rather than the form. It injects its form into it, in the way that Apple went into the phone market and now the iPhone has become a standard that everything else has to react against. I was actually talking to a guy who used to be the president of Leica, and I was thinking Leica should go into the phone business, because often times your phone is your camera anyway and people expect Leicas to have a certain quality to them. And you can imagine what a Leica phone might be like: super utilitarian, really hardcore, always works perfectly with a great camera in it. It would be in a way the anti-iPhone, because it wouldn’t be about flash at all, it would be about something which is much more utilitarian. And I think there are a lot of people who would rather have a camera that’s also a phone than a phone with a camera added to it. Exactly, where the quality of the camera is the thing that is paramount, but you could also call your friend on it. So I think that is what is interesting: the design part is about designing the idea and seeing if it is generative enough to allow you to build all these things on top of it. And I think it works to a certain extent, because whatever you think about Nike they have a really strong image, which you can imagine is generative enough to where they can keep doing new things. They can go into the business of sports beverages or whatever. They can infuse it with those ideas that they have and they could give it a certain meaning or direction.

Nothing can be authentic


Of course, the annoying thing is when it goes to a personal level and you think, “Should I live here? Does this neighorhood fit my brand?” The annoying part is that it means you always have to step outside of the thing and look at it in this strange, objective way. Nothing can be authentic; everything becomes a manufactured expression of this manufactured thing. I think maybe that is the heart of what’s annoying about the idea of branding: it always seems inauthentic, it always seems manufactured. The personalization of branding is scary in a lot of ways. On a macro level, I think you also see that more and more in the way entire nations represent themselves. Right. China’s now looking at itself as a brand. Every country is. And China’s an interesting case, because their brand—Made In China—has great recognition but a terrible reputation. Yes, but Made In Japan used to be just like that and it changed 180 degrees to where Made In Japan is now seen as a symbol of quality and innovation. Part of it must be simply development and improvement. But it’s also a choice of which products to emphasize. The fact that Japan went into cars and electronics is different than if you go into milk products and pet food. I guess it’s about the professionalization of image control ultimately. For major companies, it’s become refined as a technique and the devices for how it’s produced have become very clearly defined. You always had architects and graphic designers and all these people who dealt with different things, but now you have someone who is on top of them, unifying them all, and trying to get them in line so that all their work is complimentary in a way that conveys their message. Before, the architects did their thing and the graphic designers did their thing and since they worked together that was great. But, to come back to the question, the expansion of the scope of work is because increasingly clients are looking for all of these things to be unified rather than separate, so if that can be unified through you then that’s great. If it can unified by you telling them, “We should hire this architect also,” that’s great too. But they’re looking for that unity of message.

Lu Zhenggang is the founder and president of Crystal CG Ltd.

2. Lu Zhenggang
BRENDAN McGETRICK: Crystal CG’s story is very interesting, because almost every well-known new building in China was first displayed to the world through your company’s renderings. Yours is really the language through which nearly everyone in China reads modern architecture, and now we are seeing the company develop along with China beyond buildings toward a more virtual society. I am curious about your personal experience leading Crystal through these stages of development. LU ZHENGGANG: Crystal was set up in 1995 and at that time I had just graduated as a student majoring in architecture. From 1993 to 1995, AutoCAD first emerged in China, and I became part of the first batch of people to get in touch with computer mapping. At that time, elder architects in design institutes were unable to do digital mapping, so we youngsters took charge of blueprint digitization jobs beyond sketching and design. At the beginning, we just did it for ourselves, from CAD mapping to three-dimensional effects. Later, other architecture institutions heard that we were able do this kind of job and asked us to do it for them, so gradually our focus changed from design to digital mapping. In regards to collaboration between Crystal and modern China’s developing process, I think two huge events need to be mentioned. The first one is the global tender of The National Center for the Performing Arts in 1998. I still remember that over 40 institutions from home and abroad competed for the bid, which required close communications and interactions between domestic and foreign architects. As the organizing committee openly collected the plans and opinions of the public, and all bidding schemes were to be exhibited in the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution, we were under great pressure. All competitors spent a lot of time on visual performance, and we tried to use cartoons to represent architecture for the first time. From then on, we got the chance to be in touch with so many foreign architects, and they found that China had a good ability to display architecture.
The following discussion took place at Liu’s office in Beijing on December 25, 2008. Also included in the conversation are editor Qin Lei and architect Liu Mi.


Lu Zhenggang, Digital Renderer

Further mentions Bird’s Nest: 22, 29, 40, 129-137

The second event is Beijing Olympic Games. Crystal started to participate in Beijing’s bid for the Olympics in 1999. At that time, an important part of bidding was selecting the site of the Olympic Games. Besides Beichen, the area that was eventually selected, there were two other alternatives—Yizhuang and Fatou in the southeastern part of Beijing. From then on, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning (BMCUP) became Crystal’s client, with the agreement that we would help BMCUP to exhibit the planning results of these different sites. Following that, Crystal became a sponsor of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bidding Committee (BOBICO). At that time, BOBICO wanted to persuade inspection teams from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), so it asked us to draw the features of 2008 Beijing in the year 2000 through digitized images. Apart from that, [the film-maker and eventual director of 2008 Olympic opening ceremony] Zhang Yimou montaged some pictures of mine for the trailer. In 2006, we officially became a sponsor of the Beijing Olympic Games, and that’s the first time in history that a digital imaging company has been responsible for the Olympic Games. For the opening ceremony, as the general contractor of images, Crystal’s responsibilities included creating the digital rehearsal, the image of the bowl-shaped top of the Bird’s Nest, the images of all the huge scroll paintings, etc. Beforehand, many international companies, including some from Hollywood, were invited to bid to be the general contractor of images, but in the end, we won. And how has that victory affected the company in the years since? The change that the Beijing Olympic Games has brought to us is an upgrade from digitized imaging to working on the city’s planning, promotion, and publicity. So you are right that we have developed along with China. Now we not only focus on architecture, cities, products, films, sports, culture, publicity, and education, but on cartoons, including “Fuwa Journey to the Olympics” and “Olympic ABC” with [China’s state broadcaster] CCTV. We always act as a communicator, and try to help different people to acquire knowledge via images. But in architecture, we have expanded from doing renderings and cartoons at the beginning to working in more extensive fields, such as architectural education and historic building preservation, from future planning to historic recovery, and from assisting communication between architect and

We always act as a communicator


developer to that between architect and ordinary people. For instance, Crystal took charge of the visual recovery of cities from the Ming Dynasty in Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, and many other cities. Besides, we restored some historic spots like Chang’an City from the Tang Dynasty. And in our self-sponsored documentary series, we rehabilitated ancient Buddhist buildings in India. As you changed from architectural design to architectural rendering, how did your understanding of architecture change? That’s a good question. When I was working as an architect, I knew that I was fond of architecture, but I couldn’t become a first-class architect, because of my personal qualifications. But when I went to rendering, I realized that I could be exposed to more things, because as an architect, I could only do one project in a year. As a renderer, I could also communicate with different people from different areas, for example, not only architects, but government officers, developers, and even ordinary people, and understand different points of view from different groups. That’s useful. That’s very interesting, especially because you talk about Crystal as a communicator. How did you adjust your job to communicate with these different groups? That’s simple. We have different departments to handle those things. I mean, when you’re obligated to show a rendering to an architect, developer, and official, how can you cater to the tastes of these different groups at one time? It’s actually hard to satisfy everybody’s taste. Like an architect, he may use different strategies for different groups, like developers and the government. The most difficult thing is to draw renderings for developers, because they need to make popular things for common people. So how does each division in your company handle these different requirements? We have a department just to communicate with architects and a department just to communicate with developers. But they share their resources, like the same dish with two different ways to cook.


Lu Zhenggang, Digital Renderer

Another thing that I find interesting about your story is the idea that Crystal is now moving in two directions: recreating the past and imagining the future. I am curious about the different ways that you approach these two things. I can imagine that the future has to seem very exciting, while the past should perhaps feel different. Technically, there is no difference. But it’s strange that you insert the map of a scene from the future into a book on fictitious historic spots. Actually, many of the renderings that we have made look almost the same as real pictures. I still remember when I saw a picture of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing Youth Daily, I was astonished and shouted, “Somebody stole our picture!” But the truth is that the picture was truly taken from the Bird’s Nest. That means that our imitation is accurate. Well, I am thinking that your style is very modern which I think is perfectly suited to rendering things like the new CCTV or the Bird’s Nest. But when you represent something which is two thousand years old, I wonder if you think using the same sort of visual language becomes more difficult. Actually, we require more details and energy to restore the old ones, because it has to be more authentic, and for that we need to consult a lot of people, like historians and experts researching historical documents and antiques. We do a great deal of research with Tsinghua University and Beijing Library. Besides, we work with film-makers, you know, and films need higher requirements in details and images than ordinary renderings. I know that you are probably trying to question whether the same technique is suitable for ancient buildings, because our images are too flowery and have a lot of embellishments. Actually, we have two different groups, including a group with staff that understands archaeology, working on ancient buildings. On the other hand, some of the images that we illustrated are a little artificial, but that’s up to the architects. Actually what interests me is understanding the range of visual languages that Crystal is developing. For instance, I see the initial work of Crystal as beautiful renderings like those of CCTV, but recently I’ve seen some simple pictures that teach peasants how to build houses. These are very different styles.

Further mentions CCTV: 4, 6-7, 23, 29-36, 38, 133 Bird’s Nest: 20, 29, 40, 129-137

The company is like a matrix


There are 2200 people in this company. Crystal is not a big workshop or military group, and it is composed of dozens of teams with huge cultural disparity. Our core value is variety. Do you adjust based on the audience or clients? The clients will adjust by themselves. Like the same client, he probably wants something like CCTV today, but tomorrow he may ask for something totally different. Our teams compete with each other. Sometimes, one team may say the product of another team is awful. Every year, Crystal holds contests for employees. We compare different styles of work and hold a contest in different cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and invite professionals to act as judges. The company is like a matrix, and it depends on different people. So we never worry that someday we may exhaust ourselves. Now we’ve started to hire some foreigners, and we will enlarge the proportion of foreign employees. QIN LEI: What’s the background of your staff? What kinds of fields did they major in? We have four kinds of staff: the first kind is majoring in architecture and design, such as architectural design or interior design; the second is in arts or fashion design; the third is in computer technology; and the last but not least is doing business operations. Everyone can dig out his own niche here, i.e. a person studying architecture in college can start to make film, as he realizes that his favorite is film. BRENDAN McGETRICK: In the beginning, Crystal helped other companies to fulfill their thoughts, but recently you’ve started to create original productions. Does you plan to expand this part of the business in the future? Yes, we will increase original productions, mainly on what we are skilled in. With the development of visualization, many new fields appear which lie in blurred strips among existing fields, such as digital education and digitalized communities. So we may explore the fields in which we are skilled or those that others haven’t yet well handled.


Lu Zhenggang, Digital Renderer


In the past ten years, we have learned a great deal from our clients, including architects, engineers, officials, developers, directors, and so on, and this is very important for our accumulation. We hope to become an expert specializing not only in architecture but also in new media and new visual technology. We recently publicized N City, a new website that visualizes all regions of a city. How was N City developed? Did you rely on the catalog of renderings you had already designed or develop all of this exclusively for the website? Some parts are from jobs we have done in the past. But it is like the Shanghai World Expo—we signed a contract with the Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination to set up an online world expo so that all exhibiting halls can be seen on the Internet. And for another example, we are developing the beta version of a website for Zhongguancun Zone. LIU MI: Is that allowed in China? Google Earth may have legal problems, but we will not, because we developed this kind of production as authorized by trustees, including some from commercial and cultural fields. BRENDAN McGETRICK: I think it may be safer than Google Earth, because Google Earth uses real photos, and that makes people feel nervous that their private lives could be exposed. Yeah, besides taking photos from satellites, Google Earth has Street View. Some people may be photographed by chance. But our productions just map a three-dimensional city without real human beings. LIU MI: Did you come up with all those ideas by yourself? No, we have many ideas on the table each year, and some good ideas are inspired by our clients. But lots of them may not go forward. So we have a favorable corporate culture in which everybody can put forward their own thoughts and try.

A three-dimensional city without real human beings


BRENDAN McGETRICK: When you talked about the history of Crystal, you mentioned that two events were critical to the company’s development, the National Center for the Performing Arts competition and the Beijing Olympic Games. Can you imagine what the third milestone in Crystal’s development might be? It’s hard to say, but possibly the London Olympic Games. We will disclose the details of the agreement to sponsor the London Olympic Games in the middle of February. It’s a big challenge for Crystal, as we will undertake all imagerelated jobs for the Olympic Games in London, a city of design and creation. QIN LEI: Do you have serious contenders? Not yet. So are you most likely to succeed? But there is a problem that under the current financial crisis, the sponsorship fee is over 10 million RMB. If no financial crisis, we would undertake the task without any hesitation. Does that mean that Crystal is the most powerful company in this field in the world? At least we have successfully undertaken the Beijing Olympic Games. We have made a screen 145 meters long and 27 meters wide, and a circular screen with a length of 495 meters. The London Olympic Games is a challenge to Crystal. If the situation goes well, we probably enter the upper echelon of the international creative industry. If not, we may be in troubled water. So I am still worried about that. I think our technology is OK, and the biggest difficulty is culture and creativity. London is the world’s creative capital. As a Chinese company, we feel under great pressure. So we must adjust ourselves and buy a local company in London, or it will be hard to satisfy the requirements. LIU MI: So Crystal plans to step into the international arena?


Lu Zhenggang, Digital Renderer

Yes, so our future job will focus on blending lots of internationalized digital studios. We need to elevate our brand and capacity, and tolerate people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. BRENDAN McGETRICK: I have one more question about those renderings you showed us earlier. You mentioned that Crystal’s imaging has reached a state where it is difficult to distinguish between a photo and a CG image. Do you think this will cause problems, especially when recreating historical images, such as Daming Palace? Couldn’t unfamiliar people believe this was the real thing? That was actually a sample to show what the technology can do, because the building in the picture is gone. The building has been restored but everybody knows that it does not exist. But these two images even make us confused, whether is it a rendering or picture. Actually, according to Chinese law, we must label whether it is rendering or real photo in promotional materials. Besides, that’s a worldwide issue, not just existing in Crystal. Take current photography as an example: competitors integrate digital technology in their photos and it’s hard to make a distinction. Even worse, many photos are faked, such as the “South China tiger hoax” that happened last year. Images themselves are just tools and a tool isn’t right or wrong in itself. I want to say, people wish to see the future via more direct visual methods, and communication based on vision is irreversible. If you see a DVD, you will never go back to VCDs. People become more and more critical, and they like to obtain information in a quicker manner, rather than reading. That brings up another issue: Does Crystal do any work with text or is it a purely visual company? We just visualize some texts to make people understand. For example, we will teach illiterate peasants by means of images to build houses, as they can’t read or understand the drawings. We are not addicted to drawing pictures. And we’re not a super manufacturing company with large-scale production. A mature company like Crystal will be misunderstood by others, and they may doubt that when a company is getting stronger, he may try to influence others with his style. But actually, we have done many things in many fields that others will never know about, such as charity.

“South China tiger photos are fake: provincial authorities.” China Daily 11 Nov. 2007.

Variety and democracy, at the expense of speed and benefits


LIU MI: I’ve always been curious about how Crystal can enjoy such high prestige in this field, because many companies draw renderings, and it’s easy to be surpassed by others. Well, we have taught many people, and at least half of the practitioners in this field are from Crystal. We depend on variety and innovation, and we encourage variety and democracy, at the expense of speed and benefits. At present, we set up a Spacelab for architecture design. We have full-time architects, as well as some part-time architects. We own a wide customer resource network, and we have successfully won many tenders—so we are competent at tendering. [Laughs] I think architectural design can be supported in capital and resources by other fields and, on the other hand, it will push and elevate other fields, but finally, the different fields will be separated. All in all, what we should do is set up a platform and finish more tasks.

Rory McGowan is a director at Ove Arup & Partners and helps lead the firm’s Beijing Office.

3. Rory McGowan
BRENDAN McGETRICK: The purpose of this interview series is to try to reach a better understanding of what architecture is by collecting the perspectives of people who contribute to it in one way or another. Engineers are essential to any architecture project, of course, so to begin I wonder if you could provide a sense of how you as an engineer look at buildings. Is there a particular lens through which you would view architecture that others wouldn’t? RORY McGOWAN: There are obvious differentiations I would make looking at a building, and one of the first and foremost is: can you read the structure? There’s a greater level of interest when you can see the structure expressed or when it is clearly an engineered building, as opposed to the “build ‘em high, sell ‘em fast” type of architecture, or buildings that are completely wrapped up in something so that there could be anything behind. In this case you have no reading of them whatsoever. I was always drawn to older buildings where the timber structures were the building, where architecture and structure are virtually inseparable. It’s difficult, because I’m used to looking out the window here at CCTV and I do wonder how other engineers coming along look at it. Do they actually understand the pattern? Do they get it or not? That was always something that we found exciting about the pattern on the CCTV headquarters: it wasn’t immediately obvious, even to a technical person, what was going on there. So, yes I look for a story in the buildings when I look at them. Since you mention CCTV, let’s talk about it a little bit. I think it is already clear that, like the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV headquarters will have to endure an enormous number of descriptions from all sorts of perspectives and degrees of expertise. The architects have their ways to describe the building and its values, the city of Beijing has its ways, CCTV has its own ways, etc. Could you provide the engineering description of this building?
The following discussion took place on January 8, 2009 at McGowan’s office, overlooking the CCTV construction site in Beijing.

Further mentions CCTV: 4, 6-7, 2223, 30-36, 38, 133

Further mentions Bird’s Nest: 20, 22, 39, 129-137


Rory McGowan, Engineer

Further mentions Universal: 75

Well, first I would definitely look at it in the broader aspect: where does it come from? There’s been a reluctance within the design team to define its origins, but for me there’s a number of strands [of OMA’s past work] that explain it—starting with [OMA’s design for the headquarters of ] Universal, where the four parts of the company were pulled together and skewered by common program. Another strand is the Togok and Hyperbuilding projects from the mid ‘90s [that explored] very high-density population in a single entity, the need for alternative methods of circulation and speed of connectivity, and then using that diagram to actually create a structural system that, rather than being single, stand alone elements, were actually interdependent elements, reinforcing the architecture. So when I saw CCTV as a blue foam form for the first time, while it was not something we had drawn explicitly before, it was very clear in its origin. Looking at the structure, one of the key components that we’ve always been trying to exploit is the fact that the two towers are not free-standing, but propped off each other—albeit in a radical way, but they do prop off each other. It’s very clear to us, and I hope that it’s clear in the reading, that CCTV is one structure. It’s not two towers and a bridge and a link building at the bottom. It’s one structure and it’s a continuous tube element. For lay people to understand that in a simple way, I’ve said it’s like when you bend a piece of copper tubing to make a three dimensional form. I always describe it as a tube structure, but the tube isn’t solid; it actually needs to be open to serve its function, and so instead of the solid surface of a piece of piping, it’s actually a triangulated surface, which gives you the stiffness but also gives you the openings to achieve the building functions. That’s the simplest explanation. Another aspect that affects the look of the building is the structure, which is made explicit and performs almost as an exoskeleton. As I understand it, the pattern of braces is designed in a way that the structure becomes denser in areas that are more stressed... Yes, because if you slice through the building at any point, it’s a fairly uniform section. It’s about 60 [meters] by 60 or 60 by 50, whether you slice it vertically at the overhang or horizontally at the towers or vertically at the base. So it’s an idea of a constant section with a constant structure. Yet, due to its geometry, due to variations in wind loading with height, due to the application of

An unpredictable flow of forces


seismic forces, you get an unpredictable flow of forces around the surface, and you do need the power of computers to truly understand the flow of forces in this structure. And this flow of forces around the surface is expressed by the density of the bracing that you see there. So, yes, the parts of the building that are working hardest have the highest density, much like you would patch the elbow [of a jacket] or a tailor would cut the cloth to suit the areas that are harder wearing than others. Then there are areas that are working less hard—as you can see to the left hand side of Tower One—where the pattern opens up, because the actual tube is not working so hard. But the structure is not just the diagonals. It’s the columns and beams that make up every floor, and it’s the columns and beams interconnected by the diagonals that give you that triangulation off the surface. But it is the diagonals that is the key element and the one that is expressed in the facade. Let’s return for a second to the moment you mentioned earlier when you first saw the blue foam model of CCTV. One of the things that I think is crucial to understand in terms of the role of engineering in architecture is the process through which a scheme that is made in a purely conceptual phase of architectural design becomes something that can actually be built. Could you explain a bit about how that process usually works? The process for each project that we’ve worked on has been slightly different. For CCTV, it was a very, very conceptual piece of art, a sculptural form, at the beginning. One that worked with the programmatic requirements of the clients, etc. but which was certainly very sculptural. But it was clear that it was a deadly serious proposition and from experience I knew that it was deadly serious and an incredible challenge and opportunity. We saw it for the first time around April 2002 and the submission went in in July I think. It took us a while to understand what it was we would need to do, and during that process we did question the geometry as part of it. We worked with the given concept, but we also examined other geometries. What we realized was even when we played with the geometry the question was still the same, so actually there wasn’t much point in questioning the geometry— whether you tilt it this way or that way or do something slightly different with it. It was either make a completely different design or accept the form, take that as a given, and then move forward. And on CCTV that’s what happened:


Rory McGowan, Engineer

we decided no matter what we might want to modify, it doesn’t change the question, and then we addressed the question. And it was only with three weeks to go before the deadline that we came up with a structural system that we all believed worked. We knew from the outset that we had to turn it into a tube, that a conventional “core + column” skyscraper would never be adequate to deal with this geometry and the brief. There were a number of meetings in Rotterdam [where OMA is based] and in London [where Ove Arup is based] during the summer of 2002 and there were some very earnest proposals about how to build the tower, including one like the Bank of China building in Hong Kong, you know with the big diamonds. Another one looked at a mixture of concrete and steel and how you might take this form and try to balance its weight to achieve the cantilever and the overhang. So we played around with it, but there was no solution that we were happy with and it was during phone conversations between London and Rotterdam that the idea was brought up, Why don’t we do what we did for [OMA’s design of] the Whitney Museum, which was just take the shape and analyze it without any consideration of a structure, just give the surface a property and then look at that and how it’s behaving under ordinary gravity load and moderate horizontal loads. From that we got this pattern of stresses which showed immediately that there’s a huge diversity in terms of how hard the tube is working and also that the pattern it was throwing out, this sort of camouflage pattern, wasn’t necessarily a pattern that spoke of any logic to an untrained eye. It seemed contrived, and so we said, “What do we do with this? It’s clearly not a solid like the Whitney; it can’t be. So rather than make it a solid surface let’s redo this and turn it into triangles.” We basically triangulated the whole surface so it became a whole series of diamonds which have floor beams behind, and that basic diamond is still represented there in the west facade of Tower One. You can see it—each triangle is over two stories or each diamond is over four stories. That was the mesh that was put over the entire structure and analyzed. Then we said, “Ok, instead of making the members bigger or smaller to reflect the force, let’s just make the pattern bigger or smaller and try to keep the members the same size.” And, unusually, most of that discussion happened by telephone and by digital camera shots, doing analysis, making models, marking up images with pencil, scanning it, sending it down the line to Rotterdam and getting their reaction. There wasn’t that moment of face-to-face where we


50 percent sheer terror and 50 percent sheer exhilaration


came up with it. It was literally: we got an image onscreen, we sent it over to Rotterdam, they saw it, and we said, “That’s it, we’ve got it.” That was unusual, normally these sorts of moments occur in a particular meeting, but it didn’t happen for CCTV. It just happened over two or three days, three weeks before the deadline and after that it was basically trying to understand more and more about the structure and whether we really believed we could build it economically and make it work. So in the few weeks up to the competition submission basically Arup had to decide whether it was something we were really going to put our name to or not, whether it was something we really believed we would ultimately deliver with only having a matter of weeks knowledge of one of the most unique structures in the world. So when Arup enters into a competition, how confident do you have to be in the proposal’s feasibility? You can never have the luxury of total confidence. When [OMA partners] Ole [Scheeren] and Ellen Van Loon and I met after the CCTV contract had been negotiated, they asked me how I felt, and I said it’s basically 50 percent sheer terror and 50 percent sheer exhilaration. At the end of the day, we said it could be done, but it was a small number of people and it was a difficult moment, and behind the scenes we had a team working on it long before the contract was even signed. All the way from August 2002 to the contract signing in December we had a team secreted away in London working on it to reinforce and make sure it was really something we could do. So, yes, in a competition you have to make a call based on experience and in making that call we called on individuals in the firm who would have experience with buildings of this sort of sophistication and if we get enough people agreeing that we can make it work then we feel confident enough at a competition level. Then you are going through a process of building up your levels of confidence to a point where ultimately you have to give the government here confidence and the Ministry of Construction confidence. It’s not just the client and the architect, you actually have to build up levels of confidence to the point where other people are accepting what you’re saying as reality. How does that process work?


Rory McGowan, Engineer

Through hard work and having the right people. It takes time and it’s an iterative process, but for CCTV, as I said, the first stage was the competition and the second stage was the back room analysis that was going on during the contract negotiation. The next phase was the formal scheme design and the key hurdle there in terms of public liability was the approval of the structure by the Ministry of Construction at the end of design development. That finally happened in February 2004, and so when you think about it: we first looked at [the design] in April 2002 and we got an approval with comments in January 2004 and we carried on answering some of those comments. It was a very detailed process, very intense, working with the Ministry of Construction, with a group of twelve or thirteen experts appointed by the Ministry. Buildings like CCTV, and more and more we’re finding that modern buildings for whatever reason, fall outside the normal codes which govern 95 percent of buildings and you have to engineer from first principles. So we basically had to take the code, understand the spirit of the code, put it to one side, and then write a code to design CCTV, get the code approved by the Ministry of Construction, then design the building to that code, show them the results, demonstrate that we know how the building is performing, that we know millisecond by millisecond how the building will perform in an earthquake and that we can predict how it’s going to behave—not just understand what forces are in what members but predict how it’s going to behave in a severe event. We build up our knowledge of the structure and we use that knowledge to go back and tweak the code. There’s an iteration there between tweaking this bespoke code, doing the work, and going back—and ourselves and the Ministry of Construction are part of that process. At the end of it, you’ve agreed on the code, you’ve agreed on all the work you need to do, you present the final results, and you get approval if you’ve done your groundwork. But in getting to that point we held 50 to 60 meetings with individuals, groups, and gatherings of the entire Ministry of Construction expert panel. It was an incredible effort and involved all of Arup basically. But now if someone wanted to build several new versions of CCTV you’ve done all the legwork for them. Yes, if one of these [points at CCTV headquarters] was to be built over there, yeah. The basis is there. Of course, if you built it in Tokyo it’s very different.

Something that challenges the skyscraper


There are lots of local issues, but the fact is that it’s basically groundbreaking work for the Ministry of Construction. They were accepting practice that Arup believed was appropriate to use on the building from, say, California, from Japan, from Europe, putting it together into a specific code for that building. That work represents a huge body of research into unusual structures, and that methodology could be applied and form the basis for similar projects by the Ministry of Construction here but also for countries around the world. It stands as a huge advance in designing alternatives to towers: there are other ways and it is possible economically to do something that challenges the skyscraper. CCTV is a very globalized building in that way, because it’s based on experiences from different parts of the world and, now that it’s established, could be the basis for projects around the world. Right, as well as be accepted here. A lot of the work we’ve done on CCTV was never done in China before. We had to bring the Ministry of Construction up to speed with cutting edge international practice. And we learned more and more about their attitude towards building design and what they’re comfortable with and not comfortable with. We really enjoy those processes as long as they’re not political, and that process is one that is particularly present in seismic countries. Places like California and Japan have this “engineering from first principles” approach to buildings that fall outside of the normal prescriptive codes. What exactly is engineering from first principles? If you’re doing [a standard building like], say, Fortune Plaza across from here, in the structural engineering law here in China there will be a code that governs buildings of that height, made of concrete with those beams, and basically the code tells you what you can do and can’t do. Then you basically tick the boxes and do it exactly as the code says, and if you’ve done it to what the code says then you’ve carried out the design to the national standard and as a company you don’t take any liability for any failings of that code. It’s prescriptive; it’s a catch-all guideline. So, for example, there might be limits on the percentage of shear walls you can transfer at the ground level of a building:


Rory McGowan, Engineer

the code might say that you can only transfer 50 percent of the shear walls, so the designer will limit the shear walls to 50 percent, tick the box, and on he goes. In engineering from first principles, you would understand why they don’t want you to take out more than 50 percent of the walls—that’s basically to avoid a soft story at the bottom of the building—then take that understanding and generate a structure that achieves the same performance but in another way that the code didn’t envisage. That’s the difference between prescriptive and engineering from first principles. You’re basically building the structures element by element and deciding all the design criteria for it, analyzing it, agreeing that it’s all appropriate with the authorities, and getting approval. Engineering from first principles is, for engineers, very exciting. Rather than just working to a code, we are actually engaging with the people who write the codes here in China and agreeing on the code for this building. So it’s a fantastic process for engineers, and OMA was almost jealous of the intimacy that existed between engineers [and the Ministry of Construction] on this project. You could see at some points the frustration that it was such an intimate process and one that they didn’t feel part of. But also they couldn’t influence it, and the process was fundamental to achieving the architecture. Is it fair to say that, because China at that time didn’t have codes that were at the cutting edge of what was happening architecturally, you were provided more flexibility in terms of developing a new code? No, the code here in terms of structure is already up there with most of the codes in the world, and there isn’t a code anywhere in the world that would allow you to do [CCTV]. So it would be the same process anywhere else. But you can imagine in some countries it would turn into a political process; in others it would turn into a mess where you would never get any agreement. What’s been achieved here, and it’s similar to what we find in California and Japan, is a workable, pragmatic, non-political process, and that’s great. Due to the fact that China, Japan, and the western US are seismic areas? In China, the codes are law and if you don’t fulfil the codes you’re actually breaking the law. If you go to other countries, the codes are guidance, they

Get real and understand what the limitations are


have a different level of status in law. But it’s law in China, in Japan, and in places like California, and that’s because of the concern about seismic events wiping out an entire city. It’s such a major issue with such huge socio-political ramifications that the degree of damage to an economy has to be considered: what’s the appropriate level of security for a building in a seismic event? This idea of the differing status of codes around the world reminds me of something I wanted to ask you at the beginning. You’ve done work on four continents, is that right? Well, North America, all over Europe, Africa, India, China—not Australia and not South America. Increasingly even small architecture offices operate globally, and I’m curious about the effect that working in different cultural and legal conditions has on the process of designing and building. There are huge differences. If you start with Germany, say, where there’s a DIN [German Institute for Standardization] standard for how to fold a drawing—and I’ve always thought, I don’t want to work in that environment. Then you go to developing countries where, in reality, there aren’t codes so you’re actually applying codes from another part of the world and you’re making a judgement about cost benefit and consequence in a rural situation. You’re working outside of any codified environment in terms of personal responsibility as an engineer. I’ve built buildings in Tanzania and bridges in Cameroon and in each situation decided what I felt was the appropriate code of practice to that particular situation—to the materials, to skills and workmanship, etc. In those situations you have to be highly responsive to the realities on the ground and in developing designs you need to just get real and understand what the limitations are. It gets blurred when you go into Europe. I’ve had very different experiences working in somewhere like Portugal on the Porto Casa da Musica [Concert Hall]. You have countries where clients question the design authorship continuously and expect the role of the design team to be that of technicians rather than designers. And while Casa da Musica was eight years in the process of being designed and built, the design was never questioned, despite the

Further mentions Casa da Musica: 8


Rory McGowan, Engineer

Further mentions IIT: 3

difficulties of the process. The difficulties only had to do with people and money and politics, but design was never questioned. In other countries, the design is continuously being manipulated and changed to suit the last person to come in, so you get very strong cultural influences on the process. In the US, and China as well, there’s a tendency for architects to do as the client instructs, and I think the client gets, in a way, what they deserve—but don’t deserve at the same time. Then you’ve got the legal framework in which you work. For example, for IIT in Chicago, one supplier wouldn’t supply basketball netting as a wall material, because they were afraid of being sued—they were afraid that students would climb up it, that they would become entangled and injure themselves, and then sue them because they had allowed basketball netting to be used in an inappropriate way. Then Latin countries are much easier going and less legalistic. Then you get design by committee in the UK. Two places I’ve avoided working in as much as possible are Germany and Britain. I’ve found that in the process of design in Britain so much energy was absorbed in control rather than experimenting and making things happen. So my personal experience is that there are still huge differences and that makes it interesting to go from one country to another and practice. Because of that, I suppose it’s inevitable that each project will have the fingerprints of the area where it’s built, no matter who has designed it. So although CCTV was initially designed in Rotterdam and London, it is inevitably a Chinese building. From OMA’s point of view, the journey on the interiors and fit out would certainly indicate that. But—I’m probably going to contradict what I said earlier—in terms of the structure of CCTV, it was only ever going in one direction. It was going down an appropriate international process, in terms of establishing the code, designing it, engineering it, analyzing it, building it and monitoring it, etc. It wasn’t a “Chinese” project. Apart from lots of guys digging holes in their bare feet and cutting off the top two meters of piles with hammers and chisels... Once that part was done and the building started, there was only one way to build it and that was to the highest international standards. There will be interesting stories about the process of working and how it’s difficult to get people to work at different times of the year because

Lots of guys digging holes in their bare feet


they’ve got to go cut corn at home, but in terms of the way it was built, there was only one way. How has Arup been involved in that building process? The process here in China is different from a lot of other countries. Basically the site supervision is, by law, undertaken by a third party, independent of the consultant and the contractor. They are legally responsible for the implementation of the technical specification. Very few clients here want to duplicate that role on site, so very few of our projects actually have resident engineers or architects. Some firms may elect to stay involved, but in most cases the client won’t pay for it and doesn’t want it or appreciate it. But there must be some process of communication with this third party, especially for a project like CCTV which doesn’t really have a precedent. In terms of continuation of the process to the point where the contractor receives it, of course we were heavily involved with ECADI, our local engineering and architecture partners. Ourselves and ECADI worked closely together on the specification in the construction document phase, in the tender process evaluation, and handing over to the contractor. What I was describing earlier is actually on site. It was an interesting lesson here, and I saw the same in Japan when we were working on Kansai Airport where we were foreign consultants coming in, but at some point the Japanese said, “We want to do it ourselves. We want to be able to say we’ve done it ourselves. We understand what you’ve done: we understand the specification, the design, the drawings, and if we’ve got any queries we’ll get back to you, but we want to do it ourselves.” And I certainly felt that there was a certain amount of that here, where the contractor basically wanted to achieve it. They saw achieving a building like this as putting them among the top ranking contractors in the world. If you go to Abu Dhabi or to Chicago and say “We delivered this,” of course people are going to sit up. Especially if you can demonstrate that you invested the time and the money and the people to actually deliver a project like that. So, China State, the contractor, certainly grabbed the project and gave it everything.


Rory McGowan, Engineer

Having been in China for a few years now, what have you learned? Arup has been in hong Kong for over thirty years, so we were here in china, and we did our first project down in Shanghai about 15 or 16 years ago—the hilton hotel in Shanghai. Since then it’s gradually grown up, but the first big step was to open offices in Shenzhen and Shanghai in the late ‘90s and then Beijing opened up in 2001. So it’s been ramping up very slowly and cctV was the first of the big four: on its heels came [terminal three of Beijing] airport then the [national] stadium and the watercube. What i notice now is the speed at which expectations are changing here in terms of what is a good design. the speed at which the understanding of what good design means, especially among repeat clients is on the upward part of the curve. they are learning fast what is and is not acceptable. What passed as a design process three or four years ago is just not acceptable anymore. the codes have changed, energy has shot up the agenda, green building issues have shot up the agenda, water usage... But also the quality. the earlier buildings that were built were basically: knock ‘em up, sell ‘em, and get out. And the quality tells, you can see that after five years those buildings look like they’ve been there twenty years and they’re not going to last very long. So working and living in a design environment that’s changing and redefining the rules almost monthly has been really interesting. Because there isn’t the level of experience and training, particularly in multi-disciplinary complex buildings, you come crashing back down to earth and particularly here the importance of architecture as a human process is magnified greatly. i could go on. What have i learned here? to be patient. to be thick skinned. i was told you need the skin of a rhino to work here and even at that it still gets to me sometimes. I ask that because I’ve noticed that the people who come to China and manage to be productive and have a positive experience do end up learning a lot, because some of the basic working processes are very different. If you come from a culture where there’s a rule for how to fold, operating effectively in China requires a certain kind of mental rebooting, which I think is beneficial for people to go through. right, it’s fantastic. Anybody i meet who’s got any sort of get up and go i tell them, get over here and just get stuck in. they might not be doing the most

Further mentions Airport: 5-6 Stadium: 20, 22, 29, 129-137

I was told you need the skin of a rhino


cutting edge work, but it is cutting edge for this environment. And if you’re serious about wanting to do something relevant then China accounts for half of the world’s built environment, so come here and make an impact on the built environment here. Achieve some buildings that you can point to and people can use as stepping stones to get to the next level. I think that’s a great motivation for people to come and cut their teeth.

Barry Bergdoll is the Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and a Professor of Architectural History at Columbia University.

4. Barry Bergdoll
BRENDAN McGETRICK: In this interview series, we’re talking to people from various professions who interact with and react to architecture in some way. I’m very curious to talk to you as a curator because of the immense importance of the gallery as an arena for architecture, particularly modern architecture. One aspect of your role as curator that I want to discuss is the challenge of translating architecture for exhibition. When I interviewed Michael Rock earlier in this series, he talked about the frustration he felt when trying to express architecture, particularly the experience of being inside a building, in a two-dimensional format like a book or panel. I’m curious about how you relate to that dilemma. BARRY BERGDOLL: My last show, Home Delivery, was, I suppose, a multimedia approach to the age old problem that the only way you can display architecture is through full scale buildings. We did construct buildings in the exhibition, and then for the rest of it we were working with representations. The more you can multiply the representations, the more ways that you can reveal aspects of the architecture that are more to do with the nature of making architecture than about the architecture itself. In that exhibition, I set out to make a show that is about the process of architectural thinking and designing for one particular set of challenges, based on this recurrent theme of designing for industrial fabrication, whether it be old fashioned industrial fabrication, heavy industry, or whether it be digital industry. That was the theme of the show, but the challenge was also how to make a show in which you reveal to the public the actual process of thinking and making architecture. In that sense, I don’t think of some of the techniques that we explored in that exhibition as specific to its subject. I think that they’re applicable to making exhibitions about process rather than the end product. The reason that I was interested in doing that is because, to a certain extent, you really can’t exhibit architecture. You can only exhibit something about architecture.
The following discussion took place on February 4, 2009 over the phone between New York and Beijing.

Bergdoll, Barry and Peter Christensen, cur. Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008


Barry Bergdoll, Curator

Right, and in your case the challenge is further complicated by the fact that you are an architecture curator operating in a modern art museum. Your audience is not necessarily knowledgeable about architecture, or even particularly interested in it, but still you have to find ways to create seductive points of entry for them. Was the focus on process a way to do that? It is true that the status of the objects that we are exhibiting in the architecture gallery are different from the status of the objects in any other gallery in a museum. Most of them have a dual status: in the best cases they are works of art in and of themselves—they’re beautiful architecture drawings, they’re beautiful renderings, they’re beautiful models... They might have complex histories, because they might be the products of collaboration. They are not as frequently masterworks; it’s not, you know, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which we can assume was more or less painted by Picasso. To come back to your question, the pieces have to be so visually compelling in and of themselves that they’re going to to engage the minds and the imaginations of non-professional visitors and lead the person to want to start thinking about process. [One has to] assume that the visitors might treat it in the same way that they might view Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and be so stunned by it as a visual experience that they stand in front of it for a while and part of their contemplation might be on the nature of the cubist construction of space. So [for architecture exhibitions] you need something that is equally intriguing and that, in a certain way, can carry other objects that might be more technical. You need to set up the questions—not verbally, but through objects, and in that sense it is still like an exhibition, it’s got to be carried by the things that are on display. You can’t have a panel that asks a question that is extremely provocative and instructs the audience that this is the question to bring to the objects in the exhibition. You have to find some way that the actual design and content lead the visitor that way, through visual experience, visual experience that can be arrived at through many different ways. In that way, there is a fascinating parallelism to making architecture, because you can make a plan that says how people are going to move through the building, but you can’t actually dictate to them how to move; you can only give them cues, and you’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that there will be many other experiences of a

Picasso, Pablo. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 1907. Museum of Modern Art, New York

The possibility for relationships


building, just as there will be multiple experiences of an exhibition. So it has to work in the way that you intend it to work, and it also has to work in many of the unintended ways in which it will be experienced. Do you think there are ways to script and anticipate these unintended experiences or do you simply draw up your best case scenario and then study the unintended uses retroactively? I think there is a way to think about multiple experiences in a single space. I did that in Home Delivery, just to talk about my most recent effort. That show was designed so that it could be seen in multiple ways. That was the fundamental architectural problem: if you want something to be seen in a certain sequence, you need both an entrance and an exit, and once the entrance and the exit are in the same place, then you’re really out of luck. So, I designed an exhibition that could be viewed as a timeline, as an enormous U, but that allowed viewers to ricochet off both sides of the U and find interesting and provocative juxtapositions. There were also more localized juxtapositions that were made against the grain of the chronology, and that was done on purpose. But that other people may have discovered things that I hadn’t even intended to be there has to have happened, because I must have given a hundred tours of that exhibition and almost every time I went in, there was some juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen before, hadn’t planned on, and that set me to thinking anew about the topic. But that I think is because in a thematic exhibition I like to work in such a way that the theme is a little bit of a hypothesis, rather than a didactic [declaration]—“You will learn this”—so that it raises questions and opens up possibilities, particularly the possibility for relationships that are non-linear. Let’s talk more specifically about some of your shows. The first exhibition that you did after coming to the museum was 75 Years of Architecture at MoMA, which presented selections from MoMA’s collection of architectural works. I can imagine a few factors influencing your decisions, for one the enormous body of work which you have to analyze and somehow represent, but also MoMA’s reputation and historical influence as a patron of architecture and leader in architectural discussions in New York. What was the process of putting together that show?

Bergdoll, Barry and Alexandra Quantrill, cur. 75 Years of Architecture at MoMA. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007-08


Barry Bergdoll, Curator

Bergdoll, Barry and Terence Riley, cur. Mies in Berlin. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001

In that case, it was an historical show, but with two different histories that were overlaid on one another. One was the history of modernism, with the idea that in the architecture gallery we would have a small scale example of what is present upstairs in the painting gallery, where there is a history of modernism that unfolds in painting and sculpture. It’s a very canonic one, although that canon is not one that it tries to respond to; it’s one that it has historically created. That was my second historical line on top of the first: what is the relationship of the history of the department itself to that of modernism? So there was a dual reading in the exhibition—the actual history of architecture and then the history of the department itself through its exhibition and collecting practices. It was a perfectly fine exhibition if you didn’t want to go to that second line, you didn’t need to go to that level of reading, but I like to create things that have multiple layers and are satisfying on whatever layer or layers you want to engage with. But to get back to your specific question... How do you go about choosing? It’s a kind of give-and-take process. That was a show that I did in order to familiarize myself with the collection, because my only previous experience had been with a Mies show, so I knew the huge holdings of Mies, but I didn’t know the rest of the collection, which is quite different, since the Mies is an archive and the rest of the collection is very highly selected examples. I started to look at these examples, and began to think about what they would allow me to do—what stories they would allow me to tell, what they would allow me to think about with the public to open up the tradition of the avant-garde as something that is not only historically interesting, but also has questions that are of contemporary relevance and fascination. I began to develop four themes by looking at what some of the clusters and strong points there were. Once I’d formulated four questions or categories—I chose four for the dumbest reason in world, simply because there were four walls in the room, and so I thought that would lend itself to a clear structuring of four themes—I went back and started to look at drawings or models that might be interesting to think about in relationship to that theme. And that’s when it really becomes fun, because that is when, suddenly, a drawing that might mean one thing monographically—let’s say, in a Mies show—means something quite different when you put it in a different kind of configuration. Suddenly the collection becomes a little bit like an intellectual pack of cards, and you open up completely different questions and completely different

Trying to explode that myth


territories depending on which four things you put into one group. And that is what’s so fun about the collection: you realize that the next time that you bring that drawing out, it will be in a completely different context, so you’re going to think about it differently and you’re going to invite people to come back to see it in a different way. That, at least when you’re working with architectural drawings, is not that dissimilar to the way that my painting colleagues upstairs are working with paintings—as individual works that stand on their own but that take on additional meanings depending on the “hang,” the configuration of the gallery. In terms of the second history you mentioned—the relationship between the architectural department of MoMA to the history of modernism itself—what conclusions did you come to through your exploration and shuffling of the collection? The conclusion was a little bit open-ended. What I was trying to do was to break down the received truth that there was a very straight and narrow line that MoMA had held to for at least the first forty or fifty years of [the architecture department’s] existence—from the foundation show, the so-called “International Style” show, up until the 1980s when post-modernism was beating its drums so strongly that even MoMA couldn’t ignore them. When I actually looked back at the history of the department—which is something I’m working on as an ongoing project—and saw what was in the collection, I found all sorts of evidence that MoMA had had a much more broad-ranging and exploratory approach to modernism than is implied by the reputation that had been set in motion in 1932 and repeated over and over again as a mantra—probably more frequently outside the museum than inside. So I was in a certain way trying to explode that myth, and the conclusion I reached in the process is really pretty straightforward: as always, history is much more complex than the operative myths. Which I think also relates the exhibition on Mies van der Rohe that you did prior to coming to MoMA. The popular narrative that has come to define his work has also been greatly simplified over time. Yes. The Mies show, Mies in Berlin, that I did together with [former curator of architecture and design at MoMA] Terry Riley was a similar sort of operation:

Barr Jr., Alfred H., Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock. Modern Architecture: An International Exhibition. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1932


Barry Bergdoll, Curator

we said, “Well, what if we don’t simply confine ourselves to the projects that Mies said over and over again were his most important? What if we put in everything that he did, what kinds of new conclusions can we draw about Mies’s overall activity?” In fact, much of what he rejected opened new windows into what he had retained. So the result of doing that exhibition for me is that even some of the canonic works like the Tugendhat House or the Barcelona Pavilion I now experience very very differently compared to when I was doing it filtered through the very selected group that Mies and Philip Johnson had put forth over and over again as the master works. Mies actually became a much more complex figure historically, and he became one with relevance to contemporary questions in ways that we had hardly expected when we started out. Earlier you mentioned that part of presenting architecture to a lay audience relies on material that is so strong visually that people feel almost obligated to try to understand the thought process behind it. One of the difficulties for me in looking at architectural representations from the computer age is that I don’t have the sense of personal involvement that I do when I look at hand drawn material. An AutoCAD drawing or CG rendering seems much flatter and more disposable to me than works from earlier times when a drawing had a personal signature. I wonder if you’ve encountered that problem when selecting material... Well, as you were speaking, I’ve been hesitating whether I wanted to fully agree with you or try to disagree with you. Disagree please. [Laughs] Right. On the one hand, the means of representation has changed. So, it’s not pencil or chalk or mylar, etc. etc. And I do have a feeling often when I see AutoCAD projections that they seem, as images, interchangeable, whereas if you dropped ten drawings from the twentieth century on the table I could probably assign them a probable author on the basis of the actual means of representation, the style, as you say, the signature, the handwriting as it were. I could submit them to the same kind of analysis that a drawing curator would for master drawings. With CAD it seems that you want to look through the means that are used—because it’s within the pallet of the com-

A continuous set of moves, rather than a set of discreet steps


puter program—and see what the spatial implications and design moves are. You almost want to look through the means of representation to the design itself to try to guess, who must be doing that? But I wonder if maybe we don’t have enough historical distance to see the handwriting with that more mechanical projection tool. On one level, I think it’s a paradigm shift; on another level I think it’s another means of representation. I don’t think my photographic colleagues would like it if I said, “How can you have individual style in photography, it’s all done with film and a camera?” We know that there are incredibly different photographic styles, so it might be that curators haven’t really caught up with the digital revolution to begin to see different types of style in that machine environment. What other complications do you encounter as a result of this paradigm shift? We’ve been talking about the intellectual implications, but I’m sure there are more practical challenges created by the transfer to digital representation. It’s a challenge on every level, down to the storage and preservation level. The original word for a curator was a “keeper.” We tend to think of a curator now as someone who arranges things in space, who makes arguments with objects, but the original notion of curating had to do with safe keeping. So, that’s a huge issue, and a lot of people are thinking about it, but there are no conclusions yet. But I think that there is an intermediary issue as well, because, in a sense, the whole process of designing is different in a computer environment than in a sketch environment. It’s a continuous set of moves, rather than a set of discreet steps. If you are in the position of the curator—a person who is outside wanting to record and represent this project in your curatorial narrative—the material almost becomes like a film, and you have consider where to freeze frame the material you’re collecting and exhibiting. Another feature of the digital shift that I imagine must be influential is the extent to which information and imagery can be spread. Because people consume information differently and travel more frequently over shorter periods than they did when MoMA’s architecture department first started in the 1930s, I wonder if the potential value of an exhibition has changed. Particularly I wonder if the idea of a revelatory must-see exhibition has changed since one often no longer needs to be physically present to observe the material.


Barry Bergdoll, Curator

Further mentions Columbia: 55, 115-126

Oh absolutely. At the moment I’m teaching a history of the department for an art history seminar at Columbia [University], and we just looked at the early shows again, and I told my students that it’s very important for me to dramatize for you a sense of the novelty of simply acquiring black and white photographs of these far flung buildings, and being able to put them together in one room. In 1932, besides the fact that it was in the heart of the Depression, if you look at the magazines that most of the architects got, just seeing these images was not something that they would encounter easily. This is eighty years ago when this department was founded and it was essentially going to be an information resource for architects and for the general public. As you said, now you can do that yourself on the Internet in about ten minutes. Images proliferate and everything is immediately accessible as representation. I think it has less to do with the ability to travel than with the density and the immediacy with which an enormous amount of visual information is available at very high quality through the Net. That’s yet another context that pushes me in my urge that, whether it be process or something else, the curator has a different responsibility towards architecture in the 21st century, and particularly a curator in my position, which, as you said at the very beginning, is a distinctive position because I am not a curator for architects; I’m a curator in one of the world’s most visited art museums. I have a general audience, and when I go to meetings of various architecture curators, it’s actually a small minority of us who work in highly visible public venues. Most people are working in something that’s related to a school or to a center for architecture that derives most of its audience from either design students or design professionals, so an already very well informed audience. People in New York don’t wander into the Center for Architecture by chance, but people wander into the architecture galleries at the Museum of Modern Art who were not intending to look at architecture. They’re here to look at something else, and you grab their attention and suddenly they’re looking at architecture. That puts our department in a small group, and the responsibility there is not to show them objects that they could also see on the Net, but it is to engage them in some way that, hopefully, will lead them to look at the next building that they confront a bit differently than they did on their way in. They’ll have a heightened awareness and heightened experience of architecture, on any level, from aesthetic appreciation to a more critical engagement with architectural decisions that are being made around them.

The ongoing life of the exhibition


What role do exhibition catalogues play in that effort? Because we deal so much in representation, there’s less of a misfit between the catalogue and the show. If you go to see a Picasso show, the catalogue has photographs of Picasso paintings, but if we’re dealing with digital files, whether we’re blowing them up to put them on a wall or whether we’re having them in a catalogue, there’s a more fluid passage between book and exhibition. (Not that I would ever want to conceive an exhibition that would be accused of being a book on a wall, which so many are.) But I do agree with the cliché: the book is important as a permanent record of the exhibition and for its further diffusion. Three quarters of a million people visited Home Delivery, but its incalculable how many people will consult the book. So it’s part of the ongoing life of the exhibition. I think one of the most amazing things about the 1932 “International Style” show, which is one of the most famous shows in the history of modern architecture, is that if you actually look at the statistics, the number of people who visited that show during the six weeks that it was open was pretty miniscule. But the publications that came out of that show have been in continuous print for most of the 78 years since then and are among the most influential publications that there are, and something of their influence has to do with the fact that they are connected with a famous exhibition, so there’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between the two. Let’s shift to some of your other shows. First, the Lost Vanguard exhibition of Soviet avant-garde architecture. To me, what’s really interesting about that show is how clearly it presents architecture as the reflection of the spirit of a time, and I think it does this both by assembling so many ideologically compatible projects, but also by presenting them in a consistent way. Most of the buildings are represented by contemporary photographs, and I’m curious how that curatorial decision was made. If I can just roll back a little bit—and stop me if I get off track and don’t return to your specific question—I’d like to give a little background. In my mind, the Lost Vanguard exhibition was a stand alone exhibition, but it was also the fifth wall of 75 Years of Architecture at MoMA, because one of the themes of 75 Years of Architecture was, What are the key aspects of modernism that the Museum of Modern Art’s foundation show (the “International Style” show)

Bergdoll, Barry and Peter Christensen. Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008.

Bergdoll, Barry and Jean-Louis Cohen, cur. Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922–32. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007


Barry Bergdoll, Curator

wasn’t able to accommodate? And one was the complete lack of attention to Soviet architecture, which was one of the most vibrant fields of experimentation in that architectural avant-garde in the 1920s. One of the reasons I wanted to do that show almost immediately was to say that, if we’re going to reopen the history of modernism, this is a very big field that needs to be integrated. But of course it wasn’t done through architectural drawings or any of the objects that comprised the 75 Years of Architecture exhibition; it was done primarily through Richard Pare’s extraordinary photographs that were taken over the last fifteen years. So there was another dimension, because every photograph was simultaneously a record of a building that came from these Utopian experiments and this atmosphere that you mention in the 1920s when, despite the enormous material needs of the early Soviet Union—really I think the poverty and confusion and the disorder are almost unimaginable—nonetheless there was a Utopian spirit of building the new, complete social reorganization, and so on and so forth. But then, on the other side, these were photographs of the buildings in decay, and they spoke in a rather melancholic poetry about a dream that had either gone sour or been neglected—and the neglect on the part of Western scholars could be equated with the neglect within today’s Russia to deal with this heroic past. There were a complex set of things going on in that exhibition. On one hand, it was a documentation of a lost chapter of Soviet modernism. On another, it was a kind of poetic exercise about the irretrievability of the avantgarde. Then, in the way a lot of people read it, it was an unexpected statement of the Museum of Modern Art on the need for historic preservation for modern buildings. Now let’s talk about Home Delivery, the exhibition on pre-fabricated architecture that you mentioned earlier. I wonder if it’s possible to identify in a way similar to what was done for the Lost Vanguard show an impression of the spirit of the pre-fab golden age, which spanned the mid 20th century I guess. Is it possible to define a set of attitudes that propelled Western pre-fabrication design, as you were for Soviet modernist design? Well, I think there was a spirit. One of my own critiques of the show was that I perhaps presented too much of the optimism that surrounded the launch of each of these pre-fabricated prototypes, and so the history of pre-fabrication,

Space for mediocrity


which many people say is a history of failures, wasn’t presented with its dark sides. It was very much a history of the optimism, this idea of “hope springs eternal” that seems to accompany the history of pre-fabrication. Partly, the idea of showing the whole thing was, as we’re in this moment once again, to look back and see previous episodes and by accumulating that history suggest that we shouldn’t so naively inflate a new bubble of enthusiasm for prefabrication or accept this idea of digital fabrication as the panacea of a future architecture without taking into account the rather checkered history of prefabrication. But, it was a very upbeat show. It was not a show that underscored the fact that so many of these things didn’t take off. It was more presented as saying that they have lessons but they also have untapped potential. It’s interesting that you see a parallelism with Lost Vanguard, because I guess there were some elements of nostalgia and the impossibility of retrieval that were in both, but I hadn’t seen that myself until you pointed it out. To me, it’s completely understandable that there would be an emphasis on the innovative or inspirational aspects of any movement. But do you think there needs to be a certain sort of space for mediocrity in an exhibition? Well, that was big a question for me, because if you wanted to talk statistically I would imagine that hands down the Soviet panel system was the most successful and now the most reviled pre-fabrication experiment—although I don’t even think you can call it an experiment, because it became an absolute industry that rebuilt large parts of eastern and central Europe, the Soviet Union all the way to Asia, and was even exported to Cuba. We treated that in very little detail. It had to be there, it was fascinating, but I didn’t want to do a whole critique of it as it got put into play—and much of that was mediocre. It’s a question of not only how do you deal with architecture in an art museum if you want to deal with the larger context, but also how do you deal with social context, social history? How do you address the historical context in an exhibition in an art museum where the norm is masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece on the wall? You wouldn’t expect to find a painter exhibited in the painting and sculpture galleries that the museum did not think was an extremely accomplished painter whose work merited a place in the history of art as it is collected and narrated by the Museum of Modern Art. On the other hand, there were many things included in the Home Delivery


Barry Bergdoll, Curator

show that were there for the history of technology or the history of invention, but were quite unresolved architectural forms. I think it’s interesting that you ask this question, because I was really surprised that there was very little discussion on the fact that [post World War II pre-fabricated housing model] the Lustron House is completely uninspiring architecture. What is it doing in the Museum of Modern Art? I thought it was a rather provocative gesture to put a Lustron House in MoMA, and there was a real mixing of high and low throughout the exhibition, but there was very little commentary on that, surprisingly, in the reception of the show. Do you think that that’s because of the strength of MoMA’s aura? The reputation of the institution dignifies all the objects it presents and people sort of assume, this is something that should be taken very seriously since MoMA is exhibiting it? That might be part of the explanation. Partly, I think we were very successful in creating an extraordinary spectacle through the role of film, creating a very dense space, an overall sensory overload in the show. This is what made it so popular, even with children and families. I was thrilled that they were spending an hour and a half and really engaging with the topic. I think all of that overrode thinking about the heterogeneous nature of the material that was in there. Even the design of the show, since it was so much about process and movement, took the question of “Is the judgement here one of architectural quality?” off the table. But, if you think about it, that is a provocative aspect of the show. It was probably the first MoMA show in decades that showed things without putting a stamp of approval and saying, “You can come here and be told that these are historically and contemporaneously the most accomplished buildings.” It wasn’t a list of things you should admire. Last, I want to ask about your parallel roles beside curator. I know that you’re also a writer and, as you mentioned earlier, an educator. What different means of expression and observation does each provide you and how does it influence your relationship with architecture? I think there’s an incredible synergy to all three. There are certain things that are specific to each one. As an educator, for instance, you’ve got responsibility for individual people. The students at the university are individual people, so

It wasn’t a list of things you should admire


it’s very different from curating for the public of a museum, many of whom you’ll never meet or even see, or writing where you have no idea who is reading you. So there is this distinction between working for a collective unknown and training students. Education is not just about handing over information; it’s actually about mentoring and coaching individual people, and that I see as, in large part, a very different activity—although I’m a professor at Columbia, which is a research university, and part of my job is to do my own research and diffuse it, so the publications are in a certain sense a part of that world. There are very different sorts of questions that I would take up in a scholarly article compared to an exhibition, and I feel very blessed in that I have an entire spectrum of outlets: I can take on rather arcane historical topics in publications in my scholarly life and then I can take the exact same themes and try to work on them in a way that they take on a public dimension in the Museum of Modern Art. And this makes me incredibly lucky, because through the Museum of Modern Art I have an enormous audience for what I think is important and responsible to attract attention and interest toward. As you said before, there is this sort of aura that MoMA has acquired for itself over its history and that really raises the stakes and the attention level. As a curator it is an incredible gift, but also a responsibility.

Further mentions Columbia: 50, 115-126

Haas & Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas & Dre Urhahn) are artists based in The Netherlands and Brazil.

5. Haas & Hahn
BRENDAN McGETRICK: What’s interesting to me about your project is that one part of it is dedicated to creating works of art on the walls of favelas, using the buildings as canvases, but another part is creating art about favelas—paintings, films, and music videos that are inspired by favela life. Let’s start by talking about the favela as an urban or architectural creation and how that impacts your work. DRE URHAHN: One thing that I really like about the favela is that it’s a community or urban structure that the people build themselves. And I think that’s amazing. In Europe you never see that sort of unplanned activity happening on public space. JEROEN KOOLHAAS: Most favelas are made out of concrete and brick and it’s as if somebody has made a standard design and then everybody agreed to build according to that standard. I think that that homogeneity is really nice. Even though its creation is random and like an organic growth process, at the same time it is like a single whole, one huge building. DU: In a way, it’s an approach to building which is more connected to how animals might approach it—everyone builds their own space and contributes to the larger structure in a way that ants do. And it functions so well as a result. JK: There isn’t the level of anarchy that you might expect, or that people expect before they go there. It’s quite well organized, and the social structures provide for everything you would need. You don’t really have to ever leave the favela if you live there. It’s a self-sustaining village, almost, within a huge city. Why do you think that everyone builds in the same style? JK: I lot of the people who live in the favelas came from the countryside and this is the style of houses that they have in the countryside. So it is basically
The following discussion took place on May 1, 2009 at Koolhaas’s studio in Rotterdam


Haas & Hahn, Artists

a country style of construction transported to the city and made very dense. That density is one of the things that makes the favela as a building form so interesting, because it must be one of the most compact ways of living. DU: The funny thing is that when you’re in a favela, you get reminded of medieval villages in Italy and places like that. JK: Yeah, that’s right. We were in southern Italy and we saw these villages on hills and they looked so much like favelas in the way they were built. DU: One thing about that process that you notice is that people build out of necessity and then gradually they add luxury along the way. There are some people who build according to a plan, but that’s not the standard way. Most people start with one small thing and then add something, add something, add something. It’s necessity-driven mostly. You develop and embellish it as time goes by. It’s a natural extension of the your life, basically. DU: Right, it’s something that grows together with you. JK: Another important influence on the look and function of the favela is roof life. The people live on their roofs very often, so the public space is mostly on people’s roofs. Then I guess that partially explains why the houses are so geometric, and why everyone has a flat roof—so you can sit and stand on top of it. DU: That, but also because people expect to add later. It’s the easiest way to add an extra floor. JK: Right, everything is made so that you can change it. DU: The roof is always the basis for your next house. You finish your roof, but always leave the steel reinforcing bars sticking out so that you can easily add another floor next time.

An environment where everything works out naturally


JK: If you look at how they build the concrete structures, they make wood casings completely from scrap wood or with the least amount of wood they possibly can, because it costs so much money. And when you see how they put that together, it’s amazing, because the shape of the concrete is then determined by these random bits of wood. How has that condition affected the work you do there? DU: In terms of using it as a canvas, I think we noticed quickly that in a slum you have opportunities that you wouldn’t have in a “regular” city. But often the opportunities don’t get used. JK: Yeah, you have planning freedom. DU: Right, if you wanted to go crazy, you can actually. How do you think the fact that both of you come from Holland, which is such a meticulously planned place, affects your view of favelas and the possibilities there? JK: I think we really enjoy being in an environment where everything works out naturally. It works simply because you don’t want to cause problems with other people. Here [in The Netherlands] you have building regulations and you’re not allowed to make an addition to the back of your house, even if it’s in your own garden, and it’s really difficult to get permits for things. Coming from that, it’s so nice to go to an environment where everything happens out of common sense—you don’t make a huge wall in front of your neighbor’s window, because you’d just get in trouble with your neighbors. DU: Or you do. JK: [Laughs] Or you do. DU: Someone built a house in the middle of our painting! We were shocked, because they actually blocked part of the painting by building a house there. But eventually we got used to it. But it was really strange—they just built over this existing structure, and they even included part of the metal fence that was


Haas & Hahn, Artists

there. And to us, it was like, “You can’t do that! This is public space!” Because here in Holland, public space is Holy. JK: You can’t touch it. DU: But there you say, “Fuck public space. It’s room to build.” So that was really interesting for us to see. JK: I remember on one of the first days when we started painting, there was a guy who had no water, so he thought he’d dig a well, and he just dug it right through the concrete where we were painting. He started breaking up the concrete looking for water. But he didn’t find any, and then he had some cement in his house, so he just made some concrete quickly and just covered it up. That’s another thing that I really like—the building materials there are so easily prepared. Within an hour people can do a little cement job somewhere. Everybody is always mixing cement. Where we’re not really used to ever mixing cement, they do it all the time. DU: I’ve learned a lot from being around that sort of mentality. For instance, I had a flat tire a week ago, and everyone around me was like, “Oh, you’ve got to bring it to the shop to fix it.” And I was like, “Huh? You can fix it yourself. It’s easy.” And I would have brought it to the shop two years ago, but now I’ve really learned to fix my own things, because you can. If you can build your own house, you can fix your bicycle. JK: The barrier in front of you before you start doing something is just much smaller there. Here, we’re like, “Holy shit, adding a floor—that’s a really big thing to do! I’m gonna have to buy bricks and cement...” And in the favela, they’re like, “Ah ok, let’s get some brick and cement and build this floor.” DU: I don’t think there’s a lot of that sort of attitude left in our society. JK: In way everything in the favela feels man-made. For example, the stairs are totally irregular. When they build stairs, all the steps will be different heights and sizes, and everything will be a little bit crooked. And it doesn’t bother anybody. Actually, I like it better than having every step the same size.

Fictional privacy


DU: Because you know it’s going to be irregular. You don’t expect it to be otherwise. JK: And I think maybe what we as Dutch people like is that irregularity—on every layer of life. Everything is irregular and unpredictable. In order to complete your last painting you ended up living in a favela for almost a year. What was it like living in this extremely dense, irregular environment that you’re talking about? DU: One thing that I found really interesting living in a favela was the fictional privacy that you have there. It’s a privacy that doesn’t actually exist, but it’s a form of social privacy that everyone respects. In the house where I was living, the bathroom had no door, just a sheet separating it from the rest of the house. But if you were in there, no one would talk to you anymore—even though they could hear and smell everything you were doing. They consider that private. Also, for example, in the morning people will see you in your house, but they won’t say hello until you leave your space. They still see you, and nothing really changes, but as soon as you’re in “public space” they’ll say, “Hey, good morning!” But they wouldn’t say it through the window or something, because that’s your privacy. Do you see this “fictional privacy” in the ways that people build or decorate their houses as well, or is it purely social? AU: In a way you see it in the buildings too. One thing that I always found interesting about favelas is that the level of luxury in the inside and outside of a building can be totally different. You can see houses that look like shit from the outside, but inside they are immaculate—beautiful tile floors, air conditioning, everything perfect. You would think that you’d want to make it similarly beautiful on the outside, but it’s almost as if people don’t connect the luxuriousness of the inside with the look of the outside. In the West, I think we’re used to the idea that the outside of your house should somehow reflect the condition or function of the inside. But when you look at a slum, you can think that it’s a terrible condition, but when you go inside, you see that some people are living more comfortably than people in the city.


Haas & Hahn, Artists

Let’s talk a little bit about Rio as a city and the relationship between Rio and its favelas. What I thought was really interesting while I was there was how in a way unnatural the favelas looked, because so much thought has been put into how Rio is laid out, how the buildings interact with the environment, how the infrastructure accents the nature, etc. The favelas aren’t part of that officially planned city, but nevertheless they’re very prominent and actually occupy some of the best locations in the city. JK: It’s funny that you say it’s unnatural, because I think the favela is the building style that looks the most appropriate for the area, if you compare it to all the apartment buildings and all the modern architecture. The favelas almost go along with the mountains. It’s natural, almost as if birds have built it or something. DU: It’s true what you say about the best locations, because in other societies, the rich people want to live on mountains and hills, but in Rio they just left it open, and the people who made the favelas were like, “Well, if you don’t want to take these beautiful spaces, we will.” But at the same time, you get the sense that the favelas are an embarrassment to the city—socially and visually. They seem totally disconnected from the city that tourists think about. DU: Definitely, and our project is partly about that. It’s really strange that such extremely different worlds exist in the same city. JK: There’s a name for that as well, you have O Morro and Asfalto—the hill and the asphalt. And it’s true that they are completely separate worlds. You know exactly when you’re going from one to the other and it’s a scary thing almost, because you know that you’re entering a completely different social structure where there’s different laws and different ways of going about things. DU: But once you get used it, it becomes really nice to enter the favela. Like, whenever we entered Vila Cruzeiro [the favela where we painted], we felt relieved, like, “Aaaaah... We’re home.”

The whole slum is like your home


JK: Yeah, in a way the whole slum is like your home. For us in Europe and in the city center of Rio, the border between inside the house and outside the house is a very hard line: you’re either inside your house or you’re in the city. But in the favela, you’re almost still inside your house when you’re in the street. DU: The slum is the home and your house is like the bedroom in your home. You come home by entering your favela. It really feels like that. When I was living in Vila Cruzeiro, I would see the house as my bedroom and the restaurant on the corner as the kitchen and the staircase that connected them as the front yard almost. And as people who would navigate between Rio’s two worlds, how do you see your paintings function in that relationship? DU: From the beginning, we hoped that the painting could in some way improve the relationship or improve the image of the favela at least. The idea was really simple: if you want to build a bridge between these two parts of the city that live side by side but have this enormous gap between them, the easiest way to do it is through some sort of art intervention where you make something that interests people on the outside and on the other hand gives people inside a sense of pride. JK: To convey that pride is important I think. People in the favela are very proud of where they live. They’ve built their houses themselves. The outside world looks on it as a shame that these neighorhoods exist and [thinks that] the people who live there should be ashamed of themselves. We thought about that discrepancy a lot, and tried to find a way for this sense of pride to be painted on the walls of the favela so that the outside world could see how good they feel about themselves and could understand that there are families there and they can take care of themselves. We thought that if we could somehow help them put up a better appearance to the outside world—by only putting a thin film of paint on the surface of the thing—it could be a really simple way to help bridge this gap. I think that’s the project’s main idea.


Haas & Hahn, Artists

Are there other artists whose work inspired the Favela Painting project? JK: Well, we always talk about Christo [the Bulgarian artist who has done several building-sized art projects, including wrapping the Reichstag building in Berlin]. But it’s not really that he inspired us; it’s more that we’re interested in working at his scale. We’re interested in how he approaches scale and how he approaches artworks as projects. I feel the painting is more part of the artwork than that it is the artwork. And that is basically because of the struggle of making it and the influence that the people in the favela had on us and the influence we’ve had on them. We set up some sort of portal of communication by working there for so long. We don’t know what that means or what that has done in the larger scheme, but it has definitely had a very positive effect on us and for the people who live on the street. DU: Really, it was the slum itself that inspired us. The favela presented this option to us.
Firmeza Total. Dir. Jeroen Koolhaas & Dre Urhahn. Youtube.com. Accessed on 01 December 2009. <http://www. youtube.com/

JK: Because when we started, we were making a documentary film in the favela. And this idea of painting came to us as a completely abstract concept. Then when we told people about it, they took it seriously, and said, “You should do it.” And we were like, “Oh, OK. We’ll try.” I think that is something that distinguishes the Favela Painting project in a way. In the past few years, there have been several films made about favela life, it’s become a hot topic at the big architecture schools, and DJs from around the world have started collecting and playing music made in the favela, but the painting project seems more aimed at interacting with and contributing to these neighborhoods, rather than just documenting them or publicizing them. DU: A lot of times people come [to neighborhoods like Vila Cruzeiro] and they take. And the first time when we made the documentary in a way we sort of took stuff—we took images and we took them back home. But making this painting is exactly the opposite, and unintentionally you create the best medium to actually communicate with the people, because when we walk in the neighborhood there’s no question whatsoever about why we’re there. It’s become a fact of life. We’re painting this thing and its unquestionable and

Shootouts and violent times


our presence has become unquestionable, as well as the presence of our video cameras and us talking to people. Its all through this painting that this is possible. JK: But while we were doing it people did question us. People did think that it was weird that we were spending all this time painting a staircase. But I think that after they saw that we were really determined to finish it and determined to do it in detail and to become friends with everybody, people stopped questioning and thinking it was weird. But even til the very end I had guys come up and say, “What?! You guys are still painting? What the fuck are you guys thinking?!” DU: The only moments when it became uncomfortable was during shootouts and violent times. There were times when I thought it was becoming almost insulting that we’re walking the streets when people are actually hiding in their houses. JK: I thought about that too: if this neighborhood is thought about as the worst place in Rio it might be insulting to the people who live there if it seems that we come there at our leisure. That’s something we haven’t talked about yet, but that seems crucial to understanding the nature of the project and favela life. The neighborhood where you’ve been working, Vila Cruzeiro, is notorious for the violence that goes on there between the local drug gang and the police. I know that at times during the painting of Rio Cruzeiro, the violence became extreme. I suppose that is part of the larger experience that you mentioned. Could you talk about that part of the work a bit? DU: In a way that was minor. The fact that there were days of constant gunfire had the same effect as when there were days of rain: it’s just days when you cannot work. In a way it became natural, like we’d say, “OK we have thirty days, so probably ten you cannot work and that leaves twenty where you can.” Something like that. JK: But those sorts of things do have an effect. A long period of rain is really discouraging. A long period of not knowing if you can feel safe in the neighorhood


Haas & Hahn, Artists

or if the bus ride over will be safe... having to take your headphones off on the way in because you want to make sure that you’re not hearing gunshots. Stuff like that does work on you. You feel a little bit ridiculous sometimes that you’re risking all that just to make a painting. DU: It’s also scary. One day when we were working on the painting, we heard a bullet fly by. Really heard the sound of it flying by and that means it’s pretty fucking close, you know? JK: Yeah, if you hear a bullet you know it’s close. But you just come to accept it as a fact of life, just as the people in the favela do. JK: Yeah. There were definitely times when there was shooting going on somewhere, and we continued painting, just saying to each other, “Oh, the shooting is on the other side of the hill. Let’s continue until it comes over here.” You really get that type of mind state. As Dre was saying, when you have disruptions built into the project, then you have to try to maxmize the time that you can spend outside painting. DU: Yes, but the fact that [the painting] is so extremely detailed means that you cannot go faster. You can’t just put more people on it. You can’t work more hours, because it’s so detailed and difficult. We thought we would paint the stairs in two months... but it really became our lives. JK: We never thought that it would take almost a year, but the fact that the painting grew out of proportion and made us spend so much more time in the favela is also what got us more involved in the neighborhood, and that is what opened our eyes to what exactly it is that we’re doing. Spending so much time painting with the kids and with the families there and, in the end, getting this neighborhood some positive attention changed for us the idea of why we’re here and why we’re actually doing these types of things. For your last painting you collaborated with Giovanni Da Conceição Silva, Vitor Luis Da Silva, and Robson Teles Carneiro, who live in the area. How did that work?

At a certain point we became scared


DU: I think it was as much a learning process for us as it was for them. Besides the fact that we were teaching them something about painting, giving them something to do, and showing them a different side to life maybe, they were also showing us things. They were our entrance into the community and our friends. Now the painting is finished, but we still talk with them and [when we’re in Rio] we hang with them almost everyday. JK: There’s an interesting trajectory to the project: we started it as a social project, to have an effect on the community and a small number of youths. Then we veered towards the idea that we’re actually doing an art project with a social side. But once we started working on it, we realized that we were having more of an effect on these kids than we initially thought, so we had more potential to change their lives. And so we started focusing more on talking to them and seeing what effect it had, what roles they’d like to have and what dreams they have for the future. I think at a certain point we became scared that we might fail in something that we could have done, and that’s—as people who are ten years older—to help these kids as much as we can in learning how to be more successful in achieving their goals. We talked about that a lot. I think the reciprocal nature of the relationship that Dre mentioned is interesting. In an environment like a favela, which is a very close and sometimes dangerous community, as outsiders you need help in integrating yourself and learning the code of behavior. That can only come from locals so in a way it evens a relationship out. Even if you are the more experienced painters, you could never have the traditional master-apprenctice relationship. DU: Right. It’s an interesting situation when you’re an employer, but you have to ask your employees how to walk the streets. In most other situations, the employer is the person who knows everything better, but in this case everything that doesn’t have to do with paint they know better. And for that they’re really invaluable to the project. And for our safety. It’s interesting that none of the difficulties or dangers inherent in the neighorhood are present in the work you’ve done there. So far you’ve done two murals—one of a boy flying a kite and another of fish swimming in a river. Did you ever consider using images that were drawn more directly from the environment?

Haas & Hahn. The boy with the kite. 2007. Vila Cruzeiro, Rio de Janeiro Haas & Hahn. Rio Cruzeiro. 2008. Vila Cruzeiro, Rio de Janeiro


Haas & Hahn, Artists

JK: The boy flying the kite is basically drawn from the neighborhood, because you see kids flying kites everywhere in the favela. At some point, we discussed that we could paint something that directly links to the reputation of violence or the story of Tim Lopes [a journalist who was murdered while investigating the drug trade in Vila Cruzeiro], something to do with the dying youth— there’s a million things like that that we could do. But in the end we decided to do something that didn’t have anything to do with those problems, because we wanted whatever we brought to the neighborhood to be removed from all those negative aspects and bring some kind of beauty to the area. Right, because I think in Europe or America there’s a feeling that when you work in an environment of poverty or violence you are obligated to directly engage those problems, but of course none of those topics are new or inspiring to the people who are dealing with it everyday. JK: If you’re living there, you don’t want to be looking at a huge painting of a dead kid. DU: In a way, I think it is a political statement to make something unpolitical. There is a social and political statement in saying, “In this slum where there are so many difficulties and so much bad press, let’s make something that is totally detached from that, something that’s just beautiful.” JK: In reacting to a situation which is already so political by using similar media—political imagery or quotes from the press—you’re playing the same game that all the journalists play. Instead, we brought something visual that brings across a positive sentiment. And I think that’s a message in itself. DU: To make art with those types of political messages seems to impose the fact that you know everything. But we don’t know jack shit. After we made this painting, now we know something. How could we have made a painting with a message? We didn’t know anything in the beginning. The favela has also been the inspiration for a lot of the painting and installation work you’ve done here in Europe lately. There you also leave out the social or political aspects of favelas and focus instead on the the geometric form of these

Really organized and really random


interlocking cubes that you talked about earlier. How does that sort of construction inspire you from a purely visual standpoint? JK: I think that it’s almost digital, but at the same time organic. I like the combination of something that is really organized and really random at the same time. DU: You see a lot of that combination in nature, but it’s usually round, like coral for example. The favelas are similar, but it’s square and that’s what makes it so sexy I think visually. JK: It’s a bit like how crystals grow—there’s an element of organization and an element of randomness. I suppose that makes the fact that everything in the favela is hand-made and imperfect that much richer. Because, for instance, Habitat ‘67 by the architect Moshe Safdie is in some ways similar to a favela—it’s cubic and dense and sort of arranged in a seemingly random way. But it is modern and “perfect”; it doesn’t have the imperfections and fuzziness of nature and, to me at least, it doesn’t feel organic at all. JK: I don’t think that the people living in the favelas embrace imperfection, but I really embrace it. I’m not sure if they all feel happy about the imperfections. So I know that this is an ongoing project that’s already taken many forms. What is planned for the future? DU: Well, it will continue and get bigger. JK: We’re now working on a plan for a new painting, which is way bigger than the last one. So, in a sense you’re developing your project in a way similar to how a favela develops—you go gradually and scale up as the possibilities present themselves. DU: The favela taught us that we can do this. We really learned that in there.

Reinier de Graaf is partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and head of its non-architectural wing AMO.

6. Reinier de Graaf
BRENDAN McGETRICK: The purpose of this interview series is to try to reach a better understanding of what architecture is by collecting the perspectives of the people who contribute to it in one way or another. AMO is interesting because it sprang from the idea that much of the information and representation that goes into architecture has value whether or not a building results from it. In a way, AMO’s work seems to argue that if an architect were liberated from the obligation to build, he or she could work to solve problems in new ways and interact with other disciplines in new ways. So to begin, could you explain a little about the development of AMO and how you become involved? REINIER de GRAAF: I became involved accidentally, actually. At the time we were working on a commission for Schiphol [Airport]. There was no idea of AMO then, but there were two other projects happening at the same time. One was Prada, which first began as a commission to design a couple of shops but which expanded to much more in the end, and the other was Universal, which was essentially a project for a building which perished, but through which such an amount of insight was created about the corporate world that AMO emerged as a way to retain that insight. So AMO was born from these three experiences, which occurred more or less at the same time, and that was eleven or twelve years ago. Could you talk about the Schiphol project in a bit more detail, since that is how you become involved and it might offer a more practical idea of what AMO is and how it operates... Schiphol was important to the creation of AMO, because it was a project that sequentially wrong-footed you every step of the way. Initially we got a project for the airport, and we were very impressed that we got a project for the airport so we started to diligently study flight paths, runways, and all kinds of technical stuff that we didn’t know anything about. But that’s of course not
The following discussion took place on June 2, 2009 at the OMA-AMO offices in Rotterdam

Further mentions Prada: 13-14, 85 Universal: 30


Reinier de Graaf, Reform Architect

why they asked us. They wanted us to make an urbanistic proposal for the airport, because evidently the airport made most of its money not out of flying but out of other related activities, like shopping, real estate development, etc. So, in a way, they came to us because the airport wasn’t an airport anymore. So we worked on an airport to make it less of an airport. That project carried on, and then the airport entertained the idea that they wanted to move their whole operation from land to the sea. Then of course the same thing happens—once you’re asked to be involved in that then you start to design an airport in the sea, but actually our main focus wasn’t even supposed to be on the airport in the sea but on what the hell they would do with all the land they left behind. So again and again we got wrong-footed in terms of where our focus should be. But the fact that we were strange people to be involved with that particular issue—because of course there are airport specialists—was a symptom of the fact that the airport already recognized that their issue was much wider than just moving to an island in the North Sea. The interesting thing with that project was that we worked with [the consulting firm] McKinsey, we worked with the banks, we worked with airport consultants, we worked with the airline companies, etc. But all of them were specialists, and actually the only party who could profoundly articulate the whole concept of the move was the party that was, essentially, most ignorant of the specialisms. And there, for the first time, the situation emerged that we, not intentionally, drifted into a role of overview and eventually articulated the position toward politicians, who were equally ignorant as we were. So that started as a fairly traditional commission to make urban proposals for lands owned by the airport but became in the end an effort to tell the whole story of an enormous, expensive operation and to articulate why that would make sense. That was the first time that we really discovered the power of ignorance and how we were totally powerless on one hand and extremely powerful on the other. And that is the space in which we operate all the time. From that point, how did AMO begin to transition into projects that were purely non-architectural, rather than these early offshoots of architecture commissions? I think that began to happen first with Prada, but those were separate projects for a client with whom we did architecture. But I think the first real project

The power of ignorance


where we did something which essentially had nothing to do with what you would consider our professional domain was our project on Europe. That was essentially a marketing/identity study for the cause of the European Union. That started initially with a question for us to look at Brussels as the capital of Europe and to think about the symbolic needs of a capital which wouldn’t be the capital of a country but of a relatively new transnational political system—a capital which could never be a capital like London, Paris, or Berlin. From there we expanded the question into a question about the representation of such a system on every level possible—so not just urbanistically, much wider. We did that relatively early on, so it became a project that was accepted on those terms, and we could happily shed some of the notions ingrained in the questions that we were initially asked. Did you have the sense at the time that this was the first time anyone had considered these wider issues? Yes, in that particular way. Because of course the EU has branding specialists, it has advertisement agencies, etc. They also did some of the things that we did, but they are limited to their ground. This was really the first time that we could respect no professional boundary and assume no limitations to our own competence. I think that was the first time anybody had ever done a thing like that. So I suppose that gets to one of the core issues: what do you think is beneficial about an architect thinking about issues like branding? What does it offer that the specialists in those fields don’t? I think the interesting thing is that architects are especially lay people when it comes to branding. So that means that they look with a very general eye to branding and even question the necessity of branding in itself, even while they’re doing it. The other thing is that since they operate outside their professional domain, the type of questions they get asked are different from the type of questions advertising agencies get asked, because those agencies have a fixed professional domain, which probably means that their mandate from the client is limited to cracking a particular problem. In our case, our mandate is often the result of us elbowing or stretching the question, and that, almost


Reinier de Graaf, Reform Architect

by necessity, means a much wider range of issues. And that is simply because at the outset of every project you’re absolutely clueless about what to do. Absolutely clueless, and every project starts and ends with a kind of desperate improvization. But returning to the question you asked before—I think the real difference between AMO and an advertising agency is that we presume no knowledge. It’s not only that we have no knowledge, but we presume no knowledge, and therefore every project becomes a kind of self-educational experience. I guess in the case of a commercial advertisement agency, there are a set of predetermined professional skills with which they go at something. Since we don’t have that, it’s a process of finding out as you go along. Of course, it’s much trickier to give somebody like that a commission, because the result could be anything. I think that self-educational aspect of the work is really interesting. I remember you once told me that the initial work done for the European Union was for the most part just the visual representations of AMO’s own gradual understanding of how the EU operates and what it provides. The EU is a very distinct thing and, in a way, the world can be divided into people who know a lot about it and people who know nothing at all about it, and there’s not a whole lot in between. We went from knowing nothing to become people who by now actually know quite a lot about it, but we made that journey, and in the end it’s the ambition of the European Union to make everybody make that journey. Simply to be understood is in a way its biggest project, because its biggest letdown is that, for all its accomplishment and quality, it is an unknown entity. In that sense, since we went from one extreme to another, we visualized that learning experience so that other people could use it. Yes, and for me the value of those visualizations is that they unlock forms of insight that would otherwise exist only in the form of reports or ugly PowerPoint presentations. In that sense, it’s also worth talking about how AMO interacts not only with branding people but also academics and researchers, many of whom have no background in creating seductive visual matieral that can communicate to the unfamiliar.

As an architect, most of the time you have to make an implausible argument


I think architects communicate by drawings in the first place, and that’s different from communicating by text, although Rem [Koolhaas] is a writer and I guess equally developed in either form. But more importantly, as an architect, most of the time you have to make an implausible argument, because all the standard prejudices, all the standard rhetoric you encounter when you want to do a modern building causes you to almost invariably make a guess against the odds. You always have to prove an existing prejudice wrong, at least when you do the type of architecture OMA does. Certain people in their rhetoric mobilize prejudice in order to propel a certain cause, other people have to dispel prejudice in order to use the prejudice against itself. That is the kind of ability that, when you’re dealing with the EU, comes in very very handy, because in a way the EU has to argue permanently against the initial reflex to trust your own national identity, to trust your own government before you trust a foreign government, etc. There is a certain level of counterintuitive arguing that coincides quite nicely. I’ve noticed over the years that many of OMA’s most ambitious buildings position themselves within a reality that OMA defines. By changing the shading and bringing certain factors into focus and obscuring others, OMA often presents its buildings as the only appropriate response to this reality, a reality the client may not be aware of. So I suppose it makes sense that AMO would operate in a similar way. That could be, but the arguing is different to some extent in the sense that OMA is much more established. When you do a design for a building, people tend to take many more things at face value, whereas I think AMO has never been properly established, even after twelve years. So every time it must first establish its own necessity, because an architect’s firm is an architect’s firm but AMO is something less defined. In every project it must argue the project but at the same time its own existence. Which ups the pressure and in a way makes it more pure rhetoric in its form, because it has to defend its existence so heavily still. To some extent OMA is relatively untouchable in the architecture world, so unless we cooperate with really shady regimes, people are generally favorable about its outlook, because the buildings are very tangible evidence often of good intentions and even the shortcomings of earlier buildings have gone, so in a way they stand there as evidence. With AMO you come across a

Further mentions Rem Koolhaas: 10, 13, 87, 100-101, 103-104, 112


Reinier de Graaf, Reform Architect

lot of professional envy, particularly in academia, among people who feel you’ve invaded their territory. When you’re an architect, you’re an architect and you’re safe within the confines, but now you are joining them in their own circles to talk about what you yourself are doing. That often leads to a lot of, I wouldn’t call it envy, but discomfort. There are a lot of people who just wait for something ridiculous to pop up so that they can say... I told you so. Yeah. Before we continue down this path, could you provide some background about AMO’s Europe work? How it started and where it went... It started with work that I guess you could call pretty superficial. We did a tour around Brussels and photographed everything and really looked at the way Europe looked inside Brussels. One of the big things that we noticed was that there was an enormous discrepancy between the relevance Europe had acquired in terms of numbers, in terms of achievements, in terms of the size of its economy, etc. and the complete limpness of all its visual manifestations. Every single one of its visual manifestations was infinitely more mediocre than manifestations you got on a national level. We described that as Europe’s “iconographic deficit,” because [iconography] was simply a realm that they had probably never paid any attention to. We then invented a few what I would call “image bytes”—not sound bytes but image bytes—to immediately address that, to invent a number of ways in which the idea of Europe could be portrayed in a much more energetic and articulate way. That was the first part. Later on, we were invited by the Dutch government to make an exhibition about Europe. In that exhibition we spent a lot of energy trying to visualize European history and trying to offset the history of Europe against the history of the European Union. We did this on two long panoramas with the history of Europe in front and the history of the EU in back of it. What we tried to demonstrate is that the European project is impressive, because, in merely 50 years, more integration and more unity had been achieved than in 3000 years of bloodshed.

Koolhaas, Rem and Reinier de Graaf, cur. The Image of Europe. Brussels, 2006

The deep shock of architecture


In that exhibition we also tried to visualize a number of other things, like we created a European passport, which was sold for one euro and which had a condensed version of Europe’s history in it, but also an explanation of how the EU’s political institutions worked. We also had a book of the Acquis Communautaire, which is the sum total of all of Europe’s legislation. That only existed as virtual documents, so we made a print out of it and it resulted in a book of 6 1/2 meters long. All of that was in a big circus tent, which was constructed in the middle of the European Quarter of Brussels. The design for the tent itself was based on the “European barcode” which was a proposal we had made earlier on for an alternative to the European flag. Do you think that the frequent confrontations with confusion and ignorance that architects experience made it possible to take on something as ambitious and seemingly impossible as creating a coherent, full narrative of 3000 years of European history? Yes, but the point wasn’t to have an accurate history of 3000 years. Once you know what you want to achieve with a certain thing, the whole duty to be 100 percent accurate diminishes, because even if there are mistakes in the 3000 years of Europe or the 50 years of the EU, it doesn’t take from the fact that in the 50 years evidently more was achieved than in the 3000 years. The exhibition has 90,000 words of text, but the whole thing was made to ram home that one point, which it does very effectively. But even a history that is infinitely more scientific isn’t complete, and that wasn’t the point. The point was that there were two histories offset. But I do think at the same time that we are very aware of our ignorance, because we never hesitate to invoke the help of others who we count as experts in those fields. So it’s not a thing done in isolation thinking we’re more clever than the rest of the world. For all AMO projects, we have a certain amount of time to do something and generally mobilize the help we need fairly uninhibitedly. Which is emblematic of the way architects work, basically. Yeah, essentially it’s the exact same way you work on a building. The deep shock of architecture is that once you meet architects you realize that they


Reinier de Graaf, Reform Architect

know way less of building than you would assume. Essentially they’re more a co-ordinator of a set of specialists who together make a building. The architect is a figure who has the oversight and knows the points he wants to make with a building, rather than who is a technical expert. So in that sense, it’s similar. Once you’ve come to terms with that role as an overseer or co-ordinator, I guess it’s not much of a leap to begin coordinating larger and more diverse sets of specialists, including those who have no experience with or interest in building at all. Right, and the whole point is that in a world that is defined by fact checking and specializations, the capacity to have oversight or the capacity to tell a story is increasingly rare. You find that in society, in politics, but you even find that in primary and secondary schools—the figure who tells the story and provides a general view of the world is almost non-existent now. I know what you mean, and one thing that I’ve noticed in China is that that sort of extreme specialization and tunnel vision hasn’t infected work there to the same extent. I think that’s partly because there are so many professions that are relatively new to China that one almost feels empowered to invent his or her own profession and play multiple roles. For the moment at least, the lines between architecture and advertising or fashion or art seem much more fluid. In a way I think they haven’t got the time to entertain those borders, because what you say about China is also true about the Arab world, which I know much better than I do China. Once you meet the people who call the shots, you notice that they think amazingly conceptually. They think on a conceptual level and you can relate to them on a conceptual level in a way that is increasingly rare here. Why do you think that is? It’s partly that they’re filthy rich. They’re from royal families and have had the best education money can buy. I think it’s partly an Arab thing and partly a phenomenon of a society in which religion and society aren’t so separated. There is a certain amount of poetic, conceptual thinking embedded in the culture.

Three-dimensional thinking


But i also think it comes from the fact that, in order to take a leap, to bring your country from the middle ages into the twentieth century in a single leap, you simply can’t entertain the small steps that go with the segmented professional world. it has to come as a big bang. You have to think about where you want to be, even if you don’t know precisely how you’re going to get there. I remember when I first started seeing things about AMO, I would always come across the phrase “architectural thinking”. I would read texts that said things like, “AMO applies architectural thinking to non-architectural problems.” I’ve always been confused by that phrase. How would you define it? i think architectural thinking is essentially three-dimensional thinking. if you pause for a moment, of course an architect thinks three dimensionally, because space is three-dimensional, but there’s also another element to it. it’s three-dimensional thinking as opposed to one-dimensional thinking. the essence of a specialism is that it thinks one dimensionally, in terms of measurable entities. Our society is built up out of measurable entities—economic performance, demographic performance, etc. etc. three-dimensional thinking implies that you deal with more things at the same time, but also that you deal with qualities that aren’t essentially measurable, and therefor qualities that are very difficult to defend in a society that tends to evaluate everything by measurable performances. therefor, it is a kind of conceptual thinking, because it is thinking that requires a leap of faith, just like architecture. Just as the transformation of Dubai or the transformation of china requires a leap of faith. there i think a number of these things come together. How so? Since the state owns everything—in Dubai for instance you have a condition of pseudo entrepreneurship but ultimately all developers relate back to the royal family—then you do have a situation where macro-economic effects are weighed into micro-economic decisions. So you can have a building with 43 percent efficiency and it’s still being built, because it’s the tallest building in the world and it will attract tourists and other things. here, you will never have that. 43 percent efficiency in a building is simply unthinkable here, because you don’t break even, and you don’t give a toss whether the hotel next


Reinier de Graaf, Reform Architect

door is filled, because you don’t own it. But in Dubai there is a different scenario, which in theory gives a mandate to architects and gives a mandate to a certain Utopian dimension in architecture that has become unimaginable here. The reality is that, of course, because of that phenomenon, 99 percent of the architecture is incredibly wasteful. It’s a condition that can create Utopia or can create disaster, and more often it creates disaster. But even the tiniest percentage of chance that there is a condition in which you can do something that you cannot do anywhere else is hugely persuasive for us—the idea that you will be the one percent that uses those conditions to the benefit rather than to the detriment. Which is another sort of “leap of faith” I suppose. Yes. I think the idea of state control vs. private sector free-for-all is important to understand. I know that AMO was originally created because OMA was finding it almost impossible bring its private architectural designs to completion, simply because organizations, particularly in the ‘90s, were mutating and merging so quickly. AMO’s work, since it didn’t require a building, could address some of the concerns that these mutating corporations had without demanding of them the stability or long-term vision that they obviously couldn’t provide. Most of the institutions or the corporations that wanted a building, partly wanted a building because they struggled with their own identity and in a way hoped that by having a new headquarters they would find their new identity. Of course, that meant that they weren’t looking for a new building, they were looking for themselves in a weird way. It is almost like a couple that has a kid because they think it will mend their relationship, which of course it never does. Likewise a building never mends the problems of a company, and it doesn’t take very long after getting into intimate contact with clients before you discover the real thought behind why they came to you with the initial question in the first place. What do you think have been AMO’s most successful efforts in that regard? As a sort of organizational marriage counsellor...

You never lack information, you lack a way to guide yourself through it


I think Prada is undoubtedly successful, because it’s still going on. It’s a client that has come back time after time after time. But it depends on how you define success. For me, the European project is immensely successful, because of the potential you discover and the progress you make, but actually precious little has been adopted in any official realm. Europe is as unpopular as ever and less people will turn out to Thursday’s vote [for the European Parliamentary elections] than ever before. So in that sense, the whole project was not successful, but at the same time the point that the project discovered was incredibly valuable. Maybe it will just take more time. I think that’s the challenge and the point where architecture, for all its difficulties and vulnerabilities, works better, because once a building is built it stands there and embodies what you believe in or have argued for. The trouble with AMO work, or any communications work really, is that if the proposals don’t get adopted then it simply disappears, particularly in the overflow of information that we’re currently wading around in. Absolutely. Perhaps that’s even an area that AMO should consider in the future—how to generate coherency amid information overload. That’s a question that I think could use some three-dimensional thinking, and also one that architects as natural editors or conductors could assist in, because at this point you’re never wanting of information, you simply need... Navigation. I totally agree. But to some extent I do think that certain AMO projects got quite far, in terms of dissemination. They were all over the place, and I guess we didn’t have a building, but we did have George Bush lecturing behind our barcode, which is something. But I do think you’re right. To some extent, you never lack information, what you lack is a way to guide yourself through it, to form your own narrative. I think that’s another dimension of “architectural thinking”, because architecture is particularly concerned with proportions and relations, and that is precisely what we don’t have at the moment, any sense of how things relate to each other or what the relative scale of something is.

Further mentions Prada: 13-14, 75


Reinier de Graaf, Reform Architect

The essence of architectural design is that you are trained to take decisions before you know everything. You take decisions in order to get to know things, but you do take decisions before you have all the facts down. I guess architecture is a very good way of mobilizing intuition in the face of an overload of facts. When there is too much to know, and you are not able to know everything anyway, you have to rely on intuition, which is a kind of internal navigational device. Yes, but intuition is difficult to cite in defense of a proposal, particularly in a condition like you described earlier, where there is an emphasis on measurability. In the end, architecture relies on somebody being seduced. AMO work also relies on that and that is why I would be incredibly hesitant to call it research or call it analysis or any of those terms. In the end, it is something that you like and somebody else does too, and that’s true with buildings as well. The realization of any beautiful building ultimately relies on a group of persons—and often only one person—who is charmed enough by the thing to put his ass on the line to get it done. If you look at European tenders now: they have a very elaborate point system where they give you points and percentages in different categories and then they add it all up and select an architect. And in that case it becomes increasingly difficult, when you’re design-oriented, to acquire a job. It makes good, innovative architecture almost impossible, because that has always relied on someone in power thinking, “This is good. Let’s go for this. I believe in this.” Do you think that AMO has had an effect on OMA? For me it’s really difficult to say, because I was part of the creation, but I was never standing with both legs in either camp. AMO is so much grounded in the way a certain group of people in the office think, and OMA had a different way of thinking already before the creation of AMO. So I think that AMO has in many ways just served to highlight it more or mobilize it more. I find that an incredibly difficult question to answer, because I’m not sure.

Mobilizing intuition in the face of an overload of facts


I wonder if that is also why AMO hasn’t really been replicated by other offices— it’s such an idiosyncratic organization that is often directed by the personal interests of Rem [Koolhaas] and a few other people. Also on Rem’s particular career path, where he wasn’t always an architect and he wasn’t willing to shed everything else once he had become an architect. There’s not that many people who have had that type of career path, so it’s also related to something more personal, which is fine I think.

John Dekron and Markus Schneider are the chief technology officer and chief executive officer of thismedia.

7. John Dekron & Markus Schneider
BRENDAN McGETRICK: The purpose of this interview series is to try to explore the collaborative aspect of architecture. I noticed that in your office description you say that thismedia acts as a bridge between designers, artists, architects, hardware companies, etc. To start let’s talk a bit about that aspect of your work. MARKUS SCHNEIDER: I think we sit in a very important area where design constantly meets technology. This happens everyday within architectural projects without our help, but in these sort of situations the problem may occur of how to make sure that a design concept or an artistic approach can be synchronized with a technological concept or solution. The problems that many projects are facing are derived from differences in language and approaches. An architect, who also plays his role as a designer, may have an idea related to media, but when he’s talking to a company that is technologically-driven or engineering-driven, how do they make sure that they are talking about the same thing? Besides the different forms of knowledge that are delivered by those disciplines, there is also a simple communication problem. This is where our role as a missing link becomes more and more important. In many cases, the involved parties—architects, designers, and technology companies—are basically helpless in terms of finding an appropriate solution. JOHN DEKRON: This style of handling media is a new approach to a thing that is commonly considered to be understood very well. There are people who want to add new media layers to their works, and the first thing they think is, “Can we do it ourselves?” With other media, for example film or television or photography, it is well known that you need some kind of specialist to work in a special area. When the film industry started, it was not clear that it’s a good idea to have a cameraman or a set designer. Everyone was doing everything, everyone was helping out and working on it. Over time, it developed to the point where now everything is specialized, so if you want to shoot a film you know whom you have to hire. In this new area of media, it’s not so clear.
The following discussion took place on July 4, 2009 over Skype between Berlin, Hamburg, and Rotterdam


John Dekron & Markus Schneider, Media Designers & Consultants

Typically the architects have some idea, and they say, “Well, we just need some lamps to put up on our building,” or “We need to bring the screens inside,” or “We have to make a special floor.” Then they say, “We need software for this, so let’s find a software company.” But one software company is not like another one, and one needs experience and understanding of the architect’s needs in order to find a solution that can fulfil their real needs—even when the architects or artists themselves don’t know what the real needs are. Since the devices with which we’re working are mostly physical devices, connected to the building, architects tend to see them as part of their own area, but normally they would never work on the layout of a book, for example, because they think a graphic designer has to do it; it’s not a part of their area. In our experience, after going in the wrong direction many times, I feel that it’s not so easy to simply investigate these new technologies and do it yourself. Could you explain your experiences a little more specifically? Perhaps choose a single project and briefly outline the communication and the wrong directions and adjustments that you mentioned. JD: OK, I would choose the BIX project [for the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria], because I think it’s a very good example of collaboration. realities:united [a Berlin-based architecture office] were asked to do the media planning for the newly built Kunsthaus in Graz, and on their initiative they added a media skin layer on the outside. The first idea was to simply have special switches for the lamps that you can switch on and off to show an icon for each exhibition taking place in the Kunsthaus. While they were researching this, they found out that there is a company in Switzerland making fluorescent lamps in grayscale that can switch at 18 frames per second. Then they said, “Now we can play films on the building.” They needed someone to design the software for that, and they asked me, because I had a little bit of experience with software, if I could help them to find the right person. Together we looked around for people to do that job, and we eventually found out that the people working on software were very gifted, but not very inspired to bring anything more to the project. They were very dry people who just wanted to know what had to be done and had no idea about how their work fit into the entire concept of the Kunsthaus. So there was not such a clear idea of what the software would have to do. After that, we decided that


You just cannot explain these things by talking about pixel aspect ratio


I would have a try at making the software. I had never worked on a project on that scale, but I said, “Well, I can try.” So we started collaborating together and we ended up developing a simulation software for the building. We did this because we felt that no one would understand how to use media on that building unless we have a 3-D simulation that people can use to preview their material. This proved to be a crucial step, because later it was often the case that people provided DVDs with material to be played on the facade and when we put it into the simulator they realized that it makes no sense. It sounds simple, but you just cannot explain these things by talking about pixel aspect ratio and pixel size, etc. MS: Maybe I can add that, looking back, the BIX project was a kind of best case scenario where a lot of solutions that were found there we continue to use in our daily work. Another important aspect of this project for me is that, if you are going to work with architecture in that way, you need to deliver very reliable systems. The system that was installed at the Kunsthaus in 2003 is still running and, as far as I know, it’s still running on the same computer. I think that’s an important part of determining the overall success of the project. But if we go forward a bit to more recent projects, I notice that the tasks that we are being faced with are getting more and more complex, although the structure and approach itself is not changing that much. But each task is getting more and more complex, because the media projects themselves are reaching a much more dynamic and sophisticated level. One thing about the BIX project that I find interesting is that it is not as visually sophisticated as what is available in terms of facade-based media screens now. I’m curious what effect using a display that is essentially low resolution has on the kinds of work that it inspires—from artists or film-makers. MS: I think the size of resolution has nothing to do with the level of sophistication. If something is low res or high res, there is no inherent value in that. I think it’s more important to think about what you want to achieve. What is your idea? Ideas do not come out of resolution questions. It might be essential that a certain idea or a certain aesthetic image that you want to achieve requires a certain resolution—a higher or lower resolution. It brings me back to another point that I think comes close to this, and that is that technology


John Dekron & Markus Schneider, Media Designers & Consultants

itself does not initially lead to an idea, but technology must be used to realize an idea. What we try to do is first have a look at the situation—the building or the initial concept or the problem that the architect is facing—and then to develop concepts from that idea. then resolution aspects or technology or budget aspects become important, but i think that resolution itself doesn’t say very much about the quality or complexity of a project. I totally agree with that, but what I think is interesting is that, because of the nature of technology and the speed of its evolution there is a tendency to want “bigger, better, faster” and in the process of that you lose a certain form of representation that being limited in terms of resolution forces you to explore. What is interesting to me is that forms of low res imagery that you no longer see in other media, you can still find on building facades. JD: i think that your question is very important, because in the media technology that everyone now knows—like television or cinema—the goal is totally clear: you want to see cool movies in perfect quality, and for that it’s clear that bigger is better, brighter is better, louder is better. But media facades for architecture are not like screens. if you want to add a screen to show advertisements or something like that, then you should try for as high resolution as possible so that it is readable, but if you want to have visual elements as part of your building, then it’s not clear from the first moment that the resolution should be as high as possible. Although you can have pictures on a building’s facade, it’s not necessarily a screen. it’s not supposed to be a screen. Let’s talk a little bit about the AAmp project that you recently completed in Singapore. That one combines a high resolution commercial screen and a much lower resolution lighting and color element, so that would seem to cover a lot of what we’ve been talking about. MS: As you said, the principle of the AAmp is to have two resolution areas, where you have a high resolution screen, which is commercial, and you have a low res area that is part of a facade design that was developed by realities:united. JD: the project has different modes in which it can operate. the first and most common one is what we called the “direct mode”. in direct mode, the

More like a machine’s work


commercial, high res screen displays advertisements in a loop—that is not our technology. That is just some technology that is spread all over Asia and the most important aspect of that is that it is totally safe and you make sure that if a company has paid for the advertisement time, their commercial is played. In this mode, the low res facade works through an analysis of the advertisement and creates displays that fit with the mood, with the color, with the speed and patterns of the high res screen. It tries to correspond to the content of the high res screen. This means that nobody has to take care of the content of the low res facade, because it is following and amplifying the content of the high res screen. That also explains the meaning of the name: AAmp means “Architectural Amplifier”. The second mode is used when companies that show high res advertisements allow their advertisements to be repeated for free but with an overlay of feedback from the low res facade. It’s actually a technical trick where you can have patterns that are shown on the facade overlaid on the high res screen, then the building becomes more like a single shade. Then there is a third mode when there is no advertisement showing—that is supposed to be used especially late at night, let’s say from one o’clock to two o’clock. In this mode, the system records some snippets of the advertisement material and transforms it into content. It replays material, cuts it together; it has face recognition and can morph faces into each other, making nice patterns. It’s more like a machine’s work. MS: I’d like to add one thing: as John mentioned, the design of the low res LED area is derived by analyzing the commercial, high res screen. That means that there is a commercial nature to one part of the skin of the building, but the low res aspect kind of transforms this commercial aspect and brings the two elements together. What’s really interesting is that the source material itself—the color and the dynamics of the advertisements themselves—control the modular effects that are imbedded in the application, so you have a new design derived from whatever the source material is. This is important, because the problem of many projects is that, once you have a system installed, what kind of content should be displayed? This is the early test of many projects. So, with AAmp, as long as there is content on the high res screen, the rest of the facade will react to what is going on there.


John Dekron & Markus Schneider, Media Designers & Consultants

this project is also a good example of our work as collaborators. We are not the inventors of the project itself: the concept of having the high res and low res areas was developed by realities:united, who were kind of supplementary to the building’s architects. Our role was to develop a kind of software that basically realizes the whole concept as realities:united thought of it. this is a very specific project for us, where we just realized one essential part of the much larger project. One thing that I think is interesting and potentially valuable about this project is that it takes these high res commercial screens that are more and more common in cities, especially in China, and it on one hand enhances them by creating a complimentary chromatic environment for them, but on the other hand it also somehow disarms them, so that you feel slightly less offended by this stupid screen showing car commercials over and over again. MS: exactly. i was surprised myself at how the low res screen almost dissolves the commercial until the ads aren’t not so annoying anymore. the commercial aspect becomes part of the identity of the building but it doesn’t feel like it is only attached to it. And of course this is also the challenge in programming, how to find an application that actually generates this kind of effect. Let’s talk a little bit about the work you’ve done in China. I know that you developed displays for the Audi showroom in Beijing... MS: right. Yes, in the Audi showroom at the Oriental Plaza shopping mall in Beijing. this is a good example, because it is a pretty small project, but it was a pretty tough one to realize. i think John can talk a bit about that. JD: For the Audi project, we were asked by a lighting company based in Switzerland who made the LeD wall for that showroom. We’d collaborated on some other projects before. technically it was kind of similar to AAmp, because it combined low res and high res elements—a low res LeD wall with high res commercial screens built in. So we came up with a system that could not only address these two elements but could also address the six high res plasma screens independently. this meant that you could have really broadband advertisements—driving a car from one end to the other over every

The outside or inside


screen. Then we made sure that the system could be operated very simply, which was actually fairly complex technically, but has worked fine in the end. All you really need to do is put in a DVD and switch it on and the rest works independently. MS: As John said, the interfacing is another big challenge. What we want to achieve in delivering a system for that kind of project is for people who are not trained to be able to operate them. So you don’t need a technician or an engineer to be able to operate in different scenarios, the people who work there can basically handle the system. For example, if you need to replace a part of the LED wall, you can independently switch the wall off and replace the part, but the system will still run and once the replacement is done, you just switch it back on. In terms of maintenance, it’s very helpful to have a system like that. Are there fundamental differences between doing this sort of media work in an interior versus an exterior? JD: The only difference that I can see from outside or inside is that architects tend to ask for more screens and content on the inside and light or color effects on the outside. Personally, from our side, there’s not a big difference. MS: Well, we are not particularly interested in facade projects. We are interested in media projects, particularly related to architecture. Facades are part of the representative skin of a building, so when people look at the building they can enjoy whatever might be going on in this particular facade. It helps to transform the building between the day and the night. But what happens with all the space inside of the building? I think that there are essential differences between the outside and the inside. Often in projects where we are asked to contribute, the focus lies on the facade or the skin of the building, but that doesn’t mean that this is our initial interest. Our interest is usually to figure out in which areas media could be supportive, whether it is the outside or inside. What I think is interesting about applying media to architecture—particularly to architectural interiors—is that you emphasize a range of immaterial building


John Dekron & Markus Schneider, Media Designers & Consultants

elements, such as light, movement, or sound, which are as essential to a building as material elements, like glass, steel, and concrete, but which function very differently. MS: For an issue like that I think there are many questions, but few answers. One big question is: what is media? How is media related to architecture? Usually people can imagine media as something that is attached, but the idea of media as an integral part of architecture requires a different way of working, it requires the involvement of somebody like us at a much earlier stage, basically when the space is first being designed. A sensibility for media would be great in that very early stage, but usually that is not what happens. JD: The first step that someone must take is to understand that media is not only film or video; it can be light or physical elements that transport a picture or sound. For most people a media element means a screen, but I would say that each channel defines a different outcome and a different possibility. Youtube is different from VHS tapes or a DVD. Music clips on Youtube are totally different from videos shown on television. That is because nowadays video clips are mostly made for the Net so they don’t go into the same amount of detail, and that’s totally transformed the content. If you ask somebody, almost everyone will say [a Youtube clip] is a video, but for me it’s very different. This is just an example. Media is channels and each channel does something different and in the end the intention is to bring them together to make something that looks good. Finally, let’s return to China, for a moment. I’ve heard that you’re working with some local architects, Ma Yansong’s office MAD, for example. MS: At the moment, we’re trying to develop collaborations with architects in China who we think share a mutual range of interests with us—a shared interest in how to embed media into architecture, for example. We’ve started at first by simply talking with people and explaining to them a bit about what we are doing. JD: With MAD we’ve done the SINOLIGHTS project [a lighting design for MAD’s Sinosteel Tower]. That was a challenge because there were so many

Each channel defines a different outcome


lights on it. in the Iluma Media Light Facade in Singapore there were almost 7000 fluorescent lamps, but with Sinosteel i think it’s over 80,000. So it was a neck breaker for architectural 3D programs, and this meant that it was not possible to generate previews of how it would look. So, together with 3D designers, we had to find a way to preview material, so we rendered the lamps, first as a texture, and with a few interior tricks we were able to give a sense of what it would look like inside of the building. MS: For that project, we developed a complete concept for a building design that had already been finalized. the facade structure had already been set, and one of the challenges was to find a way to integrate a lighting system into an existing architectural concept. this you can only achieve when you have all the tools and experiences together and you have a technology partner—in this case Suzhou-based Optotech company Ltd.—who can guarantee that what you have in mind is, in the end, doable—also in terms of maintenance and service. So, next to the communication in partnership with architectural offices, another important part of our development in china is also to develop and strengthen partnerships with the technology providers. this is another major effort that we’re working on, because very often technology companies have developed tools and software that are not derived from a design or artistic point of view, but from an engineering point of view. Of course they work, but they are not flexible, they are not easy to operate and definitely they are not well suited to realize design concepts. So they themselves ask us if we can help their product to appear in a different way. this is something that we were not focusing on originally, but which is very interesting for us to see and to follow.

Jennifer Sigler is an editor originally from the United States, now based in The Netherlands.

8. Jennifer Sigler
BRENDAN McGETRICK: The aim of this series is to try to understand the experiences of people who work with architects and find out what they give and receive in the collaboration. I want to begin with the basics. How did you start editing? JENNIFER SIGLER: Actually I started making books as a kid… writing, drawing, cutting and pasting words and images and letters from magazines to construct stories. I was less interested in writing the stories than in assembling them—in arranging these sequences and stapling them together. The act of turning pages has always been important. There’s drama in that—suspense, engagment. It’s physical. And from there? In college I got a student job working in the library of the GSD [Harvard Graduate School of Design]. I loved that job. Every day I looked forward to going there. My cart of books was always waiting when I came in. I got to put them all back on the shelves... Wow, I had the same job when I was in college. It’s funny, sometimes I think, “Oh I’m not an academic; I’m not part of that.” But all that time in the GSD surrounded by those books made a big impression. I remember kneeling down between the shelves, being so close to them, and of course you’re secretly reading them while you’re filing them and they are getting into you. I thought at a certain point that I wanted to study architecture—to be one of those people from the GSD library—but I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be architectural history or architecture itself. So after I graduated, with a degree in English and Art History, I got an internship at Progressive Architecture
The following discussion took place on August 2, 2009 at McGetrick’s apartment in Rotterdam


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

Further mentions Rem Koolhaas: 10, 13, 79, 87, 101, 103-104, 112 MoMA: 43-56
Johnson, Philip and Mark Wigley, cur. Deconstructivist Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988 Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978; Monacelli Press, 1995.

magazine. It doesn’t exist anymore, but at the time that was the American architecture magazine and the PA Awards were very prestigious. I was going to work there for a few months and then decide which program to apply to. My job at PA was writing descriptions for what was called the “Information Sources Issue” and it was so boring. It was a special issue about architectural products; architects could use it to order new catalogues for their office libraries. So it was a catalogue of catalogues. I wrote descriptions of catalogues about bricks and roofing materials and lighting fixtures and toilets and park benches… you name it. The descriptions were one or two sentence blurbs: “A wide assortment of window frames are featured in this 32-page catalogue.” And I had to do that for about 300 different catalogues, and you can imagine that after a couple months I was freaking out and I had all these catalogues piled up on my desk. I couldn’t figure out what this job had to do with the 30-page paper on Le Corbusier I had submitted with my application, and I just wanted the thing to end as fast as it possibly could. Then one of my colleagues told me about a short-term position she’d heard about from [the publisher] Rizzoli: the assignment was to “go to Rotterdam and collect the material for a monograph about Rem Koolhaas/OMA.” It was supposed to take six months to a year. Rem was hardly known at that point. He had recently been part of the Deconstructivist Architecture show at MoMA and had built the [Netherlands] Dance Theater. And of course there was Delirious New York. So Rizzoli wanted to do a monograph on him. It was to be part of a series; they had already done Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, Michael Graves, and now they wanted to do one on Rem Koolhaas too. [Laughs] Four peas in a pod. [Laughs] Exactly. As I remember it, each book in the series had a pastel cover with a small-ish square image in the center. There was a certain kind of typography and a certain kind of paper. And the next one in the series was going to be Koolhaas and I was supposed to go over, pull the material together (of course this was before digital photography and FTP servers) and bring it back. But of course, it didn’t happen that way. Did that book ever get made?

Try to catch it in mid-air


No. At first Rem wasn’t even interested in doing a book. He was in the midst of building the Kunsthal, Villa dall ‘Ava, travelling to Fukuoka, Lille. And the big competitions started up—Bibliotheque de France, Karlsruhe, Zeebrugge. That was such an exciting time in the office; I had never seen that kind of energy—frantic invention—and I was absorbing everything. Documenting. Recording. Interviewing people. Collecting images, articles, quotes. It didn’t take long to realize that the content of the book was still being born and I didn’t seem to have any choice but to try to catch it in mid-air. That book that Rizzoli had in mind just wasn’t the one that we were going to do. As little as I knew at 22, I knew that that wasn’t it. As time went by, our commitment to doing something different—something “of ” OMA, rather than “about” OMA—meant that we couldn’t be part of the Rizzoli series. At the same time, Gianfranco Monacelli broke off from Rizzoli to start his own press. He was committed to making the book happen, and it simply couldn’t have happened within the construct of Rizzoli. At first he wanted to name his press “Black Diamond”—like the markings on the expert ski slopes—because he only wanted to do the toughest, most ambitious books. That is still a major problem in publishing now: it’s often hard to find a publisher who is willing to take a chance on something that doesn’t fit into their existing catalogue. They are afraid it won’t sell. But what sells? Now people are asking whether the book will cease to exist. But I’ve been thinking about this and it seems that just at the moment that publishing is in danger, architects themselves don’t know what to do. So publishing becomes a viable form of practice, because architects aren’t building. This is the time for architects to publish or to express themselves on other platforms. Have you ever thought about making books with people in other fields? Absolutely. My interest in bookmaking, or editing, isn’t necessarily tied to architecture. For me what is interesting is the intersection of media. It could be much more exciting to work with a choreographer or a theater director or a musician for instance, than it would be to work with a lot of architectural offices out there. Or to connect those fields to architecture and design.


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

Brugmans, George dir. Open City: Designing Coexistence. Rotterdam: Netherlands Architecture Institute, et al., 2009-2010

One of my interests is in transferring the event onto the page, or into the thickness of the volume, so that the book itself becomes a new sort of “event.” I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m working on a 12-week event program for the [Rotterdam Architecture] Biennale. It’s very tempting to visualize the event program as a table of contents and to think about the relationship between what’s happening in real time and real space and what could happen on the page and how they can have a relationship potentially. That has always really interested me. When I started working at the Berlage [Institute] I had the same observation: there was this missed opportunity, there was so much stuff happening there. Someone had to grab it... You mean lectures and seminars? Yeah. All the live action was there to be explored in different formats. Not that everything that happens is meant to be published, but I have this interest, and maybe it’s more journalistic, in editing real life. It may be more related to documentary-making. I’m also obsessed with the spoken word in print—the intimacy and directness of speech, or conversation, when you read it. It’s like you’re in the room with the person. Before I got into architecture I was very involved in theater. I also used to have summer jobs, in high school, working at a television news station. News production was too fast and superficial for me, but still, from those experiences I became more interested in dialogue, in the interview process, or in taking a lecture and generating text from that. The candidness of the spoken word in telling a story has always appealed to me, and the process of teasing the story out of an author is part of that. I don’t see myself as an author but more as an accomplice. A henchman. [Laughs] [Laughs] Yeah. It’s like, “We’re gonna get it out of you!” Do you see it that way? Yes, I totally agree about the power of the spoken word. And about transferring an event onto the page and how, ultimately, the process through which you transfer architecture into a book could be applied to contemporary art or music, etc. I think in the end it comes down to really understanding the author, what he or

Editing real life


she is trying to do, what obstacles they face and finding a way to translate that in a clear and compelling way. I know that in doing a project like S,M,L,XL, where you’re involved in all facets and spend years bringing a book into existence, the scope of what the editor does stretches far beyond what is commonly perceived as an editor’s job. You almost need to invent a new term to describe that sort of work. “Mother,” maybe? But seriously, it’s always a process and a dialogue. it’s not about saying that one person did something. I suppose it’s about acknowledging that one person can’t possibly do everything. Yes, but it’s simply also about the chemistry and the back-and-forth that goes on in these projects. things that can only happen through collaboration. Not just between the editor and the authors, but also with the designer, who, in the most exciting cases takes on a co-editorial role, or even a position of coauthorship. it’s funny, i don’t know if Bruce Mau would have ever been involved if i hadn’t fought for him to be the designer. And without him, of course, it wouldn’t have been S,M,L,XL. i can remember sitting down with Rem after we had explored all kinds of possibilities and saying, “Bruce Mau has to do this book.” i can remember picking up Zone 1/2 again and again, flipping through it, and thinking, “he’s the only one who can take this idea to the next place.” For me, being an editor is all about that pushing and driving things in certain directions, whether it’s the content or the process or the people you choose to work with. But it’s also about knowing when to hang back and let certain things take their course. And understanding the freedoms that you enjoy by being something other than an author. You talk about what an editor does—or doesn’t do. Most people think that someone hands over the text and you fix the commas. But what people don’t realize is that often the editor is the one that initiates that text, or the entire context for that text. in a project like S,M,L,XL, where we actually had to reinterpret the experience of architecture onto pages, each one of those different

Further mentions S,M,L,XL: 10, 104, 106, 112
OMA, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau. S,M,L,XL. New York: Monticelli Press, 1995.

Further mentions Rem Koolhaas: 10, 13, 79, 87, 100101, 103, 112
Feher, Michel and Sanford Kwinter, ed. Zone 1/2: The [Contemporary] City. New York: Zone Books, 1987.


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

approaches to writing about architecture started with a conversation. How do we approach this? What is the story that we need to tell here? How do we tell it? Who do we need to talk to or where do we need to go to get it? Just like in architecture, the things that seem most obvious, most effortless, are often the biggest struggles. Can you choose a particular example from the book to give a better sense of how that worked? The Kunsthal was a really interesting one, because I can remember being completely stuck. Rem was stuck. I remember at one point saying, “Well, whenever you show the building to a visitor, you lead them through this very specific circuit. Maybe the routing, the circulation, is the story here. Why don’t we just do a really boring tour? Why don’t you just give really matter-of-fact instructions for how to ‘do’ the Kunsthal, as if you’re telling a friend how to drive to your house?” So I took the tape recorder and I made [Rem] say it. Turn left, turn right, etc. And he said it and then we made the sequence of images. Then we added something else—and this was one of the things that kept me up for so many nights: sound. I thought there had to be sound, there had to be voices in there. I was obsessed with the idea of planting ghosts in the building, so that you could walk through a silent space and overhear this intimate conversation that would also somehow echo the experience of the design, of seeing things you had already seen from new positions. So we experimented with all these different scripts. At first we tried some [Jean-Luc] Godard scripts, but in the end it was [Samuel] Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It took a long time to find the dialogue that worked on all the levels that we wanted it to. It may not show to most readers, but for me it’s one of the moments that the book pushes the limits of the medium because it starts to work with time and space and characters and voices all at once. It started with this idea of having sound on pages. Right, which is such a nice idea. Can you have sound in a book? How do you cultivate a sense of ambience in a book?

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (English edition). New York: Grove Press, 1954

What is the story we want to tell and how do we tell it?


right. But with every single project in that book, it started with a question— what is the story we want to tell and how do we tell it? Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a recorder and asking someone to tell it. i just bought a book [The Rhetoric of Modernism] about Le corbusier as a lecturer. it’s really interesting, because it analyzes the way he spoke and how he was able to draw these huge crowds and convince his audience of his arguments. Print and spoken word are different media and i think it’s interesting to think about what can happen when they come together. how do they intersect? How do they enrich each other? And what happens to the value and the power of a lecture when we interpret it in print? how does it communicate differently than a written text would? Another thing that’s useful about lectures in terms of establishing a narrative is that they force architects to compress. They force the speaker to figure out exactly what matters about the subject and, hopefully at least, cut out the superfluous or self-indulgent parts. I find that it’s very hard to replicate the urgency involved in that without a real life performance and real life audience looming. right; it’s a form of discipline. And storytelling. exactly. the format insists on a narrative. it’s the beginning of a book format—simply a sequence of images and captions and a process of page turning. But it’s strange, i haven’t been working on many books lately. right now though, i’m working on this book for the rotterdam Architecture Biennale, Open City: Designing Coexistence, but that’s a very different kind of role, because i’m one of several editors, with tim rieniets and Kees christiaanse, who are the curators. Of course i’m very heavily involved, but it’s not the same kind of nurturing that i’ve done before. And Hunch was different—it wasn’t a book...
Benton, Tim. The Rhetoric of Modernism: Le Corbusier as a Lecturer. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008.

Christiaanse, Kees, Tim Rieniets and Jennifer Sigler (ed.). Open City: Designing Coexistence. Amsterdam: Sun Publisher, 2009.


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

Let’s talk about Hunch, the magazine you made for the Berlage Institute. I know that you worked on that for several years, but I don’t know much about what went into it. I started it up and did the first seven issues. In the beginning it was meant, like S,M,L,XL, to have very clear approaches to different types of texts, and different aspects of the Berlage-world, which would return in each issue. There was a diary format, there was a lecture format, there was always an interview, a theoretical article, a project, a photographic or artistic intervention... The issues weren’t themed; each was meant to slice through a moment in time. Now everyone wants a theme—it’s more marketable and maybe seems more serious. But sometimes it’s exciting to work the other way around—to distill your theme from your evidence. Time has its own way of organizing. How did Hunch start? Berlage called me one day and said they wanted someone to work one day a week to make their newsletter. It was a really little job. I had very young kids and was doing a few freelance projects at the time, so I said, “OK, sure. Why not.” So I started this one-day-a-week job, but as soon as I got there I felt really passionate about it. The Berlage was a very inspiring place to be. It was still in Amsterdam at the time and Wiel Arets was the dean. Stefano Boeri was teaching with Francesco Jodice; Stan Allen was teaching; Sanford Kwinter and Edward Soja were lecturing... and Sejima, Branzi, Zaha; Steven Holl was doing a masterclass; Bart Lootsma was there and Roemer van Toorn and Vedran Mimica were there, of course. There were all these interesting people coming through and I was very happy to be back in this international scene, like at OMA. And maybe I also felt within myself that I had never... Been to grad school. [Laughs] Been to grad school! I’d never been back to school, so I was now getting a sort of architecture education and having a good time. I felt a little bit rebellious and sometimes more like one of the students than one of the staff. Of course the goal was not to make a student publication—it was supposed

Further mentions S,M,L,XL: 10, 103104, 112

A personal laboratory


to have international relevance—but I wanted to make something that was in the spirit of them—not in the spirit of a newsletter. [Laughs] You say that like it’s the ugliest word in the language. [Laughs] I just saw the potential to do much more. At the time they were doing two kinds of publications—a newsletter and a review of all the student work which was as least a year behind schedule. So I suggested that we bag the two and do a magazine that would combine the best of both worlds and bring in all of the interesting lectures and events that were coming through. The name “Hunch” and the format came to me right away, and the quality of the typography on the cover too. I had that image in my mind immediately and developed it in the first issue with the graphic designer Simon Davies. No one in Holland knew what hunch meant so I had to explain this strange word to everyone and convince people. But once I did, it was fine. That’s what was great about the Berlage—they gave you space. They called it a laboratory and it was a laboratory. I put a call out to students asking who wanted to take part—in making the diary, for instance. So in every issue there was a different student writing a diary for Hunch and I always developed close relationships with these students. Some of them found their own voices in writing these diaries and really used it as a personal laboratory. They were all very brave, and very willing to expose the place where their private and professional selves overlapped. Tell me more about the thinking behind the format? It was more or less the width of a novel and the height of a magazine. But the content didn’t have to extend over the entire height of the page. Each article could occupy a different portion of this vertical “territory” and leave the rest available for marginalia, or for some other intrusion. So we could blow up quotes, or do whatever we wanted in this play-zone we created throughout. The problem was that we didn’t have design continuity. We did most of the issues in-house, and after I left even the in-house designer changed, and there were various “guest-editors.” So this idea was not maintained. Now Salomon Frausto is the editor and has relaunched it with NAi Publishers. It’s very different, but I’m glad he’s taking care of it, and that it will continue.


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

It’s interesting that you said you started with a graphic designer but then proceeded without one for the rest of the issues. Often, in the kind of editing that you’ve been describing, you have to develop a very close relationship with graphic designers and absorb their way of thinking, almost to the extent that you could do it yourself. That’s a struggle of course, but it can also be a lot of fun. It’s the most fun when you can really invest in that and have a graphic designer who wants to have that dialogue, who really wants to interpret the content and not just make it look good. That’s the most interesting part of the project I think, but in some situations it’s a relief when you have enough confidence and trust in a graphic designer to back off and say, “Let’s see what you do with it.” That’s what’s great about working with Mevis and van Deursen now on the Open City book. I can let go a little bit. It’s something I’ve had trouble with in the past, I can be a bit too possessive. Me too, but at a certain point you just feel that you’re the only one who actually knows what’s going on. You’re the only person who’s read everything, understands how the pieces relate to each other, how the sequence should work, etc. and I think it’s somewhat natural to say, “Well, I’ve got to make sure that this thing goes right.” To be an editor is to be a bit of a control freak I think. In that way, I think it’s interesting that you say you’re now one of several editors working on a book. Yes, but sometimes it’s interesting to discover that different editors play different roles and have different backgrounds and talents and orientations. There’s a lot you can learn from working with different editors. Let’s say you’re working on a project where you have to bring in a lot of authors: there are always authors who you simply wouldn’t have known or had access to otherwise. I really like to work in collaboration, to have a sparring partner and bounce off of people. If I don’t, it all just spirals inward. That’s another aspect of working with architects though—because everything they do is so collaborative, you learn through working with them how valuable the process of collaboration can be and how to nurture it. The question is, what can this editorial collaboration mean for architects and for the history of architecture? What is the relevance of publishing to archi-

What am I doing here?


tectural practice? that’s part of what Beatriz colomina and her PhD students at Princeton investigated with the Clip, Stamp, Fold exhibition for instance. And Michael Kubo has been working on a project called “Publishing Practices”—specifically about the relationship between the history of books by architects and the history of architecture. it starts with Le corbusier’s Vers un Architecture and ends with S,M,L,XL. So i have to ask myself what role i have had or could continue to have in “publishing practices” as an editor. Or what role we could have... or do we even want a role? [Laughs] Right. that’s what i ask myself sometimes: what am i doing here? But i guess it’s just something that gets in your blood. that’s why i told you about shelving those books in the GSD library. Or the Le corbusier book i mentioned before. When i saw it in the store i got this enormous buzz, and thought, “Why am i getting a buzz from this architecture book?” Because i’m not supposed to get that. [Laughs] [Laughs] But you’re just in denial. i am not. Listen, people don’t realize this. i couldn’t even tell you... i can’t name all the buildings by Jean Nouvel or herzog and de Meuron; i don’t stop in lobbies and study details; i don’t buy El Croquis; i don’t walk around the city looking up in the sky. i am not into architecture. But i’m into... But that’s the big question: what is it? i don’t know. it’s about the communication. it’s about the ways that the ideas are expressed, somehow. Is it because architecture is so difficult to express in that way? Like the old saying goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. It’s so hard to communicate across platforms and maybe that challenge is what keeps it exciting. i really don’t know. What is it for you?

Colomina, Beatriz, et al., cur. Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines. New York: Storefront for Art & Architecture, 20062007. Le Corbusier, Vers un architecture. Paris: G. Cres, 1923.


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

My experience is very similar to yours. My architectural education is limited, first because I never studied it in school but also because even now I don’t feel compelled to read up on architecture in the way I do other subjects. There is a social dimension to it, a societal dimension that I think can be fascinating. But actually I feel motivated to make architecture books and write about architecture now mostly because I have so much sympathy for architects themselves. I’ve seen how much effort and sacrifice goes in and how poorly understood all that is among the general public. So I agree that it’s about an interest in communication ultimately. But I keep coming back to the same question: what kind of book could the next really important book be? And will the next very important book in architecture be made by the one who has the most important thing to say, though maybe in a very familiar book format, or by the one who finds a new potential for the medium to communicate architecture? Or both… I think that one of the most obvious inadequacies of architecture books is their failure to convey a real sense of space as it’s experienced by a visitor. Maybe that’s a problem that the next great architecture book has to solve. It’s a challenge from an editorial point of view but just as much from a graphic design point of view. Michael Rock talked about this. He’s made many architecture publications over the years and says he’s still completely frustrated by the problem of translating physical experience into print. It’s similar to my talking about the spoken word, and of bringing in sound— it’s really about immediacy. It’s about making the book more of a live, tangible experience, because ultimately architecture is only accessed as a first hand experience by a limited few. For most of the world, it’s accessed through a secondary medium, usually photography and some sort of descriptive text. I wonder if the enormous emphasis on photography in architecture books and magazines influences that. I don’t have any data to back it up, but my feeling is that we visit great buildings less because we are so inundated with high-definition, highly commercialized imagery of them. In that sense, I think architects do themselves a disservice by presenting anal-retentive, humanity-free visions of their buildings. When I write for magazines, for instance, I often find that the photos offer no help at all in terms of providing an interesting perspective on the

Further mentions Michael Rock: 1-17

Photography and some sort of descriptive text


building, because they are so focused on simply making it look pretty. That’s the benefit of editing something yourself, of course, you can develop a relationship between text and image much more actively. It also has to do with who you ask to photograph and how and why. That’s also part of the editorial process—who you commission to take those photographs and what the nature of their assignment is. For instance, once in Hunch we published a private museum called the Hedge House that Wiel Arets had done in Maastricht. It was for these contemporary art collectors who lived in a 17th-century castle surrounded by gardens and who also raised orchids and this special breed of chickens called Barnevelders. We knew we wanted to publish this building, but not as architecture, and not as the subject. The architecture had to “work.” I asked a French artist and photographer, Philippe Terrier-Hermann, to do it, and he actually visualized a scenario that he wanted to project in that space. He said something like, “In this museum I want to bring women in costumes that I’ve designed and they will be giving a tour to twelve businessmen. Can you find me the twelve businessmen? That will be one story. The other story will be about six little boys having a birthday party.” So we actually staged these two events and then he made these two series of images and it created another layer of interpretation. It was no longer just about the building. We wanted to take it further: we wanted to present the building; we wanted to present the art in the building; and we wanted the documentation to contribute to that art in a way, and for the magazine itself to feed back into that. The text we commissioned wasn’t just analyzing the architecture of the Hedge House, it also reflected on this photographer’s work—how he interpreted the environment, domesticity, the “collector as artist.” So for an editor it’s a question of to what extent you see your document as just a document, a record, or to what extent you see it as a contribution to the process. Part of a feedback loop. No matter what the medium that you’re producing is, it remains part of a feedback loop. It gives something back, rather than just records. I guess that’s the ultimate challenge: to respond to art with art.


Jennifer Sigler, Editor

Further mentions S,M,L,XL: 10, 103104, 106 Rem Koolhaas: 10, 13, 79, 87, 100101, 103-104

But it’s one thing to be an editor who is working with an architect—“We are collaborating to make your statement”—versus being on the other side where the architect is your subject. Those are two different relationships, and I’ve found that the degree and the nature of collaboration that architects are willing to engage in differs a lot. What was amazing during S,M,L,XL, and something that I think few people realize, is how vulnerable Rem made himself. And how collaborative it was. Not many architects, or writers in general, are so willing to expose their vulnerabilities. They’ll hand over a text and they are extremely rigid about it. They’re very uncomfortable with changes and with sharing the editorial process. They don’t know how to deal with the editorial process. But when I go back and look at that process with Rem, how it could literally start with a scribble on a napkin that I would type up and send back… and when I sent it back, I could send it with... Comments. With comments. Then it would come back to me and that same scribble on a napkin could go back and forth a hundred times. Maybe two hundred times, when you think of the number of corrections that each text went through. Through the fax machine, of course. There was no e-mail then. Long ribbons of that thermal fax paper would be spilling onto the floor on Sunday mornings from London! Ironically, it was maybe only by having such a humble position, by being... A stenographer. Yeah, that you can have such an intimate role in the process. Because then you’re really following the thought process, so sometimes when you type something up, you say, “Maybe you could...” In the beginning Rem was not always prepared to take my comments, but as the process went on, it built and built into more of a trust. Eventually he started scribbling “J?” when he wasn’t sure of something and that was the way it worked with all the texts—back and forth, back and forth. That doesn’t often happen. I wouldn’t even have time for that process again. Rem wouldn’t either. [Laughs]

It’s not about glamour, it’s about invisibility


No, it was very specific. I agree that there is a basic level of confidence you need to work like that. You need confidence on the author’s side and openness to critique and suggestion, and you need confidence as an editor to treat the least glamorous aspects of the job with the same level of seriousness that you do the most glamorous ones. Is there any glamour in editing? [Laughs] It’s not about glamour, it’s about invisibility! Of course you’re at the center of everything, but the better you do your job, the less your effort shows, and the more the project works. Editors are there to make others look glamorous.

Mark Wigley is Dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture.

9. Mark Wigley
BRENDAN McGETRICK: In this interview series we’re trying to get a sense of who architects are by talking to the people closest to them. The hope that by filling in the area around the subject in great detail we can create something like a silhouette of a profession. I’ve been anxious to speak with you, because education is such an important part of understanding where architects come from. MARK WIGLEY: It’s a very interesting concept, and it immediately begs the question: what is an architect? For me, it’s quite simple: an architect is someone who doesn’t know what a building is. That is to say, someone for whom a building is a set of questions, rather than a set of answers. Almost everybody knows what a building is, but the architect is someone for whom the building is filled with mystery. What’s interesting then about the school is that you’re training a group of people and what holds them in common is that they don’t know what a building is. So, actually, in a school you can’t simply deliver a set of information about what architecture is and a set of professional procedures for accomplishing that. I like your concept of the silhouette: in a way, what you can do is deliver the silhouette of the big questions, the big doubts. Interestingly, architects are not allowed to share that doubt in public. In fact, architects are called on to do quite the opposite, to produce images of certainty and security, stability, and so on. So that is an odd assignment—you take the one group in society who sees objects as full of mystery and you ask them to invest those objects with the symbolism of certainty. What that means is that there is a big difference between the public and the private in architecture. If you look inside an architect’s head, it’s pretty messy and yet the work they do is very clear. If you look inside an architect’s studio, it’s a mess, but when they present to the client it’s very clear. When you look inside an architectural school it’s pretty messy, but then you look at the publications and the website, and everything seems very clear. Publicly, architects are certain, sure, confident, precise; privately they really don’t know what they’re
The following discussion took place on August 25, 2009 at Wigley’s office in New York


Mark Wigley, Educator

doing, how they’re doing, why, and so on. This is not to say that they’re ignorant. On the contrary, architects have been talking amongst themselves about what a building is for 3000 years in the west, 10,000 years in the non-west and so on. It seems to me that a graduate degree in architecture has two sides: on one, you have to prepare the students to be professional architects and go out into the world and perform as such; on the other hand, there also seems to be a strong commitment, at places like Columbia at least, to encourage students to think about things that have less to do with the nuts and bolts of the architectural profession and more to do with the role of architecture and urbanism in society. I’m curious about how you approach the relationship between these two educational ambitions. For education, it means we have to cultivate both sides of that: we have to allow the students to assume this sense of professional certainty in the world while not sacrificing the doubt. What’s interesting, of course, is that this is all about questions, and I guess the philosophy here [at Columbia] is that the more you reinforce the questions, the more you get to the clarity. It means that you don’t look at architecture so directly. If what architects share is not knowing what a building is, strangely enough, all of the other disciplines around buildings become our natural allies, because they don’t have the same problem. In a certain way, we learn about what a building is from our professional colleagues. In the process, we become incredibly good at one thing and one thing alone—combining forms of knowledge that don’t belong together. I think that architects are not very popular, even in the countries in which architects are famous. I think architects are only hired because people genuinely do not know what to do—from as simple a thing as how to renovate your house after your children have gone to college to how to put a library into a big city. If you knew what to do, you wouldn’t hire an architect, you’d hire an engineer, you’d hire somebody important and you’d pay them. You hire an architect because the kinds of factors involved cannot be put in the same orbit—emotional, technical, aesthetic, legal... The architect becomes somebody who has a special skill, which is to think and combine forms of knowledge that don’t belong together and to shape some kind of organization that allows the complexity to keep going. They don’t resolve the problem; they

Comfort with the unknown


allow a kind of ecology to continue. And that’s an amazing talent, but it’s a talent that requires you to be comfortable with doubt. Being comfortable with doubt is probably a talent in itself. I think the greatest professional asset of the architect is the ability to be comfortable with incompatibilities, complexities, and uncertainties and, in that space, to give some sense of organization. So, in a way, the greatest contribution a school like this one could pay to the profession is to maximize this comfort with the unknown and with mystery. Unlike other schools, we really go directly to the questions and try to stay with the questions. The end result is simultaneously maximizing the students’ professional ability by allowing them to think in spaces that other people cannot think, while maximizing the experimental displacement of the profession. So here it’s not a matter of, “We’d better give you professional skills and have you challenge the discipline and think of its future.” We think there are ways of challenging the profession that generate a new set of professional skills. Students come from all over the world knowing that the future of architecture here is unclear and therefore their personal future is unclear. But because of that courage or naïveté or romance and the danger of being in a world that is uncertain, they develop great strength, which means that they immediately find positions in the professional world. Ironically, by abandoning professional hope they become professional leaders. That’s the paradox of the place. That’s for the students, how does that sort of philosophy apply to the instructors and how they approach their role? It means that the teachers here are more like students and the students have to be, not exactly like teachers, but more like research leaders. Since neither the teachers nor the students know what the future is, nor even what the specifics of the problem that they’re working on are, they have to collaborate. The school works through parallel processing: you allow curious students to work with curious teachers, not knowing which of them is going to develop results that contaminate other teachers and students. In a viral sort of way, the whole thing begins to function almost as a brain—it starts thinking about certain questions. But I would say that parallel processing is definitely our method.


Mark Wigley, Educator

What do you mean by parallel processing? That means not just a program in architecture, but architecture, preservation, planning, real estate, urban design... all possible aspects of the built environment. Inside each program, parallel tracks; cross-over laboratories that link all the programs in promiscuous ways; big initiatives that link the school with other fields and other universities, and so on. Layer upon layer... This creates a kind of networked intelligence where literally the school operates as a kind of brain. What is that brain thinking about? So many things. It’s kind of like a human brain—many things at the same time. What’s its main interest? I think there is, again, a naïve or romantic view that small changes to the built environment lead to the possibility of a better society. There is a ridiculous optimism: these people who don’t know where they are going are unbelievably optimistic, and the brain is trying to think, “Well, what could we do so that optimism can lead to a better society?” To say it another way: I think architects’ gift is to produce a hesitation in the rhythms of everyday life so that you see your world differently and, for a moment, even imagine living differently. Architects produce a hesitation in life that presents an invitation to think, an invitation that’s generally passed on. [Laughs] So the work of architects sits in the streets like the work of a very good writer might sit in a subway news stand. It’s there, you could take advantage of it, it’s inviting you to see things differently, but you might not. To craft this sort of invitation requires multi-dimensional thinking. Maybe that’s not a very interesting thing to say, but that’s the guts of it. I think it’s very interesting, but, to return to something you said earlier… The point you made about the teacher and the student being equally curious and exploring things together I also find interesting, because there was once a time when there was a very clear asymmetry in the relationship between the teacher and

Most architects don’t talk to each other


the student. Now, partly because of technology and partly because of the global orientation of schools like Columbia, the traditional teacher-pupil dynamic is changing. It’s interesting to think about how you can take advantage of that, rather viewing it as something that warps the process of education. I think that the extent to which any of us is operating within—and being defined by, in a positive sense—a multitude of networks creates new modes of thinking. Architecture is a way of thinking. It’s not a set of objects; it’s an attitude toward objects. It’s even the claim that objects have an attitude. The students here come from 65 countries, so they bring new forms, new questions, new techniques. The teachers are also highly global, but I think something else comes in... Every room that we’re in is filled with so many electronic interfaces that are more or less unconscious but are bringing information in or out of the room. So, if architecture is a way of thinking, it’s super-charged right now. This school, for example, was founded on Avery Library, which is the reference library of the field. It’s a quiet, well-controlled space in which all that is important in theory ends up. Upstairs is pure madness. Students are multitasking at a level never seen before. They’re carnivorous; no increase in density of any kind seems to effect them, they just swallow it. But, nevertheless, what they’re trying to do is send a message down to the library, they’re trying to send a crazy project out into the world that will eventually get into the library. So what they look for in a teacher is not even a guide—because that implies that the guide has already climbed the mountain or been across the forest—but sort of a fellow traveler with unique forms of wisdom. Despite the fact that they’re in this hyper-networked digital environment, even postdigital environment, they’re also working on instinct. They need a figure who has travelled many times, but not on the same path, because part of what they want to do is talk about the nature of the path. The really great teachers feel the same way. This school was founded by a guy called William Ware, and he was the first person to put architecture into the university. He argued that, despite the 3000 years of classical architecture history, the field is still an unexplored territory, and therefore students and teachers have to explore it together, make maps, and those maps will become text books. And so he set the school up as a research organism. He had another really interesting insight: he said that most architects don’t talk to each other. They may have their offices in the same building, but they


Mark Wigley, Educator

don’t talk. One way that they could communicate is for apprentices to leave the studio, come to school, swap information, and then go back. he presented the school, strangely, as a way for architects to talk to each other through the exchange of information. he set up a research culture based not on teachers telling students what the truth of the field is, but on networking existing architectural intelligence, and he made the existing intelligence in studios around the world feed into the school. Avery Library was born out of that, and so you could say that Avery Library is an artifact generated by networking 19th century architectural offices. that’s not such a different model from today. No, that seems like an extremely contemporary idea. right, so the guy basically had the idea that, by allowing information to concentrate and be recorded and compared in a university, a discipline would take shape. i think that the same model is still relevant. this school used to outsource its thinking to other schools, which would then, after another five years, outsource it to the profession. that makes no sense at a moment in which all of the major experiments are happening in china, for example. if more than 50 percent of the world’s buildings are being built in china and china is one of the world’s great urban laboratories—socially, politically, aesthetically, you name it—then that is where your focus should be. really, at this school, we’re not interested in other schools. We are trying to learn about the experiments in china. But it’s the same thing: whereas when this school was founded in the 19th century, it networked together the extraordinary intelligence of architecture offices around the united States, now, in a way, the mission is to try to create intellectual networks and friendships through whole regions that are evolving and experimenting. in other words, the intelligence of our field is now in china. it’s in Latin America. it’s in Africa. it’s in the Middle east. it’s not in New York. Not because we’re not intelligent in New York, it’s because the real intelligence of architecture is now being thought by a global network not of architects or even of cities, but of quite large continental areas. this is why we have Studio X in Beijing, for example: not because we have some special gift to bring, quite the opposite. We have a kind of stupidity. Architecture is being thought of in completely new ways and this could, for example, generate a whole new kind of library, just as Avery was generated

The mission is reduce the level of stupidity


by 19th century knowledge. it certainly will develop whole new forms of professionalism, whole new forms of publications, and so on. the thing is that none of us know the consequences of that. But if you’re not thinking about the future in and with china then you’re not thinking about the future. that’s not just because china is so large and its ambitions so great, it’s that its intelligence is so high. there’s really the evolution of a whole new form of intelligence. that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, but if you’re interested in thinking, you have to listen and learn and participate in the great experiments in china. And i feel the same way about these other places. this again relates to your silhouette: one cannot quite say what’s happening to architecture in this moment, but you can be absolutely certain that we are participating in one of the big mental accelerations in our field. And these are accelerations that can do just fine without schools of architecture. We are not essential to this evolution, and i think just to be a witness is a pretty good position too. Maybe that’s the position that interests me most—to be like the friend at the party, not necessarily invited but somebody that’s happy to be there and to learn and to think. it’s a very long answer to your question, but when the experiments of china and the experiments of Latin America, the Middle east, the old russia, Africa, and so on, become collaborative between regions—and this could be at the micro level, individual things, or the big level—i’m very optimistic about the ignorance reduction that could take place. As cedric Price once said, the mission is reduce the level of stupidity. I agree, but I also think that it’s somewhat tricky, because often the people who are operating in these places, in the Middle East or in China, are not thinking about what is going on there in the same way. Even if you are claiming the position of a silent observer, just by the fact that you are observing and you are implicitly declaring the importance of observation, you become a participant. So you can never really say that you are “just listening” because simply the fact that you are there... changes the conversation. i really like the way you put it. in each of these locations, there is something like a controlled society. china can be seen that way, russia can be seen that way, but also Latin America and America can be seen that way. You can see in each of these situations that it’s actually highly controlled, highly regulated. there’s a lot of planning going on, there’s a lot


Mark Wigley, Educator

of expertise. And there are a lot of effects that look like they are unintended —like, say, unemployment in the United States—which are in fact planned. So deciding which elements of a situation were part of the plan or represent a problem with the plan or were simply unplanned is really hard to know. But in all of those situations in which there is the attempt at control, a kind of acupuncture approach can produce enormous transformation. What do you mean by acupuncture? Incredibly small things, including listening, can produce effects and I feel that, at one level, students can more easily find the point. Maybe I have an inflated confidence in youth, but I see again and again the ability of students to go into very complex new situations and locate points of great sensitivity and make a relatively small gesture that’s transformative. I think that’s a really interesting counter-model to the sheer unimaginable scale of global interactions. And everybody always says, of course, “the global is the local” and on and on, but it really can come down to something small. Could whole experiments in China change on the basis of a single conversation? Of course. In fact, it’s much more likely to than anything else. Sometimes that conversation is between one famous person and another, but not always. You say that Columbia isn’t interested in other universities. Is that also true outside of America? Is that the case when you go to China, for instance, because schools there have a very different approach to education from the one you’re describing. We’re sort of friends with every university, and we recognize kindred spirits in each place. In every university there are interesting people and interesting programs, interesting events, and so on. But the whole culture is not organized around those interesting things. Maybe the Architectural Association in London is the only school that one can think of in which the whole school is organized as a laboratory. We are close friends with them, and, for example, when we’re in China we are filled with admiration for the architecture schools there and for the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and we would like work with all of those. But deep down they also have their own special intelligence and special projects that they are working on. We would like to collaborate, but ultimately we’re working in a different space.

An acupuncture approach


Every time that we are in a different location, we immediately become students of the other university. So if I’m in Beijing I’m learning from Tsinghua [University] and Beida [Beijing University]. I’m learning. They simply talk to us and educate us, and we’re interested in listening. They like to listen to us too, but that’s not the main event. We share interests, but in trying to think through the way that intelligence is sliding across the global landscape, we find more natural partners in industry, in business, in government, in NGOs, in technological systems themselves. Those are our natural allies. That’s what I mean when I say we’re not interested. If somebody’s making concrete, we’re really interested in all of the issues that they are facing, and we are on the same page with somebody who has to think about concrete in a global sense— where it’s going, why, etc. We could not be more excited than to listen to that. If somebody is running a fantastic school of architecture we have lots in common, but it’s not the same, maybe because education is not a global industry. There are more than a million architecture students in the world. So it’s a city. Everybody knows what’s going on in every part of that city, but the city’s behavior is conservative in the sense that most of the city is trying to make sure that nothing is happening too much. Whereas if you go to industry—and maybe it’s just the harshness and speed of the business world—you have to think about what global intelligence means. Mayors of cities are also very interesting from that point of view: they have to do their local city stuff but they have to integrate it into a bigger picture. If you’re running a school of architecture you don’t have to think about that. To give you a simple example: I think the future of the university is going to be very much about data visualization. The real architectural university of the future will be trying to answer the question, how do you visualize data? I think that’s an architectural question. It’s also an architectural expertise. Right. Now try to find a university that thinks that that’s its future. You can’t. So if you’re fascinated by universities, which I am, and you really want to talk about the future of the university, you’re much more likely to go to parts of the art world, parts of the information world, parts of the economic world, parts of the NGO world, parts of the military world. You’ll go to a different place. We are more of that view. We’re probably incompetent, we’re amateur,


Mark Wigley, Educator

we’re small, agile. We’re good company, because we’re irrelevant. Nobody ever thinks that a school of architecture can effect anything, and we’re therefore welcomed to many, many tables and feel honored to be there. How do those sorts of interactions then feedback into the development of new approaches to architecture or education? We’re exploring a series of different strategies now. For example, we’ve just started the Columbia Building Intelligence Project, C-Bip. Basically that’s based on the idea of targeting the greatest stupidities in the building industry and developing an entirely different pedagogical model for addressing them. Instead of twelve students in a studio, 36 students will gather together in a room with three teachers and three professionals from outside of architecture to explore for three months an issue that a whole series of experts have identified as a key area for exploration. Basically, the idea is to take the stupidity of the building industry—and one can’t find a slower, lower industry—and really take it on as an area of thought and effort. The students involved in that will do it in their second year, and they will become part of a major university research project into new possible forms of intelligence in building. That’s a new pedagogical curriculum. The laboratories in which students can escape the confines of their own program is another one: we added an extra year so that students could stay and work on extended research projects. Basically, through these sorts of efforts the school gets turned inside out: normally, the heart of an architecture school is the studios. They are very fragile, and to pull those right out of the heavily fortified school and place them around the world in places of great vulnerability demonstrates a new pedagogical model. Each of these is a theoretical act that creates a new possible way of teaching. But it’s only the teachers and the students who will mobilize those techniques. How many of these sorts of experiments are going on currently? I would say we’re doing five or six experiments in new modes of education in architecture. I can offer you no assurances as to which of them will pay off. The history of the school is that some of them will become default settings. And when they are default settings, they will be of zero interest to us.


Massive incompetence is a normative lifestyle


I think that a new form of architectural education is being tested here. It could be a huge mistake, and the core architectural techniques, the studio system, I think is very very powerful, so let’s see if we’re screwing it up or not. It is powerful, but in a way out of sync. I think it’s a totally inadequate model: architectural education as it has developed over the last hundred years is not even incompetent, it’s entirely blind to the very reasons that we were attracted to architecture in the first place. It is, in its own terms, massively incompetent and, as recent leadership of a number of countries around the world demonstrates, massive incompetence is a kind of normative lifestyle. But, maybe, there are ways of thinking of education for the next hundred years that are as romantic and urgent as the very reasons we became interested in architecture in the first place. I guess that’s my mission— to create an educational environment that matches the extraordinary love of the built environment that drew us to the field in the first place. I really like that idea, especially because architecture has such an intensely lovedraining, passion-destroying component. There is so much drudgery that it really requires an heroic effort to maintain that initial enthusiasm that motivates a student. It’s almost masochism. Love is a difficult thing to match, but it’s the currency. To love something is to not know what it is, but to not want to be away from it—to want to be with something for reasons that you don’t know. So to say that architects love buildings or love the built environment or love the organization of culture precisely means they don’t know what it is. A school of architecture has to nurture that love, which means not answer the quesion “What is a building?”; “What is a city?”, but instead to really refine the question and nurture this love. That love becomes intelligence, because if what you love is what you don’t know, you develop around that an unbelievably delicate intelligence that is capable of mobility, agility, and complexity. I’m very chauvinistic about that: I put the architect’s brain right up there. So we’ve got to keep up the architect’s brain, and in a collaborative network society that means that a whole school has to have the characteristics of a brain, since the brain is the paradigm of networked intelligence.

Tan Xiaochun is Chief Party Secretary of Beijing Urban Construction Group.

10. Tan Xiaochun
BRENDAN McGETRICK: In this interview series, we’re talking to people who work with architects to try to understand their experience and get a better sense of how architectural collaboration works. You’ve served as head contractor for several highly complex construction projects here in China, so I’m very curious to hear about your experience. TAN XIAOCHUN: As you know, I’m the chief of construction for the National Stadium—or Bird’s Nest—so I’ll start by talking about the construction phase of that project. We began in 2003, when it was still a village here. On the 24th of December 2003, after the removal of all previously existing structures, the Bird’s Nest and the National Aquatics Center—or “Water Cube”—had their groundbreaking, marking the starting point of construction for the Olympics. Jia Qinlin, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, attended the ground-breaking ceremony. China chose the Bird’s Nest as the main stadium because of its impressive appearance and, as the name suggests, it agrees with our traditional philosophy that man should return to nature. My first challenge in constructing the Bird’s Nest was its heavy duty steel structure, which is unlike the light steel structure of National Grand Theater. We wanted to localize the fabrication of the tens of thousands of tons of steel required, but were we capable? Do you see the 110 millimeter-thick plate steel used for the main columns out there? It’s Q460 high-tensile steel. Very few countries can make it, and China did not have the technique at that time. So first [we had to learn how to produce] the material, then how to bend and twist it like a Tianjin fried dough twist. Second, in the process of production and butt connection of the steel structures, we had to face the problem of final gap closing and unloading. The whole structure was divided into six parts, with gaps in between, and we could only get them fully welded and make the separated pieces become one
The following discussion took place on October 2, 2009 at Tan’s office in the basement of the National Stadium in Beijing

Further mentions Bird’s Nest: 20, 22, 29, 40, 130-137


Tan Xiaochun, Contractor

when it came to the final gap-closing. After that, we had to unload the Bird’s Nest from its previous support system of 78 pillars, let it stand on its own and deform evenly. These techniques posed problems that would be difficult to solve anywhere in the world. Based on those challenges, how did you organize the construction process? The Bird’s Nest took five years to build, and the construction phase could be divided into the following stages. The first stage was to make a concrete, bowl-like grandstand of 91,000 seats. We started from pilings, and then built a bearing platform, on which we eventually built the stands. It took us eight months altogether, and was finished on November 10th 2005, before the Beijing winter. At the same time, we had stage two: manufacturing steel structures. We chose to do it in the Yangzi River Delta region, the biggest steel structure production base in China, where there are many large factories serving the ship building industry and the iron and steel industry. After the 44,000 tons of steel structures were made there, they would then have to travel over 1300 kilometers, crossing five provinces and three municipalities, to get to the Bird’s Nest to be assembled and installed. Don’t you think it was a miracle? The distance was similar to crossing several European countries. The difficulty of manufacturing was in the so-called bend-torsion components. We developed a new machine called “Dieless Multipoint-forming Bend-torsion Component Builder”. With this, the steel plates would come out as we designed. This was something remarkable, since the plate bending rolls previously could only make circular shapes, but this one could accommodate bend and torsion. After manufacturing, we had to pre-assemble the structures in the factories to see if they are OK. Our engineers would check the quality, fabrication precision, etc. and confirm everything on the site of the pre-assembly. Then we would take the structures apart for transportation, and install them here. Otherwise, if there was a mistake, we would not be able to correct anything in Beijing. Stage three: butt connection and installation. It was technically difficult to butt connect components in mid-air. In some places we had fourteen components converging on the same point, and the deviation could not be more

We in China


than three millimeters in any direction. There were three factors that might result in error: temperature, production process, and measuring devices. Even so, we still succeeded in controlling the errors, which showed that we in China have a high level of production precision. It sounds like a combination of huge scale and tiny detail... The Bird’s Nest used more than 910 welders; the weld was about 300 kilometers in total, almost equal to traveling roundtrip between Beijing and Tianjin. The welding material weighed more than 2000 tons, which was unique in the world. The welders came across the nation from ship building or other industries, and had to pass an exam to work here. The welding records were saved in our computers, including the time, the name of the welder and the inspector, so that every weld was taken responsibility for, and the overall quality was ensured. I kept asking Herzog & de Meuron why they didn’t use this approach in their own country, and their answer was that labor was too expensive in western countries—in China, a welder’s monthly salary is only about 4000 RMB [less than 600 US dollars] and, what’s more, how could they find so many welders there? I asked the same question to some British architects, and they said their Parliament wouldn’t allow such a big budget if something like the Bird’s Nest were proposed for their 2012 Olympic Games. In all, China was the only one to make the Bird’s Nest: on one hand, our national power and production standard had improved a lot with [our economy’s] reform and opening-up; on the other, due to our cheap labor, this project could work economically. Imagine, there were more than 7000 workers on site when building the grandstand, more than 3000 when doing the steel structures; and we summoned many excellent domestic enterprises to collaborate on this project. That covers phases one through three... Stage four was the final gap-closing, in which temperature was the key factor. Before that, the Bird’s Nest was “breathing” all the time: heated in the day, it began expanding; cooled at night, it contracted. We used all of Beijing’s meteorological data to figure out the ideal temperature for the final gap-closing: 19 ±4° Celcius. In July 2006, all the welds had been completed except for the


Tan Xiaochun, Contractor

six closure lines, and we began to wait for that temperature. You can’t imagine how anxious we were, since every day counts on a construction site and it had been more than a month, but the temperature still didn’t come. Finally on August 23rd 2006, the weather forecast said it would drop to 22 at night. We waited. At about 11 or 12, it was 23 degrees, and then at one in the morning, it finally reached 22! We summoned about 200 welders who worked continuously for more than ten hours and completed two closure lines. On the 29th and 30th, the temperature reached the necessary point again. We did the final gap-closing in these three days, and the Bird’s Nest became one unity. Then it came to stage five: unloading. The Bird’s Nest had to learn to stand with her own 24 columns and the stress from her own heavy duty steel truss, after the removal of the previous support system of 78 pillars. Whether the resulting deformation would exceed the acceptable value was key to evaluating the design of the Bird’s Nest. Our engineers gave a theoretical value of 286 millimeters, but such deformation had no reference in the world. After drilling on September 12th, we worked day and night for five days, going through seven major steps which were comprised of thirty-five minor steps, and had the Bird’s Nest unloaded. The unloading process was broadcast live by four major Chinese TV networks: CCTV, Phoenix, BTV, and Dragon TV. The final deformation value, detected by two companies, was between 217 millimeters and 276 millimeters, lower than the theoretical one. With the success of unloading, there would not be any more subversive problems to the Bird’s Nest’s steel structure; in other words, the final success was almost a sure thing. People cheered and tears ran down my face: what a reward for years of hard work! This great breakthrough proved that we China are surely first-class in every aspect in steel structure production. After the unloading on September 17th, I asked Herzog & de Meuron, the stadium’s architects, how they felt about it. They checked it all over and said it was “impeccable”; with planned organization, we Chinese realized a miracle of steel structure, a dream that couldn’t come true in their own country. That National Day, our General Secretary, Hu Jintao, toured the stadium, listened to my one-hour report, and highly valued my work. The President of the International Olympic Committee, Dr. Jacques Rogge, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also agreed that the Bird’s Nest was a great achievement in architecture and structure. The construction that I led had won world recognition.

You see my white hairs? That’s the duty of five years.


That’s a truly heroic story. Could you explain some more about the innovations required to construct the Bird’s Nest? Fifty-one innovations were developed for the Bird’s Nest. For instance, testing the standards of construction quality: the Bird’s Nest was a unique structure, and there weren’t any relating national standards then, so we set new standards during construction. The production of the steel structure needed innovation, too. Though China had the world’s biggest steel and iron industry, we weren’t capable of producing 110 millimeter-thick steel plates, which had to be imported from Luxemburg and Japan. But we aspiring Chinese wanted to make it on our own. Wuyang Steel experimented for three months: furnace by furnace, they smelt, ground, and rolled. As soon as the steel came out, it got transported to Harbin, to test its physical properties and welding performance under -15° conditions. By the seventh furnace, they succeeded in producing Q460E, which was used for the columns, and we no longer needed to import. Experience was also accumulated here for the devastating Z-shaped, highly-stressed structure of the CCTV headquarters. The Bird’s Nest’s entire structure has a span of 333 meters, a height of 69.4 meters at the highest point, with 258,000 m2 of floor area. The biggest rod section is 1.2 m x 1.2 m, although they seem quite thin in photos. After completing the steel structure, we went on to machinery installations, decorations and membrane structures. The construction of the Bird’s Nest was open, just like China: the membrane went to Covertex, from Germany; intelligence control went to Honeywell, from the USA; cranes were from Mammoet, from the Netherlands, for we had a lot to hoist—up to 360 tons. We also invited Bouygues, from France, as our technical supervisor. Under my command, our Chinese staff learned from all the collaborators to make things better. You see my white hairs here? That’s the duty of five years. For a small scale worker like myself, it’s really difficult to imagine how you can organize such as massive enterprise—so many workers and so much training... I’ve had quite some experience in organizing big projects. I was vice commander of construction for Beijing subway Line 1, one of the main leaders in the construction of the China Millenium Monument, and commander of the temporary hospital in Xiaotangshan during SARS.

Further mentions CCTV: 4, 6-7, 2223, 29-36, 38, 133


Tan Xiaochun, Contractor

in terms of this particular project, i am thankful for help from all over china: when we said we needed help for building the Bird’s Nest, all the domestic companies were so supportive, for it was a one-hundred-year-old dream for us chinese! We had eight major domestic factories to produce just the steel structures: Anshan, Baoshan, Wuyang, Beijing… During transportation, all provinces along the route opened their highways at night especially for our trucks. Which I think supports the idea that you mentioned earlier that it required the special qualities of China at the moment to realize a project like this. It couldn’t happen elsewhere. I’m still very curious about how you provide oversight in a project like this. I realize that you have a background in doing complex projects like the construction of a subway line or projects with extreme time pressures like the construction of a SARS hospital, but an effort like the Bird’s Nest, where there are so many vulnerabilities and no real precedent seems that much more difficult. How do you maintain control and confidence in a situation like that? i depended on “technique solution package programs”. We collected programs from eight countries including Australia, Singapore, and Japan. in all, there were three kinds of methods: piece-by-piece connection, which we used to butt connect pieces in the air; sliding, where you fabricate the structures aside first and then slide them to the right place to put them together; and integral jacking, where you lift the whole structure after integral fabrication. According to my experience and china’s reality, i chose piece-by-piece connection for its precision in fabrication. Steel structure wasn’t my major in college; i studied railway construction, such as tunnels and bridges. it was so lucky that we had a terrific team, including more than 100 chinese engineers and some state-sponsored research teams that provided expert support in every particular aspect. to summarize, the key of organizing the construction was program demonstration: only with a detailed program could we make it. everyone held different responsibilities when carrying out the program: one of my assistants took care of steel structures, the other the butt connection, and another the supervision in factories… We had good division of labor, so it was easy to monitor. With model simulation, our tens of thousands of components were sequenced according to the timeline of fabrication, hoisting and butt connection, and the types of workers in every step. We

An important reference for the world of the future


worked according to this schedule, so everyone knew when to do what. At the construction headquarters office, we made a big model which was colored with red, green, blue, and black, and marked with numbers to represent the sequence of construction. We also had a huge construction schedule there on the wall so everyone knew their responsibility and timelines. I also think it’s interesting that you mention this project raised the level of production and construction quality in China. Techniques from around the world were learned in order to make the stadium and in the process China became world class. Now that this has been achieved, has your company been approached to do construction outside of China? Now there are a lot of tourists here every day, up to 80,000 people a day, but there have been very few academic exchanges. The Bird’s Nest does have high touristic value, but, for its structural challenges, it should have high academic value as well. Time magazine and Business Week acknowledged it among the greatest contemporary architecture, and the British Museum has included it in their exhibitions. 45 of our 51 technical innovations were first in the world: beside the bend torsion of high tensile steel and membrane structures, we also pioneered a concrete jacking technique, which was, when building the grandstand, to jack the concrete to 60 or 70 meters high and let it form naturally. Steel structures are preferred in construction now, especially in big public projects and high-rises. So the Bird’s Nest will be an important reference for heavy duty steel structure construction in the world of the future, including the construction of the new CCTV headquarters. If you are asking whether I’m able to lead another construction of a big sports facility abroad, I would say, “No problem!” I want to ask a general question: architects often say that contractors affect the design, because they influence many things like material choice, construction techniques, etc. I’m curious: how do you view the relationship between contracting and architectural design? In terms of material and technique, architects always think of the best effects, but in the real market, such things sometimes don’t even exist, so we must ask


Tan Xiaochun, Contractor

them to modify the design. For example, the red walls of the Bird’s Nest were designed to use glossy paint, which would reflect too much light and be really offending to the eye. Then we suggested flat paint, and built a sample room to let the architects see the real effect. We also proposed to put more lights, since there weren’t enough in the original design. Our experience and the architects’ concepts should collaborate, so we have to communicate in order to make things better for the client. Sometimes architects are just experimenting with new materials and techniques and, in this case, we have to build a sample room before further construction to see if some technical data should be modified. Data from the books sometimes doesn’t work on site, then we have to negotiate with architects and tell them what are the best possible solutions in China. We once corrected a mistake in the Bird’s Nest’s design. As you know, the Bird’s Nest is an open building and wind can blow in. In the original design, the walls of the first and second floor were interior walls, and the strength of the keels and surface board would not be able to resist the wind. So I pointed that out. But, on the other hand, architects help us a lot with introducing the most advanced materials and techniques. So we make up for each other. One last question: now that the stadium is completed and the Olympics are over, why are you still working here in this office at the bottom of the Bird’s Nest? Well, first, our company is one of the stakeholders here, with an investment of more than 400 million RMB. Second, the Bird’s Nest should have some functions after the Olympics, like tourism, conferences, shopping, performances, and dining, so some small modifications are needed for future use. I’m the man who knows how the stadium was made, so naturally it would be my job again. The modifications need to be discussed with architects. For example, the black stone used in the original design does not suit the Chinese preference for bright colors, so we changed it in some rooms. And we felt the lights weren’t enough, so we added more. Are Herzog & de Meuron involved in that? Their Chinese colleagues [China Architectural Design & Research Group] would be enough, for the modifications won’t affect the exterior appearance.

The lights weren’t enough, so we added more


Think about it: at least 20,000 people come here every day... Where can they eat? How do they amuse their kids? We must provide services for them. You can see now that we are preparing facilities for a Formula One race here. I think the Bird’s Nest is one of the best examples of post-Olympic economic returns. It’s absolutely a new tourist spot, standing at the Fourth Ring [Road], with all the Chinese population, let alone the world population, as potential visitors. We’ve received more than 300 million RMB solely from the ticket sales of over 10 million visitors. Its benefits are emerging.

Brendan McGetrick is an indepenent writer, editor, and designer.

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