Between February and August of this year, Luca Farinelli met with some 20 architects, critics, and historians and presented them with an identical sequence of questions, recording each meeting on video. Conversations with Emilio Ambasz, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, Bjarke Ingels, and Thom Mayne can be found in
Log 23 (Fall 2011). We continue publishing those interviews here, beginning with Stan Allen, the dean and George Dutton '27 Professor at Princeton University's School of Architecture and principal of Stan Allen Architect in New York.
Place of birth?
I was born in Boulder, Colorado.
What is your profession?
Mountains or sea?
Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Lady Gaga or Beyonc�?
Mac or PC?
Mac. Actually that is tricky, because I am running Windows on a Mac. I�m cheating.
Do you ride the wave or do you resist it?
I ride the wave.
Do you spell architecture with a capital
No, absolutely not.
What is your favorite color?
Blue-green. I think Baltic Green is the exact name of the color.
Plan or section?
I am a plan guy. Despite the fact that it is seen to be completely questionable today, I still think the plan is fundamental.
Axonometric or perspective?
Axonometric. I belong to the axonometric generation, schooled at Cooper Union when John Hejduk drilled it into us that perspectives lie. Of course all drawings lie, but I still carry that burden from the Cooper days. I like the precision, measurability, and instrumentality of the axonometric -- a perspective is just a picture.
Plastic or tectonic?
Is the architect a victim of circumstances?
Can architecture be used as a language?
Again, there is a bit of personal history here. I belong to the generation -- in the late '70s, when I was still in school -- for whom the idea of architecture as language was a tremendous revelation. In the past decade or so that inheritance has become problematic. The most interesting people today are thinking beyond architecture as discourse, or architecture as a discursive practice.
Is architecture a means or an end?
Architecture is an end.
Is architecture democratic?
I think at its best architecture can promote democracy, but it is something we have to be very careful about. If you accept my answer to your previous question -- that architecture is an end, not a means -- we have to accept the degree to which architecture itself, as it exists in the world, is independent of circumstances. But it can also become a protagonist of those circumstances. As Foucault pointed out, there are no liberating architectures per se, only constraining architectures. Architecture is necessarily bound up with questions about democracy but to simply see it as something that can produce a more democratic society is naive.
Should architecture be democratic?
It should have a democratic ambition.
Spider, bee, or ant. Which is the best architect?
A spider I suppose. One of my favorite images is a photograph of a web spun by a spider on speed -- it doesn�t look much like a typical spider's web.
Is architecture masculine or feminine?
It is both. Androgynous would be the most interesting answer.
One of your favorite buildings.
The mosque in Cordoba.
Farnsworth House or Glass House?
I would probably say Farnsworth.
Corb or Mies?
If that's the choice, Corb.
Less or more?
Less. I like to talk about the principle of "default regularity": make it as simple as possible, but as complex as required. Think about infrastructure. If an engineer builds a highway across the desert or the plains, he builds it in a straight line; there is no reason to deviate. But when the highway reaches a mountain range, that very same engineer has absolutely no problem introducing a high level of complexity into the system in order to accommodate the terrain. It is not a program of complexity or a program of minimalism; it is a pragmatic response to conditions.
Now, you can also play with those variables. In Wyoming, where they have highways built straight across the Great Plains, it turns out that driving five hours in a straight line causes people to fall asleep. So even in the flat-plains landscape they have introduced huge S-curves. One can always find the pretext to introduce complexity into the system. It is not as simple as it seems, but that notion of a default condition of regularity is something that makes a lot of sense to me.
Form follows function?
No. I actually think it's more useful to think about how function follows form. What you really want is for people to find new functions to fit the forms. In a way, this is how architecture introduces newness into society; not by giving form to already existing functions, but by provoking the public to invent new functions or to fit existing functions to new forms. This has been theorized in nature by [James] Gibson as the ecological "theory of affordances" and I find it to be a very useful idea.
What are Corb's five points for a new architecture?
Pilotis, roof garden -- then there are two that appear to be the same but are not -- the long window and the free facade, and the free plan.
Greco-Roman or Gothic?
Greco-Roman. One of the curious consequences of digital technology has been the return of the Gothic. It is something that I find very peculiar. Thin, attenuated structures that are intended to express structural forces very directly. That�s a project you can trace back historically to the Gothic, and it is not all that interesting to me. In its worst instances you get Calatrava. Even in its best instances I'm not sure I�m on board with that project. I am definitely more about mass, volume, walls.
Collage city or spatial city?
Despite reservations about the specifics of the Collage City project, in that set of oppositions I would choose Collage City. The classic Cornell opposition was Ungers and Rowe. In that case I would probably fall more on the Ungers side, which is also the side Koolhaas ended up on. But if Yona Friedman is the other option, I will choose Colin Rowe.
Whites or Grays?
I would probably have to say Whites because of historical circumstance. When I arrived in New York in 1977 you either lined up on one side or the other -- with Eisenman and Hejduk or Scully and Stern. It was a pretty clear choice. Maybe it's a function of age, but there are certain things about the Grays' project that I am becoming more sympathetic with. Certainly Venturi, but you could also argue that he was never, strictly speaking, part of the Gray camp.
Is there architecture without architects?
I like to avoid the formulation that architecture is something that you add to building. Architecture seems to be a more intrinsic property than that. On the other hand, I am not entirely comfortable with the "architecture without architects" formulation, maybe because that phrase is so strongly associated with Rudofsky and a particular moment when the vernacular was valorized to serve a picturesque agenda. In fact, what is interesting about the vernacular is exactly the opposite: its toughness and brutality.
Is there architecture without buildings?
There is a very large category of things that have architectural consequences that are not buildings, but are still things in the world -- infrastructures, cities, landscapes. So yes, architecture is a larger category than "building." However, I would avoid the formulation if that is going to send you to paper architecture and media and so on. We do well in having a broader definition of architecture and things in the world with architectural consequences, without losing sight of the agency of real physical things in the world and their specific properties.
Is architecture autonomous?
Autonomy is real, but it is not a given. It has to be won.
Is Main Street OK?
Main Street is OK. We do ourselves a disservice as architects if we are not open and generous to the world as it exists today, whether it�s Main Street, the Strip, Dubai, Brooklyn, or whatever. The city is always in advance of the discipline�s ability to theorize it. This collective creativity of things in the world -- of cities, landscapes, odd little social phenomena -- is something architects can always learn from. Two historical figures, Rossi and Venturi, in different ways opened our eyes to the collective production of spaces and buildings in the city. This has also been one of Koolhaas's contributions: to look around and see what kind of weird things the world is producing -- without the intervention of architects -- and think about how we could learn from them as architects.
Global or local?
We have to be cautious about the global without over valorizing the local. The best formulation is to be cosmopolitan. To be open to the currents of globalism, and the potentials and possibilities of globalism, while paying very close attention to immediate circumstances.
I like the food analogy in this regard. A couple years ago Michael Pollan published The Omnivore�s Dilemma
, a book structured around four meals. The first is the corn-based fast food meal that is purely driven by the global industrial-agricultural machine. The second one is what he calls the "big organic," the Whole Foods phenomena of mass-produced organic. The third category, and the one I think that Michael Pollan sees as the most sustainable, is small-scale diverse farming. Then there is this extreme fourth category, a meal that he forages and gathers himself, which is a great exercise, but clearly not sustainable. So what would be the architectural equivalent of that third niche?
The problem with the global-local opposition is that nothing provokes generalizations today more than questions about globalism, while, in fact, globalism means different things in different places. What we really need to do is to pay close attention to the consequences of globalism in specific places and look at the way in which the products and ideas of global media and global capital get reformed and repurposed according to the local context. This is what I define, following Anthony Appiah, as cosmopolitan.
Portrait or landscape?
Counter-intuitively, having just published a book called Landform Building: Architecture's New Terrain
, I would say portrait. Architecture has gone through a decade and a half of valorizing the horizontal, in large part motivated by an idea that the horizontal is bound up with connectivity and the lack of barriers and boundaries. I am suspicious of the politics of pure connectivity and this utopian idea that if we erase all the boundaries everything will come together. We know this is not happening. If we look at the specific capacities of architecture as a discipline, architecture is in fact a discipline of limits and boundaries. The rediscovery of the vertical plane and the agency of limit and separation, the establishment of boundaries, and the interest of someone like Alejandro Zaera-Polo in the envelope, all lead me back to rethinking the verticality of architecture or architecture as a vertical figure in the landscape. Architecture differentiated from landscape as opposed to a continuation of landscape.
In the broadest possible terms, one of the things that we inherited from postmodernism was the valorization of the vertical plane, which was the signifying plane. Even at a very cliche level, the paradigmatic postmodern drawing was the rendered facade, on yellow tracing paper with colored pencil. That is what my generation rejected. To a certain degree something was lost in forgetting about that vertical surface, and a lot of architects are returning to thinking about the elevation and iconic presence of the building in the landscape. Not necessarily the elevation's signifying capacity, but as an interface, a membrane on which information is being transmitted in both directions. If you go back to the late '80s or early '90s, the paradigmatic elevation is the revealed section. For example, Koolhaas�s Jussieu library has no elevation; the elevations are the sections. The notion that between the section and the reading of the building from the outside there is this membrane condition, the envelope, coincided with a lot of work from the early 2000s where architects rediscovered patterned facades and multiple layers of transparency.
How buildings are skinned is also a technical problem today. We ask skins to do so much more today than we did 30 or 40 years ago. The pure tectonics of a Louis Kahn elevation, or that of the Unite -- where everything you see is revealed structure -- is simply impossible, even illegal today. In a certain sense, architects today have said, If this is the nature of the elevation, this complex, many layered assemblage, you have to make that thematic to your practice.
Everything is architecture. Is it?
No. I have a favorite formulation here. Before he became a director, Jean-Luc Goddard was a film critic. He wrote a great piece on the films of Nicholas Ray, where he starts off by saying, "Nicholas Ray is the cinema and nothing but cinema." Then he goes on to give this wonderful list: Otto Preminger could be the novelist; Robert Aldrich a businessman; John Ford an admiral; and so on and so forth. But, unlike those directors, Godard says, "If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to." That�s high praise, right? But then at the end, he drops in a killer qualifier: "Nothing but cinema" he says, "is not the whole of cinema." To me that's a pretty good formulation. Starting from the premise of "nothing but architecture," but always keeping that doubt alive. Could nothing but architecture ever be the whole of architecture?
What is the greatest architectural invention of the past 20 years?
It would be hard to isolate. You can say that fireproof construction and the elevator transformed architecture at the beginning of the 20th century. The inventions in architecture of the past 20 years haven't been transformative in the same way because they are microtechnologies or information technologies, and architecture has not yet come to terms with those.
Double envelope. Is the inside to be reflected on the outside?
No. It is more interesting to cultivate the difference and think about the potential for exchange across different realms.
Dubai. Yae or nay?
It is easy for me to say nay because we never got involved. I am happy to be a spectator from a distance.
Is the blob formal excess or lack of form?
Sometime in the '60s, so I am told, Lou Reed used to say, "You've got to be hip enough to be square."
Is utopianism still alive?
In places, yes.
Is architecture hiding behind technology?
Is the architect a specialist or a generalist?
Architects are generalists. If we lose that, we�ve lost everything.
Is the city a place or a condition?
The city is a condition.
Did print kill or did it create architecture?
Print as in the book? There is a healthy cross-pollination between buildings and books.
Did animation kill or did it reinvent architecture?
The jury is still out. The problem with most animations is that the people making them forget that rendering and animation software does not reproduce reality, it reproduces conventions of other media, specifically photography and film. Most of the people who make animations are clueless about film. It has a different language and architects are not conversant in that language -- the language of narrative, rhythm, structure, shot framing. There is a lot of potential in the use of animation, but it has been hijacked by thoughtless buying into the conventions of the software.
Will simulation kill or enhance architecture?
It is something that we struggle against. I will always insist that the power of architectural representation is not its ability to simulate reality. The power of architectural representation is in its abstraction, in our ability to think systems and organization and relationships and intervals. If reality is out in California, simulation gets us maybe to New Jersey -- it doesn�t get us any further. I think the trap of simulation is that it causes people to forget that drawing is an abstract diagram. The more you pay attention to the abstraction of the drawing the more powerful it is as a conceptual tool. As a simulation of reality it is useless.
Is the architect working for the client or for society?
Neither or both. At one level we have to accept the fact that we contribute a very small portion of what gets built. The best architecture is going to be a multivalent architecture. It�s going to speak to our peers and contribute to the ongoing conversation in architecture. But if that's all it does, it fails. It has to speak to and contribute to society at large. It leaves room for society to bring something different to the table. I like the notion of "play" in the literal sense that if the machine is a little bit loose there is play in the machine. I think architecture needs that same level of play. Architecture is successful not if it produces exactly the kinds of behaviors the architect intended; it's successful precisely if it produces effects the architect never imagined.
Between art and science, where does architecture lean?
My own inclination is to lean more toward the art side of the equation. What Kenneth Frampton has called "science envy" has done quite a bit of damage I think. Some of the most interesting artists are also the ones that are questioning the given assumptions of what an art practice looks like. Ironically, many of them are looking to architecture and questions of functionality, process, and so on. I'm thinking of someone like Francis Alys, who was trained as an architect, by the way.
Digital technology has and is transforming architecture. Is it redefining architecture, or is it confusing the architect?
It is redefining the way we work, but it�s not redefining architecture itself. Digital technology, today at least, is more about how architecture is produced than the nature of architecture itself. That has consequences for buildings, but I think we are entering a more mature phase of the discussion around computation, and increasingly we are going to be coming to terms with that. I think it's incremental, not revolutionary.
Is architecture a conservative discipline?
I think it is. In its institutional structure, its client structure, its commissioning structure, it is necessarily conservative. It tends to protect power. We can go back to Foucault's formulation that while there are constraining architectures, there are no liberating architectures per se. The consequence you can draw from that idea is that, as designers, the best we can do is to design enough openness in the system so that people can find their own ways of operating.
Democracy is a practice. Almost by definition, you cannot define democracy for someone else; every individual needs the freedom to define democracy for him or herself. That's an authentic democracy, and when architects step in and think they are in a position to say what democracy looks like for someone else is when they get in trouble. Architecture advances in a conversation with itself, by paying attention to the contributions that other people have made to similar problems. Because you are always participating in the conversation, you are somehow participating in the larger stability of the discipline.
Is the West going through a midlife crisis?
It's way past midlife. It's doddering into old age.
Is architecture itself in crisis, or the solution to it?
I don't think architecture is in crisis. There are aspects of the discipline, the practice, and teaching that are having their problems. Architecture itself is pretty robust, I think it will survive.
Find more conversations in Log 23 (Fall 2011)