The World-Architects.com eMagazine features my "Insight" interview with Pedro Gadanho, Curator of Contemporary Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Below is a section trimmed from the end of that feature. Visit World-Architects.com to read about his new responsibilities at MoMA, how his background informs his curatorial post, and his ideas on architecture’s relationship to art, literature, and other cultural productions.
[Photo of Pedro Gadanho by BIArch - Barcelona Institute of Architecture]
Things like Beyond have made me think about how I would present something. Would this interview, for example, be a straight transcription or more like something Studs Terkel would have done, telling a story with the voices of the interviewees?
The question is interesting, because Beyond was also about what I called “experimental writing” about architecture and the city. In any case, as I was mixing different activities, I would bring the excitement of doing an exhibition or project onto the idea of writing; and vice-versa, I would bring fictional strategies to what would be a practice of architecture. In fact, it was very important for me, when doing the GMG House, to write a fictional story that would be parallel to the house; that would be a key to decode the house in a cultural context, rather than describing it. Description can be pretty boring, and I’m not at all interested in its objective qualities. By processes as the use of fiction, however, suddenly the house could also be read a way of illustrating the story. Architecture and narrative were thought in parallel, and, ultimately, I don’t know which is more important – the story or the house. At that point, it was when I realized that I was interested in the house only as source for the proliferation of ideas and appropriations, a cultural generator.
These kind of inversions and relationships trigger different ways of approaching things – maybe because I get bored too fast. Even in terms of writing – with this post-critical situation and people giving up on reflecting through architecture – I think that actually most of the writing you read on architecture is pretty straightforward and boring. It doesn’t leave space for wandering and interpretation. And that also contributes toward people stopping reading – and therefore using a video or images to get the knowledge they think they want. To maintain a critical reflection is, however, essential. So you actually have to find a way to turn the writing into something more pleasurable, just because that’s the best way to lure the audience into understanding the argument you want to convey or transmit. If you have a beautiful argument, but a very boring piece of writing, that argument will probably never get to the audience it needs to get to. So I’m worried about form or experimentation in terms of how those allow the content to reach its destination. And I think many architectural writers have lost that quality.
We went over a long period in which the idea of an autonomous practice of writing meant that people wouldn’t care if they were being read or not, and this produced terrible effects. Then blogs came about, with their shorter, terser formats. Their need to capture and permanently sustain the audience inverted that tendency of a writing based on a certain indifference. Part of the success of many architectural bloggers did have to do with the quality of the writing, apart from very personal takes on sometimes unusual subjects. It’s also partially based on the desperate need for opinion-making in the field of architecture – when nobody is really reading academic arguments anymore. But essentially there emerged an obvious responsibility in engaging the audience. In a way, to capture a waning attention span, one has to come up with weirder topics and ways of writing, that sort of go away from what has been previously written and consumed. As a sort of media effect, this suddenly makes writing again dynamic.
[GMG House by Pedro Gadanho. Photo: FG+SG Fotografia de Arquitectura]
I think a good balance of interesting writing and imagery also helps, in the case of a popular blog like BLDGBLOG, for example.
As I was saying, blogs changed the way people write – and read – precisely because of a renewed awareness of a need to reach and sustain an audience. So, of course, strategies of capturing attention are constantly imbued in the text, like the interlude and play with images that create a sort of permanent reaction, but also narrative aspects and effects that come from literature. After all, literature has worked on its techniques for over 2,000 years! So, here we are again blurring the boundaries and bringing the tools from the literary world into the architectural world, so that we again can sustain and build up a discourse.
Are you familiar with Douglas Darden’s Oxygen House? He uses fiction as a means of designing the house but also as a way of confusing our expectations, since the house – designed for a client nearing death – was supposedly not for a real client, and the architect himself died from leukemia soon after designing it.
There are a number of examples of this kind of strategy, of using fiction as a way to stimulate design production; in ways that were becoming more and more interesting in the last few years. When did the Oxygen House come out, the late 90s?
Late 80s, I think. He died in 1996.
This could be one of the precursors of a situation that is still gaining memento. When I organized a conference on architecture and fiction [Once upon a Place, 2010], we were surprised to have received proposals for 250 academic papers. We realized there was a huge academic interest in the subject. We selected about 50 papers to be presented, and the whole conference became very exciting because there were so many different perspectives tackling this relationship between fiction and architecture.
[Douglas Darden's Oxygen House]
But to give you an example that follows on Darden, very recently there was a group of students in France – very young architects, not students any more – who did this building for an Illegal Immigration Base in Calais. They created this program for a center where immigrants would arrive via the sea that obviously looked like an institutional commission. However, reading through the concept, the project reveals itself so politically charged with subversive messages that obviously it could not be a state or institutional commission. What they actually did was to use a fictional strategy, or a fictional need, so as to devise this building to welcome illegal immigrants into the French territory, which obviously becomes a form of political commentary on xenophobia. And so they just created this quite incredible architecture out of the fictional strategy. Fiction became a motif, a stimulus to produce great architecture, and that is undeniably positive.
In these sorts of attitudes, there is actually a compulsion to take to extremes the need to create one’s own condition as a practitioner; or again, as a cultural producer that is more akin to an artist than to a traditional architect that just chases or waits for a commission. Younger architects again feel the need to create the commissions themselves, so that they generate work for themselves; if not, they would just be unemployed. So this is a sort of new strategy to face the problems of the profession. That’s one reason why, when the crisis broke in Europe, this turned out to be a very interesting moment in terms of the directions that appeared in the field of architecture. People having to face other ways of taking up the profession, either by having very different activities or by exploring roles that were not at all typical of the classical architect, originated new forms of practice or architectural responses to reality. And that’s why I think this is a very rich moment.
Visit World-Architects.com for the rest of the interview.