From the Mouths of Architects

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point I went from disliking interviews — preferring texts written by architects, much of it in the vein of theory — to gravitating to them. Now I find myself opting to read interviews, be they online or in printed matter, over other content; interviews are only below critical reviews in my rankings. I chalk up the switch to a few things: preferring the informal and clear language of interviews over the theory-/archi-speak used my too many architects; a wide prevalence of interviews, especially online; and an appreciation for them after having done a few of them myself. From the reader's perspective it may seem that interviews are easy: turn on the mic, ask some questions, transcribe the interview (or have AI software do it, more likely), lightly edit, publish. But each step of the process has its concerns, from making sure to hit "record" (yes, that happens) and having the right mic in the right location in the right room (AI software doesn't like too much background noise, unintelligible voices, etc.), to asking good questions and followups and not-so-lightly editing long transcripts down to manageable size. Interviews can be artful when done right, but also throwaways when the subject isn't very revealing, for instance, or when the interviewer only asks previously prepared questions. 

These three books spanning three decades this century run the gamut: from short to long, from artists and historians to famous architects. Since they're featured here, it goes without saying that these books of interviews are examples of the good, not the bad.
In the introduction to his latest book, Vladimir Belogolovsky writes that he has conducted "more than 400 one-on-one, multi-hour interviews" since 2002. Some of them were compiled into books previously reviewed on this blog, including Conversations with Architects: In the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Conversations with Peter Eisenman: The Evolution of Architectural Style (DOM, 2016), and China Dialogues (ORO, 2021). Imagine Buildings Floating Like Clouds takes a different approach than the interviews in the earlier books, which ranged from long to book-length: Each of "101 key creatives" answers just one question. These one-page texts are accompanied by photographs, some key facts (DOB, DOD if applicable, date and location of interview), and five short responses to the provocation: "Describe your work or the kind of architecture you that you want to achieve in a single word or short phrase." Even with the word "architecture" in there, architects comprise three-quarters of the 101 participants, hence the book's subtitle.

The intentional brevity of the contributions means Imagine Buildings Floating Like Clouds basically functions as a survey of 101 practitioners in architecture and related fields. It exhibits Belogolovsky's proclivities — ones hinted at in the title of his 2015 book mentioned above — although he admits to going beyond his favorite architects over the course of those twenty years: "I found great pleasure in discovering and documenting these [...] visions, no matter how quirky and misaligned with my own preferences they might be." The selection, as such, is diverse, with famous names balanced by relative lesser knowns. Still, I found the encapsulations of big-name architects the most interesting parts of the book. How, for instance, does the one question in Belogolovsky's interview with Thom Mayne summarize his firm, Morphosis, in just one page? The question is direct (Why do you want your architecture to embrace notions of tension, resistance, confrontation, etc.?) and elicits a response that is equally direct ("I am interested in making exciting buildings") and that would probably not be found in texts written by Mayne. With its survey structure, the book functions well as an introduction to 101 creative voices this century and is therefore recommended for students and others interested in architecture and related fields.

The antithesis of the one-page excerpts that comprise Imagine Buildings Floating Like Clouds is AA Files Conversations, which consists of 15 interviews over roughly 400 pages, or an average of more than 25 pages per interview. All of the interviews minus one were featured in the Architectural Association's journal, AA Files, "from the last five years and ten issues" ca. 2013, per editor Thomas Weaver's introduction. Frustratingly, neither the dates of the interviews nor the exact issues from which they were pulled is mentioned in the book; so when the subject of the interview says something like "a year ago" we are left guessing as to the exact date, only knowing the half-decade timeframe given by Weaver. The one interview predating those issues of AA Files is a great informal conversation with Mies van der Rohe that took place at the AA's Bedford Square home in 1959, when Mies was in London to receive the RIBA Gold Medal; thought to be lost, a transcript was published in a summer 1959 issue of AA Journal and republished verbatim in this great little book.

Weaver's introduction also touches on some thoughts similar to my paragraph at top, pointing out that essays had populated the pages of AA Files since it was relaunched in 2008, "but to interrupt the third-person narrative of the essay form, and the attendant polymathic, auto-didactic, solipsistic, even misanthropic skills a good essay-writing critic possesses, there seemed to be a need for another style of writing that would enable the journal to feature good talking alongside good writing." (my emphasis) Weaver further describes that the anthology "collects together a series of architectural texts that are conversational, informal and autobiographical, all recorded face-to-face over a number of hours and then meticulously transcribed and edited." The conversations are long, as further Weaver admits, but are not long reads given their "informal" nature. The subjects include architects Mario Botta, Léon Krier, and Moshe Safdie, but also critics and historians (Robin Middleton, Massimo Scolari, Paul Virilio), photographer Hilla Becher, artist Thomas Demand, and others.

My favorite among the fifteen conversations is Peter Carl's 40-page conversation with architectural historian Robin Middleton at his remarkable East Village haven for books. Even Weaver boasts in the book's introduction that the interview is "perhaps the single best piece in all of the AA Files"; the fact Carl forgot to hit "record" on the first go-around might explain the quality of the interview, one that happened to follow the "dress rehearsal." (I wonder how many of my interview subjects would be amenable to a second two-hour interview after inadvertently not recording it?) The conversation is effectively an autobiographical portrait of Middleton aided by the pair being surrounded by the historian's thousands of books. An expert in neoclassical architecture and a former educator at the AA, Middleton appears in my own library as editor of The Idea of the City, a 1996 tribute to Alvin Boyarsky, AA chairman from 1971 until his death in 1990 (a coincidence perhaps, the highlights of that book are the interviews involving Boyarsky). Considerably shorter, though still interesting, is the conversation with Tim Street-Porter, who took the most famous photograph of Reyner Banham and recreated it with AA students in Chile many years later.

Studio Talk, published a decade before AA Files Conversations and a full twenty years before Imagine Buildings Floating Like Clouds, features fifteen interviews conducted by Yoshio Futagawa, the son of Yukio Futagawa, the great photographer and founder of GA Architecture who died in 2013. All but two of the interviews originally appeared in issues of GA Document Extra published between 1995 and 2000. It appears from the GA website that the numbered series stopped with #14 in 2000, so the collection of interviews serves as a cohesive anthology of Yoshio's contributions to the issues, accompanied by some of Yukio's photos in black and white. The issues were devoted to Tadao Ando (01), Richard Rogers (02), Zaha Hadid (03), Christian de Portzamparc (04), Arata Isozaki (05), Steven Holl (06), Jean Nouvel (07), Richard Meier (08), Thom Mayne/Morphosis (09), Bernard Tschumi (10), Alvaro Siza (11), Norman Foster (12), and Ricardo Legorreta (14). (Fear of the number 13 extends to Japan, apparently.) The book also features unpublished interviews with Frank Gehry and Enric Miralles, the latter who died one year after the 1999 interview.

Instead of putting the interviews in the order of the issues, as above, they are ordered from oldest to youngest architect, meaning the fifteen interviews start with Gehry (1929–) and end with Miralles (1955–2000); put another way, the 13 interviews from the issues are bookended by two "bonus" interviews. It's an impressive collection, not only because these are "architects in the front rank of the world," in Yoshio's words, but because they are lengthy: around 40 pages of bilingual, English/Japanese text per architect. Yoshio starts each interview with the architect's youth, so they become, like AA Files Conversations, autobiographical portraits that span their lives up to that moment — or in the case of Miralles his whole short but productive and influential life. While, except for Miralles, the interviews are all severely out of date all these years later, the deep glances of Yoshio's questions make them valuable portraits, nevertheless. With four of the others now dead (Legorreta in 2011, Hadid in 2016, Rogers in 2021, and Isozaki in 2022), and the rest ranging in age from 76 to 90, the collection is also a valuable portrait of "front rank" architects in the early years of the celebrity age that is now waning.