The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture
with Greg Evans and Stephanie Jones
How do you avoid the esoteric conversation when you talk about architecture to the general public, especially conceptual work or very contemporary projects like you’re working on?
I think that this is a challenge, not only with my work, but a challenge to the larger community of the contemporary architectural discipline. Largely, I think, there’s a disconnect between the general public and architecture that prides itself in being more advanced, complex, or more intellectual. But I don’t think it’s an issue of communication only – that you have to dumb down your vocabulary or rethink the discourse. I think it’s a little bit tricky.
Specific to your work, it seems most of the problems that you really focus on are the installations or small interior projects that investigate the ideas that you then blow up into your larger architectural urban scale projects. Since you do champion the built project, how focused are you on actually building your larger scale urban projects?
Most of the large scale projects that I’ve been working on are competitions. So, their investigation can become reality, but it’s also an important part of the research of any field. What is interesting about the gallery installations is that at some point you do reach a limit as to how much you really transfer from the small scale projects into the larger process. If you look at the work of Diller + Scofidio, for many years they worked on installations, research projects, and publications. I think they are very smart architects, so I’m not criticizing them. But when you look at the large scale, once they really started to get a lot of work in buildings and things at the urban scale, you see that there is a completely different agenda, but they’re still pulling from their investigations of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Personally, I would never do a prototype of a panel system for a curtain wall in a gallery space. I don’t think that one-to-one relationship can be a study of a spatial system as independent research. Once you go into a gallery space, you really have to deal with the space and the whole environment of that space. But I do think that a gallery or installation needs to be comprehensive – that it has a certain narrative. For me, when we were working on the installation in Chicago, we were doing the project for the Ferry Port Terminal and literally the same type of line drawing was tested as a landscape process. So, what you see on the wall, we’re also testing it conceptually at the scale of the sea. It’s not a direct connection from one to the other, but similar questions can be asked for both scales. I think the difference is that my work is not based only in a highly intellectual discourse, instead it is based on a highly designed output. There is an intellectual conversation, but it’s greatly about a formal discourse. So, maybe in some cases, the jump from one scale to another would be easier.
Early in your April 13th lecture at the KSA, you discussed the derivation of your form from flower types or different biological models. Towards the end of your lecture, there seemed to be more gestures that were detached from the meaning of your form. Why is there that detachment?
I think that’s a common dilemma for architects. I think that shift in the discipline, through the end of the ‘90s and 2000s, between design and technology, meaning software, there was a strong use of the biological model as a literal input onto this new technology. I think that it has to do with architecture getting rid of so many elements that pertained to a traditional discipline that it had to look to other fields for ways to rethink architectural problems. So, biology became the source of new structural geometry, new structural behavior, new openings, new textures, and new materiality. For example, instead of looking at the colors of a Renaissance painting you would look at a frog. Many of the architectural problems got answered by biology, which was also a result of the new software for design allowing you to mimic that field easily. I find myself one of those people that found a great deal of information in biology: geometrical information, formal information, even conceptual information. I’m just trying to uncover certain elements that can harbor that in architecture. It is not always a biological model that needs to be input. I think that you can look at architecture itself, too.
Would you put your surface explorations under the contemporary discourse of cosmetics or separate from that?
The most important text I read in my final year of undergrad was the “Cunning of Cosmetics” by Jeff [Kipnis]. I read El Croquis and said, “That is what I want to be.” The way that Jeff elevates the surface effect was the thing that changed my view of architecture. In reality, it doesn’t matter, it can be completely artificial. But cosmetics are not only a laminar layering on a building. Instead, it deals with the immediate relationship of the effect that it produces. Something that is reflected in my current work that I find interesting is the notion of the image printed on the surface. There is no materiality; the image has a geometry, the surface has a geometry and when you bring those two together you get a completely different effect than if you have a drawing on the surface. Other architects have their own way of the simplified archetype. But if you forget about the archetype and start a new typology there is no more archetype.
What, or who, are your biggest non-architectural influences?
I think that sometimes contemporary art is so much more advanced than architecture itself. I like the work of somebody like Jeff Koons that tackles issues that I find interesting or that I would transfer toward architecture. I also really like film, and I find the work of Sophia Coppola fascinating – the atmosphere of each one of the movies. Instead of looking at the content of the movie, I look at the atmosphere. The script of Marie Antoinette is irrelevant, but the mood, the music, the color, and the setting are all stunning and atmospheric. Films that have that kind of characteristic are really incredible because they affect culture at a larger scale than we do as architects. Movies, more than art, have the power to transform.
It seems as though the atmospheres you try to create are always from an exterior point of view. Why such ambivalence to the interior atmosphere?
This is true. I always downplay the interior renderings; they are somehow highly artificial sets. The interior for me is portrayed by the floor plan. I think the atmosphere doesn’t necessarily have to be an interior atmosphere. When you’re walking in Bilbao and you’re in a really narrow street and the distance you see this silver monster it’s quite atmospheric. That relationship of the building to its context is what creates a highly charged atmosphere. I don’t downplay the interior of the building. I think because most of my building proposals never really leave the first stage, I don’t get to develop the interior very much.
Michael Meredith’s “Misreading Misreading” calls for the dissemination of representation and production. What is your opinion on that question of the autonomy of the discipline itself?
In my own education, I really started with the autonomy. In many centuries there weren’t many innovations in terms of representation. It was all antique means of representation, and after the ‘90s, when new tools were introduced, it had a completely profound influence on the discipline. It is not disciplinary though – these tools do not belong to architecture. They have been acquired by architecture. We borrow from today’s technology the same way we borrow from photo graphy or from machines in the last century. Now we have a lot more things that have been influencing the discipline. As long as the use of these machines really attempts to expose the architectural idea, the multiple means of representation and expression are all welcome.
Florencia Pita is currently full time Design Faculty at SCI-ARC and Visiting Faculty at Lund University, Sweden. She is also an architect at Florencia Pita MOD, a collaborative practice out of Los Angeles, CA.