interview with common room and ifau & jesko fezer
binna choi and axel wieder
this text originally appeared in casco issues xii: generous structures, 2011 and is reproduced here with kind permission.
common room: we can understand the ‘master of the game’ in two ways; firstly, as someone who sets up and defines the game and its rules and controls the play, acting as the authority, or, secondly as someone who is an expert at playing the game. referring to the first meaning, we establish rules for the game and these define boundaries within which to play, but these rules do not provide a full definition of what is possible. the rules may allow for potential misinterpretation or misuse. we are the authority only as much as we state the rules but choose not to control the play beyond that. in reference to the second understanding, we hope we play the game well but only as well as other users/players.
ifau – ch: whether architecture takes an interest in open-ended processes – allowing for conflicts and negotiation – is dependent on where it is grounded, on the approach chosen and the attitude advocated while designing a space. as long as architecture is part of a social movement and strongly linked to ongoing political debates and struggles it has the potential or, so to speak, the power, to establish correspondent and respondent spaces.
there have been numerous discussions about function, use and meaning, there have been turning points and revolutions within various modern architecture movements, but the often claimed capacity of architecture to be a representation of society, as well as its instrument, has never been properly contested. spatial interventions in accordance to societal goals were backed up by practical politics, governmental or not. resistance and advocacy were in no contradiction to top-down approaches – a building for the working class could be designed with the same attitude as a building for a king. i’m painting quite a palliative image of (western) modernity here, but i would say the large common ground is lost and that the top-down philanthropic approach to design today remains merely formalistic and leaves us with exclusive spaces and superficial attitudes. architecture serves as a territorial tool only; form, content and action don’t correlate anymore.
ifau – christoph schmidt (cs): modernism promised a functionalist approach to resolving the architectural needs of the twentieth century, yet the design of cities and buildings often appears to confound the needs of those who use them – their design and layout being highly regulated by restrictive legislation, planning controls and bureaucracy. non-plan considers the theoretical and conceptual frameworks within which architecture and urbanism have sought to challenge entrenched boundaries of control, focusing on the architectural history of the postwar period to the present day. by slightly shifting the focus from a dialectical debate to an even more contradictory development in the present, the progressive deregulation of common and social demands challenges the understanding of cultural and architectural production not as a rash-pledged compromise, but as a direct query of reality.
questioning the commission or the initial brief implies relating to particular circumstances and specifically evaluating the relationship between clients, users, planners and craftsmen. our working methods refer to the programme and the degree of programmatic precision assumed by the existing structure.
in general terms, our projects aim to be sufficiently generic as to transcend a precise cultural, temporal, and local demand.in that sense, we seek to go beyond the solution-oriented nature of the brief and to guarantee a persistency beyond the reach of the archetypal assignment. this fact causes a number of problems that have to be argued in each project: how to contribute (common) spatial models, characters or types that are open enough to allow programme related changes in use? what are the basic minimum and non-negotiable elements? which of these elements might undergo a change in order to adapt a given structure to the given reality? that a particular structure encourages different or future forms of appropriation, at the same time as guaranteeing flexibility seems essential, both from the point of view of the evaluation of resources that are going to be invested into it and in terms of the dialogue between the user and the infrastructure that will necessarily unfold over time.
common room: for common room collaboration means acknowledging that each of us has a different point of view. often we don’t agree on a unified idea for a project, we find a way of working without an idealised consensus. this is only possible through a mutual trust of all those involved, a trust that is gained gradually through an open dialogue about the goals of the project throughout the process of development. we have confidence in each other’s decisions even if we don’t agree with them. it is easier to relinquish control when there is a trust that the values for a particular project are the same, and when they address a wide range of social issues beyond the formal or aesthetic expectations for the project.
our practice and working process is inclusive. ideas (planning, architecture, installations, publications) under discussion shouldn’t be exclusive territory; input and feedback from the rest of the group are important. the collaborative process for us is contentious and this often simply means relinquishing control. this process is reflected in our designs by openness for the user to engage in choices or by necessitating choices to be made.
elaborating on collaboration and control, common room couldn’t agree on a single response to your statement: ‘architectural practice is inherently collaborative but spectacularly and notoriously authorised…’ some of us relate the word ‘authorised’ with ‘the author’ of a work, the originator. others at common room respond to issues of control and power implied by an ‘authorised’ practice. we can agree that control is the significant term here. the author’s control over the thing created; the authority granted to an individual in a group or the difficulty in assigning authority to a group of anonymous authors.
common room: we take responsibility for our designs whether it be as individuals or as a group.the second obstruction, ‘never finish’, proposes that there is no final product per se; the user ultimately takes on part of the responsibility of the design. the notion of style can certainly be applied to collaborations but this often includes a dominant figure. the ‘public’ continues to look for the singular, heroic figure of the architect, even where one does not exist. we often work with other individuals or groups and as such our collaboration process is quite open and because of this ‘style’, if there is one, becomes diluted. as we look back on five years of work we more easily identify a certain approach, a series of ideas or theories rather than a consistent style. the obstructions might be suggestive of this aspect.
ifau – ch: certainly de carlo is right to be suspicious of specialists. actually, it applies equally to specialists and specialisation (of space), in the sense of a rigid setting not allowing for an unimpeded readjustment. the capability of readjustment is vital for buildings as well as for cities; no wonder there is a great fascination for informal urban structures today, structures that are adaptable, can be transformed without instant ruptures. modernism introduced a scientific approach to planning and many regulations were deduced from there, in the belief that these were the best solutions for everyone. this set of rules and typologies still shapes the urban space, but (as we pointed out before) the common ground and goals are not definite anymore, society has become much more fragmented. so these regulations and the structures they create do not provide appropriate space and often hinder adaptability and participation in the building process.
the self-conception of ‘architects as specialists’ (and even scientists) developed in the twentieth century and relates directly to the definition of architecture and the profession of the architect since the renaissance. the palladian approach was about the sublime; disconnecting, exposing, creating a work. architecture was understood as an independent art and something that qualified as architecture had to stand independently. the public dialogue on architecture became a peer-to-peer discourse. this attitude was adopted for large scale developments and extended to urban planning, the everyday, to ordinary architecture. this works as long as there is a certain kind of societal consensus.
common room: we agree with de carlo’s suspicion of the specialist. the specialist is someone who needs to define the boundaries of the discipline to reassert his/her expertise, and consequently authority. however de carlo seems to reassign the role of the architect to the user.we feel the architect can still play an important role when there is a direct engagement with the user. the knowledge of the architect can be instrumental in combination with the user’s input and it exists only when there is input from the user.
ifau – cs: understanding architecture not as a didactical and/or sublime occasion but in the broad sense of use allows a more relaxed and perhaps more genuine approach to the question of participation and user involvement. taking architecture as a site of everyday actions requires spaces open for negotiation, appropriation and change by the user – participation in terms of everyday practice and use. so the question might be more about how to provide ‘a functional openness’ and resistance in the architectural design to promote and provoke different possibilities of appropriation. relating to working thesis no.7: ‘produce obstacles to interrupt normative routines’, a spatial intervention could be conceived as a detailed articulation of a social and functional problem.
jesko fezer: the potential, and dilemma, to unavoidably change the world (or at least some small parts of it) by design as a tool of domination as well as a tool of emancipation, is probably the main challenge of architecture. but as i suggest here, the relevant question is: what kind of project is pushed forward and how do we receive and conceptualise the world that we intervene in (or some small parts of it)? unfortunately, in respect to the prevailing contemporary practice of architecture, i am not that optimistic about a perspective of projectability, if that is assumed as being a position against criticality. what could that without any critical perspective be other than a further reinforcement of the overwhelming conditions of late-capitalist dynamics? i feel compelled to mention this matter as it refers to an ongoing discussion in architecture around the powerful discourse of ‘post-criticality’ as introduced by north american architectural theorists robert somol and sarah whiting. they ask for an end of criticism and postulate a projective practice that builds upon the transformative power of the making process. rhetorically based on a (quite plausible) critique of the ‘criticality’ of a few influential north american architects, they condemn any kind of critical/political reflection and conceptual perspective, since (as some examples of these architects showed), this approach could not be implemented in reality as absolute. of course architecture is not autonomous and is involved and bound to a net of different actors and interests with all their inherent contradictions, but it seems too banal to me to try to avoid these contradictions and troubles by capturing a whole profession in some self induced a-political or post-critical boundary. such naivety not only underestimates the political dimension of design, but it must be regarded as a defamation of architecture as a possibility of thinking and practicing a critical position in relation to the boring and suppressing reality of late capitalism it faces together with those involved in and excluded from it. so why affirm post-criticality if there was never any real (social and political) criticality?