Wolf D Prix

Wolf D Prix: I will give you seven answers.

WASH: We will pick our questions well...

Wolf D. Prix: Hm... I am 1 meter and 84 cm. My shoe size is 43 European. My weight is 80 kilos. I am 74 years old—

(everyone laughs) …that doesn’t count.

Judging by the lecture you gave at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, it seems that you do not design the form of your buildings as sculpture, and yet, a lot of the design goes into the form itself, which is then followed by the design of the structural framework. This makes us wonder… what is the difference between the one who designs, i.e., the architect, and a craftsman who is figuring out how to build something?

There are two things you must consider as an architect... the ground plan and the section. The ground plan organizes the program. The section organizes space. Architecture has a lot to do with creating space; however, when you create space, it must be a dam. It’s the form. The building is the synergy of program and form. The building is a synergy of program and space. Is that understandable?


And since we have a lot of possibility of hand drafting now, we can create a lot of new and different spaces. Why is the form important? The form gives it—it creates the outer spaces. It gives the building an identity, to people living there (in the building) or living in the surroundings. They [the people] often don’t have the "strongest opinions"... as you can imagine.

If you are living on 44th and 6th Avenue... this is just a number. If you can describe the building as this crazy tower where I am living or whatever, you know that this guy has a home. This is very important. Especially in times like ours where you are directed by Facebook, Twitter, and all this media. Society and young people are in danger of losing the visual experience of the world. I see them walking through train stations every day, iPads in their hands, and they often exclaim, “Oh! There is the entrance!” They often didn’t even look where the sign is and this is most perverse... I think.

Once I was in Mexico on the beach. The girls were walking, 3 people, not talking to each other. It was a beautiful sunrise… beautiful layers. They were stepping into the water but had their iPhones right in their hands and under their noses. So, I was thinking about the train station... there is no need to build a new train station because no one will look at it anyway. It is your duty to change that—not mine.

Your forms are muscular and performative in ways that are unique in a lot of ways to each building that you have designed. You have put a lot time and energy into creating experiences in real life, but we are living in the world where more of our experiences are set in digital space. As a society, our experience of the city and architecture has changed in a fundamental way. So, us being the next generation of architects, how important do you think it is for us to focus on the digital experience of architecture?

I believe in simulative systems. By which I do not mean books, television, or movies. When television was invented, I was young, and everyone said that movies, cinema, and the theater were bad. That is not true. We have pause now in movies and television. What is interesting now, is using the digital world and using the program of the computer, but painting it with the hand so as to open a bigger system. All computer programs all closed systems. In closed systems there is no trial and error. There is only one way: the “PARAPATRIK” way. I call him PARAPATRIK. I really appreciate his work, but his use of rules reminds me of a closed system. There is no variety. Evolution uses trial and error. I do not know if my architecture is the best in the world like he says. New architecture is the new form of parametricism.

Everybody is about being correct right now. This is an important statement for democracy. Your president (Donald J. Trump) is hurting that right now. Really. I am a visitor, and I shouldn’t say that but this is my perception.

We have question pertaining to the origin of your practice… in 1968 everything was blowing up—Architecture Must Burn and all that. How were you influenced by that period, and how did those rebellious attitude influence Coop Himmelb(l)au? Do you think it is the responsibility of architects to respond to these new, politically volatile times, like you did 50 years ago?

Let me tell you how we developed our idea. I was studying at the Vienna University of Technology where the greeting of the building was the most important thing. There was the European grid system of 75 m by 75 m. This was how everything was explained—this was the time where young people were studying philosophy and anti-authoritarian education. We were really fond of music. We were really fond of the Frankfurt school of philosophy. Not Wittgenstein. I hated Wittgenstein. He is the most frustrated guy. Can you imagine building a house according to your grandfather’s living room? We studied movies and how to make a movie. Then we studied Cassius Clay and Muhamad Ali’s strategy.

He would, he could… oh you know the [boxing] cross is another lecture. The cross hit and how he could hit. He could punch over... in a way that allowed seeing where your opponent was doing faster, and [you] press down and hit that point. I think this a perfect strategy for developing urban planning. Without solving the problem before it would be a problem. That would be... how Formula One cars work ... if I can say it in English. How they balance in corners; I like that. How we can translate that into architectural structures? The moon experiences. Space experiences… is there only one [solution]? If there is a problem and only one solution, why then does the space helmet of the American astronaut look so different from the Russian? They solve the same problem. That opens other things. Karl Popper was our hero; the philosopher who wrote the book The Open Society and Its Enemies. It was written at the time Hitler was in Germany and it proved that there were philosophers in Europe who were reactionary philosophers. Then we came up with this solution: Why look at Architecture? Nazi architecture looked like military formations and the renaissance looked so rigid because it was influenced by the Romans. The Romans were a culture which could be described as a mercantile culture. What did Caesar do in Egypt? He burned the library. In France (Gaul), he killed 40,000 people. This is not a point of departure.

This is where we started to think that we can create architecture which expresses freedom which we can reach. Whether we failed is another question. I think we lost. When I hear what the right-wing party say—they are so successful in Europe and everywhere—and we feel like we lost because we couldn’t imagine that a guy who is so disrespectful against women (Donald J. Trump) could be elected as the President of the United States. Why do women not fight against him? I do not understand. This is out of my reach. This tangent does help explain the way we think.

Now I know we must talk about when we started. We started small; we did little bars. Not big projects... as an architect you must be mature to handle the problems of scale. You need to increase scale along with your age. But I have a feeling that I am not interested in apartments or houses. I am interested in urban strategies because I have enough experience.

In your practice, are you still ideologically engaged… are you looking for those values that were so central at the beginning of your practice? Do you still engage with those ideals today?

Yes, of course of course. Not the race car because we must deal with all these computer programs and robotic things. What I mean is that if we introduce robots to build buildings, 3D printed parts and robot arms, a lot of people will lose their jobs. This is very dangerous.

What happens when we do not recognize ourselves in our buildings?

Then you are only building small houses here somewhere (points to suburbia around Taliesin West). This is not architecture.

In the last slide of your presentation at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, you showed a photo-montage in which you replaced your office workers with robotic machines. Earlier in the interview, you mentioned that computers are just running closed algorithms, and therefore, they cannot invent something new. As we speak, programmers are busy producing new algorithms that write new algorithms: they evolve. Your photo montage is a commentary on the loss of physical jobs—human muscle replacement by robots. But how do we address a future where we no longer need the human mind?

This is one part.

When we replace the mind... (trails off)

Artificial intelligence is up to you to seek a part in it. I am happy to not be alive when that happens, but I am worried about my kids and questioning having a hand in it.

Robotic Construction
Shenzhen, China

What relationship will humanity have to architecture when we look at our cities and they are built by robots? How will we experience our buildings?

It’s a matter of economics. Look at today’s social housing projects. They are getting very expensive. People are living in very small spaces. This I think is a very dangerous sociological and psychological problem. I cannot imagine living in some of these spaces. I have 3 kids now. To live with 3 kids, 5 people, in an 80-square meter (800 square foot) seems unimaginable. Therefore, I would like to control the building industry. The industry is more interested in pushing architects into the corner and making rooms smaller and more expensive. There are 3 professions which are very corrupt. First—the military weaponry system industry, the second—I forgot, and the third—the building industry. Given these facts, we use these new methods to build up an economically big space which you cannot build in Europe because of high labor costs.

There is a recent resurfacing of a romantically nostalgic and hand-made architecture. How do you perceive this development?

I know what you mean. When I was a young student I was really fascinated by Paolo Soleri. In our school, we had a semester where we built concrete shelves and these hand-made things. And this theory they had back then was very important... but this was 40 years ago. And it now comes back in a material collection claim. Let me give a very important example. There are these black guys coming from Africa that are architects. I do not know their name. They proclaim that they are building schools by hand, while next to their site, the Chinese building freeways. Concrete, yeah? And this kind of backward thinking ruined the country, yet they think that they changed the world by doing clay walls. This is a very selfish romantic approach. I really love clay walls and all that stuff if it is representative of the time you were alive, but as a strategic thinker in architecture, I would say that it will not save our world. It will ruin our world. Because we have pushed towards the other side of the river for too long. You guys (young architects in training) need to stand up and say, this is not the right way! You need to propose a new world and then you will see how realistic your ideas are.

I was not amazed with last Venice Biennale. The exhibit was the stupidest thing I saw in my life. This notion of basing architecture from the simple material of hand-made architecture… (trails off) Every investor was laughing at that.

Schools must educate nests of partisans who will direct their schools in five or ten years. Otherwise you will be in service of some clients, investors, or some stupid romantic guy building clay schools. In a country where they have a tradition of building with clay, like at the library made of clay in Timbuktu—it is the most fabulous architecture I saw in this country—why should some European tell them how to build out from clay? This is so ridiculous.

What does the hand do that the computer cannot?

What the computer cannot? It can make a closed system open by turning a curve a little bit with the hand. A computer cannot do it that way. You can get a very different shape. Our buildings do not look like Zaha’s buildings. This is because ours are a combination of two systems which make the final product based entirely on trial and error. Sometimes we fail but I do not mind. In the past, if you wanted to have a building which would be distorted or shaped by the wind, you couldn’t just draw it. The computer allows architects to do that now. It’s now possible to design an aerodynamic building and this saves a lot of money during construction because the wind can flow around it. You cannot design a building to have such properties by hand.

I think that there exists a balance between simulated computer space and the realm of the hand, and the simultaneity of these two systems is our future. This is very complicated. You must use the computer in a very particular way. You must push to break rules while not making the final project too expensive. In my practice, we make a model in the computer; we generate the plans and then we build the model by hand. Not by 3d printing! —by hand. We then make alterations, scan it, and put it back into the computer… then some interesting things come out.

I would also say that I am very skeptical about a lot of things. My advice to students it to question and ask what is behind the things they perceive: Why does Facebook work like that? Who gets the money? Is it healthy? This is something you must analyze with all projects. Do not simply be an architect in architecture terms; thinking about how a door looks like is too little. Bob Dylan’s song expresses this idea when he sings, “don’t follow leaders watch the parking meters”. I try educating my students in this way; however sometimes they go in a wrong direction because they think they are the greatest. They think that they do not need advice anymore.

In your lecture you reference Sigmund Freud and the famous analogy of the iceberg in which the conscious ego is pushing down the much larger subconscious id. You mentioned that tapping into this subconscious part of the psyche is crucial for the design process. Do you have any tips?

I have no recipe... but I do think that it is vital to the design process... I do not really know what is right or wrong. I know that we must work towards a common goal. If you ever compare Zaha, Rem, or my interviews, you’ll see that we say very similar things so how come the buildings look so different. The theory goes that we channel different cultures. At my office we channel our Viennese dispositions whereas other architects channel other aspects of themselves. I just cannot image how Rietveld could have invented the Rietveld House here in Vienna. And the same goes for Kiesler and his Endless House. The Dutch invented that house in Holland because the culture is Calvinistic. They are always inventing a new diagram. The Viennese, Jewish, French, and other related capitalists have focused on spatial sequences. However, this is no theory because I am not an artist or interested in such things, but I am always asking these questions... that is how we as a firm approach architecture. Zaha’s drawings look like calligraphy in which black and white is a rapid color code. Black for women [and] white for men.

Unconsciously I never thought I could compare my spatial sequences to the vague sequences of baroque palaces. I only thought about the cupola. Can you image how crazy it is to build a cupola like one of those on the baroque churches? Tons of materials were expended in building a cupola and then they painted it in a way to mimic the sky. But this is architecture.

How do we move the dial forward? How do we build atop the cupola?

It takes a while to be patient.

It seems that a lot of architects—this was apparent at the [Venice] Biennale—are trying to solve a lot of complex socioeconomic issues without solving technological problems. Do you think that architects are missing the boat?

My advice to you is that you should be in front of the development. Otherwise you will be behind, and everyone will push you around. For example, augmented reality (VR) is not quite ready for presentation, but it is a great new tool to use. It is not completely developed but it is the way forward. And if we do not care about that, then the project manager will take over as everything is in the computer like in the Gehry system. That’s where the world is heading, towards building information modeling: BIM. In England if you have common public project, you must use BIM.

So, what does all this mean for architects? It means a lot of architects cannot handle these new technological requirements, so they do not get projects. Project managers and lawyers know how to use BIM software and they will press you into boxes until your fantasy is gone. And while you are busy thinking about social communication and public space, they will be faster than you, and they will take your projects.

Automated Welding Robot Arm

For example, my colleague in a team refused to use a mobile phone. It took just three months before he was excluded from every decision. This happened merely because we needed to make decisions immediately, and we could never reach him. We cannot escape growing technological efficiencies. We can try to hide and go back to the hand-made clay architecture, but this does not solve any problems. Solving complex problems never starts by saying, “oh that’s not for me.” These considerations are not just economic. If you’re not ahead, you’re behind. If you want to be a successful architect, you also can’t just jump on the train and steer it. This is wrong. It is essential that architects give possibilities to people whether they use this train (metaphorical vehicle) or not. 

Earlier you talked briefly about the far right or alt-right. Where are the partisans?

You guys are young.

We need a new 68. We need to make it happen.

It is different now.

Twitter 68?

No. I have no recipe because I am not young anymore. I do not know how young people feel anymore or in what they are interested. All I can do is teach my students self-confidence and how to produce quality in creating space.

This lecture was ten times better than the one you gave in Puerto Rico. Why?

Because I am getting older, and, I am sorry to say this, I have more experience. When I was young I hated this idea of age and experience. I hated when the professors said, “okay you have to be older to be an architect.” I really hated that! Now I know it is correct.


Wolf D. Prix is the co-founder, Design Principal, and CEO of COOP HIMMELB(L)AU. He studied architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, the Architectural Association of London as well as at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles. Wolf D. Prix received numerous awards including the Great Austrian State Award and the Austrian Decoration of Honor for Science and Art. He is permanent member of the Austrian Art Senate and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts as well as chairman of the Curia for Art since the autumn of 2014.