Interview with WAI Think Tank
WASH: What is your definition of a Utopia and do you think it’s personal or universal?
WAI: Looking for answers—as part of one of our WAIzines—we made a map to Utopia by gathering, cutting and rearranging quotes from philosophers, architects, thinkers and artists that talked directly about it. None of them seemed to fully agree on its definition, although Thomas More’s initial Utopia (1516) means “no place” in Greek. This process made us arrive to the conclusion that “Utopia is a place where everybody agrees on the definition of the word Utopia.”
So is Utopia universal to you?
Utopia in itself? Yes. Do people agree on the definition? No. Some people talk about “dystopia.” For us that doesn’t exist, because Utopia is not positive nor negative. Utopia is a state you cannot reach, or a state you would like to reach, or a state you are afraid of reaching, or simply a state that is not there. But it could be positive, it could be negative—it’s indifferent. It’s an ideal, but not necessarily in an ethical way.
But doesn’t the “dis” just negate that, for purposes of semantics?
Exactly. Utopia is indifferent to semantics.
So we are talking on a completely conceptual basis—
In a conceptual basis, dystopia wouldn’t exist. Only Utopia exists—that’s to say, not a negative Utopia nor a positive one.
Do you think there needs to be a particular event for that to happen? When you were talking about the burning architecture—The Burning Icon—do you think there is a relationship between that and the Utopian philosophy?
There are moments in history when we are very angry and tired, and we take matters in our hands. We try to change society—because we’ve been oppressed, because what we have is not working. People do revolutions and countries are created, unions are created, communes are created. Those fights have brought us free Weekends, working hours and minimum wages. Those are principles that workers fought for while trying to find an ideal place in society. At the same time, you have other Utopias where some people think that everybody should be blond and tall, that Jewish people shouldn’t exist, and that if you are handicapped you shouldn’t live—to bring some negative references of our history. So that’s a Utopia too in a way. There’s a work of an artist of the old Soviet generation that we find very interesting—Ilya Kabakov said that El Lissitzky and all these Constructivists were building the beautiful hangars that became the ruins they had to live in, because everything collapsed. He stated that every artist should have his or her ideal project—like Utopia. But maybe those projects shouldn’t be pursued in real life. He also claims that rather to be tried out in real life, these projects belong inside museums, which is kind of sad in a way, because sometimes these projects are everything we have. There’s another book by Boris Groys called Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin—the total work of art of Stalin—that explains how these super powerful totalitarian regimes are actually artistic regimes, because they see everything with an aesthetic pursuit. People should look a certain way, people should behave in a certain way, we should march in a certain way, and everything has a certain “artistic” quality—even human beings. That’s a very destructive form of Utopia too. At the end of the day what defines the outcome is not if you would like to pursue an ideal, but if this ideal is good for humanity and if it’s approached in the right way. Sometimes we spend so much time being destructive that the idea of Utopia starts to look like George Orwell’s reflection: “nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has a toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache.” When Utopia consists mostly on eliminating your tooth pain, your ideal situation becomes the absence of that form of specific pain. It’s not the ideal situation if you think about it. The same goes for the person with toothache wishing that everybody else has also toothache.
It’s like religion being the opium of the masses.
Yes. Humans always need something to pursue and sometimes it takes different forms. It could be religion, it could be politics, it could be ‘the economy’, it could be a mixture of all. The problem is when we are not critical enough of that—that’s when the problem arises.
What you say is very reminiscent of a chapter in 1984—”Ignorance is strength.” But we are wondering, with your concern for social order, and so on and so forth, how does your philosophy reflect this? Because George Orwell, for example, talks about the futility of this class struggle and of revolution as you just mentioned—
It’s interesting because when you read 1984 for the first time it seems like it has a sad ending, but then when you read the book again, especially the appendix, you get a glimpse of a future where Ingsoc and Newspeak are written as problems of the past. The appendix gives a twist to the book by being written in past tense. It’s as if the fact of the author writing the story is a victory of sorts for a form of freedom within a system, where a super power will potentially overcome any of the other failing super powers. Even if he’s portraying the most disgusting fully functional horrific system, he still has hope. At least that’s how we understand it. The fact that it was written with a reader in mind, a reader free to read the atrocities of that regime, is a sign of hope. You can either see yourself as the reader, or as the one writing down the letter with the hope that somebody reads it in a future less oppressed. That’s why there will always be hope for us. When someone in the audience said (during the lecture) that our practice was somehow sad, we felt that it was not the correct way to describe it. Even in the toughest of struggles, even if clients can be terrible, even if you are abused by the market, even if you’re broke most of the time, there’s always hope. People think that if you’re an architect, you should be surrendering to the market and building skyscrapers. Tons of people are disenfranchised, they can’t find a job, or a way to sustain themselves and you’re asking for building skyscrapers? Of course this is just an example, but it shows a division in the ways that people think about architecture and its role in society. And this problem of the pressure to deliver, as imposed by the “rules” of the market, is not exclusive to buildings; it could be a publication, or any other type of project. But the idea that drives this hope is that there’s a belief that what you are doing will improve society in a way—that even if it’s a self-centered project, you can still push it in that direction. It is something that is important because we all have these kind of values, which pushes us because we are doing Architecture for a reason. What is really fundamental to ask yourself is: what do I want to pursue with doing architecture? Even if you might fail, you might try to follow a path. It’s really important once you have that drive, to try to never compromise it because it’s very easy when you practice as an architect to have a lot of temptation. Maybe somebody will offer you a very big or important project for a lot of money, but this project will compromise your values, and values are all you have until now. It’s imperative to have this kind of guidelines, because at the end of the day we might fail—we might fail all the time, we might never even succeed. But we will have these values that we stated at the beginning and that we will cling on to until the end. Did we respond to the question?
It goes back to this idea of being optimistic—given the futility of this construct that Orwell describes so well. How does one escape it? How do you escape it in your work?
We think it’s a human condition at the end of the day. The idealism was just there from the beginning. We were on a train going to Rotterdam and that’s when we started writing our manifesto—“We want to do this.” We were really upset with other people making shallow architecture.
It’s interesting that a lot of your work has this cyclicality, this repetition, that’s essentially the same thing—the futility of man in some regards. So where do you find that hope?
It’s probably a personal thing. We personally have hope. We mean that! We are teaching here (at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin)!
What do you mean exactly? Do you have hope for people?
We believe that people can have the power to change things. We believe in people. We believe in students.
And are they going to change people through architecture?
There was a trend in the 90’s and 80’s of architects being openly indifferent to political situations and architects just wanting to build. Like Koolhaas’s reference of the architect—"a surfer going with the waves” or like Bjarke Ingels’ “yes is more.” What does that really mean? Yes to everything? Do you really want to say yes to everything?
We read a few excerpts out of Ingels’s book, and he is basically saying yes to the past. He has this system of collecting everything—
That could be one reading. Another reading could be just a sinister form of indifference. It’s ok as an architectural exercise to freely play with form but forms in architecture come with a program—people use them, inhabit them, live and work in them. We believe that architects have the capacity to make projects to improve people’s lives. If you ask people “do you think that architecture can change your life?” The answer may vary. But if you ask them if they think that architecture can make your life worse? Usually the answer is yes. That answers the question. We don’t know if we can fix everything but we know one can make your life really miserable with architecture. So that tells you—you can really change people’s lives. So playing frivolously with form or being intentionally indifferent can be very dangerous.
Your paradigm, or the philosophy that you have posited, is surrounded by this idea of questioning. Even the very title of your practice is a question. So we wonder, what answers do you have to a lot of these projects? What proposals are you willing to give?
We think that one really important part of our practice is that you always question first—which means that sometimes the answer is not to propose a building. Sometimes there’s a possibility that the answer is to ask, “do you really need this?” Sometimes all those known so-called radical projects easily arouse people to say too quickly, “you should build this.” We feel that by doing that without questioning you are missing the point completely. Maybe they are not meant to be built—they are meant as a story. If they are being exaggerated it’s because that is their purpose. The problem lies in that some people think that they are beautiful because they get too trapped in the aesthetics and overlook the critical content, missing the most important aspect of the project. The image is carrying the content but it’s not the content. How do you become aware? How do you free yourself? How do you assume the power to say “no” to something? Like Sloterdijk mentions, “the fully developed ability to say NO is also the only valid background for YES, and only through both does real freedom [begin] to take form.” We had a project in Beijing in which we had to ask ourselves if the project was worth it. We wanted to create a public education center with focus on architecture and urbanism. The developer wanted to instantaneously make profit going as far as to ask us to find clients. We didn’t want to do that because at the end we were going to end up spending all of our resources and time for a complete compromise, for an institution just wanting to gentrify the area. And you end up asking yourself for whom are we doing these projects? For the developer to put a PR stunt and make money? We don’t care about that. We care about the outcome, the usage of such a project, its possibilities, what it can generate.
If we were to hone in on one element of what you said, we would say that your answer to some degree is education.
Yes, you have to be educated. The most important thing is to be critical, and critical doesn’t mean to complain. Although sometimes complaining helps. (laughs) Critical means that you try to gather as much intelligence as possible and base your reasoning on some value.
But what is perfect knowledge if you don’t have any execution? What does it mean to have all the knowledge in the world to ask all the questions if there is no execution at that end of the day? If there is no skill, you can refine an idea to a point. But don’t you have to generate something so you can ask further questions?
Yes, but in our case that is what we are doing all the time. All the time we ask ourselves what is the correct tool to use for each type of project—
What we were trying to say is that sometimes as an architect you have to take a risk even if it is imperfect...
We totally agree on that. We are taking risks all the time.(laughs)
This was not a critique towards you—
We know that but this is a good commentary—but we are taking risks all the time. Practicing Architecture, like we are practicing architecture, is a risk. You are at risk of going bankrupt all the time. Your expenses are always higher than your income. You always have a very small margin of error. It risks the sustainability of the project. We take risks in a sense that saying no to a project is a risk. When we went to Russia (for the NCCA competition), we knew that the project was a risk. The client was not sure what he wanted—he wanted a very iconic tower, a nice building form and everything around it closed, in order to control everything that happens inside and make everybody pay for a ticket. We knew that already—we decided not to do that. We are aware that you may lose the competition but you still go with the idea that is best for the site, best for the people. Then we can live with the result. We wouldn’t change what we consider as the fundamental premise of our project. We approached this project as a building Manifesto—an open museum that critically extends the city so that it brings art to the public. Maybe this is what got us there in the first place. Then when you lose the competition, that’s it. End of the story.
Going back to the idea of form, how would you operationally define Hardcorism?
It’s a theory of architecture as pure geometric form. In the beginning, it’s just the three conceptual forms (the sphere, the pyramid, the cube), and then later, it’s all the abstractions that derive from them. In contemporary architecture we have examples with different, more flexible formal experiments—like stacked boxes or looping towers. The manifesto starts by stating that “not all architecture is infatuated with form, but for the one that is, this is its manifesto.” It is architecture in its closes relationship with pure form and how this permeates in the works of different architects, know or unknown, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies, to Koolhaas, to Boullée and Ledoux. We claim that it’s the first time in history that a manifesto about pure form in architecture has been written, and not even Aaron (Betsky) disclaimed it during the lecture. (laughs) We were looking back in time to find if somebody had made such a claim. We were looking at Le Corbusier and others but we didn’t found anybody. So we just claimed it. Now we “own” history in a playful way. (laughs)
Copyright it until your death plus 70 years in this country. (laughs)
We acknowledge the importance of wanting to bring something to the table to openly discuss. In architecture, we believe that it’s important to have a position either political or ideological. Sometimes these positions end as trends, sometimes they are transcendental. We like to see and think in term of multiple possibilities. One day we are talking about Hardcorism, the next we are talking about Narrative Architecture—stories of things that should never be built. Or how do you make a museum an open program? How do you, with the tools of architecture, create spaces that interrelate in a building? How do you create continuity within a building? Can you bring everyone together by creating continuous platforms? How can you enhance the educational experience with structures that provide those type of spaces? How do you relate an art studio, a performance space, and allow people to look at what everybody else is doing in the building? How to create spaces for cross learning and intersectional experience?
This is very reminiscent of the school that you designed for Puerto Rico, this idea of interconnected spaces.
That’s precisely the idea we wanted to pursue in that project. If you look at it and if you read the manifesto texts of other projects like the Institute (Institute of Optimistic Architectures), there’s a clear intention of outlining some programmatic, spatial strategies and naming the architectural ways in which these strategies can be achieved. How do you articulate an ideal condition in architectural form? Sometimes the project requires text, other times design will address the challenge more specifically. We often study ideal projects but we’re not proposing clouds over your heads. We also pursue projects that can happen under budget and with real material. The lingering question is often how do you understand your basic program—is it a commission by a client or a competition statement—and figure out ways to insert new programs that you feel are essential for the project to be transcendental.
We were just thinking about this paper written by an architect about an experience he had with a jury where somebody at one point suggested to present the project directly to the users of the buildings—basically to include/involve the opinions of the non-architects. All the other jurors scoffed at such a preposterous the idea. We feel that here you are sort of preaching to the choir, talking to people that have more training, that have a certain forward thinking outlook—which is great—but maybe people that don’t have that training will not understand that some of these projects are not supposed to be built?
That’s true, but that’s also part of our responsibility. It’s not to educate in a pretentious way, but to raise some awareness and help develop some sensibility towards certain issues. One example we can give is our children’s installation: The Palace of Megaliths. This project clearly deals with basic architectural and spatial ideas, although in a very subtle and playful way. That’s also the reason why we are making children’s books. It allows us to have different platforms with different levels of conversation—from the highly intellectual discourses that may be out of reach to people without the historical or formal background, to the most fundamental and visceral experiments that are meant to be accessible and open even to little kids. Sometimes we work with very complicated curatorial projects, like with some of the exhibitions in our art space Intelligentsia Gallery in Beijing. Softcore: Subverted Superstructure and the Systemic Sublime, Hypertext, Superfetish and OOO are for example, half ironic and humorous commentary on the curatorial world. At the same time we work with other projects dealing with ideas that are difficult to put into words, and for which we try to find the adequate medium. Our short animations Wall Stalker and Blindness are examples of those type of projects. Some animations and videos are simple narratives that are more abstract and universal. Other projects, especially the ones we create with our art practice (Garcia Frankowski), deal with abstract and universal forms of language, symbols and icons stripped out of meaning—or aiming to be stripped out of meaning. Sometimes we make installations with shapes on the walls and floors, and dare people to experience them without having to read about them, while asking ourselves if that’s even possible. And then there are the children’s books. Making those books pushes you to question the ways in which you could explain philosophical concepts to children—how to talk to them about power, questioning, architecture, the environment, etc. You have to develop strategies to communicate these ideas in a “children” manner—so you see geometric shapes, forms and ideas in a more basic form. We enjoy a lot doing workshops with children, because you are then confronted with their unique and marvelous way to see the world. You think about the little girl and the sun, circles, triangles, obedience, curiosity, criticality by approaching concepts however deep or transcendental they are. You learn how to deal with a different type of sensibility and with different strategies. So you should always be able to find alternatives to communicate to different people, even if your fundamental ideas are the same—maybe precisely when your ideas are the same.
At one point, we wanted to write one word during your presentation: syncretism—the fusion of two or three religions into one. For some reason when we were watching your presentation it really evoked that...
Really? In a way it is very similar to what we think Frank Lloyd Wright means when he is talking about organic architecture. The idea of organic—everything relating to each other. In a way, everything you make in your own life, even your pets, contribute to the art projects, and things like that. How do you make the projects you are doing in your life, and everything around it, to relate to it? Some people say “my life is this and my profession is that, and they don’t inter-relate.” And they go skiing during the holidays, etc. We don’t—we make our life our works or our works our life. You somehow manage to make everything into one cohesive project. It’s a choice of course—even if you keep them separated they will relate in an enriching way. In our case, we have an art identity, a gallery name, and an architecture practice name, but each practice informs something on the other side. Either it brings on potential knowledge or allows you to meet different type of people with different backgrounds and expertise. We noticed that art can offer a broader spectrum of people than architecture. Architects in some cases are mostly dealing with clients, while art has a much broader audience. Having those exchanges helps you see beyond the reference of Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, and takes you into the world of literature, music, politics, and philosophy, and this is very important too. Sometimes you have architects that look only at architecture, and read only about architecture, and they might be missing on the “fundamental acts of life.” How can you design buildings for people to live their lives there if you are overlooking life’s most important and enriching components? How can you assemble the whole if you cannot understand the parts?
What if the scale of the project is too big to understand all the parts?
That’s architecture. Try to aim for the programs that are important and prepare to challenge those that you think are not.
WAI Architecture Think Tank is an international studio practicing architecture, urbanism and architectural research. Founded in Brussels in 2008 by Puerto Rican architect, artist, author and theorist Cruz Garcia and French architect, artist, author and poet, Nathalie Frankowski WAI and its parallel artist practice Garcia Frankowski are based in Beijing, Taliesin and Taliesin West, where both directors, Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski are Visiting Teaching Fellows at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. WAI directors are also founding curators of Intelligentsia Gallery, an alternative art space in Beijing.
Of growing international interest the work of WAI and Garcia Frankowski has been featured in the 1st Chicago Architecture Biennale, the XIV Venice Architecture Biennale and the inaugural Changjian Photography and Video Biennale as well as in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, Kunst-Werke KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, Changjian Museum of Contemporary Art in Chongqin, the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester as well as in shows in Barcelona, Madrid, London, Paris, Dublin, Porto, Lisbon, Moscow, Venice, Bergen, Bratislava, Milan, Helsinki, Brussels, Prague, Zurich, Lausanne, Istanbul, San Juan, New York, Los Angeles, Columbus, Houston, Chicago, Guadalajara,Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Montevideo, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, Sydney, Melbourne and more.
Recent WAI publications include Pure Hardcore Icons: A Manifesto on Pure Form in Architecture (Artifice Books on Architecture, 2013), the self-published WAIzine What About It?, the children's book The Story of the Little Girl and The Sun as well as critical essays and manifestoes published in journals, independent magazines, and books around the world including Arch + (Berlin), Domus (Milan), Monu (Rotterdam), GAM (Graz), Pin-Up (New York), Volume (Amsterdam), Conditions (Oslo), Plot (Santiago de Chile), Horizonte (Weimar) and more.
Critical texts and manifestoes by WAI have been presented in lectures in institutions in Beijing, Shanghai, Graz, Munich, Weimar, Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, San Juan and more; and have been translated to Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, German and more by journals, magazines and books around the world.