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Interview with Alejandro Zaera Polo
February 27, 2005
Vladimir Belogolovsky: What do you think is the main difference between your generation and architects of the preceding generation?
Alejandro Zaera Polo: I think our generation is more interested in pragmatics, such as making of a building, running a project, running an office. I think the previous generation is more idealistic. Architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Steven Holl believe in utopian possibilities and tend to produce work of extreme originality and ambition. But we are generally much more realistic and mediatory generation. We are deliberate and more aware of the real possibilities and open to explore more potential in technology.
VB: You and Farshid both worked for Rem Koolhaas. What did you learn from him?
AZP: Many things, but one thing especially is to be incredibly resilient and incredibly tough. One of the things that I really admire in him is his capacity to survive time and time again; one hit after another and still to maintain a very high level of ambition. There are not that many people that have that kind of stamina. Yes he belongs to this idealist generation, but he also constantly is able to shift his focus. He is one of the most respected figures by my generation. He was the first who said that a developer is not an enemy. Let’s look and engage at what the developers do. Let’s look at politics, programs, social structures, media and all the things that are important to integrate into architecture while most other people of his generation constantly were concentrating on crafting and designing of a physical and beautiful object. But he basically opened the way for us to start to operate in a different way. And obviously we learned a lot from him about how to make architecture. Of course, it is impossible to explain in an interview, but this is what you learn by doing things together. You learn to develop sensibilities towards complex space, perhaps not relying on certain geometry. You learn things that he doesn’t talk about, but they are present in his office. It is not about designing a building, but looking at architecture in a different perspective.
VB: What in your view is contemporary architecture about? Is it more about invention or manipulation?
AZP: It is a very critical question. People from my generation are probably more able to manipulate and tamper with reality and to surf, so to speak. Our generation grew up with the idea of being mediated, surfing and using forces that are coming from outside. I think the issue here is whether this is going to produce something new. I believe it can. I’m interested in inventing, growing and breeding something new by manipulating with certain parameters that are already known and without necessarily having to produce an entirely new paradigm and new world which would be a more utopian idea.
VB: As a Dean of an architecture school, what can you define as critical in architectural education today?
AZP: I think education needs to reengage more effectively with reality. In the last 30-35 years architectural education has become increasingly alienated by focusing on the idea of authorship or signature. These ideas first came with the generation of Peter Eisenman, Arata Isozaki and Rafael Moneo – people with independent minds and personal identities. They first broke out of a corporate paradigm. Before that architects were educated to deliver certain technical capacity. The education used to be very viable and concrete. But now I’m worried about the idea of learning to be an individual genius. I’m interested in reintroducing the idea of expertise. I think it is a mistake to concentrate only on theoretical level of architecture. One can say that an engineer can always solve a technical problem, but if the architect is illiterate, once a project goes to the hands of the engineers it becomes unrecognizable. We should try to integrate a high level of expertise within the discipline. I’m also interested in diluting the idea of an architect as an artist and a creator of a new paradigm. I’m much more interested in the students to learn by working together in teams, going back to emphasizing on technical expertise. I remember when I was a student we had to design a house for an artist in the hills of Toscana. This was an architectural exercise. I think this kind of project is completely irrelevant. I’m much more interested in young architects to start thinking in the lines with what they are going to find when they go out into the real world. What are the questions that developers will ask them? I had to learn this after my education.
VB: What you are talking about your generation being team players, was well demonstrated by a huge team of architects, called United Architects, working on the New World Trade Center competition project. The team included such architects as Greg Lynn, Ben Van Berkel, you and many others from different parts of the world and it was a real collaboration without any particular voice being dominative.
AZP: Yes, absolutely.
VB: How is digital architecture changing the world? And what is the role of computer technology in your work?
AZP: Obviously, this is one of the most important things that happened in architecture in recent times. I happened to be the same age as Greg Lynn, for example and I think that we are the first generation who started practicing architecture at a time when the computer interface became much more easily accessible and widely used. I even had a sensation of being almost like a pioneer in this field. Our generation became very involved in theorizing about information and technology and using it as an architectural tool. The computer gives you two very important capacities. First capacity is to visualize things, which without computer are not visible. You can immediately extract a form out of what is not formal and that produces an enormous field for architecture. You can introduce such things as a flow and density as a material. You can see and model all kinds of effects and that is an incredible capacity. The computer is a machine that makes everything material. This is a conceptual capacity. Second capacity is in its precision, speed and basically production. The most interesting part of this technology is that we are still learning how to explore it.
VB: How important for you writings on Derridean interventions and Deleuzian folds in structures?
AZP: I was never really interested in Derrida’s work. I find it very obscure and based on its own principles, which is about the idea that reality is made out of the self-referential system of codes and signs. I was much more excited and influenced by the work of Deleuze, precisely because of his interest in material process as the core of reality. I very much consider myself as a materialist. He was important for giving a philosophical background to my work. He was also important to my generation because of his idea of the fold, which influenced geometry of contemporary architecture. But as much as I think those ideas greatly influenced critical formation of our office work, I don’t think that Deleuze would ever help you to design a building. And I think if he could talk to me he would say – I agree with you. Because what helps you to design a building is to get involved with the material, not to think that this is a kind of theory that becomes implemented into matter. It is the other way around – the theory emerges out of matter.
VB: When did you first become familiar with his ideas?
AZP: The first time I was introduced to Deleuze when I was a student of Elizabeth Diller and Rick Scofidio at Harvard. But it became more relevant when I enrolled at a seminar on complexity by Stamford Kwinter. Also my mother is a professor of comparative literature and I had seen books of Deluze at home, but I never associated them with architectural possibilities before. Only in conversations with Stamford it became a very exciting and an intellectual research.
VB: Can you talk about your idea of synthetic landscape in many of your projects?
AZP: We are very interested in possibilities of computer technology and the idea that architecture is formed and generated through a process rather than deployed and predetermined forms. One of the most exciting developments that we try to foresee and explore is the idea of merging two schools of thought in architecture – traditional (predetermined orthogonal geometry) and organic (free-form mimicked from nature). With the help of computer technology we are looking for something in between or merged. We are trying to model the reality to a degree of precision that it becomes as complex as nature. So I think that synthetic landscape is about the idea of producing a landscape that is artificially determined and not just mimicking the nature any longer, but generated through its own rules of formation.
VB: In your virtual house project, context seems to be secondary. How important is it in your architecture?
AZP: It is very important. But also it is important by exploring the idea of denial. The idea of this house was that it could be produced anywhere and landed anywhere. The context was purely ornamental. It was a speculative house. We were interested in exploring the idea of replicated and reconstructed context. A house surrounded by a certain context can look very different but it should still contain some genetic code extracted from this context.
VB: You said: “Architecture is not a plastic art, but the engineering of material life”. Can you elaborate on that?
AZP: Many of us were educated on the notion that architects are visual artists and that we are the experts on the system of proportions and visual beauty, which is almost a decoration of reality. So many people think that the role of an architect is simply to beatify what developers and politicians propose. But I’m very much against this idea. What is interesting for me is to explore the non-visual, the forces that create the environment and new typology. I actually want to build the environment. And this is what I also learned from Rem Koolhaas – fascination with phenomena that is developed without any architectural control, by pure deployment of commercial forces. Places such as Singapore or Atlanta are not known for their architectural intelligence and yet they demonstrate a new typology. This is just the reality that is not predetermined.
VB: You said that your design process can be developed independently of your will. Does this mean there is a formula for making architecture?
AZP: This is quite exaggerated and polemical statement. Obviously there is no design process that is totally independent of the designer’s will. Even science is very much about a will. You develop something that is intentional and not just unpredictable. There is always a hypothesis and it is intentional and well calculated. We try to mediate our will. Yet, we try to withdraw from immediate imposition of our will. So we try to let things happen while mediating different forces that come into play during the design process. I find it more satisfying that way. I think one can be satisfied by saying – I wanted to do this and I did. But I would rather say – well, I think this is what we should do; let’s see what happens and so on. Let’s the process reveal something that’s hidden.
VB: Are you saying that you try to exclude an element of preconceived in your design and let the circumstances dictate?
AZP: Well, I would accept a degree of preconception. But we also use a technique of animation, deviating from conventional process. Yet, we are not interested in randomness. We are interested in rigor and conciseness. We don’t believe in expressionism. But we certainly try to be distinct. I think what we do is close to the work of Peter Eisenman. We like the idea of this mechanical mad device that defines the design process. The problem I have with this approach (and I discussed this with him many times in private conversations) is that this method generates a lot of misfits between the building and original function. It becomes an intellectual discourse that is more relevant to literature and philosophy. But I’m much more interested in applying these machines to real problems.
VB: How important beauty in your architecture?
AZP: I think beauty is something that surprises you. It is not necessarily something that fits certain conventions, parameters or proportions. Sometimes beauty can be found in things that are very ugly.
VB: Do you accumulate and recycle your ideas? What is a style for you?
AZP: I like to say that we mutate ideas. We don’t simply recycle them. Sometimes we reapply certain principles of building a legacy of projects. I’m not interested in a style as a signature; I’m interested in style as an operational device.
VB: What ideas are you trying to explore in your current projects?
AZP: We are trying to move our practice from a speculative operation to a professional practice. We try not to theorize too much apriori. We theorize about projects through the real projects and try to find the most interesting solutions in each particular problem. But that is obviously a bit tricky, because we can’t avoid transferring knowledge and certain lines of investigation from project to project. Also we are readdressing our approach to a problem of representation. In the beginning of our careers we intentionally neglected the idea of material representation. Now we are increasingly interested in ideas of circulation and in physical materials because each building represents something for a community that it is intended for.