Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology
Grou Serra In one of your lectures you made the comment that “American architects do self-portraits, Europeans do still-life”. Is this comment a criticism towards the capacity of architecture?
Iñaki Ábalos I do remember saying that Americans are different than Europeans, but I don't remember saying that. I can think something similar, but you cannot generalize it. What I said was, or what I thought I said was- what has been called the iconic term when architects focus intensively on the formal aspect, the iconicity of architecture- they were mainly American architects. There was a moment in time where that happened but that moment is now over. European architects probably remained more attached to the urban conditions, social issues, traditions and memory, and other aspects of architecture that had made them less interested in the purely formal. They were more interested in materiality, building systems, how to activate public spaces- among other things, which I have called "still life". I am going to talk about this later in the lecture. So yes it is a criticism- in a way it had given a lot of publicity to architects and architecture. A lot of the front pages of Sunday newspapers were photographs of the latest buildings of Frank Gehry, Zahra Hadid- sometime Calatrava, so there are also Europeans on the list too. Normally it doesn't happen with those who are more attached to the real facts of everyday life, but at the same time the impact on the quality of life of the citizens is much higher. It is the question of where do you put the emphasis, and what you believe is more important. I like the idea- instead of creating a debate of among architectural ideas, putting them in pictorial terms. Selfies against the still lives. Both can be wonderful. The history of self portraits and still lives are both fantastic, but they have different traditions and very different proposals.
Grou Serra You mentioned in many occasions the loss of authority of architects. Can you elaborate in which territories this authority has been lost?
Iñaki Ábalos This is very much linked with the previous question. Not when you make more emphasis on the iconicity of architecture, but when the conditions are reducing you to elaborate more explicitly the image of architecture. Everything is already set up for you, when the commission comes to your table, others have already decided everything about the project. The program, the budget- everything was made by a series of so-called experts. Then, obviously all of us have had situations like this, so you can only focus on the facade, the volume- because it is the only things that is left! It means the total loss of authority. We did not have a lot of icons in history- so many less interesting interiors. It is like something that is completely disproportionate. Normally, the more iconic architecture in a city were three or four, but now, two thousand! There is a saturation of the image, but it means clearly along with many other reasons, that architects are reducing our field. If we insist on the iconic terms, we will continue to lose more. I think it is more interesting to focus on the alternative ways of thinking architecture, which is more traditional and holistic. Not only the interior and the exterior, but the exterior of the exterior. There are many layers, all of them combined will give you the factors to succeed, not only in one moment in time or on a cover of a magazine- but as an architect. Someone who contributes to the quality of lives in cities.
Grou Serra You are trying to bring the scientific method to architecture. In your opinion, is this a way of rationalizing the practice today?
Iñaki Ábalos There are ways that are more scientific than mine, I am not an engineer but an architect. I have just tried to change the language of architecture. If we talk about thermodynamics, which I am sure is what you are referring to- it is just a way to say something that is so simple and elemental yet important that can be taken into a humanist vein. Thermodynamics is about our body, the gardens that we have outside, the organic and inorganic lives, micro and macro cosmos. It is super generic, yet it regulates life- not just our lives but the whole system that we know as the cosmos. Secondly, we are creating entities that live their lives, they are put there (bong!) and they need to breath and survive in different weathers and climates. They have to establish anthropocentric lives, living like real bodies. This is also something that allows us to think in architecture holistically, where every ingredient and element in the process of design and construction has a role, or should have a role. If they are just added as processes and playing only one role, they are not behaving properly. In our organic lives, everything has many functions. So we look to it to put together things in complimentary ways to make them really survive, making ecologically complex systems. This can be a pseudo-scientific way to understand architecture, but in reality it is as humanist as it could be understood as scientific. I don't think it is about rationalization, it is about opening the mind and understand that we have to be technicians and artists at the same time, and this is nothing new! It frightens me to have to say these things, but it is the reality.
Grou Serra With your discourse on thermodynamics you want to re-establish relationships between form, flow and matter. How is your approach with the use of thermodynamics different from regional vernacular?
Iñaki Ábalos I used to say that the worst and best things for us as architects nowadays- is that we are the orphan sons of Modernism. But we cannot use the same techniques, many of the paradigms that they have invented were so interesting and so close to the ideas of industrialization. In those days it was absolutely positive, but it has passed over, we can no longer believe in that. No one believes that this model of industrialization is productive in terms that can be sustainable. The social agreement is that there will be some skeptics that will never recognize it, but know that if we don't change the direction that we treat nature and resources- things will become really wrong. And they have become really wrong! And then there are those who look at the patio houses, the houses in Massachusetts, and the igloos of Alaska. Mies van der Rohe has a short text written when he was young, talking about the primitive huts as model of ideas. He was not thinking about this article when he was thinking about the Farnsworth House though! When we think about the vernacular, we can learn amazing lessons- such as in China and the Middle East. They were using the cheapest resources, the only ones they had in super smart ways to create comfort. We have been trained to understand typology as a geometric diagram. I don't know any vernacular master builder who thought in terms of geometry, like Duran. It is not an abstract scheme, it is matter performing, it is a lot of collective effort to make things perform. The patio house was not created by making a diagram. We learn through vernacular architecture, but this does not mean we use can it. We don't use adobe, we do not have the scales and densities that they had. We have other means of production, and different scales and social conditions. This makes us live in very a interesting situation, we are orphans of two traditions that we love - and no one is completely useful. We are stuck in the middle of two and need to invent something - which is great!
Grou Serra You also talk about “constructing a new beauty” with thermodynamics. What is your definition of beauty?
Iñaki Ábalos Expanding the limits of our experience. I know because I feel quite secure because it is not my phrase. I heard this from my friend Juan Muñoz who passed away in Ibiza. They asked him in an interview and he immediately responded with this phrase. I was so impressed. I wanted to use it forever.
Evelyn Wong You wrote that imperfection and the impossibility to synthesize has become true mediums of contemporary architecture, creating “monsters” that navigate between dualities. Are Monsters products of culture or a critic on culture?
Iñaki Ábalos Let me explain imperfection. Other architects are obsessed with reducing conditions to the point where they can control everything, but I think imperfection is nice. If we are developing a project, there are so many different layers, we would take the economy against building systems and analyze them. How to economize more and make the building perform better, how it responds to the urban fabric, how much it can organize itself independent of the program- it is impossible to achieve all of these layers separately. But if we can have ambition to have them together. So we manage the imperfection, and the architect is the only one who is able to decide where the imperfection would be hidden- which is important also. Understanding this importance in methodologies of projects is very smart, it allows you to have a clear constant of what you are doing and why you are doing things. Monsters are not directly related in my mind, of course you can think about monsters any way you want to. But monsters come from the thought that we are the orphans of the two different traditions, the vernacular and the Modernist. At the same time, we are pretending to be inventing a third way but it is difficult to refine it. You can probably use approximation that allow you to manage something from the vernacular, Modernism, things from your imagination along with the things that come from the standard way to build nowadays- and it can look like monsters. But it is not that important, if the monsters are friendly like Frankenstein, they become nice. So you should be able to construct a project. I never speak about monsters with my clients, I am not so stupid! HAHA. But as a way to train you to open the door to innovation, you have to be in peace with the fact that new thing s can be ugly. If you remember the Domino House, it was the ugliest scheme ever made! If you look at it seriously, you would wonder if it was really the scheme that transformed architecture in the twentieth century? MY GOD. Let's take some distance to look at how others had experimented with form- they were not worried about aesthetics. Aesthetics are always in clichés. Monsters are a medicine against clichés. If you want to make something nice without addressing all the layers and dimensions of issues in architecture by making a shortcut, the shortcut is a cliché. This will paralyze your mind. Perhaps you will find a wonderful job in the corporate world, but as an architect you are losing your time. So remember everyone, monsters are beautiful. In every new idea in art and beauty, there is always a big dosage of ugliness. For those who fail to remember this, I always tell them to look to Picasso. Look at the crazy, ugly things he was doing and how everyone were making fun of his monsters. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon were the ugliest prostitutes painted, this is a monster. But you understand why it is important when you see it.
Grou Serra In your opinion, how can architectural education expand the field of architecture?
Iñaki Ábalos My God.. I think that there are several factors. Maybe we wouldn't agree, but I don't think that there is a universal idea about education especially in architecture. In a way, there are two factors that are important. The tradition of an institution, IIT is loaded with memory and it does not mean that you have to mimic it but it is there in the air incredibly. At GSD, it is exactly the same, there is Gropius, Moneo and students who had done wonderful things. There is a tradition. The other thing is the actuality of how students perform, how they breath architecture and where are they moving, what are they moving towards. When you have been a teacher for many years, which is my case, I always say that there are waves, there are things that become important and there are those that goes away. Now we are seeing the return of history in architecture, memory and time, revival of post-modernism which is affecting how we think of the first post-modernists. These things are creating a climate, to use a thermodynamic word. For me, it is very strategic. When I arrived at GSD I already had a long experience in Ivy League American schools, so I knew how students perform there. It was key to introduce a completely different take. There is no way to tell students to forget everything and start from ABC when they come to GSD, but you can introduce discussions to shift lexicons and put other layers, not abandoning. It took me six months to decide as I was a very economic person, I needed one word-and it was thermodynamics. For many, it would be the return of the Europeans, or technology, or ways to forget geometry and form- which is stupid. With other parameters that introduces more technical approach, we have wonderful people at GSD in charge of the technical and theory and they were completely split. They were never in a review together, it was impossible. For me, it was a great school to merge things, which is exactly my definition of thermodynamics- putting things together in order for them to perform better. This is what I have tried. I am always skeptical of 100% successes, some resist and others are interested, things move. Things move in schools slowly, there is a lot of inertia, but I can assure you the way students apply for this or that studio is experimentation as we have lots of good people who are interested in thermodynamics. If you look at the list of publications of the GSD this year, it is mainly about new cultural constructs of thermodynamics, energy, architecture- most of them are not technologically oriented.
Wiel Arets Why practice architecture?
Iñaki Ábalos I think architecture has the main part of the cake in terms of energy, cities and waste. Even so, I can argue that one building is nothing- in plurally quantitative terms. In qualitative terms, a high proportion of our societies, especially our young people are interested in changing the situation. The only way that they can see that the situation is changing, is seeing that they are important buildings in cities are trying to address these issues. Buildings create your everyday environments, and it has an impact. If you have only read something on the issue, it remains out of your reality. But architecture constructs your environment, architecture and cities educate. You can get can better things in technical and quantitative terms, there is also the part on qualitative terms that is relevant. Choosing one word is relevant in the American context and scenario. Cities are super relevant in the Chinese context not just symbolically, it concerns the question of health, millions are passing away because of the most polluted air in world. This has many layers and it is why I think buildings are always about this. Houses and Palaces, the book by Le Corbusier that you can just throw away after reading because you have learnt everything from the title, I love these books! So this book is about the idea that the house contains the idea of a palace. In many architecture, this is obvious. In the hutongs and in the Forbidden City in China has the exact same concept but the latter is incredibly bigger and more generous. There is a link between the smallest unit and the most symbolic and institutional. This is what the conditions of survivals for the builders had produced, they had to build these thermal machines for economic reasons after years of refinement. Palaces are more open and have much more ambiguous issues to resolve. I think this is absolutely true and we can add much more layers. I am not the Taliban of thermodynamics, but it is a base for you to understand much more than a regular tourist. It is about the material culture, and that is why it is interesting. It opens discussions and increases layers of design.
Vedran Mimica Are relational effects in the universe a part of your discourse on thermodynamics?
Iñaki Ábalos There are two kinds of thermodynamics according to the books. In my polytechnic education, I had to study thermodynamics and I hated it. But twenty years later, I am super happy that I had this training. There is a close system of thermodynamics like the physiocrats in economy, the idea that you can survive because you had produce every kind of means. Open, connect, interchange and limiting production to only things you are good at to protect yourself. This is how the ecology of thermodynamics and economics are very close, the idea of the open system is kind of meteorological. The clouds rain are giving sun to another place, there is a huge interconnection of things. You can arrive at certain moments of order or chaos, and I think it is an incredible description of life. The contrast of open and close system in thermodynamics is very much what I think of a good model. One is more traditional physics, and the other chemical.
Grou Serra What you are doing now at Harvard is a fairly specific approach regarding sustainability and thermodynamics. Should school have a one clear direction or pluralist approach?
Iñaki Ábalos I think it depends on many factors. The only way that some smaller scale schools can deliver things that are authentic and original is to be Tendenza, they should create one or two lines of research. Not twenty. When Mies was here and it was smaller, they were creating a Tendenza school I would say, and it was really fruitful back in the day. There is a critical mass for this, it would be hell when there is 700 or 1000 students, you would be the Taliban! The only thing you would create is frustration and stupidity. I detected that there was a gap to be fulfilled that would move narcissist tendencies of Ivy League schools, I wanted to shake the boat a little bit. So I introduced a way to interrogate, are we really doing well? I was not trying to change the instructors, they can move just 5 degrees even, the students are the more important motor who constantly open new discussions. The most important thing is to impact the students' minds and imagination rather than the faculty. I am just adding layers.
Grou Serra So do you think schools should have a smaller scale?
Iñaki Ábalos No, no. I come from ETSAM, 5000 students! And it had produced generations of wonderful architects! Friction is important, it creates electricity. Students learn partially with the instructors and partially by themselves, discussing the stupid things we had said.
Grou Serra Should schools promote Zeitgeist?
Iñaki Ábalos Zeitgeist promotes schools. This is a discipline that is always moving, if it becomes paralyzed it dies. Zeitgeist becomes a spiritual thing, I am a materialist. I think human performance and our way to understand things change when the material condition changes. I remember Richard Sennett calling himself a serious materialist because he believed that material culture changes behavior of people. I am more interested in technology, it comes and goes but it is what moves us. When you can have open discussions, it can expand the limits of experience.
Evelyn Wong You mentioned that there is an inertia in academia. How do we identify what are the most important questions today in this inertia?
Iñaki Ábalos I would say the exposure of oneself to some risk. There are different ways to be an architect as it is with painters. There are those who remain attached to several principles, like Mies van der Rohe. There are those who do the same thing their whole lives, they are probably ontological in a way, believing that there is an essence in the discipline. I can probably agree with that, but there are other ways of understanding the discipline which is through interaction. Seeing and trying to understand the changes of life, making an interpretation of the changes and taking the positive as a way to innovate. Sometimes these are the opportunities to make new things and that is really important! Architects evolve in time, Le Corbusier is an example of this. While Mies was trying to reduce to a mullion, to types and materials, Le Corbusier was a fanatic positivist of living things. I think that if you want to resist inertia, it is much better in composition. Others don't care, I understand why they wouldn't care. They have found a mine of gold to explore.
Vedran Mimica It is interesting you have brought up comparison with art. Picasso was doing the Las Meninas by Velazquez, did he come to the end of his life as a great master? Artists like Picasso and Dali were larger than life even during their lifetimes.
Iñaki Ábalos Dali was incredibly interesting as a writer! He had a lot of skills that was not reduced to painting and he maintained that life until the very end. I believe that every architect who has a recognition as a painter, can think in time seriously- and this has to mean something! Nowadays we have few of them, Rem is the obvious one, and Jacques has universal recognition for this, Zaha was also amazing. Jacques recognizes himself in a lineage, and he very much has a social mission within this discipline and he is addressing it much clearly than Rem who tends to escape to politics- it is another way for Rem to open the legacy. Rem is like Dali where he is expanding beyond buildings. Jacques is in love with buildings and he definitely intensifies that. Among Le Corbusier's last works was La Tourette, my god! This discipline is made of memory, so why shouldn't we come back and forth?
Wiel Arets You were talking in an interview about tradition of architects, what does that have to do with the change of our authority and the relationship of clients?
Iñaki Ábalos This is something that I have an ambiguous position, it is partially the consequence of the narcissism of the architect- I cannot dosify how much. As long as architects are signing commissions, we don't care about the profession. It is too intensive, you don't want to understand too much to only become depressed. When you become depressed you cannot do anything. This is a profession that requires us to be super optimistic and stubborn! The other thing is that authority is lost with times. You can be an expert of anything of a few clicks on the internet, the disciplines have been dissolved in many ways. At the GSD, we have been avoiding the word 'architecture' because it frightens, so you use the word 'design'. In our times, clients have become committees. It is a nightmare! Committees never agree, instead of fighting each other, the architect becomes the victim. Make a study of this and that! It is funny that we have technology but processes are delayed so much. China is catching up in terms of our similarity of how society is functioning, as they becoming richer and more organized. In the society where economy and systems run so fast, our discipline is extremely slow and getting much slower. I always limit myself to the scale of architecture in competitions because there is a moment where it becomes only food for thought and nothing else. Assemblages of things and small urban design is the critical point for me where you might lose control. The client changes in three years, or the committee getting a new director or expert. It has become very un-adapted to what the times and society is asking for. You have to be super strategic in how to organize and where to find what will give you success. Everything moves so quickly, you can lose time and money.
Wiel Arets You spent quite some time in the States. What is the biggest difference between working in the States and Madrid?
Iñaki Ábalos I have finished 5 projects in the States with license to build. It had taken me hours and hours, yet no one is building them, and this is a big difference. How many project can one build in a lifetime? There is a balance. All of them needed to be approved, and the process of making a schematic, making a CD and so is so slow here. It is so difficult to maintain the energy. It is also slow in Europe. Maybe the quality of construction is not so good. In Spain there had been talk that the process might be sped up, but when more processes and bureaucrats are introduced- but it is in the spirit of the time, so it is normal and I am used to it. In the cases where I have seen projects finished with satisfied clients and institutions, it had taken 4-6 years.
Wiel Arets There is always a momentum in Europe and Japan. I know in Amsterdam, in Berlage, we were extremely interested in the States and Japan. Do you think that there is still that one place for practice and education at this time? Where do you see the place being?
Iñaki Ábalos There is still a long life for architecture in the States, there is no doubt. The basis is very solid here. In reality, you can never have good architecture and architects in countries that don't build. When the Europeans came to America in the beginning of the twentieth century, they were fascinated with the brutality of the scale, technology and what they called pure energy. This had disappeared completely. The Europeans were the ones who gave value, we were the academia, and they were the gigantic builders. This clearly had moved to Asia, and moving to Latin America and Africa very soon. When I was in Asia, we saw how the students had evolved. A few decades ago at the AA, Asian students had come with completely unsophisticated and simplistic training. But only 25 years later, they had come to the States and Europe following a changed situation pushed by the population migration into cities. It was like Europe in between the wars. They have to invent everything. Every time I go there, I see new buildings and I am impressed by the energy. They had been mimicking what was done in the U.S. and Europe for decades but now they do not need any model anymore. I am sure they will be leading very soon. Now what they need from the U.S. is the last layer, the veneer, a kind of brightness. Many will go there for this, a medal. Which is what the Americans had gone to Europe for. There was such a moment in Japan, and in Spain once. There was once in time where all the money in the European Union came to Spain, and suddenly Spanish architecture grew. It is very simple. This is my prediction.
Wiel Arets I think there are shifts. China is on its way, and I strongly believe that there is a strong dynamic in the world to become one big city with neighborhoods. Beijing and Shanghai will be an important neighborhood. But everyone has a role, the Americas and the European. The iPhone cannot be said to be only made in China. When the world is city without nations, what would be our contribution? The way we laugh at the idea of people on Mars is the same way people laughed at Europeans migrating abroad. What is our position as architects if we were to live in orbit?
Iñaki Ábalos I don't plan to build on Mars in the next decade, so I am being quiet about space. But I love the saying the world is becoming a big neighborhood, it is a wonderful metaphor. I do not have a crystal ball. Architects fail in predicting the future 99% of the time anyway. I don't want to predict anything. I am interested instead in the new ideas for the new conditions announced by super high densities, pollution, and massiveness of everything.