Intense Artificiality, Artificial Intensity: A conversation between David Chipperfield, Thomas Demand and Hal Foster

THOMAS DEMAND: This show is about aspects of architecture in my work, which is why I wanted to ask you, from an architect’s point of view, what it’s like to see artists going into architecture. Does it irritate you at all?

DAVID CHIPPERFIELD: They’re not really going into architecture – they’re using architecture as a subject. I think the question is why architecture is such an interesting territory for artists. Presumably because artists are becoming more interested in environments generally and they feel the environment is part of their territory. And, as artists, you have license to operate in ways that we can’t.

HAL FOSTER: David, do you see the relationship between art and architecture as antagonistic, as it often was between architects and the Minimalist artists, or at least the post-Minimalists? Or has that changed?

DAVID: I would say that was a period when art inspired architects. Now it’s the other way around: the artists are somehow interested in architecture as a subject.

HAL: I think you and I share a suspicion about architects attempting to perform as ‘artists in architecture’ – for example, with the idea of ‘architecture as sculpture’. The moves across this line can be very progressive and quite radical – historically, that’s the case anyway. It’s the blurring of the two that drives me crazy.

DAVID: The influence between the two practices is extremely strong, maybe now more than ever, because contemporary art has become much more pervasive. It’s much more of a currency. When I started my career, I was interested in a number of artists and I would use images of Donald Judd or Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work as references that were useful to me, but basically obscure. Now, contemporary art has become part of our general reference material – much more than it was 20 years ago.

The danger is when architects think that they are artists. Though I think it’s fair game to borrow references from art formally, even sculpturally. I think artists spend most of their time proving how uncompromised they are. That is a huge part of their credibility. To be an artist, you have to flaunt your purity in terms of ideas. You don’t have clients. You don’t have to do things you don’t want to do. Architecture is the opposite. We are compromised. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just that we have to use compromise and complicity as part of our working method.

I did a project with Antony Gormley that was a small pavilion, which he thought of as an architectural sculpture. I thought it was sort of sculptural art, a piece of architecture. The interesting thing is that we didn’t need to conform to any safety requirements or any other practical requirements because it was called art. Even if you stand ten metres up on a piece of concrete, you don’t need a handrail because at the bottom of the staircase it says it’s art. You can’t do that in architecture, nor should you do it to architecture.

THOMAS: The pavilion I’m constructing in Ebeltoft in Denmark wouldn’t be able to be built if it weren’t more or less a sculpture. So I can confirm that you have much more acceptance or leeway as an artist than you might have as an architect.

HAL: Let me sketch out a potted version of the historical relation between artists and architects. At one point in the Modernist period, there was a commitment to structural transparency on the part of both. Later – in 1963, to be exact – Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky complicated this idea of ‘literal’ transparency with a transparency they called ‘phenomenal’, a kind of palimpsest of surface and space that they saw in Cubist painting. It’s then that the skin begins to be as important as the structure, at least in architectural discourse, which sets up, first, Pop architecture, and then Postmodern architecture. However, almost at the same time, in a partial reversion to Modernism, artists like Carl Andre and Richard Serra came along and recommitted to literal transparency – of material, of structure, of production. They borrowed from architecture, because they felt that sculpture didn’t have adequate tectonic principles of its own. So they appropriated from architecture and established its criterion as a criterion for sculpture.

THOMAS: You would probably recognise a lot of that Minimal vocabulary in architecture today, in David’s architecture for instance.

HAL: Absolutely. I would like to hear David on the subject, because we talk generally about Minimalism, but the word means different things to different people at different times. For some of us, Minimalism means a commitment to tectonics. For others, it’s an opening to spatial effects that are quite mediated, that aren’t structural at all. What are your thoughts about Minimalism in relation to your work?

DAVID: I was in college in the late 1970s, early ’80s, and it was really the point when Modernism was collapsing. At the beginning of my training, we just looked at all of the wonderful Modernist monuments. By the end of my training, we were being encouraged to look at Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Edwin Lutyens, and Henri Labrouste. I remember the confusion at that time. Without Modernism as an ideology, where does architecture go? And that seemed to be two ways. One was that architecture had no physical quality, that it had somehow lost its substance and its physiognomy as well. And the other was for architecture that gave back more substance and experience.

So one thing to be retrieved from the ashes was the experiential quality of architecture. And I think that’s where Minimalism was appealing. Because it sort of said, forget all of that stuff about how architecture is going to change the world. For heaven’s sake, can’t we just have a nice floor, a beautiful wall, a window that looks out on a tree, and some light that cuts across? The other bunch said, yeah, but we’ve got to make it look like something, because Modern architecture has lost its dialogue, and therefore we’ve got to go back to history. So it seemed, at that moment, there were these two choices: substance or silhouette. And I think both of them were valid critiques of Modernism by that time.

HAL: I agree about those two genealogies. I would just add that they should be understood in relation to each other. Because that commitment to substance, which is also a commitment to embodiment, to a phenomenological experience of architecture, arises not only in the demise of Modernism, but also as a response to a world that has become more and more mediated, more and more Pop. So the two trajectories belong together dialectically.

THOMAS: Where does art get a foot in the door with the architecture process, or the other way around? For instance, the photographic quality of a building has been discussed as a key part of a building scheme. Is that akin to what Minimal art was like for architecture today? Does it need to be iconic in terms of photography?

HAL: Twenty years ago, with ‘light construction’, there was an interest in the dematerialisation of architecture; in part that could be understood in terms of a becoming-image, a becoming-digital, not only of architecture but also of almost everything in a post-Fordist information economy. Suddenly, some architects began to treat the architectural skin as a kind of digital surface, an info-scape. This was a weird ambition for architecture: that it would aspire to become immaterial. This dematerialisation was also pursued in interior space, which became more mediated, more immersive. It was as though some architects conspired with some artists to produce distracting facades and ecstatic environments. I assume, David, that you were opposed to both those tendencies. You have also suggested that there might now be a social turn in architecture, or at least a renewed commitment to social concerns. Certainly that’s very strong among artists, too. Can you say more about this?

DAVID: I think it’s becoming artists’ territory, too. There’s not a biennale that you go to nowadays where agendas are not the dominant issue. That’s our condition and I think it’s rightly going to be. The challenge for architects is that we’re much more complicit in issues which affect our built environment, both from an environmental-performance point of view, and from a social inequality point of view. We might argue that we don’t cause it, but we are certainly in the army that is involved in it.

The question is, how do we change our operative position from what it’s become in the last 20 years? Modernism did have this sort of ideological ambition to be on the side of good. We were all trained that architecture was meant to improve the quality of the world. But we now have 50% of the world’s open population living in temporary accommodation that’s not just provisional, it’s permanent. So, whereas Modernism believed that its agenda was to somehow house people, we’ve become part of a system that accepts that half the world is unhoused. And that’s somehow way beyond our remit, because that’s not what we do.

HAL: That’s an extraordinary thought. I, too, associate some of the great proposals in modern architecture with housing. The 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis became emblematic of the demise of that ambition. In what ways do you see the social turn developing? Emergency housing is one, but I also sense – in relation to the climate catastrophe – the possibility of an architectural intervention at the level of great infrastructural projects. Is that in the cards?

DAVID: It depends what you mean by infrastructure. What we really need is social infrastructure, not technical infrastructure. Politicians love infrastructure projects, because that means railways, roads, bridges – things that are somehow instantly delivered through simple instruction. But what we’re missing is social infrastructure. The crisis we have is social.

When you talk about housing, the truth is, we have not been building housing for 25 years, 30 years. Housing was how we built society. Not through museums and headquarters. But on the other hand, it’s not enough to think that architecture is only a social act. We also want beauty.

It’s quite interesting talking to the design community. They are anxious, because they feel that consumerism can only go on so long. There’s a huge insecurity amongst furniture designers who have grown up with the notion that the application of design into industry was a good thing. There seems to be a loss of confidence in the things that seemed so secure for the last 30 years. I’m convinced that that’s going to affect the role of architecture or the role of architects. I don’t know to what degree it affects the role of artists, but it is impossible to go to an exhibition at the moment where the issue of the environment or of society is not a very strong component. At the same time, we still want to find beauty. We still want to find poetry. And that seems to be the difficulty.

THOMAS: I think art is in danger of becoming a little bit of an illustration of a theme. You almost have to be on the ‘right’ side of an issue and your artwork has to prove that it is on the right side, which is not the artistic part. I think artists themselves are on the chopping block more than before. And social media only contributes to that. So of course it has a consequence in the artworks you see around.

DAVID: But in your work, Thomas, you seem to have taken a very clear position that the piece has to stand on its own. The fact that there is something that amuses you or motivates you behind it is not the reason why the viewer should appreciate it.

THOMAS: Yes. But my own work is also understood within the narrative of ‘the guy who builds everything out of paper’. And it used to be ‘the guy who comes from Germany and just rebuilds Hitler’s bunker’. Whereas the discussion about Richard Serra is much less about who Richard Serra is than it is with me or with anyone from my generation, where it’s very, very much in the forefront. Who are they, where are they coming from, what is their biography? And now with the younger generation, it’s not only where they come from, but also, do they have the right opinions? I’m not incredibly excited about the social engineering part of what is happening right now and what you have to deliver as an artist.

I think that’s partly why architecture is becoming interesting. Because it seems to be a field where form is being taken seriously. It might also be a little bit of an escape route, I admit. It’s more that architecture provides a form of making a show than it does a form for making an artwork.

DAVID: Hal, you described this idea of immersive, nearly ephemeral architecture that one might occupy. The perspective was an internal one. It was something that one would occupy. Whereas it would seem to me that architectural production of the last 20 years has rather overemphasised the external form. I also think that architecture is not only about the three-dimensional qualities of a building but also about experience and how you occupy it. It seems to me that a lot of the crafting that we experience in the history of architecture has been in the qualities of interior architecture. But the commercial pressure and the real-estate pressure on construction nowadays tend to price out those immersive or ‘wasteful’ experiences. So it seems to stop the generosity and the gesture from happening.

It’s the same with open space. In London, you walk through a park and you think, wow, what a wonderful park. Then you think, how the hell did someone make a park? Imagine making a park nowadays – setting aside a large amount of land and saying you’re not going to build on that. It’s as if we can’t do that stuff anymore.

THOMAS: I would like to talk about the role of the model. Is the model something of interest in your architectural practice? What are the possibilities of digital planning versus having a physical model in a certain size?

DAVID: In terms of the creative process, the model is very important because it’s a good tool. Not in terms of presentation, but in terms of it being in the studio.

When I was a young architect, we sat at big drawing boards and you could stand by somebody and look at what they were drawing. You could talk about the drawing and you would talk about the project. You can’t do that on a screen. Therefore, the model as a sort of collective representation of a project design becomes an important meeting space for the team. It becomes a device to investigate and to congregate around. It’s also a step towards physicality.

Having said that, in terms of production, we are having to adopt all sorts of other technologies, like BIM, which are amazing. The fact that you can have a coordinated three-dimensional modelling of the information, which is spread amongst the whole consultant team, is quite impressive. But it confirms the mechanical processes of design more than the intuitive ones.

THOMAS: There’s a whole tradition of a model that basically obscures more than it actually shows. And that’s about representation, that’s about somehow inserting a pause into the digestion of a new architectural scheme. I think the process of thinking with your hands is actually quite amazing. It’s quite beautiful to see.

In terms of figurative architecture, like Venturi and Scott Brown’s notion of ‘duck architecture’, where is it now? Is there potential for you in that? Because that’s the most frontal, iconic idea of an image in architecture being used and circulated. It’s not structural. Can you see that somewhere today or is it completely dead?

DAVID: I’m sort of torn about that moment. Right now, my interest is less and less in the formal issues of architecture. Doing architecture isn’t a singular activity. If you’re building in the middle of Berlin next to historic buildings, that’s one thing. If you’re building on a railroad track outside of Madrid on a piece of scrubland, it’s a different thing. You’ve got different responsibilities at different times.

Right now I’m more interested in planning, because it’s a continuous frustration of architects that we are inheriting a series of decisions that you spend half your life questioning. Why is this building here? Why are we doing it over here? We’re tormented animals because we have to believe in the poetry of what we do and the way we realise it. We also have to challenge and question the circumstances in which we do things. It’s two different parts of the process.

Too much of the discussion in the last years has been about what things look like. And there hasn’t been enough discussion about what things are. Maybe this is just because I got to a certain point in my life as well. I’ve become slightly less interested in doing something that looks a certain way, and is published in a certain way, than in what role architects can play in unlocking other things. That may sound pretentious, but I don’t mean it to be. I’m not underestimating the excitement one gets out of making a building and the consideration of formal issues.

THOMAS: I totally understand. If you think of recent architecture, nobody wants to be as silly as a duck. Everybody wants to be more psychological. A duck is actually a really funny proposal because what you see is what you get. But I guess this whole streak in architecture is completely dead, no?

DAVID: Maybe this is a moment to confirm what you might expect a duck to look like. So if I were to be super critical of my own work there, I would say it’s predictable. You’ve done a sort of Minimalist, Modernist temple amongst other 19th-century temples. So is doing what’s expected in a way making a duck? Is it maybe reassuring people somehow? What’s the status of reassurance in architecture, as well as the status of destabilisation? What’s the role of architecture to somehow say, wow, I’ve never seen that before? And what’s the state of architecture in the sense of having some sort of affirmative and reassuring quality? I suppose I’ve always gravitated towards the reassuring more than the questioning, which is sort of why my work is a bit boring.

THOMAS: I wouldn’t say that. David, have any of your buildings ever been demolished that you know of, and how does that work? How did that feel?

DAVID: I don’t think so. Some are in a terrible condition.

THOMAS: But there’s nothing you can do, no?

DAVID: No. No. And in a way, you do have to accept it. That’s the other thing about being an architect. Once you’ve walked away, you’ve walked away. That has to be part of the deal from the beginning. Which may also be another difference between architects and artists. Artists know who buys their work and even whom the buyer sells it to afterwards. Imagine that.

THOMAS: We don’t have any influence on that at all actually.

DAVID: At the moment we are involved in renovating a number of Modernist buildings, buildings from the ’60s. And the status of patina on a Modernist building is a very interesting one compared to the patina on a 19th-century building. It’s a material issue as well. Stone takes patina better than most things. Plaster is the worst. Plaster just collapses. And therefore, it’s very difficult to maintain the authentic quality of a stucco building once it is renovated.

HAL: But authenticity can also be produced. Many people thought that you simply stripped down the Neues Museum in Berlin. But as you stripped it down, you also put it back in such a way that the past and the present of the building can now be experienced together. I’m interested in how you negotiate time in architecture. And maybe this is a way to get back, Thomas, to your relation to models and how models are forms of media for you. David, how do you approach the temporal aspect of architectural experience?

DAVID: It is interesting how it goes back to this conversation about Minimalism and the experiential qualities of architecture. And, certainly, the interesting thing about the Neues Museum was that it became a very popular building, because people could somehow feel it. It is very visceral. You realise that buildings when they’re being constructed and also as they’re being destroyed are probably at their most sympathetic and empathetic. Why don’t finished buildings have the same quality? It’s a bit like, why is the organic sometimes more charming and more interesting and more human than the formal? There is a misunderstanding sometimes in architecture. We underestimate how meaningful things are to us in the most banal ways.

At the moment I’m having a conversation with Anselm Kiefer, who has bought his childhood house on the banks of the Rhine. He found it and went back there and bought it. And he’s now stripping it back so that it coincides with his memory of the house. So he’s taking away everything that he doesn’t remember – all the modern window frames and other things. He sees it as an architectural project. But of course, it’s an art project. It’s got nothing to do with architecture. Because if I were the architect, I wouldn’t be allowed to do it. I wouldn’t be allowed to have thermal windows that didn’t perform all the same. But I thought it was quite interesting that he should play with what he remembers about the house from his memory and then the reality of it.

THOMAS: That’s what my trade is. I am trying to build a set that is actually how you remember it and not so much how it was. So it feels quite familiar to me to do that. And I’m not sure it’s helpful to say whether it’s architecture or an artwork. But somehow, it has to do with architecture more than artwork in his case.

But what always intrigued me about architecture is, you plan a complex thing and you just deal at this point with its invisibility. If I go to my studio and I don’t make anything, there is no art in the end. Also, I constantly have feedback in the moment – is that going in the right direction or is it not? I have physical feedback. If you’re planning for 10 years, by the time anything is actually being done, it’s basically a little bit too late. Where do you learn how to manage that? Is that what distinguishes a good architect from a bad architect? That his or her vision or imagination is more precise?

DAVID: I think it’s a huge problem for the profession that we have to artificially make intensity. Because there is never a moment. You’re doing sketches which become drawings, but they’re not drawings yet. And when they are drawings, then they become working drawings, but they’re not working drawings yet. When they’re working drawings, they will then be transferred into documents that will become contractual. And then they will become a building. At which point have you performed? Which point do you sort of put your pen down and say, oh wow, great, that’s nice? Or, maybe, should I change something? The strange thing is, it’s not when the building is finished. Because at that point, as you say, you don’t see it anymore. It’s not like I’m jealous of a musician that goes out on stage and plays and then has a beer afterwards, and then everyone is either commiserating or congratulating them. But for architects, you are never in any sort of performance condition. I guess it’s a little bit similar to you, but at least at some point, you put your pens down and say, that’s it. Frame it.

HAL: What I see in many practices that interest me – including in architecture and in fiction – is that there is a sense now that reality has to be constructed, not deconstructed. My generation was still very much given over to demystification. We wanted to undo things, to expose things. But David, in the Neues Museum, you used architectural artifice to reveal architectural reality. Thomas, I think that’s what you do, too. You make models not to dissolve the real, but to make it real again, maybe real for the first time.

DAVID: Now, if you talk to people in the design world, they’re all interested in process and how they participate. And in a sense, I get that feeling in architecture as well. In Thomas’ work, we can smell the process. The transformation is quite fascinating. In a way, the reason why the Neues Museum was so important to me wasn’t because we dreamt it up. I didn’t have the slightest idea at the beginning of that project what it was going to be like or how to do it. The success of that project was managing a process and enjoying the process.

HAL: This is also true in art now – many artists are interested in the process as the work. And in the ways that process allows not only for more collaboration but also for more community. It’s almost as if the work becomes the experience, or the record, of the process. And I assume that that’s what it’s like to work in your studio, Thomas.

From 'House of Card' by Thomas Demand, published October 2020

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