Ambasz - Describe the architecture of your formative environments in Argentina.
Emilio - I was born in Chaco, a subtropical province of Argentina, almost 1,500 km North of Buenos Aires. Its never-failing rain every afternoon stood as a metaphor for the impermanence of all things. When I was seven my parents moved to Buenos Aires. My room opened directly onto the leafy branches of a street tree. With my bed placed against the window it was as if I lived in a tree house. I used to stay up late, looking at the reflection of the streetlights on the tree. I never ceased to marvel at the brightness of a raindrop on to a leaf. I still remember shivering when the leaves rustled. I was entranced by that tree. To this day I revere its brethren.
The stars of Buenos Aires: there are so many more visible in the Southern hemisphere. Standing on a balcony I felt they cast a dome whose perimeter was nowhere but its centre was everywhere, while I was nothing. One felt ever so lonely, in such an overpowering universe. Buenos Aires has always been seen by the Argentinians as the incarnation of everything the provinces thought ideal. We knew it would be a disappointment, but we cherished its pretence at perfection.
40 years ago my essay “Anthology for a Spatial Buenos Aires” treated it
as one would to a beloved son who did not live up to expectations.
A. - Why do you divide your time between New York and Italy? What are the practicalities? Is there any sub-text here? Which does Emilio prefer and which does Ambasz favour?
E. - If Emilio could not re-enter Italy he would feel as if he had been thrown out of Paradise. If Ambasz could not return to New York he would feel excluded from what was the Capital of the 20th century. I need both places: my feet on the garden earth, and my head in those constantly changing clouds, suggestive of things to come.Will Eden keep its magic safe; will New York maintain its lead in this new century? Maybe I am at that borderline moment when a fruit is about to ripen: its maturing attractions still strong, its decay barely suggested.
As for my practice, I could work anywhere. Email has set me free of a required locale. Personal relations still count, of course, and I keep these alive by meeting regularly with my collaborators. I have begotten children, grandchildren, and not a few little bastards. To see Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, and many others, utilize vegetal matter makes me feel my mission is beginning to bear fruit. To hear some of them claim paternity for these ideas makes me feel a mythological character, but I know it is just a case of Freudian destiny being acted out.
A. - Which of your works do you consider the most important and why?
E. - One of the most important is La Casa de Retiro Espiritual. With it I wanted to “re-examine” architecture. The only thing left standing was the façade, which would be like a mask – a surrogate for architecture. You might say that rhetorically by this device I sought to reformulate architecture as a culturally-conditioned process and return to the primeval notion of the abode. Contrary to everybody’s expectations and hopes, it was built and stands quite proud and handsome.
Another important project for me is the one in Fukuoka, because it demonstrates that one can have “green and grey“ and at the same time you can give back to the community 100% of the ground that the building’s footprint covers in the form of gardens accessible from the ground floor to everyone. This building is very strong evidence that the prevailing notion: “the cities are for the buildings and the outskirts are for the parks” is a mistake only favourable to commercial architects hell bent on their not so well rewarded task of enriching developers. The Fukuoka building demonstrates that you can have a building and a garden, 100% of the building the investors need, and 100% of the greenery the building’s users and its neighbours long for.
A. - How do you see your work in relation to the global environmental
movement? Does architecture matter here?
E. - Architects have always bled for the ills of the world. In my view, they will stand well behind in the line of those sent to Hell for their environmental sins. But there they will go, if they do not honour their ethical responsibility to propose alternative models of the future. I believe that any architectural project not attempting to propose new, or better, modes of existence is unethical. This task may stagger the imagination and paralyse hope, but we cannot duck out of pursuing it.
A. - Place yourself within the context of current architectural production.
E. - I know it sounds presumptuous, but I lay claim to being the precursor of current architectural production concerned with environmental problems. If there is any strength in my architectural ideas, it comes from the fact that I believe that architecture has to be not only pragmatic but also move the heart. I rejoice when I come upon somebody else’s work that touches me, even if it is the architecture of someone like Gehry, for example, whose work is so different from mine, and whose concerns are totally unrelated to mine. What matters to me is that he sings his own song. His birds may not often alight in my garden, but I’m sure they will pollinate even my flowers. As for those who practice my architectural credo, I am not interested whether they cover their work with salad, but whether their work can strike an emotional chord.
A. - Does your architecture have a universal subject?
E. - I believe that the real task of architecture begins once functional and behavioural needs have been satisfied. It is not hunger, but love and fear – and sometimes wonder – which make us create. The architect’s cultural and social context changes constantly, but his task, I believe, remains always the same: to give poetic form to the pragmatic. There is in all of us a deep need for ritual, for ceremony and procession, magical garments and gestures. It is an archetypal quest in which all partake.
The architecture I create is steeped in mysticism. On the one hand, I am playing with the pragmatic elements that come from my time, such as technology. On the other hand, I am proposing a certain mode of existence which is alternative, a new one. My work is a search to give architectural form to primal things – being born, being in love, and dying. They have to do with existence on an emotional, passionate, and essential level. I seek to develop an architectural vocabulary outside the canonical tradition of architecture. It is an architecture that is both here and not here. With it I hope to place the user in a new state of existence, a celebration of human majesty, thought, and sensation. Though apparently quite new, there are devices – both primitive and ancient – permeating the designs. The result is an architecture that seems to stand for eternity.
The ideal gesture would be to arrive at a plot of land so immensely fertile and welcoming that, slowly, the land would assume a shape – providing us with an abode. And within this abode – being such a magic space – it would never rain. We must build our house simply because we are not welcome on the land. Every act of construction is a defiance of nature. In a perfect nature, we would not need houses. If one finds the quintessence of a problem, one will have better access to a solution. The thread supporting my design quest is a single preoccupation: to find the root of the problem, its essence.
As for expressive means, I seek to approach a design problem in the most crystalline, austere, and graceful manner. I long for an architecture which has been reduced to essentials and which, at the same time, is an architecture full of potential meanings. If I may paraphrase Paul Valéry: my quest for the essential in architecture is not about being simple and light like a feather; it is about being essential and concise, like a bird. Architecture is, for me, one aspect of our quest for cosmological models. Every one of my projects seeks to possess an attribute of the universe at least. The quest for that which is infinite, eternal, I suspect, may be contained in designs of very few lines which may, hopefully, acquire the fascinating power of mythical structures. Maybe it is because I seek essentials that I love Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. I am only interested in discovery, not in recovery; in invention, not in classification. I search for essential and lasting principles in architecture.
A. - Your work is vividly pastoral. Do you have any hope for the future of urbanism?
E. - Where did you get the idea that pastoral fields existed only outside the city walls? To this day, from the towers of a medieval city like Bologna you can see that behind the facades defining treeless streets there exist immense gardens which occupy almost 35% of the city area. Those were once vegetable gardens and pastures. Those grounds were of the utmost importance to survive a siege. I strive for an urban future where you can open your door and walk out directly onto a garden, regardless of how high your apartment may be. My building in Fukuoka is one example of how, within a high density city, we can reconcile our need for building shelters with our emotional requirement for green spaces.
A. - What is the difference between ornamentation and camouflage?
E. - Camouflage is used to hide something already existing by giving it another guise. For example, to cover a war tank with a green spotted tarpaulin to transform it into a part of the landscape. It is a conservative act. By dressing it up as something else it remains as it is.
Ornament is used to assign the attributes of something as we want it to become. For example, when the capitals of columns and the cornices of buildings are dressed up in stone turned flora. The key word is here attribute. It is an act requiring suspension of disbelief. We know these elements are not what they re-present, but we accept them as if they were endowed with those characteristics. In using elements from the vegetable kingdom I do not introduce ornament but function. Not only is the introduced element exactly what it purports to be, but it is intrinsically related to the building’s proper performance. I use true elements vitally rooted in the building’s matter.
I am the child of my time, and, therefore, distrustful of making irretrievable formal statements; so I use elements that change with the seasons. The leaves fall in autumn allowing the sun to warm the walls, after having shaded it from the heat in the summer. It is an adornment, but it is intrinsic to the building, just as breathing skin is to an organism. When marble leaves and garlands fall to the ground or end up in museums, the building is scarred but its usefulness survives. If the plants covering my buildings are torn off, the building suffers a substantial reduction of its raison d’etre.
The vegetation used does not try to assume the shape and the attributes of an already existing entity. It is itself, not a re-presentation. By using these plants and moving the earth around the building I seek to reconcile the building’s existence to itself as a principality, as well as to its larger context. To me Reconciliation is the word you are searching for.
Let’s go the beginning. I believe that in our bid to master Nature-as-found, we have created a second man-made-Nature, intricately related to Nature-as-given. We need to re-define architecture as one aspect of our man-made Nature, but to do so we first need to re-define the contemporary meaning of Nature. Perhaps a new type of Academy is called for. Shall we call such an institution a Universitas, i.e. a whole?
A. - How do you see yourself in relation to contemporaneous trends in the art world, to Heizer, Judd, Serra, Miss, etc. Are these relations important? Do they ever flow two ways?
E. - Robert Smithson and I instantly became great friends. At the end of our first dinner together, we felt like long-lost brothers. The same things interested us, from a different viewpoint. I was fascinated by his work, and I presume he was interested in mine. Never again have I had such a feeling of conceptual brotherhood with anyone else. I adored my conversations with him, and I was devastated when he died.
I have also maintained a very good friendship with Sol Lewitt, whom I have always considered the guardian angel of the Minimalist group. Michael Heizer approached me once with a request I write the introduction and critical essay to a book on his work. I knew his work, but I had never met him before. I presumed he was interested in the fact that we shared many formal interests and affinities. It will come to you as a surprise, but I was not acquainted with the work of Richard Serra when I designed the Mexican Computer Center in 1975. The first time I encountered his work was at the Yonkers Museum. During installation time, I was taken to see the exhibition by its director, Richard Koshalek. I was dazzled. I felt that if I ever made a sculpture I should be very happy if it looked half as good as Serra’s.
A. - With every concerned environmentalist and sociologist in the world telling us that vegetation, urban agriculture, garden spaces and forestation are essential components of the city (for reasons of health, well-being and psychological stability), why do you think the mainstream design world still resists the use of landscape – or, at best, sees it as some kind of peripheral décor?
E. - I suppose he-men architects look down patronizingly on interior architects and exterior ones; meaning landscape architects. They feel very strongly that theirs is a true embodiment of the normal and natural and that those other two categories were just, at best, craftsmen or hairdressers. The majority of architects have been given the fortitude of a systematic métier, and the conviction that they belong on this world, if not outright own it. They have been taught that little square windows, or that twisted and tilting planes - depending on their schools - are architecture. Their professors rewarded them handsomely for toe-ing the party line. How can you expect them to utilize materials that are not the traditional ones; how can you expect them to try to integrate a building with Nature when they are the proud heirs of a Greco-Roman tradition of mastering nature, standing above it and distinct from it?
Although the architects bleed for all the sins of the world with their mouths, many of them will not dare to puzzle the client with architecture that is humble or a part of nature; they may lose him.
A. - How has your thinking about architecture and its role in social and environmental reform changed in the past few years? Are you still as idealistic and as hopeful as you were twenty years ago?
E. - For me, the definition of courage is not someone who marches into battle unconcerned, but someone who, although trembling, nevertheless marches ahead because that is what he must do. The lucidity of fear, if it doesn’t paralyze, is a badge of honour.
I always knew that my pursuit of alternative models for a better future would be rejected, mocked, or, at best, I would be left alone to bark to the moon. But I always remembered that the madman who threw stones at the moon never hit her, but, at the end, no one else in the village could throw them as high. I still feel idealistic.
A. - Are you interested in recent developments in environmental technology and are you using some of these innovations in recent projects?
E. - I am very much interested in all sorts of technology. I am one of the few architects who not only designs his work in 1:1 scale detail, but also knows how to mass produce these details. This is the result of my also being an industrial designer who designs, engineers, and solves all sorts of production problems presented by the products he invents.
I believe that the only way to solve the problems that technology may impose upon society is by using technology. The problem with a technological society is that it is technically illiterate and, therefore, under the spell of techniques, and the rule of its high priests. But one should not confuse the pyrotechnical use of techniques with architecture.
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