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Rafael Moneo

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From left to right: Herzog & De Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura, PEter Eisenman, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Bjarke Ingels, Rem Koolhaas, Zvi Hecker, myself, Preston Scott Cohen, Michael Meredith, and Hilary Sample. Missing are Reyner Banham and François Dallegret, who were edited out because of space constraints. You can still see a portion of one of Fraçois’ ‘Automobiles Astrologiques¡ at each end, though.

Woa. It’s been 5 months, already? It seems so, so (cacophony alert) before this blog is officially declared dead, I’m going to throw in some stuff that’s old enough to deserve some recovery. In February 2016, Uncube Magazine published an issue that had been in the works for quite some time at that point, ‘Walk the Line’, focusing on architectural representation and drawing in general. The issue featured an assorted group of interesting names, such as Wes Jones, Moon Hoon, William Chyr (of Manifold Garden fame), Sergei Tchoban,  Raumlabor Berlin, and some others. At that point I had been the house cartoonist ithe magazine for some three years, so Sophie Lovell, editor-in-chief, thought it might be worth having a little chat, illustrated with some ad-hoc cartoons. As usual, this happened at a point where I was swamped by work, which, adding to my proverbial sluggishness meant I ended up producing much less original work than I would have wished. It was a real shame, because by that time we knew the magazine’s run was coming to an end, and I would have loved to go out with a bang. Still, I’m glad we did it. Oh, and that first page with the line-up of starchitects was a hoot to make. I think it would work great as wallpaper material. So, here’s the full interview.

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The architecture cartoonist Klaus has had a regular slot with Uncube since issue no: 7. His work and approach parallels much of what the magazine stands for in terms of going “beyond” the traditional parameters of the discipline. Uncube’s editor-in-chief Sophie Lovell chews the fat with him about elastic boundaries and the hyperbolic distortion machine.

First things first: You’re an architect, aren’t you? Or at least you studied architecture at some point.

Yes, I’ve been a registered architect for about 15 years now. I’m getting over it, though.

I’m well aware that there are very elastic boundaries between architecture and (let’s say) beyond, but how does cartooning fit into your practice?

It started when I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).I was about to start my PhD dissertation, which meant I was desperately looking for excuses that kept me away for it, and the GSD was a great provider of those: you had all these vedettes walking around, lots of stressed students living in their pods, loads of models piling up… it was eminently cartoon-isable. Then, one day Preston Scott Cohen had a hilarious conversation/argument with Ben Van Berkel, and I thought: “ok, I have to make a cartoon of this”. And that was that. Thanks, Preston.

But, going back to the elasticity you pointed out: Yes, there is definitely a lot of disciplinary promiscuity nowadays, due to the decrease in – let’s call it – “traditional architect” work. However, I think that the 2008 crisis [SL1] exposed something that has always been there. Historically,if you had drawing skills and were good at maths, you were often automatically directed towards architecture, so over time, many learnt to vent their artistic urges through architectural design… some times more successfully than others. I think that nowadays, many people with an architectural background are just exploring the intersections between architecture and passions they sublimated through architecture, or some other ones they discovered at architecture school.

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A montage with some of the cartoons I did for Uncube during its 4-year run. There were about 30 of them, which makes it my longest collaboration to date. You can have a look at them by clicking the Uncube tag in this blog, or you can check the magazine’s website, of course. 

What does it mean to be an architect, then?

Many things. Many different things, that’s the point. And you don’t necessarily have to be all of them. In fact, you cannot be all of them. Whenever someone brings in that idyllic metaphor of “the architect as an orchestra conductor”, I feel the urge to ask the speaker to point me towards all these orchestras waiting to be conducted. The profession – and even the discipline – is changing and we need architects specialized in different fields, or people with an architectural background in other professions. And architectural cartoonists as well of course – but not many. Back off, it’s my pie.

Is that the reason why starchitecture is usually the target of your satire? Because it represents this malign understanding of the architect?

Well, yes, but also because it’s so easy to make fun of… egocentric characters have great comedic potential, and architecture education teaches you about narcissism. Also, we love trashing those who are more successful than us at  – what we’ve been told is – our own game.

So you believe in the idea of the architect as critical thinker or provocateur?

There are cases we all know where the simple ability to think would be asking too much. But yes, I do believe in the architect as an intellectual. The main problem here is that we are usually taught to work with evocations[SL2] : architects are great at appropriating concepts, images, strategies from other disciplines and turning them into architectural form or discourse. But this is an attitude that many of us take into whatever we do, so our approach to everything tends to be very superficial: just a hint at the surface and we begin to extrapolate. That’s why architects usually make mediocre poets and terrible philosophers (I think I’m making many friends today…).

I remember listening to Peter Eisenman ranting once about the lack of “close attention” paid by today’s students; however, I think that’s something endemic to the profession. Derrida himself thought that Eisenman’s approach to deconstruction had nothing to do his own understanding of the concept. I like architects thinking out loud, but most of the time they’re just posturing, and bleating the same archibabble -or re-combinations of it- again and again.

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What you do in your role as a cartoonist, or caricaturist,is a quite blatant form of criticism, so are you not just hoisting yourself with you own petard?

There’s a critical attitude behind it, that’s obvious. However, I’m not trying to provide constructive criticism. I’m not even trying to be fair. There is no consistent attitude, or overall unifying discourse: I’ll criticize one thing and then its opposite. It’s all about having fun. I think you mentioned the word “jester”, at some point, and I think it’s pretty accurate, because jesters’ humor could be self-deprecating, if needed, but they were also great pranksters. Anything but mindless good taste.

So, anything goes in your view including offence, if necessary?

Sure, although I think my cartoons are very tame, usually. Of course, I come up with much harsher stuff, but I don’t have the time anymore. My current collaborations take up most of my spare time, so I have to choose. And, believe me, you wouldn’t want to publish the things that creep inside my head. So, there: I sold out. I’ve always been very partial to money.

A colleague of yours, Jimenez Lai, said that humour, parody and exaggeration can also be very productive as form-givers, that one can tread new paths through exaggeration.

Oh, absolutely. We are no born as abstract thinkers, so we obviously learn through imitation, by copying. Some people may have abstract minds, but most of us rely on reactive mental processes, so we react to what we are shown either by copying it, negating it, twisting it (that’s when caricature enters the equation). What’s interesting to me is that, if you copy something sufficiently poorly, or you take exaggeration too far, it becomes something different. Double meanings work very in much the same way: humour is mostly based on twisting words, or looking at things from a deliberately twisted angle, which may, if done mindlessly enough provide with new, interesting perspectives that you would not come upon through realistic, or fair thinking.

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I see: the hyperbolic distortion machine, architectural caricature and distortion as a design force. You’ve spoken elsewhere about the “suspended reality of the cartoon” as a freeing design environment. You certainly have a penchant for fantastic architecture / architecture of fantasy. In contrast, in your architect persona, do you experience designing actual buildings as a straight jacket?

Not a straight jacket so much as a task that requires too much effort in my case. Designing on a paper – or through a model – and getting to build something are related but not they’re not the same thing and you have to be willing to invest a lot of energy. I’m less and less interested in it as time passes. However, built architecture can compensate for all the things you lose when not working in the free reign of theoretical design. That said, non-build, or even non-buildable architecture, paper architecture, visionary architecture… whatever you want to call it, does encapsulate a inexhaustible capability for fascination. Many of us have a penchant for the visionary (not utopian, please) proposals of the 1960s, and the megastructural scene, in general. And, of course, it has to do with the fact that it was never (supposed to be) built. Almost 20 years ago I remember drooling over Zaha Hadid’s book The Complete Buildings and Projects. Each of those crowded drawings suggested so many possibiities… Then she started building, then AutoCad entered her office, and that was that. Well, except for her ill-fated stadium in Qatar –that was excellent cartoon-fodder.

What is the role of drawing in architecture /architectural design, then? Does being a great draughtsman make you a better architect?

No, I don’t think it does necessarily. Obviously, you need certain graphic skills to represent architecture. Also, sketching is a great way to organize and visualize your thoughts. However, I don’t think you need to be a great draughtsman to be a good architect, and having impressive graphic abilities doesn’t guarantee an equal capacity to design impressive architecture. Being too enthusiastic about drawing can even be counter-productive: a beautiful plan does not necessarily produce a good building, and if you’re too focused on making the drawing look good you may take decisions that work good for the plan as a drawing, but not for the building itself.

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Not my office. I wish I had a backlit drafting table. Or an office, actually.

You have been working under the Klaus moniker for about 12 years now. Why the pen name? Does this anonymity simply give you freedom to be more critical? Or is it a way to ensure a multifaceted approach?

Both, actually. “Klaus” is an anagram of my given name. When I started publishing comic strips in a local architecture magazine, I thought it would be a good way to avoid compromising my real name with less-than-serious stuff, because I was also starting to produce academic work. Years later, when I took it up again and went online, people started contacting me as Klaus, and I started writing under the Klaus persona. I enjoyed the freedom it gave me, but also the fact that it had a very distinct voice from my official, academic fare. So I kept both personalities. We get on pretty well, as a matter of fact. And it provides nice threesomes, too.

What does Klaus’ “old castle in Europe”, where he lives, look like?

Oh, when the crisis struck, the bank took it from me. I think they’re selling it to install an Apple store.

One last question: Are you Rem Koolhaas?

No. He’s much taller.

Sophie Lovell: “The [not so] Fine Line: A Conversation Thread about this and that with architecture cartoonist Klaus”.  Uncube Magazine nº 42, February 2016.

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(…) Digging into the dirty laundry of the architectural star-system is, in any case, neither a recent phenomenon nor a curiosity exclusively circumscribed to today’s divas. The mouth-to-ear airing of our architectural heroes’ private sins has been an inevitable aside of their rise as idols. Small talk on the lower passions of the masters of the past has accompanied the writing of the big lines of the History of Modern Architecture, and along with our worshiping of their oeuvre comes the delight to learn about their quaintest interiorities: Mies van der Rohe´s infamous (non) affairs with Ms. Farnsworth, Alvar Aalto´s alcoholism -a recurring topic for Finnish cartoonists3, or Le Corbusier´s pathological Messianic obsessions are personal details that have transcended the boundaries of scientific biographies to become precious pieces of information we love adding to our common knowledge of them. We need both heroes and villains: The formers to inspire us, the latter to offer us some moral relief at the sight of a worse human being than ourselves. But even more, we’d rather having our heroes be our villains too. Some will argue that these minor flaws humanize our icons, making them flesh and blood human beings we can better relate to, and certainly this “fleshing out” helps build our interest on them. But this humanization is also an excuse that sugarcoats a very straight forward preservation mechanism, devised to protect our self-esteem at that point where admiration meets sheer envy. There’s nothing we love more than a rags to riches story -except for a riches to rags story, that is.

A most interesting reversion of this turns up, however, when these minutiae actually become an integral part of the mythos, to the point of being vital contributors to its very construction. Again, the careful devise of its own legend was an inherent feature of architecture’s entrance into modernity, often created as a fiction before it really happened. (…) The fascinating point here is how this emergence of gossiping contributes to the creation of the starchitect; how in the case of contemporary icons such as Rem Koolhaas it´s the unofficial flux of information surrounding the figure which ultimately elevates him into a legendary status.

Of course, in the case of Koolhaas the shaping of this aura is also engineered through conventional means; Koolhaas is a sharp thinker and an eloquent writer and spokesman who has shaken the architectural scene of the last decades with acute reflections of deliberate and controlled ambiguity. But even more than through his words, the Koolhaas mediatic persona has been constructed through a parallel dissemination of details about his behind-the-scenes: stories that tell us of a man who lives in airplanes, sending by mail corrections for a document he was given in a meeting a few hours before, of a Renaissance man who swims every time he lands, or wins a competition with a single, cunning speech5. All this mouth-to-ear stories, propagated through the netsphere, contribute to endow his figure with an halo of epic mystery that propells him into an almost superhuman category. Koolhaas is the über-example of the starchitect, where the personality comes first and the work second. And that’s the bottom line: Koolhaas can produce starchitecture because he is, first and foremost, a star. Le Corbusier´s delightully maudit portrait, painting nude in Saint Tropez has been replaced by a cover of L’Uomo Vogue.

But public notoriety is as easy to gather in the age of software as difficult to retain. The internet era is also the age of the twitterization of knowledge, a time where information both reigns and deflates, where news are as ubiquitous as thoroughly made-to-forget, immediately replaced by new installments. The same could be said about some of the architecture produced by this idiosyncrasy, made to glow for a moment and quickly disappear; architecture of futile monumentality and inevitable ephemerality designed within a discipline obsessed with creating the building of the century… of the week. In this new paradigm, the (st)architect has to become a public figure, an entertainer, a performer, or even, if needed, a celebrity of the Kardashian kind. The World Wide Web and the rapid production allowed by digital tools have multiplied the presence of architecture in everyday life, and have worked together to create a new type of architect sustained above all by his communication skills. The internet, blog culture, Twitter, have leveled the capability of everyone to achieve their share of Warholian fame, but in turn, their allotted fifteen minutes have been drastically reduced to -maybe- fifteen seconds. The attention of the audience, brought up in a solid diet of continuous novelty, is volatile, and the architecture of today has to keep nourishing its audience at a steady pace, or risk disappearing from the picture right away.

And it is in this context where gossip, criticism and satire, emerge as tools for the maintenance of public presence. The internet has also revived the long-loved tradition of the fast gag, the sketchy commentary, and the cartoon, which offer the necessary escape route for the asfixiating ubiquity and self-indulgence of architectural discourse. As any endogamic discipline, architecture has a record of taking itself too seriously, and of alternating victimism and self-deprecation with tremendous arrogance and a myopic lack of perspective (ironic as it is) on the relevance of its own obsessions. The reemergence of satire appears as a natural counterbalance for this, offering us a way to mock our loved-hated idols that’s apparently naive, inoffensive (but with the potential to become really offensive), and sublimate our frustration through ironic laughter, instead of bitter full-frontal (yes) criticism, while at the same time, reinforcing the (com)position of the starchitectural who’s who. As Oscar Wilde, via some of our infamous celebrities, would point out, the ultimate goal is to be talked about so as to be (there), even if just to be thrashed, and architects, with their fragile yet unrestrained egos, become the ideal victim/beneficiary of this revival. Today, gossip refashions itself as a form of viral advertising. The motto is “keep them talking”. (…)

Tell me more! – Gossiping, cartooning, and the nourishing of the  Starchitectural status quo

Conditions magazine #10: Gossip, July 2012

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The above are some excerpts from a (not really much longer) article published in the last issue of Conditions magazine, which I received last month, in the middle of the busiest July I can remember. Conditions is an independent Scandinavian magazine on Architecture and Urbanism edited by Joana da Rocha Sá Lima, Tor Inge Hjemdal, and  Anders Melsom whose next issue, “Possible Greenland”, will be part of the official catalogue of this year’s Danish/Greenlandic contribution to the Venice Biennale. Conditions #10 is dedicated to gossip, and features contributions by Robert Somol, Eduard Sancho, Christian Hjelle, Irene Hwang, Ed Ogosta, Espen Vatn, Freddy Massad&Alicia Guerrero Yeste, Roberto Naboni, Iben Falconer and yours truly. The essay above was written around the same time as Modern Talking, the article published in Mas Context #14: Communication that tackled on some overlapping issues, which explains the recurrent use of some examples and ramblings; either that or I’m entering a wino-in-a-bar dynamics where I just keep repeating the same the same stuff over and over. Please, be forgiving.

If you want to read the full article, click in the images below, or -much better- order a copy here. You can also read the text of Eduard Sancho’s And if most of the job offers are fake? here. Special thanks to Gislunn Halfdanardottir.

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Once upon a time, people compared with their neighbors. Your neighbor was your point of reference and thus the most desirable object of gossip and eavesdropping. Not so anymore. In the world of global networking, you are driven by ambition to compare yourself with the most clever or world-renowned exponents of your trade. Even a critique, satire or parody of the star-system of architecture is an affirmation of its hegemony. Who doesn’t want to be the object of architecture gossip? After all, it’s giving the “stars” more attention, no matter how critical the original intention was. For addicts of gossip, all news is good news, the worst thing is silence, and even a well mediated “scandal” can actually promote your career.
The current issue of CONDITIONS investigates the function of gossip in architecture. Gossip has always been around in architecture as one of the oldest ways of sharing, maneuvering and convincing. But how does it manifest itself today within the instant culture of internet and social media? What is the role of gossip in contemporary networking? Has the logic of gossip and instant gratification also penetrated what we used to call architectural critique?
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