University of the Fraser Valle / flickr.com

Architecture and beyond: data, education, culture

An interview with Aaron Betsky on the future of architecture by Sabina Maslova

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An interview with Aaron Betsky

An interview by Sabina Maslova

In today's society, in the existing urban chaos, globalisation and the widespread use of cellphones and the Internet, building separate structures is no longer enough – it is not enough just to build elegant compositions in the master plans and search for only plastic and sculptural solutions. Modern man is now in a completely different reality, and therefore it is necessary to look for new forms, functions and spatial solutions to build up new kind of relationships with the modern environment.

What does architecture do in a world in which we are nowhere and everywhere at the same time? How can architecture make us feel at home in a world marked by the continual movement of goods, people, and ideas? Certainly by moving beyond the stand-alone, monumental building. Aaron Betsky talks about how not just architects, but makers of various kinds are rethinking, reusing, and opening up our world.

Aaron Betsky is an architect, critic, curator, educator, lecturer, and writer on architecture and design. Currently he is a Director of Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati. Mr. Betsky was born in Missoula, Montana but moved to the Netherlands where he received his grade and high school education. He was granted both a Bachelor of Arts (1979) and a Masters of Architecture (1983) degree from Yale University. Mr. Betsky’s leadership of major institutions in the world of art and architecture includes serving as Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam from 2001 to 2006, Curator of Architecture and Design of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 1995-2001, and Artistic Director of the 11th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, in September 2008. A prolific writer and editor with a dozen books and hundreds of articles to his credit, Mr. Betsky is also a lecturer and visiting critic who teaches around the world. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and writes a twice-weekly blog for architectmagazine.com His collected essays, At Home in Sprawl, were recently published by RMIT Press.
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Globalisation is one of the frightening patterns in the modern world, significantly narrowing down regional uniqueness and originality. What do you think of this process in the field of architecture, where it seems that a certain limited group of star architects are construct buildings in most countries around the world?

Well, first of all, I think that this whole notion of the star architects is exaggerated. It’s such a strange idea, that suddenly we have architects who are more well-​known than in the past, that we have architects working in other countries. Here, where I work in Cincinnati, we have a wing that was built by Daniel Burnham of Burnham and Root’s. In Saint Petersburg, and also in Moscow, you might notice that most of the buildings were built by Italian and French architects in the 18th-​19th centuries. The only thing different is, obviously, there’s a great fluidity, so that architects can work all over the world. However, I don’t think that there’s any kind of fundamentally different situation and I don’t think that it has anything to do with some conspiracy by a few architects to grab all the commissions. It’s just a fact that when the developer or client is looking for an architect and wants to find someone they feel comfortable with because they can see what they’ve done. I would say that in fact the reverse is true, because even twenty years ago it was impossible for the young architect or the architect with very a small practice to make large buildings, to build up a very large practice. By now, due to computer communication technologies, it is entirely possible for a person with a firm or just by herself or himself to design and oversee the construction of a skyscraper. Automation creates many more possibilities for architects to design buildings. There is another factor, which appears in all the arts, – the intensity of globalisation, that parallels the economic globalisation we are all part of. That is not something new, it has been growing for many centuries. Because of the computer communication technologies, it has now reached a much higher level, so that artists and architects become well-​known more quickly, can work and do work in more places around the world. Moreover, I think that there’s a much larger question. If you go, for instance, to the Netherlands which, granted, is an extreme example, most of the firms will use English as their language, because people from all over the EU and the world are collaborating there, so the only language that most people speak is English. To take it one step further, contributing to the arguments of the upcoming Venice Biennale, I think that the historical styles that we now think of as historical styles were in fact international, like classicism was, and what we now think of as local inheritance, native local styles, were quite often inventions by foreign-​trained architects in an attempt to create something that responded to an imagined path. In the 19th century, all the inventions, all kinds of tradition in everything from music to art and architecture, were meant to be local but were in fact complete inventions. And architecture was no different from that and continues to be so today.

Architecture is constantly changing. Many of the modern buildings constructed twenty, ten or even five years ago have already become desperately out of date. In the age of user-oriented, flexible approaches to product design, is the understanding of architecture, that previously assumed to be constructed for the centuries, transforming?

First of all, we have to realise that building for the ages is morally, functionally and environmentally suspect. There’s absolutely no reason to build monuments unless you want to glorify one particular person or institution. What we should focus on is not building but reusing. The first strategy when faced with any project should be to see what is there and already being used, what can be assembled rather than created, what could be renovated rather than made. When one creates a building, one should only invest the minimal amount that is needed in order to create structure. It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t make it beautiful, but that one should not waste money trying to make it last.

Every building, and this is not a new phenomenon, is changed as soon as you rip into it or even before. In a world defined by continuing flow of goods, people, capital and information, it becomes more necessary to think of buildings as only the minimal framing devices that are possible.

Dplanet / flickr.com

Dplanet /​flickr​.com

That’s the topic that you address in your work “Architecture beyond buildings”. To specify, should the architect focus only on rethinking and reusing? Do you think that preservation of old buildings is the main goal for new architects, as well as searching for new ways of how the building can function? 

We have to understand that architecture is not necessarily of making a new, but it is about the reassembling and rethinking the imagination of what is. It is necessary fundamental shift, and this shift is both environmentally and ethically necessary

To start with, what we have to do is get out of this dichotomy between preservation and new construction. What instead we have to understand is that architecture is not necessarily about making anew, but it is the reassembling, rethinking the imagination of what is. That to me is a necessary fundamental shift, and this shift is both environmentally and, I think, ethically necessary. Once you start to think of building as not being invention, you get out of these kind of strange worries about preservation or new construction, or whether one should build in a familiar or unfamiliar style, or even whether one is reusing ideas from other architects, something Mr. Kolhaas seems to be rather obsessed about.

Information and data are becoming the main material of today and tomorrow, is there any change for architects in this regard? 

Data is essentially not information and information only makes sense if it turns into knowledge. What is of greatest importance is for architects or anyone else to be able to know what to do with information

All of our pursuits seem to be data-​driven in these days. However, data is essentially not information and information only makes sense if it turns into knowledge. What is of greatest importance is for architects or anyone else to be able to know what to do with information. It’s very interesting that one of the things that the data revolution, as some people call it, has produced is the availability of many more kinds and layers of information to everyone. That means that, as an architect you can very easily find out, when you’re looking at the site, everything from its geology to what was there in the 17th century, to where the wind comes from, to a poem that might have been written about the site. All of that is available now quite quickly. And knowing how to use this information is where a good training background as well as skills of discipline come in.

Cushing Memorial Library and Archives / flickr.com

Cushing Memorial Library and Archives /​flickr​.com

Regarding architectural education, as you teach the students in universities across the world, I would like to ask what the architectural educational agenda of tomorrow will look like? Is it necessary for them to study technology and engineering? What will the relations between art and technologies be in their work? 

Architecture is not a technical but a cultural pursuit. Building is the technical pursuit. So, to build buildings you have to know the technology of construction and engineering, while to make architecture you have to know and understand culture, you have to understand what you’re building, why you’re building, for whom you’re building – and that means that you have to have a broad cultural knowledge. If architecture is going to survive as a discipline, it will have to understand its place within the culture and the cultural industry, that is, as we discussed in the beginning, by now it’s quite global. So I would say that architecture should understand itself as a cultural endeavor, not a technical one.

In education I understand architecture as the way to learn, to look and see and know the world that you live in and where it’s come from, where it’s going. That means learning how to look to get the knowledge

In education, I understand architecture as the way to learn how to look and see and know the world that you live in and where it’s come from, where it’s going. That means learning how to look to get the knowledge. How you then use that knowledge – that depends completely on where you want to go: you could use it to make art, you could do architecture, you could use it to become a politician, a movie-​maker, there are many-​many different pursuits. If you want to be an architect, I think you first have to learn to look and to know and then you will learn to know certain technical knowledge. That technical knowledge is the question for graduate or perhaps postgraduate studies and that is the proper place for it.

Architecture begins once you have created, if you want to make a building an efficient, comfortable environment. Architecture might then mess it up or might do something else. But architecture might also not make a building, it might decide that it’s better to reuse a building, or maybe no building is needed whatsoever. So the practice, the technology of building will become more standardised and ever more defined by financial and legal and life-​safety codes. The world of architecture could be liberated to do many things with that efficient structure.

dan lundmark / flickr.com

dan lundmark /​flickr​.com

In your works you mention the concept of ‘being at home’ nowadays everywhere in the world as a trend in modern architecture. Can you talk a little about what that is? 

Well, I think it’s not new, it’s one of the fundamental facts about architecture that what it does is to create a relationship between you and the physical world, as well as to the others who inhabit this world with you. It creates a relationship in such a way that you can place yourself there, but also in a such way that it becomes a social environmental stage, on which you can act out the role that you would like to have with those who you would want to have as fellow-actors. That’s essentially what it means to be ‘at home’. Now in terms of my analysis of where we seem to be moving, it is becoming true that, on the one hand, we move more than we have in the past – physically, as well as through the communication technology. We also have become much better at creating recognisable environments anywhere (especially for the upper-classes, though not so much obvious if you are an economic refugee). But what we need to think about, and I think this is what architecture can be very good at, is again trying to help you to figure out and know where you are, where you come from and where you’re going, and that is what I mean by ‘at home.’

Speaking of the users of architecture – city dwellers – how do you see the changes in future for the collaboration of architects and inhabitants? Would they be included in the designing process, if architecture becomes flexible in the future? 

That is a question about the profession, not the discipline of architecture. Again, because of the wide availability of knowledge and standardisation of technical practices, you could say that anyone can become an architect. Just like Benjamin said that anyone can become an actor, or movie-​maker. That poses a problem for architecture that defines itself reactively and, in a sense, in a paranoid manner, trying to protect its privileges. Rather, it would be question of what particular knowledge, history and visions architecture has built up as a discipline. It can contribute what is indeed by now a collective and global act of making the urban environment. And I think it’s especially important because if does not contribute to that collective making, it will instead contribute to the imposition of mass prisons created by either developers or the state, in which people will have to live.

University of the Fraser Valle  / flickr.com

University of the Fraser Valle /​flickr​.com

That’s the situation of Moscow. As you have visited Moscow many times for lectures and as a member of the of Skolkovo urban council, let me ask you, how do you estimate the progress of Moscow in terms of urban development process? 

Moscow, as far as I can see, is like any other place – there are some interesting things and some not so interesting things. There is the rehabilitation of Gorky park, renovation of Zaryadye Park next to Red Square that was just announced, there are things like the manufacturing refurbishment and then the other kind of horribly ugly and mindless constructions of these new office clusters that you find everywhere, that are no better and no worse than you can find anywhere in the world. Skolkovo itself is an interesting experiment because it is the latest in a line of utopian projects in which architects are trying to re-​imagine how we might live these days in a technological town within sprawl.

What I haven’t found yet, and what is Strelka is focusing on, as I know Strelka is doing a lot of work inventorying and analysing many layers of historic structures in Moscow, is trying to understand from that what might be done for future development. That to me is extremely important as, again as I said, architecture starts with looking and seeing and knowing. The first thing that we have to do is to know where we are. One of the things that surprised me when I came back to living in Europe in the beginning of this century and started traveling to Eastern Europe, which had not been very easy before, is that there were particular structures and relationships to both the human made and the natural environment that one can see in urban agglomerations there, that had not nearly been studied by some of their counterparts in Western Europe and America. So there is some fantastic work that has been made since then and still is to be done, but it has to start there.

Last year I saw a very interesting exhibition at the Architecture Museum of the young architects who are trying to think not big but in terms of strategic interventions. And I think that it is one of the important things that you see all over the world now – it’s the phase when it becomes tactical or strategic urbanism. But as there’s just a fact of global economic relationships that leads to the construction of these very large scale housing projects, office projects, warehouse projects, whatever it might be, one of the tactics you can take is not to try to change that, which I don’t think is possible, but to try to figure out how to be active, maybe subversive or critical, maybe accommodating within this particular fabric.