As the founder of SITE, an architecture firm most widely-known for their seminal series of stores for BEST in the 1970s, James Wines has become something of an anomaly in the field of architecture: originally an artist, his approach of creating architecture as a form of cultural criticism struck a chord almost universally, delighting critics and the public alike. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky's “City of Ideas” column, Wines explains the ideas behind those early designs and how his subsequent works have continued that thread of ideas.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You were born in Oak Park near Chicago, a town known for its many houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Were you aware of them early on and did this fact play a particular role in your interest in architecture?
James Wines: Even as a child, I was very aware of Wright as the generator of really “different” kinds of buildings. Subliminally, this exposure to a neighborhood of masterworks must have played a major role in shaping my aesthetic choices in life. I was born and lived in Oak Park until my first year of high school. My mother seemed to dislike Wright-designed houses and, since her aesthetic tastes were very much molded by middle-American conservatism, she actually felt that his houses had ruined the neighborhood. [Laughs.]
As a child I was drawn mainly to visual art – painting and sculpture – then, in college, I became much more attracted to architecture and art history. I also was especially interested in Louis Sullivan’s floral drawings and his architectural details. I loved the way he used light and shadow. I studied to be a conventional (Modernist influenced) sculptor. After graduating from Syracuse University, I opened a sculpture studio in New York and by 1960, I started experimenting with constructivist sculptures, trying to achieve an architectonic feeling by experimenting with interlocking combinations of concrete, steel, and iron. But by 1969, I was moving away the “making of objects” toward more contextual work.
VB: The name SITE is an abbreviation that stands for “sculpture in the environment.” Is this how you still see the intention of your work?
JW: Well, the SITE group that I started in 1970 was meant to produce objects in plazas. But then I realized that most sculptors were doing the same kind of work. I had begun to feel sculpture sitting on a pedestal was irrelevant. Henry Moore works plunked down in front of buildings was the most ubiquitous example of that process. I revolted against such works because, when you witness such a narrow vision of public art all your life, you eventually get tired of the endless repetition of premises. I began to feel, as did many other sculptors of the late 1960s, that there must be a better alternative. I became much more interested in a fusion of ideas, fusion of art and its context, art and architecture, experimenting with environmental art. So, basically, everything I was doing before the late 60s was thrown out the window. I realized that the more inclusive the art, the more interesting it gets.
VB: Let’s talk about some of your projects and your ideas of triggering elements for people to imagine and invent their environment. What was the main idea behind the nine stores that you designed for BEST Products Company commissioned by Sydney and Frances Lewis?
JW: The main idea was to put art where you least expect to find it. The endless boredom and lack of aesthetic commitment in the American shopping mall became the perfect foil for this kind of intervention. More importantly, the early SITE approach was a critique of architecture. Another aspect of this work was to open up a questioning of the typical commercial environment; meaning a process of motivating people to react differently to their routine surroundings. The resulting public reactions became everything from bemusement, to confusion, to uneasiness, even sometimes outrage.
VB: Does every one of the BEST buildings emphasize a particular critique?
JW: I would say that all of my work has something to do with a critique of architecture, its context, and its means of construction. A great deal of SITE’s work is about inversion, fusion, intervention, exaggeration—often just taking something apart and examining the elements of construction from a different point of view. This element of “in process” (or, more specifically, engaging process AS the content) has always been more interesting to me than a finished building. The point is to attack!
VB: Attack what?
JW: Architecture, of course! [Laughs.] The whole profession is often too pretentious, humorless, and conservative. My work is often seen as controversial. But don’t forget, I was not trained as an architect. Still, I managed to learn a lot about building construction, ever since I was a teenager. My father was an engineer. He built vacation houses in Northern Michigan; so I gained foundation knowledge about design, construction, tools, and materials, simply by helping him. It is no big deal that I am not licensed. I had a fantastic architect, Josh Weinstein, as part of my studio and SITE has always worked with registered architects and engineers from the outset. As you know, many great architects – like Wright, Mies, Le Corbusier, Ando, and others – were not licensed architects. For me, the profession is not about qualifications on a piece of paper; but rather, about the quality of conceptual thinking.
VB: In one of your projects for BEST in Richmond, Virginia, called Forest Building, you let the existing oak trees run through the building. Could you talk about this manifestation of your idea of “nature’s revenge?”
JW: The Richmond BEST project offered an ideal opportunity for the fusion of nature and architecture. In the beginning, the local community board declared we couldn’t build a commercial project that would destroy the site area’s existing forest. So I proposed keeping most of the major oak trees and constructing the new building around them. The result became an “inside/outside” concept, enveloping the existing forest with its profusion of bushes and ground cover. This particular building became the most profitable in BEST Company’s history. Customers started bringing picnic lunches to hang out in the garden space between the fragmented sections. And then, after a relaxing interim for lunch, they would frequently remember having forgotten to buy something, so they would go back into the store for further shopping. [Laughs.]
VB: Do you believe your visionary project, High Rise Homes one day could become a reality?
JW: I think the main value of this project is its statement of anti-formalism. The point is to construct a basic matrix – as the only contribution of the architect/engineer – and then allow the urban dwellers to determine their own choices of residential style and uses of the real estate parcels. Like Duchamp’s notion of “canned chance,” the High-rise of Homes was an idea based on an orchestration of indeterminate elements. As far as a future for this proposal is concerned, all I know is that it has inspired many imitators over the years. Unfortunately, most of the subsequent interpretations have missed the point entirely. These modified versions project a similar appearance of random aesthetic elements; but, in reality, they are simply the same formalist orchestrations of the architects’ own sculptural and stylistic conceits. My idea was to establish a fundamental support structure and encourage occupants to fill in the spaces as an unpredictable collage of choice, chance, and change.
VB: You said that your architecture is not about what it is but what it makes you think about. What are the main ideas that you want to express in your work?
JW: The key to virtually all of SITE’s work is a response to context. The more specific answer to your question depends on a particular project and the characteristics of its environment. For example, in the case of my BEST Parking Lot Building proposal for Houston in 1976, the intention was to create a fusion of architecture and public art that could not be removed from its surroundings without a total loss of meaning. The structure could not be picked up and plopped down in another location. The asphalt paving of a typical American shopping strip became the building and the building became the parking lot. In each one of the BEST stores, the premise was to rethink the presence of big box merchandising. The shopping strip and its paved surroundings are so ubiquitous in the American landscape that people never give this entire phenomenon a second thought. It is a universally accepted part of everyone’s collective unconscious. As such, the strip is a perfect “found object” foil for architectural design and a critique of its own environment. As another example, the BEST Forest Building was based on absorption of context—in this case, the integration of architecture with nature. This same critical motivation produced the High-Rise of Homes; referring to the concept’s celebration of personal identity in a typical cityscape, where anonymity and faceless habitat prevail.
VB: Speaking about your drawings you said, “I consider drawing more as a way of exploring the physical and physiological state of inclusion, suggesting that buildings can be fragmentary and ambiguous, as opposed to conventionally functional and determinate.” I am very much interested in the idea that buildings can be fragmentary and ambiguous. What was it initially that triggered your interest in this direction?
JW: Almost all of my work has come from this central motivation. It basically means that I have always been more interested in questions, rather than answers. We all know what is conventionally expected of architecture in terms of shelter, function, and design. So I have spent a lot of my life asking, “What else could a building mean?” I asked, “Why was building design locked into the pervasive litany of Modernist and Constructivist clichés?” I had always liked Utzon’s Sydney Opera House and Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, but, increasingly, I felt that such structures only capped off seventy years of the same formalist conventions. Stylistic repetition becomes exhausted after a certain point. Duchamp observed, “If you want to be creative, you need to clean off your desk at least three times in your life.” My early sculptures were stylistically inventive and well crafted; but, by the late 1960s, such predictable objectives no longer interested me. This became my own “clean-off-the-desk” period. I started to see aesthetic content and conceptual motivations in a completely different way. I began to view building archetypes – in their most commonplace level of interpretation – as a kind of “subject matter” for art, instead of the usual design problem. I became intrigued with the process of using archetypal sources – for example, the ubiquity of suburban Colonial houses, classical bank facades, fast food restaurant signage, big box store physicality, etc. – as “trigger zones” for ideas and raw material for the fragmentation, dematerialization, and general inversion of architecture.
VB: In his book “Postmodern Visions” German author Heinrich Klotz offered his summary of what you do: “The fundamental purpose of SITE’s design ideas is to make the destructive factor of time and transience the very method of their architectural style, a concept that Wines calls “de-architectualization.” Do you agree with this statement even though it was made 30 years ago?
JW: To some extent, yes. But this view is a bit too literal and falls into a continuing misunderstanding of SITE’s work, which means that it is often equated to “destruction, ruin, and archeological excavation” by the media. I refute such descriptions by pointing out that this level of assessment is just as absurd as claiming that Giacometti’s dematerialized figures represent starving people. In my work, the construction process is often part of the content; but the whole approach is much more about how buildings are perceived and what they represent sociologically, psychologically, and aesthetically. As stated before, what I try to do is place art where people would least expect to find it – especially the junk world of commercial strips – and then use unfamiliar (and sometimes humorous) elements as a criticism of architecture itself. This process is also equivalent to a kind of “urban collage.” I admire Picasso’s 1912 revolt against the traditions of Renaissance perspective, using combinations of painted and pasted elements as a means of rejecting these illustrative and perspectival conventions. He substituted an illusion-versus-reality critique of the traditional picture plane. Contrary to Picasso’s attacks on conformist painting, the main failing of architecture now is designers’ reliance on Modernist/Constructivist orthodoxy.
VB: I am sure that what you see as a problem, these artists and architects see as a solution. I think you are both right.
JW: What I am saying is, basically, there should always be a healthy questioning of the fundamental premises of prevailing art forms, not just a reliance on stylistic fluctuations, which are then misinterpreted as progressive ideas.
VB: What is your major ambition as an architect? Is it to challenge the kind of architecture we know?
JW: Well, this is certainty one of the objectives. I am also very much interested in changing the accepted clichés of public space design. SITE has completed a number of park and plaza projects around the world that engage people on multiple levels—not just walking on concrete, looking at lollypop trees, and sitting on standard benches. Again, I prefer creating buildings and public spaces that invite the participant’s spontaneous involvement, based on those “trigger elements” of fascination, surprise and a questioning of context. I always hope that SITE’s work will generate unpredictable interpretations and performances by people. As a New Yorker, I would still love to do a major public space in Manhattan. I hope there is still a chance.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.