In this fourth episode of GSAPP Conversations, third-year GSAPP Master of Architecture student Ayesha Ghosh speaks with Swiss architect Christian Kerez, who delivered the opening lecture of the school's Spring 2017 Semester. Kerez's recent projects include Incidental Space at the Swiss Pavillion of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, an amorphous structure which raised questions of the limits of imagination and technical feasibility in architecture today.
GSAPP Conversations is a podcast series designed to offer a window onto the expanding field of contemporary architectural practice. Each episode pivots around discussions on current projects, research, and obsessions of a diverse group of invited guests at Columbia, from both emerging and well-established practices. Usually hosted by the Dean of the GSAPP, Amale Andraos, the conversations also feature the school’s influential faculty and alumni and give students the opportunity to engage architects on issues of concern to the next generation.
GSAPP Conversations #4: Christian Kerez in Conversation with Ayesha Ghosh
Ayesha Ghosh: I am Ayesha Ghosh, a third year M.Arch student here at Columbia GSAPP. Today I'm speaking with Christian Kerez in advance of his lecture at the school on January 23rd, 2017. Christian Kerez is a Swiss architect who opened his own firm in Zurich in 1993 following a number of years spent work as an architectural photographer. He is also a professor of Design and Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and in 2012 to '13 was a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design.
I actually wanted to ask you about your newest project that's been widely publicized at the Venice Biennale, Incidental Space. It seems to be making quite a few propositions at the same time about craft and digital construction, and I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on how that project emerged.
Christian Kerez: Well, for Incidental Space the very first idea we had was to just build a space. You would say that biennale for architecture is dominated by architecture, but in fact you rarely find any constructions—any buildings—in the biennale. You normally find plans, drawings, models, videos, but no real architecture.
So the first and most important statement was that architecture is about architecture. It's about a built space, and we insisted on that media of the built space, and therefore built a space especially for the Venice Biennale. So this was the starting point to create a kind of piece of resistance. Only later on were we looking for what the form could be, what the way of producing this space could be.
And it was also an important statement that it should not be - let's say a propagandistic act, you know, it should not be a space that is referring to the language of an architect or that is referring to a specific understanding of architecture. So in this sense, it should not be pedagogical in any sense. It should just open a possibility to experience a space, and only later on you might wonder what the space is about, what the meaning is, how it was done, what the material is, whatever.
In a sense you could say it's a non-referential space. Of course in the end, people always come up with metaphors or analogies to better approach a work of architecture. When we built a school in Leutschenbach, it got a nickname the Lighthaus [Leuchtturm]. And anybody understood what is the meaning of this nickname. And there were also many nicknames for our Incidental Space: like the Cloud, or the Cave, or what have you. In the end it is also about the question how you can now imagine, build, experience a space in very wide terms.
Ghosh: Yes. The vector does seem to provoke a lot of questions. And I think what makes it so interesting is that the structure is actually almost incomprehensible. You don't know what's holding up one part, and the materiality is at moments ephemeral, at other moments obviously quite hard. And so it seems like it is a playful poking at what architecture is supposed to look like.
Kerez: We did more than 300 models to really come up with this one. And the criteria - the ultimate criteria - for selecting the one and only model that would be scaled and later on built in Venice was that it had strangeness as a major quality. What is the appearance of the space that would make you curious, that would make you wonder, that would also be motivation to go to Venice to experience this space, which we later on also deconstructed again. And in this sense, what you said is also a confirmation of what we were looking for.
Ghosh: I really like that you bring up the sense of wonder that architecture can inspire in people, because having that as an intention is almost as important sometimes as perhaps function or some social meaning that it needs to play.
In terms of wonder, I do think that your work has a very interesting relationship with structure in terms of sometimes seemingly defying gravity. For example, your school in Zurich has quite heavy structure at moments and then it just lightly touches down on the ground. So I'm wondering how you approach that in your work. Do you collaborate with anyone in specific and how does your architectural design process integrate these new ideas or maybe these more challenging ideas about using structure?
Kerez: Maybe to bring together the two idioms, the two words that you brought up, wonder and structure, which don't seem to be so closely related. The wonders that interest me within the field of architecture are not things which I would personally claim or invent, but much more which I believe already exist and I'm just kind of opening possibilities to experience them, to show them, to reveal them.
And this very often brings you to the question of what is the evidence, you know, why a building looks like this and not like that, and what is the reason for a form. And this wondering about things, which have a physical evidence in themselves might be the reason why I closely work together with engineers. In the project for the Venice Biennale, our engineer was Joseph Schwartz, who was also involved in the schoolhouse in Zurich which you just mentioned.
And in the school, it's quite obvious that there is a certain effort how forces are brought from the top floor to the basement. But let's say the project Incidental Space itself is also very much driven by structural thinking because the entire project only consists of a skin of 2 centimeters.
And many people believe that this is not possible and we also thought about reinforcing this skin of 2 centimeters a lot, but in the end it was also a question of the trust in the structural system of this shaped form. You could say it's an over-defined system where every vault, where every breaking of pure geometry could also be regarded as a structural beam. In this sense it's a kind of huge amount of beams which all work together.
Ghosh: There seems to be a lot of marriage in terms of technology, engineering and materiality, especially in this project Incidental Space. Do you have any propositions or ideas for applying that type of technology that's typically used for installations in more permanent architectural work?
Kerez: I'm always interested in the question of how things come together in architecture. But often you see architecture like an assembly of totally separated disciplines, totally separated elements, which is the easiest way to build because then there are no negotiations necessary, neither on the construction side nor in the architectural office between the MIP engineer, the structural engineer, the architect, the representative of the client that is responsible for the brief, et cetera.
For me, architecture is an entity and only if an element becomes a part of this entity, becomes only a fragment of the entire space, it becomes in this sense architectural. So let's say this desire to bring things together is also something that goes further, like bringing together circulation or how to define space with the structure. There are several projects where the stair is a load-bearing element, or that kind of way up a building becomes the stiffening of the building, et cetera, et cetera.
Ghosh: So your built work is quite impressive, but personally for me, my first encounter with your work was through your website quite a few years ago. And it seems you were an early adopter of the use of GIFs and little hand-held videos going through your model spaces.
And it was really exciting to see these kind of internet forms of representation be applied to architecture. And given that you're teaching and you're still producing work, are you expanding on those methods or is there something you've encountered as a new means of representation that continues to push the boundaries?
Kerez: Well, my start as an architect is also the work of a photographer. Before I had the practice in architecture I worked as a photographer. And for me, thinking about how to represent architecture and how to work on architecture collides. It's the same basically.
At school [ETH Zürich] we often gave to the student very tight restrictions. For example, one semester they were only allowed to do movies. They were not allowed to make sketches and we didn't even want to have a look at any model or drawing. We just wanted to see movies because we strongly believed that the media or the representation of architecture has a direct influence, a direct impact on how ideas develop within architecture.
And these restrictions can also be totally verified: in one semester we only allowed them to work with words. The student had to write a text, a dogma, before they were allowed to draw anything or to make any model. And the project itself was only like a justification of the dogma that they had to propose before they were allowed to propose a specific building.
And I guess these changes between work in different media also has an impact on understanding of architecture which starts with always changing perspectives. It's not just a 1-dimensional understanding of how you can perceive, how you can experience a space, but it's a constantly changing revelation of the experience of the architectural space.
Ghosh: It's interesting to hear how you approach teaching, especially given our current location in GSAPP. I'm wondering if you could expand a little on bit how your practice in building architecture has influenced your teaching styles and perhaps how being in the world of academia has influenced the way you approach building buildings.
Kerez: Well, I try to not develop a personal style in my office. I try to change from one project to the other, the understanding of the elements of architecture. And in this sense, I also try to understand different things, different elements in architecture at the university, than in my office. And I also believe that you can experience certain things which you cannot experience in the architectural practice and vice versa.
So for me, the university is like a field that is protected from all the influences which are enormous on architecture. Let's say a budget, a schedule, has absolutely no relevance - except if this relevance could be a trigger point for how you can develop a concept within the field of architecture. But this freedom that it's not just a kind of individual place to pull back from the discipline of architecture in our case is always kind of filled with specific questions that lay in this discipline of architecture.
So I personally think the idea that everything goes or that every student can do whatever he wants to do and whatever interests him is not that interesting, but only if you work together on common questions, research in an academic field can develop a certain relevance. But still, this doesn't mean that the school should or could be in any way an imitation of architectural practice.
Ghosh: So we'll conclude with a more open-ended, hopefully fun question. You once spoke about flowers at the beginning of a lecture, so I'm excited to see what you're going to speak about today. But is there anything outside of the realm of architecture that you're particularly finding inspiration from?
Kerez: Well, I'm just coming back from a trip through India.
Ghosh: Where did you go?
Kerez: I went to many different cities. And of course a lot of excitement comes from the experience of architecture itself. And also this afternoon Amale and Steffen, me, visited some buildings by Paul Rudolph, which I enjoyed a lot.
Besides that, at the moment I always try to find time to read. Just today I finished the last large volume by Dostoyevsky. He wrote five major works. And sadly enough today I finished the last of these. I mean, I don't want to stress this too much, but I guess as an architect whatever you do, whatever you are involved with, it always relates you to architecture - not only that there are many very specific descriptions in the books of Dostoyevsky about architecture. It interests me a lot what is the structure of these books, you know, how he makes it possible to go over a thousand pages and you are constantly under pressure. And in the end, these books are only about an extremely short moment in time even if they are in format very epic.
And this is a very abstract reasoning about a book. But you could also relate that in a certain sense to the field of architecture. How the appearance of something is not directly related to its scale. So you can have a very large scale, but still a density that you would otherwise only expect within a small building.
I also don't want to stress this relevance too strongly. I mean, basically what makes a book good is within the discipline of literature, and what makes a building good is within the discipline of architecture. And these are totally separated disciplines.
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