Conversation between Wolf Prix and Baerbel Mueller
BM: I'd like to start with the topic of water, the project "Coop Himmelblau Havana 1995", and your interest in this topic as an architect. Water has become amazingly important in all the [A]FA projects, and it was the main theme at Lubungamode: a project with the task of spatially, narratively, and scientifically mapping the local water situation. Therefore, I had also introduced your Havana project to the team. Here, the idea was to contribute something that was related to urban development, and then the response was infrastructural, but also very urban.
WP: Architectural! We were in Havana often and I was not so much inspired by the romanticisation of Cuban life as I was interested in Havana as a city. I have said that Learning from Las Vegas is stupid because it's so one-dimensional, and in a very American way. Learning from Havana would in fact be a more interesting topic because there, a multifunctional city can already be seen in its layout, so there are places, like the one for the army "Placa del Armas", places for the market, places for the church, cultural places, and they are interwoven through arcade houses. In other words, there is an urban idea there which is influenced by European cities, but nowhere in Spain or Europe have I seen a similar density or similarly clear starting point for urban development. When we were asked to develop a project that had to have an architectural signal effect for Havana - without the content being exactly defined - I thought to myself, the old Havana has a densely interwoven history and the "Habana Nueva" is a modern metropolis, one would have to actually combine both in order to be able to take the next step. I then realized that the city lacked infrastructure, especially in terms of water. The old infrastructure was totally decayed, as there was no money for repairs, and the ground was unbelievably bogged down in water. That was the starting point of this project. Without infrastructure, you can’t build any city. The soft infrastructure is included here, such as, for example, education, without this infrastructure, one cannot deal with cities architecturally. I think urban space is one of the most important paradigms that the city can still produce today, if you lose the urban space, you lose the body of the city.
On the topic of water itself: I think that architects must begin to understand global contexts in order to be able to detect the causes of the problems that we have early on. And one serious problem is certainly the lack of water. We know that water will be the most precious resource in the future. It would be good if one deals with water as a resource and a potential, but also as a threat. Why are architects limited to, as we can currently see, designing small boxes for refugees or the poorer classes in South America, where it is a lot more important to find solutions for protecting the cities in bm1 Asia because they where in danger of increasing water level and much better build bm2 new floating cities.
BM: The Havana project was somehow revolutionary, or provocative. There were very interesting fellow architects and everybody went wild, but this project went underground and dealt with a resource and an infrastructural problem and was framed as a statement and a manifesto.
WP: Yes, because I was already pretty sad that architects—without knowing the point of what they’re building and where the contexts are – just go ahead and design away unseriously. That still makes me sceptical.
BM: The project is 21 years old, however, it would have been very suitable for the 2016 Venice Biennale and would probably still have been "on the forefront". At the time, architects did not deal with infrastructure in this way and it was a real statement. Now many do that, but in a more down-to-earth way, or with new technologies and innovative systems. Engineers and climate designers actually can do this quite well, too.
WP: I think we can deal with all issues, with social issues and infrastucture issues, as well as research. One should never forget however that architecture will be created from this and that these things must be implemented three-dimensionally. The best research has missed the point if a boring building arises from it, which we’ve seen happen a thousand times. When I think about how a town or a campus, or a home for refugees should look, then of course I have to do some research—cultural research. But it must also be a sign—a welcome sign, if you like. Otherwise, one creates barracks, where only function has priority. In addition, architecture must materialize as a symbol of the subject that is being dealt with.
This is the task of our architectural culture: that architecture is a three-dimensional expression of a society on a meta-level, because anything else is just a building. As I have said many times before, the message of salvation behind this is ridiculous, the architects are concerned with themselves.
I think that a strategic approach to problems is important, especially if it is to become a design. Of course, I distinguish between form and Gestalt: Gestalt is more than form; form and content as synthesis intertwine with the meta-level of timeliness, then it becomes architecture! By the way, we already said in 1983: timely architecture is social. And we have dealt with this topic on countless projects. The idea was that self-determined architecture is intended to promote the self-determination of its inhabitants.
BM: I'd like to talk about the topic of scale in order to defend, so to speak, operating on a small scale. For some time now, I have been interested in the idea of urban acupuncture, that something on an urban scale can be triggered by small, isolated, networked interventions, which work in the same way that acupuncture does, which has a certain radiance and effect. What I sometimes find annoying in connection with Africa - or India - is this claim that it would be totally legitimate to operate here in Austria and Europe on a small scale - to convert attics or plan single-family homes, possibly with the meta claim of making a statement in the history of architecture - based on a kind of legitimacy of the aim, to change the lives of a handful of people for the better with quite a few resources and considerable effort, I say, because we do believe in our architecture, don’t we? But if I do this in Ghana, the DRC, or Mumbai, there is the claim, especially by those who do not operate in these contexts, that these must always be the big solutions for the masses.
WP: I find the acupuncture methods totally correct. They also work on a large scale. In Los Angeles, the investors have built museums in intervals, so that between each museum project, the land prices go up. Paris has planned a second city center in order to leave the old city in peace, as well as to create a field of tension between the two, and since then every large project has emerged along this field of tension. This is a legitimate urban strategy that could work well on a small scale if the network is expanded, and the interventions are combined with each other, in order to define points that mean something and from which meaning can be gleaned. But, if the Mexican Palapa was investigated as an ideal roof in 36.2° heat, I think it’s bullshit, or annoying know-it-all-ness.
BM: We're actually in the middle of the architectural scale here, so in the [a]FA context the bamboo roof, which was developed as a stage area and has many parallels to the roof in Mexico, namely the claim that it creates a community space that will achieve an iconic status, around which something that is less central and less expressive is located. In the preface to the Mexico Revisited book you wrote: "It is only through experience that information becomes knowledge."
What I found liberating was that you credited the 2003 project in Mexico as experimental architecture rather than an aid project. In my own projects and in the [a]FA context, it became clear that the space for radical experiments lies in art, and that I feel slightly uncomfortable in the NGO context, in which the call to help indeed lies. In the following projects, I have therefore tried to work with artists.
WP: I think that's a radically good approach.
BM: In a lecture at the Bartlett, Lesley Lokko recently pointed out that in the African context, it’s always about participation and not the issue of risk in a productive sense. Which was also your approach in Mexico: you’re experimenting now, and that is a risk, so then it’s a failure or success - an experimental aspiration, not a participatory one.
The idea of closed systems always did seem to alienate you, you represent the idea of open systems, in your teaching and architecture. I found it interesting that you said beforehand, why not merge an augmented reality from Greg Lynn with a mud-cocoon from Anna Heringer and see what emerges? That was also your criticism of many universities that go to South Africa or Mexico and represent a regionalism that they then upgrade with a tendency towards building construction and structural engineering. The digital and manual, low-tech and high-tech have always interested you concurrently.
WP: I think augmented reality would be a great step forward, if one could plan cities in Africa in that direction. I think it is ridiculous to go to places that you don't know - this applies also to African colleagues in the diaspora - and patronizingly build a school, that is not enough, the people could do that themselves if they wanted!
So your approach is that the residents could build the houses themselves. A mapping that identifies opportunities and scenarios is done, but then it is left up to the people in which direction they go. If you did this on a larger scale, you would probably have more popularity than the concrete jungles that the Chinese set up there so that they can then in turn buy the land and implement their interests. It surprises me that in these exhibitions where the social impact is in the foreground the dangers that exist already are not shown. That is then a one-dimensional statement: "My God, they built a nice camp, they built some nice social housing" - with six houses, and next to it there’s a six-lane concrete highway. This should be approached with differentiated strategies.
BM: Perhaps to conclude, another glimpse into the future. Where to start? You have mentioned that you are now working on a project in Mumbai.
WP: Yes, where to start.
I just came from Mumbai, where the rehabilitation of slums by an investor who has invited us to work there is going well, because capitalism is combined with a social approach in an excellent way. I’ve never seen or heard of this kind of slum rehabilitation, even though I know it from Rio.
Mumbai has the problem that it no longer has any land left for growth, yet it’s growing rapidly. The slums are the only large areas that can still be used. I don’t have this romanticized view that the slums are something great. They are well-organized and there's also work there, but the infrastructure is horrible. The investor says the following: If you provide me the land, I will build you high density lowrise buildings for you, which comply with your needs for clean water, plumbing, and cooking facilities - if I can build three towers there, in order to get my money back, and of course to make some money. So the combination of social thinking and economic strategies: the residents can live there for 10 years without having to pay for rent. There are also shopping streets and workshops, the structure is transferred to clean buildings with basic infrastructure. I have seen two of the renovated slums and wouldn't have realized that they were previously slums. I only think that we can better define the urban space, so it has brought us to the environment. This will be a long way.
To free themselves from the sense of architecture lacking any meaningful future, architecture schools must do their part by revisiting experimentation and turning the constraints upside down in order to develop new strategic, political, and conceptual ideas of how we can deal with the future of the city — not only in Europe.
WOLF D. PRIX is CEO of COOP HIMMELB(L)AU. He has taught at, i.a., the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Columbia University, SCI-Arc , UCLA, and the Yale School of Architecture. From 1990-2011 he taught at the University of Applied Arts Vienna , where he was also Vice Rector and Head of the Institute of Architecture from 2003 to 2012.