This is an edited transcript of an interview with the American architectural academic and theorist Beatriz Colomina. The interview took place in Sydney in 2004, and was published in Architecture Australia, vol 93 no 5, Sept/Oct 2004, p.102-03. Words by Naomi Stead.
Naomi Stead: The principal purpose for your visit is as a keynote speaker for the Sydney Biennale, an event more closely associated with the arts than with architecture. How do you feel about addressing an arts audience? Is your work more readily accepted or understood by artists? Is this different from the way it is received by architects?
Beatriz Colomina: Well, I am very happy to participate in this Sydney Biennale, because the theme – Reason and Emotion – is very interesting. That was the first thing – I felt like I could do it.
But I have very warm feelings for the art world, not because I’m very closely related to it, but because from the beginning of my writing I have had an extraordinary response from artists. Artists everywhere – in Europe, but in Australia too – have said at different points over the last twenty years that they have taken inspiration from my work. Sometimes I don’t see exactly the correlations, but I like this sense that you put your work out there, and aspects of it that you may not even be a hundred per cent aware of can mean something to people. That’s very interesting. It’s not an intended effect; I don’t say to myself, “I’m going to write for artists as well as for architects”, not at all. If anything, when I was started I thought I was writing for historians: I was writing about Loos, I was writing about Le Corbusier, I was doing research in the archive. Then I was surprised to find out the effect on both artists and architects – on practising architects, and also on those teaching design in architecture schools, who said “oh, we did a very nice studio after we read your piece on the windows of Loos, and Le Corbusier”. That has happened with many aspects of my work, it has inspired specific design studios. It’s very satisfying, but it’s not deliberate, it just happens.
NS Are there any aspects of your thesis, about how architecture is constituted in and through the media, which have a different nuance or significance here in Sydney or in the Antipodes more generally?
BC No, I think it’s a universal. It’s a global effect. The media is everywhere. My thesis is precisely that, from the beginning of the twentieth century and coinciding with the emergence of new kinds of media, architecture has been produced not simply on the building site, but in all these other immaterial sites: the photograph, the magazine, the film, and then later the television programme, the computer, et cetera. So my point is that it’s not that architecture is built and then represented in these magazines and journals through photography, but that the journals act, from the very beginning of the century, as the site for the actual original production of architecture.
The media are tools that have been very progressive, all of them – whether it’s collage, or a drawing for a competition, or a manipulation of photographs of your own work, you are creating in a different media and in that way transforming the practice of architecture. This doesn’t mean entirely abandoning the practice of architecture, but really finding a practice for architecture.
Looked at historically, it’s quite interesting. For example, if you think about Mies van der Rohe, it’s not that Mies was doing these wonderful buildings and then all of a sudden the magazines took notice and started photographing them. Mies actually emerged out of those photos. The magazine he was editing, the competitions for the most famous projects – the glass skyscrapers, the brick country house – those are the works that are incredibly interesting, and they were produced for immaterial venues, temporary, presumably. You expect them to go away, right? But in fact they became more permanent. And then when he builds his most famous building, the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929, it’s for a [temporary] fair.
It’s only later that he finally catches up with himself. During the early 20s when he was doing these very valuable projects on paper, he was building the most conservative houses that you can imagine. So there was an incredible discrepancy between what he was able to do as an architect and what he was able to do as an avant-garde architect/artist in the world of publications. In that sense I have a very positive view of the media, unlike that of other architectural critics, Frampton for example. This venue has been very progressive and it has generated extraordinary innovation in architecture.
NS Yes and, as you say, the buildings Mies was constructing at the time are largely forgotten, but the work that was in the media has become the canon.
BC It becomes permanent, you know, it’s paper architecture. But in a way, in our imagination is more solid: a piece of paper is more a monument than whatever is built with bricks and mortar. In a nutshell, that is [my] thesis. It’s very simple. What is interesting is how long it has taken people to accept it, why it was received with
such nervousness …
NS Your work was received with nervousness?
BC Oh yeah, mainly by conservative architectural critics. It was difficult [for them] to understand it, because it’s counter-intuitive that something on paper could be more permanent than something made of stone. That the history of architecture will be transformed by a statement in a journal, by a little book instead of a big massive building.
People my age were very nervous at the idea that Le Corbusier, the great god of Modern architecture, may have actually been really interested in mass culture, in advertisements, in publications. I was not so surprised to find traditional historians of architecture horrified, but I was surprised to find people of my generation saying that I was projecting onto Le Corbusier the culture of our times. Sure, I have that lens. Every historian has the lens of their own time. But I came to that realization in the archives of Le Corbusier, through his own collections of catalogues and advertisements. So it’s not bringing it from out of nowhere, it was based in solid research. But you know, over time I think they came to understand, in the sense that if you look at their work they say very similar things.
NS You are described in the Biennale literature as a “cultural commentator” …
BC Oh, so nice! I didn’t know that … somebody else told me that in the programme they say that I’m from Portugal! I thought it was so exotic (laughs), but in fact I am from Spain, as you know. So I’m a culture commentator, that’s nice … but I’m not consciously a commentator. I was trained as an architect. I studied in the Polytechnic in Valencia. Mine was a very technical school, so I studied with engineers for three years. In fact, this was my strength, that’s also where I was good in high school. I say that because some people think I’m a stream-of-consciousness person, which I’m very happy with (laughs), but at some point I wasn’t that way.
NS I’ve also read descriptions of you as an historian, theorist, critic or architect. Given that many of these overlap, how would you describe and define your role?
BC Well, when people ask me this I tend to say that I am an architect who writes. Architects work in many different kinds of media, and in each one of these media architects produce what can be considered original or new work. So I’m an architect who chose the medium of writing. It’s not simply that I do the history of architecture but that I build arguments about architecture. Some of them are to do with historical aspects, and are based on research, but basically they are constructions that reflect the culture in which I live, as much as any built work done at the same time does. Is that being a cultural commentator? I’m not sure about that – I think it’s different.
NS Do you also engage in architectural criticism? And how does your work relate to the production of contemporary buildings?
BC Well, that’s always been a bit of a dilemma, because it’s contrary to my position to assume the role of the critic. Architects, in my opinion – the best architects at least – do not need somebody to explain their work for them. So I’m more interested in what whoever – say Rem Koolhaas – has to say about his own work than what somebody else who just has a view of his work has to say. Looking at it historically, there is absolutely no doubt that it’s much more interesting to see what Le Corbusier or Loos say about their own work than what critics were saying about it. In fact, it’s interesting to look at what critics were saying because it’s actually so far off the mark that it makes you realize how difficult it is to evaluate work in your own time. Also, as somebody who writes you are always under enormous pressure from friends and from contemporary architects to write about their work, and that sometimes leads to friction.
NS Given your own awareness of the way the canon is constructed by historians and critics and through the media, how do you feel about being an academic “star” or celebrity? Does it impact positively or negatively on your work?
BC Well, I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. It is true that my work is recognized in many parts of the world and I’m extremely grateful and in a way surprised by that – as I was saying before, you don’t write for adulation, you write for very personal reasons. Who knows why we write? Why do artists do their work? I suppose it’s because you need to, something has to come out. If it happens to reach people, if they happen to find it interesting, that is very gratifying, but that’s not the reason I do it. The second part of what you are asking is that when you are recognized in many parts of the world, and your work is translated or published, how does that affect your work? Well you’re right, you become part of the same media; you become a media effect, so at that point you have to be extremely careful. You have to be very ethical about certain choices. When you have one hundred invitations in a year to give lectures, and it’s not possible to do all of them, what is it that you decide to do? What is ethical to do? I think it has a lot to do with not losing track of what is actually your mission. Of course another part of me would say, well, this has a lot to do with where you want to be. I’m a real traveller, I really love to see the world, and that is part of my personality. I have to confess that many times I do accept invitations because I want to go there.
NS You are, or have been, on the editorial board of a number of publications in the US. Do you think that commercial or professional journals are able to be internally critical of their own role in the commodification of architecture, or would that be a contradiction?
BC No, it is possible. It is possible, and I think many professional journals, whether they understand it or not, do have a position, in the choices they make, in the contributors they choose, in the quotes they take. I have nothing against professional journals, they become incredible historical documents of what architecture has been in our times. I have made extensive use of both avant-garde journals and professional journals to understand what was happening at one particular historical moment. It’s very interesting – sometimes the professional journals, the kind of “straight” journals, are the ones that are really on the money, whereas retrospectively the avant-garde ones are missing the point.
NS At the end of your essay “1949” in the book Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant Garde in America you quote comments made by Charles Eames in a 1972 interview, where he described his turn away from architecture and towards furniture design as “chickening out”. You wrote then that “In the meantime, the number of architects chickening out of building is increasing by the hour. It would seem that experimental architecture today is rarely found outside the gallery or the university.”
BC This is what I was thinking then.
NS So do you think things are different now?
BC Yes, I think it’s different. That was 1995/96, I think the conference was 96. Something happened then, and all these people who were elaborating the most radical and interesting ideas in these other media were able to finally start building. That happened simultaneously, in the late 90s, beginning of the twenty-first century, this expression of actually quite radical and interesting built work.
NS What do you think happened, what was it that changed?
BC There was a lot of money for a while at the end of the 90s, and also a new awareness of architecture. This has become increasingly the case after 9/11, which had this extraordinary effect of putting the spotlight on architecture. In so many ways people have become more conscious of architecture. Bilbao had a lot to do with it, the fact that it was so successful, and entire cities thought “oh my god, it’s really a good investment”, you know? (laughs). So is this avant-garde? Well, I’m not sure it’s avant-garde at all anymore, but it could be again. It could be that architecture will use its possibility as a potential site for the exploration of very interesting ideas. Architects are opportunists, obviously. I don’t say that in a negative way, but you have to take your chances when you have them. Whether it’s a wealthy client or a museum or a competition, you have to throw yourself there and that’s your chance to do something. And those chances come rarely. You have to be ready for them. It’s like an athlete, you have to train, you have to be ready to jump.
NS Thank you very much for your time.
BC Thank you.