Saturday, July 30, 1994

Over a Bowl of Fruit

 Interview with John Hejduk
El País, July 30, 1994, Babelia, Number 145, page 15.
©  David Cohn, El País 1994. All rights reserved.

New York architect John Hejduk speaks in parables around his subject, awkwardly, inarticulate, defensively combative and boastful, stumbling over words with the blunted accent of his native Bronx. Trying to express the motivating passions of his work, his only recourse is to repeat his startling images and associations: between the paintings of Edward Hopper and the streets of Berlin, which he sought to capture in his 1988 housing there, of the palpable "breath" of a statue of Bacchus, or how a bowl of wax fruit captures "exactly" how the 1930s felt in the United States: "That's - how - it - felt."

Like Frank Gehry, he belongs to that likeable species of unlikely intellectuals, the bashful, self-doubting beneficiaries of mass access to higher education in the United States. Born in 1929, he graduated in 1946 from The Cooper Union, a small, highly competitive private institution where tuition is free. After additional studies at Harvard and work in various offices, including I.M. Pei's, he returned to teach at Cooper in 1964, and has been its Dean of Architecture since 1975.

Hejduk's architectural production is unique and difficult to define, largely restricted to sketches and drawings, to what he calls "research into the soul of architecture," which he publishes from time to time in books he compares to musical compositions. His stark poetic images are marked by the obsessions of his postwar generation. Disillusioned with ideology, haunted by Hiroshima and the Holocaust, he and his contemporaries had retreated in the 1960s into a silent geometric formalism, the minimalism latent in the American Puritan tradition, but in his current work these long-hidden concerns find their voice through the same reduced vocabulary.

Of his most recent book, Soundings, he says, "All that work, right? The ideas and thoughts of a lifetime of 45 years. But here it is in the age of the soundbite, the celebration of chaos, an extraordinary day-glo attitude towards things. And I come out with a book that's BLACK and WHITE and JUST SKETCHES. Which has to do with the circle, the square, and the triangle. And it's like Bach in the sense that it plays on the frame of architecture. You keep on going with very simple elements and you get the tonal characteristics of sounds. Soundings has multiple meanings. It's a very Catholic book. In a religious way, too, a spiritual way. It hits many things, the Holocaust, Berlin..."

For Hejduk, the essential measure of architecture is the elusive concept of tone, an "unearthly sound-aura," a kind of materialization of spirituality: "When I look at a work of architecture my first question is, 'Does that building give off a tone?' It sounds trite, but the great cathedrals, they have tone. Le Corbusier's La Roche-Jeanneret house has tone. It appears to be a house, but all I have to do is change the names of the rooms and it becomes a church."

"My work appears to be simple. But the tone comes from the complexity of the thoughts, even the quantity of thoughts. That's the secret. Not to reduce something to a minimum condition but to achieve a maximum condition. And that will exude the final tone."

Hejduk sees his isolated role, with few built works to his name, as almost "monastic," "a radical act to preserve the spirituality of art." "The essence of my approach is my discipline," he goes on. "I am an architect. I love my discipline. And I believe I'm probably one of a very few, the true researchers. There aren't too many around, you know. You have medicine, right? You have the medical people who save lives. Like Salk. But there is also a group of people that are saving lives in a different way. They are no less."

But he rejects the idea that his work is strictly theoretical: "Hey, I'm an architect. And when I build, I build well. But it's a different attitude towards the practice of architecture." In fact, he deplores the emphasis given to architectural theory in recent years: "Language is drowning out architecture. Architects are trying to obfuscate language. Words, words, they're throwing them out. And it's all so thin. There's no thickness in it."

On his buildings for the IBA housing exhibition in Berlin, he says, "Too many architects don't breathe in the city that they are building for. They're not gentle. They have to express themselves in muscular terms, which have nothing to do with the ambience, the total history of a place. When I built the tower in Berlin, I really studied Berlin. I think I placed a building there that will always be part of that city in the deepest sense of the word. And yet it's a radical building. Hey -- I'm one of the few architects in all that thing that gave the people -- SPACE -- LIGHT -- AIR -- VIEWS --. I don't make separations between the socio-political, the aesthetic and the formal. It's all part of this great art of approximation."

Referring to his yet-to-be-built project in Santiago de Compostela for a botanical pavilion in the Belvis Park, he talks about the relation of material and space: "Glass and stone towers, connected by steel. Talk about building. Wow. No bullshit. The simplicity, the solidity of space, right? The great religious philosophers always talk about the soul of a material. You see? That's important. It's not just material. Few architects really know this."

But Hejduk feels that his message is finally beginning to get across. "More and more people are beginning to understand what I've devoted my life to. To both conserve and also present a new architecture, in the deep sense of the word. My works are tied to past things, but they are also future things. There is no present."

We ended the interview with the bowl of wax fruit on his desk, part of an exercise he'd given his students. First he asked them to choose which "tasted" best: a bowl of real fruit from a nearby Korean grocery, an identical bowl of wax fruit, or the fruit in a painting by Cezanne. "95% chose the actual fruit. I thought that they would like the Cezanne. I thought it was more delicious delicious. That was my naivete. Or maybe they were trying to give me a message."

The next assignment was to make a piece of fruit out of wood that "has to taste like the fruit." Hejduk took me through the studio to see the results: an exquisitely balanced banana, a split apple with white meat and tiny seeds, a bruised peach, the sun-dried skin of an orange, all eloquent dialogues between the properties of fruit and wood. Carried away with emotion, Hejduk told me, "I've become the student of them. A new school of architecture is forming, as radical as the Bauhaus was in its time. But through this (pointing to the fruit). Not words thrown into the air and obfuscation."

"My wife told me that the Pompeians always had a bowl of fruit on a table in their houses," he concluded. "And that bowl of fruit was not eaten by the family. It was for travelers and strangers. Now if that doesn't have to do with house and architecture, I don't know what does."

Georges Braque  
Plums, Pears, Nuts and Knife
© Phillips Collection, Washington, DC


Friday, May 13, 1994

Siza in Granite

(c) Luisa Lambri

Álvaro Siza
Galician Center for Contemporary Art
Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Published in:
Bauwelt 19
, May 13, 1994, pages 1038 - 1045 and cover.
© Bauwelt, David Cohn 1994. All rights reserved.

Alvaro Siza's Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo, completed last September, is the best of a number of works of architecture commissioned by the regional government of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate the Año Xacobeo, the 1993 Pilgrimage Year. It is arguably Siza's most important completed work outside Portugal, his first museum, and, together with the recently completed Architecture Faculty in Porto, his most significant public building to date.

As is often the case with politically-motivated public projects in Spain, Siza's 7.000 m2 building was erected, at a cost of 2,200 million pesetas (about 27.5 million DM), before the institution that it will house was even established - the museum still has no director, no program, no collection and no budget. Opened with a retrospective of local artist Maruja Mallo just before the regional elections of October 17, the building was closed a month later, at the end of the show, still without much of Siza's custom-designed furnishings. It will still be a year or more before the Museum is organized and in full operation, although a series of architecture shows may be organized there this summer.

Galicia is the northern neighbor of Siza's Porto, with a similar language and culture, a slightly harsher climate, and a similar historic isolation from the rest of the peninsula. Siza himself speaks eloquently of the experience of working in Galicia: "You feel at home, but everything is slightly, or even very, different. There are different seafoods -- you can still find oysters. There are tapas and strollers; the streets are full of people. The language has the same origin and the same words, but its music and expression are unmistakable: it is at once harsher and yet more tender."

He speaks of Galicia's granite walls covered with lichens and moss from the constant rain, and of the intimate outdoor spaces it conceals: "When we abandon the main road, magical places begin to appear: margins of streams or ancient granite waterways, innumerable branches of the pilgrimage route to Santiago, threshing floors, granite granaries..."

For Siza, the site of the Museum is one such space, situated at the foot of the baroque Convento de Santo Domingo de Bonaval, one of a ring of monasteries surrounding the old city. The Museum occupies a small triangular plot that once formed part of the monastery's gardens, a series of terraces facing a small street, the Rúa de Valle-Inclán, and a row of modest houses.

The site was, in fact, quite difficult. The monastery, like a fortress, is focused inward on its cloister, presenting a hard shell to the exterior. Siza's building had to be subordinate to the massing of the adjacent structure, like a flanking dependency, but at the same time turn its back on it, opening to the street. The modest street, in turn, hardly offered the building the public presence that its character would seem to demand. In response, Siza designed the building like a raised terrace or mirador, overlooking the street, and with views and passageways to its rear gardens, creating an awkward new space between the monastery and the Museum that is expressive of all the difficulties of the situation.

Initially, Siza wished to finish the building in exposed concrete, to make it stand out from the granite of the monastery and Santiago's other public buildings, and to express the modern character of its long-span construction. He was persuaded instead to face the building in granite, although he uses a thin modern veneer instead of solid blocks, an abstraction of the material which will change in time as moss and lichens grow.

The monastery stands on the upper slopes of the steep hill which Santiago straddles; its upper windows (and the sculpture terrace of Siza's museum) claim privileged views of the city's spires and the profile of the Obradoiro or Cathedral. Its entrance, raised behind shallow flights of steps and set well back from the street, fascinated Siza: a curious double facade on the two faces of an inside corner, opening to the cloister and church respectively, placed exactly on the most accessible part of the slope, where the high point of the street meets the low point of the hill, with the church bell tower perfectly aligned behind it. Siza placed the entrance to his museum here too, inverting the monastery's corner facade in the two overlapping angled volumes of his design, reinforcing the shallow cascade of stairs with a long ramp across the length of the Museum's facade.

In the former gardens, reports Siza, "granite channels, the remains of rusted pipes, currents of water, mines, springs, a long-buried staircase, capitals from some demolished convent" were found and excavated. The front of the building seems to span over the site, like a shelter over an archeological dig, scarcely touching the ground, in an extraordinarily long horizontal opening that points us towards the entry with its curious angled soffit. The end wall of this opening stops just above the ground, leaving a narrow horizontal slot with a fragmented view of the monastery's doorway. From the exterior, the building directs all of its formal energy to this point, before we enter the vestibule looking back at the street and the rear wing with the Museum's galleries.

In Siza's poetic approach to architecture, his regard for the site is transformed into a peculiar personal formal geometry. Siza uses regulating lines in plan to lay out, from the point of entry, the two intersecting volumes of the design. These regulating lines fan out from their point of origin as if from the viewing point of a perspectival construction, producing strange intersections, collisions and incongruities deep in the body of the building. The access ramp and tilted horizontal soffit of the facade reflect these same visual lines in the vertical plane. When seen from other points in the building, it is as if Siza had scrambled the rules of perspective and the abstract geometry it was designed to portray, returning us to a more immediate, anarchic register of perception, a mannerist retake on modernism which complements the eccentric baroque monastery next door.

Behind the vestibule, a small triangular atrium with a clerestory window occupies the space between the two angled volumes of the design and leads to the galleries for temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. The galleries for the future permanent collection above these are reached via a wide staircase overlooking the atrium. The galleries are arranged en filade, with a parallel access corridor which allows Siza to play spatial games along the route, the most dramatic of which is a two-story gallery, crossed by an inaccessible bridge (for mounting the lights, he says), which we miss on the ground floor, but which opens suddenly below us from the upper galleries. The long central corridors open on their other side to a ground floor auditorium and first floor library, which are also accessible directly from the vestibule.

Light from the skylights over the upper galleries is directed towards the walls via a large suspended floating soffit in the center of each gallery, a typically original and effective Sizian device. In many other incidents, such as the library's angled clerestory, the stair's sculpted window overlooking the atrium, or the atrium itself, defined by a wall on one side and a floating soffit on the other, meeting in a single implausible point, Siza demonstrates his delightful genius for shaping space and light.

Surprisingly, there is much in Siza's design which recalls I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington of the 1970s. Like Pei, Siza here is enamored of seemingly impossible long spans and cantilevers -- when I saw the building under construction, the improvised space trusses of welded bits of I-beams under the concrete slabs belied the ease with which the ceilings seem to fly from point to point. Like Pei, Siza uses his stone facing abstractly, as a purely planar finish, without visible weight or articulation. With his Barcelona Weather Station of 1992, this is Siza's first work in many years that is not finished in stucco, an indifference to material reflecting the low budgets he is accustomed to work with. The mortarless granite is supported on metal studs held away from the waterproofed structural concrete walls, a permeable skin with sufficient space behind it to conceal the downspouts (a stratagem which explains Siza's sparse use of openings). And like Pei, Siza uses here an elaborate triangular geometry.

As a development of Pei's late, high modernism, Siza's fractured geometry reminds me of a passage in Theodor Adorno's "Critique of Logical Absolutism", in his book Against Epistemology, in which he attacks certain aspects of the scientific spirit which have been well represented in postwar art and architecture, in the cult of formalism:

"But the more hermetically the unconscious of the mathematician seals his propositions against any inkling of involvements, the more perfectly pure forms of thought, from which memory is expunged in abstraction, come to appear as the sole "reality". Their reification is the equivalent for the fact that they were broken from that objecthood without which the issue of "form" would not even arise. Unconscious objecthood returns us to the false consciousness of pure forms. It produces a naïve realism of logic".
Adorno's criticism is applicable not only to Pei's geometric formalism but also to the reductive, memory-based Platonism of Aldo Rossi.

Siza's form making, on the other hand, full of accidental encounters and revelations, opens the closed process of logical, mathematical determinism to new, uncharted terrain, where the circumstances of program, site, chance and vision can play a new, unscripted role. According to Kenneth Frampton,

Siza "makes us see that building is, to a large degree, contingent, that any construction is both topographically and temporally determined, and that all we can do is to modify the fabric as it passes in a moment of transition between one historical moment and the next."
In Siza's words, "Architects don't invent anything, they transform reality."

  1. Álvaro Siza, De granito eterno: Viaje al otro lado del Miño, A & V Monografías de Arquitectura y Vivienda 41, Galicia Jacobeo, 1993, page 4.
  2. Theodor W. Adorno, Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, English edition, The MIT Press, 1983, page 55.
  3. Kenneth Frampton, The Architecture of Álvaro Siza, A + U, June 1989, Special Edition, ÁLVARO SIZA: 1954 - 1988, page 178.
  4. Siza, Ibid, page 177.