Interview with John Hejduk by David Shapiro

Rchitek 2017-08-12

"The architect who drew angels" In the early 1990s, poet David Shapiro, a key figure in contemporary American lyricism, interviewed his friend John Hejduk for a documentary film about the architect's work. The conversation goes over Hejduk's conceptual cartography and delves into his mysterious and unrepeatable way of conceiving architectural practice. Why does angels draw an architect?Because you read Rilke. Two or three years ago I read Rilke's poems translated into English by Edward Snow, a young Texas writer. I think it's the most beautiful thing ever written in English. And Rilke, of course, is full of angels. Somewhere I read that someone thought Rilke was a lost angel on Earth. I agree. He was always going from one place to another, lived in a house and soon moved, always with women. He was never silent, he was constantly talking about angels ... I think he was one of them.

Fairfield Porter once said that "teaching is a great sin." You love to teach and you have been doing it for many years at Cooper Union. How do you teach architecture?That phrase sounds great because sometimes giving class is a great sin. I mean sins are sometimes pleasurable. There can be no pleasure in the world without sin.

So how do you teach architecture?By osmosis. I never draw for the students or draw on top of their work and I never tell them what they have to do. I rather try to get them out of themselves. In other words, take what they carry inside and simply touch a key point that will help them develop their idea. I am against that kind of didactic teaching in which one is told exactly what he has to do all the time. Okay for the younger ones, maybe the first year. But later, at the end of the fifth year, they are already in their twenties, and I always say that Darwin made his first voyage, which lasted five years, at twenty-two, the captain of the Beagle was twenty-five. So it must be kept in mind that this time of life is, it seems to me, one of the great creative periods. Maybe later there are others,

There is often talk of two eras in your architectural work, a more conventional period and another in which you would have become a sort of "architect of fantasy".I disagree. In the first place, I hate the word "fantasy," it is the kiss of death. When someone puts the label "fantasy" in your work, you know they are trying to make it cheaper. It does not make sense to try to divide my work. There have been no two parts, it is a unique methodological, pedagogical and organic process that has produced the same person over forty years. And it is cumulative. What I take with me, I take it. What I no longer need, I abandon. Diamond projects, the Texas project, are as mysterious as the recent work. There is no excision.The relationship of the body with architecture plays an important role in all that trajectory.A few years ago I bought a torso at the Barnes and Noble bookstore. The truth is that he had always wanted one. It had been manufactured in West Germany and consisted of 160 numbered pieces along with a scheme for their assembly. I placed it on the table in my office. I was tired of people coming in and talking ... You know, they do not talk to you, but you. I thought that the torso could be of help in that sense, so when someone came in he would take out all the pieces and put them on the table. People asked "what is that?", "A torso", "ah!". And you know what happened? Well, they did not talk that long. They were much quieter and left my office sooner. After some time, I assembled all the pieces. Well, all but one, which I was unable to fit even though I looked at the scheme. So I left it on the table. Then I grabbed my torso and put it behind the chair where people sat. When someone came in he was more quiet than ever. They did not see the torso, but they knew it was there. About eight months passed and I could not find out where the piece was, which was still on the table. Then I gave a lecture at the Guggenheim about the victims and torture chambers of the Gestapo in Berlin. It was really exhausting. The next morning I was taken to the hospital, with a serious illness that made me spend a lot of time in the hospital. My friend Raimund Abraham, who teaches at Cooper Union, called me and said, "John, I've taken the torso out of your office." I asked him: "Why did you do it?" He said: "The piece you have on the table and that you could not fit back into the torso was the infected part that made you sick." It was a strange and profound situation that made me think. He had done two things that were crazy. I am a teacher, but what I had done when I placed my torso in my office was to somehow suppress language, which is completely incongruous. Then I asked my surgeon, "How long ago was this infection incubating?" He replied that eight months, which was precisely when I placed my torso in the office. It had an effect, an architectural effect on the way you look at things. Which was precisely when I placed the torso in the office. It had an effect, an architectural effect on the way you look at things. Which was precisely when I placed the torso in the office. It had an effect, an architectural effect on the way you look at things.

In recent times you have argued that architecture is, in many ways, in a state of illness.Yes, in a morbid state. I am writing an article for an Italian magazine entitled "Pathology of architecture". I enumerate the symptoms of our time related to the nature of the disease of the discipline.

I have called your work "surgical architecture".I know, it seems appropriate.

What do you consider critical of the architecture that surrounds you?Two things. There is no life in it and, therefore, there is no possibility of it dying, which is horrible. I am reading a book by Bataille on eroticism and death and sensuality. It's an incredible book. The two conditions are necessary to understand each one of them.

You are building five buildings in Berlin. There you have had opportunities that the United States has not offered you.Well, I'm as American as chewing gum. I'm from New York, the Bronx and all that. But, as has happened to many people of my generation, the intellectual stimulus of my life has come from Europe through literature and painting. My generation was born, it could be properly said, too late. There are many architects who go around believing themselves to be authentic teachers. They are not. The real masters, like Le Corbusier and Mies, appeared a generation or two earlier.

You once told me that Mies's drawings were a resurrection.I love the architecture of Mies which obviously is one of the two main figures of the architecture of our time. I have had two architectural experiences that have marked me. The first was small, in the temples of Paestum. When I saw the capital, the column and the lintel ... it was a religious experience. The second was when I arrived in Berlin and saw the cantilever of the National Museum of Mies at night. At night, the Berlin air has something special, it is dark blue. The city is surrounded by water and forms a crystalline atmosphere that makes the black steel building look impressive. I dislike the Stirling building behind the Mies, a pink and blue building in a monochrome city, Berlin. Architecture, by the way, is monochrome, basically black and white.

John Lindsey Shapiro describes architecture as a fragile art that speaks again of what surrounds us. How would you define architecture?I believe that the only difference that the architect can offer our society is the creation of a spirit, I mean some kind of aura: something eternal in a sense that, strangely, is lost. Architecture also has to do with sound, but not with the pragmatic sound but with a supernatural sound, a sound of the soul. When you enter a building, it gives you the wavelength of your sound. It is something that characterizes the best architecture of all time. If you go to the Carpenter Center of Le Corbusier in Boston you perceive that you are in a building full of that sort of sound aura. One can be a good builder, some people make good buildings today, but the architect's job is to capture that atmosphere. I once heard a lecture from a surgeon who said that when he cuts a body he is able to tell where he is spatially by the sound of the cut. Architecture is spatial not only because it is central pragmatic problem of the layout of spaces. It is the co-correspondence of something, it is space, which is basically air, translated into your inner space, which is also air. It has to do with strange situations related to fluency. For example, in Oslo, when the fog rises at night, you can practically cut a bucket of air with a knife. Is incredible. The architect has to address such things. Housing and planning come and go. Different types of buildings are born, but they also disappear. Today is the time to look for unspecified plans, still budding, Concerning the issues of our time. This is, more or less, what architecture means to me.

You are an architect who has written poetry. How have you used poetry in your work?It is a difficult question. I do not establish any separation. A poem is a poem, a building is a building, architecture is architecture, music is ... everything is structure. I use poetry as a language. Today architects are organically responsible for their language running parallel to the structure. That is the new challenge of architecture. I can not build a building without building a new repertoire of characters, stories, languages ... It is not about building per se, but about building worlds.You often start with a city. It may be a real city, like Riga, and it also looks like your own Riga, your own Vladivostok. You need things down to the smallest details. It has been said that, after Iigo Jones, you are the architect most interested in the theatrical masquerade.Iñigo Jones was not only interested in the production of the masquerade, but also in what is behind. He was interested in the whole mechanic aspect of the scenery: how the rays of sun, the cataracts, the fire were produced ... For the architects of that time, the commission to make a scenery could be the highlight of his life. It not only allowed them to dominate a building, but also could play with a great multiplicity of materials. A painter or a sculptor can be purists, not an architect, we only work with approximations, you can always change something in architecture.

How does that idea apply to your work?Well, it has to do with a different way of practicing architecture. What I have done during the last fifteen years has been to produce a repertoire of about 400 pieces or characters that are now being built in different parts of the world. So basically there is no customer. People arrive and say, "We want to build this in Berlin, in this big hall," and we build two structures: the "House of the musician" and the "House of the painter". Then they come from Atlanta and say, "We want to build the suicide house and the suicide mother's house." So there is a moment when a community decides to build something, they draw it, they detail it ... They are part of the creative process that becomes a kind of strange celebration of the art of building, of the social and political aspects of architecture , Which lately seem to have disappeared. Bergman had a network of characters and stories that were always in his wonderful films. I have a similar network in architecture. I just wait, and when someone wants something I say "okay, let's use this piece", and build it. There is a whole ritual. I believe in the sacred and believe in rituals.

In our time, many minor criticisms concern the context. If these works are constructed, are they constructed without context? How do you deal with critics who call them overly nomadic?They are nomadic because we are in a nomadic age. The truth is that it seems to me an absurd criticism. I remember that Peter Eisenman went to Berlin and saw those two fifteen-meter works that he had placed in that great hall. We were talking about the aura of something like that and Peter tells me that they are not architecture because you can not get into them. I looked at him and said, " You can not go in there." I did not understand. And the reality is, believe it or not, I've built fourteen structures in the last two years. They are many works. But the silence that has covered them ...

They were part of your reflection on the Holocaust and the victims. It is, in a sense, ceremonies for the citizens of Berlin.For all of us, not just for Berlin. Things are happening in the world today that are also terrible.

So there's a political aspect to your work, even if the critics do not see it.Totally. It is necessary to question architects not only about the aesthetic aspects of their work, but also about their social and political dimensions. That is what architecture is all about, handling all kinds of heterogeneous things. I do not think anyone knows how an entire building is assembled. It is a miracle! When an architect says, "Oh, yes, I know everything about my building," you have to be wary of it.

How should the problem of the homeless be addressed?It is a shame that this city [New York] has not provided adequate housing for its people. Do you know what they did in Berlin? They accommodated their citizens. In ten years they provided homes around the world. That has to be done here. In a profound way, not banal. All forces must concentrate in that direction. I'm not over optimistic about it, but for the city to recover its soul must face this problem.

Many people are afraid of twentieth-century architecture because of its utopian and authoritarian dimension. Le Corbusier went so far as to dedicate a work to authority. What is your position on utopia?I'm not interested in utopias. I'm interested in places. That is the answer to your question. I always distrust utopias. You have to be careful with the utopians. When one appears, it is best to grab your belongings and run in the opposite direction.

And what do you think of Le Corbusier?He is one of the most unknown architects. There are angles of his work that have yet to be analyzed, which have not yet come to light. I think it has made the most mysterious and beautiful houses of the twentieth century. Their homes have to do with religion, with the supernatural.

In recent years, many critics have argued that architecture is entangled in a struggle between "historicism" and "purism." How do you deal with that problem?It's not a problem that interests me. Everyone looks back, that's all they do. They do not take any risks and that is a sin. Looking back they all become caramel statues, not even salt. Thus chance is lost of possibility, the element of doubt, and the risk of failure, all of which made Le Corbusier advance.See the story as a comfortable encyclopedia ...I love history, of course. But it has little to offer when trying to get your way through a kind of jungle. I may teach you to sharpen the knife, but nothing more. You never know if you're going to find a lion, a rhinoceros or something else, another type of animal, one you've never seen.

You were one of the "Five of New York."I hate that expression.

What do you think of that group, looking back?They are all old friends, four of whom have been professors at Cooper Union. I'm going to tell you a story. Many years ago, Eisenman told us, "Let's make a book together." We all responded, "Sure, let's make a book together," and we asked him, "When you do something with Eisenman, you have to do it," "How much is it going to cost?" He replied, "Um ... well, $ 200 apiece." Three years later, the book came to light. I will not detail what happened, but in the end, for all kinds of strange reasons, each architect had to pay $ 3,000 in lawyer's minutes. Crazy. In any case, the interesting thing is where we are each of us now, fifteen years later. I would love to know what each one really thinks about their own work at this time.

If the so-called "postmodernity" is over, what can come now, the deconstruction?Peter Eisenman is making an effort in that direction. He has come to a kind of agreement with Philip Johnson to organize something around the "deconstruction" in the MoMA [Hejduk refers to an exhibition organized in 1988 entitled Deconstructivist Architecture that presented architectural projects of, among others, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid , Rem Koolhaas and Eisenman himself]. It is a project to legitimize a literary term to make it an architectural manifesto that establishes a program for the next ten or fifteen years. The very word "deconstruction" fills my mouth with bile because, as an architect, I am a builder. So that exposure will make us suffer.

Do you think it's a kind of show corrupted by fashion?Yes, it is part of a plan to hoard the market over the next fifteen years. It has to do with marketing .

Derrida himself considers you one of the great moralists of the United States. A possible definition of architecture points to its intrinsic contradictions and your work, in fact, brings to light those turbulences. It could be placed with ease in ...Inside that exhibition? In that context?They wanted you in it.Yes it's correct. I imagine that to give certain legitimacy to certain things and also to put me in a minstrel. I work with meat, that is, with pure, clean broth.I want to speak now of another element, which is obvious to some artists after Venturi, which is the relationship with pop art. I have the impression that part of your architecture constitutes a complaint against caprice and the merely populist ...That's right, good observation. Actually, Venturi's work does not bother me. I think it's original, their two cottages on Cape Cod are wonderful. So, in your case, you have to make a distinction. But pop art is the scourge of our time. I recently saw a TV story about Andy Warhol. His house was filled with furniture Louis XV next to which there were boxes that are selling for $ 25,000. That house was full of trinkets, or whatever you want to call them. Everything is even, the piggy bank and Louis XV. There is something there that is wrong, radically wrong. He's cynical. There was little hope in that house. It was a hopeless house.

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