Architecture Ablaze

This article has been originally published as part of the column FABBRICATION in XXI magazine, vol.156, February 2017. This article can be accessed here in Turkish.

‘If cold, then cold as a block of ice.
If hot, then hot as a blazing wing.
Architecture must blaze.’ 1

The Blazing Wing, 1980

burcu+efe (fabb): Shall we set architecture ablaze?

Wolf D. Prix: *nods head enthusiastically, gleeful as always*

Almost 40 years has passed over his manifesto, and Wolf D. Prix is still excited with the idea of challenging all things taken for granted in architecture. After a long day of chatting here and there, what follows is a part of this lengthy conversation with a visionary who has come to terms with the current construction industry paradigm, yet remains optimistic for the future.

fabb: We are wondering when the architect as a professional is going to evolve. Will the architect remain as merely the designer of the form as perceived by people from outside of the field, or will architect return to its roots to become the designer of the process itself once again this time under a new paradigm?

wolf: First of all, the building is not a priori architecture. Only when the building touches a meta level, in many areas – then it is architecture.

fabb: There seems to be a wide gap between the technologies available to architects and those employed by builders. Why do you think the construction industry is not willing to adopt such technologies yet?

wolf: The other way around. The building industry is not interested in developing new methods of building, because it is easy to do it that way [in conventional ways]. They get enough money so they don’t want to change. I always say, if the car industry would act like the building industry – we would just ride horses.

fabb: They just get through the day..

wolf: Yeah, yeah. Maybe, it will change when the Chinese will takes over Europe [in terms of economic power]; because they know how to do it. All the Chinese use new methods, they are ready to do [experiment].

fabb: Actually, we already witness the impact of the Chinese on infrastructure projects: in the development projects for Africa and on the undertaking of creating a new railroad that connects mainland China with Western Europe. They are asserting their power through re-interpreting old routes and developing new nodes.

wolf: That brings me to a sad political issue because they are a totalitarian regime.

fabb: Steering a bit away from international politics, if even a country with relatively low wages such as China is considering to utilize construction robotics on site – then there needs to be a solid reason. Construction industry is known to employ even the unskilled workers in large quantities. How will this affect the current employment paradigm?

wolf: Yeah, that’s a problem. Since we are working with that [towards a future utilizing robots], we started doing research on what can the workers, which will lose their jobs, do. And no one, really no one is interested to support us with this research. So why should we do it? It [research] costs a lot of money, and we did it until now because now we don’t have any money. It must be a political issue.

fabb: So, someone has to take an incentive.

wolf: Why should an architect take it? We are not the rulers. It’s the opposite. We’re sardines. . [Referring to his phrase “we are like sardines in a fish tank with sharks, only without swarm intelligence”].

fabb: That means we need to be in an collaborative environment.

wolf: YES!

fabb: A new generation of architects and designers are developing experimental digital fabrication methods utilizing novel tools in a collaborative environment with builders, mechanics…What type of long term or short term impacts should we expect?

wolf: From these architects, a very technocratic impact. Not a new experience in that space. I’m sorry; architecture is space – nothing else. Or, a lot of more. I think if the form doesn’t come synergetic with the context, which is very important, it is a boring architecture. It’s either form formalistic, or it is only functional. Together they create, in German there’s a word, which describes it, better than all other words, Gestalt. How we design formal buildings that work very well, function very good, you can read it on the BMW Welt – they expected 800.000 visitors a year, now they have 3 million [visitors] a year. So, both [form and function], together has to work. Then, there is an impact of new technology, new material, and new space – [only] then, it is creating new architecture.

“Architecture has to be cavernous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round, delicate, colorful, obscene, lustful, dreamy, attracting, repelling, wet, dry, and throbbing. Alive or dead.” 2

wolf: If you delegate, and this is the problem, if you delegate your lifelines to a machine, that shows that society has a death wish.3 My friend is a psychoanalyst, he says: if everything is done by a machine, people will die earlier because they are so bored that they do not know what to do.

fabb: They have no purpose…

wolf: Yeah, yeah. If your house is serving you, and telling you “you should buy milk”, or your fitness watch is telling you “you should walk now”, this is boring.

fabb: So, the trend of naming every commodity smart; smart watches, smart houses, smartphones… It is actually a bit of an irony…

wolf: I AM SMART, not the watch is smart. I should be smart.

fabb: Whereas robots might be replacing human labor in some cases, there is also the budding notion of working in collaboration with robots – one of the key elements of Industry 4.0. Maybe we should not fear the tools of the new technology, but rather familiarize with them.

wolf: What I think about this machine, and all the other machines is they are perfect tools. If you let them replace you, it will be a very boring, stupid procedure. Creativity will be out, because “oh I didn’t do it.” My friend Peter Eisenman said, “I didn’t do it, it was the mathematics”

fabb: Yet, out of all the iterations and possibilities, he is still the one to decide one over the others.

Images from Musée des Confluences model

wolf: I was there when he threw away one part of his design and took another one from the trash and put it back. This is OK, this is perfectly OK. I compare this with how the black dot on the wing of a butterfly came to be. Trial and error. Trial and error is the design [methodology] of the old society. So, it is a perfect tool. I never can draw a building, which is deformed by the wind, in order to reduce the structure and reduce the costs. I cannot draw it, but I have an idea and can lay it out as a strategy. Then you can work on the computer to make it possible. What we are doing is we always put our hand on the model. Sketch is produced into a [physical] model, and then the model goes through a 3D scanner into the machine [computer]. We are building mistakes, so called building mistakes, with fun.

Fabb: I remember back in 2006 when I was working at the BMW Welt Project, the scale of the model cars used in the models were either 1:87 or 1:43. All the models were built according to the scale of these cars, because it is important to demonstrate how the life in that building is going to be like.

Wolf: So we are having a lot of fun building models. Were you there when we made the movie with this LA company [Imaginary Forces] with the big model [BMW Welt]?

Image from BMW Welt model

Fabb: Sure, I know that big model.

Wolf: We built a very big model. [First is a story of what] I learned from my professor who designed the headquarters’ of BMW. 40 years before we got the project. I forgot everything about those days, but I remember this. It was around ’68 I can’t remember the date. They [the client] said [to my professor]: “we can not work in a curved office”. You know the building with cylinder, like the Goldberg tower. Then he built a 1:1 model of one of these offices in a movie studio in Berlin. He placed IBM machines and secretaries into the office, and they saw the space and said “OK, we CAN [work in a curved office].”

Fabb: Demonstrating the atmospheric qualities of a space must have been convincing for the client. All they need to see was how it felt like to be in such a space.

Wolf: We had problems along the BMW project, because people did not understand how large it was. They said about the roof, which is enormously big, “OK, I know how to build a roof like that, because I just had a winter garden in my house”. Ooh sorry, 1500 times bigger, this roof is like that. So I asked [to myself] how we could give an image to this people how big it is…

We hired a movie company, a very famous one, Greg Lynn told me to hire them. And we had this BIG model, they came with 30 people, catering, all these movie staff… they are crazy… We had this big model from here to there [stretching his hands wide open]. They had a camera, and then it [the process] starts like that: The guy sitting in front of the computer half a day and then, ‘achtung’ [attention], ‘aufnahme’ [action] and the camera moves like that [moved his hand down vertically and then towards left]. The entire day, it made this move… [Laughter], he programmed the camera, and then did just this.

So we got a movie, a perfect movie! We rented a factory and build up a 6 m high screen so that everyone can see the largeness. Then we showed the movie and changed the image they had in mind. So at the very end, the guy looked at me and said “OK, Let’s build it!”

And I was very happy that he said that, because the movie cost 800.000 euros …800.000 euros …

Fabb: That is a proper movie budget.

Wolf: 800.000 [he sighed]. If we had not built it, because then our detail planning was to start … I would not sit here, because I would have been broke immediately [sighed again]… So anyway no risk, no fun I have to say [nod his head joyfully]….

“Architecture that lights up, stings, rips, and tears under stress.” 4

Well it may be the time to refer to the very beginning of the conversation when at the time we asked if we could record the interview. And he said: “ Why? I’m not a movie star. You know what I always say when they say “you are a starchitect” – if we, Zaha, me, Rem, all the others, would be an actor; I would be in the movie business. We would earn million more money than we are earning as architect. So, what is a starchitect?”

Fabb: Our job as architect is also to introduce the kind of atmosphere people would be living in utilizing every kind of technology available. For some people, just the image might seem dull, especially if they have already said, “oh we can not work in a curved space”.

Wolf: So this IS the experience [of the space]…If we go too much into technique, we are losing the emotional quality of architecture which cannot be rationally described, because you cannot describe time in an exact way and you need the 4th dimension in architecture, time namely, to walk through the experience. Otherwise you will not get [what the experience is], if you only look at the images, renderings. It is like having telephone sex, not real, it is only 2 dimensional.

Fabb: Once you started to talk about the emotional part of the architecture, it kind of reminded me of Kas Oosterhuis. He was always the one to talk about the emotive architecture, like it is not only about just bringing out new techniques, new tools…

Wolf: Good example about what architecture really can do. Actually, it cannot force the talent. It can only prohibit exploring your talent. Means, a painter who is sitting in a studio with the most beautiful light and he is not talented. He will not increase the talent by architecture. But if you put a talented painter in a basement with no light, he cannot paint. Your responsibility [as an architect] is to get away with the restriction.

Fabb: Would you agree that the new fabrication technology would set people free from the tyranny of the omnipresent rectangle? As it will be possible to construct any form with such technology, even within a tight schedule and affordable price.

Wolf: No. But I think it can develop the language of architecture. If complex shapes, I don’t mean difficult ones, can be in the financial level of cubes, then it is an advantage. But I know what they will do. If we introduce all these methods in order to make complexity available. The building industry will take it and say now we can make boxes very cheap.

Fabb: Exactly, that is what the so-called 3d printed houses are doing these days. The things they produce, in terms of form, are no different from any building that is constructed conventionally. They are different though, in a way that structurally it is not going to be appropriate for, say 10 people, to accommodate, and yet in the form of a conventional building.

With such a transformation in the industry, we were hoping to change the language of creation of form and make it affordable and make it possible that it fits in a tight schedule….

“We want architecture that has more. Architecture that bleeds, that exhausts, that whirls, and even breaks.” 5

Robot welding façade panels

Wolf: YES [agreed enthusiastically]! We proved that instead of working with 80 people in 8 months for this shape [MOCAPE, Cloud], we can do it with 8 people in 1 month. The architects don’t take it [the responsibility to control the project budget], but the project manager does. They are taking it [the data from BIM] and they are controlling the architects by saying ‘this one, it is much too expensive’ and you cannot prove that it is not true because it is in the building system. So we are the sardines in an aquarium with the sharks, and we don’t have the swarm intelligence.

Can of sardines

Fabb: Is it safe to say that the architect is losing power day by day with an exponential acceleration?

Wolf: I would not say that my method, to put the hand on at the beginning, is the only one to create fantastic architecture but what I can feel from the computer guys is that [they think] this is the only way you can do it [fantastic architecture]. This is the problem; the fundamentalist thinking prohibits the swarm intelligence.

I will hire one of these guys who is doing the structures with BIM because then I can built one part of the ECB Building, which is not finished yet, the hanging garden much more cheaper. It would cost 2 million euros. 2 million for a hanging garden in a high rise. It would help the microclimate very very very well though. It will support the whole microclimate, energy system would be cheaper and so on [in the long run]. They said the whole building cost 1.4 billion and this hanging garden would have cost 2 million and said it is too expensive. This is the stupidity of the construction politics. Because the project manager has to prove that he has the control. This is the reality this is the invisible architecture.

Fabb: We will hear more abut the invisible architecture later, in the lecture right?

Wolf: Yeah, very specifically… I can see that the students, they do not understand what I talk about in the first part [of my lectures]. Because you need to have the experience in order to understand that…

This is what I say at school all day long: “what we can do is, we can give you information; you have to experience this information to get knowledge.“

“Because with architecture, we don’t want to exclude everything that is disquieting.” 6

  1. Excerpts from “Architecture Must Blaze”, a manifest by CHLB, 1980
  2.  ibid.
  3. Here, Wolf references the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.