Thursday, May 15, 2008

Of diagrams and after. A conversation with Ben VanBerkel

by Dimitris Gourdoukis

UNStudio has been one of the leading forces in progressive architectural practice since its establishment by Ben VanBerkel and Caroline Bos in 1999. They have designed a large array of private and public buildings, some of them published extensively. Their work focus on the development of a “non-hierarchical, generative and integral design process, organized in a contemporary way, and using technologies that allow for maximum exchange”, as they state on their website. And indeed, it is in those design processes where some of the most interesting and innovative aspects of UNStudios’ work are laying.

Here the t-machine is presenting a discussion with Ben VanBerkel that took place on March 3rd, 2006, during his visit in the School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis where he was lecturing. The discussion focused mainly on theoretical issues that UNStudio’s work is putting foreword; concepts like that of the diagram and the fold, which might sound ‘overused’ today, but are nevertheless still forming the base upon which experimental architecture is developing.

DG: I have a set of questions about diagrams and diagramming. You are using diagrams in many of your projects. Even if we say that the diagram is an old concept, today in architecture it takes a new meaning. Would you like to explain how you use the diagram and why do you think that is important?

BVB: Like you say, it’s not a very new concept. Diagrams have been used a lot in architecture, like the diagrams Gropius was talking about at the Harvard school, but they were more related to the modernist principle of reductiveness: you make a diagram and then you can reduce your thinking through the principle of the diagram. But the idea behind the way that we use the diagram is a little bit taken from the thinking around someone like Deleuze or Foucault that talk or write about the diagram. What we discovered by using a found diagram, or let’s say maybe even producing your own diagrams, is that it often allows you to take a certain distance towards the way that you sketch. Because if you sketch, then you have already a preconceived idea of the image of an architecture. But the diagram gives you a possible instrument for unexpected insights. That is the most interesting about the diagram for us. You have to distinguish how other architects are using the diagram because I am not the only one, Peter Eisenman is talking about the diagram, Greg Lynn also, you see it in the work of the other Dutch groups, like MVRDV and OMA. The difference is that they use the diagram often as an informational guideline, but we use the diagram as a map. So it gives a particular direction towards infrastructure, organizational possibilities of the organization of a project.

DG: You write somewhere in your site that the diagram liberates architecture from language, interpretation and signification. Its sounds good, but is it possible to imagine architecture detached from language?

BVB: No, no, architecture needs language, I am not saying that we can do it without language; otherwise we will not be able to build even. But what I am saying is that there is a whole history towards the way of how the notion of the concept or a theory has been used as a mask in order to suggest that through this theory or through this notion of the concept we can start to camouflage a way that architecture might go to. So what the diagram is doing is that it prolongs any form of linguistic interpretation before it becomes an organization. It prolongs any form of… de-signifiers. And often architects start already with a de-signifier, the symbol or the brand or the camouflage of a concept. That is the danger of conceptual architecture, or let’s say, highly academic, theoretical architecture. The way of how we use, or try to use, the diagram is as an instrument for thinking, so language is there, but through an interactive formal devise; it is interactive.

DG: And finally how do you move again from the diagram back to the building, the building you design?

Well, the most important is that the diagram is not… actually we don’t talk today anymore about diagrams… By repeating certain types of diagrams, like the moebius or the trifold, we discovered that they turn into a kind of design model, so it becomes a kind of a tool for selecting techniques and a tool for how you guide the design, so it becomes a kind of a prototypical system for designing. It’s very interesting. That is why we don’t do any projects with students; we first teach them how to develop their own design models, which are coming out of diagrams. This is a very critical question. What do you think about it? What do you think is wrong with the way certain architects used the diagram related to ideas of text or the linguistics of the diagram.

DG: Well, my understanding of the diagram is also deriving through my readings of Deleuze and Foucault, so that is the idea of the diagram that I try to apply. I think that the main problem appears when you have the diagram, and you try to go ‘back’ in order to create again something spatial. I have the feeling that you loose so many things that you have in the diagrammatic state when you try to make it into a building. In a way you are going to the place you begun from.

BVB: Like what, with the sketch you mean?

DG: Yes…

BVB: You don't have to do that. You have to make sure that the diagram… I mean you don’t have to build the diagram.

DG: Yes, for sure, but…

BVB: That's the first thing, that's tough, but at the same time you don't have to loose the diagram. That's why I talk about instumentalization of the diagram; it needs to be cleverly transformed. Going back to Deleuze…what do you think? Because in my opinion is far more interesting to read Deleuze on Foucault.

DG: Yes, I also thing that the book on Foucault is one of his most interesting…

BVB: When he writes about the cartographies and the story of the diagram…

DG: He also writes about the fold in that book, while most architects tend to reference only the book on Leibniz in relation to the fold…

BVB: Yes. But the fold is also another problem…

DG: It has many formal or visual connotations. So folding is becoming from a complex concept into an actual folding of a surface.

BVB: Yes. Of course I’ve been heavily experimenting with the fold too, but I was always interested in the idea that the fold, the notion of the fold or the collapse of a time moment is integral, so it is also constructive. You see a lot of architects playing with the fold as a pure formal device, but what I find interesting is that it is generating a particular kind of a specific, constructive, spatial, differential effect, if you can talk about an architectural effect.

DG: Yes, so you don’t represent the notion of the fold by creating a folded surface…

BVB: Exactly. But you use it more as an instrument. Actually in the Mercedes Benz museum we use it almost invisibly. You can not see it, but it is there, in the section. But the section is actually combined; even there you can not see it clearly. That's what I mean when I say that it is very important to think more about the notion of the surface as something articulated; or how you treat the surface horizontally or diagonally, how it can slowly turn into a wall or a volume; or how a line can be turned into a surface or a volume. But all that comes from the thinking of the diagram where you start to reformulate what a wall is. You start to rethink of the ingredients or the architectural principles and how you can reshuffle them. In that sense the diagram is… I mean, everybody is saying “oh diagram architects”… but it’s more about generating a form of thinking, that's maybe what’s more important: that it generates a form of thinking. But like I said, it’s more ideogrammatic, like the Chinese language, where the form is already in the language.

DG: And I suppose, like Foucault says, it is detached from the field that it codifies. I mean if we say that the diagram in the beginning is codifying (or de-codifying) something, finally it becomes something else, independent, that has a value of its own.

BVB: Yes, it plays a game between three different worlds. Because today you could say that the limits of architecture have been so much proved of all these possibilities like, you know, you can go to the most minimalist kind of strategy where you get the biggest pieces of material in one room and that is then generating a highly reductive approach, or what you can now do with the computer that is the most unlimited possibility of what you can generate in architectural form and space today. And that is where our critique is when it comes down to working with the diagram, and most specifically the design moment: that you need to guide this process, either be minimal or maximal or computational effects that you are after, it needs structure; in thinking.

You know, Foucault speaks very nicely about the panopticon, and of course that is today the most cliché architectural prototype. But it is actually true, that sometimes you need to come up with a cliché in order to illustrate what you mean. But in the panopticon what is hidden in potential, that it’s very beautiful, is that he says that the panopticon is the most interesting organization expressing an environmental condition of its time through political and social relationships. And that is actually what we, architects, are a little bit ignoring today.

DG: It is like a diagram of the society that it belongs to, but at the same time it can be detached from that society.

BVB: Yes, it is the principle in the way of how we distribute ourselves towards the idea of… or better, it is the organizational principle, the distribution principle, towards the idea of form and architect, well, not form, sorry, towards the idea of how we generate through that [form] a specific contemporary spatial experience and a concept of control, like in the panopticon, and then out of that an other kind of understanding of form. So, in that order we need to rethink the use of architectural principles: from geometry to organization and construction. But the nice thing, again about the design model and the diagram, is that if you think it through its external forces, political, social etc, and its internal regulations then you have a tool. And I think that tools and techniques are not commonly discussed in architecture today, I mean not enough in my opinion.

DG: You are also dealing with this idea of the outside and the inside and blurring the limits between those two, and you try in many of your projects to do that. You can say that it is something like one of the principles of your work. Why do you think that this relation is so important?

BVB: Between the outside and the inside?

DG: Yes, I mean you can say in general that architecture is trying to eliminate this binary oppositions, but why for example not solid and void, or up and down and it is inside and outside that you are interested in?

BVB: Well, you know there is always a physical boundary when you are making architecture and I like to think that this is not so important. Although, if you take what Peter Sloterdijk is talking about, he talks about spheres, that we all live in a particular sphere. I like this interpretation, maybe inside is this space that we are now and maybe outside is two meters further, so we have a kind of sphere, we have a kind of social interaction. I am thinking often a lot about what is inside and what is outside. What is inside perception and what is outside recognition, even when I am always outside maybe, because in a way you are always outside.

DG: And in a way is again the idea of the fold that comes into play…

BVB: Yes. Because the fold is giving a little bit of a more open concept. Like in Poincarés’ theory.

DG: What do you think is the role of theory in the discourse about architecture today? You can say in a way that theory is moving in the background of architecture. On the other hand you have philosophical concepts like the fold, the diagram etc. coming into the architectural discourse. Do you think that we don’t need theory anymore, or is it that the designer is becoming a theorist for himself?

BVB: We need theory. But we don’t need to be so complicated about theory. I mean often you have the theorists on one hand and the practicing architects on the other. But I do believe that this is a little bit nonsense. You know I even believe a lot in after theory. I don’t think that is so important to argue about when theory is important, if it is ‘before theory’, or speculative theory, or after theory. But it is necessary. Actually it's a kind of technique. Theory is a technique for just testing if you formulate your ideas well. If you don’t know how to formulate it I think that is often a bad idea. So it's a very simple, brutal answer maybe. I could make the answer more complicated but then I will go more into the history of architecture and the scientific aspect of the practice. Because on one hand we are scientists but on the other I still believe in the Vitruvian combination, of the scientist being a philosopher as well.

You could be negative about a notion of an after theory. Because you know, you do something and then you build more theory around it. But you just have to make sure that you are using that theory very strongly again in your next project (laughs).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Van Berkel vs. Scott Cohen dialogue at Harvard: