ESCRITOS-G: “On the Unfinished”
Interior design magazines tend to be the perfect setting for degrading architecture into something mediocre. In the name of decorators and interior designers, architecture is painted up and disguised to become just another piece in a vulgar game. Architecture is everything. In other words, it is understood as a whole, as a process involving many factors, one of which is time. Time in which the architect gives way to habitation, time in which the house ages, deteriorates, and lends itself to future changes. With that, contemporary architecture has by no means found a problem but rather one of its greatest virtues. When Arquitectura-G was asked to contribute to the magazine (which we offer a warm welcome to), we were pleased to see the point of view it expressed, where the paramount element was the way the people appropriate spaces, while staying away from the ridiculous focusing on mountains as seen in cheap design magazines and vases framed in uninspired, substandard photos. To discuss these topics, we begin a conversation with the budding Madrid-based studio Nolaster Architects, with the centerpiece being Casa OS, a creation of theirs in Loredo, Cantabria (Spain). A single-family dwelling built in a privileged location on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Bay of Biscay. A house of undeniable quality that brings new approaches and with them, spaces for disagreement and discussion. A house that allows us to talk about architecture, time and habitation. We know that words are not the stuff of architects; we use images and communicate through those. That is why we felt it was necessary to bring in someone from outside the world of architecture, who could keep it from being a conversation for architects only and fuse all the pieces together. This is where I come in: Ekhi Lopetegui, a young man member of the rock band Delorean and PhD student at the University of Barcelona. We present the topic of debate for this issue by way of an Adolf Loos text “The Poor Rich Man” , along with the complete series of correspondence that we have exchanged.
Lifestyles today are such that flexibility—defined as functionality that is not subject to strict rules, dogmas or hindrances— is an essential condition when reflecting on the contemporary home. Adolf Loos was already onto this back in 1900. People must be free to appropriate their living space in a way that is pleasing to them. That said, the hierarchical distribution of uses enslaves the user inasmuch as it proffers but one way of inhabiting that space. Thus, a flexible space is one that accommodates any form of habitation. The order, or lack thereof, ought to come from the inhabitant (the Nemausus housing project by Jean Nouvel), and not the architecture itself (renovation of an apartment on Barcelona’s Carrer dels Mercaders by Enric Miralles). Actually, it should be the architecture that allows for disorder and not vice versa. The requirements for a variation of 2 to 30 inhabitants, as well as the uncertainty of the program for Casa OS, opened the door to reflection on flexibility. Reflecting on something and arriving at an outcome, turning thought into something material, is a way of determining that idea, and something that is determined is the opposite of flexible. That way, we could run into the setback of total, perfect flexibility, where the architect’s work is essentially nullified. Can flexibility be planned?
Casa OS immediately lends itself to be compared, contrasted with the house of “The Poor Rich Man” described by Loos. Why? Because it is the opposite of Casa OS, which was made by taking uncertainty (the indeterminacy of space) as the backbone. This is due to the complexity of a program that requires maximum organization and exploitation of the variability factor. The zero degree of that project, then, is variability, with the “constants” (spaces whose uncertainty equals zero) being an adjacent effect, but never the underpinnings for the project. Quite the opposite of the house of the “rich man,” which exemplifies ultracodification, ultradetermination and the saturation of space. I’m saying “ultra” not to use a buzz prefix, but because in the Loos text we’re presented with the exact same limit for the determined, and the codification of a space. We could call it the Planning limit. In an exaggerated, caricaturesque manner, it exemplifies what the architect has been: meaning, the one who has predetermined the uses of a space, the one who—as if it were about some ferocious Grammar— has prescribed the possibilities for inhabiting a space, and using it freely. But this architect-Despot figure comes crumbling down: first, because his failure is inscribed in the very logic of habitation, given that upon inhabiting it is inherent to him to exceed the limits and conditions on using habitable space; and second, because in postmodern societies flexibility (uncertainty) is not the exception but in fact the rule, and it agrees with the way that precarious lifestyles are composed. “Casa OS has ended up being defined as a field of multiple- choice encounters.” My guess is that this is so because there was an understanding of what the variability of uses is all about. The rich man’s architect would have upped the level of determination in response to the complexity of the program, adding details and, if possible, further determining the space. Casa OS responds in an opposite manner: the architect withdraws in order to concede a free space. How? By contemplating the task as one of infrastructural articulation of the house, or in other words, smoothing down the space for it to be simply (within the realm of possibilities) a surface that supports the complexity of uses. In comparison with the silly postmodernism that adds complexity by creating taut spaces and glorifying spatial confusion (Loos’ architect, or Venturi), the response to complexity is understood as the conferral of a space that is indeterminate, uncertain, plain and, ultimately, free. It comes as no surprise that the organizational logic of the house be the “simple addition of basic spaces.” There is this whole consideration of emptiness here. It’s not only the space that gets emptied (of determinations), but the user profile as well: Who inhabits this space? Who has it been conferred to? To anyone, obviously. The user profile is as obsolete as the profile for spaces in a home. In a sense, the kitchen has ceased to be a space with distinguishing features and is now a space of “zero uncertainty” (this does not eliminate the need for a kitchen sink). As relates to the uncertainty (determinability of space) a relational space is organized where what is important are the differences in degree and intensity of use, not the differences in fixed ‘identities’ (determinations or fixations of the use of a space, or of its possibilities). In that sense, the empty, plain or free space supports gradual differences and variable relationships according to intensity-of-use criteria. To answer the question: flexibility is not planned; it is reducing the plan to the minimum, that is, understanding that the response to uncertainty involved amounts to the infrastructural planning of the home, which is now to be understood as a free surface that supports, meaning it should support the disorder inherent to all forms of habitation. One final note: in my opinion, architects must know that this kind of reflection is nothing more than adapting to a context that transcends them, and this idea was already looked at by Constant and Archigram from a critical perspective, and while this may be the only decent position existing today, it is a “reactive” perspective. Another final note: With respect to the withdrawal of the architect, another thing in play here is an ethical relationship with the medium of the home, and as a paradigmatic example of that, in Casa OS “no element built on the roof (chimneys, railings, etc.) goes beyond the horizon seen by a person positioned at street level.”
What’s irritating about the architect of the poor rich man is not so much his desire to determine certain aspects of how the client’s house is lived. What’s irritating is that this desire is extended to the entirety of all future possibilities.
Our job is full of decisions that determine in one way or another the way the inhabitants of our buildings will experience them. And that should not make our hands tremble. At the same time, we are not interested in total flexibility. We haven’t carried out our work in pursuit of a reflection on flexibility. We were aiming for a reflection on architecture. Can we plan an architecture that does not determine the entire realm of future possibilities? But we don’t want this issue to eclipse our interest in determining, in specifying the present possibilities. In the house of the poor rich man, all of the possibilities are exhausted—all of them. But aren’t many of the possibilities also exhausted in Casa OS? We have discovered the importance of having a certain humility in our work: the user might discover richness that you are unaware of. Their form of habitation could continue the process of architectural creation that was frozen the day that construction was completed. We would like to think that Casa OS is alive.
An architect has to make determinations and decisions… but can these be made with resignation? The humility you were talking about could be the consequence—just like flexibility is—of a game that transcends us. So, as Ekhi paraphrased it, you are leaving Casa OS in a moment in which it is defined as a field of multiple-choice possibilities.
However, for architecture to be alive, it has to be inhabited, threshed, exploited in all of its variants, finite or infinite, and that habitation should behave like a gas, which occupies the total space and adapts to its changes. How would Casa OS be inhabited by 2 people? How can one get it to be unfinished, alive? The succession of rooms to end up in the longitudinal living room overlooking the sea, laid out linearly…are these not conducive to inhabiting only the contiguous spaces? We do believe it is possible to make architecture without determining all of the future possibilities, being aware of the architect’s “failure” in terms of the richness discovered by the inhabitant. When Nouvel kept the workers’ wall drawings in Nemausus, that was nothing more than determining, crystallizing a decision and a moment in which the architect withdraws and gives way to habitation. Failure understood as a nondefeat. At the same time, failure takes on a tragic beauty, one of material contrast with that which transcends us, just as Fitzcarraldo serenely smokes a cigar while listening to Caruso following his failure on the Pachitea. This is the grandeur associated with the contemporary architect. You say that their form of habitation could continue the process of architectural creation that was frozen the day that construction was completed. The house’s ownership could change hands and accommodate the new way of living it via mechanisms that were determined by the architect. Could these mechanisms be an aspiration toward ownership (by the architect)? Would this be fragmenting the house with one of these mechanisms?
Hi, everyone. Well, here are my reflections: I think the best thing is for the response to come from architecture; I’m not questioning that those were your intentions, but sometimes the philosophical mumbo jumbo causes the rest to stumble on its own underpinnings. First of all, I think that in order to clarify things, we should establish degree differences between certain concepts. Architecture’s ceasing to be Determinative does not mean that architecture enters the realm of the Indeterminate. That’s why you (Nolaster) write that, “we are not interested in total flexibility.” In actuality, the idea of Total Flexibility is still fanciful, suspectible solely from a new age perspective like a “mystical bond with Nature” or something. That’s why you both (AG and Nolaster) highlight that your job is full of decisions and determinations; in the end, making architecture is “making”—intervening on a material. Intervening, which is to say determining, shaping, delimiting the material in a sense. Thus, there are decisions and there is determination because there is architecture. Nonetheless, we can consider the problem not to be one of Determination vs. Total Flexibility. In other words, we are not looking at the dilemma of being either “the rich man’s architect” or “the shapeless flow one does with the material.” What we can discuss is how is that which has been determined in each case, to what extent have the possibilities been exhausted, if the work is open and unfinished or not, what relationships are established with other non-architectural domains, etc. I think there are a number of interrelated questions here. First, I think that as far as I see Casa OS, the work you all have done could be called “infrastructural.” I don’t know if that makes sense, or if you agree. In order to get the house to be unfinished, you’ve tried to have your intervention, your decisions (which there are), delimit a space that will work more like a support for the possible forms of habitation that may or may not populate the house someday. That is why it’s unfinished, it’s incomplete; it’s a support. That work can be considered one of infrastructure (although not all infrastructure work must immediately be incomplete or open, perhaps it must with yours). And it is true that this entails also a reflection on architecture, or a reflection that covers both flexibility and architecture, what that should or should not be, etc. That Decision affects you all as architects and it also affects you from an ethical-political perspective (in the lighter sense of these terms, if you like). The question—and here is where AG’s comments intersect—is not this relative withdrawal of the architect, this position of humility, the effect of a “game that transcends the architect,” the effect of a loss of centrality with the architecture and the architect? What unfettered Economy needs is a plain surface, unfinished works that can support, be a support for its vicissitudes—today it’s storage, tomorrow a workshop or garden; likewise it needs living spaces with variable partition walls to accommodate a workforce (the inhabitants) exposed to its infinite variations, migrant workers today, families tomorrow and divorcees the day after that. In that sense, the architect—while we may not like this—is still a subordinate, a human resources manager in the era of diabolical capitalism. And this, by no means, is to say that Casa OS is solely that; “the house still to be done” will always be preferable to that of the “rich finished” one. I simply want to point out that if we are going to think or do some reflection on architecture, whether that be from the perspective of architecture itself or any other discipline, the question of the unfinished or incomplete, the open empty bucket that remains to be filled, is a bit more complex or ambivalent. In that sense, the question would be: what are the limitations of this kind of approaches, and what else could architecture be today than that mere act of conferring open spaces (which is no small contribution)? What the heck does making architecture mean (what’s the point) when both New Babylon or the Situationists and their Unitary Urbanism (coincidentally in vogue), Archigram’s engineering, and Oteiza’s empty boxes are the ideal model of that monstrous delirium that is postmodern society? What I mean to say is that there is a sort of zero degree of architecture, as its primary condition, the acceptance that something transcends the architect and that architects have to confer space to that which transcends them (habitation, Economy); but that today this may not be enough, that perhaps it only serves to corroborate, repeat, redound in a unique reality or form of having things happen, as its perfect complement. And this problem is not one that can be resolved under the cover of any tragic image.
Ekhi, you are absolutely right with respect the mumbo jumbo; in fact, it’s something we’ve discussed quite often, that we architects don’t know how to write and rarely seem to express ourselves without sounding either lyrical or lacking in words. Our medium is IMAGE and architecture is precisely that. Years ago we attended a conference where an architect was whining about how he’d returned to see this housing project a year after it was built and the inhabitants had destroyed his designs. His dismay seemed pathetic to us. When we were talking about tragic, far from an attempt at relying on lyricism, what we wanted was to express the idea of fleeing from that stance. The floor plan for Casa OS suggests a number of things to us, though not so much an open support as Ekhi mentions. For that reason, and because we understand and explain things from an architectural perspective, we would like to know what relationships you’ve looked for among the rooms.
Let’s start, as you suggested, from an architectural perspective, which is what we are trying to learn.
The Casa OS floor plan was supposed to respond to some very specific needs. The rooms soon took on some very specific dimensions [herein lies the determination]. Some of the rooms responded very specifically to some of the very specific needs. Others did not. In any case, all of them were conceived within a system. In that, the very specific dimensions of the rooms and the relationship between one another were perhaps more of a determining factor than the very specific needs of some. The system was looking for the relationships between rooms to be about “use” and not “perception,” such that the very specific needs of each piece could be “contaminated” with needs that had yet to be specified [herein lies the indeterminacy]. A relationship of “use” between two rooms is established with a door. The type of door defines the nuance of that relationship. All the rooms are similar; there is a certain sensation of isotropy. The result is simple and complex all at once. Let’s conclude from a non-architectural perspective. This is something we don’t know much about, though we feel we could try to say something. We feel comfortable within that “game that transcends the architect.” We are in a peripheral discipline. Aren’t they all? This condition seems positive to us and its acceptance is part of a realism (not a cynical one) that allows us to contribute what we have, and receive what they give us. Isn’t that “enough”? “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet, W. Shakespeare).
I think that technical questions can be clarified “from an architectural perspective” where with other peripheral perspectives they cannot, perhaps because they are explained differently, or perhaps a different set of nuances surrounding the same question are explained. The relationships between the rooms are about “use”; the specification of a room depends on the level of specification of needs (for use) in the context of a system of relationships. The spaces are used more or less, and establish relationships between one another depending on a question of degree and relationship: the inherent uncertainty of each room and relationship to other degrees of uncertainty of other rooms. Between rooms, the type of each transition, the doors. Personally, I would like to cover two categories of particular interest to me (which is no longer architecture, or not entirely anyway): that of degree and relationship. The house is coordinated (determined) from a non-essentialist perspective: it is not types of rooms that are drawn up (only in a secondary manner) but rather relative intensities of use (degree of uncertainty relative to the other degrees of uncertainty). You are not heard citing the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, although those rooms exist as such. Does that mean you are not taking them into account? Obviously not, and besides that would be to ridicule what’s in play here. But from a theoretical standpoint, that brings another question to the fore: that the kitchen be such is contingent as it depends on the intensities of use (I’m not particularly referring to the Casa OS kitchen). Let me explain: a house’s essential (in the most literal, strongest sense of the word) attribute is not its having a kitchen. In fact we can imagine lifestyles in which the kitchen disappears from the household (this is happening). In that case, the kitchen would end up having a different degree of uncertainty and another level of specification and the entire system of relationships would be reconsidered. That could not happen if one were to believe that it is impossible to design a house without a kitchen; they would believe that the kitchen is an essential attribute of anything that is a house. The kitchen would still occupy a place without being “used” (this is also happening). If we put the focus on the question of use—and that can only be measured in intensities or degrees—we can imagine a house without a kitchen because first and foremost the kitchen space is “a degree of uncertainty relative to a system of relationships” and not an essential characteristic of all houses (an exclusively typological treatment of the house). Herein lies where I see the open part, in the balance between specification and indeterminacy. Or better yet, to avoid reduction: it is about organizing (determining) that game of specification/nonspecification, all of those relationships. As Oteiza said: coincidence, chance or risk are organized, calculated; lated; they are never shapeless. I think this is how that awkward dialogue can be clarified: Casa OS could be understood from that calculation, that form of calculating. At the very least it could be understood as the aspiration to tread upon that region where the architect withdraws (without withdrawing). Sociological questions aside: “aren’t all disciplines peripheral”? Yes. It’s always been that way. What happened is nothing more than the illusion of a nonexistent centrality of the Architect, and that myth of Centrality has passed through not only architecture but an entire era that is ending now. Is it enough? At the very least, it’s realistic without being cynical. What’s worrying is that this “give and take” ends up as simply everything being “enough,” and there the richness of that first humble withdrawal will inevitably be mistaken for a kind of poverty.
Our intention was to end this conversation with a series of conclusions. However, realizing that the topic lends itself to an open conversation without conclusions defined as such, and that we agree about the essentials, we have decided to skip that part. We would like to steer the conversation toward the magazine topic to wrap things up. The indeterminate part of what we’ve been discussing, the appropriation of space by the inhabitant: is this related to interior design? What is interior design to you?
I think that throughout these emails we’ve outlined what can initially be considered this “interior design” concept, or what’s usually called the “interior,” which is ultimately this question about what is inherent to the discipline. At the very least, we have outlined what idea of space is problematic or contemplated here. From the periphery of my discipline, which is even further from interior design than architecture, I will try to speak to this issue. Perhaps it is superfluous to point out that interior design can never be a “specialty of taste,” because starting with the first text the debate itself has been approached in contrast with that idea. If it is not a “specialty of taste” (for as subtle as that may be), what is? Although architecture determines a “surface,” that “surface” must in turn be determined by the inhabitant. And at that point “interior design” should provide assistance by developing the right instruments. But then, should it go for just gadgets or furniture? Obviously not solely. But that’s where it becomes problematic, this task of understanding “interior design” and the relationships established with architecture. Perhaps it’s that this idea of “interior design”—whether that be as a discipline or the mere act of utilizing a space or working on it for it to be inhabited—is an attempt to organize the architectural surface that has been offered, without determining once and for all every one of its possibilities for “use.” If Casa OS is organized in relation to “degrees of uncertainty” relative to the “use” of the rooms, and the intensity and variety of that “use,” will it not be the activity of working with the “interior,” the rooms, the ratio of those uses, of those certainties and uncertainties?
Construction and architecture may in fact have the same relationship that decoration and interior design have. Architecture should offer the users a space that exceeds their expectations. It must handle with precision the available resources, as well as the needs and the social and physical environment being developed—that much is clear. But the product created is a result of other factors that do not impose conditions, but are in essence intentions being materialized. When intentions are brought to fruition in a satisfactory and coherent manner, a piece of architecture appears, or a redistribution is done and textures are arranged in an interior in such a way that might prove exciting to us. This provides us with situations in which a contemporary inhabitant can get situated and develop, all the while doing so inside a setting that is their own. Therefore, interior design seems something not created by the user. They can dress it up, decorate it or put different touches on it, but we’d like to think that requires more intentions than the immediate comfort that the inhabitant can self-provide. It is not an issue of one’s discipline or trade, but rather projection and engagement. Actually, there doesn’t seem to be all that much distance between what one must think about in order to do a 12-story building for a Korean systems-integration company on the outskirts of Bologna, and the adaptation of a 400-meter space so as to turn it into a restaurant that will offer meals costing 77 euros, or even designing a street bench that will be mass produced for installation throughout half of Europe.
“Thus, it is untrue that when I paint a street or a wall that they become unreal. They are still real despite being painted differently for my scene. I’m required to modify or remove the colors that I run across, in order to produce an acceptable composition. Let’s say we have a blue sky: Who knows if it’s going to work? And if I can’t use it, what am I to do with it? Then I take a grey day as a neutral backdrop where I can put in all the color elements that work for me: a tree, a house, a ship, an automobile, a telephone pole. It’s like having a blank sheet for laying out the colors.” (Michelangelo Antonioni)