Architecture in the expanded field: a conversation with Jesse Reiser.
Questions by Peter Macapia, Interview by Jose Luis Alvarez
How would you describe the material conditions of your work?
That’s a big question . . . There would be a number of levels that one could talk about in terms of the material conditions of the work. First, obviously would be the materials of construction, you know, what a building is made of, the interest in the actual qualities and capacities of materials, [But also] the extended question of the use of material logics in the development of an architectural project. And there we’ve worked on and experimented with the link between the use of the computer with what one could say is the computational capacities of matter itself . . .
When you talk about materials, you mentioned the materials out of which something is built. This gives us, say, a thing. But there are other material conditions that give us effects, something incorporeal.
That’s right, and that’s what I’m leading to . . . they are the obvious direct aspects of matter but then the incorporeal would come into the logic of design in a number of ways. There would be the potential of looking at a material behavior as a way of understanding organization in a project, would mean both organization that would remain essentially immaterial, like a programmatic association. But it could also and would also for us be linked to the way we would begin to organize and conceive of organization in the project of the material of the stuff of the project itself.
So is it that through this material investigations that you enter into new possible organizations, that you get to radically new architectural organizations?
Right. What is necessary though in that process is the intervention or an intermediary condition, which in most cases is geometry because that serves as a kind of currency for the work, for the project. It is used as an index for attaching materials, but it is also because it is essentially abstract, but abstract in a good way rather than as a kind of distant abstraction – that is, it is able to acquire different materialities. So it serves as a kind of mediator between organization in the abstract and the incorporeal and the actual stuff of matter in a building.
There is a phrase that stands out in certain discussions of your work, the “unforeseen,” the “yet to be.”
Well there are two modalities here. One would be the immediate process itself, that one would use diagrammatic method to make connections that one wouldn’t ordinarily make and that the unforeseen occurs in the process. But then there is the other side which is not so much process-oriented but product, the effect of the product. And there the ambition would be to generate that is open enough to accommodate or elicit unforeseen effects. So there are two different conditions there in terms of the interest in the unforeseen.
Can you discuss how your processes are technically embedded in these material conditions?
Again there would be two sides to it. One would be the way in which matter or a conception of material behaviors first generates a diagram — the diagram being for us this abstract geometry — which would then act as a mediating device. And second, how that mediating device then locks into material systems, systems of building or materiality in the more direct immediate way.
Since there has been a tremendous amount of discussion regarding the diagram, how do you define the diagram?
We use a number of different kinds of diagrams. The first more conventional use of diagrams would be related to the use of bubble diagrams in the projects which would establish relations among, you know, programmatic components and adjacencies and so on. So that’s one status of the diagram. And typically what seems to be the most amenable to those kinds of fields are systems that involve repetition. And many times we will take what would traditionally be perceived as simple fields of repetition in architecture within a modern context and then apply them to a differentiated field of continuous variation and then they begin to transform those systems.
Can you talk more about this concept of repetition?
This is an area that has been in general discussion in the past ten years. And I guess it was first elucidated by theorists like Jeffrey Kipnis. We are looking at the possibility of dealing with a project that could be overall coherent but at the same time would have a level of variability and difference within itself, an internal richness that produces a tremendous possibility of variation, but at the same time is not a collection of disparate pieces. Repetition seems to allows this; that while one is dealing with essentially similar elements because of the way in which they are deployed they actually generate their internal difference, while remaining in the overall sense coherent. So it is a counter move to collage methodologies, or the methodology associated with deconstruction.
That is a concept used for example in the Yokohama port terminal – you mentioned that through this repetition you begin to embed certain programmatic conditions.
We tried in that case to look at a well known typology of the shed and specifically the three hinged arch. And basically we implemented a series of techniques to allow a condition of growth to occur in a simple system that would be one of the methodologies. The other would be deformation. And the third would be incorporation, incorporation of elements outside of the system to cause the system to change. But you are finally dependent on how far you can irritate a system. How far that shed will allow you, how far that system will allow you to induce change within it. So it has a range of possibilities beyond which it fails. So its also about testing the limits of that system.
How would you define the consistency of your work, that is, the features that explicitly define the kind of practice that you have developed as an office?
Hmm . . . That’s a wide ranging question — hard to answer in a simple way. In the last ten years there has been a deliberate attempt to conceive of architecture and planning and landscape design and object design as part of a continuum. And so while obviously we are not able to tackle the full spectrum on every project we nevertheless have a conception of the work as being not a series separate disciplinary categories, but rather that they are mutually inclusive of one another and that in fact it is sometimes necessary to do something, let’s say, at a smaller scale in order to generate change in something maybe two scales larger, that you can jump across scales – that there would be a level of feedback. That would be a consistent feature of the work, and of course the interest in continuity and consistent variation that goes along with those techniques.
Can you explain the term build-type that Andrew Benjamin uses to describe your work?
One of the byproducts of the work has to do with a realization that anything you tackle in the realm of architecture or planning or landscape design has a temporal dimension. But that temporal dimension is in a sense revealed by the projection you make into the field. In other words, let me put it this way: if you take a landscape and you project a pedestrian, a bicyclist, and an automobile into that landscape and project it into that landscape, each one of those is a kind of technology that reads the landscape in its own particular way and actually releases a dimension of time from that landscape. So we would see architecture as a kind of technology that has that role whether that is a natural landscape or one that we are generating — you realize that it is an immanent temporality to what you are projecting into.
Do you mean change over time?
Well a programmatic argument, for example, producing an architecture open enough to be able to change over time, it is an argument that foregrounds form and organization over program. In other words, there would be a loose fit logic between the program you are proposing and the organization that you are developing. A common prime example that is given is Central Park where Olmstead designed certain zones of the park for a general set of uses. And those are defined for him by certain 19th cent practices like the sheep’s meadow for grazing could also accommodate people strolling in an open space. That same meadow though today wouldn’t be understood that way, that is, in the picturesque fashion, it might even be used for rock concerts, which Olmstead would not have been able to know about but actually allowed for that to happen. Or the same thing could be said of the Rambles in Central Park, which in the 19th century would have been used for couples strolling in a certain way, courting. The same area today is also used for couples, but, at least in the early nineties it became a gay tristing spot. That is it is still for the interaction of people, but the practices have changed. So there is a level of loose fit relative to program, one could say, in a project like Central Park. And that is taken up in our projects as a particular logic, rather than overly determining the program, or assuming that that is actually possible.
So these objects depend on a certain flexibility?
There are degrees of flexibility. When you are dealing, say, with a toilet, the closer you get to the actual equipment and, you know, the machinic aspect of architecture, probably the closer the fit is to the function, but even there people have used toilets for many different kinds of things – the architect determines, or puts labels on things, but people find a way of using the things and places the way they want to. And that’s a good thing rather than a bad thing. We have, I would say, a lot of control over materiality, over the effects that architecture can generate . . . there is a great level of precision. But actually program has generally the least amount of correlation., with the exception of, say, for example, theatres, which are optical devices; they are machines, they’re highly controlled.. There is a question of degree I would say.