In August I moderated a round table at UNAM in Mexico City in which I posed a provocative question: is architecture art? The participants, architects Mauricio Rocha, Gabriela Carrillo, and Victor Legorreta argued that despite architecture’s limitations, it is architects’ attempts to overcome them that makes it art. Meanwhile Gabriel de la Mora, an artist trained as an architect, drew a line, separating the two disciplines: “Art is art and architecture is architecture,” he insisted. Yet both sides were not quite satisfied with their initial assertions and the discussion continued, opening up to many interesting positions that pulled and pushed the interlocutors closer together and further apart with every attempt to give an explanation. I loved the discussion and I hoped we would not reach any definitive answers; the last thing we need in architecture is a consensus. It is our insistence on questioning that leads to new visions and unique solutions.
The following is my conversation with Rocha and Carrillo, as part of my City of Ideas column, in which we talked about their desire to make gravity feel light, seeing each project as a dialogue, their love for making decisions based on accidents, and their disinterest in being perfect. The architects strive to achieve a “meaningful silence” and they prefer to pay no notice to that line between architecture and art, the boundary that so few architects even dare to approach.
Gabriela Carrillo: I think it is very important to read and listen to what architects are saying and what they are thinking about because our students of architecture are no longer paying enough attention to ideas; they are driven almost entirely by images.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Right, images are very important, but it is the questions that architects ask that lead to the images they create, and it is the questions architects ask that makes their work distinctive. Mauricio, how did you start your initial practice?
Mauricio Rocha: I was still a student when I started designing a house for my mother, the well-known photographer Graciela Iturbide. I finished the house in 1991. Then I started getting other projects and opened my practice in 1998 right there – in my mother’s house.
VB: That house must have been very important for you. Did you do it the way your mother asked you to?
MR: No. I did what I wanted to do! [Laughs.]
VB: It was a manifesto.
MR: Well, before I did the house, I was not quite sure if I wanted to stick with architecture and I was thinking about studying cinema. I was confused about what I really wanted. I liked art, cinema, photography… I loved Tarkovsky, and I was very serious about studying cinema in London. But my mother asked me to design a house for her. And when I finished it, I was really surprised. I was 25, just graduated, and, I suppose, I liked the result. Art is still with me; many of my friends are visual and conceptual artists. I love doing art interventions within architecture. To me, art and architecture are the same thing. I love doing ephemeral architecture. Well, architecture is art; there is no discussion about that.
VB: And what about you, Gabriela? How did you discover architecture?
GC: Well, I am 13 years younger, so when Mauricio was designing his mother’s house I was just 12. [Laughs.] Later when I studied architecture, my professor introduced me to Mauricio’s work and I was drawn to his art interventions even before I knew anything about his architecture. I loved how his works fuse vernacular with contemporary, how they offer an entirely new sensation of experiencing space and going through it. To me, his art was architecture. I was still a student when, in 2001, I heard that Mauricio was hiring, so I immediately applied and got the position.
VB: Mauricio, you just said that architecture is art; there is no discussion about that. What makes it art? Why do you think so?
MR: Sure, only exceptional architecture is art. Once Tarkovsky was asked about his favorite directors. He named several who didn’t just make good films, but who created their own internal worlds that did not exist before: Kurosawa, Fellini, Hitchcock, Bergman. The same with architecture. There are only a few masters who were able to create their own internal worlds: Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies, Kahn, Barragan.
GC: In a way, it is important not to doubt that architecture is art. It is art because there is a need to go beyond function; architecture is about provocation, emotion, sensitivity. That’s what art does.
VB: Mauricio, do you agree with this statement? Should architecture be provocative? Why? Provocative for what?
MR: For thinking.
GC: For feelings, excitement.
MR: I love the work of Duchamp; particularly the story behind The Large Glass. It cracked during one of the moves and he said “leave it like that, it is part of the piece.” He made the decision about the accident and accepted it as part of the artwork. I learn from such things. I love making decisions based on accidents.
VB: What do you think your work is about? What are the intentions of your architecture?
GC: Everything starts right there at the site. We try hard to feel it, to understand it, to listen to it, to read it, and to extract something that’s already there. Yes, architecture is about something new, about provocations and emotions, but I also think that silence is important. There is so much noise around us. I think what is important for us is to create a sense of abstraction. The provocation is to search for a meaningful silence. We work with space, light, materiality, and such elements as shadows and wind.
MR: Yes, the most important thing is to understand the site, the situation. That means reading typography, urban context, culture… People often ask us, what type of architecture do you do? Big, small, houses, commercial… We do all kinds of architecture. Every project is an opportunity. Every project can bring a surprise. Every project is about creating space and experimenting with materiality. We are working with light, atmosphere, and local culture to create unique spaces, and not just unique but contemporary. Every time we try not only to create architecture but to express a point of view. And the most important point is that we want to create architecture, which is not about a form but about a void and emptiness. In other words, our architecture is about being in a particular space and experiencing the place.
VB: Your work is not only about building but also about interacting with existing architecture in the most unexpected ways and making art installations. Could you talk about how you combine these projects – architectural and artistic?
MR: Architectural projects take many years. That’s why we like to mix these projects with art installations that are done much quicker. They are very refreshing to us so we typically do one or two per year. The way we approach these projects is the same as we do architecture. To us, they are part of the same process. But people want to frame us. When I started doing art installations critics said that I am no longer an architect, I am an artist. When I did architecture, they said I am no longer an artist, just an architect. But I see myself as Mauricio Rocha and I simply do different kinds of works. I call my art installations ephemeral works and I call my architecture permanent works. We work with space and we don’t care how critics label it or how they label us. When Rothko did his chapel in Houston, was he an artist or architect? When Donald Judd worked on architectural-scale projects in Marfa, Texas, was he an artist or architect? We don’t like thinking of boundaries. We work with space, emptiness, and experience. Is it art or architecture? Both.
GC: Working on art installations is an important part of our investigation. We are constantly looking for ways to cross all kinds of boundaries. We don’t like to emphasize where exterior stops and interior begins, where inside becomes outside… Look at Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, the deep scars in the earth. To us that’s space and whether one calls it art or architecture is irrelevant. Our compositions, however sparse and disciplined are, in a way, a canvas that gets deconstructed by the landscape of rocks, hills, sunlight reflections, gravity, and the program. Our architecture is activated by light that transforms every 90-degree angle into an infinite array of shapes that continue to change as the day progresses. It is always fascinating to discover how seemingly straightforward space becomes incredibly complex when animated by sunlight. It is the use of our orthogonal grids and basic geometric forms that help us emphasize the complexity that may take some effort to discover. We simply want to do more with less.
VB: There is a beautiful quote that describes your work: “The simple stacking of one material on top of another, or the pressure of one leaning piece against another constitutes the principal method to establish physical relations in between the solid elements, creating unalloyed geometries of repetitive components.” Would you like to add to that?
GC: We love to compose space with tension and void; they are as important for us as any material. We are endlessly fascinated by all kinds of in-between spaces and how one can move through the space. We tend to use the absolute minimum of materials. We prefer simple stacking, but always in ways that would provoke a structural tension and evoke lightness and weightlessness. Establishing physical relations is a good way to describe our strategy. We are interested in discovering new possibilities in the relationships between the body, the eyes, the mass, and the void.
MR: Mies said, “Less is more.” Someone else said that less is enough. I agree. In other words, I am not after architecture that requires a lot of money to be realized. I love the work of such architects as Peter Zumthor or John Pawson, but I also think that there is a conflict in their work simply because such architecture cannot be done without money; I mean serious money. I question such a decorative approach. I don’t mind if our work is crude; it is not about being exquisite or flawless. I like coming up with solutions when I am challenged. Good work is about the intelligence of architecture itself; whether it takes more money or less is irrelevant. We are happy to work both on public projects and rich people’s houses. And one is not better than the other. The important thing is to be able to translate the time and energy it takes to make something into the final project; you can have all the money in the world and fail to achieve that. And being challenged and not having resources can lead to a brilliant solution or detail. The important thing is to be able to make complex and yet quick and consequential decisions; to create an inventive composition and space.
VB: You used to like perfection in architecture and you succeeded in achieving it in some of your projects, but now you question that.
MR: Yes, I am a bit sick of that… I don’t think it was my best work. Now I am searching for something different. You can ask – why? I don’t know. I assume this has something to do with my attempt to show the process. I love the process – the construction process, the thinking process. I like working with specifics and limitations. That leads to better architecture because then you have to go beyond limits. That’s the reason why I don’t care about making a form or an object. Architecture is about more complex issues – the composition, the connections, the details, and, most importantly, the quality of space.
GC: We extract ideas and possibilities from everything. To observe art is a beautiful way to calm one’s mind, and, of course, it always creates powerful memories that later may be referenced in our work. Everyday life is an important part of our inspirations.
MR: We like to deconstruct a traditional construction system and traditional architecture because we never forget that we live in the 21st century. My mother has documented many indigenous dwellings, and I can see the dignity of these places. I love to study traditional ways of building houses, patios, or cities. But the question we ask as contemporary architects is how do we interpret this or that? I don’t like completely new ideas of architecture. I don’t like architecture from scratch. I like to reinterpret architecture.
VB: What do you strive to achieve with your work?
MR: I don’t like making a statement. I want my architecture to be invisible. I would like it to look like it was always there, and once you are in it you discover something very special, something you’ve never seen before.
GC: We fight a lot to achieve a feeling of timelessness. I would also add silence, light, gravity, melancholy, reflection, movement, and deconstruction of the way humans relate to each other and the way they live their lives.
VB: Why do you want your architecture to be invisible?
GC: Because we want to be present! [Laughs.]
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.