from and for joy,
of fragile systems,
ornaments of life,
and choreographed fictions.
a+u #637, 2023
The present publication gathers 50 architectures built in about 10 years. During that span, the atelier worked on a total of about 200 projects. The remaining 150 weren’t pursued, for a variety of fairly uninteresting reasons. The projects are numbered sequentially. Rather than baptizing each of them – each island –after a figure of interest or a geographical feature, we prefer to start each exploration with a neutral mindset. Actual ‘titles’ appear later, usually pointing at what couldn’t be foreseen in the early stages. All things considered, we see architecture less as the assembly of buildings than the act of building an assembly. This assembly of interrelated propositions is perhaps comparable to a ‘cinematic universe’ – maybe an architectural universe – in constant tension with the textures of normalcy. A distinct column or a pattern might be an extra in a certain project and become a first role in another episode. Is it a matter of coherence? About building an oeuvre? About authorship and style? Not centrally. Rather it is about mapping and conducting an exploration into something unknown a priori. Each project is a subplot with its own coherence but there are constants that tie the universe together. The bottom line is that these islands belong to each other more than they belong to us. We cherish the paradox of wanting everything to be a bit more like them, while at the same time feeling like strangers when we visit them. Those moments of ‘visits’ make for sweet counterpoints to the life of the atelier: during them we feel more like questioning actors than proud authors. But our feelings don’t matter so much. What matters is that it might be one more sign that the archipelago has a life of its own, a monstrous coherence that we are responsible for but that we never fully tame. It holds a certain danger, but perhaps only for the bigger ships and fishes.
It is all about proposing perpendicular things within the texture of reality, something like islands of indeterminacy. To conceive of architecture as capable of erasing the weight of the ‘edifice’, if only temporarily. (Kazunari Sakamoto (under the influence of Koji Taki) spoke of "erasure of meaning".) Such proposals cannot rely on ancestral, familial or societal structures, nor on a docile relationship to context, nor on copy-pasted recipes. It is necessarily discomforting at first, and challenging on some levels, at least. What appears to be an abstract painting might actually be a door, what seems to be supporting loads might well be floating, intimacies might be exposed, spaces irrelevant in terms of function might be the largest, animals or drainpipes might become main actors. The limits between architecture, furniture, technical appliances and art might be blurry, gravity and colors might have different tastes than the ones we’re accustomed to. Hierarchies tend to be shuffled, or in a state of suspension. Such proposals have inevitable consequences: battles of varying degrees of finesse with local authorities, clients, and between the architects themselves. Certain experiments go radically against what the market desires, some others seem to require infinite persuasion, or to refuse what’s generally understood as ‘correct’ or ‘sensible’. But what makes sense within a project can be quite remote to what makes sense outside of it. So each decision we take responds to a clear rationale, but one quite distant from what could be called common sense. If having 8 small windows rather than 2 normal ones in a bedroom might seem ridiculous, it can make perfect sense in a project whose aim is to blur the scales and visible hierarchies of domesticity. Once we have accepted such premises, form is not a goal of architecture but just its most reliable mean. So while the so-called ‘incorrect’ is often a sign of self-complacency or vanity in architects, in some cases it can also be the trace of an intense and sensible (but not necessarily sensitive) exploration, one that puts thing on their head for tangible reasons. Or we’d hope so, at least.
from and for joy,
In an era of ‘bullshit jobs’, ‘NFT-houses’, and rightful calls to build less, waking up every day to produce architecture is a real prowess, augmented by the usual struggles of a practice. Our attempts to conceive supremely juicy buildings sometimes feels like a palliative drug – and a highly addictive one – as if the projects themselves could redeem some of the pains. The most precious moments in the ateliers are the ones where we collectively melt while watching the embryo of one of these attempts on the screen – a perfect misalignment that gives personality to a façade, an effective and affective pattern that is new to our eyes, a kitchen hood that looks like a nose, a section or a plan that excites our imagination. One aspect of our naivety is that we believe this enjoyment can be shared, or transmitted – that something joyful on the paper and screens of the atelier naturally exudes joy when built in the outside world. Attempting to measure the success of this translation wouldn’t be easy, and we’re not really trying. But the translation from paper offers a valuable and crucial distance. It guarantees a certain kind of hygienic detachment. If one can fight for a certain kind of joy in architecture, it should probably be more ‘graphic’ than ‘atmospheric’, aiming to be a company rather than an influence. This type of hedonism should stubbornly remain within the surfaces of the building – ideally making for joyful spaces in which both joy and sadness can be at home.
of fragile systems,
Anything can be described as a system if one zooms to the right scale. To borrow an image from Karl Popper, even the most seemingly unpredictable cloud would appear as a predictable clock if one were able to observe all the elements that constitute and influence it. Or at least that’s what was thought after Newton. After the discovery of quantum indeterminacy however, everything could be described as a cloud, and even the most perfect clock holds within its particles the certainty that it would break down at some point. Popper believed that both of these ‘pure’ models were insufficient to explain human free-will and creativity, and that some sort of intermediate model had to be imagined (one in which several ‘clouds’ have ‘plastic control’ over each other). Maybe architecture can be described with similar terms, as something whose behavior owes both to what is measurable, predictable, and to what isn’t. Each element has both a role within the system and an existence of its own – the seed of a potential collapse of the whole. So in our eyes, a good architectural system is one that renders visible this state of perfect imperfection. It is blatantly fragile, its parts are never fully under control, or reducible to a single reading. Each wall is also a canvas, each opening is also a frame, each joint is also a drawn line. At risk of stating a banality, this multiplicity (within a system) allows to see the project as an endless source of discoveries, something on which nobody has complete overview or agency – not the architects, not the clients, not the inhabitants, not the municipality, not the builders, not the visitors, not the potted plants, not the roomba.
ornaments of life,
We rarely discuss ornaments as a regulated set of codes and techniques, but we often discuss them as means to achieve certain qualities. ‘Stripes here will blur the distinction of the apartments’. ‘A dot there will balance the neighbor’s door’. ‘Placing the joints this way will make it seem potentially endless’. ‘Centering this window will make the whole insanely cute’. Etc. Ornamentation is thus a complement to the more hard-wired clarity of plans and sections. It allows the building to talk a bit more, to form some sort of character. We mention cuteness above because it is perhaps the quality we seek for the most, and a generally ambivalent one. What is cute begs for attention, it asks for care, but for the kind of care that is difficult to predict, closer to irrational devotion than to any calculable decision. A world in which all built things would be heartbreakingly cute would certainly not be a paradise, but some cuteness distilled in good measure wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps this is the main drive: we’d hope that the buildings we conceive make life a bit more intense, a bit more engaging; that they can make one a bit more conscious that the built environment is not made only of square meters, money and regulations (all measurable abstractions) but also of colors, cushions, wood veins and other dizzying patterns. Doing a project means handling both aspects at once, holding the inevitable contradictions together, and plotting a potential for happiness in the process.
In the early 1980s, Hungarian composer György Ligeti was asked to write a ‘Horn Trio’. The commissioners had just one request: that the new piece would include a quotation from the 1865 Brahms piece of the same name. As the commissioners received the scores from Ligeti, they couldn’t find any quotation in it and got back angrily at the composer. His answer was that it contained quotations of a single tone from Brahms. Of course they didn’t like this answer. What they didn’t see on the other hand, is that it included lengthy quotations of Beethoven, implying some sort of half-ironic comment on the uneasy relationship between the two 19th-century composers. What is at stake here is the difference between honesty and sincerity. Ligeti was being honest (objectively true to facts) but insincere (deceiving by not revealing his intents). In architecture, such a distinction could also be made: if a non-structural column can be seen as a deeply contradictory and insincere element, making that fact readable by cutting one of its ends can make the apparatus even stranger, but somehow honest. It is honestly expressing its structural uselessness, and becomes an element solely devoted to other meanings. Similarly, the plaster finish of a wall usually disguises a more or less refined assemblage of other materials, but this lack of constructive transparency allows for another integrity, one of the usage value of its surface – a sincere device for (dishonest) abstraction.
and choreographed fictions.
Sometimes we sense a hint of disappointment in the voice of a critic asking the question ‘why do you try to make the construction so close to the collages of your projects?’. As if the collage was some sort of rudimentary sketch, a simplistic first take that reality had to transcend. As if the work of an architect was split between two worlds (the paper one, and the brick-and-mortar one), and that one had to go through a fastidious customs process (perhaps a quarantine even) to be allowed to transit between the two. We tend to see things in a much more continuous or nestled manner. Buildings and drawings exist in the same sensible world, a world made of both fictions and matter. From the early 1960s, Kazuo Shinohara developed an architecture of houses based on what he called ‘fictionality’ – insisting on the fact that these projects existed for society via a curated translation: that of photography and of the publications. He famously stated that ‘architecture is 50% construction and 50% photography’. But perhaps is it also valuable to read this sentence in a slightly different manner, not as a description of the architect’s activity, but meaning that the architectural object is both assembled matter, and an image-making device proposing a distance to the already-known. Understood in such manner, all processes that precede the built object (collages, drawings, etc.) are architecture already, a choreography of fictions within the texture of the sensible world – present, fragile, intelligible, fleeting.