Poetics with Breakfast

José Oubrerie

inter·punct and Spike Wolff discuss history, modernism, and the evolving facets of architecture with one of Le Corbusier's last remaining protégés: José Oubrerie.

For additional information and to view José’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: You have a very interesting perspective as someone who's worked with Le Corbusier and yet still practices today, since so much in architecture has changed. We also noticed that like Le Corbusier, when lecturing, you like to draw while talking. That made us wonder—what about the process of drawing and talking do you find revealing when explaining architecture?

José Oubrerie:
I think something that has changed the way we make architecture today is the introduction of the computer. I don't know—but drawing drawings used to be not about making a presentation, but instead about discovering something. Drawing was an instrument of discovery and was not meant to just represent something that was already so. Today, I don’t see that anymore. If I ask students to draw, they struggle. It’s normal because when you have the Internet, you have to take advantage of it.

i·p: Do you think something is lost by that?

I don’t know if it’s lost…

i·p: Or is it a good thing and a bad thing all at the same time?

No, I don’t think it’s lost necessarily, but I think it has to be considered. Why do certain buildings have a certain quality, and some don’t? I don't know—it’s a debate, a problem. I know my friend Steven Holl, every day, he makes all of his architecture himself, like we used to do. He designs by making all of these watercolors… It is totally different to do that than to have a big office, like with Gordon Bunshaft, where one guy does the stairs, one guy does the windows, and nobody knows what the building looks like. What I know is, when I have a problem, I think about it and then quickly make a decision. When I had a project in Geneva, I went to Geneva. That’s the thing—I don’t make projects or do paper architecture. I have to understand the conditions of the project.

i·p: So context is really important to you?

Well, one thing I don’t like is the generality of “context.” It is seen as “respecting the environment,” but no, your building should not “respect” the environment, it should refocus it. You know, in Rome, it is very funny when you read about some new project—it is always said to be ruining a whole part of the city that was full of fantastic palazzi. It’s become that we don’t want to build good new things to replace the old.

i·p: Well, in part, Le Corbusier proposed doing that with the Ville Radieuse…

I should say that if you think about Le Corbusier, or Picasso and Braque in 1910, it was a day-by-day discovery. They were inventing something completely new. They had discussions about the representation of space, of the problem of the flatness of painting and whatnot. It was slow discovery. In the end, they started to transform two-dimensional things into three-dimensional things—a guitar, paper, metal, whatever. Corbusier was doing the same with his work.
Funny thing, he started as a painter, and at one moment, he said, “No, I don’t want to be known as a painter.” Even though he was always painting, we never talk about his paintings. He said, “No, I want to be known as an architect.” If you look at his work, it’s constantly developing. He set a position—the statutes of architecture of the 19th century, the academy, the Beaux Arts system—and worked opposite of that. Nothing existed for him—he took his inspiration for white architecture from when he went to Greece, Turkey, but it was otherwise all new.

i·p: Working with him on a day-to-day basis, what was that like?

Corbusier wasn’t seen as a very nice man, but Corbusier in the studio was different. He had invented this personage, so he had to fit what you were expecting of him. When we were working with Le Corbusier, it was like when we were working in studio. When I was in his studio, I was not even an architect. I was just a student in school, very bored by the Beaux Arts system—it was terrible. But Corbusier would give all of us a project to do, and he would look at what you were doing. After that, though, it was your own problem. It took me three years to understand what I was doing there—I did not know.

i·p: Do you think architecture education today is too formal then?

No, for me it is not formal enough. You see all these people doing things with the facade on the side, oh my god...

i·p: But you said you learned more perhaps from working in Le Corbusier’s atelier as a student than from school…

Well, I don’t know how your school is, but mine was very different. It was in fact more difficult because in each year there were 200 students. We all started by doing the same drawings… You never knew which project was the best, but the best projects were always published as a little set of images by a printer close to the school, and we were always buying that to see what the latest tendencies were. We were also always doing pastels. You kept thinking, “How do I attract the interest of the professor?” It was funny because we were adapting very well to the conditions of the studio, but we were not talking about architecture!
One time for a project, I put in a lot of columns because I did not know how many were needed, and the professor comes in and looks at my thing, and all he says is, “Why do you have all those columns?” And I said, “Uh, I think I have to support it somehow.” He said, “You are not an engineer! Get rid of these columns.” The only thing I learned from him was that, and that my toilet room was too small.

i·p: It is interesting you mention that, because when David Eskenazi introduced you for your lecture, he talked about your willingness to engage with students and ask them, “What do you think?” What for you is the difference between talking through something—talking about architecture—as opposed to its written or drawn expression?

Well, when you talk about architecture, in talking, you discover something. It’s the same when you write. The best example was Marcel Proust—he would write multiple drafts until he was in agreement with what he was saying. You have to give yourself ways to discover things. Even with students, I find things that I did not think about before, because as a teacher, you are in a position to be pushed.

i·p: In part, what you were saying last night was that what is most important is how you’re thinking about something and not the exact media or tool that you use.

Yeah, but I even started at one point to learn to program. When we first started working with the computer, I was invited to work with my school in Paris to develop the first architecture software. They wanted to work on space allocation in three dimensions. We worked it out for one year, and then, at one point, they sent me to a conference at MIT organized by Negroponte to see what they were doing. When I came back, I said, “Hey, you know, what we are trying to do has already been done, so we have to find something else to do.” But even still, that experience was fantastic.
There were a group of people at that time who were really working by way of discovery—initially, we were not so convinced of the importance of software. You would pass a card to the reader and it would come back with an error, so you had to type it out again. By the end of three weeks you had a pile of cards, but at least it was finally working. I think it’s fantastic that now you can do that with Grasshopper. Everyone can program now if they want. You had to learn, and it was very complicated for me, so one day I said, “Okay, bye bye.” But Negroponte was correct in developing an interface between the user and the machine—it was a good idea.

i·p: Did your experiences in programming at all influence your architecture?

No, not in terms of where it was going. But when I was doing the church at Firminy, I had to convince the other architects of the value of using the computer… except for a young one, who was very good, but in the end, they chose the ones who barely could use the computer...

i·p: So you were the advocate for using digital tools to finish it?

Yeah, yeah!

i·p: Were there any advantages or difficulties you encountered when finishing a modernist building with digital tools? I think it’s an interesting paradox in some way.

You know, when you’re taught as a student to work with plans, you make the plan, and then at the end, because you have to make a section, you do the section. That means you don't imagine the building three-dimensionally. The only place where I had learned about thinking in three dimensions in the Beaux Arts was with descriptive geometry. That, you today don’t know!

i·p: Oh, we learned it!

You learned descriptive geometry? Ah! That’s very good!

i·p: Very difficult...

No! It’s not difficult! It’s a closed thing. Once you know how to do it, you know how to do it and it’s finished. The other thing that taught that thinking was a class called Stereotomy. You know, you were given a complex problem: draw a specific stone in the famous church, Saint Sulpice. It’s, in part, a cylinder that was cut by a parabolic shape. In the past, if you imagine putting those stones together, they had to know precisely what they were doing! It was not a simple Greek volume anymore. There you had a sense of three-dimensionality. So with Firminy, if we had a computer that could do it, why not use it? We could design complex things!

i·p: Do you think in a sense that the computer has replaced the process or way thinking that used to be taught with stereotomic exercises or through descriptive geometry?

i·p: And that maybe it’s almost too easy now? That people resort to doing crazy formal things because it’s so easy and they can?

Yeah, you know, when we started to have computers in Columbus, all the students started doing [whooshing sound] fantastic things. You know? Some even ended up working in Hollywood for the movies. But it’s only normal to want to explore the possibilities of something new. I have nothing against that, except if all that you end up doing in school could only be real with magic. But just trying to make incredible things… why not?

i·p: Do you think the use of digital tools has made it easier for architects to create iconic architecture?

Well today anyone can be an architect—you don’t have to be in school.

i·p: Is that a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?

C’est la vie! In the past, all those in America who built their farms, they were not architects! There was no architect for the Pyramids. Maybe there were some people who were more clever than others but… anybody today can do anything.

i·p: So what is the role of architects if anyone can be an architect?

Well no—everybody can make architecture in the sense of making buildings. In fact, a lot of people like developers do, unfortunately. But what then is the difference between buildings and architecture? That’s the problem. It is a certain sense of, let’s say, poetics. Why are people drawn to visiting certain buildings? Why do they go to Ronchamp? Why do they go to the Taj Mahal? These are buildings that mean something—they have a certain sense of poetics, which comes from their conception. One of my favorite buildings is Sant’Ivo by Borromini because of his work with perspective and transformation. You enter from a corner, but you have the impression of being in a cube… it is a very curious thing.

i·p: Now it makes more sense when you quoted Georges Braque in your lecture, saying that objects are poetics… I understand that better now. I think if architecture doesn’t have a concept or thinking behind it, it falls flat.

i·p: With regards to digital tools, what do you think of BIM and Revit?

Revit?! Gah... the new version of AutoCAD. AutoCAD improved a lot, but only because of the pressure. It really started for professionals—you put a stud here, blah, blah blah. Yeah, I know Revit… I don't know the program itself, but I know that when it’s time for students to find jobs, firms ask, “do they know Revit?”

i·p: Which young architects do you like?

What do you mean by young?

i·p: Someone who hasn’t learned by old school methods—who grew up in the digital age.

I like Reiser and Umemoto. I am good friends with them and I have been to their studio—it’s beautiful! I prefer them to the one who was Dean of Princeton… Alejandro Zaero-Polo. He came to the OSU and showed a lot of towers—the most interesting part was the skin of the tower, and the rest was a banal building! When you look at the buildings that Peter [Eisenman] did, they are really beautiful. Another person I like is Ben van Berkel. But I like him less and less, because he does too many things. All these people do too many things. I was visiting his office in Amsterdam, and I asked him, “Why do you do all of that?” He said, “You know, if you don't respond to an invitation, nobody will call you later.” That’s a story of the market—we’ve destroyed people.

i·p: On a different note, if you had to name the most valuable thing that you learned working in Le Corbusier’s office, what would it be?

For me it was learning to make decisions. With Firminy, for its form, we had all these models, models, models, and certainly we needed them. But how would we build the shell? It had a lot to do with the construction capabilities of the 70s. If the shell was done today, all the different shapes would be possible, but we could not build it at the time. We had to rationalize the shape—it was a projection from a square to a circle, cut in a certain way, so it had to be described in order to be built relatively cheaply with planes and cones. This became a constraint. If it was done today, you could anything, who cares! But the base was already completed so I could not do something else.
Something I hate with students, is when discussing their projects with them, I say, “Develop this, develop that!” I come back two days later and ask where the project went, and they say, “Oh, it didn’t work, so I restarted.” I say, even if the project is bad, you have to keep working! I don't care if the project is good or bad—you have to keep working on it! My problem is with consistency. When you do that, nothing has value, and you don't even know why you changed it. You just change it because you think you cannot make it, instead of saying “Okay, I have to do it, so how can I?”

i·p: One final question. To conclude, a lot of modernist buildings, like Brutalist buildings for example, have recently come under threat of being demolished because they are not liked by the public. Do we have a responsibility to save these buildings? How can we educate the public about their importance? I bring this up because the Miller House was under threat for some time…

The Miller House, it saved itself! I did not do anything. I was not there, and it kept being resold, and finally ended up in the hands of a housing developer who did not care for it, so the building was totally vandalized—the windows, everything, were totally destroyed. There was a lot of drama! But it was rebuilt, repaired, and repainted. They worked with insurance to fix the glass, and it happened that way. I was sent a photograph recently and it was perfectly maintained!

i·p: So buildings save themselves?

No… but if it has a certain quality it will!