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Neil Denari

Neil Denari sits down with inter·punct to talk about the intersection of digital media, architecture and global culture.

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

i·p: In much of your work—in both your previous book, Gyroscopic Horizons, and in many of the projects you describe in your forthcoming book, MASS X, such as the Endeavour Talent Agency—film plays a large role in the concepts and narratives you explore. What specifically about film interests you, and how does it influence the development of your architecture?

Neil Denari:
I would say that the films I like and the parts of films that interest me are less plot-driven and are more about the image experience than you might traditionally expect. It’s funny in a way because you would imagine that in Hollywood, action equals the image. However, I’m more interested in the relationship between film and photography—a movie uses time whereas photography kills it. You might expect that an architect obsessed with film would be making animations, but I don’t, and that tells a lot about where my interests lie.

Scenes, movement, scenarios and so forth—they are all of course necessary to film, but in many respects, I’m far more interested in taking stills out from films and radicalizing them—taking images out to study them in the moment, and in a way, decontextualizing them to make arguments with them. I prefer to focus on their temporality, or the lack of temporality, because while buildings do exist in time, you can’t completely predict the script, you know? You can set up space, circulation, destination and whatnot, but the body is the animated camera—that’s the wild and unpredictable thing about architecture. Everybody’s a director of their world, so I like to think about film as being a continuous set of still images.

You mentioned a number of architects that have come and given lectures, those like Bernard Tschumi, and I want to make sure that I’m not giving the wrong impression about my interests. I’m not trying to replicate something like Tschumi’s interest in mis-en-scene and sequence, or the Eisensteinian project played out in architecture. I believe in the power of images, but that’s not to say that I design architecture to be an image, which some people might think I do. I’m a regular architect who designs for human engagement, but I’m also interested in the ways in which people perceive buildings scopically and visually. I still believe that even to the naked eye there is a form of mediation going on—everybody’s conditioned to look at something in a certain way because of our cultural conditioning. In other words, when you perceive a project, what you think you see is based not only on what your eyes see, but also on your background and the cultural agendas you’ve experienced.

For example, how old are you? Twenty-two, twenty-three? I’ve got you by thirty something years—you’re a completely different animal. I live in the same world that you do, but you started out in a world that was already more advanced in terms of image-making. Thirty years from now, a kid might look at buildings and because of what he’s used to, say, “I’m bored; it’s not moving; there are no monsters coming out; it doesn’t transform.” That’s what I mean by mediation—the naked eye might be looking at a project, but you can’t look at it blankly. The reason why I’m interested in images is that we all spend a lot of time looking at them—in the news, TV, movies, films, pictures of your friends and on and on. I’d like architecture to live in that world, in a good way, as opposed to being a medium that clings nostalgically to a different past. Film is a way to conceptually and culturally ground that idea because it operates in similar ways.

i·p: On the topic of architectural image-making, obviously the hyper-real rendering is a big issue today. I have two questions: where do you position yourself in this debate about their use in depicting architectural projects? And secondly, in reference to what you said previously—that some think that your work only seeks to project a specific digital aesthetic or image—what motivates stylistic concerns in your work?

Well, first I should say that I’m super impressed that you’re asking these intelligent questions, so good on you! Let’s see, I’m not that interested in abstraction, but you might say my interest is in abstract ideas. There’s a well-known aphorism by Godard, the master of the provocative aphorism, who in the 60s said, “Confront vague ideas with clear images.” That’s what I do. My aphorism is “Precise form for an imprecise world.” That’s my corollary to that.

So how do all these ideas find concrete form? A clear image to me does not kill an idea. Some people would say that if you’re so explicit with an image you will kill its vitality. I think I’m in a minority when I say that a clear image will convey the argument, because if it’s not clear, I won’t argue for it. There are a whole series of things that go into a building project—how the program’s deployed, what choices you make about geometry and materials, the way buildings are put together, etc. I believe that if we only put out monochromatic abstractions or fuzzy images, it wouldn’t be a very good reflection of our ideology. A few clear images don’t represent the entirety of a building’s experience, and so does it really kill the effect in the end? I don’t think so. That’s my argument.

Because of all of that, I don’t consider the clear image a commercial image. Most would, but what makes it a commercial image? Because that image speaks to a lay public, the consumerists? I don’t make images specifically for the lay public, and I don’t make images for an elite architectural audience who understand abstraction. My images don’t privilege any audience because they speak to my ideology about the clear image—clear image for an academic world, clear image for the public.

i·p: Does your philosophy on image making also get at the Venturian concept of “both-and”? You mentioned in Gyroscopic Horizons that culture comes in two forms, one more disruptive, and one more insidious, and that architecture mediates by acting as both. Also, in your description of HL23, you described trying to create a building that stands out while fitting in. With images mediating between idea and reality, what role does the concept of “both-and” play in your architecture?

I don’t know if it’s about image-making in that sense, but the importance of “both-and,” which of course is a Venturian premise, to me reflects my interest in representing a third voice in polarizing discussions in architecture. I have not been interested in siding with one pole versus another, and that’s why a lot of people see me as an independent so to speak. I’m not a Democrat and I’m not a Republican—I’m an Independent, and I do what I need to do to position the work in a specific way.

As a result, “both-and” happens in a whole series of ways. In the case of HL23, “standing out and fitting in” is code for spectacle and background—spectacle as under fire by neo-liberal critics, spectacle under fire by sustainability and also under the rubric of ego. Background is then supported, because whether you’re of the ideology that architecture should be an obsession over the unique or not—you can think of Rem [Koolhaas] talking about the generic, even though his buildings end up being spectacular quite often—it depends on how you get there.

“Both-and” is also about the cultural issue of architecture’s role. It has to be not only smart and sustainable on a material level, but also, what is its symbolic role today? Is it our mission to send messages about the environment that we live in? Isn’t it also about that? Part of “both-and” thus is about iconography, performance, and architecture as a force which is supposed to uplift in a positive way. Architecture needs to be hospitable in every way, but part of being hospitable might not only being accommodating and generous, but also to become defamiliarizing enough that people have to think about it at some level.

Now that’s asking a lot, but I think the architects that you’re including in this book, whether we’re considered to be elite or working for the one percent—and there are political issues all around architecture, whether you state them explicitly or not—we’re all still trying to think about what is progress in architecture. We are all considering how to defend our agenda investigating the new in the face of a culture that might say, “Well, we don’t need much of that, we need what works.” But what works is not necessarily what is interesting. I don’t think indifference means a lack of ideology—to me I’m trying to be inclusive and subtle, because I will admit that I’m not disinterested in novelty in architecture, but I’m also the first person to say that’s not architecture’s only mission.

i·p: I’ve noted that in contrast to many of your peers that also explore digital themes, you avoid describing your work as “parametric.” How do you position yourself and your work in response to parametric architecture and those who advocate for it?

Good question. I haven’t read Patrik Schumacher’s big book, but the reason I bring him up is not only that he is the most obvious advocate of parametricism, but also because I appreciate two things specifically about what he does.

First, he calls parametricism a style, and architects don’t like that word. I particularly like it, because style—historically a coherent set of formal elements that have some relationship to the culture in which they were made—is different from fashion, which has seasonal changes. Everything has style, and of course architecture is put into historical styles. For Patrik to openly say that parametricism, in the way that Zaha Hadid Architects does it, is the new style that everyone should choose—I find that extremely interesting. He’s not only explaining what Zaha Hadid does, but he’s also compelling you to do it too, or at least trying to. He’s a spokesperson, a preacher, a medicine man, and I mean all of those in a provocative sense.

The second thing is that he describes architecture as communication, and I’ve spent perhaps twenty years thinking about architecture as part of the media system. These are terms that can really send the wrong message about what architecture is, because architecture is traditionally not supposed to compete with digital media. If anything, Patrik is trying to say that digital production—smooth forms and a certain type of network massing—is the equivalent of an immersive experience, or a media experience. Architecture typically isn’t referred to or even described by architects or the media as immersive. When you think of immersive, you think of VR, film, or the spectacle. Architecture has always typically provided only a relief or escape from the urban or digital life. I agree with Patrik in the sense that I’m interested in architecture being part of that immersive world, and so it doesn’t matter if it’s parametric or plain.

Thus, I don’t have anything to do with parametricism as a style I would say. We use parametric tools of course, like everyone else—we use Grasshopper and discipline geometry with it, but it’s not a religion. Overall however, I do share some of Patrik’s ideas on attaching some of those agendas about communication to the way it is produced. That’s my relationship to parametricism, in terms of the culture that it touches, but not in its formalism.

i·p: One final question: bringing up Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal again, it seems that with the advent of virtual reality technology like Google Glass and Oculus Rift, the idea of the hyperreal is growing increasingly relevant. Clearly, these immersive media environments are in many ways counter to the idea of a physical built environment. How do you see architecture responding to this increasing threat from the virtual realm and virtual reality?

Architecture isn’t going away. Claiming the end of architecture, even architecture with a capital “A,” is false because of a difficult political fact: architecture doesn’t have the capacity to entertain in the same ways that other ephemeral media do. When I mean entertain, I mean it in the literal sense and as a distraction, or the consumption of distraction. Architecture wasn’t historically supposed to do that, but the idea of architecture being something that captivates is becoming something more and more challenging simply because of issues of attention span, accessibility and noticeability.

Many architects seem to be working harder and harder to make architecture that entertains, and I would support architects who do that, but I wouldn’t say I go that far. Even Frank Gehry doesn’t sit around and say, “My buildings will entertain you!” He designs his projects with an eye towards material, space and bodily experience. Frank is not at all connected to the digital world—he hates computers; he’s very much an analog person in that sense. Nonetheless, if there was one architect who was arguing that he’s trying to design buildings that become so exciting as to reinvigorate architecture in the face of its waning ability to communicate, you could easily believe it was him, but he’s not doing that.

I came up with this term, “formographics,” about ten years ago. It seeks to find a way to make 2D and 3D sensibilities come together in a building—surface, flatness, and the illusion of depth which we see when we look at these images—how could architecture take these possibilities and work positively without cheapening them? That’s really what we’re trying to do at the moment. The use of certain types of patterns in HL23—for example, the two-dimensional linework of the structure in relation to the real steel, with its robustness—that’s architecture that is trying to make a language which would both be familiar and defamiliarizing at the same time, coexisting with its surroundings. You know that coexist symbol with all the icons of the religions? I’m trying to do a new version of that, a work in progress, but for architecture—I just want architecture to coexist with the digital. We’re not doing media facades and working with the idea of a building as a computer—it’s not that anymore. I like to say that architecture has no time to defend its agelessness and needs to be in the now, and yet I’m also interested in doing architecture that’s not throw-away at the same time. We want to build it and have it be solid and well constructed. I think a lot of my colleagues who are very dedicated towards novel forms don’t mind building a little bit cheaply for novelty’s sake, even if it ends up beginning to fall apart very quickly. What I think I do is much, much more subtle than that—there’s a disciplined architect inside me and a wild anarchist all at the same time, and I’m trying to have them work together.