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Material and the Metropolis

Wiel Arets

Wiel Arets speaks with inter·punct about perspectives and discourses.

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

i·p: Façades are a particular trademark of your work. With projects such as the Allianz Suisse Building, there was special attention paid to the envelope. There’s a graphic quality to the Allianz façade that invites a misreading of the material truth and creates confusion of its transparency. What motivates this type of play on the façade, this ambivalence?

Wiel Arets:
In one of my early texts, An Alabaster Skin, I tried to explain that for me the façade is not a curtain or thin layer used to decorate a building. For me, the façade is part of the section of a building. The façade starts usually from interiority—not the literal interior—but what I would describe as the area that you inhabit. If you are in the public realm and are looking at the active façade from the exterior, that is about interiority just as much as if you are in the interior and you’re looking at the façade from there. That’s the way I would like the façade to be read—not only as an instrument in giving an image to the building from the outside or inside, but also as a form of expression that responds to what the building and the city demand. The façade is never a standalone latticework. You see from our buildings that we try to develop façades that relate to both interior and exterior urban relationships and then develop new materials to make them possible with the help of consultants. The Allianz façade has a print on it between the curtain and the inside layer of glass that shows where you can look out. At the same time, ventilation, daylighting, and artificial lighting concerns are just as important to the design—it needs to work well whether someone is reading a book or working on their computer.

i·p: When you think of interiority in residential buildings such as the Jellyfish House, how does that compare to the concept of interiority in commercial or institutional buildings? Are there key differences and similarities?

I believe in differences—differences in the sense that you should look at each as an opportunity to develop a unique idea for a building. The Jellyfish House, you could say, is a building that doesn’t have a façade. Luckily, it is built in a climate that receives the most hours of sunlight annually of almost anywhere. So, we tried to make the building procession move from outside to inside and inside to outside again. When you look at the building, there seem to be six or seven possible entrances: the main door, or the windows in the living area, or perhaps the door on the garden side that then leads to a staircase that brings you up to the roof—the building has porosity. For me a building should always be porous; however, the level of porosity must be based on the required conditions both inside and outside. In a private home, you have slightly different restrictions, but I try not to distinguish too much between a library, a theater, or a museum in that respect. I believe strongly that there shouldn’t be a big distinction between the action of living as is done in a private home, as opposed to in a theater or library. Although I understand there is a collective sense that, yes, there are differences, I try to make public buildings more private and private buildings more public—you should have fun every minute of the day.

MTS: The video that appears upon entering the Wiel Arets Architects website—in its focus on movement, the transitory and the urban—seems suggestive of your concept of the hybrid metropolis, which you describe as connected, automated, and noiseless. Why is this new kind of city emerging, and from where? Who controls it?

I think the changes that have occurred within the last five to ten years and the changes that will occur in the next five to ten years are so huge that we will not be able to control our trajectory. There was an author that wrote in 1955 that workers using their hands produced perhaps 95% of all human output. The same author said that by 2055, workers will produce a maximum of 5% of human output with their hands because we will finally understand at that point that thinking is more important than labor. He foresaw that the computer and robot would replace the worker—we are more than halfway to this reality.

We already know the impact of the smartphone—our infrastructure is changing. It’s not about how the plane or train changes, but more about how we will no longer physically shop anymore: the reimagined distribution of products will be part of the new metropolis. The new metropolis will be an area where we do more than we’ve done over the last 150 years—we’ll start producing there again. It will also be the main area for living. Many of us live in cities now, but we really don’t want to—a lot of cities are not conducive to daily life. The new metropolis will be a new ecological territory not only environmentally responsible, but cleaner and more relaxed—an area without the noise of cars and machines. I began realizing twenty years ago that everything we do is becoming noiseless—planes, cars, everything. Also, buildings in the new metropolis will interact not only in terms of height and zoning laws, but will actually have to work together, as with the case of energy consumption. Even the public conception of buildings will change. For example, we see hospitals today as places to avoid, but in the future, the hospital will become a body hotel—you’ll go there to upgrade yourself.

In order to achieve this however, we have to be proactive in many fields, and that will change the way we eat and even how we communicate. The human body and the technological body—the robot—will impact how we deal with the metropolis. We should change how we talk about these issues, and that begins with architects. We as architects need to think about how things operate—how they work—before we think about their appearance.

i·p: In a way the new metropolis suggests the concept of the Internet of things, where things interact and communicate physically and digitally.

Perhaps, but I would frame it instead in terms of seeing the world as one city, or as a neighborhood. In Silicon Valley during the 1960s, they believed strongly that technology was important, but they realized that that doesn’t mean we need to live in cities controlled by robots or that look robotic. They understood that human beings still like to be in the forest, at the beach, in the water, and that we should celebrate these differences. We should create these differences within the city, as you see in Zürich and other cities in Switzerland, where you work and live but can also pause for a few minutes and go swimming in one of the pools in the river. We have to have a lot of respect for our environment. That’s one of the basic premises to understanding what the new metropolis could be.

i·p: You’ve stated that being a stranger is a preferable condition in that it allows for freshness and thinking without preconception. Is it possible to maintain the guise of the stranger in a world which is, as you say, getting smaller? How do we step away and maintain that useful distance?

What I mean by “being a stranger” is allowing yourself the opportunity to press a “reset button” every so often, so to speak. That means starting from scratch every day—the momentum of restarting helps a lot to provide a new perspective. As a student I read Paul Valéry, and every morning he woke up at 5:00 and started writing. He tried to forget and just write the first thing that came to his mind for maybe half an hour. In that sense, being a stranger doesn’t mean you have to go to Tokyo when you live in Pittsburgh—although that’s a big step. When you are a stranger, it means that you confront yourself with new environments. It’s the same thing as reading a book or hearing a story for the first time—it’s new to you. The first time you use a smartphone, you know it’s a phone, but suddenly you realize that it can do more things. You can use it as a platform; you can communicate easily with people you have never met in person. There is a sense of not knowing that accompanies entering a new society which in my opinion is a very interesting position to be in. The counterpoint to this “not knowing” is to rehearse every single day, like a soccer player, or Jiro Ono, the 89-year-old master sushi chef from Tokyo.

i·p: The documentary about him was insane!

And after 89 years he still says, “I’m not perfect, I have to repeat, and repeat.”

i·p: When you were working and traveling in Japan, you interviewed some of the foremost architects working at the time. Are there any questions you used to kick yourself for not asking? More generally, during your education and when you were starting out, who did you learn the most from and what did they teach you?

I can tell you what I believe. When I was a student—in my first, second, and third years—I wanted to be a soccer player. When you want to be a soccer player, you need competition, you need ambition—you need to be the best. It’s very important for a soccer player to look at and to analyze the best players. When I started studying architecture, I understood that you have to do the same, and so I started looking around me. I looked at the book that an architect from my town wrote and learned a lot about him, because I thought, if he’s so close, why do I need to travel the world to study others? He passed away before I thought to go to his studio, but I learned quite a lot from his library, an archive that I spent a year revamping, because he wrote and sketched in all the books he owned.

After that, yes, I went to Japan to write about [Kazuo] Shinohara, [Fumihiko] Maki and [Tadao] Ando, but before I went, I diligently studied their ways of working and thinking and as a result, when I wrote to them, I received responses very quickly. At that time, they were very responsive and all of them had time to see me as a young student. I remember them saying that you can learn the most from talking about the simplest of things. I remember sitting with Shinohara in a restaurant after we had been at his studio, and he talked about the House in White and the House with the Earthen Floor, from the 60s. I then started asking questions about Tokyo and his writings about chaos and so on—on one hand, we spoke about the bigger picture, but on the other hand, we also would talk about the smallest details, like the floor he decided to make out of earth, or his House Under High Voltage Lines. Interestingly, when I looked at the work of these great architects and talked to them, I thought back to the Villa Malaparte, where I had once stayed for ten days with students from the AA. After those ten days, I understood that it was best to travel slowly—to go to a place and stay for some time. I later had the opportunity to stay in Villa Mairea for five or six days—a couple of days to live there, to actually be there. The same happened to me in Mexico: I went to Barragán’s work and met the people who worked with him. From all of that, I learned that it’s best to take your time—it’s better to look at one thing very carefully than trying to do too much at the same time. I never met Mies, but I think he’s a good example of someone who concentrated on certain things—better to read a book five times than reading five books once. I think that accounts for all important architects, writers or philosophers.

When I went the first time to see the work of Shinohara or Maki or Ando, and later Ito, I understood that they invested a lot of time in their work. You look at the work and you see the changes they made. When they designed a house they changed it many times—nowadays, some architects draw a sketch and believe other people should do the work of developing it and making it reality. I remember a young architect who worked in my office in Heerlen; at that time we had eighteen people working for me—four working day and night—and this architect, a previous student, asked me, “So I’ve been working here for three weeks, can I go downstairs to see everyone who’s making working drawings?” I said, “All of us here are making working drawings.” For me an architect has to make their coffee and their own drawings. It’s hard labor to be a good artist and a good architect. You have to push yourself. You can work with a team, but each of the team members has to take part in the thinking.

Architecture in my opinion is a discipline where we have to understand how we produce things and to do so, it’s important to go see these works in person. I had this moment where I was able to visit the Eames House when Ray [Eames] was still there, and it was so important to see that they lived their lives. Life means dealing with thinking and theory, but on the other hand life is also labor; the labor of putting things together. Those two concepts are the basis of everything we do. Messi as a soccer player can be very physically capable, but regardless he’ll always have intellectual moments of doubt while playing, asking himself, what do I do? That’s something you see with all good artists, too. Being impressed by what other people are doing is something I learned from those architects. In architecture, we can focus on so many different things, but if you take the opportunity to talk to people like the ones I mentioned to you, you will see they concentrate on one thing—just like Jiro Ono.

i·p: As the Dean of the College of Architecture at IIT, how do you see architectural education evolving, perhaps in the context of the metropolis? Where would you like to see architecture schools going in the future? Is the model of the research laboratory, which you spearheaded at the Berlage Institute, part of the way forward?

I believe that every single individual has his or her own goals and ideas. I believe that every student coming to IIT for the first time has something to offer. The new student is fresh for us, but already has eighteen or twenty years of life experience. In that sense, age is no matter—we should treat students immediately as young architects.

IIT has an important history, of course. Mies van der Rohe understood that making was important—he understood that we have to relate the city at large to industrial development, but also that a young architect has to develop his or her own environment. You have to make choices in your life. One of the things that I believe is that we have to work with each student and faculty member individually. What are his or her choices and interests? We have to make sure that everyone involved in the school is part of the process of discovering what the academic propositions of IIT are and will be. For example, as far as rethinking the metropolis, we cannot do that by ourselves. We understand that innovation, new materials, infrastructure—all of these issues—will change. We have to ask these questions of ourselves at IIT and understand that 50% of our students are not born in America. They came from another part of the world and want to go back, and maybe our Chicago-based or born students want to go to another part of the world.

I think our world has changed a lot, and I think progressive research is an important part of that. People will ask, what is progressive research? Well, for a long time architecture schools were analyzing or writing about the past—architecture as a field was researching history and theory. Now, however, we understand that technological advances and possibilities should be taken into account. How can we work with industry—the glass or steel industry for sure, but why not also work with the medical fields? The way the brain works and how we perceive things are extremely important. Architects for a long time thought, okay, a map is two-dimensional, and so that’s the way to develop the city. Now when people go to the periphery, they experience it in a completely different way. Technological inventions have created a new world and I believe we should focus on this new metropolis at IIT. There are books written over the last two thousand years that we still read again, and there are a couple of books by architects that are still important because they give us an overview about what was possible at the time. Those architects were trying to understand what the world could be. I hope, and I’m sure that at IIT, some of our students and faculty are working on similar projects.

The goal is to have IIT work within the campus and within Chicago to create debate within the school—to bring discourse to the architectural discipline. We also want to converse with all of the Americas. I was born in Europe and traveled very early through the continent, as well as Russia. Later, I traveled and worked in Japan, and have been coming to the United States since the 1980s. This has all helped me understand some of the key differences between places. So, it is important that IIT brings people in and provides opportunities for diverse ideas to come together. That’s what we’re trying to do in the next couple of years.

Along these lines, I must say I’m very happy to be here in Pittsburgh. It’s been very stimulating and I think I should come back. This area with coal mining and steel industries is quite similar to the whole region of Essen and Aachen in Germany, through to Heerlen and Maastricht in the Netherlands, and on to Belgium and Luxembourg. These industrial regions have had a different momentum from most places that fascinates me. The debate I had with Carnegie Mellon architecture students during lunch and what I heard of your agenda left me impressed—we should collaborate. I think it’s important when universities have similar intentions that we have to exchange ideas. The academic world in general should understand that when we exchange ideas, we can have a larger impact.