In 2012, Studio WAC conducted a series of interviews on behalf of the Rice Design Alliance for their online publication, OffCite.org. Below you can read extensive conversations with architects Alfredo Brillembourg, and Greg Lynn.
ALFREDO BRILLEMBOURG ABOUT TORRE DAVID
AND THE FUTURE OF
THE GLOBAL SOUTH
Just a few weeks after winning the Golden Lion at the XIII Venice Architecture Biennale, Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), spoke September 19 at the Rice Design Alliance Fall 2012 Lecture Series addressing the future of architectural education. (Watch the lecture on YouTube.) With offices in Caracas, São Paulo, New York, and Zürich, Urban-Think Tank is an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to high-level research and design.
At the 2012 Venice Biennale, U–TT, along with Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan, presented Torre David: Gran Horizonte, an installation documenting an unfinished 45-story office tower in the center of Caracas designed by the distinguished Venezuelan architect Enrique Gòmez. Centro Financiero Confinanzas (as it was originally known) was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extralegal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum.
Prior to the lecture, Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz Amaré-Cartwright of Studio WAC, sat down with Alfredo Brillembourg and asked him questions about Torre David and squatting in Venezuela. Below is an except of the interview, to read the full article visit OffCite.org.
Jenny Lynn Weitz-Amare Cartwright (JL): You have done extensive research in the slums of Latin America, Asia, the Middle East. What are some of the trends that lead to the formation of the informal city?
Alfredo Brillembourg (AB): As you probably know we started early as an informal group in 1993, we called it the Caracas Think Tank. It was a walking and talking group of architects and non–architects interested in coming together collectively to talk about the city.
So we began walking the city. We began thinking about it. We began questioning ourselves within the social and financial crisis that Venezuela was going through. What could be done?
Our first extended office partners were actually our gardeners, our drivers; the people who lived in the informal city. They took us in, we went undercover and we began to discover the world that was on the hillsides of Caracas; a world that no one had ever mapped. This eventually turned into a project that became known as the Caracas Case.
The Caracas Case ended in a book called Informal City. And basically it relates the whole story that we could understand of how it was formed, what the growth rates are, what the methods of building this informal city were, and we actually proposed and poked at some solutions on how to retrofit.
JL: What were some of the solutions?
AB: Some of the solutions were built later and over time. One was adding more sports fields (we call that a vertical gymnasium) that we did collectively together with the team. And now not only have we proposed it for Caracas, we have proposed it for Brazil, Jordan, India, and New York, in fact in Harlem. Right now, only three of them are built in Caracas; two of them are under construction, one is finished.
The next thing was transport. How do you get people up these hills when they have to walk on average thirty–nine floors to get home every day? Because Caracas is a city of valleys, rivers, and highways, the cable car seemed like the perfect solution. Not to be used as a touristic element but actually using it as a transport system. We went to the Austrian company Doppelmayr and they financed a study.
That study became a proposal that later reached the governments’ hands, the metro company of Caracas took it on and [President Hugo] Chavez signed the funding and the commitment to it in Austria in a bilateral treaty agreement between Austria and Venezuela.
JL: Now that the Metro Cable is built, how is the city responding to it?
AB: You can see it on the videos that we’ve posted. The one we showed at the MoMa is maybe the most significant one, where people say â€œnow as an old man I can go down to the hospital in 10 minutes.â€ The woman who’s pregnant walking on the hill on that video says “now I have accessibility immediately to any medical attention and I don’t have to be walking up and down.” You have the children (many of them didn’t even go to school before), now they can go down to the formal city in 10 minutes, something that used to take them 2 hours.
JL: Do you have any plans to build more of these systems of transportation in Caracas, or elsewhere?
AB: Sure. There are plans to build more of them. We’re now looking at a project in Kohima in northern India, which also has a hilly terrain, bordering China. Over there we proposed a huge system of networks because in Kohima monsoons come in terribly and it only has one dirt road. When that road floods, no one can move.
Scott Cartwright (SC): Is it safe and economically suitable to retrofit such areas? Hillside houses continue to spring up in favelas of Caracas. Is the terrain suitable to build?
AB: Yes. Well, Kenneth Frampton, the great modern architectural critic said that the favelas are “Italian hill towns.” So basically like most settlements, cities began as slums whether it is the old sectors of Paris or London. In fact one of the few areas in Montmartre where the houses were not touched is actually one of the richest and most expensive areas. Why? Because people are looking for that fabric of the city where the city has a kind of pedestrian fabric.
So I think spatially from an architectural point of view the favelas are fascinating. They are more uniform than the formal city. They are built to the same heights. You see them uniformly. They are all these red houses. They use the same unit of construction. So therefore, they know how to build so it’s like Heidegger says, you should build your own house effectively. They build their own house because then you are in touch very much better with your social spatial environment. And that’s what makes favelas so interesting, that they are complex social spatial environments.
Rio has 1,200 favelas, Sao Paulo has 1,100 favelas and Caracas has 60 percent of favelas, or squatted terrain. I have offices in both, Rio and Caracas, and there’s no way that any government can try to erase them or bulldoze them like some clearances of the past. We know the results when that happens, we know the results if you put them on ghetto blocks like in India because that will create more social problems, so the best thing we could do is retrofit.
But within that retrofit, of course, there are areas of mudslides, there are areas of instability, and those risk areas must be cleaned and retrofit. So not all of it can stay, but not all of it has to go. So when we did the cable car we had to clear some sites for the stations. But the illusion that any government has the power to build–in Venezuela for instance, 9,000 housing units [are built] a year we’re missing two million!
WITH GREG LYNN
On April 3, 2012, Gregg Lynn delivered the 2012 Sally Walsh Lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Lynn is a Studio Professor at UCLA’s School of Architecture and Urban Design. His studio, Greg Lynn FORM, works within and among multiple fields, partnering with companies such as BMW, Boeing, Disney and Imaginary Forces. Following the lecture, Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz Amaré–Cartwright of Studio WAC, interviewed Greg Lynn over a series of emails.
THE CALCULUS OF FORMS
Jenny Lynn Weitz (JLW): Algorithms, math, digital manipulations, surfaces and animations are clearly present in your works. Can you explain differentiation in your projects? What makes you invest capital and labor on one derivative over another?
Greg Lynn (GL): First of all, for me what is more important than varying solutions and refining the variations based on constraints is to design spaces, forms, and surfaces that have a quality in and of themselves. So the question of designing many derivations is a more specific question. I donâ€™t think differentiation in and of itself is that interesting. Variation for variations sake is somewhat suspect and lazy in my opinion. The most obvious answer is to temper variation with constraints and these are the same old constraints germane to any design problem and scale just solved with new tools resulting in new forms and organization sometimes. Because the market is demanding a combination of brand identity and rapid variation in models there is a new problem today that didn’t exist before. Apple or Audi use an old school design method where they design a brand identity and then stretch it, expand it, scale it like taffy so whether it is big, small, long, short, squat, or tall it gets the same form, materials, and color. I find what BMW and Nike do much more interesting [work] where they establish design cues for their brand and then mix and match them for different models. You can identify their brand but they also innovate with design and their design is less forced and better than say Apple or Audi making another silvery brick.
TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNICATION, AND THE DESIGNER
Scott Cartwright (SC): With the increasing affordability of 3–D printers the main sales pitch of these devices is to make everyone a designer. Wouldn’t a more accurate sales pitch be to speak of the communicative aspect of the tool; that it would make you a cross between a consumer and a contractor, allowing you to more easily enter a dialog with a specialist? That the tool itself would redefine how products were sold, considerably altering the relationship between object and consumer?
GL: I think the 3D printer says your house will become a factory. I don’t think this will make everyone a designer. I think you will be able to print replacement parts and objects in your house instead of going to the store or online. I do think that there is a trend towards needing to have someone like an architect in the process of bespoke purchases. People do not want to be designers they just want to be consumers of bespoke objects or objects that are running on faster and faster design innovation cycles. I can see cars, bikes, clothing, furniture and appliances having an architect that interprets bespoke desires and designs a specification that is sent to a factory, or someone’s home factory, where a one-of-a-kind industrially produced object is made.
PRODUCTS & PROJECTS
JLW: In terms of product design, how do you go back and forth between working in different scales, with different manufacturers and types of clients; what’s the relationship of say the Ravioli Chair you did for Vitra and any of your architecture projects?
GL: I really never see the difference in design language and materials honestly. After the Korean Presbyterian Church of New York I realized that I did not have a material palette or a detail language and I very consciously used things like the Ravioli Chair to develop a language of materials, assembly, ergonomics, and detailing. I find the industrial design projects very important to help me formulate a language of materials and details that otherwise I might grab ‘off–the–shelf’ for a building.
JLW: Well, the beauty of industrial design projects is that you get the opportunity to explore with new materials and processes or find new applications for materials that are readily available. And yes, you can possibly do the same with architectural projects of any size, butâ€¦ are small scale products for the body or for the home, such as those you’ve done for Swarovski or Alessi, as complicated as any residential or commercial project in terms of design development and production?
GL: No, the products are much simpler for so many reasons. First, the expectations are higher so you are more a partner than in the case of buildings where contractually and culturally the client, architect, builder, and financier are set into an antagonistic relationship in most cases. The assumption with a product is that something will be improved, invented, or re–imagined and there is a premium placed on originality and creativity. In a building, creativity is viewed with caution and suspicion. Second, the partners I have had with industrial products are intimate with their logistics, manufacturing, marketing, and customers and they bring knowledge and expertise to the design process. Even the best developers and clients are typically benchmarking projects by past performance of precedents because they do not understand their markets and are often looking at very short windows of time to define success as they need to flip or refinance their properties quickly. Ironically the building industry is more fickle than the product world I my experience. Finally, a chair or a ring is built of dozens rather than hundreds of thousands of parts and there is no getting around the fact that this may not be easy to do well, but is certainly easier to manage.
SC: Perhaps my favorite relationship in the science fiction genre is the relationship the characters have to products, objects, or architecture. I immediately think of the William Gibson novel Neuromancer, in which the character, Case, is confronted with a skyscraper being built with nanobots. The descriptions the character gives about the building are speculative and observational; he even seems paranoid of the building’s minor movements. The character is wrestling to understand the technology of the building, a referent that he struggles to define in language. Your projects, regardless of scale, seem to ask the viewer to participate in a similar dialog.
GL: What I do is not meant to be polite or in the background as I like to be in dialogue with a user, owner, passerby or occupant. I think that most of the built environment is a backdrop to daily life and I am all for that. I want people to feel comfortable and I want them to have an affection for being in, on, or around anything I design. In order to have an affection for something it has to be noticed. I find vernacular design a little creepy and obsequious. I prefer a direct greeting over a stalker.
SC: What methods do you use to resolve vernacular design in your projects vs. an occupant, passerby or user’s possible desire to feel servile to vernacular constraints of an object or architecture?
GL: I am frankly allergic to the vernacular for its own sake. I think that what we consider vernacular forms were arrived at because of logics of production in most cases and almost never for cultural reasons. To valorize the vernacular or everyday as a style I find very cynical and clever in the best case and insulting in the worst. I am not so clever so I don’t play with the vernacular ironically. Since I lack irony, I try and stay away from quoting vernacular forms.
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