Matters of Fabulation: On the Construction of Realities in the Anthropocene
Etienne Turpin We are trying to consider perspectives on architecture from outside of the dominant concept of nature (as opposed to culture) in relation to the Anthropocene.
François Roche How is the Anthropocene thesis related to the concept of Gaïa?
ET The argument is basically that the aggregate effect of human beings on the planet has reached a geological proportion. We believe this challenges many architects’ concepts of nature.
FR But we are not completely in control of what is happening. Humans are agents; sometimes humans are slave agents, sometimes swarm agents, or even intelligent agents. This is also the concept of Gaïa.
ET The Anthropocene thesis undermines any meaningful epistemological distinction between human beings and nature, or culture and nature. Bruno Latour has recently brought the concept of Gaïa into a dialogue, through his own thinking on political theology, with the Anthropocene thesis as well. Isabelle Stengers has also used the concept of Gaïa to challenge the Anthropocene thesis. The projects that you have done, and the particular alchemical position you take through your work, as well as the evocation of biotopes in some of your design projects, all suggest a certain characterization of nature.
FR It started very naively, simply by taking a weak position in the 1980s. We wanted to develop a weak position as an attempt to avoid dominating the situation. We began with a kind of contextualism—I know that the idea of context has been very badly used by architects for the past 20 years—but a contextualism in terms of the biotope. The biotope is pre-existing, before we modify it, using the material substances of the biotope to be the vectors of their own transformation, the agents of their own transformation. So we start with psychasthenia, if you know Roger Caillois’s approach to psychasthenia, where the biotope can create its own ornamentation, becoming a flower, or a building, through an extra-vitalism that directly extracts potential from its situation. But we reached a certain ambiguity, or kind of a trouble, which, in the last 10 years, started to question how the position we were using not to dominate the situation was becoming a position of domination—not in terms of aesthetics, but intellectually.
ET It was a kind of back-door domination?
FR Weakness, as a position, became its own intellectual position and a statement on its own. This statement of weakness quickly became a vector of pretentiousness—of pretending you are over the situation because you consider the situation as an exogenous system. So, we were thinking about whether the same weakness could become endogenous. As an architect, how do you become a part of the system? Not only as an architect, but as a human, as a body, as flesh, as a species, as a breathing mammal? Are you able to take a position from inside, when you are in a position of servitude to the system you are trying to transform? That is, to lose the visibility of what you are doing and to accept a degree of uncertainty. That is why we talk a lot about uncertainty, a concept developed by Cedric Price in the 1970s, in order to accept a degree of missing knowledge, of driving horses without being able to tame them. This requires negotiation, the negotiation through an embassy between nature and yourself.
It is very interesting, the project of Ant Farm from the late 1960s, about the Dolphin Embassy. Everyone knows this project now, but even 10 years ago it was not so easy to talk about it in architecture. The possibility of doing an embassy so that everybody, every thing on every side, has the right to negotiate a zone where all relations between the behaviours are plausible. Human and nature, human and dolphin, etc. So we tried to define this kind of thing, to integrate the human as an animality, as a degree, or as a vector of the Part maudite, as in Georges Bataille. We are working on architecture as a Bataille-machine: psychology, physiology, history, temperament. We want to consider a premedical system, before Hippocrates, where temperament describes the body as a negotiation between the temperament of the black bile, the blood, the phlegm, etc. The body is an emotional fluidity and therefore an emotional machine. This is not so far away from Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring-machine, or Antonin Artaud’s body-without-organs, a provocative argument that the body is not merely a composition of organic machinery, but a constant transference of flux.
So, if we can integrate the desiring-machine, the body-without-organs, the animal body, can we understand behaviour as acephalous—a fundamentally headless process? Can we use the biochemistry, neurobiology, and nanotechnology of today to understand the atavism of the reptilian part of the brain that is making Pavlovian reactions—the will to survive—predicted by the DNA and the transmission of DNA, but which, at the same time, cannot be so easily categorized. We are trying to pose the question of architecture not in terms of function, but in terms of psycho-physio phobias or philias. That is, as emotional reactions constituting case studies that lead to a taxonomy and produce morphologies that can extract form from emotional flux. To elicit a program that we cannot predict through knowledge, or the normal tooling of an architect. The last ten years was about that.
ET To go back a little bit, I am curious if you think the idea of the “weak position” became dominant within your own practice or within the broader field of architecture?
FR The so-called “weak position” became décor. It became the décor of taking care of nature; it became just a green façade. It was then only a stereotype, the merchandizing of architecture as a simulation of weakness and cooperation. But nature is monstrous!
ET You responded with the slime building?
FR Exactly, because to use nature as décor, to simplify ecology in this way, is a kind of domination through domestication. It produced a kind of Disney Land World Fair of architecture justified by pseudo-ecological values. I am very worried by that. I think we have to keep in tact the intrinsic conflict of nature, especially of our own nature. But for architecture, nature is typically conceived of as a peaceful thing occasionally afflicted by catastrophes. This is a problem, because to negotiate with nature is to negotiate with brutal forces. So you have to approach delicately, with courage, but without denying or erasing the danger.
ET To leave a place for it to appear?
FR For something to appear between repulsion and curiosity. You are curious about what is scaring you! Now nature is just a world garden, a domesticated garden. But nature always produces its own revenge. I am a surfer, and in the last five years shark attacks have also increased by a multiple of five around the world. Is this the revenge of Gaïa? This psycho-parallel universe says Gaïa is the mistress of the world and that we humans are only a part of a global equilibrium, even while we keep thinking we will just enjoy our supremacy. In fact, even when we are destroying something, it is for the benefit of Gaïa—we are never outside of this circuit. The supreme forces of the Earth, of the planet, are not divinities, but the forces of a global equilibrium in which we are just vectors, just citizens, but not controllers.
It is interesting that at the same time as ecology is developing, we are seeing the self-completion of the human though the destruction of the planet but also, through a recognition that we are destroying the planet, we realize the scale of destruction humans are capable of. We recognize the potential danger of domination, but the planet is capable of destroying us as well. So, while we desperately need to reorganize the social contract, we also need to renegotiate it with nature.
ET This is the argument of Michel Serres.
FR Certainly, Le Contrat Naturel is about that. There is a simultaneity! We can’t take care of the cats if we can’t take care of the neighbourhood! If you look at the first political ecology, from the Germans in WWII, it was organized by the Nazi General Hermann Göring. He was, at the same time, directing the Final Solution. Modern ecology comes out of this incredible distinction between the suffering of the people and protecting the domestic animal. This is similar to South Africa, under the apartheid regime, where the animal reserves were incredibly sophisticated.
ET Eugenics has its counterpart in the preservation of nature.
FR Yes, and in this way people taking care of nature are very suspicious to me!
ET How do you see architecture, especially in the last ten years, in terms of its response to planetary, ecological collapse?
FR The discipline is now a refugee unto itself, just an ivory tower. But I think a lot about this concern, for instance, how the polar bear is becoming a hermaphrodite to increase its potential for reproduction because of global climate change. There are examples in the fish as well. Nature responds to change by changing its sexuality, its morphology, its physiology, its behaviour. So, architecture is not about selling green products as new merchandise that can save Willy or save the world! It is about modifying our own comportment between us and others. That is a pretty strange complexity for architects to confront today. Architects want to follow the mainstream production of global merchandise without questioning the new reductionism that says we must consume to protect the planet. This is a total antagonism; in fact, it is an absurdity—over-consuming with a green attitude! And all without questioning our proximity or relationship to others, to other species, to the environment. Architecture as green consumption is just green-washing, and we know that architecture is completely involved in this green-washing of global merchandise. Is there a way to have a voice, to say, “Perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps there are other possibilities”? There is the mainstream image of architecture, which is as univocal as a slab of concrete. Architecture then becomes a global lamentation with a univocal voice, without any care for singularities, other practices, or other ways of conducting our practice in the world.
It is terrible how the last ten years was dedicated to the success story of the last architect making the tower in Dubai. It is funny, but look at it now—the field is entirely impoverished! The field of architecture is crashing everywhere, not just in the US, and architects are becoming even more a part of the slavery system of capitalism. Why? I don’t want to answer why, but we have to question why it is so disastrous to be an architect in the world right now!
ET But do you see yourself as an architect?
FR I am like you! I am like the monkey in The Jungle Book, when the monkey says, “I am like you, I want to be like you, I want to be like you.” I want to be like you, I want to be an architect, but it doesn’t mean I am an architect. Just like you, I don’t know what that means exactly.
ET Does it have to mean making building-sized advertisements for merchandise?
FR Louis Althusser described pretty well the difference between the heroic period, the classic period, and the communication period we are in now. In the heroic period, the architect was both denouncing and producing. Perhaps we know too well King Vidor’s The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s book about Frank Lloyd Wright. We know it well, of course, but beyond the stereotype, there was a debate between producing and denouncing. In the illusion of modernity, in the denunciation of the system and its failures, as we see in Carlo Scarpa and others, there is a denouncement and a possibility to produce through denouncement. The heroic period was schizophrenic. It is interesting if we conserve—not in terms of preservation—but if we travel a little bit with this kind of schizophrenic potential. You can say “Fuck you,” and “I love you.” If you always say “I love you,” you forget how to negotiate with an occasional “Fuck you!” So, you have to negotiate, you always have to make room to negotiate.
The attitude of the smart architect today: working every day of the week, all the time, never considering societies other than their own, never trying to denounce the new economic imperialism or the situation of the system; finally, step by step, this disqualifies architecture, its potential for narration, and its potential for acting. Architects are no longer acting in society; they act within their field with incredible knowledge about new tools and with a remarkably self-referential expertise, but no one wants this knowledge outside of the field of architecture. So, we are like monkeys in a cage who develop an incredibly sophisticated language, but no one can understand the language outside the cage. The question of how to renegotiate the porosity of the cage, of re-infiltrating the cage—in both directions—this is exactly what we are trying to practice now. I am pretty optimistic. I don’t want to be optimistic, but, on arrive à toucher le fond de la piscine [we’ve reached the bottom of the swimming pool]! So, there is nothing more to do except come up for air. It is a global condition that I wrote about in Log and there is no need to repeat it. But we cannot separate research and politics. Artists are usually a lot better at becoming engaged in the debates about their own society and, at the same time, in the debates regarding the singularity of their own productions. Both have a possibility of articulating knowledge transactions and transhistorical processes, challenging what is outside of the field and what is inside, and thus negotiating the boundaries. A boundary is an osmotic membrane. When the membrane becomes entirely determined by advertising, it is no longer porous. The field of architecture declared that its own knowledge was self-sufficient, became self-confident, and stopped caring what happened outside the field. And, now we have such a deficit of attention for what is outside the discipline.
We arrive at last the 2012 Venice Biennale, with some stupid, social impressions—a report on a vertical slum in Caracas that imagined, by simply reporting on the slum, it would engage society in a new debate. But we are not reporters; we are acting and transforming, and we are taking care of transformations as well. Sometimes we have to break the system, and other times we need to encourage it. But, we are not reporters; we are not sociologists reporting on miserable zones of the planet to create a sympathetic consciousness about the horrors of the world. For me, this is terribly vulgar. It was the most vulgar Biennale so far—architects simulating a good conscience!
ET But can you admit that informality is an important question for architecture in the Anthropocene?
FR I think informality is more interesting as a process in the construction of the city. We could question informality in terms of design, but slums, like the slums here in Bangkok, they don’t need architects! They don’t need you, they don’t need me. They have incredible organization, social organization, which is not top down, but about the delegation of micro-power in a constant movement, from the bottom up. You don’t have time now, but I could show you how useless architects are for the slums, but you know that already from Jakarta. We still have architects trying to force it, like a degree of justification, as if people need them to validate a process or a set of skills. This is a total vulgarity.
ET So is this position at all related to your work in film? Did you decide to move to a different kind of production altogether, for example, with Hybrid Muscle?
FR We started with film quite a long time ago now; the first was with Philippe Parreno.
ET I have been very interested in the work of Hans Vaihinger, a German philosopher who wrote The Philosophy of ‘As If.’ In this book, Vaihinger discusses the power of fiction from a philosophical perspective, admitting the need for speculative realities, upon which both fiction and science rely.
FR Before, it might have been possible to consider science as hardware, as a kind of petrified knowledge—of course, this was unrealistic thinking—but we know now science is marked by permanent speculation. From Ptolemy to Kepler, among many others, there is a cosmic movement, and science was carrying with it a concept of the world, or a concept of the organization of the world, through this movement. And each time a choice was made to explain something, it was also political. Science is politics. Science means you want to see what your synchronicity is able to understand, able to accept, or able to justify. So, there is an incredible, perpetual incest between the concept of the universe or the concept of the world, and the will to knowledge coming from the sciences. We can try to use science to prove something, or use politics to prove something, but there is a permanent flux, and both micro- and macro-scale concerns continue.
Architects tend to have a very impressionistic understanding of science because they consider it a tautology that contains all knowledge; on the contrary, we know this is not the case. When I came to architecture from physics, there was a concern with abstractions. But, in science we know abstractions, as axioms, rely on the explanation of a reality that cannot be validated in nature or experience. This is the duplicity of knowledge. We talk about this because fiction is akin to alchemy, when the science of the Middle Ages invented its own grammar for a knowledge which is not directly operative, but operates on itself, and by doing so, according to its own logic, becomes a thesis on knowledge without direct practice, but with illusionary practices for the mutation of substances. Alchemy has an incredible alphabet and a deepness to its internal logic in order to prove that which cannot be proven real about that which doesn’t exist. At the same time, we might consider the fiction of architecture as a kind of pataphysics, as in the writing of Alfred Jarry.
ET Architecture as the solution to an imaginary problem?
FR To mix narration, illusion, science, and sensation, you must insinuate yourself in the crack between the true and the false, between madness and rigor, and then you can inhabit the forbidden, as described by Michel Foucault, as another discourse. The pataphysical field is snaking; it is not a group of objects, but objects that are subjects at the same time, subjects that lead our mind somewhere that secures one zone by dislocating another. Pataphysics is a metaphor in the etymological sense—a vehicle of transportation. You are in a vehicle that allows you to go somewhere, and to return with a report of something you saw or touched, which modifies the perception of reality in another zone. There is another parallel with André Breton and Salvador Dalí, who used the paranoiac-critical method to question perception through mental states, physiology, optical perspectives, perversions, etc., in order to understand the “je” as a form of negotiation, not in terms of the individual, but in terms of the species. Me—“je”—as a term of negotiation with others.
ET Is that negotiation of perspective not the work of architecture? Not that architecture is the only way to negotiate perspective…
FR We have lost what it means to be an architect; we have lost this notion. It does not mean constructing a building. Many people construct buildings, but are they necessarily architects? No! So why are we architects? To define a political-aesthetic condition of construction where we produce something in order to destabilize the habits of a situation. I don’t think there is anything else for us, because if we take the job of an architect, it is not for the beauty of the building alone, or for the arrogance of the discourse, or to become the master of ceremonies which so many young egos want to become today, but to question the condition of production and the context of practice.
For example, we trying to do a building now, a contemporary art museum, and we are trying to work within a fragment of forest in central Bangkok. We are working to calculate all the positions of the main branching of the trees and their trunks to make a building without cutting anything—a building with a “shy crown.” In the forest, trees do not touch each other; they have a shy crown because their leaves will not touch each other. Trees respect distances. In the forest, this is the crack in between the tree canopies, which you can’t always see. They respect a zone where they do not touch. We are developing this museum project through an idea of timidity, developed through mathematics, where we resist touching nature. Antipathy has become, for this project, a design strategy.
We are immediately questioning what an object is. An object, in the contemporary situation, has to negotiate a relationship with other species. We respect the trees not because we want to save the planet, but because we want to understand the how these relationships, correspondences, antagonisms, or conflicts produce both pathology and geometry. That is, how these relations form an architecture.
ET What about the relationship of your work to Gilles Deleuze? There is a certain crude appropriation of philosophy in architecture, but I am interested in how you relate philosophy to your practice, which seems especially committed to theoretical inquiry.
FR We take time. It is the only agent in our present condition that can develop a degree of blurry knowledge. Time for becoming unsatisfying, time for dis-identification. I think you cannot so clearly identify what we are doing in the studio. In the end, yes, it is an object, diluted by a certain narration and through its own process of objectification. But this is also not so clear.
Really, it is about taking time. For the museum I just mentioned, we asked for three months to develop a draft design, but they wanted it in two weeks. This means that we always try to slow down, we are very slow. We slow down production so that we never answer a problem of design with concepts. I am very afraid of concepts, and Deleuze said it perfectly—the only people who should work with concepts are the philosophers, nobody else! Of course, the public relations people making advertisements are not making concepts either—they are just selling production within the field of merchandise.
But, to take time is an economic problem. This is why I am in Bangkok: because the only way to take time is to minimize the daily cost of the studio, which was far too high in Paris. The last few years in Paris, I was not able to take time on projects, and I lost a lot projects and clients trying to slow down. I could convince the client to take time, but I can’t convince the bank to take time! That’s the problem! The banks in Europe became worse and worse, and I ideologically bankrupted my studio in Paris by saying no to the French banks. I lost a lot of profit and gained a lot of debt. Now, in Bangkok, we are in a position where we can reconfigure the economy of production and the economy of thinking.
But, honestly, I was really astonished when I went to Japan as a young architect. I won a prize to go study in Japan and I decided to spend half of my time in a Buddhist temple, in the winter, to understand the pain of being a Buddhist—it is not so comfortable to be a Buddhist in the middle of winter—and also to meet the architect Kazuo Shinohara. Shinohara is maybe a surprising influence on me. He takes ten years to make a project. The main issue in architecture today is architects trying to brand themselves all over the world. But look at the number of projects of Mies van der Rohe and the other heroic architects—not so many. They considered a work of architecture as a way of creating themselves, not as industrial reproduction. I think this interesting—of course, perhaps I am totally romantic—but I think the field of architecture has to be multiple. It is now purely dedicated to an industrial vision, and the replication of an industrial vision; although, to be clear, I am not saying that this should not exist. Just as in nineteenth-century Europe, there were treatises to make a temple, to make a church, etc., and architects were to follow the treatises to make proper, standard, public buildings. It is the same condition right now. It might appear as if production is not standardized because of the fancy décor of contemporary buildings, but the practice is highly standardized through its relationship to capital. And now they are using an impoverished image of nature as the outline for the treatises of today.
Okay, let me say that I think it is interesting to help some other practices. Other practices are also tolerable. There are many possibilities. You can make something very arrogant for the flagship store of some new merchandise, or you can make something very timid. But, timid does not mean without ambition! It can be very ambitious…think, for example, of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, or Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc—it is totally weak, but incredibly provocative.
So the weak, the timid, is not without ambition. We believe too much in the self-confident, self-promotion of the architect, and it is the only kind of character promoted in architecture, the architect as businessman; whether feminine or masculine, it is the same.
So, I believe that a small practice, with modest production using antagonisms to question the contemporary mode of production, is still valuable today. But, young architects are not prepared for that. They are prepared only to succeed, in a very standardized way, and when they don’t succeed, when they don’t get the value that they expected from their degrees, they become incredibly bitter. You used to become bitter in your 50s, or your 40s, but now we have bitter architects in their early 30s! That is the field!
ET Within the higher education industry, the role of the profession is to help sell an image of success that encourages student debt and maximizes industry profit. If the profession helps sell the image, the discipline serves this industry.
FR Yes, exactly. It is connected to a kind of propaganda which was started by Wallpaper in London, and Blueprint, which confused the character of the architect with her own production. This is how branding became a kind of valuable self-promotion for young architects. This is why R&Sie(n) had an avatar, to avoid becoming a branding portrait, but it is not so useful now, perhaps.
But, I would like to say again that art practices negotiate much better than architecture the kind of multiple possibilities of production, as well as accepting an exposure to vulgarity. Architects are simulating, as best they can, that everything is fine. They must maintain an attitude of hygienic thinking, a hygienic relation to a world they repeatedly tell us is fine. This is architecture as a brand of permanent optimism. But when we erase deception, nostalgia, the forbidden—all of these things that are very important for understanding human pathology and emotion—we have erased everything which could be a danger. We try to contain the whole world. The last ten years of architecture have only been about efficiency and expertise—it has been terrible! This erases everything that could elicit a degree of subjectivity in the architect. But architecture wants to say, instead: we are building, we are constructing, we are making the future. How stupid is this? Everyone knows we are not doing that, and we all know architecture is trapped. Except, you know, it’s great for capitalism, which tells us: great, work for the future, work every day, and we don’t need to pay you because you are working for the future! We know perfectly well that the replication of the present as the production of the future is a catastrophe.
ET So you are going to reintroduce the subjective dimension of the architect by going to find the Minotaur in Crete?
FR I think we have to find the Minotaur. We have to renegotiate metaphor, nostalgia, forbidden words, deception, weakness, and delusion in order to renegotiate a relationship to the world that has been condemned. We need to bring the vocabulary of the world back into architecture, which has tried to minimize the ways that ideas can be expressed and limit the emotional flux of expression as much as possible.
For now, R&Sie(n) is sleeping. After 25 years, we are taking a break from the masochism of architecture. Of course, I am swimming in this masochism as well—I think it is my biotope—but it is still a very interesting concept about negotiating, through the contract, one’s dependence and one’s servitude. You accept a degree of servitude on the condition that it is contractual, as in Deleuze’s book about Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
As New-Territories, we are now going to Crete. Within the Schengen Zone, Crete is in a very strange situation. The Schengen Zone is a very peculiar barrier that tries to protect the people on the inside by jailing them. This is both increasing the temptation to get inside, but also creating a sensation of security and importance that is a barrier to understanding the condition of the world. The planet, its energy, and its refugees must be excluded from the zone, but the need to fight economic imperialism still remains. I was thinking that a project could be more sophisticated in Crete. They have a background as a philosophical and cultural foundation of Europe, and they now have a fantastic conflict arising on the Mediterranean scene. There is potential in antagonism and negotiation.
So, we are doing a project with students to construct the platform for one fictional Greek citizen revolting against the barrier of the Schengen Zone, redefining a second zone within his own house as a kind of Robinson Crusoe figure. Within the second barrier is a kind of autonomous zone. We want consider this intellectually and physically, and in relation to the “inter-zone” of William Burroughs. It could be inside or outside, as a Klein bottle.
We are working in an area where people speak German, basically a vacation camp for German tourists. Why do they go there? To relax, to siesta, to use the soft economy to quiet themselves. But why is the Greek economy so much trouble? Because they are not producing enough! Germans demand the Greeks to be more like them, sacrifice like them, while they expect to go on vacation to a quiet camp where everyone is smiling, relaxed, and not working!
We are in the absurd situation where in order to have a quality of life, an authentic life, a relaxed life, you have to pay! It is only possible as a vacation camp; you cannot try to live like that. In Europe today, you have to pay for it—freedom cannot be free!
- See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature, 2013 Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/486; and, Isabelle Stengers, in this volume.
- Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol. 1, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
- Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).
- François Roche, ed., Log 25, ‘reclaim resis(lience)stance’ (Spring/ Summer 2012).
- R&Sie, “Hybrid Muscle” (2003) in “Boys from Mars,” by Philippe Parreno (2003).
- “The Schengen Area is a group of 26 European countries that have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders. It functions as a single country for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy. The Area is named after the village of Schengen in Luxembourg where the Schengen Agreement, which led to the Area›s creation, was signed. Joining Schengen entails eliminating internal border controls with the other Schengen members, while simultaneously strengthening external border controls with non-Schengen states.” Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schengen_Area.