Alejandro Zaera Polo

Alejandro Zaera Polo interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

AZP: I think it’s naive not to acknowledge the status of celebrity. The new celebrity status certain architects have reached has been positive for the practice at large, because it’s given architecture a more public profile. Of course, in the past there were architects who became famous, but they didn’t have the public exposure that some architects have today. I think this new status has been positive in making decision-makers aware that there are degrees of quality in architecture; certain architects can produce buildings of a quality that, for example, a corporate machine cannot. The model of the celebrity has promoted the architect as independent thinker with a certain ideology and methodology, a worldview, but also a personality and a particular lifestyle. This model starts to emerge at the end of the 1970s. Until that time, good architects engaged in collective problem-solving activities, and mastered the latest construction technology. The corporate model was about keeping up with evolving knowledge. The Gropius model of technical expertise, and collective design gave moral and political legitimacy to architecture as a service profession, and dominated the first half of the 20th century. After the big modernist prophets Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, the corporate model convinced everybody that architects should forget all-encompassing visions, work in teams, and master skills and technologies: a kind of humble, modest service to society which presumed that the destiny of modernity had already been revealed and all architects had to do was to follow it dutifully. This was to become a very effective sales pitch.

That model largely collapsed at the end of the 1970s, when globalization undercut its advantages. A number of architects formed an international network, went to conferences and created an international debate using new communication vehicles. The model of CIAM as an international convention on architecture proliferated everywhere through schools and institutions and set up an opportunity for a quasi-permanent, ubiquitous forum where specificity rather than alignment was sought. They redefined the ‘latest’ as a debate on culture and personality rather than as technological progress. They portrayed themselves as individuals engaged in a multi-cultural, globalised network. They became international brands (I am thinking about Isozaki, the New York Five, Johnson, Rossi, Moneo, Stirling, Kleihues...) This model flourished, produced a second generation and is now perhaps showing signs of exhaustion. The challenge now is to formulate an alternative model. Yet in order to make something new, we need to reflect also on the celebrity model; to simply dismiss it without understanding what it does will not take us very far toward making a good case for quality architecture.

Marketing vs. Production
JI: When defining ambition for today’s architect one must not overlook the dynamics of celebrity that emerged in the late 20th century. If the corporate model was an attempt to cope with technology and collectively acquire knowledge in order to process technological advances, then in the late 20th century we witnessed a similar collective model. Yet the two models of teamwork seem quite different. The 1990s model of collaboration, formed to cope with greater information and new technologies, evolved simultaneously with the rise of celebrity architecture. Do you see this recent era as one characterized by the broadening of the architect’s capabilities particularly in ways of processing information and designing Do you think the shift to collaboration and the rise of celebrity are interdependent?

AZP: We need to revise the role of the architect. Many of these so called celebrity architects from the first and second generation of globalized architecture have, in fact, become corporate organizations. Norman Foster is now bigger than SOM, and Herzog and de Meuron is of a scale not very different from conventional corporate practices. Looking at some of these practices and our own experience, it appears that when firms reach a certain scale a number of possibilities open up. Such firms are more capable of delivering projects, of doing research, than a small atelier doing little projects. Scale triggers some inevitable protocols and structures in an organization.

Some of these celebrity architects have also understood the advantages of corporate organization, and have started to develop organizations with the capacity of the traditional corporate machine plus the capacity to communicate more effectively and engage in cultural and political debate. In the Gropius model, the architect was not supposed to talk, [laughs] because if he or she was doing things correctly, using the right technologies, and producing what was good for mankind, the work would speak for itself. They didn’t have to convince politicians or legitimize their work as long as it operated within the modernist dogma; the work was self-evident and nobody could possibly doubt it. Nowadays, these characters have achieved a high level of publicity and have not only managed to master the corporate technologies of organization and the capacity to deliver; they have also exponentially developed their capacity to operate politically, strategically, to communicate the projects, to negotiate with a variety of agents and know how to move them to enable the work to flourish. In order to do that, a number of little engines had to be developed within those offices, e.g., PR machines or people hired especially to coach presentations. I think this is a new addition to the recipe for a possible update to the architect’s role. In some cases, like with OMA/AMO, that machine has developed a certain independence. The degree to which these two engines feed each other or merge into a seamless organization is an interesting question to address when theorizing new models of architectural practice. Can the PR machine effectively inform the production, or should it be kept fenced off in a parallel domain? How do these two engines feed each other?

If you listen to students or people who are starting to practice or teach, you hear a generalized rejection of the model of the celebrity architect. This is obviously in part because celebrity offices are major predators of jobs for the small fish. And there are two lines that the critique to celebrity architecture is trying to develop as possible fields of expansion. One is more technical, exploring software, sustainability and other technologies that can potentially shift the field, as a way out of the culture of celebrity. The other model starting to emerge is political activism. Suddenly there is a renewed desire to engage in some political activities that celebrity culture had completely ignored. And yet, celebrity architects have opened some paths for engagement with politics: they are a fixture at openings and mayoral celebrations and central occasions in the business of promoting cities... As architects have become increasingly involved with media, their ideological concern has been eroded (as has happened to politicians themselves). So, younger practitioners have identified this lack as a niche that has been overlooked by the celebrity architects and are logically trying to explore it.

But both alternative fields, the purely technical and the purely political, are possibly sterile and a dangerous trap: they are doing software projects or political manifestos rather than architectural projects. Both are problematic because they shift the ground of architectural practice into a dimension that is not architectural, just as celebrity architects that have shifted the ground of their practice to achieve that status, possibly getting into some trouble.

But to entirely dismiss the positive side of celebrity is to ignore an important potential of practice today. Obviously celebrity alone does not result in good architecture, but good architecture does not even have a chance without a degree of involvement of these new sides of the profession. I am optimistic and I believe that the public engagement that is open to the celebrity can be an interesting field to explore as an architectural opportunity.

Ultimately, whatever you do as an architect, you need to be able to transfer those influences into an architectural realm. Thinking about that transfer and how it reformulates the discipline is an interesting possibility.

Celebrity and accountability
JI: You’re saying that you can’t discount celebrity immediately without realizing the benefits that have been gained from it, and that it requires expertise to be able to perform well under the scrutiny of the celebrity spotlight. I would add that the architect is unique as a celebrity in that he or she isn’t perceived as being purely driven by greed or a thirst for fame itself. What we enjoy at the current moment is a degree of integrity in that we are able to construct a complex yet creative public entity, such as a large-scale building: our ability to make edifices stand and endure is perceived as admirable and authentic. It’s quite interesting that this status of ours is in large part due to our technical knowledge. I think we are also beginning to realize that it has to do with our ability to communicate in a credible, sensible way. We don’t seem to be stretching the truth, we don’t publicly say formulaic things, and we don’t appear to be entirely self-promotional.

AZP: One should also look at the benefits celebrity has produced for architecture beyond the integrity of the product. Take three positive examples that are not just about the signature of the architect but are concrete projects that have become important and transformed the perception of architecture for decision-makers. The Guggenheim model is the epitome of celebrity. It has created some negative effects but it has had undoubtedly a very positive effect for architects, which is that now clients worldwide believe that architecture is an added value. This was not the case before except for a very marginal percentage of the commissions. Whether this has opened new fields for the practice is questionable, but the effect on the appreciation of the discipline is indisputable. Whether you like them or not, Richard Meier’s Perry Street condominium buildings in New York have demonstrated to potential clients and investors that there is an added value to hiring a certain kind of architect to do a residential building. The Selfridges department store by Future Systems in Birmingham has convinced the entire UK retail sector that it is important to do good architecture, and more of the same no longer goes. Thus suddenly, a number of projects have become inspirational, not just for architects, but for decision-makers and the public at large. The celebrity model has also established that architects are different from one another. The corporate model was based on a sort of uniform technical expertise. There was not much of a difference between SOM and, say, HOK. Now there is an expectation to do something different, even if it sometimes leads to a caricature performance. It is even affecting some of these corporate firms. And this quest for difference makes it more interesting to practice architecture now than before.

JI: The corporate model presented an elevated degree of technical expertise in the construction quality of the building. Today we have maintained this competency while also establishing what might be called a cultural model; we offer not only technical expertise, but also cultural value. Bilbao has an appreciated value as a mainstream cultural object. What seems distinct about this current phenomenon is that it is not so much associated with a movement as it is with individuality: the recognition of the unique approach of individual architects. In the corporate model, the ambition to attain high cultural status was attempted by including contemporary art in and around the building, whereas today it happens by packaging the expressive talent of the architect, by positioning the architect front and center in the broadcasting of the building. In that sense, architects have attained greater power by advancing technical expertise in the development of formal languages, and ‘cultural’ expertise in the intelligent development of public personas connected to these forms. Whether one likes the project or not, the most apparent example of this is, as you say, the Guggenheim.

AZP: Yes, I think this must be acknowledged. In spite of their flaws, these projects have convinced more people to be architecturally ambitious. Not just architects, but cities, corporations, voters and taxpayers. It is no longer politically viable for clients of a certain profile to just want a new building. Now you need a special building, which is complicated because at the same time the techniques of accountability and project management, as well as the liabilities, have expanded to such a degree that clients - or their advisers - tend to know very precisely what they want and to strictly enforce their project objectives, objectives which have been dictated by looking at previous models. And this creates substantial friction with experimentation as a methodology of architectural design. Everybody is asked to produce something special out of the same constraints. Celebrity architects have been remarkably resistant to accept accountability, but I believe there is a fantastic opportunity in the opposition between the simultaneous demands for accountability and uniqueness that the celebrity architects have consistently ignored. To explore the space between these two new realities seem to me a much more interesting problem than, say re-ideologizing architectural practice or exploring morphing software.

But the culture of celebrity also generates a certain inertia. There are always the same names being invited for these competitions, because they are the architects that have already acquired that celebrity status, and clients don’t know better. Perhaps a fundamental role for somebody to play is to make a bank of good architects that don’t yet qualify as celebrities but can deliver a very high profile project under these kinds of conditions. It might open the base a little more. Unfortunately, this new class of agents that I called ‘mediators’ in a Berlage Institute lecture series defaults too often to celebrity architecture because they also need to nurture their profile as dealers by constructing their own stable of celebrity architects that they can ‘get’ for clients or planners.

Education after Celebrity
AZP: The other subject that is intimately connected to this discussion is how to teach. First of all, celebrity architecture gravitated from the beginning around academia, as it was one of the most powerful channels of communication and debate, necessary for the model to operate. And in return, the model of academia in the past twenty years was to bring these celebrity architects into the studio, where they would supposedly release knowledge or teach their students how to be stars, and engage the institutions with the network. I think that doesn’t necessarily produce an interesting academy or a compelling didactic environment anymore. And, in fact, in my application to the Berlage Institute Deanship, one of my proposals was not to hire any studio instructors over 35, as it was the most efficient – and economic – way to ensure that teaching was integrally connected to the production – rather than consumption – of knowledge. It was deemed too radical and not accepted, but I still believe it was a good idea. In the current climate, the schools should develop the alternative to celebrity architecture and should produce the most advanced knowledge, rather than importing it in small bits from the same important architects.

Particularly in Anglo-Saxon culture there is a very deep schism between practice (which deals primarily with professional liabilities) and academia (which deals primarily with architectural ideologies). This, which in some instances produces some interesting effects, has become an obstacle to generating a type of knowledge that could explore the gaps between the celebrity culture and the culture of project management. A new model of collaboration between experimental practices and academia needs to be invented. This is one of the things I tried to develop during my tenure at the Berlage: a sort of institution where the primary objective is not to produce people – as in traditional education – but to produce knowledge.

JI: The AA is a good example of a school regarded for producing accomplished, famous architects. Not that the intention was to produce celebrities, but what was it about its environment that yielded people who have built highly accomplished practices today?

AZP: It challenged the corporate model and became the paradigm of the emerging celebrity architect engaged in an international debate of diverse, often contradictory voices. In the 1970s, Alvin Boyarsky designed the system – I suspect because he did not have any money to pay for proper knowledge – not on the grounds that there was a kind of necessary knowledge or discipline that had to be transferred to students – the previous model of technical expertise – but on the grounds that young – and cheap – tutors will develop new models of practice together with the students. The AA was probably one of the first educational models that realized that the corporate model was in retreat, that there was a global process going on, that the problems were fragmenting and would require a higher level of specialization and that branding and communications were going to be important. The AA is an important model and example of people learning to brand and sell themselves by constructing an argument and defending it against attacks from multiple directions. The AA produced so many important tutors because it was a school without the polite academics you often see in American academia, where you have to be politically correct all the time. I have been in AA roundtables where people have literally gotten into physical fights over a project and everybody systematically and cruelly tries to undermine everybody else’s position. The meanness of this situation teaches you to be constantly aware of what you are doing and develop skills to defend your work against a crossfire of multidirectional criticism.

Culture vs Project Management
JI: No one has had a career as accomplished as yours. In your ‘Scientific Autobiography’ essay you describe the benefits of having witnessed the cultural changes in Madrid in the early 1980s; you were at the GSD, when Michael Hays was formulating an important branch of architectural theory; then you worked at OMA at a crucial period in the evolution of the office prior to its current worldwide celebrity; you were involved with El Croquis which as you have said was the most amazing opportunity to conduct industrial espionage by visiting different architects’ offices in order to document how they operate; you won the Yokohama terminal competition and started your own office; were appointed to lead the Berlage; and now are involved with the planning of the London Olympics. One myth is that the architect toils for many years before receiving opportunities to realize his or her ambitions, whereas you’ve been able to achieve so much in just a few years. To update the Scientific Autobiography essay, would you care to reflect upon this current point in your career?

AZP: Thanks. It does not feel so accomplished from inside. The ‘Scientific Autobiography’ was a reflection on the specificities of my career, which is obviously constructed to a degree but has been shaped by several personal contingencies, and some luck. A career is a succession of opportunities one exploits or fails to exploit. I am very interested in opportunism. I like to think that what we do as architects is exploit the opportunities of a specific situation, rather than having some sort of a priori program we implement. I often use the metaphor of winemaking to illustrate the business of the architect. Rem’s famous quote about ‘surfing’ is one of the best descriptions of a contemporary way of constructing a career and a project. You must catch the right wave at the right moment.

JI: Have you ever caught a bad wave or have you ever wiped out on a big wave? That’s also part of one’s career: wiping out and learning how to surf the next wave with new information.

AZP: I have caught some bad waves but I won’t describe them because they involve some well-known names in the business and there is no point in recounting them. Fortunately I withdrew almost immediately. I guess bad waves are the ones that don’t take you anywhere. They fizzle so you don’t need to register them. I think you need to develop a certain way of scouting the horizon for good waves, and at any given moment you could see the next opportunity. What I learned from being involved in all these different things is that you don’t really know what the next step will be or where you will end up. But you have a certain intuition of where the next waves may come from, and you also know when the wave you are in is losing energy, and you need to start scouting for another.

Likewise, as a practice, I have always been wary of daring projects, those where there are lots of things done just in the name of architecture or ideology or exploration. I like projects where you see opportunities being exploited to such degree that it looks as if the project could not be otherwise because it makes so much sense. This may be why I am so interested in accountability.

JI: Numerous 1970s era AA architects have established greater legitimacy for the idea of career ambition with political opportunism and by virtue of their adeptness in the market and within mainstream culture. Opportunism is now an operative vehicle for individuals in the profession. In general, ambition has been considered one-dimensional, a negative trait; the term carries associations of insincerity. If someone is ambitious, the assumption is that they’re trying to get ahead at all costs or profit undeservedly at the expense of content or commitment to a disciplinary agenda. As you said earlier, in the end it comes down to doing good work. If one idea of doing good work involves ceaselessly finding new opportunities and using the knowledge of those experiences to create new insights, be it in the form of good texts, buildings, or other products, then isn’t ambition an essential quality of the profession?

AZP: The ambitions of the people who came out of the AA in the 1970s were different from the ambitions of our generation who came out of school in the early 1990s. Of course, 1970s-era AA architects have also evolved, seized opportunities presented to them, but their ambitions were much more directly connected to a certain vision or end, a sort of utopia. I do not recall ever having had such utopian or ideological drive and that is perhaps why I was more opportunistic, realistic, and pragmatic. The ‘Scientific Autobiography’ was an attempt to describe how one develops a certain pseudo-ideological position through the need to be efficient in a sequence of different situations. Deep down, it is a reflection on the relationship between ideology and opportunism, theory and practice. Opportunity is very connected to survival, to a changing environment, to working in the market, academic or professional. When you are operating within a market, which is a loose and ever changing field of agents, you need to develop an ability to take chances. It is not the same as when you operate within a bureaucracy, where agents remain locked by fixed relationships. Ideologies and visions are in principle better suited to operate within bureaucracies and not very efficient in market situations, but there are many interesting variations to this relationship. However, you may turn your ideology into a marketable asset, which is something that the celebrity culture has managed to do effectively. In fact, some of these celebrity architects are invoking utopia as much as the new kids on the block trying to carve out a niche for themselves. And they have very pragmatic reasons to do so: without a public belief in utopia it is difficult to maintain their celebrity status. There are many variations to this dichotomy between market and bureaucracy, opportunism and ideology that you can explore and theorize. How do you operate within a market enslaved by a bureaucracy, like Dubai or China?

There are a number of ingredients that go into the formation of a practice. An office is a culture, exactly like a school. You develop certain protocols, interests and targets that produce consistency among your collaborators. There are people out there who believe that can be synthesized, but the strongest cultures, like the best wines are a contingent combination of factors, distilled by time and trial and error. You can apply techniques to make an organization more efficient, you can artificially enhance it; that is the project manager’s business. You can learn a lot by watching other cultures too – that is the raison d’être of industrial espionage – but it ultimately comes down to a sort of magic coincidence. In our case it relates very much to our experience at OMA, from where we inherited the combination of cultural ambitions and a degree of professionalism. There is also the same expectation from our collaborators of hard work and ambition, long hours and weekends. Some people believe that is a sort of patriarchal or Oedipal reaction, but I believe that architecture, like any other practice, evolves historically and develops through lineages. I do not really care how you categorize this in psycho-social terms; having a pedigree is a more efficient way of learning and developing practice protocols. Can you grow strong and fast in some other way? Perhaps. That again is the project managers’ business. For better or worse, actually often for worse, a practice also develops certain inefficiencies in order to be more efficient in other ways. When the office was smaller and more intimate and the collaborators were younger, this culture of commitment – doing anything to get it done no matter how long we had to stay – was really remarkable, and one has amazing memories of some collaborators in that heroic period. When you enter that process the office becomes much less efficient, because earlier, with three guys you could do anything, and now you need fifteen guys to do what you did before with three. Obviously we need to grow and in this process of replicating yourself, you need to resort to hierarchies, to develop a class of people who refuse to stay late or work over the weekend. This is mind bogglingly inefficient as you can imagine. You enter necessarily into the process of striation, of bureaucratization that kills a lot of potentials. You can apply the most sophisticated organization theories and management techniques, but in this business, if you haven’t got a culture, you haven’t got a chance. A culture is a much more sophisticated mechanism than a management protocol to set up a certain working morale, a certain way of controlling the projects when you cannot control them directly, because you can not always be there. And our academic lineage, our experience in creating cultures is now becoming effective in this sense. I’m looking for new waves now in this ocean.

On the Hokusai Wave
JI: Knowing when a good wave is going flat seems to be a key issue in your career. It’s interesting to observe that you have decided to focus on one thing, and then after a while you pull back to pursue other opportunities. For you, it seems as if it hasn’t resulted in an overinvestment in one realm at the expense of another. For some, having relevance within an intellectual discourse is their primary investment at the expense of their practice. And vice versa. Instead, you’ve been able to flourish intellectually by operating in multiple realms. For example, you contribute to the discipline’s intellectual discourse through your professional insights. Hokusai, the wave, is one of the most important of these. You’ve reintroduced and embraced a word that’s been denigrated for so long: iconography. You have given new life to iconography by understanding the opportunity it affords to the positive reception of a project. Yet you’ve also recognized that it has limited design value. It lends itself to having great influence in the public realm, but that’s not to say that your project is exclusively determined by iconography. Do you want to talk about that, because it seems there is a little bit of back-peddling from your interest in iconography, especially in your discussion of the 2012 Olympic project? You defended it by saying that producing an iconographic form of human musculature was simply necessary, as if it were of little interest as a creative opportunity.

AZP: Thanks again for the compliments. By the way, we stepped out of the London Olympic wave because it was losing energy. Maybe we screwed up there. I am curious to see where it ends because I still wonder whether we should have stayed. If it ends up being an architectural flop, we will have demonstrated that we also know when to step out.

The perceived retreat from iconography subject probably has something to do with some sort of moral background. [Laughs] Intuitively, the whole iconography things was a realization of the fact that – despite having constructed a discourse about practice based on operativity, scientificity, technology, the computer operations and so on – in other situations, an entirely different set of strategies could be implemented almost spontaneously. That’s why the moment of the Hokusai wave in that press conference was so crucial, because you have your theoretically constructed, watertight discourse, seeking that kind of academic relevance and suddenly you realize that nobody gives a damn. So, you need to react and make that kind of a leap into the void by daring to entirely discard your theoretical apparatus in a matter of seconds. I like those moments when you must suspend all your beliefs in order to be effective in a very specific situation. I have realized that this was a strategy we used often under the theoretical radar, and the text is an attempt to theorize that phenomenon.

In that sense I am very Kuhnian, or very Rortyan, in the belief that any serious theorization is actually generated by efficiencies, by economies, rather than as a sort of weltanschauung. It always happens a posteriori, after the fact. This is probably a trait of opportunism – not trying to envision a comprehensive reality. Theory is mostly a way to explain to myself why certain things happened. For example, I didn’t know before moving to the States to study at Harvard that I would end up in Holland, Japan and London. By the time when you reach theorization, the game is over. You need to be scouting for the next wave.





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