Francois Roche is something of an enigma. He prefers not to appear in photographs; his firm R&Sie(n) is often represented by a gender-bending morphed image of him and his partner Stephanie Lavaux. Who he is and what he stands for, if anything, remain as elusive. Roche has made a relentless pursuit of scenarios of mutation, constantly seeking out new possibilities for transforming himself, his work, and architecture as a discipline. Volume spoke with him recently about fiction, technology, hermaphroditic polar bears, and just what his work might mean.
BC: First of all, can you talk about why we’re looking at your hands?
FR: It’s not coquetry. I prefer to depersonalize the identity of the architect, rather than to represent myself by my existing avatar. I prefer a part of myself without it being my face.
There’s another reason. I’m coming from the 90s, and I remember when I was a student at the end of the 80s, architects were the simulacrum of rock stars. And they promoted themselves more by their identity than by their work.
So that’s why, it’s not Coffee and Cigarettes, it’s Coffee and Croissant. It’s Jarmusch II. [laughter]
JI: How do you see the function of this cloaked identity in professional terms with your clients and the projects you produce for them?
FR: It’s strategic. When you become a brand, you have to repeat yourself. It’s a condition of post-capitalism. Your reputation forces you to repeat what people are expecting from you. And it is a kind of cannibalism of yourself, an autophagy, where you promote yourself on the basis of your given self and never to try to change. If you change, you break the brand, because immediately the system says, ‘What? What are you doing? We are just commissioning you to be you, not to be something other than you.’
JI: It allows you the possibility to be ‘out of character’.
FR: Yes. It’s important to develop many labels now. You are not only one. You can be a profusion of personalities. You can have a personality disorder. And to develop a personality disorder is a way to be an architect and to have several possibilities of infiltration. If it’s only you as a physical branded attitude, you immediately become a slave to this self-promotion. So it gives you a perfect idea of your representation, but in fact it creates a prison of this representation.
BC: How does that work with the constantly evolving name of the firm?
FR: It’s exactly the same strategy. The name is something that changes, first depending on the partner. The name is absorptive. It is infused by the people inside the group. So if a new person is involved, the name of the group changes. And as a result in Google, we can be found by several names. If you add up all the names of the studio, you have more visibility by having many names rather than by one. [laughter]
Also, more seriously, to change the name is to recognize that our office mutates. That’s why the name now is R&Sie, which could be pronounced as hérésie, but it’s a contraction of many names, between ‘r’, which is me, and ‘s’, which is Stéphanie Lavaux. It’s not a specific vindication of heresy. But I love this coincidence.
JI: What you’re saying about the brand identity of the architect is that you are conscious about the architects that precede you; you take into account in your own approach to practice a comparison to the prior generation of architects. What do you think is important for yourself in the shift you see in your practice?
FR: It’s difficult to re-open the conflict of generations, specifically with fathers, my own fathers, with their work, who are now kidnapping all the systems for themselves. I don’t want to open this war because I will lose. My experience was very lucky. When I finished my studies in Paris, I was linked with Claude Parent, and Yona Friedman, and I discovered these eliminated architects. Understand, they were completely eliminated by history, in France and in Europe. This radicality was eliminated, and even the people were eliminated, not only the work. I remember in the library of my school, this entire period of radical architecture was absolutely not visible.
I was lucky to rediscover in this way these people, that these grandfathers were still alive, how they found a way to survive without any commissions, and how they stayed alive with their dream intact. So it really gave me a lot of desire to go further, and to test if I could prolong these grandfathers’ dreams. And to reprogram the position of the architect within society, which is very important for me. Not to take a position, not to use this genetic link from the father, but to be totally independent in the way we produce and in the way we think about our career.
JI: There seem to be four trajectories that go through your projects: desire, technology, fictional scenarios, and geometry. The richness of your work comes from the way that you interrelate these four sources. For example, with the introduction of the idea of desire in your projects, a fictional scenario takes a turn even within that story’s own logic. Or because of the imposition of a scenario, the geometry of the form of a project will deviate from the parametric logic used to set up the geometry. Or how you a combine a sense of desire with technological creations to introduce us to a mutation, like the robot albino penguin. Can you talk a little bit about how you work? How would you describe your framework of thinking?
FR: You focus on the center-point of our work. We love to tell stories. First we are telling stories, and we promote stories, like Hoffmann, Grimm, or Charles Perrault: fairy tales, the tales of Borges or Edgar Allen Poe. It is a science fiction premise. I’m really interested in how stories can talk about the truth through a narration that does not directly reproduce reality. When you tell stories, you use the context of your society. If you want the stories to penetrate, to infiltrate, and to be the vector of a transformation, you have to use the background of the society you are in.
For example, we worked ten years ago with NASA in Houston. I discovered that NASA similarly first tells a story and then uses science to justify the story they tell. The science is not exactly accurate and perfect for sure. It’s a propaganda of possibilities. It is a way to navigate between reality and fiction.
The architect has to understand this kind of boundary between telling stories that are partly reality and partly a fiction of reality. I think an architect has to move somewhat toward this possibility of telling stories, and to tell stories through the technology of today to describe the process of reality. And the architect should, to do that within the story of reality itself.
A main question for us is the degree of mass media culture we assume and consume. We all are consuming mass media culture. We are fed a lot of references. This consumption doesn’t help us to be more accurate, it just justifies that we are consuming, it justifies the simulacrum of knowledge. So the question is how we could find a way inside this consumption. Fiction is the best way, the sharpest way, to infiltrate mass media culture. It’s really important as an architect now to recognize and not to be naïve about mass media culture. We are inside mass media culture, and we have to reveal this, in my view. What we are doing is rereading the artifacts we are producing, to understand how we are using the mass media to justify a position.
One of the reasons I taught at Penn last spring was to experience the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where there is a permanent exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s work. It’s clear in the desiring machines of Duchamp, that he does not replicate technology, but uses technology as a metaphor and a vector, a vector that reprograms relationships and collective desire.
BC: In reference to the South Pole expedition project with Pierre Huyghe you have said that an expedition is an alibi for something else that you discover, and that the stories that we use in architecture are often alibis. That what we claim to be pursuing allows us to find something else. How does that relate to your idea of fiction? Does fiction allow you to set out on a course, even if what comes out of that course is not necessarily what first led you to that fiction?
FR: There’s an Edgar Allen Poe book, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In the 19th century, it was a scientific possibility that the poles were joined by a big hole, by a big vortex going through the center. This hypothesis fell through very quickly. When Edgar Allen Poe wrote the book the hypothesis was already dead. In other words, Poe started the book to justify the hypothesis, even though he knew the hypothesis was incorrect. So it is a fiction based upon an interesting but impossible reality.
At a narrative level, the story does not end. The ending is inconclusive. It’s one of the first books voluntarily unfinished. It ends with them disappearing into a white haze, a white silhouette drifting in the white snow. It’s incredibly beautiful. This possibility of unfinishedness puts us all inside an ongoing continuous narrative. In Poe there’s always a discontinuity of the narration, or a disruption of time, to assert that finally it is your story to write – it’s something you could infiltrate yourself. Not only through your own writing of a book, but by the ability to come back into a work, like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by infiltration and to create a contradiction in this work.
Twenty years after Poe finished, or rather unfinished his book, Jules Verne, the French writer ‘finished the book’ by writing, The Sphinx of the Ice Fields. He wrote the book to justify what happens in the end to show that science could explain the white silhouette in the snow in the unfinished book of Edgar Allen Poe.
My position is against Jules Verne. It’s against using science to finish, or close the possibility of a story. My position is to use science in an indeterminist way, using indeterminism as a way to produce knowledge.
The project for the FRAC Centre that we proposed in Orleans, France and just lost, a project called Olzweg, which takes its title from the Heidegger book Holzwege, works with the same attitude: how uncertainty could be introduced through a robotic and mechanical process with a moment of indeterminism in the software driving the machine that is constructing the building. This type of research has been developed and exhibited last year at the Modern Art Museum in Paris in an urban and social experiment we undertook called ‘I’ve heard about’. It was about a self-organized, aggregated urban structure where a social protocol became the random vector of the growing and entropic process. It received an award at the Feidad competition this year.
JI: When you work in places far away, such as Thailand, you explore project ideas from a vantage point that is neither externalized nor internally submerged. You use technology as a source to tell a story about the place you’re in.
FR: It is not: ‘fuck the context.’ And we try to avoid being fucked by the context. Not to fuck, and not to be fucked by, the context. [laughter] You, the architect, empathize, you have a self-consciousness, you are affected. You are corrupted by your situation, and at the same time you try to be at a distance from the situation because you bring your own skill and ability to understand the situation from somewhere else. So you accept this confusion in order to speak about the inside and outside, to keep this borderline intact. To not be located as a self-prisoner (to be fucked by the context), and not be complicit with international corporations to justify your cynicism.
JI: Can you talk about how you derive the multiple storylines for your projects?
FR: Gilles Deleuze’s idea of territory and deterriorialization has been somewhat reduced in schools of architecture. In Abecedaire, a video of Deleuze, he takes and explains each word and you understand all the ways, the confusion, and the rhetoric, he introduces in every word of his writing by way of what he calls approximation. This project of approximation by Deleuze is not perfectly understood in the US. I think an architect has to approach a problem by approximation, with several entrances, and to keep the several entrances intact even if they are opposites, or if they are contradictory, because we have several labels and we have also several inputs and outputs.
JI: You talk about ‘corrupting the biotope’. Is using several labels, several points of input and output what you mean when you talk about corrupting the biotope?
FR: I use ‘corruption’ as a provocation. It’s more that I am affected by the biotope and I corrupt a situation through my job as an architect by modifying the situation. So I both dominate and am dominated. Both movements are interesting. But the use of the word ‘corruption’ is also in the sense that when steel becomes rusty, it corrupts itself. How a material changes by its own mutation and it corrupts its own integrity. I am speaking about the naivety of integrity.
In any situation, you could avoid seeing reality, as a pure strategy of naivety, or you could deny reality, or you could also dramatize reality by using fear. Our work tries to make the context visible, to make visible the materiality of the situation. In doing so, we are also corrupting the situation.
For instance, I cannot change the climate of Bangkok, which is one of the most polluted in the world, for many reasons. I cannot promote perfect, clean architecture in the context where the pollution is a principle condition of the city. It’s clear that the project we did in Bangkok uses the situation, uses the dust, like breeding the dust of Duchamp, as an acceptance of this biotope. Of course it critiques the failure of urbanism or the failure of human development. But I’m not moral, I don’t want to make lessons. I just want to use the biotope as it is and to avoid denying this reality or dramatizing this reality to promote fear, just to show it. It’s about using the context as the first matrix of a transformation. And using its substances, even the substances we don’t want to see which lie under the rug. Each context develops its own reality. And it’s interesting how an architect is not only making the parts visible, but also producing an understanding of relationships in the context through aesthetic means, a relationship by aesthetics.
JI: Does your use of the word biotope mean the interaction of human desires, technologies, and economies? What do you mean by biotype in reference to an urban environment? You’re interested in a city like Bangkok more so than Shanghai, because of the activity there. Could you talk more about biotope and urbanism?
FR: ‘Territory’ is used in reference both to nations, like nation as a territory, and to animals, for which territory is the critical size where an animal can survive by finding food, by making love. The territory is the critical dimension of your survival. It’s interesting how it could be used as either the minimum space or maximum space in which you move, to feel your independence and to be linked to other things. Biotope for me is this sense of territory, where material and immaterial spaces weave together and interact to create multiple scenarios of a context.
Bangkok’s a city where everything grows as a pure human energy. And even the necros. It’s the first city in the world that has introduced the necros of the building – exactly like a forest, where when the trees die, the trees die, and other trees could grow over the trees that died. Bangkok is like that.
The city accepts the death of buildings. There are many buildings that die, which are unoccupied or unfinished. In the Bangkok skyline, it is incredible how, for many reasons, there are unfinished buildings. But there’s no drama about it, it’s just, ‘We failed in the construction, so we stopped it. And we’ll do another one.’ The city is an ectoplasm which is growing over itself, without the idea of preservation, and without the idea of propaganda, or of controlling the design.
JI: You talk about your work both in terms of a political dimension and an animal dimension. In your projects there are oxen, there are albino penguins, there are elephants. What is it that you want to convey through the animal elements? Is it to activate an atavistic dimension in the reality of your projects?
FR: I remember reading in some book that in the Middle Ages people could legally prosecute animals or trees. When a tree fell down in the street, the tree would be put on trial to determine the extent of its guilt. It was really interesting that every species could be put on trial and condemned, not only humans but also nature. We talk always about the guilt of human destruction. But if a tree falls down and kills somebody, it’s clearly guilty. It clearly could be killed a second time. [laughter]
I use this example as a metaphor. Our work involves a horizontal reprogramming of our relationship to predation, to the biotope. It’s clear with global warming that we are no longer, as in the 50s and the 60s, jumping on the moon, dreaming to escape through a starship odyssey. We no longer have the possibility of escaping the condition of our failure. We can no longer destroy or explode the biotope, and expect to move to another one, or to restore ourselves by destroying ourselves again. We are inside the system of our own destruction and reconstruction. When Armstrong was walking on the Sea of Tranquility in ’69, showing the whole earth that the moon was a very dusty and crazy place to survive, the feedback was not a fascination about technology. It was the end of the odyssey, it was the end of the escape. It created our acceptance of our own biotope, not humans as a higher intelligence, but as a parameter of this biotope, as one of its elements. If we put ourselves in the right frame of mind, we can renegotiate this position, renegotiate with other spaces, nature and the wild.
You’ve heard about the polar bears in the North Pole? In the territories where they reproduce there’s incredible pollution coming from the Arctic Stream and the Gulf Stream, carrying not only rubbish, but also carbonic gas and plutonium from the Russian cemetery of submarines. Because of that 5% of polar bears are hermaphrodites. They are modifying their sexuality. They are modifying their physiology to survive in this condition. The world has become a laboratory, and wild animals are included in this laboratory, transforming their own physiology to survive, to increase their possibilities of reproduction by a hermaphroditic transformation. The position of the polar bear interests me. They are not in denial, they are not dramatizing, just mutating themselves, to accept and to survive in this new condition.
JI: In your work there’s both an engagement of the evolution of biological beings, but there is also a bridge with technology. What I love is the albino penguin robot, and the transnatural characters, partly animal, partly robotic, artificial.
FR: I think it’s a question of nature, and the nature of nature. To talk about this point, I think it is best to see a movie by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese moviemaker, called Charisma. It’s a movie about incredible trees, very naked and stark trees in the middle of a forest. They are from the dinosaur period, so everybody takes care of the trees, to be sure they survive. They discover that these trees are killing all the nature around them from their toxicity. But the forest is part of our economy – for the production of wood, to make paper, to make buildings, and so on. Primitive nature destroys domesticated nature. At the end of the movie, they destroy the trees from the dinosaur period to be sure that cultivated nature survives. Reintroducing wildness within this ideology of control is of interest to me. For example the nature of Bangkok is something without prediction. It’s something without control, it is wild in a biological way. I’m interested when patterns, algorithms are invisible, when there is a hidden order. It has the possibility to react, to deform itself, and to develop its own singularity when confronted with a situation. What is interesting in the hidden algorithm of Bangkok is that it cannot be visualized or predicted.
BC: Many of your projects use textiles. What do you see as the relation between these textiles and the forms your work takes?
FR: We started the textile project five years ago, when it was impossible to get a construction permit. We were operating at a site under the control of the Patrimonial Archaeological Survey. Near the project site there’s a tower from the Middle Ages. We did the project in textiles to assert that it was impermanent. We received permission to make the textile project because technically it was defined as a tent. Inside, we colonized the tent to make a private house. It was a strategy to jump over the problem – to justify a tent not a building. It was to justify this fragility, a little bit like the third house in the story of the ‘Three Little Pigs’. We created an un-resistant house.
In this project we were confronted with complex geometry and a medium budget. This was a problem. We discovered at this time that textiles are very cheap. So our strategy was to build a complex geometry with cheap materials; other parts were designed very Euclidean and basic with traditional means of production. Many projects in the studio are a little bit schizophrenic in being Euclidean and complex in shape as a result of finding a way to realize the whole.
In that sense, our studio is a reacting studio. If there is no commission, we don’t work. I’m not a research architect. I’ve no real desire to research without a commission, without this confrontation with a particular situation. A condition is a perfect way for me to understand how I could move around in a new way and to understand a complex situation. But without this situation, I’m just a child dreamer. I prefer to surf with the Valley boys in Malibu. I prefer to waste time than to be an architect. We don’t have a clear objective for the future. What is interesting for the studio is to understand how we could tell stories, and how the stories could infiltrate the stories that the system is producing.
JI: One last thing, do you believe there is a potential for symbolism today? When you tell stories do you employ symbolic references in the forms you use?
BC: For instance, your ‘Loophole’ pedestrian bridge on the Polish-Czech border is designed so that in order to cross, the immigrant needs to walk out and return, to finally find a way through to the other side. Is there a symbolism in turning back to go forward or is this difficulty intended to produce a certain affective state?
FR: Symbolism reduces reality to iconography. In this sense, no, we are not using symbolism at all. We want to implement something phenomenological in the bridge. You need to use the bridge to understand the difficulty in crossing over a country border, over to another culture. So it’s not symbolism, it’s more of a body experiment, in this case, with emigration and immigration. I don’t want to reduce reality to iconography.
When you develop a narrative you need to develop a storyline. In the development of a story, the intelligence of the characters and the situation validate the story. Territory is a term that is of interest to me because there is a multiple disorder in a territory. It clearly cannot be reduced in one way. I really prefer an attitude of weaving relationships rather than to create a symbolism of the characters. Weaving a story through the relationships of character creates psychological complexity. In a project it is the same, you have many entrances, many possibilities of reading, many possibilities to be affected by your situation, and it’s interesting how to weave them together to produce the building, to keep this complex story with all the characters intact from the beginning to the end. And to avoid minimizing or reducing this woven story to one way – be it technological, biological, or constructional – to leave open the possibility for the narration to go further, even after the building is constructed. That is really important for me, specifically with the buildings we are creating, which try to leave the doors open, to unfinish the stories.
1. Terra Incognita, installation in collaboration with Pierre Huyghe at Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris, 2006