January 1, 2013
It’s next time again.
Your work requires you to interact with others. Everyone negotiates in their work in one way or another. What works for you? What secrets have you learned that help you get your ideas across? How do you listen, react and then move forward, especially if you and your colleagues do not see eye to eye? How has your success benefited from your ability to negotiate? Can an architect’s process be of any practical use to the rest of us?
There are many parallels between the careers of architects and filmmakers. Both typically require someone else to fund their projects, both ping pong back and forth between periods of intense solitary concentration and then periods of energetic collaboration, both move from project to project often balancing the demands of several simultaneous engagements, both have the challenges of trying to execute a creative vision that sometimes only they themselves can see. There are also similarities of process. Both often work on long term projects, both have similar phases of “production” and both of their processes require creativity and creative collaboration throughout the lifetime of an evolving final product. It is this concept of creative collaboration that has been on my mind the past several months and part of the reason is the work and approach of architect, David Chipperfield.
David Chipperfield recently completed a twelve year project in Berlin. His Neues Museum, is perhaps best known as the new home of a single breathtaking object – the head of Nefertiti. This world famous artifact is sort of a “must see” in Berlin, and has been for many years. On a recent trip to Berlin, we ran in to see her, proudly ensconced in her elegant new room, and what everyone says is completely true. “One of the most admired, and most copied, images from ancient Egypt, and the star exhibit used to market Berlin’s museums.” What is equally true is that her new showplace is one of the most fascinating and effective museum projects in the world. Candida Höfer took evocative fine art photographs of the renovation. See her project shown last Spring at Johnen Galerie in Berlin.
Chipperfield had a (literally) monumental task in Berlin. Many Germans enjoy the virtues of being strong-minded and demanding. I can’t imagine the bureaucratic obstacles he had to climb. But he is incredibly articulate and insightful when it comes to describing one of the hidden aspects of his success with the Neues Museum. This was a project that he had been working on for fully half of his 25 years as an architect. The secret of his success? In a word, he credits, “diplomacy.”
“There is a team of people from our office who worked on this for ten years–they were present throughout and got incredible experience, … but especially in the political, the idea of collaboration, not as a process of compromise, but as something fundamental to the realization of ideas. The Neues Museum could not have been realized without first of all making the atmosphere in which we could conduct the conversations. There was a sort of diplomacy that was part of this, but not diplomacy in a decorative way, but diplomacy in terms of how you explain ideas to people and how you hold on to those ideas but, at the same time, how you take on board other opinions, and how you include different aspects. So I think that was our achievement more than anything else.”
Wow! I think this should become an entire course-long semester offered to every architecture school in the country.
Chipperfield was also the curator of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. These shows have been getting better and better and this year, in no small measure because of Mr. Chipperfield’s contributions, it was the best I’ve ever seen. Walking through the Arsenale, the gigantic shipbuilding warehouses in Venice that are the home to part of both the Art and the Architecture Biennales, I was struck by the heavy burden Architecture exhibits must support in such a venue. Architectural projects are really complicated. They don’t lend themselves to the six second rule, (this being the average amount of time most visitors spend in front of an artwork in a museum). Before getting to some of the highlights of this year’s Architecture Biennale, Chipperfield’s fascinating theme of “Common Ground” deserves a closer look.
My process as a filmmaker has greatly improved because of my association with architects. At the beginning of my career, one architect explained that just as his clients did not really understand, and did not really care all that much about how he designed their buildings, most of my clients do not care about how I made the films they commissioned. Clients want to know how they fit in. So, he suggested I make a chart defining my process that highlighted the important intersections with my clients.
Another architect pointed out rich patrons can sometimes be a challenge but often their projects have a better chance of being truly great. He felt it was much more difficult to get good ideas through a committee. He said committees, by design, usually embrace the status quo.
I’ve written about Frank Gehry’s impact upon my process on the Vision section of my website, but that only scratches the surface of the countless things I have had the privilege to learn from him over the years. Another major insight he instilled in me is his enthusiastic enjoyment of the process itself. Easy to do when the project is going great. Tough to remember when you are slogging through the obstacles. When you are building something, it is easy to only focus upon the finished work and ignore the enjoyment of the present task at hand. If you are only living for the final ribbon cutting, you are missing most of your life. What is needed is passion throughout. I also felt this same charming attribute in Chipperfield’s writings and I believe this exuberance shows in their finished buildings.
Chipperfield adds a new twist to the crucial impact of positive architect/client collaboration. Could the tools of the diplomat; mutual respect, deathless charm, tact, optimism, etc. be employed to build better buildings (or make better movies)? “Architecture doesn’t just happen, it is a coincidence of forces, a conspiracy of requirements, expectations, regulations and, hopefully, visions. It requires collaboration and its success is subject to the quality of that collaboration … If we accept this then we must also accept that good architecture is not just dependent on genius nor can it only be achieved only through confrontation and despite circumstances. Individual talent and creativity depend on and contribute to a rich and complex culture of shared affinities, references and predicaments that give validity to and meaning, not only to architecture but to its place in society.”
Such was his vision for the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture. As I walked from exhibit to exhibit I searched for the theme of “Common Ground” and often it was there. This theme is complex, rich and fascinating. There is much more here than “diplomacy.” Here are a few of the projects with particularly interesting ideas.
Peter Markli’s elegant room felt like a gallery of sophisticated sculpture (probably because it was). The sculptor, Hans Josephsohn had just died. He was 92. I subsequently read that one of these sculptures was a Giocometti. What impressed me most was the lighting. The light fixtures were up high out of your line of sight. They were aimed at the old brick walls and dimmed up and down to change the mood as you looked at the figures and thought about how the human form and the columns connected to each other. The relationship of the human form to building design is one of the very first principles of architecture. Vitruvius was perhaps the first to discuss this in his essays about proportion. He felt architectural symmetry and proportion should be consonant with the proportions of a well shaped man. In this case, the form had become elongated, elegant and ectomorphic. With the moody lighting it was if the human body had slowly petrified, dissolving into brick columns that had been in this room since the fifteenth century; Common Ground indeed.
For whatever reason, copying is usually considered to be a bad thing for an architect or an artist. It was refreshing to find copying glorified in a very imaginative exhibit by the folks at FAT, who are based in Britain. They have a beguiling sense of humor and they make their case in a very no nonsense, almost blasé manner. “To FAT, the rhetoric of architectural influence and affinity might be reduced to an apparently banal concept: copying. Instead FAT’s installation reveals copying to be a rich terrain The centrepiece of their exhibition is a large-scale cast of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, a building from the Veneto that could claim to be the most copied building in architectural history, spawning homages and rip-offs across the globe. FAT’s Museum of Copying also recognizes that copying threatens the mythology of recent architectural production, based on ideas of an author’s originality and individual genius. FAT and their collaborators are relaxed about copying: the sources are out there to plunder, and architecture has always done so in the most direct ways.”
How does all this apply to making movies? The connections are uncanny. In a recent interview Quentin Tarantino described how he learned a very important cinematic lesson from the Spaghetti Western. Tarantino’s sound tracks are always a knockout. He uses music like a character in the story and he does it brilliantly. Fascinating to hear where he learned how to do this. “Let me just say this just for the record: You can’t really do a Spaghetti Western anymore. Spaghetti Westerns were a thing of their time. But one of the big influences that Spaghetti Westerns have had over me cinematically is how they used music and how they bring it to the forefront. There is a part of me that likes to go in from time to time for those big operatic effects. It’s like we’re telling the story and setting everything up, and then there’s the equivalent of what in a musical would be a big dance number or a big musical sequence. I think I did learn that from Italian movies.” I just love this insight and I use it in my own work. I did not pick this up, however, from the Spaghetti Western. I learned it from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
Zaha Hadid’s installation had particular resonance for me because of the climatic sequence in a documentary TELOS did about Frank Gehry. In this sequence, Gehry explained how he made computer models of the folds of waxed red velvet fabric to create one of his most arresting designs. He was not, and is not alone in this investigation. Frei Otto, (who did a beautiful roof structure for a major pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo and the roof of the Munich Olympic arena in 1972), uses interconnected triangles to create flowing forms much like the rounded (Geodesic) domes of Buckminster Fuller. Hadid’s firm explains, “In our installation and exhibition at the Biennale we want to show that – apart from the dialogue with the work of contemporary competitors that existed all along – our recent work connects to a rather different historical strand of research. The more our design research and work evolved on the basis of algorithmic form generation, the more we learned to appreciate the work of pioneers like Frei Otto who had achieved the most elegant designs on the basis of material-structural form-finding processes. From Frei Otto we learned how the richness, organic coherence and fluidity of the forms and spaces we desire could emerge rationally from an intricate balance of forces. We expanded Frei Otto’s method to include environmental as well as structural logics, and we moved from material to computational simulations.” Chipperfield’s theme gave refreshing license for architects to quote each others inspirations.
The creation of architectural space has a boundary. Every architect wrestles with the issue of how you get from the outside to the inside. Toshiko Mori decided to focus on this intersection in a celebration of architectural details that most of us overlook. These window details are as iconic and memorable for architects as Kubrick’s use of Richard Strauss in 2001, is for filmmakers. “We have framed each detail as a totem – an object carrying an abstract spirit of its own, an animistic character that echoes the personality and signature of an architect. By isolating details and presenting them at half scale, one starts to inhabit this menageries of architectural ideas as one detail starts to speak to another; they echo each others history, precedents and references.”
The China exhibition continued on the theme of how a repeated form can create a new structure. Instead of intersecting triangles, this time the “seed form” is a naturalistic looking ovoid disc that reminded me of the thin leaves of a Lunaria Money Plant. By stacking these discs, or suspending them in space, new forms are created from the repeated pattern. The “Mobius Strip” inspired Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing is one of the building forms that can be created from such repetition. Five artists and architects were represented in the China Pavilion and their curator, Fang Zhenning, found expressive common ground between them all.
One of the problems with a show on Architecture is you really do not have enough time or the attention span to properly explore each exhibit. This was never more true than in the overwhelming 40,000 Hours room of architectural models from students. These models were cherry-picked from all over the world. Each of them is a time vampire of love and attention. The quality of the work was impressive. Each model was a little jewel and yet you did not have the energy to appreciate them one by one. They became a collective statement of effort. “This collection of models built by students from architecture schools across the world is both a tribute to their work and a depiction of the extraordinary labour undertaken in those institutions. The title of the room is a rough guess at the amount of hours taken to produce the models and the presentation is intended to evoke a natural resource, a groundswell of imaginative proposition by young architects. The presentation of the models is deliberately anonymous: each one is made of the same material and is about the same size. And while every model was built by an individual student the intention is to foreground the power and potential of the collective effort.”
Common Ground was never better expressed than in a fascinating four part exhibit based on the Campo Marzo etchings of Piranesi. Jeffery Kipnis, the Architectural Theoretician, with whom we collaborated on the documentary, A Constructive Madness (about the creative process of Frank Gehry) was one of the prestigious faculty who created this visionary capriccio. The tongue in cheek title (one of Jeffery’s trademarks) says it all: A Field of Dreams. IV: Variation: A Field of Dreams, Wherein the Erotics – the Passions, Perversions, and Spectacles of Ancient Rome – so Perfectly Frozen by Piranesi’s Etchings are Reanimated as a Morality Play for Contempoary Architecture. (Dedicated to Le Corbusier and John Hejduk)
A very popular and fun exhibit combined landscape design with modern and very well-done music. This acoustic garden was interactive. Special sensors examined not only the number of people in the vicinity but also the weather. The composition was modified to take into account all these factors. In lesser hands this would have felt gimmicky. Instead, it was refreshing and joyful. It was impossible not to smile as you walked over the grassy mounds and, like a great soundtrack, the experience was perfectly blended.
Architects are often in competition with each other. We are used to the large egos and the “star-chitect” nature of the field. Venice itself reminds you of an earlier time when the architect was anonymous and adhered to commonly agreed to principles revered by a profession grounded in the traditions of the guild. Chipperfield’s theme resonated with these ideas but not in an old fashioned way. Had I not seen and enjoyed his success in Berlin, I am not sure I would have appreciated the profundity of his theme. Thanks to his success in Berlin with the Neues Museum, his next project will be a renovation of the iconic and “untouchable” Mies Van der Rohe, Neue Nationalgalerie museum. This project, also in Berlin, was Meis’ last work and was designed in 1968. It now looks shabby and is in dire need of attention. Chipperfield’s techniques of diplomacy work. They have broad and important relevance to many other fields because they establish perhaps the most valuable aspect of a client relationship – trust.
Until next time with much love,