Moving Laterally with Madeline Schwartzman


Author of two books See yourself Sending: Redefining Human Perception and See Yourself X:


Human Futures Expanded (to be released soon), long-time adjunct professor of architecture, design, and media at Barnard College and Parsons, Madeline Shwartzman talked to Rotating Editor Tenlie Mourning about the interdisciplinary nature of her work, architecture itself, and how to move laterally.

TM: The first question I have is: you’ve said before that you are interdisciplinary, and I am wondering what does that mean to you, and what disciplines does your work engage?

MS:As far as I’m concerned, it is not about being in a profession and dabbling in any other profession. The worst thing to me is when architects use other media poorly. So, I feel like if you’re really going to be interdisciplinary, you’re really going to have to pay your dues in the discipline, and immerse yourself. I am not personally interested in architects that make films, I am interested in filmmakers.

In my case, I am an architect and I am a filmmaker, and I don’t exactly know what the crossover is. I’ve seen it: for example if you can make a building that encompasses all that complexity, you don’t have any trouble getting into the complexity of a feature film because there are all of these moving parts. If you’re an architect, you’re probably going to be great at location scouting, but are you great at narrative? This is the question: is anybody good at narrative nowawdays, now that the internet proliferates information; do we really have to work that hard to think of stories? And its there that I think there is a kind of training that you don’t get, and that you won’t get in any one discipline.

So I think to be truly interdisciplinary you have to pay your dues in multiple disciplines. In my case, I would say I began hovering between fine arts and architecture, and delve deeply into fine arts and installation making—all the while wanting to make films and video, so I began experimentally doing so. And then I went into narrative film making, from short films and into feature films. Then I went into experimental documentaries, while continuing writing—moving into fiction, and then non-fiction, and then poetry.

The other thing about disciplines is that they’re far more interdisciplinary than they were when I was in graduate school—back then they were far more distinct. But they are still their own little planets with their own little orbits, and some of them are smaller, and some of them are larger, so architecture can be like this teeny little world with a tight little orbit. But there’s huge gravity, so I had to push through the gravity, and I got outside of it. And then I could look in and say oh, there’s that little world. And outside of that world you’re perceived entirely differently than you are inside of that world, so one nice thing about really changing disciplines is stepping outside only to see that the world is much larger and there are connections to be made. I feel like I am a little bit of an astronaut connecting little solar systems. Maybe nobody cares, but that’s how I feel.

Excerpt from Madeline Shwartzman's first book: See yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception

Excerpt from Madeline Shwartzman’s first book: See yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception

TM: Do you feel that architecture is inherently disciplinary, or should be?

MS: Architecture thinks of itself as interdisciplinary: obviously it involves light and engineering and all kinds of things. So, it is a wonderful discipline in which to get multiple disciplines, but it is also a very self-contained discipline with terrible little rules, and sometimes terrible little despots and leaders. And again, the gravitational pull of what is it becomes so fixed that everyone feels they have to stay within the system. When in fact, there really is no system and if you just stop caring about the teeny little world, you can step outside of it and do what you want.

So, yes, it is inherently interdisciplinary, but it is also uptight and conservative because it stays within its own rules and stays within them. For me, my happiness in my career as an architect came when I had to walk completely away from it, and was then able to step back inside.

TM: At what point did you feel you had paid your dues enough in architecture to be able to walk away from it?

MS: I probabaly wish I paid my dues more, but I got impatient with it at the time that I was in the practice. It was a recession, and I had ambitions to work with people on narrative, but I stayed within it not necessarily feeling comfortable within it, or accepted within it. And I think my weird acceptance within what it was came after I published See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception because I didn’t really talk to anybody about it. I didn’t seek anybody’s approval and made a really great book, that truly jumped across disciplines. Everybody in a particular discipline in this book never heard of the other person, in the other discipline. So it was like a giant curation, and when I was done with that I neither cared whether I was in a discipline, or what anybody really thought of me. And naturally, in some way, that book was respected by artists, architects, and interaction designers alike.

Its all very absurd. Its the rules of the society, and your ability to see outside of those rules. Architecture wears a very tight ship, and you grow up in it thinking you have to conform, and that’s the thing I like the least about it. There are other professions you don’t really have to conform to get ahead, and the truth is you’re expected to pay your dues. So you have to pay your dues, and know when to get out of the system. But not everybody knows, so people just burn themselves out not becoming what they want to be.

TM: Would you urge architecture students to step out of the discipline of architecture, in order to inform their architecture, or otherwise?

MS: Yes, you can’t keep pushing yourself trying to get to the top, thinking you see the goal. You just have to flow a little,and enrich yourself, and that’s that thing I’ve told you in class: move laterally. And move laterally means that instead of trying to go up the system you move over to the right a little bit.

So let’s say you are an architecture student, but once a week for two hours you sat yourself up amongst the art journals in Avery Library [architectural library of Columbia University], and read ten journals. That would be a lateral move: you would suddenly understand the art world as it was unfolding and you might suddenly realize that everything you hope for in architecture is like a tiny little system that you’re trying to climb, when there is like a massive system outside.

It is this sort of perversity in architecture, for some reason the discipline creates a system that is kind of closed, and with ladders that are controlled by certain types. And you desire to move up that ladder and be like that type, when in reality the ladder isn’t real and you should be looking outside for the ways you make your own ladder. And nowadays especially you can make your own ladder—whether you can make a living is always a question.

I think reading novels, and reading about current events… there might be a way to create a practice out of the things you are steeping yourself in, and you will always stand out amongst other students if you know more outside of the discipline itself.

TM: What do you see, or hope for in the future of architecture? In reference to things being interdisciplinary, or other issues you addressed—you even mentioned the issue of some sort of rigidity in architecture?

MS: Well I’m not exactly in it now, so maybe it is less rigid, although when I go to critiques I still see the hierarchy. I don’t know if it can happen: it is something to do with the state of the world, and the state of the economics in the field. I think it is about innovation. I think every discipline is open to innovation: we had a lecture on robots and the lecturer noted that, “the future of architecture is not what we think; they’ll be everywhere, but they won’t be humanoid.” Well, I kind of think that the future of architecture is not what we think: it will be everywhere, but it won’t necessarily be building.


Author: Rotating Editor New York