Future? – Conversation with Fernando Quesada
Author: Alejandro Carrasco
Fernando Quesada graduated from ETSAM in 1995 and obtained his Ph.D. in Architecture from UPM in 2002. He has completed postgraduate studies at the GSAPP, Columbia University, New York, between 1998 and 2000. Since 2001 he teaches Proyectos Arquitectónicos at the Escuela de Arquitectura de Alcalá, UAH.
He has been lecturer in the Master Proyecto y Ciudad, the Master en Práctica Escénica y Cultura Visual (UAH) and the Master Paesaggi Straordinari (Politécnico di Milano). He published “La Caja Mágica, cuerpo y escena“ in 2005 and co-directed, between 2001 and 2010, the journal O-Monographs, published by COAG. He has completed his postdoctoral research at Delft School of Design, DSD, TU Delft University, Netherlands, during 2009-2010.
Alejandro Carrasco: What is architecture? How would you define it?
Fernando Quesada: What architecture is or the way it performs depends largely on three tricky points that we should never take for granted when approaching this question. The first is who is asking the question; the second who is answering; and the third –and the most important one- is to whom is the response supposed to be addressed. I would say that architecture is basically a loose discipline located in between three actors, a hybrid form of production equally linked to the socius, economy, and art (or culture if you wish). Therefore, none of these actors should respond individually. However, since every historical moment tends to favor one actor over the others, a complete debate can never be fully reached. Given this situation, we may only approach architecture through fiction -or half way in other words, in a continuous process of asking ourselves this question.
AC: When you were a student, how did you think it would be architecture in the future? Was it similar to what is happening nowadays?
FQ: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I could anticipate that most of the built environment would be the way it is today: junk space, be it by design or not. And no in the sense that I naively thought that at least some architecture would anew itself by gaining autonomy. The problem was, and is, to understand that autonomy is not the lack of engagement with other disciplines, social vectors, or cultural/economic forces, but precisely the opposite. If we look back to the history of architecture we will realize that most of the most prominent architectural landmarks are based on a strong coalescence of the aforementioned vectors: the socius, economy and art, even if cases are rare. Successful architecture is about a complete identification of the architectural or urban artifact with the way human beings are organized and understand the world they live in. Good cities and good buildings are those through which you can identify how power works and is organized, for good or for bad.
AC: Talking about future, how have architects thought about it along history?
FQ: Mostly through travels to the past. The history of architectural utopias is a fascinating, and necessary, collection of anachronisms. Anachronism is a very useful tool for the renovation of the humanistic disciplines. When combined with technical and socio-political innovation, anachronism results in futuristic utopia. It provides us with the “future mistakes” in advance, it is admonitory. We should take utopias very, very seriously.
AC: Sometimes the term “future” is related with the term “innovation”. What does innovation mean for you?
FQ: We always think that tomorrow will or might be a better day than today. Even nostalgia is related to this fact, to get rid of the “now”. The term “future” is more related to hope and expectation than the term “innovation”, which is related to the hic-et-nunc, to present-ness and the ways to ameliorate current living conditions. The two concepts only go hand in hand in a discourse, but rarely in reality, since many of the things or facts presented as innovations are not such. To establish a direct correlation between the future and innovation is demagogic in most cases, but apparently necessary for the political power, for all forms of political power. This clash is related to the idea of “fate” in a simplistic Hegelian sense, that is to say: historical fate. Was the first radical innovation fire or language? Was either of them invented out of a clear concern about the future? This is hard to answer. A real innovation implies a more or less radical and sudden change in the way we live, perceive and behave, for the rest of the time, for the absolute future. The future without innovation is a natural concept linked to the repetition of the same, and by definition it only implies physical decadence. The mutual relation of innovation and the future as the locus of hope is at the heart of the modern tradition, it is a necessary ideology.
AC: Buckmister Fuller or Cedric Price?
FQ: Cedric Price, no doubt. Price is closer to our current concerns, even if Fuller played the role of anticipation in a very intelligent and classical way. In the end Fuller was much more pragmatic than Price, for the first built a much more consistent biography. Fuller made extensive use of propaganda of his own characterization as persona. He cleverly situated himself out of the present systematically, while Price did the opposite, somehow waiting for the zeitgeist to match his own personal project. Fuller used the concept of the future as a sort of desirable object. Desire is a basic instrument in advertising. By situating the object of desire far from the consumer, the asset itself increases desirability in terms of value. All in all, some of Fuller’s architectural designs were no more than exquisite and sophisticated exercises of stylization, which is a lot by the way. He subtlety stylized the industrial-military complex for the architecture culture of postwar America. In retrospect and paradoxically, Fuller was closer to his time than Price in terms of personal success.
AC: If you had to relate this concept of innovation to any figure in architecture, who would you choose? Why?
FQ: It depends on how innovation affects, to whom it is related and the side or after effects. In architecture, the degree of innovation can be measured in at least three ways, or from three distinctive standpoints. Innovation in terms of symbolic communication with society at large (how architecture is received or perceived); innovation in terms of the way it is designed, conceived and built (how architecture is produced); and finally innovation in terms of space programming (how architecture is used and lived). The greatest architects have been consciously involved in processes of innovation at the three levels. Think of Brunelleschi: he witnessed and championed the enormous epistemological break produced during the Renaissance. His dome in Florence was an innovation in perceptual terms, for it changed the urban perception of the city for ever, but it was also the product of a new organization of tasks in the practice of architecture, i.e. it introduced the architect as an intellectual figure, not an artisan, thanks to the so-called disegno, or what we call a project today. Finally, this work also changed religious spatiality, thus interfering in the every-day existence of the inhabitants of the city. Today, architectural parameters are so many and disseminated than we cannot expect a unique gesture of architectural clarity from a single actor. Furthermore, society does not demand such gestures any more, despite the boom of star-architecture around the world. The domino system by Le Corbusier can be interpreted from this trialectic as well, even if its side effects were somehow unexpected: a technical innovation -related to the way architecture is industrially produced and perceived, and the role of the architect in professional terms- opened the door for a new mode of dwelling and, furthermore, for a new architectural language. Robert Venturi’s turn was not so much a linguistic innovation as it set the prevalence of design-as-communication, thus forever changing the role of the architect in society by bringing architecture closer to an aesthetic consultancy without a complete spatial command: architecture as media. Innovations occur constantly in the field of architecture, but surely no single figure may claim authorship on innovations in classical terms. Current debates about participation, environmentalism or digital fabrication are clear symptoms of the anxiety to break the tight bridges historically built between architecture and power, which star-architecture perfectly embody. We need a deeper dialogue and involvement among professional architects, building industry, schools, and political organizations. Maybe a significant part of our work as architects today should concentrate on championing these dialogues. The big difficulty is that our profession is extremely specialized and architecture is still understood by society only in terms of built artifacts. Very few social agents, not to mention common citizens, understand architecture as something beyond the object, or as pure merchandise if you wish.
AC: Popular opinion on architects has changed lately, but for you, what’s the role of the architect in the city? Has it changed along time?
FQ: Somehow I answered this question above. But we can go a bit further. Peter Eisenman and Aldo Rossi broke the modern bond between form and function, and this was a very important innovation. This phenomenon evolved strictly in linguistic terms, leaving aside the possibility of making of architecture something more ambitious than mere design. Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas challenged this, and provided architecture culture with new tools for considering space-as-event and program-as-space, thus spilling those degrees of freedom previously framed by Eisenman and Rossi over issues of responsive use and function. Giancarlo di Carlo and Ralph Erskine pioneered participatory architecture, somehow updating previous models of practice in relation to the mutations experienced by the “right to the city”, such as those classic cases of Ernst May in Frankfurt or even Bruno Taut in Berlin after WWI. As you see by looking back to history, the role of the architect is always changing, even if the topics of architecture are not. There is a core in the architectural discipline. The problem is that the core has to be constantly updated: a core is not an ontology though.
AC: Here in Spain architects have difficulties to find a job, and lot of new architects are trying to find new ways to develop their ideas, such like robotics, graphic design, 3d printing…what do you think is the future of the profession?
FQ: The future is either already here or too far to be worried about. Since I started in this business of architectural education I have witnessed a lot of new phenomena: a strong curatorial turn (many more actors involved in stating what has to be done), a deep and growing interest in non-western architectural practices (due to mobility, real or virtual), all sort of revivals –which are more and more accelerated-, an unstoppable normalization process in professional practice (despite the appearances), and a lot of anxiety for the future. The dissemination of architectural practice into different tasks is not new at all: architects always found niches for practice outside building (writing and publishing, ephemeral architecture, urban consultancy, furniture design and production, graphics, the art world, entertainment, and so on). Maybe the greatest change now is not about architecture itself, but about education and how it is related to labour: it is not challenging enough in general terms. Labour is not what it used to be at all, that is the key. We architects tend to think that our practice is not labour, and this is a huge mistake.
AC: What would you highlight of the training we receive in Alcalá? Do you think there is any skill that characterizes us?
FQ: I don’t know. When students graduate and leave, we have very few news about them. Usually former students approach me when they find themselves in difficulties to find a job, and they expect to make use of my network, but they do not inform about their achievements, we find out through private gossip. Traditional skills of Spanish architects are changing. We still provide with a coherent technical ability by trying to educate technical imagination, and I know this is well appreciated abroad. The goal is to build up curricula that can maintain this skill while providing with a solid critical understanding of current market values.
AC: According to these difficulties to find a job, do you think we are prepared to work abroad?
FQ: Yes, you are a living proof and I know a lot of former students working abroad. Mobility among recent graduates is really high. And not only in your generation: many of my own colleagues live and work in foreign countries as practicing architects, educators, or both. Others travel frequently in search of opportunities.