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James Wines: Interview on Green Architecture – by LPP


 

 

At least green architecture is on the international agenda…. Is this a reason to be optimistic about the future of architecture?

 

The global interest in green issues, energy conservation and sustainable design among the younger generation of architects today is extremely encouraging.  In fact, I don’t think I have lectured in any design school over the past few years where students aren’t dedicated to environmental initiatives – especially as applied to urban planning and energy sources.   While there is a great deal of technological progress, I am still bothered by the fact that so few examples of green architecture demonstrate aesthetic innovation and conceptual thinking.  The majority of stylistic, structural and material choices – whatever the ‘eco-design’ intentions – seem endlessly rooted in sculptural conventions that were already exhausted by the mid 1950’s.  Oddly, these past-due formalist strategies are now being delineated by the most advanced digital technology.  In my view, this doesn’t make sense . . . ecologically or conceptually.  During the 1920’s and 30’s, the great pioneers of Modernism, Constructivism and Expressionism created persuasive design languages in response to an emerging industrial world.  In our new Age of Information and Ecology, the majority of younger architects simply haven’t demonstrated the same kind of visionary commitment.  For today’s post-industrial society, it seems absurd to continue celebrating the weight and density of old-fashioned structural materials, when the most pervasive ambient influences of the 21st Century are embodied in symbiotic (meaning, more invisible than opaque) networks of natural systems and digital communications.    

 

 

 

 

 

You do not like star architecture.  Is that true?

 

I like all architecture based on genuinely interesting ideas, whether it is by an unknown designer or a celebrated starchitect.  On the other hand, I don’t particularly appreciate the current design world’s tendency to favor exclusive ‘branding’ goals over inclusive contextual response.  Too often, famous designers simply plunk down their signature styles, without any regard for the social, psychological and culture environment.  As a result, hermetic and sculpturally bombastic extravaganzas continue to invade the public domain.  For me, the only progressive and conceptually engaging architecture today grows out of sources of ideas found in the larger context.  When buildings are treated as  ‘absorptive sponges,’ based on a fusion of non-design influences, they tend to become more integrative and less predictable.  Conversely, when architecture is treated exclusively as an assortment of form-and-space-making expectations, it seems to leave very little room for integrative thinking and aesthetic surprises.        

 

Today everybody pretends to produce eco friendly architecture.  Even skyscrapers are sold as ecological.  What is your definition of ecological architecture?

 

Realistically, almost nothing produced in the name of human habitat today can be credited as ‘good for the environment.’   Industrialized nations’ demands for economic growth, coupled with their insatiable consumption of fossil fuels, portend a grim future.  Natural gas and oil, according to some scientific prophecies, may be depleted by 2080, atomic energy is seen as too dangerous for proliferation and, unless the ‘real energy’ of the sun becomes accessible (potentially, through nuclear fusion), the remaining choices of power are few.  Alternative sources – like wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, biomass, hydrogen, etc. – are too inefficient to harness, concentrate and distribute to meet the rapid acceleration of global demand.

 

There is clearly a vast difference between a building that responds sensitively to regional climate and topographphy, versus one that is just a plopped down version of some LEED certification checklist.  Too often, some of the greenest materials today consume more energy to manufacture, transport and install than they actually save as part of a completed structure.  I believe the major revolution in eco-design – which is, in fact, a three thousand year old idea – will be a renewed focus on site-specific solutions for every regional environment.  In this new millennium, the ecological initiative in architecture – including its most innovative aesthetic solutions – will be more responsive to the phenomenology of situation than the technology of green packaging.    

 

      

 

 

 

You started your career as an artist. Why did you decided to become an architect?

 

After I finished my education at Syracuse University, I worked as a sculptor from 1960 to 1968.  During this period I created a number of public art works for architecture; so I was part of that practice of plunking down objects in front of buildings.  Around 1968, it became evident to me that this pursuit was a creative dead-end; so I soon became part of the emerging environmental art movement in Manhattan.  As a spin-off from this change, I expressed my views in several essays where I coined two rather facetious references – “plop art” and “turd in the plaza” – to describe these installation conventions.  Basically, I wanted to explore more public domain-related ideas.  By 1970, I had formed the architectural design group, SITE, in the SoHo section of New York, with the mission of integrating art, architecture and context.

 

In 1987, I wrote a history and theory book on the fusion of the arts, entitled “De-architecture.”  This text was intended to explain my personal shift to architecture and credit many innovative colleagues in the environmental art and radical architecture movements of the era.   In this publication I noted;  “Architecture is reflexively viewed by the majority of people as a natural presence in the public domain.  Buildings don’t need a defensive rationale to explain their existence.  All other art forms – sculpture, commemorative monuments, wall murals and decorative artifacts – usually appear as uncomfortable intrusions in the cityscape.  They only qualify as ‘public’ because of some arbitrary decision to put them outdoors in the first place.  If architecture is endowed with a truly meaningful content from the beginning, it can become public art in its own right.”  Later, in expanding this idea, my text went on to explain; “Public art, architecture, landscape, and urban space can only become fully integrated when their academic definitions have been challenged, their distinctions as separate entities have been discarded, and it finally becomes difficult to determine where one art form begins and the other ends.”

 

You are famous worldwide for the BEST Buildings.  Were they, in a way, green buildings?

 

Only two of the buildings – the 1979 ‘Rainforest Building’ in Hialeah, Florida and the ‘Forest Building’ in Richmond, Virginia – had any significant green attributes.  In both cases there was an objective to preserve existing landscape and respond to the surrounding context.   These structures weren’t green by initial intention – for one thing, they were constructed before any LEED standards existed – but, their aesthetic objectives translated (at least indirecty) into environmental benefits.   In the Florida store, the installation of water-wall facades provided a filtration of direct sunlight and heat, which converted to exceptional interior cooling.  In Virginia, the physical reality of a forest building, which was constructed around a cluster of giant trees, offered a shade umbrella and heat resistance during the summer months. 

 

When it became apparent that SITE’s inadvertent fusion of art and context had resulted in some distinct environmental advantages, our whole studio became increasingly involved in an ecological direction.  This commitment also inspired the writing of my 2000 book on Green Architecture for Taschen Verlag.

 

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I know you are finishing your first new commercial strip architecture, since the early BEST Buildings. You have designed a ‘building-within-a-building’ flagship for Denny’s restaurant in Las Vegas. What is this structure like?

 

The flagship project opened on November 29; but there are still details to be completed.  The client in this case – John Miller, CEO of Denny’s Corporation – has been an exceptionally visionary leader from the beginning of this commission for Las Vegas.  I mention his commitment because it is virtually impossible to create innovative architecture without the client’s courage to plunge into risky aesthetic territories.  He basically asked SITE to deliver a restaurant for the 21st Century, based on the 1950’s diner tradition in the USA.  John and the company’s head of public relations, Frances Allen, shared a progressive mission from the outset.  They wanted something aggressively new, without losing the classic diner identity.  This meant a ‘cool place’ for a broad-based clientele, infused with the romance of the roadway and its roots in American car culture.  We all agreed, early on, that this restaurant chain had always been identified as a convivial place to meet and eat.  So, the grounding source of ideas for its architectural vision became ‘Denny’s, the original social network.’   

 

As in most of SITE’s projects, we try to respond to information that already exists within the surroundings.  In this case, the restaurant structure had to integrate with a street-facing corner site and covered passageway, located within an existing building on Fremont Street.  This combination of physical restraints became the inspirational basis for a ‘building-within-a-building.’  The Fremont Street neighborhood also constitutes the original Vegas strip of the 1960’s, celebrated by Bob and Denise Venturi in their seminal book of 1972, “Learning from Las Vegas.’   Inspired by Denise Scott-Brown’s insights concerning the contextual merits of iconic signage, the next challenge was to engage Denny’s ‘social network’ mission and translate it into an architectural language.  This led to a decision to interpret the entire façade as a fluid, morphing, floating, membrane of web-like fragments.  It was conceived to evoke a subliminal sense of both diner history and digital connections.  One primary purpose was to help Denny’s compete favorably with the profusion of billboard-like facades in Las Vegas.  This meant achieving an iconic identity that would separate the restaurant from conventional marquees, LED displays and blinking-light logos.  One further objective was to utilize the maximum amount of façade exposure on Fremont, so the new Denny’s wouldn’t be viewed as a collection of signage on a building  – it would be the building.

 

This Denny’s project could not have been realized without the technical ingenuity of the A. Zahner Corporation in Kansas City.  This company is globally famous for its innovative metal work for such leading architects as Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Tom Mayne and others.  In the case of SITE’s Vegas project, the key engineering team of Tony Birchler, Marco Broccardo and Angela Bolger, conquered a series of daunting fabrication challenges – including a complex interface between sculptural hand-work and digital technology – to achieve the façade’s metamorphic transition from a wall of low-relief ribbons into a spatial weave of floating networks.

 

 

 

 

You have designed some buildings in Italy. Can you say something about them?

 

During 2000 and 2002, SITE designed a couple of houses for clients in Milano and Roma; but neither structure was realized.   In contrast to these failed projects, the Fondazione Pietro Rossini pavilion for a sculpture garden in Briosco was completed a few years ago.  This structure is an example of site-specific green architecture, commissioned by the Italian industrialist, Alberto Rossini, as a memorial to his son Pietro.  The building is located on an expansive hillside and forms part of the master plan for a twenty-five acre sculpture park and functioning farm.  Gallery spaces showcase the Rossini private collection of early and mid 20th Century Italian art, as well as recent international paintings and sculptures.  The interior includes a café, library, conference center and video galleries.  The design is based on a series of masonry walls, which integrate the property, connect several land parcels, provide pedestals and enclosures for art works and isolate appropriate areas for the farm animals.  Constructed out of recycled and locally available materials, the wall system and pavilion are unified by a network of cast stone “T” shaped columns.  These modular units form a continuous, ribbon-like, structure, which flows along the crest of the surrounding hillside, evolves into the semicircular plan of the building and establishes a consistent scale reference for the entire Rossini estate.  Additional columns are distributed in irregular and tilted clusters, accenting the building’s “inside/outside” relationships, framing views of the distant mountains and creating a sense of architecture in a state of continuous evolution.  In order to integrate the Pavilion with its natural context and help provide year-round climate control, the entire structure is covered with an earth-shelter roof of regional vegetation from the adjacent hillside.

 

How was the construction process in Italy?  Was it a nightmare?

 

Actually, from the standpoint of the construction team’s commitment to the Rossini Pavilion, SITE’s experience in Italy was very gratifying.  Our contractor, Francesco Boffi, director of Impressa Boffi, SRL in Carate Brianza, was totally dedicated to both aesthetic and economic details throughout the process.  Some frustrations resulted from an interrupted schedule, budget restraints and the labyrinthine complexities of regional codes.  Also, there was some neighborhood resistance to the inconveniences imposed by construction site noise and local residents’ apprehension concerning a tourist attraction in the region.  With the exception of a few of the usual personality conflicts that flare up during any architectural project, I can actually say that I was less agitated during my Italian construction experience than by certain traumatizing nightmares in the USA.

 

 

 

You know Italy and Italians well. Five suggestions you can give us.

 

As you know, I am the ultimate American ‘Italophile,’ who is an admirer of everything Italian; so it is difficult to be objective about this subject.  Sharing my own views, Italy is globally seen as a nation that embodies a staggeringly rich history of culture, a vibrant professional life today and a societal commitment to living well.  The country’s reputation is also synomous with great contemporary design.  Given these attributes – especially, by comparison to some of the hostile and regressive places on earth today – I am not sure it is appropriate for me to venture suggestions.  Obviously, as a foreigner, I can’t possibly provide legitimate insights concerning what might be ‘good for the Italians.’  My inherently naive role in this exercise reminds me of a French journalist who came to my office for an interview about fifteen years ago.  He wanted my insights on the broad spectrum of USA architecture, because he was writing an epic book entitled “The American Dream.’  He then told me that his next move – intended to polish off ‘final’ research – would be compressed into a three-week trip around the country.   When I recovered from my response (hysterical laughter), I showed him the door.

 

Still, since I have been asked for my views, here is a selection of proposals for improvements in Italy:

 

  • Is is rumored that former US President Bush and former Prime Minister Berlusconi still retain a close friendship.  Italy must take advantage of this bond and perpetrate a scandal that would assure both of their withdrawals from public life.   For example, a doctored Photoshop image of Silvio’s hand groping George’s crotch in the Milano Zip Club, published in Chi magazine, would be an excellent start.

 

  • For a country with the greatest cuisine on earth, it is perilous for the nation’s reputation to allow American junk food enterprises to thrive on Italian soil.  Since the Internet now describes Milano as a ‘chic shithole,’ it stands to reason that government sanctions should only allow chain restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King to occupy commercial space around the Duomo; but nowhere else in Italy.

 

  • Americans who visit Italy always return to the USA in a rage of jealousy over the quality of Italian lifestyle.  In point, a frustrated friend of mine recently complained; ‘how can the Italians live so well?  They seem to have the same jobs and salaries that we do!!!’  Since implementing a lifestyle change in America would take a sociological revolution and centuries of practice, my solution would be to persuade Italy to scatter clusters of simulated deprivation around the key tourist centers.  Just witnessing neurotic, overweight, dumpily-dressed people – sporting reverse baseball caps, gorging chicken wings and perched on the back of pick-up trucks – would relieve the tension for envious Americans abroad.  In fact, these orchestrated ‘miserables’ scenarios could be imported from places like Arkansas and Mississippi – perhaps as part of a foreign exchange program – to lend an additional authenticity.

 

  • As a continuing visitor to Italy, I pride myself on knowing a sufficient number of obscene hand gestures to get me through most traffic-related hostilities from Roma south.  However, it has come to my attention that the conventional catalogue of bent-arm and extended-finger signals are not sufficient for diverse territories.  My suggestion would be to program all regional signals (plus their respective levels of vulgarity and insult) into every automobile GPS monitor.  This way, travel directions would include both map services and appropriate insult icons for local use in traffic congestion, blocked intersections and dented fender altercations throughout the country.

 

  • I recently read that the Padania movement in Italy is still alive and well.  As I understand the agenda, the Lega Nord activists want a Federalist separation of the affluent industrial north from the less prosperous agricultural south – with a dividing point just below Firenze.  In my view, this would be too politically rational and geographically prescriptive for Italy.  Out of respect for Italy’s classic state of governmental chaos, my proposal would be to insert the divider line down the vertical length of the country – from Lugano to Ragusa.  

 

Which of your designs do you like most and why?

 

This is a really difficult question.  I guess, like most artists, my favorite project is always the one I am working on.  Certainly one of the past buildings I still prefer is the BEST Products ‘Inside/Outside Building’ in Milwaukee.  So many architects claim that their edifices incorporate exterior and interior reltionships; but virtually all of the examples I am aware of fall into the category of purely formalistic results (DEsign).  In , the entire concept inverted the public’s reflex expectations for a typical suburban roadway experience.  The structure also took advantage of people’s subliminal reaction to a ubiquitous commercial achetype; in this case, the ‘big box’ shopping center.   This BEST building was not treated a ‘design solution;’ but, instead, architecture itself was engaged as a subject matter for art.  Also, the inside/outside factor became a kind of surreal event, in a normally uneventful context.  This experiential phenomenon was enhanced by the actual merchandise passing through glass walls, going from full-color ‘real’ objects on the interior to monochrome ‘ghost’ versions on the exterior – all within the same frame of reference.  Even technically, since a local sculptor cast hundreds of store products into metal to achieve this effect, the building expanded the interpretation of construction technology and aesthetic parameters in an environment where the spectator would least expect to find art.

 

Oddly, the Inside/Outside Building never achieved the fame of the other BEST series; but, for me, it offered the broadest range of ideas for the inversion of and commentary on architecture in the USA.

 

 

 

 

 

In 2000, your book titled Green Architecture was published.  What were the main theses of the book?  After more than a decade would you write it the same? What are the new topics you would add?

 

The focus of my book was on the relationship between the good intentions of green design and its final aesthetic resolution.  As I commented in the Green Architecture Foreword: “There is much talk of sustainable architecture as an alternative to industrialized societies’ wasteful legacy of short-term construction.  However, without art, the whole idea of sustainability fails.  People will never want to keep an aesthetically inferior building around, no matter how well stocked it is with thermal glass, photovoltaic cells, recycled materials, and zero emissions carpeting.”  During my period of research in the late 1990’s, it was very difficult to find architects whose work manifested a balanced duality between ecological aspiration and aesthetic resolution.  Most green buildings at that time resulted in  rather uninspired realities, where business representatives handed out brochures in the lobby to explain the structure’s environmentally favorable features.  But, now, the entire situation has changed.  There are a number of younger generation studios producing superb examples of green architecture that qualify as conceptually, aesthetically and functionally innovative.  If I were to up-date my original book for 2013 – even with the same motivation to credit successful fusions of artistic imagination and eco-sensitive design – I would have a great deal more material to work with.  I guess might reveal my list of architectural candidates for this new publication; but that should be the subject of another interview.

 

 

 

 

 

In your Wikipedia profile it is written: Professor Wines strongly advocates hand drawing as a key to conceptual processes.  In effect your drawings are wonderful.  But what do you think of modern cad technologies?  In general, how do you view high tech versus low tech?

 

From my personal perspective, I can’t understand how any architect would completely abandon hand drawing – especially during the early conceptual phases of design.  After all, computer generated images are pre-programmed, in terms of graphic choices.  They are also limited to a grid-based, digitalized, kit of parts for delineation.  From my view, there are just not enough visual language options in such an overly prescriptive toolbox 

 

I wrote an essay for Blueprint magazine in London a couple of years ago, which I think pretty well explains my view of hand drawing.  It summarizes the concerns involved;  “I have been a long-standing supporter of dual skills, encouraging young designers to maintain equal graphic abilities on paper surfaces and computer desktops.  This advocacy is based on a deeply felt conviction that, by focusing exclusively on computer generated illustration, something conceptually profound is forfeited in the design process.   When electronic response mechanisms replace the filtration of idea development through tactile means and guiding fingertips, the fertile territory of  ‘subliminal accident’ is lost.  This refers to marginal calligraphy that dribbles off the edge of the paper, the inadvertent congestion of squiggly lines with no apparent meaning, the unwelcome blobs of ink that drop off a pen tip, or the inclusion of seemingly irrelevant references that have nothing to do with initial intentions.  On innumerable occasions over the years I have been the creative beneficiary of my own graphic musings and the chaotic trail of ambiguous images left behind by random charcoal smudges and watercolor washes.  In a variety of miraculous ways this pictorial detritus, hand drawn on paper without any pre-determined architectonic mission, has often become the springboard for new ideas.”

 

At the moment in New York , in the CCNY Atrium Gallery, there is an exhibition of your works with a very unusual installation.  Can you briefly describe it for our readers?

 

This exhibition – located in the City University of New York’s Atrium Gallery – is entitled ‘A Line Around an Idea.’  It is designed to credit the value of hand drawing for architecture and landscape design in a computer age.  The visual material has been organized chronologically, starting with a two-wall selection of my early drawings for SITE, from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.  The second double-wall section is devoted to a series of recent ‘works-in-process’ panels, which have been sequentially composed to show the development of seven of SITE’s architecture, environmental art and landscape projects.  The intention is to document my unfolding thought process – revealing how ideas have been conceived and amplified, bcased on the calligraphic advantages of mind-to-hand delineation.  Respectful of the Spitzer Architecture School’s educational mission, this decision to offer a visual narrative seemed timely and appropriate.  The show’s use of graphic sequences acknowledges the architectural profession’s universal commitment to computerized graphics; but it also responds to a refreshing incentive among a growing number of contemporary design students – actually a quiet revolution in some schools – to refocus on the benefits of hand drawing.

 

The exhibition’s special floor installation takes advantage of the Atrium Gallery’s unique location within the Spitzer School.  In order to most effectively utilize this 2500 square foot enclosure, which is dramatically visible from overhead bridges and balconies, the solution was to create a ‘gallery-as-drawing’ environment.  The oversized, digitally-generated image – using 3M Company’s latest version of Controltac floor covering – reproduces an initial sketch for a Korean project.  This innovation is intended to be appreciated as pure calligraphy, when experienced underfoot at ground level; but it can also be seen as a panoramic work of graphic art when viewed from spectator positions above the exhibit space.

 

Nov. 18, 2012

 

 

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