Arquitectura Viva
Sunday, October 20, 2019

Emilio Ambasz: «I detest writing theories, I prefer writing fables»

Vladimir Belogolovsky: We are in Bologna, Italy where you spend some of your time every year. Curiously, on my way here, my train passed your hospital complex in Venice-Mestre. It zipped right next to it; I had a pleasure visiting it a few years ago. This must be the largest project you have realized in your career. Now that it is 8 years old, what do you think of it?

Emilio Ambasz:
It is one of the largest of my projects with a budget of over half a billion dollars. My building in Fukuoka is also very large, but I don’t know that budget; I only know that construction in Japan is very costly. Here in Venice-Mestre, I collaborated with an Italian architect conversant with the requirements of sanitary facilities because hospitals are highly specialized. Yes, I am quite happy and doctors and staff told me it has been working marvelously well. The only problem they have with it is the greenhouse.

VB: That is the main part, isn’t it?

EA: Well, I designed it so that fresh air would be coming in from operable window openings located in the façade’s lower level but the architect of record specified lower fixed windows. Thank God, the firemen demanded to have the façade’s upper part open. Now they are trying to correct the problem, as it gets hot in there. Once they remove the fixed lower windows and they install the operable windows I had originally suggested the situation will correct itself.

VB: I read that you knew you wanted to be an architect at an early age and when you were 11, you even dared to propose an exhibition on American architecture in Buenos Aires. What was it that prompted your initial interest in architecture?

I was interested in architecture since I was nine, I think. I had a toy set with which I could build houses. I am a person of steady ideas. Once I have an idea that’s it, I persist. I wanted to become an architect and that led to my applying to Princeton. I sent my application with a wax seal telling them that I went to bed every night with the idea of wanting to be an architect and woke up every morning with this idea…

VB: So where did this obsession come from? Your parents were not into architecture. Were you interested in historical places?

No, I just wanted to be an architect. When I was little, people would ask me – what do you want to be? And I would say – an architect and a gigolo, because I hoped that would support my architectural career. [Laughs.] But beaten down by pitiless reality my precocious wisdom dwindled fast away, so I only dedicated myself to becoming an architect.

VB: You worked for Amancio Williams while still at high school because you considered him Argentina’s greatest architect of the 20th century. Why do you think so, as he was not among the most prolific builders?

No, he was a very prolific designer, but he didn’t get many things built because of an immense amount of bad luck. He designed extraordinary buildings, but things happened beyond his control. Once he designed an apartment building for a family that then lost its fortune when the Suez Canal was closed with their ships full of wheat inside. Then he designed a building for a cement company, but there was a great misfortune also, when a tornado destroyed the old factory. Another time he designed a beautiful cross for the Pope’s visit to Buenos Aires; that would have been ten stories high. After the event, the nation’s president wanted it re-installed in the Rio de la Plata, in the intersection of the two canals that lead into the port. But, then, said president was removed from power by yet another coup d'état. And I can tell you on many things of that sort.

VB: And you wanted to work for him because…

Because I considered him to be a great poet. For me architecture has to do with poetry and art. He was a true artist and that’s who I wanted to be.

VB: You studied architecture in the US, at Princeton where you completed undergraduate and graduate programs in just two years…

I went to Princeton after having let two years go by after having finished high school. But even before that I smuggled in to attend lectures at the university in Buenos Aires. There were thousands of students and no one paid attention to little me, so I went to as many lectures as I wanted.

In addition, the American consulate had a very good library in Buenos Aires, called Lincoln Library, which had many honorable books on American architecture, including the book by Henry-Russel Hitchcock, Latin American Architecture Since 1945. I used to borrow these books so much that when it was time to replace them with new ones, many old books were simply given to me. As a matter of fact, I taught myself English by trying to read Alfred Barr’s book Masters of Modern Art. You can blame him for my bad English, as well as for my syntax. [Laughs.]

VB: I am still trying to understand how you graduated from Princeton so fast. When we talked about this a few years ago, you said: “If you don’t believe me ask my professor, Peter Eisenman. I did and he confirmed it by saying: “I don’t know how Emilio did it, no one else has done it before or since, but he certainly did.” So this is established. But If you graduated so fast that means your undergraduate design studios were all packed into a single thesis project? Or did you develop a number of projects?

I finished the entire undergraduate program in one semester. During the first semester, I had different design projects every week. Peter was involved in all of them; it was his first year teaching at Princeton. And in the second semester I was taking courses in the Master’s program. I had my own program there. At Princeton, you could do that… Well, I should have stayed longer. Then I would have learned something! [Laughs.]

VB: Could you talk more about your time in Princeton?

Is that a personal question? [Laughs.]

VB: I thought you said before the interview – no personal questions.

Well, when I first came I could barely speak English, so my first American girlfriend said that I spoke like Gary Cooper. And she was not wrong because I taught myself English by watching on television over and over again the same old Western films with subtitles.

VB: What other professors did you have at Princeton?

There were two remarkable professors, Hungarian twins, the Olgyay brothers. Their names were Victor and Aladar. They were the forerunners of bioclimatic architecture, such as introducing solar control and sun shades to reduce direct sun heat to enter buildings. They built a laboratory to test such things. If you read their books on how to design with climate, you will see all the things that now concern architects about sustainability.

Another professor was Jean Labatut who served as director of graduate studies in architecture and did research on the effects of climate and environment on building materials. He was extraordinary. Then there was Kenneth Frampton, but he was not one of my professors, as he later over generously, but not so rightly, admitted, he had nothing to teach me. [Laughs].

VB: How would you summarize what you learned from your professors there?

The thing I took from Princeton was my deep seated interest in philosophy, in poetry, and in history. For that, Princeton was marvelous because in the undergraduate school you could take courses here and there. For example, I had a great professor, Arthur Szathmary who taught philosophy of aesthetics.

When I started teaching freshmen, immediately upon graduating from Princeton, my focus was on methodology. I taught them methods for solving problems. Various elements seemingly disconnected had to be connected into a graspable structure. They had to solve the problem at hand. I didn’t want to give them real projects from my office or competitions, which was typical for other professors.

VB: What was your typical problem like?

Well, before we get into that… Bob Geddes, bless his heart, a remarkable professor and Dean of Architecture at Princeton hired me right after graduation. He said: “Do you want to serve your new country?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you want to go to Vietnam?” I said, “Oh, no! [Laughs.] “Then you can stay here and teach.” And I discovered I had a gift for teaching. In fact, my classes were rated by students as the best among all architectural courses.

I was giving students a project and every Friday I would critique it. Then I would ask them to design the same project again and the critique would follow again, and we did this every week. It was the same project, a library. My own thesis project was the National Library of Argentina, but I asked my students to design a library that could be built in any USA town. I was interested in seeing how the students could apply themselves and understand a particular problem. I trusted that having understood the nature of a problem and provided an answer to that not only would they gain confidence in themselves but also gain an insight into the nature of problems. There is a marvelous Japanese concept called Yugen. It means that if you gain an insight into the essence of a problem said insight will help you to understand the nature of other problems.

It was a very stimulating approach to teaching. To this day, I run sometimes into my ex-students, now lawyers and doctors. And they tell me that this course had an enormous effect on them. It allowed them to start thinking how to understand a particular problem.

VB: Do you mean that some of your students did not become architects?

Sure, because at Princeton freshmen and sophomores are supposed to be nosing and smelling what career would be of interest to them. These were all brilliant students, real diamonds. A bit rough, but extremely bright, no question about it. They were so much intellectually stronger than the graduate students. In fact, I used to tell Geddes that to teach the undergraduate students I would pay him, but to teach his graduates there was not enough money in the world to pay me. [Laughs.]

VB: There was one project, a dormitory complex for the Princeton Theological Seminary, in which you collaborated with Eisenman. Would you say this seminary project was one of the precursors of what later became known as de-constructivist architecture?

I would not call myself a de-constructivist. I presume I am rather an essentialist, in the Paul Valery notion of being essential...

VB: Your buildings do have some features of de-constructivism. They are, in a way, de-constructed. Such is your Casa de Retiro Espiritual house [1975], but in a very controlled way, with the concern for balance, symmetry, and totality of the overall image.

No, I am not a de-constructivist in that sense, not like Eisenman or Libeskind. What I do, is that I separate elements and they stand apart from one another in a very clear way. For example, in the Casa de Retiro two freestanding walls define a cube. The same was in that building in Princeton. With very few elements, you can define an edifice.

When I was about 15, I did a project for a married couple, elementary school teachers. They had a plot of land across the street from the apartment where I lived with my parents. The house I designed for them was never built. Years went by and when I looked at the drawings, they looked Corbusean to me. And I knew nothing about Le Corbusier then or anything about modern architecture. There were elements like steps along the façade, balconies within niches, etc. The house was never built, but to me it was real. I always need to have a real client. I can’t work on hypothetical projects. It doesn’t work with me.

VB: You have to have a site, a program, a real client…

Real clients don’t exist! Maybe in my next life there will be real clients… No, the client seldom knows what he truly wants. He only knows what he wants when you present him the project that he asked you to do according to his declared program of needs, and then he realizes that it is not really what he wants. So you have to propose something else again…

Now I am working on a project for a Mexican friend of mine for whom I did Casa Canales in Monterrey, Mexico [1991]. So I said to him, “I don’t build prototypes in architecture. I do prototypes in thinking.” To build I need to know the levels of the land, the orientation, the winds pattern, the program, etc. I need to know how the people of Monterrey want to live. Do they want to live outside, inside? Do they prefer to have patios?

VB: Could you talk about your Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition of 1972 and how it relates to your theory of two types of curators – one being a farmer and the other – a hunter. In this exhibit, you played a role of the farmer, correct?

No, I played the role of the hunter!

VB: Could you talk about the difference?

The farmer would collect the seeds from this year’s harvest and keep them for the next year. The hunter is going around and whatever he finds he hunts. OK? That’s me. All right?

When I did my shows, I didn’t wait for the architects to come to me with their projects. I proposed a problem and with the sponsorship that MoMA could give, I was able to develop projects with the invited architects. In the case of the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape I proposed the program to the architects. I invited them to design their projects for the exhibit. None of these projects existed before. The Museum was the patron of these architects. We raised the funds to do that. The same thing I did with The Taxi Project.

I am not an art historian, so for me to do an exhibition on existing projects was not interesting. The only one architect I wanted to do such show on was, of course, Amancio Williams.

VB: He was still alive then.

He was. Well, I did the right thing for Amancio. I sponsored the creation of the book, which we did with his children. It is a splendid book. I wrote an introduction. It was published in 2008 in Spanish.

VB: Years after he passed away.

You could only do that after he passed away. [Laughs.] Going back to my curatorial work at the Museum. I believe I was an impresario, but I was not someone who goes methodically organizing things. And what I also did, I raised the funds for all the shows that I did there. The Italian design show, the Taxi show, and others.

VB: Let’s talk about Luis Barragan whose solo exhibition you also organized at MoMA in 1976, which was the first in the US and the exhibit’s catalogue by you was the first ever monograph on his work.

The reason I wanted to do a show on him was because so many architecture students at the time were into ersatz sociology and the results were quite pathetic and lousy. So I wanted them to see a real work of architecture. Barragan’s work is not simple. It is very complex, but the elements are easy to comprehend. Yet, they have many meanings. So we did the show projecting beautiful slides on a huge wall of 30 feet across and 20 feet in height in a small room. So the effect was as if you were inside his buildings. We made the slides available to American universities as well. It had an immense effect and I wrote the book.

VB: Is it fair to say that it was Barragan from whom you absorbed the art of poeticizing land, space, light, form, water…


VB: …walls?


VB: Wouldn’t you say your work is rooted in similar origins?

Definitely. But if I use water, I took it from somewhere. I took it from water, not from Barragan. [Laughs.]

No, no, I can tell you one little story. The commission for the Center for Applied Computer Research in Mexico City was offered to him. And I was with him in a car; he had a chauffeur. And I said to him, “You know how I would do this project?” I took a piece of paper and I drew the schematic idea with the water, the floating offices, and two huge walls, leaning upon one another. He looked at it and said: “Then you should do that project because what I am doing is not good enough.” So that’s why I developed it. I understand this idea of trying to establish a reference of some sort on the part of art historians to initiate a discourse. It is true I was taken by his architecture. I have affinity for that. But again, my architecture, as well as his, is not simple. Forgive me if I repeat myself: Paul Valery said: “One should be essential like a bird, not like a feather.”

VB: In other words, it is not about being simple; it is about being essential. You remained a curator at the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA for seven years, from 1969 to 1976. What do you think are the key ingredients for making a good architectural show?

I was the Design Curator, but I did many architectural shows. A good show should be interesting. As a curator, you should be taken by it so much so that you must want to show it. You want the whole world to know about it. And you have to find a way to show architecture. You can’t bring a building into the gallery. You have to find a way to re-present it. And, of course, architecture is one of the most difficult subjects to re-present. If you are a curator of paintings, you just bring the paintings. You put a nail in the wall and you hang the painting. But you can’t do that with architecture; even if you bring a model. It is still not there. Even if you show it in film, it is still not there. That’s why I wanted to do the Barragan show because I knew that with that I could move the kids. Move them emotionally. Get them out of that game with sociology.

VB: There were just slides, right?

That’s all I wanted to show, but Arthur Drexler, the Museum’s director, insisted on also showing some of his drawings. His drawings… They are all pathetic. A first year student makes better drawings than those… And he did not do them himself. He hired kids to do them for him. There were also a few of his original sketches, but they were of no interest either. And I have never seen any of his models… Personally, I prefer models because most people don’t understand drawings; even engineers often don’t. As an architect, I always insist on making models; you’ll save so much money because you will not make so many mistakes!

VB: Some drawings are beautiful works of art…

Not really. People like to see the sketches because they think they can see the thought process of this genius and things of that sort. That makes me laugh! I never draw a project until I solve it in my head. I do it always in my head. And the moment I am going to do it I take A4 piece of paper and I draw it in section, never in plan. And the kids in the office then enlarge it and we take it from there.

VB: And do these initial A4 drawings have a value to you?

No. Zero value. What value?

VB: So in your case what would you show? The models?

I would only show the models. And I would show them at an eye level, not as if people were angels flying.

VB: Wouldn’t you say that the real advantage of looking at a model is that you see things that you cannot possibly see in real life, which is to grasp the whole thing at once?

Of course, I am all for models. Who said I am against models? No, what I am trying to say is that models are not enough. Sometimes you have to make a detail and show it in three dimensions to understand the intelligence of the particular detail. But people usually can’t read drawings, unless they are gifted in a certain way to be able to reconstruct them in their mind into a three-dimensional vision.

VB: And sometimes you can find pleasure by looking at a drawing, right?

Well, Louis Kahn did very beautiful drawings. But I think he did even much more beautiful buildings. Louis Kahn through his drawings is not enough for me.

VB: Being the curator at MoMA was just one of your interests. So you did not consider becoming a curator elsewhere after leaving MoMA, right?

I didn’t want that as a profession, no. I resigned from MoMA when I was in sublime glory there. The Italian show had a marvelous success. We never had so many visitors before. But, the real reason for leaving was my desire to be a practicing architect. I also wanted to be the industrial designer and the way I did it was very different from anybody else. First, I invent products for myself, without a client’s commission. I engineer them. I build the prototypes. I build the machinery to manufacture the pieces. I get the mechanical patents, I don’t believe in design patents. Then I bring the finished product to a potential licensee and say: “You have 30 days to say yes or no. If you say no, I will go to your competitor. If you say yes, I can even give you a number of units, so you can test the market. I even have professional photographs and texts already written for the catalogue.” So if the manufacturer said yes, in six months the product would be on the market. Not 30 months of how it is usually done when everything needs to be designed and developed from scratch.

VB: And what was your first product?

Vertebra chair. I did other products before, but that one was the first realized. It was done the same year I left MoMA.

VB: What led you to design a chair?

I was complaining to a friend of mine, a designer, how uncomfortable it was to sit in a conventional fixed office chair. Why not make something that would lean and tilt with the body? Nothing like that existed before. It became the first ergonomically designed and automatically adjustable chair in the world. We developed and patented it in 1975 and Krueger, the company, introduced it to the public in 1976.

VB: I am interested in the idea of an exhibition as a laboratory. For example, when Shigeru Ban did your show in Tokyo in 1984 and discovered paper tubes, which he utilized as supports for your designs, as well as for transporting fabric used to divide space. The following year he used the same paper tubes in his show on Alvaro Aalto to imitate wood. Since then paper tubes have become his most prominent feature and made his architecture instantly identifiable. Did you have anything to do with Ban’s discovery of the paper tube?

Nothing. It was entirely his idea. He uses it because it allows him to do many things. Traditional Japanese architecture depends immensely on bamboo. The paper tubes are like bamboo with just one difference. They don’t bend. But it is the same notion – one bamboo is weak, but when used with other bamboos they become very strong. Yes, the first time he used paper tubes was in my show as pedestals and utensils to show things, but they were not the focus of the show. Once he discovered the material, it became his central focus and he turned paper tubes into elements for architecture – beams, columns, and other complex structures on a much grander scale. He is very good at that.

VB: You once said that you dream of the future where “you can open your door and walk out directly on a garden, regardless of how high your apartment may be… within a high density city, reconcile our need for building shelters with our emotional requirement for green spaces…” Does this remain to be a dream or do you think some of the most recent projects in Singapore or your own in Fukuoka [1994] and elsewhere, perhaps made this dream closer to reality…

Well, they are all my children! I did the first vertical garden wall in my ENI Headquarters closed competition project for this Italian petrochemical giant in 1998 in Rome. Jean Nouvel was one of the other two invited competitors, but that competition was suspended… It was about modernizing the existing structure, the first curtain wall building in Italy from the 1960s. Water and wind were filtering in, so they had to change the façades, which meant that no one could work there for two years. And that was a huge 20-story building. My solution was very simple and logical. And in the process, I tried to make the oil industry more sensitive to problems of ecological equilibrium.

To change the façade you need to put up scaffolds, don’t you? Yes. Instead of 1.20 m. wide, why don’t we make them 3.60 m. wide? Just a bit more steel tubes holding up the scaffolding. Then I would put one pane of glass at 1.8 m. from the old glass. With that pane of glass, we can stop the wind, the rain, the noise. And the rest 1.8 m wide open part of the scaffolding would carry the plants because Rome has such a good climate for outdoor plants. Everybody loved it, but I had bad luck… The man who commissioned it, resigned a few days before the jury to run another corporation and the one who replaced him, didn’t want to do anything of that sort. That’s the story of the very first vertical garden wall. It was all detailed in technical drawings and re-presented in a beautiful model.

VB: Do you know when and who did the first vertical garden wall as a real project?

I am not interested in that kind of research. Look, I am like a tiger. Once my cubs are born, I don’t want to know about them. I want the next project. But by now you can see many projects all over the world influenced by that initial idea. Certainty in Singapore, but there they, at least, acknowledged my role because when the government published a recent book on Singapore’s commitment to green architecture they asked me to write the introduction.

VB: You once talked about the need for ornament in architecture and by ornament you meant the use of nature quite literally. Could you elaborate on that thought?

Well, I think two great traditions in architecture were lost with the modern movement. I think buildings have to be ornamented. And my way of doing it is such that would contribute to the building’s performance. If I am adding leaves and garlands made of marble, I am not contributing anything to the building. But if I add real leaves then not only do I decorate the building with a living and changing ornament, I also add to the building’s integrity and performance by providing a barrier from the sun’s heat and that’s what makes it very useful and practical. I am a very practical person. There is a reason why I designed a diesel engine and other industrial design products.

The second forgotten tradition is that which, most likely, came before architecture: that is to say the capacity to invent theatrical stage sets. Two of the earliest examples where, first, the erection of defenses against enemies, and, second, propitiatory constructions such as tombstones of one sort or another to appease and gain the protection of the departed spirits.

VB: I would like to read one of your quotes: “My architecture is a stage set that serves as background for the dramas of human activity… With it, I hope to place the user in a new state of existence, a celebration of human majesty, thought, and sensation. Though apparently quite new, the designs are permeated by devices both primitive and ancient. The result is an architecture that seems to stand for eternity. I sometimes envision my work as if it were built by the last man of the present culture for the first man of a culture, which has not yet arrived.”

Looking at your projects one can’t help but imagine such fascinating constructions as prehistoric primitive huts, caves, ancient astronomical observatories, terraced gardens, ziggurats, labyrinths, amphitheaters, tomb ruins, and so on. You explain this archetypal quest with the following quote: “There is in all of us a deep need for ritual, for ceremony and procession, magical garments and gestures. My work is a search for giving architectural form to primal things – being born, being in love, and dying. They have to do with existence on an emotional, passionate, and essential level.” Is there one particular project that you still would like to do? What ideas would you like to explore?

I don’t know until they come to me. Again, I am not an intellectual. I detest writing theories. I prefer writing fables. They are metaphors, they are standards for approximation. That’s what metaphors are philosophically. A metaphor is a model for approximation. I don’t work with words. When I design, I try to remove all words from my mind and I work with images. Because if I work with words I will remain in the semantic domain, which is something already understood. But I am interested in images that come to me without being conscious about them until they simply come. And I am not aware of their meanings until I start thinking. Then I start asking questions. This was the case with my Casa de Retiro house. I could come up with a whole theory about that project, but it came to me as a complete image. I think it is a great tragedy when the word arrives before the image.

VB: Would you say that Casa de Retiro house is your manifesto?

It became a manifesto after it was invented. Yes, I used ideas that were originally expressed there in other projects such as in Fukuoka where I also used land as insulating material and I was giving back 100% land back from the footprint that the building covered. That’s very useful and sustainable. La Casa de Retiro is made as if it were a part of the landscape, but it is entirely built above ground and then covered with land on the roof and some sidewalls. The house is a garden and a garden is an artifice. A garden is not a jungle, OK? It is manmade. [Laughs.] My Ars Poetica is “The Green over the Gray.” I strive with my architecture to show one way to reconcile Nature to Architecture. I always try that my buildings return to the community, in the form of gardens, as much as the building’s footprint covers.

VB: What projects are you currently working on?

Now I am working on a very large tourist settlement in Sardinia, which has a seaport, a luxury hotel, nine villas, a shopping center, and three churches: Catholic, Muslim, and Russian Orthodox Church. The other project is for Mexican client for whom I am designing two private houses in Monterrey, Mexico, each on specific site because I always work with real constraints. As Igor Stravinsky used to say: “He who takes away constraints from me, takes away my freedom.”

VB: And how does your practice operate?

Well, I invent solutions whether in architecture or industrial design. So I invent. I am an inventor. The practice is now very small because I don’t want to repeat myself. I want only certain uncompromising projects and I don’t want to go all around the world looking for work just to maintain a practice.

VB: I want to finish with reading your quote: “I have always believed that architecture is an act of the myth making imagination. I believe that the real task of architecture begins once functional and behavioral needs have been satisfied. It is not hunger, but love and fear – and sometimes wonder – which make us create. The architect’s cultural and social context changes constantly, but his task, I believe, remains always the same: to give poetic form to the pragmatic.”

Thank you. I could not have said it better! [Laughs.]

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