Jonathan Sergison

Urban Housing in Finsbury Park (London, 2008) © Stefan Muller

(Versão portuguesa para o Jornal dos Arquitectos aqui)

Hugo Oliveira – Why is it, do you think, that people either love or hate your work?

Jonathan Sergison – The answer to this question really depends on where it is being asked. In the UK the position that we hold seems to be problematic to certain parts of the architectural profession. When Stephen and I started working together, it felt important to us to have a position.  We felt that, as architects, this offered us a framework in which to make architectural proposals. In time, we have come to realise that in the Anglo-Saxon world this can be problematic.

In London at this time it is clear that there are many different approaches, and a very dominant one is ‘high-tech’. I suggest this cautiously, but I do think that a position that is more based on ideas, concepts and you could even say a kind of intellect is seen by many as being a little challenging.

In many London schools, too much emphasis is placed on intuition, an uncritical process that is too reliant on computer-generated form-making. It is not an approach that gives much space to the idea. We, however, feel that it is important to be able to articulate what we do. When Stephen and I started our collaboration, we found we had a shared apprecia-
tion of the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. When we looked at their buildings, we wanted to like them, but I must say we found them a bit ugly. They were difficult buildings to really like. Their writing, however, was so inspiring and insightful, and in time formed a bridge that enabled us to understand the basis of their architecture. It should be acknowledged that something of their position has influenced the way we work.

But nowadays do you think that it’s easier for people to be drawn by the image than by the writings of an interesting architect?

In contemporary society there is too much of a desire to think only in a visual way, prioritising the subjective, without really trying to understand the cultural significance of something. People react to things in a very spontaneous way, and think they do not like something because of the way it appears. We do not think this is good enough. In the 19th century architectural debate in Britain was much more sophisticated.
(I don’t know if you know it, but we made a housing project in North London a few years ago. Near Finsbury Park. Yes, and the editor of the AJ [Architect’s Journal] at the time, who was a bright guy, wrote quite provocatively “If you find this building ugly, ask yourself why.” This was in part a reaction to the great and rather negative response he had received about the project when he published a small image of the building nearing completion some weeks before. He was being provocative, but we thought that was good.)

So, returning to your earlier question, if it is being asked in the context of being an architect in London, it does feel that a few people appreciate what we do, but there are many more who don’t. And this in part explains why we feel increasingly drawn to parts of continental Europe where there is a greater appreciation for the way we have chosen to work, mainly the German-speaking world and Iberia.
We find that there the architectural discussion is a little bit more discriminating.

Urban Housing in Finsbury Park (London, 2008) © Stefan Muller

But what’s your general idea about the British architectural quality? 

Generally, I think it is quite poor. It is significant that we work in London. There are a number of offices in this city at this moment in time which we think are exceptionally interesting, but not so many. Maybe it is like that anywhere, but London is a very big city. The biggest in Western Europe. So, inevitably this means there are many architects and many offices working here.  When I reflect on what has been built in London in the last 15 years, a period of incredible economic prosperity and building activity, I think many opportunities have been squandered.

Do you think that has to do with this idea that the UK is subject to more commercial type of pressure than other European countries? 

It is in part a reason. London and, more generally, the UK have a closeness to the US. There is an Anglo-Saxon attitude to building and commerce that places great emphasis on capital returns. This mentality is less present in Switzerland. Here we find the greatest priority is the sense of responsibility that comes with the act of building, the knowledge that it will be inherited by future generations and therefore it should be well conceived and well constructed.

The Economist Building (London, 1964 – Alison and Peter Smithson) © Hugo Oliveira (2010)

You mentioned Switzerland. You just won a competition in that country…

Actually we have recently won two competitions in Switzerland: one for a new Piazza and public building in Mendrisio (the city I teach in); the other one is a project in which we are involved as part of a consortium of practices that will be making a housing development on Lake Geneva.

 …with Alejandro Aravena, Lacaton & Vassal, Tatiana Bilbao, among others… How do you look at this sort of phenomena – probably not as recent as we might think – of a private promotion of sites building premium type of housing [Lakeside housing, Sully, Geneva, 2010] designed by notorious architects?

In relation to our project, I respect the logic that is behind it. An established practice in Basel developed the concept of inviting offices from around the world to make individual contributions to a bigger project. In this instance, I think it was defendable because they said: “Well, this particular part of Switzerland, with FIFA, and the Olympics, and the Olympic Committee and, of course, the United Nations, is a very international community.” It makes sense to invite architects from all over the world to make buildings serving this comm-unity. I can understand that. At another level, it’s always a bit curious to say: an architect in Chile should travel an enormous distance to a place in the world, and it will take him some time to get to know how it works. (I don’t really have an answer to that, but they really cited the example of Weissenhof [Stuttgart, 1927, Mies van der Rohe (coord.)]. In a project with a certain scale that sense of variety becomes a quality.)

You already mentioned the Smithsons, I would like to know how this notoriously interesting architectural partnership came to influence your work, considering that they were kind of forgotten for a while.

The Smithsons were always careful to align themselves with people who were intelligent interpreters of what they were doing. That goes all the way back to Reyner Banham and his defining what Brutalism1 meant. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in their work. Sadly, it comes at a point when they are no longer around.

We all perhaps sharpen our interest in great artists at a point where it’s poss-ible to reflect on their entire career. So I would say that, in part, the answer to your question lies in the way critics were trying to make sense of what it was that they were doing. What helped a critical appraisal of their work was their large written output. It was this that we found really helpful. We live not so far from their great masterpiece – The Economist Building –, one of the really great urban works of twentieth century architecture in London. In our office, we had the opportunity to work on a part of the Smithson’ legacy with the work we did with Upper Lawn. And, not only was that a building that Stephen and I were particularly drawn to but, when you take it apart, you really have a privileged insight into the way it has been assembled.

Upper Lawn Pavillion (Whiltshire, 1959) – © Ioana Marinescu (2004)

Were you in any way afraid to approach their work in the Upper Lawn2 project?

We were! Undoubtedly. In fact, at a point where the work was just about to begin we saw Peter Smithson (Alison had long since passed away) at the launch of The Charged Void3 at the Architectural Association [AA]. He knew that we were doing this work, and he was very complimentary. But we also knew that his presence would be difficult. He said things about the project that suggested that it wasn’t important in his life, but you knew it was. It was his home, after all. And it’s terrible to say this, but he passed away a few weeks after our meeting. While it was a great loss to the world of architecture, it certainly took a bit of pressure off our work.

Did you learn much from that exercise of understanding how the building had been built?

Yes, we did. As you note, a process had already begun, because when we were teaching at the AA, our students had made very detailed surveys of Upper Lawn. There was a level of familiarity already, but in the end it’s a bit like to really know a machine you have to take it apart. And so, to see what they had hidden under the layers of the construction was fantastic education.

(You know the experience, when sometimes you go around a building site? Buildings can look better under construction than when they are finished because the sense of a building’s construction is still on display – when it’s finally covered up, of course, it has a different status.)

Do you agree with some architects who assert that during construction they can already see if the building will be something really extraordinary.

Our experience shows that when a building is being built you have different kinds of ways of understanding of how it’s going to be. There are times when you can go to the site and be really disappointed and, towards the end, it somehow comes together or, it can feel really good early on and… I don’t know… Stephen and I just had this really enjoyable experience. We’re at a time in our practice where a number of projects that we’ve been working on for a number of years – sometimes many, many years – are all being built. Last week we visited two of our projects in Belgium that are under construction. This morning we visited another project that is now on site. Things get really interesting when it’s not about a project in the abstract, drawn or modelled, but when it really starts to become physical, when your own interpretation of material becomes really tangible. As an architect this is always exciting. If you say that in your mind you can really anticipate what a building is going to be like, you’re kidding yourself. Actually, life would not be so interesting. Why would you build, if you already felt that? That sense of surprise is why you go through so many years of diff-iculty. In the end, to build is the most important thing.

Studio House in Hackney (London, 2004) © ioana Marinescu

But besides building there is a need for your office to collectively bring something new – even if it’s not a building. In that sense, what was the importance of those meetings you had with Tony Fretton, David Adjaye and Adam Caruso…?

If things had been different in the early 1990s, if the opportunities to build had been greater, if we had not been able to devote so much time to a form of speculation, I think we would all be poorer for it. What we got out of it was the opportunity to try and articulate ideas and have our thoughts exposed to critical discussion. What I find more interesting in relation to this collection of people, is perhaps to consider our diff-erences. There is a perception that we are a cosy clique…We do respect each other, and we are genuinely good friends, but I think our positions are different in a way that makes the differences more interesting than the similarities. (And that would be an interesting thing to explore for someone, I would suggest.)

There is this curious story about how Peter Zumthor, when making the worktops for the kitchen at his office, made them exactly the same height as the worktop where he used to sit down and have breakfast with his kids. This is very interesting because I think it’s this type of subconscious instruments, little details that in some projects (and in the house in Bethnal Green [Studio House, London, 2000-2004] in particular) that make the whole much more than the sum of all parts.

I think that’s a very good point. In the majority of our projects the client is not the user of the building and so we rarely have the opportunity to work with that level of intimacy – the wealth of stuff that can come through making a project that is born out of a need for the client to communicate with you. In the Bethnal Green project, this was possible.

Having said that, I think that all of our work involves a degree of speculation about the relationship a proposal has to an expectation of human activity and the sense in which it supports life. A lot of our work has addressed housing programmes, where we don’t know who the family, or the person who will occupy the apartment is. We ask ourselves questions about the capacity of that apartment, when it’s built, to serve an unpredictable and unknown use.

And you mentioned Zumthor – experience, memory and association and all of the things he has written about so clearly. But my own education is so indebted to Tony Fretton… His personal history is really interesting, firstly because he is a remarkable architect and a great architectural intellect. He studied at the AA in the 1970s and worked for a number of practices where he really learned how to build. And, at a certain point, he took the decision that he wanted to do something quite different, and he abandoned architecture and became a performance artist. That moment in his life was crucial, because his exploration of performance was really to do with an interest in human activity. And so, eventually, he found himself drawn to the possibility that he could have an architectural practice, but this was a result of the sum of a number of experiences that most architects don’t have.

I worked for him when he had a studio in Soho and I have never experienced a way of working with an architect that was anything like this. I might be diligently working on something, and at some point Tony would say: “Let’s go for a walk!”  And for him, walking through the city was still working. He would point things out to me that I’d never seen, and I think this instilled in me a really deep understanding of the capacity for architecture to do things that we immediately recognise as architecture, but also that everything could be drawn upon in our own work. When Zumthor talks about the memory of the door handle of his aunt’s house… I learned that through Tony. This sort of exploration of – let’s call it ‘the everyday’ – emerged through the discussions of that group of people, and certainly from the discussions I was having with Stephen.

The Centre for the Applied Arts in Ruthin (Wales, 2008) © Ioana Marinescu

And to what extent is the mis-en-scène or staging important for your type of work? I ask this because Rem Koolhaas – love him or hate him – but what’s interesting in his trajectory is his past (his dad having been a critic and he himself a screen writer).

I don’t think that is important in our work. The Kunsthal in Rotterdam [Rem Koolhaas, 1987-1992] I rate as a great building, and yet we could never make a building like that. We could make something like it, a building that acts as asocial condenser. I think that the sort of social ambition Rem Koolhaas was exploring is really interesting, but I think its means, its sense of theatricality we have never really explored. And in part this is a consequence of the kinds of building programmes that we found ourselves drawn to and have had the opportunity to attend to.

A lot of our work has been the stuff of the city, and that’s about the normative, programmatically. So, when you think of a housing project, there’s a level of responsibility that we take very seriously which is: “How present within a city should a building be?” We believe that we have a responsibility to make it – let’s not say a background –
but a little diminutive in terms of its place in the city.
We have learnt a lot from Roger Diener’s own exploration of this kind of question, the sense of vividness of a work within its place in the city. Fortunately, more recently we’ve had the opportunity to make architecture which is more public in terms of its programme. The project I mentioned in Mendrisio (Switzerland), the library that we’re building in Belgium [2010], the art centre we recently built in north Wales – these are more public programmes. I think our understanding of housing and of non-public kind of building space is enriched through another kind of experience. I remember Álvaro Siza talking about a point in his experience as an architect when to really grow and develop as an architect he needed to work in a broader range of programmes. This was a big lesson.

But you were talking about the need for a building not to overexpose itself…

I think that it really depends on the programme of that building. You know, we look at the amazing success of Georgian architecture in the part of the city we are now in, the sense of accuracy and care that can be expressed is remarkable.

The Economist Building (London, 1964 – Alison and Peter Smithson) © Hugo Oliveira (2010)

But I feel that – regarding housing – you really don’t have the pretention to make your intervention noticeable from the exterior. It reminds me of something that Jacques Herzog said to Souto de Moura about his buildings, that they are déjà-vu. You really don’t mind that as well, do you?

Our position is that our own architecture is informed by the past – and increasingly so – and I think that, to set out with the intention of making something new is always prone to failure and disappointment.

As a teacher, do you feel that nowadays students attach much more importance to the skin, to the façade, than to the interior of the space? Francisco Mangado once said: “It’s incredible how kids don’t give importance to sections anymore.” Do you recognise that that is a problem for us?

I think it is a problem. Fortunately I teach in a school where there is still a culture of building. A lot of my colleagues are interested in the potential of construction. In other words, they are exploring a quite radical architecture but with the insistence that it’s buildable and that you really know how to do that. That requires you to be as aware of the “hidden layers” of the building as much as the outer surfaces. I think it is a problem more widely. Much of what’s built has an interest only in surface and skin and I think this is a huge loss of potential in architecture – and that’s why I’m interested in learning from building.

Is this obsession with the outside partially explained by the need to work on competitions that ask you to deliver much quicker than in the past? (It shouldn’t be an excuse.)

No… but I think it’s true to say that – we were talking about this earlier – we live at a time when the image of things is really important. Recently we’ve brought someone into the studio whose job is really to help us make representations of our projects because relying on rather partial material wasn’t getting us anywhere. Models are really important to us, but sometimes they are still quite abstract to people who can’t interpret them.

As a teacher, do you have any general advice for students who are now starting to learn architecture?

There is a little paper that I wrote, which is published in Papers 24, a collection of our writings, which is called “On Teaching”. That would provide a much more complete answer to that question. But, to begin with, I think the most important thing is to train yourself to look. And when you look at something, to try to understand what you are looking at. That sounds easy, but it takes a lot of experience to really make sense of what you see when you look at something.

We talked about that period when we were meeting; another member of that group was Mark Pimlott. In some ways, the sum of that time when we were all meeting and talking was a question that Mark asked, which was: “What do I see when I look at something?”  I would say that is a component – as a young person beginning to think about what architecture is, that it’s important. What’s wonderful about architecture is that it has the potential to be many, many different things. As I said at the beginning of this discussion, we were interested in being able to argue our own position – but that’s not to say that there aren’t other positions that we respect, though they’re just not ours. Within contemporary architecture, what’s important is to find your own place. It’s important to look at things and to learn from the past. It’s also important to build. It’s very easy to say that, but of course, when you’re a student, the difficulty is that you’re not building, you’re thinking abstractly. In fact, that explains why good students rarely become good architects.

1. A reference to the article “The New Brutalism” originally published in The Architectural Review. Nº118 (Dec. 1995). [N.E.]

2. A reference to the restoration of Smithsons’ Solar Pavillion, Upper Lawn, Fonthill, 1959-1982 by Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates in 2002-2004. [N.E.]

3. Alison Smithson; Peter Smithson. The Charged Void. New York : The Monacelli Press, 2005.

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