A Conversation With Kenneth Frampton
"Putting a building into the ground is as primitive as it ever was. There are some virtuous aspects to that."
Kenneth Frampton is Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia GSAPP. He is currently at work on an expanded fifth edition of Modern Architecture: A Critical History.
[Student X]: We were just talking about the recent Steven Holl Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
KF: I am very impressed by the Glassell. The roof terrace and the stairs going down to the park and the way it pulls in the Noguchi are all very impressive aspects. I feel that this also shows that the Anish Kapoor sculpture is in the wrong place.
Sarah Whiting (SW): Where do you think it should be?
KF: I don’t know. I just don’t think it should be there. It is essentially a landscape concept. When mature, these six trees will be very important because they will help to create a whole urban… What Carlos Jiménez said is right: The Glassell has created, with the Noguchi, an urban ensemble.
SW: A plaza off of Montrose is unusual here.
KF: It’s impressive. And the geometry, which is somehow first a bit shocking, is all prefabricated, right? There’s the discipline of the floor that holds the whole thing together.
The other thing that’s impressive is that the translucent glass, with different shapes—somewhat random, of course—gives a variation in light from one studio to the next. Not that there’s a 1:1 relationship between that light and the studio. It gives the building a certain internal variation which is stimulating. In other words, studios have different feeling and character because of the quality of the light and the shape of the aperture in relation to the space. It’s something one wouldn’t expect. Maybe Holl didn’t expect it either?
Belle Carroll (BC): In a school project we’re creating a documentary on type, so I wanted to ask you: What is type? And what is type in the function of the human body?
KF: The first and the second part of the question are both equally challenging. There are at least two aspects to type in any case.
One aspect is organic. A type that is sedimented in a particular place in relation to a particular culture is a vernacular. You can see this in Greece and all around the Mediterranean. The so-called megaron type is the barrel-vaulted cell which has two parallel walls and an opening at one end. Another type is the Northern European format of a large hall giving onto a courtyard enclosed by small ancillary buildings. This is basically the medieval farmhouse type, which would have a big influence on the British Arts and Crafts movement. That’s another example of vernacular type.
The other later idea of type emerges out of Rationalization. It’s both normative and open-ended and is particularly well-represented by J.N.L. Durand in his Précis des leçons d'architecture données à l'École Polytechnique. It is invariably related to a rational grid and the rationalization of building which anticipates prefabrication.
BC: The second part of the question concerned its particular function in relation to the human body.
KF: I find this to be a strange part of the question and I don’t know how to respond, to be honest. Where does this question come from?
BC: The second part comes from a seminar I’m in called Objects of Health [taught by Wortham Fellow Piergianna Mazzocca]. We’re studying the theories behind medicine that invoked space in modern hospitals in Europe. At this point we’re trying to understand how type could potentially bring the human body into consideration.
KF: Clearly hospitals do belong to the rationalization of building; as do prison, barracks, etc. Here we are close to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish.
SW: Is there a way that your understanding of typology ties into your interest in phenomenology? Would that be a way where the body would be tied in? I think another way of answering the question would be that typology is not actually the way that you approach the field in general.
KF: Right, that’s true.
Maria Nicanor (MN): Could you relate it perhaps, oversimplifying the matter, to Houston as a typology, rather than a building typology? Take Houston as an urban typology. How does this city make you feel with its particular set of typologies, or lack thereof, in relation to other urban systems?
KF: Houston is a megalopolis after all, just as large parts of the United States are megalopoli.
I was telling Carlos Jiménez this morning that at some point I saw an aphorism by Mies van der Rohe on the walls of the Museum of the Modern Art. The date of the quote was 1951, which is incredibly early. In it, Mies is on record for saying: “That’s why we can’t build planned cities anymore, it goes on like a forest. We have to learn to live in the jungle and even do well by that.”
It’s an incredible statement given that his colleague at IIT was Ludwig Hilberseimer who wrote books that were more-or-less systematic ideas about rationalizing the suburbanization of the United States with L-shaped courtyard houses and such. And Mies is saying, as early as that, “You can’t build cities anymore.” University campuses do offer a compensatory placeness that stands against the placelessness of the megalopolis and its s never-ending commodification of the entire world.
But back to this question of hospitals. It’s an interesting issue about the body because I think a lot of recent hospital planning—and that’s not just coming from architects, it’s coming from society—is to turn hospitals into warm and lovely suburban environments if possible. So patients would be reassured by the iconography or something like that.
On the other hand, when one thinks of hospitals in relation to the Modern movement, one thinks of tuberculosis, almost just by definition. One could say, “Well it’s too much the idea of the building as a curative machine,” maybe. This also has its own problems. So somewhere in there, particularly if you think that the body is separate from the mind, the question of “What is a space that is conducive to health?” is an interesting question and not an easy one to answer.
Will Sun (WS): I have question pertaining to Texas. Right now, in an interesting juxtaposition, Houston is one of the most diverse cities in America while in the western and southern parts of Texas, the border has become this contested area in politics. I wonder if you have any comment on the potential emergence of new typologies around the border condition?
KF: I don’t know what to say. The border is a total mess. What to say really? What can we do with this? It’s a combination of manipulation, paranoia, maltreatment of people…
It’s not much to do with architecture. It’s an overt manipulation in the way in which it has become a focus of political rhetoric. It is an attempt on the part of the current administration to appeal to the people who have been cut out of the deal. It’s supposed to send the message, “We’re going to limit immigration so there will be more employment for Americans.” That’s the basic simple-minded message that Trump has in mind. If that is the situation, what could one possibly do about it? What could an architect do about it?
WS: I think actually in a way it encourages more forced creativity in terms of approach. There’s this kind of guerilla war with the government—
KF: —But guerilla war is not really the métier of architecture, is it? A guerilla war is guerilla war. It’s nothing to do with architecture is it?
SW: You have a decidedly Left approach to the world, I don’t think that’s to be contested. One question would be: As an architect entering the profession who has the political beliefs you have, what role does architecture have in that worldview?
KF: There are limits to architecture, and one has to somehow accept those limits; it’s important to accept them. Of course it’s difficult to say exactly what these boundaries are, but it’s important to recognize them. I think something like 60% of built production has no architect even near it. Just to put things in some kind of perspective. The building industry and the home building industry goes on without any architect whatsoever. One of the limits of being an architect is that one has to put things into that panorama, in a way.
SW: But you don’t have the same message that Tafuri had, which was to shut down the possibility of acting as an architect, once you have that worldview.
SW: So what glimmer of hope can you offer this generation, if I can prod you a little bit? [laughter]
KF: No, that’s great. I like that you’re pushing it.
Actually it relates to the hospital story. I think this question of the experience of the human subject in the work is fundamental. Given that a certain population is alive in this historic moment, including yourselves as architects, then the responsibility is to give to this historic moment the possibility of an environment that is conducive to the well-being of the human subject. It’s a bit abstract, but I somehow think that’s a primary task.
In terms of the megalopolis, it’s a drop in the bucket, but it is in itself a gesture of hope. Maybe it’s a bit sentimental to put it like that. Tafuri’s position is a lost cause because what does revolution guarantee? And who’s going to make this revolution? It’s already historically closed off, I think.
Sebastian Lopez (SL): When you mentioned the statement by Mies that you encountered at MoMA, it reminded me of the “Stim and Dross” essay by Lars Lerup. In both cases, there seems to be an acceptance of the state of the city. Mies is saying to learn to live in the jungle. I wonder if, is there a way that we can learn to live in the jungle but at the same not be fully complacent and remain critical?
KF: I would say yes.
What Mies did in Lafayette Park was a very interesting scheme. Alfred Caldwell and Hilberseimer were both involved as well. It’s a real effort as regards the automobile in relation to dwellings and the use of landscape to mediate that relationship.
SW: And Herb Greenwald the developer also had a good vision.
KF: Yes! Well, H.H. Richardson: “First rule of architecture, get the client.” But there are clients and then there are clients, of course. The de Menils were a certain type of client.
Cole Neuffer (CN): We see now that a lot of offices are having these huge projects in China and Asia. There’s this monotony of design that’s been going on. Could you speak a little to that, about having actual sensitivity to a culture, and if we should be pushing towards that goal when these big projects are mostly just driven by capital and what the client wants? I’m thinking of big resorts, big campuses, and such.
KF: It’s a daunting prospect, isn’t it? Another way of looking at that is by considering these high-rise towers in Manhattan which they go on building like there is no tomorrow. This unending surplus wealth is feeding into the real Manhattanization of Manhattan. It’s like one economic operation after another which, from a cultural point of view, is totally and utterly meaningless. If it has any significance, it’s by way of destroying what Manhattan was at some point in its history. It’s like Dubai in that sense. It’s capitalism at its most adventurous. It’s very hard to know how to position oneself in relation to this. If one is honest with students in schools of architecture, it’s clear that life is a difficult prospect.
SW: You’ve spent a fair amount of time in China recently and you’ve seen a transformation even in the Chinese students who have come to Columbia recently.
KF: No question.
SW: We’re very aware of the problem that Cole’s pointing to, of the big anonymous buildings happening in China, here, and, frankly, everywhere. Have you seen other models there?
KF: Some young Chinese architects who have been to the States, and maybe some who haven’t, possess a high level of sophistication and commitment. But they mainly build, in a positive way, in provincial cities, and not in Beijing. There are some beautiful examples of hutongs being transformed into cultural centers. There’s a very good firm called Vector Architects who have done work like that, but also they’ve done work in provincial cities.
One of the most astonishing project’s I’ve see is the library by Vector Architects that was on the beach with a developer as the client. It’s very hard, coming the United States, to wrap one’s head around it. What kind of developer would do that? And I’m told that there is, somewhere near this library but not that close to it, a development. It’s an extraordinary building and also an extraordinary place right by the sea. It’s an amazing work. So a firm like Vector Architects is impressive and encouraging.
[Student Y]: Thinking about that library, I think part of the reason that small offices do projects that aren’t commercially beneficial is because of the spread of media. The images produced of that library will create a huge potential for client but also the region. This happens very frequently in China. It has become well-known for architects to choose a random natural place and build a simple monumental building and produce an image that gets shared widely. I think that’s one interesting thing happening in China and it explain swhy such a small office can exist and survive for the next couple of years.
SW: Do you see as an ironic reading or do you see it as a positive thing? In other words, are they creating mini-monumentalisms to play off the Instagram feed that will then let them do what Cole was talking about? Or do you see it as a counter-movement to what Cole was talking about in terms of development?
[Student Y]: I don’t think it’s a counter-movement. Part of the reason is to move the focus on the provincial suburban area and to try to introduce capitalism to that area.
KF. The central committee of the Party has the project to move the population of China from the countryside to the city in the next decade. I think the text ends with the words, “in order to create a consumer society.” That’s a sobering project. Recently Michael Sorkin published a collection of Kongjian Yu's letters to mayors all over China. I think this regional energy that has a certain spontaneity and—this is what you implied—exists as an ambitious operation on the part of talented architects and maybe also talented politicians, to put a critical view on it. It represents a difference, a kind of vitality that is existing and worth catalyzing, not only from their point of view, but also from a critical outside view. I feel positive about it.
Kongjian Yu has made an effort to raise the consciousness of local governments with respect to environment. What else can one do? It’s amazing how he survives. He has such prestige that the Party leaves him alone, right? He can make this effort up to a point.
SW: That’s an interesting example for how one can behave, maybe not architecturally but politically,as an architect. I’m curious to see this book. I’d like to see the coherence of Yu’s argument that he makes to these different mayors.
Ozan Sen: Today’s city, with its consumption and ecological crisis, particularly in the United States, is unsustainable. Do you think a new urban approach is possible? Might it be an approach that addresses density or perhaps works to reduce mass car ownership, land ownership, and maybe make buildings to last longer. What could be a solution?
KF: I had this idea that medicine, agriculture, and architecture are three professions related to material and culture, which are then related to the subjects of health, food, and shelter. The rate at which land is consumed by suburbia by the whole building industry is really negative.
Given another two generations, it’s also clear that this question of food is going to be an issue, both food and water, particularly in the Middle East. You can imagine the conflict in the Middle East that might entirely have to do with water. There will be a new urbanism, and maybe a new land settlement pattern; the human species can’t seem to develop a new life settlement pattern that is halfway moderate.
What could bring that about? That’s why it’s necessary to talk about the limits of architecture. What professional architects can do is relatively self-contained. We’re really talking in one way or another about politics, as only a political change would bring about a different way of using land in United States. The government has to legislate and say, “You can't settle land like this anymore.” Until the society does that, it’s not going to change.
SW: That makes you sound like “give it all up,” but you still uphold models and you show examples. A lot of your examples were consistent with the model from 35 years ago, but are they anomalous? Is there something that could be generalized as an approach of resistance that is still valid today?
KF: I talk to my assistant sometimes about what is the point of someone like myself getting up and loading the air with negativity. He said, “I don’t think you should lose the negative aspects, but you should show architects the examples of work that they might be able to achieve, as a way of maintaining professional morale.” That is what I meant by limits, and that’s what we should try for.
In terms of education, how can one not be aware of the predicament of the species if one is halfway educated? The staggering thing is that there are people who are well-educated who still buy the package. They do not contribute to any critical action in the society; they subscribe to a kind of paralysis. That is a very disappointing thing. The species seems to be paralyzed. We are so obsessed with maximizing economic growth that we can’t think of the future in a coherent way.
More important than thinking is acting. In that sense, architecture and its slightly anachronistic aspects means it is inherently resistant to commodification. I know it can be commodified, but the fact that one anchors a building into the ground is very important issue. Putting a building into the ground is as primitive as it ever was. There are some virtuous aspects to that.
Mitch Mackowiak (MM): You mentioned the definition of Oxford dictionary as architecture being distinctly humanist, as “constructing buildings for human use”—
KF: Yes, it’s strangely ambiguous, the relationship between edifice and use. To edify is to educate, strengthen and instruct. The Latin root of it is aedificare, which means “to make a half.” There is public dimension built into edifice. But in its dictionary definition, edifice is established for human use, as though you are moving towards the utilitarian in its definition. And therefore there is ambiguity. The first definition, “the action and process of building” is not so ambiguous because buildings are never finished, and it’s very much a survival idea. Like agriculture. Continue with your question.
MM: I am wondering if the anthropocentric view of architecture is intrinsically anthropocentric. With the recognition of the Anthropocene, an age in which human subjects are entangled in the environment, we’re not considered separately anymore. How might that change things?
KF: This use of the term is to indicate a change in consciousness. It has always been there; it’s always been in nature, culture, and relationships between them.
For buildings, site is a big issue, traditionally. A new awareness doesn’t change the issue of where we are as architects, or as regards the making of a building. I don’t think it changes much.
Jack Murphy (JM): I have a more light-hearted question about subjectivity. You identify as a phenomenologist and mentioned in the lecture your study and participation in that project. The identification of the body is a way one might experience and understand architecture. That way of using or imagining or existing in architecture is different from the commodified, etherealized way our economy works now. It seems like this old-school idea of embodiment is actually a radical point of resistance now; it proclaims a way one might work or understand architecture. I was curious to hear you talk more about that point, and how that is one way to resist these things.
KF: I like that. It’s not so easy to talk about it in detail, because it’s quite complicated, philosophically. I know of various studies that Merleau-Ponty has done from this point of view. He talks about the intentionality of the subject, for example, and that the raising of the hand to point to an object already has the intentionality of a relationship with that object. One aspect of his thinking is that perception also involves the movement of the body and the intention and the possession of the environment. It’s not a permanent but instead a moving possession. All of that is very productive for architecture.
It’s not just a question of the functional movement of the body in space, but it’s experiential. What is the experience of the body in space? I think that aspect is very positive for architects. It contains a very rich potential. Becoming aware of what is it about a particular place or space that conveys certain sense of well-being is important. It is the richness of the field, and we could do more inside schools to cultivate that aspect.
I was very impressed to see again, for the second time in my life, the houses of Carlos Jiménez. I can’t get over some of the details he uses, his sensitivity to color, and the relationship between the natural elements and the building. He’s a very sensitive architect. It’s just incredible. I can’t get over the level at which he works. I can’t get over the quality of the bricks, and the way they’re put into place. The way Carlos’s buildings relate to these bungalows are amazing. It’s really accomplished, and should be more celebrated.
Nicole Lide (NL): In terms of the human subject, I was wondering whether you distinguish between the lay person and the architecturally-educated person. What are your thoughts about the media’s role in communicating the commodification of architecture? The Bilbao effect is an image of the potential of architecture. Do you think the role of media in communicating that to its subjects has changed?
KF: Yes. It has made an enormous impact. Your question brings up a number of things. One is Walter Benjamin's observation that “Architecture is appreciated mostly in the state of distraction.” I think it’s such a profound insight. That is one thing.
I think the question of image is important, but I think the media of course is what brings one back to the ocularcentric, as the media is obsessed with the image. Therefore, the question of spectacle arises, which I think is also your question. In 1988, Guy Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle in which he talks about removing statues from public squares in Paris and replacing them with plastic statues; they would be taken away because they’re being eroded by the toxic effects of gasoline. He speculates that tourists with their cameras would be unable to tell the difference.
In the same passage he talks about science and he says this very sobering thing: that science, which has been associated with the liberation of mankind, has now become an agent with which to make war on the mankind. When one returns to questions of medicine and agriculture, one receives a clearer idea of contemporary practices that support his argument that science is being used to make war on the species, not liberate it.
The whole Bilbao effect has to do with people hiring star architects to brand their city. It is of course a media operation. The public is celebrated. If the thing, the building, is not spectacular enough, it doesn’t work. If it’s too subtle, too quiet, it just doesn’t function.
SW: I know your hesitation over Herzog & de Meuron, but think of examples like their library in Eberswalde where they printed images on concrete. This usage is actually fairly subtle compared to some of the material uses that I know you object to, and I can understand why. Is there a high-end version of the subtlety and craft that you believe is being achieved?
KF: Steven Holl is an interesting figure from this point of view. He recently won a competition in Dublin, and I think the university was looking for a “signature building.” Universities aren’t immune to the business of branding. I can’t really understand what that building is about exactly, but he is a very interesting figure for me because he is up there; he qualifies as a star architect. It varies, but there is a balance between a building as an image and a building with its own intrinsic content that is layered.
For instance, the Glassell School has some of that. If you take a overall photo of it, it is an arresting image that could also be used as a spectacle, a spectacular image, but then intrinsically it has some other qualities. Anyways, it’s clear that without the spectacle, it doesn’t work.
This text is edited from conversations that took place at Rice University in Houston on September 24 & 25, 2018.
Thumbnail image of Kenneth Frampton's Broch 'N' Talk conversation courtesy Rice Architecture.