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A Conversation with Tom Emerson

A Conversation with Tom Emerson

"It’s trying to find ways to be aware of one’s own prejudice and when that prejudice is in action, when that’s been productive, and when that’s been either lazy or counterproductive or overly safe."

Tom Emerson is a Founding Director of 6a architects in London and Professor of Architecture at the ETH Department of Architecture (Zurich). Recent projects include two contemporary art galleries in London: Raven Row in Spitalfields and the South London Gallery in Peckham.

Mitch Mackowiak (MM): You seem to operate pretty comfortably when you have a lot of constraints. What happens when there are less obvious constraints? As an example, in your studio for Juergen Teller, he, as a client, was not very controlling over the process and he didn’t have a lot of stipulations for the result and the site itself was pretty bare. If you have fewer constraints in certain realms, do you run with the few you have and stretch those out through the project? Or do you maybe look for more in less obvious places?

Tom Emerson (TE): There are always constraints. Some of them are more visible than others. Some of them are spatial, physical—for example in Juergen’s, you say on one level he was very open, it’s true. But also there was a site that was sixty-five meters long and seven meters wide, which is really hard. On one level it’s exciting. On another level, almost everything is excluded. Almost everything that conventional architectural space planning would propose just doesn’t work on that length. You have a problem with getting daylight, you have a problem with getting fresh air, and you have a problem with enclosure. So in a sense the constraint is right there in the space you have to work with. And then there are others; there were financial ones, there’s a budget, planning rules, and neighbors.

The way that we designed the building, which might answer some of this, was to do three buildings and three gardens. How did that come about? I’ll try to remember. To start, the three buildings were all identical. They were all like the studio in the middle. So it was a sequence of building, garden, building, garden, building, garden. There was going to be this rhythm of structure of these concrete beams running through. I insisted that it was going to be like that, because there was no way that we could start with this and get out at the other end uncontaminated, and let’s just see what happens if you start with that and then almost watch the process corrupt it.

Photography Studio for Juergen Teller, photography by Johan Dehlin, courtesy 6a architects.

Photography Studio for Juergen Teller, photography by Johan Dehlin, courtesy 6a architects.

The first thing we had were the neighbors at the far end. On the back end there are all these houses and there’s a residents’ association. In that part of town there’s a lot of development going on at the moment. So there’s a hugely mobilized local community that’s trying to prevent development. They start attacking it, they start writing into the council, complaining, objections, all of that. So, the back building gets a chop—chk, chk. Basically we had a daylight study which showed that there was no damage to their daylight, but they still felt aggrieved, so we lopped a little corner out, and then that calmed them down.

Then there was a stipulation from the council to do with the number of internal bike racks, refuse collection, I can’t remember what else. Suddenly the front building starts getting all this complexity in it. And then you realize the whole ground floor is used up before you’ve even started, so there’s no studio space. So we pushed it up and we put in second floor studio space, and it changes all the proportions of everything. Then you need to have the staircase, and because it’s a working building it has to have a certain number of fully accessible toilets and bathrooms. So you introduce these rather odd elements into it. By then, you get the neighbors’ wall starting to interact with it. Before you know it you’re trying to manage all these variables—choo, choo, choo, choo—and the whole building is mutated. Rather than it being overly systematic, it’s actually trying to resist all these forces, trying to keep some consistency through it and not allow the whole thing to disintegrate.

It was a really interesting process. Essentially Juergen just watched it happen. He had absolutely no interest in drawings, wouldn’t look at them. His assistant would make him look at them. He’d say, “Why do I have to look at these boring drawings?” And the assistant would say, “Because this is your building and you’re paying for it and it should be quite close to what you want.” And he said, “Oh, OK…” But then if you presented him with visual material he was—shhhh [snaps]—like that. Incredibly precise, super fast. He would never articulate what he wasn’t happy with in a clear way, but would demonstrate discomfort. He would just go, “It’s, like, not quite right.” But somehow without ever saying, “I don’t think it’s right,” because that was our job, but he would feel it.

And then also you’d feel his enthusiasm with something he liked, he would get really excited—say, “Can I have it tomorrow?” “No, Juergen, this takes like three years to build, it’s not like a photograph.” His world happens in a hundredth of a second, everything is fleeting. And the way that he works is very spontaneous. If he was doing a shoot now, he would spend the whole morning just chatting with everyone and then occasionally the camera would come out and it would just go and he’d put it back in, just when your guard was down, when you somehow relaxed. His way of working is almost the opposite of architecture; it’s the opposite of sustained concentration. It’s finding little moments between things, when somehow people are not aware that it’s going on.

So, I would say that these constraints come in lots of different forms and then they also invent some others to hold the project together. So some of them are formally externally generated, like the rhythm of beams. There are other ways of tying the two walls together, but that was something that could bring a rhythm, a beat to the project.

It sounds trivial but we work a lot with the structure of ceilings, because the ceilings are about the only thing that we don’t use. They’re the only things that stay stable. They’re free territory and then, once you do them, they’re unlikely to change very much, whereas everything on the ground will change. It’s the bit in which somehow architecture can hold itself against, you could say, the vagaries and the unpredictability of life going on in the building. So we had these beams and these big concrete north lights that then would bring light in through the structure. And that would be the leitmotif, and then on the ground everything changes all the time.

I don’t remember who I was speaking to yesterday, but I said you have to pick your battles. Because if you just push for everything on your terms, in the end the whole process will congeal. There are worse compromises than that in every project, where you just have to let go. There is this reputation of the difficult architect, and they’re really annoying. So you have to find a way of operating in which you can remain true to the work and the work maintains a certain integrity, but also effective in the process and in social terms.

Churchill College, for example, is a serial commissioner of buildings; the same people have worked with loads of different architects. There’s a different part of the site, not in the college proper but further along, where they own a bit of land and one of the clients, from the academic college, just moans about the architects all the time. About how difficult they are to work with. It’s not fun. In the end, the project takes ten years, and if it’s not fun, it’s your life. So you have to find a way of lubricating the relationships as well, and if that means occasionally taking a hit, then you take a hit. But I’m not going to tell you where they all are. It’s for me to know. [laughter]

Pauline Chen (PC): Did you move any trees?

TE: The story of the trees is intriguing because when we did the competition, we had a general perimeter for where the building was going to go, a general area, and there were two memorial trees. We essentially dropped the building over those two trees. We thought that would be a nice foundational element for the building, so we placed it there. This was about 2008, and then the project went on hold when the crash happened and then they rang up in 2012 and said “We can raise the money, we can go ahead and do it.” In that time the two trees had died, so suddenly the building was sliding around on the site. The far corner of the site faces playing fields, so it ended up being placed in relation to the distance from the green at the center of the cricket pitch. There’s a law in the UK that says you can’t build on playing fields. In the ‘90s, a lot of developers bought playing fields from schools and colleges to do developments, ruining important recreational outdoor space. The law is almost as tough as knocking down listed buildings, so you cannot ever build on a playing field. The problem is, a cricket field doesn’t have a boundary. The cricket field is as big as, you know, the batsman’s range. So we had to prove that, on a good day, a batsman in full swing hitting a six—a six is when you hit the cricket ball out of the stadium—and that if somebody hit a glorious six, the building wouldn’t get in the way of their triumph. We had to do all of these incredibly precise drawings and it turned out that we were fourteen point seven meters away from what could be considered the ideal cricket six.

Cowan court, photography by Johan Dehlin, courtesy 6a architects

Cowan court, photography by Johan Dehlin, courtesy 6a architects

Toshiki Niimi (TN): Yesterday somebody asked you how you might evaluate your own work, and you said the personal subjectivity of the architect is troubling sometimes because it changes, so it’s not really a good measure of how you might think the building is successful. The lecture and a lot of things you’ve been saying have to do with the incorporation of all these processes that play out as part of making a building. I’m wondering: How does your own preference to certain things play out in your work? At the end of the lecture, you said that humans are part of natural processes, so maybe it is impossible to think of anything artificial, because humans are part of ecology. Is your subjectivity just a part of the process in which everything is included? Or do you somehow take yourself out of the situation in order to attack the situation from an outside perspective?

TE: I would say that it is slightly disingenuous of me to say that I don’t exercise choices, judgments over the work. I think it is more interesting to invest yourself in the relationship and the choices of relationships than being the wrong kind of control freak.

I may seem like I’m really open to everything, but I’m really only open to exactly the way I’d like it to be. I don’t mean to be too flippant, but it has to do with ways of working that are productive when you’re engaged with other people. Some of them are your choice, like choosing an artist to work with. Some of them are imposed on you, like who your planning officer is in the local authority. More often than not it’s a mixture of the two, it’s a product of circumstances, whether it’s clients, statutory authorities, or people you bring in that you think would be interesting. Neighborhood consultations are emotionally draining process because you get neighbors going like, “It’s a load of shit, I hate it.” Rationally you know that this is not necessarily a crowd pleaser, but you have to have a pretty cold heart not to be actually upset when people unload on you. It is upsetting, and then you try and brush it off. You say, “Well it doesn’t really matter, we’ll still get there.” It’s quite tough.

TN: In your lecture you pretty much didn’t show any drawings or anything that described your design formally. It was only through processes. I’m wondering if you have an image of the architect in a professional or curatorial sense, or is there different framework in which the architect engages building?

TE: We produce a lot of drawings. At the end of every project, we bind all the drawings together. We’ve got these books—500-page books—with every single drawing. They’re references, good and bad. If someone’s detailing a door and they’re doing it a certain way, you can go, “Actually you should have a look at the door detailing of this or that project, because actually we got these hairline cracks in the plaster for years afterwards, so there’s something in the arrangement that the plaster didn’t like.” Or you go, “Actually you should look at South London Gallery doors, because it was a really cheap way of doing a minimal figure on it.” We do use those, a lot, as records of work.

As an office, we are incredibly rigorous with the rules of drafting. We work really hard with the quality of information that’s in the drawings.

I tend not to show drawings unless that is the topic because narratively, it’s quite difficult to talk to drawings, I think. Or at least when I go to lectures, I have to admit, I have a slightly low boredom threshold when people explain plans to me— “And then you come in here and you go up there and there’s a double-height space.” I can read the drawing, I was looking at it before you were talking. Same in crits. Somehow people forget that when you’re sitting down, you can read the wall really quickly and precisely. Unless it is so badly drawn that you can’t read it, you don’t need somebody to explain something to you that you can see. What you want to know about are the bits that you can’t see, what’s motivating it, what the issues are, what remains unresolved, what feels like it’s got consistency.

The drawings are the architecture. Until it’s built, that’s the only place the architecture exists. Images are unreliable witnesses. Models are good. I like physical models because I find them very speculative and architectural, the physicality of them as things. But I think the most important document is the drawings. The working drawings are like, “This is all the knowledge about the building is here, or all the knowledge we can bring to it is here,” and then lots of other people will make more drawings in response.

Coordination. I think coordination is an art in itself. I think there should be a course which is only to do with coordination. Everything that goes wrong in a building has to do with coordination. It’s an incredibly dull subject to talk about, but it’s weird that it doesn’t manage to conceptualize itself within the discourse of architecture, because everybody knows that mistakes basically come from coordination, yet it doesn’t play, it’s this silent process.

David Rader (DR): When we were looking at your work and comparing the renovation/restoration projects and the new builds, it seems like there’s an interest in contingency in both. In the renovation projects, contingency results from placing old/unrefined with new/refined, and I was curious about how you achieve that same effect in new projects?

Particularly in Cowan Court we were looking at the post and lintel timber structure. The column comes down and it sits on a concrete base that’s exposed and the beam above overhangs. It seems a little bit clunky in relation to the refined details in the project like the aluminum drip edge between the floors that cantilever past one another. There are moments of extreme refinement and then there are moments of clunkiness juxtaposed with one another. The oversized drain pipe that’s centered on the courtyard is another instance of this, so how do you approach—

TE: —Is that clunky or refined? [laughter]

DR: It seems a little clunky in the way that it is placed, but it’s larger than we’re used to seeing. Usually the drain pipe would be hidden away or inside the wall or in the corner, but you’ve placed it right in the middle. I’m curious about how to produce contingency in new situations or conditions that you’re setting up.

TE: There are two slightly different questions in there. So the contingency of re-use projects, refurbishments, is just there, it’s not even a conceptual question. You’ve studied and surveyed and researched and opened up as far as can be reasonably be done, and then there are still things we don’t know.

The other use of the word _contingency_is you add a much bigger contingency into the budget, so in a refurb it could be as much as twenty percent, particularly if it is really old. We did a hotel refurb a long time ago and it was basically late Medieval with later additions. And all the plaster was lime plaster with ox hair in it, anthrax in it. Now there you need a big contingency. Once you find anthrax in _all_of the plaster, it’s like… The client was crying. That’s bad when that happens.

As far as this refined/clunky thing—not words I would have chosen, but—we wanted the Churchill building to resonate with the original college. In plan it’s exactly the same size and includes certain spatial tropes that it inherits. That bit where there’s the post and beam is essentially where the building changes direction. At two corners you’ve got staircases which deal with the change in direction of structure, and then at the opposite two corners then there isn’t this moment of natural stability. The rhythm switches, there’s a point where it’s floating in space. My colleague Takeshi Hayatsu, who worked in the office for a long time, was looking at the oversized structure of the original buildings. One of the characteristics of Brutalism is slightly overly assertive structure. There were a few moments of these double concrete beams on posts which we liked—not that many of them, but they’re landmarks in the building, so we took them. All of the structure is oversized in our building because it has to be for fire. To have an exposed timber frame, you have to add thickness for charring time. Though there were only two of them, we were interested in these moments where the columns were like characters: They’re almost the scale of a person standing in the court, there’s a recess around them, and they’re imagined as social spaces, nooks and crevices where people might hang out.

The drain pipe. Weirdly it was one of the only things that remained exactly as it was in the competition imagery. I mean, everything else changed, but the centered massive drainpipe that stops before the ground and it shoots out and meets the garden stayed the same. It’s really basic technology. When it rains, they’re amazing, because the down pipes all go simultaneously, just pfooosh—students have told me it’s one of their favorite moments, when they really start spraying. Although they’re big, they’re collecting all the rain off one roof, the gutter is about that big [gestures], really big. It was meant to be polished stainless steel but that was too expensive, so instead it’s aluminum.

Juergen’s downspouts go into a water butt. It’s the choreography of weather. I really don’t like concealed drain pipes, it really annoys me in buildings, apart from when they go wrong it’s a nightmare. It’s a little bit like shaving your eyebrows off. It just makes you look kind of weird. Buildings need them. We tend not to pay particular attention to them, but buildings are quite raw when they’re not there. That can have a very particular effect, there are some types of facades where you don’t want them and but generally, if they’re well-placed they’re ok. I’ve had a couple too many calls about busted rainwater pipes encased in some riser somewhere.

DR: It seems like it’s an attitude present both in the restoration work and in the new construction work where you choose certain moments to really amplify, and then you allow other things to fade into the background. One of the ways architecture can fade into the background is through extreme refinement, through being so cleanly detailed that it doesn’t stand out. But as you said you start to confront various architectural elements, like the column becomes a character or in the Raven Row gallery, you choose to restore bits of the ceiling or the wainscoting exactly to the way it was so that you notice the beautiful concrete floor or the handrail or things like that. I guess I’m interested in how you can set up these relationships where you’re confronting pieces of architecture in every way.

TE: One of the things I’ve never really spent any time articulating is that I’m really interested in conservation. I find it a completely fascinating subject. I’d like to be better at it. I’m not bad, but I’m still a long way short of a really good conservation architect. I think there’s something quite radical about it. Alongside coordination it’s probably an even bigger void in architecture schools, weirdly absent from the discourse, even though it’s a huge part of the industry. It has a slightly different beat to the design mindset than your more conventional architectural design trajectory.

With something like Raven Row, it’s quite a lot of restoration. Not even interpretation. It was liberating. It takes this pressure off of you to design something interesting; actually your job is to fix it, and fix it really well so that the building can perform in the strongest possible terms. Those may not be your terms, they may be ones you’ve inherited. I don’t use the term original because it’s very rare that a building can last a long time, a couple of centuries or more, and be in any way unchanged from when it was built. Occasionally a church might be, or certain sacred buildings or palaces. Normal urban stuff changes. So it’s more about being true to that process.

That’s something I have started working with. I suppose it got to the point where I started thinking that re-use is actually the background condition that we’re in now. There is more renovation being produced—certainly in North America and Europe, that’s not the same in other parts of the world—than there is new building. So it’s almost like new buildings are a particular subset of re-use, which is probably the opposite of, let’s say, one hundred years ago, with the Modernist idea that re-use is this niche subset of rebuilding the world from scratch.

Ozen Sen (OS): The work we’ve seen, I wouldn’t say they’re all the same scale, but they are operating at a certain scale of conversation and are relatively small buildings. Milton Keynes is relatively small in its surroundings. Is that scale a deliberate choice of yours? Or is it just how things progress? With your interest in conservation, did you want to focus on this scale of materiality and buildings? How could you operate within a larger urban context?

TE: Do you mean chaotic?

OS: What if you had an active lot in Manhattan?

TE: Yeah, I’d do that, yeah. [laughter]

We’re doing a project which is a whole block in Melbourne at the moment. It’s a mixed use scheme. It was seventeen stories and now it’s twelve—planners—but it’s basically a city block and it’s a mixture of artist studios, hotel, shared workspace, market, retail, restaurants, cafes.

The client is very keen for it to be a very heavily planted scheme. It’s very difficult to do well. I cannot bear those buildings that… there’s that one in Milan, do you know the one?

DR: The Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri?

TE: It completely winds me up, that building. It’s the sort of building that, if our back is turned, it will die. It’s just so heavy on maintenance. Whereas there’s this amazing building in Milan by Mangiarotti, an apartment block, from 1960, which is completely grown over but all the plants are on the ground.

The building is completely prefabricated. It’s overlooking a park, it’s got this very irregular plan form, essentially stretching the amount of elevation you have overlooking the park. It’s just exquisitely detailed. The plans are to die for. I was there a couple weeks ago. And all of this growth was actually stripped when the building was refurbished about six or seven years ago. One of these great Milanese apartment blocks. Everything is modular, so you can see the blank panel and the glazed panel are interchangeable.

I was trying to see how the plants stuck to the façade. The fascia of those slabs is very highly textured; there are no wires on it, that’s what I was looking for. There’s no soil above the ground.

This comes from that post-war period in Milan where Italy took a completely different stance toward France, Germany, and England, that went heavy industry in construction, in terms of postwar reconstruction. Italy somehow went for a highly divided, almost craft-based postwar economic redevelopment, which is why shoes and handbags are still made there. And that’s that period in Milan, I guess from 1950 through the 1970s, they produced urban housing at such an exquisite level in a way that France and Britain, just didn’t.

Nicole Lide (NL): I had a question on representation. Looking at the images on your website, many of the collages show occupation and scale of space, whereas many of the photographs of the finished work abstract the space through perspective and the framing. There’s one on Raven Row in which we’re seeing the charred historic wood in the foreground and a reveal of the gallery space down below, in a collage-like framing with these materials. Is that something that you’re using as a mode of representation to communicate the ambitions of a project, a prioritized narrative? Or is that more exploration as part of the design narrative?

TE: Good question. I’ll start with easy version of the answer, which is a pragmatic one. Raven Row, I think you’re talking about the one with the rusty charred thing and the window and you can see through… Essentially the lane at the back of the building is about this wide [gestures]. I took that photograph, and I put my back against the wall trying to get as far away as possible with the widest possible lens. What you get is everything that a camera can catch at that distance. I could go and do it again, because they’ve knocked down that building, but I haven’t taken any new photographs. You get this foreground, the window, the space, almost like flat layers through it. So that’s the pragmatic side.

The more specific purposeful side is that I try to photograph building projects as environments not as objects. For example I try to avoid two point perspective, like “Here’s the thing, here’s the corner,” like a car, or something. Most of the pictures you would have seen in the lecture yesterday about Churchill, are generally flat, with a thing in front of it, the thing, and then a thing behind it. They have a single perspective point. Occasionally I’ll photograph things with two-point perspective, but it tends to turn everything into objects, which I find distracting.

Raven Row, photography by David Grandorge, courtesy 6a architects

Raven Row, photography by David Grandorge, courtesy 6a architects

I suppose we also have the cast of the Dusseldorf school over us. You’ll never find a picture of ours on a sunny day, with the blue sky, because it gets caught up in advertising a cheery world where everything’s lovely. But it doesn’t always help, career-wise. With some clients, that’s what they want to see. We have got into trouble before, like “Why do you make everything look so overcast and gloomy and miserable?”

And then we get pictures by Juergen. You get them via text, as an email… He was there when his building was to be photographed architecturally, and comes up to the photographer, who had this massive camera and huge tripod, and everything Juergen does is hand-held, he just comes up and looks right at him... “God that’s a lot of money and energy to suck all the energy out of a place.” That really hurt. So all his pictures, they’re all quite deliberately informal, I mean they’re more precise than that, he’s a very precise photographer but he wants the composition of elements to appear like they are unbalanced. Whereas architecture stuff has this single-point perspective, which is in a lot of the collages.

Tiffany Xu (TX): I wanted to ask about the technical inclination you have in your work. You said earlier in this conversation, regarding the lack of use of paint, that “it is what it is.” For many of your projects you have these exposed roof beams that are very tectonically emphasized. I wonder if this attention to experimentalism or making or the hand of the non-productized commercialized materiality is something that you use to make the architecture more pronounced? Or is your interest in the technical? Do you have some larger reasoning for it?

TE: The building will determine how much of it is bespoke, how much of it is a catalog of systems. Generally refurbs tend to be more bespoke because it’s often easier to just get the stuff made for it, and also catalog stuff tends to work better in quantity and with repetition. If you have twelve windows but every single one is a slightly different size, just get someone to make it. Everything in Milton Keynes is out of a catalog. Some of them are catalogs that we got to see, some of them we didn’t get to see… mill-finished aluminum curtain walling, B.S. number such-and-such, it just comes likethat, like standard curtain wall. And the only thing that we did is we said “mill-finished.” We just took one of the processes out.

TX: But it does seem to be a choice to expose a lot of the beams and emphasize the tectonics?

TE: These ceilings that we’re talking about, particularly like South London Gallery and quite a lot of other projects, you could say I just really don’t like flat plasterboard ceilings. It somehow turns everything into an anywhere place. But also acoustically they’re really bad. To just use the structure of your building, to expose what it’s made of, and then arrange it in an interesting way, is an incredibly simple and cheap way to bring natural performance to a space.

Maybe I can say I like looking at beams. Not very profound, but it’s true. I mean, I think even Frank Gehry said it—half-finished buildings are almost always more interesting than the finished thing. There’s something about the anatomy of building, of the people making it, that being visible. You can’t expose that much of it, but ceilings occasionally. And then it’s really a question of how assertive, how expressive do you want it to be?

SW: I’m intrigued by moments where you flat-out will say, “I like looking at beams” or, “I hate when the drainpipes are concealed.” I think those are actually at the heart of the questions that have been rolling around the class for a couple weeks, because I think we’ve been trying to figure out the sincerity of your acknowledgement of constraints in your process, which is very overt and very careful.

What I like is that there’s an acknowledgement of the pragmatism of our field and the number of collaborations and constraints that are imposed on us, and the need to have battles that are worth fighting, choices that are worth holding on to.

Several times you’ve been asked about your judgement, your deliberation, but I’m trying to figure out for myself whether it’s partly the number of constraints that are imposed upon you for the London projects that have so much baggage of constraints and history. I think that’s why it is interesting to see the Melbourne project because you have a little bit more autonomy, but then other economic constraints are imposed on you. That’s partly the interest in an office that’s hitting its stride right now, the interest in watching that. That’s part of what’s at play and quite interesting to watch through this conversation.

TE: Yes, I have my prejudices like everybody else, I have the things that I think make good architecture and the things which I think are a problem in contemporary architecture. I can be quite explicit about them, particularly if we’re walking around. We all have that, everybody in the office has that. I think that the way the office is formed is we share more than we differ, but it’s not quite a carbon copy.

What I was trying to describe is, I’m also aware that it can be a trap. That’s partly where the work comes from—if it has qualities, its qualities emerge out of a position—but also you have to be slightly careful about lazy thinking, automatic thinking, and not developing. It’s trying to find ways to be aware of one’s own prejudice and when that prejudice is in action, when that’s been productive, and when that’s been either lazy or counterproductive or overly safe.

SW: Part of what adds to the complication of it—and I say this out of interest, not complaint—is that arguments about bricolage or adhocism or contingency imply far less control. That’s why I liked you admitting you’re a benign dictator because there’s an enormous amount of control, and you see that in the finished work. Adherence to a model of bricolage or a form of adhocism implies a much more laissez faire attitude. All offices have to balance that, in the end, but you’re committed to articulating that more than most offices will, which is what I find particularly interesting. Interesting and difficult to pin down.

TE: We talked yesterday about some literary references. There’s another one, who’s actually a good friend of Perec’s, in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. My favorite chapter in that one is “Exactitude.” I love that chapter. It’s a great chapter anyway, because it’s impossible to ascribe meaning to vagueness.

SW: Michelle Chang is teaching a course this semester on vagueness called “Something Vague.”

TE: I’m completely with Calvino in this idea that exactitude is a central part of the method, which doesn’t mean that you can’t be ambiguous. In fact, ambiguity is an extremely precise art, to be able to send one, two, or even more potential meanings, and for other people to project others onto that. You need a very secure body on which those things can be projected.

I would also make a very big distinction between bricolage and adhocism. I think I could quite easily enjoy the space of a bricoleur, much less so than adhocism.

SW: There were some questions that didn’t get asked. I was hoping the color white would hit the table.

TE: Just on that white thing, there’s almost no color white in the work, almost none. There is a color that is literally called “Not Totally White.” Every single gallery is painted with it.

That relates slightly back to—in the other list of questions [for the Rice podcast interview], someone described the office as being in the “teenage years” which I thought was quite fun because I’m not a teenager, but I thought “Ah! You mean awkward and pretentious!” [laughter]

Thumbnail image courtesy Rice Architecture.

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