Thursday, May 28, 2009

60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius

Some years ago, I used to go around thinking of Frank Gehry as a total schmuck. He went around making these wonky absurd things in god-awful materials and calling it architecture. His mantra seemed to be: lets do something totally stupid looking and ask why not? "I am so playful and whimsical" seemed to be the chant behind every spell he casts. The impression I had of him was that he made architecture look way too easy, you just put a newspaper or binoculars down on a model and voila! instant interesting architecture. And if anyone dares to say that they were annoyed by all this, they were labeled as narrow minded or too "hermetic" in their thinking. All of his detractors were put in this same box. His work, especially his early work was meant to be visually disturbing like his contemporary artist friends.

Then some years later, I reluctantly went into the Guggenheim in New York to see a retrospective of his work there. I came away surprisingly with a very different opinion of him and his work. Although I still did not care much for it, I came away with a lot of respect for him and what he was doing. For the first time I saw all the work that went into each project (or at least the story behind them). There were several different studies and experiments leading up to the final built thing. It was very different from the outward branding campaign that was publicly seen in all the media snippets of him telling an assistant to fold a piece of paper and then yeah! that looks so stupid I love it! The exhibition showed a different attitude, it showed an architect testing and trying out different things, looking at how to solve real problems, attentiveness to solving space, light, materials as any and every architect does.

What I realized was that I was so hypnotized by his branding machine that I was not able to tell the difference between the architect and the branding. The exhibition snapped me out of the spell and allowed me to see the difference.

It was then to my surprise some weeks ago when I learned that Peter Zumthor won the Pritzker prize that I thought to my self. "Oh that's so great, Zumthor is one of my favorite architects. I really like his work and I like his demeanor. He doesn't want publicity, he doesn't make an effort to publish his works in the glossy magazines, and finally the Pritzker prize committee selects such a person. It just goes to show, if you just work hard at what you do and don't worry about publicity or being famous you will be recognized, yada, yada, yada."

I heard my self and suddenly snapped out of it.
"Hey wait a minute!" I thought.
"just hold on one second.
stop the music!
That's not true!

Peter is okay and everything but don't get hypnotized by his branding machine.
Oh...and the Pritzker committee selecting an obscure nobody?...hogwash!

Time for a reality check folks.

Every famous architect whether it is Frank Gehry playing Whimsical Wizard,
Frank Lloyd Wright playing Egotistical Master, or
Rem Koolhaas playing Intellectual Sheep,
all have a branding game-plan that is strategically aimed at getting fame and recognition.
Peter Zumthor playing Hermit Genius is no different.

Fame and recognition does not just happen! you have to work at it! A million dollars will not just fall into your lap if you go to work everyday and do a good job without a plan of how to make it happen, and neither will a Pritzker prize fall into your lap if you just go off deep into the mountains and make good architecture unbeknown to anyone. Fame and recognition like any other career path must be carefully cultivated. Its like the old computer adage "garbage in garbage out": The results that you get are based on what you put in to it.

  • If you put your energy into making good buildings, sooner or later you will realize a good building.
  • If you put your energy into getting famous, sooner or later you will be famous.
  • If you put some energy into making good buildings and some energy into making your self famous, sooner or later you will be a famous architect. It requires a dual effort.
  • If you find a famous architect who put most of his energy into becoming famous, it will be plain to see that he is famous for being famous. I am sure this is not what most people want.
  • If you make a balanced effort in both areas, as Zumthor has done, you will see that too.

Besides doing good work, making interesting and/or quality architecture, putting an effort into being famous and getting recognition means publishing, writing, branding, going on the lecture circuit, building symbolic capital, schmoozing, and basically doing whatever you can to be visible in a positive way. The last time I checked Zumthor had close to a dozen books published in several languages, here is a list, just to name a few: Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings Projects, Atmospheres: Architectural Environments - Surrounding Objects, Corps Sonore Suisse (Swiss Sound Box), Architecture in Vorarlberg, Three Concepts: Thermal Bath Vals‎, A+U Extra Edition: Peter Zumthor and this one titled just plain old "Peter Zumthor". This does not include the countless articles, and magazine publications (glossy & non-glossy) that he has personally written or consented to by providing materials (images of the works, press releases, interviews etc).

You will notice that this is not consistent with the part of his ingenious branding strategy/philosophy of "I don't believe in publishing images of the work because architecture must be experienced first hand". He publishes anyway, because he has to. This elaborate brand is shrouded around a hermitesqe-philosopher-monk like mystique: His official press release photos shows him clad in what looks like a priest's shirt minus the neck collar piece, unpretentious, his arms folded, a stoic glare behind a meticulously trimmed white beard and short militarily disciplined hair cut. His writing style is largely phenomenological and reads like a mythology storybook. He touts beliefs like "I am not a networker, I’m not a difficult star. I’m simply someone who wants to do good work". He is eager to talk about how small his firm is and how selective he is with accepting commissions: "I can’t be bought with money" is his attitude towards clients.

If everyone knew how calculated all of this is, they would be astounded. Not just astounded--it would unveil his mystique and wreck his brand.

At this point, I should wave a flaming disclaimer that I don't believe he is insincere for one moment. You have to believe in your mystique whole heartedly before anyone else can believe in you. It has to come from you and resonate with your core beliefs and who you are. That's the first rule in building a brand or mystique. It would appear that the humble-one has deluded himself into believing that all this does not equal promoting himself and his work. Your job as an aspiring great-one, is to not buy into this delusion. Be aware that it is a brand, and that it is part of an elaborate, premeditated, well managed promotional strategy.

Besides the publications and the mystique-branding, he has certainly not shied away from the lecture circuit: Just google "peter+zumthor+lectures" and you will see a"zumthor wuz here" list of places far and wide where this globe trotting mountain hermit has been speaking ( ie. self promoting). If you are not an incredible networker, you can not pull this off. But lets say you are not an incredible networker and you somehow managed to pull this off, you would have to be either brain-dead or extremely socially repulsive not to come away with a network of friends and contacts that reads like a who-is-who-list in the world of architecture and beyond.

If you can ever find a copy of his resume, you will also see that he has built a treasure chest of symbolic capital: connections, awards, prestigious teaching positions, etc. He has taught at renowned schools from SCI-ARC in Los Angeles to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, (far away from the obscure mountains of Switzerland), where he has no doubt rubbed shoulders and schmoozed with the famous and well connected (even some of the Jurors of the Pritzker prize committee).

I am sorry, I just don't believe in random luck. There is a saying "the harder you work the luckier you get". Zumthor certainly worked hard at his luck and now it has paid off. He is a brilliant networker, brander, and self-promoter whether he sees himself that way or not! Three cheers to Mr. Zumthor for a Pritzker well earned. Don't envy him, emulate him!

As for the Pritzker prize committee, they have historically given the prize to well established starchitects: Heavyweights in the field who have largely branded themselves as stars. As we have seen in the previous post, the era of the starchitect is over. The committee finds itself in an awkward position. On the one hand they are way too embarrassed to bestow the award on someone who overtly brands himself as starchitect, and on the other hand they are way too parochial to pick someone outside the establishment. So why not choose a starchitect who brands himself as "I am totally not interested in being a starchitect" What other choice did they have? I am really curious to see who the other candidates were.

In the coming days you will see many articles published about the Pritzker prize winner where he will be lauded for operating outside the establishment in a tiny remote village in the Swiss mountains, far removed from the international architecture scene. They will write about how he eschews the publicity and the promotions. They will describe him as the son of a lowly carpenter. Upon being told that he will receive the prize he made this statement:

That a body of work as small as ours is recognized in the professional world makes us feel proud and should give much hope to young professionals that if they strive for quality in their work it might become visible without any special promotion.

Without any special promotion? huh? When you look at the avalanche of these disingenuous statements, I implore you to resist gazing at the swinging pendulum of this hypnotic branding machine. I offer this statement to young professionals instead:
You won't get wise with the sleep still in your eyes, no matter what your dreams might be.
I am happy for Peter Zumthor, I wish him well, he is a good architect, as I said before, I like his work very much, but please don't insult me with the "I just make good work in tiny Swiss mountain" story line. Success leaves clues, and there are there to see, right before our eyes if we only open them and look.
Good work + Good Promotion = Fame & Recognition.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

59.Take a Lesson from Diller+Scofidio+Renfero

If you have been paying any attention. you have no doubt seen this interview of Diller+Scofidio+Renfero. I am posting it here...well because I like it. What the hell. It is also relevant to almost everything that has been discussed in this blog. It will aslo serve as a reference and prelude to some of the topics to come. Hint, hint, the recession, the end of the starchitecture era, interdiciplinary practice and ooh ooh faith. So without further adieu, read on.


S:Elizabeth and I started working when there was a recession in architecture. When architecture turned into paper architecture, doing drawings and sketches, showing in galleries...

The only way of building then was to start being involved in performances theaters, out on the beach, art installations, where we could build something and see the reaction from the public

D: the recession was coincidental, I came to architecture really with no intention of being an architect. I studied architecture and I was always interested to be an artist and slowly we started to work around issues of space. We were interested in conventions of the every day, we were interested in domesticity, we were interested in issues of visuality, there were many issues that were of interest, but always in between disciplines.

S: We never said lets start working and develop an office or studio, hire people, lets get jobs. We always found things that interested us and that's where we went.

D:We were always a research studio. We were always interested in research whether the outcome was in the form of an installation, in the form of a book, or ultimately in the from of a building. They were just iterations of different forms of the same ideas.

S: Before Elizabeth and I started working together, I had been at another practice, and I had been really sour with the way the profession of architecture was approaching jobs, work and getting commissions. It had nothing to do with issues of architecture. It had to with: I have to produce an income, I have to get work, I have to stay alive.

D: There was an intellectual bankruptcy at the time in 1979... the discourse was happening only academically there was very little in the profession.


D: Sometimes we were thought of as just wanting to be on the periphery; a decision to want to lob grenades from the periphery at architecture critically...
when we had a chance to do this building, for many people it was a kind of a wake up, for us it was a kind of validation.

S: Before that we did theater, performance, installations, and a lot of architects accuse us of not being able to deal with comprise, not being able to deal with difficult issues of construction. They thought we were taking the easy way out. They kept saying "wait till you do a building... you will see".

CR: And what did you find out when you did a building?

S: The problems are there in everything you do whether you do a drinking glass (which we have done for water), there are complex problems.


R: We didn't know how to achieve what we wanted to achieve here. We knew that we waned to make the hall an integral part of the performance , we knew that we wanted it to glow but nobody had done that before. We didn't know technically how to achieve it. So it was a process that we embarked on, we didn't know what the end result would be

S: In many of our projects we didn't know how we are going to achieve them. When we did a cloud in Switzerland, we didn't have the slightest idea how we were going to achieve that. So I think that is one of the things that is important to us is taking that leap of faith and believing in yourself that you are going to get there as you have to do it.

D: We usually take that leap of faith off a cliff without a parachute and we figure it out on the way down...


R: The era that we have been in is the Starchitecture era.
Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, there are many that probably your average American knows now. In the past 10 years we have been introduced to them where as before no one would have known anyone but Frank Lloyd Wright. There is a coincidence between a booming economy and an interest in architecture and also an align between branding and architecture; that made for very glamorous, very exciting and very iconic buildings. We are no longer in that age. That age cant co-exist with our current economic situation. Nor is it the Obama generation's age of architecture. This age is much more careful, much more thoughtful. We are not not-interested in image but we are also interested in doing the right thing. So we are in a new age of balance.

S: I think you are right in one respect, that there was a moment maybe about 40 years ago when you said "I like Frank Lloyd Wight, I am going to do Frank Lloyd Wright buildings" and you would try to build buildings as close to what Frank Lloyd Wright would build or "I like Mies" and you would defiantly do something that was as Miesian as possible. Then there was a moment when architects began to posses their work, their ideas and say "if I do this, you cant do that"

D:I think starchitcture has began to loose a little bit of the glow. People began to be a little repetitive. There were a lot of people that were important in the field that were called on over and over again. Their brand was desired. It wasn't just the name, it was that image of the work. And that work was rubber stamped over and over again and it didn't allow people to grow.

The Ciliary Function, Eyebeam Atelier of New Media & Technology: The Charles and Ray Eames Lecture, Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio, Flesh: Architectural Probes, Blur: The Making of Nothing, Back to the Front: Tourisms of War, Wired Magazine, February 2000, Vol. 8, #2 (Cybernetics pioneer, Kevin Warwick. Martin Nisenholtz made headlines by taking The New York Times digital. Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio on Architecture.), Charlie Rose - Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro (March 31, 2009)

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Conrad is comming back

My hiatus is over.
Stay tuned folks,
Conrad is coming back and will be posting regularly and semi-regularly again.
Thanks for all the letters of support.

I am working on a new post coming in the nest few days.


Liberating Minds Since August 2007