On the occasion of his recent 80th birthday celebration, Kenneth Frampton, the legendary architect, critic, historian, and Ware Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1972, stopped by Carlos Brillembourg’s SoHo studio to talk about his work.
Carlos Brillembourg (Rail): It is a wonderful tribute to me as your former student to have you visiting me to talk about a subject that we both have a passion for—architecture, and the entire realm of architecture, which of course is meaningless without people. I recall your teaching at Columbia in the fall of 1972 while you were writing the book Modern Architecture: A Critical History. I remember how wonderful it was, the improvisational quality of your lecture. You had some notes written down, but it was not scripted; it was as if you were discovering it for yourself—although, that’s hardly true. Your insight into the nature of construction is very rare among historians of architecture. My first question is: how has your experience as a professional architect influenced how you write about architecture?
Kenneth Frampton: It could be said that I backed myself into an academic life: to spend time teaching and writing was not my initial point of departure. Most of my activity as an architect was prior to coming to the U.S. in ’65. The most significant building I designed was on an eight-story apartment block in the center of London. I had the privilege of designing the building from the very first sketches to the working drawings, to supervising the construction and seeing the work completed; that was a very formative and unique experience. I first came to the U.S. for a year to teach at Princeton and to take up a fellowship. Then I returned to London and for a while was going back and forth between London and Princeton University. In 1972, I left Princeton to come to Columbia, and I’ve been here ever since, except for a three-year period when I taught at the Royal College of Art in London. However, to answer your question: I write like an architect because I was trained as an architect, therefore I still approach teaching and writing from an insider’s point of view. What makes my teaching and, above all, my writing unique is that it’s colored by an awareness of the issues involved in the conception and realization of built form.
Rail: Well, if it’s not from the inside, then what do we have? We only have a skimming of architecture as a cultural artifact. And yes, there is archaeology, and there are other sciences, and it is a useful tool to discover things about the past, and I’m not denying the importance of art and science. But I also remember your interest in the writings of philosophers, specifically Hannah Arendt; and your introduction of her work to us as students was fundamental: specifically her book The Human Condition of 1958.
Frampton: Yes, my involvement with Arendt borders on obsession. This book not only changed my whole way of looking at architecture, but also of regarding the world in general. I first read it when I came to the U.S. in the mid-’60s, and I found that her concept of the human situation seemed to be particularly relevant to the conditions of that time, and even, I suppose, today. Her whole emphasis on public vs. private and work vs. labor, these dyadic categories still seem to me to be relevant categories with which to approach the analysis and the creation of architecture. There’s a phrase of hers, “the space of public appearance,” which has haunted me for a long time, and which still means a lot to me even at this moment, and I think this concept is central to the whole endeavor of architecture.
Rail: What is architecture as a space of public appearance? What role does it have? What role do cities have? What role do cities have in the space of public appearance? Is some of today’s architecture concerned with camouflage? Is representation through media more determinate than the physical act of living in a city and walking the streets? It seems there is a whole category of architecture that is being produced, which, although it is physically built, is a kind of camouflage or mirage. It is not meant to be experienced as a real thing; it is simply there to be seen, but not participate in the real world: not to serve as a space of public appearance, as Hannah Arendt would say—not even in the traditional concept of public space coming from the Romans. So, what is this architecture?
Frampton: In attempting to write about the last 20 years of production in architecture, in the fourth and last edition of Modern Architecture: A Critical History, I found it extremely difficult to deal with this period because there have been so many buildings built in the last two decades, and although a great deal of this work is extremely brutal and barbaric in character, there is also a remarkable body of very sophisticated and sensitive work that can be found, here and there, almost everywhere across the surface of the globe. Obviously, some countries are more productive than others in this regard. For this, I developed a taxonomy whereby I decided to approach the material under six headings, namely topography, morphology, sustainability, materiality, habitat, and civic form. I opted for these categories because I think a great deal of recent work can be classified under these terms.
So, for example, under topography, I stress the importance of landscape in contemporary practice, going back to Vittorio Gregotti’s The Territory of Architecture of 1966. Today, landscape has become more pertinent to the architectural project than it has ever been before. Hence the coinage of the term, “landscape urbanism,” and the emergence of practitioners who are engaged in this activity, such as James Corner of Field Operations in New York City, or Charles Waldheim, who now directs the division of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. All of these manifestations point to the importance of landscape in dealing with large urban conurbations, which escapes the boundary of what we used to conceive of as dense urban fabric. I am, of course, referring to the megalopolis in general. So this accounts for one category under which I thought one could approach and analyze the production of the last 20 years. The second category, morphology, has to do with digital parametric design. Though one has to acknowledge this type of production, one also has to admit that there’s no such thing as a neutral history and that there is obviously a polemic built into these categories. In other words, while I tend to regard the topographic dimension as positive, I regard the digital generation of form as negative. If I pass to the next two, sustainability and materiality, they are similarly charged. I look at sustainability as having a cultural as well as a technical dimension, and thus as having a positive component. On the other hand, I find the emphasis on material, on the skin of a building, which is very prevalent in contemporary practice, as having a somewhat negative consequence. One thinks of an extremely successful contemporary practice such as that of Herzog & de Meuron Architekten, in which the space within their buildings has virtually no quality whatsoever. They are seemingly totally uninterested in space; their work exclusively depends on the expressivity of surface and shape.
Rail: That’s a good answer, but it’s only the beginning—I guess we have to take it one step further. So, the positive is the landscape and the negative is the morphological.
Frampton: To sum up in a prejudicial way, the positive for me resides in topography and sustainability whereas the negative tends to be embodied in an undue dependence on the parametric and the expressivity of the surface. Although taking such a stance is polemical, one also has to acknowledge that there are many buildings which display one or more aspects of these tendencies. But by inventing this taxonomy, I was able to approach contemporary practice in a critical way and illustrate the general discussion with specific examples.
Rail: Let’s return for a moment to the issue of sustainability, because for me sustainability is perhaps the most polemical of all categories. It involves a kind of political discussion about consumption and a justification of conspicuous consumption in the part of the world that has all the economic power and control of the world’s resources through whatever means possible, like colonization. So, sustainability is, for me, not necessarily a positive category, and I think this requires a little bit more clarification.
Frampton: The first qualification that has to be made is to resist the tendency to reduce sustainability solely to technology, which is of course reductive by definition. Sustainability for me only has a positive dimension if it is also developed from a cultural standpoint.
Rail: It has to come from within.
Frampton: Yes, if we think of pre-architectural building culture, i.e. the general building of the medieval world, when there were no architects, only master builders and a culture of vernacular production, building was almost always sustainable. It was technical and cultural at one and the same time. And at its fullest the sustainable paradigm takes us back to these values.
Rail: Yes, if you have the right definition, but not what’s being applied by the government here.
Frampton: As far as I can see the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design criteria are largely bureaucratic. Although they do of course enable a reduction in the consumption of energy, since buildings make up virtually 50 percent of our total energy consumption.
Rail: Well yes, but that’s not just the buildings themselves, but also the production of materials, and the life of the building which requires constant maintenance, and so on.
Frampton: That is to say the total amount of energy the building consumes during its lifetime.
Rail: Not to mention the transportation of the materials.
Frampton: Yes, above all the transportation of so-called embodied energy. As Wilfried Wang pointed out a number of years ago, in West Germany, in the ’90s, a third of the waste stream was building waste—the consequences of instant demolition of old fabric. That’s a very sobering factor in itself. Maximization, as an essential aspect of late capitalism, is fundamentally negative in itself and this applies directly to building and the maintenance of built form. Let us take, for example, the maximization of air conditioning in North America, where it has long been the case that there are many buildings in North America where the windows are permanently sealed. The space is fully air-conditioned no matter what, and even when the climate is temperate, you can never open the windows, even if it is a nice evening, because maximized air-conditioning dominates the entire situation.
Rail: Well, it’s also a cultural artifact in that sense because of the preservation of the sheets: It’s almost as if they’re put in a refrigerator to maintain an illusion of cleanliness, as if you were the only consumer of that space.
Frampton: All of this points to a kind of technological formalism, inasmuch as a huge plate glass membrane is, for many architects, a formal preference. From the point of view of human use, the fact that you cannot manually adjust the ventilation of a space is already a barbaric state of affairs that arises, in part, out of the maximization of technique. While there’s no reason why one shouldn’t take advantage of modern technique when appropriate, this is totally different from technological maximization.
Rail: And it is the, let’s say, unseen, invisible ideology inherent in a particular technology that one has to deconstruct, right?
Frampton: Yes, mediation should be a fundamental part of built culture and hence of the practice of architecture as a discipline.
Rail: Which is not really being talked about.
Frampton: Not really. Not inside schools of architecture and not outside of them either. Mediation presupposes a more nuanced approach to the environment and to the relationship between the human subject and the environment.
Rail: But you say this as if there were a dichotomy there. How can you conceive of the environment without humans?
Frampton: Of course it should be axiomatic.
Rail: It is mediated in such a way that it is, but it is a fundamental and political act of separation.
Frampton: From the point of view of mediation and cultural sustainability the work of Alvar Aalto remains, in my opinion, particularly critical and significant. In 1935, Aalto gave a lecture entitled “Rationalism and Man,” in which he insisted that what we mean by rationality has to be expanded. Above all, he pointed out that rationality worthy of the name has to also take into consideration psychological factors, that is the response of the subject to the environment at a psycho-physiological level. In my view this is totally valid and the sad fact is that a great deal of fashionable, modern production totally ignores this issue. If we take, for example, the New Museum in Manhattan, a more barbaric work would be hard to find from the point of view of the experience of the subject.
Rail: [Laughs.] The cramped interior staircase——
Frampton: Everything, and the sheet metal on the outside, the crude detailing of the staircase, and the fact that there ought to have been a high-speed elevator at minimum, because people are now compelled to take the staircase because the elevator moves like a snail. The building is a totally unpleasant environment and not particularly impressive, from either a spatial or a contextual point of view. In my view Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates have a totally overblown reputation; they evidence cult of “brand” architecture, in which clients follow like lemmings one after another.
Rail: Well no, no, SANAA is useful in terms of the “anti-Aalto”—that’s what we are discussing.
Frampton: Okay. That’s very good: SANAA is the “anti-Aalto” principle. However, we may easily cite other architects who could readily qualify as “anti-Aalto.”
Rail: Let’s dismiss that. Let’s continue from Aalto, and to this day a tradition, which is somehow held heroically, in some ways, by a few architects. There is continuity between Gunnar Asplund, of course, his employee: Alvar Aalto, and some other people in the Nordic school, and then, even, let’s jump across the ocean to Carlos Raul Villanueva, because he was a very good reader of Aalto and quoted him, and somebody that you have championed in the past—Álvaro Siza—or, even, down a little further South in Brazil, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, well—what do you think? You tell me, this is just a question: Let’s forget about all of the anti-Aaltos. Can we make a positive history from Aalto to today?
Frampton: The list is probably very big——
Rail: Well, let’s take the highlights from it——
Frampton: It would be a misrepresentation to assert that all of the more sensitive architects work at exactly the same level or with the same kind of emphasis, particularly when one has in mind practices like that of Mendes da Rocha and let’s say, for argument’s sake, that of Patkau Architects in Vancouver, I value both of these practices highly and have equal respect for both. Of course I’m aware of the fact that there are discernible differences between them, so when one starts to make an anthology of the critical architecture of the last 20 years, one has to vary one’s criteria somewhat as one passes from the one to the other. One could even claim that the architecture of Mendez follows that of Le Corbusier, while that of John and Patricia Patkau is deeply indebted to Aalto. Hence, their Strawberry Vale and Seabird Island schools.
Rail: Yeah, that’s an extraordinary work.
Frampton: There are other architects who display a wide range of mediated expression, such as Álvaro Siza for his Quinta da Conceição pool and the Boa Nova Tea House restaurant both of which are being built in the town of Matosinhas in Portugal. All of these works are very sensitively attuned to the topography in which they are situated, and use materials in a very simple and sensitive manner. In the work of Siza, in particular, there is always a strong topographic emphasis, with the materiality of the form rising out of the ground according to the structural characteristics of the material used and the finer grain of the detailing—whether the windows are made out of wood or metal—or the way in which the cladding of the walls is handled up to the dado level. All of these nuances give a different poetic expression in each instance and are equally connected to the specificity of climate and place in each case.
Rail: So in that sense they are vernacular?
Frampton: I don’t like using the word vernacular because I think vernacular work comes into being in a state of unconsciousness. There is this beautiful essay by Adolf Loos entitled “Architecture,” in which he touches on the pre-aesthetic value of a peasant building the roof over his house. He asks in a Socratic manner whether it is a beautiful roof or an ugly roof, and the peasant replies he doesn’t know, it’s the roof as his father built the roof, and his grandfather, and so on, etc. This is the vernacular and we have to be careful about our use of this term.
Rail: So architects cannot make vernacular architecture?
Frampton: Not really, no.
Rail: It’s a contradiction?
Rail: Okay, so we’ve established it. You discussed Mendes da Rocha and Álvaro Siza, whose works maintain the Aalto model. Is there anyone else?
Frampton: Well, to go on and concentrate on the specificity of expression one may cite Mendes da Rocha again. There are two works which immediately come to mind in which his essential poetic and political stance is revealed: one is the Government Services Center at Itaquera, in São Paolo where people come to pay taxes, get dog licenses, etc. and the other is his Serra Dourada stadium in the same city.
Rail: A kind of Roman attitude toward construction and the use the materials in a manner that is essentially tectonic.
Frampton: Both buildings are equally tectonic, and, at the same time, exemplars of Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the space of public appearance.” And one could say that in Mendez da Rocha’s buildings, the space of appearance in relation to the tectonic has a different character from this conjunction in, let’s say, that of Siza’s buildings such as the Faculty of Architecture in Porto of 1995, where structure in se does not play a prominent role, except for the folded form of the long zenithal light in the library.
Rail: What about the Siza museum he constructed in Porto Alegre?
Frampton: Yes! The Iberê Camargo Foundation, is made exclusively of concrete, bêton brut, in fact, and not rendered on the outside. It is a monolithic concrete building, basically. I don’t recall how the roof lights are constructed, they probably are built out of a lighter material, just as the floor is constructed out of a different material.
Rail: Well, it’s because the interior space was, in my reading of it, created directly out of the phenomenological experience he was looking for. And the outside, as a result of that, is not pre-established in any way.
Frampton: The result, I think, is derived from what you just said, that is to say the conception of the architectural promenade within the building and in relation to the landscape and the views and how they are situated within the topography.
Rail: And how the narrative is reversed when you go up and down.
Frampton: Yes, well, that’s an incredibly ingenious play with the ramp system and the unexpected progression of the subject through the building.
Rail: Right, and you kind of get lost in it.
Frampton: It’s full of surprises [laughter], and it’s interesting because Siza gave a single lecture in the Royal Institute of British Architects in London on the occasion of receiving the gold medal in February of 2009, and the questions coming from the British audience after the lecture was finished were typically British and empirical in character. [Laughter.] For example, one person commented on the fact that he could not detect an expansion joint in the concrete construction. [Laughter.] Really crazy. But, because as he put it, one can see these joints in Oscar Niemeyer’s work, and Siza’s answer was typically ironic, but also didactic. He first said, “You know, we had very good engineers,” and then he pointed out that this kind of convex shape in plan is a shape that dilates because of its own geometry, so that much of the expansion and contraction are sort of taken up by the shape itself.
Rail: Wow, that’s wonderful.
Frampton: What is very interesting about this building is that it is partly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. It is, in effect, a total reinterpretation of it. And, in this regard, it is a building that recognizes that, more or less inevitably, a museum or a series of museological spaces amounts to a series of promenades, and they are, in that sense, of course, narrative spatial sequences.
Rail: As in Le Corbusier——
Frampton: If one compares Le Corbusier’s Museum of Unlimited Growth (1939) to Siza’s Iberê Camargo Foundation, one sees that Siza’s has the central space similar to that of the Guggenheim, which is a public, symbolic space. And this public, symbolic space of appearance cannot be found in Le Corbusier’s Musée à croissance illimitée. So right there, for example, in making that comparison, one touches on the evolution of architectural culture in a general sense that transcends particular authorships, and is thus a referential continuity.
Rail: And that’s the way it always has been.
Frampton: Yes, but today, I think, part of our discussion turns on the fact that there is a kind of crisis in this moment due to the fact that there has been this very strong mediatic tendency to reduce architecture to images or to surface effects. This brings me back to the question of materiality, and to the fact that architecture has been recently obsessed with images and surface effects, either parametric plastic surface effects or a preoccupation with tactile, texture-like qualities.
Rail: Could we call that topography as well?
Frampton: In any kind of taxonomy once you have given a name to a class you have to, of course, try to define what that class is, because the word itself does not always automatically establish the definition.
Rail: But that’s a more scientific usage of that word.
Frampton: Well, but it still relates to everyday thought nonetheless. The relationship between language and thought, or rather making classifications is a way of thinking about things, or differentiating between them without being either mathematical or scientific. Nevertheless, you have to establish the definition of a class. For example, I have been impressed with the Yokohama International Port Terminal designed by Foreign Office Architects completed in 2002, which is a very coherent piece of parametric design in as much as its folded form consistently evolves from one end of the building to the other, so that taking a series of sections through the building is virtually like taking a series of sections through an animal. And although it may be justly seen as a rather remarkable example of the parametric approach, which I believe it is, it is also an exemplary topographic form. So you have a building that, in a sense, could be used to illustrate both a topographic sensibility and a display of the parametric method.
Rail: Right, and then if you turn it on its side, and you change the material to glass, you have a kind of “froth on the daydream” as Boris Vian would say. [Laughs.]
Frampton: Yes, but that’s not to accept the object as it is. It becomes something else. It’s speculation.
Rail: But in a sense, this division between topography and materiality is ambiguous. Because you can also look at the manifestations of this kind of mediatic architecture as a kind of topography, as an obsession with topographic exaggeration, let’s call it that—whereas in neo-classical building, the differences would be measured in inches or eighths of an inch in terms of the expressivity or restraint with regard to a particular representation of order, but here there is no restraint. What previously could be expressed in inches, now is expressed in feet or more, and the exaggeration of this topography, vertical topography, becomes the key characteristic of this kind of architecture.
Frampton: Your observation brings up the issues of the spectacular and the spectacular image, and the competition between different images or rather the competition between cities at the level of the building seen as an image, hence the success of Frank Gehry. The other issue, which has to be acknowledged, is that taxonomies are never totally coherent or consistent. I remember someone once pointing out to me that if you classify animals according to their skeletal structure, you get one kind of result, however if you classify animals in terms of their respiration, you get another. Thus depending on the aspect emphasized the class changes. So it’s a chicken or the egg situation in a way. So it is with the expressivity, and while I think one can say that a building by Siza emphasizes its material surface this is but one crude criteria with which to approach the enormous range of contemporary production and establish a critical response to it. One other thing I want to add is that I don’t think it is reductive or insincere to acknowledge the character a building’s image, but to reduce a building to nothing but the image is where the problem lies.
Rail: It’s the problem because it becomes decontextualized. The building belongs to the city, or the landscape, or both—if there is really a difference—and belongs to the people, so decontextualizing the building from its use and social function is really part of the problem, is it not?
Frampton: Yes, but there is also something else you said earlier in making your allusion to classicism. Just now I’m thinking of Demetri Porphyrios who has had this extraordinarily prolific transatlantic, even worldwide practice—buildings in the U.K., the Middle East, Greece, and the U.S.. His Ph.D thesis at Princeton in the mid-’60s was situated on the parking lot opposite Cooper Union, on the site which was later developed by Charles Gwathmey. This was for an opera house in the manner of Aalto, later in London under the influence of Léon Krier, he becomes preoccupied with the neoclassical tradition, and with the idea of closing the cultural code, which is an idea that I believe comes from Louis Althusser.
Rail: But how different is that from Aldo Rossi, with his belief in the continuity of history and typological analysis, his conviction that cities and architecture are made together and are intrinsic?
Frampton: It’s not so different, but closing the code in the case of Porphyrios means, if I understand it correctly, the acceptance of Classical order and Classical language. Later he widens it to include in his own practice the other great historical style oscillates between postmodern Neoclassicism and postmodern Neo-Gothic.
Rail: Well, that was also done in the 19th century.
Frampton: Of course it was. Porphyrios really goes back to that eclectic moment.
Rail: We have wonderful Neo-Gothic courthouses in London—some of my favorite buildings.
Frampton: We also have Neo-Gothic at Yale that’s not bad either. [Laughter.] So, I think one has to accept that this historicism, particularly in the 19th century and maybe still now in certain situations, is able to produce a result which is very coherent, and one could also say even reassuring.
Rail: But also frightening.
Frampton: Yes, and the problem is that in most instances it can’t be carried through with any sort of conviction.
Rail: And that’s the problem.
Frampton: Yes, but we can derive from this historicism an abstract rationality which can be seen as having a Classical basis.
Rail: Like Colin Rowe.
Frampton: Yes, but even more like Giorgio Grassi.
Rail: Oh, right. That’s more radical.
Frampton: Well, more rational than Rowe’s architectural elaborations. So, on the one side, there is this challenge, if one evokes architects like Álvaro Siza or Alvar Aalto, of touching an organic attitude in one way or another towards the generation of form, and that this attitude does have a distant link to the medieval.
Rail: Well, the medieval city for sure.
Frampton: Right. And, on the other side, of course, you may evoke a kind of Classical, rational, abstract order. This leads one to an orthogonal geometry with civic consequences, and this, it’s rather obvious, to geometrically-ordered civic spaces, of streets in relation to squares. While the other organic tradition leads to more irregular urban spaces and irregular street patterns.
Rail: So what’s the difference between that and the teachings of Camillo Sitte?
Frampton: There isn’t any. Sitte’s attitude toward urban fabric is——
Frampton: Yes, but it’s also a critique of the rational gridded city.
Rail: Of course.
Frampton: And of the free-standing building. However, this conversation is becoming very digressive. It’s not negatively digressive, but it is covering a lot of territory at once. I think we have no choice but to recognize that these tensions between different cultural paradigms are part of our legacy in general, and we can’t really deny, except in a demagogic way, either of these legacies.
Frampton: Yes, well—whatever.
Rail: The Roman gridded city, and the medieval gridded city at the same time.
Frampton: Well, putting it like that makes them seem a little remote.
Rail: But they’re not. They are there.
Frampton: Well, they are there, but the issue of what are their inherent consequences for contemporary practice needs a lot of qualification, along with how these traces from the past are to be used in the present.
Rail: Let’s forget the past, let’s forget the present, let’s forget every other city—let’s focus on New York City and look at its grid. What is the origin of that grid?
Frampton: Well, it is, of course, related to the Hippodamian grid.
Rail: And it is a continuous present.
Frampton: Yes, but you could make the case that the Midwestern grid, the subdivision of large chunks of the American continent into squares has been carried out for agricultural purposes.
Rail: Like that of Thomas Jefferson’s.
Frampton: Yes. But along with all of this there emerged certain ideological consequences. I suppose we could say this is connected to the Heideggerian critique of instrumentality in general. I am alluding to his idea of a bounded-domain, in opposition to spatium in extensio—to the continual, rationalized projection of territory.
Rail: And from there came Arendt’s concept of public space.
Frampton: Well, I’m not so sure whether she draws her entire concept from Heidegger, although the Greek polis, which is key to her whole political and cultural philosophy, is of course a bounded domain, and a space of public appearance; again we came back to this issue. One of the negative factors of the open-ended grid without any inflection is that it is just a kind of universal, mathematical schema.
Rail: But one of the earliest gridded cities was Miletus in Anatolia. We always look at it as a plan, and we forget the section: It has a very steep section, and nobody draws that.
Frampton: As one goes from one Greek site to another, one will find different conditions.
Rail: So this idea of the infinite grid is really a misrepresentation, because we are looking at things only in plan-view, and not at plan and section simultaneously.
Frampton: That’s right. However there is, nonetheless, a kind of ideological aspect to favoring either a universal grid or an organic space field.
Rail: Would Napoleon be seen as someone who had a vision of global grid?
Frampton: Yes. So did Jefferson, as you pointed out. And they were both Cartesian by definition. There’s no denying that fact.
Rail: That’s part of our history.
Frampton: It is, and to the extent that it becomes singular, to the extent that it becomes the only principle.
Rail: Then it is totalitarian.
Frampton: Well, the architectural result, in any case, tends to be reductive—that is what one gets out of it, and also, to the extent that it’s reductive, it’s also somewhat alienating.
Rail: But in application of that, it can never be reductive because there are always the original conditions of the site.
Frampton: Yes, but when you think about it, there is a lot of modern architecture where the building is reduced to a free-standing aesthetic object, and that is not true of Siza or Aalto, or of Patkau Architects in Vancouver or of Mendes de la Rocha—that is the one thing they all have in common. But, if you take, for example, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing, it is a freestanding aesthetic object. Whether one thinks it is an ugly object or a beautiful object is neither here nor there. The preoccupation of the creator is that it should be a freestanding aesthetic object.
Rail: When you look at it in that context, it is a very foreign object and therefore sets itself apart from the context.
Frampton: Yes, it’s completely out of context. But that is the idée fixe of Koolhaas, basically. And one can see how this idée fixe has a negative dimension.
Rail: Well not only of Koolhaas; most foreign architects working in China have, in a way, produced an architecture which is iconic—very much as part of their program, and yet perversely out of context.
Frampton: Yes, that’s right. However, in some occasions, a few have created a new context. Steven Holl’s housing scheme in Beijing is a good example, for instance. There he created a very definite context, and it’s not a freestanding aesthetic object. That kind of absolute rationality, very abstract and very aestheticized, is something that we can set against a more rooted, topographic work that is already inflected by the specifics of the site. This also takes us back to the culture of sustainability, and the specifics of the climate.
Rail: Yes, of course. Somewhere Albert Camus says that is the worst injustice of the climate, about which one can do nothing.
Frampton: In some cases it can be quite literal.
Rail: 100 percent.
Frampton: Yes, pretty rough.
Rail: Well, that’s good for us because if we breathe water, it really keeps our skin nice and wet and it makes us very happy! [Laughs.]
Frampton: Yes, but as long as we don’t have to move around too much.
Rail: [Laughs.] We learn to subsist in that. This is your prejudice coming from the North.
Frampton: Well, probably, yes. Manhattan can get pretty humid. Probably Caracas is not that humid compared to Panama.
Rail: No, it’s a 100 percent difference. I’ve been to both.
Frampton: Oh, you have? I didn’t realize that.
Rail: Well, my first wife was Panamanian.
Frampton: We probably should stop soon because now we’re into anecdotes. A young Panamanian I just met told me amazing things: first of all, they think Panama is the micro-boom city of the Americas today; they think of it, and they use the term, as the Latin-American Dubai because there is an enormous investment. And one of the reasons why is because they are widening the canal.
Rail: The Chinese have been financing that for the past 15 years.
Frampton: That’s very interesting, I did not know that. Do you know the raison d’être for widening the canal?
Rail: Of course. It’s because the oil tankers can’t get through.
Frampton: That must be the reason, but there is also another reason, which is that they also thought—I was told—that the melting of the ice would facilitate the Northwest passage.
Rail: You just mentioned Panama City, so lets talk about Bogotá or Caracas, on the very fascinating city of Medellín. What has happened there in the past 10 years?
Frampton: Latin America is a very particular part of the world from this point of view, very pertinent and provocative if one thinks of such urban transformations as Curitiba and the interventions of Jaime Lerner there and 15 years later of the same thing in Bogotá by Enrique Peñaloza and Samuel Moreno Rojas.
Rail: Right, and then subsequently in Medellín. This is part of a tradition.
Frampton: Well, what is fascinating about all of this, and what is also somehow missing in the present discourse here in the schools of architecture in North America is a deeper and more profound understanding of what has been achieved in these cities in a given time frame and using certain materials and methods.
Rail: Yes, as far as urban management, but also as far as the history of architecture; we forget about all of these architects, they don’t exist in the curriculums of these schools today. Take the city of Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Lima——
Frampton: Of course, I agree. But my only qualification would be that it would be more didactically effective in exercising an influence on urban design departments in the U.S., or on planning departments and that strange relationship between planning and urban design, to document the work carried out in these cities, to publish books, etc. As of now they don’t exist.
Rail: They do exist in Spanish. But let’s go back to the Town Planning Associates of 1953, to José Luis Sert, Le Corbusier, and Paul Lester Wiener who made town plans for Bogotá, Medellín, and Chimbote, and also for Cidade dos Motores. There are books published on what they built in South America.
Frampton: Yes, I know. What I am getting at are these more recent achievements, which have yet to be documented. This is something that schools of architecture can and should do. And it is a failure not to have done so.
Rail: But it’s not too late.
Frampton: I agree. You are a great encouragement. That’s why the topic you bring up—these Latin American cities—is important. I don’t want to deny older traditions of the 20th century, or earlier. If one begins with the more urgent idea of landscape urbanism, and with the concept of intervention, and the notion of urban acupuncture—you know, all of these recent concepts fall into place if you start to look at what has been achieved in Latin America. And it is important for other conditions, I think—not only in reference to Latin American cities. I have in mind broader, but incisive surveys of urban interventions, let us say going back to the 19th century and coming forward into the present, with a generic kind of argument plus a series of case studies in which the data is in place and the achievement can be assimilated by anyone reading the book. This kind of book doesn’t yet exist.