architecture : urban : visual culture

Principles and Languages

"It would be nice to have work in my old age too. It’s odd to you feel you are at your best, and not be approached." - the second part of the interview with Dezső Ekler.

We publish details of a conversation from the book of Dezső Ekler with title 'HÁZAK 2000-2014' which will be released this autumn.

AWG: When it comes to your buildings, the question of enlargement cannot be ignored.The shape of the Tokaj winery derives from the enlargement of local cellars. In the Somló buildings, in turn, you were inspired by the enlarged formations of geological forces and tectonic movements, and even included the enlargement of grapes or champagne bubbles in them.

DE: These, too, are metaphors. The metaphor of the cellar houses dug into the hill at Disznókő defines the spatial structure and appearance of the building: inside it is like walking along a row of wine cellars, outside it is like passing by a hill. In Somló too, the point was to fit the building in the land. We hid the vast hall under an artificial hill, from which protrudes an imaginary cellar house, which will be home to the tasting room. The idea was not to make the building blend in with the other buildings in the area – which are small houses, and this by contrast is a huge industrial space – but with the land, as a part of it. The Somló emerges from small hills on its skirt, which run along the one-time lava flows, like the supporting roots of a tree trunk. We inserted an artificial hillock among these, which opens towards the mountain because that is where the grapes come from and where the winemakers’ attention is focused. Viewed from the road, the closed hill delicately blends in with the landscape; however, to still make it an imposing sight nonetheless, we topped it with the significantly enlarged cellar house, which can be seen from a distance, and hangs over the logistics entrance. That’s all there is to it. An obvious metaphor that organizes the “spatial story” and also provides the form. The overhead illumination of the underground hall is facilitated by the retaining walls and slittings that run parallel to the neighbouring fences. The holes in the interior concrete walls are reminders of the porous quality of lava tubes and basalt, which gives rise to bubble-like vaults of diverse sizes.

AWG: The environment of wineries is inspirational, but winemaking itself is a magical activity. To what extent did that motivate you?

DE: An architect can reproduce the dynamics of winemaking with his own means. Grapes are living organisms that feed on materials from the dark recesses of the Earth, brought to the surface by water and the heat of the sun. Béla Hamvas offers a poetic description of how the mineral substances in the tufa, often drawn up from as deep as ten metres, are ennobled into essential oils, themselves an ethereal magic: rich and diverse in their volatility, yet palpably material. When the grapes are turned into wine, the living material is treated with great care and affection, as well as with the occasional brutality, before it is returned and hidden under the ground; more wizardry follows in the cool darkness of the cellars, and then the wine emerges from the deep. We can now communicate with it again: we drink it, and it runs through our stomach and veins to inspire all sorts of mischievous ideas in our brain. It is by dramatizing this process that the architect may approach wine, even if these are industrial processes. Each winery effects the complex and elegant processes of bringing in, taking down, hiding and bringing up in its own way, in accordance with individual philosophies. Over and above the spatial forms, the materials and colours, you may also dramatize this with the lights. When it comes to cellars, the most important thing is how you manage light; how you let it in under the ground. In the Somló winery, natural light reaches even the deepest parts through tricky and diverse means, the choice of which depends on what kind of light you need in a given space. It is important that natural light should welcome you in any cellar you step in. Even a little is enough, which sometimes passes through three or four reflecting surfaces, because direct sunlight must never reach bottled wine.

AWG: To stay with the topic of creation and materials, how do you design a building?

DE: That’s a tough one. First off, I would say in my head. I for one design in my head. You know the feeling you encounter when you write; if you sit down to write without having it in your mind, you’ll get stranded after the second sentence. If you don’t have the notion, the drive of the whole thing, the paper will kick back at you, like the clay of the potter or the wood of the logger. It will talk back, shrug you off. Until you have it ready in your mind, it’s not worth staining the paper. Not to disenchant you, but I can dictate a building from my car, over the phone, to draftsmen sitting at computers, as has often been the case.

AWG: Is what you see in your mind a concrete image, a formula, or perhaps a conceptual notion?

DE: It is an abstract and complex formula, difficult to describe in concepts. I think that’s normal; that’s probably how it works with everyone. It is indeterminate, to a degree that corresponds to how well the thing can be imagined, yet still palpable, conceived in 3D. Once you have it, you can work it out step by step. Even a sketch is any use only when it represents the whole thing, only then can you move on. Most architects make sketches on paper, and modify things in view of the drawings. That’s not how I go about it. As a self-taught person, this is what I have got used to.

AWG: Let’s take an example. The school in Pécel is a building that is very difficult to pigeonhole in Hungary. One distinct element is the cantilever that houses the arts room and music hall, composed with an amazing, bravura structure. I’d like to hear about the origin of this particular, very iconic solution. Was it the fulfilment of a long-held desire for a particular form, or was it perhaps rebuilding some memory you held?

DE: The first to manifest itself was not the cantilever but the formula of the whole building. Picture a snake or a dragon. I had a view of the building from its ears to its tail. Children enter the atrium from the street and walk along a ramp up to the very end of the second storey, the tip of the building, the music hall mentioned earlier. This procession, which solves complex spatial arrangements with a single move—this was the first to come. It took another year and a half – trying things again and again within the given situation – for the entire building to form. It took a great deal of luck, a happy convergence of conditions, to complete it.

AWG: How does the elaboration of details follow from this creative method?

DE: The details of my buildings are simpler than is currently common with today’s elite architects; they are of secondary importance, subordinate to the core idea. I’m not a professional chauvinist, I don’t like to fabricate art out of materials and details. The nodes are more commonplace in my case—nor do I think there is a need for more complex ones.

Spatial Stories and Metaphors

AWG: Apart from materials and details, there is a third domain, that of “location.” Without wanting to confront you with colleagues, let me ask you about your attitude to location, as well as to the discourses that question its character.

DE: I find this an exciting question—on account not so much of the concept of genius loci, as the related biases. It is telling how your question associates the elaboration of details and the poetics of materials with the role of the genius loci. In my understanding, the former are the means of characterizing architectural spaces, while grasping the genius loci is part of the fundamental layer of spatial stories. It is vital that one consider the latter, as essential as good manners, like giving the other the time of day. Then again, when someone keeps emphasizing the importance of being polite, you will be wary of them. Simply put, it’s not enough for good art, but it is essential for any architectural message. The fact that the genius loci became a key issue in our way of thinking over the past few decades may be the result of certain things being washed together, or, a chain of misunderstandings. The fact that the late Heidegger's theory based on the verbs bauen and wohnen became so popular among architects is primarily due to Christian Norberg-Schulz, who was actually thinking as a structuralist. And while it was obvious, still, he didn’t want to acknowledge that what Martin Heidegger constructed from these verbs were not concepts of spatial arrangement, but philosophical metaphors for his message of ontology, and metaphysics. Norberg-Schulz, as well as Frampton, tried to turn this pair of extremely broad concepts around and shoehorn them into the formal idiom of architecture, obviously seduced by the vision of a “langue” and a system of formal idioms, because they wanted, somehow, to create an inventory of the language of architecture. What is more, it was a normative attempt. Their imaginary dictionary was to be an ideal lexicon, like Christopher Alexander’s pattern language. But there is no such language, this is not how the language of architecture works. There are linguistic patterns, but no model language. And Heidegger’s genius loci started to assume a key role in this system of misunderstandings when it was used to prove the permanence of location-specific historical and spatial patterns. This then led architectural thought into a cul-de-sac, and caused the fall of postmodernism among other things. Whereas what was at issue was the simple fact that you can only build at a particular location. And what might be built later will change the content of the genius loci just as the original building did. This simple fact should not have been a cause to kick up such a fuss.

AWG: Are you saying that your architecture gained no inspiration from the research into the relationship of location and building?

DE: Of course it did. It’s completely normal to have a building that makes maximum use of this possibility, after all, this is the basic situation for the architectural narrative, the telling of spatial stories. This works a bit like a saga, where it’s okay to start with saying once upon a time there was a family.

AB: And how do you take into account the local context from the point of view of symbolism? When a lay person like me saw a Makovecz or some other organic building in their childhood, it was an alien world. By now the situation has reversed, and it looks like the archetype of some ancient knowledge, and has become part of the general discourse.

DE: What you ask about is an essential issue so allow me to go back to Heidegger. When Norberg-Schulz and the others seized the opportunity offered by Heidegger, namely how elevating it is to live and build on a given location, and how nicely this can grasp the entirety of human life, they obviously misinterpreted the metaphorical content of Heidegger’s bauen and wohnen. They tried to fabricate a pattern from it, and squeezed it in the act into the constraints of structuralist thought. They made it impossible to recognize and interpret living, or Dasein, or “thrown-ness into the world,” and the states of being that can be derived from it, directly in the language of architecture, as metaphorical formulations, as acts that generate the language. Because just as the genius loci, so the language of architecture is not an objective given but an opportunity, a spiritual phenomenon that is constantly generated. Makovecz’s work, which makes use of the past and folk architecture, is a good example because it is misunderstood for the above reasons, and is now widely considered a dictionary that you can open whenever you feel like,familiarity with this set of formulas being the key to success. Whereas Makovecz was in fact attempting the very opposite! In terms of metaphors or aesthetics, he used the folk and historical models ironically, in what he called houses of “false recognition.” In other words, he used them as a means of generating meaning, or language—as an intertextual gesture, to use a literary term. You realize an old building has been built, and that brings you to your senses, makes you understand who you are, where you are, wakes you up in the manner urged by Heidegger, wakes you up to the possibilities of your life, frees you from the captivity of the existing structures of life. If we take Heidegger’s “(being in) the world is the building” literally, just as the idea that the realm of authentic life is a “dwelling” that accepts and takes care of the world, what follows is more like the bubble of Makovecz’s 1972 experiment in minimal space than the house-like houses of today’s devotees of the genius loci. Obviously, the followers of Makovecz do not know what they are doing, and the master’s intent was the exact opposite of what they’re doing. Nor did the devotees of Rossi fare any better; the copies they are making by the hundred are constantly declining in intellectual quality. A counterexample is Jacques Herzog, a pupil of Rossi, who still considers the master’s essentialism as an opportunity to create unprecedented versions and vistas of dwelling and building.

AWG: Before we go into this further, let’s briefly return to the previous train of thought.We talked about materials, details and location, and then, after rejecting location-specificity as an external viewpoint, we discussed the reinterpretation of the limits of architecture, which leads, through an understanding of man’s thrown-ness into being and dwelling, to a narrated or dramatized use of space that rejects functionalism. Which brings us to space. Material, detail, location and space: like the Tetrarchs. But if we recall the beginning of our conversation, it seems that you use space to illustrate your very outsider status: “I don’t want to create order in it,” you said. Meanwhile, your analyses are very inspirational, whether you discuss Makovecz’s art of space, or your own theory of spatialnarrative .It is as if in your case the person who thinks about space were not the same as the one who shapes it.

DE: If we accept that architecture can be talked about as a language – after all, everyone seems to concur –, then there obviously exists a closed model of language. Which is what the postmodern theoreticians mentioned were thinking in. However, there can also be an open model,which looks at language not as a fixed set of formulas, but as a system that is constantly being renewed. If I were to think in the latter model, in which architectural formations are generated as words, sentences and texts that acquire new meanings, then two driving forces can be discerned behind this ongoing emergence of language: metaphorical forms and the narration of spatial systems. The generation of space is the basis of “built texts,” similarly to how literature relies on narration. We can call this the narrative of architecture. The configuration, connection and arrangement of spaces in a given situation has the same function as narration or storytelling in verbal or written communication. Otherwise chaotic and prone to falling apart, we can assimilate the world only by telling about it. Think of the events of a day: an incomprehensibly vast number of things may happen. So we include them in bedtime stories. This is how the world comes to make sense. Architecture arranges spaces into an interpretable series of connections. It arranges the spatial world into architectural stories, and makes it accessible. Should this not be the case, we would lose our way in the spatial world, and in ourselves, the same way that we’d lose our way in our own lives if we didn’t have stories that we keep telling our children, our wives and ourselves, that we keep watching in the cinema, keep reading about in books. And the characters of these spatial stories are none other than spaces—we are only the readers. In good architecture, spaces must have the same significance as actors in a film. There are always a few main roles, as well as supporting roles and extras, and these have characters, personalities, which change in the course of a good drama, as they enter situations and conflicts, meet and leave each other, and by the end you have some sort of a moral. The spatial stories of architecture work in exactly the same way. If you can’t create distinctive characters from the dramatization of spaces –spatial characters whose personalities change conspicuously and enjoyably as one goes through the sequence of spaces as one moves through the plot, of a story – then you won’t make a good building. The main and secondary spaces of a building communicate as you move through them, telling you who really they are in the given situation, where you are walking and watching them. As a consequence, over and above their connections, sequence and hierarchy, you are also to characterize spaces. Each has its own, different character. This characterization is served by the materials you use, the lights you illuminate them with, and the colours you choose. These are the “makeup” for the spaces. They serve to describe the personality of each space character.

On Enlargement

AB: Andor was probably trying to get you to finally talk about specific shapings of space, rather than the metaphorical level. Whereas you seem most eager to talk about this metaphorical level: how the stories get rearranged in new formations.It is with regard to this metaphorical operation that you use the concept of enlargement.How are enlargement, metaphors and architectural language related?

DE: When the enlargement changes the scale, you’ll know you’re facing an invention in the language, or a striking, novel story of space, which usually unwraps some cool metaphor. I don’t want to go into detail about theory, but let me outline where I am at the moment. The spatial narratives, i.e. the configuration or arrangement of spaces, are far more closely tied in with architectural metaphors than one would think, and this can be discerned in none other than enlargements. You must be familiar with the relevant ideas of Paul Ricoeur, who thinks that in language metaphors and narratives are related structures, the former working on levels from words to sentences, the latter influencing chiefly the construction of texts. What they share is an innovative nature: an effective plot rearranges the logical space the same way a good metaphor does. Both establish relations between formerly unrelated linguistic facts. As an unexpected metaphor gives shape to a new meaning, so an engaging story rearranges the content in a new form, changing the conceptual distances in our minds. The difference is that the function of a metaphor, in general as well as in architecture, is to make the emerging formations familiar, comprehensible, and thereby comfortable – to get us accustomed to the new dimensions, as it were –, while the configuration of spatial stories makes spaces orderly, and consequently transparent—renders them liveable with its novel arrangements, just as literature makes us see the world through its stories. And there’s a very simple reason why they both often enlarge in architecture, separately, as well as when connected: it’s in their nature to associate meanings. In other words, they introduce such arrangements of forms from outside architecture into the scale of architecture which formerly did not have a function there, usually being too small, or abstract.

AB: But then, the function of a metaphor is different in each structure, each genre. And our distance from a given culture also influences the interpretation of a metaphor or allegory.To identify the message, we need to be familiar with certain codes.

DE: That’s right. In their temples, for instance, almost all cultures used such arrangements of space that enlarge the human physique, whereas in homes the anthropomorphic quality appears, at best, in sentence metaphors, as on the facades.

AB: How do potential errors figure in your work as an architect? It is error or chance that innovation is sometimes related to, don’t you think?

DE: In a recent study in ÉS, Ádám Nádasdy discusses linguistic error, and concludes that “a metaphor is a linguistic error, an inaccuracy in language that is just being institutionalized.” This is the same area where I, too, am searching for the key to the renewal of the language of architecture. If you ask me about myself, I can see only errors in my work as an architect, mostly in the metaphoric enlargements. And not only because they do not get to be built, or have a problem with their appearance, but because you start having second thoughts about the basic ideas, when they are no longer reversible.

AB: I suppose an error, end even more so, the recognition of an error and the attempt to think it through, makes work more dynamic.

DE: Every “text” can be corrected ad infinitum, and basic ideas themselves arealsoalways doubtful, because their metaphoric nature allows everyone to question them. You have an idea to put together a library from books enlarged to a vast size? Honestly, isn’t that crazy? Of course it is. But who’s to tell whether one thing or another should be built or not? The jury says such nonsense can only be built in America. And indeed, a lot of crazy things are built in America. But it’s difficult to tell where, within those limits, runs the natural and desired line of architectural innovation. A lot of innovations in architecture do not gain currency, things that are too in-your-face or too far-sighted are less likely to catch on, though this doesn’t mean they are defective or mistaken from the outset. They simply don’t become part of the common parlance.

AWG: To get back to an earlier point: was there an occasion during the design of a building that you felt it would be too much, too over the top, too new, and you’d not be forgiven, you’d be left out in the cold? Did anything like that ever happen, and if it did, how did you deal with it?

DE: I’ve often had that experience; in fact, with all of my better buildings. It was obvious in the case of the Nagykálló dance barn. When it was complete, Imre Makovecz stood there and said: “Now, there’s something the peasants can gawp at!” He was surprised how big it was, and those wings on the top... I had a similar feeling with the Disznókő tractor shed: Jean-Michel Cazes kept asking me why the winery was not “typically Hungarian.” As a French marquis, he would have liked it that way. I started explaining about the context, the old cellar house, Classicism, and its industrial quality... The same feeling with the school in Pécel. I’m not saying everyone was frowning, but I had an intuition they would say such a thing could not be built there. However, when it was completed, I knew it was good, and I had a similar feeling at Somló too.

AWG: What does the future hold? What would you like?

DE: It would be nice to have work in my old age too. It’s odd to you feel you are at your best, and not be approached.

This research was supported by the European Union and the State of Hungary, co-financed by the European Social Fund in the framework of TÁMOP 4.2.4. A/1-11-1-2012-0001 ‘National Excellence Program’.  

 

 

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