Theory and Practice
Being an Architect
Andor Wesselényi-Garay: There are few architects currently in Hungary whose body of work and activity are tracked by such a sensitive and intensive array of interviews as yours.Yet reading through the interviews you’ve given, it is conspicuous how rarely specific buildings are mentioned. Although what you talk about is, by definition,architecture, seldom do you discuss specific professional solutions or the tricks of the trade.Is there a fundamental reason for this, or is it simply that it’s not your style to use illustrations to express your views about certain aspects of architecture?
Dezső Ekler: I feel that interviews are usually more about generalities, and architects, like most other people, also tend to discuss principles, society, or culture. Presenting a building requires a different situation. However, I do sense something in your question that I find justified: to this day, I don’t really consider myself an architect. I look upon myself as an outsider: a self-made man who arrived from the outside. Earning a degree at the faculty of architecture matters little if you don’t want to be an architect; what you learn there isn’t of much use to you. For me, the history of architecture and urban issues were most important. I wasn’t overly interested in the profession, hence I didn’t really study it. I first worked as a sociologist and then engaged in a variety of other things,anything but architecture. My way into practice was having to teach myself everything about building-construction. My self-image didn’t develop the way it usually does with architects. I feel that I don’t identify myself the same way in which architects generally tend to think about themselves.
AWG: There is, however, another layer to this line of thought: you may be an outsider, but your CV unquestionably defines you as an “architecty” architect, with all the profoundly human and professional qualities that are shared by the Hungarian architects who are considered successful today, regardless of differences in style and taste, or even personal discord. Despite these shared qualities, so essential for success and clearly evident in your case, do you still maintain that you’re an outsider?
DE: My career followed a path that was completely unlike that of my colleagues who are now in their forties and fifties. For example: I’m no good at responding to tenders, nor is that my ambition. The culture of responding to tenders assumes different abilities. Most of the jobs I received were direct commissions, even though I’m not a member of any powerful professional lobby. I consider positions of outlook more important than prosperity. Every value system, every subculture – whether cultural or linguistic – brings about itstaboos. One knows what a student of Makovecz’s Itinerant School cannot draw; certainly not a flat-roofed house. If you’re in the Cságoly camp, you will be sparing with yourcurves in your floor plans. Every value system will, by necessity, delimit itself. I’m not a member of any such subculture.
Anna Benedek: What seems a taboo from an external position will be the communal language if you’re on the “inside,” if you’re part of the team or family.Didn’t you ever want to be on the “inside,”to be associated with something?And if you didn’t, how then did you find your own language?
DE: I was part of the Makovecz school, Makovecz was my mentor, but he and the others knew that I was the odd one out. There were those among them who did their best to make me stick out even more, even though my heart was truly with them. Perhaps that was because I was unable to keep the taboos. I had no desire for the biases that I could have shared on both shores.
AB: Who did you connect to, or who did you want to belong to?
DE: One becomes fickle according to one’s desire to follow others. I began to actively practise because I fell in love with the works of Aldo Rossi. Hardly had I fallen in love with Rossi, Makovecz beseeched me to write about his work. So I wrote and wrote, and eventually became addicted to him. It took me four or five years of drawing Makoveczean buildings before I more or less got over them. Hardly had I got over them when new opportunities arose to design large office buildings. By the time I had produced a few and started to realise how to design a good one, I received commissions of a far more informal nature and became infatuated with a direction marked by Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, and folding architecture, realizing how many ways there were to continue what I thought I should be doing at the time. That’s how one’s life evolves.
AWG: It is however a critical issue whether you can be up to your neck in Aldo Rossi or Makovecz without identifying with the taboos that surround their person. What is the motivation that allows you to identify with a way of thinking, and what is it that eventually dismisses this identification?
DE: It’s very simple, just like our childhood. While you are dependent on your father, all you do is watch him and absorb him. You continue to do so until you become an adolescent and arrive at the crisis whose function is to disown your father, and to try and find yourself and discover your own path. I remember that it was because of Aldo Rossi that I went to the library for months on end to read Rob Krier, Franco Purini, and Oswald Mathias Ungers. Postmodern was a fresh thing at the time, and I gave a lot of lectures on them. I promoted Rossi and the others, and studied urban history. I did so until I realized that all that contextualism was worth nothing because they were thinking in closed systems, the geometry of the European historical city, while I as a sociologist and urban historian, was beginning to understand that the illumination of society and the real estate market cause a city to be reborn minute by minute. Real estate prices increase? Great! Let’s build apartment buildings instead of family homes. I saw the emerging city, while their architecture spoke the closed language of the city. What I absorbed produced its own critique, and opened the way for me to think architecture should not be done on the model of historical examples, but on the wave of illumination, as in surfing. All there is what society wants, and what my abilities make possible – and anything goes! Ten years later, I had the same experience with Imre Makovecz.
AWG: Can you tell us about that?
DE: In 1993, my tractor shed was built at the Disznókő Winery. Shaped like a mound or a crater, with a horseshoe floor plan, this building is a summary of Makovecz’s problems of form, what you could call his most seasoned, most characteristic principle of form: the swastika, palmette or Yin-Yang-based spatial formula. I remember when he came to see the building and I showed him around: “Look, I built what you did in Paks, where this motif appears in the rear vestry; but here, the self-embracing spherical form appears on the building’s main facade.” He was satisfied withthe manner in which I took his understanding of form somewhat further. Still, I think it was a solution to his problem that also pointed in another direction. Now, twenty years later, you may say it already suggested the possibilities of folding. By copying, continuing Makovecz with the faithfulness of a pupil, I was guided towards the possibilities that Eisenman, Hadid and the others were unravelling at the time with their deconstructivism.
AB: In this context, let me ask you about innovation, with regard to which clients or society compel architectsto go into compromise. How often did the conflict between your core values andsocial expectations force you into a compromise?Was there a situation where you had to give up some part of a very novel form?
DE: I think we should look at this in reverse. Architecture is a social form of art. You are not a painter who faces only a canvas, but a designer who needs to put together a building with a large team, fifty to a hundred people. Architecture is the art of compromises, just like politics. It’s full of tethers and weights; it’s like weight training. How can you innovate—can you innovate at all—under such conditions?! Over the past thirty years, I have designed three hundred buildings of which I only dare to show you fifty. There are, at best, only two works out of ten that end up embodying anything that even vaguely smacks of innovation. In architecture, I am intrigued by the same thing that I mentioned with regard to cities: how is it born, how does it evolve? Every task includes the possibility of creating something original, yet the majority of architects merely copy or multiply buildings, thus missing a vast number of opportunities that would aid the emergence of new architecture. Hence, a one hundred per cent opportunity for innovation stands against one hundred per cent assumed social determinedness. Architecture is a curious art.
AB: Is there, do you think, an ideal place or time, a state when the two can be in harmony?
DE: There are such marvellous periods, longer or shorter, when a given style emerges. As in early Christianity, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, when the places of congregation moved into the domus ecclesiae, which in turn became the seeds of the Christian church. There arose an incredibly interesting situation. Similar is the case of the Greek temple, a deep archetype that emerged from the megaron, an ancient Greek structure, over the course of a few hundred years. The early Renaissance is another fascinating era. And I want to cite another period, the past twenty years, which is rarely considered important, whereas its significance is far greater than that of the entire modernism of the20th-century.
AWG: Modernism seems to have been left out again… What is your relationship to modernity and modern architecture? If we consider the 20th century as the century of architecture, it certainly began with the affairs of Adolf Loos, who was closely followed by the patriarchs.
DE: It is not a question of personal bias, but follows from a theoretical approach. I do agree with Peter Eisenman insofar as he considers modernism, up to Louis Kahn, and even postmodernism, a part of the classic age. What Eisenman thinks is that not much of interest has happened since the Renaissance, that modernism rejected and innovated on the past only seemingly, and that was, in essence, the last chapter of the modern age began with the Renaissance. To elaborate on this idea from my own perspective, modernism failed to radically renew the language and approach of architecture, and merely suspended them, as a solution that became available to it in the emerging logistical or war society. It wanted to create a state of tabula rasa, build a new language, and started to spell out its alphabet, but only took the first few steps of the experiment towards the new language. So postmodernism was needed to offer a critique of modernism from the angle of the richer and more comprehensible historical discourse. Then it was the crisis of postmodernism at the end of the 20th century that brought about the opportunity for the current big step, which may bring to an end the rather long and boring period that began with the Renaissance. But may I also say something positive about the 20th century. I’d like to point out that from John Ruskin and Ödön Lechner on, there was a clearly recognisable linguistic consciousness in architecture. They were the first to look upon architecture as a “linguistic whole.” There is no architectural language in Hungary? Then we shall make one, says Lechner. Because a new language must be created to replace the Latin of the Renaissance, which has become empty and impossible to speak. The 20th century is marked by a growing consciousness of architecture as alanguage. This is what Adolf Loos talks about, as do Mies van der Rohe at al.,and then the Team 10. Namely, that three letters are not enough, at least twelve are needed. In the wake of structural linguistics, everyone calls for a dictionary, and points out that the language of architecture is an autonomous field, and so on, and so on. This is what postmodernism is also about. It looks at architecture the way linguists considered language after Ferdinand de Saussure, almost a hundred years earlier. Yet, the architecture of Aldo Rossi, Christopher Alexander or Kenneth Frampton, is a closed language. Now we have the opportunity to realize the principle as a living language. This is what the new architecture has been attempting to do since the nineties. At least this is how I see it.
In Between Ages
AB: Have new architects really contributed as much to the language of architecture as the generation of Aldo Rossi did?
DE: I believe that Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Ben van Berkel, Steven Holl, David Chipperfield, Peter Zumthor and others have effected a turn of far greater significance than their predecessors. You could say we are witnessing a revolutionary renewal, of which these eight or ten people are the vanguard. Since then, new generations have joined in, and this “hand” has been decided. What it has produced in intellectual terms is without doubt of epochal significance.
AB: Many only consider Hadid’s early work important, claiming that the rest is an end in itself. Folding was an interesting experiment, but is difficult to look at it as a real building. By contrast, Peter Zumthor is far more palatable for the man in the street. Could the architecture of the future possible favour Zumthor’s direction?
DE: I see it differently. Stylistic marks aside, what Zumthor or Hadid are doing is almost identical; that is, they have a strong, shared core. There have been a number of initiatives over the past twenty years, yet these poetics all point more or less in the same direction, and I’m afraid that this has very little to do with whether they build their constructions with vertical or rectangular walls, or perhaps with amorphous, parametric, or biomorphic forms. What is then new in what they have brought in? The past five hundred years, from the Renaissance to historicism, was marked by the enlargement of human space into buildings. Consider but the well-known figure of Vitruvius, or Le Corbusier’s concept of the Modulor, which did not abandon this tradition. Postmodernism moved in the same space, or take Makovecz’s minimal space, which enlarged the human aura into architectural space. You could say those five hundred years were dominated by buildings and spaces that are metaphors of standing man. By contrast, the radical trends of the twenty years that began with deconstructivism and folding do not enlarge man’s living space into architecture with their metaphors, but delve into the basic structure of materials and develop what they find there. Simply put, they surround us with enlargements of the structures of lifeless or organic materials. No one did that before them. And, in poetic terms, this enlargement of material structure is extremely rich in potential. Examples I may cite include Steven Holl’s theory of porosity, or Zumthor’s spa in Vals, where he digs out the hollows between the vast stones in the mountain like a giant sculptor. He similarly enlarges the interior morphology of the material in almost all of his designs, from the Bregenz exhibition hall to the small Bruder Klaus Chapel. Hadid, too, does nothing but make metaphors of simple “plait formulas” which are then enlarged. Matter has an inexhaustible quarry of structures, and the metaphorical versions of the enlargements of these geometries – whether the construction is traditional geometric or parametric – open up an endless number of new opportunities to architecture. No longer do we speak of buildings that are metaphoric representations of man, except of course in the case of Makovecz and Frank Gehry. The turn has taken place, and today, almost everyone speaks this new language.
AB: Could it be that this is not so much the finding of the way into the future as the search for the direction, or even a crisis?
DE: We are indeed in the nadir of a great crisis. Things are losing their validity, one after the other, and you could say that we’re witnessing a decomposition, a disintegration. This was probably what the late Roman age was like in Europe. Day after day, all this creates opportunities for renewal and change, and that’s an incredible source of inspiration; it’s the breeding-ground of creativity and innovation. This is how I imagine the early decades of Christianity, and the crisis at the end of the Gothic age was probably similar too, providing an amazing impetus for the advancement of the Renaissance spirit. We may be living in a similar age.
Career Paths, Chances
AWG: What is considered an ideal job today?
DE: The ideal job is a clean and autotelic tender won in a rich western country. That isn’t something a Hungarian architect will get. Here in Hungary, commissions from civilized private clients with EU support can be good to test and prove yourself, partly because they’re not prone to looking a gift horse in the mouth, and partly because you get a chance to build things properly. Government commissions aren’t bad either, that is if the government doesn’t interfere more than necessary. But there’s not much chance of landing one of those. Over the past twenty years in Hungary, only two or three buildings out of ten could be realized to a standard and quality that justifies talking about architecture. Other colleagues with different strategies may have attained different ratios. Now, as I am growing older, in the future I’d like to build at least every second building in a way that I won’t have an issue acknowledging them as my own.
AWG: To what extent does function define opportunity and success? There are more better examples of churches and wineries in Hungary than of office buildings or public baths.
DE: The function is indifferent, unlike the social context. The intellectual and artistic success of a building depends at least as much on the regulations, the client and the builder, as on the architect. Architects who are any good at all must prove themselves in all functions. Naturally, every function has its “learning curve”. So it doesn’t hurt to try your hand at, or participate in the planning, of a few office buildings, thirty or forty family homes, and six to eight blocks of flats, so that you know exactly what it is you want to build. That’s why it’s better, for example, to design eight wineries, not just one...
AWG: Whereas you came up with a model at the very beginning of the winery trend which has become an archetype by now.
DE: If you mean the Disznókő winery in Tokaj-Hegyalja, I was lucky there. I met the ideal client, the likes of whom I haven’t encountered since: a French marquis with the AXA business empire behind him. Jean-Michel Cazes gave me a completely free hand with the design. He gave me a 90-page French technical specification, which I had to observe; we drew the buildings, which he accepted at the end of a one-hour presentation, saying, “Fine, this is what we’re going to build.” And would you believe it, no one came later and told us what materials to use or what the buildings should look like. There was a budget to follow, but no one started “playing at architects”—neither the winemakers, nor the managers. I am yet to meet a similar Hungarian client. The building will be complete and they’ll still be trying to find out how to use it. They’ll have a different idea every other day, and order different tanks every other week. But everyone, from the winemaker to the constructor, will ask why something has that particular colour, and will have a better idea anyway... The very basics of your competence in your profession will be questioned, even if you have thirty years of experience..That’s what this country is like. In 1992, the Disznókő winery could only be built the way it was with a French client at the helm.
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’.