Interviewing celebrated architects can be like Dancing with the Stars. But no matter how big the name, it still takes two to tango.
Unlike many of my fellow critics, I was neither trained as an architect nor ever had the slightest urge to become one. Apart from my notable lack of hand-eye coordination (which has made me as poor a draftsman as I am a ballplayer), I am particularly unsuited to the building art because I simply could not abide an inescapable part of the architect’s job: talking about one’s work before, during, and even long after the design and construction process.
I was reminded of that professional imperative when I recently received a review copy of Talking Architecture: Interviews with Architects (Prestel), a new compendium of dialogues between Hanno Rauterberg, a German art and architecture critic previously unknown to me, and a host of suspects both usual (Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind) and less so (Cecil Balmond, Peter Zumthor), as well as one final turn from an all-time master of the interview, Philip Johnson. I have no idea whether Rauterberg is his country’s answer to Orianna Fallaci or Joe Franklin, but the transcripts of his talks reconfirm my suspicion that the lion’s share of credit in these transactions belongs to the interviewee.
I have done very few Q&A pieces in the course of my 35-year journalistic career, mainly because I don’t consider them writing at all. But I am proud of two: “A Mighty Fortress: Quinlan Terry and the Reformation of Architecture” (in Assemblage, June 1989), my conversation with the reactionary Classical revivalist and social conservative beloved by Prince Charles; and “Deconstruction Worker” (in Interview, May 1988), my talk with the octogenarian Johnson on the eve of his Deconstructivist Architecture show at MoMA. The Terry transcript has had a considerable afterlife as assigned reading for several college courses, less because of my interrogational skills than the architect’s troglodytic notions and virulent prejudices (including his belief that the Classical orders of architecture were handed down to Moses along with the Ten Commandments, and that the Church of England will be taken over by black lesbian bishops.)
Perhaps Terry was lulled into a false sense of security by my protective coloration of bespoke country suit, Barbour jacket, and tweed flat cap when I interviewed him in his native habitat of rural Essex. But Johnson was too shrewd a customer to fall for any such diversionary tactics, whether one wore a double-breasted navy pinstripe like his or not. By 1988, he already knew I admired neither him nor his work, yet his conviction that there is no such thing as bad publicity allowed me to keep my foot in his office door until he was too frail to keep up our decades-long cat-and-mouse game.
During our Interview interview, Johnson complained that many things I asked him were actually three questions in one. But I had done precisely that to prevent the boilerplate responses he parried when verbal softballs were lobbed his way. In another of our interviews, I was shocked by one of his mauvais mots because it was so bloodless: When I asked him why he preferred the company of younger architects, he skipped the expected “their thinking keeps me youthful” folderol. I can still remember the steely look in Johnson’s eyes when he replied that, “For my own contemporaries [who included Louis Kahn and Wallace Harrison], I feel only envy or contempt, and they’re both very ugly emotions.”
Johnson had given so many interviews by the time Rauterberg finally got around to him that it’s no surprise their chit-chat sounds rather routine. But at least the German was spared Johnson’s usurpation of the interviewer’s role, as he once did with riveting audacity on The Charlie Rose Show. Clearly peeved by Rose’s frequent interpolations — which often come just as his guests are about to arrive at some long-awaited illumination — Johnson announced that he would take charge, and did so for the remainder of the program.
Among the few who have since circumvented Rose’s interruptive urge as effectively as Johnson is Thom Mayne of Morphosis, though he prevailed through an altogether different technique. During my own interviews with Mayne, I have discovered that he can speak for an hour or even two virtually nonstop. Not all of what he says makes particular sense, but then there will come 3 or 4 minutes of utterly lucid brilliance, when he suddenly brings together random threads of conversation and weaves them into a tight tapestry of seamless thought. Soon things begin to unravel again, and that rhythm repeats itself over and over until both parties have had enough and call it quits. Mayne’s manic modus operandi was on full view as Rose sat dumbfounded by his inability to wedge a single word in edgewise.
The imperative that practitioners explain themselves over and over again has its origins in two factors: the inherent social nature of architecture (which requires justification for a new building’s rightful place in the public realm), but more important, the fact that architects must sell themselves in order to get work. And the interview is the ideal format for that never-ending pitch.