Tunnels and ramps: a lot of your projects have a lot of them.
That interests us in ramps is yes, it’s a floor, but it’s a floor that takes you to another level in either direction. Either you’re going up or you’re going down. Yes, you have this stable place to walk on, but you’re going to something, you’re going from something. We’re not as interested in places as passages.
I wonder also if tunnels interest us because of a kind of nostalgia for a science fiction space-and-time tunnel. If you’re in a tunnel, maybe you can see through to the outside but usually you can’t. So I wonder if as you go through a tunnel you’re transformed from being in one kind of space to being in another.
Let’s jump to portability which is certainly a key concern of the practice: allowing people to carry architecture with them or creating portable parks, housing that can be moved from site to site.
When we start to work on a project, we certainly consider site. That doesn’t necessarily mean we want something to totally fit into a site. We want a project to have a conversation with the site and sometimes that can be an argument. We want a project to exist almost as if wow, it could have been there from all time. But other times we want a project to exist almost as if it’s a spaceship has landed on the site.
Portability allows you to not have to think of site. You can go through many sites, you hook on to one for the time being. Lately I’ve thought it’s probably deeper than that. For us portability comes from some kind of conviction that George W. Bush—and a kind of ultra-conservative tendency not just in the U.S. but in a lot of countries, a lot of renewed barriers against immigrants—is all a sign that some old world is really dying. That this kind of conservatism, this idea of a country for people who belong there or were born there, is on its last legs, so it gets so desperate.
So what I hope this conservatism is a sign of is that at some point, I don’t how soon it will happen, but national boundaries, countries, aren’t really going to exist anymore. There probably is going to be a world of nomads, people are going to carry their own space with them. There’s no place that’s necessarily home because you can make any place home. So portability is the idea of space on the run, life on the loose. Portability is important to us because it means you can always change the space around you. You can always change your environment. Again environment is great, but it’s also a trap.
Who are some of the architects you most admire?
Greg Lynn is important to me. Foreign Office Architects. Francois Roche. UN Studio. Asymptote. I still retain an interest in Rem Koolhaas probably more than anybody else in my generation. Maybe not so much for the architecture, or not only for the architecture, but because he is almost a kind of Marshall McLuhan of the 21st century. I don’t know if he would approve of that. But there’s this urge with him to get at the tenor of the time that I’m interested in.
What about your own works. I know it’s always difficult but can you pick one or two or three works that you feel have most accomplished your vision?
Of built projects, probably Graz [Mur Island] and the United Bamboo Store [in Tokyo]. For some unbuilt projects, we did a proposal for a performing arts center in Seoul, Korea. We did a library proposal in Guadalajara where the brief talked about how there should be an expansion principle because the library would need more books. We tried to take this literally, and our proposed library goes up and goes out; there’s a highway nearby so the library crossed the highway, so it could spread out into the city. I liked the way we started with the very simple idea that books are dangerous.
Speaking of built and unbuilt, does unbuilt have in some way more appeal than built because you can be more free, creative, imaginative?
When we do a proposal, we have this incurable optimism, and we want to assume that we’re going to propose something that will be built. At the same time, being built is far from the most important thing for us. When we design a project, we’re trying to design a theory of the space: What can the space do? What can be done in this space? At the same time, we love a theory of a space, but sometimes theories seem a little cheap. It’s easy to have a theory. But can this theory really be proven until it’s built?
When I think of the architecture that has formed me or turned me toward being an architect, I would probably mention Giovanni Piranesi, Pierre Boulet, Archigram. No built projects there. But a lot of theses.
What kind of meaning, if any, do your buildings have?
The meaning of a building comes from the people using it. You can set up the incentive for a meaning. Even when I thought of myself in an art context, I always felt like I could talk about my intentions better than anybody else since I was the person who had those intentions. But I don’t think I could ever talk about the meaning of a piece. Meaning changes. I have no more privileged ownership of the meaning of the piece than any other viewer or participant does.
Let’s imagine that a student at Pratt or Cooper Union with a lot of talent in both art and architecture comes to you and says, “Vito I’m torn. Which career path is ultimately going to give me more creative satisfaction?”
Remember, I have a loaded view because I pretty much did make this decision for better or worse, and I do think it was for better. I would ask, what do you think you’re more concerned with: other people and a possible future? Or yourself? And if the answer is yourself, then maybe art is the better choice. If you want an anticipation of a future and if you want the necessity of having to think about the public, then it’s architecture. Public is this composite of many privates, and you’re never going to know who they all are, you can’t anticipate them, but wow, it’s incredibly thrilling to try to guess at frames of mind.