Conversation with James Wines resembles a celestial roller that races hundreds of miles off the surface of planet Earth, then roars across the continents, down to the depths of the oceans, and often through the invisible recesses of metaphysics and cosmology. Wines’s decade in Italy creating monumental works of public art prefigured his role as a founding partner of the internationally acclaimed architectural firm SITE in 1970. Throughout the ’70s SITE’s provocative solutions needled the profession into an involuntary admission of its own irrelevance and complacency. Over the last decade, Wines and SITE have engaged the mainstream with witty and imaginative perspectives, and a growing emphasis on ecology and environment. James Wines delivers remarks in a staccato tenor, with a range of facial expression and kinetic laughter. This may be what makes him a sought-after lecturer, even if people don’t get all of what he says. But using your brain is suddenly back in fashion, and (Sadaam willing) we will soon grapple with SITE’s newest visions at the 1992 Seville World’s Fair.
Stanley Moss You were a sculptor before you became associated with architecture.
James Wines I was doing some sculptural commissions for architecture, but I felt that sculpture was not participatory enough. I was tired of the exhibition context, it wasn’t public enough. I lived in Italy for ten years and the greatest experiences that I had related to seeing some incredible church, monastery or palace. I’d be driving on some hillside and all of a sudden an example of this harmonious fusion would hit me. I had that occur enough times to realize that nothing I’d ever seen in an art gallery equalled those experiences. In architecture, the impact is not pre-ordained or pre-planned. But architects, in general, don’t deal with conceptual ideas. There must be an unbelievably small percentage of architects who are interested in practicing as an art form.
SM It seems like a very perilous course to have undertaken because, at the beginning, you really didn’t have a lot of encouragement. You had a number of proposed works for public spaces for which models were built but very few projects were realized.
JW In the routine activity of American culture, particularly now, it’s rare that something conceptual takes place in architecture. It’s all so rapt in pragmatism, profits, real estate and economics. The first building we built, the Houston, Texas building, was really our launch into international fame, but it was also the ruin of us among mainstream architects. The art world perceived it as a conceptual statement. In the architectural world, it was perceived as a joke. They have no capacity to embrace the notion that a building can be about things other than formal design: form, space, structure. To this day, the most innovative thing about deconstruction, as opposed to formal architecture, is that they rotate the axis. Or they chop off the edge of a grid.
SM When did you start teaching?
JW Twenty-five years ago, I’ve nearly always been involved in education. I learn more from young people than they learn from me. They radiate something which gives you a perception of the time you live in. And if you pick up on it, you can remain in touch.
SM I find it incongruous because you are a person who challenges the established idea of architecture. And yet here you are, the head of the Department . . .
JW Yes, the Department of Architecture and Interior Design at Parsons. Well, it’s almost inevitable, if you stay around long enough. Then you’re the person they choose for the job. Ten or 15 years ago, the notion of a firm like ours designing a pavilion for one of the most conservative countries would have been inconceivable. SITE’s early ideas are now being understood because we’ve been saying, from the beginning, that architecture is about information. It’s nothing new. A Gothic church told the story of a religion, of a social context. When modern buildings came along clients decided that technology or service was the information they were trying to convey. Now our clients are interested in projecting an image of how they perceive themselves.
SM When I visited the Allsteel showroom, I asked the Vice President of Sales, “Why did you select these people? They didn’t have experience in showrooms, they’re not known for that.” And he said, “We wanted to have an image of a company that was forward looking.”
JW All of our clients say that they don’t want to look old fashioned. The Saudi Prince we’re dealing with is in his thirties. He represents a different generation. He’s aware, he knows who Joseph Beuys is, and he doesn’t want any of the regressive and derivative architecture of Riyadh’s past building boom.
SM How do you think other firms would have interpreted the Saudi Arabian pavilion in Seville?
JW It seems to be two extremes. One is utterly Disneyland with illustrative tableaux. And the other is very formal, hi tech, like any corporate building. Seville has both in profusion.
SM You were selected to design the Seville Expo’s main public space, Avenue 5. It’s a long way from deconstructing retail outlets to doing public spaces.
JW The only way to deconstruct an idea or a viewpoint is to start with some kind of archetype, then you invade it with different readings. If you rotate an axis and explode a grid, you’re not really deconstructing. Those are precise design decisions based in traditional formalism. It’s only through accepting the rhetorical and orthodox that one can deconstruct.
Deconstruction is more about conceptual or analytical attitude. You have to be “into” that sensibility or you can’t do it. You try to find another level of interpretation of meaning. The Allsteel showroom is the ultimate constructivist environment because it celebrates how things are made.
SM But you up-ended it.
JW Well, that inversion is how you can relate it. You take any idea, anything a client says to you, and convert it into space. Somebody says some grotesquely simple thing, but it may be the essence of truth. One thing I’ve always enjoyed in Italy, you have the highest art ever produced and still everybody can get something out of it. I always thought that was the true test of art. I really get bored looking at art as a strictly plastic experience.
SM Your firm is so unusual. You are a sculptor and you have a partner who was involved with art performances and public events. And then you have an architect. Tell me another firm that has a lineup like this. It’s a hybrid.
JW It’s also been a disadvantage in a strictly establishment sense. There was a day when an American developer would only hire a mainstream architect with official credentials.
SM FAIA after their name.
JW When I first started giving architectural lectures, I realized that nothing I said made a bit of sense to academia. It just wasn’t getting through. Now the Harvard Architectural Journal just called me for a statement. Some writer was doing an article on artists who, in their own arena or their own profession, seem to evoke hostile response: Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, us. Oddly enough, they seem to prevail and do quite well. But what all this suggests is that there are frames of reference for artistic input which the profession itself does not accept. You can be avant-garde as long as you play by the rules.
SM There was the corporate patron who really got behind you.
JW I had known Sydney and Frances Lewis for years while I was selling with the Marlborough Gallery, they met me in this capacity. When I dropped out, I don’t think they knew what the hell I was doing. Nobody in the art world did.
SM You had no idea where you were going?
JW No, not really. I just knew I didn’t want to do objects of art for exhibitions any more. And the Lewises somehow understood. They could always sense things were changing.
SM You did a number of remarkable buildings for them.
JW Eight. Each was about either an architectural, environmental, or a public theme. The first one was about how buildings are built or unbuilt, or how the construction process became, in fact, the building. Then there was the mobilized building that could slide apart. In most buildings, you move. SITE invented the building that moved while you stood still. You waited for the building to open up.
SM Then you did departments of the store split through the plate glass and fixed outside.
JW That was very much about an inside and outside dialectic.
SM There was that marvelous solution for the Frankfurt Museum which didn’t get built. That triangular block, where you got flack for rotating the axis.
JW SITE put the street right through the building.
SM Brought walls into the street and brought the atrium windows to the edge of the deconstructed walls.
JW I went to see the location again in Frankfurt, a couple of years ago. It would have been so dramatic. You would have gotten a real notion of the museum opening to the street.
SM The idea of art going out to the public. There’s something innately disturbing about a temple of artifacts.
JW You wouldn’t have had to pay your admission. For whatever reason, this Frankfurt Museum was seen by the architectural profession as another affront.
I remember when we first started, I didn’t know who to go see or what to do. I decided to pack up a little kit and go to see Gordon Bunshaft, who was the chief designer for Skidmore Owings and Merrill. He said, “Wow, this is all very amusing, but of course you’ll never get any of it built.” I look at it with a certain amount of humor now, but also with a certain amount of resentment because this attitude has cost us a lot of lost projects over the years.
SM Highway 86 at the Vancouver Expo was the first public space that you did in the pavilion environment. It had vehicles of all sizes fixed to a rolling concrete wave painted white.
JW Originally, we were to do a domed pavilion to show transportation and technology since 1940. And we decided to use the generic impact of all the objects.
SM Is it still there?
JW No. Some developer bought the site, but he hated it, and he just tore it out. Then he ran into financial problems. So the land is sitting there bare.
SM It makes one recollect your environment with the asphalt covering the cars in Connecticut.
JW That was one of the first environmental projects that we designed. Our whole idea has always been to make a public space out of something that’s already inherently there. The notion was that these cars exist as part of every asphalt parking lot. So we combined them in a way that’s very archeological. They keep repairing it. I wish they’d just let the cars disintegrate because that process would have its own beauty. The first wave of concrete and asphalt was sprayed over them in one homogenized sweep. When you start repairing them, it looks like patch work.
SM Well, product liability probably enters into the picture.
JW Why? I mean, that dematerialization was part of the idea. It’s becoming increasingly ecological, biodegradable. Almost everything that goes into a car goes right back into the earth. We did an ecology bridge in Hiroshima.
SM A theme that seems to be more and more upfront in your work.
JW It’s also something that’s increasingly asked for by clients. Talk about public image. Clients now want to appear concerned. So far our projects dealing with the environment have been largely aesthetic innovations. They do include few more trees. But they’re not really totally energy-saving and ecologically sound yet. That’s probably the next step. There was a kind of environmental fervor in the ’60s, with concerned people building tent structures and living in communes, encouraging the idea of low tech and earth protection. It’s not consistent with priorities of highly technocratic societies. You have to strike a balance between building something that’s useable and, at the same time, considering the environmental impact of how you build it.
SM You’ve been preaching respect for the environment and appreciation for ecosystems. But if you start telling your clients to promote the negative message: we’ve got to make sacrifices in order to save the planet, then there may be trouble. Fuller cautioned society for years and years and nobody wanted to hear it. They only wanted to see the dymaxion car and the geodesic dome.
JW The ecology pavilion, which we originally designed for the United States, they rejected like a cancerous wound because they said the subject nature was controversial: the save-the-planet idea, they didn’t want to get involved.
If the atmosphere is destroyed, and the earth’s ecological system is destroyed, we won’t survive. We’ll be the shortest-lived creature that ever hit the face of the planet. But architecture is out there destroying vegetation and land and using energy. I think we could be more responsible. This is the next stage of my interest and a direction of SITE’s work.
SM The pavilion you’ve designed for Saudi Arabia has one room with a model of the holy city, and one room with a model of an oil rig, desert greening environment and desalination plants.
JW That’s what they told us is important. They’re the keepers of Islam on earth and their wealth comes from the earth. The whole pavilion is about that.
SM Are they completely different than you or I with our Western sensibilities?
JW In many ways, yes. The first time I went, I thought I was on another planet, because I’d never seen such a vast desert or experienced a religious state.
SM There’s nothing in the pavilion about the status of women?
JW Well, that’s a touchy subject.
SM Can you talk about it?
JW Everywhere I go in the world, it’s so culturally different and, I realize that many of the things we’re taught to believe, no matter how rational they seem, are sometimes absurd. There’s this notion that Saudi women are poor, helpless slaves who sit home all day. In Saudi Arabia, people are better off than any other place in the world. Because every Saudi is assured all income from birth. Women own businesses, they are extremely international, they travel. It’s just when they are on the street or in a public situation, they wear the veil. Within our culture, that system would not work very well. But on the other hand, Saudi women have a strong voice in the society even though they don’t vote. They have women’s organizations, they’re very powerful, go to college, study any subject. They are doctors, lawyers, but they work in the company of each other. You go into a typical office, it’s all men.
SM So that’s not an issue with them really.
JW In fact, they really resent the troubled societies of Europe and the USA mouthing off criticism. The thing that affected me the most is the cleanliness of the cities, the organizations of society and the absence of crime and social conflict. I always think of myself as the Martian who’s just landed, who has to reach a judgment based on what he sees. If you’re just impartial about places like Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to stick to old cliché notions and prejudices.
SM You really are working for the aliens.
JW Yes! I’m really working for the aliens, but I also don’t feel alienated.
SM The Saudis are saying to you, We are the guardians of the oil and we don’t want to talk about the women issue. Everybody else is saying that we are a global society with big ecological issues.
JW This isn’t to say that the Saudi’s are not concerned about ecology. Saudi Arabia probably has the most sophisticated concern for the environment of any country I’ve been in. They have the most advanced research centers on alternative energy. They’re finding new technologies to create desalinated water at a very low price.
Then, a break. The conversation meanders over craft, philosophical origins of deconstruction, fractals, concepts of Islam and Francis Bacon, and then veers back to SITE in today’s world.
SM An equilibrium pervades your current work. As opposed to your earlier buildings with bricks exploding off the facade. Now, I look through a grid of an orderly world into an orderly world within an orderly world.
JW I know, you look at something like the Saudis’ pavilion, and you say, Well, it isn’t immediately as radical as certain SITE structures. It’s obviously about culture, it’s about Islam. You’re not in a position where you’re talking about the American commercial environment, which you can only deal with ironically. We are building the museum back into the street. Every pavilion at the Expo is defined by confrontational exterior walls. But the Saudi pavilion starts right from the street and the visitor just keeps going through, through layer after layer into an enormous room with nothing but sand, exhibited archeology and a wide projected film on the desert. You’re just not accustomed to seeing that relationship between inside and outside. SITE is definitely getting into a more social and psychological period. We’re dealing with a larger scope of cultural references now. The thing that’s most interesting about what we’re doing is this kind of layering of information and layering of space so that each part of a building or public space has an identity based on narrative content as well as form. I’ve always admired Beckett. I love the concept that he always works in layers of ideas. He’s saying one thing and meaning five other things. It will be very interesting to have the contrast of a layered, organic environment of the Saudi Arabian Pavilion using a traditional Souk as part of the facade. You’re going to hear the activity before you see it. This gesture immediately establishes that our building is not only made of raw materials, it’s made out of people. The Kingdom really wanted to show the craft culture. I said, “Then let’s make that feature the facade of the building.” They’re going to do fantastic business. I’m sure. You enter Saudi Arabia through the people of the nation. It’s a kind of garden court. The next layer is a palm oasis, and the next is a desert and then you see the film. The film is the illusion. That process of thinking went into the first building that we did for Best Products.
SM You’re seeking a higher level of revelation.
JW We’re dealing with a whole country. You can’t take a nation, its history and religion and treat these topics lightly. You can be inventive with the information, but the context really precludes the idea of treating it in a cavalier way.
SM What’s the grid going to be made of?
JW Steel, so it will read abstractly. As it penetrates inside, it becomes draped with exhibited artifacts so you’re always aware of the layers of information. The big room is just a tent. It’s the only element the grid doesn’t penetrate because it frames it. The middle is a giant bed of sand.
SM How are you going to contain sound?
JW All the Bedouin rugs are attached to a teflon base, and then get sewn on to the support structure. The Saudis make the rugs out of very porous, camel hair. They’re dyed brilliant colors. The colors just blow your mind. As a design element, they’re absolutely beautiful.
—Artist and writer Stanley Moss also designs BOMB Magazine.