Pedro Reyes works within a complex system of associations that defies our assumptions about the ways in which knowledge is categorized and legitimized. Using simple means and casual scenarios, he manages to blend the realms of utopia and function, individual fantasies and collective aspirations, spirituality and pataphysics. Trained as an architect, Reyes steeps his projects in his underlying interest in structural design and building principles. However, this presence goes beyond the formal aspects of architecture; in his practice, the utilization of space is infused with symbolic as well as physical schemes to enhance human communication and creativity. He explores the ways in which a space is capable of allowing individual moments of liberation or activating the interaction between a group of people. Toward that purpose, he has developed an arsenal of terms and forms to release creativity from ordinary limitations. Reyes is an idealist: he lives and works thinking of ways to improve the world. A conversation with him reveals his many strategies and sources, while reflecting the myriad ideas gestating in his mind. Posing a simple question to him releases a cascade of references that can become one of the richest moments of your day.
Tatiana Cuevas Your work operates as a network connecting the individual, collective, historical, formal, and ideal realms. I would like to begin with one of your approaches to the ideal through architectural history, specifically your interest in referencing modernism.
Pedro Reyes It has become commonplace to speak of “the failure of modernism,” which is a very romantic idea, but if you want to discuss the life of cities in greater depth, calling modernism a failure is a bit broad. It is better to speak of failures. We often speak and make reference to things as we believe they are, while in reality they are always becoming. Someone can be stupid today and the next day become enlightened. Buildings that seem misplaced today may look beautiful in ten years. The “modern” does not have a fixed value; it becomes more or less interesting to us. Ortega y Gasset used to say that history is the shifting of attention from one subject to the next. What is certain is that modernism has become a new classic. Classics are those works that are often quoted, and the more they are quoted, the safer it is to quote them. Some works, if they are not quoted, fall into oblivion, or stage a sudden return. The classics are always relevant, but not all neoclassicism is. The praise of modernity—or of its failure—is a new form of romanticism, like those 19th-century paintings of classic ruins: the modern city is the new romantic landscape. Yet, as I was telling you, I am not interested in what modernity is or was but in what it is becoming or can become. For me, modernity is a toolbox, but it is primarily part of a historical compost. Anthropophagy is a quite healthy and necessary habit; it’s better than necrophagy. Necrophagy is using the past without taking it forward. If you don’t make something new out of it, what’s the point? If something is dying, becoming rotten and smelly, I think there is a chance to make a compost in which this vast catalog of solutions can be mixed in an entirely new way.
TC Some of your works can be understood precisely as an attempt to grow new crops from decaying structures, like the project Parque Vertical at Mario Pani’s 1962 Torre Insignia in Tlatelolco. That building is an example of modern Mexican architecture that became increasingly inoperative through the years, and no longer habitable after the 1985 earthquake. You often look back to modernist buildings that have been deprived of their initial functional ideas in order to rehabilitate, or more accurately, revitalize them.
PR Tlatelolco is the quintessential modernist mega-project: a living complex built for 100,000 habitants, it has been the setting for many significant moments in 20th-century Mexican history, from the students’ massacre in 1968 to the earthquake of 1985. The primary building of this massive housing compound is the Torre Insignia, literally the “Icon Tower,” a high-rise shaped like a rocket and visible across the city. It is a structural masterpiece: all of its columns are tilted at 70 degrees, and if you were able to strip the glass from the windows it would become a beautiful lattice. The government wanted to relocate the police headquarters there, but the neighbors were strongly opposed, so I had the idea to re-create it as a vertical park, an urban farm where the neighbors could apply for a parcel and have hundreds of hydroponic units to grow their own food. I developed a serious plan with Jorge Covarrubias at the architectural studio Celula Arquitectura. The problem of making a “green skyscraper” of course, is water. We discovered that Tlatelolco has a drainage system with a single output; if you connected a water treatment plant to this output, that would meet the irrigation needs. On its west and east facades the tower has two massive blind walls, so covering them with solar panels would create enough electricity to pump the water up to the hydroponic parcels. It is actually a feasible project requiring a relatively small investment. Every opportunity we have, we publish the project in papers and magazines announcing it as a “World Environmental Education Center.” It is in part creating a rumor, but also enabling a critical mass that could eventually make it happen. I think this strategy has been effective, because we are often asked when it will open.
TC But you have other projects where you’ve actually succeeded in creating new uses for these kinds of spaces, as in La Torre de los Vientos.
PR Yes. Just after I finished architecture school I squatted La Torre de los Vientos, another modernist icon in the city. I felt irresistibly drawn to this concrete sculpture. When I got there it had been abandoned for 25 years. I broke the lock, bought a new one and started to use the space as my studio. Soon after, it became a laboratory for artist’s interventions. Not everyone knew it was hollow inside, and the space is absolutely stunning; it reminds me the Pantheon in Rome. The tower is shaped as a truncated cone, a round ziggurat. If you know it was built in 1968, you can recognize that postwar brutalism, but if you have to guess, you might mistake it for an ancient ruin. Some buildings are time machines. It’s the timelessness that Louis Kahn noticed in Barragan’s house. He said it could have been built 100 years in the past or 100 years in the future. At La Torre you are also catapulted into other ages: there are times when it feels like ancient Babylon, and others where it seems to be the scenery of some Martian chronicle. It sometimes gave me the impression of being in a Paleochristian catacomb that suddenly turned into a nuclear silo, or a space station.
TC This impression also informed your piece The Floating Pyramid.
PR Absolutely. The pyramid is a timeless icon. I am intrigued by these kinds of universal, simple concrete volumes. This interest is also related to the “primary structures” of the ’60s, the other term used to describe concrete and minimalist works. I had this vision of a pyramid floating in the sea, which was actually a very logical association, as the space most closely related to the sea is the desert. Both are wide, oscillating and quasi-monochromatic infinities. I built this pyramid by myself—it was 20 feet across—and placed it floating in the sea, offering the possibility of traveling to unknown dimensions. You have to dive in and swim a hundred feet to enter into this space; you have to become amphibious before making the trip. This is the most amazing potential of art, to create worlds. It is not so much about changing the world as it is about creating a new world. It might be a world that lasts a few weeks, or even just a few seconds.
TC In this sense, your project of creating new worlds, new habitable spaces apart from ordinary ones, is very much related to utopian architecture and avant-garde constructions and films. There is, for instance, a bit of the feeling of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Zik Zak.
PR Zik Zak is also a time machine. I worked with a guild of carpenters that had existed since medieval times. They are Zimmermans (room makers), and they wear big black overalls and big black hats, very nice outfits. If you want to become one of them you have to embrace this totally anachronistic lifestyle: you go to a special school and then you have to spend three years traveling from town to town, by foot, working with different meisters until you also become meister. These carpenters make a living restoring old half-timber houses known as Fachwerke, a technique that has remained unchanged for 15 centuries—until we did Zik Zak! The idea was to introduce a “new gene” that would keep the original construction technique but render its outcome an entirely new shape. In architecture you talk about skin and structure. The Fachwerke has no skin: there is not an overlying covering, it’s all flesh. The structure is a direct translation of the static stresses of the timber, and the interstices, the fillings, are the flesh. I thought it would be interesting to exploit that visual contrast, so there is an optical effect: as you are moving by the river or by the street you might see the building as a right structure, and then as your vantage changes it becomes a zigzag. It’s like at Las Torres Satélite that Barragan and Goeritz made—the shape changes dramatically as you drive around it.
TC These types of constructions are related to the realization of fantastic places such as the Ideal Palace of Facteur Cheval or Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum. Do you consider these buildings in relation to the concept of utopian architecture?
PR The idea of utopian architecture alludes to a place that does not exist, or perhaps whose existence is just temporary. I think we need other topias in our bag of references—we need more topias to play with. We should talk about psychotopia, a mental place; neotopia, a new place; prototopia, almost a place; ecotopia, a sustainable place; hypnotopia, the place of our dreams; teotopia, a sacred place; infratopia, less than a place; and so on.
TC Yes, I agree that the notion of utopia is used randomly and in a very broad spectrum of thoughts and practices, becoming almost common rather than imaginary and remote. Yet it still takes us to our ideals. Now that you bring up the thought of including new topias, there is a part of your practice that stands in the terrain of neology, creating and embracing new terms and concepts—which is another ideal.
PR Well, Zik Zak is called that because in Germany they don’t say zig-zag, they say zikzak. A new thing needs a new name. For instance, capula is a combination of different words: cupola, capillar, copula, capsule—
TC In your capulas you create habitable spaces that are at once comfortable yet alien to step into.
PR They’re meant to be the antithesis of a standard construction. If a standard room is made of squares, the capula will be spherical. If walls are solid and rigid, the capula will be soft and elastic. If a wall divides interior from exterior, the capula will be permeable. If a room is grounded on its foundations, the capula will be suspended in the air. If walls block natural light, the capula enclosure will conduct light. If a wall produces a stable image, the capula will create an optical interference so it will appear as ever-changing. If there is furniture and furniture is within the architecture, the capula will be something in between and will render that division unnecessary. Humans have created many different exoskeletons, from clothes to architecture; and my idea was to create one that could exist between furniture and architecture, a sort of space in which you could float. This space cannot be defined through a specific narrative or symbolism but must be defined by experience. The idea is to build an experience.
TC Jesus Rafael Soto had a very clear interest in providing a different aesthetic and physical experience through his works. His first penetrable spaces of the late ’60s can be considered the realization of his investigations, the introduction of an optical and physical experience through a fully surrounding environment, which is very much related to your capulas. Have you been looking back to Soto’s work and ideas?
PR Oh, I like his penetrables very much, and I am interested in his development of optical effects. I am also fond of Carlos Cruz Diez. Cruz Diez’s physiochromies are dimensional doors—no other object on earth will create that light and vibration. I am very interested in those patterns of optical interference. Speaking of retinal frontiers, the other day I made a weird experiment. I was testing a pair of goggles that have polished lenses so you can only distinguish light intensities, you can see colors but no shapes at all. I was wearing the goggles and watching a multi-speed strobe light, and after each flash I saw a square, like the square that used to remain when you turned off an old TV set. After the flash the square began to decrease in size, and since the strobe is a sequence of flashes, the image made me feel as if I were walking through a corridor of concentric squares of greenish light. This passage of squares with their sharp geometry didn’t actually exist; they were caused only by a flashing light. These images are constructed by the optics of vision, they’re not a product of imagination either, nor memory. They are strictly a neurological aftermath. It’s a drawing happening not in the retina but in the optic nerve. It’s an impossible image to reproduce; we cannot make a still of it to illustrate this interview. It can only be experienced.
TC It’s the Turrell-Eliasson track of experience. There is an interesting aspect to these encounters, which is that on one hand they are purely objective because we all experience the same effect, yet they are simultaneously subjective, as no one else can see the things we see. The same happens with the physical impact of an architectonic space. I suppose that is what Matias Goeritz was alluding to when he talked about “emotional architecture.”
PR Goeritz’s manifesto could be translated as “form follows emotion,” a deliberately anti-modern stance. At a time when the aesthetic experience for architecture was meant to come from the expression of function, Goeritz stressed that your program could incorporate as many narrative elements as you wish. Which is to design by telling a story. Its like: “I am walking down a long corridor, and in this corridor the walls are coming closer, every step in the corridor is narrower, the ceiling is lower and is ever more narrow until finally I go through, I have arrived at a huge hall, a monumental hall . . .” The Eco experimental museum built by Mathias Goeritz in 1952 is a translation of these kinds of stories, and they’re stories that are open to any form of art. One of the best definitions of art I’ve heard was from a friend who had no previous contact with contemporary art. After visiting a museum together he told me, “Now I get it, art is what you want it to be.” But it turns out that deciding what you want is not that easy. It is harder to respond when you have endless options than when you have a set of constraints. I think you can make a division when it comes to form and function. There is art and there are applied arts, which are functional objects that have a special degree of craftsmanship. But there should be a third category for an art ad usum, an art to be used. An art to be used is slightly different from a useful art, since its uses can be an entirely subjective enterprise. But even if they are subjective, the piece or the artwork operates as a tool, a device or a tactic. A resource.
TC This notion of an art ad usum is of course part of your interest in extending the organic structure of the body into the space. It seems like an application of the modernist premise “form follows function” to ergonomics.
PR Charles Eames was once asked, “Does form follow function?” And he answered, “Yes, as long as your definition of function remains open.” It is good if your definition of function remains open, but not endlessly open. There is some beauty too in the fact that objects are discrete entities. It has happened to me that I design something with too many functions. I designed a chair for the Venice Biennale inspired by vertebrae, on the premise that the chair is an extension of the backbone. In this chair you could sit in seven different positions; it also was a plinth, a fountain, a table, a shelf, a storage unit, and a building block. It is a beautiful thing as a sculpture, but as a chair it ended up being heavy and very bulky. This reminds me of a cartoon. Mafalda and Felipe are in a park. Felipe picks up a rusted bolt and Mafalda asks, “What do you want that for?” “Everything is good for something,” says Felipe, and Mafalda replies, “Yes, but nothing is good for everything.”
TC And Mafalda’s premise is not only accurate for functionalism’s dreams and claims, it could also be applied to art in the sense that art sometimes pretends to resolve problems that are way beyond its capacities. It certainly is not good for everything. I am thinking mainly of socially driven projects that attempt to improve the structural complexities of, say, derelict neighborhoods through an artist’s intervention.
PR Well, that’s always a risk. But you should not discount that some projects may have a positive impact. At the moment I am working on a commission for an art project in the botanical garden of Culiacán, in the north of Mexico. It is one of the most violent cities in our country and has the reputation of being a drug trading capital. The setting of the garden is beautiful but the surroundings are not, so in my project I am trying to bridge both worlds, first by a campaign organized by the city government to collect weapons; they already have over a hundred of them. The second step is to melt these guns and make gardening tools, which will be used in the botanical garden. There is a design element, which is an expression of my personal style in the tools themselves. But this is as important as the social design embedded in the process of removing from circulation an agent of death and make of it an agent of life. Taking these guns out of circulation actually saves a few lives, but the real purpose of the piece is to add a story to the world, so in the neighboring cities they will say “In Culiacán they did that . . .”
TC Adding stories to the world is a peaceful weapon for change in which I definitely believe. My reservations are toward art projects thought of as actual solutions to social problems. I think those problems require a more complex approach coming from a joint effort of different social and political instances in which art can certainly be involved if it wants to, but it is quite an ambitious, and mainly romantic position to claim that art will change the world. My point is that there is a difference between adding a story to the world that may trigger a chain of actions that together might improve a tiny part of different societies, and the dreamy claim to actually stop drug dealers from getting more weapons. You will certainly take some guns out of circulation, but that is not curing the disease. The strength of this work remains in the realm of symbolism.
PR Precisely, in the crafting of the parable resides its effectiveness. I learned this from Antanas Mokus, a philosopher and mathematician ex-mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. As a philosopher he was studying a concept of representation in Descartes. He used to say the solution of a problem should be understood à coup d’oeil, at a glance, and this is what parables do. In this way Mokus implemented games, tools and tactics, very close to the ones used in art and yet comprehensible to everyone. This action has dramatically improved urban life in Colombia.
TC You have to start somewhere.
PR This art ad usum can also have some more humble goals. There should be tools for many other daily rituals that we perform whose purpose is not that clear. In art, as in laboratories, you work in small scale. I just did a project with a radical art organization in Bristol, inspired by the philosophy of R. D. Laing. Ex-residents of mental institutions and rehab centers largely composed our work group. The project was to make their dreams into films. Before my arrival the residents were asked to keep a diary of their dreams, which we later made into a storyboard. We then organized a small crew to make them into one-minute movies. The hypothesis was that dreams are the continuation of thought processes that begin in waking life and are a way to digest our experiences. Trying to make a faithful translation of dreams was impossible, so the films took on another dimension: the dreams of the dreams. And it was fantastic. Some of the participants could not remember their dreams because they were taking medication, so this project became a neurological prosthesis for having a dream life again. During the two weeks of the residency when we were shooting this project, it became very much alive. We often dream about people we know, and the same happened here as the patients were assuming roles and taking part in each other’s dreams. Here, the function was quite unusual; it merged the realms of art and psychology. It was very interesting to walk around a territory that is not very often explored.
TC You have been already working in these realms. The new group therapies series come from this interest as well. Which was the main idea for these videos?
PR The new group therapies are meant to create a different space where you can drop your usual mindset and try something new. It is a way of setting the conditions for a particular psychodynamic and reach some misused parts of the spectrum of human nature. One of the new group therapies happened near Tlatelolco, in a market in Mexico City where punks, goths, headbangers, and other rock-related tribes meet every Saturday to trade records, all dressed up for the occasion. I fabricated a series of sculptures in the shape of electric guitars; then I had a sound system and a color background that I changed according to the style of the volunteer-performer. They were able to choose the song and guitar most tuned with their style. The principle is similar to karaoke, but here you perform by playing the prop guitar and closing with the cathartic ritual of smashing it. I consider this “group therapy” as an answer to the need for spaces of violence in our lives. Violence can become an exercise of style; violence can be a space for creativity. The cathartic ritual of smashing a rock guitar is also part of a universal language.
TC So these therapies are triggers for awareness of what is lacking in our daily lives?
PR They deal with the concept of prosthesis and evolution. Every technological device signifies evolution, but we always forget that the evolution of one element involves the atrophy of another. Nicanor Parra said this in a beautiful way: “The automobile is a wheelchair.” If we think of it, all human discoveries and new technologies bring an atrophy. The chemicals that extend the shelf life of our food cause cancer, the typewriter rendered calligraphy obsolete, and the radio made people stop singing. To remedy these atrophies there’s often a new device invented, a prosthesis. If radio made collective singing obsolete, then there came karaoke. That is why the group therapy where the teens smash guitars is meant to restore a space for violence. And in the dreams project, the participants who had no dreams because of their medication used video to have a dream life again. I am not against progress. I just feel that we lose sight of the atrophy involved in every evolution, and that new atrophies pull evolution in new directions.
TC In which direction do you think these prosthetic developments will take us?
PR Inevitably the question is, Who will survive? And the answer is, Everyone will survive. Everything will survive. This complex task requires a permaculture of culture. Permaculture is a blend of permanence and agriculture. The idea is to sustain life in a feedback loop of sources and wastes. If evolutions bring atrophies and atrophies require prosthesis, use the prosthesis but keep the original sources in reach too. The way we speak of the psyche is an example of this increasing reductivism. At schools now when they speak of thought processes they speak in terms of the brain, not of the mind. The brain enables the mind, but the physiological manifestations of thought don’t bring you real insights about the potential of human nature. It is like T. S. Eliot’s quote that says, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” We can link this again with the theme of modernity: we look back at it mainly as a set of finished solutions. Instead you could see it as a myriad of tools that have fallen into disuse that are waiting to be used again.