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Smiljan Radic by Jose Castillo

In the Open: Art and Architecture in Public Spaces is sponsored by Cary Brown-Epstein + Steven Epstein and with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency.

Though we share acquaintances, Smiljan Radic and I have never met in person, nor spoken over the phone. This interview is the result of a series of email exchanges between Smiljan in Santiago and myself in Mexico City during October of 2008. Radic, when speaking about his projects, likes to quote René Char: “To suppress distance is to kill.” This conversation did not make the effort to suppress the distance but rather to make the most out of it, expanding progressively as we went along, sometimes exchanging three or four quick responses over a single day, and sometimes waiting days to reflect. This has resulted in a familiar conversation among strangers.

Radic belongs to the first generation of Chilean architects to have a global presence. I first came across his architecture in the mid-’90s, when international architecture journals in Europe and North America started to publish his work, most notably two of his houses on the island of Chiloé. From these early projects on, his work has combined visual appeal with intellectual rigor. Seeming both natural and foreign to their sites, his projects are equally designed and found objects, finished as much as ongoing. When talking about his work, Radic is less likely to describe the projects than to discuss ideas surrounding them, the effects they produce, and the way they connect to the larger world. It is precisely Radic’s bricoleur -like range of references and his relaxed approach to style, language, and method that make his work so relevant in architecture today.

José Castillo When the global architecture community discusses architects from less developed countries, it’s common that nationalities and geographies are considered more relevant than biographies. Could you talk about how your biography, rather than geography, has informed your work?

Smiljan Radic My grandfather came to Chile in 1919 from Brac, Croatia. The vision of an immigrant moves between a sense of estrangement from the surrounding world and a need to see things from a productive standpoint; the making of objects, situations, and memories takes on a new, unexpected dynamic. In this way, I still try to consider myself an immigrant.

JC Do you consider yourself an alien, a foreigner, or a marginal figure among colleagues? Are you comfortable within the idea of nationality in architecture?

SR Fifteen years ago my attention was more focused on objects and fragile constructions that connected me to professionals outside architecture. My friends have always been mathematicians, designers, and, especially, artists, and it’s among these types that I feel most comfortable. Still, it’s difficult to declare myself marginal in a discipline where I’m taking advantage of all its means of production.

JC Has this evolution of affinities, interests, and friendships changed your work? Do you miss the fragility of your work from 15 years ago?

SR Quite the opposite. I still work in a fragile environment and am extremely connected to handicraft and the self-built, which also allows great advantages in the realm of experimentation on a small scale.

JC Buildings like the Civic Center in Concepción or the FMMM Houses in Santiago would seem anything but fragile. What makes them so?

SR It’s not a question of appearance or robustness; it’s more a matter of building techniques and construction management. The Concepción Civic Center has been under construction for seven years now, with only two stages finished, leaving the public spaces of both stages unrealized. The public spaces were one of the reasons we won the competition to build it; they were the political raison d’etre of the project and the elements that gave it coherence, keeping it far from the bureaucratic environment of government offices. A third stage is in process, where we have proposed (against the initial opinion of the official architects) that the center’s new modules are beton brut, cast concrete for both structure and facades. Thanks to the limited resources and the long spans of time between stages, this institutional architecture, apparently monolithic, will soften. The FMMM houses and their patios are more like beach-resort bungalows: strangely inserted within an urban setting, where the sea has been substituted with the mountain range. Built with very irregular and brut (raw) concrete, the houses have the appearance of an unfinished, larger building. In any case, you are right in pointing out that in terms of materials, they are fairly conservative projects.

JC Would you say that at this moment your interest in the brut and the fragile is concerned more with materiality, form, and even space? Or maybe, as you said, it concerns “management?” How do you negotiate the complexities and sophistication of new projects and commissions with the primitive elements that still interest you?

SR It’s always contingent on each individual project and the realistic possibilities. I do not insist upon a particular line of work; that grants me adaptability and a range of solutions. I try to use materials to create environmental units that are well defined, rather than homogeneous formal solutions. For example, when we built the Mestizo Restaurant with the artist Marcela Correa, we simply tried to bring the park and the surrounding lagoons inside the restaurant. We didn’t want to have a pavilion in the middle of the park, but an interior that could actually become a part of it. So we “mounted” the building with a thick concrete pergola, painted in black, over large pieces of raw granite weighing between seven and 12 tons each. These massive stones are the structure of the building. They are the support, not only in terms of forces but also in terms of imagination—they form the memory one has of the landscape. The visitor connects the granite stones to the park, to the outdoors, even if the real task of the stones is to support a roof. Looking back, there are two issues that make this project quite different from conventional projects. On one hand, the complex solution of using non-industrial materials to manage seismic forces in a public building, and on the other, the fact that the actual construction process was directed and executed by the project authors themselves. This touches on the idea of great opportunities created by “assisted self-built processes,” something common in the art world.

JC The critic Alberto Sato has commented on the affinities between your work and that of Chillida and Oteiza, but to me there is a stronger material and conceptual link to Arte Povera and even some strands of Land Art. Do you and Marcela consider there to be a relevant link between art/architecture and sculpture/architecture?

SR Even if this sounds strange, I believe that art and architecture have nothing to do with each other. Their clear differences allow the collaboration between educated architects and artists. This becomes complex, since both disciplines quite often share exhibition spaces that are physical, social, political, and economic. As a rule, the outcomes of art and architecture collide all over the place, although, in my opinion, there are great exceptions to this rule: the subtle way in which Carlo Scarpa’s work is exhibited at the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona; the crystalline atmosphere of Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation; or the generalized silence of the Chillida-Leku Museum in Spain, especially the silence of the works housed between the main gallery’s thick walls.

I recently discovered an article by Andrea Branzi in which he proposes to momentarily isolate technology and the logical code of its relationships to open up the abyss of wasteful constructive energies—weak joints, unhinged nails, obliquities, approximations, overdimensioning, fragility, fractures, poverty ... all of which make up, according to him, the “limits of insecurity”—allowing an experiential entrance into the creative and construction processes. Some projects such as the Mestizo Restaurant, the A House, or the installation in Culipran are in direct alignment with Branzi’s ideas.

JC The photographs of your built work seem very relevant to the projects. They emphasize the everyday existence of buildings rather than their quality as objects. Are you aware of and interested in this view of your work?

SR The everyday is relentless. It’s trial by fire to have every building negotiate the everyday. The way water is kept out, the resistance to dirt and stains, even decoration are just a few of the most troublesome manifestations. I have been concerned with photographing architecture in an empty fashion, to demonstrate its particular architectural qualities—for example, the flexibility an architectural plan has due to the relationship between inside and outside, like in the Chilena House. In other cases we have shown buildings in their daily use, because it gives a specific character to the spaces, like in the Habitation project, where one can see the objects invading and dressing the structure of the building as if it were a warehouse of memories.

JC This notion of a warehouse of memories could relate to the processes of accumulation evident in your designs. What kind of accumulation are you interested in? Curatorial (which selects, organizes intellectually, and creates discourses) or archeological and ethnographic (which observes, catalogues, and describes clinically)?

SR I’m interested in one who accumulates without a sense of purpose, without any objective other than creating a simple story of the soul on a case-by-case basis. Saint-John Perse, during his exile in the United States, wrote something which is quite impressive: “There is no history but that of the soul, no peace but that of the soul.”

JC What do you find interesting in the current global architectural realm? What are you currently reading?

SR I always return to Saint-John Perse, especially his poem “Exile.” Pessoa’s The Seaman and Others, Alfred North Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature… I like to browse the early books of Leon Battista Alberti, Giorgio Agamben’s Means Without End, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Peter Sloterdijk’s Estrangement from the World, and Tadeusz Kantor’s writings on imitation and memory. Also José Quetglas, and art and architecture manifestos of the ’60s and ’70s.

Regarding buildings, I’m interested in the great majority of Shinohara’s houses for the apparent formal dissonance amongst them; the way Kengo Kuma uses translucency and natural elements for the Hiroshige Museum; the promenades and geometric thermal ponds of Germán del Sol; the Iberê Camargo Foundation in Porto Alegre, Brazil by Álvaro Siza and its connection with Lina Bo Bardi’s work; the heavy construction work of Antón García Abril’s Hemeroscopium House and its connection to the Colina House by Miguel Eyquem; all of Glenn Murcutt’s work; Enric Miralles’s plans; Sigurd Lewerentz’s silence ...

JC Regarding the weight of things, Antón García Abril says that a pound of lead does not weigh the same as a pound of hay, and that architecture always attempts to control the force of gravity and its effect on bodies in equilibrium. I would like for you to comment on how, both conceptually and physically, the basalt rock sculptures by Marcela Correa on the roof of the Pite House operate differently from the granite rocks in the Mestizo Restaurant. Are you interested equally in the iconographic and material qualities of rocks or more in their performance?

SR These rocks are characters that support the imagination of each of these buildings. It’s definitely what remains after a first visit. In the Pite House they hide the building, transforming a domestic entrance into a public plaza with a view. These rocks, in front of the sea, placed strategically over walls and compressed terrain, bury the house under their weight, incorporating accumulated time into a building whose weathering is yet to come.

In the restaurant, the granite rocks are themselves the structural support of a building that lays on top of them, almost in a casual fashion. In this way we connect the rocks to the park surrounding the pavilion, producing an interior that seems stolen from the garden. The choice of these mountainous granite rocks, their shipment to the site, and their incorporation into the project through both calculation and direct manipulation are now part of the history of the building. It’s a history that we own as direct fabricators, and that allows us to acquire a knowledge that is difficult to obtain though any other means. Maybe because of my training, and especially because of Marcela’s training as a sculptor, this history is possible only in the moment it is built and defined physically, when it transcends the design stage. The density of the materials, their weight relative to their position, the colors of their peelings, their real and fictional dimensions—these things cannot be experienced any other way.

JC When you describe the building process for the Habitación project in San Miguel, Chiloé, you describe it almost in terms of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo: boats, ropes, tides, pulleys, oxen. How much do you care for the logistical, preformal aspects of your architectural projects?

SR The displacement of Fitzcarraldo’s ship in Herzog’s film is a fantastic example of the production of estrangement through an errant object, or something that yearns for its original site. We ask that whenever we visit the monasteries of Mount Athos, or when we find the humble refuge of a mountaineer in the Andes. I think much has to do with the physical effort. Keeping distances: a refuge such as La Habitación belongs to this idea, and that is why I always tell the story of the transportation of its materials in pieces during two rainy months, with oxen, ferries, boats, and by hand. I always present this project with René Char’s quote, “To suppress distance is to kill.”

JC The way you describe your projects reminds me of John Hejduk’s drawings, projects, and poems—the building The House of the Mother of the Suicide, the drawing The House of the Inhabitant who Refused to Participate—where characters and architectures mutually create (hi)stories.

SR The titles are impressive! I know Hejduk’s architectural work more than his poems. These architectural times are still problematic for me. I remember Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction with the character Roithamer; his obsession was to build a cone for his sister to inhabit. She dies when she sees it, if I am not mistaken, and then he kills himself. From that novel comes the name of my structure House for my Sister. Which reminds me: another book to keep close by is Aldo Rossi’s A Scientific Autobiography.

JC Now that you mention Rossi, some of your built works have a sense of potency similar to Rossi’s drawings. Representation is suspended until fabrication itself occurs. With the exception of some perspective drawings and perhaps the models made from paper clips for the Paseo Altamirano project, photography seems to be your medium of choice before, during, and after the construction of the building.

SR I used to take photographs with a Hasselblad 500 that served as a reference for my projects, but I really know very little about photography. Even photos taken nine years ago, usually during travels, are still material for projects we are currently developing. Renderings, on the other hand, are used after finishing a project, with all the constructive aspects as a verification that it can be built. After reading A Scientific Autobiography, I traveled to Mantua to see the fog coming in through the gates of Sant’Andrea. There is a book of photographs by Luigi Ghirri and Aldo Rossi which is quite impressive; the colors are subdued and low-contrast, something difficult to find in architectural publications. I am not interested in the production of images that are not technical. I generally find them boring, including those we have produced in the office, such as those for the Paseo Altamirano competition.

JC You speak of the technical aspect of images, but there is something clearly political in the way you use them, either through the interaction of people with the architecture, through the evidence of de- or re-territorialized objects, or even through the radical construction techniques you depict. Are you interested in the political? After all, you migrated to Venice when Manfredo Tafuri was still alive, didn’t you?

SR I arrived in Venice when Tafuri was alive, but not very healthy. Years later, I took his courses when his voice had almost disappeared and his skin was becoming ever more gray, at a time when he was uncovering deconstructivism. I went to Venice after buying From Vanguard to Metropolis, written by Giorgio Ciucci, Francesco Dal Co, Manfredo Tafuri, Massimo Cacciari, and Franco Rella—in short, everyone at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice. In those years it was difficult to obtain books of any kind in Chile. With luck you could get them at antiquarian bookshops, but architectural books were very hard to come by, with the exception of Ernst Neufert’s Architects’ Data, probably thanks to its apparent ideological neutrality. So, motivated by From Vanguard to Metropolis, I went to Venice, a place where architecture was certainly not a collection of pure forms absent of history and politics.

In Chile I studied at the School of Architecture of the Catholic University, an institution where architectural history was seen as a question of style, or even “poetry.” This way of teaching and understanding architecture was later condensed in a volume called The Facts of Architecture, a book that even to this day constitutes the basis for architectural students from their first year.

The political interests me only in regard to the popular vote. The political in architecture is relevant when it gives depth to intervention and steals it from quick and easy formal descriptions. It is difficult to think of our work from this perspective, because it would be an after-reading. In any case, we would like to be engaged again in the design of collective spaces. That is what we are working on right now, along with Marcela Correa and the designer Gonzalo Puga, with whom we are participating in an exhibition of architecture for catastrophes called Crossing: Dialogues for Emergency Architecture, which will open in China on May 29 as a remembrance of that country’s earthquake.

JC I like your idea of depth. Along those lines, which Chilean architects interest you the most?

SR Without a doubt, my preference is for Germán del Sol. His buildings are the best one can find in Chile today. They’re the least mannerist and the ones with the strongest personal character. All this in spite of his writings, which only show that whatever we architects write about our work, it always has a sense of overacting.

JC You have taught and lectured both in and out of Chile. How does this operate in relationship with the work you do at your office?

SR I tend to run short on patience, and patience is a basic requisite for teaching. Secondly, I have the intuition that since at least 15 years ago, the architecture schools are chasing professional architects as a way to “update” themselves. If this is correct, it makes no sense to be connected to architecture schools to develop any kind of investigation. Even more so, it would seem that the architectural office is more flexible and dynamic and can create more speculation; it can explore representation and of course take risks in the execution of projects. In the “real world,” as the professional realm is referred to in schools, flexibility and dynamism are a prerequisite, or an outcome of competition amongst professionals. Mostly out of lack of patience, I teach less today, and when I do it, I do it with friends, where we try to think of things we cannot think of at the office, often for a lack of time and dedication. For instance, as of now, Gonzalo Puga and I are developing a workshop in Argentina around the German fashion magazine Burda. We’re recycling the representation and contruction methods of the sewing patterns that appear in the magazine. Strangely enough, a good place to teach and learn architecture is a good architectural office; it has always been like that. For that reason, the immediate years after finishing school are so relevant for the formation of an architect. Maybe this is why so many schools are incorporating professional practice and working fellowships into architectural education curriculum.

JC You are currently working in a project for Ordos 100, where 100 architects are building 100 single-family dwellings in inner Mongolia. It would seem far from your natural preferences. Only you, along with Cecilia Puga and Alejandro Aravena, are from Chile. What do you think of this kind of cultural phenomenon for architectural practice? How do you negotiate contradictions such as inviting a group of extremely talented professionals to design unsustainable suburban villas? How do you avoid globalized frivolity? Which programs, geographies, scales, or protocols of collaboration will you like to venture into in the future?

SR Opportunities to work outside Chile have been few but illustrative. In Greece in the early ’90s I won a competition along with Nikolas Skutelis and Flavio Zanon to build the Iraklio Plaza in Crete. At the time we were under 30 years old. It was an experience characterized by delays, bureaucracy, good seafood for lunch every day, and long trips through the Mediterranean Sea waiting for local permits. Fourteen years later came the Ordos experience, which we finished just recently. Mongolia visited through the film The Weeping Camel seems like a land of dreams, and the master plan of Ordos 100 seemed reasonable if respected by everyone. But reality took its toll, as it always does. After that, I was skeptical to work in China again, until we were invited to participate in the Crossing exhibition, which coincides with my interests—ephemerality, globalism, the low-tech, disasters.... To work outside of Chile is only justified if one can achieve something you cannot achieve locally. I think it’s quite stupid to do the same thing elsewhere. One should avoid the “I did it” of Baudrillard’s marathon man, empty and without history.

JC It would seem that ephemerality, globalism, and the disastrous are quite contemporary, at least in the economic realm.

SR In the realm of erosion, too.

 

Translated from the Spanish by José Castillo.