Interview with Marcelo Spina

The following is an interview that took place between Marcelo Spina and Matthew Lopez on September 20th, 2017. 

Whitney Mute Icons

ML: What can you tell us about your upcoming book?

MS: Mute Icons: Pressing Dichotomies in Contemporary Architecture, is really a book of images: parallel images, historical, contemporary, but mostly speculative images. In our mind, the book is an attempt to hone in on what we find as an increasingly dichotomic state of the contemporary world, especially as it relates to architecture and design culture. The mute icon is, in itself, a dichotomy. To have something that is mute and iconic at the same time seems like an oxymoron. That dialectic aspect, is precisely where the content of the book relies. As architects, we’ve become accustomed to iconicity through various formal tropes and image-producing features that are now pervasive in our culture. And what the book tries to identify is a perceived reaction to this notion of the icon. A reaction that comes from not only architecture, but culture in general. More specifically through economic, political, and social issues that have shifted the apparent political centers from places such as America and Europe to regions like, Asia, Latin America and Africa. So, the objective of Mute Icons, is to find a new and less assertive paradigm for the project of the icon, one that can engage this larger shifting geopolitical context in a very different way. The idea of muteness as we understand it, is about how we decrease the communicational capacity of the architectural object and its image, by making it less recognizable. We feel that doing so, strengthens the capacity of architecture to generate original ideas, images, and forms of content which are both in sync and at the same time subversive of today’s culture. We want to look both inside and outside of our culture to create original and unfamiliar architectural form, aesthetics, but also content. What is important for us in our work is to produce an architecture that is both critically ingrained in culture, but also deeply architectural in its physical and abstract nature. So, one of the things we are doing in the book, which is part manifesto, part survey and part monograph, is to produce an alternative history of muteness in architectural culture.  This is no conventional precedent study, we are looking back to the Egyptian pyramids, a tomb in the Saudi Arabian desert, some early churches in Africa, as well as some of the now canonic work of Boullée and Ledoux, or Virilio’s bunkers, among others. We are trying to argue that, this notion of mute icon, has existed for a while. While these projects aren’t necessarily new, their collective newfound relevance somehow is. We are really trying to construct a parallel narrative that connects historical buildings, projects and writings with our very own work and ideas, very deliberately and unapologetically. By looking at these projects and performing a kind of speculative reading that focuses on problems of posture, form, mass, material, scale, relation to ground and context, image, and how these aspects relate to social, political and cultural issues. By rewriting history in relation to muteness, we are seeking to create a fertile ground for architecture to look within and beyond itself. Especially as our field is richly and problematically infiltrated by philosophical ideas and postulates that are finding traction in our field, our own architectural philosophies, theories, practices and instruments are more relevant than ever. When Boullée talked about seeking to produce an ‘architecture of shadows’, he was really talking about obfuscating and obscuring the legibility of mass and volume. This isn’t too far away from some of the things we have been talking about now for quite some time in relation to Speculative Realism or OOO.  This is just one instance among many wherein we try to make the case for architecture as a cultural practice, one that constantly nurtures itself from exterior content, but one that has produced, is producing and must continue to produce its own original content within culture.

ML: So, these are a lot of the same things you talk about in your essay Mute Icons. Things like Indeterminacy, Incongruity, fuzziness, disparity, all of which inherently subvert any notion of a guise. Can you speak more directly to these ideas relative to guise?

MS: Autonomy is a key part, but not in a traditional way.  I think it mostly has to do with delaying a certain amount of recognition in the experience of architecture as a kind of social contract. This isn’t just about perception, although perception has a lot to do with the problem of experience. Our interest in monolithicity relates precisely to this capacity of muting typology, or the relation between part to whole. If you see a building that’s made-up slabs you immediately tend to recognize that those slabs are associated with living floors, therefore inferring its size as you unconsciously begin to count these elements. This relates to a sort of mathematics of perception. After a while, a certain automatism replaces the recurrence of experience. You begin to recognize things instead of see them. Of course, this goes back to two important essays from the turn of the century. The first being Viktor Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique” where he talks about the concept of estrangement, suggesting that the role of art [I would include architecture here] is “to make the stone feel stony again.” He wants to reinstate the power of things by breaking this automatism in our experience. So, to break the automatism is to reinstate our capacity to see and experience things rather than simply recognize them. The second one, Walter Benjamin’s “The work of Art in the age of Mechanical reproduction”, where he claims that the experience of architecture takes places in a state of distraction. Given our increasingly media driven world, this is more pressing than ever. You don’t get to do a close reading of a building when you are actually experiencing it. You are simply there. That is why, architecture has to somehow disguise itself to maintain a certain level of attention in and over time. These are two long traditions [it’s important to note that as traditions, these are already a hundred-years-old] that are somehow relating to many of the points that I mention in the text “Seven Reminders to Contemporary Architects”. In a certain way, the point of our upcoming book is to pay closer attention to why some of these simple differences become, over time, oppositions and dichotomies. This relates to the excessive dualisms we encounter today, from architecture to culture, and certainly politics. One of the things I am really interested in right now, that in a way connects with your very idea of guise is how to turn a dialectic speculation into a progressive and original form of thinking. This takes a certain amount of risk like not being afraid of exploring phobias or conventionally assumed opposites. For example, during the deconstruction period there was a desire to challenge order, and therefore arbitrariness and disruption were seen as norm. In the 90’s it was all about new complex forms of order and continuity was the law. Over time, you realize that each of these positions carry a certain dogma that often leads to contractions and excesses while leaving important content out. One of the things we try to do is convey that, in the possible coexistence of differences and even opposites, one can still arrive at authentic stuff, stuff that is in fact not dualistic any longer. Some of this stuff, may constitute unusual and maybe original forms of architecture.

ML:  How does your work expose the gap in our perception of things? More specifically in how you are navigating certain forms of representation in a culture that is totally immersed in the digital?

A4 H Mute Icons2

MS: Well one of the things we’ve been interested in for quite a while both in my studios at SCI-Arc as well as our own work, is that of mixed genres. We don’t use perspective drawings as we used to. We aren’t taking credit for this general trend of course, but we’ve been pushing for not necessarily getting rid of perspectives altogether either because this form of visceral engagement with space is still important. In fact, perspectives, photorealistic rendering and images, come into question when it comes to the discussion of the real. One version of the real is the idea of photography, which in our field is very much associated with a tradition of photomontage and photorealistic renderings. We want to bring some of those properties: the use of light, materiality, depth of field, contrast, etc. into orthographic forms of projections. We have been using the plan oblique a lot, both in our own work as well as with our SCI-Arc students. For example, we might do a plan oblique of a building rendered in a photorealistic way, therefore studying many aspects of building in a controlled manner. This is both useful as an instrument, but also produces a form of distortion that we come to enjoy: a kind of weird dislocation of the presentation tolls themselves…You know you are not looking at a photograph, but you are a bit misled as to what is the value of this image, its representation and the real itself. I don’t think of this as a trick, it’s just a way to push the representation forward by incorporating other forms of abstraction. In other words, pushing the photographic version of the real and the experiential real into ideas of representation that are more germane to our discipline. The other thing we’ve done in our own work is to think of physical model photography as being one version of the disciplinary real, therefore attempting to exploit that immediate physical and tactile aspect as a form of abstraction. We are interested in using the power of the image to disguise its inherent abstraction, using and abusing digital renderings textured to look just like physical models. Connected to issues of labor, plausibility, or immediacy, you are not sure if this is a photograph of a physical object or simply another rendering. These are inside tricks which may sound geeky, but to me, these are instances where you can push the medium to re represent architecture and its image forward. We are not interested in making our drawings and renderings look like it’s 1980. Rather than thinking of them as pure pictorial representations, we think of these ideas in association to forms of real production for the production of an original real.