Mark: "‘It is a necessity to create buildings that have hope in them’" (Apr/May 2007)
Interview (Kenneth Frampton)


      

According to Kenneth Frampton, capitalism may appear to be triumphant, but it is in a near-entropic state.

Text David Keuning
Photos Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Kenneth Frampton still uses slides to illustrate his lectures. While speaking at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam in January, he discovered the students were shocked to realize that Frampton had not yet entered the 21st century. With the mildly ironic smile of a 77-year-old, he admits that at his own university (he is professor at the Graduate School of Architecture of Columbia University in New York), he and others like him are called ‘legacy users’. It’s a nickname he can live with, and happily.

Frampton has published countless works on architecture, including Modern Architecture: A Critical History and Studies in Tectonic Culture. ‘Technology’, ‘culture’ and ‘politics’ are keywords in his dissertations, and he has a high regard for architecture based on tradition. Asked to name books that helped shape his views, he mentions only one that’s devoted to the history of architecture: Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. Others on his list are cultural and political-philosophical works by Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition), Jürgen Habermas (Towards a Rational Society), Guy Debord (Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle) and Martin Heidegger (Poetry, Language, Thought). Not all equally optimistic in tone, these books harbour the same sort of uncertainty that can be felt in the following interview. Frampton loves beautiful buildings, but he can’t help wondering what is to become of humanity.

I asked you to name the books that are important to you as an architecture historian and theorist. Your reply includes books on cultural and political philosophy. How do they help you to understand the current practice of architecture?
One of the reasons Hannah Arendt, above all, has been important to me is that I think her book, The Human Condition, written in 1958, reveals some fundamental things about the nature of architecture. She writes about the public and the private realm, and it is exactly this question that is so important to an understanding of architecture in my opinion. She makes a distinction between labour and work, for example. Labour yields products that are meant to be consumed, and work yields products that are not meant to be consumed. The former is necessary in order to sustain life at a private level, but there is also a sense of futility about it at the centre. The latter is related to the public realm, to permanence, to sustain a kind of human continuity in a way. It creates a world that transcends individual mortality and, therefore, a world of public representation. She uses the phrase ‘a space of human appearance’. Speaking about labour, she says: ‘nowadays we consume our houses, our furniture and our cars as though they were like the good fruits of the earth, which would perish if they were not immediately eaten’. All of that is of importance to me.

Why?
I read this book when I went to the United States in 1965. It made an enormous impression on me. It explained things to me that hitherto I had not been able to understand. Going from England to the United States was a revelation in the sense that the scale of American industrial production and consumption was so vast, compared with what I had previously experienced in England, that I began to realize the influence of these on architecture or, if you like, building culture.

Judging from your writings, you seem to resent the American way of life, with its consumerism and unbridled capitalism. You seem to have more of an affinity with Europe and other parts of the world. Why did you move to the United States in the first place?
That’s a strange thought, isn’t it? It’s very perverse. But I think it gave me something, which perhaps emerged from this perversity. I might not have been able to develop the same distance to the Anglo-American world if I had stayed in England. By living in the United States, I was able to have a broader view of the world than I would have, perhaps, if I had remained in London.

Is this retrospective insight?
Yes, it is retrospective. I mean, how did I end up in the United States? I suppose the only rationale I can give is that I went there to teach at Princeton. Peter Eisenman invited me. I went back and forth for a while, between the United States and England. But I could not find a teaching position in England that would have been as productive for me, and it would not have been as well paid, incidentally.

Do you enjoy living in New York?
I like living in New York, yes. But living in the United States is a little hard right now. Not so much my personal life, but the present political climate in the United States is rather tough.

Do you feel, when you are abroad, that you have to justify yourself for living there?
No, not particularly, but it’s on my mind all the time in any case. But I think by now it must be on a lot of people’s minds. It’s a strange moment when you think about it. The Soviet Union and, in a way, the socialist project have collapsed. They are followed by the triumph of this American way of life, and the fact that, indeed, the American way of life is a worldwide influence. China is a classic example. It still has an ostensibly Communist-commander economy, a totalitarian government. But, in fact, the Chinese are largely trying to transform themselves into an even more superior United States, with suburban houses, automobiles, skyscrapers and everything else.

What countries do you like better, in terms of architecture?
Spontaneously, countries that particularly come to mind are Spain, above all, of course. And Finland. And Australia.

Why do they appeal to you?
Well, in Spain, in particular, the quality of the architecture is very high. I think it is fair to say that one could probably name, with a little effort, 40 architects in Spain who are doing quality work at a very high level, all over the country. Part of that has to do with Spanish society, with the Spanish city states, as a matter of fact. I think Spanish cities have a very strong sense of their own culture and have up until now been able to maintain that sense. These cities are very careful in terms of the way they commission architects, and which architects they commission, and how much money they are willing to put into public buildings. If I think of Spanish provincial cities versus, for instance, their English counterparts, I would say that Spanish provincial cities are far more self-conscious and cultured societies than their British equivalents.
The reason for the quality in Finland is different. It has got to do with the fact that Finland has a very small population, relatively speaking, highly educated, rather wealthy, democratic. I sometimes think that these Scandinavian countries, and perhaps this also applies to the Netherlands, are the only countries that have really achieved democracy in a full sense. Democracy, or the idea of a democracy, is much more difficult in a political entity like the United States, with 300 million people in it. American society likes to think of itself as the democratic society. This is rather painful, as you have only 34 per cent of the people voting in the United States, out of those 300 million. So what kind of democracy is this? Australia, for example, has of recent date produced rather distinguished architecture – Glenn Mercutt being, of course, the pre-eminent example.
The Netherlands is a paradoxical country in a way, I think. The state has supported architecture very heavily, obviously, but in a way Dutch architecture is very diffuse. It seems to be less consistent in quality than Spanish work, for example, also within the practice of one architect for that matter. Certain practices – I don’t want to get into the name business – are incredibly successful, but it is very hard to understand why they are so successful.

Now you’ve made me curious . . .
Well, MVRDV, for example, are spectacular architects in the Guy Debord sense of the term. But their work lacks a kind of cultural depth. In a way it’s all sensation, basically.

Let’s get back to your favourite books. Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age is the only proper history of architecture on the list. What is it that made you select this book above all others in the genre?
Well, I suppose he is the first historian to examine the different aspects of the modern movement in a very precise way, in terms of what the creators say about the work they are creating. He traces the ideas behind the work. It is a history that has a very ideological aspect, and that’s why it had such a big influence on me.

Can you explain the ideological aspect?
For instance, Banham read what Loos and Le Corbusier said about their architecture and related their words to the architecture itself. He saw the intentions behind the architecture, plus the architecture itself, as an organic whole. The whole history is written in that way. My book, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, has the same kind of approach. My own writing is influenced by building, by architecture as built, you know, as projected, and what I like about the work of Banham is that the same sort of influence is also present, all the time. The idea is on the one hand, and the building is on the other hand. They are constantly being assessed against each other, throughout the book.

You yourself were educated as an architect. Should any theory be closely linked to practice in your opinion?
I think theory and practice must be connected to each other, in any field. A theory that doesn’t have any real respect for practice is a problem. There is a lot of American theory that is very detached from practice, which is, I think, of limited value. The whole French structuralist philosophy, for example – Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, who enjoyed such a following in the United States among architects: as much as I am able to understand them, I do not find them very illuminating.

Why not? Because it’s all too much theory and too little practice?
Yes, and also because it seems to me that their thinking is not very connected with technology. It’s interesting in a way that all these books I mentioned, including the one by Hannah Arendt, do have a recognition of the role played by technology in transforming the society. Well, there’s one exception to this. That’s Baudrillard, with his System of Objects, who is very aware of technology and the impact of it. So he, as a French intellectual, did influence me. But the others never did make any sense to me. I just don’t understand the connection with architecture. There’s a tendency of American formalism and of American poststructuralism, which also has a formalist aspect to it, to reduce the whole issue of architecture to a question of language, basically, and to a kind of subversion of language. Eisenman’s theoretical way of thinking has always been touched by this notion, as though there is this autonomous formal language. The connection to the society has never been of that much interest to him, nor the questions of the limitations of technology. He is totally indifferent to them, basically. And, of course, Eisenman didn’t dominate the American theoretical scene, but certainly he had a very considerable influence on it.

Certain books on your list have a rather pessimistic view of Western society, like those by Debord, Heidegger and Habermas. And yet you value these books. Is your view of today’s culture equally pessimistic?
One has to be careful in answering this question. How shall I put this? It seems to me that this talking animal, with its triumphant techno science and its triumphant capitalism, is probably in a big historical crisis. The climate change is escalating at a colossal rate. And the creature seems unable to do anything about it. It’s so locked into its production and consumption, and so used to an economy based on the continuous expansion of these activities, that it cannot step out of the vicious circle. And in spite of the Kyoto Protocol and all that, the Americans are not going to make a move. It is likely that the tipping point is about to be reached, if we have not reached it already. The transformation of the world climate is absolutely apocalyptic. If you have seen the film An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, you know that the evidence is not disputable any more. The ice is disappearing . . .

I agree with you, but how can architecture do something about that?
Architecture cannot do anything. It’s a fundamental political, economical, societal question. But you asked me whether I share the pessimistic view of these writers. Well, I do.

Okay. Let’s say that architecture can’t do anything about it. I’m still wondering whether the idea of things going wrong influences the way you look at architecture.
This is perhaps an indirect answer, but there is a very beautiful film by Alain Resnais, which is called Providence. It came out in 1977. The film is about a kind of dissolute writer, who is probably suffering from cancer; it’s not clear. At the end of the film, his children come to see him to celebrate his birthday. They are rather sombre, these children, and they start to talk – this was in the period when the Cold War was still an issue – about the problem of the nuclear conflict. The writer makes a toast and says, ‘Nothing is written; we all believe that, don’t we?’ This is, of course, a statement about hope.
Inasmuch as architecture has a limited mandate, I think that creating works of significance, works that also have a certain hope in them, is still a necessity, despite the fact that the larger picture seems to have an apocalyptic character. So, within the terms of one’s own life and of what contribution one can make to the culture and to the world as a society, I think one should carry out quality work with hope in mind. But I think it is possible to sustain both views: to create or support the creation of quality work to the best of one’s ability, with cultural continuity in mind, while also recognizing that the seemingly triumphant techno-capitalism is already in a near-entropic state.