Is there an innovation generally in architecture that you are currently most excited about?
Economics are of course a factor in what is happening right now in architecture. There are fewer huge buildings, fewer “crazy little buildings” as the architect Arata Isozaki once put it, and an overriding concern to make things as inexpensive as possible. I believe that this situation, though it may not be comfortable for architects who are trying to earn a living, engenders a great deal of invention. How can one build an interesting structure for a low budget? Since good architecture is generally about problem solving, it might be said that this attitude is just the current avatar of what architects have always done. Or one might be more adventuresome and refer to this time as being one of “creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter put it — the old order is being swept aside, and new rules have already been put in place.
What do architects often get wrong when they seek to be innovative? And what, to your mind, are the hallmarks of great architecture?
I am not sure that architects often go wrong when they seek to be innovative. Frank Gehry wanted to be as innovative as his artist friends, and by many measures, he has succeeded, changing attitudes about contemporary architecture in the process. Being “innovative” may also have to do with creating structures that nobody has tried to build before, something of a hit and miss process by any stretch of the imagination.
I feel that innovation that comes from a deep and solid understanding of what can be done in architecture is the most durable and successful kind. Being original for the sake of being original might be the definition of the problem you refer to — being “innovative” may not be quite the problem that being “original” can be. Oscar Niemeyer, who just passed away at the age of 104, was in many ways the most significant architect of the 20th century, Mies, Wright and Corbu notwithstanding. He called his autobiography “The Curves of Time” — the curves of his native Rio, or the curves of a woman’s body, he called on forms that were always there, and in fact influenced Le Corbusier more than the reverse. This digression (which surely will not please everyone!) has to do with answering your second question — about what makes “great architecture.”
The question is nearly as complicated as what makes great art. Perhaps durability and the appreciation of many generations of observers are the real tests. Or one might be less inclined to wait centuries to know and say that great architecture has to do with “a world that is already there.” It was [philosopher] Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wrote, “… I create an exploratory body dedicated to things and to the world, of such sensitivity that it invests me to the most profound recesses of myself and draws me immediately to the quality of space, from space to the object, and from the object to the horizon of all things, which is to say a world that is already there.”
You are a master of not only architecture, but also studied economics. As you know, Europe and the United States are struggling with their own economic crises, with much talk of the “fiscal cliff” here in the United States. This may be a bit far-flung, but are there elements from the worlds of architecture and design that could be applied to the problem-solving process currently being undertaken by policy makers to right the global economy ship?
It seems obvious that architecture is almost immediately subjected to the constraints of what might be called economic reality. Survival for the architect means being able to adapt to new conditions, to go forward when there is almost no more money on the table, to invent (to innovate?) when conditions are difficult. Are politicians acting to solve real problems in the same spirit, or are they worrying about their own reelection.
Of course building a small house for a single client does not involve all of the bureaucratic problems of running a country. Even a complex building on a large scale can still be conceived by a single person, though many services and constraints also form the realm of the possible. The matter of scale is important, national economies are by definition more complex than any architectural project, and yet, what if the spirit of problem solving that must animate good (or great) architects could be applied to politics and the world of the economy?