Glass talks to Andrés Jaque director of an innovative architectural practice that aims to put people and environment first.
With headquarters in New York and Madrid, the Office for Political Innovation (OFFPOINN) is an international architectural practice working at the intersection of design, research and critical environmental practices. Andrés Jaque – who directs the Advanced Architectural Design Program at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, several books under his name, and completed his PhD at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid – is at the helm as its Director.
OFFPOINN currently works on projects for the likes of Thyssen Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Art Institute of Chicago and Real Madrid. Their projects have been the object of solo exhibitions at MoMA, MoMA PS1, and MAK Vienna, among others. Their work is so diverse and intersectional, the word “architecture” isn’t even mentioned in the practice’s name, not because it’s not important, but because OFFPOINN destabilises the very practice of traditional architecture as we know it.
Glass speaks to Andrés to ask him about his “entangled” views on architecture, the diversity of his work, his plans as Chief Curator of the 13th Shanghai Biennale, and about the importance of disobedience, care, togetherness and of water.
I think that one of the most special, or shall we say, unique things about it is that there’s no mention of the word “architecture” there.
We practice architecture as an intersection of design, research, and political engagement. This, for me, is something which is growing – the idea that being professional doesn’t really mean that you are commercial. That’s something else, it’s different. Architecture can be practiced as a form of engagement – environmental, political, social – and d that is what we try to do. That is why we believe that what we do is a sort of political innovation. It’s about thinking further, where politics is happening.
Many people, when they hear the word “architecture” think of it’s one thing: buildings. One of the things that drew me to your work is this idea you have of “entanglements” – of life, bodies, technologies, and environments.
In the past we thought of architecture as the provision of containers – boxes where society happens – but contemporary architecture has made a huge change; it’s the actual assemblage that we call the social, which is what architecture is about.
Architecture is the way different components get together and gain solidarity; how things are interconnected and relate to each other; and most importantly how these connections between very heterogenous things are related by forms of ethics, how they represent our feelings, how they constitute our society as inclusive, as plural, as durable.
That is what I think is crucial; architecture is no longer making boxes or buildings, but it is actually taking care of the relational schemes that connect humans to millions of things: to environments, to animals, to plants, to culture, to many forms of existence which basically are entangled.
You’ve previously mentioned in other interviews that something that drew you to architecture were Christmas trees, dinner settings, parties, but also discussions as a social activity. How is it that you made a link between discussions – as an activity with a social setting – and the practice of architecture?
At this point I think we have to change the way we find references for architecture. I don’t think that the constant reference to iconic buildings helps us understand how architecture operates today. I think that we need to find other ways of doing. Those ways of doing are often very simple things, like how you organise a party. How do you decide who’s invited and how do you make people feel comfortable?
These forms of architecture are more relational and have to do with how societies are composed together – yes, materially but also – through performance. These are the references I would like to point to as components of architecture. Architecture is more about the social and environmental setting than about space. The setting is about how different preferences can be articulated.
Then, if we shift the references of architecture, do we shift the decision-making processes behind architecture? The French architect Le Corbusier wanted to wipe out Paris and start over again, and he even established his “five points of architecture” which set almost an instruction manual for how an acceptable building had to look and operate.
There is an untraditional way of thinking of architecture as a participatory practice, something that started in the 1960s and even before. It’s a tradition that we need to look back to. Now, the talent is different because the participations that we are considering are not solely people, but environments, landscapes that are not autonomous or independent from us – we are totally interconnected and interdependent with them, we are part of them.
How do we make the ocean become a part of the decision-making? It is a fundamental question of our times, not a rhetorical one.
We need to understand what the dynamics of the ocean are. How do we produce processes of transformation that are incorporating the precautionary principles that allow us to react to unexpected damages? That is a different sensitivity in which architecture needs to transition into: from a culture of exploitation to a culture of mutual care, and from a culture of big gestures to a culture of slow action, sensitive to the uncertainty of what the implications of any action will be.
Speaking of the ocean. You’re the Chief Curator of 13th Shanghai Biennale, so congratulations firstly. The theme of “Bodies of Water” is something I’m really interested in. Where did the idea for the theme come from?
We are questioning the self-confinement of any being and trying to find forms to think about togetherness: a togetherness that connects beings that are radically different, but that somehow are crossed and entangled through the circulations and forms of matter, of fluidity. Ultimately, that produces a radical form of interconnectivity. We want to think beyond national divides and beyond individuality.
For me, it is important to think of this at this particular moment, because these forms of togetherness are a big part of our politics, and a part that needs to be developed. The Covid-19 pandemic has evolved through togetherness – but togetherness is also the point where climate meets individual lives, and where individual bodies become climate.
When we have this notion of togetherness, this sense of acquiescence, we begin to understand that what happens in one part of the world affects another, and what happens to one body somehow expands to others. I think that comes with a sense of being constituted in otherness as much as familiarity. There is huge political potential of that awareness. It gives us a cause beyond selfishness.
What can we expect from the Biennale? I read it’s going to challenge the format of biennales, by evolving in crescendo.
Biennales are normally about final results. They open their doors and it’s like Christmas, they showcase all these impressive works. We are doing a rebirth Biennale, and what that means is that the Biennale opens with questions, not results. The Biennale will open in November, with a four-day discussion – both offline and online – with diverse publics. It is basically a way to start the Biennale with more questions than responses.
Then, we will escalate that. There will be a cascade of discussions, events, presentations. and projects that the Biennale will eventually exhibit. But these projects are first going to be developed through this period, meaning that the process of actually doing the new commissions will begin in November but won’t be presented until April 2021.
I think that the actual process of creation is more often than not, as important as the end product in itself. It makes the work so much richer.
The public of the Biennale can participate in the development of these works. And so, the actual process of making the Biennale and making of the works is going to be subject to collective discussion before the Biennale opens and as the works are developed.
This is very unique, the first Biennale where there is a reverse process; the making of the work is exhibited first and it ends with the presentation of these works. I think that this will allow for the audience and the artist to have an endearing conversation that will leave a legacy in the minds of those that are a part of this.
As an architect, what would you say is your strength for curating the Biennale?
This is not the first time I have been asked to curate an Art Biennale; I co-curated “Manifesta” in Palermo. I always work in teams and this Biennale is no different. The first thing I proposed as curator of the Biennale was to constitute a diverse team of curators, all of them non-traditional – none of them coming from curating, but from different fields in which curating becomes more of a way of doing, a common language that allows other disciplines in other fields in a space of encounter.
What I believe I can add – and why I believe I was selected – was because cities and environments are becoming huge factors in the evolution of art and the evolution of culture – its sensitivities, politics, criticality at large. What I was able to bring to Palermo together with my colleagues, and what I aim to do again, is for the city of Shanghai, through the Biennale, to actually participate in the rebirth of connection between streets, soil, river, and ocean; the environment at large will be mobilised as actors of the Biennale.
This Biennale will not happen in a city; it will not take place in architecture. Rather, Shanghai becomes a huge voice in the Biennale. The Biennale takes place with the city, through the city, by the city. The river becomes a very significant player and contributor to the Biennale. We will see all works having a dialogue with the very specific conditions of the city and its buildings, but also with the city’s myths and landscapes.
Shanghai isn’t merely a city, it’s land highly entangled to larger territorial realities: to the Tibetan plateau, where the water from the river comes from due to the melting of the glaciers; to the bodily cycles of people in Shanghai, the way this is being regulated and normalised. All of these interconnections are not something that are added by artists but rather mobilised, reacted to, and inhabited. It won’t perform as an empty neutral space to occupy with works, but as a complex milieu of relations.
Different Kinds of Water Pouring Into a swimming Pool. Andrés Jaque
Apart from the research and the curation, you have the more “traditional” form of architectural practice. How do your ideas on entanglement and relational care manifest in your design work?
House in Never Never Land, in Cala Vadella, Ibiza, comes from the idea of living in the trees – a different existence in a time where residential homes become really boring structures to repeat one after the other. We are trying to rethink the home in nature from a different perspective, not as a question of trendiness in interior design, but rather how humans become part of already-existing eco-systems.
We then developed research on an entire area of Cala Vadella with a group of ecologists and activists. We would end up building a house that was almost not touching the floor. It was adapted to the geometry of the soil so it could keep its permeability and also the presence of roots and trees. The house allowed the trees to stay, which was fundamental to preserve the habitat of animals.
Also we concentrated all these mechanical systems, which would be polluting the soil with foreign substances, in a concrete bank that would prevent damages. Altogether the house was an opportunity to rethink the way humans become part of an eco-system, caring for it and also empowering, protecting and preserving it in the long run. It was beautiful so see how the house has evolved – I hope I can be there in the winter with the owners. I go there from time to time and it has been so exciting to see the impact of this house on the area.
How about your project, IKEA Disobedients?
At the time I did IKEA Disobedients, architecture was very formal and focused on space. I was trying to claim that architecture is not about that, but about the way other factors get together and the way societies get empowered. So I had to make space for these kinds of projects to happen.
I was annoyed by this call for individuality through messages such as Ikea’s “Welcome to the independent republic of your home”. We know how undesirable it is to promote individuality at a time when interconnection is crucial as a contemporary form of political action. We were trying to narrate what the mysticism was about. Homes were not seen as “independent republics” but rather places were a big part of our societal capital is constructed. In the long run this project was mostly photographs in a few settings, but it ended up being hugely effective. IKEA changed their campaign to “the revolution starts at home”.
But beyond that, in 2008 there was a crisis spawned by the austerity politics in Europe. Many social housing projects were privatised and many people living in them faced eviction. Some of these people were part of the IKEA Disobedients archive, and they ended up being well-known because their cases were made visible by the project.
So IKEA Disobedients ended up being a tool for them to protect themselves and gain public recognition, through protests that stopped evictions.
So I wonder, how should architects operate politically? One way definitely is to use symmetrical tools that can enable architecture to work in trans-media, in the same way that capitalism does. In order for architecture to confront those powers, it needs to also unfold across media, with cases and evidence that can show people that our reality can be different to the way things are.
by Regner Ramos
The 13th Shanghai Biennale opens on November 10, 2020