James Wines represents a sort of emblematic figure and key personality in the American architectural scene since the early seventies to the present day, not only as a leading protagonist, but also as the founder of the group SITE. He talks to Mario Pisani in an exclusive interview for Landscape.
How did this legacy come about?
The short answer to this question would be ‘the hard way.’ Probably, if your kind evaluation of SITE’s legacy is true, it is based to some extent on my endless curiosity concerning social and contextual phenomena outside of architecture, plus a very restless critique of the design professions as a whole.
One of my favorite quotes from Marcel Duchamp was directed toward all artists who want to pursue original ways of thinking. He observed; ‘If you want to be truly creative in your lifetime, you have to clean off your desk at least three times.’ This level of self-criticism is a very painful process – plus it inevitably calls for a rejection of one’s own past accomplishments in favor of ventures into uncharted territories. From my own perspective, I took heed of Duchamp’s advice in the middle of a relatively successful early career as a Constructivist-influenced sculptor. Basically, I woke up one morning in the mid-1960s and, already plagued by misgivings concerning the relevance of my work, I simply decided that anything derived from Cubism or Constructivism was hopelessly old fashioned. I also knew it was time to dump my dependence on past sources and find a more conceptually fertile direction. This was obviously a lot easier said than done. I had always been drawn to architecture and public space; but, when I perused the design scene at that time, I learned that it was even more bogged down by Cubist/Constructivist baggage than visual art (and still is today).
I guess my first genuine breakthrough, after the formation of SITE in 1970, came with the construction of the early BEST Buildings. The main motivation was to move away from conventional design (with its capital ‘D’ conceits and compromise of aesthetic in deference to function) for the use of architecture itself as a ‘subject matter’ for art. From this perspective, any familiar structure – house, office, store, factory, apartment building, etc. – could be seen as a subliminally accepted archetype and treated as the source material for an inversion of meaning. Among other factors, SITE’s transformations of big-box stores changed the public’s attitude toward a few of America’s most banal commercial strips by inserting art where people would least expect to find it. These BEST projects were the conceptual opposite from the prevailing design persuasions of the 1970’s – i.e. Modernist-derived formalism, industrial age inspired neo-Constructivism and historically referenced Post-modernism – so, this may explain that lingering ‘emblematic’ quality you have credited to our studio’s work.
SITE, in all of its works, from the initial BEST stores to the subsequent international Expositions of Vancouver and Seville, has always sought to demonstrate a concrete manifestation of a methodology of architecture, not only as an art form, but more so, as a palliative for the present environmental needs of our much maligned planet.
I think this ‘environmental consciousness’ - at least interpreted as part of an aggressive green/sustainable initiative - became more pronounced in SITE’s work after 1985. Some later BEST stores, including the 1979 Forest Building in Virginia and Rainforest Building in Florida, were based on an integration of existing landscape with architecture. This greener incentive expanded throughout the 1990s and ultimately evolved into serious earth-centric research.
From the beginning, all of our studio’s projects have been site-specific in some way or other. They have been based on a rejection of public art and buildings as objects sitting ‘in’ the environment. Instead, we have preferred to interpret them ‘as’ the environment. SITE’s earlier concepts, including public spaces like those in Vancouver and Seville, were primarily motivated by an interest in art works that could engage all of the senses and serve as prosthetic stimulants for people interaction.
Over the past decade – and after the publication of my book on ‘Green Architecture’ in 2000 – SITE’s work has been more committed to a fusion of structure and context. I guess these changes could be seen as another phase of our studio’s response to that Duchampian notion of ‘cleaning off the table’ to help foster creativity. It has become impossible to deny the staggeringly negative impact of human habitat on nature’s fragile ecosystems and the scientific community’s apocalyptic predictions for the future; especially if economic greed and social resistance to change continue to prevail. Since architecture plays a major role in the reversal of these doomsday scenarios, SITE has embraced the fact that sustainable construction is the key revolutionary motivation for new millennium design.
Yours is an approach to architecture, which is very obviously a poetic one. Could you comment on this?
As you know, I began my career as a visual artist and writer; so I guess these interests in poetic content have never declined; but, in fact, have increased with time. Also, in spite of the design world’s overwhelming commitment to digital delineation, I still begin the conceptual phase of every project with a large number of exploratory hand drawings. Since my most consistent intention is a fusion of architecture with context, I prefer the rather fuzzy residuals of indeterminacy and chance that occur during the mind-to-hand sketching process; as well as the connections to written language and calligraphy. I have a continuing fascination with surface structure/deep structure relationships in literary evaluation; so I prefer to include these same ambiguities as a motivational part of architectural thinking as well . . . and then try to convert them into built form.
You are also the author of the best selling ‘Green Architecture’, a publication which has served as a powerful influence, not only on many a young practitioner, but also on the more sensitive architects concerned with environmental problems. I would therefore like to ask you which groups you have a special affinity with, and also why in your opinion, has this now become paramount to developing a green and sustainable architecture?
This is a gigantic question, requiring another book in response. Since I wrote ‘Green Architecture’ there have been innumerable publications dedicated to this subject; but most have focused on technological solutions and very few expanded the arguments explored by my text. One of my initial critiques observed that a truly sustainable architecture must include a high level of aesthetic content, because future generations will never want to keep ugly buildings around; especially since bad art defeats the entire principle of sustainability. I also argued that a key objective of the environmental movement should be social, psychological and political persuasion; as opposed to a continuing over-emphasis on technological solutions. Clearly, without a broad-based societal commitment, technology will decline through lack of support. My third proposal suggested an optimistic global forum on sustainable lifestyle, to replace the continuing litany of finger-wagging reprimand and doomsday despair, which still characterize most green discourse. Citing the buoyant promotion of industrialization in the 19th Century, I tried to demonstrate that negative scold tactics have never succeeded in motivating positive social change.
More than aligning myself with environmental organizations, I have been concentrating on the education of architectural students. In addition to teaching integrative design, I have organized a ‘Post-green’ seminar series for the exposure of young designers to a wider range of arts, sciences and humanities. This course is based on an assumption that the terms “green” and “sustainable” have become ubiquitous through over-exposure and misunderstanding in the media; so most of their original potency has degenerated into what many critics disdainfully call ‘green wash.’ Seminar dialogue is led by guest lecturers in the fields of art, science, engineering, literature, ecology, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, industry, agriculture, law, medicine and politics. Each speaker presents progressive theories and concepts – purposely drawn from outside the design disciplines - that seem destined to have an important impact on green buildings and sustainable cities in the future. I believe this mind-expanding forum (now in its fourth year) has launched a lot of young architects into a more ecumenical and holistic way of thinking.
Your practice in recent years has progressively distanced itself from the USA to the Far East, China, Japan, Korea and also Italy. What was the motivation behind this nomadic journey?
Basically, this shift to Asia was the result of job offers and a winning competition entry for the New World Plaza (Urban Forest) in Beijing, China. SITE completed several projects in Japan during the 1880s; but this past work had nothing to do with the new commissions. Our current projects in Korea began with an international concourse in 2006, to design a new government town outside of Seoul. This led to architecture, engineering and development community contacts. Invitations to join our Korean colleagues for other projects followed these initial collaborations.
The presence of SITE in Korea, which was initiated with a business club scheme, and has today expanded into a vast number of proposals, from tourist complexes to the design of a Korean cemetery. Can you give us some indications of how this development came about?
The design of the GwaCheon Club cemented our association with AUDC Architecture, Inc., Foem Architecture, Inc. and Lee Chang Ha Design in Seoul; so these collaborations have expanded our range of opportunities elsewhere in Korea. The two new projects – Hojeong Confucian Cemetery in Wanju and the Geojae Hotel in Okpo-Dong – are related to our new professional associations. Also, both concepts are site-specific from the standpoint of their cultural and environmental situations. This kind of integrative thinking is currently gaining popularity in Korea.
The fact that Korea does not possess a rich background of historical buildings, do you think that there is an necessity to fill this void with architecture of fantasy, focusing particularly on the poetic and spiritual?
In reality, Korea does have a distinctive national identity and a long, if turbulent, history in Asia. There are major shrines, parks, palaces and civic buildings throughout the country that are unique to the culture. While a number of early structures were influenced by Asian stylistic sources - as a result of the country’s past occupation by China and Japan - six hundred years ago there was a fundamental separation of philosophical motivations In Korean architecture. For example, the national shift away from Buddhist traditions (mainly associated with China) to Confucian philosophy in the 14th Century changed the entire foundation of architectural imagery, function and design. Actually, one of SITE’s motivations in Korea has been to try to capture a sense of this complex Confucian legacy and translate it into a contemporary architectural language.
Your project for the Hojeong Cemetery seems to have been developed with a great sensitivity and a strong poetic overlay. Could you comment on your approach to this fascinating project?
This cemetery and public park is based on Nine Stages of Life (from the Confucian Analects). For this reason, it is designed as a series of nine inter-connected circles, defining the uses of land surface. Confucius interpreted the terrestrial experience as a process of continuous social, psychological, and philosophical transformations. In response, the park is planned as a place of honor to memorialize the dead and, at the same time, to celebrate the Confucian view of human existence.
This particular project is very exciting for me. I have always wanted to create a large earthwork and this has been the ultimate opportunity. The concept is unusual for Korea because a cemetery is rarely associated with a place of outdoor recreation. But the client, in this case, is intent on developing a sociologically progressive facility for the 21st Century. Other innovations include, a choice of cremation and burial (when Koreans traditionally prefer entombment in the ground) and gravestones clustered closely together to save land surface and establish a more environmentally responsible development policy.
The proposal for a Japanese restaurant chain in the USA leads one to question how much American culture now owes to the Orient, and how much Asian culture is influenced by newly imported American overlays.
This is another one of your vastly complex questions. Rather than try to answer it on a broader sociological or philosophical level, I will simply comment on some of the challenges SITE has encountered in trying to find a simple and economical solution.
The Benihana restaurant chain in the USA has always been a hybrid concept, suspended somewhere between familiar Japanese style and the American dining experience. The founder, Rocky Aoki, became a sort of mythical figure in the restaurant business; because he managed to integrate genuine Japanese cuisine with pop culture performance art , using visibly animated chefs to prepare food while customers participated in the action. Also, the design of Aoki’s earlier restaurants was frequently a combination of rural Japanese farmhouse and USA strip center roadhouse.
SITE’s solution for the new Benihana prototype incorporates this legacy of hybridism; but exchanges the rather cloying references to traditional Asian style for a more ephemeral and abstract imagery, based on layers of hanging screens and inside/outside architectural relationships. In point, the entire building and its interior spaces are designed as an orchestration of various degrees of overlapping transparency.
Perhaps you could also tell us something about your future projects?
One of SITE’s major clients these days is Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group. Our original project for Danny was the wildly successful 2004 Shake Shack restaurant in Madison Square Park, New York City. Now, a dozen or more of these facilities are being built throughout the USA and Middle East – with promise of Europe and Asia in the near future. SITE is the prime design consultant; so this has become a major part of our studio’s on-going work. Also, when the economic problems in Korea subside, we hope our projects there will accelerate toward completion.
In terms of my teaching and lecturing involvements,, I have been concerned by the fact that design education is now totally consumed by digital delineation at the sacrifice of mind-to-hand creative process. As a result, students can’t draw and their conceptual abilities are compromised as well. I am planning a book, called ‘A Line Around and Idea,’ which explores hand drawing in the computer age; making a case for the value of calligraphic content, subliminal accidents (indeterminacy) and surface structure/deep structure awareness in the development of innovative ideas. I am also planning to write more essays on environmentally responsible architecture and urban design - plus, if my health holds out, continuing to lecture on green issues in Europe, South America and Asia.