Controversial Modernity

Flavien Menu in discussion with Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas about their last book release ‘The Stones of Fernand Pouillon’ and the series about controversial modernist architects.

Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas live together in an apartment in Cromwell Tower at the Barbican. Adam Caruso is an architect who, with Peter StJohn, founded Caruso StJohn in London in 1990. Part of his time is dedicated to his role as a professor at ETH Zurich. Helen Thomas is an architect with a PhD in art history, a lecturer and an editor. She explores her fascination for archives and atlases through her teaching, writing and editing projects. Adam and Helen are working together on a series of books exploring an alternative tradition of modern architecture for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich.

It is in their living room situated on the fourteenth floor of a tower inherited from a pure Brutalist architecture style that we meet for a discussion about their most recent book: Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan.

On this Saturday morning, the flat offers a quiet atmosphere for a conversation. The thick linoleum-covered floor and massive concrete walls set a serene acoustic, and the natural daylight passes through the balconied windows to create a semi-obscurity. The view from the living room gives a privileged gaze over London, on one side the empty office towers of the City stand out clearly against the white sky, on the other, the horizon is clear and North London looks like a flattened painting. The discussion takes place around a dining/multifunction black square table, close to a bookshelf.

Flavien Menu When I first saw your book about Fernand Pouillon1 I was immediately attracted. It had been a long time since I did last buy an architectural book. A year later, I had the same feeling with the Asnago Vender one. Then I realized you were the editors of both books and decided to talk to you, to know the origins, motivations and desires underlying those publications.

Adam Caruso These books originate from a research project at my chair at ETH Zürich. When you become a professor there, you make a proposal for your first six years of research and they give you money to do it – quite a lot of money, so the idea was to do a series of books. This is a research project that we carry out with assistants in the chair and with graduate students. Briefly, the idea of making books comes from the subjects: we wanted to uncover the work of a number of architects working during the modernist period, whose work is relatively unknown because it is not conventionally modernist. These are architects who ran everyday practices producing ordinary buildings that somehow have an enormous quality, and which, despite making positive contributions to their urban situations, have been quite forgotten. One reason for this is a lack of accordance with the position defined by truly Modernist architects, such as Le Corbusier, or the doctrines of CIAM that were in the ascendance.

For us, they represent the idea that you can be a modern architect without destroying the city. In some ways, it seems unbelievable to me that modernism still remains an exciting idea for so many people. We would like to reveal this other side of the modernism.

Helen Thomas The idea was to make books that revealed the work of these modern, yet not modernist architects. I mean, architects who built during the mid-20thcentury - and some were prolific - but without necessarily being engaged in the radicalism of the Modernist Movement. The subjects of the first two books were commercial architects – Asnago Vender operated discretely while Pouillon was more flamboyant, who had a lateral relationship to the polemics of Modernism. They wanted to build rather then talk.

AC We look at their work before and after the war. Their architecture is linked to the post-war reconstruction of the identity of the city as a working, functional entity, but also as a continuous cultural condition. Asnago Vender were building to replace housing and commercial buildings that had been destroyed [by the war], and their practice responded to the idea of the city they were building in. So even though Asnago Vender did not write a single word and despite the commercial nature of their practice, their intense engagement with the physical reality of their city, Milan, meant that they participated in this incredible cultural phenomenon.

FM The interest here also comes from the clarity of the layout, the care given to the pictures, the attention paid to the drawings. This does not look like the hundredth monograph you normally expect

HT This idea of making books is important to us. During the elaboration of the project, we thought about the format in which we wanted to communicate our discoveries about these architects: through magazines? Exhibitions? I mean, we are often asked to collaborate in projects concerned with the broadening of architectural knowledge, but we wanted to achieve something that goes beyond a talk or an article. We wanted to make something that had value in our eyes, and that would also be valuable and useful for architects.

AC That’s why we were quickly convinced by the idea of making books, good books. The book you see in bookshops and you want to buy it right away. It worked for you [laughs].

HT We wanted these books to be not classical monographs, but rather to represent and respond to the nature of the specific architecture being investigated. We wanted them to be as attractive as magazines are, with full-page illustrations and photographs, and with the text separated, so that each format is given its proper value. We tried to avoid making a biography of the architect and instead focused on a selection of their buildings, so each book is a collection of texts, drawings, and commissioned photographs. The goal is not to achieve the truth, exhaustively or from an historical perspective, or to make one clear argument, but rather to select relevant pieces that reveal a sense of the architects and their architecture. We wanted to leave space for readers to make their own interpretations. From this point of view, the books are controversial.

FM It raises the question of how to speak about architecture today. I mean, it is difficult to have some credibility without speaking about history, because architecture is not a scientific field, and it is not a classic academic or a research field. So, how to talk about architecture when you’re not an historian, and when you want to say something about what is contemporary? And this idea of the collection is one possibility, because it creates an ambience, a climate…

HT You don’t need to know everything, it’s impossible, but when you have a collection of things all together in your mind, suddenly you can create your own story.Moreover, we look at every book as a different project with its specific demands and requirements. Each architect is different, so we want to provide the reader with a constellation that evokes their work, and so our approach for each architect is bespoke. For the Pouillon book, we translated a long and comprehensive essay by Jacques Lucan, and it formed the core of the book. Although there is no Pouillon archive, Lucan had already done a lot of research about him, and Pouillon himself was a fabulous writer. On the other hand, Asnago Vender were almost ignored by the architecture intelligentsia at the time. They didn’t write about architecture themselves, and were not published in magazines, there were no books on them until Cino Zucchi’s. What’s more, they moved office in 1960s and threw away all their drawings, so any archival material that remains comes from after that date.

FM The first person to draw attention to their work was Cino Zucchi in 1998, who edited a book that went out of print almost immediately. Is it because you miss this book that you decided to make one again?

AC Yes! [Laughs]. Seriously though, it is more the idea of making Cino’s text available in English that triggered our interest in publishing this book. We want to make the work of architects like Asnago Vender accessible to an English-speaking readership.

HT It was a huge task to translate and edit the writing into legible English. French and Italian are more rhetorical languages, so the manner of writing and putting forward an argument is really different, and each author also has a distinct voice. Working with translators, we really tried to make clear the ideas embodied in the texts. It was a big challenge, but we had so much pleasure discovering and learning from these texts [translated into] English after all these years, waiting.

AC I remember Cino calling me, he was almost in tears about how beautiful the book was, he was touched by how much effort we had made, and how the book could continue his efforts to bring further recognition to this work.

FM It is hard to understand why they were so ignored during all those years, when Zucchi’s book and now yours have had so much success.2

AC Well, Asnago Vender were really silent participants in the heated discourse about the reconstruction of Milan in the Postwar period and were overshadowed by their articulate contemporaries. They were building rather that writing, and fighting for the concept of professionalism by doing their job well and by making buildings, and not by theorizing. So while their voices were absent, they were developing a contemporary architecture in a practical way that was distinctly Italian, or even Milanese, but absent from magazine pages.

HT And later, during the 1970s, these professional architects were accused of being ideological agents of capitalism!

FM Silence is not always the best defense, it is sad at some point. You have to say something, you have to express something, otherwise the judgment can be severe. It is never good to be l’étranger.3

HT This is also why we chose them – they are silent, abstract and ambiguous and it gives them an alluring quality, [there are] no words, but there is a distinction in their built work. What is relevant about their work in the early 21stcentury is the way it consistently evokes a tension between the abstract and the figural.

AC They are abstract and non-abstract at the same time. Their buildings make connections to the city while at the same time they pull back to assert the autonomy of form. Asnago Vender practiced architecture in a city that was modern and pragmatic in the fullest sense. The Milan of the 1950s was an industrial city driven by finance, manufacturing and emerging global markets. I believe this distinction and this feeling about cities that is displayed through their architecture emerged from everyday efforts rather than from general ideas or theories.

FM I was surprised to discover in the text you have written for the book that you talk mainly about details: what are the architectural elements that characterize their buildings, the distinctions that the realities of construction spark off on the city environment. Speaking about cladding, tiles, colors…

HT Yes, Adam looked really hard! [Laughs.]

AC I Always poke my fingers into the joint to see if there is some silicon!

HT He is deeply fascinated by buildings in their entirety. He often touches them, presses them, cuddles them [laughs], to discover how they are built.

AC When you look at the facade you instantly recognize that the building is by Asnago Vender, and I wanted to know and explain why! This is the reason why there is a strong emphasis on the description of the buildings. I did a lot of research about this idea of a Milanese atmosphere. For me, in Milan, there is Bramante, there is Muzio, and their work has a connection to Asnago Vender.

We spent a lot of time –seven months– drawing the plans, sections and details. We went several times to Milan to see the buildings, to understand how they are built, and how the details work. We had no choice but to touch the buildings to feel how they were built, because there are no surviving construction drawings for these buildings.

It was a really empirical way of working, as the spirit of the book collection, the constellation, suggests. It’s actually really close to the way Asnago Vender would have operated in their practice, through experience and observation. In Europe, every place is different in its complexity. And they tried their best to make Milanese buildings, constructions that were only possible in their specific and complicated context.

Milan London

FM Speaking about Asnago Vender work is obviously speaking about Milanese identity. Does this post-WWII Italian rationalist aesthetic of the city influence you?

AC Today Milan is recognized for its central role in fashion and design but I would argue that the city also has a strong influence in terms of architecture. Milan has been ignored in the discussion of important 20thcentury cities, but it offers an interesting model of a modern city that has successfully embodied its own history within modernity. This is true both from a theoretical point of view, with many intellectuals and teachers still active at the Politecnico, but also in construc\[tion. Milan is literally a great 20thcentury city – sixty to seventy percent of the buildings date from the 20th century, and this fact is almost unknown. People know about the Pirelli tower, but who cares about that? There is a beauty in Milan that needs revealing, a cool beauty that is not immediate but has real depth.

FM There are links for you between Milan and London ?

AC The big difference between Milan and London in the 20thcentury is that Milan benefited from the Marshall Plan and London did not, even though both cities were destroyed by bombing. This led to two different models for reconstruction. So the miracle of postwar Milan’s physical reconstruction was very different from postwar London’s welfare state.

Postwar Milan was rebuilt in the same manner as it was built before the war. It was a bourgeois project, from the clients to their consultants, many who were colleagues and friends from the Politecnico. This privileged intelligentsia discussed and then decided how to rebuild. It was largely a private endeavour. In London it was much more the state that led the reconstruction.

HT But both cities are similar now, funded by a huge influx of foreign capital. It is strange to see the new housing by star architects on the site of the Milan exhibition grounds, across the road from Asnago Vender’s building on Via Senafonte – it seems alien to the existing urban life while it ignores the street.

FM How do you feel about a city where you live and work but where the built environment seems to no longer be in the hand of architects ?

AC I feel bad, I feel depressed [laughs]. Peter and I were really engaged in talking about and writing about London when we started our practice and Peter still teaches here.

During its first five years (1999-2004) I was on the Committee for Architecture and the Built Environment – CABE, and I went to the design review meetings. It was hard but I learned a lot. Every year, I wanted to quit, but Peter said, you have to keep on going. I did, although I am not sure it made any difference.

We’ve tried to make a place for ourselves here. There are important architects such as Chipperfield who have some power here and he is well-respected, although he’s sixty years old and I think still finds it difficult to do things in the UK.

Seriously, this question is hard for me. I’ve tried for twenty-five years to be involved in the mechanisms of change in London. You know, I’m an old architect [laughs].

FM It is certainly the reason why you only have few construction [projects] here in London?

AC Yes, because there few public competitions, there is mostly private development and there isn’t a place for people like us in this world [laughs] and the worst thing is, it is not really changing.

We have worked for developers in Switzerland, Flanders, Germany and France, but not in London. The reason for this is that in those places large projects, whether they are public or private, have competitions usually run by the city. In London the developer says, ‘I am paying, I decide’.

HT The question isn’t about whether it’s good or not to have more or less development, and it’s not about using hybrid financial models such as public/private partnerships, it’s about the market having control, which is only possible in the absence of a strong public or civic authority.

FM Is this the London Ambiente?

[Both laugh.]

AC This is also why we are building elsewhere. Every country has its own complexity, but in certain parts of Europe, there is still an appreciation of architectural quality and its value – its commercial value. It mainly depends on how the public authority has been organised in the last few years. In Flanders for example, there is this concept of the bouwmeester, which has been very successful in the quality of built environment. And even then, have you seen what happened recently?

FM He was fired two months ago.4

AC It is political, and architecture is caught in the middle of these political and economic fields of interest.

FM In one of the texts for the studio you led at the London School of Economic between 2007 and 2010, there is this sentence “there have been warnings that you might be building a generation of inner-city slum dwellings.” It is unusual to put this to students, to confront them with the reality of what the city is in its normality and probably what they will deal during the rest of their careers.

AC This teaching position was also an attempt to influence how we think about cities today. Working with students coming from different countries, trained in different disciplines, and with different points of view was fruitful. I mean, the city can be also configured through buildings that are not perfect but possess a vitality that makes it possible to overlook purely formal considerations, that allows expansion without the ruptures that separate architecture from the urban. That’s why it is interesting to engage with future urban actors who are not architects.

FM These people who will certainly lead important decision on the city making whereas they have no architectural culture in their background, and often impressed by superficial effects on architecture more than real qualities. I blame anyone, I just see lot of bad architectures everywhere, not because it is simple, of ugly, but because it is not honest with the role we have to held in the construction of the daily environment. What will be the buildings that you can see in every periphery of cities with Day-Glo facades, a poor urban quality while it is not such terrible construction standards ?

AC What you are pointing out is terrible, we are repeating the same mistakes as thirty years ago. Who will live there in twenty years, in these new grands ensembles?

Nowadays, architecture is sick with what I call the fiction of perpetual originality. Why do we need to always be creative? Innovative? Trendy?

In our work, we always use one or two references, often the same. But we try to understand it pretty well, to go deeply into their meaning, into the feelings they trigger in us. Why are they so important? Why now?

HT This need for perpetual originality is also linked to architects’ egos. Bringing in the formal ego is like ignoring the complexity that is present in the city.

AC But architects need to have big egos.

FM Why ?

AC I mean, the ego is necessary, in the Freudian sense. You need an enormous capacity for self-confidence to make a project happen, because it is so impossible. Even in the best situation, it is always a very complex process. You have to constantly respond to things. You need it because you have to be confident to build, and to respond to blows coming constantly from all sides! You need your ego to trust yourself about what you are doing and what you want to achieve. You need a lot of willpower, but not for showing off.


FM I would like to go back to the conversation about the book, and more personal feelings about it. Why did you decide to make these books?

AC It is something we can do together, which is nice. Besides, we both love books and at ETH we have the opportunity to make the perfect book, because of the generous budget. It is like a dream. We envision the making of the book as a project. It is an object and we want it to be of the best quality possible. In a sense, the ethics behind the books are linked to what we do with our own practice. It is open to the accusation of being nostalgic, but in another way it is radical to present architecture in this empirical way.

HT It is also a responsibility, to suggest some other possibilities for history.

AC And also the practice of architecture is linked to books. I mean, every good office has a library, favorite books, references.

And also what I like a lot at ETH, where the library is incredible, is that when you mention something that the students haven’t heard of, they go to the library and come back with lot of books, and so you discover something new as well. Our studio always has the most books on the tables. And there is always something that you cannot find anywhere other than in a book.

FM A few years ago, we heard the announcement of the book’s death, and today, what we see is a proliferation of books, micro-editions, luxury editions. Books are trendy and it is also true in the field of architecture.

AC There are too many books about architecture actually. I agree with you, when you said that it is hard to find an architecture book you want to buy today though, I don’t know why, there is always something missing. People predicted the death of the book and suddenly there are more books than ever [laughs].

HT That’s why it was a challenge, for our series of books, to try for the unusual combination of classical, radical, and old style. We’ve tried to avoid making fancy books, and Moiré, the graphic designers, have worked with us towards a timeless layout – discreet but with a sense of being valuable and also contemporary. We could be accused of nostalgia, what with the linen cover with its embossed image and lettering on the front, but what we wanted was to create a beautiful object that could remain precious over time, and not become old-fashioned within a year. We had a lot of discussions about the image on the cover of the Pouillon book – we wanted it to be a flat composition, rather than showing a building as an object in space, which we thought was somehow too modernist. That’s old style, perhaps?

FM In the making of the ETH books, what are your references? [Both move around in the apartment full of books, to fetch and show me their favourite books.]

AC These are beautiful books published by Zodiaque editions – they’re quite old, and incredible. The series is about Romanesque religious architecture in the regions of France. This is a beautiful book.

HT The layouts show a particular care for photographs and illustrations. Often the books that are important are books like these, ones that you find by chance in second-hand shops – they have a mystery and power that draw you to them.

AC See, I like how the photo is glued on the paper and not printed on it. There is this old Phaidon monograph on Michelangelo, a big and very nice book.

FM I have this feeling that you can only call a place home when all your books are with you, reunited into one place.

AC I don’t totally agree. I have many books, some of them are at the London office, some at the Zurich one, many of them at ETH, others are here. It is difficult to keep them under control. And even then, every book holds a specific place in my work, my teaching, or for pleasure. There are books you use for projects, others for the students, other for pure joy. That’s the richness of books, they are so resourceful. This is how I can tell a good book, when every time you open it, it gives you something else, something different.

FM What is the most influential book for you?

HT Novels, definitively novels. And I was really impressed by the prose of Fernand Pouillon in Les Pierres Sauvages, such fine and intense writing.

AC Yes, it is not architecture books!

HT The book is an imaginative world…

AC it is not a physical thing, it is about the content, and personal feelings.

HT That’s the value of the book, isn’t?

FM Is there a book that has always been present in your life?

HT Mine is Walden! Everything he’s talking about has a depth and a naivety. It’s so witty, his consideration of the value of things…

AC I gave Helen an illustrated version of Waldenfor her birthday. We looked at this book with our students, reading out of it during class. They loved it, we had a fantastic discussion. It was interesting to see them reacting to the book. [Helen brings the book]

AC Books are part of our life, but we have tried to stop buying books because there is not enough room on our bookshelves. We put the novels in our bedroom, and the rest are spread out everywhere. We borrow books from the Barbican library downstairs – its two minutes walk away and seems to be part of our home. In the meantime, austerity measures here have lead to the closing of many public libraries[5]in Britain. This is Tory politics, it’s terrible!

Our discussion was followed by exchanges about the upcoming general election on May 7, about society, collections, arts, galleries, a wide range of topics. It was a sweet Saturday morning at Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas’s place, two people who are inhabited by passion, meaning and trust, in a city that is sometimes too lost in the pursuit of profit, advantage and efficiency.