“TRUTH TO ELEMENTS”
Stephan Trüby interviewed by Carson Chan
CARSON CHAN: You’ve been teaching Spatial Design at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) since 2009, and later this year you will start teaching at Technical University Munich. In your pedagogy, what is architecture? Is it teachable?
STEPHAN TRÜBY: The longer I teach the less sure I am about answers to this question. I should mention that I teach both the theory and practice of architecture. In my theoretical courses in Zurich I related the discipline of architecture to exhibition making, urban intervention and stage design. The more I went into these fields the more I realized that there is nothing like an archetypal discipline of architecture, and that each generation again defines a disciplinary core to the field. The responsibility of a theorist would be, in my opinion, not to define, what architecture currently is, but to clarify what it was historically — and what it could become in the future. Architecture for theorists like Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 72) or Gottfried Semper (1803 – 1879) was something completely different than what it means for us today. In teaching spatial design, I assign a different focus each semester. One semester we’ll be looking at exhibition design and curatorial practices, the next we’ll look at stage design, perhaps followed by urban interventions and urban activism. What I’ve discovered is that architecture has always been about exhibiting; it’s always about staging; and it’s always about intervening.
CC: As one of the curators for “Elements in Architecture,” the exhibition in the Central Pavilion of the current Venice architecture biennial, what is the greatest challenge you’ve met through trying to convey architecture ideas through exhibition?
ST: I can’t speak for the other contributors, but for me, there are two basic principles to exhibiting architecture. One is about how architecture is represented through drawings, models, photos, and so on. The other is about producing architectural presence, and usually this approach results in 1:1 interventions in galleries. Both principles have their limitations. The first option always creates a certain disappointment that goes along with being in an exhibition about something that is elsewhere. The second option tends to narrow down the complexity of architecture to a kind of art installation ready for contemplation — ignoring the political and economic dimensions of architecture. “Elements of Architecture” has the thematic benefit of opening up a third way: we can employ both installation and representation by talking not about the whole, but parts of buildings. The exhibition’s focus on smaller parts — doors, staircases, windows, etc. — allows us to address a whole range of complex issues around architecture.
CC: So the exhibition is a “near microscopic” look at the common denominators of all architects. The floor, wall, ceiling, roof, door, window, façade, balcony, corridor, fireplace, toilet, stair, elevator and ramp will each be treated as individual topics of exploration. You’ve written a book about corridors, in which you connect their development in the Western world with the development of the military complex. Could you explain the connection between the corridor and such a large social phenomena as war?
ST: The key to the link between corridor and war is language. When I wrote the History of the Corridor I became fascinated with the etymology of the word corridor. In most European languages — Italian, French, English and German — the word corridor originated as a military term. In the 14th and 15th century it was used to denote the paths on, and later next to, the city walls. Only from the 17th century onwards did it describe spaces inside buildings. Today, when we Google the word corridor, the results are often not related to buildings and architecture. The word is used metaphorically, but when we read about “peace corridors,” a term used to denote adjacent geographic areas of safety, we see again the term’s relationship to the military complex and geopolitics. Sensitivity towards language was an important aspect of our research for Venice.
CC: What other surprising things did you learn about the other architectural elements in the exhibition?
ST: The most surprising thing for me was the fact that there is so little research available on some of the elements. It’s difficult to believe that, as architecture theorists, we know quite a lot about how Peter Eisenman misunderstood Gilles Deleuze, and Gilles Deleuze misunderstood René Thom, for example, but we’ve never embarked on a cultural history of the roof or the floor. It was also surprising that some other architectural elements — especially the stair — are incredibly well researched by scholars who have dedicated almost their whole life to it. The noted scholar of the stair, Friedrich Mielke, born in 1921, has established an Institute for Stair Research in Konstein, Bavaria. It holds a specialized library containing around 500 titles, an archive with more than 10,000 dossiers on stairs from all countries, a slide library containing around 35,000 stair records, a vast model stair collection and numerous drawings and photographs of stairs and stair details.
CC: The exhibition offers an interesting twist on the role of innovation in architecture. If architecture is predicated on some fundamental givens that seem unchanging throughout history and around the world, where does this leave innovation?
ST: It would be a misinterpretation to see the exhibition as endorsing architecture as limited to some fundamental givens. The exhibition and the accompanying book Elements of Architecture instead shows the wide variety of balconies, doors, floors and other elements from around the world. We don’t want to narrow down architecture to a set of typologies, but instead open up its possibilities. When theorist Sigfried Giedion completed Mechanization Takes Command in 1948 he looked back at the first and second Industrial Revolutions and their respective impact on spaces like bathrooms and kitchens. Today, we are in the midst of a Digital Revolution — whose consequences we also see in architecture and its elements. Look at the smart thermostats from Nest, for example, that learn your daily habits. What happens with all the sensitive data collected about how we behave at home? The future of some architectural elements are definitely progressive, but in light of big data, eerie at the same time.
CC: Indeed. I’m reminded of something you wrote in Exit-Architecture, namely that standards, or “design codes are here to prevent the threat of design.” What do you mean by that?
ST: Design is about transforming something existing to something that is yet to exist; in this way, it is deeply embedded in risk-taking. Codification tries to identify the most dangerous threats within design’s affinity to risk. Architecture’s contemporary condition is not just spatial, but informational: What we need are international codes and standards for how to deal with the data of the digital space, just as we do with our built space.