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We are very happy to interview you, so thank you very much for your time . We would like to talk about communication and architecture in general as we know that you work a lot on this dual topic. Could you tell us about this and about your work?
I think this is one of the key elements of our work and we actually communicate through our buildings. So this is the starting point and in fact architecture can be strongly communicative as long as it is clear for many people what it is about. It means that buildings should be strong and that they should clearly express what they are saying and what they say should make sense. Because the audience is not stupid, people can judge architects’ work very thoroughly. Buildings are not one line, more likely they convey a message. That does not mean that there are complex or stupid buildings but that buildings should make sense. Architects need to think about what the meaning is of they want to say and what they want to communicate. That is one of the key parts of the design process. We need to make that clear, clever, intelligent, strong, visible and intriguing. Here we go back to the complexity aspect. These for me are the requirements to create a good communicative message.
The second element is that we also communicate through books. We make books because in books you can enlarge the story, you can show the buildings that are not built, you can show the research that was undertaken, you can position them in a line so they make a rhetoric. The books also help you document yourself and you give everything because you put everything in the book and then you are empty. This emptying process also helps you move on to the next project, so you can come up with something new. It does not mean that you cannot really repeat yourself, and in fact repetitions can be good sometimes. For instance Le Corbusier made some repetitions, a few too many for my taste - but anyway books help to establish this line of thinking and to reveal new intellectual components. So books serve for communication and also as a method of research.
Do you have different targets in your communication?
That’s a good question. I have never asked myself that question. Talking about books people often ask who buy them. Of course I am aware that mostly architecture students or say the architecture community at large buy our books. Of course they are not pocket or fashion books though I would not mind if research could be on that level. I think it is crucial to widen the audience.
Maybe it depends on the way you communicate because it is a visual way and maybe it is an easy way to communicate architecture. Now we would like to talk about a recent building, which is the Alphabet building. In various buildings you use phrases, letters, words, writing in general, like in Le Monolithe.
In the case of Le Monolithe in Lyon, it was clearly an act of resistance as I was so angry at the time because originally the building was to be in bricks but the Maire (Mayor) did not want any bricks, saying it was for poor people, working classes and he wanted a building for middle classes. He seemed to need to attract these people and only stainless steel could serve the purpose. I just could not believe it. And at the same time the French said no to Europe so I was so angry. That's why I decided to write the first article of the European Constitution on the façade, so when all shutters are closed, the text can be read. Of course what I do is not always visible but people know it because it is there. The funny thing was when the Maire of Lyon gave François Hollande a tour of the new area, a picture was published in Le Figaro newspaper I think, with the Maire pointing to a building to François Hollande and behind them, you could see the façade with the writing on it.
That’s a good coverage!
Yes, this is the best I could desire. And there was no Photoshop collage!
What about the Alphabet building?
The Alphabet building is simpler. It expresses how each room behind the façade is different. It is basically sorting out the meaning of what lies behind. It is like giving it an identity. We try to create an identity in buildings, not only in the Alphabet building. At the moment we are working on a building in Taipei where pieces of the façade give you a relationship with the façade. In the Alphabet building it is no more than that, it is like sorting out just your position, your coordinates, and demonstrating where you want to be.
Another part of your communication on architecture is your lecturing and teaching activity. Is this the reason why you founded the Why Factory? Can you tell us about this institute, what are you working on? What was the main inspiration?
I don’t know the main inspiration but the main target or drive of the Institute that has been going on for six years only so far, is to use students to do research. I know “use” will sound terrible here, but I say it as opposed to misuse or abuse. Schools only seem to educate and I find this horrible. I think the combination of education and research and being collaborative in research is better. People say that studios and offices are better schools than schools themselves. So if universities want to compete with studios then they have to give something fantastic, explorative, meaningful basically.
It is something half way between university and work experience?
That’s right, this is what we are trying to do with The Why Factory and it is not commercial because I use public money and so I have a responsibility. I want to do primary research. That’s the advantage of the university. The attitude is very different from studios and offices.
What are you working on exactly?
The main current project is the future city, whereby we visualise the future based on a triangle research programme. One task consists in creating model cities, for instance the one-million city, and we study how it performs or we study one aspect at a time such as decor or food. We select and optimise one element and we study what it looks like. Another project is the 5-minute city, dedicated to ways of reaching any destination in 5 minutes, by any means including on horseback!
Then these mono-researches and mono models are brought together in a software, called Spacefighter 2.0 which shows how parameters interact and it also serves as a library.
The third element of the triangle programme is application whereby sites can become a source of inspiration. In the end we publish 4 books a year, which is quite a lot. We achieve this with about 70 - 80 students and we like to have about 10 researchers, which I think is a good balance and a good size group.
Architecture, mostly in Italy, has become a tool of communication for politics and I would like to know your opinion on the relationship between architecture and politics.
I agree totally, I love it and I defend it a lot, though I think the relationship is not very clear. At the moment I’m working on Grand Paris, with Sarkozy, and I am aware that I would never vote for him as I do not share his opinions on some political issues. But to have ideas for a ground city for 13 to 14 million people I think it is so good and so needed. At the moment no city is doing this and so I would give my energy for that. He uses me for that. But he does that also because he wants all the Maires in one line and I’m fine with it. I use him and he uses me for a thing, which I think and he thinks, is valid, with all the risks involved.
Do you think that an architect can be a good mayor of a city or a good politician?
I think so. Edi Rama was an artist, yet he became one of the best mayors in Europe, if not in the world. In Tirana he did a good job. I always pleaded with him to see what my projects in Tirana would show what the world could look like and he followed that suggestion. But of course now another regime might come in and affect my future work in Tirana. If Edi Rama goes, I’ll go too. And I probably cannot work anymore in Albania because they will not allow me in, but that is the risk. However, that’s why a lot of architects don’t want to be political because they are very afraid of situations like this and they want to stay neutral.
Thank you very much, it has been a very interesting interview. Thank you so much for your time.