This week, exceptionally there won’t be any guest writers essays on the funambulist. Instead I propose an interesting conversation I had, two weeks ago, during a short trip in Los Angeles, with Wes Jones, who was kind enough to answer my questions about the way he intermingles the notions of machine and design in his work. Since the early 90’s when he started his own office Wes Jones has indeed been proposing a design that engages a dialog between humans and “medium-tech” architectural assemblages that affirm and celebrate their mechanical legibility as a contractual agreement between the user and the architect.
Interview on August 22nd 2011 at Sci-Arc (all images have been chosen by Wes Jones himself to illustrate our conversation):
Leopold Lambert: As a form of introduction, could you please give us your definition of the notion of machine ?
Wes Jones: I see the machine as specific manifestation, not necessarily physical (deleuze abstract machine seems to me perfectly reasonable), of a more generalized technology. I see technology as an ontological category, on a par with man and nature, as that third possible form of existence that humans create and place between themselves and nature in order to mediate nature—to enhance or mitigate it.
Leopold Lambert: In this regard, would you define the buildings you are designing as being machines in themselves, or rather as constituted as an assemblage of machines?
Wes Jones: Technically and literally, it is the latter; conceptually though, as far as what architecture is trying to communicate, it would be more the former. In the office we think of ourselves as designing machines rather than buildings. We take the program that is given to us by the client and reimagine it as a list of reasons or excuses to design machines. The goal in this design is to have all of the sub parts or sub machines related to the main machine, and this main machine is really the overall architectural parties. Thus the whole is conceived in a direct, organic way as an assemblage of components related to the overall functioning required by the initial program. To us, the machines operate for architecture in a similar way that the aedicula operated for classical architecture, as a general organizing concept, in which all of the parts of the building are related to each other in a direct way, so it’s an assemblage— not a loose assemblage but a tight assemblage, unless the machine dictates a looser assemblage. And of course we can think of machines that allow their individual components to have more freedom and flexibility. But we always begin the process by thinking from the purposive direction of the project as a collection of machines-for-something.
Leopold Lambert: If you go back to Deleuze and Guattari, there are two dimensions that the notion of machine implies in their concept: Production and political resistance. How does your work potentially engage with those two dimensions?
Wes Jones: Well, it is interesting that you should bring those up, because an early criticism of our work was that it was politically conservative, or rather that an interest in technology and the machine was politically conservative. This was surprising to us because we never thought of our work as necessarily political at all. But I have definitely come to recognize over time that everything is political and that nothing should attempt to avoid it, because that would be taking a stance as well that ends up being reactionary in a way. So, the political interest of our work has gradually developed over time through, frankly, our own education and experience in the world, and seeing how the work operates and exists in the world and the effect that it can have.
Shauffleradbagger: German Bucket Wheel Excavator in Ferropolis
Deleuze is interesting because he is incredibly slippery. One can find in Deleuze support for almost any position—which is not to say that he is without convictions, but rather that his convictions are so completely against all received ideas and norms. Foucault as well, refused to promulgate any program for himself or see himself as promoting any particular program. I think that Deleuze is also like that, even to the extent of playing games with his critics and claiming a program now and then that is actually counter to whatever it seems to be, or even potentially agreeing with outrageous positions just…for fun in a way. That sort of playfulness, I think, allows the political dimension to be serious, but also to give it a little bit more room for maneuvering. I think that it is very much in the spirit of our work. That would probably be the extent to which I might see it.
Deleuze is the deconstructivist of deconstruction, even though it does not work out chronologically quite so neatly. Deconstruction was very rigorous and logical in the end despite its playfulness, and Deleuze is the guy who called them out on that, in my opinion. He described a more slippery and more loose universe to occupy, where he could not be tied down in any way that would itself become a fixed position. Therefore Deleuze ultimately becomes resistant to anything that does become fixed. What’s so cool about Deleuze, is that he then pushes this attitude into all possible arenas of thinking so that it can be understood physically, mathematically, socially, politically and so forth. That also becomes interesting to us, because we see technology as universal and pervasive as the attitude that Deleuze deploys in relation to any subject that he takes on.
Leopold Lambert: It’s interesting that you talk about Foucault as well, because, despite the fact that he always refused to be considered as a structuralist, we can pretty much affirm that he was operating in a similar spirit than structuralism. As he was interested to precisely describe all the cogs of a system, we architects are conceiving forms of cogs that compose devices that are, in my opinion, much more oppressive than healing, and with those operations of dismantling –you said deconstructing- those cogs, there is also something interesting in the process of assemblage of those same cogs.
Wes Jones: Well, one thing that I noticed about Foucault is that he uses the language of technology because it confers a neutrality on his work. He believes that it removes from him the personal obligation to offer a critique and take a stance. In effect, he launders his opinions by using clinical, technical language. He is “a scientist,” a historian, and as such he is a strictly neutral observer of these things. Since he is an historian, he is not obligated to comment about current or contemporary events, or to try to extrapolate from his work any relevance to the contemporary scene. Which of course, wink, wink, he still really hopes for and assumes. The fact that you can read from the past situations to the present is a sly way that he had developed to have his cake and eat it too, to make his critique without offering it as a critique. And so he sheds the responsibility such a critique would carry with it to offer a positive counter example.
In our case, I think that we are a little bit in the same boat. We come to our interest in technology and the machine as naïve American males who simply think that such stuff is cool and boss, without any kind of critical reflection. At the same time, we also recognize that this technology is unavoidable, that this is as Heidegger would say, the way that the world comes to us. Since this is the way the world is present to us, we cannot avoid it. Maybe the best way to understand it then is to push through it and to become so familiar with it, so adapted to it, that we gain for ourselves a little bit of critical familiarity. In other words, adeptness does not require subscription. You can become just as disaffected through learning something very well as you can become a stronger subscriber to it. Yet, at the same time, we recognize that if we are human, and if we genuinely think that this is so cool, there must be something there. Two possibilities: we can consider that coolness unreflectively and therefore in a potentially oppressive way or we can arm ourselves with education and experience to have some perspective on that coolness and try to continuously understand it. This is frankly something I have been trying to do for my whole career, to try to dig deeper and deeper into it to try to understand better what the dynamic is, what the relationships really are, what it is that we might be taking for granted, what questions are we not asking and what answers might be possible.
Leopold Lambert: That’s interesting, because I had one year and half of American education and it drove me to be very critical of the use of the word cool as an argument in itself but you seem to actually theorize it to help you with your work.
Wes Jones: Sure, why not? Actually I usually use the word boss but most people outside of the American sphere have no idea what that means so I tend to use the more general word cool to be understood.
Leopold Lambert: Fiction is important in your projects; not only by the various means of representation you are using, but also in the inspiration of literature, like science-fiction, you seem to develop and in the way your buildings express a certain form of dramatization. I guess that it is probably also linked to these same notions of mechanics and assemblage and their legibility.
Wes Jones: Certainly there is a link. One of the interest in mechanically inspired works or the machine as a reference for architecture is for its extreme legibility. Now, obviously we are tending nowadays to make technologically more and more invisible and less and less legible but the technology that we favor is exactly the technology that you can figure out and that would ideally connect the person who is looking at it, or using it to the designer through their shared understanding of the thing that they are dealing with.
Leopold Lambert: This difference between legible and illegible technology makes me think of the difference in the body between anatomy and biology; we seem to have reproduced the same scheme with technology. We use to develop a very anatomical technology and we are now going more and more for a metaphorically biological one.
Wes Jones: Right. I think that the sense of architecture is rooted in a particular tradition, it is a cultural thing that could change through time. Of course, our milieu is the Western tradition. We are Westerners and I would say that this distinction may not hold as well from an Eastern perspective. I would say that the most exciting thing happening today, but also most alarming, is the fact that architecture has the opportunity to go through some serious changes at the a fundamental level, where we might not recognize architecture as architecture in fifty years.
In any case, in terms of this question of legibility and fiction, it seems to me that part of the ethical contract between the architect and the users is that the work be legible. I know that there is an interest nowadays in the opposite, in affect and sensation. Legibility is seen by folks interested in affect and sensation as the leading edge of oppression, in the sense that an authorized reading or an authorized understanding becomes oppressive: if there is only one way of reading it then all others are repressed. So, the deconstructive answer to that is to make works that shed all particular associations, leaving it ideally open to all possible readings by avoiding any particular one. I think in the case of architecture, it is a little bit of a mistake because architecture is finally physically concrete and not yielding. Very often it ends up being in the way. The point would be to decide what is the proper place or role for architecture in the world. In this regard we should distinguish between monuments and architecture, or architecture and a vernacular support for daily life. For example, somebody like Frank Gehry makes monuments, these are things that are unique and celebrate a particular issue. But you can’t make a city out of these things; it would drive you nuts.
An understanding of architecture I’ve always liked, I heard first from Val Warke at Cornell, is that each piece of architecture is the seed of a whole city. This encapsulates the idea that any instance of architecture should be offered as exemplary. In other words, architecture ows the right to be there, and potentially be oppressive, to be there and to be in your way, in your face, by assuming for itself a correctness, or rightness that should be generalized: an experiential categorical imperitive. In other words, it should be the seed of an entire city. Now, the key here is the fact that the architect who produces this work cares enough to put in the time to learn and experience enough to be able to make good decisions about it and to make those decisions in a caring way rather than in a selfish idiosyncratic personally aggrandizing way. Real architecture is exemplary that way, not monumental. Real architecture therefore engages this contract of legibility so that at least, if you understand the thing, you can have a conversation with it and make up your mind. It’s not just an enigma to you, it’s putting its cards on the table so you can make your decision about it. You may disagree, you may not like it in the end but at least you know what’s happening and it respects you enough to make its case in your language.
Now to go back to your first question about fiction, I think that if you are operating with those basic principles, all architecture becomes narrative at a certain level. All programs become stories about what could be, or what should be. Another definition that I like is that architecture places us in the world. So architecture therefore has the responsibility of telling us which kind of world it is that it places you in. All of these understandings are fictions in a way, and in their expectations, in their ethical obligations to communicate, must be read, must be legible, as fictional proposals. So it is important that there’d be a little bit of openness to it and not be too cut and dry. But one thing we learn from deconstruction is that such openness is already guaranteed by all the different readers. To the extent that pieces of architecture are communicating interest in your engagement—respect for that engagement they are also legitimizing whatever understanding of it that the viewer, reader, comes to. At a certain level, it is being generous rather than being selfish.