Architecture and politics
Stream: Listening to you and reading your words, you seem to integrate a political dimension into your work as an architect. In what way is the architectural act a political one?
Rudy Ricciotti: The architectural act is not an innocent one. There is an inevitable political expression of architecture, but there isn’t necessarily a political form of architecture. Politics are always present for everyone, on the periphery, it is a projected shadow of the aesthetic question. It is also halfway between gastronomical intuition and the question of aesthetics. When it is intuitive, politics places itself in situations of porosity and projects itself into reality, it is a little like the image of the truffle, an illness for oak trees. An illness that generates this luxury food that one is ready to die for. Politics revolves around these questions, and today architecture is considered as a sign of distress as it finds itself confronted with this reality with no gustative project to speak of. Furthermore, architecture cannot escape its destiny which is eminently aesthetic. It can do nothing about this, because it is confronted with the ambient mediocrity of our project for society and with the most insignificant of physical situations. We can say, without any cynicism, that architects, in these wild and uncertain times, are very unlucky, and it would be better to be an AOC architect dealing with difficult and earthy varieties of Mourvèdre and Grenache, than to be an architect of great vintages, dealing with seductive varieties such as Syrah... If we want to save our skin in a neurasthenic context.
Stream: Do artists have more freedom and less constraints?
Rudy Ricciotti: The Romorantin and the Viognier are true artists.
Stream: Perhaps because they have fewer responsibilities?
Rudy Ricciotti: What a nerve you have when it comes to the whites! Because artists only work with the symbolic while architects work with the functional, the economy, the aesthetic, the political and the symbolic. There are those who touch the ball and others who don’t give a shit! When an artist wishes to move nearer to the economic world, this produces social skits, from which few escape. The Breton Gilles Mahé finds his way out through the relational question, but not the Parisian Sophie Calle. It is French art, suffering reasonably! But in matters of obsessions I prefer those of Daniel Buren. Art is more like a hunt that reacts with a gunshot to the head. Look at Catherine Breillat, there’s a lady that has guts, it’s raw, it’s hard. To try to bring art and architecture closer together can be very awkward on a semiological level. But the encounter between economy and architecture is more explicit when it comes to architecture, notably in the legal field, and it is here that we find true spaces for invention. It is at this junction of architecture and legal areas that we can explore creativity and conquests. The day that I left Archilab in 2000, having to enter legal voids and be a stern lawyer if I wanted to dream of being an architect!
Stream: In Blitzkrieg (a pamphlet published in 2005 by éditions Transbordeurs), you speak of “Architectural Djihad.. This “Djihad” is driven by ideology, what would yours be?
Rudy Ricciotti: In Blitzkrieg I emphasize the term “Djihad” to speak of provincial architecture, of regionalism, a true enemy to be cut down. Like with terrorism, where any negotiation is open to criticism, no negotiation is possible with regionalism, because it is one of the principal forms of generic culture. Regionalism and “Saturn-hollandism” (the hegemony of Dutch architecture through the epigones of Rem Koolhaas raised to the level of international regionalism), are to be considered on the same level as predation. It is a question of perverse phenomena that are of the order of a false post modernity, that is to say with weak critical conviction and speaking more of an expressionist sensitivity than a brutal sensitivity. Foie gras and crème brulée, no! Truffle and sea urchins, yes.
Stream: But aren’t those two different scales? “Saturn-hollandism,” as you call it, spreads and contaminates the globalized world, whereas regionalism targets a region, a given territory, with its shortcuts and its aesthetic clichés?
Rudy Ricciotti: That’s true, but regionalism, like disease, is weaponized by an extremely virulent, spreading tropism. Notably the Mediterranean tropism that can be found in Japan, in the United States, by way of Latin America via the Orient. There was a mutation, Mediterranean-provincialism became internationalized. We can see that this happened, literally without any derision. This mutation has degenerated into two versions: one, made sacred, that has been raised to the level of sainthood in Arab countries, and the other, raised to a sexual icon in Japan. Regionalism is pornography applied to the territory and the context. It is stuttering rhetoric. The particularity of regionalism is its destruction of its own sources, in such a way as to make them inaudible, and even doomed. I had an emblematic experience. For the first time I asked for aid on a national level, in opposition to the local level. I applied for a building permit in Ramatuelle, in an extremely protected territory. The client was one of the enlightened local bourgeoisie—an art collector. I told him that I couldn’t build a contemporary house for him because it was interdit-forbidden-vietato! So I designed a rationalist farmhouse, long and narrow (40 meters), with a twin sloping roof. In the neighborhood, all of the surrounding old farmhouses were facing the same direction, because of the mistral, and I pursued this rustic commonsense like a pink flamingo among its own kind; one foot in the air and beak plunged into water. The application was refused by the Architecte des Bâtiments de France (French Architectural Review Board) (ABF). He wanted us to cut and reduce the size of the roof, or create several smaller ones because the house looked too much like a farm shed! So I contacted the Architecture Department to complain about the fact that I was prevented from building a form nourished by rurality, and that the ABF wanted to force me to create an architecture that ignores the virtues of work. A few weeks later, the application was accepted. You see, it took the intervention of a ministerial cabinet in Paris.
This example shows the morbid credo of regionalism: let us unite to cement a shared destiny within a new social cohesion, one of mediocrity. This lack of hope for any intelligence in the South makes we worried for my young colleagues, and also for myself, because I am becoming a little tired. That’s why I wrote, in Blitzkrieg, that it was necessary to bomb Provence. Frightened, my young colleagues dream of hollandism and bulbs so as to continue to hope to exist. All of that is really harsh. Where I live, regional Var—deeply debilitated by the will of God—the situation is desperate for architects; regionalism has emasculated them. There is no long term view, and it drives me out of my mind when I think of my children’s future. It is the same in Paris with the Île de France regionalism of the Haussmann-neo-modern or post-Haussmanian Castro... Ultimately it is the same everywhere, and I even think that Saturn-hollandism is the incestuous development of regionalism on a world wide scale.
Stream: In many of your projects, matter is very present, the physical aspects of elements take precedence... Are you a Matterist?
Rudy Ricciotti: You are right to change tack! I am an unrepentant Mannerist Materialist. Yes, I am obsessed with the transformation of reality, which is the ultimate pretension, raised to romantic and revolutionary heights. I am interested in the “physicality” of the world... you too, no?
Let me tell you a story. Architects consider me more as a decorator, because the only thing that they have taken from the Stadium in Vitriolles is the terrace with the plastic sunflowers. Why not? This project from 1990 was indeed directly nourished by the beneficial experiments of Land Art: a black cube installed in an open air dump (an ancient bauxite slurry). But the sunflowers are as far from decoration as it gets. The Parisian administrator who was supposed to be responsible for the management of the building came to see me to tell me that a building without windows was a monstrous thing. Building something like this in Provence, Van Gogh’s land with it’s beautiful light, was unthinkable. I didn’t know that Van Gogh had painted the dump in Vitriolles! So, to prove that I had cultural references, I decided to reproduce the work of the Master by planting six hundred plastic sunflowers in the terrace of the administration. These sunflowers are particularly psycho-rigid as they cannot turn to face the sun!
And it is very interesting to see how the decorative iconography takes on the airs of a subversion that is particularly narrative, dreamlike and cruel. I wouldn’t have wanted to be mocked in that way, I would have harassed the architect until he removed those plastic sunflowers. I have a lot of stories in mind, but others only see decoration in these gestures. One might think that the act of not blaming the narrative principle and the desire for dreams is always a source of guilt. If this is a source of guilt, imagine what the desire to write must be.
We continue to suffer the consequences of Minimalism today, more than forty years later. Minimalism ruined a whole generation of artists in the 1980s. They have already paid the price, whereas architects still haven’t recovered. “Minimalism means little effort, little work and I could go on and on. What a great deal!” It’s easier to be Minimalist than Post-Modern, because when you’re Post-Modern, you quote, you give the impression of being cultivated, and that does require a certain effort in terms of design. It’s fabulous! The ideological benefit of minimalism is thus total: “Look at the all of the efforts that I have made to produce little.” When ethically we should really be saying “Look at the little effort that I am making to generate such a maximum benefit.” These are the beautiful words of the sorely missed Jacques Hondelatte. The next epidemic will be the sloppy imprint of the American conceptual experience; that will indeed be something!
Stream: It seems that the important thing today is not morality but ethics? Is it in this sense that you’re moving closer and closer to artists?
Rudy Ricciotti: I get the feeling that you’re tired and eager to finish. Don’t you think that this interview is really going nowhere? I owe a lot to artists, they have transmitted their disquiet to me. The disquiet necessary for survival, an American economist once said “In the future only the paranoid will survive”. Shall we go have a pastis?
This article first appeared in Stream 01 in 2008.