November 1, 2011
The architect talks about bottom-feeders, burning bridges, and the terror of the blank page.
Architect and gadfly
We’re designing the Seminary Co-op Bookstore at the University of Chicago. I’m also working on two books, one about philosophy and architecture for Princeton Architectural Press, and the other on displacement for Yale University Press.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
It’s the only thing I’ve ever been vaguely good at.
FIRST STEP ON A PROJECT
Before I can respond, I have to listen, and I have to look at where this project is going to be and for whom it is intended.
LAST STEP ON A PROJECT
The last step of a built project is getting the contractor off the goddamn job.
HOW DO YOU BREAK A CREATIVE BLOCK
By forcing yourself to the tabula rasa of a page. This is coming from someone who doesn’t have an MO. For someone who does signature work, it’s not a problem; you just crank it out. It’s a different story if you don’t have an MO. It’s much more complex. A tabula rasa is wonderful,
but also terrifying.
I flunked out of MIT. I went to the Chicago Institute of Design, the New Bauhaus, under Moholy-Nagy at night, and ten years later got two degrees at Yale.
There are five. The first was George Fred Keck, who I worked with for a year after flunking out of MIT. The next was Mies.Then Paul Rudolph, John Hejduk. The last was Muzharul Islam, my great friend and Yale classmate who eventually became chief architect of Bangladesh.
I’ve come to see architecture as an ethical pursuit. Without ethics, it’s a joke. You look at it today—branding, marketing, it’s all about money, money, money. And it’s filled with bottom-feeders. The ethics of the discipline are what makes Stanley run.
FIRST ACT AS “DESIGN CZAR”
To turn it over to the next generation
I’m actually a collaborative kind of guy. I just curated an exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation on the next generation: Jeanne Gang, John Ronan, Ross Wimer. I did an earlier group with 14 architects. So this dream team keeps changing.
I don’t know what kind of chair it is. I do know that I have a Le Corbusier chaise longue right behind it that I lie down on when I get tired.
I don’t listen to music at the office.
My wife, I suppose
MOST USEFUL TOOL
BEST PLACE TO THINK
When you become 81 years old, one of the things that happens is you develop weak kidneys, so you have to get up and take a leak one or two times a night. It takes some time to get back to sleep. That’s when I get my best thinking done.
I’m a very diversified reader. Currently, I’m reading two Karen Armstrong books, her latest and Muhammad. I’m also reading Mein Kampf, and Glas by Jacques Derrida.
The next design, the next building, the next book, the next piece of writing, the next thought
We have a house in Michigan that’s 800 square feet. Our bedroom is eight-foot-four by nine-foot-two. I love to read in that room. It’s a little tiny room. It’s perfect.
My guilty pleasure now that sex is history, you mean? Actually, I’m probably the only Jew who doesn’t have any guilt.
The high road, the right way to do things. The concern about an Other, to paraphrase Martin Buber.
LEARNED THE HARD WAY
If you read my autobiography, you will see that I’ve taken all the wrong roads. It’s not a how-to book. It’s a how-not-to book. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been divorced twice. I’ve gone through an army of friends. I’ve been fired by clients. What the fuck else do you want to know? The title of my autobiography will tell you everything: Designing Bridges to Burn.
How would you undo anything? If I had to do something over again? God, I wouldn’t have flunked out of MIT, I wouldn’t have gotten divorced. Of course, that would have been a great mistake, because I’m now married to the perfect woman.
The next one