Curtis B. Wayne Talks His Architecture Podcast, “Burning Down the House”

Curtis B. Wayne talks about his podcast Burning Down the House

Curtis B. Wayne is the host of the podcast Burning Down the House featured on Heritage Radio Network out of Brooklyn, New York. On his show he talks with architects about issues that affect the field as well as veering into architectural history—of which he is very well versed—and the bigger ideas that inform what architecture is or can be. Some of his recent guests have included Alexandra Lange, professor of design criticism at the School of Visual Arts and NYU, and author of the book Writing about Architecture; architect Winka Dubbeldam; “digital craftsman” and designer Guy Martin; David Bergman, and Victoria Meyers. Wayne colorfully describes his show as “a weekly discourse on all things built, destroyed, admired, and despised.” It is a hold-no-punches exchange of ideas and tough, unfiltered critique. Below is our unfiltered conversation.

Guy Horton: How did Burning Down the House come about? Curtis B. Wayne: The Internet radio station I’m on, Heritage Radio Network, resides in two shipping containers in the garden of a well-regarded hipster pizzeria in Brooklyn. The short version of the story is that it was started by a proponent of what’s called the Slow Food Movement. So they were covering food issues but also wanted to branch out and cover other cultural issues. I ended up on the station as a guest and they asked if I wanted to do a show on architecture. Now, why would I want to do a radio show? I’m one of those people who wanted to be an architect when I was eight. And now I’ve been doing this for forty years. I got a wonderful architectural education at Cooper Union, studying under people like John Hejduk, Raimund Abraham, and Peter Eisenman, but I also studied theatre when I was there. So I took theatre design and acting classes. We did a lot of improv, which was very good preparation for sitting in front of a mic to talk to thousands of strangers and not get tongue-tied. It became an opportunity to address issues of the built environment and push an agenda about the choices we make about how we live.

GH: Does this guide how you pick your guests? What sort of angles are you focusing on? CBW: I spend a lot of time reading architectural journals. One of the aspects of my own focus in practice is research. So I’m looking for guests who are willing to engage in ideas and are willing to express their ideas with clarity. One of the big issues that I see in our profession is the abysmal, dense writing that is promoted as being scholarly. I just see piling on of strange adjectives and big words and it really irks me because this is held up as a standard of advanced thinking and when it comes down to it if I can’t understand it after having been in practice for forty years and having been educated by three of Le Corbusier’s last apprentices, Jerzy Sołtan, Julian de la Fuentes, José Oubrerie, all of whom were very, very clear in expressing their thoughts. If I can’t understand what’s being written then I don’t see how anybody else in the profession or interested lay people, who we would like to be educating about architectural issues, could possibly get any value.

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GH: Towards that end, of your guests, who do you think have been the standouts? CBW: I’ve had Theo Prudon who heads DoCoMoMo in the U.S. We talked a little about CIAM and Team X, which I find that my younger colleagues know nothing about. I had a sort of harmonic convergence talking with Dutch architect, Winka Dubbledam, who is practicing in New York. Bjarke Ingels promised to come on the show. I find his expressiveness to be wonderful because he can take very complicated ideas and make them clear and express them simply. So he will be a great conversation, I’m sure. But as you know, he’s a very busy fellow. I have decided against certain “starchitects” because they might be lousy public speakers or I simply don’t want to endorse the “archispeak” that is likely to come out of their mouths; the use of the word “Intervention,” for example, which I find to be unacceptably (1) militaristic and (2) arrogant. Intervention suggests that you, the intervener, know something better than the people upon whom you are visiting your intervention and I think that is wholly inappropriate in this day when the best efforts, I believe, come out of collaboration.

GH: Do you notice a difference in the people who are coming out of school now compared to when you were coming out of school? CBW: One issue is that nobody knows how to draw anymore. They’d like to draw because what they find is the hand eye connection allows them to think about their architecture in a way that the computer interface seems not to. Two, which is something that from time to time we touch upon in the show, their comfort with the materiality, with the materials of construction that we are given as a palette to use, is rather limited. Which means also that they don’t know how things go together. Third, these people crave honest ideas instead of discussions being about formal tropes. They are just really ravenously hungry for someone to talk to them straight, without “ism’s,” about what does this mean or how does this work. Why do we choose this material over that material? They get a little bit of that from the sustainability movement. But how these things are integrated is something that a lot of people are not talking about. So in a way the agenda of interconnectedness that I’m promoting may be a bit old-fashioned. I do believe in the original modernist credo: architecture can improve the quality of life. There is at least one lecture by Peter Eisenman in which he states straightaway is that the purpose of architecture is not to improve life. I believe that what he means is that architects should do what they are uniquely trained and able to do which is to make architectural statements. But architecture is so much more than this.

GH: Do you think students are getting a good education in architecture? Are they getting enough training or enough of what translates into real practice? CBW: I think that they are not getting enough history. From the young twentysomethings I’ve most recently worked with, they know absolutely nothing about twentieth-century architectural history. The people who would have something authoritative to say about Corbu or CIAM are pretty much gone now. And I’m not sure that the people that they trained, which is my cohort, are much wanted when it comes to teaching because we are likely to disturb things a little bit too much.

GH: How would you disturb things? CBW: I was recently invited to be a guest critic at a mid-term review at my alma mater, Cooper Union, and for a school that used to really demand a high level of drawing performance some of the drawings were really unacceptable…and I said so. I questioned the validity of some of the student work as being even worthy of being discussed and it was viewed as being rude and disturbing and I wasn’t invited back for the final review.

GH: But do you think we need more of this “disturbance” as criticality and honesty? Not just in education but in the profession as a whole. CBW: Absolutely. I don’t understand why people get so defensive when hard questions are asked because our training used to be, and I believe still should be, in part training you to be able to defend why you’ve done what you’ve done in terms of making architecture. For example, when I look back at things that used to upset me like Michael Graves’ Hanselman addition, a built collage that’s attached to a fairly mundane, old house, and then I compare that with some of the stuff that’s only about form making because we can, I look back at the Graves stuff and say, Wow, at least there are some ideas about layering of space here, and maybe it’s not so bad after all. Whereas I used to hate it because it seemed like is was flipping the bird at the context. So over time I find that I am perhaps more willing to accept that one kind of valid architecture, to borrow the dictum that John Hejduk taught, if it engages the spirit then its architecture, then I’m willing to accept some of the things that I see that are just about pure form making. On the other hand I think it’s a real disservice to the public that we architects don’t disagree with each other enough. That’s one of the purposes of Burning Down the House, which is to give the interested lay person the opportunity to listen in on the conversations that go on between us all the time. But because architecture is expensive and construction is expensive and therefore our services are necessarily expensive, the ordinary person has no contact with an architect and has no idea what we talk about. So those are the goals of the program.

GH: Has the recession changed architecture? Any shifts or disturbing trends? CBW: What disturbs me is how little change there has been. What I expected to happen is that the projects that needed to go forward would have had more thought about quality. Quality is a slippery issue. Now, if you have ever successfully gotten through all 497 pages of Zen and the Art or Motorcycle Maintenance, which is all about quality, and he gets to the end and he realizes he still can’t identify quality except of in terms of “I know it when I see it.” A lot of the stuff we are seeing is still the same old same old. Take Steven Holl’s Light Crossing in Zhengzhou, China, for example. All I see are forms. Here’s a huge façade and it’s gridded and it expresses some diagonal bracing. Does that advance the profession? I don’t think so.

GH: Do you think he’s being cheated in a sense and that the whole picture isn’t being shown? CBW: It’s possible. Any critic will tell you that you really have to go see these things for yourself. But so much of what we see is eye candy and that’s a theme we come back to in the radio experiment. It seems that architectural magazines only show modernist work, like that’s the official publishable style and anything else that might seem slightly vernacular is perceived as being not serious, except for possibly that world that Tom Kundig inhabits with his love of gears and levers. Architectural commentary just talks about what it looks like instead of what’s the impact. A lot of criticism just doesn’t touch the technical stuff or the urbanistic stuff, which is why it’s too bad we lost Ada Louise [Huxtable]. But I’m also concerned with architectural criticism being an implied third-party endorsement, as in any press is good press.

GH: What is the agenda of the TV show you are currently developing? CBW: In part the intent is to address and refute a lot of the work that was promoted during the last twenty years of spectacle making in the guise of architecture. So the underlying theme is where is meaning in architectural form, what can we learn from what has gone before, and what lessons can we apply as we go forward in integrating form making with the realities of the natural world. Why should a window have a shape? In some cases architects avoid that altogether by making a building, even if it’s a residence, all glass.  And the only gesture they might make is in terms of pure geometry with the spacing of mullions that hold the glass together. Maybe there are ideas in things that have been done in the past so that shape has meaning. Maybe it works better and because it has meaning and reason for being that it will be beautiful. I don’t know. We’ll see. I think it’s time for, what I like to call a fourth architecture, one that is freed from style. Because we can do anything that we want. So what are we left with then? Does it have architectural meaning? Does it have practical meaning? I think that is a key to finding the fourth architecture. It goes back to that idea of engaging the spirit. Architects are the integrators. We can consider the aesthetic and the practical. We can consider the economic benefits and the biophilic benefits, the impact on the urban environment, all of these things matter. But when we look at the work of the last twenty years a lot of it could be anywhere.

Guy Horton, a writer based in Los Angeles, is a frequent contributor to Metropolis and other design publications. His blog, The Indicator, can be found on ArchDaily.

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