The Mystery and Mythology of Architect Emilio Ambasz

An acclaimed architect and curator, a self-proclaimed father of sustainability, a poet of structure and form, a man of myth and mystery—Emilio Ambasz is surely his own greatest creation.

Emilio Ambasz’s house in Bologna, Italy, is indescribable. I mean that literally. Ambasz, the Argentine architect whose polymath career has stretched from the starchy halls of Princeton University and the architecture-and-design wing of the Museum of Modern Art to the shores of the Veneto, where he recently unveiled a strikingly modern medical campus, has a Howard Hughesian wish for privacy. He asks that I describe neither the house, where he spends a quarter of the year, nor the lunch he’s invited me to, since we’re to dine behind those forbidden doors. Also off-limits: much of his studio, where he’s working on a top-secret embassy, which requires that he toss disused drawings into special bags, to be collected each week by the embassy. So he says. The first thing to know about Ambasz is that he is a good storyteller. Maybe too good.

Ambasz steps into the studio’s conference room, looking every bit the anguished celebrity: Panama hat angled over black aviators, a canary blazer lifted from a panel of a Dick Tracy comic. I do have permission to describe this room, which is a paean to Ambasz himself. His many monographs are meticulously arranged on a long black shelf like Fabergé eggs. Chairs of his own design are everywhere—enough, it seems, to seat a small parliament—and a short set of steps leads curiously to nowhere. On a wall, a four-year-old Japanese calendar opens to an image of Ambasz’s most iconic building, the Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, a tiered government monolith covered in foliage, as if some time machine had dispatched Olmsted to ancient Sumer. This is Ambasz’s trademark, an explicit coupling of gardens and buildings—green over gray, as he calls it. He slips upon the table a 12-page typed treatise, which he distributes at talks, titled I ASK MYSELF (MI DOMANDO): (A Compendium Of Questions I Wished I Had Been Asked, And A Few Answers I Should Have Never Uttered). Question No. 7: “Place yourself within the context of current architectural production. Jim Wines? Ken Yeang? Michael Reynolds?” Answer: “I know it sounds presumptuous, but I lay claim to being the precursor of current architectural production concerned with environmental problems.” Emilio Ambasz: the forefather of green architecture. So he says.

Presumptuous, perhaps. After all, Ambasz isn’t particularly concerned with the technical aspects of sustainability, like saving energy. But preposterous? Not entirely. Back in the dreary 1970s, when postmodernism was busy scandalizing pretty much everyone, and decades before architects started slapping wind turbines onto skyscrapers and calling them green, Ambasz was burying architecture under grassy knolls and floating buildings on disposable barges that could recede, in his poetic estimation, into a single “island of flowers.” They were paper projects that lived vivaciously off the page. “He was doing this when no one was talking about ecological architecture,” Shigeru Ban said in a recent phone interview. “He was doing something more basic—natural things, without following fashion.” His work points both backward and forward to a utopian vision not everyone shares. “Emilio,” says Michael Graves, who taught the younger architect at Princeton in the 1960s, “is built on hype.”

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Now, suddenly, Ambasz is everywhere. Last spring, a panel discussion at MoMA and an attendant show at Columbia University revisited Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, an exhibition on modern Italian design he curated at the museum in 1972. A conference this fall reconsiders his Universitas Project, a 1972 symposium that convened academia’s grand Pooh-Bahs for a discussion about an experimental university. In 2005, the museum mounted a show on a single house Ambasz had designed near Seville, Spain; the house was designed in the 1970s but wasn’t constructed until 20 years later. (Ambasz is an honorary board member at P.S. 1, an affiliate of MoMA.) With his new medical buildings, which jut from the Veneto like half-mined gems, Ambasz is undermining the notion that green architecture is a mere vehicle for reducing carbon emissions. His is an architecture that favors poetry over pragmatism, that fashions a pair of wings for the profession and sends them soaring into the vapor clouds, beyond mundane concerns about radiant cooling and wattage consumption, flying—for better or for worse—into the realm of beauty and ideas and, above all, myth.

“I heard he was married. I don’t know. Is he?” This is not a standard line of questioning in design journalism, particularly when it’s the journalist fielding the questions. But Ambasz isn’t exactly forthcoming about the world he occupies, leaving colleagues—gossips that they are—to scrounge pathetically for details.

“We heard he was living in Venice,” one architect says. “But then I read something which said he had houses in about four Italian cities.”

From another architect: “There’s this legend that he has a palazzo… . He’s the wealthiest architect we know.”

“Based on?” I ask.

“Based on …” The architect hesitates. “Based on hearsay.”

Ambasz, of course, cultivates his own mystery. He recounts tales of enviable martyrdom and epic derring-do, only to hem on the most banal questions, like: “How big is your firm?” This has allowed him to craft a narrative for himself that is, in the words of Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator for architecture and design, “either completely true or a completely flawless fiction.” (Incidentally, Bergdoll has been to Ambasz’s house in Venice.) Ambasz, as much as any of his buildings, is his own greatest creation.

To hear him tell it, he has always had a poet’s soul. We learn in I ASK MYSELF that Ambasz gleaned from the “vapor clouds” of his birthplace, Chaco, Argentina, a lesson in “the impermanence of all things.” He was no older than seven. Fascinated by the natural world, young Emilio became enamored of a tree outside his bedroom window in Buenos Aires, where he spent the rest of his childhood. “I still remember shivering as if caressed by celestial fingers when the rustling leaves made their music,” he writes. “I was entranced to that tree. To this day, I revere its brethren.” It was his Walden Pond.

In the fabulous chronicle of his life, which he tells with great flourish—all superlatives and Spanish-accented italics—he was 11 when he decided to become an architect, 15 when he started crashing courses at the University of Buenos Aires (“but not regularly, because in the end I thought they were pretty mediocre”), and the same age when he went to work for the Argentine architect Amancio Williams (“a great architect, a great artist, the greatest architect we had in the twentieth century and the nineteenth century—still the greatest”). Skipping over some acts of wildly clever political dissidence—not for public consumption, lest unregenerate Peron­-ists (or whatever) make him a head shorter—he entered Princeton at 20 and, borne by his own ambition, earned a master’s degree two years later. “If there seemed an orthodox way to do something, Emilio would probably take another route,” Graves says. “Emilio came to Princeton to get out, get it over with, get on with his career.” Still, he was a magnetic presence. Peter Eisenman remembers a Beaux-Arts ball on Halloween in 1963, when Ambasz was a freshman. “We decided to have a dance and, for some reason, parade around the campus,” says Eisenman, who was then teaching at Princeton. “The next thing we knew, there was Emilio in a huge head of a bird—a ferocious bird or a friendly bird, I couldn’t tell, but two or three times the size of a normal bird head.

That was his costume. And he hired six trumpeters. There he was at the head of the parade. We followed him around campus like sheep.”

What came next was the sort of career every ambitious architecture student dreams of: an assistant professorship in Princeton’s architecture and philosophy departments (though the school has no record of the latter appointment) and a powerful seat atop MoMA’s architecture-and-design establishment. He left MoMA in 1976 to open an eponymous design firm with offices in Bologna and New York, the former because it was a thriving industrial city, the latter because it’s “like a mistress who is 45—still good looking, still can give me pleasure, but she’s ripe.” So he says. Ambasz, it should be noted, is 66.

The Universitas Project, in 1972, was and possibly remains his most ambitious endeavor, placing under one roof the era’s leading intellectual lights (Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few). “It was a very early example of institutional critique,” Bergdoll says, “but also one in which he started to define environmentalism as a body of knowledge, a method of inquiry.” Ambasz’s plan was to establish a new public institution in Jamestown, New York, with then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller providing precious political will. But like many of Ambasz’s far-flung ideas, the project ended in defeat, a victim of circumstances that were, in his colorful retelling, entirely out of his hands. “Without Nelson’s support in the legislature, there was no way to get funds,” Ambasz says. “My great misfortune is that Nelson was appointed vice president, and like a good prince, 120 seconds after being appointed, he forgot everything. He broke my little heart.”

La Banca dell’Occhio is an eye-bank-cum-stem-cell-research-facility and one of Ambasz’s two medical buildings in Mestre, a growing working-class city 15 minutes by train from the bewildered swarms of old Venice. At the edge of a rolling campus is a 54,000-square-foot ziggurat dotted with plants and recessed behind two faux-bronze wedges whose tips nearly touch, as in Michelangelo’s fresco of God stretching his hand to Adam, giving him life—much like La Banca gives metaphorical life to the blind. The building’s site plan roughly approximates a circle enclosed in a triangle. It mimics the Eye of Providence, as if the institute itself were playing God—a blasphemous proposition in a fiercely Catholic country that still bans embryonic-stem-cell research. (La Banca uses only non-embryonic stem cells.) Nevertheless, the building was blessed by the Venetian cardinal at its opening last June.

La Banca has many of Ambasz’s signature gestures: gray swathed in green, a simple, almost primordial form, and a vivid backstory that borders on the grandiose. Hanging low on the horizon, it appears to burst from the ground, an effect born of the artificial berm on which it sits. This, too, is an Ambasz trademark. “Emilio’s architectural landscapes seem to be the remnants of a place … a thousand hours after the cataclysm,” Ettore Sottsass once wrote.

“The concept for the eye bank was very simple!” Ambasz says. An image came to him in an instant, and it’s exactly what you see today. This is the tale of all of Ambasz’s buildings, which invariably originate with a single vision, a thunderclap of inspiration that strikes near a deadline, maybe, or, in the case of the Seville house, “with this lady.” He smiles wickedly and covers my tape recorder. “In bed,” he adds. Ambasz draws in section; it’s how he experiences a building. “Remember all substance is in surface,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what happens between the two skins. From Palladio all the way up! What matters is what you see, what moves you. How it is held together is important, but that’s building, OK? The shape, the skin is what’s important.”

From the beginning, he was obsessed with reconciling nature and artifice. His first built project, the Lucile Halsell Conservatory, in San Antonio, Texas, completed in 1988, is a collection of chimerical glass cones planted into earth berms like diamonds, invoking some vision of Arcadia, either ancient or futuristic, or maybe both. “It is unlike any conservatory ever built,” Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times. “It is at once a place for the display of plants, a ceremonial public square for San Antonio, and a poetic essay on the relationship of man-made and natural structures.” Similarly, the Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, completed in 1994, with a squat, landscaped ziggurat set down in the heart of a brick-and-steel metropolis, belies the notion that cities are gray, and suburbs green. “People see architectural works as artefacts able to counter the surrounding physical elements by means of their rational shape,” the architect Mario Botta writes in an e-mail.

“In Ambasz’s architecture the two terms are always in close relationship, which generates fantastic spaces that link men to the world of nature.”

Green architecture is often characterized rather drably by its function. “It looks at nature as an unlimited resource to which architecture has a beneficial relationship,” says David Gissen, author of the book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009). “It understands trees as processors of carbon, but it doesn’t have any larger philosophical questions about what nature and architecture could be.” To anyone peering out on the skylines of New York and Dubai at the soulless glass skyscrapers that rise against all necessity and then congratulate themselves on their sustainability, it’s clear that Ambasz couldn’t possibly be the father of so-called green architecture, let alone a distant relative. The green-building movement has enjoyed a meteoric rise, evidenced by government subsidies and LEED’s dizzy growth, but it lost an art component around the time green ceased to be a color and instead became a metaphor. Ambasz’s architecture is green because it’s literally green. Like the work of contemporaries such as James Wines and Ken Yeang, it concerns itself with those larger philosophical questions. “To my mind, the real precursors [of green architecture] are the people who were doing solar houses and earth houses and living in tepees,” says the architect and critic Michael Sorkin, who edited a book on Ambasz. “What he did for the green-architecture movement was to give it a kind of aesthetic respectability.”

Back in the conference room, Ambasz recounts a frank conversation with Rem Koolhaas. “‘Emilio,’” he says, imitating Koolhaas, “‘don’t you feel you’ve been a failure?’ And I said, ‘To have Rem Koolhaas ask me if I’m a failure, I’m already a success!’” There’s a reason for the question, however indelicate. After practicing architecture for 33 years, Ambasz has totted up just 15 built projects, only a handful of which have public significance. His problem, he says, is that he won’t deign to compromise. A prolific industrial designer, he has created plenty of contract furniture, including the Vertebra, the world’s first automatically adjustable chair, and several fuel engines for the decidedly nongreen Cummins Engine Co., where he has been a consultant for 29 years. These have provided him with the financial wherewithal (and, it seems, then some) to pick and choose architectural projects.

While he refuses to compromise on vision, Ambasz winds up compromising on details. His aversion to minutiae leaves the scut work to others, often local architects with varying levels of experience, motivation, and resources. In some ways, L’Ospedale dell’Angelo, the first of Ambasz’s new medical facilities, suffered from the lack of a dictatorial presence overseeing every stud wall and fern seedling. Billed as the world’s first green general hospital, it’s defined by an angled glass face (more than seven times the length of a basketball court) that rises over a lofty greenhouse, giving patients in terraced wards overhead a front-row garden view. It’s intended to be therapeutic. The problem: when the sun’s out, the place is hotter than hell. Engineers first tried air-conditioning the atrium (private rooms are already cooled), and when that failed, the architect of record, a family-run Italian firm, installed a transparent waiting room that’s artificially chilled in the summer and heated in the winter. Protruding from the second-floor terrace, it isn’t the most graceful addendum, but it keeps outpatients from buckling under the heat. “Architecture isn’t a sketch on the back of an envelope,” Graves chides. “It might be the beginning of an idea, but it’s not architecture. You do hundreds of drawings. You pick out the material. Think of the drawings Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Michelangelo made. Come on. This is what we do.” In other words, poetry alone is not enough.

Years ago, Ambasz published a series of fables. They aren’t fables in the common sense of the word; they neither recount the foibles of anthropomorphic animals nor underscore an explicit moral. Never-theless, Ambasz—likening his writing style to Borges’s (a matter on which I’ll politely demur)—deems them fables, and so fables we shall call them. Penned in 1976, “Fabula Rasa” is an architecture creation myth of sorts. A village man erects a cylindrical temple, which, he tells neighbors, is shaped like the universe and houses the universe’s gods. Then, with a rod from the temple, he marks a circle around the village and constructs a wall within. Next to the temple, he builds himself a hut draped in a mound of earth, on which he arranges six stone slabs. The villagers call it the palace. When the man dies, he’s buried in the hut with his worldly possessions, and his son covers the entrance with the stone slabs. “Some people say,” the last line of the fable goes, “this was how architecture started.”

Does he mean that architecture is a place for gods? That buildings become architecture when they’re the sites of ritual? “Neither,” Ambasz writes in an e-mail. “Fables are the domain of exegesis. Any interpretation is valid. I do not propose theories, only fables.” This is either very profound or a very large, very charming crock of beans.

Then again, Ambasz’s architecture is the sort that houses gods, that’s shaped like the universe, that has the audacity to simulate the creation of Adam. Sottsass once described Ambasz’s buildings as wagers. What he meant, I think, is that the stakes are spectacularly high. Ambasz’s work isn’t a slow, joyless slog to LEED accreditation. It’s built for the ages. The green movement would do well to look toward the old Argentine storyteller, still very much a great costumed bird, trailed by sheep and trumpets, marching at the head of his own parade.

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