The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
17
What Keeps You Up at Night?



Diana Agrest is a full-time professor of architecture and urbanism at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union. She was a fellow of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York from 1972 to 1984 and Urban Studies, 1967 – 1984, was released in 2013.

In conversation with Stephanie Cheung (B.Arch.’18), Maur Dessauvage (B.Arch.’16), Jose Ibarra (B.Arch.’16), Nikki Liao (B.Arch.’15) and Whitney VanHouten (M.Arch.’16).


Stephanie
Even though the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies of cially ended in the 80s, it continues to have a haunting presence and in uence on architectural discourse and teaching. What do you think made the Institute what it was, and how has it sustained its impact until today?

Diana
The Institute was founded in 1967 by Peter Eisenman with Colin Rowe. Function- alism had been the prevailing ideology for decades. It was a particular moment because it was a period of social, political, intellectual, and cultural change. There were the anti-Vietnam protests. There were the pop movement and the hippies, and there were the student riots here and in Europe, like May 68 in Paris. There were new critical ideas in every eld. It felt as though people were against whatever was institutionally established. And so, I think one has to situate the phenomenon of the Institute in this context, which is what I do in my lm. When Peter founded the Institute, it was an empty vessel. Then, as different people became part of it, the Institute developed and grew enormously and incredibly fast. It was a center, the crossroads for the rethinking of architectural discourse and the development of new critical ideas, at a national and international scale.

The main reason that the Institute still exerts an in uence in the academic and intellectual milieu of architecture is that the fellows that were at the core of
the development of the Institute in terms of critical ideas through writing, publication, and projects were imbedded in different schools and continued to develop and disseminate the ideas and approaches that they had initiated and developed at the IAUS. They also continued to publish and produce work. On the other hand, students still read Oppositions.

Maur
What made the Institute explode and have such far-reaching effects on pedagogy and discourse?

Diana
It happened because of the people who came together there, and because of what we did. There was a strong desire for disseminating ideas about architecture, whether they were formalist approaches like Peter Eisenman’s, critical theories like Mario Gandelsonas’s or my own, or history like the work of Kenneth Frampton or Anthony Vidler. But I think that we were all working on architectural discourse at a time when no one else was doing that (excepting Robert Venturi), and we felt we had something to say and to share in response to the ideological crisis at the moment, when func- tionalism — which had been the prevailing architectural ideology — was nally bankrupt.

What made the place unique was that we were invested in the place; we were not just organizing public events, we were doing our work, writing our essays, teaching, and doing everything else at the Institute. That created an extraordinary energy and excitement: even if the content was not necessarily homogeneous, there was an understanding, and when students were there, they became an integral part of the whole experience.

Maur
What was the role of publications as part of this nonhomogenous critical spirit?

Diana
Publications started because of the need and desire to have a critical voice, to bring architectural discourse to the fore. The rst publication was Oppositions, and the rst issue was funded by the founding fellows and some others involved in its publication. So that rst issue came out before we had external funding. Oppositions had a level of quality and content that hadn’t been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. No matter how much people tried. Why? First of all, it was the internal drive in the people who were behind it, and the real genuine need to produce this critical work. It wasn’t academic, it was intellectual.

Later, we published Skyline, which was a very different type of publication. It was about current events and news — even though there were always very good articles published on many different subjects, about lm, about the city, and about psychoanalysis, Foucault, et cetera — but it had a lighter spirit.

Jose
How did the Institute die?

Diana
There had been financial problems for a long time: it was hard to sustain something like that. I think that the fellows were all in different places in their lives and had different needs and aspirations, and that created tensions. At the time that the Institute had initially ourished, New York was completely bankrupt and there was no building going on: that changed in the 80s. At a certain point, Peter had outgrown his need for the Institute, and he resigned. That was it, he didn’t need it anymore. From that point on, it became very hard to keep it going without a solid nancial foundation, and there were internal disagreements so it nally collapsed. I also think that it is very hard to keep something like that with very strong characters and no solid nancial institutional structure alive for too long. Fifteen years is a long time.

Whitney
Do you think that the spirit of the Institute could ever be re-created?

Diana
No. A spirit is many things — the Institute’s spirit, its energy, its drive, its intellec- tual dimension, the genuine belief in the need for something new was unique and certainly related to the time when it happened, a time of contestation at every level and a time when architecture was going through a major ideological crisis. That happens when it happens. The conditions and the desire have to be there, and it needs to be authentic: you can’t force it.

Nikki
Do you think that your film, The Making of an Avant-Garde, accurately portrays the Institute through your compilation of personal footage and interviews?

Diana
The film is obviously my own vision, which I believe is accurate as far as what one is able to include in one hour and in a lm, which is not a book or an academic paper. That said, the lm, as any lm, is a construction, so that while the material is essential, it needs to be structured following a narrative that is the story of the place: why it happened, when it happened, who are the people that participated there in different capacities, where they came from, et cetera. Therefore, there is a great deal of lmic and photographic material besides the interviews and my own original footage of the Institute that is essential to the narrative. The interviews followed a questionnaire that I wrote and which was for the most part the same for every inter- viewee; the replies, however, were for the most part very different.

Concerning my own footage, people have asked me how come I was lming already there at the time. First of all, I always wanted to do lm and I decided then to get a camera and some other equipment and learn on my own. The Institute became an obvious subject for me. I remember thinking that that was “the place,” even if it was not what it became yet. It was intense, fun, and I saw it as full of possibilities for something different to happen there. So as you see, there was a conjunction of two things close to me at that moment and I just put them together. Concerning this lm, I decided that this was a good opportunity for me to make a lm, and enough time had gone by since the end of the Institute that a lot of the tensions from that period had dissipated. I thought this was a story worth telling because people like you, even older than you, didn’t even know that the Institute had existed and had had such an extraordinary impact in architecture. That’s why I made the lm. I had the footage, a huge archive of material, and knew the story as a participant and an observer, so I thought I was in an ideal position to embark on this project. The lm was nanced entirely by grants and foundation contributions.

Regarding lm and architecture in general, I was always interested in the city as the intersection of social and cultural forces, rather than just in its physical aspects. This is something that I started when I was still a student and realized that the prevailing urban ideology was dysfunctional and started searching for an alternate way to think about the city, which lead me to study communication, linguistics, semiotics, deconstruction, et cetera and construct little by little my own way of approaching the subject. It is in this context that I rst did a thesis in Paris on the subject of the street as communication and signi cation. From there, I kept on developing the concept of the city as text and of reading it as a productive activity.

It is from there that I emphasized lm as being the best theoretical, conceptual, and actual system by which to read the city. For more detail you will have to read my book, Architecture from without.

Nikki
How did the institute influence your own approach to theory, and how did that affect your work?

Diana
I started, without even realizing, actually, to explore a critical, theoretical dimension in architectural discourse before I knew the IAUS existed. The Institute, however, provided the ideal setting for developing such work, and over time there were cross- overs and in uences in every direction, even if we all had very different interests and views on architecture.

The only reason I ever started working in theory was because I had questions for my practice. I never thought that I would do theory in my life, because I am a maker. The most important thing is when you realize that there is a problem, you transform it into a question and then you start your critical inquiry from there ... I don’t do theory to get recipes for design, I do theory because I have questions, and I don’t know where it is going to take me because if I know the answer before the question it is not real theory. That is the best part of writing: it is a bit like detective work.

Stephanie
Do these views on theory and practice translate into your pedagogical approach?

Diana
My theoretical work and concomitant discoveries have certainly impacted me and in uenced my work, but not in a one-to-one sense. I believe they articulate in the complex realm of the unconscious. As opposed to the classical separation between analysis and synthesis, I believe that there is a continuum between theory and practice or between reading and writing.

In my view, the production of architecture (in the largest sense of the term) is a process of transformation, through new conceptual tools, from what is there — the drawn, the built, and the written — as different texts. This is at the core of my peda- gogical approach. The “reading” is already the rst move of architectural produc- tion, even before any transformation takes place. I started this very early on, without even realizing it when I was teaching at Princeton. I developed this further and maybe more consciously at the IAUS in the undergraduate program in architectural education, where I was in charge of the design studios, and later in other programs and at Cooper.

Here is where lm comes back again, since I have done a number of times a studio where my students do lmic readings of the city and produce short lms. This is something I started when I was invited by the Whitney Museum in 1993 to develop a program for very young architects on lm and the city based on my writings.

Whitney
Considering that type of multidisciplinary and dialectic relationship in your work and teaching, one cannot help but to think again of Oppositions. What was the importance of including other authors like De Quincy, Adorno, Bloch, et cetera — people who were not at the Institute or perhaps even alive at the time but who had signi cant in uence on the work and the people of the Institute. All these people are so fundamental to the ideas that you are dealing with, what was the importance of presenting them in Oppositions and the other writings you produced?

Diana
Different editors proposed various types of material based on their interests, knowledge, and sometimes discoveries. The documents chosen by the editors in the end were the ones that were signi cant in terms of their pertinence for Opposi- tions. There were also different sections in the magazine―Theory, Oppositions, Documents, et cetera. If someone would propose a text by Adorno, then sure! Why not? Would there be a big discussion? Of course.

Maur
How would one distill and extract essential elements within these millions of possibilities?

Diana
The more you know, the more intuition you have. Intuition is the growth of knowledge, as Bachelard has written. I used to think as a student that if I knew too much, I was going to lose my intuition. But that is not true. The more you know, the more creative you are because, the more you have to draw from at great speed and not even consciously with which to make new and sometimes unlikely associations.

Maur
Now that you mentioned looking at the things you can and cannot see, a fundamental idea comes up in your “Design versus Non-Design” essay, in which you related architecture to other external cultural systems. What was the importance of looking at architecture, and what is external to it?

Diana
“Design versus Non-Design” is about the city. People are always worried about the building. The building is limited in terms of urban con gurations. Because I was looking at lm, and seeing how lm operates, how languages, or fragments of languages or systems articulate with each other. In lm, there is time, there is movement, there is narrative. And all these dimensions are left out in is architecture. Where is urban culture? If we think of the city as different cultural systems, more than as a thing, then you can start articulating them from different viewpoints. I could look at the city from a theater point of view or politics, fashion, literature, et cetera. So I see lm as being in a privileged position (and here we go back to an earlier question), as it is in that sense analogous with the city.

Stephanie
You mentioned earlier how spirits happen in the moment: the spirit being a Zeitgeist, literally a spirit if the time. What would be categorized as the spirit of now?

Diana
It is for you to say. You are the now. I can't teach what Iknow. I can help you,but it is your turn. So what do you think?

You want to know what I think is the now? I am always looking forward to being jealous and to being surprised by new things. If I say I’m jealous, that is the best compliment you can get. It is the condition of the time. It is the social, political, economic, and ideological condition that needs to be there for something like the IAUS to happen. Why isn’t anyone critical of anything anymore? I am sure people want to be. But people seem to be worried about success, and fast recognition, because that is how media operates now and that is perhaps the most obvious “spirit” of our times.

You should learn as much as you can, and not take anything at face value: think critically. This I would say is where you should be starting. And try to
figure out — what is it that I’m interested in here? What is something that I see as something I want to focus on? What is it that I disagree with in the current state of architectural discourse, or what are the potentials? Not everyone needs to do critical theory or contest the status quo, there is no recipe for that: it has to be an authentic need.

Stephanie
You said in your lecture that you liked to ask your students what keeps them up at night. What keeps you up at night?

Diana
Yes, I ask my students for the last class in a seminar to write a page maximum of what keeps them up at night about architecture today. I have many things that keep me up at night about architecture and the world and us as human beings, but the question I was talking about is the one you have when you start, the one that drives you. If you are lucky you will have a genuine one, one day, without even looking for it, and then, it will take you the rest of your life to nd some possible answers.




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