Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak talks to Roman Rutkowski, architect and critic of architecture, as well as lecturer at the Architecture Department of the Wrocław University of Technology.
Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak: In this issue of Autoportret we want to tackle the subject of regionalism in architecture, without evoking nostalgia and the rhetoric of “returning to the source”. But before we venture to propose anything, I would like to ask you for a diagnosis of the present situation in modern architecture.
Roman Rutkowski: There is no easy answer to that, also in the context of what you have signalled. Of course, it would need to be nuanced, viewed from various perspectives, from the perspective of Poland, of eastern and western Europe, of the world, etc. To generalize, out of necessity, with each passing year this diagnosis is increasingly negative. There is a lot to blame contemporary architecture for. First of all, with very few exceptions, urban planning as the construction of cohesive, compact and intimate space is practically non-existent – we live in times when free-standing buildings are worshipped and oversized common space is venerated, which is very easy to observe, if we analyse for instance the winners of architectural prizes. Secondly, our times are on the one hand marked by globalization, and on the other hand, by individualisation – although the contemporary world gives architects a lot of opportunities, and admires them for their originality, it also, paradoxically, leads to the unification of creative attitudes in one single current, from which only the most famous architects are able to break away. Thirdly, contemporary architects design cold and schematic buildings, which offer their users next to nothing at close contact – who knows why, we are scared of details and ornament, for instance, although their implementation, thanks to the universal digitization of construction techniques, has now been made easier than ever. Fourthly, our times are an era in which many things are relative or even false, starting with materials that pretend to be some other materials, to the media environment of the architectural profession that all too often distorts reality, and ending with ideas that are either silly or remain only fragments of a larger whole, one that we have long forgotten.
DLR: How does architecture relate to local, regional topics?
RR: I simply like modern architecture less and less these days. And most probably it is not just me. I have a simple test: my friends’ Facebook photos. Many of my friends are architects, many are architecture students, but a large group of people are not involved in the architectural field. What do they share on their accounts? In addition to the famous, modern buildings, heavily promoted by the architectural media and viewed by the first two groups, all three generally show either beautiful landscapes or obvious tourist attractions, or charming, old urban structures. Importantly, these are structures made up of mostly anonymously designed and constructed buildings, which however speak with a unique, coherent, natural and soft language. These qualities of uniqueness, coherence, naturalness and softness are key here, together making up something we might call a very human, even humanistic architecture, and certainly regional in its expression. It is a paradox of our time that in the past, no one ever theorized the process of constructing architecture, or made any recommendations for a good way of building, and yet it used to be more people-friendly than the present one (though obviously for many of its users life back then was definitely much harder than it is today). Now we are dealing with a completely opposite relationship: we have the media, the critics and the convoluted analyses of simple problems, while we are constructing an unpleasant mess.
I know we were meant to avoid nostalgia in the context of regional architecture, but I think we cannot escape it altogether. If we have already arrived at nostalgia, it could be reduced to the question of pleasure, methinks: we could boil it down to the question whether the space created by architecture gives us a specific sense of bliss. In my opinion, modern architecture very rarely generates such bliss. Quite contrary to the architecture which is at least a century old, and by definition, regional.
DLR: What kind of language did regional architecture use?
RR: It is astounding in how many different ways architecture used to speak to us once, in various places. How many urban rhythms it used, how many typologies, proportions, details, ornaments, colour combinations. How powerfully it was able to convey in which precise part of the world it was located. Contemporary architecture, not only that promoted by thematic journals, by both paper and online media, in its materiality is less and less often suggestive of its location. In the past, buildings from different locations were not difficult to tell apart. For example, an Asian house was evidently different from a European house, within Europe it was very easy to distinguish between Portuguese, Bavarian, Norwegian, Italian or English houses, while even among these, there were many local variations and architectural phenomena characteristic of particular, small localities. Today, when entering any website dealing with contemporary architecture, we can do an experiment on how far we are able to place the given building in a particular region of the world without having to read the captions under the pictures.
I am sure that in many cases we will not be able to do so. This failure to recognize will affect both large public buildings, where we shall find, literally, all formal languages, as well as single family houses, predominantly featuring roofs, white walls and large glazed surfaces.
DLR: We see a critical image of modern architecture emerging. Is that crisis only specific to architecture? It is basically a question about the condition of architecture versus the condition of the world – the mechanisms of globalization and fluid modernity, as well as the changes related to the medium of the internet.
RR: I do not feel capable enough to answer the question, thus stated, without a degree of ambiguity. Of course, it is widely believed that we live in a time of globalization, which means a constant and invigorating exchange of ideas, multi-faceted and multidirectional interaction of everyone and everything. It is also said that this is not the first phase of cultures influencing one another, that in the past there were also other such phases, related to wars, political transformations, to colonization, to outstanding creators emigrating to other countries, and so forth. However, we could venture a proposition that while in the past, these influences were, in fact, exceptions; now we are dealing with a general tendency, naturally linked to the instantaneous flow of information, with a reality which is extremely fluid and indefinable. It may not concern all urban-architectural structures currently being built, but in comparison with the past, even that before the international style of modernism, this is a very clear tendency, perceptible in every part of the world, destroying all local traditions in an increasingly ruthless manner – in the scale of urban planning, as well as in the sense of architectural nuances. And, unfortunately, it is not offering anything of value in return.
DLR: It seems to me that your architectural designs have evolved over the years – here I have to resort to a generalization – from somewhat avant-garde ones towards more traditional ones. Your way of speaking about architecture is also evolving. Where did this change come from?
RR: I graduated twenty years ago, having completed architecture as a course of study, while as a field of human activity I have been analysing it for twenty-five years. This is a fascinating and dynamic process in which new threads appear every now and then. What is more, sometimes these new threads deny the old. Once upon a time, I found this state of constant transformation, not to say, shakiness, to be a cause for concern. I did not like the fact that – simultaneously – I was in agreement with opinions that were mutually incompatible. As if I did not quite believe in what I was doing, or lacked consistency in my work. This transformation took place over many years. It was certainly influenced by my ongoing contact with several art historians, and also by the way I spend my holidays; the general process of maturation and the appreciation of values other than those held previously, as well as a myriad of minor incidents such as my accidental purchase of the book Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky. In the past, especially during my university studies and just after graduation, I was able to arrange the entire holiday itinerary according to the works of Le Corbusier or Jean Nouvel. At some point, roughly a decade ago, older architecture began to dominate my holiday plans. Nowadays, I rarely visit modern buildings, and it often happens that I travel without visiting even one. The places I most enjoy visiting these days are historical urban structures, open-air museums, various local architectural phenomena – spatial objects and urban layouts, where I perceive much more frankness, unpretentiousness, authenticity and beauty than in most contemporary works.
DLR: How did this change materialize in your projects? And what is regional architecture in Poland? – I’m asking in the context of the traditions of construction as they relate to Poland’s history. Where do you see that regional architecture, when you operate in the urban fabric of Wrocław or the region of Lower Silesia – when you enter with your designs into another, different architectural tradition?
RR: This is a difficult issue. In order for modern architectural creativity to relate well to local architecture, this local architecture simply must exist, we need to have it, and it must be decisive for the architectural expression of the place. In Poland, which has been plagued by wars, partitions and various influences, this prerequisite rarely occurs. Of course, regional architecture did not necessarily occur on a national scale (because that was rather reserved for small states, with a geopolitical situation that was stable over centuries, such as Portugal or Switzerland), but above all in terms of geographic areas. And not just on a rural scale – although this is what we tend to associate the word ‘regionalism’ with, probably due to the fact that in general, smaller buildings were being built in the past than today – but also on an urban scale. I consider myself lucky to live in Lower Silesia, which I believe is the only large area in Poland that possesses something special or typical in the architectural sense. Of course, there are single cities in Poland – like Zamość – or villages – like Lanckorona – which speak to us with a specific and very beautiful architectural language, but these are more points than areas. As it is well known, Lower Silesia was shaped primarily by the Germans, and to be sure, it speaks to us in many ways, to name but a few: the language of beautiful 19th-century tenement houses, German early modernism, the amazing spa architecture, the rural Upper Lusatian houses, with a mind-boggling number of palaces and chateaux.
Some time ago I realized that I most liked the creativity of the architects who related their buildings to the character and nature of the place where they were born, which they ‘soaked up’ and where they lived, like Eduardo Souto de Moura and Álvaro Siza in Portugal, like Valerio Olgiati in Swiss Grisons, like Aldo Rossi in Italy, and in his own way, like Oswald Mathias Ungers in Germany. Their buildings “sit” well, they are right there, they are at home. Rossi in Modena or Milan is perfect, Rossi in Maastricht or Fukuoka – not necessarily so. But the advantage of the architects I just mentioned is that they have something to refer or relate to, while Polish architects, in my opinion, do not have that luxury. In my own projects, do I somehow manage to relate to the architectural character of Poland or Lower Silesia? I do not know, maybe sometimes. First of all, we do not implement as many projects as well-known architectural offices do, and secondly, our context is often horribly messy, sloppy and ugly, as a result of too many bad processes.
DLR: How does regional architecture manifest itself, depending on the scale?
RR: Regional architecture in the past has always been part of a much larger political and socio-cultural structure. As it seems to me, it was an image of that structure, mirroring it, and strengthening it at the same time. Along with regional architecture, there were other kinds of regionalisms in the structure, such as social hierarchies, rituals, clothing, food. The structure was certainly on the one hand building a common, local system of values, and on the other hand, it was also limiting the individuality of its inhabitants. It was the backbone, it provided support, but often it offered no chance to change for the better – which must have been a grim realisation. The question about the scale, however, is a very good one. We want to escape from nostalgia, but this cannot quite be done in the case of regionalism. However, in my opinion, what we can do, is attempt to analyze and understand that nostalgia, to break it down and even – which in a sense would be dangerous – to artificially generate it. Here the problem of scale comes in. I think that, like any other buildings, the regional buildings of the past can be seen in three independent senses: relating to urbanism, architecture and detail. And although – obviously – these buildings in different locations differ from each other in each of these three senses, even their superficial understanding provides an opportunity to draw general conclusions about regionalism of architecture. Regional architecture has always moved from the general to the detailed.
It is necessary to start with urbanism, which used to represent a certain social structure and which used to be a team game played in accordance with a small and uncomplicated set of rules. According to these rules, the most important buildings, seats of authority, were simply the largest in each of the three dimensions; while the remaining buildings, most often residential and industrial (production-related), were the background for the first. The same was true of common spaces: the most important ones were also the largest, clearly contrasted in relation to the built environment. It can be said that architectural objects not only met the basic needs of the people, but also – or perhaps, above all – they constructed urban places. What is important in the old regional structures is that in most cases, the predictability generated by the rules (repeatability of the urban systems, dimensions of the buildings, the materials and colours used) was well-balanced with a certain amount of unpredictability (geometric irregularities) and exceptional elements (important buildings and public spaces). This created liveable places, appropriately suspended between order and chaos, far from the unbearable orthogonal rigour and the excess of common space in modernist design, as well as from today’s annoying messiness.
DLR: Regional architecture, in addition to artistic values – because we are also speaking about beauty and harmony – often resulted from a real need, it was extremely pragmatic. Is the question about contemporary architecture that is embedded in a place not in fact the question about a real need? Would it not be liberating in the present situation to pose a question about the real needs, in each case of a new architectural investment project?
RR: Regional architecture always was a combination of clearly defined, real human needs with budgetary and technological possibilities resulting from the availability of materials and theclimatic conditions. It was never the result of overly intellectualized, overthought architectural ideas. This combination has always been simple and natural and therefore the most beautiful that is possible. In regional architecture everything was in its place, like a straight answer: a house was a house, a chimney was a chimney, a roof was a roof, a wall was a wall, a window was a window – and each made from specific material used for its intended purpose. You could even say – using today’s vocabulary – that everything was developing in a sustainable way. It is different in our times: as a result of the globalization fever and the instantaneous flow of information, we have a lot of ideas for what a building should be, and what it should be like, often weird ideas; for their construction, we use a much wider array of materials that are sometimes applied, in some way, against their nature. In regional architecture, it was the craftsmanship and the cultural tradition that were the sources of knowledge about building construction. Regional architecture had no architects then, it had craftsmen. There were no media, no publications, no potential fame, so there was also no striving to be original, to cross imaginary barriers, to force innovation at all costs. Only exceptional buildings – in the sense of their function, and therefore also their size and location within the urban structure – were raised to the rank of structures that were more than utilitarian. To this day, this is reflected in the history of architecture that we study – we learn about temples, castles and palaces, rather than houses. Having said that, also in historical housing, the combination of needs, possibilities, and traditions has produced very interesting architectural phenomena over the centuries.
DLR: As early as the 1980s, Kenneth Frampton postulated an architectural resistance movement, a kind of rearguard that would build relationships with the place and the material, and that would support man. To what extent are these postulates being implemented in the architectural practice of recent decades?
RR: While urbanism was a three-dimensional record of the social structure, and architecture followed this record, it was only the details which complemented the architecture that were able to represent the individuality of the building. The detail was always a testament to the skill, the craftsmanship, of the builder. The handmade execution of that detail, combined with the natural quality of the materials used, gave architecture its human dimension … The paradox of our time is that before, the execution of the detail was time and work consuming, and therefore expensive, but now – with the use of computers, software and specialized machines, the details and ornaments can be made quickly, precisely and inexpensively. However, we do not do this, as if we were afraid of being accused of a lack of rationality in design. In contrast, we understand something of the naturalness of materials, but instead of using the originals, we replace them with their ersatz, unpleasant to the touch, such as ceramic tiles and laminates pretending to be wood, stucco instead of real stone, roofing tar cut to measure instead of ceramic tiles, etc.
DLR: To what extent can regionalism be modern, or to what extent should it be? Is the gap, the opposition necessary: between “modern” and “regional”, is it inevitable? And if it can be avoided, then how should that modernity be manifested?
RR: Regionalism has always been modern! But the question is a good one; I have been thinking about this myself for a long time now. Because it is so that at some point, rational solutions, which are regional in their nature, and resulting from the needs and the possibilities, can so deeply penetrate the visual sphere of culture, that they begin to live a life of their own. We identify with these solutionsso much that although we do not need them anymore, we continue to apply them, in a sense. Why do alpine homes in the 21st century have gabled, symmetrical, slightly inclined roofs? Are not the Germans or the Swiss capable of making a flat roof using the latest roofing techniques? Or a better example: triglyphs on the stone tympanum of ancient Greek temples, derived directly from the earlier construction techniques of wooden structures in similar buildings, were copied in the Roman Empire, then in the Renaissance, then in the Baroque and Neoclassical periods. Do we need them? No. Do we like them? Yes. And we feel that they are, despite being quite useless after all, simply part of our culture. Once, Peter Eisenman, an architect in a certain, distant sense, related to the tropes of regionalism, said in an interview that modern architecture need not necessarily represent the times in which it is created – and here I would add, just as regional architecture had done for centuries. According to Eisenman, it can do more: modern architecture can go even further. It seems to me that these two issues – the need, which becomes culture, and the rational transgressing of certain phenomena – have something in common. But I do not know how to verbalize that something just yet. For if we assume that architecture is to express the present reality, and that reality is fluid, difficult to grasp, chaotic, and globalized, then does it also follow that our cities should look this way?
DLR: What is the role of understanding tradition in architecture? Is it not that, after the discrediting of modernism, we go on living and creating within some of its paradigm? Are we not still obsessed with innovation and originality – although in fundamental terms, nothing in our needs has changed?
RR: Absolutely so! For a long time now I believe that, whereas until the mid-twentieth century, new ideas were roughly conceived more or less simultaneously in art and architecture, then later, after modernism, it has only after a certain time that transformations in architecture mirrored the transformations in the artistic world. But it was also around that time when the myth was created – and how modernist it is! – that all that is new is better than what is old. To put it more accurately – every new artwork must contain something that nobody else had invented before. More generally speaking – that every innovation improves our life. Now I know, I believe, that this is not true. That searching for novelty, purely for the sake of novelty, is a false path by its very nature – even though it can certainly be invigorating intellectually.
Translation from Polish: Dorota Wąsik