For many contemporary architects, reality is primarily that which is measurable. The measured drawing forces us define architecture as a set of buildable facts, and the production of these measured drawings consumes most of our time and shapes our thoughts.

But there are architects who also work with the unmeasurable. There are different kinds of drawings that try to uncover other aspects of the world of architecture, built and unbuilt. Two such architects are Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. Ingerid Helsing Almaas and Einar Bjarki Malmquist asked Alexander Brodsky two difficult questions: Firstly, What is architecture? And then, What is real?

”What is architecture”? That’s a nice question, says Alexander Brodsky.

Ingerid Helsing Almaas: It is an unfair question really.

Einar Bjarki Malmquist: If you go to a library and look at architecture magazines, there is a sense that everyone knows what architecture is. But we think that by bringing your work onto the table, one might be able to open up that question again.

Alexander Brodsky. Photo: Richard Pare.

Alexander Brodsky: Some architects try to give a very short answer to this question.

Maybe it’s not so important to make it short. But I was thinking about this some time ago, how I would explain architecture in just a few words… Well, in Russian there is this special word that means something like “the wall that separates something from something”. It’s not abstract, it’s a very physical, practical thing. I would say architecture is the poetry of these separating walls.

EBM: You say it is practical… Is it the act of separation you focus on?

AB: Well, for me the poetical part of architecture is the most important thing. I think that the poetry can be in every wall that you see, walls that were made just to separate something from something else, which after all is one of the main tasks of architecture: To separate, to divide the big space, the endless space, into smaller and smaller and smaller parts.
I have always been trying to find something poetical in this.
In the beginning, when I was just making pictures with my former partner and old friend Ilya Utkin, we were dreaming about real architecture. We didn’t have the chance to do any real buildings, and we were drawing these pictures, but even here we also tried to put in some poetry in different ways.

"I was thinking about this some time ago, how I would explain architecture in just a few words…"

IHA: You say you were dreaming about “real” architecture. So this brings us to our second question…

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin: "Doll‘s House", 1990. Etching, 81 x 59 cm. From Architectural Design Competition, London, United Kingdom, 1982. Courtesy of Feldman Gallery, NY

Detail of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin: "Doll‘s House", 1990.

AB: “What is real”? Yes. Well, for me it’s simple. What I call real architecture is what you can touch.

IHA: Architects have this idea that what is real is what is measurable, the things you can describe in a conventional architectural drawing…

AB: That’s not enough. You can measure and draw something without being able to touch the surface. What I call real architecture is what is built, which you can go into, or maybe you cannot go in but you can at least feel it, touch it.

The other common definition of real, or realism, is what can be built. But this is not enough either, because, actually, everything can be built. Almost everything, somewhere, at some time. Like the Egyptian pyramid: Today we cannot build it, but it was possible to build at that time. And now we can build things that they couldn’t build then, and so on and so on. So this is not what I call real, because in this sense, everything is real. In this sense, every project in these drawings is real, they can be built. If someone wanted to build them, it is possible.

"…actually, everything can be built."

IHA: They do it in Las Vegas.

AB: (laughs) They do it, they have money, they have the will to do it, so they do it. So what I call real architecture is simply just what is physically existing.

Alexander Brodsky: «Grey matter», installation, 1999. Feldman Gallery, New York. Photo: Richard Pare

Alexander Brodsky: «Grey matter», installation, 1999. Feldman Gallery, New York. Photo: Richard Pare

EBM: The way you describe the real, as something you can touch, reminds me of how I reacted when I first saw some of your drawings: They are really about some kind of bodily space. They are also about layers, about history, they have references – but they are disclosing and enclosing, they are showing and hiding things. This makes a dense and totally different space than what you can often see in architectural magazines, which is the clean space of the walls, floors and ceilings and the clean tables, unoccupied furniture and all those things. You seem to be trying to describe a different life. In your work in the Russian pavilion at the Venice biennale in 2006, you were reminding people of the life behind the walls. What kind of space would you say you are working with?

AB: When I just started thinking about architecture, there was one thing that was really important for me: When I was producing some space I was always trying to imagine the mood of the space. What the person will feel when he enters. That was the most important thing for me. I don’t know exactly how it influenced the architecture, but I was always thinking about the mood – was it sad, or scary, something like that. So when I was drawing, when I was trying to draw the space, this is what I was thinking about.

I have been waiting for more than 20 years to build, so I am still quite nervous about it. Dealing with clients, builders, all of that. But I still have a big hope that in the future, maybe soon, I will come to this other level where I have more time, when I can do these kinds of drawings for my projects. I really want to do that.

95o restaurant, Bukhta Radosky, 2000. Photo: Richard Pare

IHA: It doesn’t sound like you see the buildings you are doing now as a culmination of your work? The expectation that an architect should build is usually so enormous that it is very difficult for an architect to engage in other kinds of activities. So I am interested when you seem unhappy that your building activities are getting in the way of your drawing?

AB: In a way, yes. I miss the activity of drawing, just sitting and scratching with the needle… (laughs) So ideally, of course, I would like to do both things at the same time. To make drawings, to make etchings, to make sculptures, and build something also.

IHA: But you and Utkin have already accomplished something in this portfolio of drawing work?

AB: Yes, yes, but I still need to draw. Because the drawing, actually – and this is one of the most important things – as I understand it, the drawing has some mysterious quality that you can’t explain, that tells you something about the space… It tells you much, much more than the most perfect computer-based image.

I checked it many times, I was very much surprised myself. I sketched some interiors, for example, in the very beginning, when I just started doing buildings. I made a very rough drawing, because I didn’t have time to do precise things, I made a very rough sketch, and in the end, when everything was finished, I was really surprised to see how close it was to what I drew in the beginning.

EBM: What kind of mystery are you talking about?

AB: I think the drawing must have some kind of mythical, mysterious properties. Making a drawing is like making a door, which makes it possible to go inside. So I make a drawing and I see something new that I didn’t intend to make. And the drawing is the key to those moments.

"Making a drawing is like making a door, which makes it possible to go inside."

EBM: For me, you are explaining that in some way you are able to think through your drawing…

AB: Yes, exactly. That means – which sounds stupid, but is true – it means that when you draw, you hand makes more than you expected.

EBM: You think with your hands.

AB: Yes. The drawing can be a badly done perspective, with lots of mistakes, and still it is in the end much closer to the real thing than a very realistic computer rendering where the perspective and everything is perfect.

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin: "Ship of Fools or a Wooden Skyscraper for the Jolly Company", 1988-90. Etching, 74 x 55 cm. From "Comfort in the Metropolis", Sinkenchiku Competition 1989. Courtesy of Feldman Gallery, NY.

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin: "Glass Tower", 1984-90. Etching, 78 x 56 cm. From Central Glass Co. competition, 1984. Courtesy of Feldman Gallery, NY

Recently I had been invited to take part in an exhibition in Italy, and I suddenly found that there was a deadline for sending a proposal. So I was sitting, and I made a drawing, very fast, to send it off in time. And it was amazing, because I had this idea, which I didn’t think much about, and I made this drawing, and suddenly I saw: Oh, that could be a great thing! (laughs) And I thought I have to think more about that, because it really can be something important! So I was sitting and looking at this drawing that I just made, not because I liked the drawing very much, it was just a sketch, but I saw something that I didn’t expect. And that’s the main thing about drawing.

IHA: Does this have to do with the tools? With the blank sheet of paper? Because the paper has nothing – well, it has a texture, obviously, but essentially the paper has nothing. Whereas the drawing space of the computer, in most cases, is already a construction. So when you insert your coordinates and points and so on into a drawing program, you are using a kind of existing library of thought, which is already fixed around you. The only exception would be the programs that some architects are working with, that have form generation capabilities, where you may get some of the same feedback that you get from a drawing. But in general, perhaps the space of the computer is not empty enough? Whereas a blank piece of paper allows everything… What kind of paper do you use?

AB: Well, I use different kinds of paper, but I like tracing paper. The very thin, translucent paper. I use it a lot. I love it.

IHA: Pen? Or pencil?

AB: Well, I used to work with pen and ink for years, and I really love it. But in the last few years I haven’t had time, because the ink has to dry, you know… (laughs) I use pencil… I have this favourite, here (laughs and gets his pencil out)… This is really nice. 0.6 I think. This is a very nice pencil. I use it all the time.

"So I was sitting and looking at this drawing that I just made, not because I liked the drawing very much, it was just a sketch, but I saw something that I didn’t expect. And that’s the main thing about drawing."

But talking about the computer, there is something about computer drawing that depresses me and makes me a bit scared, because I know that everything inside the computer is already programmed by someone else. I also cannot play these computer games, because I know that whatever I do, someone really clever [laughs] has thought about this already. The hand drawing, however, is absolutely free and unpredictable.

EBM: I cannot forget all those lines in your drawings. The obvious pleasure of making a line. And there is something about connecting to the social dimension, connecting to history … How important is it for you to draw a kind of story? You talk about the mood of a space, but one also has this feeling of seeing a detective story in all these lines – you have the tension, you have the references, you have the different elements relating to each other… There are some traces of life that you can follow here.

AB: Yes. Some kind of literature. Narrative. When I started – actually it was funny – I was not sure about architecture. I mean, I loved Roman ruins and Piranesi, but modern architecture was something that I absolutely could not understand. That was a big problem for me. I couldn’t understand why I should like it. I just respected it, but I didn’t feel anything. But I was in school, I had to do something. So I drew a lot of people, inside and around the buildings, because I felt I had to do something nice. That was a pleasure for me.

Flowers, Brodsky's datcha. Photo: Richard Pare

I made some design projects, but I couldn’t really understand why it was nice or what made it bad or good, and that was really disturbing. So to be more relaxed and quiet I drew a lot of people, crowds of people, and some little stories inside these things which they said was architecture. I became well known amongst the students because of that. Nobody cared about the architecture itself, but there were a lot of funny little people in there.
To understand modern architecture, for me, took a lot of time. It took years. And only after that I could do something by myself.