Following the publication of Modern Architecture – A Critical History, Kenneth Frampton became a reference figure in international architectural discourse. In Scandinavia, his essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism” from 1983 has been particularly important, as it seemed to hold up the Nordic countries as examples of a locally rooted architecture.
But international legislation as well as an increasingly internationalised building industry has homogenised building construction, and national cultures are creaking at the seams trying to accommodate large immigrant populations. Is there such a thing as a national identity?
Ingerid Helsing Almaas and Einar Bjarki Malmquist met Kenneth Frampton in Oslo.
Ingerid Helsing Almaas: Let us start with the idea of place. The importance that for example Christian Norberg-Schulz, particularly in his later works, gives to the idea of Genius Loci, has had far-reaching consequences here in Norway. I would go so far as to say that a simplified interpretation of this idea is the foundation for what has actually now become part of our building legislation, namely the idea that the aesthetic quality of the built environment can be safeguarded by referring to local, traditional building forms. To put it bluntly, that you can build what you want as long as it has a pitched roof. One thing is the conserving effect that this has on the architecture of a small country, another thing is the political consequences of such an idea: Norberg-Schulz connects place very strongly to the definition of identity, personal as well as national. Norway has been at peace for over 50 years, we are an affluent nation. For the past couple of generations, the idea that where you come from defines who you are has not been very problematic. But you don’t have to look very far before this concept actually becomes deadly. Look at Serbs, Croats and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia for example.
Will this retrospective idea of place be able to adapt to the increasing movement of people, to globalisation? How could one develop an idea of place that made room for the diverging experiences of life that is the reality in most European countries today?
Kenneth Frampton: It is difficult to know where to begin. I think that when I moved to the United States in 1965, it “politicised” me, meaning that until I went to the United States, I was totally naive about power for example, and the relationship between power and money... I don’t know what I thought; but the United States makes certain things very clear. An English acquaintance said to me once, in a drunken evening: ”You have to understand, in England the claws are hidden, but in the United States the claws are visible.” And about the same time I read Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition, and there are some of the arguments of that book I will never recover from.
Part of The Human Condition is a commentary on the predicament of modernisation. When Modern Architecture – A Critical History was published in 1980, the Czech architectural theorist Dalibor Vesely recommended me an essay by Paul Ricoeur, ”Universal Civilisation and National Cultures”, which to a certain extent is a discussion about the identity of decolonialised nations, but which actually also speaks of the predicament that even the nations of the so-called first world find themselves in. Ricoeur defines universal civilisation as universal technology, whereas national cultures are something that you can think of as more emotional and rooted in language, poetry and everyday life. There is an uncomfortable relationship between these two things, a tension.
And in view of the way you introduced your problem here in Norway, I would say that one of the reactions, at a psychological level, to the modernisation of societies, is to deal with the problem of psychological security by trying to pretend nothing has happened. So if you think of American suburbs for example, what is the average American suburban house – or English for that matter – there is something about the form, the pitched roof and so on, which participate in the fiction that we are still agricultural people. People feel comfortable with this iconography. And one could argue that in order to sustain some kind of psychological security, ordinary people – and bureaucrats on the part of ordinary people – feel that it is necessary that these icons should be somehow sustained, even if it just means a pitched roof instead of a flat one, reducing the whole thing to one simple sign or figure.
This is why I think the most important architect of the 20th century, in terms of the 21st century, is still Alvar Aalto. Because I think he is one of the very few architects who have been able to build a model world, in a way, but at the same time to provide a certain level of security for ordinary people, through his use of form and material.
"There is something about the form of the average suburban housa, the pitched roof and so on, that participates in the fiction that we are still agricultural people."
Einar Bjarki Malmquist: In your essay “On Reading Heidegger” from 1974, you seem to be introducing another definition of place, based on tectonics and on the actual production, the making of a building. In terms of our discussion about the value of a sense of place, how would you speak about place differently?
KF: Well, in the last two or three years I have become more and more preoccupied with landscape, and with topography. Polemically, I am against the idea of the building as a freestanding object. And the question of place, then, becomes a question of how the built form is integrated with the ground, with the topos.
In terms of Gottfried Semper’s four basic elements of architecture: the hearth, the earthwork, the framework/roof, and the enclosing membrane, I think that the earthwork is fundamental, maybe more so than the roofwork. And it's curious in a way that the building regulations should put such an aesthetic emphasis on the roof, because the earthworks are more important, I think, from the point of view of place.
IHA: How does your interest in earthwork translate to an urban condition?
KF: It’s always present. We always have to put the building into the ground. And the question of how the ground is treated, and how you pass from the existing ground to the new ground of the building is always a very sensitive aspect. I think one of the tragic things about modernisation is that there is a very strong effort to turn building into a commodity. And of course the freestanding object is already moving towards its own commodification. The object that is integrated into the ground has the capacity to resist that commodification. And I think that would apply whether it’s inside the city or outside the city, although it can be more dramatic in a natural landscape.
Another important thing is the experience of the body. We live in a modern world, with its emphasis on images, of course, which has a tendency to make people rather insensitive to other aspects, but the experience of a building on a tactile level is perhaps even more important that the visual.
"One of the tragic things about modernisation is the strong effort to turn building into a commodity. But the object that is integrated into the ground has the capacity to resist that commodification."
IHA: Going back to that sense of security that was your explanation of our municipal guidelines... Is this common physical experience, the phenomenological level of architecture, a way to replace or develop this image of security that the pitched roof provides? Do you think that if this phenomenological level of experience was made more explicit, more available, that it could be a way for architects to communicate with the general public?
KF: I think so. I think one of the predicaments for architects today is the uncomfortable opposition between kitsch, on the one hand, and a kind of neo-avant-gardism on the other. In my opinion they are both negative. Neo-avant-gardism is like an endless striving for originality that affords no references to ordinary people. And on the other hand, reducing the laws of aesthetics into whether there’s a pitched roof or not, tends towards kitsch: You are just looking for the cheap signs that you can sell people. These positions are almost polar opposites.
And in schools of architecture this issue is never discussed. The problem is how to make housing, for example, which would be accessible to a generalised middle class identity and not be kitsch. And why middle class identity? Because all these people that we now talk about in terms of multi-culturalism, are ultimately – because of our mediatic society, because of modernisation, and because of television – they are programmed to become middle class. What else are they programmed to become? So even if the parents were born in Pakistan, the children aspire to be middle class Norwegians, if this is where they are. And then the problem for architects is: How can you create a middle class environment that is not kitsch? That is modern, but not kitsch?
"The problem for architects is: How can you create a middle class environment that is not kitsch? That is modern, but not kitsch?"
But it is one of the things of the modern world, that human beings are able to put up with a great deal of schizophrenia. In some areas of their life they want reassurance, in another area they want surprise. An average western living room contains both antiques and the latest in electronics. Humans are split figures… Which takes us back to the issue of security, because I think this split is at a subliminal level, that people are unconscious of this schism, and their search for reassurance is a way of overcoming it.
IHA: You think this schism is actually that uncomfortable to people? Are they not simply happy to live with it? Does the experience of holding a ceramic cup in one hand and a mobile phone in the other actually cause that much pain?
KF: Well, it is unconscious of course, but at a subliminal level I think people are looking for reassurance. If you think of – well, we’re of course getting into politics rather heavily here...
IHA: Yes, let’s get into politics.
KF: If you take the Oscars for example, and the business world of Hollywood... Well, it may be different here in Norway where at least some people are very wealthy...
IHA: In a global context, we are pretty much all very wealthy.
KF: Yes. But even here, when it comes to distribution if wealth, there are problems.
KF: But anyway, the Oscars and Hollywood provide dream worlds that enable people to suffer their difficult lives, or sustain themselves in relation to their difficulties. A very interesting writer, Thomas Frank, wrote a book after Bush was elected the second time, called What’s the matter with Kansas?. Kansas is a very impoverished state, yet they voted for the Republican Party. And why did these people vote for this party which is so manifestly the government of the super-rich – the Republican party pretends to care about other people, but it has no real interest. It’s really very tragic and ironic, and what does it mean? That this government really stands for the future of the United States?
EBM: Norway is a rich country where people are taken good care of by a highly developed welfare state… Couldn’t you imagine that this strong sense of public obligation would show in architecture? That it would at least affect the programming of architecture?
KF: Referring to my earlier point about reaching the middle class: It comes back to the same thing, the kitsch or the new avant-garde; at both extremes buildings are treated as trademarks. The spectacular buildings of Frank Gehry or Rem Kolhaas, the new avant-garde, or the kitsch of New Urbanism, for example. They are two poles. It is almost as though they are two functions, in late capitalist consumerist societies, as if these two ends of the scale are performing two different ideological roles.
It is not so easy to raise the consciousness in architecture schools about this, as long as you shy away from exposing the hidden political dimension. There is a tendency not to talk about such issues; it’s associated with a degree of discomfort.
IHA: It is strange how certain things are excluded from the common level of discourse – there’s sex of course, and money – but it is strange that the discussion of issues that have political implications seem to embarrass people.
KF: It is a kind of repression, unconsciously absorbed repression. What else is it? It’s as though people feel if the discussion goes in the direction of politics it will lead to conflict...
But it is not all a question of politics. I think the really complex work of architecture ought to have more than one level to it, ought to be able to deal with this question of reflecting a certain identity, without reducing things to just that. But the aesthetic regulations of the building code are by definition reductive. You have to have a pitched roof – you can do what the hell you like with the rest, but you have to have a pitched roof – that is by definition reductive.
IHA: But conceiving and realising this multi-levelled work or architecture – is that a question of personal talent? Or is there something you can do in schools of architecture that can give architecture in general a richer background of reference?
KF: I think there are things you can do in schools of architecture, but you have to really work at it. I think there is a lot of architectural theory today that has a somewhat obscurantist effect… And then there is the other theory that is ultra-technological, that would reduce things to the universal civilisation, to quote Ricoeur again. Typical of that is the current trend for digitalised draughting, and digitalised generation of form. A thought that occurs to me is that this is also an effort for part of architecture trying to legitimise itself on the back of technology, similar to the modular rationalised prefabricated production in the 1960’s for example. Technology is a way of legitimising the profession.
"Digitized draughting is an effort for part of architecture to try to legitimise itself on the back of technology – similar to the rationalised prefabricated production of the 1960’s."
IHA: Going on from Ricoeurs essay “Universal Civilisation and National Cultures”, you have often brought up the issue of resistance to a Universal Civilisation, and you quote Ricoeur saying that one of the resources a national culture needs is independent funds. A nation that is financially dependent on another nation will never be able to assert its own cultural identity. Norway is a very rich country, but I think it is up for discussion whether we are culturally assertive – the influence of Anglo-American culture, for example, is very obvious throughout the last half of the 20th century. The building industry, for example, is very standardised and dominated by internationally available products. And on the other hand, if you look at how Norway is marketed as a tourist product, for example, it is clear public culture has tended towards a very traditionalist image – kitsch, in your terms. Clearly, money is not enough. So what else do you need in order to resist universal pressures? There is always a temptation amongst architects to think that if you just have enough money, you can get quality in architecture. That if you can pay for polished plaster and solid brass and Japanese quality concrete, you will achieve tectonic quality. But what else does it take?
KF: A key word here is maximisation. I have increasingly felt that architecture has to face up to the question of sustainability, of ecology, of the embodied energy of building materials on one side, and on the other side there is this pressure of the maximisation of technology. But I think the very word maximisation is a problem. In the end, or course, it’s often a veil for maximisation of profit. There are many aspects to this; you could say maximisation of suburbanisation, even, is a problem.
IHA: So having enough is not enough?
KF: No, the question of our relationship to nature is, I think, fundamental. The attitude of the species, the attitude of the talking animal towards nature has always tended to the maximal exploitation of natural resources. But it is clear that nature is going to win this game in the end. It already is reacting.
"The attitude of the human species towards nature has always tended to the maximal exploitation of natural resources. But it is clear that nature is going to win this game in the end."
IHA: It’s interesting that you say that nature will win: Many environmentalists would say the opposite, that nature is losing, being destroyed.
KF: But of course. Nature is losing in a sense, but the human species will not do well when nature starts to react. And in that sense the earth will have the last word, let’s put it that way.
EBM: Many architects and engineers seem to hope that the future of sustainability rests in hi-tech technology, that more advanced, better systems will allow us to retain our level of consumption.
IHA: But you are arguing for a kind of cultural self-restraint?
KF: Yes, and for a more complex attitude towards nature, or towards the interface between nature and culture.
Technology is not enough. You cannot legislate one maximised solution – certain insulation criteria, thicknesses of windows, maximum glazing areas etc. – it may allow us to go on living and building the way we do, but as it’s based on a certain maximised technical solution it will become problematic.
Sometimes I say to students that building culture is anachronistic, and that’s its big strength. When you dig a hole in the ground, and when you put a building into that hole, there are no refined systems at play. The ground is a mess; you have to use wet material, concrete... It’s as primitive as putting a building into the ground during the Roman Empire. And I think that the coexistence of different technologies in architecture gives a message that certain techniques, very old techniques, are still available to us, you don’t necessarily only have to use the latest inventions. We are victims of an ideology of technology, as opposed to being able to choose, on cultural grounds, why one should use this solution and not that. Without excluding the advantages of refined technology, I think that one has to have a more discursive attitude towards the choices one makes in building.
"We are victims of an ideology of technology."
IHA: In several of your recent essays, you place a great deal of responsibility for architecture on the client. In Norway at least, architects often feel very alone in trying to fight for quality against the windmills of building finance for example. At the same time, current practice and contractual conditions have meant that the design and production of a building is actually a collaborative effort. Would a higher level of general public discourse on architecture and planning be an advantage?
KF: The paradox is that architecture gets more media exposure now than it used to get. The spectacular side of architecture gets a lot of attention. But I don’t have an answer to your question about public discourse. Perhaps it’s a question of the general level of education about the environment in general, and the built environment in particular. This ought to be part of national educational policy.
IHA: If you extended that imaginary architectural curriculum to take in the environment as a whole, rather than just the built environment, that could potentially ignite a completely different public interest in architecture. “Environment”, rather than ”built environment”, is a term that is already deeply rooted in public discourse. That angle could give architecture, and architects, a new and different public role, if they were willing and able to take it.
EBM: So the angle of the question is: Is there any mission left for architects in the modern world? Is your idea of resistance the architects’ mission?
KF: This also has a political dimension. Even if it might be somewhat quixotic, I’m someone who thinks that even though it was a totalitarian state, the collapse of the Soviet Union was some kind of a disaster. Not for the Russians, but because it meant the triumph of global capitalism.
IHA: Well, it means there are no alternatives left.
KF: No alternatives. There is no ”other”. I think that is very negative for the current historical situation. And perhaps only by stressing the complexity of things, the complexity of the relationship between nature and culture, can we move on from here. The question of the environment, is already becoming equally quixotic, in that there seems to be overwhelming evidence that if things don’t change in the next ten years, or five years even, the so-called tipping point will be reached; in which case, if one believes the scientists, the ice caps are going to melt, and the consequences are beyond belief. The water levels will rise, and a lot of coastal property will be under water.
And in that sense, with reference to our earlier points about ordinary people and the need for unconscious suppression of certain incongruent things, I think people really don’t want to know. The topic surfaces from time to time in the newspapers and so on, but no one knows what to do about it.
You think that at some point people will be forced to do something, even if it’s a bit late, and then maybe the political climate will change. Because the idea that one can go on consuming at the rate of today’s western societies is a fallacy. And perhaps some kind of collective awareness will eventually manifest itself. This is where architecture, if it had already developed the tools to deal with the problem at the necessary level of complexity, could really present an avant-garde.
The interview took place at the Grand Café in Oslo, Thursday 10 august 2006. Portrait of Kenneth Frampton by Cherish Rosas, courtesy of Ghost 13 International Architecture Conference: Ideas in Things, 2011.