Interview with Peter Märkli
|Peter Märkli, fot. Betts Project / Marie Coulon / London|
Fundamentally you can say that in our office we do the work we can, that is to say not as an image, but with how many people can we realize the work the way we imagine it. This means we never work with many people but always with around ten or twelve in order to be able to look at a plan, not only as a concept, but by working thoroughly on architectural details to the level of the construction, the construction locally also reflects the urban planning and the plan itself, we need the time to intensively work on these questions. We live in a time where building-physics and related discussions have gotten such a big impact on buildings, that it is no longer as it was in the time of the modern-classics in the sixties but it is neither like it was in the time of Palladio, those are exceptional conditions to us now, the buildings and the task for the craftsman were more simple. Palladio did not have storage rooms or toilets in a house. Today we have to deal with all these questions, for example in housing projects and we no longer construct from the inside to the outside and from the outside to the inside but we have a rupture over here. And when we don’t want to lose architecture or more specifically the art of building then we have to accept these things. At the moment Europe is filled with building physics of glass buildings, they are easy to design and to construct but they are of no interest to the public space because they lack the sensuality, shape and attention to details the eye needs in order for them to be more than a simple shell and to bring quality to the public space.
The first decision I made in my profession was actually not a decision, I just wanted to learn this profession. I went to secondary school and in secondary school I learned about language. At primary school in the first grade you got detention if you wrote the letter A like this, (pokazuje przekręcone A) you were forced to write it this way and to call it an A and not a B. With time and years later in secondary school you were even able to read real literature, I still don’t know if I really understood it but you did read it and in opposition to a concrete sentence like: “I would like this bread, a kilo of white bread.” You could even express an emotion. Then you start this profession of an architect, and again you start from zero. I did not have any information regarding my profession that is to say that the organ with which I perceive my profession: the eye, was not formed. So I started at zero, I did not care, but I really started at zero. I did not know about colors, I knew red and blue existed but what to do with them in my profession? And I did not own the language that meant I had to start completely at the bottom, with help of other older friends and with help of the university I slowly began to understand what was important. That meant that I was able to understand simple buildings from every period, only the really simple ones.
For individual languages like for example those of Mies or Le Corbusier I first had to take lots of small steps in order to be able to understand them, I saw them but I did not understand them. This second point, this is about architectural language, but you have to position yourself as a person in a society you cannot just produce beauty on its own, you have to develop and hold on to an attitude towards society and towards the future. This is why when I began to study this language, to really distinguish and notice certain elements I always specifically looked for things that allowed the presence of neighbouring buildings but that never limited an expression, I learned that from history, in every period it was possible to project an own feeling of life and still create neighbourhoods, you have to understand that. I rejected all the languages that were too individual. This meant for me that when an architect, that was once the case, chose a circle as a basic form for a single family house and then conceived it with a variety of arbitrary individualities, that did not count for me, I found it to be formalistic and without real content. So you can understand which languages I don’t except and which I do except. This is nowadays our main problem and that is what you have to teach young people: that language is not arbitrary. That is very important. And when for example Daniel Libeskind develops an extraordinary and specific language for the Jewish Museum then this is an exception to the rule, when afterwards he applies the same principle in Bern to a shopping-centre, this leads to a crisis. I’m not saying this is better than that, I am saying you have to consider the precision and the arbitrary of a language, the media or people who don’t understand what they are talking about have a tendency to call everything original. This is the situation we are in. Our task for the future is to continue building within what is already there, and not to build whole new neighbourhoods and to dictate the way a city should look, that doesn’t work. One has to develop good criteria and for these kinds of questions one also needs time. When I come back to the subject of education the first thing to establish is that the environment of these young people in society becomes more secluded as a result of failing discussions in politics and the prognoses for the future. The first step would be to try to offer them a lead to open the world simply by asking: is it a commonplace that you are expressing or is it your own decision? You can bring these things under their attention I find this important next to specific education of the profession. I find it important as I always remember with how little I started my education to become an architect at the ETH. This is why I only ask of them, how shall I put this, that they claim what they have in this area. (pokazuje klatę / serce) The education is still at its beginning but the emotion is already there also for youngsters. That is the profit, no not the profit, but it is what you have, you actually haven’t contributed much yourself you simply have to open it. You have to combine this emotional intelligence with the ratio but your emotional intelligence is simply there. You have to open it in order to prevent young people to be tempted to just look at their position in the present and to think: “somebody on the other side of the world suddenly produced this overnight and now I have to produce the latest thing.” That leads to a total crisis. They have to figure out what the future means to them, or to you, and what do we want to achieve in the future? Maybe this means that there will be a rupture with the present or a conflict with the present who knows, but you have to allow that otherwise nothing would happen. This is a part …I’m telling you this because you asked a question about education, this is a part that situates the individual in a social context, the second part is about the specifics of the profession, where you can talk very precisely about things, I think our profession has a similar precision as professions in physics or natural science. The difference, I always give this example, perhaps wrongly, a comparison to painting the painter in the tradition of classical painting could always choose a size for his image and create a frame, within this reach lay his universe, in museums you can see the different universes next to each other, the frames separates them. We as architects work collectively in a context, to the landscape, to neighbouring buildings in the city, we don’t have the frame, that is the main difference to me.
Because our profession has certain specifics, and I understand something about sculpture, about painting, maybe a bit about movies and I can read books they can all help me in my profession. Lots of these disciplines use visual references, I have too little understanding of conceptual art but I principally think that all these professions are certainly no gift from God, like the mountains or the pine tree, or the sea by you in Holland, humans created these in order to be able to communicate with each other. In other words you need conventions, no privatization. When I would privatize my language right now at this moment you would be cut off. I would just be doing something that nobody could understand. All these artistic professions are created by humans so they can express certain things, and painting and architecture belong to those professions. You don’t have to only speak with words you can also speak with buildings or with a painting or you can write. For me it is only partly true that there are different disciplines, maybe more so in recent times, but the bases of all these professions are similar. It is your talent, gift, or what you cannot do that determines your choice for the one and not the other. For example, I find it difficult to mix colors and to draw people, that means that even if I felt a great affinity I couldn’t do it the way I should. I love abstract lines, just the line, so I choose a profession that fits that, in any case it is impossible for me to play music, I find it too difficult to do with one hand this and with the other that, I can’t manage that. You have to decide: this is the language that fits me.
When I was very young and unexperienced in Zurich I had the luck that my physics teacher, although I was very bad at it, was a broad-minded man he send me to Rudolf Olgiati (architect) and told me I should have a look there, he would like to study architecture himself. And then I saw in Zurich the work of Josephson (sculptor) in the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in an article from Paul Nizon that appealed to me. In the end I had Rudolf Olgiati, Josephson and the ETH, they were a lot older, and they taught me so much that it wasn’t even possible to take it all in, but I learned a lot. This liberated me from lots of things. With a certain house I had two reliefs in my head, I created the pillars and remeasured the reliefs which were wider than the pillars, and at that time I was still so restricted that I thought that the architectural pillar had to be just as wide as the relief, that meant I had to change the whole proportion of the house the 1/50 plans were already made, so I had to correct all the numbers. After a lot of drawings and with time I realized that the sculpture and architectural element did not have to be identical, that you can just suggest something, that is what makes it exciting and it gets all the more richer because of it.
In Switzerland we have a magazine called Werk, Bauen und Wohnen and when you look at a copy from the magazine that dates from just after the war the disciplines, the professions I spoke about: architecture, sculpture, graphics, painting, applied arts are all equally represented in the magazine and today it is just about architecture and that is the mistake. Architects form themselves only by buildings, and I learned so much from painting and from sculpture that I can transfer to buildings. For quite a long time I looked at a painting by Matisse that was made in a very conventional way representing a room with a window here, the model there and the painter here, with a floor, a wall, an opening for the window and a ceiling. The image of the room was conventional, I looked at it for about ten times and it was perhaps the tenth time that I really understood something. It was because of the black color near the window at the spot where the light is usually the strongest, he applied the black color like the effect of backlight, when you look in the light and it gets dark, as one knew it was light usually bright colors were applied, but he painted what he saw. And he continued the black color from the floor without interruption, over the window construction and on the wall. He did the same with his tapestry paintings where the ornaments from the tapestry continue on the wall. From the moment you understand this, the room is still the same room for me but I now sometimes use materials meant for the floor on the wall and that brought me a tremendous freedom in the materialization. The room and the proportions are limited but if you know how you can create such effects there are endless and incredibly fresh spatial impressions. I did not learn that from architecture.
One of the few that still demonstrates pragmatic architecture to us is Palladio, he does not mainly interest me because of his place in art history, that also of course, but more so because of his wonderfully economical way of building, as well with the choice of his materials as in his architecture. Because he did not build all the elements, he influenced the eye, he made notes in a way the eye automatically fills in the usual elements that are supposed to be there and that is of course economical, his buildings were not for the richest people. That is important. Classicism with its closed character does not have an influence on me. Palladio was an extraordinary architect and intelligent in my opinion, very intelligent and pragmatic. I find this great, really. This is something you have to explain to young people, that is obvious. But you start at the beginning with these young people.
I think this goes the same for us as for mathematics, by just accepting forms, by just accepting natural science has a valid insight, you ignore how many times they had to change so called facts. To think you know how things are is the death of everything that is new, refreshing and productive. You need an education to get a better understanding of things but you have to ask questions like’ how’ and ‘why’, that is very important.
To come back to your questions about young students and how you can teach them … In my experience there is very little general knowledge at the moment in Switzerland, there are very few people that go back in history … Or let me put it this way. I can explain my own situation I orientate and form myself in history, everything I put here and in my drawings is for the future and I often even don’t know how many hours of the day I am actually in the present. The present is for me my work at the university but that time is restricted so how much time am I totally in the present?
In the world at the moment it is the case that everybody that does something, that makes a discovery, I find this wrong, presumes he is the first. You have to break that tendency. The great thing of some knowledge of history is that you can choose your friends there wether or not they are dead, you can orientate yourself there. On the subject of creating there is this nice little book from Gertrude Stein: What are masterpieces? In this book she cites a statement from Picasso, who says, he does not always know who has influence on him but the main thing is that he does not influence himself. Nowadays people do not mention their sources anymore, they do not speak of their influences and that is the first misfortune, because you cannot continue that. Science is just as corrupt, the affairs in Germany showed that with these politicians with doctor titles that had to step down, today this is all corrupted. I find it so corrupt, so much paper saying so little. Every scientific paper that is in fact one work is divided by four in order to be able to say at the end that one has four publications instead of one. Four publications means that you get your chair at university which you wouldn’t get with one work and never none. That would be my first recommendation, I would never count publications but I would always just look at the content of the person you would engage. The quantity interests nobody.
This kind of autonomy and civil courage and an independent way of thinking, it is vital for us to win that back, otherwise we are just judging ourselves, continuously producing publications, computers are stacked with all these magazine publication. This is so against life. We should liberate ourselves from that, we are either interested in something or not.
A design for a building is about the structure and the proportion of the structure, when I take a month to calculate all these proportions for the entire building and when I study that within a reach of about five and ten centimetres, do you think that the TU would tell me that I am not allowed to do that? I am completely free to do that. That is not a question of money. This provides me with stability and even if a little mistake occurs during the building process things won’t fall apart. But if you say a joint has to be a centimetre wide during a hundred meters and if that isn’t the case I will tear it down, then you are lost. That has nothing to do with an artistic expression. If you can think in a hierarchical way, the advantage is that you can see the way buildings can adapt life and can adapt imperfections, and that their quality is still completely dependent on something that lays in the hand of the architect. The contact with young people should also be based on that. If I could make a recommendation to a university, I would like to see design as a main subject together of course with strongly related subjects like urban planning and construction, and then only the history of civilization, where you communicate that the palaces in Genoa exist not because an architect decided to build one, but because the people of Genoa at a certain period in Italy and in the whole of Europe, made money in the trade with Spain and France and that is why they build these palaces. This is also the case for Palladio’s buildings or for St Peters Basilica, there is always a social motive, a compelling need to show that you live in a different time, wanting to direct people towards the present, towards the worldly and like the sudden break through these vertical lines of the medieval city with the horizontal lines of streets that was not an aesthetic decision of some king, that was an expression of a feeling of life. With buildings, with paintings, with music and so on you always express a feeling of life. You can only do that if you allow it to happen. You have to admit a certain sensuality and realize that life is not a business.
I would never reach for the perfect, there are just approximations to the things we want to achieve and that is what keeps us going, otherwise we would just lay in bed and eat and say we have made it. I would accept the fact that you never quite reach what you aim for and that life is more complex than that, but not out of principle, something has to feel right. That is why a young person can build a great story out of only three things if he can sense it for a hundred percent, there can still be mistakes but who cares about them when on the whole something is right. But when something is created out of fear or commercial grounds or ease, when on the whole something is nothing it is dreadful but a mistake is never dreadful, the mistake is connected to something that is more complex. Contradiction in art is considered as a positive thing, I learned that from Goethe and not from the ETH, at first I didn’t understand it, in his book about Italian Journey he describes his appreciation for the Renaissance buildings he saw, he talks about Palladio, but he was not the first to do so, he simply stated that it was a contradiction that as the base for a building, a house, Palladio chose a maximal open structure with pillars, then he filled the open space with a wall because he needed the protection and then made an opening in this wall again, all together that is extremely contradictory. But the way Palladio made it was wonderful. That is what counts. This is the way lots of things are created.
We also have to talk about this new drawing tool: the computer. You have to emphasize that this is a drawing tool and not a replacement for life or fantasy. A pencil and a sheet are incredibly economical, quick and provisional and when under different circumstances, like when you find yourself in the tramway or in a café, or in bed, a computer is not always at hand, you wouldn’t be able to work then. I always want to see drawings, there is nothing better, it allows us to draw morphological landscapes with very few lines that already show the shape, that should not be forgotten. This is one point and the other is that the experience with students has a different nature, it gives me most pleasure when you are able to reach someone and you can see that suddenly something happens, that can sometimes be provoked by simply looking at their sketches and by asking: “Why didn’t you see that, you made the sketch yourself after all?” then all of a sudden they have this kind of revelation that can at once bring them to another level. When I work with students I speak about a lot of various things for them to take in, not so they understand it all , but memory works in a way that when somebody is interested it stays in their head and after four years of study they remember: “Ah! He said that once, now I understand!” It has to be planted first then it can come out at a certain point, but that is a slow process that goes step by step. I don’t like to be presented with these smooth projects that emit: ‘the world is right in my eyes’. I much prefer projects that are a bit awkward and have some mistakes but that are really about something, that are risky, and pose questions, take a risk. I also had intelligent students that said to me: “It is not possible that I got such a good mark.” And I told them “Yes it is, the mistake became clear.” That meant the level had to be high in order for the mistake to become crystal clear, it was a mistake at a high level and it is great when that happens.
The designing process works in a way that you start with a sketch. At the beginning of my study I found that difficult, you start with a measuring device, with the indication of milimeters, and I asked the assistant where I had to begin as I found it possible to make four or five lines I did not now how to create the measure. At that time the ETH was a bit absent, it was orientated on politics and semantics, but lots of things were not addressed. One of the answers was that you simply had to take a brick and not break it, than I said what kind of a morale is that? That doesn’t interest me, you can just make them smaller. Anyhow I did not get an answer and I decided to study proportion next to my education. Because it always made me nervous when you had to make arbitrary decisions as if there were endless variations, I looked for the exact values. With time I found out about the Golden Ratio, the Triangulum, and a figure of Da Vinci in this circle, that made me put my own arms in the corner and the circle passes through the corner, I looked closely at these things, sometimes I make these kind of presentations for students with drawings of proportions, these are mine, with time I established that this figure here, it just serves as a tool, if the circle passes these points and touches them, you have to construct it this way, perpendicular bisector, diagonal bisector, then the centre is here and the intersection there, and I noticed that in this simple basic figure that the Triangulum and the Golden Ratio are both there to the millimetre. There were art publications, or studies that either concentrated on the Golden Ratio or on the Triangulum. I found this simple basic figure, I decided to take these two essential, or two important proportions as a base and I calculated everything, this was years later, and realized they consisted of eights, the Golden Ratio of five eights and the Triangulum of seven eights. When we work at our office and somebody is new they first have to learn that you have to create eights, sixteenths, thirty-twos, sixty-fourths, fundamentally values that are, you find out when you make small steps, only divided by even numbers. And when you have established a base with the right proportions, an employee is able, providing he works disciplined and in steps, to derive the right measures for doors and things like that. That means that when we work together you don’t have all these different worlds that eclectically come together in a building, but there is more or less a unity. And with this key you always get the right measure. This is why I would actually be perfect for the computer although I don’t know how to use it, but I can always put forward exact values. Without this small calculation and this measuring system I could only give you design sketches, but I would not be able to build a house, because I wouldn’t know if I should use one seventy-five point five or one seventy-six … and we have hundreds of numbers on our plans. That means that when we are working on a new project I always look for a basic size, that can be the height, the length or the depth, I need something … that costs a lot of time, in these days where we have all these conditions, and it is no longer the way it was for Palladio, we have to deal with building regulations and small construction sites. When you have found the basic size you can finish it, you can base the measurements of the building on it, that is the hierarchical element, in my opinion money does not play a role. I can realize it with very minimal means but I can also realize it with expensive materials, but the essence is always there. When you design an ordinary house without the right proportions and you cover it with gold than I find that it to be one of the most tragic things I know in this world. This is what determines the hierarchy. This here is wonderful (pokazuje rysunki proporcji) not as a design but as a tool, as we communicate with numbers.
This is not only two-dimensional?
No, this is a facade, we make these pencil drawings, always using these lines, but you can never create shadows and you can never draw the material when you are dealing with the measures, the simple naked line has to have the effect that you can feel this is going to be a good house.
Interview by Jan Schevers, Bas Schevers, Esther Schevers, Heleen Herrenberg; Technical University of Eindhoven, 2011;
Transcript by Tomasz Sachanowicz