Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Neil Denari
from the Curtain issue
Pataphysics: In relation to the Tower of London Project, why did you use the original function of the Tower to inform your design proposition?
Neil Denari: It's a compounding of the idea of context or the universal context. The project is driven by the sun at least in terms of automatic senses or the mechanical side of things. There is also a separate issue which has to do with the sun being this physical aspect which doesn't change culturally. Media and the electromagnetic wave (that's the reference of any kind of communications) became important. The Tower itself was built for refuge, then it became politically orientated in the ensuing centuries. I chose to deny what it is now as just some kind of container of artifacts - I'm sure London doesn't need another museum to attract American tourists. I thought it would be better to program it more in relation to the information on the TV screen. It's basically a question of extending the context once again.
P: Is restoring a building back to its original function (or the continuation of a function of a certain building) a general concern of yours or is it just something you chose for this specific project?
ND: No it's not a general concern. The criticism of the building from others as I was working on it was that it was dislocated. It was acknowledged to be a project that could exist anywhere. The sun in theory was the only context, so how could it be ground further into its place? Rather than changing the object formally it became an object which was connected by invisibility, that is, the media, and then the program had to be brought back into the original building to create the link between history. I'm interested in what kind of history went on there. The building was a jail, an arbitration hall, a place of refuge and now a museum. It makes you wonder about the vesselhood of buildings, of the possibility of buildings holding use.
P: Before you were talking about TV and its imagery. Do you find popular culture and its relationship to the general public very important in designing buildings?
ND: I find it very important. I don't watch the TV for entertainment, in fact I use it as a camera. I use it as a way to extract images which to me are important or in fact pure information. It's not a form of knowledge, it's just to obtain what I want - in that way it's my attempt to control or actually attack TV and delete various points. Usually I'm able to tie in or extract images which I normally couldn't get in the landscape. For instance, photographs of the inside of the car, or London itself - I'm not there, so it's a way to get me to that context. In that way it's important, but I don't lust after that technology that in my opinion is a loss, that represents a loss of form. The computer chip can contain so much information and has generated in theory the loss of form. It's a challenge for architects not to be consumed by miniaturization or that level of technology, but to still build and make form.
P: Where does the analogy with the machine begin and end? Is it just a matter of an image of the machine or does the function of the building take on certain aspects of the machine? You mentioned an apprehension about the machine and humanity. What is it that makes you apprehensive?
ND: As I said I wanted to cast into doubt our relation to things, not doubt my point of view - like are we in front of the machine or behind the machine? Is it driving us even though we make it? I'm interested in this enormous idea of need, and our need to make stuff. If a need doesn't arise then nothing occurs, but if there is some sort of need for the culture, not just one person, then something gets elevated to form. As architects, we need buildings, but what kind of buildings we're not sure about. In contemporary programs, to determine the need of the building is very important. In doing competitions nowadays they're leaving many kinds of things open to inform the need of the building. I'm fighting the idea that what I do is merely an aesthetic. There is a version of history, the legacy of constructivism, Corb etc. that has acknowledged the engineering aesthetic, that has acknowledged mass production etc. First of all I'm not about efficiency per se. The interface between nature and what we see as being humanity and the interface between the machine is obviously the point where this stuff meets. My contention is that nature is embodied in ideas that are not necessarily represented by the pastoral sense of nature or the garden. I don't see my work as the machine in the garden. It's a very contemporary idea hopefully, that we can control the making of technology, that it really signifies our will. The machine tells the level of our interest in making stuff more than anything.
P: The machine has become the reality or the representation has become the reality. It inserts itself between people and nature.
ND: Yes, it becomes a huge artifact between the reality and the simulated, or it's the device which can project.
P: We say now that we have seen the surface of the moon - we could all explain to someone what that looks like. We are seduced by the simulation.
ND: It only points out that there's so much abstraction between nature and our ability to perceive it. I agree with your point completely. The idea of nature, for instance the making of national parks says 'look here is x number of acres of forest that you can't touch, you can do anything you want outside of it, but you can't touch it.' We are having to make a concerted effort to resist our own loss of sensuality about stuff or being able to discern the tactility of things. We put one hand on the screen of something and it's cold, it's not real. You go to a park and there's a sign which says DON'T FEED THE BEARS because the bear has now trained itself to ask you for food and doesn't want to forage for it anymore. There's a distortion of everything which has to reflect back on us - in a way there's a great amount of fear generated by that. I'm ironically excited by the fear, and I try to drive the architecture to come to terms with it.
P: Those images have become so much a part of our reality that it's hard to divorce ourselves from them. A person doesn't actually work at something in the first-hand experience, they like it in this framed, known format of the image that they can understand.
ND: I think the best thing is to try and understand that it's not necessary to make some overall repair of this situation. Society is operating in a way in which our own compulsions are not necessarily leading to the erosion of experience. If we come to terms with it by saying that photographs are that cropped view of things and that they cut out the blur of our peripheral vision and that we have reduced our eyesight to a frame, then at that point we have to judge whether or not that's some sort of positive recognition of it despite the fact that it reduces experience because there's nothing but a sheet of paper with colors on it. The question of resistance is pretty evident. How much do we try to resist our own compulsions, our own ways of looking at things just for consumptive purposes? Architecture can respond to the contemporary situation and still resist things by making space, regardless of the things that surround it, that is, media and other kinds of things that reduce experience.
P: You said before that your view of nature was not the romantic view…
ND: The idea of nature that I have is a difficult one because it represents an obscure realm of nature. The nature that I'm talking about is occurring at more phenomenal levels. The idea of chaos, the idea of entropy, biological organisms having to actually use the chaos to live, and if they don't use the chaos they die. It's a form of, in biological terms, negative and positive entropy. I spent a lot of time reading natural and physical sciences, about those kinds of forces which are not naturally represented to our eyes or in the romantic or contained vision, like the national park. The Tower Project in London was also a suspension of a lot of other things to try to understand or to make a representation of contemporary physics. Speaking about the reversal of time or about black holes or will we be able to remember the future. The directionality of time has been a question for the last 150 years in physics. The building doesn't hope to get underneath that or answer any questions that they have. The project travels in one direction and is operated by the sun. If the sun were to die, or if time reversed, the machine will turn around and go in the other direction.
P: What do you consider for yourself to be the legacy of Archigram?
ND: Most of the ideas I've copied out of the history of architecture have been from the '60s. The thought that Archigram were twenty years ahead of their time (and this is not a point of total and reverential advocation of their work). They prefigured and were a part of trying to know what the future would look like. But the most devastatingly wrong thing about Archigram was their predicting of the future. Those absurdist and fictional overtones should be abolished from architecture. We should be thinking contemporarily to generate programs that change architecture, but not attempt to do it in drastic terms.
P: In your work you make many references to military technology…
ND: I'm not obsessed with military technology, but there's a kind of landscape of stuff out there - Los Angeles is the best example of that landscape. For instance LA has more high-tech corporations around it than anywhere in the USA. Jet propulsion laboratories, Caltex, Hughes, MacDonald-Douglas - they're all producing for the military, that's for certain - but also the landscape includes freeways, suburbs, beaches. It's kind of like the world has spread out. Also, forms of power, such as NASA, have been co-opted into the military with Star Wars - so that benevolent form of discovery has now basically been turned into a fear-inducing thing. Any level of thought or exploration has a sinister aspect to it. I don't revel in that, but instead I try to acknowledge it, as in the downside of looking at photographs instead of the real object. That's how I see the relationship to military technology - as an inevitable situation relative to all of us and certainly around LA. The Stealth Bomber is being produced 150 miles out in the desert - this big black airplane which makes no noise and you can't see it - it's spooky. We don't have missile silos out there but still it's kind of all around. Maybe it's just a way of identifying context.