AA PhD candidate Stefan Cristian Popa interviews architect Dan Coma of ICARCH about the series of ‘A House for…’ competitions he has organised . This interview is an invitation for the AA community to enter the current competition, responding architecturally to the memory of David Bowie.


One day not long ago, I went to meet a friend and mentor at the ‘Ion Mincu School of Architecture and Urbanism in Bucharest.’ But he wasn’t there. The door to his office was closed. But another door opened. Dan Coma was waiting in front of the closed door… Without any further introduction, here are the answers to the questions I posed to Dan about his work at ICARCH, International Competitions in Architecture. I hope they speak for themselves about the erudition, sincerity, passion and creativity of a man that practiced architecture in the most varied environments: from Rome under Paolo Portoghesi, all the way to New York where he became friends with Lebbeus Woods.


A House for Anubis by Alex Flint & David Shanks

A House for Anubis by Alex Flint & David Shanks

To begin with, how did the idea of the ICARCH competitions occur to you? It seems like the competitions all have something in common, yet are clearly distinguishable from one another. Why the recurrent title: ‘A house for…’? What does the notion of ‘the house’ signify to you?

I always had, somehow, a more intense interest in “fictional” characters than in the “real” ones… this is why when I was in my 20s I designed A House for Hamlet and A House for The Brothers Karamazov… among others… and I remember Gaston Bachelard saying that the mollusc does not build a house to live in, but it lives to build its house… that is, the house is the expression of a consummated life, of an EARNED life, as I like to put it… it is the sum product of a biography… it tells a story… essentially it is a quest for a narrative architecture… after all, what does Fallingwater say about its inhabitant, Mr. Kaufmann…? Almost nothing, except that he chose Mr. Wright to build it. And what does Villa Savoye say about the Savoye family…? Not much, except that they commissioned Le Corbusier to conceive it. But a house that expresses the life and specificities of its inhabitant is richer… and not only on a psychological level.

I started to launch the A HOUSE FOR… competitions with A HOUSE FOR ALBRECHT DURER, when an exhibition with his engravings took place at the Bruckenthal Museum in Sibiu, Romania. And because I love Durer. So I launched it, and we received some beautiful entries.


A house for Lady Gaga by Dustin Stoll

A house for Lady Gaga by Dustin Stoll

We will soon touch on your intense passion for architecture, a key component of your work. But before that, let us clarify another point: I find it interesting that you do not impose a specific format on the entries. Is this lack of normative constraints a manifestation of freedom of expression understood in the most literal way?

I use the word “house” in the most generic sense… in a way, all buildings are “houses”… a bank is the house of money, a church is the house of god, a home is the house of man… perhaps I am an essentialist, although Kenneth Frampton described me once as an existentialist.

Why “ANY works, ANY size, ANY format…?” I fluctuate… but I am polemic against the excessive descriptiveness and thus restrictiveness of today’s world… giving “total freedom,” I expect unexpected responses. I like to be surprised. I also try to avoid “the tyranny of numbers”… there are too many numbers, I feel, in today’s world. And too much so-called “objectivity”… too much “reason”, and too much “cerebrality.”


Left: A House for Pink Floyd by Javier Caceres Right: A House for Pink Floyd by Jack Fanning & Bob Trempe

Left: A House for Pink Floyd by Javier Caceres
Right: A House for Pink Floyd by Jack Fanning & Bob Trempe


While I dislike systems, both the word and its meaning, I probably have a “system” too… inasmuch as Hamlet had one too, when he said: “I am but mad north-north-west…”

And talking about Hamlet, maybe we should remember that Jean-Luc Godard, in one of his films poses the question, through the dialogue between two physicists: what makes the castle in Elsinore a special building…? And one of them says: it is the fact that Hamlet lived there, otherwise Elsinore would have been a banal castle. Indeed, we underestimate the value of the inhabitant, and if we could somehow express more intimately the characteristics of that someone within the architecture we build, our buildings might begin “to talk,” if not yet to sing, as Eupalinos required of any architecture worthy of its name, that is: architecture.


I feel like the brief for each competition is written in the tone of a manifesto. Is there any relationship between the concept of competitions and the manifestation of subjective ideas embedded in a manifesto? And again, why the recurrent use of punctuation marks? Is orthographic expressiveness a symptom of your passion for architecture?

The manifestos… I don’t know… this is how I write… and I know it is not very common for architects to express themselves in this way… But I have to say that I agree with Ingmar Bergman when he said that we are all emotional illiterates. If I try anything, it is to bring back emotion to architecture, not only in the way we conceive of it, but also in how we verbalise about it.

If you read texts written by important architects, you notice that they avoid certain words, like “system”, for example… and they use a more passionate language… yes, you can tell they talk from the heart… from love… even Mozart, I just read, said: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together, go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” Stressing love, he stressed EMOTION, above imagination and above intelligence, although, of course, they continue to exist, perhaps even within emotion, as they are all intertwined to a certain degree.

We use the word ‘brainstorm’  these days, although as far as I know it is not actually the ‘brain’ that storms, or it is stormed, but by the heart. Then, why not the word ‘heartstorm…?’


A House for Bruno Taut by Hannah Durham

A House for Bruno Taut by Hannah Durham

We value both Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, but both architects made it quite clear that the heart comes first, and only afterwards the brain… we should remember this, I think, as often as possible.

How else will we bring back passion, true passion, to architecture…?

The aspect of being “manifestos” derives, perhaps, from the fact that I also try to “philosophise with a hammer,” so to speak, to quote Nietzsche… and perhaps the occasional multitude of question marks and exclamation marks are my “hammer”… But again, I only sometimes use them… why…? Because I feel it is right… of course I am subjective… but this is how I feel, in my attempt to “break” the artificiality and almost unavoidable sterility of the digital world… I don’t know if I would still use as many if I wrote by hand… probably not…


Staying in the realm of the subjective, could you highlight a favourite competition? Or perhaps a favourite project you received for one of the calls for submissions?

My favourite competition is the one I didn’t yet launch… but the truth is that I wrote at least three / four times more invitational texts for possible competitions than those published… I call them “unsent letters to society.”

They are and they aren’t “competitions”… I might use a paradoxical way to express myself, or an oxymoron: “cooperative competitions”… they try to “change the world”, to better the world… and to create a new / old consciousness, if I can say so.

Many competitions launched by ICARCH are meant as celebrations, as homages to important cultural achievements. They refer to memory, in an attempt to resist forgetfulness. They are also guiding marks within a culture ravished, I feel, by too much sensationalism, ephemerality and irrelevance. A House for Fellini, or Bach, or Nietzsche, for example, can teach us fruitful lessons about possible relationships between architecture and other cultural fields. The competitions launched by ICARCH are about multi-disciplinarity, in a quest for integration and cultural synthesis.


The House of War by Geraldine Li

The House of War by Geraldine Li

There are still many things to say, and I hope there will be other occasions to expand on the totality of your work. In the end, could you please share with us your motivation to launch the competition ‘A house for David Bowie’?

The current competition is A HOUSE FOR DAVID BOWIE, who just left us, although his music didn’t. Through this competition we try to draw a relationship, again, between architecture and music (sister arts, traditionally) and to continue Bowie’s legacy through our own work. We feel that by way of commemorating and paying homage to him, we prolong his life, diluting thus the frontier between life and death. Plus, by commemorating him, we have a chance to stir up that “David Bowie” within ourselves. Thus, on the spiral of time, what we call “past, present and future” are intertwined and connected in an organic embrace.


For more information:

Visit the ICARCH website

Enter the current A House for David Bowie competition

Main image caption: Architecture and Alchemy by Steven Westcott