MARK on Mark: An excerpt from an interview with Mark Cousins in MARK magazineInterview
by History and Critical Thinking MA Student Gili Merin
11 August 2017
Architectural Association, London
This article is an excerpt from an interview History & Critical Thinking MA student Gili Merin conducted in the March 2017 with the AA’s Head of History and Theory Mark Cousins. The full interview is now published in Mark Magazine issue #69 August-September 2017 pp 162-165.
GILI MERIN: As the head of the History and Theory studies at the AA, what is the nature of the bond between theory and practice?
MARK COUSINS: To many architects, architecture seems to be a weak discipline. Architecture always fantasises that an outsider is about to introduce the theoretical position that will finally stabilise architectural discourse – which of course it can’t. This was the case when I first joined the AA: I knew a lot about [Jacques] Derrida, [Gilles] Deleuze and other philosophers, but already back then I was a phase apart from the rest who quoted them so often, because I didn’t necessarily think – as much as I enjoyed reading them – that they had much to do with architecture. When architects became delighted reading Deleuze, I soon saw that they read it without it troubling their basic empiricism, and indeed they started to use a Deleuzian distinction between ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ as if these are ordinary words you use in architecture – which you don’t – and at this point it becomes pseudo-architectural babble. It is something that has become prevalent, and the fact that it is pandemic makes no difference: intellectually, it’s nonsense. Everyone, I think, is aware that there is something fake about it.
GM: How do you see the practice of writing as related to your work?
MC: The practice of writing, for me, is really subordinated to a certain individual practice of working, and I can’t describe that system of working without including lecturing. I don’t necessarily mean giving a lecture course according to a syllabus, but also my own lectures that I do both outside and inside the AA. Next year we will celebrate 30 years of my Friday-evening lectures at the school (though no one knows exactly when they began) and I shall convert these lectures, as I have always intended, into writing. I don’t share the enthusiasm of some people who think that each lecture series should become a book; I know that it is not all completely original and that over 30 years you are certainly guilty of repetition. There needs to be some savage editing, as I’m genuinely becoming prehistoric, and at some point, you begin to realise that you get up on Fridays and lecture because that is what you do. I’m always a little shocked when new students present themselves after the first lecture and say: ‘I was told to say hello from my parents who used to come to your lectures when they were students.’ I have become one of those fixed objects that have always been here.
GM: What are your working methods when preparing for these lectures?
MC: My system of working is related to why I don’t use a computer – simply because my system of working predates the computer. Fortunately or unfortunately, I developed a whole form of working before the rise of the digital, and in terms of book culture, I could hardly be called ‘efficient’. Nevertheless, I realised that I worked both in composing words and arguments at any time of the day or night – anywhere, hence my work was not directly connected to sitting at a desk, and my task then was to make sure I wrote down scraps of words and diagrams of ideas, so I don’t lose them. To this day I keep a notebook, which seems to suggest some homology with the architect’s sketchbook, although I think that what architecture students use their sketchbook for is often quite mysterious.
When my system of working came to be tested by giving and preparing the lectures, I soon found myself in a somewhat bizarre cycle of working over the year. This is going to sound ludicrously random: in the spring, I need to fantasise – or dream, which I have done frequently – of what I want to talk about the following fall. I trust my intuition because I find that quite often even in a topic that sounds quite odd, I have conjured it out of the air – the same air that other people breathe. Normally you would think, for example, this year’s topic of ‘miracles’ would be esoteric and weird – especially in an architecture school – and yet
the moment I start saying it people seem to not just approve of it, but also get it and get why I want to think about this strange thing now. A past topic was ‘angels’, which had the same eerie feeling; especially if you consider the rise of the digital – as angels were a mode of communication, inhabiting a pre-modern cyberspace. Another topic for a series was the ‘ugly’, which was really about having a quasi- positive attitude towards the ugly.
Fortunately, nobody at the AA questions the relevance of these topics to contemporary architecture. Once I think of the topic, I get into the London Library and start working bibliographically, assembling things that I think I must read, and by the end of the summer, I have a list of lecture titles. Then I spend the week before a lecture thinking about it all the time that I can – which is much more than you think, because when you work as I do, you are never not-working. It may be a question of thinking out an argument, it may be just thinking of words. I make it an internal rule to make sure that I have worked it out in my mind sufficiently, so that when I deliver the lecture I don’t need notes, but I’m relying on a text that’s in my head. Perhaps the reason I do not use a word processor is that, in a sense, I am one.
For more information:
Mark Magazine website
History and Theory at the AA
Gili Merin website
Mark Cousins Friday Evening Lectures