THE PLACE OF PAPER (originally published in AArchitecture 21)Interview
AA 2nd Year Buster Rönngren interviews Alexander Brodsky, in an attempt to orientate paper architecture in the present
10 February 2014
Architectural Association, London
‘Local? I have never thought about it that way. Paper is a material, different from stone.’ – Alexander Brodsky
Once the unmoved mover of the phenomenon of paper architecture in 1970s Moscow, Alexander Brodsky worked alongside Ilya Utkin, creating etchings of potentially better places, seeing paper architecture as presenting another possibility to the uniformity of the sanctioned architecture of the Soviet city. Under the authoritarian state, Brodsky opted to stay on paper, drawing, as if the project was an antonym. Today, the architect, who in the 1980s worked as sculptor of objects and site-specific installations in New York, continues to address his practice, in a now-liberated nation that once hired no architects. (Well, architects didn’t have names in the first place, other than the mark of the state, to sign the documents of building.)
On the topic of paper, Brodsky is at variance with the attempt to relate paper to matters concerning commonplaces. From topos (a place), a paper is linked to the term topic, at most, in the sense of determining the evidence of a place.There is perhaps no topographical agenda in the material itself, for right reasons. ‘It means that it exists only as an idea,’ explained Brodsky during our interview. ‘Even if a project is not a critical piece of paper, but exists in the computer, it can still be called paper architecture.’
Where do you draw the line between paper architecture and built form; is there a distinction between idea and architecture?
For me personally, paper as a material is an important part of the whole thing. This has nothing to do with paper architecture as a movement or whatever, but it somehow worked with it at that time. It was paper architecture as an idea, and paper architecture on a real piece of paper…From the moment a structure is built it becomes a real thing and it stops being paper architecture. Before the realisation of the building is the border between what I am drawing and what I am building. I am always trying to destroy this border. When I think about the old paper projects, theoretically many of them, let’s say all, could be built. But, nobody wanted to build them at the time, so they remained on paper.
When there is no authorship to find behind building, paper architecture can be seen as a reaction: writing the name of a place before there is an actual place to go to. The reason for paper architecture is, in this sense, not about informing the unseen reality, depicting unrealistic places, but about envisioning real places where one is not allowed to go. Acknowledging that state buildings in 1970s London carry signatures of different architects, although initiated as projects on paper, the reaction came from a retroactive elsewhere.
Brodsky working with paper
With regard to the the material, are there specific types of paper that you prefer or find useful in your work?
For a long time, in this country and city, there was a restricted amount of material. I used what I could get. For instance, producing a master print for a project back in the 80s, there was only one type of etching paper available. And even this etching paper was rare at times. If there was a store supply, you would ask for five metres at once. When I first came to New York though, there was an idea to print an edition of our etchings. At the print shop, they asked about what type of paper I had in mind for the publication. At that time I couldn’t reply since I only knew of one type. So I was taken to an art store for reference. 150 different types of etching paper, I didn’t know what to say, I wanted to use all of them. A man explained to me that ‘these ten types are German, and these are Italian, and these are French’, and so forth. Initially the difference between them was only a question of origin, but after some time, I could say I liked the texture of a certain type, no matter where it was from.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation when paper proves insufficient to express an idea, that the medium is too narrow?
Every project begins with a piece of paper. Even if the end product is an installation or sculpture, it is a continuation from a pencil sketch. Paper exists in everything I do, it is the very beginning. When I seek what can be done with a specific piece of paper, I sometimes find that it is too beautiful to do anything with it. The sad thing is that I have a lot of paper that I never used because I somehow don’t dare to. I have some amount of paper that came from my father. Some of this paper is from when he was a student in the 40s, really old paper that he got somewhere, but never used himself. He gave it to me many years ago, and I still haven’t used it. It is strange, but sometimes I look at it and I think, no, I am not ready to take a pencil to draw the line.
Although the AA is based in London, it is not an institution of the city as such. At a place where creative people are motivated, have a kind of sovereignty, what is there to respond to? In this laboratory environment, what is the relevance of paper architecture, traditionally a form a retreat or defiance? In fact, where acknowledged authorship merely exists in building and where drawings are not even signed, the reverse of paper architecture is true. Projects in this visionary category at the AA, tend to lack an opposition, simply becoming a thing of the school. Perhaps the reaction can only come from building in 1:1.
May I add a comment on this? (Brodsky’s colleague, Kiril Ass, states further) We grew up in a time when paper was the main medium for producing any kind of ideas, to affix any type of idea. If we take it, not as a presentation method, but as a thinking method, paper is as efficient as talking. Even if you speak in another language, you will still speak better in your mother tongue. This is possibly why this question of relevance is not rising in our own business. We are simply used to do it like this. If you are relating paper architecture to a school project then it is a completely different thing.
Admitting that there was no agenda in paper, no political act to be drawn from paper architecture itself, makes it inaccurate to relate it to the notion that the idea is as good as the building. Furthermore, it is careless to think that paper architecture even matters to us, when we are free to build, and when there is nothing stopping us from making a name of our own. Alexander Brodsky did what he could do under the circumstances: paper architecture was an invention out of necessity, out of materiality. However, Brodsky’s concern for paper, to the extent of not wanting to draw on it at all, suggests that there is something besides just the materiality itself. Arguably, this is part of his process. By not drawing and by not building, Brodsky destroys the border, authorising the two practices to be equal. Since his first building commission in 2002, Brodsky is proving that, as an architect, it was the context that was political, not his work when drawing that which would not be built. Having a historical frame of reference is, notwithstanding, what the architect student falls short of. Never have we found ourselves in a political context and unable to get out. In our free society, paper architecture can only go as far as being a material exploration. Thus, what the commonplace of paper is, where paper architecture can be orientated in past and present, is in the matter of making proposals. Now, Brodsky is like any architect:
The main thing is to do good architecture, the rest is less important.
For more information:
Buster Rönngren on Projects Review 2012-13
Image credit: Bureau Alexander Brodsky