29 June 2015
Architectural Association, London
This is a conversation between Visiting School Directors Maria Paez & Brendon Carlin in London and collaborator Andrew Houston in San Francisco about Tropicality, a new AA visiting school. Tropicality is a nomadic workshop where students will make architectural films about resistance, place and the home. The first year will be based in San Jose, Costa Rica in collaboration with Veritas University from 1-15 August.
Andrew: Where did the idea of this workshop come from?
Maria: The idea for the workshop really started in Caracas, Venezuela when Brendon and I were at my dad’s house. We were compelled by the blurriness of inside and outside, and the evaporation through fragmentation of the wall. The house looks quite modernist but is very different from any modernist canon. It is a lattice: the exterior enclosure wall is no longer needed and the window no longer wanted because of the climate. One of the major forces at play was the issue of security, which is a big issue in many tropical contexts. The security wall manifests as a wall around the entire plot, but you don’t even notice that you are enclosed because of the colours, materials and the landscape. There are layers of distraction.
We started talking about the vernacular, the colonial, the import of modernism; thinking about studying different contexts with similar histories and looking at how people had changed the typology. It started as a typological conversation. We decided to go to Costa Rica because Venezuela is now in a dangerous, tumultuous period whereas Costa Rica is more politically stable but perhaps with a less discernible material identity than its neighbours.
Carretas, a coffee bean cart that often serves as a symbol of social status
Brendon: When we started piecing together ideas, we realised that we wanted to do so much in two weeks…
Maria: We wanted the students to design a house!
Jeff Wall, Insomnia, 1994
Brendon: We wanted to do a sort of forensic or anthropological analysis of several different contexts within the same climactic region and similar historical conditions so that we would have a common variable, but unearth clues about the ways in which culture, history and conditioning drives the organisation and aesthetic of the city, architecture, furniture and living. We decided from extensive travel experiences and quality time in the AA Library that we would go to Costa Rica for the first year, Vietnam the second and either East Africa or India for the third year. It was a ludicrous project because it’s totally unreasonable to deal with the amount of complexity that we had hoped to get at.
So after countless debates about methodologies we crafted the idea of having the students do interviews and filmic surveys of the context and then write a fiction based on reality about people, architecture and place which would be made through a compilation of the captures and observations. This partly came from the thought that we can discover something profound by trying to use both quite a rational way of setting up a device, in this case film, as an instrument for understanding interrelationships of place, identity and architecture… but also access and employ the intuitive and emotional through the exploration of story-making, the narrative, the based-on-reality fiction, to create something that goes deeper, to a place of being a designer and a writer but also to a place of reflection and unique insight.
Andrew, In your latest film project you talk about the idea of ‘back to nature’, how do you see the narrative as a mechanism to explore an idea underlying part of our collective reality?
Andrew: It’s interesting because I do that through character. There are certain films that push a social idea or concept and if the characters’ personalities are driven by the concept it comes across as preachy and is not taken seriously. I think great filmmakers find balance. The underlying concept is told through camera angle, location, and cinematic techniques. The characters act like it’s part of their conditioning in reality. I like this idea of cinema as a reality. Take our position in our reality, our countries our communities, transportation, money; it’s a condition that exists but one that we don’t pay attention to or think about everyday. In cinema you create a reality, for instance the World in Mad Max is insane, but it’s believable because it’s insane. No one would believe it they saw it while walking down the street, passed off as reality. With film you create your own world that conditioned place where your characters exist by creating a concept that underlies everything, which your characters don’t pay attention to. It drives what they do, where they go and most of the time it is successively formed by the unsaid, the unspoken, or the technique.
Brendon: In relation to what sparked this workshop, there was a critical question about that conditioning that you are describing. The workshop for me is partly about questioning our acceptance of the backdrop of our lives: the way we live in buildings and the way that buildings are designed. It has become ingrained in our reality so that we no longer perceive it as being deterministic of our behaviour, reality and identity.
Maria: Also, we are using film because we want a medium that allows us to navigate transversally. As designers you always have a certain degree of detachment from your subject, I think an effective way to gain insight into a problem is to intimately observe it and that’s why film is important as a method because it allows you to move in an inter-planar way, from being the spectator to the being the character. It seems like it is more flexible than drawings or diagrams because you are working with sound, colour, movement, light, you have the ability to embed sensory experience in what you are doing and shift planes seamlessly. Cinematographic language allows you to change the feeling of space or what you are studying but also evoke associations and feelings through layering.
…what do you think the role of emotions is in this workshop Andrew?
Andrew: I think that drama through conflict is always fascinating. The idea of bars on a window in the dark as an image is interesting for me. Time of day, where you capture images, and quality of light creates a different atmosphere and emotion.
Maria: we are gaining insights through architecture as a character…
Brendon: Andrew, you were talking about how you create a story through cinematographic language, but I also hope that the students will tell stories about Costa Rican people, about San Jose, how they identify themselves with where they live, the object arrangements, with the colours, with the landscapes, with the city, with its violence. The response we got from Veritas University (our host in San Jose) is that this is very important for Costa Rica, at a time when they are in a sort of crisis of identity. It’s a place that has a massive influx of tourism. It’s a place that has a history of labour intensive agricultural production, of people working on farms and coffee plantations; it wasn’t one of these Gold rich colonies. But there are pockets of distinct national identity as a peaceful and sustainable country.
I am really interested in the materialisation of identity, how does the identity materialise through architecture, the city form, the city space. But also interested in this inconspicuous form of conditioning where there are so many things we unknowingly accept about the way that we live. The interview component of the workshop was an attempt to break conditioning for me, how can we actually get them to reveal some insights that expose the conditioning of that specific place.
Andrew: And I think that breakthrough can come with the juxtaposition of image…
Maria: and sound.
Edward Yang, YiYi, 2000
Andrew: Audio – it’s fascinating; this idea of poetic overlapping. The Italian Neo-realist movement is based on this idea of perspective, giving the audience perspective on themselves that they might not have otherwise. Edward Yang in new Taiwanese cinema is maybe even more so. In a society that was under Japanese rule for many years, which then became a place distinct from mainland China but still Chinese – Edward Yang, who actually studied Architecture at Harvard for a semester, made films that re-examined culture. What you had seen up to that point was that the government controlled cinema, which was heavily bankrolled by the Chinese. The reaction to that in the 80’s through Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang was about looking for an identity. Yang uses poetic overlapping, the city in the background, windows, walls, rooms, everything is related to the built society, to infrastructure. He is holding up a mirror to society.
Brendon: that’s why the word disjunction came into the brief; there is a question of unusual disjunctions in the lineage of a tumultuous history. This is just the nature of the universe however there is an interesting what-if question surrounding a history of imposition from places of power, especially from a global economic system that is casting these places into a sort of pervasive homogeneity. This is especially true in Costa Rica whereas Vietnam has a very strong and eccentric identity and society.
Maria: also it was an idea of resistance. We were interested in how people resist patterns in the sort of spatial realm. In terms of clearly demarcated functional spaces… how do people react, do they punch holes do they resist against the materiality of impositions or conventions.
Brendon: …that was really interesting in Vietnam that people punched holes in walls and removed roofs to suit their way of living.
Maria: and took kitchens from the inside to the street… In Costa Rica, depending on the economic level of the neighbourhood or individual you will see very different forms and levels of resistance. … in this case we are using juxtaposition to expose something about the place that we find intriguing.
Andrew: a poetic identity…
Maria: Yes, the design of the workshop is about creating a poetic identity through juxtaposition. It’s important that we are observing but simultaneously designing through storyboarding and editing.
Brendon: yeah, I think the film is part anthropological and factual as well as part design and fictional. We want to actually use film as an instrument to develop a perception of people and, the relationship of their story to architecture. On the other hand we want to use film as designers. There has been this idea of fiction as more real than reality or of fiction as a device to understand reality in a different way from the angle of emotional or creative interpretation. So while it was meant to be an architectural design exercise, it’s also something that could become an architectural device for the conceiving of exceptional architecture.
Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo storyboard sequence, 1956
For more information:
Tropicality – AA Visiting School in Costa Rica microsite
Tropicality Visiting School Brief
Apply to participate in Tropicality
Like Tropicality on Facebook
main image caption: Casazul, Caracas, Venezuela. Architect: Federico Vega