Interviews, Essays, Etc.

An Intellectual Affiliation—Interview with Mohsen Mostafavi
March 27, 2012

The venerable Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) celebrates its 75th anniversary during the 2011–2012 academic year. Earlier in the year, critic and author Nicolai Ouroussoff had the opportunity to meet GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi in his office to talk about books. The specific books in question were those on a list that Dean Mostafavi compiled for Designers & Books—books that have particular resonance for him not only because of their intellectual content but also through their very personal connection to him.

This exercise was conceived as a way to highlight the importance of books and reading not only during the years when architects are in school—but additionally as an acknowledgment of the ongoing value that books and a personal library have for architects after their years of formal education have concluded.

Nicolai Ouroussoff: It’s a daunting task—isn’t it?—to compile a list of books that somehow sums up your values as an architect. How do you decide what to leave out?

Mohsen Mostafavi: How does one compile a short list of personally meaningful books? One way is to surrender to an almost unconscious process of simply picking the first titles that come to mind, but that method tends to skew the collection toward volumes most recently read. Instead, I have attempted to filter the selection to highlight titles that have been both inspiring and in some way formative to me as a designer and a teacher. I tried to have a certain set of categories: books that, to some degree, have been part of my formation; books that are the classics of my generation; and literature. Many of the books so chosen reflect my sense of intellectual affiliation with admired authors as much as an appreciation of specific content.

Selections from Mohsen Mostafavi’s book list for Designers & Books. Photo: Justin Knight

NO: Why don’t we start with literature. There’s only one book of fiction on the list, by Gogol. Why Gogol?

MM: Throughout my training there have been a lot of connections to Surrealism, and Surrealist traditions. In a way some of the writings I remember from Gogol, in this case “The Nose,” could be seen as being in the tradition of Surrealism, or Dada, even though it precedes it. The descriptions about urban scenes, the descriptions about locations—they very much deal with the idea of displacement, the idea of the cut, of things that are found in an unexpected circumstance, in this case even a nose that is cut off. And I think this idea of disjunctions, of juxtapositions, has been very much of interest. Even when I was at school, some of the people who I was working with were very much interested in promoting the conception of the city through the framework of Surrealism, or Surrealist practices.

So, for example, you could argue that to some degree Delirious New York is very much in the tradition of a kind of writing about the city, or writing about architecture that is also very much influenced by fiction; it’s very much influenced by literary traditions, and specifically, the concept of juxtapositions taken from Surrealism. There was an issue of Architectural Design that was published probably in the ‘70s, which was on architecture and Surrealism, and many people have subsequently gone on to write about these issues, from Rem Koolhaas to Bernard Tschumi and Dalibor Vesely.

NO: When I think of Gogol I also think of St. Petersburg. Many of his short stories are a reaction against that city—the rigidness of the plan, the brutal way it was imposed on the landscape. St. Petersburg was the modern city, but it was also the soulless city.

MM: I’m sure you’re right. I think that from the perspective of the writing there is also a dark sense of humor, which is probably consistent with your point about his criticism of authority, and this also is not, in a way, very far from the Surrealist practices, or Dada practices.

NO: Another aspect of Gogol’s writing is the razor-like social analysis, like Balzac, for example, writing about Paris.

MM: Perhaps that’s one of the subconscious reasons I’m very interested in the relationship of characters to their social setting. That’s really one of the things that I feel a close affinity to. I was just rereading Tony Judt’s essays in The New York Review of Books about growing up in the ‘60s in the UK, and what he wrote at the end of his life was very much about the quality of things there.

NO: The bleakness of the housing he grew up in, for example?

MM: Yes, the housing. One of the things that really touched a nerve for me is that for a very short time I went to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight, and it was at the beginning of the hovercraft, and Judt describes in a kind of beautiful way the experience of the hovercraft, which was at once this element of technological advancement and this horrendous experience of getting into this thing with bad seas, and being hit against the water, and feeling incredibly seasick going to school. Judt really catches the sense of advanced development in the UK, but also the graininess of the places, of the human relations. I think this is very important. It’s very important for architects to be aware of that relationship, because we’re constantly thinking about the formal qualities of things.

NO: Another book on the list that surprised me was James Ackerman’s book on Michelangelo. It was the one book that you include on architecture before the 19th century. Why Michelangelo? Why not Bernini, or Classicism?

MM: I think that I was?—am?—more influenced by people like Borromini, to be honest. But I think also it’s that idea of the architectural artifact and its relationship to the city—it is very much there in Michelangelo. I also remember very inspiring conversations and lectures by Joe Connors on Borromini, and one of the buildings, for example, is the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri and the way in which it’s not an object, it’s an urban building. You have a building that has a facade, but that facade is an urban facade, and it creates through this curvature the space of the plaza. At the same time, the building is also part of the continuity of an urban block. So there is actually a lot of play that is going on in terms of these kinds of juxtapositions. I also think in certain instances there is a direct correlation between this type of work and the architecture that ensued. I think you could say that about what Colin Rowe was doing with “Collage City,” or what Michael Graves was doing with his buildings. They’re trying, in some ways, to have the kind of richness, the complexity of Baroque architecture. I’m very much aware of that kind of fantastic work, even if I’m not sure that one needs to go from Borromini to postmodernism.

NO: Another question. Why Aldo Rossi and not Robert Venturi?

MM: I could imagine actually including Venturi, but Rossi again meant something different or more to me personally. You have to remember, I grew up in England from the age of 14—I’m Iranian by birth. I went to England first when I was young, and then went back again permanently when I was 14 or so. And so my experience is very much a European experience. I have no experience of the United States. And in many ways Venturi is a very American experience.

I thought that Rossi’s writings, which I probably like much more than his architecture, were so precise in terms of his analysis of the relationship between architecture and the city. The fact that he was able to bring in geography, urban sociology, anthropology, issues related to housing, and to develop it all in a very systematic critique in terms of, for example, the relation of architecture to history, I found very productive, very fruitful. He writes, for example, a very precise text about the role of urban monuments that are dead, monuments that are ...

NO: Fragments?

MM: Fragments, but also the idea that he calls “propelling monuments,” which is an interesting term, and he uses the example of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, I think, where the same building has gone through transformations, and the function of this building changes. It’s something that is part of the past. It deserves its role as a monument, but it also has the idea of what today we would call “adaptive architecture.” You modify, you transform.

Rossi was very much aware of the intellectual contributions of the French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs, best known for his book The Collective Memory. Halbwachs was very much aware of the need for constancy, or degrees of constancy in terms of the reality of everyday life. He talked about the degree to which some level of stability produces sanity.

It goes back to this whole thing of how you construct, if you like, a richer sense of the possible. You have to induce certain modes of practice that provide the possibilities for imagining things in a different way. You don’t want to fall into a trap of just saying, “It’s style.” The site, for example, can be interpreted as something that is not just the physical location, but in terms of the life of the site, the functions of the site. And that, I think, I very much got from Rossi. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, dealing with some similar issues [in their book Collage City, 1984], don’t quite have this precision, because they very quickly go from the analysis of the material to a certain procedure of making the city, which is based on a technique, and that just makes the project of Collage City really a sort of composition.

NO: Or a formula, maybe.

MM: A formula, yes. I never got that sense from Rossi. Going to see, for example, the Gallaratese [housing project outside Milan]—it’s very important. Basically the idea was that it was a kind of anti-suburban situation because it’s very much an urban building, totally dislocated in some ways, and built in the middle of the suburbs. It's very interesting, since a little later in other places people were doing twee little cottages, and saying an Englishman's home is his castle.

Some of those early projects were very experimental in some way, and I think later on it did become more simplistic, perhaps, with these postmodern-type buildings full of color, the hotels—these kinds of things.

And you have to also remember that they were doing these things in the ‘60s—and some in the early ‘70s. So they were onto these issues of the connection between city, geography, and sociology quite early.

 Mohsen Mostafavi and Nicolai Ouroussoff discuss books in Dean Mostafavi’s Harvard GSD office. Photo: Justin Knight

NO: You were talking about the transformative quality of cities and of architecture. There are a series of books that you include—by Cedric Price, Reyner Banham, Rem Koolhaas—that seem to focus on a very particular moment in architecture. In fact, there’s nothing from classical modernism on the list. Not one book by Le Corbusier.

MM: Yes, I think that this list is probably a fragment, and also very personal, I suppose. That’s the only way that I could approach it. I didn’t know Gogol, of course, but I knew most of the other people on the list. I knew Reyner Banham, I knew John Summerson, I’m friends with Jim Ackerman. So it is very autobiographical in some ways.

When I went back from Harvard to be the head of the AA [Architectural Association School of Architecture in London], I invited Cedric Price to come back and teach. And so, Cedric was one of my faculty, and that was such an incredible experience. He was just always such an incredible mind, such a special person. And there is a connection with his influence on people like Rem Koolhaas. So the list is also a list in some ways about some level of continuity.

NO: We’ve mostly been talking about texts—the relationship between Rossi’s written work and his architecture, for example. But Cedric Price didn’t build very much. He produced just a handful of projects that were nonetheless wildly influential. So he’s a different kind of figure, maybe, than what we’ve been talking about up to this point. How does he fit into the story?

MM: You’re right that he didn’t produce that much. But Cedric was important because the projects have always became exemplars in the sense that they had a consequence beyond their singularity. For example, the idea of the Fun Palace on the one hand is an architectural thing; on the other it’s something that was very much linked to his relationship to the performing arts and the theater, and Joan Littlewood, and of course his partner, the amazing actor Eleanor Bron.

But also it’s important to talk about the drawings. Because they are very simple in a way, but they’re incredibly effective—what he included, and what he left out, for example. Fun Palace is so relevant for the Pompidou Center; it’s so relevant for many of the things that Archigram was doing. He’s in the middle of this whole thing, and people really listened to him. This is a very British thing. There are a number of figures who were important just because of what they said and the presence that they had. His work had a level of wit, and you feel that some of the high-tech people who followed him miss that because the emphasis is on the fetish of technology, on the aestheticization of technology. In Cedric’s work it has this kind of rough-and-ready quality to it. In that sense, also, I think Rem Koolhaas shares that. The emphasis is on the conceptual ideas.

If you look at Cedric Price’s projects, many of them used photographs, and a kind of technique of drawing over photographs. I don't know whether he specifically referred to landscape, but there is a very strong sense of landscape in these things, in the sense that the site is kind of given, so you don’t just emphasize the project as the bridge, the parking, and the trains—you emphasize the project as the grain of whatever is existing—the grittiness of the site of the Potteries Think Belt, for example. It’s not about a kind of purification, or beautification. You actually are operating within a certain set of given conditions. That is also something interesting about what he did.

NO: These are not pristine sites.

MM: No, they’re not. They’re absolutely not.

NO: You also included Vesely.

MM: Yes. Dalibor Vesely. He was one of my teachers. He is Czech, and he left Prague and came to London. It’s amazing the people who were behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps because of the restrictions he lived under, he had managed to read more than anyone else I knew at that time. An architect, yes, but really an architect who was incredibly well versed not only in the history of architecture but also in philosophy, and particularly phenomenology. And so he was a person who in many ways was completely out of place, because on the one hand you had people like Cedric Price, and Peter Cook, and Ron Herron, and Richard Rogers—and then the younger generation of architects like Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, Jeremy Dixon, Ed Jones, and others. And then there is this person who is part of the London scene, but really is very well informed about Dada, Surrealism, phenomenology, and is thinking around this question of representation, as you said. Now in some ways, sadly, architectural studios in many instances are focusing only on the architectural project. Dalibor used to give seminars for us that were intermixed with all sorts of theoretical, philosophical, historical material.

NO: What is it about him that makes him relevant to today? To your students, for example?

MM: I think that he is very relevant in terms of the kind of body of knowledge. He’s very much into the geometry of people like Borromini, and questions of vision, the relationship between religion, and art, and many of these things. We taught together for a few years and published a book together called Architecture and Continuity. Our projects were about urbanism. They were not really typological projects. That is to say they weren't about specific pieces of building, even though they were all architecture.

So it was the idea that architecture and urbanism were totally in some ways intertwined. At one point—I had never been to Prague until years later when we went there together—it dawned on me that all the time that he was sitting with us, and with the other students when I was teaching, he was sketching this thing that was basically a version of Prague. It’s not really about the idea of a kind of coherent overall order, but rather an order that is the order of the combinatory qualities of the fragments, and their relationships and the in-between spaces and things like that. I have my doubts about this. But this is someone who is really, really significant in terms of pedagogy.

 Mohsen Mostafavi and Nicolai Ouroussoff. Photo: Justin Knight

NO: We haven’t talked about Delirious New York, but Koolhaas comes out of the same London scene. In a way he’s the most obvious choice in the sense that there is probably no student today who hasn’t read him and been influenced by his work.

MM: He fits into the personal approach of my list. When I was a student with Dalibor, Rem and Elia Zenghelis were also teaching, and we knew each other from the 1970s. His mode of writing is very novelistic in some way; it’s a kind of exaggerated writing. He writes very beautifully, very precisely in Delirious New York.

As if Paris’ surface were folded, Le Corbusier’s draws a torso that deliberately ignores further anatomy of the “exquisite corpse.” Lower housing blocks meander around Cartesian Skyscrapers that are arranged on a plain in central Paris where all traces of history have been scraped away to be replaced by “jungle”: the so called mobilization of the Ground, from which even the Louvre barely escapes. In spite of Le Corbusier’s dedication to Paris' future this plan is clearly a pretext. The transplantation is intended to generate not a new Paris but a first anti-Manhattan.

The tone is very dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah-dah, dah, dah — it’s very rhythmic.

NO: Some of it comes from Dali, too, who is a figure in the book.

MM: Very much so, yes. One of the things that was very interesting about this book, that’s been so influential, is, as you say, the whole idea of Surrealism. It was seen also as a method, as a mode of practice for architects to deal with architecture’s relationship to the city. Because since the Surrealists then connect to the Situationists, you see that this practice of Surrealism, this mode of writing, is very much about someone who sees the city from multiple perspectives: from the perspective of the life of the city, the perspective of juxtapositions, and all those kinds of descriptions are dealing with the concept of situation. And this is one of the words that was very prevalent—has always been very prevalent: how to deal with things as “situations.” So Koolhaas’s description of the New York Athletic Club and the juxtaposition of different situations is one of the main elements of the role of the section in architecture—the role of the section in the high-rise as the site of multiples.

So the building, it’s not about the form, but rather it’s really about the juxtaposition of various functions that create the diversity of life, of the city. And also this relationship, which obviously is very important, with Modernism—the fact that in Europe people are trying to invent a modern city that in many ways already exists as a reality in the American context.

NO: Although one of the strange things about the book is that Koolhaas arrives in New York when the city is in free fall. It’s the completion of the World Trade Center, but it’s also the moment when the city descends into chaos and financial ruin—it’s the end of the heroic period of New York. From that point on the story changes.

MM: It’s odd and it’s also interesting. You have the projects at the end of the book that were drawn by Madelon Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis and that address the sexuality and eroticism of architecture. What comes out of this period are these kinds of ideas.

Surface Architecture (2005, 2002, The MIT Press); Structure as Space (2006, Architectural Association Publications); Implicate and Explicate (2011, Lars Müller Publishers); Louis Vuitton: Architecture and Interiors (2011, Rizzoli International Publications); and Ecological Urbanism (2010, Lars Müller Publishers)

Note: Mohsen Mostafavi has written extensively on architecture. His most recent book is Louis Vuitton: Architecture and Interiors, published in Fall 2011 (Rizzoli International Publications).

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