Author Q&A with Kenneth Frampton: Five North American Architects

By Steve Kroeter August 23, 2012

Kenneth Frampton

Architecture professor and architect Kenneth Frampton: Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (New York)


In honor of his 80th birthday, Kenneth Frampton—Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), where he has taught since 1972—was invited by the dean of the School, Mark Wigley, to “curate an event.” Frampton chose to structure the event, a symposium, as an “occasion to present something of the current state of architecture as a North American practice,” focusing on the U.S. and Canada. A resulting publication, Five North American Architects: An Anthology, was released this past February (2012) by Lars Müller and the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

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Five North American Architects: An Anthology, 2012 (Lars Müller Publishers)

Designers & Books: What is your view of the “current state of architecture as a North American practice”—and how do you see these five architects as fitting into that?

Kenneth Frampton: In terms of style, it is obvious that late modern architecture is extremely pluralistic. We live in Guy Debord’s society of spectacle in which more or less anything and everything may be seen as coming under the rubric of art. One also has to concede that the bulk of high-rise development, worldwide, is totally repetitive and barbaric in character. As Le Corbusier put it a long time ago, the modern epoch has been built for money and not for man. However, beneath the so-called international high-end production, a resistant small- to medium-scale architecture can be found virtually all over the world. I am thinking of practices like that of Yung Ho Chang in China, or Studio Mumbai in India or Glenn Murcutt in Australia. I think of all these five North American practices as coming under this genre of production.

D&B: How long have you known these five architects? Were any of them your students?

KF: I have known these architects for varying lengths of time and none of them were my students. Steven Holl (New York) and Stanley Saitowitz (San Francisco) go back with me a good 30 years. I have only been following Patkau Architects (Vancouver) for some 20 years and I became aware of the work of Shim-Sutcliffe (Toronto) and Rick Joy (Tucson) more recently.

Steven Holl, School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa, 2006. Photo: Christian Richters

D&B: You characterize the work of the five firms as having “a common concern for emphasizing” the “expressive tropes” of landscape, material, structure, craft, space, and light.” Are there projects that from this perspective particularly attract you?

KF: Saitowitz's studio loft building in San Francisco is the ingenious realization of a residential building set against a highly fragmented urban context. A comparable level of significant achievement is attained in the remarkable schools designed by Patkau Architects: the Seabird Island School, in Agassiz, and the Strawberry Vale School outside Victoria, both in British Columbia.

Stanley Saitowitz, Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith
Patkau Architects, Strawberry Vale School, Victoria, British Columbia, 1995. Photo: James Dow

Shim-Sutcliffe's Integral House, in Toronto, of 2009 is surely a tour de force in terms of structure and material in relation to craft production, as is Rick Joy's Amangiri Hotel, in Utah, which is particularly susceptible to the play of light across the spatial organization of its cellular form in relation to the attendant desert landscape.

Shim-Sutcliffe, Integral House, Toronto, 2009. Photo: Ed Burtynsky
Rick Joy, Amangiri Resort, Canyon Point, Utah, 2009. Photo: Rick Joy Architects + 1-10 Studio

D&B: Stanley Saitowitz says that your 1969 article on the Maison de Verre “totally changed the way I thought about architecture.” What did you say in that article that could have had such a profound impact on him?

KB: I don't know whether it is so much a question of what I said, as it is the fact that I was the first person to make a comprehensive survey of the Maison de Verre and to publish this documentation in the Yale Architectural Journal: Perspecta 13. One may think of it, even now, as a machinist “total work of art.” Moreover, the introspective flexible plan of this house meant that it could be read as a liberative environment, which was, at the same time, richly detailed. It was this, among other things, that would have appealed to Saitowitz and also, for that matter, to John and Patricia Patkau.

Stanley Saitowitz, Tampa Museum of Art, Florida, 2010. Photo: Richard Barnes

D&B: What is your impression of Saitowitz’s “Seven Principles of Architecture”?

KF: Saitowitz's seven principles make a lot of empirical sense except for his categorical emphasis on the building as an instrument rather than a monument. Buildings that are unduly instrumental are just as reductive and negative as buildings that are inappropriately monumental.

D&B: Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe say architecture has the ability to “touch and shape people’s live in profound and meaningful ways.” For you, is this statement figuratively true? Or do you think of it as literally true—where living in a particular space can actually have a particular effect, as, for example, you sometimes hear from people living in Wright houses?

KF: I would say it is literally true. In this way I feel one can speak legitimately of liberative space, inasmuch as certain environmental arrangements provide for particular atmospheres, amenities, and lighting conditions, etc., that have a liberative effect. Alvar Aalto's Hansaviertel apartment plan of 1955 could be said to typify this for me. It is a matter of proxemics, dimensions, and the familiarity with which certain everyday movements may be readily accommodated. In this regard quite simple provisions are crucial. Let us take Aalto’s balconies, which in this particular instance have very comfortable proportions and are suspended in such a way as to be both exposed to the outside air and yet simultaneously somewhat protected by the building.

D&B: Rick Joy talks about one of his projects being “my most soulful work.” How does the use of a word like “soulful” in describing architecture strike you?

KF: “Soulful” seems to me to be a somewhat sentimental evocation. One could surely use the word “emotional” instead and arrive at virtually the same meaning.

Patkau Architects, Grande Bibliothèque du Québec, Montreal, 2000–2005. Photo: James Dow

D&B: John and Patricia Patkau pay tribute to you by saying that in many ways their work “is a reflection of Kenneth’s thinking.” Do you see that at all?

KF: I suppose it could be said that the work of Patkau Architects comes very close to what I attempted to define in 1983 as Critical Regionalism. The Patkaus’ Seabird School exemplifies this in a particular way. It is also significant that this school came into being because a certain officer in the Canadian Ministry of Education had a policy of encouraging Native Indian bands to build schools that happened to meet their own specific needs. In this instance the architects built a very precise model of the timber framing so that the band would be able to erect it from the model, that is to say, without technical drawings. Many other nuances went along with this design; such as the shingled roof, which paralleled the profile of nearby mountains, or the particular form of the timber veranda, which was meant to be used for drying fish as in the Indian tradition of the Pacific Northwest.

D&B: You note at the end of your introduction that the symposium was limited to a single day and this resulted in “electing to represent five practices only.” If you’d had more time and could have included more firms, whom else would you have included?

KF: I find this a particularly difficult question to answer; but there are others whose work could be meaningfully compared to the practice of these five firms in a way that would be of particular significance to the future of North American building. I have in mind such architects as Vincent James, Marwan Al-Sayed, Wendell Burnette, Peter Bohlin, Brian McKay Lyons, Steven Ehrlich, Dan Hanganu, and Carlos Jiménez. All these architects practice in very diverse climates in North America. Strictly speaking, if one wanted to cover the whole continent, one would have to also include Mexico. In any event, one needs to keep in mind the overall intention of the built form, as opposed to empty formalism.

D&B: Are you working on a new book?

KF: I am trying to finish two books. One is entitled The Unknown Modern Movement and is the substance of lectures that I gave at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio in Switzerland; the other, which carries the title Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Forms, is the record of a seminar I have given for many years at Columbia University’s GSAPP. I hope to finish both of these pieces by the end of the year.

All images taken from Five North American Architects: An Anthology, courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers.

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