Rafael Vinoly is the principal of Rafael Vinoly Architects PC, a New York City based firm, with offices in Lower Manhattan and London.
AJ: RVA functions not just as a firm, but also as a place for continuing education for its many young young employees. That makes you not just an employer but also a teacher. As such, do you prefer working with specialists or generalist architects?
RAFAEL: The reason for the average age in my firm being so young has more to do with my own optimism that somehow it is better to have the chance of working with people that are eager to learn and are not overtaken by the frivols and the complexities of the profession. On the other hand that has a counter-side to it, which is that in reality [working in an office] is NOT supposed to be and SHOULD NOT be an educational experience. But the truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with that. What is wrong, I think, is that people come out of school with a combination of skills which are not really related to the craft and it seems to me that this is something that has been supported by academia for the last fifteen or twenty years, under the big excuse that this is the time for experimentation and research. I think these two things are sort of prototypical in architecture. You would not find anybody in science or in medicine or in any other discipline that would think that because you know nothing you are capable of researching. It is in fact quite the opposite.
This Lack of real, serious interest in the construction and the craft and how the craft is actually performed is also emblematic of the last years of architectural thinking, which has been not really productive. It has really delivered this visual perception of everything being the same. So, I think that education is essentially not delivering people with a minimal level of performance skills to a job-market that is extraordinarily competitive and very badly paid. If you put it really in economical terms, your product is not really helping anybody.
Architecture IS a craft. If you were a pianist and you had to go through six years of conservatory they would not have you talk about the piano. Either you can move your fingers or you are out! And if you are composing or are in any of the other disciplines in which you have accreditation or knowledge if you do not know the basics. And the basics ARE basic. It is almost in the way which a brain actually constitutes itself. And then you must build on them. Even if you are in the fashion industry, you need to know how to saw, how to manipulate the fabric, how to draw … there are some basic things that you must learn that are in my view NOT elementary. That is all!
AJ: Do you think that architecture schools are effective enough in terms of teaching students the basics? Regarding M.Arch. programs in particular, do you think a new student that comes from fields irrelevant to architecture will ever have the chance to really acquire these basic skills and cultivate them?
RAFAEL: There are two different kinds of methods of organizing the way people learn something at university level. The European and Latin way of doing that is that first they put you in front of this moment of mortgaging your life with a profession at a young age, which I think is absolutely insane. So, I do think that it is perfectly ok to come into architecture from any field, the same way I feel that it is perfectly all right coming into any field from architecture. The problem is that it requires a certain level of knowing what it takes to do the thing, not at an instrumental level, because by instrumentalizing you become sorry for having to learn and you would feel better if it was given to you as a pill. I think it is exactly the opposite. I think the basics are literally where the stuff is!
Picasso used to say (paraphrasing), “I draw better than Rafael [the painter], so I can do these crazy things that I do!” Everybody else that tried to draw like he drew without knowing HOW to draw … well … you see what happened! This is a personal view on an orientation on how to organize the learning according to what really practice is. What is not really a personal view, but is an across the board realization, is that you come out of school and confront a reality that was not similar twenty five or thirty years ago. Then you had the chance to get a job, and your job was better paid, and you knew how to navigate through it, while learning every single day. Is it not enough to know that there is something that is not quite really working?
The sophistication and emphasis on the philosophical component of architecture is something that people seem to privilege now possibly because it is fashion, but you know, you have an obligation to be cultivated whether you are an architect or a welder. It is the same as assuming that a certain degree of virtuosity is enough when in reality there is a set of goals that one pursuits throughout one’s whole life.
AJ: What would you say is responsible for students choosing to specialize in specific modern design tools instead of creating a strong basis on the real fundamentals of architecture?
RAFAEL: If you look at the way schools are organized you realize that they are competing for bright students and teachers that have a big name. All these things are commendable and great, but they are not a substitute for having a notion of how the hell you are going to teach , and what it is that you are teaching! ¾ of the people that teach have never built in their lives. But, have you ever see a surgeon that teaches surgery without having ever operated? So, it is a complex set of issues that all converge into what I meant to say when I told you that the system is in crisis from the notion that you are supposed to perform a service in one interpretation or make an artistic contribution in another interpretation, in a climate where unless you sell a label there is no way of verifying whether you know what you are talking about or not.
What else other than competition among students would you expect from an approach to building as a cultural phenomenon that one’s experience of architecture gets started through reading magazines. This is really like beating a dead horse, but it is also the crux of this thing. As if the visual is the only thing that counts.
When you treat a building by simply laying out a simple organizational function and then loading it up with all these intentions about what is the form that you want to produce, then there is a problem. That is because in the end of the day there is a specificity about what constitutes an architectural idea, which has to do with much more than what it looks like.
This type of crisis is created by the market but it I also created by the market that really drove architecture to take this stand. I do think that in the end of the day, if you could construct a school of this of if you could get more than 3% of the budget of the country in the hands of architects, ten all that would be terrific. But to claim for that while these statistics are not really improving is absolutely suicidal and you keep fostering the thing to two or three guys that are lucky enough to make it through, but in the end of the day we are here for something else other than pay the rent … right ?
AJ: Should generalist architects avoid developing extensive knowledge in specific areas of the profession?
RAFAEL: The way an architect’s mind works is completely interpretive, which means that you do not know much about anything, but you know sufficiently about almost everything! So, because people have for so long talked about things that are not connected to the practice, other practices take hold in areas, where your performance as an architect is not really satisfactory. In other words you do not know how to put together a financial package of you do not know how to build a theater, and then the financial and the theater consultants appear. These are people that specialize in these things … but if you scratch the surface, and this might sound a little brutal to say, what they are doing is not really rocket-science. The stuff that these people know is absolutely a piece of cake. It is just that it becomes very difficult to do what you are supposed to do as an architect with these very elementary things when you are not exposed to them, not even slightly and when your brain is not trained to adapt to them as they are and as they change. You cannot take on specialization as a phenomenon outside of market conditions, because I think they are the ones that reveal a crisis of the culture.
AJ: Should schools educate project manaers, meaning people with better managerial skills and technical knowledge, rather than architects?
RAFAEL: The project management of architecture goes back to what the craft is. It is simply the craft. That is the only way you do things. A building is so large and complex and expensive that the minute you reduce it to something you are immediately put in that level of specialization. A project manager is just a bad term. Just call it the Architect. That is what you should know. That is the only integrative part of the profession, which is what makes an architect indispensable.
Three quarters of what you see today as being a royal disaster are functions of breaking down the pie into too many portions and not having a wholistic view of how this thing integrates into the whole system, other than the on that controls it, which is basically the financial component.
AJ: What was the profession like in the good-ole times?
RAFAEL: The good ole times were quiet times, in which the basic desire for notoriety was by far much more subdued, because it was clear that in the rotation of the media since you produced one of these things every five to seven years, you were in a clear disadvantage to a movie star, so nobody really thought that this was going to happen [becoming a star]. Now it does happen. The lack of visibility at that level of intensity I always thought was great. For instance if you are a real mover and shaker on the financial markets then the best thing to happen to you is to be undetected. Nobody wants to show up in every single magazine.
Also, we did not have all those different categories back then. Have you ever seen anything more ridiculous than this category of the design architect versus … another kind of architect? I mean what is an architect other than a designer? If you are not a design architect, you are not an architect, and if you are a design architect you should be able to do everything that is design, from putting together a building, to negotiating, etc. Because otherwise, the financier will ask you “why should I pay you more than for a piece of trace where you put some pastel over”. I am sure in fact that the people in architecture schools know that the entry level salary is less than if you were a maid. You tell me how in the whole world you can be compared with a person that is a paralegal that has an entry level salary of seventy-five thousand dollars a year!
The fact is that most students are unable to compensate the cost of their own education. Seven years of education and there is absolutely no way one can pay for it. Why is this the case other than because of the status of out whole system? But the thing is … can you put a building together after you graduate? No! What your education prepares you for is to maybe write a book, which of course you cannot do either, but the threshold for judging one’s worth is really undeterminable and this is exactly why you are getting paid less.
There is only one verifiable factor: specialization seems like a life-saver in our professional storm, because how the hell are you going to make it otherwise! And I think that is also revealing the same problem, which is that you are not going to make it that way either. Tomorrow you are going to decide that you are only going to do schools that are not more than 25,000 sq ft because you think that is what you are extraordinarily good at! Well … Bullshit, because then, through the filters of checking all these little squares that tell you “yes, I did check the efficiency of this and that and have used a rational structural system and have checked the HVAC too, and have selected healthy materials” and so on, you have a piece of crap anyway! And that is exactly in the crux of the problem, which is that you need an Archtiect!
AJ: Are there specialists in your office, and if yes, then how do you engage them in the process of design?
RAFAEL: In our office there are some people that have become interested in some parts of the process. Architecture is like tailoring versue mass producing suits. You have to be there and custom design the suit for the person in the place at the moment. Also, I feel that you cannot put your name on the door if the designs are not YOUR designs. You cannot have a corporate approach to design.
If you go to a hospital, you know that the hospital has a principle who is a doctor. So much so that there is no way to leave out that doctor, who has that particular skill inside of one anonymous organization. So, what you get is basically crap, under the big name of X! The truth of course is that does not happen in medicine, but it does happen in architecture. So, you have all these people that could not be any more market oriented, that have expertise or experience. There were experienced people for example that were terrific architects, like Skidmore, Owens and Merrill, who were fabulous architects and long gone, and replaced by another crew that was very good, and then another crew that was not so good and now you have … SOM as we know it!
AJ: Do you think that specializing in a specific type of design, or stylistic approach or even design philosophy that are directly related to the Principle of a firm could be frustrating for its partners after the Principle retires?
RAFAEL: I do not have an intention to know what will happen when I die. As a matter of fact I could not care less. What will happen to the firm is a choice of the associates. IF they have learnt only one thing, then they will have exactly the same kind of crazy operation that happened with Frank Lloyd Wright. None of the people that stayed there were Frank Lloyd Wright, and they kept doing everything the same way, even drawing using similar types of lines and crayons. It is a different problem of course when you are grounded in a particular vision of what is important in architecture. The problem with Gehry’s firm for example, is that is the only thing that is real. And this is all an interesting problem, whether that is an important thing to have or not. Then, you have no other choice but to refer back to the same thing, which is where the market is. And the market is all of those things.
AJ: Do you have any advice for new students or professors?
RAFAEL: I have more than an advise for new students, but advising the professors is a difficult thing. I know that most of these people are extraordinarily devoted and for reasons that have nothing to do with them they find themselves in situations like this. As a matter of principle I have a lot to say about arrogance, and you know how much of that is around us, so it is hard to really advice these people. But I think that the only real way to give good advice is to act upon it. The craft is not how many programs you know of whether you can tell from afar how much a building weights. The craft is about what you think, and how you construct your system of beliefs, not “A” system of beliefs, but your own, and how important it is, and basically understanding the mechanisms of self criticism, which is the only thing that you people have to do. If you have talent or not is another thing, but to assume but to assume that you do not need to nurture talent or that if you do not have it you are dea, that is idiotic. I would not be able to give advice to any student without trying to correct the system, and that would happen by getting one of these deanships in any of these universities and have card-blanch and just change everything. And that takes to change the perception of the access to school and have a level of rigor that may sound a little bit exaggerated, but that is how it is in everything else. If you are in a music school there in not such a thing as not finishing a piece if you are in a composition class. Many architecture students never finish anything. And one would argue that a work of art is worked on throughout the artist’s life, but what we are talking about are not works of art, they are training exercises. If you do not finish, you are out. Not because I am a tyrant, but because you yourself should walk out. Is it not a good level of discipline? Do not tell me that we have it, because we do not. Our system is an absolute joke!
The problem is that nobody knows how difficult architecture is. It is very difficult in more than just an internal process level. How do you think about whether you are right or wrong? Usually arrogance helps you in that direction and hurts you in another, but there is a system through which you can tell yourself that what you are trying to push all these people to do is correct. The other thing is that you have to know how to do it, because it changes as you do it.
This whole crisis about the question of theory and other sources of inspiration is just because these people are completely at a loss relatively to the importance of architectural knowledge. You do not need to apply psychoanalysis to a building or study the vibration of practice X. It sounds interesting, but it is pitiful. It is completely insane!
AJ: Do you think that in the end it is lack of creativity that causes all this?
RAFAEL: It is the lack of knowledge of what the hell you are doing! Because If you told me that you are a pottery maker, and you have never seen clay in your life, then you can talk about it all you want, but you are NOT a pottery maker! Te craft is hard to understand and painful to grasp. So many people replace it with this easy-to-grasp, unverifiable stuff. I taught at Yale, and I had not one, but two students that were telling me they were doing fractals … they have no idea what fractals are!
AJ: What do you think the reactions of other disciplines such as engineers would be to this attitude?
RAFAEL: They laugh at it! But the thing is cyclical and completely incestuous because nobody asks, because if you ask you have to go and cover yourself under the bed! It is the most embarrassing thing in the world. This is my own personal vision of how the situation is. The truth is that the age people that are at the forefront of that line are people of practically my age that have never built anything in their lives.
To make it simple, specialization is a reactive answer to a problem that is somewhere else. The last thing you want is you to become a sports architect or a specialized architect. There is not such a thing because the whole subject is to be critical about. If you are critical, you have to be a thinker. You have to be able to interpret these things and be open to learning and have the skills to learn them fast.
When we started designing labs, they had for 30 years been the sole complete sub-market of a group of firms you have never heard of in your lives. These spaces, which to me are some of the most completely interesting spaces today, is where something really interesting is happening. Where else? Certainly not in museums by the way! Today you hear all these firms designing labs, and that is because that is the only thing that is being funded. Where does the money come from? It comes from all the people that have someone in their family with a medical condition that needs research and know that these guys can cure it. This is now! Ten or fifteen years ago, I had no idea what they were talking about. In that case what you do is walk in the room and you say ” I do not understand the first thing about this, would you please explain this to me? “And they kick you out of the room or you learn it, and when you learn it you realize it is the simplest thing in the world. In the end of the day in fact, if you go back and look at the evolution of laboratory design, the only thing that has always been there as a matter of real knowledge was one dimension and one idea of the complexity of coordination. The dimension was 11.46′, and the complexity is that you cannot juxtapose tightly structure with HVAC systems. That’s it! When you do that, then you do exactly what everybody else does, which is that you start asking the real people, who are the scientists, who are completely underrepresented and are suffering there buildings forever, until you start doing things that are empowering and derive from listening to these people. The only person that can do this thing is an architect and the best thing that can happen to you is to know nothing, because then you can see what is really behind the problem.
Anyway, in the end, have you seen an environment more competitive for essentially nothing? Because if you told me that the salaries were $300,000 a year I would say ok! Power? What power? In the end it is all very lamentable I think, because it is not that this stuff is unsubstantial. For example if you are a specialist in tap-dancing and tap-dancing does down the tubes, it is not that terrible, because you can avoid it by not going to the theater. But our thing, you cannot avoid … It is all around you!