“Under the Sky” by ARQUITECTURA-G
Published at Apartamento Magazine #4
Translation: Débora Antscherl and Miriam Gerace
Photography: Iwan Baan
In a sequence of scenes from the film “F for Fake”, Orson Welles tells a story where Picasso notices a girl named Oja whom he seduces and takes back to his studio. She sits for him as he frantically paints a series of 22 nudes that she gets him to give her before she leaves. A few days later as he reads the paper, stingy Picasso learns of an art opening featuring 22 of his paintings which critics have hailed as a true renaissance for the painter. Picasso hurries to Paris to claim his share, as he had expressly prohibited the sale of the gift. As he enters the gallery he is surprised by the beauty of the paintings, but not as much as by the fact that they were not painted by him but rather were authored by Oja’s grandfather, a master art forger. Irritated, Picasso demands his originals only to find out from Oja that they no longer exist because her grandfather decided to burn them.
Beyond how the story may unfold we are drawn to the uncertainty generated by the act of burning originals: the uncertainty of what was only once an original but no longer as it does not exist and the uncertainty of what to now call something that used to be a copy.
For artist Gabriel Orozco, all of this is somehow embodied by “Casa Obsevatorio”. Built by the young architecture studio of Tatiana Bilbao (Mexico) in collaboration with Orozco, the house sits overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
As per the artist’s own wishes, the residence is an exact reproduction of one of the architectural pieces from the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory in Delhi, India, built by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur from 1724 onwards. It is a simple cruciform construction made of concrete and wood with a large semispherical concavity in the center dividing the floor into four sections.
We find the house fascinating because it proposes many themes from different vantage points, among which we will mostly focus on the reproduction factor and its architectural consequences. With this in mind, we will use as introduction a text from “the Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Walter Benjamin, 1936), then we have a conversation with Tatiana herself and once again with Ekhi Lopetegi, Ph.D. in Philosophy and musician.
Plagiarism means copying with the impossibility of reliving the moment of creation. Thus the copy becomes an empty object.
Architecture is intimately rooted to its function, to a time and place. When we copy it and de-contextualize it, we rob all this from it and it is left stripped of meaning.
In this case, one of the many architectural pieces from the Maharaja Jai Singh II observatory in Jaipur is reproduced and transformed into a residence. Replicating this piece in another context liberates it of meaning and renders it blank so it can acquire a different one.
Does this produce a new self-identity or is it just a formal whim? Will the entire intellectual process leading up to this, more befitting of artistic production, all in all yield an architectural piece?
From another perspective, we stand before a good example of a summer house, properly rooted to its place though it has a completely foreign origin. The sections are independent and outward facing, with external areas for daily activities like bathing and eating. The interior-exterior relationship in the house is not intended to blur the architecture or de-materialize the border of what has been built. It is achieved in a more primitive fashion by turning out part of the plan to the outside. It is a matter of climate and the nature of summer or even vacation living.
The pool is of vital importance in the transformation of the nature of the house from its previous conception as an observatory. On the one hand, by filling the hemisphere with water and converting it into a pool, the original meaning is de-naturalized and the structure becomes domestic and summery. On the other hand, it is the central piece around which the residential sections are organized radially, thus forcing the circulation to the outside.
We believe that in this instance we transcend the traditional conception of place as well as the contextualization of the architecture added to it. But was this by accident?
I think that Casa Observatorio’s distinguishing factor is that it is a product of an “aesthetic decision”. This is why the construction of the house produced a discussion about whether or not it is possible to build and occupy a site by following the principles laid out by the concept of copy, or mimesis.
As the house purports to “represent” the original observatory, it is understood that at first glance and as a product of this aestheticization, a displacement occurs that goes from what it is to occupy a space and “use” it or “practice” in it, to what it is to “see” or “contemplate” an object. Now, neither astronomical observatories nor houses are aesthetic objects per se: observatories are scientific research complexes and houses are organized residential and spatial complexes. Setting aside the possibility of the house perhaps also being an observatory in a different sense, we can say that here the “gesture” made manifest is one of an aesthetic materialization of both the scientific and the residential complexes. Postmodern architecture is often illustrated with examples where a similar displacement occurs, as for example a building shaped like a basket or like any figurative motif around which the intention is to organize habitability. Here, the original observatory, the scientific complex, is in fact the figurative motif governing over, at least partially, the construction of the house. I believe we can agree that Casa Observatorio “looks like” the Jaipur Observatory.
Generally speaking, architecture made only to be seen is branded as grandiose. And generally speaking, architecture claims to be engineering purely for the sake of the pragmatic. Such is the quintessential modern architectural ideal. However, it would be a fallacy to believe in an exclusively functional architecture of a sort of functional purity. Any construction functions both as an example of spatial organization and as an aesthetic object to be contemplated that produces an “aesthetic experience”. This is why architecture magazines include more than just scale drawings, floor plans and diagrams to illustrate houses, and usually have a “spectacular” shot of the façade or something along those lines. Any architectural construction is an aesthetic “object” simultaneously experienced as such and as a residential complex. In this sense, architecture often becomes iconic, meaning that it turns into a symbol or it is granted a symbolic meaning. It is debatable whether every house is “a priori” a symbol or if it is only “a posteriori” that the house-machine becomes a “representational object”. Without delving too much into detail, or discussing whether or not “every architectural construction is an aesthetic object” (I believe some examples in history do not square with that definition, at least not immediately), suppose we at least agree that in the era known as Modernity it is not unusual for the reception of an architectural construction to take place in the form of aesthetic contemplation nor is it rare for us to experience this event.
The first distinguishing trait of Casa Observatorio is that it brings to light all these complex relationships between functionality and the aesthetic experience. What experience does the house bring forward? The experience one has of the observatory is not a scientific one but rather an aesthetic experience brought on by observing the sky. According to Gabriel Orozco himself, water, the fundamental protagonist of the house, functions when it is still and does not flow, like a mirror. Therefore, this “observatory” leads to the observation of the sky as it appears symbolically reflected on the watery surface of the pool. Through this game of reflections the water doubles into the sky and the sky into the water. Through this doubling, the concavity of the pool stands before another great concave form: the celestial cavity. Because the roof of the house acts as the horizontal plane, it becomes extended into the very horizon à propos to which it was placed. This horizontality is perhaps the building’s main line of force. Now, the house as a horizon exists in the same fold as the one between sky and water, the same boundary or area at the aperture-fold between the sky and the house. Horizon, house, and sky: together forming a receptive complex. Is such receptivity questionable from a volumetric vantage point? Is the house an open volume, is its geometry dynamic and open? It could be argued that the fact that it has been surrendered as a figurative motif is not necessarily an obstacle for this to be true. Pure geometry could argue that the symmetric and closed “cross floor plan” was in fact conceived as a static and not dynamic form. Suppose we set this discussion aside, as it is separate from the house and its purposes that are more symbolic than they are formal. I think we can agree that the formation or the moment of happening for this receptive complex occurs at a symbolic level.
But not just that. Since its center is taken, the house “expels” residents from a center to which they have no access. The centrifugal nature of the house organizes the possible uses of space. The facilities as well as the circulation routes are established on the margins of the house and in some sense they are in themselves marginal. Why? Because just as the pool establishes a connection with the sky, placing the house outside of itself, so are the inhabitants expelled out and into the margins of the house -the horizontal surface of the observatory- and forced to reside, meaning “make use of”, this symbolic receptive space made up of the observatory-horizon-sky triad. The residents are tossed out, or rather “tucked in”, to this engrossing and receptive place. On the whole, I believe the house speaks of (1) the non-private and therefore public nature of residential spaces, where the possibility of a private life is snatched from under us, forcing us to be exposed to the exterior (the house has no “interior”); and (2) the receptive and hospitable nature of an exterior space comprised by reciprocal sky-observatory reflections that fold out into the horizon like a third dimension and creating a symbolically receptive space where we go through the aesthetic experience of feeling tucked in and in some sense protected (however exposed).
Working through this project as an aesthetic decision led me to imagine the path to its ultimate execution. The decision to “reproduce” a space designed to be an observatory, to de-contextualize it and “use” it with a completely different function in my mind could only be feasible if it was an aesthetic decision to begin with. As this was in fact true and, as he was quick to point out, considering that we felt like we were personally taking on part of Gabriel’s work, it was difficult to question from a perspective of architecture, of the resulting space. Without a doubt, reproduction, de-contextualization and change of function remained our core goals and through them the space would eventually take up an identity of its own. In terms of authenticity, since Gabriel’s practice mostly deals with the use of objects, elements, spaces and sensation- inducing scenarios, the extreme detachment of his work from today’s I.T. era where everything has a “logical reason” of being is also obvious as such. The fact that it is the reproduction of something ceases to be our problem as its “aura” now resides elsewhere. The same thing happens exactly when we go see a movie featuring a reproduced landscape, as we do not expect to see or capture the “aura” generated by the original landscape as experienced live, but rather one based on filmic reproduction, storyline, camera perspective and character direction. Herein resides the “aura” of this house. As much as the actual use of these objects, elements and moments is the validating point in Gabriel’s practice, the established sensations associated to an object, in this case, are the artist’s primary concern. I could have never fathomed the result because through the process for me space had been just that, an aesthetic decision as part of an artistic practice based on the creation of sensations rooted on the everyday, reproduction and the use of something that already exists. Only once the piece stood executed and able to lapse into its everyday did it as an object become an inhabitable space, and only then was I able to understand it as an architectural piece. The transformation in perception took place when it was understood that the space perfectly responded to the family habits and purposes. As soon as I saw the “object” as used and inhabited, the “symbolic” space quickly became the everyday space the family was accustomed to reside. The house that seems to expel its inhabitants from its center manages to produce a familiar experience for every one of its inhabitants. For example, this family is used to going camping together through the different beaches of the Mexican Republic, mostly up and down this particular extension of the Pacific coast. Suddenly, here they have a place where they can emulate their past experience, only in a much more sedentary way. In a campsite, private space becomes remarkably reduced and “expels” you from its interior as it encourages any activity outside of itself. The strictly intimate activities are relegated to this space, but everything else is experienced in reference to its context, the sky, the horizon. In a campsite, the “residents” relate directly with their environment; the social dynamic becomes increasingly collective as many of the activities are shared, both the intimate and more socially interpersonal events. The cohabitation space integrates to the site, something we see in the house. The intimate activities, the bedrooms, are what the tent is to the campsite, articulated by an observation and recreational unit conveying coherence and meaning to both space and activity and therefore defining the everyday. In terms of its function, the house incorporates the iconic facet of architecture, defined as such because it responds to a function.
As we discuss Gabriel Orozco’s relationship to authorship, we remember that the authorship of the house belongs to no one. Although the artist includes the house in his practice, there is no question of there being an original construction, Orozco’s decision to reproduce it and Tatiana’s task of adapting it and building it. Therefore, the final result would not have been possible had it not been for its three “parents”. The relationships in Orozco’s work are established by the choice of an element, an a priori, that is then transformed and presented as something removed from its original condition, retaining its chosen recognizable element and thus producing a particular sensation for the spectator. We do not believe this to lead us to the destruction of the aura that Benjamin speaks of, but to a “superimposition of auras”. When a non-serial piece is reproduced, whatever its condition, and the resulting copy is an element so similar to the original it could potentially replace it, we then convene that the result is an insubstantial object. Now, in this house the purpose is not to create an identical copy, as the new house will have its own “here and now” purpose to it. However, as the result is so geometrically similar to the original, one resists losing the sensations provoked by the same. This culminates in a superimposed aura cohabitation that clearly contributes an added value to the residence. In terms of the permanence of the aura, instead alluding to cinematography as Tatiana did we could allude to contemporary music, mostly electronic: musicians use samples and become part of a song so they can de-contextualize it and construct around it a new theme where we can identify what has been sampled as cohabitating with the artist’s superimposed creation. However, we also want to delve into the symbolic connotations of the house. As compared to the displacement operating in some postmodern pieces mentioned by Ekhi -where an object with a clearly denotative meaning was taken from the collective unconscious and transposed onto a building- this house goes further than that whether or not it intended to do so. The building is based on an original construction devoted to the observation of the sky, the investigation of the unknown in a necessarily nocturnal setting, and was (still is) a machine designed to bring us closer to the stars and the intangible. In this sense, its line of environmental interaction is essentially vertical. On the other hand, its Greek cross floor plan connotes horizontality and an earth-oriented aperture. In any case, it is not a symbol of a religious event but of a search of what transcends us. And speaking of the cruciform floor plan, we would like to ask Tatiana to discuss another element of great symbolism: its orientation, whether it responds to the original, to the place where the house can be found. We have also observed with interest the centrifugal nature of the residence, as it provides for an absence of interior diagonal views that enables an atypical aesthetic experience but mostly because the very residence is forced out to the perimeters. Notwithstanding the upper levels, that is, on the ground floor, a clear hierarchy is established: 1. An unattainable center, 2. The bedrooms, 3. The exterior spaces in between the bedrooms and 4. The region of uncertainty immediately adjacent to the house. One could argue that such a clear hierarchy between the sections is something less befitting of contemporary architecture, but we would not hesitate to qualify the residence as such. I would like to hear your opinions about this.
Although the house has a significant vertical line of interaction I would say that, as opposed to the observatory, it finds its essence interacting with context rather than sky. We oriented the cross by taking the axis of the house and re-placing it on the only two points that define the site: one lone palm tree on a parcel of land (as a curious anecdote, the day we finished our sketch we saw a maguey flower in full bloom and competing with the palm tree) and the centre point of a number of rocks on the more remote parts of the parcel by the sea.
I think that the entrenchment of the house to the site comes from the strategic strokes performed by its compositional elements. As Ekhi said, the house possesses a centrifugal force that expels itself to the outside, however sustaining an important attraction to the center. Because of the great force of the unattainable center, this house gets us closer to the earth than to the heavens. The fact that the bottom areas of the house are destined to be “inhabited” gets us to experience it much like we experience the earth, as it pulls us towards the center and the unknown it represents. This is what it is to be experienced, being marginally surrounded and admired from another place. I would not say that the house is less than residential; as I mentioned before the fact that it allows the family enjoy their routines confers it a residential disposition.
Beyond its intrinsic symbolism, we totally agree and believe the house to be both suitable and enjoyable as a residence. We never doubted its functionality and architectonic potential. This is why we are attracted to the idea of retaking and bringing into crisis the concept of architecture as something singular and unique, because the house proves this fact as much as it does not. An architect colleague of ours owns a parcel of land in La Rioja, a prairie surrounded by trees and a continuous contour line. Just about every day, a number of people confess to him their desire to build an exact replica of Villa Savoye on his land. The conversation always starts on a light note and quickly turns into a jigsaw puzzle, as we never arrive to a convincing line of reasoning against the idea of building it. In fact, we believe it would be interesting. Le Corbusier himself imagined and sketched out a prairie brimming with Villa Savoyes. Such is our friend’s personal desire. He simply likes it, he cannot think of a better residence to build and he knows of no higher aesthetic experience than the one proposed by the Villa. Having processed this, suppose he has his exact replica built. What happens now when the Villa Savoye kitchen is deemed too far out into a marginal corner because it was meant for the help? What if he decides to change it and expose it to the patio? Surely just this would spoil the charm and the idea of living inside an exact replica 70 years and 1,000 km away from its original site. However, what if instead of changing the kitchen he decides to adapt more and more things to the point of re-interpreting it into something closer to Villa Dall’Alva…? At any rate, this can only happen in stand-alone houses that function as living machines and not at the Casa Ugalde by Coderch, as an example, as this would simply make no sense. An exact copy of Villa Savoye could indeed provide a pleasant life and a complete aesthetic experience, just like Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion does. However, what part of it would be considered architecture?
I think it’s a great idea. I also think that building a copy of Villa Savoye would be an incredible experiment. I sincerely believe that in the past 70 years life has changed almost as radically as I felt the passage of time at the Observatory in India when I was there. We are discussing the aura again, but I believe that here Walter Benjamin’s reference is particularly fitting. Will the uses and customs of the house perhaps change as things change through the centuries? I also consider the amount of architecture in something a subject worthy of discussion. As a matter of fact, one of the constants of my every day entails wondering how much architecture there is in what I do. Sometimes, case in point Casa Observatorio, we believe there is none and then suddenly one day everything about it becomes architecture to us. At this juncture we would need to start defining architecture, a scarcely productive turn for us to take at the moment. We might as well discuss Villa Malaparte, in Capri, which I start to use as an “original” object and end up replicating sensations and transporting them to the site. How much architecture would there be in this, I wonder?
Many questions have been raised. They are difficult to resolve but rich in content. First, we have the question of the “aura” and how it is juggled within Casa Observatorio. Now, I will get a bit theoretical as I focus on the interplay between repetition and difference.
I believe that the issue of the replaceability of something lies at the gleaming core of the aura conundrum. We say that something has an aura when it is irreplaceable, that is, when it cannot be substituted by its analog version and it is not equal to something else. And so, as Benjamin says, an aura will always surround itself by ritual and thus it will dissolve when the totality of things occur in the form of their general equivalency. Within the Marxist theory that Benjamin uses as springboard, money is the commodity that renders the rest of the commodities more or less equivalent to each other. When the totality of things composing reality (whether people or houses or resources) appears to us in the shape of commodity, this general equivalence principle could be extended to said totality. To be singular and irreplaceable, that is, to be endowed with this aura in principle comes into direct conflict with the capitalist mode of interchange. Within the work and production fronts, the serial production of an object is the translation of this equivalence principle that snubs a priori the irreplaceable nature of things.
What happens in Casa Observatorio? I believe we sensed it when someone mentioned the “superimposition of auras”. No repetition generated anything analogous or equivalent to an original observatory. Some people say that repeating a stroke is pretty much unproductive because it does not engage novelty. In this sense, the repetition of the original observatory is productive in that it conveys novelty. It is not an analogous or equivalent repetition nor is it the repetition of a gesture or replaceable object, but rather stands a unique production and reproduction. Why? Because under no circumstances is Casa Observatorio a mere equivalent of the Jaipur observatory. In this sense, the original/copy duality bursts into new and inconspicuous meanings within Benjamin’s text. For Benjamin, such a burst brings us closer to a world where reproductions are would-be copies that do not recognize the originals whence they came. However, the resulting Casa Observatorio is not the repetition of two originals, that is, of two singular and irreplaceable objects. For Nietzsche, repetition is active rather than reactive and it implies a future (here, a re-signifying process) that newness produces in a radical sense. In short, it is a repetition that creates new conditions. Herein resides the entirety of its richness.
But not just any reproduction anywhere can do this. Architecture as a discipline is closely connected to technical reproduction. A modern building will not reveal the characteristic unique stroke of an artist’s painted picture. The decision made by Nouvel to preserve some of the remaining debris and the notes of the workers on the concrete is based on wanting to provide some trace of singularity (lacking, a priori, in the building’s actual production). Also through sheer use an ordinary apartment becomes stained by its residents’ tracks and traces and acquires a singularity that renders it unique. However, I believe that a series of semi-detached villas will repeat and not create novelty. Although in Manhattan there are different buildings, they remain analogous or equivalent to each other. Would the reproduction of Villa Savoye yield a new and singular object or no more than a futile cardboard reproduction? Only if said reproduction implies a re-signification (sampling) process yielding a new and singular object. I believe Casa Observatorio to fulfill this condition. We can add to the list of traits of the house that it brings to light the complex relationships between repetition and differentiation, the reproduction and production of novelty and the creation of an “added value” that renders the house a rich and unique object.
We do appreciate the Malaparte house reference here at the very end, considering it was probably in the back of our minds through the length of the conversation, not to mention the first image we associated to Casa Observatorio the first time we saw it. We believe they share many things. Both of their architectures are remarkably visible, hiding nothing and plotting out landscape a bit arrogantly. As they both adequately follow procedure, aka common sense, they are both equally rooted to their land and they both enrich and give meaning to nature, not unlike a lighthouse or a beachside bar. They are both reference points and provide their site with a reading based on their placement somewhere between the known and infinity. The abstract planarity of all the decks also plays an important role, as this order of things cannot be found elsewhere on the natural landscapes of their surroundings. You climb some steps suddenly you feel in charge of your residence. Both of them are residences that somehow encourage tucked and protected living and exterior life. Also, climbing to the very top of either one of them entails complete exposure to the immensity of the horizon.
Perhaps Koolhaas has essentially already proved with “Casa da Música” that architecture is an intellectual exercise where what counts is the result and the processes are interchangeable. We can endow things with new meanings divorced from anything as originally conceived, as long as somehow this stands addressed, to paraphrase Ekhi’s re-signification or sampling process. See the music of artists like John Talabot. Maybe everything will start to become much clearer to us once our friend gets around constructing the new Villa Savoye…