Beyond Buildings


The New Unconscious: Prix, Rashid, and Maas Dream

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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Courtesy: Simcoe/Art


This is the third of three blogs I based on a panel discussion I led on Saturday, October 30, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, with Hani Rashid, Winy Maas, and Wolf Prix.


When I asked three rather different architects to respond to my credo (see my last posting) at a panel organized by the Biennale of Venice to mark the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Bienalle, they reacted in ways that were to me somewhat unexpected. Hani Rashid, of Studio Asymptote, Winy Maas of MVRDV, and Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au all showed their work, which is what you would expect from successful practitioners. All three, luckily for me me, claimed to agree with my credo. All three offered different approaches for how they felt they should make work in a world of shrink-wrapping, dissipation, and sprawl. All agreed, in the end, on the importance of the unconscious. This, to me, was both beautiful and frightening, as the unconscious should be.

“I can’t help it, I was born and raised in Vienna, and lived there all my life. My life is marked by Freud,” said Wolf Prix. Certainly any architect whose name means “the Cooperative of the Blue of Heaven” appeals to something beyond the physical. Prix has always seen the Dionysian world of rock and roll as a model, and has modeled his buildings on everything from Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs to leaping whales. With his partner, Helmut Swiczinsky, he also developed a neo-surrealist drawing method, the “psychogram,” in which they sought to conquer preconceptions and limitations by creating the building’s generating sketch by drawing together, with their eyes closed. Certainly some buildings appear like monsters or piles of fragments emerging from some uncanny reservoir of form.

Hani Rashid would seem the opposite: One of the first to use digital technologies, he produces streamlined, bulbous forms and fluid interiors that he shapes through the use of computer programs. The work he and his partner, Lise Anne Couture, do is, however, rooted in the teachings of Daniel Libeskind and some of the utopian Italian architects of the 1970s. While producing larger and larger buildings Rashid and Couture have continued to also create hybrid forms, which morph together bodies, vehicles, clothes, machines, and whatever else their computers can snarf up. These digital forms change, whether in form or image, continually. Whether seen on a computer screen or, as in an installation they created in Kassel, Germany, rotateing on deformed cylinders over one’s head, disappearing into their own mirrored forms into infinity. In their contribution to the 11th Architecture Exhibitition in Venice, they became physical forms that, though static, were complex enough that they gave the appearance of morphing. They were slick, and lit in a continually changing array of hues, and also mirrored. Now these strange beasts are becoming pieces of furniture, art objects, or, in case a house. They might be the monstrous building blocks of Asymptote’s future architecture.

Winy Maas would seem to be most rational of the three, and indeed he gave a passionate plea for analysis of our current social, economic and technological conditions, based in education, so that we can entertain modern means to solve age-old problems, such as the lack of adequate housing for the poor and the need for a more rational way to use natural resources. He also called for making things new, rejecting the reuse of past forms and dreaming of a return of the utopias that architects stopped producing in the 1970s. Yet he also extolled the “beauty of uncertainty,” and said that we should produce “technological monsters." He called his work a “combination of science and fiction.” He also showed buildings that drew heavily on archetypes abstracted and manipulated in a surreal manner—the latest of these being a “barn” for the English writer Alain de Botton, which looks like a child’s drawing of a house, clad in metal, and cantilevering in a rather absurd manner out from the hillside.

So the archetype, the undecidable, the monstrous, the weird, the feared for and the dreamed of all made their appearance again. The danger is that such forms are, well, dangerous, as all things that our ego does not control can be. They destabilize conscious reality. They are out of place. What to me was most frightening was that they  also seemed to have a connection with romantic notions of sturm und drang, and to vague notions of what human types or archetypes might be. Having said that, it is of course our unconscious where our humanity resides or, rather, in its relationship between our consciousness, to find at that intersection a constructive possibility for the making of a humanist architecture. “I always want to know what is next,” Maas said, and perhaps the building of dreams—or nightmares—is. Or, as Prix put it, we must finally build the Tower of Babel and touch the sky.



Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:27 AM Tuesday, May 31, 2011


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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:04 PM Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    The ego driven romanticism of their views of architecture as dramatic sculpture, reflective of each individual's expressive genius seems quaintly anachronistic in a world of diminishing resources and demanding need. Poetry and meaning can and have been attained within a less extravagent vision.

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  • Posted by: rj chicago | Time: 12:20 PM Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    "Or, as Prix put it, we must finally build the Tower of Babel and touch the sky" If I were Wolf Prix _ I would be VERY mindful of what I am asking of and praying for - History proved out what happened to the Israelites in the Old Testament who attempted to build a temple to themselves - the Tower of Babel in the OT was DESTROYED and the people who built it scattered to the ends of the earth. EEEK!!!!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:43 AM Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    Nice one

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.