You’ve definitely seen some of the work done by David Piscuskas and Juergen Riehm of 1100 Architect: the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, the MoMA store in mid-town, or the renovation of the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. You may even have gazed at the exterior of One Sutton Place. Their constructions are beautifully-executed, intellectually rigorous but full of freed space and thus ultimately liberating in some way. Nonetheless we found that it took us time to appreciate it. The same cannot be said for the architects themselves, who are humorous, approachable, eloquent, and seemed rather pleased when, at some stage in the interview, we described some of their work as ‘having a lot of testosterone running through it.’
I have to say when I picked up your book 1100 Architect (The Monacelli Press) and saw your work, there was an initial resistance to what I saw. Then slowly I began to love it. I was wondering if you know that this may well be a reaction to your work, a slow burn … because the work can be quite rigorous.
David: Without turning tables would you mind to share what it was that caused that reaction?
(Sian) It happened to both of us at about the same time. Now I just think it’s amazing, but my first reaction was ‘Oh God I can’t deal with this.’ (Lesley) It was like we were learning what you were saying, but it was a process. It wasn’t love at first sight.
Juergen: I think the best way for me to answer that is that we are actually interested in doing exploration and investigations that are very particular to a specific set of criteria. Foremost the client itself: Their dreams. How do they want to live? What was very formative for us in the early years was connecting with highly creative individuals, emerging artists and established ones [as clients]. David: I’m curious when you felt you couldn’t deal with it, and I completely respect it, I’m welcoming that and fascinated by it, but was too clean, too crisp, too abstract? Another writer, many years ago, called our work ‘second-glance’ work.
(Lesley) There’s an intellectual rigor to your work. It’s a little intimidating. (Sian) Yes, it’s very intellectual. It’s like ‘Oh my God I’m not smart enough for this architecture.’ (Lesley) Except that gradually a kind of seduction occurs.
Juergen: Well that all sounds actually quite okay!
David: In fact one of the things that we work with, and in a certain sense underneath, is a concern that it’s not intellectual enough. If it can be possibly said in this conversation, we’re very well aware of what might make it more intellectual. And there’s a balance, some kind of calibration … it’s important to understand that these are not intellectual exercises but we think about it very intellectually.
I think what won me over was your use of raw materials. There’s obviously a real passion for presenting ‘unvarnished’, unadorned material, which brought to mind another quote ‘The art of cooking is making things taste like themselves.’ This was like letting building materials be themselves.
David: Yes. The more direct we can be with use of the material and its finish, the better. One of the challenges of working with clients, especially in domestic settings, is that generally people want ease of maintenance. Who wants to labor over something to preserve its aesthetic clarity? As a rule, the more you finish something, the more you make it maintenance-free, the farther you remove it from what it is.
Juergen: It’s also a process of discovery [with experimenting with materials]… it is as you would listen to a piece of music and you can still listen to it and discover more about. That’s really want we want to achieve.
What were your thoughts on embarking upon the Little Red School House project?
David: First of all you don’t condescend to children at all.
How did they respond to the building?
Juergen: I think they loved it!
David: My very best day ever as an architect was the opening day at Little Red when these kids were pouring through the building. It was like the best Christmas Day ever.
David: Oh sure! Somebody said it looked like a firehouse.
How are you at handling criticism?
David: Our skins are getting thicker.
Did you ever imagine you’d have this kind of artistic freedom compared to most architects?
[They both laugh] Who said we have freedom?
Well I get the impression that most architects, when they go to architecture school are all training to be first violin, so to speak, and then they really aren’t when they’re out in the world.
Juergen: Well I think the path we have chosen is slightly different than other people. We’re interested in getting our hands dirty, although not literally any more. When I met David, he was a designer, and a builder.
David: I was 25 years old and I had a loft project. When it came to the kitchen, I was determined to do something that hadn’t been done before and I wanted to make the counter out of concrete. Juergen came in the door one day and I said I need some help … we’re mixing concrete this weekend.
How did you know how to do that?
David: It’s not that hard.
Juergen: In Germany education is such that as an architectural student you are required to take on apprenticeships throughout the course of your studies. And you can choose to do that in an architects’ office or on a construction site. So I got the opportunity to do some more work. Also my family business is woodworking, so it came very natural. David: I remember one summer pouring foundations. It was the hardest work ever. You lifted these 100-pound wood panels that were soaked in oil because that is how the panel becomes disengaged from the concrete after the pour. And you load them in ground. The pour comes from a truck. One of my jobs was to crawl on the top and you scurry around like a rat, keeping it square and the concrete wants to move it. You do that at the end of the day. You’re back in the hole in the morning. You take the panels out, load it up, get it to another location and in the ground again the same day. It was brutal.
Are you wary of the idea of architecture as kind of priesthood, sort of the way Tom Wolfe describes it in that fantastic book From Our House to Bauhaus?
David: I think one is wary of it in some way for sure but one of my teachers, who is also a very, very successful architect in Barcelona and he sat down with me and said: ‘David, it’s very, very, very hard to do this.’ He said ‘very’ about ten times. And I’ve said to some of our people. It’s very difficult to get this right.
So what do you do with mistakes in architecture?
David: It’s such a great question.
Juergen: You avoid making them! [Laughs]
There’s a whole architectural movement that, in my view, is a mistake: Post-modernism.
Juergen: That’s not a mistake! It was a crime!
David: The intellectual underpinnings were actually okay. It was search for a human scale in architecture in a legible and recognizable way. You could look at a building and say I understand what this building is telling me.
Juergen: What I hated the most was that it was all appliqué. I think in our work there is much more modesty.
So now I’m going to pick out one of my questions that I like to imagine you get as essay questions at architecture school: Is there some way in which dictators and totalitarian governments give architects a chance to do big important work that is harder to get done within a liberal democracy?
Juergen: It’s funny that you ask because last night’s guests were members of the Municipal Arts Society and they were talking about what is happening in Penn Station, and what’s not happening, and I think part of the discussion last night, was ‘What does it take to do public architecture. Do you need a Robert Moses?’ But that doesn’t have to be a totalitarian system, but it needs to be someone who has vision.
But you need someone very forceful, and someone who has a need to express their ego.
Juergen: Or be a leader.
David: The other thing that’s necessary is vision. So if a totalitarian leader has some kind of vision, however simple-minded it may be, and there’s no obstacles to them executing it. It’s much more difficult in a democratic society to empower individuals’ vision and be willing to subscribe to it to the extent it can be implemented because certainly there are alternative points of view.
Like what’s happening with Ground Zero?
Juergen: And there’s nobody to turn to.
We need a king! The King of Ground Zero.
[They laugh, nodding in agreement].
One last question then. What about demolition? If something you built was, or has been, demolished, how would you cope with that?
David: There’s always a mix of feeling. In fact the TSE store on Madison Avenue is gone.
You didn’t shed a tear?
David: That’s the marketplace and history is filled with these examples. As students you go hunting for work by such and such and you can’t find it.
Juergen: Ohh … a little sadness … I felt a little sadness.