Andrés Jaque is the founder of the New York and Madrid–based Office for Political Innovation. By exploring the expanded potential of architecture through both speculative and realized designs, the firm has received numerous accolades, including the 2015 MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program and the 2016 Frederick Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts. In 2014, Jaque’s SALES ODDITY: Milano 2 and the Politics of Direct-to-Home TV Urbanism garnered a 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale Silver Lion award. The 2011 IKEA Disobedients was the first “architectural performance” piece to enter the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. In this project, local residents were invited to hack IKEA furniture, and in doing so publicly perform their everyday private talents and determine their own lifestyles. The project suggests that not all people necessarily abide by the same normative principles or architectural dictates. Jaque is also the director of the Columbia University GSAPP postgraduate Advanced Architectural Design program.
The Architect’s Newspaper: What roles do architecture and urbanism play in addressing today’s global challenges?
Andrés Jaque: Architecture and urbanism have a responsibility to mediate some of the most pressing topics reshaping contemporary life: environmental degradation, mounting geopolitical tensions, and the articulation of physical and virtual worlds. There are three unavoidable facts facing society today: Climate change is forcing humanity to redefine how we engage with nature; technology is becoming increasingly autonomous, making it impossible for humanity to maintain control over its impact; and the evolving interaction society has with the offline and the online realms is blurring the distinction between what is real and what is virtual.
Attempting to set clear boundaries between these two realities requires a greater effort. Architecture plays an important role in all these issues. The field has a great capacity and responsibility in the making of facts catering to the collective sense of truth that all forces in society should now—more than ever—respect. Architecture is in the best disciplinary position it has ever been to shape the present and propose potential scenarios for the future.
AN: How can the discipline look to the past to inform the present?
AJ: As architects, we have to reflect on our practice, but also on our legacy. On one hand, we need to develop new ways to operate and respond to changing societal and environmental paradigms. On the other hand, we need to reconsider how we view our predecessors, how we understand and learn from architectural history. Just a few years ago, figures like Cedric Price, Lina Bo Bardi, the Ant Farm collective, and Frederick Kiesler were seen as marginal. Today, these unsung innovators are proving to be the best sources of information for tackling the field’s evolutionary challenges.
AN: You often say that architecture needs to incorporate knowledge from other disciplines. What are the benefits of this interdisciplinary approach?
AJ: Architecture has the unique capacity to express different perspectives, materialities, temporalities, and scales in interventions charged with multiplicity. Whatever priorities we’re going to address, our response needs to be informed by different realities. Architecture is not an isolated practice. We have to consult other fields: science, art, technology, etcetera. In that way, the discourse around our discipline is becoming more intersectional. It’s important to understand that the design of a building or environment cannot just be accomplished with form and aesthetics alone. Different political, social, economic, and ecological implications need to be considered if a design is to be relevant.
I defend the concept of intersectional architecture in my capacity as a practitioner and educator. My goal is to develop methodologies that can shift architecture’s interdependence on different realities into an opportunity to engage criticality and to intervene in many areas of contemporary life that are currently being disputed.
AN: Do any of your current projects exemplify the concept of intersectional architecture?
AJ: At Office for Political Innovation, we’re currently designing an experimental school. The project obliges us to simultaneously consider the daily life of its students, but also the larger context that they will occupy. On a larger scale, we’re actually structuring an ecosystem that addresses its own consumption. This aspect will also become an important resource when teaching the students about sustainability.
We’re also currently designing a house on one of the outer islands near Corpus Christi, Texas. Our proposal offers solutions on different levels. On one hand, it’ll serve as a getaway for a Dallas-based family; on the other, it’ll collect fresh rainfall to irrigate the surrounding mangrove—an important line of defense that can combat erosion and rising sea levels. The house can accommodate the owner’s almost hedonistic desires while still ensuring the survival of its surroundings. What we’re realizing in our practice is that architecture needs to simultaneously cater to different realities within a single response. A design has the ability to address often disparate elements and perspectives.
AN: From your experience as a cocurator of 2018’s Manifesta 12 biennial in Palermo, Italy, how do you think art practice influences the way we imagine and/or create cities?
AJ: Palermo is not a city but rather a hub for the stratified relationships that tie it to distant places like sub-Saharan West Africa, Bangladesh, and the United States. These connections occur through the flow of capital and investment—that dispute the future of the city’s built environment—but also the nearby military base that foreign powers use to strike the Middle East and northern Africa. Palermo’s architecture, the dialectic between its role on a local and global level, has proved to be ineffectual in dealing with these transnational interactions.
In this scenario, architecture and art are the only disciplines that can bring heterogeneous situations together. Whether it’s the migration crisis or a personal struggle, these realities simultaneously develop on different scales. Architecture and art can mediate the evolution of these realities by introducing the values of urbanity, new forms of citizenship, and the aesthetics of inclusivity. This can only happen if such interventions take stock of what is already in place and grasp the full scope of complexity that the context might contain. To be truly impactful, the initiatives must cater to all parts rather than just the most powerful elements. An open cultural platform like the Manifesta art biennial offers architects and artists the space to test out independent action that the urgency of commercial commissions rarely provides.
AN: How is architecture education changing?
AJ: Within the Advanced Architectural Design Program that I direct at Columbia University, students—who already have significant experience with design as a critical medium—explore new forms of practice in different contexts. They gain an analytical understanding that will allow them to intervene and apply architecture as a contemporary methodology. Various speculative exercises allow them to test out how the field could have a wider scope of influence in the future. They don’t learn a predetermined set of skills, but rather work together and with faculty to reinvent architecture as a discipline that can respond to the world’s greatest problems.
It is crucial that they are able to translate this discursive approach when entering or reentering the profession. In our program, we’re trying to change architectural education by introducing an experimental pedagogy. Students are given the time and space to develop situated projects that address specific, real-world briefs. With its many firms, experts, advocacy agencies, and organizations, New York offers the perfect context for these investigations.