It’s Not About You
Note: This is the edited transcript of a conversation that took place on March 4, 2020. At that point the COVID virus had begun to make its impression but was certainly not at the center of our attention. While we were editing the conversation, obviously lots of things changed. And it is true that no project that begins by rethinking what it might mean to live in a “desert” and imagines that life as a way of reinvigorating the idea of the public can possibly sound quite the same now (in early April) as it did in early March. Furthermore, Bob Somol’s account of our cities as in some sense already designed to produce “a social experience where we are alone together” seems to some of us really helpful both in understanding and deflating some of the current rhetoric. Beyond reading it in a somewhat different light, however, we have made no effort to update what was said.
WBM: I mean, why deserts? Why not, like, high plains? Actually, a good way to start would be if you could say something about the cell/room thing.
BS: Yes, and as part of that, if you could clarify the relative status of those terms. I always understood the project as being “pro-cell” and “anti-room.”
WBM: Me too.
BS: But I read the text sometimes and it sounds like we’re okay with the room [laughter]. And so, I’m not sure—
BS: I thought I knew, but I’m not sure that it’s consistently manifest. I don’t know whether you guys are hedging your bet on the room/cell thing, or whether you imagine a room in a larger sense than how I am trying to caricaturize it.
JC: Well, it is clear, I believe, that we see the cell as an architecture of the collective. In contrast to the room which is an autonomous space of singular function or a specific occupation, the cell’s autonomy is the result of its ability to provide the essentials that one needs to live. In this way, the cell includes provision for an equivalence across its manifestation or repetition, and ensures some degree of indeterminacy of occupation.
FM: We could say that the notion of the room has always been there. Architecture could be in fact considered as the art of “making room” or, in other words, to create space for life to happen. The room is undeniably a fundamental element within the Western architectural history, from Alberti and Palladio, to Durand and Kahn. But it is achieving a particular resonance within the current debate in architecture concerning the notions of individuality, ownership and use. At the 2017 Chicago Biennial, for example, many projects speculated about the room and the exhibition itself was curatorially conceived as a collection of independent rooms within the Art Institute. Among them, The Room of One’s Own was paradigmatic. The project illustrated the evolution of the private room from antiquity to the present, documenting the progressive “domestication” of society, the production of subjectivity and private property. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s homonymous novel, the room was a way to escape the pressure of society and its pervasive systems of control. The room was the only thing that is left to us. Making room is to dwell. Today, within a society that praises individuality, competition, and constant exceptions, there is a clear renaissance of the room as a way of distinction, isolation or refusal. The cell, on the opposite, is about homogeneity and continuity, aggregation and number. We tried to resurrect the idea of the cell against its traditional negative association with constraint and homogeneity. Within an imaginary vocabulary of rooms, we could say that the idea of the cell is at the opposite end of the spectrum. And why? Because, whereas the room implies a certain autonomy or independence from a body or within a system, the cell always refers to the collectivity that contains . The cell speaks the language of multiplicity, of tissues, of fabrics, of rhythms. You can’t understand the cell if you don’t consider the whole that contains it. So, Deserts postulates the cell against the room. The cell has been often denied in architecture history, or negatively associated with large collective buildings and compartmentalized institutions—social housing, hospitals, prisons, hotels, monasteries, and so forth—which are all typologies characterized by the banal repetition of few elements for the sake of equality. But the homogeneity of a cellular concatenation produces differences through the ensemble. In our project, we used Foucault’s famous description in Discipline and Punish, where the Panopticon’s cell is considered both an apparatus of surveillance and a technology of oppression. It is the minimum amount of space you need to survive while being incarcerated and controlled by an inscrutable system. So, we tried to subvert these assumptions questioning the idea of individuality and the power relations inhabiting the cell. The cell not as an instrument of constraint, as an “existenz-minimum,” but rather as a tool to reimagine collectivity and new systems of aggregation.
JC: To go back to Dogma, explicitly within the proposition of “a room of one’s own” is the construction of the individual. Thus, it is no surprise that the strength of the rooms depicted in the exhibition are because they are the embodiment of well-known and distinctive occupants. In contrast, the cell confronts the occupant with its collective equivalence: its strength grows from its ability to be repeated or replicated. So, perhaps in response to Dogma’s The Room of One’s Own exhibition at the Chicago Biennial, our project consciously tried to understand what might be seen as an anonymous architecture, the Carthusian Monastery, or Charterhouse.
JC: On top of this, one of Dogma’s interest in the private room is as a form of architecture that can remove itself from capitalism and the distortions of markets. Their prototype for this is Hannes Meyer’s Co-op Zimmer, which brought individual inhabitation down to the fabrication of canvas walls, a stretcher bed and a gramophone. This project was simply a photograph Meyer made in order to represent his ideals of a communist application of architecture to the space of oneself. The conception of the private room is thus through what it represents. The space portrays the occupant’s values, ideologies, persuasions, etc. In contrast, the cell is conceived through the actions that take place within it, and therefore is not engineered through what it represents but how it is occupied. This distinction is seen in our choice to deny furniture within the cell made for the Triennale. Such a simple design restriction forces the occupant to meet the preconceived rules of the space, and thus deliberately exposes the collective system. The occupant may choose to not use the architecture the way it is intended, but at least they can understand its collective directives through the construction of its rules.
FM: Being part of a collective implies accepting a system of rules. Whereas the room could be freely joined together as an absolute element, the cell is not. When you are in your own room you are entirely dissociated with what occurs outside. Instead, by being part of a larger whole, the cell retains a connection with its context and its assembling logic, which affects its form while preserving the possibility of action inside.
BS: That corresponds to my understanding of your project, which is that the room is formally autonomous and separable, yet what happens inside, its function or its program, is pre-defined or specific. The cell is not formally autonomous, in that it is connected to a system, but what goes on it can be anything. It’s differentiated in terms of its activity, it’s not monoprogrammatic the way a room is: there’s a bedroom, bathroom, dining room, living room. Rooms require programmatic qualifiers, cells do not. The room is separable and autonomous, but the activity that goes on is singularly defined. The room is part of a preconceived division of activities. whereas the cell is the miniature of a larger extent, but everything, or nothing, can happen in it. The cell is not narrowly programmed as a monofunctional thing. It’s formally self-similar (to other cells), but programmatically intensive, versus, the room that is formally self-sufficient but programmatically narrow or partial. You need a lot of rooms to make up your life, a collection of rooms, and they have to be connected by an infrastructure. In this way, the room more directly obeys a part-to-whole economy. So, you’re dependent, in a way. The cell, I would say, is less dependent on the invisible infrastructure that supports it. The room is delimited through its exceptional status, while the cell is conditionally open-ended.
FM: In the abstract terms of our project, the four living actions occurring in the cell do not necessarily require supporting infrastructures such as corridors, arcades, or courtyards. The higher ambition of the cells is to connect among themselves without mediators.
BS: The corridor becomes one mechanism, one infrastructure, for privatizing the room. Maybe even by differentiating or specializing what could have evolved as a cell, the corridor invents the private room: a specific activity for a specific person at a specific point in time.
FM: As Robin Evans claims in his Figures, Doors, and Passages, the notion of corridors suppressed the direct connections between rooms, which once made them always public and exposed. So, the corridor was invented for privacy: to separate, as well as to create hierarchical distinctions within the building.
WBM: That makes complete sense. When does that happen?
BS: According to Evans, you can already see the process in the 17th century, but really it takes off in the 18th and reaches its apotheosis in the 19th century. It is the formulation of a new mode of domestic inhabitation, in the ways that people come together or, more crucially, are held apart. By the 20th century, this simply becomes a codified “natural” understanding in the west of how good, clean living should occur. Which is that you shouldn’t have to encounter other genders or other generations or other classes or any other activities in your day to day life except as intended. It would eradicate the accidents of encounter or possibilities of comingling. The new norm will simply be, as he describes it, a room with one door. That then, through the corridor, allows you to get to another door, another room. Yet for all this seeming variety of part-rooms, of functional zoning really, a single and proper paradigm underlies the apparent diversity.
WBM: Right, and so that starts already with the monastery.
FM: Do you mean the segregation of a building into rooms? Yes, in a way. But domestic rooms are different from monastic cells, or what the Carthusians called “Deserts.”
JC: There is a distinguishing point between the room and the cell; the autonomy created by the corridor works differently between the monastery and the private house. As one can do almost everything in the cell, the corridor of the monastery—the cloister—brings all the cells together. Where in the private house, it is the corridor, or the network between the rooms, that separates and provides the room with the ability to be mono-functional or less open.
FM: Less exposed.
JC: Yes, exactly.
BS: A cell can be an entire world unto itself, a captive globe perhaps, whereas the room can only be the fragment of a social-political template that imagines the world in a certain way, in which the room is one functioning part of it. You want to sleep here, and eat there, and read there, and relax there. But that, let’s say, is the social diagram that overlays the system of rooms. Whereas the idea of the cell is that the entirety of a world can happen inside the cell, which is arranged differently than the next one next door.
WBM: So you’re saying there are two ways, which are related but not quite the same. One way the room is not a cell is the room which has a particular function. So, if you live in your house and you have a room to cook in, and a room to sleep in, and a room of one’s own to write one’s novels in, right?
WBM: The other way, though, which is also not the cell is the room with the corridor, where actually when you withdraw into the room, your own room, you don’t have to have a relation to these other kinds of activities.
BS: Yes, that’s right. The corridor elaborates on the logic of distinction that the room potentially embodies.
WBM: Right, and in theory you have a kind of privacy. It’s your room, you can do what you want, and the advantage of the room is it’s a form of withdrawal. So that’s different from the first thing, but they’re both rooms, not cells. I guess the point for you guys is that the cell is something which is going to have the structure of the corridor, like in the monastery. But it’s not like the mono-activities, because, for you, you do everything basic in the cell. And although it is a kind of withdrawal from the world—that’s in the eremitic tradition—it’s not a withdrawal from the social. Because it brings the social with it, in the form of the rule.
FM: Yes, indeed.
BS: That also clarifies that the room is tied to the regime of functions while the cell is tied to the regime of rules.
WBM: Right, right.
BS: The key distinction would be between function and rule—just as much as it is between room and cell.
WBM: So function and rule is crucial, and then privacy and rule is too. Because the cell makes it so that, on your account, there is, in a certain sense, no privacy. Not for Foucauldean reasons, because there’s someone always observing you or because you’re writing to them. But because as long as you’re trying to follow the rule, you’re already doing something that depends on something that’s not merely individual, that’s intrinsically public. If there were individual rules then you can never not follow it, there wouldn’t be a rule. So, the point is that it serves this double function. When Bob started talking about the mono-functional, I was thinking “Yeah, this is an architecture thing” which had never crossed my mind. But once you made the point it’s clear they go together. You focus on actions, because the focus on actions does two things. The actions get you what Bob wants, which is, because the room is not mono-functional, it’s not merely functional—it’s not the room for reflecting in as opposed to shitting in, it’s a room in which you could do both. And the other consequence of the focus on action is the not-quite Foucauldian thing; the actions are going to be in some relation to a rule. So the actions serve two purposes. One is they make it multi-functional; you can live your entire life there. And the other is, that they inscribe it within a system of rules.
FM: One of the potential developments of the project might look at the aggregation of the cells.
WBM: Say more about what you mean by aggregation.
FM: Physical aggregation, as in the monastery and, above all, a conceptual aggregation, as multiple expressions of the same rule. Once the inhabitants perform and subscribe to the same set of rules individually, they are, in fact, constituting a multiplicity, a common language. The physical aggregation becomes secondary.
WM: So, in theory you could have only one cell, but it still wouldn’t be a room.
FM: Yes. You can understand a whole fabric, or a whole collective system of rules through one cell, but not through a single room.
WBM: The aggregation, actual, physical adding on and adding on; but the principle of the following rule part, and the principle also, actually, of doing all the parts of your life in it is available in just one cell?
FM: Yes. The cell conceptually and physically implies something more than itself, a multiplicity, a fabric, a collective form. And in fact, the last phase of our project was to imagine the deserts together in a seamless arrangement. Some of these aggregations were particularly interesting, consisting of sequences without infrastructure, cells with no corridors or striations. You can move from one cell to another one both physically and mentally as in a continuous field. A field that is both private and public, or we could say, common, at the same time! The field is the attempt to materialize the conceptual domain of the rule at a physical level. Whereas the room requires a certain kind of infrastructure and also a certain kind of privacy, meaning you need a corridor, an alley, a door, and so forth—some of the deserts could be assembled in series to create a continuous landscape of opportunities; which is impressive, because it could concretely behave as a collective, meaning with no traditional distinction between serving and served space. Some of the cells, instead, were less powerful so to speak, as they needed some sort of additional striation or regulatory system beyond their own form.
JC: Like in the form of streets—
FM: Precisely. In the form of streets or corridors. Because of their intrinsic formal constituency, some of the cells had a backside and a frontside, and when placed them next to each other, they produced alleys and streets with the usual problems of aggregation. Aggregation is a fascinating theme in architecture, whose richness obviously depends on its components. But this is a particular form of aggregation as we are assembling equal elements. The best form of aggregation for a cell is always to find the most appropriate fabric (or rule) that maximizes its intrinsic formal potential. Differently than the room, the cell blossoms into aggregations more than in its individuality.
JC: This brings up a point for which we haven’t expanded upon, which is the difference between agglomeration and conglomeration, or an aggregation and a conglomeration. We often talk too much about aggregation of units, in which the multiplicity of one doesn’t actually form a new whole. In this way, the multiplicity of the unit doesn’t form a new entity because there is no recognizable formation for which every unit pertains to. This is perhaps the case when the agglomerations of units require extra regulatory systems (streets and corridors). But with a conglomeration, when the multiplicity of the unity actually forms something else, there is a clear conception of a whole. A clear idea of the collective formation. In looking back at the exhibition, I believe the projects that we produced were sometimes agglomerations and sometimes conglomerations. When the cells had an intrinsic form that allowed aggregation without externalities to form a conglomeration, these projects appeared inherently collective, as nothing else was needed to collectivize them. Where we saw a lacking, was in the cells for which we had to add things, like streets.
WBM: And so the streets were more of a failure?
JC: To a certain degree. But then, this also alludes to another notion that we may not have focused on. In the penultimate part of the exhibition, we decided to collectivize our cells within the organization of infinite fields. And in looking back, the idea of the infinite repetition of a cell is not necessarily the best result, because you’re not creating one unified body. For me, the beauty of the cell is the notion it begins with two, because whilst the rule can be constructed for oneself, how can a collective rule be constructed without the presence of another, whether or not it is a living body or the notion of another. So, I would go back and say that the cell we’re talking about requires a second one, or the notion of another, for it to be classed as a cell. And then to continue from that, the idea of an infinite multiplication begins to lose the recognition of the other, which is so important to the confrontation of the collective through the rule.
FM: Also, we shouldn’t consider the cellular aggregation as a simple rule of addition, which perhaps is more appropriate to the room. Cells work through tendencies, vectors, and trajectories established by a common rule that generates the field. This is the reason why we all convinced ourselves to call them deserts. Not only just for the Carthusian definition, but because the desert is something that you cannot define with strict boundaries but only as a differential, a threshold. There’s not a specific edge where you can say—“The desert begins here. This is arid land, this is fertile land, death versus life”—but is the constant shifting of a limiting condition. The tendency towards an endless fabric is embedded in the very idea of the cell, as well as a different understanding of architecture and, hence, of space and collectivity. Precisely while imagining such a potential field of aggregation, we realized that the cells that didn’t use any additional infrastructural system were also the ones able to question and challenge our traditional notions of privacy, movement, functions, separation, and behaviors.
WBM: OK but, if you think about the desert—you have two people in a desert, two people wandering a desert, that’s just privacy. I mean, it’s a big desert, you never see each other, or have a relation to each other or whatever; whereas the whole point of extrapolating from the monastery and from the monastic rule is that the guys went to the desert to follow St. Antony. So, they didn’t actually have to hang out with St. Anthony, although they did, pretty often, come to visit him or he visited them, but they’re sort of scattered around the desert, they never see each other at all, but they actually inhabit a public space. So, the public space, why is it a public space? Because the guys just wandering around the desert are lost in the desert and are private, maybe happily lost in the desert, happily evading the social gaze, gender roles, all that stuff. But whatever set of rules you want to imagine, the people who are in the desert to follow St. Antony are in the desert to follow his rule. So I’m not sure if this is a question about the fabric—you should say more about the fabric, or provide us, maybe, an exemplary instance of the fabric that works—but part of the point would be that the rule takes an individual’s behavior and makes it public. The rule takes two individuals’ behaviors, performed even without their knowledge of each other, and makes them part of the same collective.
FM: Yes. It is the rule that produces the collective, and not the physical aggregation, as the rule is embedded in the cell itself. For us, drawing the fabric was an attempt to make the rule visible by its endless reproduction: a way to express the wider aspirations of the cell against its traditional restrictive connotation. However, we understood the limits of such a representation.
WBM: So, the collectivity is not in the numbers. Because, after all, if there were two and then one went home, the one who was left would still be following the rule.
BS: If a rule falls in the desert and there’s only one person to hear it, does it make a collective?
JC: Yes, of course. But what is important is the notion of something else that the individual is connected with.
WBM: But I think I lost you a bit when the question becomes the resistance to a certain modernity of blurring boundaries, and of blurring sexual boundaries. That might happen or it might not. Wouldn’t it depend more on what the rule was than on what was involved in following it? I mean, whatever it is, if there’s a best way to—what are the four actions again?
FM: Sleeping, washing, eating, excreting
WBM: So, if sleeping involves following a rule, it involves following the rule wherever and whoever you are. It’s individual but impersonal, you have to do it, but it’s not about you. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a man following the rule, or a woman, or a straight man, none of that matters. But nonetheless, following the rule, or the failure to follow the rule, or the disagreement with somebody over what exactly the rule requires, that’s public. So the desert has this genealogy but it only works as the place where you follow the rule.
BS: Interesting. So what establishes the collective part of the rule is the ability to negotiate or argue over it. The rule is what allows us to come together to agree or disagree. So, an inadequte version of the desert is that it provides an escape, but, as with the room for Dogma, that’s a false alternative: it’s acceptable compensation for the world as it exists. The point of the desert isn’t escape, it’s that it brings to heightened attention the choice of following the rule. To amend Dylan, “to live outside the law, you must…adopt the rule.” Which is the opposite of the “hippie resistance” to the law which leads to the false freedom of deregulation. That is to say, the hippie rebellion finds its perverse legacy in the deregulation of Reaganomics.
BS: This helps explain how the pavilion—the dominant artistic and architectural type of recent biennials and triennials—is generally the conceptual doppelganger of the room. If rooms all have functions, we’re now going to extrapolate the room as something that’s functionless: the folly. Which is a little bit like the desert in its literal or inadequately theorized (“hippie”) state: the pavilion is a denial of those things the room stands for, but it’s actually not yet a rule—it’s merely the flipside of the economy. Or a kind of mythic ideal of the “autonomy” the room wants to project. The pavilion as freestanding room, functionless and unconnected, nevertheless serves as the ideological alibi for the logic of the room.
FM: I see.
BS: It’s basically another room, but we’ve specified this room as having no function—it’s for art-exhibitionist tendencies only.
FM: And we don’t want to do that.
BS: And you don’t want to do that.
WBM: You’re not going for that, we totally get it. So, like what Bob says, the desert that isn’t a rule is just the flight from the city and its temptations, though, in St. Anthony’s case, the temptations notoriously follow you. I mean, there’s books about it. And paintings.
BS: Cf. Gilligan’s Island
WBM: So it’s not enough. It’s an ineffectual retreat, because it turns out temptation is not exactly what you’re retreating from. What you want is an alternative to the city, which is public, which seems like a contradiction because, after all, the city is public, you’re surrounded by people, but the point is, no, it’s not the right kind of public. For you for now; it’s privatized everywhere. So what you’re looking for in the desert is escape from the private, to the public.
BS: The desert becomes the last hope for a collective that has disappeared despite the literal density found in the city. The hygienic zoning of the domestic enabled by the corridor, for instance, occurs in the city via the zoning of modern planning, which would be residential happens here, manufacturing here, recreation here, education there, whatever.
BS: Clearly, that’s a view of the city where we know what all the activities need to be, and we
could put them in their proper place. To the contrary of that urban-room, it seems like the version of the cell/monastery that you’re looking for is a little bit like the city of the captive globe, which is that each block is its own world, it’s not a functional part of this world. That’s why it requires a rule. In other words, once you abandon the set of functions that have been prescribed and once you say that each block of the city is now no longer functioning in a zone, but needs to create its own world, it then requires a rule for what those things are.
WBM: Right, so actually, it’s a kind of utopian imagination of what it would be if
you ended the division of labor?
FM: Among the comments we got in Lisbon somebody said, “Okay, these guys just did another existenz-minimum re-elaborating the cells of the monks.” Which of course is the simplest way you can understand the project. And one of the main reasons why we came up with the disciplinary institution of the monastery, was because if you look at a specific kind of architecture that deals or flirts a lot with capitalism, is an architecture that is trying to avoid all sorts of boundaries, all sorts of obstructions so that you can live and behave in those spaces as much or as freely as you want.
WBM: The open office is perfect.
FM: Exactly. Why? Well, because some people understood that if you try to constrain things into a room, especially with a specific function, perhaps you can better maximize the function but, at the same time, you are also restraining its potential for unforeseeable uses. Well, suddenly if you release that function from its boundaries, you will obtain much more freedom, and freedom is way more productive and remunerative. So, open plans in apartments, open offices at work, open layouts in warehouses, freedom in space, freedom to wander around, freedom to construct your way of living and producing. So, somehow recreating the city of captive globes that Bob mentioned, as the block is not different from a cell.
FM: The rule, in our case, creates a field of possibilities. Following the Carthusians, it is a liturgy: a ritual of bodily actions expressing the characters of our species, that power that makes us all humans. Our body requires those actions, which we could call generic, in the sense that they are part of our genes, an universal common ground that precedes our individuality: a field that is performed and actualized in our singular actions.
WBM: But it isn’t a rule that we need to sleep. I mean, you can break rules but you can’t not sleep. So you can say, “Okay, the cell is the place that they sleep.” But not the cell is just a place you can sleep.
FM: It is a zero-degree condition necessary to formulate a rule.
WBM: The cell is a place where you can produce a rule for sleeping. So, like, what would be—?
JC: A temporal one. So, you’d say, “You need to go to bed at eight o’clock, get up at eleven.And then you need to go back to bed at one o’clock in the morning, and you need to rise at five. That would be a standard temporal rule.
WBM: That’s perfect. You could justify it by saying, “It’s the best way to sleep.” Maybe there’s a biological motive for that. But you could also justify it by saying, “Well, whether or not it’s the best way to sleep, it’s a way that gives you the opportunity to make good use of your time, leave yourself free for something else.” Or, you could say, “Actually, no, it’s good just to obey that rule. If everybody obeys that rule that’s when you feel that you’re actually in common with a whole group.” There are a lot of reasons for the rule, but all the reasons for the rule, the rule parts, are separated from the body’s need to sleep.
FM: If we consider that neoliberalism does not want to set rules, as its nature is to not have rules at all or just exceed them constantly, then I think that the most critical, and perhaps most challenging architecture today, is an architecture as a pure background, or the one that allows you to be whatever you want to be: to confront yourself with the emptiness of the rules. What distinguishes our project, is that the cell spatially suggests and instills doubts about the way we live and produce ourselves by doing the things we do. Rather than simply enabling, it is an architecture that creates a distance. In this sense, for example, we didn’t want to have a bath but a cavity containing water, neither a place to sleep but instead a softer surface, aiming at constantly challenging or questioning the function itself. “Is that the place where I should wash myself or sleep?” Already by asking that question, you are implicitly taking distance from the automatic execution of a gesture. You are hesitant about the reasons for doing it, suddenly distrusting all the pre-established conventions and furniture associated with that action.
BS: It’s your skepticism about furnishings.
WBM: Finally, the “no furniture” question.
FM: Yes. We could say that we tried to get rid of furniture through architecture itself. Furniture relies on a set of conventional actions repeated, codified and sedimented through centuries into specific objects, with all their social semantics attached to them. Instead, only by questioning the space of the cell, the inhabitant will conceptualize the rules which are embedded in it. If we would have just put a sink in there, then you would already know how to behave and how to use it, as the sink has been socially inculcated in our daily rhythms. The idea was to displace what was obvious to our bodies, to estrange it so to say.
JC: I think what you’re pulling into the frame of reference is Bürolandschaft. So, before when we were talking about this smooth space within modernism and postmodernism, we were talking about a space in which one could do whatever they wanted. The decision to look at the rule and the cell was to bring some sort of restriction that made people relate to what they do to everyone else in space. You can either obey or not, but the rule is there to relate any action that you understand to someone else.
JC: So, Bürolandscahft is as an example of what happens in this smooth space is not always so free and open. Bürolandscahft was the design of office plans within Germany in the 1950s. It was a form of office design without cubicles with the objective to reinforce the concept of the free plan and open working conditions. But what it actually led to was an architectural plan formed by surveillance and human interaction where spatial boundaries were created without walls and partitions. And in the end, what it established was a more hierarchical office plan.
FM: A class-based office plan.
BS: The functional optimization of the room was exploded to the open plan as a more optimized functionality. It is that more recent history that makes some critics of late capitalism nostalgic for the room, and perhaps blind to the complicity of the pavilion or the demonstration room. This is a group which one has some sympathy for in trying also to connect the formal with the political. But for them the four walls of the room becomes the delimiting mode of resistance. For you, regulation, subjecting to the rule, is the political dimension of form.
WBM: I think that’s super important. Because imagine someone listening to you guys and saying, “Okay, so what you want to do is have rules. So, you can sleep from one to five and then eight to twelve.” What the fuck, you know? We had versions of that. You can read, like, all the dystopian fantasies of surveillance, where someone is requiring you to do those things. But your interest is not in enforcing the rules, it’s in the public space opened up by the rules. The question of whether you follow them is up to you. What matters is imagining the behavior as either following or not following them, or disagreeing about their meaning and arguing about that. Whatever you do, you do. The point is not to constrain what people do. The point is for people to begin to understand what they do in terms of something which is not simply determined by their desires, or by their physical presence, or their not having rules; it’s more freedom to break the rules. So, the postmodern space offered its version of freedom, but it also immediately offered the flipside of that freedom, which is surveillance, and that’s the whole Foucauldian understanding of how that works. Whereas your version doesn’t offer that kind of freedom. It’s not open, and in fact looks incredibly restricted. People are just going to be thinking, “Why would I? I don’t want to follow the rules. Okay, the open space, maybe, I see how that has downsides, but nonetheless I’m going for it.” But you’re not interested in getting people to follow the rules. You’re interested in reconceptualizing the relation you have to these acts.
JC: That’s perhaps what we’ve been trying to verbalize for a while. Early on when undertaking this project we tried to formalize architecture to certain rules. What we realized was that to some extent rules are arbitrary. But what is important is the recognition of what that rule is, and our own relationship to the collective that has constructed it. And that’s why Francesco talked about the idea of the shitting hole. Standing there and smelling it, and the necessity to clean it. Those actions in themselves are the implicit recognition of an individual dealing with the architecture that has constructed the requirement to shit correctly in order to not effect others.
WBM: I mean, that’s a hard one, because, you know, do you really need a rule to avoid the dirty hole?
JC: [Laughter] Maybe that’s not a good example.
WBM: But still, I take the point. So is that part of what you were saying before? We started with the room and the cell, but the trajectory that’s very clarifying is when it becomes the open office versus the closed. When the offices are open, maybe it increases production, then you’re saying we want cells, “We don’t want to increase production. Fuck that.”
BS: A refusal to work.
WBM: Exactly. But you can see someone saying, “Why is that a good thing?” Why is it good to refuse increased production? The idea is, “Well, we don’t want the kind of freedom that’s defined as the freedom only to find ways to better produce, and therefore flips to surveillance.” Which is, if you’re not finding ways to better produce, you’re in trouble. That’s what the open office also does. We want what goes with the rule, which gives you—I feel about the word “freedom” the way you feel about the word “universal,” I like “universal” but I don’t like “freedom”—but it provides you with—it provides you with a concept of your life, you know. That’s a way to put it. The refusal of the open office.
BS: Before the open office—or the office as environment—was what Brandon Hookway called the office as citadel, which enforced the hierarchy of the office: the executive corner office, middle management offices, the secretarial pool. The office landscape that Jimmy mentioned earlier, by contrast with the citadel-model, had the look of chaos if not democracy, but could actually be much more efficient without the apparent hierarchy. It was the new, cybernetic generation of the plan: the anti-hierarchical look of formlessness but, in fact a higher, more optimized and efficient way of doing the job. The idea of the office as a massive, parallel-processing machine as opposed to a top-down, assembly line model that was very linear.
WBM: And well, but even better, a massive parallel-processing machine, but with the Foucauldean social. Everybody’s watching each other all the time.
BS: That’s right.
WBM: The whole point is its refusal of all that: refusal of the parallel-processing, refusal of Foucauldian discipline. It’s a different model of discipline. You go back into your cell and you figure out what you think you’re supposed to do and you can either do it or not do it. Either way, you’re not withdrawing from the office. You’re reconceptualizing the office as a rule, and you’re establishing yourself in relation to the rule. It makes every part of your activity an activity that has some relation to the rule. Especially when you don’t do what you’re supposed to.
FM: But they write, and the act of self-writing generated a lot of discussion in Lisbon. Because at the Triennale we proposed to read Foucault’s text about self-writing in the Cell for a Certain Individual, and we had a kind of group discussion about Le Corbusier’s La Tourette project and his fascination for the Charterhouse of Ema, in Florence. One of the more provocative questions we received was “What do we do with all this awareness? In the end, what is it? Is this a sort of bodybuilding? Is living in the cell something that augments your critical attitude towards what you do, as a sort of self-writing?” Thanks to the desert you begin looking at what you do in a more critical way, achieving consciousness and control over your daily actions and future projects. Asceticism, in the end, is nothing but a way of training yourself to augment your potential.
WBM: So, to me, self-writing…If it’s about developing yourself, then it is just bodybuilding.
BS: That’s right. And that’s not what you want. You don’t want to be a better “you.”
WBM: You do that only so you can go out there in the public office and show what you’ve got, and so that’s clearly not the point at all. The point for you is awareness of the publicness of an activity.
FM: The rule.
WBM: It’s not about you. It’s not like you’re working on developing your thinking skills. You guys are not asking people to spend all their lives in the rooms. What you’re producing is a model of how to think about what a public space would be. What you come to see through this is what a public is. That’s the hardest thing to understand in our moment, right?
WBM: Even the argument from a few months ago over whether a free higher education program should include free higher education for like, Trump’s kids, rich people. And everybody except Sanders is against that. Why? They think, “No, people should pay for it. If they can afford to pay for it, they should do it.” But the whole point of the public thing is it has nothing to do with—
FM: Everyone, yes—
WBM: It’s everyone. So the goal here—maybe it needs to be clearer, probably does need to be clearer if people in Lisbon were still thinking, “Fine, we get it. But what you’re still doing is, you’ve got these self-cultivation jobs, how are you going to use them?” They’ve missed the point and if you accept the premises of the question, and think you have to answer it, then you’re also missing the point—of your own thing.
FM: Yes. That’s right.
WBM: So the question what to do with the training should really be the question what does the public require? What this is about is not training at all but the reinvention of the public.
BS: Yes, and the paradox is that it’s through isolation that you become with others. Or become others.
WBM: That’s why the genius thing was to begin with a monastery. Because when you invoke the rule you say, “the rule makes the opposition between the individual and the collective completely irrelevant. They both belong to something public.” So, they’re following the rule if there’s lots of them or not lots of them. What you said before, “There’s always two.” But it’s always, as it were, in principle two. There’s a public, and the public needs to be, in some sense, more than one. But the public—the whole thing the cell does for you is undo the opposition between the individual. and the collective. So the monastery becomes a way of thinking about the public.
BS: Yes. No matter how dense a city is, all of our technologies and our political economy basically produces a social experience where we are alone together. And what we want, somehow, is be together apart—
WM: Exactly. I mean, a movie like Parasite has its downsides but it totally gets that when you’re down in the bottom of the damn street, in Parasite you’re in a totally privatized world. You’re jammed together as close as you can be, fighting for that little space of a privatized world. The hole that they live in and the house they go to work in are just two versions of the same thing. I mean, one’s a really great version, and one’s a really fucked up version, but…
BS: That’s right.
WBM: So, they’re both rooms, some are big beautiful rooms and some are, you know, barely rooms at all, but neither one’s a cell.
BS: Yes, and that’s also why what you make is the anti- or counter-pavilion, meaning it doesn’t come out of the legacy of the room, or even the room’s rejection through installations that ultimately confirm the room.. That’s a particular economy—our contemporary disciplinary economy, and political-economy, of deregulation—that produces the world of globalized biennials and triennials, and it’s not by coincidence that the primary emblem of those exhibitions, their primary form of commission, is the pavilion-room.
BS: Your contribution to Lisbon instead departs from the logic of the cell, the other legacy which does not reherase atomization and differentiation, one which avoids the disciplinary deregulation of endless -ennials that has mandated a style for everyone and an origin story for everyone. We are born into rules and regulation not nature. This avoidance of the pavilion-installation (the room legacy) is maybe what links your proposal with something like Atelier Bow-Wow’s Piranesi Circus (2016) which might now also be seen as a related attempt to avoid those twin room cliches of pavilion-installation.
WBM: I think the anti-pavilion part is really important. You should write that up.