Farshid Moussavi interview

Farshid Moussavi is the Founder of Farshid Moussavi Architecture. Recently she visited Moscow to participate in the conference «Architects playing: new ideas, shapes and materials» curated by Strelka Institute as a part of «KNAUF Days» Forum. In 2010-2011 Farshid was Director of «Design» Studio at Strelka Educational Program, and in June 2011 she delivered a public lecture on the state of design, which has been remembered by many ever since. 

— You were very young when you left Iran and you’ve spent your adult life in the UK. But your philosophy on the affect and symbolism of space, as well as your signature interest in ornaments seem to be rooted in a non-Western perception of architecture and space. Do you ever feel as if something else is speaking through you: your roots or some ancient memory? — It’s funny you say that because England has always been home for me, ever since my family left Iran when I was fourteen. I also lived in America for a few years, as well as Holland, Japan and Italy. But recently, a very interesting art historian wrote a small but wonderful piece about our museum project in Cleveland, entitled The Dome of Heaven. He started making references to Islamic architecture, which made me feel uncomfortable at first, because, in general, I’m uncomfortable about the idea of roots. I have been exposed to different cultures, which has been a wonderful education. Whether consciously or subconsciously, all of these cultures feed into your sensibility and the way you relate to the world. We are all constantly growing in all kinds of directions. I much prefer thinking of myself and others in that way, rather than imagining a line that connects me back to a certain point in time or a certain geography. I don’t find that way of relating to time useful. But, having said that, the parallels you make are indeed interesting. When I left Iran aged 14, I had zero architectural education and very little education about the history of art and architecture in Islamic culture. After we left, I had no more exposure to it than you would. But I agree that there is a certain connection between the discussion of affect and the non-representational elements in Islamic art. Islamic art is against figuration and in favour of fields. It has always used geometry as a means to create abstract fields. The discussion of affect is also about the non-representational and non-symbolic. — So, there’s an overlap? — In that sense, there is an overlap, but the discussion of affect doesn’t have a prescribed geometry or order. And the affect doesn’t have to be optical alone. It can come through texture or sound. In contrast, Islamic art and architecture is mostly about the optical. Also, when you get down to the discussion of geometrical tiling and patterns, there is a certain idealism to Islamic geometry, because of the insistence on symmetry and repetition of simple parts. The parts can never create a figure. The part doesn’t contain any information about the whole. But today, we don’t have to limit ourselves to these geometrical rules. With digital tools we can explore far more complex orders and create part-whole relationships. We can question symmetry without making it a taboo. — Talking about your interest in ornaments, would you consider the ancient Egyptian ornament as a source of inspiration for your architecture? — You know, we’re used to understanding an ornament as a kind of elaborate pattern, as if a colour can’t be an ornament. But an ornament is any kind of instrument that contributes to the aesthetic experience of buildings via the sensations it transmits. In the case of ancient Egyptian tombs, they used to paint the ceiling dark blue so that the tomb could evoke a sense of endlessness, i.e. the endless sky. When we were working on the museum in Cleveland, we wanted to lose the ceiling as well. Originally, we used many kinds of blue and did numerous tests and mock-ups. But, at some point, an art historian asked me if I knew about Egyptian tombs and I was amazed to see how they played with the illusion of there being no sky at all. Marcel Duchamp used to work with illusions a lot as well. An ornament’s power is precisely its ability to change common perception. Adolf Loos claimed that ornamentation was a crime but I think he used the colour white as an ornament - as a way to alter people’s perception of the architecture of the time. It’s wonderful to think about a building, not as the reality that we know, but as the possibility of another reality. Architecture can then claim an intellectual or political power, because it can make people think differently. — You’re talking about understanding architecture as a portal? — Exactly. — Did you ever think about making a physical museum of the Internet? — It’s an interesting idea. The Internet is about making various kinds of connections. That’s interesting. The problem for architecture, from which the Internet doesn’t suffer, is that it’s ultimately frozen. The minute you finish a building, it freezes. It’s the occupants that take over and perhaps change it over time. But once you’ve made a decision about the building itself, it remains more or less static physically. So it would be an interesting design challenge.

— Do you think some places should remain permanent, completely fixed for centuries, without any change? — I don’t have a particular view about things being permanent or not. I think you need them both at all times, but I’m not sure if it’s possible to keep anything completely fixed, as the context around it will change. A couple of years ago, I went to Cairo for the first time and was amazed to see the area around the Pyramids. I thought that going to see the Pyramids would be like going on a pilgrimage, that it would take some time to get there and there would be nothing around them. But, just a hundred metres away from the Pyramids, they are building the most awful building on earth. So, people no longer experience the Pyramids like they did before and it’s going to keep changing. You could keep something static in itself and not touch it, but there is a limit to your control, as everything around it will change. So it’s impossible to keep things the same as time goes by. — Some people say that living in a place that allows for freedom, open space and flexibility can have a limiting affect on people’s creativity. In a very aggressive environment, people are forced to push themselves to the limit and this sometimes brings outstanding results. Do you agree? — I think architecture is actually about limiting and de-limiting. It’s not about freedom. You can create different kinds of order within it that allow for more or less freedom within. Architecture’s role is about defining and de-limiting space in specific ways. As a result, we need different ways of delimiting space, so that we give people different ways of experiencing their enclosures and spaces. We also need to be aware that different people have different desires, so there needs to be a certain elasticity in the way spaces are defined. — I get the impression that you are a very strong and confident person, who is tolerant of other opinions. That’s a good combination. Do you ever feel weak? Do you ever feel that you don’t know what you’re doing? — Yes, all the time. I have this constant anxiety that the more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know. It’s exhilarating because it makes me want to hurry up and know more. For me, that’s the pleasure of life. I’ve taught for 20 years or so. But, for me, there is a selfish side to teaching, as I continue to learn. It may be confusing for some of my students, but perhaps they will realise what I mean in hindsight. If I were simply to teach what I know and what is known, there would be no questions to ask. I hope that this disciplines their thinking in the long run, which is far more valuable than if they were to learn six tricks that are given to them by someone else. The feeling of being lost is necessary in order to find your own questions. You need to put yourself in a position of ignorance in order to search, especially when you are at graduate level. There is no one path. Different teachers can teach you in different ways. It’s not easy and I don’t have the right solution. — It’s inspiring to talk to a person who believes so much in research and doesn’t claim to have all the answers at hand. — Hopefully.