Project and Indeterminacy - The work of Carlos Teixeira
1. Agoraphobia: the over-determination of the architectonic project
In 1965, in a short essay entitled “The Creative Act”, Marcel Duchamp discussed the inescapable distance that separates the artist’s intention from its realization as a work. However hard the artist struggles to reach his goal—and necessarily so—he will never fully realize his intention. In the sum of the decisions the artist must make en route to the finished work, something intended will always be lost and something unintended gained, a gap which Duchamp calls the “artistic coefficient”.
This perception of the limits of the artistic project corresponds to a defense of the role of the spectator in bringing the work to completion and, therefore, of the importance of its existence beyond the strict control of the artist. Duchamp was writing in the 1960s, and his essay was an attempt to clarify the founding principles of his art, starting from the provocative readymades presented decades earlier. Duchamp was also writing for a post-war art world, a context in which critics and artists were rediscovering the readymades and had embraced them as the template for what they were doing at the time, the germ of what we now call contemporary art. Recalling this moment, Ed Ruscha said: “If [Duchamp] had not appeared, we would have had to invent him”[i], as the artistic valorization of the gap between the intended work and the produced work had already become the keystone of a new understanding of art.
In the field of architecture, however, awareness of this distance did not incite such probing investigation and the historically-constructed notion of the project as the founding field of action in architectonic practice remained unchallenged[ii]. Over the last fifty years this paradigm has suffered the odd scratch: the theoretical discussion raised by Bernard Tschumi, who speaks of the potential and limitations of the ever-present disjuncture between the intentions of architectural design and the uses to which constructed spaces are actually put; the creative process of Lina Bo Bardi, who, refusing to declare the projectual work complete as construction got underway, would set up a studio at the site so she could oversee the work of the contractors and accompany her project’s unfolding into actual space[iii]; or, to stick with Brazilian cases, the critical and experimental work of Sérgio Ferro, who renounced the authorial and alienating character of construction based on the sovereignty and autonomy of the architectonic plan.
The examples could go on and on, and some would be more obscure or left-field than those given above, all of whom are recognized to a greater or lesser degree in mainstream architecture. The point is, belief in the self-sufficiency of architectural design and an emphasis on the genius of the architect, capable of predetermining uses and pre-empting procedures and variables in the constructive process, still prevail in the way schools of architecture teach project development and even the theory and history of contemporary architecture. Of course, it is in no-one’s interest to scrap this model out of hand, as this would mean discarding an entire legacy of architecture as a profession in the modern world; however, what does come across as pathological today is this voluntary blindness to everything that exists on the fringe of, or in opposition to, projectual predetermination, which makes approximating architectonic practice to the ever-changing dynamics of contemporary cities such an arid, idealistic task and widens the gulf between the agenda of the architects and the modes of artistic endeavor that could potentially offer fruitful alternatives to the blinkered projectual methodology of our schools.
In this context, Carlos Teixeira’s Between [Entre] surges as a clearing in the architectonic thought of our day and opens space for new lines of questioning formulated within an architecture that is committed to both the effective construction of buildings and the development of models and prototypes that stress-test its methodology and creative process.
“Topographical Amnesias”, a theater installation, Belo Horizonte, 2004-2005. Architects Carlos Teixeira and Louize Ganz
2. Amnesia: traces of time in space
Carlos Teixeira graduated in architecture at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte before going to London to take a master’s degree at the Architectural Association, where he studied under the likes of Cedric Price and Alejandro Zaera. With the architecture studio Vazio S/A since 1995, he has consolidated his practice across a range of platforms: from private jobs to literary essays, editorial projects to real-estate incorporations, scenography for theatre and dance to urban studies and works installed in contemporary art contexts. The book Between is a synthesis of certain strands of his career, braiding lines of activity that would normally dialogue with different audiences and milieus that have little to do with one another. At the crux of this forced overlap between fields of thought lies a problem central to Carlos Teixeira’s work: the equalization of space and time as determinant parameters of the experience and conception of place.
It’s a problem that presents itself right from the introduction to Between, in which Carlos discusses his earlier book, Em obras. história do vazio em Belo Horizonte (Under Construction: a History of the Void in Belo Horizonte)[iv], and a set of projects developed in conjunction with dance and theater companies. Speaking of the past, in the essay in which the architect describes the construction of Belo Horizonte in accordance with a modern urban plan, albeit with neither the heroic contours of Brasília, the country’s later, purpose-built capital, nor the frenetic pace of its construction, Carlos used a collection of picture postcards depicting the city from its inauguration to the present day to narrate the history of a place that, whilst celebrated as a regional capital, had little to offer its first generation of inhabitants other than its vast lands and wide open spaces. Retrospectively, the book suggests that the city’s architects and urbanists should ignore their predilection for the constructed heritage and concentrate on that foundational and resilient lacuna as the urban patrimony and legacy with the most experimental potential.
Regarding the more recent past, which effectively brings us to the content of Between, what comes to the fore are the experiments Carlos developed with groups whose work focuses on the body and its movements in and through architecture, largely designed to try out some unusual approximations with urban and scenic spaces. The most central of the seven scenographic projects is probably the second edition of Amnésias Topográficas (Topographical Amnesias), produced in 2004/05 in collaboration with Louize Ganz and the Armatrux theater group. The project involved creating an experimental theater space out of a system of walkways, staircases and passageways built among the pilotis underneath some apartment buildings. The theater consisted of a wooden structure snaking through a labyrinth of naked piles left over by a circumstantial combination of the difficult topography of the Buritis neighborhood and the planning bylaws of Belo Horizonte. Restrictions on the number of functional floors a building can have in this neighborhood meant that residential buildings erected above road-level on the sloping terrain had to be propped on stilts, leaving empty, unused spaces underneath. Taking these hillside voids as a metaphor for and throwback to the vast empty spaces of Belo Horizonte, the architect and his theater partners decided to put them to temporary use, creating only those elements that were absolutely necessary to allow the actors and audience to move about the space, which, when seen up-close, assumed Piranesian contours.
Light wooden structures were used for the walkways and stairs that meander around the piles. The seventy pages devoted to this work present a wealth of material on the project: surveys of the Buritis neighborhood that identify sequences of stilted buildings, with drawings for a possible theater/walkway threaded through them; project plans and models of the actual work, uniting only two of the stilted structures originally considered; photos of the maquette and a photo-record of the constructed space, both while empty and during the performance “Invention for Leonardo”. However, the most unusual and surprising resource Teixeira uses went beyond what one would normally expect from an architect’s presentational literature: an essay entitled “Wild Grass”, in which he takes a pretty standard feature in temporary projects—different species of wild grass, each with its own coloration, density and growth rate, planted to provide appropriate vegetal cover quickly and at low cost—and repositions it as something fundamental to the project and to the discussion of the city and its voids. Through botanical, landscaping, urbanistic and architectonic arguments, we see the use of wild grass transform from an incidental stopgap to a resource that is key to the construction of a space over time through tactical insertions subject to perceptible change in just a matter of weeks.
As swiftly as a cathedral can become a skating rink (or, in this case, the stilt system underneath a building can become a theater) through the simple intervention of the body, active in space, a vacant lot can be integrated into the greenery of a city by planning for the growth of a species generally considered an invasive weed. Rough, simple, rhizomatous, resistant, agile and insistent, wild grass ceases to be viewed as a blight on the urban landscape to become a metaphor for a desirable relationship between the natural and the built in our large cities.
Experiments and essays like this, always nourished by readings of the urban space, lend rhythm to the book, tensioning and testing the paradigms of an architecture derived from the decisions and movements of bodies engaged in the events taking place in constructed spaces. This was the case of the third installment of The Other, The Same (2011), a performance pavilion created for the 29th São Paulo Bienal. The project was intended to host a range of activities, from musical recitals staged inside it to experimental performances that dialogued with the surrounding architecture by Oscar Niemeyer. Mobile volumes were built from piles of cut corrugated cardboard, forming a monadal pavilion when arranged together in space, or a labyrinth when scattered. The pieces were moved about almost daily, as the performers saw fit, generating intermediary configurations that conjured reclusive spaces with openings onto various different features of the Bienal building. When stacked and angled, this lightweight, disposable material assumed a heaviness and presence not normally associated with cardboard, and yet, as the exhibition wore on, those soft walls came to be pocked with the accumulated marks of use by the performing artists and the general public.
An experiment like this—in which the work of the architect approaches the field of art, especially its space of fruition—allows the elements latent in the work to come to the fore discursively. The region shared by contemporary art and architecture is marked by unusual combinations between the notions of the program and of permanence, which have taken on a somewhat floating and flexible meaning. Hence initial project decisions, which would be a priori impositions in other contexts, become more akin to general hypotheses on how spatialities are thought out.
We might draw parallels between this experiment and the collaborations of the British architects Peter and Alison Smithson on exhibition environments in 1956, namely Patio and Pavilion, and House of the Future. These two temporary projects were responses to ruminations on the future of humanity, but they formulated quite distinct hypotheses. The first of these, built as part of an installation the couple made in conjunction with the artists Nigel Henderson and Edoardo Paolozzi for the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, took the speculative capacity of artistic/architectonic work so far that it became a speculation on the general identity of the entire human habitat. The accompanying text identified the spatial archetypes of the Patio and the Pavilion as constants in mankind’s relationship with space, which is always anchored in the interaction between a retreat and some ampler space that enacts the transition between that refuge and the landscape. With a makeshift wooden shack surrounded by a field of sand strewn with assemblages and materials belonging to the artists they were working with, the Smithsons wanted to meet the none too modest challenge of demonstrating a paradigm of the functional and symbolic needs of human life.
The second project, a house prototype presented at the “Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition”, contrasted an interior molded entirely of plastic pieces in organic, sensual forms against an outside that displayed a boxy rigidity, so that dwelling units could be slotted together in unlimited number. The aim was to design a module fully-equipped for comfortable private living, concentrated around a central patio and altogether indifferent to and unaffected by the surroundings. Here the architects inverted the “naturalist” relationship between patio and pavilion, focusing on the paradigm of man’s insertion into the landscape via an easily transportable and multipliable centripetal unit. Though strikingly ‘pop’ and bound up with the European post-war prefabrication agenda, this solution also represents, in concentrated form, the complementarity between the scales of the domestic and civic space, the nerve center of the Smithsons’ work.
In the light of this digression, Carlos Teixeira’s project for the São Paulo Bienal takes on new dimensions. When clustered, with the cardboard volumes forming a common space, what we have is an autonomous pavilion not unlike the House of the Future—an orthogonal perimeter with fluid, organic forms on the inside, creating reserved spaces around a patio that invites communion and natural light. When fragmented and scattered, however, the same elements devise a labyrinthine interstitial space, incorporating Niemeyer’s rambling interior as its patio and drawing upon the transparency of the glass façades in search of mediations with the wider landscape of Ibirapuera Park. From the traditional dwelling suggested by the clustered form, Carlos’ project unfurls into a community of multiple temporalities of the dissonant uses that each parcel of the space can be put to at a given time. At the 29th Bienal, I witnessed two moments at which this temporality was explored in an instigating way by the guest artists, and both of these cases involved the use of an additional project resource: a speaker system that could pick up sound from any part of the “terreiro”[v] and amplify it around the ground floor.
In one of the various presentations from her Mutirão project, performed at different locations throughout the Bienal, The artist Graziela Kunsch occupied The Other, The Same when it was in scattered form. She selected some of the modules and placed them in such a way as they were turned in on each other, rather than being set openly in relation to the center of the space. The result was an individual alcove in which she sat and watched footage from her Mutirão archive. Everyone could hear the sound coming from the video, but you had to locate the source, only to find the artist in this rather domestic-looking situation—something unexpected in the bustling hyper-transparency of the Bienal’s ground floor. In this cell-like space, with none of the numbered seating of a traditional theater, the conversation with the artist (recorded), and connection with her video, had to develop gradually, as the public is like a visitor to a stranger’s house, needing to break the ice. The result is a tempo out of synch with the exploratory pace of the museumgoer, who would normally amble contemplatively among the exhibits.
At another moment, Marco Paulo Rolla staged the action called “Imersão, Transbordamento e Resistência” (Immersion, Overflowing and Resistance), part of a series of performances entitled “Recepção para o nada” (A Welcome for Nothing). A group of performers outside the building, looking in through the glass façade at the terreiro The Other, The Same, repeated an exercise in self-drowning. Buckets of water were lined up before the performers, who would crouch down and dunk their heads into the water, remaining immersed for as long as they could hold their breath. When they were completely out of air, they would stand up, catch their breath and recompose before repeating the process. When a bucket was too empty for a dunk, its remaining contents were spilled into one of the other buckets, and the process continued. All of the noise outside, in the open space of the park, was amplified and transmitted inside the building, in real time, composing an intricate soundscape, as the varied rhythms of these cycles—determined by the endurance and concentration of each participant—formed a collage of sounds, with bodies dunking and standing, water splashing, and people panting and gasping. The audience could either face the performers directly, or lounge about on the scattered terreiro, like boaters listening to the sounds of the sea—in this case, a stormy sea.
3. Aphasia: discontinuity and equivalence as principles of indeterminacy
The description of moments of occupation of the space designed by Carlos Teixeira and the comparison with the Smithsons’ projects serve, at once, to illustrate the discursive content of the project and the possibilities it empowers by opening itself up to the choreographic reconfiguration of its parts. As such, the discussion of the role the passage of time plays in shaping the architectonic project ceases to be a simple case of good intentions or of analogy with the functioning of the city to become part and parcel of Carlos Teixeira’s creative process. In the interview with Bernard Tschumi published in Between, Carlos asks the Swiss architect about the notation systems for choreographic movements which he studied in the fields of dance, theater, sport and even military strategy. The idea behind the question was to shed some light on methodologies for noting, representing and modeling forms of bodily movement through space and, in so doing, reinvigorate the architect’s capacity to deal creatively with the sphere of events and occurrences.
Tschumi’s reply is a little vague, and to flesh it out would require immersion in the many publications on his work, so allow me to introduce the work of another architect who, like all those mentioned in this text, graced the halls of the Architectural Association in London.[vi] Not widely known internationally, and more often than not found working on the fringe of the neo-isms of the latter half of the last century, Cedric Price eked out a singular niche for himself in the field of architectonic practice, highlighting aspects of the profession that are frequently considered peripheral, such as demolition as a part of a building’s cycle of life (and death); non-planning as a quality in certain urban spaces; the drawing of “desire lines” by the populace as part of a region’s cartography; and the urban void as an opportunity for action and imagination on the part of the citizenry. Though Price amassed a vast portfolio of completed and unrealized projects, he also developed a gamut of ideas on how architects should move beyond walls and doorways to design what he called free space, a formally indeterminate and continuously available field for decision-making on, and management of, collective activities and spatial configurations. In order to delineate this modality of space, Price gathered together and articulated many of the discipline-related ideas and innovations that were popping up all over the place in post-war Europe.
In the plans for the Fun Palace (1961-70), for example, he took as his platform the experimental theater of the day, which blended participation, mobility and interchangeability among the actors, audience, props and sets. With a view to proposing a space that was effectively programmed for this kind of interaction and expanding it as an urban experience open to all, even to those wholly uninterested in the usual forms of theatricality, Price embarked on a range of studies that spanned game theory, cybernetics, prefabrication and automation. His main achievement as the architect of this project was the definition of an architecture based on the values of temporality, opportunity, improvisation, leisure and the void, whilst also appropriating industrialized and electronic materials. This logic was extended to the Potteries Thinkbelt project (1964-66), which took free space as a paradigm for the post-industrial urban redevelopment of an entire region, which he transformed into an educational and creative hub. In this case, the possibility for spatial change and transformation was underscored by an emphasis on spatial and programmatic flexibility as the most valuable aspect of knowledge-building and the learning process.
The criticism lodged against Cedric Price’s projects tends to focus on the shortcut the architect took in seeking to converge flexibility of space with flexibility of user cognition and action. Nevertheless, the career mentioned so briefly here left a vast legacy of projectual resources for, and articulations between, artists, educators and urban managers. However premature were his analogies to learning processes, his faith in the indeterminacy of the architectonic project and in contesting the monumental and ideologically symbolic aspect of architecture serves as an important reference when submitting Carlos Teixeira’s projects to complex evaluation.
It is no surprise, for example, that the projects presented in the book Between dispense with the typical forms of architectonic representation normally found in the specialist literature—blueprints, sections, constructive details and three-dimensional models. These do feature in the book, but only a-systematically, and only when they suit a larger schema of representations, based on the narrative of possibilities for contextualization of the project and the legibility of the creative process. Moreover, the sum of the representations of each project does away something that is highly valued by schools of architecture: instead of presenting extensive plans that would seem to account for all the minutiae of the constructed space, Teixeira’s presentations make no attempt to hide the incompleteness—that is, the gaps in spatial planning—and sometimes even favor images of the occupation of the constructed space over photographs that prove its fidelity to the architectural design.
The post-script to the book lingers upon just these choices. Without intending to belittle the importance of quality architectural photography—a resource he never does without on his projects—, Carlos Teixeira asks why it so often omits the most important thing about the constructed project—the varied uses to which it is put. He also asks himself why photography specialized in theater tends toward a similar, albeit inverted shortcoming. Representing space, time and movement in an articulated way would seem to be every bit as challenging as grasping these elements simultaneously. As Bergson warned, the problem is not in proving the existence of movement, but in managing to think about movement at all. We know that things are always subject to time and we overcome Zeno’s paradox intuitively, and yet we rarely use this notion and have difficulties debunking the paradox by rational argument (hence its continued popularity millennia later).
It is significant that, when faced with this difficulty, some ‘amateur’ photos, taken with the intention of recording meaningful moments, have proved more effective as documents of the quality of the public’s interventions in the constructed space. As the reader will know, snapshots are not taken on any promise of authenticity, like the handheld camera in The Blair Witch Project or the like. Amateur photographs sometimes stand out simply because, unlike those of the architecture or theater photographer, they are not concerned with fulfilling some predetermined goal. Instead, these photos are taken as reactions to events, and therefore, like Carlos Teixeira’s projects, they incorporate indeterminacy and changes of plan as a matter of course.
The use of terms designating mental disturbances as subtitles for this text is in no way intended as a value judgment on the projects discussed. The subtitles merely serve to indicate the adverse reactions to the presented hypotheses that might come of the projectual morality that good architectonic sense likes to foist upon any rejection of planning and control. They are also a reaction to the organic metaphors that insist on reasserting their domination of the architectonic vocabulary, spurred by over a decade’s worth of praise for ecological responsibility. Good intentions aside, it is worth remembering that such metaphors concerning the “health of the urban organism” are draped in an aura that can easily disguise deeply conservative projectual parameters and premises.
Paulo Miyada is an architect and urbanist from FAU USP, where he is studying for a master’s degree. He was assistant curator on the 29th São Paulo Bienal and currently coordinates the Research and Curatorship Center at Instituto Tomie Ohtake. He is also a curator on the Itau Cultural Directions program (2011-2012).
[i] Interview with Robert L. Pincus, October 30, 1990. In: Robert L. Pincus,” ‘Quality Material…’: Duchamp Disseminated in the Sixties and Seventies,” in: Bonnie Clearwater (ed.), West Coast Duchamp, Miami Beach: Grassfield Press, 1991, p. 87-101, p. 100
[ii] Suffice it to remember the construction of the dome to the Santa Maria de Fiore cathedral and the lauding of Felippo Brunneleschi’s capacity to predetermine the constructed form in the blueprints as a triumph of the discipline of architecture as mental endeavor, released from all thrall to the foreman’s “know-how”.
[iii] Marcelo Ferraz offers an interesting account of the process that resulted in SESC Pompeia, perhaps Lina Bo Bardi’s superlative architectural achievement: “We had an office at the construction site; the project and the program had been formulated as an amalgam, as whole and indissociable; in other words, the barrier between the virtual and the real simply did not exist. It was the architecture of a finished work, tried and tested in every detail”. FERRAZ, Marcelo. Numa velha fábrica de tambores. SESC Pompéia comemora 25 anos. Minha Cidade, São Paulo, n. 08.093, Vitruvius, Apr. 2008 <www.vitruvius.com.br/revistas/read/minhacidade/08.093/1897>
[iv] TEIXEIRA, Carlos Moreira. Em obras. história do vazio em Belo Horizonte. São Paulo, Cosac Naify, 1999
[v] The 29th São Paulo Bienal featured six “terreiros”, multipurpose way stations distributed throughout the exhibition. These spaces, named after the communal yards at Candomblé temples, hosted a range of different activities during the Bienal.
[vi] It is a curious recurrence, and forgive me if my background as a researcher who dedicated a great deal of time to the careful study of the Archigram group has left this selection somewhat biased. However, it is undeniable that the theory and practice developed by this school has given rise to a number of relevant studies—some strictly formal, admittedly—on the importance of the passage of time in shaping the urbanistic and architectonic space. In an exchange of e-mails with the author, Carlos Teixeira wrote: “The school was important to me; when I was a student I had no interest in what was going on in Brazil (the Paulista school, the post-modernists of Minas Gerais, etc.) and going abroad allowed me to witness, at close range, the formation of some of the vanguards—with all their inconsistencies, fragilities, whimsicalness and incoherencies. That school was so dangerously open to ideas that I can safely say that all the best and the worst ideas about architecture circulated there” (September, 2011).