Interviewers: Katrin Koov and Darja Andrejeva
Extracts published in Estonian Architectural Review MAJA 3/2015
What is the architect’s role at the moment and what will it be in the future?
Siim: I suppose every architect defines it for himself. If we look at the architect’s position in the society, then it has changed considerably over time. During the boom years, they were considered mere service providers, now that there is less work and more time to think, their role is becoming more intellectual and reasoned. When considering design theories and all the digital means, materials and manufacturing processes used, then we see that the architect is transforming into a curator of systems. Such an architect does not design one object from beginning to end, but instead, builds up a system that will create the end result in keeping with the set goal. Also the aesthetics or ideology can be programmed into the system.
It’s interesting to note that we keep hearing the word “curate” more and more in architect parlance. I don’t remember it being used previously much in architecture. This must mean an actual change. What is the function of architects in society if it isn’t specifically creating objects and the environment?
Siim: For me, architecture is everything that impacts how the spatial environment around us is shaped. It starts with communication. People generally don’t like new things and changes. The biggest job that must be done is to make new things “edible.” We had the same discussion on the TAB panel, where it was said that a leap in scale was nearly impossible because no one besides the experimenters themselves was interested in building such things. No one dares to adopt new technologies that aren’t 100% guaranteed. Taking risks has quite an important role in the making of new things. But we have a strongly rooted culture of complacency and avoidance of risk. More and more legislation and regulations are adopted, all of which avoid risks. There’s little freedom of action.
It’s a sort of axiom that in a society seeing peaceful and stable development, particularly numerous restrictions accrue, even though a secure society is really the place where one could try experimenting.
Sille: At the exhibition, there was no point for us to talk about architecture we already know, but to show what architecture’s potential future might be and how far it has developed to this point. Answering the previous question: I have also recently started viewing architects as curators. To this day, it warms my heart to think of that episode in The Matrix1 when, upon reaching the digital world and finding only ones and zeroes, it’s asked who created the world, and the answer comes: The Architect. The architect is not the one who builds the house; he’s the one who creates the whole. Often it seems that the architect is responsible only for one building but not for how it relates to the surroundings or the flows of people. There’s a need for a curator.
1 The Matrix Reloaded, 2003
Isn’t it true that architects have always had the goal to create ideal complete worlds?
Siim: This is where I beg to differ. I always sense that we need to smash those ideal worlds, we need to keep things functioning. If things are in place, angst and depression set in. What is the point if all is completely peachy? Before, we would say society was in a stage where everything was really peaceful and secure. Some try to hold on to that. Then there’s another group of people who are restless and can’t handle the comfort.
There is also an experiment in the history of digital technology where they attempted to fit the whole world into one formula, but it failed.
Perhaps it is the human “flaw” that takes us further and provides the development with new and unexpected directions?
Sille: Subjectivity is a highly interesting and multi-layered phenomenon that computer software cannot generate. The human hand is always involved (in programming). Everything that we produce is exceedingly subjective. We shouldn’t fear that at one point machines will replace people.
Siim: Quite the contrary, we must fear it and we must fight it in order to avoid some Smart Cities based on Google technology where rational systems take over human processes.
How would you pacify those paranoiacs who fear that techno-utopianism could turn against itself? Or perhaps we shouldn’t calm people down after all?
Siim: You fight fire with fire. It is important that we all try to understand what is going on around us and what these things can bring along. At the beginning of the symposium, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves gave some good advice saying that everybody must learn IT. Information technology should be (and is) an integral part of every sphere of life. If we start using some systems without knowing what its back end is all about, then we put ourselves in great danger.
We know from social media how human stupidity in some cases can be amplified. If we take away all filters, there is an incredible amount of uncontrolled and at times even dangerous information flowing in from the Internet.
Sille: The problem is that at school we are not taught how to read digital publications in the same way we were taught to read books: you have to take time and concentrate and it’s a process you must go through. Most people don’t have these skills in digital reading and therefore it often remains just superficial scrolling. Schools should provide us with skills to read digital journalism.
Siim: It is not only technology that can end up in the wrong hands. Also the knowledge of how certain social processes function and how masses behave is valuable information for some people. Now we are talking about where money comes from and how it moves, how it affects architecture and built environments. Where do materials come from, who draws up regulations. Some people know these things very well, but the comprehensive information is concealed from us, architects. We should form our own research groups to determine where money comes from and where materials go. There is no transparency of information. Material is a highly intriguing topic. At the exhibition, the work by Igor Siddiqui explores material ecology. These are the by-products of food industry – biopolymers – that are partly of vegetable, partly animal origin. In his studio, he boils these into bioplastic material that, in theory, could be thrown into compost. He explores the possible use of the material in architecture. There are numerous questions regarding the lifetime of a building and the characteristics of the material.
Sille: This leads us to the temporality of architecture. For instance, in case of accommodating refugees it is important that the carbon footprint left by the temporary structures be as small as possible.
Eco-topics are a good example of the subtle technology of propaganda: we say one thing, paint all signs green and leave the impression of green thinking, while in reality we do something else.
Sille: I really liked the idea put forward by Reet Aus (with reference to her film “Out of Fashion” – ed.) that recycling is boring while upcycling is interesting. It offers the opportunity to go back to the raw material, to use the products that will be discarded anyway. We would also need this in architecture. Perhaps we need to think of new terms. At present we try to explore new problems with old terminology.
What is your relationship with materials? The exposition presents a highly experimental part of architecture experimenting, for instance, with materials. Do you see a conceptual difference between the old traditional materials and the new experimental materials?
Sille: This is something that we try to voice in front of the house perhaps even louder than inside the house: there is no such thing as an old and outdated material. The question is how to treat timber in a new way. We attempt to change the thinking of both manufacturers as well as architects.
You don’t see a risk here that technology will soon take away people’s livelihood?
Siim: Technology itself requires a lot of work! The process of preparation and keeping it running are labour-intensive. Just as software is never fully complete, there are always patches and updates, it’s the same way with technology, someone has to upgrade and improve it all the time. There’s a man behind every machine.
How would you sum up the TAB Body Building exhibition? Was this the best there was to show here and now?
Siim: We asked a question and found ten different answers. That was enough to make certain generalizations. Technologically, the works fell quite evenly into one of two categories: material-centred or digital process-centred. Ideologically, the works vary between author-driven and self-driven systems. The exhibition’s main theme took shape from the last pair of opposites – keeping things self-driven – the body’s structure.
Sille: One of the goals was to show what types of atmosphere the future space might create. We let the visitor experience a possible new existence. We displayed mainly static and physical architectural prototypes, it’s risky for a long exhibition to put too much stock in machines or sensors.
Siim: Everything that ultimately depends on digital technology can break very easily. We have to plan it so that the installation would also work if something breaks. There’s no such worry with physical objects. Ultimately the goal is to show the result and there’s no difference whether someone has hand-woven something in the woods or a robot did it. The key difference is that today we can’t hire a lot of people to weave a big building, but we can put robots to work on it and the result comes out looking identical. Replacement of slave labour with robots is a new possibility that can enrich the environment. Everything doesn’t have to be industrially straight and flat. In principle, robots can be used to build all sorts of things, but the most important is people’s decision. An architect as a specialist who knows what and how to build will again be in high demand. This creates a possibility for the architect to be no longer a mere artisan but the one who holds the knowledge.
What are your personal ambitions, what would you want to achieve as architects?
Sille: To create a space that speaks to people.
Siim: I’d like to convert people to my faith and build cathedrals.