On Architecture and Authorship: A Conversation

Nikolaus Hirsch, Jorge Otero-Pailos and David Adjaye.

Nikolaus Hirsch: There is an issue that is crucial, but usually suppressed, for understanding contemporary architectural practice: the problem of authorship in architecture. In other words: how authorship relates to building. What is the architect’s role in cultural production? Is he an author or service provider? For a long time, of course, there’s been tension between the idea of the architect as artist and the idea of the architect as community social worker, between the demands of art and the ethics of social responsibility.

David Adjaye: Broadening this issue, we want to talk also about how communities relate to buildings and the city. How do you build, why do you build, who do you build for? How does a building affect the way a community works — if it does at all? These questions have guided our teaching at Harvard, at Penn, and at the Architectural Association. This is a provocative investigation, because we get into ideas about how art and community connect to the practice of architecture.

Jorge Otero-Pailos: As a preservationist, I’d like to frame the discussion from the point of view not of the architect but instead of an existing building. From that angle this question of authorship takes on a different dimension. We usually assume that the architecture of a building begins with the design of the “original” architect. But when you look at a building over time, you see that architecture can emerge within the building at different moments. So for instance, Gordon Matta-Clark takes a building in New Jersey, an ordinary vernacular building that’s never been considered architecture, and by cutting and slicing into it and opening it up, he creates something new, a space both physical and conceptual within which new questions emerge. How is this house habitable? How does it restrict my movements? How does the light come in? How does it shape my experience? In a real sense we can say that Matta-Clark installs architecture into the existing building, making it emerge from within. That is interesting because it changes the relationship between building and architecture. Architecture can happen decades, even hundreds of years after a building is constructed.

So what you have here, instead of the artist-as-author, is what I call the creative agent — which can be anyone who intervenes in the realm of the building to install architecture within it. The building itself might exist for five centuries, but the architecture might last only a generation before it is undone by the forces of time, or by changes in culture; and then perhaps a new architecture is installed. Architecture and buildings emerge within each other through acts of creative agency. I put the emphasis on agency because it doesn’t just happen; it is the product of very careful consideration, and it is a physical act. You have to go there and do it.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, 1974.

NH: Do you mean a physical rather than a discursive act?

JOP: Well, they are related.

NH: In which case even a text about a building could be a creative act of architecture.

JOP: The way I see it, the critiques of the 1960s and the ’70s, structuralism and poststructuralism, showed us that architecture is more than a building — it is also a discourse. Architecture can happen in images, in reportage, in any kind of text. But those critiques took the focus away from buildings, so that by the end it seemed the building itself was not important to architecture. Or worse, the building became nothing but a poor manifestation of discourse. A movement that began as a critique of the architect-author ended up reinforcing an even more traditional notion of authorship that served the purposes of those whose work is purely textual: critics, theorists, architectural historians and so on. Thus it reinforced the old understanding of author — one who literally authenticates by signing a name — and disregarded the work of other creative agents, such as people who work in buildings. I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that architecture is more than just building, but we have to rethink the relationship of architecture to building in such a way that the building is not considered a defective mode of a discourse.

NH: Or merely a pretext for textual discourse.

JOP: Right.

DA: I’m very interested in this idea of multiple authorship. You regard an artist like Matta-Clark as an early pioneer of the new preservationist thinking, but in your example he’s working with a nondescript building in a suburban town in New Jersey. How does your idea of multiple authorship — of the creative agent — translate to older cities, say to the traditional European city? In Europe we are constantly remaking cities. Your notion of installed architecture is very clear when the work is anonymous, or vernacular, and decades or centuries old. But when a building has a strong author, it’s often very difficult for a second author to appear.

JOP: I think every work of architecture is a work of co-authorship, even if some co-authors often remain structurally hidden. The question is not who is the author? but who creates the creator? As creative agents engaged with an existing work, you might say that we help create the creator the moment we begin to intervene — the moment we begin to determine the scope of the project, to process the brief, and to analyze what is historically significant and worth preserving about the existing building or city, which might very well be the intervention of a previous author. There are also institutional mechanisms of creating the creator — museum curators, gallerists, critics, government bureaucrats, funders — all these external actors or clients who determine authorship, who participate in creating the creator. There is a very strong political and social field that emerges when we begin to think of a work of architecture as a co-authored work.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975.

NH: But what is co-authorship of a building in a physical sense? In professional practice the sequence is clear: first planning, then construction, and then eventually the architect hands the building over to the client. Like it or not, the completion of a building is a legal act that works to deny any question of multiple authorship. As architects we usually have in our contracts specific terms that define the conditions under which users are allowed to alter the building. We have instruments such as copyright. In other words, we legally prohibit others from signing on to or intervening in an authored work. Of course, co-authorship sounds intriguing, but it’s not so easy to involve other people in your work. We may talk in theory about the death of the author — following the ideas of Roland Barthes — but in professional and legal terms the author’s identity and rights are hard to kill — and his authorial rights might even extend beyond his own physical life to his children and grandchildren.

JOP: You see, I’m strongly against that kind of thing. You’ve raised an interesting point here about intellectual property. In 1990, section 102 of the United States Copyright Act was amended so that artistic copyright for works of architecture made after 1990 would be extended to last for the life of the author plus 70 years. This has important implications for the life of recent buildings, and will probably lead to works designed after 1990 being subjected to more conservative preservation interventions than older buildings, whose original designs cannot be claimed under such copyright protection. And while critical and experimental preservation is moving away from 19th-century ideas about originality and authorship in architecture, copyright law is advancing a diametrically opposed notion of architecture, reinforcing the idea of a single original author. Legally, buildings are preserved for the public good, which is why private property activists have been traditionally against preservation, portraying it as a violent government “taking” of private property, although it is really only a form of regulation. This conflict between public and private interests will likely become even more radicalized as we begin to preserve post-1990 buildings and find our ability to transform buildings in the interest of the public severely limited. I think we have to question this relationship between copyright and preservation, and to look for other forms in which we can maintain a degree of control over the work of architecture.

But we also need to let go of the idea that we ever really have control. The reality is that an architectural work is co-authored from the beginning. During construction the builder makes decisions without the architect’s knowledge, sometimes improving, sometimes ruining the installation of architecture within the building. Then the client has enormous influence over the life of the building. As it happens, in our culture, as often as not, these co-authors, these creative agents, are willing to efface themselves in order to create the idea of the architect as author. In this sense it becomes taboo to speak of co-authorship. Now, why is that? Why do others so willingly participate in the manufacture of the architect as single author?

To answer that, I think one has to understand that the question of architectural authorship is related to questions of authority and value. Since the rise of connoisseurship in the 19th century, authentication, or the establishment of the author, has been the primary mode of assigning economic value to works of art. Realtors can price buildings by the square foot and by location, but the qualities that make a building architecture are very difficult to price. Perhaps that is why there is no architecture market even resembling the art market. So we’ve set up a system of intellectual property rights, and we’ve turned architecture into art, through the same mechanisms the art world uses to assign value. I think that’s unfortunate because we inherit many of the problems of the art world — such as the jealous over-protection of the finished work against any alterations, the cult of personality, and the fetishistic obsession with the artist’s original intent— which are not intrinsic to architecture. We have to think creatively about how we get out of that mode, how we protect and give value to what we do without constructing the architect as artist-author.

Jean Prouvé, Maison Tropicale, installed beneath the Queensboro Bridge, New York, 2007. [Photo by Richard Winchell]

NH: It is interesting that the only mechanisms for assigning value to works of architecture are copied from those that assign value to works of art. But of course, today some architects attempt to retreat into the complexity of parametric design, which tends to obscure the moment of decision: The objectivity of the parameter replaces the subjectivity of the author. But in the end I think authorship can’t be avoided in architecture. Architecture is more than just building; it creates an additional value, a surplus. An extreme example is Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, which was disassembled and transported from its original site in Africa and sold in New York City by Christie’s. In this kind of transaction, a work of architecture becomes a collectible item, similar to an artwork.

JOP: In the Maison Tropicale the architecture could become art more easily because that particular building is prefabricated — it’s designed to be mobile. Most buildings have a harder time entering the world of collectorship in the same way because you just can’t take them with you. But the case of the Maison Tropicale makes it clear how effortlessly the system can turn architecture into art once it is transportable, regardless of whether Prouvé had an interest in technical building construction. All of his research is reduced to craftsmanship in order to fit his work within the art historical discourse on the artist’s craft.

DA: There are art practices that have tried to set up entropic scenarios; some artists have tried to resist the mobility of the product, and thereby resist commodification. But almost always the market finds ways to deal with alternative scenarios. Even the most seemingly entropic kinds of work — for example, the land art of Michael Heizer — can be commodified and collected by institutions. Double Negative might be located on a remote mesa in Nevada, but it’s part of the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. And earlier this year Heizer’s Levitated Mass was purchased by the L.A. County Museum of Art, which plans to install it on its grounds this November. So I don’t think it’s all about mobility.

With Prouvé there is perhaps a kind of nostalgia for a moment in the mid-20th century when architects seemed clearer about their social and artistic roles and about the connections between architecture, technology and craft. Maybe we are at that moment when the rules of intellectual property are being challenged, along with the old idea of architecture-as-art. But what is taking their place? The poststructuralist idea of disconnecting the concept of architecture from the physical fact of building is problematic because we want to connect with and understand constructed form. But we also want to find the value beyond the built form, and to include that value in the discourse of architecture, so that it is central to practice. The art market has empirical methods of setting value: a system that includes auctions, galleries, exhibitions, journalism and criticism. What alternative mechanisms could lock architecture into a process of value-making?

Paul Rudolph, Twitchell House, Siesta Key, Florida, 1941-2007. [Photo by Chris Mottalini]

JOP: Preservation is one way in which architecture acquires value, but often in the most paradoxical ways. For instance, sometimes the architectural value of a building might rise precisely at the moment when it loses its economic value. Let me give you an example: the private houses designed in the postwar era by modern masters like Paul Rudolph and Richard Neutra are today considered so small for their sites in desirable American suburbs that they no longer have economic value as buildings. People buy the houses for the price of the land, tear them down and build McMansions. It is at this moment, when the physical structure no longer has economic value, that preservationists intervene with communication campaigns that aim to elevate the building’s architectural value in the eyes of the public. Preservationists work to turn negatives, such as the lack of economic value, into positives with the argument that such buildings are not worthless but priceless, in the sense of having a value beyond that of mere dollars and cents: they have cultural and historic value, something that belongs the public. Preservationists go through the most insane interventions in order to keep the architecture that’s been installed in those buildings. They will cut them up, split them in half — much more radical interventions than Gordon Matta-Clark’s — put them on trucks and move them many miles to a different site that has less value as real estate, where they then try to reinstall the original architecture.

But the pursuit of recreating the original is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it’s impossible to recreate the original architecture on the new site because the site is an integral part of the architecture; and second, it’s a lost opportunity to do something more valuable, which is to install a new type of architecture. Think about it: when you do something as radical as transporting a building, you have a different site, you have different conditions, you have a new co-creator. But these co-creators, whom we call preservationists, uphold self-effacement as the aesthetic standard of their work. Their way of giving value to architecture is to disappear. The self-effacing preservationist is the opposite of the signature-making architect. That said, I think there have been some interesting architects who tried to disappear and, in doing so, were able to install a new type of architecture in buildings. I’m thinking of Alejandro de la Sota in Spain, who made incredible works in this way — projects like the Gobierno Civil de Tarragona [Civic Government Building, Tarragona, 1954-57] or the Gimnasio Maravillas [Maravillas School Gymnasium, Madrid, 1961].

NH: Unlike, say, the approach of Carlo Scarpa, which always announces “intervention,” and always becomes a narrative of its own — a new era in the life of an old building.

DA: De la Sota and Scarpa represent two opposite and polemical positions that emerged around the same time in the mid 20th century. In essence, in projects like the renovation of the Castelvecchio in Verona, Scarpa re-scripts the original work of architecture — he makes it about narrative, which means that architecture is no longer about the way you build, it’s about the way you talk about how you build. Scarpa did that to death, and that is how he became an eminence. He emerges through this discourse. The other way of being polemical, the de la Sota mode, was to continue an early Miesian discourse, an almost theological discourse about the disappearance of architecture in the service of allowing the presence of humans to emanate, as well as the presence of place, nature and city. All of which is interesting. But are we saying that these practices amplify value? This deliberate scripting within the act of making?

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy, renovated by Carlo Scarpa, 1953-1971. [Photos by Peter Guthrie, left, and Adam Nelson, right]

JOP: I think so. You use the word scripting; I would use the word interpretation. In a sense, every work of architecture begins when you situate yourself in a time and place where you must react to something, and you react by reconstructing its relationship to the world around it. Architecture is a relational practice. That, I think, is one way in which it acquires value. You know, we have been talking about value, but value for whom? Architects have learned how to create value for collectors, for the art market, but whom do we want to produce value for?

NH: Could there be value for the community? Is that possible? That’s probably the crucial question. We need to think about modes of interpretation or narration where community co-authorship becomes possible. This would change the nature of the profession profoundly.

JOP: But what community do you mean? Do you mean the architecture community? Or the community of building users?

NH: I think there are very different scales of community here. One community is that which exists during the planning process: the client, the engineers, the builders. And beyond this there is the community of users, sometimes users who are anonymous. That’s a challenging discourse to establish. How do we talk about architecture and authorship and co-authorship then?

DA: Perhaps we could focus on what happens when we encounter the unfamiliar? In cities many different people could potentially form a kind of provisional community through the common encounter with the unexpected.

JOP: One of the practices that can be effective in making architecture relate to things beyond itself is the creation of mini-narratives emerging from these unexpected encounters. For instance, say you go into a state ministry building designed in 1932 in Madrid by Secundino Zuazo and see one of the arcades transformed into an exhibition hall by Aparicio + Fernández-Elorza. You think you are walking into a Spanish building, but the first thing you see written on the steel floor is “Made in Macedonia.” The marks of fabrication have not been erased. So if we think of preservation as the organization of attention, then creative agents can find ways to organize attention around mini-narratives like this. The mark on the floor tells a story of the building’s relationship to globalization and to the idea of a global community. This is a shift away from the idea of the master designer, the master planner, the master narrative; it’s an attempt to include in the design process these opportunities for other creative agents to make their own interpretations, which the “original” designer often has no control over. These mini-narratives create communities of people who become invested in the building and open it up. The city is the perfect model for this, because you never have a total, complete design.

Aparicio + Fernández-Elorza, Nuevos Ministerios Exhibition Center and Lecture Hall, Madrid, Spain, 2001-03.

DA: We are in an era when it is impossible to make architecture with a master-planner mindset. The city, which is in a continual process of making and remaking, already offers so much to engage the idea of community; inserting more systems would be a deeply problematic way of intervening. In this sense, for designers, the problem of the city is to constantly catch up to where the people are, to where the community is. And this is compounded by the fact that there’s always a delay, as the city works to keep up with itself, to absorb all the making and remaking. So to make architecture in the city always involves negotiating the multiple processes of remaking, readjusting, refiguring. The new preservationist thinking is essential here.

JOP: What you are saying relates to the question of temporality; architecture is fundamentally a temporal activity. And in thinking about how to install architecture in the city, or in the environment, we also have to consider the temporality of the installation. Is a work of architecture meant to be installed for a week, or fifty years, or one hundred years? Each of those time scales demands different material substrates.

NH: It’s crucial that we scale the problem down to physical materials, to the material details that determine how various parts of an architectural work are made and how long they will live. This relates to the idea of the rhythm of a building. Materials have hidden agendas — their different life cycles, their relationships to the global economy. If you look at how a window is made today, you can see different narratives. Look at the window frame, for instance, which is an element that is often not very durable; here you can read a narrative about its thickness, its physical and ecological performance, about its limited future. It seems we have to invent a language of how we talk about material details.

JOP: Windows are really interesting to me, because they are the first thing that gets replaced in a building. That makes them the perfect object lesson for our discussion of co-authorship. In many buildings wooden windows are being replaced by plastic and aluminum. That takes the users out the equation as creative agents. A wooden window needs to be repainted every five, seven years, whereas the whole idea of a plastic window is that you take it out and buy a new one. It’s no longer a part of the maintenance budget; it’s capital improvement. So institutions love aluminum and plastic windows, because they take the staff out of the process of having to be invested in the re-installation of architecture. It’s very important for architects to think of how the community created by a building is engaged in its ongoing transformation. How do you create a window that enables people to participate in the act of re-installing architecture, as opposed to being excluded from it?

DA: One of the central issues for architecture discourse is this question of performance criteria that could address this degree of engagement. As architecture becomes more autonomous, it becomes removed from the body and human experience. It performs somehow, but you don’t ever really touch it. It does all the work. When we think of architecture as a dialogue with the building, in a humanist way, we are reminded of its temporality and the performative quality of materials. It’s only with certain kinds of projects — for instance, the temporary pavilion — that we truly acknowledge or engage certain questions of temporality and participation.

JOP: The pavilion is a fascinating way of exploring new relationships between architecture and building. Pavilions suggest that the temporality of architecture is the same as that of the building, and when the architecture expires, the building does too. Wouldn’t it also be interesting to think about the possibility of buildings having a different temporality than architecture? It could be that the building lasts longer, as we’ve discussed, but it could also be that it has a shorter life span. For instance, the temporality of the Barcelona Pavilion, as architecture, is much longer than its temporality as a building. Already we have had to reconstruct the building a couple of time in order to reinstall the architecture. It suggests that these two things have completely different temporalities. Now if we could begin to design the meeting of those two temporalities in relation to the changing nature of communities, and even in anticipation of those communities that might not yet exist, then I think we would finally be moving towards a new understanding of architectural authorship.

David Adjaye, Nikolaus Hirsch & Jorge Otero-Pailos, “On Architecture and Authorship: A Conversation,” Places Journal, October 2011. Accessed 21 Dec 2014. <>

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Past Discussions View
  • 10.27.2011 at 05:04

    What an interesting discussion. I'm about to read it again to digest it properly, but the question of authorship is an important one! There is so much, seemingly misplaced, emphasis on authorship of structures that by nature of being placed in a public sphere will take on new multiple authorships as the building is changed and manipulated by its users.

    Traditional medium art constitutes the epitome of the non-utilitarian object that, generally, has a set authorship that doesn't change over the lifetime of the object. The object is often mobile, and can be manipulated by being placed in different settings; a curator, collector or otherwise forming a narrative that includes the object. Although this may affect the way that the work is perceived, this doesn't really change the authorship, as the object still, in many cases, remains as the author intended it.

    Architecture however is utilitarian, mostly, and it gets changed by the people that use the space all the time: in meaning, through physical condition changes, feet wearing down stairs... there is an untold multiple authorship in community spaces, in the buildings that we use. There's almost an irony in the fluidity of such solid structure.

    I have been studying one of Herbert Baker's beautiful prints/sketches of the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town this past week, and have taken some interest in his very particular instructions of the entire area surrounding the memorial. His instructions are laid in the most beautiful writing - akin to a typeface, so precisely he renders his words. Little did he know what was to come, and how it was to become a place with a completely different meaning and understanding. Upon his instructions: gone are the blue gums that invaded the area, preserved is the solid structure that overlooks Cape Town, and most importantly, all but gone is the memory of Cecil John Rhodes, the imperialist, racist colonialist. Or so it seems by the way in which the space is used. Monuments, as do other forms of art, architecture and design, become outdated, and subsequently can become irrelevant. The monuments of one era become merely relics to another. This may very well be applicable to architecture, authors being outdated to provide for a generation, or era, following theirs.

    Authorship and the change of meaning, with regards to monuments as well as other public spaces, translates directly to how community brings new meaning or methods of use, and therefore change to old works. Art seems to demand a respect that most architecture or design doesn't seem to get, considering the subsequent alteration that inevitably happens in the latter, while art remains intact. This article questions that emphasis though, on authorship and respect of authorship which challenges one's way of thinking.

    The recent alterations to the Dresden Museum of Military History by Daniel Libeskind are a key example of co-authorship, bringing contemporary design into an old space. This glass and steel structure marks the re-opening of the museum after being closed for 22 years, giving the old structure a completely different aesthetic and a new sense of contemporanaeity that it would not have had otherwise. It renders the building useful to cultural consumers of this year, of this decade or possibly even the century to come. A shrapnel-like insertion, something that looks like it fell from the sky to dissect the landscape, it seems visually rather appropriate as a reminder of WWIIs destruction of Dresden. Monuments are there to revere and to remind the populace of influential people or events, but very much like the Rhodes monument – Libeskind’s shard may very well have little relevance or aesthetic appeal in any real way to those who look upon it in a hundred years’ time.

    Co-authorship or destruction of architecture seems inevitable, and the appreciation or monumentalising of certain forms of architecture over others seems to be a random process that links age to value, as opposed to community functionality to value. One cannot really consider aesthetic value, because that is an unquantifiable thing. China is a parting example of a culture that values the new, destroys the old, and focuses not on maintenance, but on demolition and reconstruction. The skyline of every major city is a web of skyscrapers and orange building cranes. It is a phenomenon, entire cities under construction, as far as the eye can see. The sky scrapers all carry the same aesthetic as well, bringing to question a sense of authorship in a completely different way.

    The occident puts so much emphasis on the individual and the creator of an idea, as opposed to the multiple hands that partake in the construction of a building, from the manufacture of materials to the design of the interiors. It is somewhat strange the idea of a single author when so many are involved in the making and decisions, so the question remains: who is the author, and why do we place such importance in the autonomy of the designer when it seems to be anything but.

  • 11.08.2011 at 09:10

    Because this conversation is quite abstract, it never gets to the reason why I am an architect: place making, both in the building and what Jan Gehl calls the space between the buildings.

    The best places will always be made by artists simultaneously fir themselves and others.