FM: How did you get into architecture?
RES: You mean, how does one make sense of this very suspect career trajectory? My interests had always fluctuated between art and politics, and at some point architecture seemed to be the perfect intersection of those issues. Maybe you can extrapolate the concept of “plastic politics” from that, which in some way merges the plasticity of the aesthetic with the politics of disciplining. My education shot from one trajectory to the other. As an undergraduate at Brown, that meant art, literature, and design courses along with political theory and history, and trying to navigate a major through that. Somehow that led into law school, but I realized that was unfulfilling and ended up landing in the Graduate School of Design (GSD), which reanimated my interest. That led me to the Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, as an escape hatch. Turns out, spending almost ten years on a dissertation is maybe not the quickest escape hatch.
My interest in going to law school was mainly because of the people teaching at Harvard at the time, not because I imagined a money-making career. Hardly. I was really interested in Roberto Unger, who was a leader in the critical legal studies movement. He was attempting to combine modernism with theories of society, politics, and personality. It is from his books, such as Passion, Politics, and Plasticity into Power, that I borrow the term “plastic” or “plasticity.” I also got the term “projective” from Unger’s work in reconstructive social theory, which allowed me to bring the projective into architecture.
The generally theoretical orientation of the critical legal studies group led me outside of the law school into the GSD, where Jeff Kipnis and Peter Eisenman were teaching together at the time, though I wouldn’t really meet them until later. It also led me into Comparative Literature with Alice Jardine, which solidified my interest in post-structuralist theory at the time, which was the mid-eighties. That led me to get a Ph.D instead of working in a law firm, which was never really an option.
FM: So you took what you learned from Unger and translated that into a Ph.D in the History of Culture at University of Chicago? What exactly was your dissertation on?
RES: There is probably a copy lying around somewhere… It was about the repetition of the neo-avant-garde in a post-war context. It was formed in part by having a class with Benjamin Buchloh at U of C. I began to try to think about the problem of architecture in the same way he thought about the problem of art relative to early modernism and its return in a post-war context. I argued that architecture had a similar trajectory, with the repetition of 1920s modernism, first with people like Venturi and Scott Brown, Eisenman, and Hejduk, and later with a European generation including Tschumi and Koolhaas. I looked at what is at stake in the repetition of the historical avant-garde in architecture, which is not exactly the same as in the visual and literary arts.
FM: Was your book Autonomy and Ideology a culmination of that trajectory?
RES: In some ways, though it felt more like a detour. I feel that I got dragged into that project. But I feel that I was somehow dragged into everything I have done by saying “yes” without realizing the implications. Let’s say, it stems from an inability to say “no.” It’s like, “So, you want to write on Hejduk?” “Well, not really, but I will.” Then the question becomes, how do you invent the project when you commit to something that you don’t really want to do? You have to figure out how to make it interesting and turn it into a thing that you do want to do.
Also, at U of C, there was really no contemporary design or architecture culture, so I had to form my own community. It was in conversations with friends at a distance that I was given the first opportunity to publish and to teach. I accidentally met Jeff Kipnis at the “Fetish” conference  that Ed Mitchell co-organized with Sarah Whiting and Greg Lynn. Jeff decided that my presentation was the funniest one, so he asked me to co-teach a studio with Eisenman at Ohio State that fall.
I would go to Peter’s office after we taught, since we were teaching projects that came out of his practice. I became an outside critic of the projects. Peter was great at bringing Mark Wigley and Jeff and others like us to be external stimulants for the work he was also doing in the academic context. It was through collaboration with others who were trained as architects that I felt I could be a designer without being a registered architect. And that’s how you slowly get sucked into a world. So pick your friends wisely.
FM: Why UIC? Was it another question you unwittingly said yes to?
RES: The first time I was at UIC was simply because I was in Chicago doing the Ph.D, which is when I was “discovered” by Jeff and was hired to co-teach with Eisenman.
Stanley Tigerman was director of UIC at the time and hired me just on Peter’s word to be the local guy for a spring studio he was teaching, right after the OSU experiment, which must have gone okay. Peter basically said to Stanley [in Bob’s best impersonation of Eisenman], “Uh, I got this guy, Robert. He’s, uh, in Chicago, I’m gonna bring him in.”
That is how I got involved with Stanley. He gave me a tenure-track job the next fall, which I had for three years while he was here. I stayed for two more years after he was fired, until leaving for L.A., without any clear job on the horizon. That was my first time at UIC. Stanley was doing really interesting things. I mean, clearly no one in their right mind would have hired people like me if they were not trying to achieve something else. There were lots of interesting people here at that moment, many of whom would “take off” later at other places: Mark Linder, Greg Lynn, Catherine Ingraham, and Doug Garofalo. At the senior level there was Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind. And, of course, Stanley brought in Sanford Kwinter and Jeff Kipnis. Then we all lost our jobs.
I have to say, I wrote a really nasty—juvenile, probably—letter of resignation on stationery from the Sands Casino. I probably have a copy of it somewhere. I was really unhappy with the way that we were treated after the new dean [Ellen Baird] basically pulled the rug out from all of us. The only one who survived that push orchestrated by the senior faculty was Doug. He had a practice in Chicago and could not go anywhere. I figured that bridge would never be crossed again. I went to L.A., and twelve years later Doug had become interim director, received tenure, and was on the search committee to find a new director. He was basically like, “Do you want to come back?” So I applied for the position.
FM: Did it seem like UIC was an appropriate place to test your pedagogical manifesto?
RES: More so now, in twenty-twenty hindsight, than at the moment. It seemed opportune because of Doug’s position and because there had been a series of retirements, so a junior faculty was starting to assemble. It also seemed like there was strong support from the Dean, Judith Kirshner.
Honestly, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting the position, so there was nothing to lose. But I think there was a virtue in having been here for five years, twelve years earlier, and then returning. If I had already been here, I couldn’t have done anything, or brought anything with me—my hands would have been tied and I wouldn’t have known any better. And if I had come in totally cold, I could have been bamboozled because everybody might say, “It has always been this way.” Having been here and knowing the school’s history, I could say, “Well, actually, it wasn’t always this way.” I could pull trump, but I also had a distance from the current situation. I felt like the school had forgotten what the discipline is and how it can be effective in the world.
FM: As director, you made a lot of big changes right off the bat, one of them being that you brought in a lot of young, emerging faculty as opposed to established and well-known people. Of course there were budgetary constraints at play, but it seems that you had a broader agenda. Can you elaborate on this?
RES: As you say, we didn’t, and don’t, have a big budget. The Greenwald Professorship was still here. In the nineties, the Sullivan Chair was enough money to get Peter Eisenman for eight visits, but these things never get adjusted for inflation. So twenty years later, though the Sullivan no longer exists, you can’t possibly hire someone like Peter with something like the Greenwald. I think Peter did those studios for ten or twelve thousand dollars in the early 90s, and he would stay with Stanley, where he would apparently make a total mess of Stanley’s bathroom. He would also steal Stanley’s neighbor’s New York Times. Stanley lived in one of those Mies buildings, where there are only two apartments per floor, and Peter would routinely just go over and steal the other guy’s paper. He was like Kramer; imagine Kramer as your visiting Sullivan Chair.
Anyway, what can you do in terms of faculty with less than ten thousand dollars, and that has to pay for travel and hotels? You call your friends. The first year I had Neil Denari come in and do a one-week workshop.
Then, after my first year, 16 adjuncts were swapped out for 16 new adjuncts. It was the only thing I had control over that could change that quickly. A school like Urbana-Champagne could never do that because they have so many tenured and tenure-track positions, and so few adjuncts that it would take forever to change the culture of the place. There is a great liberating aspect to having so many adjuncts. You can really make a school turn on a dime, and you work with what you have.
I just read Moneyball and decided that I’d like to be the Billy Beane of architecture schools. The question is, when there are schools spending four times as much money, how do you still win? Who are the overlooked, undervalued players and how do you get them? You really have to think: what do I want, and where can I get it? Who can I bring in that that will attract somebody else? It’s all a juggling act in a way. Using a small thing to get something else.
FM: Several people that we interviewed for this issue touched on the fact that UIC has a very diverse faculty, yet there is a discernible synthesis within the school.
RES: Yeah, I think of it as hosting a party. I have different analogies for what it is to be a director. As a kid, I always enjoyed making mix tapes. I got my first tape recorder when I was 10 or 12. At that point, you had to record songs straight from the radio. You could think about the curriculum as a kind of playlist, with the people as the songs.
Essentially, it is about pulling things together and hoping the result produces an effect. It involves a kind of curating that I enjoy. Part of it is hiring people who you think will produce sparks, whether it is a debate or a collaboration. It is also about orchestrating teams, particularly in terms of studio teaching. For example, you can say, “The third year undergraduates need to go from a slow song to a fast song, and therefore these people are going to teach the fall studio, and then these people will teach in the spring.” Although there are differences among them, there are also certain coherences that make a good team.
FM: Do you feel like it’s having an effect on your colleagues or in the greater world of architecture?
RES: I think it’s legible that things are happening. I think a lot of people have noticed it with Paul Preissner, for example, who has always been a very talented designer, but who was previously working in a different genre. You can see the influence of, not me personally, but the context of the school on his work. It is really interesting to see new genres develop because of their proximity to other things. Whether it’s because of his interest in the graphic project, or becoming disgruntled with the “traditional” digitial project, or because his proximity to Alex Lehnerer and others in the mix, the work has noticeably shifted. It’s probably a series of things, including trying to distinguish himself from all of the Mark Gages in the world and his former classmates from Columbia. I think it’s brave of him and exciting to see; he’s doing something that no one else is. I like the confluence that happens when people come from different places and work on the same problems through their particular lens, but also co-evolve.
FM: Given Paul’s studio mid-term presentation, do you think he is teaching green dots?
RES: Yeah! It is pretty good, I have to say.
FM: You have a theory that every 20 years, a different school establishes a new architectural paradigm by successfully pushing its own pedagogical agenda forward. You’ve suggested that UIC might be the next school to hold this position. What do you see as this school’s contribution?
RES: Part of it has to do with the strength of a city’s cultural institutions. Previously, the architectural-cultural infrastructure has floundered when it has tried to follow local practice. I think what is still missing in Chicago, to a large extent, is a density of interesting local offices. Our job in the next five years, if we really want to make a mark, is to change the landscape of production and reception, and one way to do that is to help encourage and clear a space for newer, younger offices. One model is to follow, the other model is to lead. But I think before you can lead, you have to invent something that could be followed. I think we’re getting close to that thing.
One of the advantages of a relatively young faculty is that it allows the school to become a kind of clubhouse for the students and faculty. There is, at most, a half-generation difference between students and the younger faculty, which produces its own cohort. But really the goal is to produce projects—and offices are one kind of project.
You always have to keep fine-tuning your sound, but I think we have a sound now that can get a contract and a record out, and can move into the world and attract an audience. One way the long-range success of a school can be measured is by how many smaller, younger, different offices it generates in the city. The other is by the proportion of its graduates who go on to teach at other schools.
FM: Can you talk about the theoretical armature of “the five points” in terms of how they influence the pedagogical methods at UIC?
RES: When you have an idea, you need both to find and to make the evidence for it. It is like Koolhaas’s paranoid-critical model: You have a speculation and then you produce the evidence to support it. In a way, the curriculum became the evidence for a paranoid speculation of the five points. It is derived from the work, but it is also what instigates how the work is initially framed.
For example, the term “perverse precision” came about from my second year here, inspired by a studio led by Andrew Zago. But that had been set up by a previous antipathy to what I had call “sloppy earnestness,” which is work that is “for a good cause,” but bad and sloppy. Fortunately, the next year Andrew’s option studio seemed to be invested in work that was amoral, but very precise, or so I thought. All this to say that the need came about by looking around and seeing what was unsatisfactory, but the term really evolved out of the work that was happening in the studio. It became a way to be intensely precise about arguably perverse things.
In a similar way, we brought Sean Lally here explicitly to deal with the environmental question in a different way. We knew we had to produce something within that arena, but we didn’t want to produce exactly what everyone else was doing. In that sense, Sean’s genre, what he calls “climate design,” contributed to setting up another center of gravity that we came to call “denatured environments.”
FM: You are opposed to the thematization of architecture schools. How do you avoid being themed as the “discipline school?”
RES: Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad—there certainly, if unfortunately, wouldn’t be much competition for us. Not to be tautological, but I would say that the discipline, by definition, is not something that can be a theme. The problem is when disciplines assume a central or exclusive focus on an issue—the architectural equivalent to single-issue politics, like gun control, or right-to-life, or whatever the single-issue de jour might be. That one issue should define your entirety is ridiculous. This is equally true of an architecture school. An attitude and expertise in your discipline should allow you to address any issue; no specific one should determine your activity.
FM: How do you see the role of humor in architecture, and how does it relate to the cartoon as a mode of representation?
RES: In general, architecture is not very funny. It is hard to do. As Jeff Kipnis would say, you don’t want to spend a billion dollars on a joke. Architecture is really expensive and it lasts a long time, so clearly, if you want it to be funny, you have to push architecture against what seems to be its native traits or tendencies.
I think we can understand it in relation to Sanford Kwinter’s idea of the catastrophe curve, which is basically the idea that two points, far away from each other on a graph comprise a territory and become simultaneous through the catastrophe fold, through the collapse of previously incommensurate or distant points. In a way, then, a new world is liberated through the device of that fold, or the logic of the joke. In Teletheory, Greg Ulmer defines humor as that catastrophe fold: you expect A, but you get B.
FM: It’s the counter-intuitive thing…
RES: Exactly. So the logic of a joke is: you are set up to expect one thing and then you end up getting something completely different. There is work that accomplishes this, certainly some Dutch work. It’s like, “We are going to be true to all these bureaucratic protocols, quantities, and realities,” but then they end up with this thing that doesn’t look like it came out of that at all.
Counter-intuition is a different way of describing the same thing in the form of a project. To me, the joke is a subset of a larger species that puts surprise to work by showing that the world can be different than what it appears to be. Humor works against any kind of false necessity or a priori reality. Ultimately, it leads to the question of what kind of world you want to inhabit. Is it the predictable, routinized world, or the one where you can be surprised and become something or someone else? It’s a political decision as much as it is an aesthetic decision. How do you reveal the bimodal possibility of that catastrophic event, the collapse, where one thing becomes another? It is that moment of becoming, or singularity, or—the way Sanford would describe it in biological or behavioral terms—crossing the threshold of a phase-state transition from one thing to another. The bee to the swarm: one plus one equals apples.
FM: Which is sort of how Deleuze conceptualizes the diagram. So then, in what way is the cartoon parallel to the diagram?
RES: The comic is one of the ways I talk about it. In a certain sense, I’m always looking for the comic in things that are normally perceived with seriousness, tragedy, or austerity. Humor is excessive; it’s a luxury. Like when I was forced to write about Hejduk, I tried to find the comic aspect in his work, instead of the somber, earnest, self-serious one, which is the pious reading by his followers and other church-goers of authenticity. In other words, how do you liberate an alternative reading? This is the job of criticism. It should produce reactions like, “That’s a crazy idea,” and then, “Well, maybe it’s so crazy it could be true.” I think that all work should produce that effect, whether it’s written work or design work. If A always leads to A, you lose the jouissance. It is not about what a brick wants to be, in the essentialism of Kahn, that is interesting; it is about what the brick does not want to be—but maybe what it wants to become.
In regards to my interest in the cartoon, part of it stems from an interest in the graphic. That itself is a more narrow, tactical engagement between the predominance of “the digital,” on the one hand, and the earnestness of “the green” on the other. The low-resolution of the comic, and today the possibility of frivolity, provides an alternative to both a high-definition parametricism and high-lack-of-definition social fundamentalism. I think humor is a great corrosive to any kind of fundamentalism. The funny thing is, you have to be really serious to be funny; work really hard to make it look cool and effortless.
FM: As a critic, how do you describe the role of criticism in contemporary architecture?
RES: For me, criticism has always been operative or instrumental. It’s about looking at the field and seeing where things are, how they got there, and what hasn’t gotten explored. Then you start to develop a genealogy for it and a discourse around it; you find a direction and affiliated sources. Basically, it is about world-making. You set the table and then see who comes and what they make of it, which is a bit like school as a design problem. I’m interested in instrumental theory, not critical theory, and speculative technology, not normative technology. Technology is typically normative and theory is typically critical, but in fact we want to instrumentalize the theory and to make the technology speculative.
The potential to instigate movements is one job of criticism. My general instinct is to dismiss timeless, essential truths. I can’t possibly believe that if everybody agrees on something that it is therefore true. And that sets up the space to do something else.
This goes back to the Billy Bean model of market inefficiencies that produce opportunities. If the marketplace of ideas produces an inefficiency because everybody bets on one thing instead of another, it opens up an opportunity to bet on what has not yet been capitalized on. This is opposed to putting your money in the same place—let’s say, all those programs that slavishly jump on the sustainability bandwagon–which will produce only diminishing returns. The issue is, as a critic, you need to spread your chips, invest exactly in what seems to have no future at the moment. And if history shows anything, it’s that you can count on the unexpected.
At the same time, the criticism program wagers on the chance that–as we do blogs, or write for the Reader, or infiltrate other venues–our writing will start to change the way people look at the world, which makes it possible for other kinds of work to emerge.
FM: Do you think the work of criticism has the potential to make architecture more accessible to the general public?
RES: Sure. Too many people in architecture and academia assume that “educating people” is condescending, but that’s a form of self-hatred. There is nothing wrong with educating people; that’s what our job is. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope to the “anti-elitism” of the new right: you know, “home school your kids, public schools are bad…” Sorry, I’m really dismayed by this whole Republican primary thing: “Oh elitism! Why should smart people be in charge?!” Yeah, right, let’s have idiots…
I think criticism that plays into people’s preconceived ideas is another form of slavish demagoguery. That is certainly Blair Kamen’s form of criticism; backing people who don’t need to be backed, and killing people who are already dead. Get over it! Do something else! Take us somewhere new!
FM: Did you see the recent New York Times editorial about why people don’t read about architecture? It was basically calling for a watered-down architectural discourse so that the field can become less esoteric and more accessible to the general public. But maybe architecture shouldn’t be dumbed-down, so to speak; maybe the general public should be more educated in architectural matters. Do you think that is an important function of the critic?
RES: Basically you want to start doing cool stuff and writing about cool stuff to get people interested. That is the Dave Hickey model of a cultural democracy: go out and do your thing and people who are interested will come, and they will make a scene. It is like the observation about Joy Division: there were like a dozen people in the audience when Joy Division first played, but they ended up forming really significant bands. The idea is that you do not need a million people to show up. You need to influence a few people who are going to make a difference in some other form. There’s a great title from a best of album by The Fall: Fifty-Thousand Fall Fans Can’t be Wrong. It’s not about numbers, it’s about effect. And this is one of the things that’s lost in the new metric, business model that university boards and upper administrations are imposing on education, aided by the horde of doctorates who study how to study. And of course, at the same time, we have to ensure that you all become good “global citizens” as well. The sheer presumptuousness of that expectation is astounding. And if that’s supposed to be our job, I’ll happily confess to not doing it. I have no idea what that would mean, and I’d be deeply suspicious of anybody who tells you that they do. It’s up to you to figure it out with your fellow outcasts and friends.
FM: So “making a scene” is parallel to creating the new worlds and audiences that come from that.
RES: Right. Ultimately, how do we have that effect? The architectural example I always use is the New Urbanists, who have been very good at it, for better or worse. Clearly, there is a way, even from an initially academic, even bookish, standpoint like theirs, to get the public engaged, to get developers, politicians and policymakers interested, and to get it passed as law. It’s just that we need to do it for other kinds of work. That is why you need to engage different types of audiences. It doesn’t start and end in the school; we are only one cultural player in a field. Nonetheless, we need to take advantage of the fact that we occupy more imaginative real estate than the resources we have. Just like Hollywood.
FM: Going back to the idea of plastic politics, where do you think it is happening at UIC? Do you see it being practiced anywhere else?
RES: I think the tendency in many schools is to produce work that seems either self-involved in formal exploration without larger ambition, or socially-engaged work that, for a lack of a better word, looks like shit, if it looks like anything. The issue is how to re-script the world to overcome the clichés of being a formalist or a socially-engaged architect. Basically, how do you bring those projects together in a way so that the formal project is politically motivated and the engaged project is formally motivated? If you assume, along with Unger, that social life is plastic, susceptible to change—that it is deeply modernist—then the politics of design and its aesthetics can be thought together. They are not dialectical opposites. The formal project has a political dimension and the political project has a formal condition.
At UIC, I’m not sure this project exists in just one place. It is more like the friction between a studio that is totally motivated by X and another that is motivated by Y; the fallout is plastic politics. It is not that one is the plastic politics studio and the other is not. It is about the co-evolution that happens between the two. At the same time, I sense a greater ambition for people to take on what not long ago they would have dismissed: for example, the mapping, global indexing that previously would have been proud of refusing legibility is now taking on an explicitly formal dimension. Equally, someone else’s work that might have been purely driven inside the computer in terms of formal operations and techniques is now insisting that it address issues of reception and audience formation. The sociological, statistical work is becoming more formally expressed, and the formal work is looking to have an effect in the world. They are still distinct projects with different personalities behind them, but each is no longer content to cede an entire realm to the “other side.” I am not necessarily sure you want it to come to a point. It is just a bunch of experiments right now. Or maybe the healthy competition of looking over your shoulder and engaging in acts of one-upmanship.
But plastic politics is happening here in other ways as well. Fresh Meat is a great example of it. It is not just happening in the studios, per say, but it is in the culture of the school. Whether it is Fresh Meat or the Department of Urban Speculation, the plastic politics exist in the fluidity between students and faculty around a certain set of interests—your own world-making activities. Not to be too grandiose, but basically we are forming a collective, a band or a bunch of bands. It is a product of the work that you do outside of class. That’s what it’s about. You get together to make something, you share its values and you debate and argue over it. It is not that hard. In a way, the curriculum is why you are here, but it is really an excuse, or a Trojan horse, for all the other stuff you are also doing, which is becoming an architect, a cultural operative.
Interviewed by Brandon Biederman, Julia Di Castri, Eric Hoffman & Andrew Santa-Lucia. Edited by Brandon Biederman, Julia Di Castri, Paola Gomez-Piniero & Chelsea Ross.
Tags: Billy Beane, Bob, Cigar Sessions, Director, Interview, Somol, UIC