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Interview: François Roche

December 12, 2011

Roche on authorship, the contradictions of architecture and possible future directions for the profession.

John de Manincor: There are three areas I wanted to talk around, including how I think I understand your work. And I probably don’t understand it…
François Roche: No, me too. [laughs]

JDM One is more about your mode of working. I like the relationship between the mystique of R&Sie(n) and the ‘we’re not on stage’ and not-being-photographed attitude. Does that suggest a deeper way of working, which is not about a specific author? Philosophically, how does that work? François is not the designer, Stephanie is not the designer…
FR You remember the piece by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot? It asks: ‘Who is talking, who are the authors?’ I find the question ‘Who is talking?’ very interesting. Michel Foucault said: ‘Who has permission to talk, and from where is he getting the authority to justify the permission to talk?’ That is, mainly, the notion of authorship. You have to ask why you have the authority, and why some people around you give you the authority to talk in their place. It’s clear that, for us, to produce something creative is to simultaneously re-question the notion of authors. We could alienate, disqualify, requalify, or modify this very arrogant perception and production coming from this idea of authorship, because it is becoming an obscene cultural process everywhere. Look at John Galliano, the fashion designer. He did some very strange talking about fascism, about Hitler. It was like a mediatic suicide, the only way for him to say, ‘No, I want to stop it,’ to suicide by media. Immediately, he was fired. He was a main guy in fashion design in Paris, and he did everything to suicide his authorship.

JDM Strategically, how does that affect the day-to-day running of the studio?
FR If you don’t have one top-down system with the authors, you have to produce another systemic organisation from where the production is coming. So if there is no top-down system, you can invent a horizontal system with links and connections between people that are more interesting than the idea of authorship with some of them driving the boat. In our studio, it’s a more horizontal platform. If there’s a problem, or the horizontal structure is unproductive, we have to take the responsibility to use our position to produce the final case. It’s a kind of delegation of power when it’s not productive. You need to re-engage with the notion of, not power, but authority that is able to refresh the group.

JDM That’s an interesting differential between power and being authoritative – intelligence and knowledge is a more clever and productive way to work.
FR In French, there are two words for ‘power’: pouvoir and puissance. It means two things: the power of the politician, and the power of the cow pulling the plough. But in English, there is just one word. You have to exercise your power, but in the sense of puissance – the cow or the horse’s power – to produce the transformation. So, the idea of ‘exercising your power’ is interesting.

JDM With your, let’s call it, ‘architecture studio’, it seems rare that there’s only R&Sie(n) on a project – there are always scientists, biologists, artists. Are all your projects set up so that you must engage outside the studio?
FR When people ask you a question, you can frame yourself by repeating and repeating your knowledge, and you apply it to something else, and something else – you are in the strategy of repeating authorship to brand itself. Or, you just assume that you don’t know the answer. A building is always a question. It appears physical at the end, but at the beginning people ask a question: about programming, budget, why people need a building, why we can’t find another way to do the building, and so on. The way to re-question it cannot be done in your room. It has to be an open space where forces of society – scientific, artistic, philosophical and sometimes even political – can infiltrate your mind.

JDM In a parallel way, the question of authorship and the way you work with algorithmic strategies is not a question about final form. Your work is almost irrelevant of form. There might be some authorship and some final cut, but there’s almost a non-authorship.
FR It’s like the notion of gestalt interpretation. Over time, as you do something, you have to anticipate how the production might be received and how it can be produced, what is the radiation. Gestalt is the perception of the design, of the process of design, and of how it will be received by people who are using it – or just by you. You are always anticipating the re-reading of the shape through the cultures, where you need to eviscerate or alienate the comfortable attitudes to reproduce knowledge. You have to question knowledge, and not only at the beginning but also at the end, when the building is physically here – it has to carry the question, and must be embedded. It can have some parts that are conflicting; it can let this conflict be operative without cleaning, calming or quietening everything. In this case, this architectural conflict, or energy, could also be the departures of the commission and the use of the building.

JDM There’s a very interesting interview with you, by Jeffrey Inaba, in which you talk about looking for the specifics in a site, but also trying to corrupt them.[1] What’s interesting is that the first part could be, if you took it out of context, quite traditional – every architect talks about the site. But the second part of the quote implies that any or every architectural project, no matter how romantic or specific, is actually a corruption of place. Perhaps everything we do as architects is a corruption of sorts.
FR In a way, you cannot deny that you are corrupting a situation, but this corruption can be used as an energy. You cannot avoid the corruption, but you can tame or train it to produce something – to be an energy for something. But architects are protected by comfortable attitudes and thoughts about humanism, about making peace in your brain to justify pleasure, comfort – perfection in our designs is ridiculous. We are deeply disrupting as architects – we have this kind of schizophrenia between what we replace and what we substitute. Everything has an effect, a previous knowledge. Erasing something produces the tabula rasa, the idea of going from something to nothing.

JDM It’s quite a contemporary position, to stop the tabula rasa – there’s a resistance at the moment to erasing everything.
FR It’s contradictory. People want to preserve, and we all want to produce the ideology of progress. There are two camps, with a big frontier between them and they are battling together to stay in a frozen position. This duality doesn’t produce anything. We have to cut the ideology of erasing everything – the tabula rasa – and the ideology of preservation. Preservation is really Ruskin’s notion to recreate the sensation of the past, a fake authenticity. The tabula rasa is this ideology for a hygienic re-creation from nothing. It’s an abuse, really. I think it’s more interesting to create an intricacy between both, a confusion, paradox or melting of both.

JDM In Hélène Frichot’s introduction to your talk at Natural Artifice, there was a tone of splitting camps, between the very separate camps of the hand sketch and the digital technique. What I’m reading in your work is that, if you could do it in another way without the computer, you would, but in a way you’re using the computer to stabilise the process and get away from the author.
FR There was an Entryism movement in France in the 1970s – this bourgeois revolution from the street. People infiltrated car companies as workers, to change the conditions of production within the company driven by social meaning. They organised strikes, they broke the machines, organised political events. They fought the system to transform this industrial system of mass production. But one of the reasons it failed was that they never considered the design of the car. They tried to break everything around it – production, mechanisation, organisation of the workers, managerial structure – but they forgot that alienation was mainly a result of the design of the car. They never re-questioned the design of the car as the first element of alienation, or mass consumption.

JDM I wonder how you see the political role of your work. The car that you talk about is a result of economics, of making this item accessible to everyone. Do you have a specific political agenda? Are you trying to situate your work under a bigger umbrella of politics and the economy?
FR Do we need to accept the economy of the devil to fight against the devil? Is that the question? I can’t answer. It depends on what you’re doing. Is it to clean the money? No. If it’s to use the money to show that the system is corruptible, and to show how you can use it to create an alternative – perhaps. You can refuse the economy out of principle, to say: ‘I don’t want the post-capitalist economy. I want to do my own work by myself for my own purposes’. But in that case you can’t be an architect. Mainly, we are in a field where there is intrinsically a negotiation with the devil. We are exactly in the middle of the negotiation. Sometimes, I dream to be a writer or philosopher, a profession where you can be outside. But as an architect, you have to find a more sophisticated strategy than this kind of literal romanticism of Don Quixote. You have to be inside and outside, a sort of schizophrenia.

JDM It’s harder to fight from the outside?
FR It’s a schizophrenia. Sometimes it produces craziness. At the beginning it could be a political purpose, at the end a pathological one.

JDM Maybe we’re like the Greeks inside the Trojan Horse?
FR Yes!

JDM On a more pragmatic level, is your work primarily funded through research bodies?
FR We are push-and-pull with real commissions, exhibitions, teaching laboratories and lectures. The architecture field is becoming poorer and poorer, compared with the increasing sophistication of what is expected of us. We spend a lot of time working on projects, and we are not clearly paid for the sophisticated work we do. Now, architecture offices are relying on the work of interns to produce sophisticated work – it’s slavery. Why are we using interns to produce work for capitalism, while at the same time we try to fight capitalism? It’s contradictory. It’s not only us – it’s a widespread problem. To be an architect is to reveal this contradiction, to make it visible.

JDM Speaking about projects, I was unaware the Bangkok project [R&Sie(n)’s proposal for a museum covered with an electromagnetic skin to attract dirt and pollution from the air] might happen.
FR It’s 10 percent possible.

JDM Which is better than zero!
FR Yes, so it’s not completely dead. It’s interesting to look at a project 10 years on. Particularly now, when architects are innovating their designs every three years according to the new generations coming into the studio; architects are changing their work and stealing from the forces of the young. I think it’s interesting to do a project 10 years after, and show that a project is still alive, that it still shows the conviction of ‘now’ without appearing as a ‘has-been’.

Footnotes
1. Jeffrey Inaba and Benedict Clouette, ‘Unifinished Business: François Roche Interviewed’, Volume 10, 2006. Available online.

John de Manincor is a principal of DRAW with Adam Russell. He is a regular contributor to architectural media and a former Sydney Editor of AR.

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