Interviewed in Zagreb, 26th October 2009
It would be impossible and inappropriate to try to place the opus of Smiljan Radic within an architectural movement or even a trend. He draws his quite personal poetics from both the ephemeral and the existential. The magic of the small circus, and the memory of the immigrant ship on which his grandfather arrived from the Dalmatian island of Brač, somehow find their place in that poetics. To experience the architecture of Radic, what matters is its intangible dimension – the scents, the sounds, and the touch. The boundary between architectural and sculptural expression does not exist for him. He usually fuses architecture with the sculptures of his wife, the sculptor Marcela Correa.
ORIS: I would like to speak about sincerity, openness, frankness… as it appears, for example, in the film Caro Diario by Nani Moretti, where he is really very frank and very intense about his life, revealing his privacy, showing his wife, his mother-in-law Nuria Schönberg – Nono, of course as a metaphor for the lives of others.
But, I think we could say – we can find this intensity and frankness in other ways in your work too.
Radic: Thank you. At the time I began to study, the best schools in Europe appeared in the newspaper El Pais, in Spain – the first one was Venice because they have really good research people about history and statics and this kind of thing. I got a scholarship and went there. But I didn’t know anything about Venice, I had never been there before. It was incredible for me. I lived for one month in an ugly house, it was terrible, but other than that it was great. The teachers were really good. The teachers were at that time Massimo Cacciari, Francesco Dal Co, Marco de Michelis, those kinds of people.
At Venice during my studies there was a group of friends who every Thursday, each week, held a cinema meeting in Venice. This was 1991, 92.
We saw five films or four films in a day, all in continuity, and one of the directors was Nanni Moretti (Palombella Rossa, Caro Diario). I think for me some architecture is really important when it is biographical architecture. Meaning, when you’re doing it your own way.
It’s the only way that I can do architecture. Many of the things I could do, there are references of other things because I’m not a creator of shapes. I’m not that way, I couldn’t do it because I don’t have the hand to do it. And if you are aware of your possibilities, you’re really calm with yourself.
ORIS: These references, are these also to be seen as transformations of things you find, objets trouvés, and then these transformations lead you to create just unexpected, perhaps also mysterious things, like Casa Fonola and Casa A.
Radic: The references are directly from there but also from experience. I don’t know how they come together in one piece sometimes, but the references are in the object that you find and the reference you find in another part of the world and that you put inside. With my architecture I’m trying to create atmosphere. It refers to ambiances. The form could be anything, it doesn’t matter to me. A client coming to me comes with a problem, not with a shape in mind. And that’s great for me because it gives me more freedom and more relation with the client. Because it always could be a surprise for them, maybe not – but it could be. And they’re coming for that.
ORIS: But still it’s hard not to notice a certain resemblance between some of your work or some of your pieces and other Chilean architects, because, in a way, we could trace from our point of view, a sort of, let’s say, Chilean minimalism or Chilean mannerism today. Somehow you can trace these forms as a certain Chilean style, which also has something to do, again, from my own perspective, with different building codes in Europe or elsewhere, because you have these very elegant box forms with very elegant window frames which could never be done here in Europe because of the different physics of the buildings, the climate. So, in a way, it’s hard to avoid placing you in the context of Chilean architecture. Maybe it’s some sort of outcome of education.
Radic: I think the problem with style is form. In school they practise form. They practice how to make forms and that’s not bad for the standard of life. My things have to do with remembrance and memory: Why? Because we don’t have remembrance and we don’t have memory. Because it’s really ephemeral, the things that I say are a lie because I am inventing memory, I am inventing remembrance.
ORIS: There is not a real building tradition in Chile?
Radic: It doesn’t exist. But when it exists it’s really poor, the technique, materials, the way of producing things. But it’s a lie too, to say I’m an immigrant, because I’m not an immigrant but at the same time I love the way that immigrants just in this time of 100 years ago took the surroundings and wanted to produce something because they needed it. They needed to be in society etc, they wanted to produce a relationship with their surroundings, anyway, but at the same time they had memories, ancient memories, they had to mix it and produce something new. And that is what I love, to take some natural material – or sophisticated material, it doesn’t matter – but to produce a new environment with that kind of way of thinking about reality. But at the same time with low tech. Because we can’t produce another kind of technology, it’s false. It means it always could be a fake. Fake buildings.
ORIS: A favourite part of your work, again from my perspective, is exactly the position when you depart from already existing models, from a sort of vernacular architecture, informal architecture and then reinvent new architecture out of this maybe remembrance or re-remembrance.
Radic: If you see some vernacular constructions that are really poor, and are really small, it doesn’t matter to me. The social way to think about things, whether they are poor or rich, doesn’t matter, I work in the same way. But the beauty of those kinds of buildings is that the solutions are really minimal.
ORIS: I really love traditional vernacular architecture because it’s so easy to trace all the design decisions, which in contemporary architecture is usually completely impossible. Because when you see an old peasant house it’s completely clear why the pitched roof is exactly of this angle, because of the snow for example, why the window is pointing in a certain direction, never to the north because you have the north wind, it’s looking southwards and so on. So this existential logic fascinates me more and more. I don’t know if you share this same familiarity but I really love architecture where the reasons are easy to trace, not necessarily functional reasons, but reasons of any kind.
Radic: I love the reason, the underground reason. For example, I have been taking many pictures for years looking for some buildings that I called fragile construction. Fragile construction is not vernacular. It is not inside a tradition of construction. It’s just one construction that the owner could do at that time for this moment for this function. Two years later I do the same trip to find these same buildings but the buildings don’t exist anymore, because the owner is dead for example, or because they’re being sold or maybe the function is changing.
ORIS: This is in fact also your interest in the transitory, in the ephemeral. So the images you showed us were this circus tent, and tent with the garbage, these used things, even the plastic bags in the wind.
Radic: For example, if you see plastic in the wind, bags, they are a sign on the road. When you’re on the road and you see that, it’s because the people there are selling sweets. And if you see in China, when people want to indicate a restaurant they put red balls on the street, it’s more or less the same, less elegant maybe, but more fluid, I think, more beautiful in the end. But they do it, one person does it and then one hundred do the same thing. In ten years the people who sale sweets will have a sign with lights, it will be another thing.
ORIS: The most intense performance of this idea, I think, is this action, in fact a performance of burning the charcoal hut. So it is a fascinating thing, it is something that disappears – this notion of disappearance, also as a symbol and a metaphor. A symbol like that shows: like a man disappears, so this hut disappears. The role of symbols, how important are symbols for you?
Radic: That project was so funny because we didn’t know about this hut-cupola. We said: ‘Who could do it?’ In our region there was just one old man who could do that kind of hut. At that time he was 92 years old. And we said we’re losing that, after this man dies. And then we said: ‘Oh, how can we do it, maybe we can do a sphere.’ We made the first one, we made it like a prototype. But the old man did the same cupola for 80 years and you have to explain him to do a sphere. We showed a ping-pong ball to explain what we want. And we made this sphere and for him it was really important because the sphere was really good to do charcoal. But we wanted to learn about the system of building, not the form, the form could be anything, it doesn’t matter, but at the same time to show the people who are around, to show the system. Then, later on we made a public space like this in another town and we made a stone sidewalk with Marcela Correa. At the opening, three big spheres four metres in diameter burning with a small, kind of smell, was really very good. But the idea was to try to make the appearance of a form or shape that never existed before. It’s a false memory. But it’s the same way of thinking how to produce new forms without memory but with memory at the same time.
ORIS: I was thinking also about the architecture for example by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, even also of your work for this conception, which begins as always as art. So this artistic concept, how would it be implemented in another programme, let’s say a social housing programme?
Radic: Social housing is really a big problem because there’s a political aspect that you can’t control, but for example right now I’m doing civic neighbourhood, a small fire station, a small library, a centre, it’s a small square, it is 100 by 70m, it’s a triangle. I won a contest for that, but it’s so beautiful because at the same time the programme is coming from the community.
ORIS: Was it in Santiago?
Radic: No, in Concepción. The community is really poor, the neighbourhoods are really poor, and dangerous. We rode to the site with other people, you couldn’t go alone but at the same time it’s really beautiful because we explained the project to the people. I talked about San Marco Square, about the life inside. The form again doesn’t matter. In the end we changed too much of the project because in that case the materials and the resistance of the materials are more important for me not the shape.
ORIS: Resistance of materials?
Radic: Physical resistance, because they are like that, you put some things and they carry it away, you never see them again. You have to really pay attention to that kind of thing. But at the same time we made really long buildings, around 80 m, and we said to the people we want to give you these buildings, you can do what you want it doesn’t matter to us. Everybody said it’s really good for the community, for the integrity of the community. But for us it’s important because they could transform the buildings.
ORIS: But it is also some sort of aggression.
Radic: Sometimes, it depends on the place. In Concepción, there are really good graffiti people. The problem with architects, I think, is when they start with the form. If you don’t know how to put it inside your site, you’re wrong. But that’s not the end of the matter, it’s the beginning.
ORIS: So this possibility, the freedom and possibility are important in this case, which you give to people afterwards…
Radic: I didn’t give it to them, they will get it. I didn’t give it to them, they will take it. But I think the building is that way, maybe it could be great, maybe could be bad, but it was the first project where I could put myself inside a community, with a low level of standard of living, etc. I do many of my projects for free, for friends, etc. Maybe sometimes in public spaces you could do it, like this.
ORIS: Just an example. When you go away from this private story, then things become different for you, your thinking, is that so? Or can you express these concepts through this special atmosphere, can you use it in all your projects or just in these private things?
Radic: No, I think we could do it, but, each project is different from another and I try not to do the same project again because nobody will call me again. You know people call me because they can find something special and they know I’m going to draw that kind of frame, none of my students will draw it. For example this year was really hard because I had five projects with 12 people working on them, next year will again be four people working, one project at a time. Because it’s better. The people call you because they know that you’re inside the project.
ORIS: But you have to be in a position to afford yourself to be slow, which is also a sort of a privilege.
Radic: The problem is not money. For example this year I could refuse five projects. That is really important to me because the clients are coming to me with a problem more than a shape and that is really good. But when I see that they want a shape like a house they saw, well I don’t want to do it. If I feel really good with the client it’s great. But it’s always different.
ORIS: I especially like in your work that you always come up with ideas which are absolutely out of traditional architecture, absolutely out of architecture. You’re always using an element which belongs to philosophy which is not usual in architecture. I have found a lot of similarities with thinking in an absolutely different part of the world, northern architecture, especially Pallasmaa and some other architects, speaking a lot in theoretical work about not visual components of architecture but about smell, about feelings, about all elements which are also very important to you, haptic and so on. We really liked the scenes from your films when you illustrated this kind of taking architecture. How do you start, is it just something from inside?
Radic: One memory comes from the smell, another from the touch, but not from the visual. Absolutely, it’s coming from other places. And then you have to pay attention to these things. And then if you read Proust, it’s just smell and then it goes down to the memory. With small details, details mean small signs, you could give the person really good feelings and new memories, good memories and a good way to take his site, or his building. I’m always with the client, the client lives really well in my houses. There was just one time, when the owner didn’t feel really good in one of my houses. The problem with clients is that they have to know how they want to live, how they want to be in everyday life, it’s really important. And I think they didn’t know me, made a mistake. For example this house – the Pite house – they made 3 projects with other people before.
I did a lecture at the Catholic University one day and one week later the owner called me, the woman, secretly, without her husband knowing she was calling, because her daughter was talking about me. Her daughter was a student of architecture. She called me and I said we could do it, don’t worry. Three other architects did a project for them, like a building, with just one apartment and they have a site of about 1.5 hectares, a big and really expensive one. And I said to them, ‘Well, okay, if you have a big site and if you want to smell it and to feel the site you don’t have to have one volume, you must have many volumes, you have to go outside when you go to the guest rooms, and if you want to see your children (they were teenagers at that time) you have to go down the hill.’ The volumes means: the main volume is for them because they go there every weekend, but it’s just for the wife and husband, there is another volume for the children.
For them it was really great because they have a beautiful garden right now, they can smell the flowers. You don’t see the house, but the platform with the rocks up on the top. The house comes as something in the terrain. The main thing is, you feel really like in a ship floating on the sea.
ORIS: It’s wonderful that you’re really putting these people into life. It’s not just sitting in a room and looking from a beautiful house but it is really putting them into life and going and changing the atmosphere and the view.
Radic: It was so funny because after that, right now they are very close to us, and the small apartment down the hill is called Marcela Correa after my wife, we always go there.
ORIS: In this case as in many other of your projects this is a very close interaction with your wife as a sculptor. So, it is also in these houses in the wood, in another way very mysterious way. Here, in the Pite house, it is like a Greek platform over the endless sea. So it’s very hard, I think, to say where the borders are between architecture and art – one doesn’t go without the other?
Radic: For us not, but you’re right. The rocks did not come at the beginning of the project, they came later. We knew that we had to do something on that platform but we just had the landscape which was really open. I stopped the landscape with two walls, they’re nothing but to stop the landscape, but the owner said we need something to stop the car when we’re coming home drunk. And I said okay we will try, maybe Marcela could do some sculpture there. The image that we showed them was a Delphi platform, with the stone destroyed, something like this. And they said okay. But, at the same time, under this platform, there are the guest rooms. People want to show their houses because houses mean money but they told me we don’t want to see our house from the road, the road means the outside. And we said we could hide the house if we put some physical weight over the structure, and the rocks, they’re really calculated, because the structural engineers calculated it before. We chose the place where to put them really precisely. But we wanted to put some weight and some stories, false stories at the same time, we want to put some Time inside the house.
ORIS: But there is an obsession with big rocks, for example in the Mestizo Restaurant.
Radic: This restaurant is in park. We put the restaurant in the corner of the park but we want to work with new strategies. You put something, which is usually outside, inside the building. On the right place related to the outside. And then you don’t need transparency. And if you’re inside you feel as if you’re on a terrace but you’re in the interior. But it’s not because the space is open, it’s because you put something which should be outside, inside, and that’s the strategy to put something from another time inside.
ORIS: You often use this strategy of dislocating of meaning.
Radić: Yes, but at the same time there are structures, at the same time they support the burden, if not, it’s something like a fake.
ORIS: : So these other meanings of things are also very clear in your own house, this Room House, where walls disappear, they’re something else, they’re shelves, the roof disappears too, it’s in fact a tent. It is something which has to do with temporality, with fluidity.
Radic: The beauty of the theme is: you’re not, but you always feel outside, that’s the beauty, to bring the outside inside. You never feel really warm or cold, as when you are outside, exposed to the environment, that’s so beautiful. And then when you have a second house, I need to be outside, to be outside all day. The feeling of Time is always the same. Gypsies or a circus way of life, it’s really beautiful for that and I never could do it but I always visit a small circus. The owner works November to April in the circus, he’s a clown, the owner, everything, and then he packs his things and works later in a grill restaurant. That way of life is really strange, really funny.
ORIS: The tent is also like Semper’s idea about architecture – a carpet thrown over a structure. It is the primary thinking of architecture.
But for example, it’s extremely important this notion of a carpet as the first demarkation of space, which is a tectonic structure, unlike its stereotonic which is the base. But then again there is this cultural notion of ornament which is so strong in Semper’s work. You don’t use ornaments but you use this haptic quality of the materials, it’s sort of sensual ornament. But also the structure of concrete walls, or sometimes the wood, so you have the ornaments.
Radic: It could be, I never think in that way.
ORIS: Also the shelves are sort of ornament again which is constantly changing. I really love the idea of not having normal wardrobes or whatever, but having everything exposed. All of your possessions are actually put on display. But it has something of this nomadic art of life.
Radic: For example in this Fresia house about the atmosphere, the people, if you see this picture it could be Japan, the idea that we have of Japan. We were talking about this with the client and he said let’s go and do something flat, and Japanese in the sense of Japanese memory, like the people in Europe made Japanese pavilions, in that sense. In a fake way, but in a good way because they reinvented the atmosphere.
ORIS: One of your last projects is Heidegger’s hut. How come you actually took Heidegger as a reference point?
Radić: But I don’t like Heidegger, that is the first thing.
ORIS: Do you understand Heidegger?
Radic: I don’t like Heidegger, to make things clear. But, for example, I don’t like Picasso, but Picasso is a great painter, and I have some drawings of Picasso, because I love his drawings, not his paintings. I was in San Francisco for a ceremony of the American Institute of Architects, I visited the library of Ginsberg, the poet. I found two books there, one of Heidegger – Heidegger’s hut and the other about pavilions around the world. I saw the hut and the hut is absolutely similar to the ambiences of our hut. We needed a house for our visitors, because the other house is really small and you have to be independent I think, it’s better for everyone. I was always thinking about Heidegger’s but Heidegger in a sense to repeat the same ambiances of the hut, the existentialist hut. I once had a book called La Buena Vida by Iñaki Abalos, it talked about Heidegger’s hut, the existentialist house. And there are many of the signs of this hut that I could repeat without moving things in that house. And then we got that name, and then we had to decide how to make it. We said okay, let’s go and do it with Fonola because it’s really a cheap material and it’s a fragile material. Again it brings you the weather into the house, the sounds, the danger.
ORIS: It’s interesting actually before you now explained to us your thinking about that, I was thinking that you finally got the right interpretation of Heidegger in the architectural world. I really don’t like the interpretation of Heidegger in the context of postmodern architecture. And your architecture actually really deals with this elementary stuff, with heaven and earth, about which Heidegger spoke in some of his works.
But he was very explicit about space in his lifestyle. So there is a thin line between philosophy and ideology in everyday life.
Radic: And in this case the name Heidegger is ironic. I could use it in that way, because I didn’t care about Heidegger.
ORIS: If it’s ironic then I can accept it. If it were too serious then…
Radic: No, no. This is why I didn’t put the name in the first time. It’s a Fonola house.
ORIS: It is a little bit provocative.
Radic: Sure. If I put a picture of Heidegger, nobody knows Heidegger, it’s really strange among architects, it’s not really common to see that picture and in Barcelona many people asked me who was the guy that appeared.
ORIS: Mansilla Tuñon put always Beuys in their plans. So, in competitions it was then clear that it was their project.
Radic: In the same way if you put Heidegger in this house you generate another lecture, this is a cabin, a stupid cabin, it’s nothing, it’s not architecture. But if you put it inside a medium, inside a magazine, and if you put the name, it’s going to be – architecture? Depends who made it.
ORIS: Betsky said that architecture is not the building but the thinking about it.
Radic: Yes. But in the end it is important if you go there, feel good, and you have a chimney and you can’t feel the wind, etc. That could be great.
ORIS: Maybe one just a little observation not a question. When I first looked at your work, the first thing which came to mind was the term magical realism. Do you feel any connection with this way of thinking of Marques, Borghes?
Radic: No, I try not because I don’t like them. They try to do something vernacular about literature. Maybe vernacular in the sense of inventing something but at the same time reproducing reality.
ORIS: To make this whole thing a little bit of a myth.
Radic: Yes, to put the reality to another level. If you say I don’t like Pablo Neruda, I hate him, but I like Garcia Lorca, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo de Rokha and another people who are then the second level.
ORIS: Well, I didn’t mean this quite literally. In a way you are dealing with some kind of emotion which is much more than ordinary realistic world and life. And I think that especially European architecture is absolutely missing this kind of thinking which is more than just form.
Radic: No, the problem is nobody talks about the narrative around the works. All works have small histories. I know the things have stories, personal history and nobody talks about them. Why, I don’t know. But to explain something maybe you could use some narrative. The important things for me are small histories which could produce another project. And could be happy again in another kind of project. That is good for me. If I don’t know the histories about a project, it’s really uncomfortable for me. But you’re right, we could explain, we could connect and for me it’s really strange not to do it in that way. For me it’s really strange to present in Europe because I never know if I have to say something or not, to explain because there is a line, a really straight line, I know that line and then sometimes I go up and I explain.