The capsule of Time: interview with Joseph Grima

The capsule of Time: interview with Joseph Grima

Joseph Grima (1977) is an architect, curator and essayist.
Since 2017 he is Creative Director of the Eindhoven Design Academy.
In 2014 he was appointed Artistic Director of Matera European Capital of Culture 2019.
He is the founder and partner of the Space Caviar studio, which deals with architecture and research by investigating the relationships between design, technology, critical theory and public space. The studio deals with constructions, publications, exhibitions and films, presented at international institutions, including the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Vitra Design Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Barbican Center.
From 2014 to 2017 he was Director of IdeasCity, a traveling program of conferences and residences organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
In 2014 he was appointed Co-Curator of the first edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the largest contemporary architecture exhibition in the history of North America.
In 2012 he was Co-Director of the first edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial.
From 2011 to 2013 he directed the magazine “Domus”.
He has curated several biennials and exhibitions in Europe, the United States and Asia. He has taught and held seminars in numerous universities in Europe, Asia and America, including the Strelka Institute of Media in Moscow, under the direction of Rem Koolhaas.
He was a member of international juries, including, in 2010, the jury of the Venice Architecture Biennale, directed by Kazuyo Sejima.

1 – Since you met different cultures during your training and professional activity, would you indicate us if there is a style-culture combination? If yes, does one depend on the other? Or are they autonomous?

I think it is very interesting that “style” has been chosen as a topic of discussion, precisely because it is not very current.
Anyone who has studied the history of architecture knows that a certain era generally corresponds to a “style” that defines it. Historically, “style” represents a specific aesthetic code which parallel coincides with a historical period.
This mechanism has characterized most of the history.

However, I am convinced that after the Deconstructivism, which was an extremely limited, almost exclusive theoretical style/non-style, our began: a period defined by the “absence of style”. From the 90s onwards, I do not think it is possible to speak of a unifying “style”.
The absence of geographical and cultural boundaries is also expressed through the “absence of style”. There are trends and contaminations that unite designers, but the word “style” is extremely out of date.

Perhaps, the fascination for this concept hides a kind of nostalgia of an era in which architecture played a central role in society and cultural production.
I do not believe that there is a need of being nostalgic, but rather an exigency to be proactive. In fact, I think it is a good thing that “styles” does not exist now.

Architecture has made sensational own goals. Postmodernism, for example, has been the expression of the retreat of architecture and of the loss of ambition. The idea that architecture could change the world had been betrayed; after the post-CIAM generation, like Team X, it was asserted that it was more convenient to work on the individual rather than on the multiple.
The indulgence of architecture towards the theoretical interest in a graphic and compositional style, with zero social impact, has drastically changed the role of architecture itself. Aldo Rossi was undoubtedly a brilliant figure, but his generation had a great responsibility for the loss of the social role of architecture.
Now, the architect is almost a decorative figure, the actors shaping the city are no longer the architects, but they are contractors, real estate developers, etc… The fatal attraction towards a “style” has provoked the loss of the horizon, cutting out the architecture with a role of responsibility with respect to the contemporary city.

2 – You have been the youngest Editorial Director of “Domus” (2011/2013). In the light of this experience, how do you think a magazine can convey and interpret the Culture of our Time?

It is not necessarily true that a magazine can do it, I would not take it for granted. I might turn the question in this way: “Can a magazine convey and interpret the Culture of our Time?”

Especially in the “Domus” period, precisely because I was a young director, paradoxically, I was interested in the idea of creating a sort of time capsule.
Nowadays, paper magazines have such a limited circulation that their true influence is through time. “Domus”, taken as a whole, is an incredible archive concerning the evolution of thought, the single news reported in the magazine is not particularly interesting. So, my personal project was the analysis of contemporaneity, trying to analyze the corpus offered by the magazine and interpreting the present in a way not so much aimed at readers of the moment, as to readers of the future. I have tried to systematize an archive of worries, urgencies, thoughts that belong to this historical moment and that may not be clear to those who will read the magazine in the future.

However, the real legacy I left to “Domus” was probably the website. The operation was radically transforming the digital publication, going beyond the publication of press releases, but creating an online platform for reflection and exchange that lasts over time.
The web, unfortunately, is almost inevitably destined to evaporate, not to leave a mark, even though everyone is making archives online, if a plug is disconnected, everything disappears.

So, my intention was to play on these two temporal spectra, the immediate and the long-lasting ones; however, in my opinion, it should be the mechanism of all the magazines. So much so that in the number “Domus 1000”, the Editorial Director of the time called all the former directors alive, which are about a dozen, me included, offering everyone 8 pages to express an idea, a project, a thought. For example, I took a photo novel. These contributions were included in three capsules of the time, which were buried on three different continents and which can only be reopened for the publication of “Domus 2000”.
I find that the inertia of these magazines is unique and unrepeatable.

Therefore, magazines are capsules of the time very difficult to delete. If the will is to delete the memory of a character that has been published, it is necessary to recover all the copies produced. Making an analogy, magazines could be like a “widespread database”, a bit like a blockchain of knowledge, like books, which through their geographical spread make it difficult to completely remove the published information.

3 – The “Museum of Design” is a chronological container of ways of doing things and it would seem that the architect-designer, in some cases, behaves differently when he produces design rather than when he produces architecture, both from a formal and conceptual points of view. Are these design products witnesses of their specific time and are architectures thought timeless? If so, what are the aspects that allow the product to live over time? Does it need to survive time?

What really comes out of the “Museum of Design” is the fact that these objects tell a story of Italy and of western culture related to a certain historical moment. I am not much interested in the objects themselves, instead I find extremely intriguing the stories behind these products, everything that led to their production. For this reason, there are phones that try to extrapolate the context, to give life to the object, to give it almost a voice, as if the objects could identify themselves. (The phones mentioned are cornets which, if brought close to the ear, transmit the designer’s voice, who narrate the story behind the creation of the product).

I am convinced that the aesthetic evaluation of the great masterpiece of design is a subjective and personal matter. I am not interested in the expression of individual genius. I believe that the element that can define a masterpiece of design is the confluence of many people in that object, the sublimation of a complex and sophisticated thought of which the object becomes an expression.
Furthermore, I think that the products displayed in the Museum acquire even more power to the extent that they can communicate with each other. Therefore, the whole takes on the dimension of a sort of time capsule.

4 – The exhibits arrive until 1982. But if they had asked you to set up a “Museum of Contemporary Design”, would the formula have been the same or would it have been different?

Certainly, it would have been very different, because design is no longer at the center of concerns.
The soul is moved by a design object just if the treated product deals with existential themes. For a certain period, it has been so, precisely through everyday objects, such as chairs, tables, etc… For example, Alessandro Mendini’s work by burning the chair in the work entitled “Up There” was a human search, almost mystical, through an object of daily use.

Today, the issues are different, and the “Broken Nature”, which talks about how designers are tackling more complex and jagged themes, even in their forms, was presented at the Triennale. Consequently, a “Museum of Contemporary Design” would have a completely different formula, but that is the beauty. What makes design interesting is its ability to elevate contemporary worries and urgencies into objects.

5 – The “Museum of Design” narrates of an industrial-craftsmanship, a reaction to its time. Is it possible today to speak of a multimedia-craftsmanship? If so, what does this mean?

There is a habit of analyzing contemporary production through the lens of the digital revolution. I do not see discontinuity between what happened before compared to what happens now. Any creator uses the available tools, whether they are digital or not.

I find an incredible equivalence between the ways of working in the past with the one of today, such as between Enzo Mari who was obsessed by the archive and those people who arrange their hardware in a perfectly structured way. I do not think that this difference is decisive, since dynamics are the same, they just take shape in different materials. There will probably be other materials in 50 years but the same methods; consequently, I do not see a such a strong break with the past.

6 – Just in few years, the media have changed from the “avant-garde”, a novelty and a break with the past, to a generalized and rooted standard. How are they influencing architectural culture and how could they do it? Are they defining new “styles”? If so, which ones?

Social media such as “Instagram” and platforms such as “Dezeen” are generating an ecology of the rapid consumption of the architectural image, but also of the image in general. These media are characterized by a consumption of the image that is not destined to last over time, but precisely, to be consumed in a very short time. Inevitably, the designer faces this reality; how can this project be represented? What kind of reaction will it have? How many likes will you be able to collect? How much will it be shared?

After all, this is not an absolute novelty; Le Corbusier retouched the photographs of his houses by removing wires and lampposts, even eliminating the presence of brick. All of this since, according to his ideal canons, everything had to be built in concrete. Even before, through images, it has been tried to simulate a certain idea; today this trend has had such an acceleration that each of us is involved in this great fiction.

Instead, it is necessary to wonder whether this dynamic has become one of the primary considerations when referring architecture. Obviously, it is a dangerous development and I think it looks like a spiral that tends towards a “style” of “non-style”, an “ephemeral style”. The goal of all this is something that disappears, designed only to capture attention at a certain moment.

What is the remedy? I do not believe that there is a need for a remedy, but I am convinced that this phenomenon, like most things, behaves like a pendulum and tends to swing in the opposite direction. I hope that this incredible obsession of architecture with respect to the image leads to a rejection of the image itself, to an overdose. It is visionary to imagine that architecture in 30 years will explode in a total rejection of the production of the image and that it will start operating on a totally different plane.

I believe that this current visual chaos, in which designers are simply obsessed with producing a more beautiful image than all the other colleagues, is the total expression of superficiality and I am convinced that there is no shared and collective thought leading to the polyphony of a radically new idea.
In this sense, Stefano Boeri’s “Bosco Verticale” is a remarkable attempt. In addition to the fact that they are luxury apartments in Milan and besides the criticisms that have been raised, within that simple project, because the idea is almost trivial, there is actually something more ambitious: there is a collective vision, there is the intuition of a city that does not deny nature but embraces it, it involves it. If this concept were shared by others, it could perhaps become a new “style”, what Boeri calls the non-anthropocentric city.

7 – How do you deal with the exhibits? Are they linked to the context? Are they related to your culture or to what you want to express? To both? Container or content?

Generally, it works like this: there is a scientific committee that sifts the proposals: an exhibition with the theme “X” is planned. The curator, who prepares a register of contents and who decides who will set up the exhibition, is selected; then, the production is organized, the exhibition opens, and everyone is happy and delighted.

In my opinion, there is a problem in this consolidated method; obviously there is nothing wrong, indeed, the problem is that it is too correct. One forgets too often that making an exhibition is a sort of storytelling, to be clear it is like making a movie, so it is necessary to question everything. To me, it is extremely problematic to draw a definite dividing line between the curating action and that one of the exhibits. I have always thought of exhibitions as a sort of architectural project. In this way, not in the sense of making a pseudo architecture; instead, thinking on how the project can help in telling the story someone wants to narrate, these are two inseparable aspects.

Especially in Italy, since the architectural design opportunities are very limited, the production of fittings has become a sort of relief valve for architects, like a surrogate. In recent years, more and more heroic productions have been proposed, increasingly extreme and ending in themselves. This aspect generates settings much stronger than the proposed works, completely suffocating the content that the exhibition should raise.
For this reason, in the “Museum of Design” it was chosen not to give the assignment to an individual who would have found himself in a situation of “conflict of interest”, who would have had to choose between putting the objects in the foreground or himself. Obviously, it is a false dichotomy, it is possible to do both, but the general temptation is to insert very strong compositional operations, which are not useful for the exhibition, but which instead enhance the designer.
So, the logic of the “Museum of Design” was to give absolute primacy to the content, while at the same time trying to design a set-up to serve the works.

Having said that, I am not against exhibitions as an exercise in style, such as installations designed by great designers. They make sense and it is necessary to continue organize them. However, not all exhibitions must be conceived in this way, otherwise it becomes boring and it penalizes the contents displayed.

8 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would have been your way?

I think I decided it when I was seven, when my father, an architect, gave me a sliding wooden team that I asked him for my birthday. I had a total idealization towards the role of the designer and, consequently, I created a small studio where I made my plans.

Subsequently, I completely lost interest in the practice of architecture and I wanted to be a geographer at any price.

I like to think that, to a certain extent, I have been done both jobs, because much of the work in my studio is expressed through the interrelation between design and political geography.
The approach that excites me the most is the relationship between these two disciplines; as a matter of fact, it is the basis of the creative direction project in the “Design Academy” in Eindhoven.

However, the greatest opportunities that architecture has offered me are being part of a team and the design aspect in the realization of material things. I have an obsessive attraction towards the act of creating things, possibly even directly; indeed, as designer, we should not go too far from the action of producing in first person.

The aspect that has always attracted me is the fact that the architect is a figure of synthesis between different forms of disciplinary investigation. The profession has a strong root in a certain production and design practice; at the same time, it has curiosity towards other forms of knowledge.

9 – To date, what is your definition of Architecture?

To me, Architecture is the material synthesis of culture in the territory.

However, it is not just a functional perspective, like creating something that has a practical utility. Even if the aspect of the utilitas is very important, the real challenge lies in the firmitas, which interests me more and I believe that should be understood conceptually and culturally.

10 – What advice would you give to future architects?

From the first day of his university practice, to his last day on Earth, the architect can never lose curiosity. In addition, it is fundamental the awareness that someone never stops learning. This also incorporates a certain degree of humility; in fact, architects are inclined to a form of lethal arrogance, one way to counter it is to cultivate a passion for observing the world.

I think curiosity, humility and generosity are the most important traits to be preserved with great attention.

Translated into English by Elisa Goi.

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Marco Grattarola AdministratorKeymaster
He graduated in Architecture Sciences at the Polytechnic School of Genoa with a thesis on “Active Architecture”. He did two internships, in an art gallery and in an architecture studio. He currently attends the Master at the Polytechnic of Milan. His interests range from music to drawing, in which he experiments with curiosity and passion.
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