Text: Lobbying for the Spectacular in Architecture

Marjan Colletti (MC) Interview by Nahed Jawad-Chakouf (NJC)

Lobbying for the Spectacular in Architecture

Lobby Magazine #1: Un/Spectable, pp. 96-8

Between recently publishing his latest book Digital Poetics, running his 14-year-old London-based office (marcosandmarjan), and teaching at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL and at the University of Innsbruck, LOBBY is delighted to have had a quick chat with Marjan Colletti – in addition to his eventful schedule.

Join me on this momentous journey to see his view on un/spectacular architecture, life, architectural influences and other issues, regarding his practice, teaching, and, most importantly, his own crit experience!

NJC: Marjan, you are an architect, an educator, an author, and a researcher. Which role do you enjoy most? And do the roles feed into each other?

MC: There is no clear division between the various roles. They complement each other; their boundaries are very fluid and blurry. I am a practitioner interested in education, an educator concerned with writing, an author investigating design research, and a researcher striving to bridge the gap with practice and the industry.

However, ‘architect’ is certainly the umbrella term that distinguishes my disciplinary affiliation and feeling of belonging. In research, writing and education, I strive for hybrid feedback mechanisms of transferring knowledge, fostering communication, and debate. You may say that I am therefore a generalist, OK, but I would like to believe that I am somehow a specialist in managing the transition from line (that is, drawing) to pen (writing) to word (educating).

NJC: What do you feel is ‘spectacular’ now in architecture? And what is not?

MC: A thesaurus suggests the following synonyms for spectacular: ‘remarkable, huge, great, enormous, mighty, outstanding, almighty, stunning, impressive, amazing’. However, I would prefer to link the word to spectacle and therefore performance: to be understood as show as much as task. Something ‘spectacular’ therefore arouses and satisfies sense (intellect) and senses (desire). In my opinion, such spectacular tendency in contemporary architecture as described above provides one additional testimony for today’s Neo-Baroque tendency in various disciplines. 

NJC: When did you realise that you wanted to be an architect?

MC: I believe in autobiographical influences. It makes some sense that I became a digital architect: my dad was a self-taught software programmer for Italian banks; my mom worked in a technical office with many drafting tables.

NJC: How did the city that you grow up in affect your architectural awareness?

MC: I was born and grew up in a bilingual (Italian-German) town in Northern Italy: Bolzano-Bozen, which taught me about hybridity and how to accept impurity. Listening to me suffices to understand what I mean: I speak English with an Austrian accent, Italian with an English intonation, and German with an Italian, South Tyrolean dialect…

NJC: In your opinion, what is the task of architecture nowadays? What is its distinctive role? What are architects contributing to society?

MC: Architecture is (production of) culture and communication. It is the culture of communication (and production). Architecture is a team sport and a good arena for creating, transferring and hybridizing knowledge and technologies between disciplines. Architecture is also the communication (and production) of culture: it reflects and shapes our way of living, and individual and societal behaviour.

NJC: You are the co-founder of the London-based architecture studio marcosandmarjan, founded by yourself and Marcos Cruz in 2000. Does your university teaching feed into marcosandmarjan and its research?

MC: Vice versa. It would be fairer to say that we ‘feed’ our personal research, professional expertise and individual interests into the teaching (although I am a bit disturbed that the term ‘feeding’ lets me think of mommy bird and daddy bird regurgitating food to their chicks). I would prefer to think of a two-way feedback system: let students/scholars push and develop ideas and concepts further to open up new streams of investigations, which get us going again. Like ping-pong (table tennis). If you play a rookie (or your young son), initially it is frustrating as the ball hardly gets back to you, as it ends everywhere else but your table side. But if you are a dedicated teacher or parent, you keep up the spirit as you are looking forward to a good match – and even being beaten. Design education is more coaching than teaching, really.

NJC: It has been 14 years since you founded your practice. How did the work mature and the studio evolve over this course of time?

MC: If you are suggesting that the work is as mature as a 14-year-old teenager you are probably right...

NJC: You teach at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, but you still manage to be a university professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Tell us more about your teaching practice at the University of Innsbruck. How does it differ from your teaching methods/interests at the Bartlett? Is there any correlation between the two?

MC: The system, the people, the students, the briefs, the context, the fees (no tuition fees, but, interestingly, partly the same instructors who teach in expensive renowned EU, UK and US universities) are different, but the intention remains the same: to open students’ eyes and to make them do architecture more intelligently, more sensually, and more spectacularly.

NJC: We are reviewing the ‘crit space’ in this section of LOBBY. It is a place where students exhibit, pin up and post their work and simply get feedback about it. Marjan, in which do you find more pleasure: in giving or receiving criticism?

MC: Seriously, who gets pleasure from being criticised or being misunderstood? On the other hand, receiving advice, or annoying someone, is sometimes fun but also necessary (a lot of critical writing is so generic and flat because nobody wants to irritate anybody else). It is true that you have to be cruel to be kind, to open someone’s horizon. It is part of the job.

NJC: I am sure in your teaching involvement you have attended countless crit sessions in different crit spaces. How do you find architecture students take criticism these days? Similarly, how do you find that practicing architects take criticism?

MC: It is noticeable that high fee-paying students have higher expectations in receiving a fair amount of propositional criticism and suggestive coaching. A delicate balance between tuition fees, service provision, facilities and expectations should be guaranteed.

There is an issue of self-referential, scale-related indifference involved with practising architects. Local architects are criticised (sometimes congratulated) locally; otherwise, they mostly obtain total indifference. Commercial architects are criticised commercially (and politically) but they appear indifferent to it all as long as the business runs. Signature architects are criticised globally for their work – but at least it is a stylistic, qualitative and intellectual debate – relevant, and not indifferent, to the discipline.

NJC: Can you take us down memory lane, and tell us about one particular impression that you remember during a crit in your earlier years when you were an architecture student? And how about from the other end, as a tutor during a crit?

MC: Well, I remember my first and last crit as a student at the Bartlett. In my first crit I wrapped a few soft toys in a blanket and velcroed them on to my freshly shaved head. The tutors (Sir Peter Cook in their midst) enjoyed it as much as I did. My last crit, my PhD Viva, was less enjoyable. I was well prepared and relatively agile on my (argumentative) feet, but the external examiners immediately asked a really difficult and aggressive (so I thought) question. Feeling unbalanced, I mumbled away and immediately thought I would fail. After a while I regained equilibrium, and I was now hoping for major revisions. Then I managed to respond to their blows: maybe I might get away with minor revision, I thought. Eventually it turned into a good debate and it was over relatively soon: no revision required. What a relief! Retrospectively, I am thankful for the hard time: it made me think about the research and the work, and I trust that it had a good influence on me. However: it was not nice at the time…

As a critic. Last year, Steven A. danced his way through his final crit in a 3D printed costume. Certainly entertaining – it attracted quite an audience. And a few days later Zack S. did a vivisection of a mouse: it was extremely smelly. Disgustingly smelly… Everybody: please do not do that again. Not to me.