Interview for Arch20

Architect-educator-author-researcher Marjan Colletti, co-founder of marcosandmarjan design limited in London, is currently University Professor and Head of the Institute for Experimental Architecture at the University of Innsbruck Austria; while also acting as Senior Lecturer, Unit 20 Master and Director of Computing at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. His personal work, the work of his students and of his studio marcosandmarjan have been widely published and exhibited world-wide.
Most recently he is the author of Digital Poetics. An Open Theory of Design-Research in Architecture, a monograph wherein he presents “an unconventional and original ‘humanistic’ theory of CAD”, further suggesting “that beyond the generation of innovative engineering forms, digital design has the potential to affect the wider complex cultural landscape of today in profound ways”. In parallel with his rigorous intellectual pursuit of Digital Poetics, his design and research projects continuously push the boundaries of digitality as it relates to architectural design and discourse; including projects as diverse as proposing a self-sufficient city (AgroPolis) along the Delta in Khataba, to a wall comprised of intricately milled cellular components (Algae-Cellunoi) which host 3d-printed vessels designed to cultivate a garden of liquid algae strains.
The interviewer, Zack Saunders (founder of ARCH[or]studio in the US and Arch2O contributing editor) takes this opportunity to speak with Marjan Colletti on teaching, the current/ future state of Architecture, digitality and sterility, his design methodologies, and his latest book. What follows is an interview, though the attempt is to do so with the etymological meaning of the word ‘interview’ in mind: ‘to glimpse’.
Digital Poetics. An Open Theory of Design-Research in Architecture
Digital Poetics. An Open Theory of Design-Research in Architecture

In your book Digital Poetics. An Open Theory of Design-Research in Architecture, you state that DP “constructs multiple viewpoints of speculation spiraling at, around, inside, outside-inwards and back inside-out the human-computer feedback system (…) of digital design” and that such a theory “presumes a dynamic architect (…) who is able to navigate through multiple theories and designs to find his or her own routes through (…) CAD software”. You describe a beautiful relationship here between the architect/creator and the computer/ tools; however, I wonder if this theory is a romantic or even a utopian one – only befitting of the uber-dexterous Muhammad Alis and Jean Erdmans of the profession?
In response to your first question: Of course it is a ‘romantic’ theory. Alas, anything that relates to humanistic values these days is branded as romantic. Ironically though, it may be the case that a more romantic approach to technology and architecture may help us save the planet. The purely functional and commerce-driven solutions have not been very successful thus far.
It may be a ‘utopian’ theory as well. In my formulation of Digital Poetics, I allowed myself to reflect on (what is probably deemed as) unnecessary things such as contemplation, reflection, or poetics rather than blindly following software advancements. CAD alone will never be your creative GPS.
With regards to ‘uber-dexterity’, it is a term close to ‘virtuosity’, a concept I discuss in the AD issue Exuberance (2010). There is sadly so much mediocrity in the world that it appears radical or superficial to value and respect real talent. Why? Mediocrity only understands and accepts a commonplace world, a no non-sense reality; but it secretly and truly craves for the fantastic, the extraordinary, and conspiracies. Mediocrity pampers the domesticated dog, but it fantasizes of the Yeti or the Bigfoot.

How might one learn to be such a ‘dynamic’ designer, one so fluid in their thinking and design/ research methodologies?
Since you mention Muhammad Ali – he provides the answer to your second question: ‘The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see’. In other words, the passage you quote describes how fluidity and dynamics relate to an architect’s mental, or intellectual, capabilities, not his or her skills per se. But since design is communication, you will fail miserably if you cannot communicate (‘hit’, or draw/ make) what you think (‘see’, or envision/ predict).
I believe that technology can act as a great prosthetic aid to transfer mental fluidity to design/material fluidity. However, what I endeavor to discuss in the book is that technology alone will not suffice. On the contrary, technology produces and is a product of innovation, but also, maybe most of all, laziness! Dynamism becomes vital; thus, one must not become dependent on technology and/or methodologies alone. Can this be learned? I think so – at least it can be experienced. One may still not get it. Can it be taught? Maybe. I see this as the most fundamental aspect of what/ the way I teach, whereby I prefer the term ‘coaching’ to ‘teaching’. In a sentence: Architecture begins where common sense ends.
aRC(2)himera Installation, as exhibited at the Haus der Architektur, Graz Austria. 2012. Marjan Colletti. Bartlett MArch Research Cluster 2, with Guan Lee, Tea Lim and Pavlos Fereos. Each student’s pattern was developed in relationship to an individual project and to its neighbors. If completed (it stopped at 80%), it would be made of 7,200 knots, 600 triangles, 90m2 skin, 20 pieces of Perspex, 7,200 mini laser bits, 1,200 joints, 350 rubber bands and 14,400 metal pins.
Architecture has long been described as ‘the mother of all art’ by master Architects from antiquity to the present; however, the boundary between Art and Architecture today has become blurred and interwoven (even confused), particularly since the onset of CAD. Do you feel this a true assessment? If so, what consequences do you see for the built environment of the not-too-distant future?
Disciplines still maintain their inherent core of expertise, know-how and best practice methodologies; and they all are undergoing a specialization and/or speciation process – disciplines such as medicine, chemistry and engineering. Architecture is undergoing a similar process as well. The Bartlett faculty (at University College London) for example has split into ten (!) different academic departments/Schools with their own curricula to investigate the built environment (and engineering is not event part of this). Yet, at the same time I believe that it is inherently wrong to speak of disciplinary hard boundaries today. Art, technology, ethics, medicine, law, design, architecture… they are all intermingled, and share similar questions, goals and tools.
I therefore put forth the concept of convolution, which denotes blurry boundaries, non-linear processes, multilayered readings and default complexity. Convolution could be mistaken for confusion by the non-trained eye; in the same way as someone could consider the 256 different intensities of grey-scale tones a confused mess of indeterminacy instead of an amplified and more precise definition of black-and-whiteness. The truth is that a blur is a field condition with a higher degree of resolution than a clear-cut line.
This is why I describe the architecture community as being similar to a coral reef. It is a fluctuating colony of multiple eco-systems: shifting, growing, shrinking. I would like it to be more lively and colorful in the not-too-distant future!
However, more critical is the question whether a student’s or professional’s career may be more successful in a few years time if he/she were a specialist, or a generalist – both at the core or at the peripheries of the discipline. How have you planned out your future?
Plantolith, 2013. Marjan Colletti.
Plantolith, 2013. Marjan Colletti. Photography: Marjan Colletti.
3D silica sand print 1700/1000/200mm, approx. 250kg, produced for and exhibited at the 3D Printshow 2013 at The Business Design Centre, London UK. Sponsoring and fabrication: ExOne Digital Part Materialization. In geometric terms, plants and monoliths stand at the opposite sides of the spectrum. The first are growing, complex, multi-layered and convoluted systems, whilst the latter are static, homogeneous, heavy objects. Digital modeling techniques and 3D printing technologies allow the hybridization of the two. The Plantolith represents such a possible geometric hybrid. On the one hand, the complex, multi-layered geometry imitates, simulates and mimics natural processes, blurring the boundaries between tectonic elements and natural forms. On the other hand, all elements are fused together to achieve a printable file to be processed by a large-scale 3D Rapid-Prototyping machine, which produced this unique piece (due to its size and aesthetics) as a large, uni-material monolith out of silica sand. This is an additive manufacturing process, which chemically binds material, layer by layer, into the final shape.
Following this notion of the blurring of the traditionally defined roles of various disciplines: regarding your own practice and research, what would you say to a critic who feels that the majority of your work reads as Art rather than Architecture proper?
It depends on the critic. If he/she were a client I would say: give me the chance and I will show it is architecture proper. However, to echo the previous answer, I would respond: My architecture is like a coral. It looks like a plant, but actually it is an animal proper. As far as I am concerned, I have never sold anything as art.
My definition of architecture perhaps is simply more open, dynamic and flexible than the generic understanding that architecture must be something that looks like ‘a building’. Definitions are relative. Beauty, form, function all relate to a changing context in place and in time. There are reasons why an octopus does not look like a dog or a cat – a ‘proper’ pet. Nonetheless, somebody (Di*ney, for example) managed to sell slimy octopuses as a domesticated pet animal to a global market, catering to childrens’ and adults’ imaginations alike. How? By communication (as a cartoon character, for example) and by production (making it a soft toy, for instance). A truly genius model of cultural production beyond established frameworks. Similarly: A few years ago the work of Zaha Hadid Architects was dismissed as art rather than architecture. Who is laughing now?
Sometimes roaming the more remote and inaccessible areas of a hunting territory is the only way to find prey.
Algae-Cellunoi, Permanent Collection of FRAC, Orleans France, 2013.
Algae-Cellunoi, Permanent Collection of FRAC, Orleans France, 2013.
Algae-Cellunoi, installed at the 2013 ArchiLAB exhibition Naturalizing Architecture, is an ornamental wall structure for external use. It is composed of numerous cellular foam components resulting from a computational Voronoi pattern that determined the size and complexity of each cell. A sequence of lofted surfaces follows a gradient of punctuated lines and indentations that vary according to the geometric inclination of each surface, similar to growth layouts in sea barnacles and shells. To achieve this, the milling path of each cellular component was digitally controlled and manipulated. The result has multiple patterns with gaps and crevices. Each cellular component is seeded with terrestrial algae that grow in the ridges between the components. The selected algae strains are Neochloris texensis, a soil based algae of the Neochloris genus and Trentepohlia. Furthermore, each cellular component is also designed to host a variety of Objet 3D printed flasks, in which liquid algae can grow for ground fertilization or for creating a varied natural ecology on the wall.

We live in an unprecedented time: the Digital Age is considered to be the most radical epoch in human history, one of countless new-ness and change. Architecture it appears, due undoubtedly to the length of time in which it takes to design and construct buildings, seemingly cannot/ has not been able to keep up with the constantly evolving technological/ digital landscape of the now; perhaps it has tried too hard to keep up, superficially, becoming a mere slave to changing fashion? You consider Architecture to be “a form of cultural production” – however it seems apparent that in order for Architecture to continue to be relevant in this way, a new understanding of it must be formulated.
Ah, the ‘fashion’ conundrum. Novelty, newness, now-ness, they all assume surfing the wave – just before the crest. But yes, all waves will crash inevitably and fashions change.
Let me explain it this way: fashion can be translated into the Italian words ‘moda’ (as in the fashion industry) and ‘modo’ (as in the meaning of way/ manner). Thus, to say ‘in my own fashion’ you must translate it as ‘a modo mio’ – meaning ‘in my own way’. You cannot say ‘a moda mia’.
Fashion (moda) as industry entails plurality; a social mass. You wearing yellow socks with purple stripes (a random example) does not produce fashion per se. In this sense, fashion is a societal drift; a collective sensibility. The fashion industry of course is dictated by global brands as much as individuals: fashion designers who are capable of making a ‘modo’ into a ‘moda’ impact tremendously on cultural production. Consequently, if creative, architecture must be reformulated as cultural production, as it has always been. As the photographer Oliviero Toscani argues, ‘Creativity is the consequence of a cultural action, that’s all!’.

Le Corbusier once stated, quite prophetically it seems, that “architecture must die, in order to be reborn”, suggesting that it must shed its previous associations/ definitions/ understanding(s) in order to recalibrate and thus reintegrate with the changing culture for which it serves. What are your thoughts on this statement as it relates to the built environment of today and of the future? To your theory of Digital Poetics?
I would say that architecture never dies (ironically, however, my own thesis project in 1997 was entitled ‘Phoenix from the Ashes. Or: Sarajevo Must Die’. It was my own design response/reading to/of a tragic situation of post-war Sarajevo, where I felt I needed to kill it before resuscitating it). It merely sheds its skin once it outgrows it. This periodic process of molting is necessary to allow for rejuvenation and growth. It seems that currently architecture has started sloughing a considerable amount of excess dead tissue such as dumb materials, ancient techniques and Jurassic processes, etc. Sometimes hard actions are required to break a bad habit. The profession has an addiction for norms and regulations, and health and safety (but in the wrong sense, the administrative sense): it is our responsibility as designers to think about the health and safety of the user, the city, the environment, the planet – not only about the Health and Safety Officer.
Anyhow, rather than the death of architecture, I expect a mass extinction of those architects who have no fashion whatsoever: neither as ‘modo’ nor as ‘moda’.
AgroPolis, Khataba (Al Jadida). marcosandmarjan, 2008.
AgroPolis, Khataba (Al Jadida). marcosandmarjan, 2008.
The proposal of new towns along the Nile Delta is thought to redirect the uncontrolled urban sprawl typical to Egypt into new agro-urban settlements that grow in accordance to local farming activities. The AgroPolis is proposed as semi-urban and semi-agricultural environment thus to be self-sufficient in what concerns the involvement of local population, new transport infrastructures, mix-program, and, above all, a sustainable balance in food and energy production and consumption.
On your theory of Digital Poetics, you state that by “convoluting techné (craftsmanship) and poiēsis (art and bringing forth) (…) digital technologies become something poetic, and poetics something proficient: the expertise to invent and create new worlds”. For example, your personal design-research projects 2&1/2D and 3&1/2D, through their acutely ornate, splinear and even ornamental fields of filamentous, feathery and often times convoluted topologies, describe “whole worlds of poetic phenomena”. Could you comment on the beginnings of this body of work? What was learned? Is the work considered ‘finished’?
This inquiry is far from being finished – there seems to be a lot of space between 2D and 3D and 4D – albeit I instigated the research into Twoandahalf Dimensionality (2&1/2D) at the very beginning of my PhD (2000). It continued earlier investigations during my Masters (most architecture is autobiographical, you see) into blurring boundaries and propelling the line (architecture’s traditional key codification) from boundary to field condition.
I decided for the term 2&1/2D rather than 2,5D for various reasons; the main being that I wanted to make sure that we are looking at an augmented 2D domain, not a truncated, mutilated 3D space. Same with 3&1/2D. It was an attempt to grow from 2D into 3D (without ever really achieving it) but still remaining in a 2D space. The added value (&) is not geometric (quantitative) but cognitive (qualitative). It is there – you can see it – but you cannot measure it. I was intrigued by these elusive properties that affect one’s experience of drawings and forms but challenge geometric description (and descriptive geometry) as well as CAD drawing techniques in general.
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Top Image 6: 2&1/2D drawing + haiku, 2000-6. Marjan Colletti. Let us overcome: virtual aloofness and disembodiment. // Bottom Image 7: 3&1/2D drawing, 2011. Marjan Colletti. Digital Delicatessen I – Metallika ♯VIII – Virtual Virtuosity 2.

In a recent interview with the Bartlett’s own LOBBY Magazine, Issue # 1 Un/Spectacle entitled Lobbying for the Spectacular in Architecture, you stated your intention as regards to teaching to be: “to open students’ eyes an to make them do architecture more intelligently, more sensually, and more spectacularly”. In so doing do you find, in students of recent years in particular, that the post-digital paradigm – that is, of seeking to reconcile the real with the virtual through physical output/ fabrication – is less of a hardship for students to fully grasp/ engage? Meaning, do you feel that students who have only known such a culture, as produced by digital technologies, are more easily able to engage with it in a theoretical way?
Surely this generation of students who have only known digital culture are more easily able to engage with it as it is their second, perhaps even first nature. Are they also more easily able to engage with it in a theoretical way? Yes, and no. As I state in the Introduction to the book, every theory is about other theories, as much as every design is about other designs and every book, as Umberto Eco argues, is about other books – hence my efforts to establish various viewpoints from an insider point of view to discuss digitality in architecture. This self-referentiality is key. Thus, yes: having been raised within this digital culture makes them the best observers and commentators. However, I would urge this younger generation to look up from the screen and look at the real world too; at the reality of nature, people, the environment. Learn to see, to observe. Travel.
They must learn to be flexible and dynamic to discuss digitality with, and against, other domains. A theory is an inquiry, and it has become extremely difficult for this generation to formulate questions. There is no need to formulate a proper question for Go*gle and Wikipe*ia to give you a virtually real-time response. This immediacy is great, of course. But be aware that the answers you will get: everybody else also will get. Thus: no. If you want to be theoretically creative, do not ask the Internet…

A personal ‘peeve’ of mine regarding digitality is this recurrent impression of sterility in the field of Architecture – be it via experiencing the physical/ built results of such design or through the much-discussed ‘materially-void’ drawings/ renders of Architecture Offices abound. Concurrently, it seems that in modern society the act of touching things is viewed as ‘unclean’, to the point where even grocery stores supply sanitizing lotion dispensers for customers who anticipate the need to use a push-cart while shopping. Do you see a relationship between this obsessive need to remain sterile of the citizens of today’s cities and the lack of tactile stimulation in the city itself – does one feed the other?
I concur. Yet sterility is merely a slightly extreme rendition of the concept of cleanliness by white-washed Modernism. Initially, virtuality was seen as clean, fluid, sterile; an aesthetic also fueled by slick, smooth and grey-washed Digitalism. Yet we have learned that that domain has properties, contains noise and dirt and easily gets contaminated…
I see the reborn taste for digital ornamentalism as a way to render CAD-architecture more tactile and textural. And the green agenda as well: I reckon that the increased integration of architecture and nature will come with uncleanliness: whether you will have to cultivate your green façade yourself or deal hands-on with a contaminated bio-photo-reactor on your balcony…
What you seem to overlook is that we already touch a lot of technology these days; digital devices such phones, tablets, screens, etc. Why not furniture and buildings? Tactile technology is seen as advanced technology – as opposite to the rather dumb push-cart you mention. Until, soon I reckon, the first programmable GPS push-carts lead the way through the aisles of supermarkets. Unless you shop online, of course…
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Alga(e)zebo, 2012. marcosandmarjan. A GLA Part of Wonder project for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympic Games.

While maintaining that “there cannot be a single, unique, impartial and proven theory of and for architecture”, you describe Digital Poetics as an “open, speculative and investigative design-research theory (…) it is a theory of technology but approached through poetics” and as such it “sets itself in discordance to the prosaic, the insensitive and the unimaginative”. Furthermore, stating that in recent years “we have overcome the frustration with virtuality’s aloofness, detachment, otherness and disembodiment” of the digital realm. This seems to be an incredibly liberating and exciting moment for the field of architecture, particularly as it relates to design-research. I would welcome any comments on how you feel this theory might affect/ effect the architectural landscape in the years to come.
I think ‘multivoiced’ is what matters most here; a term extracted and extrapolated from Eco’s investigation on the Open Work.
The Internet is great, but it has become a relatively noisy/crowded/polluted space (in 2014 we have reached the third billionth user) and also a prosaic/insensitive/unimaginative domain. The real luxury is to be able to logout from everything all the time and to find the time to experience and perceive space, objects, nature, weather, tactile technology. Possibly the real intelligence lies in contemplating what one really wants and how to choose, and not let Ama*on et al. decide for you.
Curiously, the Web is cloning some of TV’s worst habits, partly becoming utterly old-fashioned: I have to watch/buy/google something as suggested/decided by someone else? Common – how zombified do we have to become? Hence the success of interactive TV packages such as Sk*, Vir*in, etc. On demand. At least I must know what I want to watch. A bit like what it used to be on the Web 1.0. Or better: with books and libraries, really…
What I am trying to say is that I value this notion of ‘mine’ (the I and the eye), and of ‘modo’ (in which way it has been made, bought, used). I frame this by the term ‘Neo-Materialism’, which denotes the sense of novel intelligent materiality and fabrication technologies, but also a human desire for possession of things and experiences (the book elaborates further on this).
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Arch2O-Interview With Marjan Colletti-12-Robotic FOAMing 2b-013Arch2O-Interview With Marjan Colletti-11-Robotic FOAMing 2a-012
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Robotic FOAMing, Self-Supporting Filamentous Foam Structures, 2013. Marjan Colletti, and Georg Grasser, Kadri Tamre, Allison Weiler of the Institute for Experimental Architecture and REX|LAB of the University of Innsbruck, Austria. By utilizing precisely controlled methods of robotic fabrication, it is possible to expand the field of physical experimentation in real-time. This potential is explored through research and experimentation integrating the highly precise nature of robotic systems, with the loose, unpredictable properties of expandable ‘soft’ filamentous materials. Through robotic-controlled fabrication, lightweight composite materials can be quickly and efficiently configured into porous and filamentous structures with a variety of properties, depending on precise values only achieved through this type of highly measured fabrication. Through this process, a spectrum of material transitions including elasticity, density, structural fitness, rigidity and plasticity can be explored in a previously assumed homogenous material. This research examines the means by which this evolving realm of robotic fabrication can exploit a ‘soft’ material through non-linear execution, phase change in material through time-based manipulation, and the transformation from the homogenous to the heterogeneous.

Regarding your practice, marcosandmarjan, would you comment on the process that takes place when selecting a project or competition to explore and pursue?
Usually a project selects us. This means we do not actively participate in competitions etc. unless we are invited by a client, an institution, an office for a joint venture. So if there is anybody out there with a seriously good proposal, or cash, reading this: please contact me anytime and you will get our full attention.

What advice or guidance would you give to young, up-and-coming Architects today?
I am in no position to give advice. But I would warn them that they will be labeled as ‘young’ (i.e., inexperienced and untrustworthy to manage and spend somebody’s savings) for a very long time, and that ‘up-and-coming’ is also a way to sweeten the pill. But I do not want to sound too pessimistic – architecture needs a lot of work now to become more intelligent and also more poetic. Many are pushing hard. But we all have to go the extra mile, in practice, education and theory.