A performative lecture by Daniel Zamarbide
May 24, 2019
forum d’architectures I f’ar, Lausanne

NIGHT ADRIFT is part of a series of events within the SCÈNES DE NUIT exhibition, which delves into nocturnal encounters to explore the role of night in shaping contemporary cities and societies. The exhibition aims to scrutinize and reflect on the spaces, activities, and media that unfold in night culture, utilizing evening events and ephemeral scenography as its primary display platform. The scenography is by the Department of Interior Architecture at HEAD – Genève.

Scènes de Nuit, Nocturnal Exhibition at f’ar Lausanne, May 2019
Curators: Javier F. Contreras, Youri Kravtchenko 
Assistant: Manon Portera

NIGHT ADRIFT: Peripheral Storylines

Daniel Zamarbide Not so long ago during a lecture situation, not so different from this one but in Zurich, I participated to a quite rapid and not so useful symposium on architecture. The event was hosted and moderated by the director of the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, Andreas Ruby, who introduced my practice as one that navigates through the peripheral waters of the architectural ocean. I was presented as a tangential architect who develops his work in the suburbs of the profession. 

This approach to my work, especially coming from someone whose intelligence and culture are not to be questioned, intrigued me on the spot and has since continued to raise questions about how the profession`s contours are drawn and by who. Evidently, I understand what Andreas Ruby meant to convey in his quick introduction, and within that context, there was not much time for subtle presentations. But the very idea of having to distinguish between a central architecture and a peripheral one still troubles me somewhat. 

I would like to use this presentation format of about twenty minutes to bring a sort of reaction to this identity that was brought up during that session in Zurich. Exclusion and inclusion practices are at play in this exercise and I am quite uncomfortable with those rituals. Departing from this rather anecdotic moment (whose purpose is far from questioning or bringing any sort of criticism to Ruby’s eloquence ) I would like to add to today’s panel a critical position. The usage of the word “periphery” in this context is a very interesting sign of how architecture is culturally considered and perceived. 

I propose a moment to revisit the central importance of peripheral practices. It will be a quite superficial and fragmented walk into history. 

The context of this lecture is particularly relevant to this topic, as we have seen it in the previous lectures (Octave Perrault and Pol Esteve) on the culture of the club and what could be identified as queered spaces. These are clearly not central works or design approaches; they also belong to the periphery. The culture of clubbing and of the club as a space, a heterotopian one, is certainly appreciated (if even noticed at all in mainstream cultural considerations) or actually, is depreciated as a marginal space by its wild, entertaining, degenerated, ornamented, savage nature ? 

© Dylan Perrenoud

These words I employ are not by any means naïve and seem quite a propos when dealing with this issue. First because in French, in the electro and techno music culture, “sauvage” is referred to when speaking about illegally organized parties often taking place in natural environments and engaging a community of people around music, food and drinks, and the use of drugs to augment experiential collective feeling. To continue with the metaphor of the “sauvage”, there is something that could be viewed as primitive or even animalistic in these temporary social events. They constitute a departure from the urban and regular habits of the city rituals, a way to escape the normative nature of civil collective behaviors and a way to experience collective ecstasies. This can uniquely happen outside the center, in the margins. It is not without a note of perversion, or provocation that I am borrowing these terms from an old “colleague” - primitive, savage, degenerated - who’s oral and written strength is very well known, proclaiming him as one of the key characters of modernism. The HEAD very successfully re-enacted his American Bar. “But whoever goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a rogue or a degenerate. Lack of ornament has pushed the other arts to unimagined heights 1

“But whoever goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a rogue or a degenerate. Lack of ornament has pushed the other arts to unimagined heights."

His provocative work “Ornament and Crime”, often read quite badly by many followers of the minimal and post-minimal culture, has produced another community under the slogan of “Less is More”. Another placeholder without much content in its utilization. 

As it is known, the polemical boutique decorator Adolf Loos used theese terms, primitive, savage, degenerated, to point out or define the art of peripheral populations such as the indigenous peoples of new Guinea: the Papuan. 

The Sunrise of the 20th century sees the tracing of a historical commencement that has lasted until our days. We have many times experienced, in a great number of architectural schools the use of the term decorative as a mean to criticize negatively, a given intervention or project. Decoration is in the architectural idiom of those educational contexts translated by useless, superficial, most probably meaning feminine as well, a clear de-valorization of the practice of decorating as a minor one. 

© Dylan Perrenoud

The lines of the twentieth century modern history are built up from moments such as this one. All the uniquely masculine nature of the characters that fill the official books of modernism, tell a quite insular or exclusive story of architecture. The paradoxes, complexities, anomalies and cracks of the naturally multiple activities and practices that were related to architectural designs seem to have vanished from the second Bauhaus onwards. Architecture from there on will mainly articulate around two powerful ideologies: the fast-growing capitalism and its equivalent opponent, communism. Both heroic and in the need of a “baukultur” that will root their power through architectural monuments that implement their political agendas into a societal project. 

The second world war will contribute to collaborate or even support the idea of a militant architecture that serves in the reconstruction of a destroyed world. 

The common progress of arts and applied arts movements everywhere in Europe (German Werkbund,  Viennese Secession, Catalan Modernism, Belgian and French Art Nouveau, French Art-Déco, English Arts and Crafts, the Dutch De Stijl, etc ) developed collectively into a cul-de-sac street ending with the first Bauhaus, with the figure of the very beautiful Gesamkunstwerk Sommerfeld House in Berlin. 

Twelve years after Adolf Loos’ text, the school that marked the century and is still today a referential point when it comes to design, architecture and creative pedagogies, choose to build as its manifest a villa where the architecture is rather questionable, but where the decorative realm is extremely pushed and present. 

The exciting, holistic, and decorative modernity of the Sommerfeld house, would soon be replaced by another one, central and dominant, positivist, hygienic, technocratic. One that eradicated any superficial element, throwing violently the decorative to the trash can of the degenerates. After that, the practices of otherness nature were forced to evolve in the margins, disappearing in invisible heterotopian spaces that were, naturally, unspoken about. 

At this point of the lecture, it might be useful to bring in the evolution of ethnography and anthropology, as an evident tool to talk about centrality and periphery. From an ethnographical point of view, architecture is most certainly one of the few fields that can unscrupulously, without any critical distance, quote literally (and often proudly) Ornament and Crime without even imagining the hidden (is it really ?) power and instrumentality of such terms. 

Levis Strauss : 

« Le barbare, c’est d’abord l’homme qui croit à la barbarie »

« Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage »

« Et pourtant, il semble que la diversité des cultures soit rarement apparue aux hommes pour ce qu’elle est : un phénomène naturel, résultant des rapports directs ou indirects entre les sociétés ; ils y ont plutôt vu une sorte de monstruosité ou de scandale ; dans ces matières, le progrès de la connaissance n’a pas tellement consisté à dissiper cette illusion au profit d’une vue plus exacte qu’à l’accepter ou à trouver le moyen de s’y résigner 2 ”».

The development of ethnography and anthropology corresponds quite interestingly to the production of attempts to create certain counterculture in architecture, one that would question, and sometimes fight the predominant modernism. But these practices that take position in the 1940’s, emerge in the 1950’s, to explode in the 60’s and 70’s will be again marginalized with the advent of the consumption era, the 1980’s celebrated in architecture by the new post-modernism. 

It is within these thirty or so, pre-1980s years, that most of my cultural background comes from and my work in dialogical companionship establishes a confrontational attitude towards it. The length of this presentation does not allow me to develop in depth, the sometimes intimate, sometime more stretched relation with the histories or storylines of architecture that the projects I work in and with entertain. They walk alongside other storylines establishing loose associations with art and architecture passing freely from fictional and narrative lines to physical and built environments, with or without much control. Close to what you have in front of your eyes and ears, the projects I work with travel within incompletely defined links that establish relations between architecture and other fields or creative practices. 

These other practices are as peripheral as the: inflatables of Ant Farm, the bleachers and stair structures of Bruce Naumann, the built utopian dreams of Paolo Soleri, metal urban ghosts of Rosemarie Castoro, the unknown modern pioneer architecture of Irving Gill, Anne Tyng’s space frames, the cultural and political engaged set designs of Carlo Scarpa, as Mary Otis Stevens’ Lincoln House, or the orchestrated explosion and Pink Floyd music of Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni, as the other culture of explosions of fundamental artist Judy Chicago and her Dinner Party architectural projects, the strength of Charlotte Perriand’s designs, the dining room of the Exterminating Angel of Luis Buñuel, the Venus pavilion architecture made by Salvador Dali for the New York International Exhibition in 1939, the already presented Sommerfeld House of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, the decorative hybrid spaces of Josef Frank, the mysterious gardens of Bomarzo, the psychotic nightclub architecture of Carlo Molino, the exhibitions of Harald Szeemann, of Jeremy Deller, the site and history of Monte Verità, the sound installations of Christian Marclay, the cinema Guild of Frederik Kiesler, Louise Bourgeois’ Cells, Lynn Margulis’ Gaia theory and symbiogenetics revision of our inter relational nature, the Whole Earth Catalog, the night scenes of the best Michael Mann movies (Thief, Heat, Manhunter), the Sample Lesson for a Hypothetical course of Charles Eames and George Nelson, Ugo Lapietra, Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology, Esther McCoy Five California Architects, the Sudgen House of Alison and Peter Smithson, Donna Haraway’s essential contribution to revise our too male-anthropocentric and human-exceptional history (with Bruno Latour). 

To come back to the question of ornament, its liquidation and how minimalism has made the apology for its disappearance, I would like to comment on one of the most relevant and important pieces of art in my view. It is one that marked my student culture since one of my professors, artist Christian Marclay, was strongly influenced by it. I am speaking of the 1952 sound piano piece 4’33, played by David Tudor and composed by John Cage. 

I became interested in minimal techno by immersion, living in the creative milieu of the Geneva squat culture of the 1990s. But I entered the electronic sound world as a popular extension of musical experimentations similar to those of Cage. The piece 4’33 basically consists, for those who might not know it, of a temporality given by the title entirely occupied by the absences of played sound, a written sequence of silences. What happened during the very first live performance in 1952 was a reversal of the audience`s expectations. The sole sounds that were heard in the room emerged from a scandalized public, in rage against what they considered a false concert, and not from the piano or the interpreter’s skills. The proposal of John Cage came after a crucial discovery that he had made. Art historian Jean Pierre Criqui describes this moment when writing about Christian Marclay’s work : 

" Avant même tout évènement sonore susceptible d’être répété, remis en jeu, transformé, nous aimons à penser qu’il pourrait y avoir eu le silence. Le silence comme condition originelle, générative, des phénomènes audibles – toile de fond vierge sur laquelle ceux-ci viendraient se détacher. Mais on connaît le problème, ou paradoxe, auquel nous confronte un silence absolu : dans la mesure où il peut être créé en laboratoire, il n’en demeure pas moins un silence pour personne, et l’individu se trouvant en pareil situation, aussi indemne soit-il du moindre acouphène, entendra alors la rumeur de son propre organisme au travail. C’est ce dont John Cage fit l’expérience dans une chambre anéchoique de Harvard et qui le conduisit à réviser sa conception du silence, révision dont devait se montrer redevable deux ans plus tard, en 1952, sa célèbre composition silencieuse 4’33. 

Avec 4’33, le silence, composé sonore parmi d’autres, perdait son statut d’entité virtuelle pour accéder à l’existence singulière3 ”. 

What architecture struggles to engage with is precisely what this story of Cage’s piece reveals, the awareness of the transformation of noise into sound, that space and architecture in general is not a mystical, quasi-religious experience around voids (as the famous and somewhat irritating texts on space written by Martin Heidegger seem to suggest) but that space and spaces are part of particular existences, transforming constantly as they encounter new relations. Spaces like the ones we are discussing tonight, marginal milieux of design practices and lived situations have developed inside these singular interrelated existences. 

If mainstream architecture (and I include in this category many of the architects that would not consider themselves as such – no need to mention names) presents us constantly with shining design palaces, whether austere or arte-povera looking, minimal or exuberant, un-politicized marketable objects, a great amount of singular less visible ones swim under them, and in the sewers of these palaces are the heroes of Terry Gillian’s “Brazil” universes`.

The decades of the 1950’s to the 1970`s celebrated in a multitude of manners a sense of renewed energy in design practices and presented a large palette of possibilities to exercise our profession. It all seemed to happen as if the post-war time had temporarily re-opened the closed working sites of modernity at the threshold of the 20th century, the ones that the wars had closed in the meantime. Artistic complexity and political engagement were at the operation table during those years. 

A few moments that I call missed rendezvous of the time could have provoked a significant swift in the histories of architecture. The first one is the Venus’ Dream pavilion made by Salvador Dali for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. The small building is named after (and a sort of reproduction of) Boticelli’s Venus. The pavilion presents a clearly opposite vision of what the World’s fair is all about: The World of Tomorrow. It is the most representative moment of Norman Geddes and Raymon Lewy’s streamline vision of the world, progressive and forward looking. The show opened its doors on the eve of Second World War and the cohabitation of Dali’s work in the Fair is a confrontation of dreams: A futurist and progressive consumerist one attacked by the unformal, strange, and grotesque total work of art of this small architecture; David and Goliath. After crossing the door under Venus’ thighs, one would penetrate an internal and fantastic universe of the subconscious, an erotic environment made of exotic kitsch, nudity, mermaids and human aquariums.

I consider this piece as a prototype of a surrealist architecture that did not fully develop. But it will precisely appear in the nightclub’s architecture and design of the 60’s and 70’s. What interests me the most in these spaces is that they address a complete and holistic experience, for the external perceptive body, but also for our internal sensitivity and emotive reactions. In both cases, the complexity of these experiences is voluntarily addressed to a large public, the night clubs hosting a large range of populations (marginal and not) as much as Dali’s will to merchandise his own art translating it into everyday objects. 

© Dylan Perrenoud

The second moment of this unofficial history is the exhibition held in 1956 at the Whitechapel gallery entitled This is Tomorrow. With a title not so far from the 1939 World’s Fair mentioned above, the show exposes a rather different “tomorrow” than its American counterpart. The name of the exhibition speaks for itself. No promises here, showing the tomorrow of today (of 1956). The show is well known for its introduction of Pop-Art in the UK and Europe, even though this Pop-art is considerably surrealist with artists like Eduardo Palozzi and Richard Hamilton (a close friend of Duchamp). The most notorious artists are those of the Independent Group, a creative group composed indifferently by artists, architects, and thinkers. The two artists mentioned above were in the good company of people like the fantastic Rayner Banham (founder of the group), and the thornier definable couple of Allison and Peter Smithson. Two pieces are relevant for my exposé tonight. The first one is Richard Hamilton`s complex collage with the incredibly titled « Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing ». The second one is the Smithson’s “House of the Future”, an interiority difficult to place in the architect’s more general agenda, a mix of grotto architecture and pop attitude, creating maybe one of the most intense moments of interiority within the prolific career of the architects. 

© Dylan Perrenoud

The third episode of this peripheral storyline is Ant Farm’s Inflatocookbook manual. 

Ant Farm, a group of architects much more appreciated and referenced by the art world rather than in architecture, worked in architectural projects as much as media installations, and sculptures between the mid-1960s and the end of the 1970s. One of the most well know pieces is the 1970 Cadillac Ranch, a series of half buried Cadillacs in the Texan desert of Amarillo. The production of Ant Farm developed mainly through two working axes: inflatable architecture and media installations. 

The inflatocookbook is the synthesis of their inflatable architecture know-how and experiences, and it owes a considerable bit to the interior world of Buckminster Fuller and the research work carried out in Frei Otto’s Institute for Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart. The publications of the latter, under the name of IL will be an inspiration for all adepts of biomorphic structures. The manual is presented as a ready-to-use, rather chaotic, catalog based on montage editing techniques. Inflatables are considered environmentally friendly architectures in their lightness and ephemerality, suggesting strongly an ideal nomadic society that does not leave heavy and irreversible traces in their settlement. The catalog extends as a continuity of the essential Whole Earth Catalog that founded the counter-culture attitude during the 1970s (the first WEC was published in 1968). Another aspect of the inflated interior is the amplification and alteration of the body sensations and emotions. Inhabiting an inflated space is a psychotropic experience. 

The fourth and final episode for the time being is: Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky, another exhibition that defined its time and introduced the notion of Vernacular Architecture. 

Here is a quote from this publication: 

“Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western World, has never been concerned with more than a few cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the Globe or little more than was known in the second century.“

“Although the dismissal of the early stages can be explained, though not excused, by the scarcity of architectural monuments, the discriminative approach of the historian is mostly due to his parochialism. Besides, architectural history as we know it is equally biased on the social plane. It amounts to little more than a who’s who of architects who commemorate power and wealth; an anthology of buildings of, by and for the privileged – the houses of true and false gods, of merchants and princes of the blood - with never a word about the houses of lesser people 4 ” 

The famous and immensely popular catalog will put vernacular architecture at the top of the pile, by questioning modernism and considering a non-occidental and “non-pedigreed” architecture as part of our inhabited world culture. The MOMA exhibition was eminently visual and presented through a display a series of visualy complex superimpositions. Creating the conditions for the visitor to inhabit spatially the image environment. The creativity of Rudofsky in the display came close to that of Carlo Scarpa’s approach in exhibition design bringing out as well a political discourse as the show was an immersive and easy way to showcase non-official or in this case literally peripheral architectures of the world. The spatialization of the images allowed him to embrace the contemporary mantra of the time The Medium is the Message playing with the powerful and subliminal impact of the object-images. There is no doubt that the quite enormous popular success of the exhibition owes a great deal to the interior power of the spatial display. 

© Dylan Perrenoud

I will now conclude this first series of micro chapters of a potentially longer one that could constitute a whole new approach to architecture history, made of storylines travelling through non-hierarchical centralities and peripheries. History to be reviewed by another great Howard Zinn’s type of “A People’s History of the United States”. A People’s History of Architecture where the time travelling would be featured and narrated by multi gendered protagonists of minority cultures. A history from and for the eyes and ears of barbarians and savages, starring noise before silence, playing and listening to the sounds of our interconnected interior and exterior bodily organs, a history for altered consciences, presenting asperities and non-alignments, and narrating and inhabiting the lives of others and otherness of which we are all part of.  

Daniel Zamarbide is the director of the architectural firm BUREAU with offices in Geneva and Lisbon. Over the years, Zamarbide has developed a particular interest in the protean aspects of his discipline. Consequently, his work and research are fueled by other fields such as philosophy, applied and visual arts, and film. Since 2003, he has been a regular lecturer and studio critic at HEAD – Genève (Geneva University of Art and Design) and EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). In addition, he is regularly invited as a guest lecturer and juror by international architectural schools and cultural institutions.

Scènes de Nuit

Nocturnal Exhibition at f’ar Lausanne, May 2019
Curators: Javier F. Contreras, Youri Kravtchenko 
Assistant: Manon Portera
Scenography: Department of Interior Architecture, HEAD – Genève. BA students under the direction of Youri Kravtchenko and Manon Portera
Photography: © Jerlyn Heinzen

  1. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime (London: Penguin Books, 2019).
  2. Claude Levi Strauss, Race et Histoire, Collection Folio Essais no. 58 (Paris: Gallimard, 1987).
  3. Jean-Pierre Criqui, "Le Monde selon Christian Marclay", in Jean-Pierre Criqui (ed.), Replay Marclay (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2007).
  4. Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects: An introduction to non Pedigreed Architecture (New-York: The Museum of Modern Art; ditibuted by Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1964).