In Conversation: Andy Groarke
YSoA William Henry Bishop Visiting Professor, currently teaching an Advanced Studio in New Haven while located in London.
AG: The first and the only time I visited Rudolph Hall was when I was invited to give a talk in January 2019, arriving fairly jet lagged the day before. Phillip Bernstein gave me a tour around the building. A few things struck me. It’s a far more gritty, tough building than its neighbors somehow, than the smoother Louis Kahn neighbors across the road. It’s a building that is tough and somehow has a great deal of friction, which is a really interesting environment to have an architectural experience in. I look at other university buildings that I visited and taught in, and they are all a little bit more slippery or frictionless, or don’t have profound interactions with materials and a great sense of being in a space that is always engaging you on every step of the way. I think it’s something to do with the 37 different levels in this nine storey building. I was constantly aware of my position in this building and how it is not a passive experience, it really compels you to be engaged in understanding your position within this big skull of the building. For that reason, because you are super aware of your surroundings, it frames a vivid architectural experience of being inside.
Many contemporary academic buildings look as though they’ve been assembled from pieces or products specified from catalogs, but this building looks as though it has been made by hands. Even the post-finishing of the concrete has the maker’s marks invested in the surfaces, there are traces of other people’s making, that really struck me at the time. The awkwardnesses of the building, and I mean that in a really good way, because I think that it confronts you. You can’t have a passive or ambivalent approach to being in it since it’s constantly reminding you to take steps up or down. I’m fortunate enough to be able to enjoy that, although I am sure there are students, teachers and visitors that find that very difficult. One can’t take that for granted. Because of this, you’re always aware of having a constantly dynamic three dimensional experience of the studios, some of the galleries, and the lecture theatre. The proportions of this building constantly assert themselves on you.
The room in which the lecture was given, it’s a funny proportion, it’s a corridor. If we were to design a lecture theatre with the most contact between the speaker and their audience, you would arrange that whole room through 90 degrees. And yet, because you’re aware that this is not a normal room, you are more aware of this being a very particular architectural experience. There are a lot of incidental experiences in this building: the compression and the revelation of space at different levels, the conceal and reveal of views along the roots, the accumulation, the surfaces that are already encrusted with texture get further and encrusted in the staircases with fragments of other architectures. In some ways it’s a museological experience of architecture as well. It’s a very tactile experience walking around the space, even the paprika carpet. It’s somehow from another era. Buildings, like the Sainsbury Center by Norman Foster, have a carpeted floor; Foster was taught by Rudolph in Rudolph Hall, you can sort of see a legacy of experiences and decisions that come through in the legacy of other architectures.
MK: When you brought up the lecture hall, I was reminded of the overflow space in the Drawing Room. When you are in that room, lectures are a different experience; it’s more of a party, you can eat and make comments to your neighbors. However, it’s definitely very strange to remember that the speaker is on the other side of the wall.
AG: As a student, everyone turns up late to one or two lectures. It’s the least forgiving to come in late since it has the smallest back row of any lecture hall. If you are late to a talk, you have to go through the indignity of walking down all of those steps. It really forces you to engage with it as a building. It creates a learning experience that is so vivid. Before this conversation it struck me that Rudolph Hall is one of three or four buildings I have taught in from this era, this kind of brutalist, concrete building. The other one that comes to mind is the Royal College of Art by Sir Hugh Casson in London, opposite Hyde Park. Those studios where architecture was taught had similar awkwardnesses, such as the choppy changes in levels and low floor-to-ceiling dimensions that shouldn’t really work. There’s a wrestle against the building, which I find highly productive in those learning environments. Buildings which are too slippery and frictionless and passive, they’re just warm enough, big enough, and bright enough make you sort of forget yourself or your place in the world when things put you in too much complete ease. It’s good to be challenged with the way spaces make you feel and be surrounded with a sense of the substance of things and materials like in Rudolph Hall.
LP: I’m wondering what the role of this overwhelming haptic quality of the building might be in the context of the present moment and more generally, of the YSoA’s almost total adoption of digital modes of presentations years before this current crisis? One could almost argue that the main difference in the way we operate now (as opposed to a year ago) is the size of the screens we’re designing and presenting on.
AG: I think we’re doing the best we can, we are improvising different ways of learning and teaching. I can’t foresee that we will go fully back to a 100% studio system. I am regretful of the fact that it is not possible to have an experience of teaching physically in the building; that was something I was very much looking forward to. Yet, I think there are a lot of benefits to some of the ways we are adopting teaching.
The benefit of a studio as a physical space is, first and foremost, the idea that we can have a space that we can work together. One of the most difficult things to teach as a precursor to the professional experience of being an architect, is that your cultural production is always mediated through the realm of drawings, models, or speculations in design. We work in very indirect and circuitous ways to design methodologies. The video conferencing we are working within is one more version of mediation that we are having to come to terms with. On Zoom we are working in an increasingly image-rich culture, and using images as a language to trade ideas and thoughts.
The sad thing about losing a social dimension in studio culture is that we can forget that we are learning vicariously from working beside one another. We would have liked to do more group physical model-making in our advanced studio; to give a sense of collective endeavour and output – something to get used to in order to eventually realise buildings. Inevitably, working as an architect, there are going to be filters and displacements of what you do about dreaming up an architectural idea and transcribing that through drawings to buildings. There are going to be phases where you have to engage with others in the making process. The value of a studio environment is this notion that you can cultivate, from a very early age, this idea of social transactions, working together, knowledge transfer, and design being more a collegiate conversation than an individual conversation between student and tutor. There are inevitable fringe benefits to hearing conversations from other students, in other studios, about other ideas and approaches to architecture. The critical mass of social knowledge transfer is much better in a physical environment. It’s much easier to have a conversation about haptic and physical things when you can be in a place of shared experience.
One more filter of mediation has the risk of this displacing us too far from the physical embodiment of architecture. There is importance in not dealing with these very complex abstract processes of translating drawings to buildings. In a building such as Rudolph Hall, I would imagine you are learning from things that surround you all the time: that’s a concrete wall, that’s a concrete wall that’s poured, that’s a concrete wall that’s poured and then hammered, that’s a concrete wall that has a different sound to that concrete wall, and that’s a concrete wall that looks soft in one light and hard in another light. These are very nuanced things that are a lot more opaque when you are just doing it through the filter of Zoom’s window on the world.
MK: Something that was brought up in a previous conversation was the contrast and mingling of professors. That you could have Greg Lynn next to Eisenman in one space.
AG: Yeah, you can start to form your territorial lines architecturally by the conversations you are eavesdropping on. What more incredible, vicarious, vertical learning environment than the central atrium space? You can have a chance encounter with any number of those different points of view and perhaps even form your position for or against, almost completely without knowing it. That atrium is such an enriching educational space where everyone can have a visual and aural connection to one another. It’s great that almost the whole school can feel a sense of being a community in one room. That was fantastic at Milstein Hall at Cornell too; having everyone working together in one huge room, whatever studio, whatever year you were in - I think that’s a great idea for a school. I have taught in schools where years or units are siloed into different rooms. I don’t see that as creatively and collaboratively productive.
That’s not to be too down on some of the things we have learned over the last six or nine months and this way of working with one another. What I’ve been really amazed by with the experience I’ve had so far is the ability to just invite someone to give a talk from the other side of the world. Actually, on reflection, should we really need to fly someone 3000 air miles to give a 20-minute review or lecture to a student? This experience has forced us to reflect on the need to work in those ways that we might have in the past. So I think there have been benefits. Our studio has been exposed to lots of different seminars from different parts of Europe. And I have learnt loads from seminars that have been delivered from Yale that I wouldn’t have been able to attend. I do think that there’s been a certain relaxation on how people can structure their time, which is productive and makes it possible for tutors to be more flexible with their time for teaching, and a bit more focussed about how and why we travel to teach. And it makes you think, that must be a positive flipside to the detriment of a face-to-face tutorial meeting.
LP: I don’t think we’re taking a position. We’re really just curious. And it’s really sobering to hear you say this at a time of intensifying nostalgia for the more immediate and haptically engaging modes of working and presenting our work. Even at a school like Yale, which cultivated this sort of screen-based, narrative-heavy review culture even before COVID.
AG: But I do think, as a profession, we are increasingly facing more filters of mediation. This is one way that we’re having to directly confront that mediation of architecture through images. Discussing design through the format of a pre-prepared slideshow each time certainly has its limitations and it is harder for conversations to evolve in varying directions. People have to behave differently; tutorials can be much more presentational and both students and tutors tend to be more on their guard - we’re all much more self-conscious. I’ve noticed, for example, when I’ve had tutorials on a one-on-one basis, they’ve been far more relaxed. When there have been more people in the virtual room, you start to be super conscious about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it and what drawings and images you’re trading between one another. I mean, it’s great, isn’t it, that you can snap a picture of a sketch and it can be discussed instantaneously. What’s bad about that? But I still don’t think that is a sufficiently high-quality surrogate for the experience of actually scribbling on one another’s piece of paper to explain an idea.
MK: We heard the other day that Pfizer might have a vaccine, but there’s a strange sense of reluctance to go back to normal. I wonder for you, both in practice and as an educator, what a new “normal” might be?
AG: I am at a stage in my career or life where I can be a little bit more tolerant of working here or there. It’s far more difficult for younger people than perhaps people of my generation. I think for people that are on such a steep learning curve at the beginning of their career, either in universities, or beginning their first professional work in studios, those chance encounter conversations and the ability to soak up lots of other things that are going on peripherally are so important to your learning experience. It’s those things out of your direct cone of vision or hearing that are equally important. I’ve been super conscious of those things over the last six months, how to still enable a quality learning experience for the people in my studio when they are not surrounded by as many experienced architects. Physically, there aren’t as many people in the studio. I see a sort of mixed-mode system, and I don’t think we’ll go back to a full hundred percent “go to work nine to five”, or “go to college, nine to five”. I’m hopeful it might go back towards that, but, as I said, there are some clear benefits for both education and professional life to embracing technology. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in terms of the buildings that we’re designing, and particularly places to work or learn in that we’re designing. The problem could be that when people do eventually go back to work, once it’s all safe to do so, work just won’t be the same because of the critical mass of people that are working there. You might go back to an office or studio and go “Hmm, this is sort of lacking a bit of a buzz, it’s like going into an empty bar, and being the first customer”, you just sort of think “Mm, maybe I’ll go to a smaller bar or come back a bit later on”. I think that’s one of the challenges that we’ve got to meet as designers, not just the technical questions - are we providing enough light and air and distance between people passing on staircases, and touch-free buttons, and all of that stuff that can be solved by electrifying the building a little bit more. The problem could be one of getting the correct level of social interaction that buildings fostered pre-COVID? Or when we’re designing post-COVID, can you get enough critical intensity of activity where people actually want to go back to work? That could be a real trap of our post COVID times if we’re not careful.
I think we can solve all of these things the way we dealt with fire as a regulation, or proper ventilation, fresh air and lights and other technical parameters. Those are the more straightforward parameters that we can get codebooks for and we can be dutiful towards, but there are more alchemical, more atmospheric, more intangible sides to our craft as architects. These are partly aesthetic, and partly learned through a sort of anthropological happenstance of understanding how people behave in spaces, and the chance to build and watch how your buildings are used or misused, work or don’t work, as both physical and social experiments, is essential. Just ironing out all the problems or quirks of a building doesn’t guarantee a successful piece of architecture. That’s what I think is so wonderful about this kind of friction you get in Rudolph Hall. As I say, I’ve only been there once but, returning to the experience of that, I think we do need buildings that we can rub up against and confront. If a building looks good enough to touch it’s probably a good building, isn’t it?
LP: Going beyond the material fabric of the School, how integrated into its social and logistical fabric would you say you feel right now? In what ways is it different from your past teaching positions?
AG: I don’t think it’s profitable to necessarily compare one teaching experience to another, they’re all very different from lots of parameters. From physically being there, with different students, different teaching assistants, different kinds of cultural, social, economic milieu, it’s just completely different. I think it’s a really interesting time to be a student.
MK: And also a teacher, I’m assuming.
AG: And also a teacher! The very different thing about teaching over Zoom, is that you can’t be quite as categoric with your division of time. Over the last couple of years I would travel to teach in Stuttgart, or Cornell, and I would be in a different frame of mind. And in some ways, that was quite healthy. It felt quite refreshing, cathartic to get into a different frame of mind in a different place. Whereas doing what we’re doing now, zooming in from my studio, I’m switching gears a lot more quickly. Last week, I presented a competition that finished three minutes before the first tutorial. So I guess it’s just that proximity of time that puts more pressure on the ability to switch between two modes of thinking. But the pleasure of being able to teach is being able to displace oneself from those professional and quotidian questions of running a practice.
MK: I think we feel somewhat similar on this end. Our classes sometimes are back-to-back and then you go into your next Zoom meeting, and the person there doesn’t know what you just came from. The whole time, I’m just sitting in the same chair. That is very strange to me.
AG: Yeah, you have to change your hats a lot in one day. But that’s just part of what it is to be an architect, isn’t it? One part of the day, you’re an economist, the next you’re an environmentalist, the next you’re a forensic chemist, the next you’re a project manager. So I think this way of being forced to have multiple mindsets is not bad training. Having to cope with the multiple challenges that you have to face when designing and making a building.