Interview with Christian Pottgiesser

Architect Profile / Architecture / Culture / Europe / Interview

They're running 200 mile per hour and saying “wow that's great!”

Call it an incidental nod to Bastille Day, but we at Paperhouses decided to run our interview with the sole French designer in our roster this week. There’s nothing accidental, however, in is his connection to the theme of our week’s content: Play. Pottgiesser has a disarming sense of humor. Disarming, in that he’s the same designer who describes his Derridean approach to projects as a “palimpsest” of ideas. As it turns out, he is rather more like the Taoist uncut block. He embodies the childlike whimsy necessary to explore the delirium of architecture, and enough curiosity to allow clients to do whatever they want.

Paperhouses: I wanted to start by asking about the RIBA medal. You won the Manser Medal last year for Maison L, and at the award presentation, ex-RIBA president Michael Manser was very vocal about how the London housing industry has caused more environmental damage to England than any other. What do you think about architecture’s role in environmental sustainability?

Christian Pottgiesser: I think Manser would be best to talk about his opinions but he believes only a small percentage, maybe 10-20% in the UK,  of individual residences are designed by architects. This is maybe his way to encourage more clients to commission an architect. That's quite true all over Europe, though. In France,  only 2-5% of commissions are done by architects so it's worse. Nobody thinks to go to architects to get a house designed because everybody thinks it's completely expensive and impossible. We are very bad communicators, architects. (laughter) This is what’s interesting about Paperhouses. It’s the other way around. It lets a lot of people have architects' houses on quite a low budget. 

But to your point, sustainability has become this thing where people try to apply all their normativities so it can be foolproof. To my mind this is absolutely impossible. Sustainability cannot be totally foolproof. If you try to do it, the thing will certainly fail. We try to do things that will last. They have to be interesting for several decades, because once the client has it, we aren't in the thing anymore. It should be something that can be sustained by the clients. Sustainability shouldn’t be just hype on a blog or hype you show your friends. It can last on the terms of the one who uses the thing. It can be adaptive. The clients can change things in the architecture. I think it can be imagined that it is sustainable if you don't have to throw it away. 

PH: That's interesting you make the distinction between sustainable and durable. 

In France we say “durable” to mean sustainable. The meaning of the term has as many opinions as there are architects though. My wife has just interrupted. She says “un endroit les occupants peuvent prendre soin.” A place that can be cared for by the occupants. It goes back to what I said before about the foolproof aspect of the thing.

PH: I didn't realize in French the word translates as “durable” but as you mentioned, the hype around sustainability is huge. Americans are quite good at creating hype without understanding what's going on.

It's the same thing exactly, that is going on in France now. It's hype, but with eyes wide shut. They're running 200 miles per hour into a wall and saying “wow that's great!” We have no knowledge about it. When sustainability became a subject in France, everybody of course agreed, because you can't not agree sustainability matters. 

PH: The enthusiasm people have for ideas they don't understand is a good counterpoint to your architectures possibles, because “architectures possibles” celebrates the idea of ideas. I'm curious about how you govern ideas when they can cross into the dangerous area of hype with too much deliberation. How do you actualize ideas without making it become hype?

Fundamentally I believe that there are a lot of intelligent people doing architecture, ours is only one of those possibilities. An architect is completely incompetent in other disciplines and perhaps even his own, but in order to succeed we must be modest and acknowledge that there are people more competent in other things. “Architectures possibles” means we have the role of manager who tries to know what others know and we try to point out the right moment when we can get all the competencies together. I'm completely incapable to do an architecture without knowing what others know. What they are really doing. It really depends on the knowledge of the others that I can produce a detail.

Often a client comes and says “I want a really precise thing.” They already have an architectural reference in their mind. So before we do it, we make them spend 15 minutes of delir. Where they tell us exactly what they think. They say things that are absolutely interesting because they're completely incoherent. Before, they are of course fixed in their ways, but then this is the moment we are most inside the design process… then we take our time and try to get all these apparently impossible things together.

Ph: Can you give me an example of “un delir des clients” you've heard in that quarter hour?

Ah yes, perhaps you've seen the Pons et Huot project. This was a very very funny moment. We said “Dear client, now is the delirious moment,” and he said, “Oh yesss!” (laughter) He said, “Please come look at my building. OK, I want offices like boxes and I see the roof and I want to have spires and when I come in I want to have fruits on the trees, and I want to have my office where now I have a forest and with the glazing…” We told him none of it would fit together. We told him, “you can't have your office in the trees.” But we sat down and decided to do one large table, and instead of breaking it up we decided to plant the trees inside the table, and everybody works in a bubble. We went to see it again and said,” no problem what you were saying.” It works because you have your ideas and imagination. We presented it, explaining how impossible this seemed, and they said “you're absolutely correct, but we'll do it.”

PH: Have you ever refused an idea for being too outrageous or boring?

There are some projects we did where the clients had different ideas of what we proposed. But then you have to develop equivocal ideas, to be able to see the same thing more than one way.  The Architect must be complice? How do you say that?

Ph: Complicit.

Like when you assist in a bank robbery, you're… 

Ph: Complicit, yes. It's funny you should compare this to bank robbery, and talk about the client being complicit as if they’re is getting away with something.

Architecture IS a crime. (laughter) No, of course this is a linguistic figure of speech. But a lot of times it’s so intriguing for everybody, it's near a crime. You have to clue-in together. I've never had a client who is complicit from the beginning. You can't oblige a client to do something, but an equivalent partner who has more or less at stake than you can go there. You cannot say “OK, we do a masterpiece of architecture, now!” That's complete rubbish. You always work on other things, then the architecture, and if by chance or random it comes out regarded as a piece of architecture that's very good.

Ph: If architecture is incidental what other things are you concerned with?

What concerns life! Architecture with a capital A is so difficult, so impossible.

Ph: That's appropriate for Paperhouses, too.

Yes! Paperhouses is quite familiar to me. I was quite interested in the concept. We're doing a model at the moment to better explain our concept but soon you will have an idea of what our Paperhouse is about. it's a very very modest thing but we said, Pascale, my wife said that's the first house we'd like to build for ourselves.

Ph: That’s really great! Is your wife also an architect?

No, my wife is a trained artist. We complement each other. For me it's one of the best ways to approach architecture, to do it with as many people, who are different specialists.

Ph: What other media or art forms inspires your design?

A lot of things. First, I walk a lot. That must sound crazy. “I walk a lot.” But really, what’s important is how you look at everything that surrounds you. Anything can inspire. Anything merits that you look upon it. I actually became interested in architecture only after marrying my wife in 2005. Before not really, but since working with her, I've found I've had to learn about architecture to explain it (laughing). This is funny because before her, I didn't know anything about architecture. I mean of course I have my degree so I know about it, but it didn't interest me.

Ph: When I see your portfolio and the idea of “archiectures possibles,” it's playful and refreshing, but what do you think about you personally makes your work more playful and open?

So hard to answer this question, because you're right, but in general, when I talk to architects about architecture, I don't know what to say. I can talk to them about everything but architecture. They have a precise idea of what it is, while I am looking for what it can be. They already know what it is. Of course, I have architect friends, but we don't talk about architecture. We don't avoid it but we have so many things to share that are as interesting as architecture. Actually to walk at random, and not know where you're going, that is our method, in the Greek sense of the term. Le chemin à travers. The way through something. That's all. In reality, ideas are truly random. 

We are architecture vagabonds.

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Previously: Interview with Derek Dellekamp