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Neil Denari

Av Leo Gullbring
Architecture isn’t what it once was. Permuted by media, at the crossroads with all kind of cultures, the distinction between interior and exterior is obsolete. The buildings of the future are crossbreeds of repetition and difference. Leo Gullbring has met with Neil Denari, one of the original transarchitects.

With kind permission by Neil Denari

’So where are you teaching, where is your school?’ Finally the phones are working again at SCI-Arc, but the exact geographical location seems to be a bit vague. Neil Denari gives me some driving directions from Downtown Los Angeles towards South Central. Since I’m down by the beach I’ve got some driving to do, but that’s OK, I like cruising in L.A. Blue sky. Open windows. The radio playing Dr Dre. Vanilla colored houses. Pistachio. Lemon. Raspberry. The same kind of billboards Aldos Huxley met in the ’30s is still up: Jesus is coming soon. Fine Liquors. Astrology. Numerology. Psychic Readings. Bastard bungalows born out of postcards: Spanish Colonial, Victorian, Mission Style, Schindler, the brother Green, Wright’s Romantic Modernism, Neutra’s Rational Modernism. And here and there some recent individualistic follies, a Frank Gehry, an Eric Owen Moss, a Thom Mayne, a Franklin D Israel. Today L.A. seems to foster unique and rare architectures of all kinds among the bland non-committal. But nothing signed Neil Denari. The buildings are not objects of focus though, they just happen to be somewhere in the sprawl, a glint in the corner of the eye. You stare at the space in between, the street, the freeway, the promise of movement, the perpetually reborn somewhere else which has replaced L.A.s former advertising icon, the orange orchards. And this whole stage-set brightly lit by the Dream Factory casts ever darker shadows. This is the Helltown and Eden, the Sunshine and Noir of a Raymond Chandler, a Joan Didion, a James Ellroy. A cityscape of weird fantasies, Los Angeles the self-fulfilled prophecy of all its dystopic and utopic mythology.

I better speed up a little bit, or I’ll get late. Sure, this must be the area. Tough trucks and worn-down buildings containing all these sweat-shops which has replaced the former blue-collar industry. And over there, I spot a giant white tent, a hazy floating apparition by the L.A. river. So this is the temporary home of SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture? I squeeze the car into an empty spot and exit its air-conditioned seclusion to be hit by the sun.

And that must be the director, that guy walking slowly towards a make-shift office while at the same time giving some advice to a student. Nicely dressed, not the standard black outfit, but nothing extravagant. ’Hello, you must be Leo, nice to meet you! Shall we go over to the café?’ Neil climbs up the former loading area of a nearby derelict ware-house. The walls are torn down, only pillars and floors are left. Luckily the roof is still intact, protecting us from the piercing sun. A couple of student measures the space of the narrow half-mile long structural skeleton. This is the future home of SCI-Arc, and it will certainly be quite extraordinary. And Neil is enthusiastic. ’I’m concerned with how building mutates into something else. You know, right now it’s either the web, the television, and fiction, or the kind very of primitive harsh reality of buildings, gravity and zoning codes. Many people sits out there in the world trying to make these things go together, but how?, there’s a gap there in between. We know there’s a whole field of technology involved in trying to fuse these things together, which is not simply: here’s the flow of architecture like it always was, and here’s the flow of image-based transportable system, the cinematic, the graphic, which one is gonna have more gravity? which one is gonna have more pull? You can’t think about the merger of these without expecting various conditions of technology, and there's a lot of speculation about flows, of movements or partitionings of space, talks about programs. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Gilles Deleuze, it’s that everything is about movement and pathways, and nothing is about fixity, we’re looking for the ultimately form of flexibility, the ultimate form of no fixity !, I mean, here we are at the year 2000 and we can look back at 40 years of explorations, of dynamics of movements and plug-ins, the building of the temporarily, of thinness, of no heaviness, and on and on. Architects like Kazuyo Sejima and Toyo Ito builds in this kind of spooky oceanic, well no, rather aquatic world, and this is as close as we’ve got so far.’

The café is quite SoHo-like, lofty, airy, cool and welcome as we leave the sun beating the black-top. Quite unlikely a place in this run down neighborhood, but they thrive on the University, kind of a symbiotic relationship I guess. The interior slightly minimalistic, but understated, a mere fashionable backdrop to the architecture going on outside. While waiting for the espresso and cheese-cake we’ve ordered, I look at the spotless tabletop and wonder where to start my questioning. It took me quite a while to convince the editor-in-chief that I should check out this mysterious L.A.-architect, whom together with Neil Spiller, Marcos Novak and Gregg Lynn has founded the so called transarchitectural movement. But I’ve heard quite interesting thing about Neil which was further triggered when I laid my hands on his beautiful book ’Gyroscopic Horizons’ where there’s plenty of references to both French and Italian philosophers and cinematographers of my taste. And that hazy tent out there seems to be in sync with the logic of his work, which is built on the idea that the ambivalent fields of repetitive and processed spaces and the traditional desire to produce difference is a productive cultural condition to be reckoned with. Or, more simply put, that architecture should argue its presence through the pathways of culture, thus simultaneously be both an extrapolator and a producer of culture. My editor finally agreed, but being a little cagey about these sort of people, he had me promise to ask Neil what kind of impact this new architecture can have on the everyday life of ordinary people, how can he improve the very quality of life? ’Oh, well, that book, it was kind of a summing up of a period and a start for a new, there’s a project in there, a house in Palm Springs that dealt with climatic issues and a change of aesthetics, I was focusing on the transformation of a roof envelope, which goes quite well with my interest in the commercial, and the phenomena of the image, and it addresses the inability of architecture to pull the attention, to control the articulation of space, and aspiring to something other than the attention of the sublime as expressed by Frank Gehry, rather to hold the attention and become useful, and even become more than useful...’ He trails off, but starts anew, ’The book showed a lot of faith in iconography, more than in mere function, and I’ve moved away from that. Now I think I’m back to a more normative way of thinking, more about how performance and ideas are rooted in culture, rather than more obscure things about how I can pull off an idea. I really think that we architects need to work with more contemporary pressures.’

I’ve experience that. These contemporary pressures. As late as yesterday. A sudden sprinkle of rain had me in through the doors for a bite at Chaya down in Venice. ’And how are you today?’ ’Sushi?’ I barely heard the guy rigged out in a spotless outfit with the name Sam across. He hoovered with a broad smile over the marble-desk. Music loud. The beat. Behind Sam a bunch of cooks busying themselves. Knives hacking. Neatly arranged vegetables. And the clients chatting about noisily. My eyes wanders around the faintly lit crowd, nobody seems to notice the homeless roving by outside of the smoke-colored windows, feels like being in a business district in some third world city. That guy over there, with his double-breasted suit, does he have a gun bulging in that pocket where he just took out a PalmPilot to check the latest changes in the stock-market? Probably at ease right now, but wary and scary going out to his car later on. My thoughts shatters when all of a sudden the girl to my left grabs my arm. ’Hey, I really like to eat head’, she blurts out with plenty of irony. Laughs with ad-white teeth. Cooks her broad face towards me, all white. Black hair. High cheekbones. Explaining her sudden outburst: ’Here, you wanna have some?’. The fried crayfish-heads are aligned with the sushi, looks great, although I’ve already eaten I must have a bite. And it’s good. ’You know, I really never liked Vietnamese men, they are so chauvinistic, and no good in bed’, ’I came here when the war was over, 1975, I was only ten, my father was an admiral in Saigon, but here he was nothing, he had to start from scratch, he died a few years later.’ ’I didn’t go to bed with any man before long, but then my father died and I had been with this man for two years, so I thought, what the hell, let’s find out what’s it all about, but it was no good!’ Whole lives spilling over me, the accidental voyeur. And the tittering girls to the right. Prada-bags. Katayone Adeli jeans. Susan Lazar sweaters causally left on the chair. Well-groomed, discussing which cellular to buy, which account to choose, stuck in a material world where welfare is private, where low taxes are OK as long as you don’t get ill or old, Adorno and Horkheimer’s prejudices coming true, everybody caught in the material, oblivious of the fact that the things you own ends up owning you. I can’t help but noticing the firm breasts under the silk top when one of them asks for a light, but they don’t really bounce. Pure silicon of course. Where do people get all their money? Movies, dot.com, digitech, biotech? ’Any dessert? Cognac?’ Sam is back with an honest smile, always glad to serve.

Neil brings my attention back to the present, and orders us a second espresso. ’Here in L.A., you have huge shortfall of the number of people who can afford housing of any kind, so I’m concerned with the long-standing issue of housing.We’ve got a particular culture which is strictly based on profit, where you’ve got only a tiny bit of money from the city and federal government going into the building of low-cost housing, How can we architects bring about spatial ideas, planning ideas, other type of economies?’ Neil looks out through the windows at that cloudlike tent. ’I would like to explore new types of housing, new forms of density, not like I would Manhattanize Los Angeles which, with the exception of some parts of Downtown nearby where you’ve got illegal immigrants living like ten in crampy little rooms, is a more dispersed reality. I think about the densifying of the city, how to incorporate the problems of the segregation of areas, housing there, commercial there, offices there. You know, L.A. is like Garnier’s all linear city project. Everything is sort of spread out, yet I would like to explore more oblique or diagonal relationships between workspace, living space, the merger between the commercial spaces, circulation systems, with the new, how the Internet will affect travel, shopping...’

And I couldn’t agree more. Los Angeles is as far away you can get from the historical city, it’s all decentralized. Seen from above, flying in here the other day, swooping in over all these houses meticulous placed on flecks of succinctly green, the more wealthy sporting a turquoise pool, it resembles the Internet: the bungalows the equivalent of sites, the cars and the television-sets the interconnecting devices. And leafing through this computer-generated drawings Neil presents, I stumble on that amazing ’Multisection Office Block’, a proposal reminiscent of Archigram’s megastructures, but with Eisenmanian folds, splits and splices. Three repetitive yet different eight storey buildings set along Pico Boulevard reflects the adjacent commercial and residential areas, while scale relates to the immense San Diego freeway flowing past above. Compare that shearing effect caused by facades and interior circulation spaces to structuralist film-making. The undulating structure itself has affinities with Rem Koolhaas, while these graphically loaded surfaces tells quite another story. And Neil agrees that most contemporary architecture seems to be stuck in another century, instead of coping with our own time. ’There are no definitive statements about the form of the city anymore, since the city itself is so inarticulate. We got to deal with processual models instead of fixed ones. The questions is how do you go about building the phenomena of the city into architecture.’

Rather than insisting on the technoscientific, Neil has ditched the machine metaphor, now he wants to bring about a new aesthetic, a merger between the truly sustainable and the ecological. ’I like to think about ways to break down that binary thinking where you either has the high-rises as distinct from the ground or a small dwelling which wants to become part of the ground. Up in the sky you’re sort of separated from nature and wildlife, and you’re immersed in a more harsh urban life because it’s all kind of fabricated. You know, think of small single-family case study-houses like the ones by Neutra, beautiful kind of inside-outside thing. Is there a way to make something more continuous in an urban matrix? Are there ways where public and private spaces can be woven together in a particular way, maybe with a certain treatments of envelopes and glasses or sound or engaging with other kind of industries to grow new types of plant materials?’ And adding the vertical to the horizontal sprawl of L.A. surely has an ecological quality to it. ’I think about a merger between a kind of the truly sustainable and you can say ecological, if you get rid of the boring idea that ecology means certain materials and solar architecture, instead admitting that space is a some form of ecology, in that sense almost every phenomena can be ecological or has some ecology to it, look at water, green space, building envelopes, void spaces, circulation, aspects of body comfort and so forth. If we really start focus on these issues in a way we never focused on it before I think we can get some healthy results. There’s a whole brand new aesthetics, and even a greater degree of performance involved in that.’

Neil keeps on to the subject, searching for a fitting analogy. And although his ideas fits in nicely here in L.A., he is originally from Texas, the Metroplex, the Dallas-Forth Worth. His father Edward was in the aviation business, occupied by the engineering of hybrid aircrafts and tilt wing planes. Quite fascinating for a young boy I guess, and no wonder that he mention the Stealth Fighter as an enigma of this powerful of sublime world he wants to bring about. ’If the Stealth had worked well that is, but it’s nevertheless a whole new transformative, I mean, it’s made of a different material, it becomes invisible, and the thing still flies and it still works. A whole paradigm shift is involved here. If we could apply the same kind of determinations to the levels of performance inarchitecture, like, it has to use less energy, it has to be cheaper to build, it has to be manufacturable. And although we have thought about this for a long time, I don’t think we have really achieved anything yet.’

’You mentioned this idea of distance between architecture and man,’ he addresse me, ’it’s reflected in the idea that architecture is always sheltering, which just means a superstructure which allows people to live and work. And the idea about an envelope keeping you away from the complexity of the interior is reflected in nature, in industrial designs and so on. You’ve got the mechanisms inside, with skins and envelope outside. I saw this separating of envelopes and interiors as a problem, and instead of taking the modernist view of making the inside the outside, the use of glass, of openness, I was trying to think of a way which how you can extend the potentiality of buildings. But so far it has only become concept diagrams.’ Neil spreads out some photos showing an experimental space he set up at the MA Gallery in Tokyo a few years ago. ’The idea is to do something more than a pure sheltering device, to get to the point where the vessel and the interior of the vessel can merge, where the envelope of a building can come sort of alive just a little bit more. This concept of ”merging” comes from the New Economy, and we use it on the freeways and so forth, and we can laminate things together, pulls spatial ideas and materials ideas together. So, my goal is to merge architecture and communication, architecture and furniture, and here you’ve got a whole series of microrelationships that do involve distances!’ And he points out the first Schindler house in L.A. as a given reference, and the Bata Shoe Store in Prague, a glass facade covered with logos all over, saying that this concept is nothing new. But nevertheless, time has never been so ripe to let the graphic surface become architecture, to let design, various media expand other layer of program. Neil’s obsession with the envelope both as outside and inside has certain Miesan qualities to it, and underlines architecture as a spatial medium. But this collapsing and merging is no secluded room where the ideas of the modern can thrive, instead it’s all about absorbing the broad and open possibilities of cultural conditions not yet coded with an architectural language.

I once met an old bag-lady down by the beach in Santa Monica. She sold scripts by brilliant or failed writer, you never knew which, who didn’t make it at the studios. And I imagine that in some grim future another forlorn grand-ma, down by Boyle Heights, will wander around selling drawings from architects who never built anything. I think of the Archigrams of the ’60s, a lot of inspiring hype which didn’t make it. Neil has a more promising future I guess, but I’m bound to ask ’Didn’t you do a project in New York, although it was only a door between two offices?’ ’No, not even that,’ he says with regret, ’it never got through.’ What a waste of talent I must say, L.A. could definitely use his idea to produce some difference in the still growing sprawl.

The sun is still burning when we exit the café. And L.A. as present as always, is still waiting for a Denari. And if not here, where the social and economical conditions should favour his proposals, why not in a Europe which craves for cultural explorations of this kind? ’I'm really interested in pragmatic experimentation in undefinable zones of use, of utility, and the goal is to show that architecture can be the most impressive encounter, rather than than eliminating the possibility of experience from architecture as something undefinable and therefore irrelevant. But that implies a new discourse, since building in a city starts with politics, the social and the economical forces, and architecture is down at the bottom of the list. I’m convinced it has less to do with waiting for commissions than with shaping these very forces. Do think about new forms of living, about new styles of life-forms, you gather that they are more transformed by economy that by buildings, and by the ever expanding product world. In a way I’m interested in how architecture can get more portable, more like cameras, walkmans and shoes, so it becomes indistinguishable in the commercial world. Clearly there’s an avenue there which is being explored, but without any answers yet.’

Suggested reading: Neil Denari ’Gyroscopic Horizon’, ’10x10’, both published by Thames & Hudson

UPP   Tillbaka

2001 Calimero, published in Frame, 2001