…no, no, but I was making architecture doing ceramics, jewels…

Interview with Ettore Sottsass

Matteo Pastore asks Ettore Sottsass about his life through travelling the world, Thursday February 3rd 2000, Milan.

First published on Art4d, Bangkok, 2000


In December we were invited in Thailand to take part in a workshop titled “City of Water”; we were one of many groups from all over the world. The aim of the workshop was to make projects along the river.In the first week at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok we developed the projects from the original idea to the construction with the help from the students of the faculty.After this we left Bangkok on the boats leading North along the Chao Phraya river; five days and four stops where, every evening, we built a kind of city made up of our installations.
“Moving Architecture, a special issue of art4d will be a sum-up of “City of Water” but enriched with different contributions.
Your experience seemed to us perfect for this particular issue…

E.S.: but did you do this for yourselves or for an audience?

It was thought for an audience, always different according to the situation. For example the first evening we arrived in Ayuthaya quite late and we were alone…

E.S.: you know, my experiences are naturally of a completely different kind. I mean, I travelled, I looked around and I tried to eat well, if possible. One day I was in the square in Bangkok and I was gazing at the market, which is one of the most beautiful things in the world – full of orchids, roses, fruits I didn’t even know the name of – and we hear ratatatatrr… and we see that all the people from the stalls slowly start to pack up their things and to go away… at a certain point I asked one of these guys “what is happening here?” and he says “there is a state coup”. So we ran to the hotel, where we were blocked in for two days because of the state coup, and then the Generals reached an agreement with the others.

What I want to say is that I have always had experiences from the outside towards me, I never took part, as you have done, physically to modify or understand the place better.

And the experience of Metaphors? That is to synthetically build in places…

E.S.: ..yes, yes, that one I did in Spain but not in such a far away and exotic place. Those days I would never even have thought of doing things like this.
It has passed to you…

They seem comparable experiences. You went to the desert and what did you think about doing? The airport for ants.

E.S.: yes of course, that’s why I asked what you did. I can never understand these operations, in general, in contemporary art without –how to say– a title, without a scope. Because my metaphors were called Metaphors, they had a title; I mean the one of the animals was to say that contemporary production produces for us a load of things which we don’t need – as the ants don’t need a motorway for the ants, or we don’t need a TV for moths. They always had some kind of ethical or political starting point, or whatever you want to call it.

In our case the starting point, with some kind of freedom, was for all the groups the theme of water and the river. The common ground was the confrontation with the landscape around us and the people we met along the way; investigating the sensibility of people, of very different situations – at some point we also experienced situations on the verge of folklore.

E.S.: I think it is very important that you experienced this situation especially for yourselves. For you, because you have experimented this nomadism; I mean, the truck that arrived in places at night, by day, dismantle in an unknown place – I think it’s an experience that gives existence a structure, to you especially.

I will tell you a story, on this river (Chao Phraya): one day they took us to have lunch in a restaurant on the river shore with one of those long boats with the long engine behind. It was awfully hot and heat for me is like a drug, it excites me. They brought us a kind of boiling hot samovar, boiling water with fish inside it, vapours, wine or alcohol. I don’t know what it was, but instead of bringing cold stuff with ice, like the Americans would have done, they brought steaming stuff. I was so happy to have eaten boiling hot stuff, with lots of spice; in a state of total ecstasy to the point that on the way back, on the boat down the river, I said to Barbara [Radice – one of his lifetime girlfriends] “I want to commit suicide right now!”. She says “why?” – “because I will never be as happy as this moment”.

I want to say that the contact with the surrounding world – with this novelty of strong heat, the exoticness of the tropical landscape, the unexpected food, the silences, the noises, the different smells and scents – made me feel, through a form of yoga, abandoning every conceptualism, for a moment in a state of total ecstasy, bliss. Nothing really mattered and everything mattered in the same moment. It was a non-conceptual event, a completely physical event, like yoga, through which you reach a state of total blessing.

All the experiences I’ve had in general in the Far East are experiences of this kind, that is experiences of ecstasy. Already the unexpected, unusual, environment, like Indian architecture or this picture of Ayuthaya – they are so unexpected and strong that all the idea we have of architecture, when you get there, it falls apart in many pieces and it leaves another one. You end up with an Architecture that has an origin of, how to say… of spiritual exaltation.
So when I read that you wanted to do this journey I really thought that, more than a conceptual experience, you wanted to have a kind of more physical experience; because these places are physically different from ours: the scents, the food, the heats, the waters.

This experience of ecstasy you were talking about before, reminds us of the experience of the Sublime as referred to by some German romantics – of being assailed by something totally incommensurable. Here, as in where we live now, is something of this kind conceivable? Something that has an exotic taste?

E.S.: this is a nice question. I am too old to answer it. I think that young people that go to the disco to sweat a lot, to experiment sound as a physical experience, to consume their existence into nothing – I mean in this big mess – I think, I hope that this will lead them to a similar form. In fact they go there, they go because of fear, fear of what is outside; just as there is an excitement, for some young people, to ride a motorbike at 250 Km per hour.

The ecstasy experiences we are talking about are, in reality, the search for something that anyway we already know – a form of communication that I usually can’t afford – while before you were talking about an absolutely unexpected and displacing discovery.

E.S.: no, it’s not a discovery, the discovery is the means to find… one takes ecstasy, the other smokes marijuana, the other drinks, another one fucks, the other one jumps from the eighth floor.
It’s clear that everyone is afraid and we try to forget this fear in some way. We fear existence, the body; we cant give a reason to existence and this, in some way, is something that automatically installs fear. Obviously young people are less afraid, because they are stronger, more courageous and they see less…

But, after all, everyone is different from the other. Even when I was young and madly in love of a girl in Torino, we used to walk up the hill and sit down to look at the sunset, it was already like a terrifying perception of the day passing by, of the fact that I would live with her one day less. A feeling of disaster more than a feeling of construction, and it is there, it has always been there since when they started to mark signs on cave walls.

So I got the habit to think about things, about drawing, also about work in these terms. I mean, how can we brighten up this fear through the presence of an object or through travels; how can I brighten up seeing that there are other people that do other things, how can I get used to this cosmic multiplicity instead of having fear of it.

Which is, in reality, what you have done. After all, I think that the primary – primitive – spur for this journey you took is to see, to get out of the province let’s say, the personal province. That’s why I asked you if there were any people and if there was a communication with them, not as spectators, but in the sense of somebody else with whom you may chat, that laugh or cry, that want to send you away, or that greet you… or something else.

In some cases we had some unexpected reactions, tricky things in connection to their religion and also to the Thai perception, which is different from ours, from our culture. For example: the Bull installation should have been burned at the end of the trip, on the last stop along the river, but there was some misunderstanding – their first excuse was for safety reasons and only later, talking about it, we understood that fire has a religious significance; in fact Thais burn their dead, therefore to burn the Bull would have been a kind of sacrilege…

E.S.: ah, this becomes more interesting. It would give a reason to your work.

Going back to our theme, which is “moving architecture”, in your life you have had different experiences: you faced architecture as a definition, i.e. the built one, quite late – a part a brief period with your father at the beginning. This must have happened for coincidences but also because you did other things: Metaphors, jewels, ceramics, travels…

E.S.: …no, no, but I was making architecture doing ceramics, jewels…

Moving Architecture probably means this also, to make ceramics and jewels, the Pianeta Fresco magazine. Especially in the 70’s you did metaphors, The Planet as a Festival, the “Italy, The New Domestic Landscape” exhibition, that is almost the definition of moving architecture itself, on wheels. In those years you said: “…to demolish solid states to reach a more fluid phase of existence…”.

These are introductory themes, because those experiences are also partly based on different assumptions: it is as if we took out of the hotchpotch the core of movement. So, what happens to architecture – that is for our tradition the expression of fixity, of perfection – what happens when you put it in motion, when you start moving it?

The object that I design now is a project that fortifies my sense of domesticness, that is related to a precise space, or is a more personal object, that I can take around with me and hence reinforces my need to be mobile? And if I take it around with me, do I still need it or do I realise I don’t need it any more?

E.S.: well, you still need your camera… it is yours, personal, you take it around with you, it’s the object you desire.

So we thought that you had in some way faced these issues…

E.S.: yes, but in a slightly different way, as an aspiration more than anything else; you did this and it’s good for you. For example, if I design a house for someone now – and as you know I design only private houses – I don’t design architecture for institutions, which makes a big difference because an institution is static in itself, while a private individual divorces, he gets married, has children… in a word he is more mobile.

In private houses, because you can’t move architecture it in itself but you can move it inside, you can start to make different rooms, with a big window, with a little window, a dark one and a bright one, one looking one direction, the other looking the other way…

Therefore you imagine architecture as a given chance for sentimental or psychic movement, or in any case the movement of the resident, you seek an internal movement. The family modifies in time, men and women change or the day changes. One day you may feel like crying and you go to a small dark room, one day you are happy and you want to go out. Physical nomadism, so to say, to go around with an object – the first thing that came to my mind is a camera, because it’s the only object i carry with me a part from my suitcase.

Ancient Indians didn’t have furniture because they eat with their hands, they sat on the ground, their clothes were a single sheet that could be folded into a small packet, they went around bare-footed or with sandals, but they had an object which was a bowl. The only necessary object was, in this case, a bowl, for water, for soup, for salad. This they actually took it around, and you see pictures of these guys going around with a stick, some kind of fabric on their shoulders and a bowl behind… this is a very meaningful thing.

It’s strange that it is the nomad populations that really tend to keep a few fixed and tested objects, while the sedentary populations paradoxically are those that have to undergo the deepest transformations, that are assailed by consumption…

E.S.: they are conditioned, plagiarised. In nomadism there are recurring, archaic states that are, for example: to eat, to cover oneself from cold, to undress from heat. After all, probably, if one would seek he would find such recurring states, that can be reduced to the minimum.

The nomads of Central Asia, for example, carried around their carpet, that was for me the definition of a human ground as opposed the surrounding disaster of glaciers, mountains, of extreme heights. The tent and the carpet, and then the other objects are really minimal.
I don’t know how a contemporary nomadism can be…

And from the point of view of who deals with objects?

E.S.: I don’t know how it may be, I have a strong inclination to reduce the quantity of objects as more as possible. To reduce possession, the concept of possession; because a nomad is really a nomad because he doesn’t own land, isn’t it? He doesn’t own land which is the primal form of possession, he doesn’t own a house and doesn’t possess land.

But in a certain sense technology could be used to lighten the weight?

E.S.: we suppose it’s like that, but unfortunately I don’t think it really is so.

They say that now books will come to an end because of Internet, but I don’t know what is more comfortable or interesting: to read a book when you can or to stay there with your eyes in front of a screen. Something that is useful is useful on one side, but it is a bother under other aspects; cell-phones are useful but they are a bother because they accelerate the time of decisions.

They oblige you to take decisions too quickly, I think. I personally am not ready for this kind of speed, it may be that the young generations will, or better they already live in this state of permanent acceleration. That’s why I said before that I can’t answer, I can’t say anything.

For what concerns the temporal dimension, also in architecture there is surely a difference between East and West; we think of architecture as forever, while they don’t. In India, in Japan or also in Thailand, the temples are continuously transformed, there is also a movement in that sense.

E.S.: but in temples there is another element that plays an important role which is the religious aspect, I mean, the idea of eternity, of what is after death. These temples are made of solid stone even if thanks to god they slowly start to fall apart. But they paint them: once I saw a beautiful thing in India; a temple, an entire temple with a courtyard and columns – it seems that one day the mayor of the city had decided that it was to be newly decorated, so he put about twenty tanks full of colours, red, yellow… and he said to his people “come inside and paint what you want with the colour you want” – and the temple was beautiful!

The result was fantastic, but my opinion doesn’t count because I like coloured things.

We wanted to know two things. One is: what do you think the relation is between architecture and the senses, and when designing is there now still space for the senses, to feel a passion for this? The second thing is: when we did the “City of Water” project we had to deal with water every day, so what relation can architecture have with water, and in your design experiences have you ever had to deal with water, what importance did you give it?

E.S.: well, I have always thought and written that the world is read through senses first and then with intellect, so I think that the stories one can tell have always a, so to say, a sensorial starting point. I often say, just to explain, that a table-top for many people, for engineers, is a geometrical surface; for me it is wood, or glass, or marble but not only.

Take this table [the table in his studio], it’s thick because it has to be less surface and more volume. Just now I told you my story of the river which is completely sensorial from beginning to end: scents, heat, tastes.

I am very sceptical about the definition of architecture as a mental structure, so I am very sceptical about the operations by engineers, about Mr. Foster’s skyscrapers which I don’t consider architecture. I consider these things as interesting structures, but not architecture, because I believe that architecture begins with a door, that is when you go from outside to inside, or when you are inside you see outside, actually other sensorial operations.

I haven’t had much to do with water, to be honest, apart from the fact that I’m always very excited by the presence of water, be it a river, the sea or just a stream. Every time I can next to a house I put a little pond, because the pond reflects the sky and the seasons and so on. After all, this is also a tale of the senses. I think that the presence of water, also for you, must have been a sensorial adventure… to see the world slowly passing by.

I have always said that, for me, all the journeys I took were a kind of encyclopaedic collection of sensorial emotions, that I can then use as a vocabulary with words to tell stories. Experiences of the senses are like many words: today I could make a small ceramic bowl circled by a chromed thing, here is a small sensorial tale, about perception, about things. And this can be done designing architectures. The floors are one thing, the walls are another, narrow corridors are one thing, wide corridors another… all is an event, a sensorial story – architecture.

Moreover you must also bare in mind, I always think about it, that sensoriality immediately becomes culture. I mean, in reality a ‘pure’ sensoriality does not exist but sensoriality is filtered by history, in the sense that you are a contemporary being, your sensoriality is filtered by contemporarity. Before I said chromed, for example, that is an object of contemporary sensoriality – the ancients didn’t have it.

And it’s the same for tastes, the same for leaves, the same for everything. So any sensorial event carries with it a definition, a sense, a meaning. If you have a red jumper, that red can stimulate different ideas – it’s not only red, it can be an Hybiscus, or you can think of the Communist flag, or the blood I saw when I hurt myself, fire or… eroticism – there is not only one perception of that particular red. But perception begins from the fact that I recognise that colour as red, even before you know what you think, what you do or what you are.

I think that architecture… But these [a temple in Ayuthaya] are not architecture, these are monuments, they are other kinds of stories, they are comic-strips, they have lots of history on top of them. Structure doesn’t concern them at all, but they are very concerned with the internal sensory itinerary, so you go from wide rooms with lots of daylight through progressively narrow spaces, until you reach the end an you get to a dark cell – that is where you find the secret, the final one.

So you understand that sensoriality is not pure, it passes through these meanings, these emotions, let’s say. It is complicated, I am not a philosopher.

In your journeys you have had personal, sensorial experiences, but in more recent times you have built something in these exotic places. We wanted to know about your own working experience with people of such different culture.

E.S.: we had the strongest one in China, in Communist China, where we built a Golf Club; because workers arrive on the site with their families, and they don’t have homes because they come from far away, and this place was in the middle of the hills. So the workers there live on the site while it grows, with curtains suspended on strings to divide spaces.

There I had a feeling of great serenity, I felt more as a companion of this event than they did of mine, of architecture I mean. But then it happens that one day they get bored and they go away, and you – the architect – say: “bloody hell, now I am here and I don’t know how to go on”. It’s a very sophisticated relation, socially sophisticated, let’s say.

Because we have this idea that in architecture you can make programs and then you build well – but there you can make a program only up to a certain point. I had found some green bricks they use over there in traditional farmhouses and I said “alright, let’s build a huge wall with these beautiful bricks”, and almost ruined the guy that made them, because he was used to making 10 bricks a day and all of a sudden he had to make 500. Also this was an operation, a social wound let’s say, a social aggression.

So to produce architecture in those conditions meant doing something that is certainly not doing architecture. Because we produce architecture mostly abroad we have the problem of the so called ‘site architect’, someone from there, who knows the legal problems about construction, permits, contractors and so forth.

But the site architect that comes to work for you is always a second-rate architect because, if he were a great architect he would be doing business on his own – so there are always problems also there, psychological, cultural relations, small psycho-dramas. This is part of the business and some time it also influences architecture itself, it modifies the project. That’s why we slowly become older, and that’s why it is good for you to travel.


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