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“I don’t like cities”. Interview with Marco Casagrande

St. Petersburg | 29.08.2017

On August 29th, as part of the ‘Space, Time, Architecture’ series, organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: Cultural Urbanization’ project, Finnish architect Marco Casagrande read a lecture entitled ‘Third-generation City’. On the following day he curated the 6th Diogenes’ Clausura. And while the participants of Clausura worked on their project, Project Baltia spoke to Marco about the benefits and harm caused by architecture in our time.

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Marina Nikiforova: Our traditional first question is: How did you become an architect?

Marco Casagrande: My godfather and my father’s cousin were architects. But it was my godfather who had the biggest influence on me: I worked in his office when I was a teenager.

There’s another reason too: I spent my whole time drawing – two to three hours each day (usually, I drew things from my own imagination). Also, I was always building things. In fact, my first memory is of building something. In the winter I made various snow caves; in the summer, I built all kinds of structures in the forest. Nobody taught me and no one forced me to do anything of this kind. What’s more, it never occurred to me that I was choosing something deliberately; it was simply that I needed to build – that was the feeling I had.

Then I finished school and the time came when I really had to choose … I should say that by this moment I had already worked as a journalist; however, I never thought that journalism could ever become the main thing in my life. I sensed that I needed to do something that involved drawing and building. In fact, I never even thought about anything apart from architecture. There wasn’t a moment of sudden awakening when I realized I wanted to become an architect; it was just that I continued to do what I had been doing all my life.

When you work as a journalist, you have to spend a lot of time talking to people. Has this affected your architecture?

Journalistic research, the search for information, the immersion in sources, working with different cultures, participation – yes, all this is undoubtedly to be found in my projects. I would call my approach to architectural design something like ‘architectural journalism’.

The architecture with which you had to do in your godfather’s firm was very different from what you are doing now. Did you like it?

That was in the ‘pre-computer’ age. Architects at that time drew by hand. So in my godfather’s firm I did architectural drawings: colour, line… It was a very meditative occupation which brought me pleasure.  And then, the people with whom I worked (and they were very bohemian types, truly people of art) taught me a lot – even the fact that architecture has a commercial side.

How did you find your own path – the path of a kind of ‘architectural anarchist’?

Chance. Everything is chance. I think people shouldn’t try to understand themselves; that limits them. Human nature is something much more than that, something that can’t be understood with the mind. Forget understanding or explaining yourself!

Is there not some particular  project that would mark the beginning of your path?

Perhaps my installation with the burning log huts. [The Land(e)scape project – Editor’s note.]

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What was more interesting: creating these huts or burning them down?

It’s impossible to separate these things; they are two parts of a single process. You know, when we began building them, we had no idea that we would be burning them down afterwards. This came into our heads later. But, yes, burning down one’s own architecture, destroying something you’ve created – that’s a very powerful experience.

You said in your lecture that if there is a creator who has influenced you, then it’s Tarkovsky. What was it in him that so gripped you?

I got to know the work of Tarkovsky through my teacher, Juhani Pallasmaa. When I saw Stalker – and that was the first film by Tarkovsky I saw – my life really changed. I had never till then thought it possible to attain such a level of mastery. And here I’m not talking just about film, I’m talking about Tarkovsky’s vision of architecture, about how he shows architecture. Stalker is a film about life, nothing more than that. Picnic on the Wayside, the book by the Strugatsky brothers on which the film is based, is a true masterpiece in itself, and its interpretation by Tarkovsky is something from another world.

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During the Tallinn Biennale of 2015 your project Paracity was presented in the building where Stalker was shot. Are there other points of intersection between your architecture and Tarkovsky’s films?

All this is about life. I should say that Tarkovsky is my main critic. It’s as if I can feel him when I’m working – whether it’s architecture or architectonic installations or landscape design…

How do you decide which jobs to take on? Is it the clients who find you or do you find them? Or do you simply see the need to do something and then do it?

It can happen in different ways. Usually, things begin to happen of their own accord. I have lots of ideas and thoughts maturing for a long time inside me – sometimes for years… And then I suddenly realize that the time has come: I must make these things real, whatever it costs me. In most cases I must first ‘create’ a client in order that he or she should commission precisely this work from me. Often this is like the story with the Trojan horse.

Could you illustrate this with a specific example?

That was the case with the Treasure Hill project. The government of Taipei commissioned some research on urbo-eco-restoration from me.   I spent the money allocated to this research on Treasure Hill – a settlement which they wanted to demolish. When the story with Treasure Hill became known to the public (The New York Times called it a ‘must see’ in Taiwan), the local authorities – the same authorities who had commissioned a completely different project from me and had been intending to demolish Treasure Hill – invited me to lunch. And it was then, in the presence of the media, that they announced that they had invited me over from Finland precisely for the sake of Treasure Hill. That is, they realized I was right. That was how the Treasure Hill project became legal.

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So neither you nor your clients know what the result is going to be until the last moment?

That’s right. It’s an ‘open form’. Sometimes I simply understand that I should work in some particular place, even if no one there has any money with which to hire an architect. In that case I nevertheless find a way to go there and start doing things. For instance, it’s possible to go there with a group of students at the university’s expense. This is what happened with Taipei: the people there would never have found the money to pay for my work, but I went there with 21 students and the process began to roll.

As well as practicing architecture, you are a teacher. What is the main idea that you want to convey to your students?

To be present: that’s the main thing in our work. Those who think that you can be an architect while sitting all the time in your office are very much mistaken. You have to be present there, on site. You have to interact with local nature, with people, with the team. There are many aspects, but they’re all in one way or another related to being present. And then, another thing, you have to ‘break yourself’.

It’s not easy, I imagine, to be a student of yours. 

My students always have a choice: to continue as my students or to follow their own path.

You have worked in various parts of the world, with different cultures. Is there a culture which has influenced you more than any other?

I don’t believe in cultures; I believe in people. Cultures are secondary. But the strongest influence of all on me has been Lapland. That’s where I grew up. It has to be said that the child-me is like a father to me. I always try to consult with my child-me; he was very close to nature.

In designing in different parts of the world you set out to be guided by local knowledge, traditions, and technologies in order to end up with something which will truly be to the liking of the people who live there. If we’re talking about Russia, what knowledge, traditions, and technologies would you choose here?

That’s not an easy question – given that I don’t know that much about Russia. I have only travelled in Russia twice – once when I went from Finland to Japan and the second time when going from Helsinki to China. However, what’s most important for me is that Russia has an enormous soul. I find it much easier to feel the local soul than the mind. And although your way of thinking is incomprehensible to me, I have a good sense of your soul. So I think it will be easy for me to work here.

Do you prefer working in natural surroundings or in the city?

I don’t like cities. I didn’t grow up in a city. I’m from a little village and I see myself as a kind of savage – an aboriginal, a barbarian – and I like it. But the paradox is that cities are where I have to work. Cities need ‘acupuncture’ much more than any other places on the planet. They are polluted, destroyed by globalism… All nature on the planet is unified by a shared consciousness with which cities have no link. This is humankind’s mistake. But I want to change this situation; I want to make cities part of nature, part of the single consciousness. And I think this is possible.

Do you think that Tikku, your latest project for micro-houses – intended for installation in car parks [this project was realized at Helsinki Design Week 2017 – Editor’s note] – will change the existing situation?

This project has potential. We’ll see what comes out of it.

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In participatory planning and design, something to which you often turn, there is one stumbling block: people can’t always formulate what exactly they need. In this case what should architects do?

A project is born from a certain need and perishes when freedom is missing. If there is no particular necessity, then it’s best to do nothing at all. But there are plenty of needs – and some of them are a matter of economics. It’s necessary to choose real needs; economics is speculation. Finance and political support have to be looked for independently; each time a small revolution is called for.

Can your Paracity project be executed in other countries, other cities – in St Petersburg, for instance?

Yes, of course! Paracity would be an excellent solution for St Petersburg’s grey belt.

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Which architects have you worked with? And who have you found it most productive and interesting to work with?

Of those who are alive today I would give a special mention to Nikos Salingaros; he’s a mathematician and he’s very wise. I’ve talked to him and  found him very helpful. In general, it’s not often I work with other architects and I don’t belong to any architectural community. I belong to the forest.

Many of your ideas and views remind me of the philosophy of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who wrote a manifesto of mouldiness (almost of ruination). He, for instance, spoke of the triunity of the Architect, the Mason, and the Dweller: this should be one and the same person. Do you agree with this idea?

I think my role in architecture is that of the shaman.

Like Vilen Kunnapu? [The Estonian artist and architect Vilen Kunnapu calls his approach to architectural design ‘constructive shamanism’ – Editor’s note.]

No. I’m a shaman of a completely different kind. I often work in places where I don’t understand the local language. I simply feel these people. It’s as if I’m swimming in their subconscious, and at a certain moment they begin to feel me in return. It’s at that moment that work should begin.

Do you have projects which you don’t like?

Yes, lots of them. I’m still trying to find a path by which I can bring the forest into the city… Take for example CLT buildings. People like them. And yet at the same time I understand that it’s possible to do something more than this. And even if this takes a great deal of time, I’m ready to try. I have to make mistakes.

Can architecture solve society’s problems? And do you have a project which is an example of this?

Of course. Architecture is a social art. As for my projects… The sauna which I designed [the floating sauna in the village of Hardangerfjord in Norway – Editor’s note] resolved a great many social conflicts. But in general, architects frequently do not resolve, but create problems. We are pollution.

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While we sit and talk, the participants in Clausura are working hard in the next room. What do you expect to see in their works?

I want to be surprised. Like I was surprised when I saw the drawings of Mikhail Filippov. (Marco Casagrande got to know the work of Mikhail Filippov during the lecture which Filippov, a Neoclassical architect, gave at the ‘City of the Future / The Future of Cities’ exhibition – Editor’s note]. They are very meditative. I think it’s necessary to think and draw simultaneously. A drawing is a kind of mantra.

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At a conference, taking place in Tallinn on April 21-22, architecture’s turn to nature and data will be explored from political and historical perspectives. Keynote speakers are Matthew Gandy and Douglas Spencer from the UK. The conference is organised by the
Faculty of Architecture, Estonian Academy of Arts, Estonia in cooperation with the Department of Geography, Cambridge University, UK. The event is open to the public.


29.08.2017

On August 29th, as part of the ‘Space, Time, Architecture’ series, organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: Cultural Urbanization’ project, Finnish architect Marco Casagrande read a lecture entitled ‘Third-generation City’. On the following day he curated the 6th Diogenes’ Clausura. And while the participants of Clausura worked on their project, Project Baltia spoke to Marco about the benefits and harm caused by architecture in our time.