The aesthetic of conflict. Interview with Martin Rein-Cano

One of the foreign members of the jury for the Dolina Park competition, held by Project Baltia and Glavstroy-SPb, was the landscape architect Martin Rein-Cano, co-founder of Berlin firm TOPOTEK 1. Marina Nikiforova talked to Rein-Cano after the open lecture he gave at the New Stage of the Aleksandrinsky Theatre on February 15th, 2018.


The first question is one which is traditional for our website and is, I suppose, the most difficult: how did you decide to become an architect – in your case, a landscape architect?

I first came face to face with architecture when I was 5 years old: my mum had a friend who was an architect. He was a very good person and I wanted to be like him. It was then that I began drawing floor plans; my mother still has one of them, which includes, in the house which I invented, a room for her.

Then, after school, I studied art. At the time I was probably not bold enough to choose the artist’s path. Next to the place in Buenos Aires where I grew up was a large museum, so art was a part of my everyday life. Some time later, I got tired of academicism and put myself down for a course in the history of gardens; that was how I began studying landscape architecture. Incidentally, it’s now two years since we started designing buildings as well. We haven’t actually built anything yet, but we’re working on it.


What does the word ‘landscape’ mean to you?

Of course, I believe in drawing, but, I think that speaking is in itself action, speaking is in itself design, something that can change the world. Landscape, though, is the most narrative part of design. It exists between worlds – between the story and reality, between the real and the deceptive, between nature and culture…

Landscape also has a religious connotation. The first place in which man consciously existed was a garden. Paradise is not a building; it is a garden. Also important is that landscape has no roof; it is open to the universe, open to the sky, the clouds, the stars, and everything that is higher. When you’re in a landscape, you are not protected as you are when you’re inside a building.


In an interview with Barbara Steiner you ask yourself: “Who has created the landscape? For what purpose and when? Where is the line between what has been created by man and what has been created by God?” How do you answer this question?

Gardens are very closely bound up with culture. If we turn to history, we discover that when man stops cultivating something, he goes wild. When people cease to work on themselves, they turn into animals a week later.

It’s the same with the garden. The garden is a constant fight between culture and nature. We are constantly losing the fight, but we still keep fighting. There’s something existential in this: there’s no hope, but you keep hoping. Personally, I believe in culture; I think being cultured is right. You have to fight with our animal essence, our aggression, you have to turn it to good use.

Of course, there is the opposite point of view. This is that by cultivating nature, we destroy it – destroy people, and it’s better to leave people in the state of savages in the midst of the forest… But I believe in culture.

God or nature (depending on what you believe in) will always be stronger than our human capacities: nature will always win. If we take a broader view, we see that man too is part of nature. Like ants, we change – sometimes radically – the world around us. No one asks whether ants are natural. So here you have another, very complex, question: are our actions in their cultural or any other aspect part of nature’s plan?


In the same interview you say it is narrative that turns space into place. What do you mean by these terms? What are the relations between space and place?

Space is something virgin, it’s what has not yet been interpreted. But a single person only has to come and take a photograph of it for the space to become relevant and attractive. If there are no stories about a place, you won’t want to go there.

Narrative can change place: Berlin, which was once the Nazi capital, has become the capital of hipsters. In Rio de Janeiro the narrative is largely shaped by the ocean. For half a year people want to be almost naked; they swim, live together with the water: there the situation is completely different from, for instance, in the Swiss mountains. So physical and climatic aspects also direct the narrative.


You mentioned that Berlin has become the capital of hipsters. Who are these Berlin hipsters and what kind of landscape do they need?

The main reason why Berlin attracted large numbers of creative people in the past was the abundance of space which has no purpose or narrative. And then everything there has happened in the context of a very rich and well-developed country. I would say that Berlin was like a dysfunctional child in a functional family. Which is to say that on the one hand, it was an economically and politically stable city; on the other, it was a playground that resembled a third-world country which is remote from capitalist interests and lacks social infrastructure. This combination attracted creative people, and the space filled with them.

However, the party ended; along came the hipsters. Now they are exploiting and consuming the atmosphere created by the artists.


Do I understand correctly that for you the architect is someone who collects stories of a place and re-tells them in the language of architecture or landscape?

I’m a very eclectic person. My scepticism compels me to seek out the truth, so I try to observe all kinds of different ideas and try to believe in them. I believe in completely different things and follow different strategies. Telling stories is only one of these strategies. Sometimes you have to think up a story; at other times you have to exercise great care in maintaining the genius loci without destroying or overwhelming it.

There are many places which do not have a single identity. Many places change identity. New people come into play (immigrants, for instance); new narratives appear – globalist narratives, for instance. Society needs places which create identity.


Do all places have an identity?

Yes, more or less. As with people: there are strong and weak people, people who are more normal or more mad. In the final analysis, architecture is a mirror to history.

But there is also the opposite approach – one which is abstract and emotional. It’s as if you’re dancing and don’t always understand what you’re doing: you simply let your body go. Design can be like that too. Sometimes it’s better to dance than to think.


You said that your firm tries to make design ‘legible’. This word refers us to text, to language. What means of expression are available to the language of landscape architecture, and to what extent are they comprehensible to ‘consumers of space’?

Here you have to divide topologies and disciplines. Often landscape, especially in the context of modernism, Bauhaus, or single-block architecture, becomes a space for recreation without a particular purpose.

I think agricultural landscape is very legible. We see that a field has been made ready for sowing, we grow something in it, then we eat it.

The English word ‘garden’ derives etymologically from ‘guard’ (to protect).

When something of whatever kind begins, another immediately ends. Architecture begins: nature ends; the garden begins: the house ends… You are always aware of this boundary.

The modern landscape is more like a stream of consciousness. Here there are no obstacles: one thing flows into another – inside into outside, the garden into the highway, the highway into nature, nature into agriculture… My idea is to create a space which is legible and comprehensible and which will at the same time convey certain meanings: “Here you should stop, here you should look back…” That’s what I call ‘reading’.


Another question about reading, but now in the literal sense. It’s well known that your favourite writer is Borges, and your favourite book is The Book of Sand. Why?

The story of The Book of Sand appeals to me in that the book has no beginning and no end. That’s a property of gardens too. Architecture is something which has always been made, something finished. But when you create a landscape, you are in a constant flow. If there is no one to take care of what you’ve done, the landscape will not exist for long. Without cultivation a garden will perish. In this respect a house or building has much more autonomy and stability.

I love The Book of Sand for its resemblance to a drawing on a beach which is rubbed out by the sea. There are no traces which remain forever. Everything returns to its original state – that’s the cycle of life. Life has no meaning, but it continues. This is an idea which Borges conveys very well.

I’m also fond of Borges for his eclecticism, his ability not to get hung up on belief in some one thing, but to respect and accept utterly different ways of thinking.

Recently I read the phrase: “When you’re in love, you look at the world not through two eyes, but through four”. You now see from different perspectives. I think the same thing happens when you’re in love with ideas: the more ideas you fall in love with, the more spaces you can take in with your gaze, given that you begin seeing through other people’s eyes.

The Book of Sand is a good example of the infinity and hopelessness of human nature. Sometimes it’s better to cultivate hopelessness than to adhere to a single perspective.


Have any of your projects (or parts of projects) been inspired by Borges?

Partly, that’s true of Superkilen. There’s a phrase in Borges: “The original is unfaithful to the translation” (El original es infiel a la traducción). Of course, you could say that you have to try to be as close as possible to the original, but the original is just the beginning of a chain of associations which creates more and more new interpretations and translations. And it’s then that everything becomes very interesting: in the end you get a hybrid which consists of a little of the original, a little of the translation, and something else, a third and new thing.

In Superkilen we see objects from different cultures which are not simply close to one another, but translated and transformed. Yes, they are linked to the past from which they have come, but they are something new, they take on their own identity.

Borges’ family spoke Spanish and English, and from early childhood he had to do a lot of translating. When you learn a foreign language, you get to experience all the difficulties of translation at first hand. We are constantly swimming between different cultures, languages, strategies for thinking.

The idea of Superkilen was to unite different cultures, to help them understand one another. The project is now complete. Does it work?

 I’m not sure I can answer that question: we didn’t analyze the situation afterwards. I would say that Superkilen has been an influence not so much on the site itself as on global discussion. This project raised the theme of immigration as a subject for discussion in the Internet, in magazines… Clearly, political decisions can have a much stronger impact on the local situation. We are merely landscape architects; there are only certain things we can change. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do something if there is a chance of doing so. Sometimes small changes can lead to big ones.


Can architecture, including landscape architecture, influence politics?

I think so – but not directly. Take, for example, our Moscow project for Novy Arbat, which until our intervention was simply an empty street. We have created what is probably the largest bench in Russia – it’s 300 metres long. The idea was to get people to sit together, to strike up conversations with strangers… We wanted people to think: “If they could create a 300-metre-long bench, then perhaps we too can do something good for ourselves.”

You once compared Novy Arbat with Unter den Linden in Berlin. How do they resemble one other? And what are the differences between them?

Novy Arbat is an amazingly beautiful, typically Soviet street. It has a kind of imperial quality. It was probably at its most elegant in the context of the 1960s.

On the one hand, we see a very interesting rhythm of buildings, wonderful proportions… I was enchanted by this monumentality, this purity. On the other hand, the street had no space for people. We didn’t want to destroy that monumentality, so we created these huge benches. If this had been a charming little street, the benches would have had that character too.

Novy Arbat resembles Unter den Linden in its ‘imperial’ qualities.


Should architects work with spaces that are similar to one another in a similar way, or should the approaches they take be different?

The largest difference is that Unter den Linden is additionally a landscaped street. The four rows of streets planted there play the role of a ‘step’ between the large buildings and people, serving as a gentle transition from monumentality to humanism. The trees give seasonality, shade, scale. Novy Arbat, on the other hand, is almost empty. There you’re on your own with these enormous buildings.

In actual fact, we made Novy Arbat a little more like Under den Linden or the Champs Elysees. These enormous boulevards are grand, monumental, but they have comfortable zones for people – the zones which were so lacking on Novy Arbat. In Moscow we didn’t just build gigantic benches, we also planted large numbers of trees – about 300.


You spoke of your love for hybrids. What is it you find so attractive about them?

For me all things are hybrid by their very nature. I think the idea of purity has always been a dream which in the end has created monsters, including in architecture too. In the 20th century there was an attempt to de-hybridize, to create national states with a single language, a single religion. Fascism tried to erase all differences between countries. I think this is anti-cultural and anti-human, and in the final analysis it didn’t work. I can understand the idea of purity, but I think it unattainable – given that culture is always a collision of differences.


What is the strangest and most radical hybrid you have designed?

A very old project for a play area in Marzahn in Berlin. Next to a recently erected building there was a free space which was supposed to be turned into a car park. But we decided to join it with a playground. We joined together extremely different things and called it ‘the aesthetic of conflict’. There are good, healthy conflicts which make a situation elastic in relation to larger-scale conflicts. The combination we created made it possible for the children to keep their space. Sending people to different zones (children to the playground, cars to the car park, the elderly to a home for the elderly) strikes me as unhealthy.

Talking about the Gold Coast project in Australia, you expressed the fear that it would turn into a ‘bad hybrid’, a mishmash. How can this be avoided?

It’s like in cooking: the more ingredients, the more difficult it is to make. It’s a question not just of strategy, but also of abilities: a skllful cook can make a dish even out of 200 ingredients. But if you lack the ability, then it’s best to limit yourself. I think any strategy can become kitsch, an illusion of what it was, a copy without content, a bad copy, a bad translation. Translation is not about copying. In transferring something from one place to another there’s no process, no thinking. The final result is a superficial thing which is weak and uninteresting.

As for Gold Coast, let’s see when it’s finished. Things look different in different parts of the world. I’m also a victim of the culture in which I live, of the system of values which I’ve constructed. Australia is a place where there is not so much diversity of cultures; it has many beautiful beaches and few conflicts.


You say that cities should be constantly being rebuilt, otherwise they turn into museums. Is that so bad, though? What, then, about Venice, which people call ‘an open-air museum’? Or St Petersburg, which is known as ‘the Venice of the North’?

It’s too easy to say that cities like Venice should be museums. I love ‘historical places’ which continue to be used. They shouldn’t be buried. I love Italy for the fact that it has lots of places with a rich history which continue to be used. My favourite building is the cathedral in Syracuse in Sicily (Duomo di Siracusa). It’s built around a Doric temple whose columns can still be seen today. The Spaniards, who ruled Sicily for several hundred years, simply erected a Baroque façade here; they didn’t knock anything down. Two thousand years later, this temple continues to be a sacral place; weddings are celebrated here…

In German there is the word ‘Geschichte’, meaning history or story. ‘Schicht’ is a layer. So history is an accumulation of layers. I love it when Geschichte makes these layers visible; that way, history does not end. When I say ‘museum’, I mean mortification, something which has already passed away, which is interesting to look at, but of which you will never become a part.


The Russian philosopher Nikolay Fedorov said that museification, on the contrary, makes things deathless, eternal.

I think eternity is the harmony of cultures and not the moving of things beyond the limits of culture. Of course, in everyday life I understand the striving to preserve and protect elements of culture from capitalism or something else, but ideally it is culture that compels things to be part of our everyday lives. We live in the past, live in the present, live in the future. We shouldn’t put these times in bubbles. History is a fluid process, and we are parts of that process. We are not better than any generation before us and we shall never be better than any generation that comes after us. Our families have a history, and we are part of that. We don’t put our grandmothers and grandfathers in a museum? They are part of us, part of our identity. And we go further, transmit this to our children… With cities it’s the same thing.

Yes, certain elements of history should be protected in order not to be lost – that’s what museums are for. But when we’re talking about cities, there is nothing worse than the illusion of a city. Cities should be alive. They should have an economy, industry, tourism… Previously, Venice traded in spices; now it trades in its beauty, like a prostitute. But Venice is not a museum.


Is it possible today to create architecture which will live and remain relevant many centuries later?

All design, all architecture is a child of its time, a child which adapts to history, whatever that history is. It is impossible not to be a child of one’s own time. I try understand what this means, I don’t run away from it. I believe that things from the past which have left a trace in our thoughts will survive at the end of the day. What I create myself will be transformed many times over. To remain in eternity thanks to one’s works is a great dream, but it is only a dream.


Do you have projects which come close to realization of this dream?

There’s a sports project we did in Zurich. The execution was to a very high standard; the Swiss are extremely meticulous. It’s possible this project will outlive us by 500 years.

The Swiss have this characteristic: they do something and then let it be. Germany, for instance, is a country of teachers and policemen. We like it when things are done wrongly and we like correcting everything. That’s good from the economic point of view, but I think we should give things the chance to mature and develop.

You’ve worked in different parts of the world. Where has it been most interesting of all to work?

In India. But not due to the project we were doing; it wasn’t the best project. I was shocked by the collision I experienced with their culture. It was a kind of test of my tolerance. Of course, in every society there are things you admire and things that take you by surprise, but what I saw in India was the most difficult of all for me to understand.

Photos of the lecture by Martin Rein-Canot: Alisa Gil

 For the results of the Dolina Park competition, see:

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Opening Week of the 5th Architecture Biennale will take place from September 11th – 15th, 2019 in multiple venues in the heart of Tallinn. Dedicated to the theme “Beauty Matters: The Resurgence of Beauty”, the international architecture festival, organised by the Estonian Centre for Architecture and curated by Dr. Yael Reisner, celebrates the aesthetic experience in architecture, after almost 80 years of cultural bias.

The only foreigner to take part in the series of architecture talks entitled ‘Genius loci’ (organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project) was the Finnish theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa. Russian readers know Pallasmaa from his book ‘The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture’, which is now a bibliographical rarity. Here Marina Nikiforova talks to Finland’s principal architect-thinker.

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