Oliver Elser + Axel Simon: But projects such as the thermal baths didn't just simply emerge from their context either. First, you need to break your own rules.
Joseph Smolenicky: It's a kind of mental exercise you do with yourself (mentally takes a deep breath): 'Do not have your own personal conceptions of the world!' Don't think: 'This is allowed, this is not allowed; that's kitsch, this is modern.' I try to discard such categorizations. The surprising thing is that there are two parallel worlds. There's the world of academic architects, and then we don't talk about the other one, the architects who produce the great mass of designs, the shambles that is the real world. In the case of academic architects, each generation produces its own myths: digital architecture, minimalism and so on; a new myth every few years. A discrepancy exists between the world we live in and architectural myths. I am more interested in the great, wide world than the academic one. In the end, myths are just theories, that's all. We need to think more strategically! Not say 'this must be digital; that must be modern; this must not be historicized'. Instead we should ask ourselves when does this or that motif make sense? When does it fit into our concept? In doing this, I apparently promote a conceptualization of forbidden territories. However, I believe that it is the most un-dogmatic use possible of a wide range of different architectural resources.
It's not a question of provocation and deliberately entering forbidden territories. The medium of architecture is familiar with Antiquity, with the Baroque, the Renaissance, the Modern and so on. These are the resources that are available for us to use in architectural work. And it is in the European city that the coexistence of these architectures is a reality. Here, cities are inhabited in a very matter-of-course way. This sense of inhabiting a city is the reality test for everything that architecture stands for, what a city stands for. With this coexistence, the world is much more radical than you think! Outside, tens of thousands of worlds meet and interact; each world has its own quality. It would be a tragic loss if such qualities were not used in one's own creations.
OE+AS: How do you select qualities from tens of thousands of worlds?
JS: An example: Why is Zurich's historical centre still regarded as the centre of the city? Modernity has had many years to build its own cities and create its own potential. But people say, 'That's where I want to go. That's where it's pleasant and inviting.' We still remain in old cities. People don't think about how old they are. They don't care about the intellectual, architectural, historical aspect; they simply perceive the qualities. That is the key.
OE+AS: Would you be interested in working on less exclusive projects?
JS: Very much so! The problem is that you receive new projects as a result of work you have been commissioned to do in the past. I have not been asked to design any schools as yet. Until now, all my projects have focused on beauty. I would really love to work on a dramatized project – based on the crime genre, mind you, not a love story. Something brutish. There are basically two approaches with respect to the world. The first: 'This may be an ugly street, but I'll place a beautiful building on it.' I call it Architectes Sans Frontières, the architect as doctor. The second approach: There are places which thrive on the fact that they are dangerous, ugly, brutish, but I rarely have the chance to get through the door of such places. In my case, people always think, 'Smolenicky, he specializes in exclusive work.' Not true!
Other architects always ask me, 'How do you manage to get projects like yours accepted?' Yet I never have any problems with my clients. I am constantly amazed by their openness. The majority of my buildings wouldn't have gotten past a panel of architects. When I explain the logic, the interrelationships and images, clients usually understand very well what I mean.
OE+AS: Some of your earlier comrades-in-arms now produce neo-modern architecture. All the former 'analogs' have turned their back on this design method.
JS: I am amazed. It has always been relevant for me. You can also see the influence of Analog in Venturi, not in his buildings, but in his theoretical impulses. This is very relevant – a wild attempt to achieve expressiveness from coincidences. Learning from Las Vegas! The photos by Bernd and Hilla Becher are also important. They don't feature academically legitimized architecture, but even so you think, 'Wow!' Today's photographers, such as Gursky, Ruff or Demand, have a precise view of the world as it is. The images often show an ugly side of things, but they are fascinating.
OE+AS: Many architects would probably agree that they're fascinating, but they would never transpose such an image literally into their work.
JS: That's where the adventure lies for me. When I experience fascination, I don't care whether it has a basis in academic discourse. The fascination itself suffices.
In my student days, Analog Architecture was like discovering a new planet! For me, it was less of an antithesis to modernity, it was more of a large opening and a conceptualization of the world of architectural ideas. For me, this is the definition of contemporariness. I wouldn't refer to my current architecture as 'analog', but as highly conceptual. Being modern means being versatile.
OE+AS: On the subject of Miami, why a museum in the shape of an immense flag? We had rather expected something associated with the Art Deco palaces lining the shore.
JS: The design is disassociated from the buildings in the city on account of the project definition. It is only able to work as a distinctive landmark on the water if it is conceived as a kind of lighthouse, not as a house. It cannot compete with the impact of the buildings along the beachfront. It would be far too small. I am not against 'architecture as an object' per se. When it makes sense, as it does here, it is a strategic option.
OE+AS: Let's come back to Bad Ragaz. If we take every detail of Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals spa and turn them into the complete opposite, we get the Tamina Therme spa. Did you build a sort of 'anti-Zumthor' spa?
JS: I don't see it that way. Vals is an excellent project. I see my project as less of an antithesis, rather as a kind of contribution to a multifaceted culture, a proposal of a different quality to the one offered by Vals. It is wonderful and interesting when somebody is different! You learn how that person thinks. To regard the Tamina Therme as the antithesis to Vals would be the wrong approach in working towards a differentiated world. The diversity which exists in the world should not be levelled out. I find it interesting that Zumthor exists, that Botta exists and so on, since I believe such diverse contributions allow me to have different experiences of the world. I want a world that abounds in diversity!