Miroslav Šik in Conversation with Muck Petzet
Muck Petzet: You use the term “oldnew” to establish a link between existing structures and new ones. You also take a very open-ended approach because you want to assimilate forms and things that are already in a particular place into the new architecture. Apparently it makes no difference to you whether you are building something new or renovating something.
Miroslav Šik: Building something new or renovating is basically the same thing. The place is what it is. Actually the term “alienation” is important to me in this context because you have to present what is old as oldnew. In other words, it can’t stay the way it was; it has to be transformed. The extent of the transformation may be debatable, of course, depending on the substance of what’s already there. But it has to change. I take the position of a reformer. It is incumbent on us to renew tradition, regardless of whether we’re working in small locations or metropolitan areas, whether we’re renovating or building something new.
MP: Is that a basically conservative or maybe even a conserving approach?
MŠ: If we want to renew tradition, then we certainly can’t make radical changes. The substance has to be preserved; that would be a form of conservation and we do do that. But we also replace. If the substance of something old is beyond repair, then we can resort to a replica or a reproduction. I use the word “substance” very broadly to include use and maintenance and also modes of living. That’s all part of the substance that we have to be aware of and take into account.
MP: But you also say that something new can be introduced into an ensemble as a whole. How does one decide whether something should be reproduced or something new should be introduced?
MŠ: I speak about authority in that connection. Sometimes what’s old is more dominant and what’s new more subordinate. In that case the alienation has to be very subtle. It might be a stylistic analogy much like, say, Hans Kollhoff’s neoclassicism. But that’s only one of the instruments that we work with. We did that once for a project in Egg, Switzerland: replica, pure style, analogy, those are my procedures. The more removed we are from the source of authority, the greater the potential alienation—though not in the sense of a stand-alone building or a strong contrast. Dialogue is important to me, architecture should not be a monologue.
MP: But couldn’t a stand-alone building work sometimes, too?
MŠ: Like a medieval cathedral? That is certainly a powerful and meaningful monologue. Maybe this could be related to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg— it has no scale either, though it’s not entirely without context. A stand-alone building is possible when the cultural wishes and dreams of society make such images legitimate. And then it is incumbent on architecture to respond to society’s desire for a stand- alone building. It used to be religion, today it’s art and sports. They don’t have to refer to architecture directly; they just refer to other stand-alone buildings. But these few exceptions do not legitimize the principal task of architecture. Unfortunately, our media-oriented society is geared toward producing global events, and that fosters the construction of spectacular buildings. Here a new philharmonic, there a magnificent museum of modern art. Sometimes I wonder whether that’s the right direction to take. Whether the mental or spiritual aspect that these things are meant to express already even exists there. Maybe I’m a little blind but I just have my doubts about whether humility, the collective, and empathy with tradition are factored into these buildings.
MP: In your older writings one senses a certain criticism of postwar modernism, especially of housing developments. I’ve had a lot to do with developments of that kind in my work and I think that there’s some value to them. In fact I would even relate them to a collective humility, like you just mentioned. Would you tread so carefully there as well, would that also fit in with your ideas on the significance of the ensemble or poetic alienation?
MŠ: You realize, of course, that I work in Switzerland. We have no Siemens developments here, no East German or Prague Plattenbau buildings—in any case, certainly not to the extent that you have. The few large-scale housing estates in Switzerland are exceptions and so beautifully integrated that I would be hard put to use them as a point of reference. But you’re asking me about something else, for which I don’t have a set of tools, as it were. Here in Switzerland, the interventions of modernism that I found so disturbing in my writings have always remained fragmentary. I was referring to a world that I had experienced myself, directly and in all of its rootlessness. In the meantime I agree that something worth preserving might underlie this modernism. Settlements of that kind can become home to people; I saw a few cases of that in the Czech Republic. In comparison to other parts of the city, these modern neighborhoods occasionally show a modest decency. A few small stores and schools have been added as well, generating a certain density. That lends life to these large-format images of modernism that I originally criticized. But I have never worked on designs of my own for situations of that kind.
MP: To me, Switzerland is a sanctuary of stability. It seems that ongoing maintenance of existing architecture is practically taken for granted. Not in the sense of conservation but rather an almost natural approach to what’s already there.
MŠ: I’ve noticed that in Sweden and Denmark too. Maybe that’s because there’s been no major destruction and no such radical upheaval in society as in Germany, the Czech Republic, or Russia. The more the past is liberated from the manifesto, the more it is quite simply a matter of good or bad substance, a utilitarian world that may have categories like beauty but is free of ideology. The older it is, the less encumbered it is. Maybe Germany is changing in that respect but I’m not familiar enough with the situation there to be able to evaluate it. But what I do notice is that here more and more people want this mixture. I call it Bobo—bohemian and bourgeois—a characteristic of our times. The new is mixed up with the old, an old apartment with two or three modern pieces of furniture, a bicycle, and a laptop. If you had the same thing in a completely glazed apartment, it wouldn’t be a mixture. But the oldnew that I work on has to be different. Architecture that unites and negotiates is a challenge.
MP: It’s a great art. There’s always less appreciation of things that are not clear-cut, that are ambivalent.
MŠ: I probably don’t show this appreciation either. Because, you see, I would have to make an ideology out of it again. And involvement with mediocrity, which is what I do, is difficult. The mediocrity I dream about, that ordinary things are ordinary, that’s the greatest challenge of all. Even Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were much too exaggerated, too blatant.
MP: I think there are a few striking, postwar examples of that kind of appreciation in Munich, like Josef Wiedemann’s buildings. Those architects were clearly aware of tradition but also assimilated modernism. Strange but exciting mixtures.
MŠ: That is what we call the South German school—we study it quite a lot. It has its own tradition, especially in Munich. Theodor Fischer already took that approach at the beginning of the twentieth century, linking big architectural projects with small, organically grown elements. He obviously modernized things, running water, better ventilation . . . But how do you present something like that in today’s hit parades? That doesn’t attract the least bit of attention anymore.
MP: Apparently it’s not easy to picture these things, which makes them especially hard to communicate. You can’t grasp them by just glancing at them once or twice.
MŠ: Carlo Scarpa or Karljosef Schattner preached the juxtaposition of old and new, the emphasis on difference.
MP: Interestingly, Scarpa and Schattner are considered equivalent but, in contrast to Schattner, Scarpa often manages to make the combination of old and new seem self-evident.
MŠ: The alienation that I’m talking about calls for a tremendous sensitivity, which is rare. In Prague there is the Atelier Krupka. They do beautiful things: they’ve built accommodation for two or three ministries in old palaces where you can’t even tell what is old and what is new. Incredibly subtle conversion work, although Krupka is already eighty years old and probably a child of postmodernism. But where does reception come into the picture and how can anybody else follow suit?
MP: We think about that a great deal—in this book as well. How can we change the prestige, or rather lack of it, that is associated with renovation? How can we spark more interest in this marvelaous task? Renovating is of such complexity and it’s so exciting and worthwhile. It is wonderful to rise to the challenge of finding out what ideas originally went into a particular building or a given context and then to figure out how to develop or complement those ideas. Everybody knows how important renovation is but it still plays second fiddle.
MŠ: I have no answer to that. It’s probably inevitable. You have to be satisfied with working creatively. Appreciation or recognition is different. A commitment to the discriminating modernization of existing architecture and gradual, evolving development will never be spectacular and popular. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. We can’t capitalize on the loss of a great utopia. We have to renovate so that no one notices it. Slow, inconspicuous, and functional to meet contemporary requirements. That would be my answer.