Interviewed in Amsterdam, November 29th 2008
According to Aaron Betsky’s argument, the contemporary ‘architectural avant-garde’ is the upshot of the economic crisis of the seventies which made the practice impossible and thus ‘forced’ its protagonists to engage in radical experimentation. Michael Speaks (self-)ironically summed up the end of the twentieth century by saying that theory was interesting but that now there was work to be had. Judging from the current crisis, this is becoming highly uncertain.
We talked about all these issues with the latest in the line of directors of the Venice Biennale.
ORIS: Our first question is about your formative years; having been born in the US to Dutch parents, received basic education in the Netherlands, university education in the US and first professional engagement on the US West Coast, how did you actually enter into the field of architecture?
Betsky: I think that the first stimulus I remember to architecture was when I was in high school outside Utrecht and I had to do a paper on De Stijl. My teacher said: ‘I know this woman, Mrs. Schroeder, who lives in a De Stijl house,’ a three dimensional Mondrian. So she set up an appointment for me to go there and have tea with Mrs Schroeder. I bicycled over there – I must have been 14 or 15 years old. She showed me all around the house, which was incredible, and the most distinct memory I have was it being a spring day and she said: ‘Oh, it’s awfully warm in here, isn’t it?’ Then she walked up to the corner and opened up the window, and suddenly the whole corner was gone. The whole space just flowed all the way to the outside, and the outside came in. I still remember that incredible feeling in my chest, as if there was something here that just opened up. I was fascinated but didn’t do anything about it. So I went to school at Yale to study history. I was not in architecture there, but there was a great and incredibly charismatic teacher there, Vincent Scully, who could get four hundred people crying about architecture, and that inspired me. I eventually did my thesis partially with him and partially with Michael Montias – about Dutch 17th century space, so going back to my roots, or semi-roots because I was born in America. Then eventually I went to architectural school at Yale. When I graduated there were bad economic times and I could not get a job. So I went to teach in Cincinnati and taught there for two years. Every few months I would run into, one way or the other, Frank Gehry who had been one of my teachers at Yale and with whom I had become friends. He would say: ‘When are you going to stop this silliness and learn how to be a real architect?’ I would respond: ‘When will you give me a job?’ Then he would say he was poor and without work. But one day he said: ‘OK, when can you start?’ So I moved to Los Angeles and worked for Frank Gehry for a few years and then I went back to the East Coast because I got a grant to do research on my first book on James Gamble Rogers. I came back and worked for Hodgetts & Fung from 1985 to 1987. Then I thought I had enough work to start my own office. Of course, that went nowhere. So, you keep yourself alive writing and teaching. From writing and teaching I started organizing things. I became the head of the lecture programme and the exhibition programme, and the summer programme at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), which was then, I thought, the most incredible school in the world.