The Architect as Collector

written by Alejandro Crispiani
architect Smiljan Radić
projects VIK winery, Paired Houses, Red Stone House


In the essay Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian Walter Benjamin begins with a seemingly naïve sentence: There are many kinds of collectors and each of them is moved by a multitude of impulses. Behind this statement lies Benjamin's deep interest regarding both collections and collectors. He himself was a collector and he understood this activity as a way of understanding and dealing with the modern world. In this sense, a collector's collection would be the mere symptom or the most evident expression of a stance regarding the problems and manifestations of the reality in which one must live and grow. As to Eduard Fuchs, he analyzes a specific, but nevertheless frequent case: that of a person who gathers certain kinds of objects from the past which are not necessarily valuable in themselves but which still make up a historical collection (specifically, in Fuchs's case, satirical and erotic prints and engravings). In Fuchs' collection, Benjamin not only sees the group of objects, but a specific way of relating to the past and, in the end, creating history, in contrast with traditional history and, especially, history with Hegelian cultural roots and its aspiration towards providing a fully comprehensive and seemingly reasonable account of what has come to pass. A collection, on the contrary, is always fragmentary; it evokes a totality that is impossible to grasp (a collection is never complete), while it also maintains the uniqueness of each item, which remains irrepressible and is valuable in itself. A collection reveals the inherent discontinuity of historic phenomena, its gaps and how impossible it is to reason linearly in historical terms. Since it is made of specific, material objects from another period, one that in a sense they contain, a collection brings us the past in a direct form. On the other hand, the account of the historian is made of abstractions, that is, words. Time in historical accounts only appears figuratively and in a frozen state: Historicism presents the eternal image of the past. However, as occurs with all collections including Fuchs's, a materialist conception of history offers a given experience with the past, an experience that stands unique.


An infinite search with no guaranteed usefulness, an attraction towards the materiality of things regardless of their worth, the value of experiencing objects in their discontinuity, the possibility of refusing to give an explanation: in an open interpretation of Benjamin's text, these are all traits that collectors seem to share.


Smiljan Radic is both a collector and an architect. As it has already been pointed out when referring to his work, he owns a collection of a variety of documents concerning modern art and architecture, such as architecture photographs, engravings, drawings and other materials that have interested him. He himself has underlined the importance that this activity as a collector has had for his work, for example, when he tells the story—typical of the obsessions that drive collectors— of how, after many years, he was able to acquire a copy of a picture taken of one of the heroes of Modern Art, a portrait of Nieuwenhuys Constant taken by Nico Koster in 1969. It is obvious that his private collection, which has only been partially displayed, influences his work, but his interest in collecting goes well beyond this and it has a broader dimension.


To begin with, he has shown interest in all kinds of collections, not only art. For example, along with the Chilean designer Gonzalo Puga, he has been the author and publisher of the book La casa de los bichos (The House of Bugs) that aims at divulging one of the most disturbing examples of Chilean modern architecture. It is about a house designed and built by architect Miguel Eyquem in 1982 for the entomologist Luis Peña, who kept an impressive collection of embalmed insects in boxes. This collection ended up invading practically every corner of the house and it became its true inhabitant. As the many photographs of the interior spaces that make up the book show, it is clear that the interest of the authors is to reveal the process by which people and everyday objects were pushed aside to make way for the boxes of embalmed insects, turning the entire space into a kind of house/museum/mausoleum.


The collector's gaze also appears in another series of buildings that have interested the architect. They are what Radic has called fragile buildings: small, precarious spaces that are raised with what is at hand on the edge of roads throughout Chile to accommodate different uses. His is not a mere collection of multiple examples of these constructions. The way in which he presents each one of them depicts a collection of a variety of things that have in common their scant value and the fact that they were discarded, but that, once put together, create an inhabitable space. As in all collections, each of the objects that make up these constructions clearly manifests its origin, but it becomes integrated into the whole due to its unyielding uniqueness. These fragile constructions are always shown as a pile of objects that does not reach the status of a single element. In fact, in some cases, these objects are architectural elements that have been salvaged from demolitions or abandoned buildings. In these cases, the image of the building as a unit does not emerge and overwhelm the individual elements. The building as text does not rise above the collection of things, even though they may be recognizable parts of architecture. In a series of texts and articles regarding his thoughts and architecture, Radic presents another side to the collector's gaze using as an example certain city dwellers who, in Chile and throughout the world, move about in search of all sorts of objects that might be useful to them, transporting them in small vehicles such as carts and wheelbarrows which, in most cases, they push around themselves. These people, known as little angels in Chile, carry around a kind of mobile collection that is displayed throughout their cities of origin. These collections are always on the move and their changing geographies follow what is often the random course of these little angels.


The notion of collection clearly underlies one of Smiljan Radic's projects. It can be seen in the construction of a series of homes and quarters for him and his family on a small lot in Vilches, a forested area in southern Chile near the Andes, a project that has been underway for over 18 years. On a small, eight-hectare plot, he has built some of the most representative and important works of his career. The Casa para el Poema del Ángulo Recto (House for the Poem of the Right Angle) chosen by MoMA as one the most important examples of Latin American architecture, the Casa Transparente (Transparent House), the Casa de Fonola (Fonola House), his wife's outdoor workshop and a collection of large-sized stones and sculptures. The Casa A (A House), one of the projects that first gave Radic international recognition, but which was demolished after the 2010 earthquake, was also located on that site, as well as the Casa Chica (Small House), another example from the beginning of his career that is considered a key work in the early, 21st-century Chilean architecture. All of these designs were self-commissions and they make up a kind of collection that is unusual to find in private hands: a collection of architectural works. Moreover, in this case, the collection takes on an autobiographical character: each work speaks of a certain period of Radic's architecture. The Eight Hectares are, therefore, a kind of museum in progress of his production. A private museum in which the preservation of the pieces that are part of it is not what is important, but where experimentation is. In this sense, these pieces are open works in which the architect can still intervene. In fact, the entire ensemble is probably open to new works, while some of its components are prone to change or even disappear. A collection that belongs to oneself and that is autobiographic enables this freedom.


It is difficult not to relate the experience of the Eight Hectares with another collection of architectural works that is particularly important for Chile and Latin America, the Ciudad Abierta, founded in 1972 by the Architecture School of the Catholic University of Valparaíso in the town of Ritoque, on the Pacific coast. It is also a group of buildings carried out for and by the professors and students of the school over the course of 40 years, which materializes the institution's way of understanding architecture. Even though Radic himself has denied any sort of link with the specific philosophy of that school, it is obvious that, in both cases, the idea is to build a space for free architectural practice, not in terms of design, but in the form of specific works, in a return to the discipline's artisanal dimension, all in a geographical setting that is far from the city and uncontaminated by it. Evidently, there is a major difference in the sense and intention of both of these collections. In the case of the Ciudad Abierta, it is a collective endeavor in which the school positions itself with respect to contemporaneity, not by means of texts, but through the materiality of built works. In the case of the Eight Hectares, what guides the undertaking is personal will. It has a clear, private nature and an intimate world is displayed. It is a private collection in two senses: because it belongs to a single person and because that same person is the author of the pieces that make it up.


However, unlike the works of Ciudad Abierta, the houses at the Eight Hectares are inscribed within a larger collection that has no geographical boundaries, showing Smiljan Radic's production as a whole. It is a collection of works that echo one another, sharing certain themes and formal obsessions that manifest themselves with different intensities in each one of the works. There a many motifs in his works. One is that each specific project can be understood as a collection.


The work of architecture as a collection


From a predominantly materialist point of you, all buildings and all architectural works are, in the end, a collection of construction parts. These are relatively well defined as well as resolutely stable, and they make up a whole that is not all that numerous. Among these elements, for example, are the walls, doors, windows, floors, stairs, roofs, columns, beams and even facades. They are what Julien Guadet and classical architectural theory call the elements of architecture, the multiple shapes and combinations of which produce the elements of composition. In short, they form the different parts and spaces that normally make up a building, such as the halls, rooms, vestibules, bathrooms, etc. The use of the word elements is not fortuitous. It follows the same principle that lies behind the periodic table of elements, which allows organizing basic components by groups and periodic relationships that, once combined, produce different types of materials. Therefore, to speak of the elements of architecture involves attributing a certain immobility to such elements, a defined fixedness in their nature that clearly differentiates one from another, allowing us to study and anticipate how they can be combined in order to generate a work of architecture.


Modernist architecture made this relative fixedness fall apart when it dealt with these supposed elements, sometimes erasing the differences between them, and other times completely redefining them. In fact, one of the greatest innovations of the time was the way in which buildings were conceived and how these elements were used as the prime resources of creativity, altering what had long been their status. However, these elemental parts have not ceased to exist; we continue to talk about walls, floors or ceilings, even though there might be buildings or spaces in which all three are mixed up and it is hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. Moreover, even though there are examples in which the ancestral notion of a wall with its corresponding openings has been replaced by concepts such as membrane or diaphragm, these features continue to regulate the inside/outside relationship and they still need a floor or plane to sit on as well as an upper enclosure. The notion of an immaterial architecture or of an inhabitable environment that dispenses with matter, as proposed in the 1960s and 1970s by Reyner Banham and other avant-garde thinkers of the time, such as Hans Hollein, has yet to come true.


In any case, the idea that a work of architecture must reflect, in its form, a unitary system of relationships that allows, as in language, to go from the smaller components to the work as a whole in a continuous sequence, prevailed during the 20th century, sometimes hand-in-hand with the notion of the building as a total work of art, but not always necessarily so. One of the clearest examples of this can be seen in Peter Eisenman's first houses, Houses I and II, which are part of the cardboard architecture phase of that architect, inspired by Gerrit Rietveld and Dutch Elementalism. The effort put into making all of the elements and parts of the building become a single, formal system, where each decision—the size of a window, the rise of a step or the height of a beam—is explained by a series of formal laws that dominate the building is surprising. All shapes, made of a single, neutral material—practically a non-material—are mirrored. Like in the version of history proposed by Hegel and, to a certain point, also by structuralism, everything is related. There is a will or a force (which can be called a universal spirit, language or the architect) that dominates everything. Following the distinction made by Benjamin that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, we could say that Eisenman is a historian architect, not because his architecture refers to the past, but because he offers a single narrative, contained, in the case of Houses I and II, in his well-known axonometric perspectives, drawings that allow to forcefully explain all of the formal decisions made regarding the design of these buildings. Even the breaks in the chain of formal decisions are part of this comprehensive process.


In contrast, Smiljan Radic is clearly a collector architect. In his architecture, there is an evident tendency to think of the building in terms of a sort of collection of those elemental construction parts, which, without losing their identity as components of the building, are in many cases reinvented or subjected to previously unheard of arrangements as well as formal and material definitions. The House for the Poem of the Right Angle is a clear example of this. The formal framework of the house is a kind of black, reinforced concrete ring that contains a parallelepiped shaped courtyard. It is an irregular shaped ring, as if it were made of diverse parts that tense the basic form, breaking what would seem to be the expected continuity of such a form. The different elements of architecture, such as doors and windows, are stuck onto this basic form, to a large extent, as a way of countering it, revealing themselves as independent operations. The door/windows of the dining room and bedrooms appear as autonomous objects along the wall, detaching themselves from it, doing without it. Something similar could be said about the entranceway, the windows on the upper level and the bathroom window, all of which burst forth taking on different shapes against the backdrop of the continuous, outer wall/roof. The house is a sort of collection of responses to the basic questions that every building poses, such as entering, circulating, looking out, etc. These answers co-exist; they are not integrated into a single solution. Interestingly, this does not undermine the unity of the house; in fact, it shows its true essence: an arduous operation that strives to make elements, uses, techniques and diverse materials coexist. Through this example, the classical differentiation between elements and parts in a building is put into question. Sometimes the elements tend to become parts, either because they are bigger or because they become more complex. On other occasions, the parts, given their simplification or their independence from the whole, tend to be perceived as elements.


The three examples that follow and that belong to his most recent work show, each in their own way, this character.


The Viña Vik (Vik Winery) building is composed of three different parts which are perfectly distinguishable, with minimum articulation between them. The first part is basically a floor, an atrium or entrance esplanade of sorts that is isolated from the powerful, surrounding landscape by means of walls. The second part is basically a roof, a plastic, fabric covering with a metal structure within it; since this structure remains hidden, the roof seems like an inflatable structure, a thin volume that extends and covers the facilities of the winery itself. The side walls of the esplanade extend upwards and serve as the support of this roof. A central pathway connects the two spaces. The third part is a kind of a combination of the previous two: a small pavilion primarily made of a flat room and an equally flat floor, which serves as a restaurant. The entire building is characterized by a clear concentration of its basic elements, by their practical independence. The main link between these parts is the most elemental feature of them all: a single pathway that passes through the middle of the space which also establishes its axis of symmetry. However, this concentration on a single feature can be carried out in a complex way, as strange as this may sound. An example of this is the esplanade that leads into the winery. In truth, it is not an esplanade, but a group of paths set above the water. The central pathway is one more of these paths, but it is reached laterally and halfway along the course. Furthermore, these paths lead almost nowhere: they end when they reach a wall or they stop abruptly when they reach the fields of grapevines. The water is not a mirroring sheet, but water that moves, gliding towards the inside of the building. It is a very shallow pool, the bottom of which is made of concrete, with undulating patterns, underlining this sense of movement. The esplanade, separated from the landscape except along the front, is, in the end, a contained floor that can hardly be stepped on, crossed by itineraries that lead to the unknown. It looks like the sea bed pattern that appears in David Hockney's engraving Boy hidden in a fish, a source of inspiration for Radic in other projects in which the floor becomes a receptacle of people and things.


In the Casas Pareadas (Chilean Houses I and II), one of this architect's latest works, we can see how what in traditional terms could be understood as an element can end up becoming a part of the building itself. This is the case of the great, blank wall that serves as the main facade of the two homes. A grand gesture that also has something brutal about it: joining up these two houses made it possible to make the wall unusually long. This wall is one of the faces of the prismatic volume that makes up the shared building. Evidently, in the way these houses face the street, discontinuity is not possible, to the contrary, there is only a disconcerting continuity. But, if there is no discontinuity, there is also no articulation between elements or parts. It is a collection of a single object.


The Casa Piedra Roja (Piedra Roja House) recreates a typology linked to the Mediterranean tradition, the building around a central courtyard, a scheme that Radic has used in several of his previous designs for private homes, where he has recurred to relatively small, central spaces that are easily absorbed by the inner spaces, such as we have already seen in the House for the Poem of the Right Angle. In the Piedra Roja House, however, the large, central patio/garden dismembers the building, dividing it into two very defined and clearly separated sectors: the front, which accommodates the more public functions of the home, and the back, which contains the bedrooms and is slightly higher than the former. Both are joined by two, large, completely straight ramps, which, given their length and size, to a certain degree become autonomous from the parts that they connect. As in John Hejduk's House 10, the hall or passageway becomes the space that, to a large extent, defines the house spatially and functionally. In contrast with the relatively rigid layout that prevails over the plan of the house, two decisions were made that completely dismantle the organizational idea of a house around a courtyard. The first is the generation of a kind of room/observatory that is placed above the relatively continuous roof line of the building. The nature of this part of the building is completely different from that of the rest of the rooms: it does not sit on the ground; it is held up by a single column, the only such structure in the entire house. This room also has the only staircase within the home. It allows viewing the entire ensemble from above: in a sense, it contains the entire house. The second decision that upsets the typology that the house is based on, is to make the patio/garden slip under the back section, following the lay of the land. The back part of the house becomes a sort of bridge, an element that does not delimit the central patio/garden, but that enables the open space to continue beyond the back of the house. Therefore, the central space ceases to be central and, perhaps, even to be a courtyard. In Radic's architecture, concentration on a single part or on a single element does not guarantee the stability nor the identity of said elements. To the contrary, it can deny such traits.


Given these aporias, we could say the same thing about Smiljan Radic that Benjamin expressed regarding Eduard Fuchs: His collections are the answers of the practical man to their resolvable polarities of theory.