Andres Jaque and his Office for Political Innovation are known for pioneering new methods of research within the field of architecture. Their work takes advantage of hyper-specific qualitative data inorder to detect, reconstruct and superpower urban enactments as architectural constructions. The use of first hand accounts of how daily life gets to be performed are central to the production of the office. This conversation with Andres explores the method and relevance of such a research technique—an interview on interviews.
Patrick Craine + Rodrigo Valenzuela Jerez: Why did you choose to use interviews as a way of collecting information?
Andrés Jaque: The use of interviews has two main origins in my practice: The first is the wish to connect to the tradition of constructivism in social sciences, which was especially influenced by the work of Harold Garfinkel. He described daily life as something that was participated in by many actors, and recognized those actors as intelligent ones. The situations produced by those actors were recognized as something that was, in a way, designed. They included already a collective intelligence within them. This is a totally different way of describing situations than the one that many traditions in architecture have used, in which situations have been described as unintelligent. Architectural practices, by intervening in them, are supposed to turn them into intelligent ones.
From this point of view, the role of architecture—with the recognition that in any situation there is already a projection and an intelligence going on—is totally different. The objective is not to provide an order to previously disorganized entities or contexts but to deal with the social structures that are already contained in those contexts.
The second interest is the importance of qualitative information. To deal with data in a way that provides effective accounts of reality, it is necessary to go beyond the analysis of segregated facts
to the detailed reconstruction of how situations get to be performed. Many times, abstract information provides the illusion of certainty, but when you look at the details and see how things come together in a specific case, the interaction of a huge number of realities produces something totally different than what the data reveal.
So I was very much interested in qualitative data and the way that you could reconstruct the chain of actions or interactions that produce a certain fragment of reality. The way to deal with this is totally different from the way of dealing only with Big Data, for instance. It is not about collecting a huge number of data entries but about selecting cases that are especially relevant and, once selected, going to the very detail—to the obsessive detail—of how situations emerge.
In our office we could spend a year studying the way these flowers [picking up a small vase on the table] got here, and then we could discover that there were so many intelligences packed here, political conflicts as well, embodied in the many, many technologies that together produce this piece of reality. All together, these technologies produce a number of social possibilities while they reduce others, or do not let them emerge. All of these conflicts could bring us into any scale, and at some point we will know many things around a tiny piece of reality, if properly analyzed.
PC + RVJ: What is your methodology for doing interviews?
AJ: I’m not really doing interviews. What I do is deliberate processes. What is the difference? It’s the same but it’s explained differently. I’m not asking about something and waiting for the answer, and then asking for something else and waiting for the answer. It’s more like a process in which some conditions are created for information to be performed. We talk about this at Columbia [GSAPP] because we’ve been applying this in the design studio. The methodology is to stay in one place to create a good atmosphere for someone to interact with the designer, and then to ask very basic questions and allow time for the people to engage in narration. The important thing is not to frame the conversation too much, but to pay attention to the tiny details in which technology and architecture emerge, as a topic, along the conversation. So, it’s like looking for the projects that are already there in a way, and that start to be constructed as they emerge. Our role in the conversation is to get more details and a better representation of the hidden actors playing a role in the emergence of new scenarios.
So if I were in your position as the interviewer, I would ask, “Please tell me what have you done today since the moment you woke up.”
And then you would tell me, “Well, I woke up at 7 o’clock. Then I drank water because I drank too much beer the night before, so I was super thirsty and I had a little bit of a headache. Then I ran for half an hour, and then I went to the grocery store and I bought milk and bread.”
I would have been writing down all of these things and at some point the conversation would stop and l would say, “Okay, let’s go back to the moment you drank water. Could you tell me where you drank the water; how did you do it? Where were you at the moment?”
“In the kitchen.”
“So you have a kitchen?”
“Yeah, I have a kitchen at home!”
“And could you tell me how you drank water, actually?”
“Well, I went to the tap…
And then I could ask, “At some point you’ve said that you ran. Where did you run?”
These are basic things, but by doing this you can reconstruct the whole urbanism around someone. The idea is first to see what the elements or agents are that are required for this kind of life. The second idea is to discover what are the tensions or the things that are making this urbanism unstable.
PC + RVJ: You mentioned that you are interested in the details of how different situations are produced or performed. This method depends on the quality rather than the quantity of the information. How do you identify which information has quality?
AJ: What I’m interested is not just the numbers, let’s say, but the narrations. For instance, of course I’m interested in the count of what that someone is doing when he runs, but I’m much more interested in the fact that to run, this person needs to put on his or her sneakers! This kind of information is not only about numbers or values or parameters but about how things get to be performed. The problem with numbers is that their parameters tend to be previously fixed, like time or distance. In many occasions, you need to spend time to describe the very parameters before you are able to give a value to them.
PC + RVJ: So the focus is on the relations instead of on the data itself?
AJ: Yes, this distinction is being constructed in the social sciences. Basically, it’s about not isolating information. Take into account that the use of tiny data
, which is totally isolated, has been used as an automatic method to provide generic design. For instance, for Ernst Neufert, the distance for someone to move around a table is “x,” and then you apply that as an isolated piece of data. I would propose instead, to reconstruct the whole situation around the use of that table, in that particular case, and then, from that description, reconstruct the whole relational context. From that we can make decisions within the whole context of information instead of relying on isolated data that automatically decides what the distance between the wall and the table should be.
PC + RVJ: In reference to some of your projects, like the Tupper Home, Phantom Mies as Rendered Society or Ikea Disobedients, could you talk about how this information gets translated into design?
AJ: Well, you mentioned projects that are quite different, but in a way the methodology was initially similar. In the case of Tupper Home, it was based on the reconstruction of the way a family has been engaging each other by means of architecture, and how that could evolve. What was important at that time was that we could reconstruct the whole technological history of this family by conversing not only with the family members but also with people around them. We could see that the way they had been relating to technologies was full of opportunities they would never consider in the design of their house. For instance, in the summer home they had been using since the ’40s, they had been doing “Olympic Games” with their relatives and friends. Those games had been a laboratory of how to use the house. The amount of knowledge they had gathered in those games was really amazing. They had developed more than twenty sports they could play on the staircases, on the roof, or in the gardens with their friends. They never recorded it, archived it, or gave an order to it, but there was great knowledge that could be applied to the redevelopment of their house, and we did!
PC + RVJ: Could you give an example of how specific findings were translated into a design element?
AJ: For instance, when it came to the Tupper Home, we saw that one of the children had been living in Ireland. This instigated the development of a huge number of strategies in the family to connect with her, without being physically in touch with her. They were quite distant, but in a way related through this emotional project that had already begun with their suitcases and cooking sessions with this daughter in Ireland. So there were a great number of technologies that had been developed for years, for decades, to bring this family together. These technologies, in association with many new devices, were reused in the design of the Teddy House and the Tupper Home. For me, this was a very clear way of relating design with research, because we could do tiny things in design that could reactivate the wisdom they already had to relate to material devices within the family and their circle of friends. We were very easily able to test whether our innovations in technology could be performed by the family.
PC + RVJ: Is the specific knowledge that you acquire ever translated into a different project or a different scale?
AJ: For two years we engaged in a massive research project called Ways of Living. It was about studying in detail more than one hundred cases of domestic existence. We first selected topics in which we were interested. Then we collected cases that represented ways of living that were very distinctive. Next, we had long conversations with every person who was part of that domesticity. This was a massive project because it involved more than one hundred cases and maybe an average of five people per case. There were more than five hundred interviews of maybe three or more hours each. They were really engaging! And then you have to listen to them afterward. You can’t predict the amount of time required to do something like that; it’s monumental! But of course, we were a big team, and we were funded by European Union, and we could do the work under good conditions.
PC + RVJ: But what I meant to ask was, is your office accumulating knowledge that can be applied across different projects?
AJ: Let’s say that what came next was how to deal with that amount of information. We had to find some regularities within it. For instance, many of the situations that we discovered were dealing with the fact that domesticity was not autonomous from other urban situations. For instance, many worked at home: people teach languages, give piano lessons, offer medical services, or host a hair salon at home. You know, there are so many variations in which some situations are shared. In some cases, these activities were happening in a precarious use of architecture, so we would think of ways in which architecture could allow these situations to happen in better conditions.
All these situations could be designed in a way that was based on the amount of information and the processes that we described in detail in the hundred cases we got to study. This was a way of scaling our findings up.
PC + RVJ: How do you relate research and design?
AJ: One of the things we discovered by engaging in projects like the ones I described is that design can benefit from research. This happens not only as a sequence or a process. It’s not that research comes first, followed by design. One of the things that comes with the qualitative approach to reality is that research and design need to be engaged in a tentative, long-term relationship. You do a little research, and then you test things. Your research is the result of those tentative ideas, and then you pick up some information that allows you to correct the process. Then you do a little bit more of design, and then you go engage more research, more design, and so on. The two processes need to be quite imbricated.
This is a process that requires proper equipment. And in this regard, disciplinary tools can be useful. For instance, by describing an account of a certain reality understood through research in architectural drawings
–not diagrams–design decisions can be tested using the same methods in which data has ben collected. By bringing together research and design in the same structure, continuities among each can be easily realized.
PC + RVJ: How do you select the cases, or subjects, in Ways of Living?
AJ: We make an initial, broad selection before we study each case, and then we allow the selections to evolve as we find challenging, unpredicted facts. It’s inevitable that some part of the research will become more relevant than others. I think that this is quite scientific. When you look at the way Bruno Latour accounts for science, for instance, scientific work is not as scientific as we might think. If science was super objective, then circumstances, contingencies or social constructions would have no influence in its results. There are, however, for each researcher, inclinations that influence the results. That’s why it is so important to rethink the frames in which we produce knowledge, even if it’s inevitable for some information to become more important than others. This inclination is always very interesting because it inevitably inscribes the context in which you work, as part of the studied context.
PC + RVJ: How do you deal with a diversity of agendas, whether it’s a difference between the ambitions of the office and the client or the agendas of different users of the same project?
AJ: I think this is also very interesting, because when you study these situations you see that the agenda is always a shared one. That’s very important for me. For instance, Garfinkel famously studies [footnote: Harold Garfinkel and Anne Warfield Rawls, Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (Legacies of Social Thought Series) (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002).] how people wait in line at the post office. You see that the way people negotiate the turns in the post office—like when it’s your turn to get to the clerk—is a very sophisticated social construction. It is an urbanism in which agendas are collectively constructed. So, you can see that the agendas of different people are confronted. For instance, the agenda of accountability in the way people wait is shared by many. Also part of the agenda was the security of the process and the economy of the heating, in which the door became somewhat of a big thing. In the end, any particular situation is comprised of an arena of agendas, and architecture can deal with those arenas. It’s actually a part of them. This is very interesting for me because for a long time, many people thought architects applied a previous agenda to reconstruct a situation. I think that architects now or, at least architecture in the way I like to practice it, is more about mediating many different agendas, finding ways of making them compatible and engaging them within the situation that is then constructed.
Andrés Jaque directs Andrés Jaque Architects and the Office for Political Innovation. The architecture office explores the potential of post-foundational politics and symmetrical approaches to the sociology of technology to rethink architectural practices. Jaque is currently Advanced Design Professor at Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation GSAPP Columbia University.
Patrick Craine has two masters degrees in architecture, one from the University of Texas Arlington and a second form Columbia University. He is currently practicing in New York and Texas while serving as an adjunct at the Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning at Columbia.
Rodrigo Valenzuela Jerez received his Architecture degree and a Master of Fine Arts with a Major in Visual Arts from Universidad de Chile, and a Master in Advance Architectural Design from Columbia University. He has been awarded with a Fulbright Scholar grant, a Scholarship from CONICYT-Chile, and a Scholarship from FONDART-Chile. In 2005, he co-founded the Studio Murúa-Valenzuela.