Conversation with Robert Somol
The following is a conversation over lunch with Robert Somol, Director of the University of Illinois in Chicago School of Architecture. A mostly theoretical conversation touching on the magazine Flat Out, architecture as political fiction, and indifference versus irony with surprise cameos by Siri and Stephen Slaughter. Robert's lecture video can be found here.
Transcribed by Caroline Bozzi; Edited by Jamie Ferello
Scene: Everyone has sat down, readymade Panera lunches are stacked neatly on a table. An awkward silence until a couple people take the first step and grab lunches. The rest follow suit. Everyone sits down, opens their lunches...
Robert Somol: So Ed [Mitchell] said there would be a chance to meet with you guys and have lunch. Which is great. I have nothing prepared because I’m still working on what 4:30 is supposed to be.
But I will talk about anything you want to talk about.
Caroline Bozzi: Some of us read.
Somol: Yeah, ok, Ed asked for something.
Bozzi: Right off the bat, I was a little bit curious about the characters, and like how your team developed them and potentially if it’s a comment on the decline on authorship or if it’s just pure fun or ironic or…
Somol: That’s really a question about the structure of the magazine. As much as the role that, let’s say, I took on as an author in two issues, The Cameo in the one, which is almost be yourself anonymously, and then The Genealogist. Also in the first one I was The Inventor. The magazine is basically structured around a series of characters. There are 15 of them and every issue would be more or less the same 15 characters. It is a little bit like a column that you have but, rather than theme the magazine, the idea is that each author plays one of those characters for that issue and the next issue somebody else would take that role over. So in the first issue, Sam Jacob was The Mortician, but in the second issue someone else is playing that role. You can identify in the back the credits listed, who plays that person that issue, but the idea was somehow doing a magazine that said well let’s see who is in it and the names are the first thing that you see but also not necessarily wanting to go anonymous.
The idea of the character, which the editor wrote about in the first one, is looking at David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and basically the idea that by becoming a character allowed him to write different kinds of songs. And somehow the idea that we take on the persona of something outside [the field] we could actually say new things about the field because we would actually be looking at it through the lens of someone else’s obligations. So it is really an artificial stimulant to write a different way about architecture, to write a different kind of criticism and hopefully in the process uncover different projects or different forms of argument. That was the instigation.
Also, authors might have fun because it takes off the burden of writing as yourself in a way, but writing as an actor playing a character so you are responsible for it but you are also responsible for the role that is set up for that character. And the idea that over time you would get six versions of The Mortician or like in the same way that you would see different people playing Batman or impersonating Elvis or whatever. There would be a sort of vague character that everyone is trying to approximate through a different way and the idea that writing would become collective that all different people are trying to become the same abstract character as a collective after the fact. And I think also that we live in an age that is so obsessed by facts and metrics that we thought “history is now being pursued through social, scientific means and we thought there could be another way of pursuing history and criticism through an artefactual, fictional way.
Bozzi: I could almost, like reading the descriptions of what the character were, I could also in my own life think of “oh so and so is that person” like I could imagine you guys, and I have no idea how it happened but, in a room where you are like let’s write down Rebecca Williamson in a character – and like this is who she is.
Bozzi: Kind of like the way an author of book might make a character.
Somol: Yes. I think the other analogy I use, I don’t know if you saw the first remake of Ocean’s Eleven, the one with George Clooney. They are going to pull the heist of whatever casino it is and it’s like “we are going to need an earth, a kit, two gomers, a this, and a that” It’s like, in order to pull the job, they have to invent these character types that they then have their professional team operate as. Because they know what they want to do and so they define those different characters and they are putting this scenario together of how you rob the casino through a set of characters that will enable that operation to happen. I think the idea ultimately was that we want a series of op-eds so you want to follow a character. Like “I’m really interested in The Inventor or I’m interested in this character,” and you take the magazine as a way of following; even though different people are inhabiting that role and it’s interesting to see the differences that emerge from that. You would become a kind of of fan of someone, but I think you’re right, you definitely have mental images of people when you write the bios of who they are.
Bozzi: Right, But not necessarily the content.
Somol: We always think thematic issues are problematic because they are always to late or you are being forced to write on a particular subject matter. The subject matter becomes obsolete so, in a way we didn’t want to condition the magazine by subject matter or theme but actually through voice or sensibility. So in some cases they really are The Outsider. The first Outsider was a friend of ours: John Lankford, he is a musician and an artist, founding member of the Mekons, a 70’s punk band, and has a band in country alternative called the Waco Brothers also. John is from Wales and he happened to be married to someone who was an architect. [He] dallied into architectural events so the outsider was always someone who had an oblique view of the field through this other mechanism. The great thing about that was that everyone who was a John Lankford fan got turned into this architecture magazine so we got a lot of hits just because John was a part of it. We captured the idea of how you make a larger public audience for architectural criticism. How do we rethink doing criticism today in a moment when it seems to be dwindling somehow?
Jamie Ferello: Speaking of outsiders, I saw that you don’t have any particular academic background in architecture.
Somol: I’m an outsider! And I play someone inside, but it’s just a role.
Bozzi: Its all fake!
Bozzi: It’s a myth.
Somol: Don’t tell anybody.
Ferello: How did you get into writing and teaching architecture?
Somol: Actually you can blame Ed [Mitchell] for that.
Somol: I guess the larger question that you are asking is: “how did I land in architecture coming through other fields of study?” Let’s say it took me longer to find where I wanted to be than most people who start very young. I was interested in the relationship of art and politics and so I was between those fields when I was an undergraduate and I did end up going to law school because of the one interest but that wasn’t totally satisfying. Architecture was the perfect half way place between the aesthetic and the political for me so that is why architecture seems to be a productive field to operate in if you had those two interests. Which in some degree, I’ll talk about tonight, which kind of the interest in the formal on the one hand and the ideological on the other and that relationship.
And then biographically, Ed ended up going to architecture school after we were undergrads, we stayed friends and at that time I was writing on architecture culturally even though I think I was probably in law school at that time at Harvard, but spending a lot of time at the GSD. And Ed, Sarah Whiting and Greg Lynn, who was involved in this project with Mike McInturf in Peter’s, office were doing a conference on the concept of the fetish so They invited me to that conference and that’s where I met Jeff Kipnis and Peter Eisenman. Jeff thought I was funny, he wasn’t going to teach with Peter that fall , and he said I should teach with Peter at Ohio State University. At the time the Wexner Center was opening. Then, I was living in Chicago and I saw Peter again University of Illinois, Chicago and he introduced me to Stanley Tigerman. That was sort of the beginning of the end.
AJ: You were talking about the politics of art. You have this short paper written on what you call “poly-fi”
Somol: Wow! You did your homework
AJ: I’m really curious about it because it was a very different perspective about architecture than what I have personally been exposed to.
Somol: Yeah. It’s way back in ’09 or something like that. But it is short, so it has that. Yeah, “Polyfi” was my abbreviation to Political Fiction and basically that’s what I see architecture as: a genre as political fiction, not science fiction, which many people at the time at SCI-ARC and other places were doing, aesthetically. The idea that architecture is a way to project different political, by political I really just mean collective, forms of arrangement or organization like: “What’s the politics of the situation? How do people organize themselves? What behaviors, what relationships were enabled or disenabled?” That, to me, is politics. So, if architecture is always projecting alternative form of that way of living or those forms of arrangement, how people get connected or disconnected related to the world that architecture is a powerful means to imagining different ways that the world could be and in that way I think of architecture as basically fabricating an alternative way of organizing the world and then kind of realizing it or visualizing it or materializing it.
That essay was about criticism. So, why write criticism? I mean maybe it, probably did lead to this magazine “Flat Out”, with the idea of characters as fictional figures that you would have it as a new ensemble. If you want to imagine a different kind of architectural criticism, you imagine that community or that cast of characters that would be discussing it and then you act it that way. You are kind of setting rules or regulations for yourself as way of experimenting with something other than the norm. So its seems like architecture’s job, for me, is a genre of fiction and not a genre of fact. I think we live in a world that is dominated by facts and metrics and I think that I think that architecture’s obligation is more to fiction than facts. I think it should not be measured against, a reduced form of reality. It’s idea is to imagine alternatives, but we live in a world where our imaginative landscape of alternative is quite limited. And so the issue is how do you overcome what seems to be the dominant tendencies to shrink imaginative potential?
AJ: My reading of it, especially when you are discussing what political fiction means, it seemed to me that you were arguing for an architectural discourse that was less about criticizing what was happening in the past.
Somol: That’s right.
AJ: It’s not domain-less fiction in a way and rather a discourse that proposed alternative realities and futures. I just wanted to see if my reading was the intention.
Somol: It’s a long dispute that I have had and it goes back to the “how I entered the field” moment. I entered a moment of a critical self reflection, which was important, but, 10 years in, it seemed limited. The writing that I was doing since the late 90’s and into that was more like how to move away from the critical project towards what I was calling the projective. So in other words we have become very good at critiquing but not necessarily good at imagining alternatives, and part of it was a form of criticism would project alternative as much as critique comment on “that which exists.” So yeah. That’s right.
Caroline: It’s interesting that you said “imaginative potential” and you continue to explain it because I found myself even being like “ok at what point is this not productive? At what point does this need to make it out to buildings?” I actually just got through Keith Krumwiede’s architectural fiction and it’s called “Atlas of Another America.” Its hysterical, but he imagines a new America based on the American Dream. And it’s funny, but here in the Midwest we don’t really make fun of farms. That’s not really funny.
Somol: It’s not cool dude.
Caroline: So, yeah, I struggle with that sometimes
Somol: He was in New Jersey and now he is on the west coast. So he just skipped over the whole middle.
Caroline: And I even asked him about New Jersey and he’s like “I don’t live there.”
Somol: See. I was born there. Although I do say it’s weird, relative to Keith’s work, when you land in the airport here, the biggest advertising campaigns are for residential developers. It’s all home sale, I mean huge images of “you can be home” and “live at this home.” They are all developer domestic architecture that’s the big advertisement programing in the airport. It’s just shocking when you see it.
Jules Rosen: Is it architecture though?
Somol: Not for me, but that’s a very simple answer. But it might go to Keith’s work, I think. He has a new piece in the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a corridor. It looks nice. I mean, to me it’s a little too ironic so in terms of sensibility it’s not like really what I am interested in. I like the work: I think it is clever and refined and beautiful in its own way. I'm not sure what you get after the one liner.
Caroline: Right. Like that’s it. I guess there’s a difference between fictions that are being ironic and fictions that are being imaginative.
Somol: Yes. I have come to despise irony.
Caroline: Yeah. Oh man.
AJ: It’s not productive. At a certain point it’s just questioning without offering.
Somol: Yeah it’s safe. It’s easy to make fun of stuff. I mean I do it all the time. But at a certain point it allows your work not to be taken seriously. I don't mean super seriously. But it allows you plausible deniability about anything. There is a moment with irony where it still becomes snide and cynical and for me that place is Michael Meredith.
Somol: It’s kind of the Princeton trajectory: Meta Irony. Like so ironic that anything just washes off so it’s kind of like teflon. You can't really say anything about it or for it, it’s just so clever that it’s gotten itself out of being anything.
AJ: I am going to head out to go to thesis reviews.
(AJ excuses herself from the conversation)
Somol: You didn't do an internship with Michael did you?
AJ: Oh no. No no no.
Caroline: I did ask Ed, I was like “Can we, Can we bring Micheal here?” And he is like "tell me why you like him?" So then I was forced to like explain.
Somol: I mean the problem is, it’s not really a problem because he is actually close to the groups of people that are friend or students or colleagues so there is a proximity. It’s not like he is Patrik Shumacher or something. There is a certain shared affinity which is why I get more upset about what the differences are: the lost part of it. I am going to start tonight with a quote from him, which i will disagree with.
Caroline: Which probably just summarizes someone else's point anyway.
Somol: I don't know if you read Michael, but he just had a thing in “Log” on indifference, which is something I have been writing about for a very long time. He has a different version of it which is indistinguishable from irony. Actually he uses the term irony, whereas I would never use irony in terms of indifference.
Jamie: Did you happen to read Mark Foster Gage's response do it?
Somol: I did. As a matter of fact, just yesterday. yeah.
Jamie: I thought it was interesting. He is kind of calling him out on his bull shit.
Somol: At least, I mean I don't know if I agree with Mark, but at least he wrote me back into the story.
Jamie: He did mention you. It was just interesting because it seems Michael was talking about indifference whereas Mark foster Gage was talking about earnestness and brought up Ellie Abrons in that light.
Jamie: And I wondered if there was a dialogue building between indifference and earnestness. Do you see that?
Somol: I mean. I would like to see indifference as the third term lets say as an alternative to the two dominant ones which I would see as earnestness and irony. I think earnestness and irony are dominant idioms in which architecture happens today because they are both safe ultimately. so for me indifference is an alternative to both earnestness and irony. And I put Michael in the irony camp despite his claim of indifference.
Jamie: Right. And would you say indifference is kind of in the light of the DaDa movement? I think he references Duchamp, in terms of how indifference is indifference again. Would you make that comparison necessarily or would you say that it’s not relevant?
Somol: I guess there is several places where my interest in indifference developed. One source is through an art critic named Dave Hickey who wrote a great collection of essays which you should read when you don't have to read architecture, called "Air Guitar." It is an old collection of essays that Hickey wrote about music and televisions, and basically all cultural forms of wrestling, whatever. But they are really good short essays and he had written an essay that was not in that collection called "American Cool" and basically he is distinguishing cool from irony and he says the terms cool and irony should never be put together. They are opposite terms. He says irony is a way of avoiding the wrath of your superiors whereas cool is a way of not imposing on your peers. In other words, he says irony is a form we use in bureaucratic top down systems and cool is a way you deal with people in a democracy. He says irony is very big in academia but typically Europeans did irony and Americans did cool although that’s changing. Part of my interest indifference was Hickey's version of cool as opposed to irony which, he says, takes away the meaning of what you say whereas cool just takes away the urgency that you attribute to it. It translates as you say something but you don't really care if anyone jumps on it in some urgent way or agrees with you or not. He says irony is ultimately a bureaucratic and safe way of speaking.
Another source of indifference comes from architecture's project of difference in architecture that you could say began with the fall of Modernism and starting with Postmodernism. You could also say Deconstructivism or maybe digital work in general. Mass customization. Parametricism. Modernism was one well intentioned way where there is a common subjectivity that we share. This is a way to live and it’s a good way. But, basically the consensus around that fails and so you get a splintering of identity and differences. In a way Postmodernism is that splintering.
Siri talks to the room...
Somol: Really? That’s interesting. I never talk to siri.
Caroline: That’s fantastic
Somol: I found something on a splintering of identity.
Somol: Now you know where I get all of my ideas. I might want to look into that more closely. Scary. Siri. But this is part of the problem. The shrink wrapping the world to a model of you. This is the big part of both of the things that I gave to Ed were the subject of you. A generic you. That has become a new form of subjective today. and the idea that this should motivate our politics. “If you like this book, you will love this one.” The kind of target marketing or the kind of parameters used to determine like “If you choose these things we will measure those things follow them, track them, and give you more things like that.” As if your only goal in life was to become even more like the person you are in some rabbit hole of identity. It just seems totally contrary to any form of collective politics.
It is basically shrink wrapping you, you can buffer yourself to only get the messages that appeal to you, which is why we are in the state we are in. And the point was that even even in particular among the mass customization group of which Greg Lynn, and other in the late 90's and early 2000's were engaged in that form of digital work. Which is really about mass customization or non standardization or what I would call differentiating the grid or the norms. Every common cell would be differentiated and unique and separate, which all sounds great. But for me it just maps on to what you could call the dominate political economy of our day which is neo-liberalism. All of that critical formal work was really isomorphic with the system. Instead of trying to differentiate, it was interested in thinking of ways to re-collectivize. So rather than differentiate, deep differentiate, which is also what the characters are about.
Stephen Slaughter walks into the room...
Stephen Slaughter: This is a reading.
Somol: This is my reading for the day.
Slaughter: This is the reading that you gave me 22 years ago.
Somol: Oh my god. What will you do without it Steve?
Slaughter: I'll be fine.
Caroline: He memorized it.
Slaughter: I thought I would just pass it to you.
Somol: The problem is that nothing has changed.
Slaughter: Nothing at all. See you later
Somol: Thank you. (Stephen leaves the room). Its funny. It only costs 13 dollars back then. And the xerox is such an archaic thing for you now. Must have been at OSU, oh yeah, OSU there you go. Start with art and object - I will also quote from Michael Freed today.
Caroline: It all comes back.
Jodokus Sieverding: This might be not necessarily directed toward the subject, but the idea of writing about architecture and how you could critique it, do you think that in the future with the new technologies that it is going to move past just writing about architecture. We had a reading in Human Dimensions of Space by Papanek who wrote about that architecture has to be experienced and the idea that it may be in the future VR technology and stuff like that will impact on how we critique architecture if it’s mainly going to continue to be in a written form even though architecture is something that you visit in person.
Somol: So the genre of criticism taking a form after writing. Let’s say, Post writing.
Sieverding: Yes, kind of. To the idea that you talked about how you created the characters to in order to have a new view of critiquing architecture. Do you think it’s going to be all those things like new technology that add into the idea of how we critique past works?
Somol: I think it’s true, the question will be whether we recognize it any longer as either criticism or architecture. So, you know, there will be changes and they will be enabled technologically through a new paradigm. Whether or not we would still call anything we do criticism or architecture at that point could be an open question. In other words, if the technology changes so does the discipline and the thing that you are looking at. It’s not like we can just upgrade the technology and assume the subject matter stays the same, because the subject matter will also change. It is a little bit like the classic ending of Reyner Banham's Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, which was written long ago in 1960. And he is basically talking about the change in the first machine age from the one that he was seeing in 1960. The mechanical paradigm of the teens and twenties to the almost consumerist domestic media technology of the 60's that he was just on the cusp of. And he said that, "Those architects of the twenties thought they were running with technology, like Corbusier and Mies, but it turned out they really weren't. They were still doing architecture and technology went on without them.” But, we should not feel superior to them because if we do choose today in the 60's to run with technology we may have to abandon everything we recognize as architecture. And he says follow the futurists.
The question is really interesting, I was at this conference, and it is was more or less they were arguing for the priority of experience over drawing. What I realized is that the beauty of drawing and writing is that it is a notational system that you can go back to. Because chess is notated, you could replay that came. You can replay historic games of chess. Experience isn't in the same way. To me, what makes a discipline a discipline is that system of notation that you can always return to and swerve from. To be a discipline it has to be repeated. So what are the things that allow something to be repeated? Whereas experience in a way can't be repeated and actually denies disciplinary knowledge in some form because it can’t be repeated. It is not to say it’s not important, it is just a question of what it isn’t doing at the same time. In a way I have become more and more preoccupied by some form of understanding that the discipline - it is important to have a discipline to make you do things that otherwise there would be no reason for you to do. Which is a little bit like the discipline of a character, forcing you to do things, setting up the obstructions or the set of rules that require you to behave a certain way even though the entire technology, political economy, demand, etc. Because, I think the only way that newness can happen is if you follow that rigid set of regulations that otherwise everyday life doesn't obligate you to. Otherwise you will be in sync with your time but you will have no way out.
That’s why I have a new interest in history, per se, but maybe the misuse of history - that architecture is a great archive of other ways of living. And so I never cared about preservation before, but now I have a political interest in preservation. What it is is a time capsule of a different way of organizing the world that we can't imagine now, but when we go into that building, we feel differently. And we feel differently because they had a very different way of how they materialized the world and it’s important that we don't give ourselves lobotomy and cut off a different way of understanding and feel the world.
Caroline: I was just thinking, that sometimes on co-op, I don't know if you guys feel this way ever, people older than us who are teaching us on the co-op. They have been doing the same thing for so long that they, Like there is the firm that’s transitioning to Revit and the people that just can't use Revit. Right? There is no new possibilities coming from them, because they have done it this way. I mean that’s a super practical view on discipline. But some I'm like, man, discipline is our downfall maybe. It’s keeping anything for happening, anything from changing. I don't know. Thoughts? You guys know who that person is, right? You have been there.
Sho Sugimoto: I have worked at a firm that still uses powerpoint as a presentation tool.
Caroline: I mean that one is not as bad. That’s not as bad as, what the oldest version of CAD, like pre-CAD.
Sugimoto: Archi-CAD. I can see the difference between a firm who is using a lot of BIM and other ones who are mostly CAD and sketchup based firms. I think they are definitely more free to explore their ideas and I am sure it was even more when it was sketching and drafting by hand. So, I don't know.
Caroline: So that’s a tools conversation, not a discipline one.
Somol: Some techniques allow you to do things more likely than others and then you choose a different technique and that allows different things to emerge. I don't think there should be a one to one correlation between the technology or the technique and the idea, which is to me where the discipline is. The discipline is always revolving around a set of fundamental issues, I think, and they don't change all that much even as technology changes. So, how you get in, how you proceed, how it touches the ground, how it turns a corner, how you put a hole in it. In other words, there are fundamental things that are just principles or issues that are never totally resolved one way or another and they are the same issues regardless of what period, what project type, what client, what technology, they are the same issues. And that’s a good thing. Nobody ever wins the day with the one that’s going to say "ok, we have decided that’s it, everyone do that one." We have fixed that problem. We know how to meet the ground.You have no idea. It’s how you address those situations is what makes you part of the field. There is a whole vast array of options that have been given and have been deployed through different techniques for different reasons and different situation and so you get to add on to that repertoire and that’s why it’s not really problem solving, it’s just restating that problem again and again. I am agnostic with the technology part, I could imagine troglodyte draftsman and troglodyte BIM experts.
Caroline: Yeah, yeah, yeah it’s the same no matter the tool.
Somol: But I think firms, the questions is what kind of firm do you want to be in? Are you are there just to give them the newest update of the technology and then after 3 years, you will be obsolete like the program. Or is it a firm that is really interested in what is new. I think most firms use younger interns as a way to figure out not necessarily, oh just like they are the new technical plug-in, they will teach us this new program that nobody knows. But I do think it is like, “what is happening in the world?” You can see it in some offices that certainly it wasn't the senior partner who decided to turn work from one thing into another. It is very much the ecology of the office is bottom up and you get it from the newest people in the office what the new thing is.
Caroline: Yeah. And potentially, I mean if you could argue this, we [interns] have less discipline because we have been doing something less, not as long. Maybe that’s how we can provide a different perspective.
Somol: But you would definitely want to differentiate the discipline from the practice. That is fundamental. I don't care how long someone has been practicing, they may have forgotten the discipline in 30 years of practice. And so they have a set response to the problem, they are problem solving and it’s about a budget, a client, a timetable, a schedule and this is the way we have done it and this is how we know how to do it and this is the way our collaborators know how to do it and we know how to price it this way and so you get this standard product like a McDonald’s. That is no longer the discipline. They forgot about the discipline. The discipline is taught in the school and the further you get away from it, the further you leave the discipline. Not always, but I think some offices because of the nature of that office maintained that agenda but it is very difficult in the normal working world to maintain that other agenda. You can learn the practice from them but I wouldn't necessarily rely on them for the discipline.
Jodokus Sieverding: How do you propose to keep that discipline alive in office? Do you think our way to keep that alive is in offices that have been around for not as long because they are freshly out of the discipline as in the school? Or do you think offices need to actively try to have members continue to be involved in academia to keep practicing the discipline?
Somol: Part of the circumstances in the US are just much more pessimistic than in other places. I mean just because in the US the split between offices. Of course there are multiple kinds, do you mean one person practitioners or 400 persons corporate offices with multiple cities. There are obviously lots of office types. But as a general rule, I think that in the US the split between professional practice and what you learn in the academy is huge whereas, maybe not in this school, but in Europe there is much less of a hard fast line between those things. Part of it is young practitioners have a lot more opportunity to do work, whereas I think here access to work is quite limiting. So we take a series of architects who are 50 in the US versus 50 in Europe. And the ones in Europe are equally interesting people, the ones in the US will still be dominantly in the academy even though they have their boutique office, I'm thinking someone like Neil Denari, for example. Part of it is that it is a different culture of what you can do in terms of office structure and the network that supports certain kinds of work verses doesn't support it. I think you should go, I think you can learn a lot in an American office, but I would also say you should go to international offices because it will be very different.
Lunch attendees included Caroline Bozzi, AJ Sivakumar, Jamie Ferello, Sho Sugimoto, Jodokus Sieverding, Jules Rosen, Tiberiu Potinteu, Collin Cooper, Caroline Milo, Beth Paulsen, Rachel Kallicharan, and Margaret McGlumphy.