Trojan Horse interviewing Nick Axel on Skype on the 31th of July 2017
TROJAN HORSE: Can you tell a little about your background. What are you working on right now, and what have you been doing before that?
Nick Axel: I’m trained as an architect. I studied for five years in an architecture school in the US called Rensselaer Polytechnic. But at the same time I studied philosophy. So kind of throughout the five years I was taking classes on the relationship between architecture and philosophy, particularly within postmodernism, such as in the work of Peter Eisenman. But I was also taking more dedicated philosophy classes on things like moral development and existentialism. I wrote a thesis in philosophy alongside my architectural thesis on the relationship between the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Alain Badiou. After I graduated I was working as an architect. And at the same time I started moving around and did an internship in Chile and I started feeling the need to do more than just practise, do more than just build buildings. So I started reading, and because I was in a new context I was already learning enormous amounts of where I was, its history its people. So this led to the feeling that I needed to not just read to pursue my intellectual interests, but also to start expressing those in writing.
TH: Did you stay in Chile for a long time?
NA: No, I was there for five or six months. And from Chile I came to Europe. I was working for an architecture firm in Madrid for about a year and a half but it got to a point where I really just felt like that this type of designing massive projects like airports or hospitals was not what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. So I took a bit of a leap of faith and I quit my job and I moved to Barcelona where I subjected myself to a quite rigorous, self-directed course of study. I had been reading throughout this time but i felt there were some things, some writers, some ideas that i would have needed more time and more space to really investigate. So when i was in barcelona i set myself a very extensive reading list and i basically said that everything i read i will write about as well. Because I also felt that I had started writing here and there, but I felt that this could be something that really fits for me, but I recognized that I really didn’t know how to do it. My blog http://awakinglucid.blogspot.fi/ is just a kind of record of that time.
Then i decided to go back to school to the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths where i felt i could try and understand architecture as a way of thinking or a way of seeing rather than a mode of practise. So that allowed me to investigate the deregulation of hydraulic fracturing in the United States on which i did my MA thesis on. After that I did a short residency in Palestine In DAAR where i actually worked on the regulation of mineral resources which worked very well with my MA work. Then afterwards i was offered a job as managing editor at Volume Magazine in Amsterdam, which really allowed me to unify my interests in spatial disciplines and practice with more theoretical or philosophical interests; to see architecture, urbanism, and spatial practice as a vehicle, as a medium for the production of knowledge and new thought.
Today I am working for e-flux architecture where we are working on a number of editorial projects with specific institutional partners from all around the world on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to questions to how the internet relates to the city and the questions of representation to questions of urban development to the commune etc.
TH: Was it common and easy to take classes from other departments in your under grad school the States?
NA: No it wasn’t. I mean I also took a professional degree which means it’s five years from start to finish, no stops no brakes. I mean you get summers off of course, but within that there is space for a total of just four electives in the whole five years. So there is really very little space for pursuing other interests, and especially directed ones like philosophy in my case. So it was quite a challenge to be able to do that. But there was something inside of me; i wasn’t satisfied with just architecture, and i was also never satisfied with just philosophy. I would always feel like whenever I was too much into one I would need the other. I needed that balance.
TH: Was this interest in Philosophy something you had already before going to school or was there something on the department which made you become interested in it?
NA: I had interest before. I know a lot of European students have philosophy classes in high school or middle school even. We never had that. I had one teacher in middle school who taught us a little bit about existentialism which spoke to me. And then when i was sixteen or whatever i read this book 48 Laws of Power and for some reason Rousseau’s Social Contract, just because i was interested. I don’t know what it was. I was never raised with religion so i always kind of looked to philosophy as a way to get answers to questions that i had. So think from a very early age i was constantly looking for new things, ways of understanding and seeing the world.
TH: How did you become interested in architecture?
NA: It was just what came to my mind you know. When I was asked what I wanted to do i thought architecture. It always had an attunement to the performance of space, let’s say the relationship between urban morphology like the grid to shape the way the people move, understand relations to each other and the ways communities form. So it seemed to be natural choice. It wasn’t anything like with some people who say they would like to do art and science and choose architecture because it’s right in between. I was like the only thing i could see myself doing.
TH: How did you end up going from working in one place to another?
NA: I actually started working in an architectural office when I was very young thanks to a family friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend sort of thing. I was fifteen when i started, but it was basically doing nothing, sorting fabrics and playing online poker in an interior architecture firm. Later I was able to work in places either through people i’ve met or through personal connections, like family and school. I was given a diversity of experiences form quite a young age within architectural offices, which is also, I have to say, what allowed me to make the decision when i was 24 to quit working in architecture offices and not return. I feel like it’s incredibly important for people who call themselves architects to actually know what it’s like to work in an architectural office. I think that’s essential, if for not another reason as in my case, to just to know that it’s not what i wanted.
TH: And that was what made you take the leap of faith you were talking about before?
NA: It was just personal angst really. I mean I had the ability to do it also, i think that’s important. I had some money saved up from when i was working. And i figured that i was too young to be unhappy. I felt i was at a point in my life where i can take risks. It was really a leap of faith and i scared the shit out of everyone around me. All my family were like “what are you doing?” and i have to say i did try and find some architecture jobs when i was in Barcelona and afterwards, but that was really just a way to make money. I was more a symbolic gesture of leaving practice and realizing that that’s not where my heart is, not where my head is.
TH: I feel there is a big difference between schools and design cultures in terms of how supportive they are for these kinds of personal leaps of faith.
NA: Yeah I totally agree. I live in Rotterdam so i’m familiar with this academic context here where you have state bodies which do an incredible job in supporting independent young practises. But I have to say i’m kind of glad that i didn’t go that route because i knew, there was for a very long time this struggle in me (and there still is) to understand what my independent practise is, what i am as a practitioner. And i think just giving people money and saying figure it out on your own is not always the best way to do that. Some sort of a tension against what their larger system or a way of working is can be productive as well.
It also comes down to how dedicated are you to ask these questions within yourself. Like who am I? What do I want? What do I want to be doing? I focused on existentialism because I’m one who has grown up constantly going through these anxieties. You could argue that i was only able to do this because the position of privilege; i come from a middle class background, i’m white, i’m male, all these things. But I thought that that question was more important to me than the question of where i’m gonna get my next paycheck from.
I also found ways to compromise. I could write reviews for a bit of money here and there. This was a way to use this unfavorable situation for my own good because i said to myself I needed to learn how to write, and so this is a way to learn how to write. I was never actually taught how to write. It was also a way to pick what i want to write about, to pick what i want to think about. And even though i was not really into writing reviews, I thought it was an exercise, it was a training which allowed me to train my body and my mind to understand what the economy was like and what the practise was like.
TH: How is it now, do you still work mostly independently?
NA: I’m in a curious position. I’m a deputy editor of e-flux architecture. That’s who i am. And e-flux is a bit of a startup, so there is a lot of autonomy, a lot of freedom, a lot of experimentation.
After my studies in Goldsmiths i was working for Forensic Architecture for about two years and I was working for Volume. I was actually working for both at the same for about a year and a half. I also started teaching and I felt that because I was doing all of these other things I didn’t have time to pursue my own interests or even think about what those were. To write about the things i want to, read what i want to, to think what i want to. So what has happened to me over the past year, leaving Forensic Architecture and Volume, starting at e-flux, has given me space to think much more for myself. I also have to say what i do as an editor is a very personal, intimate and independent practise because i’m constantly reading. I have the luxury to be paid to read. Of course I have to read in a very particular way, but still it allows me to do research as a professional activity in a strange way. Even though i don’t necessarily get to say what i want to research or read, that in and of itself can also be quite productive as well.
TH: There are certain pleasures in working within a bigger machinery. Is there anything you miss from that?
NA: I think there is two ways to approach that. One is that there is a pleasure in working in any well structured and organised organisation, which i should say e-flux is, because it’s nice to work against something. Or not to work against something, but to work within something that gives you resistance, which you can push up against. Something that has it’s own logic, that almost becomes an organism that runs itself, which you can try pushing in one direction or another, but in the end, like in the architectural office, larger questions and imperatives, like those of the client and business sustainability, cannot be ignored. Architecture is a service, after all.
If we want to think of it in these terms, no matter what we want to do it has to be validated by the market; maybe not the market but a market. At e-flux we have clients and we work with people, which is a kind of resistance, which is nice. Places like Forensic Architecture and Volume were very open; you could do whatever you wanted as long as it falls within the scope of the investigation and the position of the organisation. I feel like a lot of people would say that within an architecture office there might be less space for creativity, less space to actually move against, to actually take a position and make an advance against the constraints of the system. Architecture is very constrained practise if you really get into, if we think of it like an industry (which we don’t do nearly enough). There’s of course a question: does one gives in to the economy as is, or rather does one chart out alternative practises, inventing their own economies, inventing their own roles within society? I would argue that these two choices are not entirely opposed to another, and it’s perhaps somewhere in between where the most interesting and future-oriented forms of practice today lie.
I think Archigram is a really nice example. They were working for some giant London corporate firm, while at the same time they were able to create a revolution in the field of architecture. So, I refuse to be that cynical when it comes to this. I think there is incredible amount of really quite privileged and singular knowledge that passes through architecture firms. There is an understanding of how the world works that is only available to architects. It does not necessarily mean that they get to design the ways the world works, but there is an understanding; there is knowledge. I think that in itself is fascinating, but i don’t know if what it takes to actually get to that point where one can have this understanding is personally worth it. It just depends on what people want, how much they care about hearing their own voice and recognising their own voice in what they do.
TH: Do you miss working with concrete things?
NA: I do consider myself a designer. I have an urge to design things, to create things. And as an editor I don’t necessarily get the option to do that so there are absolutely things that i miss. But I also think that because I’m not part of it I idealize it a little bit.
TH: Do you have a secret hobby? Like making clay pots or anything like that…
NA: No, not yet. I make websites. Often if I make a sketch it will be a design sketch of something like a website. But I don’t think there’s any weird hobbies, or practise on the side that i keep secret. An if there was I don’t know if i would tell you because otherwise that would ruin the all the mystique to it. 🙂
TH: Do you have a plan or dream to build something at some point?
NA: Yeah, well it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. But it’s a way of life. I made an installation two years ago at the Chicago Architecture Biennial with some former collaborators which i consider my first build work. It even had architectural properties. It had a self supporting arch to it. But to me that is not the end, talking about means versus ends. The built object is never my end. My ends are much more about how people think, the way people see the world, where things like the city itself becomes the end in its forever indefiniteness.
So yeah, I would love to be able to build things in the future. I see it as a very interesting and very productive mode of thinking. As way of working through problems, questions, and ideas that cannot really be done in any other way. Over the past few years, though not so much in the last year and a half, i was doing a number of competitions, but more theoretical competitions that allowed me to focus on the idea of design in a speculative sense to develop and propose philosophical or political concepts. And I still think through the question of form and the practise of design. But i also try and think of design and the ways of intervene within the city and space in a more abstract way. Instead of designing a building I’ll propose to change a law and see how that creates a ripple effect throughout the city. I did this project a while ago where i proposed a pipeline as a way to create a political union in the Gulf. So i think i’m looking at different ways of intervening within the city which i still feel is very much a question of design. It’s not necessarily a material practise, it’s not phenomenological, it’s more of a metaphysical practise.
TH: How do you see coming to Bengtsår and working in an island environment like this?
NA: It’s a very weird microcosm. It’s like a petri dish that was cast away from the main bacterial organism, the cells. A lot of what my practise is about is a practise of cartography, a practise of mapping. So trying to understand the relationships between things, trying to understand the relative positions. Asking questions like what does it mean to be where we are? I think that this island, not just because it’s an island (even though islands always have their unique ecologies), you know exactly what goes in and out. There is a very formal relationship not just to the outside world, but what does it mean to actually survive in such an isolated conditions. I think all islands create a very particular form of life. A way of existing, a way of sustaining themselves. They also lead to unique culture of time, of enjoyment, of activity, of leisure. I think coming there will be incredible opportunity to understand the infrastructure of what it really makes to produce these things, these ways and patterns of life that we take for granted. Of course we all go to an island for two weeks in the middle of the summer, right. But what does that actually take, what does that imply within the capitalist society we live in today?
I think this island will be quite an incredible place to understand that. Not just because it’s an island, but also because of the relationship it has with the city of Helsinki. So i think it will be quite nice.
TH: And this is also an example of the architectural thinking you have been talking about before?
NA: I live in the Netherlands you know and the way i have understood the country is that the entire country is one city. And so, i don’t necessarily draw the boundaries between one place and another just when a building stops. So i’m interested more in the architecture of territory. How is life constituted and how is it sustained. Answering this question entails the very basic diagrammatic forms of analysis we apply to a building. Like circulation, like program, like massing and energy analysis, everything. And we can scale that up to this island, so instead of a building we are creating it’s an island we are sustaining. So i see it very much like a question of architecture. I really value what i would call architectural intelligence, an architectural way of seeing, an architectural perspective. I think by studying buildings architects are really imbued with the very unique way of seeing the relationship between parts and the relationship between different scales. That way of seeing the world, that form of knowledge, that body of knowledge, that form of intelligence is essential for understanding the more nuanced and complicated complexities that are presenting themselves today within the context of climate change, within the context of population growth, within the context of global territorialization, where every single inch of the globe is covered, and mapped, protected, lived in through one form or another.
TH: Coming back to our theme, the climate change of work, it feels such an urgent skill to be able to relate local personal experiences (like of weather) with the practise of working with models and looking at how the world works in much bigger scale (like as climate).
NA: I’m curious about things like how do we walk. How do these very minute gestures of our bodies lead to certain climatological practises and also influence how, for example, the rain falls. I think this is a question of how the way we live influences this wider universal system that cannot be grasped as such. We might understand that it does, but we don’t actually know how. And i think this is really the question that we are hopefully able to address at the summer school. To not come up with universal solutions but to just begin to layout a methodology to at least understand the relationship between such two dramatically different scales. Because it will be different in every place as well. It will be different in this island than in Helsinki.
TH: Is there certain books, or writers who have been important for you in opening up this kind of architectural intelligence?
NA: I have a list of readings and films that i plan to discuss, and hopefully watch and read collectively during the workshop. This is certainly not an ideology that i would really advocate but Timothy Morton’s concept of the hyperobject is a very good way of understanding the ways that the body relates to climate. It’s unfortunately still stays at the level of a metaphor and just hopes that you get what he is already talking about. There’s a number of other things. One is a quite complex text by Brian Kuan Wood who is an editor at e-flux journal called “We Are the Weather.” It would be incredible to get Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. which is a really nice way of showing the relationship between meteorology and labour. At the same time there are some films like Adam Curtis’ Pandora’s Box and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color that will be interesting to think though. They’re both, but in very different way, dealing with questions of how we become attuned to our environment. How do we begin to think and speak in the language of trees for example. But Pandora’s Box is a really interesting series that in one episode looks at the origins of social engineering and then in another looks at the construction of a hydrological dam in Nigeria. I think this tie or link between the body and the climate is something still needs to be made. So what i’m hoping to do is to posit the two next to each other and then set it as a question of design, a question of art, a question of creativity.
TH: Is there anything else you want to say about your workshop? Last time we talked you said something about these places in the Soviet Union where one could re-learn how to do certain practical tasks.
NA: Yeah, that’s the social engineering thing. And there is also chronophotography, like the work of Étienne-Jules Marey, the tracking of the movement. Body tracking is a provocation i’m interested in here. Like the Gilbreths, who put a grid behind the worker and attached lights to their pens to find irregularities in their movements.
TH: What would you do with your life if you would graduate from design or architecture school right now?
NA: Try and work for a place you really believe in. Whose work you think is really contributing to society. This could mean not focusing so much on your own design aesthetics at the very beginning. To learn a form of practise more than style.
TH: Who were the people who were important for you?
NA: I worked for Elemental in Chile and I felt that was a really transformative experience for me because I had been interested in the social dimension of architecture for a long time, social housing etc. and then i got the chance to see what that was like. To really to use the opportunities available after graduating from school to not necessarily, say, follow your dreams, but to really learn. Like, if you want to design cities, go to work for a firm that is actually designing cities in China. They could be the ugliest most unsustainable cities in the world, but i think it’s like what Keller Easterling says that it’s not about what, it’s about how. It’s not important to know that cities are being designed; it’s important to know what it takes to do so. What sorts of things are being said at the table. What are the sort of things that are, and are not possible within that. I think I would also recommend people to not be so judgemental. To not let one part of yourself get in the way of another part. If you know what you care about, you can kind of sacrifice your own personal agenda, your ethos to learn how to get to the position you want to be at the first place. That is important.