Jaque: “Innovating is directly proportional to the risk you assume”

Architecture was the science of construction until Andrés Jaque appeared. That world order trembled when he said that urban planning has much more to do with the way in which a family sits down at the table than a conference centre.

For the recent winner of a León de Plata (Silver Lion) award at the Venice Biennial, architecture is impregnated with politics.  Not the kind that takes place in parliament, but rather the kind referenced by Carl Schmitt.”It is quite an old definition, but it is still very valid today,” he explains. “This sociologist said that we need to process differences in the knowledge that conflicts do not disappear.The only solution is to deal with them to avoid situations of exclusion or violence.”

Jaque’s idea of politics is built on this “certainty of the fact that there are interests that cannot be reconciled” and “the interpretation of Walter Lippmann.This thinker said that what is hidden is the mass of intentions. All those sensitivities that fail to find their place in the world of important things or in the collective decision-taking process unless processes are created to make them heard.That process that makes it possible to hear those opinions is also politics.”

And, based on that idea, he set up his architect studio in the year 2000.  However, as his interest has never been construction, but rather people and spaces, networks and activism, he called it the Political Innovation Office.It is an epicentre for architects, sociologists, filmmakers, journalists and designers, etc., where they look at the space in a different way.There, they study boathouses, Hare Krishna communities, enclosed convents, New York funeral parlours or student houses.

Andrés Jaque is in Madrid.  At his studio. That place where, among other activities, he works from a distance with a distributed network of collaborators. Jorge Martínez and Enrique Gracián have paid him a visit.They want to know how he works and what he thinks of creativity.The first question points straight at the heart.

J.M. You say that a meal with friends or a street market is also architecture.Why?

A.J. Architecture is first and foremost about situations. Situations that are built from technologies. This is somewhat novel, yet it has also always been this way. Looking at things that way lets you innovate a lot because you feel free from the ties architecture has had to date.For example, that anything can be solved through building, that walls are the most important parts or that permanence is important.

J.M. How much artistic creativity is there in your work?

A.J. That depends on what you understand by artistic creativity.I like contemporary art insofar as it dares to go beyond issues related to politics, aesthetics, gender or exclusion, etc., also in experimentation and radicalness.

Right now we are undergoing a total transformation of our medium. What I like about artistic experiences is that they assume a great deal of risk and can go wrong.

J.M. And how much research is there?

A.J. An enormous amount. We spend over 60% of our time doing research. We take small fragments of reality and study them in very close detail. For example, we study how a group of people reach an agreement to sit down at the table or how the decision is taken on how to fill a glass of water. When you look at all this in detail, you realise that it has all the complexity of a city.The good thing is that, if you change how a glass of water is filled, you can change how a city behaves.

We take small fragments of reality and study them in very close detail

J.M. You have taught at different universities of Madrid, Alicante, Columbia, Princeton and it is quite clear that you are interested in the academic world. I understand that they are not only spaces for teaching, but also for research.How do you use them and how do you transport everything you learn to your production context?

A.J. There was a moment when it seemed that everything related to innovation was to be found in enterprise. That’s the way it was in architecture. It seemed that everything new was done in an office. But the truth is that, now, everything is much more complex. Nowadays, you have to manage a great deal of information and have the capacity for developing software. Today, it is very difficult to innovate solely from an office. The most effective working method is through a network. Bringing together very different players (associations, institutions, etc.) on one single project. And the differences between the individuals you bring together give rise to the opportunity for innovation. Now my interest lies in keeping my office as something that is very risky, a place where people can discuss things that outside may seem ridiculous, and incorporating them in what we do at university.Our potential lies in such collaboration.

A lot can be gained from these universities. For example, durability of the research work, the collaboration of important experts, working with methods that guarantee results… Everything that makes radical experiments have a greater social impact.

And we can collaborate with people who help us to be successful with our project. At the moment, for example, we are part of an ordinary sociological research project. Collaborating with sociologists is fantastic because they can provide us with references or speak to us about new situations we are unaware of. For me, innovation now comes from association. Not only people who are very similar to you, but also groups, associations or individuals who are very different. Those differences spark off other things.

Jorge Martínez, Enrique Gracián y Andrés Jaque

J.M. What is the Political Innovation Office?

A.J. Let’s start by saying what it isn’t. It appeared because we wanted to completely redo the way people work in architecture. And we wanted to do it in many ways. In themes, for example. It seemed that architecture had to be very complacent vis-à-vis society, and devote itself simply to fulfilling commissions from existing clients. But we weren’t interested in that. We thought we could invent our clients and detect situations that require intervention.That’s why we call it politics.

We understood that our role was to put agents who were in conflict in contact with each other, and mediate between them, generating situations that, without our intervention, would have been impossible.  One example is Ikea Disobedients. It was a project we invented to give people power against the idea of the independent republic of your home.We saw that homes have situations that involve participation and the intention of improving society.

We decided to turn it into a performance or architectural situation and it had a great impact.Ikea changed its advertising campaigns and started to say that the revolution starts in your home. They also called us to work with them. Today, the project is part of the MOMA collection and it is now on exhibition in four cities at the same time. It’s a type of project you can only do if you create another type of office.

J.M. You say you don’t have to wait until you are commissioned to do a project.But, what do you do to make sure it isn’t just an exhibition and that it can be turned into a reality?

A.J. Exhibitions are very powerful. We shouldn’t underestimate them. Don’t think that reality is what is happening in the street. As human beings, we live in museums, magazines, television… The part of our life that is developed in the media is as real as what we do in the supermarket.Supermarkets are built depending on what happens in magazines or on the social media or tracking searches on the Internet.

It is necessary to adjust our idea of reality

 Real space is not only what is offline.Urban planning right now is building much more in those spaces than in the spaces of everyday life. This is not at all easy. It requires coordination between a great deal of knowledge and a great deal of technology. One of the most important challenges facing contemporary urban planning is bringing together the online and offline worlds to make them powerful and create politically active citizens. Making what we do with our smartphone actually be connected to what we can achieve offline.And there is hardly anyone working in this field at the present time.

There is an interpretation which, in my opinion, is completely out of place now. It is that which holds that citizens act only in the street.We can see this in the reports on 15-M, Occupy Wall Street… They tend to think that everything happened on Puerta del Sol or the spaces that were occupied in New York or North Africa… We made a detailed study of the space in which a political effect occurred and discovered that the great transformation brought about by 15-M didn’t happen only in Sol.It happened in the Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology of the Complutense University, in the activation of the houses that were occupied, such as the Escalera Caracola, in the collaboration of groups such as Erre que erre or the creation of the Transmaricabollo group in the plaza…

When we mapped all that out, we saw that it made up an urban planning that was much more complex than the plaza.There were social media, numerous websites… That is contemporary urban planning. Can we design it? I think we can. We can empower it, collaborate and intervene… Something which, so far, has happened spontaneously can become the new space of the 21st century.That is the challenge.

J.M. What is life between Andrés Jaque Arquitectos and the Political Innovation Office like?

A.J. It has been a constantly changing relationship. When we opened the architecture studio in the year 2000, the context made it difficult to assimilate the Political Innovation Office. We knew that was the way it had to be done, but certain commissions became problematic if we signed them with that name. The term “political” generated a lot of mistrust. So we decided we needed to have two offices. One, the real one, was the political innovation office and the one that organised our work on the inside; then there was another one, which was a kind of mask. It was to be an interface that presented us the way people expected to see an architecture office. We gave that one the typical name of Andrés Jaque Arquitectos.It was a disguise and it worked very well.

But what happened was that all the initial resistance became appreciation. There was more and more interest in the political innovation office, especially in an international context. They started to ask us to remove the name of Andrés Jaque Arquitectos. Then, we realised there was a space for what we were doing. Now we have a permanent office in Madrid, with hired workers, working hours, etc. and it works like any other office.

But, I spend 80% of my time outside Madrid and that’s no problem at all. Now we are working on projects in Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. We are working with people in Israel and Sweden. And none of that is a problem. We have built protocols that let us connect from a distance and relate to other people who do not form part of the project. Some time ago, we mapped out all the players who take part in our working environment. It was huge. On some projects, the whole network was activated, and on others it wasn’t.

This form of networking, which can be activated, deactivated, which can emerge, disappear, be concentrated or decentralised, means creating an office that mirrors the complexity that exists out there, as well as the worlds to which we want to connect.It’s a job that has to be done every day if you want to innovate and be relevant.

J.M. You work with sociologists, anthropologists, filmmakers… What role do they play and how do you integrate them in your work process?

A.J. The first thing we do together is experiment. There are no preset results, but we always make sure that the investments bring a return. We also know that the capacity for innovation is directly proportional to the risk you assume. And that leads to a very different way of organising business activity. By working with other profiles, we force ourselves to publish details that would otherwise be encrypted. We have established that everyone at the studio has to be ready to present what they are doing. That way, we can discuss things with other people. We also make large models because models are spaces for discussion. It is not a space for confirmation or seduction.They are laboratories where we play, as if we were playing with Playmobil dolls.

Andrés Jaque

J.M. In some of your written work, you refer to Bruno Latour. We are very interested in this sociologist’s idea of the laboratory as a political, economic and social context. How are these theories related to your work?

A.J. Latour and his environment have been very important to us for three reasons. First of all, for his idea that things are not determined by context, but rather occur depending on how they connect with others. This shows that technology, objects and ideas have the same status as people.This is the key to understanding the role of technology today.

The second reason is understanding thatprocesses of innovation are, in fact, society itself.All societies are constantly being reviewed, discussed and remade… There is no one division between society, on the one hand, and on the other, experts saying what needs to be done. Society as a whole is continuously thinking, discussing and being transformed… With this in mind, the architect’s job changes radically. He doesn’t have to decide how to make a house.It is necessary to be very attuned to the changes that are already taking place and see how we can be a part of them.

The third is the vision of politics.  We tend to think that politics takes place in parliaments and elections.  But in reality, politics is embedded in everything we do. The difference requires political management. The difference implies unsolvable conflicts, which are not going to be eliminated and for which no agreement is going to be reached, as commented by Habermas [the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas].We have to coexist with controversy.This means that what we call urban (the large scale of the city) is now on any table and that the categories that were previously related to scale (territorial, architectural, industrial design…) do not actually work.The opportunities for evolving today exist in the search for how they relate to each other.

J.M. Toni Segarra has given me a question for you. He says he read that you often speak of situations which, in your colleagues’ opinion, are not architecture. To a certain extent, Ferran Adrià did the same. He went against his restaurant.Is going against the discipline for which you work unavoidable when you want to innovate?

A.J. Disciplines are much broader than their advocates claim. If you look at architecture carefully, it is very diverse. The only way of being serious in a discipline like this is looking beyond.For a long time, Spanish architecture has been completely constrained to a very small building model: by means of public tender, to make unique buildings, with high budgets, inspired by modern Scandinavian architecture… This has been the Spanish architecture of reference but, of course, that is a reduction of the reduction of the reduction of the reduction [laughs].

It is essential to relax a little and look at the world with a little more curiosity. What’s happening in urban planning is incredible. It is full of opportunities and conflicts. But, can we really think now that we can work from only one discipline? Nothing, absolutely nothing significant can be described from just one single perspective. If we consider environmental problems, problems related to democracy, the European Union, the possibilities offered by social media, the evolution of Internet scenarios… None of it can be seen from one single viewpoint. We need to get used to the fact that collaboration and discussion at much larger tables is absolutely necessary. The most interesting things happen through interdisciplinary approaches and whatever brings different kinds of knowledge together. It is also much more enjoyable, more reassuring and enriching than confirming your knowledge and complaining to your colleagues about how wrong the world is.

J.M. Another question from Toni. Architecture and cooking share the complexity of a specialised team and the need for tools to combat the artist’s solitude.What is the difference between the creative model of the artist and the team?

A.J. Many artists do not create in solitude. They work with large networks of people. I’m interested in that kind of work as an artist. I have always been fascinated by the possibilities of science and technique, but I also ignore the limits they have. That sits well with architecture because this discipline is a combination of applying and challenging.It seems very nice to me that there is a love of science and technology and yet, at the same time, a desire to challenge them.

Many artists do not create in solitude

J.M. Is it necessary to separate the process of creation from the execution?

A.J. Part of a serious process is guaranteeing responses and that does not happen on its own. You have to be organised to achieve it.We always work with that in mind and we strive to locate the risk.

J.M. Does there have to be a separation between the spaces for execution and research?

A.J. It depends on each case. We have studied what space is nowadays in detail. We tend to think that it is a space like that of the 15th century. Or even before then. Because there were technologies in the 15th century that connected one room with another in the distance. There are even many time games. A book is a capsule that rescues the past and a recipe is something that encapsulates a social fabric. This should be the starting point for thinking about institutions. It sounds philosophical but in practice it’s not. I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning in New York and I have messages from other parts of the world. I reply to them from my bed. I mix work messages with personal messages. Recently, we had a project in Japan. The work hours we had were almost incompatible and that required a space and time that were fun to explore. We were forced to mix private matters with work issues. You don’t have to manage those spaces simply to make sure they are not a problem. They are also a breeding ground for new possibilities. And I think that many of the best things that are happening now come from thinking in new formats. Indeed, it’s something we are all experiencing in a completely natural way, without even realising.

J.M. Are there politics in the kitchen?

A.J.   Absolutely. There are politics in everything, and perhaps there are more politics in the kitchen than in the parliament.  There are politics in the kitchen because there are technologies with very different ranges that come into contact with each other.  This gives rise to controversy.For example, there are conflicts between “fast food” and “fun to table”.They are completely different ideologies. But they are not simply ideas.They are whole societies that are in dispute and which we put together in the same dinner.This requires huge political articulation.I have been teaching in Tel Aviv and we were working on how the conflicts between Israel and Palestine are dealt with as part of everyday life.One of the large arenas in which articulation is done best is the kitchen.Interestingly, food can make negotiations, agreements and associations successful when they are impossible on a territorial scale.This shows that successful politics are not done in official spaces, but rather in living rooms, at dining tables, in beds, bathrooms, nightclubs, markets and motorways… In places we tend to consider irrelevant for politics.

Now I think designers, chefs and architects are more interested in politics than politicians. Because they often dedicate less time to politics than we think [laughs].

J.M. Is Ferran a chef or a researcher?

A.J. You can only be relevant if you face up to the unknown. I often think the only way of living in this world is to expose yourself and your group to the unknown. And you can only develop interesting creative work if you work on what is not yet known. When you break away from what we think is already known, different voices can be heard. If I work on something I know, I would not have to collaborate with anyone, but if I try to do something that is unfamiliar to me, I would have to ask a lot of people. That opens the door to participation by others and, in my opinion, that is how to work.It’s more difficult, requires more effort and it entails more risk, but it is the only way of forming part of the world.

Enrique Gracián: You place a lot of importance on networks. They say that knowledge networks (I don’t mean social media, but rather networks that generate and process knowledge) are a mess. We need someone to sort them out.With your work, are you investigating knowledge networks?

A.J. Yes, very much so. Part of our work is finding those networks, analysing them and intervening in them. We have found fascinating things.For example, the network of funeral parlours in New York is incredible.

The neighbourhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn are being completely gentrified. All the people who once lived there are being replaced by people with more money. Not many things are standing up to this process. One of them is the network of funeral parlours. They are holding out for two reasons. In the 1930s and 40s, there were many deaths in that area. They were constructing a lot of buildings and many workers died. Many licences were given to open funeral parlours. Each neighbourhood had 4 or 5. However, the neighbourhoods that grew in the surrounding area were much more luxurious and the societies that appeared there didn’t want their neighbours to be houses for the dead or places for extracting body fluids that were thrown into the sewers.

That’s why many people across the city have to go to those funeral parlours to hire their services. The interesting thing is that, in order to attend to so many clients, the businesses have developed very complex strategies so that one single parlour can attend Latin, African-American, Jewish and Moslem, etc. members of the general public.

These constructions are very precarious. They are made up of three people, a small parlour, two vans… But they have managed to organise themselves and hold out. They have been very powerful thanks to their capacity for association with very different social fabrics and because they have known how to connect with each other. One funeral parlour helps another and that other helps another and so on and, in the end, they create a mass of solidarity.

And they have been effective, especially because they have known how to administrate very diverse knowledge.Something as basic as a wide knowledge of languages or know-how so that the same room can be used for a Moslem or Jewish funeral.

It is a knowledge model that I would love to be able to bring to architecture. Contemporary urban planning would do better to learn from this than from the idea of empty spaces or grids or zoning or all the tools of urban planning from the past forty years.