Alberto Perez-Gomez to give commencement address

School News

Alberto Perez-Gomez to give commencement address

May 13, 2014

Alberto Perez-Gomez is Professor of the History of Architecture at McGill University in Montreal, where he directs the History and Theory option. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics (2006) and Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge with Louise Pelletier (2003). On May 16, 2014, he will give the commencement address for the USC School of Architecture.


“At graduation we try to focus on critical architectural thinkers who can offer a moment of intellectual reflection,” says Gail Borden, discipline head of architecture and director of the graduate program. “Perez-Gomez’s work and focus on methodology are true to this mission and align with our values as a school.”


Guy Horton recently spoke with Perez-Gomez about the role of the theorist-historian in contemporary architecture and what he hopes to communicate to the graduates.


Guy Horton: What is the role of the historian theorist in contemporary practice?
Alberto Perez-Gomez:
That depends on whether practitioners appreciate it! To write! But reading is not that popular these days [laughs]. Theory is about raising the questions that make design culturally relevant and to understand the discursive dimensions of practice. Theory has broad implications and is needed to ground architecture, to give it a proper position. It’s not enough to follow the dictates of clients. This is about taking an ethical position. Disciplines like architecture, medicine, and law are always engaged with big ethical questions.


GH: What is the role of history and theory in architectural pedagogy?

APG: It’s a similar issue. Architecture tends to see itself as being about know-how, but its only through a broad foundation in history, philosophy, and the humanities that we can more purposefully form architecture with a broad view. This is something larger than simply getting things done, which has the tendency to become a default position in architecture.


GH: One of your interests is phenomenology? Why is this framework important?
APG: This is a big issue that comes out of continental European philosophy. I was always interested in Hegel and the importance of experience as the foundation of knowledge. Like sunrise and sunset. We know it’s not the sun moving but we frame it as rising and setting, our subjective experience of it. Experience is crucial in architecture. Designs are always mediated through drawings, the computer. There is a tendency to not deal properly with experience. There is the assumption that what is designed on the computer is what others experience. That’s the issue. This gap has incredible repercussions. Particularly now with parametrics. It’s a total fallacy that such forms are meaningful. What matters is the experience of embodied consciousness in action, not a Cartesian mind-body dichotomy.


GH: I’ve read that you are also a poet. Why poetry? What do you get from poetry?
APG: All language is originally poetic. This comes from phenomenology. It’s imperative. It isn’t a one to one relationship between language and meaning. Languages at root are metaphoric and function like poetry. Think of Octavio Paz. Architecture functions in this universe of the polysemy. Architecture functions metaphorically. It becomes critical when architecture is described as function or a sign of problems being solved. This is a byproduct of the 19th century. There is an unstated expectation that architecture is for solving problems. If planning is one to one then this is limiting. Like formalistic expressionism. What I am working on right now has to do with the role language in design. The nature of imagination is primarily linguistic. We don’t pay proper attention to the role of language.


GH: Why did you take the history theory path as opposed to practice?

APG: I did practice and always intended to return to practice but one thing led to another. I felt I needed to know more to practice responsibly. Then I was asked by people like Daniel Libeskind and Joseph Rykwert to teach. I’ve been teaching for over 35 years. 27 of them at McGill.


GH: Who were your biggest influences?

APG: Probably Dalibor Vesely. He was my most important teacher during my PhD in England, where I went to graduate school.


GH: What do you value in architecture?

APG: Responsiveness to culture. Architects have a responsibility to pay attention to cultures around the world. The atmospheres we make communicate on an emotional level. 20 percent of our brains is linguistic and 80 percent is pre-reflective, emotional. The possibility to speak at this level of emotion is critical for architecture to be relevant to humanity.


GH: What do you want to communicate to the graduates?

APG: That is very difficult. Trying to bring up a number of these issues in a short period of time [laughs].


GH: Is this your first time visiting USC?

APG: No. I came once to give a lecture and was actually asked to stay and teach. This was back in the eighties.


GH: What Are you currently working on?

APG: I’ll be on sabbatical next semester and I’m working on a book project on the concept of atmosphere from the 19th century on, from the German word stimmung. I’m tracing it back to the Greeks, actually, because, of course, this is what I do [laughs].


It’s a useful term to deal with in terms of honoring emotional experience in architecture. Architecture is not totally dependent on the aesthetics of form and the point is to try to understand architectural meanings that go beyond formal questions. Le Corbusier once famously said Gaudi was the best architect of his generation. And he could say this because he was talking about architecture in a way that transcends mere style or outward appearances.


GH: There is a lot of discussion about globalization and homogeneity in architecture. How do you see it?

APG: Architecture gets lost in issues of form and style, especially these days when we are bombarded with so much imagery and because of the way we work, always gazing at computer screens and working on remote sites. Formal approaches become fashion. When this happens we lose sight of cosmic experience. Once this is gone, architecture is lost. How can it effectively communicate? We generate architecture that is appreciated by other architects.


I am also looking at the role of language in the process of design and how it grounds the architectural imagination in the culture it wants to serve. The stories people tell about the spaces they inhabit and about culture are important. It’s important that architects engage this. Language can negotiate between local culture and forms, looking at life and the way we live it.


Real problems stem from the split between form and making that came about in the 19th century and it has only gotten more extreme in the world of globalization. The way to deal with this is through dialog, through hermeneutics, and the articulation of local meanings. The richness of humanity depends on the fact that we are always translating and mediating.


GH: When is your book coming out?

APG: [laughs] I don’t work that way. There is no date. It’s a journey.