Apartamento Magazine - James Wines

James Wines

Text and illustrations by James Wines
Photography by Jody Rogac

Apartamento Magazine - James Wines
Apartamento magazine issue #26

After featuring James Wines in issue #26 of Apartamento, we asked the New York-based artist/architect to elaborate on some of the themes he talked about in his interview with contributing editor Leah Singer. Wines co-founded the architecture firm SITE in 1970 and perhaps his best-known works are those he designed for BEST Products: suburban retail outlets that looked incomplete, abandoned, and destroyed, challenging the appeal of the generic sprawling shopping malls popping up across the country. His work critiques the practice of architecture, the context in which it exists, and the very means of its construction. Below, he shares some thoughts about the future of architecture in the 21st century, a period of multiple ongoing global crises.


We covered a lot of art and architecture territories in our dialogue for the hard copy of Apartamento magazine; so I will try to add some general comments on the overall cultural ambiguities we find ourselves in today. Primarily, this is a moment in architectural history when professional practice appears to be confronting its most complex and confounding challenges. The coronavirus pandemic’s impact has left the design scene in a state of unique ambivalence, where all of the qualifying rituals for past success appear to be in head-on collision with reality. As an artist/architect dedicated to conceptual, theoretical, and aesthetic priorities, the whole situation makes me feel a little like the proprietor of a pricey restaurant, with closely spaced tables, forced to operate in a world of social distancing. The urgency of my services seems questionable, to say the least. This (no end in sight) global scenario of health threats, economic peril, and political conflict has decimated all of those formerly reassuring art and design career assumptions.
Adding to these anxieties, my primary uncertainties now are based on my position as an artist who invaded architecture through the back door. For me, working in this hybrid context has always been a state of mixed blessings. Over the years, my commitment to the integrative arts has generated a roller-coaster sequence of critical controversy, professional rejection, economic instability, conceptual innovation, media attention, artistic satisfaction, and a few moments of glory along the way. In totality, my career choice has been high-risk and not recommended for anyone whose objective is job security. The main challenge, for me, has been actually practising this fusion of the arts. It meant that both clients and audience were required to share my integrative approach and feel comfortable with unconventional aesthetic relationships.

Apartamento Magazine - James Wines
High-Rise of Homes, a research project by James Wines & SITE, 1981.

I was lucky to have existing art patrons from my early sculpture career in the ‘60s—mainly the collectors Sydney and Frances Lewis and David Bermant—so I was able to engage their interest in SITE’s evolving theories and propositions. Also, I had a 1980s collaborative relationship with the fashion designer Willi Smith and his business partner Laurie Mallet. When reminiscing now, I realise that everything our WilliWear team produced in those days was based on ‘people interaction’—in stark contrast to present-day social distancing. There is such a sad irony in the fact that the current Willi Smith retrospective at Cooper Hewitt Museum is celebrating his integrative vision during a time of obligatory isolation, massive community unrest, environmental destruction, and a neo-fascist administration in Washington—the antithesis of everything Willi’s philosophy and creativity was about.
In crediting Willi and our shared interest in the public domain, the entire premise of this motivation was based on a fusion of the arts and the pleasure of working in the streets. His focus was fashion design and mine was parks and plazas. If architecture wanted to apply these same initiatives today, it would mean a total change of approach. For example, in terms of new public space design and facing the unpredictable patterns of virus attacks, there will be a percentage of apprehensive people who prefer to continue social distancing, while an opposing segment of the population will demand ever-greater community clustering. As a result, the question is how to create public spaces that can accommodate both physical realities. Solutions suggest multilayered cityscapes, where pedestrians circulate on different levels and auto traffic is restricted to central (or largely underground) transportation arteries. There is a legacy of late-19th-century and early-20th-century drawings of layered urban centres, but today’s civic investment restraints and construction budgets make such fantasy proposals infeasible. This creation of dual accommodation—separation + inclusion—may become one of the most demanding and contradictory challenges of the future.
Adding to this conundrum, real estate industry paradigms and the fundamental design of buildings will require re-evaluation. The pressure will be on finding ways to include less-toxic material choices, eliminate the excessive use of fossil fuels, and construct smaller structures in general. The overall challenge will be meeting the requirements of burgeoning international populations versus the inevitability of shrinking space enclosures—all of this while serving under an umbrella of environmental responsibility. Adaptive re-use of existing buildings and expanded means of renovation offer some remedial solutions, but too many earlier structures include inflexible planning strategies, obsolete building systems, or construction with ecologically destructive processes in the first place. Also, there is the question of how architects will deal with the aesthetic aspects of design, given the inevitability of reduced budgets and less support for the kind of physically extravagant configurations that have proliferated over the past few decades. In truth, the architecture world could benefit enormously by heeding Picasso’s advice on creativity: ‘Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress you can’t even imagine in advance’.
Another mega-issue that must be addressed with a greater sense of urgency is the ever-increasing need for green space in cities. This imperative is based on that oft-repeated guideline for healthy living: ‘one tree means four people can breathe’. Also, since trees store carbon dioxide, clean the air, and reduce the negative effects of CO2, a serious escalation of ‘urban forests’ has already been initiated in many cities. Toronto, for example, currently has a 28 percent tree canopy and expects to have 40 percent coverage by 2050. New York, which has improved radically over the last decade—now with 5.2 million trees—has 21 percent coverage, with an objective of 30 percent by 2050. As a younger city, Toronto has many physical advantages, while New York continues its conflicts with omnivorous real estate development and the reality of too much paved-over territory already. Solutions come down to urban design policies, the questionable feasibility of vast green roofs (considering the weight and amount of soil essential for large trees), and the apportioning of commercial versus park space. In the end, improvements will depend on the sympathies of city dwellers and their politicians towards the whole idea of urban forests.
The most universal dilemma today—again, exacerbated by the coronavirus—is the ‘rich world/poor world’ conflict at the root of all architecture and city planning. As the stark realities of this pandemic have already demonstrated, its devastation has impacted all communities along racial and economic lines. To change this inequitable pattern is the most complex trial of all and goes far beyond architecture. The prevailing condition of poor people living in poverty-stricken slums under the shadow of corporate towers is still among the most blatantly visible evidence of a sociological Armageddon. Without vast philosophical, financial, and political changes (which are usually about as realistic as expecting Martians to touch down next week) the only services that architecture can provide are related to the design of modest forms of shelter that are technically innovative, economically feasible, and environmentally responsible, and that somehow allow the inhabitants a more generous measure of personal expression and an opportunity to achieve individual identity in the public domain. Since where and how people live has such a profound impact on their sense of community status and personal self-respect, this equity topic probably needs the most attention of all in architecture for the 21st century.

Apartamento Magazine - James Wines
High-Rise of Homes, a research project by James Wines & SITE, 1981.

As a partial (and definitely theoretical) proposal for looking at this ‘identity in density’ issue, I introduced SITE’s 1981 High-Rise of Homes concept. Admittedly, this is another architecturally elitist idea that, if actually built, would only be available to affluent residents. The reason I mention it here is because the project offers a special focus on people’s psychological need for a tangible acknowledgement of their personal presence in the cityscape. This condominium idea is composed of 10–25 storeys to be located in a densely populated urban centre. It is intended as the sociological/aesthetic equivalent of a condition that Marcel Duchamp once referred to as ‘canned chance’. The structural configuration is a steel and concrete matrix that supports a vertical community of individual houses, clustered into distinct village-like communities on every floor. Each level provides a flexible platform that can be purchased as separate real estate parcels. A central elevator and mechanical core provide services to the individual homes, gardens, and interior walkway streets. The philosophical motivation behind this concept is a critique of the 20th-century tradition of homogenised and faceless multistorey buildings, which eliminate the possibility of inhabitants achieving any evidence of their own identity. The objective is to shift the premises for aesthetic evaluation and residential lifestyle in tall buildings away from formulaic modernist- or constructivist-influenced design, in favour of the inherent vitality of collage-like choices. While the High-Rise of Homes continues as only theoretical at this point, it does emphasise the value of challenges to existing shortcomings in architecture’s familiar paradigms. Mainly, it recognises humanising alternatives for people living in overly prescriptive and visually boring buildings.
Artists and intellectuals, in general, tend to live like protected species in a greenhouse. We benefit from the privileges of our educated (and presumably more esteemed) points of view. We often feel estranged from average society and above its commonplace public discourse. On one hand, as the beneficiaries of a more informed perspective, we can see and assess the obvious decline of culture, education, politics, and quality of life. But, on the other hand, I consistently feel there is a dangerous equation between our imperious overviews and a disconnected acceptance of passivity, most likely related to a suppressed sense of helplessness.
From my own perspective, since my expertise is in the visual arts, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in self-critique and asking questions concerning what art and architecture can provide of value to this pandemic-plagued world and its indeterminate aftermath. My conclusion is ‘rethinking everything’. Such innovative thoughts in the arts don’t alleviate the urgency of sociological, economic, and health-related problems, but they do establish a valuable standard for creative thought process (in every profession) and avoid succumbing to the status quo.
Marcel Duchamp was one of the most exemplary masters of rethinking. He wisely observed that ‘to be truly creative in life means you have to clean off your desk at least three times’. From my own ‘desk cleaning’ perspective, during the ‘60s, I had already dismissed all of that regressive academic baggage from college, discarded my early artworks, and questioned the artistic relevance of my public sculpture (which had flourished successfully up until the late ‘60s). In response, I abandoned a constructivist-influenced sculpture career and plunged into architecture. Since I had embarked on this transformation with limited experience and naïve ambitions, I applied the harshest levels of criticism to everything I had been doing in the past. It basically meant questioning every derivative idea, conventional standard, stylistic persuasion, and traditional paradigm for polite art and design—meaning a rejection of all those comfort-driven temptations of ‘if-you-please’ good taste. To quote another example of Duchamp’s perspicacious strategies for sustained creativity, he acknowledged, ‘I taught myself to contradict myself, in order to avoid conforming to my own taste’.
As an artist, I feel especially apprehensive and inadequate in proposing meaningful ideas for the future. As an architect, I sense there are more possibilities for making concrete and progressive changes. Just for a start, buildings consume more than two-fifths of global energy supplies. Architects talk a lot about saving the world, but the main challenges are connected to the way industrialisation imposes its inescapable dependency on limited power sources. Unfortunately, given this entrapment within a rigid economic structure, it would be impossible for vast sections of the global population to survive, without a fossil fuel addiction. This ‘universal systems’ approach is fundamentally unsustainable. For example, there has been a three-decades long expansion of massive urban projects in virtually every country. Invariably, the results have been manifested in millions of acres of concrete paving and endless clusters of glass skyscrapers. Regrettably, the primary motivations have been real estate greed.
Globalisation is not necessarily bad in itself. Unfortunately, it has been too reliant on an irresponsible consumption of energy and the uncontrolled expansion of industrial demands. From an ethical and humanitarian perspective, I would say that every architect in the world should be focused on solving some aspect of this earth-centric challenge. It is particularly significant that Trump is anti-environmental and doesn’t believe in global warming. Since he represents the most all-inclusive antithesis of sustainable values, he must be considered an ominous symbol of everything humanity should be resisting. In terms of an opposing commitment in architecture, the initial phases will be remedial for a long time, but the ultimate objectives should be environmentally revolutionary.

Apartamento Magazine - James Wines
architecture, essay
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