Saturday, July 30, 1994

Over a Bowl of Fruit

 Interview with John Hejduk
El País, July 30, 1994, Babelia, Number 145, page 15.
©  David Cohn, El País 1994. All rights reserved.

New York architect John Hejduk speaks in parables around his subject, awkwardly, inarticulate, defensively combative and boastful, stumbling over words with the blunted accent of his native Bronx. Trying to express the motivating passions of his work, his only recourse is to repeat his startling images and associations: between the paintings of Edward Hopper and the streets of Berlin, which he sought to capture in his 1988 housing there, of the palpable "breath" of a statue of Bacchus, or how a bowl of wax fruit captures "exactly" how the 1930s felt in the United States: "That's - how - it - felt."

Like Frank Gehry, he belongs to that likeable species of unlikely intellectuals, the bashful, self-doubting beneficiaries of mass access to higher education in the United States. Born in 1929, he graduated in 1946 from The Cooper Union, a small, highly competitive private institution where tuition is free. After additional studies at Harvard and work in various offices, including I.M. Pei's, he returned to teach at Cooper in 1964, and has been its Dean of Architecture since 1975.

Hejduk's architectural production is unique and difficult to define, largely restricted to sketches and drawings, to what he calls "research into the soul of architecture," which he publishes from time to time in books he compares to musical compositions. His stark poetic images are marked by the obsessions of his postwar generation. Disillusioned with ideology, haunted by Hiroshima and the Holocaust, he and his contemporaries had retreated in the 1960s into a silent geometric formalism, the minimalism latent in the American Puritan tradition, but in his current work these long-hidden concerns find their voice through the same reduced vocabulary.

Of his most recent book, Soundings, he says, "All that work, right? The ideas and thoughts of a lifetime of 45 years. But here it is in the age of the soundbite, the celebration of chaos, an extraordinary day-glo attitude towards things. And I come out with a book that's BLACK and WHITE and JUST SKETCHES. Which has to do with the circle, the square, and the triangle. And it's like Bach in the sense that it plays on the frame of architecture. You keep on going with very simple elements and you get the tonal characteristics of sounds. Soundings has multiple meanings. It's a very Catholic book. In a religious way, too, a spiritual way. It hits many things, the Holocaust, Berlin..."

For Hejduk, the essential measure of architecture is the elusive concept of tone, an "unearthly sound-aura," a kind of materialization of spirituality: "When I look at a work of architecture my first question is, 'Does that building give off a tone?' It sounds trite, but the great cathedrals, they have tone. Le Corbusier's La Roche-Jeanneret house has tone. It appears to be a house, but all I have to do is change the names of the rooms and it becomes a church."

"My work appears to be simple. But the tone comes from the complexity of the thoughts, even the quantity of thoughts. That's the secret. Not to reduce something to a minimum condition but to achieve a maximum condition. And that will exude the final tone."

Hejduk sees his isolated role, with few built works to his name, as almost "monastic," "a radical act to preserve the spirituality of art." "The essence of my approach is my discipline," he goes on. "I am an architect. I love my discipline. And I believe I'm probably one of a very few, the true researchers. There aren't too many around, you know. You have medicine, right? You have the medical people who save lives. Like Salk. But there is also a group of people that are saving lives in a different way. They are no less."

But he rejects the idea that his work is strictly theoretical: "Hey, I'm an architect. And when I build, I build well. But it's a different attitude towards the practice of architecture." In fact, he deplores the emphasis given to architectural theory in recent years: "Language is drowning out architecture. Architects are trying to obfuscate language. Words, words, they're throwing them out. And it's all so thin. There's no thickness in it."

On his buildings for the IBA housing exhibition in Berlin, he says, "Too many architects don't breathe in the city that they are building for. They're not gentle. They have to express themselves in muscular terms, which have nothing to do with the ambience, the total history of a place. When I built the tower in Berlin, I really studied Berlin. I think I placed a building there that will always be part of that city in the deepest sense of the word. And yet it's a radical building. Hey -- I'm one of the few architects in all that thing that gave the people -- SPACE -- LIGHT -- AIR -- VIEWS --. I don't make separations between the socio-political, the aesthetic and the formal. It's all part of this great art of approximation."

Referring to his yet-to-be-built project in Santiago de Compostela for a botanical pavilion in the Belvis Park, he talks about the relation of material and space: "Glass and stone towers, connected by steel. Talk about building. Wow. No bullshit. The simplicity, the solidity of space, right? The great religious philosophers always talk about the soul of a material. You see? That's important. It's not just material. Few architects really know this."

But Hejduk feels that his message is finally beginning to get across. "More and more people are beginning to understand what I've devoted my life to. To both conserve and also present a new architecture, in the deep sense of the word. My works are tied to past things, but they are also future things. There is no present."

We ended the interview with the bowl of wax fruit on his desk, part of an exercise he'd given his students. First he asked them to choose which "tasted" best: a bowl of real fruit from a nearby Korean grocery, an identical bowl of wax fruit, or the fruit in a painting by Cezanne. "95% chose the actual fruit. I thought that they would like the Cezanne. I thought it was more delicious delicious. That was my naivete. Or maybe they were trying to give me a message."

The next assignment was to make a piece of fruit out of wood that "has to taste like the fruit." Hejduk took me through the studio to see the results: an exquisitely balanced banana, a split apple with white meat and tiny seeds, a bruised peach, the sun-dried skin of an orange, all eloquent dialogues between the properties of fruit and wood. Carried away with emotion, Hejduk told me, "I've become the student of them. A new school of architecture is forming, as radical as the Bauhaus was in its time. But through this (pointing to the fruit). Not words thrown into the air and obfuscation."

"My wife told me that the Pompeians always had a bowl of fruit on a table in their houses," he concluded. "And that bowl of fruit was not eaten by the family. It was for travelers and strangers. Now if that doesn't have to do with house and architecture, I don't know what does."

Georges Braque  
Plums, Pears, Nuts and Knife
© Phillips Collection, Washington, DC