Interview with AA Interprofessional Studio – Theo Lorenz and Prof. Dr. Tanja Siems

Performative Architecture

Exquisite Corpse London, photo by Valerie Bennett

The Interprofessional Studio at the Architectural Association in London is led by Theo Lorenz and Tanja Siems. Performative Architecture is defined as Architecture that is in its contemporary environment heading towards performative art, with the surroundings acting as the stage on which the building is able to perform and be on show. Borders between different disciplines and professions vanish, opening up new ways of perception, challenging traditional understandings of art, movement and space.

You are the Studio directors of the AA Interprofessional Studio at the Architectural Association, are running your own architectural practice and an art studio. Could you tell us about your practice?

Our practice t2 spatialwork ltd is one component of our overall network. We are less of a typical office that tries to build a discreet portfolio of constructions, but more a creative team that works from the scale of media installations, performative productions all the way to urban realisations, in most cases in collaboration with others. For example we recently worked on the ‘urban forest’ event in Costs Rica with local artist and institutions such as Metamind visuals and Veritas Univeristy as well as completing this year the realisation of the Dr.Schweitzer square in Brussels in collaboration with B612. All components of our work, the teaching, the practice and the art work is part of one overall way of working beyond the known frameworks and definitions and create new, in-between work.

In the course description of the Post-Graduate Diploma in Spatial Performance and Design, the AAIS, you are stating: “challenging the frontiers of working in between art, architecture and performance”. How are you defining `Performative Architecture´, this weeks theme?

In relation to performative architecture most might think either of performing arts in relation to ephemeral, spatial configurations and installations or on the other hand dynamic and responsive architectural systems. Both elements might be part of the studios work.

However the most important definition of performance is how these configurations are performing as an active network and hence as a generator of lasting aftereffects for all actants within it. It is not enough merely to create architectural ‘happenings’.

There are many example of performative architecture where temporal and non-physical aspects are highlighted and architectural elements are on purpose excluded or rushed. We believe however that both, performance and design form a permanent creative process that constantly generates unique outcomes and products.

If it is performative architecture it should create something beyond the spectacle and should always create something more then the expected.

How can one imagine a project at the AAIS?

A project of the AAIS is always accumulating in the overlaps of the various creative arts. In this way each project should be a unique, unprecedented work. The overall projects of the year are each time the result of our network of students and partners and supporters. In most cases our project are a series of spatial events that involve artists from various backgrounds such as music, performing arts and interaction designers but as well culinary artist and many more. In all cases the participating arts should be challenged and enriched through the others and the perception of the overall design forms one overall genre defining experience.

Can you please explain the various teaching, collaborative and conceptual processes at the AAIS and its projects?

Often creative individuals define their work and interest at home in more than one discipline. The Studio gives these individuals an opportunity to step away from their existing professional or academic activities and develop new creative skills and techniques as well as enjoy the intellectual simulation of the multidisciplinary overlap of the professions.  It acts as an invitation to build a network of professionals and experts from creative backgrounds as diverse and complementary as performance, design, music, film, photography, fashion, communication and curation through workshops and symposia, combining each creative language to work and study within the AA on concrete projects reflective of the various fields of research. Students are expected to have independence of creativity whilst having no option but to integrate into the collective practice of the ensemble.

We are lucky that for the last years we could collaborate with professional artist and partners such as the New Movement Collective, probably Britain’s most talented and innovative choreographers and dancers, Musictechnology, for production and innovation, Distractfold Ensemble, a group of a new generation of musicians and composers that understands to react to a networked mode of production, structural engineers WebbYates that like the challenge of responsive unusual constructions, but as well organisations like the Matadero Madrid, a huge creative centre in Madrid.

These bases allow the students from the various backgrounds as different as fashion, film, architecture and art or even jewelry design to work from the outset on a very professional level and free them to work beyond their own field of expertise. At the same time students of the course are on a post graduate level from various backgrounds with their own knowledge. In this way they each become at the same teacher for one discipline but students of many others.

Contrary to typical interdisciplinary design approaches, where individual professions remain in their respective field of expertise, the AAIS seeks to place students outside their comfort zone, acquiring knowledge from other disciplines that will ultimately influence, extend and adjust their own creative processes and practice.

Using realised projects the creative ideas of the participating students of the various disciplines get tested and developed through an active exchange with a live practice and audience.

To what extend is the AAIS challenging traditional means of architecture? Of course it is primarily taught by architects at an architectural University (Architectural Association), yet operating on multidisciplinary level.  Again the program briefly states the aim to loose boundaries while operating within the architectural realm, to what extent are you developing architectural strategies or theatre and art performances?

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The AA has always been a place that produced artist and innovators that worked beyond Architecture. To start a course that utilises this strength at this architectural school was the logical next step. Architecture, traditional or not always depends on a high level of collaboration and exchange, so it’s a good point to start from. We have tutors and partners from all backgrounds of the creative disciplines and most have more than one background.

The aim is not change architecture or any other creative discipline per se, but to maximise the multitude of outcomes and find new possibilities for the participating disciplines in their overlapping. While the projects should always be able to be seen as a product that is more than any of its discreet parts one should always be able to zoom into the various participating disciplines and judge them on a professional level and find specific innovation. They should never be compromised but always enriched. So the answer is that we are developing a deepened and negotiated network that contain architectural strategies, theatre and art performances.

Combining different disciplines and creating relation between source, the actor/dances, the viewer results in a performance, similar to modern dance. Yet how does it differ from the traditional theatre, dance or music performance?

The performative moments are the ones that are often the once that are most prominent in the documentation of the overall events. However it is only one part of the spatial performance and design of the projects. Bodies in Movement as well as a sonic environment are a very interesting possibility to explore spaces and interaction. The biggest different to traditional dance or music performance is how they come together. The choreographers and dancers and musicians work from the outset of the year closely together with the students. They test and develop various spatial, material or procedural ideas and designs of the students and as a result the spatial design, the sonic environment and the movement through them develops always together in a constant process. The events themselves are part of this process and is not just a fixed outcome. In a way the studio is in a permanent mode of open rehearsals of different intensity.

Is there a way to manifest performative architecture? Does it have to be or is it only supposed to create a momentum which then passes on? Does the documentation play a crucial part?

Documentation is important as points of reference. Performative Architecture should be constantly developing. Hence to be able to zoom in to some aspects of them and to communicate these to outside the network one needs to create as well documentation. However these will be either partial in relation to the actual events or they start to form an own product by itself. The best outcome of performative Architecture would always be that it does not manifest itself in one single permanent product, but that it produces a multitude of resulting products and outcomes in itself and as‘spin off’ projects.

Like mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Theo you are an architect, painter and media designer, Tanja, you are an urban designer, infrastructural planner and architectural professor at the University of Wuppertal, further your are running the architectural practice T2 spatial work together. Hence you are both operating within multiple disciplines. Can you elaborate on why, how and when you set up AAIS?

As mentioned before, we ourselves work in the overlap of many creative disciplines and there is a whole generation of people that we call slash-people that see themselves as more than any of established fields. The AA has seen the possibility to utilise these potentials and create a base to develop this further through actual applied projects within an academic environment. We did set up the course first as a Graduate Diploma to explore its wider potentials. After a few years we got the course validated as the first of its kind as a Postgraduate Diploma by the Open University.

In order to archive this multidisciplinary, performative atmosphere, the team and students in the AAIS course are essential. Does a project evolve depending on the professional background on the individual players or are you selecting students and partners according to each years program?

We each year try to assemble a team that comes from a diverse background. Besides architecture we had students with background of film, fashion, jewellery, photography, scenography, film, you name it. We are always looking for new and unusual talent to apply to enrich the mix of the studio, also right now as we establish next years team.Both are true, we from a project idea and we try to find the right selection of students and partners for it. But then the project itself develops and shifts with the dynamic and experience of the assembled team. The diversion from the original outline is crucial and exactly the area where we find the innovation and unpredicted outcomes.

The program this year is taking place in three different locations, Spain, Germany and UK. From experience, does the internationality and hence the perception differ, and if so, why in your opinion

We locate ourselves every year in more than one location, next year most likely even beyond Europe. One of the main reasons is to extend the network of the creative team. Each collaborations open new relations and with it potentials and one could never just fall back into a convenient, known mode. We usually try to have at least one entirely new collaboration and location and combine it with networks we have already tested. Each local network usually has his unique challenges and moments, which are exciting for us to explore and to learn from. For example when we first started working in Madrid we found very creative and enthusiastic networks of creatives within increasingly difficult economical situation but nevertheless using their spatial and social potentials to create new work.

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Ultimately you are collaborating with various institutions all around the world. How would you describe the understanding and general knowledge towards performative architecture on a professional realm?

There are two levels one has to look at this. On the creative level there is a huge curiosity about this are of development. It is becoming increasingly accepted as a form of spatial development. This is demonstrated in various events and competitions around the world that take on this topic such as the Architectural Triennale in Lisbon this year, were we are an associated project. On the other hand there are the legal and established frameworks that might limit in parts the progress of this field. There are still no funding streams or grants setup that truly bridge the disciplines and even journalists still have difficulties of placing it outside their usual categories: art, architecture, performance and so on.

Besides gaining a Post Graduate Diploma at the AA, what is the main goal of the course? What can a student expect after finishing the course and of performative architecture?

Our main aim is for the students to establish a network they can base their individual career on. Getting a feasible career and networks of the ground within the creative disciplines is very hard and requires a lot of discipline, endurance and flexibility. One has to be continuously prepared to adjust to evolving or changing situations, design and redesign, budgetise and negotiate, without compromising the creative outcome. In a way the AAIS can be seen as a kind if bootcamp of creative design. A students once said that the „AAIS is the hardest job you’ll ever have, and you actually pay for it“. If you have studied with us you should be fit to be a major player within future creative networks, shaping the innovation within the arts of the future.

What`s next?

There are so many more things to develop. The next project we are working on is an opera, and yet of course it probably will have little to do with the opera in its traditional sense.

We try to develop with this the next level of permanence of flow and constant development by removing traditional time frames and spatial limits from the settings and the performances.

In the overall the main thing we want to see as the ‘next’ is the projects and initiatives that come from our alumni and networks. So in a way we are very proud to see that for example some of our alumni established Safwat & Williams a successful photo and film company, some alumni are teaching themselves in various schools or are work for important creative practises, but as well that our partners New Movement Collective have a new show next week (called Nest) here in London. These are the outcome of the collaboration that ensure that there is an after effect and that there is a ‘next’.