Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

November 19, 2013

Between the City and the Living Room

Spanish Architect Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation


Andres Jaque, Architecture, Articles, Urbanism

Different Kinds of Water Pouring Into a Swimming Pool, on view now at REDCAT through November 24, is the first solo project by Madrid-based architect Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation in Los Angeles. Jaque, who is currently a professor at GSAPP Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York, sidesteps conventional notions of architecture, preferring to make work that stirs up questions around community, consumption, and political engagement. His work, IKEA Disobedients, which was performed at MoMA PS1 in New York was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA) as the first “architectural performance piece” in its collection.

While the exhibition takes its name from David Hockney’s painting, “Different Kinds of Waters Pouring into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica,” 1965, Jaque’s installation is sculptural. The gallery is filled with seemingly ad-hoc assemblages: plastic storage containers filled with earth, tarps funneling water into kiddie pools, a dome of laundry baskets topped with an aviary and a pair of parakeets. The sculptures or “eco-political prototypes”, as Jaque’s office calls them, represent case studies developed from interviews the architect and his team conducted with carefully selected subjects from across the city over the course of several months. The pieces loosely connect to each other through themes of water, urbanity, and domesticity.

Jaque evokes tales living rooms and backyards as he searches for a collective language of the city. “Different Kinds of Water Pouring Into a Swimming Pool” manifests the hidden socio-political histories and interpersonal networks in Los Angeles that are lost when we only see the urban fabric of streets, freeways, and suburbs.

Jaque spoke to me over Skype one afternoon from his New York apartment.

The name of your practice is Office for Political Innovation. Why bring political back into architecture at this point in time?

Andrés Jaque: Well, this is very important. I took three words: office, political, innovation, each define environments that don’t obviously touch each other. Innovation tends to be a corporate word. Politics tends to be something we talk about around activism. Office is the space of experts. So the name assembles them in a way that could create some tension. It was very intentional.

You’re from Madrid, you’re teaching in New York, and you’ve spent the last eight months back and forth to Los Angeles researching and working on “Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool.” Can you speak to bridging between these cities and what it means work in each place?

AJ: For me, people are no longer constrained in cities. When you see the way people construct their lives, those realities are realities happening simultaneously in different parts of the world. When I talk about the city today, I use the term “urban enactments” to describe something trans-urban or trans-city. It’s something quite peculiar to the time we’re living in now. Urban life is not constrained in cities anymore but the urban enactments are a little bit more complex. They expand beyond a single place or city and are not easy to visualize.

And that’s what happening to me now. I’m between places. My office is in Madrid. It’s the place where I produce in the best conditions. I know how to produce there. My team is there, they live there. Then, the place where I have the best opportunity to do something from a pedagogical point of view is Columbia University in New York. And then working in a place like Los Angeles I found that the people we took on as case studies for the piece had similarly complex urban lives.

Similar in what way?

AJ: We chose case studies in which domesticity is the central infrastructure. People often have a preconception of urban–they think it is something that happens in the street, but it’s different in L.A. It happens domestically, in the home. In a place like LA people very intensively construct their connection with the collective — with the political and the urban — by means of things they do in domestic spaces. That network is more like an ecosystem.

Domestic community life is the urbanism in L.A. It’s carried out in activist meetings in peoples’ homes or in discussion on blogs. The collective urbanity reinforces these urban networks and is just as important as the freeways and all these things we understand as urban that we see very easily.

So, for instance, we studied a couple from Uruguay living in Los Angeles. They were victims of the whole transformation of the culture in Uruguay with the ’60s crisis and then the dictatorship. They are representatives of the diaspora, and they ended up in L.A. after being in Alaska, New York, and many places. What is interesting is that they created a vegetable garden in their backyard, actually it’s not even in their backyard but in the space that is left to the freeway, a land that is useless because it’s so steep. They’re growing plants from seeds from Uruguay. They exchange seeds with people that are also distributed because of the diaspora — tomatoes, zucchinis — and they collect on the Internet to talk about their crops. This is very interesting because for me this is a kind of urbanism that is very challenging. It is a kind of a political resistance that is resisting diaspora, resisting dictatorship, by doing something in a backyard.

How did you identify people to participate in the project?

The process of selecting the people is always very accidental. We wanted to interview people who have been living in L.A. for a long time, let’s say no less than 20 years and they’ve been living in the place where they live now for at least, let’s say, 10 years. So, they kind of have a history within their environment. We created a call to send via REDCAT and CalArts lists and then the whole network of people who started to transmit the message to their friends, relatives, people that they knew.

Then we ended up with a huge number of people. We selected those ones that presented different challenges and had different social, urban or material lives, histories, different to each other so we could have tensions between them. We were not trying to be universal. And definitely not explaining L.A. It’s a modest of sampling some realities.

One of the case studies in the gallery is based on a subject in Malibu Colony. What does the beach community reveal about L.A. urbanism?

AJ: The Malibu case study is amazing because of the whole story. It impacts many things for me that very interesting to me. The subject is a man in his 80s, a widow. He had moved to Malibu because he had lost his home in a fire and he had to move his whole family in two days. He never would have chosen it otherwise. But he ended up living there, super happy. His home is a composition of objects and images of the Pacific Rim: tropical gardens and Japanese koi. Everything is about the Pacific wonders. It’s a kind of fiction that is produced collectively through interior decoration, the drapes, the art, objects.

The houses are all designed to face outward to the ocean. And inside the living room everything is connected to a fictionalized, idealized, image of the Pacific. But it’s disconnected from the canyons, from Los Angeles, from Watts, from the very things that are close and real.

But this fiction is in crisis because of dirty water.

Ah, yes. I was wondering why you would study sewage in Malibu.

AJ: The community of Malibu is like many communities in L.A. They consider themselves a political entity and say they’re owners of their future. They have meetings. They make decisions, they have rules they all share. So what’s interesting for me is that at one point they were very concerned that Malibu could become kind of a place that people for a weekend, but they wanted to prevent Malibu from becoming Miami Beach. So, they found that technology loophole that’s produced by architectural and infrastructural means. They decided not to develop sewage infrastructure. Which means that every house has a septic tank. This presents a problem for a hotel, because the amount of land needed for septic tanks at the scale of a big building is not economically feasible.

So that’s super interesting for me because it makes it very easy to understand how politics, infrastructures and the shaping of societies are not individual processes. Architecture and all its material devices are part of the whole social system. And there is always some conflict there. For instance, the septic tanks in Malibu Colony are now leaking into the sand. As a result the water of the Pacific Ocean or beaches like Surf Rider is getting progressively polluted. Of course there’s a big controversy on what’s the origin. And many people claiming it’s not Malibu Colony but people living in the canyons because they’re removing so much water from underground aquifers. But what is important for me is that that it shows how impossible it is to construct an independent gated community.

The “Swimming Pools” project at REDCAT is made out off-the-shelf component parts like plastic trash cans and wading pools. Why do you choose to build things out of mass-produced objects?

AJ: I work also by relating things that already exist. I’m not interested in expressing myself by producing super refined objects. I think that high refinement comes from an interaction in which architects only one of the actors. So working with REDCAT I like to think of the production as an ecosystem that is inclusive and representative. I don’t need to design things by myself in a way but I need to contribute with assembling them.

That’s why it’s good for me to work with plastic containers. Actually, when we first started to work on the production we send a list of things that we needed. I wrote, something to hold plants. Not ceramic pots, just the cheapest thing we could find to represent the Uruguay farm.

If I could do it with something simpler, I would. I’m interested how we organize relationships between different things. What we’re working with is with images people have in their minds. So we want to connect what we’re doing at REDCAT to the urbanism of L.A. — tiny stories like this one represent bigger ideas.

I think there’s something maybe a little modest in what you’re saying because there’s a sophistication to like say how you’re putting together laundry baskets to create a dome. There is some sort of agency at work there.

AJ: Yeah, of course. My team tried to do things that represent our own sensitivities. We try to make something monumental out of ordinary things.