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Charles Jencks on Architecture and Travel

Interview Date: 19-01-2011
(More interviews from this person)

VIEW the entire interview on VIDEO!

What is the importance of architectural tourism?

Architectural tourism has really changed in my lifetime.
When we travelled in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when you travel alone as a tourist it was much more random, much more of discovery and you could be alone much more. Today, of course mass tourism means that you can’t experience directly so much. Everything is mediated by the media, by tour guides, by things in your ear, by too much knowledge. So it’s hard to be a fresh tourist.

But, I’ve recently been in Epidaurus and I had the most incredible experience, in February. If you go to these great architectural sites and you go in the wrong time of year, if you go in the winter rather than when you should go to Epidaurus which is in the spring or fall, when it’s not too hot but just try it. But if you go in the winter no one’s there, absolutely no one and you can experience what it was like when the Messenia culture in the hills settled in this incredible natural landscape. The fog comes in the hills and you really can put yourself back to 1600 BC and then you go down on the site of Epidaurus where you know many cultures have lived, the Romans after the Greeks, ancient Greeks and you realize as a quite native culture there which lasted 1800 years and then you realize that you have to read and you have to think and you have to understand. And then you realize that the questions came about 400 AD and destroyed a culture which has lasted from 1600 hundred BC to 400 AD.

That’s an extraordinary period of history. And you say “Why did the Christians destroy Epidaurus so completely?” Then, you think of Jesus as a healer and you say “Well, because obviously, this was a center of healing in the western world.” More people came, the men came, the women came and they lived in this hotel, you may know. They couldn’t see each other. And then they’d come with their family and be architectural tourists in 300 BC. They would come to see the temples of course that they made him sacrifice and they would come with their family and they are sick. They would go to the race track and even if they had a bad leg they would try to prepare like they do today, do exercise and run in the race. Then, they would go to, probably the greatest, outdoor theater in the world ever constructed. It’s incredible; I’ve seen it when I was young. You see it in February, no one’s there and it’s just the most magical place I think I’ve ever been, where there is this architecture, great architecture of a top architect and nature right next to each other. That’s what drives me to say that tourists, if you really want to tour the world go at the wrong times. That’s my first answer.

What is the importance of traveling, especially for architects, and humans in general?

The great thing about travel today is that you can be, in Europe of course anywhere within 24 hours, anywhere you want. So, the opportunity is to prepare yourself and know what you want to see. You can take almost a library, of course today also you can take cameras and you can record details which when you are touring you are so excited by that you don’t have time to observe it all with a camera.

In the Athens museum , I photographed endlessly Messenia artifacts. I really didn’t have time to think of them and respect them. Then, I looked at my digital camera and I got them on film so I can study them and had really of the experience. Today, that’s what tourism allows us to do. Soon of course you will be able to take a camera and point it at the building and you could google the building and you could have a double experience. You can say that there is the building at my camera and there is the real building. Then you could ask the camera to tell you something that you wouldn’t know and say “no, it’s wrong”, sort of way.

What do you think is the added value that architecture creates within a city?

The added value comes in two levels. One, of course, is the direct economic added value. An investment in architecture creates value immediately for the people who use it but it also creates long term added value, for the future. I’ve seen this happen on so many levels in my lifetime. Of course, we all know of the Bilbao effect which has changed the tourism in Bilbao from being a very much a backward city of industrial collapse, to bring in the first year alone a hundred million dollars extra beyond the measure of the effect, the Bilbao effect. Then, it brought two hundred million the next year and for the next five years brought in continuously a hundred million extra dollars.

It’s very vulgar to say, but the added value in architecture is tourism today. If you are trying to raise money for good institutions as I’ve done for series of cancer centers, having Frank Gehry designing one for instance, made raising the money much easier so we can raise three million pounds because of Frank’s generosity.

So, architecture is immediately a value in economic terms. But, of course, the long term value is what it does to the people. We use the building that we’ll live with it and that is uncountable value and of course it’s the great communication. Architecture is the only art we have today that speaks across the generations in a way that no other art can do. And it’s designed to do that. It’s interesting as art form in an age where everything is becoming ephemeral.

Architecture is, as an art form, designed to speak across time. It’s a challenging time for architecture, because of the confusion. But it’s a delightful profession.

What is the importance of Architectural events worldwide (like WAF)? What are the profits for a city holding this kind of events?

The interesting thing about WAF particularly is that all the young are here and it captures a contemporary feeling which usually in architecture award doesn’t happen. I’ve been involved in many judgements in architecture and usually they are quite superficial. Some of them, like the Aga Khan Awards for architecture, are very detailed and very good.

The one WAF is particularly good because you have those eight or nine sections and intense concentration one after another. The jury has to be quick on its feet and the presenters have to be quick on their feet. You have real time competition and then the jury goes to the higher level and it is a jury of a jury. So it’s a very public form of presentation and I think WAF is to be congratulated for having created this global form. Of course you could be improved by having the top world architects also come in a parallel meeting, if you like. At the end of the three day competition you could have a world architecture conference and then it really would be global. It needs this extra beep. But other than that I think WAF is an amazing institution.

At the end, can you please provide your personal proposal for 10 buildings (constructed and visitable) which you think as the most important worldwide that someone must visit anyway?

Philip Johnson, who is an architect very famous in America, was always asking, making lists. He always wanted to be a taste maker. He organized very important exhibitions, a deconstruction exhibition,1988  and of course the international style, 1930-31-32 and he was always making lists.

When I would meet him, sometime he was a friendly enemy of mine but we could talk over lunch great and always fight, he said to me “Tell me Charles, which are the most important architects today?” So I would reach in my book and say “Philip, I have a list here and I could saw you a list, but I don’t think I will.”

And he would say “No, no you must tell me this” and I say “Well, what you want to know?” and he would say “What is the most important building in the world?” and I would think of this: “Well, there is a most important building in the world, but it is number two.”  


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