Thomas de Monchaux interviewed by LW. Recorded October 25th, 2013
LW: Two weeks ago you told me that I should interview you. Why do you think so?
TdeM: Aw... that is a fun question.
TdeM: It’s probably because it gives me a chance to interview you, which is more interesting for me. The dynamic in any architecture school is that the instructor gets more and more boring and the student gets more and more interesting, which is as it should be.
LW: Then why for this particular issue about writing?
TdeM: Partially because if I had to describe my own practice, whatever else it is, it is also a practice of writing: an awful lot of journalism and criticism, discursive work about architecture. I forgot who said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It is very inadequate and almost inappropriate to describe the spatial, immersive, phenomenological experience of architecture with this extremely limited medium of words. It is essentially ridiculous. Yet, as architects we are continually describing. Why do we relentlessly describe what is already there to be seen? There must be something about the very act of describing, the seemingly inappropriate or misfit relationship between language and spatial experience.
I am not sure what it is, but I find the descriptive impulse that architects have, even to describe what’s right in front of them, very interesting. Somehow it is incomplete unless it is also narrated to you. I am not sure why. Conversely, describing what is not there to be seen.
LW: What else?
TdeM: What else. You have to give me a little more to go on.
LW: Okay. In this issue, in the second installment of our “working document” in which we are exploring what : is and could be by doing, I am not only interested in the content or ideas being discussed, but also the forms and structures of these conversations. I am trying to understand why we are so interested in this kind of discourse and the different forms that these dialogues could take. Have you done a lot of interviews?
LW: What are your techniques in doing interviews?
TdeM: Silence. Silence is the only technique. I once worked with an investigative journalist, not in architecture, but a very experienced reporter in the world of political affairs, scandals and diplomacy.
I asked her the same question and that was her answer. Her primary tool was shutting up. If she had a very specific question that she needed answered, generally, the best way to get the answer was to never ask the question. The source knows what the question is, the source is not an idiot. You know what the question is, you are not an idiot. The method of discourse is to simply produce the silence into which the answer can be spoken. The journalist would have the phone to her ear and she would just say “uh huh.” The source would think she was done questioning. She would let the silence stretch and stretch, beyond awkward and into a terrifying abyss. At this point the source would answer the unspoken question because the silence had become too irresistible.
LW: If the goal is to understand an idea or someone’s work, what do you think the roles of the interviewer and the interviewee are?
TdeM: In some ways the objectives are very much opposed. I think, consciously or not, the interviewee wants to say what he or she has said before. Whereas the interviewer wants the interviewee to say something that he or she has never said before or never even thought about before. You have this rivalry between perfect repetition and absolute newness. Both of which are kind of awful.
LW: Uh huh.
TdeM: And the irony is that both also want the other thing. The interviewer likes repetition, because it produces a very well articulated result. The interviewee also, consciously or not, desires some kind of authentic discovery within the ritual. This is partly why you stage a ritual, so that you can be disrupted. Somewhere between these conscious and unconscious desires for perfect repetition and perfect disruption is a disturbance. That disturbance is probably the substance of the best interviews.
LW: As someone who is being interviewed right now, what have you done to prepare for this interview? Or have you prepared at all?
TdM: I think my main preparation was having the flu and losing my voice.
TdeM: And it enabled me to endlessly delay this conversation. Even within the interview itself, the primary tool is delay. You are delaying my ability to speak by asking a question, and I am waiting for you. And you are waiting for me to either say something interesting or to shut the hell up so that you can bend our conversation back to some other objective.
So, yes, my main preparation was losing my voice and delaying.
LW: What is it supposed to do to the person interviewing you?
TdeM: That’s a good question.
TdM: Part of it is that I am choosing my words even more carefully than I normally would because I know and I only have so many of them to speak before I run out of voice again and my flu takes over. I also think that every conversation that happens inside an architectural school, like the one we are having now, is somehow already a desk crit. It’s the essential ritual, the only thing we do here. We have final reviews in order to have desk crits before them, and we have assignments in order to have desk crits after them. In some mysterious way I am giving you a desk crit now. What distinguishes a desk crit from an interview? Basically that’s an interview, right?
LW: That’s exactly what I was going to ask!
TdeM: Good! I am glad I stopped you from asking. Generally students suspect the instructor has the answer and is withholding it.
Like the investigative journalist, he or she is trying very skillfully to extract the answers. But if the instructor is doing a good job, the instructor either has the answers and withholds them, or, even better, the instructor sincerely does not know the answer to the question and expects the answers to emerge from the conversation. There is this dynamic of suspicion and withholding.
LW: I would like to go back to the question of questions. What we have learned from : so far is that posing a question, especially a good one, requires almost as much effort and research as writing a text. Embedded in a question are layers and layers of anticipation for possible directions that the conversation would go. It is almost like drawing an imaginary road map. I am wondering if one could pose a question without asking a question. Also, is it possible to ask a question without some hypothesis already at work?
TdeM: I am sincerely not sure.
TdeM: Like I said before, everyone generally knows what the questions are. In many ways the key question does not have to be asked, even if you are just talking around it. You could also ask a question by giving the interviewee a way of hearing what they said, as simple as reading back the last sentence they just said…
LW: Reading back the last sentence they just said.
TdeM: Yes, just like that—to create this moment of repetition, reproduction, distortion and translation. The interviewee would correct you and therefore correct himself or herself. The other strategy I have, unless the circumstance requires it, is that I never use one of those.
[Pointing to the recorder]
TdM: Never use a recorder, if you can. Something about the act of continually writing and taking notes generates energy for the conversation in a mysterious way that I cannot fully explain. The same way taking a photo of something means you haven’t seen it, recording a conversation means you haven’t heard it. The act of continuous note taking is an essential part of interview practice, quite apart from the fact that it creates a document.
LW: But what was your final product? Was it a transcript?
TdeM: Yes, one makes a transcript from the short hand notes. The interviews that I record are the worst ones.
TdeM: I think in this particular building [gestures around at Avery Hall], in this particular century, we can stipulate that there is no such thing as writing narrowly understood. There is nothing that is not writing—perhaps we can say that. The written word is inherently different than the spoken one. This difference of form is so acute that it becomes a difference in content. I am not sure what that difference is.
TdeM: I am circling back to your fundamental question, why write? For architects writing is the ultimate disappointment. If you can’t build, you draw; if you can’t draw, you speak; if you can’t speak, you write.
LW: So writing is an architect’s ultimate disappointment…
TdeM: I suspect so. It is what we start doing when we can’t do anything else. This is just a theory. There is something about being an architect that makes the act of speech inherently disappointing. Like the best pin-up presentation is the one that requires you to say nothing, because the work is so self-evident that any articulation would be redundant. There are some architects who cultivate silence, say as little as possible, as the closest proximity to apparent wisdom.
LW: Uh huh.
TdeM: Someone once told me about the magic of the Mies van der Rohe desk crit, in which he—late Mies at IIT in America, in his three-piece suit and smoking his cigar—would lumber to your desk with his stool and look at your work and just breathe. You would imagine what he was thinking, trying so hard to evaluate your work through his eyes. The silence was incredibly noisy. And then he would get up and leave without saying a word.
LW: To what extent do you think that is productive?
TdeM: It helps to be Mies van der Rohe, to have a celebrated body of work that is much spoken about. It also helps to have a body of work that has the virtue of silence.
LW: Almost nothing.
TdeM: It’s almost nothing, very still.
LW: But it also presupposes that the student already knows what is significant in the critic’s work and that he or she understands what architecture is about.
TdeM: Let’s tell my other favorite teaching story, in part because it totally contradicts what I just said. My brother, who studied architecture a few years ahead of me, took the last studio co-taught by Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman. The students were generally divided into Team Tuscany and Team Zig-zag, with a familiarity, fascination, or frustration with the formal language of one of those two architects. What I loved about the discourse in the studio was that if you read the transcript of the reviews and pin-ups you would never know whether the work on the wall was a row of Tuscan columns or an explosion of the zig-zag. Words like axial or oblique or module or hierarchy. These two designers had such a robust yet precise common language that it could be applied equally to both formal modes. The language was so extraordinarily particular, coming from twenty years of shared discourse, that it was equally tuned to both modes, like a skeleton key that fits both locks.
LW: That also speaks to the very limits of language as well.
TdeM: Absolutely. I think in some ways it was what the studio was about: the limits of language. If you told them that Michael Graves would laugh at you and Peter Eisenman would say, “right on!” Their modes of teaching were both extraordinarily articulate and extraordinarily quiet.
LW: Speaking of two critics teaching together and having conversations. What do you think the difference is between a conversation and an interview?
TdeM: My inclination is to give you a Foucauldian answer: a difference of power. Generally, a conversation is a peer-to-peer experience whereas an interview, within the narrow definition of power, presents a disparity between two participants. You are the president of the United States and I am the reporter…
LW: Or vice versa.
TdeM: Or vice versa. Who actually has the power? If we are following Foucault, every conversation is an interview, because every relationship is related to power. Therefore there is no difference.
TdeM: Also, pleasure: an interview does not have to be pleasurable, while perhaps everyone assumes a conversation should be a pleasure—an aesthetic pleasure, a social pleasure. On the other hand, there is an incredible camaraderie that comes from shared unpleasantness. Something both participants must endure, as we are enduring here…
LW: Well, I am doing it with much pleasure.
TdeM: Good. Me too! I think the other answer I can give you is a very Romantic and old-fashioned one: our oldest philosophical texts are dialogues. There is some ancient relationship between conversation and truth.
LW: Exactly. Dia-logos: not logos as such, but one that is passing through, cutting across.
TdeM: In all those dialogues there is always the idiot: the silly dummy who says, “of course the sun is made of cheese.” I remember falling in love with those guys, with the wise-fools, the believers, the straw men. The more you read the dialogue the more you suspect it is those characters who have the answers.
LW: My favorite is Aristophane.
TdeM: What do you like about him?
LW: In my mind there is this moment in the Symposium when Aristophane has unstoppable hiccups and can’t speak at all. In that scene he is completely silent other than having the hiccups, and he has to delay his speech.
TdeM: Silence and hiccups. Perfect.