Article, Volume #33

Chance and Control: Interview with Petra Blaisse

— by and

Receiving us in her office in a former school building one afternoon at the end of July, Petra Blaisse proposes to first show us around. Most of the Inside Outside team is on holiday or working on site, but we catch a glimpse of some of her collaborators and the work atmosphere of the office. The office is distributed over two sides of the corridor, with an Inside side (renowned for their large-scale curtains) and an Outside side (dealing with gardens, parks, and urban planning). We meet her to discuss her assignment to ‘do’ the Rietveld pavilion in Venice on the occasion of the 13th Architecture Biennale, but also to discuss her experiences as interior designer and how that relates to her outdoor work.

Arjen Oosterman: Can you tell us how you were invited to participate in Venice?
Petra Blaisse: When Ole Bouman [curator of the Dutch pavilion in Venice] came to me last winter he started to talk about beauty, which I thought fantastic! Architecture and design – and our clients have forgotten about content and beauty, it is all about safety, sustainability, practicality. Never ever about something special or full of surprises, maybe even danger! When someone is experiencing architecture or landscape or life, you want to overcome danger and experience the unexpected. So beauty is important but it is seen nowadays as a luxury, as a subjective emotion, something that better stay private.

When we continued talking about this theme, we concluded that it would be too highbrow, demanding, and even arrogant to make beauty the theme for the assignment. I couldn’t do it with my team; it is not the way we work. We solve technical issues and necessities first and the outcome can also be beautiful… if we are lucky.

Ole agreed and proposed a follow-up of the last Dutch pavilion theme: vacancy. The Rietveld pavilion has been a vacant building ten months out of the year for the past fifty years.  Because of the economic crisis, we need to find ways to reuse vacant buildings in a relatively simple and economic way. That will be the statement.

Now I though that we can do. Inside Outside often works that way, to implement something that changes the organization and atmosphere of  a building.

AO: By framing the quest for beauty with this theme of a design challenge it became feasible to act.
PB: Yes. And although we went through heaps of ideas related to all the information we gathered about this beautiful pavilion and the entire historically and culturally loaded context that surrounds it, we discovered that – although we sometimes desperately try to avoid it with Freudian intensity – the curtain, in its simplicity, is the strongest tool to achieve the effect that we wanted to achieve: challenging the given situation with an implemented object that would transform the architecture and its original implications in one move.

Petra Blaisse

AO: The curtain will activate the space.
PB: Yes, it will… We will install a track system that can hold twelve positions, changing the spatial configuration through time. It is not the Rietveld language – it is soft and pleated and it moves. And daylight  will come splashing in like water, and shadows of trees and leaves will flutter and flicker on walls, floors and curtains. The installation will create effects that the architect would perhaps not choose – but it will hopefully positively surprise him in his grave.

AO: Will there be additional programming of the space?
PB: Though the NAi may want to initiate certain happenings in the space, like a press conference, a concert, a beauty competition, or a religious ceremony, we are more interested in the difference that the curtain – the connection to the sky and the play of light and shadow – will introduce in the given space: with each shift of object and weather condition, the interior will change considerably: from large to small, square to round, light to dark, colorless to colorful and from still to loud.   Because we opened the roof windows – without the thousand lamellae and with sixty percent of clear glass – the space will feel quite different.

AO: Landscape architecture came to the rescue in the early nineties, when neither architecture nor urbanism were able to provide the right answers to the challenges; now it could be interior architecture’s turn. And your practice combines both!

PB: Both are about organizing space; with planting and with curtains, horizontal carpets or vertical screens. Working outdoors, we collaborate with lighting and construction engineers, traffic specialists, botanists, furniture designers, and architects, among others. But in my mind the organization of space inside or outside is similar. It is about fluidity and movement, how you can efficiently go from one place to another, or how you can meander, take time and encounter surprises; or how you can create an extra room with one simple movement. Different routes and actions trigger different experiences. So both are about time, speed, organized views and perspectives and – of course – need special effects to trigger the notion of a changing landscape, whether inside or out.  Parks are in fact isolated patches of nature in an urban setting: large rooms that are encircled by traffic, buildings, and people in a hurry. They offer a welcome oasis to play, smell, relax, and think; to work out and to learn. But in fact they are used to cover polluted soil and underground infrastructure and to sooth the emotions of the surrounding inhabitants; they are therefore more political tools than innocent gardens; as much as our textile interventions are more solutions to technical and spatial issues than they are innocent objects of beauty.

AO: You mention time. Time as experience. But what about time in terms of life span, of the longue durée? Are there similarities here between interior and exterior work?
PB: Hardly any.

AO: Hardly any?
PB: Yes, landscape takes fifty years to mature, a curtain can only live fifteen years. One degrades and the other one grows. They are both dependant on light, climate and human interaction – one has to use it, take care, act. As designer you have a kind of vision of what a place can become in the future. In the craze of the nineties everybody had money but no patience. So we had to put in trees that were already two hundred years old. But actually you seed, nurture, and wait. Gardens or green spaces of any scale  are incredibly demanding for both users and clients. They have to invest in an unknown future and be patient. All can change every minute because of political shifts and economic fluctuations. The city of Milan will have to invest for generation to make the new Giardini di Porta Nuova park we designed for them in 2003 into what it is to become eventually: the Biblioteca degli Alberi. The story changes along the way and through time: first it is a Fashion Park for the elite; then a Sports Park for the people; then an artist’s work field, a children’s playground and an urban farm for the surrounding inhabitants. First the budget is high, then it diminishes through time – yet the ambitions remain! .

So as designer you give your vision, you live through a long period of exciting and sometimes frustrating developments to fight and seek solutions for all the ambitions an ideas (together with everyone involved). But after that you are rarely expected to be part of the actual execution (thanks to the European tender regulations), let alone in the processes of growth and maintenance. So to position yourself in landscape design is quite different from interior. You can control so little after delivery of a design document, whereas with the interior design that we practice, we are on it with hands and feet from concept to tender, through production and installation; often including maintenance or adjustments in years to come.

Petra Blaisse

AO: Interior is the opposite, it seems. In landscape you influence long-term development, with interior assignments it is the short lifespan you have to deal with.
PB: In interior you see the result, you’re making an object, it is there! Beautiful, exhilarating. In landscape it is all fantasy… brought through plant lists, stories about ecology and local wildlife, visits to forgotten gardens, theories on how plants can grow together better than separate, how ancient water systems can be uncovered and re-used – we have endless stories. But whether it is going to happen is uncertain. Designing a park or a landscape master plan is much more a strategic process that serves the purpose of supporting development strategies and acquiring building permissions… if I may be so cynical!

AO: But don’t you have to include the short life of your interiors in your design?
PB: Also in fashion it has become fashionable to include the wear and tear. Think of the mould that Margielas introduced to color his clothes over time. The ‘elephant trail’ effect, both in interiors (the floor showing use, the fading of the textile) and exteriors.

Brendan Cormier: Interior seems to be far more subject to change because of fashion. People tend to replace parts of their interiors for no other reason.
PB: If you work in garden design and follow the plant business, you will see that it is as much influenced by fashion and manipulated by the market. Certain plants are out and others are in, people steel each other’s seeds and want only the latest variations and color combinations in their gardens. And each culture has a different view on this.

BC: Do you think the ego of a designer has to be different from an architect because of the time difference?
PB: The ego should be completely different, yes. Also because you’re sort of in between. It is a diplomatic role too. We want to understand completely what the architect wants. We worked with UN Studio and SANAA/Sejima when they already had designed the building, so you have to read into the project, go through every drawing and see every model, request to receive all their material samples before you can start thinking. In that sense they’re different from OMA , because OMA has, from the very beginning, been interested in involving other disciplines into their work process at a very early stage. You grow together as a multi-disciplinary team. OMA dares to challenge others to comment and to influence them to acquire a wider perspective. This takes time and is not necessarily efficient, although maybe in the end it is: they learn, test, and develop themselves continuously, which is demanding but inspiring for all parties that work with them – both for colleagues and clients. Most other architects want to first reach a certain level in their project so as to be in control and then they give you a specific role at a given point.

AO: But is there potentially a form of competition?
PB: Sometimes.

AO: Because most architects think of themselves as interior designers too.
PB: Most architects do.

AO: And then Petra comes in to tell them that it can be different.
PB: Yes and that would be a nuisance if it were not for the ever-prevailing humor of the situation! Look: we are invited. We know we are often a pain and demanding and, in a way, perpetual amateurs at that. But that makes it so that we feel great respect for what the architects and other team members achieve and are capable of, and that we look with positive energy to what they present to us. So we don’t come and say ‘I don’t like your door knob’, but there is a (sometimes heated but more often inspiring) conceptual discussion. How did you come to this point? Why is it like this? What does it do? What do you expect us to do? And then we want to find out: will our intervention really be an improvement? There are situations in which we talk ourselves out of the commission: we say it is not necessary, that it undermines the quality of the architecture; or we suggest they ask an artist, or a good carpenter, or indeed to do it themselves. Not as an insult or because we give up (we never do!) but on the contrary: someone else could do a better or more sensible job. That moment is always a bit confrontational. First you’re happy and honored with the commission, but then, more importantly: you want to believe in the job, in yourself and what you do, so you don’t just jump into anything .

AO: Do you have to create your own ‘space’ in the project? To claim and conquer terrain for your intervention? You also may have to concede that your intervention will change the architecture, maybe even the idea behind it.
PB: Or I don’t say anything. That is also a way. But more and more it happens that architects count on us in their design, because we’ve been around so long now. The idea of Casa da Musica in Porto, with the glass undulating facades required a curtain solution, for instance. Our work is influencing the architecture even before we enter the scene.

BC: There is a stream of interior design that is focused on stimulating human behavior. To what degree is choreography part of your designs? You have a cultural anthropologist on your team for instance.
PB: The designs are about choreography, about orchestrating movement through space and the experience of space. I always say that the path is the same as the track: they both lead you or the object from one point to the next, offering views and sensations, influencing your pace and sense of place. With curtains we prefer not to work with motors, because we like people to manipulate the curtain, to touch them and to sense their weight, scale, and material. Not only in private houses, but also in Haus der Kunst they do it by hand. It is a really important part of the design: the literal involvement of the human being, the relationship between the object and the person.

AO: There is a photo in your book Inside Outside showing a curtain blowing in the wind and the caption says: “Look what architecture CAN’T do.” Fascinating.
PB: It is my elegy for this computer-designed architecture, blobs pretending they are soft and moving. But they are not; they are as hard and static as any architecture.

AO: But I also see chance here. What is the role of chance in your work?
PB: There is chance in that picture. We try to control as much as possible, but as soon as you let go, it has its own life and introduces a lot of surprises.

AO: Yet there is this meticulous testing in your designs, sometimes even for years, to exclude chance.
PB: Yes, five, six years, easily.

AO: So what is the role of chance?
PB: It is always there. In the Hackney Empire Theatre we did this stage curtain. It is a guillotine curtain (lifted vertically). I wanted to make something that has its own life, behaves differently every time it comes down. We did all sorts of tests and proposals with springs and elastics – things that, as it turned out, couldn’t survive for fifteen years – in the sense of securing their performance for years on end, time and again – and we believed in a black-and-white composition at that, in a cultural heritage building of the late nineteenth century! Our clients, as you read in my book, found it all too modern and dependent on chance and asked us to withdraw or to make a red velvet curtain with golden cords in the classic manner. This we happily accepted and we came up with this enlarged smock solution. The process was about the fear of chance and the grabbing of chance, it was inspiring and it worked!

AO: The Dutch pavilion in Venice will feature a choreography of a curtain in an empty pavilion. Total control, no chance as far as I can see it.
PB: Total control, yes. Typical female control [laughs]. It’s controlled because you know the moment you deliver it there is no control any longer. If you don’t start with control, it’s too open. Why we design a garden meticulously is not because it will stay like that, but to create a strong starting point.