Yugoslavia-born architect Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss knows architecture and politics cannot be divided. Enrolling at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1995 led to an activism, much of it in the scope of visionary ideas. His studio Normal Architecture Office in New York, set up in 2003, would become a platform for studying cities that have seen abrupt change. While the studio has few built projects to its credit, Weiss has curated numerous exhibitions and authored books on socialist architecture and networked cultures. He has also taught at Harvard, Columbia, Penn, Pratt, and Cornell Universities. Weiss, 50, was in Delhi recently at the Asia Art Archive to speak on Non Aligned Architecture. Excerpts:
How did the journey from Yugoslavia to Harvard happen?
My undergrad was in Yugoslavia, at the time when it was in turmoil. My professors would go missing and my classmates would be drafted in the army. We had to self-organise and teach one another. I was one of the early East European students at the Harvard Masters Programme. Not many people knew what was happening. What I thought was my past came to the forefront there. I would tell them about protests, about the war, and how territorial divisions impacted cities, and how that opened up the possibilities of making architecture that was visionary. For me, architecture is really in the centre of resolving conflict and sustaining peace.
What do visions do for architecture?
We are not talking about utopia, we talking about visions of the like that London-based Archigram or Italy’s Super Studio propagated. They presented a world of ‘non-architecture’. It will change the way architecture itself is practised – will it be faster, slower, crazier, or normalised? Usually one finds a divide between architects who build and those who think. The generation of the ’60s and ’70s did both. Charles Correa is an example. That gap needs to be filled, where thinking and building both go hand in hand.
Architecture has grown to become a symbol of power, of making a statement. Where is this going?
Architects are guilty of working in islands. The Non Aligned Movement, which was born out of the end of Cold War, had to suspend personal fights and ideologies, and self-organise to create change. In January 2008, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Swiss architecture practice Herzog & de Meuron arranged for 100 architects from 27 countries to come to Ordos, China. Each firm had to build a 100-sqm villa in the desert landscape of Inner Mongolia. While this continues to be an unbuilt model project, each architect brought in his/her respective sensibilities. Ai Weiwei finally fashioned all the model houses in a single material, dissolving differences of style. Such a thought couldn’t have come from architects. You need an outsider to point you in that direction. That’s where I think textile designers in India are showing the way, in how they have forged collaborations, and moved out of their comfort zone.
Tell us about your visions for your home country.
We are taking abandoned stadiums and turning them into new media centres. It’s a vision of combining culture, sport, and recreation.