Alex Lehnerer

Alex Lehnerer’s ideas on architecture and the city have been of great interest to our editors since his time as professor at the UIC School of Architecture, where he started the Department of Urban Speculation. Alex now teaches at the ETH in Zurich and their Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore, and in the meantime has co-curated the German pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale and published two books. His 2009 Grand Urban Rules and his 2014 The Western Town: A Theory of Aggregation both offer fascinating disciplinary insight on linking urban design and architectural analysis; in the former, he forwards a bold agenda eschewing the plan in favor of written rules, while in the latter, through the conjectural documentation of the towns represented in old western films, he projects a powerful position on genre, indifference, and collective figure—and against infrastructural and positivist discourses.

This FM Conversation was originally published in FMVIII Of the City. All rights reserved to Fresh Meat Journal.


FM. What are your thoughts on urbanism?

ALEX LEHNERER. That’s a big question. It would have been easier if you asked me what my thoughts are on the city. Then I would have answered, “I grew up with the idea that there is only one kind of city—the European city.” As a child living in the German countryside I had a nice, not too remote vantage point. The city was an entity you went to once or twice a week. Now urbanism is more tricky. It implies special actions and attitudes towards the city—but to be honest, I do not know what urbanism means. Is it about the way cities work? But great cities never work, they simply are. In that sense it has been quite amazing for me to learn that there is not only one, but lots of different urbanisms that float around academia. But I still like looking at cities. And what I always liked the most is the joyful amateur view of the architect towards the city as an object too big to fully understand. The architect is accustomed to being an author and suddenly, he or she is confronted with something that does not allow for single authorship, that often ignores individual will, that is indifferent to ideas of improvement, and that does not want to be fully controlled. In that way, the city is always the critical project of architecture.


So, for a stronger urban discourse, you would bring the author more to the table, as architecture does? 

Maybe. But maybe we do not need a stronger urban discourse, as it might already be too strong right now. We should be wary of the problem of the city detaching itself from the problem of architecture. Neither should be viewed individually. And maybe we need less, rather than more sophistication within urban discourse. Otherwise the author gets exchanged with the researcher. I know what I am talking about, because it almost happened to me.


So how does your research for Grand Urban Rules fit into that?1

Ha, the legacy of that book goes back about fifteen years. Back then I was quite enthusiastic about the idea that there’s no author, just these conditions. In these rules a fundamental difference between urban design and architecture becomes apparent. In architecture (in the best sense) there are no rules, just decisions. But in urban design, you must constantly negotiate and define public interests from lots of individual interests, which then certainly resonate within architectural decisions. Individual interests are easy to define, but how can you speak of and for a larger collective? I have always been highly intrigued by these mechanisms, attempts and especially failures to control an amorphous public, and how that crystallizes physically. 

When I started this project, I wanted to get rid of the plan—rules instead of plans. A plan that contains fixed relationships between individual entities seemed too vulnerable and too likely to fail as a design method. History is full of failed plans, and not only here in Chicago. So, I started to look at city authorities and how they do their job of controlling the city. And of course, they use rules. 

However, a rule is not something neutral. It’s a design. In the best sense of the word, it is form as well, a relationship within things. Rules are basically abstractions of narratives, like little snippets of long stories. In that sense, the research is not systematic. It’s 115 stories, each with a precise context. The code takes the rules out of their original context and puts them in a kind of list, an abstract format which makes them transferrable from these actual episodes, stories, narratives, and anecdotes—that’s the strongest thing about it. The stories are as rich as possible and few inherent rules are able to structure them.


So, then how do you work with the rules?

Rules are a way to analyze and to project. Most of them are derived; people are unhappy with a certain situation, so a rule is invented to change it. That’s how reality works, but also design. Rules combine context with concept.

So this book is more intended for designers, not necessarily for city authorities, but hey, if they want to read it. I also have one rule that says, “The most important thing about rules is that they change regularly.” That avoids homogeneity. This adds layers to the city and creates necessary contradictions and complications. Not all the regulations I looked at are good ones. Many of them are just awful. But that’s how it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be interested.


That’s interesting. In your introduction to The Western Town, you write about the precariousness of these towns, that it’s almost inevitable that they’re going to dissolve or fail; the fact that they even exist is an optimistic reality. You say they’re certainly not the cities of the future; they’re the cities of no future—

At the time, we wrote the book, we were at the Future Cities Laboratory—supposed to only talk about the future!


That’s what we were going to ask! How does this translate into your work at the Future Cities Lab?

The Western Town was also therapy. It was necessary for us to end this kind of constant ambition to make things better in our field. Always having to improve something is exhausting! Architects and urbanists are always regarded to make the world better, especially at institutes called Future Cities Laboratory. However, the city is not a kind of technological apparatus that one can endlessly make more efficient. Of course, we want the buses to come on time, but that is just a technical question, not an urbanistic one. So we needed a case study that was completely opposed to a naïve optimism regarding the city. One that was doomed. My favorite chapter in The Western Town is the last one called “Nothing Left Behind”—when doing the research, we actually went to visit a lot of these mythical towns and places in the deserts of Nevada, California, and New Mexico. What we found was amazing—just nothing. These towns are a rare example of cities as real places that ceased to exist and left no physical trace, just fantasy.


They exist in the collective imaginary. 

Yes, they are immortal thought our memories. And whether the city is still there, or never was, somewhere in Idaho—I really don’t care!


Memories, like film, seem rich in narrative potential; is this what drew you to western films as a medium?

Kind of. I’m not a film guy. But that’s of course something I like very much. And in general I am a fan of western movies. However, I’m not trying to compare architecture with film; I think there are some big differences. But I like how speculation meets reality, how the undoubtedly physical nature of an actual place with its more or less true history, meets fantasy and produces a new, credible whole out of these ingredients. Any good design tries to do this, right?

That’s why we tried very hard to make these fictional towns appear as real as possible in the book by trying to represent them all through detailed plans. And as a by-product, this work also revived my faith in the precision of the plan (after all these rules). And some people have told me that they actually had the book with these town plans next to them on the couch when they watched High Plains Drifter, or Hang ‘em High.


We also thought about memory—and speculation in plan as well—while looking at your project with Savva Ciriacidis for the 2014 Venice Biennale. It also seems a lot more serious than your other work. I wonder, was it the context of the Biennale?

Maybe it is the ETH (laughs). No, I think all the projects are serious, however this one was less obviously funny. When I was at UIC, I had long conversations with Paul Preissner about the possibility of a funny project. Laughter is never bad, but there is no such thing as a funny project, as “funny” is probably the wrong term. Architecture is serious, you can get killed by it. However, the projects I like all come with a certain wink, sometimes more, sometimes less explicitly. I also have a difficult time with irony. What I nevertheless like about irony is that it allows one to distance oneself a bit from the project, which is necessary for any kind of productive self-criticism. But one has to be careful with it, not too much, otherwise it is no longer your project. 

And with respect to the Biennale Pavilion the task was to represent our country, which in itself is a heavy thing to do. Especially once we got asked by the curator to speak about the nation’s history in confluence with its architectural past of the last 100 years. Here, the trick is also to not make it burdensome but to alleviate the project so gets immediately accessible and experienced by both us and the audience. Within the literal physical intersection of the “Nazi-Pavilion” with the post-war, modernist Chancellor’s Bungalow of the new Federal Republic of Germany, we also put the actual state limousine of chancellor Helmut Kohl, the long-term resident of the bungalow, right in front of the Venice Pavilion in the Giardini. For some people this was already too much of a “joke,” however the massive Mercedes really did well in Venice, as it was a very laconic moment charged with symbolic content next to all the precise physical construction inside (and the other national pavilions around it). But it was never meant to be silly.


But Paul likes to talk about his project in silly ways.

Yes. And I like Paul talking about his project this way. I think it fits well. Because he is really serious about it. I can’t do it so well. When I talk like this about my projects people think I make fun of them. Our western town project contains a lot of valuable architectural arguments, about infrastructure, the relationship between plan and elevation, the stranger and his explicit indifference towards the town.


Indifference seems to be another contemporary interest. There has been a lot published recently about indifference as a way to be serious and light-hearted at the same time.

Exactly. For us, the phenomenon is described by the figure of “the stranger.” It’s the guy who rides into town the same way he rides out of town. Quite liberating to observe. 


So is that the underlying architectural message? 

Yes, and there are others. Like the idea of the town as a textured figure, between a single object in the desert and an aggregation of multiple entities that creates city texture and collective form. Or the possibility of the “hole in the wall,” the hideout as a necessary urbanistic type. And finally, the western town should also serve as a case to question the contemporary fetish of infrastructure. The western town can be regarded as only street, but actually there is no such thing as infrastructure. The street only exists as the space between the buildings facing each other aligning with one another. It’s very pre-modern. One of the biggest inventions in modern urban design was and is to put the street in first; and thereby almost forget about the buildings it is supposed to serve. The western town is collective form without connective infrastructure.


20 October 2014