Interview with Geoffrey Baker

October 1993/March 1997







AP: I want to start by talking about how I work. In the site at Tempe the foreground to me is the enigmatic quality of the desert. You’ve seen the limitless space and you understand that there’s a coarse-grained image that’s legible to you. This is ostensibly a singular environment. Yet that building is a kind of accumulation of secret places. It’s a procession that one can invent alone but you have these unexpected destinations that have to do with respite from the sun, but also celebration of the blazing sun.

I thought the idea of exposing students to that kind of adventure was perfectly appropriate. I like the way the music students practise in and around the building – in the courtyards, so you have unexpected sounds issuing from the centre. You can have projections on the ‘drive-in movie’ screen of the flyloft, at night. The colour of the building changes in a chameleon-like way, from morning to evening. It was just the right mixture of pigments in the stucco. It’s a building you can look at and say there are no windows. There are apertures. There are light control devices but there are no ‘window’ windows. Light is admitted and revealed in a very selective way.

I like secret desert places that I have discovered hiking and traveling in the Southwest, and I guess the building is an unconscious release of a lot of those images, all in one spot. They are images, but they are more often feelings about the desert. You described the moon rising and sunset hitting the archival mountain in Laramie. Those are luck of the draw events that we find sometimes. The Fine Arts Center terraces that go to the sky are for lovers. I’ve seen students up on the pinnacles, and there are blurred distinctions between indoor and outdoor spaces on that building. The exterior organisation of the courtyards and placitas are all usable for theatrical events where the notion of separation of audience and performer is confused. The building is a mechanism for inductive air flow in the way that the cooler substrata of the sunken, oasis-like forecourt to the museum entry is associated with water and air movement. This was set up as an inductive air movement site, where the bleachers have open risers above and the stratified hot air would go out of the risers, and the cooler strata would be where the body would be experiencing it on entry.

GHB: We have discussed the experiential dimension of your work, but I know that in addition to the inspirational quality of any site, the programme is also an important generator of your architecture. Could you say something about this: does the programme have an equal weight in your conceptual design process?

AP: The programme is the beginning before the programme is the client. The client makes the building happen, and the programme is not only the empirical model for the functional performance of a building, but it also contains inspiration, hopefully, that different clients bring, in different ways, to the beginnings. The programme, in terms of weighting, is systemic to the process. When I begin, say, working on a clay model, or even with a collage piece in anticipation of the model, the programme figures very solidly in imagery and the 3-dimensional investigation.

In the case of my clay models, my team literally cuts out functional programme bits in cardboard, to scale, in terms of footprints and vertical volumetric dimension. They’re abstract squares or rectangles and I test them against the clay forms as I’m assembling and shaping the clay. So I don’t do an architectural concept sketch and see if the programme has anything to do with it. It’s embedded in the work from the very beginning and the discussions with clients with respect to the programmatic life of the building are very exciting and lead off into some interesting directions in terms of the programmatic intensities in the work. So the programme figures continually, but it’s a process where it’s very hard to dissect the different ingredients of energy that go into the first moves or gestures towards making the piece that becomes a reality. The disclaimer with respect to the programme would be that we know historically that buildings through the ages change the programme and this ephemeral notion of programme has to do with political overlays, cultural norms or evolutionary changes in what was functional content. The Pantheon changes from a Pagan temple to a Christian church overnight, so these kinds of tremendous reversals are also part of the possibility. That means that any building must have a life of its own, in a way independent of programme, but of course accommodating the original programme. So when a building becomes solely programme-driven and is merely a functional diagram, without other admixtures, it becomes a rather empty determined condition. Like a body without a soul.


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