Dear Yona

A letter to the visionary architect Yona Friedman

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Yona Friedman, Ville spatiale (Spatial City), 1959–60

Yona Friedman, Ville spatiale (Spatial City), 1959–60

Dear Yona,

I am writing this on a train, somewhere on the way between Middelburg and Rotterdam. As I sit and watch the Dutch landscape pass by, I think back to 2006, when a mutual friend of ours first suggested we meet: she had immediately thought of me and my camera upon learning that her former colleague was hoping to acquire 60 of your maquettes for the French National Contemporary Art Fund, and wanted to make a documentary film of your work.

Only a couple of days later, I found myself on the Boulevard Garibaldi in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. I remember how you were standing on the doorstep waiting to welcome me in with your customary hospitality, flanked on one side by the most remarkable multicoloured statue of an elephant. I started our shoot with a close-medium tracking shot towards you. The apartment was quiet, except for a few sounds from my equipment, mingled with the low rumble of noise from the street below. I found an interesting depth of field, moved closer and you started to speak about a project you were working on with Hans Ulrich Obrist, another with Daniel Birnbaum and a publication with Sylvie Boulanger.

Everything always seems fantastically easy at your place. Just like your ‘Four Simple Truths’ series – large paper cut-outs of figures on blue backgrounds that cover the walls of the room we filmed in that day, with the ‘truths’ you’ve handwritten below. The first simple truth: ‘We Cannot Understand the Universe.’ The second simple truth: ‘We Do Not Need to Understand the Universe.’ Words to live by. My camera pans above the devilish and attentive eyes of your pooch, Balkis, who is sitting next to you. She winks. I shoot a laughing horse, which, one day, transformed before my eyes into a unicorn. In every room there are mirrors: mirrors inside mirrors, which you call ce truc méxicain (this Mexican thing), depths multiplied and re-multiplied. And there are maquettes upon maquettes. Maquettes of homes, of your Ville spatiale (Spatial City), of your iconostases – a collection of polyhedrons linked together in a ‘space-chain’ – and of the ‘Containers’ that you have just finished.

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Jean-Baptiste Decavèle, One Simple Truth, Paris, October 10, 2011, 2012, film still

Jean-Baptiste Decavèle, One Simple Truth, Paris, October 10, 2011, 2012, film still

Your drawings paper the walls and myriad objects hang from the ceiling, worn by your apartment with great elegance. There are 7,000 books, Indian statuettes, blocks of wood with drawings on them that have been used in your animated films, cardboard masks, packaging that you turn into structures, and numerous other objects that capture the imagination. The interior of your house is a reflection not only of your generosity of spirit, but of your capacity to reveal all the facets of the world, while continually remodelling and reconstructing it.

Some years after this first meeting, I attended a roundtable discussion about museums at a gallery in Paris, where you were on the panel. The moderator introduced you and discussed the architectural proposal you had made for the Centre Pompidou. You said that everyone has his or her role to play in the development of the structures we build and the things we live with. You said that it’s important that a user can define and modify the structure of a museum; its architecture should be totally mobile and modular. We need as many initiatives as possible, you claimed: ‘Architecture by the people, for the people.’ You do not believe society is so beyond help that we might as well just leave things as they are.

For you, the iconostase is the form that could most readily allow for the redefinition of the museum via an ‘architecture without building’. Like so many of your architectural projects, the iconostase is mobile – it can travel from Venice to Shanghai, and from Middelburg to Budapest, via Mexico City and Florence. While some elements of all of your projects are now permanently installed in archival boxes at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, you keep moving.

A couple of weeks ago, we spoke at length about the museum, about the origin of your idea of the iconostase, and about your faith in what architecture could become. You told me: ‘From what I saw in many museums, from their archi-tecture to the shape of the rooms – the square angles, the fixed and permanent volumes – I realized that art works shown there were practically assassinated by the spaces they were being exhibited in. So, I began to think about other kinds of presentation, where art objects could be shown independently, within a framework that would itself be an art work. I tried applying different techniques in installations in London and in Liverpool. It was then that I realized I could use the space-frame structures for presenting art work.

The iconostase is highly adaptable: it can change practically every day, if you want. You can assemble one for an exhibition and then you can reassemble it in a different form the next day, and again the following day. It becomes something living. At the same time, I imagined the iconostase to operate as a form that doesn’t dominate the object on display; it preserves the original object’s personality. It is an analogue to my Ville spatiale project, which presents a structure within which everything can change. By contrast, with the space-frame structure, even the structure itself can be changed. I always use this expression: architecture without building. This doesn’t mean without super-structures, but rather that the super-structures can be changed. They are not eternal; they are not imposing. So the iconostase transfers the Ville spatiale idea to the exhibition. And it is, if you want, a model of what architecture could become.’

Today is my last day at De Vleeshal in Middelburg, where I have spent the past couple of weeks installing an adaptation of your iconostase. The curator Lorenzo Benedetti and I have just faxed you some photographs of the project. The artist Nico Dockx and his students have been helping us too, and we have all had a great time. The spatial adaptation of this iconostase is based on a drawing you sent to Lorenzo, and I am trying to improvise how to install the rings of polyhedrons, while remaining as true as possible to what I know of you and how you envisage this architecture. There will always be nuances, but it’s really quite straightforward. You have provided us with a collage of a tiny maquette stuck onto a photograph of the Vleeshal. We have simply expanded the structure from one constructed from 20 conjoined rings, as it appears on your collage, to one built out of 500.

For a short time, my film One Simple Truth, Paris, October 10, 2011 (2012) will be shown within the installation, on a flat-screen monitor placed on the floor towards the back of the space. The film shows you improvising the arrangement of 30 or so maquettes around your apartment, before they were sent to various collections around the world. For me, the work symbolizes the independence with which you have distributed and shared your ideas over the past 50 years. The iconostase is an architecture open for use by all those who visit it: anyone who enters the space is invited to attach or place an object onto, into or near the structure. I’ve made the first move by installing my film; now it’s up to them. As you say: the iconostase is a model of what architecture could become.

En toute Amitié.

Jean-Baptiste Decavèle
September 2012

is a French artist based in Paris, France. He has collaborated with Yona Friedman since 2006. Their work is part of the group exhibition ‘A Dog Republic’ at mini/Goethe-Institut Ludlow 38, New York, USA, until 28 October. His film of Friedman, One Simple Truth, Paris, October 10, 2011 (2012), is on view in their collaborative exhibition, ‘Architecture without Building’, at De Vleeshal, Middelburg, the Netherlands, until 16 December.

Issue 151

First published in Issue 151

Nov - Dec 2012

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