Interview with Ruth Baumeister

Part 1: Jorn and the notion of “an architecture sauvage”

Ruth Baumeister is a researcher, critic and teacher of architecture theory and history, originally educated as an architect, based in The Netherlands. She is the editor of Fraternité Avant Tout – Asger Jorn’s writings on art and architecture, 1938-1958, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2011 and she is currently working on the publication of her doctoral thesis L´Architecture Sauvage. Asger Jorn´s Critique and Concept of Architecture, forthcoming Spring 2013, nai010 Publishers, Rotterdam. Apart from her extensive knowledge on Jorn, and her efforts to make Jorn’s writings accessible to a broader audience, I appreciate what she does because whenever she gets to speak about Asger Jorn, she tries to connect his thinking and practice to the contemporary.

HdB: Ruth, when you participated in the seminar at the Museum Jorn in March 2012 you talked about Jorn’s sources of interest in architecture, ranging from the Paris Metropole to Surrealist interiors, his experience on working with Le Corbusier on the 1937 World Expo, and his connection with Fernand Léger. Over the years Jorn strongly critiqued functionalist architecture for in fact not being functional at all, because it doesn’t take man’s irrational sides into account. From this critique he developed what his fellow-Situationist Guy Debord called an “architecture sauvage” to which – in line with Jorn´s political views – the idea of an architecture for people, for the broad mass, was a central notion. Before drawing parallels with the contemporary (part 2 of this interview), I would like to ask you to describe what ‘architecture sauvage’ stands for, also in Jorn’s thinking about architecture?

RB: Let me clarify something upfront: Jorn never really “developed” an architecture sauvage, this is just a notion, which I retrospectively chose to describe his philosophy of architecture. And, as you righteously mentioned, I borrowed this notion from Guy Debord, who used it when describing Jorn´s private estate in Albisola in his obituary to his fellow artist´s death in 1973. Debord refered to Claude Levi-Strauss here, whose research on primitivism was a great inspiration for one of Jorn´s most beautiful books: La langue verte et la cuite from 1968. The reason why I chose Debord´s expression as a title for Jorn´s concept of architecture is because it implies the key aspects of Jorn´s architecture theory, e.g. rejection of the classic as well as an appreciation of primitivism, experiment and spontaneity.

Book page of 'Fraternite avant tout ...'

HdB: I think that the closest thing Jorn came to realize as an architecture sauvage must be his house in Albisola, Italy, where he (partially) lived between 1957 until his death. You have been enthusiastically telling me about your visit there, could you summarize what fascinated you most?

RB: As an architect, what fascinated me most when I visited the place for the first time about 15 years ago, was the fact that it was full of seemingly ‘unprofessional’ construction details, which actually performed greatly. I remember that when I looked at all these constructions and combinations of materials employed, I thought to myself that this was exactly what my teachers back then in architecture school were telling us NOT to do. The whole project is conceived as a “work in progress”.
To be fair, I do not want to fail to mention, most of the construction work done in Albisola was not done by Jorn himself, but by Umberto Gambetta. He lived in Albisola and worked for Jorn as a sort of housekeeper for some time. Gambetta was a very good, but ‘unsophisticated’ handyman, who was still able to master some of the old, local building techniques. Jorn himself promoted Albisola as a cooperation between the two of them, in photographs, publications, etc. What I witnessed there during the “reconstruction” process was that anything that was by Jorn, was glorified and anything done by Gambetta, pretty much declared as irrelevant. This is how they ended up destroying the art work, what is left there today has unfortunately very little to do with what I say 15 years ago when it was abandoned.

Jorn's house in Albisola (2004). Copyright Ruth Baumeister and group of Bauhaus architecture students, 2004

HdB: At the Jorn seminar in March 2012 we concluded that over the years Jorn managed to turn the house and garden into a fascinating constellation of elements, and we then discussed what term could be used to best define this constellation. I remember most participants seemed to agree with the term ‘disjunctive synthesis’ – a synthesis not based on the idea of harmony but on the inclusion of contradictions – between technology, architecture and nature. Such a synthesis Jorn believed to be the basis for the fulfilment of the central needs of human beings. It was however not the term that you coined, and I wonder in retrospect how what you think of the notion of a ‘disjunctive synthesis’ in this context?

Jorn's house in Albisola (2004). Copyright Ruth Baumeister and group of architecture students, 2004.

RB: In principle, I am not interested in “coining terms” with any of the work that I am doing. This is what marketing experts do if they want to sell a new project and as effective as it might be as a strategy for promoting Jorn´s ideas or even myself as a researcher, it is not my intention. I think “coining” became a sickness in our profession ever since Koolhaas started putting his copyright labels on every little fart he was producing. People did not get the irony behind this and started coining and copywriting everything ever since.
Jorn in his writings builds up concepts, contradicts himself and destroys them the very next moment. He himself was the one to protest most about any categorization of –isms in art history. What interests me instead is following his thoughts, tracing down where they come from in their historical context and most of the times their relevance for today then occurs automatically. – I would not necessarily say that “Jorn believed [the synthesis itself] to be the basis for the fulfilment of the central needs of human beings”. I think it is more about a strategy. As a materialist, he claims to see the world as it is, like it or not, and work from there. He is against idealism, which ignores anything that does not fit the perfect picture and this is what made functionalism fail, he says. Jorn promoted spontaneous artistic articulation as something very crucial and as such any architectural plan, which represents a preconceived idea, he doomed to be outdated before it gets built. What he envisions instead gets most closely materialized in his own private house and garden in Albisola. He adapted an “archival” approach to the subject matter here.
There is a very interesting article by Claire Gilman on Jorn´s modifications , where she compares Jorn´s overpaintings with the works of Duchamp. She concludes her analysis with the result that Jorn, other than the Dadaists, who were striving for a cancellation of meaning or the creation of a new meaning with their overpaintings, works with an additive strategy to the existing art work. Thus, his modifications become palimpsest, which still reveal the traces of the various different phases of creation. He works more towards the idea of coexistence of the old and new and therefore treats the existing with respect, rather than completely overruling it. I think that this is also the approach he used in Albisola. I do believe that architects back then and also today can learn from this. On top of this, yes, it also led him to creating a synthesis in Albisola, whether in harmony or by including potential contradictions, that is up for you to decide. But what should be clear is that Jorn never believed in the concept of pureness or harmony as being something to strife towards. In the end, isn´t modernism about softening all these contradictions which occur to us life anyway?

Part 2 in my serial interview with Ruth Baumeister is ‘Contemporary architectural practice and Jorn’s ideas on architecture’. Part 3 ‘L’architecture Sauvage – Asger Jorn’s critique and concept of architecture’ was a public lecture and interview at Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam.