Interview with Jan Olav Jensen and Børre Skodvin

April 22, 2010

Jan Olav Jensen and Børre Skodvin of Jensen & Skodvin 3rd of July
By Tor Inge Hjemdal

Tor Inge Hjemdal (TIH): We read the architectural politics of the Scandinavian countries and we saw that one word was constantly repeated, but never explained or elaborated: quality. The word is used in a seemingly random way and without discretion, so we decided to examine it more closely. Instead of focusing simply on politics, we have chosen to focus specifically on the politics of architectural quality and how quality is to be achieved. What kind of strategy should be applied to ensure that you end up with a quality result? We, at CONDITIONS, have an ambivalent relationship to architectural politics. If we should adopt an architectural policy on a national and city level, we want to focus on the relationship between quality and politics.

We think that you operate from the “architectural” side in your effort to achieve quality. But you also, as all architects do, have to relate to politics in one way or another. We therefore want to discuss your relationship with quality and politics and find out what quality architecture is to you?

Jan Olav Jensen (JOJ): This topic is really important to understand on different levels for architects who want to build. There is one type of problem that is not discussed at all, and that is the problem of risk. To achieve quality, you have to make mistakes. As a principle in architecture you try new things, you do research and make prototypes all the time. But at the same time there is a culture in modern engineering, architecture and society that is risk averse. It is becoming a more and more accepted value in society that one should not make mistakes – even avoid making mistakes at all. It is extremely important we understand that if you really want to do architecture in a serious way, you have to allow the group to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes you cannot move forward at all. On that level, architectural quality has to do with allowing mistakes to happen.

Børre Skodvin (BS): By saying that, you are also implying something about what we actually mean by quality. The need to make mistakes comes from the need to develop something new, to look into a new set of solutions, to a new understanding of the parameters that guide architecture. In a way, architecture is a perpetual repetition, achieving the same things throughout the ages: it is about getting a roof over your head and to have shelter for this or that. The difference is that the things you are sheltering are getting more and more complex. It is not just about keeping your family dry, but building an airport or a hospital or something really complex. At the end it is still the same basic task, and there is a set of parameters that guides this solution. How you understand these parameters is the way you can actually develop architecture. If you step into an existing understanding and you apply that understanding without any critical review, then you end up repeating, not just the task, but also the formula. What we are saying is not to repeat the formula, but trying to develop it and investigate if there is another way, a  deeper way to understand the parameters that guide this task. If you do that then you will inevitably make mistakes. You will have a leak, or a sagging beam, or you will have something that doesn’t function exactly the way you predicted because you are trying to do something that didn’t exist before, or develop something entirely new. This is the kind of risk we are talking about. Risk aversion is so deeply embedded in our current society that architectural politics on a government level is diametrically opposed to that kind of attitude.

TIH: When you work with projects there are always a lot of rules and regulations – building codes etc. – you have to deal with. Do you find these rules to be helpful, or are they obstacles that make it difficult to achieve quality within architecture?

JOJ: It is the bureaucratic way to be conservative. That is the nice  way to describe this “nerdic” culture, which I think is very nerdy. It comes from the North Sea engineering culture that wants to do everything possible to not lose a big oil platform, which is understandable. All the quality control systems and quality measures in our field come from that type of engineering society. It is a culture that is dominated by fear – fear of making mistakes because the consequences are so big. It has been imported directly into the building industry. This now is a culture that is really careful. You don’t want to do anything unless you are very, very sure that it is correct. It doesn’t allow you to experiment. If you use this word [experiment] while making a description for a project, there are red lights and alarms going off on the client’s side – if they are professional clients – because professional clients don’t want to experiment at all. This nerdy culture is extremely different from, for example, Leiv Eriksson or the people who wanted to explore. I think their psychological profiles are very different as well. This is quite interesting that the culture of this engineering society, that 20-30 years ago did the most impressive structures ever built, today have become extremely afraid of making any mistakes at all.

BS: I think you have to make a distinction between technical quality and architectural quality, because technical quality is measurable . You can actually calculate the height of a beam, the size of a column and the amount of steel in a slab. You will know in advance that this is enough to keep this building up. Of course we want to avoid a collapsing building and we want to avoid accidents. Architectural quality on the other hand is about something that is not measurable. You cannot go into a building using a yardstick and say “we have 1.27 in architectural quality”; it is a subjective understanding. This subjective understanding must come from something. The problem arises when somebody thinks that you can actually predict architectural quality in the same way you can predict technical quality. When someone thinks you can use a regulation or a law to achieve architectural quality, “we hereby declare that everybody has to achieve architectural quality. It is written in paragraph 3.5”, you can’t do that. That is when problems arise. There is nothing wrong with society trying to protect itself against disaster. However, as Jan Olav is saying, these technical regulations were no obstacle in developing some of the most impressive engineering structures the world has ever seen, like the Troll oil platform. But then there is this strange backlash in the building industry, where you will find that a standard engineering company is afraid to even calculate a brick vault. They won’t make a brick vault because their program hasn’t done it for a long time, or because it is a big calculation or because the bricks are so unpredictable or…. On the one hand you have the oil platform and on the other hand you have this inability to even construct a brick vault.

TIH: There are always a lot of people involved when you are talking about architectural quality being subjective.

BS: The understanding of architectural quality is subjective, because you can’t tell somebody that something is quality. You can stop a guy on the street and say “this building has quality” and he could say “I don’t agree.”

TIH: Should there be somebody defining what architectural quality is?

BS: Why do we need to define it? That is the question we need to ask. You can define it on a different level. I have a feeling it is more about what type of understanding is possible to infuse into architecture through the way that it is made. What kind of understanding, of the context or parameters we talked about in the first question, is possible? What kind of understanding of these parameters is the architect able to develop? And how is the architect able to implant his or her understanding of those parameters into the actual built work? Because you understand the context as an architect, you relate to the context and allow the building to respond to this context in a way that is guided by you as an architect.

We are talking about the architect’s ability to disseminate his or her understanding of that context through the building. In that way, when you experience a building, you will not simply experience a functional equation based on the facts of the program; you will, the same when you look at a picture, experience the architect’s interpretation of this context. The context in this connection means functional requirements, the site or place it is in, the attitude of the client, the economy, an expectation from the people who will use the building. It means a lot of different things – all the conditions for the building.

JOJ: That is the point. To define architectural quality never interested me at all. I think this is for talkers who don’t do it, they can’t do it themselves and they don’t really know how to find it or which formula to use. I think it is a contradiction of terms to define architectural quality very precisely. It is something you don’t know before you do it. If you define it and say “go there or there” then it is a contradiction of terms because you then close the ability or possibility to explore new things. If you presuppose architecture as a bureaucrat, with defining quality, you will not achieve it.

What is interesting is if the public, state or the bureaucracy, see themselves as a gardener and try to make the conditions as good as possible. That is something that they could do. They cannot know all the plants that will grow in their garden. If they could make all their plants grow that would be perfect, but all they can do is provide good conditions for growth. To define what the plants should look like and which plants should grow I think is really crazy. That is the sickness of bureaucrats – to predict. This is why  it is a contradiction of terms and a wasted effort.

BS: This leads us back to a problem that you can find within the architect’s own work. We see it very often in the schools that the students have a problem because they are unable to start drawing before they have some idea of what the outcome will be. They think, and they think, and they think and try to predict what the outcome will be, instead of letting go and starting to draw, using this visualizing tool to understand the conditions and develop something based on this understanding, rather than their expectation of what the result of that understanding should be.

TIH: Rather than to explore…

BS: Yes. Instead of predicting the end result, try to look at it as a walk in a landscape that you have never visited before and try to look at the things that you see. What’s this? What does this plant do? Where does this path go? How do I get up to the top over there? This kind of exploration is sometimes very difficult. I think what you are saying about this gardening thing is very interesting, because even if nobody wants to, or is unable to define architectural quality, it seems like government financed projects over the last 15-20 years have been able to achieve something that seems to be regarded as architectural quality; for example, the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. A second example is the Gardermoen airport outside Oslo and a third is the national tourist roads, and maybe the opera house in Oslo. Why are these good examples? Something must have been done right. As for the Winter Olympics, the airport and the tourist road projects, all the client did was establish an organization that contained two kinds of project management: one controls the timeline, engineering and money; the other talks only about architecture. The latter reviews the project and says, “architecturally this project is maybe not up to the expected level and we think that the architect should go back and do something more in this area.” They can then feed that back into the project management part and say that the architect needs to go back and do some more here. Because the really essential part is how much time and effort the architect spends making the project. Does he spend 10 hours, 100 hours or does he spend 1000 hours? And the more hours of committed work that go into it, the better the project will become…up to a certain point (he-he-he). That’s maybe not right, so let me rephrase. It is not in terms of hours, but in the level of commitment. That is what it is really about.

JOJ: It is also about attitude. I think there is a lack of a bolder attitude. If you are not so careful, you take risks and do things you are not sure about, things that are not written in any books, or manuals –  that is a good attitude in architecture.

TIH: What is your relationship to quality management in your own office?

JOJ: We know a lot about it, and we have implemented it in all of our large projects. On a certain level it is really efficient to take out minor mistakes that we should not have made, like the wrong text on a detail, wrong date etc…. We have checklists, which are required and necessary in large projects. It is like being a pilot in an airplane where you have to check everything before takeoff.

BS: Did you mean that type of quality?

TIH: That is up to you. I am asking for your opinion.

JOJ: What I am talking about is the craftsman’s type of quality control, and that is a necessity if you have a large project.

BS: That is part of the building codes, part of the law.

JOJ: We benefit from it, we know how to do it and it is very important to do that. What we are talking about are the consequences of this culture of fear that makes you so conscious and afraid to make mistakes that you repeat yourself. That type of culture is a likely outcome of this type of system because the system makes it is easier to repeat yourself. You are able to make more money spending less time. There are a lot of temptations that are in direct opposition to what we are talking about. The system that has been created rewards the people who do not experiment, but always do the pre-accepted.

BS: I think your question could be understood on two levels. First, it didn’t cross my mind that you could be referring to this kind of quality control, because everybody knows about that. That is the easy part because it is measurable and it is about checking off things on a list. It is also implemented by law. The interesting question would be if you actually have an ambition to make buildings that have an architectural quality and you don’t even want to define what architectural quality is. How do you actually manage to do that? That is an interesting question, which is very difficult to answer.

Our office is not organized in a flat structure; we are organized by Jan Olav, or myself, and we are personally and directly involved in absolutely all projects done by this office. This is one method of quality control concerning architectural quality, which is actually about making sure that the projects are developed in a way that we find interesting architecturally.

TIH: Then, you are ensuring quality?

BS: In a way you could say that. It becomes a kind of a bio system. Some of the people that are here have been here since 1995, since we started, and some are fresh out of school this spring. Generally we employ people either straight out of school or with as little experience as possible. They are the architects we find do the most interesting work.

JOJ: That is because we are like a sect and we can shape them. (he-he)

BS: In a huge corporation it is impossible to have that kind of system, because there is an upper limit to the number of projects you can have and the number of people you can employ. We have been up to 17-18 people at the most. It was like keeping a huge number of spinning tops running at the same time. It would be a disaster if one of them stopped and you have to put a lot of effort into making them spin all the time.

JOJ: We didn’t like it because we wanted something else. If you take Snøhetta of Oslo for instance they have a very different approach.

BS: …or a company like Link, which is now the largest architectural office in Norway. They have ambitions of becoming large with an acceptable quality rather than an outstanding quality, which I don’t think is possible.

JOJ: You don’t know their ambition.

BS: I would like to hear them define their quality as outstanding, because I don’t think that is possible with that kind of organization.

TIH: Are you then talking about organization rather than size? Gert Wingårdh is running big offices. Do they produce architecture of low or bad quality? Are size and quality contradictory?

BS: I don’t want to be the judge of that.

JOJ: There are many different types of approaches. I think Snøhetta’s approach is very interesting because they have a philosophy that there is no limit to how large their office can become. It is also an interesting ecological system how the Snøhetta office functions. They attract really good people because there is a glamour factor to the office name. They then give employees a lot of responsibility and this again attracts new people, and you get a certain type of person coming there and everything grows this way. The interesting problem for Snøhetta with this type of organization is whether it is possible to be coherent. Is it possible to understand that this is the same brand? Because in many of the largest offices you can see that it is; for example, a Herzog & de Meuron project. If you distribute the responsibility, like Snøhetta does, inevitably there will be different flowers in the garden. I think this is very interesting and I have been thinking a lot about it.

TIH: You are editors in a new series of books called “As built”. The focus in these books – by including work drawings, details, thorough documentation – is how buildings are assembled. Does this indicate that you think this part of the process is critical in trying to achieve quality?

BS: One of them.

JOJ: We think it is not about your personal architectural vision; it is about an understanding of how to realize a building by having examples that thoroughly document all the drawings you really need to make a cabin, or a house etc…. We wanted to have good examples, not of architecture as such, but of how you can do it yourself.

BS: You know this series on Discovery Channel called “How it’s made”? It is more like a recipe or a cook book, and you use the book to figure out how somebody did something.

TIH: It is more about information then?

JOJ: It’s about techniques, how to organize the drawings, which details you need if you want to do this. We don’t want people to copy the style or the vision, but we want to spread and share the knowledge. We want to make the knowledge available. Our aim is to publish 96 books in this series.

TIH: What determines the kinds of projects that go into the books? What are the requirements?

JOJ: We are interested in people who know what they are doing. We choose projects that are examples of good architectural craftsmanship. This is something that, for many years, if you didn’t learn anything about in architectural school you had to learn in an architectural office. It is like a closed environment, like factory secrets. We really wanted to create a space for an open source. “I am going to draw a cabin, how should I do it?” The things that architects spend a lot of time doing: organizing the drawings, finding out which details are necessary, how does one do this window, etc…. We wanted to document it and make it available for a lot of different examples. And we have lot of different architects, not belonging to a specific style, lined up for the coming books.

TIH: You have projects where the client has been private, and projects were the client has been public. Is the notion of quality different? How?

JOJ: It is very different among private clients and it is very different among public clients. Some public clients are really terrible and some are really good, the same goes for the private ones. Generally the professional private clients can be quite good.

TIH: This is somewhat linked, but a lot of architects are blaming resources when the result doesn’t turn out the way they intended it to. How is quality linked to money?

JOJ: There is definitely a link. If you don’t have money, it is very hard to build anything at all. But it’s not all about money. If you have a really small budget you have to accept other qualities. If you are not willing to do that, and you are looking for the traditional or conservative surfaces and solutions with a small budget, it can be almost the worst position of all. In that situation you don’t have much room to maneuver as an architect. If the client is open-minded and curious and says, “What can you do for me?” then that is usually a really good client, regardless of the money. But if they have assumed that they want to do this or that, or they know what they want to do, it’s not good.

TIH: Do you see the need for a national strategy to be embedded in politics to ensure quality? Or, what is the potential of a national or local architecture policy?

JOJ: Yes, it has potential. But the politics should focus more on the conditions of quality. Which conditions are necessary to achieve good architecture? In my opinion, you don’t really know what good architecture is before it is there. The political question should be how to create conditions for good architecture to happen. I think that is definitely something that politicians could do.

TIH: Instead of focusing on the architecture itself?

JOJ: It’s like dreaming: if you have 5 liters of petrol in your tank and want to go from Oslo to the North Cape, you can talk about it all you want, but it is not possible. They have to provide the means to really make it happen, and that is about the conditions.

TIH: Are you then talking about tools?

JOJ: Yes, but it’s very rare that the architect can set or shape the conditions; the politicians can. There is also a culture, which might be changing slowly, and it has to do with how the society sees itself and what the architecture society is able to produce.  It is a very complex system and it takes time to change it.

TIH: What do you then see as the potential of the architecture politics?

JOJ: If you create good conditions,  the potential for Norwegian architecture is very good. The quality of the student projects are generally much higher than what you see built. This is a dilemma, or at least it should make you think. What happens when people get out of school? Why don’t we see this level of architecture in the built versions? Is it because of the weak culture of realization in our professional community?

BS: I think that is, to use a cliché, an “interesting question” (he-he). There is a lot of good sense in that, providing that the politics are guided in the right direction in order to achieve a result. But the politics then need to be about how to push the building industry into taking more risk in architecture. For instance, when trying to prequalify for a competition, if you are applying for a hospital competition you have had to have done a hospital before, or if you are doing an airport or a customs station on the border between Norway and Sweden out in the woods, you need to have done it before. In the end you are actually depleting the system of competent architects, because they are all dying out. Nobody is allowed to get experience because you have to have done it before. It’s a catch 22 situation. This is a typical example of this risk aversion we talked about before. A lot of these buildings are made by Statsbygg (The governmental building company). Statsbygg is a huge government client with a lot of building projects in all scales and ranges. Every time Stasbygg is in the media and talking about how good they are and how well they are doing, you know they are mentioning the opera and all their prestigious projects. What they don’t mention are the millions (probably) of square meters they are building in little places around the country, which is really the volume of their production. Who are doing those projects? Why are they doing them? How are they doing them? Who is looking after the architectural quality in these projects? Are those projects done by a very limited number of architects who are working repeatedly for Statsbygg? Things indicate that this is the case. Another example of politics is these rules and regulations concerning public purchase, which compels the government to an “open round” in projects above a certain value. What they are also allowed to do is create an agreement within a framework to prequalify a number of architects and pick freely among this group after this round has been done. This is an opening or an invitation for a big government client who wants to avoid risk, to include in that group one or two architectural offices they have used many times before and use them repeatedly. Changing this is an example of how you could force a big important client to take part in the continuous education and new competence within the field of architecture – by enforcing laws that don’t allow them to work in that manner. That’s an example of how architecture politics can possibly contribute to produce better architecture quality. Probably not in every building, but…

JOJ: But to freely cite George W. Bush, “How can you change the hearts and minds of 700 employees in Statsbygg?”

BS: he-he, My point is that this is the kind of task architecture politics can have. Something very positive was happening a while back with NAL (the Norwegian association for architects), right now I don’t know what is going on because they are more or less invisible. They changed the text in their paragraph in the “constitution” from saying how NAL was supposed to work for their members and the architects, and it sounded a bit dusty. It was rephrased into saying something like, NAL should be working to improve the conditions for architecture. This is architecture politics. This is not about improving the conditions for the architects – they have to look after themselves – but for architecture.

JOJ: You have to look upon the professional community like a forest. A good forest owner cuts some trees every year and plants some new trees. They don’t cut the whole forest, because that is usually not very good. It should be the case that some offices get a notice that it’s about time…he-he. But of course they can’t do that. I think this will happen by itself. I also think that it is ridiculous and very unnatural that we have to have special arrangements, like this “wild card” arrangement, to include younger offices. It should be natural that you always have a range of people from the experienced to the inexperienced. Maybe the experience varies depending on the size of the project.

BS: In a way I think a booming economy and a very good market is the biggest enemy of good architecture, because then it is possible to sell anything. But if it’s not possible to sell anything, you have to be smart. Being a developer, you have find something that gives you an edge, that doesn’t allow you to sell things that are really bad and have no intention than doing anything more than satisfying the smallest possible common denominator of what you actually need. If you have a bad market, the client needs smart architects, and architects will have to get better because they will also be in a competition to provide solutions that are not only good architecture, but also smart for the client. If they are smart for the client, we believe that it is possible to argue that it costs a little bit more to make, but they will have an edge in the market. For instance, one thing that we saw in practice in connection with housing was making apartments with a separate part that you could rent out or let your children live in. That type of little thing gives the project an edge in the market. They sell fast, in addition to having an architectural advantage because you get a more versatile venue of apartments to sell. There is an economical advantage for the buyer, because they get more flexibility financing the apartment and the client will also benefit because the apartments sell faster. It is like a bio system, these organisms benefit from each other and they will thrive together. As it is now, for a great amount of square meters the client has no need to look for that kind of edge, because anything goes. We are all happy with mediocrity.

It is a kind of a social democratic ambition that you want a high average and you want to apply all the necessary regulations needed to meet this high average. Maybe it was a good idea immediately after the war in building up the country, but now we have a different society and we need to restructure, or evict that attitude. We must accept that in order to achieve the highs you also have to accept the lows.

JOJ: Mediocrity is a terrible attitude and I think we should have a much stronger elitist attitude in architecture. Some people say that there should be a Michelin guide in architecture. I am not sure about that, but there is a culture where we recognize differences in food and in a lot of different fields. But, it seems like the culture of the mediocre is dominant among bureaucrats.  

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