Looking at Architecture Through Domesticity, Imagination and Language

The architect duo and former fellows Mariana Jochamowitz and Nicolas Rivera met during their studies in architecture, now their work comes together under the name Estudio Jochamowitz Rivera. A studio that focuses on bringing together alternative ways of working with architecture, which is reflected in drawings, buildings, textiles and text. Together, they constantly research and discuss topics such as domesticity, imagination, language, all of which challenge the profession of architecture. Currently based in Lima, Peru, but having studied in Lima and London, the duo draws on a rich field of cultural knowledge, including the history of architecture, while at the same time bringing together and challenging their knowledge of modern approaches to architecture. This dialogue between former fellow Sarie Nijboer and Mariana and Nicolas is based on several exchanges on these intriguing topics, taking a closer look at their practice and highlighting their vision on architecture today.

Mariana Jochamowitz and Nicolas Rivera in conversation with Sarie Nijboer — Jun 10, 2021

Opening Party at Solitude barn, Estudio Jochamowitz Rivera

»In our work we find it necessary to continually transgress the hard line that modern architecture has established to separate itself from domesticity and the »messiness« of everyday life.«

Sarie Nijboer: Your work Textile Wall, is one of the reasons that brought us closer during our residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, as it was planned to be exhibited in the exhibition Beyond Walls, a project we were both involved in. Unfortunately the exhibition can not be opened to the public due to the pandemic.1 Isn’t it a strange idea to exhibit the work but have nobody there to see it yet?

 Mariana Jochamowitz and Nicolas Rivera: It is like this saying: »If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?«. It has been now almost two months since the exhibition was set up. It’s been ready to open since then. It’s like a ghost exhibition with the work in a permanent state of waiting. Fortunately, we had the chance to exhibit Textile Wall at Solitude, in Summer 2020. We presented a small exhibition in the barn of Schloss Solitude as part of the Micro Summer Festival. The format of the exhibition gave us the possibility to experiment with different ways to use the fabric as a means to inhabit a space. We were able to reconfigure the space of the barn many times by changing the position of the fabric and also to play with it as a backdrop or background to other events being organized in the space. The relationship between the textile and the people visiting the space during the events became very interesting. At a certain point, it was no longer the object you were looking at, but it started to be part of the architecture of the place, which was experienced through other events. We were hosting screenings, flower markets and different gatherings. This was possible because the space wasn’t perceived as an »official« or institutional art space like that of a museum or a gallery. The whole event was an interesting way to think of exhibitions and about how as architects we can make use of this format. This short experience at Solitude has opened up the way we feel about producing this sort of installations.

It reminds me of Harald Szeemann’s exhibition »Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form« (1969) at the Kunsthalle Bern. The artists made works on site, destroyed pavements and walls and challenged the idea of what exhibition making could be. This brings me to the question of how we can break institutional habits. I also believe that with a work like the Textile Wall, you are already playing with this aspect of what the museum space is, because Textile Wall by its form – a curtain – is already something that belongs more in the domestic sphere, but when it is placed in a museum, it becomes a wall, a surface and a work of art in one. What does it mean to bring the domestic into the museum?

The work began with the knowledge that it would be exhibited at the Kunstmuseum. We asked ourselves how we could reconfigure the space in the museum through the piece, rather than thinking of the piece only as an object in display. In this sense, it was interesting to both engage with and disrupt the architecture of the exhibition room. The architecture of the »white cube« of the museum serves as an airtight box to separate the things inside the museum from everyday life outside. In this sense, a museum is a place designed to house otherness. Our work was thought to fit inside the white cube and to be simultaneously reminiscent of domestic spaces to create a displacement.

In our work we find it necessary to continually transgress the hard line that modern architecture has established to separate itself from domesticity and the »messiness« of everyday life.  Historically, the modern house has repressed the domestic sphere in favour of the white blank apartment interior.  Domestic things – household objects that have been stereotyped as feminine – have been pushed outside the image of modern architecture. The »white wall«, makes a great effort to repress the clutter of everyday life and to make invisible the domestic labour required for its upkeep. With Textile wall, we intend to reconsider this pervasive element of modern architecture. The large white surface of the fabric reveals on a closer look the embroidery and patterns created in the weave through a delicate and meticulous handwork. The textile disrupts the masculinity of the wall through these almost invisible feminine gestures.

The starting point for the work is a beautiful photograph of a courtyard in Peru, you looked at the structures of the courtyard and imagined what the building around the courtyard could have looked like. This was then expressed in a woven structure of an imaginary building that is now the Textile Wall. How did the work evolve to its current state, a curtain that is exhibited in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart?

The photograph is Chicha y Sapo (1931) by the Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi. The image captures a scene in a Sunday chicheria – a sort of improvised pub set up in the courtyard of a private house , people gather outside, drinking chicha and playing a traditional game. The photograph became a starting point in our work not so much for the specific building it depicts but for the ambiguities inherent to its architecture. We recognize in the image a blurring of some of the basic distinctions we are taught in architecture school: the image showed a place that did not establish any separation between public and private or between inside and outside. Furthermore, any attempt to convey the place of the image had to disregard the basic distinction architecture that draws between the buildings and its inhabitation by people, plants and objects. In Chambi’s chichería, it’s almost impossible to identify where one ends and the other begins. These dichotomies do not even appear as a theme to be transgressed or played with but are simply not present in the space. When we started the work for the exhibition Beyond Walls we began with this in mind, we intended to rethink the wall away from the traditional distinctions it establishes. The wall as an architectural element serves to separate and to construct the possibility of the private in opposition to public space. With Textile Wall we attempt to rethink the wall as a border that articulates and accommodates encounters, blurring the distinctions it would usually establish between domestic and public, inside and outside.

»Architects are used to designing buildings as a complete image, but to approach architecture form the perspective of domesticity means to recognize that it is never complete and is constantly evolving.«

Could you expand on this idea that architecture differentiates between building and its inhabitation?

Architecture, almost exclusively deals with the building in this one very specific moment: after it’s built and before it’s occupied. On the contrary, we understand the building as a living organism that includes the people and the things that inhabit it as well as the daily rituals of its maintenance. In this sense, the building is not a static and inert thing. It is the place where life happens, where a lot of effort and work has to occur in order to reenact life day after day.

In that sense, it is also about labour, about care for the buildings we inhabit.

Yes, we would like to think of the building in a longer timespan, as something that is in a continuous process of being built. Architects are used to designing buildings as a complete image, but to approach architecture form the perspective of domesticity means to recognize that it is never complete and is constantly evolving. The process of making Textile Wall in many ways recognises this understanding. The textile emerged through the repetitive labour of weaving, unweaving and embroidering the fabric. Of course we did some sketches to imagine how the work would look but these where only schematic. The piece really emerged from working through the material and our own capabilities to craft it.  We appreciate how the gestures of the hand at work and the time spend with the material remain visible in the piece.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Looking at Architecture Through Domesticity, Imagination and Language

Textile Wall, photo: Frank Kleinbach

Not only the domestic place is what interests you as architects but also the public space, how do these two come together in your work?

We are interested in breaking the dichotomy between public and private. The most interesting public space is one that can introduce the intimate or the domestic. You could say the same about domestic spaces; if we acknowledge the enormous labour taking place in them, then it would be easy to recognize in them the political, social and economic implications we associate with the public sphere. Nowadays, we take for granted that houses are private spaces. The procedure by which architecture separated domestic life from the public sphere was and still is particularly problematic for women. This resulted in the isolation of women in single family apartments, turning their work invisible and undermining their agency in the political sphere. The modern alternative of a home is cleaner, safer, but it is also a place where solidarity has disappeared. Going back to Chambi’s photograph, what we are looking at there is the possibility of bringing the street to the living room and vice versa, whatever way you want to look at it.

Nowadays, because of the pandemic, we can also recognize a new subversion of the dichotomy public – private taking place. People, forced to only meet outdoors, have started to bring the familiarity and intimacy of domesticity to public spaces in different ways. From people bringing blankets, cups and plates to outdoor spaces to a greater proliferation of ollas comúnes (mutual aid food pantries distributing hot food). We believe architecture should recognize and explore the potential of these new associations.

How do you approach these outdoor domestic places as architects?

The basic starting point would be to treat outdoor public spaces as one would an interior, making sure that the relationship we establish with the outdoors is not purely scenic but of a place to be inhabited. Again, this idea is not new at all. For instance, through history, gardens have been an extension of domestic life and labour, as well as places for pleasure and recreation. For us it’s interesting to build from this tradition but to reconsider what would be the values on which to rethink the contemporary garden. These ideas are part of current discussions in architecture to approach outdoor spaces as potential refuges for people, plants and animals, particularly within urban environments. The figure of the garden is particularly thought provoking because it also implies the architect needs to assume certain qualities of the gardener in his way of working. Instead of a top down approach, the gardener is someone who necessarily works with what is there, and in the creative maintenance, through time, of the environment in which it operates. This way of proceeding resonates with how we understand our job, as we described before.

Do you think these ideas need to be developed in a built project or can your work be done without actually being built?

Certainly, It’s very important for these ideas to find a way into built projects. Nonetheless, the sphere of the architectural project has never been limited to the building. Drawing and language are also important tools in our practice. Perhaps even more now that we are trying to establish our particular way of doing architecture that needs its own means of representation.

What do you mean with language?

Language has always established the way in which architects define, produce and communicate their work. The usual way architecture uses language is to justify the building, almost as a means to evaluate the correspondence between the building and the ideas that are supposedly behind it. This use of language is quite limited to explore the building as an inhabited reality. It’s difficult within the discourse of architecture, to work with the entangled relationship between the building and the people, things, plants and animals that inhabit it, which we discussed before. On the other hand, for example, this approach is completely natural in the way fiction engages with the built world. Language remains an interesting medium for us to explore and experiment with the architectural themes we care about. Right now we are working on a series of drawings and stories which we hope we can share with you soon!

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Looking at Architecture Through Domesticity, Imagination and Language

Textile Wall (detail), photo: Frank Kleinbach

  1. Due to the COVID-19 regulations of the State of Baden-Württemberg which took effect on November 2, 2021, the exhibition opening as originally planned had to be postponed. The exhibition finally opened on March 16, 2021 and was on view until April 25, 2021.

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